The Apprentice with the Thousand Eyes

— João Mendes

When the graduation day arrived, Eusébio got up early, cleaned his wife’s portrait and cried in secret, even though the house was empty. This was his morning habit for the last of his nine decades of life. The body, unaccustomed as it was to such longing, searched for someone to touch, to clasp in an embrace and say good morning. However, when the old man actually woke up, he remembered the house was a continuous absence.

That morning, the paper pennants were already scattered all over the small town of Ponta Serena. In a few hours, a flock of children would take up the square. Each would invoke their unique spell for the graduation, and among them would be old Eusébio and his thin shins.

Eusébio walked through the cornfield seeing nothing but the red soil, the growing ears, and the gate a few steps ahead. Further afield, there was only the fog. The eyes were covered by the hat, its brim torn. Like he did every morning—always with the cane in hand and with the calm step of someone who does not expect news from the world—he looked at the tomatoes, cashews, and heavy watermelons sprawled across the ground. He treated every speck of dust, every leaf, and every snail with the tenderness that his father had taught him. It was from here that he had taken his sustenance throughout life. He thought of all the people across Pagu, the shriveled-up country, who had once fed on these fruits. After ninety years with his hand on the earth, Eusébio felt now it was the earth who was about to bury the hand of the man.

He approached the only bald patch of land left, where the clay gave way to the rocky texture of a carapace. The hull, the size of three men, crawled up and down. Eusébio said nothing, just tapped his cane three times on the floor and waited. The ground shifted, and as the carapace rose, sand poured back into the crater it left behind.

Two sleepy eyes emerged from the hole. They opened up, whitish like melted candles. Tambor was a mountain mutt, his body covered in black-blue fur, its back protected by a long series of bony plates. Its drawn-out horns betrayed its advanced age. The dog opened its mouth, and a heavy tongue lazily spilled out of it. Eusébio took a handful of food from his pocket and poured it into the dog’s mouth. Tambor, weak in the jaw, chewed slowly.

That’s when, with the land taken by silence, he saw a moth lie down on a cashew leaf. It spread its wings. In them, he could see the shape of two lit eyes, yellow amidst brown. The wind only needed to ruffle the leaves to send the moth along its merry way. The apparition was brief, but somehow left its mark. The old man, alone once more, went back into the house to finish what had to be done.

He turned on the dusty record player, heated the water for the coffee. He stood in front of the stove, watching until the first bubble of heat burst and a timid, coffee-smelling steam came out. Other bubbles soon joined it. Eusébio would not leave his position, because the distraction caused by age could make him forget even that he had lit the fire, just as he forgot every morning that Francisca no longer walked around the house, covered by her white nightgown torn under the armpit.

He chewed his bread unhurriedly, and sipped his coffee without enthusiasm. Only after setting the table did he place the graduation gown on the bed. He admired the gown, then took the spell book out of the wardrobe, its yellow pages crowded with the letters he had learned in his old age. He opened the leather-bound book and ran his finger along the pen marks. All those spells and incantations and invocations written by his thin, calloused hand. Writing hurt the fingertips, but it was a good pain. Of all those words, there was one spell that had not yet seen the world: the one Eusébio could only summon on his graduation day. If he failed, they would not let him have the diploma. Even though he was nervous, he smiled.

I brought these words into this world.

He showered, splashed lavender perfume on his body, put on his gown, and looked at himself in the mirror. It was the first time he’d smiled in a long time. The corners of his mouth throbbed, unaccustomed to laughter. Eusébio, with his thinning hair and wrinkled skin, the tip of his nose burned by the sun, wore the sorcerer’s cloak, and instead of the walking stick, he carried the staff he had dreamed of carrying all his life. He mimicked the way Francisca parted his hair, slicked to the side.

Dressed like a child on graduation day, Eusébio sat at the door of his house with his shins bare and his grimoire heavy in his hand. When the image of Banzé appeared in the distance, mounted on the motorcycle, the old man took Francisca’s picture out of the frame and put it in his pocket.

