Extract from ‘Innocent Mosquitoes’: meeting between Alfred & Lampiao

Without the lantern the cave is pitch black and the guide remains invisible and silent.  Oddly, Alfred can see another figure sitting beside him.  Despite the pitch black darkness the man is more than a shadow.  He wears a sombrero with a modest brim that is not pulled back as they used to be in the Brazilian style.  He wears plain, round glasses but the rims are gold.  One eye is damaged and virtually closed.  He has a long, sharp nose that he looks down and without the bullets that criss-cross his chest and the uniform of the Brazilian cangaceiro, he would look like an Oxford professor.

‘One lamp goes out and another comes in,’ says the man.

Alfred says nothing.

‘You think it funny what I say?’

Alfred shrugs.

‘Perhaps if you knew my name.’

‘I know your name,’ says Alfred.  ‘It’s Lampiao.  The lamp.  Called that because you could shoot your lever-action rifle so fast you created constant light.’

‘Ah, I could shoot.  A bandit knows he will die but you win a battle and after that you ride not afraid of the bosses.  But because you make them afraid you ride with no future.  In Macambria my fifty cangaceiros fought against four hundred soldiers.  Not one casualty for me.  I have two hostages.  Dona Maria was one.  She was sixty three years old.  She rode well.’

Lampiao leans on his rifle which he has driven into the sand.  He twists it so the barrel sinks deeper into the floor.  ‘Moseiro was my bad mistake.  Never ransack a city where the people want to stand and fight.’

‘During the dictatorship the revolutionaries only kidnapped and robbed.’

Lampiao smiles.   ‘These things are never out of fashion for long.’

‘You killed innocent road workers.  Nine outside Cano Quelbrado.  And others.’

‘I could not permit roads.  What kind of men need roads?  They cannot find their way on horses?  This is a good cave.  Before these visits from strangers this would have made a good hiding place.’

‘Isn’t this too far south for you, Lampiao?’

‘No, we did ride down this far.  But I never brought many men this south.’

‘Never the orchestra just the six piece.’

‘I do not understand.’

‘It does not matter,’ says Alfred.

‘If you wish to make jokes is okay, but no jokes that Lampiao does not understand.’

‘I withdraw the remark,’ says Alfred.

Lampiao removes a book from a pocket.  ‘The way I sit this makes me uncomfortable.’

Alfred reads the title.  ‘Vida de Jesus’ by Ellen G White.

‘I know Lencois.  They were poor people then.  I settled for some provisions for my men and left them in peace.  I never persecuted poor people, only rich ranchers and soldiers.  I was no goat thief.  The police stole the horses and mules from the people.’

‘I heard you were less discriminate as time went on.’

‘You mean?’

Lampiao and Alfred stare at one another.  Lampiao looks down his long nose. He still resembles an Oxford professor but he looks terrifying.

‘You became more cruel, Lampiao.’  Alfred says this nervously even though he has only imagined the bandit.

‘It is the life of a cangaceiro.  We rode an area half the size of Brazil.  For twenty years.    Did you have bandits in England?’

‘Not in the twenties and thirties.  And not like you.  Not men who would have a bugle blown before they ransacked a town.’

‘It is not difficult to be cruel to men who support the side that want to kill you.  I lived in fear everyday of my life.  It makes you strange.  With so much riding things will happen.  ’

‘Like rapes.’

‘People had to understand.  If you tried to harm Lampiao there were consequences.’

‘And fame must make its demands.’

‘Senhor?’

‘It does not matter.’

‘You make jokes again that Lampiao does not understand?’

‘Perhaps it’s best I say nothing.  You were the most famous cangaceiro of them all.’

‘I did not want to be a bandit.  I was like many.  A feud between my family and another that I had to honour.  When the police want to arrest you there is no choice.  You cannot work.  I was an avenger.  In those days there was much to avenge.  This is why the people liked me.  But do not think Lampiao makes excuses.  There is something in my nature.  I know this now.  But I could have gone through life without knowing.  You understand?’

Alfred nods.

‘You know I tried to become something other than a cangaceiro?   I met the great Padre Cicero, our most famous priest.  More famous than the Conselheiro.’

Alfred says nothing.

‘I was told he might help me join the Patriotic Battalion.  I could have been a brave leader and chased the Communists.  But the Padre refused to see me the second time.  After that I did not feel the same about the Brazilian people.  I also knew then my life would be short and that the best times had been and gone.   I was the most famous cangaceiro of them all and they could have had me as a friend.  Instead, they wanted me to keep fighting them.  I gave them what they wanted.  No more.  Senhor, why do you stare at my socks?’

’They’re very clean.’

‘Of course.  I always liked clean socks.’

‘Is it true?’ says Alfred.  ‘That if you attacked a landowner in his house you would lock him to his desk with his testicles in the drawer and then set fire to the house?’

Lampiao laughs and grins.  ‘Is a good story, no?’

‘Is it true?’

‘I cannot remember.  Why you ask?’

‘I read it in a novel and I do not know if it is true.  The legend is that every man you did this to ripped off his testicles to save his life.  That surprises me.’

‘You would have waited to die?’

‘I think I might.’

The two men sit in silence for a few seconds.  Lampiao lowers his head until the brim of the sombrero hides half his face.  The rest of the cave stays dark and silent, everything invisible.  Like Alfred, the guide, somewhere else in the dark, must be having his own thoughts.

Lampiao lifts his head until his whole face can be seen.  ‘Senhor, can I ask you a question?’

‘Why not?’ says Alfred.

‘Senhor, I have heard the term social bandit.’  Lampiao lowers his head for a couple of seconds before staring into the face of Alfred.  ‘Senhor, what does these words social bandit mean?’

‘Lampiao, I am no historian.  I can tell you what I think it means.’

‘Go on, senhor.  This will do.’

‘A social bandit is a tough man.  He is a man unwilling to bear the burden of the common man in a class society.   The state may think him criminal but the poor see him as a hero.  They understand his code of honour and they are proud that he is fighting their oppressors.  There is probably more but that’s all I can remember.’

‘That will do for me.  Thank you.’  Lampiao pauses and lowers his sombrero again before he raises it again.  ‘Senhor, can I ask you another question?’

‘Of course, says Alfred.

‘Do you think I was social bandit?’

‘I do not want to answer,’ says Alfred.

‘It is not a straightforward question?’

‘You may shoot me.’

‘But, senhor, you have imagined me.  It is true I have a temper but if I shoot you will not die.’  Lampiao laughs.  ‘Your testicles are safe for the moment.’

‘Please, I’d rather we didn’t talk about them.’  Alfred takes a breath and Lampiao waits.  ‘I do not think you were a social bandit after Padre Cicero refused to meet you the second time.  Perhaps before the Padre.’

‘Perhaps before?’ says Lampiao.

‘Perhaps before,’

‘Perhaps before, eh.  Thank you, senhor.’

Lampiao disappears into the darkness along with everything else.

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