Though a child of tattered clothing and bad manners, Daniel has always held a special place in my heart. Had our life together been an adventure novel, he would have continued to train himself through many hours of candlelit study to become a great sculptor, revered far and wide, by the last page. But life, as Father used to say, is at best a game of Pope Joan played on a slanted table with the dealer hiding all the best cards up his ruffled sleeve. And so my friend was prevented from accomplishing such wonders.
Had fortune smiled upon him, or more importantly, had I, John Zarco Stewart, greater strength in my arms, then my own life might have gained by proximity as well. After all, we sometimes only realize the effects we have had on our loved ones years later.
I met Daniel in June of 1800, when I was nine years old. More than two years had passed since I'd discovered The Fox Fables in the British Isles. I was heading out early, fortified only by a cup of tea and a crust of corn bread that I'd smeared with honey and gobbled--to my mother's great displeasure--in an instant.
My destination was a wee lake--or tarn, as Papa called it--far beyond the walls of our city, in the wooded hinterland along the road to Vila do Conde. It was a wondrous spot for watching all manner of birdlife, especially just after the dawn. I was at the time, and still am today, a great lover of those handsome creatures of feather, air, and light--a keen appreciator and imitator of avian song as well. Back then, if I could have begged a beak and wings from God, I surely would have considered becoming one.
I was already approaching the granite steps at the end of our street that led down to the riverside neighborhood when raucous shouting reached me from a nearby alley. Racing there at top speed, I discovered Senhora Beatriz, a widowed washerwoman to whom we gave our soiled sheets every Wednesday, splayed on the cobbles outside her house. Whimpering like a beaten dog, her bony knees were drawn protectively into her belly. A periwigged brute in the livery of a coachman was standing threateningly over her, his countenance distorted by rage.
"You careless bitch!" he shouted, fairly spitting out the words. "You pilfering, lying Marrana."
Marrana was a new word to me. Later, my tutor informed me that it meant both swine and converted Jew, an epithet that had confused me, since I had never heard Senhora Beatriz described as anything but a good Christian soul. Indeed, I had only the vaguest idea of what a Jew might be, for though my grandmother had spoken to me of them on two or three occasions, I had not learned anything more than a few legends in which Jewish sorcerers always seemed to be foiling the work of nefarious kings with their magical prayers.
The villainous coach driver now finished his diatribe by snarling, "I'm going to sell you for glue-making, you lazy whore."
Then, after kicking Senhora Beatriz several times, he grabbed hold of her thinning hair, preparing to pound her head against the cobbles.
My heart was battering against my ribs and I began to feel dizzy. I wondered whether I ought to let loose a scream and if it would be able to fly over the rooftops separating my father from me and shake him awake. In those days, I was fully convinced that--at nearly six feet in height--he possessed unsurpassed power to restore order to the entire world.
I would surely have given voice to this bloodcurdling shriek if out of nowhere a rock hadn't caught our brute straight on his cheek. It had been hurled so perfectly and with such righteous force that our evildoer staggered back in shock. Falling to one knee, he seemed puzzled by what had happened, until he spotted the culprit stone sitting innocently at his feet. Looking around for the willful David who had dared to challenge him, he soon fixed me with an enraged stare. In my frilly white shirt, black-and-red-striped breeches, and buckled boots, I was a most unlikely enemy. I even had angelic bangs back then and what my father referred to as "doelike" blue-gray eyes. Nevertheless, I took several steps backward and began to hiccup--a reaction provoked by shattered nerves that I had suffered many times before.
I intended to scurry off if he threatened me, but instead, he turned to gaze at an urchin on the other side of the street. The lad looked at least three years my senior and wore a ragged shirt and soiled breeches. So filthy were his bare feet that they looked like roots pulled from the soil. His head was shaved.
This was the early summer of 1800, and despite the dawn of a new century, it was still a time when children never spoke to adults without first being invited to do so. A rock hurled by a miserably clothed waif at a liveried coach driver in the service of a man of riches was tantamount to heresy.
