The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 15, No. 1

The Serrambi Case

by Frances de Pontes Peebles

It is not my job to comfort, but facts do offer a kind of consolation. No one lives easy with uncertainty. I’ve found that when families know the facts of a loved one’s death, even if those facts are distressing, most make peace with reality. Unfortunately in this case, there are very few certainties.
     I’m accused of being standoffish, unreliable, even dim-witted. The police dislike me for exposing their shabby work. The victims’ parents dislike me for refusing to give definite answers. Reporters dislike me for being inaccessible. One newspaper has accused me of being bribed by a suspect’s father. The district attorney has invited a forensics team from São Paulo to work on the case and to, as one paper phrased it, “teach [me] a thing or two.” There is a Latin saying that every pathologist knows: Mortuí vivós docent. The dead teach the living. 
     On May 20, the bodies of two female victims were found on an access road in a sugarcane field approximately fifteen kilometers outside the beach town of Serrambi. I was called to the scene. The victims’ bodies had been exposed to rain, sun, carrion feeders, and were in the late stages of decomposition. When I arrived, there were approximately thirty men bumbling about. Some were police, others were cane cutters interested in the find; their foreman had discovered the bodies. Several of the police were smoking cigarettes, and had dropped their butts and cellophane wrappers on the ground. To my distress, one of the officers had maneuvered his car too close to the scene, crushing a mandible that was a meter away from its body. My assistant, Patrícia, and I cordoned off the area as best we could. When a scene is compromised by human error and interference, facts become contaminated by impressions.
     Details of the case have appeared numerous times in the papers. I find interesting what hasn’t appeared. Victim One’s shorts and swim bottoms were removed but not torn. Vultures would use their beaks to rip away at cloth, so this indicates it was not the birds but an attacker, or the girl herself, who removed the clothing. Victim Two, as everyone knows, was shot three times. Two of the projectiles penetrated the frontal region of her cranium, but passed first through her left hand. It is common for shooting victims to lift their hands in an attempt to block a projectile’s path. Of course, it is impossible to stop a bullet with flesh, but I suppose in those final moments we do not think of possibility or impossibility. Our bodies react as best they can. 
     What caused the girls’ deaths is obvious. The events leading to their deaths are far more difficult to discern. Serrambi has its share of weekend tourists, mostly foreign or wealthy or both. Tourism means jobs for local people. Those who don’t want to work in the cane fields can work in bars, restaurants, resorts. And those who do neither can buy a VW van (the people here call them kombis) and shuttle locals from their towns in the cane area to their workplaces at the beach. Tourists don’t usually take such vans, but the police believe those girls did. In my investigation of the kombi that supposedly took the victims to the crime scene in the cane field, I discovered strands of nylon cord. These strands are a match to pieces of cord I found at the scene. However, the victims were not bound. Matching tire marks is hopeless because of the police’s clumsiness, and due to wind and rain in the many days before the bodies were discovered. Also in the kombi were wrappers for Halls mints, a brand favored by the victims (and by thousands of others across Brazil). No matter how much pressure the police exert, I cannot claim that I found DNA from the victims in this particular kombi. Traces were discovered in another vehicle, a black Mercedes, owned by a seventeen-year-old boy. The victims had stayed at his beach house before the crime occurred. The Mercedes held several hair strands, as well as both pairs of the victims’ sandals. No matter how much pressure the victims’ parents exert, I cannot verify the exact moment that this particular evidence found its way into this particular Mercedes. The victims rode in this boy’s car multiple times before their deaths. 
     One of the victims’ mothers confronted me outside the police station. Two brothers—drivers of the kombi apprehended by police—had been arrested but not charged. I was called to the station and was not surprised to find the victims’ parents there, as well. 
     “In your heart, you have an answer,” the mother said, grabbing at my jacket sleeve. What could I say to this woman? She looked dazed. At her scalp was a thick line of gray; she’d stopped dying her hair in the weeks after her daughter’s death. Her hand gripped my shoulder like a talon. I shook my head and went inside the station, into the men’s room, where she couldn’t follow. 
     Was her daughter the victim who wore braces? The small rubber bands around the braces’ brackets alternated colors: orange, blue, orange, blue. It is an inconsequential detail, one not fit for my report. But I cannot shake it. Were those the girl’s favorite colors? She had matched her clothing (orange dress, navy two-piece swimsuit, as stated in my report) to those rubber bands. I cannot help but admire her attention to detail, her forethought for such a small matter. It proves this beach trip was important to her, she had been dreaming of it, making preparations, analyzing its possibilities. Perhaps the trip was important because she would be among new friends, and hoped to impress them. Perhaps the trip would provide the thrill of being near a boy she was fond of, and she hoped to have that fondness returned. I said something of this sort to my assistant, Patrícia, who in response looked at me quite strangely. Such speculations, I suppose, are not helpful to anyone. 
     The cases that bother me most are ones involving young people who suffered a great deal before they died. We all have to die sometime, but it seems to me that everyone should have the chance to grow up first.

