City of God
A Novelby Paulo Lins
The searing novel on which the internationally acclaimed hit film was based, City of God is a gritty, gorgeous tour de force from the Brazilian street.
The searing novel on which the internationally acclaimed hit film was based, City of God is a gritty, gorgeous tour de force from the Brazilian street.
Cidade de Deus, the City of God: welcome to one of Rio’s most notorious slums. A place where the streets are awash with narcotics, where violence can erupt at any moment over drugs, money, and love–but also a place where the samba beat rocks till dawn, where the women are the most beautiful on earth, and where one young man wants to escape his background and become a photographer.
When City of God erupted on screens worldwide, it became one of the most critically and commercially successful foreign films of recent years. But few were aware of the story behind the film. Written by Paulo Lins, who grew up in the favela (shantytown) Cidade de Deus in Rio de Janeiro and who spent years researching its gang history, City of God began life as a coruscating, harrowing novelistic account of twenty years in the illicit pursuits of the youth gangs born from the favela. Blood runs like water through the streets as gang leaders challenge local drug lords in constant street warfare.
Now available in English for the first time, City of God is a raw, powerful portrait of the countless millions of poor people all over the world. A book and film that gave voice to the dispossessed of multiethnic Brazil, it will earn Paulo Lins more well-deserved international acclaim.
“A Scarface-like urban epic, bursting with encyclopedic, graphic descriptions of violence, punctuated with lyricism and longing.” –Publishers Weekly
“Lins, himself a survivor of the City of God, has a knack for making vignettes of such unremitting desperation remarkably lyrical.” –Library Journal
“What non-Portuguese speaking folks may not know is that Fernando Mereilles and Katia Lund’s epic film was adapted from an equally epic novel by Paulo Lins… City of God the novel should definitely be read as a work in its own right.” –The Fader
“Raw, brutal, and graphically violent, City of God, by Paolo Lins, is a multifaceted story about hellish life and early death in a Brazilian slum, where family ties can be severed as easily as a kite string.” –Lylah M. Alphonse, The Boston Globe
“Paulo Lins is shaking up the Brazilian literary market with City of God. . . . In the hands of Paulo Lins, the City of God transforms into a metaphor for hell, described with the sensibility of a poet. A vertiginous novel whose reportage explodes in the reader’s face as gusts of words, disturbing and inflaming the conscience.” –Correio Braziliense
“A book-length beating . . . [that] deserves to be remembered as an event . . . A momentum that will rivet the reader until the end . . . Intensely visual in the style of an action film. The deliberate and insolent insistence of the lyrical tone . . . gives the novel a distinctive streak of resistance, of refusal, that is difficult to imagine in a writer less resolutely nonconformist.” –Foha de Sao Paulo
“City of God is a delirious book . . . [with] lyrical peaks, and the velocity of a gunshot.” –Veja
“Compared to the film’s aesthetic, which has been compared to that of Tarantino, Lins’s novel is throughout a story almost journalistic in nature, one that could have been written by Kapuscinski or by the Truman Capote of In Cold Blood.” –Richard Ruiz Garzón, La Razón (Spain)
“Just as the conquerors invented a language to describe an undiscovered landscape and to make it their own, Lins conquers with words the subworld of the favelas–frightening, maddening, claustrophobic, in reality only imaginable in fantastic terms. City of God is an irreproachable and necessary work, an impressive immersion in the dominions of Mr. Hyde.” –Javier Aparicio Maydeu, El Pa’s (Spain)
