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The Boy from Petrópolis

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I look at his face; the green eyes, the wet mouth. I still feel the dream-softness of his hair under my hands; I feel like a grandmother, like a mother, like a lover.

https://www.guernicamag.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/LEGER_TOP.jpg
Fernand Leger, La femme et l’enfant, 1921. Lithograph. © Charlotte Perriand. ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2015.

I listen to the waltz of Lota’s heart under my ear—babumf, babumf, babumf. The plump of the years when she might have borne children has fallen away. She is slender now, angular. I have not had a child either and so, between us, we own two wasted wombs, a pair of houses built but never occupied. I often wonder who is worse off—a motherless daughter, such as me; or the daughter who fails to become a mother, the one who ends the line. Also me. I am badly off on the double, perhaps. I lift myself off Lota and out of the bed. She will sleep on.

The new boy is outside the window when I enter the kitchen; the wheat of his hair is just visible above the sill. I open the back door.

“We gave you a key,” I say. “You did not let yourself in.”

He stares at me and shakes his head. I repeat myself—my Portuguese is not sharp —and he shrugs. The boy is one of those sallow, green-eyed Brazilians, startling to look at. I didn’t think anybody outside of fiction had such eyes but here he is, as green-eyed as a cat, or something more exotic—an ocelot, maybe. He has Germanic skin, smooth and healthy, the skin of someone who gets fresh air. His name is Tito da Silva, though he has half a dozen other names too, like everyone here.

I hand the mop to Tito and he sets off with it slung rifle-wise over his shoulder. I have no idea where he is going but I don’t call him back or quiz him. He will settle, I think; it won’t take this one long to know what is what around here. I go through to my desk and sit. I poke at one typewriter key and watch its leg kick up and down like a can-can dancer. I look out the window; the milky blue of the sea is my constant distraction and this morning is no different. The water makes me long for the sway of a boat under my legs.

Something about Tito has set off a ripple in me and already I know I will not write a word. I gaze out the window, my chin cupped in my hand—like a namoradeira statue waiting for her lover—and watch the eddy and gush of the waves. The horizon sits high here, something I mull over often. Lota says it is to do with proximity to the equator and she is probably right. I imagine fish swishing down from that lofty horizon and crashing onto the shore on their bellies; shoals of fish, biblical and silver. I imagine myself among them.

“Madam, you did not give me a bucket.” Tito startles me and, when I turn to reprimand him, I see that he looks abashed so I swallow my annoyance.

“It’s ‘Miss,’” I say, “not ‘Madam.’ Please. Follow me.”

He trails behind me to the kitchen, head down. I hand him the bucket and he smiles. I sing: “There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza, there’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, a hole.” Tito steps away from me as if stung. “It’s just a silly old song,” I say. He stands, still and contained, looking at me as if indulging the half-mad. “Go,” I say. “Go mop.”

Back at my desk, I watch a lizard skitter down the garden path; it stops and tongues the air. I hope the cat will not saunter by and see it; he wouldn’t hurt it but he likes to paw at lizards, toy with them. I wonder if it is the same lizard that found its way into our bed last week. It sat, a little regent, on Lota’s pillow. I wanted to screech but knew that Lota wouldn’t appreciate that; I squeaked and pointed.

The lizard hurtles through the air and I gasp, knowing the long drop on the other side, anticipating the crush of its body on the paving below.

“Come, friend,” she said, and carried the lizard, pillow and all, to the back door and set it free. The lizard ran, jerky and plastic, down the path.

I think this may be the same fellow; it certainly looks identical to our bedroom visitor. I watch the lizard’s gait along the stones, its purposeful stop-and-start meander. Tito appears from nowhere, grabs the creature’s tail and tosses it over the wall. The lizard hurtles through the air and I gasp, knowing the long drop on the other side, anticipating the crush of its body on the paving below. Tito saunters on, sees me in the window, and salutes. I return a static wave then let my hand fall back to my side. The morning has collapsed; I need to get out, I need to walk.

