A painting of a small pumpkin, sliced open so that we can see the flesh and the seeds. The slice that was taken out is sitting next to it on a table.


Paca Meat

Joaquim Baiano’s land is near the source of the river, and the pumpkins he grows there are simply unbelievable. When his groaning truck arrives at the market, its noise made even more unbearable by the lack of a damper, it’s the pumpkins the people want to see. Not everyone is interested in buying them, they’re too big, but everyone likes looking at them, using the palms of their hands to measure the orange curves, tapping on the shells with their fingers to hear the sounds they make. Tock, tock. Tock, tock. No one understands why Joaquim Baiano’s pumpkins are so big, they assume there must be some secret behind it, though they don’t know what exactly. It’s the devil’s work, God doesn’t make pumpkins that size, they whisper at the market stalls, their suspicions given further fuel by the fact that Joaquim Baiano never, ever goes to church. He doesn’t live off pumpkins alone, today he’s brought bananas, cassava, greens and pigeon peas. The peas are pre-weighed and sold in plastic bottles he gets from the wife of the guy who owns the grocery store. With all the fizzy drinks people consume there’s no shortage of plastic bottles in garbage heaps, tossed down alleyways or floating in the river, and so instead of throwing them away the grocery store owner’s wife distributes the empty bottles to the poor. She’s a serious woman who wears long trousers and does her hair up in a bun, not one for chatting, she just comes out from the back of the store with bags full of plastic bottles, hands them over and turns around again. Joaquim Baiano has no wife and it’s quite possible there’s never been anyone. Alone in his wilderness, he looks out for himself. Since he was a boy he’s washed and repaired his own clothes, cooked his own food and tended to his cassava without uttering a word. He doesn’t even have a dog. And it was in silence that he arrived early this morning in his truck. He came down from the hills, meandering through the shades of earth and green until he sighted the roofs of the houses in the village and the white church on the summit of the hill.


He parks in the market square, irked by a very loud, unfamiliar noise. He gets down from the truck, sees the stands on the other side of the street, the watermelons, the parrots, other trucks, the Ipê wood, not understanding where the booming loud noise that’s ricocheting in his skull is coming from. Joaquim looks around until he finds it – they’ve put speakers on the lampposts in the bandstand square. The speakers are small but powerful, making the windows of nearby houses rattle. With nowhere else to go, their inhabitants sit in chairs on the pavements and watch the comings and goings in the square. Some drink coffee, others attempt to make conversation, the children play and eat cookies, but mostly they stay silent, looking over at the other side of the street as if they were watching television. The music stops, and Joaquim Baiano’s body relaxes in the three seconds that follow, before another song starts up, some ditty about love which, like the other song, is so loud it drowns out the stallholders’ chatter, the hens squawking in their baskets, the sharp knives cutting tubers, roots and coconuts, the parrots in the Ipê trees. The music is so loud that the market has turned into a silent movie. All you can hear is love, love, love, nauseating trash. The cheese seller explains that it’s for the tourists, the mayor says we need to make them feel welcome or they’ll go elsewhere, to cheerier places like Pirenópolis. Frowning, Joaquim Baiano leaves the back of his truck open and goes in search of some tobacco. When he finds one, he sniffs it, feeling the twisted, resinous braid with his calloused fingers. He grunts that he wants a piece. The woman selling it spits on the ground and cuts the tobacco with a knife, then rolls up the braid like a piece of cheese and wraps it in a sheet of newspaper. Joaquim Baiano tries to pay with five and ten centavo coins, but they slip through his fingers, causing him great embarrassment. The woman says it’s fine, that what he’s given her is enough, and she throws the coins into a shoebox while he picks up the ones that have fallen on the ground. There’s also a pile of bacon at this stall which is attracting his attention. He’ll buy a piece if he sells a lot today, the only thing is he doesn’t know if he’ll be able to stay at the market much longer. Joaquim Baiano never goes to fairs, birthday parties, baptisms, or mass, because he doesn’t like fuss, and today he’s considering cutting his losses. He walks back over to the truck and stands there, arms crossed, chewing the tobacco he’s just bought. The giant pumpkins are still attracting the attention of the marketgoers, and he sells two, plus a bottle of pigeon peas. That’s not enough to buy bacon, but it doesn’t matter. He wants to be back home in the hills right now. Just as he’s about to leave, the tobacco seller comes over. 


She’s accompanied by two men, tall and young, in their twenties. The woman calls Joaquim Baiano to her side, walks with him to the edge of the square and explains that they’re tourists looking for a place to camp for a few nights. They’ll pay good money, she says, they’re from Brasília. They’ve come to explore the region’s caves, and Joaquim’s place is less than one league away from Lapa do Penhasco. It’s easy money, they’ll pitch their tents on your land for a few days and use the latrine and the well water, I’ve already told them the facilities are basic and they were fine with it. Joaquim Baiano looks sideways at the two men wearing trousers with lots of pockets and strange looking boots. Just those two? No, there’s three others. And what do you get out of it? The woman laughs, she knows Joaquim Baiano’s ways, he’s gruff and mistrustful, more like an animal than a man. I’m going to cook for them at home, I told them it’s peasant food and they didn’t mind that either. Joaquim calculates how much patience he’ll have to expend on these people and spits on the ground. How much are they paying? The woman shakes her head, I don’t know, that’s for you to decide. 