“Heartbreaking . . . The routineness of death, its stutters and repetitions, are the success of the book, even if they do not make for easy reading.” –Gilles Lapouge, La Quinzaine Litt”raire (France)
“The novel recounts several years in the life of the City of God . . . ending in a terrible gang war worthy of a Scorsese film. Eye-opening.” –Guy Duplat, La Libre Belgique (Belgium)
Acclaim for the Movie:
“Scorching and powerful! City of God shares the same attitude and fondness for tall-sounding tales as GoodFellas. Filled with frenetic visual rhythms, its mood swings synchronize with the zany, adrenaline-fueled impulsiveness of its lost youth on a rampage. Experience this devastating movie.” –Stephen Holden, New York Times
“A Powerhouse! It moves with whiplash velocity. Sometimes a movie comes along and just floors you, its images burn so deeply. City of God has the scent of a classic.” –Peter Travers, Rolling Stone
“Fierce, shocking, dazzling and wonderful. It’s that rare film that manages to be seductively entertaining without ever compromising its authenticity and power. Thoroughly engaging, with wicked humor and style, director Fernando Meirelles is the one to watch.” –Megan Turner, New York Post
“Supercharged, Meirelles provides the energy and flair of Amores Perros.” –Mark Caro, Chicago Tribune
“City of God churns with furious energy. Breathtaking! It announces a new director of great gifts and passions: Fernando Meirelles. Remember the name.” –Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
“A masterful, symphonic piece of work. Every once in a while a film restores our faith in the art form. Absolutely hypnotic.” –James Verniere, Boston Herald
“Destined to become a classic! An action movie that moves like a rocket! City of God sizzles.” –Glenn Lovell, San Jose Mercury News
“A rich tapestry of incisively drawn characters.” –Bob Strauss, Los Angeles Daily News
“City of God is a potent and unexpected mixture of authenticity and flash . . . moves at the breakneck speed of these adrenaline-pumped young lives, pulling us along on the cresting wave of hair-trigger emotions and deadly confrontations’ –Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times
“City of God is almost too good to be true – a heart pounding roller-coaster ride of a film. It gets more fascinating by the frame. City of God is itself one of the most bewitching characters and the film’s central characters are just as compelling. The result is so vibrant and powerful, you’ll be left reeling.” –Anderson Tepper, Vanity Fair
“A fierce, seductive, enthralling trip. The storytelling and filmmaking vigor never lets up. Director Fernando Meirelles has brought their world to teeming life.” –Richard Corliss, Time
“City of God is a sleek, restless eye-catcher! It’s Undeniably powerful. It pulses with atmosphere and vibrates with authenticity.” –Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly
“Sizzling. An absorbing epic built around richly etched characters. Fernando Meirelles has made what could be the best crime epic since Goodfellas.” –Andrew Johnston, US Weekly
HELLRAISER’S STORY THE I960S
Seconds after leaving the haunted mansion, Stringy and Rocket were smoking a joint down by the river in the Eucalyptus Grove. Completely silent, they only looked at one another when passing the joint back and forth. Stringy imagined himself swimming beyond the surf. He could stop now, float a bit, feel the water playing over his body. Foam dissolved on his face and his gaze followed the flight of the birds, while he gathered his strength to return. He would steer clear of the troughs so he wouldn’t be swept away by the current and wouldn’t stay in the cold water so long he got a cramp. He felt like a lifeguard. He’d save as many lives as he had to on that busy beach day and then he’d run home after work. He wouldn’t be one of those lifeguards that doesn’t get any exercise and ends up letting the sea carry people away. You had to work out constantly, eat well and swim as much as possible.
