By Carmelinda Scian
The morning sun was already scorching as we stepped off the bus. The heat rose from the cobblestones in steamy, spirally waves, nearly burning our sandalled feet. Manuelito, my younger brother, said nothing. I wasn’t sure if he knew why we were here, why he’d come along. I said nothing either. What could I say when my mother had already made up her mind that her life was out of control? Her suffering beyond human repair.
She was convinced that her cruz, the cross she carried every day ambushing her chances at happiness, was the result of sorcery. A spell divined by someone at an early point in her life. Who and why and what, she had no idea but Manuelito’s birth was part of this unescapable fate. How else, she insisted, staring at you with her large, almond-shaped brown eyes, at twenty-nine, her nerves were a wreck, over the edge? I imagined my mother’s nerves like a speeding car spinning out of control over a cliff.
We were looking for a bruxo whose name and address we didn’t know. All my mother knew was that the warlock lived in a house with black shutters, black door, and a black bat- weathervane on a dirt lane facing the Tejo. We’d never been to Alcochete. It didn’t seem like a town of bruxos, evil potions, and omens. A large cathedral with two high steeples rose high above the white washed houses with their red clay roofs and pots of flowering geraniums on their doorsteps. Red and green and yellow fishing boats, the colours of our flag, lined the beach along the wide river. The town was known for its religious festivals and processions. The streets were configured in semi-circles around the cathedral, we often ending up where we’d started from or in dead-ends. We kept asking passersby for directions and kept getting lost. Everyone seemed to know the bruxo but his lane had no name and the house no number.
The heat intensified as the sun ascended. We stopped under every tree we encountered for a bit of relief. There weren’t many. An hour or so later, we found a small, low lying house, more like a large shack, with the black shutters, door, and bat-weathervane. The wide river had emptied by then, kilometres of black mud, the hazy hills of Lisbon shining across the distance.
We were tired and thirsty, my mother complaining continually, that another minute of sun and she’d end up looking like the Gypsies caravanning through town.
The door opened before we knocked. A woman dressed in a long black dress, in obvious mourning, grey hair in two braids, deeply wrinkled face, restless dark eyes, stood smiling. She appeared to be waiting for us. I figured she’d seen us crossing the street, how else would she know we were coming? Only Avó, my grandmother, next door, knew of our visit not even my father, who’d left for work at the cork factory in Montijo before we departed. “Don’t say a word to your father,” my mother had warned, my father not believing in the devil or in God, seeing both as a waste of time. He believed that people ought to help themselves.
The woman announced that she was the bruxo’s sister. She gave us each a glass of water and then led us into a small room, a tiny window high on the white-washed wall letting in only a glimmer of light.
A female high-pitched voice – yet not the voice of a female – came from inside the room. Feverish laughter, like that of an over-excited child, followed.
I could hardly see, my eyes not yet adjusted to the darkness of the room. Slowly, the outline of a man sitting behind a small square table came into focus. His hair was white, hanging straight down over his hunched shoulders, making his large pale blue eyes appear colourless. He didn’t seem to have eyelashes or eyebrows and his skin was a translucent white, fragile looking, like egg shells, as though he’d never been outside in the sun.
He stood up. He too was dressed in black, woollen pants and a long-sleeve sweater in spite of the summer heat. As he walked toward us, his large breasts swayed under his sweater. A large cross hung around his neck.
A cold chill ran down my spine, though the perspiration was still emitting from my pores. I found myself staring then blushing from embarrassment. I’d never seen anyone like him.
He politely shook our hands, even Manuelito’s. Smiled. A thin red line encircled his blue eyes. We sat on wicker chairs lined up against the wall. He came to stand in front of Manuelito and stared at him for a long time.
The room grew tenser.
My mother started folding and unfolding her hands and shifting her body on the squeaky wicker chair, her discomfort snaking around the small room, devouring the air.
