Alma by Itamar Vieira Junior – translated by Tiffany Higgins


I walked by the light of many full moons, under the fiery sun, my hands were dirty, my clothing torn, destroyed, my hair snarled like a ball of thread without a strand as a path to untangle it, my breasts, bound up with woven fronds of the buriti palm tree, my skin, cut in all its crevices, with a black bark of dried blood, my feet with broken bones and terrible wounds, I used herbs I encountered in the forest, and I made ointments with water I found leftover in puddles, with mud made of any trace of moisture, with living green herbs as my grandmother taught me, I did so many things, I put my saliva on my sores to heal them, I felt the hunger of all hungers, I ate fruits I came upon on the path, fruits that I’d never seen, that seized up my mouth with their bitter tastes, tastes of death, but many of them were sweet and strengthened me, and, if the birds and bats had bitten into them, I ate fearlessly, if not, spittle formed in my mouth from my fear of poison, a weight in my steps, carrying my fear of eating something poisonous, of a terrible death from poison, but the hunger hurt, hunger corroded my stomach, as water washes stone, and I, a woman who walks, and for a time I only walk, I’m a woman who walks forward and doesn’t turn back toward what she left behind her, now very far behind me, this is how I walk, hoping to come upon the lullaby of a place where freedom exists, I, a woman who was born chained to the desires of my masters, I who didn’t have a name because I was nothing, who one day touched the heart of my mistress and she said that I had a soul, I, a woman different from the others who served those masters, a soul, who walks always forward, and I left the sea and the water behind, I left sugar plantations and the white house, I left the water mill, the oxcarts, I, a woman who gave birth in pain, and whose son they pulled out of my arms, who gave birth to so many others, and all of the others were taken from me as soon as I suckled them and they grew older, I, a woman, a soul, who struggled every hour and from the first time when they carried off a child I howled from sadness, like a dog, my children ripped away as from a dog, one by one, they were being snatched from me, one by one was being snatched, I who now walk forward, I remember all these things that hurt more than the open wounds on my feet and in my scalp, I, this woman who moves through the scrub as if I were an animal, who one day they said had a soul, and because of this they called me Alma, Soul, “and every soul resides in a body,” my mistress would pray, and I, even if I was a soul, was the possession of those masters, my dwelling was the senzala at the back of that big, white house, was my body, it was from there I left, I walked forward, with the clothes of my mistress, with the long dress of my mistress, who would hit my face when I didn’t iron those same clothes meticulously, and on the day that my soul left my body, I chose the pretty dress that my eyes had desired, I, a woman, who looked at myself in the mirror while I polished the plates, I looked in that mirror and saw to the back of my eyes, and in the back of the back of my eyes the will to be free, the will to be myself a mistress, the will for them to serve me, for them to fan me, the will to command my slaves, I, a disgraceful woman, I carried within me the suffering that they inflicted on my flesh, in their actions, in the white children I cared for, that mistress, that woman, and the sisters of my master, they complaining about my tea, complaining about my food, snickering, and me like a shaking animal, my eyes very quickly turned red, because at any moment they would give me a tongue lashing, I suffered, I, a woman, who would look at birds before the mistresses got up, listening very closely to their songs while the sun was rising in the heavens, I who wanted that heaven, who desired many times not to live, who doubted whether I had a soul like the one my mistress had, I carried on my back the weight of my chains, I carried the weight of what happened, I carried fear and sorrow, I, Alma, I keep on carrying the things I come upon, I carry an old sack of dried palm leaves that I wove, going on with the only clothing I have which after many moons is only rags, I keep going forward in search of a place, but I should have returned, I should have dove into the sea, if I have a soul, I would arrive at some land, I would arrive at the place of my grandparents, where they had been masters, before other men from villages they were at war with took my grandmother prisoner, she who survived the death journey, crossing the sea, asking her ancestors not to let her fall into the sea to become food for fish, my grandmother told me everything, one day, two days, many days she took to tell me the story, she fell quiet in a corner smoking palm leaves, she’d tell the story because she had to tell it, she’d go outside because her chest was suffocated by these things, she felt like an animal in that place, and if she didn’t become food for animals in the sea, every day those people who had everything would remove pieces of her flesh, because flesh was all she was for them, she didn’t have a soul, I listened and suffered, she wanted to braid her hair that grew badly, but touching her hair I’d tell her that I understood her, now I walk in this dress that is a rag, turning into threads, as if it were nothing, scarcely covering my breasts, scarcely covering my sex, I keep walking on with my bony flesh, that eats what it hunts, that eats fruits bitten by bats and birds, that sneaks in to pick the corn from the fields that I find on the path, always stealthily, so that they won’t snatch me up like I snatch the corn and so that they won’t make me