They walk slowly back over to the truck. Joaquim Baiano can’t hear a thing in all the confusion and gestures at one of the young men to come over. He confirms what the woman has already explained, they don’t need any creature comforts, just somewhere to camp for five days, give or take, depending on what they find in the caves. I charge ten reais per day, Joaquim Baiano explains, expecting them to protest, especially since he means per person. Without even consulting the other four, the young man says done and holds out his hand to make it official. Joaquim doesn’t like how quickly the agreement was reached, but he takes the young man’s hand and shakes it as the tobacco seller, observing everything from a distance, lowers her shoulders in relief. Joaquim spits on the floor again, adjusts his hat, scratches his balls, rubs his nose and smoothens out his muddy trousers. He mumbles to himself, looking perturbed. The boy says sorry, I didn’t get that, and leans over to hear better. It’s nothing, forget it.


Deal done, Joaquim shuts the back of the truck and asks his guest for an advance. One of them promptly pulls out a 50 real note, so crisp it looks like it’s been ironed flat. Joaquim, who hasn’t had serious cash for a long time, hurries over to the tobacco stall. He sniffs three bits of bacon and chooses the fattest one, an oily strip of hide and salt, and the woman wraps it in pink paper as she remarks how good tourism could be for Buriti Pequeno. Don’t you think so, Joaquim? He doesn’t reply, simply nodding as he shoves the change into his shirt pocket. He gets into the truck, placing the package of bacon on the passenger seat. The young men drive over in two jeeps, new models covered in stickers and dust. For a moment, Joaquim Baiano almost calls it off, thinking that the deal is not to his advantage, that the money isn’t enough for the inconvenience these people could cause him, but then he looks at the package and remembers he can’t change his mind now, he’d rather die than go back to the market and return this bacon. In the rear mirror he sees they’re ready to go. He sticks his arm out the window, shifts into first gear and moves.


When they arrive, the youngsters unload a bunch of colourful bags, canvases, bits of metal. They are full of praise for his property, the hills, the Pequi trees loaded with ripe fruit, the creek, which they know flows into the Amanaçu, but Joaquim Baiano doesn’t reply. When they spot the pumpkin field they run over to the soil, which is studded with big, round, bright orange things that look like they’ve come from another world. They squat down next to the pumpkins, touch them, take photos, laugh as if those fruits were pumping them full of a joy that transforms them into barefoot urchins, feeling the excitement of a childhood they had never experienced first-hand. Joaquim Baiano is not happy, he doesn’t want those people messing about in his pumpkins, only he is allowed to walk on his pumpkin patch, until they’ve had their umbilical cords cut, only he can touch them. Hey! he shouts, gesturing to the young men. Those aren’t toys! The five of them leave the field, slightly embarrassed but still excited. Those are some pumpkins you’ve got there, Mr Joaquim, the one who made the deal says. Joaquim grunts out another incomprehensible word or two. His head buried in his hat, he marches over to the rear building and shows them the bathroom. The youngsters are amazed by the wooden latrine. Did you make this? What? The toilet, did you make it? Why does that matter? Joaquim Baiano shakes his head, astonished that such idiots walk this earth. Finally, he shows them how to draw water from the well, which of course they can’t do, and before leaving he gives them some important advice, look inside the toilet before you sit down, sometimes snakes get in there. 


Inside the house, Joaquim closes the wooden window. He’s intrigued by the amount of junk they’ve brought with them, but he doesn’t want to come across like some bumpkin, staring at them like a wide-eyed little kid. But he can’t help it, so he looks out through the cracks in the blind and almost falls over backwards at what he sees. They’re building a small camp of colourful tents, criss-crossed with canvas and nylon rope. They’ve already finished one tent and got out a stove, an icebox, a net, a small table and four chairs. Joaquim Baiano’s blood bubbles like brown sugar in a saucepan, viscous, the kind that warms the veins in your neck. He comes out of the house, his boots sinking into the mud as he feels the cool pistol tucked into his waist, concealed by the shirt.