The injured man stood up with difficulty, dabbing at his cheek with his fingertips. Staring in disbelief at the blood left on his hand, he lurched forward. "You little son of a bitch!" he sputtered. Summoning his flagging strength, he hurled the stone with a grunt.
The weapon sailed over and past its youthful target and rebounded off the granite facade of the house belonging to Senhor Aurelio, the shoemaker. That was the last act our evildoer was going to attempt that day. His eyeballs rolled back in his head and he crumbled to the ground, his head meeting the street with a dry thud that did not sound promising.
I was shivering with fear and anticipation. I had never felt so alive. Imagine--a rock hurled by a filthy urchin felling an ugly brute not two hundred paces from my house!
Senhora Beatriz was sitting up now, her arms clasped around her belly as though protecting an unborn child. She was shaking her head in confusion, plainly trying to understand what had happened. Blood flowed from her bottom lip to her chin; one of her eyes was swollen shut and would later grow infected. It became a milky marble with a cloudy gray center for the rest of her days.
Daniel rushed to her, but she waved a trembling hand to halt his advance. "Go home," she said, wiping her mouth. "We'll talk later. Leave before there's more trouble. Please."
He shook his head. "I will not. At least, not until that shit gets swept into a dung heap," he said, pointing to the villain.
Daniel's accent gave him away as a resident of one of the crumbling riverfront neighborhoods. I was jealous of the way he seemed made for Porto, a city that had its share of gentlemen's clubs and formal gardens but had at its heart a labyrinth of dark alleyways patrolled by peddlers, waifs, and petty thieves.
"Daniel, pay attention to me," Senhora Beatriz replied, drawing determined breaths. "You must leave the city. Two days from now we will meet at your home. Please, before there's trouble . . ."
The senhora would have pleaded further, but neighbors were beginning to gather. Very shortly, a group of men--some still in their night clothes, a few of them bare-chested--had formed a circle around the fallen driver.
"Is he dead?" Senhor Tomas asked his brother-in-law Tiago the roofer, who was holding the back of his hand to the man's nose to see if he could detect breathing.
Various neighborwomen were now rushing to the aid of Senhora Beatriz, lifting her to her feet and making inquiries about the man and what had so incensed him.
I moved closer to the group of men. "No, he's still alive," said Tiago disappointedly--a perfect start to a new day of gossip would have required a murder, of course.
Senhora Maria Mendes, who was built like a bull, pushed her way through the men and spat in the insensible villain's face.
"Pig!" she yelled.
"And you there, son!" shouted Tiago the roofer at Daniel. "What in God's name do you think you're doing throwing stones at people?"
"Now wait a minute," came Senhor Paulo the tinsmith to the lad's defense, "he was only helping Senhora Beatriz."
"But with a stone the size of an orange?" cried Senhor Alberto.
"Had I a knife, I'd have slit the driver's throat!" exclaimed a man hidden from me.
"Gouged his eye out!" declared another.
The men trumpeted their bravery by telling what they would have done to the evil brute had they arrived in time. The women scoffed at what precious little use any of them were in times of real need. Alas, none of this was of any help to Senhora Beatriz or Daniel, who were looking at each other as though they were the only two people on the street. She was being led limping into her home, clearly more concerned for the lad's sake than her own. That sight made a solemn impression on me.
The men now began demanding that Daniel leave their neighborhood. "You're going to end up flogged if you don't get out of here before I count to five! You don't belong here, son," Tiago the roofer shouted.
This struck me as unjust. As a lad of nine, I did not know that Daniel might have been in real danger. In those days, even a young boy could have his head impaled on an oakwood stake if the villainous driver were to die and if Senhora Beatriz's testimony failed to justify his courage. I was also unaware that a count whose royal-blue damask breeches had not been soaped, scrubbed, ironed, and perfumed in a timely manner, whose wine-stained brocade doublet was still hanging like a rain-drenched bat from a cord in Senhora Beatriz's back garden, was entitled to have his coachman beat the offending laundress near senseless. Anyone dissatisfied with this sort of justice could send his written protest to the Bishop, our mad Queen Maria, or even Pope Pius VII, who, even if he sympathized, would have been far too busy evading capture by Napoleon to open any communiques from overseas. In short, one could send a letter of indignation to whomever one chose because it would make no difference.
