BY J. B. Polk
Copyright is held by the author.
LOUD MUSIC filled the room, making it hard to hear anything else. The perky sounds spilling out from the radio nudged at Josefina´s uncontrollable longing to dance and sing to the cheerful rhythm. Oh, how much she loved music! Any kind and every kind but most of all she loved the samba.
“Tall, and tan, and young, and lovely the girl from Ipanema goes walking, and when she passes, he smiles but she doesn’t see,” Josefina sang.
It was only 10 in the morning, but the heat had jolted the mercury line of thermometers well into nineties. Josefina opened the window, scanned the turquoise sky, and prayed for rain — like she prayed for so many other things: for enough food on the table, for the tank on the roof to hold enough water to do her washing, for Joao, her son, to find a job. Because Josefina was deeply religious. For nearly 40 years now she had joined the Sunday congregation at Bom Jesus Parish, first as a small girl with tight locks and dimpled knees, then a teenager in hand-me-down orthopaedic shoes, finally as a mother, her face scarred by acne that cold cream and Mamà Lulu’s voodoo potions couldn’t heal.
Father Bernardo, a gaunt priest with features like a black bishop in a chess set, had listened to her confessions for a good part of those years. Now, his hearing was not the same and he took frequent catnaps in the incense-impregnated darkness of the confessional. She thought sometimes that she could confess to murdering the President and the whole Cabinet and the old vicar would not hear or care at all.
It was Father Bernardo’s tepid voice, that just like a glass of milk at bedtime filled her with hope when she had been left alone with a baby, no house, no prospects of ever getting on with her life.
“My daughter,” he had crooned in a tone he reserved for stray dogs and single mothers.
“It is God’s will that we shall suffer. We are but transitory passengers in the waiting room of the Earth and when our days of pain are over, we will join Him there, never to suffer again.”
He had joined his thin hands, steeple-like, in a gesture of prayer and pointed them to Heaven. He had reminded her of the poor San Sebastian whose picture she kept between the pages of her missal — the body pierced by arrows, the face a mask of both agony and ecstasy.
Father Bernardo was right. Life had to go on, and on it went, wanted or not. She had bowed to the inevitable and accepted Fate’s decision with humility. There was no point in worrying as the future could not be tampered with or influenced in any way. She was powerless to challenge what she had inherited. Nothing, not even the most ardent protests, the most zealous rebellion, not even all the Hail Marys in the world could change it.
She settled in a shack in Baixada, one of Rio’s poorest areas. Sprawling favelas or slums stretched for miles and wrapped the city like a leper’s skin. Some said they were home to all kinds of crooks and parasites but most of their inhabitants were hard-working people like Josefina.
As the years passed, from an unruly toddler Joao had grown into a strapping boy and along with the samba, he turned into the centre of her life. Barefoot, he kicked a rag ball around the favelas, acres of shacks sprouting around Rio like puff-ball fungi. She remembered the first real ball she had bought for his eleventh birthday. She hadn’t had a new dress for three years, mending and re-mending the old calico one and the “visiting black” as she called the woollen sheath so tight that it rubbed under her armpits.
The boy’s eyes had twinkled with a mixture of greed and joy and she forgave him for forgetting to thank her. The memory invested her unremarkable features with a pretty, nearly beautiful glow.
Her thick-soled orthopaedic shoes clicking on the cement floor, she limped to the washtub, bent over and scrubbed. Up and down, up and down — the fingers crinkled into crepe from bleach and detergent. Up and down — breasts swinging to the rhythm.
Sharp-nailed paws scraped at the door. Piranha, a dog as greedy and ruthless as the famous fish, slunk in. His shaggy whiskers poked at her shins, his nose ice-cold.
“Back, are you? Chasing cats again, you bold thing,” she scolded the animal.
Piranha stared at her with molasses-brown eyes, cocked his head, the ears sprang up.
“No scraps today, old boy. Sorry.”
The dog whimpered, trotted under the table, and curled on the floor.
She made herself a cup of coffee before getting back to work. Like all Brazilians she liked her coffee strong as the devil, hot as hell and sweet as love — anytime, anywhere.
Her break over, she was back to the basin, spine arched. Up and down. Once again, the sound of the samba filled the room.
“Oh, but he watches her so sadly, how can he tell her he loves her?”
Ipanema — when was the last time she went there? Joao must have been 10. Or was he nine? Never mind, it was years ago, could have been centuries. She had sat on the sand, baggy shorts flapping around her thighs like sails. Joao, spread-eagled making sand-angels and yelling louder than the gulls.
She treasured those moments and threaded them, together with music, on the string of her memory like glass rosary beads. To be quite honest (and she noticed with some satisfaction that honesty was a quality that came naturally to her) she could say it was music – the hot rhythm of the samba, the blood-warming throb of the rumba — that had kept her sane in the long years of loneliness and poverty. She was sure that music, as well as laughter, tears, rain, and certain childhood aromas, could bring relief to broken souls and, if played correctly, could even mend them completely. At least, it mended hers.
Up and down, up and down. She pulled up a bundle of clothes, wrung them out and pinned them to a wire that ran along the walls. They would dry in a matter of minutes.
The door squeaked, it needed oiling. There was a spoonful left over from cooking feijoada, a mixture of black beans, onions, and pigs’ ears. The feijoada they served down by Ipanema — that was quite a different thing! No self-respecting tourist would be tempted by the pale pigs’ lobes. She laughed. Lobes. Funny word to think of.
Joao came in. His face chiselled out of teak, dark and sharp featured, told her everything. For her, his grief was an open book, and she could read it perfectly.
“No luck, son?”
He kept silent, strode to the bed, and slumped down on it, putting his feet up.
“Don’t put your shoes on the sheets, you’ll get them dirty,” she scolded gently.
Still no reply. She gave in, hobbled to the bed, her fingers played with the corrugated waves of his hair.
“It’s not the end of the world, you know.”
The boy pushed her away and stood up.
“What world, mà? The world of the favela or the world over there that doesn’t want me?” he spilt out his hurt.
She leaned against the table. Through the fleshy pillows of her buttocks she could hardly feel the wood.
“This world, that world, all the same.”
“Yes? So why are you still here? Why don’t we change just for a while, for a week maybe, to see what the other world is like?”
“I’m happy here.”
“Poor joke, mà. How can you be happy in this dump?”
Her hand caught him squarely on the cheek. He loomed over her, but she was his mother, she had to show him his place.
Joao cried — not with pain but with impotence, overwhelming, self-pitying impotence.
“Why did you teach me to hope, mà? Why? No-one wants a mestizo from the favela. I’m stuck here for ever.”
She took a wad of tissue from her pocket and wiped the tears that pearled his face.
“Why?” he insisted.
“People are what they are,” she answered stoically. The word described her perfectly ± stoical Josefina — although if she heard it, she wouldn’t probably know what it meant.
“Why am I trying, then? Looking for something I’ll never get, never be?”
She was tempted to quote Father Bernardo but knew better.
“Everything changes. What’s in and what’s out. Spring comes after winter and sun after rain. Just you wait,” she uttered the worn-out cliches with casual authority.
She took his head in her hands and cradled it to her bosom.
“You can’t give up. Because if there’s a drop of blood in you, a drop of life to sing and dance the samba, you must keep trying.”
They rocked gently backwards and forwards, his head tap-tapping her chest placidly.
“When she walks, she’s like a samba
That swings so cool and sways so gently
That when she passes
Each one she passes goes ahhhh…” Josefina sang.