Otras Casas by Lisa Marie Basile
It was God this morning in Rio De Janeiro, singing.
I looked through the little window in my brick wall. Across from me, Señora Absidiola Silva was washing her baby. Then I heard Natanael. He said to his mother, the Señora, "Why do you make me do this?" and I sat there a wilted flower, watching the man scrape his knees and I could not have said one word, nothing, no words. Natanael was twenty today, and he would have looked like the sun if his mother did not burden him.
Nereida is stupid, the whole favela says about me. I hear them. Nereida is a slut. Natanael is the only one who hasn’t said it.
Señora Silva knows that Natanael no longer loves her as a child should love his mother, and so she plucked a newborn from the gutter. Her desperation was satiated by motherhood.
"Green eyes, this child must be made from white," she said about the baby. She loved the green-eyed baby, but secretly never as much at Natanael. An unrequited love, between mother and son. These days, Natanael cleans his mother’s blood from their floor, straight off of her fat feet, her dirty fat calves.
She named the new baby Natanael, as if replacing the old. When he cries, she bumps him up and down and says, “no tears, no tears, não grita meu bebê," and then she puts her dirty fingers in his mouth. His teeth were coming in.
I wore white because of the heat. My breasts were barely visible, but my shape was discernible. Most of the street men said, o holy god, mami, o come this way, o my god. I read somewhere that if I used my pointer and my little finger and stuck out my tongue, I could curse them.
In this favela I wore hexes as a gown.
Most nights ended in prayer. I walked down the staircases and through the alleys, thinking of the America I had seen in photographs. The Americans have faucets. They wash their face for hours! They give birth to their children in white beds. They take the hair from their legs. Beautiful.
"Thank Jesus Christ that we now live in Rocinha," Alberta the gown seamstress said. She thought Rocinha to be the palace of all favelas. I still dreamed of other countries.
Some women walked the stairways as if there were no blood the evening before. As if no one were killed. They hung their white panties in the sunlight as though they loved the daytime. They handled the wooden clothespins as dandelions. Many people moved here from Parada de Lucas and Turano because their families sold drugs and died. All of these places were death ranches, and I wanted to leave. How could God be found here? How could I believe in God?
The people of Rocinha, our favela, have buses and plumbing and concrete. A few of our terrible women call the other women favelados, favelados, favelados — the people who live in favelas. But they are no different. We see the same sun, we feed ourselves nothing, we hate the same things. We all want to be loved. Maybe love is geography. Is there a country made from the heart? I imagined America to be a place of constant perfection and kindness. Wasn’t it? Wasn’t it where everyone was in love and rich and beautiful?
Well, I suppose I was the Queen, then, of the favelados. The slut, the stupid slut, o cona, the girl with the white dress. I stained my lips red, and cursed them all, and danced in the night. I wanted to shine so they all called me a devil. I could not tell anyone I knew how to read. I could never tell them I knew how to write, and this is because Señora Silva found my books, and she told the others, and they scolded me and crossed their foreheads in fear.
I wrote about how Mama married my father and how he killed her, and killed himself because he was sad, and how a padre santamente said to me you killed them with you eyes, didn’t you? He would not bless me. Not with my face in my hands, in my tears. He said I was the devil herself.
If the devil were real . . . no, the believers would not win. The devil would be a fool striking down a pretty girl in a white gown. He would not win, and I would remain by the sea, always weeping. How can I be the devil, if the devil isn’t real?
I spent every day on a stretch of grass in the sun, drawing letters into the clouds, leaving flowers on tombstones in heaven. In my dreams, I always dress as though I am to be married, and I carry the greatest bouquet, and some little chocolates and my hands are shaking but I am so happy. I bring this to Mama and Papa, and maybe even a god is there, watching. I am welcome, but he sends me home, and I slip into bed in America.
I dreamed there on that grass that I brushed my hair in the mirror and they could see colors reflected in the light. How beautiful, Nereida! Look at those colors.
My hair was black.
In my daydreams they say, Oh, Nereida, come dance. Come read books. Come do wonderful things you can tell all the world about! They take me into their hands, and I dream of believing in such beautiful ideas that I am given money to make my ideas true. I choose to end poverty, and I come to the favelas, with my beautiful golden hair, and once I am there, I shudder.
I hold the hands of children I will never understand, and then I bring pictures of them back with me to show all of the world. I would be touched by the beauty of all things, and I would then be more lovely. The favelas were stinking, and dirty, and rotten, and I would know nothing of the mother who stares her baby in the face and cannot answer. I would know nothing of dreaming of water, and I would know nothing about living without the mirror.
I had my breasts out on the grass, and some boys threw rocks over the cliff. I went through my days, crying. I crushed my nipples as I turned onto my stomach. Sleeping in the sunlight was the purest of all sleep I could find. The sky must be the same everywhere. Is the American sky more blue?
I thought of all the letters I knew and all the words and all the things I would say.
Natanael came that Sunday when Señora Silva was asleep. He scratched at my door as a mouse would. The heat was terrible, and my hairs stuck to me in tiny swirls. My breasts were warm and he could see them through my gown.
I let him in, watching him move. He was gentle, and hunched, and stunning. "The new baby sleeps through the night now. I would have come sooner but I needed to clean up mama," he said to me, only staring at the floor.
I wanted to ask him to make love to me, but I did not want to be a whore.
