The following story is an embellished retelling of something that actually happened to me. Enjoy!
“Never walk the streets of old São Luís alone at night.” This piece of advice, frequently given, came to my mind late one Friday as I walked the streets of old São Luís.
I had been invited to a concert held in the open courtyard of the old Mercy Convent – now a cultural center. The friends I expected to meet there had not appeared, therefore I had no choice but to return to my car via the narrow avenues lined with mostly-dark, decrepit mansions which crisscross the historical district of São Luís.
And so that night, as the sound of my feet on the cobblestone pavement echoed against the ancient stone walls on either side of the deserted street, I had cause and opportunity to reflect on that oft-repeated warning.
Many friends, perhaps most friends, would be concerned about the possibility of my encountering some drug-addled ne’er-do-well who would see this well-dressed gringo as a soft target, an easy source of income which would in turn allow him to finance his next fix.
But, as I trod those antique stones, I could not dismiss entirely the possibility that some of my more traditional acquaintances might fear an otherworldly encounter with one Ana Jansen.
Such encounters are said to happen on Fridays, in old São Luís, at or around midnight. In hushed tones I have been told of how the tormented spirit of that ruthless 19th century baroness will ply the darkened streets of this part of town in her ornate carriage, which is – I am solemnly assured – pulled by a team of headless horses and driven by a headless coachman. Accounts as to what happens to one upon such an encounter are vague and varied, but there is usually a chicken bone involved.
I would be dishonest if I said these tales have no effect on me. On the Rua Grande – today the main comercial street in the historic district – there is a house that was once inhabited by the infamous Ms. Jansen herself. Its architecture, though consistent with the 19th-century buildings that surround it, is somehow…spookier.
The bottom floor is now a pizza parlor run by Koreans. But, knowing the house was at one time the residence of a woman who, in a fit of jealousy, had all the teeth removed from the mouth of a particularly comely slave, who tortured and killed disobedient slaves and deposited their bodies in a well – I’m not ashamed to admit that even in broad daylight that can give me the shivers as I pass by. Though eventually the aroma of fresh-baked pizza helps me set aside my qualms and go inside.
But on a dark Friday night, alone in old São Luís, with no pizza to be smelled anywhere, these thoughts are not so easily dismissed, despite the problems they raise with my theology. I mean…ghosts don’t exist of course, so…
A clattering sound behind me brought all my senses to high alert. I turned around, half expecting to find myself face to…well…neck, I guess, with a headless coachman. Instead, an annoyed cat, back arched and hair standing on end, hissed at me from a dark corner where it had knocked over a trash bag filled with cans. We stared at each other for a moment. Finally the cat grew bored and scampered through the yawning black door of an abandoned mansion.
Breathing deeply, I attempted to pull my shattered nerves back together. Strolling through old São Luís while reflecting on the lifetime achievements of Ana Jansen simply would not do. I would have to find something else to occupy my mind.
Fortunately, that was not difficult. As I turned and continued my journey, I bent my thoughts in a familiar direction, one they often take as I walk those same streets, be it day or night. I looked at the darkened, slightly ominous buildings and began to imagine how they must have appeared when they were in their heyday.
The streets would have been busy then, perhaps even at that hour. Carriages, drawn by horses and piloted by coachmen – heads firmly attached to necks – would have plied the streets, taking their privileged occupants to and from the many social events of the time. The lampposts would have been lit, throwing light on the bright colors of the Portuguese-style mansions – some painted, and some covered from foundation to roof with those ceramic tiles, called azulejos, for which the city is still famous. Doors and windows would be open to let in the cool night breeze coming in from the ocean. Men in top hats and ladies in hoop skirts and bustles would be chatting on the sidewalk.
I smiled as I pictured the scene.
Then I turned the corner, and gaped in amazement. There, in living color before my eyes, was the scene I had just pictured – the street lights, the men in top hats, the ladies in hoop skirts and bustles! I blinked a few times. I do have a vivid imagination, but no…this was real! Had I gone through some sort of time warp? Had I found a wrinkle in the space-time continuum?
Was it the cat?
Awe-struck, trembling, I stepped out into the street. Some of the people looked at me. One or two began to whisper to each other and point. How strange I must have looked to them in my 21st-century clothing.
I wondered what I should tell them. Would I be able to understand their archaic Portuguese? What questions should I ask? What mysteries of this city would I uncover? Should I…
And just like that, I was back in the present. From the sidewalk a cameraman cursed in very modern Portuguese. One of the top-hatted actors snickered.
“So sorry…” I mumbled to the director, whose scene I had just ruined. I doubt he heard me, he was already setting up the next shot.
“It’s ok,” said a hoop-skirted actress, giving me a reassuring smile. “Happens all the time.” Then she winked.
Of course I know that São Luís is frequently used as the backdrop for period movies and novelas. And I’m certainly aware of the numerous physical and metaphysical contradictions that would make actual time travel quite impossible.
And yet, though I have searched many times in the ensuing years, I have not found a film or TV program whose production would coincide with the date of that memorable evening.
And then there was that wink…
Banner image: A snapshot of São Luís ca. 1900
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