Fabiano tinha ido à feira da cidade comprar mantimentos. Precisava sal, farinha, feijão e rapaduras. Sinhá Vitória pedira além disso uma garrafa de querosene e um corte de chita vermelha. Mas o querosene de seu Inácio estava misturado com água, e a chita da amostra era cara demais.
Fabiano percorreu as lojas, escolhendo o pano, regateando um tostão em côvado, receoso de ser enganado. Andava irresoluto, uma longa desconfiança dava-lhe gestos oblíquos. À tarde puxou o dinheiro, meio tentado, e logo se arrependeu, certo de que todos os caixeiros furtavam no preço e na medida: amarrou as notas na ponta do lenço, meteu-as na algibeira, dirigiu-se à bodega de seu Inácio, onde guardara os picuás.
Aí certificou-se novamente de que o querosene estava batizado e decidiu beber uma pinga, pois sentia calor. Seu Inácio trouxe a garrafa de aguardente. Fabiano virou o copo de um trago, cuspiu, limpou os beiços à manga, contraiu o rosto. Ia jurar que a cachaça tinha água. Por que seria que seu Inácio botava água em tudo? perguntou mentalmente. Animou-se e interrogou o bodegueiro:
– Por que é que vossemecê bota água em tudo?
Seu Inácio fingiu não ouvir. E Fabiano foi sentar-se na calçada, resolvido a conversar. O vocabulário dele era pequeno, mas em horas de comunicabilidade enriquecia-se com algumas expressões de seu Tomás da bolandeira. Pobre de seu Tomás. Um homem tão direito sumir-se como cambembe, andar por este mundo de trouxa nas costas. Seu Tomás era pessoa de consideração e votava. Quem diria?
Nesse ponto um soldado amarelo aproximou-se e bateu familiarmente no ombro de Fabiano:
– Como é, camarada? Vamos jogar um trinta-e-um lá dentro?
Fabiano atentou na farda com respeito e gaguejou, procurando as palavras de seu Tomás da bolandeira:
– Isto é. Vamos e não vamos. Quer dizer. Enfim, contanto etc. É conforme.
Levantou-se e caminhou atrás do amarelo, que era autoridade e mandava. Fabiano sempre havia obedecido. Tinha muque e substância, mas pensava pouco, desejava pouco e obedecia.
Atravessaram a bodega, o corredor, desembocaram numa sala onde vários tipos jogavam cartas em cima de uma esteira.
– Desafasta, ordenou o polícia. Aqui tem gente.
Os jogadores apertaram-se, os dois homens sentaram-se, o soldado amarelo pegou o baralho. Mas com tanta infelicidade que em pouco tempo se enrascou. Fabiano encalacrou-se também. Sinhá Vitória ia danar-se, e com razão.
– Bem feito.
Ergueu-se furioso, saiu da sala, trombudo.
– Espera aí, paisano, gritou o amarelo.
Fabiano, as orelhas ardendo, não se virou. Foi pedir a seu Inácio os troços que ele havia guardado, vestiu o gibão, passou as correias dos alforjes no ombro, ganhou a rua.
Debaixo do jatobá do quadro taramelou com sinhá Rita louceira, sem se atrever a voltar para casa. Que desculpa iria apresentar à sinhá Vitória? Forjava uma explicação difícil. Perdera o embrulho da fazenda, pagara na botica uma garrafada para sinhá Rita louceira. Atrapalhava-se: tinha imaginação fraca e não sabia mentir. Nas invenções com que pretendia justificar-se a figura de sinhá Rita aparecia sempre, e isto o desgostava. Arrumaria uma história sem ela, diria que haviam furtado o cobre da chita. Pois não era? Os parceiros o tinham pelado no trinta-e-um. Mas não devia mencionar o jogo. Contaria simplesmente que o lenço das notas ficara no bolso do gibão e levaram sumiço. Falaria assim: – “Comprei os mantimentos. Botei o gibão e os alforjes na bodega de seu Inácio. Encontrei um soldado amarelo.” Não, não encontrara ninguém. Atrapalhava-se de novo. Sentia desejo de referir-se ao soldado, um conhecido velho, amigo de infância. A mulher se incharia com a notícia. Talvez não se inchasse. Era atilada, notaria a pabulagem. Pois estava acabado. O dinheiro fugira do bolso do gibão, na venda de seu Inácio. Natural.
