- Victor Heringer
- Issue 28
- Fable●November 2019
In the beginning, the earth was yellowish and hot, and it smelled of stale beer. The ground was coated with a sticky, simmering mud.
The suburbs of Rio were the first things to appear in the world, even before volcanoes and sperm whales, before Portugal invaded, before Getúlio Vargas ordered the construction of public housing. The neighborhood of Queím, where I was born and raised, is one of those suburbs. Nestled between Engenho Novo and Andaraí, it was made of a primordial clay clumped together into various sizes and shapes: stray dogs, flies and hills, a train station, almond trees and shacks and two-story houses, bars and military arsenals, five-and-dime stores and lottery stands, and a vast plot of land reserved for the cemetery. But all was empty: there were no people yet.
It didn’t take long. The streets tossed up so much dust that man had little choice but to come into being to sweep it away, to sit on the veranda in the evening and lament his poverty, speak ill of everyone else, and gaze out on the sidewalks smeared with sun, at the buses coming home at the end of the day, stirring up the dust all over again.
In one of my school books, I read that in the hottest region of the earth there lived a people who despised the sun. The men would hurl insults at the dawn five times a day, and when night fell, they prayed with joy. The women, the moment they saw the first rays, draped their heads and their eyes with a coarse cloth, just as they did when they buried their dead, and uncovered themselves only at dusk. Thanks to the sun, these people were black, and their continent was Africa.
Though white nearly to the point of green, I am a descendant of these people. I’ve hated the sun since I was a child, but I’ve spent my life being licked by it, like a cub. Five times a day, I mutter curses at it.
During the holiday season of 1976, I was thirteen years old. Summer had only just begun and my skin was peeling for the third time. My arms and shoulders, inflamed with little blisters, would soon blossom into ribbons of dead tissue. My nose was getting seared for another round. My toasted scalp made it impossible to comb my hair. My back made it impossible to sleep. It was almost noon.
We’d been by the pool since morning. Joana, my little sister, dove and floated and laughed without a bikini top on, despite her budding breasts. I couldn’t swim, so I had to sit on the edge, with my feet in the water and my back on the hot granite, watching the sun as it gnawed at the shadows on the ground. Perched on the second-floor veranda, Maria Aína watched over us, while Paulina, the maid, was busy with supper or with dust.
By my boyish calculations, Maria Aína must have been about 279 years old. She was our neighbor who came to look after us when Mama asked her to. (I don’t even know whether she was paid.) She’d been born here in Queím, and here she lived and died, in a shack that dated to when the neighborhood was still just a farm. She never left Rio—the most distant locale she ever visited was Jurema, where the souls of the Indians live.
She breathed with the long whistling noises of an ancient creature, and she’d witnessed the birth of everyone alive, even Papa. Thin, daughter of slaves, she spoke the language of her great-great-great-grandfathers when she didn’t want anyone to understand. She’d so much as look at green fruit, and it would ripen. She made pumpkin sweets every year on the feast day of Saints Cosmas and Damian, and she would bring them to us still warm. I’ve never forgotten the taste—the outer crust would break with a crunch and, inside, the gritty, pulpy jam. We were the first to eat them, after an offering had been made to the erês of the orixás: she would leave a bowlful in the middle of the woods. The sweets would melt and disappear. And in that way, the spirits were fed.
Maria Aína liked me because I was born like her, with the umbilical cord wrapped around my neck. Many years later, days before she died, she would tell me, “Whoever’s born that way, Camilo, it’s because he’s going to live his life on just this side of danger.”
Joana swam to the edge and splashed water on my thighs to cool the sunburn. She got out of the pool and positioned an umbrella over me. I remember the face she used to make when she was taking care of me: a closed smile, shyly hiding the spaces where a couple of teeth hadn’t grown in yet, eyebrows shaped by a sad solemnity that I couldn’t walk as well as she could. I have a bad leg. Monoparesis of the left inferior limb. Crippled, but not entirely. At five, I was already limping; by eight, crutches.
On vacation days, I would put away the crutches and take out a guava-wood walking stick that was nearly as tall as I was, with a crook at the end. It made me feel like a wild man, a pilgrim or a shaman, an ordinary kid. (Most of the time, I had to hang on to it with both hands.) Today, this very piece of wood serves as my cane. I’ve grown old leaning on it. It belonged to some relation of Maria Aína’s, and it was she who gave it to me. I don’t know who made it, but it’s one of the objects I love most in the world. When I’m in a sentimental mood, I sense a living soul in everything made of the same wood.
