Walkerville was a city that many were proud to call sedate. The same was true of Willistead Gardens whose luscious grass and carefully tended flowers were meant to be admired quietly. There were no swings, soccer fields or large open spaces.
However, there was a large wooden statue in Willistead Gardens that had recently been carved by a member of the Walkerville Anti-War Coalition. It depicted a man with a badly disfigured face crawling on the ground with a hammer and chisel tied to his fingerless hands. It was about twice as big as an average sized person. People took to calling it “the crippled giant”.
The statue was widely praised. Those who had grumbled at first that a “political militant” had been commissioned to build it were very relieved that it was not
a) Some weird, abstract jumble of material that nobody could make head or tail of.
b) Something sexually explicit – “the crippled giant” was not masturbating or kissing another man.
c) Something with an obvious “radical” message – like the President strangling an Iraqi child.
Some Walkerville residents described the statue approvingly as a conservative work of art.
One September evening, the sculptor’s husband set fire to the statue. Firemen were slow to arrive, but no damage was done to the park. Days later, in Walkerville’s courthouse, the husband was on trial while, several blocks away, “the crippled giant” was covered by a large fireproof blanket. Policemen guarded it twenty-four hours a day. Everyone wondered why it was not simply removed from the park.
Eddy, a dark, slender twenty-three year old, sat on the witnesses stand looking very composed. In fact, it was the prosecutor, Ted Winbaum, whose voice was unsteady as he began to question him:
This case seemed ridiculously easy for Winbaum who was (nervousness aside) a competent and diligent attorney. Eddy openly admitted to setting fire to the statue and showed not the slightest trace of remorse about it. However, something did not smell right to Winbaum – in particular Eddy’s poised refusal to explain his motive.
Had Eddy vented his rage at his wife, Janice, after a heated quarrel? If so, it seemed very odd that she would be acting as his legal counsel. Did Eddy intend to burn down the entire park and surrounding neighborhood? If so, why did he set fire only to the statue and not any of the trees in the park?
When asked point blank why he had done it, Eddy suggested that everyone go to Willistead Gardens and pull the ugly blanket off the statue to find out.
“Just answer the damn question!” snapped the judge who was days away from retirement and weeks away from death. His colleagues were prepared to celebrate both events – especially Winbaum who had always been terrified of this judge.
Eddy used the Fifth Amendment to stop the questions about his motive.
Winbaum then stammered through some final remarks and rested his case. It appeared there was no way he could lose. He argued for a harsh sentence pointing to Eddy’s lack of remorse and the risks people were exposed to by the fire.
After Winbaum finished speaking and returned to his seat, the judge glared at him and muttered something inaudible.
“Your turn young lady” the judge said to Janice.
She stood up.
“Why was that statue built, Eddy?” she asked.
He replied that the city had just wanted something nice for Willistead Gardens, but that Janice had actually built it to honor of one of his childhood friends.
“Tell the court about this childhood friend of yours.” she said.
“Objection” said Winbaum.
“Be quiet!” yelled the judge before Winbaum could explain his objection.
Eddy recounted how he met his friend in an airport in La Paz, Bolivia. Eddy was five years old at the time. He and his mom had just spent a year in La Paz with family and were returning to Wakerville. They were seated in the boarding area near a middle aged couple who were tourists from the US. Eddy hated the couple for speaking loudly in English. It made him feel like he was already thousands of miles away from relatives he had come to love very much.
Across from the tourists, he noticed an old beggar sitting on the floor with his back against the wall. It did not occur to Eddy at the time how improbable this was.
The tourists wouldn’t shut up. They were raving about some pictures they had taken of “Indian” women wearing “native costumes.”
Suddenly, the beggar spoke up as if he too could take no more of them.
He spoke loudly but only Eddy could hear him. He said that the so called “native costumes” were imposed by the Spanish at the end of the eighteenth century. He added that the dresses were copied from the regional costumes of Estremaduran, Adndalusian and Basque peasant women; and that the hairstyle with center part in the middle was imposed by Viceroy Toledo. He said that the tourists would never learn any of this and that they were as ignorant of their own country as they were of Bolivia. He concluded that was why they haggled with dirt poor vendors over the price of trinkets and why they readily believed that street children really had wealthy parents.
