Beth was taking notes under the shade of a banana tree while Marcia explained the process of making pamonhas. As I approached the cooking area the acrid smell of pigshit wafted up from the pigsty on a wave of hot air. Marcia shooed a squawking chicken away from her feet, shoved another log under the woodstove and flicked her hand at the thick, black clot of flies crawling over the dish of boiled corn and pork fat.
‘If I get an A for this it’ll be yours,’ said Beth, in not-too-bad Portuguese.
Marcia grinned, showing a gap where her front teeth were missing. ‘Why would anyone in your country want to know how I make pamonhas?’
‘It’s for Correspondence School,’ said Beth. ‘I have to write about a local product. I went to a few shops in town that sold pamonhas, but they wouldn’t tell me how they made them.’
‘They were probably scared you would use their recipe and set up shop for yourself,’ laughed Marcia. ‘Now if you want to write about something interesting I’ll take you to the Festa de Iemanja tonight. We can easily walk to the lake from here.’
‘That’d be cool, wouldn’t it Mum?’ said Beth, still in Portuguese.
I nodded, turning my head to hide my pleasure that she found it natural to talk in this language that she’d been so resistant to learning.
Marcia scooped up a spoonful of the yellow mixture to pour inside an envelope of corn leaves which she fastened up with string and threw into a pot of boiling water. Plucking a corn leaf envelope from another pan she cut it open with a pair of scissors, put it on a plate, handed it to Beth with a fork then proceeded to prepare one for me. Beth paled slightly, but she ate it without comment. Marcia wiped her hands on her faded cotton dress. Three small girls, their bare feet stained red from the earth ran in to the kitchen and clung to her legs laughing. She gave them a pamonha each then shooed them outside along with the piglet that was following them.
‘Where’s your father?’ I asked Beth.
‘Out with Antonio looking for snakes. They lost a calf yesterday from snake-bite,’ she said. ‘They even took Ricardo with them so it can’t be as lethal out there as you seem to think’
‘Ricardo is used to this terrain, you’re not.’
She rolled her eyes. ‘Oh Mum! You’d have to stand on a snake before it attacked you. That’s why the calf got bitten. They don’t just come charging after you for no reason. It’d be so cool to see a snake!’ She explained to Marcia that we had no snakes in New Zealand.
Marcia looked incredulous and began to tell us snake stories of her childhood. ‘One day I’d been swimming naked and I ran to the toilet because I had diarrhoea. From the corner of my eye I saw lots of lines on the ground headed in the direction I was going, but I was so worried that I wasn’t going to make it to the toilet in time that I took no notice. Then I got there and opened the door and …’ Her hands sprang open at the memory. ‘… the place was on the point of bursting with snakes. They were hanging down from the ceiling. They covered the floor. They were even coiled around the loose planks on the walls. I forgot the diarrhoea and ran all the way back to the house hollering my head off. I wanted my mother, but the house was full of people because my uncle had just died and everybody had come to pay their respects. They stood around his coffin, staring at me with their eyes on stalks, their mouths wide open as I ran naked and screaming through the house!’
As Marcia and Beth bent double, shrieking with laughter, I shuddered, unable to extract a shred of humour from the story. When Marcia subsided a little I asked her if they kept antidotes on the farm. Wiping tears from her eyes she shook her head. ‘No, no, they’re too expensive.’
‘But you let Ricardo go snake-hunting?’
She shrugged. ‘This is his life. He has to learn how to deal with it.’
Beth gazed at the row of little T-shirts drying on the length of barbed wire that stretched from the kitchen to the pigsty. ‘Why do you stay here, Marcia?’
‘Where else should I go?’ she responded. ‘This is my home. There is even a bus that takes Ricardo to school. I had only one year of school and my husband has never been to school. All my children are healthy here, even though three out of the four are girls.’ She glanced at me. ‘And Antonio and me, we’re trying to make another son. That will be my request to Iemanja tonight.’ She looked at Beth and back at me again. ‘It’s good for a girl to have lots of brothers.’
Before I could reply Beth jumped up from her seat and ran towards a cloud of red dust rising above the guava trees. Two vehicles appeared on the dirt road to the farmhouse. Neber, the owner of the farm, got out of the first car with his son Fabricio. His wife, Fernanda, got out of the second with four of her nephews. They lived in another city and only came here at weekends. Antonio managed the place the rest of the week. Fernanda said something to the boys and they all came over to shake our hands. They then stood in a line and kissed Beth on both cheeks.
Fernanda hugged me and said, ‘Can you believe that? I told them New Zealanders don’t greet each other with a kiss and that Beth would be embarrassed, but look at them! They’re exaggerating it!’
Beth’s face was scarlet. The boys spoke to her in English and offered to drive her in the tractor to show her the waterfall and go for a swim.
‘Maybe later,’ I intervened. ‘Then we can all go together. The river down there is rough.’
Beth rolled her eyes and Fabricio reassured, ‘Is no problem. I swim in the river all my life. Is safe.’
He and Beth ran off towards the tractor shed.
Fernanda touched my arm. ‘Don’t worry. They’ll look after her. They’ll be like her brothers.’
Fabricio reappeared at the wheel of an ancient tractor to which the boys attached a rickety wooden cart. They jumped in, pulling Beth with them.
