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July 15, 2024

The Rubber Tappers and Panthers Social Club

By Nick Gerrard

Groups of ragged men stood around arrivals. Big hats, dusty boots, laptops and crates fought for space. They slapped backs, gripped hands and welcomed the fliers off their bi-planes. The small bar was crowded. Tables stuffed full of bottles of imported whiskey, floors stacked with duffle bags.

They stopped for a second, all stopped. All turned their heads as a small dark man in a small suit walked through the vestibule, next to him a taller man, tanned but not dark, with chinos and khaki, not a suit, strode, with a wide grin just visible underneath a wide Panama.

The eyes followed them, and the murmurs started up.

A big man, belly still pocking out from under his designer t-shirt waddled over, blocked their path. He looked them in the eyes then spat on the floor in front of them.

'In the dark of the night, under the bending trees beneath the soft call of the cricket. There may come Panthers, to rid the jungle of rodents.'

And spat again.

The two men passed and were taken to a pick-up truck and driven away. In the back, they shared a cigarette. The truck bounded along the red bumpy track, and the fires lit up the forest, the glow seen in the distance. The glow went all along the jungle line. The smoke at intervals took an age to drift off to galaxies. The road went on for miles, the fires for centuries.

* * *

It was dawn, and the heat was waking up. Chico's father shook him.

-- Chico, come on, it's time to go.

He yawned and stretched and reluctantly put his shorts on and went into the large room.

His father laid a flat omelette on a wooden plate. Sliced bits of fruit and broke some hard bread. Chico ate, drank some water and a little goat's milk, went to the barrel and swilled the top of his body. He put his t-shirt on, sheathed his machete, put his pen and old exercise book in his knapsack along with more omelette and bread, took the bag of goods and barefoot, began his hour-long trudge through the jungle.

Down the well-trodden tracks he skipped, he knew all the pathways, needed no map. He knew all the friendly snakes and spiders, how to avoid the unfriendly monkeys, knew what traps to look out for.

Eventually, he came to a clearing. Not a well-kept clearing, the jungle was encroaching gradually. In the middle was a small raised shack, with a little veranda. Outside a barrel for water. A few scrawny chickens pecked the dust. Chico called out. No answer. He stepped up into the hut. A few dirty pots and pans lay strewn about, bits of tappers' gear and mountains of newspapers and magazines, on a table there were more and piles of pens and notes of scrawl over tatty pages. And on the side of the bed on another table were various radios, of all sizes and shapes, with bits of wires and valves littering the place and underneath boxes and boxes of batteries.

-- Eduardo, it's me, Chico!

-- Is it that time already. One free day and I have to bloody teach you.

-- Shall I put the coffee on?

Do you need to ask? And pour me a Cachaça too. Did you bring food?

-- My mother sent omelette, pork and beans and some sweet cakes.

-- Good, put the pork and beans in the cooking pot and we'll have the cakes now before they go stale.

* * *

I sat and looked at a newspaper open on the table, dated only five days ago, we had managed to get some up to date stuff recently. Eduardo got up and in between scratching himself sank a few shots. I took the steaming pot off the paraffin burner and poured a bowlful for him. He sat, found a scrunched up pack of Louis 15th menthol cigarillos, stuck a bent one in his mouth and searched for a match, I lit it for him, and with a big pull, he felt right with the morning. He broke the cakes into his coffee, sipped, sat back and dragged some more.

-- What you reading?

-- About the crash.

-- Source?

-- Sao Paolo daily.

-- Analysis?

-- Liberal right-wing.

-- As we are on the subject we may as well tune in.

This was Chico's favourite thing, listening to the world. They moved their chairs near to the table and twiddled with the Roberts radio dials. Radio America, with immaculate Portuguese.

"The Coup is not a Coup in the traditional sense, in the revolutionary sense; it is a coup for democracy. A coup for freedom ... a cou ..."

-- Any surprises?

-- Not really, we should expect nothing else.

Eduardo had walked into our family clearing one morning. Shabby, unwashed and clearly suffering from lack of food, and he looked exhausted. He asked for water and after he had drunk and tried to wash the grime off, we offered him food and a floor to sleep on. He took both eagerly, wolfed chicken, rice and fruit down, then stripped, washed with water again, lay down and slept for two days. He woke and joined us outside in the dusk; my father poured a beer and gave him cigarettes.