theirs, like I make the corn mine, I who don’t want to be anyone’s any more, I keep on walking, I keep on eating, I keep on taking what I can from my path, only I don’t manage to take away the things from inside me, each child that they carried off, each slap and thrashing I got from the captain, I can’t manage to take from myself Inácio’s death on the boat that the masters used to depart from the sugar plantation that they lost, I can’t manage to remove from me the garbage that I’d eat, this I’m not able to do, nor can I remove the suffering of my grandmother crossing the sea, by ship, from which they’d throw the dead on the journey as if they were nothing, without the intersession of the gods to whom they prayed, or of the justice that they called for in their tongue, hunger and pestilence spread throughout the ship, my strong grandmother even in her weak state resisted it, and as for my mother I don’t know because they took me from her as they took my children from me, I remained with my grandmother, and my father I don’t know about, my father could be any one of the men who cut the cane fields and had backs marked by the captain’s lash, my relatives had their backs crisscrossed with welts from whipping and the blood dripped from their bodies to meet the earth, and I, a woman, I grew up this way, I couldn’t staunch in myself the suffering that I didn’t experience, the suffering of my grandmother, of my mother who gave me milk and who I don’t know whether she’s alive, I, I never forgot, now, I walk to meet what I don’t know, far from the masters’ house, far from them, far from my children who I don’t know whether they’re alive, far from the sea that brought my grandmother here, and it could have been over this sea that my grandfather came who I never met, I, Alma, I have a history on the other side of the sea even if I’ve never been there, my grandmother would tell me about the fields where they planted yams, about the feast day for the god of justice, about their pretty clothes, about the wars between peoples and families, my grandmother would tell me, she would speak another tongue that isn’t this one, I never learned much of her language because I’d work from the early hours of the morning into the dark, even when I was a girl, I would wash my mistress’s clothes in the river and in the wash basins, I’d wash them very carefully and I had to iron them as well, many times she’d come to point out my shoddy work to me, many times she sneered my name, Alma, many times she made an animal out of me, many times she treated the horses better than me and the others, many times my eyes turned red, and I’d catch sight of them in the mirror of the water, but I listened to my grandmother and everything that she’d say, even when I didn’t understand I kept on listening and when I could, I’d ask her a question, because she didn’t always want to respond, what she wanted most was to talk, to put things that hurt her outside her, many times she spoke and I’d just listen, I stopped because I saw a mountain and in that place there are no fences and there are no people, I stopped because my feet were split and hurt so much, that I had to stop.

I walked for many moons and I didn’t think that the world had no end, because I keep going on, I continue to go on, water is scarce, but I come upon water, I see birds, they are different kinds of birds, but I see, I continue to walk and wherever I go there are fences, there’s land, but all the land is fenced in, all of the land has armed men, each one guarding their piece of land, many big pieces that the eye can’t see the end of, I continue walking in search of a corner where I can remain, rest, because it’s already too late to be able to go back, I left the side of the sea, I can’t return, because my hands hold the price of my freedom, they’re searching for me, I continue to walk because I fear they’ll find me and slice me into pieces, I, a soul, torn up because I can’t turn back, water, so much water I saw wherever I went in the beginning, so much green, so much green and so many trees, so much forest, so much freshness and so much rain, it was beginning to be rarer, it was becoming scarce, I saw everything dwindling, become just a little, everything becoming different, the rivers were thinning until they became just threads of water, the riverbed was turning into earth, I walked forward, I walked wherever the sun guided me, not knowing where to go, I knew that I needed to go far, very far, to wherever my wounded feet could reach, I kept on walking, the trees were getting drier, they had fewer leaves on them, the green was turning white, grey, pale green, light brown, the animals were more visible, they were all behind the dry scrubland, of thorns, I kept scraping my arms, fearful of my eyes, I kept on injuring my feet that before were wearing the mistress’ shoes, I’d close my eyes for fear they’d get injured, these were large thorns, there was no one to tell me the name of each new plant, of each new tree and animal that I met, because I feared that they would carry me back again, my body hurt, but it hurt more to think that they’d return me to my old life, that was the fear, it was ancient, to walk was freedom, was fear, was affliction, to walk like this was a new thing, because I was walking alone and always, the sun was guiding me to the other side, I had to follow it in order not to get lost, at night I couldn’t walk, it was torn, my clothing was torn, I’d lie down in a bunch of leaves and with whatever thing I could to soften the dry ground and I’d sleep a waking sleep, broken, I feared the jaguar was on the prowl, in every place there’s a jaguar and I feared it, but not the fox, the fox is a more timid creature, it eats the hen’s eggs, it eats the hen too, but I feared the jaguar, I’d sleep just in