Fandango: The Life and Death of a Gaúcho
by ÉRICO VERÍSSIMO
I SHALL never forget that bleak winter morning when word came from my grandfather’s cattle ranch that Fandango was dead. It’s strange the way you sometimes react to good or bad news. I received the sad message not with my brain but with my heart, which started pounding faster and faster, before my mind had taken in the full meaning of the loss.
My father heard the news in silence, without so much as blinking, his dry eyes set on the overcast sky. I knew he was sorry, because he too loved the old man. His countenance, however, did not betray him. That’s the way gaúchos are. The men of the green pampas are not supposed to cry. Crying is for women — young women, that is, because old ones like my grandmother had cried so much over their men, killed, wounded or mutilated in endless duels, revolutions, and wars, that they had run out of tears.
I forgot to say that the wind was blowing hard that day, wailing and moaning in a kind of despair. It too had heard the sad news.
I guess it ‘s no use to go on with my story without saying a few words about the place I live in, of which most people have probably never heard. Oh, I don’t mean Brazil. Of course practically everybody has heard of that big country one way or another. I mean my native Rio Grande do Sul, the southernmost state of Brazil, bordering on Uruguay and Argentina. It has been so to speak the battleground of the nation throughout its history. Almost all the foreign wars in which Brazil has been involved were fought on gaúcho territory.
At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Rio Grande do Sul was nothing but a vast green desert separating the last Portuguese settlement in southern Brazil from the Spanish possessions on the River Plate. Then Brazilians from other regions started going down to that no man’s land, which for some odd reason was known as “The Continent.”Those adventurers knew that the rich lands and the wild cattle in the South would belong to the firstcomer. The pioneers followed the elusive trails of the cattle drovers. Many explored the rivers in search of gold and silver and precious stones. A few of them applied to the King for land grants, but most |ust took over the lands they liked, and not infrequently stole them from other settlers. Eventually roving cattle thieves settled down and ranches were established; but for many years the Continent was infested with desperadoes. They were tough men who knew no law or allegiance. Who were their enemies? The Indians, wild beasts, snakes, fevers and the Regiment of Dragoons that the Portuguese Crown had recently sent to the Continent. And who were their friends? Their horses, their muskets, their pistols and their knives. To the beat of their horses’ hoofs and the crackle of their rilles the Spaniards were thrust back. The frontier went marching with them. They were the frontier.
Settlements sprang up in the valleys and on the prairies, in the highlands and on the banks of many rivers. These were the seeds of the towns of today.
During the nineteenth century thousands of immigrants came from Europe, first from Germany and then from Italy. Gringos, we called them. That’s why today one finds so many people with blond hair, blue eyes and foreign accents.
This last used to roil old Fandango. He had no patience with foreigners. He was suspicious of them. He thought immigration a bad thing, because “every man ought to stay put in his own country, minding his own business, with his relatives and friends.”
WHEN my grandfather was born, it’s said that Fandango, in those days a cowpuncher of twenty, was sent from the ranch to the village, on the back of a burro, to fetch the priest to baptize the baby. He was well into his forties when my father was born. My father grew up in the shadow of Fandango, and a very broad and generous shadow it was. The gaúdio taught him — as he had previously done with my grandfather — all about horses, the winds, the weather, women and the routine of ranch life. Our ranch was called “Angico,” which is the name of a tree. Now, for some mysterious reason fandango always reminded me of a tree, something rooted in the soil of our ranch, something strong, friendly and beautiful.
It never occurred to me to ask Fandango who his parents were, because I had the feeling that he had not been born like other humans: he had just sprung up from the soil of Angico like a plant, the seeds of which had been brought by the wind from some faraway forest.
Of course his real name was not Fandango, but José Menezes. The nickname was due to his passion for dancing. (For the gaúchos, every party, every fiesta at which there is dancing is a fandango.)
When I was twelve, the old cowhand was already in his early eighties, but still strong of body and clear of mind. I used to spend my summer vacation at Angico, and that for me was the best time of the year.
