My brother phoned me to explain the situation: about the vault, about the lack of a plaque.
He caught me mid-morning, as I was under the influence of a bad night of sleep, and I heard him while resting my forehead on my hand; resting, then, the full weight of my head, of my exhausted brain. Here’s what he told me: he said he had stopped to visit our grandparents’ grave, in the cemetery of Pouso Dourado, only to find that there was no sign to indicate our grandmother’s place of burial in the above-the-ground family mausoleum. Her name wasn’t there, neither the date of her birth nor the date of her passing.
I was jolted back into sobriety as I heard that; it felt like a wound was opening again inside my chest.
I could still remember the day my grandmother died—we had been in Rio de Janeiro, spending those last few days with her, even though my grandmother couldn’t recognize us anymore. She would mistake me for my mother, and mistake my mother for me. As I stood by her bed, reading to her in the most pleasant voice I could muster, from a book I’d brought for the trip (Karl Ove Knausgaard, of all writers) she would stop, and her eyes—gazing wildly at her surroundings before that—would rest on my face. “Beautiful girl,” she told me, more than once; and I was never sure if she meant me, or if she was seeing someone else on my features: my mother again, one of my mother’s sisters. A few days later, when that tiny spark of life inside my grandmother expired, we arranged to have her body taken to Pouso Dourado, the city in the South of Minas Gerais where she had been born and brought up; she and all of her six siblings. The same town she met my grandfather—every family was in Pouso Dourado was, to some point, related—and got married; the town where her first children were born.
I was twenty-eight when my grandmother died; my brother, twenty-six. We climbed the cemetery—it had been built on a hill, much like everything else in Pouso Dourado. Those beautiful golden hills, which my grandmother would always speak of, and which now lived in the photographs I took during those two days we spent in town, for her funeral and burial. I walked the cobbled streets aimlessly, trying to drown the grief inside with the beauty of the place.
My brother and cousins carried the casket up above, sweating under the harsh sun. My grandmother was going to rest side by side with my grandfather, who had died when I was but five. Those were hills, so there wouldn’t be any digging in the ground. Instead, my grandmother’s casket was to be pushed inside a mausoleum made of marble, and then sealed with concrete. I couldn’t bear that sight: my grandmother’s casket, her slight body inside, pushed into the darkness and then trapped in there forever. Holding my tears, I made my way down the cemetery and met my mother at the bed-and-breakfast we were staying. My mother had refused to watch the burial, in the same way she refused to watch my grandfather’s casket being taken away, so many years ago.
“Is it done?” she asked me.
“Yes,” I said, hiding my tears from her, her pale face looking slightly bloated and red.
I didn’t go back to Pouso Dourado after that. Not until my brother called me.
“Wasn’t José Augusto the one responsible for the plaque? Didn’t he say he was going to personally have it done?” I asked.
“Did he?” my brother asked.
“He told mom he would.” José Augusto was our grandmother’s brother. The only one that, six years later, was still alive; aunts and uncles—my mother had lost them all, except for José Augusto. José Augusto was also the only one of his siblings to have lived his entire life in Pouso Dourado. While my grandmother had moved many times, and eventually settled down in Rio—in the same fashion most of her sisters did—José Augusto continued on living in the farm that had once belonged to their father; and to their grandfather before that; and so on. That very farm, mythical in many ways to me, always figured in stories my grandmother would tell us about her youth. The funny stories, but also the sad ones; and the one tragic story nobody would talk about—about her youngest brother.
“You know what, fuck it,” I said. “I’m going there. I’m going to solve this shit by myself. We will solve this shit.”
How old was José Augusto? He must have been in his eighties now. I could forgive his failing memory, if that was the case; but something about it made my blood boil, what I considered his dismissiveness for his own sister, for her resting place.
My brother was quiet for a while.
“You’re on the speaker,” he finally said. “The boys can hear you.” In the background, I could make out the giggling of my two nephews.
“Oh, great,” I said.
