A MULE RIDE (2)

On a clear day the Pico de Piedade could be seen from certain vantage points at Nova Lima; it is the highest point of the Sierra de Espinaco (Backbone Range) which is the principal mountain range in Brazil and runs roughly north to south on a line through Diamentina, Itabira and Ouro Preto. It rises to a height of 5,748 feet above sea level and separates the two major river systems of the area; to the East the River Doce drains South-East into the Atlantic and to the West, the Rio Sao Francisco and its tributaries, principally the Rio das Velhas which runs through Nova Lima and drains to the North-East. This formidable range had deterred the Portuguese until aboput 1660. The Brazilian Gold Rush of the 18th Century to this area was the Worlds’s first mass movement for Gold. The Pico de Piedade lay to the South of Belo Horizonte and is located in what was claimed to be Company land. This claim, however, was disputed by a ‘Turko,’ a description in Brazil that covers most nationalities from the Near East. This ‘Turko’ was in fact a wealthy Syrian businessman who laid claim to certain areas of Company land and seemed prepared to go to endless lengths in litigation on the matter. The dispute had been going on in the Courts for many years and seemed likely to continue for many more, so long as the legal profession was able to wax fat on the case. It was probably no coincident that the ‘Turko’s’ son was a lawyer.

There is a mystic/religious aspect to the peak (Peak of Pity) and at one time a Monastery had been built on its summit; this was no longer there but legends remained and pilgrimages were made to the site, principally at the time of the annual fair which was held down one side, a minor miracle itself we were to discover as for miles around there was merely a bleak and rocky wilderness with not even cart tracks leading anywhere near it. The Chief Engineer, George Pearson, had told B stories about the Pico when he was showing the new arrival around the Gold Mining Company’s hydro-electric system at O Peixe; another isolated corner of the Company land with views of the Pico. Its commanding presence, always on the skyline had greatly interested B and this meant only one thing; he wanted to get there. Nobody at Morro Velho had been there, not even Leslie Clemence who had surveyed so much of the Company land during his many years service,

He was discouraged by others when he proposed organising a party to go. There was nothing of interest; a waste of time. But he continued to talk about going and one day to his surprise Ursula said she would go with him. ‘Melanie and Dulcie can be trusted to look after Julia and Cliffie,’ she said, ‘and I’d like to come with you.’ This was enough for him to start planning at once and, as soon as it became known that he and Ursula proposed going they received useful advice from some of the older hands. The Pico could not be reached in one day even when starting from Raposas which was more southerly and 8 miles closer than Nova Lima. The distance there could be anything between forty and fifty miles; nobody could say precisely, so they would have to stay overnight at an old Company house that had, at one time, been used by prospectors and had been deserted for nearly twenty years.

Nenni, the foreman, said they should take Waldemar with them because, although now retired, he was more knowledgeable about the region than anyone else in Nova Lima. Leslie Clemence had been to the old Company house many years before and said an ex-employee of Morro Velho called Pedro Vasconcelles had a key to it. Pedro lived in a settlement on a river lying half a mile from the house. There would be no opportunity for them acquiring food on the journey and only water from streams so, said Leslie, they had better take both food and drink with them. Osmar, at Raposas, arranged to stable their mules overnight so they could go by car to Raposas from Nova Lima and make an early start from there on fresh mules. Other arrangements were beginning to take care of themselves in a way they tend to do when Brazilians, who are friendly, helpful people, get involved; but even so, care had to be taken for any excesses of enthusiasm to help not backed up by practical considerations, to be discounted.

Waldemar turned out to be an old, leathery, dried out, ex-Camerado who was wiry and self-contained. He said he knew the best route to the Pico and would take them there. Money? He’d leave that to B. Nenni had asked him to go and that was the only reason he was going. Nenni had been his Chefe, but now he was really too old for such journeys. B could see that he was dealing with a dour, somewhat cantankerous old man who, although he would never show the slightest trace of enthusiasm, believed this to be more by temperament than because of age and, in fact, Waldemar showed a keen, if concealed, interest in the arrangements and liked to be consulted.

On the morning of the excursion they rose early and Ursula whispered last minute instructions to Melanie and Dulcie. Goodbyes had been said to Julie and Cliffie the night before and now they were still sleeping. Vi Leworthy, a neighbour and friend of Ursula had said she would check on the children. The car arrived at the appointed time and they quickly loaded up. On the way to Raposas they called to pick up Waldemar who lived in a small adobe house on a hillside, so steep that it was inaccessible to the car and B had to climb up the hill to get to the house. He sat in the front seat of the car and said very little. Osmar was waiting for them to arrive at Raposas with a Camerado and three mules, one of them was Boston. They were ready saddled up. The time was just six o’clock and everything up to now had gone like clockwork. The saddlebags were filled with their provisions as well as something for the mules in case the grazing was insufficient. There was a brief exchange of words, some advice and good wishes from Osmar; the Camerado helped Ursula into her saddle and, with the three of them mounted, they waved and set off led by Waldemar clattering through the empty streets into the countryside and the ever-present hills.

