March Sadness and Humanity’s Hope

Tom Hanks (L.) meets with Astronaut Jim Lovell

Today is Sunday, March 15. In poetic terms, it’s the ides of March.

According to historians (and to playwright William Shakespeare), Julius Caesar, the “noblest Roman of them all,” was assassinated on that date. He was warned by a soothsayer to “Beware the ides of March” and avoid setting foot in the Roman Senate.

But Caesar ignored the warning. Instead, he was killed at the Theatre of Pompey, where the Roman Senate met.

Look where we are today.

This used to be a time when fans of college basketball could root for their favorite teams. The NCAA championships take place in March, which gave rise to the description “March Madness.” Not this year, I’m afraid. It’s morphed into something else; that is, something approaching “March Sadness.” It’s a sad epitaph indeed, and not just for college basketball.

The NBA, or National Basketball Association, has suspended its season. So have Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, the PGA Tour, and the Masters Golf Tournament. The National Hockey League has also postponed its season, as have the XFL, the Association of Tennis Professionals, and the Women’s Tennis Association. The opening run of the Formula 1 racing season has been cancelled, too. And NASCAR has moved back its opening-day events by two weeks or more.

In addition to which, production of many cable television shows has been halted. The nation’s museums are closed, while movie theaters’ doors have been shuttered as well. Lamentably, Broadway’s Great White Way has dimmed its lights. And the Metropolitan Opera House has lowered its golden curtain on upcoming performances. “La commedia é finita!” the house has announced. Translation: “The play is over!”

All this because of the coronavirus outbreak. But that’s not the worst of what’s happened. There are real lives at stake, with so many families and friends being affected. Workers and employers sent home, multiple school closings, businesses and stores shuttered, elderly loved ones and relatives in peril — all at the mercy of this unseen menace. Unable to participate in life’s simple pleasures, we’re about to closet ourselves away, for our own safety and for the safety of others.

Oh, and financial markets around the world have taken a nosedive. While Wall Street is all wound up, we’ve wound our way down. Big time! We ignored the warnings, and now the ides of March are upon us.

Despite the dire news, the final straw occurred the other day when word got out that Tom Hanks and his actress wife, Rita Wilson, had tested positive for the coronavirus while working on separate projects in Australia.

Oh, no, not him! Not Tom Hanks!!! Please, Lord, say it ain’t so! My God, if Tom Hanks and his spouse can be hit by the coronavirus, is there any hope for humanity?

Who Ya Gonna Call?

The nation is reeling. In times of stress, who do we turn to? Who can we rely on to save us from ourselves, and from our worst impulses?

Why, the self-same Tom Hanks. That’s who! Who better than filmdom’s most reliable and most beloved screen actor?

So let this Sunday homily be my open invitation to Mr. Hanks:

Dear Tom,

Please excuse the directness of my approach. We need your help. Let me rephrase that: America needs your help. At this terrible moment in our country’s history, when things are looking grim for all Americans — and indeed, for the world at large — only you can save us.

Now, now. Don’t give me that look. You know the one I’m talking about, Tom. That clueless, wide-eyed Forrest Gump stare. I know you can do this. You’ve helped us out before — and you can do it again.

Try taking a look at your own past, Tom. See what you’ve been able to accomplish with your movies. Come on, Woody. Don’t let your get-up-and-go get the best of you. Let’s go over those exploits together, shall we?

In Saving Mr. Banks, you played Walt Disney (and you don’t even LOOK like Walt). As good ole Mr. Disneyland himself, you managed to convince the curmudgeonly P.L. Travers into granting your studio the movie rights to her book, Mary Poppins. Now, if you can charm P.L. Travers, then you can charm anybody.

As Forrest Gump, you FINALLY won the heart of the woman you loved, Jenny Curran. (Just between us, I thought she was undeserving of your affection, but that’s me.) If you can win young Jenny’s heart, you can win anybody’s heart.

                               Jenny (Robin Wright) sits with Forrest Gump (Hanks)

As terminally ill AIDS victim Andy Beckett in Philadelphia, you won a wrongful termination suit against your former law firm — with Denzel Washington’s help, of course. If you can beat your former law firm, you can beat any law firm.

In Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, as attorney James B. Donovan, you successfully negotiated a prisoner exchange between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. And you did it by staying true to your profession as a defender of your client’s rights (even if that client happened to be a Soviet spy). Heck, if you can negotiate a successful prisoner exchange with the Soviet Union, you can negotiate anything. Am I right so far?

And, in Saving Private Ryan, as Captain John Miller, you practically lost your entire squad in trying to locate and bring Private James Ryan back to his mother’s side. I can’t help recalling, Tom, that earlier in the picture, you informed your skeptical squad members that, “This Ryan better be worth it. He better go home and cure some disease or invent a longer-lasting light bulb, or something.”

Do you remember that line?

Towards the end, after Captain Miller is mortally wounded by enemy fire, he gathers what strength he has left and grabs hold of Ryan so he can hear what Miller has to say. Miller’s final words to him are, “Earn this… earn it.”

                              Captain Miller (Hanks) whispers into Private Ryan’s ear

His meaning was clear: “Earn the sacrifice that my men have made in helping to save you.”        

