A Simple Star

by Alexis Levitin

After five days living in his hammock on the open deck of a riverboat, gently chugging down the Rio Madeira, Jim had finally reached Manaus. He squirmed into his backpack, the hammock neatly rolled up and spilling like two floppy ears down either side, picked up his Army-Navy day bag, and filed down the gangway with the other passengers, most of them half indigenous and half a head shorter than he. He felt he was descending from the deck surrounded by little children, boisterous and about to burst free at the end of a long school day.

When he reached the dock, he looked for José, who had occupied the hammock next to his, José with his expressive hook nose, eyes like melted chocolate, slender dark limbs, all enveloped in a melancholic miasma. José, whose fiancée had died a week before, just as they were about to get married. “She got a fever,” he had told Jim. “We thought it was nothing. Then she turned yellow. Three days later, she was dead.” And then the coda, like an after-thought: “She was only sixteen.”

Jim, feeling awkward strapped into his backpack, reached out to embrace José. All the usual goodbyes seemed hopelessly irrelevant. He squeezed the frail body of the smaller man, still really a boy, and could only say once again, “Sinto muito. I’m very sorry.” José, gazing at him with his liquid eyes, said “Que Deus te protege, may God protect you” and drifted away in the crowd. Jim felt gangly and alone and headed for a line of cabs awaiting passengers.

Struggling out of his harness, he bent down to the swarthy driver and named a pension he had heard about. The driver nodded, Jim shoved his packs into the back seat and sat down next to the driver. They headed off through traffic, as the early tropical night fell upon the city. The driver began to talk.

“I don’t come from around here, you know?” he started out. “I come from Ceará. The reason I’m here in Manaus is that back home, I killed a man. Yeah, you know, I killed him with my machete,” and he described a violent slicing motion with his right hand, while steering carefully with his left. After a pause, during which Jim sat paralyzed and said nothing, the driver went on: “So that’s why I’m here, you know, it’s safer up here where no one knows me. I’ll stay a few years, then when things die down, maybe I’ll go back home to Ceará.”

They pulled up in front of the pension. The cabbie, who had never turned on the taxi meter, named his price. Jim, having lived for over a year in Brazil, knew immediately he was being ripped off. He protested: “You think because I speak with an accent that I don’t know anything? I live here in Brazil, I know what’s going on. That’s ten times the normal price for a short ride like that.”

Before he could make a move to open his door, the cabbie had gunned the engine and they were driving away from the well-lit street and up a winding road into the tropical darkness. When they were far from any house, the cabbie stopped the car, turned to the gawky foreigner and declared, with ominous solemnity: “Now you are going to pay the fare.” And Jim did. Without a word, the cabbie drove him back to his pension and, without a word, Jim climbed out, dragging his heavy pack and the smaller day bag from the back seat. The transaction was over.

Jim spent a few days in that anomalous place. Everywhere boats were ascending and descending the river, large passenger boats like the one he had come on, smaller ferries, and even smaller dugouts, carved from single trees by the local people. He took a tourist boat to the famous meeting of the waters, where the sluggish ink black of the Rio Negro, instead of mixing with the muddy water of the main river, ran parallel with the earthy, much faster flow of the Solimões. Back in town, he visited the famous Opera House, an imposing structure that would have been at home in Vienna, Paris, or Rome. There was no opera at the time, so he simply walked around the stately structure topped with French roofing tiles and passed timidly through its cavernous interior, with its Carrara marble staircases and its Italian decorative panels. He could only wonder what that thoroughly European phenomenon was going in the midst of the dripping Amazonian jungle. Somehow the murderer from Ceara and the pungent smell of rotting fish and fuel oil along the docks seemed the real Manaus. Also, the headache he was now developing, the sore throat, the dryness in his mouth, the sweat trickling down his temples and gathering on his throbbing forehead, they, too, seemed part of the authentic Manaus. He went home and downed two aspirins with a bottle of icy cold Coca-Cola. He slept for ten hours, but when he awoke, he felt no better. And though the fever did not go away, he decided to continue on his trip, hoping that a change of scene might change his inner condition.

The dark-skinned quiet man beside him on the plane to Fortaleza seemed to possess no special characteristics at all. He could have been anyone, any João, José or Antônio. They exchanged a few words, but mostly sat silently in their separate seats, side by side. Jim acknowledged that he was a visitor on vacation to the Amazon, that it was his first time. João, it turned out he really was a João, was returning to Fortaleza from visiting his only sister in Manaus. He had a job in some municipal office, a job he had always had and would never leave. Tomorrow was Monday, and he had to be back at work. “É a vida,” he said with a small smile. Jim nodded and sipped from his iced mango drink. He sat there saying nothing, then excused his silence, explaining that he had a fever, that he wasn’t well. “It happens,” his traveling companion said with sympathy.

Jim dozed off but awakened as the plane hit the tarmac at the airport in Fortaleza. Everyone bustled to get their carry-ons from the overhead compartments. He, too, stood up, but felt dizzy, disoriented. Sweat was trickling down his neck. Clearly, his fever had not dissipated. Thirst, stunned, he stood in the crowded aisle with his backpack and day bag leaning against his legs. He had no plan, no idea what to do once he got off the plane. Finally, everyone began to shuffle forward, and Jim found himself drifting with the crowd through the arrival area. Suddenly, out of the hazy miasma, he felt a hand gently touch his arm. It was João, his traveling companion from the plane.

