• New short fiction, every week.
    The words you know and love . . .
    in a totally different order.

  • 30. The Drowned Woman

    By Frances De Pontes Peebles

    Frances De Pontes Peebles was recently awarded the Friends of American Writers Award for Fiction for her first novel,
    The Seamstress. This story demonstrates why: Her narrative walks the perimeter between life and death, the known and the unknown, with the kind of equilibrium that can only be achieved by carefully
    controlled tension.

    Next week: A story from Lydia Peelle’s hotly anticipated debut collection, Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing.

    It was the summer of the year Juscelino Kubitschek was elected president of the republic, the summer when the drought in the farmlands got worse. The summer when someone mysteriously opened all of the birdcages at the Madalena Market, and for an entire Saturday morning canaries and parrots and sabiás flew free in the square as the vendors waved their hats and makeshift nets and tried to reclaim the birds. It was the summer when my grandmother’s nurse washed ashore in front of our beach house. She wore a flowered dress and her shoes were missing. Her body was bloated and stiff, and one of her arms stood straight up in the air. No one knew what had happened to her.

    We were finishing lunch when the body came ashore. Our cousin Dorany ran into our dining room.

    “They just found a dead woman on the beach,” he panted.

    He was in his swim trunks and bare feet. I remember there was sand stuck to the hairs on his chest. My father would have never allowed Dorany into the dining room like that under normal circumstances. He put down his napkin and slid out from behind the table where he and my mother had just begun their meal. In our house, the children ate first and always at a separate table. Our meals were simple. Lunch was meat, beans, and rice. Dinners were always some kind of soup: black bean, or vegetable, or chicken, with a cup of cold milk. We were not allowed to have sugar. Every once in a while my mother made us a plain yellow cake with a small swirl of chocolate in the center, which was a luxury. Looking back I realize we were well fed, even healthy.

    My father’s untouched serving of calf brains steamed on his plate. They were white and covered with tomato sauce, which looked to me like chunks of blood. My mother ate plain rice, steamed pumpkin, and black beans, all in separate piles on her plate.

    My brothers and I stared at my father expectantly. He looked confused. I squirmed to the rim of my chair, making my skirt hike above my knees.

    “Let’s have a look, then,” he said slowly.

    With that we bolted from our chairs and ran from the house. My mother stayed behind. My father followed with Dorany at his side. He yelled at us to be careful crossing the road. It was a only a dirt path back then that separated our house from the beach, and the only car that passed was our own, but our father was concerned with decorum, not safety.

    *

    Our house was in Boa Viagem, near Piedade. We spent our summer breaks—from December until after Carnaval in February—at this house. All of the respectable Recife families did this. Our house was in between our Aunt Anali’s and Aunt Gilmara’s houses. It was five doors down from the Heráclios’ house, and two doors down from the Brennand family’s sprawling mansion, which my father detested.

    “What a waste!” he muttered each time we passed it in the car.

    Back then, Boa Viagem was deserted except for those old homes. There were no high rises, no Avenida, like today. We had to drive forty-five minutes just to find a bakery for fresh bread.

    My brothers and I were the youngest of all of our cousins, and I was the only girl among this pack of boys. My brother Edgar was thirteen, I was twelve, Artur was ten, and João only seven. By February the beach’s solitude began to wear on Edgar and me, especially during Carnaval. All we could do during those three days and four nights was chase each other with firecrackers, and light sparklers in the dark at the edge of the water. In later years, when we wouldn’t go to the beach house anymore, we would finally spend Carnaval in the city. We would go to country club parties and carry small vials of ether that my father bought for us. We would pour the ether into our handkerchiefs and sniff them throughout the night to make the room spin and the music play faster and faster.

    A boy we knew died from sniffing too much ether. Geraldo Coelho was his name. He sniffed it until he fell unconscious on the dance floor and his cousins had to carry him to their car and take him to the hospital. I remember him because he was the only person, outside of my brothers, who ever asked me to dance. Strapless dresses were in style back then, and all of the other teenage girls were wearing them. I begged my mother and she got the seamstress to make me one with a matching jacket so I could leave the house without my father noticing I had a strapless on. I looked so silly in that dress. One of the boys at the country club joked, “Hey, Lúcia, you’d better be careful in that dress—if you raise your arms it’ll fall right off!” Edgar punched him right in the face and Geraldo Coelho led me away from the brawl and on to the dance floor. He let me take a long sniff from his handkerchief and I couldn’t stop laughing.

