Always the Cerrado by Sandra Arnold

Simone had asked seu Pedro to bring Marcus this morning to help him lift the cover off the drain to find the source of the smell. But seu Pedro arrived for work alone and agitated. He filled the frame of the kitchen door, shaking his head from side to side like a wounded bull, and told us Marcus had fled to Rio. After five months in Brazil my Portuguese was just good enough to understand the gist of what he was saying.

“His case comes up next week, dona Simone. Everybody is after him, police, lawyers. Maria sold the fridge yesterday to give him the money for the bus. She was crying all night. I don’t want to leave her alone today, so, if you don’t mind, I’ll just rake the leaves off the grass and go home.” Still rolling his head he ambled off towards the shed, muttering, “Meu Deus, meu Deus!”

“Don’t worry about the leaves, seu Pedro,” Simone called after him. “Go home whenever you want. And please take the wedding present with you when you go. It’s on the table in the kitchen.” Turning to me she explained, “Last year Marcus shot someone.”

“Shot…?”

“Alcohol.” She began peeling a papaya for her breakfast. “Well, tomorrow seu Pedro can find someone else to help him. We’ll have to put up with the smell a little longer.”

Simone had told me that when she’d designed her house she included a sewage treatment plant under her garden. Her house was the only one in the area which did not have sewage running straight into the river.

“A Brazilian environmentalist?” I’d joked, “Is that an oxymoron?”

“Not at all,” she’d responded, a little crossly. “Even though we’ve got politicians who get votes by promising to fill in rivers to make roads I believe that I, and others like me, can make a difference.”

I asked her if leakage from the sewage could be causing the smell.

She pursed her lips. “I don’t think so. You know, sometimes the girls from the favelas...”

Isadora padded barefoot across the tiles towards us, unwinding a towel from her head. She shook out her long blonde hair with her hands. Shampoo and soap smells floated on the air. “What Simone is trying to say, Alexa, is that if they can’t support another child, or if their father has made them pregnant or…” Her sentence petered out as we heard the sound of hooves on the tarmac.

Through the window we saw the short, square figure of dona Antonia sliding off the back of her husband’s horse. He watched her till she closed the gate behind her before he cantered off. 

“What’s happened to her bike?” I asked.

Simone rolled her eyes. “Her husband sold it to buy alcohol. She’s very annoyed with him about that. But, as you see, Alexa, even dona Antonia isn’t prepared to walk alone in this neighbourhood. So you must not.”

“But there’s never anyone around,” I protested. 

“Well of course they’re not just waiting for someone to pass by, but if they see you with your camera taking pictures of this and that they will know you are a foreigner and they will assume you have money. Please at least wait until we can all go together.”

This afternoon Isadora was overseeing the pequena mostra de Rodin in the espaço cultural in the new shopping mall.  Rob and Beth had gone to help her. Isadora  had talked of nothing else for weeks. 

“In Uberlândia we don’t have the facilities to show the originals. Only São Paulo and Rio got those. But even to obtain five replicas from the Rodin Boutique in Paris is good for our city. We’re the first city in the interior to get them,” she enthused.

 Simone had gone with a team of environmentalists to the Miranda Valley, on the borders of Araguari, Uberlândia and Indianapolis. At the end of the year the valley would be flooded on the completion of the hydro-electric dam, so she was in the process of making a video and writing a book to record the flora and fauna before they disappeared.  

I put Caetano Veloso on the CD player and lay in the hammock on the verandah watching the hummingbirds in the wild orchids Simone had brought back from her field trips. In Portuguese the word for hummingbird was beija-flor – kiss flower. Beth loved the name so much she had given it to the foal we’d bought her for her seventeenth birthday. Beija Flor and his mum, Cristiane, lived on a farm owned by an American Agronomy professor named Bill. The deal I’d struck with Beth was that as soon as she’d finished her New Zealand Correspondence School work for the day she could spend the rest of the time on the farm with the horses. Bill was in the process of establishing a riding school for the disabled and Beth was helping him pick and train the horses. 

