© Copyright 2002. All rights reserved.
Ilhes de Bico is a chain of fifteen islands that pepper the blue sea of the Atlantic somewhere near Brazil. The islands get their name from their collective shape, that of a large parrot beak. Somewhere in the middle of this series of magnificent islands is Parasita, one of the smallest in the chain. This island is famous, to those who know or care, for the small, almost invisible, descritivel. The descritivel (best written without a capital letter to avoid attention, I was told) is a ground-dwelling parasite, hence the name Parasita.
All of the islands that make up Ilhes de Bico are littered with thousands of unseen creepy creatures and to choose the name of an island from any one of the multitude of insects inhabitants is not ordinary, but the descritivel is no ordinary fiend. Legend has it that once the objectionable creature has imbedded itself in the underside of your foot it will eat away at the flesh and this can, in severe cases, result in amputation to stop any further devastation.
Invariably the amputation is carried out by a group of local islanders, which in turn increases the risk of other dangers. Dirty equipment often guarantees infection, although the women of Parasita feel that most cases of fatality and surgical mishap are caused by the alcohol that the makeshift male doctors imbibe to give themselves courage. The highest risk of injury, the women say, is the possible assault of the healers by the amputees when they feel they have been the victims of medical malpractice, or when a brawl breaks out between the men sparked by opposing medical opinions.
Like all good legends the story does not stop there. The descritivel itself has another yarn attached to its strange name. For those uninitiated to the Brazilian Atlantic islands, and the colonial language of Portuguese, descritivel means ‘unspeakable’. The repellent bug derives its unusual nom de guerre from the fact that it attacks only if its name is spoken aloud; provided you do not ask whether there is anything to fear on the island, the parasites tend to leave you alone. The moment you ask about the hazards of the island you set yourself up for potential misfortune.
Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, the descritivel only infects foreigners. Locals are known to talk loudly about the creature in earshot of particularly unwelcome strangers ensuring that they overhear all the gritty details of the conversation; this leaves most foreigners punctured with fear, so visible it is amusing. Of course, enthusiasm among the locals increases dramatically if an intruder is in fact infected, particularly if the amputation of a body part seems imminent.
Like an unknowing trespasser, I too found myself in this place without much information. And similar to the colonist of old and new, I too had come to take from the island. I was searching for a so-called life-preserving substance of which the islanders were unaware. When you live on average to one hundred and thirty-five years of age, and so does everyone around you, there is no reason or sense in questioning the phenomenon. In fact, these islanders did not consider old age a phenomenon; they appeared indifferent to age.
I was a professor at the university medical school when I first heard this secretive news from a senior colleague. The news of the almost eternal islanders was scientific wealth waiting to be generated. I was the youngest in our research team and because I had no set ties at that time, I was sent to inspect the food and drink on the island in search of the mysterious chemical that every scientist presumed must exist. How else is life preserved if not through a chemical?
Parasita is a splendid island. It is the typical place that highway billboards capture in adverts that beckon travellers to come and share in exotic holiday destinations. The only difference is that the large-chested women leaping joyously from the crystal oceans, and the free watersports, are absent from Parasita.
The circular island subsists almost solely on fishing and is situated at the end of a long narrow channel of water. The channel is about ten kilometers long and one kilometer wide. The channel has the mainland of Brazil on the one side and a long thin island borders the other. Tumbling into the sea on either side of the channel is the Atlantic Rain Forest, evergreen and sumptuous. From the window of the small plane that carried me to my new home, Parasita looked like it had been squeezed out of the channel and left out in an expanse of blueness to bake in the scorching sun.
Parasita, like most of the islands in the vicinity, is inhabited by a few thousand old indigenous Indians and a range of mulattos who had somehow settled or been born there. The elders on Parasita were, of course, slightly older than those on neighbouring islands, although the neighbours never notice this fact because they generally die before the elders of Parasita reach their unbelievable ages.
