Mr. Vieira lived just half a block away from Salvation, close enough to hear the morning bells when the first medics and nurses marched on duty at six am, and then again at ten pm when they traipsed home. Long shifts and long days, made even longer for Mr. Vieira, living as he did outside of Salvation.
He lived close enough so that on Saturdays, after what he presumed was the Gathering of Otherworldly Intervention, the smells of acarajes and pungent pimenta rolled out onto the humid street, all but smackable against his beer-cooled lips.
He lived close enough so that when babies–or Newcomers, rather–were delivered their wails bled into the Spiritistas’ cries of joy and congratulatory exaltation.
But these intimations of proximity and others more subtle were nothing at all–mirages from the other side of a desert he could not cross, possibilities packed into the rotunda of his useless imagination, visible from a harbor of longing from which he could never weigh anchor.
Claudio Vieira lived just half a block away from Salvation, or, which was entirely the same, infinitely far.
He had begged to go there, once, long ago. But the Mãe had intervened and explained the conditions of his residence to him.
Now he smelled the bells and heard the meals (or was it the other way around?) and his smooth tanned face smiled in a knowing way against the setting sun almost every evening during that fateful monsoon season, and each time it knocked a decade off his deceptively soft, seventy two year-old hazelnut eyes. He sipped his Antarcticas–in youth he’d downed them like sodas, but this was the last remaining crate–and he ate his daily vatapa while the news played on in the background, soft feminine plastivoice delivering his favorite programs grave and silly, as he dozed on his faded mustard-yellow couch, and once every couple of days he woke from a nap with the names of his daughter Elisa and his wife Luciana poised on his tongue like bubbles, waiting for him to breathe life into them. If he did, the afternoon would be hard, for he’d have to work his way through the scrapbook conjured by the evocation of these names. If he did not, he would suffer the remorse of a man who denies his past, and the afternoon would be harder still, and the night nearly impossible. Most days he was lucky and the names did not arrive to bid him passage from sleep to awareness, and most days during that monsoon season the thunderstorms in the evening clapped and surged with enough vigor to wash away history, to carry it off somewhere else where it might be better tended to than in the drafty museum-halls of his reminiscence, and on these days he would tell himself that despite everything, he had made it this far, look! look! look how close he was!: just half a block away from Salvation.
Mr. Vieira would go for a walk on most mornings, and today was no different. He never headed toward Salvation, of course–he might as well have leapt from the balcony of his apartment and hoped to soar on the northeastern Caribbean trade winds, or anything equally impractical. In fact, he always moved in the opposite direction, down his avenue and over the hill, two blocks down to the historic center or Pelourinho, then a right on Largo Terreiro de Jesus and a few minutes later a left onto Rua da Misericórdia, one of his favorite streets. The best Gathering center was Igreja Nossa Senhora da Conceição da Praia, formerly a church, and of course he never stepped inside. This part of Brazil’s Salvador had seen a lot of tourist activity once, in the decades of unrestricted international travel and people with reason to visit places with their actual bodies, or sacos de carne. Well, Mr. Vieira preferred it this way, quiet and sleepy in the wet mornings, a few lone souls staggering to another day’s work, stirring to lives of reclusive sin or nostalgia.
There were no longer newspapers, but a local group of parishioners had organized the printing of a daily psalms-and-morality-book, as they called it, a few shabby sheets of recommended prayer alongside astrological warnings and supermodel gossip, all for the price of half an Antarctica. He didn’t buy them (beer was always better than prayer) but it was an excuse as good as any to meet new girls, who provided the only meaningful context for his perambulations.
Today her name was Leticia, probably not much older than twenty, a slender, wispy brunette with unfashionably long hair and two prominent tattoos, one on her right arm, and the other on her forehead near her synesthetic jack.
Second floor for this one, he thought.
“Are you Mr. Vieira?” she asked. “If you are, the other girls warned me about you.”
He smiled, for there was little better than flattery so early in the morning. “And what have they warned you of?”
She pointed at the stack of parishioner’s papers on the brown stand. “Would you like one?”
“Pretty hair,” he said, shaking his head. “I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it since … well, since you Spiritistas took over.”