‘You want to drive, Beth?’ yelled Fabricio above the noise of the engine. ‘I show you.’
‘She can’t …’ I began as Beth clambered into the driver’s seat. The tractor zig-zagged across the track, belching smoke and dust. Fernanda and Marcia nodded their approval.
‘She doesn’t have a licence,’ I said. But no one was listening.
We got out of Fernanda’s car and stood on the hill looking at the waterfall boiling over the rocks. Two of the boys were already under it and two others were splashing in the pool further down. Beth was watching Fabricio swinging across the river on the end of a rope. When he landed he hurled the rope back to her. She grabbed it and launched herself across the churning white water. Fabricio caught her on the opposite bank. Their laughter bounced off the rocks. The sun slid through the thick canopy of leaves and fell in slices of green light onto the river. The empty rope dangled from its branch. I crossed my arms over my shoulders, hugging myself, shivering.
A large blue butterfly fluttered around Fernanda’s head. She smiled at me. ‘There, now you can see they are safe. They’re having fun. Let’s leave them alone. They’ll be back when they’re hungry.’
‘The butterflies here are so beautiful,’ I murmured, to divert her scrutiny of my face. ‘In New Zealand we have only thirteen species, although there used to be forty.’
She nodded. ‘Every time I come here, or go to some special natural place, I feel that I am an intruder, so I ask the spirits who guard the place for their permission to be present. When a blue butterfly appears and flies around me I know permission has been given.’
I asked if she was going to the festa.
‘No,’ she said, ‘I don’t like Umbanda. I’m a Catholic.’
‘But you talk about nature spirits.’
She laughed. ‘You would have to be Brazilian to understand.’
A full moon hung over the lake. Hundreds of chanting women in hooped white lacy dresses and men in white tunics stood their lighted candles in the sand at the water’s edge. Two men lifted the statue of the black Goddess from her litter and placed her in a small boat filled with flowers and burning candles. The image was clothed in blue and white robes like the Virgin Mary, but with voluptuous breasts and opulent hair. As she was towed around the lake groups of women and girls launched little paper boats filled with flowers and cosmetics.
‘If the boats sink,’ explained Marcia, ‘it means Iemanja has accepted their gifts and will grant their requests.’
The night filled with the sound of drumming; low, throbbing, hypnotic. People began dancing to the rhythm. I looked around anxiously for Beth. Two people near me began jerking their limbs. A group of elderly women gathered around them and hung beads and flowers around their necks and guided their steps. From time to time they fell to the ground, but were helped up to continue their dance. When the music stopped they stood still, swaying from side to side. Their faces were vacant, like the faces of the dead.
I shivered and Marcia put her arm around me. ‘It means the saint has descende,’ she explained. ‘That’s good. They will be filled with the energy of their saint.’ She took my hand and guided me through the mass of dancers to the edge of the lake.
‘Now I will make my request to Iemanja.’ She bent down and sent her boat of flowers out onto the water. It bobbed on the surface for a moment until the paper became saturated, then keeled over on its side and slipped beneath the surface. Marcia clapped her hands together and laughed aloud. ‘That means she has agreed to send me a son to replace Lucio.’
‘My firstborn. He died a year ago.’
I drew in a sharp breath. ‘I had no idea.’
She touched my arm. ‘Beth asked me not to tell you. He was bitten by a snake.’
‘Couldn’t you get to the hospital in time?’
‘No. When we found him he was already dead. Bleeding from his eyes.’
We stood in silence on the sand, watching garlands of flowers floating on the lake. The cool water slapped over my bare feet. My nostrils filled with the smell of cooking fish, my ears with drumming and singing and laughter. I searched for words, but could find none.
A group of young girls approached us, so intent on their dancing they didn’t see us and one of them fell against me, knocking me off balance and pitching me forward onto the sharp pebbles at the water’s edge. A jagged pain stung my knees and the palms of my hands. The girls helped me up, the one who pushed me apologising profusely, her face stricken. She took her garland of white orchids from around her neck and thrust it into my hands. I called after her to tell her it was okay, she needn’t part with her flowers, but she was already gone. A gap appeared where she had melted into the crowd and I thought I saw Beth dancing with Fabricio. The gap closed again so quickly I wondered if I’d imagined it. I looked at the flowers I was holding and saw they were smeared with blood from my torn hands.
Marcia tut-tutted. ‘Those clumsy girls! Look what they’ve done.’ With her hand under my elbow she led me into the lake until we were wading knee-deep. ‘Put your hands in the water.’
‘Marcia, it doesn’t matter …’ I began, looking around for Beth in the mass of dancers.
She took my hands. ‘This is her life. Let her live it.’
Then she bent down and cupped her own hands in the lake, letting the water trickle from them over my bleeding palms. She did this until all the blood was washed away. The garland of flowers slipped from my fingers. It drifted on the water until the flowers separated and floated out of sight.
Sandra Arnold is an award-winning writer who lives in New Zealand. She has a PhD in Creative Writing and is the author of five books. Her most recent, a flash fiction collection, Soul Etchings (Retreat West Books, UK) and a novel, The Ash, the Well and the Bluebell (Mākaro Press, NZ) were published in 2019. www.sandraarnold.co.nz