Maria L. Souza Hogan – Club of Stars

When I was almost seven, Father got sick with a terrible pain that would not go away. At first, Mother believed it was not serious, and that it would soon be cured using the herbal teas and concoctions from plants in our back yard, like many other maladies that she was used to diagnosing and treating. This one, however, was different. The pain got worse, not better. My sister Gaia and elder brothers Célio and Carlos –nicknamed Tatai– took turns walking the long road to the town pharmacy to ask Orlando Lima, the pharmacist and a son of Aunt Zibina’s daughter, Iaiá, to please come and help.

Soon after Father died, Mother began pacing the dirt floor on one side of our house where a white jasmine bush in constant bloom emanated a soothing aroma. She carried Wilson, our 6-month old baby brother, in her arms, and wondered where our next meal would come from. At the time, my brothers and sisters decided to help bring in some food or money any way that they could.

Ua, the eldest at nineteen, barely four feet tall with light skin, dark hair and eyes, took a job at the local movie theater after one of our cousin’s boyfriend did the cousin the evil deed —“fez o mal a ela,” and she was forced to leave her job. She “was lost” —“se perdeu.” After a boy had deflowered a girl in town —“deflorou a moca” —in most cases, the girl was forced to leave her parents’ home —“sair de casa.” These popular expressions indicated a girl’s loss of her virginity, a way of saying that a boy had gotten her pregnant. A girl’s virginity was sacred, and it had to be preserved until marriage. If it was lost, everyone would ostracize her, including her family. She would lose a job —if she had one —her humanity, and the respect of the community. Parents would usually send their daughters to stay with a distant relative or the girl had to stay indoors, not leaving the parents’ home for the duration of the pregnancy. I often heard the elders say that these girls could never lead a normal life again.

There were girls I remember seeing in the neighborhood who had no distant relatives to take them in. They had no means of leaving home or raising the child. The grandparents assumed responsibility for raising the baby, and the girls stayed prisoners in their parents’ home and were never again accepted in society. However, after our cousin had her child, as if my miracle, she got married to a former boyfriend and started a family. But after a few years, her husband left her for a young girl whom she raised and lived in the family’s home, helping with the children and the chores.

Ua would take all of the money she earned at her new job and at a second one she had at the Cartorio Eleitoral —where she recorded the townspeople’s voting records and registration by hand —to the market on Saturday to buy food. In addition, the sewing classes Ua had taken in better days on Flowers Street were put into practice to supplement her earnings at her two other jobs. Soon, the front window of our rundown house gained color with the display of the undergarments my sister and mother sewed on the new Singer that Father had bought before his illness. They hung the clothes on a rope across the top frame. Neighbors and passersby would stop and take notice.

Surrounded by colorful panties and brassieres on the window sill was fresh yellow corn meal couscous, topped with white grated coconut. Mother made and sliced it into triangular portions to sell to the workers who walked by our house in the early morning on their way to Suerdieck, the town’s tobacco factory. The smell of the sweet corn filled the air. We couldn’t eat the couscous because we knew that Mother sold it so that we could buy beans and farina, and maybe a small piece of dry meat to cook with the beans. The beans and farina would fill our stomachs more and make us less hungry. Later, Mother also sold couscous to buy some of my schoolbooks. By midmorning, Mother’s couscous was usually gone.

To make her couscous, Mother would soak the corn overnight, drain the water early in the morning and pound the soft kernels in the large, tall, and thick black wood mortar with a heavy black pestle kept in the kitchen. Ua, Gaia, and other female neighbors would help Mother pound the corn. Two women would face each other and the wood mortar, stretch their arms way up, holding the heavy pestle with both hands to hit the kernels in a rhythmic and naturally coordinated up-and-down movement. One pestle would reach the bottom of the mortar in full force — pooh — while the other would stand up in the air; one woman’s body would bend over the mortar while the other would stretch way back. They would perform this ballet for a while to the deep sound the pestle made when it thumped the mortar back and forth, pooh … pooh … pooh…. The neighbors also would pound coffee beans for hours this way, never touching each other’s pestle and sometimes singing a popular jingle to the rhythm of the coordinated pounding:

I am pounding coffee.  Vou pilar café.

I am pounding coffee.  Vou pilar café.

Pound, pound my little sweetheart  Pila, pila meu benzinho

That daddy does not want you to.Que papai não quer.

I never took my eyes away from the beloved women the whole time they ground corn or coffee in the backyard by our kitchen. Their rhythm, grace, and agility enchanted me. I can still see their body movement and hear the deep sound of the pestle hitting the mortar.

Gaia sewed mattresses and shirts for Vinicius, the owner of a store, from Monday to Friday and took the money that she earned to the market on Saturdays. I would walk with Gaia to the store early Monday to get a big bundle of fabric for the cutting and sewing and would stroll back late Friday with the sewn shirts and mattresses bundled up on our heads. On Saturday, I happily would march with Gaia, the money, and our dark vine basket to the market.

Gaia, seventeen when Father died, tall, slender, agile with cinnamon skin, very dark hair and eyes, and a luminous smile, displayed a very practical approach to things and immediately thought of a new way to put food in our dark clay pan on the wood burning stove when we were hungry and there was no food in the house. In the backyard, a parade of chickens, pigs, and roosters would appear and disappear at random as they fed on earthworms, insects, and bits and pieces of whatever food that they found dispersed throughout the area. It was the neighbor’s livestock. Gaia devised a plan to trap the clucking chickens in our kitchen by setting a white trail of farina or bits of earthworm. The animals would follow the trail and end up corralled in a small space in the kitchen where we waited for them.

Gaia would prepare for the event by sharpening a kitchen knife on our black stone, rubbing the knife back and forth and dropping water on the silver blade. She then set the knife by our clay bowl half filled with vinegar and put water to boil in the tall kerosene can on the stove. As soon as the chicken passed the doorframe, we carefully closed the wobbly door and chased the panicky animal into a corner. The chicken bounced back and forth against our kitchen walls and wood burning stove. The struggle did not last long, for the space was tight and the fast hands and empty stomachs were many.

Once Gaia had the chicken, she held it tightly down with her knee. She secured its head on a piece of wood, peeled off the fine feathers from its neck, tapped on it a few times, and slit the throat open with our shiny silver knife. She poured the warm blood into the clay bowl and mixed it with the vinegar so it would not coagulate. Sometimes when Gaia’s knife missed the fatal vein, the stunned animal would stand up and circle the kitchen, dripping its red blood on the dirt floor and slamming its bloody head into the black walls. We would trap the disoriented animal in a hurry and give it back to our sister to finish the job with the razor-sharp knife and squeeze the remaining blood into the clay bowl. I helped Gaia immerse the chicken in a bath of cold water and then in the tall can of boiling water on the stove. We would gather to remove the feathers quickly and Gaia would cut the chicken into small pieces, making every part count: feet and guts, which we turned inside out to clean in the nearby pond and cut into small pieces to make a stew dish called cabidela. The chicken tripe was sometimes full of hookworms, but they did not bother Gaia. She flushed them out. Then my sister cooked the chicken in its blood.

We would put the wet feathers in a bucket and carry them to be buried in a carefully dug hole in the bushes very far from our house. We cooked the chicken with all the windows and doors closed so that the smell would not give us away. On those days we ate. When my sister attracted more than one chicken at a time, there was good reason for celebration: we ate more, and our feast and happiness were complete. And Gaia did not have to cut the pieces too small. There was enough for everyone in our family.

Our adventure with the neighbors’ chickens went on for a while until our feast along with the frequent disappearance of the animals aroused suspicions. And then, at sundown, when the women walked home from the tobacco factory, and their chickens did not show up at the pen or the count of the flock was short, they would go looking for their animals. When they couldn’t find them, they would stop right at our backyard by our kitchen door to ask if we had seen the chickens and describe the missing animal to us.

“Have you seen my chicken today?” they would ask.

“No. What chicken? We haven’t,” we would always answer.

“It was a young chicken with red stripes, and you must’ve seen it; we don’t live too far from each other, and the chicken must’ve passed through your yard,” they would insist.

“No. We haven’t seen it,” we replied.

“It was my golden hen that laid eggs like no other,” some would lament.

“It was a plump white chicken,” another desperate woman would explain.

“No, we haven’t seen anything like it,” was our persistent reply.

