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“Replacement” © 2019 by Juliana Pinho

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He promised he’d keep his heart, but circumstances have changed. That’s just superstition anyway, the whole the-heart-is-home-to-the-soul thing, you didn't need to go to school to know that it was the brain that bossed you around—otherwise anyone with a shiny heart would be a blubbering fool or an emotionless robot and Jô knew folks who'd done it. It was just like selling a leg or a liver, only more complicated because of all the blood pumping through it. But try telling his mother that.

So he doesn’t—tell her, that is. Just leaves their steel box of a house without saying a word, and when she calls out “Where are you going?”, expertly lies: “To the scrapyard.”

“Don’t go near the frontier,” she says in the voice of someone who expects to be disobeyed but is too tired to do anything about it.

“I won’t,” he lies again.

Then he’s out the door and into the favela. They don’t call them like this anymore—the outer city, they say in the news—but back in the day, according to Marcos, that was their name. Marcos went to school for a while, before they closed for good, and would come back and tell Jô what he had learned. A lot of it went over his head, but this bit stuck: that favela was a plant that became the name for any slum, a thorny shrub with tiny white flowers that grew on the hills where people started building shacks. This surprised Jô for two reasons: first that something ugly could be named after something beautiful, and second because he'd never seen a flower and could not imagine one growing where he lived.

Over here, near where the old river ran before being concreted over, nothing sprouted on the patches of dirt between the tracks of asphalt. Not that it was much better anywhere else. A city named after a saint—what a joke. You needed only to spend some time in São Paulo to stop believing in God altogether. At church, when his mother dragged him, they talked of rewards, verdant fields, and abundance, but around him there was only grayness, smoke, and blood.

And the priests said you needed to be whole to get into heaven. Another joke. It was easy for them, the rich bastards, buying the parts of folks like him, always renewing themselves. But if your only income was your body, there wasn’t much of a choice.

Marcos’s father had a job, so Marcos got to go to school and was almost whole. He replaced an eye when he was little (his mother was ill and they needed the money) and then a lung a few years later (market crisis; prices rose when a fire ruined crops that year). People were reluctant to sell limbs because of how obvious it was—you couldn't get a decent job if you were replaced all over—but the rich were always wanting them, so they sold high. Besides, it was much safer to trade an arm or a leg—easier to put in, less ways to muck it up. Organs presented all sorts of problems over time, especially if you got them from a backdoor doctor and not a proper one. But proper doctors took such a large percentage that it was barely worth the visit. Their replacements were better, but Jô knew places that got cheaper organs from faraway countries, making the giver’s share higher.

All his replacements had been like that—both arms, his lungs and kidney and eyes. His mother cried every time, saying he’d never go to heaven, but Marcos said that was all nonsense. If there is a God, he argued, surely they’ll know we didn’t have a choice. Otherwise what is the point?

Jô believed him. Not because he cared particularly about what would happen after he died, but because he trusted Marcos with everything. Never met anyone smarter. Since they were kids living next to each other, Jô could listen to him all day, talking about things he didn’t completely understand, explaining concepts with pictures and letters in the dirt.

Miraculous, the way Marcos’s fingers worked: creators of entire scenes and worlds, delicate and precise. One time he got his hand caught in scrap metal and cried as he pulled it out, thinking he'd lose the fingers; the other boys laughed and called him a pussy, but Jô almost started crying too. It would be a shame to lose those fingers. Shiny ones wouldn't draw as well.

That's another thing his mother wouldn't like, that he’s in love with a boy. Might like it even less than him selling his heart. And would definitely not approve of what he’s selling it for.

The thought doesn’t halt his step as he makes his way through the narrow alleys. Doc lives near the frontier, close to the outer city folk who need to sell and the inner city folk who want to buy. There’s a fence there with a wide gate and guards with wicked-looking machine guns. Behind it, the city rises infinite and vertiginous, gray skyscrapers scraping a forever gray sky. The gate stays open during the day, but you can’t get in if they don’t like the look or the color of you. Marcos often had to show his papers to be allowed through, proving he was going to work.

