By Steve Simpson
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
"Look, 'Cisca, little stars."
"They're not stars, Joel, they're fireflies."
Her brother was fascinated with Tia Geralda's yard, and for that matter, everything his six year old eyes saw every day in the world. "Fire ... flies." He considered the concept and shook his head at big sister's quotidian explanation.
"They're baby stars, and when they grow up they're going to shine down on us and bless us." He'd heard their mother say that the saints who blessed their family shone in the stars.
"Do you want something to drink?"
"Guarana, with a stripey straw."
"We'll see. Just wait here."
When Francisca came back there was no sign of Joel. She called out, but there was no answer, and she ran down the yard, looking in the shed and behind the trumpet trees.
She found his body by the back fence, with fireflies spiraling above it.
Two coffins rested next to two holes cut into the lawn at the Bosque Da Esperana Cemetery. When the smaller one was lowered, her mother squeezed her hand tightly, and made sniffling noises.
Her parents had told her Joelinho had been bitten by coral snake, and her little brother was in paradise now. That, and that it wasn't her fault. Her aunt had whispered in her ear, You're not to blame, queridinha. I should have looked after him in the yard. But it was all Francisca's fault, she knew that.
Her mother had told her that rain at a funeral was the tears of angels. The sky was clear and brassy, so they must have been crying somewhere else, blowing their noses into heavenly handkerchiefs.
He was the worst painter in Belo Horizonte. Her mother had hired him because Senhora Dallaqua down the street had recommended him, but three days to paint the walls white and the shutters powder blue? Meu Deus, it wasn't possible. He worked all day long, he was always there when she went to work in the morning and came home in the evening, and he wasn't charging by the hour, Francisca had checked. He was just incompetent.
Now at last he'd finished. The ladders, planks, and paint tins were in the back of his truck, and he was waiting at the door to be paid.
"My mother is inside, senhor. She's a bit deaf, you have to knock loudly."
"Ever since I first set eyes on you I've wanted to paint you," he said, "Your eyes, the line of your nose, your chin, your neck. I can't stop thinking about you," and he held up a watercolor portrait. "This is for you."
Her dark hair was cut too short, her nose was too long and her lips were closed in a thin line. In her brown eyes, he'd painted resentment, anger at the world's unfairness.
It was a perfect likeness, the face she saw in the mirror every day, and it was nothing at all like her. Her image had been transformed by each brush stroke, by the caring hand of someone who saw her in a way that she couldn't.
"It doesn't have much to recommend it. You should consider taking lessons, senhor. What are those things anyway? Fireflies?" She pointed at splashes of color in the background.
"They are stars, senhorinha."
A month later, she stood in the Sao Francisco de Assis Church, Niemeyer's masterpiece of form and light, the padre made his pronouncement, and Maria Francisca was married to Heitor Alvarez, the worst painter in Belo Horizonte.
Francisca looked at her reflection, and considered putting makeup on the bright rash that extended down her neck and travelled to the south beneath her top. She didn't bother. It was a three hour drive to the university campus where she was giving a seminar, and it would fade by the time she arrived.
"Come back to bed, meu bem."
"You artists are so lazy. I have to go to Teresopolis."
"Creativity is a delicate flower, querida, it has to be nurtured. The Ibirapuera exhibition is at the end of the month, I need two more pieces."
"And you nurture it by doing whatever you like." She arched her back to avoid an arm that snaked out from under the sheets.
"By living, Francisca, I nurture it by living. Are you talking about the Quipo finds? I'd like to come along."
Francisca was Professor of Historical Linguistics at the Minas Gerais Federal University, and her specialty was Quipo, the pre-Incan language with symbols coded in colored cords knotted at precise locations. New discoveries of Quipo in Rio Grande do Sul had shown that the language was used for far more than simple counting. Its rules were more akin to a computer language than human speech, and it was over five thousand years old.
