On a dark, moonless night, when she was eleven, 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 wiped 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 she, three years his younger, 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 let fear intimidate her. Instead, Vitória let her thoughts drift back to 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 a crystal clear afternoon where everything seemed 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 his own weapon, a slingshot. Small pocketknives 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 cornhusks. 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 a Christian 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 someone in the house would hear them. “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 beehive 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 occasionally 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. Half a 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. The smell on their fingers disgusted those that touched a wet spot, 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 blonde’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. Shadows thrown by distant lightning, where storm clouds now blanketed the sky, concealed their faces. 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 startled 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 red-haired beauty distracted the men and they 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.
“You think that’s funny? Do you even have the cost of a basic?” the whore complained. “Beatriz.” Her voice was muffled as she called into the house. “I’m leaving. The men in Lajes are pigs.” She started to close the door, but their father stopped her.
“Now, now,” he soothed in a voice his daughter had never heard before. “Pretty girl, let me come in.” He leaned toward her and whispered something the children couldn’t hear. Slowly they lifted their heads to see.
The prostitute finally laughed. “You goat,” she teased. “Randy and ready are you?” She pulled the front of her silky green kimono open. Her black underwear was molded to light skin. She posed, dropping the robe as she slowly turned to show off her truly remarkable backside. The children stared, as did the men who were both nodding their heads. “Go to hell,” she shouted at them and slammed the door.
“What the hell?” Their uncle, Father’s youngest brother, was fuming. “Gaspar, what’s got into these broads?” It was a term an American singer was making popular, and Arturo Mendes liked to use it.
Vitória felt the wind knife through her at the fury in her father’s voice, a tone she had heard many times before. “Stupid woman, ugly donkey’s ass.” He kicked the door once, then again, but it stayed stubbornly shut. He punched it, then spun around and stalked off in the chill dark. His cowed brother followed, an invisible shadow.
“We’ve got to get home.” João draped his long legs over the side of the ledge, feeling for the pigeon coop. He misjudged and landed with a thump. Several birds startled, complaining loudly in the dark.
“Who’s there?” From the other half of the building hustled the owner, Senhor Pereira, who had rented half his house to whores. A kerosene lamp swung in his plump hand. “Who’s pestering my pigeons?”
João jumped from the top of the coop to the branch of a nearby fig tree. Within seconds, the broad leaves hid him. Vitória lay flat where she was.
The owner got to his coop and held the lamp up to check inside. Half the birds woke and feathers flew from the opening to float gently to the ground as they muttered their displeasure. “Oo-oo-oor, oo-oo-oor,” The man counted his flock, then satisfied they were all there, glanced around and up toward the roof and chimney.
Each held their breath and looked at the other, hidden eyes finding the same.
The old man turned his head to see up and down the road, checking for suspicious persons. Finding none, he headed back to his warm bed, entering the same doorway they’d been aiming at all night. Vitória hoped some of the muck down there would stick to greedy Pereira. It was understandable he’d rent half his large house after his sons married and wife died. It was inexcusable to rent to prostitutes. This wasn’t that type of neighborhood.
João watched Vitória leap easily, and silently, from roof to pigeon coop and down to the road. They ran swiftly next door, arriving just as the thunderstorm broke. Without wasting time, they split up. João entered the house through a window in the front room where he slept, and his younger sister did the same through one in her bedroom left propped open with a rock.
Safe in her own room, she washed her hands, face, feet, and butt with water she’d left in a basin. Her heart pounded like a trapped bird, exhilarated and afraid. Father! The one possibility I never considered. Her head ached.
Vitória slipped into a nightgown and slid between white sheets her mother sun-bleached regularly. She thumped the side of her head, berating herself for not thinking of everything. Why didn’t I consider him? Now I’ll get my butt kicked, sure. She steeled herself to get through it without a whimper. She would not give her father that satisfaction.
She had discussed this with friends, other tomboys like her, who joined her in the stand of trees behind her mother’s house Sunday nights. When dealing with beatings from fathers, uncles, or brothers, each had developed her own way of getting through them without crying, sharing strategies with each other. Vitória, however, was the only one who claimed to simply not feel the pain, until afterward, anyway.
“How can a whipping not hurt?” her friend Juana asked once.
“Oh,” she answered blithely, “I have bruises afterward that hurt all right. But during the beating, I send my mind elsewhere. Once I even asked Father, ‘Are you finished?’ I was surprised when he stopped. That just made him madder, but I honestly didn’t realize. My mind ignores the pain because I go somewhere other than this stupid rock.”
Mostly she imagined herself in America, that far off land where glamorous movie stars lived magical lives. She knew one day she’d live in that fabulous country, no matter how impossible it seemed. While her father beat her, her mind traveled into the future, visualizing a life far away from her current reality. Vitória worked so hard at being somewhere else her focus left no room for pain. She wouldn’t allow it.
She stretched luxuriously in bed, letting the threat of punishment fade away. As she mused over the day’s adventures, she offered the stars outside her window a delighted grin. She hadn’t had this much fun in a long time. It’s worth whatever happens.