Now, I know you can’t cure this disease, Tom, or invent a longer-lasting light bulk, but surely you can do something, even if you’re holed up in the outback. Let me make it plain, then: You can continue to encourage us by your honesty, your devotion to your craft, and the truthfulness you convey in all your movie roles. No, really, I mean it!

We need your kind of courage, Tom, more than we’ve ever had at any point in our recent history. We need your strength, we need your fortitude, and especially your ability to inspire — as you’ve done throughout your career. That calm, resolute manner you showed as Astronaut Jim Lovell in Apollo 13. That’s what I’m talking about. I know you have it in you, sir.

Pandora’s box has been pried opened. The ills of this world have spilled out and spread a contagion called COVID-19. Help us to close the lid, Tom. Keep giving us hope that better days are ahead. Take away the sadness, help restore the madness. In a pinch, you can deploy Buzz Lightyear! Consider this a really big pinch…

Come on, Tom! Let’s get the ball rolling. You and Rita can overcome this affliction, of that I am certain. In doing so, you would have fulfilled your mission — just as Captain Miller did, just as Jim Lovell did.

                                     Tom Hanks as Astronaut Jim Lovell in ‘Apollo 13’

You are humanity’s last, best hope. Don’t let us down in our time of need. Get back on your feet, mister. Do it for me, and do it for America. And for the world.

You’ve earned this!

Yours sincerely,

Joe Lopes

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘The Queen of Spades’: Unlucky in Love, Lucky in Cards — Tchaikovsky Returns to the Met

Tchaikovsky’s ‘The Queen of Spades’ at the Met Opera (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Dark Times Ahead (and Then Some!)

It’s been nearly a decade since the Metropolitan Opera staged Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s penultimate opera The Queen of Spades (or Pikavaya Dama in Russian, a literal translation from the French Pique Dame). The lavish Elijah Moshinsky production was first unveiled in 1995 and has served as the house debut of Siberian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky along with the return of legendary diva Leonie Rysanek.

A plot straight out of Alexander Pushkin, this bold work, with a libretto by the composer’s brother Modest, proved to be a darker, bleaker story from the Russian poet’s pen, one that Tchaikovsky took to with abandon. His earlier Pushkin effort, Eugene Onegin, was more of a drawing-room drama about a girl’s coming of age. In The Queen of Spades, the crux of the matter involves a young man’s mad gambling habit.

The opera went on to premiere at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg on December 7, 1890 (coincidentally, the main setting for the work). Its initial Moscow performance took place almost a year later at the famed Bolshoi Opera, while New York saw it two decades after.

The Russians have always had a soft spot for somber tales involving characters on the edge of mental breakdowns. Certainly the opera’s chief protagonist, a minor officer named Hermann (sometimes written as Ghermann), is the proverbial odd-man out, an obsessive-compulsive individual whose warped thoughts about improving his lot in life have turned to marriage with the impressionable Lisa, a girl clearly above his social station. To compensate, Hermann tries to learn the secret of a game of chance — a deep, dark mystery that only Lisa’s grandmother, the elderly Countess (the literal “Queen of Spades” of the title), has intimate details of.

Venturing forth at night, his secret visitation to the Countess’ bedchamber leads to the old lady’s death. Later, in a dream sequence in Hermann’s quarters, the Countess’ ghost appears to him and divulges the secret of the “three cards” (or tri cartii): three, seven, ace. Thinking that his luck is about to change, the now-emboldened Hermann sets off to win not only the card game but Lisa’s hand in marriage. But money doesn’t always talk, especially in these circumstances. In fact, little does the crazed officer realize that vengeance awaits him at the gaming table.

The Old Countess (Larissa Diadkova) is startled by an unexpected visitor (Yusif Eyvazov) in Act II of ‘The Queen of Spades’ (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Complicating Hermann’s plans is the fact that the eligible Prince Yeletsky has asked Lisa to marry him as well. Of course, Lisa has no interest in the handsome prince, even if he would make a fine catch. For her part, Lisa has fallen hopelessly in love with Hermann, much to her later demise. Hermann’s problem is his all-out obsession with winning at cards. At the end of her rope, Lisa throws herself into the Neva River, while Hermann is thwarted in the game by drawing a losing hand: three, seven … and the Queen of Spades!

When the Countess’ ghost reappears to him at the last, he stabs himself in the heart. Asking Prince Yeletsky to forgive his many trespasses, Hermann expires with Lisa’s image on his lips: “My angel, my beauty, my goddess.”

Whew! Did somebody say, “Russian tragedy”? Tchaikovsky’s compatriot, fellow composer Sergei Prokofiev, tackled a similar subject with his four-act opera The Gambler, based on a Dostoyevsky story. In that work, the lead character Alexei is left alone at the end when the love of his life, Polina, tosses his winnings in his face.

Ah, love! So difficult to attain, so easily lost.

Casting from Strength and Language

The December 14, 2019 broadcast, the second in the new Metropolitan Opera radio season, must be deemed a success. With a native cast of Russian language speakers and singers, and a debuting Russian maestro, how could it miss? Conductor Vasily Petrenko led the Met Opera Orchestra in a blazing, white-hot interpretation. The orchestra sounded revivified in this repertoire, as if to the manner born. The horns blared out boldly, along with the surging string section, both bringing out the urgency in Tchaikovsky’s score.

