About the Author

Anthony De Sa

Books by this Author
Barnacle Love
Excerpt

TERRA NOVA
For nothing is fixed, forever and forever and forever, it is not fixed; the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have. The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the sea engulfs us and the light goes ­out.

James Baldwin

~ OF GOD AND COD ~

there is nothing he can do. He is lifted high into the air by the swells that roll, break, and crash upon themselves. His dory is smashed, the flotsam scattered: pieces of white jagged wood afloat, tangled in knotted rope, nothing much to grab hold of before the ocean lifts him higher, only to drop him into its turbulent waters, catching him in the current. Again, he pierces the surface, the biting cold filling his lungs as he coughs and sputters. It is the moment he needs. He reaches into his sweater and draws out the crucifix, which glistens in the moon’s light. He twirls it between puckered fingers, places it in his ­mouth–­between his clicking teeth. He feels its weight and shape cushioned on his tongue, closes his blue lips and allows himself to let go, to sink beneath the foaming surface into the dark molasses ­sea.

Big Lips. Are you ­here?
~

The Portuguese call it saudade: a longing for something so indefinite as to be indefinable. Love affairs, miseries of life, the way things were, people already dead, those who left and the ocean that tossed them on the shores of a different ­land–­all things born of the soul that can only be ­felt.

Manuel Antonio Rebelo was a product of this passion. He grew up with the tales of his father, a man who held two things most sacred, God and ­cod–­bacalhau–­and not always in that order. His father’s words formed vivid pictures of grizzled brave fishermen and whale hunters who left their families for months to fish the great waters off Terra Nova, the new land. Visions of mothers shrouded in black, of confused ­wives–­the pregnant ones feeling alone, the others glad for the respite from ­pregnancy–­spun in his mind. And then there were the scoured children, waving in their Sunday finery. The small boys bound in worn but neatly pressed blazers and creased shorts. The little girls scattered like popcorn in their outgrown Communion dresses as they watched their fathers’ ascents onto magnificent ships. In his dreams Manuel saw the men with their torn and calloused hands, faces worn, dark and toughened by the salted mist. As a child he would sit by the cliffs for hours, dangling his bare feet over the side of the ­hundred-­foot drop to the shore, kicking the rock with his pink heels, placing his hands over his eyes to shield the sunlight, already yearning for the fading figures of the White ­Fleet.

“One day I’ll disappear,” he’d say ­aloud.

He could make out the faint shadow of a large fish that circled just under the skinned surface of the ­water.

“Did you hear that, Big Lips?” he ­shouted.

As if in response, the large grouper seemed to stop. Manuel could see the fish’s fins fanning against the mottled blue and green of the ocean’s rocky shallows. He had once befriended one of these gentle giants. The villagers believed that these fish could live for up to one hundred years. This was in part due to the story of Eduarda Ramos, one of the village midwives, who insisted she had reclaimed her wedding band from the belly of a large grouper her son had caught–­fifty-­three years after she had lost the ring while cleaning some fish by the ­shore.

As the large fish swam away and disappeared into the ocean’s darker depths, Manuel couldn’t help but wonder if the fish he had named was still alive. If the fish he had just seen was Big ­Lips.

Manuel’s yearning became a palpable ache. The Azores held nothing for him. The tiny island of São Miguel was suffocating, lost as it was in the middle of the Atlantic. Early in life he knew the world his mother had formed for him was too small, too predictable. He was the oldest boy. But it wasn’t for this reason alone that Manuel carried the burden of his mother’s dreams. He bore a close resemblance to his father: the liquid steel colour of his eyes, his thick stubborn mound of blond hair, and the round angelic features of his face. The blunt noses, darker skin, and almost black, ­shrimp-­like eyes that adorned his siblings had been borrowed from his mother’s side. Manuel thought they were all pretty and he loved them, but he also knew that in his mother’s mind they held no ­promise.

“You are your father’s son. He lives in you,” she’d sigh. “You possess his greatness.” Manuel felt her breasts pressed flat against his back, her sharp chin digging into his head. “I can smell it in your breath’s sweetness.”

Maria had plucked Manuel out of her brood and he became the chosen one. Her ambitions for her son were firm rather than clear: Manuel would become a man of importance, learned and respected in the village and beyond. He would have the advantage of private tutors, which meant his siblings would need to keep the bottoms of their shoes stuffed with corn husks to clog the holes and keep their feet dry. Manuel was often ashamed of himself as he walked up Rua Nova with his brothers and sisters, his polished shoes shining like the ­blue-­black of a mussel. He would be taught a rigorous catechism by the village priest, Padre Carlos. The teachings of God would make him fair and ­virtuous.

“It’s all for you, filho,” she’d say, often in front of her other children as they went about, cowering, in their daily chores. It was only because they loved Manuel and never once blamed him for anything they were denied that he began to resent his mother’s ­cruelty.

