Updated: Jul 13
Read the original Portuguese version here.
An Exercise in Hyperbole
by Ana Claudia de Souza de Oliveira
translated by Katherine Cowley
Camels. All the eyes at the well’s entrance turned towards those enormous, horrifying beasts. “Humpbacks!” screamed the urchins with their bellies full of worms and their brains stuffed with merriment. Most interesting was what followed right behind: an old blind man, driving the animals before him as if they were a herd of oxen. This Dantesque scenario caused everyone from the tiny village to run toward the old ravine.
In that land of the Middle of Nowhere, which was so far away from everywhere that it hurt, where every tiny thing became a big deal, where the men and boys were born with big heads and the women suffered from sticking their feet in everyone’s business, a high flat land that produced people with more arrogance than heart, any good-looking newcomers were soon beloved, while those who received a lesser valuation were looked at askance when passed on the street.
There, the heat did so scorch that the area around the fountain was the most pleasant place to rest. But the people calculated the number of animals and their obvious, relentless thirst, coupled with the inability of the man to see, and the curious spectators began to disperse, realizing what might await them.
“Someone’s coming! Someone’s coming! Is it really time for all of you to castrate the cat?” Mistress Tonha bellowed uselessly in the face of the general stampede.
The fact was that six gigantic steeds with double humps meant drawing a lot of water from the well, especially as every single one of these animals could consume, at the minimum, sixty liters of water. And there wasn’t just one camel—there were six. It would be a full day’s work, and there might not even be payment. With the same speed that the women who owned the well arrived, they dispersed, like snakes hiding under stones at any sign of danger.
From the opposite direction came Rebecca or Bea, the plague of the desert. Orphaned by her mother at the age of two, she ended up being raised by a stepmother and an older stepbrother. She also had two younger sisters, whom she called Cosmas and Damian, after those twin saints who heal through riddles and jokes and embarrassing tricks, for her sisters played many tricks, always together and largely against their “ill-starred sister.”
“Hey, Bea!” the screaming pihas squawked in chorus as they saw the rustic girl arrive out of breath. “You’re in splinters!”
“I’m ready. I’m here.” She stopped before the camels and the blind philosopher, as if she were answering a call. And in fact, she was. It’s just this: the call of “vin! vin!” Bea knew that if she heard the birds sing this special song during the dry season in such a remote place, that it was the call of love. And when love calls, with force, with feeling, with the claws of a hawk, the heart cannot escape.
“Jeez! What could this be?” Unlike the blind man in front of her, she saw everything, but could not believe it.
And the old man, as proficient at the auditory and the olfactory as he was deficient in sight, who had the capacity to recognize an animal by its scent and a person by the sound of their walk, was also the master of a mystical wisdom, which was the most important reason that he had come to this place. In that moment he concluded that his entire life, all that was, all that he had done, every blessing and every curse, all that he had become, had brought him here. This would be the greatest mission in his life, and since he had grasped this insight, he decided he must not fail in his task.
“I am a poor old man, a minstrel of camels. Does someone have the kindness to help me? I am filled with thirst and my animals more so, after walking so much around this world.”
His greatest asset, apart from his dromedaries, was his mysteriousness. No one could possibly imagine why he, an old man, endowed with darkness in both of his eyes, would come here, in that hollow of the world, the anus of Ceará in Northeastern Brazil. And even the stampede of people away from the well had been providential, the result of a vow he had made with the Heavens, in order to succeed in such an undertaking.
And the truth was that the thing which he sought was quite close to him, among his animals. Bea was practically the prettiest girl there, and the most fearless too, with her mannerisms that of a man-boy, or a half-fairy, or perhaps a witch. Her stepmother lamented, she despaired—would anyone ever look on Bea with good will, what with her oddities? This term was used because of the great attachment and zeal that the girl had for animals. While her stepmother and her daughters thought it was a malady, her grandmother and her half brother knew it was a gift.
That damn clever girl, somehow, either at birth or as she grew, had learned to talk to beasts.
Rebecca, in a singular manner, was able to understand the creatures of nature. Up until this point, she was accustomed to doing so with domestic animals: rodents, dogs, horses, cows. But when she saw the dromedaries, she couldn’t help herself. These animals were more than just a big circus: they were a family.
“Are these yours, sir, these ‘humpback’ horses?”
Rebecca had learned to evaluate people by the beasts they owned or worked with. She definitely had doubts that these dromedaries belonged to the blind bastard. But she was still stunned by the call of vin! vin! and the startling appearance of these animals that were so distinct from those she encountered on her daily walks.
“Your beasts are drooling from thirst, oh hireling,” said Bea.
“Yes, it is from all of our wanderings. Three days of traveling through the wilderness, without even a cactus tree to give us aid.”
“This is not the land of cactus tree, hireling. Nor is it the land of wind, nor of starvation. Here, the thing that matters to us is the executioner—judgment.” It was then that she suddenly realized the full state of the old man, who was tortured with thirst. “Well, enough of this chitchat. I will fetch water from the cistern for you.” And she took the trough and made a rod for its head and lowered all the pots first.
This damn clever girl was, above all, intelligent. She was already calling the donkeys to help with this lasting battle. She tied the handles of the pots tight with rope, and so, after filling them, made the donkeys pull them to a furrow where the animals drank. For the old philosopher, she arranged a stool on which he could rest, gave him water to drink until he was satisfied, and then brought him cane juice. The old man, more than enchanted by her willingness to care for him and the animals, was completely taken aback when he saw the girl’s esteem for the beasts and their esteem for her.
