Homage to Alipio Freire

Gabriela Pinilla. Padre Gabriel Díaz, Fragment of the Mural Photographer of Revolutions, 14 x 6 meters, Museo de Antioquia, 2019, Medellín, Colombia
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By FLAVIO AGUIAR*

A fictionalized version of a narrative by the recently deceased artist and political activist

I met Alípio personally after the end of the dictatorship, or in its death throes. We ran into each other on those gullies of trying to get PT communication vehicles on their feet. We fight in the magazine Theory and Debate, and in other less successful publications. Among countless other qualities, Alípio was an excellent storyteller. And as the title of one of the best short story anthologies says, organized by Aurélio Buarque de Hollanda and Paulo Rónai, Alípio was himself a “Sea of ​​Stories”. He told me many, some that happened to him, others to militants he had met. Of all, in this homage, I selected one, which I gave the title of “Morituri te salutant”, published in Chronicles of the World Upside Down (Boitempo). At the time, I modestly dedicated it to “A.”. Here she goes, evoking our evenings filled with his wonderful narratives. Alipio, forever.

Morituri salutant.

A.

There we were: She and I. “Ali” was an apartment on Rua Rego Freitas, in São Paulo. It was a device, as we used to say at the time. An apparatus was an apartment used to temporarily or permanently house a cell of guerrillas who fought against the dictatorship, those commonly called “terrorists”. Home was more rare: only in case of kidnapping.

I was me: nom de guerre Rodolfo (which the organs of repression called his “code name”), member of the Vanguarda Revolucionaria dos Trabalhadores, the VRT. I had been an economics student, now I was a professional activist. Professional: I only earned enough to survive.

“She” was She. That was her nom de guerre. I had already vaguely heard something about her, but concretely I didn't know anything. We've never seen each other before. It was our first joint action.

It was night, very late. We were in the dark, waiting for two other companions, Oto and Diego. The next day we should expropriate a bank, as we used to say. The money was needed to arrange yet another kidnapping of a diplomat, in Rio de Janeiro, in order to exchange him for companions, arrested and tortured.

But the two were late. They should have arrived by now. If they didn't come, or at least one of them didn't arrive, the action should be aborted, and we should retreat. It was a sign that one had fallen, or both had fallen. Anyone who was arrested had orders to endure at least 24 hours of torture, to give others time to escape, move, destroy whatever was necessary, etc. But that, we knew, was utopian. Most of the companions could not endure more than two or three hours of torture before they began to “sing”, as the torturers called it. They spoke what they knew and even what they didn't know. The hardest ones started by lying, even though they knew it would make the torture worse later. But it happened.

Our lack of preparation? Perhaps. But the methods of torture in Brazilian repression were particularly cruel. They would hang the guy on a macaw stick, that technology “imported” from the times of slavery, and give him electric shocks in the penis, anus, vagina of women and so on throughout the body. And there were other methods, ranging from hitting the ears (the “telephone”), shocking the fingers with bare feet on a wet floor, simulated shootings and whatever else you can imagine. Few guys put up with all that, for the expected 24 hours or more. Many died. Others were maimed, inside or out, or both. I will not judge anyone. I have neither morals for it, nor do I think that is the case.

The apartment was cool, like apparatus. It was on the first floor, it was on the corner, it had windows on both streets, you could watch the four access corners. At the back, the service area overlooked a small inner courtyard, where there was a storage room right below. There was a door to the back of another building. That could be an escape route, as you could jump over the balcony onto the roof. There was a risk of something breaking, but it was a possibility.

In the dark, I was thinking about that geography of the device, watching Rego Freitas through the lowered blind, when She, with a psst! muffled, he called to me from the other window. I went there, and She showed me: on the street, on the sidewalk in front, a heavyset guy was smoking, leaning against the wall of a building. It was very late, cold and drizzling: that was very strange, she told me in a whisper.

Yeah, I agreed. I went back to my observation post: on Rego Freitas, ahead and a little uphill, towards Igreja da Consolação, I had parked a C-14 station wagon. It was the car preferred by repression. There were people inside who hadn't come down.

The device fell, I thought. One of them, or both, Oto and Diego, must have fallen and opened the address. Shit. I communicated my fear – my certainty – to Her. She agreed. We should leave, she said she. And we should try from the back, in front they are already bellowing – this was so whispered that it sounded like a thought. And I said. Let's go.

I put on my jacket, She buttoned up my raincoat, I took the bag with the weapons and we went to the service area. The door to the balcony was always open when there were people there, so that movement would not attract attention. I took the lead, crouched down. When I lifted my head enough to see the courtyard below, I soon noticed the two meganhas leaving through the door of the other building and stopping by the wall. They wore those trench coats from a crime movie, but you could tell they were armed.

We went back inside the apartment, went to the dark room. Fuck, I said, we're surrounded. They will break the device. I opened the bag, took out the two machine guns and the two pistols we had, with the bullet clips.

