Crooked Plow

Itamar Vieira Junior (trans. Johnny Lorenz)

June 15, 2023 
The following is from Itamar Vieira Junior's Crooked Plow. Junior was born in Salvador, Bahia, in 1979. He holds a doctorate in Ethnic and African Studies. Before Crooked Plow, he published a collection of short stories entitled The Executioner's Prayer, which was nominated for Brazil's biggest literary award, the Jabuti. Crooked Plow won the prestigious 2018 LeYa Award in Portugal.

I was running through papyrus and cabelos-de-nego and sword-grass near the marshes, opening deep gashes in my dry skin. But there was no blood, no pus. Only sweat soaking my clothes, soaking the strip of cloth wrapped around my breasts. I noticed a boat, an ajoujo, on the river, floating on the surface like a water hyacinth until it was swallowed up in a whirlpool at the confluence and disappeared in water dark as my skin. I was running through the ancient forest of tall trees, looking for the path that would lead me home when the flesh of my arms got caught in the spines of a tucum palm. It was neither day nor night, but the land was burning my feet. A man appeared out of nowhere, well-dressed, his skin pale as the coat of a white horse, his face smiling at me. He blocked my path. I tried to escape, screaming for help, running this way and that, but I was trapped. A wire fence gleamed like silver to either side, and beyond it I saw only spiky tucum palms, mandacaru and other cacti, genip trees and drought-stricken branches. I couldn’t get back home. Then I noticed a stone, shining like a jewel. I grabbed it. What looked like a stone from a distance was in fact made of ivory, but I couldn’t pull it out from the ground. It seemed to have the weight of the world. Using both hands I was finally able to wrench it free, and with it the polished metal, the pure radiance of Grandma Donana’s lost knife, now back in my hands. The knife I’d impulsively pulled from Bibiana’s mouth, then from my own, at that tender age when I wanted so badly to feel older, unaware of the blood spilling from my sister’s mouth. Unaware of the danger of the blade’s edge, which produced such violent light. The light that would sever my tongue completely. Having lost my words, ashamed of what I’d done to myself, I closed myself off to the

world as though imprisoned by the wire fence now encircling me. The moment I wrenched my grandmother’s knife from the dry earth, blood poured forth. A red river began flowing across the land.

For years, I’d wake from this dream drenched in sweat in the sweltering night. It was always the same dream, with slight variations, always featuring the well-dressed man, the fence, my grandmother’s knife, and the blood gushing from the ground. The one positive aspect of my nightmares was that I’d talk nonstop in them, scream out intelligible words, something I hadn’t been able to do in years. On the night Bibiana ran away from home, I had the same dream. Maybe that’s what led me to start talking to myself this way, in my own head. I woke with a suffocating feeling, then noticed my sister wasn’t in our room. I went to get some water, and I didn’t find her anywhere in the house. If she’d gone into the backyard to relieve herself, she would have left the back door open. I opened it, and Fusco got up off the ground, limping over to be petted.

I only needed to go back inside and look for Grandma’s old, busted-up suitcase to confirm what I’d suspected: Bibiana had left home. Her eyes couldn’t hide her intentions from me when I caught her putting her clothes into the worn leather case. She’d been planning to leave without telling anyone, that much was certain. I could’ve done to her what she’d done to me that time she saw me with Severo under the umbu tree, on one of those nights of Jarê. I could have gone running to alert our mother, so she’d give my sister the same beating I’d received because of a lie my sister told. But that was long ago, and I didn’t want to see my sister cry. What would be the point of getting back at her for something that happened in the past? That wound had healed. I didn’t want to give her cause to nurse a grudge, the way I’d felt embittered after I couldn’t defend myself from accusations that I’d been kissing Severo. All I was doing with my cousin, back then when I was twelve, was admiring the fireflies flashing, far from the lights of our house.

When it dawned on everyone that my sister had run away, which of course was no surprise to me, it caused a terrible commotion, the worst since that day I’d mutilated myself. Seeing my mother so devastated by Bibiana’s decision to sneak off in the night like some common hussy, I blamed myself for not having tipped her off; for not having led her to Grandma’s suitcase, packed with Bibiana’s clothes; for not revealing what I’d discovered days earlier. Later I mulled

over my own inaction, telling myself that what I’d done was give my sister the chance to think things through. By sparing her, I’d intimated that I needed her by my side, that she couldn’t leave us. Because even if her nausea, her irritation with the heat and the lack of rain, the rage burning in her eyes when Sutério took our provisions while our father just stood by, her urge to do something desperate on account of her belly—even if all of that was prompting her to leave Água Negra, there was still no need. I wanted her to reflect before making a reckless decision. Our parents would be upset at first, but they’d never turn their back on their grandchild. The damage was already done; they wouldn’t try to

separate her from Severo. My sister had become a woman, and for that reason, perhaps, our mother wouldn’t beat her the way she’d beaten me. She wasn’t a little girl who could be set straight. I didn’t believe Bibiana would follow through with what I’d seen brewing in her eyes.

