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Brazilian Dialogue

Friends grieve for the 'coconut thief'

We know his name: Quirino Vasconcelos da Silva.

We know his age: 26. We even know his history, written in the book The Philosopher and the Coconut Thief.

He was killed by his "buddies" in some affair of the underworld. It was the world he knew from age 10 to age 17, and it was to this world that he returned for the last year of his life.

Those who saw him drunk, drugged, penniless and begging would doubtless think they were seeing the dregs of humanity.

But there was that interlude from 17 to 25, flawed as well, but graced too. He was a veteran of the street children's war with the police, and yet, when sober, was a remarkably happy person with no trace of bitterness or self-pity.

At 16 he and his girlfriend Vera provided for and protected a band of 12 small homeless boys under one of Maceió's sewage bridges. After dark he scrounged the leftovers at a nearby restaurant. "Have you eaten today?" I asked the little boys on my first visit there with an Italian sister. "He always shares with us," was their reply. He climbed a citizen's coconut tree when his Vera, expecting her second child, craved coconut milk. Halfway down he faced the irate owner and his gun.

"Shoot if you must," said Quirino, "but if you never committed so great a sin before, you will now. It's for my wife. She is pregnant and she's crying for coconut milk." The man lowered his gun and helped Quirino gather the coconuts. Such was his charisma.

In his best years he was a loving father, though not a good husband. He learned all too well the macho ways of Brazilian men. But in those years he did work long hours to keep his growing family at least fed.

Three different times jealous neighbours cut his horse loose during the night and he spent the next week looking for it in a 30-mile radius of the capital.

After so much frustration, so many tears, such hopelessness, that he could come by our house all smiles with his horse and cart after finally locating the animal seemed to me always to be a sort of miracle, a joy birthing after despair. Now Job of the Old Testament had lots of troubles but I rather doubt they were more insupportable than those of Quirino.

The year after I first met him under that sewage canal bridge, he was on the front page of Maceió's daily paper. "Hardened criminal captured." They didn't add, "and tortured," but should have.

No, Quirino, dear friend, valiant struggler, your life was not all waste. Those rays of golden light shining through the dark clouds of your life testified to the goodness, the kindness, the joyful optimism that marked you despite all.

Farewell. We grieve for you, dear brother, but it was time for you to go. Time for you, who never knew the love and guidance of an earthly father, to go to the embrace of your heavenly Father who loves you. And to the embrace of Sylvester Vredegoor too, your protector and mentor.

Al Gerwing