Clouds cast raindrops on the houses, the Eucalyptus Grove and the open fields stretching out to the horizon. Rocket felt the hissing of the wind in the eucalyptus leaves. To his right, the buildings of Barra da Tijuca were gigantic, even from afar. The mountain peaks were wiped out by the low clouds. From that distance, the blocks of apartments he lived in, on the left, were silent, although he imagined he could hear the radios tuned to programs for housewives, dogs barking, children running up and down the stairs. His gaze came to rest on the river, the pattering raindrops opening out in circles all the way across, and his irises, in a hazel zoom, brought him flashbacks: the river when it was clean; the grove of guava trees, which had been razed and replaced by new blocks of apartment buildings; a few public squares, now choked with houses; the myrtles that had been murdered along with the haunted fig tree and the castor-oil plants; the abandoned mansion with its swimming pool and the Dread and Bastion fields–where he had played defense for the Oberom under-thirteens–had given way to factories. He also remembered the time he had gone to collect bamboo for his building’s June festivities and had to run for it because the farm caretaker had set the dogs on the kids. He remembered spin-the-bottle, hide-and-seek, pick-up-sticks, the model racetrack he’d never had and the hours he’d spent in the branches of the almond trees watching the cattle go by. He recalled the day his brother got all cut up when he came off his bike over at Red Hill, and how great Sundays had been when he went to Mass and stayed behind at the church to take part in the youth group activities, then the movies, the amusement park ” He remembered the Santa Cecilia choir rehearsals of his schooldays with joy, which suddenly fizzled, however, when the river’s water revealed images of the days when he sold bread or popsicles, pushed carts at the street market and the Le”o and Tr’s Poderes supermarkets, collected bottles and stripped copper wire to sell to the scrapyard so he could help out his mom a bit at home. It hurt to think of the swarms of mosquitoes that had sucked his blood, leaving lumps to be picked at with fingernails, and the ground with open sewers he had dragged his ass across as a little kid. He’d been unhappy and hadn’t known it. He resigned himself in silence to the fact that the rich go overseas to live it up, while the poor go to the grave, jail or fuck-knows-where. He realized that the sugary, watery orangeade he had drunk his entire childhood hadn’t really been all that great. He tried to remember the childish joys that had died, one by one, every time reality had tripped him up, every day he had gone hungry. He remembered his elementary-school teachers saying that if you studied hard enough you might make something of yourself, but here he was, disillusioned about his chances of getting a job so he could continue his studies, buy his own clothes and have a little money to take his girlfriend out and pay for a photography course. It’d be nice if things were the way his teachers had said, because if all went well, if he landed a job, soon he’d be able to buy a camera and a shitload of lenses. He’d photograph everything he found interesting. One day he’d win a prize. His mother’s voice whipped through his mind.
“This photography game is for folks with money! What you need to do is get into the Air Force, the Navy or even the Army to guarantee yourself a future. Soldiers are the ones with money! I don’t know what goes on in that head of yours!”
Rocket refocused his eyes, stared at Our Lady of Sorrows Church at the top of the hill and felt like going to Father J”lio to ask for all his confessed sins back in a shopping bag, so he could recommit them with his soul strewn across every corner of the world around him. One day he’d accept one of the many invitations to hold up buses, bakeries, taxis, any fucking thing ” He took the joint from his friend’s hand. His girlfriend’s ultimatum that she’d break up with him if he didn’t stop smoking weed echoed in his ears. ‘screw it! The worst thing in the world has to be to marry a square. It’s not just the hoods who smoke weed, otherwise rock singers wouldn’t do it. Jimi Hendrix was the biggest head of all! And what about the hippies? The hippies were all crazies from so much smoking.” He was sure Tim Maia, Caetano, Gil, Jorge Ben, Big-Boy–the big names in music–all enjoyed a bit of weed. “Not to mention that nutcase Raul Seixas, singing: “People who don’t have eyedrops wear shades.”” Smoking weed didn’t mean he was going to go out looking for trouble. He didn’t like squares, and the worst thing was that they were everywhere, noticing if your eyes were red, or if you were laughing at nothing. When he argued with squares about pot he always ended the argument by saying that it was the light of life: it made you thirsty, hungry and sleepy!
“Want another one?”
“Uh-huh!” answered Stringy.
Rocket insisted on rolling the joint. He liked this job; his friends always praised him. He made the joint as stiff as a cigarette without using much paper. He lit it himself, took two tokes and passed it to his buddy.
On rainy days, the hours pass unnoticed for those with nothing to do. Rocket mechanically checked the time and saw he was already late for his typing class, but what the fuck. He’d already missed tons of classes, so one more wasn’t going to make any difference. He really couldn’t be bothered to spend an hour banging away on the typewriter, and he wasn’t going to school either. “The square of the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the two adjacent sides, my ass.” He was really pissed off at life. He suppressed a sob, got up, stretched to relieve the pain of having spent so long in the same position and was about to ask his friend if he felt like scoring another bundle of weed, when he noticed the river water had gone red. The red preceded a dead body. The gray of the day intensified ominously. Red swirling into the current, another corpse. The clouds blotted out the mountains completely. Red, and another stiff appeared at the bend in the river. The light rain turned into a storm. Red, yet again followed by a carcass. Blood mixing with stinking water accompanied by yet another body wearing Lee jeans, Adidas sneakers and leeches sucking out the red liquid, still warm.
