We knew very well how strong Rui was and it wasn’t because we’d had to confront the guy. Everyone knew that Rui was strong as an ox, especially having seen him doing things that nobody believed, like having a fight with three or four, usually to defend one of us against some big mouth. What nobody knew about was that other strength he had, from inside, of showing that, if he wanted, if he really wanted, no one could stop the guy. So, on the previous day, someone posed the question: whether he, moved by his own will, could, alone, beat all the others, by his strength only.
Senhora Inês used to say that his friends knew Rui better than anyone else and it was true. We could remember all his nicknames, but everyone would say, when senhora Inês insisted, that no nickname suited Rui well. Which was untrue. Even though he was five years older than us, Rui had never left the special school due to problems in his head, something he had had from birth. Senhora Inês had had difficulties during labor: Rui should have been born about three hours earlier, but the doctor blundered, and he breathed his own feces. Consequently, when someone wanted to pick on Rui, especially when he had done something wrong, we would call him shit head. A fact easy to be noticed: we grew up, everybody becoming men and Rui continuing to be a child. But it was necessary to be more than a man to visit senhora Inês and senhor Ernesto’s house after everything that happened. It was for this reason that, when they both died – he did a year before she -, we never met again. The friends, even the least close of them, started to ignore what everyone knew very well, surely for fear of unearthing something real men don’t touch.
The thing all started in the bamboo fields around the canal where Brasilã used to do the final wash of the wool. Usually full of reeds, the canal was perfect for fishing micholas, cará-manteiga and cascudo. Since cascudo is a type of mudfish, everyone uses a long rod, a long line, a plumb weight of at least one hundred grams, three hooks, no buoy, as the first bait had to reach the bottom. The course of the canal, although narrow, something like twelve arm strokes, had points where the depth of the water reached four meters, perhaps more. It was Marcos who started to spread the news that Rui would allow people to take his clothes off and that, even though he was big, he would stay quietly on all fours. Nobody believed, hence everyone wanted to check with their own eyes.
When all of us became real men, the canal was full because of an August when the cold, the wind and the rain had arrived knocking everybody down. Near the company’s reception, the embankment had broken down and the escarps, being slippery with mud, threatened to pull down the first idiot into the freezing, deep, dark water, hidden under frog roe and reeds.
At five o’clock, we were going to skip the last classes. Marcos had arranged everything: when the others arrived at the bamboo fields of the canal, he would have already convinced Rui, so everyone else had also to be man enough. So, the group met at Tamanduá Square and from there, set off. Someone started telling jokes about men dressed as women during a carnival ball at the Recreational Club and then the boisterousness spread around the streets, alternating laughter, running and hitting traffic signs.
The first ones to arrive at the canal encountered the trail to the bamboos completely muddy and the cold wind that moved the cover of reeds, showing the dark mouth of the water. We found both of them in a clearing and, without any plan on how to react, everyone just stood around, half in fear and half in curiosity. Marcos was wearing the school jacket and had his pants down: Rui, in front of him, had his knees sinking in the mud and, possibly because he thought what he was doing was right, looked at everyone without taking his mouth away from Marcos. We looked, trying to laugh. But each of us, in his own way, was drowning in fear. When Marcos told him that he could stop, Rui got up, thinking about cleaning the mud off his knees. He looked at everyone and, since someone asked what taste it had, he spat out and said that it tasted like piss. Everybody laughed, including Rui.
Taking a crumpled toilet paper from his pocket, Marcos told Rui to take off his pants, which he obeyed without a word. He was about to take off his sweater – an enormous green and yellow knitted sweater, which seemed to have been made with scraps of wool. Rui would barely take off that sweater during the winter, and, because of this and its worn out baggy sleeves and collar, we would call it “the flag”. But Marcos said that he didn’t need to take off the flag and then shouted, telling Rui to stay on all fours, and Rui obeyed, once again without a word. With the toilet paper carelessly folded, Marcos cleaned Rui twice. He showed the dirty paper, hitting Rui on the ears and saying that he was untidy. Then Marcos spat on his hands and spread it on Rui, who tried to run away. Marcos asked, almost yelling, if Rui wasn’t a real man. And Rui understood that it was necessary to do that in order to be a real man, so he got on all fours again. Marcos held him by the flag, opened his legs with a kick, and then Rui started to breath out, as if blowing birthday candles, with his eyes closed, and when he opened his eyes, he did to see us. From the little that it was talked about later, despite so many different impressions, two things were clear: the first one was that Rui had done all that like a dog that obeys his master; the second one was that Marcos didn’t do that out of an almost wild pleasure of his age, but due to a kind of anger that could only be understood by a fact that is difficult to accept: nature had put the strength of three of us and the head of a child in the same body.
