A BUTCH NEVER CRIES
On Terceira, an island in the Azores Archipelago
In the town of Lajes
On a dark moonless night when she was in her elevens, Vitória hunkered down out of sight, glad she’d worn a jacket to guard against the chill winds of October. The cool salt air whipped her dark curls briskly, stinging her eyes. She was lying in wait for her first victim, and she was ready.
Vitória swiped tears with the back of one hand and motioned sharply for her older brother João to lie flat on his belly. “Don’t scrape your feet,” she hissed, hypersensitive to any sound or motion. “Want the women to hear you?” They were hiding up on the flat space beside the chimney of the whorehouse.
Vitória knew João sometimes wondered why it was she, three years his younger, who dreamed up the schemes that routinely got them into trouble. She pulled a strand of hair from her eyes, a little sorry to have dragged him into this with her. Being a boy, and almost a man, he was taking the bigger risk.
“This is more dangerous than swiping oranges and we’ll probably get caught,” he whispered back, fanning the flames of her guilt. “We’re not playing war games like this afternoon.” She pretended not to see him wipe cold sweat from his brow.
Silently waiting for her prey, she refused to be intimidated by fear. Instead, Vitória let her thoughts drift back over their afternoon’s adventure. Her grin went unseen in the darkness until she nudged João, who turned to look at her. “But it was funny.” His answering grin blazed between them in the darkness as they both stifled giggles.
After school, they joined their friends to play war, a game created by watching American movies. It was one of those crystal clear afternoons when everything seems sharper, colors brilliantly vivid. The crops were in from the field leaving children free, and the joy of being alive flooded their souls.
João was the captain of one team and, as usual, he chose his sister to be the scout. He and Carlos, captain of the other team, tucked the target high up in one of the trees in an apple orchard. Inside its leafy darkness it would be difficult to find, and João lived to challenge Vitória. She hated to fail.
Every boy brought along his own weapon, a slingshot. Small pocket knives had carved each from pieces of old lumber left lying around the town of Lajes. Vitória and João spent hours searching for the right sized pebbles to use as weapons during these war games, and that afternoon their pockets were heavy with them.
The cool wind shook the grass as members of both teams hunkered down low, creeping along. The objective of the game was to knock the target to the ground but stay invisible to the other team. If spotted, every stone they had would be launched at their opponents who, of course, did the same if they were seen first. Whichever team knocked the target to the ground won. It was always good fun and a favorite game when they weren’t working with their parents in the fields.
Determined to lead her team to victory that afternoon, Vitória kept her eyes sharp to find the target, an old white shirt filled with dried corn husks. Having set herself the task, nothing would distract her. The players on her team furtively patrolled through tall grass watching for the other team, following her as she searched. When she shouted and pointed, the whole team landed on their knees. As one, they took aim at the white shape hidden high in the tree and fired.
Back on the cold rooftop, she watched João rub his eyes as if to wipe the memory from his mind, a move that made her giggle aloud. “I tried,” he muttered. “I tried to stop you, but you let fly. You didn’t listen, you never do. Then you shot again!” His hand tried to smother his own giggle which didn’t work, it burst out of him anyway.
“And again! I reloaded over and over, but that stupid target stayed up in the tree. I couldn’t understand why.” She shrugged her thin shoulders. “I was shooting as hard as I know how!” Vitória cocked her head to one side and made a puzzled face.
“Finally, you fools ran out of ammunition,” João said, forgetting to keep his voice down. His sister shushed him.
Their team had turned to her brother for an explanation. “Your eyes were big as a cow’s.” Unable to stop herself, she imitated the horrified voice of her brother that afternoon, “’That’s not it!’”
He chuckled ruefully. “You cowards dropped like stones. So did I,” he admitted. “We all did.”
“‘Oh! Oh!! Lord help me!!’” Vitória pitched her voice to imitate the man they’d heard calling from the trees. Their whispered laughter floated away in the dark sky to be carried on the wind.
That afternoon, when they’d heard the sound of the farmer’s agonized voice, the group scattered like dandelion seeds freed by a brisk breeze, a strategy based on the concept that if chased, fewer would be caught. But whoever was up in that tree hadn’t seen them, thank God. He was too busy watching the sky for another shower of stones to rain down on his luckless head.
When they were safely away, such an adrenaline rush had coursed through Vitória she’d felt invincible. It had seemed natural to follow up with their current endeavor. She talked fast and explained what she had in mind to her equally excited brother. João agreed enthusiastically then, but as the damp evening air cooled his impulsive side, she could see he was having second thoughts.
“Maybe we should just go home,” he suggested like a mouse looking for a hole. “We can get into a lot of trouble.”
She knew just what to do with the anger she felt at his timidity. She saw him wince slightly, bracing himself against the steely glint in her eye as she twisted to face him. A hot flush of success flooded her, but she hid it. João needed to follow their usual routine to find his courage.
