By now, you will have noticed my absence from the seminary, only to find that I am miles away. For this, I must beg your forgiveness. As a boy, I would have starved on the caatinga, when the soldiers came to arrest my birth father. But you showed me a kindness then, and while I do not expect you to continue to do so, I ask that you do not repeat the contents of this letter, the last confession I will make in...well, God knows how long.
Over our Natal recess, as you know, I was traveling with Pai Palmeira to see my sister in Aracaju. As per his usual, our friend had chosen to stop at a small kingwood mill to perform the Eucharist for the locals. As per my usual, I assisted him, and found to my great surprise a dozen attendees in thick, plated leather decorated with ribbons, with strange perfumes and a disposition so calm as to be entirely unsettling when I knew, as I suspect you have already pieced together, who exactly they were.
I mean to say, of course, that they were cangaceiros, the knights and knaves of the caatinga. And with them was their king, the one we know as Lampião.
Pai Palmeira, equally discomforted, took his leave as soon as the afternoon came, the sun heating our makeshift chapel to a temperature even I found to be sweltering. I was left with the task of cleaning (again, to the surprise of nobody) when the bandit came upon me, cleaning his glasses before asking if I truly believed in God. I answered in the affirmative, knowing -or perhaps hoping- that the reputation of the man was true, and that I was in no danger. At this, he nodded once as a slight smile formed on his lips, continuing on in his soft-spoken voice.
“You have the look of the Sertão about you, but not the words. Where do you come from, boy, and why did you leave?”
I hesitated, unsure of whether to be offended or not, and decided within an instant that I couldn't chance the wrath of Lampião. “Maranhão,” came my cautious answer. “Southern Maranhão. The Church took me in when my father sided with the Tenentes.”
“Ah.” Lampião gave me another nod, more grave this time. “A not-unworthy upbringing, if you are fond of books, chores, and little else.”
Despite myself, I smiled back at him, thinking back to the boyhood routine you had assigned me to, and the ungrateful grumbling that I returned the favor with. Admitting that the seminary had its dull moments, I immediately followed up with a remark that I saw in it a chance to do right by those who had suffered as my own family had.
“And what about those that do wrong by those who suffered worse?” Lampião asked, completely innocuously.
“For those...” I tell you, Pai, words cannot accurately describe how dry my throat felt, how quickly I fell silent as any retort I could have offered got choked down by a rush of uncertainty. “For those...” I stammered out once more. “We must pray, and God will judge rightly.”
He gazed over me, then, eyes peering out from behind his round spectacles, and reached into his pocket with such alacrity that I flinched back, fearing for the worst, only for the bandit to show me a watch. But not simply any watch, Pai, but one engraved with the name of a Coronel whose lands in my youth sprawled across the caatinga until, like a boa, they choked the life out of the peasants. “Some of us, boy, would rather fight. And in the doing, live well.”
From where I got the courage to reply, I know not. Where I had faltered just moments ago, now the words came out before I even thought them. “Is that what you do, senhor? Live well?”
Lampião stared at me, handed me the pocketwatch, and pivoted on his feet, boots scuffing the floor that I had entirely forgotten about sweeping. Within an hour, I had chased after him, my horse startled at my haste, and asked if he needed learned men along his crusade, vicious though it might seem to the rest of us.
“No, boy. I need true men.” I cocked my head at this. To his back, I could hear men singing, and placed the song as Mulher Rendeira. “Now, find yourself a gun and change your clothes. The macacos will be here in an hour, and I don't intend to meet them.” His gaze drifted towards the horizon. “Not this time.”
And there you have it, Pai. I love you as I would my real father, for what you have done, but the deed has been done. Perhaps it is arrogant to think I can change the mind of such a brutal man, but I see a path ahead of me that I dare not abandon, and not simply because the price of treachery among the cangaceiros is paid in blood. I must speak for those who have no voice, and if I must take up the gun to do so...well, I believe Christ had a few words on peace and the sword.
Or so I hope. For if I am wrong, how can I ask for His forgiveness, when the man who taught me His love will certainly not be able to show me the same?
With regrets, but fewer than I can truthfully admit,