by Sandra Arnold
I called in to see dona Antonia yesterday in response to her invitation to drop by any time to take photographs of the house. I found her in the kitchen making soap.
‘Meu Deus, dona Alexa!’ she’d protested, pointing to her stained T-shirt and torn cycling shorts. Reluctantly she’d let me watch her stirring the thick brown concoction of pork fat, corn and butter in a huge iron cauldron while ducklings and chicks scooted about the earth floor and kittens tore at a worn patch on the sofa in the living room, but nothing would induce her to let me take a photograph. She asked me to return the following day after she’d tidied the house and put on clean clothes.
This morning, as I picked my way down the pot-holed track, I saw Elane outside her front door, dancing to an American pop song on the radio. She grinned and opened the door to let me in, then turned off the radio and dashed into the kitchen yelling for her mother.
While my eyes were adjusting to the darkness of the tiny room I almost stood on a duckling. It ran, squawking, under a sheet of torn, pink plastic nailed into the roughly plastered-over bricks above the entrance to dona Antonia’s bedroom. On the bare wall a picture of Christ with long blonde hair and blue eyes gazed into the room. Today there were no chicken droppings on the floor and the worn patch on the sofa had been covered with a piece of pink sparkly material. The aroma of freshly brewing coffee filled the house.
Dona Antonia came to greet me wearing a pink sparkly top and white cycling shorts and carrying a toddler on her hip. She still looked dubiously at my camera but instructed Elane to pour two cups of thick sweet coffee and gestured to me to sit on the sofa. She explained the child was her grandson. ‘His mother has gone away, so now my son and grandson have come here to live with me. Davyson has to work. He doesn’t know how to look after a child.’
‘This is Davyson’s child?’ I asked. ‘Isn’t he only seventeen?’
‘He is,’ dona Antonia replied. ‘So is his wife. Well, now she’s left him. She’s gone to Rio to work as a prostitute.’ Seeing my expression she added, ‘She’s a beautiful girl. She’ll make a lot of money. Then she can give Lucio a better life. Who knows? One day she might even be able to buy a big house, like the one near dona Simone’s. She’s more beautiful than that woman was when she was Fabia’s age.’
‘The emu farmer’s wife?’ I asked.
‘Emus? Yes, now they farm emus, but that isn’t why they have so much money. That woman was born in the favelas in Rio. She started off as a prostitute then married an old man who was head of a kidnapping ring. She used to kidnap the children of rich people.’
I choked on my coffee.
She put the child on the floor and sat in a wooden chair opposite me, sipping her coffee. ‘When I was younger I used to work in Rio as a maid. My employer was a very kind woman. She gave me her own clothes to wear and treated me like a friend. We were the same size and shape. People often commented how alike we were. Every month some parcels were delivered to her basement. It was part of my job to divide the parcel into smaller parcels. Then I had to take them to some addresses. She paid me three minimum wages to do this. Maids usually only got one.’
She nodded. ‘I didn’t know at first, but it made no difference when I found out. If I hadn’t delivered them someone else would have and I had five children to support. Then she told me she was going away for a few weeks. Before she left she gave me some of her clothes and a bottle of hair dye and told me to dye my hair blonde, like hers.’
The story was interrupted by a large, fat goat bursting through the door and charging across the room to Elane. She hugged it round the neck and planted a kiss on the end of its nose. Then she grabbed one of its teats and gave it a squeeze, asking me if we had goats in New Zealand. A white jet squirted across the room and landed on a kitten’s face. Elane started pulling the goat outside, but it was reluctant to move. Dona Antonia stood up, scooped the child onto her hip again and pushed the goat from behind. ‘Let’s go out with her,’ she said, ‘or she’ll just come back in again. She hates being alone.’
I followed Elane, the goat and dona Antonia into the backyard which was almost completely occupied by a pen containing three enormous pigs. Seemingly oblivious to the smell Elane stretched her arm into their enclosure and patted each one on the head. ‘This is Cintia, and Zulmira, and Helena.’
I murmured appreciation of the pigs’ size and condition and turned back to dona Antonia, ‘So then you wore her clothes and dyed your hair the same colour as hers?’
