Translation by Katherine Capaldi
Wagner crossed his arms behind his head and stretched out his legs, almost touching the car’s pedals. The back of his seat had been pushed right back and, from the way he was breathing, Ciro thought he was sleeping. He figured they would need another half hour of vigil: thirty minutes and the esplanade would clear of sportsmen, and the whores would rule it all, messing with the tourists, dealing small amounts of drugs. It would happen sooner or later, Ciro said to himself. Poverty is never punctual, but it always turns up in the end. A few metres away, a mulata with a mop of bleached hair crossed by, shaking her little shorts, and he thought he recognised in her a sign of Rio’s impending nightfall. Cyclists on their way home. Men in sweatshirts. Preachers. Nothing out of the ordinary so far, he thought. But, seeing that the woman was moving away towards the Calçadão de Matinhos, he felt a slight disappointment, as if something had been lost with her. He sucked on his cigarette until he grazed the end of the filter. He exhaled. Tuesdays were not made for work. They were days for praying at church.
When he wasn’t smoking, Ciro rotated a metal ball in his black hand. He stopped and started rotating it again.
He told himself this relaxed him.
“Are you going to stop touching your balls, or what, asshole?” grumbled Wagner, without opening his eyes.
“They’re not my balls,” Ciro explained, “They’re my house keys. In my bag I have a present from the Babalawo, my house keys and a piece of…” He stopped. “You know this work makes me nervous.”
“Whatever, bro, enough already. You’ll only infect me too.” Tramps. A few pedestrians in a hurry.
“Anyway, this damn radio isn’t working…”
Wagner was the complete opposite of a good São Paulo citizen: he was a local football fan, a compulsive gambler and partier; In short, he was the least hard-working man the whole gang had ever known. The fact that they sent him away from the favelas to soften people up in the southern zone clearly showed what they thought of the way he’d been carrying out his work during the last year. However, this hadn’t harmed Pinheiro’s opinion of him, as, even now, relegated as he was to minor tasks, robberies, beatings, guarding or getting rid of informers or people who were bankrupt, few of the thugs would dare to contradict him for fear of getting involved into a brawl, and that was a reasonable precaution, at least while he was in the boss’s good books.
“Have you bet on Corinthians again?” asked Ciro.
It was an empty question. In reality, he was only trying to stop him going to sleep.
“Two hundred reals,” answered Wagner, without any fuss. “Enough to stop you sleeping, but not enough to keep you awake. This damn limbo is the worst place to stop betting.”
Ciro nodded, looking at the street.
Isn’t that what I always said? This is going to ruin me, bro. I have to put a stop to it. But he came back: addicts always end up coming back to their vices. To the same places, like killers.
Up ahead, the lights along the promenade looked like lobsters with indiscreet eyes, peeping out above the palm trees. The sea trembled two hundred metres away, with a smooth, silent swell. A couple walked along, carefree; her beautiful thighs pounding like a mare while he walked pulling at her arm, as if suffering from his woman’s show of power. Hard to know if they were a couple, or just a pimp and his whore. He followed their straight backs in the wing mirror, until the reflection of his own pock-marked face replaced them, like a fly, and it didn’t seem as unpleasant as he remembered. If it weren’t for the smallpox, after all, he would never had met Melba, and would never have fallen in love with her. Melba wouldn’t have slept with him at the first Festa de São João. And without that splendid night at the gas station, he would never have taken her to live in São Clemente. She wouldn’t have been baptized. They wouldn’t be expecting a child.
He stroked his cheek.
“Do you believe in luck, Wagner?”
At his side, the seat creaked like an old joint.
“You mean fate?”
“Luck which touches people,” said Ciro, shaking his head, “I’m talking about what someone does in one way or another.” He felt like he couldn’t find the right words in time. “I was talking about whether you think it’s possible that someone is likely to have things turn out right for them, or if the things you do are right or wrong only because they can’t be any other way.” He thought, “A world without alternatives, for anybody. Does he understand?”
Wagner closed his eyes again.
“I’m no philosopher, bro; but I can tell you one thing about luck. The only thing I know is that luck doesn’t lend itself, or give itself to us over time. It only pays us.” He clicked his tongue, as if he knew something bad. “In one way or another, any luck we have, we’ve taken away from someone else.”
He opened his eyes, as if expecting to see something.
“Does that make sense, bro?”
“Yeah,” said Ciro, “It makes sense.”
Thirty years later, the only thing left of Praia Mansa is a thin echo, or the ridiculous sliver of the walkway which ended up devouring itself. Few things remain of that place where you could play football, of its lively beach, including when the shore had lost a large part of itself, licked away by the high tide. The promenade used to teem with kiosks, travelling fairs and had an old party atmosphere which now, simply, languished. It had inspired mournful, smoothly sensual songs; they had written melancholy poems about it, and lovers had declared their undying love on its newly polished stone promenades, and the undulating tiles which imitated the currents of the sea in black and white. Now this false version had lost its hypnotising charm, faded by humidity and the years. Now nobody seemed to miss its poetic spirit, except when a few old people remembered it on television or some mayor mentioned its great contribution to this community, which grew thanks to its help for more than forty years. It is true that, even now, just as night falls, the whores and thugs still do their thing, at the expense of the unwary foreigners and disillusioned youths who still loiter like ghosts where almost half a century earlier the sea had swallowed a large part of the Avenida Atlántica.
The mark of its salty bite can still be seen on the embankment, above which rise the viewpoints today attacked by persistent tufts of grass, perfect for covering up guilt-free beatings and homicides.
Truth be told, they were the only two who spontaneously remembered the height of this curve in the southern zone, whilst they played dominoes in an old storage room in Morro da Babilônia. Whilst the memories of his childhood flooded into his head like a hot stream, his heart and head preferred to keep silence, as if by staying quietly elsewhere, they will be kept safe from any weakness. But there was something he could not avoid. As he had promised himself, Ciro waited until the first double six showed its perfect symmetry into the round of dominoes, to tell Cuaresma what he had come to tell him, well before coming to look for him.
It only took him forty seven minutes and three previous games for the moment to arrive.
“So it was true they were looking for me,” said Cuaresma, looking at him without surprise.
“That’s what I heard.”
The double six stood upright in the middle of the table top.
“Did they tell you why?”
“Wagner says Pinheiro dreamt about you twice this week. He dreamt about a flower growing in the middle of a dark alleyway, and about a knife cutting it in half. He says he’s been worried, thinking about Mamboretá lately. He’s seen the Babalawo twice and, through praying, talking to the Orixás, the Babalawo has discovered that it’s the spirit of Yemanjá asking for amends, to recreate the purity that the war on her feast day damaged. In any case, the old man thought it would be good to rub anyone off the map who hadn’t been killed by Tattoo. The Babalawo didn’t say it, but he interpreted it to mean that someone in his gang wanted to take revenge on him.”
He rubbed his forehead, with quick pecks of his handkerchief.
“They started two days ago, as I’m sure you already know,” he said, and after a few moments he placed a few pieces on the table. “Belego turned up dead in Vidigal, shot in the head, and they got rid of a few guys inland, saying that they went to get more goods. Apparently his dreams haven’t stopped and now you’re his biggest worry.”
Cuaresmo moved his head wearily.
“If you want my opinion, Ciro,” and his large hand didn’t hesitate to gobble up one of the tiles, “It’s the dumbest thing I’ve heard in a long time. Do you think I haven’t wanted to do it sometimes? I would do it happily, my God. A lot of people wanted to. But the way things are, I don’t even have money to buy a knife: even less to dream about it. I don’t even think, if I had one, that they would let me close enough to stick it into that son of a bitch. I’m happy staying in my zone and I work the same as I did with Mamboretá. Nothing’s too much for me. But you’d have to be an idiot to think that anyone could kill the old man with a knife, knowing that thirty guys follow him every time he goes out into the street.”
“But that’s how it is,” said Ciro, becoming serious, “I have to tell you that they’ve already put a date on your head.”
“The 23rd,”he hesitated, “or the 24th.”
“They haven’t given me much time, that’s for sure” his mouth stretched like a belt.
“So you agree with me, the best thing you can do is get away for a while, brother.”
“Wherever you want, as long as you don’t choose the coast.”
“I guess I’ll have to.”
“You’ll have to,” Ciro grew impatient; he started streaming with sweat, he couldn’t avoid it, “You know that I’m risking my neck telling you every time, coming all the way here, even though this isn’t my zone. I mean, I’ll have to do it if I find you from now on. You won’t leave me any option. Melba’s first-born will be here in five months. A boy, Cuaresma. Can you imagine? Outside Rio she would have no chance of surviving. Me even less, I don’t even go out alone when I go out hunting at night.” He looked into his eyes, pleading. “You know that’s how things are.”
“I guess I won’t do anything stupid,” said Cuaresma.
“It wouldn’t go well if you did, brother.”
“I know. It wouldn’t go well for me either.”
They drank the rest of their beers in silence until they had emptied the bottle. When that was done, they played until neither of them wanted to count their tiles.
“A son, then,” said Cuaresma.
“Yes. Brandão, like my granddad. A navigator’s name.”
“Maybe with that name he’ll always have somewhere to go. He could go quite far.”
Cuaresma, in spite of everything, did not seem convinced.
“Minas Gerais should be very pretty at this time of year.”
“Sure. Anywhere outside Rio will be prettier for the rest of the year.”
Waking up to this disco of blondes and powerful idiots had left him with a callus which had made him immune to any other feeling. With indifference, he could watch girls on the arms of tourists, youngsters with painted lips or old women stripped by drug addicts, without feeling any surprise or indignation at all. People, in reality, were a strange mess, they stupefied him. Ciro covered his ears and carried on. Every Tuesday, without fail, he prayed with the Babalawo about a specific dream, thinking often about himself, or perhaps about Melba or his future son, Brandão. What little did the tramps matter, the couples seeking darkness, the small time traffickers making their almost worthless sales, their share of the goods acquired, the men and women returned up the hill with less hope than before. The meeting with Cuaresma, five weeks before, had led him to believe that the vicious circle had at last been closed. That he could intervene, perhaps, in something which should not be his own life. He was wrong, of course: pet dogs are never overly attached to their behaviour, their faithful nature, their fondness for routine. He should know it more than anyone.
While the first whore was adjusting her tits under her white string dress, Ciro recalled Wagner’s fluty voice making its way into his dreams; it woke him up again from the bland and peaceful drowsiness in which he had finished Melba’s meal, the ridiculous groan of brass from the old car which swept into the room like a bloodhound, until the sharp wind reached his bedroom, his bed, the low sky and the deep crevices of sweat which took him several seconds to identify as his own.
When he opened his eyes, Melba was staring at him, leaning against the door.
“Who is it?” Ciro mumbled.
“Wagner,” said Melba.
Her shiny face spoke to him wordlessly. A contained urgency kept her mouth closed. Whilst he deciphered the silhouette of his woman cut in two, the half moon which inflated her dressing gown, he stayed lying on the bed, groaning.
“And what does he want with me?”
“He wants you to go out, he says.”
Ciro managed to sit up in bed.
He rubbed his eyes. “Yes, to Cuaresma, bro.” The car was panting with an impatient roar when he arrived at the door to the street. “Do you remember how he escaped us last time?” Wagner was leaning on the window; he made room for him to get in. “But I’ve been looking into it myself. Asking questions. And this morning the German bumped into him in Praia Mansa.” He lay down again. His back was hurting. He did not close his eyes again. Now he too watched the Avenida Atlántica, his gaze fixed on the shore. “Now we just need to see if the rumour can be trusted. You’ll be able to spot him better than me from here. The old man himself said you have the best eyes in Rio. ‘At night he’s like a black cat,’ he told me. “His wrist never shakes.”
He got out of bed.
“Cuaresma?” asked Ciro, incredulous, “Are you sure that’s what he said, Melba?” Now, Ciro was not sure. But Melba was there with him. Her flaccid hand squeezed his, spongy fingers without bones, and he knew she was not lying. He saw how she moved her head slowly up and down.
“Cuaresma,” the German replied, nodding, “The same face you were looking for. I was there again today, I saw him walking towards Babilônia. Alone.”
“So he’ll have to come past here,” Wagner said, taking a drag of smoke into his mouth, “Sooner or later, that son of a bitch will have to come past us.”
Ciro squeezed his metal ball.
“Let’s just wait.”
That and a pair of recently loaded pistols, were the only strategy that Wagner had in mind. The rest, as usual, he had left to improvisation.
On the other side of the windscreen, a black guy was throwing rocks onto the sand. Three childlike painted faces climbed into a Land Rover and disappeared. The third whore was adjusting her tits under a stretchy dress. And despite the darkness, you could see her turning purple like the sea. Tramps. Addicts. A large man who walked sleepily towards Matinhos.
Ciro thought about the fake blonde, but he did not get that sense of loss again.
It was him.
Wagner moved his arm.
“Bro?” said Melba, “Wake up, bro.”
Between the wild bushes of Praia Mansa, Cuaresma was still tossing around, breathing with difficulty, gripping the pit of his stomach as if something had broken inside him. He was a fish out of water, giving its last thrashes of life. Before him, Ciro laughed. He held the football under his armpit.
“Are you going to roll around all evening like a girl, bro?”
Cuaresma was clumsy and rough, and that’s why Ciro always used to encourage him to fight with the bigger boys.
He stretched out his hand; but this time he did not get up.
“Well?” he said.
“Are you getting up or will I have to kick you in the head until you do, you piece of chicken shit?” Wagner came back towards Ciro. “What do you think? Shall we break his legs before shooting his balls off? Or shall we just kick him until he throws up his teeth?”
Cuaresma looked just the same to him. The same washed out, yellow eyes. Even though the blood was running down his face, the features of his round face and his shaved head were still the same. Time had altered almost nothing. He was still the same stupid guy who had never known when to leave a fight. Had it made sense to risk himself for him? He felt that Wagner was waiting. He knew that one word spoken aloud would have been enough to force the situation which never arrived; maybe to change the order of this frozen screenplay which they had imposed upon themselves well before their eyes met through the glass. But even when he realised what was happening, when Wagner’s solid body blocked him without leaving him an opportunity to escape, Cuaresma had not said anything to incriminate him, not even an attempt to plead for mercy or hesitation. Looking at him from above, inoffensive before his authority, Ciro knew what he had to do next.
Pointing straight at the head had always been easiest.
And that’s how he did it: he fired.
“What the fuck do you think you’ve done, bro?”
“Didn’t you see?” The heat of the gun still caught his hand. “I killed the guy. Wasn’t that what Pinheiro wanted?”
“Yes… asshole… but first we were meant to give him a good lesson. Didn’t I tell you in the car?”
Ciro looked at his wristwatch: It was 9:27pm.
“If we hurry we can still see the second half of the match. I’m going to church, to pray.” His eyes looked at the ground, at the black stain which was starting to get closer, trying to touch his feet. “Both at peace, with our consciences.”
“Bro, bro…” repeated Wagner.
He retraced his steps and stamped on Cuaresma’s head for a good while, until he had split open the skull. Then he spent some time on his ribs and arms. He stamped on him for a good while until Ciro stopped him.
“Now, fine, go for it,” said Wagner, agitated, “Give him all your bullets.”
Ciro shot until his hammer made the inoffensive grinding noise of a lighter.
“Pinheiro will be happy now,” repeated Ciro.
“That’s it, let’s go.”
They walked unhurriedly, their feet crunching across the gravel. And when at last they arrived at the yellow banger, Wagner even seemed to be in a good mood.
“He got my shoe dirty, that son of a bitch.”
The lights of Avenida Atlántica, its smooth yellow lamps, seemed to be sewn along the coast by an unsteady hand which stretched them so they almost touched Leme beach. A couple of girls were coming up the avenue, one held the other’s arm as if they were friends on a shopping trip in a busy mall. From time to time, her hands would slip apart with calculated gravity, moving towards the scrawny legs of the other or they would gently stick together, their backsides like a pair of buds about to burst in their tiny stockings. Touching his metal ball, Ciro felt immune to it all. He felt that the callus he had allowed to form had already hardened over until it had turned to stone. A stone which, however, still had a beat.
The car started up.
“Will you drop me in São Clemente?” he asked, looking at the street, the opposite direction to which they usually took.
Wagner did not answer.
During the journey, the tall buildings of the metropolis seemed to them like willowy ladies, women covered in jewels, used to indifference.
The buildings shone; while they only overshadowed.
“Look at it this way,” said Wagner, lighting a cigarillo for him. The Babalawo isn’t going to get pissed off with you because you didn’t go to church today. You look like an idiot, Ciro. Worry about that. I, on the other hand, would agree with Pinheiro, now that he’s offered you a stable job, the decent thing to do is to think about the future, so that you have a good place to bring up your son. And not to be stupid, ok? He’s always wanted you to look after his daughter. The only thing he has asked you in return is thanks.”
He drove in silence until the suburbs of Tijuca, near the woods, darked the road.
“Come on, I’ll buy you a beer while we watch the football.” Sixty kilometres per hour, Ciro saw in the phosphorescence of the dashboard. “Go on, you’ll feel better, bro. A few little beers before going to church, to pray. Hey?” He put his foot down. “A hundred and twenty reals on the Corinthians, nothing less. Can you imagine, bro? What we could do with that?”
He laughed thinking about it, savouring the what if, but he restrained himself straight away. Spacious homes. Wide brick walls. Lights almost at floor level. In diagonal forms. Nothing seemed to end, tonight.
“Do you think Pinheiro dreamt about him, like he says?” Ciro wanted to think about something else but he had been avoiding the subject and he needed to know it now, while Wagner was getting closer to where he no longer doubted they were going: “I mean, being honest, Wagner… now we’re talking about it… Does all this shit really mean anything for us?”
Although he kept his eyes on the highway, he knew that his companion had not stopped watching him.
It was part of his job.
“Do you want to know the truth, bro?” He turned for two seconds exactly, enough time to show him that his eyes were suddenly empty.
“Yes, I’d like to know.”
“Fine,” said Wagner, returning to the track, “I’ll tell you. His dreams were just octopus ink. Do you know what I’m talking about?”
Ciro shook his head.
“Dreams only tell us what we want to hear. So they disguise themselves so they can reach us. They grovel, they trap us when we are at our most defenceless and then they throw everything they are hiding onto us,” his voice was now professional, neutral, “Like octopuses. They distract us with their black ink while they escape. They leave but they leave us dirty with all the shit they had inside.” He smiled. “Octopus ink. That sounds good. Don’t you think?”
But Ciro did not understand him at all.
“Huh, bro, you’ll understand when we get there.”
“Was that just to distract us, then?” he kept at it, even so.
“Look at it this way,” said Wagner, “If Pinheiro dreams, it’s not exactly about the dead.”
Through the windows, Pinheiro’s house, the cars grouped in the darkness of the vestibule, were barely visible stains for the ghosts guiding them. Soon they turned into concrete forms just as Wagner had promised. Ciro thought again about Melba’s profile. And he squeezed the metal ball in his pocket tightly.
“Most of all, he dreams about the living,” repeated Wagner, with a half smile which this time was not friendly.
In some way, Ciro started to understand.
“And about those who still don’t know what they are,” he said, seeing that they were waiting for them outside.
“You’re wrong, Pinheiro thinks about them often, even when he’s awake. About those who don’t know and those who are still not alive”
He saw a silhouette by the window, just as the banger’s motor went quiet.
“You’d better leave your keys here,” said Wagner, opening his door. “They’ll believe you have a gun in your pocket.”
“It’s all the same, Wagner. We already know that mine could only get as far as a carnivore with no teeth.”
Even so, feeling the cool air hit him in the face, Ciro left the keys and his gun on the dashboard.
“Do you think he’ll bring him up well?” he asked.
He had almost arrived at the door to the house when he said it. “Yes,” said Wagner, impatiently, “Look at me.”
“Your son will be a lucky man.”
Translation of “Octopus Ink” Copyright Carlos Yushimito. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2014 by Katherine Capaldi. All rights reserved.
Carlos Yushimito (Lima, 1977) Has published the story collections El mago (The Wizard, Sarita Cartonera, 2004), Las islas (The Islands, Sic, 2006), Lecciones para un niño que llega tarde (Lessons for a Late Child, Duomo, 2011) and Los bosques tienen sus propias puertas (Forests Have Their Own Doors, Peisa, 2013; Demipage, 2014). In 2008 he was chosen as one of the best young writers in Latin America by Casa de las Americas and the Centro Onelio Cardoso de Cuba; and in 2010 by the British Magazine Granta as one of the best Spanish language authors under the age of 35.He is currently completing a Doctorate in Hispanic Studies at Brown University.