On a scalding morning of 1983, father and son walked side by side. They were similar in many ways—light olive skin, mousy hair, a thin nose—but only the father wore glasses, carrying a heavy binder under his arm.
“If there’s something your old man can teach you,” said Mr. Da Costa, unbuttoning the collar of his dress shirt. “It’s this. Goodwill and heavy work. It’s what matters most in life.”
His son, a boy with the unfortunate name of Eliseu da Costa Costa, was considerably taller than his father and had to lower his head to answer:
“I just wanted normal vacations …”
“I’m doing what your mother would have wanted me to do!” Mr. Da Costa looked breathless and flustered, which was not surprising considering Cuiabá’s heat. “Working. Helping others. It’s my New Year’s resolution.”
“It’s been a year since she died …”
“And we’re here!”
The building in front of them was supported by a small store, Gilda’s Haberdashery, the sign crossed with black graffiti. Garbage bags piled up on the pavement, and a cream-colored Chevrolet Monza headed the line of parked vehicles crowding the narrow street.
“P. Espinhosa, number 530, second floor.” Mr. Da Costa touched the peeling yellow paint of the building and closed his eyes. The door clicked open, exposing a long corridor ahead. “Time to see your old man in action!”
“We can do this kind of stuff?”
“Right—we can’t! Unlocking a door without a warrant is definitely illegal,” beamed Mr. Da Costa, heading toward the stairway. “But I’m on duty now, so I can. Live and learn, Eliseu, live and learn!”
Eliseu followed him, daydreaming about his ideal summer, reading comics and doing nothing, but his father had other plans. You’ll be a man soon, he’d said. You need to help our community.
When they reached the apartment, Mr. Da Costa rang the bell.
The person who answered the door wasn’t Mrs. Espinhosa, but a pint-sized teenage girl who, as they would soon find out, looked a lot like her mother.
“We don’t wanna buy your shit, okay?”
“Good! We’re not selling anything.” Mr. Da Costa smiled. “Ajé, my dear, ajé! Can I have a word with your mother?”
Berenice, the girl who seemed eager to push them down the stairs, froze in her tracks. Most didn’t know that word, only the popular variation, axé. The history of ajé dated back to colonial times, when Yoruba replaced magia, the equivalent Portuguese word. As a noun, ajé meant energy, sorcery, power. But to its adepts, it had always meant me, we, us, a way of wishing others well.
“A—Ajé,” muttered Berenice. A curtain of straight black hair hid her shoulders, showing her wide face under short bangs.
“Easier than you’d think, right?” Mr. Da Costa winked at his son, and they both followed Berenice to the living room.
The small apartment was depressing: a plaid sofa with two seats, a lonely pillow lying on the floor, an old television with rabbit ears, and a brown wall-to-wall carpet.
The woman on the other side looked like a ghost. Like her daughter, Mrs. Espinhosa had long black hair, but spotted with gray and limp over her dark brown skin and hollow cheeks. She was thin and short, her elbows pointy under her sleeves.
“Piedade? Is that you?” Mr. Da Costa clapped hands. “I’m Hilário da Costa, we studied together!”
“A very unfortunate thing, to still have memory,” Mrs. Espinhosa drawled, and Eliseu had to blink several times to make sure she was real. “What are you doing here?”
“It’s my job, see.” Hilário raised the binder in the air, showing its title: PUBLIC SERVANT ASSOCIATION (ASP-AJE). “Ajé, my friend!”
“Ajé?” Piedade rolled eyes. “To whom?”
An attentive observer would have noticed the fading bruise close to her pursed lips, which resembled those one can get from a slap. Yet Hilário da Costa was not known for his discretion; Eliseu cringed, anticipating what he would say next. Worse of all, Berenice was watching them. She stood behind the bead curtain separating the kitchen from the living room, its colored beads in the shape of a bright blue macaw.
“Dad,” Eliseu said, taking his arm. “I think we’re not welcome here.”
“Yeah, you should leave before my dad wakes up.” Berenice’s face appeared through the macaw.
“She’s right,” Piedade agreed. “Just leave.”
“Sadly, I’m not here to reminisce over the old times,” sighed Hilário. “I’m here to formally request your assistance for a Level 3 situation. As ajés—”
“Don’t say this word here,” Piedade whispered, checking the corridor behind her. “If my husband hears you …”
“Is he religious? I can talk to him.”
