It’s only ten in the morning but the heat has pushed he mercury line of thermometers well into the nineties. Josefina opens the window, scans the turquoise sky and prays for rain.
Josefina is very religious. For nearly forty years now she has joined the Sunday congregation at Bom Jesus Parish, first as a small girl with tight locks and dimpled knees, then a teenager in hand-me-down orthopaedic shoes, finally a mother, her face scarred by acne cold water and Mamà Lulu’s voodoo potions failed to heal.
Father Bernardo, a gaunt priest with features like a chess piece, has listened to her confessions for a good part of these years. Now, his hearing is not the same and he takes frequent catnaps in the incense-impregnated darkness of the confessional. She thinks sometimes that she could event confess to a murder and the old ma would not hear or care at all.
It was Father Bernardo’s tepid voice, just like a glass of milk at bed-time that offered hope when she was left alone with a baby, no house, no prospects to ever get on with her life.
“My daughter,” he crooned in a tone reserved for stray dogs and single mothers.
“It was God’s will that we should suffer. We are but transitory passengers in the waiting room of the Earth and when our days of pain are over, we will join Him there, never to suffer again.”
He joined his thin hands, steeple-like, in a gesture of prayer and pointed them to Heaven.
He reminded her then of the poor San Sebastian, the body pierced by arrows, whose picture she kept between the pages of her missal, the only possession inherited from her mother.
Father Bernardo was right. Life had to go on and on it went, want it or not. From an unruly toddler, her son, Joao, grew into a strapping boy who barefoot kicked a rag ball in the favelas, acres of shacks sprouting around Rio like puff-ball fungi.
She remembers the first real ball she bought for his eleventh birthday. She hadn’t had a new dress for three years, mending and re-mending the old calico one and the ‘visiting black’ as she called the woollen sheath that rubbed her under the armpits. There was a twinkle in the boy’s eyes, a mixture of greed and joy and she forgave him forgetting to say ‘thank you’. Happiness at the memory lends her unremarkable features a pretty, nearly beautiful glow.
Her thick-soled shoes clicking on the cement floor, she limps towards the wash-tub, bends over and scrubs. Up and down, up and down - the fingers crinkled into crepe from bleach and detergent. Up and down - breasts swing to the rhythm.
Sharp-nailed paws scrape at the door. Piranha, a dog as greedy and ruthless as the famous fish, slinks in. His shaggy whiskers poke at her shins, his nose ice-cold.
“Back, are you? Chasing cats again, you bold thing,” she chats with the animal.
Piranha stares at her with molasses-brown eyes, cocks his head, the ears spring up.
“No scraps today, old boy. Sorry.”
The dog whimpers, trots under the table and curls on the floor.
Back to the basin, spine arched. Up and down. From outside the perky notes of a samba sift in.
“Her body young, away she walks, down the Ipanema beach,” Josefina sings.
Ipanema - when was the last time she went there? Joao must have been ten. Or was he nine? Never mind, it was years ago, could have been centuries. She sat on the sand, baggy shorts flapping around her thighs like sails. Joao, spread-eagled, was making sand-angels and yelling louder than the gulls.
She treasures those moments and threads them, together with music, on the string of her memory like glass beads. To be quite honest (and she notices with some satisfaction that honesty is a quality that comes naturally to her) she can say it is music - the hot rhythm of the samba, the blood-warming throb of the rumba - that has kept her sane in the long years of loneliness and poverty. There is a peculiarity in music that has managed to keep her spirits up, to give her a lift and help her forget the dreary reality of the favela.
Up and down, up and down. She pulls up a bundle of clothes, wrings them out. They’ll dry in a matter of minutes.
The door squeaks, it needs oiling. There’s a spoonful left over from cooking feijoada, a mixture of black beans, onions and pigs’ ears. The feijoada they serve down by Ipanema - that’s another thing. No self-respecting tourist would be tempted by the pale pigs’ lobes. She laughs. Lobes. Funny word to think of.
Joao comes in. His face that could have been chiselled out of teak, dark and sharp featured, tells her all as if his grief were an open book and she could see right into it.
“No luck, son?”
He keeps silent, strides to the bed and slumps down on it, feet up.
“Don’t put your feet on the sheets, you’ll get them dirty,” she scolds gently.
Still no reply. She gives in, hobbles to the bed, her fingers play with the corrugated waves of his hair.
“It’s not the end of the world, you know.”
Joao pushes her away and stands up.
“What world, mà? The world of the favela or the world over there that doesn’t want me?” he spills out his hurt.
She leans against the table. Through the fleshy pillows of her buttocks she can hardly feel the wood.
“This world, that world, all the same.”
“Yes? So why are you still here? Why don’t we change just for a while, for a week maybe, to see what that world is like?”
“I’m happy here.”
“Poor joke, mà. How can you be happy in this dump?”
Her hand catches him squarely on the cheek. He looms over her but she is his mother, she has the right to show him his place.
Joao cries - not with pain but with impotence, overwhelming, self-pitying impotence.
“Why did you teach me to hope, mà? Why? No-one wants a mestizo from the favela. I’m stuck here for ever.”
She takes a wad of tissue from her pocket and wipes the tears that pearl his dark face.
“Why?” he insists.
“People are what they are,” she answers stoically. The word describes her perfectly - stoical Josefina - although if she heard it she wouldn’t know what it meant.
“Why am I trying, then? Looking for something I’ll never get, never be?”
She is tempted to quote father Bernardo but knows better.
“Everything changes. What’s in and what’s out. Spring comes after winter and sun after rain. Just you wait,” she says with casual authority.
She takes his head in her hands and cradles it to her bosom.
"You can’t give up. Because if there’s a drop of blood in you, a drop of life to sing the samba, you must keep trying.”
They rock gently backwards and forwards, his head tap-tapping her chest placidly.
“The sun caressing her skin, footprints on the humid sand, away she walks to the rising sun, the girl from Ipanema,” Josefina sings.
Author Notes: Rhe story was written after my first visit to Rio de Janiero - one of the most beautiful places in the world. We shared some time with the homeless who despite having nothing, refused help if they have already eaten. They told us: give the food to someone who really needs it. Wow!