The bruxo then took Manuelito’s head in his fine white hands, nails long and pointy, like a woman’s. He moved Manuelito’s head right, left, left, right, on and on, sometimes gaping at it, as though he was holding a globe and trying to locate an unknown place.
He began moaning, Humh… Humh… Humh… Manuelito remained surprisingly quiet and still. Unusual for a six year old who couldn’t stay still for longer than five minutes.
“This boy was not conceived in love,” the bruxo finally said. A voice so thin and shrill, it was as though it was coming from outside of him, outside the room, outside of Alcochete, outside of anything familiar to that point.
My mother stood up. “I’m going out. You stay.”
She was breathing noisily, her right hand over her heart, a timed explosive—we never knowing when it was going to detonate. We lived in fear of its intentions. All my mother needed to do was place her hand over her heart and our guilt grew. Contradictions ended.
The day my father came home, three years ago, and told us that the cork factory was shutting-down indefinitely due to a dwindling foreign demand in cork, my mother’s right hand covered her heart. A violent strike ensued. Someone shot the foreman. The PIDE appeared. Massive arrests were made. My mother ended up in a hospital in Lisbon where she was told she’d been born with a faulty heart. Some artery missing.
Now I wanted to ask her if I’d been conceived in love. But how would I dare? Even my father never confronted her on anything, never reprimanded her when she beat me or beat Manuelito or hollered terrifying threats. He recoiled inward, like a turtle retracting its head inside its shell when perceiving danger. My father, the non-hero.
A week ago, on a Sunday, my mother sat at the kitchen table ready to eat dinner, still wearing her red polka-dot poplin dress that had taken a year to pay for in monthly instalments of ten escudos. She’d spent the afternoon visiting her old friend Filipe in Moita, an hour away by bus. Filipe had been crazy about her, she told everyone, back in their teens in Algarve, where we were from. But Filipe’s parents had been itinerant farmers, unlike my grandparents, who were large land-owners. So they rejected him. My father’s parents suited their ambitions, owning their own farm. Filipe had moved to Moita soon after my parents and grandparents settled in Amendoeiro. He’d married a woman with long brown curly hair and almond-shaped brown eyes like my mother’s. But she wasn’t my mother. He and my mother had remained friends. She visited him twice a year. He came more often, sometimes cycling the three hour distance just to come in and say hello.
That Sunday, I’d made a tomato and cucumber salad from the garden, my father grilled large fresh sardines my mother had bought from a local fisherman before leaving for Moita.
Sitting there in her Sunday best, a trace of red lipstick blushing her lips, glass beads on her neck reflecting the light from the oil lamp, she looked like a rose growing among weeds, like someone not belonging to us.
A new private silence encircled her. It was as if the mother and wife that cooked, washed, cleaned, had remained in Moita. This new silent woman kept us quiet. Fear kidnapping our words and wills.
Half way through the meal, she blurted out, “Antonio, I’ve been thinking a lot lately.” She hadn’t yet picked up her fork. “There’s only one thing that makes sense to me. Someone put a spell on me, it has to be, I’m sure of it now. Nothing else explains the strangeness in the boy and all my misfortunes, my suffering. He’s a mistake that’s ruining my life.” (Manuelito’s birth had been the result of a broken condom, my mother claimed.)
My father continued eating; lowered his head further, chin nearly touching his plate.
“I need to find someone to remove this spell.”
My father said nothing. Still.
I looked over at Manuelito, wondering if he’d understood what my mother had just said. She’d never called him a mistake before. He was gulping his food so he could hurry out to play with Benfica, the dog he’d carried home a year ago in his small hand, the new-born puppy the size of a large golden peach.
He and other neighbourhood boys had watched a neighbour’s bitch give birth to a litter. Manuelito helped himself to one before the neighbour drowned the rest, the neighbour was unable to sustain more than one dog and the neighbourhood was already too littered with strays. To my surprise, my mother allowed him to keep the puppy, as long as it didn’t go in the house.