She ran wild. Every weekend Miss Tarsila went to nightclubs and bars. On school days, she could barely get out of bed. I had to wake her up, and every blessed day she was mad at me for it. But her mother would get mad if Miss Tarsila was late for school, so one of them was always upset. I started working here when Miss Tarsila was eight years old, when her daddy had left the apartment and asked for a divorce. Even then Miss Tarsila was playing with makeup, learning her mother’s ways. “Claudette!” she’d yell in her little-girl voice. “Bring me the TV remote!” Or, “Dette, shut up!” But most days she was a good girl. She liked to watch me cook and asked why I was peeling this or boiling that. She was a fine helper in the kitchen. She’d come home from school and hug my waist or, when she was older, give me a peck on the cheek, quick, so her mother wouldn’t see. Sometimes when she had a bad dream she came to my bed and I didn’t turn her away. I let her sleep next to me, thinking of my own girl, Letícia, who’s twelve and probably lonely at night, without me near. My sister looks after her during the week. 
     Miss Tarsila’s clothes were important to her, and when she began to grow up, she blamed me for shrinking dresses and shorts. I know how to wash things. Her clothes weren’t shrinking; she was getting thicker in the middle, like her daddy. Her mother put Miss Tarsila on all kinds of diets. Once, I had to make soups for breakfast, lunch, and dinner—carrot soup, cauliflower soup, spinach soup, even pitanga soup. I nearly burned out the blender’s motor. On another diet, they only ate cabbage. Miss Tarsila snuck cookies and chips out of the pantry, and I pretended not to notice. It’s not right to keep food from a growing girl. 
     I prayed for her. Every night before bed, in my room next to the kitchen, I prayed that Miss Tarsila would get some sense. That she would make it home safe. That Jesus would find a place in her heart like he did mine. One night Miss Tarsila and that friend of hers, Fernanda—the one who ended up dead, too—stayed out until three in the morning. They came back to the apartment and knocked on the door to my room. Miss Tarsila couldn’t stand straight. She’d been sick in the front hall. I got out of bed and cleaned up the mess, then put Miss Tarsila under the shower. I had to get inside the shower box, to make sure she didn’t fall and hit her head. She was slippery and heavy. I ended up sitting on the shower floor with her, picking chunks out of her hair. She had nice hair, thick and straight and black. When I dried her off, she put her arms around my neck and started to cry. “I hate her,” she said, over and over. Her breath smelled like sickness and liquor. I told her to brush her teeth. 
     Her daddy was getting married again, to a girl named Beatriz. A few days before the vomiting, Miss Tarsila visited her father’s apartment and I guess he told her the news. When she came home, she went straight to her mother’s bedroom. Mrs. Simone liked to “lounge,” that’s what she used to call it. Her bed was her office, she said, but I never saw her do any work there. She watched TV, paid bills, read magazines. That day, when Miss Tarsila came back from her daddy’s house, I heard the two of them in the bedroom, whispering. The door was open and Mrs. Simone said things like “puta” and “dirty kenga”—things a mother shouldn’t say in front of her daughter. 
     After she brushed her teeth, Miss Tarsila was sick again and I had to give her another bath. She had a good cry in the shower; sometimes girls just need to let their tears out. “That’s a good girl,” I told her, rubbing her back. I put her to bed and sat beside her for the rest of the night. I had to pinch my arms so I wouldn’t fall asleep, afraid that, if I closed my eyes, she’d choke on her own sickness and die. I was so tired the next morning I burned the toast and forgot to put sweetener in Miss Tarsila’s juice. She scrunched up her face and pushed the cup across the table. I don’t suppose she meant for it to spill. 
     I wanted to quit that morning but I have Letícia to think about. I’ve put her in a school that has uniforms and good teachers—things that cost money. So I cleaned up the juice spill, then turned right around and went into the kitchen to squeeze more oranges. Miss Tarsila didn’t like that I’d seen her crying the night before and would punish me for it; that’s the kind of girl she was becoming. Now, I know girls that age aren’t the nicest beings on this earth. I wasn’t. I gave my own mother many tired nights. But that morning, I wasn’t so clearheaded about things. I wasn’t charitable. That morning, I wished Miss Tarsila would learn her lesson. That’s what I thought while I twisted those oranges against the juicer: Jesus, teach her a lesson
     When Miss Tarsila went missing, I asked my church to pray for her. She and that Fernanda girl had been gone seven days, and the story was already in the news. Some people thought they’d run away. Miss Tarsila’s daddy—Mr. Artur—hired men to look for her. It’s a shame, what happened. 
     Mrs. Simone stays in her bed every day now. I take all her meals there, but she doesn’t eat. She’s not like Fernanda’s mother, who’s always on the TV, complaining about the police or talking about justice. Every few days Mr. Artur visits. The Beatriz girl left him. From the kitchen I can hear him and Mrs. Simone talking. When Mr. Artur leaves, his eyes are red and puffy, and he looks like Miss Tarsila did, that night in the shower. I pray for Miss Tarsila’s soul. I pray the police will catch the men who did it. I pray for my daughter, and then for myself, for wishing hard lessons on a little girl.

No one wants to believe in bad luck, but that’s what this was. The truth isn’t exciting or pleasant: Two rich girls played at being poor, and their game ended badly. They got drunk and couldn’t find their way back to Serrambi, so they hopped in a kombi, thinking, Everyone else takes these, why shouldn’t we? The road to Serrambi is through cane. It was dark. The drivers are two brothers who’ve given me problems in the past—drinking, beating a girl they said was their sister-in-law, issues with registration on their vehicle. Plenty of people around here refuse to ride with these brothers. It was bad luck that the minute those girls stepped outside those brothers pulled up in their van and yelled for passengers. And once the four of them were on the road, those brothers looked in their rearview mirror and thought, Here’s our chance. They didn’t expect all this fuss. But someone has to take the blame. 
     The district attorney, the judge, the mayor all called for a special task force. They made a hotline to coax more witnesses forward. They want to build a memorial for those girls. But the only names they want people to remember are theirs on election day. I spend my days trying to satisfy two grieving mothers, and these politicians put more doubts in the poor women’s heads. 
     We’ve got credible witnesses saying they saw the girls barefoot, buying cigarettes at a bakery near the bar. The bakery owner confirmed this, and said the girls tried to use their cell phones but couldn’t get reception. Most likely, they were trying to call their friends for a ride back to Serrambi. Witnesses saw the girls climb into the kombi. Now some people are saying they saw the girls get into a black Mercedes, like the one belonging to Mr. Cavalcanti’s boy. Other people say there was no kombi and no Mercedes, either—they say they saw a red jeep with São Paulo plates pick up the girls. Where were these so-called witnesses before all the news reports, before the hotline and the generous rewards? 
     Every year there’s a case people latch on to. Last year it was the woman who burned in the trunk of her car. Before that it was the missing little boy. People like to piece apart disasters. I talked to an older lady the other day who was sure it was the cane that took those girls, that the fields are haunted and other nonsense. I told her, “Senhora, I’ve never seen a cane stalk with a gun.” 
     We had to release those two brothers because of a mandatory three-month rule. Now I’ve got people mad at me for releasing them, and others mad that we arrested them in the first place. People around here—the same people who hated these brothers before—are saying how unfair it all is. They’re saying that the brothers went to jail for being poor. That we didn’t arrest the Cavalcanti boy because he’s a tourist. The Cavalcantis have owned a house here for years, but people here don’t want to hear that. They’ve drawn their line in the sand. Now there’s a lawyer saying we didn’t feed the brothers enough. That we made them sleep on a wet floor and beat confessions out of them. The brothers say they suffered in my custody. You know what I have to say to that? Think about those girls. Think about what they suffered. 

