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excerpt > Gisele Firmino > The Marble Army

Our only home was in Minas do Leão.

The house was a salmon colored, two-story cube, with windows on all four sides,

which made us feel as though we knew all there was to know about our town and its people. My mother’s favorite was the kitchen window, framing the meadow, the mine and beyond.

The first floor was never furnished except for about ten mismatched chairs, a side table and an old mattress, which sat in what was supposed to be our living room. All chairs were arranged in a kind of a semicircle by the fireplace. Pablo and I were the only ones who used the mattress to sit on while playing games, or just hanging out. But we lived on the second floor.

Like every other house in town, its foundation consisted of wood planks holding it above the ground by about a foot or so, the wood flooring was nailed to these planks, not always leveled. Although this system gave a little bounce to our walk, it provided no insulation whatsoever, and very often we’d pluck the weeds that made their way through the seams; half-black, half-bright green intruders. This closeness to the freezing black dirt sent chills through our spines pushing us up to the second floor. But we were gaúchos; physically enduring the cold winter was just as expected as the daily rice and beans.

But when summer came, our mother would open up the first floor, arrange flowers throughout, and we’d have picnics on the living room floor as we tried to dodge the heat from upstairs. Chopped watermelon and colonial cheese for Pablo and me, chilled quail eggs and pickles for our parents. With all its strangeness, it was the perfect house to grow up in.

One afternoon I was sitting as close as one could possibly sit to the fireplace without getting burnt, when I heard something thumping downstairs. The sounds were loud against the hollow hardwood floor and seemed to move around as if a giant had invaded our slanted home.

“What’s going on?” my mother asked from the kitchen sink.

“Luca!” I heard Pablo’s voice coming from the first floor.

Pablo had been in the tool shed the whole day. I had tried to keep him company for a while, but the cold was unbearable. At one point he must have come in without us noticing him. He called me again, screeching even more. At fifteen, his voice was changing. But always self-conscious, Pablo would manage to control it as much as humanly possible.

“Luca! Vem cá! Rápido!” he kept calling, his words mingled with the thump sounds.

“What are you doing down there, Pablo?” my mother said as she patted her hands against her apron. But before she could say anything else I ran downstairs.

Pablo stood almost a whole meter taller, laughing, and strutting around on top of wooden stilts he had just made. With his long skinny arms draped over them, his feet as high as my waist, he looked like the king of somewhere.

Although he struggled for balance, it seemed as though he’d done this before. I had never seen stilts, and was baffled by his ability to walk around with them. The sun bled through the window curtains, and specks of dust glittered as they swayed within a beam of light, aiming at Pablo’s knees. He smiled with pride; his thin body looking even leaner at that height.

“If you’re cold, you need to move around. Sitting by the fireplace won’t help you one bit!” He managed to look at me for a moment, a twinkle in his hazel eyes. But he was quickly forced to focus on what he was doing.

The stilts were regular two by fours sanded smoothly, thinning at the bottom, and curved on top where Pablo glued foam to protect our armpits. They were perfect!

I heard my mother’s steps approaching, and before she could see us and say no, I asked Pablo if I could try them. My limbs were shaking from the cold and the rush of anxiety as I realized what I was about to do.

Pablo jumped down from the stilts, and held them straight up for me. His smile was reassuring.

“Here, put one foot here first, put your hand right here,” he said as he placed my hand as high as I could reach. “Now pull yourself up. There,” he said.

I was taller than him.

“Now put the other foot here,” he said, pointing at the other stilt. I did.

“Pablo! I don’t think that’s a good idea.” Our mother stood on the bottom step watching us apprehensively. Her hands tugged her apron against the cold.

“I got you, Luca.” He looked me right in the eye. “Don’t you worry. I got you.”

I glanced at our mother, and she smiled with confidence. She knew Pablo had things under control, and I wondered if I would someday feel what it was like for people to trust you the way she trusted him.

“Focus, Luc,” he said. “I’m going to let go now. But I’m close. Don’t worry. I’ve got you.”

I didn’t worry. But I stayed in place, terrified by the thought of taking my first step. I knew Pablo would catch me if something were to happen, but I just wanted to get it right.

“You have to walk, or else you’ll fall,” said Pablo, clutching the stilts with his chapped hands.

