Better Than Starbucks Fiction
Padre Raimundo’s Army
(Northern Goiás - Brazil, 1931 - 1975)
by Arthur Powers
The countryside was not really dangerous. Yet, for a seven-year-old boy, walking alone the long legua to school, the stories came back — jaguars and anacondas, red guará wolves and wolfmen — though these last were supposed to come out only at night. Gunmen, bandits, witches, evil spirits . . . all the inhabitants of the stories told by old people around the fire on starlit nights.
Of course, the boy knew — this from the stories too — that the good spirits were always stronger in the end. But usually an awful lot of terrible stuff happened before the good spirits prevailed.
There was one place, especially, on the path to school that he approached with fear — a long, shaded trail made by human and horses’ feet through a stretch of rain forest. It was lovely and cool, but here — old Dona Ursula said — a goblin had rushed out one night and grabbed a thoughtless boy who had disrespected his elders — a boy never seen again.
“Hush, Ursula,” Raimundo’s mother said “you’re scaring the children.” But old Ursula only grinned her toothless grin and winked at Raimundo in a way that made the story more frightening.
As he drew near this place on the path, Raimundo remembered that his Godmother had told him he had a guardian angel who always walked beside him. He found some comfort in this — then felt that, if one guardian angel was good company, additional saints and angels would be all the better. Going through his mind he remembered St. Anthony and the Angel Gabriel, St. Ann and the black Virgin of Aparecida, his dead uncle João — who everyone said was a saint. So that, by the time he reached the darkest twist in the path, he was accompanied by a small platoon of protective figures.
Raimundo excelled in the one-room, rural school — where good behavior and copying in neat handwriting were the essential skills for success. He finished all four grades, and when the priest came by on his twice-yearly visit, the schoolteacher always brought the boy to his attention. The priest talked to the boy and, six months later, Raimundo went off to a minor seminary in a distant town, far from everything he had ever known.
He was a thin, thoughtful, timid boy, neither popular nor unpopular, not athletic or scholarly, a good student but not brilliant. He made his way through minor seminary and seminary adequately but without distinction, growing into a thin, thoughtful, somewhat timid man. Following ordination, he served as curate for two years in one of the villages in his native diocese, then was named pastor of a small church. He served as pastor in three parishes before coming to his last parish, Santa Maria das Aguas, in 1972. He was then forty-eight.
At Santa Maria das Aguas, as in his other parishes, the people developed a quiet fondness for Padre Raimundo. He was affable in his shy, retiring way — ready to listen, gentle in remonstrance, understanding in the confessional. When posed a particularly knotty question, he had a habit of saying, “I’ll have to take that to counsel.” Counsel with whom the people never thought to ask — there were no telephones in town in those days — but Padre Raimundo always seemed to come back later with a satisfactory — sometimes even profound — answer.
The bishop, of course, knew how — in a way. Coming through town one day unexpectedly, returning from another parish — he decided to drop by the rectory. The parish cleaning lady opened the door and the bishop, who had known Raimundo since seminary, asked for him. The cleaning lady nodded to the office door and said she thought the padre was in a meeting. Pausing at the door, the bishop heard Padre Raimundo’s voice, but when the bishop peeked his head into the room, Padre Raimundo was alone, seated at his desk, with three empty chairs in a semicircle in front of him.
Padre Raimundo stood up. A smile of joy crossed his face when he saw the bishop.
“Am I interrupting anything?” the bishop asked.
“Not at all. We were just conferring.”
“Yes. Whenever there’s a problem, I find it helpful to confer with the saints. Just now, I was discussing the issue of a pregnant girl — no husband — with St. Teresa, St. Francis, and St. Thomas More. Have a seat.”
The bishop glanced at the chair, hesitant about sitting on St. Thomas More’s lap.
“Oh, it’s all right,” Padre Raimundo said. “We finished and they’re gone.”
The bishop sat. “Was the conference useful?” he asked.
“Very,” Padre Raimundo answered. “Francis — well, I’m afraid Francis isn’t really very helpful on practical matters — Teresa is always calling him to task on that. Thomas More is, of course, very practical in a practical way, if you know what I mean. But for these human questions — and aren’t they mostly that? — Teresa’s the one: she’s a brick — solid, sensible, human — she always helps.”