“Excuse me, but you do not look too good,” said João. “Do you have a hotel reservation?”

“No, no, I don’t,” Jim replied, with a voice that didn’t sound like his own.

“Listen, you are not well. You can come home with me till you get better.”

Mumbling his thanks, Jim trudged behind his new friend to the bus line and soon they were on their way to town. João found him a seat and stood beside him during the ride. He could not tell if it was short or long. When they reached the terminal, on automatic pilot, he followed João off the bus and on to another. After another indeterminate spell of stops and starts, lurchings, grinding of gears, accelerations and swervings, João tapped him on the shoulder and gestured with his head, indicating it was time to get off. João helped him with the backpack, while carrying his own cardboard weekend suitcase in the other hand. Belching exhaust fumes, the bus took off with a roar, and they were left alone at the humble street corner. Beneath the weak streetlight, a small, emaciated dog was sniffing at some rubbish in the gutter. “Let’s go,” said João, and they walked down a deserted side street till they came to a wooden door painted blue. It looked like all the other doors they had passed on the way. “This is it,” said João. “We’re home.”

Inside was a square room with a couple of chairs. a table, and a wardrobe. João went to the wardrobe and returned with a hammock, which he hung from large hooks protruding from two supporting beams. “You can sleep here, you will be comfortable”, he said, then disappeared into a small kitchen. Jim sat on one of the chairs in a daze. After a bit, he felt a hand on his shoulder again. “Here, drink some of this hot tea, it will help,” and João handed him a white mug with steaming dark tea. “You think you want a cold drink, but really a hot drink is what you need right now. A hot tea with honey, see, and a slice of lemon. That’s what you need.”

João took the other chair and sat amiably beside him. Jim tried to sip, but the tea was very hot. His host got up and returned with a spoon, a packet of plain biscuits, and a smile. Jim mumbled thanks, filled the spoon, and blew on it, then sipped again. He munched on a biscuit. So did his companion. It was so quiet Jim could hear his own sipping and the crunching of biscuit in both of their mouths. He could still feel sweat dripping down his neck, but somehow, he felt comforted. He remembered all the times he had shared late night tea with his mother when he would visit her back home, in her lonely widowhood. Yes, tea was a good thing.

“Let me see your eyes,” João said. He bent over and, gently tilting Jim’s face upward, he forced one of his eyes to open wide. Jim could feel sweat dripping down his face, but his host’s gentle touch was reassuring. “No, you don’t have yellow fever, thank God,” he said. “Just some ordinary virus. You’ll be OK. Now listen,” he went on. “Tomorrow morning early, I have to go to work. They notice if we’re not there,” he added, sheepishly. “But the cleaning lady will come later and she can make you breakfast, whenever you like. She will make you fresh orange juice and some toast and jam. You will feel better,” he said with a smile. “I will come back at six in the evening. You can stay as long as you have to.” And he got up, touched Jim on the shoulder one more time, then moved off to the only other room, which must have been his small bedroom. “Good night,” he called out. “Tomorrow you will be better.”

Jim sat at the little table and slowly finished his tea. Mechanically, he ate a few more biscuits. He gazed at the bright depiction of the Sacred Heart of Jesus centered on the otherwise blank kitchen wall. He arose unsteadily, turned off the kitchen light, shuffled into the small living room, grasped the edge of his hammock, then sank down with a sigh and lay still. He heard the click as João turned off his bed light in the adjoining room. Then he heard the low murmur of a nighttime prayer. Then there was silence. A dog barked down the street, but soon the barking stopped. Now he was enveloped by the night, and he just lay there motionless, as the sweat cooled along his back. With his old red bandana, he mopped his forehead dry. As his eyes grew used to the dark, he realized there was no ceiling above him. There was just a patchwork of overlaid roof tiles between him and the cool night sky. He realized how humble the abode was in which he had found shelter. He realized how humble his gentle host was, that simple, anonymous João, a man who could have been anyone, his unknown savior. As he gazed upwards, to his surprise, through a chink in the roof tiles, he caught the glimmer of a single simple star in the ink blue vault of the sky. And with that distant, unexpected star hovering above, indifferent and beautiful, he drifted off to sleep, convinced that by morning his fever would indeed be gone and he would be able to return refreshed to life, its unexpected byways, its modest wonders.

Alexis Levitin has been a translator for almost half a century. His forty-seven books include Clarice Lispector’s Soulstorm, published by New Directions. As a graduate student in the sixties, he founded a spiritually oriented literary magazine called The Quest, which included work by W.H. Auden, Anne Fremantle, and V.S. Yanovsky. Thrust into an isolation tinged with fear by the pandemic, he suddenly began to write his own fiction beginning March 25, 2020. So far, he has written 90 stories, of which nineteen have been accepted for publication. His writing is an attempt to redeem his remaining time and to reconcile himself, or at least his protagonists, to the human condition.

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