As a subgenre, the favela story was still popular. The NGO for which I was writing and shooting the documentary was based in Salvador da Bahia, but they pulled out before I ever finished the project; the board of directors no longer deemed it prudent to stay in a location where the citizens showed little interest in supporting the arts program prescribed by the NGO. These citizens were the same ones who later went on to boldly wheatpaste blown-up photographs of the faces of gang and police violence casualties. That project wasn’t set up by an NGO but a graffiti artist from some European nation; I don’t remember which.
As for the doc… I don’t know what’s become of most of the footage. I turned it over to the NGO, which was supposed to send it to an editor. There wasn’t much to edit; I’d planned on conducting interviews with as many favelados as possible so as to present a portrait of life in the favela. As it turned out, I only interviewed six individuals, most for a few minutes rather than the few hours I would have preferred. Of course, I was working with a translator, so each interview took twice as long as it should have. But when I learned the NGO was pulling the plug on the documentary and pulling out for good, I decided I’d go through with one final interview anyway. Just in case.
I’m glad I didn’t cancel the interview, because Papagainha, as she called herself, actually had a story to tell. Knowing that no one but myself, the translator, and a few others would ever hear her tale was disheartening in itself, but couple that with the decline in interest in the favela story as if it were a trend, and it is simple to understand why I undertook the task of transcribing her story. Since she is little more than a talking head in the film, I don’t suppose much is lost in the translation from film to page (some of the words I have left untranslated). Nevertheless, I will set the scene.
In a medium shot, Papagainha—“Little Parrot”—reclines against propped pillows, her arms crossed atop the white sheet, the taut wires that hold up her cast-covered legs out of focus in the foreground. Her hair is braided in rows over raised eyebrows. She doesn’t seem to be in pain, but occasionally she pauses to glance out the window. Whether it is from pain, to catch her breath, or to remember, one cannot determine. But when she begins, her eyes bulge straight at the camera, despite my insistence that she ignore the object, pretend it isn’t there. Also, she smirks, which irks me; it doesn’t seem appropriate. With this image in mind, the transcription—with some poetic license and a pertinent epigraph—reads as follows:
In what invisible air
are you spreading now your wings?
—Astrid Cabral, Dead Bird, trans. by Alexis Levitin
Six days ago, when I could still walk, everyone knew me by my nickname: Papagainha, because I learned so quickly. Words, especially. Also, my sisters and I had this little sun-gold parakeet, Raj, who lived in a cage in our room. My real name is Dolores Nascimento, and that’s what I go by here in the hospital. And I shouldn’t talk so much anymore; it causes trouble. But I’ll tell you this story.
Listen: it all started after church on a Sunday afternoon, three days before my thirteenth birthday. Maria’s younger brother, Zé, showed up without his notebook in the little room I shared with my mom and two sisters.
“Where’s your notebook?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said.
Raj screeched. His claws clung to the front of the cage, his gray beak poking through the wire bars.
“What do you mean you don’t know? It’s your only notebook.”
Zé was four years younger than me and had barely passed the first grade at the community school we both attended; our families couldn’t afford the public school. You have to own shoes to go there.
Since Zé lived down the street, his teacher, Dona Ritter—who used to be my teacher—asked if I could tutor him. I was always the best speller. I could spell words the other students didn’t even know existed, like irreconcilable. Except I didn’t always know what the words meant; I memorized how they sounded, how they looked.
When Dona Ritter made me the offer, I acted like I didn’t care. “What’s in it for me?” I asked. She asked what I wanted. I said she had to take me to the Shopping Barra and buy me a pair of shoes.
“Well,” she said, “if it’ll make our lives easier…”
But Zé made my life difficult. The only thing that kept me going was the promise of shoes. I’d never owned a pair; my sisters had, but after my oldest sister wore a pair, she passed them on to my other sister, who wore them out. When I did get my own, I wasn’t sure what they’d be: sneakers, sandals, maybe heels like the models wear. My mom was always saying I should be more like a woman and quit playing futebol in the street. But how would I be able to explain how I got a pair of heels?