Then there was me, the peculiar foreigner who only heard about the descritivel some ten months into my stay. Perhaps by then some of the locals were tired of me and wanted me to fall victim to the immodest organism. Although in retrospect, I feel I was not told the story earlier because most of the locals were not particularly concerned with me. The islanders probably thought the story was wasted on a gringo like me who only had an interest in questioning them about the food they ate. Some of the elders thought I was obsessed with food because food on Parasita was plentiful and of little concern to most on the island. Drink, on the other hand, was significantly more important. The men of the island fancied themselves as fine distillers of alcohol and incidentally were also impressive consumers. Sometimes I think that I was only told the story of the descritivel, not out of spite, but rather because some of the men were hoping that I may be infected and in so doing provide them with an excuse to have a drunken evening together.
Unexpectedly, shortly after I was told the story, this wish was to be granted. In the sweltering month of December, like in the days that had passed which no one could remember because they were too old now, the men of Parasita would once again rally together to try and solve the problem of an unwanted infestation.
I was sitting on the verandah of my small beach house when I heard the screaming from way off. The broken sound travelled across the waters and rambled through the jungle rattling the shutters of my tiny abode. It was Juan who routinely took it upon himself to spread important messages. Today he was announcing some news with a pitch in his voice that sounded so frantic that it made me want to ignore him.
As his voice grew closer I stood up to greet the news. I thought that if I was standing when he informed me of the distressing tidings I would have less chance of being overwhelmed. The news sounded desperate and I immediately knew that this was not everyday news for the inhabitants of Parasita. As Juan approached I could hear him shouting about an unwanted guest but was unsure of exactly what he was saying. Juan was running up the beach and breathing hard as he screamed. He wore only his ragged denim shorts and his slender body, as brown as clay, managed to project his unintelligible voice much further than it seemed capable given its diminutive dimensions.
‘Quieter,’ I shouted as I walked onto the sand. ‘You are screaming so loud I can barely make out what you are saying.’
‘An unwanted guest has arrived,’ Juan bellowed.
‘What guest? ’ I asked, as Juan and I drew closer to one another.
‘An unwanted guest,’ Juan repeated loudly, now only twenty metres from me. ‘It has been seen again.’
‘What?’ I asked growing impatient. ‘What on earth has been seen again.’
‘Not on earth, Doctor.’ Juan said in a softer confused tone as if I should know what he was talking about. ‘Definitely not on earth.’
‘Then where?’ I asked. ‘Where has this thing been seen? And for God sake, what are you talking about?’
Juan stopped in front of me.
‘There,’ he said and turned and pointed toward the channel. ‘It is out there.’
I looked down his arm and toward the sea. ‘I see nothing but blueness,’ I said.
‘Ah,’ Juan gasped in small bits of the island air and continued, ‘It is out there, doctor, in that very blueness that you see.’
‘What is out there?’ I asked warily. ‘I can see nothing.’
Then Juan said, ‘Exactly...nothing is what you can see, but it is out there in the blueness as you call it. It is out there, doctor.’
‘What?’ I shouted back at Juan, grabbing him by his shoulder.
‘A tubarão, doctor,’ Juan said and then repeated delicately. ‘A tubarão.’
‘Is that not obvious?’ I asked. ‘Are you losing your mind Juan? What better place is there to find a shark than in the sea?’
‘No, doctor, this is not obvious,’ Juan replied. ‘It is like your interest in my food, the reason for that is not obvious and a tubarão out in the blueness is also not obvious.’
Then I stated confidently, ‘Juan, I am not an expert, but sharks do live in the sea. Their home is the blueness and their life is the sea.’
‘Not in Ilhes de Bico, doctor,’ Juan said, ‘The last tubarão was seen here forty-seven years ago. A shark is not an ordinary or obvious fish, doctor.’
‘How do you know a shark is out there?’ I asked.
‘Yesterday some people from the village said they saw the shark. Renato went out this morning and has seen it, he has confirmed the existence of a savage tubarão,’ Juan stated excitedly and continued, ‘Forty-seven years since the last tubarão. I thought I would never see one.’
He was some ten metres up the beach when I said loudly, ‘But how do you know you will see it, there is a lot of blueness out there and only one shark.’
