When they had started their journey through the Amazon, it had seemed a good idea to try the new road that cut through the jungle, linking Brasilia, the capital, to Belem in the north. But after two days on the road, what was supposed to have been an adventurous and mysterious honeymoon had turned into a hot, tiring ordeal. With dust inside their ears and sweaty clothes stuck to their bodies, they barely had energy to even complain about the dirty road that stretched forever. Always in a straight line. Always empty. Surrounded by thick, scornful trees that seemed to laugh at their predicament.
"Do you want another cigarette?" asked Catarina, reaching into her pocketbook in the back seat. As she moved, her long black pony tail bumped against her face.
"You are smoking too much," Paulo declared, leaning his arm once more over the open window of his Volkswagen.
"Got any ideas of more interesting things to do?" she asked in a grating voice, leaving the cigarettes in her pocketbook and sitting up straight again.
"You could enjoy the landscape," he laughed sardonically, looking at her with blue eyes that contrasted with the deep green of the forest.
"Very funny. I have been enjoying this landscape for the last two days and I haven't seen one change, let alone one for the better.” She nodded toward the trees. “And God knows what's in there."
She was angry at the forest, angry at the hot weather that made her uncomfortable, sweaty and sticky, and especially angry at Paulo for finding the situation funny. She hated his fifteen-year-old Volkswagen which he insisted on driving as carefully as if it were a new Porsche. The car's upholstery was old and ripped. The only luxury of the rinky-dink dashboard was a little old radio that squawked like a parrot and made her jumpy. The whole place made her jumpy.
"Do you want to hear some music?" he asked, smiling at her.
"Okay." She dragged the word out of her mouth. The white dust that covered her from head to toe choked her movements and her mind. She felt ten years older than her twenty-one.
The radio was on now, but instead of music a talk show was on the air.
"Your husband said he was only going out to buy cigarettes. Is that right?" the host was asking.
"Yes, but he took his knife with him. I saw him hiding it on his back, under his shirt," a woman replied in a sad voice.
"Did you ask him why he was taking his knife?"
"No, my Joao didn't like to answer questions. He would hit me if I asked them."
"And that was the last time you saw him alive?"
"Yes. One hour later, I was hanging my laundry outside when my next door neighbor came looking for me. 'Maria,’ she said. 'Joao is dead. He was stabbed in a bar.' I ran to the bar and saw him on the floor in a puddle of blood…." Her voice trailed off.
The host’s voice was calm. "How many times was he stabbed?"
"The police didn't tell me," the woman sobbed. "But he was all bloody. The person who worked on him worked hard."
"Was he holding his knife?"
"No, the men in the bar said that he fell into an ambush. He didn't have time to defend himself."
"How was his face? Did he have any cuts on it?" the host asked, eager for details.
"His face was fine," the woman recalled, sobbing.
"The killer worked on his stomach and on his chest."
"Did your husband have any enemies?"
"No, he was a good man. He talked too much when he drank, but he would not look for a fight with anyone. He wasn't a violent man."
"Didn't you say that he used to hit you?" He refreshed the woman's memory in a mocking tone.
"Well, but I was his wife," she laughed, a short laugh of someone not used to laughing.
"So, you think he had the right to hit you?" the host demanded in an excited voice, glad for having finally found a controversial subject. "How many times did he hit you each week?"
Catarina sighed and turned off the radio, leaning heavily against her seat. "I can't believe it. I just can't believe it,"
"Hey, I wanted to know how often she got hit," Paulo protested, smiling. "How often do you think she deserved to be hit—once a week? Twice a week?"
"Come on, don't be ridiculous. These people live as if they were in the last century." She tried to cross her legs in the space in front of her and again realized, frustrated, that there wasn't room enough. Impatiently, she moved her bottom to the right side of the seat so that she could stretch her legs to the left. The movement reminded her of something. "I want to pee."
Paulo downshifted and parked on the roadside. Leaving the Volkswagen, he stretched his arms and yawned loudly. Suddenly he started to run on the road, making crisp noises over the dust.
