by Sandra Arnold
‘So what was it like the first time you did it?’ I hear Ebony say.
The sand is burning my feet so I hide my shock by hobbling over to my chair and rubbing my blistered toes. Ebony and Gabriella are gazing at the young waiter with shining eyes.
‘No problems at the time. But that night I had fried chicken for dinner. I peeled off the skin and…’
The girls lean forward.
‘…I had to run to the bathroom. I’ve never been able to eat fried chicken since.’
Ebony shudders. ‘Gross!’
Gabriella pales beneath her tan.
I hold my breath, bewildered.
The waiter adds, ‘We are never told the person’s name, or how they died. But every time I pick up the knife I hurt in my heart and I say, ‘I’m sorry. I don’t know who you are, but I hope you had a good life.’
‘On your first day!’ gasps Ebony.
The waiter shrugs. ‘You can’t study medicine if you’re squeamish.’
My breath escapes. Ebony glances at me. I gabble, ‘I hope you don’t mind orange juice again.’ I can choose mamão, abacaxi, acerola and pêssego, but after six weeks I still haven’t got my tongue around the Portuguese pronunciation.
‘Abacaxi?’ the waiter offers.
‘No! Let her ask herself. Go on, Mum, I dare you!’
Gabriella reassures me, ‘When we went to the States last year my father made me do all the talking because I was the only one in the family who spoke English.’ She is the same age as Ebony, holidaying in Porto Seguro with her family to escape Carnival frenzy in Rio.
The manager’s young son is standing by expectantly. The girls are looking at me, amused.
‘Um suco de abacaxi, por favor,’ I try.
‘Com açucar?’ says the boy.
‘Não, sem açucar.’ I am childishly pleased with my success.
Gabriella gives me a hug.
Ebony concedes, ‘Not bad!’
The waiter grins. ‘Brazilians will never laugh at you for trying.’
He has little crinkly lines around his large brown eyes and wide, soft mouth. They deepen as he laughs. ‘My uncle spent two years in the USA. He had a good job and made a lot of money, but he was very lonely, so he came back home. ‘Those cold-hearted people,’ he told me, ‘they don’t care about you.’ Is it the same in New Zealand?’
Before I can answer Ebony grabs him and Gabriella and hauls them off to join the lamba-aerobics session led by two Bahian youths with bodies of rubber. I watch her swinging her hips in her new red tanga. The music blasts out of the loudspeakers at brain-shattering volume while a small boy hoses down the sweating dancers. A couple of large middle-aged women in luminous pink and turquoise tangas join the group. I look at them longingly, wondering if I would dare. No. I wouldn’t. I find an empty sun-lounger to stretch out on instead.
Steven comes back from his swim, towelling himself as he strides over the sand. He catches sight of Ebony dancing. He stops towelling and touches the back of my neck then spies another hawker with an armful of hammocks advancing towards us. He groans, ‘I’m off. Coming?’
I shake my head and cover my face with a towel so I can ignore the hawker’s banter, but I am so unaccustomed to lying still that I can’t stay long on the sun-lounger. I throw on my wrap, leave the beach, and wander over to the market-place. Music throbs in the mango-scented air. A space clears in the crowd and I see a little string puppet dancing the samba on the cobblestones. Children, teenagers, middle-aged and old people begin to imitate the puppet, swaying their own hips and swinging their arms above their heads. The unexpectedness of it all makes me laugh out loud.
I buy a coconut from a young woman at a stall. She slices the top off with a heavy flat-bladed knife, pokes a hole in and sticks a straw through. A tiny girl about two years old sits beside the stall. She is dressed in pink with a pink bow in her curly, black hair. I smile at her, but she sucks harder on her dummy. I sit on the grass next to the stall, sipping the coconut juice, watching people dancing in the streets and milling in and out of the little candy-coloured shops. I turn to see the girl stand and wander a few steps away from the stall. Her mother pauses in the act of chopping off the top of a coconut and shouts at her, pointing to the spot she has just left. The child ignores the command. The woman raises her arm and whacks her over the leg with the flat of the knife. The child falls over, spread-eagled on the concrete. I jump up and reach out my arms, but she scrambles on her hands and knees back to the place she had been sitting and begins to howl. I gape at the woman. She looks embarrassed for a minute, then tilts her chin and stares at me.
