Cover image: Marco Marques
Written by Pará-born writer, journalist and attorney Inglês de Sousa, “Acauã” was first published in his short story anthology “Contos Amazônicos” (“Amazonian Tales”) in 1892.
“Acauã” (adapted in this translation as “Akawan”), is the Brazilian common name of the Laughing Falcon, also known as Snake Hawk (Herpetotheres cachinnans),a neotropical bird of prey whose diet mainly consists of snakes. In Brazil, this bird is usually considered a portent of misfortune, and it is believe that whenever its call is heard, a tragedy is bound to happen soon (listen for yourself HERE).
For the purpose of keeping this translation as authentic and as close as possible to the source material, I’ve kept all the original names with their original spellings. The same goes for the names of cities, rivers, animals plants etc. The only exception being “Acauã”, which I’ve adapted for the sake of keeping the “sound” of the bird’s call, from which it gets its name.
All of that being said, enjoy the first Portuguese to English translation of this blog, and here’s to hoping this will be the first of many Brazilian spooky short stories we’ll be sharing.
Captain Jerônimo Ferreira, a resident of the old village of São João Batista de Faro, was on his way back from a hunting trip he had made to distract himself from the grief over the loss of his wife, who had passed on suddenly, leaving him to raise their two-year-old daughter all by himself.
Having lost the usual patience of a seasoned hunter, Jerônimo Ferreira lost his way and only made it back to the vicinity of the village well after dark.
Luckily, his house happened to be the first one one the road coming from the path he’d taken, and he wasn’t too easily spooked by the silence and loneliness that seemed to grow deeper as he approached the village. He was used to Faro’s melancholy; it was, perhaps, the saddest and most desolate of all the little towns that dotted the Amazon valley, even though it overlooked the waters of the Nhamundá, the most beautiful river in the entire region.
Faro always seemed deserted. Except for the odd feast day, when people came over from the neighboring farms, one could hardly ever find a living soul out on the street. And that was when the sun was out, during working and walking hours; at night, the solitude grew even deeper. In nights when there was no moon, the streets were naught but thick darkness. Starting at seven o’clock in the evening, all that could be heard in the village was the ominous call of the murucutu1 or the dreary howling of a stray dog, sharing its woes with the murmuring waters of the river. All doors closed. All the villagers would retreat back inside their houses, filled with a vague and uncertain dread, which they tried to cast aside, invoking:
“Jesus, Mary, Joseph!”
So, along came Captain Jerônimo down the solitary road, thinking of the comfort of his braided cotton hammock and lameting that he wouldn’t get home early enough to find his daughter’s charming smile, for she would certainly be asleep by now. The hunt had been fruitless. It had been a bad day; he couldn’t find any game, bird or animal, and on top of it he’d got lost and now he came back late, hungry and tired. Well, what was he thinking, going out hunting on a Friday? Yes, it was a Friday, but when he got up that morning after a sleepless night and decided to get his riffle and go hunting, he hadn’t remembered that this particular day of the week is known to be unlucky and particularly dreaded in Faro, weighed by the burden of awful omens.
Entertaining such thoughts, the captain noticed the path was starting to feel a bit too long, as it had been a while he had passed by the sign marking the beginning of the jurisdiction. He turned his eyes to the sky, trying to find how long he’d been walking by the position of the stars. But he didn’t see any stars. He’d been walking under the canopy of trees and didn’t notice the weather had turned, so now he was caught in one of those fearsome Amazonian nights, when the sky assaults the earth with all the power of its divine wrath.
All of the sudden, a bright flash of lightning tore through the sky revealing that he was indeed very close to the village, when its whitewashed houses appeared in front of him like an ephemeral vision. But he thought he must have, once again, lost his way because he didn’t see his own blessed little house, which should have been the very first one on the street. With a few more steps, he found himself on a street, but it wasn’t the one where he lived. He stopped and listened, focusing his eyes so he wouldn’t miss the light of the next bolt of lightning.
No human voice could be heard in the whole village; no light could be seen; nothing indicated the presence of a single living being anywhere. Faro looked dead.
Furious thunder begun to shake the air. The flashes of lightning became shorter and more frequent, flooding the forest and the village in quick, vivid light only for them to sink further into darkness.
Thunderbolts rained down with tremendous clangor, prostrating large, hundreds-of-years-old cedars. Captain Jerônimo could not take another step; he had no idea where he was. But that was nothing. From the bottom of the river, from the depths of the lagoon formed by the waters of the Nhamundá, there came a noise, growing louder and louder, a horrible, insane cry, an unnamed voice that overpowered all the sounds of the storm. It was a cry that could only be compared to the immense cry of Damned on the Day of Judgment.
Captain Ferreira’s hairs stood up on end, stiff as stakes.
He knew what that was. It was the voice of the Great Snake, of the colossal Sucururiju that dwells in the bottom of the rivers and lakes. They were the laments of the monster in laborious childbirth.