I am incapable of eating guavas.
Joana hopped back into the water. She swam around listlessly for a minute and then came back to where I sat. She smiled, showing her little teeth.
I understood that smile. She had something to tell me. It mortified my sister to reveal the gaps where her teeth had yet to come in, but she always smiled broadly when she wanted to tell a secret or to hear one. Smiling, she showed that her mouth was likewise devoid of mystery, that her tongue would speak ill of no one. She was a frank and open girl. (When Mama died, in the early aughts, Joana flashed a wide smile before she delivered the news.)
“Mama still hasn’t watered the plants, she didn’t water them today either,” she said, pulling a detective face. To prove it, she got out of the pool, skipped over to the garden beds, and returned holding a couple of fern fronds. I pinched one of them and it crumbled in my hand. The sun had fried Mama’s garden. She must not have watered it for weeks.
Joana posed a question with her eyebrows. I replied with a fish face. She sighed in adult fashion, hands on hips, eyes rolled back. She knew much more than I did, but even so, she didn’t know anything.
I feared only one thing: if the plants were starting to dry out, soon they’d turn yellow. If they turned yellow, fall would come early and summer would end. Without summer, there would be no summer vacation. We’d have to return to school.
We couldn’t have imagined the crisis that had been brewing in our parents’ marriage for months. We didn’t even know who was in charge of the country. We lived under the strange dictatorship of childhood: we looked without seeing, we listened without understanding, we spoke and we were never taken seriously. But we were happy under the regime. The fabric of our little lives was dark and covered us completely, a burka without eyeholes.
The first little rip appeared that day. The sound of Papa’s car pulling up reached us at the pool. The light broke through into our hiding place. Vroom-vroom, here came the Corcel rounding the corner. It stopped in front of the gate and revved again, vroom-vrrrroom, demanding entry. No one came to open the gate for him. Mama stepped out onto the veranda, exchanged a few words with Maria Aína, made as if she were going to stay there, but then turned and went back inside. Papa, who was lifting up the iron gate, didn’t see her. He parked the car in front of the pool and honked, and the sun struck full on the phlegm-yellow bodywork of the Corcel, directly into our eyes.
Maria Aína rose to her feet in pieces, her skeleton slow and weary, and she stood there watching from above. Joana brought me my walking stick and helped me up, her toothless smile wanting to know what present Papa had for us, because he always came back with presents when he went on a trip. He got out of the car, slammed the door, let out a big puff of air, and adjusted his pants. Heat. The Corcel rumbled with the engine off, asthmatic, before settling down to sleep. My sister gave a little cry and ran to him, wrapping a towel around herself.
Only then did I see the head framed by the backseat window. The shaved head of a boy, just as much a boy as I was. Only I had a full head of hair and I wasn’t that coffee-with-milk color. I was red in the summer and, in the winter, greenish white. His head must have stayed that color all year round, the color of nothing mixed with watery milk. He seemed strong, and I was skinny, breakable, lame. It was his eyes that were fragile, like the neck of a little bird, a chick found caught in the rattrap.
My first instinct was to hate him. I wanted to scratch his eyes out, wipe him from the face of the planet. Who knows why? Hatred has no reason or purpose. Love has a purpose, but not hatred. Love serves the perpetuation of the human species, protecting it from sterility and the more deadly solitudes. Hatred is greater, it has more tentacles and it speaks with more tongues than love. Love has a physiological function; hatred is a sublime and furious hunger. It’s the reason we’re the planet’s dominant species. Hatred is the perpetuation of the species.
I hated Papa’s voice saying, “You can get out now,” and I hated the boy’s delay in scooting over to the half-open car door, and I hated his name—“His name is Cosme,” Papa said—and I hated the baby-blue shirt that he was wearing (which Papa had purchased, probably) and his awkward gait toward my father’s wing, my father who gathered him in with that broad hand of his. I hated with an ancestral hate, in a language that only Maria Aína could have known and that I have never deciphered.
With the towel wrapped around her naked little breasts my sister went up to the boy imperiously, looked straight at the middle of his face, and delivered a skeptical hi. He hi’d back, his chin glued to his chest, and I hated his timid voice. She said her name was Joana and offered her hand. He took it with a courtly sort of bow. Papa chuckled at the little grown-ups and then looked at me, the gleam of laughter still in his eyes. That’s when I remembered that I was wearing nothing but my swimsuit, small briefs, nakedly vulnerable—propped up on my guava-wood stick looking like some grotesque lemur.