No, I was not aware of these things, and so as I watched Tiago the roofer confronting Daniel, I was outraged.
The lad gazed down at his feet, confused. He had expected praise no less than I.
"Christ, I only wanted to help," he finally said. "I had to. She'd have been deader than a drum otherwise."
Daniel covered his eyes with his hand, unwilling to cry in front of the men, then rubbed his temples with his thumb and forefingers, as though to banish unwanted thoughts--a gesture of distress that I would come to know only too well over the next years. With maturity that I found extraordinary, he then said, "I guess I'll be going now. Good day to you all." Before parting, he went to retrieve his stone.
"Son, leave that be," Tiago advised, pointing a finger of warning. "You've done enough damage for one day."
Daniel picked up his stone nevertheless, eliciting reproaches from Tiago and the others. What added depth to my solidarity with him at that moment was his shorn scalp, plainly an attempt to rid him of head lice. This style was unfortunate, for it made him look ill and poor and might have inspired these men to act more harshly than was appropriate. If he had had blond ringlets of hair falling to the crimson collar of an expensive silken coat, this confrontation might have instead ended with pats on the back.
I ran forward. "Senhor Tiago," I cried. "Senhor Tiago, Senhora Beatriz was being beaten. The lout was kicking her!"
"John, go home immediately," he said, furrowing his brow in displeasure.
"She was hurt," I cried, "and her eye was nearly closed. It was big and puffy. Couldn't you see it? It was wrong to have done that to her. The man, he was . . . he was a bloody poltroon." I said these last words in English; it was my father's term for a dastardly wretch, and I could think of nothing in Portuguese to equal it.
Sensing in Tiago's glare that he had not understood me, I frantically sought a worthy translation. He had other plans and grabbed my arm.
"Come, son, I'm taking you back to your mother," he said, his eyes glinting with righteousness.
"If you don't let me go . . ." I shouted.
"Then what?" he laughed.
I considered kicking him where the fabric in his tattered trousers hung suggestively forward, but sensed that this would only get me into deeper trouble.
"Make fun of me if you like," I declared, trembling, trying to imitate my father's voice, "but if you don't leave this lad alone . . ."
Pity my youth, I couldn't for the life of me think of a way to boldly conclude this exciting start to a sentence. And I still had not freed my arm from Tiago's hairy grip.
Daniel, however, made an end to my threatening sentence unnecessary. Rearing back, he hurled his stone right at Tiago's tyrannical face, but at half speed, so to speak, giving the man ample chance to duck.
The roofer dove to the ground, relinquishing his hold on me.
"Go on!" Daniel shouted at me, waving furiously. "Close your goddamned snout and run, you little mole! You're free!"
Sometimes i think that hope is not all individual in nature, that it exists as an ether that suffuses into us at the moment of birth. Of late, I have even come to the unlikely conclusion that nature bestows upon us hands and feet, eyes and ears, so that we may work as loyal servants to this boundless mist of hope, performing when we can the delicate alchemy of turning it into tangible reality--giving it form and influence, so to speak. So when I found myself free from Tiago's grasp, I served hope as well as my young heart knew how and bolted up the street, full of wild joy, paying no heed to the shouted commands behind me, wishing only to befriend the defiant lad who had helped me.
I caught up to Daniel outside the city gates. "What are you following me for, caralho!" he snapped.
Caralho was a rude reference to the male member. Many residents of Porto commonly ended their sentences with such swear words.
At a loss for words, I trudged forlornly behind him. Finally, I piped up that I wished to thank him for freeing me from Tiago the roofer.
- paperback: 512 pages
- Publisher: Delta
- ISBN-10: 0385336470
- ISBN-13: 9780385336475