ISSN 2359-4101

Brazilian Literature in Translation / Literatura Brasileña en Traducción

Issue / Numero

year/año: 2012
issue/numero: # 01



The Malaquias


Author | Autor: Andrea Del Fuego


Translated by Jethro Soutar

1.

The Serra Morena is steep, humid and fertile. At the foot of the mountain live the Malaquias, window the size of a door, door of imposing dark wood.
  "Come, Adolfo!"
  Donana asked for her husband’s help, he thrust his axe in a log and went to assist. The pool shone at the bottom of the well, Adolfo lowered the rope with a bucket tied to the end, submerged it in the pool and began to drag it up against the side. His wife no longer did heavy work, with fragile bones, she’d moved on to blessing children’s spines and earning her corn, coffee and milk through prayers. Rosy white, thin lipped. Excluding the Malaquias, the locals were all as brown as wild beasts.
  The children formed a circle around the well, the surface of the water reflected three pairs of hands, each pair framing two bright spots and a nose: Nico was blue- eyed, nine years old. Antônio, tiny, six. Júlia, pot-bellied, four.


2.

They were all in bed, it was a rough night, the wind rattled the windows. The roof tiles shook, one false move and the storm would be inside the house. Par- ents slept in one room. Nico, Júlia and Antônio in another, in the same bed, nestled together in a foetal shape. 
  A cat stretched out its legs, the walls stiffened. The air pressure squashed their bodies into the mattress, the whole house lit up and went dark, a lamp in the middle of the valley. Thunder sounded long, until it reached the opposite side of the mountain range. The earth beneath the dwelling, negatively charged, caught a positive ray of lightning vertical from the clouds. The charges met invisibly in the Malaquias’ house. 
  The couple’s hearts were in systole, the moment in which the aorta closes. The pathway was too narrow, the discharge couldn’t get through and reach the ground. As lightning struck them, mother and father inhaled, heart muscle absorb- ing the whole hit. The flash warmed their blood to solar levels and burned through the branches of the circulatory system. An internal fire caused the heart, a horse without a rider, to stop racing within Donana and Adolfo. 

  The three children’s hearts were in diastole, the express way was open. Electricity passed uninterrupted through the dilated chamber and the lightning filtered through the aorta. Organs unaffected, the three children had insignificant, imperceptible burns. 
  Nico woke up and didn’t move, tense, waiting for daybreak. The rain hadn’t prevented day from breaking, though the cockerel remained silent. Sun came into the parents’ room through the broken tiles, the couple lay rigid on the bed, though nobody would have known a lightning strike had cooked their insides. Mattress and tile edges had been blackened, Nico went closer and became aware of the attack of light on flesh. Antônio opened his eyes, in shock. Júlia was alert, but she didn’t move, didn’t lift an eyelid, Nico took her for dead. He pulled   Antônio by the hand, across the room, down the path and to the gate. The two of them sat down under a tree.
  Antônio nudged Nico’s arm, troubled by hunger. Nico went back, heard sounds coming from the bedroom, it was Júlia frightened. She couldn’t get down from the bed, Nico took her in his arms, her dangling legs banging into his knee. 
   He’d grabbed the easiest food to hand and stuffed it in his wet pocket, a strip of rapadura. Antônio nibbled the block of brown sugar, the others huddled togeth- er. Cows appeared at the end of the road, behind them a teenager holding a stick, freezing water dripping from his hat, drying out. The children trembled, purple lips, cold feet. 
  "Nico!" 
  Timóteo worked for Geraldo Passos, owner of the Rio Claro estate. Timóteo walked up to the Malaquias’ house, went in and came running out. He said nothing, put the three children on a saddle-less horse beside the herd of oxen, continued on his way. As soon as Geraldo saw the three of them on the doorstep, he told the maid to bring coffee. 
  "Timóteo, tomorrow take the little ones to the French Nuns, over in town. The eldest stays here with me." 
  The three of them slept on the rug, coiled tightly together, beside Timóteo’s bed. When he left, Nico put the rest of the rapadura in his sister’s pocket.
  "Don’t cry. I’ll come find you."
  The little girl dried her face with the hem of her dress and the sugar strip fell out. Antônio picked it up off the floor and put it in his own pocket, scolding his sister. Timóteo took Antônio and Júlia by horse. It was a six hour journey to the little town.
  "Where are they from?" asked Sister Marie. 
  "Their parents were scorched, their house struck by lightning. The oldest is staying on the estate, Mr Geraldo took the lad for himself."
Marie led the two children into the yard, they waited there until a bed was made up for them in one of the rooms. 


3.


