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4th July
posted by amber

By the time Maria got to the bottom of the fourth descent, the black of night had fallen and it was impossible to keep going. Six flights still lay beneath her. She was exhausted and hungry too, having eaten nothing that day besides a banana and a cup of rain water she’d collected outside the small opening which served as a window to her room. A gusty wind sprang up, pressing her wet skirt against her wildly trembling legs.

Her hands trembled too, as she renewed her grip on the canes and approached the nearest shack. Because favela shacks were frequently too flimsy to withstand the force of a knock, people clapped to announce themselves when they came to call. If she clapped, Maria knew she’d fall so she called out, in a voice which frightened her by its weakness, the voice of a frail old lady. “Excuse me, can you help me?”

She heard voices within the shack, but no one answered.

She took a breath and called again, “Please help me, for the sake of Jesus!”

The scowling, scarred face of a man appeared in the open upper half of the doorway. “What do you want?”

She answered, afraid but determined. “Where I was before, they threw me out. Can you help me, please?”

In answer, the door was closed in her face. As she moved doggedly toward the next shack, cane and foot, cane and foot, each step slower than the one before it, on the edge of losing her balance each time she shifted her weight, she heard two women talking, very near by. She looked up and saw them in windows that faced each other from the shack she’d just been at and the one she was going ever so slowly toward.

“There she is,” the first woman said. “Can you believe it? To go begging in a favela?”

The second woman said, “That’s the old lady staying with Fat Paulina. A man gave them money to keep her there.” She leaned further out her window and asked, “Did you run away?”

Certainly, Maria thought, doesn’t it look like I’m running away, on my last legs as I am?

“My daughter doesn’t know I’m here,” she told the woman. “It was my son-in-law who took me to Fat Paulina’s. If you phone my daughter, she’ll come for me and I’ll make sure she gives you money.”

The first woman made a sign, to indicate that Maria was crazy, but the second one said, “Oh, what can it hurt?” and opened her door. Maria started forward, nearly falling in her eagerness to enter the shack, but the woman blocked her way, saying, “Not in there. My Everaldo wouldn’t allow it, but the place next door is empty. The guy who lived there died. You can wait there for your daughter.”

The place next door was meaner and barer than Fat Paulina’s. Perhaps once the shack had had wooden boxes to sit on and scraps of fabric at window and door to keep the wind out, but everything removable had been removed. It smelled as if someone had been using it as a toilet.

“Can you write you daughter’s number for me?” the woman asked.

“Yes, but I don’t have any paper.”

The woman stepped into her shack and returned with a page torn from a glossy magazine and a stub of a pencil. After Maria wrote the number for her, she asked for a coin to make the call.

“I’m sorry. I had to give Fat Paulina everything I had.”

“It’s okay. You wait here.”

Unable to stand a second longer, Maria allowed herself to slide slowly down the rough wall until she was sitting on the floor, legs straight out in front of her. She thought, for a moment or two, that when she heard the woman’s tread on the stairs it sounded as if she went up instead of down to the Pineapple Grocery whose pay phone was the main outside contact for thousands of favelados. But she was sure she must have been mistaken.

Twenty minutes later, she discoverd she hadn’t been mistaken. Angrily, the woman entered the shack’s dingy interior, only the sharp flash of her eyes visible. “Fat Paulina says your daughter died months ago.”

“That’s not true,” Maria pleaded. “All I ask you to do is call her. You’ll be rewarded, I promise.”

The woman ignored her. “You can stay here tonight. But tomorrow, you’d better be on your way.”

Alone in the black stinking darkness, Maria tried to cry out to the Lord to rescue her from this predicament, but the same thing happened which happened every time she’d prayed, back at Fat Paulina’s.

The life of the favela was lived in public, thin walls no barrier to everyone knowing everything about each other’s business. And so she knew that many of the people who lived in such misery had deep faith in God. She’d seen them on their way to Mass, wearing cotton skirts and blouses produced clean and starched in the midst of such straitened circumstances, their bare feet treading sturdily through the mud while they carried their shoes so as to enter God’s house without defiling it with favela soil.

Did they cry out to the Lord for deliverance? She couldn’t imagine that they didn’t – who’d be content to live this way? Yet deliverance was never granted. Why should she, sinner that she was, be given more than any of them? Instead, she prayed for Vera. She didn’t believe for a moment that Vera was dead, although the lie explained why, when she’d made the same offer of a reward to Fat Paulina’s neighbours, they’d refused to make the call.

Poor Vera, at home with a new baby, after such a terrible pregnancy – how was she getting along without her mother’s help?

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