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There Used to be Birds

Written by Moacir Fio

Edited by André da Cunha Melo

Translated by Marina Ferreira

Copyedited by Maira M. Moura

Aunt Celinha was once again pregnant, meaning they’d spend more time at grandma’s house in Piranji, mom said while she prepared the night before the trip. She had to care for her sister who was about to have a baby, and Alisson heard his father yelling through the wall – the swearing, the threats. When they left the next morning, his luggage was left in the hallway. Alisson was scared that he’d leave once again and go back to being a shadow lurking on seldom weekends, but forgot his worries once the sea appeared through the car window. Up until then, the trip had been awful. His brother, Vítor, cried the entire time asking for their dad, and his mom would turn up the radio volume to mask her own sobs. Alisson was eleven years old and already knew some things were so complicated that they didn’t matter.

They arrived before lunch. Even from behind the clouds, the sun would turn the dirt road into a river of fire. The houses opened up to the beach, except their family’s, located at the end of the village facing the hill – his great grandpa’s shenanigans, who was said to have gone mad. Grandma appeared at the gate to welcome them, a woman who had wed too young and repeated every birthday that this would be her last.

The house felt stuffy, and his mom entered already opening the windows to let a breeze in. Grandma complained about the chill, but did nothing of it. Aunt Celinha appeared from the kitchen, with a massive belly, asking for hugs. Alisson gave his aunt a kiss, asked if Marquim was asleep, left his bags in the bedroom, and left to the porch, where he knew he’d find Dalva.

The cousin drew under the acerola cherry tree with a stick on the sand. This one likes being in the sun, said grandma, because Dalva’s like her dad, a village fisherman who passed in an accident soon after she was born. Alisson’s dad always said: watch out, because men in that house either die or go mad.

“Did you come for the weekend?” asked Dalva.

“Until the baby is born.”

“So, you’re on vacation? We can finish it!”

Alisson went to the sun and gave his cousin an awkward hug. She was a year older, but smaller. They admired the drawing on the sand, a little map made of curves and tilted lines.

“Wanna see how the city’s looking like before they call us back in?”

They ran up the hill, laughing and complaining about the hot sand under their bare feet, and walked down a stinky stream opening to the sea, with the mangrove roots crossing through the water like the fingers of an old man. When the wind blew, everything stank of rotten eggs – aunt Celinha would say it was leftover sewage from the old school. There, over the dried-up mud where you could step without sinking, was where they played – where neither crabs nor midges could get to, where there used to be birds, and now, only silence, on occasion disturbed by the sound of something moving in the water. If it weren’t for Dalva, Alisson would admit to being scared. 

From a distance, he saw through the foliage that the city had grown. Dalva had erected twelve new little houses, bigger than the ones they built last summer, using twigs and pieces of bricks found in the school. They were all lined up one beside another in blocks and streets that lead down a main avenue, interrupted here and there by twisted roots and small piles of rubble. He and his cousin had been erecting the city since the year before, and Alisson was surprised by how much Dalva had built by herself, and a bit upset too. At least the larger area, right in the middle of the central avenue, remained clear. There they’d make the mansion for the mud man. 

When they returned, grandma was waiting at the table. No one had touched the food. The smell of the cooked chicken mixed with that of the porridge Aunt Celinha cooked for Marquim, who crawled around Vítors’ figures. Mom asked them to clean up, but one look from grandma froze them in place. She was hard on Dalva, perhaps because she didn’t have a father, and lived there with aunt Celinha, dividing the house with blinds always lowered. “I hate this hag,” said Dalva, “living here sucks.” Alisson agreed so as to not upset her, but he envied her a little.  Once you get used to the beach horizon, an apartment in Fortaleza feels like a dull crate.

After lunch, they had to wait for the sun to cool down before going back out. Mom made them take Vítor, who was now hitting Marquim, so the toys were taken along to the beach, where the brat could run around with his soccer ball instead of listening to what they planned.

“Mom said aunt already chose the boy’s name. It’s gonna be Antonio, right? Like grandpa.”

Dalva slurped the rest of her chocolate milk through the straw and tossed the box towards the waves, but the wind brought it back, making it roll over the sand.

“I don’t care”, she said. She didn’t like the idea of having another brother, and had already confessed to Alisson, had it been just her and her mom, they’d be able to leave grandma’s house, maybe even live in Fortaleza. Perhaps this was true because Alisson remembered his mom talking about cleaning up a corner for Dalva and aunt Celinha, sometime before she was pregnant with Marquim.

“I also don’t like Vítor,” said Alisson, observing from a distance as his brother threw himself into the water.

“I just want to leave.”

“Wish I could come too.”

“Why? You have a dream life.”