little bits and I didn’t have a mirror that would show me how many moons had passed, I don’t really count them, so I didn’t know how many moons I walked, I’d lie down with a hungry stomach, what I ate never was enough for the hunger I possessed, never, so much hunger the whole length of the walk, I continued to walk on, to hide from the herdsmen, from their droves of cattle, from the wagons that passed by on the road, I never walked on the road, I walked at the edge of the bushes, cutting my skin on the thorns that seemed like razors, on the scrub that was growing up cutting my skin, I walked on, I found strange things, one time out of great hunger I ate termites from a hollow tree, like the anteater, a rotted tree and all of the wood inside eaten up, I poked into the hollow with my injured hand, with a piece of a branch in my hands, staying quiet listening to my own breathing, then I’d remove that dry branch full of termites, I’d kill those I could before putting them in my mouth, because my hunger was enormous, I’d drink water in little pools on the ground wherever they appeared, because sometimes the rivers were dry, or they went very far from where the sun took me, and when there was any kind of rain, even if it was just a little bit, I’d go out of the bush to the road and I didn’t fear them coming upon me, I’d stay there with my mouth open, the drops many or few dribbling into my mouth, washing my wounds, this life was like this, but the life before was much worse, I didn’t fear another life, everything I had and that was mine they took from me, my children, my milk to suckle my masters’ white children, my grandmother, my mother who I never met, everything that I had they took from me, Inácio, they took Inácio from me too, in the saddest way, it’s one of the few things I know I’m never going to forget, I remember this life from before and each thorn that now enters my skin is very small next to the pain of before, each cut in my foot that remains barefoot is nothing next to the pain of before, next to the laughter of the masters, next to the bad treatment of the mistress, it’s very small, so then I keep on following the sun and I will see where it comes to, because now I have nothing anymore, I have only the sun to get me up, I keep on following it, the clothing that I took from the mistress’ trunk, I chose with great zeal, I chose as a payment for all the years I served my masters, I dressed myself without any remorse for dressing myself in the mistress’ dress, I bathed in the basin that the mistress always used to bathe herself in, I put on her perfume, I braided my hair, I put a tie on the end, I locked the door and kept the key, then I walked, the clothing was disintegrating, because there have been many moons since, but the pretty dress wore out on my body, the dress that she liked most wore out on my body, the dress, mine, Alma left the house like a lady and walked amongst the gentlemen, she walked and the gentlemen looked at Alma, well-dressed, like a lady’s companion, the servant who waited on the mistress in her bedroom, I who on the other hand washed the crockery and the chamber pots, who with my milk suckled the children of my masters, I who at times was called in to cook, to prepare food, there were many of us women serving in the beginning, when at the sugar plantation, until they lost the plantation, they came to live in a townhouse in the city, the white townhouse with narrow iron balconies, back there few of us remained because they were selling us off, there was Luzia who bought her freedom, I would like to have my freedom papers, she bought it from her owners with the milréis, bills that a gentleman from the brotherhood paid out and he took Luzia away, because if she had arrived at the house with those bills the masters would have killed Luzia with a sneer saying that she’d stolen them, no gentleman from the brotherhood bought my freedom, so I had to struggle, invent, deceive, I had to dream fiercely, until one day I said to myself that I couldn’t let the next moon pass by, I remembered the stories of war that my grandmother would tell, I dreamed of the day when I’d return to where I’d never been, but it was the place that never left my thoughts, I would take the first ship and I’d return to the other side, the side where the sun rises, where my grandmother came from, I’d return there and I’d plant my own yam farm, I’d have other children, I’d have a husband, my grandmother told me that in her village the men had many wives, I wouldn’t care about that, I’d pay the dowry and I’d get myself a husband, I’d have children, I’d suckle them all, I’d argue with his other wives, but all this was a dream, I didn’t go through the door because I didn’t have so much as a coin, not a milréis, and I was afraid that they’d capture me, so I went toward the side of the sun, following to where it set, I kept going because perhaps on the sun’s side there was land, there was land where I could remain, where I could plant and harvest, where I’d work harder than many men put together, where I’d raise a field of yams like the fields that my grandmother said they had in her land, so distant, every day I went farther from her land, then I kept going farther, coming upon animals, wounds, hunger, thirst, I kept meeting the sun that appeared not to have pity on me, for it kept burning me, I kept on getting blacker, the sun left me blacker, but I didn’t even feel it, I only wanted to arrive at some place, I walked on, meeting danger, learning to hide myself like the foxes, like the armadillos, like the peccaries that I feared would split me down the middle, the snakes infesting the ground where I passed, I learned with them to sneak through the forest, through the mountains, I learned more and more to be a wild animal in order to live.