“Thanks. I think.” She chuckled.
“Can I smell it?”
She looked down the street.
“You’re worried someone might see?” He nodded. “I’ll be quick.”
He raised his hand to touch it. When she didn’t react, he moved closer. The little smile on her unblemished face was like a distant seashell on the brown Bahia sand, a glint of white against smooth surface.
He bent forward and kissed her, quick, easy. Her nipples became prominent bumps against her white Spiritista uniform.
“They told me about you,” she repeated.
“I hope only good things,” he said. “I’d like to learn more about your papers. Maybe later today?”
She said, “I can’t. Have to be at the stand!”
“Do you have to sell a quota?”
“What do they teach you through that jack of yours, anyway? Quota. A fixed amount.”
He closed his eyes.
“Can’t they just sell them through the jacks? You’re so old-fashioned, for some things. I suppose that can be a good thing … You know, I think we would have a really good time Leticia,” he said. “Won’t you make an old man happy?”
She didn’t say anything.
He breathed the morning air in, salty, heavy.
He was tired of waiting.
He reached into his pocket and his fingers, working from memory, slid over the surface of the rectangular palm-sized Key and deftly punched in the combination.
There was a slight tick in her neck, as though the uploaded command had exerted physical force, and she responded at once.
With vehemence, and a bit more girlish than he cared for: “I’m sure I’ll be able to sell what I need!”
“I live close to Salvation,” he whispered.
“Is that true?”
He felt a weight then, the regret of having used the code. His charm and the promise of seeing Salvation might have been enough to lure her without programmatic coercion: parishioner girls couldn’t walk to his street of their own volition, but his role as tour-guide granted them access — he could have exploited that. Now he would never know. Regrets, regrets. He realized he had become lazy, relying on the Key more often than necessary. No wonder the Mãe felt a greater need to spend time with him these days.
“Guess how far,” he said.
Leticia had finished tying up the papers and slammed them inside the stand’s single compartment.
They walked side by side now in the damp stillness.
“Half a block?”
“Perhaps,” he said.
Her eyes became round. “Really?”
Again, too immature. He preferred more sophistication, a touch of demure perversion, even, the appearance of reservation but the acknowledgment of lust.
They got as far as he ever did, and he pointed to the entrance of Salvation, and after the obligatory comments designed to entrance her further, the anecdotes and speculation and the constructed whimsy of his predicament expressed through the loftiest of metaphors, he took her upstairs to the second-floor unit (with a woman with whom he could share more of himself than with Leticia it would invariably be the third floor; he could always tell right away upon meeting them) and fucked her until she screamed.
After, detached, she caressed him and he allowed it with an air of studied resignation, until the moment came.
She bounded from the bed skittishly and into the bathroom.
He waited in silence, eager for her reaction to the names. If she yelped or squealed or cried or hollered or stormed back, pointing her finger at him as though she had the moral imperative, he would be gentle and sweet but express no remorse. If she suppressed her response and returned to the bed with a grimace or pout and refused to explain why, he would become genuinely sad, and he would cry, and he would purge himself. This cleansing was almost as important as the physical exchange, and it was what he received with Leticia. She was intelligent enough to understand the significance of the list of names scrawled in magenta lipstick on his bathroom mirror and against the eggshell paint of the walls, but she was too weak to sunder herself completely from him after the realization. So she crawled back into bed, sighing reluctance, embarrassed maybe, and faced away from him.
His sobs emerged within a few minutes, fine sporadic trembles of emotion, like the sounds of a blackbird trapped or wounded.
“I am sorry,” he said, and ran his fingers against her cool back, up to her nape.
“Is that all of them?” she asked, still avoiding him.
“No,” he said.
She was quiet.
“Not my choice, you understand,” he said, still crying.
“Then whose? I couldn’t make sense of the girl I spoke with, Mr. Vieira. Stefania, do you remember her?”
“Yes,” he said. “She was recent.”
“There was something dull in her eyes when she came back from you. I couldn’t fathom it. Until now.”
