*In the Candomblé tradition each entity has its own salute word. Laroyê is the salute to Exu, and the trident is Exu’s symbol.
I grew up in the neighborhood of Santa Teresa, here in Rio de Janeiro. I studied at a small school, with less than fifteen students per class. We had clay sculpture classes, a library with wooden floors that creaked loudly on sunny days, a subterranean science lab and many trees.
When I was about 4 or 5 years old, the art teacher, Rosângela, began to talk about the day when we would make a big hunt for the Saci. We’d have to wait for the right time, the conditions for catching a Saci being very particular. It takes a whirlwind, because that’s where the Sacis hide (and they are very difficult to catch). Luckily for us, as I mentioned before, there were many trees around my school, so that with the first sign of heavy rain the leaves of the almond trees fell from the branches and stirred up the long-awaited whirlwinds in the yard.
She came running, shouting to the class to go outside, brandishing the sieve crossed by two wooden sticks, saying that the Saci was there, inside the whirlwind, and that we would be able to get him. And we were kind of trying to see the Saci in the whirlwind, but also covering our eyes against the sand. I remember being very anxious to see the Saci, like when you feel the pit of your stomach tighten so much that your throat turns completely silent, dry.
She throws the sieve on top of the whirlwind, takes a glass bottle and holds it against the edge of the sieve, raising it very slowly. It happened very fast, the Saci going from the whirlwind to the sieve, from the sieve to the bottle, while the wind only increased. Rosângela shuts the mouth of the bottle with her thumb and asks a student, who had already been given the task of holding the Saci’s red cap before the hunt, to put it in place of her finger. With the cap closing the bottle, the Saci can’t leave. It started to rain. Right on time.
The hunt was a solemn moment, and the earnestness of the occasion was proven by the fact that we weren’t taken back to our usual classroom. We went to another room, where the musical instruments, the puppets and the costumes were kept, and which was only opened on special days. It could only be a very serious situation. I thought it was fantastic that the Saci was inside the bottle, that we had done it. It was amazing.
Rosângela sits everyone down in a half-circle, while she stands up and holds the bottle in a high place, much further from us than I would like. I want to see the Saci up close, but we can’t get closer, or it would scare the Saci, poor Saci. The room was very yellow. It had a yellow wall, low hanging yellow light. That dark brown colour of an empty beer bottle, and the bottle up high, and no way for me to see the Saci. And she asks: Can you see the Saci? Look at him here, jumping on just one leg, the little one. But the Saci wasn’t revealing itself to me at all.
It was when the first one said, “There!”, that our buddies, one by one, began to see the Saci. Soon another one: “I see it! He’s jumping on one leg.” The fewer than fifteen children became, to me, a massive crowd, a million little fingers pointing at the bottle which appeared empty to me. “I saw him! I saw him! I saw him! Only Luisa didn’t see the Saci.” The only one. Really.
What I felt is impossible to describe, a mixture of disappointment and revelation, perhaps. The certainty of having been deceived, that we were all being deceived and that none of that existed. That there was no Saci at all, that it was all a farce, a great waste of time, that the whole world was populated by idiots. A big hole dug from inside.
Supposing I was the only one who knew the truth, this disenchantment that the world was hiding, I grew isolated. Overpowered by great skepticism, I got used to walking in the streets a lot so that I wouldn’t have to be in any particular place and nobody could tell how lonely I was. The long walks were a discrete way of always being alone, as well as a quest that I wasn’t yet aware of undertaking.
