Excerpt from The Healer

posted by amber

João

            For more than a hand of sleep times, he was alone.  He walked from room to room, feeling the chairs and beds, but no one was there.  He even walked across the rooms, away from the wall.  This was dangerous because Bad Smell moved things and left them in his way.

            Warm One and Soft One were gone.  Only Bad Smell was here sometimes, not often.  And he didn’t like to be touched.

            Soft One was gone so long he couldn’t remember the smell of her unless he went into her room and nuzzled into the smaller room where her clothing hung.  One time when he was doing that, Bad Smell hit him. 

            There was no one to give him food.  He knew there was food behind the small doors, so he took it.  Bad Smell hit him when he was doing that.  But he did it again, because he was hungry. 

            Now, Soft One was back!  And she had brought a Small One!  Incredibly small.  Too small to be a person, but formed like a person.  The furry one was small, but not formed like a person.

            The Small One wasn’t as pleasant to hold as the furry one.  She was tense and squirming, almost wriggling out of his hands. 

            He stroked her and thought the vibration song of the furry one.  When the Small One was taken from him she had settled tranquilly into his lap.

Vera

            As usual, she woke to the dull heat of late morning, and to exhaustion.  No matter how much sleep she got, it was never enough.  She’d been up in the night, roused once by Eurico’s drunken arrival and twice to give Ana her bottle.  Although she must have slept through Eurico’s departure, she’d been woken once this morning by the baby’s cries but she couldn’t remember if she got up to feed her or not. 

            On her way out of the room, she brushed against Ana’s crib, and froze for a second, terrified the baby might wake.  But Ana stayed asleep.  Wisps of sweaty hair stuck to her head and her eyes were moving from side to side beneath their blue-veined

lids.

            Her eyes.  Vera hated her baby.  She didn’t know why, something to do with her green eyes.  Of course, that made no sense.  It’s just that she was so tired, and so ill.  When she got her health back, she’d have normal motherly feelings.  The thing to do was get through this.  The thing to do was to go to the kitchen and eat something, some fruit or bread.

            Had she remembered to ask Eurico to buy groceries yesterday?  She hoped so, there had been so little food in the house.  She wished Mama was here.  Mama would get groceries, but she wasn’t here.

            How she’d cried, when she got home from the hospital and discovered Mama gone.  It was more than she could bear, she had no friend or supporter left in the world.  She hadn’t even seen Dr. Canhoto one last time, because Eurico took her and Ana away from the hospital early, saying he couldn’t afford to keep them there any longer.

            “I’m not ready,” she’d said.  He ignored her, an uncaring look on his face.

            She’d gone without a fuss, too tired to fuss, although the baby made up for that, waving her tiny arms and screaming as if they were taking her to a torture chamber.

            When they got to the apartment, while João hugged her and ran amazed but gentle hands over Ana, who still writhed and screamed, Eurico explained, “I would’ve told you, but I knew it would upset you.  She went off with that brother of yours.  The one who was such a good student.”

            “Xilton?” she had asked, even through her numbness so surprised she could barely stand.  She reached for a chair and sank into it.  João sat too, pulling his chair close to hers, still fondling Ana.  To rid herself of the child’s frenzied distraction, she placed Ana in her brother’s lap.

            Eurico said, “Yeah, him.”

            She sat in the kitchen now, chewing on a dry crust of bread, all she’d been able to find, and she still couldn’t absorb this news – that Xilton had returned, after all these years without a word.  She’d told Eurico, “But we thought he left Brazil.”

            “Well, I guess he came back,” he said, in an exasperated tone.  “And he said he was doing well, so he wanted your mother to live with him.” 

            “Why would she go when she knew I was coming home with the baby?”

            “As for that, it’s not as if she knew you’d be coming home today.  Maybe if they’d given me a little loan, I could have afforded to keep you there longer.”

            He’d tried to tell her about his financial troubles while she was in the hospital, accusing Caldos of treachery in not fulfilling his promise to cover her expenses, but she’d been too tired to listen, too numb to care.

            Eurico went on, “They left a phone number someplace, said you should call them, but that idiot brother of yours made such a mess, I haven’t been able to find it.”

