A prickling beat of raindrops sounded on the plastic bag the boy held on his shoulder. The ground crunched and shifted under his feet as he marched toward a glistening black plastic tent. He had erected it a few weeks before, rejoicing at the discovery of such a broad and perfect piece. A cane and a piece of steel rebar held it up in the middle, and to fasten down the ends, he had wrapped rocks and large batteries in the corners and tied electrical cords around them. These electrical cords attached to various other implements that were now serving as stakes. The old man had said that he was a genius.
As he approached the tent, the old man turned his head toward him and blinked. He murmured something, but the boy could not hear it over the sound of the rain overhead.
“I know I’m back early,” said the boy. “I haven’t gone yet. A truck came, though. I brought you a surprise.”
The boy held out the papaya where the old man could see it. It was broken pulpy mess of orange and various darker colors. The flies had been getting at it, but not for too long.
“I had some trouble keeping the others from seeing it. Papaya is your favorite, isn’t it?” he asked. The old man nodded. “I prefer pineapple, but papaya is good.”
The boy pulled the butter knife out from his pocket, placed the papaya on a piece of cardboard he had brought, and cut it in half. A few worms squirmed around, but not many. He took the halves into his hand one at a time and used the butter knife to scrape the seeds out onto the ground. He then peeled the skin off of the papaya, using the butter knife to scrape off every bit of the ripe pulp he could. He cut the papaya into little pieces.
“Here you go,” he said, and he held out a piece to the old man. Trembling fingers took it gratefully. The old man put it into his mouth and chewed it with his gums. They shared the papaya piece by piece until it was gone. The boy then cleaned the knife on his pants and returned it to his pocket.
“Well,” he said, standing. “I’m off again.”
He stood again and slung the plastic bag over his shoulder. It was large and full, but light. The old man waved a feeble goodbye, and the boy ventured out of the tent. The rain was coming down harder now, and streams of filthy water were beginning to form in the lower areas. Other people were huddled into makeshift shelters, most of them munching on less palatable prizes they had found in the latest truck’s load. Thunder reverberated through the steely sky, and to the northwest, a passenger plane rumbled up into the air. He looked to the horizons as he walked. It seemed this poor weather would pass soon.
The boy approached the area where the truck had dumped its load. Various figures squatted in the rain, eating this or that. Others were still digging through the fresh garbage. A little woman looked up at him from under her wide-brimmed hat. “Hello, João,” she said, and her voice trembled. She was chewing on what may have been part of a dog or cat at one time. “Hello, Senhora,” he said. “You should get out of the rain.” She shrugged.
Descending a nearby slope, João spotted a new-looking soda bottle. Seeing that it still had its cap, he dropped his plastic bag, opened it, and placed the bottle in with a collection of similar bottles, all of them empty but retaining their caps.
He continued onward, reaching the main entrance to the landfill. The shifting, mottled blackness of his world gave way to the packed dirt of the main drive that the trucks used. That gave way to looser dirt and splotches of grass. He resettled the sack across his shoulders and turned southward. With the rain coming down, the dust beside the road was now firm as the sand on the beach after a wave withdraws. A veil of steam hovered pensively over the asphalt.
Leaving the blackish and shifting world of the landfill, João found himself in Maputo. Beyond the boundaries of the landfill, cinderblock houses with corrugated aluminum roofs came into view. He looked down at his ratty shoes as they patted along on the ground. He had lived in one of those houses once. There had been a blanket in a dry place – just for him – and he remembered how he ate every day. His tongue tingled with the memory of sandes de queijo – ham and cheese on a roll. And then, one day, Mother said that his uncle had gotten into trouble. They had to leave, and he had not seen his uncle again since.
Mother had taken him all around the city, finding food wherever they could and sleeping wherever it was dry. They finally ended up in the landfill. Mother had shrugged, saying that if they were going to eat garbage anyway, they might as well wait for it to come to them.
João had now reached the nearest group of houses. Raindrops trinkled over the metal rooftops, and a wilting rainbow of neglected laundry still hung from the clothesline. A toddler looked out at him from an open doorway. He waved, and she slowly waved back.
