She was very tired. It could have been worse; we could have been starving like in the old days. But at least in the old days we played real music, together. Then she opened her mouth and sang. People remember the haircut, the enormous earrings, the sequined skirts, the accent, but they forget her voice.
When she sang for that photographer, his camera nearly fell from his hands.
Sodomy, Indecency, and Courts Martial in Nelson’s Navy
I imagine her here, nudging me, bringing me back to my senses. Why the hell are you upset, Dor? Who wants real life? She is always laughing at someone. I shake my head. My current life is a dull jumble of walks along the beach chaperoned by a nurse; trips to the grocery store; afternoons in my office; evenings listening to records; tedious hours spent tolerating a steady stream of physical therapists and doctors with their proclamations and humorless devotion.
I live in a vast house surrounded by paid help. Once, long ago, I wished for such ease. Now, I wish for the early, chaotic part of my life—those first thirty or so years—to return to me, even with its cruelty, its sacrifice, its missteps, its misdeeds. My misdeeds. Not the boisterous kind they play during Carnaval.
It has all of the elements of a true samba though not necessarily a great one. There is lament, humor, rebelliousness, lust, ambition, regret. And love. There is that, too. It is all improvisation, so if there are mistakes I must move past them and keep playing. Beneath it all, there is the ostinato—the main groove that never varies, never wavers. And here I am: the only one left in the circle, conjuring voices I have not heard in decades, listening to a chorus of arguments I should never have made.
I have tried not to hear this song in full. I have tried to blot it out with drink and time and indifference. But it remains in my head, and will not stop until I recall all of its words. Until I sing it out loud, from beginning to end.
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I was her fifth and final child. But she was not married and never had been.
No one spoke of her, except to insult me. They said I had a temper, like her. They said I was ugly as sin, like her, except I did not have scars covering my arms and face from the cane. She was, for a little while at least, a sugarcane cutter—one of a handful of women who could stomach the work.
But the insult that came up the most was the one about her easy way with men. And I realized, though I could not articulate it clearly as a child, that people hated what they feared, and so I was proud of her. The midwife took pity on me, being such a healthy baby, and instead of smothering me, or throwing me in the cane for the vultures pick at, or giving me to some plantation owner to raise like a pet or a slave all common practices back then for girl children without families , she gave me to Nena, the head cook on the Riacho Doce plantation.
There were hundreds of cane plantations along the coast of our state of Pernambuco, and Riacho Doce was one of the largest. In good times, when sugar prices were high, Cook Nena led a staff of ten kitchen maids and two houseboys. This is why no one objected when, after the midwife brought me, naked and wailing, to Nena, the cook decided to raise me as her kitchen girl. They freely remarked on my rosy skin, my long legs, my perfect feet. I was too young to eat manioc porridge but Nena tried to feed it to me anyway.
Olho mau, they called it, olho gordo. Both are different names for the same bad luck. Nena went to Old Euclides for help. My hair grew in thick. After that, I was called Jega. They all wanted me to believe it. They wanted me to become that Jega. I would never give them that satisfaction. The Great House sat on a hill.
And you could see the brown line of water that gave Riacho Doce its name, although it was much wider than a creek and its waters were not sweet. Every plantation had a ghost story and ours was no different: a woman had drowned in the creek and lived there still.
Some said she was killed by a lover, others said a master, others said she killed herself.
They said you could hear her at night, under the waters, singing for her lost love or trying to lure people into the waters and drown them to keep her company; the story depended on whether you believed in the kind ghost or the vengeful one. I was Jega—the lowest soul in the strict hierarchy of the Great House—and the maids and houseboys were determined to remind me of this fact. They slapped me, pinched my neck, cursed and spat at me. They thwacked me with wooden spoons and greased the staff doorway with lard to make me slip and fall.
They will soon enough. Better learn to fight them now. If I failed to heed her warnings she beat me with a wooden spoon, or an old bullwhip, or with her bare hands. Nena could keep me safe in her kitchen but nowhere else. I was a creature without family or money. I was another mouth to feed. And, even worse, I was a girl. And what did an ugly little girl have to offer the world but her body?
So I had to learn to defend that body ruthlessly against any stable boys or millworkers or others who might try to use it roughly. And, at the same time, I had to learn how to make myself useful within the house, to obey my patrons at all costs or, better yet, stay out of their sights completely. As long as I was invisible, I was safe. Games where force was power, and where cleverness meant survival.
Smaller plantations near R iacho Doce boarded up their Great Houses and put workers out of their gates. After getting into crippling debt, the Pimentel family moved away.go to link
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There were rumors of a sale. Soon afterward, the cane cutters left to work on other plantations that had weathered the crisis.
The fields were abandoned. The distillery was locked. One by one, the housemaids and kitchen girls and stable boys left. Soon, only Nena, Old Euclides, and I were left. Nena was driven by loyalty and fear. She and Old Euclides were born on Riacho Doce before slavery had been banned in Brazil in , and had stayed on even after they were freed.
The Air You Breathe
During the abandonment, Old Euclides took care of the grounds, making sure no one took animals from the stables or stole fruit from the orchard. We ate whatever food was left in the pantry and then, because none of us had been paid since the Pimentels left, began to trade at the local market. These were lean times but not unhappy ones. Not for me. For many months the Great House was empty and I spent my days inside it.
I skipped across its stone floors. I slipped my hands under dust covers and felt cool marble, the slopes and curves of table legs, the gilded bevels of mirrors.
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