I read several modern day anthropological studies (1980’s) of places in the north-east of Brazil to come up with the fictitious shantytown where the story begins. Some of the descriptions of these places included:
• Smoky, fly-infested huts, hungry toddlers and goats competing for left-overs in tin plates on dirt floors…
• Women squatting by their twig or charcoal fires
• Women taking over a younger woman’s child who they think is in danger from neglect
• The hunger madness afflicting people when they have had nothing to eat for days
So this is the environment which Thereza prays to escape and Tomas struggles to improve. Here’s a scene which depicts some aspects of it:
He hadn’t eaten for almost three days now. The dizzying hunger mixed with his worries made the mind twisting insanity creep up on him, further than it had ever reached before. He avoided walking past the market, to prevent himself snapping like the fine string struck on a berimbau player’s bow as he laid down a discordant beat. A few of those who had been overtaken by the hunger madness hallucinated that the market was in fact an oasis over-laden with fruit. Then leaping into a rage, they charged to sack it, to steal food for themselves and their families. The vendors all carried machetes hidden under their stalls, and they joined forces and fought those rabid with hunger off, sometimes chopping them to death.
Two days earlier, his hands had begun to shake. At first he thought it was because of his visions of Fabricio’s eyeless corpse in his sleep, but his mother had spotted the speckled pigmentation of the starving rising on his cheek. She had implored him to eat some of her ten spoonfuls of farina, but he refused to take food out of her mouth.
Exhaustion sapped his limbs as he climbed the hill to Dona Menzies’ shack in the boiling sun, carrying a bucket. Her husband worked at a sugar mill, which was two hours travel away. Only on a few occasions had Tomas seen him, as he slept most of the time he was home in the shanty. But his job meant they were better off than most. Her goat was tethered outside feeding from a tin tray. Pentecostal hymns seeped from inside, this time at a genuine service, as that branch of the church had swept through the shanty like a virus, to compete with Catholicism and the various forms of Candomblé.
Under the shade of the overhanging roof opposite Dona Menzies’ shack, Tomas slumped back onto his haunches, to wait for them to finish their doubtful pleadings. A street-child crept up to steal food from the goat’s tray and hid behind a hut to gorge on it, oblivious to his delirious observer. A grey shadow blurred Tomas’ vision, and he imagined that the goat’s bleating was an invitation to join it at a table piled with foods that he didn’t recognize. He squeezed his eyes shut and chewed an ounce of comfort from his gums, as he swayed in time to the rhythmic clapping booming from inside the shack.
Another five hymns interspersed with praying nibbled away at the afternoon before the congregation trooped out. Dona Menzies bade them farewell at the door. Seu Dilmar and Dona Isadora, the two who Tomas had visited to vet as prospective students, stopped on the steps for a moment. Then they went on their way as if the heart-stopping glance of recognition had not darted between them. Tomas stood up and stumbled against the side of the shack. Dona Menzies shielded her eyes from the sun to seek out the source of the clatter. She waited until the congregation had left the alleyway, and then, ‘What are you doing here?’
Tomas shuffled across to her shack, raised his bucket and lifted the frayed shirt and pants that were on top. Underneath were the last two books of his father’s. ‘I wanted to trade them and thought of you, Dona Menzies.’
‘Are you mad? What if Giomar searches the houses?’
‘I’m sure you’ll find somewhere to hide them.’
‘My answer is no, and I want you to leave, Seu Tomas.’
‘Then… could you pay me an advance on the next time I work for you; we could leave it several weeks.’
Her face contorted like tomatoes left to dry in the sun. ‘What do you take me for? Do you think because my husband isn’t here you can take advantage? There’ll be no next time.’
‘But Dona, you’re my only patroa… There’s no one else I’d come to like this.’
‘I’ve been more than good to you, Seu Tomas.’ She gathered up her dragging skirt, worn especially for church, and swung back inside.
‘We’ve nothing to eat,’ Tomas said to the slamming door. He stayed where he was, swaying in the heat, knowing she could see him from behind the wooden slat window.
After a short standoff, she stomped back out and slapped two reais on the steps to be rid of him. ‘There’ll be no more where this came from,’ she said. Tomas waited until she had scuttled back inside to pick up the coins. If he bought supplies for Dona Dora too, it would only be enough to see them through one day. So he would have to come up with some other way if they were to survive.
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