Autor: João Guimarães Rosa
Título: The devil to pay in the backlands
Idiomas: eng
Tradutor: James L. Taylor and Harriet de Onís(eng)
Data: 28/12/2004


João Guimarães Rosa

It´s nothing. Those shots you heard were not men fighting, God be praised. It was just me there in the back yard, target-shooting down by the creek, to keep in practice. I do it every day, because I enjoy it; have ever since I was a boy. Afterwards, they came to me about a calf, a stray white one, with the queerest eyes, and a muzzle like a dog. They told me about it but I didn’t want to see it. On account of the deformity it was born with, with lips drawn back, it looked like somebody laughing. Man-face or dog-face: that settled it for them; it was the devil. Foolish folk. They killed it. Don’t know who it belonged to. They came to borrow my gun and I let them have it.
You are smiling, amused-like. Listen, when it is a real gunfight, all the dogs start barking, immediately – then when it’s over you go to see if anybody got killed. You will have to excuse it, sir, but this is the sertão. Some say it’s not – that the real sertão is way out yonder, on the high plains, beyond the Urucúia River. Nonsense. For those of Corinto and Curvelo, then, isn’t right here the sertão? Ah, but there’s more to it than that! The sertão describes itself: it is where the grazing lands have no fences; where you can keep going ten, fifteen leagues without coming upon a single house; where a criminal can safely hide out, beyond the reach of the authorities. The Urucúia rises in the mountains to the west. But today, on its banks, you find everything: huge ranches bordering rich lowlands, the flood plains: farmsthat stretch from woods; thick trees in virgin forests – some are still standing. The surrounding lands are the gerais. These gerais are endless. Anyway, the gentleman knows how it is: each one believes what he likes: hog, pig, or swine, it’s as you opine. The sertão is everywhere.
About the devil? I have nothing to say. Ask the others around here. Like fools, they’re afraid even to mention his name; instead they say the Que-Diga, the What-You-May-Call-Him. Bah! Not me. Over-avoiding a thing is a way of living with it. Take Aristides, who lives in that palm grove there on the right, on the creek called Vereda-da-Vaca-Mansa-de-Santa-Rita. Everybody believes what he says: that there are certain places, three of them, that he can’t go near without hearing a faint crying behind him, and a little voice saying: “I’m coming! I’m coming!” It’s the Whoosis, the What-You-May-Call-Him. And then take Jisé Simplício. Anybody here will swear to you that he keeps a captive demon in his house – a little imp who is obliged to help him in his shady dealings, which is why Simplício is on his way to getting rich. They say this is also the reason Simplício’s horse shivers and shies when Simplício tries to mount. Superstition. Jisé Simplício and Aristides are prospering, imp or no imp. Now listen to this: there are people who insist that the devil himself stopped off at Andrequicé while passing through there recently. It seems that a certain young man, a stranger, showed up and boasted that he could get from there here in only twenty minutes – it takes a full day and a half on horseback – because he would go around the headwaters of the Rio do Chico. * Perhaps, who knows – no offense intended – it could have been you yourself when you passed through there, just joking for the fun of it? Don’t hold it against me – I know you didn’t. I meant no harm. It is just that sometimes a question at the right time clears the air. But, you understand, sir, if there was such a young man, he just wanted to pull somebody’s leg. Because, to circle the headwaters he would have to go deep into this state of ours and then double back, a trip of some three months. Well, then? The whoosis? Nonsense. Imagination. And then this business of politely calling the devil by other names – that’s practically inviting him to appear in person, in the flesh! Me, I have just about lost all my belief in him, thanks to Gog; and that’s the honest truth I’m telling you, though I know he is taken for a fact and the Holy Gospels are full of him. Once I was talking with a young seminarian, very amiable he was, turning the pages and reading en his prayer book. He had on his vestments and bore a wand of chaste-tree in his hand. He said he was going to help the priest drive the Whoosis out of an old woman os Cachoeira-dos-Bois. I don’t believe a word of it. My compadre Quelemém claims that it’s the lower spirits that cause these manifestations, the third-class ones, milling about in the pitch darkness, seeking contact with the living, and that sometimes they will give a man real support. My compadre Quelemém is the one who eases my mind – Quelemém de Góis is his full name. But he lives so far from here – at Jijujã, on the Vereda do Burití Pardo. But tell me, when it comes to being possessed of a devil, or helped by one, you too must have known of cases – men – women? Isn’t that so? As for me, I’ve seen so many that I learned to spot them: Rincha-Mãe, Sangue-d’outro, Muitos-Beiços, Rasga-em-Baixo, Faca-Fria, Fancho-Bode, a certain Treciziano, Azinhavre, Hermógenes – a whole herd of them. If I could only forget so many names… I’m not a horse wrangler. And besides, anyone who fools around with the notion of becoming a jagunço, as I did, is already opening the door to thedevil. Yes? No?