It is the scent that calls us, breaking through the haze of salt air and smoke like a cry. And we must stop our gliding, leave the warm rising drafts, and flap our wings again. 
     There is no hunting, only searching. When the cane grows tall it is difficult to spot what is left. How tiresome it is to find a too-thick hide, and have to wait for an animal with teeth to tear it, or for time to make it soft. But waiting never spoils the find. There are others, like us but different, who chirp and squawk and carry on. They peck at dirt or dive into water, impatient. How must it feel to stalk, to chase, to fight, to lift some still-writhing creature to one’s mouth? If there is a thrill in any of that, it is too wearying to contemplate. 

Diego’s not a bad guy. He just likes to show off. Every summer we bring a few girls to his parents’ beach house. It’s nothing big. Diego’s dad, Mr. Cavalcanti, says big parties aren’t a good idea because strange people end up in your house, looking around. It’s not safe, with all the fucked-up shit happening nowadays. Last summer a couple of marginais carjacked Mr. Cavalcanti and forced him to three ATMs to take out money. They could have done worse. Mr. Cavalcanti said he learned his lesson: always hide a gun in the backseat because, when you’re carjacked, that’s where they’ll put you. 
     Diego’s beach house is sick. It’s got an infinity pool, a game room, and enough bedrooms for each of us. The girls usually pair up in their rooms, but by the end of the weekend the pairs are different. Diego gets his parents’ room, which is huge and has a bathroom attached with a Jacuzzi. Weekends went like this: we’d go out on his boat, barbecue, hang out on the beach, go to a couple bars, see the sea horses at Maracaípe, and at least one night we’d go into town and eat. The girls didn’t have boyfriends and we never forced them to do anything. If they wanted to hang out in our rooms, they did. If they didn’t, no one cared. It’s not like the papers are saying—that we got girls drunk and gave them drugs and took advantage of them. That’s bullshit. We didn’t have to take advantage of anybody. 
     I had a girlfriend at the time. We’d only been dating for a week, but I was really into her. Renata was my age—seventeen—older than the girls we usually hung out with. I invited her to Diego’s for the holiday weekend, thinking it’d be fun, and that she’d like Diego’s house. Plus, I wanted to see her in a bikini. But that’s not the only reason why I liked Renata. One night, we talked so long on the phone we both fell asleep, and when I woke up the next morning I said, “Hello,” into the receiver and she said, “Hey,” back, her voice all sweet and soft because she was just waking up, too. It was intense.
     So I drove down to Serrambi with Renata, and Diego invited our friend Yuri and two girls I’d never met. But Yuri bailed at the last minute, so there were more girls than guys. One of the girls, Fernanda, had just moved into Diego’s apartment building in Boa Viagem. He’d met her by the pool and they’d started talking. She brought her friend Tarsila. They were cool, I guess. Compared to Renata, they were immature. They giggled a lot, and whispered, and the fat one—Tarsila—wouldn’t eat anything in front of us. They both liked Diego. What girl doesn’t? 
     The second night we ate at Beijupirá. It’s the only decent place in town. All the other restaurants sell rubbery lobsters and weird shit like paella with cream cheese. Tourist food. Beiju’s got seashell curtains around the tables and some ugly-ass birds carved out of palm tree trunks, but the food’s good. Diego ordered champagne for our table.
     “This is on me. You don’t have to drink it if you don’t want to.” 
     He always says this, and everybody always drinks. I’d wanted to order the champagne for us, for Renata especially, but whatever. Diego was paying. He ordered cheese flambé, and when it came out the girls giggled and were scared to touch the skewers. Diego liked to order stuff like that—anything on fire makes an impression. He passed a skewer to Renata and pretended to put his hand in the flames. She laughed. I took the skewer from her hand. 
     “I understand when people get married right away,” Diego said. “But dating for seven, eight years is bullshit. When you like a girl, you know it.”
     The girls nodded and smiled, even Renata. I wanted to tell her that Diego always said this kind of stuff. “Girls like it when you talk about getting married,” he’d told me. 
     “Take this away, for God’s sake,” he said to the waiter when we were done with the cheese. I tried to hold Renata’s hand under the table, but she tugged it away. 
     “Érico, you look like you just ate shit,” Diego said. “Have another drink.” 
     That night, Fernanda went to his room. The fat one—Tarsila—stayed out by the pool, talking to Renata and me. Renata was wearing this little white dress that tied at her neck. All I wanted to do was to find a way to untie that bow, but Tarsila wouldn’t shut up and Renata was too nice to leave her alone. 
     The next day we went out on Diego’s boat. He spent the whole time putting his arm around Tarsila, telling her how pretty she was. The skinny one, Fernanda, sat at the back of the boat, staring at them. We docked in town and went to a bar on the beach. Renata kept saying that she was tired and was thinking of going home early, so I tried to convince her to stay. I didn’t really notice when the other girls started fighting. They were a little drunk, I guess. Fernanda called Tarsila fat or ugly or something, and Tarsila called Fernanda a slut. They got loud and people were looking. Tarsila started crying. Diego got up, put some money on the table, and said, “Let’s go, Érico.” Diego hates it when girls fight. 
     We left the two girls there, to settle their shit, and took the boat back to the house. When we docked, Diego let me and Renata inside, then took his car to pick up Fernanda and Tarsila like he’d promised. Me and Renata went for a swim. Then we kissed for a while under the umbrella. She was all sandy and we laughed because I kissed her arms and got a ton of sand in my mouth. Before we knew it, it was getting dark and Diego wasn’t back. I tried his cell but he didn’t pick up. I figured he’d taken the girls out, somewhere in town. I figured he was letting me have some time alone with Renata.
     Diego came back but the girls weren’t with him. He said he’d looked and looked but couldn’t find them. They’d left their sandals at the bar, under the table where we’d sat. Diego said he’d taken the shoes back so they wouldn’t get stolen. He didn’t seem nervous or weird, just tired. 
     The way the papers talk about it, it’s like we planned all this. People want to know why Diego had their shoes, why we didn’t call the girls’ parents, why we didn’t look for them harder. Diego gave us Fernanda’s cell number and Renata texted her at least twenty times. I called her but it went straight to voicemail. The next day, when the girls didn’t show up, Renata and I drove into town and walked up and down the two main streets. We never thought the girls were hurt, we just thought they’d gone home or to a hotel. 
     Renata broke up with me a few days after they found the girls in that field. She called me after the first news reports, crying. “It could have been me,” she kept saying. 
     “That’s totally not true,” I said. “You’re a lot smarter than those girls.” Renata would never ride in a kombi. She’d never let some random black guys take her into the cane.
     It’s awful what happened, but people shouldn’t make this into a fucking circus. I’ll have to take my college exams next year because of all the classes I’ve missed for police interviews. Diego’s got three lawyers. When this is all over, he’s going to college in the U.S. He says he can’t stand Brazil anymore. 