“No one can talk to that disgrace of a man.” She stepped forward to lead them to the door. “Now disappear from my sight. Go, go!”
“But Piedade, it’s an emergency, we need to …”
“What the fuck is going on here?”
The drunken voice of Jeremias das Cruzes resonated through the entire house. He had a strong bull figure, twice as heavy as Eliseu, and his white tank top was stained with beer. Besides the narrow eyes and the shape of his lips, he had very little in common with his daughter: his hair was brown, his skin tan, his face angular and harsh.
“Who the fuck are those?”
Hilário would have been terrified in any other situation. Despite being one head taller than Jeremias, his arms were thinner, and the latter’s arrival had imposed an unpleasant silence in all of them. He thought of what his wife Cora would have said, if she were alive: Look at your friend, all bruised. Look at her daughter, hiding and scared. Aren’t you going to do anything?
For this reason, he took a deep breath and smiled politely. “Mister.” Hilário touched Jeremias’ shoulder. “Please don’t stand so close to me, thank you very much.”
Jeremias froze. His eyes turned glassy and lifeless, and his heavy body held the same posture, one fist lifted in the air.
“What happened to him, Dad?”
“He’s obviously in a trance,” Berenice replied, making Eliseu feel very stupid. The girl walked to her father and slapped his motionless face.
“Isn’t that illegal?”
“Unpleasant situations require appropriate reactions, son,” said Hilário, in a professorial voice. “Now, Piedade, can we talk?”
The two crossed the beaded curtain, dismantling its bright bird, and the teenagers were left alone in the living room. Berenice sat on the sofa, leaning her head against her father’s hip.
“So,” she said. “Do you know what a Level 3 situation is?”
“I, well, Dad didn’t say much about it.” Eliseu stared at the ceiling. “It seems your mom knows how to do something most people don’t.”
Berenice raised one eyebrow. “Transference.”
“When there’s an abnormal quantity of ajé in a single place, someone needs to transfer it to another location, one that lacks energy,” Berenice said. “Or it turns into a time bomb. Normal people can even die if they stumble on it.”
The sound of the beads moving again stopped their conversation. Hilário and Piedade were back, and both of them turned to Berenice.
“Are you going?” The girl jumped to her feet and took her mother’s wrists. “Take me with you, please, please!”
“Stop yelling, Berenice,” Piedade groaned, but her voice was not as harsh as her words. “I recommended you for the job, silly girl.”
As a young woman, Piedade Espinhosa das Cruzes owned an esoteric shop, and worked once a week for the Public Servant Association using her transference powers. When she was twenty and pregnant with Berenice, her days as an ajé became something of a past she avoided thinking about. Even now, sitting on a bench at the Bus Terminus of Cuiabá, that life felt like a distant dream, one she no longer deserved.
“Here’s the plan.” Hilário returned with the keys of a rented car, and four bags of food. “According to our trackers, the energy is concentrated in the middle of the cerrado savanna, in a place called Caipora’s Hill.”
“Never heard of it,” mumbled Eliseu.
“This is a terrible idea …”
“Come on, Piedade, we just need to do this and we’ll be right back! Your husband won’t even notice time has passed!”
Berenice dusted her plaid mini skirt and pulled Eliseu by the collar of his shirt, forcing him to stand up. “We’re going ahead to the parking lot,” she said. There was no space for him to refuse; Eliseu ran after her, the chilly air around her cooling down his body as if he had just walked into a room with a particularly strong air conditioner.
“What’s your name again?”
“Look, Eliseu,” Berenice said his name like she was eating something nasty. “I’m tired of my mom complaining all the time, and your lunatic of a dad being optimistic about everything, so I guess it’s just you and me now.”
“You also complain a lot,” Eliseu murmured to himself, even though he agreed. “But I like this cold air of yours. Can you teach me?”
Berenice smiled. “No.”
The rented car was a beige Volkswagen Beetle, and Eliseu sighed in relief when he realized the leather seats had been cooled down by Berenice. Her energy didn’t reach the adults, and Mr. Da Costa had to open the front window, sweating and puffing.
“I’ll turn on the radio,” he said, looking at them in the rear-view mirror. “A bit of music is food for the soul!”
“You’re loud, Hilário,” Piedade muttered, tying her hair. “I forgot you were this loud.”
