Firsthand Account

By BRUNA DANTAS LOBATO

The plan was to take the bus to my father’s farm, to see him in person for a change. My mother said, Your father is too busy for you, and you don’t know his wife. But I went anyway. I wanted to be able to say that my father was unavailable, firsthand account.

I packed only one large duffel bag, and my mother drove me to the bus station. She told me, Call me if you need anything. I said I’d call her every day.

I didn’t mind the nine-hour ride.

The landscape was mostly dry. Fields of sugarcane, carnauba palm trees, and an extinct volcano by the interstate. I saw two car accidents on the highway: a sedan that hit a donkey near Mossoró, and an overturned truck with smashed windows.

I got off the bus in Horizonte, right outside the city of Fortaleza.

I saw my father right away. He was waiting for me, leaning against his old Chevy, kicking dirt, his black fanny pack hanging over his khaki shorts.

Welcome, princesa, he said. Hope you had a safe trip.

My bus was late because of a car accident in one of the main intersections, I told him. A donkey got killed.

That’s OK, he said. How much you’ve grown this year.

 

The drive to his house was on dirt roads. I watched the cactuses and dry weeds, then a decrepit tile factory. Dad said that they threw away lots of broken tiles, and those were what he used to make the floor at home. He told me about building the house, making a roof, the architectural structure of an artificial pond, cleaning the swimming pool, sewage systems, and water pipes.

He parked the car by the front gate. We walked down the path lined with potted gardenias that led to the two-story house.

His wife was sitting on the porch, knitting. She put her needles down when she saw me, and we shook hands. Me and the woman my father didn’t leave for my mother, fourteen years ago, when I came along. I was surprised by how ordinary she looked. Marisa, a wife and mother of two.

I followed Dad into the living room and took a look at the floor tiles. The broken pieces were cemented together, the thin grout line in the middle. Some of them didn’t match, but they looked fine.

He led me into the guest room. I placed my bag on the twin bed.

You should unpack, he said.

But I didn’t unpack. I checked the cell phone reception and called my mom to say I was safe.

 

He gave me a tour of the farm and showed me the dogs, the mare, the fish, and the pet vultures. Twelve black ones were perched on the fence around the artificial pond full of fish. I stood by the water, watching some of the birds defecate on their own legs to cool down.

We should grill some of the fish, he said. They breed too fast, and there isn’t enough space in the pond.

What about the vultures? I asked.

What about them? he said.

I’ve never seen a vulture this close before, I admitted.

You’ll get used to them, he told me.

Dad and I caught the fish for dinner just before dark, while his wife swam in the swimming pool. I caught a tilapia the size of my forearm. It struggled in my hands, and I almost dropped it. I kept thinking about the hook piercing its mouth, like the time when the wire from my braces jabbed into the inside of my cheek. I was afraid removing the hook would hurt, so Dad grabbed the fish from my hands and pulled it out for me. The lip split open. There was no blood.

Pain is a necessary part of life, he told me as he scraped off the scales.

We prepared six fish fillets with salt and lemon and served them with roasted potatoes and rice.

 

Dad shut his book and lit his pipe with his glasses resting on the tip of his nose. I read the name on the book cover: Érico Veríssimo’s Olhai Os Lírios do Campo. Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin—like in the Sermon on the Mount that I’d read for Bible study.

How’s your mother doing? he asked.

She’s fine, I said. She’s looking for a new job.

Your mother. Always full of ambition, he said.

He smiled with his prosthetic teeth and adjusted his glasses closer to his eyes.

I said, Dad, do you want to do something together? We could go sit outside and play cards.

He closed his eyes and sucked his pipe, then released the smoke with a sigh so deep that he leaned back in his chair.

Maybe later, he said.

I walked out to the porch. It was a warm night. The trees rustled in the wind. Only one of the pet vultures sat on the same fence as before, solitary.

Your vulture is alone, I told him without looking back.

He joined me, standing by my side.

Yeah, that happens.

 

I could hear the TV upstairs as I searched through the closet by my bed: men’s shirts, thin blankets, and two hammocks. They were all stacked up in neat piles, folded square. I ran my fingers through the shirts and crumpled up the blankets. I felt this urge to touch everything in their house.