In my early days, I tried my hand at this and that, but as for thinking, I just didn’t. Didn’t have time. I was like a live fish on a griddle – when you’re hard-pressed you waste no time in day-dreams. But now, with time on my hands and no special worries, I can lie in my hammock and speculate. Does the devil exist, or doesn’t he? That’s what I’d like to know. I give up. Look: there is such a thing as a waterfall, isn’t there? Yes, but a waterfall is only a high bank water tumbling over the edge. Take away the water, or level the bank – what becomes of the waterfall? Living is a very dangerous business…
Let me try to explain: when the devil is inside a man, in his guts, the man is either evil or suffers bad luck. But, on his own, a man as such has no devil in him. Not one! Do you agree? Tell me frankly – you’ll be doing me a great favor, and I ask it of you from my heart. This matter, however foolish it may seem, is important to me. I wish it wasn’t. But don’t tell me that a wise and learned person like you, sir, believes in the devil! You don’t? I thank you. Your opinion reassures me. I knew you felt that way – I expected you would – I give you credit for it. Ah! When a man is old he needs to rest easy. I thank you again. All right, then, there is no devil. And no spirits. I never saw any. And if anybody was to see one, it should be me, your humble servant. If I was to tell you… So, the devil rules his black kingdom, in animals, in men, in women. Even in children, I say. For isn’t there a saying: “A child – spawn of the devil?” And in things, in plants, in waters, in the earth, in the wind… “The devil in the street, in the middle of the whirlwind.”
What? Ah, yes. Just an idea of mine, memories of things worse than bad. It’s not that it hurts me to talk about them. It’s better, it relieves me. Look here: in the same ground, and with branches and leaves of the same shape, doesn’t the sweet cassava, which we eat, grow and the bitter cassava, which kills? Now the strange thing is that the sweet cassava can turn poisonous – why, I don’t know. Some say it is from being replanted over in the same soil, from cuttings – it grows more and more bitter and then poisonous. But the other, the bitter cassava, sometimes changes too, and for no reason turns sweet and edible. How do you account for that? And have you ever seen the ugliness of glaring hate in the eyes of a rattlesnake? Or a fat hog, happier every day in its brutishness, that would gladly swallow the whole world if it could, for its filthy satisfaction? And some hawks and crows – just the look of them shows their need to slash and tear with that beak honed sharp by evil desire. There are even breeds of twisted, horrible, rocks, that poison the water in a well, if they lie at the bottom of it. The devil sleeps in them. Did you know that? And the devil – which is the only way you can call a malign spirit – by whose orders and by what right does he goes around doing as he damn well pleases? Mixed up in everything, he is.
What wears him out, little by little, the devil inside folks, is suffering wisely. Also the joy of love – so say my compadre Quelemém. The family. Is that the thing? It is and it isn´t. Everything is and isn´t . The most ferocious criminal, of the worst kind, is often a good husband, a good son, a god father, a good friend of his friends. I´ve known some like that. Only, there is the hereafter – and God too. Many´s the cloud I´ve seen.
But, truly, children do soften one. Listen to this: a certain Aleixo, who lives a league from Passo do Pubo , on the Areia River, used to be one of the most cold-blooded villains you ever heard of. Near his house he had a little pond among the palm trees, sand in it he kept some fierce traíras, immense ones, famous fort heir size. Aleixo used to feed them every day at the same hour, and soon they learned to come out of their hiding places to be fed, just as if they were trained. Well, one day, just for the hell of it. Aleixo killed a little old man who had come around begging. Don´t you doubt it, sir, there are people in this hateful world who kill others just to see the faces they make as they die. You can foresee the rest: comes the bat, comes the rat, comes the cat, comes the trap. This Aleixo was a family man, with young children, whom heloved beyond all reason. Now, listen to this: less than a year after killing the old man, Aleixo´s children took sick. A mild epidemic of measles, it was said, but complications set in; it seemed as though the children would never get well. Finally they got over it. But their eyes became red, terribly inflamed, and nothing seemed to do any good. Then – I don´t know whether all the same time or one by one – they all went blind. Blind, without a glimmer of light. Just think of it – stairsteps, three little boys and a little girl – all blind. Hopelessly blind.
Aleixo did not lose his mind, but he changed; ah, how he changed! Now, he lives on God´s side, sweating to be good and kind every hour of the day and the night. It even seems that he has become happy which he wasn´t before – considers himself lucky, he says, because God chose to take pity on him, changing the direction of his soul in that way. When I heard that it made my blood boil! Because of the children. If Aleixo had to be punished, how were the little ones to blame for his sins?


Fonte: ROSA, João Guimarães. The devil to pay in the backlands. Translated by James L. Taylor and Harriet de Onís. New York, Knopf, 1963. p. 3-8.

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