When he was a child, Eusébio saw dozens of boys passing by that same road. They talked loudly, carrying sticks in their hands and leather-bound books under their arms. Their hair was neatly combed, and they wore white linen shirts tucked into their trousers. Little Eusébio hid behind the gate, trying not to be seen, but peeking between the planks with his big eyes. If he stuck around long enough, he might see one child cast a spell, causing the specter of a thrush to rise from the ground or something like that. He opened his ears, trying to learn everything: how the classes were and what the enchanted words tasted like.

Those boys were literate in the art of reading the world; their future was an extensive road of possibilities. Over the years, they would become little heroes, their names spoken in honor by the townspeople. They would take part in the parades, choosing to follow military life or to serve the people in other ways, by charming the crops, the streets, or the herds.

Eusébio’s childhood split into two. There was a world in which he walked with the boys and their staffs, learned to read and to raise little thrushes. And then there was the only childhood he could actually live, carried out behind the gates. The boys were already gone, but Eusébio’s mind was still there with them.

“Zezé, where are you?!”

The thick voice came from the backyard. Even knowing that he should return, Eusébio remained stuck to the fence, inventing a new life. He would go back when they found him; otherwise, he would continue to hang with his eyes on the world. It was Tambor who approached from behind, sniffing the boy. At the time, the dog was the same size as Eusébio, with small horns and a fragile carapace. Raimundo, Eusébio’s father, followed closely behind.

“Now, now, what are you doing hanging around there?”

“Nothing, Dad. I thought I saw a fox, so I came to look. I wanted to keep an eye on the chickens.”

“Aye, right then, son,” Raimundo scratched his beard. “Best to leave it as is. If it really is a fox, Tambor will take care of it. It’s high time he learned something.”

“Oh, I see…”

After the meal settled in his belly, it was time to learn. Eusébio didn’t learn the magic signs because Raimundo spent the afternoon explaining the details of the land. He taught his son to discern the textures of seeds and to perceive the fertility of the plowed earth. Under his rough face, Raimundo had a soft heart and a light voice. He took his son every day to see a small branch grow until it became a complete work. He never made the boy carry a weight that his little bones could not uphold.

Thus, Eusébio lived with the memory of Raimundo’s eyes, the spark that lit up every time he spoke about the craft of agriculture cultivated within the family. The little shoots would grow, enter homes, and feed families. They had decided the family’s function after the popular meetings in the square, Raimundo recounted. His father, Eusébio’s grandfather, had taken his son to watch the heated debates. In the end, the responsibility of each neighborhood had been determined, everything paid for with the people’s money. There was no lack of work: planting, fishing, collecting shellfish, making handicrafts, making lace. Each gave their best to make things work.

On the way home, after working in the dirt, Eusébio couldn’t get the urge to speak off the tip of his tongue. One day, when Raimundo was writing the expenses in his notebook, leaning over the table, Eusébio approached his father as if he had no cares in the world. He rehearsed the words in his mind a few times before plucking up the courage to speak.

“Dad…” The voice trailed off.


“Can I ask you a question? I swear it’s fast.”

“Well, shoot.” Raimundo took off his hat and put it on the table.

“There are some boys that pass in front of the house every day, I dunno know if you’ve seen them…” He waited for an answer from his father, but found him tight-lipped. “Have you seen them?”

“Aye, I think I have. The ones who study at the school up the road, yes?”

“Yeah, those boys.”

“And what about them, Zezé?”

“They also learn things, but they are different things. They learn other words, you know. Just the other day, I saw one of them create a thrush with the end of a stick.

So, I was thinking…”

“You were thinking you want to learn those words as well.”

“Yeah! I want to do what they do…”

It was daytime, but something clouded Raimundo’s face. A shadow without an owner. There were things in those eyes that Eusébio would only understand with time. The boy was the owner of a youthful body, one that believed that the desires inside one’s breast were greater than the limitations of life.

Still, he insisted, “I could go in the morning, learn those words, and write them in my notebook. After lunch I would be back here, then you’d teach me about the land.”

“Zezé, that’s not possible. Our place is here.”

“Yes, Dad. I know that! But see, what if I learn something to help you?” Eusébio pointed to the field. “Like something to increase the size of the cashew tree, or make three watermelons grow at once. People would have more food, we could even expand the land and…”

“Zé, people need to eat today and not in a few years. You don’t need magic for that; you never have. You need to know the land, and that’s enough. Forget that. Get your bearings, ’cause we’ve got plenty to do already.” The sour taste of those words made his father’s eyes water. “Those boys are of different breeding. They can attend school. We were born to put our hands on the land. We have to fit where there’s room, and that’s it. We are already lucky to have learned our first words.”