Everything I sell, I make myself. I always tell people, “When you buy jewelry from me, you’re getting an original creation, not something made in China.” I sell my pieces on the beach. It’s a lot of walking back and forth but I don’t mind. My husband, João, and I moved here from Salvador just last year. We wanted to get away from the city, the violence, the noise. 
     Salvador’s a tourist city, too, but not like this one. Without the hotels there’d be nothing here but sugarcane. During high season everybody complains about the tourists, but during low season everybody suffers without them. I tell myself to remember this when the men—their faces pink as boiled shrimps—call me over to their chairs on the beach. A few men want jewelry for their wives, but most don’t. They want to call me morena and coax me to have a drink, to sit, to have dinner with them and then show them the town. I always tell them there’s not much to show—only two streets filled with souvenir shops. Then the men laugh and let me move down the beach. I never tell João about these offers but he must know. João works at the Summerville Beach Resort, setting up umbrellas and chairs near the water. He sees girls from town hanging around the beach, hoping to get invited back to the hotel. 
     João and his crew call them “the blood suckers” and hate serving them beers and colas as if they were real guests. But that’s exactly what they want to be. I’ve had plenty of those girls call me to their circle of chairs on the beach, and when I get there they finger my jewelry while the men watch. Tourists like tribal stuff: coconut shell bracelets, feather earrings, seashell necklaces. But the girls like my metal pieces. I use stainless steel and semiprecious stones, no plastics or cheap metal. In the end, the men buy them one of each kind so everyone’s happy. 
     My jewelry costs more, but it will last. That’s what I told that little girl, the one who was killed. She bought a set of earrings from me; she was my first and only customer that day. There weren’t many people on the beach—it was muggy and the sun hadn’t come out yet. I’d just left a snotty group of Italian women who’d tried on a dozen bracelets and bought nothing. It was high tide and the sand was soft; my legs hurt from walking on it. I was ready to give up and go home when I saw her sitting outside a big house. She was as young as the tourists’ girlfriends, but I knew right away she wasn’t one. Tourists don’t want pale girls. The skin around her eyes was red, like she’d been crying. She bought a dangly pair of earrings with some topaz in them. I gave her a discount because she looked so sad. 
     I wondered why she was sad, but wasn’t surprised at her being that way. João would have been surprised. He would have seen that big house, that fancy pool, her gold jewelry, her braces, and said, “What’s she got to cry about?” He was never a girl that age. 
     Growing up, we had the nicest house on our street, my mother and me. My dad left when I was five. Mamãe worked as a nanny for one of the mayor’s kids, so she made a good salary. We never ran out of food. I always saw the doctor when I got very sick. I went to a private school. Mamãe was gone all week except for Sundays, so my aunt looked after me. But she had a job, too, so I was supposed to be responsible and stay out of trouble. When I was eleven, my best friend was a girl named Janaína. Her mother was a maid and she had eight kids—too many to pay attention to every single one. So me and Janaína spent lots of time together. We watched soaps, went to the beach, hiked up our skirts and walked to the pharmacy to buy makeup. Our favorite thing to buy was lipstick—there was a brand called Mood Matchers that looked like a plain white tube of ChapStick but turned a different color on your lips. On me it was purple, on Janaína it was bright pink. This was a miracle to us. The year I turned twelve, Janaína started seeing a boy in secret. He was eighteen and worked at the radio factory. We started spending less time together because of this boyfriend of hers. He had a friend, though—a boy the same age named Junior—who started calling me every afternoon. Instead of talking to Janaína I started talking to Junior. He lived across town, so the phone was all we had. We would list things mostly—what we liked to eat, what our favorite movies were, what kinds of places we’d like to visit. I looked forward to his calls. I put on lipstick when I talked to him, as if he could see it. He liked to know that I did that for him. He asked me things like Have you kissed anyone? And I said no, because I hadn’t. He asked me other things: Had anyone ever put his finger in me? His fist? I thought these questions were so strange, so silly; I just giggled. After a few more calls like this, Junior wanted to come over to my house. I told him my address. I put on my lipstick and waited. But just before he got there, I felt funny—nervous and confused, like I’d just had a bad dream but couldn’t remember why it scared me. So when Junior knocked, I didn’t answer. I hid in my room until he went away. A neighbor told my mother that a strange man had knocked on our door, asking for me. After that, I wasn’t allowed to see Janaína anymore. João doesn’t know this story. It’s not the kind of thing he’d like to hear.
     When I saw the sad girl’s picture on the news two weeks later, I sat on the couch and pressed my hands together until the report finished. I was crying by then. Crying and holding my stomach, thinking of me and Janaína. 
     Now everyone talks about those girls. João’s managers had to order the staff to keep quiet in front of the guests. 
     “If it had been town girls,” I said one night, “would the guests be scared?” 
     João frowned. “Just thank God it wasn’t a pair of Germans,” he said, and I hushed him even though he was right. High season’s coming, and an empty beach would be hard on us all. 

