Editor’s Note: This text is available to read in English and Portuguese. Clicking “Español” will take you to the Portuguese text.
When I was a boy and lived in a small country town, I witnessed a rather strange episode involving a professor and his family. Although many years have passed since, the details of the events, or at least those that made the strongest impression on me, still live on in my memory. Nobody alive during that time seems to remember what happened, and many doubt that such things even did—even the professor’s own daughter, whom I had seen running around, crying and begging for help, looked at me in astonishment and swore she remembered nothing when I spoke to her about the matter two or three years ago—and so I’ve resolved to put into writing everything I remember, before my own memory begins to falter as well. If my testimony one day falls into some diligent investigator’s hands, it’s possible that the incident, already so old and so completely forgotten by everyone but myself, will be dug up, discussed, and at last understood.
Naturally, my hopes are very precarious. I depend on luck cooperating and, as we know, if history is rich with lucky triumphs, it’s also full of defeats explainable only by the interference of this unforeseeable factor. So I do as the traveler does when he finds an injured bird on the road: I place it on top of a stump and head on my way. If the bird straightens itself and flies again, it will be saved—though the traveler won’t be there to see it. If it dies, it was already condemned anyway.
The professor of whom I speak taught high school before the Normalistas reformed the schools. He was a sad, skinny man who lived on the edge of town in a house with a dirt floor. He took on all sorts of work to provide for his wife and children: He sold chickens and eggs, braided reins from thread, collected debts, searched for missing animals, and now and again killed a pig or butchered a cow. Seeing him doubled over from so many different activities, it was difficult to understand how he still managed to find the time to write articles for the newspaper in Pouso de Serra Acima, twelve leagues south of our town. To tell the truth, nobody ever discussed these articles. We vaguely knew he wrote them, but few people made the effort to learn what they were about. Public indifference never bothered him, however, nor did he stop sharing his publications whenever a subject excited him. Everyone knew Pulquério as a hard-working man.
Now and then, I would find some newspapers from Serra Acima strewn around our house. My father bought these papers, but I never had much interest in them and never read any of the professor’s articles until much later. I found them dull, filled with old dates and the names of priests. It seemed the principal focus of his scholarship were the monographs of one Santiago de Alarcón, a Dominican friar who studied the history of our state and published his works at a printing press in Toledo.
Notwithstanding the lack of interest in his articles, Professor Pulquério ended up our town historian. Whenever someone wanted to know the origins of a family, building, or old road, they only had to consult the one man who found it impossible to remain ignorant. Though I never had much interest in these subjects, I myself felt reassured knowing he was always on hand. It was hard to pay attention to the stories he told me, since he was so tedious and slow in speaking, but I still treated him with deference so he wouldn’t turn me away in case I ever needed him. When I ran into him on the street or at my Uncle Lucílio’s store, I asked about his family or business and avoided talking about history. If I committed the imprudence of bringing up his favorite subject, I’d be stuck forever listening to that lazy voice of his and its long explanation.
One day, right after our usual greetings, the professor caught me off-guard and asked me if I knew the story of the Austrian’s treasure. I had to be tactical. If I told him I knew this story, hoping to shorten the conversation, my strategy could backfire; he might want to compare dates with me, and my ignorance would betray my intentions. If I said I didn’t know the story, I would have to listen to it from beginning to end, with all its tangents and tributaries.
“I see you don’t know,” he said. “This is no surprise, since young people these days aren’t interested in the past. Don’t think I’m criticizing you. It’s an easily understandable phenomenon, here and everywhere else. There are innumerable causes. In the first place…”
At this point, he must have noticed my impatience because he stopped himself and apologized: “Please forgive my rambling. I wanted to talk about the Austrian’s treasure and it looks like I’m already wandering down another path. If you want to hear the story, let’s go to your uncle’s store. It’s a fascinating subject for a young man like you. Who knows, maybe you’ll find the treasure one day yourself? You’d be rich for the rest of your life!”
Sitting on a sack of beans at the back of the store, Professor Pulquério told me of the vast treasure buried in a mine at the top of one of our hills. An Austrian engineer had explored the mine in secret and left sacks and sacks of gold buried in the mine itself. The mother lode was so rich he sent for his son in Austria to help him take it out. But owing to the distance and difficulties of communication, the boy took years to arrive and, when he suddenly appeared at the top of the ravine, the father mistook him for a robber and shot and killed him. Realizing his error, the Austrian engineer decided to build his son the richest tomb in the world: He buried him in the mine, alongside all the gold he’d extracted. The Austrian left behind only a hopelessly complicated map, which the professor had managed to obtain. Now Pulquério was looking for the mine. He was stuck on the map’s final phrase, which came only after much circumlocution and many false clues: “When you arrive at such heights, look from belt to head and you’ll find pure gold and riches like you’ve never seen.”