I picked a corn cob that was born withered, a small cob, I picked another, another, I picked many and put them in the rags of the clothes that covered me, I would make a fire, I was going to make a fire with a stone and kindling, I was going to burn the wood to roast the cobs I’d pierced with sticks, the green corn with the soft cob that you could slide a spit right through, that corn that had been planted by someone, it was a very small farm, it had a little mud house at the back, with the windows closed, it was like an abandoned place, like the townhouse that I locked and then buried the key, that white house of two stories and its iron balconies, where I was a slave to my masters, that now was a haunted place, that house that appeared in my path was just one more house, there was a slow-growing field of corn, so then my hunger for food carried me to the corn field, I entered it and reached my hands toward the corn, I remained quiet for a bit, I picked the corn, voracious and quick, because perhaps that place wasn’t abandoned, and when I was leaving a man shouted to me from a distance, a man whose face I didn’t see, I only heard his voice, a man who wanted to make his presence known, wanted me to leave behind his corn cobs growing quietly, wanted me not to carry away his work with my hunger, his few cobs, I became a bit cold, I armed my soul to devour him if he came to harm me, after so many moons I’d become wild, with my black skin covered in brown mud, which my sweat stuck to my skin, it turned me the color of a tree, me walking like this right through the scrubland, with my mistress’ dress that had the same color as my body now, and all the pretty colors that it once had no longer existed now, then that man showed himself, he was carrying game of a kind I couldn’t distinguish on his shoulder, that strong old man was waiting for me, he looked at the corn that I was carrying in my clothing, he looked at my face like the trunk of a felled tree, he looked at my hair that was like the hair of an old capoeirista who trains in capoeira, the man stopped and did me no harm, he lowered his gun, left his game on the ground, he neared me, looked at the corn cobs that I had in my clothes and asked where I was coming from, I don’t know, where I was going to, I don’t know, if I had anyone in the world, I don’t know, he saw that my body was bent over with exhaustion, he came nearer and said that I could rest and go on my way another day, the sun was already getting lower in the sky and soon would go down below the horizon, he said that he was going to put water in the basin, he gave me the bark of a tree that he’d gathered, that would make the water soapy, he, a very poor man, reached out his hand to me, he who now was cleaning his game on the waist-high grate for drying meat, I went off a ways into the water bucket that was very grimy, it was water with mud and clay, I was very tired, but with much joy, I cleaned my injured body like a precious thing, I washed my arms, my head, my hair tangled and filled with knots, and that distant man, respectful and distant, an old man like my father who I never met, cleaning his hunt, burning wood, I washed myself like a jewel, I, very precious, removing the mud and the burden of my labor, of the journey, I say in all truth that when I have land I won’t pick corn from anyone, that when I have land I will plant cotton to weave my own clothes, I’ll plant beans, I’ll plant rice and manioc, I’ll make manioc flour with a pan heated over firewood, when I have land I’ll work from sunup to sunset, I’ll have children who will work with me, I will have the children of my children, the water was becoming dirty and that man is returning from afar, from within his little house, he’s coming with clean clothes in his hands, he’s coming with an old dress that’s been saved, a pair of shoes woven from leather, he puts them near to me, I’m drying myself with the cloth that’s nearby, many memories come to me, there comes the memory of Inácio, here comes the memory of the sugar plantation that the master lost to another master, here comes Inácio in my memory, a very dignified man like this old, solitary man, Inácio who would keep me company in the cold dawns of the senzala, the slave quarters, honest and patient, he who would overtake me when I was going to fill the basin with water in the river, he would watch me when I was alone, he’d protect me as best he could, from the things that I didn’t know how to do, he protected me like an older brother, a brother who laid down with me in the bed of grasses, on the damp ground of the forest, with a lot of respect he gave me a son, how I feel his absence, how this memory won’t fade, in that bath and in that sun that soon would flee over the horizon, the wide river comes into my head, these good things, these sad things, nothing leaves my head, that man was like old Inácio, Inácio who never will be old, he could lie down here in the wash basin, to see if the image of this good man who went too early has gone away, this man who perished to the cruelty of my masters, full of grievances when they’d throw curses to the wind for all the riches they’d lost, for the plantation, for the house slaves they couldn’t take on the boat, for the slaves they’d lost like things along with the sugar plantation, they, the master and the mistress, they made us work a lot in the days that preceded our departure for the capital, they made us clear out everything they could, they took away paintings, they took valuable things, they made us remove and wrap up a heavy chandelier from the dining room, everything would be taken away in the vessel that took them from the plantation to the salons of the elite, where before they’d visit once a year, and now went for good to the house in the city, they with their many children, many of them I