“You’re famous, Mr. Vieira. For some of us … it’s like a rite. We wonder if you’ll ever bring us up here. It hasn’t been long since I arrived into this body, you know.”
“Did Stefania tell you … ?”
“No, she kept her silence,” Leticia said. Almost as an afterthought, she added, “Just as I’ll keep mine.”
She resigned herself to his defeat then and wiped the tears from his eyes and cheeks.
At his most vulnerable, he asked “Was it worth it?”
She bobbed her head in affirmation.
With Leticia’s warmth still lingering on his bedsheets, in the new silence of the apartment, a silence that always seemed deeper, more lonely, after he had fucked one of the girls, he concluded his ritual. The bathroom lights were the least bright of the apartment, but still illuminated what he sought: her own name, in that same garish lipstick, uneven, imprinted in a simplistic and unfinished script, reflection of the girl herself. “Is that all of them?” Her naïve question echoed in his mind as his eyes roamed across the columns of names. Of course not! he should have said. Why had he been so meek? Protective … what for? There wouldn’t be enough space on all the mirrors in all the apartments in this building to list the girls I have been with! That’s what he should have said. Staring at him, the mockery of that jack in her forehead, gaping, a cavity that begged violation. Instead, his pitiful performance. And to think that merely ten minutes ago he had wept. Now this contempt, this indignation at her innocence, so severe it could have driven him to–
As if on cue, the Key vibrated.
He checked the time: about an hour before his lunch. He measured his pulse. Speaking to the Mãe in such an agitated state would not do. He applied a hormonal comb to steady his endorphins. Thirty seconds later, he opened his door to her.
“Hello, Claudio,” the Mãe said. Today she wore the saco de carne of a woman in her forties, maybe early fifties from the faint menopausal whiff, draped in the classic white Spiritista tunic. Her curly auburn hair, shoulder-length, was tied in a bun. Her large, spiral-shaped platinum earrings, the ones Mr. Vieira couldn’t stand, caught pieces of sunlight in the apartment like mirrors, casting shards of luminosity back at him. Her cheeks lifted in a smile.
“What do you want?” Mr. Vieira asked.
“I thought I would check in on you.”
“You know how I’m doing.”
“You seem to have had a challenging morning.”
He released a pent-up breath.
“What do you want?” he asked again.
She strolled around the apartment, her aimlessness irking him. Her gaze locked for a moment on his Key or, as he thought of it when predisposed toward self-pity, his leash: the device that monitored and reported his doings and whereabouts to this self-declared Luminary.
“Today’s girl was nothing different,” he said, seating himself reluctantly in one of the living-room recliners. “I’ll be out of new ones soon. I’ll have to start re-visiting the old then.” He smiled bitterly. “Is that what this is, you’ve come to cheer me up?”
“It’s a sad list of names on your mirror,” the Mãe observed. “I’m sorry.”
“I like to keep my sins where I can see them,” he replied. “It makes expiation that much easier. Not that it’s easy in my case.”
“No,” the Mãe agreed. “Claudio,”—and he knew what would follow from that intimate use of his first name—“I just want you to know that I realize how impossible this situation must feel. You are soldiering on bravely. More bravely, perhaps, than any one of us had a right to expect.”
This was the part he dreaded, what he would do anything to avoid. Always it came back to this Hell: her compassion.
His lower lip quivered for an instant. He straightened in the recliner, crossed his arms.
When he was confident that he could manage the words without an outburst, he said, “Simply my genetics.”
“Yes, your genes. Your constitution. Your nature.”
“What made my wife and daughter leave me.”
“They needed to protect themselves. I know you don’t resent them.”
“Of course. But Luciana knew about my appetite before she married me. It was a betrayal to herself to think she could change me.”
