Edited by Lucas Rafael Ferraz
Translated by André Colabelli
Copyedited by Natalle Moura
It was funny how nothing and everything burned in those days.
Our skin under the sun blazed unbearably but without really getting warm, and would be left with red scorch marks even before the body had time to grow hot if we didn’t take care. The heat reached much farther in, through dermis, through epidermis, through… whatever other layers there are. It was as if something was burning inside us.
And yet, we spent all our days under the sun, living a slow death.
The coffee also burned.
There was a time in which I would wait for it to cool. I’d blow at the hot liquid and still burn my tongue when I tried to drink it, and I’d regret that for a day or two. Nowadays there’s no difference, and there’s smoke still spiraling up from the watery coffee in my cup as I bring it to my mouth.
There are things that burn much harder, and those are the ones that frighten me.
Ari plays an old song in the ancient radio — someone singing about feeling his bones on mine — and then he sits by my side, serving coffee in his calm, quiet way, as he repeats the chorus in an English we never managed to learn.
It’s not too difficult to feel his bones on mine these days.
All that despair for containing the war, for hiding and escaping the explosion of the nuclear power plants and the contamination. For staying alive. That worn us down. I know that because I see my own meager arms, and my skin full of burn marks that Ari circles, distractedly, with his finger’s stump.
It’s a bit too late for regrets, anyway. We can only look forward.
I drop the empty cup and close the belt on my faded beige overalls that protect me a little from the scalding sun. I fit the cap over my shaved hair, hiding the visible scars where my curls haven’t grown in the five years since 2047. I unsettle Ari’s hair as I rehearse some dance moves with him, messing around more than anything else. I wish I could laugh like him, showing all the teeth as if we didn’t live in that dump of a house, in that dump of a life. But I can’t, not always; not today.
It’s my turn to work.
I get on the rusty bicycle and pedal around the dangerous car graveyard, where we gather old vehicles. They were abandoned on the streets when the Radioactive War brought an end to fuel as it did to everything else. I pass by the garage and wait for Juca to put a retreaded tire on the bike. We’ve got an arrangement, and I’ll get him something in exchange. Then, I hurry to the beach with the empty gallon tied behind the bicycle.
It’s empty because no one risks going there without reason. Even at night, the sand burns with the remainder of the sun’s heat, and it’s stained with black, viscous oil. The water is poisonous to us as well, and swimming is impossible. The contamination is so great that after three breaststrokes your skin would start to slough off. In fact, there’s barely enough clean water for bathing these days. But I know what to do with this seawater.
I fill the gallon without stepping into the water, using a lever attached to its mouth, and I pull it back to the sand with some difficulty. I close it tight before I risk carrying its weight to the bicycle.
I have to make sure the water is secured firmly, so it won’t spill. I pedal more carefully now. We used to have a cart that we’d attach to the bike, but it was stolen by the arsonist gangs and we couldn’t get hold of another. Now the way is to do everything slowly, by hand.
I stop by the shop before I go back, to get a package for the garage owner, a heavy bundle of something dark. I don’t know what it is. The dense smell of gunpowder suggests some things, but I’d rather not know. Knowing too much is dangerous. Not everyone is happy about what happened, and it’s better to have those people as friends rather than enemies.
Juca receives his package quietly, with wary eyes, but I say nothing. I go back home in silence.
Ari is waiting for me by the filter, ready for me to pour the water as soon as I arrive. I dump the gallon and let it work. I need to go back for more. Each one of us makes that trip at least three times a day. It’s ridiculous work, with all the obstacles we need to get past, but that way we can make almost thirty liters a day. We put apart a liter per day for each of us after filtering, which is enough to go on living, and we sell the rest.
The water’s not quite top quality, but it’s cheap, at least. Our buyers know very well where we get it from, they know there’s still some radiation in there.
But it’s a choice, like everything in life; die of thirst now, or die slowly of cancer. We just choose the slow way.
No one here has given up on life yet, not really.
