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from the May 2020 issue

Old Isidoro

A bride, a groom, a priest and his mule: in this short story by Luís Romano, tragic events on the eve of a wedding spell the beginning of one man’s undoing.

Words without Borders · Maria Teresa Assunção reads "Old Isidoro" by Luís Romano


Nowadays, it’s as if he were doing penitence here on Earth! They say it’s because of a priest, who excommunicated the man in the early hours before sunrise, when the priest’s mule took fright and threw him off a cliff down in Banda de Sul, on the eve of the Saint Andrew’s Day festivities.

Since then, Isidoro had become the epitome of ugliness, scaring children whenever he’d come around dressed in burlap, bedecked in rosary beads and charms, hunched as he made his way along, stinking and begging with his hand held out to those he passed as if he were a pilgrim.

Housewives would lock their doors and dogs would either start wailing in despair or barking furiously at him. Later, Isidoro would up and disappear, before anyone could see what direction he’d gone off in. Some said that at night he turned into a spirit and that during the day he hid in cliffside caves where no one could come near him. Others swore he stole children’s souls on the seventh day after they’d been given birth.1

It was old lady Nininha who, one evening near nightfall, gave me chapter and verse about Isidoro's origins, when she sent him a bowl of tuna cachupa so he could stave off his hunger after a day without food.

“Isidoro was from back in the time of Gungunhana2 and had returned from abroad with a good deal of money to build himself a home on a piece of land he’d bought in Ribeira da Cruz. His fame as a fearless fighter in the Southern War was well known. It was also said that he’d brought tons of gold and a great deal of wealth he’d earned risking life and death. His family was upstanding and well-regarded, but people whispered that Isidoro had learned witchcraft during the time he’d spent in those pagan lands on the far coast of the continent!

“Once the Gungunhana War was over, he retired and saw to all the paperwork necessary to marry a light-skinned, even-tempered girl who had been waiting for him for almost a dozen years on the promise and vow of the sacrament of his word and solemn consideration. And it had already been arranged for the marriage to be blessed by the priest the very same day he was to arrive in Ribeira da Cruz after the Saint Andrew’s Day Mass.

“After breakfast, Isidoro headed out from Carvoeiros on the back of a purebred horse that had been sent especially for him to ride at the head of a throng of people who came to carry his luggage. Every time they came to a farmstead in the valley, they all stopped to accept offerings of food and to rest, and to fire off three reed fireworks of the kind that disappear into the clouds. Fiddle and guitar players joined them as well, and the group swelled with each valley they passed through.

“When it was precisely midnight, Isidoro rode off ahead of his companions and spurred his horse toward Ribeira da Cruz, eager to finally be reunited with the bride who’d been waiting for him for so long without recourse for her resignation.

“As soon as he came around the bend at Passo Preto, he raised his pistol and fired into the air, waking every living creature in that lonely wilderness engulfed in darkness.

"Perhaps because it was the witching hour, or perhaps on account of simple restlessness, the priest who was soon to bless their marriage appeared at that very moment around the bend, along a stretch too narrow for even two animals to pass side by side, and his mule took fright and leapt down the cliff like a beast accursed. One of the priest’s feet got tangled in the stirrup, and he was pulled along down the cliff, which could not have been but the work of the demon, but not before he could issue his own malediction: “YOU DEVIL, MAY YOU BE EXCOMMUNICATED!”

“It was pitch-black, and even today people wonder how the priest had ventured out at such a grievous hour on muleback, without so much as a lantern to light his way, wandering about like a ghost in search of the fate he’d been assigned.

“Isidoro cried out for help. By the time he was brought to Ribeira da Cruz, he’d already taken leave of his natural God-given senses.

“At that very moment, water poured down from the sky with no respite, the likes of which no one had ever seen, cut through with lightning and thunder, as if the end of the world were upon the Earth, and for three days and three nights the torrent coursed through the valley, washing everything away as it gushed down to the sea, while falling rocks broke free from the cliffs, bringing an end to the Saint Andrew’s Day festivities.

“The priest’s body disappeared forever, and to this day his malediction still pursues Isidoro, now a tortured soul, forever doing penance in this world of tribulations because of a curse sworn before dawn by a priest, the rightful representative of Jesus Christ on Earth, at the moment of his death, in the times when we on the Island believed in the Devil’s doings and in the power, art, and cunning of that Beast . . . by the sign of the Holy Cross . . . LUCIFER!”


1Translator's note: A traditional belief throughout Cabo Verde holds that newborn babies are most vulnerable to witches and evil spirits on the night of the seventh day after their birth, a superstition that led to the common present-day practice of “Seven” or “Head-Guarding” ceremonies held on that same night and aimed at causing enough ruckus to scare away potential soul-stealers until after midnight. 

Translator's note: Gungunhana was the royal name of Mudungazi, the last king of the Gaza Empire in present-day Mozambique, who in the last decade of the nineteenth century was overthrown and sent into exile by the Portuguese to the Azores, where he died. The war that led to his removal helped consolidate Portuguese power in large swaths of southern Mozambique.

© Luís Romano. By arrangement with the author's estate. Translation © 2020 by Jeff Hessney. All rights reserved.

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