Early summer, that’s when we cut. There’s plenty of work to go around, so I got my son-in-law Mael a job on the crew. “All you need’s a machete and a good hat,” I told him. And no drinking. A man needs to have his wits when he cuts; one bad swing and you can take off your neighbor’s arm. They burn the plot before we go in. At cutting time, the air’s black around our town. Without the fire we’d get sliced to death by those cane leaves. So one crew burns, we cut, and another crew bundles the stalks and puts them on trucks. Nothing changes except for equipment. When I started cutting, there weren’t any of those fancy walkie-talkies that the managers and bus drivers use now. Foremen rode horses, not motorbikes, to survey the plots. And the crew wasn’t bused in; we had to walk to every field. I still walk to the sites, when I can. The bus is too crowded for my taste. People talk too much nonsense.
     I walked that day, with Mael. My daughter Cleide married him a couple years back. I advised against it, but what girl listens to an old man? Now they live with me, and that morning I could tell that Mael had had too much to drink the night before. His eyes looked dizzy and he smelled like he’d showered in Pitú. “Nice cologne you got on,” I said, and he smiled like it was all a big joke. I usually walk fast, but that day I made sure to slow down and check that Mael was always behind me. Someone who doesn’t know these cane roads could get confused real quick. When they start to burn a plot, you don’t want to be lost in a field. We walked a ways, and as we were getting near the bus road I saw a few vultures. Nothing out of the ordinary. Sometimes dogs die in the cane. Sometimes foxes. 
     “I have to crap,” Mael said. 
     “Go ahead, then.”
     There was another road cut into the cane, in the direction of those birds. Mael took it. Before long I heard a whistle, then a shout. 
     “What?” I yelled back. “Can’t get your pants up?” 
     “Come here!” he said, and something in his voice told me to hurry. I thought he’d got bitten by a snake; they’re always grouping in the uncleared fields, afraid of the fires. But there was no snake. 
     There wasn’t much left of them. Vultures made sure of that. There was a stain in the dirt under them, about a meter wide all around, like the ground was wet. Like it had rained, but only over those girls. I knew it was girls because of the hair—dusty, but long. And their clothes. One had an orange dress—short, with flowers—like something Cleide would wear. I saw a hand, but it was shriveled like an old woman’s. 
     Mael put his hands on his knees and vomited. Some of it got on my boot. 
     “Shit,” I said. “Why’d you have to do that here?”
     He shrugged and wiped his mouth, then stepped a little closer to the stain on the ground. There was something there, picking up the sun’s light. Mael bent and scooped it up, showing it to me: an earring, a long one, silver with some stones hanging down. He moved to throw it back, but I caught his wrist before he could. 
     “You stupid? Now you touched it, you got to keep it.”
     I knew we might’ve found those disappeared girls, and I’d seen plenty of police shows; they have ways of knowing who touched what. 
     “Let’s go,” I said, taking the earring from him and putting it in my pocket. “Now.”
     When the foreman got to the cut site, I told him what we saw. “I just want to cut today,” I said. “I don’t want to tell this story again.” 
     He nodded. I’ve known this foreman for fifteen years and he knows I don’t make trouble. He knows that police are hard on cutters like us. He radioed into the mill, saying he’d found the girls. 
     We took the bus home that night. My legs felt tired. I forgot about that earring until I walked into the house and emptied my pockets. 
     “What’s that, Pai?” Cleide asked, seeing the thing in my hand. 
     “Nothing. It’s for you.” 
     She kissed my forehead like I was a baby. “Tell me,” she laughed, “what can I do with one earring?”

It’s terrible, what happened. I’ve ordered better signage on all our access roads, and I’ve hired more security guards to patrol the fields and Highway 51. Police won’t patrol the road without incentives, and it costs me more to encourage them than to hire my own people. 
     My grandfather talked about finding bodies in the cane back when he ran the mill. Sugar’s been our business since 1654. My great-great-great grandfather kicked the Dutch off this land during the war, and he got the mill, the Big House, the cane, and all the slaves. Outside of machinery and labor laws, not much has changed. More people want to work in the hotels than in the fields, but one way or another we always find men. All our lives depend on the market price, which is up this year. Ethanol helps, too, even though the corn lobby in the U.S. is set on breaking our backs. Caipirinhas are becoming popular abroad, so there’s a demand for cane liquor; next year, we’re installing a refinery to make cachaça. These days, no mill can turn a profit on pure sugar alone.
     When I was a boy, my grandfather used to say, “A lot of sweat goes into making sweetness.” In his time, the harvest was all that mattered. Nowadays, we’ve had to change our way of thinking. We’re working with a firm in São Paulo to make a machine that can cut the same amount of cane as fifty men and can move on an incline, to negotiate all these hills we’ve got. In a few years we’ll need oil, not men. 