“I will. I will.” I tried taking one step but the stilt got stuck on one of the creases on the floor, and my foot came off of it. But before I could consider the idea of falling, Pablo was there to hold the stilts straight up.

“Oh, I don’t know, Pablo,” our mother said.

“Luca, look at me.” Pablo didn’t so much as glance at her. “You have to shift your weight from side to side. These legs aren’t yours. You have to make them yours. Lift them with your hands, and make them walk for you.”

He let go of one stilt.

“It’s fine. You can do it. I know you can,” he added.

And just like that I was on my own. I walked around with Pablo behind me. Our mother watched us as we giggled and couldn’t contain her smile. The hollow wood floor responded to every step I took, giving in a little, shouting back at me each time I touched base. Pablo gradually distanced himself as I gained confidence and looked at my face instead of my feet. His smile was as big as mine must have been.

Only three weeks before the dictatorship came to us, there was a big party inaugurating the street that led to the mine. It was a dirt path, really, created within the meadow from all the workers coming and going to their daily shifts. The party would officially turn that path into a street, one that would be named after my father.

Our mother had busied around the house all afternoon with about ten rollers in her hair, leaving behind a trail of powder makeup smell and rose perfume. Her steps were louder than usual against the hollow wood flooring, giving away her excitement.

“Tuck your shirt in, Pablo, and please, please comb your hair, honey,” she announced as she walked past us toward the small front balcony facing the main street. Mãe was always humming something, singing parts of songs we didn’t really know except from listening to her. I used to think they reflected her mood, as if they could say the things she chose to keep to herself. On that day though she sang the same song, over and over.

“Se essa rua, se essa rua fosse minha

Eu mandava, eu mandava ladrilhar

Com pedrinhas, com pedrinhas de brilhante

Para o meu, para o meu amor passar.”

Outside, women carried big casseroles covered with hand-painted dishcloths, while men swept sidewalks, fixed tables with bricks and wood planks, and children buzzed around them like flies, seeking attention.

“Yes! Big day for us!” our mother yelled from the balcony as she pretended to check on the flowerpots instead of the commotion.

“We’re so honored!” she said, clasping her hands together, like a character in a Victorian novel.

She took one last look at the street and headed back in. Pablo and I were both sitting by the radio, eating chocolate cigarettes our mother had given us. They came in a pack just like regular cigarettes, wrapped individually. We pretended to listen to the news as we copied the way our father squinted when he took a drag, and how he crossed one leg over the other and leaned back before exhaling, his bare belly more and more noticeable when he relaxed. Then we’d eat it and move on to the next cigarette.

On her way back to her room, our mother stopped to watch us. She took out one of my chocolates and tucked it over her ear, pushing one of her rollers back.

“Long day today,” she said with a rasp as she took a seat. “You boys keep quiet, will you?” She forced each word onto the next, the way our father did. Mãe reached for the radio to turn the volume up. “Aaahh…There’s so much coal in this place, there’s work for your grandchildren here.”

She looked straight at us, her shoulders hunched, her brows knitted in a frown, but she couldn’t keep the deep tone for too long. Our mother took the cigarette out, pinching it between her delicate thumb and forefinger, her nails painted a deep bright orange for the party. She looked at the cigarette in between her fingers for a moment but broke out with laughter before she could get through the gesture.

We were being bobos. Pablo finished another cigarette, turned the volume down, flicked his hair back, and looked at our mother.

“Mãe, can I please just wear it like this? This is how you’re supposed to wear your hair nowadays.” Our mother stared at Pablo for a few seconds, considering his plea. “Por favor?”

“Does Rita like it like that?” she asked.

“What? I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Pablo shoved a chocolate into his mouth, his cheeks slightly pink.

“Doesn’t Rita mind when you wear it messy like that?” she insisted.

“Mãe,” Pablo pleaded.

“Sure, honey. You’re handsome no matter what.” She glanced at her nails. “Besides, we’re visionaries, aren’t we? At least that’s what people say.” While we were home, counting down the minutes to the big party, our father was working as if this was just another day. Mãe grabbed a glass of water from the kitchen and stepped again onto the balcony to water her lilies, taking another glimpse at the street below.