“Miserable bunch of liars and hungry thieves,” they would yell angrily as they walked away.

We must not have been very convincing and soon the neighbors, one by one, started fencing up their yards and keeping their flocks in. One Friday afternoon, a neighbor named Maria de Mané Vito stood firmly by our kitchen door and demanded news about her black chicken that had disappeared that day. It was the chicken that she was planning on taking to be sacrificed to the voodoo gods at sundown. I had my heart and soul in my hands that evening but stood by the story of not having seen any chicken like that one. Maria left our house calling us names at the top of her lungs, and we soon became known as the miserable chicken thieves and liars in the neighborhood.

With the disappearance of the neighbors’ chickens from our backyard, my siblings had to find another way to put food on the table. On Wednesday nights, looking for relief from the midweek hunger, one of my sisters, who, decades later, still feels ashamed of this sacrifice, would take me by the hand and walk across town to pay a visit to the local priest, Padre Pedro. The two would meet in the back of the town’s tall whitewashed church, standing on a small hill in the center of town. The priest would appear in a long black robe after my sister’s soft knock at the church’s back door. He would greet us in a soft and pious voice, take my sister by the hand, and order me to stay quiet inside the church until my sister was finished and came for me.

“All right,” I answered softly.

I did not know what the priest’s finishing with my sister involved. I was eight, very afraid of the priest, fascinated, and scared by the images in the church. Padre Pedro wore a long black cape which brought to mind the stories of “The Man in the Black Cape” my siblings told us in the dark, on warm and quiet nights, sitting by the side of our house. A man in black was said to wander around town on pitch-dark nights — and there were testimonies of many people who swore to having seen him in our neighborhood, taking the women and children and scaring the men away. I had heard the stories many times over, sitting stiff and snuggled against my siblings in fear. The children and women the man in the black cape was said to kidnap were never to return, and nothing was ever known of their fate.

The voices of my siblings telling this story on pitch-dark nights played over and over in my head, as I entered the big white church in the shadows of candlelight. The angels with puffy round faces, lips, and hands holding a torch and the human sized statues of saints with sad faces and dressed in real clothes transported me to another world. I had never seen anything of the kind. I walked around in the dim light, and their eyes followed me everywhere I went. I could not hide from them. I sat on a pew in the back and waited.

My sister suddenly appeared, fixing her hair and straightening her red skirt with the palm of her hands. She walked to the back of the church and took me by the hand.

“Let’s go home Leda,” she whispered in a very low voice.

“Are we coming back to church again?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said. “And don’t say anything to anyone about this,” she warned me in a firm manner.

“Yes,” I said with my head down. And we walked home without saying another word.

Much later in life, when I asked my sister to elaborate on our frequent visits to the town’s priest on Wednesdays, she described the occasion as being very close to my recollection. But when I asked her what exactly she did in the back of the church with Padre Pedro, she laughed a bit for a while and replied that she was in the long line with the other poor people in town, waiting for the priest’s charity to buy food for the family. Then my sister became serious and sad, her head down.

The nights my sister visited church we had some money for food the following morning. We would go to the stores in town with our basket because there was no open market on Thursdays. My sister did not have to worry about my revealing her visits to the priest. No one ever asked about it, though everyone knew that the priest gave my sister money on Wednesday nights. I was just happy the next day, hearing the firewood crackling, seeing the red flames under our black clay pot change from red to yellow engulfing the round black clay pot, and smelling the beans cooking. My sister knocked on the church’s back door many more Wednesdays and met with the “Man in The Black Cape.” I continued to follow her.

One of my father’s sisters, Nininha, once decided to help our family and asked my sister Miriam, who was ten at the time, to help at her store on market day. Nininha lived on Church Street, across the wide street from her sister Didi. The store, which was up a hill just a short distance from her house, sold sugar, coffee, nuts, tobacco, cigars, leather and the kinds of dried goods that the vendors who came to town to sell their fresh produce took back with them. To Gaia, this was a very good opportunity to gather some money for our market day. She sewed a big pocket on the inside of Miriam’s underpants and instructed my sister how to divert some of the cash from Aunt Nininha’s register into her underwear pocket.

“You have to smile your natural way while doing it,” Gaia said. “So, don’t show any signs of being nervous.”

“Fine. What do I do if people look at me? Miriam asked.

“Just pretend nothing happened, and you’re just scratching yourself,” replied Gaia.

Nininha’s store was popular and prosperous. Since Miriam was eager to help us back home, it worked out well. My sister quickly learned to weigh coffee, sugar, tobacco, peanuts, and fill bottles of kerosene and palm oil to sell. She performed her new tasks efficiently. At the end of the day on Saturdays, she would arrive home walking with difficulty but thrilled, with her pocket full of my aunt’s cash. Miriam would take her underwear off and empty the hidden pocket on our black table. I would watch Gaia gather the cash, count it, and then hurry to the neighborhood stores where she would buy food. It was too late in the afternoon for us to run to the open market. Miriam arrived home at dusk after the vendors had already left and the market had died down, leaving us with no time to walk across town to buy any discounted merchandise.

I was eight then, very shy and clumsy. When I asked Gaia if I could accompany Miriam to my aunt’s store to bring home money, my sister laughed and promptly sewed a similar pocket onto my underpants. I was sent to the store with Miriam. I helped my sister but could not find any way to put the money into my pocket. I could not figure out how Miriam did it so easily. I felt every eye in the store on me all the time and at the end of the day, Miriam would walk home slowly with her pocket full. Mine was always empty.

On market day, at lunchtime, my uncle Macu often walked the short distance from the store to home for lunch. One day, he took me by the hand and asked me to walk home with him for a warm lunch and some cash. My aunt and uncle had no children of their own, and their house on Church Street was big and had a choking stench due to the many pieces of raw leather they bought and left lying around on the floor to finish drying. I dreamed of arriving home like Miriam, with money in my underpants pocket to dish out on our black table for Gaia to count and take to the store to buy food. Since I could not find a way to hide the money from my aunt’s cash register, I thought I had a chance to get the needed money from my uncle. I followed him to his house.

There, my uncle led me into a bedroom with black furniture and a foul smell. He pulled his pants down, lay on the big bed, and took his penis out, telling me to play with it.

“Your aunt doesn’t play with me anymore,” he said. “I need some playing.”

My uncle’s penis looked like the huge, fat, and wrinkled earth worms that I played with in the backyard on rainy days after they were flushed out of their holes and were burned by the hot sun. I liked playing with the fresh worms in my backyard, and I sometimes dug them out of the ground and gave them to Gaia to cut up into small pieces and set the trail that attracted the neighbor’s chickens into our kitchen. This one worm my uncle carried between his legs did not interest me, but I still touched it, as I was told. My only thought was bringing home money to buy food for the family. I do not remember if my uncle gave me the money that he had promised, but I never went back to the store with Miriam on Saturdays and never told my family the reason. Miriam proudly carried out her task for a long while and Nininha never noticed the missing cash. My sister stopped bringing money home much later, only after my aunt died and her husband could not keep the store.

It was also on Saturdays, at the end of the day, that Mother went to visit Dona Ervirinha, the blonde angel of my childhood. She was a tall and very generous woman who owned a farm and lived in a big house surrounded by a tall white wall, topped with pieces of colorful broken glass, a big yard and lots of tall trees full of aromatic flowers and fruit. Outside Dona Ervirinha’s house, we would get in line with many other poor mothers along with their skinny, half-naked, big bellied and barefoot children for the weekly collection of the milk, ripe avocados, bananas, and colorful vegetables that Dona Ervirinha’s employees had returned unsold from the market.

My younger brothers, Eduardo and Raimundo, and I would stay in line close to our mother. When it was our turn, the blonde and blue eyed woman, like the angels I saw in church, would fill our basket with fruits and vegetables. She would give us extra pieces of meat, a big jar of coagulated milk that had been left out in the sun, and occasional bundles of used clothes and shoes. She would always talk to Mother for a bit.

“How are you and the children doing, Dona Raimunda?” she would ask.

“We’re going along as God wills it, Dona Ervirinha,” Mother would always answer.

“Come back here on Wednesday, and I’ll gather some more clothes and shoes for you and the children, Dona Raimunda.”

“Yes, Dona Ervirinha, and God will pay and protect you,” Mother replied.