suckled, others of them Luzia suckled, many days preceded the preparation for the departure, if I had known that this crossing would be laden with pain and bad weather I would have requested to remain with the new masters, or else I would have dove into the river holding rocks, because the gods will make me complete my sentence, because there are things that can’t be lived through, no child cried when they were taken from my arms, and even seeing them so quiet about to go away, I cried for days and days, even after two years my milk still spurted from my breasts, but to see Inácio swallow water for many hours until the arrival in the city was worse than seeing my children leave quietly, because with the man the worst happened, he lived for a long time before the water completely filled his body, the salty water from the bay, the water of kirimurê, that passage of hours was much longer than this passage guided by the sun and which carried me to the dryness of this sertão, I remember the master asking Inácio to prepare the boat, many days ahead of time, in those days the earth shook before the harshness of my masters, because for any small thing they would punish the criados, the house slaves, anything whatsoever could make their attack their slaves, I couldn’t manage to sleep out of fear, hoping all that would pass soon, the day arrived when they began to order the old treasures that lived in the house to be loaded on, there were so many things that the boat buckled, a very old wooden boat, that one day was handsome, new, cutting through the waters of the bay, but now it was old and had many holes, carrying that junk, those wardrobes with all the mistress’ dresses, when the boat left the wharf I grabbed Luzia’s arm, I thought that we were going to overturn in those sluggish waters and drown, and the master wanted to punish all of us, if were not his things, valuable, there to serve him, he would have thrown all of us into the sea, but his evilness would give us something worse still, he blamed Inácio for the condition of the boat, he called him many things, the word negro always came first, my skin burned, I think that Luzia’s was burning too, the water began to enter the boat, it was a considerable amount, we wouldn’t get to the city, we wouldn’t cross kirimurê as the Indian slaves called the Bay of All Saints, from a crack between one wooden board and another more water began to enter, the master, tyrant, cursed Inácio, the mistress was screaming, I and Luzia held onto the children, she was screaming, cruel, she was calling to her god that I don’t even know what it is made of, that god who wanted to make us love it without us having ever seen it¸ the master with a blow laid Inácio face down toward the bottom of the boat, I saw blood being diluted in the water, I made a prayer that no one can know begging for his life, Luzia with her eyes wide open also prayed, looking toward the horizon trying to show respect to the masters, begging in her thoughts that the pier would arrive soon to meet the boat, the men rowed in silence, I didn’t even want to look toward the horizon, the men rowed quickly, their arms numb and quick, so that the water wouldn’t flood the boat, I concerning myself with the life of Inácio who was covering the hole, begging for his life, the sloshing of the water didn’t allow me to know whether he was breathing, until that infinite voyage, which exists still today in my body, that voyage ended, the men helped to take off the wardrobes and the stuff that my masters were carrying away from the plantation and last of all they carried off Inácio, but I couldn’t see any longer, I had to stay with the children and with the mistress, I and Luzia, together in silence we were thinking about that man, wishing life for that good man who protected us, but the men carried off Inácio to where we didn’t know, and they blamed him for his death, the slave men, because he was careless not to have checked the boat’s condition, I didn’t sleep for many days, because in my body that voyage never finished, I, Alma, I think every day of that voyage, that old man, who planted withered corn that I picked from his field, he looked at me holding out a plate from the door of his house, it was a plate full of things of the earth, with potatoes and corn, with a piece of meat from his hunt, I ate, voracious, he looked at my empty plate, took it from my hands and brought it back even fuller, the clothes I wore were from his wife who had died many rains ago, they were clothes with a musty smell, blessed clothes that freed me from the rags that the mistress’ dress had become, the day turned to night, the sunset was falling, the night was falling, a steady wind blew and touched my fresh, clean skin, I even smelled the pleasing perfume of a clean body, my eyes and my wounds seemed to close up with every breath of the breeze, that bachelor man seated at the table, he was eating with his hands, and I was eating with my hands making balls out of everything I had, the night brought many stars, the birds were lying down in the shimmering light of the moon, that quiet man told me stories about that place, but I knew that I had to go far away, he made a bed of cloths close to the table, he looked at me very quiet from his place like I looked at the corn when I felt hungry, he looked at me, but didn’t touch me, he lay down on his bed and blew out the candlestick, I lay down, but I listened to the breathing of this man who was tired of the room where he was, in the little house of mud, I went to his side and lay down grateful, I let my clothing be lifted and I felt goodwill in my chest, gratitude for the earth and for the work of that solitary man, I felt gratitude and I withdrew, so that when the light of morning came with its timid force, I could be on my feet and leave gratefully, guided by the sun.