Manuelito named the puppy Benfica after his favourite soccer club. The dog slept under the outdoor cement staircase, leading to the terrace. The place was full of junk, garbage, spiders, cobwebs and frightening cockroaches the size of a thumb. I was scared to even approach the entrance but Manuelito would often be found lying down beside Benfica. I couldn’t imagine loving anything that much.
The bruxo’s sister brought him a pair of scissors. He gently cut a lock of hair from the back of Manuelito’s head and trimmed two of his nails. Then he handed the hair and nail trimmings to his sister, who placed both inside a black pouch. They walked out, leaving Manuelito and I alone, my mother still outside.
Manuelito started kicking the table’s leg and wouldn’t stop. I wanted to join my mother, the room stifling now. A cave of nightmares.
I heard her ask for another glass of water. Then she returned to her seat. She’d been crying.
I wanted to hug her, offer some comfort, but my mother wasn’t one for affections. I didn’t recall her ever kissing or hugging me or Manuelito.
I thought of what my friend Lourdes said the other day. Her father kissed her mother on the lips every morning before leaving for work and in the evening when he returned. He called his wife Honey or Buttercup. I’d never even seen my parents kiss or touch one another in any loving way or heard them utter words of affection.
“Why don’t we all go to Moita?” my mother had asked my father before leaving this morning, “It’s been years since you’ve come.”
I was praying he’d say yes so we could do something as a family, like my friend Lourdes, whose parents took her on picnics to Troia Beach by train every summer. I’d never been there.
My father shrugged his shoulders, rubbed his hands on his patched trousers. “A man has to feed his family.” He’d rather hoe his vegetables and tend to his chickens, rabbits and pigs, but my mother was free to go whenever and wherever she pleased.
Whisperings, like frenzied prayers or chants, began drifting in from another room. Manuelito stopped kicking the table. My mother turned ghostly white, as if a hundred leeches had drained her blood. My heart began to pound.
The bruxo returned, carrying a package wrapped in brown paper and tied with string.
“You should’ve brought him earlier,” he said, handing my mother the package. “We’ve been waiting.Wrap a piece of the boy’s clothing around this package and place it in the middle of a crossroads on Friday at midnight. Remember, it must be Friday – the highest day of the mistérios dolorosos. Whatever you do, don’t open the package.”
He walked away.
My mother paid his sister. There was no set fee–everyone paid what they could. I kept thinking of what the bruxo had said. He’d been waiting for Manuelito? How did he know?
We sat on an old bench under a pine tree waiting for the bus to take us back to Amendoeiro. My mother gave Manuelito and me a boiled egg and a chunk of bread she’d brought from home. She wasn’t hungry. Manuelito threw half of his egg and bread at a mongrel circling nearby. My mother whacked the back of his head. “Food costs money.” He whimpered.
I didn’t recall Manuelito crying ever since he was an infant. Reprimands, hair and ears pulled, smacks to his head, being forced to sit on the floor in a corner of the kitchen. Five, ten minutes, and he’d pop up, like a jack-in-the-box, as though determined to defy my mother She’d spank him again; he never cried.
This led her to believe that whatever was wrong with her son couldn’t be fixed with regular beatings like other children, like me. So the threats began. She’d sell him to the gypsies, lock him up and starve him to death, tie him up in the hogs’ pen so they’d eat him piece by piece. Manuelito would stare at her with his large brown eyes–eyes like hers–that seemed to question her actions, as if she was the one in the wrong. Afterwards, my mother always locked herself in her bedroom. Sometimes, for days, the house growing messy, tense, the air prickly, my father and I not knowing where to hide, Manuelito not appearing to know the difference.
My mother remained quiet throughout the bus ride back. As we walked through the garden gate, Benfica jumped on Manuelito, barking joyfully. Manuelito picked him up and kissed him, talking and smiling profusely for the first time today.