Juan turned, and with a look on his face that said I was asking a question that everyone knew the answer to, Juan said, ‘Renato says he is going to hunt and kill the tubarão. He says he will drag it to the foot of the stairs of the church for the whole village to see. And, doctor, when Renato says he will get a shark, he means it.’
Juan disappeared into the jungle.
That evening I went to Renato’s house to speak with him about the shark. When I arrived, the house that was normally quiet was alive. The house was electric in the dim light of the candles and gas lamps. At least ten men were sitting on the verandah debating boisterously and drinking in large gulps from clear bottles filled with cachaça, locally distilled white rum. The word most distinguishable over the noisy humming of the voices was tubarão. The shark had awakened the aging eternal men.
As I approached them the talking did not change in tone or quantity. I had stopped being an outsider, I thought, or perhaps there was no more space in the conversation for another intruder besides the shark.
I walked passed the men who were huddled around a small table; some nodded brief greetings. The younger boys were sitting on the floor leaning against the wooden house, they chattered like birds rejoicing in the first light of morning. Renato was not there. I entered the house and the smell of cherry tobacco was immediately apparent. I had been to Renato’s house many times before so I went straight to the kitchen where I knew I would find him.
Renato was alone at the kitchen table smoking his pipe and he looked up at me as I entered. His eyes were warm and as deep as the ocean that was his life. Although he was almost seventy years old his face was not particularly wrinkled. His hair was curly and black with smatterings of grey. Renato had a deep furrow in his forehead from squinting at the sun too much and he wore a red vest that neatly demarcated the beginning of his muscular arms.
‘Doctor,’ he said. ‘Please sit and have some coffee with me.’
I sat as Renato stood up, walked to the gas stove and lit a burner. The coffee was brewing shortly thereafter and the house was filled with the sensual aroma of coffee and tobacco. The air was holding me captive probably in the same way the substances that filled it had held Renato’s relatives captive for years. Today Renato had control over these substances, he regulated them with slavish consistency.
In his calm but powerful way, he commanded the space of the kitchen and he said, ‘Can you hear them outside? This tubarão has brought them alive, even the very old men are like excited children on their first fishing trip.’
‘Yes,’ I agreed. ‘The whole town is alive and when Juan came to me today to tell me the news I thought he may explode.’
‘Juan is the most excited,’ Renato said and continued, ‘It is a long story doctor. You see, Juan’s grandfather and my father once hunted a jaguar together. Juan’s grandfather died in the hunt. Luckily it was not in vain. My father swiftly executed the man-eating jaguar that was rumoured to have killed two children around these parts. I have been told that this would not have been possible if it was not for the sacrifice of Juan’s grandfather's life. I think Juan senses some bond...the closing of a circle...or something. He wants to come with me to kill the shark.’
‘Why you Renato?’ I asked. ‘Why must you kill this shark?’
‘I am Renato the shark-killer,’ Renato smiled teasingly. ‘Did you not know that doctor?’
‘No,’ I said.
Then Renato started spoke slowly, deliberately, ‘I am the famous Renato who at the age of thirty-one killed the biggest tubarão ever seen around these islands, but that doctor, was years ago. No, not years ago, it is now decades from the day when I became renowned for my deeds of killing a beastly fish.’
Then I said, ‘I have never heard the story of Renato the famous shark-killer.’
Then he said, ‘Well tonight, my strange visiting doctor, you will hear the story because the time has come for me to tell the story again. Call the young ones to come inside so I can begin.’
I stood up.
‘Oh, and while you're up doctor, get a bottle of cachaça from in front of the window,’ Renato added grinning coyly.
I turned and walked over to the window that was lined with several bottles of alcohol. My eyes darted across the bottles and I remembered that Renato was not only highly regarded for his shark killing, but also for his cachaça. Renato made each bottle with a special flare; at the core of each clear carafe was a whole piece of fermenting fruit. I remembered watching Renato make his celebrated brew. First he would select the correct fruit, then place it into the base of a bottle he had carefully cut in half, thereafter Renato would mold the bottle back together before filling it with cachaça. The fruit gave each bottle a distinct flavour.