Much of what the beggar had said flew over Eddy’s head but he grasped that the old man disapproved of the tourists, or of what they said. When the passengers finally boarded, Eddy was delighted that the beggar, who couldn’t walk, crawled on board the plane with them.
Sixteen hours later, while his mom fumbled with the keys to their little house in Walkerville, Eddy sat on the porch with the beggar. By then Eddy had figured out that only he could see or hear Aleijadinho (that was the beggar’s name).
“Excuse me young lady” asked the judge “would you like me to get him a couch to lie down on while he talks about his childhood?”
Janice took a deep breath to keep from responding in kind to the judge’s sarcasm:
“Everything Eddy has said is relevant to his defense” she answered.
“He’d better be getting to the point soon” he warned. The judge never looked directly at Eddy.
“What impressed you about your friend?’ Janice continued.
Eddy replied that his friend seemed to know everything about everyone. Aleijadinho revealed why Eddy’s mom didn’t look anything like her siblings – all of whom could pass for Europeans while she looked like the indigenous women whom tourists liked to photograph. Aleijadinho also divulged who Eddy’s father was and why Eddy had never met him.
The judge burst in angrily:
“So he’s crazy enough to believe what an imaginary friend told him as a kid?”
“Your Honor, it’s completely improper…” Winbaum began to say.
“Do you want me to toss you out of here?” the judge snarled at Winbaum. The old man’s temper was more out of control than usual.
“Excuse me, but isn’t he allowed to speak?” asked Janice.
Winbaum slumped into his chair mortified that his amateur adversary had come to his defense.
“I decide who speaks” replied the judge “and you’re representing you husband not the prosecutor.”
Janice ignored the judge and addressed Eddy:
“Was Aleijadinho imaginary?” she asked.
Eddy looked very coolly over at the judge.
“Answer her” the judge growled, but averting Eddy’s gaze.
Eddy said that his friend was real and then provided some biographical details about him.
Aleijadinho had been a sculptor hundreds of years ago in Brazil. Near the end of the eighteenth century, he carved a group of large religious figures in the garden of a church. The work is called ‘The Prophets’ and it’s considered his masterpiece. He was afflicted with leprosy when he carved them. He crawled to work each day exactly the way Janice depicted him in Willistead Gardens – with a chisel and hammer tied to what were left of his hands. Aleijadinho was a nickname that meant ‘the little cripple’. His mother was a slave and his father was a Portuguese artisan.
Eddy added that some historians believe Aleijadinho was a myth – a composite of many poor artists who worked for the church in Brazil at the same time.
“How original to plead insanity” scoffed the judge.
“We are not doing that” retorted Janice.
“Then maybe he thinks he’s being interviewed for a job in a museum.”
Janice’s eyes narrowed. She would not tolerate the judge much longer. Eddy gestured discretely to her to stay calm.
The judge glanced at his watch. “You have three minutes to wrap things up.”
“Why not six minutes?” said Janice. “Why not four minutes and thirty-two seconds while you’re setting ridiculous, arbitrary deadlines? We’re in Walkerville for Christ’s sake. What could you possibly be in a hurry for?”
“That’s its” said the judge “Bailiff, take her out of here.”
A fierce cry then reverberated through the room that made everyone go silent:
“Dejale hablar viejo de mierda!”
All eyes turned to Winbaum – the source of the booming outburst that only Eddy had completely understood. Winbaum’s face was pale with fright and elation. He made some sputtering attempts to speak English but only Spanish – a language he had never spoken in his life – left his mouth.
As the bailiff ejected him, Winbaum’s voice – powerful and assertive as never before – filled the room with a passionate tirade delivered in colorful Spanish.
The utter strangeness of the incident had a mollifying effect on the judge’s temper. After Winbaum was gone, the judge sedately told Janice to “get on with it” making no mention of a time limit or of throwing her out.
