The Perfect Desert Flower (from Brazilian Tequila)
Lean cowboys ride into town on emaciated mules. Leather leggings, pole hats, vivid shirts. Swaggering along, spurs dangling. Paulo, the driver, fleshy with precocious moustache, power-drives through them in his pickup. It has been decided I’m going to Monte Santo. Once Paulo finds the dirt track, he rides the ruts like Ayrton Senna, and turns on the radio. Blasts of Heavy Metal, the Scorpions. I clutch my bags, bouncing in the back. I glimpse the sky from time to time, blue with a faint taint of nicotine, a Persian hearthrug, bespattered with soot.
The vegetation changes. The straggling, thorn-enervated caatinga loses its dun sameness. Blood-red flowers abound, and tentacles of verdure insinuate themselves. Granite rocks are cushioned by dwarf thistles. The stooped, contorted trees with dusty foliage straighten up into elegant arbors bearing two-tone leaves, purple and gold as the sun breaks through them and scatters its light in lacy patterns on the scrub.
Loose-limbed cattle clip along the shady side of the bleached trails. The tracks are smoother and the pickup, a tank on the rough, is now a milk-float. I learn from Paulo that Monte Santo is where Aaron struck the rock. Streams under the sacred mountain never run dry. He says he likes to go there to watch the girls bathing in the caves. Light of foot from climbing the mountain. Skin clear, soft to the touch. Unlike the swarthy women on the coast. He hopes one day to find a wife there. ‘I want a son’.
At a distance the town is a terrace of little houses sloping up to a sheer rock spur. A dramatic redoubt in a jumble of hills, indistinct horizons. A place of respite for travelers in terrain that resembles the ruins of an earthquake. Who would venture into these harsh tablelands? People hoping for a silver El Dorado. Religious fanatics seeking a hermitage. Armies wanting a base. All saw in Monte Santo their haven.
Prospectors were disappointed: the mountain is white quartz with bluish streaks of mica. The mystics were not. A freak of rock formation engraved the rampart with a giant cross. Ancient site of worship, wall of destiny. Cults settle on this Calvary and countless religious refuges. On the summit a white church, a granite hat raised to wayfarers.
Army bivouacs enjoyed the shelter. The bulwark sieved sand from desert winds, clear air, an oasis from drought. But military boredom brought its diversions. Bars, brothels, debauchery. The religious exploded into action. The town erupted. Massacres. The mountain ran with blood. People fled the devastation to the coast but returned to build anew when the army disbands.
Human habitation is intermittent, the mountain a constant, eroding in aeons rather than epochs. A cruciform white beacon in a sterile plain. Appollonio de Todi, an eighteenth century missionary in Monte Santo, wrote, ‘Bricks and mortar ruin. But who has ever heard of a ruined rock?’
I eye the mass of Monte Sancto, and its via sacra, a silvery stairway - part paved, part steps - bisecting the quartzite. This two-mile pathway carved out of the mountain, almost two centuries ago, has been worn smooth by pilgrims, Lenten processions, stations of the cross. The granite hat of the white cathedral waves to me, a challenge to test myself against the sun and the rock.
The climb is snakes and ladders. Ladders of spiraling steps on the perpendicular, snakes of paved path when less sheer. In the full glare of the sun, my only protection is the leather hat. But dry heat, which saps the sedentary, energises the moving. I plunge up, surprised by my breathing. Easy in the clear air.
Prescribed stairs and pavements confine. I diverge from the treadmill. Up virgin boulders, cutting bends, clasping crooked crags, securing heels in bracken. Engaging with living rock gives my step a spring. No thoughts. Only urge. At one with it. Never looking down. Only up. Like a tree thrusting its branches skywards, absorbing the earth for sap.
Half way. A hut on an overhanging edge. I enter. Leaflets, votive offerings, dead tapers. On the altar a candle stub and a coca cola can. I peel it open, drink, spit out tepid rust. The rock floor seethes. Hot as a pizza hut.
A goat track leads me up a crevice. I climb again, less sprightly, still driven. Slate cuts my sneakers. Loose slivers dart. Lizards disappearing faster than the eye. I push up, alternating pauses and dashes. Skid on a skewered skin, iguana perhaps. No time to examine, not here for nature studies, a summit to be reached. For myself.
The white granite church is more a party hat than a bishop’s mitre. Inside, a sanctuary for the pious with bad taste. The cluttered trappings of blind faith, plaster saints, plastic flowers and pews.
A plain whitewashed house of prayer with bare benches and stained glass is what I wanted. God is not so much dead here as buried in tat. I light a candle from the last guttering stub on the tray, a pilgrim for a moment as it flames.
In a crater below the church a boy sells beer and sucos under an umbrella. I’m parched, but without money. I consider a jeito, offering to make the boy seriously rich with the promise of dollars, tomorrow. No. My thirst is an expiation of sorts. No sweat.
On a boulder above the church there is a simple handmade cross. I climb up. A wooden figure is tied to it with twine. The pointed ears, a monkey Christ? Exu. The fetish Pedrinho gave me outside the Bomfim church was a mini-replica. ‘Exu, the go-between of the gods and man. He negotiates temporal things.’ The erect penis has snapped off.
I descend by the profane side. Gentler in its declivities but covered in cactus. Trip over and be impaled. I stop and smoke a pipe. Unrelieved horizon, sun blasted hill after hill, recurrent decimals. Infinity is tedious.
I wind down the spiky way, thoughtfully. ‘First the severity, the severity of the ideal, and then gentleness’ (Kierkegaard). On the foothills, soft, yielding grasses. Rocks limestone not granite. Occasional anthills, white with recent building. A perfect desert flower, bell shape and pellucid. I pick it. Hundreds of tiny spikes leech to my hand. I will be lancing them for days. Poison in the under-skin of beauty.
By the time I reach the bar the flower in my hand is withered.