“But, Dad…” The voice grew weaker.

“Off we go, lad.”

Since that afternoon, a gap had opened up between the two. The wind rushed through the open space that never really closed. Eusébio kept his words to himself, but the want never stopped screaming inside his mouth. He stood in front of the gate, but the desire died in time. Those boys who passed by grew up. And the passing of time, which embraces everyone, was also reflected in the body of little Eusébio. The time for dreaming had passed.

The boy Eusébio treated like a son smiled like a child.

He made the old man, for the briefest of moments, believe he had lost himself in time. But Banzé was no longer the boy who needed to be held by the hand, but a tall, dark-skinned man with broad curls. He was smiling wider than ever, showing all his teeth. It was a righteous smile—that day was an achievement for both of them.
Taking his time, Banzé accepted a sip of black coffee and stuck around. Until they needed to leave, they talked about the past, nurturing the memory of Francisca and the bond between them.
* * *
When Francisca shrank, bending over her body and breathing for the last time, it was Banzé who stood alongside Eusébio. He was the one who set up camp on the couch in the house and lived there for months. He made the old man get out of bed even when his body had given up. He forced Eusébio to eat, drink and even smile. The son Eusébio never had. On one of the many nights they spent awake, listening to the old transistor radio, Eusébio confessed his fever dream: when he was little, he had wanted to be a Mage. Study the words, enchant things. Then he mocked his own naivete, because even though everything was always changing, even though people elected their representatives and organized themselves to be better heard, certain things always remained the same. Even if the world was moving forward, it was too late for him.

“My dream was to have a child,” Eusébio said. “I would enroll him at school to learn the magic words. Back in my day, it was difficult, but everything is changing these days. Too bad my time’s ended. Imagine that, Banzé. An old man like me, in a room full of children. That can’t be done, right? …But it would be nice if it were possible. Oh, never you mind, that’s the folly of an aging git… What a silly idea. Forget about it.”
They both laughed, but Eusébio stopped showing his teeth when he felt the voice barely fit in the mouth. He went to bed late, a little drunk on liquor. Banzé had heard everything and paid close attention to all the words. As he watched the night—at the old man’s door, listening to Tambor’s snoring—an idea seized him.

In the following months, Banzé breathed nothing but the papers. Every time Eusébio questioned him about his disappearance, he changed the subject. He joked about being in love, getting to know someone, and then he would stop talking. But, quietly, Banzé was trying to move the heavens.

He wrote, locked in his room, the beginning of what many would know later as the first Law of Inclusion of the Elderly and People with Disabilities. In the first articles, he explained the need for elderly people to have access to regular teaching of magic, as well as schools of first words. After the draft, he needed other hands to weave the document. A citizens’ initiative, something that not even Banzé believed possible. But the possibility was in the constitution of Pagu. The lad needed to collect the signature of one in every twenty municipal voters and, even under protests from the most arcane conservatives, he kept knocking from door to door. Eusébio, quiet in his grief, was the last to know about the proposal.

Banzé had a hoarse, shy voice that sometimes avoided even being heard. The noise he made was like a stone plunging into a stream. Still, the small ripples motivated many others. Over there, there was no lack of dreams well dreamed trapped in lives badly lived. There was no corner in Ponta Serena where the news hadn’t reached. No matter how loud the brook rumbled, other voices hurled themselves in like stones, falling on the water in an incessant rain.

The process went on for years. It was on the old man’s eighty-fifth birthday that Banzé appeared at the house with tears in his eyes, bringing a gift. Eusébio opened it and found a folded newspaper announcing the news. To enforce the agreement, the college of other words and enchantments would open the first class exclusively for teaching seniors. Banzé was beside Eusébio when he cried dryly. Without a tear in his eyes, the old man was beside himself. He groaned. He found in those grunts the mourning he could not put into words.

“It’s a joke, isn’t it? Say it’s a joke, Banzé,” he repeated between sobs.

That’s how, though reluctantly, Eusébio enrolled in the class. And stepping on the floor of the school was like touching a dream with his feet.