Whenever Zé whined about studying, I thought of those shoes and somehow found a way to motivate him. Plus Dona Ritter set a goal for us; he had to pass his next writing exam, which was coming up a week from the day he came to tell me he’d lost the notebook.
“How are you going to do your homework?” I asked. When Zé shrugged, it took all my power not to slap him. There go my shoes, I thought. “If you don’t find it, we’ll both be in trouble.”
He shifted his mouth and puckered his lips, like the clove on a birthday beijinho.
“I can’t find it,” he said, looking down. His bloodshot bulgy eyes rolled up to the bullet hole in the wall and stared at it. I wanted to look, as if the hole might hold an answer. “Someone stole it.”
Raj screeched again and tried to say a few words. It sounded like, “I love you.” My sisters and I tried to teach Raj to talk, but it never sounded like real words, just squawks. You had to have a good imagination for it to sound like real words.
“Who would steal your notebook?” I asked.
Zé’s mouth opened and shut, his tongue flicking around like Raj turning a seed.
As Crianças aren’t just any kids; they’re As Crianças de Calabar—the CDC—the gang that owns most of our favela. Another gang owns the other half of the favela but only the lower half below the one road that splits Calabar in two. The CDC is on top.
They put the bullet hole in our wall. Luckily my older sisters and I were asleep when the bullet slipped between the bars of the window, which isn’t a glass one like in the church but a square hole surrounded by brick. We were so used to the gunshots, it didn’t wake us.
“Why don’t you ask O Babalao to get your notebook back?” I asked.
I lifted the latch of the cage door and swung it open. If you pointed your finger up under his chest, Raj would climb onto it.
O Babalao is Zé’s older brother, older than Maria and me by two years. Paulo Crispin da Silva is his real name, but once he started working for the CDC, he refused to go by anything but O Babalao, even though he wasn’t a Candomblé priest and never called on an Orixá in his life. Rumor was he earned the nickname when he graduated from drug running to assassin; he sacrificed his victims like animals. No one would admit to believing this, but I’d heard stories that he was promoted after disappearing a policeman.
Zé didn’t respond. I already knew he wouldn’t ask his brother, so I sat him down on the floor with my notebook and pencil and made him practice writing some sentences I made up, like “The dog eats garbage” and “Ronaldinho scores a goal.”
When I couldn’t hold his attention anymore, I took my notebook back, reminded him to find the one he lost—knowing he wouldn’t or couldn’t—and walked him down the street to the room he shared with his mom and siblings.
Like me, Zé didn’t have a dad. My sisters say we’re better off without one.
As we walked, Raj perched on my shoulder and nibbled my hair. His flight feathers were growing out, but he couldn’t fly away. Not as long as I kept them trimmed.
Maria was outside, barefoot and dribbling a ball up and down the dirt street when Zé and I arrived. She pretended not to see us and scooped the ball up with her left foot, bouncing it twice before juggling it to the other foot, bouncing it up to her head, heading it, catching it with her right foot again, and letting it fall back to the ground. Then she acted like she was surprised to see us.
Maria and Zé’s family lived on the second floor of the building. The front was painted sky blue like ours. Only the sides facing the city were painted; the government didn’t want us making the hill look dirty.
The dirt street Maria and I lived on was near the bottom of the hill. When it rained it turned to mud, and all the trash and sewage washed down the hill and filled the pool of garbage that used to be a pond. On summer days you could smell it all the way down the street. I could smell the garbage that day, but I never thought about how bad it was until I left. Growing up with it, I thought that’s how the world was supposed to smell.
“Hey, Maria, where’s O Babalao?”
“I don’t know. He’s never back until after midnight. What you want with him?”
Zé looked up at me. His eyes went wide.
“Nothing,” I said. “Zé wanted to ask him something.”
Zé’s body went stiff as a dead dog’s. He didn’t even breathe.
“Like what?” she asked.
“Oh, you know. Man to man.”
Zé breathed out in a wheeze.
I ran at Maria. She faked right, but I stole the ball from her when she went left. I knew she’d go left; she’s horrible to the right. And her ball is lopsided. I kicked the ball up and juggled it from foot to foot, knee to knee, up to my head, and caught it with the back of my neck.