"Let me see your mouth." 
  Nico opened up and revealed swollen tonsils.
  "Tizica, go make a tea for his sore throat. Tomorrow he starts work on the coffee," ordered Geraldo. 
Tizica looked after the house and made all she could from an ear of corn: broth, fire, cigarette paper, oil, medicine. She used any old herb to treat Nico, mak- ing out it was the right remedy. She let his throat swell as much as possible, so that he wouldn’t have to work under the sun. Tizica went into the room carrying cake and probed Nico.
  "What did your mother’s body look like?"
  The maid hadn’t rested since the boy’s arrival, went one morning to speak to the master. 
  "I’ll look after Nico."
  "His being your son changes nothing, I’ll put him to work just the same. Tomorrow he’s going to help Osório rake coffee in the yard. 
  The next day Tizica went to tell them the boy was weak, that in his state he’d be no use, would make more work, not speed things up. 
  "Nico has already lost one mother. At this rate, he’ll soon lose another," replied Geraldo.
  The days passed.
   Nico took lunch out to the workers on the coffee plantation. The fever persisted, traces of lightning remained in his eyes, sparkling. One early morning, he got up and went to the kitchen, the fire embers gave him a red halo, the corn cobs crackled in the heat of the fire, the clay water fountain was dry and empty. 
  "Come lie down, lad," said Tizica, in her nightgown.
  As he leaned against her, she felt his fever, any worse and it would kill the enzymes that turn wheatmeal into human cells. She went to the well to pull up a bucket of water. She took the boy with her, who breathed in the cold morning. She wet his neck, arms, forehead, then tipped the bucket over his thin body. She lifted up his shirt, let his chest take in the lunar rays.
  "We’ll cool you down."
  Tizica heard noises in the scrub, maybe a wolf come looking for chickens. If it was, Geraldo would soon be out with his shotgun. A minute later, the master was loading his weapon on the porch. He didn’t see the two of them in the yard, Nico had fallen asleep in Tizica’s arms, she was seated, still. The noise got closer, Nico screamed as the shot rang out. The wolf fell next to the spring onions. 


4.


Júlia had her clothes starched and her stockings ironed. Antônio got the same treatment. The French Nuns were at a Catholic mission in the little town, liked children as they grew and repeated the doctrines. Talc and biscuit crumbs speck- led the wooden floor. Drinks pitchers coloured with juice from the fruits settled at the bottom. Tight hips, curved ribs, curved shoulders. Soft skin, bleached sheets, brooches and mother-of-pearls at night. 
  "Maybe the Arab family would have the little one, the girl is obedient," sug- gested Marie.
  "I’ll send a letter," replied Cecille, resigned to patience. 
  The reply came a month later.
  Sisters,
  I will come see the girl in the autumn.
   Leila.
  The Arabian matron arrived with two suitcases, she’d stay a few days, the time it took to visit the school. Cecille gave her the room with the window that looked on to the yard. Leila could observe Júlia from the windowsill without being seen. Study the ways, appearance and rough cut of her. 
  "I’ll come back for her in four years."
  "What about Antônio?" 
  "I only want the girl." 
  Marie and Cecille didn’t tell Júlia she was headed for the capital, they would do so nearer the time. Tizica was in town to buy floral fabrics and she made the most of her visit to call upon Nico’s siblings.
  "I’ll look after all three."
  "Júlia’s already accounted for," said Marie.
  Tizica returned with textiles and cinnamon bread. While Nico ate, she told him that Júlia was going far away and that nobody wanted Antônio. Before Geraldo went to bed, Tizica warmed him his milk. 
  "I was thinking of taking Nico to see his siblings."
  "Nobody’s going into town, I want you both right here."
  Timóteo was sitting on the gate, muddy feet, lit a cigarette. Tall trees, pointy at the tip, eucalyptus oil trying to get out from the leaves. Nico was carrying fire- wood, two more bundles to take into the larder and the job was done. Timóteo put his cigarette out, got down and encountered the boy. Nico greeted the young man, slowing his step. 
  "Do you know how to swim, Timóteo?" 
  "Swim where? Are you mad?"
  Nico put the last load of firewood on his shoulder and went inside.


6.


The French Nuns took in children from the whole region, sheltered orphans without prejudice, looked after their appearance to attract families to adopt them. Antônio was almost eleven years old. His arms and legs were shorter than his body, also small for his age.
  "Doctor Calixto is here."
  "I’ll go greet him, fetch Antônio."
  Calixto sat on a chair beside a bed with sheet and pillow, a thick curtain cover- ing the window, everything set for the medical consultation. Antônio was in shorts, shirt and leather shoes with cotton laces. Calixto examined the boy for two hours. He signalled with his head when the clinical study had finished. Cecille helped Antônio get dressed and led him to the dining hall, where the evening meal was served. 
  "He’s a dwarf, Sister Marie," declared the doctor.
  "What do you mean a dwarf?"
  "A dwarf. Pulmonary and coronary risks are common in these small people, Sister. There’s no doubt about it, he’s a dwarf. Any history of cases in the family?" 
  "His parents were normal."
  "In that case, his cells’ refusal to grow must come from his ancestors. Or the problem may have started with him. God forgive me, but I’ve heard cases of adul- terous women being punished with defective children."
  "Would the good doctor follow me to the door?"
  Marie bid Calixto farewell and went to spy on Antônio from the second floor of the school. She had never seen a dwarf before, not even one exhibited in town squares. Discovering they had a dwarf in their midst was like being granted access to a nursery of flowering plants. Marie wanted to understand the mechanics of the mystery, but at the same time keep her distance from the phenomenon and the science behind it. Out in the yard, Antônio wiped milk from his mouth with his arm. He was the same height as Moraes, a boy of seven.
  "Maybe a landowner will want the lad for house duties, sweeping out the store room," said Cecille.
In the corner lurked Geraldina, Geraldo’s mother. She accompanied little Antô- nio as a presence, she couldn’t be seen and this allowed her to interfere even in his dreams. The boy slept nine hours a night, his heartbeat responding to dreams and the stars.
  Antônio remembered little of the physiognomy of his parents, reduced to dots without lines to join them up. But he did recall a voice, a feminine timbre which memory turned to thunder, from minor sharp to major. 


