Andrew J. Hogan
It was nearly ten o'clock when I finally arrived at the Pousada Piau Flamengo. I'd called Sebastiana as soon as I left the police station. She was waiting for me at the main gate when the taxi pulled up.
"Coralina, vem cá." Sebastiana said. "What happened? Why was your plane so late?"
I was almost too tired to speak, but at the same time too unsettled to think of sleep. It was too soon to dream. "You want to know about my flight? Pour me a Curaçau Escarlate, and I'll tell you," I said. I dropped off my luggage and sample case in 102, the room Sebastiana always held for me, and I followed her to the rear of the Inn, where she opened the bar, which had closed at nine. She poured the Curaçau into a cordial glass, and I emptied it in one swallow. I set the glass down for a refill and began my story.
"It started at the Aeroporto Val-de-Cães. We sat on the tarmac there for nearly twenty-five minutes. The pilot was slowly spinning the propellers of the Embraer 170, waiting for clearance from the Altamira airport. Three times he'd told us we'd be leaving any minute. A large troop of red uakari monkeys had invaded the Altamira airport from a nearby forest and was scurrying around on the runway. Soon they'd be chased off and we'd be leaving.
"I'd almost finished reading this morning's edition of the Gazetta Amazônia, which I thought would occupy me on the fifty-minute flight from Belém to Altamira. The pilot couldn't turn on the air conditioning until the engines were running at full speed. My blouse was sticking to my back. The little plane was full, and I couldn't get a single window seat on the right side of the plane. I was sitting in the aisle seat next to a brown peasant woman who appeared to be terrified. I was getting bored.
"'Is this your first flight?' I said.
"'No, but God willing, it will be my last flight. My neighbors tell me, Sônia, fifty years you live in the same town, you never ride in anything but a bus. Now you fly in an airplane all the way to the capital. Que Maravilhosa! I promised God I would go to mass every day for a month if He'd bring me home safe.'
"After she told me she had gotten sick on the initial flight from Altamira to Belém, I offered to switch seats with her so she wouldn't have to look out the window -- and she would have plenty of room to get sick in the aisle. She seemed a little less miserable. I introduced myself, and she told me her name was Sônia Aparecida da Cunha.
"The propellers started to accelerate. I had to move my left arm when Sônia grabbed both armrests; her knuckles turned white. She closed her eyes and started muttering what sounded like a prayer. I carefully leaned over and raised the barf bag in front of her seat half way out of the pocket for easy access. The plane started to move. Her eyes stayed closed. I adjusted the air vent over her seat to hit her full in the face once the air conditioning came on. I waited for the plane to lift off and give me an unimpeded view of the mouth of the Rio Pará."
I sipped a little more of Curaçau the cordial glass. Sebastiana was fishing around in the cupboard for some Brazil nuts, my favorites, thinking I was probably hungry as well as tired.
"Here," Sebastiana said, resurfacing from behind the bar with a small bowl of Brazil nuts. "Eat a little."
I munched a couple of Brazil nuts and thought about how every time I fly up river it always makes me think of the Heart of Darkness. Of course, this was the Amazon, not the Congo, and I had been in an air-conditioned plane, not a broken-down steamer. I always wished my rudimentary business English had been good enough to really appreciate Conrad's original. The oppressive heat and humidity, the land overwhelmed with vegetation and dripping with life gives me the sensation of being trapped in a primordial ooze, at risk of being quickly swallowed up and vanishing forever. Nowadays a whole new class of travelers come to visit my clients' hotels and pousadas in the Amazon basin, ecotourists who find wonder and beauty in the jungle where my generation once saw an oppressive landscape of decay and disease to be conquered. A third Brazil nut, another sip, and I was ready to start again.
"Our little plane swept over the Baia do Guajará and climbed up to where we could see the entire southern portion of the Ilha de Marajó. Of course, this time of year, any land less than twenty-five meters in elevation lies beneath the flooding Amazon. Sônia seemed to have settled down now, staring passionately at the aisle floor. I noticed she was dressed in black.
"'Are you returning from a funeral?' I said.
"'No, not exactly. I'm returning from a memorial protest in Brasilia.'
"'A protest?' I said.
"'Yes, I was in charge of the birds.'
"'Birds, at a protest?' I said.