“Go home, chicken,” she hissed. “Escape to your safe, warm bed. Your little sister will handle this all… by… herself.” She paused long enough for her anger to sink in its teeth. “A man has only his word, what does that make you when you break it?” She normally stomped her foot at this point but that would give them away, so she snapped her fingers instead. “You told me you’d help me!” She snarled, glaring with as much disgust as possible. “You’re nothing but a lying coward!”
João groaned, but Vitória was merciless. She knew her brother well, and this same challenge always goaded him. “Really, most of the time we don’t get caught. If we’re lucky, tonight will be one of those.” Finally, João crossed himself. Vitória knew he sent up a quick prayer asking God to help them succeed. Nodding at her, he turned back to watch the road.
Darkness had fallen, dinners eaten, and men would start arriving soon. Neighborhood gossip said most of the whores’ customers showed up alone. Others came in rowdy groups looking for cheap sex, but a fight was free and almost as fine an entertainment. Vitória didn’t know which idea excited her more, to carry out her plan or watch a fistfight.
They stayed perched, motionless, on the flat area around the chimney. Practically invisible under the moonless sky, they made sure to stay that way as their prey finally came into view. Two men, wearing light jackets against the autumn chill, cheerfully approached the whorehouse.
Taking a deep breath, she nudged João. Each dipped an old paintbrush into a large tin can they’d hauled up to the roof. With fully-loaded brushes they took aim at the men below, and made the sign of the holy cross, whispering, “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” The clinging muck spattered on the heads of their unsuspecting targets. One glanced up and the children ducked out of sight. He held his hand out, palm up as if checking for rain.
For a week Vitória used that can as her toilet, saving her pee for this evening’s business. When prostitutes rented half the house next door to theirs, it outraged Mãe. Not because of the women themselves, their mother never let society dictate her friends, but because the business was being conducted right next door. Mãe, as truly Christian a woman as ever lived, would never take matters into her own hands. Instead, she would endure with quiet dignity her inescapable proximity to SIN. Something must be done, and Vitória was just the one to do it.
“Rain, already?” asked one man as the door to the whorehouse opened. The children peeked over the ledge.
“Too early,” answered the other. “Beatriz! My beauty.”
“Raphael,” said the woman standing before them guardedly, her nose wrinkling. Dressed in a clinging red dress and matching pumps, she did not move aside to allow the men in. “Too early for what?”
“Rain, what else?” answered the first, gesturing toward the sky. The whore blinked slowly several times and raised a hand to fan the air in front of her nose. Raphael caught a whiff and raised an eyebrow at his friend.
“Don’t mind him, he’s drunk already. Let us in.” He moved forward to enter, but once again the woman in the doorway did not budge. “Beatriz, querida, what’s wrong?” Raphael asked, reaching for her.
“Enough,” announced the whore, brushing away his hands. “You drink too much and wet yourselves, okay, it happens. But then you come here and think we’ll let you in?” The door slammed shut, and the two men stared at each other in dismay.
“Do I smell of piss?”
His friend sniffed at Raphael twice, then a third time. “I don’t know. It could be piss, it could be that cheap beer you drink.” He kicked the door of the whorehouse and turned away. “Screw them.”
“That’s what I was trying to do,” snorted Raphael, and the two men wandered up the road together, laughing and sniffing each other.
Up on the roof, the children slapped each other silently to stifle their laughter, afraid of being heard by someone in the house. “Good job,” whispered João with feeling. Even though Vitória was a girl, she always came up with great ideas. This was one of her finest.
“Do you think it will work?” his sister whispered, but before he could answer she put a finger to her lips, listening. The two lay flat as possible where they were, willing themselves to be invisible.
Kicking at cobblestones, shoulders hunched and hands stuffed down the pockets of a light jacket, the next man approached quickly from around the corner, taking them unaware. He had already knocked on the door when they baptized him. Tall and thin, the stranger waited unconcerned, showing no sign he was aware of being wet. João raised an eyebrow at his sister. She shrugged.
Beatriz once again answered the door, patting her black, high bee-hive hair in place. Pretty, in a calculated way, her eyes glittered like black diamonds by the light of kerosene lamps within. Her carefully painted red lips smiled, but above them, her slightly crooked nose wrinkled as it had before.
“Tomas at the docks said to say he sent me.” The young man offered her an ingratiating smile, clearly no stranger to the procedure, only the house. “He says he’ll expect you to adjust his rate accordingly.” A folded bill appeared between his first two fingers. The man tucked it into the cleavage exposed by the whore’s red dress, allowing his fingers to trail over her skin.
Beatriz leaned back into the house. “Hey, Slim!” she bellowed. “Here’s one for you.” She plucked the bill from between her breasts and handed it to the slender redhead wrapped in a green kimono who appeared beside her. “Smell for yourself,” she said, gesturing at the smiling man standing on their doorstep. “This one stinks like the others I told you about, doesn’t he?”
Slim’s long-lashed eyes rapidly checked the bill’s denomination and stylish clothes of her potential customer. Smiling, she sniffed the air in the young man’s general direction. “He most certainly does not,” she declared, pulling him in with a sunshine smile and midnight eyes. Beatriz stared after them as she closed the door.
