Samba Stories

(Fragment of the novel Samba Stories, by Jo√£o Almino)


Translated by Dana Stevens

Paulo Antonio has to feel his way to the chair. He climbs up on it and, without hesitation, bravely puts the noose around his neck. Before jumping, he closes his eyes, and something magical happens. It‚Ä≤s as if he were diving from the top of a mountain into the depths of an immense ocean, dark blue, down below. This strange situation — perhaps the fact of saying goodbye to life, absolute darkness, torrential rain, the sound of crickets, frogs and cowbells — transported him altogether to a far-off place, where he became his own essence. It was as if he suddenly understood — not in categories of thought that could be translated into words, but in a deeper way — the meaning of his life, which made him at last whole and fulfilled.

With the rope around his neck, he feels unprotected, a child, the sound of the rain on the straw roof rocking him to sleep. It′s as if he were in Taimbé, the whole sky illuminating his fear of thunder.

Suddenly, in the room′s darkness, a memory takes over his soul. Like all memories, it comes to him without warning or invitation, with a life of its own. Ana reappears, other: a child calling him to play, asking him to stay.

She comes back to him along with the chill that used to wake him, the ticking of the clock, the water dripping from the tiles onto the bed on stormy nights, drinking milk fresh from the cow in the cup engraved with fish, crazy Pescada bellowing curse words, Elizete the slut strutting the sidewalk, his jumping for joy when the King of Rats used to appear, filthy, asking for food on the porch, his sister Eva making out with boys on the street in back and begging him not to tell, the crowd in Progress Square suffocating him, the toy machine-gun seducing, with its sparks, the little girls on a Christmas night, the paper airplanes flying in great curves over the rafters, being afraid of the burglar who had come into Uncle Humberto‚Ä≤s house from the roof, wielding a foot-long knife, or of his enemy who called him a “black faggot” over the phone and threatened to puncture him with a pocketknife, the schoolkids calling him “tar”, the Saturday matinee at the Opera, Tarzan serials and Westerns, the bell ringing for Mass, sunny Sundays on the town square, his godmother rocking him in the hammock…

Since he left Taimbé, in the backlands of Minas Gerais, he had always wanted to get back at the phone-call boy, screw Elizete, the cabaret whore. And meet Ana again.

Ana comes to mind along with the Taimbé of his childhood, spent among sins, St. John′s day bonfires and Carnival line dances.

It was a time of love, to the sound of the earliest rock songs. He liked to hear the English he couldn’t understand; he already knew the danger of living; perhaps his guardian angel would carry him to a safer place. In the corridor with the dark-blue mosaic floor, his mother painted porcelain and he traced with his feet the design in the floorboards, stairs that interlaced and changed places according to the sway of his daydreaming. Ana wore checked overalls and tiny, shiny earrings: a ruby in each ear. They would arrange to play behind closed doors and then get naked, each touching the other‚Ä≤s sex.

No one had taught them the pleasure they felt. She was dark, a little chubby, like the women he would later love. They smiled, laughed; he grabbed between her legs, she between his. Afterwards, he couldn’t button her overalls back up; he went, full of shame and fear, to ask his mother for help. They had already learned what prohibition was, and they nearly knew sin. But they felt no guilt or pain. They were boyfriend and girlfriend; the adults said so, and they believed it.

One day, playing truth or dare, one of the girls said he would go to hell if he didn’t confess to Father Rafael what Ana said they had done. Heaven held no attraction for him. He imagined it must be like the silent patio of a convent, where a haze-filtered sun illuminated the beards of yellowish men in long robes, like the ones in the painting of the Last Supper on the living-room wall. How dull it would be to spend eternity with contemplative women, gazing into infinity with clasped hands, like Our Lady of F√°tima. Or with maternal ladies, their hands on their hearts, like Our Lady of Perpetual Help, who also hung in the living-room. It would be a place where he would feel sick if he were to cross paths with Saint Lucy from his bedroom shrine, who would walk by displaying her eyes on a tray.

But hell, with its perpetual flames, the body burning, would be much worse. That was why he had been afraid, that long-ago night, that death would surprise him in his sleep, without giving him time to confess. Thus, before going to sleep, he had done what he could to save himself: he had offered his soul to God and said, kneeling, a third of the rosary as well as an Act of Contrition.

On Sunday he had confessed his sin in a whisper, so that Father Rafael wouldn’t hear. As the Holy Spirit‚Ä≤s vengeance, at Communion a crumb of Christ‚Ä≤s body had fallen off the tray. The rest had stayed glued to the roof of his mouth, and a few divine residues even got stuck between his teeth.

Paulo Antonio wanted to reconstruct the old-time games, when, on St. John′s day, the little girls acted out weddings. When, as the ship′s captain, he bombed the enemy ship. Or when, as a doctor, he cured Ana′s sickness. When she played dead so he could ressuscitate her. When he and Ana got wet in the rain-pipes and the lightning and thunder were fireworks. That time of love, when she would undress before him, without the curtains of poetry that are only reinvented later as memories of these first feelings.

Still one step away from that infinite, empty ocean, where blue waves would engulf him forever, Paulo Antonio already feels an immense nostalgia for his own life. The image he has, which starts out small, deep in his mind, and gradually grows till it occupies all his attention, is that of the end of his funeral procession, himself rising from the coffin, alive, the people surprised, applauding, people from all over watching, drumbeats animating a united Brazil…