"'I had to get twenty-four doves to fly across the Praça dos Três Poderes…'
"Just then we hit a little air pocket, and Sônia grabbed the armrests again, shutting her eyes and murmuring a prayer. After the plane settled down, I asked her why she needed to send twenty-four doves across the Praça dos Três Poderes?
"'They set up a cross and a candle next to one of the benches. They had some posters and a map of the Amazon,' she said. 'When the doves flew behind the bench, a photographer took a picture of the posters and the candle and the birds with the Supreme Court building in the background.'
"'They said the picture would be printed in newspapers in the United States and Europe,' Sônia said.
"I couldn't tell if Sônia were unwilling to tell me what she had been doing in Brasilia or if her fear of flying was making her incoherent. The sky darkened and raindrops appeared on the window -- hardly a surprising event in the Amazon during the rainy season. The plane trembled slightly as it entered the rain clouds, and Sônia closed her eyes again. I fished out my copy of the Gazetta Amazônia to see if I might have missed any interesting stories in the business section. There was nothing on tourism. I was finishing a very boring story about the decline in natural rubber harvests in the State of Pará and was searching for another story when I saw out of the corner of my eye Sônia staring at the paper.
"'What?' I said.
"'Do you want to look at the paper?' I said.
"'No. I can't read so well.'
"I closed the paper and looked at the front page. Below the fold was a picture of a kindly looking, white-haired old lady, smiling, wearing a pair of those 1970s-style glasses with the thick transparent plastic frames.
"'Did you know her?' I said.
"I looked at the headline, Brazilian Nun Shot in Self-Defense: One of two men accused of the murder of a US-born nun in Brazil has said he shot her in self-defense."
"I saw that article," Sebastiana said. "It's about the murder of Sister Dorothy. She got into an argument with two men who were employed by a local logging company. She reached into her bag, saying, 'The weapon I have is this,' and then pulled out a bible. Then one of the loggers shot her six times. This all happened right here since you last visit, just down the road about 30 kilometers. It's the biggest thing to happen in Altamira since, well, forever."
"So you know all about it, then?" I said.
"Sure, they brought the shooter here to Altamira for interrogation," Sebastiana said. "Here he told police that he had basically executed Sister Dorothy when it became clear she wouldn't be frightened off. Then the logging company got him a lawyer, so when they had the court hearing in Belém, the shooter contradicted his earlier statement to police here and said he shot Sister Dorothy in self-defense, thinking she was reaching for a gun, not a bible."
"So what was Sister Dorothy, some kind of activist?
"She was American, but she became a Brazilian citizen a long time ago," Sebastiana said. "She worked for the Comissão da Terra Pastoral and ran a pilot program with funds from Catholic charities to conserve the Amazon rain forest. Peasant farmers were allowed to cut down small plots in the forest to cultivate crops by hand for one to three years; then they abandon the plots for tens years to let the forest return. The peasants could also harvest a limited amount of wild fruits, dead or dying trees for precious woods and some forest animals."
"It doesn't sound like such a radical idea. Why would some one kill her for that?" I said.
"She made enemies when she tried to stop the loggers from cutting down the forest," Sebastiana said. "The pilot program keeps a lot of virgin forestland out of the hands of the loggers and ranchers. The loggers come in with chain saws and big machinery, chop every thing down, sell the wood and then seed the area for cattle grazing. But after a few years the soil becomes so poor the grass hardly grows and the cattle have to move to another area. The soil bakes in the sun and becomes as hard as clay. Even after the cleared area is abandoned, the forest doesn't return.
"It seems strange that the loggers and ranchers would buy land and then destroy it. No one is going to buy damaged land from them," I said.
"They don't buy the land. They just grab a piece of the jungle they want to harvest and cut it down," Sebastiana said. "Martins de Azavedo, director general of the logging company, wanted to harvest land near the Boa Esperança Camp where Sister Dorothy had her pilot project."
"So they got into a fight about the land?" I said.
"Yes, Sister Dorothy went to talk to some of the state legislators about making the loggers prove they had clear title to each parcel they were harvesting," Sebastiana said. "She told the newspaper the loggers were stealing from the public when they harvested land they did not own."
I'd managed to get down another half dozen Brazil nuts while Sebastiana told me Sister Dorothy's history. Sebastiana refilled my cordial glass, and I took up the story of my flight again.
"'The protest where you handled the twenty-four doves, that was for Sister Dorothy?' I said to Sônia.
"As we passed over the town of Breves and headed south across the jungle toward Altamira, I could see patches of reddish-brown clearings in the dense green of the forest.
