Tiago sat in the shade of the large mango trees at the outdoor bar in front of the Theatro da Paz. He was nursing his ego with a beer, and his bruised knuckles with ice from the beer bucket. Tiago had a sweetness about him hidden deep within his soul, protected by bravado and vainglory.
It was a Sunday, and the artisanal market was set up down the street in the Praça da República. The rays from the equatorial sun cast no shadows on the thinning noon time crowds. Vendors sat in their booths fanning themselves, while the tourists meandered slowly down the street. Neither the tourists nor the vendors showed much interest in being there. Tiago mused whether it was the heat or the sameness of life that had turned them into empty husks.
His attention turned to a column of ants running from the grass, up the table leg, across the table to the scraps left from his lunch. He watched intently as they went about their work, slowly, methodically carrying the crumbs back to their nest. He poured a small puddle of his beer in their path to disrupt them. At first, they veered around the new obstacle, until one stopped to taste the beer. Shortly, a tightly organized column of ants became a drunken mob wandering randomly along the table. Proud of his accomplishment, he ordered another beer and a shot of cachaça.
A ripe mango fell from a tree onto his table, waking him from his lethargy. He noticed a garça swoop low, flying beneath the canopy of trees. Following the flight of the large white bird, he noticed a beautiful young woman in a yellow dress. Her vitality, juxtaposed to the lifeless crowd, aroused his curiosity. She skipped and danced against the current of the slow-moving river of humanity, oblivious to the oppressiveness of life.
As she came closer, he recognized her face. She was Luana, a whore his friend visited on occasion. As she passed she turned and stared into his eyes. Mesmerized by her energy, he downed his shot, grabbed his beer, and followed her into the crowd.
Luana had an innocence about her, protected by the vulgarity of her actions, that couldn’t be corrupted by life. Her lasciviousness distracted others while her carnality distracted herself. When not focused on the outside world, however, her innocence shined through.
He was close enough to hear her singing a samba as she danced effortlessly through the crowd, occasionally spinning around to catch his gaze. She turned down a side alley that led into a maze of small shops. He followed. As he caught up to her, he grabbed her elbow, and immediately let go, surprised by the coldness of her skin. She turned and smiled.
“Hi Tiago. When would you like to go?”
“Are you high, Luana?”
Laughing, she grabbed his hand and darted left, pulling Tiago with her. They fell into a void. The heat of the day was gone, replaced with a frigid blackness. Then it was gone. They were standing on a dirt path in a meadow. The air was heavy. It would rain soon.
“Where are we?” Tiago asked.
“We’re still in Belém. The question is: ‘When are we?’”
“You are high.”
“No. You didn’t answer when I asked: ‘When would you like to go?’, so I randomly picked a time to jump off.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“What we just did. Tell me, what did you just experience?”
“I don’t know. I think I must have blacked out for a moment. Everything was blank, cold and black.”
“And now you’re here. And look at you,” she said, running her hand along my forearm. “The hair is standing up on your arms, and your skin is like ice.”
“I really don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I’ll explain later. Come, let’s explore. Let’s see if we can figure out when we are. My guess is we went backwards, into the past. Belém’s four hundred years old, so the park must still be close by. I’ve never gone that far backwards.”
She took Tiago’s hand, and led him up the path. Ahead was a brick wall hidden almost entirely by undergrowth. Before they could get to it, the heavens opened, and a torrential cloudburst broke the sky open. The rain came down mean and heavy, intent on destruction. The path quickly turned into a muddy stream, then a river. They struggled to climb up the bank and take cover under a large ipé.
Standing under the tree, waiting for the storm to end, Tiago asked, “What is going on?”
“We’re exploring,” Luana replied.
“No, you need to explain this to me. A minute ago we were standing in an alley in the middle of the city, and then we are standing in a field. You tell me we’re still in Belém, but in a different time, but that’s crazy.”
“Remember the void? The cold, the blackness? We stepped out of time. Now we have to figure out when we stepped back in.”
“You can’t step out of time.”
“We just did.”
“This is crazy.”
“Yes, you said that last time, too.”
“Last time I took you time traveling. Actually, technically, it’s the next time I took you time traveling. We go again Tuesday, but it’s actually the first time I took you. It’s kind of confusing.”
“So, next Tuesday you take me time traveling, but next week is the first time, and this is the second time? That makes no sense.”
“Yes, it does when you think about it. Time is more like a maze that you get lost in, not a straight one-way street. Sometimes you think you’ve found your way out, but you never really do. You just get more lost. When you start playing with it, time becomes an infinite labyrinth.”
Tiago shook his head. “You’re insane.”
“Come, it stopped raining,” she said.
As they began to step out from under the canopy of trees, they heard men shouting and horses’ hooves. They saw a young man running down the muddy path, chased by men on horseback. Tiago grabbed Luana and pulled her back into the undergrowth, hidden from the path. They stood silent as they heard the horses gallop past.
“Let’s get the hell out of here,” Tiago said.
Luana began turning in circles.
“What are you doing?” Tiago asked.
“Looking for a way out.”