‘The resemblance was amazing. She told me I looked more like her than her own sister. I felt so proud. Before she went away she told me not to tell anyone she’d left Rio and see how many people mistook me for her. When she came back she told me she’d kidnapped a seven-year old boy and had taken him to a house in Uberlândia until his parents paid the ransom money. She showed me pictures of the house, the child, and told me everything that happened there, that’s how much she trusted me. It was the house we were talking about dona Alexa. The woman who owns the house was her friend.’
‘But, dona Antonia…’
She shrugged. ‘I prayed to God to forgive me if I had done something wrong. Then I didn’t have a bad conscience about it no more. God understands how it is for poor people.’ She reached into a box and yanked a protesting duck out by the wing. Underneath it lay half a dozen eggs. She instructed Elane to take them into the house.
‘My husband had gone to Brasilia to find work and he was supposed to send for me. When he didn’t I thought about staying in Rio but it’s not easy to live there without a husband. My employer offered me more money to stay with her, that’s how much she liked me. I was so tempted because I could have had a nice life with her, but I had my children to consider and they needed their father. Finally, I saved up enough money to pay for two seats on a bus to Brasilia. I had all my children with me. My friend Maria came too, with her three children.’
‘Two adults and eight children all the way to Brasilia? What a nightmare!’
‘It was terrible,’ she laughed. ‘The journey took three days. Some of the children were teething and we didn’t get any sleep. But when we arrived it was even worse because we had no idea where to start looking for my husband. Some people from the Spiritist Church took us to a place for homeless people and there we found my brother, Pedro. I hadn’t seen him for about four years and I didn’t even know he was in Brasilia. I found a job as a maid and saved up some more money while my brother looked for my husband. Then he found him. And do you know, dona Alexa,’ her voice cracked with indignation, ‘he was living with another woman!’
I shook my head in sympathy. ‘So what did you do?’
She roared with laughter. ‘I’m not very tall, but you might have noticed I’m a lot fatter than him! I pushed him to the floor and sat on him and threatened to smother him until he promised to get rid of that woman and come home with me.’
‘But why did you want him, after that?’
‘I had five children. Who else would want to marry me? And why should I let another woman have my husband?’ she responded in astonishment. ‘So he came back to me. Then Maria married Pedro. Her first husband had been shot in a fight before her last child was born and she needed another husband. Pedro had leprosy and the Spiritist Church sent him to the hospital in Uberlândia to get cured. When I came to visit him I saw how beautiful it was here so we all came to Uberlândia to live beside him. Now most of my family live in this street. I thank God every day for my life, dona Alexa. I have my home, my family, my job at dona Simone’s. My life would be perfect if my husband didn’t drink. He spends all my money on drink so I can’t save. And if I don’t give him money he says he’ll hang himself.’
‘No, dona Antonia!’ I protested. ‘He only says that to frighten you.’
‘He’s done it twice already! The last time he’d already turned blue by the time we cut him down. I thank God every day that I still have a husband.’
A neighbour, a gaunt-looking man, that I couldn’t help thinking I wouldn’t like to meet in a dark alley, stood scratching his bristly black hair while I explained how to use the camera. A swarm of children appeared out of nowhere and stood watching us, grinning, while we arranged ourselves into a group for the photograph. I beckoned them over to join us and after waving everyone into position the neighbour took the picture. And disappeared into his house with my camera. I glanced anxiously at dona Antonia but she appeared not to have noticed. A few seconds later the man reappeared with the camera in a plastic bag. He handed it to me with a warning not to have it visible on my way back home and before I could thank him, he strode back into his house.
I turned to say goodbye to dona Antonia, but now she too had disappeared. She returned with a bar of her homemade soap. ‘When you saw me making this yesterday it looked so brown and ugly, didn’t it? But now see how beautiful it is!’ She held it up to the light.
‘It looks like sunshine,’ I smiled.
She laughed, ‘Sunshine? No!’ and dropping the soap into the plastic bag with the camera, told me where I would find an ipê tree in bloom on the way back home. ‘Those flowers are the colour of sunshine, dona Alexa, not my old soap, but they blossom only once a year and the flowers last only a week.’