    It was only when the ether wore off that I missed the silence of our old beach house Carnavals. But that summer, the summer when I was twelve, and it was February and I couldn’t yet appreciate the quiet of the beach, a dead body was a big attraction.

    *

    A small crowd had already formed when we arrived on the sand. My Aunt Anali stood sweating in her black dress and holding a rosary. Aunt Gilmara stood next her, in an almost see-through linen robe, shaking her head. All of my older cousins, Anali’s five sons, crowded at the edge of the water. The Brennand family and their servants huddled around the corpse. She lay on her side, with her bottom arm spread out on the sand. Her legs were bloated, and her skin was a pasty tan. Only the man who sold coconut water dared touch her, feeling for a pulse.

    My Uncle Paulo parted the crowd and directed the male servants to turn the woman over. We saw that it was my Grandmother Dulce’s nurse, Rita. Her flowered dress was twisted. The side of her face was covered in sand. The arm that had been under her, and turned outward when she rested on her side, now stood straight up, stiff in the air. The fingers of her outstretched hand were separated and it looked as if she were reaching up toward the sun, begging to be rescued from dry land. My Uncle Paulo tried to force Rita’s arm down but it would not go. My father had turned his back on Rita after she had been rolled over, until Artur and João laughed out loud at the sight of her uplifted arm. He turned around, slapped each of them across the face, and told them to go to the house.

    My grandmother’s wheelchair could not be pushed out onto the sand, so Aunt Gilmara’s maid, a large woman who could lift three full buckets of milk at once, carried Grandmother Dulce out to the beach. My grandmother wore her best black dress and she looked like a doll bumping across the sand in the maid’s arms, her tiny legs bobbing back and forth, making the embroidered beads of her dress swish and crunch against each other. Grandmother Dulce yelled over her shoulder at my mother, who held an umbrella over the old woman to protect her from the sun. When they reached the body my grandmother gasped, then covered her face with her hands and nodded, confirming that it was Rita.

    “Emília!” Grandmother Dulce barked at my mother, who was staring back at the house, “my rosary.” My grandmother proceeded to recite three Hail Marys while the maid who held her shifted in the sand. Everyone bowed their heads and mumbled the prayer, or pretended to. My Uncle Paulo only moved his lips. My father looked down at the body, then shook his head impatiently. Only my grandmother’s voice rose above the sound of the waves.

    “Edgar,” she cried when she finished, “call the Civil Police.” My father nodded gravely and accompanied my grandmother and her entourage back to the house without giving Rita a second look.

    The men dragged Rita’s body farther up the beach so that the tide, which was steadily rising, would not wash it away. The crowd thinned out slowly, knowing that it would take the police hours to arrive. Aunt Anali and Aunt Gilmara went back to their respective houses. The coconut man went back to his stand at the top of the beach. My cousins and my brother Edgar slowly scattered, only after daring each other to touch the corpse. The Brennand ladies went to back to sunbathing and their servants went back to work. Soon it was only me and Rita under the hot sun.

    *

    My Grandmother Dulce was my father’s mother. I always believed she was part Indian, because of her dark skin and her silence. When she did speak, her language betrayed her origins—she used perfect, precise, old-fashioned Portuguese. She gulped her vowels up into her nose and the back of her throat, and her sentences had a musical rhythm. On rare occasions she would suddenly seize my arm in her bird-of-prey grip and tell me random things.

    “Lúcia,” she would hiss from her wooden wheel chair, “when I came from Por-tu-gal we stayed in the first class cabins,” or “you must learn to speak cor-rect-ly, girl,” and she often went on to say that she had not been tainted like the rest of us, that her language had been kept pure.