“Show off,” said Maria.
Zé shouted for the ball, and soon the neighboring kids joined in. We split into two teams and played until the sun went down—until the only ones on the street were the brave, the stupid, and As Crianças.
That night I was one of the brave. Brave, because I will never admit to being stupid, even if I was.
I slid off the mattress, careful not to wake my sisters, and pulled on my white shirt and red shorts, grabbed my ball, and set off for Maria’s. I didn’t know what time it was, but if I waited long enough, O Babalao was sure to show up.
Even at that late hour, it was almost impossible to see the stars; the lights from the city glowed like a dome above. The moon looked like a shred of coconut.
Somewhere up the hill, a series of gunshots popped a rhythm like a samba. It took at least two guns to bang out a beat like that. My bare feet against the ball thudded like a bass.
When I got to Maria’s, I sat holding my ball on the bottom stair of the staircase leading up to her place. A group of men passed me on the street, staring and calling me names they usually reserved for older girls. I stared at a bottle cap stuck in the dirt and waited for them to leave. My heart beat against my ribs as they laughed and swaggered away.
I must’ve dozed off; the sky was brightening, birds singing, when O Babalao showed up. He was darker than I was, and with the sun rising at his back, he looked like a silhouette.
I stood up. My bunda was sore. From the way he swayed and staggered down the street, I could tell he was drunk. When he saw me he raised his eyebrows, like he was trying to hold his eyes open with them.
“What’re you doing out here?” he asked, his breath stinging my eyes.
“Waiting for you.”
“You’re my sister’s friend,” he said, and I nodded. “It’s dangerous outside. Go home.”
He tried to step around me, but I scurried up a few steps, folded my arms, and glared down at the top of his head.
“Your friends stole your little brother’s notebook.”
“Are you drunk?”
“No, you are.”
“Why would they steal a notebook?”
“I don’t know, but that’s what Zé told me. And I want my pair of shoes, so you’d better get it back.”
“What shoes?” He glanced down at my feet. “You don’t have shoes.”
“If you don’t get it back, I’ll tell everyone how the kids you run with put the bullet hole in our wall. And that I know for a fact you killed that policeman.”
O Babalao’s eyebrows dropped. He stepped up beside me, turned, and thrust his chest against the ball I held between us. The wall pressed into my spine.
“I heard you. Listen: forget about the notebook. Forget whatever you heard. Go home. I’ll buy him a new one. Just keep your mouth shut.” He glared down at me a moment longer then stepped back and cocked his head at the ball. “You play?”
He smiled and nodded then walked up the remaining stairs, and went inside. I waited for the click of the lock; it never sounded.
Everyone was still asleep when I got back, including Raj. His cage was covered, so he’d think it was night. He never tried to speak at night.
Even if you like school, it’s hard to enjoy it when your eyes close and your head drops and you jerk back to attention only to have your eyes shut again. Each blackout lasted a moment, but the more it happened the more school began to seem like a dream. History especially.
I imagined everything our teacher lectured on: how these landowners were so nice they let their runaway slaves—the ones they didn’t catch—stay in a quilombo the other runaways had established in the middle of the sugarcane fields. My eyes shut, and I saw myself running away from the favela, hiding in the sugarcane, until I found the quilombo. All the other runaways welcomed me and begged me to teach them how to read and write.
When my teacher woke me up, he sent me to the principal. The other kids laughed. Except Maria. This surprised me, because I thought if anyone were to laugh at me, it would be her.
In the office, the principal—who I think is rich since his skin is light—glanced up from his newspaper. He squinted, as if he couldn’t see me, then went back to reading.
“What happened?” he asked, and I told him I fell asleep in class. “Why?”
Because I hadn’t slept much the night before. I didn’t mention O Babalao; Paulinho had dropped out of school.
The principal folded his newspaper and poured a cup of coffee.
“Drink this and go back to class,” he said, thrusting the cup at my face.
The coffee was cold. I drank it as fast as I could.
After school I went to Dona Ritter’s classroom. She was sitting at her desk, grading papers. I don’t know why she teaches at the school; it’s full of favelados like me, and she’s completely white. Her grandparents are from Germany. I think they were Nazis. You’d think all Germans were either Jews or Nazis, the way they describe them in the history book. A lot of Nazis came to Brasil to hide after that war.