I scanned the bottles wondering which one to select. The bottles made a colourful display during the day but at night they looked ominous. Their inebriated insides of pears, oranges, lemons and wild cherries were almost indistinguishable as they disappeared into the blackness outside the window. I selected a bottled with a core that I thought might be a pear. I placed it on the table. I then went to tell the others that Renato was going to tell the story about how he killed the tubarão. When I returned a small cup of coffee and a shot of pear flavoured cachaça was waiting for me. The boys filed into the kitchen after me and took up seats on the counters and on the floor. Renato only had two chairs.
‘Start in the beginning, tell us about your family and then how you killed that awful tubarão,’ Juan said. I noticed he was there for the first time.
And so Renato began at the very beginning. He told how his mother had said that he was a difficult birth (and child) and that the most notable characteristic about him as a baby was his large hands. He told of how when he was ten years old his father became Sergio the Jaguar Slayer. He explained how Juan’s grandfather died in the jungle. He was bitten on the neck by a snake while tussling with the jaguar on the forest floor. Renato was exquisite. He spoke like I had never seen him speak before. He pranced about the kitchen imitating the jaguar, growling loudly. His eyes were breathing, open then closed with tales of bravery and the hardships of his family and his people. Renato explained how the islanders had suffered and how he had to fish from an early age to help earn for the family. Renato told of all the fish he caught and how the prices of the different types fluctuated from year to year. He also sipped the cachaça religiously between each epoch of the intricately weaved story.
The young men were welded to Renato’s eyes that peered into them scrounging for their souls. Renato was magical that night, the ancestors of every young man in the room filled his lungs as he lamented about the time it rained for a decade and how the villagers lost everything. He told how he and others were lost at sea for almost a year and had lived off the mollusks they had to scrape off the bottom of the boat with a knife. His stories were fantastical and real. Renato’s voice was like an intricate piece of music that was so carefully timed in its high and low points that the listener rode it as if it was an infinite wave.
Strangely, or perhaps because the harmony of the story was so overpowering, by three o’clock in the morning everyone was asleep, but this did not stop Renato. He knew they were listening. Most of the young men had their mouths open in disbelieving belief and others slept with content smiles, their lips quivering with fear every now and then. Even Juan had fallen asleep by the time Renato began to recount the details about how he killed the twelve-metre shark, but to Renato not even Juan’s sleep could alter his tone or enthusiasm. Renato rattled through the sleeping heads of the boys, scattering the story of the twelve-metre shark deep into their young hearts that were crying out to be filled with history.
I danced with Renato that night and we waltzed through the sleep that filled the room with an ancestral expectancy that had swamped the boys to slumber. Together, the famous shark-killer and I gazed deep into the ocean, then across its entire expanse as we hunted for the elusive shark that seemed to arrive and then disappear miraculously. We examined each and every wave as we went, scouring in the foam of the ocean spray and combing the seabed for clues until finally, we tracked the shark down somewhere near Tierra del Fuego. At that point, after we had not slept or eaten for days, Renato called on his forefathers for all the strength that surged in the veins of his lineage and he mercilessly buried his harpoon deep into the shark's flesh. But the monstrous fish was not to be conquered so easily and in return it mustered all its might proceeding to drag Renato, me and his small boat along the entire Brazilian coastline. Men, boat and fish surfed the waves and sliced through the ocean until we all arrived back in the channel close to Parasita, exhausted and depleted, closure in sight.
Then Renato ended his long tale by saying, ‘Then, as a final gesture to save my life and my people, and because I had no other choice, I twisted and twisted the harpoon until my hands were raw. And then, and only then, when I could feel my bones against the wood of the harpoon shaft, days from when I had first stabbed the great fish, the shark stopped moving. I collapsed onto the deck of the boat content with the death of the fish. My enemy that no one believed existed was on its way to the next world. The wretched beast was dead.’
