Belém do Pará, Estado do Maranhão (northern Brazil), Late 1632
Like an arrow falling from heaven, the cormorant plunged into the waters of the Pará. For a few seconds it was lost from sight. Then it emerged triumphantly, a fish in its mouth. Two gulls spotted the capture and winged over, no doubt hoping to snatch the meal away. Before they could carry out their designs, the cormorant gave the fish a little toss in the air, and swallowed it. The would-be hijackers swerved, and headed out toward the sea.
Henrique Pereira da Costa, watching this drama from the docks of Belém do Pará, hoped that his own dive into the unknown would be as successful.
He heard a cough, and turned. It was his servant, Maur'cio. "We're packed and ready to go."
"May I see the fabulous map again?" Maur'cio asked. "Wordlessly, Henrique passed it over.
Maur'cio studied it carefully, then handed it back. "It's got to be a fake, boss. I asked around, and no one has explored beyond where this river"—he pointed to the Rio Negro—"comes into the Amazon."
"M-m-my family has assured me that I can stake my v-v-very life upon its accuracy." Henrique had an unfortunate tendency to stammer under stress. It had been mild at first, but had worsened after his parents' deaths.
"Trouble is, you will be staking your life on it . . . while they're home, safe and sound in Lisbon." Henrique was the Da Costa family's factor in the town, which lay near the mouth of the Pará, the river forming the southern edge of the Amazon Delta.
"Bu-, um, -bu- . . . ." Henrique's stammer was one of the reasons he was stuck here in Belém, rather than enjoying the high life of a successful plutocrat in the capital. Instead of collecting expensive artwork and mistresses, he was looking for drogas do sertão—products of the hinterland—that might one day have a market in Europe. Most recently, pursuing a strange material which his relatives called "rubber."
"Speak English, or Dutch, boss, no one here will care." Henrique's stutter disappeared when he spoke a foreign language. Even one of the Indian jawbreakers.
Henrique nodded. "But there are those rumors . . . "
"Right. Like the Seven Cities of Cibola. Or El Dorado and the Lake of Manoa. Or the Kingdom of Prester John. Or . . . "
Henrique made a fist, and shook it. "Will you let me finish?" Maur'cio subsided. "Rumors of a town called Grantville, which has visited us from the future."
"If true, showing poor judgment on their part."
"Well, even if the story is false, I have my orders. Find the rubber trees, teach the natives how to tap it."
"And your family knows how to tap it, even though they don't know where the trees are?" Maur'cio's eyebrows flickered.
"Perhaps they found the trees in the Indies already? Or perhaps it's more knowledge from the future."
"Coming aboard, Maur'cio?"
Maur'cio jumped into the canoe. The boat rocked for a moment, then steadied. Maur'cio nervously checked to make sure that his neck pouch hadn't slipped off in mid-leap. What it held was more precious than gold: his letter of manumission, signed years ago by Henrique.
Maur'cio had been born into slavery. His mother had been one of the housemaids employed by Henrique's parents, in Bahia. In his childhood, he had been one of Henrique's playmates. Henrique's handwriting was a disaster—sometimes, even Henrique couldn't read it—and Maur'cio had been trained to be his scribe.
Henrique's father, Sérgio, was a physician, the usual choice of occupation for a Da Costa who was temperamentally unsuited for the business world. He had one of the largest libraries in Bahia, and it was Maur'cio's second home. Maur'cio mastered Latin, and Greek, and even Hebrew. Not that there was much need for any of those languages in the rough-hewn society of Brazil.
Sérgio's will had instructed Henrique to make Maur'cio a curtado, a slave who had the right to earn his freedom by paying a set price. Henrique instead freed Maur'cio outright. "I hope you can now be my friend, instead of my slave," he had said. The words were burnt into Maur'cio's memory, as deeply as a slaver's brand had bitten into his mother's skin.
The canoe, perhaps forty feet long, had eight Indian rowers and a "bowman." The middle of the boat was roofed over with palm fronds to provide a somewhat flimsy shelter. Henrique was glad to be on his way. In town, his stuttering was a recurring source of embarrassment. In the wilderness, he could relax.
Henrique knew the Amazon about as well as a white man could. He was a criollo, a man born in Brazil but of European descent, and he had been among the first settlers in Belém. Henrique had frequently canoed up or down the main river and its tributaries, and he had lived in some of the native villages for months at a time. Maur'cio occasionally joined Henrique, but mostly remained in Belém to look after Henrique's interests there.
It started to drizzle. Maur'cio held out his hand. "I thought you said it was the dry season." It was an old joke between them.
Henrique delivered the customary punchline. "The difference is, in the dry season it rains every day, and in the wet season, all day."
Whether in appreciation or mockery of the witticism, the drizzle became a shower. Henrique dived for the shelter, Maur'cio following.
"I don't understand," Henrique muttered.
"Huh?" Maur'cio had been watching a giant river otter playing in the water. He looked up. "Don't understand what?"