Luckily, Dona Ritter wasn’t a Nazi; she’d agreed to buy me shoes! When I came in, she looked up from her work and smiled.
“Hello, Papagainha. How are you?”
I liked that she called me by my nickname. My new teacher called me Dona Nascimento, because he thought that was showing respect.
“I’m fine, Dona Ritter,” I said. “My birthday is on Friday.”
“Is that so? How old will you be?”
“Already? You’re almost a woman. And how is Zé?”
“I think he’s improving.” I hadn’t actually thought about what I would say to her about Zé and his notebook.
“Oh, was he sick this weekend, too?”
“What do you mean?”
“He wasn’t here today.”
I could guess why. But it seemed stupid of him not to go to school because of a notebook. He wasn’t smart enough to think of something like that. Not on his own.
“Oh, yeah, I think he was sick,” I said. “He came over to study, but he had to leave early.”
“Well, let’s hope he’s feeling better soon. I’d hate to see him fall behind again.”
To keep from looking too worried, I nodded and stared at the smiling children painted on the classroom walls. But when Dona Ritter slid a few reais across the desk, I couldn’t look anywhere but my bare feet.
Except for our age, the only thing Maria and I had in common was Vitória, the best futebol team in Brasil. Maria had learned how to play from O Babalao.
“Want to listen to the match on the radio tonight?” I asked.
We were walking back from school. We never hung out at school. But sometimes she walked with me, since I tutored Zé.
“Do you even have a radio?”
“No. I thought you might.”
“Yeah, but my mom will be watching the soap operas. That’s all she does since Paulinho bought her a television.”
O Babalao also bought an authentic Vitória jersey when he started running with the CDC. I knew then what shoes I’d get—futebol shoes.
When my dad left, the only contact my sisters and I had with him was the gift we each received on our birthdays. No visit, no note, just a gift someone who knew him would deliver. At least that’s what my sisters told me; he stopped after four years. My mom could’ve tracked my dad down and made him come back, but she didn’t. I never asked why.
The first gift I received was Raj. When Raj was younger, my sisters told me, he wore green feathers. But gradually the green changed to orange and yellow, except for the tail and the tips of his wings. I don’t remember seeing him change. Dona Ritter let me bring him to her class once, and she told me he’s endangered in the wild.
The last gift I received was the ball. I always thought when I grew up I would play for Brasil’s women’s team. I’d play in the finals of the World Cup and score the game-winning GOOOOOOAAAL! Brasil wins the World Cup! Papagainha, world’s greatest futebol player, scores a last second header! Brasil wins, three to two!
No, I wasn’t going to live in Calabar forever.
When we got to Maria’s place, Zé wasn’t there. Maria asked if I wanted to stay, but I was hungry, and Maria never had any food. Not that my family had much. But I did have the reais. I asked her if she wanted to go to the convenience store and get some candy.
“With what?” she asked, and since I hadn’t told her about the money, I didn’t answer, just shrugged and said I’d see her later.
I found little Zé hanging out in front of the convenience store across the street from the abandoned building where some gringo organization used to be. Zé reached into his pocket and slapped five with a negrinho three times his age. The negrinho glared at me as he walked past, dropping his eyes from mine, to my chest, to my middle, to my legs, and back up. I stared straight ahead. When Zé saw me coming he pouted his lips and raised his eyebrows the way O Babalao had the night before.
“What do you want?” he asked.
“What do you think?”
“You found my notebook?”
As usual, he didn’t look at me. Except his eyes weren’t nervous this time; he rolled them away.
“No, did you?” I asked.
“I haven’t looked.”
“Why weren’t you in school?”
He squinted an eye at me.
“None of your business,” he said, and we both turned to watch a three-legged dog hobble across the street. The dog lifted its leg to mark a palm tree, turning its head to look at Zé, who looked away, saying, “Now leave me alone. I got work to do.”
“What work? I’ll tell your brother!”
“So, I will.”
His eyes rolled away again. He looked like he owned the store. I decided against the candy.