He sat and drank and smoked and I could see him change, from a tight little tense rabbit, he unwound like a snake after squeezing his prey to death. I could tell he was glad to talk again, glad to be unwound again. He asked my father questions, got answers and then gave us more of his story.

-- He don't say much this kid, but he sure as hell pays attention.

I was sat open-mouthed, chin in my palms, eyes wide, as this adventurer told his tales.

-- I came through the jungle over the border to escape the troops. I had been over there to escape the military after the coup here, and now the military are over there. It seems that here is a bit safer at the moment.

He dragged on his ciggy and smiled.

-- I was imprisoned on the island after the last coup.

-- What did you do?

-- I was an organiser; I recruited people to the union, organized stoppages and strikes. When the popular government got in, I organized even more. On strike for more money, better conditions, we shut down loads of places, took over some. Then the military moved in.

He had escaped from the island. Helped by friendly fishermen and union guys he moved over the border. Once there he took up mining, tin mining. Again he organized and agitated strikes and occupations. He helped build a left opposition and then the cats came in the night, but he had already left.

He stayed with us for a few weeks, helping my Father, learning to tap. Then he took up an old tappers hut and run, deep in the jungle, on its own. He liked me and offered to teach me to read, he could see something in me; a fire to learn. I loved to listen to this mystical man. A man who had seen the world.

* * *

'In the dark of the night, under the bending trees beneath the soft call of the cricket. There may come Panthers, to rid the jungle of rodents.' And spat again. They let the two men pass, finished their drink, slapped hands and filled the pickup truck with valuable wares and headed off. In the comfort of the air conditioning, they smoked Insignia Reds. The truck bounded along the red bumpy track, and the fires lit up the forest, the glow seen in the distance and on the faces of the men who didn't even notice it.

Soon the trucks turned off the roads and entered cutback wild. With fences and gates and long sweeping driveways, with horses and fruit trees, and a named sign.

At the ranch, the kids ran to get presents.

Pandas and skates, dresses and pearls, drones and tablets.

Kisses exchanged. The trucks unloaded, the wives' arses slapped.

In the huge living room with a bar and antlers over the fireplace, and painted family portraits, fur rugs and a couch like an Arab sheik's covering half the room. The men sank whiskey and coke from crystal, while the women went to scold the cooks and the children to hide away, with their trinkets.

* * *

-- Gentlemen, Gentlemen! If we could have some kinda order, please!

They were all men, well apart from Ma De Mella, who didn't really count. Flanked by her four brick wall sons, she took her place at the top table; regarded as one of the main men. Had put two husbands in the ground and rumoured to have left many a ragged-arsed kid fatherless. On all the tables in the converted barn, platters were laid out large. Bursting birds, spider crabs and dripping red T-bones. Mountains of loaves, a few choice wines and Labels of Whiskey, the drink of the ranchers.

-- We all know why we are here. Once again we are asking you to dig into your pockets. Things are getting stirred up, things have to be done, measures must be taken. Our organization ...

A small dark-skinned man, in a light blue shirt, nicely tailored, open to the belly with only a wisp of hair in the centre of a flat chest, moved forward from the side.

-- Money? Of course, you do not even have to ask, just come and pick my pocket whenever you need to. But I am fed up of wasting our time and energy, fighting elections, organizing meetings, stepping aside! Give me the word and I will solve these problems, I and my sons, and a few people we know.

He smiled at his sons, looked around at the room, eyes wide, head nodding.

-- Yes, you know what I mean. I will settle this shit in the traditional way. I will tear these fucking rodents to bits with my bare fucking teeth!

He was tense now, he mimicked picking up a small animal and ripped it apart furiously with his mouth.

-- No more ... will these vermin stop the progress, rob my family of money, stop us from making our living!

He rose four inches in height, he breathed in through his nostrils which widened as his whole face tensed and he spat ... "Taking the food out of the mouths of my children! Just tell me and the job is done! No more talk!"

Half the room applauded and some cheered. Half looked on, serious, looked around at the police chief, the lawyer, the newspaper owner, the state governor. Looked around and wondered ...