    My grandfather Chico had left her everything—the deeds to the houses, the furniture, the cars, even the title to his import business. Grandmother Dulce was the one who placed Uncle Paulo at the head of the business. Grandmother Dulce was the one who pressured my father, who was still a bachelor at forty years old, to get married and start a proper family or else she would cut him off. And she was the one who, in the months after Rita died, insisted I be sent away to a Catholic boarding school because, she said, I was an animal and had to learn manners.

    By the end of that summer at the beach house, I had punched a Brennand girl and knocked out her front tooth because she had called Rita a tramp. I had convinced Artur to help me steal our father’s car and take it for a ride into the city, where we could find Rita’s grave and put flowers on it. I controlled the steering wheel and the gearshift but could not reach the pedals. Artur sat curled on the floor and pressed the clutch and the gas when I told him to. We made it only a mile down the road before my father caught up with us.

    The summer ended and I turned thirteen and was sent away to a school run by Belgian nuns. The nuns wore tiny habits that framed their faces and made them look pinched and small. In those days, you had to take everything with you to boarding school. My mother had to make a mini dowry for me—towels, sheets, blankets, and pillows. The nuns gave us only the bed and the mattress and we had provide everything else.

    Breakfast was bread and coffee. You could have one egg but you had to pay for it—it came out of your parents’ pockets. Lunch was always some awful kind of stew. Dinner was bread and coffee again, with a mashed green banana. We had etiquette lessons on which fork to use, which knife, which spoon. During meals if you did not eat with the right utensil, or if you talked to the girl next to you, they took away your food. I went through a lot of hungry days at that school. We were not allowed to talk—not during meals, not in the hallways, not in classes, not even in the showers. There was a nun who stood on a stepladder and looked over the tiled wall of the community shower to monitor us. She wore a metal whistle around her neck and would blow into it to warn us when the water was about to shut off. We had six minutes. It was hard to take a bath in such a short time because we were required to wear cotton camisoles that buttoned at our necks and our arms and went all the way down to our ankles. The camisole would get very heavy with soap and water, but we were never allowed to lift it up. We had to preserve our modesty.

    That’s why my father chose that particular school for me—because of its concern with modesty. They even made us change under our bed sheets each morning so as not to reveal ourselves to each other. It was silly, really, because I could still see the other girls’ bodies under their camisoles, and they could see mine. The water made the cotton fabric cling and everyone could see the outlines of everyone else. The water hit the camisoles of my classmates and over the years, it revealed breasts and hips and dark patches of hair. I mentioned this to my mother once, when I was home for vacation, and when I went back to school for my next term I suddenly had a private shower at the end of the hallway with no monitor, and with hot water. My father had given the school extra money each month for this luxury. Even in my private shower I still wore the camisole. I was so used to it. After my grandmother passed away my parents took me out of the boarding school and placed me in Agnes Erickson, a modern Presbyterian girls’ school near our home, and even then it took me a long time to get used to taking a bath in the nude.

    I was her only female grandchild, so Grandmother Dulce had no choice but to leave me every feminine thing she owned—old silk fans, beaded dresses, a pearl necklace, and a collection of ornate brooches that I would never wear. The only thing she left me that I’ve kept is a picture of her as a girl in Porto, standing primly beside a boat on the Rio Douro. Written in faded ink on the back of the photograph is, Dulce, 17 years old, but when I look at the photo my grandmother looks no more than fourteen. I like to look at her face in this photo—her deceivingly young face—because I see her more clearly than I did when I was a child and she was an old woman. The photo was taken before she came to Brazil, which she always referred to as “a country of savages.” It was taken before her husband died and she was left with a business she did not care to understand and a group of children who did not understand her. The photo was taken before all of that, and in it she looks innocent and almost kind.

    That summer, in the days before Rita died, Grandmother Dulce seemed deceptively frail and required constant attention. It was Rita who dressed her each morning and put her in the sun. It was Rita who rubbed lotion on to my grandmother’s hands and wrapped her long, thin piece of white hair into the smallest of buns. And it was Rita who held the wooden tablet with pegs in it steady while Grandmother Dulce made lace doilies, hooking strands of silk through one peg after another for hours on end.