His ­ten-­year-­old brother Jose came home one day with a sick calf that he walked through the front door and into their narrow dark hallway. Everyone smiled and watched as the brother who loved animals above anything else tugged at the sickly calf, urged it out the back door toward a patch of tall grass. But the pastoral calm was interrupted by the sharp crack of dry wood. Manuel saw his young brother fall to the ­packed-­earth floor like a ball of dough. His cheek lay pressed against the floor, he was afraid to lift his head. He licked the blood that trickled from the corner of his mouth. Manuel looked to his mother, who held the splintered end of the broom over her shoulder. She picked the boy up by the scruff of his collar and he dangled from her clenched ­fist.

“You get this filthy beast out of here. This is our home, not a barn,” her voice ­shook.

Jose turned the nervous animal around and, still in a daze, directed the reluctant calf back out the front door. Albina and the others continued their work. Maria Theresa da Conceição Rebelo sat back down on the chair and poured the beans into the sagging lap of her apron. Manuel picked up the broom. Looking straight at his mother, he flung the broken handle across the kitchen. The stoneware bowls that had been carefully set on the barnboard table smashed. He heard the drawn breaths of his sisters. His mother stood and the beans sprung from her apron across the floor. She cocked her hand over her shoulder. He stood still for what seemed like an eternity, challenging her with his glare. She lowered her arm as he stormed after his ­brother.

He was twelve then. Manuel vowed that somehow he would make it all better. Freedom would provide opportunities for his siblings. But first, he would have to save ­himself.

Now, at the age of twenty, Manuel maintained an indifference to Maria’s ambitions. Every spring he would venture to the same spot and perch himself on the overhang. He would look out to the sea, feel the warming winds against his pale smooth skin. His ­still-­boyish cowlick pressed against his forehead. He’d carefully roll each of his socks into a ball, stuff them into his new leather shoes, to kick his now yellowed heels against the cliff wall with a vigour that had only intensified during the months he had spent in the mildewed Banco Micaelense, counting out escudos with a vacant smile, throwing open all windows to breathe in the sea, hearing Amalia’s despair on the radio, her riveting outbursts of emotion. He knew it was time to tell his ­mother.

Mãe, I’m going away for a while,” he ­said.

She continued to hang the laundry on the line, the stubborn stains facing the house, the cleaner sides billowing toward the neighbours. She held wooden clothespins in her ­mouth–­sometimes three at a ­time–­securely between her crowded ­teeth.

Mãe, look at me,” he urged. “I need to go. I need to be part of a bigger world. I need to know if there’s room out there for me.”

Her job was only interrupted for a fraction of a second. Manuel realized she had been waiting for this. Only yesterday she had walked into the bank, and he had noticed a disguised sadness in her step as she approached him in his white shirt and tie; she had pressed the shirt that morning and was pleased that the crease in his cuff had held. She continued hanging the clothes as if she hadn’t heard. But Manuel could sense her anger, the disappointment in allowing herself to believe it was possible for her children to want for themselves the same things she did. Maria Theresa da Conceição Rebelo stopped. Manuel looked away for a moment to catch the silhouettes of his brothers and sisters behind the muslin curtains of the house. Albina was ­twenty-­two and the oldest child. Her hands rested on their young brothers, Mariano and Jose. They were eighteen, only ten months apart. Candida was fifteen and sat on the sill with her back leaning against the drapes. He had expected them to be there, listening from inside their shared bedrooms. He chose to move his blurred vision back toward his mother. His eyes travelled up to her hair, to the wisps that looped up, barely held by her hair comb. When did her hair turn grey? he ­thought.

Mãe–”

“You look like your father.”

She walked toward the house wiping her hands on a torn apron, kicking with her bare feet the feeding hens that got in her way. As she reached the door, she bent down and scooped one of the hens up and under her freckled arm. Turning to face her son, she stroked the chicken’s head with her free hand before her swollen, red fingers closed around its thin neck and tugged; just one quick yank before the bird’s head fell, still ­jerking.

“Your supper will be ready soon,” and she slammed the ­door.

They had not spoken. The night before he left, his mother had locked herself in her room. He found a package, brown folded paper tied neatly with trussing string, outside her bedroom door. He knew she wouldn’t come out. It had been too painful the first time, fifteen years back, when she had wrapped some cheese, bread, chouriço, and a few loose sheets of paper and bundled them all together with an embroidered dishtowel before she embraced her husband Antonio for the last ­time.

