Skip to content
Help us bring a world of writing to readers in 2022. Give now.
from the July 2016 issue


“When are you going to write a book like Knife?”

“Never, for sure.”


I was choosing the songs to put on the soundtrack of Lua Cambará when I came across the recordings of the spirituals commending the souls of the dead to God. Ten cassette tapes stored in a Styrofoam box. In the northeast of Brazil they still chant songs filled with religiosity during funeral celebrations. The women’s voices seemed to sprout up, beautiful and strange, up from the ground. More than nostalgic, they transmitted a profound suffering.

I couldn’t forget the story of the girl with the gold hair, buried alive by her stepmother, on account of some figs she had allowed the birds to peck at. In my grandmother’s simple rural version of the story, the European wheat, which resembled the girl’s hair, was transformed into wild grasses, which grew up around the grave. When he tried to pull them up with his hoe, the gardener heard a voice, imploring:

            oh gardener of my father’s house,
            do not cut my hair,
            my mother used to comb me,
            my stepmother went and buried me,
            for the figs on the fig tree,
            which the little bird pecked.

Because of this childhood memory I shiver whenever I hear the professional mourner women commending the souls leaving our world. These women have nothing substantial to eat at home, just manioc flour and green mangoes. But they sing all the same, and even mimic dance steps on the beaten-earth floor of their room. A pregnant woman is suffering from anemia and can barely sing, from exhaustion and hunger. Before my research was even complete I learned that she had died. Her body lay for its vigil in a coffin of wooden boards and rustic cloth, beside the stillborn baby. Her companions chanted funeral music all night long, not stopping until the early hours, when the light dissipates the darkness and the fear.

My recordings had one sole purpose, which was to save the disappearing wake music for posterity, which was why I didn’t worry about the quality of what was being recorded. When I needed to use the spirituals in the soundtrack for the movie, the sound man asked me for new material.


“Go back to Ceará? Are you out of your mind? All the women will be dead by now.”


Yes, probably. Existing in such abject poverty, going hungry, and living in mud houses, they never lasted long. There were beetles hidden in the slits in the roofs, between the braided twigs and the mud of the plasterwork. These insects were known as “barbers” because they had a particular liking for their victim’s cheeks. They would leave their hiding places at nighttime and bite the people who would fall ill, almost always something to do with their hearts. Feet and faces would swell up, they would grow tired, and die early. Perhaps this explains the cries and questions of the funeral chant: A maiden has arrived here, God in Heaven called for her, she wept and said: Oh my God, why should this be? They would die never knowing the answer to the question: why should this be? Their doubt reverberated on the cassette, adding a sense of strangeness. The mourner women bemoaned the dead woman’s suffering:

            a lament of the Virgin of the Conception,
            oh the pain, oh mother of mine,
            oh, the pain in my heart,
            oh the pain, mother mine!

Faced with this evidence, certain I wouldn’t have found a single one of my singers still living, I decided not to return to the dusty backlands. A friend suggested trying the choir of Barefoot Carmelites.

“Does that order really still exist?”

It did exist, in a convent in Camaragibe, close to Recife, with cloistered sisters who performed the liturgy and the ancient rites. They sang just like the pilgrims, my informer assured me.

I went to visit them accompanied by a sound technician. One of the sisters had become known for her voice. We talked through a latticed door and we left her with a high-quality recorder and a copy of the original tape. I identified three of the spirituals on the cassette that we had selected for the movie, and suggested that they aim for something with the same dramatic intensity. I returned a fortnight later, and the cassette player and tape were returned to me with an apology.


“It’s impossible for a sister recluse to sing like that. We no longer feel those emotions.”


I, too, lost things along the way. I can’t write the way I did forty years ago. I will never again write a book of stories like Knife.

Even when I’m traveling along the road that takes me to the house where Domísio Justino lay in hiding, the man I’d endowed with a forename, João, to add a certain closeness and familiarity to the murderer who has pursued me since childhood. My whole life I’ve told and retold the story of my unhappy uncle, always the same, till it had tired me out. Don’t come to me with your old line about Heraclitus’s river, that’s different each time you cross it. Let’s not go changing the details of events. No change is important in itself, it’s merely the symptom or consequence of a deprivation or imperfection. It may sound paradoxical, but things change because it is through movement that they seek repose, a settling of opposites. My own movement is in search of some remedy that might serve to cancel out my obsession. I tell and retell this story wanting to reconcile myself to the ghosts that terrify me. I struggle and I am reconciled, then I struggle again and in this way I move forward.