But nobody should take Professor Pulquério for an ambitious man. He didn’t want to keep all the treasure for himself, but was ready to divide it with whomever took part in the search, and even suggested the more the merrier.
Did such treasure really exist? It seemed people no longer believed in it. Goldrush fever had already passed through our town and left us feeling cheated. There was hardly an old corral, chunk of foundation, or pile of timber in the surrounding area that hadn’t been mistaken for the mute call of treasure. Once the site was dug out and turned back into earth, all the excavators had to brag about were the calluses on their hands. By the time the professor appeared with his map, people were already sick of hearing the word treasure.
The professor’s obsession might have passed over time without stirring up too much trouble, had the enigmatic language of the map not fascinated him. He spent entire mornings and afternoons in my uncle’s shop, interrupting business and customers, running over the map in his mind, searching for a way to parse the occult meaning of its phrases and disregarding his duties. More than once, his wife had to send one of his children to come find him so he could attend to some task that couldn’t wait or to ask him for money for some urgent expense. But I should say that the professor was always considerate towards his children. He never became irritated when they interrupted his ruminations and even asked my uncle to sell some candy to his boy, promising to pay him back later.
As long as he didn’t talk too much about the map or his treasure hunt, we saw no reason to complain. It was just a harmless new mania, a distraction from his problems at home. We liked seeing the professor calculate the number of sacks of gold in the mine, taking into account the time the Austrian worked alone, the amount of gravel a man could sift through in a day, and the percentage of gold in each pan. Afterwards, he calculated the number of people necessary to dig up the gold in the shortest time possible, the quantity and type of tools, and finally the number of mules required to transport the cargo downhill. He had measured everything precisely.
The professor wanted all of us in town, or as many of us as possible, to chip in for the expedition’s costs. He would then redistribute the treasure proportionally to our contributions, after deducting a percentage for himself as the expedition’s organizer. While everyone thought the plan reasonable, the contributions never arrived. Some said they were waiting until later, others that they were expecting a paycheck, still others that they’d think about it. Was it skepticism about the expedition’s success or doubt about the professor’s honesty? The professor opted for the second hypothesis and naturally felt offended. Since we were already tired of listening to him, we invented excuses to avoid him, so much so that many people no longer went to my uncle’s store so they wouldn’t have to find him there.
After countless attempts to explain the soundness of his project, the professor decided to write an open letter on four unfolded sheets of foolscap—“To the honest citizens of this town,” it began—and nailed it to the jail door.
I don’t think many people read it. I tried to read the letter out of curiosity, and as a kind of amends to the professor, but when I reached the end of the first page and saw that I still had seven to go—all of them written in a fine handwriting without paragraph breaks—I took my pencil and marked the point where I stopped with an X, planning to leave the rest for another day. But that day never arrived because some kids destroyed the letter, scribbling on it with coal in some places and tearing it in others. It was one more blow for the professor, who suspected the children’s parents had ordered the vandalism.
Getting no attention from the town, the professor tried to interest the state Magistrate, but this attempt failed as well. It seemed the treasure was cursed to never leave the top of the hill. The Magistrate was a man who lacked finesse, more adept at dealing with animals than people—he once broke a horse’s neck with a punch because it bit him when he removed its harness—and he refused to hear the proposal, laughing in the professor’s face. Those present said the professor left the Magistracy with tears streaming from his eyes, which didn’t surprise those who knew the professor’s gentle temperament.
I pitied him when I saw him around town, growing thinner and thinner, having no one to talk to. He didn’t deserve such malice and, if we couldn’t help him, I thought we should at least do something to distract him. But when I tried talking to him on the street, he glared at me and continued on his way. I felt guilty and decided to swallow my pride and go visit him at home that night. Dona Venira, his wife, greeted me with sticky hands. She was making rice balls she’d sell early the next morning for breakfast. Judging from how embarrassed Dona Venira was, I figured my name had been mentioned in that house and not favorably.