He breathed in the still morning freshness of the air and surveyed the expanse of the sierra stretching before them as they climbed upwards, leaving the still sleeping town behind. His psyche seemed to expand like a balloon blown up when on journeys like this. It was for him the very acme of existence; a feeling he could never express or transmit, scarcely understood himself. It was all feeling. ‘Isn’t it marvellous,’ he enthused to Ursula by his side, ‘and to think we would still be sleeping if we weren’t here.’ Ursula, still sleepy and possibly less enraptured, replied non-committally so that B seeing his enthusiasm was not going to be matched by a ready response, fell silent for some time, eventually spurring Boston on towards the leading Waldemar. His attempts at contact were as unsuccessful here as they had been with Ursula. Waldemar chewed on a twig and barely acknowledged his words. Unable to channel his rioting emotions into any human communications he turned his attention to Boston, patting his neck and grooming his hair, addressing him in affectionate terms. This led to an eventual serenade and there followed a succession of songs, sung loudly and out of tune into the emptiness around them.

And so they moved forwards, three mounted figures, two silent and isolated in their thoughts, while the one in the centre shouted out songs as he sought to express what for him was inexpressible. His two more absorbed or self-contained companions came gradually to a surface somewhere along the line of space and time where there was a meeting with B’s diminishing exuberance so that snatches of conversation were possible. Mood and inter-relationships are funny things, he thought. He believed himself to be strong on the first and a bit obtuse on the second. One needed charisma and an insight to be able to carry people along with one’s enthusiasms, he supposed. Mule riding in the hills becomes hypnotic after some hours. The mules are so sure-footed that very little concentration is required from the rider, the pace is so slow that the body sways and, by so doing, creates an effect like a swinging cradle has on a baby. Drowsiness and relaxation set in; but this is deceptive because, when one dismounts after a ride of many hours, the muscles are tired, showing they have been at work all the time.

After a couple of hours they came to a huddle of houses situated in a dip in the hills and stopped to stretch their legs. The place was called Morro Vermelho and consisted of a few simple houses set apart from one another in banana groves, a wooden, box shaped building that was a Chapel with a flag pole and a large decorated Cross outside. Surprisingly, a battered Dodge truck was parked near two of the houses and people with bags of provisions were climbing out, so presumably, this lonely place had motorised access to the outside World along the track that ran out at the far end. Waldemar exchanged some words with one of the truck’s alighting passengers who glanced across at Ursula and B nearby as they walked around to ease their initial stiffness. There was nothing at Morro Vermelho to detain them. It was just a place in a fold of some hills one needed to transit. By the look of things not many people came this way.

Back in their saddles they continued their route southwards. Questions to Waldemar on how much longer they needed to travel were futile. Like most country Brazilians he had a completely different measurement vocabulary than that taught in the schools and was based on ‘leguas’ which seemed to be something like the old fashioned English ‘leagues.’ Times and distances in this part of the World were how you felt when you answered a question concerning either and Waldemar would make a dismissive gesture with an elbow and open hand, saying, ‘mais algumas leguas,’ which could mean anything. They travelled throughout the day with the sun tracing an arc around them and they needed their hats to ward off the effects of its steady, even heat. When it went down behind the hills to their right the temperature dropped and once their bodies had adapted to this the evening felt warm and pleasant and the sounds of nocturnal creatures coming into their own were all around. The mules plodded on and both riders and mounts seemed united in a passive acceptance that sooner or later they would come to journey’s end for the day, and meanwhile the cooler air seemed to seep into their tired bones. He realised they had eaten very little that day which had started for them over twelve hours ago.

Waldemar now said in his backwoods Portuguese, ‘we are near,’ and in the twilight, set back from a broad and fast flowing river was a long, one story building divided into different dwellings that the local people call, ‘a bonsera.’ Children were playing on a parapet and the light from oil lamps shone from open doors; it presented a lively and vivacious scene to them after their long day over the lonely hills. Waldemar led the way to Pedro Vasconcelles dwelling; he came out to greet the arrivals, cheerfully; the children drifted over and stood around, quietly and curiously in a well behaved manner. After dismounting they were ushered by Pedro into a small front room with the door and window shutters open and bade them sit at a table that took up more than half the room. The floor was flagged and bare of any cover, the lime washed walls were greyish with only one picture showing, as in most rural houses, that of the Virgin Mary. There was a narrow dresser against one wall and no room for any other furniture except the chairs they sat on.