"Why none of the Indians we have questioned have heard of the rubber tree. I would have sworn that they knew every tree within ten miles of their villages." Henrique and Maur'cio had visited the tribes of the lower Xingu River: the Tacunyape, the Shipaya, the Juruna. The explorers had been shown some trees which produced sap of one kind of another, but none of them matched the description of the rubber trees.
"So it doesn't grow on the Xingu. Perhaps we'll have better luck on the Tapaj-s."
"We're in the shaded area of the map, where the tree is supposed to be found."
"Perhaps we don't know what to ask for."
"We asked them to show us a tree which weeps when it is cut. Because, uh . . . "
"I know. Because the first letter from Lisbon said that rubber is also known as caoutchouc. From the Quechua words caa 'wood,' and ochue 'tears,' that is . . . ."
Henrique finished the thought. "The 'weeping tree.'"
A lot of good a Quechua name does you," Maur'cio said. "It's the language of the Incas, who are, what, two thousand miles west of here?"
"Even if it's a rare tree, you would think that some Indian would try cutting it down," Henrique said. "See if it was good for building a dugout canoe, or at least for firewood. And then see it bleed."
Maur'cio brushed an inquisitive fly off the document. "Sure, but that might have happened a century ago. And they don't remember it, because they don't use its, what's that word . . . latex . . . for anything. The latex is old news."
His expression brightened. "Of course, they might still know of the tree. Maybe they use its leaves to thatch their huts. Or—"
"Um . . . "
"Or, they eat its seeds. Or—"
"Uh-uummm . . . "
"I know, it's sacred to their Jaguar God, so it's forbidden to speak to strangers about it."
Henrique brooded. Clearly, he thought, merely asking for a "weeping tree" wasn't good enough. But Henrique's superiors, or the mysterious up-timers, had provided more than just the map. He also had received drawings of the rubber tree, and its leaves and seeds. And even a sample of rubber. So he had thought he had some chance of success.
Maur'cio gave him a wary look. "What's wrong."
"I have been going about this all wrong. The drawings are meaningless to the Indians we've been talking to, their artwork is too different.
"What we need to do is make a model of the leaves and seeds. Out of clay, or mud, or something. Life size, if possible."
Maur'cio waited for Henrique to continue.
Henrique crossed his arms.
"Oh," said Maur'cio. "'We' means 'me.'"
It had taken months, but they found the trees, trained and recruited rubber tappers, and went to work. The rubber tapping operation was nothing like a sugar plantation. The rubber trees were widely separated, perhaps one or two in an acre, and paths, often circuitous, had to be hacked out to connect them. Each tapper—seringueiro—developed several routes, and walked one route each day. A route might connect fifty to a hundred trees.
Henrique and Maur'cio made periodic trips to collect the rubber, and bring the seringueiros their pay, usually in the form of trade goods. And they also took advantage of the opportunity to spot-check that they were following instructions.
"Are we there yet?" Maur'cio asked.
"Almost. Yes. Pull in over there." It was a short walk to the trail.
Maur'cio stood quietly, studying the man-high herringbone pattern carved on the nearest rubber tree.
Henrique joined him. "Something wrong?"
"I was just thinking, it's like the Amazon writ small."
"What do you mean?"
"Look. You have the diagonal cuts. Those are like the tributaries. And they feed into the vertical channel, the main river. First on one side, then on the other."
Henrique considered Maur'cio's metaphor. "And the cup at the bottom, where the latex collects, that's the ocean." He walked over to the trunk, and felt the cuts. "We have a good tapper, here. He's getting flow, but the cuts are still pretty shallow. We won't know for sure until next year, but I don't think he's harmed the tree significantly."
"We really need something better than knives and hatchets for making the cuts the right depth."
"I agree. In fact I said so in the letter that went home with the last shipment. But I have no idea what sort of tool would do the job."
"Are we done here?"
"Well . . . I want to talk to this seringueiro. Perhaps give him a little bonus. Word will get around, and the other tappers will try to emulate him."
They waited for the tapper assigned to this route to appear. Even though they knew the direction from which he would be coming, and were watching and listening for him, they had little warning. One moment, there was nothing but the green of the forest, and the next, he was standing ten feet away, appraising them.
They greeted him, and he relaxed. They offered the Indian some water, and he took a quick swig and set to work. He deftly cut a new set of diagonal grooves, slightly below the ones cut the time before, and rubbed his finger over them.
Henrique complimented him on his work, and handed him a string of glass beads. The seringueiro held them up in the sunlight, laughed, and fastened them around his upper arm. He gave the two Belémistas a wave and headed on to the next tree on his route.
The visitors returned to their canoe and paddled on. That evening, they were able to witness the climax of the seringueiros' daily routine.
"Here, look," one said, handing them a large gourd. He had made a second round of his trees in the afternoon, collecting the latex from the cups. Henrique dipped his finger in the milk to test its consistency, and passed it on to Maur'cio. Maur'cio rolled his eyes, but dutifully accepted the vessel. He made a pretense of drinking from it, which greatly amused the Indian.