Marcos still made comments, which everyone laughed about, unaware of the stupidity of everything. Does it hurt?, and Rui looked at us and nodded. Some would ask Rui many things – yes and no questions -, and he, being hit from the back by Marcos, would answer just with his head. So you do that because you are Marcos’s friend, do you?, Marcos himself asked, all the time hitting the back of his head, and Rui, on his knees, confirmed. The others are also your friends, said Marcos near his ear, but loud enough for everyone to hear. Upon being released, Rui tried to escape on his knees, but Jocimar caught him by his hair. Rui, always on his knees, intertwined himself in Marcos’s legs crying his name over and over. Marcos shouted that he had to do it with the others as well – wasn’t he a real man? And hit Rui’s head hard. Jocimar, possibly for having being almost strangled by Rui a year earlier, also hit it.
With a single movement of his hands, Rui knocked down both of them and tried to run. But the pants rolled around his feet didn’t allow Rui to go far. Every time he fell, everyone surrounded him, shouting threats at him, how they would tell that to the whole town. At that moment, all of them were already savages, almost men.
Rui got rid of whoever tried to get him by the arms and managed to reach the canal. He pulled his hair, biting his own mouth, like he used to do when he wanted to fight. So the circle feared that he could use all the power against only one person. And that was what happened, Rui chose one of us: then, with three steps, he grabbed Marcos by his hair and shook him by his head like a fighting dog, hurling him away in the end. Marcos, who was totally paralyzed, fell sitting on the ground. Afterwards, Rui looked at the faces of all the others, bit the fingers of his right hand and threw himself in the water, opening a hole among reeds, which remained until the flag disappeared in the dark depths, and the circle of water plants closed itself again.
Everyone approached the mud at the margin waiting for Rui to surface and, consequently, for everyone to calm down: Rui would forget his anger, and each of us would be able to go to his home and to his secret. But, the thing was that, after some time, Rui was still under the water, and there was no sign that he would come up. Two of us dived in the canal with their clothes on, returning after a few moments, revealing a bizarre situation: Rui fought with all his might not to be rescued. All help was necessary to get Rui out of there. We started going into the cold water chaotically. Diving in the darkness, we all heard the muffled sounds of a struggle. It was a sinister nightmare: the more we tried to pull Rui out of the water, the deeper we felt that his body sank into the thick mud. With the strength that Rui had, if he’d wanted, he could have taken two or three into the soft bottom, but by kicking and punching, with his arms and legs, Rui kept us away. The guys emerged in order to breathe all covered in mud, bringing shoes, pieces of pants and of the flag. Without his clothes, Rui fought until he was overtaken by the lack of air and by the cold, simply disappearing, buried in the mud.
It was early evening when we sat to see the hole among the water plants reflecting the line of the moon. The wind bit us hard, but we only heard the cry of the bamboos. And the fact is that everyone expected that at least the body would emerge. But, totally covered in mud, many perhaps hoped to freeze to death. No one looked at one another. Silenced, one of us got up and gathered all pieces of clothing that were left of all that tragedy. It was at that moment that the frogs started singing terrifyingly and someone, we never knew exactly who, started to cry, hiding his face in the wet sweater.
And the body didn’t turn up.
A smart person said that the pieces of the flag would serve as proof. And, in fact, the remnants of green and yellow wool proved the heroism.
We left in a row with lots of doubts in our souls and, when the majority of us had already passed the fence, someone noticed that Marcos had remained seated, looking at the canal. They believed that he still expected the body.
Are you not coming?, someone shouted, asking, and I answered that I would go in a minute while I wondered which of us would be a real man to inform senhora Inês. I stayed looking at the moon, reflected among the reeds, being swallowed slowly until it disappeared in the dark water. And I only got up after I was sure that everyone was gone.
Translation by Lilia Loman