“Such a beautiful day! I can’t believe how it cleared up! It will sure be muddy, though,” she said as she headed back to the kitchen. “I just hope your father gives himself enough time to clean up.” Her voice echoed through the hallway.

The party was on the corner of the city’s main street and what would become our father’s street – Rua Antonio Fonte. Everybody but those who had the night shift showed up. Each family helped out with something to eat or drink.

While Pablo and I stuffed ourselves with fried chicken thighs dipped in yucca flour, our mother circled through all the cliques with a cachaça com butiá in her hand and a tireless smile. Every time she saw someone sipping their own drinks, she would just barely moisten her lips, licking them immediately because she liked the taste but not the burn. Then she would go on repeating herself over and over about what an honor the whole day was. Tio Joca’s wife, Ana, had brought a huge tray of cold cuts and cheeses, and also circled around the party with it. The warm and tangy smell of homemade linguiças, morcilhas, and sausages left a trail behind her. But Pablo and I followed her for the cheese. She made the best cheese around. It was so creamy and salty, it’d almost melt on your tongue as soon as you tasted it.

Meanwhile, our father stood with his workers and closest friends by Tio Joca’s truck. Tio Joca had parked on the opposite corner from where the street sign would be revealed. The truck’s radio was on, but all one could hear was the monotone hum of my father’s favorite show. He leaned against the passenger door without saying much at all, both hands tucked inside his pockets, while his drink rested on the truck step. He had cleaned up alright but couldn’t be convinced to wear his nicest suit, as much as our mother had tried. Pai said it wasn’t appropriate.

Whenever someone walked by with a platter, our father and his friends would help themselves with preserved hard-boiled eggs, pastel de carne, or more cachaça. Tio Joca glanced at his wristwatch and at the lowering sun, then moved on to pull out a crate from his truck, placing it underneath the street sign still covered with a black cloth. “Antonio, Senhor, I think that everybody would like a speech, right?” He glanced at the crowd while approaching our father. A big smile on his face. One of his incisors was edged in gold, and sparkled against the sun’s pinkish light.

Our father looked down at his polished shoes while our mother rushed to his side. Pablo and I followed her.

“Antonio,” she called in a whisper. “Isn’t Brizola coming? Shouldn’t we wait?”

“He’s not coming, Rose,” our father replied. The state governor had become a friend of our father, but as it turned out, he was on the very first list the military had put out of people considered enemies of the Union, and he was gradually losing ground. What our father sensed, and we had no idea, was that Brizola had probably already fled to Uruguay by then.

“But didn’t the governor say he would?” our mother insisted.

“I told you he’s not coming, Rose.”

Mãe stared at her white patent leather shoes for a second. Framed in mud, but still cleaner than one would expect. She looked up again, at our father’s eyes, but didn’t say anything. Pablo and I glanced at each other wondering what could be going on with him.

“Speech, Antonio! Vamos, give us a speech!” Tio Joca stood by the wooden crate. Others followed his lead, making demands, while our mother seemed to try to hide her disappointment, or sadness. Pai looked at her for a moment, and walked over to Tio Joca, who was still pointing at the crate as an invitation.

“That’s alright,” he said, refusing to step onto the crate. My father was one of the tallest men I knew. He stood in front of it, while Tio Joca ceremoniously pulled the cover off the street sign, as if a bull was coming for it, revealing a white board with our father’s name on it in blue bold capital letters. Everybody clapped, and so did our mother.

He stood there waiting for people to stop clapping. Nodding and putting both his hands out as if pleading for everybody to just quit the nonsense, which made Pablo and me clap louder.

“Well,” he said against the crowd’s noise, while we gradually turned silent. “Bom, I just wanted to thank you for this. It is very nice.” He glanced at the sign again. “But, you know, there is coal here for years and years, and pretty soon people won’t even remember who I was.”

“Não!” the crowd protested. Pablo and I joined them.

“It’s true, though.” he insisted. “I won’t be here forever. But this coal, it sure will.” He smiled. “Anyway, muito obrigado. This is quite an honor.”

And with that he walked back to Tio Joca’s truck to listen to the end of his program. We all clapped again, somewhat disappointed.