"What are you doing? Are you crazy?" Catarina stared at him from outside the car, wrinkling her brow.
Paulo ran back toward her but passed the car, continuing in the other direction.
"I am getting some exercise," he shouted. "Huuuuuuu...." He ran back screaming like an Indian.
She just stared blankly at him. She didn't understand him. He was twenty-two years old and getting a master’s degree in biology. He usually was a very reserved and practical man, but sometimes he behaved like a child. She smiled, thinking maybe that was why she liked him.
Walking to the shoulder of the road, she lowered her jeans, crouched and made a small river in the dirt. Afterwards, she cleaned herself up with a Kleenex and walked back to the car to get a bottle of water to wash her hands.
Back in the car, they drove again through the silent, motionless forest.
"I wonder where the birds and monkeys are that we see in all the advertisements about tourism in the Amazon forest," Catarina thought aloud.
"They have no business on this road,” answered Paulo, turning on the radio. “They are smart enough to stay inside the forest, believe me."
This time the radio was playing an animated country song that cheered their spirits. For a while they just listened to it, smoking silently.
"It is almost noon," Paulo announced suddenly, taking a look at his watch. "Time to rain."
Sure enough the sky quickly grew cloudy and thick drops of rain started to wash the car. He turned on the wipers and drove slowly, but soon the rain became so strong that he had to pull over onto the shoulder of the road. They were used to this now. It rained every day almost at the same time. The first two days they parked the car and made love. The rain formed a thick curtain protecting them from the outside world. Today they didn't care for that protection and left the car to make love outside, standing naked in the rain.
Then, as quickly as it had started, the rain stopped. They dried themselves in dusty towels, put on their clothes and continued on their journey, feeling much better as they drove in a straight line through trees as tall as giants. After they followed the monotonous line for a while longer, the road started to change. It bent to the right, then to the left, and again to the right. It narrowed and crossed a bridge, under which they could see a noisy, clear stream. Right after the bridge was a detour sign and they had to take an even narrower road, not knowing where it would lead them. There was no one around to ask, nothing but an old pickup truck abandoned beside the river.
It was right after another bend that they saw the dog. However, it was too late. Paulo had already run over it.
"Shit!" he complained, banging his fist on the steering wheel. "I didn't see it coming. Where did that damn dog come from?" He looked through the rear mirror and saw the brownish dog lying flat on the road.
Catarina looked backwards and bit her lip. "Should we go back and check on him?"
"What for? Do you think that there is a veterinarian in this corner of the world?"
"I am sorry." She put her hand on his thigh. "These things happen."
"I know," he sighed.
They drove silently for ten minutes more on the road that curved to the right and to the left all the time, getting narrower and narrower. The branches of the trees were nearly entangled with the ones at the opposite side, forming a crown over their heads. The road was dark and menacing now. Paulo was sullen. Catarina just stared outside the window, seeing trees speed past her.
After another turn to the right, Paulo ran over another dog. This time he could see an animal jumping from the forest to the road, but when his foot reached the brake it was already too late. He stopped the car after a few meters, placed his arms around the steering wheel and leaned his head over it.
"Hey, it wasn't your fault." Catarina slid her fingers in his hair. "These animals are not used to cars. That is it. Do you think they belong to someone? There aren't any houses by the road."
"I don't know and I don't care." He raised his head and got out. He leaned against the car, one foot crossed over the other, and stared pensively at the brown animal lying immobile in the road.
She stood beside him, her hands jammed in her jeans. "He looks exactly like the first one."
"Maybe they are cousins, siblings, or best friends."
"Come on, don't let these dogs put you in the doldrums." She hugged him, pressing her body against his.
He absentmindedly hugged her back. "I guess this road is getting on my nerves."
"I will drive now," she said, kissing him behind the ear. "Let's go."
Back in the car she felt her spirits rise now that she was in charge of the situation. She turned her head to the side sometimes only to observe her new husband’s gloomy face. He was sitting in the tight seat with his legs open, one arm over his thigh, the other over the window. The blond hair of his chest could be seen inside his unbuttoned white short-sleeved shirt.