My father standing in the middle of the garden, holding a spade, surprised us. We weren’t expecting him until five o’clock. He explained that the factory gates had been locked, an armed guard on either side when he arrived in the morning.
“Expect more lay-offs; the PIDE might get involved.” He hardly glanced at my mother as he spoke, eyes of a wounded animal. Things hadn’t gone well the last time the factory shut-down. He never asked where we’d been or why we were dressed up. Maybe he knew.
The house was quiet for the next couple of days, my father hardly speaking about anything at all, my mother not leaving her bed.
I stared at the Cuckoo clock in the kitchen, a wedding gift to my parents from Filipe. I was sure the minute hand on the cuckoo bird had stopped. How could Friday be still one day away? I imagined the freedom, the release, once the deed was done. My mother free from her spell. Our life, my life, normal, like the lives of others, like the life of Lourdes, the miasma of sadness hovering over our house, our heads, our hearts, finally gone.
Yet, when I thought of the crossroads on a Friday at midnight, my blood ran cold. Then time seemed to race away. The crossroads, where spells were divined to make someone fall in or out of love, succeed or go astray, get sick or die, had always frightened me. Fernando, the milkman, had been telling us how two cold hands had choked him, as he’d once walked the same crossroads where my mother and I would be going. Fernando had been too drunk to know where he was walking but he’d sobered immediately.
The door to my mother’s bedroom had remained shut for the third day. In the afternoon, I knocked, asking her if she’d like a cup of camomile tea, as I’d done each day. Today she didn’t say no. I opened the door hesitantly.
She was staring at the ceiling, eyes wide open. I jumped back.
As I arched over her to check her breath, she mumbled, “That albino is a fraud. I’m gonna throw the package out and forget I ever went to see that shit.”
This was the first time she’d mentioned the bruxo since our visit, the first time she’d said more than the word no.
She drank the tea and ate the slice of bread with tomato jam I brought her, sitting up straight, leaning tall and dignified, like some injured queen.
The next morning, Friday, she got up, put on her red-polkadot dress, combed her hair, put on lipstick, went shopping, boiled kale and potatoes (from the garden) and chouriҫo for dinner, sat down with us, never saying a word. She didn’t even slap Manuelito when he took his sausage outside and gave it to Benfica.
All day I watched her closely to see if she’d throw away the package.
After Manuelito and my father went to sleep, she said, “It’s nearly time.”
At eleven o’clock, she told me to fetch the package that she’d hidden in the hutch in the dining room (that had never been used), keeping it safe from Benfica. Sometimes the dog snuck into the house if we weren’t watching. He’d sniffed the package upon our arrival.
My mother wrapped Manuelito’s red shirt around the package and tied it with string, as the bruxo had instructed. Manuelito had nearly drowned in that shirt, falling into the river from the gunwale of a fishing boat, he and another boy had climbed. Manuelito couldn’t swim. A fisherman standing by, threw him a plank, dragging him to shore.
My mother carefully closed the kitchen door, as we stepped outside, so as not to wake Manuelito and my father, who was already snoring. Benfica’s raucous breath could be heard from under the stairwell.
“Good,” my mother whispered. “The dog’s asleep.”
The dirt road had no lights. No houses either, once we left our hamlet behind, the road cutting through farms and fields. A full moon gleamed down, like some cosmic lantern, helping to light the way. All creatures must be asleep, I thought, an eerie quiet blanketed everything.
We walked for twenty minutes or so in tremulous silence. An owl screeched overhead; My mother jumped back, dropping the package. As she bent down to pick it up, she screamed. I thought my heart would jump out of my chest. I turned around; Benfica was behind us.
“It’s the shirt,” she said. “The darn dog smelled it.”
He quietly trailed behind.