Eventually, after my sister’s departure, there came a period of calm. I’d find my father in the saints’ room concentrating, perhaps communicating with the encantados for some news of his daughter. Amid candles, herbs, incense, and chants, he sought to learn the whereabouts of Bibiana and also Severo—a young man he very much liked and had treated like a son, for Severo possessed the character of a leader, a quality my father had never detected in anyone else. My father did his best to comfort my mother, who’d fallen into a depression and couldn’t stop weeping. He also tried to offer some comfort to Uncle Servó and Aunt Hermelina; their eldest son’s departure—with his underage cousin, no less— had left them bereft. My father forbade us from discussing it with our neighbors or even with each other. Not out of anger, but because he thought it dishonest to talk about people behind their backs. I sensed that my father didn’t want us to think ill of Bibiana, even though she’d betrayed our trust. Although my father was a leader in our community, he refused to act like a judge and condemn anyone, for he believed that each of us, no matter the sin, could be redeemed.

Weeks later, we noticed rain clouds finally looming, and from the land rose a freshness that farmers liked to call a bit of “luck.” They said you could dig a little into the dry mud and actually feel the moisture arriving, feel that the earth was a bit cooler, a sign the drought was coming to an end. It didn’t take long for the first drops of rain to fall, and despite the despondency that had engulfed our home after Bibiana’s departure, my mother managed to smile as she put empty buckets out to catch the rain. The plantation resounded with the old songs of the local women bringing their laundry down to the widening river or carrying their hoes to clear their small plots and do some slash-and-burn farming. The men could join the women only after they’d cleared the vast fi elds for planting the landowners’ crops.

Each day the rain fell harder and for longer, bringing out the alluring colors of the sky, the animals, and the people of the region. Francisco Peixoto, the eldest of the heirs, started showing up more frequently. Sutério, who’d lead him around the plantation, seemed to have been taken down a notch; he’d have to wait for Mr. Peixoto to leave in order to feel like the boss again. Sometimes Mr. Peixoto would greet us, sometimes he’d pretend not to see us. On our plantation there was no traditional “big house” where he could unwind; there was only a storehouse, where, if we couldn’t get to town, we’d purchase provisions at high prices, much higher than you’d find at the public market. The workers reckoned that there’d never been a big house at Água Negra because the Peixoto family owned other plantations in the

region that were larger and more productive, and it was on one of those that the family had their house.

During this period, before the Feast of Saint Joseph, the mayor inaugurated our school. Its construction—including a tile roof, something prohibited on our own houses—had been completed during the summer. The schoolhouse was named after the late Antônio Peixoto, the family patriarch. The man who had reputedly been the actual proprietor of the plantation but had never set foot on it. We all attended the inauguration: the women with their kerchiefs wrapped around their heads; the men wearing their hats, holding their hoes in their hands; the children delighted by the novelty—a small, proper building with three rooms but without a “bathroom,” which none of us had at home in any case. The Peixoto family was also represented by the eldest sister, overweight and very pale, a woman we’d never previously seen, who didn’t acknowledge us for even a moment. She wiped her eyes with a kerchief while the mayor spoke. When the plaque was unveiled, bearing the name of her late father, she almost fell to the ground, weeping convulsively, and her brothers had to hold her up. Not a word of thanks was addressed to my father who, during the celebration in honor of Saint Barbara, had asked, practically forced, the mayor to keep his promise to build the schoolhouse. But there he was, my father, standing tall in the front row, holding Domingas by the hand, with my mother by his side and a satisfied expression on his face. The slight hardly mattered to him; he was visibly marked by the struggle he’d undergone, borrowing the power of the encantada to open a new prospect so we wouldn’t remain illiterate. My father couldn’t even sign his own name, but he did all he could to provide a school where we might learn reading and writing and math. I often saw my father arguing with some neighbor who didn’t want his child attending school; the neighbor might even agree that his son should study, but his daughter had no need. In disagreeing with his compadre, my father often managed to change the man’s mind, such was the respect and prestige in which he was held.

It took some time for them to send us a new teacher, someone to take the place of the woman who’d been visiting us three times a week in Dona Firmina’s crowded barn. On my route to the school, every morning I saw the umbu trees with their verdant canopies and the mandacaru flowering beneath the fi ne rain that stayed with us even after the Feast of Saint Joseph. My thoughts would turn to Bibiana and Severo, and I wondered if the rain had reached them, if they’d found shelter at some plantation or in a distant city. Perhaps the roads they had taken led all the way to the capital.


From Crooked Plow by Itamar Vieira Junior, translated by Johnny Lorenz, published by Verso Books. Copyright © 2023.

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