We can only resist, I said. I was the action commander. Yes, she said. And she amended: we are going to die. It was dark, very dark. To see more clearly, we had to be very close to each other, almost touching. And there was the problem with the lines, everything had to be so low that we had to speak close to each other's ears.

I hooked up the weapons, gave her a pistol and a “seamstress”. I went back to the Rego Freitas window. The station wagon was still there, not moving. I went with her to the window on the other street. The guy smoked. What are these fuckers waiting for, I thought. I motioned for her to stay where she was. I went to the back porch. The two guys weren't in the courtyard, but the door to the other building, ajar, showed that they were in the hallway, perhaps because of the light drizzle, which continued to fall, insipid and cold. I looked: the balcony of the neighboring apartment was very far away, it was impossible to go there. And the guys downstairs would notice.

I went back to the room. Maybe we could go out into the hallway, climb the building, find a hiding place, I said close to her ear. I went to the door, opened the peephole: with the light, we could see to the end of the corridor, where there was the elevator and the door to the stairs. The picture was small, everything was dark, but suddenly the door to the stairs opened and another guy looked in, unnoticed, as if he was confident that no one would see him. Then he leaned against the door again.

I told her what I saw. There is no way out, She said. They are already inside the building. But then, I said, what are you waiting for? I don't know, She replied. All I know is that either we're going to die or we're going to be arrested and taken away for torture. I think I'd rather die. Me too, I said. Do you have children? she asked suddenly. That was at odds with the Organization's rules: no questions, no personal issues. We knew this was often disrespected. But that was the rule. I did not answer. I have brothers. My mother lives in Caxias do Sul. I haven't seen her for a while. And you? I don't have children either, she said. You're from Rio, aren't you? I asked. Yeah, she said. I knew by the accent, I spoke. In that completely absurd situation, I noticed in the dark that she had smiled. I don't have an accent, she said. You do. Well, well, I said, that doesn't work. You cariocas… Suddenly, She put her fingers in my mouth. Outside, she could hear a station wagon door open. I ran to the window. One of the guys got out, crossed the street, walked slowly, turned the corner. Through the other window we saw that he went to talk to the guy with the cigarette, on the other street. And that's all. He hung around, then went back to the van, opened the door, got in, knocked.

It's amazing, I said, these guys behave as if they are not afraid of being seen! Whispering, She told me: I'm dying for a cigarette. And you? It's against the rules, I said, but… She cut me off: we're going to die, or turn into turnips in torture. Come here, I said. I took her by the hand, we went to the kitchen, just before the area. We sat on the floor by the sink, right under the swinging window. The guns were on our side.

In the cupboard by the sink was a box of matches. She took a pack of cigarettes from her purse, a small one that, in the ray of light coming in through the window, I could see that it was made of black leather with silk brocade, the same color, with silver threads. I took out a cigarette, lit it in the cup of my hand, then lit hers on the ember of mine.

In that thing about lighting a cigarette, with a match, and then ember against ember, I noticed that his eyes shone, under the dark, short, thick eyebrows. She looked me in the eyes too. So we lay back, and took long puffs. One, two, three.

She said to me: are you scared? Take my hand, I say. She took it. It's dry, She said, like mine. Too dry. Yes, I'm scared, I said, so scared. Me too, heard the shaky phrase. I squeezed her hand, she squeezed mine. I put down the cigarette, put my arm around her shoulders, snuggled her. Her raincoat made a noise like this: rrr… rrr .. against my jacket.

It's hot, I said, and took off my jacket. I threw her on the floor while she took off her raincoat. For the first time, I noticed the red blouse She was wearing, with lace. She snuggled in again. These guys, She said, why don't they come? Why not end it all at once? I don't know, I said, and to say it my mouth actually brushed against her ear. In a fraction of a second She kissed me on the mouth. I answered the kiss. Suddenly our mouths were wet. She ran her hand through my hair, the back of my neck. I grabbed her face, pulled her closer, we kissed madly.

It's against the rules, I said. No sex, no intimacy. The Organization… We are going to die, she said. And I said. You want to see, I continued. I've been here. I went to the cupboard under the kitchen sink and took out a bottle of good cachaça. This is even more against the rules, She said, we've got guns, we're going to have to take action to defend ourselves… We're going to die, I said, pulling out the cork. I took a sip from the bottle, huge. I offered, She took it, drank it too. Flushed, we kiss again. Morituri salutant, I said. What is that? She asked. Those who will die salute you, I said. That's what the gladiators told Caesar in the Coliseum.

She put her hand on my neck, inside my collar, and behind my back. In a few seconds we were pulling off all the clothes, I noticed the smallness of her breasts in the shell of my hands and the curve of her hips and buttocks in the same shells. There was no bed in the apartment, just a few mattresses, hardly anyone slept there. We went to the couch in the living room, on all fours, afraid to attract attention. And on the sofa we made love. That one, in extremis, it was a Te Deum, an eager love, in silence, where small sighs and suffocated moans were worth for crazy screams, unbridled choirs, the chant of chants, the music of the spheres.

