Carnaval

Feel the slow rhythm of the life of my grandmother, Lily, as she wakes up every morning in her bed, beside her tall, strong husband, my grandfather, John.  Her bed is in a small bedroom, in a small house, with only a kitchen and a bedroom.  The house is beside a small barn where they keep a few cows.  The barn is beside the chicken coop, where they keep a dozen chickens, sometimes with some young chicks, and one rooster.  You can only ever keep one rooster.

The farm is close to other farms.  Mennonite farms.  Farms of men and women driven from the Ukraine and Russia.  These farms make up the settlement of Neu Witmarsum.  The settlement is beside the city of Curitiba.  Curitiba is beside the Atlantic Ocean, on the Southern coast of Brasil.

Feel the quietness of the morning when she is the first to stir.  She will get up, gather the eggs, cook my grandfather breakfast, which he will eat appreciatively, before grabbing her by the waist and kissing her, before going to milk the cows.  Feel the swell in her heart when he does this, the swell which carries her out the door to the garden, where she weeds and gathers vegetables for the noon meal.  Then she will go back to the chickens, this time to ask them for more than eggs, this time she will ask for one of their bodies, to nourish her body, and the body of my grandfather, and the now only thirty-two cells of my mother’s body, which no one knows are in existence yet.  She will steel herself and take the machete out to the stump, feed the chickens and pick one out.  She will chop off its head.  Feel the chicken’s legs move from involuntary posthumous muscle spasms.  The other chickens don’t seem to be disturbed by the slaughtering of their sister.  The sacrificed body will be carried to the house, to the kitchen, to the cooking pot.  It will be cooked as bread is mixed, and kneaded, and baked.  Bread will be baked as butter is churned.  Chicken and vegetables and bread and butter will be ready, all at the same time, by some mysteriously learned timing passed down from mother to daughter.

After eating, the afternoon will be spent washing clothes, darning socks, making coffee, cooking beans and rice for the evening meal. At night, she will help my grandfather milk the cows, and when she thinks he isn’t paying attention, she will squirt milk directly into the mouth of the barn cat.

After milking, there will not be much more to do other than go to bed. The candle will be lit in order to read a passage of scripture, and then blown out again to save for tomorrow night.

This is the rhythm of the life of my grandmother, and she thanks God every day for it. The rhythm she has come from is the rhythm of war, of chaos, of running and running to get away. She has settled into the settlement, and into the farm, and into my grandfather’s arms, as if she were a child settling into a rocking cradle.

The next morning the slow rhythm is broken.  This day my grandmother is going to Carnaval.  None of her sisters are going with her, they all must stay home with children.  John also must stay home to milk the cows.  But none of them would go, even if they did not have excuses. Lily is the adventurous one in her family, the one with the vivacious personality.  When her sisters all get together, all of them fight to be the one who gets to sit next to Lily.  But her sisters will not accompany her to Carnaval.  They will ask her to tell them about it, later.  They will listen, rapt, as she recounts her adventure.  They will live vicariously.  Did my grandmother know that this would be her only chance to go to Carnaval?  Did she feel those thirty-two cells of my mother’s body, already putting demands on her own body?

Lily has only heard bits and pieces about what Carnaval is like from people that have passed through the settlement.  Never from her neighbours.  She is the first to venture to this place.  And she has heard the whispers, the stirrings of people in the settlement, about how scandalized they are that she is going.

But Lily is undeterred.  She is curious, and once her curiosity takes hold, she will take any measures she can to assuage it. She sets out walking down the road that will take her to the bus stop.  The bus that she catches there takes her to the town of Curitiba, the town where Carnaval is already in full swing.  The bus is already crowded when she gets on, and becomes more and more crowded as it moves towards the town.  She doesn’t really know where to get off the bus, so she just waits until a large crowd gets off and follows them.

At first she is disoriented.  But then she hears music.  Feel the far away beckoning of the Samba. Feel the beat getting louder as Lily follows the sound of the music into the heart of Carnaval. Feel her eyes grow wider with each step. There are men selling food from carts on the side of the road. There are men drinking beer in the doorway of every restaurant. But it is not the men she sees. It is the women, she can’t take her eyes off the women. They are wearing so much, and it is covering so little. The colours of their costumes are the brightest Lily has ever seen. She is almost blinded by the colours. Their feathered headdresses sway in rhythm with the music. Their bodies shine with the sweat of their dancing. They are all smiling. Their faces are indistinguishable. Their bodies are indistinguishable. They blend together in the dance. You can’t tell where one body ends and another begins. The colours blur together in my grandmother’s vision. She is swept away by the dance. Feel the rhythm of the dancers, the rhythm of stomping feet, of twirling costumes, of swinging breasts, get caught up in the rhythm, lose yourself in the rhythm.

My grandmother forgets who she is in the dance. She forgets Brasil. She forgets Curitiba. She forgets Neu Witmarsum. She forgets the cows, the chickens and the garden. She even, for this dance only, forgets John. Another man, not-John, is dancing with her. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t even occur to her to question this. To question the dance. She is twirling, she is swinging her hips, she is moving her feet.

And she doesn’t stop. She is carried by the Samba throughout the day, into the late afternoon, when the dancing slows, and she notices the golden afternoon glow of the sun, and she begins to remember herself. She remembers Brasil. She remembers Curitiba as she finds her way back to the bus stop. She remembers Neu Witmarsum as she gets off the bus and begins to walk back to her house. And, when she sees him, standing at the end of the drive, brow furrowed in worry, she remembers John. She runs to him as he sees her and the worry melts off his face and leaves relief. He doesn’t ask her about Carnaval, she doesn’t tell him, but he feels something different in her embrace, in her kiss. He feels the rhythm of the dance.

This night, my grandmother goes to sleep to the rhythm of the dancers.  Tomorrow morning she will wake again to the slow rhythm of the farm on the settlement.  But the rhythm of her dance is still within her, it still lives inside her body, with the now sixty-four cells of my mother’s body, which no one knows are in existence yet.

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