Heitor was fascinated with Quipo, as he was with a multitude of things. In Spring, when the winds blew in from the Atlantic and cleaned Belo Horizonte's night sky, he was up on the roof of their apartment building with his telescope, and when he finally came in at some small hour, he would wake her up and whisper, Francisca, are you awake? I saw Jupiter's red spot or a meteor shower or Orion's double star, and once, there are other planets out there with people like us, and they travel in immense space ships between the stars.
Oh querida, you can't have seen that with your telescope.
I saw them with my mind. I know they're out there.
How could one person have so many interests, and find time to do anything at all? Francisca had no idea. Still, she was glad to be on the list.
"Two more pieces, remember? It's the twenty fifth today."
He sighed. "I'd better get to work."
"I won't be back until late, and pelo amor de Deus, Heitor, shave."
On the drive back, a truck overtaking on a curve outside Teresopolis clipped the front of Francisca's Fiat. Her car crashed through a low fence and tumbled into gorge where it was consumed in a fireball.
Heitor contacted the police, and waited for a phone call from his wife's kidnappers that never came.
"Francisca, I'd like you to meet my wife, Maria Dolores."
Maria Dolores kissed her on both cheeks. "Everyone calls me Lola."
"I'll get us something to drink." Joel left the lounge room and Lola sat down beside her. "How are you finding it here, querida?"
"It was quite a shock when I arrived, I half expected to bump into Sao Pedro in a doorway somewhere."
Lola laughed. "The first thing I saw when I came was Sergio's Pizzaria. I wasn't surprised in the least. We ought to go there some time, wood fired ovens make all the difference with pizza."
Francisca hadn't really thought about the afterlife, but if she had, she wouldn't have imagined anything like this.
It had happened in the blink of an eye. Her car had left the road, she'd pointlessly turned the steering wheel, pressed the brake pedal, and the Fiat had accelerated down the slope, careened off a tree
there was a dislocation, as if her existence had changed channels on a television set, and she was lying prostrate, looking at a blurred checkerboard pattern that resolved itself into paving tiles. She idly wondered why anyone would bother tiling a path in the forest, and when she stood up, gingerly with sore muscles and slightly dazed, she knew the answer. On the new channel, she was standing on the sidewalk in a city she didn’t recognize, and it had turned out to be a long way from Teresopolis.
She wandered through the downtown streets until a kind stranger, seeing her confusion and recognizing that she was a new arrival, brought her to the Registro Central building. The functionaries there contacted Joel, her closest family member, and gave her pamphlets to read while she waited. As well as information about the city, Divinopolis, and the planet, Novacruz, there was health advice, to take it easy for the first few days after dying, and a counselor gave her tips on how to get on with her life, and contact numbers in case she needed help.
Joel had driven her to his home on the suburban outskirts, and from what she'd seen on the way, Divinopolis was about as different to Brazil as, say, Paraguay's Asuncion.
Accepting that, in fact, she wasn't a pile of ash at the bottom of a ravine off the road to Teresopolis wasn't too difficult, but she did have questions.
"Does every Brazilian come here when they die?"
Joel filled three glasses with spirits from a bottle with a picture of a grinning monk. "That depends on what you believe. Some people say that Novacruz is a kind of purgatory. If you work at being good, saintly enough, eventually you'll go to heaven. If not, when you die, you'll keep being incarnated on different worlds, over and over."
"And other people see the afterlives as an opportunity to perfect their sinning, even try a few new ones," Lola added, laughing, and Joel looked almost embarrassed.
"I was wondering, does Tia Geralda live nearby? I'd like to visit her." Family members were put in contact by the Registro Central when newcomers arrived, and Tia Geralda had passed away at almost the same time as Joel, just two days later.
"She did live in Divinopolis, right here in this house, but she disappeared not long before I came. The neighbors told me she was always searching for a way to leave, to go home to Belo Horizonte. She must have found a way, because we were visiting her when I died, weren't we? I don’t remember much from that time."
"You were just a child. Too young to come here, Joel. I shouldn't have left you alone in the yard."
"Don't be ridiculous, irma. It wasn't anyone's fault." He saw the expression on his sister's face. "You've been carrying that guilt with you all this time, haven't you?"