    *

    I stared at Rita’s body on the beach. Her dress was beginning to dry off and white salt caked over the fabric’s small purple flowers. Her eyes were shut and her mouth slightly open. She looked trapped, frozen in the position which she had washed ashore, like a starfish or a coral that becomes petrified when taken from the sea. I remembered how that morning Rita had not come back from her daily walk. My mother had had to dress and bathe Grandmother Dulce, and left her on the porch with Artur. During their breakfast I heard my mother complain to my father about Rita’s absence.

    “Fire her, Edgar. Now you will have to fire her.”

    I stood under the burning sun until I couldn’t bear looking at Rita’s body any longer. I felt dizzy and hot, my throat stung, and my eyes watered from the reflection of the sun off of the bright sand. I ran to Aunt Anali’s house and into her kitchen.

    My aunt had a skinny cook named Doralice. Doralice was the darkest woman I had ever seen. I liked to watch her, because when she sweated her skin would shine and it looked like she was made of stone. She got mad when I stared at her so I had to watch her secretly, through the hole in the screen door, or from the open window. If she caught me she ran after me with a wooden spoon and swore she was going to beat me if I looked at her again. Doralice made desserts—fabulous creations that made me salivate every afternoon. She made chocolate cakes that oozed warm fudge from the inside and were covered with a white cream sauce on top, made of condensed milk. Once I had begged my mother for condensed milk. I begged for days, until she went to the store, bought seven cans of it, and made me sit and eat each one until I got so sick I couldn’t leave the bathroom for a whole day.

    That day, I did not hide from Doralice when I came in from the beach. I walked right into the kitchen and sat down on a stool by the butcher block. She was making my favorite dessert—a guava pudding, the color of bubble gum and decorated with blue-black prunes. Doralice arranged the prunes without acknowledging me.

    “Rita’s dead,” I told her, my voice breaking even though I tried my best to sound flippant about the whole thing.

    “I know,” Doralice said mechanically, arranging the prunes.

    She and Rita used to smoke cigarettes together in the afternoons, on their breaks. Rita rolled the cigarettes and licked them; Doralice yelled at her not to get her red lipstick on them. They laughed and giggled a lot. Doralice was having an affair with the coconut vendor’s son—a muscular young man who met her by the shed behind Aunt Anali’s house once a week. I watched them once—I saw them kiss. I saw their pink tongues move in and out of each other’s dark mouths. I saw his hand go under her skirt and her long leg wrap around his waist. I left when I saw that. I backed away from my hiding spot and ran, more afraid of seeing what they were going to do next then of getting caught.

    During their breaks, Rita would tease Doralice and she would tease Rita right back. He might not be rich, but at least he’s mine and mine alone, she would say, growing serious. You had better be careful, Rita. That’s all I’m going to say. You’re a grown woman, you can do what you want. You don’t have to listen to me—but you have to know your place. Rita would puff on their cigarette and change the subject, asking Doralice what she was going to cook for dinner that night. Then Rita would smile and nod, and listen, just listen, until it was time for them to go back to work again.

    “I said Rita’s dead. Don’t you care?” I yelped, hitting my fist against the wooden table. Doralice looked up, her eyes narrowed on me.

    “What business of yours is it if I care?” she barked. “How do you know if I care or not? How does a spoiled little girl like you know anything at all? You didn’t even know Rita.” She went for a spoon, but I jumped from the stool and yelled at her.

    “I knew Rita. I knew her better than anybody!” And ran from the kitchen out onto the porch.

    My cousins, Uncle Paulo, and Aunt Anali ate lunch in their dining room and I watched them from the porch windows, wiping my nose on my shirt collar. They ate as a family, together at the same table. They did not have to keep their napkins in their laps or chew twenty-five times before swallowing. They got to drink real bottled Brahma Guaraná soda. My father bought only powdered Guaraná for us. Our maid Raimunda stirred the powder into a huge pitcher of water every day. It was chalky, not fizzy like the bottled soda my cousins got. It made me so mad.