Lua Cambará is a backlands legend. The mixed-race daughter of a black slave with a landowning colonel, Lua rejects her mother’s black side, harassing her people without pity. From her white father she receives a whip and the inheritance of his power when he dies. Desired by the Foreman, she instead falls in love with the cowhand João, who rejects her. João rejects the mistress and loves his wife, Irene. Lua decides to kill her and take possession of her husband, just the same way she had taken possession of the land. The Foreman stabs Irene, and in a struggle with João both men die. In her agony, Irene curses Lua: her life will be filled with horrors, and after death her body will not be accepted in heaven or in hell. She will wander the earth a lost soul, haunting people, never finding rest.


“What do we do?”


I asked them to retrieve the old tapes. The voices were panting, as though the women were all short of breath. Seducing death is a game that will leave you breathless. Knowing that they, too, would die, the women sang at the tops of their lungs, yet all the same they would not win themselves a single minute more of existence. The Carmelites dealt directly with God, they had abolished passion from their lives, there was no sign of mangoes and flour in houses of mud, no dances in a beaten-earth yard.


“We can’t sing that way. We don’t feel what those women feel. Those pains are unrecognizable. The pain of childbirth, of hunger, of helplessness. They are singing to a God who never listens.”


Every man for himself and God against all.


“Use the recording of the dead mourner women.”


They seemed to be saying: it’s only a pretty rough movie anyway, a feature-length film shot on Super 8, condemned to disappear like those primitive women.


In order to do the filming, I’d returned to the territory of my childhood. I needed sun, dry vegetation, the imagined version of what the backlands are like. The Jaguaribe riverbed opened outward in the lands of the Monte do Carmo, it widened. The shallow waters barely covered my feet. The old inhabitants, Jucá and Inhamuns indians, called the small lagoons—the pools formed in low places due to the flooding of the river—ipueiras. Dust is earth reduced to the finest powder, carried by the wind to fill children’s eyes and houses. This is water-dust settling on dry plains. Herds of cattle, grazing on the fertile plateau, enriched the first colonizers. These men built houses in imitation of the mansions of Europe, the luxury of the emblazoned few, the lords of creatures and of people. I don’t throw myself into the river because it doesn’t even come up to my knees, but I do need to dive headfirst into the story. What’s left of that time? Nothing. Even the beringed lords have gone.


Down they fell: to the left and to the right they fell;
Alexandre and Francisco, my great-grandfathers went down, the first with his dress uniform, his gold buttons and his colonel’s commission and the other with his never-groomed beard and his gold-topped walking stick


“What do you think of our using those lines from Gerardo Mello Mourão?”

“I disagree. The screenplay will be even more confused. And Gerardo has nothing to do with the backlands of the Inhamuns.”

“No one’s going to know that.”

“But I know.”


Not even the memory of those names survived, erased by the hiss of television sets. All the same I look for them. I’m never sure whether the backlands I carry with me recognize me. I feel a burning in my chest, the anxiety of return. I contemplate the Jaguaribe. I go and come from one side to the other and it seems strange to me. A river of memory, of dim recognition. Remember the river? Which one? That one, the only one. (Ah, ANTIGO!) I cross the trickles of water a hundred times, wanting to prove to myself that it is always the same. Where are the herds, the cowhands, the women sleepwalking through the rooms? There’s no longer anybody living in the house, everyone’s gone. The living room, the bedroom, the patio lie unpeopled. No one remains, they all left. And I tell you: when somebody leaves, somebody remains. The place a man has passed through will never be uninhabited again. The only solitary place, a place of human solitude, is one through which no man has ever passed. I recite César Vallejo’s poem obsessively. Everyone has indeed left the house, but in truth they all remain in it. But it’s a lie. I need people to be extras in the movie and I find no one. All that now remain of the Viscount’s small palace are the foundation stones. I walk over stones and bricks, assessing the building. Beside the old foundations, which insist on still standing, the house of the powerful man’s daughter reveals the leftovers of painting on the walls, lime blended with egg whites to bind it and make it shine.


“Run your hand over it, feel the surface and the texture. It was really efficient, that technique, the way they mixed the lime, the pigment, and egg whites.”

“Any gallon of PVA could attain that same effect.”

“I wouldn’t think so. It’s been a while since the house was painted, two hundred years, perhaps. PVA paint wouldn’t still be on the walls.”