Alma and I talk every day. Her daughter, Fernanda, was my daughter’s best friend. During my weekends with Tarsila, Fernanda came over and they would laugh and watch movies. Those first weekends after the divorce, my apartment was pretty empty and I hadn’t found a maid yet. Tarsila came over and we’d stare at each other for a while, then she’d get bored and complain about little things—how I didn’t have any hair conditioner in my shower, how my bath soap dried out her skin, how she didn’t have any clothes at my new place. So I’d take her to the mall and we’d buy things for my apartment. We’d come back and she’d unwrap everything and then get quiet again. I’d ask her about school and she’d just shrug; I hated those kinds of questions when I was a kid, too. Things got better when she started inviting Fernanda to stay with us on weekends. I’d drop them at the mall or at a beauty salon, and then visit my stores. I own three Lighting for Less outlets. Weekends are our biggest sales days. 
     The girls always made a big production about getting ready for the mall. “Why are you two changing clothes?” I’d say. “You’re pretty just like that.” Fernanda would laugh but Tarsila would look at me, disgusted, as if I’d told her to wear a jute sack. In recent years it seems I’d say one thing and Tarsila would hear another. I guess every father thinks his daughter is a mystery to him. Sometimes I thought it would’ve been easier having a boy, but I never wished for things to be different. I thought Tarsila was in a phase she’d grow out of. I thought we just needed time. 
     I tell these things to Alma and she likes them. With Alma, my stories don’t have to be important or funny or have a point. They can just be stories. Alma doesn’t ask me to take comfort in God. She doesn’t tell me to start a foundation, or to take up a hobby, or that exercise helps release anger. She doesn’t say ridiculous things like Tarsila is in a better place now
     Why were their shoes in his goddamn car? Why did he take so long to come back to his beach house, if the girls weren’t at the bar where he’d left them? Why did the police search his Mercedes three weeks after the fact? Why haven’t they searched his house? Who expects me to believe that Tarsila would get into a kombi, when she wouldn’t even take a taxi in the city? Girls like Tarsila don’t ride in kombis. Those two kombi drivers the police found, the ones who supposedly confessed—why can’t my lawyers ask them questions? That medical examiner hides behind big words. Penetrating trauma. Crushed mandibular arcade. Hemorrhage in the subcutaneous vaginal tissue. He thinks we don’t know what those words really mean. 
     My fiancée, Beatriz, left. She was tired of my questions. Tired of my waking up out of breath in the middle of the night. Now I call Alma when I can’t sleep, or when I feel the numbness in my hands. It starts at the tips of my fingers and moves into my palms. I’ve dropped six drinking glasses. Last week, it was hard to grip my pen. I had to sign an invoice and couldn’t get my hand to close, couldn’t feel my fingers. Every time this happens, my head hurts. This numbness will spread all over, I think. I’ll be paralyzed. I’ll have to eat from a tube and piss in a bag. My breath gets short. My heart pumps slow and hard, like my blood’s become as thick as syrup. Then I think: This is a fraction of the fear my Tarsila must have felt. And suddenly it’s easy to close my hands into fists. 

I read once that truth takes the simplest route. What is the simplest explanation for all this? That my son Diego—who’s too lazy to fill his own juice glass at the breakfast table—would pick up two girls who’d already stayed with him the night before, drive them into a cane field he didn’t know existed, and shoot them for the thrill of it? My son chases girls but can’t do much more than that.
     It’s a shame about those girls. Where I’m from, if something like that happened to one of our sisters or daughters, the sons of bitches responsible would already be breathing dirt. You do all you can to protect your kids. 
     People here say I came from nothing. Like my son, they think land is nothing, crops are nothing. My father got us up at three-thirty every morning to cut grass for our goats and cows. We’d milk them, let them out to pasture, and then start the day’s real work: clearing out trees and brush, making way for corn, cashews, beans, coffee plants. I had a facility with numbers. My father saw this and enrolled me in school. Then I entered a contest for teller positions at the Bank of Brazil—back then, you couldn’t go wrong with a federal job. I won a post and got to travel to Rio for training. What a city that was! Now it’s run by drug lords, but at that time there was order. The beaches were clean, the hills empty. At the bank, I counted other people’s money all day long. After a few years, I was promoted to handle business clients. These were the people who weren’t expected to wait in line; they walked in and got service. One of these businessmen said to me, “Cavalcanti, sell to the rich and you’ll always be poor. Sell to the poor and you’ll always be rich.” That’s when I started thinking about plastics.
     Where I’m from, shoes were for rich people. I didn’t have my first pair of real shoes until I left for Rio. Some people wore rope sandals, but they fell apart so fast you were better off without them. Plastics don’t fall apart. I used my savings, joined forces with a few of the men I’d met at the bank, and started a little company that made plastic sandals—flip-flops, as people call them now. Back then, they were durable, cheap, and easy to make: just a sole and a rubber toe hold. Now we have two hundred colors and styles, and we export to the U.S. and Europe. Rich people wear my sandals to the beach, and poor people wear them around town. Who doesn’t need shoes?
     Even those girls wore my sandals. I don’t know why Diego felt the need to put their shoes in his car; those damn shoes have given us the most trouble so far. A waiter will testify that those girls left their sandals at the bar, and that Diego picked them up. Some newspapers have found people to say they saw the girls getting into a black car, like Diego’s. Other people are saying they saw the girls get into a kombi. When the press gets involved, everyone has a story to tell. What matters isn’t what the newspapers print, it’s what the judge hears. 
     I’ll have to sell my house in Serrambi now and find another, quieter beach. When I first arrived in Rio, I’d never seen the ocean before. I couldn’t imagine swimming in so much water. My wife’s a teacher at the university, and some of her professor friends call the beach “the great equalizer.” On the beach, they say, everyone can swim, surf, suntan, flirt, without any notion of who earns what. When you’re born rich, like my wife and her friends, such theories sound like truths. I met Diego’s mother on Leblon Beach in Rio, when I was still a bank clerk. She wore a pearl necklace into the water. Her bikini didn’t have loose threads or tar stains. And her skin didn’t have scars or mosquito bites. She looked like a doll that had just come out of its box, and I wanted to press her face into the sand and to kiss her, all at once. I wanted to rub some of that newness right off her. 

