To 2015 - 2016
amazonian hibiscus

By Sherry Luo

  1. Untitled
    By Allison Rothrock, 10
November 14th, 1976
Manaus-Itacoatiara expressway
Uraura, Pará, Brazil
A jolt woke Ezequiel. He wished it hadn’t. Nothing was worse than waking up groggy from a good dream. Especially if you wake up to find yourself in a hot, stuffy bus, thought Eze. A cramped bus too, for that matter. This was the early morning bus to Itacoatiara, and yet it was still as packed as the Manaus fish market on los sábados. That was one thing he was glad he wouldn’t have to deal with for a while. A whole two weeks to himself in his own hometown.
He thought he had been smart, buying the 2:30 morning ticket, thinking that no one else would be louco enough to wake up that early, but when he got to the bus station, it seemed that everyone had been thinking the same exact thing. And there he was, hoping that he could have two empty seats to himself so he could stretch his legs. Now he was sitting in the rear of the bus, where leg space was almost nonexistent (and also where everyone’s farts ended up), with his legs jammed between the wall and his luggage. His numb calves cried out for a moment’s respite, but with only an hour left in the trip, he highly doubted that there would be another rest stop. Well, it could be worse. It could always be worse, a lesson Eze learned the hard way in Manaus.
He was lucky that the boy next to him, Nuno, was fairly pleasant as strangers go; the minimal age difference between them probably accounted for that. He had given Eze a stick of gum and even offered to put his luggage in the aisle (an offer Eze declined when he saw how intimidating the growing mountain of suitcases in the aisle was becoming). They chatted for a while: Eze learned that Nuno was a student, and he and his family were going to Itacoatiara to visit his grandparents. He pointed out his mother and baby sister sitting near the front (there had been a slight mix-up when they were buying their tickets, so they ended up at different ends of the bus). Eze remembered how Nuno had fondly waved at them, and how Nuno’s mother had taken the plump arm of her infant by the elbow and made her wave back. It made Eze smile, thinking about how his own mother had most likely done the same with him back when he had been small enough to cuddle in the crook of her arm.
Perhaps the reason why the bus was so crowded was the fact that Senhor Madeira was on it. He was a municipal election candidate, a man who dabbled in the realm of business and politics, the sort of things were “beyond us commoners,” as Eze’s amigos like to say. Men like Madeira thought that the earth turned because of their existence. He had his own entourage with him, most likely to help him garner more votes in Itacoatiara. Eze wondered exactly how Madeira, who was wearing a full suit and tie, had not yet melted into a puddle in the Brazilian heat. The hours before dawn had been tolerable, but the combination of the humidity and the encroaching summer heat turned the bus into an effective and functional human oven. His cargo shorts, the only decent pair he had left, alternated between being drenched in steamy, sticky sweat and being cold and clammy. Not the most pleasant feeling. But he supposed the wealthy and sophisticated had their own ways of coping with the hot weather, just like the poor had their own way of dealing with being poor. Of course, being allowed to sit right in front of the only working air conditioner in the bus probably helped Madeira bear through it all.
The guys back in Manaus liked to tease Eze about not having a woman, a namorada, to go back home to or not having one to bring back to Itacoatiara with him. “Isn’t that why you came to Manaus in the first place, Eze? To find a nice woman to settle down with? Instead of catching fish, why don’t you net yourself a girl? Eh, Eze? Whaddya say?” Eze often found himself having nothing to say to this. He supposed that it might be nice to find someone who would listen to him, cook his meals for him, but he knew how easily the allures of marriage and courtship died off. He saw it firsthand in the lives of his friends; Aleixo broke up not a week after he met that estrangeira in the bar, and Bras...poor Bras, he never completely got over his wife ditching him for that tourist gringo. Yes, it was tough, living a life of love. Some men could shrug off relationships as easily as taking off a filthy t-shirt. Others were worn away by their relationships, worn away like the bottom of a veteran fishing boat: still there, but barely serviceable. That’s just the way o mundo works, I guess, Eze thought gloomily while staring out the window at the piss-colored river flowing past them. Some men are weakened by amor and others are strengthened by it.