Rocket and Stringy stumbled home.
It was the first sign of the war to come. The war that imposed its absolute sovereignty and came to claim anyone who didn’t keep their wits about them, to pump hot lead into children’s skulls, to force stray bullets to lodge in innocent bodies and make Knockout Z” run along Front Street, his heart pounding like the Devil, holding a blazing torch to set fire to the house of his brother’s killer.
Rocket arrived home afraid of the wind, the streets, the rain, his skateboard, the simplest things; everything seemed dangerous. He knelt by his bed, threw his head on the mattress, clasping his hands together, and in infinite supplication begged Exu to go and tell Oxal” that one of his sons felt doomed to eternal desperation.
In the past, life was different here in this place where the river, carrying sand, innocent water snake heading for the sea, divided the land on which the children of the Portuguese and the slaves trod.
Soles of feet grazing petals, mangos swelling, bamboo thickets shredding wind, a big lake, a lake, a pond, almond trees, myrtles and the Eucalyptus Grove. All this on the other side. On this side, the hills, the haunted mansions, the vegetable gardens of Little Portugal, and the cows on both sides living the peace of those who don’t know death.
The branches of the river, which split over near Taquara, cut diagonally through the fields. The right branch cut through the middle, while the left–separating The Blocks from the houses and crossed by a bridge over which the traffic of the neighborhood’s main street flowed–cut through the lower part of the fields. And, as the good branch returns to the river, the river, branching off, zigzagged along its watery path; a stranger who traveled without moving, carrying away loose rock crystals in its bed, allowing its heart to beat on rocks, donating water to the bodies that braved it, to the mouths that bit its back. The river laughed, but Rocket knew well that every river is born to die one day.
This land was once covered in green with oxcarts defying dirt roads, Negro throats singing samba, artesian wells being dug, legumes and vegetables filling trucks, a snake slipping through the grass, nets set in the water. On Sundays, soccer games on the Dread field and drinking wine under the light of the full moon.
‘mornin”, Lettuce Joe!” Cabbage Manoel had said one day at dawn. But Lettuce Joe had not answered; he had just watched the first flight of the herons to the sound of roosters crowing and cows lowing.
The two Portuguese descendents tended the Little Portugal vegetable gardens on the inherited land. They knew that blocks of apartments were to be built in that area, but not that work was to begin so soon. They worked as they did every day, from five in the morning to three in the afternoon, talked about nothing, laughed at everything, whistled impossible fados, loved the different types of wind, ate dinner together, and together they heard the men in the car with the white license plate, in first gear, say:
“We intend to build a new place on your land.”
“Come, good wind! Put another smile on my face!” Lettuce Joe was to think later. “Another wind, without homeland or compassion, has taken away the smile this soil gave me, this soil where men with boots and tools arrived, measuring everything, marking the land ” Then came the machines, destroying the Little Portugal vegetable gardens, scaring the scarecrows, guillotining the trees, land filling the marsh, drying up the spring, and all this became a desert. All that is left is the Eucalyptus Grove, the trees on The Other Side of the River, the haunted mansions, the cows that know nothing of death and sadness in the wake of a new era.”
City of God lent its voice to ghosts in the abandoned mansions, thinned out the flora and fauna, remapped Little Portugal and renamed the marsh: Up Top, Out Front, Down Below, The Other Side of the River and The Blocks.
Even now, the sky turns blue and fills the world with stars, forests make the earth green, clouds whiten landscapes and mankind innovates, reddening the river. Here, now, a slum, a neo-slum of concrete, brimming with dealer-doorways, sinister-silences and cries of despair along its lanes and in the indecision of its crossroads.