By the time we reached the crossroads, the moon was hiding behind a cloud. My mother tried placing the package at the centre of the four roads, but it was hard to see— all was darkness. We couldn’t even see the chorões, the hottentot-fig plant carpeting the embankments framing the roads with their fatty dark-green leaves and large pink flowers.
When the moon again showed its face, Benfica had the package between his teeth. It took two of us to yank it away from him. My mother again placed the package at the centre of the crossroads while I held Benfica.
As she dropped the package, Benfica lifted his head high and howled at the moon. In the distance, another dog joined in. Then another. The hair on my arms stood on end.
“Those might be wolves.” My mother’s voice sounded thin, hesitant, devoid of her usual authoritativeness. “The full moon brings them out.”
We hurried home, never looking back, me still carrying Benfica in my arms in spite of his stale dog smell.
Benfica continued howling.
“What is the crazy dog sensing?” my mother asked. “Dogs can sense things we can’t.”
I wondered, too, and shuddered.
The next morning I woke late to an empty house. I learned from my grandparents that Benfica was missing and that my mother and Manuelito were searching the neighbourhood for him. My father had gone to meet with other workers about a possible strike, memories of the last one still fresh in men’s memories, in everyone’s memory. Limps and scars, eternal witnesses to PIDE’s brutality and Salazar’s inhumanity, had become part of the town’s history, the town’s pulse.
The day was already hot. My grandparents and I sat under the shade of the grapevine and fuchsia bougainvillea canopy on their patio waiting for my mother’s and Manuelito’s return. We drank lemonade made from lemons grown in my grandparents’ garden. It was sour.
My mother and Manuelito returned without Benfica.
“Did you check the crossroads?” I asked.
We departed. Manuelito led the way.
As we approached the crossroads, my mother spotted Manuelito’s red shirt lying on the side of the road.
Manuelito ran toward the shirt, now torn and dusty, the ripped brown paper bag close-by. We carefully searched for the pouch, looking even under the chorões. It was nowhere.
It was then I noticed wide tire grooves on the road. They wavered onto the chorões, crushing the fatty leaves and pink flowers where the car or truck must’ve swerved.
Manuelito continued climbing the slope. When he reached the top, he shrieked.
We hurried up to him.
Two vultures circled the air. Four others were on the ground, wrinkled red heads busy pecking their prey, their hissing the only sound in the silent wheat field.
Manuelito ran toward the vultures; they lifted up in unison, madly flapping their wings.
Benfica’s guts spilled out of his belly like sausage strings on a butcher block, a circle of maroon blood girdled him, almost like an afterthought, a decoration, a myriad of flies sucking up what the earth had not yet taken in.
Manuelito stopped about seven or eight feet from where the vultures had been feasting. He began to cry, light at first, then his sobs seemed to shake the very earth under my feet. I imagined I’d always remember this cry, these flies, these vultures, this moment.
I turned toward my mother. Arms raised high above her head, hands shaking up to heaven, she seemed to be having a conversation—an argument—with God, the God she didn’t believe in. “I was right,” she said, “that albino is a fraud. He hasn’t broken the curse. It continues and continues and continues…”
She looked different. New creases seemed to be framing her eyes and mouth, making her look haggard, older.
I turned to Manuelito, my back to my mother, and put my arms around him, his small body convulsing against my chest.
“Why did Benfica die? Why, why?”
I had no answer. I just held him while my mother continued arguing with God.
She uttered a long, deep sigh. “It’ll never leave me, this bad luck. Never, never.”
The vultures returned, circling the area in spite of our presence.They cast a dark shadow over the field of wheat stalks, red poppies, yellow buttercups, and what was left of Benfica.
Carmelinda Scian lives in Toronto with her husband. As a child, she emigrated from Portugal with her parents. She won first place in the Toronto Star Short Story Contest in 2015, and her stories have also appeared in Litro, Belletrist, Prairie Fire, The Malahat Review, and The Fiddlehead among others. She holds a BA and an MA in English from the University of Toronto.