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A Millstone, Always a Millstone

A story by Paulo da Costa

  THE BLESSED WATER trickled upon the infant's sleep, pronouncing him Maria das Dores.[NOTE] His cry of betrayal echoed in the serene sanctuary, pleading upwards to the gothic columns where it ricocheted from the stone ears of Saints, deaf after centuries of parishioners' petitions.

Padre Lucas proceeded with the baptismal ceremony, his austere voice disregarding Maria das Dores' supplications.

I shall remove the heart of stone from your body
and give you a heart of flesh.
I shall place my spirit in you,
and make you keep my laws
and sincerely respect my observances.

Maria das Dores, for consolation, moulded his tiny body closer to his mother's arms, just as the clay vases on the altar had moulded themselves to the moist hands of their creators.

Engulfed in black, a picture of burnt devastated soil delivering from her bosom the delicate white rose of his being, Eufémia, the infant's mother, prayed silently.

Lord, you have blessed me with this precious life.
May Maria das Dores grow in the discovery of truth.
May her hands be used to transform this world.
May her eyes never be closed to those in need.

Throughout the ceremony Eufémia's silent lips raced in a string of prayers that sought forgiveness. It was the insanity of pain that condemned her to intervene in matters traditionally reserved to Divinities. She, a humble servant of God, eager to attenuate the immeasurable misfortunes of the world, was certain He would approve of her decision to raise her son under the habits of a girl.

Eufémia's intervention in Divine affairs began with the death of her husband. She vowed then to protect Maria das Dores, her sweet bundle of innocence, from falling into the same predatorial mandibles that had claimed her beloved husband. Had Acácio been present, her gentle giant man, she was certain he would have approved of her desperate, yet immaculately intentioned, protective efforts.

”Eufémia's intervention in Divine affairs began with the death of her husband.”

Acácio himself had been a sacrificial lamb, his only sin hung between his legs, enabling him the pleasure that had fathered his child, and in the end, also sentenced him to death.

Conscription had arrived, stomping through the courtyard, kicking the kitchen door open, as it had for his forefathers, centuries past, snatched in the night and sent to the Crusades to slaughter and perish in lands not of their own. And again, in Acácio's time, flesh was herded into the jaws of Europe to bleed a war in a strange language. He resisted his destiny, concealed in the salt chest with the quartered pork while the house was searched. The following day he sold trowel, square, plumb line, the tools of his trade. He borrowed for desperate money, in the attempt to trick a pending death in the battlefield. The money paid for his bribed escape, smuggled inside an oak chest, destined to Brazil. Brazil, land of unbound dreams and riches, from where he dreamt of returning one day, alive, and with the fulfilled promise of wealth. From the departing Pandora's box his hand had blown Eufémia a hopeful kiss.

A lone candle burned next to the font, piercing the darkness of the church. Maria das Dores persevered in his loud protest. The water's icy fingers lingered, scattered droplets on his forehead, and seared his tender skin. Padre Lucas hastened through the remaining christening steps.

"May the Lord Jesus touch your ears to receive His word, and your mouth to proclaim His faith, to the praise and glory of God." Padre Lucas' thumb touched the ears and mouth of Maria das Dores. He ended by signalling the cross on the infant's forehead.

Eufémia scurried home, legs slicing the fog that blanketed the village. At home, by the hearth, sloping forward on her stool and holding Maria das Dores under one arm, she build a morning fire to combat the unrelenting shivers refusing to leave her life. Shivers, reminiscent of the haunted night, weeks earlier, when snuggling to the flames, smoke stinging her eyes, hands resting on the hill of her stretched lap, she received word of Acácio's death.

"The will of God," a messenger from her estranged and unwilling father, suggested.

"What kind of a God locks one of his souls in a chest, at the bottom of a cargo, burying his dreams alive," she yelled.

Meaningless words attempted to ease her tearful torrent inundating the kitchen, sending pots whirling in the air and glass spraying from walls, the way rivers smash water against rock and sting people's eyes. The tempest eventually broke her dammed waters and grief drowned under the flood of birthing pain.

Sunday, distant church bells announced the end of mass while Eufémia's last visitor hurried back home. In her arms, Maria das Dores cried. Eufémia stepped into the cold river behind her shack to scrub away the sweat that impregnated her skin. Her breasts ached from many unshaven faces. Eufémia unbuttoned her blouse and brought Maria das Dores to her nipple. The infant quieted. Eufémia splashed water between her thighs and sang the Fado in a mournful voice, a melancholic wail rising from the depths of her aches.