“How many eggs did they need to use?”


I laugh and I think about chicken-farm warehouses, lights on, confined chickens eating Purina feed and laying eggs day and night, employees gathering up the eggs, splitting open the shells, selecting only the whites.


“What did they do with the yolks?”

“Who knows! They ate them. Have you ever tried eggnog? It’s good. You put the yolk in a glass, sugar, powdered cinnamon, you beat it with a spoon till it reaches a creamy consistency. If you want you can add hot milk and you drink it.”

“And what about your cholesterol?”

“Nobody measured out cholesterol in those days, or triglycerides. They ate whatever there was to eat. When there was a drought they went hungry and withdrew from the land.”

“Skip it, I’ve read Rachel de Queiroz already, and Graciliano Ramos—I was born here, too, you know.”

“Then don’t ask stupid questions.”


Despite being the perfect location, the natural setting where part of the story had actually taken place, it wasn’t possible to shoot the movie in the Inhamuns. Access to electricity was a problem, vehicle access proved difficult, there wasn’t even the most basic infrastructure and we needed major transports every day as we had nowhere to accommodate the crew. Actors and technicians worked in a sacrifice zone, earning nothing, apart from the experience of filming on amateur equipment and getting to know the area. On the Monte do Carmo we would shoot one daytime scene at the most, an old man lodged amid the ruins of a house and a corral of stones. The camera would open up into panoramic vistas, it would show plains, the river in full spate, forests and vast open spaces. Off in a corner of the house, the actor played the part of an old man who has gone mad, talking about the rumination of memory.


“My name is hidden in these walls that have been salted by the sweat of the nameless slave, in this tough, bitter soil, which the wind heaps on top of me. Time has taught me to ruminate. I ruminate the shrubs of the centuries I have eaten. Like the old sorcerers I ruminate the memory of ages long past. My memory is a spell that folds time, marked by the minute hand of the sun, that allows the moon to reign in the dark blood of the earth.”


Assis Lima’s poem reinforced the imagery, bringing more eloquence to the abandonment.


Rain threatened the movie. It was the month of December and, as the few families who still lived in the country had been hoping, it started to rain. Winter. In the search for a new location, we discovered the house on the Monte Alverne. In the midst of the walls remaining stubbornly upright, there were four marble pedestals for statues of women representing the seasons. Only one survived, damaged. Someone had been searching in the heart of the statue, in its most secret place, to find hidden gold. Tortured by strong hands and a sledgehammer, the woman in a long spring-like dress had not confessed to any treasures. The marble hid only marble and so it was disdained. In the bushes behind the house, amid pieces of flagstone and thorns, her face exposed to the hot sun and the rain, they left the woman sleeping, mutilated, and forgotten.


“No one remembers a thing, everyone has lost their memory. We live in a society that has strayed from its mythical past. Don’t laugh. This region lived through an epic tragedy, there aren’t many communities who’ve had a saga like it. What’s happened, why have they forgotten their history? I don’t know the answer to that. There’s no longer a link, one foot still back there in the past. And we don’t see a future ahead, either. I happen to know the story of those statues. They were transported in the hold of a ship, in the nineteenth century, from Carrara to Recife. From the port of Recife, they came by oxcart to this lost world. For months the wood and iron wheels of the carts creaked along the paths, down trails opened by scythe. There weren’t yet any roads. Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter, the four women representing the seasons of Europe, reached their destination without a scratch. What kind of joy must they have brought their owners? Ostentation and power? What must they have felt, these warlike men, accustomed to killing and to ordering to be killed, when they looked up at these charming figures? And the ladies of the house, who were just as cruel as their men, did they feel envy at not being so beautiful themselves? They were matriarchs with whips in their hands, with indigenous blood flowing in their veins. There weren’t enough white Portuguese women and the Church recommended the marriage of white males with Indian females.”

“What a nostalgic speech! You’ve gone off the script. Start again, and don’t lose the rhythm. Rhythm!”


Never, for sure.


I repeat my words from the start, they are the theme required for the narrative, the lines that the guitar players toss to one another, requiring the singer to maintain the same cadence and skill. The discovery on the Monte Alverne left the crew marveling. Our screenplay did not confine itself to the imaginary realm alone.


Never, for sure.


Another improvisation.