The bishop nodded. He knew the loneliness of these small towns, where each priest lived alone with a flock in which the educated could be counted on the fingers of one hand. He had himself often called upon spiritual help for counsel.
“I find the Archangel Michael helpful when I pray,” said the bishop.
“Oh, definitely.” Padre Raimundo nodded sagely. “But generally, I find saints are best for counsel, angels for action.”
Despite his timid exterior, Padre Raimundo sometimes sur-prised his parishioners — at least those who did not know him well. When the Moraes family cornered the three Lamas brothers in an adobe hut at the edge of town and were going to kill them — Zeca Lamas had knifed a Moraes nephew in a drunken brawl the night before — Padre Raimundo walked quietly into the middle of the gunfight, argued the Moraes into common sense, persuaded Zeca to give himself up to the state police, and waited with him until the police arrived some six hours later. When Dona Elsa Guimarães, the largest and most feared landowner in the area, evicted a tenant farmer, his wife, and six children from their farm because she didn’t like his politics, Padre Raimundo walked the five miles out to her plantation house and talked her into relenting — not pleading, people said, but remonstrating hard and strong.
Yet he was completely unprepared for the grileiros when they came into the area. The grileiros were not local strongmen, acting out of anger or revenge, although they got a few of the local riffraff to work for them. They were professionals, backed by big money and expert at getting people off the land. Most of the small and middle-sized farmers — and even some of the larger landholders — didn’t have legal titles. They had, in some cases, been on the land for generations, and so had legal rights — but almost none of them knew this.
The grileiros’ methods were simple. They would target an area of small landholders. Smooth agents would go into the area and tell the people that they — the agents — represented the real owners of the land. They would have a paper purporting to prove this. They would tell the farmers that they — the farmers — had no rights, but that the owners, being generous, would pay them an indemnification for the land and would move them into town. In the early days, half the families would fall for this — living on the land was hard, the indemnification looked like a lot of money (they had never had to buy food or pay rent), life in town seemed better. They signed papers, received a handful of cash, and were dumped by the trucks at the edge of town, where a small slum started to grow.
The families who didn’t agree were approached again. They were on the land illegally, they were told. Veiled threats of harm were made. Then crops burned and pigs were slaughtered in the night. More families gave in. Those who did not were increas-ingly isolated. Houses were burned. A farmer was killed, then another. In the end, only the very brave remained.
Within a few years, the Church would establish a network of lawyers and field workers to fight the grileiros. But at this time, nobody quite knew what was going on. Individual bishops and priests spoke out against the grileiros, who retorted that priests were troublemakers, communists, should attend to their prayers and leave the business of land alone.
Padre Raimundo knew almost nothing of these controversies. But, talking to the families slowly starving in the little slum, he was appalled. His first thought was to get them food. But then? He went to a neighboring town to see the state judge. The judge, whom he had known for years, took him quietly into his study and, sweating, told him that he — the judge — couldn’t do anything. He was afraid for himself and for his family. The state policemen Padre Raimundo had known were transferred out of the area — the new police simply looked at him and laughed.
This was the situation the day that Zé Severino was arrested.
Zé Severino was the leader of a group of small landholders who had resisted. Pascano, a tough, wiry little thug who worked for the grileiros, complained to the police that Zé Severino was threatening his life — Zé Severino had told Pascano to get off his land. Pascano and three policemen went out to Zé Severino’s homestead. He heard the jeep coming, picked up his old hunting musket, and came outside — his wife and five kids behind him. They arrested him for armed resistance, brought him back into town, and threw him in jail. For an hour neighbors heard yelling, groans, and the sound of beating in the jail. Someone ran to tell Padre Raimundo.
Word ran all around town — as it does in small towns — that Padre Raimundo was coming. It was after 11 a.m. — the sun was hot and the dusty street nearly empty, but a shiver seemed to run along it.