    *

    Rita was a dark woman too. She had thick legs and tan skin—caramel-colored skin like Grandmother Dulce’s, like my own. Every day she wore bright red lipstick, which she would reapply after lunch. She was ten years older than my mother and had small spider veins on her calves. Despite this, Rita liked to wear knee-length dresses and black high-heeled sandals with little flowers embroidered on the straps. Once, my grandmother’s wheelchair ran over her foot and broke her middle toe. Rita limped into my father’s study, where he was teaching me to play chess. “Edgar,” she’d called him, “Edgar, I’ve hurt myself.” And then I watched from the doorway as she sat in a chair across from my father, her foot in his lap, and his hands shaking as he made her a splint from a Popsicle stick and gauze.

    Rita would not help in the kitchen. She would not do any cooking or cleaning. She was educated, she said, trained as a nurse, and would not do a maid’s work. This infuriated my mother. Rita always smiled when she passed me in the hallways, or when she caught me watching her with my grandmother. In the afternoons when Rita sat with Grandmother Dulce on the terrace, I liked to sneak into her room at the back of the house. It was at the end of a long hallway behind the laundry area, five doors down from our maid Raimunda’s room. Rita had a patchwork quilt on her bed and her pillows smelled like her perfume, a baby cologne that sat in a huge glass bottle on her dresser. She had celebrity magazines stacked in a corner and a thin book about Rio de Janeiro on her dresser. When I looked in her dresser drawers I saw large brassieres and cotton underpants that were like my own, except her initials were not sewn into the corners.

    One afternoon, as I sat cross-legged on the sandy wooden floor and looked through her things, I found in her bottom drawer, hidden under an old sweater, two gold boxes tied with pink ribbons. I opened the one box and there was nothing in it except for ten empty tin-foil cups. The other box had three chocolates left in it: one with a pink swirl, another in the shape of a heart, and a white one with a stamp of a coin in the middle. My mouth watered. Where had Rita gotten these chocolates? They were expensive and fresh, not covered in a white dust like the old chocolates I had once found in our pantry and tried to eat but could not. These were smooth and rich and as dark as Doralice’s skin.

    On another afternoon, while Rita cared for my grandmother, I snuck back to Rita’s room and I caught my mother coming out of it. We were both flustered—trapped in a dead-end hallway with no excuses to make.

    “What are you doing back here?” my mother asked, her face flushing.

    “I . . . I . . . was looking for you.” This was a lie and she knew it. I looked for my mother only when my father would tell me to get her. He was in Recife on business that day.

    “What do you want?” she asked.

    “I’m hungry.” It was the only excuse I could think of. It was four o’clock and Raimunda had strict instructions not to let us into the pantry after lunch. My mother knew this. She looked relieved—it was a chance for both of us to escape. We went back to the kitchen and my mother cut open a mango for us.

    “Lúcia,” she said as she sliced the fruit with her knife, “there’s a slip of paper in my skirt pocket. I don’t want to touch it because my hands have juice on them. Take it out for me and tell me what it says.”

    My mother could not read or write very well. She tried to write grocery lists by herself, but always gave up and handed me the pen and paper. I would cross out her shaky writing and begin the list again as she stood in the pantry and called out the items we needed to buy. She was raised on a sugar plantation in Paraíba, and as the oldest girl among eight children, she had to quit school early to help her mother. She used to tell me that as a teenager she had gone into the city and had seen a car for the first time in her life. After that, she’d said, I told myself that one day I would ride in one of those machines. That one day I would have one of my own. So, when my father came into town in his white suit and convertible to sell imported machines to the local sugar mill, she saw her opportunity. She never phrased it that crudely, though.

    This is her story of how they met: She was standing under an orange tree near the road and he saw her. He pulled his car alongside the tree and asked if he could have an orange. One? my mother said. You can have the whole tree if you want it. She was seventeen. He was forty-one. They were married one year later, and a year after that Edgar was born, and a year after that I was born.

    “What does it say?” my mother had asked after I unfolded the paper, which looked as though it had been ripped out of a book.

    “It’s a poem,” I’d said, recognizing the shape of the typed lines. Some of the words were too big for me to understand, but the ebb and flow of the rhymes made me recall the kiss between Doralice and her coconut boy, their tongues swirling in and out of each other, their hands and mouths and bodies moving in a perfect rhythm.

    “What is it about?” my mother asked, placing the mango slices on a plate for us.