The traffic sounds mixed with the wind beating the windows, the honking cars outside, and a slightly distorted version of “Você Não Soube Me Amar” on the radio, creating the perfect environment for Eliseu and Berenice to talk in peace.
“So you also do transference?” Eliseu couldn’t find a position where his bony knees would not be squeezed by the front seat.
“Why are you surprised?” Berenice held a plantain chip in the air, and pointed at his long nose. “It’s not my fault if you’re not competent enough to do it.”
“I have my tricks,” Eliseu replied. To his absolute dismay, Berenice smirked, amused at his feeble attempt at defending his pride. “If you really want to know, I’m specializing in armadillo holes.”
Eliseu had no idea, of course, but that had been the correct thing to say. Berenice stretched toward him, her keen eyes observing his reactions, her flat nose inches from his, as if she was trying to prove he was lying. Armadillo holes were an ancient ajé tradition in Brazil, and they were indispensable for modern life; it was a dull yet extremely well-paid job, which consisted of creating tunnels from one place to the other. An armadillo hole from Cuiabá to São Paulo, for example, resulted in a one-minute trip, so every ajé had great admiration for the creators of such wonders.
“Your armadillo holes probably suck if we have to go to whatever-Caipora-thing by car,” Berenice announced after a few seconds, going back to her place.
“I’m still learning.” Eliseu stuck his hand inside the bag of chips, a strong scent of salt coming from it.
“Of course you’d have this kind of rich boy job.” Berenice took the bag from him. “It’s written all over your face and in that dissimulated São Paulo accent of yours.”
“I’m not rich.” Eliseu pulled it back, this time without touching the bag. Berenice raised her hand immediately, making a plantain chip float in her direction. “I’m middle class.”
“Every rich boy thinks they’re middle class just because they’re not millionaires.”
As they fought for the bag again, the package jerked in the air, and the entire contents spilled to the car’s floor.
“You did that!”
“Now he shows his true colors!” Berenice snickered, moving her fingers like she was playing the piano. The chips went back into the bag. “What else do we have to eat?”
At night, Hilário da Costa stopped in a small town to find them a hotel. Whenever they traveled, his dear Cora used to say: Driving at night is asking for an accident! Is that what you want, Hilário? If he was a good public servant today, it was because Cora had taught him everything he knew. She was older than him, and a passionate professional. “Others always come first,” was her mantra, and he tried to follow it as well.
“Dad.” Eliseu poked his shoulder. “Can we go to a cafeteria while you pay?”
“Sure, son,” Hilário answered, absentmindedly. It was hard to think of Cora as past: when he thought of her gray curls, her plump smile, and the afternoons they spent playing Canasta, he thought of here and now. He took a few cruzeiros from his wallet, and put the money in Eliseu’s hand. “Take care, alright? Berenice is a young lady, keep an eye out for her.”
Hilário watched as his son left the building with the girl, nodding silently while she gesticulated. That brought back memories from school … He still remembered having to go through three armadillo holes to learn his ajé in a hut near the river bank, then back home to Pindamonhangaba for regular school in the afternoon.
He looked at Piedade. “Hungry? The kids went to the cafeteria, but we can order pizza.”
“Right, extra cheese,” Hilário smiled, touching the bald spot on his head.
Later, when the pizza arrived, they chose one of the two rented rooms and sat on the floor to eat.
“I thought I’d never see anyone from school again.” Hilário uncorked two little Grapette bottles, and handed one of them to Piedade. “I mean, anyone besides Pedrinho. We’re friends to this day, can you believe?”
“What about that shop of yours? Pedrinho’s wife does an amazing job in terreiro temples with her healing abilities. I think it’s amazing to be able to give yourself to others like that. You should put your ajé into the candles, into essential oils, it could change someone’s life.”
“The shop is gone.”
“Had to sell it after Berenice was born.”
“Oh, but that’s a pity! You’re such an excellent ajé, Piedade, you …”
“I was an ajé. I’m not anymore.”
Hilário fell silent. Back in Cuiabá, in the kitchen of the Espinhosa das Cruzes household, Piedade had mentioned that she hadn’t practiced for a long time, but he didn’t have time to ask why. And he didn’t need to; again, the answer was in Cora, who had seen so many cases of ajés who lost their powers due to trauma and stress during her career.