Pedro’s wife came in and was introduced. She seemed in awe of her visitors while her husband treated them with open and animated equality. The room was filling with children and these were quickly and gently shooed outside. ‘I’ll take you to wash your hands before you eat.’ B said something about Waldemar and the mules and was told that Waldemar would eat after he had attended to the mules. They had been uncertain about the food and brought their own, but word must have been sent earlier about their arrival. Pedro, a great talker, confirmed this as he led them to an outside tap. ‘Sr Les sent word of your coming. I worked with Sr Les for thirty years and now I am enjoying my retirement.’ He laughed as if this was a joke. His hair was still dark and his complexion that of a youngish man, making him seem a vigorous forty something, and was probably no older since most youngsters in Brazil started work in their early ‘teens and these years counted towards their State Pensions after they had worked for thirty years.

They dabbed at their faces and wrung their hands using a worn towel offered by Pedro. There were no luxuries in this household. Back in the house plates of rice, black beans and a sliver of meat were put on the table; this was the standard rural diet – bife, arroz e feijao – and if one was lucky, a small salad. They ate with great appreciation and real hunger while the hostess hovered about the table offering water and some slices of bread she had baked. Outside, through the open door and window, the darkness had deepened and stars made their appearance to fill the sky; this was wonderful to see until the openness of the tiny room with the oil lamp attracted all types of flying insects to which the householders seemed to be quite accustomed, but not the two diners.

Pedro leaned against a wall and talked while they ate; he talked of old times with much objective insight and humour. B steered the conversation on to the Pico and Pedro said that every Semana Santa there was a great procession going to the summit led by many priests and a great cross was carried with singing and prayers. He had been many times as a boy. Now only his wife goes. It used to be fun with stalls and a festive atmosphere, now the ‘religiosos’ had turned it into a solemn occasion and there was no fun to be had there anymore. They had even stopped ‘pinga’ being sold. He raised a hand to his face, thumb pointing and jerking towards his mouth to illustrate that he enjoyed a drink. ‘There was too much of that going on,’ said their hostess, unexpectedly. ‘I am a good Christian,’ said Pedro, ‘a cheerful one, not a miserable one, and I like a drink or so at times. Is there harm in that?’ Ursula and B had eaten everything placed before them and the lady of the house began making signs to Pedro that she was ready to attend to Waldemar’s supper.

‘I will take you to the big house now,’ he said. Using compact gestures they thanked their hostess with smiles and nods, then stepped out into the darkness behind the host. They were tired and ready for bed but this was not to be as soon as they would have wished. The big house was a fair distance away and Pedro was a talker. ‘You see those lights?’ B had noticed the fireflies down by the unseen river with the small bursts of flickering illumination like a Lilliputian firework display. ‘People believe that these lights are the souls of dead ‘negritos’ coming back to search for their hidden gold.’ ‘Why should they believe that?’ Asked B. ‘because the Negro slaves worked around here for the gold prospectors and some of them would hide the gold they found until they had enough for an escape. They buried the gold down by the river for safety, but if their masters suspected, they would kill them. That is why the people say the lights are the Negro souls coming back with lanterns to search for the gold they hid in life.’

They had reached the big house by the time this and other stories had been told by the ever-talking Pedro. ‘How old was it?’ Pedro did not know. He said it always had been there for as long as anyone could remember. They crossed the verandah and he opened a door more than twice the size of a normal one. Inside was a long, wide hallway with doors on either side. he retrieved his oil lamp from the floor and lit it, leading them into the first door on their right down the corridor. here was a large room, about twelve metres long by six metres wide and completely empty except for two made up beds in the centre, dwarfed by the size of the room. ‘I will show you where the ‘privada’ is.’ They went through room after room, all of them empty. On the way back, down the corridor was a closed door opposite their room. ‘What’s in there?’ Asked B having tried the door handle and finding it locked. ‘A priest lived in that room many years ago, for some months. He went away leaving all his possessions saying he would return. But he never did.’ ‘And his possessions are still in there?’ ‘Yes. Sr Les said, lock the door and keep it locked until he comes back. But he never will return now. It is too long ago. Here is your lamp and the key. Waldemar will sleep at the back of the house. I hope you sleep well. Boa Noite’ ‘Boa Noite.’