“Pulqué is writing,” she said at last. “I don’t know if he…”
I heard the professor call her from the veranda, where the lamplight threw outsized shadows into the alley. Could he have heard my voice or was it coincidence? From my spot at the door, I saw Dona Venira’s shadow arguing, shaking its arms and wagging its chin. But the two of them spoke quietly and I couldn’t hear anything.
Dona Venira looked sheepish when she returned. She begged a thousand pardons for her husband. He couldn’t see me that night because he was writing a petition to the state governor. When she mentioned the petition, her voice carried a different tone to it, though I didn’t know whether Dona Venira mocked her husband’s naivete or meant to impress me, as if to say, “Now you’ll see.”
After such treatment, I was able to say anything I wanted about the professor without being called unfair. But I decided not to tell anybody about his petition to the governor; I still had some sympathy for the poor man and didn’t want to see him ridiculed.
The professor was afraid that the postman planned to sabotage him, so he invented a reason to visit a nearby town and sent the petition from there in secret. Since nobody knew he’d done this, we couldn’t understand why he acted so nervous all the time. He hurried everywhere, rushing even through my uncle’s shop. He entered, smelled the roll of tobacco on the countertop, took a pinch of grain from some nearby sack, threw a couple into his mouth without paying attention to what he was doing, and asked to see something or other. Before my uncle could attend him, he changed his mind and bolted. The same thing happened at the market. At home, he took out his impatience on his children. The only place he lingered was the post office, no doubt so that he could wait for the mail to arrive.
Evidently, the professor knew nothing about the paths bureaucracy took. He imagined the governor himself would receive his petition, read it that same day or the next at the latest, and dictate a response at once on official letterhead, imploring the professor to go ahead with the expedition and giving him the power to enter the tax collector’s office and request the necessary funds, while we, the unbelievers, stood there watching him in admiration and envy, desperate to be included, even if it were just as glorified pack mules.
Instead of damaging his hopes, the delay made the professor more inclined to act. After waiting a few days, Pulquério sent the governor a long telegram, respectfully calling his attention to his petition and asking for the governor’s immediate response.
When the response arrived, the telegraph operator delivered it personally. The professor wasn’t at home and Dona Venira was out as well, delivering her sewing to a neighbor’s house. The operator returned to the city to look for the professor, accompanied by a band of curious onlookers. They passed the market, my uncle’s store, and the pharmacy, but no one had seen Pulquério. Finally, a boy dragging a load of firewood told them the professor was down by the riverbank, skinning a pig. We ran there, clogging the streets, tripping over each other’s feet, and causing women to come to their windows.
The professor was wearing a ploughman’s straw hat and old patched-up clothes and stirred a fire beneath a can of water. One of his oldest children came out of the brush with an armful of sticks. When he saw the telegraph operator, the professor abandoned his fire, jumped over the pig carcass, and walked up to him, wiping his hands on his pants.
The response was far from what he’d expected. Naturally, we all predicted this, but we still wanted to see how he’d act. The message, signed by a secretary, said only that his Excellency still hadn’t read the petition, but would make a decision as soon as the petition came across his desk alongside his advisors’ recommendations.
The professor let the paper fall to the bloody grass. He sat on top of the pig carcass and began to cry. It was as if he had suddenly perceived reality. We didn’t expect this type of reaction and, unsettled, we broke into small groups and returned to the city in silence. No one had the courage to talk about the professor’s tears. I don’t know if we were ashamed of him or ourselves.
The situation had reversed. Now everyone wanted to talk to the professor and distract him from his suffering, but he didn’t want to speak to anyone. He still visited my uncle’s shop out of habit, but sat there and stared at the ground, scratching his ears with little wicks of paper he had twisted meticulously, as if this job was of the utmost importance.
But if we’d known the truth, we would have learned he was still waiting. He had only given the authorities a deadline and was waiting for that to pass before taking the next step. On a Monday morning, Pulquério entered the telegraph office with his head held high and ordered a new message sent to the governor, stating that he the professor would begin a public protest against this official neglect in exactly ten hours. Word spread quickly and the town started to keep an eye on him. From the telegraph office, he walked to my uncle’s shop and bought brown sugar, flour, dried beef, tobacco, rolling straw, matches, and a thick coil of rope. If the rope suggested he had some foolish idea in his head, the other items soothed our nerves. We watched him as he left the shop, crossed the square, entered the cobbler’s alley, and headed home. At this point, practically everybody was following him. Children ran back and forth, gathering information to report back to their mothers who were stuck at home tending pots on the stove.