This time the dog appeared after a bridge. He was running across the road from one side of the forest to the other. She pressed hard on the brakes and threw the car to the left but hit the dog on its back end. It fell down but immediately stood up, jumping on three legs and whining. Trembling, she turned the car off.
"To kill a dog, or to leave a dog handicapped? That's the big question," Paulo joked, his laugh echoing strangely in the car.
She turned to him red-faced, her eyes wide open. "Don't you have any feelings for these poor animals?"
"How can I have feelings for suicidal dogs?"
"They are just ignorant." She turned the engine on and felt her blood igniting inside her veins.
He gazed at her, watching her lips pressed tightly together. "Let's forget these poor dogs and think about what we will do once we reach Belem," he proposed, putting his arm over her shoulder and feeling the soft jersey of her yellow shirt against his rough palm.
"Okay," she agreed, eager to erase the animals from her mind.
But they didn't have time to discuss their plans, for they soon arrived at a village made of ten or twelve wooden huts with missing boards, in front of which barefoot children played with brownish dogs eerily similar to the ones they had hit. The children were dressed only in shorts. Their naked chests and faces, as well as their hair, were the same color as the dogs. Beside the houses, barefoot women in ragged skirts and loose blouses that showed the shapes of their tired breasts falling almost down to their waists were setting clothes out to dry in the sun. Close to them, naked babies played inside metal basins, spilling and drinking the warm soapy water. There were no flowers or trees coloring the place. A thick white coat of dirt covered the whole village, which seemed to be inhabited only by women and children.
In front of the huts was a shabby, beige gas station which looked abandoned. Catarina drove to the only pump and stopped. "I guess this place went out of business," she said. Behind the pump sat a small house where she could see a bar.
The women started shouting to one other and it seemed as if the people in the village had just noticed them. They stood beside the car and waited. Soon, a short teenaged boy left one of the huts and walked slowly toward the pump, stepping silently with bare feet on the unpaved road.
"Bom dia." He greeted Paulo in a small voice, ignoring Catarina. "Fill it up?"
They walked to the bar behind the pump. The small, dark room smelled of spoiled bananas and flies buzzed all around. On the worn out tile floor a few brown dogs napped. The boy served them some cokes from a small, old refrigerator that didn't have power enough to cool anything.
Catarina looked around, hoping to find cookies, but saw only mangoes, guavas, papayas, bananas and passion fruits. She bought some mangoes that the boy gave her unwrapped. He still didn't dare to look at her and handled her money as carefully as if it were a wasp. While she finished her coke, she noted his ragged, blue shirt and black shorts, his round, soporific face with big eyelashes shadowing brown eyes.
After she was done, Paulo took the driver's seat again and they left the village behind, covered by a blanket of dirt. The women and children, who seemed to blend so well with the land, stopped for a minute to watch them go.
"Those people live almost like animals," Catarina said after a while, lighting a cigarette and exhaling the smoke out the window. "They don't ask for more. That's the only way of life they know. They are stuck in the middle of the forest. They don't have TV, VCR. They can't go to the movies...."
Paulo turned to her, serious. "Do you think we are happier than they?”
"Well, I don't know." She moved in her seat uneasily, again exhaling out the window.
When they reached the next bridge they decided to stop and eat the mangoes. They took a narrow path among dry, brown bushes that led to a stream. Walking over small white pebbles, they found a pretty spot where the pebbles formed a beach. They sat and looked around. From where they were they couldn't see where the meandering stream began. It seemed to begin in the middle of the forest, running lazily and happily for a while, then disappearing again a few meters below them. At its narrowest it was only about two meters wide.
"Uau. What a place!" Catarina exclaimed, feeling happier than ever that day. "I think I am going to swim. How about you?"
He had rested his head on the pebbled beach, stretched out his legs and closed his eyes. "Yap, that's a good idea,” he replied. “You go ahead. I want to rest a little bit before diving in."