My brothers and I would help Mother carry the basket on our heads across town. We would return to Dona Ervirinha’s house on Wednesdays for the extras and happily carry the gifts home.

Miuda was the brown angel of my childhood. She was the one angel that I did not see hanging from the ceiling and walls or holding candles at the altar of the town church, but who was of flesh and blood and whom I could touch and speak to. She lived next door to me. She was a black orphan of ten or eleven, severely malnourished — hence her nickname Miuda. She was small and was brought up by a crippled black woman, Dona Silvina. The young and the old depended upon each other almost entirely and earned a living by selling cooked cow and lamb intestines at the Saturday market. Dona Silvina’s husband, João Sabino, would push the wheelbarrow all the way to the market on Saturdays, with his crippled wife holding onto the sides. Miuda would follow, pushing another squeaky wheelbarrow filled with pots and pans. The rest of the week, João Sabino would leave the house early in the morning and would come home drunk in the evening.

Dona Silvina wanted Miuda near her all of the time. The girl could not wander in the backyard for too long or distance herself too far from the eyes of her stepmother who yelled for her.

“Oh, Mi-u-da, hurry up and put more wood in the fire. Check the water in the pot,” she would order.

“Oh, Mi-u-da, what’re you doing now? Did you not hear me? Have you not done what I told you?” Dona Silvina would yell again and again when she did not see Miuda next to her.

“I’m gathering things for the market tomorrow,” Miuda would yell back. “I’m coming right away.”

Dona Silvina would send Miuda to buy lamb intestines at Seu Agemiro’s slaughterhouse on the outskirts of town early morning. Miuda would carry the bloody organs on her head in a wooden basin that we called gamela. When she arrived, she would set the basin on the grass in the back of her house and clean the guts in the pond nearby. After the cleaning, Miuda would make small bundles of liver, coagulated blood, tongue, heart, and lung and wrap them in pieces of stomach sac tied with tripe, what we called dobradinha. In the afternoon, Miuda would cook the little bundles of delicacies in a black kettle on top of the black clay wood stove she had in her kitchen. Their kitchen wall was attached to the wall of our kitchen.

By late afternoon, after washing the intestines, the water in the pond behind Miuda’s house would turn dark green with the dung dancing in the water, moving from side to side, according to the direction that the wind was blowing. Slowly, the muck would reach the edges of the pond, where it would stay and give off a profound sharp smell that enveloped the backyard and unsettled my soul.

I would stay far away from Miuda’s green dung pond as much as possible and held my breath when I had to come into the house, but I would keep a close eye on the cooking of the guts. Their distinctive strong smell would invade our kitchen, overwhelm my senses and tempt my weak body.

Miuda’s cooking troubled my siblings, too. It disturbed us most on Friday nights when the day had come and gone, and we remained with empty stomachs. Though Miuda would always find a way to hide some little bundles from her vigilant stepmother and pass them to Gaia’s outstretched hands through the holes in our kitchen walls, there was never enough for the many dry mouths and shrunken stomachs in our house. Maybe it would have been better if Miuda had not given us anything at all, for once the little bit she gave Gaia hit our empty stomachs, our senses would wake up and transform us into ravaging hyenas.

Dona Silvina would never leave the side of her wood burning stove when the bundles were cooking on Friday afternoons. She would watch us. We would keep our eyes on her through the holes in our kitchen wall, too. We would wait for night to fall when Gaia quietly would remove the loose adobe blocks from the wall and help herself to Miuda’s bundles.

After removing the blocks, my sister would slide her thin body through the small holes and enter Dona Silvina’s dark kitchen. We would pass her our bucket, which she gave back to us through the holes with the warm dobradinhas. We were quick to carefully replace the dirt blocks and then would sit on the kitchen floor in the middle of the night devouring in no time the entrails Miuda had spent the whole day preparing.

Miuda knew we stole her bundles at night, but she would continue in her role as our accomplice and friend during the day. Dona Silvina suspected the girl handed us some of her food and sometimes beat her. She knew we entered her kitchen to steal her food and cursed the dirty starving thieves in the morning from her wheelchair when Gaia had gone too far by taking too many dobradinhas. But the beating, yelling, and cursing never stopped Miuda from helping us or Gaia from removing the loose blocks in the kitchen wall again and again when we had gone hungry. Gaia would make Miuda some cloth dolls for her to play with as a way of thanking her for alleviating our hunger.

Eduardo, a little over a year younger than me, was busy and practical, looking for ways to bring home food. He liked the freedom that the life he lived gave him: playing in our open backyard until dark, selling Mother’s couscous and my sisters’ panties and brassieres at our window and at the Suerdieck tobacco factory, hunting snakes for their skins, and killing birds for food with his slingshot. His stay at school was short, like most of my siblings. He dropped out after second grade. Eduardo was a good conversationalist, extremely verbal, quick, cute, thin, and never shy. He loved to talk and could sell anything or make any deal. So Mother would send him on visits to the townspeople when there was nothing in our house to eat. I often followed him to the center of town to the homes that we frequently visited.

We would cross the open soccer field and pass the town’s big shower house where tired donkeys waited by the curb to be loaded with heavy wooden barrels of water that would be sold around town. I would hear the men whistling and singing their favorite tunes in the shower house while bathing. We would arrive at a house, surrounded by tall white walls with pieces of broken colored glass cemented to the top. The shards reflected kaleidoscopic colors and shapes, as the rays of the sun hit them at midday. Eduardo would knock at the tall gate door with a rock. After a few tries, the maid would come and lead us to the kitchen where the owner of the house, an elegant and pretty woman, Dona Bete, met us. She would take Eduardo by his hand and sit him on her lap, running her fingers through his tight curls and rubbing his skinny arms while I stood beside my brother and watched. Dona Bete would never say much to me. I knew she liked Eduardo. After a while, she would ask the maid to feed us. We would eat and drink sweet pineapple juice and sit quietly at the kitchen table. Sometimes, we were sent home with bags of avocados, dried meat, beans, rice, and old clothes and shoes.  We would return to Dona Bete’s house many more times when our mother sent us. My sisters said that the pretty owner of the big house had no children and her husband was always traveling.

My brother Carlos, whom we called Tatai, the fifth born in our family, was short and very husky at age fourteen when Father died. Soon after, Tatai would get up with the roosters at dawn to meet with Francisco, a well-known hunter in town. They walked to the arid area and hills that surrounded town, about fifteen miles away, to catch boa constrictors and chop wood. Tatai would arrive home at dusk, sweaty and puffy, carrying a huge dead boa wrapped around his neck or a bunch of wood piled on his head. He would kill the boa for us to eat and to sell its valuable skin at the market. I would watch Tatai set the dead snake on a bed of banana leaves in the backyard, sharpen our shiny kitchen knife on the black rock and carefully skin the snake. He would open its belly first and throw the guts to the pigs and chickens. He would pull off the skin from one end while we held on to the other. Then Tatai would salt the meat, briskly drying it over a big fire we would build to preserve the meat since we had no refrigeration. On Saturday, Tatai would take the snakeskin to the market, which he would sell to artisans who made drums and tambourines. My younger brothers, Eduardo and Raimundo, would follow him to the market, naked and hungry, to eat some of the manioc farina that the vendors spilled while filling the customers’ bags. My younger brothers would wait, hopeful that Tatai would sell the snakeskin and with the money, buy some groceries to bring home. Tatai also sold the huge bundles of firewood he would bring home tied on his head with a rope when he could not catch boas. With any money earned, he would fill our black vine basket at the market in town. Gaia sometimes accompanied Tatai to the woods to help with the chopping, the carrying, and the selling of it door-to-door.

Our hardship was eased in other ways. Some days in December I would leave the house early in the morning and walk to the woods with my elder siblings to gather wild blackberries, which we called quixaba. I looked forward to these day trips. Upon arriving in the woods, we would search for the almost leafless prickly bushes, decorated with small black and sweet fruits. We would pull down the branches, quietly satisfy our appetites, fill our buckets and carry them home on our heads late in the afternoon when the cicadas’ singing echoed in the air. Another juicy and round fruit, umbú, from the umbra tree, very common in our area, also helped fill us up.