"'Did you know Sister Dorothy well?' I said.
"'Only a little. She made a lot of trouble for my husband before he died.'
"'Oh, your husband was a logger?' I said. I was glad I hadn't said anything derogatory about loggers. I was going to be sitting next to this woman for another thirty minutes.
"'No, my husband was an exotic animal dealer. He went into the forest to capture wild birds and monkeys. He sold them in the wild animal market in Belém for export to Europe,' Sônia said
"'Sister Dorothy criticized your husband for this?' I said.
"'Yes, and me too, because I was the one who cared for the animals he captured and got them ready for shipping to market. Many of the wild animals got sick and died before we could ship them.'
"'It sounds like a hard way to make a living,' I said.
"'Yes, it was hard. At the end, my husband had to go much deeper into the jungle. The birds and monkeys were getting scarce. To make more money, my husband had to trap endangered species. They bring the best price in Belém and make up for the scarcity of the other animals. Sister Dorothy told the Wildlife Federation and they held a protest near our farm. Finally, the authorities came and took away all my animals. They fined us. We had no money and no animals to sell.'
"I didn't want to get into an argument about trading in endangered species. 'How did your husband die?' I said.
"'He was bitten by a coral snake. He had his snake bite kit, but he was too deep in the jungle to get back to the clinic in time for the anti-venom shot.'
"'I am sorry for your loss.'
"'After he died, Sister Dorothy came to visit me. She wanted to know how I would support myself. I said I did not know. She asked if I would consider using my skills with animals to help at the Wildlife Federation rehabilitation center in Anapu. I hated her for denouncing me and my husband in public, but I had little money after my husband's funeral. I had no children. My husband had children by an Indian mistress, but I never had anything to do with them; I wouldn't even let them eat at the house when they came to Altamira from the jungle on market day. Besides handling animals for shipment, I had no skills to earn a living. I was too old and too fat to marry again. So I bit my tongue and accepted her offer.'
"We both floated up a little in our seats as the plane began to descend. A moment later the pilot came over the intercom announcing that we were approaching the Altamira airport. The fasten-seat-belt sign lit up. Sônia grasped the armrests again. The plane banked to the right. Sônia trembled in her seat and began murmuring another prayer.
"The plane descended into a canyon swept clean of the massive jungle trees along the approach to the runway. The rain seemed to accelerate the closer we came to earth, covering the plane in sheets. The rear wheels had just touched down when the plane lurched forward and to the left. The engines roared and the fuselage fishtailed right and then left, as we made a hurried ascent back into the rain clouds.
"'Deus Meu,' Sônia cried out. 'Forgive me.'
"As we banked left and climbed toward the peaks of the giant trees, I could see behind and below us a large group of short reddish bald apes running after the plane. The engines were roaring too loudly to hear anything inside the cabin, but the apes seemed to be screaming at us. I turned toward Sônia. I must have looked like I had seen a ghost.
"'What?' she cried. 'What did you see?'
"'I don't know,' I said. 'It looked like a gang of red apes were chasing the plane.'
"For a moment she stopped breathing. I was afraid she'd had a heart attack. Her face turned white, even through her weathered brown skin. Her eyes seemed to protrude beyond their sockets. Using the same whisper in which she murmured her prayers, she said, 'They've come for me.'
"I almost laughed in her face. Her terror was so profound, but at the same time so ridiculous. I restrained myself and tried to calm her down with reason.
"'Sônia, please, it's just a troop of monkeys lost in the storm. They'll clear them off the runway and we'll land in a minute.'
"'You don't understand.' She was crying. 'I betrayed them.' She shuddered, as though she'd just had a revelation. 'The pilot must take me back to Belém.'
"'Ah, I don't think he'll do that. The other passengers will want to get off here in Altamira,' I said.
"'You must convince him.' She grabbed my arm so hard it hurt.
"'I want to get off at Altamira too. I'm sure you could stay on the plane until it takes off again.'
"'They'll kill me,' she said.
"I was just about to try a little humor, maybe gently shame her into seeing how unreasonable she was being when the pilot came on the intercom.
"'Senhoras e Senhores, I have just received word that the authorities have closed the Altamira airport until further notice. I have been directed to fly you to Santarém.'