While everything was changing in our country, Minas do Leão remained life as usual for quite some time. One main street, one church, one school, one food store, one coal mine, and one cemetery. What changed was that people would wait even more anxiously for the Sunday papers to be delivered, and those who had a TV set got used to having guests during the news broadcast as opposed to having them arrive later for the telenovela. At home, our father was the very first change Pablo and I witnessed. Our mother seemed more annoyed by the shifts in him than anything else; treating them as something silly and self-induced. As if he were trying to feel included in something he just was not. A few times, I heard her tell her friends that her husband had gotten his period again, and they would all laugh.

Had Mãe been right, Pablo and I suffered from the same malady as our father. At night, in our rooms, we would exchange information in the dark as if it were forbidden, as if the walls had eyes and ears, and as if spies were everywhere. Pablo on the foot of my bed whispering how he had heard that a dictatorship meant you were not free; like slaves, he’d said. Me, wrapped in a blanket, crouched on the floor by his bed, repeating what Father José had said at Sunday School, that a good Catholic would not do the things our leaders were doing, that a good Catholic would not torture young people the way they did. But then when Clara had asked him why Jesus was treated the way he was, Father José had to think for a moment.

Pablo and I would watch our father, watch the way his gaze would land on a random dishcloth at dinner time and just stay there, while our mother would go on and on about the latest gossip around town. Tia Mercedes had lost her baby again, the poor thing, her fourth miscarriage; maybe if her husband would quit drinking so much cachaça their baby would have a better chance, something about his swimmers not being good enough swimmers. While she talked, we watched him, hoping that he was right, hoping we were in fact all included, hoping that he knew something we didn’t yet know. Oh how naïve we were!

But once I had a better grasp of what it all meant, I began to understand why Mãe fought so hard to deny its presence in our house, to keep it out. The regime did take its time to enter our lives, like the grayish green mold you’d see on the outside walls of your home, knowing that it will eventually creep into its interior. She knew. And we watched passively as things began to change.

In the mornings, we ate eggs with black beans and carreteiro and fried yucca and murcilha and whatever else was left over from the week. Only sometimes there would be homemade bread to go with it. Our father liked having a rich breakfast, and during the winter we liked it too. He ate with our mother and left the house before 5am each morning to go to the mine and oversee each change of shifts. He said it was important to check how much was done during the night and say goodbye to the miners, as well as greet the next group as they came down.

One of those winter mornings I woke up to the sound of steps in Pablo’s room. Nothing could be seen beyond the fogged windows, as there wasn’t a hint of sunlight quite yet. I followed Pablo’s rushed steps across the hallway. There were no signs of anybody up, and for a moment I wondered if he could be sleepwalking. Pablo was in his pajamas. The hems of his sweatpants already way above his ankles, and his shirt barely covering his lower back. At seventeen, Pablo was almost as tall as our father. He fed the fire with two logs and one pine knot, his ribcage visible through his two-sizes-too-small old thinned-out shirt. He went to the kitchen where water was already heating up for coffee. The kitchen door was closed but unlocked, which meant that our mother must have already gone out to collect eggs.

Pablo checked on the water pot, pulled out plates and silverware, walking around as if he hadn’t slept at all. He put on his beanie and opened the back door to check on our mother. He stood on the doorway and searched the backyard; his breath was a steamy cloud in front of him. Pablo and our father had built a staircase on the side of the house, and a door leading to what became our kitchen. It was supposed to be the house’s back door, not meant for guests, but it was easier and it quickly became the house’s main entrance.

Pablo came back inside and finished setting the table for all four of us when our mother came in, almost dropping the eggs she held in her hands when she saw us both in the kitchen. When our father walked in, already in his work boots and uniform, he too was surprised to see us up.

“Bom dia, boys,” he said. “Did you fall off your beds this morning?”

Our mother smiled tenderly.

“I like waking up this early,” Pablo said.

“Well, good for you, Pablo,” our father responded, looking at Mãe.

“Eggs are almost ready, and I heated up the stew from last night.” Our mother set both pans on the center of the table and invited us to sit.

“Pai,” said Pablo, rather tentatively.

“What’s that, filho?” His fork broke through the steamy potatoes.

“Can I please start working at the mine? Just the afternoon shift, when I’m back from school?”