Abused children, tragic accidents, abandoned elders, battered women … The reasons were countless, and reactions unpredictable. Some lost their ajé forever, while others escaped unscathed, at least in their energy.
“I’m concerned about you, my friend.”
Piedade glared at him. Time had passed, but he could still see her teenage features somewhere in there, the same face he found so beautiful when he was fifteen. A fleeting passion, of course, since Piedade had never cared about him.
“I noticed, you know,” he argued. “Your husband, this Jeremias fellow … We can help you. The Association provides for ajés in trouble, you know that.”
“I’m not in trouble.” Piedade covered her cheek, the one with the bruise, with a hand. “Jeremias might be a good for nothing, but he’s the man I chose.”
Hilário could almost hear the “not you, not anybody else” in her tone, but he decided to ignore it. He had been extremely happy with another woman, after all.
“OK, you chose, that’s your right. What about Berenice? I don’t know much about her, but that girl is pure talent!” Hilário cleaned his greasy hands with a cheap napkin. “Do you want her to end up without any ajé left?”
“That won’t happen to her. She’ll be of age soon. She’ll leave and never come back. Berenice is smart.”
“What if she doesn’t?” Hilário insisted. “What if she stays to take care of you?”
“Hilário.” Piedade flicked his forehead, like she had when they were teens. “Take care of your life, and I’ll take care of mine.”
Eight in the morning, and the sun was hotter than ever. Eliseu da Costa Costa stretched his lengthy limbs and sat on a rock behind the gas station they had stopped by. Dad and Miss Piedade were still talking inside, but Berenice insisted they should explore.
“Stay close to me,” Eliseu begged, sweat dripping down his face. Every time she moved away from him, her coldness turned to heat.
Berenice sat by his side. She showed no signs of suffering: her short bangs were dry, her black hair gleamed in the sunlight, her brown skin was clean. Eliseu sighed, refreshed by her ajé. He leaned his cheek against her round shoulder, closing his eyes.
“You’re sweating like a pig.”
Eliseu considered it a victory that she didn’t push him away. Berenice even touched the top of his head, and began to cool his body down.
“You’ve got some nerve.”
“Will you kill me if I say I like mean girls?”
“Then I don’t.”
Berenice slapped the back of his neck, making Eliseu laugh.
“If I kill you, I won’t learn how to do an armadillo hole.”
“I’ll teach you.” Eliseu knelt in front of her, dirtying his washed-out jeans with sand. “But you’ll have to teach me that air conditioner thing.”
“I’m not sure …”
“Please, Berenice.” He held her by the hands. “Each time we stop somewhere to use the restroom, I feel like I’m gonna melt.”
“It’s not even that hot.”
“I’ll think of it.”
Accessing Caipora’s Hill was a complicated endeavor. They had to leave the Beetle and walk a dirt path in the savanna, surrounded by low vegetation that offered no shield from the relentless sun. Piedade and Hilário walked slowly uphill, but Eliseu and Berenice were far ahead.
“Eliseu! There’s a creek nearby, wanna go?”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea …”
“I thought you were about to die of a heatstroke, you coward.”
“Only when you’re not around.” Eliseu shrugged, panting. “On the bright side, I found a tree full of coquinho mangoes.”
Berenice hopped out of the tree she’d been climbing, hurrying to have one of the fruits. Eliseu laughed; his arms were full of round little mangoes, juicy and sweet.
“Those snails are going to take forever to reach the hill.” Berenice said, biting a slice. “C’mon, it’s just around the corner.”
“But I didn’t bring trunks …”
“Then you can just watch me have fun.” Berenice grinned and ran toward the creek.
The water was low, reflecting the clear blue sky, the clouds, and the twisted trunks and branches of the trees. Eliseu had to admit it was tempting, especially when Berenice kept running away from him, as if she wanted him to suffer the horrible heat.
“I’m going in.” Berenice removed her white shirt, leaving it on a rock. Her bra looked like a bikini top, but Eliseu felt compelled to look away.
“Why are you undressing?!”
“Don’t be a child, Eliseu.” Berenice unbuttoned her plaid skirt, and left it folded over the grass. “It’s just a body, get over it.”
“It’s just a body,” Eliseu recited, making Berenice laugh. He left the mangoes close to her clothes, and proceeded to take off his boots, his dirty socks, his high-waisted jeans, and his T-shirt, leaving only the underwear. “It’s just a body!”
