It’s early morning and the sound of heavy rain fills my room. The drumming on the tin roof so loud, it sounds like artillery fire. From the ceiling, drops of water that have filtered through the clay roof tiles land on the bare mattress of the bunk above me with a steady plunk. Through the window slats comes the earthy smell of water on concrete, and I can see the solid sheet of grey rain. The slats are seized open and let in the fresh cool air of night, along with throngs of mosquitoes. Every night, hundreds of them find me and my skin is marked with swelling red pinpricks. Each time my back aches, I wonder if it’s the result of the hard mattress or the onset of dengue fever. In moments like this, I ask myself if trying to teach English here in the backwaters of the Brazilian Sertão is worth it.
Outside, the street is a river of murky brown water. It sweeps along the gutter, carrying away the plastic bags, jugs and other refuse that litter the broken pavement. When it rains like this, the water goes up the drain, not down, and the fetid smell of sewage wafts from the gargling eddies of the clogged culverts. Four months of the year, this is a daily occurrence in Milagres, a small town in Céara state of northeastern Brazil.
Luckily, I don’t have far to go. It’s only a few hundred meters from the derelict military barracks where I sleep, to the hospital where I teach. Other aren’t as lucky in their commute. Rattletrap cars plunge through the street, the water coming up to their headlights as they bang through hidden potholes. Motorcyclists wobble along, their hands held up to shield their unhelmeted faces against the rain, the water reaching their pedals.
The hospital doubles as a school, giving day-classes to children who would otherwise be left to their own devices. My wife is an intern at the hospital, providing an extra set of hands to aid the overflow of patients.
Both the school and the hospital are run by the Associação Comunitária de Milagres (ACOM), a local aid organization. A small but formidable program, since the early 1980s it has helped impoverished women, children and agricultural families around Milagres through education and art projects, construction and the maternity hospital.
The district of Milagres is a small, poor part of Brazil within a small, poor part of Brazil. In the entire northeastern region of the country survival has become a struggle after years of droughts and floods which have wreaked havoc on the conventional farming lifestyle. Of the thirty-thousand people living around Milagres, five thousand live in abject poverty in bare-walled, cement houses, with dirty water and shoeless feet. In a journey that has become routine, the men of these poor families go south, seeking employment in the sugarcane fields of Minas Geres and São Paulo where there is promise of better pay. While home on vacation, one of these itinerant workers, Luis, described the scene.
‘There are thousands of us in the fields,’ he said. ‘We use a big machete to cut the cane. At the end of the day, my back is ruined. I’m in so much pain, I can hardly sleep. We’re shoulder to shoulder on these cots in a plywood bunkhouses.’ The sense of slavery is obvious, but Luis saw his labor in promising terms. ‘What else can I do? There is no work here, no money.’ Breaking his back cutting cane on a plantation, he can at least provide a small stipend for his children and painfully young and pregnant wife. In the meantime, they make use of ACOM’s community programs.
The classroom where I teach is a long cavernous tile-floored room with a single desk and dozens of plastic chairs. Wall fans loudly ventilate the stale air. The students arrive in a chorus of “Hello, hello,” a word from the very first lesson some weeks ago. I prompt them for more, but that’s all they’ve got. One word is okay for two weeks in, but it’s obvious their interest in learning English is flagging. When I arrived, they had no knowledge of English at all – it may as well have been German or Chinese I taught. Any language other than Portuguese would have been equally strange. Their success is the result of their enthusiasm much more than my ability.
With the rain still beating on the cobbled street outside, I write out words in Portuguese with their English translations on the chalkboard. Hello. Good morning. How are you? What is your name? The students earnestly copy down these phrases down into their notebooks. They are diligent, capable writers. We’ve done these words already but, with only one or two classes a week, they don’t remember much. Together we speak the words out loud, the voices of ten students echoing off the brick walls sounding like fifty.
Soon, they’re losing patience and become tired with the repetition. They’ve been calm too long. Silence is not one of their virtues, but curiosity is. I give up Good Morning (it wasn’t catching on anyway) and allow them to pile at my side of the desk, asking questions.
What is my name in English? How do you say dog? What is my Dad’s name in English? Where are you from? Do you paint your hair?
The questions are endless, and I answer as best I can, tripping over my Portuguese. We work through it together, teaching each other our languages as only two beginners can. There is a forcefulness to them – even the shiest do not give up on a question until they have received an answer. It’s a trait that in North America or Europe would be a catalyst in their success, helping them push through the difficulty of university or upgrade their career. In Milagres, it’s a trait instilled in them by the poverty in which they live: of the ten today, a pair of twins will return home to look after their cancer-ridden grandmother, another will go off to work in a store selling candy and pens.
ACOM’s mission along with education is to keep the kids off the street, as the director of the school tells me. But many of the students attend other schools and they have abilities that surprise me. All of them can read and write very well. It’s in other subjects like geography, language and mathematics that a shocking knowledge gap it revealed.