“Confusing times,” the Mãe said, in her insufferably reasonable tone. She sat up on the kitchen counter, legs dangling in a pensive arc, skin from her ankles showing beneath the tunic. He remembered how the Mãe’s legs, a different set back then, lithe and tanned, had wrapped themselves around him, and how she’d moaned at each thrust, tears of joy accumulating in the corners of her eyes like condensations of desire, blinding her, until at last he held her, grip ferocious, and the tears trickled down the sides of those cheekbones, wide like the face of an Indian. All this when her saco de carne was that of a twenty-two year old redhead who introduced herself as Jacinda, when he had no way of knowing what she was. He could reach for her now, right here. An old man inside an ageless Luminary. To what end? Their roles had been long established; a seminal exchange would do nothing to shift them from their respective routines of observed and observer; the tongues of sex would not lash at the bones of identity. Did she ever remember those days? Had she been toying with him back then, getting a taste of him before she had to assume the responsibility of helping him recognize his condition? And if so–well, he might prefer it that way. At least she would not be so damned sacrosanct.
“In the old days they would have labeled you a sexual predator,” she said, her voice soft in recollection. “They didn’t know better.”
“But of course you are more enlightened,” he said, trying and failing to match her tone.
“I live in uncertainty,” she said. “Like you. We are both enlightened, you and I. I try to remember not to falter in my forgiveness. Please, do the same.”
Mr. Vieira said, “And what is there to forgive, exactly?”
She laughed. “Forgive me for following a system of codes that allows me to judge you.”
How did this happen? It ended like this often–with him arguing in her favor, rather than letting loose his contempt. Perhaps that was why she had enticed him, so long ago: not reconnaissance, but pre-emptive confusion. She wouldn’t win that easily.
“I can’t find fault with your codes,” he said.
The Mãe slid off the counter and paced the kitchen, running one of her fingers along a dusty cracked cupboard. He would never find the time to inhabit all of the apartments long enough to preserve the illusion of habitation. Many he had not stepped in for months. They were becoming ossified with disuse, each new spider-web a reminder of the trap he had set for himself, of how much closer he was to losing everything each day.
“You’re a strange, sympathetic creature,” she said. “You cannot find fault with our codes, but you despise us. Me, in any case. You long to be freed of your Death, but you lack the courage to take the necessary steps. You suffer because of your actions, but you are unable to reform yourself. A wealth of contradictions. You, my friend, are the whorehouse and the gold-embroidered church rolled into one.”
Mr. Vieira could no longer sit. “Good thing I have you to help me, then,” he muttered.
“Whenever you are ready to admit my help, I shall provide it,” she said.
He tried to look past her shell by staring at it, past the physical relief of her facial features and into the underlying core. He had dreamt once that the Mãe’s true essence would be reflected in her black eyes, and he peered deep into them now. To his astonishment, they seemed to go on forever, an endless void; his gaze found no surface on which to rest, and he had to yank his head away before feeling himself utterly lost within her. Had she permitted a rare glimpse of her true self? Which was what, exactly? After the global wars and the collapse of the information networks of the early twenty-third century, Salvador had been isolated and quarantined, and when the Otherworlders arrived, Mãe among them, there had been no hope of understanding. What difference did it make? The Mãe might be an angel or an alien, but to him she was a custodian, a supervisor of sin. He was tired of pondering imponderables. There was only this life in this town in this time, with these hungers, and the girls and the memories of his wife and daughter, everything always half a block away from–
She waited for more. When it didn’t come she tried again. “Claudio–”
“Leave,” he said.
And so she did.
Leticia was selling the parishioner papers again three Tuesdays later, on a morning which started off with more brightness and cheer than it ought to in this season. Mr. Vieira had slept poorly the night before, a slippery four hours instead of his regular seven, and he hadn’t bothered to shave or comb the white hair that streamed from his head and temples down to his elbows, forgoing his usual polished aesthetic for a gruffer, more savage appearance that better conveyed how he felt. He was the compulsive fornicator, wasn’t he? Then let him look like a man who allied himself with passion.
He preferred never to indulge the same girls twice, but with the population so reduced since the Otherworlders’ arrival, and with his tendency to repeat his peripatetic wanderings every few months, it was inevitable to run into them anew. He had tried to calculate, once, how many new girls they must be producing for him, but there were too many factors involved, and he decided it was best to submit to the illusion of chance. At times he would ignore them; at others, pretend they were meeting for the first time, a charade supported by the correct prompts from his Key. But something about Leticia compelled him to treat her differently. Her cheeks seemed to glow in the cool mid-morning brightness, her hair strewn with a wildness that paralleled his own.