Alisson hid his face. He wished he could explain where the feeling of always being distant and lonely came from, how it had built up inside, and grew into something wild scratching at him, always ready to escape, attack, and bite. How come — if he had a bedroom with a bed, if he had internet and a cell phone, if his mom and dad never hit him, if he even had a dad again? But then, Dalva said the best thing she could’ve said.

“If you really want to, truly, I can talk to the mud man to take you with me.”

Alisson forgot about his eyes filled with tears and smiled. The mud man only talked to his cousin, because Alisson closed his eyes every time he came near. He thought the creature didn’t like him. Who would like a spoiled brat who came twice a year, when there was brave, smart, and foul-mouthed Dalva? Besides, the mud man always approached with such a great effort, moaning as if he was about to die, and it seemed hard to ask favors from anyone like that, at the end of their lives. 

“We just need to finish the city?” asked Alisson.

“And build the mansion.”

“That’s gonna be hard.”

“The hardest is the door, but I’ve got this. It’s behind the old jangadas[i], wanna go?”

Alisson agreed, but as soon as they stood up Vítor came asking where they were off to and started skipping after them. Dalva told the prick to fuck off and said to Alisson they’d have to do it later, when there was no big shit baby to take care of.

In the bedroom she shared with Marquin and aunt Celinha, Dalva showed Alisson the notes on the lessons from the mud man. She hid the binder inside the hammock, wrapped up by the wall hook. She complained about having to sleep on the hammock, her back hurt, she said, but Marquim could only breathe laying on his back on the bed, hissing like a pressure cooker until he fell asleep, and the hag would never buy a bunk bed when the room didn’t even have a wardrobe – their things piled up on top of the mothball-reeking old dresser.

The binder had on the cover a photo of a group of boys from a k-pop band that Alisson had brought for Dalva last time, five angels with colorful hair, lanky, talented, and incredible. Alisson would never look like that, thanks to his mom’s short legs and his dad’s fugly face, but he was happy that Dalva decorated the image with heart stickers. The first pages on the binder had funko pops drawn with crayons, discolored Bromelia petals, the dried wing of a bicolored conebill, the feathers still blue, and a collection of gnawed nails stuck on with Durex tape. Then, began the maps of the city, the four or six-line plans of each house, the circles representing the city’s squares, and the long rectangles meant to be the buildings. On paper, the city was more impressive, it also didn’t have the black dirt from the mud nor the leaves from the trees – everything was clean and certain. Dalva’s small cursive writing indicated what still needed to be built and made observations: this would be cool, this has to be really big, this needs to smell good….and Alisson found it all a bit silly but would never dare to say so.

Dalva stopped him from flipping to the next page.

“First, you need to swear you’re gonna come with me if the mud man says you can.”


“On your mom’s life.”

“I swear.”

Then she let him look through the pencil sketches, stars crossed out several times, and a face that could either have been monstrous or just poorly drawn. Alisson asked who it was, even though he knew it. Whom else would that dark face without eyes and those teeth belong to? And Dalva didn’t answer, because there was no need to. She showed how the mansion needed to be, as the mud man had asked for: three walls with a roof on top, branches, leaves…whatever they could find. It should also be big enough for an adult man to enter crouching, and of course, it needed to have a door, but it didn’t even need a lock, shutting would be enough. The mansion was to be the heart of the city.

“We need to dig a hole inside,” said Dalva “not too deep, just a bit, to mark it.”

“Mark what?”

“A spot for the tunnel.”

Through the tunnel, they’d cross to the other side, into the city Dalva dreamed of since she was small, long before the mud man appeared and confirmed it was all true. She was already sure it was real, because every time she closed her eyes on the hammock, she woke up on a street filled with flowering trees and little birds, or in a square with cement benches, and grass, and cats rubbing against her legs. The opposite of Piranji, she said, the opposite of this shit village without a place to sit except for the wobbly chairs at the bars, a place full of dried grass and those starving dogs that followed people around trying to smell their butts. Since Alisson never dreamed about anything or forgot about it when he did, he believed Dalva.

“Why don’t we name the city?” he asked.

She pressed her lips and seemed to like the idea, but then tilted her head and said that things spoil when you give them names, like the brother that hadn’t yet been born and was already spoiled because every name has a story and everything that has a story stinks of rotten things. The city should stay as it was, and when they crossed the tunnel, they could think of something, but until then no moldy names, nothing old, old, old, she repeated. Alison said okay, but for that to happen, for them to go to the city together, the mud man needed to let them in.