We would climb tall cashew trees to pick fruits to bring home to eat. We would eat the succulent and meaty part of the fruit and save the nuts, which we would toast on a big tin sheet made from an empty kerosene drum. We cut the drum open, flattened it out, poked holes in the center, and place the nuts on it before setting the drum on a bonfire in the backyard. We would roast the nuts, turning them constantly with a long wooden stick until they were carbon dark on the outside. Then we would sit on the ground and crack them open on a rock. I loved the nuts. They were warm and delicious.

My siblings and I also would bring home from the woods a yellowish and prickly tropical fruit called jaca. The sweet layer inside the jaca had hidden large pits which we would save to eat later, cooked on our kerosene tin can on yet another fire. Sometimes we would gather the pits people had thrown on the street after eating the sweet part and bring them home to wash and cook. We also would climb the small palm trees to cut small bunches of a coconut-like fruit called licurí, which we would cook in the backyard. I loved the excitement of gathering wood and making these big fires.

At times, when my siblings had earned some money, we would get up with the roosters at daybreak. We would walk with our tin cups in one hand and a little sugar mixed with manioc farina in the other, to Seu Antonio Leone’s corral, a big dairy farm in town, where cowboys milked their cows at dawn. We would arrive at the corral and wait, leaning quietly on the heavy wood fence, trying not to upset the farmer, the cows, or the cowboys. The scent of dried cow manure and fresh milk gave the corral a unique smell that is still deeply ingrained in my memory. It is a smell that is difficult to describe. There is nothing in the world like it. After a while, the cowboys would notice our presence and approach us, and without much ado, they would collect our tin cups and fill them with the foamy warm, sweet milk that we loved and had looked forward to. We then would sit on the ground near the corral, add the sweetened farina to the warm milk, and have a feast. The cowboys filled our tin cans with warm milk as many times as our stomachs would allow and they blessed us. We would walk home with warm milk in our tin cans for our mother and a feeling of contentment as we met the rising sun on the horizon. That was the silver lining of our dark clouds.

 

 

Holly Day

Five Poems

 

Revision

 

on the timeline, I’m a map of wrong turns

detours—15, should have buried myself in computers

like my friends, at seventeen, should have buried myself in schoolwork,

taken advantage of my early college admittance, at nineteen

my father asks, you still think you’re going to be

an astronaut? at twenty, lectures on how

real writers spend eight hours a day writing, not three

twenty-one, my boyfriend asks me how I can justify

spending so much money on postage to

send out manuscripts when I don’t have anything

in the fridge.

 

I hear myself giving speeches on missed chances

to my children, to a son almost out of the house and I

know I’ve heard these lectures somewhere before, I hear myself tell my daughter

about how once upon a time all I wanted out of life was to

someday push an ice cream cart at the zoo

have a big, fat orange cat like the one sitting in my lap

children who loved me, and I think,

no, that’s not exactly true.

 

 

 

 

 

For Now

 

every Halloween I get to see

a cavalcade of police cars in my yard, oh Midwest

police are so strong and steady, I know my

neighbors are glad to see them there. Oh no,

my best friend on TV just found a gun

 

now you should knock first before coming

in here. I know, I should have warned you that we were considering gun options

but lost all track of time in the shopping, the choosing.

I know, you and I, we were once so close we could have

exchanged skins, identities, but this new

friendly friend of mine, beamed flat and

bright on the screen from a station somewhere else

is company enough. He’s more than enough.

 

 

 

 

 

The Things I Know

 

I read headlines about cannibals living in

plain sight, drunk driving accidents,

children bringing guns and knives and drugs to school and

 

I wonder how I’m supposed to send him out there

when five years old seems much too young to see this world.

I read headlines about priests charged with raping boys

 

daycare providers caught with child pornography

school janitors hiding secret murders for years

trusted neighbors with basement torture chambers, and

 

I wonder how they can ask me to let him go

when it seems my whole life has been about hiding

from the monsters waiting for us just beyond the door.

 

 

 

 

 

The Color of Your Breath

 

I don’t need to

look when you call my

name your features

are fixed firmly in my

mind all of the

little expressions

that cross your face

when you’re asleep the sound of

your footsteps as you

come up behind me

the smell

of your

skin this is all a part of

me now and even if

I was to go blind

I would still know what you

meant to me

 

 

 

The Night After the Picnic

 

flesh sears as his leg

drags across the red

hot metal of the

chrome tailpipe, skin peels

against the cool, rough concrete, leaves

red chunks all the way from sixty

to zero. fourth of july traffic

slows to

a crawl, then a stop,

everyone looking

at the four terrified kids out for

a drunk driving drive in daddy’s car. daddy’s

car, the new dent, how will they ever

explain the new dent? traffic slows, stops,

as rubbernecking

onlookers look

for the head of the boy from the accident,

lying headless, next to

his classic design scooter, lying in

a pool of endless blood,

blood so dark that the missing head

could be hiding just beneath the surface.

beneath the surface of the

thin pool, and no one

would ever know.

we wish it so.

 

 

 

Tomer Klein

Three Poems

 

 

A Bird of Prey

 

You swooped down on me

a kite on its prey

your claws are sharp and comforting,

your kisses are etching and caressing.

 

Your touch is night’s forgetfulness,

for me your breath is like a prayer

 

Let’s escape

into the depth of the moment

 

 

 

 

 

Savanna

 

A herd of words paced in tranquility

in the memory savanna

between synapses of Baobab trees

their roots raging

through a rugged heart.

 

A herd of words,

scorched by thirst,

parked by the lake of inspiration,

gulped liquid thoughts exuberantly,

rare drops of a Muse,

in the wilderness of Creation’s desert

 

A herd of words aligned in a sentence,

its iambic legs paced steadily, rhythmically,

the structure and motif marked

the blank page.

A myriad of dancing colors

in a parade.

 

Centigrade 232

 

It was delightful

to burn moments

like elusive shreds of paper

fluttering upwards.

 

I sealed the time

or the

beginning of its recreation

with a blue flame

and departed

with a silent cry

Lost Lake
Folk Opera

In Memoriam
Pixie Youngdhal &
Scott Dixon

Cover art & interior graphics by Shipwreckt Books

We acquire First North American Serial Rights (FNASR) upon acceptance and retain exclusive rights to your submission for six months following publication. Your piece will be archived and may be included in future retrospective editions. If you republish your work, please attribute first publication to Lost Lake Folk Opera magazine.

Copyright 2018 Shipwreckt Books Publishing Company (Lost Lake Folk Opera)
All Rights Reserved
ISBN-10: 0-99904xxxxxx
ISBN-13: 978-0-xxxxxxx

In this issue
Scott Lowery
Four Poems 5
The rabbit 5
Painting the cow 5
Looking for a horse poem after an eye exam 6
Reset / morning after 8
Maria L. Souza Hogan
Samba of Survival—Scrounging in the Slums of Brazil 11
Holly Day
Five Poems 19
Revision 19
For Now 19
The Things I Know 20
The Color of Your Breath 20
The Night After the Picnic 22
Tomer Klein
Three Poems 23
A Bird of Prey 23
Forever travelling breathless up 25
Anne Muccino 25
Dalia 25
J.T. 26
Forty Lenten Haiku 31
Lee Henschel Jr. 31

Scott Lowery
Four Poems

The rabbit

Among the dry brush, it’s only
his sameness that stands out.
All neutrals, brown on brown,
fully absent. He ambles, stops,
drops from sight—nope,
still there. So much backdrop!
Someone’s smiling—me or the rabbit?

Painting the cow
Cow 3 of 9, oil painting by Brianna Berghuis

The cow has no issue with being painted.
She lifts her massive muzzle to you,
black as a tire, wet as a sponge.
Her fermented breath condenses,
snot dotted with bits of straw.

You can use raw milk across her forehead.
Mix in egg yolk for that unexpected
yellow at her jaw line:
a smear of morning sun.

The cow is not self-conscious, wearing
her dapper crust of dung,
giving you a gold-brown edge to set
against the cold white sky.

If she’s discontented, the cow
keeps it to herself for now,
though she could step on you
with the weight of a small truck.

Her big ears flap like soft slippers,
ready to hear your thoughts.
Light plays on the pool
of a watchful, inky eye.

If you’re quick
you can stick the sharp legs
of your easel into the muck
and get to work.