And so it was that I came to a place, a very quiet place, very serene, a place without fences, without houses, a place of dry trees, but a place, with animals walking free, surrounded by mountains, with a hill in its center, I was raising up from myself a will, as if I were a mountain, I went on rising up from myself, I went on picturing good things, my feet were numb, my skin had many wounds, my hair was carrying the mud of the world I’d passed through, but I was building in myself a very pretty will, it was as if crossing the many leagues from the sea were my prayer for courage, to arrive here without words was my prayer for freedom, I lay down on the earth, fatigued with everything, I lay down on the earth that breathed out heat, but also gave off the freshness of water, it was like this I lay down and remained for a long time lying down, in the land that was open like a field, surrounded by living trees, with small leaves, with big green cactuses, with long thorns like razors, my eyes revered the sun, they closed silently taking it in, I, Alma, I met the earth, a place without fences, the earth, at this hour I lay down upon the ground, I curled up between the scrub and the mud, I stayed laying down, the sky was very blue, it had scattered clouds, frayed white fibers in a sky that would bring me rain, I was there and for a while I would be alone, but I wouldn’t be alone for always, there would be cattlemen, travelers, men who went in search of their freedoms, women who, like me, had left behind the houses of their masters, at my age that was advancing I would have children, I would populate the earth, I’d dream forever of the other side of the sea, but I’d plant corn, I’d plant manioc, beans, squash, I’d plant yams, I’d let the river of the earth embrace my plantings with its waters, I’d implore the gods to guide me, I’d ask permission each time I entered those fields, I wouldn’t leave behind the struggles that in my spirit I’d waged against my masters, the pains that I carried all that time throughout my life, the children who went away, Inácio under the water, I’d carry everything because everything is what I have, everything that brought me here, to this place, carrying the wounds of my journey, carrying the uncountable moons, the days I passed on the road, without a horse, without a donkey to carry me, walking just me, alive, with my legs that weakened, walking myself through valleys and mountains, with hunger as my companion through all the hours, the hunger that accompanied me throughout my whole life, they wanted me to understand it in the big house as the gift of my masters, they wanted me to see it as a gift of the white god, the treat of the plate that they reached out to me with the leftovers, they wanted me to thank that god of theirs, it was a very big hunger, of the body and of the soul, of everything they’d taken from me, of everything that they didn’t permit me to have, me here, lying down, loved by everything that surrounded me, loved, blessed by all the ancestors, who suffered crossing the sea in ships, who died before arriving and were thrown to the bottom of the water, eaten by the animals of the waters, who built up fields of yams in that other land, all the warriors who had battled, all the victories they had, all the defeats they had, the ancestors were there with me, and they lay down with me on that ground, and they dreamed of the morning, and this way I slept, I slept for three dark moons, three days of sun too, I didn’t have the strength to get up, I slept as if I were dead, without eating, without drinking, but when I woke up I had so much strength that I seemed to have been birthed by the earth to live in that instant, I ran around searching for water, there was a spring where I drank, a spring that I almost dried up, I found fronds of the buriti palm tree and I climbed up in the buriti to remove its fronds with an old knife from the edge of the road, I gathered sticks from other trees to construct a shack, there was a shadow to be my dwelling, with a lot of ingenuity I was making it, I covered many leagues going and returning, hunting for implements for my work, I picked the seeds of distant fields, I kept on growing and soon there appeared a drover leading a herd of cattle, he needed water and food, I, Alma, I gave him water and food, I gave him a bed so that he could lay his tiredness down, he lifted my tired clothes, he gave me things that I desired and he left, with his work, and he never returned again, and I who already was becoming old, who already had some white hairs that I’d pull out with my hands, I realized that my stomach was growing, advanced in years, I was expecting a child as an old mother, I was expecting a child as I had dreamed lying down on this earth that I now stride and seed, this child no master was going to take from my arms, this child would be suckled like the offspring of wild animals, it would grow up strong at my side, I would have other children because the men continued to pass by with their cattle, they continued to seek comfort in my solitude, they continued to find relief for their sorrows in my cot, they continued to eat from the food I cooked, with the things I planted, and one of these men who gave me a child one day returned, without cattle and without strength, he stayed in my shack, took care of my young ones, he didn’t beat me like men would beat women, he wouldn’t call me love, but he worked very hard with me, building things that his body allowed him to build, he gave me other children, he put in great fields of corn, he harvested hope when there was rain and death when there was drought, he dug out the soil of this earth, he burrowed deep in the forests to bring out sticks we would shape mud around for our earthen house, he heaped up mud with the water from the springs that I brought in the basin on top of my head, and we raised up the house that would be our habitation, and which we would reconstruct many times across our lives, when the rain and wind came without pity, we would raise up the walls, we covered them with the fronds of the buriti palm tree that we’d change every summer, many children were born, other brothers and sisters from far off arrived and they had earth for fields and mud to build their houses, they came from far off, they had children, we would give names to the things in this place, they made many fields, the people worked every little farm, every piece of soil, they arose every day, they raised animals, there was no such thing as a day of rest, when they took a break from the fields they brought water for the animals, when they’d quenched the animals’ thirst they returned to their fields, because the land without work is nothing.