* * *

I grew up to tap and to organize. I became active in the union as Eduardo had instructed me to. I started local but I was a good speaker, again something Eduardo had taught me; so I started going further afield. Regional union meetings and so on. I never got to be a top official, my uncompromising politics saw to that, but I had the support of my fellow tappers and was respected enough as an honest guy to be able to push my way some way up the union ladder. Our union grew strong and with links formed with activists from down south, and new collaborations with the local tribes we became stronger. We were able to negotiate for special reserves and we got money for schools and clinics to improve the lives of the users of the forest.

But still, the ranchers never gave us a moment's peace. They wanted our land for their cattle, and their friends wanted the wood, they could see dollars in the forest we saw only our lives and livelihoods.

They had the police and the local courts in their pockets of course. And they planned actions to just turn up and bulldoze an area they wanted. Who was there, or what was there; they didn't care.

So, conflict was inevitable.

Then, a new president got elected. A man who cared for nothing of the environmentalists, a man who could see profits in the Basin, a man who ignored the green lobbies; a man who basically gave the ranchers and the loggers the green light to get on with it! Get that forest down and get the dollars flowing! I saw them at the airport one time; myself and Eduardo were coming back from a meeting in a city. A few words and spit were exchanged.

* * *

We had organized to meet up. The union guys, the tribes, the activists from the city. The ranchers and loggers were taking advantage of the lax control of things in the basin by the government. They had taken to taking any bits of forest they fancied, whether tappers relied on it or people lived there. They even came for protected areas. We had no other course of action; we could see that; we had to stop them ourselves.

We met up where we knew the diggers and flatteners were parked up, where they would start cutting. Information filtered through.

We came in large numbers and the day they went to start their work we came out in force. At first, we talked to the drivers and pleaded with them not to flatten. Some stepped down and joined us; others were dragged down by the more angry members of our organization. We placed trucks and trees and then lines of people in the way, any obstacle we could get, living or not.

And for the most part, we succeeded, we were too many and the drivers gave up. Other times hired hands came and fights broke out but still, we stopped them. The militants took to sabotage under the cover of night. And when the hired hands got sticks, we got sticks; the police stood by watching from a distance as yet not willing to take a side, not openly yet. And as yet no one had used arms.

* * *

One night outside in the cricket-filled air I sat with Eduardo and a good man from the union, a regional leader; a man who never compromised. He was not a big man in size but he was in passion. We talked of the future, of how to organize and to how we would react if things got more serious; if the police got involved, or the hired hands got armed. The activists in the city were doing what they could to try and pressure the government to act, they used international organizations and news outlets to spread the word of what was happening, but the new president cared little for international NGOs and liberal organizations and even the world forums. He was a businessman, a populist and saw only the opportunity of making money for the country by using the Amazon.

We drank freezing bottles of Antarctica and chewed on grilled steaks sat on the veranda of the knocked-together wooden shack called a restaurant. It sat in a little village; dirt roads and loose dogs and samba on tinny radios. We heard motorbikes roaring around nearby, stopping and starting, but took little notice. One came past and slowed and stared at us. We got a little worried. Then another came from another direction. We stopped talking and watched. A third bike came out of an alley the engine revving at full pelt the rider at full throttle. This bike had two men and the passenger drew a pistol and as they got near ... he opened fire. We ducked down under flimsy tables and chairs. People in the bar ran and screamed or ducked and wept. The bullets pinged in the air, like a mosquito flying past. I felt one near my ear then felt the shrapnel of wood from a table hit my arm. It lasted only seconds but it felt like an age.

And they were gone.

We groped around the floor in the dark looking for each other. I was OK. Eduardo was bleeding from the leg and Armando the organizer was laid flat on his back a hole smoking in his chest and blood pouring from his mouth.

We checked him, he was dead.

The police came and took statements but we knew it was a waste of time.

We knew who had done it, well who had ordered it. And we knew that now we had to be more organized, more careful, this was the fight for our lives. We knew that now in the dark of the night, under the bending trees beneath the soft call of the cricket. There may come Panthers, to rid the jungle of us. And we knew we had to be ready.

Article © Nick Gerrard. All rights reserved.
Published on 2020-04-27
Image(s) are public domain.
2 Reader Comments
08:05:34 PM
Very interesting story sounds like it's about modern Brazil. The tension of the story sustained my attention and interest throughout, the tale from several perspectives explains a situation, a conflict. The physical descriptions are unique and draw us into the atmosphere. At the end, the forces against the rubber tappers seem overwhelming, but they have to fight on, they have no choice. A tragic situation.
09:06:04 AM
thanks for comments
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