Lands, Horses, Bones

Something is always lost when putting Brazilian thoughts on American paper. They resist English articulation. But Brazilian thoughts are not all created equal: when thinking of my country, most people will think of beaches or slums. They won’t think of the Pampas of my home state. They won’t think of the Northeastern Sertão either, or the Midwestern Pantanal. Without the necessary mythical vocabulary, writing about these regions becomes particularly challenging. The language may be able to describe the minuano—the cruel wind howling in the night—but it can’t capture the mixture of solitude, melancholy, and eeriness that the cold brings along. There are ancient souls in these words, passed down generation to generation, and they remain in the soil from whence they came.

Still, I’ll try.

The Pampas are vast, and more or less all the same: soft, smooth hills of green grass as far as the eye can see. Trees are rare, but low to the ground, and thick. There’s a feeling of infinity when driving through the plains—fences are almost unnoticeable, and cows, horses, and sheep roam seemingly free. As beautiful as the landscape is, the Pampas are harsh. Thanks to a cocktail of deep continentality, high humidity, and a Southern location lacking much of an Ozone layer, Pampa summers are infuriatingly scalding, and winters excruciatingly freezing. The gaúcho mindset was built around the challenge of surviving this land, of braving the sea of green, of taming wild horses, of building your own cabins and fires. 

As a city child, the little I knew about Pampa life was learned from history class and folklore songs. But in the winter of 2005, I was given an opportunity to connect to this heritage, to reach understanding through lived experience. While my parents were out of the country, I was invited to visit the farm my three uncles owned near the Uruguayan border. My nine-year-old self was elated, enamored by my uncles’ charisma. They’d teach me how to ride a horse, and let me eat dessert before dinner, and sleep in however much I wanted. An entire week with them signified more freedom than I could imagine.

There were drawbacks, of course.

I quickly learned how severe the land was. It was mid-July, the height of winter. On my first night, I slept under multiple sheepskin blankets, but the minuano whistled its way through the old windows, freezing my nose and cheeks. I wore three layers of clothes every day, and still felt the cold seeping down into my bones. I was shown the slaughterhouse and all the fat and happy cows lining up to their fate. I had to come to terms with it whenever we ate churrasco. And I had to learn to enjoy, or at least tolerate, the roughness of it all: the bitterness of the mate tea, the charred bits in the meat, the sharpness of the cold morning air. This is what being a Gaúcha meant; this is what would make my uncles proud.

There was sweet among the bitter, too. One of my uncles showed me the orchard and helped me pick the ripest bergamots. The second uncle drove me and my younger cousins to a corner of the farm, then sat each of us on his lap and let us drive the pickup truck. The third took me to the stables and told me to pick one of the horses to ride for the week. I chose Zélia, a dark brown mare with a white spot on the forehead, because he told me she was the gentlest. He saddled me up, gave me basic instructions, and I rode her timidly around the house and back. 

In just a couple of days, I was able to ride so confidently that I asked my third uncle to teach me how to go faster. He snapped a thin branch off a tree and told me to hit the mare’s rump with it. I did as he said, and it worked: Zélia trotted, catching up with my cousin’s stallion. I liked the rhythm, the wind against my face, the sun high and warm. I hit Zélia again, turning her in circles around and then away from the house, my cousin now trailing behind. Teasing him, I hit Zélia once more. She bolted, faster than I could handle, suddenly unresponsive to the reins. She turned to the orchard, running past a row of trees, one of which was too low for me. 

A branch hooked me by the neck. I got knocked out of the horse, back-flipping through the air until my face met the ground.

For a moment, everything was quiet. I stayed still. I felt no pain.

It seemed that I had to make a conscious effort to start crying: I knew nobody would come for me until I did. Once the panic hit me, everything began hurting. I realized I landed on my arm. Still I was too scared to move.

My little cousin reached me first—he left for the house, to get the adults. My uncles helped me up and said I was alright. I complained about pain in my wrist. The second uncle examined it, diagnosing it as a simple strain. He said it would be fine in a few days, and turned my cardigan into a rudimentary arm sling.

The following days, I waited for the sprain to heal. Each time I had to use my left hand, I felt the pain shooting up my arm. I would wince, trying to get through it, but my performance was clearly limited. I couldn’t wash my upper body because the soap was too heavy to hold. I felt like a dog with a lame leg, limping my way around the clock as best I could. I didn’t go outside much, and each time I saw a horse roaming around, my heart would beat fast. 

Eventually, the pain dulled. I went back home, and when I greeted my parents, I showed them my arm, saying it got sprained, but it was fine now. 

My parents immediately realized my wrist was broken. They took me to the hospital. 

My bones were already set in the wrong position: healed, but weak, useless. The doctors had to put me under and break my wrist again before wrapping my entire arm in a cast; it was the only way to correct the situation. I woke up through the anesthesia, sobbing in pain because the cast was too tight—my fingers, purple; the doctors, panicked. After I had a proper cast on, it only took me a couple of months until I got my arm back.

In my mind, I turned out okay, so nothing was wrong. I did not realize, as a child, what my uncles had done, or what they had neglected to do. I only registered that they signed my cast, affectionately.

I don’t remember when the thought hit me—it must have been nearly a decade later—, but something in me broke when I truly understood the gravity of the situation. I realized that the branch that knocked me out could have broken my neck, or cracked my skull, or popped my eye, or torn my face; that I could have easily died then, or had a very different sort of life. The thought left me dizzy and numb, and I could never look at my uncles the same way again. I suddenly wanted to ask them all sorts of questions. Why did you leave us unsupervised? Why did you act like everything was alright? Was my well-being not worth the trouble of driving to a hospital? How little did you value my life? 

By then, it was too late to confront them. If my parents asked those questions on my behalf, I’d been too young to register any repercussions. Once the cast was off, it wasn’t mentioned again. The world kept spinning, and the next summer we all went to the beach together like nothing had happened. 

Sometimes one of my aunts—who wasn’t there, but who knows; who also signed my cast—tells me I should visit again. I’m still working up the courage to say my last trip was more than enough.