Manuel untied the knots, their whorls flicking against the parcel. He stood in front of her door, hoping she’d hear the rustling of paper. He was mindful of refolding the paper and rolling the string into a ­ball–­his mother could use it again. In the parcel, Manuel found a yellowed fisherman’s sweater smelling of ocean, and in a tiny envelope made of tin wrap, his father’s gold crucifix and chain. They were the only things that she had left of her husband; his body had been buried at sea. There were no words written on the paper or in the folds. He checked. He tried knocking, then stopped after three soft raps and put his lips to the door, touching the ­grain.

Adeus, Mãe,” he ­whispered.

He couldn’t recall exactly what his father looked like, only his ­blue-­grey eyes and warm smile. But he did remember sitting on his father’s knee and looking for the gleaming crucifix buried in his father’s chest hair. This was the same chain that he now placed around his neck. He swung the sweater under his arm and tossed his duffle bag over his shoulder, his fingers whitened by the strain. Later, tucked in his socks or wrapped in his underwear, Manuel would discover the gifts secretly offered, for fear of their mother’s disapproval, by his siblings: Albina’s embroidered M handkerchief, the copper whistle Jose used to herd cattle, and Mariano’s pocket knife. Also in his bag, pressed between his cotton undershirts, was a ­black-­and-­white photograph of Candida, lips pursed like a Hollywood actress caught in a hazy cloud of smoke. Manuel walked down the silent corridor and out the front ­door.

He arrived in the cobbled square of Ponte Delgada before daybreak. The rigged ships waited, tethered to the docks; their white sails reflected the morning moon but barely rippled in the early breeze behind the makeshift altar. The altar had been constructed on the docks and bore the symbol of an intertwined cross and anchor. The sails would form the backdrop for the traditional farewell mass. Soon the square would be filled with crowds pushing their way up to the front, wanting to be touched by the priest, blessed by his ­hand.

Manuel once understood that desire and need. He had reached out as a young boy when faced with the loss of his father. But his trust had been betrayed and his want silenced. He hadn’t thought of Padre Carlos for a while. Some things were best pushed far back into the dark places of the mind. But the impending voyage, his mother’s inability to understand his decision, had awakened the loneliness he had felt as a ­boy.

“Those who serve me, serve God,” Padre Carlos had ­whispered.

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Children of the Moon
Excerpt

Standing in the shadow of my balcony, I look beyond the hotel grounds to where the brown mouth of the Buzi River meets the Beira harbour, then out, out towards the open sea.

“I was born near the mountain of two peaks. White men called it Kilimanjaro.”

Serafim sits in a chair in my room and listens to my words. He is a journalist from Brazil, sent here, to Beira, to record my story for National Geographic. I know very little about him, except that I am comforted by the scritch-scratch of his pencil on paper and the crinkles around his eyes.

“My people, the Maasai, have always called that place Oldoinyo Oibor—White Mountain. They say the snowy peak, Kibo, is the house where all gods live.”

“Do you believe in God?” Serafim asks.

“There are no gods left. They have been driven off the moun­tain. If they ever were there.”

I turn slightly because I am curious to see his reaction. His face is down, looking at his hand move his pencil over paper. He is fifty—a solid man, his body strong and straight, his once-compact frame still visible under a layer of fat. His hair, the colour of warm sand, is parted on the side. Grease tames it into waves. His brown eyes are set close together and float above his small nose, made smaller by his bushy moustache. He needs a shave.

Serafim adjusts himself on the chair, the same chair he has been sitting on during this past week, ever since he arrived. He sat patiently, interviewing those I had invited to speak to him. They were mostly women and children, the men unwilling to trust an outsider and reluctant to share their stories of fear with another man.

Serafim clears his throat. He pinches the cigarette that rests in the ashtray and draws in the smoke. It comes out his nose in two streams that slow, then curl together.

“Is that why you are here? Looking for gods?” It is too late to soften the edges of my words, but I know he does not care whether I believe in God. That’s not why he’s here.

In the past, journalists like Serafim had travelled great dis­tances to meet me. They talked of the bigger world and how it was hungry to hear of my work. They brought food and school sup­plies for the children, and so I welcomed them. They promised my story would help end the threat faced by people like me. Their letters were thin and tilted forward as if they were being pushed from behind. I call them scribblers, because I once allowed myself to love a man who scribbled down his thoughts.

“I’ve startled you,” Serafim says, packing his things. “I guess today’s interview didn’t get off to a very good start.” I hear his satchel snap shut.

I adjust my eyeglasses. When I turn around, to lean against the balcony railing, Serafim is already standing near the door, his bag slung across one shoulder and pressed flat against his thigh. He moves to drop his cigarette in the hallway, but catches him­self, and instead bends down to douse it in a small puddle by the wall. His hands are always clean. His nails trimmed. He tucks the cigarette butt into his pocket. This man cares about the world.

“I can come back tomorrow. Or Sunday, if you like. When you have more time. If you’ll allow me, that is.”