His eyes again at the ground, João kept walking down the side of the road. A truck shot by, splashing him with dirty water. He adjusted the position of the bag on his back again. Looking ahead, he saw the long road, and his spirit sank for a moment. It would be something of a journey, and he would surely get very hungry before it was over. Perhaps he should not go: it would be better to save his strength and stay where he could get food. She would understand.
A flash of blue and yellow penetrated his melancholy, and a smile came to his lips. He saw it just ahead, ducking among a platoon of corrugated aluminum fragments that leaned listlessly against a cinderblock wall. His pace quickened, and he looked right and left as if to seize this treasure before someone else could claim it. Reaching it, he dropped his bag to the ground and squatted down. It had a yellow center with a dozen petals that rayed out from it like tongues of sky. He plucked it from its lonely place with his left hand, and with his right, he pulled a plastic bottle out of his bag. Unscrewing the lid, he placed the stem of the flower into it. When the petals stopped it from going any farther, he pushed down on its soft yellow center with his finger and coaxed it through. He held the bottle with the flower in it up to the sun, and he smiled. A steady stream of water was coming down from the roof just above him. He held the mouth of the bottle there for a moment, letting some of it gather in the bottom. He then screwed the lid back on, put the bottle back in the bag, took up the bag, and carried on.
The rain was getting heavier now, and the dirt that had been firm was now turning into soft mud between his toes. He heard some music coming from one of the houses across the street, and it made him want to dance. He lifted his eyes to the sound. A young man was sitting on a stool in the doorway and whittling at a piece of wood. When he looked up, João dropped his eyes again and continued on.
João thought about the little brother he had never met. Mother had not given him a name, but João had decided to call him Tiago. That was his grandfather’s name. Watching his shoes squish and flop along in the mud, he suddenly shifted his weight and did a double scissors as if he were playing soccer. He imagined himself and Tiago standing on a perfect soccer field with green grass as he had seen on television. He did the double scissors a few times until Tiago understood, and then he watched as Tiago did it too. It took him a few tries, but Tiago finally got it and thanked his big brother for teaching him.
He suddenly stopped and looked back the way he had come. Should he have gotten two flowers? Had there been another? No, he had not seen one. Perhaps he would see another one along the way. If not, Tiago would surely understand. Tiago knew his big brother loved him.
The rain was letting up now. João lifted his eyes to the sky, which was now much clearer. He smiled.
“You’re watching me, aren’t you, Mother?”
A truck came up from behind. As it passed, João realized it was Marcos. He raised his hand and waved, but Marcos did not wave back. He must not have seen him. Some of the men in the trucks were callous to the folks in the landfill, but Marcos was always nice. João had known that his mother’s birthday was coming up because he frequently asked Marcos the date.
About an hour later, João came to the place where the creek that ran by the road veered away. It was fuller than usual due to the recent rainfall. He followed it, going off into the higher grass. Houses stood on both sides of the creek. These were newer and cleaner than the ones he had passed before. João kept his head down and his eyes on the path before him, not wanting to meet the eyes of anyone who lived here.
After passing through the residential neighborhood, João emerged onto an athletic field. A school lay just ahead on the right, and resort communities lay a little farther down on the left. He rearranged the bag on his back again and continued on. He was starting to get fatigued, but he knew that the shore was not far now. Squatting down by the creek, he put down the bag, cupped his hand, and drank some of the water that was sliding by. He splashed water on his face and rubbed his wet hands across the top of his head. Looking to the western sky, he saw another airplane wheeling around and coming in low to land. He wondered if he would ever fly in a plane. He figured it must be terrifying, but he knew he would love it anyway.
After a moment’s rest, João put his hands on his knees and started to get up. It was then that he saw something in the grass on the other side of the creek. It was long and black, and it glistened a little in the sun. After removing his shoes, he splashed across the creek and climbed up the far bank. Snatching the object up in his hand, he inspected its broken shaft and warped blade. It had probably originally been long enough to reach his nose when he was standing, but now it came up to his chest and ended in a jagged point. No matter. He descended back into the creek and took it in both hands, with one hand down by the blade and the other just below the jagged end. Pretending to paddle a boat, he splashed water this way and that. After doing this on his left side and then his right, he excitedly hugged the paddle. He then looked up at the sky and thanked God for this gift.
He continued on, passing the school and the resorts. He saw the sky-blue water of the pools and longed to swim there. He wondered if it felt any different from the water in the stream or in the ocean.