What fourteen-year-old girl sleeps with a boy she barely knew? What kind of girl has too many drinks at a beach bar and then leaves her shoes behind? What kind of mother would raise a girl like this?
     Blame us—Fernanda and me. It makes things safer, doesn’t it? It makes the world easier to understand, gives it the flimsy predictability we all need to walk out our doors each morning. Terrible things can be avoided, if we’re smart and cautious, and Fernanda wasn’t either of these things. Miracles are supposed to be highly improbable events that can’t be explained. So explain this: how could all things conspire to have my girl on a beach, without shoes or money, at the same moment that two men with bad intentions happened to drive by and offer her a ride? But to call this a miracle would mean we’d have to believe in arbitrary bad as well as good. It’s easier for you to think Fernanda had it coming.
     My daughter was not a stranger to me. Fernanda barely studied and still got perfect marks in school. Her teachers said she would pass every college exam, even the hardest one for the Federal University of São Paulo. She wanted to be an architect, and we enrolled her in a design course. Sometimes, when she and I weren’t fighting, I helped her make architectural models for the course. The wooden sticks she used were so tiny we had to use tweezers to glue them together, one by one. We went to a supply shop in Derby Center and bought the tiny plastic cars, palm trees, and people she’d glue to the models at the very end. I have all those models we made—an apartment building, a doctor’s office, a strip mall, a beach house.
     After Miguel and I divorced, we each tried to outdo the other when it came to Fernanda. I bought her a Prada dress, a Louis Vuitton bag better than my own. Miguel promised her a car with a driver until she got her license. I didn’t like her staying out late, but all the other girls in her school, and even in our building, didn’t have curfews. And hadn’t I wanted to stay out late when I was her age? Hadn’t Miguel and I gone to his beach house, all those years ago, when we first started dating? We’d smoked pot and then swam in that rough ocean together, holding on to each other so we wouldn’t get sucked under. 
     I’d seen that boy—Diego Cavalcanti—in our building before. We rode in the elevator together plenty of times. His parents own the largest shoe company in the Northeast. Fernanda told me he was inviting people to his house in Serrambi, and she begged to go. I called Miguel and we talked it through: Fernanda would be with her friend Tarsila, and we’d have our driver take them to the beach on Friday and pick them up Sunday.
     The Cavalcantis still live in our building. Mrs. Cavalcanti used to nod and smile when she saw me. We’d sometimes ride in the same elevator and talk about how hot it was outside, or how crowded the city had suddenly gotten, or how our kids were doing. She’d press the elevator buttons with her long fingers. Her face is pale and there are no sunspots on her shoulders or arms, as if she’s always known better than the rest of us and never covered herself in baby oil and iodine and spent hours sunning on the beach. Now she ignores me. When she sees me in the residents’ elevator, she ducks into the servants’ one. I want to shake her. I want to rake my nails across her spotless face. The possibility of this helps me brush my teeth, dress, sit at the breakfast table, and lift a fork to my mouth each morning. I ride that elevator up and down, and every time the door slides open I close my eyes and pray she’s on the other side.
     I can’t sleep. Artur says his ex, Simone, sleeps all day and all night. I met her only once, when I dropped Fernanda off at her apartment. The girls were good friends, but we weren’t. Now I think about her—about Simone—all the time. I think maybe I’ve given her my sleep and she’s given me her wakefulness. 
     The medical examiner scraped under the girls’ nails but found nothing. I could have told him this before he did any scraping; every day of her life Fernanda put her fingers in her mouth and bit her nails to little stubs. They weren’t capable of scratching a thing. Here’s more: Fernanda went to the salon twice a week to have her hair straightened. She had beautiful curls—blonde and tight, with baby ringlets near her forehead and ears. I told her she looked like a heroine out of a Jane Austen novel. I told her that when she grew up she’d learn to love those curls. Fernanda didn’t like being rushed. She didn’t like the dark, or scary movies. She hated drinking milk and touching raw chicken. Ever since she was a baby she slept with her hands in fists and I used to wake her by wiggling my finger into her tight grip and saying, “Wake up, sleepy mouse.”
     I tell these things to the doorman, my driver, the reporters, our lawyer, the private detective hired by Artur and me. But the more I talk, the more I feel as if I’ve landed in some foreign place where no one speaks my language. They all nod and pretend to understand, but my words don’t seem to make sense to them. Soon, they won’t even pretend. I have to keep talking, though. I have to keep telling people about Fernanda because whenever I stop talking—at night in bed, or in the shower, or when I brush my teeth—I imagine her in that field.

