— Stay, Carmen! There’ll be cake! We bought it just for you! Stay!
It was twenty past seven in the evening, and Carmen wanted to go home. She lived in Ladeira dos Tabajaras, two blocks away from her bosses on Santa Clara Street. Carmen’s mother, Dona Jandira, never let her forget how lucky she was that she could just walk down the hill to her job in Zona Sul. Dona Jandira had lived most of her life in Nova Iguaçu and had to start her commute to Leblon, where she worked, at four in the morning. This went on for over 40 years. How many times had Dona Jandira hesitated at the bus stop? She might have been happy if she’d gone and sat on the opposite bench and caught the bus to Juiz de Fora, where her parents lived. Who knows, maybe she could have found a piece of land there, and even had the time to see whether her children really went to school when they left the house. But the months went by and Dona Jandira never crossed the street, nor did she change buses. Each day she got off in Leblon and each night she slept in Nova Iguaçu. Then she caught an illness which ended up devouring her from the inside without her even knowing. Carmen, who worked for the Ortega family on Santa Clara Street, was the only one of her children who stayed with her. After Dona Jandira got sick, they managed to move out of Nova Iguaçu to Zona Sul, nearer to the hospital where Dona Jandira was being treated. The important thing to Dona Jandira was that life was improving with each generation: Carmen didn’t have to wake up at 4 am. She woke at 6.30 and by 7.30 she was already at work in Santa Clara. It was a blessing.
On the day of the cake, Carmen could no longer bear to be around her boss Dona Rafaela, her spoiled children who she had pretended to love for over 20 years, or her smarmy husband, seu Roco. A strange name, but his mother was, after all, a Spaniard called Yolanda. Carmen’s bosses worked from home for a marketing agency, pottering about all day under her nose. They ordered coffee, they ordered juice, they ordered silence. Now, the moment she started to leave, they were asking her to stay just a few more minutes. There was no escape: they were celebrating 25 years of Carmen working for them with such dedication. She was part of the family, after all. Just as Dona Jandira had been part of the Martinelli Maias’, family ties which lasted up until the mother Madame Luiza’s visits became increasingly rare and finally, like dust after sunset, she disappeared.
When Aurora, Dona Rafaela’s second child, insisted she stay for cake, Carmen thought that at least she didn’t have to eat something she had made herself, she didn’t remember having baked a cake that day. Guilherme, the eldest, whose chance to leave the nest had long since passed him by, had gone to the shop on the corner and bought a fancy cake. Dona Rafaela informed her that it was lemon mousse with ganache. Carmen had worked there for 25 years, and still they did not know that she detested everything that tasted of lemon. Now she would have to eat a forkful to satisfy her employer. Dying from exhaustion, she wanted to go home, but now had to look grateful for being at the job for so long.
This work anniversary almost coincided with her birthday. She was going to be 45 years old in two days and she had still never had sex. Whenever she went to the vegetable market her friends would chat about the escapades in the utility rooms, and it irritated Carmen. She spent sleepless nights wondering what was wrong with her. She was sexy, she had all her teeth, she used deodorant every day in the hope that today would be the day. A friend once said that it was because Carmen was a Capricorn with ascendant in Virgo and moon in Cancer. She was complicated.
When the celebration at the Ortegas’ had finished, Carmen went home. Before she left, she cleared away the plates and forks they had used for the cake. Once the kitchen was clean, she thanked them for their kindness and left. Carmen went the same way back home every day. On the way up the hill, she stopped in front of a bar full of miserable drunks on Figuereido de Magalhães, next to the beauty salon. She walked into the packed bar and asked somebody for a cigarette. Men eyed her up, but no one approached her. She made herself look innocent and keen, but to no avail. Perhaps they were too drunk. She slunk up the hill, stopping at a crossroad, still quite far from home. Cars went by, carrying all kinds of people: police, peasants, drug lords. Everyone warned her that the crossroad was dangerous. The crime there was unbelievable. It was worse, of course, for women. Women are raped, Carmen, many women, almost every day. For more than 20 years Carmen had walked up the hill, stopped, smoked a cigarette, and waited for a man to tell her to get into the car, and then fuck her. Familiar people passed by, unfamiliar people passed by, but Carmen stayed a virgin. She dreamed of sensations she did not recognise.
One day, Dona Rafaela asked her if she could watch over the children, who were every bit as grown up as she was, until she and seu Roco came home from a celebrity dinner. The boss would pay for a taxi or Carmen could sleep at work. But Carmen had a terminally ill mother, she couldn’t risk staying away from home even for one night. They would be back by midnight at the latest, seu Roco assured her. They got back drunk at half past three in the morning. Carmen wanted to kill them. Her mother would be hungry and thirsty, and she needed her pills on time. Shit! In the taxi, the driver said he couldn’t go up the one-way street. Carmen got out of the car and ran as if she were on her way to take her mother down from the gallows. Poor Dona Jandira, stuck in bed, practically paralysed, waiting for death to arrive. Carmen had to get there first. She passed the crossroads, and, exhausted, slowed her pace. Along with the toc-toc of Carmen’s clogs, there came the sound of a sandal scraping against the pavement. She looked behind her but saw no one. She began to run again, but there it was. She turned around and saw a man she had never seen before. He whistled at her and called her sexy. Carmen felt her blood fizz and tasted terror…
She hurries, the footsteps following her. She starts panting. She runs faster, gulping down the still air around her silhouette. The footsteps still follow her. She hurries over cobblestones and slips and falls, gets back up. She’s sprinting now. Can’t look back; she looks back. She’s running out of breath. Still a ways from home. He’s a predator. He’ll catch her; vultures are meat eaters; they’re deadly. She keeps running, she mustn’t fall, keeps going, her legs convulse, she falls. The gravel cuts her sweaty palms. She staggers onto her feet, gasping, and starts running again. She manages to avoid his grasp, screaming as she totters on, then feels his touch. Silence.
Silence, damn it!
In Tibet they have sky burials. Corpses are dismembered and left high in the mountains to be eaten by vultures.
Now Carmen is no longer a virgin. Had she broken into a run before, scampering off like a little goat, a wolf would have pounced on her. Now a vulture has devoured her flesh.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
EMYR HUMPHREYS translates from Portuguese to English and from English to Welsh. He graduated from the research MA programme in Translation Studies from University College London with a distinction in 2019. Since then, he has had translations published in Latin American Literature Today, Qorpus and Joyland Magazine, and his translations of texts by classic Brazilian writers such as Machado de Assis, Oswald de Andrade and Júlia Lopes de Almeida are featured on the reading list for UCL’s fourth-year Portuguese programme. He currently lives and works in mid-Wales.