As many readers are aware, I have a fondness for Russian opera and for Russian composers in general. I find their “heart on sleeve” approach to their country’s musical inclinations to be the perfect tonic for a Saturday afternoon round of radio listening.

The big news of the week, and the one most audience members had been anticipating with bated breath, was the broadcast debut of Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen in the key role of Lisa, Hermann’s tortured love interest. Setting aside her apparent nervousness, the 32-year-old diva acquitted herself well. This may not have been the best of circumstances for a young singer to appear in, but Davidsen left her mark on the performance like a veteran trouper. Her scenes with the neurotic Hermann (Azerbaijani tenor Yusif Eyvazov) were hair-raising in their dramatic intensity. Her pleas for understanding, while falling on deaf ears, were plaintively etched and came in strong emotional currents. A big brava to her!

Lisa (Lise Davidsen) listens to the declarations of Hermann (Yusif Eyvazov) in ‘The Queen of Spades’ (Photo: The Observer)

The best scene in the opera for soprano is the third act aria and subsequent confrontation with her lover. The cold winter wind whips the pair into a frenzy of anticipation, which Hermann shatters by his compulsive gambling addiction. Having abandoned love for success in cards (so he thinks), Hermann runs off to challenge his opponents, leaving the despairing Lisa behind to face the water’s edge. Both singers were equally matched in depth of passion, with Davidsen holding the advantage in volume and acting ability. Her career bears further watching.

No slouch in the performing department, Eyvazov, a trifle light in timbre for this hefty assignment, nevertheless attacked the part with every fiber of his being. He hit all the high notes squarely, even if he never quite dispelled the notion of being a pushed-up lyric instead of a legitimate spinto tenor. No matter, his darkly tailored outfits (your basic black) and swarthy visage were perfectly in tune with this production’s notion of a wayward “outcast” operating under his own power and on the sidelines of life.

The other male leads — both baritones —played somewhat minor but integral parts in the evolving drama. Russian-born Alexey Markov made for an imposingly mellow and sufficiently motivated Count Tomsky, the fellow who tells his curious friends, Tchekalinsky (tenor Paul Groves) and Surin (bass Raymond Aceto), about the so-called “three cards,” the mysterious motif of which is repeatedly spelled out throughout the opera in a rising and falling triad (“Tri cartii, tri cartii, tri cartii”). Hermann overhears the story and takes its message too much to heart.

Debuting Russian baritone Igor Golovatenko sang the haughty Prince Yeletsky. If he came up a trifle short in the lyrical aspects of this (basically) secondary role, then blame must be placed on the Tchaikovsky brothers’ shoulders: Yeletsky does not appear in Pushkin’s story, but rather is a musical invention for dramatic purposes. Still, let’s face facts: How could anyone challenge the solidity and nobility of the late Dmitri Hvorostovsky in this part? A fool’s errand, no less.

Prince Yeletsky (Igor Golovatenko) declares his love for Lisa (Lise Davidsen) in Act II of ‘The Queen of Spades’ (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Billed as the most famous air in the opera, the number “Ya vas lyublyu, lyublyu bezmyerno” (“I love you without measure”) is both a baritone’s dream and his own worst nightmare. Starting on a low B flat and rising up to a high G, it takes an artist of the first rank to pull this one off. The recorded likes of Pavel Lisitsian, Yuri Mazurok, and the aforementioned Hvorostovsky are all models of their kind.

If you want to go further, we can discuss the various recorded merits and/or live interpretations of Hermann: from Alexander Davidov and Dmitri Smirnov to Joseph Rogatchewsky, from Nicolai Gedda and Vladimir Atlantov to Ben Heppner, Placido Domingo, Vladimir Popov and Vladimir Galouzine. But what would be the purpose? Yes, Lise Davidsen fulfilled every expectation (and then some!) as Lisa. And, yes, Yusif Eyvazov made it through the grueling part of Hermann with voice to spare. It should be noted that Latvian tenor Alexandrs Antonenko had originally been tapped for Hermann. However, due to continual vocal problems, Antonenko was replaced by Eyvazov and Lithuanian artist Kristian Benedikt, who shared the role on separate evenings.

As for the numerous mezzos in the radio cast (and in Russian opera in general), we would be doing this contingent a disservice if we failed to mention the lovely work of Elena Maximova as Pauline, Jill Grove as a plummy-toned Governess, and, of course, the veteran Larissa Diadkova as the elderly Countess. Diadkova’s death throttle and her late-in-the-day re-emergence as the spectral Queen of Spades sent shivers down the audience’s spines.

The Countess’ ghost (Larissa Diadkova) pays a little visit to Hermann (Yusif Eyvazov) in his barracks (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Mr. Moshinsky’s production was surrounded by a wonderful picture-book frame, which encased the stage in a memorable Grimm Brothers outline. The period costumes and authentic looking sets were all marvelous and were the work of Mark Thompson. Paul Pyant provided the cogent lighting designs and the choreography was by John Meehan. The Met Chorus, under Donald Palumbo’s direction, outdid themselves (one felt they relished the opportunity of singing those remarkable Russian lines), as did the children’s chorus (in a tribute to Georges Bizet, one of Tchaikovsky’s favorites). The little urchin shouting commands in fairly decent Russian was a singular delight.