    “Nothing,” I mumbled, folding the paper up, and putting it back in her pocket. “It’s about the ocean, that’s all.”

    I always believed that my father’s family liked my mother—why wouldn’t they? My mother had dark hair, an hourglass figure, and perfect skin except for the mosquito bites on her legs. My mother smelled like soap and talcum powder, and she carried a handkerchief in the belt of her dress to wipe her brow and neck on hot days. My mother taught Aunt Anali how to knit, and she used to rub aloe vera on Aunt Gilmara’s back to relieve sunburns. But when my aunts had afternoon luncheons at their homes in the city, my mother never attended, even though she was always invited. She said she had too much to do at home, that she was too busy with the children. Once, when I pressed her on why she didn’t accept an offer to go to lunch, she snapped at me and said, The invitation is just a formality, Lúcia. Sometimes my mother would laugh with our maids, but would immediately catch herself and then leave the room to let them finish their work. When I was a girl, I believed she was a just a shy and silent person. Many times she tried to teach me how to sew, how to make jam. But I was never interested. I wanted to read, to play chess, to hide and observe everyone except her.

    The mango was the sweetest thing we had in the house that day, and my mother and I sat in the kitchen for a long time peeling back its red skin and sucking on its insides, without saying a word.

    *

    I wiped my eyes and left my Aunt Anali’s porch after they had finished eating dessert. I went back to the beach to check on Rita’s body. My older cousins were playing football at the top of the beach, showing off for the sunbathing Brennand girls who had turned to watch them. My brothers were in the surf, starting a game we all liked to play in the afternoons, as the tide got higher. We liked to build forts by the edge of the water. We would dig moats in the sand and build barricades out of palm fronds, coconuts, and driftwood. Anything that was natural could be used; those were the rules. The waves would pound the forts when high tide would come and whoever’s structure was left standing would win. We would scramble to keep our forts up the longest. Sometimes we stayed on the beach so long my mother had to send Raimunda to bring us in.

    The tide was rising that afternoon. The water lapped up to Rita’s toes whenever a wave hit. Her raised arm made a shadow across her body. My brothers argued. Artur yelled at Edgar that, yes, a corpse was natural and that he could use it to barricade his fort. Edgar disagreed. João was already digging up sand around Rita.

    “Stop!” I yelled. “Don’t touch her! Get away from her!” I walked up to Artur and pushed him hard. “No one can use her for their fort,” I screamed, “Go play somewhere else.”

    Edgar smirked. João obeyed.

    Artur narrowed his eyes. “I can do whatever I want.”

    I pushed him a second time and he fell to the sand. Edgar laughed and clapped me on the back. Artur started to run for the house to tell our mother, until Edgar grabbed his shoulder.

    “Don’t be a baby, Artur. She’s right. I told you can’t use the body. It’s not fair for the rest of us. Come on, let’s build down the beach over there.”

    Artur considered this, then walked down the beach without looking at me. Soon the three of them were laughing and yelling, scampering in the sand, fighting for pieces of wood and tackling each other for tufts of seaweed while I sat next to Rita. Her red lipstick had come off and her lips were pink and dry. Sand had crept into the corners of her mouth. I pictured Rita underwater, her body loose and free, her dress fluttering like a fin. I could picture the salt water going into and out of her, a sea creature taking up residence in her open mouth, small fish hiding in her hair. It was a shame that she had been washed ashore. I thought of the rocks and shells I liked to pick up off the beach. They were so brilliant and colorful in the tide, but always dried off when I brought them home and became dull without the shine of the water. Like Rita, they were more beautiful in the sea. I took a handkerchief from my pocket—a small square of fabric my grandmother had embroidered for me, decorating it with flowers and butterflies and my initials, L C R. I began to wipe the sand slowly from Rita’s face.

    *

    Two days before we found Rita’s body on the beach, I had gone to her room and was surprised to find her there. Grandmother Dulce had taken an unexpected nap, complaining that she had not slept well the night before. Rita stood over her dresser admiring a new gold box of chocolates and deciding which one she would have first. She saw me, looked surprised, then smiled and invited me in.

    “Come here, Lúcia,” she motioned to me.