One day, after Luzia left, I determined to leave, but I didn’t have the milréis bills or even coins to buy my freedom as the brotherhood had done for Luzia, I wanted to go away, life in the house in town was a torment, my heart was living full of affliction, I, Alma, appealed to the good will of my masters in vain, the things they’d brought from the plantation didn’t fit in that townhouse, I had to polish every piece of cutlery and crockery, each piece of crystal, every day, I had to wash the floor, empty the chamber pots, the spittoons, wash their garments, hang their garments in the sun, starch their garments, iron their garments with the iron and the brazier, I, inattentive and tired, I’d burn my hands, I’d burn their garments, I’d put too much soap in the wash basin, there were many skirts the mistress would use, many children the mistress had, the children would cry, they’d lost their criados, the slaves who had worked for them in the house, because they needed to sell what they had to live, life was very difficult for them, different than the plantation, but even more difficult for us, afterward for me alone, who almost never slept, I would look with so much anger into the face of my mistress, frenzied I’d think of punishing her more than life already was punishing her, but I restrained myself, calling out to Sango, the god of justice, to bring me the courage I needed to keep on going, to wash my suffering in the blood of justice, and I’d ask the gods of my ancestors to help me to make the passage, I asked in the tongue that I didn’t know for the mercy of the gods of Oyó, at the edge of the stove smoking with firewood I called out wiping my sweat, my precious milk that fed the white children of my mistress, I who lost my children carried far away, I loved those tiny white children of my mistress, if I could have I’d have brought them with me, one day I very quiet went into the room of the boy, I carried that boy who was crying and sweating because it was hot, sultry weather, the dark clouds covered the sky without making it rain onto the land, it was like the heat of a kitchen in the world, I with that boy in my arms, who had a soul as I did, and my mistress ordered me to go find the baby boy in the room because he was crying, I with my bare shoulders, with my clothes worn out from my toil, I went to look for the child, the other boys continued on around the table where the mistress was teaching them, many of them already were grown, soon they would go to study in the schools of the priests, I lay that child almost a baby who was crying on my neck, I lay his white skin on my black skin, because his crying wanted the heat of a body, my body had heat, he felt the familiar scent of the breast that had suckled him, that white skin lay on my black skin, the mistress when she saw screamed with desperation, she took the boy from my arms, who had stopped crying but started to cry again, she spoke to me wickedly saying something dreadful, I with my graceless manner, my eyes only looked toward the ground, she told me to cover my arms with the shawl, with the blanket to cover up, that the boy could catch diseases from my skin, she was frightened he would turn black, my milk spurted for a long time, my children were ripped from me, they were taken away, she had strong children who would grow up with my milk and that of another wet nurse, she didn’t like my black skin, and my grandmother said that on the other side of the sea, in her village, there didn’t have whites, and I didn’t want to be white and perverse like my mistress, who didn’t save Inácio from the evil of the master, this very white mistress with rice powder on her face to become whiter, this mistress had many gods in her oratory, she had many crosses hung throughout the house, she held rosaries and crosses in her fists, she adored a white god like the one that had ripped my grandmother from the field of yams, from the other side of the sea, a white god who came throwing black bodies into the sea, a white god who didn’t believe that we also had souls, who didn’t count us as souls, we were things, he punished us with lashes and the blood flowed down our backs like streams, this white god of theirs didn’t make justice, perhaps he didn’t like our people, and so I could only ask the god of my ancestors, Sango, who we praised in the forest far from the big house, we could only ask Him to wage war against the god of our masters, this downfall was happening because they lost the plantation, lost many slaves, in their house there was no more prosperity, we knew that our god was battling with their god, but nothing was enough because they already drowned Inácio who served those masters honorably, out of sheer spite they drowned Inácio, they wanted to punish someone for the downfall that had happened, for the plantation that they lost, for crossing the sea of kirimurê, the Bay of All Saints, to arrive at the city in a boat stuffed full of junk, they punished Inácio, they punished Luzia who was old and wanted her manumission, they only granted freedom to Luzia because their eyes grew wide for the money that the brotherhood brought, they grew wide because it was all they wanted, but nothing remained in the hands of the masters, I wanted to leave as Luzia left, Luzia was so tired and beaten down, she didn’t even say goodbye, maybe she remembered when she arrived at her destination, but I didn’t forget Luzia and how much we suffered together, I turned old once she went away, because I couldn’t sleep, I was on my feet in the sun a lot to prepare the meals of my masters, I’d stay at my post at the table serving, they without the least energy to lift any dish, I grew up this way, serving, with no letters, with no studies like the white men’s, without possessions like theirs, I was a thing of theirs, but within me I had a feral animal