“Gosh, is it true that you came from the beaches of Jericoacoara?” she said, catching him off guard.
“Truly, she can speak to my animals,” the stranger thought with wonder, more and more aware that he had finally found the reason for so much searching.
“Yes,” he said, “but first, now that our thirst has been sated and the day is ending, could we have chat with your parents, girl…”
It was only now that they realized that they didn’t even know each other’s names.
“I am Gideon da Fonseca.” Gideon of Drywell.
She smiled as she thought about the verse that her little sisters Cosmas and Damian would make when given such a hint. Gideon of Drywell: deaf, blind, mute, a passion fruit in a drawer.
“I am Rebecca Auxiliadora da Cruz.” Rebecca Help of Christians of the Cross. “But everyone calls me Bea, Bea daughter of Raimundo.” Even though her father was no longer present—he had been a victim of tetanus after stepping on a rust-eaten nail—that was still how she was known. And as such were all girls measured. Always as someone’s daughter or sister or mother. And without a man by their side, it was as if they ceased to exist. They became only “that one,” a bird without a flock. A shoe without a foot.
Bea led the old blind man to her house, which was one of the oldest masonry constructions on the plateau, and one of the few styled with metal plates, like cymbals. These were houses that had at least two rooms, always with the married couple or the head of the family in the front, with the window towards the main square.
Thus, most of the rooms were practically on the same side, and close to the kitchen. The great rooms were on the opposite side, with the doors straight towards the backyard or into the kitchen. Almost all these houses had roofs which tilted from the great room to the bedroom, with spouts to carry the rainwater in various directions into a barrel—or barrels—where it could be stored, assuming, of course, that the air, in its grace, decided to give them any rain at all.
For this reason, when it began to rain as soon as the stranger set foot in her old home, Dona Nair, the stepmother, received a sudden chill, as if she already sensed some harm coming to them.
“Good afternoon, sir. Good afternoon to those who have arrived. Good afternoon to those who are here.” She greeted the stranger as if she were Your Eminence. And then she stated the name of every family member that was present, beginning with the grandmother, as she was the oldest, for so it had been taught to do by the manuals on respect and wisdom.
Then the old goat introduced himself, allowing his salaams to act as his pledge.
“I am employed by the brother of your father and deceased husband, Isidoro Matia, a man of many possessions in the capital, whose son Isaac, who is already advanced in age, recently lost his mother and father, and as such he gave his commitment that as their son he needed to follow the obligation of mankind, so that he, when he reaches a certain age, is prepared to follow the path of the whole Earth.” Never had so many eyes glazed over as he spoke to them. “Thus, he practically begged me to come here among his loved ones that he hasn’t seen in such a long time to take from among them a woman worthy of his only and precious son.”
The man then recounted everything that preceded his arrival here, how he had made a vow to the great Creator of the Earth so that He would bring him in his hands like a vin-vin bird so that he would find the perfect person for his patron.
By this point, at the height of this competition, Cosmas and Damian were already making new coffee and serving the blind man couscous, sweet biscuits, and cassava cakes, still believing that they could qualify. Not to mention the neighbors who crept along the walls and fences to learn in advance of the matter that had brought the poor man such a distance.
After his extensive prose, the stepmother, with an air of command, concluded, “So you are here to ask for the hand of one of my daughters in marriage to my brother-in-law’s son, is that it?”
“Yes. And as proof of the sincerity of my intentions, I have brought, as a dowry, some of the family jewels, lengths of fine cloth and…the camels.” There was a general “oh!” across the village.
“But you have already made your choice?” she questioned, afraid.
“And how could I not choose your stepdaughter, Rebecca, after she has treated me and the animals with such sweetness and altruism?”
“Please consider! She is not even the prettiest!” said the twins in unison, already swimming in the spite and remorse of having fled from the well.
“For this reason was I sent to find her. My patron did not want the eyes to be more enchanted by appearances than by heart and character. And there is not a girl more beautiful than the one who feels compassion for the less privileged and uses the work of her hands for the benefit of others. The one who fills her existence with sacred acts, such as arduous work. For this, I would like to bring you now to my lord.”
“Now I understand,” murmured Beat to herself, remembering the song of the vin-vin.
“She is a witch, a misfit,” attacked the stepmother, as if by denigrating one, she could elevate the foolish course taken by the others.
“Enough!” announced the grandmother. “The only question now is this: Daughter, do you want to go with this man, to fulfill your destiny?”
“Yes, my grandmother. This is my calling. And when destiny draws a line, no one should erase that line. With certainty, I will go.”
“What if he is a simpleton? You don’t even know him,” feared the brother.
“He has not laid eyes on me either, brother. I will go—and I will go already.”
“Yes, there is no more reason to wait. For all the turning of the earth, time never turns back. We must depart, and now.”
Bea gathered a few changes of clothes, the family photo, and a simple chain from her mother, the only memento she had inherited after her death. Once she stepped over the door’s threshold, all that would remain for her—and she knew this well—would be these heirlooms.
When she mounted one of the dromedaries, the only one that would return as her own, the wise man thought how fortunate he was, and how happy his dear master would be, to receive such a pearl in his hands. He would not be able to see this moment, and it was in this weakness of his eyes that he had been able to find the beauty that can only be found by those who see with the soul. A girl had entered that cistern, and out had come a queen.