8.


Geraldo wasn’t the only landowner, there were others, far away due to the great distance between land boundaries. He never married because of his mother, cared for her until her death. After giving birth to Geraldo,   Geraldina fell ill with an unexplained illness. She felt no pain, her eyes shed constant tears, a yellow sap around the black iris. She fell pregnant again three times after Geraldo was born. Three times she suffered a serious haemorrhage, her uterus could harbour no more life. The children she lost, always four months into pregnancy, she buried near the river. She bundled flesh and blood in cloth, tied it up with a thread of straw and prayed for the souls of those she couldn’t bring into the world.
  Geraldo’s father died at the death of the third child. The miscarriage left him powerless, he lost the strength in his legs, his kidneys got lazy, his mind weakened. Geraldina raised Geraldo on her own. The boy soon took charge of everything with- out fear or restraint. He had a gushing voice like a cow horn, only less drawn out.
  Geraldina Passos died early one summer, but burying her body didn’t erase her being. Some form of recollection remained, that though minuscule and trans- parent had a structure, was still organic and of matter.   She moved about like pow- der on an unwaxed dressing table, lifting whenever somebody breathed.
  The first months she stayed in the house, in the corner of the room. Tizica crossed herself as she ran a broom around the room Geraldo wanted kept shut. That first Christmas without Geraldina, Tizica put milk on the fire and it wouldn’t boil. Inert it remained in the agate teapot, the milk pure with the fat of the sedge from which it came, not moving a molecule in the heat. Not even a bubble emerged, the surface remained flat.
  Tizica spoke of the episode to people in the province and was challenged.
  "Any more talk like that and you’ll go attracting the deceased."
  "There’s no danger of that, what’s dead is buried." 


13.


Once Geraldo had buried Geraldina, he never set foot in the cemetery again. From the farmhouse, the family plot was but twenty metres away by horse. His boots still had mud from the funeral, he never used his hat again, kept it in a box with his mother’s clothes. Geraldina descended from the Cataguases, the last Indians to live in the Serra Morena valley. The tribe lived on the edge of the river and lake, believed in ghosts and protected themselves from them with shaman prayers. Geraldina’s mother was told by an old warrior that she had muddy water in her womb, and that her descendent would be another female with stagnant water in her belly. The tribal ancestor was cut down by an ancient poison, brought by an enemy who slept during the day. And yet, if the curse was still with them, it was with no other. Someone in the tribe had to be the group’s filter, Geraldina and her water were Serra Morena’s sacrifice and menstruation.
  In an attack on the village, Geraldina’s mother died far away fleeing a gang, the battle didn’t decimate the tribe, but many were killed. Geraldina was raised by a widow who found her in the bush, lost, searching for her mother.   The shaman de- cided the widow could stay, she’d escaped from a black whale on the other side of the valley as well as saved a Cataguás. Therefore she was worthy of a resting place.
  In a second and final attack, Geraldina’s adopted mother, the widow, became mistress to one of the bandits. The invaders killed the Cataguase leaders and that was the end of the tribe. The bandit, surname Passos, was crippled in the fighting and decided to chase treasure no more, he already had enough. He settled on the Indian land and sent for his siblings and cousins to form a hamlet.
  Geraldina grew up as the lady of the estate and married one of the cousins. The Passos family was the most successful in the region. She was wary of the French Nuns who founded a school nearby, in the little town at the foot of the Serra da Tormenta. She never visited them in life, never even saw their faces or vestments. 
   Once dead, Geraldina could go wherever she pleased. Somebody would have to amplify her a million times to see what she was made of: a molecular chain, tiny balls that moved, to a certain degree, of their own free will.
  She got to the school carried by a travelling salesman, going around the es- tates and settlements. Geraldina sat amongst his bottles of sugar cane syrup. She stayed in the kitchen until she got her bearings, then sauntered out into the yard until she reached the rooms, a louse looking for a leg. She went up to an orphan, an anaemic girl who died a little before Antônio arrived.
  Geraldo is still afraid of her, his mother the swamp, where boots left no foot- print and bog seized all movement.   Some separatist instinct caused Geraldina to act troublesome around Geraldo, to make him jump out of the maternal swamp, flea plucked from an animal’s paw.





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