The new residents brought garbage, bins, mongrel dogs, exus and pqmbagiras in untouchable bead necklaces, days to get up and struggle, old scores to be settled, residual rage from bullets, nights to hold wakes over corpses, vestiges of floods, corner bars, Wednesday and Sunday street markets, old worms in babies’ bellies, revolvers, orix” pendants, sacrificial hens, sambas, illegal lotteries, hunger, betrayal, death, crucifixes on frayed string, racy forr” to be danced, oil lamps to shed light on saints, camping cookers, poverty to desire wealth, eyes to see nothing, speak nothing, never the eyes and guts to face life, to sidestep death, to rejuvenate anger, to bloodstain destinies, to make war and to get tattoos. There were slingshots, photo novels, ancient floor cloths, open wombs, decayed teeth, brains riddled with catacombs, clandestine graves, fishmongers, bread-sellers, seventh-day Mass, smoking guns to erase all doubt, the perception of facts before acts, half-cured cases of the clap, legs for waiting for buses, hands for hard work, pencils for state schools, courage to turn the corner and gambler’s luck. They brought kites, asses for the police to kick, coins for playing heads or tails and the strength to try to live. They also brought love to ennoble death and silence the mute hours.
In one week there were thirty to fifty new arrivals a day; people bearing the marks of the floods on their faces and furniture. They were put up in the Mario Filho Soccer Stadium and came in government trucks, singing:
full of enchantments ”
Then people from a number of favelas and other towns in the state of Rio de Janeiro came to inhabit the new neighborhood, which consisted of rows of white, pink and blue houses. On the other side of the left branch of the river, The Blocks were built: a complex of blocks of one- and two-bedroom apartments, some blocks with twenty and others with forty apartments each, all five stories high. The red shades of the beaten earth saw new feet in the hustle and bustle of life, in the stampede of a destiny to be fulfilled. The river, the joy of the kids, provided pleasure, sand, frogs and eels, and was not completely polluted.
“Look at the bag of myrtle berries I got!”
“I’ve already picked mangos and jaboticabas. Now I’m gonna get some sugarcane from The Other Side of the River!”
The children discovered marbles, and themselves in the process:
“Bags I go last ” if I getcha I’m king!”
“On four fingers!”
“I’m throwin” it!”
“Get outta the way!”
“It moved! You’re dead!”
“I’m next to the triangle!”
“Obstacle ” go around!”
‘don’t go, your line’s too short.”
“I’m gonna try and tangle him.”
“No way! Go for his tail and line.”
“I can’t. The glass on my line’s not sharp enough.”
“You’ve gotta pull him up.”
“I’m gonna drag him.”
“He’ll hitch you up.”
“One hit, “cos there’s a new It!”
“I hit him and everyone else does too!”
“I hit him but no one else does!”
“Jump the graveyard wall!”
“The graveyard’s on fire!”
“Every monkey on his branch!”
‘send a letter to your girlfriend.”
“Out of ink!”
“One hit, “cos there’s a new It!”
They found one another in hide-and-seek and tag, had castor bean wars on The Other Side of the River, swam in the pond and played boats and Journey to the Bottom of the Sea. They headed into the fields, competing for ground with snakes, toads and cavies.
“Wanna go to Red Hill?” asked Rocket.
“Where’s that?” asked Stringy, holding a bucket of water.
‘down where you were, near the spring. We can climb up and run down like in cowboy movies.”
They headed off from behind The Blocks, having invited a couple of friends. Rocket’s brother, seeing the kids getting ready for a new adventure, thought about putting his bike away to go with them, but then decided to take it at his buddies’ insistence. They crossed an area of dense bush, where new blocks of apartments were later to be built, and found themselves at the left branch of the river.
“I’m goin” for a swim!” said Stringy.
“Let’s go straight to Red Hill. We can swim later!” said Rocket.
“We’re better off swimmin” now, “cos our clothes’ll dry and our moms won’t know we were in the river,” argued Stringy.
‘scared of mommy?” asked Rocket.
