When I was thirteen, up there in Maranhão, one of the families that was closest to mine was that of old Cunha. He was a good man, who’d retired after having made his money in the retail trade. His wife was Dona Mariana.
They had two children: Luís and Rosa – or Rosinha, as we called her. Luís was a year older than his sister and a few months younger than me.
You could say we were brought up together, because when I wasn’t at their place they were at ours.
The Cunhas lived in a large and beautiful colonial-style house, the back of which – as with all those houses along the shore – looked directly out to sea.
Apart from that house, Cunha had another place, where he went frequently with his family on Sundays, in their own boat.
They nearly always took me with them. The place was called “Boa Vinda” and was on the banks of the River Anil, not too far from Vinhais.
Those trips to Boa Vinda are among my fondest childhood memories. Brought up, as I was, by the seaside, I loved the water. At twelve years of age I was not only a strong swimmer but could steer a boat, take down a sail in a storm and row just as well as any fisherman on the prowl for piaba fish.
We used to leave São Luís in the small hours, arriving at Boa Vinda at dawn.
How delightful, the boating on the river! What beautiful, fresh mornings spent gliding between mango groves and scenting, on the breeze, the salty smell of the not-far-distant sea! And how pleasurable those lunches under the roof of the veranda, sitting on wooden benches around the linen-covered table, drinking new cashew wine from glazed terracotta mugs! And then… time to play! Running through the scrubland, hair blowing in the wind – foot-loose and fancy-free!
Then, in the evenings, when nature began its melancholy decline into night, we’d all sit on the terrace in front of the house and listen to the sweet, plangent song of the sururina birds, as they settled down for sleep in the surrounding bushes. Eventually, Luís would go to get his flute, Rosinha her violin, and – to their accompaniment – I’d sing some beautiful old Maranhão songs.
Dona Mariana and Cunha loved to hear me sing. At that time, my voice was still fresh and innocent – as was my soul.
Afterwards the plates and things were packed away in a large basket, which we carried on to the boat and then spread a canvas sail over it. Finally Luís, Rosinha and I sat on top of it, Cunha took up position at the helm with his wife by his side, and three slaves took the oars to row us back to the city.
Whereas the morning voyage had been cheerful and lively, the return at night always seemed slow and sad. Dona Mariana would keep dropping off to sleep, and Cunha would talk to us about what we’d be doing at school the next day. Luís would usually lie down, with his head on his sister’s lap, and I’d stretch myself out on the canvas, gazing at the stars.
On one of those nights when we were returning home, there was a beautiful moon. And the moonlight! As if it were specially for night-time voyagers on the water – conjuring up, ahead of us, white, sighing phantoms, which sped across the water, alternately appearing in their silver shrouds and then vanishing – like anguished drowned souls.
We’d already left Vinhais far behind and were gradually passing the large old properties on the Caminho Grande, which look out, on one side, on to the River Anil. Propped up with a cushion, Dona Mariana was dozing as usual, resting her head on the palm of her hand; Rosinha – with one arm over the side of the boat – was dreamily trailing the tips of her fingers in the rippling water, which sparkled at each pull of the oars; Luís was humming distractedly; old Cunha was bent over the handle of the tiller, with his big, carnaúba-palm hat pushed to the back of his head – shirt and cotton-duck coat open at the chest – while he gazed at the beaches as they slid by, as if the beauty of that northern night and the loneliness of that beautiful blue river had ensnared his bourgeois soul and miraculously carried him off to some poetic dreamworld.
But no! After a prolonged period of silence he sighed, turned to me, and said:
“What a waste of money! What utter carelessness! … Look at those overgrown ruins! It was a good forty years ago they started building. A big customs house… but they never got any further. Just like the Sagração wharf and the Mercês embankment. Scandalous!”
As I looked at those ruins, which seemed to grow in the moonlight, Cunha’s indignation continued to rumble over the lugubrious waters of the Anil, railing against all those accursed presidents of the province who’d taken so little care of our poor, beloved city.
Meanwhile, as our boat pushed sluggishly on, all that steeply sloping part of the city came opening up alongside us.
And it wasn’t long before the Praça dos Remedios came into sight in the distance, looming over the beach like a fortress from the times of war.
We could hear the leaves rustling in the casuarina trees.
“There it is!” shouted Cunha, pointing towards the shore. “Why squander money on a statue like that when there are so many things we really need but no one cares about…”
I looked in the direction he was pointing and saw – very tall, very white, and very sad-looking in the moonlight – the statue of Gonçalves Dias in the middle of the Praça dos Remedios.
I could summon up neither the spirit nor the words to protest against what old Cunha was saying. All I knew about Gonçalves Dias was that he was a poet who died tragically. Nothing more.
“Indeed!” growled Cunha. “The money it must have cost to hoist that big booby sky-high on to that humongous marble stick! A fortune! Everyone in Maranhão contributed! Whereas they couldn’t cough up even a couple of réis for the Campos Melo warehouse, which business has been crying out for for ever. A pack of idiots! I swear it makes me so angry, I almost regret taking out citizenship!”
I turned to look at the statue once more and – I don’t know why – Cunha’s words no longer filled my young mind with the respect they always used to command. Instead they upset me, like a blasphemy spat out at a sacred image. At home, all my family venerated the memory of our national poet and, at the school where I learnt to write the Portuguese language, my teacher always referred to him as “the great Gonçalves Dias.”
But I still said nothing in the poet’s defence – the poet who’d sung about the palm trees of Brazil. Instead I gazed more intently at that white, stone figure, who, in turn, was looking out, in mute glory, at that same sea that had become his sepulchre. And I thought he was so calm, so elevated, so distant from me and Cunha. So much so that I eventually blurted out:
“But Senhor Cunha, if the people made that statue for him, it must have been because the poor man deserved it!”
“Deserved?! How? What did he do? … My country has palm trees where the sabiá sings. The birds of my homeland sing sweeter by far?! That’s all he did! Write poems!”
And, beside himself with anger, off he went again, with a new tirade against the madmen who raise statues to poets instead of building the warehouses the retail trade so desperately needs.
Just at that moment, however, the boat came directly opposite the Praça dos Remedios.
The moon – lost and alone in the luminous sky – was bathing that rigid, white marble figure in its mysterious rays. And Rosinha, who’d paid no attention to our conversation, began to sing, in her high, crystalline voice, one of the most popular songs in Brazil:
If you’d like to know why
I sometimes fly
Away in my dreams
To that angel who sings
Up there in the sky,
Come with me, love,
To the heavens above
And then you’ll know why
I fly, and the sabiá sings.
In her innocence, and in sight of the statue, she’d unwittingly rebutted her father’s vituperation, paying the poet the highest compliment: reciting his words without mentioning his name.
I’m not superstitious, and I wasn’t back then, but I really did get the impression, at that moment, that the statue smiled.