River of crystal waters
on your way to the sea
the torments that I bear
confide not to thee.

Her tears floated down, a day's journey to the Atlantic, where she believed the grief of the world was preserved in a gigantic vat of brine. The pure and crystallized pain of the less fortunate, floating away, destined to return one day to spice privileged and refined palates.

The following morning, Monday, the river saw wives converge, fold at their knees to slap husband's underpants against stone slabs, their red hands numb from the cold water. The wives' fists wrung husbands undershirts at the collars until they bled strange scents of pleasure. The silent stained water, without a ripple of discontent purged the clothes and carried the dirt far from everyone's sight.

The Sunday Eufémia fulfilled the last of Acácio's unpaid debts, she walked to the waters, raw chin high and earthly duties honoured. At the water's edge she kneeled and examined her reflection. She agonized over the premature wrinkles, the white around the temples, the darkness around the eyes, the ghost she had become. Eufémia waded into the silky water and with each step her skirt rose and floated on the surface like a weeping black orchid huddling her torso and slowly closing its petals, swallowing her body. Eufémia's last tear merged with the current and her grieving body finally withered from innumerable nights of lonely cries, beginning a pilgrimage that would end in the Atlantic brine next to her beloved Acácio.

Upstream, not far, Maria das Dores waited inside the watermill. He heard the gargling of water outside and the cooing of pigeons nesting on the rafters. Impatiently, he waited for his mother's crystalline voice. A plate of salted lupini sat on a wrinkled piece of paper Eufémia had slid underneath at the last instant. The lupini, under other circumstances devoured promptly, but now, impeded by a knot in Maria da Dores' throat, were emptied, mindlessly, one by one, under the crushing millstone. Maria da Dores despised the Sundays of his tobacco filled home.

Ambrósio, the wealthiest man in Vale D'gua Amargurada, crumpled the paper note in his hand and tossed it into the river. He took pity on the orphaned child of his relegated daughter, Eufémia. Eufémia, who once was the last of his hopes for a convenient union to an aging landlord, had she not fled his home, to marry a poor stone mason and seek refuge amid the passion of bare walls. Ambrósio, a man of strong beliefs and unmoveable will, dutifully welcomed the orphaned child under his protective wing. He stood above the girl, who crouched by the river's edge, huddling her legs against her chest, hiccuping and tossing twigs in the water, following their journey with her withered gaze until they disappeared from view. "Come to your new home. You need a long hot scrub in a lavender bath." Ambrósio extended his hand and led the child through the trail up the grapevine terraces.

A shriek from the young female servant bathing Maria das Dores, followed by her distressed call for aid, rushed Ambrósio to the courtyard. There, held high under the canopy of a grapevine, Maria das Dores, hovered above the wooden tub. Her legs spread wide, in the manner Ambrósio might have found a vendor holding rabbits for inspection in the market.

Ambrósio sauntered over to the child and tweaked his stump of flesh as if to confirm its existence. Maria das Dores screamed and shrivelled. Ambrósio rubbed his nose and proceeded to repair the damage.

"Bury the past, all but an ugly dream. From today on you will respond to the name of Mário. Is that understood?" Ambrósio did not delay in addressing the gender tragedy.

The following day Maria das Dores' grandfather summoned a barber who shaved his long braids leaving his head exposed to the merciless winter. It bared memories of bitter cold mornings, when the night remained trapped inside his mother's shack, frozen air colliding onto his face like floating ice, scraping his skin. He had watched the helpless efforts of the infant fire, its tiny serrated teeth of flames, sawing, sawing at the frozen air. His mother had sat on a stool by the fire, as close to flames as one would ever want to sit for comfort, until the iron kettle boiled and the steaming barley thawed their flesh. Then, his mother French braided his hair, pulling and twisting at three strands, as if one, the stranded one, the middle one, the thick one, just hang there stiff and limp, while the other two clung desperate tentacles. His mother wove his hair while singing.

Oh, River of crystal waters
on your way to the sea
the torments that I bear
confide not to thee.

After Maria das Dores' braids vanished, his grandfather summoned the best tailor in the village to fit him with a suit that corralled his body, a tie that lassoed his neck, strangling his voice.

Maria das Dores was forced to gather his dresses in a pile, next to a mound of weeds from the garden, and before the glare of his menacing grandfather, Mário's trembling hands ignited the match that turned the past to smoke.