She took all her clothes off and put them in a neat pile beside him. He briefly opened his eyes and smiled. Then she walked naked into the stream, laughing and shouting as the refreshing water cooled her whole body.
"Hey!” She gestured to where the stream disappeared in the middle of the forest. “I am going to see if the water is deeper over there."
"Go ahead," he murmured, eyes still closed.
She swam to the forest and right after the bend found a swimming hole. After swimming for a while she sat on the pebbled border, letting the water drip all over her body. A smile appeared on her face and she leaned her head backwards, sighing deeply.
Suddenly, she had the feeling that the forest had changed. Birds had been singing before but had become mute. The tree branches were still. The sun had disappeared behind a cloud. The whole place was in suspense, waiting silently and respectfully.
Before she had time to identify the danger in the air, she felt powerful arms grabbing her from behind, a rough hand pressing her mouth shut and a strong smell of alcohol invading her nostrils. She tried to turn her face away, but was immobilized by the hand on her mouth. She was thrown violently onto the pebbles. With her free hand, she punched and scratched the checkered shirt that now forced itself against her breasts, but the brute in the shirt didn't seem to mind her resistance. He pressed his hand even harder on her mouth, also covering her nose so that she could hardly breathe. With his other hand, he unzipped his pants while he sat on her legs.
Barely breathing, she stared at him, at his cowboy hat thrown over a brownish face as impassive as a cow. He had the same dull features as the inhabitants of the village she had despised.
He entered her abruptly and started to push inside her with rhythmic movements that brought only loathing and pain. Nauseated, she was on the verge of throwing up even with his hand over her mouth, but before she could do this, he ejaculated silently, closing his eyes and opening his mouth in an idiot's expression. A thin line of saliva dripped from his mouth onto her hair.
Only when he was done did he look down for an instant at her face. Then, pulling up his zipper, he got off her body and disappeared into the forest as stealthily as he had come. The forest seemed to welcome him back as it would have done with a wild animal that returns to its refuge after having found its deserving prey. Immediately, birds started singing again and leaves swung happily on the trees. The sun appeared from behind the clouds, filling the swimming hole with an exquisite light which went unnoticed.
Catarina sat down and vomited with her head cupped in her hands. She couldn't stand the sour smell of her mouth or the putrid smell of the man's sperm between her legs. Jumping suddenly to her feet, she dove into the pool, washing herself again and again, trying in vain to get rid of all vestiges of what had happened to her just moments ago. Desperately, she scrubbed herself uninterruptedly, feeling her body and soul stained forever.
Finally, she gave up washing and left the swimming hole, went around the bend and walked in a muddled way in the stream toward the spot where Paulo was. Although she felt a strong desire to scream very loudly and very angrily—to break the forest apart with her cry—the urge became a knot in her throat.
Her legs weighed tons now. Nevertheless, she tried to walk faster, forgetful that she could swim, afraid of the small fish in the stream, afraid of looking back at the forest that now seemed inhabited by all sorts of treacherous beasts.
Gasping, she reached the place where Paulo lay and frantically ran out of the water to meet him, still unable to call his name. She stopped just before him, fell to her knees and let a savage, endless cry pierce the immobile, watchful forest. His stomach had been stabbed several times, his eyes were wide open, and from his mouth a thick trail of blood ran to the ground like a river of lost life. In his right hand he still held a ripe mango, yellow and appetizing.
Bernadete Piassa has been living in the U.S. for the past 24 years. In Brazil she won many writing awards, including one for her article, “Abortion: The More Frequent Questions,” published in Nova, the Brazilian edition of Cosmopolitan. In the U. S. she won first prize in the Townsend Press Writing Contest for her essay, “A Love Affair with Books,” published in Keys to Better College Reading by Townsend Press Books and reprinted internationally. Her essay, “Half a Pound of Ham,” was published in the book, Basic Writing Skills with Reading by Townsend Press. Latino Stuff Review published her short story, “Cheese.” She is currently at work on a novel set in Brazil. She edits the Portuguese version of Agonia.net, an international site of culture and literature.