Terror fumed from Tiãozinho’s sweating forehead in the shape of rigid veins. Beaten and kneeling on the grass of the farm, he squinted against the strong sunlight while the henchmen cut into the stomach of the bull and the patriarch walked slowly around him.
“That’s it! Open the stomach and take out everything that’s in it. Take out the stomach, intestines, heart…Leave a lot of space for the one who is going to live in there,” said the patriarch while he peeled and chomped on a banana.
On the morning of the previous day, Tiãozinho had received a telegram that announced the arrival of two old friends who were coming from far away to visit him. The news instigated simultaneous satisfaction and affliction, since he was unemployed and too broke to offer his friends a welcoming lunch. Depressed, he spent the afternoon drinking cachaça in his hut trying to figure out how he could get some money. He remembered that his credit at the butcher’s had been bad for a long time, that his ex-mother-in-law scolded the kids whenever she heard his name, and that his little garden had been destroyed by a flood the month before.
In the middle of the night, drunk enough, Tiãozinho went up the hill that lay after the river, behind the hut, and that marked the beginning of the territory of the Valadão family. He brought a lantern in his left hand and a bottle of cachaça in his right hand. A knife was fastened to his belt. Anyone who could have seen him from far away would have seen up there on the hill the shadow of a stout, short figure surrounded by a haze that lingered under the star lights and around his lantern. But there was no one watching anything. There was only a bull, that black bull that grazed silently a short distance from the drunk hillbilly.
Tiãozinho, as well as everyone in the region, knew the stories that helped build the hellish reputation of the Valadão family. He knew that the members of the family had the habit of punishing those who had little affection for them with elaborate perversions and he kept in memory the details about the case of Gaveta, which was whispered right in his ear at a tavern.
It so happened that the young guy who came to be called Gaveta was a domestic worker on the Valadão farm and was supposed to clean the children’s room. One grey, autumn morning, he found a music box that belonged to Leonora, the youngest daughter, in her bed-table drawer. He was so fascinated by the music box that he started taking it to the employee’s quarters so he could listen to the soft music when he went to bed. His crime was that he forgot to take the object back to Leonora’s drawer before he left for his day off the next day.
When the young man came back to the farm to work, he was told to go straight to the dining room, where Leonora, the patriarch and Teobaldo, the oldest son, waited for him with the music box opened and playing its tune on the dinner table. Teobaldo and Leonora were sitting; the patriarch was standing behind his grandchild with his back to the window.
“You stole my music box! My grandmother gave it to me!” accused Leonora, using a tone of voice at the same time rude and sweet as honey, like only very spoiled girls know how to do.
“I swear I didn’t rob it, Norinha. I just borrowed it and forgot to give it back. I swear I was going to…” answered the accused, who now found it hard to swallow his own saliva, when the patriarch interrupted:
“You mean the boy likes to go through a girl’s drawer? He’s one of the two: either a fag or a thief! For either one, we have a solution, don’t we, my son?” he asked Teobaldo, rolling up his sleeves without taking his eyes off the accused.
Teobaldo was smoking a cigarette and filled the spittoon every other minute, and his monotonous stare eyed the young man’s body with morbid intimacy. It was obvious, even to the accused, that the oldest son was enjoying the plan to punish him.
“And so, which is it—fag or thief?” asked the old man, smoothing his hands over the girl’s brown hair, this time, without facing the young man.
“What do you mean, sir? You know me...You know I’m not...”
“Shut up and decide: fag or thief?”
Realizing that arguing was useless, he lowered his head and answered almost crying: “Thief, sir, thief.”
The answer had hardly left the young man’s mouth when Teobaldo Valadão got up abruptly from his chair and grabbed the poor guy by the hair, putting him on his back on the table and tearing his shirt to expose his abdomen.
“You like to go through drawers, don’t you? We’ll give you a nice drawer, then,” he sentenced, showering drops of spit on the poor guy’s face, while he pulled out a razor-sharp knife from his jeans.
Serene, the patriarch put his lips near the young man’s ear, as if he was going to tell him a secret, and said:
“We’re going to open your stomach and keep the music box in there, so you will never again forget that it isn’t a good thing to go through other people’s drawers.”
“Not the whole box, grandpa! Just the little dancer that circles around on top of it,” interrupted the girl, impatiently, as the knife started cutting and the accused started screaming.