To our mind, The Queen of Spades is Tchaikovsky’s boldest theatrical experiment, if not his most lucrative one. Surely, his Eugene Onegin is the more frequently performed piece and, melodically speaking, more accessible to listeners. Still, barring some extraneous musical matters as well as ineffective choral episodes (i.e., the so-called “Pastoral” which, to some critics, serves to dilute the drama instead of adding to the overall texture), the opera has been well served this season at the Met.

Anyone for a game of cards? Three-card monte, maybe…? Not a chance!

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

The Mythology of Change: Designing and Empowering Voices in Contemporary Science Fiction

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, author of ‘Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus’

Today’s guest contributor is writer, artist, and animator Natalia C. Lopes. A graduate of North Carolina State University’s Master’s Degree Program of the College of Art & Design, her essay, “The Mythology of Change: Designing and Empowering Voices in Contemporary Science Fiction,” was first published in the College of Design’s Student Publication magazine FLUX: Design in Transition.

Upon the first publication of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus in 1818, the birth of the genre we know today to be science fiction was realized. Originally published anonymously, this tale of creation gone awry received favorable reviews from critics. Encouraged by this reception, Shelley claimed authorship of the work, resulting in subsequent critics immediately dismissing it.

The knowledge of the voice behind the work, being that of a woman barely in her twenties, suddenly made it more difficult for it to be validated and accepted. Yet if not for Shelley, we may possibly have never conceived of a genre, now beloved by many, that impacts us tremendously in its discussion of what humanity might face in our future.

The character of Victor Frankenstein is at first depicted as in control of his knowledge and of his creation. But as soon as it comes to life, his fear and neglect of it produces monstrous results, and for the remainder of the novel, he spends his time searching for the creature in order to destroy it, as its existence haunts him.

While the ephemeral nature of power, who has it, and who will inherit it, has long been a part of the discussion of science fiction narratives and what they mean for us, it is interesting to note that the first science fiction novel dealt with the consequences of letting technology and power have too much control.

The Creature (Jonny Lee Miller) wrestles with his maker, Victor Frankenstein (Benedict Cumberbatch), in Danny Boyle’s 2011 National Theatre production of ‘Frankenstein’

Today, the concept of power has new meaning as those who were once marginalized are slowly emerging as active voices in conversations enabled by accessible and portable technology. Among these voices, the most active should be that of the contemporary maker and storyteller. The primary role of designers and storytellers today should be to bring contemporary issues to the forefront of their work, and to assert their voice in unique ways by utilizing technology to contribute meaningful and accessible work. While in Shelley’s case the author’s voice was considered in her time to be as important as the ideas being expressed, this notion can be used as a positive in today’s design practice.

The nature of change is a topic that remains pervasive in science fiction narratives, since designers and problem-solvers have realized many of the solutions proposed in science fiction stories that were at one time or another impossible to imagine. We are also undergoing a period of great transition, not just in a global sense but also in the sense that the ultimate voice of authority — the voice of credibility — now takes many forms.

Because of our unprecedented access to technology, the everyday person can find and belong to a community of like-minded individuals that, when engaged in a proactive way, can become ultimate driving forces for change and action. What better way to engage and encourage people than with designing new tools that they can use for creation and conversation? Or better yet, for the aspiring storyteller to engage their audience in new ways using technology not only as part of the content, but in tandem with the form in which their story is told, the message and the medium becoming one and the same?

Oftentimes contemporary science fiction storytellers focus too much on the spectacular fear of it all: fear of space, of isolation, of the rising fascist dystopia, of the collapsing environment, of the other. While this is a necessary commentary and certainly a valid one, it is my belief that today’s world needs stories with a focus on how to combat this fear with accessible ingenuity.

Connecting our storytelling with the hybrid nature of media, therefore, allows designers to bring in new tools we have yet to use for the purpose of storytelling and engagement, and merging the form with the content of the story, creating new opportunities for design and for designers to see new problems to solve.

One typically sees design as a way of solving problems for the masses, or for a particular demographic or situation. In the case of storytelling and design, there is no need necessarily for a product to be invented, but rather the encouragement of experimentation and of trial and error, that eventually might lead us one day to place meaning and value to new concepts that empower all.

‘The Iron Giant,’ directed by Brad Bird (Photo: Warner Bros. Studio)

Just as in the film The Iron Giant, arguably an animated version of the Frankenstein story, the title robot helps to create art out of spare parts and garbage in the junkyard that he hides in, so we can potentially learn to utilize what has been disposed of or devalued by others to empower our narratives.

By speaking about technology while utilizing technology to tell new stories, audiences may grow to understand how to engage with the world and empower their own voices using what is around them. There are new needs and new voices in need of expression, and for tools to be designed for those voices.