We lay panting, I on top of her, until we broke apart. That's when we heard a thud. A dry blow, a door was being broken down, it seemed. But it wasn't ours. Underneath the door, I could see that there was light in the hall. I ran to the peephole: the guys had broken into – yes, broken into, but the apartment next door, the one whose balcony you couldn't reach. Even through the peephole, I could see the meganhada having a party. They took things out of there: mimeograph, typewriter, documents, paperwork. But there were no weapons, and no one.

She looked too. It was another device they were looking for, she said. And we didn't even suspect. That's why they took so long, I said, they wanted to see if anyone arrived, to arrest.

I closed the peephole. We take a deep breath. For the first time, we felt the cold of the night on our naked bodies. Nudes? Yes, suddenly we were aware of our nakedness in the dark. There we were, face to face, hopelessly naked, expelled from Hell. Or from Paradise? We went into the kitchen, dressed as greedily as we had undressed.

But the situation was serious. The absence of Diego and Oto showed that something was wrong. We had to get out of there. But going out like that, at that hour, was crazy, with the big crowd around. And they would certainly leave a bell to see if anyone reached the other device.

We had to wait until dawn, risking everything, to leave when the other residents of the building started to leave too. So it was. At half past six in the morning, the movement began to come and go. Around seven o'clock we were able to slip away separately, first I with the bag of weapons, then She, amidst the movement of maids arriving, office workers leaving, ladies of the night who came in, housewives who went to the bakery and so on. As I passed the entrance I saw the doorman talking to one of the meganhas. Son of a bitch, I thought, he's the one who fingered the other device, which we didn't even suspect. He luckily he didn't suspect ours, which was now burnt.

When I got lost in the crowd, I still carried in my ears some of the whispers of that crazy night. You have boyfriend? I got to ask her. This matters? She answered me. No, I said. I don't want to know either, she told me. Maybe we can see each other, I said, when this is all over. Does it have an end? She asked. I do not know who knows? It was my last sentence, before we got ready to leave.

Life and struggle continued. I learned later that Oto had fallen. He had been caught at home before leaving. Another fellow dedara. Diego, on the other hand, seeing that Oto did not show up, it seems that he still tried to come to Rego Freitas's device, to warn. But he also noticed the bell of the meganhas, and left without looking back. He imagined that Oto had already sung. That's what I was told. But Oto didn't sing. He got dick and electric shock in spades. It lasted 24 hours and then some. Then it opened. But when the cops got to the device, it was clean. There was no one else or anything there. Nor the bottle of cachaça, which I had taken as a souvenir.

With the number of people who fell, the VTR was dismantled. Neither I nor She fell. I fled. I lived for years under another name in the interior of Minas, where an uncle got me a refuge, next to some farms. She's gone. But in the comings and goings, with Amnesty, my name appeared on the list of amnesty recipients. Hers, as far as I know, does not. She had evaporated. Oto, today, lives in Spain, is a designer. Diego was shot as he was arrested. He died from the wound, or from torture. The family was not allowed to open the coffin at the wake. Not long ago, they exhumed the body and performed an autopsy. They showed signs of torture. He became a hero.

I got an economics degree, went to work for different government agencies, ended up in Brasilia, first deputy assistant, then congressional employee. I had many relationships, I never got married or had a partner for a long time. I traveled there, there, there, elsewhere, from time to time I looked for Her, without result.

A few days ago, I answered the phone at home and recognized the voice: it was She. How did she find me, I asked, a slight tremor in her voice. In the telephone directory, it said Ela, I know her name, it came out in the Amnesty decree. Or do you prefer that I keep calling you Rodolfo? No, I said, call me by my given name. My name is Meire, she said. You know, I'm coming from India. I have a huge journey to tell you. Yes, I said, I too have a story, perhaps less interesting, but a story. I want to know, She told me. I looked for you, I said. You disappeared. What do you want now, after so long? Look, She replied, I ran away from a lot, for a long time. Enough now. I'll tell you. There was a knot inside me, which I need to untie. Yes, I said, there was a knot in my life too. Let's pull these ends together. There was silence. I said: morituri… I didn’t finish, She completed: …you salutant.

We set up a meeting for today, Sunday, at the Cathedral of Brasilia, in a little while. I wrote these notes because I know what I want to happen, but I don't know what will happen.

Now, I'm on my way out. I finally get to meet her. And maybe She knows me too.

PS: The core of the narrative, the encounter in extremis between you and the militant, matches what Alípio told me. The rest is all fiction.

* Flavio Aguiar, journalist and writer, is a retired professor of Brazilian literature at USP. Author, among other books, of Chronicles of the World Upside Down (Boitempo).

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