Padre Adolfo’s wispy black hair is disheveled and littered with sawdust. There is an aspect to him that is always still and always trembling. He takes my hand, leads me through the carpentry shop at the edge of the compound that houses the Salesian-run vocational school here in Moamba.
“We make about one of these every week,” Padre Adolpho tells me. “The smaller ones, maybe twice that much. Each one, you don’t forget. They weigh so little. Even when they are …”
He pauses. He wants to tell something like a secret, but it’s hard to whisper amid the din of saws and sanding machines.
“Even when they are occupied.”
A student sweeps a pile of wood shavings out the back door. The wet wind limps them across the muddy schoolyard, where curled leftovers float and turn in scattered puddles.
We look to the man with the hammer. With the slightest of nods, Padre Adolfo approves the construction of another coffin.
Alzira’s house is crowded, silent, full of collective gaze. Uncles sit in wooden chairs, Aunts and cousins on reed mats that cover the concrete floor. The room smells of cheap tea and lamp oil. I can’t tell if anyone is crying.
Alzira herself sits on one end of the couch. A length of black mourning-cloth is pinned to her dress, above her heart. She looks at me as if to apologize.
Her face resembles one of those optical illusions in which it is possible to see a young girl and an old woman at the same time. She is my student who sits in the front-left corner of the classroom, who tells me lies on April 1st and reminds me to take my chalk with me when I leave. She is also, without warning, an adult — seized and made serious by sickness and ritual. The oldest of three, she has become, at 14, a mother to her sisters.
After this afternoon, I will never see her again. Her house, owned by the elementary school where her mother was a teacher, will be reallocated to another family. Alzira will drop out of school, move to her cousin’s compound in the north, and search for ways to feed her sisters.
Between then and now there is only this sad, stupid ceremony.
A man that I do not know gets up from his chair. He describes the circumstances of the death, how the illness, long present, had taken a sudden turn, and how Alzira’s mother was carried to the health clinic in an old sheet after it was far too late to do anything.
The man is done speaking and there is silence. An old woman begins to sing a hymn in a language I do not understand. Other women join in, and when they finish there is silence again. Sheila, who is sitting beside me, nudges me gently. It is my turn to speak.
I rise, and force myself to look at Alzira. I am saying goodbye to her mother, whom I did not know, and to Alzira, who once taught me how to say I like your shoes in local dialect.
When it is done, and we are leaving the house, my students praise me for my fluency. It’s as if you prepared it beforehand, they tell me.
I thank them, knowing that I had said what was expected of me. There was something else I had wanted to say, but couldn’t. Something about naming a piece of ourselves that is whole, that we are determined not to give away.
On the way back to school the girls slip away to buy candy in the market. Dampness hangs over the mafura trees. Farmers in knee-high rubber boots wait in line outside of Mahmoud’s seed store. Dona Jack’s dog lays curled in a muddy hollow beneath the corrugated eaves of the Quiosque de Boa Memória.
Sheila is the first to return. She offers me a green mango with salt. She locks her arm around mine and we walk slowly toward the school.
“What sadness,” she says, “what sadness there is in this world.”
Then she smiles.
“It was my mother who taught me how to eat green mangos with salt. She would always put a little lemon on top. Now, whenever I eat green mangos with salt, I think, ‘It is not the same thing without lemon.’ ”
Sheila, too, is without parents. During a wartime flight, a stranger had pulled her from the kapulana that was tied around the shoulders of her fallen mother. Her father was dead by then, of some unnamable sickness, though the neighbors whispered that someone had poisoned him out of jealousy. Sheila had been raised by her cousins.
The other girls trickle back, joking, talking about boys, the weight of the moment disappearing in handfuls of mentholated mints and chewing gum.
It’s here, I thought, watching the girls. Even if you learn not to notice it, it’s always here: like the sky, low and gray, lying on a bed of weakening light.
I had prepared my statement beforehand, thumbing through my English-Portuguese dictionary for condolence and overcome and eternal. I had never spoken at one of these visitations before, but I was the homeroom leader, and Alzira was my chefe da turma, and her mother was dead. It was my responsibility to take a group of students to her house and express our shared sorrow. It was my job to speak on their behalf.
So, alone in my humid room, I searched for the right words, wondering if it was better to refer to a person’s life with past preterite or past imperfect. As I turned the pages, something fell onto my bed.
It was a torn piece of notebook paper with a smudgy, slanted sentence written in pencil: Ni randza xi fambu xa wena.
I like your shoes.
I put down my dictionary and stared into my hands.
It takes everything, I thought. It waits, and then it moves, and it steals everything, like some voiceless thief.
I did not know then what I learned later: once tasted, it is impossible to forget the flavor of green mangos and salt sprinkled with drops of fresh lemon. It stays on the tongue, like a memory of something complete.