wanting to fly, I had a feral animal wanting to walk out and never stop walking, I often blew out the candles after they’d gone to sleep, and rest didn’t come easily and as soon as it did it was time to get up again, it was like this, almost without strength, when they sent the children away to study in the school of the priests and the masters got poorer, in that sad townhouse, I shouting to the gods for them to bring me my liberty, because there was an animal in me that didn’t know where it was going, but knew that it wanted to go, knew that if it turned its back and went away, they would go in search for me, I, Alma, couldn’t flee and leave my masters like jaguars on the loose to come hunt me, many times I saw how they hunted the black men who fled, they returned to be punished with so much pain, and so I’d make the meals of my masters, I’d get on without exactly sleeping, dreaming when I was awake, I, exhausted, but I resolved to leave as Luzia had gone away, so I decided to serve my masters with great justice, I hit the crockery they had in the kitchen with a lot of force, many drums resounded in my head, until the mistress came and spat that I was an insolent black slave, with threats of punishments, I knocked down the pot, I myself cleaned the floor, the drums in my head wouldn’t stop, that house was a land of war, many times they called through the inferno, I, very tired, searched for the rat poison in the back of the house, I put in a greater amount than what I’d put out for the rats and in madness I mixed the pot, many drums sounded, I served my masters with their white faces, they began to eat, they called for me, I remained quiet in the kitchen pretending that I didn’t hear, I listened to them grab the cloth from the table with the dishes crashing on the floor, they cried out, I heard them hit the door very hard, my body became colder than the calm of that hot morning, using force I jammed with great force a napkin into the mouth of the mistress, then a napkin into the mouth of the master who had an almost blue color, then I cleaned my hands on my skirt and I went toward the door that opened to the road, certain that the soldiers were going to take me away, but it was the milkman, I grasped onto the milk, I gave him some coins that were in the cupboard in the room and I closed the door, I walked over my masters without looking at them, I leaned against the kitchen table and I drank the two liters of milk in the bottle that had come, right into my mouth, I cleaned my mouth with the side of my right hand, I went back to the room to look to see if they were still breathing, both of them now very blue with white foam coming out of their mouths, those shards of dishes on the floor, the dishes that the mistress liked so much, I gathered up many things for the garbage of the house, I left those people scattered in the same way they had fallen, I spent some time in the wash basin that the mistress used to bathe herself in, using the perfume, washing my hair, combing it carefully, I didn’t think about them, I thought about what I would find, I thought about the journey, about my walk, I calmly strengthened myself, I dressed in a pretty dress set aside by my mistress, kept in the wardrobe, with my hair braided in front of the mirror in the room, I, a woman who was near to middle age, I put gloves onto my hands, until that point never knowing the sensation of having gloves on, I was like a lady’s companion, a dama da companhia, it was in this way that I left that house, walking in the shoes of my mistress, passing through crowded streets, through empty streets, entering the forest, sleeping in the open, counting the moons, forgetting the moons, walking wherever the sun would take me.




Itamar Vieira Junior was born in Salvador, Bahia, in 1979. He is a writer and geographer, and has a PhD in Ethnic African Studies from UFBA, the Federal University of Bahia. In October 2018, he won Portugal’s Leya Prize for his manuscript Torto Arado (“Crooked Plough”), which will be published by LeYa Press in 2019. In 2018, he also was a finalist for Brazil’s Jabuti Prize for his book of short stories, A oração do carrasco (“The Executioner’s Prayer,” Mondrongo, 2017), published with a grant from Bahia’s Secretary of Culture. That book, in which the story “Alma” appears, won the 2016-2017 Humberto de Campos Prize from the Brazilian Writers’ Alliance (Rio de Janeiro section), and second place in the 2018 Bunkyo Literature Prize, awarded by the Brazilian Society for Japanese Culture and Social Assistance. His first book of short stories, Dias (Caramurê, 2012), was winner of the Prémio Arte e Cultura (Literatura – 2012). He’s a columnist for the São Paulo Review.

Tiffany Higgins is a poet and translator, and a journalist writing on Brazil and the environment. She is the author of The Apparition at Fort Bragg (2016), set in Northern California, and winner of the Iron Horse Literary Review contest, selected by Camille Dungy; And Aeneas Stares into Her Helmet (Carolina Wren Press / Blair, 2009), winner of the Carolina Wren Poetry Prize, selected by Evie Shockley; and a chapbook of translations from Portuguese of Alice Sant’Anna’s poetry, Tail of the Whale (Toad Press, 2016). Her poems have appeared in Poetry, Kenyon Review, Massachusetts Review, San Francisco Chronicle, the anthology Ghost Fishing, and elsewhere. She is translating the writing of Brazil’s Eliane Marques, Lívia Natália, and Itamar Vieira Junior. Her longform narrative journalism in Granta describes Brazil’s Munduruku people’s fight to demarcate their territory in the face of the proposed São Luiz do Tapajós dam. Her reportage on Brazil’s ten-day truckers’ strike in May 2018 appears in Guernica. In 2017 she was a resident in the Banff Centre’s Frontline Environmental Reportage residency. She resides in Oakland, California.