Believe it or not, he had a longtime childhood sweetheart in Itacoatiara: Sonia. They had written back and forth while he was in Manaus, he telling her all about the different species of fish he had to wrangle every day, she telling him of her prospective training in nursing. Now that Sonia’s nursing career was set in stone, she felt more confident in approaching Ezequiel. She hadn’t wanted Eze to mention her to his fishing companions either. Not until we marry, she had told him. Then you can boast as much as you want. Eze smiled to himself when he thought of visiting Sonia. Right after his mother, of course.
When Eze thought of his mãe, his heart turned as warm as liquid gold. He had played the scene over and over again in his head: he would come home, open the door to a kitchen of simmering aromas, and see his mother with her flour-stained apron, standing over the new stove he had ordered for her through five months’ worth of paychecks. She’d be surprised that he had come home so early, he could just see her smile, a smile that could drive the meanest shadows back to Hell. “Meu filho,” she would cry, giving Eze two sloppy smacks on each cheek, and this time, he’d gratefully let her dote on him. His mãe would sit him down and cook up a sumptuous feast of cuscuz, calderiada, plump coraçãos, a nice grilled picanha, and soft, juicy lingüiças that have a nice snap to them; enough food for leftovers for the entire duration of Eze’s stay. And through shovelfuls of food, he would tell mamãe all about Manaus and the guys he had to share a room with and the fish market where he worked. He knew that he would do most of the talking because Mamãe was a listener, not a talker, which made leaving her all the harder, and having to leave her again... imagining mamãe all alone, with nobody to talk to, tore at Eze’s heart. Later, maybe even that same evening, they would sit on the back porch, with him sipping Guaraná Antartica to settle his stomach and her água de limão, and if he could scrounge it up, he might even take up his guitarra again, always assuming that his fingers were not as rusty as the strings of his guitarra must be by now.
Another great jolt was enough to shake Ezequiel out of his reverie. He turned his head sideways to take a glance at Nuno’s wristwatch. The bus should be stopping at the ferry crossing at about now. In fact, Eze could see it, straight ahead. But the bus wasn’t slowing down. No, far from it. In fact, Eze could have sworn that it was speeding up. It was enough to scare him. Him, and several others near the front. “Oi! Motorista!” they were yelling. Eze craned his neck, and in the reflection of the rear-view mirror, he saw that the driver’s eyes were closed. Was he… sleeping?
Even more people were starting to scream. Nuno, who had been napping, awoke. “Eze, what’s going on?” Before Eze could even think of a response to give him, the bus crashed into the tributary of the Amazon. Eze slammed into the seat in front of him, hard. His head wasn’t hurt in any obvious way, but the impact had caused the sharp corner of his suitcase to cut into his leg. Even though the gash wasn’t deep, it was bleeding profusely.
Beside him, Nuno paled, but not at the sight of Eze’s blood. The banks of the tributary must have been extremely muddy, Eze surmised, for the bus slid deeper and deeper into the water. Eze had been a fisherman for five years of his precious youth, but never before had he seen water move so fast. Tendrils of sludge-colored river water made their way into the bus faster than a pack of feeding, frenzied eels. People at the front were trying to open the door by pulling and pushing on it, but because the bus was not fully submerged underwater, Eze knew that with the amount of pressure of the water on the door, not even the combined efforts of everyone on the bus would be able to make it budge. He could see Senhor Madeira, the driver (who was fully awake now), and other male passengers ramming their shoulders into whatever surface they could find, trying to make some sort of headway into making an escape.
In the midst of the chaos, the panic of the other passengers started to rise, along with the water level. A few of the passengers, like Eze, were dumbfounded by the situation they were in and simply stood where they were, unable to move due to fright, confusion, or an unpleasant amalgamation of both; others were crying, clinging onto their loved ones desperately and, for those who had no loved ones, covering their faces, as if not seeing the gushing water would make it disappear; still others were bawling shamelessly or ardently praying (for some of the passengers there was no differentiation between the two). Some were even calling out for their mamães, including people who Eze knew were definitely too old to still have people to even call that. Such were the tiers of panic on the bus.
Ah Merda! Eze thought. Already, the water had reached his shoes, seeping through the cheap fabric and easily slipping its way through the soft meshwork of his socks. Oddly, the first thing that came to Eze’s mind was how warm the water was. As warm as urine, Eze disgustedly thought.
