The Healer – beginning

posted by amber

Salvador, Brazil

Manoel, November

            It was an impressive act of raising the dead, not something Manoel had expected to be called upon to do that day.  He’d visited a few patients in the morning, most in the favela where he lived and most no more able to pay in cash than his father’s patients back in tiny Rio das Sêcas had been.  He’d brought his few coins to Nacib’s bar, to lubricate the hot slow hours of the afternoon with rum and card games, to try to forget the disaster of the previous night.

            In the middle of a game of tres-setes with old Hélio, Manoel had heard a screech of tires outside but he gave it little attention.  Traffic in the narrow cobbled streets of the Pelourinho proceeded in spurts and frequently halted with sudden stops.  The inevitable altercation began, raised voices, then someone burst in to say a man had been struck.

            “Is the healer here?” someone at the bar asked.

            Manoel hurried to the street where a crowd was gathered around a young man lying with a stain of red across the lapels of his white suit and a disfiguring laceration in his cheek, dangerously near to one eye.

            “Two cars hit him,” a street urchin told Manoel.  “He’s probably dead.”

            “Call for an ambulance,” Manoel instructed Nacib, who’d followed him from the bar.
            Alonso Sing, the local greengrocer, bent over the victim while Márcio, a delivery truck driver, stood nearby, weeping as he apologized, “It was an accident.  I’m sorry.”

            “Caldos!” Alonso shouted and slapped the man’s face.  “I can’t wake him.  I don’t think he’s breathing,” he announced, shaking the unconscious form.

            Manoel pulled him away before he could increase the trauma.  Alonso fought back until he saw who it was – the healer who’d eased his mother’s last days and cured a stubborn rash on his hands that had not been an advantage in his line of business.

            “I’ll get a mirror,” he told Manoel.

            While Alonso accosted one of the whores who made Nacib’s their headquarters to see if he could borrow her mirror, Manoel knelt in the stinking street and placed one hand on the man’s chest.  The sounds of the crowd faded as he entered into a profound awareness of the injured body, the pathways of blood, air and sensation, the sites of damage vivid as flares.  The pain of two broken ribs was uppermost but easily relieved.  Eyes closed, Manoel ran both hands across the chest with the firm motion of a housemaid smoothing a fresh sheet across a bed as he triggered muscles to hold the fractured bones in place.

            Caldos returned to consciousness then, though not to lucidity.  He struggled as Manoel held on and tried to radiate calmness, to help heart and lungs and the body’s own healing faculties deal with the trauma.  The head injury which had caused the young man to black out was minor; the chest blow was serious.  No internal organs had been damaged but tissues were swelling fast, constricting the heart and lungs.  Caldos was awake enough to feel this strangulation of fluids, to panic and add the chemicals of his terror to the poison soup within his breast.  His heart began to beat a suicide samba, the lungs pumped at manic speed, all rhythm and no depth, hardly a swallow of oxygen being taken in.  This was a young man and, judging by his outfit, a privileged one.  His reaction, Manoel assumed, was that of someone who had rarely suffered pain.  And it could be the death of him.

            Manoel felt a nudge as Alonso joined him above the victim but he paid little attention, being involved in a desperate effort to reduce the swelling around the heart, to give the youth a chance at recovery.  Caldos had passed out again, which was good.   Now his fright would no longer reduce his chance of survival.

            The whore’s mirror gave Alonso a bleaker picture.  “He’s not breathing!  He’s dead!”

            As Alonso’s cry was echoed through the crowd – “Caldos is dead!” – Manoel was not distracted.  He had seen the breathing cease.  Now the heart did too.

            Hospitals used electricity to re-start a heart which lost the thread of its life-music, like a conductor saying, “Begin again now,” but Manoel was able to tap the brain’s own influence, allow Caldos to be his own conductor.  He’d tried this only twice before, with just one success.  And his failure had been as recent as the night before.  He had good reason to feel nervous.

            At Caldos’s sudden deep gulp of breath, the crowd cheered.  The young man struggled to sit up.

            “Relax.  An ambulance will be here soon,” Manoel told his patient.

            He kept a hand on Caldos’s shoulder, kept an interior watch for signs of shock resurging, as it might when the young man noticed the crimson flag spreading across his white suit or put an examining hand to the flap of skin hanging from his cheek.         

            Now that things were calmer, Manoel had leisure to notice something unusual in his patient, a healing capability which hadn’t been evident while he was unconscious.  As Manoel went about his usual work of encouraging the body to control pain and blood loss, he found this already accomplished.  Perhaps it wasn’t privilege after all which made Caldos unaccustomed to pain.  Perhaps it was an unusually healthy nature – a nature that had slipped up, temporarily, in the accident’s aftermath.

             Another difference soon became apparent.  The thoughts of Manoel’s patients were usually opaque to him.  Although people sometimes feared he’d read their minds while he treated their bodies, he didn’t.  Stray thoughts might drift into his awareness

and secrets often were revealed – as if trying not to think of something made it powerful – but Manoel’s insight was of the body and emotions rather than the mind and thoughts.  However, he was seeing a thought in Caldos and the thought was, “Get out!” 

            Caldos was aware, on a level Manoel had never encountered before, of the healer’s psychic presence.  He also seemed to know that physical touch was the pathway making it possible.  With surprising strength, he pushed Manoel’s hands away.

            “Leave me alone!” he shouted, and tried to stand up.

            Alonso stepped forward to lend a steadying hand.  “This man saved your life,” he told Caldos.

            “That’s a lie!” the young man declared.  The bystanders hastened to assure him that yes, he had stopped breathing and yes, the healer had brought him back to life.