And from all this walking, one day I got distracted and came to a place I didn’t know. It was a Monday, the midday December sun and the heat made me feel queasy. I sat down on the curb of a crossing, it was so hot that there wasn’t a soul in the street. I felt a nudge on my shoulder. I was startled. This man was standing up. It was a relief, the shadow of his body falling on me, and despite the fright I was not scared of him. He asked me where my friends were, since people only walk in groups. I said I walked alone and he sat down beside me, without asking if I was interested in hearing his stories, of which there were four, like the four streets that came to the crossing where we had met, and where he came from nothing happened by chance, and he began to tell…
That there were two men, very close since they were boys, on a farm up in the mountains. The kind whose parents were friends, and who end up living so tied to one another in a small town that they even arrange to marry two sisters. So close were they that they built their houses in front of one another, with a small dirt road right in between, where from time to time passed the man who sold pots and some other junk. What each one planted was at the back of the houses. They had a good life, but the bad thing about marrying the sisters were the genetics, both sisters ended up dying early. The children, like most of the young people in that region, showed up at Christmas if that much, so life was pretty much only the two of them. Hand-rolled cigarette, chair on the porch, one saw the sun rise and the other saw the sun set. Proud of their life and friendship, on Saturdays they drank at the pub in the little square, leaving the bar in an embrace, one leaning on the other. But one day there was an outsider there, on his own, that saw everything and listened intently to all the conversations. He decided to prank those best friends in the world. He waited for the evening, the twilight hour, and began to walk on the road separating the fraternal domains. With his hat, green on one side, yellow on the other, he quietly passed by the old men, who were smoking and chatting in their chairs as usual. The one who sees the sunrise, happy to find a subject for conversation, said: “Is this yellow-hatted man the same who was at the pub on Saturday?” The other, impatient with age and the certainty of what he sees: “Are you crazy, man? The man’s hat was green!” “You’re becoming senile! The hat was yellow!” green!yellow!green!yellow!green!yellow! and the drifter could hear them from a distance, when the dispute about who was right about the colour of his hat was raging, slipping into other affairs that the best friendship in the world had never allowed to come up before. The collection of an old debt never paid, the cursing for having invited Rita out on a date first, when you knew I had liked her long before, the blaming for the bankruptcy of the farm which belonged to father, dead now for over thirty years. When the yellow became a punch, when the green became a stab, the foreigner put his hat in his bag and let out an intense laughter.
And when I was about to ask the man why he told me that, he already started the next one and reminded me that there were four loose ends that had to be tied.
And now he was remembering a woman that he had known, always in a golden skirt tied at the ankles, so that the feet could be seen, embraced by silver sandals. A hard, aggressive beauty, with stains of lipstick on her teeth and the butt of infinite cigarettes that she’d fling very far away. A rose in her hair, a necklace of fake pearls. Her destiny is to wander the roads celebrating, drinking Champagne and changing men’s lives. The woman who was poisoned and didn’t die, who has a breast of steel, who walks on fire and shares her cigarettes with the poor because, whether to be poor or rich, that’s something she herself gives. And takes. Like with this beggar she met one day. A hardworking guy, he carried out his obligations without complaining. Day after day. She watched this poor man, walking on the sidewalk, rubbing shoulders with a wealthy landlord. Maria, this was her name, knows the folds of the vanity of the souls like none other. She pulled the beggar to the side, giving him strange advice. It was to insult the rich, with the worst curses that the tongue can whip up. And the poor man obediently said absurdities to the millionaire, and he even said that he himself, in rags, was the most important person in that place. But Maria’s work wasn’t finished. She whispered in the rich man’s ear that this beggar’s attitude was despicable, with his dirty and bold mouth, and that only the millionaire with his power and authority could fix him. The man of possessions, in part because he believed in the transformative force of money, but more because he wanted to show the passers-by the magnitude of his generosity, compassion and piety, embraces the poor man, calls him a friend, and displays a forced intimacy for all the village to see. They were seen by the marketmen, by the bankers, by the shopkeepers and by the innkeeper, who didn’t know about Maria’s skillful manipulation and believed the friendship. In the days following the millionaire’s embrace, everyone strenuously pursued the poor man. Have a loaf of bread, come my dear, do you want some credit, a good man can’t walk around in this outfit, how come you don’t have a house? I’ll give you a room, it’s free! A friend of a friend is a bosom buddy, we can’t have you be in need of anything. And the beggar cleverly took advantage of the opportunities. He ate the bread, rested his flesh. He took the credit, straightened things out, cleansed his spirit, set up his house. Soon he was rich. And Maria was able to hit the road.
This time I didn’t interrupt, I knew that the other story would come within the next breath, and I was already beginning to be interested in this man who strangely smoked and unsmoked a cigar right in front of my eyes.
The third one was about a farmer.