There is no sign of the lizard outside the wall. I search up and down and am relieved not to find it. “You landed safely, friend,” I say.

The Copacabana sand is cold when you dig your toes under its surface. I relish that cold; it brings to mind Nova Scotia and the antediluvian chill that place holds. I go to Great Village in my dreams and sit on Grandmother’s lap and we chatter together, though I cannot hear the words. Those dreams make me lachrymose but they also bring peace—the profound joy of good memories works on me like balm.

I have the beach to myself and I push at hairy coconut husks with my feet to see if there is anything underneath. I scrabble in the sand for stones and shells. The ocean here does big work—the sand is powdery—so I rarely find anything unusual on my beach combs. At home on my desk I have a treasury of sand dollars, lima bean stones, and architecturally crosshatched Venus shells. This morning I find a wedge of green sea glass and it brings to mind Tito and his variegated eyes. The squally colour of the glass delights me and I pocket it.

I pass the huddle of beach shacks that sits up behind the tide line. They are made from driftwood and burlap sacks and even in winter they must swelter. Sometimes a boy sits outside the end shack. I say “a boy” but he may be a man, it is hard to tell. He is retarded, this boy, his head is too small for his body, but he is beautiful because of it. This boy, with his long torso and tiny head, has a sweet, inquisitive face. “Bom dia!” I always call, but he never replies.

*                      *                     *

I notice the smell of damp every time I reenter our home. If there is such a thing as a national scent, then mildew is the smell of this land. Its moist fingers curl from the corners of every house and store and restaurant; a clay-like smell hovers everywhere. I call out for Lota.

“In here,” she bellows, and I find her in the kitchen. She has already drunk the neck and shoulders off a bottle of whiskey. It is Irish whiskey—she claims Scotch tastes like tea. “Top of the mornin’ to you, Cookie,” Lota says, raising her tumbler.

“I doubt if Irish people actually speak that way.”

She grunts. “That new boy won’t last.”

“Why’s that, Lota?”

“Well, already he has you running from your desk, and I’m drinking and it’s not yet noon.” She squints at the wall clock.

“None of that is his doing,” I say.

“There is also the problem of his idleness. I found him asleep under the coconut tree, stretched like a lord, farting and snoring.” I laugh but Lota continues. “I won’t have it. He is lazy and we do not need another lazy boy.” She sallies on like this for a few more minutes, it being the Brazilian habit to keep explaining things—particularly uncomfortable things—long after you have understood.

I cut across her eventually. “This week I have chosen to read not write,” I say, a plan that has just occurred to me.

“Surely you have read the bookshelves dry,” Lota says, and plunges the cork back into the top of her whiskey bottle.

“Where is he now?” I ask.

“Who?”

“Tito,” I say, and she looks at me quizzically. “The boy, Lota. The boy.”

“How should I know?”

*                      *                     *

I sit at my desk and read with dismay the lines I typed yesterday. Who was the woman who wrote them? And what foolishness made her believe they were worth a thing? I have been pulling and slapping the same poem into shape for months now and it will not behave. The words sit still on the page. I poke my finger through the dish on my desk that is filled with my favourite shells and stones; the piece of green sea glass sits in its center, winking at me. I snatch the sheet of paper from the typewriter and stuff it into the desk drawer. I will do what I told Lota I would do: I will read. I select a volume from the shelf—some friendly sonnets—and head for the yard.

Tito is kneeling on the path, bent over the bucket I gave him earlier, gazing into the surface of the water. I stand and watch him looking at his reflection like someone trying to find answers from the moon.

“Are you enjoying what you see?” I ask. Tito startles. “Your face. Do you find it handsome?” The boy jumps up and backs away from me. “It’s OK, Tito, I’m just making fun. Teasing.”

He closes his green eyes and purses his lips; he shakes his head, grabs the bucket, and stomps off, water sloshing over his bare feet. His slender body retreats, rigid with annoyance, or embarrassment, or who-knows-what. I am beginning to wonder if Lota is right about Tito; if he will not last with us at all.