“Would you like one?”
He expected to be irritated at her offer, but instead he found himself saying, “Yes, please” and placing a coin in her hand. Reals were worth nothing except to the parishioners; the currency held some kind of metaphorical meaning in their Spiritista system.
She seemed to sense his skepticism. “You think we’re silly, don’t you?”
He looked for the right words. Finally he just said, “I think so. Yes.”
“Until I was with you the other day, I kind of thought so too.”
He wondered whether she could get herself in trouble for an admission of this sort. Though few humans remained, he’d long suspected that the Otherworlders’ gifts to Salvador included an array of surveillance devices.
“But I didn’t do anything,” he said, stepping closer.
“You showed me Salvation,” Leticia replied.
Salvation . A trinity of meanings: the name of the clinic, the process, and place you went afterwards. He had pointed out the facility, yes, but nothing more.
“You fool yourself,” he said.
“No. And something else, too.”
His eyes followed her hand, down, patting the belly.
“Some other boy you’ve been with,” he said. He lowered his voice. “I’m an old man.”
She grinned. “But I’ve been with no-one else. And you weren’t so old when you had your dick in my–”
“It can’t be,” he insisted. “There have been many others before you. You saw the names–”
“Some chose to have theirs removed, and others just never told you.” She grabbed his hand and placed it atop her stomach, her fingers pressing on his skin.
“Why would you keep the child?” he said, dumbfounded.
Again she let out a chortle. “Of course I’m not going to!”
“I have to wait. One more week.” She nodded gravely. “Then I can go to Salvation. It will be the right time. The Spiritistas know it. There is a narrow window, a moment when the baby is not yet a baby and it can be killed without harm. Before it has a nueva alma.”
Mr. Vieira closed his eyes. He thought of his wife, Luciana. He had met her two months after his parents had left him, tears in their eyes, because he refused to go with them and no-one could be made to go by force; two months after his sister, having been cajoled by that pig-nosed boyfriend of hers, had abandoned him also. The testimony of the few who returned just long enough to retell their experiences after undergoing transformation by nueva alma had been enough to start an exodus, to leave him stranded here. He’d realized on his second date with Luciana, and despite never finishing school or caring for words like ‘psychoanalysis’ and ‘fixation,’ that she had his sister’s same dimples when she got angry and the same soulful eyes when she felt loved and the same light-hearted giggle the rest of the time. He’d had premonitions about himself since he was a boy, strange waves of sensual inundation, and it wasn’t long after marrying Luciana–after his fourth or fifth bout of adultery–that he knew, irrevocably, without shame, that his altar was the flesh, and its ravishment his prayer. The Mães had arrived shortly after, in great cohorts at first, to tend to those who chose to stay behind, to evaluate the “dysfunctions” of those unable to part with their way of life.
What good had it done? Not only had he not healed; now he’d learned that all this time he’d been passing on his seed, creating potential duplicates of his warped self.
“Are you alright?”
“This is a sad story you bring,” he said.
“Open your eyes.”
Without looking he could better feel the breeze against his unshaven cheeks, tickling his stubble.
“You can still have your way with me until then,” she said. “I know you like this saco.”
She was right. But he did not wish to see her forehead jack, so his eyes artfully roved around it.
“Leticia, what makes you think they will let you into Salvation?”
“The prime parishioner told me,” she said, “and his word is all I need. It makes sense. After all, you opened the door for me.”
“I was without sin. You soiled me. Now the sin can be excised, and I can become pure again.” She looked glum for an instant. “After they do it … I cannot see you anymore. I may not even decide to stay with this saco de carne.”
As though to console herself, she asked: “When will it be your turn?”
All of the exhaustion of Mr. Vieira’s troubled night seemed to land on him in this moment, a crushing gravity that made his thighs quiver and his knees burn with the vertigo of remaining upright.
“Not for me,” he said. “Not ever.”
“Everyone goes, sooner or later.”