Banzé accompanied him on the first day of school, dressed him as he would a child. He combed the old man’s thinning hair and wept at the sight of the stooped man disappearing down the hallway.

There was not a moment during the following years when the old man didn’t wish to return home with his hopes in shreds, deceived by his own faith. As if that event was a big joke waiting for the punchline. Still, on he went, until the end.

Now the two of them were there, standing in the doorway: Eusébio dressed for graduation, and Banzé barely contained the feelings inside him.

“Are you ready, old man?” The smile got in the way of words.

“Truth be told, I’ve no clue.”

“Yeah, I don’t know either. Francisca would be very proud of you, Zezé.”

“She is.” As he spoke, he remembered the moth resting in the cashew tree.

If Eusébio were asked what kind of person Francisca was, he would say that she wasn’t a person, but an event. Something simple that enters one’s life and changes everything when you least expect it. For him, the world existed before and after that small woman with big eyes and small teeth. She liked the slow pace of the living things, but she absolutely hated the stagnation of society, as she was always eager to point out.

Eusébio and Francisca had been children at the same time. However, they only knew each other when youth had already settled on their bodies. The young magicians were on their way to graduation, and Eusébio was mourning a lost hope. One couldn’t dream past the age of seventeen.

Still, after spending the whole day with his father, the boy would leave the field to walk about the dominions of his world. He walked along the edge of the pond, occasionally carrying a stick that he found on the ground. He pointed at the little green branches as if he could make them grow at his will. He felt foolish, but entirely satisfied by the nonsense. His only audience was the mountain mutt that followed his steps, always slinking along the ground behind him.

One afternoon, he recited a made-up word, pretending it was a spell. He added a letter and then another until a funny sound came out of his mouth. He swung the branch in the air and pointed toward a paçu, a bird that kept its nest on its back and camouflaged itself on top of the cashew trees. He waited, almost believing he could cast a spell by merely willing it so.

Between one silence and another, he heard a calm voice. He honed his ears to hear it better. A lullaby. He approached the other end of the pond and his eyes fell on the owner of the singing voice: a woman, her reflection reeling in the water. In the moment their glances met, the existence of all things bent towards them. Both bodies tensed at the same time. Francisca was bathing a child, the small Banzé — the neighbor’s son, whom the young woman treated like a younger brother. She hid from the sun under the shade of a cashew tree, where small moths landed on the leaves, covering the green with the yellow of the eyes printed on their wings. Francisca’s voice, like a spark in the dark, seemed to attract the desire and ambition of the tiny insects.

After that, it was just a matter of time. Every day, Eusébio wandered on that bank. He would sit by the roots of a cashew tree and listen to the figure of the pond sing. She, for her part, was already expecting the visit of the faithful spectator. He approached her slowly. For the first few days, he only took his ears, then a bag of fruit harvested from the backyard.

It was Francisca who taught Eusébio to love and seek beauty in things. Not only that; he always liked to talk about the world. She pointed to the streets, the roads and the detours that the waters made until it reached the houses.

“If you look at it, none of this here is natural. A pipe is not a living creature, huh? Zé, everything is a conquest. Look, if there’s a pipeline there, it’s because there are people, and it is for the people that cities exist. My father told me that, when I was a little girl, I remember it to this day! He would start any meeting by saying, ‘We are twice what we thought we’d ever be, but we’re still not half of what we can be.’ At first, I was confused too, but then you end up getting it. Life will teach you.”