In the dresser drawers, I found a stack of magazines with lyrics to popular songs of the ’80s tucked between old appliance manuals and Kardec’s The Spirits’ Book. My mother’s signature was on each of their inside covers.

I studied the photos of my two half brothers on top of the dresser: in several, they were wearing matching clothes or on vacation trips to the beach; in one they were adults, each holding hands with a young woman who might be his girlfriend. I looked at the pictures a while longer, trying to memorize the faces of these brothers I’d only ever seen in passing.

I found no photo of me.

I read the lyrics of “Just Like Starting Over” and “A Vida Tem Dessas Coisas” until I fell asleep, shrouded by the mosquito net.

 

When I awoke in the morning, Dad and his wife had gone to work. Sitting on my bed, I watched through the window the gray mare walk in circles in the wooden stall behind the banana trees.

I watered the flowers and searched through the bookshelves and drawers in the living room. From the couch, one of the poodles watched me go through Dad’s stuff. I found a shopping list and two twenty-real bills inside a blue hardcover book. To buy: rolling paper, flour, butter, 35mm film, eggs.

I also found a book by Clarice Lispector I’d always wanted to read but never managed to buy. I went to my room and slipped it into my bag. I didn’t worry about finding something to leave in its place.

In the kitchen cabinets, I found cigarette packs everywhere, and also tobacco in a sandwich bag in one of the drawers. There were two wooden pipes in another drawer, among knives and a can opener. There wasn’t much in the fridge. I sat at the table and ate chocolate cereal as I examined the bag of tobacco.

I called Mom at work. She hoped I was having fun with Dad.

Yes, I am.

She asked, Has his wife been nice to you?

It’s been fine. Marisa’s not so bad.

Have you asked your father if he can give you some money?

Not yet.

You know you’ll have to ask him, she said. You’re his daughter.

I know.

What are you up to right now?

I’m waiting for them to come home, I said.

One of the dogs stood by my legs, looking up at me. I petted its head.

They’re at work, I said. It’s just me and the dogs, for now.

At four o’clock, I ate rice and scrambled eggs on the porch. It was almost dark. I observed one of the dogs, this time a Brazilian mastiff, scare away the vulture. The bird perched on the gate that led to the backyard.

There were too many mosquitoes, so I went back inside and sat there for maybe a half hour watching the empty rooms. The house smelled of wood. I washed the dishes.

Dad called me and whispered over the phone: I’ll be home late. I left you ten reais on top of the stereo, in case you need to buy anything. There’s a store down the street. Feel free to eat all the chocolate truffles in the fridge. Has your mom called today? I’m sending her a kiss, he said. His voice was velvety, if a voice could be that, until he suddenly interrupted the flow with coughs and then a pause. I liked to picture him replacing the pipe in his mouth. Or his wife questioning the kisses he’d sent my mom.

See you at home, Dad, I said.

 

I sat on the couch across from him and asked if my half brothers would come see me. They lived in the city, where they worked in furniture design, both of them.

I understand if they’re busy, I said.

Of course they’ll come, honey, he said. They always come here for New Year’s. I’ll give them a call in the morning.

Marisa watched TV upstairs, and I could hear her laughter from time to time. I leafed through a craft magazine I found on the coffee table, and he read his book—one of his two poodles lying by his feet and the other lying on the couch—until it was time to go to bed.

Good night, my dear, he said as he sniffed my hair. He smelled like cigarette smoke.

He walked upstairs, and his two poodles followed him.

 

The next day was a Saturday. Dad told me he wanted to get Marisa a gift. We drove past fields of dead crops until we entered a small town with a mall.

You’ll pick my gift for her, he told me.

Why can’t you choose something yourself?

I’m not good at buying presents for women, he said. C’mon, give me a hand.

I walked through the aisles, searching for anything she might like. Shirts with flowery patterns, sweet-scented colognes, and golden necklaces. Maybe an appointment book. I asked Dad if he had any preference.

No, he said. Whatever you want.

He must have known I didn’t want to buy her anything.

I picked out a leather messenger bag that was perfect for carrying books and papers.

What do you think of this bag? I asked him.

Perfect, he said. I’ll tell her: Honey, I thought of you the minute I saw it.

 

When we got back, one of my half brothers and his girlfriend were carrying their bags into the house.

