A Hermit’s Freedom

By Tomica Bajsić

Translated By Boris Gregoric

That Polish sculptor from Bahia was a secretive man who lived like Robinson in a tree house he built himself. His estate spread along the sandy shore for several miles, and it was protected by five guard dogs and barbed wire. At the time I slept in a bungalow on the beach. The owner of the bungalow had been ordering armchairs of weaved branches from a sturdy tree—varnished chairs of massive construction—from the Polish sculptor. The branches looked alive, so it was not pleasant to sit in them; it seemed that they could move at any time and strangle you. One morning, while running on the coast by his property I ran into his loose dogs. I froze on the spot. The dogs circled me and a stick-like, gray-bearded man wearing a straw hat with a wide brim peeked from behind the first palm in an alley. He was eating some sort of  berries.

 

Haven’t you seen the fence, he said in Portuguese. You cannot fence in the sea, I responded. It was absurd to place barbed wire on the sand beach as if it were the Normandy. There were no inhabited places along the whole length of the coastal horizon; the nearest people lived in a fishing village some five kilometers behind me.

 

Later, I saw him again near the tavern of the fishing village. I asked if they had bread, which I shouldn’t have because a waiter at once jumped on a bike and hurried to a bakery several kilometers away. Our habit of eating bread with meals is completely unknown in these parts; rice and a thick black sauce made of ground beans serve as the daily hors d’oeuvre. Waiting on the waiter, I walked down to the shore to explore two fishing boats that were pulled out on the sand. Like the sea that surrounded it, the fish there were gigantic as well. The only smaller fish they served were small, skinless shrimp, grilled only. The wooden boats were old, yet elegantly shaped, and painted cobalt blue and limestone white. Little black children played football in the sand, barefooted, which explains the stamina and flexibility of Brazilian football players on hard surfaces. Two boats served them as goal posts.

 

A long American jeep showed up, a veritable fortress on the wheels. It was loaded with wooden planks and branches of bizarre shapes. The jeep sped through the beach without stopping. I’d like to be able to say how it run over the ball, but it didn’t. The waiter, who looked for me carrying bread in hands around the beach, said that the sculptor drove his pieces to Santos, to the airport, from where they’d be transported to an exhibit in Paris. Much different from his arm-chairs, these pieces were abstract or better said, shapeless. They were his own contribution to the contemporary art.

 

I saw the hermit one more time. He drove down the road as I was passing it; the road was covered in dust, and half an hour later, under a sudden shower, it merged with the ocean, and the water rose half-way to my wheels. Gray on gray, the sky and water merged into one. I wasn’t able to recognize the edges, so I stopped in front of the only gate on an elevation, a wooden gate made of asymmetrically connected planks within a massive frame of beams and twigs. The iron lilies held the planks, while the door knocker in the middle represented a black Bahia’s fist, a finely modeled female hand, the symbol of good luck. Behind the gate there was a garden where the eucalyptuses and bougainvilleas grew, along with low shrubbery unusual to this coastal part of Bahia. I slammed the knocker with full force three times and then, again, three times before stepping back from the door. I didn’t have to wait long for the door to open and the straw hat of the mystery man show up. Gavarit po ruski, the gray-bearded goat wanted to mock me when I said I was Croatian. He had been there twenty years and he still thought that the other half of the world was under the Soviet occupation.  The road is flooded, I said. The water will back down in several hours, he responded, opening the door widely.

 

The thing with the modern Robinson stood like this: his tiny house in a tree was anything but tiny. Even though it was handmade, it stood firmly on four logs, lifted some six meters from the ground and measured at least ten meters in width and length. The house had electricity, which was proven by a refrigerator and several lamps that hung on the beams. The wooden boat ladders represented the entrance. From the veranda, opened an ocean view. The house had no rooms; it was one space under the inclined roof made of leaves the size of an elephant’s ear, solidly fortified with bamboo fencing. Behind the screen painted in black ink in a broad stroked-style rooted in the Chinese alphabet, under the mosquito net, lay a bed. There was even a piano, a small upright piano, in fact. It was set up against the beach and watery horizon so that the player would have his back turned to the sea. On account of this and the candle on the piano, the standard tools of creating an ambiance for two, I concluded that the sculptor was receiving regular romantic visits rather inappropriate for a hermit. Luckily, I hadn't noticed incense sticks.

 

Besides the piano and a seaman's trunk made of wood there were hardly any other pieces of furniture. No photographs or books. Only several odd, elongated and ornamented armchairs. He carved them in wood using the motives of the sun, jaguars, snakes, and birds. Robinson sold these copies of the Native chieftains’ thrones from the Amazon valleys to ladies in the vicinity, mostly to the wives of the landowners who came by themselves to pick them up. The husbands didn’t worry too much because the sculptor had a public image of a nerdish hermit, enlightened by the sun, a philosopher who talks to birds and animals, a stranger in the world. Only several ladies from the neighborhood knew his secret nature of an athlete, a refined seducer, a business man and hedonist. That hidden aspect could be found—by those who wanted to see it—in the concise nature of his other works, those monumental sculptures that he transported in his jeep to the airport, that were created in a big hangar just outside his house.

 

Like a dog that brings bones to his shelter, every day he brought in debris to his tall hangar covered in nylon ribbons, the broken pieces of sunken jangada and other bark—canoes, lumber, intertwined branches and planks that once belonged to something. With the help of a chain saw and wood glue he’d transform the pieces into harmonic wholes of compressed life, painting them blue and thickly varnishing them, arresting in time the pieces nature caught of a sudden.

 

He didn’t want to talk about Poland, only about totalitarianism under the Iron Curtain in general. I had a feeling that he wanted to leave the impression of being a dissident, even though his face, under the chin, seemed as if it were redone by plastic surgery, perhaps on the island of the miraculous Dr. Pitanguy in the Guanabara Bay.

 

This was the hermit’s freedom. He seemed happy. Whatever followed him from Poland—the very mention of his country contorted his face—was doubtless burdensome, but not something that this agile adventurer could not have coped with. His were the red berries, his was the forest, the sea and wild dogs, his were the aged ladies in baroque dresses, his was the bipolar art, and his was the silence.

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