Taken by the feeling, Eusébio, who was little interested in the world’s rules and regulations, listened to everything with desire, treating each speech as poetry spoken in the open. He never forgot the day when Francisca told the story of the previous year, when a water stallion trampled a delivery man while he was drinking water from the river during his work shift. The courier was dismissed, deemed unable to work. Only after the residents’ union and demonstrations did popular pressure guaranteed the subject’s protection. It was when the first unions had appeared, alongside a system of control for magical creatures.
Between talk of love, Francisca talked about how there wasn’t such a thing as freedom so perfect it couldn’t be altered. Little Banzé grew up among those conversations. It was Eusébio’s helplessness and Francisca’s firm voice speaking of the world which inflamed the young man to the point of making him love the first words, the change, and the movement.
* * *
The parade had begun; the children put on their gowns, each carrying a staff in their left hand and a leather book in their right. They walked in the same rhythm, knees raised at every step, all smiles. From the audience, flashbulbs announced the proud relatives. The entire city could come and busy itself with the prestige for the little sorcerers. It was a holiday, and the residents crowded Our Lady Square. Eusébio followed, with his hair sparsely combed, his fragile legs and Banzé’s arm serving as support.
He rebuilt the smile he had practiced all his life. He saw that, besides the children’s relatives, there were other known faces in the audience — different from the expected crowd, but familiar to the old graduate. The domino players, the shellfish gatherers, the fairground men and elderly women, people who, on that morning, could see themselves reflected in Eusébio’s joy. They all smiled with the same wide grin. When they saw that bent over man pass by, they shouted,
“Look at our Zezé!”
“C’mon, Zé, give us a wave!”
He raised his trembling hand and grinned. On impulse, he sought Francisca’s presence in those faces. The walk ended under the monument of Serena, represented by a large mermaid carved in marble. Her tail curled around the baobab, extending itself along the tree. The statue, however large, did not reach the branches.

Below, the Great Mother waited for everyone. She was a tall woman, as tall as four humans, and she wore a purple robe. Her slender fingers that protruded like long claws called for silence. The moment had come. Eusébio felt his fragile bladder falter. He felt fear, happiness, sadness, grief, hope. He felt more than he could hold together in that small body. He felt everything.

The newly elected mayor of Ponta Serena was the first to speak. Short and awkward, he took his time untangling the microphone cord, nearly tripping over it in the process. Overcoming the unforeseen difficulty, he greeted the graduates again, and spoke of the joy of having those children as bastions of a better future. The rest, Eusébio couldn’t quite hear. Not so much because of the distance, but because of his restlessness.
The first student on the list was called Amelia, a girl with wide arms and a convincing smile. She opened the grimoire on the page where she had written her original spell. She was shaking. Still, she nodded to her parents and affirmed she was ready as she addressed the Mother. The audience was completely silent. Amelia waved her staff above her head, the cracks in the wood gleaming. It happened fast: the leaves split from the smaller trees, snaked in the wind and fell together to the ground. From the small pile of leaves came the shape of a green steed. Amelia confidently made the animal walk across the square, elegant and invulnerable. Applause erupted around her.
The children went in alphabetical order, but Eusébio was called only after all the young people had come forward. The old apprentice was a one-man crew, a chair full of will in an empty room. After the applause ended, Eusébio was called to the front. The sound got lost on the way—or, if it did ever arrive, the old man couldn’t listen. Banzé had to look at him, smile, and say, “Well, shall we? It’s about time.”
* * *
Eusébio always avoided that holiday. He used to go far away so that his want wouldn’t hurt him, out of range of the marching band, the applause, the speeches, and fireworks. During the first three years of their relationship, he had hidden the secret from Francisca. Every time, he called his wife to walk through the dams, move away from the city center. Francisca, who liked to feel the soles of her sandals roaming the world, never turned down the offer to get away from the noise. But the distrust was clear every time Eusébio looked sadly at the fireworks. Something inside that man died, or perhaps lived too much. She could tell by the unusual way his body curved inwards and his sad eyes bulged out.

When one is in love, time softens, it flows. Two more years passed until the matter came to light. There were no more hiding places. Francisca, determined, convinced Eusébio to attend the graduation at least once. From the audience, Eusébio reviewed the uniforms, the staffs, and the craving. At the fair, they bought sweets and popcorn. Even immersed in his sadness, Eusébio smiled. He smiled because he liked to see the charms being born from pieces of wood and the trembling voices that invoked them.
Under the bursts of fireworks, Eusébio fell in love for the second time. He shared with Francisca what he kept from the eyes of the world, the embarrassed hope of getting caught daydreaming.

“Fran…when we have our son, I want him to be there.”

But the son never came; it became a dream, one word thrown away, a mirage taken away by time. Eusébio understood that a dream without a body is a delirium. Over the years, the promise has waned. A wound that was never put into words, but shortened in the silence.