Without listening, Stringy threw himself into the water and his friends followed suit. They waded out to a certain point and swam back with the current. Stringy wouldn’t come out of the river, and swam into and out of the current. They dunked one another and played American submarine and Captain Hurricane. The morning had reached its peak, invading the branches of the guava trees and bringing in its wake a land wind that swept away the rain clouds one by one. The finches sang.
It was as if they had moved to a large farm. In addition to buying fresh milk, picking vegetables in the garden and collecting fruit in the wild, they were also able to ride horses through the low hills along Gabinal Road. They hated nighttime, because there was still no electricity and mothers forbade their children to play outside after dark. Mornings were cool: they caught fish, hunted cavies, played soccer, killed sparrows to barbecue and broke into the haunted mansions.
“Let’s get a move on and go to Red Hill!” insisted Rocket’s brother, already on his bike.
They didn’t take Mois’s Street in case they bumped into one of their mothers fetching water from the spring; instead they went behind the houses and scrambled up the hill.
Red Hill had been mutilated by excavators and tractors when the houses and first blocks of apartments were being built. The clay taken from the hill was used to landfill part of the marsh and to roughcast the first houses. When it was still untouched, the hill had stopped very close to the riverbank. It now ended at one end of the Council Projects, where some of the Short-Term Houses were, on the road connecting the blocks of apartments to Main Square. From the top, one could see the big lake, the lake, the pond, the river and its two branches, the church, the Le”o supermarket, the club, the Rec, the two schools and the nursery. You could even see the clinic from that distance.
“I’m goin” down on my bike!” announced Rocket’s brother.
“You crazy? Can’t you see you’re gonna smash yourself up down there?!” warned Stringy.
‘don’t worry, man, I’m a pro!”
He got on his bike, leaned over the handlebars and took off down the hill. After a while he stood on the rear brake, put one of his feet on the ground and spun the bike. His friends clapped and shouted:
He repeated the feat several times, to the spectators’ delight. His eyes watered with the speed, but he didn’t stop showing off. He got so carried away that he took off downhill again, pedaling ten times to pick up speed. It went wrong. He hit a hole, lost control and came tumbling off: bloody nose, body skidding across the ground, dust in his eyes ” But the subject here is crime–that’s why I’m here ”
Poetry, my teacher: light the certainties of men and the tone of my words. You see, I risk speech even with bullets piercing phonemes. It is the word–that which is larger than its size–that speaks, does and happens. Here it reels, riddled with bullets. Uttered by toothless mouths in alleyway conspiracies, in deadly decisions. Sands stir on ocean floors. The absence of sunlight really does darken forests. The strawberry liquid of ice cream makes hands sticky. Words are born in thought; leaving lips, they acquire soul in the ears, yet sometimes this auditory magic does not make it as far as the mouth because it is swallowed dry. Massacred in the stomach along with rice and beans, these almost-words are excreted rather than spoken.
Words balk. Bullets talk.
Squirt, Hellraiser and Hammer ran through the Rec, went into Blonde Square and came out in front of Batman’s Bar, where the gas delivery truck was parked.
“Everyone quiet or I shoot!” ordered Squirt, holding two revolvers.
Hellraiser positioned himself on the left of the truck, Squirt on the opposite side. Hammer went to the corner to keep an eye out for the police. Passersby sidled off; when they got farther away they quickened their step. Only the two old ladies who had gone to buy gas at that exact moment did not budge. They looked as though they were glued to the spot, trembling, saying the Creed.
The delivery men put their hands up and said the money was on the driver, who at that very moment was trying in vain to hide it. Hellraiser watched him. He ordered him to lie down with his arms out, frisked him, took the money and gave him a kick in the face so he’d never again try anything smart.
Hammer told everyone the gas was on him and they didn’t need to bring empty gas bottles to exchange for full ones. The truck was empty in minutes.
“C’mon, let’s head up this way,” suggested Squirt.
“No, let’s go through the Rec–it’s more open. Then we can see everyone ” and let’s get Cleide to take the guns,” said Hammer.
