Paul Burnham

The Brazilian Slave


The rhythmic sway of the bus had lulled me to sleep on the open highway. Now, many miles into the desert, the bus slowed. The slight change in motion woke me. Other passengers woke as well, and whispered questions of time and place and distance. Some passengers gently tapped those sitting in adjacent seats. Parents soothed their children, quietly reassuring them that all was well despite the unexpected slowing and the pitch black night. The seat next to me remained empty.

I leaned into the aisle and looked out the front of the bus. A man stood squinting into the headlights, hailing the driver. No intersection, no village, no porch light, no marker. Only the man. As the bus slowed and finally stopped, I could see him more clearly in the headlights. A thin, half-empty plastic grocery bag dangled from one hand, from one finger. His shoulder hung lower on that side, as though the weight of this little bag had exhausted his strength. I wondered what he carried, so far away from any town. I discerned no other possessions. His dark pants were dirty, stained with grease, hand-sewn and patched. His long-sleeve shirt was threadbare, nearly transparent, missing the collar. I could descry sinewy muscles and even raised blood vessels in his forearm, through the fabric. His small leather hat was stained with months or years of sweat.

He boarded the bus and stood in the stairwell, looking up at the driver. I strained to hear their conversation.

Ceará?” the man asked. Were we going to Ceará?

The driver nodded. “Sim, Ceará.”

The man extended his hands, open, empty, but for the little bag. At this, the driver looked forward and gave a quick downward sweeping motion with his hand. The man came further into the bus. The driver closed the door. The other passengers settled into their seats again and looked out their windows. The man walked the aisle looking for an empty seat. The driver shifted gears, and the man stumbled as the bus lurched back onto the highway, bumping against the edge of the pavement. He grasped a seatback with his empty hand, and steadied himself for a moment, blinking, grimacing.

Looking down at the empty seat and then at me, he asked softly, “ocupado?

Pode sentar,” I said. He moved slowly, wincing, and bracing himself as he sat.

He was not old. Perhaps forty years of age. He removed his hat, put his head back and closed his eyes. He took a deep breath and exhaled. I looked at him. Closely. He had shaved in the last week. His face was stained, entirely mottled with dirt and sweat, except where tears had run along the side of his nose, around his nostril and into the deep sulcus, to the corner of his mouth and down his chin and neck, finally absorbed by his shirt. He smelled of earth and sweat, of many days’ work beneath the sun. I leaned against the window and fell asleep again.

I woke to the sunrise on the flat desert, to the unbroken line of a smooth horizon. I wondered for a moment if I might see the curvature of the earth in that clear air. I rubbed my eyes and blinked in the already-severe light of the sertão—that arid and desolate inland landscape, interrupted only by the occasional thorn bush or cashew tree.

I looked at the man at my side. His hands rested in his lap. He still slept. The bus rolled on toward Fortaleza. As other passengers began to stir and converse, he remained asleep, resting, oblivious to the waking world.

When he finally woke, he looked at me for several moments. “Galego?” he asked. I told him that, yes, indeed I was a galego, norteamericano. I asked him if he was alright, if I could do anything for him. He looked at the floor and said he was fine, that now he was fine.

I waited until he looked at me again, before speaking with him. His face was thin, and I didn’t want to weary him with questions. He first asked me what I was doing in the nordeste—northeastern Brazil. I told him I was doing humanitarian work—helping people. He listened, looking at the floor again. He waited a long time before saying anything, and then he only nodded and said this was good, to help people was good.

I asked him if he was nordestino or if he hailed from another part of Brazil. He looked at his hat, turning it in his hands. He didn’t answer the question directly. I already knew he was nordestino. He knew I knew he was nordestino. It was an unnecessary question. His sing-song voice, his leather hat, his calloused hands—all this told me he was from here, and had likely never gone away from this place.

He began to answer my question, and I only listened. He said he had been a slave for the past three years in Pernambuco. I looked ahead at the ribbon of asphalt and mirages. He said he was captured and taken to a ranch—the ubiquitous fazenda of this land—and made to work, with the threat of being killed if he were caught escaping. He had escaped and was now going to find his family. He had heard they had gone to Fortaleza, to Ceará.

I nodded, but didn’t speak. What would I have said? He continued. He said he had escaped and lived for a few days near a town not far from the ranch. He had considered going to the police, but didn’t have the courage. He wasn’t sure they would believe him. And, if they believed him, had they already been bribed by the ranch owner? The chefe?

He had simply walked away from the ranch one night, knowing he would die working or die escaping. He had seen his captors in the town, looking for him, asking into his whereabouts. He moved on. He said he didn’t have the wherewithal to forgive them, but that not forgiving them was a sin.

I listened, dizzy with the bewildering disclosure of slavery. In my lifetime.

He said he couldn’t forgive them, so he simply considered them dead, no longer part of this world. He compartmentalized the last three years, his life as a slave, his captors. He said all of this was now gone, behind him, not part of him. This is how he resolved his self-imposed incapacity to forgive with his own belief that he had to forgive.

We arrived at the outskirts of Fortaleza. The sun was long up. He looked past me, looked out the window, and began to cry. His shoulders heaved as he sobbed. I thought perhaps he cried for joy at the prospect of finding his family. He put his face in his leather hat and wept aloud—as though he were just now born, just now beginning a new life.