“Finally!” Berenice said, pulling him by the hand.
The creek was shallow enough for Berenice to sit on the rocky ground with water up to her neck, her long hair hovering around her. Eliseu stretched out his legs.
“I guess this summer isn’t so bad.” The skin of his nose was turning pink, but it felt somewhat pleasing. “What are you gonna do when this is over?”
“Probably stay home all day long.” Berenice dipped her head into the water. Fat drops fell from her bangs and her thick eyelashes, making Eliseu smile. “What about you?”
“I guess my dad will keep forcing me to work with him.”
“I wish I could do the same.”
“We could ask my dad,” said Eliseu. “I don’t wanna lose my walking air conditioner.”
Berenice looked at Eliseu, wanting to believe she could enjoy the rest of the summer, yes, and have everything she had ever dreamed of: an ajé job, far from home, doing whatever she pleased. But the thought of leaving her mother alone and undefended in that house made her sick in her stomach.
She shook her head, and leaned over Eliseu, kissing him on the mouth.
“I could teach you more than air conditioning,” Berenice smirked in that way that scared him a little bit, touching his belly under the water. “But only if you beg.”
At the top of Caipora’s Hill, Berenice Espinhosa walked firmly toward the axis of power, feeling ajé flowing all around her, such incredible energy that the red earth trembled beneath her feet; ajé consuming the chuveirinho in the grass, glistening behind a red cashew tree, chirping with rufous-bellied thrushes, filling enormous anthills.
She took a deep breath, drawing that ajé into hers, allowing her, and only her, to see its source, hidden between cacti and rocks: a stained figure of St. George that must have lain here for who knows how long. Berenice took her water bottle and placed it next to the weathered statue.
“You’ll come with me,” the girl whispered, her fingers drawing energy through the air, guiding it. The concentrated, brimming ajé, about to explode, obeyed her, and entered the bottle—odorless, colorless, tasteless, visible only to her eyes.
When she finished, the statue was just a statue, and the hill remained peaceful and untouched.
“Mr. Hilário. Can we…?” Berenice felt the raw power vibrating between her fingers, full of life. “I want to transfer it to my mother.”
Piedade stared at the ground. Never, in all those years, had she talked to anybody about her feelings, not even to her only daughter. She felt a profound division between the intense rejection she felt towards her own ajé, and how she missed her freedom, her business, her shop. Part of her wanted to believe that Jeremias was capable of being a better man, another part was eaten by the guilt of keeping Berenice in a home that constantly hurt her.
Lethargy had consumed her like an illness, but now, for the first time since she married, she wanted to agree. Her index finger moved in a spasm. Then her thumb, ready to hold the bottle bubbling with power. But the two fingers were stopped by hand and arm, both insistent on staying by her side.
“Keep that with you, silly girl.” Piedade grimaced. “They’ll need you to transfer all that nonsense elsewhere.”
“I told you I don’t want none of this crap, it stresses me out. Hilário,” Piedade called to her old friend, avoiding her daughter’s face. “I’ll let her go with you, but you have to promise me that Berenice will be your intern.”
“Absolutely,” Hilário cracked a meek smile. “She has a bright future ahead.”
“Good.” Piedade dusted her own clothing, trying to remove the red sand. “Now take me home, please.”
Coming back passed quickly. Hilário and Piedade kept almost complete silence, neglecting to even mention their 1960 button football championship that Hilário had talked so much about in the last few days. In the back seat, Berenice and Eliseu whispered, fighting over the last chocolate. When they reached the building, Piedade was the first to hurry out of the car.
“It was nice to see you again,,” Hilário said, but Piedade just nodded. “Berenice, see you next Wednesday?”
“Yeah.” Berenice ran after her mother, sticking her tongue out when Eliseu waved at her.
Piedade took her daughter by the hand, and didn’t look back.
Inside the beige Beetle, Hilário da Costa buried his face in his hands, his forehead touching the wheel, and he cried like he hadn’t cried in years. Tears washed his cheeks, and his chest contracted, releasing sobs long buried within.
He had not cried at Cora’s funeral. He had not cried seeing her emaciated face in the coffin. He had not cried during her illness, believing every day that even their pain would end. Hilário sobbed even louder, incapable of explaining to his son.
“Ajé, dad,” Eliseu said, confused but hugging him as tight as he could. “Ajé.”