It wasn’t a surprise her father went to prostitutes. Vitória yawned in the darkness as she clenched her hands into fists under her chin, allowing her memory to wander… Sylvia.
When Vitória was very little, only five or six, her father took her with him to the café where he cooked to pay his bar tab. She brought customers plates of food, and they tipped her with sweets, soda pop, or cigarettes.
Sylvia was a whore who used the café to find customers. She was in her late twenties and desperate to look younger. She wore tight dresses cut low on top and high on the bottom. Bright makeup that did nothing to hide the exhaustion in her eyes heavily painted her thin face. She haunted the café from noon to the early hours of the morning, flirting men into buying her cheap drinks and picking up the odd customer. Sylvia had become a prostitute after she got pregnant in her teens. The baby was stillborn, but her family kicked her out anyway. She passed from one man to another until it became her way of life. Men had fun with her, maybe genuinely liked her, but no one would ever marry her.
Vitória’s father thought his youngest daughter too naïve to figure out his trysts with Sylvia. He still didn’t know she knew. She yawned again and stretched, releasing the tension in her fists. It confused her how often adults misjudged her abilities. They thought she was a silly child, but all it took to figure out what was going on was to listen and act dumb. She’d been doing it as long as she remembered.
Not that I caught on for a while. She writhed in remorse, remembering her stupidity. It wasn’t until she was seven that all the little pieces of the puzzle fit together for her. I was so stupid.
Every now and then, she would look around to find her father gone from his usual place at the stove in the kitchen. When she asked, the boss always explained he was on a break. She knew it was a lie; Father wasn’t on any break. Every time her father left the small, hot kitchen, he yelled for a glass of wine to cool his throat; it never failed. That’s what finally made her suspicious. He would never go without his wine if he were at the café. So where was he?
It took longer for her to notice Sylvia’s absences at the same time and longer still to figure out what they were up to. After all, the whore was often away for different periods of time, so it wasn’t unusual for her to be gone. But when Vitória did see the pattern, she wasted no time in checking it out.
She kept her eyes and ears open as she brought plates of food from the hot, steamy kitchen out into the main dining room, moving faster than usual. When she heard her father ask for a break and not shout for wine, she hid outside to watch where he went.
First Sylvia came out the front door, walking casually down the street until entering the little house she lived in. A few moments later, her father left through the back door of the restaurant. He stretched and scratched, then pulled a hand rolled corn-husk cigarette from his pocket, lit and puffed on it as he followed Sylvia’s footsteps, throwing it aside as he entered her door. Vitória waited a short while, then crept up to peer through the windows.
In the safe darkness of her bedroom, she twisted convulsively onto her side and snuggled deep under a blanket, trying to forget what she saw over that sagging dirty windowsill four long years ago. Her father had been seated on a chair, pants and underwear down around his ankles, head thrown back and breathing hard. Sylvia kneeled on the floor between his spread legs, her head bobbing up and down in his lap. The only sounds were her father’s groans and the slurp, slurp, slurp of the prostitute’s tongue. Sylvia’s brightly painted fingernails gleamed on the pale flesh of his thighs. The scene disgusted her, and she’d cried in the bushes where she was hiding that day. Vitória went back to the restaurant with a whole new understanding of her father.
Those who grew up on any of the nine Açores Islands in the 1950’s were no strangers to the idea that sex was a sin. No one ever talked about it except the Padres, and they had nothing good to say about it. Parents were shamefully silent on the topic, but truly vicious gossip was easily overheard at any gathering. Curious children learned to denounce, loudly and publicly, anyone who differed from the sanctified definition of normal.
However, Vitória also learned early in life that women of the island believed their men needed prostitutes to satisfy excessive, unnatural desires. Friends of her mother complained when their husbands went to prostitutes but were still thankful their men were satisfied. “Good women don’t do those things,” she heard more than once, “so let bad women do them.”
She knew her father was strict, even cruel on occasion; she’d dodged his fists and feet too often to deny it. But until tonight she’d never thought him crass enough to frequent the whorehouse next door. I thought he had, well, more class than that.
In the darkness of her bedroom, she felt her face flame with anger at the insult to her mother. Now she could think of him with complete contempt rather than offer even the token respect she owed a parent. If he did find out her pee baptized him and kicked her tailbone until she couldn’t stand, she’d refuse to cry and force her mind to go to America, where girls could do as they wished.
Her father loved to beat her because she liked wearing pants instead of skirts. It was all right until she started going to school. And he’d started kicking her ass whenever he caught her smoking, although he used to think it funny when customers at the café gave her lit cigarettes.
Father says I should give up playing with boys and dress and act like the other girls in Lajes. He hates me because I want to keep doing the things I’ve always done. She didn’t know why her father suddenly changed, but she didn’t want to and resisted him at every turn. Not feeling the pain of his beatings was her personal triumph, somehow evening the growing score between them.
As her exhausted eyes finally closed, she felt herself drifting off to sleep. Thinking of all the frustrated men who went home to their wives wearing her pee, her father and uncle among them, her lips curved upward one more time in the darkness. Serves them right.