Twenty-one: The Portico


     A monotonous, watery course through the green meanderings of the submerged forest - and they chugged on.

     It was Benito Botelho's second expedition in search of information concerning the young Bataillon's disappearance.  For several days the landscape was unvaried.  Smoke from the funnel puffed in rhythm with the sound of the motor over the pure air, the dripping heat and the crowns of trees bent down by the strong and heavy sun; rays of light filtered through dark green onto the liquid ground, bright specks on networks of a fluffy, haphazard covering arranged in layers of dead leaves like a sylvan pâté, a wet, veneered, creamy, brown pavement where wild flowers lay – yes, this was Hell's Bayou revisited, invaded after so much time, much further along than where the previous expedition had reached.  Hell's Bayou, though deep – a vessel with good drift could navigate it – was a narrow and camouflaged trap, which they entered from the Bom Jardim Bayou.  An island set in its mouth closed it off from inside.  The damp bush concealed it, as in a description.   An observer with a good eye would not see it behind the glorification of that vegetal splendor.  Syncopated and intrusive, the launch, named Solar, penetrated it like the blade of a knife, long in that aquatic park of ancient giants, dignified, haughty, discontented from being inconvenienced.  It was the unknown, unnamed, distant route to the sopping place of magical beings, the Numa.  It could be said that the archaic structures of the world were hidden there, that the world ended there in its unknown motives.

     No one had navigated those waters in thirty years.  Benito and his men had to pass through the Embira channel from Tarauacá.  Traveling that way, however, through the Rio Jordão, their journey might run into the hidden fur of some wild animal which they could encounter and surprise at any moment after rounding some bend, as if it was a prehistoric monster.  The Solar was a typical Amazon river vessel, eight meters longs, the housed mid-section, pilot's seat under the bow cover, windows, bunks, engine in the center, cans of fuel under greasy, dirty benches.  The turns were interminable.  Benito did not remember the place where he spent his childhood.  The area was abandoned and given over to the Numa who had come down from the mountains of Peru.  Hundreds of people had perished in those forests full of rubber trees.  Hundreds of people shot with poison darts fashioned from quills of the scarlet ibis.  This was the final hidden place on the earth yet to be civilized.

     Seated on the hatchway, armed with a rifle on his knees, a heavy 44-caliber Winchester 92, Benito appeared to be a happy man.  Raised in a library, of delicate complexion, this trip revived him, excited him.

     The political career of Abraham Gadelha had increased in the New State.  He had the support of Vargas and in order to dampen his adversary's strength, he tried to discover the alleged crime committed against Zequinha Bataillon in the past, which had been carried out on the orders of Gabriel Gonçalves da Cunha and Antonio Ferreira.  Investigations had yielded nothing, but the former journalist did not give up.  The death of Zequinha had an influence on a series of facts of vital consequence for Amazonian politics.  Gadelha had been the federally appointed temporary governor and now a candidate for State Governor by direct vote on the slate of candidates which concurrently had Ribamar de Souza for Senator.  As you remember, Ribamar's proxy would have been his own wife – Diana Dartigues.

     Ribamar was a powerful ally of Abraham Gadelha and the two, as complementary forces, had tried to destroy the resurgence of the policies of  Gabriel Gonçalves da Cunha and his ex-son-in-law. 

     A crime of that period could involve their names in a dark, bloody and unknown episode – so thought Ribamar de Souza, a successful entrepreneur who represented modernity, industrialization and the entry of the State of Amazonas into a new type of non-extractive capitalism.

     He had a chain of department stores that branched out to Belém and São Luiz, he owned a hotel in Rio and still had the women's houses in the Rua Frei José dos Inocentes.  The investigation continued, a secret project of Abraham Gadleha.  Ribamar was against the idea – the tables could be turned on them:  he, Ribamar, had been a childhood friend of José Bataillon (and always mentioned the obscure origin of his own immense fortune).  But Gadelha wanted to cast suspicions: a crime would offset the unstable balance of public opinion.

     It had not been easy to organize that expedition.  Benito Botelho wasn't telling the truth.  For one thing, he was working for a São Paulo entrepreneur who was looking to buy land.  At Porto-das-Duas -Canoas he had to dodge mentioning the topic to the ship's crew, caboclos who were not keen on traveling Hell's Bayou and its Indian country, abandoned for years...

     Suddenly, there appeared on the bank of the river a woman bedecked in green as if dancing on an elevated part of the ground: with her arm raised she held up a vase from which a full-grown rubber tree emerged.  The trunk of the tree went behind the marble statue, now green, which Dona Ifigenia Vellarde had brought back from Europe at the end of the last century.

     Behind this frozen woman there it was – magnificent, dominant, unutterable, majestic – the Manixi Palacio!

     They had arrived at Manixi.

     The shock was hallucinating and beautiful.

     Long and thick branches of leafy trees that had sprouted inside were coming out of the open windows and it appeared as though the Palacio had grown wings and was beginning to take flight.

     The Palacio was blaneted by a patina of extraordinary beauty, a monumental presence – right there, alive, washed out: a crazed landmark of its time.

     It was a sanctuary, it dominated its surroundings, an ancient temple lost in the middle of the forest from another era.  It radiated a light all around itself, of another civilization, of another century, of another unknown world, a living boundary of the luxury and splendor of the rubber boom at the end of the Empire.

     The forest was closing in on it forming a strange enclosure over the moldings and iridescent coloration of its ancient architecture, covered with vines and branches of abundant foliage which emerged from inside the exquisite rooms and created the aura of an ecstatic spectacle.

     They moored the launch and Benito got out and walked toward the marble stairway.  A rattlesnake slithered away to safety underneath rocks coming loose from the foundation.

     The entire past of the Amazon was there on those steps covered with dry leaves, on the fine and flowery railing of corroded and rusted iron.

     The door was open.  From the portico Benito peered into the middle of the spacious hall, on its floor of worn planks covered with plants and, about to topple over, the intact, noble, Faustian, small Pleyel grand piano of Pierre Bataillon.  It was the only thing in the room, the single piece of furniture that remained and there it was, abandoned, closed, stifled, in silence, just like after a concert when they turn off the lights and the theater becomes empty and depopulated.

     But all the sumptuous phantoms arose there.  The course of the whole history unraveled.  Time was frozen, defenseless, in the middle of the spacious rooms, disappearing along the same corridors, dripping along the lugubrious walls heavy with stucco and baroque decoration.  Invisible beings appeared once again dragging long and heavy, squalid garments of green velvet, putting on glittering full dress, emerging from the luxurious sepulcher of that time, through those open spaces populated with symbols inside that enormous construction of another world, of the end of the world from which everyone had fled, now peopled with demons, guilty, expiating their dead faults.

     And at night they paraded by along those corridors, through a series of windows and doors, reflecting their successive silhouettes in the dim mirrors mixing with the figures painted on the walls, famished, icy, not daring to go out into the abandoned garden, this side of the door ornate figures of fine and fierce glance who would not allow anyone to penetrate that sanctuary of refuse of old and condemned wealth, let no one go up that staircase and go through the rooms beyond which were marble figures brought countless years ago to accompany the ashes and waste.  It was if they were saying: “Disappear!”.  Or threatening: “Get out!”.

     The hulk of the former, disenfranchised owner of the house could be seen at night through the windows, as if a cathedral were illuminating him, showing his terrifying and desperate face, his eyes sunken in darkness, searching for something, searching for time, searching for himself – and passing into his infinite misery without anyone seeing him.  All the splendor of that former luxury was a torment sinisterly plunged into the destruction of an empire silenced there at last.