On one visit to the farm we met Simone, a colleague of Bill’s in the Geography department. She inquired about our accommodation and when I told her how much we hated living in a sixteenth floor apartment in the middle of town she said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, “Then come and live with me! I have plenty of room in my house and my present tenant is moving out next week. My son is studying in Sao Paulo and I have only my friend Isadora living there with me.”

Isadora picked us up from the apartment that evening so we could look at the house. “You will love it there,” she said. “It’s outside the city and it’s very peaceful.”

She was right. In the month we’d been living here I loved waking up each morning to the sound of birds. In the evenings we often sat on the verandah in the gathering dusk, sometimes talking, sometimes listening to Simone and Isadora singing. One evening Simone sang “London London” a song written by Caetano during his years of exile in England in the 1970’s for singing protest songs about the military government.

“One day I will tell you about that terrible time in our history,” she promised.  “And about our own exile, my husband’s and mine.”

Listening now to the melted-honey tones of Caetano I watched a flock of green and red parrots land screeching in the mango tree, dislodging a large green lizard. Yesterday, I’d seen a toucan there. But despite the music, the birds and the sun, the smell from the drain was too pervasive to ignore. I decided to go out and take some more photographs of the cerrado. Before leaving the house I started writing a note for Rob and Beth in case they got back before I did, and noticed the quilt still on the table. It was a present from all of us for seu Pedro’s youngest son who was getting married at the weekend. Seu Pedro had been too upset about Marcus that morning to remember to take it home. As I’d be going in the direction of his house anyway I could drop it off.

Mindful of Simone’s warning, I put my camera in a bag, jammed my sunhat on my head and drank two glasses of water before setting off, holding my breath as I closed the gate and stepped over the drain. A dozen scrawny white cows grazing on the scrub opposite the house stared at me. The little boy who looked after them each day was playing in a pile of sand by the big German-style house that was being built next door. His legs were deformed so he was brought here each day on the back of a horse and cart by his older brother. Seu Pedro had once told me that it was the child’s job to stay with the cattle all day until it was dark, in return for food and shelter from his brother. At the same time Marcus had burst out with,  “The way he treats Monstrinho he deserves to be strung up!”

“Monstrinho?” I said. “Why do you call him that?”

Marcus shrugged, “That’s what everybody calls him.”

Simone nodded. “The first time I heard them call him that I was shocked too, but this is how it is. The people in the favelas are protective of him, but he is so deformed they see him as a little monster.” She went on to explain that the man also kept his young sister at home all day to clean and cook for him. “According to seu Pedro the last time he saw her she had a swollen belly. Who the father might be is anyone’s guess.”

I asked Simone if there was an agency in the city that could take the children out of that situation.

 “Of course,” she said. “I could ring up the social workers and report it. That man would go to prison for a long time, but these cases take so long to get to court that he could be on the loose for months. He’d have plenty of time to come here and kill me.”

When she saw my expression, she sighed. “No, I’m not heartless, Alexa. But I can’t take responsibility for all our social problems. The scale is too big. You haven’t lived in Brazil long enough to understand.” 

Yesterday I had given the child a red T-shirt of Beth’s. He’d put it on and smiled so widely that I could see the gaps in his back teeth. Simone said, “I doubt he’ll be allowed to keep it.” Today he was wearing his usual dirty, torn T-shirt over shorts that were three sizes too big and that he never seemed to change.

Now he was half-lying in the sand making roads in it with a stone. He must have been deeply engrossed in his game as he didn’t look up when I came out the gate. His proximity to the drain made me wonder if he had something wrong with his nose as well as his legs. 

Bom dia!” I called out.

“Bom dia” he replied without looking up. 