            The ambulance’s siren could be heard a few blocks away as it tried to force a way through the traffic but Caldos insisted Alonso support him as he walked to his car where he’d left it on Rua Frei Vicente.

            With an angry glare, he left Manoel with his crowd of admirers who were happy to surge into Nacib’s and buy him drink after drink as reward for saving the life of Caldos, whom they said was the youngest babalào to ever grace their city, a religious leader whose background was a mystery but whose Candomblé Caboclo de Olha Dagua was attracting crowds from all the other cult centres.

            They even allowed young Márcio to join them, congratulating him on his honesty in coming forward to admit his part in the accident while the wealthy man in the large silver car who’d struck Caldos first had driven away without stopping.

            “I got his license number,” one of the whores announced.

            “Tell the police,” someone suggested although the whore showed understandable reluctance.

            “Tell Alonso,” Nacib recommended.  “He’ll know what to do.  Now, who’s ready for another drink?”

            Manoel, under no illusion that his ability to perform actual healings made him any more popular or successful than the myriad of healers who operated on faith alone, enjoyed his triumph and allowed the sweet pinga to wipe out thoughts of last night’s

failure and two distracting questions – how had Caldos perceived his presence and why, at the moment the connection broke, had he suddenly recalled his father so strongly that the image of a leaping panther, his father’s psychic signature, blazed into his mind?  He worried he’d frightened Caldos with this image, broadcasting it powerfully into the young man’s awareness.  Normally this wasn’t possible, but if Caldos was unusually sensitive perhaps they could communicate on a mental level, perhaps the friend and successor Manoel had longed for all his life had now, unexpectedly, appeared.

            The afternoon poured itself out, drink by drink.  In the yellow light of early evening, Nacib’s pretty young wife brought a tray of meat pastries which were quickly shared among the patrons.  Observing that appetites, so recently aroused and still unsatisfied might bring an ebb to this unusual flood of customers, Nacib sent out for dishes from the street vendors – feijoada, vatapá, quiabo.

            A plate was filled for Manoel, the hero of the day, but when he’d just begun the meal, he recalled an appointment.

            “I have to leave, my friends,” he reluctantly announced.  “I promised to call on a patient.”

            Regret was expressed from all directions.  Manoel could forgive his friend Nacib if his regret was deepest of all, a transparent regret that the party would die without its focus, the surge in business would end, regular customers would resume their thrifty ways, tres-setes and gossip more important than buying drinks, newcomers drawn in from the street-side healing would recall their regular bar or regular habit of not wasting whole afternoons in bars.  Nacib’s wife was very young and very pretty and very extravagant.  An afternoon like this could go a long way toward keeping her happy.

            In a final attempt to keep the party alive, Nacib opened a dusty and well-aged bottle of cachaça and offered drinks all around.  “A toast, Manoel!” he cried.  “A toast before you go!”

            “The thread of gold,” old Hélio commented admiringly as Nacib poured a shot of the clear fiery liquor into his glass.

            “To the healer!” everyone shouted.  As one, they spat their first tiny sip onto the ground as an offering to the saints, then downed the remainder in one burning gulp.        Manoel made his way slowly from the room and through the courtyard, being embraced and congratulated anew at every step.

            “Don’t forget to come and see my pregnant wife,” one man reminded him and another, a taxi driver who lived in the same favela as Manoel, urged him not to forget to examine the infected feet of his aged mother.

            Out on the street, the heat from the hard stones of the sidewalk burned through his thin soles.  The evening shadows cast by the run-down houses of the Pelourinho had not brought coolness.  A man with his skills could do many things – he could cause his body to quickly overcome the effects of an afternoon of drinking, he could make his feet tougher – yet he couldn’t make his shoes grow newer and better, he couldn’t heal the rips in his shirt and pants.  Only money could do that, but his customers in the favelas and the squalid apartments of this district rarely had much money.  The followers of Caldos’s cult weren’t any more well-off, despite their ability to afford the beautiful white outfits worn to candomblé ceremonies.  But Maria Novaes, the woman he was about to see, might be able to spare more coins than most.

            As he trudged up the cobbled street, he left behind an area where the houses had been unpainted for centuries, their pale and crumbling plaster streaked with black mildew, their ironwork rusted, an area where people paid a good portion of their meager wage for one room, one room to cram a whole family with seven or eight or nine children.

            Separated from that desperate neighbourhood by no visible border was a street where the houses were freshly painted, the plaster and ironwork in good repair, where graceful branches of Jerusalem thorn trailed languidly over garden walls, the street where Maria Novaes now lived and toiled her life away, he had heard, happy to have escaped her background and now possess a house with wooden floors to be polished and heirloom furniture to be dusted and running water to keep the kitchen spotless, the sinks scoured with potash, the copper pans gleaming on the tile wall.

            Although she was from the same seer Northeastern town as he, she’d ignored him for the seventeen years she’d been here in Bahia.  He understood why.  She’d been too devout to deal with someone who didn’t enjoy the full approval of the church.     Refusing to consult Manoel’s father, Romero, Maria had lost her first husband to tuberculosis.  He died in a sanatorium run by nuns, black angels ministering to the poor untouchables, without medicine or doctors.  And Maria had gone childless throughout her first marriage, even though matters of fertility were easily solved by Romero.

            Now Maria wanted to see him.  Manoel had no idea why.  She’d found him yesterday afternoon at Nacib’s, in the midst of an argument about politics with a superior-acting Argentinean.  He’d promised to call this evening after her husband came home from work.

            The sky was a deep violet; the birds cried their sunset chorus from every tree.  He hoped he wasn’t late.