It would be another long night if I had to wait up for O Babalao. As I walked away, I glanced back at Zé. He pulled out a wad of bills, licked a finger, and counted—higher than he’d ever learned in school.
The rain fell hard that night, pummeled me in the face with each gust. Already, the street was a river, washing plastic wrappers and glass bottles down to the pond.
I sat on Maria’s stairs, put my head down between my knees, and peeked out at the street through them. I didn’t have my ball; it only would’ve splashed in the puddles and got muddy. I thought about going up the stairs, but I couldn’t see the street from there.
Rain pounded corrugated rooftops, pattered the dirt and concrete. Through the beat I heard a squeak and a slap. Squeak and slap. Squeak, slap. I looked up, squinted through the rain.
“Move, and I’ll blow your brains out.”
I didn’t move. Stared up into the barrel of a gun. But I recognized O Babalao’s voice.
“O Babalao.” My voice sounded extra high-pitched. Like Raj’s screech. “It’s me. Papagainha.”
The gun clicked again. As soon as it did, my heart pounded against my chest, hard as the rain that fell upon us.
O Babalao was drenched, too. And drunk. He tucked the gun into his pants and pulled his Vitória jersey down over it.
“I thought you were going to buy him a new notebook,” I said, standing.
My legs wobbled; the step rolled beneath my feet. But I held my ground.
As he stepped forward, his sandal caught on the step and bent beneath his foot. He fell forward, and I scrambled backwards up a couple steps, arms outstretched to catch him. But he slipped through my hands and landed with his face inches from the stairs, barely catching himself. One foot bare, he dropped to the stairs, pressed his face to a step, and burst into laughter.
I offered him a hand, but he was too heavy to pull up. He rolled over into a push-up and stumbled to his feet, crashing against the wall, where he stayed, propped up against it.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
He gave me a thumbs up.
“He’s running with As Crianças, isn’t he?”
“I thought I told you to keep your mouth shut.” He glared at me. “What do you care?”
I wasn’t going to tell him it was about a pair of shoes. I went down the stairs and picked up his sandal. The mud beneath held the sandal’s shape.
“Who’s in charge?” I asked, handing the sandal up to him.
“In charge of what?”
“Of you. And Zé.”
He took a step down, put a hand on my shoulder, steadied himself. I shivered. He slipped on his sandal but left his hand on me.
His eyes crossed as he tried to focus on mine. They were even more bloodshot than Zé’s.
“Listen, I’m going to give you the same advice he gave me.”
“Keep your mouth shut. It’s none of your business.” He pushed off my shoulder and swayed. “Where’s your ball?”
“I didn’t bring it. It’s raining.”
“That shouldn’t matter. Not if you’re a true player.”
He turned and started up the stairs but only got as far as one step before stopping and staring intently at the next. I thought about putting his arm around me, helping him up to the door. But he exhaled like a storm wind and took the step on his own.
Before I could ask him why he pulled a gun on me, he was inside. I hopped into the mud; it squished between my toes. His sandal print had already washed away.
The next morning my sisters wanted to know why my spot on the bed was wet. And why my hair was damp. I thought they were going to accuse me of peeing in the bed.
“None of your business,” I told them.
They made it their business by telling our mom.
My mom asked me what I did and suggested her own answer: that I’d gone outside after dark like a prostitute.
“I’m not a prostitute,” I mumbled. “I don’t care about money.”
Her eyes opened wide, and I had to feel it across the cheek, and then, as if that weren’t enough, I had to hear it, on and on, how ungrateful I was that she and my sisters all worked to support us, and what did I do, I was lazy, what had school done for me. The usual. I didn’t care. I knew bigger words than her, like “persistence.”
But if I was going to act like a prostitute, said my mom, then I should make money like a prostitute. And I better not come home until I had the money.
“Fine,” I said, crossing my arms. “How much does a prostitute make?”
Whack! The other cheek.
Raj screeched and tried to say his three magic words. My mom told him to shut up. It was hard not to tell her the same thing.
Sometimes, I wish it was my mom who’d left and not my dad.
