"What We Do With Silence"
I have been thinking a lot about my second family, a group of women- a mother and two daughters, who live in the difficult favela system of Rio de Janeiro, Brasil. I have been thinking about them because of the powerful grip World Pulse has taken on my life as I realize all the potential that exists within global communities of women. I have also been thinking about them because the particular favela they reside in has been experiencing a threatening tide of violence between drug traffickers and policemen and I worry every day about their safety. In my year plus living with them in their home and in the favela they showed me many aspects of their paradoxical world. This is a story I wrote about some of my experiences I had with them in the favela and about my relationship wtih my Brazilian sister Jackie, who I miss very deeply.
"What We Do With Silence"
Jackie is sitting on the steps that lead from her tiny home down to the home of her uncle. Her three children, sun kissed from Rio de Janeiro’s burning February summer, hang on her like monkeys clinging to limbs of a tree. I rest my elbows on the iron bar of the window and spread my fingers in the space between outside and in. The first blast sounds like an avalanche untangling itself from the mountain. The sudden and boundless rumble rattles in my belly, echoing above my head and below my feet. From the window I see Jackie stumble down the stairs with her baby bouncing against her chest and her daughter and son grabbing the hem of her skirt. She catches my eye for a split second and her gaze snags me. I feel its sudden impact and then I hit the floor.
After the last time I heard this rumble, Jackie had shaken her thin golden braids like rain upon her son’s face as she held him in front of her wide smile. She repeated this motion over and over until he giggled in the silence that ensues after the gunfire. Jackie, when I met her, was silent and smiling and he was still in her belly, waiting to enter the battleground of Falete. In Falete we would all wake simultaneously to breathe inside the pocket of perfect coolness the night allowed before the hungry sun reclaimed our bodies. Rio de Janeiro is green like the sky rained emeralds; is green up to her highest peaks and Falete, like all of Rio’s slums, rested atop the hillsides to kiss the fiery, tropical sky.
Jackie never worried when the guns fired. Her two year old cried loudly and her mother clicked her tongue to mutter about the end of the world. Jackie kept sweeping the kitchen floor. She put on her cut off denim skirt and she tickled her baby’s face. She looked at me with large eyes and laughed, “Eh maloucera neh?” “This is craziness huh?”
I am on my stomach on the floor, legs wedged under the bed, face pressed into the dirty carpet. It has been twenty minutes since the hail of bullets stopped and the stillness began. For twenty minutes I have been lying on the floor and wondering where they landed. I tell myself that Jackie is downstairs in her Uncle’s house taking cover in his bedroom. I saw her descending the stairs, but I don’t hear the two year old crying or the baby giggle. All that comes from below is silence.
The favelas of Brazil are notorious for their tangle of colorful shacks, drug trafficking rings, violent encounters with the police and Brazilian funk music. They call Jackie favelada, meaning someone with the real style of the favela. And oh how the favela can be stylish. Stylish like AK47s slipped between the hipbone and the Bermuda shorts of 22 year old drug lords. Stylish like high-heeled women stomping their feet to the ratatat percussion of a funk song blasting. Stylish like the coded victory cry of three bullets released into the air, while dancing bodies chant, “The police don’t come to our parties”.
Jackie knew the short cuts between the winding maze of staircase and gutter, and she knew the people that did their business there. She ran errands for her family because she could get there quickly without bus fare in her pocket. She ran errands for her family because she understood the favela like a gardener understood the geometry of his garden. Because she was willing to touch things that had not yet become beautiful.
The first two months I lived in Falete Jackie and I barely spoke to each other. She watched me, curious and unmoved, this strange American who had befriended her mother and become an unexpected guest in their tiny home. She refused to let me sweep the kitchen floor.
One night as I danced with her mother in the living room, overcome with the beat of my favorite Brazilian song, Jackie leapt up from her seat with a wail and started shaking her hips in circles around my body, yelling, “Coracao da Brasilieira Malouca eh?!” “I never knew about your crazy Brazilian heart!”
I crawl to the doorway, where I lie and weigh the risk of standing upright to move towards the staircase that will take me to her. It has been thirty minutes since the last explosive blast of bullets and I have no idea when they will erupt next. It has been thirty minutes since I heard the sound of Jackie’s children. I wonder if we mimic what we are shown. If we yell back at bullets and bite our tongue in their ceasefire. The kids in this neighborhood imitate the sound of machine guns when they hear the percussive beat of a hip hop song. I don’t know what sound we make when we imitate death, but I am sure I have heard it here. I am sure that in the space between myself and Jackie, there is a path from the hand that resists violence to the hand that accepts it. I plead with myself to cross over. I plead with Jackie’s children to make noise, but only the high-pitched wind whistles in my ear.
I think Jackie’s favorite moments were at night when all her kids were asleep and no one had come home yet. I would find her in bed covered in a blanket with her youngest baby on her chest, her four year old at the other end of the mattress and her two year old on the bed by her side. The air was perfect with the breath of the children. And though Jackie’s eyes were closed, she was awake and she called my name softly.
We had our most intimate conversations on these nights. Jackie, who didn’t tell secrets to her mother because they were too much alike and didn’t tell secrets to her sister because she was younger than Jackie and more religious, told them to me when we were alone and her kids were asleep in the bedroom in Falete.
She told me how much she missed the father of her four-year-old daughter. That he was the one she was still in love with, but he chose to be a trafficker “…and that”, she insisted, “is not a life. Just a short life before death.” She thought he was in jail right now and she pretended to have conversations with him between the bars.
“So I understand,” She whispered, “how your heart still breaks over the man you loved. I understand because I still break over someone too. I understand how you can be with other men and yet one leaves an ache and a longing in your belly. The heart is difficult.”
Months later I would sit crying over a broken heart by the side of Jackie’s mother while Jackie prepared dinner. Without warning she would walk into the living room with flushed cheeks and spill a bag of rice as she shouted and smiled, “We deserve good men! We deserve good men!”
It was the first time I had ever heard her say that she deserved something good and so I nodded furiously. Because we do. We do.
When Jackie cleans the house she moves briskly, like a current of ocean or a gust of wind. She doesn’t put things back into place carefully, yet she manages to never make a sound. This is how I move downstairs. Before the doorway of her uncle’s house I pause and press my ear into the splintered wood. I want Jackie to teach me how she walks through her world like a queen. I want her to teach me the swiftness of her hands and the abandon of her hips. If I had a sound that mimicked Jackie it would be Rio at four in the afternoon, when the sun crackles on concrete and the tapping of footsteps patiently prepare themselves for the rattle of dancing.
The door’s creaky hinge is the first thing to fight back the silence. Next is the soft whisper of my name on Jackie’s lips. She is lying on her uncle’s bed, eyes closed, her baby on her chest, the other two children at her feet. She grins as I curl my body into the tiny spot beside her.
“They were tired.” She says, brushing a long braid off of her face. “Its so peaceful when they sleep.”