The ocean was audible now. After crossing a few roads, he was walking in the sand of the beach. João lifted his eyes to the distance and saw the green and white shape of Ilha Xefina Grande sitting on the water. After heaving a breath, he removed his shoes and hid them under a tree between the road and the beach. He then marched across the beach and ventured into the water. As the waves surged up to his waist, his throat started to constrict with fear. He could swim, but not remarkably well, and he did not know what he would do if he got halfway there and something happened.
Casting such thoughts out of his mind, he threw the bag down into the water and swung his leg up and over it. The bottles and jugs inside shifted out from under him, congregating in the ends and making a saddle-like shape for him. He took the paddle in his hands and pressed forward. The waves kept coming, and each one pushed him back toward the shore, but after exerting some effort, he managed to continue pressing forward into the ocean. He was thankful again for the paddle, as it was obvious that his initial plan to paddle with his hands might not have worked.
As he paddled farther away from shore, the waves became smaller, and he felt more in control of his little makeshift boat. He locked his eyes on the island and continued onward, wondering how long it would take him this time. The first time, he had borrowed a boat to get himself and his mother there. That had almost gotten him killed, though: the boat’s owner had not been happy about the matter, regardless of the fact that he had brought the boat back on his own.
The sun was getting low in the sky now. After about twenty minutes of paddling, João realized that the ocean current was carrying him northward at a considerable rate. While he had originally set out in a northeasterly direction, he was now going slightly southeast. No matter. Even if the current carried him north of his destination, the island was long. There was even a sandbar that extended out to the north for pretty far. He could walk back to the southern end of the island if he needed to.
He was breathing heavily now, and he had to frequently switch sides, both for the sake of navigation and to give his burning muscles a reprieve. His mouth was getting dry as well, and sweat was beading in his forehead. Why hadn’t he brought some water to drink? It had just rained, and he had an entire sack full of plastic bottles here. He would have to remember not to make the same mistake next time. If there would be a next time.
João paused a moment. He thought about plunging fully into the water to cool off, but he did not know if he would be able to get back on top of the sack. Instead, he leaned forward and splashed water up onto his head, neck, and face. He removed his shirt, which had begun to dry, and soaked it in the ocean before putting it back on. Looking around, he could see both shores clearly. He told himself that he was almost halfway there and took up the paddle again.
It was near sundown when he finally reached the island. When the waves grew higher and the water shallow, he rolled off into the water and planted his feet into the sand. After carrying his bag and paddle up to the shore, he collapsed onto the firm ground and breathed for a while, looking up at the darkling clouds. Holding up his hands to his face, he could see blisters beginning to form on the inside of each thumb.
After catching his breath, he pulled his things up beyond the reach of the tide and opened his bag. He found the bottle with the flower in it: the little passenger was still bright, though its petals were a bit damaged. He tenderly reached in with his fingers and removed the little passenger. He then tipped the bottle back and drank the water that he had put in it before.
He looked down the shoreline. The current had not carried him too far, as he could still see where the shore curved out of sight on the southern edge of the island. He was thankful for that. Rising to his feet, he stretched his back and regarded his floatation device and paddle. Should he take them with him? No, he did not want to carry them. He would come back for them later. No one would take them here.
With the flower in hand, João walked down the shore, feeling the water slide around his ankles and between his toes with each wave. He regarded the grasses, bushes and trees that dotted the island to his left. He thought about going in search of food here, but quickly abandoned the idea. The only buildings on the island were very official-looking. They were also a bit of a walk from here, and he had no shoes.
After finally reaching the southern edge of the island, he stopped at a familiar spot. Changing direction, he went up the slope of the beach and toward the grass and brush. After looking around for a moment, he found the little cross. He had made it from scraps of wood he had found on the boat he had borrowed the first time. With his flower in hand, he walked up to the cross and fell to his knees. Trying not to think about the knot of hunger that was forming in his stomach, he looked around at the grass, trees, sand and sky, and he listened to the waves rolling across the shore. This was still the most beautiful place he had ever seen. He wanted to stay here forever. There was nothing to eat here, though, and the old man would need him soon. He needed to get going.
João placed the flower in the sand between a few tufts of grass at the foot of the cross.
“Happy birthday, Mother. Hello, Tiago. I miss you both.”