“I’m looking for a shimmer, a gap, so we can jump out of this time.”
“There,” Tiago said.
Luana grabbing his hand. “Follow me.”
In the open field Luana saw the shimmering as the sun reflected against the rainwater evaporating off the hot earth. They ran toward it. Everything turned cold and black. Then they were standing in Praça da República. It was early morning. A few vendors were just beginning to set up their stalls.
“We’re back?” Tiago said.
“You never go back to the same place. Time is a labyrinth with no exit, you just go deeper and deeper. We’re at the same place a few hours earlier than when we left, but it’s not the same, it never will be the same. I might not come down this street today, and you might not sit at the bar drinking. “
“We changed time?”
“Time is always changing. There is no fixed past or future.”
“That’s crazy. I know my past. I lived it.”
“You don’t know anything. You think you remember things. Those things change. Your memory might change with it, or else you might just forget. Memory isn’t reality, just like dreams of the future aren’t reality. The only reality is the current moment.
“Well, time for me to go.”
“Wait, teach me how to do that.”
“Not yet, maybe soon.”
“Tuesday?” Tiago said.
Luana didn’t reply. She turned and walked away. Tiago stood in the park and watched her disappear down the street. He went to the open air bar, and waited for it to open. He needed a drink.
A mango fell from a tree overhead, crashing onto his table. The white garça swooped down and flew above the crowd of people. Luana danced through the crowd with her invisible partner, but Tiago saw none of this. He was passed out, drunk.
Tuesday passed, and Luana never showed up to give him his first trip into time. He kept running through last Sunday in his mind. He began to question his memory. He began to think it was a drunken hallucination, but it felt too real, and deep in his soul, he knew Luana had given him a glimpse of reality.
Wednesday morning, he went to his friend’s house.
“I’m looking for Luana,” Tiago said.
“Tiaginho,” his friend replied. “I thought you were gay. Why are you looking for that whore?”
“Fuck you,” Tiago said, punching his friend square in the stomach.
“Just tell me where I can find her.”
“Relax, relax. I’m just joking. Here’s her number. It’s easiest just to text her.”
Tiago left without another word spoken.
Tiago sent Luana a series of text messages which were ignored. Two days later, he received a text from Luana. “Meet me at das Docas at noon.”
Tiago arrived just before noon and paced up and down the cobblestone walkway along the river looking for Luana. He felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned to see Luana in a bright red dress.
“Come on, the boat’s about to leave,” she said as she took his arm.
“You lied to me about Tuesday,” Tiago said.
“Tuesday. You said that on Tuesday you would take me on my first-time travel, but you never showed up.”
“I told you that time changes. I told you we didn’t go back to the same place. Once I took you on a time travel on Sunday, I couldn’t take you on your first-time travel on Tuesday. Things change. You need to start thinking differently.
“Like I said, the only thing that is real is right now, the current moment. Live in the moment, because the past and future are always changing.”
Tiago almost responded, but stopped himself. He wasn’t sure what to say, so he simply shook his head and remained silent.
They boarded a small passenger ferry that smelled of fish and mildew. They walked through the lower deck, past rows of benches filled with passengers. It was hot and stuffy inside, so they exited the cabin in the back and stood in the fresh air as the boat pulled away from the dock.
“Where are we going?” Tiago asked.
“Up river. I told my grandmother about our adventure last week and she wants to meet you,” Luana said over the roar of the engines.
Tiago tried to reply, but the noise from the engines was now too loud. They stood and stared at the city. Luana wrapped her arms around Tiago. They stood there as the boat followed the curve of the river and the city disappeared behind the deep green of the forest.
The river was large serpent slithering through the lush green rainforest fed by the rich soil washed into it by the strong Amazonian rains. It was mystical. They were engulfed in green as the river twisted and turned through a maze of small islands. Within minutes of the city, they had disappeared into an ancient world.
Occasionally the forest was broken by a small clearing holding a wooden hut, or a long, fragile dock with a dugout canoe tied to it. It was at one of these docks that the boat stopped. Luana and Tiago, as well as a handful of other passengers got off. Tiago was distrustful of the rickety structure, worried a rotted board would break loose and he would drop into the water, he clung to Luana for support.
At the end of the dock, the two of them followed a dirt path that carved a tunnel through the dark forest. The ground was soft underfoot from layers of decayed leaves. The scent of the forest was sweet with the bloom of flowers. They were both sweating by the time they reach a small village, about ten minutes from the river. Luana walked to the far edge of the clearing and stood in front of a crudely built hut. There was a large snake warming itself in the sun in front of the entrance. Luana calmly stepped over the snake and into the hut. Tiago froze.
“I’m afraid of snakes,” he said.
“Don’t be a baby. It’s not poisonous,” Luana replied.
“It’s huge. It’ll crush me.”
“God, you’re a baby.”
Luana went back outside, over the snake, took Tiago’s hand and helped him jump over the snake and into the hut. It was dark and empty. The floor was dirt, and the walls were made of wood planks. The roof was thatched.
“Where’s your grandmother?” Tiago said.