She nodded, unable to speak, for a moment overcome by the cruel memories of that day.
"I died in a motorcycle crash," Lola volunteered. "My boyfriend was a gringo. I was riding pillion and he was behaving like a dick on the Via Dutra. I hope he's living on some frozen ice planet now." She smiled at Joel. "Anyway, I have one thing to thank him for."
Francisca took a deep breath, and tried to make sense of what Joel had told her about their aunt. "We went to see Tia Geralda because she'd just come back from Porto Alegre, that's what mamae said, but that can't have been right. She must have come from here, from Novacruz.
"She died a couple of days after you. I overheard our parents saying something about her accidentally taking an overdose of sleeping pills. And she didn't reappear here?"
Joel shook his head. "Not the second time, the second death. You keep moving on, so you can ... perfect yourself. One way or another."
Lola picked up her glass, "Here's to perfection."
They talked into the night, with Francisca mostly asking questions. Sometimes Lola and Joel could only speculate, and once they disagreed, with Lola suggesting that Joel's viewpoint originated from a paramacaco's ass. When she asked, Lola told her that the paramacaco was one of the less attractive Novacruz mammals.
Joel was an astronomer at the Divinopolis optical observatory, and they went out to the porch so he could show her the night sky.
"We're in the Sagittarius arm of the galaxy, really quite close to Earth, only a thousand light years away."
Francisca wasn't sure in what sense that was close, but Joel must have known what he was talking about. The sky was dense with stars, far more than she remembered seeing from Belo Horizonte. There were three bright stars near the horizon and she asked about them.
"That's Orion's Belt."
"It doesn't look like it." The stars were further apart than she remembered, and she couldn’t make out the rest of Orion.
"The way the constellations look depends on where you are. They almost line up from Earth, but they're separated by two hundred parsecs. They look different from Novacruz. We're on the other side of Orion's belt, and we're closer to Alnilam." He pointed at the brightest of the three.
Back inside, with the monk on the bottle still smiling, Joel told her about his latest work at the observatory. "We've detected linear clusters of radiation emitted by tritium ions. It's amazing."
Lola clarified. "He’s talking about spaceships, Francisca."
"They're ion trails left by nuclear fusion powered spacecraft. Imagine that, irma. There are space travelling civilizations on planets close to us."
But Francisca's thoughts were far away, orbiting a distant star. She missed Heitor. On their wedding anniversary, he'd brought her chocolates and flowers, painted, and she'd politely enquired after the models for the still life.
You know I paint from imagination, querida.
The box of chocolates seems quite ...; realistic.
Memory is imagination too, it’s the most deceptive kind, and she'd believed him, until he'd relented and produced them.
She sighed, it was time to tell the truth. "This is a beautiful place, Joel, full of maravilhas, of wonders--"
Joel smiled. "You want to go back to Heitor, and you want to know how Tia Geralda did it."
She nodded. There was still a connection between sister and brother that hadn’t diminished with time or distance.
"She went to a place the ancients built at the Isvenia Sandfalls, it's called the Lobby, and she never came back."
They had already told her about the ancients, a vanished people who had inhabited Novacruz many thousands of years before Brazilians came, and had left behind artifacts that no-one could make sense of. "What’s the Lobby?"
"There's a sort of machine there, but no-one has ever managed to get it to do anything. Tia Geralda must have worked out how to operate it."
"We have her possessions. If you want to look through," Lola added.
"Thanks, I will."
"It’s a three day hike through Cascatas Park to the sandfalls. We'll take camping gear in our packs. The trail runs along the edge of the pantanal. It's home to some exotic creatures, so we’ll have to be careful, keep a lookout for anything unusual.
"We should be ready to leave in two weeks." He saw the expression on his sister’s face and grinned, "Or maybe tomorrow."
Francisca embraced him. "Thank you, irmao."
"I'm coming too." There was no room for debate between Lola's words. "It’s going to be fun."