Looking for a horse poem after an eye exam
for Ken McCullough

Let’s start with the chemical sting of the eyedrops,
the chemical tears they evoke soaking in, if that’s what they do,
the chemical pin-prick of fear and wonder released in my blood, racing
to bang on the door of my brain with the news that soon,
my pupils will lose all their common sense,
will relax wide open to every random photon bouncing around in the world,
not yet but soon, maybe when the ophthalmologist returns to check on my dilated progress,
here in my Star Command chair, crying comfortably into my Kleenex.

Not yet but soon—this reminds me of when I’d lose what common sense I had,
a teenage seeker after chemical enhancement of the given world
with all its dull complicity, its murderous suits and ties.
I’d drop a tab and wait like this, to feel an accelerant current start to pull me downstream.
A poem can do that too, or the chemical seed of a poem.
For instance, the poet who hosts our monthly open mic has suggested a poem on horses,
an animal inexplicably absent from all the years of my writing,
a decades-long drought of horse poems, trailing back into the dust.
My poet friend is a longtime keeper of horses, can read a horse like a four-legged book of Complete Horse Poems,
understands each electric skin quiver, each gum-flap and muzzle nudge.

All I can remember about horses is their inky brown eyes:
expressive or opaque, serene or startled, curious or disinterested.
In horses’ eyes, I have seen my own big-nosed reflection, and over my shoulder the rest of the curving world.
As the exam resumes, as the doc beams his tiny lantern into each red cave and says they’re fine,
I am thinking of a horse’s head, with its two huge eyes, imploring, yet not turning into a poem,
and even less so out in the sun-lit parking lot,
where I squint through banged-up clip-ons into a barrage of too much light, too much world.

Before I can go home and pull the blinds, I have errands to run,
so I crawl my car impeccably through translucent intersections,
past loud, shimmering objects moving with deadly intent,
to arrive at Fleet Farm, and another parking lot
where the faucet of the world’s light won’t turn off.
They sell chemicals here to soften limestone-laden household water,
a secular miracle heretofore as unremarked as horses in my poems.
Among the aisles, shades still on, I can barely see one thing after another,
until I’m brought to a sudden stop—
towering above me, a life-sized fiberglass horse, shiny as a toy,
stands expressionless and stoic atop a stack of steel shelves.
Around his neck, an employee nametag reads “Hello, my name is Sea Biscuit.”
You think I’m making this up? The world is making this up.

Isn’t common sense called horse sense? What’s he doing up there?
Unfiltered questions start pouring into my bloodstream,
and all the building supplies of a serviceable poem are suddenly at hand, but I’m blocking the aisle.
These folks have their own lists, their own miracles.
Even the plastic dairy cow four aisles over seems disinterested,
gazing off the other way, toward the spring crop of fishing lures and herbicide and semi-automatic rifles.

Let me step out of the flow here.
Common sense would say this is not really a horse poem, or a miracle, or a chemistry experiment, and yet
it is oxygenated, it leads to an everyday-yet-unexplainable vision,
it contains at least one horse—
and common sense never wrote a poem.
So let us praise God, or science, or the devil mustangs of chance,
praise Customer Service and the marketing miracles of the digitally-gifted—
in other words, praise for the visible, unstoppable world:
praise for the lens, praise for the light,
praise for words that can run on their own four legs.

Reset / morning after
“The sun will rise in the morning…” Barack Obama

Yes, and blaze on the glass—
don’t forget: a long look
can blind you.

The birds will pour their hearts
into something once
called singing,

while the last fluttering flags,
still golden on the maple,
must come down.

What does the wind want,
but to tear the skin off
the fallow fields?

No matter how sad they look,
it won’t pay to keep them—
let the cows go.

Plow the dreamer’s books into
the ditch. Get the gas can.
Stand and watch.

Inaugural ghazal

If only this throbbing tooth would never grind or grate again!
I’ll vote for ibuprofen: it’ll make my mouth feel great again.

The chickadee, wholly absorbed in each moment’s hull and seed—
No interest in the hard-shelled nut of being great again.

Over the whine of his ATV, a neighbor boy rides tall in the saddle.
He fills his tank for a ten-dollar bill and gasoline smells great again.

The sanctity of the locker room’s restored at last, thank you Lord.
PC’s been purged–it’s great to all be white and straight again.

Grandpa taught me how to rhyme on his bony, sing-song knee.
Catch a nigger by the toe: he thought it sounded great back then.

The young drone pilot, poised all night above his glowing screen.
Nothing like rubble and blood to make a country great again.

Pulled from line, a family stands with widened, dark-brown eyes.
Isn’t it great to breeze right through, relieved you won’t be late again?

Big Daddy Warbucks, back in the house, dripping glitz and bling.
He’s all like Let the good times roll, now that the NASDAQ’s great again.

Go find the Comeback King, old Bonaparte in his iron cell.
Ask him how that went—does he still desire to be great again?

Five hundred sovereign treaties, each one so carefully broken.
Sitting Bull has the talking stick, before you claim to be great again.

So let’s gather now, with songs in praise of Justice’s beautiful body.
We’ll finger-sift her ashes, and hammer on God’s gate again.

And you, Lowery—knocked flat by our national freight again?
It’s cold out here and the moon is thin, but it will be great again.

Norma Rae as a honey bee

Since daylight, she’s been knocking on doors
in high-rise rows of corn where no one’s home.
Next, she’ll follow a nitrate trail downhill
to scrappy pastures by the silted creek,
blue-collar lots of coneflower and butterfly weed
as rare as decent housing and a union wage:
back-roads pushed further back each year,
cows thinned out by mass incarceration.
Along the highway, she hovers to watch a guy
in Day-Glo vest and Carhartt bibs mowing ditch hay,
the cardboard No Spray sign buried in his wake.
Gentlemen: your average working bee is not stupid.
She just gets tired.
That bit’s a voice-over—
no swarm of New York lawyers to call in—
so she re-straightens her tiny shoulders
and moves on, ready to dodge cars along parkways,
sail the edges of alleys, wherever she can pick up
that river of vibration that still calls itself a Sisterhood.
Last week, she had her Oscar-winning moment,
imploring pollinators and poisoners alike
with those honeyed, fractal eyes.
When the cops hauled her off in their net,
the whole hive hit the bricks and nearly
lost their way home. Now they wait in the dark,
hoping against the odds for a new Queen,
crossing their multiple, yellow-caked legs,
while Norma quietly made bail and got back to work,
One Big Union embroidered on her DNA.
She’s a free-range blossom, a scrupled sting
in that song she hums: Which side are you on?
Here she comes now, as the credits start to roll,
overloaded with leaflets, zig-zagging low over asphalt
and thistle, manure lagoons and drainage tile,
our stitcher of invisible thread,
our busy beacon, too small to fail.
Maria L. Souza Hogan
Samba of Survival—Scrounging in the Slums of Brazil

When I was almost seven, Father got sick with a terrible pain that would not go away. At first, Mother believed it was not serious, and that it would soon be cured using the herbal teas and concoctions from plants in our back yard, like many other maladies that she was used to diagnosing and treating. This one, however, was different. The pain got worse, not better. My sister Gaia and elder brothers Célio and Carlos –nicknamed Tatai– took turns walking the long road to the town pharmacy to ask Orlando Lima, the pharmacist and a son of Aunt Zibina’s daughter, Iaiá, to please come and help.

Soon after Father died, Mother began pacing the dirt floor on one side of our house where a white jasmine bush in constant bloom emanated a soothing aroma. She carried Wilson, our 6-month old baby brother, in her arms, and wondered where our next meal would come from. At the time, my brothers and sisters decided to help bring in some food or money any way that they could.
Ua, the eldest at nineteen, barely four feet tall with light skin, dark hair and eyes, took a job at the local movie theater after one of our cousin’s boyfriend did the cousin the evil deed — “fez o mal a ela,” and she was forced to leave her job. She “was lost” –“se perdeu.” After a boy had deflowered a girl in town – “deflorou a moca” — in most cases, the girl was forced to leave her parents’ home –“sair de casa.” These popular expressions indicated a girl’s loss of her virginity, a way of saying that a boy had gotten her pregnant. A girl’s virginity was sacred, and it had to be preserved until marriage. If it was lost, everyone would ostracize her, including her family. She would lose a job — if she had one — her humanity, and the respect of the community. Parents would usually send their daughters to stay with a distant relative or the girl had to stay indoors, not leaving the parents’ home for the duration of the pregnancy. I often heard the elders say that these girls could never lead a normal life again.