What allows certain voices to remain in power and oppressive to other points of view, is the value that is placed in what those in power use to empower themselves. Put more simply, those who can’t have what those in power have don’t know what it’s like to value what they can’t have.

In the film Ex Machina, another more recent incarnation of Shelley’s novel, there is an almost wordless scene in which the robot Ava, who is trapped in a room for most of the film, repairs herself before making her escape into the human world.

After learning about humans and being embedded with a drive to become a part of them, she literally and figuratively completes herself by taking the skin from previous humanoid robots and placing flesh on parts of her body that were of synthetic material. In this way, she refashions herself in her own image, no longer functioning for or according to her creator.

Ava (Alicia Vikander), the robotic A.I., from Alex Garland’s ‘Ex Machina’

The scene is poignant and beautiful, as it stands for the power of design and self-expression, as imperfect as it might be, perfectly flawed.

Regardless of the aesthetic, the function of design for new storytelling and empowerment rests in its message. The tools we need to empower our voices and those of others are not only around us, but also within us.

Copyright © 2016 by Natalia C. Lopes

Fiction Story – ‘How to Paint Paradise: A Magical Amazon Story’ (Part Two)

Giant Victoria Regia water lillies

The conclusion to our guest contributor, Thais Angelica Tavares Lopes’ two-part fiction story about a young painter’s colorful excursion into the Amazon rain forest.

With the sun slowly climbing into the horizon, I took out my painting set and went out to find George. I had this nagging feeling — an urge, if you will — to see him and ask if I could perhaps try to paint Dragon. I searched the camp, asking this one and that one for the Indian boy, but all of the Portuguese settlers hadn’t seen him since supper the previous evening. Finally, I went up to Tarius and personally asked him if he knew where George had gone.

“Ah, yes,” he replied. “I had asked him to run an errand for me. He won’t be back for some time. Why, what do you need him for?”

“I wished to paint his macaw. He’s so gorgeous, I just have to paint him.”

“You’ll have to wait, then, though it’s good that you have your paints with you. Do you mind tagging along with the botanist and sketching the different plants around the camp until George comes back?”

“No,” I sighed. “I don’t mind. Where is he?” But in truth I did mind, very much so.

“Over there, in that brown tent near the large capirona tree. You’ll find him delved deep into the pages of his classification books.”

Amazonian capirona tree

I left him for the botanist, a bespectacled red-haired man about ten years older than myself. We worked together all that day making surprisingly pleasant conversation about this species of orchid or that species of rubber tree. I would sometimes mention a certain shading technique or a certain brush stroke, and so passed the day with no George.

The next day I came up to Tarius to inquire about George. He told me he had not yet returned and sent me to the botanist again. Day past day, week past week, a whole month went by in this same monotonous fashion, with no George and no Dragon. It was all right for the first day, even for the first week, but after that I couldn’t take it anymore; I had to know what was taking them so long. I marched straight up to Tarius’ tent on the thirty-first day with no regard for the hour or for Tarius’ state of mind.

“I demand to know where you sent George and why is it that he still has not yet returned.”

“Lady, what right do you have to burst into my tent while I am in the midst of an important meeting? Lars, would you be so kind as to lead her outside and keep her there until the end of the conference? Thank you.”

His heavyset second-in-command bowed and escorted me through the flap. I was flustered and furious that Tarius would treat me in this manner, so rough and coarse. I had always known him to be courteous in every situation, even during times when he was stressed. But he had never denied me anything, and to me this was truly a strange and uncomfortable experience. For the most part, I did not protest but waited patiently for him to end the meeting.

Lars stood as stiff as a statue, rigidly looking forward and paying as little attention to me as possible. Finally, after an hour’s long wait, I got my chance to ask about George’s whereabouts.

“Tarius, I beg your pardon for interrupting your duties but I simply can’t go on like this. You don’t understand my overwhelming desire to paint Dragon. I’ve drawn all of the plants in the camp at least three times over, in between painting leaves and stems. I’ve sketched the various parrots and toucans around here but none of them compare to Dragon. Another thing: where have you sent George? It’s been so long since I’ve seen him.”

Orange-billed Toucan

Once my complaint was made I took a long and calculated look at Tarius. Whatever he had been doing and discussing with the men in the camp had left him visibly drained.

“I don’t know if you were informed upon your arrival, but this trip you made was no peaceful vacation. The Tupi Indians are not pleased with our invasion of their territory and are trying to push us off into the dense part of the forest, away from the river that supports our very existence. I sent George back to his people to perhaps negotiate with his Chief to allow us to share the land equally. It was a risky maneuver, since the Chief seems not to trust us, nor those closely associated with us.”

“So what you are telling me is that you purposefully sent him into harm’s way? You just let him enter his angry Chief’s grasp to do whatever he likes with him? Tarius, have you no shame?”

“Shame? Lady, we are at the brink of war. Do you think a few hundred men can compare to the might of a whole Indian village?”

“But would it not have been better to go yourself and solve the problem and not send others to do the work for you?”

“What insolence is this? You were never this coarse with me.”

“Nor you with me. Now, if this is how you will be I must bid you good night and leave your presence. I had thought most highly of you, but now I think you most impertinent. Good-bye.”