We also sell the salt that comes off during filtering, since iodine protects a little against radiation. It fetches a high price, and we can make ends meet like that. We can pay for food and help our family, what’s left of them anyway. I have an older brother, who lives with his wife and daughter, my niece, and Ari has a young cousin living with his aunt. He was born with a deformity because of the radiation. We all need help every once in a while, especially the children, so we help. But we couldn’t bear to live with them anymore. Not with the daily arguing, impossible to avoid when we were all squeezed together in such a small space and in such precarious conditions; and not watching the children go through so much suffering, having to pretend it was all right.
That situation made everyone angry all the time, and we wanted some peace. It’s worth the price of sharing this small place between the two of us, a place I couldn’t wait to be able to come in and not need to leave any more for the day. But, when I’m coming back from the third trip, that’s when things go wrong.
The night is falling and I am more alert, even though there’s still some light on the horizon, marking the way sharply. But I still fail to see the arsonist gang that moves out of the cars when I pass by the graveyard for the last time.
The arsonists are our private nightmares, in a world in which the flames of chemical fires still haven’t died down. We are all fighting, all of us, to keep ourselves alive, to survive, to help ours. In a way, they’re doing the same things, but they don’t mind burning some of us to get what they want.
I can’t see them, but I can hear their laughter. I hear the wheels behind me, and voices calling me out.
I don’t even look back, I just speed up.
The wheels behind me speed up as well, and the crazed laughter is now awfully close.
“Wait up, sea princess! We just wanna chat!” some guy calls out, without even needing to shout, and I know I’m screwed.
They’ll catch up to me, I’m too slow carrying the gallon, and it’s many against one. Even if I made it home in time, I and Ari alone wouldn’t be able to handle a bunch of arsonists.
When we come to an uphill road, I make my decision.
I pull off the gallon’s lid, and I take out the small knife I leave fastened to my pants for emergencies. As I manage to cut off the rope holding the gallon, I fall over with the bicycle. While I try to control my fall, I see the tainted water flying towards them. My plan worked.
They are startled and they also fall, blinded by the water for a few seconds, and I can’t stop myself from getting wet in the puddle I’ve created, but I don’t stop to think before I climb my bike again and run home.
I run in and lock the door, and Ari rushes to me.
“Dammit, Çu!” he shouts, amidst curse words, and helps me out of my drenched overalls.
He has me enter the small bathroom and runs to the kitchen while I strip. The water he brings me is expensive and costs our livelihood, but I don’t complain as he pours nearly two liters on me, letting me rub the rest of the coconut soap in my body before pouring two more liters, cleaning me. The cold water doesn’t even make me shake.
When I’m done, he hands me the towel and leaves me alone while he runs to reinforce the entrance. I already see some wounds crawling up my legs, burning without pain, but we’ve done all we could. I quickly put on some dry clothes that let my skin breathe, and run to the door, ready to help defend our home.
“Did they see you come here?”
I think about it, retracing my path.
“I don’t know. I think I lost them shortly after the graveyard, but we were pretty close to here already.”
He nods and doesn’t answer, and I see the wrinkles in his forehead deepen.
When night falls, our house stays dark, like another abandoned house in the neighborhood. Not even the moon shows up, hidden behind the dense layer of pollution caused by the factories’ explosions and the fires.
The only visible light is a distant flame, prowling. Approaching.
I hold my metal stick in my hands, as firmly as I can, and I know Ari is as ready as I am.
He holds my hands in his, so warm, in the dark, and I hold them firmly too, feeling his bones against mine. It’s his warmth that spreads through me, to a place far beyond my skin, that gives me a last grain of peace.
“We’ll fight to the end, Açucena. Today and always.”
“Every day, Ariano” I answer, knowing no one can hear our vows.
Hand in hand, the end is not that terrifying.
Lais Dias de Sousa is a lawyer, born and raised in the city of Aracaju, capital of the small state of Sergipe, but she has always lived more in books than anywhere else. It is in writing that she finds who she really is on a daily basis, and it could not be otherwise, as she always dreamed of telling the stories that populate her head and increasingly overflow through the blank pages.