Tears in his eyes, staring at the crackling flames, Mário realized the days of hopscotch in the company of girlfriends, leaping from square to square exuding grace and deftness, had been terminated. He already missed the fresh air, twirling inside his red pleated skirt, kissing his thighs with featherlike lips. He missed the fingers of sunshine, caressing his knees, leaving a residual tingle in his skin. He had been sentenced to the ferocity of boy's games, their bruised skins and bloodied skulls. His legs trembled in anticipation and his stomach heaved over the fire.

Later that day, his grandfather obliged him to collect chicken excrement. A fastidious task around the yard until the pail was filled. His grandfather stood erect against the orange tree and ordered Mário to spread the excrement in a thick layer over his chest, "Be generous," his grandfather instructed, "better safe than sorry. After all, it is fertilizing your manhood." Then over the cheeks and chin because it was the best fertilizer a man would find, as his grandfather proved by showing the bush of his chest and crediting it to the intervention of his own father at a comparable age as Mário's.

Mário detested his grandfather's outhouse. He escaped the vigilant eyes of his grandfather and preferred to retreat into the corner of the garden, behind the green beans climbing up the tall trestles, where he squatted precisely the way his mother had taught him. He wrestled his pants, locking him at the ankles, upsetting his balance and invariably splattering his legs. He ignored the sprayed pants, he would rather linger there, squatting, protected by the curtain of bean foliage. His eyes followed a world unravelling at the pace of a snail; a potato beetle trotting up a blade of grass, soon to be airborne. Then, a trail of ants, a frantic to and fro, a wavering black thread mending the earth's seams, preventing it from tearing. He preferred squatting to standing tall next to the orange tree, losing sight of life among the grasses.

There, squatting behind the bean trestles, he overheard for the first time a gathering of his grandfather's field hands discuss the true tragedy of his Father's expiring moments. Acácio and countless other fugitives, vulnerable in the illegality of their escape, became enslaved in the labouring hell of a ship's coal furnace. As the silhouette of the Brazilian landscape had spun into view, the stars had shut their eyes to the pushed bodies struggling to stay afloat in the shark infested waters.

"Can always count on finding someone to profit from the dreams and fears of the poor." There was a clamour of agreement before someone else continued. "And the rich, for God, pay their way out of their wars," the field hand concluded, wiping mouth to palm and leaving for another day of toil.

Mário's legs trembled like fragile corn shoots in a field. He collapsed backwards. At that moment, Mário decided poverty was a curse, a downfall he must avoid at any cost.

”At that moment, Mário decided poverty was a curse, a downfall he must avoid at any cost.”

On the dinning room table, an olive oil lantern stood between Mário and his grandfather. Mário answered his hunger with corn bread, avoiding the bowl of pumpkin soup facing him.

Ambrósio, permanently on the alert for opportunities to improve Mário's character, noted the boy's aversion to pumpkin soup and at once ordered his servants to provide Mário with nothing but three daily bowls of soup thereafter. A temporary measure until the day Mário pronounced, from his own free will, thankful appreciation for pureed pumpkin. "Hunger is the best spice," his grandfather proclaimed. He reasoned a man was created to overcome the unpleasantries of life, wrestling challenges the way one wrestled a bull, taking it by the horns, forcing it to kneel into submission. "The day of victory arrives when the mind overcomes the body and reason the emotions." His grandfather's voice thundered and his fist hammered the table, overturning his empty wine mug.

Ambrósio stood and paced the perimeter of the table, arms locked behind his back. He stopped behind Mário. Then he stooped over him. Mário restrained his breath. He felt the hot wind blowing out of his grandfather's nostrils and burning his nape.

"A man in your position and of your wealth, should expect to face a life of unpleasantness. A steady hand of iron, unburdened by obstacles of sentimentality, is a mandatory virtue in expanding our accumulated riches. It is a man's job." Ambrósio's expectant hand landed on Mário's shoulder.

On his return from the open market, eating the distance with his youthful steps, Mário crossed paths with the poorest of poor village daughters, a bastard of bastards, rescued from starvation by a neighbouring lady of strict religious beliefs. Mário immediately recognized the vacant eyes of orphanage and became enamoured with her sadness and apologetic smile. He became enamoured with the crepuscular eyes which requested little from life. Mário turned. He walked toward the market again and from a distance, he followed the tapping of her clogs on stone, sweetening his ears. Once in the market she stopped at the dried fish stall where she bought tails of salted cod.