I must have been embarrassed, because I thought I heard Mama’s voice. Inside the house, Mama was calling my name. A routine sort of call, as though she wanted me to try on a new set of pajamas, or to take a spoonful of cherry-flavored syrup, which was delicious and which I took without protest. Even imagined, her call was an irresistible magnet, more powerful than the terror I felt at Papa’s enormous voice, which could reach around the block. I had to go. I excused myself, without glancing back at Cosme, and limped toward the main house. Papa didn’t try to stop me. Boy children belong to their mothers.
“Let her know we’re home.”
I looked back at them, making a visor with my hand to shield my eyes from the cursed sun. I asked whether this was our new little brother. I asked it to cause pain. Every face turned toward Papa’s.
It seemed as if he were about to explain, but he didn’t end up explaining anything: “He is, isn’t he …” The phrase snagged Cosme like a hook. His jaw fell limp, as though he’d seen an iridescent beetle for the very first time.
Rua Enone Queirós 47, formerly Avenida Suaçu. The address of my boyhood home. Two stories, four bedrooms, a master suite, six bathrooms. Living room, dining room, verandas, service area. Wide yard, with a pool. An avocado tree, a palm tree (the palm was mine, the avocado Joana’s), varied shrubs, a hedge, unwelcome animals, a lot of insects, the occasional skunk. A family neighborhood, far from any slums. All the necessary shops, bus stop nearby.
These days, it’s just two blocks from one of the largest malls in the Zona Norte and some four blocks from the apartment in which I live (2 br, 1.5 bath). After thirty years spent far from Queím, I’ve returned. I want to die right here where I was born. We all crave symmetry.
The old neighborhood’s almost completely torn down. On Rua Enone, all that remains of the old days, the truly old days from the time of the Queím plantation, is the façade of the old slave quarters. It’s been preserved as a historic landmark. Only the façade: behind it there’s a parking lot. Here and there tall glass buildings have taken the place of anemic little houses. The streets have been paved over and the corners lit up and aired out by the electric company. Everything has shrunk.
The city suffers from a fever that results now and then in these belle epoque hallucinations. Tear it down—we’re going to start over! It’s the parasite of modernization, the malaria of Miami, which was the malaria of Paris before that. During the last delirium they leveled a mountain and filled in part of the sea, sanitized everything. Next time, no doubt, they’ll sanitize away the citizens of Rio once and for all.
The house where I grew up belongs these days to the founder of a well-known construction-supply store. It’s worth a lot now. If Joana and I hadn’t sold it when Mama died, I’d be much better off. But what’s done is done. The descendants of the people who owned the plantation that gave the neighborhood its name must think the same thing: Ah! If only we hadn’t diced it into little lots and sold it to a bunch of nobodies.
Mama spent the rest of the day shut up in her room. The official version asked us to leave her in peace, she needed rest: headache, dizziness, effects of the heat. Meanwhile, Papa fixed up the little maid’s room for Cosme (Paulina didn’t spend nights at our house): mattress, sheets, a glass of water—“What else?”—pajamas from when Papa was a kid (which would have been too big for me), Mickey Mouse comics. The boy followed him from room to room, stunned, saying yes to everything, and both of them were stalked by a hyperbaric and helpful Joana. I kept watch from a distance, seated on the rocking chair in the living room, my walking stick planted on the floor to push me back and forth. I could feel my eyebrows grow thick and bushy, because that was how I imagined anger looked on people’s faces.
Night fell quickly. As soon as the boy went into his room and closed the door to go to sleep, everyone else did the same. Paulina left early. Maria Aína disappeared, too. The dogs in the street stopped barking. Even the wind ceased.
The dawn and its heat filtered through the cracks in the blinds and around the doorframes. The crickets were on the verge of silence, willing to cede their place only when the sun was reinstated to power, but Mama and Papa’s voices hastened the shift and gave the final blow. The walls chewed up their words with a closed mouth, but I knew those sounds were sounds of anger and the laughter wasn’t the funny kind of laughter at all. They were fighting.
There were long intervals of peace, and then, after an armistice, the hostilities would rise again. I wanted to creep closer to listen in, but my shuffling step and the knocking of my cane would give me away. I stayed in my room. Low murmurs. Suddenly a clear note: door slammed shut! Another: a sob shot into the air and, without reply, dropped back into the silence. Crickets.
