‘She looked like her’

July 16, 2014

On the only forked river confluence overlooking the expansive valley in Mato Grosso. This was where the Chinaman sugarcane planter built his 33 room plantation mansion in the Amazonia.

The chinaman had a habit of wearing his creme Borsalino slightly tilted to one side like the Latin crooner Feliciano. He sported a pencil moustache. Slicked his hair back. Wore riding breeches and knee high mirror polished boots.

In the evening, the Chinaman would stand on the same spot as he always did on the the balcony overlooking the expansive valley as the dying afternoon light began to give way to darkness.

There was always the sonorous tone of the BCC world service to pierce the aching silence.

As far as appearances went. He could have passed off like any other wealthy plantation landowner in Amazonia his man servant Blairo Nepstad had often remarked to the rest of the servants in the palatial mansion….except for a few unusual features concerning the man.

Though Blairo Nepstad had much preferred to ply his trade as a man servant in ‘less remote circumstances,’ as he often lamented in his letters to his only sister in Ascuncion – the Chinaman more than made up for such inconveniences as he was a very wealthy man – and though Blairo Nepstad could never quite understand why his master always insisted on spoiling the finely tailored creme Carvalho suits that he himself had taken measurements and travelled three days by river boat along the Xingu by wearing a shouldered holstered revolver over such fine linen – and would always remain stoically ambivalent to the dirty habits of the Panari tribesman who roamed the well manicured grounds of the mansion while chewing foul smelling Tanguro bettlenut – he never asked.

From time to time, the Panari savages would wiped their oily hands on the pristine white helm of the table cloth, curtains and carpets much to the consternation of the house servants and especially Blairo Nepstad.

On one occasion when he had brought up the matter to his master – he had quipped that having these half naked savages around the house added color to the blandness – the Chinaman’s farmhands knew the staccato of his approaching horse that he rode every morning across the length and breath of his lands – the grileiros the sting of his whip against their bare flesh.

No one knew much about the Chinaman. No one dared to ask. He was a man of few words.

There were of course no shortage of rumors – that he had once turned the wheel of life in Africa as a Cocoa planter. Had by some interception of fate and serendipity that only visits a man once in his life time – come to wealth suddenly and unexpected after dueling with Auricelia Odoni. A wealthy landowner who had accused him of cheating in a card game only for the latter to demand satisfaction – Odoni passed away under mysterious circumstances which was listed in the provincial birth and death directory as ‘unnatural death.’ Beyond that very little was known of how he amassed his extraordinary wealth.

He went everywhere in a chauffeured creme Mercedes, lunched at the Polo Club in Santarem where he sat only on table 35 which overlooked the fast running Madeira and was especially fond of halibut with Brussels sprouts served with cognac mushroom sauce on Fridays.

To the very few shopkeepers and merchants prided their San Paolo wares along El Gaho, he was someone rich and leisured who always only paid in crisp American notes.

To his physician, he was a man with three bullet scars, one on his chest and rest arranged around the size of saucer in his inner right thigh.

To his dentist, he was the man missing the entire upper section of his back row molars to which he was cautious, as he had once read of how criminals on the run would pull off their teeth to avoid being fingered.

To the only gunsmith in Santarem whose establishment only opened from the curious hour of lunchtime as he also doubled as the magistrate. The Chinaman was a man who only appeared in the beginning of every month to collect his cartridge consignment of .380 that always arrived by special sealed courier every month from Buenos Aries.

To the elegant Madame who masqueraded as a piano teacher and who was really the proprietor of a pleasure house in a hacienda where wealthy landowners would often visit under the pretense of playing cards in the name of business congeniality – the Chinaman was man who much preferred blondes to brunettes. But since the rarely came up the Madeira and when they did. He would always complain they were horse faced. He kept mostly to a discreet table, flipping over playing cards, looking for his blonde in every Queen.

To the ladies of that floating world, rooms always seemed smaller when he was in it. The rains always came when he had finished. Clocks stopped mysteriously and languorous summer nights seemed longer than usual whenever he decided not to visit. He was to them very much the quintessential infinite man.