I turned to leave his tent, but no sooner had my shoe touched the soil than Tarius took my wrist and swung me around.

“What does this mean? Why are you so attached to this Indian boy you only just met? What attracts you to him, his looks, his mannerisms, his bird, what? Tell me, what is it?”

“I, uh, I …”

“Speak!”

I was completely taken aback. I was astonished by Tarius’ questioning intonation, his steadfast hold of my arm, and — most terrifying of all — his cold icy-blue eyes staring intently at me, searching the very depths of my being.

“It’s nothing of the sort. You are simply being jealous of the attention I bestowed on him due to his exquisite bird. Now let me go.”

“Are you sure that that is all it is?”

“What, do you not trust me? We’ve known each other for eighteen years. I would have hoped you had more confidence in me.”

Although I feared what he would do to me I spoke truthfully and did not break from his penetrating gaze. Slowly his grip lessened and his eyes fell to the ground.

“I should have trusted you. I don’t know what made me be so harsh to you. I beg your forgiveness. If there is anything I can do to right the wrong I’ve done you, I beseech you, tell me now.”

“It must be this incredible amount of work you’ve been doing recently,” I offered. “I can see where you could have misinterpreted the time I spent with George as being for alternative reasons, though I assure you none were ever intended. As for your forgiveness, I accept it and only ask that you take me to see the Chief. Perhaps I can talk to him.”

“Yali, I don’t think you should go.”

“Oh, but don’t you see: it is the only way. They could be torturing poor George, no one else would volunteer to rescue him since he is, in a sense, one of them. Please Tarius, never have I asked you anything more important in my life than this.”

Tarius thought it over carefully, moving his lower jaw ever so slightly.

“Only if someone goes with you will I allow you to go in search of George, and the only person who knows where the Indian village is located is me. I will put Lars in charge of the camp and we will head off immediately tomorrow morning. How does that sound, love?”

“I’m speechless. You would actually come with me?”

“Of course.”

“Thank you, dearest. I will never forget this.”

Bright and early the next day we set out on horseback, following the edge of the Amazon River so as to not get lost. Several hours went by, followed by several days, until about a week-and-a-half later a clearing began to be visible through the thick branches of the forest.

“Here we will turn east and follow this trail. It will lead us straight into the Indian village.”

The horses were weary, but they continued on, determined to carry their masters to their destination. Throughout our travels we grew closer together, discussing our various interests anew to each other as if we had never truly known them (and ourselves) before. I would sit down to paint on our breaks, as he would talk of his various accomplishments as a captain and explorer.

Just as the trail was ending our horses began to shy away.

“What is wrong with the horses?” But as I asked I heard shrieks from above and darkness fell upon me.

What seemed to be days later, but in truth only hours, I awoke to a great big headache and the sight of Indians all around me. As I tried to regain some composure, I noticed Tarius was talking very quickly at my side. He was pale but his posture was set in a way that would intimidate any man with any sense about him. He was kneeling on the dry ground, his feet and hands were bound with coarse rope but this did not stop him from speaking. I felt the rope on my own wrists and ankles and tried to sit up rather than stay in the position that I was in, flat on my face.

Gathering of Tupi-Guarani Indians

As I sat, I heard another familiar voice, that of George. He, too, was bound with rope and seemed to be interpreting what Tarius said to the Chief of the village, but who in turn seemed to be angry and uncooperative. There seemed to be a harsh look about the Chief; his eyes shifted slowly from George to Tarius every so often, but his intense gaze never betrayed his emotions. However, his voice showed them all, harsh bitter words that stung my ears, anger permeated through every one of them. I felt afraid of him; afraid of his unintelligible words, afraid of his tall presence, and afraid of the way he seemed to treat both George and Tarius. I was compelled to speak, but did not know what to say.

Tarius was not getting across to him that we wanted to negotiate for peace and to share their territory equally, not take it away from them. George tried his best to appease both Tarius, his master, and the Chief, his lord, but he looked helpless and lost.

It was then that I spotted Dragon on his shoulder, and it appeared that Dragon also saw me, for he leapt from George’s shoulder, just as the Chief was about to strike at us, and landed on my lap. I showed him my finger and he nibbled at it but soon stopped and let me stroke him. All was very quiet; no one said a word as all of the villagers, including George and the Chief, stared at Dragon and me. Soon the spell was broken by the Chief’s words. These seemed to show amazement and a hint of confusion. George translated for us:

“My Chief asks, what spell has the young woman cast on Dragon. He is a fierce creature. How can one who knows him not have such power over him?” George smiled at me as he said this, for he knew about Dragon and me. He nodded his head so that I could say what had transpired before and how I came to be in Dragon’s favor.

Puzzled Tupi Indian Chief

So I told the story of Dragon, George, and my friendship. The Chief listened patiently and when I was done a sense of calm could be seen in his rugged countenance. He spoke briefly and George again translated:

“This truly is an astonishing event. How can I turn someone away who has tamed the untamable, who has calmed the beast that is Dragon? Come, stay in my house, we will eat together and be friends. Release them, they are no longer prisoners and there will be no war.”