I’d never ditched class on purpose before, but since I didn’t have much choice, I decided I’d find Zé. At least he had money.
I dribbled my ball up to the convenience store. Zé was there, same pose as the day before.
“Hi, Zé. How’s business?”
“What do you want?”
“I don’t need tutoring anymore. I’m big time now.”
He looked down at his feet to draw my attention to his new sandals.
“Why don’t you loan me a few reais then, and we’ll call it even,” I said.
“Why don’t you mind your own business?”
“You were my business.”
A customer approached.
“What do you mean?”
If I had shoes I would’ve stamped on Zé’s new sandals and run. Instead, I kicked my ball across the street to a two-story building and followed it over.
The building was locked, all the bottom floor windows boarded up. In back was a concrete porch with four posts and no cover except for the building’s shadow. I sat down on the porch.
My stomach growled. They always served free breakfast at school.
Maybe I should’ve gone to school that day. Maybe Dona Ritter would have loaned me the money. But I wouldn’t have wanted to explain why I needed it.
The voice fell from above.
I stood up and turned to face the window above me. A couple of its bars were sawed off, leaving enough room for a person my size to squeeze through. A pair of lips pouted down at me, the rest of the face concealed beneath the shade of a cap.
“Climb up,” the lips said.
And a rope tumbled down.
I held up the ball. A hand from the window gestured to leave it. Since I couldn’t climb with it, I set it at the base of a palm tree and prayed no one would steal it.
The rope was knotted in spots all the way up to the window. Reaching as high as I could, I grabbed the rope and pulled myself up to the first knot, my legs rubbing against the fiber as I rose. With my feet on the knot, I pushed off and pulled up again, until I reached the second knot.
What seemed like hours later, I reached the top. The face in the window was gone, but an arm reached through; its hand wrapped around my wrist. I wrapped my hand around the arm’s wrist and took a deep breath.
I let go of the rope. For a moment I hung in space then rose up and through the window, sliding over its sill, barely clearing the jagged edge of the sawed bars. I landed hands first, feet out the window, my face close enough to feel the cool of the cement floor as I exhaled in relief.
The next thing I saw were two feet wearing the hugest pair of sneakers I’d ever seen. Solid white, unscuffed.
I pulled my legs through the window and walked my feet down the wall. When I stood, I came face to face with a kid no older than me.
“We weren’t expecting you so soon,” he said, pulling up the rope.
His cap sat low over his forehead, his face still shadowed. An English word was printed on the cap: P-O-I-S-O-N.
We stood in an empty room. On the wall was a painting of children doing capoeira and playing instruments: berimbau, drums. They were all smiling. It reminded me of the murals at my school. Only this one was faded.
The kid gestured for me to follow and turned. As the cap’s shadow shifted over his face, I recognized him; I used to go to school with him.
We walked down the hall and entered a narrow windowless room lined with bookcases. Instead of books, the shelves held white votive candles. Their flames bowed as we entered, and I could feel their heat. Where walls showed between the frames of the bookcases, the paint was cracked and peeling. The air was hard to breath, as if it were made of old paper. It smelled like a dog in the rain.
On the wall opposite the door was a hand-drawn map of the street; everything on the street was on it, from the convenience store to my place to Maria’s. Green, yellow, blue and white pushpins were stuck into the map at what seemed like random spots. A green pushpin marked the convenience store; a white one marked my building.
Beneath the map was a wooden desk with a globe on it that reminded me of the flag and the slogan: “Order and Progress.” A pale-skinned hand spun the globe, and a face leaned away from the white paper street map behind it. Two pink eyes stared into mine.
He wasn’t white; he was albino.
The hand that spun the globe gestured at a chair before the desk. I sat down in the chair and laid an arm across the desk attached to it, like the ones at school. In one corner, someone had carved CDC into its surface. I traced the letters with my pinky.
“What do you want?” he asked.
It was hard to guess his age. His hair was whiter than any old person’s. He wore the national futebol jersey, green like Raj’s feathers. At least we had that in common.
“I want…” I gulped. “Nothing.”
He opened the desk drawer in front of him and brought out two items: a red notebook and a silver gun. The gun was exactly like the one O Babalao had. He set each side by side on the desk.