Francisca left the world the way she had entered it: singing, small on a wide land. For Eusébio, all that remained was the empty chair in the kitchen corner, and the passing of the moths every morning. Francisca left scent and words behind. And until the day when Banzé showed up at the door with that newspaper, Eusébio fled conversations about the world, politics, and the fate of things. Nothing would change; even if it changed, he felt that time itself was running out. The world could flip, but nothing would ever be different for the little boy with his hand on earth who forgot his dreams.

The Great Mother’s eyes were a dark, open abyss that devoured things at the same speed with which they could speak, shout, and receive. Eusébio felt comfortable, nevertheless. He had spent his nights in the classroom with her, in the only occupied chair. It was she who, with all the patience in the world, had made him hold the pen and flood the old notebook with scribbles.

The Mother had made him write the world.

When Banzé released him, Eusébio walked slowly under the watchful eyes of the audience. He knew that not everyone there was in favor of his training. After all, an elderly person didn’t have long to live, they said, so he could no longer be of use to society. Banzé was always sharp in his answers—he replied that living was not about being useful, it was about existing. Cities needed to be useful because they were meant to be filled with people; that was why they were there. People were only supposed to be useful to others, and there were millions of ways to do that other than serving or working until the last days of their lives. It was the same speech he used to fight for fairer pensions, which could guarantee some quality of life for those who could no longer work.

When he looked at his friends, seeing them inspired by the walk, Eusébio felt useful. Not for serving, but for inspiring a new future. He would give anything to see what the next evening class would be like.

Noticing that Eusébio’s hands did not hold the grimoire firmly, the Mother held out her own. She held up the book so the man could read what he had written. The old man took his glasses out of his pocket, and that made his face look funny. He traced his slender finger through the erasures and alterations on the scratched page. In the audience, no one breathed. With the little strength he had, Eusébio raised his staff and recited some confused words, interrupted by lack of breath.

Then he fell silent.

People waited, but nothing happened.

Eusébio closed the book and lowered the staff. The weather ran dry; the silence suffocated him. After a few seconds, the whispers began.

What went wrong?

He didn’t make it?

Ha! I knew this was going to happen.

Amid the hubbub, Eusébio took off his glasses and put them in his pocket. At that moment, he remembered perfectly the song that Francisca was singing at the edge of the pond. When he noticed it, he already had the melody in his dry mouth. Banzé, who was still nearby, recognized the song. That was why he cried.

Tears also fell from Eusébio’s eyes. Though transparent at first, they soon turned yellow. You could see the old man’s face from afar, thick wax oozing from under the eyebrows like two lit candles. It fell in heavy drops to the ground, each tear like a seed digging deep. The puddle broke the silence, almost bubbling. From every drop that fell to the ground, a moth jumped. They flapped their wings as if getting rid of the wax, stuck in the mud. Then they flew free. The old man’s wrinkled skin crumbled, and there was nothing left of him but a cloud of those little colorful bugs with yellow eyes on their wings.

The audience’s astonishment only dissipated when the moths all flew the same way. They landed on the tree in Our Lady Square, the old baobab tree. Each one landed on a leaf. Their spread wings formed a swarm of a thousand eyes. The audience looked, and the tree looked back at them.

That morning, Eusébio wept the tears of a thousand eyes, felt the heart of a thousand breasts, loved for the flesh of a thousand bodies. Scattered by the thousand-eyed tree, he remembered Francisca, and, seeing as people applauded, he understood the movement that his wife loved so much—perhaps the same movement his father was so afraid of. It was there that the old apprentice felt how things always changed. An earthquake of mute lips, moving underneath their feet. He recited to himself: I am twice what I once was, but half of what I can be.

João Mendes

Translated by Anna Martino

João Mendes is a Brazilian author, born and raised in Bahia, graduated in film studies, and an admirer of fantastical subtleties. He wrote “A pipa e o dragão”, “O caldo”, and “Infinita diária de Zélia Cordeiro”. He’s also organized the anthology Farras fantásticas, among other projects, and keeps creating alternate realities through verbs. Twitter: @DocxMendes, Instagram: @docxmendes. Anna Martino is a Brazilian SFF writer and editor. Her works in English have been published at Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Luna Station Quarterly, and BBC World Radio, among other magazines. She's also the co-founder and current publisher at Dame Blanche, a small press specialized in Brazilian SFF.