The captain raised his hand to his forehead to bless himself, but his fingers trembled so much he couldn’t make the sign-of-the-cross. Invoking the saint with whom he shared his name, Jerônimo Ferreira ran in the direction in which he hoped he’d find his house. But the voice, that terrible voice only grew louder. So much in fact, that the captain’s ears buzzed, his legs shook and he fell right on the threshold of a door.
That startled a large dark bird which was perching nearby. It flew away, crying:
The fallen captain lay unconscious for a while. When he came to, the night was still dark, but the storm was over. A tumulary silence reigned over everything. Jerônimo, trying to find his way, turned in the direction of the lagoon and saw that the water surface glowed in a bizarre way, as if it had been smeared with phosphorus. His eyes wandered over the expanse of the river and a strange object, somewhat similar to a canoe, caught his attention. It was pushed towards the riverbank, propelled by an unknown force, coming to stop right next to where Jerônimo stood. Seized by irresistible curiosity, he stepped forward, got foot deep into the water and pulled the strange object to himself. It was indeed a small canoe, and at the bottom of it, there was a child, seemingly asleep. The captain took her in his arms. At that moment, the sun broke through awakening the animals of a nearby islet, the village roosters started to crow, the dogs barked, and the river ran faster, sheding its sickly glow. A few doors opened. In the morning light, Captain Jerônimo Ferreira realized that he had fallen unconscious right on the threshold of his own house.
The next day, the whole village of Faro knew that the captain had adopted a beautiful child he found by the river, and that he was willing to raise her as his own alongside with his legitimate daughter, Aninha.
The strange child, who was baptised and named Vitória, grew up and was, for all intents and purposes, a daughter of the house.
Raised in exactly in the same way as Aninha, she had free access to the Captain’s table and to his cuddles and affections, to the point he all but forgot the manner in which she had come into his life.
By age 14, both girls were beautiful but their beauty was entirely different from one another.
Ana, who had once been a strong, healthy child, now was thin and pale. Brown ringlets fell upon her white, fragile shoulders. Her eyes had an unhealthy languor. The lips were always contracted, as if she was constantly about to cry. Tiny wrinkles could be seen in the corners of her mouth and on her low, somewhat sunken forehead. Nobody had ever seen her shed a single tear, and yet Aninha had a sad air about her, something that impressed everyone and became more evident with each passing day.
Around the village, people talked:
“Ana Ferreira is so thin and weak, and to think she used to be so healthy and cheerful!”
Vitória was tall, lean and sturdily built, with muscles of steel. Her complexion was a deep olive, almost dark, her eyebrows were black and arched; the chin was fine and pointed, the nostrils dilated, and she had black, almond-shaped eyes, full of a strange glow. Despite her indisputable beauty, there was something masculine about her features and mannerisms. The mouth, adorned with magnificent teeth, produced smiles made of ice. She looked at men with such haughtiness they were forced to avert their eyes.
The two girls treated each other with great intimacy and mutual tenderness, but the keen observer would notice that Aninha avoided the company of Vitória, while the latter did not leave her alone. Jerônimo’s blood daughter was sweet to her sister, but there was a certain submission in this sweetness, a sort of suffering or repulsion, and something like a vague terror when the other girl bore her big black eyes into her dull ones.
In everyday dealings, the voice of the original daughter of the house was always shy and shaky, while Vitória’s voice was harsh and stern. Next to Victoria, Ana was like a slave next to the mistress of the house.
Life, however, went on without change, until the day both girls turned 15 (for it was said they were the same age). From that day on, Jerônimo started to notice his adoptive daughter would leave the house for long stretches of time, always at inappropriate and suspicious hours of the day, without ever revealing where she had been. At the same time, Aninha grew weaker and more dejected. She didn’t speak, never smiled, and two purplish circles framed the morbidity of her large brown eyes. A sort of general fatigue seemed to steal her vital energy little by little.
When the father came to her and asked, affectionately:
“What’s wrong with you, Aninha?”
Meanwhile, whenever Jerônimo reprimanded Vitória for her inexplicable absences, the girl’s answer was full of arrogance and obvious disdain:
“That’s none of your concern.”
In July of that same year, the son of a landowner from the town of Salé, who was visiting to celebrate the feast of St. John at Faro, fell in love with Jerônimo’s daughter and proposed to her. The young man was handsome, had a fair amount possessions on his own right, and a good reputation. Father and daughter gladly agreed to the request and started the preparations for the engagement. A vague smile brightened Aninha’s delicate features. One day, however, as Captain Jerônimo smoked his tauari2 cigarette at the door, watching the serene waters of the Nhamundá, Aninha came to him in stumbling steps, hesitant and trembling, and, as if yielding to an irresistible command, revealed, stuttering, that she no longer wanted to get married.
“Why?” was the only question that naturally ocurred to the surprised father.
No reason, she just didn’t want to get married. And, putting her hands together, the poor girl begged him with such fervor, that the father, perplexed, confused and painfully agitated by a dark sense of foreboding, acquiesced, although clearly upset.
“Very well then, we shall not discuss this anymore.”
For a good while, the fickleness of Aninha Ferreira was the talk of the town. Vitória was the only who didn’t talk about it. The son of the landowner from Salé, went back to his estate vowing to take revenge for the humiliation he’d suffered.