“My grandmother is dead, but I thought she’d be here. I guess we’ll have to go back and find her.”
“What? You brought me here to talk to a ghost?”
“Maybe, or maybe we will go back to a time when she was alive, but then that will be more complicated.”
“I’m here,” came a whisper from a dark corner of the room.
They turned toward the voice, but nobody was there. Slowly the shape of an old woman began to emerge from the surrounding darkness.
“Holy shit,” Tiago said, taking a step toward the entrance. Luana grabbed his arm.
“Grandma,” Luana said, smiling. “This is Tiago, the man I told you about.”
“Thank you for coming to see me Tiago. Luana told me about your adventure last week, and how you were able to spot the ripple in time.”
“Grandma, Tiago wants to learn how to step through time. Do you think you can teach him?”
“Perhaps. Come here son, let me see you.”
Luana took Tiago’s hand and coaxed him closer to her grandmother. He felt a coldness as the grandmother touched him.
“You have a sweetness about you, Tiago. I can tell why Luana is attracted to you. You were meant to protect each other.”
She walked around Tiago, inspecting him.
“I’m afraid I can’t teach you, Tiago.”
“What? Why not?” Luana asked.
“Luana, dear, Tiago certainly has a gift, but I can’t help him. I think it would be best if you two leave now, and, Luana, stay close to Tiago for the next few days. He needs you right now.”
“Grandma, tell me what’s going on.”
There was a long moment of silence, then the grandmother held Tiago’s hands in hers.
“Tiago, you are dying, my dear, sweet boy,” she said.
“What?” Tiago said.
“Don’t worry Tiago, in many ways, death is a wonderful thing. Mysteries will be revealed. You’ll understand time and be able to move through it with ease. The dead have it easier, because we don’t have a body to worry about.”
“How do you know I’m going to die?”
“I can see it. You are almost dead now. Maybe that’s why it was so easy for you to see the ripple.”
“I’m almost dead now? How? I’m not sick. I’m only thirty years old. I can’t die.”
“People can die at any time.”
“But there’s so many things I still want to do with my life. You can’t be sure, right? Luana, keeps saying that the past and future keep changing. I’m not dead yet, so maybe something will change, maybe I can still live a long life.”
“Tiago, try to calm down. Many things change, but death usually doesn’t. As someone who has experienced it, let me try to give you peace of mind. Death is not the end. Death is simply the end of your body, not of your soul. Life is limited by the physical, death is unlimited potential.”
“Luana, I need to get out of here,” Tiago said.
“I’m so sorry. Tiago, I honestly didn’t know. I’m sorry,” Luana said.
“Ya, let’s just go,” Tiago said. He was already outside the hut and walking down the path toward the river. Luana said goodbye to her grandmother then ran after him. They sat in silence in the shade of the trees along the bank. Tiago watched a long line of ants carrying food back to their nest. The ants walked along a thin dirt path they had worn through the vegetation.
“How long do you think this line of ants have been walking over the same path to wear it out like this? Months? Years?” Tiago asked.
Luana looked but didn’t reply.
“Imagine being an ant. Walking the same path over and over again, your entire life. I think most people are like ants,” Tiago said.
He put his finger down into the path and let one ant crawl onto his finger. He held it up close to his face.
“I give you the gift of life, little ant. Go, be different. Explore new worlds,” he said as he placed the ant on a nearby rock.
“You know, you probably just killed it. Now it won’t be able to find its way back to the nest and it’ll die,” Luana said.
“But right now, while it is on that rock, it’s alive for the first time. It’s discovering new things. Better to die living than to live dying,” Tiago said.
“Tiago, I’m so sorry.”
“For what? You’ve shown me life.”
The boat returned to take them back to the city. Luana wrapped her arms around him and tried to comfort him the best she could. Tiago remained quiet during the entire boat trip.
“Tiago, stay in touch,” Luana said at the dock, before getting in a taxi home.
Tiago stood watching the taxi go, then walked down the street to catch a bus to his house. It was dark when he got home. He went to the kitchen and took out the leftovers from last night’s dinner – a half a roast chicken, some jambu, and some farofa. He put them on a large plate, took a bottle of cachaça and two glasses from the cupboard, and headed outside.
He walked down to the corner of his street, representing the crossroads of life and death, and placed the plate on the curb. He poured two glasses of cachaça. He stood in the street facing the food. He raised his glass in a toast.
“A feast for the gods,” he said. “Let my death be glorious, because my life was shit.”
He downed his drink and poured himself another. After his second shot he left the bottle and walked back to his house. He took a shower and dressed in pants and a shirt, both of fine white linen. He laid down in his hammock and closed his eyes. A short time later, he took his last breath.
Luana felt infinite sorrow and unending joy. She got out of bed and dressed in her bright yellow dress and looked for a shimmer in the moonlight. She stepped into the void and out into the bright sunshine.
It was Sunday. The tourists crowded the artisanal market. A white garça flew low overhead. Luana felt him behind her. She turned to see Tiago smiling. She took his hand as they danced a samba down the street, against the flow of the crowd.