“No way, man!” answered Squirt. ‘real gangsters’ve gotta stay armed. I’m not gonna run around without nothin”. You never know if someone’s gonna show up and try to grab our money. We don’t know who’s who round here, man! You think we’re the only gangsters in this place? Everyone here’s from the favelasl There’s even guys from out of town holed up round here. And what if the pigs show up? How’re you gonna deal with them? Fists ain’t gonna do the job!” concluded Squirt without slowing his pace.
Cleide, who was at Batman’s Bar at the time of the holdup, decided to follow them at a distance.
Hellraiser didn’t say a thing. Something made him remember his family. His dad, that piece of shit, was always drunk on the slopes of s’o Carlos, his mom was a pro in the Red Light District, and his brother was a faggot. His slut of a mother was OK. She was known for her strong personality, didn’t take any shit, kept her word and was respected in Est”cio. Nor was his dad his biggest problem, because when he was sober the kids didn’t draw on his face with chalk or take his shoes and, in spite of everything, he was good with his fists and a lead drummer in the samba school. But his brother ” that was really fucked ” Having a faggot for a brother was a huge tragedy in his life. He imagined Ari sucking off migrant laborers down in the Red Light District, taking it up the butt from the guys in s’o Carlos, jerking off sailors and gringos in Maua Square and fucking rich assholes in the Lapa fleapits. He couldn’t accept that his brother wore lipstick, women’s clothes, wigs and high-heeled shoes. He also remembered the fire, when those bastards had arrived with burlap bags soaked in kerosene, setting fire to the shacks and taking potshots in all directions. That was the day his Godfearing grandmother, old Benedita, had burned to death. She was already bedridden because of an illness that kept her flat on her back all the time. “If I hadn’t been such a little squirt,” thought Hellraiser, “I would’ve got her out of there on time and maybe she’d still be here with me. Maybe I’d have been a sucker with packed lunches and all that shit, but she’s not here, right? I’m here to kill and die.” A day after the fire, Hellraiser was taken to his aunt’s employer’s house. Aunt Carmen had worked as a maid at the same house for years. Hellraiser stayed with his mom’s sister until his dad built a new shack in the favela. He hung around between the sink and the laundry tub the whole time and that was where he was when he saw, through the half-open door, the man on TV saying that the fire had been accidental. He felt like killing all those white bastards who had phones, cars, fridges, ate good food and didn’t live in shacks without running water or toilets. Nor did any of the men in that house look like faggots, like Ari did. He thought about cleaning the whities out, even their lying TV and colorful blender.
When they passed in front of the Le”o supermarket, Hellraiser noticed some boys playing soccer on a dirt field and turned to his friends:
“Hey, there might be some crazy bastards over there. And they might even be as crazy as me, but more than me, no way, know what I’m sayin”? I don’t take shit from no one. If a guy gives me a hard time, I fill “im with lead. C’mon, dare me to give those dickheads over there a hard time.”
‘dare ya!” said Squirt and Hammer.
They went over to the clinic. To their left were the boys playing soccer.
“Hey, stop that ball and send it over this way, “cos now it’s mine. If you don’t the shit’ll hit the fan,” threatened Hellraiser with his gun cocked.
A startled kid brought him the ball. Hellraiser juggled it, controlling the ball with both feet, tossing it up onto his chest, from his chest to his left thigh, then his head.
“The guy’s good–he’s got talent!” said Hammer.
After making the ball dance for several minutes, Hellraiser finally kicked it high into the air. It would have landed square in the middle of his chest–but like hell it would! He pulled the trigger and it fell, lifeless. Hammer and Squirt fell down laughing, but Hellraiser remained serious, looking around with an irate expression that gave continuity to the sound of the gunshot. He imposed silence, glaring quickly into each face as if they were all responsible for his miserable life. After a few seconds he turned his back on them. His friends followed him.
Niftyfeet, Shorty and Pel” were smoking a joint down by the river’s edge.
“They let “em sell almost everything and then caught up with “em Out Front. They made some good dough, gave everyone gas cylinders, then gave those guys that play soccer down at Blood-n-Sand a hard time. Pass the joint, man!” said Pel”, enthused by the prospect of also holding up the gas truck.
“Where’s Blood-n-Sand?” asked Niftyfeet.