I turn away, telling myself it’s not my business, and almost stumble over a young artist sketching the portrait of a teenage girl. I find a space on a wall where I can sit and brush away my tears unobserved. My heart is pounding. I try to concentrate on the artist. The girl he is drawing is very pretty, but from her anxious glances at the easel I see she is eager to know how she is being portrayed to the little crowd, which has gathered to watch.
‘Your father’s contract in Brazil has been confirmed. We’ll get there in time to celebrate Carnival in Porto Seguro. Isn’t that great!’
Ebony didn’t look up from her pile of horse magazines. ‘So you expect me to give up my LIFE to live in a third-world DUMP where nobody even speaks ENGLISH? No way. I’m not going.’
We arrived in Uberlândia in the rainy season. Steven spent every day at work. Ebony stayed in her bedroom with the door shut, the boxes of Correspondence School material unopened on the floor. I sat on the balcony of our sixteenth floor apartment watching the vultures circling in the khaki sky. Sometimes they landed on rooftops, stretching their scrawny necks and ragged black wings. One morning I opened the curtains to see two sitting on my rail, looking at me with hard little eyes.
The sun rises higher in the sky. Balls of light bounce off the sea. People are dancing in the street. A young couple sits down beside me. The artist finishes his picture and begins another.
‘Senhora? Tudo bem?’ The young couple are peering at me anxiously.
Startled, I look back at them, unable to get them into focus, then realise tears are streaming down my face. The girl opens her bag and takes out a packet of tissues and hands them to me. Like a child I take one to wipe my eyes. ‘Obrigada,’ I murmur and get up to go because she is looking so concerned.
I walk past the coconut stall again and look for the baby, but she isn’t there. To my relief her mother is too busy counting change to notice me.
By the time I get back to the beach my skin is on fire. I rummage in my bag and find the sunblock. Ebony throws herself on the sunlounger beside me panting and sweating. ‘That was soooo cool!’
She has that rare combination of dark blonde hair and deep gold skin. She’s as smooth as an egg. I need to touch her, so I rub sunblock on her neck.
Gabriella tells us that in Rio the biggest problem for rich people is the threat of kidnap. ‘They’re afraid to leave their houses. Their homes are their prisons.’
The waiter says that two years ago his uncle was killed in Rio. ‘He stopped to ask directions. In some parts of the city it’s too dangerous even to stop at traffic lights. They pulled a gun on him. My grandfather was so worried he had an accident on the way to the hospital. He too was in intensive care. My uncle died next day. For a week we had to lie to my grandfather. Even to my uncle’s wife, because she was pregnant with their first child.’ He looks at his hands. ‘It was a terrible time for my family. It was then I decided to be a doctor.’
He tells us he grew up on his father’s farm. When he’d decided to go to university he wasn’t able to pass his exams because he’d gone to a state school. ‘The government does not give those schools enough money so there are not enough facilities. The teachers are poorly paid so they are always striking. I had to go to a private school for a year to prepare for my exams. My grandmother paid for me to do that. If it hadn’t been for my grandmother I would have ended up studying veterinary science instead of medicine.’
‘Ended up?’ laughs Ebony, ‘In New Zealand it’s harder to get into vet school than med school!’
The waiter’s eyes widen, ‘You mean animals are more important than people in your country?’
Ebony glares at him. Gabriella quickly changes the topic. ‘Your parents must have been very happy when you passed your exams.’
The waiter shakes his head. ‘My father wanted me to stay on the farm. When my results came out I was so happy I cried. But my father still won’t speak to me. So I work my vacations here, to earn money for my books.’
‘No one celebrated when you passed your exams? I ask.
