11. Ms. Leca and Ms. Clotilde
ms. leca and ms. clotilde

Translated by Angela Telles-Vaz

    During my stay at that Orphanage, I had two teachers. Which one came before and which one came later? Mistery. Mist within me. Sometimes I think that the first one was Ms. Clotilde and then Ms. Leca.
    Ms. Clotilde was for me the embodiment of Our Lady. She had huge teeth, was corpulent, perhaps thirty-five, forty years old. Very large eyes, light brown, and also light brown hair. She loved me.
    As a matter of fact, both adults and older students spoiled me. I don't know if because of my shyness, my age and my fragile looks of a helpless skinny boy. Or because of the intelligence that they all thought I had. I had attended a school in Manhuaçu, but age did not allow me to attend second grade. I was already able to read and write. Could count until I do not know how much, from every twos, every fives, every tens... And there was the multiplication table! It was unfair to compare me with the others, huge and ignorant boys, who were collected from the basement of slums and from the dumpsters of Rio de Janeiro. It was unfair, but it wasn't my fault.
    I had memorized a golden sentence in those classes. The San Francisco River originates at the Canastra Range, municipality of Guia-Lopes. I never used it for anything, except, to be more loved and admired, when I threw up the right answer to everybody's amazement.
    About Ms. Clotilde, I have a cloudy doubt. When the classrooms were painted, the name of a saint was written on the top of each portal. On our classroom was Saint Clotilde. Was the classroom named in a rustic homage after the teacher who taught there? I clearly see the name on the door I have drawn in my mind, I clearly see the teacher that smiles at me and runs her hand through my hair. But I'm not so sure if her real name was Clotilde.
    Besides remembering she was a kind of Our Lady there, I remember a religion class. She showed us an enormous book, with black and white pictures and a text. They were drawings so beautiful that looked like living figures. She would read a sacred sentence and point her finger to the miraculous picture that illustrated the fact. Then she would read:

    It would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.