Her brother opened his mouth to say something, and thought better of it.
The next morning, while Joel prepared their gear, Lola and Francisca went through the boxes of Tia Geralda's possessions in the shed. There were utensils, clothes and a couple of books: a novel by Philip K Dick, and Francisca wondered how it could possibly have finished up in Novacruz, and a lay person's guide to Quipo entitled, 'Forty Knotted Strings,' which had sold well in Brazil. The author, Eliana Miracema, had passed away, and had apparently tried to reproduce her earthly success on Novacruz. She flicked through and a few sections were underlined, but apart from that, her aunt had left no notes or any indication of how she'd planned to decipher the Lobby's secrets.
"Oh, I have a belt that belonged to Geralda. Joel says it looks good on me." Lola had blond hair and prominent cheekbones that she highlighted with white blush. Francisca was fairly sure that Joel thought anything looked good on her.
Lola found the belt and showed it to Francisca. It wasn't a belt, and Francisca unwound it so that she could translate the Quipo rows of strings. It was a list of numbers, and she wrote them down on a piece of paper.
The first day's journey was uneventful. Lola and Joel told Francisca more about Novacruz, named some of the flora that they came across in Cascatas Park and pointed out the sights. In the evening, over a simple meal prepared on the campfire from a grain called coppercorn, Joel explained the geography of the park.
"The Rio de Maro flows at the base of the Isvenia Cliffs to the north, where we're going. It runs to the sea in the west, but it carries a lot of sediment and expands into a delta. The bodies of water in the delta, the creeks and lakes, are unstable. When one pathway silts up, another appears. That's the marshlands, the pantanal. We'll reach it tomorrow."
On the second day they encountered creatures from the pantanal. Francisca saw them first, three giant mushrooms on a slope beside the track. They suddenly rose off the ground, enormous jellyfish that walked on rubbery tentacles, trailing a mass of thin purple tendrils.
"Joel, up there." The creatures were coming down the slope towards them surprisingly quickly.
"Medusoes. They're carnivores, hunters. They feel vibrations and poison their prey. Stay back, I'll have to shoot them from a distance. You don’t want to get splashed."
Joel unstrapped his rifle, and there were three shots in quick succession. Each medusao was struck in a purple area visible beneath the surface of the translucent bell and stopped moving. Lola poked her handgun back into a pocket of her backpack, and noticed she was the center of attention. She shrugged. "Less spatter with small caliber bullets, meu bem."
At the close of the second day, Francisca saw enormous shapes on the western horizon, disks standing on long jointed legs, silhouetted by sunset clouds, and she wondered whether they were hazy metaphors for something to come. She didn’t mention it to the others, it was probably just her imagination.
On the third day, the track was blocked by a lake, wide enough that the far side was barely visible. On the shores of oily black mud, sky blue crustaceans that resembled trilobites sensed their footsteps and scurried back into the water to stop half-submerged.
Joel noticed Francisca admiring them. "Best to stay away, irma. They're cyanids, the blue coloration is cyanide complexes. One scratch, and you're dead in minutes.
"We'll have to go around, the sediment from the falls must have choked off a tributary, the lake has spread." Joel pointed out a narrow path through the brush to the east.
On the far shore, where the path angled back to the main track, the feldspar of the Isvenia Cliffs was visible above the treeline and Francisca could hear the hiss of the Rio de Maro's flow in the distance.
An hour later they reached the sandfalls, and Francisca stood on the bank of river, mesmerized by the billowing curtains of white sand that drove foaming furrows into the water and splashed against the cliff face. "I've never seen anything like it. Where does it come from?"
Lola explained. "No-one knows. The sand just appears out of thin air at the top of the cliffs and falls."
Joel stared at her.
"What? I didn't want to spoil the magic." She shrugged. "The northerly winds up on the mesa blow all the time. They push the dunes over the cliffs, and the abrasion has gouged channels in the feldspar at the top that concentrate the sand flows.
"How boring is that?"
"Well, they're still impressive."