‘Only my grandmother. She fell down on her knees and thanked God. She’s a very religious woman.’ He smiles. ‘Are people in New Zealand religious?’
‘Some,’ I say.
‘And you, Senora?’
‘Oh? In Brazil we have many religions.’ He points to a group of women in voluminous white lacy dresses selling coconut, ginger, cinnamon and honey cakes by the side of the beach. ‘Their religion is Macumba, a kind of black magic. It was brought here by the African slaves and when their Portuguese owners forbade them to practise it they disguised their gods as Catholic Saints. That’s why Iemanja, their Goddess of the Sea, looks like the Virgin Mary.’
Ebony wants to know more. Her eyes are bright with curiosity.
The manager approaches, sees us watching the women and says something to the waiter and Gabriela in Portuguese. Whatever it is it’s obviously very funny as the three of them burst out laughing. Ebony watches them enjoying a joke she cannot understand. She rummages for something in her bag, pretending not to care.
I come out of the shower and stand in front of the mirror looking critically at my naked body. I have just scrubbed it from neck to toe with a loofah. I pass my hands over my skin and note how soft it feels. I smooth the worry lines away from my eyes, run my fingers through my sun-bleached hair. Tomorrow I might buy some henna. Through the mirror I see Steven lying on the bed slicing pieces off a mango.
Ebony swings in the hammock. ‘What’s the Portuguese word for joke?’
Steven tosses her the dictionary.
I sit on the bed squirting cream onto my legs and arms. The sun has seeped into my bones.
Steven takes the bottle from me, pours cream into his hand and rubs it in my back. His hand is warm. I lean into it. He pops a piece of mango into my mouth.
Ebony rolls out of the hammock and heads for the shower. ‘All Gabriella’s family are going to the beach party tonight. Can we go?’
The road to the beach is lined with coconut palms. A man is sitting at the top of a tree, hacking off coconuts with a long curved knife. Behind him the clouds are dark smudges on an opal sky. I cross the road to the beach. A few people are sitting at tables inside the cabana, ordering their dinner. The waiter sees me pass by and waves. I thought he would have already gone to the party. The beach umbrellas are folded and stacked neatly on the sand. The seats are all empty. I find one near the edge of the sea. Music from the Trio Eletrica drifts down the beach. The colours fade from the sky and the sea turns milky. A sliver of red appears on the line where the sky meets the sea. The moon rises, silvering the water with jagged light.
‘A lua, she is very beautiful. I like to watch her rise every night.’ The waiter pads over to where I’m sitting. ‘If I was an artist I would paint it.’
‘Me too,’ I say, and realise I don’t even know his name.
‘Leonardo,’ he answers, before I form the question.
The sand squeezing between my bare toes is warm. The music vibrates in my bones. A young man is dancing with a sleeping baby on his shoulder. Behind him a little girl dances with an old man. Gabriella’s family is dancing in the sea. The crew on a fishing boat clap their hands to the beat of the band. Steven pulls me close.
‘And they danced by the light of the moon, the moon, they danced by the light of the moon,’ Ebony croons.
‘All except us,’ says Leonardo, reaching for her hands.
‘I don’t know how to,’ she says, suddenly awkward.
‘It’s very easy. I’ll teach you.’
The moon hangs over the sea. Ebony stares at its face. ‘The man-in-the-moon lies on his side here,’ she says. ‘In New Zealand he’s upside down.’
Leonardo, still holding her hands, looks up at the sky. ‘I never knew that.’
Ebony laughs. ‘Kinda cool, eh?’
Sandra Arnold is an award-winning writer who lives in New Zealand. Her flash fiction and short stories appear or are forthcoming in numerous journals including Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine and New Flash Fiction Review, and in the anthologies, Sleep is a Beautiful Colour (National Flash Fiction Day, UK, 2017), Fresh Ink (Cloud Ink Press, NZ, 2017) and Bonsai: The Big Book of Small Stories (Canterbury University Press, NZ, 2018).
Find out more at www.sandraarnold.wordpress.com