The route she described to me was the place that led to a dumping ground for dead horses. As I approached the area I persuaded myself that the smell couldn’t be much worse than the pigs. But I was wrong. The stench of putrid flesh whacked into my lungs as if I’d charged into an invisible brick wall. I lifted my t-shirt and covered my nose and mouth with it, retching. In the same moment I saw the ipê. Incredibly, the fires, which were still smouldering in the charred grass, had not destroyed the tree. Trying hard not to breathe, I knelt down in the dust to take photographs, the horses in the foreground, the tree behind, its huge yellow flowers glowing like miniature suns.
From the top of the hill, above the dead horses, I could see the house that belonged to the emu farmers. The gates were sliding open to let a silver Mercedes out and as they closed again a guard jumped out the car, holding a gun. After a minute he spoke into a cellphone and a smaller gate beside the main one opened and another guard appeared holding the hand of a small girl. Both guards got into the car with the child and it sped away. Simone had explained that this elaborate routine was a precaution against the child being kidnapped. ‘They are worried that something might happen to their daughter,’ she said. ‘Kidnapping rich children is very common in Brazil.’ I watched the car till it disappeared. I shivered.
The red and gold of the sky was fading and clouds of mosquitoes were already gathering in the shadows. The light wouldn’t last long and Simone would be worried if I wasn’t home before dark. I slung the camera over my shoulder and began to hurry through the scrub, keeping my eyes on the ground in case I surprised a snake.
I didn’t see the shack until I was almost on it. They were springing up everywhere. Three others had appeared near the river last week and one evening we had seen a family washing themselves under a waterfall. Within days the banks were littered with the ubiquitous plastic bags and beer cans. Simone had already called the city council three times but bureaucracy moved so slowly that action was unlikely to be taken until several families had become well established and by then it would be too late to move them. ‘We’ll end up with just as many favelas as São Paulo and Belo Horizonte, Simone had complained. ‘Soon there will be nowhere in Brazil where it’s safe to live.’
In front of the shack a black man was sitting cross-legged on the ground eating from a tin bowl with his hand. He looked up as I approached. I nodded and walked by quickly. He pointed to my camera and gave a shout. My mouth went dry. I’d read the murder statistics. Listened to Simone’s warnings. Seen dona Antonia riding to work on a horse. Accepted her neighbour’s gift of a plastic bag to hide my camera. I wanted to run, but my legs wouldn’t work. Then I realised he was waving his hand in the direction I’d come from. ‘Olha alí!’
I followed his gaze to an enormous mango tree where two toucans were just landing.
‘São bonitos, ne?’ He pointed to my camera and the birds, his face split by a toothless grin.
My hands were still shaking so much I could hardly adjust the focus on my camera as I framed the toucans and shot several pictures. When I looked at the man again he was once more bent over his bowl. ‘Obrigada,’ I thanked him.
‘Não tem problema,’ he said, intent on his meal.
I had one shot left. I asked if I could take a picture of him. He looked up in surprise, glanced at his surroundings, and shook his head, his expression like dona Antonia’s the day I’d caught her making soap.
Sandra Arnold is an award-winning writer who lives in New Zealand. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from CQ University, Australia. She is the author of a book on parental bereavement and two novels. Her essays have been published in TEXT, Research into 21st Century Communities, PostPressed, Australia, Corpus: The Journal of Medical Humanities, University of Otago, Headland, Atlas Medical Literary Journal, Social Alternatives, Deep South, New Zealand Society of Authors Journal, Booknotes: The Journal of the New Zealand Book Council, The Spinoff, Connotation Press, Landfall and TSS Publishing. Her short stories have been widely published and anthologised in New Zealand and internationally. Her flash fiction appears in numerous international journals and anthologies including Sleep is a Beautiful Colour (National Flash Fiction Day, UK, 2017) and Bonsai: Best Small Stories from Aotearoa New Zealand (Canterbury University Press, NZ, 2018). Her work was nominated for the 2018 Pushcart Prize and the 2017 and 2018 Best Small Fictions. Her third novel, Ash will be published by Mākaro Press (NZ) in 2019 and her first flash fiction collection Soul Etchings will be published by Retreat West Books (UK) in 2019. She was a founding editor of the NZ literary magazine Takahe and is a guest editor and on the advisory board of Meniscus: the journal of the Australasian Association of Writing Programmes.