Where She Was
Gerald Van Daalman was a man seldom to be found without a cigar in his mouth and his wide right hand around a Gibson. He was the kind of man you would rinse out the cologne from your blouse with over the motel sink, but never quite get rid of the lingering taste of disgust.
The girls of La Dourada Passaro called him Old Bubonico, for the gift of dark ink blue bruises he left in bite marks around their necks. He was a man to be avoided when sober and feared while drunk down the tobacco choked streets of the crumbling favela.
A wise girl is never fooled by a silk cravat or french tie, the madams would whisper when his stumbling carcass was nothing more than a white suit on the edge of the hill. All gentlemen are beasts, and the worst of them have enough money to have you buried. No flutter of Daalman’s notes was worth the price of inexperienced girl to the madams of Carvalho Street. Everyone from the waitresses to the virgins sweeping the bars knew what a night with Gerald Van Daalman meant, well versed in the ice baths, chloroform and hushed tones of pitying sisters down the winding hotel rooms. What he wanted, few could say. He never found pleasure in satisfaction, only in the pain of the women he hated. Whatever he sought, he never found it, eyes swiveling in their sockets for the next girl to ruin, thick fingers running down the spines of his next prey. But, here in the shadows of the damned, the women looked out for each other, if nothing else. Dignity here meant nothing. Safety meant everything. As the ants of the brothels and cafes trickled from the balconies to the streets and up to the city, so too did the whispers of those who left their feasting for dead.
Guia Santos had been seventeen years old and three months, and from the provinces. The famine of the Grande Seca had driven the weeping corpses of the dry dustlands into the cities and favelas that lined the long salt coast, unwelcome and unwanted, with nowhere to go. That was twenty or so years ago, but still they kept coming. Guia was the child of a nameless man who had died against the walls of Carvalho Street, his mouth filled with flies that ate away at his tongue, his little daughter curled between his bones with fists full of his shirt. There were many more, an unremarkable sight.
They had buried his body in the great wetland that bordered the favela, where the marshland swallowed up the crosses that marked the land. His little daughter had watched, ever silent, draping her rosary beads across the sinking crucifix. Everyone had expected her to die, out there, when she refused to leave his grave, out with the rats and snakes of the wilderness. But the girl had lived, somehow, off the scraps thrown to her by the girls of the cafes and brothels, and hiding in the doorways and overhanging balconies when the rains came. “Come work with us,” the madams and sisters had called over washing lines and wet sheets when the girl turned thirteen. “You won’t be hungry or cold if you come work in here. It isn’t so bad as they say.” But Guia would shake her head, silently, and go back to the corners where the wild dogs slept with their heads in her lap.
“I heard she’s from Tocantins,” sniffed one, shrugging her shoulders in pity. “Criança bruxa, they say. Bad magic.” And they would laugh, forget the girl, drink gin and toast to earning enough to get far, far from the crooked men and bent corridors of La Dourada Passaro.
Yes, Guia Santos had been seventeen, three months, when it happened. It would be what the authorities would call an opportunistic event. She had been walking alone down the wet winding sheets and the flat mud banks in the old town when Gerald Van Daalman, Old Bubonico, Diabo himself, had slumped around the corner in his bright white suit and his expensive shoes, mouth full of smoke and his fists full of gold rings. Perhaps she screamed, perhaps she fought. But Van Daalman was brutal, unmistakably so, until the girl was dead, no longer gasping from his wide full hands around her neck. There was nothing erotic, nothing lusted here. Just a rich man playing the fiddle for the devil, a game of life and death that only those who wear gold and smoke Cuban cigars ever find the funds to play.
He staggered back to his cracked basin in the La Dourada, and washed out the blood and doused his brow. The phone call he made there was short, one of a hundred he had made when his temper got the better of him. Charon, or the madams nicknamed him, after the ferryman to Hades, got rid of the dead. The authorities rarely needed an excuse to let the people of the favela swing, nor the gangsters and aristos an excuse to kill for silence.
He sat back on the bed, numb, drunk. The girl had scratched at his arms, and his neck, deep from long and filthy fingernails, from a lifetime on the streets. This one had wanted to live, and now he carried her mark, stinging deep into his red sunburnt flesh. He’d stay inside for a day or two, in case people asked questions. Still, the lines vexed him. They itched, more so than a usual scratch. Sighing, he sat up and poured a glass of vodka from the cabinet, pulling up his sleeves to rub it into the wounds. There was nothing for a few seconds, apart from the sound of the glass shattering on the floor. Daalman pulled his arms back in horror.
There, in the scratch marks of the street girl, the flesh had started to rot, blistering into dark maroon welts thick with the twisting of larvae and maggots. Impossible. He was drunk. The girl had only attacked him an hour or so before. Frantically, he washed at his forearms, scrubbing until the insects fell away. But still, they kept coming. He looked up at his face in the mirror, realizing for the first time she had swung at his jaw, the flesh festering so that it looked as though he had been floating in the Tietê for weeks.
The witch girl. She was behind him now, long dark hair matted and limp around her face, black eyes round with hate. He sank to his knees, unable to face the hollow, sallow face that seemed to eat into his bones. “Please,” he whispered. “Please, querida, whatever you want, I’ll do it. I’ll do it.”
The girl moved closer, her breath cold on his neck. “You want me to tell them where your body is?” He said frantically. “I’ll pay for your burial. I’ll tell. I’ll tell them what I did. I’ll tell.”
He grappled for the phone, the dial tone ringing too long. His flesh was peeling from his arms, his entire body aching with every bruise he had ever inflicted. “I killed her.” He said, without explanation. “I killed a girl, a young girl, she’s been thrown in the river. Find her, please find her.” The maggots twitched now between his knuckles, so repulsive that he forced himself to shut his eyes. “Gerald Van Daalman. Yes, I killed her. I killed her.”
The flickering stopped, the pain gone. He looked down at his hands, and his arms, and there was nothing, just the thin red lines of a girl’s nails in his arms.
The police would find him like that, slumped at the bottom of his bed at 4.38am, Jan 12 1898, an overdose of opium and ethanol. His liver would have given out any day now, they said. They found her body, as he had said. Why did he tell us where she was, one officer had said. The other had shrugged. Men like Gerald Van Daalman didn’t fear hell.
They buried Guia next to her father, another sad casuality in the life of Passaro and the carcassed streets of the favela. The madams and sisters paid their respects, and draped rosary beads across the sinking crosses, soon to be reclaimed by the marsh. The fall swept across the valley, the ants retreating back into the old corridors and hallways of the cafes and bars of the town. “You know,” said one of the madams to another one cold afternoon. “They say that rich men from Sao Paulo are being found dead in their beds.”