Somewhere in that muffled commotion, Cosme had fled. He opened a door, he jumped out a window, whatever—the house was left unlocked at night. And, without knowing where he was going, he ran, with all his fossa-cat muscles. Colliding with lampposts and tripping over paving stones, pouring sweat. After half an hour, the streets all looked the same, and he tucked himself away into a big long house with no doors and holes where the windows used to be. And there inside, it turned out not to be a house at all—it was a thicket without a roof.
The sky hauled up its lilac tent.
We were surprised by the sun. Papa got up early to bring the boy some warm milk for breakfast and he found him only an hour later.
Cosme had hidden himself in the old slave quarters, which already by that time was nothing but walls. The black people in the neighborhood, many of them descendants of the slaves of the plantation, felt a reasonable horror and disgust for the structure. They visited it only in the company of Maria Aína, to speak to and dance with the black Santos. The Catholics didn’t do even that much. Today, the façade remains, but the land around it is a parking lot and everyone’s an evangelical. If the santos still inhabit it, their lungs must be ruined.
You dumb kid, Cosme. Fool. I can almost picture him: about four and a half feet and ninety pounds of brown flesh, sweat-soaked and trembling in the abandoned slave quarters, certain they would never find him there. It was, by instinct, the first place Papa looked.
Cosme didn’t try to escape again. He spent the next few days sulking and moaning, sitting in his little room. He came out only when he was called two, three, five times. He didn’t speak. When we fed him, he was skittish, he would drag his plate to the floor of his room, eating with his hands and spitting, in the primitive affront of chastised boys. On the days when Mama wasn’t home, he sat at the table with us (Papa insisted), but he refused to eat.
Mama traveled a lot that summer. It was the year my maternal grandmother died, solitary and inconvenient. She was living over near Campos. Mama had a lot of resentment and no sisters, so she was obliged to take care of everything during the illness and then the burial, both of which were brief at least. Papa was a doctor and he was often on call. It wasn’t uncommon for us to be home alone with Paulina. Sometimes Maria Aína would show up to help with lunch or to babysit.
I wasn’t allowed to play in the street. A crippled boy wouldn’t have lasted long amid the gangs of kids in Queím. Joana couldn’t go out because she was a girl. We read, we drew; there wasn’t as much on TV as there is today.
At that time, I wasn’t the hyena I am now. I had a whole world to live before it ended. I liked Jules Verne, Rider Haggard, journeys around the world and Treasure Island. I would sit dreaming about what the road to Minas Gerais was like (was there gold, were there slaves still, thinking oxen, trees with souls, king salmon?), and I made plans to be God so that I could create a planet. How did one go about inventing the smell of coffee? Skin colors? Different civilizations?
I still had some love for man then.
Now I find it all absurd.
I never saw anything more ominous than Maria Aína making ox tongue. One day, just before lunchtime, a warm sour smell drew me toward the kitchen. There was the old woman, mustache moist with sweat, those few thick, white hairs on her upper lip. The pressure cooker was steaming and quaking. She was teaching Paulina how to peel the meat—you have to pull the hide of the tongue off first. You have to scald it well and chop off the base, but even then it doesn’t peel easily. “You have to pull hard,” she was saying, her gnarled little fingers digging in, the strips of hide clinging to the backs of her wet hands.
I imagined her fingers tugging at a piece of burned skin on my shoulder, the little piece turned into a ribbon and then a thick strip running down my back as it sprouted a thousand little drops of blood. I imagined Paulina’s dark laugh. A shiver rose through me, so intense that I nearly slipped and fell.
Maria Aína looked at me and smiled. She must have seen the queasiness on my face, because she said, “Come see, boy. Want to know what that smell is? It’s all the words the ox doesn’t know how to say.” Paulina laughed. (Her nails were long, wine-colored, like the shell of a roach.) She was already pregnant then and must not have even known yet.
That was the day. When lunch was on the table, Paulina called to us, and Cosme came out of his room on his own, bathed and wearing a white shirt buttoned up to the throat. He sat down with us, all polite, and ate the tongue and potatoes that Maria Aína had prepared, and the old woman smiled and murmured approvingly: “Dejú, Cosme, dejú …” And he replied, asking how was it that, what team did we root for, whether there were any potato chips, if this, if that, pleases and thank-yous.
I hardly ate. I didn’t touch the meat. Dread filled my mouth and my stomach. I began to suspect that the cooked ox tongue had something to do with the loosened tongue of the boy.