Repetia que era natural quando alguém lhe deu um empurrão, atirou-o contra o jatobá. A feira se desmanchara; escurecia; o homem da iluminação, trepando numa escada, acendia os lampiões. A estrela papa-ceia branqueou por cima da torre da igreja; o doutor juiz de direito foi brilhar na porta da farmácia; o cobrador da prefeitura passou coxeando, com talões de recibo debaixo do braço; a carroça de lixo rolou na praça recolhendo cascas de frutas; seu vigário saiu de casa e abriu o guarda-chuva por causa do sereno; sinhá Rita louceira retirou-se.
Fabiano estremeceu. Chegaria à fazenda noite fechada. Entretido com o diabo do jogo, tonto de aguardente, deixara o tempo correr. E não levava o querosene, ia-se alumiar durante a semana com pedaços de facheiro. Arrumou-se, disposto a viajar. Outro empurrão desequilibrou-o. Voltou-se e viu ali perto o soldado amarelo, que o desafiava, a cara enferrujada, uma ruga na testa. Mexeu-se para sacudir o chapéu de couro nas ventas do agressor. Com uma pancada certa do chapéu de couro, aquele tico de gente ia ao barro. Olhou as coisas e as pessoas em roda e moderou a indignação. Na caatinga ele às vezes cantava de galo, mas na rua encolhia-se.
– Vossemecê não tem direito de provocar os que estão quietos.
– Desafasta, bradou o polícia.
E insultou Fabiano, porque ele tinha deixado a bodega sem se despedir.
– Lorota, gaguejou o matuto. Eu tenho culpa de vossemecê esbagaçar os seus possuídos no jogo?
Engasgou-se. A autoridade rondou por ali um instante, desejosa de puxar questão. Não achando pretexto, avizinhou-se e plantou o salto da reiúna em cima da alpercata do vaqueiro.
– Isso não se faz, moço, protestou Fabiano. Estou quieto. Veja que mole e quente é pé de gente.
O outro continuou a pisar com força. Fabiano impacientou-se e xingou a mãe dele. Aí o amarelo apitou, e em poucos minutos o destacamento da cidade rodeava o jatobá.
– Toca pra frente, berrou o cabo.
Fabiano marchou desorientado, entrou na cadeia, ouviu sem compreender uma acusação medonha e não se defendeu.
– Está certo, disse o cabo. Faça lombo, paisano.
Fabiano caiu de joelhos, repetidamente uma lâmina de facão bateu-lhe no peito, outra nas costas. Em seguida abriram uma porta, deram-lhe um safanão que o arremessou para as trevas do cárcere. A chave tilintou na fechadura, e Fabiano ergueu-se atordoado, cambaleou, sentou-se num canto, rosnando:
– Hum! hum!
Por que tinham feito aquilo? Era o que não podia saber. Pessoa de bons costumes, sim senhor, nunca fora preso. De repente um fuzuê sem motivo. Achava-se tão perturbado que nem acreditava naquela desgraça. Tinham-lhe caído todos em cima, de supetão, como uns condenados. Assim um homem não podia resistir.
– Bem, bem.
Passou as mãos nas costas e no peito, sentiu-se moído, os olhos azulados brilharam como olhos de gato. Tinham-no realmente surrado e prendido. Mas era um caso tão esquisito que instantes depois balançava a cabeça, duvidando, apesar das machucaduras.
Ora, o soldado amarelo… Sim, havia um amarelo, criatura desgraçada que ele, Fabiano, desmancharia com um tabefe. Não tinha desmanchado por causa dos homens que mandavam. Cuspiu, com desprezo:
– Safado, mofino, escarro de gente.