I crossed over the road to climb the hill. The developers’ plan for the old farm land on which Simone’s house stood had been to establish a green belt outside the city, keeping the original trees in big gardens that could be seen from the road. The more environmentally sympathetic members of the City Council had pushed for by-laws to prevent property owners erecting high walls and cutting down trees. However, the lots had sold slowly. Despite the din and confusion of four hundred thousand people trying to live in a city that could barely accommodate half that number, buyers preferred the security of living downtown in tightly packed apartment buildings. The first few houses that had gone up began with low garden walls, but a couple of robberies had been enough to convince the owners that this concept couldn’t work in Brazil and soon the by-laws were ignored and the walls became higher than the houses. The lots that had been bought since were mostly on land free of trees or with just a few that could be cut down easily. Simone’s land had so many trees that nobody had been interested in it so she had been able to buy it cheaply. 

The garden provided a cool, shady refuge, but outside, in the scrub where cicadas fizzed like frantic telegraph wires, the heat was oppressive. Sweat began to pour down my back. There had been no rain for five months. The earth was like cracked terracotta.

Finally, I reached the top of the hill, which was the best vantage point to see the cerrado. But what I saw, lying by the side of the dusty road, were five dead horses. There were by-laws against dumping dead animals, but they were ignored. We never saw who dumped any of the rubbish that daily spread over the landscape, though Simone suspected the council rubbish trucks. 

To the east the road led into dense scrubland. Twisted black sucipira trees and buriti  palms stood against the glassy blue sky. To the west lay the city, the shining new high-rises obscured by billowing smoke. This was the season for burning. The green spaces that were not already covered with rubbish were rapidly being consumed by smouldering black. I never saw who lit the fires, though Simone said it was the small boys who tended the skinny cattle in the scrub. “They believe the grass will not come back in the spring if they don’t burn it now.”

To the north stood half a dozen big houses. The only garden visible from up here, apart from Simone’s, belonged to her neighbour who owned a snake farm a few kilometres from the city.

“It’s big business,” Simone had explained, “extracting the poisons to make antidotes. She exports it to Switzerland. The house is stunning, and it was built entirely with snake poison.”

Behind the house there was an even bigger one that looked like a fortress. Shards of broken glass glinted along the tops of the walls. The only way in was through remote-controlled iron gates. The wealth of this family came from farming emus to provide feathers for the Rio Carnival. Simone had told me that six months ago robbers had hidden in the bushes till the gates opened to let the car out and held up the driver with guns. They’d stripped the entire house and the family was left tied up for two days until the driver managed to break free and call the police.

“They were lucky not to have been shot,” said Simone. “Nobody knew what was happening because of those high walls. That’s why I refuse to listen to my friends who tell me I am crazy for letting my house remain visible from the road.”

The river, the Lagoinha, was the colour and smell of diarrhoea. According to the local newspaper at least one corpse per week was fished out of that river. 

 “The murder statistics in this city are high,” Simone told me. “Most of my colleagues live in the city and they would never go near the favelas, but actually most of those murders are the results of fights between the families who live there.”

I held my hand over my nose and mouth as I crossed the bridge and headed south, where, behind the ragged banana trees the favelas huddled. The better houses were made of concrete and brick; others were sheets of tin and plastic over sticks. And there, incongruously juxtaposed in the middle of the dusty crossroads, like an arty advertisement in a glossy magazine, lay a bottle of white wine, a bunch of red roses and a large black chicken, its legs splayed out through the bow of red ribbon tied around the lacy wrapping paper.

Occasionally I saw rings of burning candles on crossroads at night or woke to the sound of drums, but this was the first sign of macumba I’d seen up close. The city newspaper was presently full of reports of negotiations between the Council and the leaders of Afro-Brazilian cults. The Council wanted to develop the scenic potential of the local rivers and waterfalls and was afraid that macumba offerings would frighten away the tourists. I checked to see that I wasn’t being observed, then knelt down to take a photograph. Simone would have been alarmed if she’d seen me. 

The quilt wasn’t heavy but it was awkward to carry up the pot-holed track to seu Pedro’s house.  A horse-drawn cart piled high with old newspapers lurched past, sending up a screen of red dust and scattering half a dozen chickens. I stumbled into a hole in the road and a group of barefooted children playing in the earth ran over to help me. Two of them carried the quilt and three others dashed off to alert seu Pedro. The sixth child walked beside me, pointing out the holes so I could avoid them.