"The pilot continued banking the plane to the left until we had made a complete circle. He flew the plane back over the airfield just below the level of the forest canopy along the right side. Below I could see the troop of red apes had now grown to fifty or more in spite of the efforts of the airport fire trucks and police vehicles to frighten them off. Some apes, hit by the vehicles, lay writhing on the tarmac, the rain spreading their blood across the runway.
"Once past the commotion on the ground, the pilot banked slightly to the right and the plane rose above the forest canopy, heading west toward Santarém. I pulled out my calendar to see which sales meetings I would be missing this afternoon. Once in Santarém, I would need at least three hours to drive back to Altamira, assuming the roads weren't too flooded. Hotel Boa Vista at 3 pm. My biggest account! I sighed and then gave Sônia a hard look for causing the delay. What? Was I an idiot? It was just ignorant peasant superstition!
"Then, in front of us a cloud of red gnats rose up out of the forest. As we flew towards them, they grew bigger and bigger and finally took shape for me. Every hotel and pousada I visit on my Amazon sales trips had one of these squawking on a perch in its lobby. Suddenly the flock of scarlet macaws began attacking the plane's propellers. Red, yellow and blue feathers erupted in all directions; my window was smeared with green and red slush. The engines sputtered and the propellers stopped.
"'Senhoras e Senhores, we have experienced engine failure. We will be returning to Altamira for an emergency landing. Please place your head between your knees and cover your head with your arms to prepare for a crash landing.'
"I was terrified, but Sônia seemed composed. She blessed herself with the sign of the cross and started reciting the Our Father in a normal voice.
"'What's happening?' I said, grabbing her arm with my trembling left hand.
"'God has granted my wish,' she said. 'I will die quickly, not at the hands of those apes.'
"'You want to die in this plane?' I said.
"'I deserve to die. I betrayed Sister Dorothy. I told the head of the logging company when she would be alone on the road to the Boa Esperança Camp. That's where they killed her. They will tear down the forest and destroy all the animals. The animals are taking revenge on me now.'
"'That's ridiculous. It's just coincidence,' I screamed. I didn't really care if Sônia believed me. I was trying to convince myself.
"Our plane circled back to the Altamira airport. We were so close to the forest canopy, I could almost have reached down and touched the tops of the giant trees. We glided back into the airspace over the field to the middle of the runway. We had no power to circle around to the beginning of the runway, so the pilot touched our little plane down about one-third of the way from the southern end. We slide off the end of the wet pavement into the grassy approach area and bounced to a stop. A few items fell out of the overhead bins, but otherwise we were undamaged. I closed my eyes and murmured a prayer, the first one in many years.
"'Senhoras e Senhores, please remain seated until the emergency vehicles reach the plane to assist with disembarkation.'
"The pilot was out of the cockpit and opening the door. I heard the sirens and saw the flashing lights of the emergency vehicles a moment later outside the cabin. I turned to Sônia to assure her we were safe. She sat there as though asleep, no grasping, no prayers. No movement."
Sebastiana had picked up the bottle of Curaçau Escarlate.
"Yes, pour me another one," I said. "What Sônia did, well, this is probably the only wake she'll get."
"We're her only mourners," Sebastiana said.
"At least she didn't die at the hands of the bald red apes," I said. "They all disappeared as soon as our plane crash-landed. Even the injured ones vanished back into the jungle. I wonder what Joseph Conrad would have made of that?
"Who?" Sebastiana said. "Ah, the Inglês. Darkness in the jungle. Right?"
"Something like that," I said, lifting my glass. "A toast to Sônia. Saúde e Adeus."
Fifteen minutes later, Sebastiana took me to my room and put me to bed. After five glasses of Curaçau Escarlate, I didn't need to worry about dreaming.
Andrew Hogan received his doctorate in development studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Before retirement, he was a faculty member at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, where he taught medical ethics, health policy and the social organization of medicine in the College of Human Medicine. Dr. Hogan published more than five-dozen professional articles on health services research and health policy. He has published thirty-seven works of fiction in the OASIS Journal (1st Prize, Fiction 2014), Hobo Pancakes, Subtopian Magazine, Twisted Dreams, Thick Jam, Midnight Circus, Grim Corps, Long Story Short, Defenestration, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, The Blue Guitar Magazine, Stockholm Review of Literature, Children, Churches and Daddies, Festival Writer (Pushcart Nominee), Lowestoft Chronicle, Fabula Argentea, Mobius, Thrice, The Lorelei Signal, Fiction on the Web, Sandscript, and the Copperfield Review.