I decided on my first week carry a geography textbook with me at all times. It’s an old edition, but the most recent in the school’s collection. At first, I used it for its pictures of Canada to show them where I am from. I take it out now, and point to Canada on a map of the world. “Canada,” they say back. “Canada, Canada.” I show them a picture of snow, the Rocky Mountains, a moose. The antlered creatures and the snowy mountains hold them.
I turn the page to a map of South America to see where we stand.
“Where’s this?” I ask.
“Canada!” they say.
“No, Colombia.” I point to another. “Where’s this?”
“No, Venezuela. What about this one?”
“No, it’s Bolivia. This one?”
“No, it’s Brazil. What’s the capital?”
They don’t know and really, they don’t care. Brasilia is far from here, even farther than Canada, it seems. After all, someone from Canada is here now, right in front of them. Brasilia – where’s that?
Time is up. Class ends with a motley of goodbyes as they run out, their greeting-heavy cheat sheet from their English-cum-geography lesson flapping in their hands. The rain has let up and the heavy northeastern sunlight burns the pavement. The air is as hot as a sauna, soft and thick. When I move outside the path of the blowing fan my glasses quickly fog. Everything feels clammy and damp.
I have lunch in the hospital cafeteria among the chittering nurses who gossip about the expectant mothers. A heaping plate of beans, rice, spaghetti and fried chicken – the Brazilian staples – cuts through the hunger but not the heat. I’m dying for a beer, the only cold drink alternative to soda, but ACOM is strictly Evangelical and such taboos are only served up as examples of immorality. In the halls of the hospital, briefly see my wife. Her work seems more justified than my fumbling. After needed to delay a caesarian section, and has just had a consultation with a mother afflicted with the Zika virus. There are more surgeries scheduled for the afternoon.
She tells me about a syphilitic sixteen-year-old girl who received syphilis from her thirty-nine-year-old husband. ‘We treated her, but the head doctor kept reassuring her that she needn’t take any further precaution, as if she might not get it again! I spoke with her after he left, but I’m not sure how effective it was.
‘The doctor, he’s like a god here. We had a woman come in this morning – she’d given herself an abortion. Once he heard this, the doctor pointed to the cross on the wall, and said that if she did something like that again, he wouldn’t let her be admitted to hospital. “In good conscience” he said!’
Back at the school, my next class is a no-show. This is common. I have a schedule, but it only tells me when things are meant to happen, not if they will. Oftentimes, the scheduled 8:15 AM class will show up at 10 AM, the 1 PM won’t happen at all. Some days, a 4 PM class will appear out of nowhere. Things like this are expected in Brazil where time is fluid, often meaningless.
I decide to walk into town. Leave the grounds, I pass the school’s football field where young boys pass the ball skillfully from one to another, already communicating like professionals. Physical education is the one class the students never miss. Like the old women who attend nightly mass, young men and boys make their daily pilgrimage to the sports complex to practice their passing and foot tricks. There is a saying that in Brazil that there are two religions – Christianity and Football. From what I can see, the former runs in second place to the latter. Milagres, a deeply religious town, has an equal number of churches and covered football fields.
Over the street, a vulture circles high above, waiting for the emaciated pariah dogs that lie listlessly in the shade to breathe their last. A nearby house, its roof broken and its facade chipped and water stained, has spray-painted on its white walls: For Sale or Trade with a number. I go to another house where a woman sells homemade ice-cream frozen into six-inch plastic tubes. I buy eight for the equivalent of twenty cents and pay with the equivalent of a two-dollar note. The woman struggles to calculate the change so I help her.
‘Graças a deus,’ she says as thanks, Thanks to God. I take the treats back to the hospital, where I distribute them among a flurry of more ‘Graças a deus’. The phrase is ubiquitous, but paradoxical. There is little He isn’t thanked for here. Even the unwanted or unhelpful things, like morning rain and unwanted pregnancy are greeted with those three words. After three months, the phrase sounds ominous, like a vague threat of unwanted help.
When her rounds are over for the day, I meet my wife with an ice-cream.
‘Do you remember the woman from yesterday?’ my wife says. I do. The young woman was pregnant, but due to an intellectual disability, lacked the mental capacity for a natural birth.
‘Didn’t she have her operation today?’
My wife lights a cigarette and breathes out a spurt of smoke. Smoking is forbidden in the hospital for the health of the newborns, but there is no arguing with the look in my wife’s eyes. There are small beads of sweat on her forehead. ‘We just finished. It was meant to be this morning.’
‘Why so late?’
‘The woman requested a tubal ligation. She knew enough to ask for one. She’s young but considering everything, she was right in asking for it.’
‘And that’s what took so long?’
‘No. That’s a simple thing. It take no time. Anyway, it’s common here, the way the men are. The women are all about them, trying to help themselves. Anyway, the surgeon wouldn’t do it without permission from the husband.’