Within minutes seu Pedro appeared at his door. When he saw me he gave a yelp of surprise and ran forward to shake my hand and direct the children to take the quilt into the house. He led me along a narrow alley to the back of the house. His was the best house in the street and, until yesterday, the only one that contained a fridge. A sheet of iron extending from the kitchen to an outhouse formed a roof over the small concrete yard which served as a dining room with a wooden table and four chairs. Two young girls were cooking rice on a woodstove while another sat at a table breast-feeding a baby. She looked up shyly as seu Pedro introduced her as his niece. I noticed a large purple bruise over her left eye.

Dona Maria scuttled out of the kitchen wiping her hands on her apron. Seu Pedro had just finished building his wife a kitchen and had installed a new gas cooker, but to his intense frustration she didn’t want to mess it up by cooking on it so she continued to cook on the old wood stove in the outhouse. He repeated this story to me now, and added, as if to explain his wife’s attitude, “She is one of twenty-two children.”

Dona Maria glared at him. “Don’t exaggerate! There were only twenty!”

I asked her how many had survived.

“Half,” she said. “Only the girls, but thanks be to God they all have husbands.”

I told her I was sorry about Marcus and asked what he would do in Rio.

“We have relatives there,” said seu Pedro, glancing at his wife.

I watched her hands smoothing a pink crocheted cover over the new gas cylinder on the bench. It perched there like a snugly fitting hat.

The smell was even worse than when I’d left. The searing heat of the afternoon had hastened the decomposition of whatever was in the drain and the stench coated my throat with a thick, sickly layer that made me gag. Through a gap in the hedge I could see Rob, Beth, Isadora and Simone sitting on the verandah with a bottle of wine. Couldn’t they smell it from there? Lamplight softly lit the interior of the house. A small, dry cough close by made me jump. Crouched in the shadows, the boy was still waiting for his brother to take him home. He looked up as I approached.       

Boa noite,” I said.

Boa noite,” he replied, smiling this time.

Encouraged, I asked him his real name. 

“Monstrinho,” he answered.

“I mean your REAL name?”

Silence.

I asked, “Where’s your red T-shirt?”

Still no response.

As I locked the gate behind me I heard a horse and cart. The child’s brother, wearing the red T-shirt, jumped down and lifted him onto the cart. He muttered something and gestured towards the drain. The boy looked round and nodded. Hidden behind the trees I watched them till they disappeared into the dusk. 

I looked across the garden at Beth and stood quietly, observing her beautiful young face. She was listening intently to Simone. 

“When my husband was a student he was arrested three times for protesting against the military government. The Presbyterian Church arranged for us to escape to the USA to work on a political magazine informing people what was going on in South America. We were full of love and idealism. Our first child was born there. When our visa expired we went to Chile, the only country in South America not under military government. A year later there was a coup. So, once more, we escaped, this time back to Brazil. I was pregnant again. My husband had to hide until there was an amnesty.”

A firefly darted across the garden flashing its light like a bright eye winking in the darkness. 

 “And then…” prompted Rob.

“And then my husband fell in love with a girl half his age.”

Isadora shrugged. “This is why I don’t want to marry.”

“And what about you?” asked Beth.  

“Me?” Simone’s voice lifted again. “Well, I committed myself to saving the cerrado. When it is withered and scorched, as you see it now, it seems inconceivable that anything could ever grow again. But the rains will come, the grass will grow and the flowers will bloom.  There is always the cerrado


Sandra Arnold lives in New Zealand. Her first collection of flash fiction ‘Soul Etchings’ (Retreat West Books, UK) was published in England in June. Her third novel, ‘The Ash the Well and the Bluebell’ (Makaro Press, NZ) will be published in New Zealand in August.

Her recent awards include finalist in the 2018 Mslexia Flash Fiction Competition, the 2018 TSS flash fiction competition and the 2018 University of Sunderland Short Story award. 

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