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Pantera's Hustle

Pantera needed a new hustle, something lower risk and more lucrative. Sure, he and his roommate Chuy both talked a good game, but Chuy alone could tell real struggles from venting. During one such vent session, he mentioned a proposition that piqued Pantera’s interest.

“Sell animals?”

“Yeah, like birds.”

Pantera, who got his street name from the band, took a drag of his joint. Sinking into his beanbag chair, he felt tempted, though he had his doubts. Heroin seemed an easier hustle.

“You got a passport aint’chu, Bro?”

“Flights are expensive, puta!” Pantera protested, taking in the ramshackle state of their Brooklyn brownstone. The only thing under control in the whole apartment was the rent: what was once vintage charm was now covered in layers of dirt, grime, and grease, and the only thing keeping rodents and roaches at bay was the lights. “The only thing this joint needs to be a crack house is crack, and you’re talking ’bout flying.”

Chuy laughed.

But Pantera wasn’t joking. “How many damn macaws could I smuggle out anyways?” He asked, still toying with the idea he wanted to discard.

“Rich gringos make it worth it. High rollers won’t trust ’chu yet, but how you get started, pendejo, is eggs.”

Pantera saw Chuy had a point.

“Look, you have the Bennies,” Chuy said. “Your supply is good. You can dip for a week. Try it. It’s a side hustle; ain’t gotta worry ’bout volume. Big cash-outs once in a while is it.”

Pantera was starting to see the benefits and agreed.

He had to turn their apartment upside down to find his documents, but the good news was they were still valid.

Aside from saving up some cash and booking travel, his only other task was getting temporarily clean. After a long day of dealing, pawning, and selling, he finally shot up after nightfall. Withdrawal was bad by that point, but he’d need to get used to it, both for the upcoming twelve-hour flight and his journey to find his prize. Tomorrow, he’d try to hold out until the next morning, then wait two days after that, then three. That’d make a week. By the end of the month, he’d be clean longer than he could remember. Hell, if this scheme worked, it might be his ticket to stop dealing and stop using—killing two birds with one stone, pun fully intended.

He’d had close calls with Rikers in the past, and if he were going to end up there, he’d rather have a shorter stint for smuggling than a long one for selling hard drugs.

But the one thing he wanted to get out of his life was the very thing he needed to do to get it out of his life—dealing. It wasn’t the greatest plan, but the idea of swapping heroin for macaws was a colorful glimmer of hope in Pantera’s dark reality.

The evening before Pantera’s flight, Chuy, paranoid after too many joints, got cold feet about the whole idea. He tried to convince his roommate to forget it, yammering on about how he was blazed when he suggested it and that the DA or Deep State must have laced his stash. “An’ probably they’re wait’n for ’chu. Fuck the juevos pendejo. Right, like, just chill for a while.”

“You’re talking out of your ass, man” Pantera said, surer than ever that he’d make it work. He didn’t suffer the shakes this long to just experience his shitty part sober. He was getting out and wouldn’t be stopped.


Pantera hadn’t been back to Brazil since he was seven. Since then, Brooklyn’s been his only vision of home—that is, except for one short-lived glimmer of hope. He was thirteen years old when they’d headed down to Florida to make an attempt at relocation. It proved an ill-fated trip. They were there just a few days when his father was apprehended on possession charges during a traffic stop. Their only luck was they hadn’t yet sold their apartment in New York. They headed back when Pantera’s dad was sentenced. Less than ten years later, shortly after Pantera turned sixteen, his mother died of an overdose. By then, his father still had ten years left to serve, so Pantera stayed with an aunt who was more than glad to be rid of him when he turned eighteen. From that point on, he had no one—no one but Chuy, heroin, and Brooklyn, till now. At last, he would escape.

The high-stakes nature of the trip, combined the fact that it was his first flight as an adult, had him obsessing over many things: he checked and rechecked that he possessed nothing that security would toss; two days before his departure, he viewed the status of his flight hourly; he patted his pockets with the frequency of a nervous tic, making sure his boarding pass and passport were on him as he was set to leave the brownstone.