“What do they teach you in school?” Fandango asked me one summer.
“Well,”I answered, “reading, writing and arithmetic. Geography and history, too.”
Fandango chuckled and shook his white-maned head.
“That’s for girls, son,” he said. “A man should learn other things. Come on, I’ll start your gaúcho education today.”
And that summer and in the summers that followed, I learned many practical things from the old man. The Portuguese that they taught me at school was a strange, elaborate tongue that had very little connection with the language spoken in the sheds and kitchen of the ranch. Fandango considered the knowledge of arithmetic unnecessary. He had a theory of his own about the four principal operations. “The hard-working man adds,” he would say with a wink; “the rascal subtracts; the clever man multiplies; and only the fool divides.” He had never gone to school, and yet he could make an accurate estimate of the cattle in a herd at a quick glance. Geography? Fandango had the whole geography of the province in his head. From boyhood he had earned his living journeying, driving carts or herds, and there was not a ravine or gap or hideout in Rio Grande that he didn’t know as well as the palm of his hand. He knew where the water holes were, where the rivers could be forded, where the best grazing land or the best shelter was to be found. It seemed that there was not a cabin, ranch, village, town or city where he did not have an acquaintance. “Even the trees and the animals know me when I go by,” he used to boast.
One day, after looking at the pictures in a French magazine to which my father subscribed, I asked my oracle: “ Which way do you take to go to Paris? ” Fandango looked puzzled. “Where’s that, son?” “Somewhere in Europe.”
“Oh, well . . .” He looked first to the right, then to the left, closed one eye, pointed an arm to the north and, with the air of one who had gone to Paris many times, said: “You go straight in that direction, by way of Dead Man’s Creek.”
I was very proud of my knowledge of history, and sometimes I would tell Fandango all I knew about the Punic Wars, Alexander the Great, or the French Revolution. The old cowhand listened to me in silence, but seemed unimpressed. He thought all those things — wars, generals, foreign lands and people —were nothing more than invention on the part of some wily city folk. I confess that I found it easier to believe in Fandango’s tales than in my history books. For the old man knew the best yarns in the world: stories about ghosts, family feuds, wars, duels and all sorts of adventures. At sixteen he had seen his first war, and that was why he used to say, “Ever since I have been big enough to hold a gun, I’ve been fighting with the Castilians.” (A “Castilian ” was any of our Spanish-speaking neighbors across the border.)
Fandango could tell signs of rain in the smell of the wind or the look of the clouds. There was one side of the sky — the west — which he called the “rain maker,” because when the clouds darkened in that direction it was rain for sure. There was a saying Fandango used to repeat frequently in winter: “Frost on the mud, rain on the stud.” One day I asked: “Why ‘on the stud,’ Fandango?”
“To make it rhyme, son.”
It took me some time to realize that Fandango was an incorrigible joker. One day, when I asked him whether it was going to rain or not, the old gaúcho looked gravely at the sky, consulted the clouds and answered: “Sky with stony grain means wind or rain.” He paused briefly, gave his little dry laugh, and added: “. . .or something else again.”
One day as we were going across the country in the heat of the sun, after a rodeo, feeling very thirsty, we hunted eagerly for a water hole. Presently Fandango reined in his horse and began to sniff deeply, smelling the wind. After some time he said: “There’s water nearby. Over that way.” We turned in the direction indicated and found water.
“How do you know these things?” I wondered.
“Well, I have been around for a long time, son.”
Fandango was a man of average height, his skin tanned to leather by the sun, his roguish little black eyes set deep in bony sockets, his mustache and beard snowy white, and his cheeks the color of a ripe guava. He had a voice like a splintered cane, very similar to a parrot’s squawk. He used to sum up his dislikes in a sentence that had become widely known: “Three things there are in life that make it very hard: old women, dark nights and a dog pack in the yard.”
He also liked to say that “a man’s woman, his rifle and his mount are not to be lent on any account.”