“I like my body just fine. Why should I leave this place?” He pointed around him, at the vacant street and unlit apartments, at the worn-down buildings with chipped paint and fissured walls and alcoves where seagulls had once prostrated to their great sea-gull God in the days before all the fishermen had left.
“But there are so many more places to go!” she said, as though he were missing the obvious.
“You may believe that,” he replied. “But everywhere is the same. Just what we bring to the place.”
Leticia squinted, then gave up trying to follow his meaning.
“You’re a special old man,” she said. “But I know I wouldn’t want to spend the rest of my life here.”
He patted her on the shoulder. Then he took the paper he’d bought from her earlier.
“Thank you,” she said. Her eyes became misty. “Thank you.”
He squeezed her hand, fumbled out of a half-embrace, and walked away.
Late that same night, the Mãe knocked on his door. Sullen with sleep, the names of Elisa and Luciana clinging to him, he padded over to the door and said, “Who is it?”
“Claudio,” she said.
“Let me in. I have news.”
“I don’t want news,” he said. “I just want to go back to sleep.”
“But if you do that–” came the voice from across the wooden barrier, and it seemed trapped by a curious emotion, choked by some unspeakable urgency in the darkness of the night.
Maybe he was imagining things. “I’m tired. I’m going back to bed.”
The voice spoke, just beyond his range. Never had the Mãe sounded so meek. Perhaps this was all just a dream; perhaps he was sleepwalking down to the Pelourinho in his pajamas at this very moment, insensitive to the cold, looking for another girl. His earlobe tickled again. A sound began to form in it.
“What are you doing to me?” he asked, and his heart began to give him away, a flush of fear tingling across his dry skin, prickling him.
“Come now, or it’ll be too late,” the voice said.
Mr. Vieira thought of all the names that defiled the mirrors of the apartments, the names of the girls whose legs he’d been between. He thought to himself, Let me remember just one name, and I will be saved. I can do as I please. He heard the breathing on the other side of the door. The sound grew. Mr. Vieira thought, Let me remember just one name and I will know what the last forty years have been about. Let me remember just one name and I will resign myself to a quiet death in this comfortable apartment. One name and I can crawl back into the warmth of my bed, and surrender, and say goodbye, and find peace.
But there were no names, just faces and bodies and smells, and then eyes and lips and noses and breasts and thighs and ankles that blurred as the whisper grew into an unending note of impenetrable electric beauty, and the scents fused, everything coalescing into a single shape, a quiet, undeniable form of grace, serenity, purpose and pure purposelessness, all-encompassing, indivisible. Looking into himself, he was seeing the Mãe, not as he’d ever seen her in a body, but in her fundamental state, in the true immaterial contours of her boundless extension.
“I was wrong,” he said, but his lips weren’t moving; it was his thoughts, connected to hers, across the expanded sound, across the harmony of her call. “You weren’t assembling them for me. They existed all along, in different bodies, on different worlds where there is no carnal sin. And you brought them here so that I could teach them. Leticia was telling the truth.”
“You will rest soon, Claudio,” the Mãe said, in a voice more beautiful than he had ever heard, more intimate and precious and infinite than the thousands of gasps and moans and hisses and exhalations and peals of laughter that had rung across the decades. He felt exhausted, beyond tears, buoyant, ecstatic.
“We brought them to you because they asked to be brought. Sometimes they were nervous.”
“I know. But I forced them past it. The Key.”
“You just helped them to overcome these jitters. We simplified the transactions for both of you. And it was convenient for me to know what you were up to, in case you got out of hand. But you didn’t, despite whatever you may think. You asked to experience this moment. Just like they did theirs. And you were nervous too–it took you forty years to build up the courage. Yet here you are, ready at last, prepared to enter sleep and arise in a different place, and never know this smallness again.”
Mr. Vieira wanted more than anything to understand, but he knew that he did not. He felt cold; for an instant he was terrified he would die now, so close to the Luminary; he imagined he could hear the bells of the clinic ringing for him.
He said, “When I wake, will I be able to walk down the half block and finally enter Salvation?”
The Mãe held him.
He would never be let go of again.
In the warmth she replied, “There is no Salvation, except your own,” and he understood then.