It was time for the next step. The Indian dipped a wooden paddle inside, coating it with the "milk." He then held in the smoke of a fire.
"This is exciting," Maur'cio said. "Like watching paint dry."
The first coat of latex slowly hardened into rubber, and the tapper put the rubber-coated paddle back in the gourd. He repeated the process, building up the mass, until it had reached the desired thickness for a rubber "biscuit."
He then pried it off the paddle, and handed it to Henrique. Henrique nodded to Maur'cio, who handed the Indian some brightly dyed cloth.
"Time to call it a night," Henrique said. Maur'cio agreed.
Henrique pointed. "There's a good place for you to hang up your bed." Maur'cio walked over, hammock in hand, to the trees which Henrique had marked out. He tied it to one trunk, and was ready to fasten it to the other, when he suddenly stopped short. A moment later, he was hurriedly untying the hammock.
Henrique was laughing.
"Very funny," Maur'cio commented. "I haven't been in the rainforest as often as you, but I don't fall for the same trick twice." One of the trees in question was notorious because it often served as a nest for a breed of ants of malignant disposition. It was commonly used in practical jokes on greenhorns.
Maur'cio sniffed haughtily. "As punishment for your crime, I am going to read you the poem I wrote last night."
The men were getting bored. And irritable. There had been two knife fights a day for the past week. Benito Maciel Parente knew something had to be done.
"Time for a coreira," he announced. His people were delighted. They so enjoyed hunting. As they readied their canoes, one man accidentally knocked down another. What a few hours earlier would have led to another duel, was laughed off. Clearly, Benito had made the right decision.
It took a bit of time to find a suitable village. At last they found one which, according to his scouts, was in the throes of a festival. The kind that involved imbibing large quantities of fermented drink laced with hallucinogens.
Benito watched as one villager after another collapsed to the ground. At last he waved his men forward. Their first target was the place where the Indians had stacked their bows. They cut the bow strings and threw the weapons into the fire. Then they started shooting. The snores were replaced by screams.
Benito nodded approvingly. "Kill the fathers first, enjoy the virgins afterward," he reminded his band. They didn't need the reminder; and half their work was done already. They laughed as they chased down the women.
The Da Costa family had helped finance some of the sugar mills in Bahia, and it made arrangements for the sugar boats, en route to Lisbon, to stop in Belém and see if Henrique had any rubber for pickup. Those ships came up the coast monthly . . . assuming they weren't picked off by Dutch privateers near Recife. And the captains didn't mind the stopover too much; it wasn't out of their way and they could take on food and water.
The visits had increased Henrique's popularity in Belém. The town mostly exported tobacco, cotton, and dye wood, but not enough to warrant regular contact. There was some sugarcane grown in the area, but it was used locally to make liquor. So Belém was a backwater compared to Recife. Before rubber tapping began, a whole year could go by without a vessel coming into port.
Henrique was under orders to expand production, but to do that he needed to find more rubber trees, and more Indians to milk them. He hoped that the town leaders, who were mostly plantation owners, would help him now. They had looked down on him for years as a mateiro, a woodsman, and a small-time merchant. The stuttering hadn't helped, either.
"Henrique, I am astonished," said Francisco de Sousa. He was the President of the Municipal Chamber of Belém. "I never would have expected a bachelor, in Belém no less, to have such an elegant dinner presentation."
"Th-th-thank you, Cavaleiro Francisco. It is in large part my late m-m-mother's legacy."
"I particularly like your centerpiece," his wife added.
"It is a family . . . heirloom." The piece in question was a massive flowerpot.
Henrique had hired extra servants for the occasion. They brought in one serving after another. First came a mingau porridge, followed by a farinha-sprinkled pirarucu, caught earlier that day. There were Brazil nuts, palm hearts, and mangoes, too. The meal ended with a sweet tapioca tortilha.
"So what are you doing with those Indians?"
Henrique had known this question would come, and had rehearsed his answer with Maur'cio, to make sure he could deliver it smoothly.
"There is a tree which produces a milky sap. They tap the tree, a bit as you would a pine tree to collect turpentine. The sap hardens into a substance which is waterproof, and can stretch and . . . bounce." Grrr, Henrique thought. I almost made it through my spiel. I hate B's.
"Wait." He left, and returned with a rubber ball. He dropped it, and it returned to his waiting hand, much to their amazement.
"So, there's a market for this?"
"Somewhat. The rubber can be used to make hats and b-b-boots to protect you from the rain. And I understand that it can be applied in some way to ordinary cloth so that the fabric stays dry, but I don't how that's done.
"I could produce and sell more, if only I had enough tappers."
"Perhaps I can help you there. I can demand labor from the Indians at the aldeia of Cameta. We just need to agree on a price."
"What are you doing here, B-B-Benito?" Henrique had seen Benito Maciel Parente junior, followed by several of his buddies, saunter into the village clearing. Henrique kept his hand near the hilt of his facão.