            The apartment was an appalling mess, were she capable of feeling appalled.  The kitchen was especially bad, cupboards and drawers wedged open by their tumbled contents, shards of broken glass swept into a corner, a bag of couscous spilled over the counter around dirty dishes and fruit rinds.  She’d observed this disorder with detachment, as if she was visiting someone else’s kitchen, some very bad housekeeper.

            “I wouldn’t be surprised if he ate it,” Eurico went on.  “He ate practically everything else, all the food in the cupboards.  Plus he ate my toothpaste and I found toothmarks in the soap.  He’s getting out of control, Vera.  I don’t see how we can keep him, with your mother gone.  What if he hurts the baby?”

            She looked at João.  His eyes were closed, and Ana was sleeping peacefully in his arms. 

            “He won’t hurt the baby,” she said, but took Ana back anyhow and trudged away to her room, wanting nothing more than to sleep and escape her new life, her mother gone, her baby unloved by mother or father, and her brother – she didn’t want to think about it – so hungry he’d tried to eat soap.

            But the life could not be escaped.  Days went by without word from Mama, and Eurico was more and more a stranger.  He didn’t get angry anymore, just looked at her with an unreadable smirk on his face, as if he knew an unpleasant secret.  He was hardly ever at home and when he was, he spent hours on the phone arguing about licensing and down payments and contractors and shipments.  She had no idea what he was up to and hadn’t had the energy to ask.  All she knew was what he’d told her last night when he came home drunk, stinking and sick.  He said he’d quit his job with Caldos and was about to begin something else.  

            “A whole new start,” he said, grinning.

            She could recollect a time when the news that he wasn’t working for Caldos would have gladdened her, but joy seemed as impossible for her now as motherly love.

            The phone rang, waking Ana.  She began to cry, shrilly, angrily. Vera stood, uncertain which call to respond to.  Phone calls were always for Eurico.  Still, what if it was Mama?

            In the sala she picked up the phone.  The voice on the other end, familiar although she hadn’t heard it since she was a girl, evoked the first strong emotion she’d felt in days.  With a sick dread in her heart, she heard Caldos say, “Hello, Vera.  Is Eurico around?”

            She stuttered, “No.  And I don’t know where he is.  I . . . I’ll tell him you called.”

            “Be sure you do,” he said, adding, “How’s that little baby girl doing?”  As the receiver fell from her limp fingers, she thought she could hear him laughing.

João

            He was glad Soft One was back but she wasn’t the same as before.  Meals didn’t taste as good and she didn’t give him fresh clothing as often.  Worse, she didn’t hug and caress him any more.  Nor had she woken him for first meal today.  Warm One always woke him, and laid out his clothes and helped him wash.  But Warm One was gone and so he didn’t always wake at the proper time.  It was one of many things he didn’t do as well as everyone else.

            Today, having slept through the cooler part of the day, he washed and dressed, using the same clothes he’d worn the day before since he could find no clean ones.  Then he went to the eating room.  Soft One was there.  He tried to hold her.  To his surprise, he found wetness on her face.  She pushed him away.

            When he couldn’t find food in the eating room, he looked for Soft One again.  He found her on her bed in her daytime clothes, eyes open, wetness on her face.  She pushed his hands away and took him to the eating room and gave him fruit.  Then she went back down the hall in the direction of her sleeping room.

            He sat in the stillness, wishing he was at least holding Small One, but afraid to go and get her.  Soft One might push him away again.  Such days happened more and more often.

Vera

             It was some time in the morning, she wasn’t sure when.  Eurico had woken her with a rough shake when he got up.  “Get up and feed the baby!” he’d shouted, but Ana wasn’t crying, so she’d gone back to sleep.

            Before he left, he’d slapped her.  “Get up, you slut!”  She’d risen from the bed, only to return to the comfort of sleep the minute he was gone.

            Now Vera lay on her bed, listening to Ana scream, but she didn’t have the energy to move.  Too bad she couldn’t teach João to feed the baby.  He’d be happy to do it.  He liked to hold her but Eurico thought there was something wrong about it.  Eurico always thought the worst. 