Politicians considered him a compadre after their third drink. A loyalist to the junta cut from the same cloth as Castelo Branco after polishing a quart. Though depending on the number of bottles emptied. They all knew the Chinaman really only turned a blind eye whenever they fed his insatiable appetite for land concessions in the Villa Marde.

He regretted neither his complicity nor association with the corrupt, amoral and damned. Often expressing sardonically ‘there are no good or bad men…only actions we can live with or choose to live without….’

Whenever he was asked concerning the many mysterious executions of reactionary priest and nuns by military sanctioned death squads in his district – there was no comment – however there was one incident – even that was riven with rumors.

The story went that it involved a young beautiful Swedish blonde environment scientist who worked alongside the reactionary sister of Notre Dame de Namur – the American missionary Dorothy Stang who was the patron saint of destitute settlers who lived under the iron vice of the grileiros and large landowners called the Matistzo – a thorn in the eye of the junta. Dorothy Stang had highlighted the plight of the Panari tribesmen fleeing from deforestation.

The incident occurred in a jungle clearing in Anapu one misty morning when the Chinaman had been hunting with a handful of Manoki braves. They came across a ramshackle structure of lashed poles topped by an olive green tarp. Inside it, they found three young girls all tied to stakes and dead. They had been tortured, raped and killed. To one side of the camp hidden away by tall reeds clumped a group of militia – they were all drunk. Next to them a blonde girl was tied to a stake. It is not known why the Chinaman did what he did or whether he was involved at all – accounts vary wildly depending on whether it’s the dry or rainy season. Some say it was the look of abject desperation the girl flashed him the moment their eyes locked that must have stirred something deep in the sediments of his primordial thoughts. The Manoki referred to it as ‘jiaha’ which although doesn’t have a comparable word in English can at best be approximated with the phrase, ‘seeing a ghost’ – others in the boisterous Golden Chain Catena frequented by loggers in the shanty town of Anapu preferred to believe the Chinaman had grown sick of the killings and his patience just ran too thin to hold further that very day – the girl was just lucky it snapped then and there- then there were others who much preferred to believe in the power of divine intervention – that the blonde scientist had prayed so hard that day God himself must have sent the archangel Michael to dispense rough justice – no one knows exactly what happened that day.

Six dead men along the river bank with their throats slit and scalped. As for the blonde forester she appeared three weeks later in Stockholm claiming she had no recollection of who or how she was saved.

After the incident made the headlines in San Paulo. The Chinaman was never seen again.

Blairo Nepstad did not understand…..He did not….as he began to clear the room of his master by placing all the contents in a wooden storage crate. The man servant suddenly realized there wasn’t much to even fill the large crate that had arrived the day before from San Paola with a hand written note from his master, ‘put all my things into this crate…best regards.’- though the palatial mansion the Chinaman built had 35 rooms. The man had a strange habit of sleeping in a blind corner in the garage. There were only three items that stood out in this austered space – a military camp bed. Battery wall clock and a side table. The first and second drawer were empty. The third contained a half tube of Mentos and an oversized Children’s Bible picture book. As he leafed thru the pages half mockingly – a black and white photo slipped out.

The picture depicted the Chinaman beside a fleshed faced blonde who was holding her habit dressed in a somber colored ankle high skirt. They were both smiling and leaning against the fender of a land rover. On the reversed side, scrawled in bluish crayon, ‘Gabundi Estate – Uganda – Eva Meyer and me.’

For a moment Blairo Nepstad thought he had finally understood. He expressed, ‘Aha!’ But as he peered closer to make out the features of the nun in the photo. His understanding began to dissolve as though the features of the Swedish forester who was kidnapped and saved did resemble the woman in the photograph. They were really not the same woman. The Swedish forester just looked a lot like one Miss Eva Meyer.

Blairo Nepstad did not understand….and for the very first time in his life. He reconciled himself somewhat happily with the prospects that he would never understand.

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