*                      *                     *

Sudden, blasting rainstorms are the order of August here; the sea and sky go from zinc to turquoise in the space of moments. The rain falls in televisual lines and clouds roll like demons along the horizon; the tide roars and complains. But when the storms end, the air is breathable and it is then I love to wander the beach to see what has been left for me.

Today I hope to find driftwood, lots of it. Tito has agreed to construct a bench to go in our yard and, for weeks now, he has been appearing with lengths of wood for my approval. I want to contribute some pieces too. This is our project, his and mine.

When I look up, ready to greet them, I see that they are not coming toward me at all, they are dancing.

The sand is already dry by the time I walk it. Before long I spot a beauty: a stubby plank painted red with scatters of yellow showing through. I flop onto my knees to admire it, thrilled with its grain, its carnival colors. It will make a perfect armrest on the bench. I lift it and shake off the sand. From the corner of my eye I see someone approaching from the shacks above the tide line. But when I look up, ready to greet them, I see that they are not coming toward me at all, they are dancing. Outside the end shack two people are dancing to a drumbeat, two young men. They roll their arms like windmills and dip their knees up and down; they shimmy around each other and kick their legs with solid grace. The drumbeat rises from a small girl who is beating out a rhythm on a tin can. I realize I recognize the young men, both of them: it is the retarded boy and it is Tito.

They dance on, circling each other fluidly as if this is something they have rehearsed. The girl’s drumming gets wilder and the boys dance in a frenzy, their heads shaking voodoo-style. In the end the rhythm is too crazed and they fall in a tangle of arms and legs onto the sand, laughing. I want to approach them but their joy is so intimate, so carefree, that I daren’t break their spell. I take my piece of painted wood and lope on down the beach.

Tito is pleased with the piece of driftwood. “Belíssimo,” he says, rubbing his fingers over it, front and back.

“I saw you on the beach,” I say, “dancing.”

“And I saw you,” Tito says. “I see you often—gathering things.” He tilts his head and grins; he looks like a toddler when he smiles, which is seldom.

“I love that stretch of Copacabana,” I say. “Is that where you’re from?”

“I’m from Petrópolis, but I live on the beach with my brother.”

“You must miss the mountains, both of you.” I imagine a place where clouds clutch at peaks.

“We miss our mother,” he says.

For a moment, I am surprised by what he has said—I’m so used to the people here being occupied with the present and not the past. But he is only a boy, of course, and he needs his mother.

“She’s still there, in Petrópolis?” I ask.

“No, Miss. She is dead.”

I put my hand on his arm. “My mother is dead too. We’re the same.”

“No, Miss,” Tito says, gesturing at the garden, the house, the half-made bench. “We will never be the same.”

*                      *                     *

“They are orphans, Lota. We must help.”

I have been building up, explaining, re-explaining, trying to be Brazilian in my approach, but Lota is unmoved. She puts her hands on my shoulders.

“Cookie, they are practically grown men. I wanted a boy to help around here. I did not want the full catastrophe.” Lota slips out of her slacks and tosses them into the hamper.

“They live in a hut covered with sacking. Did you hear me when I told you that? Don’t you care?” Tears are hurting my throat.

Lota shrugs and buttons up her pyjamas. “I’m tired, Cookie, and I’m finished discussing this.”

She slides into our bed and turns her back to me. I stand over her, boiling and confused.

“For a woman of causes you surprise me. You’re hurting me.”

Lota does not turn around and eventually I creep in beside her, holding my body rigidly away from her side of the bed.

*                      *                     *

In the rich geography of dreams, Great Village and Rio de Janeiro collide; winter in Brazil becomes a Nova Scotian summer and, in my grandparents’ house, I am the old woman in the rocker and Tito is the child at my feet. I run my hands through his hair, soft as rabbit fur under my fingers; I croon a song to him. Outside the window, snow shrouds the beach.