The jail stood on a small rise, at the end of the street where it forked into two roads that wandered out into the country. It was a small, squat, insignificant building. Two of the police had left a few minutes before, driving in the ramshackle Volkswagen police car down to the pensão to eat lunch. So there were only three men watching the jail, and they were standing out in front where a big mango tree cast rich shade: Pascano, a tall consumptive police clerk named Elias, and Corporal Oliveira — one of the police who had arrested Zé Severino, and the most active in beating him — a hard-muscled, thick-headed mountain of a man. All three were armed. They had been drinking cachaça — handing the bottle back and forth — or even they might not have done what they did.
“Here comes the word of God,” Pascano remarked wryly, and the other two turned to see Padre Raimundo walking alone up the street. Something in the priest’s manner — the thin, unimpressive figure marching as though he were at the head of an army — struck Pascano funny, and he laughed. “Let’s see how brave he is,” Pascano muttered. He pulled out his revolver, aimed a little above the priest’s head, and fired. Padre Raimundo continued walking without faltering. Pascano’s amusement turned to irritation. “The damn interfering fool,” he said, and fired another bullet close to the priest’s feet. Padre Raimundo came on without a pause. Then Corporal Oliveira raised his pistol, fired, and — through fool luck or destiny — sent a bullet into Padre Raimundo’s heart.
Dona Aparecida, an elderly widow, who was looking out her window near the jail, says that — as he fell — Padre Raimundo raised his arm in a motion like that of a commander waving his troops forward. Old Seu Geraldo, who lives across the street, confirms what she says. These are the only witnesses who admitted seeing anything — their eyesight is good and their sincerity is unquestionable, but of course both are very old.
They say that, as he fell, motioning with his arm, it was as if a great wind swept up the hill toward the jail — though there was no wind, they admit. The leaves on the mango tree remained still. But there was a rush — not a sound, really, nor really a light — but a rush up towards the jail. Pascano began to shout, as if half in anger, half in fear, and fired his revolver twice before being spun around helpless, his arms pinned to his side. Corporal Oliveira yelled and ran forward, as if counterattacking, before falling unconscious to the ground. Elias simply threw up his two arms in a cross to cover his face and fell in terror to his knees. The wind — or whatever it was — rushed past him and into the jailhouse, bursting open the cell room door, and a stunned Zé Severino walked out of jail, free.
The official report, prepared by an intelligent, enlightened police major from the state capital, concluded that the people in town had risen up and stormed the prison, releasing the prisoner. No one was located who would admit to having seen anything except for two old people who told an impossible tale of wind and light. The major criticized the close ties between the police in rural areas and grileiros, noting that it undercut the credibility of law enforcement, and urged reform.
No witnesses except two old people. Corporal Oliveira, after he gained consciousness, sat — a huge broken lump of mountain — and looked up into people’s eyes; “I’m sorry,” he would say to them about nothing in particular, “I’m sorry.” This lasted a few months and then he vanished — nobody knows where. Pascano was committed to a hospital in the state capital; in between periods when he seemed normal and remembered nothing of the incident, he would have panic attacks, clinging to the medical assistants and screaming — “Don’t let them — they’re coming.” In one of these attacks he shouted, “Their golden swords!” Elias said nothing at all for six months; resigning from the police, he went to work as a cook for the Franciscans, spending his free hours helping the poor. His consumption had healed.
But these were all psychological ephemera. No doubt the official report was correct — it was very intelligently written.
Yet the bishop, driving home after praying at Padre Raimundo’s funeral, kept remembering: “Saints are for counsel, angels for action.”
First published in The Saint Katherine Review.
Arthur Powers’ collection of short stories set in Brazil, A Hero for the People (Press 53, 2013), received the 2014 Catholic Arts & Letters Award. “Padre Raimundo’s Army” is the title story of a second collection of stories, to be published by Wiseblood Books in 2020.
Arthur Powers went to Brazil in 1969 as a Peace Corps Volunteer & lived most his adult life there. From 1985 to 1992, he and his wife served with the Franciscans in the Brazilian Amazon, organizing subsistence farmers in a region of violent land conflicts. Subsequently, they directed relief & development programs in the drought-ridden Brazilian Northeast.
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