The professor entered his house with the items he’d bought. Soon he appeared again at his window, leaning over the sill and smoking peacefully. Each minute more people gathered outside his house and the crowd grew more impatient. But the professor was the calmest man in the world. He had his plan and wouldn’t rush just to please us.
When the clock at the jail struck ten, he came to the door and invited the crowd to enter through his yard, where there would be space for everyone. The only thing he asked was that people not damage Dona Venira’s plants. People shoved their way through, stepped on toes and cursed one another since the alleyway was narrow and everyone wanted to enter at once. Some entered through the house’s windows, scuffing the walls with their boot tips, while others jumped the back wall, cutting themselves on the shards of glass on top. They squeezed against the back door with such force it took them only a minute to warp it.
In the yard there was a dry well, covered by an old door with an enormous block of stone on top of it. The professor asked for help removing the stone, then pushed it to one side and tied the end of the rope around it. Until then, nobody suspected what his intentions were. Once the knot was firm, he said goodbye to his wife and children, who were all dressed in new clothes and had their hair combed to a shine. He slipped down the rope without any delay until he reached the bottom of the well. From there, he shouted up to his wife:
“Tobacco and straw.”
Dona Venira threw him a scarf and umbrella as well, recommending that he wrap himself up well at night. The crowd ran to the well’s edge, in such a rush that the first to arrive had to jump across it so as not to fall down the hole. I wanted to see if the professor was sitting, standing, or squatting at the well’s bottom, but there was no way to squeeze through and see.
Each morning, Dona Venira wrote the number of days her husband had been at the bottom of the well on a school slate she hung on a stake to its side. The yard was always full of people, as if this were a picnic or festival. They brought baskets of food, lit fires at night, and roasted potatoes. Two of the professor’s daughters sang to entertain them. Dona Venira set up a stall to sell drinks and cakes.
The festival lasted a little over a week before a delegate arrived, decided enough was enough and ordered the professor to come up. The professor responded that he was exercising his right to protest, and he would continue protesting until he achieved his objective. The delegate responded that this wasn’t a protest but a circus. He gave the professor an hour to comply. The professor’s only response was a confident laugh.
We were eager to learn how the delegate would force the professor to climb out of the well. People shouted suggestions from all sides. Some thought the best thing to do was to toss buckets of water down—boiling water, somebody suggested—while others said that torches soaked in kerosene were more suitable. One short fellow, a man with the lively eyes of a rabbit, recommended they slide the door over the well and send smoke inside, the way you’d flush an armadillo out of its burrow. When she heard this, one of the professor’s daughters, a girl of twelve or fourteen, ran from one side to the other, crying and begging us to have pity. Nobody was moved. Everyone wanted to see something out of the ordinary happen and nobody wanted some hasty gesture of mercy to ruin the outcome.
But the delegate didn’t need any suggestions because he had already made his plan. He was only waiting for the deadline to pass before he took his next step. And maybe deep down he wanted the professor to disobey his order, so he’d have reason to impose his authority in dramatic fashion. When he consulted his watch and announced that the sixty minutes had passed, the crowd at once opened a path between him and the well. They expected him to descend by the rope and haul the professor out over his back. But instead of walking towards the well, the delegate walked towards the house. We couldn’t understand why. Was he bluffing when he made his demand? It was clear the crowd’s disappointment didn’t come from any desire to see the delegate preserve his authority, but from fear of missing out on some funny or sensational event.
When the delegate returned from his carriage carrying an enormous wasp’s nest from the end of an avocado branch, the crowd gained new life. Here was proof that an experienced authority knew better than a hundred curious onlookers. Walking slowly, so as not to upset the branch, the delegate arrived at the edge of the well. Without any warning, he threw the branch in.
Naturally, everyone expected the professor to shoot out of the well like a rocket and run raving through the yard, tearing at his clothes and patting himself down on all sides. But nothing happened—we didn’t even hear a yell. We looked at one another in astonishment, as if the explanation could be found on our neighbor’s face. Finally, the more daring among us tiptoed to the well’s edge. When these described what they saw, nobody believed them. The entire crowd had to form a line and see it with their own eyes.
The only thing visible within the well was the avocado branch caught on a stone, and some cheese rinds that the wasps swarmed.
We returned home with our heads lowered, feeling ourselves vilely tricked.