Finding the house on the Monte Alverne merely served to depress and confuse us. It rained and the backlands were transformed. They became green, exuberant, a promised land. Back we came across the Jaguaribe River. We didn’t want to belie the imaginings that the old regionalist romances, outlaw movies, and delusions of Glauber Rocha had exported to Brazil and the rest of the world. True backlands had to be arid, gray, brown, a black and white picture of wretchedness and revolt. Our movie spoke of haunted souls. The punishments came from heaven, the justice of a God who had also been expelled from this territory. Every man for himself and God against all. I repeated the original title of a Herzog movie, while outside the rain went on raining, the gutter dripping and the backlands taking on a life and colors that were very different from the shadows in our screenplay.


“And how about we improvise a new movie? Why don’t we tell the story of the long crossing of the backlands with the statues?”

“Herzog did it already in Fitzcarraldo.”

“But his adventure took him across the Amazon Jungle.”


With a ship, a gramophone, and records of the Italian tenor Caruso. A whole lot more complicated than traveling across leagues of solid ground on an oxcart, carrying only four statues. Fitzcarraldo had delusions of grandeur, he realized his crazy undertaking and ended up alone, going up and down the Amazon river on his boat, to the sound of Caruso. What delusion did the man from the backlands have, sending for statues from Italy? Some aspiration to grandeur? We have only two seasons in our year: the rainy one, which is mistakenly called winter; and the sunny days, our eternal summer. Yet the cargo also included spring and autumn. The four marble women looked out from the Monte Alverne at the parcels of fertile land, full of grazing cattle, and they felt homesick for Italy.

The pasture ran out, the waters receded, the oxen and the cows died, the cowhands were left without work, the cowboys stopped singing out to the herds, the Syrian and Lebanese peddlers no longer had anybody to whom they might sell their trinkets. The colonels no longer argued over the ownership of the infertile land, the jaguars, the deer, and the other large quarry were shot and killed, hundreds of thousands of big and small birds met the same end. The rich people, impoverished, migrated, the backlands empires broke apart, the houses went to ruin. First to leave were the migrant rubber harvesters, in search of treasures in distant Amazonia. The farmers and cattlemen left their wives and their children and went off to find jobs in the big cities, they went to build Brasilia and to die in construction accidents. Absent husbands sent for their families to come live in the outskirts of the cities, in neighborhoods that were more wretched and violent than the backlands that hunger had forced them to abandon. Radio, TV, and the Internet filled the time and the lives of the few who stayed. Old customs became strange, memory was lost, the backlands epic was transformed into a cheap pamphlet. Ghosts were left behind, the dead haunting the living.


“Haunting who, if people don’t believe in lost souls?”

“Me, as I do still believe and I am haunted.”

“So you’ve decided to make a movie for yourself?”

“An artist always thinks of himself when he’s creating.”

“So much effort, so many people’s sacrifices just for your own pleasure.”

“Hell, it’s complicated. It’s not just a question of social alienation. My movie shows a society that has lost its memory and its links to a mythic past, a society that has entered postmodernity but has no future. What future do these people from Saboeiro have?”

“Why don’t you generalize the question: What future does any person at all have today? That way, nobody will call it too regionalist.”

“Go to hell, Assis Lima. I accept my regionalism. You want me to be a universalist?”

“Take it easy.”

“We’ve lost our reference points in the past and that’s why we’re living through the end of the future. I prefer to write about the dead, who haunt us still.”

“Juan Rulfo’s done that already in Pedro Páramo.”


The rain prevented us from filming. We needed to find new locations, and the crew went off to try and find them. In the big old house where I had been put up, without the patience to read or make conversation, I was myself a lost soul. At night, I couldn’t sleep. The telephones didn’t work and messages came via the local radio programs with musicians known as “improvisers.” Ever since the region was first inhabited, three centuries ago, singers became a means of communication between people. No different from Ancient Greece and Medieval Europe. Guitar players wandered the farms, singing out the news in lines of verse. Men and women heard the tunes hoping that some message might be recognizable. It might be from a brother, who had left many years before, from a friend, from an uncle or godfather. As he sang his improvisations on the guitar, the bard would hear someone crying. The message had been recognized. Once the weeping had calmed, the addressee wished to learn details of the sender. How were they living, had they aged, had they grown wealthy? It had been a long time, the poet didn’t recall the features or the manner of the person who had paid for that sonorous missive. Their memory had retained only the message, transformed into a poem, chanted from house to house, in the hope that one day it would reach the correct listener. Fortunately someone had invented the radio and messages were now able to be transmitted on the same day.