“That little dirt field near the supermarket.”
“Who’re these hoods workin” the area?” asked Shorty, handing the joint to Pel”.
“It’s Squirt, Hellraiser and Hammer. I know Hellraiser from s’o Carlos, Squirt’s from round Cachoeirinha way, and Hammer–if he’s the one I think he is–is from Escondidinho,” replied Niftyfeet.
“All I can say is the next truck’s mine, right? There’s enough to go around, long as no one gets greedy!” warned Pel”.
“Careful, “cos Hellraiser’s a handful. If you cross him, you gotta have attitude or the shit’ll hit the fan! But if you mention my name, he’ll talk to you “”
“It don’t work like that with me, man!” interrupted Pel”. “I ain’t scared of no barkin” dog. I ain’t lookin” to pick a fight with no one, but if someone comes along throwin” their weight around, there won’t be any talkin”. I’ll give him what he’s got comin”!”
“Everyone’s gotta respect each other. We’ve all gotta feel that the enemy’s the police, know what I mean? I don’t wanna see my friends fightin’,” warned Niftyfeet.
“Pigs!” said a voice from an alley between the Block Thirteen Short-Stay Houses.
Niftyfeet took off over the State Water Department bridge, doubling round the left side of the lake with Pelé and Shorty in his wake. They reached the part of the marsh that had survived the landfills. Their running startled a snake, but it went unnoticed by all three. They headed for the haunted fig tree, where they could smoke another joint in its branches and watch the police inspecting the Short-Stay Houses.
The milkmen had already passed. The children were watching National Kid. Those who didn’t have television sets went to their neighbors’ windows to follow the adventures of the Japanese superhero. The sun had already distanced itself from the Graja” Range and an angry wind held up the kites zigzagging through the sky. Small clouds of red dust were born and died along the streets of beaten earth, children in uniform going home from school filled the landscape. It was already midday.
Up Top, at Hammer’s house, the gang split the money while Cleide made vegetable soup, saying:
“The driver went from white to red. I’m surprised he didn’t shit himself … I felt sorry for him, you know. But it was funny. I felt really sorry for those old ladies, the poor things were shakin” like leaves. I’m surprised they didn’t have a stroke.”
“But I didn’t even point the guns at “em!” said Squirt.
“So what? Just seein” the guns, they could’ve kicked the bucket right then and there.”
“But they liked it when it was time to get the gas,” said Squirt.
“No they didn’t. When everyone started crowdin” around, they hotfooted it out of there,” said Cleide.
Squirt moved away from his friends. He thought about going into the bathroom, but then decided to go outside. A sadness accompanied his steps; he wasn’t listening to what his friends were saying. He shivered, went to the back of the yard, sat with his head against the wall of the house and allowed the tears to roll from his eyes. It wasn’t the old ladies that had made him sad; they just made him remember another occasion, when he had gone to hold up the gas delivery truck alone and the police had appeared at the same time. There was no way he could run without shooting and that was what he had done. One of the bullets from his gun hit a baby in the head. He saw it reel in its mother’s arms and they both fell to the ground with the impact of the shot. In an effort to relieve his guilt he told himself over and over that the crime had been an accident, but he was filled with desperation at having killed a baby every time he remembered it. He knew he could repent of his crime and go to heaven, but even so, that was a really big crime. He had always heard his parents talking about mortal sins. There was nothing he could do, he was going to rot in hell. He looked at the sky, then at the ground, and concluded that God was far away. Planes flew high and didn’t get anywhere near heaven. The Apollo 11 had only gone to the moon. To get to heaven you had to pass through all of the stars, and the stars were really fucking far away. If hell was below ground, it was much closer. He feared God’s wrath, but was keen to meet the Devil; he’d make a pact with him to have everything on Earth. When he felt death was near, he’d repent of all his sins and come up trumps on both sides. It’d suck if he died suddenly. He decided to stop thinking shit and headed back to his friends.
© 1997, 2002 by Paulo Lins. Translation
© 2006 by Alison Entrekin. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic Inc. All rights reserved.