Ben Paris lives in Salvador’s seaside neighborhood of Itapuã, where he eats, sleeps, drinks, swims, fights and writes.
Massapê (mahssa-PEY) was the key to the first centuries of Brazil’s prosperity. It’s the rich soil around Bahia’s great Baía de Todos os Santos, Bay of All Saints, the bay delineating the western border of the city of Salvador.
Severino felt his pockets for coins and bills to measure the day. He placed his two steel coolers next to the front door on his way into the house, and paused to thank God for his arrival home, as he always did. He scraped off the red-brown mud caked to his sandals, and hung his black felt fedora, dripping wet, on the wall.
It wasn’t good.
He wiped the errant clumps of mud stuck to the cooler off and rubbed the coolers clean with his shirttail until they shined.
His daughter-in-law sat on the couch with the television on, the baby crying in her lap. He went to sit next to her, but noticed a wet stain on the sheet where he was going to sit, so he stood.
A mudslide in the city, Salvador, Bahia, not far from where he sold his lemonade, destroyed two houses, the television said. A woman and her child were still buried in the mud. A breathless reporter under an umbrella repeated the names of neighborhoods that were being evacuated, including the one next to theirs.
“It doesn’t stop,” his daughter-in-law said. “Does it?”
“Four days now,” Severino said. “What’s the forecast?”
She didn’t answer. The baby was crying. A dragonfly flew around the raw light bulb that hung from the center of the ceiling. It occurred to Severino that the baby was crying because he looked at his mother’s piercings – both eyebrows, both sides of her lower lip, along the length of her ear – and like Severino, he wanted to scream.
“He’s hungry,” the girl said, and handed Severino the baby as she walked away to the kitchen. The boy looked like Severino’s son more than his daughter-in-law, which gave him a certain satisfaction. Holding the boy in his arms, he knew why he’d persisted all these years, selling lemonade on the streets of city, shouting “ limonada gelada!” among the shiny cars and tall buildings.
The television showed images from the deluge, a car stuck in water to its windows, a river of brown water rushing through the street, a hill collapsed onto a house, a ruptured asphalt road.
His daughter-in-law returned with a bottle and took the baby from Severino.
“See,” she said, when the baby stopped crying. “He’s a good boy.”
He walked over to a window and pulled open the shutters. The rain was softer, and only a light mist came through the window. “When was the last time you spoke to Cuca?” Severino said.
“He called a couple hours ago.”
“What did he say?” “He said his the bus was stuck in traffic.”
On the street, the rush of water had carved a gulley beneath the Rua de Deus sign that identified their street, exposing a plastic sewer pipe; if it broke, raw sewage would spill into the road. In Severino’s life, trouble arrived with the rain. The roof always leaked. Money was always tighter during the rainy season. He stood at the window, examining the sky for stars or a peek from the moon, a hint that the rain might pass. Thinking about his son, Cuca, brought back the argument he had with his other two sons, which in Severino’s mind, was the emotional equivalent of the rain.
“Is it my fault,” he said stepping toward her, “that my sons don’t like each other?”
A new burst of rain on the corrugated roof drowned out her response. Severino rushed back to close the shutters. The baby cried with the cloudburst. Severino stood between his daughter-in-law and television so he could hear her.
“They like each other,” she said, “they just don’t show it.”
“Was I supposed to leave you two out on the street?” he said. “Especially now with the baby.”
Severino walked toward the thermos that sat on the kitchen counter. The coffee was lukewarm, but sweet and good, an instant of respite from the rain and trouble.
He wondered if the day was bad because he wasn’t focused on his work, worried about his sons. The scene he couldn’t forget replayed itself: “You can’t help Cuca without helping us.” Severino’s oldest son, Pipoca, said. His other son, Beto, the middle boy, chin out, lip curled, nodded in agreement. Pipoca’s unshaven face and wild hair made him almost unrecognizable to Severino, who could smell the cachaça on his breath. The boys were angry, standing in front of the house the day before the rain started.
“I’m not helping him,” Severino said. “He’s just staying here until he gets on his feet. She just had the baby. They couldn’t live in the place they had.”
“When our kids were born, you didn’t give us a house to live in,” Beto said.
Severino could smell the cachaça on Beto too, and the cigarettes.
“He’s just staying here for now. I didn’t give the house to him.”
“We’ll see,” they said, in unison.
Severino felt his own anger rise, and he started to tremble. “But if I wanted to give it to him, it’s my business not yours. The house is mine. I built it one sack of cement at a time with God’s help and these.” Severino tapped the two steel coolers, tambores he called them because they looked like drums. “It’s my house. I’ll do what I want with it. And if I want to give it to Cuca, I will.”