Joel picked up his pack. "The bridge is a mile downstream, and the Lobby is in a cave at the base of the cliffs another mile beyond that. We'll be there before nightfall."
They had crossed the iron bridge over the Rio de Maro and Francisca could make out the entrance to the cave up ahead. She stopped walking and brushed some white flecks off her shoulders, wondering whether she had afterlife dandruff, but now there was more, landing on her face and arms, a trickle of sand from above.
"Look out!" Joel yelled, "There's going to be a fall."
With a sudden roar of sand all around her, Francisca ran with her eyes closed, stumbled and kept going, only stopping when the grains were no longer stinging her exposed skin and the sound was behind her.
Wiping the grit from her face, she looked back at a torrent of sand, piling up on the rocky shelf where she'd been standing moments before.
"Joel must have gone the other way." Lola was behind her, shouting to be heard.
The sand flow slowed and stopped, and a voice came from the river, "Over here, I'm okay."
Joel had dived into the water to escape, and was swimming back towards the shore, angling downstream with the fast-moving current.
Francisca saw something floating on the water upstream, an enormous balloon. "Joel!"
He saw it too, and began to kick frantically, churning the water, as the medusao with inflated bell glided towards him.
Lola took her gun from her backpack, but it was too late. Joel had stopped swimming. The tendrils of the medusao, streaming ahead of it in the flow, had touched him and he was paralyzed.
Lola fired twice, and might have hit the medusao, but it continued on its way downstream with Joel's corpse in tow, wrapped in its tentacles and trailing behind it like a barge.
Night had fallen, and there was so much grief for Lola to hold, too much for one person. Francisca, her own eyes reddened with tears, held her tight as her small body shook with sobbing.
When the colorless light of early dawn illuminated the river, as if the morning had come to her too, Lola stopped crying and blew her nose. She stood up and picked up her pack. "Let's get moving. You have a long journey ahead of you."
"It's over, querida. We're a constellation, the Two Marias. I'm not going to leave you alone, I'm staying here."
"No, Francisca, you're not. You're going back to Heitor and I'm going after Joel."
"I don't understand. What do you mean?"
"I'm following Joel. Wherever he goes, I go."
"You don't mean... You can't"
"I do and I am. Don't look so surprised, querida. Close your mouth. The second death is no big deal. I'm going to find him."
The ancient machine that they called the elevator occupied the back wall of the Lobby. There were interlocking gears of all sizes, from intricate parts that could have come from a timepiece to cogs larger than bicycle wheels. In the center was an iron latticework door, with the elevator chamber visible behind it.
"The wheels never turn. Most of the scholars think it's an ancient work of art, nothing more."
"Tia Geralda must have made it work somehow." Francisca pulled the piece of paper with the Quipo numbers from her pocket, hoping she could see some connection with the indecipherable device in front of her, but nothing was obvious.
Francisca stopped concentrating on the machine itself and walked around the room. It was called the Lobby because that's what it looked like: a hotel lobby. There was the elevator with its cog wheels, a bench for people to sit and wait, a marble topped desk, and behind it on the wall, an array of pigeon holes, metal walled boxes.
In a hotel you would come to the front desk, the receptionist would hand you your room key and any messages, and you would go to the lift, press a button and wait for it to arrive.
But it wasn't a hotel. It was a place to start a journey, a railway station, and the device that looked like an elevator was actually a carriage. There was no reason to think there was the equivalent of a button next to it to be pressed.
The bench and the counter made sense, but why would you need pigeonholes at a station?
In the bottom row of pigeonholes there were pebbles, and some were scattered on the floor behind the desk, as if children had brought them in from the river's margin to play. The pebbles were different colors and shapes, but there were only three sizes: large, medium and small.
You didn’t need knotted strings for Quipo, columns of pigeonholes and three kinds of pebbles would do.
When she'd finished translating the final number, placed the last pebble, there was a rumbling sound, gear wheels turned and the carriage door slid open.
There were goodbyes, and the two Marias, who were bonded by Joel's blood, embraced and wept, like sisters parting on a railway platform.
