The way in which younger women were expected to use their sexuality to seduce older men in order to get on in life, was one of the major themes which came across in my research for Carnival of Hope. In her anthropological study of race, class, violence, and sexuality in a Rio favela, entitled Laughter Out of Place, Donna M. Goldstein highlighted some aspects of this:
- Women think the best chance of getting on in life is to seduce older, richer, usually white men, referred to as Coroas.
- Women rise in status when they prove that they can successfully seduce a Coroa.
- Women joke about receiving whiteness and wealth by moving in with a Coroa, but because the man is old, he cannot satisfy them sexually or romantically [so often they may take a young lover, also].
The scene below depicts how some of this research was used in the novel:
Earlier, Dona Benedita had helped Thereza into her best dress, the flowery one with three buttons climbing to a lacy collar. So that the cleft where her breasts met was visible, her mother pulled two buttons and opened the collar. After orange scented water had been dabbed onto her exposed skin, they weaved their way through the alleyways to Seu Carlo’s shack, perched halfway up the northern hillside. He greeted them with a look leaking surprise, but was glad to open his door to them.
Thereza sat on the bench opposite Seu Carlo’s easy chair as her mother had instructed, but her hands clutched at her knees and she stared at a wall. She had only agreed to come because her mind still swayed when she thought about what Tomas had done, and it might also be a way of making amends to Marina.
Seu Carlo offered them cachaça, and hurried to fetch it as though anticipation were gnawing at his groin. It was obvious he sensed they had come to offer him something. After he had given both her and her mother a cup, he slid into his chair and crossed his thin bamboo thighs. He licked his lips as if to make it clear he wanted her, but he wasn’t going to be bled dry to get her. ‘What can I do for you today, Dona Benedita?’
Her mother backed away, so that only she, Thereza, interrupted his vision. He snatched at the bait with a half-starved gape, staring at her over his hoisted cup of rum. ‘Thereza and I were thinking that now you’re retired, you didn’t want to spend all your time looking after a house on your own, Seu Carlo.’
‘Now I’m retired I have more time. I could have done with some help when I was working, but then I was always so busy.’
‘But with your pension you could afford some help, or maybe a wife.’
Her mother wasted no time, as she knew all about his pension, because sometimes when he went into the municipal offices to collect it, she was the one who handed him the envelope. Based on that, she had chosen him from a list of five. It was far more than the wages most there earned, but her mother had said when he collected it, he acted as though it was less than he deserved for the job he had done. Sometimes he complained that on that amount he could not have afforded to stay on in the city, so it was fortunate he had always wanted to settle in the countryside where he was born. He had hinted that he had managed a work gang at a factory further to the north, but any more than that he refused to discuss. Some guessed from his silence that he might have worn the uniform of the hated military police during the dictatorship years. But Thereza doubted if her mother would mind where the money came from. Maybe he had been sensible enough to work miles from his own town, to reduce the chances of being recognized.
‘A man like me has so many freedoms, Dona Benedita. What would I want with a wife to nag and tie me down?’ He licked a pepper-hot coating of rum from his lips and restrained a seeping smile, seemingly enjoying the game, as though it required more skill than a round of dominoes. He cast his reddening eyes over Thereza like a fisherman’s net. But her gaze scurried to the space on the floor in front of her where she had placed her cup, and her body vibrated as gently as a shallow pool which had had the thin veil of its skin pierced.
‘The women you speak of are creaking pieces of furniture, like me, Seu Carlo. But a young wife! She could revive your sap and bear you children.’
For the first time, he turned and looked at Dona Benedita when she said that. A child of his own had never slept in his arms, and no one knew why, because it was rumoured he had planted his seed in enough women. Maybe they had covered over their tracks after taking that illegal operation to get rid of them, because they didn’t trust him to stay. His thoughts seemed to descend into the barest of rooms, and Dona Benedita straightened her spine, as though she sensed it was time to seize her chance, before it vanished as suddenly as his playful mood. ‘Thereza’s young, beautiful, and has always liked you, Seu Carlo.’
‘Is that true, Thereza?’
She gazed up at the spittle stretching to fine threads and breaking between his incontinent lips, his eyes sagging like a spinster’s breasts, and then she nodded and turned away.
‘And what’s such a union to cost, Dona Benedita?’
‘Well, I’m not an expert at such things …’
‘Oh come now, I know you didn’t come here without a figure in mind.’
She held up her empty cup, and Seu Carlo refilled it before she went back to her stool against the wall. ‘Fifty reais a month is a fair price for a girl as beautiful as Thereza.’
‘You must be mad,’ he screamed, leaping out of his chair and rummaging in a cupboard for another bottle of rum to douse the shock. ‘With your knack for inflating prices, perhaps you should have been in that early ‘90s government.’
‘If I had been, then like the rest of those crooks I’d have stolen us a fortune already and we’d be long gone from this place. Then you wouldn’t get your chance with Thereza.’ With his back to them, she winked and flapped a palm at Thereza, signalling her to pull her dress above her knees and remove her hands. Thereza sneered back a refusal, but slid the dress up only an inch on a second asking and tightened her hands on the bench.
‘Seu Carlo, the girl hasn’t been touched by another man—isn’t that so, Thereza?’
With clenched teeth, she nodded as he turned back to her. His eyes glided over her as though examining ripe papayas in the market. ‘Twenty reais,’ he said, pouring himself another drink.
‘Seu Carlo, that’s not a serious offer. A sow at market fetches more than that.’
‘But they can breed eight or nine at a time, Dona Benedita.’
She swallowed her next words before they flew out and donned a blunted smile. ‘I’m not concerned with what you get up to on your own, Seu Carlo, but if Thereza comes to live here there’ll be no sows.’ He took a second to catch onto her meaning and then roared with laughter, spilling a teaspoon of rum. ‘Look at her, Seu Carlo,’ Dona Benedita pleaded.
‘There are many beautiful girls in the shanty,’ he said.
‘But they’re not untouched, and they won’t bear you children like Thereza.’
He stared at Thereza as though weighing her up like a sack of rice, because that was a little more than she would cost him each month if he agreed to Dona Benedita’s ridiculous price. ‘Do you want to live with me, Thereza? I’m a good man and will treat you well.’
Her eyes scoured the floor in silence. ‘It’s up to you, Thereza,’ Dona Benedita said, ‘it’s for all of us.’
Thereza gazed at Seu Carlo and lit a flicker of a smile. ‘The decision is already made for me.’
‘Then it’ll be twenty reais a month now and another ten when we have our first child. But we’ll only be married after the first child. That’s my last offer, Dona Benedita.’ She stuck out her hand and they shook on it, both beaming at the outcome.
Carnival of Hope is on sale ($0.99) at Amazon from 20-26 November 2014.