Gaveta, now recovering, carries the figurine from the music box sewed into his abdomen. He has never had the courage to take it out. The deformed protuberance provokes horror in those who don’t know its origin and fear in those who know the details of the cruel punishment enacted by the Valadão family. That is why today Gaveta rarely takes off his shirt.
Tiãozinho and Gaveta were old friends and Gaveta had even helped him when a mudslide destroyed his vegetable garden last month. But there on the top of the hill and on the wrong side of the barbed wire fence, hunger, drunkenness, and affliction because his visitors would be arriving soon, seemed to take the danger out of the thoughts Tiaozinho was having. Facing the black bull in the dark, he could only think about it as a piece of meat that could become a barbeque, and, even though he was aware that he was inside Valadão territory, he was overcome by an obscure irrationality that forced him to keep his own skull empty of thoughts and considerations.
The rusty knife perforated the bull’s neck on the first attempt. Fearing a reaction from the animal, Tiãozinho went up to it slowly and knifed it as someone would attack a wasp’s nest with a broomstick and then take three steps back quickly. The bull registered the aggression with a debilitated moo and a violent jumping movement. With the knife embedded in its robust neck, it jumped back from its executioner and started a race that ended 100 meters from there, where it started to turn in circles around its own body until its knees got weak.
Holding the lantern over his head and tripping over rocks on the mountain, Tiãozinho walked apprehensively in the direction of the bull. It was the sound that the wounded animal emitted—a sound of coughing, choking and mooing all together—that allowed the yokel to identify his victim, stretched out over the tall grass with its eyes bulging. Carefully, he brought the lantern near the black bull’s face and noticed that it was fighting for its life, melancholically, behind its reddish eyes. For a brief moment, he rested the lantern on the ground and scratched his head as if he were reflecting about the situation. It was then that the animal started a process of secreting a greenish paste that oozed from its mouth in spasms and mixed with a pool of blood that already flooded that area of the hill. The green paste was the grass that the bull had eaten during the day and that it had been ruminating throughout the night. Grabbing one of the animal’s ears, Tiaozinho turned the knife around inside its neck and ended the rest of its life. Its back hooves, now stiff, rose in the direction of the sky.
At the break of day he was just finishing cutting the meat. That was when he realized that he had not brought with him a bag or anything that could be used to carry the pieces of meat back to his shack on the other side of the hill. Therefore, he took off his long-sleeved shirt and used it to wrap only about half of the meat he had originally planned to take. The lantern and the bottle of cachaça were thrown in the grass behind the traces of blood that were mixed with gross footprints from the men’s boots.
Tiãozinho arrived home and put his package of meat on a chair in the kitchen. His legs were weak, his throat dry and his head throbbing with pain. Sleep didn’t have to work hard to dominate his body. When he flopped down on his hard bed, he briefly rolled his eyes and remembered the lantern he had left behind, but he fell into a deep sleep soon after that.
At the Valadão farm, the patriarch got up before noon in spite of his old habit of staying in bed a few extra hours on Sunday mornings. With no rush, he buttoned his light-weight plaid shirt and held up his jeans with his favorite belt that had a buckle engraved with the capital letter “V” with a tilde floating over the open arms of the letter. He went up to the mirror in the bathroom and opened his mouth to inspect his immense yellow-white front teeth. Having approved of the color of his teeth, he splashed cold water over his thin face and bluish beard. He stood there in front of the mirror for long minutes before hearing two timid knocks on the wooden door to his room. It was Tenorio, a peon he trusted, arriving to communicate the discovery that the black bull had been slaughtered on one of the high hills of the farm. The beast had a small “V” branded on one of his back legs, as Tenorio reported.
Ten minutes later a truck was parked with all four doors opened on the top of the hill in front of the murdered bull. The patriarch, Teobaldo, Tenorio and another farmhand found the animal cut into pieces and being feasted on by hundreds of fat flies. The blood had hardened and transformed the land around the cadaver into a pool of reddish mud, similar to the color that was on the face of old Valadão, not because of anger or disgust, but because he was surprised. He, nor anyone else, believed that anyone had the audacity to commit such an affront to his property. But the blood stains, the empty bottle, the unlit lantern and the pieces of meat thrown in the bush were evidence of the traces of the short hick that lived on the other side of the hill.