At this, the Indians closest to us cut our bindings and helped us to our feet. Dragon hopped onto my shoulder where he made chirping noises of irritation to my sudden change in position. Tarius and I looked at each other for a long time before going after the Chief and the villagers.

“You are an amazing woman, Yali. I should have never doubted your compassionate heart.”

“Think nothing of it, Tarius, it was Dragon who did all. Besides, you acted very bravely in the sight of the Chief.”

“Yes, you both should be congratulated for bringing our two villages together. I thank you on behalf of everyone,” beamed George.

The Chief came up to us and spoke some words.

“My Chief insists on your presence for dinner.”

At the mention of dinner and a meal, an idea came to me.

“Tell your Chief that we will join him shortly, but first let me make him an offering. Let me paint him a picture of Dragon, the symbol of our union.”

George spoke to his Chief with great enthusiasm and the Chief agreed. I began to paint the picture, paying close attention to Dragon’s every detail, his colors, feathers, beak, everything, and felt an ease and fluidity in my strokes I had not felt before.

As I reached for a dab of chartreuse paint, I noticed I had run out of colors. My palette was dry and I had no more paint to replenish it. My enchanting experiences had made me forget all about replacing my old paint set with a fresh one. What was I to do?

In my anguish and moment of stress, Dragon flapped his wings, distracting me from my dilemma. As I watched him a miraculous thing began to occur. I gasped for breath, as slowly the colors of his wings and body began to come undone. They seemed to leap into the air, sparkling in tiny fragments of dust and move as if in a graceful dance.

Suddenly, the particles landed on my palette and turned into puddles of paint, giving me all of the colors I needed to complete my canvas. I stared, amazed at my palette and then at Dragon, who was now completely devoid of color, save for white.

Arara branca (white macaw)

His purity reminded me of the palace I had envisioned paradise to be. The great stone wall and exquisite fabrics, however, no longer interested me. I had found a new meaning for paradise: unity. Dragon brought us Portuguese and the Tupi Indians together. With this, we could build our own version of paradise.

So, how do you paint paradise? You don’t, but a parrot could paint paradise for you, and Dragon was just such a bird.

The End

Copyright © 2008 by Thais Angelica Tavares Lopes

Fiction Story — ‘How to Paint Paradise: A Magical Amazon Story’ (Part One)

Amazonian macaw (in Portuguese, arara)

(Today’s piece is a story by guest contributor Thais Angelica Tavares Lopes. Thais Angelica is my oldest daughter. Her varied background encompasses a range of subjects, including art instruction, drawing, sewing, dress designing, convention-hopping, and creative writing. This specific story is replete with magical realism and the scent of the Amazon rain forest.)    

Have you ever wondered about paradise? Does it really exist? If it does, is it an actual place? If it were, would it be a huge palace made out of alabaster stone, covered with massive gold pillars, furnished with delicate embroidered pillows, luscious velveteen royal-purple curtains draped by huge windows, and jewel-bedecked people dancing in merriment?

Well I have. I’ve even thought about painting it, but how does one go about painting paradise? I’ve come to the conclusion that … well, it’s hard to explain without going into all the details. I wondered, if I were to experience a place such as this I would surely find out what paradise looked like, but I was wrong.

It happened long, long ago. I was very young then, a budding painter. I had been asked to come to the New World to depict the various aspects of Brazilian wildlife. Wildlife? Why would I want to paint that? I wanted to paint marble towers and ancient castles, not trees and parrots. But my patrons insisted, and so I relented — much to my dismay.

The trip from Portugal was long and arduous, but when I finally arrived I was met by my longtime friend, Tarius, who was in charge of a camp at the mouth of the Amazon River. He would be my only comfort, the only thing familiar to me in this vast, new land, densely populated by strange vegetation.

“This heat is insufferable,” I complained. “Why can’t the summer be more like fall, cool and breezy, more agreeable to us all?”

“True, but if it were so then it would always be cool, it would be easier to catch a cold,” answered Tarius.

“What do I care about colds? I just don’t want to die from extreme heat, melting like an icecap in Greenland.”

“Is there nothing that pleases you, Yali?” sighed the haughty Tarius.

“Only the cool drink of the guaraná fruit will satisfy my parched lips, Tarius,” I giggled.

“Then I shall ask my servant, the Indian boy, to fix you up with one right away. See hear, George, will you be a gentlemen and fetch Lady Yali a drink?”

“Why certainly, my lord.”

Tupi Indian native (Photo: picfair.com)

As the servant ran off, I turned again to my longtime friend and inquired, “Is it necessary to send him scampering about all the time? I mean, he is our age, and besides, you could have done it yourself.”

“Indeed, but then I would have to part from this lovely vision here before me.”

I felt a blush rise up to my cheeks and quickly averted my eyes. Luckily, at that moment, George came back and bowed to me, gently handing me the drink made by the Tupi Indians of Brazil with his tanned rough hands.

“I thank you, George, and here, have some money for your trouble.”

“Thank you, but no thank you, Miss. You see, I don’t take money for a simple favor such as this.”

“Are you sure? Well, if you’re certain.”

“Thanks again, George, you can return to your camp duties now.”

“Yes sir.”