“What do you want?”
I stared at each without seeing either. My throat closed. I couldn’t answer. He picked up the gun, put it back in the drawer, and shut the drawer.
“Do you know who I am?” I shook my head, and he continued. “It’s better that way. And it’s a good thing you know O Babalao.”
“O Babalao?” My voice squeaked, the words squeezing their way up my throat.
“He’s loyal to those he knows. But do me a favor. You’ve got your business. We’ve got ours. Mind your own.”
“You stole my business. I need money.”
“It’s a competitive market. You’ll find someone else.” He slid the notebook at me with his fingertips. As I picked it up, he grabbed my wrist, stared into my eyes. “You’re cute for an older woman.”
I pulled away, bending the notebook. He sat there laughing as the candle flames flickered, splitting his shadow into three.
At the door to the room, the other kid met me and led me back to the ladder. He said nothing, didn’t even look at me. When he lowered the ladder, I climbed down.
The shade had passed. The sun burned bright, and the street stank. But my ball was still under the palm. I kicked it up into the air, watched it disappear in the glare of the sun, until it came down and smacked me in the face. I wished then I had that silver gun—to shoot the sun down from the sky.
Knowing no one would be there, knowing I wouldn’t have the money my mom expected by that night, I went back to the room to pack a few things. I wondered if Maria would let me stay with her. That would be awkward.
When I entered the room, Raj didn’t screech his usual greeting; his cage door was open, and he wasn’t inside the cage. Sometimes we let him walk around on the window ledge, but he wasn’t there either. I went outside and looked up at the telephone poles. All I saw was a pair of sneakers, laces tied, hung over the wire. They belonged to one of O Babalao’s friends who’d died about a year ago.
I called Raj’s name. I called, “I love you.” I whistled and chirped. I tried to sound like Raj. But there was no answer, just strange looks from the men on the street and muted voices from TVs—soap operas, where everyone lives less exciting yet more interesting lives than us. Maybe that sounds sanctimonious, but I never watched the soap operas unless I had to.
Sanctimonious: I think that’s the right word. At least I can spell it. But I’m no show off, so I won’t.
Since the soap operas were on, it meant my mom and sisters would return soon. They were probably getting off the bus at that moment. I pushed some clothes into the purse my mom once got me and set off with that and my ball for Maria’s.
Maria was outside, kicking her ball against the wall. I wondered if her mom was a hypocrite like mine—be a woman, but don’t spend money on being a woman like they do on TV.
Maria didn’t glance at me.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“None of your business,” she said as the ball slammed into the wall. It bounced back, and she headbutted it at the wall.
I stepped in and grabbed the ball. How did she know to say, None of your business?
“What do you know?” I asked.
“Who asked you to be goalie?” She reached for the ball. I pulled it away. “You think you’re better than everyone, because you’re good at school? Maybe it’s all that spelling that gives you a big mouth.”
“Who told you to say that?” I asked.
“None of your business.”
“None of your business,” she said.
“What if I make it my business?”
For a moment she stared. But her words came out as a whisper: “Grow up.” And she grabbed my ball and ran inside, leaving me holding her lopsided one on the sidewalk. Then, through the open window, she sang, “And I wouldn’t say anything, unless you want the whole school to know you ditched.”
I dropped her ball and kicked it down the street. I smiled, until some boy ran up and kicked it back.
A half moon was up, and still no sign of Raj. With no place to stay, I wandered the streets. The clouds gathered, and it started to rain. I ran, towards where I didn’t know, the mud caking to my soles, but I had to find shelter, so I ran, I ran, even though I was out of breath, until I arrived, until I looked up—the abandoned building.
A dim and flickering light shone through the window. A creature flapped towards it. Bat, I thought. But the creature perched on the windowsill, where it sat in silhouette and squawked.
“Raj!” I shouted.
“I love you,” he tried to chirp. But a shadow moved across him, followed by a body, and he flew off into the night, feathers like candle flames burning through a flag.
That was the last I ever saw of Raj.
