Archive for July, 2012

4th July
written 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?

3rd July
written by amber

It was rainy the day she left the favela, a soft tropical drizzle which slowly inundated the islands formed by the high spots of the dirt floor. Fat Paulina had been out but suddenly returned, bursting into the back room of the shack, saying, “Pack your bags and go, your royal majesty.”

“What do you mean?” Maria had asked, foolishly hoping that Eurico had changed his mind and come to take her home.

Rosilene came in, peroxided hair a yellow cloud around her head and a spiteful expression on her face. “She means that your dear son-in-law has been ignoring me. I bet the bastard has another girlfriend. So the deal is off. You’re on your own, camadre.”

“I can’t walk,” Maria protested.

“Sure you can,” said Fat Paulina. “You walk to the outhouse every day.”

That had been as far as she could manage to travel, negotiating with her two canes and two pain-wracked legs over the warped planks laid across the mud, the garbage heaped everywhere. If she could have walked further, she would have walked right out of the favela.

“Out you go,” said Rosilene, taking Maria’s arm and dragging her out into the rain. Fat Paulina came after, with her canes and her shawl, which she’d brought with her on that day, four months earlier, when she thought she’d only been going to see the doctor. She’d brought a purse too, but that was empty now and so it didn’t matter if Fat Paulina didn’t return it.

The favela was built on a hillside, shacks crowded on a series of terraces joined by rickety stairs of wood and rocks. She hobbled down the length of the terrace and then, with assiduous care, started down the first set of steps. It took her so long she could see the day advancing as she descended, the breathless moist heat of mid-afternoon paling toward evening.

Before she reached the bottom of the second set of steps, the weather changed, the rain stopping and the clouds thinning out, so that the lavender of twilight showed through. Small birds wheeled and darted in the air, but she couldn’t spare a glance for them, concentrating as she was on her footing on stairs made treacherous by the rain.

As she picked her way lower, men lounging on the front decks of their shacks stared at her, women wearily trudging home from work eyed her, rude children pushed against her in their haste to climb or descend the steps. After each set of steps, she sat and rested. Although standing again took immense effort, she had to give her legs some respite, had to stretch them out to try to relieve the pain and fatigue.

If she hadn’t been in the favela for as long as she had, Maria might have worried about being robbed, but she’d seen that the favelados rarely stole from each other, not out of any sort of honour among thieves, but because there was nothing to steal. If someone had a bit of good luck and carelessly flaunted it, there was a risk. Fat Paulina might have lost her radio, for example, had she or Maria not always been in the shack. Now that its batteries were worn down, it was no good to anyone, just another piece of trash to litter this dump.

Who would try to rob her? The only valuable things she had were the canes. But now she’d thought of them, she began to worry. If they were stolen, she’d be helpless.

2nd July
written by amber

Here is the second installment of the story, “Maria on Beggar’s Mountain,” an excerpt from my novel, “The Healer.”

The samba blaring from the radio made her headache worse, as did the stink of the place, but she didn’t dare complain. Fat Paulina was a coarse woman who spent her days trading gossip and insults with her female neighbours and flirting shamelessly with the men, leaning over so they could feast their eyes on her heavy sagging breasts beneath her loose-necked once-white blouses, lifting her gaudy skirts unnecessarily high when she stepped across the rivers of mud running between the shacks.

Fat Paulina was being paid generously to ‘look after’ Maria, yet she wouldn’t tolerate a word of complaint, not about the bug-infested bedding or the greasy meals prepared with meat which was clearly rotten or the nights when her lecherous boyfriends visited and chased her around noisily before the animal rutting began, usually interrupted by the arrival of a screeching jealous wife.

Fat Paulina threatened to have one of those boyfriends beat Maria up if she uttered one more word of complaint. So she sat and endured the radio, while her jailer, all smiles and kindness, tied new ribbons into the hair of her youngest grandchild, a pretty girl of three or four with blond ringlets and skin the colour of milk chocolate.

The child’s mother, Rosilene, was a waitress in a bistro near Vera and Eurico’s apartment and she was the worst kind of whore. Maria had once considered prostitution the most evil depth to which a woman could sink, now she could see an honesty to the profession – to take a man’s money and let him return to his family, poorer but relieved of his lusts – which someone like Rosilene lacked, for she took the man and his money.

She’d taken Eurico, while poor Vera was in the hospital.

“You brought this on yourself!” Fat Paulina taunted, if she noticed Maria feeling sorry for herself. “Always acting the lady, as if a caboclo like you could ever be a lady. You should have been grateful Eurico gave you a home instead of complaining all the time.”

Nights when the pain in her legs and the incessant itch from the insects in the bed kept her awake, Maria berated herself with similar accusations, but in the light of day, she knew it wasn’t true. All she had done was suggest that Eurico hire a woman to clean the house before Vera returned, and to help her afterwards. And she’d never have made such a suggestion, had it been possible for her to do those things herself.

Her legs were too bad for her to think of it. Dr. Canhoto had given her canes when she went to the hospital to see Vera and the baby – her only visit, when Ana was one day old and now she was three weeks. He’d noticed how crippled she was and set up an appointment for her, to which Eurico refused to take her, when she asked.

“Do you think I’m made of money for doctors?” he’d shouted, angry because she’d woken him in the early afternoon after another of his drunken nights out. “Why do you think I had to move Vera into a public ward? This thing will use up all my money, and for what? A fucking girl, that’s what! ”

He was angry too, because she was no longer able to cook, but sat instead at the table and sliced fruit, vegetables and bread for herself. And a few days later, she’d been lured away with the promise that a doctor’s appointment awaited her.

Poor Vera when she returned from the hospital to a husband who had a wicked smile on his face because he was certain his pregnant girlfriend would bear him the son he craved and because he’d sent his mother-in-law to the last place on earth she’d ever wanted to be – the favela.

1st July
written by amber

Maria, on Beggar’s Mountain

This was the worst place she’d ever been. Even the shack in Rio das Secas where she and Ivo and her mother lived, so many years ago, was not as bad as this. There, the dirt floor was hard and smooth as cement, perfectly clean for they swept it daily, but this floor resembled the papier mache relief map of Brazil her son Xilton made at school one year, it went up and down, with bugs crawling in the high places and filthy water standing in the low places. Everything about the rest of the shack matched the floor. She’d looked at this degradation until her head hurt and she didn’t want to look at it anymore, but there wasn’t a single good and cheerful thing to fix her eyes on.

The only new and shiny thing in the place was the radio Eurico bought Fat Paulina, in appreciation for the service she was doing him, agreeing to look after his mother-in-law. Only it wasn’t looking after, Maria knew and Fat Paulina knew, it was keeping custody, it was detaining, it was imprisonment. An easy job – to imprison an old woman who could no longer walk.

Her legs had brought her to this misery. Her legs and her wicked son-in-law.