A man who liked to say that his lands were so big that he didn’t know their exact size. But this boss even had seven trusted employees, so you can imagine how much cattle he had. With his heavy constitution he avoided sympathy. Strong bones, deep wrinkles - from the sun and the time - in the white skin he had inherited from his grandfather, along with the plantation, a taste for drinking and a quick-tempered personality. There were impressive profits and an ever-growing estate. So the years passed by for the sovereign and his advisers. Mounted on their horses, digging their spurs, multiplying the revenues, putting the poor out, sending the cows to be slaughtered. The King’s house did very well, until the day when he laughed. The man who never showed his teeth was rolling on the floor of the room, hands on his stomach, totally out of control, his eyes rolling back in convulsion. That’s when the spirit of death advances at the speed it likes. In three months and thirteen doctors, four of them imported from abroad to examine the king’s condition, the answer was always the same, always grim. The farmer’s condition was an unprecedented case related to the Kuru, a disease that afflicted cannibalistic groups in New Guinea, who ate infected human brains during their rituals and ended up having fits of laughter, convulsions, shakes and then holes dug in their own brains which led to their death in less than a year. The doctors were only speculating, the handwriting of doctors’ recipes for thousands of medicines were as incomprehensible as shallow was their science. The man grew feeble, his foremen desolate, their fortune draining just like his life force. Everything that came near the farmer had the face of death. The news traveled with the wind, and the stench of the king’s rotting flesh arrived easily to the territory of other deaths: the abattoir, where part of the farm’s production went to. In the art of taking the lives of grazers each person has their function. Urubu, as his name suggests, was responsible for the dead flesh. He cleaned the internal organs, the useless viscera, the blood that dried on the corners. Despite being big and strong, he was almost invisible. He didn’t like to be bothered, he didn’t get into other people’s business. But when he learned of the King’s illness he took leave of service for the first time in fifteen years of work and arranged a ride to the master’s house. He managed, with the gift of gab his companions at the abattoir never suspected he had, to having one of the trusted men listen to him. He said he was able to cure the evil of the King. That he was good with spells, that it would be a sure thing, that along with the health of the patriarch the prosperity of the business would return, but that everything has its price. The advisors and the family of the dying man, disillusioned as they were, didn’t ask how much and promptly agreed to the offer. They wanted to sell cows, they wanted everything in order, they wanted their old life back. It couldn’t get any worse, if it doesn’t work out, we just kill the wizard. So the bewitchments of Urubu lasted seven days and seven nights, with the King and the butcher locked in a dark room. At the final dawn, the door was open and Urubu had gone. The farmer was lying in bed, hard and serious as a rock. He had returned! In a matter of days he was already spurring backs, shouting orders and recuperating fortunes. And as the memory of men is short and follows the convenience of their interests, in a while nobody commented on Urubu’s sweeping passage through those lands. What was talked about was the fortune, the good phase, the money that never stopped coming in, the 75 Dutch cows that were arriving. And when no one remembered him anymore and the story of the illness of the King swung between legend and nightmare, Urubu returned to claim his right. He met with the seven advisors to finally bargain his price. The foremen, laughing carelessly, their pockets filled with money, offered ten cows, that were worth a fortune and breed easily too. It’s a very generous offer, but frankly you know that the value is low compared to what I did, not to mention that ten cows don’t fit in my hat. Intrigued, they continued the negotiation. If the issue is the hat, we fill up your cap with gold. It’s too little. Diamonds? I don’t like them. The trusted men asked Urubu to then come forward with his own price. I want the King’s head, this is the price. Astonished, the trusted men of the cured one didn’t find an alternative. They thought about the business, how it was doing very well, about the good fortune Urubu had brought about with his powers, and understood, in the dark corner of their ambitions, that he who gives also has the power to take away. The sun was setting when they saw Urubu disappear on the horizon, carrying the head of the King inside his hat, over his left shoulder. The kingdom was safe.
Now it was time for the last point, which he told me he saved for last because it was the one that would make me stop my walking.