The figure inside the building leaned out the window. I expected to see the kid in the hat. But it was the albino kid, pale as the cloud-hidden moon. His hands rested on the windowsill as he looked out across the street, down the hill, down to the lights of the city below the hill where those, less light-skinned than he, lived and shopped and owned.
Dona Ritter lived down there. I wished I were with her.
His eyes narrowed on me, held me down like hands.
“You don’t listen, do you?” he asked. I didn’t think he wanted a response.
The rope dropped to the ground. I thought of running. But his eyes pulled me towards him. I walked up, gripped the rope, and climbed.
Halfway up it was too slick to continue. If I raised my head, I couldn’t see; the rain fell on my face. I clung tight in mid-air. And the rope began to rise.
Then it stopped. No hand came to help. I grabbed the inside of the window and slid through, landing on the floor.
Expecting to see pale skin, I froze, confused at the pair of black and hairless legs that stepped before me. I followed them up.
Arms crossed, eyebrows raised, she glared down at me.
“Maria,” I whispered.
Her foot caught my chin, lifted it back. My head felt like it was about to sail into a goal.
“That’s for spreading rumors about my brother.”
Another kick to the head. I never realized how many teeth were in my mouth.
“From now on, mind your own—”
“Business,” I interrupted. “I know.”
“And keep your mouth shut.”
“If you kick me in the—”
My mouth was open when the third one came. Like biting iron.
The albino kid handed Maria a gun. The same silver one I’d seen earlier. She cocked the trigger. Aimed it between my eyes. I shut them tight. Instead of a bang, I heard the slap of sandals.
I opened my eyes. Someone I couldn’t quite see through the black spots moving in front of my eyes. The figure emerged from the flickering light, and though his face was dark, I could tell it was O Babalao.
I couldn’t see his eyes, only the black spots zooming out of my eyes. Behind them I saw O Babalao’s hand reach out to lower Maria’s arms. The gun pointed to the floor.
“I’ll handle this,” he said.
The albino kid laughed, shook his head, and said, “You’re lucky he’s loyal.”
O Babalao picked me up off the floor. He smelled like an empty bottle in the street.
As he slung me over his shoulder, he slurred into my ear. I think he said, “I’m sorry.” But it sounded like Raj’s screech.
I didn’t fly; I fell. I’d forgotten to clip Raj’s wings. And I knew why Raj flew when he had the chance.
And that’s why I’m here, broken—more bones than I knew I had. Both legs in casts, and I have to lie in the same position. The doctors say I may never walk again. But I know I will.
I must’ve landed on my feet. Must’ve fallen like a raindrop.
How I got here I don’t know. Someone had to take me here. Someone has to be paying for this. It’s the longest I’ve ever been out of the favela. I’ve only been here a few days and already this place feels like home.
Dona Ritter sent me a birthday card. Inside, she wrote, Get well soon, and mentioned she’d come visit this weekend. No mention of a pair of shoes, though; I don’t think I’ll ever get those shoes. Or play for the Cup.
At least I still know how to spell words. Maybe I could learn the definitions.
The card was more than my mother gave me. She hasn’t been here yet. Neither have my sisters. I wonder if they know I’m here.
The one person who visited was the one I thought I’d never see again: O Babalao. I started shaking when I saw him; I couldn’t control it. But he slid his arms between the bed and my body, carefully, and hid his face where my neck meets my shoulder.
He whispered if I ever went back to the neighborhood, the CDC would kill me. I asked him where I could go. He said not to worry. I asked him how I got here. Who was paying for it.
He lifted his head. Something was on his breath. Not alcohol. Something sweet. But his eyes were still bloodshot. Red as his heart. Wet like rain.
“Who?” I asked.
“None of your business,” he mumbled, but the words sounded more like, “I love you.”
by Kevin Richard Kaiser
Kevin Richard Kaiser has published fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and music internationally: in print, online, and on disc. He also works in performance and film. His MFA is from Chatham University in Pittsburgh. At Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, he completed the first two years of his Ph.D. thesis before returning to his hometown in Orange County, California, where he lives and works as he completes his final year. The thesis concerns the short fiction of George Saunders, posthumanist ethics, and nonhuman animals. Visit his website at www.kevinrichardkaiser.com.