“Calm your ass down,” Chuy advised him, uncharacteristically sober. All he could do at this stage was try to support his roommate. Pantera couldn’t believe it. He wasn’t a nervous type. Running money for dealers since he was thirteen, then selling since he dropped out, gave him Teflon skin to the street, but this wasn’t his element. Jail was a real possibility—jail in another country, one-upping his old man. Even if it went well, in legal terms, he still might end up failing, selling again, and return to using harder than ever.

Staying clean while in transit only made things harder. His emotions, no longer dulled, prickled his skin and made it crawl. He couldn’t decide if the feeling was like a woman’s fingernails clawing at him. It was the most he’d missed the needle yet.

Despite the seemingly endless ride on the E-train, there were no disasters, major or minor, on the way to JFK.

On the flight, trapped in a middle seat, he passed off his sweating and discomfort as motion sickness. It was a half-truth. He did struggle with motion sickness but was legally medicated for it. If only he were going to see family, he could’ve hoped to self-medicate for his withdrawal as well. He’d take a hit in the airport shitter just before seeing them. But as an aspiring wildlife smuggler, he couldn’t risk getting stopped while intoxicated.

Landing in Brazil, as Pantera trudged through the customs checkpoint, he was glad he was clean. Playing red-light, green-light roulette accelerated his pulse plenty without shooting up. Green light: luck was on his side, for now. His next obstacle was making his connecting flight.

Pantera had decided that, if he was doing this, he’d go big. What he’d learned about macaws since Chuy presented the idea was that this species’ feather-coloration made a difference in terms of demand. Scarlet was most widespread, blue-and-gold next, then came green, or military; but they were not as desirable as hyacinth macaws, and that’s what he was after.

Waiting for the connecting flight, his leeriness about his contact increased. The hustle he was undertaking had him nervous enough, but he didn’t even know this guy. Pantera had found him in the most Brazilian way possible: he was put in contact with a cousin’s drinking buddy who knew a guy who had a cousin who could help him out. It was a gamble, but it was preferable to directly implicating family. Money talked as much as it shut people up, Pantera told himself, trying to calm down. His contact, Sardento—a nickname which meant “freckled”—would lead him to what he wanted to find.

At the gate for the connecting flight, he recognized Sardento by his shock of red hair. With pleasantries barely out of the way, he second-guessed their final destination.

“What about the Pantanal instead?” he asked.

“It’s more treacherous, more oversight,” Sardento said. “The heart of the country is what you want. We’re going to Tocantins.”

After they landed in the heartland of Brazil, his contact helped Pantera load his jeep. Without delay, they hit the road and wound their way toward the forest. They chatted enough on the way for Pantera to feel he could understand Sardento without requiring him to speak English. He was, however, too focused on the upcoming hunt to listen to Sardento’s advice about transporting and caring for the eggs once they had them. “Later,” Pantera kept putting Sardento off, to his guide’s increasing annoyance. Eventually, he dropped the subject altogether.

Pantera was more concerned about how he’d hold up once they piled out of the vehicle and set off on foot than the egg hunt itself. As the trek began, however, he found he was no longer suffering from withdrawal or dehydration. Being an urban creature by nature, his head was on a swivel looking out for flies, mosquitoes, snakes, and spiders. Sardento, seeing this, broke out a machete to further clear the path. Pantera wondered how they could possibly approach macaws or any animal without scaring everything off.

What Pantera didn’t learn living in a concrete jungle was that the actual jungle had its own cacophonous soundscape. While Sardento hacked, unseen ground-dwellers scurried around Pantera, rustling leaves. Mosquitoes buzzed; flies swarmed around a gored capybara carcass; golden lion tamarins squeaked as they swung from branch to branch in the canopy and toucan bills clicked in avian Morse code.

Pantera glanced at his wristwatch frequently torn between jonesing and being prideful of how long he’d laid off. It only took about twenty minutes to sight their first macaw nests, but they were all inhabited. Macaws living and nesting in groups made it a harder task. Eventually Sardentofound an enclave that was unguarded.

Eager to feel he was contributing something to this endeavor, Pantera was anxious to try his luck scaling the tree. It irked him to pay a guy to do all the legwork.

