The daughters of Adelina are playing on the beach but she doesn’t care. Ipanema, the loveliest of Rio’s beaches, opens its arms to the sea and to people alike, but the beauty of it all dies in her heart. On this Dia de São João, sparks from a roman candle leap over the waves, then plunge into the water with a sizzle. It is tradition, as is this: excited children watching the fireworks are dressed like caipiras, like the peasants who churn butter in children’s stories. The girls wear calico dresses with hems of flowers and eyelet ruffle, and the boys wear pants with colorful patches. Both wear straw hats, and the girls’ have ribbons. To Adelina, real peasants with bitter faces and hatchet-like shoulders wear decrepit pants and shredded shirts. Real firecrackers in the favelas, the shanty towns up in the hills, welcome a shipment of drugs or warn others of approaching policemen. Real shouts drunkenly swirl with cachaça and insults, those that permeate the brick walls of shacks. Adelina sees everything on the dark side. She is no fun. Friends joke that for Adelina, fun would be dancing at her own funeral.
Adelina flinches at the smack of a small rocket and covers her ears. Her husband Carlinhos says something to her, but she doesn’t want to hear voices, not of her husband, nor of her children, nor of the fireworks screaming like women falling down a deep, black gorge.
Adelina remembers her small village in the North, remembers the day when she saw the women plummet. She and the other peasants shuffled on swollen feet, their scoured heels twisting their sandals as they headed to the bus stop on the paved main road up ahead. They could already see the metal bridge that straddled canyon and river. Adelina was going to the bus stop to wait for her uncle who had driven to a friend’s house to buy fireworks. Every year on the Dia de São João, after hours of dripping-sweat baião and forró dancing, Adelina’s uncle set off pinwheels and cherry bombs and the more dazzling airborne torches. He had an old truck, and Adelina could always spot it from a distance, its front bumper tied in place with rags.
At first, no one paid attention to the strange bus that stopped midway on the bridge. Zé heaved his heavy burlap bag of manioc. The others, sucking in heat waves, were too hot to help him. They continued on a footpath that went along the canyon rim. Small weedy shrubs, their leaves like hard green chips, became more plentiful as did thistles and thickets of silk grass; a mandacarú, with twisted greenish-black boughs, stood alone. Down the steep sides of the canyon, grass and thorny creepers, with occasional crimson flowers, clutched the soil. Far below, the river seemed to drag itself over rocks and did nothing to cool the hot air that coughed dry gusts.
It happened when they approached the bridge, close enough to see the metal rivets on the low guardrail: two policemen struggled off the bus, lugging a woman and hurling her off the bridge. Then they went back into the bus for another. Some of the women being shoved to the edge tried to hook the guardrail with their feet, and one managed to stay perched for a few seconds. The women tumbled, diving like hawks as they headed toward the water. These women had no armies of brothers or uncles to defend them; no fathers to organize bands of gunmen. Prostitutes maybe. Who knows and who cares, people might say.
As an orange skirt flew upwards, a necklace broke, its beads dropping one by one. Another woman lost her shoes as she tried to climb up the rungs of air.
Adelina and the others stopped and stared. How do you catch fear that bursts before your eyes? How can you go through life as a dull animal that sees only pale dust in its path? Perhaps this whole thing never happened, this trail of screams, these faint splashes into the river. It would have been better if it had been a dream.
Adelina can feel her husband Carlinhos rubbing the back of her neck, but she shrinks from his touch. Fronds from the palm trees dangle in the breeze. A boy in a plaid shirt hurls a shoe into the water. Small street kids in dingy shorts run into the ocean up to their knees, hooting violently, and scaring a girl in a ruffled apron. Adelina wants to remember the Dia de São João of her childhood, the small flags strung from lamppost to lamppost and the dancing men and women intertwining their brown legs and rubbing their bellies against each other for the forró. She wants to remember her uncle’s hands, scarred from failed explosions, and how he wept with joy as his shower of stars erupted above the roofs.
But the rockets shatter and drop into the moon lit water, silver like the reflection of bones in the riverbed. Under the waters, all waters, all rivers, all oceans, fish flit through the women’s ribs, their hearts turned to stone. Carlinhos says, "Meu bem, diga-me que você ‘tá pensando?"—What are you thinking about?—and whispers other words, relaxed as he is from drinking two beers. He strokes the black curl loose from her hairpins, but finally lets go. Adelina can think only of the underwater women being carried off by caimans and crows. The women’s troubled spirits chatter of revenge. On this Dia de São João, everyone calls to Adelina in voices she can’t even answer.