            Ana kept screaming.  Vera tried to block it out with the curtain of weariness which surrounded her as the curtain around her hospital bed had.  But the howls penetrated.  How peaceful to live like João, to see and hear nothing.  João didn’t understand how it was for her now, that she had no strength in her body, no strength in her mind, to meet the demands people made on her. 

            João wanted her to give him food, as she had always done.  To him, poor fool, she was the same Vera she’d always been.  When she shoved him away from her, he didn’t seem to realize that she couldn’t return to being Vera again, merely because he wanted her to.

            She wanted to be Vera again, to have the strength to meet her daily trials.  She wanted to have a mother who didn’t stay away so coldly, not even calling, she wanted to have a husband who didn’t treat her with contempt.  She wanted to be the mother she’d expected to be, not someone who saw the green eyes of her baby and became filled with inexplicable hatred.

            But wanting was worth nothing.

            (“This seems to be the only way to get through to you!”)

            Yes, that was true.  Only blows to her body were strong enough to give her determination to do as Eurico commanded.  Even borrowed strength was only adequate to cause her to do what was necessary to make it seem as if she was obeying.

            She would feed the baby now, because she was crying too loudly for Vera to think of sleeping, but after that she could stay in bed until the late afternoon.  Then she’d rise and dress, clean up the kitchen where João would have left a mess in his search for food, and she’d fix dinner from the groceries Eurico bought yesterday.  Things would look normal when he came home.  It was enough.  It was all she could do. 

João

            He woke.  His room was hot, almost suffocating.  It must be later than usual.  But the sleep time had been poor, he’d woken many times.  Twice he’d felt strong vibrations from the next room, where Soft One, Small One and Bad Smell slept.  He’d felt afraid.  Now a terrible smell came from the eating room.  Something out of the ordinary was happening there.  He was afraid to leave his room, even for food.

Vera

            Ana screamed, louder and louder.  How could a baby supposedly starving to death find the energy to yell so much?  Ana’s cries brought a burning ache to her breasts.  Why didn’t her body know that such an urge wasn’t right for it?

            From the start, it had been bottles and formula.  Dr. Canhoto hadn’t let her try to nurse, for which she’d been deeply grateful.  She didn’t think she could bear to hold Ana and stare into those eyes.

            In the hospital, managing bottles had been easy, but since she’d come home, it was harder.  She knew what she was supposed to do, but like everything else it was too difficult.  It had been easier to wash the bottles with hot water from the tap and pour the formula right in, without heating.  Ana hadn’t seemed to mind.

            However, today she had to do it right.  But now she’d let the bottles boil dry and every one had shattered.  She couldn’t understand how it happened.  She’d been in the kitchen, watching them, and she hadn’t even noticed.

            With labored motions, she turned off the heat and threw the shards of glass into the garbage.  More than anything else, she wanted to go back to bed.

            (“I’d better see some improvements around here tomorrow when I get home, or you’ll think what you’ve been getting tonight were love taps.  You’ve pushed me too far this time, Vera.”)

            Ana was screaming and the bottles all were broken.  She couldn’t go out and buy more right now, so she was boiling a cup and a spoon.  Ana would have to learn to get her milk another way. 

            (“Excuse me, Dona Vera, I’m the community nurse.  Your husband told us the baby has been sick.  Perhaps I can help.”) 

            She laid the cup and spoon on a clean cloth to dry.  Flies started buzzing around so she put another cloth on top.  Even from the bedroom, Ana’s cries sounded unbearably loud. 

            (“You must always sterilize the baby’s bottles, Dona Vera.  We see problems like this often when the mothers don’t understand about proper health precautions.  Here’s a list of steps you must follow.  You can read, can’t you?”)

            She opened the can of formula and began to heat it in a pot.  Ana suddenly stopped screaming.  The abrupt cessation of sound was shocking, unnatural.  Vera hurried to the bedroom.

            (“How long has the baby been sick?  She’s terribly thin.  I’ll send a doctor from our office to see her this afternoon.  There will be no charge.  It’s a community service.”)