Early one morning I woke to the sound of car horns. I guessed it was my team bringing reports of the new location. I leaped out of the hammock where I slept and ran to the door still only barely awake. I was staying on the second floor. The staircase didn’t have railings around it and I fell into a kind of trench and rolled down the masonry steps. I was seriously hurt, but the ghosts took care of me and softened my fall. Way down there, unable to get up, I cried out in my despair. We didn’t receive news by radio till the following day. We were to leave. The location would be Exu, in the state of Pernambuco. We would film in three different farms, within a radius of just a few miles. There the rain had not yet arrived.


While the crew moved to the new address, I got it into my head to visit the most haunted place of my childhood, the Great House of the Umbu-Tree, a typical Portuguese-style residence, built at the end of the eighteenth century by an uncle seven generations back. The cowhand priest lived with a local Indian woman, he had twelve heirs with her, a tribe like the children of Jacob. After Domísio Justino murdered his wife Donana, claiming that she was being unfaithful to him, he fled and hid in the house of his priest brother. Domísio used to travel to Recife, transporting parcels of meat from Ceará. On one of these trips he fell in love with a young woman, promising her marriage. He did not reveal his existing marital status and sought ways to be rid of his wife, the mother of his nine children. Back in the Inhamuns, he would appear sad, with sorrow and yearning in his eyes, he wanted nothing to do with Donana. She sucked on the harvest of the farm’s umbu fruit. The acidic fruit was her revenge for being abandoned, the stream that ran round the back of the house her only delight. She would bathe naked, her long hair floating on the current. It was only at these times that she was able to forget her husband’s contempt.

It had already been a year since his last departure, and on his return, thinner and sadder, the traveler had not even looked at his wife.

“Holy Mother of Mercy,” moaned Donana, kneeling piously at the feet of the oratory, where she recounted the only thing she was guilty of: existing.

One afternoon as she was bathing alone, shielded by the shadow of two Inga trees, Domísio grabbed her by the hair and stuck a dagger into her back.

Donana cried out, her body bathed in blood, staining the stream, then the river, and finally the ocean.

To thee we sigh, mourning and weeping in this vale of tears, with the last of her strength she struggled to free herself from her husband.”

The banished children of Eve reached their mother when she dropped down dead, her hands filled with umbu fruit.

Her two brothers came to help her, but there was no longer anything they could do. They pulled out the knife, the blood still hot on its blade, and went to the house of the priest, to find the criminal. They knew he had hidden himself there. In a dark room, in the middle of that labyrinthine construction, Domísio trembled. He hadn’t even had time to wash his hands and change his clothes. Donana’s brothers told the priest to send Domísio Justino out into the yard. One of them dismounted from his horse holding the knife carelessly. On an impulse, the dead woman’s oldest daughter, who had come to rescue her father, ran up to her uncle, grabbed the weapon from his hands, and hurled it far off. Some people swear they saw the silvery gleaming bird in blind flight, others just heard the sound of the metal clattering against the stones. What is certain is that the knife was never found. The priest begged the two avengers not to execute his brother in his house. They should respect the laws of the backlands, which guarantee protection to guests. The two men wept, and shook. It is said that they were feeling hatred. The truth is that they went away and Domísio Justino was never heard from again.

He was seen for the final time one misty morning, his body white from all the time he had spent out of the sun. Dead, certainly. Or forgotten like the dagger thrown into the yard.


The world is an enclosure with many doors. I consider the house from some distance away, one foot resting on a crossbar of the gate. It looks so serene, when seen now in the middle of the forest reservation. It doesn’t look at all like the setting for such suffering. I think of the unhappy Domísio Justino shut away in that dark room, unable to distinguish night from day. How long did he live? Was he ambushed and killed by Donana’s brothers? I’ve been asking that question for as long as I’ve known how to talk. And the knife, where did that disappear to? I run my eyes across the yard and shiver at the possibility of spotting it. A man oblivious to the tragic events of the past is taking care of some animals. What is the future of this world without a past? I’ve no idea. A barbed wire fence and the gate separate me from him, bar my access. A wall. I need only push the gate and move forward.


“Are you going to go in?”


The driver is asking.




I reply and we continue our journey in silence.


From O amor das sombras. © 2015 Ronaldo Correia de Brito. By arrangement with the author. Translation © Daniel Hahn. All rights reserved.

Read more from the July 2016 issue
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.