Dico, che quando l'anima mal nata ...
Things of the Future!
It was the first time that the two had gone to Morro do Castelo hill. They began the ascent from the Rua do Carmo. There are many people of the city of Rio de Janeiro who have never been there, indeed many will die and many more will be born and die who will never set foot there. Not everyone can claim to know an entire city. An old Englishman, who in fact roamed the world, confided to me many years ago in London, that of London he only knew his club well, and that was enough for him of both the metropolis and the world.
Natividade and Perpétua were familiar with other parts of the city, besides Botafogo, but Morro do Castelo, for all they had heard about it and the cabocla, a half-breed Indian fortune-teller, who reigned there in 1871, was as strange and remote to them as the Englishman's club. The steep incline, the uneven and poorly paved path up the hill, mortified the feet of the poor ladies. Nevertheless, they continued to climb, as if it were a penance, slowly, faces downcast, veils lowered. The morning brought with it a certain bustle. Women, men, children who walked up and down the hill, washwomen and soldiers, one or another clerk, shopkeeper, priest, all looked at them with some surprise; while they were simply dressed, their bearing revealed a certain breeding that can't be hidden, which stood out in those heights. The very slowness of their gait, compared to the swiftness of the others, betrayed the fact thatthis was the first time they had ventured there. One black woman remarked to a sergeant: "You'll see they're on their way to see the cabocla." And both stood watch, taken by that irresistible desire to know another's business, which sometimes is the sum of all human need.
In fact, the two ladies searched discreetly for the number of the fortune-teller's house, until they found it. The dwelling was like the others, perched on the hillside. One reached it by a little stairway, narrow, dark, appropriate to the adventure. They wanted to enter quickly, but they bumped into two fellows who emerged from the doorway and who lingered there. One asked in a familiar way if they were going to consult the cabocla.
"You're wasting your time," one concluded furiously, "you'll hear a lot of nonsense."
"He lies," laughed the other, "the cabocla knows what she's doing."
The women hesitated a little; but quickly they realized that the words of the first one were a certain sign of the prescience and frankness of the fortune-teller. Not all would have the same happy fortune. The future of Natividade's sons could be miserable, and then ... While they considered these things a mailman went by, which prompted them to hurry in, to escape yet more eyes. They had faith, but they were also embarrassed about what others might think, like a devout who crosses himself in secret.
An old half-breed Indian gentleman, father of the fortune-teller, led the ladies to the parlor. It was a simple room, with bare walls, nothing to suggest mystery or incite fear, no fetishes, stuffed beasts, skeletons, or horrid scrawls. At worst, an image of the Virgin pasted to the wall suggested a mystery, worn and tattered as it was, but it did not inspire fear. On a chair, a guitar.
"My daughter will be right in," said the old man. "What are your names, ladies?"
Natividade gave only her Christian name, Maria, as if it were a veil darker than the one she wore over her face, and she was given a card, because there was to be only one consultation, with the number 1,012. Don't be dismayed by the numeral. The clientele was numerous, and it represented many months of consultations. Not to mention an old, most ancient custom. Reread Aeschylus, my friend: reread The Eumenides, and there you will see Pythia calling those who came to consult her: "If there are any Hellenes here, let them draw lots, so enter, as the custom is. My prophecy is only as the god may guide." By lot then, numbering now, all is done so that truth adjusts to priority and no one loses their turn for a consultation. Natividade kept the card, and both ladies went to the window.
To tell the truth, each one harbored her own little fears, Perpétua less than Natividade. The adventure seemed daring, and some danger was possible. I won't describe their gestures here. Imagine that they were nervous and a little confused. They did not speak. Natividade confessed afterward that she had a lump in her throat. Fortunately the cabocla did not take long; after three or four minutes, her father brought her by the hand, lifting the curtain at the back of the room.
"Come in, Barbara."
Barbara entered, while her father picked up the guitar and went out the door on the left to the stone stair landing. Barbara was a light, slight creature, embroidered skirts, little slippers on her feet. One couldn't deny her a graceful figure. Her hair, swept up to the crown of her head and bound by a piece of soiled ribbon, made her a natural cap, with a tassel of a sprig of bitter rue. There was something of the priestess in her bearing. The mystery was in her eyes. They were opaque, but not so much that they were not also bright and sharp, and in this last regard also large, so large and so sharp they pierced you, skewered your heart, and retreated, only to penetrate and pierce again. I don't lie saying that the two were somewhat fascinated. Barbara interrogated them. Natividade stated her mission and showed her the pictures of her sons and locks of their hair, which she had been advised would suffice.