            When Vera entered the dark room and leaned over the crib, Ana stared at her.  Vera wanted to walk away, break the frightening meeting of eyes but there was something compelling, something horrifyingly familiar about that stare.  Ana began to cry again, squeezing her eyes shut, and the moment was broken, but not before a shadowy memory came to Vera, a room full of drumbeats, a room where something terrible had been done to her.

            Shaking her head with confusion, an angry fear in her heart, she returned to the kitchen to find the formula boiling over.

            (“Senhor, I examined your baby this afternoon and since your wife didn’t seem to be in any condition to receive my report, I’ve taken the liberty to return this evening to speak with you directly.  Perhaps it would be possible for us to speak privately?”)

            She felt dazed and disoriented, as if woken suddenly from a nightmare.  For a long moment she stood and watched the milk erupting over the edge of the pot, while the memory of Ana’s green eyes held her in thrall, with the deeper memory, the memory behind the memory, almost coming to her.

            “No!” she said, involuntarily, but the word broke the spell and she realized she had to take the pot off the heat.  The action decided upon, it seemed an eternity before she saw her hand reach out to grasp the handle.  Very quickly did the sensation of pain return from hand to mind but the decision to let go was difficult to form.

            (“You’ve been starving her!  How can you be such a slut and not take care of your own child?  I can’t figure out why you’ve changed.  They wanted to take her to a hospital but I convinced them I’d make sure she was properly cared for.  Why were you in bed when the nurse came?  She said the place was a mess, junk all over the kitchen floor.  What’s been going on around here, just what the fuck has been going on?”)

            She felt as if someone was gripping her face, forcing her to look into green eyes.  But Ana couldn’t do that.  Ana was only a baby.  She wondered – how did the pot fall on the floor and why is formula running all over the place?   Her hand was stinging and red.

            All she knew was that she had to feed the baby.  There was another can of formula in the cupboard.  She opened it.  The sound of Ana’s screaming wasn’t only in her ears, it was inside her head, rhythmic and destructive, like drumbeats.  Somehow it had to be stopped, soon. 

            (The blows landed, methodically, on her back and shoulders.  It wasn’t the first time Eurico had beaten her but it was the first time the strokes hadn’t signaled an end to his indifference.  This time, even as he hit her, he was as far away as ever, as cold, perhaps because he knew, as she did, that it was impossible for her to be the wife he wanted, the mother she ought to be.)

            She poured cold formula into the sterilized cup and set it on the table.  It wouldn’t hurt Ana.  Anyway, she was used to it.

            With dread, she returned to the dark room and picked up the baby without looking at her.  Even so, she had a momentary vision of knives and whips lying ready on the bed, before she hurried out, leaving the vision behind. 

            Ana didn’t calm when Vera sat down with her at the table.  Instead she screeched and thrashed and squirmed, reaching out in an attempt to find the bottle she craved.  But all the bottles were broken.  When Vera tried to get the cup to Ana’s lips, a waving arm knocked it awry.  Holding her more firmly, Vera poured more formula into the cup.  Finally she got a little milk into the taut screaming mouth.  Ana inhaled with surprise, then quickly spit the liquid out.  She continued to yell and swung with a clenched fist to knock the cup to the floor.

            Vera knew it couldn’t have been deliberate, but her anger welled up as strongly as if it had been.

            (Only João could be unaware of what had happened last night.  Lucky João, the nights Ana cried for hours couldn’t disturb him.  Nor did he hear Eurico shouting.  Still working for Caldos it seemed, despite what he’d told her before, Eurico was angry, demanding peace in his household, rest for the working man, the least she could provide since she wasn’t cooking meals fit for a pig to eat, since she was always so tired from this infant of hers, this brat who kept them awake all night.  Why didn’t she feed the baby, rock the baby, shut it up somehow?)

            Vera tried with the spoon next, imposing a dull sense of patience over her throbbing mind as she tried once, twice, a dozen times to get a bit of milk within six inches of Ana’s mouth.  The screaming would stop if the hunger could be eased but

the interfering arms made this impossible.  She knew what she should do, however it meant returning to the bedroom and she didn’t want to do that.

            She had to.  She couldn’t hold Ana tightly enough with one hand.