“Wait!” Sardento said as Pantera pressed ahead to the base of the tree.

Concern in Sardento’s voice caused Pantera to pause and scan his surroundings. Nothing was apparent, so he asked, “Why?”

“Looking for footprints.”

Not something he would have thought of, but it made him glad to have Sardento around. The fact that he said “footprints” and not “tracks,” struck him as odd.

“Why?” he asked again.

“Looking for Curupira.”

Pantera chuckled.

“The only capybara I saw was dead,” he said, assuming that Sardento’s regional dialect had mangled a word he knew, rendering it into something else.

Now, Sardento chuckled. Pantera furrowed his brow, annoyed, and confused in equal measure.

“No, not capybara, Curupira,” Sardento said. “He protects the animals and the trees.”

“I don’t have time for bedtime stories,” Pantera said dismissively. He didn’t need anything else to make him nervous. He was having enough trouble controlling his trembling from the withdrawal symptoms.

“He’s not…” Sardento started saying but stopped. He wanted to argue, to tell Pantera that the arrogant ignorance of his American half was showing, but seeing nothing concerning in the soil, he let it go. He was being paid to get this gringo some eggs, not open his mind. If Pantera thought it was a joke, he wouldn’t be any use as a second set of eyes anyway. Sardento took one last look at his surroundings and was satisfied all was well.

Sardentoput on his tree-climbing gear and started scaling the wide trunk. As Pantera waited, he scoffed at the notion of a Curupira, which distracted him from his disappointment at not being allowed to scale the tree.

A mosquito buzzed in his ear. He swatted at it vehemently and, in so doing, caught sight of the trail they’d walked. His and Sardento’s boot prints led up to the tree, but now he could see there were footprints as well.

Who’s walking barefoot? Is there a tribe nearby? Are we too close?

Pantera considered calling to Sardento. His throat dried up; his breathing halted; his heartbeat added an unnerving rhythm to the raucous bass-line of the forest. Fear of being mocked kept Pantera quiet, ashamed. He didn’t want to risk proving that he couldn’t possibly know anything about Brazil because he lived in the States.

Whoever left the tracks, Pantera was glad they led away from the tree. Whether they were left ten minutes or ten hours ago, the person who left them was no longer here. That should have eased his mind, but it didn’t. Something about them looked odd.

Sardentohad just reached the nest. Pantera smiled. His goal within reach, his fear seemed silly.

Then he spotted movement out of the corner of his eye. Shifting his gaze, he saw a figure step out from behind the tree trunk. It was a young boy who looked to be seven years old. The child’s big brown eyes looked up at Pantera.

Something about the sudden appearance of this pallid child made Pantera want to scream, to cry, and to run in every direction at once. As such, he neither uttered a sound nor moved. The boy had wild wicks of fire-red hair, and those brown eyes were as big as a sloth’s. He wore a grass loincloth, which wasn’t unusual. It was strange that his necklace, anklets, and bracelets, were strung with shark teeth considering how far inland they were. Smiling, his sinister smile showed moss-colored canine teeth.

Pantera’s jaw trembled as he again tried to speak. Before a sound could escape his mouth, the Curupira whistled so loud and piercing that Pantera’s heart paused mid-beat.

The all-too-familiar whistle stunned Sardento who was only now descending the tree.

“CURUPIRA!” he shouted in shock. Sardento was about to beg for mercy when he lost his balance and came crashing down. The only thing arresting his fall was the strap he’d wrapped around the trunk.

Pantera, seeing that Curupira had noted Sardento’s fall, tried to run but stumbled. Regaining his balance, he looked around but didn’t see Curupira anywhere.

Sardentoslammed into the ground, more slowly and less violently than he would’ve without the strap, but immobilized and the wind knocked from him. When he could breathe and move again, he saw the footprints and said in a weak rasp, “Did…you see that?”

“I thought—”

“Idiot,” Sardento said cutting him off.

How was he here? The footprints went the other direction.