As George retreated, I sipped slowly and delicately, as a butterfly sips honey from a flower, or so I thought. I kept my watchful brown eyes on the boy until he left my sight, choosing this moment to finish my drink and turn my attention back to Tarius.

“So what do you think of our tropical gem?” questioned Tarius.

“It’s very different from Portugal, very wild, untamed so to speak. So much nature surrounds this place; you can almost feel the unearthly echo of silence reverberating in your ear. No mighty kingdoms, no luxurious dresses, nothing but trees, trees, and more trees.”

Blue and yellow macaw (Photo: Real World Holidays)

At this mention of silence, a macaw flew down from the nearest fig tree and landed in a nearby shrub. I had never seen such a creature before and was amazed at its long persistent gaze as it perched and munched on wild berries.

“Such a strange looking bird. How do you suppose it became so colorful?” I inquired.

“Oh, I don’t know,” replied Tarius, “probably from the colorful fruit it eats? I really have no idea. Do you see the sun setting? It’s time we ate dinner and got ourselves to bed.”

“I’ll be there in a moment, I want to watch this intriguing fellow a while longer.”

“If you insist. Don’t stay out too long, you never know what lurks behind those bushes.”

“Okay, I promise I won’t.”

With that, Tarius left to go see about the dinner preparations. The macaw was very passive and continued to munch and stare at me as if it knew I was watching it. Its green and blues were as vibrant as the grass, and its yellow and reds were as fierce as a roaring flame. It was a stunning sight to behold such a peaceful animal of the forest.

“I wonder if it will let me get closer to it,” I thought aloud.

As I carefully inched toward it, the bird turned its head and flew in a westward direction. I followed after it, even though I felt somewhat startled. The bird landed on a young boy’s shoulder, who upon seeing the bird, patted it on the head and continued clearing the ground for a fire.

“Hey,” I gingerly called.

The boy whipped his body around so fast that the bird almost fell off of his thin, unstable frame.

“Yes my lord?”

“Oh, it’s you, George!”

“Oh Lady Yali, you scared me witless. I must catch my breath, pardon me.”

“No, pardon me, it was I who startled you. I merely wanted to inquire about that bird, is it yours?”

“Lady Yali, you should know that no animal can truly be tamed, nor can we call a free animal our own, but if by your question you mean has it made my acquaintance, then the answer is yes.”

“How lovely. What kind of bird is it? Have you named it yet? If you have, would you tell it to me?”

“Yes, my lady, one question at a time. It is a male macaw, a member of the tropical parrot family. As for his name, I have not yet decided upon a moniker for him yet. He likes to sit and stare whimsically at me, but he does not seem to enjoy the company of other people in the camp, nor in my village.”

“That indeed is very odd. Do you think he would mind my stroking his feathers?”

“He has bitten all who try, but if you feel up to the challenge I will not try to stop your ladyship.”

Amazon rain forest canopy

I carefully set my hand in front of the macaw and waited for his reaction. The macaw turned his bristly green head, blinked, and cawed. Slowly, I placed a finger on his belly and tickled him. A sharp whistle escaped his fine beak and then he nibbled my finger. The sharp pain stung but I did not recoil. After realizing that I would not back down, the bird let go and I was able to finish petting him.

“Amazing. That is the first time he has backed out of a fight.”

“I am honored to have him on my side, since he is truly fierce. We should name him Dragon.”

“Name him what?” exclaimed George.

“Dragon? Do your people not know the stories and legends of the ancient reptilian animal that is taller than any tree, has large scaly wings twice the size of their bodies, and out of their eternal wrath spout shoots of fire from their foul mouths?”

“Are there such horrible beasts as these among the lands?”

“These are only stories that people in my country tell their children to teach them a lesson. But my point is, this mythological creature is famed for its intolerance of others. Don’t you think this macaw acts much like one of these beasts?”

“Indeed, he does. This name befits him well.”

I smiled, as did George. We stared for a while at each other’s faces but I, being somewhat shy in nature, and he, seemingly to be the same way, turned our attention back to Dragon, who was beginning to nibble on George’s hair.

Shy macaw (Photo: Alamy Stock Photo – alamy.com)

“Miss, if ever there is anything you require simply ask it of me, I am yours to command. A friend of Dragon’s is most certainly a friend of mine, if I am not being too bold in my statement,” said a bowing George.

“Not at all, in fact …”

“Yali, it is past the time for idle talk. Dinner is almost ready. George, I thought I told you to start that fire,” said Tarius, marching across the camp to join Yali and George.

“Yes, sir, I had forgotten my place, sir. The fire will be lit momentarily.

“Come, Yali, let us walk together.”

“Oh, well, see you later George.” As I walked away in the arms of Tarius, I turned my head back to George but continued to walk on.

Night fell fast in the Amazon. I had never seen a sky so magnificent; it looked as though a dark velvet sheet lay on top of the whole world, while small stars peeked through the vast darkness. Granted that huge trees blocked my perfect view of the firmament, I was still able to enjoy the evening. After dinner, I lay on my wooden cot running the day through my mind. However, it being late and the exhaustion of the first day overcoming me, sleep came quickly and overtook my body.

End of Part One

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2008 by Thais Angelica Tavares Lopes