Ask. Seek. Knock. A Life Shaped By Conversations With God – Chapter Six – Malaria and Nené Marries

Life in  rural areas of Brazil during my childhood was hard and dangerous. Folks adapted to it and thrived but some of the dangers, such as malaria, were a constant part of life. This chapter tells about some of these realities and my own bout with malaria. I tell of another very disruptive event in my life. I was the youngest child for many years and when my older siblings would move away for one reason or another, it would affect me profoundly.

Please reply to this post and share a story of your own in which you faced danger or lost a loved one when they needed to move away.

Chapter 6

A hut made of standing logs and covered with palm tree leaves became our temporary home, while Papai, my brothers and some employees worked in a brickyard. You could stick your arm in the crevices between one log and the other. The crevices hadn’t been patched with mud. The cabin had a kitchen and two bedrooms: one for the girls and one for the parents. The boys slept in hammocks in another hut off to the side.

Neném and Crioula, seventeen years old, and Lica, fifteen, busied themselves all day long with the chores of cooking and laundering. Mother carded cotton and spun it. Minha Santa, twelve, brought water from the river for the household use. Doutor, nine, and I, seven, ran and played hide and seek by the river and around the lagoons formed where the men took mud to make bricks. While doing so, swarms of hungry mosquitos attacked us without pity. We would slap our faces, arms and legs to kill them, and scratched ourselves with fury to lessen the itching of their bites. In consequence, the uncovered parts of our bodies became
covered with mosquito bites. Nevertheless, we kept having fun playing and also watching the men work. One cut blocks of damp earth with a spade and threw them into a cart. Two horses pulled it to the mill. Another worker put the mud into the mill and threw pails of water in it. This one also guided two other horses in a circle pulling a wooden bar that caused the grinder to grind and soften the mud, which then came out through an opening. The next step was to shape the mud into molds of bricks and tiles and then let them dry. The firing of bricks and tiles only happened when there were hundreds of them dried and piled up.

I woke up from a dream in which Minha Santa was sanding my leg with a grainy leaf we often used to smooth the wooden benches. I yelled and asked Minha Santa to stop it, but she didn’t. For some seconds, I was not sure if I was still dreaming. Something coarse and repulsively slimy was scratching my leg. It started at my ankle and went up to my knee. I continued yelling, and this time my voice came out clear and strong. Our parents ran into the girls’ room. By the rays of full moon they saw what was happening. One of my legs stuck out between the logs and a cow was licking it. They rescued me and then gave me sweetened water to calm me down, but I only went back to bed after Neném agreed to let me lay down on the outer edge of the bed.

One Sunday after lunch, Joaquim, David, Bedejo and Lázaro were playing cards when they heard dogs barking. The barks started coming nearer. “Well, well, what do you think the dogs are chasing?” asked Lázaro.

“I imagine it is a tapir,” answered Joaquim. There are many tapir by the river in this region.

“Alright, then let’s go hunting.” added David. Not having a gun, they took a machete.

Mother decided to watch the hunting, and we all followed her. We walked in the
direction of the ferocious barking dogs. Tall grass, bushes and small trees covered the marshy terrain in that area. The barks started to come in our direction. We were in between two lagoons. We couldn’t get away and the tapir was going to pass where we were.

“Let’s run and climb up that tree,” my mother said. We had barely finished climbing and spreading out on the thin branches, when the tapir passed with the dogs close behind.

“Alright, the danger is over,” my mother announced, helping us get down. The tapir circled and came back in the opposite direction. In a hurry, we climbed back. Exhausted, the tapir stopped under our tree. The dogs caught up with it and snapped at its hindquarters. A tapir is a brown animal, as big as a large pig. It has a long, stiff neck and can’t turn its head. In order to defend itself from the dogs’ teeth, it had to turn its whole body. The dogs drew back, went around and assaulted again. On these turns and attacks it bumped the tiny tree packed with people. We stood on the branches and hugged the trunk, which swayed with
each bump. Terrified, we watched the battle between the dogs and the beast beneath us. We trembled with fear that the branches would break and we would fall like ripe bananas in the middle of the combat and be cut to pieces by the tapir’s teeth. Finally, in desperation, the tapir jumped into the lagoon. Its legs became stiff; it couldn’t run anymore. Joaquim and David came up from behind and mounted it like a horse. Joaquim, who was in front, stabbed it to death with his machete. It was then the men’s task to drag the tapir out of the lagoon, skin and quarter it. Then the women took over. The whole family enjoyed tapir meatballs for some days.

I felt cold. Even beside the stove I couldn’t get warm. Neném, who was cleaning the kitchen after lunch, asked, “Why aren’t you outside playing with Doutor?”

“Because I am tired.”

“Oh, yes? Tired of doing what? Doutor,” she called. “Take Alcita out to play. She is
here disturbing me.”