The cowboys were in the habit of drawing comparisons between horses and women. Fandango advised the ranch hands to marry girls they knew, if possible girls they had watched grow up. And he quoted a saying: “The filly for your eye is the one raised up nearby.” He would also warn: “A freckled woman and a horse that shies — watch out, brother, if you are wise.”
Many were the tales that Fandango told about himself. Once, when eighteen, he ended a dance with his knife. As the daughter of the house loudly refused to dance with him, he shouted: “You’re not the first mare that ever shied away from me.” A brother of the girl who was near him pulled his dagger. “The weather closed in,” Fandango used to tell. “First thing I did was kick over the lamp. From that point on we fought in the dark.”
One winter day after lunch Fandango sat enjoying the sun in the doorway of the ranch house. Someone approached him and said: “Basking in the sun like a lizard, eh, Fandango?”
“The sun’s the poor man’s poncho, partner,” replied the gaúcho.
He had also mysterious sayings, the meaning of which I could never penetrate: “A big stone makes a shadow, but the shadow has no weight.”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“When you’re older you’ll understand without anybody explaining.”
In his wandering life Fandango had known many people in many places. He had a prodigious memory: he never forgot names, faces, dates or places. One night in the lean-to at Angico, when the ranch hands and a stranger were talking, smoking and drinking maté around the fire, someone inquired: “Whatever happened to Joca Silva?”
Fandango promptly informed: “Killed by his brother-in-law a long time ago.”
“And how about his uncle, Two-Gun Pedro?”
The old gaúcho thought a minute and then answered: “Got his throat cut in the last revolution.”
“And that tall one-eyed drover who used to . . .”
“Manuel the Horsefly?”
“That’s the one!”
“Killed by an accordion player at a dance . . . couple of years ago.”
The stranger, a cattle drover from São Paulo, who had listened in silence, observed: “From all I hear nobody around here dies in bed.”
Fandango spat in the fire and replied: “Right hard to do, young fellow. But some manage . . .”
It was with Fandango that I learned to swim, use the lariat, treat sores and round up cattle. But of all the bits of knowledge the old man passed on to me, the ones of which I was most proud in those days were those having to do with horses. I had absorbed them in practical lessons, on trips, during roundups and at horse-breakings in which I saw with my own eyes the tricks and habits of horses, the peculiarities of each breed, and each type of marking. When I questioned the old man about the qualities of a dark brown horse, he would close one eye, look at me for some time and say sententiously: “Dark brown? He’11 die before he tires down.”
“And a dapple, Fandango?”
“In water he’s better than a canoe.”
“If you meet a traveler on the road with his saddle gear on his back, you can ask right away, ‘Where’d you leave the bay?' ” And he would add: “Once, over yonder around São Sepé, I was left afoot by a bay.”
Nobody ever found out whether the thing had really happened “yonder around São Sepé” or whether Fandango had chosen that settlement just for the rhyme.
That was old Fandango for you. I owed him many things, including my life. Yes, my life! Once I went to swim in the river and, becoming exhausted,
I was carried away by the current. Realizing that I was going to be swept over the nearby waterfall, to death on the rocks below — more than one ranch hand had died that way—I started yelling at the top of my lungs. Fandango, who was riding on horseback somewhere in the neighborhood, heard my cries for help, galloped down to the bank of the stream, grabbed his lasso, whirled it in the air, and flung it out in my direction. When, a little later, bruised, panting, and scared, I was riding home behind him on the horse’s crupper, he gave me a slap on the thigh and said: “I’ve lassoed many a bull and many a calf in my day, but this is the first time I ever lassoed a monkey!” And he began to laugh. His laugh rang out on the clear afternoon air, mingling with the song of the birds and the roar of the waterfall, and all alike faded away on the broad horizon of Angico.
Now Fandango was dead. I drove with my father to Angico, to attend the old gaúcho’s funeral.