There were girls I remember seeing in the neighborhood who had no distant relatives to take them in. They had no means of leaving home or raising the child. The grandparents assumed responsibility for raising the baby, and the girls stayed prisoners in their parents’ home and were never again accepted in society. However, after our cousin had her child, as if my miracle, she got married to a former boyfriend and started a family. But after a few years, her husband left her for a young girl whom she raised and lived in the family’s home, helping with the children and the chores.
Ua would take all of the money she earned at her new job and at a second one she had at the Cartorio Eleitoral — where she recorded the townspeople’s voting records and registration by hand — to the market on Saturday to buy food. In addition, the sewing classes Ua had taken in better days on Flowers Street were put into practice to supplement her earnings at her two other jobs. Soon, the front window of our rundown house gained color with the display of the undergarments my sister and mother sewed on the new Singer that Father had bought before his illness. They hung the clothes on a rope across the top frame. Neighbors and passersby would stop and take notice.
Surrounded by colorful panties and brassieres on the window sill was fresh yellow corn meal couscous, topped with white grated coconut. Mother made and sliced it into triangular portions to sell to the workers who walked by our house in the early morning on their way to Suerdieck, the town’s tobacco factory. The smell of the sweet corn filled the air. We couldn’t eat the couscous because we knew that Mother sold it so that we could buy beans and farina, and maybe a small piece of dry meat to cook with the beans. The beans and farina would fill our stomachs more and make us less hungry. Later, Mother also sold couscous to buy some of my schoolbooks. By midmorning, Mother’s couscous was usually gone.
To make her couscous, Mother would soak the corn overnight, drain the water early in the morning and pound the soft kernels in the large, tall, and thick black wood mortar with a heavy black pestle kept in the kitchen. Ua, Gaia, and other female neighbors would help Mother pound the corn. Two women would face each other and the wood mortar, stretch their arms way up, holding the heavy pestle with both hands to hit the kernels in a rhythmic and naturally coordinated up-and-down movement. One pestle would reach the bottom of the mortar in full force — pooh — while the other would stand up in the air; one woman’s body would bend over the mortar while the other would stretch way back. They would perform this ballet for a while to the deep sound the pestle made when it thumped the mortar back and forth, pooh … pooh … pooh…. The neighbors also would pound coffee beans for hours this way, never touching each other’s pestle and sometimes singing a popular jingle to the rhythm of the coordinated pounding:
I am pounding coffee. Vou pilar café.
I am pounding coffee. Vou pilar café.
Pound, pound my little sweetheart Pila, pila meu benzinho
That daddy does not want you to.Que papai não quer.