I took the car and spent the next day driving to Minas. Just the previous week, I’d been laid off of work. Necessary cuts, they explained: papers were getting smaller, were migrating to the digital space almost exclusively. “We can’t compete with videos of cats being scared shitless of cucumbers,” my boss had said in such a serious and melancholic tone that my only reaction was to blink. I couldn’t muster anything to say to such absurdity, other than that he was probably right. After spending days locked inside my apartment, updating my resume for jobs I’d never heard from again and watching crap on Netflix, I needed something on which to put my energy—my anger. And so it was: my grandmother had lain dead for six years now, without even a plaque to tell people she had once lived, that she had a name; that behind that dry concrete, that horrible marble, there was a body, her bones, my grandmother’s thin fingers, which had once caressed my long brown hair with such pride and joy.
My brother was staying in a farm turned into a bed-and-breakfast. My two nephews ran to me, hugged my legs, and then off they went, under the supervision of one of the bed-and-breakfast helpers, to pet the animals: the piglets, the mother sow, and a pony that seemed positively terrified of the hungry attention the children had for it.
“Where’s Janaína?” I asked.
“At home. She couldn’t spare the weekend,” my brother said, and I nodded. My sister-in-law was a marketing manager and worked unholy hours. At least she was employed.
Like me, my brother was a journalist—and survived mostly by doing freelancing work, which I figured would too be my future. (“Never let the kids be journalists,” I once begged him. “Never,” he concurred.)
“Have you seen Zé Augusto?” I asked him.
“No. The way you said it, it seemed to me we’d take matters in our own hands . . . ”
“Yes. Of course.” We took my car, packed the kids, and went to the town—to find a place where we could get a grave plaque nicely done. I’d settled for bronze, and my brother and I would share the costs. No word of that should be transmitted to our mother, we’d agreed. We’d do the job quietly, and then it would be as if it never happened. And mom and dad, if they ever came to visit Minas again—and if mom ever changed her mind about seeing our grandparents’ grave—would find her mother remembered.
There was only one funeral home in Pouso Dourado, caskets aligned on the wall as if toys ready for a picking. My nephews were astonished at the sight, and the oldest kept asking my brother if there were any vampires sleeping inside them.
We decided on the font, the size of the plaque, and paid half the sum it would cost. The other half would be paid the next day, when the plaque was done. My brother called his wife to say they’d be staying a bit longer—to solve family issues. I had no one to call. I paid for a little room, with a view to a pond and to the pony enclosure. Everything smelled to a sun-baked forest, to manure, to the distant trees of the hills; it wasn’t unpleasant. It seemed to wake something in my own memory—the very few times I’d been in Pouso Dourado before, most of them as a child, my grandmother holding my hand and pointing at the places that, by their turn, were part of her childhood.
A lot of photographs were taken that day, and there’s one particular photo that came to my memory—it must’ve been lost among boxes stored in my parents’ house, but I recalled it clearly. I was maybe three when the picture was taken, wearing a blue jumpsuit, my light-brown hair in a ponytail, my grandmother holding me on her lap while we both smiled at the camera. That photo was probably taken in the patio of some relative, maybe one of my grandmother’s aunts, someone who was already dead. Maybe it had been taken in the family’s old farmhouse—but I don’t remember grandmother ever taking us to visit the farmhouse. That was where Zé Augusto lived, alone.
It was guilt that led me to that decision, I supposed, though I wasn’t sure why. We’d never been close to Zé Augusto. Maybe it was grief for my grandmother, lingering still, amplified by the visit to the town she’d been born. Whatever it was, soon enough I was knocking on my brother’s door. “We should check on Zé Augusto,” I told him. “He’s old. He lives alone. He forgot about putting a plaque on Grandma’s grave, I mean, he might be—“
“Senile?” my brother said, tentatively.
“Yeah,” I said, and shrugged.
We took the decision without much of a discussion. We put the kids back again inside my brother’s car. We told them it was an adventure.
“Are you sure you know where the farm is?” I asked my brother.
“Yup. I considered taking the kids there—I don’t know, I thought they might want to—”
“Why didn’t you tell me you were coming here?”
My brother, hands gripping the steering wheel, blinked. “What?”
“That you were coming to Pouso Dourado.”
“Ah. Dunno. It was just me and the kids, I didn’t imagine you would . . . ” He didn’t imagine I’d want to take a break, drive from the South just so I could get to Pouso Dourado, I thought.