“Let’s go play!” he said, taking my hand.

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t want to play. I’m tired and cold.” Instead of playing, I went to bed. “Cover
me with a blanket. I am cold. I want another blanket.” Doutor got hold of another one and placed it on top of me. Doutor knew something was seriously wrong. On a hot day like that I was under two wool blankets, so he ran to bring our mother, who had gone to take lunch to the men in the brick yard. When she entered the room, my sweaty body trembled uncontrollably.

“Malaria,” mother told the girls. “I knew this was going to happen. Here we come to live in the middle of these mosquito infested lagoons and the result is this! I knew it would happen. I am returning to the chácara, today and I’ll take the three younger ones with me. I hope that Minha Santa and Doutor haven’t gotten malaria yet. You, girls, must stay to cook for the men. I pray that you have resistance to the malaria bug.”

Minha Santa and Doutor mounted a horse and mother and I another one. Even rolled up in blankets and under the hot sun of our tropical state called Goiás, I trembled with cold. After a couple of hours, we arrived home. Minha Santa stayed close and kept me company while mother and Doutor went to the woods looking for a quinine tree. They returned with a cloth bag full of bark. Mother crushed some in the wooden mortar, added water, strained the yellow liquid with a cloth and gave me the bitter remedy. “Drink it, honey, it is the only medicine for this disease. You must sleep now.”

I didn’t sleep exactly, but I didn’t wake up for three days. Strange things happened. I looked at my hands and they seemed big and hairy like a yellow monster. I tried to reason why my hands had that appearance, but my thoughts dissipated. Sometimes, as in a mist, I saw people by my side, putting spoons of soup in my mouth. Bitter soup. I couldn’t notice any difference in what I swallowed. Everything tasted bitter. Later, they told me that Doutor and Minha Santa had taken turns staying by my side and refreshing my burning mouth with
touches of cold water and my forehead with a wet cloth.

After two weeks, I got up. A few days later I had a relapse. Mother kept giving me the quinine for two months. After the attacks of tremor ceased, she gave me small dozes and only two times a day. While I was still frail, I enjoyed getting my chicken soup in bed, and for dessert and sometimes for a snack she gave me marmalade, a jelly made of quince. All the other sweets we ate were made at home. Not marmalade. It was bought in a store, and for this reason so special. We could eat it only when we were sick.

Papai finished his contract in the brickyard and had enough money for Neném’s
wedding expenses. The house hummed with excitement for the return of the rest of the family and with preparations for the wedding.

The day Neném was going to leave our house with her husband, José Lirinha, my
mother called Minha Santa and Doutor aside and ordered them to take me out for a long walk. She wanted to spare me the grief of seeing my favorite sister go away. A summer storm had ripped through the area the day before, but now the sky was blue and the sun brighter than ever. The parakeets sang on top of tall trees and the boisterous macaws ate the fruit of the muriti palms. The three of us even found some gabirobas on the bushes by the trail. We filled our hands with the greenish, velvety fruits, as big as marbles and ate. I broke some in Futrica’s mouth. Everything seemed beautiful and good, but I felt something strange in my chest that made me sad.

“I want to go back.”

“No, wait, we haven’t found murici yet,” Minha Santa argued.

“I don’t want any murici today. I want to go back.”

“Aren’t we lucky? I see a murici tree right there, see Doutor? And it is loaded with
ripe fruit.”

She left the trail and started running towards it. Doutor followed behind, so I had to tag along. Minha Santa shook the tree trunk and then we collected up the soft, small, round, yellow fruits from the ground. We ate the sweet, juicy pulp and spit out the seeds. After that I said, “I’m going back,” and started running. They followed me. I arrived home breathlessly and not seeing Neném I looked for her everywhere. “Mother, where is Neném?”

“Oh darling, come here, you’re already a big girl, but you still can sit on my lap. You see, Neném is a married woman now. She went away with her husband to live in her own home.” I hid my face in mother’s shoulder and sobbed. After a while, my mother soothed my long brown hair and said, “You just have to get
used to living away from her, honey. This is how life is. I know you are going to miss her, but you have your other sisters, your brothers and me. You can sleep with Crioula now. And, after all, Neném is not dead. She will come to visit us and we’ll visit her once in a while. Go play with Doutor.”
Instead, I went to bed, the one that Neném and I used to share. I lay face down and cried bitterly.

That separation marked my life forever. Even after becoming an adult, I always cry
when I say goodbye to someone dear. Decades later when I had to say farewell to Neném until we meet again in heaven, I suffered as if I were still a child. Even now, as I type these words, tears are running down my cheeks.

Neném opened the way for her siblings when she left the nest. With the passing of the years, the others also flew away. The remaining: Crioula, Minha Santa, Doutor, mother and I went with my step-father to another brick yard.

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