I never took my eyes away from the beloved women the whole time they ground corn or coffee in the backyard by our kitchen. Their rhythm, grace, and agility enchanted me. I can still see their body movement and hear the deep sound of the pestle hitting the mortar.
Gaia sewed mattresses and shirts for Vinicius, the owner of a store, from Monday to Friday and took the money that she earned to the market on Saturdays. I would walk with Gaia to the store early Monday to get a big bundle of fabric for the cutting and sewing and would stroll back late Friday with the sewn shirts and mattresses bundled up on our heads. On Saturday, I happily would march with Gaia, the money, and our dark vine basket to the market.
Gaia, seventeen when Father died, tall, slender, agile with cinnamon skin, very dark hair and eyes, and a luminous smile, displayed a very practical approach to things and immediately thought of a new way to put food in our dark clay pan on the wood burning stove when we were hungry and there was no food in the house. In the backyard, a parade of chickens, pigs, and roosters would appear and disappear at random as they fed on earthworms, insects, and bits and pieces of whatever food that they found dispersed throughout the area. It was the neighbor’s livestock. Gaia devised a plan to trap the clucking chickens in our kitchen by setting a white trail of farina or bits of earthworm. The animals would follow the trail and end up corralled in a small space in the kitchen where we waited for them.
Gaia would prepare for the event by sharpening a kitchen knife on our black stone, rubbing the knife back and forth and dropping water on the silver blade. She then set the knife by our clay bowl half filled with vinegar and put water to boil in the tall kerosene can on the stove. As soon as the chicken passed the doorframe, we carefully closed the wobbly door and chased the panicky animal into a corner. The chicken bounced back and forth against our kitchen walls and wood burning stove. The struggle did not last long, for the space was tight and the fast hands and empty stomachs were many.
Once Gaia had the chicken, she held it tightly down with her knee. She secured its head on a piece of wood, peeled off the fine feathers from its neck, tapped on it a few times, and slit the throat open with our shiny silver knife. She poured the warm blood into the clay bowl and mixed it with the vinegar so it would not coagulate. Sometimes when Gaia’s knife missed the fatal vein, the stunned animal would stand up and circle the kitchen, dripping its red blood on the dirt floor and slamming its bloody head into the black walls. We would trap the disoriented animal in a hurry and give it back to our sister to finish the job with the razor-sharp knife and squeeze the remaining blood into the clay bowl. I helped Gaia immerse the chicken in a bath of cold water and then in the tall can of boiling water on the stove. We would gather to remove the feathers quickly and Gaia would cut the chicken into small pieces, making every part count: feet and guts, which we turned inside out to clean in the nearby pond and cut into small pieces to make a stew dish called cabidela. The chicken tripe was sometimes full of hookworms, but they did not bother Gaia. She flushed them out. Then my sister cooked the chicken in its blood.
We would put the wet feathers in a bucket and carry them to be buried in a carefully dug hole in the bushes very far from our house. We cooked the chicken with all the windows and doors closed so that the smell would not give us away. On those days we ate. When my sister attracted more than one chicken at a time, there was good reason for celebration: we ate more, and our feast and happiness were complete. And Gaia did not have to cut the pieces too small. There was enough for everyone in our family.
Our adventure with the neighbors’ chickens went on for a while until our feast along with the frequent disappearance of the animals aroused suspicions. And then, at sundown, when the women walked home from the tobacco factory, and their chickens did not show up at the pen or the count of the flock was short, they would go looking for their animals. When they couldn’t find them, they would stop right at our backyard by our kitchen door to ask if we had seen the chickens and describe the missing animal to us.
“Have you seen my chicken today?” they would ask.
“No. What chicken? We haven’t,” we would always answer.
“It was a young chicken with red stripes, and you must’ve seen it; we don’t live too far from each other, and the chicken must’ve passed through your yard,” they would insist.
“No. We haven’t seen it,” we replied.
“It was my golden hen that laid eggs like no other,” some would lament.
“It was a plump white chicken,” another desperate woman would explain.
“No, we haven’t seen anything like it,” was our persistent reply.
“Miserable bunch of liars and hungry thieves,” they would yell angrily as they walked away.
We must not have been very convincing and soon the neighbors, one by one, started fencing up their yards and keeping their flocks in. One Friday afternoon, a neighbor named Maria de Mané Vito stood firmly by our kitchen door and demanded news about her black chicken that had disappeared that day. It was the chicken that she was planning on taking to be sacrificed to the voodoo gods at sundown. I had my heart and soul in my hands that evening but stood by the story of not having seen any chicken like that one. Maria left our house calling us names at the top of her lungs, and we soon became known as the miserable chicken thieves and liars in the neighborhood.
With the disappearance of the neighbors’ chickens from our backyard, my siblings had to find another way to put food on the table. On Wednesday nights, looking for relief from the midweek hunger, one of my sisters, who, decades later, still feels ashamed of this sacrifice, would take me by the hand and walk across town to pay a visit to the local priest, Padre Pedro. The two would meet in the back of the town’s tall whitewashed church, standing on a small hill in the center of town. The priest would appear in a long black robe after my sister’s soft knock at the church’s back door. He would greet us in a soft and pious voice, take my sister by the hand, and order me to stay quiet inside the church until my sister was finished and came for me.
“All right,” I answered softly.
I did not know what the priest’s finishing with my sister involved. I was eight, very afraid of the priest, fascinated, and scared by the images in the church. Padre Pedro wore a long black cape which brought to mind the stories of “The Man in the Black Cape” my siblings told us in the dark, on warm and quiet nights, sitting by the side of our house. A man in black was said to wander around town on pitch-dark nights — and there were testimonies of many people who swore to having seen him in our neighborhood, taking the women and children and scaring the men away. I had heard the stories many times over, sitting stiff and snuggled against my siblings in fear. The children and women the man in the black cape was said to kidnap were never to return, and nothing was ever known of their fate.
The voices of my siblings telling this story on pitch-dark nights played over and over in my head, as I entered the big white church in the shadows of candlelight. The angels with puffy round faces, lips, and hands holding a torch and the human sized statues of saints with sad faces and dressed in real clothes transported me to another world. I had never seen anything of the kind. I walked around in the dim light, and their eyes followed me everywhere I went. I could not hide from them. I sat on a pew in the back and waited.
My sister suddenly appeared, fixing her hair and straightening her red skirt with the palm of her hands. She walked to the back of the church and took me by the hand.
“Let’s go home Leda,” she whispered in a very low voice.
“Are we coming back to church again?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “And don’t say anything to anyone about this,” she warned me in a firm manner.
“Yes,” I said with my head down. And we walked home without saying another word.
Much later in life, when I asked my sister to elaborate on our frequent visits to the town’s priest on Wednesdays, she described the occasion as being very close to my recollection. But when I asked her what exactly she did in the back of the church with Padre Pedro, she laughed a bit for a while and replied that she was in the long line with the other poor people in town, waiting for the priest’s charity to buy food for the family. Then my sister became serious and sad, her head down.
The nights my sister visited church we had some money for food the following morning. We would go to the stores in town with our basket because there was no open market on Thursdays. My sister did not have to worry about my revealing her visits to the priest. No one ever asked about it, though everyone knew that the priest gave my sister money on Wednesday nights. I was just happy the next day, hearing the firewood crackling, seeing the red flames under our black clay pot change from red to yellow engulfing the round black clay pot, and smelling the beans cooking. My sister knocked on the church’s back door many more Wednesdays and met with the “Man in The Black Cape.” I continued to follow her.
One of my father’s sisters, Nininha, once decided to help our family and asked my sister Miriam, who was ten at the time, to help at her store on market day. Nininha lived on Church Street, across the wide street from her sister Didi. The store, which was up a hill just a short distance from her house, sold sugar, coffee, nuts, tobacco, cigars, leather and the kinds of dried goods that the vendors who came to town to sell their fresh produce took back with them. To Gaia, this was a very good opportunity to gather some money for our market day. She sewed a big pocket on the inside of Miriam’s underpants and instructed my sister how to divert some of the cash from Aunt Nininha’s register into her underwear pocket.
“You have to smile your natural way while doing it,” Gaia said. “So, don’t show any signs of being nervous.”
“Fine. What do I do if people look at me? Miriam asked.
“Just pretend nothing happened, and you’re just scratching yourself,” replied Gaia.
Nininha’s store was popular and prosperous. Since Miriam was eager to help us back home, it worked out well. My sister quickly learned to weigh coffee, sugar, tobacco, peanuts, and fill bottles of kerosene and palm oil to sell. She performed her new tasks efficiently. At the end of the day on Saturdays, she would arrive home walking with difficulty but thrilled, with her pocket full of my aunt’s cash. Miriam would take her underwear off and empty the hidden pocket on our black table. I would watch Gaia gather the cash, count it, and then hurry to the neighborhood stores where she would buy food. It was too late in the afternoon for us to run to the open market. Miriam arrived home at dusk after the vendors had already left and the market had died down, leaving us with no time to walk across town to buy any discounted merchandise.
I was eight then, very shy and clumsy. When I asked Gaia if I could accompany Miriam to my aunt’s store to bring home money, my sister laughed and promptly sewed a similar pocket onto my underpants. I was sent to the store with Miriam. I helped my sister but could not find any way to put the money into my pocket. I could not figure out how Miriam did it so easily. I felt every eye in the store on me all the time and at the end of the day, Miriam would walk home slowly with her pocket full. Mine was always empty.
On market day, at lunchtime, my uncle Macu often walked the short distance from the store to home for lunch. One day, he took me by the hand and asked me to walk home with him for a warm lunch and some cash. My aunt and uncle had no children of their own, and their house on Church Street was big and had a choking stench due to the many pieces of raw leather they bought and left lying around on the floor to finish drying. I dreamed of arriving home like Miriam, with money in my underpants pocket to dish out on our black table for Gaia to count and take to the store to buy food. Since I could not find a way to hide the money from my aunt’s cash register, I thought I had a chance to get the needed money from my uncle. I followed him to his house.
There, my uncle led me into a bedroom with black furniture and a foul smell. He pulled his pants down, lay on the big bed, and took his penis out, telling me to play with it.
“Your aunt doesn’t play with me anymore,” he said. “I need some playing.”
My uncle’s penis looked like the huge, fat, and wrinkled earth worms that I played with in the backyard on rainy days after they were flushed out of their holes and were burned by the hot sun. I liked playing with the fresh worms in my backyard, and I sometimes dug them out of the ground and gave them to Gaia to cut up into small pieces and set the trail that attracted the neighbor’s chickens into our kitchen. This one worm my uncle carried between his legs did not interest me, but I still touched it, as I was told. My only thought was bringing home money to buy food for the family. I do not remember if my uncle gave me the money that he had promised, but I never went back to the store with Miriam on Saturdays and never told my family the reason. Miriam proudly carried out her task for a long while and Nininha never noticed the missing cash. My sister stopped bringing money home much later, only after my aunt died and her husband could not keep the store.