    Someone asked the meaning of innocent.
    Innocent is a child as pure as an angel. Innocent is a child like him.
    Everybody looked at me and I felt the earth shaking under me, shameful, wishing that the quake was true and I would be swallowed by its hole.
    Not happy, she went from desk to desk showing the picture until it was my turn. Her presence was like a huge smile, that sweet scent of soap and clean skin as the images at the church. She showed me the drawings, pen and ink drawing in Gustave Dore's style. And I saw two little children, boy or girl?, long, curly blond hair, two little saints dressed in a Greek tunic. In the foreground, at the edge of a cliff, two or three horrible men rather grotesque, with massive millstones tied around their necks and an angry crowd around them, ready to throw them into the waters.
    How not to fill a chill across the whole spine?, when, years later, flipping through a book about the Uffizi Gallery I met Altdorfer, full of beautiful colors, where a saint named Floriano has the same millstone on his neck and is about to be thrown in the waters. Here the victim is presumed innocent.
    Let me go back to Ms. Clotilde... She repeated the explanation to me but I heard nothing. It terrified me the possibility to be one of those children but at the same time, I was proud for being called innocent for it must be something very special. The idea that those men would die like rats, for my sake, filled me with horror. Something should be wrong.
    Once she explained that when we got a girlfriend we should take her to church.
    She could be the devil and explode at the door. She told us a story of a young man that was saved just at the door of the temple and the explosion spread a strong smell of sulfur.
    Ms. Leca was skinny and ugly. I was always hoping that she would enter the classroom with a fan (her name in Portuguese is similar to the word "leque", wich means fan). There was never a fan. I have a lot to remember from her classes.
    I'm sitting down with a book in front of me, studying the words to be read shortly in class. Suddenly my eyes run into something confusing. I didn't know that strange word. I tried to decipher it but it was useless. I read to the end of the text and everything is clear except that disturbing word child, "criança". I first spell the syllable, CRI, cri, after there was an "a", so it's cria, and then "n", no vowel, but followed by a damn "ç" cedilla. Cri... cri... no, no, it was a monstrosity that refused to make itself known to me. I began to feel anxious, afraid to ask anything, the sweat cooled me and I was taken by fear. I had the responsibility of not doing wrong. It was hard to carry that load because in a situation like that my shyness would affect my whole safety. With a great effort I got up and went towards Ms. Leca and asked her what word was that. "Criança" . I sat down, the world stopped spinning around me, I checked, yes, of course, so simple and easy and I failed.
    What about the multiplication table? The multiplication table was glory for me and despair for all the others. The worse is that I felt dishonest because I thought that what I did was not the right thing to do. She would ask, this times that is how much, nobody knew. For the evil of their sins they didn't find out that the teacher started from number ONE. I found out that if six times one equals six and six times two equals twelve, it would be enough to continue to count every six without making mistakes. And she asked: six times three? Quickly I thought: thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen... EIGHTEEN! Six times four? Nineteen, twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three, TWENTY-FOUR! And so we were going up every sixes and when we got to SIXTY! I would breath released and the teacher complimented me. Everyone would look at me as if I were a different animal, carrying some sort of a magic gift.
    I think that they all protected me for the sake of the multiplication table. Certainly the teachers kept telling my achievements and I looked like a little marvel.
    Again, it was a very unfair competition, but I was not unfair. I worried very much thinking that I should not count from so and so but just memorize the answers, like everyone tried to do.
    I remember more. Once, everyone made a mess and she stopped the class. It was like a merry go round. She left the room and soon returned, sitting still. We continued talking and laughing and she called me. She quickly whispered to me to be quiet because the inspector would arrive shortly afterwards. I felt ashamed and happy all together. Even though protection brought me comfort I felt the exception created around me was kind of unpleasant.
    One other time, she yelled at an older boy, he replied and she slapped him and blood ran out of his nose. She panicked and started to cry. A painful silence overcame us all.
    Poor teachers! Living in the country probably having had very poor studies, without the slightest notion of child psychology, didactics, anything, placed facing those beasts. Beasts with no knowledge of their own will, beasts by a torturing chance, beasts made beasts but not born wild beasts. They acted like beasts. Nothing could be expected from those little black boys beaten by life for from life they only received their own life, the sigh, the breath, the being. Nothing more, nothing more…
    Nothing more...
    Ms. Leca once asked the supervisor to let me sleep in her house. It was a most important event that I could never forget the golden details of this inverted odyssey of mine, full of triumphs. She gave me her hand and we left. It was late, the twilight would come soon. We went through a dusty road. I was trembling like a deeply impressed sparrow, gripping with fear the hand of the fairy godmother. The world was covered by an unknown significance, I understood nothing.
    We went in. Ms. Leca's mother was a fat lady, good-natured, with very small eyes and I have a vague idea that she wore a shawl. They bathed me in a metal basin filled with warm water as if the hands of my mother had flown to where I was. In Manhuaçu, the baths were also with warm water, in a metal basin kept well balanced on top of a long bench.
    I had dinner. I had no courage to say anything. I find in my lost memories, one hot collard green porridge, well seasoned, which floats lost in a forgotten sea of mist. It must have been the collard greens porridge of Ms. Leca's home. The porridge went down my throat and gave me existential strength, and left in me the feeling that there was something, there should be something worth of. No, obviously, I didn't think about that, but that feeling would be translated today as something more or less similar. They kept talking and looking and smiling at me the whole time. That old woman never left my mind. Not because of the care, the food or the cozy bed full of blankets where they placed me. It was because of the way she looked at me. It felt like two watery eyes, two eternities, two swords that filled me with protection and at the same time gave me an immense desire to cry.  
    She sat for the whole time, maybe in a rocking chair, maybe crocheting, I don't know. If Ms. Clotilde was Our Lady here on earth, that woman was much more, some more ancient and protective deity.
    My eyes were heavy at night and my scared body enjoyed the fullness of a sheet and soft blankets like the fur of tamed animals. In the morning, I had coffee with cookies. I felt again that wonderful feeling of being alive.
    Socrates spoke of a piece of bread, dry and hard, that he ate during the Peloponnesian war that he found the most delicious in the world such was his hunger. Where? devil! I did read this. His bread wasn't worth half of my collard greens porridge or that coffee with cookies. No, it wasn't worth it, no.
    He wasn't only seven-eight years old, a little more, a little less.

    to be continued on next sunday.