Por mol de uma peste daquela, maltratava-se um pai de família. Pensou na mulher, nos filhos e na cachorrinha. Engatinhando, procurou os alforjes, que haviam caído no chão, certificou-se de que os objetos comprados na feira estavam todos ali. Podia ter-se perdido alguma coisa na confusão. Lembrou-se de uma fazenda vista na última das lojas que visitara. Bonita, encorpada, larga, vermelha e com ramagens, exatamente o que sinhá Vitória desejava. Encolhendo um tostão em côvado, por sovinice, acabava o dia daquele jeito. Tornou a mexer nos alforjes. Sinhá Vitória devia estar desassossegada com a demora dele. A casa no escuro, os meninos em redor do fogo, a cachorra Baleia vigiando. Com certeza haviam fechado a porta da frente.
Estirou as pernas, encostou as carnes doídas ao muro. Se lhe tivessem dado tempo, ele teria explicado tudo direitinho. Mas pegado de surpresa, embatucara. Quem não ficaria azuretado com semelhante despropósito? Não queria capacitar-se de que a malvadez tivesse sido para ele. Havia engano, provavelmente o amarelo o confundira com outro. Não era senão isso.
Então por que um sem-vergonha desordeiro se arrelia, bota-se um cabra na cadeia, dá-se pancada nele? Sabia perfeitamente que era assim, acostumara-se a todas as violências, a todas as injustiças. E aos conhecidos que dormiam no tronco e agüentavam cipó de boi oferecia consolações: — “Tenha paciência. Apanhar do governo não é desfeita.”
Mas agora rangia os dentes, soprava. Merecia castigo?
E, por mais que forcejasse, não se convencia de que o soldado amarelo fosse governo. Governo, coisa distante e perfeita, não podia errar. O soldado amarelo estava ali perto, além da grade, era fraco e ruim, jogava na esteira com os matutos e provocava-os depois. O governo não devia consentir tão grande safadeza.
Afinal para que serviam os soldados amarelos? Deu um pontapé na parede, gritou enfurecido. Para que serviam os soldados amarelos? Os outros presos remexeram-se, o carcereiro chegou à grade, e Fabiano acalmou-se:
– Bem, bem. Não há nada não.
Havia muitas coisas. Ele não podia explicá-las, mas havia. Fossem perguntar a seu Tomás da bolandeira, que lia livros e sabia onde tinha as ventas. Seu Tomás da bolandeira contaria aquela história. Ele, Fabiano, um bruto, não contava nada. Só queria voltar para junto de sinhá Vitória, deitar-se na cama de varas. Por que vinham bulir com um homem que só queria descansar? Deviam bulir com outros.
Estava tudo errado.
Tinham lá coragem? Imaginou o soldado amarelo atirando-se a um cangaceiro na caatinga. Tinha graça. Não dava um caldo.
Lembrou-se da casa velha onde morava, da cozinha, da panela que chiava na trempe de pedras. Sinhá Vitória punha sal na comida. Abriu os alforjes novamente: a trouxa de sal não se tinha perdido. Bem. Sinhá Vitória provara o caldo na quenga de coco. E Fabiano se aperreava por causa dela, dos filhos e da cachorra Baleia, que era como uma pessoa da família, sabida como gente. Naquela viagem arrastada, em tempo de seca braba, quando estavam todos morrendo de fome, a cadelinha tinha trazido para eles um preá. Ia envelhecendo, coitada. Sinhá Vitória, inquieta, com certeza fora muitas vezes escutar na porta da frente. O galo batia as asas, os bichos bodejavam no chiqueiro, os chocalhos das vacas tiniam.
Se não fosse isso… An! em que estava pensando? Meteu os olhos pela grade da rua. Chi! que perfume! O lampião da esquina se apagara, provavelmente o homem da escada só botara nele meio quarteirão de querosene.
Pobre de sinhá Vitória, cheia de cuidados, na escuridão. Os meninos sentados perto do lume, a panela chiando na trempe de pedra, Baleia atenta, o candeeiro de folha pendurado na ponta de uma vara que saía da parede.