Mário entered a neighbouring fish stall and ordered a grilled sardine with a morsel of corn bread. He leaned on a pole, watched her amble to the cloth merchant across the path. She glided her fingers over the silks, pausing at the reds. She held a luscious red strip against her body. She set it back and turned to linen. She weighed an arm's full of linen. In his daydreaming Mário embraced her, rocked her in his arms, fantasizing of offering to her the love and protection she required.

At his gate, Ambrósio waited for his grandson's return from the market. He chewed a mouthful of tobacco and spit the mush in a long blow across the road. In his absorbtion he did not bother to touch the tip of his hat and return passers-by greetings. Word of Mário's adolescent affections had reached Ambrósio's ears swifter than the warning of a frosty north wind.

From a distance Mário sighted his grandfather at the gate and he arrived staring at his now dull leather shoes.

"I see you've taken a liking to wearing smart shoes. Let's hope you continue to deserve the shoes you wear."

Mário remained silent.

"She has an eye on your inheritance. You ought to be investing your interest in the Neves' daughters, well endowed women." Mário's grandfather aimed his attention less at their fleshy chests than at their dowry chests which promised generous expanses of land as well as rivers of milk and honey.

Mário, under threats of being disowned, was strictly forbidden to approach her.

Torn between the longing in his heart and the comfort of his flesh, Mário buried dreams of eloping with Maria da Saudade.[NOTE] The threat of returning to his destitute past, the plain barley, the iced breath, and the disturbing story of his father's destiny still loud in his ears, fostered his clinging to the comfort and privileges of his grandfather's roof.

Nevertheless, Mário and Maria da Saudade's relationship flourished beneath the pale glow of the moon, beneath the umbrella of grapevines, beneath the roof of corn stalks, growing stronger in the whispers of furtive encounters. In his impatience, he returned from his escapades to kneel by the side of his bed and pray to Our Lady of Fátima, hanging in a faded yellowed smile above his bed. He prayed for a merciful end to his grandfather's heart.

"Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, never was it known that anyone who fled to your protection, implored your help, or sought your intercession, was left unaided."

Patient as the ox, quiet as the owl, Mário obediently brought his grandfather his bed time Lemon Balm tea. He observed his health deteriorate through the following months until finally, Ambrósio's aging bones fell prisoner to the immobility of a bed, leaving Mário tenuously chained to his wilful breathing. Mário's prayers were soon to be answered.

Mário inherited the family fortune. He failed to live up to the dreams of his grandfather, failing in the softness of his voice, the largeness of his heart. If the sun forgot to shine on the less fortunate of Vale D'gua Amargurada or the soil refused to deliver the sustenance of a year's toil, Mário declined to collect the rents from the poorest of his vast lands.

Now that Mário's path was unencumbered, he applied himself to the preparations of his long awaited union to Maria da Saudade. He planned the merriest wedding in the valley. He slaughtered pigs, chickens and cows. A tun of his best wine was placed aside. He had a suit tailored to accommodate his increasing plumpness, a tie to match. Everything was proceeding favourably until Padre Lucas, flipping through his church records, unable to match the names in the marriage licence, remembered baptizing Mário a quarter of a century back, and declared in the name of moral righteousness and Divine decency, he could not pronounce Maria das Dores and Maria da Saudade, wife and... wife.

"I have called you by your name, you are mine," Padre Lucas quoted Isaiah reminding Mário that in the Last Judgement God would call everyone by name. In Padre Lucas opinion it was evident Mário continued to be Maria das Dores in the eyes of God.

"This whole affair is a blasphemy." Padre Lucas fumed at this mingling of Marys that challenged well established rules of procreation. His ecclesiastic training had not forearmed him.

Despair descended upon the couple and among a tearful embrace they realized the depth of their tribulations had just begun. It was no longer the will of a stubborn man, Mário's grandfather, but the chasm of centuries of tradition and religious mores, petrified in customs, that barred them from uniting their lives.

Mário pursued his last recourse, an appeal to the ultimate divine authority on earth, the Pope. His plea was accompanied by a generous donation to facilitate the expression of God's will, and with a lick of his tongue his reverent petition was sealed, their destiny deposited in the hands of the Pope.

After mass, every Sunday thereafter, waiting the Pope's verdict, Mário and Maria da Saudade huddled by the watermill. They stared at the heaviness of the millstone carving its customary course, following a deep rut, around and around in smooth circles, while they tossed salted lupini and watched the tender flesh heartlessly crushed.

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