            As she entered the room, it seemed she heard the words, “You won’t remember any of this,” coupled with a stubborn resolution, deep within herself, to remember.  The words had been said in a chillingly familiar voice.  She thought if she could recognize that voice, the rest would come, but she wasn’t sure she wanted to.

            She laid the baby on the bed, carefully avoiding looking into her eyes.  With firm motions, she wound a blanket tightly, very tightly, around Ana, encasing her from shoulders to toes.

            Back in the kitchen, feeling a shaky relief at having escaped the bedroom, she tried with the spoon again.  Now Ana’s head jerked back and forth, the one part capable of movement expressing the outrage of the whole immobilized body.  Milk ran across Ana’s face.  Vera brought the spoon against that screaming dodging face harder and harder.

            (“You won’t remember any of this.”   “Oh yes, I will!”)

            The second voice was hers, but whose was the first voice?

            (“Dona Vera, please listen carefully.  Your baby appears to have benefited from the formula the nurse gave her this morning.  I’ve brought two more sterilized bottles and you are to feed her now, and again when she wakes during the night.  In the morning, you must sterilize all the bottles before you feed her again.  I’ve told this to your husband as well, just in case you forget.”) 

            Ana’s forehead was bleeding and she was crying even more loudly, eyes wide open.  Vera tried to avoid looking at those eyes, but it was impossible, and as she fell into the green depths, she heard the words, “She’s pregnant now.”  She knew who had spoken.  It had been Caldos, and she remembered what he had done to her.

            Rage wiped away her lethargy and it wiped away reason.  She stood up, still holding the small trussed body of her child, Caldos’s child, and she lifted her arms to throw the baby against the wall. 

            Then the words “No!  No!  No!” echoed in her brain and she knew it was the cry of the weak against offenses inflicted upon them by the strong, her cry when Caldos raped her, and what she should have said when Eurico beat her, and what she should have said when uncle Ivo abused her, what she should have said the first time uncle Ivo touched her. 

            And now was she to be the strong one, hurting the weak just because she could

            She lowered her arms and tried to lay Ana on the safety of the table, but the rage in her was huge, she couldn’t let go, and she couldn’t stop thinking of the rape which had conceived this child.  To defuse that rage, she began to kick the chairs and the cupboards and the walls.

João

            He was afraid to go to the eating room.  The vibrations from there were frightening, worse than the ones from Soft One’s sleeping room during the night.  But there was a calling, a faint plea which had hovered at the edge of his awareness for several days, even bothering him during the sleeping times.  Now the calling was stronger, as if caused by a great need.  He decided to go to the eating room. 

            He nearly tripped as he entered the room.  Bending down, he found a chair lying on its side.  The vibrations had stopped but the calling reached a new intensity.  It was the strongest feeling he’d ever experienced and it made his entire body cold. 

            The floor was a danger to him, objects blocking his feet as he walked.  But the insistent call pulled him away from the wall and brought him directly to its source.  As he never had before, he knew where he was going.

            He touched Soft One first.  Her face was hard and strange and a tension spread from her shoulders down her arms.  Beneath the pressure of her rigid hands he found Small One.  Small One, who had called him, nestled against him when he took her.  Soft

One hit him with weak blows but when he put his arm around her, she sagged against him limply.

Vera

            Ana stopped crying.  Vera’s mind grasped at this glimmer of clarity.

            Now that the baby had been removed from her murderous hands, they fell empty and free of the impulse to harm.  She leaned against João, grateful nearly beyond reason.  One thing she knew – Ana was just a baby, her baby, and nothing of her father should contaminate their relationship.  This was the baby she’d longed for.  They could be on the same side.

            She and Ana, and João too, would be conspirators against an unfair life.  How could she have forgotten that João was her ally, her closest friend since childhood, rather than another demand on energy she did not possess.

            Alone, none of them could survive – a deaf-blind man, a helpless baby and a half-crazed woman.  But together they could be strong.  Look at what João had done already – quieted Ana and soothed her rage.

            Feverishly, she planned the future.  She’d been sick, the three of them had worked against each other, but now they’d help each other.  They would grow strong.