As the door slid closed Lola called after her, "Va com Deus, irma. This is not goodbye forever."
The chamber began to move, to accelerate, and Francisca, trying not to be sick, was swept forward into an immense invisible machine built inside the rock. It changed direction, shot upwards at high speed, with Francisca trying not to vomit too much, until abruptly its motion switched again, into a direction that couldn't possibly exist, and she gave up trying.
For a time after that, she floated in the mind's infinite blue, not aware of anyone called Maria Francisca, until she found herself lying on a bed of pine needles, with sunlight filtered through Araucaria pines shining on her face.
She stood up, wiped her mouth, and after a few minutes' exploring, came to a clearing with a view of a valley she recognized. She was in the Sao Francisco de Paula State Forest in southern Brazil, where the Quipo had been discovered.
After a phone call and the reunion, "Heitor ... querido ... Heitor, you're holding me so tight I can't breathe," she told him that she'd been kidnapped, it was a common enough crime, and taken to the South, but for some reason, perhaps because they were fugitives and the police were looking for them, the kidnappers had fled.
When they returned to Belo Horizonte, Heitor showed her the pieces he had finished for the Ibirapuera exhibition, "I needed to occupy myself," and Francisca found herself staring into frames filled with a darkness that must have been created with paint, but was so profound that it seemed to radiate negative light.
As the days went by, they became Heitor and Francisca again, and their lives were almost as they had been before the accident on the Teresopolis road.
A week later, Francisca dreamed she was back on Novacruz, lost and alone in the pantanal, with its creatures all around her. She woke up sweating and shaking, and Heitor was concerned. "Are you alright, meu bem? You were talking in your sleep, something about medusoes. What are medusoes?"
"I don't know. It's nothing, querido, just a bad dream."
When she showered that morning, she noticed there was sand in her hair.
The following night she had the dream again, and when she woke up there was a sky blue crab, disk shaped, standing on spindly legs at the foot of the bed.
"What the hell is that?" Heitor went to brush it to the floor. Francisca yelled, "Don't touch it," but it was too late. The cyanid sank its pincers into the back of Heitor's hand, jumped from the bed and scuttled into a corner. Heitor screamed with pain and fell backward against the bedhead.
Francisca saw an orange color spreading along the veins in his arm. She went for the phone and he called her back. "No no time "
She cradled his head in her arms.
"I always wanted spaceships beyond Orion's Belt ..." His breathing was shallow, he was panting, "... to see them."
"You will, meu amor, you will."
"Probably be a disappointment." He looked into her eyes. His chest had stopped its fluttering movement. "But not you never you," and he was gone.
Francisca stood on the roof of her apartment building and gazed down at Avenida Bandeirantes far below. There was not a soul on the road at this hour, but the traffic lights were changing, cycling through their routine of colors as they always did.
For three days, while her family had tried to comfort her, Francisca hadn't eaten or slept, had gone on living out of habit. She knew the police suspected her of poisoning Joel, and soon they would start asking questions, but it didn't matter.
She thought about what Tia Geralda had said all those years before, after Joel's first death. It had been in the living room of the farmhouse, and she'd whispered in Francisca's ear, You're not to blame, queridinha. I should have looked after him in the yard.
Except those weren't her exact words. Memory is imagination too, it's the most deceptive kind.
Her aunt had said, You're not to blame, queridinha. I was wrong to stay here, and not knowing better, Francisca had imagined she was talking about staying in the house.
Joel hadn't been bitten by a coral snake, he'd been poisoned by a creature from the pantanal, from Novacruz.
When someone came back, a portal to Novacruz was opened, and through sleeping and dreaming, dangerous life forms that didn't belong on Earth could come here.
Her aunt had known that there was only one way to stop the dreams, to stop the creatures from reaching Earth.
She looked up at the stars, at Orion. The constellations were imaginary comfort, familiarity that people invented when they were confronted with the carelessness of the universe.
Francisca couldn't stay either. And after all, leaving was no big deal.