There you are, my brother André said when he saw me. He put his bags down and gave me a hug. He looked just like his picture, his hair still parted on the right, all these years later.

His girlfriend smiled at me. I heard so much about all of you, she said.

We walked inside. Marisa waited for them in the kitchen.

Welcome to the family, darling, she told André’s girlfriend.

I sat by the table and watched them hug.

I’m so happy you’re here, she said.

We ate lunch and talked about dog birthday parties and the weather. Fortaleza is extremely violent, my brother said at one point. Twenty people are murdered in the metropolitan area every weekend. Just watch the news.

Your city makes mine seem peaceful, I said.

Believe me, your town is a paradise, he said.

Later that day, my father took a photo of my brother and me by the pond. We both smiled, his arm around me. I hoped Dad would put it up with the others.

I’ll send you a copy of the photo in the mail, he told me.

I nodded.

I asked him, Why didn’t Paulo come?

Your brother is busy with work. A project for a client.

Over the holidays?

That’s what he told me.

 

I woke up early. I put on my flip-flops and a sweatshirt and walked outside. Marisa was sitting on the porch, drinking coffee. I sat on the chair beside her.

You couldn’t sleep? she asked.

No.

She sipped her coffee.

It’s good to get up early, she said.

I watched the rain falling on the swimming pool, each raindrop making a dent on the surface.

Marisa told me about her plans for the day, to spend the afternoon working on her embroidery and pyrography in her studio.

Your father was the one who taught me how to do woodburning, she said. A long time ago. When the boys were born, we burned their names on a piece of wood and put it up on their bedroom door. That was our first of many projects.

 

The rain stopped. André and his girlfriend showed up in their swimsuits.

I didn’t feel like swimming.

I went for a walk around the farm. I passed by the mare in the wooden stall and the banana trees. She quietly stood there, her smooth hair gleaming in the sun. I walked over to the genipapo tree, surrounded by dry seeds and fruit on the ground. I grabbed a piece of fruit and fed her the slimy yellow pulp. She let me stroke her mane.

Dad was working on his pottery in the barn. I watched him for a while.

What are you making? I asked.

Plant pots, he said.

Down the hill on the back of the property, there was a weak stream. Dad’s canoe was on the side, tied to a tree. I didn’t know if the stream flowed north or south. I tried to hear cars pass on the highway to orient myself, but they were too far. What did I know about this place?

It was an area of 4,200 square meters. His house was exactly 40.4 kilometers from the ocean. He built it with his own hands. He liked that it was quiet here.

 

Back at the house, André was grilling meat.

You’re not a vegetarian, are you? he asked.

I’m not.

I didn’t like meat when I was a child, he said. But Dad would force it down my throat.

Really? My mom told me that he isn’t the type who would raise his voice for anything. Sometimes it gave her the creeps.

How so?

I said, She told me she would complain about something he’d done, yell at him, even throw things. And all he would do was say, Yes, sorry about that, sweetie. Now let it go. Let’s dance to Frank Sinatra and drink wine.

You’re lucky, he said. I don’t even know this man you’re describing.

I said, I don’t recognize the man either of you is describing.

André’s girlfriend was lying in a hammock, reading a book. I sat on the lounge chair by her side and tried to start a conversation. She put her book down and smiled at me.

I asked her what she did back in Fortaleza. She told me she was an elementary school teacher. She’d graduated from college a couple of years back with a degree in literature.

Did you meet my brother in college? I asked.

We met at a mutual friend’s birthday party. Your brother didn’t go to college, she said.

Right.

I hear from your father that you like reading, she said. We should hang out at one of the big bookstores in the city sometime, you and I. Your father also loves to read. He might want to come along as well, she said. If he has time, with all that extra work.

What work? I asked.

His volunteer project. He’s helping build the community center in town, she said. He’ll teach ceramics there once the construction is over.

 

On New Year’s Eve, I called my mother from my cell phone. She was on her way to the beach, where she would watch the fireworks. She wished me happiness and peace. I wished her the same. I imagined her alone at the beach later that night, the white summer dress and the fireworks lighting up her face. I wished I could be there with her, to follow the tradition of jumping over the seven waves and to keep each other company.

My father made us milk pudding and roast beef for dinner, and opened a bottle of champagne. André and his girlfriend began to pour it into the glasses.