You’ll mess up the soil with those gadgets there, Joaquim gestures at the tent with a tilt of his head. The youngsters, taken by surprise, exchange glances. One of them says they can assemble the tents somewhere else, near the creek for example. But then another one corrects him, saying it’s his house and they’ll do as he wishes. If you want us to dismantle it, we’ll dismantle it, no problem. Joaquim Baiano looks at their faces and sees that though they’re not afraid, they’re not disrespectful either, and that seems sufficient. By the creek, then, he says, returning to the house. He watches everything through the cracks in the window, the dismantling and reconstruction of the camp, which appears more discreet now. Suddenly, one of the boys approaches the house. Joaquim Baiano quickly grabs his tobacco and begins to roll a cigarette, sitting facing the open door. The youngster says if he’d be so kind, they need directions to get to the Lapa do Penhasco cave, and opens a map of the region, something Joaquim has never seen before. The youngster shows him some lines and colours and points to a circle drawn in red pen, indicating where they are now. Those colours and lines mean nothing to Joaquim. He chews it over, scratches his head violently and walks out of the house. Gripping the cigarette between his fingers, he gesticulates at the road leading away from the farm, the tracks through the hills. He describes the route in the only way he can, he has so little use for words. The youngster follows his arm movements attentively, comparing them with the lines on the map and thanks him, smiling. Oh, and what about the tobacco seller’s house? Joaquim turns in the opposite direction and points at another dirt track, this one narrower and hidden by vegetation. Before he returns to the group, the youngster gently slaps Joaquim Baiano on the back, twice. He’s lucky not to get a slap himself.


Once they’ve draped mosquito nets over their tents they leave in their cars. The luggage compartments, Joaquim Baiano notices, are full of ropes, helmets and other gear. But Joaquim Baiano is not interested in such contraptions. He decides not to eat the bacon today, choosing rice and pumpkin instead. Then he makes some coffee and puts on his work boots. He’s making a storage unit for his tools, seeds and fertiliser. He’s always slept with everything inside the house, but recently he’s grown tired of this, so he had bought four tiles and some planks with some money he’d been saving up. Joaquim gets to work, measuring and cutting the planks with a saw, only stopping to turn down the volume of the radio playing from inside the house. Sometimes he puts the radio on after lunch, just so that he doesn’t completely lose any notion of human conversation, but he always has it on low.


Engrossed in his work, he forgets about his guests, who get back just before sunset. They’re muddy and smiling, chatty, too comfortable in Joaquim Baiano’s opinion. Using an aluminium bucket they draw water from the well the way he showed them, and bathe in their boxer shorts, rubbing fragrant soaps on their skin. A white foam flows towards the creek fouling the earth and muddying the water, creating a different kind of mud on the path. Joaquim Baiano tries not to let this bother him, switches off the radio and washes himself over a trough with soap. He scrubs his face, neck and armpits, and that suffices for now. One of the five comes over and tells him they’re going to eat at the tobacco seller’s house, they’ll walk there since they think they know the way. Joaquim Baiano shrugs, seeing no reason why he needed to be told this. The more time they spend away, he thought, never mind where, the better. Especially since now they all smelled like whores. All that perfume made him feel sick, which is also why Joaquim Baiano never saw the allure of women. Too perfumed.


But the strange thing is, after eating and getting his shotgun ready for the morning hunt, Joaquim Baiano lies down and can’t sleep. He can’t sleep because he’s waiting for the five youngsters from Brasília to return, all of a sudden, their absence means that the house is still awake, alert, lit up as if it was haunted. He doesn’t understand why, those youngsters are good for nothing, they mess the place up, make noise, talk too much. Joaquim Baiano tells himself he would rather keep an eye on them because he doesn’t trust them, and this is why he was having difficulty sleeping. Tomorrow he’ll get up early to hunt paca, he’s sure those idlers have never been hunting, he bets they only ever eat soft, farmed chicken. There’s a chicken farm in Buriti Pequeno and Joaquim Baiano thinks those creatures look like slugs with feathers, their bones are so weak they barely support the flesh. They’re sickly birds. When he’s back from hunting he’ll roast the paca and give the boys a bit to try. He wants them to see the ferrous blood, the sinewy flesh, the smoke rising up from the coals. It’s pitch black now, very late indeed. Through the crack in the window he watches the moon reaping the stars, feels the cold, damp air, listens to what the animals are telling him, Joaquim, now is no time to be awake. And they, the five youngsters, still haven’t come back. They went on foot. Maybe they got lost, they’ve no head for the paths that Joaquim Baiano knows so well. Surely anyone can see their brains are mush? They’re factory-farmed men, Joaquim Baiano thinks, tired before they’ve even woken up. Damn them! He puts on his trousers, shirt and boots, grabs his shotgun and walks out among the huge pumpkins reflecting the glimmers of the night – he knows there isn’t another pumpkin field in the world like this one. I hope those morons haven’t got too lost, he grunts. I hope they’re close. Joaquim Baiano pleads with a god he doesn’t believe in and, out of habit, makes the sign of the cross. He is a man who prays without faith.


PAULLINY TORT (1979) is a Brazilian journalist. Her first novel, Allegro ma non troppo (Oito e Meio, 2017) was a semifinalist in the 2017 Oceanos Prize. She currently studies Biology and focuses on evolution and science education. Erva Brava, from which 'Paca Meat' is taken, is her first short story collection.

RAHUL BERY lives in Cardiff and translates from Spanish and Portuguese into English. His most recent translations are Nothing Can Hurt You Now by Simone Campos and Mary John by Ana Pessoa (co-translated with Daniel Hahn). He is currently working on a translation of Centroeuropa by Vicente Luis Mora.



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