It was the story of the Blessed One, who goes to honour his saints in the church of the nearby town, after his wife healed following a serious illness. The journey is five days long, it’s a straight road, and one needs to go by foot to be worthy of the miracle. On the first day, he crosses paths with a boy who is going in the opposite direction. The boy has no father and is known in the whole region for being a rascal. He’s only in shorts, bouncing around, greeting the Christian, saying that he was on the way from where he lives, the city of the Church, in the direction of the small village where the Blessed One lives. There was nothing surprising about it, these kids go wherever they like, but what happened was that on the second day of the walk the encounter repeats itself. The Blessed One on one side, the boy crossing the other way. He thought it was strange, but didn’t say anything. On the third day, the same absurd encounter takes place, but the blessed is already anxious about arriving at his destination and doesn’t think more of the little trickster. On the morning of the fourth day, the boy already knows that the blessed one will pass by this stretch of the road arriving in town, and put some irresistible nuts on the side of the street. When he was about to reach the city and saw the boy approaching again he couldn’t help himself and asked how could they always come across each other even walking in opposite directions? And the damn kid was even offended! Blessed One, who just saw the living miracle operating through his wife, how could he be suspicious of the things of the world? The pilgrim once more resolved to ignore this strangeness and followed his way, and as night falls he runs into the nuts left by the roadside. Tired and naive, thinking himself lucky, he sits on a rock and starts to eat them. But then a farmer of that region passes by and recognizes his nuts by the smell, even in the dim light of the night, and believes that the nuts were stolen from his trees by the man. He blindly enters into a knife fight with the innocent, who is just wounded by a cut in one of his hands, before he manages to escape. The farmer spreads around the news that the thief was cut and that the light of day would reveal his identity. Although he was scared to enter the city, the Blessed One couldn’t fail to deliver on his promise. On the fifth day, when he again meets the youngster, and knowing that the scam with the nuts could only be his doing, he feels very embarrassed for having been deceived, for his gluttony and for the boy, and can no longer fulfil his obligation to the saint at the Church of the city. The boy then tells the man not to be afraid, that everything had been taken care of, that the Blessed One could trust him, that he could enter the city. And he, whose greatest fear was that of the saint, did so. Crossing the square with trembling steps, he notices a strange coincidence. Everyone who passes him by is wearing bandages on the same hand where he was cut from the fight with the farmer. The naughty boy had waited for the city to sleep and tore everybody’s skin with a razor so thin that it couldn’t be felt, even the hand of the owner of the nuts himself, making it impossible to identify the Blessed One, who paid his honour in peace and left the city, not without observing the strange whirlwinds that formed out of nowhere, on the windless road, on the way back to his home.
And this man finished his four stories with a glance to the side, knowing that I already knew that the stories were about him, whose body grew in size as he played with the words and that he at the same time was the Walker and was Maria, was Urubu and was the damned boy with the nuts.
He was all of them without ceasing to be one. He, who always had a drink in his right hand and a trident in his other, to lift up the carrion and the human waste, to remove obstacles from the path and to do and undo and confuse and unravel. That he was responsible for making a mess, for overthrowing arrogant certainties and that it was his heel that made men who dared to play gods, stumble. That it would be he, in this darkest moment, when all forces seem to work together, disguised as a paternalistic and demagogic attitude, on an intense regime of control and violence against bodies, that would more and more open up minds to the knowledge from the streets, which is that the greatest knowledge is that you know you will never know anything. And from that day on I wouldn’t be alone anymore, always having the company of this man, on my left side. And that he, the sphere of fire, would allow the destiny of the world to put itself in intense motion to build up affections of greater potency. To caress the thorns. And the uncertainty of life being the only certainty one can have, today I do know that the Saci was there, arousing my anger with his invisibility, provoking the quick steps of my walks. If he weren’t there, I would probably be living, as I am, but I would be another person inhabiting another place, a disenchanted place. And one must fight against this disenchantment head-on, against the crushing of differences, against this strong conservatism that only grows. But if we come together, not even the most chaotic of situations may seem invincible.
Because if we take a ball of mercury in our hands and throw it to the floor with all our force, it will not break, but split up in several other spheres, always of the same shape. Exu is mercury and we continue existing.
Bará is capable of carrying the oil he bought at the market in a sieve without spilling a drop.
Eleguá, when seated, his head touches the ceiling; standing up he doesn’t even reach the height of the stove.
Ibarabo makes what’s right turn wrong and what’s wrong turn right.
Elegbara, when angry, steps onto a stone and it bleeds.
Exu kills a bird yesterday with the stone he throws today.
*In the Candomblé faith, padê is the offering of food, drinks or sacrificed animals to the entity (or orixá) Exu, and is performed at the start of all rituals. Saci is a character from Brazilian folklore, a trickster or prankster who takes the shape of a black boy smoking a pipe, wearing a red cap and with only one leg.
 Urubu is the Brazilian name for a local kind of vulture.
“Blessed One” (“Abençoado”) can be a pious way of referring to someone who is on a religious pilgrimage.
 Bará, Eleguá, Ibarabo and Elegbara are all epithets of Exu.