I sit on a hard thin bench, in a tall thin church, on a strangely cold morning in Sao Paulo. Light from the stain glass windows cuts through the darkness of the chapel and lands on the cold marble at her feet. She stands before the altar, her head bowed, her hands folded lightly. Slowly her head rises, her dark hair framing her pale olive face. She lifts her hands, palms turned upward. She begins with a single note as thin and delicate as her own tiny frame. Her song floats about the room like a mist. The saints in their niches and the stone carved angels lean in to listen. She worships God with gentle praise and delicate passion. The roar and crash of the metropolis outside fades into a silent reverence. Her eyes close, dark wet lashes. Tears on her soft cheeks, sparkle in the sunlight, like crystals.
The stench hangs on the man like a cloak. His breath rots with alcohol. He throws his arm around me and sits us down heavily on the curb. “I tell you one thing,” he slurs, smiling a broken yellow smile. “You guy’s got it right, you Americans, yeah. You need to take me back with ya, ya know, I’m a good worker, I’m a God’s man. I’m a God’s man, but I drink.”
He laughs, then sighs and rests his head on my shoulder, his eyes close.
Overhead a firework explodes. He jerks upright. “what was…who…oh…you know you Americans got it right, none of this crime, eh… but you guys got war yeah…in the states you guys got war… and… and Bush…and yeah. Well I’m going there one day…I’m a good man…I’m a God’s man, but I drink.”
He shakes his head and squints up at the sky. “I drink cuz I…well I drink…” His voice cracks. “I drink.” He shakes his head, “I drink”. His head falls into my chest, his body quivers and sobs. He wails like a child. I wrap my arms around him. He sniffles and wipes his face against my shirt. After a time his wailing dies down to a whimper, then he is quiet, his body still shivers slightly. I hold him and look up at the sky. More fireworks explode but he doesn’t t stir. He sleeps quietly in my arms.
A silent scorching day, a tiny farmhouse, miles down a dirt road, somewhere in the vastness of the Brazilian countryside. I sit at a hard wooden table. The windows and doors all stand open but not a hint of a breeze enters the house. Marriana, a small awkward eight year old, hands me a glass of warm tap water. It has the sweet taste of earth. She sits across from me. She rests her head on her hand. Her small face is smudged, her hair tangled wildly on her head.
“Was that your Dad outside?” I ask.
“My brother,” she answers and then adds idly, “I haven’t seen them in years, Dad left before I can remember. My brother watches me and my sister. My mother left last spring.” She sounds almost bored. I say nothing.
Suddenly she looks sharply up at me. “Do you love your mom? More than anything else I mean. More than…well…more than anything else?”
“Well yes…” I start but she goes on.
“She was going to give me a dress, for my birthday, it’s in December, at almost Christmas, so she said she’d get me a dress, it would count for my birthday and Christmas, but it would have flowers like the one on the lady in the magazine, but yellow, and smaller a’course, but she was going to buy it, not make it, she was going to buy it at the store in town for me.” Her eyes fill with tears but her voice is unchanged.
“She left on a Saturday. The next day was Sunday and she sometimes takes us to church on Sunday, my brother never goes but my mom takes me and my sister, even though we don’t have dresses, mom has one, and she was going to get me one for my birthday, and Christmas, but she left on Saturday and on Sunday she didn’t come back, so we didn’t go to church again… I love my mom… more than anything else”
She stares right at me. Her dark eyes are overflowing but not at all like a child’s. Her voice never cracks, there is no sobbing or gasping, her tiny lips don’t even quiver, her tiny voice is light and even. Tears roll down her cheeks but she doesn’t wipe them off. She just looks at me, her eyes dark pools. I stare down at my glass. Outside the heat rises in waves off the baked earth.
Music fills the hot, humid darkness of the night. The Favella is dancing. Bombs explode. I let myself in through the crooked gate, and pick my way over the rubble. I cross the sprawling garden and go down the crumbling steps. AnaSilvia’s form, dancing and swaying, is silhouetted against the light from the house.
“Irmã como vai?” I call from the darkness.
“Tudo bem!” Riselia calls from her chair at the doorway. “Come and dance!”
“Not tonight sister, but I could use a glass of water.”
I sit on the dirt beside her. She reaches out her hand, wrinkled, brown and strong. She pats me on the head like she would a child. She sends a little one to get the water. I sit with my back against the house, sip the water slowly, and together we watch the dancing. Her grandson, Jaime, dances with AnaSilvia. Their bodies seem to float on the thick night air. They dance close, his hands on her waist, her head back, eyes half closed
“Your grandson’s girlfriend is beautiful.” I say, setting down my glass
“Yes, Yes” she answers after a moment. “you know, they’ve known each other since they were children.”
“She lived next door, it was hard for him after his parents died and he came to live here. She took care of him.”
“Will they be married?”
“He loves her very much. They’ll be married when he finds work. Now that they’re older he wants to take care of her. Buy her a house maybe. You can’t get married living with your grandma, can you?”
“He’s a good boy.”
She reaches out a hand and places it on my shoulder. Her other hand, she presses to her lips. Tears fill the creases on her worn face. She nods, “Yes, he’s a very good boy.”
I cried only once in Brazil. The day they burned the Favella. The military police came at sunset. I was on the hill across the train tracks, in the neighborhood, above the slums. We saw their trucks. We saw the flames spread through the huts. Ash filled the hot air like devil’s snow.
When the police were gone, the land cleared for its owner, we met the people at the church. We sang. They cried, then they thanked God, then they smiled and sang and laughed. I walk home at sunset. I cry at the sky as it burns intense and focused. I’ve never seen such a sky.