I’m on a small Portuguese island right now visiting family and doing research for the sequel to When Butches Cry. My wife and I have an extraordinary friend here. Poverty stricken and born deaf, a woman in her 40s I will call Joba for this post, is a hell of a fisherwoman, making her living by selling bait she gathers endlessly day after day while feeding her mother, daughter, and grand-daughter with fish she catches herself. She has only four or five teeth left and her face is weather-beaten from salt water and sun. She is tall for a Portuguese woman and whipcord thin from walking many miles to find good fishing.
Although nearly everyone on the small island of Terceira knows her, very few use her real name. Everyone refers to her as the Mute. I have watched people cheat her of the few euros she charges for the crabs and biting sea worms she gathers at night to sell for bait, and too often she has to dodge rocks thrown at her by vicious young men. Joba learned to fight dirty, striking low and hard without let up, after being raped as a teen (which resulted in her daughter’s birth). She’s earned a formidable reputation as a fighter, instilling fear if not respect in her enemies.
The cruelty of her situation is beyond my ken. She is deaf, but most certainly not mute. Somehow or other, with absolutely no education (she went to public school for a few days as a child but the other kids laughed and tormented her so badly she refused to go back), Joba has watched lips enough to simulate words and with broad gestures and facial expressions is quite good at making herself understood by those who take the time to watch and listen. But besides her immediate family, almost no one does.
Traf and I always bring her a present of new jeans, shirts, or jackets when we visit because she spends what little extra money she makes on batteries for the flashlight she uses to work at night, fishing gear, and little pleasantries for her family. While Joba appreciates the gifts, they are a pale second to seeing and recognizing Traf, apparently her only friend in the world who enjoys sitting and hearing her stories. Although I speak almost no Portuguese, she always includes me in her conversations, never leaving me out and pausing as Traf translates the parts I don’t understand. To my utter amazement she seems to understand my English (meaning if not words), supplying extra information to make herself understood. She tries to hide her tears when we leave but through mine, I’ve witnessed hers.
Her loneliness is deeper, wider, and more intense than any human being’s should ever be. She lives with her guard always up, expecting to be treated as sub-human, or worse, no better than an abandoned animal. Although clearly gifted with an amazing intellect, no one understands just how smart this young woman is to have self-taught herself to speak, fish, swim, and even rescue foolish fishermen who fall into deep water.
About ten years back, she earned enough money to buy herself a small rowboat. That expanded her ability to catch bigger fish for sale to local restaurants and gave her some mobility. She proudly hand-lettered her own name on the small vessel, but within the year someone(s) destroyed the boat, hacking it to pieces unable to be repaired.
I could never have written this type of cruelty into a book if I hadn’t seen it for myself in Joba’s life. Yes, part of her story will be in my sequel to When Butches Cry, but most readers will assume I’ve invented the very real torment of this woman’s everyday existence.