"That's enough," confirmed Barbara. "Are the boys your sons?"
"The one is the spitting image of the other."
"They're twins. They were born a little over a year ago."
"Ladies, please sit down."
Natividade whispered to her companion that "the cabocla is very nice," so softly that the fortune-teller could not hear her; but it could be that, fearful of her prediction, the mother wished for exactly that, to assure a good destiny for her sons. The cabocla went over to the round table at the center of the room and sat down, facing the two of them. She put the photographs and the locks of hair in front of her. She looked alternately at the pictures and at the mother, asked a few questions of her client, then stared at the portraits and the locks of hair, her mouth slightly open and her eyelids dropped. I hesitate to tell you that she lit up a cigarette, but I do so, because it's true, and the weed fits the occupation. Outside the father strummed the guitar, softly singing a song of the Northeast backlands:
Girl in the white skirts Skipping from rock to rock in the stream
As the cigarette smoke curled upward, the face of the fortune-teller changed expression, radiant or somber, now quizzical, now authoritative. Barbara leaned over the portraits, clutched a lock of hair in each hand, and stroked them, smelled them, listened to them, without the affectation that you might believe these lines convey! Such gestures would be difficult to recount casually. Natividade did not take her eyes off the seer, as if she wanted to read what was inside her. And it was not without some shock that she heard her ask whether the boys had fought before their birth.
"Yes, my lady, fight."
"Before they were born?"
"Yes, madam, I ask if they had not fought in their mother's womb. Can't you remember?"
Natividade, whose pregnancy had not been easy, replied that in fact she had felt unusual repeated movements, pains, insomnia.... But, then, what was it? Why had they fought? The cabocla did not reply. She rose shortly thereafter and walked around the table, slowly, like a somnambulist, her eyes open and staring; then she once again shifted her gaze between mother and sons. Now she became more agitated, breathing heavily. Her whole being, face and arms, shoulders and legs, all was little to wrench a pronouncement from Destiny. Finally, she stopped, sat down, exhausted, until she sprang up and approached the two, so radiant, her eyes so bright and warm, that the mother hung on their expression, and could not hold herself back from grasping the woman's hands and asking anxiously, "Well then, tell me, I can hear everything."
Barbara, full of spirit and laughter, gave a satisfied sigh. The first word seemed to rise to her mouth, but it retreated back to her heart, virgin of her lips and others' ears. Natividade insisted on a reply, that she tell her everything, without fail ...
"Things of the future!" the cabocla finally murmured.
"But are they bad things?"
"Oh, no, no! Good things, things of the future!"
"But that's not enough; tell me the rest. This woman is my sister and can be trusted with secrets, but if she needs to leave, she will; I'll stay and you can tell me alone ... will they be happy?"
"Will they be great?"
"They will be great, oh very great! God will give them many blessings. And they will rise, rise, rise.... They fought in their mother's womb, so what? People fight out here too. Your sons will be glorious. And that's all I will tell you. As for the quality of the glory, things of the future!"
From within, the voice of the old man once again continued the song of the backlands:
Climb up that coconut palm Throw my coconuts down
And the daughter, not having any more to say, or not knowing what to explain, moved her hips to the melody, which the old man repeated from behind the door:
Girl in the white skirts Skipping from rock to rock in the stream, Climb up that coconut palm, Throw my coconuts down. Coconut break, missy, In the coconut grove, If it falls on your head, Breaks open for sure. I'll laugh out loud I'll love that coconut milk Coco, lala, nana.
Better Going Down than Going Up
All oracles speak with a forked tongue, but they can be understood. Natividade finally understood the cabocla, even though she heard nothing more from her. It was enough to know that things of the future would be good, and her sons great and glorious, for her to feel happy and to pull a 50,000 réis note from her purse. It was five times the customary price, and it was worth as much or more than the rich gifts of Croesus to Pythia. She carefully placed the portraits and the locks of hair back in her bag, and the pair left, while the cabocla retreated to the back rooms of her dwelling, to wait for the next clients. There were already some customers at the door, with their numbers, and the women retreated hastily down the stairs, their faces veiled.
Perpétua shared the joy of her sister, and so did the stones underfoot, the wall facing the sea, the shirts hanging from window sills, the banana peels in the path. The very shoes of an alms collector about to turn the corner from the Rua da Misericórdia to the Rua São José seemed to squeak with glee, when they really were groaning with exhaustion. Natividade was so elated that, on hearing his call "For the all souls' Mass!" she pulled out of her purse a 2,000 réis bill, brand new, and laid it in the alms bowl. Her sister pointed out the mistake to her, but it was not a mistakeit was for the souls in purgatory.