My grandfather met us in front of the big ranch house. My father and I, following the ancient custom of our land, kissed his long, parched hand. The old man told us that Fandango as usual was watching the sunrise that morning, leaning on the fence near the bunkhouse, and all of a sudden his head had dropped on his chest, his arms had gone limp and there he had stayed, propped up on the fence, as if he had fallen asleep.
“I was at his side,” my grandfather went on, “watching the sunrise too. And I didn’t have to touch him, feel his pulse or even look at his face to know he was dead. We old people are too well acquainted with death not to know it when it comes.”
My father cleared his throat. He always did that when he was either annoyed or moved or both.
We walked in silence to the room where Fandango’s body was laid out. Grandfather stopped at the door and whispered: “He didn’t really die. It was just like a candle blown out by the wind.”
The wind was still blowing hard. Under the gray sky the rolling fields of Angico were a depressingly dull green.
Fandango was lying in a rough coflin made by the ranch hands with lumber from our woods. You could have imagined he was just asleep. His face was serene and I think there was a faint suggestion of a smile on his pale lips. Yes, a mocking smile, as if he were making fun of all the sad-faced people who had gathered around him. It seemed I could hear his voice: “Come on, you folks! Why so serious? Everyone has to die sooner or later. Haven’t. I told you many times that I wanted my funeral to be gay like a party? Well, where are the musicians? Where are the dancers? Call them in! Where are the six pretty girls I told you I wanted to carry my coffin?”
But the silence persisted in that cold, somber room and all the faces were as pale and motionless as the dead man’s. The flames of the four candles that burned at the corners of the coffin flickered agonizingly.
I gazed at Fandango’s face, trying to cry to relieve the unbearable weight of grief I felt in my chest. But it was no use. My eyes remained dry.
My grandfather took my arm and whispered in my ear: “I know how you feel, boy.” He squeezed my arm. “Fandango told me many times that he wanted to be buried by the crooked pine on top of the hill,” he went on. “I’m going to give him his wish.”
At five in the afternoon the funeral procession started. As the coffin had no handles, it was carried on a cart pulled by a horse. My grandfather, my father and I followed the cart on foot, heading the procession. From the neighboring villages, ranches and farms many people had come to say farewell to the old gaúcho — rich ranchers, cowboys, farmers, Negroes, tramps, even gringos from the Italian settlements. They all knew and loved Fandango.
Horsemen stood in a double line along the slope of the hill, and, when the coffin passed by, the gaúchos took off their hats. Up at the foot of the crooked pine a group of people — men, women and children — surrounded the open grave.
Contemplating the picture from the foot of the hill, I shuddered, as if suddenly pierced by the sad, grave beauty of that moment. It was like the funeral of an ancient warrior, in a silent country which knew no drums or fanfares. The only audible sounds were the moaning of the wind and the rustling of the trees.
It was too much for me. I covered my face with my hands and let the tears stream down. Fandango whispered in my mind: “A man never cries. Pull yourself together, son.”
At my side, my father cleared his throat three times. My grandfather kept squeezing my arm, as if he were trying to speak to me without words. Finally we reached the top of the hill. Following an ancient tradition, the coffin was opened once again before burial.
I looked for the last time upon the dead man’s face, and the serenity of its expression was such that a calm came upon me, and my weeping ceased.
I uttered no word; my lips did not move; but in my heart I addressed Fandango. “Old friend, forgive my tears. I understand now. You are not going away from us: your body will be planted in the good earth of Angico, and from it perhaps will spring a tree in whose shade I shall come to rest. Old cattle drover, your soul is journeying down its last trail, and one day I shall come to join you on some rise in the prairies of Eternity. Then since you will already know everyone and everything there, you can be my teacher again, just as in times past. Everything is going to be all right now. Farewell!" I am sure no one understood why a smile came to my lips as the coffin was lowered into the grave.
My grandfather and my father took handfuls of earth and cast them upon the lid of the Coffin. Others followed their example. Then a ranch hand took a spade and started to fill in the grave.
Little by little the crowd disbanded. Fandango was alone on the hill by the crooked pine.