Estava tão cansado, tão machucado, que ia quase adormecendo no meio daquela desgraça. Havia ali um bêbado tresvairando em voz alta e alguns homens agachados em redor de um fogo que enchia o cárcere de fumaça. Discutiam e queixavam-se da lenha molhada.
Fabiano cochilava, a cabeça pesada inclinava-se para o peito e levantava-se. Devia ter comprado o querosene de seu Inácio. A mulher e os meninos agüentando fumaça nos olhos.
Acordou sobressaltado. Pois não estava misturando as pessoas, desatinando? Talvez fosse efeito da cachaça. Não era: tinha bebido um copo, tanto assim, quatro dedos. Se lhe dessem tempo, contaria o que se passara.
Ouviu o falatório desconexo do bêbado, caiu numa indecisão dolorosa. Ele também dizia palavras sem sentido, conversava à toa. Mas irou-se com a comparação, deu marradas na parede. Era bruto, sim senhor, nunca havia aprendido, não sabia explicar-se. Estava preso por isso? Como era? Então mete-se um homem na cadeia porque ele não sabe falar direito? Que mal fazia a brutalidade dele? Vivia trabalhando como um escravo. Desentupia o bebedouro, consertava as cercas, curava os animais – aproveitara um casco de fazenda sem valor. Tudo em ordem, podiam ver. Tinha culpa de ser bruto? Quem tinha culpa?
Se não fosse aquilo… Nem sabia. O fio da idéia cresceu, engrossou – e partiu-se. Difícil pensar. Vivia tão agarrado aos bichos. Nunca vira uma escola. Por isso não conseguia defender-se, botar as coisas nos seus lugares. O demônio daquela história entrava-lhe na cabeça e saía. Era para um cristão endoidecer. Se lhe tivessem dado ensino, encontraria meio de entendê-la. Impossível, só sabia lidar com bichos.
Enfim, contanto… Seu Tomás daria informações. Fossem perguntar a ele. Homem bom, seu Tomás da bolandeira, homem aprendido. Cada qual como Deus o fez. Ele, Fabiano, era aquilo mesmo, um bruto.
O que desejava… Ah! Esquecia-se. Agora se recordava da viagem que tinha feito pelo sertão, a cair de fome. As pernas dos meninos eram finas como bilros, sinhá Vitória tropicava debaixo do baú de trens. Na beira do rio haviam comido o papagaio, que não sabia falar. Necessidade.
Fabiano também não sabia falar. Às vezes largava nomes arrevesados, por embromação. Via perfeitamente que tudo era besteira. Não podia arrumar o que tinha no interior. Se pudesse… Ah! Se pudesse, atacaria os soldados amarelos que espancam as criaturas inofensivas.
Bateu na cabeça apertou-a. Que faziam aqueles sujeitos acocorados em torno do fogo? Que dizia aquele bêbado que se esgoelava como um doido, gastando fôlego à toa? Sentiu vontade de gritar, de anunciar muito alto que eles não prestavam para nada. Ouviu uma voz fina. Alguém no xadrez das mulheres chorava e arrenegava as pulgas. Rapariga da vida, certamente, de porta aberta. Essa também não prestava para nada. Fabiano queria berrar para a cidade inteira, afirmar ao doutor juiz de direito, ao delegado, a seu vigário e aos cobradores da prefeitura que ali dentro ninguém prestava para nada. Ele, os homens acocorados, o bêbado, a mulher das pulgas, tudo era uma lástima, só servia para agüentar facão. Era o que ele queria dizer.
E havia também aquele fogo-corredor que ia e vinha no espírito dele. Sim, havia aquilo. Como era? Precisava descansar. Estava com a testa doendo, provavelmente em conseqüência de uma pancada de cabo de facão. E doía-lhe a cabeça toda, parecia-lhe que tinha fogo por dentro, parecia-lhe que tinha nos miolos uma panela fervendo.