There was a distinct change in the atmosphere after Pedro had left and they quickly got into their beds, lying quietly with the moonlight showing through the slats of the closed shutters, turning over in their heads the stories they had just heard. It seemed several hours later and sleep had not come. There were creakings and other sounds all the time, cracking noises and muffled shiftings as though the house was inhabited by stealthy, nocturnal creatures. ‘I can’t sleep; can you?’ B whispered.’ ‘No. I think that I am over-tired, and those awful noises keep me awake.’ Whispered Ursula back. The moon must have been nearly a full one and its metallic, silvery light lay in stripes across the floor making the whole room visible in all its vast emptiness. A human voice sounded from somewhere; a mumbling, complaining voice. They listened tensely. ‘What do you think that is?’ ‘I don’t know.’ ‘Perhaps its the Camerado?’ ‘Yes, it might be. He said the house was haunted.”Yes, he did.’ After a while they could identify some of the words. Waldemar, at the back of the house somewhere, was clearly frightened and was asking as a supplicant for the evil spirits to be warded off. His mumblings went on and on mingling with the crackings and creakings of the old house.

It seemed to them, as they lay side by side in their two string beds in the emptiness of the large room that they were two tiny atoms, known only to one another, in this strange, unfamiliar World they had strayed into together and, to counteract the weird, menacing, shadowy underworld tones conjured up all about them this night, they turned their heads to each others direction and whispered together until they were claimed by an uneasy sleep that stayed with them, fitfully until the early morning light of dawn showed itself through the shutters.

Outside all was an Eden of bright normalcy; the sun shone brightly throwing darts of reflective flakes across the running water of the nearby river. There was bird song to hear and the freshness of new beginnings to smell in the air. The obscurely, sinister atmosphere of the night seemed as if from another World, and they marvelled at the contrast. After a simple breakfast of coffee and bread at the same table they found that an inscrutable Waldemar had already prepared the mules for the day’s journey. To B’s question as to whether he had slept well, he answered, ‘mais ou menos’ which is neither well nor badly, but B could smell cachaca on his breath and guessed he had helped himself to sleep with a nip or two of this strong spirit. There was nothing to keep them here so, once again, they swung themselves up into their saddles after a pat or two on the necks of their mules, saluted Pedro and his wife and under the gaze of the collected children followed Waldemar by a path along the riverside.

This was soon left and the going became more and more difficult as they progressed, always climbing. At times the track was barely a foot wide and they gazed down into gullies hundreds of feet below, their safety only guaranteed by the sure-footedness of the mules. Climbing, ever climbing until, after many hours, they traversed their way along the spine of a long ridge at the end of which there was a climb so steep that Waldemar reigned in his mule saying, ‘this is as far as the mules can go.’ They were a few hundred feet from the summit. ‘Shall we walk up?’ ‘Shall we?’ ‘All right.’ they dismounted and passed the hitching leads to Waldemar. It took a good fifteen minutes to reach the top, where it was coolish and somehow they missed being separated from their mules.

All around lay the hills and peaks of the Brazilian Highlands, stretching to the full circle of the horizon; not a town, not a house or farm was in sight. They were together, the highest people standing on Earth for thousands of square kilometres.’We’ve never been closer together to Heaven on the ground,’ he said. ‘We’ll just say hello and leave, shall we?’ ‘Good idea, we’re not ready for there yet. Give me a kiss.’ They stood in a close embrace for a while, then wheeled around. Waldemar was waiting impassively when they returned, chewing on a twig, as usual.

An idea had occurred to B on the journey.’How far is the railway line?’ Adressing the Camerado. ‘Bem… ‘ An inclination of the head, a pursing of the lips, a raising of the eyebrows and a waggling hand in rocking motion; all this with the greatest economy of movement meant, ‘fairly near.’ ‘Can we reach a station today?’ Now more prepared, the answer was, ‘possibly.’ ‘Let’s try then.’ The Camerado set off back in a different direction than the one they had come by. As soon as they came to a widening of the trail B rode up beside him. ‘If we manage to get a train today, can you take the mules back on your own?’ ‘No problem.’ ‘Good. let’s try and make it then.’ He waited for Ursula to catch up to tell her that perhaps they would not have to sleep away from home another night; which he was sure she would be glad to know.

Waldemar set a fast pace and they rode hard. After two hours they could see the railway track many miles away in the far distance of  a spacious plain; it was the only trace of human occupancy in all they could see. It was late afternoon and another hour and a half when they saw a station; it was more of a halt, but a few people were waiting. There was nothing more there except a fenced off pasture for the benefit of transported cattle, no clue as to where these travelling people had come from to gather at this lonely stop on the line. The train going north was due some answered his enquiry and soon there was a collecting together of straw and canvas bags. The huge loco chuffed ponderously and majestically to a stop, changing the landscape as a large ship does coming into harbour. It would be a matter of only a few hours now before the train and then a bus would transport them back to their bungalow where Julie and Cliffie would be surprised to see them. The loco puffed itself into motion, emitting a mighty hoot as it gained speed, the dying echoes of which were lost in the empty space it left behind and the lonely figure of a man with three mules. The Camerado, Waldemar who had made their journey possible with his vast knowledge of the Highlands. They watched until the picture receded to a blur of un-recognition.

1958