This is delicious, Marisa said, pointing at the bottle.

Dad offered me a glass. I took a sip.

I don’t like the bubbles, I said.

Come on, he said.

He lit a cigarette. OK, kid. So what is it that you want?

Nothing, I said. I’m good.

We all went to sit outside, and there were barely any stars in the sky. We all wore white. It’s a Brazilian tradition, to help bring good luck into our lives. Dad told me, You look just like your mother, seu jeitinho, everything.

I said, I look like both of you.

It took me a while to fall asleep. I wrote in my diary a New Year’s resolution list:

Spend more time with family, Read 50 books, Study hard, Save money, Speak my mind. For DadQuit smoking.

When I woke up, André and his girlfriend had already packed.

Goodbye, maninho, I said.

Happy New Year, he said.

 

It was just the three of us in the kitchen, and not even the flies made a sound. Marisa washed the dishes from the night before. I watered the plants growing on the windowsill. I suddenly felt an immense loneliness, looking out that window and watching the dogs playing in the garden, the two poodles and the Brazilian mastiff. Dad lit his pipe.

Could you please not smoke right now? I asked. I have a sore throat.

Smoking is part of the package, he said. Your throat hurts? Here, take some cough drops. He opened a drawer and handed me one.

It makes me sick, I said. But you still do it.

Marisa said, Your father was already a smoker when I met him. If I wasn’t able to make him stop all these years, you certainly won’t.

He smiled and said, You should listen to her.

 

That afternoon, Dad and I sat by the pool in our swimsuits and nylon shorts. I sipped coconut water while he packed and lit his pipe.

How is school? he asked.

I could tell he didn’t want a real answer, but I gave it to him anyway.

It’s good. My teachers always tell Mom that I’m the best student.

He blew a long puff.

Maybe you could help me with my summer homework later today, I said.

Sure, he said. If I have time.

Dad.

Yes.

Mom called and asked about when you’ll be able to send her some money to help with my schoolbooks. This one time.

He put his pipe down on his lap.

I’m not sure, honey. I’ll talk to your mother.

You can talk to me.

I already told you, I’m not sure. I might need the money for other things.

Of course, I said. Why did I even think you’d say something else?

I see. Is that why you came here? To ask me for money?

I didn’t say anything. I thought of the time when Dad took me to meet his mother, when I was ten years old, and I overheard her telling him that his bastard child and her mom were such leeches. Dad had defended us then. Said, You’re mad because you know they’re more than that.

This time it was different.

He said, I have a family of my own—tell your mom that.

I kept my eyes on the water.

I slowly stood up and dropped my towel on the floor. I would get into the poolin reality a concrete tank just deep enough for someone to drown in. I went down the slippery steps and rushed to dive into the cold water, wishing to stay there until it got dark. Only my head stuck out, and I felt the pressure on my chest that I feel when things are too sad, or when it’s hard to breathe with my body underwater.

I didn’t move. I was ashamed to let him see that I couldn’t swim.

 

I sat on the porch with a thin blanket over my legs. I looked at the dogs, the lonely vulture, the garden, the pool. My father sat down on the chair by my side.

Here, he said. He handed me a one-hundred-real bill. You can go home, if you’d like.

I nodded.

I didn’t say goodbye to Marisa.

I packed my things in the morning, before dawn. I kept the music magazines that belonged to my mother as a token. I decided to also take some of Dad’s books and chocolate truffles with me. I stuffed them in my bag, wrapped in my towel.

I put my bag in the back seat and waited inside his car.

Dad drove me to the bus stop on the dusty road, between barbed-wire fences in the dark. On our way, he was more silent than usual. I only heard him when he coughed. But I watched him. His brown eyes were so kind-looking. His hands were firm on the wheel and made you feel safe.

 

[Purchase your copy of Issue 13 here.]

 

Bruna Dantas Lobato was born and raised in Natal, Brazil. She received her BA in literature from Bennington College and is currently an MFA candidate in fiction at New York University, where she is the fiction editor of Washington Square Review. Her essays and translations from the Portuguese have previously appeared in BOMBPloughshares online, Words Without BordersThe Christian Science Monitor, and elsewhere. “Firsthand Account” is her first published story.

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