Pobre de sinhá Vitória, inquieta e sossegando os meninos. Baleia vigiando, perto da trempe. Se não fossem eles…
Agora Fabiano conseguia arranjar as idéias. O que o segurava era a família. Vivia preso como um novilho amarrado ao mourão, suportando ferro quente. Se não fosse isso, um soldado amarelo não lhe pisava o pé não. O que lhe amolecia o corpo era a lembrança da mulher e dos filhos. Sem aqueles cambões pesados, não envergaria o espinhaço não, sairia dali como onça e faria uma asneira. Carregaria a espingarda e daria um tiro de pé de pau no soldado amarelo. Não. O soldado amarelo era um infeliz que nem merecia um tabefe com as costas da mão. Mataria os donos dele. Entraria num bando de cangaceiros e faria estrago nos homens que dirigiam o soldado amarelo. Não ficaria um para semente. Era a idéia que lhe fervia na cabeça. Mas havia a mulher, havia os meninos, havia a cachorrinha.
Fabiano gritou, assustando o bêbado, os tipos que abanavam o fogo, o carcereiro e a mulher que se queixava das pulgas. Tinha aqueles cambões pendurados ao pescoço. Deveria continuar a arrastá-los? Sinhá Vitória dormia mal na cama de varas. Os meninos eram uns brutos, como o pai. Quando crescessem, guardariam as reses de um patrão invisível, seriam pisados, maltratados, machucados por um soldado amarelo.
Do romance: Ramos, Graciliano. Vidas secas. 11» ed. São Paulo: Livraria Martins Editora, 1964. p. 31-43.
Fabiano had gone to the market in town to buy supplies. He needed salt, manioc flour, beans, and brown sugar. Vitória had also asked for a bottle of kerosene and a cut of red calico, but the kerosene Inácio sold was mixed with water and the calico of the sample cost too much.
Fabiano went from store to store, picking over the cloth, trying to beat the price down a fraction, fearful of being cheated. Long years of mistrustfulness were revealed in his hesitant gestures. At one point in the afternoon, half-tempted, he pulled out his money. Then he quickly changed his mind, sure that all the clerks were cheating both on the price and on the measure. He tied up the bills in the corner of his handkerchief, stuck it in his pocket, and headed for Inácio’s tavern, where he had stored his duffel.
There he proved once more to his satisfaction that the kerosene had been watered. Feeling hot, he decided to have a drink. Inácio brought the bottle of rum. Fabiano downed his glass at one swallow, spat, wiped his lips on his sleeve, and frowned. He could swear that the rum was watered. Why did Inácio have to water everything, he wondered. Gathering up his courage, he questioned the tavern keeper.
“Why do you water everything?”
Inácio pretended not to hear.
Fabiano went and squatted on the sidewalk, feeling in a mood for conversation. His vocabulary was limited but in moments of expansion he had recourse to some of the expressions used by Tomás the miller. Poor Tomás! Such a fine man to go drifting off like a mere hired hand, with a bundle on his back! Tomás was a man to be respected; he was a registered voter. Who would have thought this could happen?
At this moment a policeman dressed in khaki came up and gave Fabiano a friendly swat on the shoulder.
“How about it, fellow?” he asked. “Want to go in and have a game of cards?”
Fabiano eyed the uniform with respect and, trying to recall some of the expressions of Tomás the miller, he stammered, “Yes and no. That is – I mean – Provided – Well, if you like.”
He got up and followed the man in khaki, the representative of the law, the giver of orders. Fabiano had always obeyed. He was strong and muscular, but he was little given to thought. He asked for little, and obeyed.
The two walked through the tavern and down a hall to a room where several men were playing cards on a mat.
“Move over,” said the policeman. “You have company.”
The card players drew closer together; the two newcomers sat down, and the policeman in khaki picked up the deck. It was not his lucky day. He was soon in the hole and so was Fabiano. Vitória would be furious, and with good reason.
“Serves me right!”
He rose to his feet angrily and left the room scowling.
“Hey, wait there, fellow!” the man in khaki called.
Fabiano, his ears burning, did not even turn his head. He asked Inácio for his belongings, slipped into his leather jacket, put his arms through the straps of his haversack, and went out into the street.