    She brushed back hairs from my face. Her nails felt so good on my scalp I almost closed my eyes.

    “Do you want one?” She motioned to the box.

    I looked at her, unsure.

    “I promise I won’t tell anyone. Our secret.”

    I nodded.

    “Which one do you want?”

    I pointed to the dark one, the one with a pink swirl. She took it from its wrapper and handed it to me.

    “Try it.”

    I did. It was filled with a caramel crème that dripped on my chin. I smiled. So did Rita. She wiped my chin with her thumb. She took a nutty one out of the box and popped it in her mouth all at once. I heard it crunch. She gave me another, then another.

    “It’s a shame,” she said, smiling, “that your mother doesn’t let you eat these things. She shouldn’t deprive her child. But, she’s a child herself, your mother.” Rita took a chocolate between her fingers and stared at it. “She’s too young up here,” she pointed to her head, “to appreciate these things, but you aren’t, are you? No, you aren’t.”

    I felt Rita was trying to say that she and I were alike, and I felt flattered by this. Rita seemed different from the other hired help—more elegant somehow, more ambitious. As a girl I was fascinated by her ambition because I could not see the viciousness in it, or how useless and sad it was for a person in her position to even harbor it.

    By the end of the afternoon we had finished the whole box of candies. Rita lay on her bed while I sat on the other side, one leg up on the mattress, the other dangling above the floor. We made an appointment to go for a walk the next morning, together, during low tide. We would leave early so no one would even know we were gone. Rita liked to take walks along the beach in the mornings when the rocks and tide pools were exposed. I knew she took these walks because I had often spied her leaving in the mornings, silently closing the screen door and heading out to the beach without shoes on.

    We took our secret walk the day before Rita died. She and I came back to the house giggling and whispering. The sun was out by then and we heard sounds in the kitchen. We had planned on separating; Rita would go in through the back door as usual and I would sneak in through the front. But just as we were about to part, we heard the back door open and my mother came out of the kitchen. She held a dishrag in her hand. Raimunda stared from the doorway with a concerned look on her face. My mother did not say a word. I thought she was going to slap me, but instead she hit Rita square across the face, then dragged me by the arm up to my room. I looked back and saw Rita holding her cheek in her hands.

    I was confined to my room all day. I did not know what I had done wrong. I could hear only the murmurs of my parents’ yells from my room. I was not allowed to have lunch. I felt feverish. I wept until I fell asleep. I woke up again and it was dark outside. I crept downstairs to try to sneak into the kitchen for some food, and saw that the lights were on in my father’s study.

    He sat at his desk and looked out the window, and I could not tell if he was staring out at the darkness on the other side of the glass, or at his own reflection. Then he saw me in the doorway.

    “Tough day, wasn’t it, Lúcia?” he asked, smiling slightly. He looked tired and old.

    “Yes,” I replied.

    He invited me in. Then he did something he had never done before—he searched his bookshelf and handed me a copy of Robinson Crusoe. We were never allowed to touch my father’s books. Their different-colored leather bindings and illegible writing—most were written in German—fascinated me. My father had studied electrical engineering in Germany before the war, and had even worked in America, in New York City, until he was called back when Grandfather Chico died. I’ve always wondered what it must have been like for him—to have seen so many exotic places and then to come back here, to Recife, at time when even simple electricity was a novelty to everyone but him.

    He spoke very little about those sorts of things. It was only when he was older, in his late seventies, that he spoke about his time in Germany. I was the only one in my family that visited him at that time, so I got to hear his stories. He had left my mother, had moved out of our family home and began living with a young black manicurist in a rough part of town. She was my age at the time, in her thirties, and I remember that she liked to kiss him on the top of his bald head and this bothered me.

    “You should read this, Lúcia,” my father said that night in his study as he kneeled next to me. The chair I sat in was made of mahogany and was so tall my twelve-year-old legs could not touch the ground. “It’s very good,” he said, “It’s about a man who is all by himself in the world,” and he went on to tell me the entire story as I turned the book around in my hands.

    I went to bed with the book under my arm and did not wake up until morning, when the first light started to peek though my windows and I heard the screen door slam and knew it was Rita.