Is it light again?
     The waves are rough today. I can only hear them when they’re rough. They slap the sand. We face the city beach; that’s why we moved into this apartment. Boys are playing soccer out there. Here! Here! Go, go, go, go, go! Run! Run! No one swims because of the sharks. After the new port was built, something happened to the tides. Or was it the tide pools? The sharks used to swim much farther out. Now they circle right near the shore. You can only go in ankle-deep. Any deeper, only at low tide, when the reefs block the sharks. When Tarsila waded too deep, I called to her. Stop right there! 
     Stop. Right there.
     The sun hits my arm, my leg. It makes them feel prickly. It makes the sheets hot. Every day it moves across the bed until it hits the clock. 12:00. 12:00. 12:00. I was tired of seeing the numbers change. They moved too fast. They were all wrong. I unplugged the cord, then replugged it. When? The day that woman was here. My neighbor. Yes. I covered my head. Pretended to sleep, then did. When I opened my eyes she was gone. What did she say? 
     Look to Mary, our Blessed Mother. She also lost a child.
     Lost. A wallet. A sock. An earring. Then you call to Santo Antônio. Santo Antônio, Santo Antônio (you have to say his name twice), give me back what I can’t find. I laughed at my mother for doing this. 
     I am so tired of disbelief. 
     Vovô died. Grandmother Margarida lit a candle next to his picture. She dressed in black for one year. We made fun of her. She dyed all her dresses herself and they smelled like vinegar. For one year, she didn’t go anywhere or do anything. This is the way it should be, she said. One year, in the house. You close the windows. You cover the mirrors. People had customs back then. They knew what to do. 
     Don’t you want to get up? Get dressed? Eat? Shower? Take a walk? Go to the gym? Go to church? Talk to your friends? Talk to your lawyer? Talk to Artur? No.
     No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. 
     The dark’s better. Mosquitoes are buzzing. The floor feels cold under my feet. How her feet would slap this floor when she ran. What fat little legs she had. Running up and down this hallway. Chasing our dog. Pushing her doll carriage. I knew all her secrets when she was small. How hot her skin was in the mornings, when she woke up. There was always sweat in her elbow creases, behind her knees. This was when she smelled like herself—before a bath and soap and shampoo muddled it. She smelled waxy, and sweet like cake batter.
     Her milk teeth are in a box in my dresser drawer. They’re yellow now. Gross! She found them once when she was looking at my jewelry. She liked to try on my rings. These are for you, but not now. Why not? They’re for when you’re older. For when I get married? Yes. Do you think someone will really marry me, Mãe? Of course someone will!
     I held cotton to her mouth. Her milk tooth dangled by a root. She flicked it back and forth with her tongue. I promised her it would be quick. It wouldn’t hurt. She was about to cry, to say no. But the tooth was already in my hand. Look at that. And she looked at me, amazed. 
     Is it light again?

Okay. It’s time for another journal write. A lot’s happened since last time. A lot’s changed. But I’m sure that you know that.
     For starters, it’s 21 days until I turn 15. I’ve been looking forward to being fifteen for a long time, but you know that too, right? It was always, in my mind, the real age when you stop being referred to as a “child” and start to grow toward being a real adult. Fifteen brings things to mind—practicing driving and all that. In school we’ll start getting ready for vestibular exams. Tarsila hates it because she doesn’t know what she wants to be. She doesn’t like that we have to decide what we’ll do when we “grow up.” I feel bad for her, for not having a passion.
     So then there’s my party. We sent out invitations, like, two months ago but have only gotten two RSVP’s from the kids at school. My whole family is coming of course. I KNEW no one from school would come. It’s the same weekend as Marina’s party and of course everyone wants to go to hers instead of mine. I’d rather not even have a party.
     When I was twelve I thought my fifteenth birthday would be a big deal. I thought I’d have friends. So many friends that they’d fight over who got to have the first piece of my cake. I thought a boy would like me, and he would hold my hand as everybody sang happy birthday. And all my friends would call out Fernanda! Fernanda! So loud I wouldn’t be able to hear anything else. Oh, and I thought I was going to be pretty.
     If you asked me last week how my year would be, this is how I would have answered—I’m going to have my stupid party. Tarsila and me will hang out all year. Marina and her stupid crew will sit at their desks and laugh at us no matter what shoes we wear or what bags we have. If our bags are nicer then theirs, they’ll hate us even more. (I can’t even USE the purse Mãe bought me, so I don’t have stupid Marina’s rath wrath on me.) We’ll go out to the same stupid clubs as everyone else from our school and when Marina comes in we’ll just drink and talk about her all night.
     That’s how I THOUGHT my year would be . . . until last week. Wait until Marina hears that ***Diego C.*** invited ME to the beach. He’s soooo much more mature than the other boys. He really listens. And he gets how terrible it is to be around rude people. And how I want to design buildings like Oscar Niemeyer. We talked about O.N.’s church, in Brasília. How the stained glass makes everything all blue. How you feel like you’re underwater when you’re inside it. It makes you feel like, if you had to die, that is what heaven would look like when you got there. If you got there.
     Okay. My hand is getting tired! I’m not taking you on my trip, but will tell you ALL about it when I get back. I got a new bathing suit and wrap. I hope they look good!!!

Tell us what we do not know. What we cannot see. Tell us of the ocean. We can smell it here, in the hills where we’ve been set, clumped close. Once, we traveled on water, before we were fixed in place. There were trees then, supported clear of the ground on single stems so easy to saw, to push over, to make way for us. Now, all we see is ourselves. There are rocks, burned black, but they went quiet long ago. Black birds dip and rise above us but rarely touch down to tell us what they see. And the fire? It is too restless to keep us company, too thoughtless to burn slowly and turn us to ash so that we might fly away, too. The fire only singes our blades.
     There were dogs not long ago. Fat-necked and rude, they plowed through without a glance. They always found what they were after. 
     Listen: You can hear the ocean. And under the waves the whispers, the clink of manacles, the cries for home, the snapping of dogs’ teeth. It is impossible to remember every little thing you’ve left behind, scattered around our bases: snapped whips, a ruby ring, a shoe, a shirt, a branding iron, a domino, a baby doll, an earring. You say your kind has suffered here. Why should we tell you how? Men stalk through us with their knives, every year the same dark faces. How many times have we been severed, joints sliced just above our crowns? The things we’ve seen, we’ve seen a thousand times before. One cut is no deeper than the first. One loss no greater than the rest.

To read other stories from the Spring 2011 issue, please purchase a copy from our online store.