He stopped under the courbaril tree in the square to talk to Rita, the pottery seller. He didn’t dare go home. What excuse could he give to Vitória? He got hopelessly involved in inventions: he had lost the package of cloth; he had paid for a bottle of something at the pharmacy for Rita the pottery seller. It was no use; he was all mixed up. He had a poor imagination and he was no good at lying. In all the stories he made up in his defense the figure of Rita appeared, and this annoyed him. He was determined he would think up something in which she had no part. He would say that the money for the calico had been stolen. After all, wasn’t it true? The other players had swindled him at cards. But he mustn’t mention he game. He would say merely that the handkerchief with the bills had disappeared from the pocket of his leather jacket. He would say: “I bought the provisions. I left the jacket and the saddlebags at Inácio’s tavern. I met up with a policeman in khaki.” No, he hadn’t met anyone. He was all mixed up again. He wanted to make the policeman out to be an old acquaintance, a childhood friend. His wife would get all puffed up over this. But then again, maybe she wouldn’t. She was smart and would see he was just bragging. Well then, the money had slipped out of his jacket pocket at Inácio’s tavern. That was perfectly natural.
He was repeating to himself that it was perfectly natural when someone shoved him against the courbaril tree. The market was breaking up. It was growing dark and the lamplighter, climbing up on his ladder, was turning on the streetlights. The evening star shone over the church tower. The judge went to take his stand at the door of the pharmacy, where he would hold forth to an admiring circle. The tax collector limped by, with the stubs of his receipts under his arm. The garbage wagon rolled across the square, gathering up fruit rinds. The priest came out of his house, raising his umbrella for protection against the damp night air. Rita went her way.
Fabiano shivered. It would be night by the time he got back to the ranch. Wrapped up in that cursed game, befuddled with the rum he had drank, he had let time slip by. And since he wasn’t taking any kerosene, for the next week they would have to depend on pieces of torch wood for light at night. He straightened himself up, ready to get on his way.
Another shove sent him off balance. He turned around and saw beside him the policeman in khaki, staring at him defiantly, his face a rusty red, his brow wrinkled in a frown. Fabiano started to shake his leather hat in the face of his attacker. With one well-aimed blow with that hat he could knock the little runt to the ground. But he looked at the people and things around him and his indignation died down. Out on the range he was cock of the walk, but on the streets in town he sang another tune.
“Is that any way to treat a peaceful citizen?” he asked.
“Get going!” bellowed the policeman, and he insulted Fabiano for leaving the tavern without saying goodbye.
“Don’t be a f-fool,” stammered the backlander. “Is it my fault if you lost your shirt playing cards?”
He choked. The representative of the law circled around for a minute, trying to pick a quarrel. Finding no pretext, he came up and planted the heel of his boot on the herdsman’s canvas sandal.
“That’s no way to act,” Fabiano protested. “I’m not bothering anybody. People’s feet are tender.”
The policeman ground his heel down harder and harder. Losing his temper, Fabiano made an insulting reference to the man’s mother. At once the khaki-clad adversary blew his whistle, and in a matter of minutes the town police force had the courbaril tree surrounded. “On your way!” the corporal shouted.
Fabiano moved without knowing where he was going, found himself in jail, listened without understanding to a charge made against him, and offered no defense.
“All right,” said the corporal. “Down you go, fellow!”
Fabiano fell on his knees and was whacked on his back and chest with the flat side of a broad knife. Then a door was opened and he was given a shove that landed him in the darkness of a cell. The key rasped in the lock. Fabiano got up in a daze, stumbled, and went to sit down in a corner, muttering to himself.
Why had they done that to him? He couldn’t figure it out. He was a well-behaved citizen, yes sir! He had never been arrested. And here, before he knew it, he was mixed up in a brawl for no reason at all. He was so upset he couldn’t believe it was true. They had all jumped on him without any warning, the bastards! They didn’t give a man a chance to defend himself.
“Oh well–” There was nothing he could do. He ran his hands over his chest and shoulders. He felt completely done in. His bluish eyes shone like those of a cat. Yes, he really had been beaten and thrown in jail. But it was such a queer business that a few minutes later he was again shaking his head in disbelief, despite his bruises.