Eddy talked about his relationship with Aleijadinho whom he remained in contact with until he was twelve years old. Each night after Eddy was tucked into bed, Aleijadinho sat in the corner of the bedroom answering question after question until Eddy fell asleep. He explained centuries of Latin America history to Eddy using stories and fables when Eddy was little and becoming more direct as Eddy matured. Aleijadinho also spoke increasingly about his regrets.
“What were these regrets Aleijadinho had?” asked Janice.
Eddy said that Aleijadinho regretted not burning to the ground all the churches that displayed his work. He regretted not melting down the golden ornaments inside those churches and pouring them down the throats of the Brazilian clergy and their wealthy patrons. He was tormented by remorse that he did not destroy the society he had lived in.
“A leprous man thought he could have single handily destroy a colonial society?” Janice asked.
Eddy answered that Aleijadinho was certain of it, and explained that Aleijadinho’s work is about all that survived the gold delirium that afflicted Brazil during the 1700s. It took the Portuguese much longer than the Spanish to find gold in Latin America, but when they did, they really hit the jackpot. Brazilian exports of gold, during the 1700s, surpassed the total that Spain had taken from its colonies in two previous centuries.
Portugal stole so much, Eddy noted parenthetically, yet profited so little because, just like Spain, they used their loot to buy imports from other European countries. Portugal brought ten million African slaves to Brazil. The slaves dressed in rags made in Britain.
In Brazil’s mining region, millionaires were sometimes reduced to eating dogs, cats and even rats because they neglected farming almost completely. Industries were outlawed if they diverted resources away from mining, but one industry was always allowed. Churches were built all over the place. Gifted artists like Aleijadinho were allowed to develop their skill and produce great works for the Church. Aleijadinho basically exploited a loophole in the Imperial Commandment that Brazil was only to produce basic commodities for export.
After his death, Aleijadinho came to despise any praise of his work. He cringed at those who said his art provided a glimpse – a flicker – of a massive creative fire extinguished by brutality and greed – the potential of millions of lives wasted. After death, Aleijadinho had minutely examined those wasted lives and concluded that he deserved Hellfire for choosing to be an artist rather than an assassin. An act of destruction, he had explained to Eddy the last time they spoke, can be the most exemplary act of creation.
Eddy was frightened by Aleijadinho’s fixation on violence and destruction during their last meeting and suppressed it from his memory for many years. Eddy preferred to recall the gentle and wise friend who had taught him so much. In Janice, Eddy had found not only love, but a sculptor talented enough to do what he, to his dismay, could not do – honor through sculpture the limitless faith and patience that sustained Aleijadinho’s genius.
But it became impossible to ignore the memory of Aleijadinho’s last words to him because Eddy saw destruction glorified everywhere, war criminals respected and even revered. Janice had been misled, he concluded, about how to properly depict Aleijadinho.
“So you set fire to my Aleijadinho.” Janice said.
Eddy nodded and then described what the fire had done to her work.
The judge rose immediately to his feet. His movements were quick and agile despite the obvious pain they caused.
“Alright we’re going to take a look” he grumbled. He ordered the bailiff and the court reporter to come along.
Minutes later, Janice and Eddy arrived at the center of Willistead Gardens ahead of everyone else. The air was cool and crisp and the sky was the same shade of gray as the blanket that covered Aleijadinho. The cops became much more alert and upright in their posture when they spotted the judge approaching them. He grimaced with every step and leaned heavily on his cane. At certain moments, as the breeze blew back his robe and hair, Janice found it very easy to picture him as a young and healthy man.
“This had better have been worth the trip, kiddies” said the judge. He took a few moments to catch his breath then barked at the cops.
“Do you think we came up here to look at you? Pull the blanket off the damn thing.”
The cops hastily pulled away the blanket. Everyone gasped at the sight of the radiant, gold statue that towered before them. There were now two figures instead of one: Aliejadinho, no longer crumpled by disease, stood on his feet thrusting a gasoline nozzle down the throat of a man who was on his knees and frantically trying to escape. The man bore an unmistakable resemblance to the President.
The judge’s face contorted with outrage as he finally looked Eddy in the eye.
Eddy quietly told him that if art doesn’t clearly seek the destruction of evil then it’s worse than useless.