Ana’s unknown disease worsened to the point Captain Jerônimo and everyone else in the village started to get seriously concerned.
‘She’s lovesick’, some said. But the most widely accepted theory was that Ferreira’s daughter had been bewitched.
The following year, a collector presented himself as a new suitor to the daughter of the wealthy Jerônimo Ferreira.
“You see, Mr. Ribeirinho,” said the Captain “that will all depend on whether she wants to marry you, because I don’t want to force her into it. But I’ll have your answer within half an hour.”
He then went to talk to his daughter and found that she was quite willing to get married. He sent for the collector, who had quietly left, and happily informed him:
“Start the preparations, Mr. Ribeirinho, for it’s a done deal.”
However, after a few days, Aninha told her father that she didn’t want to marry Ribeirinho.
The father jumped out of the hammock in which he’d been lounging for a few minutes, ready for his afternoon nap.
“What’s with this nonsense?”
And as the girl insisted it was nothing, that she had no issue, she simply did not want to get married, he raised his voice in a commanding tone:
“Well, now I’m the one who wants you to get married, and so you will.”
Aninha locked herself in her room and stayed there until the day of the wedding. No amount of pleading or threatening would force her to get out.
Vitória, on the other hand, was extremely agitated.She went into her sister’s room all the time, and always came out soon after, with her face twisted in anger. Then, she’d go out and spend hours on end wandering through the woods, cackling in such a way that she scared away the birds. Vitória no longer talked to her adoptive father or to anyone else in the house.
Despite all this, the wedding finally day arrived. Bride and groom, followed by the captain, the best man and maid of honor and nearly every single one of the town’s residents, made their way to the parish church. Shocked, they all made notice of the conspicuous absence of the bride’s adoptive sister. Vitória had disappeared, and no matter how much effort was put into looking for her, they could not find her whereabouts. Stunned, they murmured:
“How could she miss Aninha’s wedding?”
The captain frowned, but his daughter seemed relieved and happy. Ultimely, as it was getting late, the bridal party made its way inside the church and the ceremony began.
But lo and behold, just as the priest asked Aninha if it was of her own free will that she married, the bride started to tremble like a leave, staring at the side door that led into the sacristy.
The father, anxious, followed his daughter’s eyes with his, then his heart tightened inside his chest.
Vitória, his adoptive daughter, was standing at the door of the sacristy. Her body was rigid like a cadaver, her hair had become a nest of snakes, her nostrils flared and her skin had turned into a greenish-black. She stared at Aninha with demonic eyes, her gaze so cold it was as if she wanted to freeze the poor girl, nail her feet to the floor right where she stood. A thin tongue slid out of Vitória’s half-open lips, a tongue forked exactly like that of a serpent. A light bluish smoke came out of her mouth and rose up to the roof of the church.
What a horrifying spectacle!
Aninha let out a desperate scream and collapsed with a loud thud onto the altar’s steps. There was a great commotion among the guests. They all wanted to help her, but nobody knew what to do. Captain Jerônimo was the only one who could not tear his eyes away from Vitória, as his mind immediately conjured up the memory of the night when he found the strange girl. He stared at her until the she let out a horrid screech, only to vanish into thin air.
He then turned to Ana and his heart was beset with deep sorrow. The poor bride, all dressed in white, lay on the steps of the high altar, stiff and pale. Tears streamed down her face like the beads of a broken necklace. And to think she never cried, not since she was a baby. Nobody had ever seen tears in her eyes!
— Tears! — exclaimed the captain, dropping to his knees next to his child.
— Tears! — the crowd gasped in shock.
Soon, Aninha’s whole body was afflicted by terrible seizures. She twisted into herself as if she was made of rubber. Her chest heaved in pain. Her teeth gnashed furiously. Her hands tore her beautiful hair out. The feet stomped on the floor, eyes rolled back into her head, hiding the pupils. She kept hurting herself, and she rolling on the ground like a lunatic, howling in agony.
Every single person watching the scene was deeply shaken. The father, bent over his daughter’s body, wept like a child.
Suddenly, the girl seemed to calm down a bit, but that was just the onset of another fit. She went stiff, then completely still. Her arms drew closer to the body and folded into the shape of bird wings, and flapped against her sides; her mouth opened and let out a drawn out, inhuman cry which echoed eerily through the church:
“Christ!” everyone in attendance exclaimed, falling to their knees.
And the girl, closing her eyes, as in ecstasy, her body entirely frozen, except for the arms, kept on with her bleak song:
Over the roof a voice called back:
“Akawan! — Akawan!”
A sepulchral silence fell over the attendance. They all understood the appalling tragedy.
It was the Akawan!
1 Murucutu- Brazilian common name of the Spectacle Owl (Pulsatrix perspicillata)
2 Tauari- The Couratari Tauari, commonly known simply as Tauari, is a tree that belongs to the family Lecythidaceae, and is endemic to the Amazon. Its bark is traditionally used to make cigars and cigarettes which are believed to ward off evil spirits and bad energies. It’s often used in Native-Brazilian religious rituals. The tree is currently listed as endangered.