The policeman in khaki – Yes, there was a guy in khaki, a good-for-nothing that he, Fabiano, could have knocked all apart with one good slap. He hadn’t, though, because he represented the law. Fabiano spat scornfully.
“The dirty, low-down runt!”
For the sake of a skunk like that they beat up the father of a family! He thought of his wife, the boys, the dog. Crawling on hands and knees, he hunted for the saddlebags, which had fallen on the floor. He made certain that all the things he had bought at the market were still here. Something might have got lost in the confusion. He remembered a piece of goods he had seen at the last shop he visited – pretty, stoutly woven, wide, with flowers on a red background. Just what Vitória wanted. And by being stingy, by trying to beat down the price a bit, he had come to this at the end of the day!
He fished around in the saddlebags again. Vitória would be worried about his not coming home. The house would be dark, the boys would be sitting by the fire, the dog would be keeping watch. They had certainly barred the front door.
He stretched out his legs and leaned his sore back against the wall. If they had given him time, he would have explained everything perfectly. Taken by surprise, though, he hadn’t know what to say. Who would have, under the circumstances? He couldn’t convince himself that the brutality had been directed at him. It was a mistake; the policeman in khaki had confused him with someone else. That was the only explanation.
Just because some worthless troublemaker got peeved, did they have to go and throw a fellow in jail and beat him up? He knew perfectly well that was the way things were. He was used to violence and injustice. And he had consoled such of his acquaintances as spent the night in the stocks or endured whipping saying, “Don’t worry. It’s no disgrace to take a beating from the law.”
But now he ground his teeth. He sighed. Did he deserve to be punished?
Try as he might, he could not be convinced that the policeman in khaki was really the law. The law was something far off and perfect; it couldn’t make mistakes. The policeman in khaki was right there, on the other side of the bars; he was wicked and weak; he played cards with country people and then picked quarrels with them. Surely the law could not permit such evil.
After all, what good were policemen in their khaki uniforms? He kicked the wall and cried out in fury. What good were policemen? The other prisoners stirred; the jailer came up to the bars of the cell, and Fabiano calmed down. “All right, all right. Nothing’s the matter.”
But a lot of things were the matter. He just couldn’t explain them. They could ask Tomás the miller, who read books and knew what was what. Tomás the miller could explain that business, but he, Fabiano, dull fool that he was, could not. He just wanted to go home to Vitória and lie down on their bed of tree branches. Why did they have to make trouble for somebody who only wanted to rest? Why didn’t they go bother someone else? It was all wrong.
Did they have real courage? He tried to imagine the policeman in his khaki uniform attacking a bandit out in the brushland. What a laugh! A policeman that fell into a bandit’s hands wouldn’t even leave a grease spot.
He thought of the old house where he lived, of the kitchen, of the kettle singing on the stones that held it off the fire. Vitória would be putting salt in her cooking. He opened the saddlebags again. The package of salt had not got lost. Good! Vitória would be tasting the soup, sipping from her coconut-shell ladle. And Fabiano was vexed because of her, because of the boys, because of the dog, who was like a member of the family, as smart as a person. On that long trek, at the time of the great drought, when they were all starving, the dog had brought them a cavy. It was getting old now, poor thing. Vitória would be worried and would be going often to listen at the front door. The rooster would flap his wings, the goats would bleat in their pen; the bells of the cows would tinkle.
If only – But what was he thinking of? He looked out the grating into the street. Lord but it was dark! The light on the corner had gone out, probably because the man with the ladder had put in only half a quart of kerosene.
Poor Vitória, worrying there in he dark, the boys sitting by the fire, the kettle hissing on the stones, the dog on watch the tin lamp hanging from a peg that stuck out of the wall.
He was so tired, and ached so, that he was on the point of going to sleep despite all his misfortune. A drunk was ranting in a loud voice, and some men were squatting around a fire that filled the jail with smoke, arguing and complaining about the damp wood.
Fabiano nodded. His head dropped heavily to his chest, then snapped back. He ought to have bought the kerosene from Inácio. His wife and boys would get smoke in their eyes from the torch wood.