Perhaps if I spoil her a little, I will get my way; she responds well to devotion.

I wake, grappling with this new reality, to find the bed empty beside me. Business has taken Lota away early; I will be alone for the day. A company of parrots raise their pandemonium in the yard and I listen to them argue back and forth before rising to go to my desk. I sit there and mull over how best to get Lota to help Tito and his brother. Perhaps if I spoil her a little, I will get my way; she responds well to devotion. We are a harlequin pair, for sure—Lota is mighty and spontaneous; I am naturally cautious.

Tito is out back, lining up pieces of wood for the seat of the bench; I watch him concentrate and configure. That he was mine in my dream has only increased my affection for him. He purses his lips, frowns, arranges the driftwood in patterns, then changes his mind and moves this piece here, that there. I go to the kitchen and stand by the door.

Bom dia, Tito. Come have some iced maté with me.”

He hesitates but then joins me at the table and sits in silence while I prepare our drinks. Tito holds the straw delicately as he sips; his long fingers are stained and rough. I look at his face; the green eyes, the wet mouth. I still feel the dream-softness of his hair under my hands; I feel like a grandmother, like a mother, like a lover. I smile at Tito.

“Miss?” he says.

“It’s nothing, Tito. Nothing at all.”

I put my hand on his arm; he closes his over mine and squeezes. I let my lips fall to his fingers, kiss each one in turn. When I raise my head to gaze into his eyes, they are closed. Tito takes back his hand gently, stands, and leaves the kitchen for the yard.

*                      *                     *

I put on a jazz record and prepare a supper of beans and rice with shortbread to follow. The candles I have placed here and there cast their cheery gloom. Lota comes in, all nerves, all light, chattering about what she has done for me, what she has done for Tito. I go to speak and she shushes me; she needs to get her words out before I can say a thing.

“I’ve found a position for him, with my old friend Gabriela in Petrópolis,” she says. “She will be patient with Tito, being an idler herself. There is a small house on her land; he and his brother can live there.” She kisses my cheek. “And when we build our house above Petrópolis, at Samambaia, maybe he can come work for us. There now, Cookie. I hope you are pleased.” She stands and smiles, triumphant.

I take Lota in my arms just as a samba rhythm bursts from the record player; I spin her out in front of me and make windmills of my arms. Lota laughs and does the same. I dip my knees and she follows me. We shimmy around each other and kick our legs. Later, in our bed, I cup her small breasts in my hands and kiss her neck. Lota has a special heat; she is warm as Rio, warm as Paris, warm as Great Village on a high summer Sunday.

*                      *                     *

Tito and his brother come to say good-bye. They are polished and quiet in neat white shirts, alike despite the brother’s rolling eyes, his too-small head. Tito holds his brother’s hand, anchoring him to his side. Lota will drive them to the train and they will travel on alone to Petrópolis.

“I will miss you, Tito da Silva,” I say. “I will miss your sweet face. Thank you for my bench. For everything.”

He nods and holds out his hand to me; lying in his palm is a piece of green sea glass, the match for the one I found on the beach. I take it from him and close my fist around it. I embrace Tito quickly and his brother lets out a raucous squeal of delight.

When they are gone, I go to the dish on my desk and take my green sea glass from it. I pop it and the piece Tito gifted me into the breast pocket of my shirt. Now I carry Tito’s eyes with me everywhere and my heart knocks against them in an eternal, maternal waltz: babumf, babumf, babumf.

G

Author Image

Nuala O’Connor is a short story writer, poet, and novelist in her native Ireland. She made her US debut in July with Miss Emily, a reimagining of the private life of Emily Dickinson. O’Connor has won many awards, including RTÉ radio’s Francis MacManus Award, the Cúirt New Writing Prize, the Jane Geske Award (USA), the inaugural Jonathan Swift Award, and the Cecil Day-Lewis Award. She was shortlisted for the European Prize for Literature. She lives in Galway, Ireland, with her family.

Photo by Emilia Kyrsztofiak.

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