Eze couldn’t say for sure what happened first: the flash of red and silver that he saw or the chorus of unearthly screams that threatened to pierce the metal shell of the bus. Either way, he was able to put two and two together faster than anyone else on the bus, not because he was smarter (Eze would be the first to admit that), but because he had the most experience under his belt. All it took was the first blossom of a bloody hibiscus under the muddy water to tell Eze that it was exactly as he feared: piranhas.
Out of all his years spent in the fishery, Eze had never heard of a tale involving piranhas that had a happy ending. To even see one without being mauled was considered um milagre. They were considered even more dangerous than the Arapaima and the Piraíba combined. The closest encounter Eze had ever had was seeing the horrific remains of victims, an inevitable ordeal in the fish market. He had seen some English documentaries on piranhas. They claimed that piranhas were not vicious pack hunters as everyone made them out to be but were mostly scavengers or foragers that preferred plants and bugs over flesh. That may be true, but in the end they did not align with cold reality. And when it came down to it, Eze was not about to put his life in the hands of something as untrustworthy as science. After all, science had not been able to help as pobres almas from having their bones stripped to the marrow, the signature of the merciless, unyielding piranhas.
The water was up to Eze’s waist now. He thanked whatever saint had put him in the back of the bus, for the massive pyramid of baggage in the middle of the aisle was the only barrier between him and the piranhas. He knew that because it was the dry season, the piranhas would be especially aggressive; their food supply would be at an all-time low at this point in the year; large shoal of piranhas meant that their nesting site was nearby. If the bus happened to crash into their nest…. The piranhas would not only be tense and hungry, but protective as well, and even more so because they were piranhas. The worst possible scenario, he grimly thought.
The panic level of the bus increased tenfold, as if someone had turned a dial on the side of the bus from MEDIUM to MAXIMUM on a sudden whim. The sight was almost unbearable. The water had turned an ugly brick color. Many were swatting at the water, wanting to rid themselves of the red-bellied pests that chomped at their flesh but unwilling to put their still whole arms into the treacherous water. Some even attempted to brave the luggage pile, only to be pulled down by others who begged to be saved. But worst of all was seeing Nuno’s mother trying to protect her baby by lifting her above the water while shrieking and writhing in pain at the same time; it looked like she was offering her child as a sacrifice to some sadistic deity. “Salve-me! Salve-me! Por favor!” Eze did not know who these words were directed to, for no one, not even God, could save them now. These words echoed and ricocheted off the walls, off the water, creating an effect not unlike an ensemble of eerily pitched broken record players.
Eze wanted to plug his ears and sink into a void, anything to escape the moment, but he didn’t have that luxury. He had to clear his mind if he was going to get out of this; he had to clear his mind if he was going to see Sonia, if he was going to see his mother, again. The survivor’s instinct kicked in (Eze wished that it had kicked in a little earlier, before the water had reached his chest), and he started throwing floating suitcases, purses, duffel bags, anything, but the obstinate glass windows refused to shatter. Eze started punching the glass. He busted his knuckles, but he didn’t care; he’d gladly live with a useless hand if it meant that he could live another day. “Damn it!” he yelled. His frustration gave out to tears “Why won’t you BREAK?! BREAK ALREADY!!”  Giving up, it seemed, was the only way out. For the first time in seven years, Eze began to pray. He did not ask for survival; he asked for a quick, clean, painless death.
Eze could now tread water; that was how deep it had become. Any second now, Eze thought. He was just waiting for the first bite, the harbinger of a living hell. Every painless second was an eternity; every painful one, he knew, would be twice as long.
Nuno was sobbing uncontrollably. He was trying to tell Eze something, but it was coming out as gibberish. Finally, two coherent words: “IT HURTS!” The moment those words registered in Eze’s mind, he knew exactly what Nuno meant.
He felt the pain after a quarter of his leg was gone. By then, it was as if all of the tumult in the bus had condensed itself into the lump of ruined flesh that was his leg. He kicked. He screamed. He thrashed. Whatever he did, he could not rid himself of the pain that wracked his body and attacked his brain. It was at once scorching fire and numbing ice, stripping him of all conscious thoughts and obliterating any identity he had left. The only human thought he had left was wanting to drown before being completely eaten alive.