It was also on Saturdays, at the end of the day, that Mother went to visit Dona Ervirinha, the blonde angel of my childhood. She was a tall and very generous woman who owned a farm and lived in a big house surrounded by a tall white wall, topped with pieces of colorful broken glass, a big yard and lots of tall trees full of aromatic flowers and fruit. Outside Dona Ervirinha’s house, we would get in line with many other poor mothers along with their skinny, half-naked, big bellied and barefoot children for the weekly collection of the milk, ripe avocados, bananas, and colorful vegetables that Dona Ervirinha’s employees had returned unsold from the market.
My younger brothers, Eduardo and Raimundo, and I would stay in line close to our mother. When it was our turn, the blonde and blue eyed woman, like the angels I saw in church, would fill our basket with fruits and vegetables. She would give us extra pieces of meat, a big jar of coagulated milk that had been left out in the sun, and occasional bundles of used clothes and shoes. She would always talk to Mother for a bit.
“How are you and the children doing, Dona Raimunda?” she would ask.
“We’re going along as God wills it, Dona Ervirinha,” Mother would always answer.
“Come back here on Wednesday, and I’ll gather some more clothes and shoes for you and the children, Dona Raimunda.”
“Yes, Dona Ervirinha, and God will pay and protect you,” Mother replied.
My brothers and I would help Mother carry the basket on our heads across town. We would return to Dona Ervirinha’s house on Wednesdays for the extras and happily carry the gifts home.
Miuda was the brown angel of my childhood. She was the one angel that I did not see hanging from the ceiling and walls or holding candles at the altar of the town church, but who was of flesh and blood and whom I could touch and speak to. She lived next door to me. She was a black orphan of ten or eleven, severely malnourished — hence her nickname Miuda. She was small and was brought up by a crippled black woman, Dona Silvina. The young and the old depended upon each other almost entirely and earned a living by selling cooked cow and lamb intestines at the Saturday market. Dona Silvina’s husband, João Sabino, would push the wheelbarrow all the way to the market on Saturdays, with his crippled wife holding onto the sides. Miuda would follow, pushing another squeaky wheelbarrow filled with pots and pans. The rest of the week, João Sabino would leave the house early in the morning and would come home drunk in the evening.
Dona Silvina wanted Miuda near her all of the time. The girl could not wander in the backyard for too long or distance herself too far from the eyes of her stepmother who yelled for her.
“Oh, Mi-u-da, hurry up and put more wood in the fire. Check the water in the pot,” she would order.
“Oh, Mi-u-da, what’re you doing now? Did you not hear me? Have you not done what I told you?” Dona Silvina would yell again and again when she did not see Miuda next to her.
“I’m gathering things for the market tomorrow,” Miuda would yell back. “I’m coming right away.”
Dona Silvina would send Miuda to buy lamb intestines at Seu Agemiro’s slaughterhouse on the outskirts of town early morning. Miuda would carry the bloody organs on her head in a wooden basin that we called gamela. When she arrived, she would set the basin on the grass in the back of her house and clean the guts in the pond nearby. After the cleaning, Miuda would make small bundles of liver, coagulated blood, tongue, heart, and lung and wrap them in pieces of stomach sac tied with tripe, what we called dobradinha. In the afternoon, Miuda would cook the little bundles of delicacies in a black kettle on top of the black clay wood stove she had in her kitchen. Their kitchen wall was attached to the wall of our kitchen.
By late afternoon, after washing the intestines, the water in the pond behind Miuda’s house would turn dark green with the dung dancing in the water, moving from side to side, according to the direction that the wind was blowing. Slowly, the muck would reach the edges of the pond, where it would stay and give off a profound sharp smell that enveloped the backyard and unsettled my soul.
I would stay far away from Miuda’s green dung pond as much as possible and held my breath when I had to come into the house, but I would keep a close eye on the cooking of the guts. Their distinctive strong smell would invade our kitchen, overwhelm my senses and tempt my weak body.
Miuda’s cooking troubled my siblings, too. It disturbed us most on Friday nights when the day had come and gone, and we remained with empty stomachs. Though Miuda would always find a way to hide some little bundles from her vigilant stepmother and pass them to Gaia’s outstretched hands through the holes in our kitchen walls, there was never enough for the many dry mouths and shrunken stomachs in our house. Maybe it would have been better if Miuda had not given us anything at all, for once the little bit she gave Gaia hit our empty stomachs, our senses would wake up and transform us into ravaging hyenas.
Dona Silvina would never leave the side of her wood burning stove when the bundles were cooking on Friday afternoons. She would watch us. We would keep our eyes on her through the holes in our kitchen wall, too. We would wait for night to fall when Gaia quietly would remove the loose adobe blocks from the wall and help herself to Miuda’s bundles.
After removing the blocks, my sister would slide her thin body through the small holes and enter Dona Silvina’s dark kitchen. We would pass her our bucket, which she gave back to us through the holes with the warm dobradinhas. We were quick to carefully replace the dirt blocks and then would sit on the kitchen floor in the middle of the night devouring in no time the entrails Miuda had spent the whole day preparing.
Miuda knew we stole her bundles at night, but she would continue in her role as our accomplice and friend during the day. Dona Silvina suspected the girl handed us some of her food and sometimes beat her. She knew we entered her kitchen to steal her food and cursed the dirty starving thieves in the morning from her wheelchair when Gaia had gone too far by taking too many dobradinhas. But the beating, yelling, and cursing never stopped Miuda from helping us or Gaia from removing the loose blocks in the kitchen wall again and again when we had gone hungry. Gaia would make Miuda some cloth dolls for her to play with as a way of thanking her for alleviating our hunger.
Eduardo, a little over a year younger than me, was busy and practical, looking for ways to bring home food. He liked the freedom that the life he lived gave him: playing in our open backyard until dark, selling Mother’s couscous and my sisters’ panties and brassieres at our window and at the Suerdieck tobacco factory, hunting snakes for their skins, and killing birds for food with his slingshot. His stay at school was short, like most of my siblings. He dropped out after second grade. Eduardo was a good conversationalist, extremely verbal, quick, cute, thin, and never shy. He loved to talk and could sell anything or make any deal. So Mother would send him on visits to the townspeople when there was nothing in our house to eat. I often followed him to the center of town to the homes that we frequently visited.
We would cross the open soccer field and pass the town’s big shower house where tired donkeys waited by the curb to be loaded with heavy wooden barrels of water that would be sold around town. I would hear the men whistling and singing their favorite tunes in the shower house while bathing. We would arrive at a house, surrounded by tall white walls with pieces of broken colored glass cemented to the top. The shards reflected kaleidoscopic colors and shapes, as the rays of the sun hit them at midday. Eduardo would knock at the tall gate door with a rock. After a few tries, the maid would come and lead us to the kitchen where the owner of the house, an elegant and pretty woman, Dona Bete, met us. She would take Eduardo by his hand and sit him on her lap, running her fingers through his tight curls and rubbing his skinny arms while I stood beside my brother and watched. Dona Bete would never say much to me. I knew she liked Eduardo. After a while, she would ask the maid to feed us. We would eat and drink sweet pineapple juice and sit quietly at the kitchen table. Sometimes, we were sent home with bags of avocados, dried meat, beans, rice, and old clothes and shoes. We would return to Dona Bete’s house many more times when our mother sent us. My sisters said that the pretty owner of the big house had no children and her husband was always traveling.
My brother Carlos, whom we called Tatai, the fifth born in our family, was short and very husky at age fourteen when Father died. Soon after, Tatai would get up with the roosters at dawn to meet with Francisco, a well-known hunter in town. They walked to the arid area and hills that surrounded town, about fifteen miles away, to catch boa constrictors and chop wood. Tatai would arrive home at dusk, sweaty and puffy, carrying a huge dead boa wrapped around his neck or a bunch of wood piled on his head. He would kill the boa for us to eat and to sell its valuable skin at the market. I would watch Tatai set the dead snake on a bed of banana leaves in the backyard, sharpen our shiny kitchen knife on the black rock and carefully skin the snake. He would open its belly first and throw the guts to the pigs and chickens. He would pull off the skin from one end while we held on to the other. Then Tatai would salt the meat, briskly drying it over a big fire we would build to preserve the meat since we had no refrigeration. On Saturday, Tatai would take the snakeskin to the market, which he would sell to artisans who made drums and tambourines. My younger brothers, Eduardo and Raimundo, would follow him to the market, naked and hungry, to eat some of the manioc farina that the vendors spilled while filling the customers’ bags. My younger brothers would wait, hopeful that Tatai would sell the snakeskin and with the money, buy some groceries to bring home. Tatai also sold the huge bundles of firewood he would bring home tied on his head with a rope when he could not catch boas. With any money earned, he would fill our black vine basket at the market in town. Gaia sometimes accompanied Tatai to the woods to help with the chopping, the carrying, and the selling of it door-to-door.
Our hardship was eased in other ways. Some days in December I would leave the house early in the morning and walk to the woods with my elder siblings to gather wild blackberries, which we called quixaba. I looked forward to these day trips. Upon arriving in the woods, we would search for the almost leafless prickly bushes, decorated with small black and sweet fruits. We would pull down the branches, quietly satisfy our appetites, fill our buckets and carry them home on our heads late in the afternoon when the cicadas’ singing echoed in the air. Another juicy and round fruit, umbú, from the umbra tree, very common in our area, also helped fill us up.
We would climb tall cashew trees to pick fruits to bring home to eat. We would eat the succulent and meaty part of the fruit and save the nuts, which we would toast on a big tin sheet made from an empty kerosene drum. We cut the drum open, flattened it out, poked holes in the center, and place the nuts on it before setting the drum on a bonfire in the backyard. We would roast the nuts, turning them constantly with a long wooden stick until they were carbon dark on the outside. Then we would sit on the ground and crack them open on a rock. I loved the nuts. They were warm and delicious.
My siblings and I also would bring home from the woods a yellowish and prickly tropical fruit called jaca. The sweet layer inside the jaca had hidden large pits which we would save to eat later, cooked on our kerosene tin can on yet another fire. Sometimes we would gather the pits people had thrown on the street after eating the sweet part and bring them home to wash and cook. We also would climb the small palm trees to cut small bunches of a coconut-like fruit called licurí, which we would cook in the backyard. I loved the excitement of gathering wood and making these big fires.
At times, when my siblings had earned some money, we would get up with the roosters at daybreak. We would walk with our tin cups in one hand and a little sugar mixed with manioc farina in the other, to Seu Antonio Leone’s corral, a big dairy farm in town, where cowboys milked their cows at dawn. We would arrive at the corral and wait, leaning quietly on the heavy wood fence, trying not to upset the farmer, the cows, or the cowboys. The scent of dried cow manure and fresh milk gave the corral a unique smell that is still deeply ingrained in my memory. It is a smell that is difficult to describe. There is nothing in the world like it. After a while, the cowboys would notice our presence and approach us, and without much ado, they would collect our tin cups and fill them with the foamy warm, sweet milk that we loved and had looked forward to. We then would sit on the ground near the corral, add the sweetened farina to the warm milk, and have a feast. The cowboys filled our tin cans with warm milk as many times as our stomachs would allow and they blessed us. We would walk home with warm milk in our tin cans for our mother and a feeling of contentment as we met the rising sun on the horizon. That was the silver lining of our dark clouds.

 

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