I catch his scent—warm clove and curing tobacco. I close my eyes and my toes clench. I loosen my shawl. “Let me speak.”

“Please,” Serafim says, and there is such urgency in his voice that I want to weep.

“There is nothing worse in this world than to be silenced,” I say, and Serafim’s body relaxes against the door jamb. “Except, perhaps, being forgotten.”

Other journalists have come before him looking for facts. I have given them what they have asked, only to never hear from them again. I was left feeling used and empty. No more. I am grateful I have hunted down words over the years so that I can begin to construct a story—a story that is my own.

“People tell me I was born in 1956, or close to it. I do not disagree, but it means nothing to me. This is what I know. I grew up on the grasslands of Tanganyika, before the land became Tanzania. My people did not care about Europeans or the names they gave things. They drew lines wherever they wanted and claimed what wasn’t theirs. The Maasai are a proud people. We kept ourselves alive. The foreigners had all heard our story.”

“Story?”

“How the God, Enkai, sent the cattle to our people down a long rope between heaven and earth.”

The ocean breeze blows through my window, a distant smell of the salty monsoon sea and charcoal fires.

“We had been given everything. Until one of us tried to demand more from Enkai. He got angry and cut that rope. But you don’t need to know all this.”

“Please, continue. I want to hear it.”

Over and over I have rehearsed how I would tell this story. But this is the first time I have heard my words. I have to push past my uncertainty. “We were sent out of the garden, climbed up from a crater bounded on all sides by a steep cliff. The red dust clung to our skin. We survived the sun and dry lands for countless moons, herding our beasts along the great river they call Nile, walking by the rim of Enkai’s angry gash in the earth they also named, Great Rift Valley. You see, the white man has always wanted to tell our story—to name things. The Maasai had nothing they could take. They feared us as warriors—they could not possess us and sell us to foreign lands. And for these reasons they left us alone.”

I look over my balcony once again, out across the hotel grounds. Small fires are everywhere. A man has caught some pigeons and is plucking them. Some children are bathing in the stagnant water that has collected in the deep end of the pool. They do so under the bright red light that pulsates from the Coca-Cola machine. It was delivered to that spot, set up against what once was the cabana wall, shortly after the Africa Cup of Nations in 2013. They ran wires to connect that one machine. I have never seen anyone buy anything from it. It accepts nothing but South African rand. This building I live in was once called the Grande Hotel, but its rich guests haven’t walked these ruined halls for years. In 1974 the Portuguese soldiers who fought the last days of the War of Independence returned to Portugal and the hotel was left in ruins. As soon as we had taken back our land we entered a war amongst our­selves. Another twenty years of bloodshed, but those soldiers had no need for the hotel. It is now home to over two thousand people. There is no running water and no electricity. The city’s politicians leave us alone. They know if you poke a stick into an anthill, the ants scurry about, clean up the mess and strengthen things, as if erasing the action. With its many ghosts we share the hotel and drink leaking rainwater. Elevator shafts have become dark throats that swallow our waste, and at least once a year a child falls in and is lost to us. The war has scarred this place. Serafim can see that for himself.

“Here we are all broken—the lame, the poor, refugees, and albinos like me. We each have found a place. People with albi­nism have taken over Block B of the hotel. Here in Mozambique we are misunderstood. We are attacked, killed. Our body parts are sold to men who call themselves healers for use in charms and magical potions. But you have heard this.”

“Do you ever think of going back to the place you were born? Would you be safe there?” From the strength of his voice I know he has returned to the chair I set out for him.

“We are called zeru zerus there. It means we are nothing. Here, the people call me a branca. Albinos who do not belong to others have come here because they have heard of this place, and of me. I have no special magic, but I cannot convince them.”

Lulled by the sound of Serafim scratching his notes, I con­tinue. What comes through the gate of my mouth is carefully selected.

“If there is a god, the one my ancestors called Enkai, I have seen its face in three women. These were the strong ones who never feared my touch. Namunyak, my birth mother, gave me life and a name. She would not live long enough to see me laugh or play or take my first steps. Simu, my mother’s sister, took me in and nurtured a place of love in me so that I would not grow into a bitter root. Fatima, the last of the three women, she christened me Pó, the Portuguese word for pow­der. ‘A fitting name for a beautiful girl like you,’ she said.”

Serafim looks up from his notebook. His face glows.

“I have also seen the face of god in one man,” I say. “Ezequiel. He kept a harmonica in his pocket, an extra pair of boots over his shoulder, and a rifle across his back. He declared his love for me with a gift. And later he gave me another.” I catch my breath. “Because of Zeca, I can see things as Enkai had intended.” I remember thinking, This is the way the world is. This is the way the world was meant to be.

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Kicking the Sky

Kicking the Sky

edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback
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