    *

    Rita’s body was almost dried off, but the water was lapping over her ankles. A smell like bad breath came from her. I stared at Rita’s clean face. I had woken up that morning, my father’s book in my arms, and had heard Rita leaving for her walk. A cluster of seaweed washed up near my feet. It was bright green with little seed balls that were the size of pearls. I popped these pearls between my thumb and forefinger, then looked at Rita’s outstretched arm. I took the strand of seaweed and made a bracelet for Rita, tying it loosely to her stiff wrist. I searched for another strand and made her a necklace. Then I combed her hair with my fingers and made her a crown.

    As I arranged her hair I heard a siren and knew that the Recife Civil Police had finally arrived. They pulled onto the sand in a green jeep accompanied by an old station wagon ambulance whose lights and siren were broken. Everyone remembered the body then, and came out of their homes. My cousins stopped their football game, my brothers forgot their forts. My Uncle Paulo and my father spoke with the officers—two short men in green military uniforms—while two paramedics told me to move aside as they checked Rita for any signs of life. My father explained that we had found her that way, already stiff, brought in by the tide. The men in green were silent. Then I saw my uncle slip both of them fifty Cruzeiros, “to avoid any confusion.” The men in green nodded and said it was awful, how many accidental drownings there were this time of year on the beaches.

    The paramedics brought over a stretcher. They lifted Rita by her shoulders and feet and plopped her on. One medic laughed and mockingly shook Rita’s outstretched hand.

    “This happens every time,” they said to my uncle. “After a while the bodies get stiff. You wouldn’t believe the positions we find some of them in! We’ll have to break her arm to get it down.”

    *

    “Be careful not to cut your feet!” Rita had said during our secret walk.

    We picked up starfish and Rita explained how they could lose an arm and grow it back. She giggled when she almost slipped on a rock covered with moss. We crouched over a tide pool and she pointed out the pink sea anemones, their tentacles swaying in the water. We saw black-spiked sea urchins and small fish flutter and hide under bands of seaweed. Then Rita told me to be very still and we closed our eyes and listened to the ocean gurgle as it trickled into and out of the tide pools.

    “You’re growing up, Lúcia,” she said softly, looking into the water.

    I nodded

    “Things will happen to you soon . . . changes. . . . Do you know what I mean?”

    I did. I knew because I had seen my Aunt Gilmara, who liked to lie nude in her hammock on hot afternoons with only a small sheet covering her. Some afternoons the sheet shifted and I caught glimpses of her grown woman’s body.

    I knew why my mother got sick once a month and stayed in bed all day with the door locked. The doctor that treated her had seen me once, listening outside of her door, and he told me the story of Eve and the Serpent and said that one day I too would get sick each month, and one day I too would feel the pain of bearing a child.

    “It is part of growing up,” he had said, “and with it comes responsibility.”

    I knew all of these things that awaited me, but I told Rita that I didn’t. I let her talk, let her hold my hand and tell me, as we sat by the tide pool, how I would grow and change.

    Rita did not know that her body would wash up on the beach the next day, bloated and foul-smelling. She did not know that at the end of the summer I would be sent away to boarding school. And she would never know that I would not develop—not get a period or breasts or pubic hair—until I was eighteen years old because, the doctors said, of a hormonal abnormality. Rita would never know that I only learned my retarded development was a serious problem through the whispers and hushed conversations of my aunts, and that my mother had to smuggle me in to see a woman’s doctor because my father had strictly forbidden it. Rita would never see me grow up lanky and quiet, stuck in my little girl’s body without knowing why. And she would never know that in the years after her death we stayed at the beach house less and less, until we stopped going there altogether.

    But I didn’t know most of these things either, that summer, when they took my friend away on a stretcher, her seaweed bracelet bobbing on her stiff arm, making her look as if she were waving goodbye.

    *

    © by Frances De Pontes Peebles. Used by permission of the author.

    For more of Frances De Pontes Peebles’s extraordinary portrait of life in Brazil, read her novel The Seamstress, just out from Harper Perennial.

    And find Frances herself here!



    Our Friends

  • They Come in Collections, Too

    New and Impending from Harper Perennial: