from “City in Crimson Cloak”

March marks the end of the long dry season in Rio. It's the month when the tropical rains begin, rains that persist for days, nights,weeks. A huge army clad in black suddenly spreads over the horizon; it approaches at a gallop, full speed, and attacks just like that, without warning. It descends upon the city like an abominable, inescapable fate, without even allowing time to pull down the shutters. A furious, savage, vengeful, insufferable, merciless downpour . . . The sky finally rebels, determined to eradicate all of this filth—the streets, the skyscrapers, the blood, and the history—and turn the city into a river, drowning it in the ocean. To return these lands to their real owners, the jungle… To return to those beloved, pre-human days, when time did not yet flow… The drops burn like acid; they strip the color from objects, and the oldest recollections from memory. The floods, draping themselves over all, sending everything awash… The ocean, besieging the city with its awful, uproarious laughter; seagulls going mad among the spume . . . Gigantic waves breaking upon the docks whisk away, without prejudice, all that stands in their path. Palm trees, garbage, beach umbrellas, bicycles, drunkards, street people . . .

That night was her birthday. The lake at the heart of the city had flooded, and the water was waist high even on the main avenues. Telephones had been down for a week. Late one night, she'd come upon a table of people from the street theater. She was so distraught that she hadn't the strength to respond to even the most sincere of smiles. She'd been waiting for hours for the rain to stop. Her apartment was a stone's throw away, but she had no desire to venture outside, not with the huge pellets of rain coming down. Near dawn, when the musicians took a short break for an "alcohol boost," a goblin appeared at the bar entrance, a gigantic hirsute man with water running down his pants which were held up by a piece of twine. His heavy scent preceded him, settling upon everything like a thick fog. He was leaning against a column on his left arm, standing there like the sphinx, patiently scrutinizing everyone one by one. A merciless gaze impervious to illusion, fully cognizant of the true meaning of that thing called "the human soul" . . . He held an overwhelming sway of unknown origin over the group, each member of which was a puppet, the strings in his hands. Each time their gaze met, she felt herself shiver like a sign whose nails were being yanked out by a violent wind. The madman had eyes the likes of which she had never before seen in her life; cobalt blue, metallic, with an odd glint that almost seemed to emit a radiation with mass. Two stars twinkling on his face, absorbing the darkness; two super-novas on the verge of explosion. A chemical fire, both burning caustic and chilling, enveloped her conscience.

The goblin walked over to her, as if she were the last person on earth with whom he had not yet settled scores. He stood tall before her, like a proud plane tree. He was very, very tall; he had a nose like the beak of an eagle, and straight, raven black hair, like that of an Indian. And huge, black rings beneath his eyes… He was really very ugly, but even in his ugliness there was a kind of magnificence.

"Seus olhos (Your eyes)," the man said, mumbling a few indistinct words.

She vaguely heard the theatrical acrobat Andre say, feeling no need to lower his voice, "Don't worry, Gringa, he's harmless." She was stunned into silence.

"Meus olhos? (My eyes?)" she stuttered in her poorly accented Portuguese.

"Estrangeira? (Foreigner?)"

She gently nodded. The man broke into impeccable Oxford English.

"I said, your eyes are like no others."

She shuddered, as if trying to shake herself free of some heavy drug, and indicated the Spanish-Indian mulatto Tanja sitting next to them.

"Her eyes are more beautiful than mine."

"I didn't use the word 'beautiful.' I said they are incomparable."

Though she thought to ask him just what he meant by "incomparable," inside, she remained in a daze.

"The Human Dress, is forged Iron. The Human Form, a fiery Forge. The Human Face, a furnace seal'd."

At that moment, she felt the bell jar around her head rise. This was exactly what she'd been searching for for months: Someone who spoke his own language. Like someone dying of thirst in the middle of the ocean, that's what she'd been looking for. For the first time, she met the madman's glance with the same intensity, and said the final line:

"The Human Heart, its hungry Gorge."

The goblin's reaction was violent. He started into a long, complicated tirade. He spoke breathlessly; he was raining down words, sentences, verses, like bullets from a machine gun. A quotation from Macbeth, a famous line from Keats . . . Those were the only ones she recognized. She couldn't keep up with his thoughts, or keep track of his chain of associations. It was neither possible to join in on his delirium—and she wasn't even sure if that's what it was—nor to stop it.

Within a few minutes' time the bar owner, Arnaudo, came running over with two waiters, took hold of the man, who had just skipped from literature to philosophy and was talking about Locke, and grabbed him and dragged him out of the bar like a head of cattle. She was able to understand only a single sentence of their profanity-ridden argument.

"I want to talk with her, not with you, WITH HER! Just talk . . . " The theater actors intervened to help send the madman packing without doing him too much damage. And thus did the gruesome miracle, the sole gift she had received on her birthday, disappear just like that. She felt awful, a fist of guilt clenching inside of her; and she took refuge in a cigarette. Andre had thrown his arm around her, with typical Brazilian indifference—they couldn't stand still without having their hands all over one another like lovebirds—and begun stroking her neck.

"You know that man, right?"

"No."

"Senhor de Oliveira."

The only thing she recognized was the word "oliveira"—olive grove.

"He was one of Brazil's leading painters in the 1980s. In fact, he's the man who introduced Brazilian art to Europe. He lived in England. The man's got culture, seriously."

She found herself stupefied once again, but not really surprised. A boring, ordinary, desolate evening had suddenly taken on profound meanings, signs, and mysteries. Like the bus drivers who transformed into ogans, kings of the world of spirits, in the Candomblé rituals.

"So why is he like that? Crazy? Crazy-like?"

"He got that way after he came back to Brazil. He's not crazy, I mean, not all the time. He lives in the Blue Mansion next to the kiosk. Actually, he's a very pleasant fella when he's got his head on straight. He's amazing. But then, as you've seen, sometimes the mood strikes him, and he just unleashes himself onto the streets."

"Does he still paint?"

"As far as I know, he quit. As soon as he got back to Brazil."

A heated discussion was now underway. How artists weren't given their due in the Third World, the demise of the most important values, etc. The street theater actors identified themselves with Oliveira and were trying to claim a piece of his genius—for it was unanimously agreed that he was a genius. Meanwhile, Arnaudo had come up to her and, wringing his hands, apologized; he said that the lunatic had never bothered anyone like that before, and so that's why he hadn't thought to take action earlier. Arnaudo, born and raised in Santa Teresa, did not know who Oliveira was. Ö. felt like she was drowning, and she made a mad dash out of the bar, despite the rain. She ran to and fro, the raindrops whipping against her face and trickling in beneath her collar; hopelessly she sought Oliveira, the goblin who had disappeared into the stormy darkness.

From City in Crimson Cloak, forthcoming November 2007 from Soft Skull Press. By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.