I breathed and Renato sat for the first time since he had begun the story. I had been with him on the entire wild journey and I was worn out. Around us was the remaining debris of the adventure: four empty bottles of cachaça and eight sleeping boys. The story had captured us all like the early morning sun that was now imprisoning us with golden bars that streaked the kitchen table. Its brightness pierced my eyes and forced me to join the others in sleep. Renato also dozed. Renato and I slept at the table with our heads on the hard wood as if our spines had been cracked. I was only vaguely aware of the boys around us waking and leaving in pairs. The sound carried across the beach as they related their favourite parts of the story to one another. I slept through this dream and many others that night. When I woke up Renato was pouring coffee.
‘You have been asleep for hours,’ he said. ‘No doubt dreaming of great things and nasty fish.’
‘Dreaming like I was awake,’ I said. ‘So awake that I had to sleep.’
‘You're mumbling, doctor,’ Renato smiled and handed me some coffee. ‘Drink this and get ready, we're going to hunt that shark.’
I did not respond, everything seemed logical and correctly ordered in the early afternoon air.
‘Finish up, doctor, we have one more thing to do before we leave,’ Renato added while he gathered the empty cachaça bottles and placed them in the basin.
Then he said, ‘Doctor, please go and fetch me a stone from outside.’
I obeyed like a zombie, went outside and grabbed the first stone I saw before I returned. I handed Renato a stone the size of my fist.
‘Perfect,’ he said. ‘Step back doctor, I am about to perform a procedure.’
With four blows the empty cachaça bottles were broken and the drunken fruit was in the hands of the famous shark-killer. He put the fruit on the table and began cutting the fruit into pieces.
‘Eat up, my doctor...fruit is healthy,’ Renato laughed for the first time. ‘Courage food.’
Together Renato and I ate all the fruit and somehow it settled my stomach that was reveling in the excitement of the adventure from the evening before. Ten minutes later we were on Renato’s small boat and the gurgling engine was pushing us toward the channel.
We were on the boat for what seemed like decades. Nothing but blueness and my churning stomach, I kept thinking. Renato and I did not speak. After three hours at sea I decided to sit on the deck to rest my weary body and ease my saturated mind. Renato continued to stand at the wheel, circling invisible paths and riding the swell.
Then as the sun began to signal the end of our quest because it was sinking lower and lower, Renato shouted, ‘I see the tubarão. Look doctor, watch the swell, over there, watch the swell.’
I jumped up from the deck of the boat and looked to where Renato was pointing. I could see only blueness.
‘She has dived below, she knows I am here,’ Renato said.
Then on the left side of the boat the water rose, blueness splattered onto the deck transforming itself instantly into clear water. Then the boat rocked violently, this time from the right, more splattering of transparent ocean.
‘She is under us,’ Renato screamed. ‘Hold on, doctor.’
I tried to hold on, but it was too late, the tubarão was completely submerged under the boat and trying to rise to the surface. Renato was clamouring for his harpoon and I was scrambling to stay upright as the boat rocked from side to side. Then as sudden as the tubarão had arrived I saw my feet lift off the deck, the harpoon skidded passed me and then there was a large bang, fragments of wood exploded everywhere.
Suddenly there was silence and I was sinking into the ocean. It dragged me down briefly then spat me out like an unwanted invader. I surfaced, gasping for air. My feet pumped down trying to find a solid surface that they knew was not there. Then Renato jettisoned out of the water next to me.
‘My God,’ he said. ‘What was that?’
‘The tubarão,’ I replied in a voice that I did not recognise as my own because it was too calm. Renato looked at me, his brown eyes turbulent and darting.
Then within seconds Renato’s initial confusion subsided and he was transformed back into his tranquil self. His fear seemed to ooze into me and I realised I was surround by millions of litres of unknown water.
I asked Renato in a frantic voice, ‘Do you think the tubarão is under us and waiting to devour us?’
Renato said nothing and started to swim casually toward the shore in a manner devoid of terror. I followed him as if was a child following a trusted parent. Slowly we guided ourselves over the swells until we were lying side by side on the beach.
We were both facing upward on the sand when I asked Renato, ‘Do you think it was the tubarão?’
Renato was silent.
‘Renato, do you think the tubarão is really out there,’ I repeated.
Renato sat up and looked down at me as if he was trying to pin me to the sand. Then in a lyrical voice he said, ‘I believe it is out there, doctor, but I am not sure if it exists.’