He awoke with a star. Wasn’t he mixing things up, losing his mind? Perhaps it was the effect of the rum. No, it wasn’t. He had drunk just one glass – four fingers. If they would give him time he could explain how it all happened.
As he listened to the disjointed saving of the drunk, a painful doubt assailed him. He too said things that had no sense or meaning. Angry at the comparison, he beat his head against the wall. He was stupid, yes; he had never had any schooling; he didn’t know how to explain himself. Was he in jail for that? How was it then? Do you put a man in jail because he doesn’t know how to explain things right? What was wrong with his being stupid? He worked like a slave, day in and day out. He cleaned out the watering trough, he mended the fences, he treated the stock for ailments. He had put life into an empty shell of a ranch. Everything was in order. They could see for themselves. Was it his fault he was stupid? Who was to blame?
If it hadn’t been – He didn’t know. The thread of the idea grew – grew, and then broke. It was hard to think. He spent so much time with animals. He had never seen a school. That was why he couldn’t defend himself, why he couldn’t put things in their proper place. He no sooner got that devilish business in his head than it slipped out again. It was enough to drive a man crazy. If they had only given him some schooling, he could understand it. But it was no use. He only knew how to deal with animals.
And yet – Tomás could tell them. They should go ask him. He was a good man, Tomás the miller. He had book learning. Well, every man was as God had made him. He, Fabiano, was just plain dumb.
What he wanted – He forgot what he wanted. His thoughts now were turning to the journey he had made across the backland, ready to drop from hunger. The boy’s legs were as thin as rails; Vitória stumbled repeatedly under the weight of the trunk with their belongings. On the riverbank, from necessity, they had eaten the parrot that didn’t know how to talk.
Fabiano didn’t know how to talk either. Sometimes he came out with a big word, but it was all a fake. He knew perfectly well it was foolish. He didn’t know how to set his thoughts in order. If he did, he would go out and fight policemen in khaki uniforms who beat up harmless people.
He beat on his head and pressed it in his hands. What were those guys doing squatting around the fire? What was that drunk saying who was bellowing at the top of his lungs, wasting his breath? Fabiano wanted to cry out, to yell that they were no good. He heard a thin voice. Someone in the women’s cell was crying and cursing the fleas. Some whore probably, the kind that would take on anybody. She was no good either. Fabiano wanted to yell to the whole town, to the judge, the chief of police, the priest, and the tax collector, that nobody in there was worth a damn. He, the men squatting around the fire, the drunk, the woman with the fleas – they were all completely worthless, fit only to be hanged. That was what he wanted to say.
But there was that running fire that came and went in his spirit. Yes, there was that. But just what was it? He needed to rest. His head ached, probably from being hit with a knife handle. His head hurt all over; it seemed as if it were on fire, as if a kettle were boiling in his brain.
Poor Vitória, worried, but trying to calm the children. The dog on the alert, beside the fire. If it weren’t for them –
At last Fabiano was managing to put his thoughts in order. What held him was his family. He was tied down, like a calf lashed to a stake for branding. If it weren’t for that, no policeman in khaki would tramp on his foot! What softened him was the thought of his wife and boys. Without their yoke upon him he would not bend his back. He would live that place like a tiger and go out and do something wild. He would load his musket and put a shot into that policeman in khaki. No, the policeman was a poor devil who didn’t deserve so much as a smack from the back of his hand. He would kill the people from whom the policeman took his orders. He would join a gang of bandits and wipe those people out. He wouldn’t leave one of them to raise a family. That was the thought that was boiling in his head. But there was his wife, there were the boys, there was the dog.
Fabiano gave a yell, scaring the drunk, the men who were fanning the fire, the jailer, and the woman who was complaining about the fleas. He had that yoke on his neck. Should he continue to bear it? Vitória would be sleeping uneasily on her bed of tree branches. The boys were stupid like their father. When they grew up they would herd cattle for a boss they never saw; they would be stepped on, abused, and hurt by a policeman in a khaki uniform.
From: RAMOS, Graciliano. Barren lives. Translated with an introduction by Ralp Edward Dimmick. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1973. p. 23-34.