"I came to bring you this." He gave me a piece of paper. His face was bright.
"Stand up straight," I ordered. I rarely saw him walking or standing. He was always on his knees, cleaning. His mother had a problem, and she was always bleeding.
"Why do you clean her blood?” I asked. I was angry for him. “Why do you honor the thankless?”
I placed my hands slowly on his shoulders and pressed him upright. His bones cracked and his face fell. His sorrow fell all over me.
"I will read it to you," he said. "But you can read. I know this, you can."
I stared at him; tears and sweat fell from my face, and I watched his mouth shift. He smiled quietly. "I think it beautiful that you know how to read. I don’t think you are a sorcerer or a devil.”
He meant nothing but good for all things. If I could cast spells, he would have everything.
"I dream of you as you, and I would even dream of you as the devil,” he said. I was paralyzed even though my heart was blooming. "The whole town is jealous of your goodness. If there were a God they’d stone her.”
The paper said to go to a shanty on the sea 33 miles from here. It had one nice room and it was perfect because long stems grew into the windows: o girassol, o lírio, a margarida, little pretty Gods.
"This is not your dream, I know," he said, moving backwards to avoid the window where Señora might see. "But it’s something. What is your dream?”
"That is barbaric."
I was aching then to tell him that I did think the sea shanty was a dream, I did. I was exploding, my eyes made of girassols, girassols, girassols, the magic of color.
"I want to be clean," I said. "I don’t want to live here with all this dirtiness.”
“I don’t think it’s the shanty at all. I think you need to escape the people.”
He coughed, held it in, pointed at the sink. I rushed over, keeping a finger over my mouth. I obeyed and was silent, too. He swallowed a glass of water. His mouth shone.
"Only devils are afraid of the evil. Devils are narcissism, they are loud and vast and they are hungry. Don’t mistake these things for gifts,” he told me.
Natanael had an honest, golden face. "Nereida. Listen." I could believe in him.
The smell of aluminum followed him; her blood was everywhere. The night was humming with the smell of blood and stars.
"Devils want the world to fall in love with them. Not you -- no, you are in love with the world."
I thought of all the other houses that I would love to have. I did not know why. I wanted the shanty by the sea. I wanted America. I was perfection. Quiero....
The baby suddenly cracked its mouth open and wailed into the night. Señora grunted O deus, o deus!
Natanael and I stood three feet apart, still and fearful. He quickly pulled from his pocket a cigarette and a crumpled matchbook.
"Just say I was smoking, that I woke up. I am already gone." He started to leave. He was hiding from his mother.
"No. No. I won’t. Why do you run from her?" I stood before him, as a guard. "You do not want to come with me to America? Why can’t we leave? You and me, we could go, we could go there,” I begged.
He stood and watched me, sweat dripped from his eyebrows. I did not say anything else, but I watched the moon fall into us, from the window. Beautiful.
"I am lighting my cigarette here." He stayed.
His hands were shaking.
"You have shaking hands."
"I get it from my father."
"So where is he?"
"My mother told me that your father was going to take you away from here with all of his cocaine. I do not remember when she said it." He watched me closely. "You know that he killed my father, too."
I could not say anything. I did not know this. But I was sorry. I was sorry in all the ways I knew, eu sou pesaroso, lo siento tan.
"My father shot your father in the leg, and I know this because my mother told Adelita down those stairs. She never could say this out loud where people could hear her. I think they were selling it all together. Their money went away. I think they had a deal, my father and your father. Mama won't let me talk to you because we are now enemies."
"But you are standing here."
"I am finishing my cigarette. Here.”
"She can see you. She knows that you are in here.”
"I know what you said about America. We cannot go there. Someday, but we cannot go there now. And my father and your father, and the mystery. It was about money and it was about drugs. And they are the dead devils. They have dirtied this place and all the graveyards they have trailed us through before. We were left here, poor. So, Nereida, no we cannot go to America but we can leave the blood here and go to where it is not. We’re not running from places. We’re running from people.”
His mother barreled through. Natanael! Natanael. Come from that slut, now. Leave there, Natanael. Come now! The baby screamed, and she said over and over shush, shush, shush, baby, shush baby, and Natanael took the cigarette into his mouth slowly. He ignored that mountain of a woman.
"Just stop speaking, mama," he says to her from over the window ledge. I wanted to stick out my fingers and my tongue but the baby needed a mother.
Natanael turned to me, very honestly, with the face of a true man, and said, "I found you a shanty, but I cannot bring you America. I will clean up the blood here forever, but you deserve to be far away from these people. Maybe you will come back and say hello to me from time to time.”
I told him to come with me, it would be all right, we would water flowers and make food and he could catch fish and sell them.
“You don’t need America,” he said. “You only need respect.”
We went from where we stood in the light and sat in the shadow. His mother finally shut her mouth. It is in all things broken together that as one they are repaired.
I told him I was not a whore, and I wore red lip paint because it made me feel alive. He told me geography had nothing to do with what was good and clean and right. He said he understood the topography of beauty.
We would wait for the sun to come, and then we would leave. We could hear nothing but God, singing. God being all good things finding justice. Before the sun rose, Natanael became everything I wrote in my head — all the dreams, the art, the maps, the exodus.
Nataneal was right. "If a golden flower, una maravillo, una rosa, is grown right here," he says, pointing to the crack in the floor, "Right here. Is it not still the most beautiful thing you ever have seen?"