“I told you no already. Not until you’re done.”

“But it’s just six more months. I’m bored,” he whined. “And besides, I want to start saving up some.”

Our father dropped his fork for a moment, sipped his coffee. And looked straight into Pablo’s eyes.

“It’s hard work, Pablo. And you’ll do enough of it. In fact, you’ll get sick of that mine. Believe me.” He brought another piece of meat to his plate. “And besides, you have a job. It’s your school. When you’re done with this job, you’ll move on to the next.”

“But, Pai, can’t I at least start training for it?” He was tearing up.

“You want more responsibilities? You need more duties?” His voice was one degree louder than usual, but still calm enough. “Help your mother around the house. She can always use your boys’ help.”

Before leaving the house our father said that he was going to invite some of his friends over that evening to drink some quentão, and asked our mother if she could boil some. They believed the alcohol could clean their lungs of all the coal dust they breathed day in and day out. And at least twice a week our father would have some of his closest friends over for drinks - quentão during the winter and cachaça during the summer.

“How many of them tonight, amor?” she asked, looking at the pots she had available.

“Oh, the usual. About ten or fifteen.”

By four o’clock that afternoon our mother had put the biggest pot she owned to work. The scent of boiling red wine and cloves had taken over both floors of our home. The smell of it mixed with burnt pine was enough to make us forget the cold outside. Our mother baked a large bread to go with it, all the while humming around the kitchen, as if we were celebrating something. Mãe loved to entertain, and she liked to watch our father with his friends, telling jokes like he used to tell us before the coup. Meanwhile, to prove his point, Pablo mowed the lawn and cleaned the chicken coop. By sundown, he had also washed the entire tool shed exterior, watching as the coal-stained water slid through its white walls and fell on the coal-stained mud.

By then the smell of quentão was spilling through our home’s windows and ceiling. Its scent, so warm and strong that people would know that she had made it even before they walked in. It was a heart-warming drink, the reason why our parents would let us have a sip or two. It was sweet too, and felt as though it multiplied inside of you, creating a hot protective layer to your bones against the unforgiving cold.

That evening I kept an eye on Mãe while Pablo sunk an old leiteira into the large pot of quentão, sneaking out the door to meet with his friends.

The heat deep inside his stomach all the way up to the very tip of his tongue and the roof of his mouth was nothing new to him. He had had quentão many many times. What was new was the tingle in his feet, the looseness on the back of his knees and neck, and just how bright and blurry a starry night could be.

Eduardo had brought a bottle of cachaça with him, and between him and Pablo and Rita and Jerônimo, they were almost through all the alcohol they had. Pablo leaned against a tree, his feet planted in the meadow as if hoping to mirror his solid companion. Jerônimo, always the clown, was clumsily dancing chula, a squatting, tap-dance mess. Rita immediately joined in, smiling, slightly uncoordinated, but nothing short of pure grace. She’d steal glances at Pablo’s eyes as often as she could hold her focus. The both of them danced for a short while, Eduardo clapped and laughed hysterically. Pablo just watched her, mesmerized.

When they stopped, she walked over to him, and gave him a long, wet kiss. This was also new to him. She kissed differently, and she tasted differently as if she had suddenly, in one kiss, revealed to him the woman she would become. Somewhat startled, Pablo opened his eyes to look at his friends, but both of them had their backs to the couple, and were watching the lights on the mine twinkle behind the trees that stood between them.

Rita stopped kissing him. Grabbed his face with both hands, and said, “I really like you, Pablo Fonte, did you know that?”

Pablo tightened his grip around her waist, pulling her closer to him. Then he kissed her again, wondering if his kisses were as telling as hers, and how far he was from becoming this man he hoped to be. And that’s the last memory he had of that evening. . .

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Gisele Firmino earned a BA from Pepperdine University and an MFA in Fiction from Queens University of Charlotte. Born and raised in the south of Brazil, Gisele’s writing has appeared in such journals as Expressionists and Rose & Thorn. She works as a freelance translator and lyricist and is also the founding locale coordinator for Queens University’s MFA in Creative Writing: Latin America. She currently divides her time between Brazil and the United States. The Marble Army is her first novel. Learn more about The Marble Army here.

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