On the nights that the wolf does appear, he always waits for dark.
The Pousada Santuário de Caraça was originally a monastery. I found it on one of my early trips to Brazil. It is a fine example of the blending of the religious and secular, so typically Brazilian. In my life in Australia, monasteries were — as was religion itself — cloistered away. Religion was mysterious, elusive, a bit like the wolf.
The sanctuary offered by the church today is still good for the soul: guests can go bushwalking and witness the occasional appearance of the maned wolves, which sometimes take their supper on the church steps. Each night I join the other guests, most of them members of Brazil’s fast-growing bourgeoisie, sitting on garden chairs around the terrace edge as we chat, sipping rough claret and hoping for an encounter with the wild.
The old church spire soaring over the trees is visible from almost any point on the property. Some of the stone buildings go back two hundred and fifty years — not a lot of time by Brazilian standards, but long enough to tell some of the country’s plethora of stories. In 1968, fire gutted the four-storey sandstone library, and hundreds of books were lost. A dozen columns remain, and wall damage has been repaired with smoked glass. The modern is braided with the old.
The monks’ quarters offer visitors basic accommodation, with hot water and electric lighting. The rooms are spotless, and the wooden floors have been worn by years of trailing robes. Typical Brazilian fare is offered as part of the package: chicken and pork; beans and rice; potatoes mashed, or chopped into soggy fries. Lunch is dinner reheated. Each morning, I clumsily rap the edge of a butter knife against the shells to spill my breakfast eggs straight onto the ancient wood-stoked grill.
Mass is offered several times a week by Father Marcos. He’s a sporty-looking twenty-eight-year-old who schmoozes like a presidential candidate. A gaggle of guests attend him like courtiers. I am introduced to each group proudly as an estrangeira, as if I am the priest’s first foreign guest. And perhaps I am. Father Marcos is the one hundred and eightieth padre at Caraça, although he’s probably the first to wear jeans. His brief (which he admits one night after he thinks I have drunk too much red wine) is to make money for the church.
Each evening, Father Marcos brings a tray of bones onto the church terrace, and we gather in hope that the wolves will come. Scraping the tray along the tiles with his foot, his call echoes across the steppe. In concert with the vegetation across these hills, the wolves are delicate, not bulky, and often elusive. The fact that they have not become extinct in Brazil is due more to good luck than good management. My sudden desire to see one comes with a pang of surprise.
But we wait, and we refill our glasses, and as the hour grows later a curious hollow forms inside me as the possibility that the wolf may not arrive becomes a probability. We are unable, Padre Marcos says with a laugh, to offer refunds if the show is cancelled. My hand grips the wine glass with more force than necessary. The idea of the wolf is so tantalising. Seeing such a creature seems, for some reason I can’t quite fathom, necessary. Suddenly, it is a life goal I hadn’t realised I had.
Then from the darkness there’s a movement. It snags my attention. The Brazilians raise their cameras, and I feel like shouting, ‘Stop — don’t frighten it away!’
But I don’t. I am the stranger here.
A snout appears over the lowest step. ‘Guara,’ the priest greets him (it looks to be a him). Will he come up or disappear back into the shadows? He glides up — one step, two; stops. Taking the last three steps as one, he lands on the tiles in front of the church, bright eyes hooded and alert. ‘Guara,’ the priest says again. It is the índio word for ‘red’. But his colour is lost in the staccato burst of camera flashes.
The wolf gazes upon the priest with something approaching disdain. His muscles are taut, ready to bear him away at a moment’s notice. Sitting still, I find myself praying that the Brazilians will not scare him away. A dozen or more swirl around him, taking photos; a few look ready to spring towards him. But, to my relief, he seems as used to the barrage of flashes as a modern-day prince.
He steps with guarded care but shows no fear. Four graceful paces, and his snout hovers over the battered metal tray. Choosing a bone as long as his foreleg, he lifts it with expert, gentle jaws. He is beautiful. With front legs jointed low, he moves like a dancer.
For a time, the wolf lets temptation override caution, and the sound of crunching bone bounces off the old stone walls like rifle cracks. The wolf’s jaw junctions close to his skull, providing leverage. I can feel the power in his bite.
Eventually, he looks up and examines his audience with such open curiosity, I feel a link with him, a strange kinship as well as a sense of awe. The other guests are so busy with their cameras they don’t seem to notice his majesty or feel privileged by his arrival. Until that morning I had never heard of the maned wolf, but now I feel as if I have been waiting an age for him to materialise on this terrace.
The next night we gathered beside the church again, but the wolf declined to offer an encore.
I have never been a diary writer, but I wish I’d kept one now. Of course there were travel journals, recording the daily experiences. And notebooks: there are boxes of notebooks, full of little things noticed on the bus, at a festival or museum, or from a café table. But if I’d kept a diary, I might have written in the sort of personal shorthand one can use in private: ‘Wolf: solitary, curious, alluring. A private messenger perhaps?’
And that’s the kind of thing that kept happening to me in Brazil. I’d be there, trying to live in the moment, and something would happen to me that felt entirely different from what was happening to those around me. And entirely different from what I was expecting. A simple trip to the mountains to do some hiking provided a unique, even transformative, moment that made me look at the world afresh. A good many Brazilians would tell me it was a sign from the heavens. So what began as a light-hearted look at a wonderful country made me stop and consider life, to make new — if sometimes odd — connections between things. Brazil opened up another world for me: a world for which the wolf became, in a way, a metaphor.