And light-footed they moved quickly to their waiting carriage, which stood in the space between the church of São José and the Chamber of Deputies. They had not wanted their coach to take them to the foot of the hill, so that the coachman and the lackey would not suspect their mission. Everyone in the city was talking about the cabocla on the Morro do Castelo. It was the talk of the town. They attributed infinite powers to her, a series of miracles, sudden fortunes, lost things found, marriages. If they were found out they were lost, although many good people went there. Seeing them give alms to the alms collector, the lackey jumped up onto the carriage step and the coachman tugged at his reins to set his horses in motion; the carriage came to fetch them and headed back to Botafogo.
The Alms of Happiness
"May God multiply your blessings, my devout lady!" exclaimed the alms collector as he saw the banknote fall on top of two 5 tostão pieces and some old vintém coins.
"May God give you all the happiness of heaven and earth, and the souls of purgatory ask the Holy Virgin Mother to recommend you to her divine son!"
When fortune smiles, all of nature smiles too, and the heart rejoices with all around it. That was the explanation that, in less poetic language, the alms collector gave about the 2,000 note. The suspicion that it might be counterfeit did not take root in his brain. That was just a rapid hallucination. He understood that the women were happy, and being accustomed to thinking out loud, he said, winking an eye, while they climbed into their carriage: "Those two have seen the bluebird of happiness, for certain."
He arrived directly at the conclusion that the two ladies were returning from an amorous adventure, and he deduced this from three facts, which I am obliged to display here so as not to leave this man suspect of gratuitous slander. The first was their happiness, the second the value of the donation, and the third the carriage that awaited them in an alley, as if they wished to hide from the coachman the location of the lovers' tryst. Now, do not conclude yourself that he had once been a coachman, driving young ladies to and fro before entering his vocation of serving souls. Also do not believe that he had once been rich and adulterous, openhanded in saying farewell to his lady friends. "Neither such an excess of honor, nor such an indignity." He was just a poor devil with no other occupation than that of being a devout. Besides, he would not have had sufficient time. He was only 27 years old.
He waved to the ladies when their carriage passed. Afterward he stared at the banknote, so crisp, so valuable, a note that the souls would never see pass from his hands. He kept walking up the Rua de São José. He no longer had the energy to beg. The banknote was turning into gold and the idea of it being counterfeit was returning to his head, now more frequently, until for a few minutes he was consumed with it. If it were false ... "For the Mass of the dead!" he moaned at the door of a grocery shop and they gave him a vintém, a coin so dirty and sad, lying at the foot of the note so new it seemed just off the printing press. Next was the entry to a townhouse. He entered, climbed the stairs, begged, and they gave him two vinténs, the double of the other coin in value and corrosion.
And the banknote still clean, a 2,000 note that seemed like 20,000. No, it wasn't false. In the hallway he picked it up, looked at it closely. It was real. Suddenly he heard a doorway open and rapid footsteps. He, more quickly still, folded the note and stuck it in his trouser pocket. There only remained the sad, corroded coins, the widow's mite. He left the building, and went on to the next workshop, the next store, the next hallway, begging loudly and mournfully: "For the Mass of the dead!"
In the church, after he removed his cloak and after delivering the alms bowl to the sacristan, he heard a weak voice like that of a lost soul asking him of the 2,000 note. The 2,000 réis, said another less weak voice, which was naturally his, who in the first place also had a soul and in the second place had never received such a large offering. Whoever wants to give that much comes into church or buys a candle, they don't put a banknote like that in an alms bowl.
If I am lying, it is not intentional. In fact, the words did not come out quite that well articulated and clearly, neither the weak ones nor the less weak. They all buzzed in the ears of his conscience. I translated them into spoken language so that they will be understood by those who read me. I don't know how one would transcribe to paper a deaf roar and one less deaf, one after the other and all of them jumbled together, until the second remained alone: "he didn't take the note from anyone ... the lady put it in the bowl with her own hand ... he too was a soul." At the door of the sacristy which led to the street, once he closed the heavy blue curtain bordered in gold, he heard nothing more. He saw a beggar holding out his tattered, greasy hat. He carefully put his hand in his waistcoat pocket, also torn, and ventured forth two copper coins, which he dropped into the beggar's hat, quickly, in secret, as the Gospel preaches. They were two vintém pieces. He had 1,960 left. And the beggar, as he left quickly, sent after him these words of thanks, similar to his own: "God multiply your blessings, my dear sir, and give you ..."