I remembered my brother, the day my grandmother was buried: a gangly young man, his face marked with a few zits, very somber, very quiet. He’d been my grandmother’s favorite, out of the two of us. Out of all of my grandmother’s grandchildren, I dared to suppose. Not that my grandmother made any effort to show, and not that she withheld love from me: she loved me dearly. But I had always suspected it—always had a hunch about things unsaid, but felt—and I’d always been rewarded for trusting those instincts. You measured love not with words, but with the smaller things, the smallest looks. My grandmother had lost a younger brother, when she was a child—that was the tragic story she rarely spoke of—and she had held a belief that my brother was, in some way, her baby brother returned. This, she once confided that to my mother; and I only came to know it later, when my mother confessed it to me, tearfully, after Grandma was dead. I wonder if my brother knew that; if he was thinking about it as they pushed my grandmother’s casket into the forever darkness it would be trapped in.
He’d gotten married and had his first child two years after our grandmother’s passing. I had sworn off on ever having children, but I loved my nephews to death. The first time I held my oldest nephew, a little bundle of pink flesh and dark hair, I thought of my grandmother; she was there, in my heart, in the mix of the joy and love I felt for that little creature I had in my arms, tinted only by this sudden sadness over her death.
Death and birth are twins, I’d heard once. My grandmother would have loved to meet my brother’s children.
While I transitioned between memories and the now, we reached the farm’s gates. That farm had once been enormous, a monstrosity of lands, but it had been reduced to a few acres across the decades, all of them owned solely by José Augusto.
“There,” I pointed at a black intercom—so it seemed—by one side of the gate made of concrete painted white. My brother had to leave the car to use it. He pressed one big button and waited. Maybe a minute later, I heard the cracking of a voice coming through the intercom, but I couldn’t make the words. My brother bent over, saying something back—probably introducing himself—and then there was silence. My brother stood again, arms crossed, looking at me with a puzzled expression.
A few more minutes went by before we saw the figure emerging at the end of the little road that lay beyond the gate. A hunched man, medium-sized, stout, and wearing a cowboy hat. His face wasn’t visible until he reached the gate and smiled coyly, exchanging words with my brother.
“Who’s that?” my oldest nephew asked—he was almost four and could run his mouth. My youngest nephew, one and a half, merely babbled.
“That’s your bisa’s brother,” I said. He heard about my grandmother, his great-grandmother, his bisa, through the stories my brother had told; never having seen her, though, so I wondered how she existed inside his mind; what had he imagined when his father took him and his brother to her grave.
When we got out of the car, and I properly greeted José Augusto, what I saw were my grandmother’s pale blue eyes, that same moisture they’d had, as little pools of clear water.
“Are you Clarice?” José Augusto asked. “You were just a babe last time I saw you.” He had a deep accent that clearly belonged to the South of Minas, which echoed something of my grandmother’s own accent.
“We saw each other six years ago,” I told him. “Grandma’s funeral. Remember?” I tried to transmit only gentleness with my eyes. José Augusto opened his mouth a little bit, considering.
“Aye, yes, I remember!” he said, rather unconvincingly. “Come, come inside. Eh, bring the car.” The road that led to the farmhouse was short, and José Augusto made the point of walking, while my brother drove the car at a comically low speed. The house itself was big, but in a state of decay. My brother and I exchanged looks at the sight of cracks that covered the outside and inside walls like the webs from a big spider.
José Augusto instantly softened to the children. He showed them the blowing horn that had once, many decades ago, been signed by Sérgio Reis, who Zé Augusto still thought to be the greatest singer that there ever was. He took the dusty horn from the wall, let my nephews blow on it, and laughed until his face went red.
“Whatcha you kids doing here?” José Augusto asked.
“We came so the boys would know Pouso Dourado,” I answered, before my brother could open his mouth. José Augusto offered us coffee and cornbread, which my nephews ate cheerfully, legs dangling under the big wooden table José Augusto had in his dining room. “Uncle—” I didn’t know what else to call him. To call him by his name suddenly seemed inappropriate. “Why didn’t you put a plaque on Grandma’s vault?”
“The mausoleum. There was no plaque—and I remember my mother telling me you’d do it.”
José Augusto scratched his head. He’d taken the hat off, revealing his white, thinning hair, the top of the head covered with age spots.
“Why, wouldn’t make much of a difference,” he said. “It wouldn’t stay.”
“Stay?” my brother asked.
“Eh . . . ” José Augusto stopped before he could say anything. He nurtured a little silence that implied he was searching for the right words.
“Can we play outside?” my oldest nephew asked. He had escaped his chair, and held his baby brother’s hand.
“Oh, no,” José Augusto said, and a fright shone briefly inside his eyes—just a second and I might have missed it, but I didn’t. “It’s not safe near the tree.”
The tree. My eyes widened a bit.
“The old mango tree?” I asked, and José Augusto nodded. I looked at my brother, who seemed confused, and then rose from the chair. As I approached a window, I could see the big tree, there in the backyard, big and full, a queen among the less impressive greenery that thrived around it.
That was the tree from which my grandmother’s younger brother had fallen.
I quivered a bit as I remembered the story, or parts of it. “That’s the same . . . ” I looked back at José Augusto, and again he nodded.
“My little brother. Francisco,” he said. “I was there, that day. Saw him climb. Didn’t think much of it. Until that old black man shouted, told him to get down.”
I flinched at his words. I could sense and hear the detachment, in his stance and tone. The man he was referring to was Mateus—the son of a former enslaved couple, he had continued to live on the farm even after slavery was abolished.
What else would he have done? He’d been born in Brazil, but had no claim to the land his parents and other people worked on, growing the riches white people would benefit from. My family.
“But he fell. Hit his head hard. Papa drove him to the hospital—that was in the nearest town, we didn’t have a hospital here. Didn’t make any difference.” José Augusto spoke in a low, distant voice. He didn’t seem bothered by the fact that my nephews were listening. My youngest nephew wouldn’t have grasped at any of the words, but the oldest listened carefully to the tale, while my brother shifted uncomfortably on his chair—staring at me as if asking if this, our visit, had been such a good idea.
“Wouldn’t make any difference,” José Augusto said. He didn’t mean his little brother, though. He was talking about the plaque again.
“We had a plaque made. They’ll hang it tomorrow,” I said.
He stared at me for a few seconds, his eyes a sea of melancholy.
“Won’t make any difference.”
When we got back to the bed-and-breakfast, I asked my brother if he remembered the other story our grandmother had told about Mateus. My nephews were, thankfully, asleep on their baby chairs.
“No, I don’t,” my brother said.
“Grandma said he once appeared to her as a ghost.”
“She did?” Deep lines formed on my bother’s forehead.
“When she was pregnant with Aunt Celina—in fact, the night she gave birth to her. There was a storm, and she was alone at their home. She thought she was going to pass out from the pain. Grandpa had gone to fetch a doctor. That’s when Mateus appeared to her.”
“Oh, you don’t say he helped her deliver Aunt Celina . . . ”
“No. He was just . . . there—standing on a corner of the room.” While my grandmother was confined to her bed, holding her round belly, sweating and crying. “He smiled at her. And she took he meant that everything would be fine. He just smiled.” And my grandmother smiled, too, when she told that story. A birth helped by a benevolent spiritual presence. However, even as a child I could never manage not to be creeped out by the idea of a ghost just standing and smiling. And what did Mateus owe my grandmother, or any other member of our family? His own family had been enslaved by my blood.
According to my grandmother, Mateus always had had a soft spot for her, his sinhazinha. He was always cheerful, grateful to be a part of the family, my grandmother said.
I wasn’t that sure. One could look cheerful without meaning anything. One could smile if smiling meant survival. We had appropriated so much already, we might just naturally appropriate thoughts. All the books I had read as a child, about friendly indigenous people, helping the white man to understand nature—bearing no grudge for having lands stolen. The former enslaved, happy to tend to the white people who once called themselves their masters. How we distorted, how we turned other people’s rage and pain into passivity, into smiles.
“Grandma never told me her stories,” my brother said, after a while. “I knew Francisco had died—but I didn’t know about the tree.” Maybe she didn’t want him to know about his own death on a previous life, I thought—if my Grandma really believed my brother was her brother born again. “She only told you those stories. You know, I think you were her favorite.”
I was a bit shocked to hear that. I wanted to say that by telling me stories she wasn’t singling me out as her favorite; she was simply passing on the burden to tell those same tales later. Women share stories—we have always done it.
My sleep was uneasy that night. I woke up in the dark, hearing polite knocks on my door. It was my oldest nephew, wearing his pajamas, his eyes misty with drowsiness.
“Can’t sleep,” he told me.
“How did you get out of the room?”
“The door was open.” And my nephew pointed his chubby finger to the end of the dark corridor. The door to my brother’s room was closed.
“Who opened it?” I asked. My nephew said nothing.
I scooped him from the floor and took him inside my own room—taking the care of locking the door, while a shiver ran through my spine. I laid my nephew on my bed, covered him, and lay by his side. I tried not to search the corners of the dark room, afraid I’d find someone smiling back at me, reassuring me that things are not always perceived as they truly are.
We hung the plaque the next day, with the help of the sole cemetery caretaker working at that time. I didn’t tell my brother about what happened the night before; I only said my nephew had had a nightmare.
“He misses his mom,” my brother said, during breakfast. My nephew didn’t contradict me. In fact, so relaxed he seemed, it was as if he’d forgotten about it. We spent a nice day, letting the kids abuse of the poor pony’s patience; we took them to some sightseeing, and then to a store, where they were given squared-cut doce de leite, which they both loved. My youngest nephew, who had no teeth to speak of, sucked his piece of doce de leite as voraciously as a baby sucking from his mother’s breast. He laughed, all too pleased with himself, when we had to clean up his hands, his mouth, and started to sing something without words that we could understand, in that ancient language of babies.
I still couldn’t shake off the uneasiness that followed me since the day before, though. I felt as if I had witnessed something, as if I had actually seen a ghost, just as it happened in my grandmother’s stories. The gentle wave from Zé Augusto, as we got back in the car; his walking back through the little road, a lonely, slow silhouette. He was a ghost himself, I thought, living in that old farmhouse, with a daily view of the land and the cursed tree, a place disturbed by death and blood.
As the evening settled, as the sunlight started to disappear, I was taken by an instant fear. “Grandma,” I said, holding my brother’s arm. “I want to go back to the cemetery.”
“What for?” my brother asked, but I couldn’t articulate that fear. Zé Augusto’s words rang inside my brain: Wouldn’t make any difference.
We took the children—the woes of having children around, having to strap them to their chairs, my youngest nephew still laughing, the oldest strangely quiet. We got to the cemetery on time, right before they closed it for the night. I got out the car and climbed the hill as fast as I could. A caretaker took notice of me, waved, reminded me of the hours, and I shook my head to say that I understood. Just a moment, I kept saying. Just a moment. I didn’t know if my brother was right behind me, I had left him without a word. When I finally reached the mausoleum . . . the plaque was missing.
The marble, scratched, as if by iron nails.
I didn’t say anything, I only stared—and I supposed I did it for a long time. A hand touched my shoulder, and I reacted the way I imagined I’d never react in such a situation, as a dumb girl from a horror movie, falling for a cheap scare: I jumped to the side and screamed, and the man who had touched me, one of the caretakers, jumped too.
“Miss,” he said. “Hey, miss. We’re closing for the night.”
I dismissed the information. Instead, I said: “Who did this?” My finger pointing to the mausoleum, now without its plaque.
The man was confused. He hadn’t been the caretaker who’d helped us in that morning.
“Who took the plaque? Who did that?” I wanted him to see the scratches, the ugliness of it—that sheer disrespect for someone’s resting place. But the man still looked confused.
“I don’t know, miss,” he said.
“You didn’t see anyone? Anyone at all?”
My brother finally caught up with me, gasping for air from the climb. He held my arm. He must have thought I was acting crazy, and I could sense that, in a way, I was; my words were filled with anger, anger that I directed to the poor caretaker, even though I could sense he had said the truth.
“Look.” I made my brother see what had been done to the mausoleum. He went silent. “Where are the kids?” I asked, alarmed, when I noticed he was by himself.
“I left them in the car. I didn’t think it—”
But then I was already running to the cemetery gates, careful not to fall as I descended, but moved by urgency. My brother followed, and the caretaker remained where he was, probably thinking we were a mad pair.
When I got to the car, I saw my nephews inside, undisturbed, and sighed with relief.
“What the fuck is going on?” my brother, who so rarely swore, asked. I had no idea, but we drove back to the farmhouse. We didn’t bother with the intercom that time, and my brother pressed the car horn until my oldest nephew had to cover his own ears. Under the highlights, we could see someone coming down the road: José Augusto, of course, now limping a little faster. Limping—I hadn’t noticed the first time we saw him, but one of his legs definitely worked better than the other. He was a man in his late eighties, I reminded myself.
He’d been peeling an orange when he heard the sound of the horn. The orange stood over a plate, on the dining table, a dull knife by its side.
“You knew it was going to happen,” I said, almost as if he had done it himself: the ripping off of the plaque. Zé Augusto looked at me with the same melancholy I’d seen in his eyes before..
“The plaque on Grandma’s vault. Who took it?” my brother asked. We had put together a few theories on our way to the farm. Maybe our family had enemies in Pouso Dourado. A small place like that, rivalry between old bloodlines—it was possible. Although I couldn’t imagine somebody bothering enough to desecrate graves. Seemed weirdly childish, made by some trickster little creature from the stories we read in books—a saci kind of creature.
“You said it wouldn’t make any difference,” I said.
“And it didn’t,” said José Augusto. He wasn’t wearing his cowboy hat, and he seemed made smaller by the fact. Without a care in the world, or so it seemed, he finished peeling the orange, offering a few pieces to my nephews. Then he suggested them to go play in the other room; he had little wooden sculptures of horses there, which the children instantly loved. My brother and I, we kept waiting on the dining room, and once José Augusto was back, still limping, he said: “That tree is a bad thing, you know.” He meant the mango tree, and he didn’t need to show it to us. The windows were wide open, and the warm breeze of the night got inside. The tree shook only slightly, and I tried not to look it. The first time I saw it, I’d been scared by its size, its magnificence, though I couldn’t name that fear. Now, I felt as if I knew it: it was as if the tree could look back at me.
“This whole land is.” José Augusto went on. “A man died there, once. One of my grandfather’s men killed him. A slave, he was. He’d been caught trying to learn his words, learn how to read—he’d lost a few fingers for it before, but—well, he didn’t give up. So my grandfather told one of his men to grab a pistol and . . . ”
Listening to the rest wasn’t necessary. For a moment, it was as if I could hear the crack and explosion of a pistol.
“You know . . . blood over dirt doesn’t look like blood. Not really. Looks like syrup,” Zé Augusto commented, almost casually. He made a pause and rubbed his own eyes. “His wife and his daughters cried day and night. The tree never bore mangos again. My father, he had witnessed that killing as a boy, you see. When they shot the slave—he told me about that, about blood on the dirt. When Francisco fell, the earth drank from his blood too. It must be drinking blood since always,” Zé Augusto said. “My father knew that there was something wrong with the tree. A single mango tree? Growing here? So—when Francisco died, he grabbed an axe and tried to cut the damn thing by himself. The black man told him not to do it, but my Papa did it anyway, and the first time he struck the tree—it bled.” He didn’t say anything after that. He rubbed his hands on his old jeans pants. “It bled,” José Augusto repeated, after a while. “And it screamed. All of that tree, shaking and screaming. I remember it. Your grandmother remembered it, too. That’s why none of them stayed—none of them wanted the farm. I sold what I could, but I had to keep this house, the tree. It was my burden.” He sighed. “But now I’m too old.”
An unnerving quietness took hold of the room. Zé Augusto went back to cutting another piece of his orange, then put it inside his mouth.
“I don’t understand,” my brother said. “Grandma’s plaque . . . ”
“You do understand. We’re cursed. Our family, those born in this farm, those who lived here . . . ” said Zé Augusto. “My Papa and my Mama are buried there; you wouldn’t know, because you wouldn’t find their grave. The stones, everything—they were ripped off, and they always will. But now I’m too old. I’m the last one, eh. But I can’t carry the burden forever.”
He got up, went to the kitchen, maybe to grab another orange. I could hear the children playing in the next room, but even that sound was muffled. Inside my head, there was screaming. Not my own. I didn’t know whose.
“He’s out of his mind,” my brother whispered.
“Maybe,” I said.
But Zé Augusto might have been right. How much horror had that land witnessed? From the slaughter of indigenous people, everything that was made to stand on that land—on that farm—had been paid in blood. You didn’t need to open a history book to know that.
“Maybe we should call someone,” my brother said. “His sons? Do you know their names?”
“No, but maybe mom does. I think they live in Diamantina. Jesus . . . ” I rubbed my palms together. I felt cold, despite the warmth of the night.
“Should we wait? Until the morning?”
While we discussed, I saw a limping figure passing by the other side of the window. I got up. From the distance, I could see José Augusto carrying what looked like a can of gasoline.
“My God,” I said. “My God.” He had left the house through the kitchen door, and we ran after him, begged him to stop. He didn’t listen. He spread the gasoline along the tree as if calmly watering a garden, splashing it over his own sandals. My brother shouted, told me not to get closer. José Augusto fumbled with something inside his pockets; a hiss in the darkness, and then a match came to life. He dropped it by the roots of the tree, and the flames rose as claws of fire. I screamed, turned my back to the tree, to José Augusto; we got back inside the house, I took my youngest nephew in my arms, my brother took the oldest. My brother was fighting to hold his phone, his hands trembling, trying to reach emergency. And the screaming went on. Not mine, not the kids, who were pale and whimpering. It was the tree; the tree, screaming in a way no human would. And, mingled with that, the screaming of José Augusto.
I held my hands over my nephew’s ear, while tears came down my face. My brother managed to reach the emergency line. Pouso Dourado had no fire department—the police car that eventually arrived was old, and was in the company of a truck filled with men and big buckets of water. They passed by us without a word, screaming orders as we kneeled and took cover inside the dining room. The world outside was ablaze, and sparks came through the windows.
The men managed to put the fire down half an hour later. They had used the hose from the garden to reach where the buckets couldn’t. What remained of the mango tree was a dark monstrosity, many arms with ends that seemed as sharp as knife, as dark as coal.
And what remained of José Augusto: a charred corpse sat near the tree, as if he had been in a deep sleep when the fire reached, untroubled by death.
We were taken to the police station of a bigger city near Pouso Dourado. We told everything we knew to be true: that José Augusto willingly set the tree on fire, and then let that same fire to consume him.
They asked us why we didn’t try to help him.
We didn’t know what to say.
We were let go a few hours later. Nothing implied foul play, and the people who knew José Augusto would later testify that he was a strange, reclusive man; he had been so since his wife passed away, and always seemed exhausted, as if done with life, waiting for the right moment to decide on how to drop out of his mortal body.
We went back to the bed-and-breakfast, where everybody already knew about what had happened, the owner giving us strange, alarmed looks. We had the scent of burning in our clothes, though untouched by the fire, and the kids had required a long bath and a lot of comforting until they were able to calm down and stop crying. We put the kids to sleep; we laid down, each on one side of the bed, keeping the children between us, making a safe nest for them. We had nothing to say to each other. Even then, I touched my brother’s shoulder, and he started to cry.
I was thinking of my grandmother, of the smiling ghost of Mateus, of the dead man—nameless, buried somewhere without a grave, without a marking of his passage in this world. Freedom had been denied to him, and then his own life—and then, as a final insult, a resting place. Maybe there never was a ghost, and my grandmother simply hallucinated Mateus while in pain. They didn’t owe us anything when they lived, so why would they owe us something in death? Even a haunting, even that was a kind of gift.
I thought of José Augusto, then; of where José Augusto wandered now, if he wandered at all; if his feet touched soft sands or the splinters of glass, if it was Heaven or Hell.
I pressed my hand more fiercely on my brother’s shoulder. He was crying harder, although I couldn’t say whom he was crying for. My own eyes were red, hurt by the smoke, but dry. I had no more tears to spend.
For Eduardo, writer and beloved friend. Somewhere, someday, we will meet again.