He regretted it the instant he said it. But he was angry. They should be helping him at this point in their lives, the way he helped his own father, not worried about who gets what, and drinking cachaça.
He sipped the sweet coffee and looked over at his daughter-in-law, skinny, unhealthy-looking light skin, sitting with the baby in front of the television. Severino couldn’t imagine what his son Cuca saw in her; the piercings, the blonde dyed hair, the string of star tattoos under her ear and neck, the tattoo of her name, Lica, on her back shoulder. She added the baby’s name, Jorge, beneath it, and an image of St. Jorge, the hunter with a bow and arrow on horseback next to it. Severino heard that some women her age even pierce their nipples. No wonder she didn’t breast feed the kid.
He sat down on the stain next to her because it was the only place to sit. The reporter in the rain repeated the word, “massapê,” a few times, until Severino stopped looking at Lica and his grandson and watched the television. “It absorbs water and grows like fermenting dough. The mudslides in the city are all massapê soil,” the reporter said.
Severino knew it well. The soil on the hill behind their house and in the street in front of it was massapê. The sugar cane fields he worked in as a boy were all planted in massapê. In the Bahia countryside, where he was raised, the red-brown massapê soil was ideal for planting sugar cane when it was wet. The landscape was flat, and there were no hills and no mudslides.
Lica handed him the baby, and took her cell phone from her pocket. “Five calls from Cuca,” she said.
“Why didn’t it ring?”
“I don’t know.” She looked closely at the phone, and pressed a button on the side of it. “It was on silent. Baby was trying to sleep. I remember now.”
Cuca was shouting from the street below. Severino went over to the window. His son was standing beneath the streetlight, holding an old woman by the elbow. She was wet, covered with mud. “I’m taking her to the shelter up the road,” Cuca shouted. “Get Lica and the baby and get out of there now, and meet me at the shelter. They’re evacuating. Get out now!”
Severino stood at the window. The old woman had the zombie look of a character from a late-night horror movie.
Cuca was the thoughtful son, the one who brought home birds with broken wings and fed them until they could fly. “Do I have to run up there and drag you out!” he shouted.
Severino slipped out of his reminiscence with a shudder. Another cloudburst of rain; it felt like the end of the world.
“It’ll collapse, that hill up there.” Cuca pointed to the hill behind the house.
He was nearly hysterical. His legs were covered with mud, like the woman with him. He kept shaking his head to get the water and his hair out of his eyes. He started toward the front of the house, pulling the old woman by the arm.
“We’re coming down!” Severino shouted. “Take her to the shelter. We’ll meet you there.”
Lica put the baby on the couch. He was on his back screaming with his hands and feet in the air.
A rumble and a shiver, the house was shaking. “Vamos, vamos, vamos,” Severino shouted.
“His clothes,” the girl said, “I can’t find his clothes.”
The baby’s diaper fell off as Severino was lifting him from the couch. A swooshing sound came from the back, like the sound of a train approaching. Severino saw the back wall of the house cracking slowly, and he was thankful for the extra cement he mixed in with the sand to make a stronger mortar. But the crack was growing, and with the baby in his arms, he lunged at Lica to grab and pull her out of the house. “Puta que pariu!” she said. “He’s naked! And he has no slippers.” She pulled her arm away.
“It’s falling! The hill is falling on the house,” Severino shouted. “It doesn’t matter if he has no slippers!”
With the baby in his arms, he ran down the stairs out to the street. The mud chased him like a slow ocean wave. He almost paused at the coolers, but couldn’t grab them without risking the baby’s safety, and the house was falling.
He heard Lica following behind, but when he turned she wasn’t there. He covered the baby with his shirt.
The mudslide left only a wall on the side and part of the stairs. Severino stood with the baby in the rain. Lica emerged, a mud-covered apparition, with a deep cut above her eye, the side of her face the color of blood and mud. Severino cleaned the cut with his shirttail, and hugged her as much to make sure she was there as because he was happy she was alive. She held the baby and none of them cried.
They walked through the mud up a hill toward the shelter. When they arrived, Cuca was standing in front of the place. He hugged Lica and his son and then Severino. They could see what was left of Severino’s house from the shelter porch.
Cuca wiped the blood from Lica’s face. “It looks worse than it is,” she said. “It doesn’t hurt.”
The rain had let up, but water still rushed down the gutters and through the potholes in the road. It ate away the asphalt, and carved out brown potholes and crevices through the pavement.