Curupira came out from behind another nearby tree. Pantera, now on the ground, looked not at Curupira’s anklets but at his feet. Pantera couldn’t believe his eyes. He saw only Curupira’s heels. His feet faced backward. Before this, he’d have thought such a thing would have to result from of some kind of deformity, but Curupira’s legs seemed normal otherwise, strong in fact.

“Leave!” the Curupira demanded in a voice more commanding and gruff than was natural from someone of his age.

With grunts and wheezes and the cracking of bones, Sardentostarted to do just that. But Pantera’s fear of this mysterious creature was suddenly overwhelmed by a surge of withdrawal-induced anger.

“Where are you going? The eggs are still up there!”

Sardentoignored him and did his best to walk on despite his aching body.

“Leave, or you will have to stay here forever.”

Pantera looked at Curupira. He wouldn’t have to pay Sardento if they didn’t get the eggs, but he wasn’t about to waste all the money he’d blown on airfare.

Was he?

Curupira watched with the dogged focus of an angered child.

Pantera stood.

Am I letting a kid tell me what to do? He’s weird, but he’s still just a kid.

Curupira looked more hopeful the longer Pantera stood there. Pantera, growing ever more desperate, was running out of time to flee. He ran to the tree. He tried to free-climb and ascended about three or four meters, clumsily but without issue before he felt a powerful weight slam into his back. Teeth clamped into the crown of his head. Curupira wrapped his arms and legs around Pantera and bit deeper as they fell backward. Hitting the ground, Curupira released Pantera’s bloody scalp, grabbed him by the scruff of the neck, and dragged him deep into the forest, one-handed.

Sardento, meanwhile, heaved himself into his Jeep and drove off.

When Pantera awoke, all he could see was hazy, blurred green.

I gotta be dead.

That notion left his mind when he felt the cold, coagulated blood pinning a banana leaf to his head. He laid on his back and felt a pulsating sickness throughout his body, taking hold of him and piercing through his grogginess.

Curupira stood tall to Pantera’s upcast eyes. He spoke to Pantera. For a moment, Pantera didn’t understand the kid. Then his mind unscrambled as if his clearer consciousness broke through Curupira’s vise-grip.

“Here you will live forevermore,” Curupira said as he laughed. Pantera heard the whistle beneath it. Curupira’s wild hair hung lambent, and his eyes glowed. Around him, Pantera now heard everything: snakes hissed; cicadas chirrupped; jungle cats growled; monkeys howled; and macaws cawed. To Pantera, it sounded like they were laughing.

Pantera slapped his hands down on the banana leaves beneath him, wriggling his body. He came here to change his life, but not this way, not by staying here and…what? Becoming this thing’s lunch? Its slave? He’d rather spend a decade in Rikers than a life doing that kind of hustle.


Then the whistling started again.

How’re all those sounds coming from one voice?

As Pantera sat up, he saw something looming above. Curupira was not alone in the orchestration of this requiem. The animals all joined in. In the sky, swooping downward, four flocks of macaws flew. They looked like the Southern Cross.

Now they’re everywhere, Pantera thought wryly.

A boa constrictor unfurled before Pantera’s eyes. The snake had wrapped itself around his torso to hold him in place.

Curupira approached, green-fanged maw slackened. His jaws gnashed Pantera’s head anew. It wasn’t pain that overwhelmed Pantera, rather thoughts of Sardento crawling away, agonized but alive. Had Pantera listened, Sardento might have explained who and what Curupira was and that most who crossed him were allowed to leave and mend their ways.

This strange, inhuman child told the truth; he’d had an out and refused to take it.

Suddenly, Pantera realized that he wasn’t just hearing things earlier: the macaws really were laughing at their jungle’s new eternal protector, mocking Pantera for his new hustle.

Going for the more arcane version of the verb here to closer match the strange sound cicadas make

Bernardo Villela

Bernardo Villela has short fiction included in periodicals such as Orchid's Lantern, Penumbra Online and Horror Tree and in anthologies such as We Deserve to Exist, Enchanted Entrapments and There's More of Us Than You Know. He’s had original poetry published by Phantom Kangaroo, Straylight, and Raven’s Quoth Press and translation published by AzonaL and Red Fern Review. You can find some of his other works here:

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