“Guess we missed him,” said João.
“I don’t think so,” Vitória said, her voice a thunder rumbling in the distance. “She just didn’t care.”
Beside her, João nervously kept his peace. They’d get caught for sure if his little sister let her temper loose. Most of the time she controlled her anger, but once in a while Vitória exploded, damned be the consequences. That was fine with him as long as he wasn’t around when she erupted. Although she didn’t care about beatings or going without supper, he did.
On she went. “Mãe says it doesn’t matter, but it does. The gossips up and down the street are painting our mother with the whores’ sin. It’s only fair we do a little painting of our own in return.” Vitória’s voice rose and João made a shushing motion, afraid she’d be overheard.
The girl’s voice dropped in volume if not intensity. “Oh, shush yourself,” she muttered crossly.
Overhead, clouds teased the moon, their number and size increasing. The children were getting tired and fidgety when a drunken chorus of voices approached. A half dozen men lurched into view, stumbling into each other. They grew louder, trying to sing a popular song out of tune, unable to harmonize, and slurring the wrong words. All wore canvas pants and rough wool shirts, the clothing of fishermen. Fresh-shaved, hair freshly trimmed and washed, they were just off a month of commercial fishing and eager to spend their pay.
The children, stiff from inaction and the chill wind, were a bit over-enthusiastic flinging Vitória’s pee at the group of jovial men. Certainly more than one reached up to touch his hair, checking the sky for molesting birds. Those that touched a wet spot were disgusted by the smell on their fingers, but by then it was too late to do anything about it. The door opened and golden light from within beckoned the eager men.
A woman with bleached blond hair, her voluptuous figure clearly seen under a filmy negligee, greeted them. “Ah, good to see you! I see you brought friends. Fine, just fine. I’m glad you found us in our new home. Come on in.” She held open the door, and the first man passed by her. “What? Wait! Come back here you bastard,” she called after him, raising her hand by way of stopping the others from following him inside. “Come back here, you.”
She didn’t have long to wait. An angry Beatriz pushed him toward the door. “If it’s not piss,” she was arguing, “then your sweaty fish stink still has no place among us. Get yourself a bath and sit in it for a week before you come back.” She shoved the protesting man out the door to stand next to his puzzled companions.
“But we bathed,” complained one. “Look, we’re clean-shaved.”
“Apparently you can’t smell yourselves anymore,” sneered the woman who opened the door. “Take our word for it, you stink of rotten fish.” Several men nodded in unconscious agreement. The women’s laughter rang through the night. The blond started to close the door.
“Now look,” said the first man, stepping forward and putting his hand up to block the closing door, “we have good money to spend. You’ve got good women in there,” he winked at the blond’s see-through nightie. “Surely we can figure something out?”
“Well,” mused Beatriz with a sigh, “we are having a slow night.” She looked them over with a keen eye. “Okay, double the usual rate, and we’ll take you as you are. Regular price and we’ll throw in a wash, courtesy of the house. I’m sure the girls will be happy to help.” She clapped her hands. “Okay, which is it going to be?” Beatriz let the men pass through. Once more the road went dark as the lamplight was shut within.
It doesn’t matter if they smell bad or not, thought Vitória. Maybe we did all this for nothing. She rolled her eyes.
The two stayed on the roof undetected until midnight, but no more adulterers or fornicators appeared. A bone-chilling fog rolled in from the sea. About to call it an evening and slip home to warm beds, the children heard muted male voices coming down the road. They dipped their brushes for a last attempt to drive sin from the neighborhood.
Two men, both wearing the broad-brimmed straw hats of farmers, fell silent as they came within view of the whorehouse. Their faces were concealed by shadows thrown by distant lightning where storm clouds now blanketed the sky. A hand reached out and knocked on the door.
Vitória, followed quickly by João, muttered, “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost,” and took aim, making a large sign of the cross in the air.
Their sudden movement started a pigeon in the coop below. “Oo-oo-oor,” she clucked reproachfully, which caused the men to look around just as the opening door revealed the sultry Slim. The young man sent by Tomas stepped past her and out into the night, whistling a jaunty tune.
Luckily the men were distracted by the red-haired beauty and didn’t look up at the roof. It’s amazing really, thought Vitória, how few people ever look up. Miracles happen right overhead, and they never know it.
“You, too?” the prostitute asked. “What’s wrong with the men of Lajes? Don’t any of you bathe?”
One of the men smelled his armpit. The other shrugged his shoulders. “I washed before I came over here,” he said, defensive.
In the dark, João shot Vitória a panicked look, and the hair on the back of her neck rose. Then the other man spoke.
“Wouldn’t you know it’d rain piss on a whorehouse?” He laughed.
João’s voice squeaked, Vitória’s almost disappeared. “Father,” they whispered. Without another word, they dropped flat and stayed absolutely still.
TO BE CONTINUED…