With his eyes fixed on the rest of his black bull, the old man lit a cigarette and said, as if he were talking with the corpse:
“Stupid hick. He either lost his notion of danger or has no love for life. Let’s go around the hill and pay a visit to this fucker”.
Tiãozinho hadn’t gotten four hours of sleep when he heard the roar of the truck motor coming near. He thought he was dreaming and rolled over in bed for a while until he realized what was about to happen. He knew there was no plan or story that could hide him from the wrath of Valadão and, therefore, decided to keep on lying down, inert under the wool blanket.
The truck’s motor was turned off just outside of the shack and the only thing Tiãozinho could do was wait for time to determine his fate. And time was even more cruel than his accusers. Tiãozinho really had the impression that the noise of the motor might have come out of a nightmare since he had listened to that noise for more than ten minutes and, up to now, nothing had happened. There was only a diabolical suspense about what would happen. He moaned and twisted his body until he was overcome by a mixture of courage and impatience. When he finally removed the blanket, intending to get up, he heard a loud bang caused by the window being knocked out. He immediately went under the blanket again and watched the pieces of meat from the bull being thrown in his direction by the hands of two men. Quickly, the bed and floor were covered with pieces of meat and blood.
“Stupid hick,” said Teobaldo as he opened the door and came right into the room holding a revolver in his right hand. And he finished, in a dry scream:
“Get up. We’re going for a walk!”
Valadão’s older son held Tiãozinho by the arm and dragged him out of the house. Before leaving, he shoved the end of the television in the living room. It banged to the floor and the screen shattered. Wearing only his old shorts, Tiãozinho looked around the corners of his living room without saying a word, as if he were saying goodbye. Outside, the two bullies led the pair to the truck where the patriarch waited with a smile at the edge of his mouth and his elbow resting on the rider-side window.
“What’s your name, you piece of shit?” asked the old man, peering from the rear view window after the car took off. The hick was seated on the back seat between the two henchmen with his hands tied.
“Sebastião... I knew a Sebastião once; he was a police chief. He liked to fish… and mess up our business. He died in a lake full of tilapia with a hook in his cheek… Sebastião…”
The truck parked next to the cellar door on the Valadão farm, where the main house could be seen at a distance. The beating began right there, under the midday sun. Teobaldo and the henchmen took turns punching and kicking while the patriarch ordered a servant to bring him a few bananas.
“Tenorio, you go up the hill and bring us a fat bull. Bring it here,” ordered the old man, eyeing the blood that ran from Sebastião’s nose. “Oh, this fucking heat,” he complained.
Teobaldo was having fun and didn’t seem bothered by the temperature. He decided to knock out all the front teeth of the thief’s mouth and didn’t rest until he topped off his work with his pointed elbow. Tiãozinho, semi-conscious, didn’t beg, didn’t argue, didn’t say or hear anything more. He took the beating with his blue eyes drooping and tearful and tried not to think.
As soon as Tenorio arrived with the fat bull, the patriarch took the gun out of Teobaldo’s holster, gave one shot into the animal’s forehead, and it fell on its side in the green grass. Then he gave his son’s gun back and said to the beaten guy:
“Sebastião, we are going to open the belly of this beast and take out all the meat from inside. Then, we will stuff you inside and sew up the stomach of the animal. But we are not going to kill you. No, we’re just going to tie you up so you can’t run away. Let the vultures finish the work. Does that sound good?”
Nobody knows if the victim, in fact, heard and understood his sentence. But he probably did, because by then, in spite of being toothless and with many bones broken, he stared in the direction of the open stomach of the slaughtered animal. He didn’t offer resistance to the henchmen, who tied his body and put him in the belly of the beast in a fetal position.
At the end of that afternoon, Gaveta went to Tiãozinho’s house with three other guys. They were going to call him to play a soccer game in the countryside field, the traditional Sunday game. They found a huge bull with his stomach unsewn and empty on the ground in front of the house. Not a sign of Tiãozinho.
ZÉ MCGILL was born in Eugene, Oregon, in 1977, but has been living in Rio de Janeiro since he was 3 months old.
Writer, translator and musician, he has published a book of short stories entitled Na barriga do boi [In the Belly of the Beast] (2011) through Editora 7 Letras.
In 2014, a new book of short stories called Fantasmas de carne e osso [Ghosts in the Flesh] will be released in Brazil.
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