Uncle Cosme lived with my mother after she had been widowed. He was already a widower at that stage, as was Cousin Justina; it had become the house of the three widows.
Fortune often plays tricks on nature's course. Raised and educated to take advantage of capitalism's august workings, Uncle Cosme did not get rich off his work as a lawyer as he lived beyond his means. He had his office on the old Rua das Violas, near the courthouse, which was in the abandoned Aljube prison building. He worked in criminal law.
José Dias never missed Uncle Cosme's speeches for the defense. He would help Uncle Cosme in and out of his robes, paying him compliment after compliment once the day was done. At home, he would recount the arguments. Tio Cosme, as much as he wanted to appear modest, couldn't help smiling.
He was a fat, heavy man, short of breath and sleepy-eyed. One of my earliest memories is of seeing him each morning mount the mule my mother had give him, upon which he would ride to his office. The black slave who had brought the mule from the stable would take hold of the reins while Uncle Cosme lifted his foot and set it in the stirrup, after which time a minute of rest or reflection would follow. Then he would give a shove, his first, and his body would threaten to rise without actually doing so; a second shove, the same result. Finally, after a long interval, Uncle Cosme would gather together all his strength, both physical and moral, and propel himself from the earth with one final push, this time landing on top of the saddle. The mule would rarely fail to show by some gesture that he was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. Uncle Cosme would adjust his beefy frame, and the mule would break out into a trot.
Nor have I forgotten what he did to me one afternoon. Although I was born in the country (I left when I was two) and despite the customs of the time, I was afraid of horses and didn't know how to ride them. Uncle Cosme grabbed me and sat me astride the mule. When I found myself so high (I was nine), helpless and alone, the ground far below, I began screaming in desperation: "Mamma! Mamma!" She came running to the rescue, pale and trembling, thinking that someone was killing me. She brought me down and comforted me while her brother asked:
"Glória, how can a grown lad like him be afraid of a tame mule?"
"He's not used to it."
"He'd better get used to it. Even if he becomes a priest, should his parish be in the country, he'll have to ride a horse; and here in the city too, although he's not a priest yet, if he wants to cut a fine figure like the other lads and doesn't know how to ride, he'll blame you, Glória."
"Let him blame away. I'm afraid."
"Afraid! Come now, afraid!"
The truth is that I did learn to ride a horse, only later, less for the pleasure of it than for the embarrassment I'd feel saying I didn't know how. "Now he'll really be chasing the girls," they said when I started my lessons. The same could not be said of Uncle Cosme. In his case, horseriding was an old habit and a necessity. He was already done with love affairs. They say that, when a lad, besides being a fanatical party member, he was quite the ladies' man; but the passage of time had taken away the greater part of his political and sexual ardour, and his corpulence had put to bed his ambitions both public and intimate. Now he merely carried out the duties of his office joylessly. In his hours of leisure he would sit staring or play cards. Every now and again he would say something witty.