Cuca and his wife caressed each other’s faces, arms, shoulders. They hugged some more, and took turns holding the baby. Severino could see what Cuca saw in her. Courage and kindness always trumped beauty.
Sirens filled the night. After a while, Severino wandered off, back down the hill toward the house. When he heard Cuca shouting for him, and turned and held up both hands slightly apart, a gesture that meant he’d be back soon.
Red and blue police emergency lights jumped around the surfaces of partially collapsed walls and buildings on the Rua de Deus. The lamppost across the street leaned at an angle in the mud. Yellow police line ribbons attached to bright orange pylons prohibited Severino from getting closer to his house.
Helmeted military police in army green uniforms stood guard at the barriers.
“I need to get to my house,” Severino said to one of them, around the age of his own sons, taciturn and fearful. “It’s right there.” He pointed at the half a house up the street.
“The rest of the hill is going to fall any minute. We just don’t know when. We can’t let you in.”
Severino pointed again. “The house is right there. Two tambores are sitting at the front door. If I could just dig around a little bit, I’d find them. Without them, I don’t eat tomorrow.”
The rain started lightly. An ambulance siren grew louder as it got closer. Then another.
“The government’s giving out basic foodstuff packages at the shelter up the road. Plenty of food up there.”
Severino thought about what he just said, and corrected himself. “What used to be the front door. And not just tomorrow, but the day after and the day after that. They’re my life, those tambores. I raised three kids with them, and built the house.”
Two ambulances stopped where Severino and the officer stood. Police from the mudslide site area ran toward the ambulances and waved them through.
“I told you the hill’s going to collapse. What if it collapses while you’re looking around for your tambores? You’d be dead.”
“I’m dead anyway. It doesn’t matter. Without those tambores I can’t work. And if I can’t work, I’m dead.”
“Well, if it doesn’t matter to you, it matters to me. Or maybe you can understand it this way. It matters to my boss. Orders are orders.”
Another ambulance pulled up to where they stood, with a squad car followed behind. When the guard lifted a pylon to let the ambulance through, Severino slipped through. The guard shouted at him to stop, but Severino ran. He ran until he fell in the mud and the guard grabbed him by the collar and pulled him back to the police line.
“Why don’t you go up to the shelter, with everyone else?” The policeman reminded Severino of his sons, and he felt a surprising sympathy for him, working outside in the rain, which was coming down again in steady gusts.
“I was just at the shelter,” Severino said. “I need to get the tambores while I can. Another mudslide and they’ll be buried forever.” Severino’s side was covered with mud to his shoulder.
He turned his back to the policeman and paced in the rain. Another ambulance and another squad car arrived. A child on a stretcher was lifted into one of the ambulances. Severino knew everyone in the neighborhood, but the child on the stretcher was unrecognizable.
He started in the direction of the shelter, then stopped and turned back toward his house. He stood behind one of the ambulances and found himself standing in one of the rivulets that ran through the mud. He felt like laying down in it, and letting the stream of brown water and mud rush over his body until he became part of the road.
She appeared from the direction of the house, carrying a plastic sack in her hand, and the two tambores slung over each of her shoulders. She wore a nursing uniform.
“He needed slippers,” Lica said to Severino. “And I wasn’t going to leave him naked.”
Severino hugged her.
“Where did you get the outfit?”
“I found it in a closet at the shelter. There were more.”
“And you just walked right through?”
“Walked through over there,” she said, pointing to a group of ambulances with their emergency lights flashing.
She handed the tambores to Severino. “They were at the door, where the door used to be, sticking out of the mud. I grabbed them by the straps, and they slid out.”
Severino wiped them off and put one on each shoulder and they walked together up the hill toward the shelter.
His other two sons, Pipoca and Beto, were standing with Cuca in front when Severino arrived. Ambulances and police cars were parked in front, emergency lights in frantic rotation.
The old woman that Cuca brought to the shelter was sitting on a bench wrapped in a gray blanket. Others, also with blankets draped over their shoulders, shuffled in and out of the shelter entrance.
The baby was crying. “He’s wet,” Lica said. She disappeared into the shelter, and left Severino standing in front of the place with his three sons, where there was a view of their neighborhood below, what was left of it. The blue and red police lights lit their faces in snapshots.
The rain had stopped. Severino looked up into the sky. “Is that the moon?”
His sons raised their eyes. “It is,” one of them said. Severino could smell the cachaça, but it didn’t matter.
A shadow of white light peeked through the clouds, which marched across the sky like an army going home.