‘Was he here?’ I say, meaning the husband.
‘No. They had to send for him, which took an hour. Meanwhile, the woman had started to go into labour. She didn’t know how to push and was screaming and screaming, but the surgeon had gone off to his private practice and wouldn’t come back until the husband appeared. The sound of her pain…’ She trails off.
‘Did he arrive, the husband?’
‘Finally, yes. He was an awful man. He was so much older than his wife, and wore a cowboy hat and had no teeth and his toes stuck out from his boots. They’re terribly poor. He stunk too, like manure.’
‘And he gave permission?’
‘Not at first. He ranted at the doctor, cursing him to hell. He said, “You delayed the operation and you will pay if this child is slow because of it.” Then he told us the troubles of his own slow mother. He was in such a rage and had his wife cowering all the while.’
As she speaks, a curtain of rain drops over the town. It’s a small, violent storm and the cool coming from the window feels good. My wife has to yell to be heard above the rain.
‘He finally did sign the paper,’ she says.
‘Did the baby survive?’
‘Just. But I don’t think he’ll be normal. He was completely blue when we took him out and didn’t cry at all. The nurses were slapping him around and still he didn’t cry. He hadn’t cried when I left to come here.’
‘The mother didn’t know how to breastfeed either.’
‘At least it won’t happen again. Because of her surgery.’ My wife shakes her head. ‘It didn’t work?’
‘He didn’t do it. The doctor; he didn’t do the ligation.’
‘But the husband signed the paper.’
‘Yes, but the doctor forgot. He took the baby out then sewed her back up without doing it. I was too busy with the baby and when I went back he had already stitched her. He is so fast with the stitching.’
‘He didn’t open her back up?’
‘No. When I told him, he simply said “Who cares? She’s just a dimwit. It’s God’s will.” Then he went home.’
‘And the woman?’
‘She doesn’t know. No one wants to tell her.’
‘The husband will be furious.’
‘Only because he made the trip here for nothing. He didn’t even stay to see the baby.’ She lights another cigarette.
When I ask the students what they want to be, they reveal themselves as ambitious. ‘A doctor!’ says one. Another, ‘A lawyer!’ Nurses and engineers are popular too. These are far cries from the careers of their parents – sugarcane cutters, fruit vendors, cleaners, maids, hang-abouts. The parents, in their desperation and parochialism, have turned to hope and prayer to answer their children’s dreams. Before he returned to the cane fields of São Paulo, Luis tells me that he hopes God will provide the future of his children. ‘Graças a deus,’ he says. ‘They will have a better life than me.’ He adds ‘Maybe he’ll play football professionally!’ His pregnant wife, barely more than a child herself, remained silent.
Luis and other come by their hope honestly – the two religions have sold their products well: Evangelicalism, the hope of salvation in death, and Football, the hope of salvation from poverty. The price of that hope, however, seems to be the willingness to act. While the adults may benefit from the spiritual nourishment of hope – hope for a better life, hope a better education for their children – the children themselves do not. Fed on hope alone, they appear destined to become another generation of mothers at thirteen, or syphilitic at sixteen, setting themselves up to absorb the doctor’s ire for aborting their unwanted child. But young thirteen-year-old mothers are neither rare nor considered tragic, at least no more tragic than a thirteen-year-old product of poverty who dreams of becoming a doctor or a lawyer. In Milagres, the miracle of new life trumps the potential of young life.
Action to change the future of these children has fallen to the few, like those who have dedicated their lives to efforts such as ACOM. Through their work, a child’s hope of becoming a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer is more grounded in reality. Still, it continues to be a struggle. Foreigners like myself who come to work and teach, bringing with them a small glimpse of the outside world, go home. The students of Milagres (miracles, in English) go home to their small, concrete houses, where, I can only hope, they repeat their English and remember a picture of snow.
Walking home for the night to my room at the barracks, the streets are already dry. The only evidence of the morning’s downpour is a small stream of sewer water flowing along the small divot at the street’s edge. The plastic bags that had that morning been swept away are back, along with new food wrappers, soda bottles, and broken pieces of tile and concrete. Outside their homes, old men and women sit on the pavement or in plastic chairs like statues, silently looking on. Their grandchildren run through the streets, kicking footballs and cracking braided whips in the dimming light. A black cat with a broken tail crosses the road and slips into one of the exposed sewer pipes jutting from a house. In the distance, dark clouds threaten another storm. There’s no hoping that it will miss us. It will come, probably in the night, when those who have no place to sleep will be caught out in the deluge. It has fallen like that hundreds of times before and will continue, hundreds of times again. It will pass and it will be weathered. Graças a deus.
James Patterson was born on a cattle and grain farm in rural Manitoba, Canada. He has worked as a farm laborer, factory worker and writer. His fiction was longlisted for the 2016 CBC Short Story Contest. His essays can be found in BootsnAll Magazine and the Wanderlust Journal.