The hole, they dug with their hands, and the walls were done in two weeks. They struggled to find tiles in the school rubble that were more or less intact and wouldn’t slide down when overlapping one another, and getting branches for the roof was also a lot of work, since it had rained the previous month and the plants thrived firmly. They asked at the bodega for dry straw from coconut trees, and since it would take a few days, they took the time to expand the city. By the time the little houses almost touched the greenish water, the straw arrived, and, at last, they had only the door to finish, a tabletop entirely gnawed by moths. Alisson got splinters all over his hands while carrying it to the city and had to lie that he had hurt himself on the swings at the abandoned school. His hands got inflamed, and he spent the night with a fever, his mom removing each splinter with a tweezer; and grandma spanked Dalva, after all, she had said so many times: don’t go wandering around the school where everything is torn down, there are pieces of glass, roof tile shards, iron tips, and what if this boy falls and gets hurt, and needs to be taken to Fortaleza, who’s gonna stay and watch Celia, and Marquim, and the boy ’bout to be born, not you, you worthless piece of shit, these things always fall on my back.

When grandma hit the roof, no one could say anything, so for two days all one could hear were the giggles of Vítor running through the porch and Marquim’s coughing. The morning Alisson woke up feeling better and asked to go out, his mom said he could only go if he took his brother with him and stayed by the beach, never again up the hill near the stream and the school. She meant it, “remember how your grandma spanked poor Dalva”, she said. It was obvious that Alisson didn’t want his cousin to get a beating again. 

They had no alternative but to tell Vítor about the city. They didn’t tell him about the mud man or the tunnel, they lied saying they used the little houses to play with dolls. He laughed and repeated: Alisson plays with dolls, Alisson plays with dolls, but soon after asked to join in. They went along the beach, following the edge of the water up to the mangrove. Vítor was flabbergasted by the number of little houses spread through the mud, all similar but in different sizes, and jumped in between the streets and corners, stopping only to complain about the smell the breeze brought up with the water. He wanted to enter the mansion, but since Dalva didn’t let him, he got upset and started trying to destroy the city, kicking roofs and pushing walls. Alisson gave him a knock on the head that made him cry and sent him back to the beach, to go play alone. The boy swore to tell everything when he got home.

“It has to be now!” said Dalva. “The little shit is gonna tell everyone”

“But we didn’t even prepare, we didn’t say goodbye! We can build more houses too, there’s space.”

“The city is huge, and the mansion is ready. It’s what he asked for, isn’t it? If the hag sees this, she’s gonna end everything, then I’ll never be able to leave from here. I’m gonna call him.”

She held Alisson’s hand and began whistling in a way only she knew how, copying the song of the conebills. The sun already hid between the leaves of the trees when the wind stopped blowing. First came the flies, the buzzing near the ears, and then the presence in the heavy air. Alisson’s mouth was dry as usual, and as usual, he had to close his eyes.

This time there was something different because he could feel what was there, and so he could see even with his eyes shut. He saw the mud man rise from the water and crawl towards him, a shapeless body, a face without a face. He roamed the streets of the city, surrounded not by the little houses, but by giant walls made of bird skulls. The ground moved under the mud man, and Alisson noticed the moans didn’t come from him, they came from below, from the little holes that opened up with every step. He stopped in front of them, by the mansion, the only thing that still looked the same, in the middle of the wide road, under a grey sky the color of the scribbles in Dalva’s binder.

“Are you coming?” she asked her cousin.

Didn’t she see the city of bones? Alisson shook his head no, his mouth stuck. If he could, this time he’d confess being scared. The mud man stretched out.

“You swore,” said Dalva, and fierce loneliness grew inside Alisson’s belly, uncontrollably climbing up his throat, crossing his teeth, to eventually drip down his neck, sticky and cold, mixing with the urine running down his legs to touch the ground and find mud because equals recognize each other. He stopped seeing. We need to run, he thought, but his cousin was already screaming, and then Alisson understood that screams could be a form of silence. He didn’t hear anything else until Dalva’s fingers loosened and her icy cold hand slip away. He stood still until Dalva’s voice faded away, until the stench and flies disappeared, until he opened his eyes and saw it was night, and his mother, grandma, and aunt had finally arrived asking: where is your cousin, where is Dalva, where is my girl, and they pushed the gnawed tabletop to find her body with her head stuck in the hole.

Alisson spent weeks in a hospital in Fortaleza. Every day they asked him questions, and he repeated the same answer, “the mud man”. They gave up. They never went back to Piranji. He only saw aunt Celinha again at his grandma’s funeral, and this time she didn’t ask for a hug. He knew everyone thought it was his fault, it was what his mom thought when she would say his little cousin was with God, or when his father repeated that the house was cursed, or when Vítor refused to sleep in the same room as him. It didn’t matter. The anguish was gone, and Alisson had room inside himself to build, and every night he lay anxious to close his eyes, to find Dalva and hold hands, and to walk with her through the streets filled with trees, flowers, and mud birds.


[i] A sailing raft; a floating board made of pieces of wood tied to one another. It is a traditional fishing boat in the northeast region of Brazil.

Moacir Fio

Moacir Fio is from Fortaleza, Ceará, where he lives with his wife, four cats, and a garden. He is a writer, musician, editor, and teacher.


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