I was confused. ‘I don’t understand?’ I said.
Then Renato repeated himself, ‘Doctor, I believe that the shark is out there but I am not sure if it exists. Why do you not understand?’
‘I don’t,’ I said. ‘It all sounds very strange. Did the shark not smash the boat?’
‘Perhaps,’ said Renato the famous shark-killer in a tone that signaled the end of the conversation.
I was determined to continue, so I asked, ‘Do you not believe it was the shark that smashed the boat?’
‘Believe,’ the shark-killer whispered. ‘My friend, I believe.’
‘You believe what?’ I asked growing impatient and then continued, ‘This word believe is confusing me. Everyone in the town has been using it so much since the tubarão was spotted.’
‘Belief is everything, doctor,’ Renato said as he dusted some sand from his brown arms. ‘You doctor, you don’t believe much do you? You keep asking everyone about their food, as if you do not believe what they eat or as if you are trying to discover something they do not know. All you want to do is learn this something new. Have you noticed that no one ever asks you what it is that you are trying to find out?’
‘They don’t,’ I confirmed realising this for the first time and asked, ‘Why is that?’
Renato spoke again, ‘You do not understand, doctor. To us it is not important. I imagine that you are here to learn something as I said. You are trying to find this something new so you can have something to believe in. But doctor, if you ask me, the way you go about it is that you try too hard to learn.’ Renato paused and wiped some sand out of his hair and continued, ‘Doctor, you are the type of person who learns about things so that you can confirm your beliefs and you don’t believe in things so that you can learn.’
I lay still trying to comprehend what Renato had said, and then I turned my eyes toward him and asked, ‘Who are you, Renato?’
Renato looked bemused and said, ‘I am the one who killed the last shark here.’
‘I know,’ I said and went on, ‘But are you more than that, Renato, are you more than Renato the famous shark-killer?’
‘No, not much more than that,’ Renato said. ‘But I am the son of Sergio. All the men in my family were great people and so were their parents. All these people have many stories told about them. Sergio once killed a jaguar with his bare hands, as you know. And my great grandfather was famous for driving all the alligators from this place. Doctor, I am Renato the blood relative of these people and I am Renato the shark-killer. My relatives and I are the people who give the life to these beautiful islands. We are the people that create the beliefs that keep us alive here.’
‘I see,’ I said and pushed my hands into the sand.
Then Renato asked, ‘So who are you, doctor?’
I smiled, unsure how to answer and said, ‘I am the doctor who came to this place to find something, but I feel I will never find what it is that I am looking for.’
‘I know,’ said Renato smiling back.
Then almost instinctually I found my fingers digging deliberately about in the sand. I was looking for a descritivel. I felt the grains of sand between my fingers as I rubbed the soft sediment between them trying to catch the invisible descritivel between my fingertips. Then as I rubbed my fingers together I noticed something and paused momentarily. No descritivel, only wrinkly fingertips rubbing against each other. I rubbed my creased fingers together for a few seconds more, enjoying the sensation of the wrinkled flesh; then I stopped. I peered into the blue sky. Its blueness was absorbing me upward and lifting me from the sand. I dug my hands a bit deeper into the white sand to ensure that I would not be sucked away. I stared deep into the transfixing sky as it started to change to orange. I was trying to see if I could spot god and I wondered if he would show his face to me if I believed in him. Renato was looking for the tubarão while I was looking for the creator.
Then I turned my head slightly, my face in the sand, and looked toward Renato who continued to stare into the other blueness that surrounded us. I looked at his hand to see if it was also wrinkled from being in the water too long. I scrutinised his hand carefully but could not see it clearly, so I sat up and said, ‘Renato, show me your hands.’
Renato stretched out both his hands without saying a word. His palms were facing the heavens as I held them with my wrinkled fingers. I looked at Renato’s hands conscientiously. Renato watched me curiously. I turned his hands over, but the more I looked, the more I realised that it was impossible to say if his hands were wrinkled like mine because Renato’s hands were rough and weather beaten from decades of shark killing.
© Copyright Brandon Hamber 2002
All rights reserved