It didn’t surprise Jô when Marcos found a job, with that mind and those hands, but what a waste it was, putting him to clean bathrooms and floors. Marcos didn’t mind, though. He was hired by a family who lived in a closed condo with a garden.

They have trees, he would tell Jô at night, actual trees like in the old forests, though species that had never grown naturally there—the seeds were brought from different parts of the country and replanted in private homes, he explained—but still, how amazing. The air is different there, he’d say, and there are smells like you wouldn't believe. And then he'd try defining those smells, making Jô laugh because “like the sky when it’s blue” didn't mean anything.

“Wish we could’ve lived then,” Marcos said one night when they were sitting on the roof of his shack. “Before all this.” He tapped Jô’s metal arm, which reflected a sliver of moonlight. “All that.” Pointing to the air, the night, the city stretching in the distance, millions of small lights inside dark spikes. Then he stopped, eyes lost to some sad thought, and Jô said, “Tell me about the flowers again,” getting a smile in return that made the night seem bright.

It’s not as bright now, despite the sun beating down on him, reflecting on steel all around. Doc’s house is a box like the rest of them, but its smell is unmistakable, the tang of blood and antiseptic. She’s not a real doctor, of course, not like the wholes with their diplomas, the nickname a half-mockery in the way things work around here. Every now and then she gets arrested, but they always let her out in the end, the unspoken agreement being that someone has to do the job.

She frowns slightly when he comes in now, pressing her lips together. There’s an awkward pause when he thinks she might say something different, but what comes out is “Your mother told me not to operate on you.”

“Never mind that,” says Jô. “She won’t know about it if you stitch me up all right.” He taps his chest.

The woman lifts an eyebrow. “That’s delicate. You understand there’s a chance you won’t—”

“I have to be home for dinner. Can we do it now? You got a buyer?”

She hesitates, then sighs. “There’s always a buyer for a heart.”

They do it right there. He won’t remember anything, blacked out by some potent stuff she gets god knows where, waking some hours later feeling a dull pain in his chest. He looks down at the scar, an angry red line. Doc tells him the pain will recede in a few days. He doubts it.

But nothing else feels different. She’s good.

"You got any nice clothes? I need to go inside," he says, his hand sliding on his own blood as he sits up. She does: a boy similar to his size died two days ago, after his shiny lung broke down. Jô takes a long-sleeved shirt that will hide his arm and pants that will disguise his legs. Not much he can do about the eyes, but he probably won’t get kicked out just for them. Even inner city folk will sell an eye or two.

They let him through the gate and he gets on a train, four stops, eyes down, fleshy hand clutching the money inside his trouser pocket. Gets out. He finds the store easily enough—it was on Marcos’s way to work and he mentioned it all the time—but stops short when he walks in. It's the first time he’s been in a place like this. It does smell different, he thinks.

Then the moment shatters. It makes him anxious to be around wholes, glancing at him like they know where he comes from, looking over at the guards just in case they need to set them on him, and he just gets what he came for and leaves. Then goes back—through the four stops, out the gate, into the outer city—turns left and walks and walks and walks. The houses thin out and then there’s a bit of scorched earth filled with salvageable junk—the scrapyard—and, on the other side of it, a concrete wall with a different gate. Smaller. Always open.

He wasn't stealing, Marcos told them, just wanted to see what it felt like, the texture, so smooth-looking, so different from metal. But he learned flowers were brittle. A petal fell. Thief, they called him, and the law says thieves don't need hands.

He cried for days after they took them.

A couple of weeks on he seemed fine. Except Jô could tell the difference—his smiles didn’t light up his eyes anymore, and those eyes got lost in the distance. Jô would ask him to talk, of things he knew, of things he liked, but remembering the gardens would only make him sadder so Jô stopped asking, watching helplessly as Marcos became quieter, that distant gaze turning inward to something he alone could see. He couldn’t get a job with those hands. Had to start selling too.

He doesn’t blame Doc, he thinks, as he goes inside. She’s good. Lives are just short out here.

The only plaque is steel with his name engraved, the first word Jô learned to read, asking for it rather than his own, drawing it in the dirt when he was alone. He reads it now, whispering the sounds to himself like a prayer. And in front of it, the only grave in the place with such a distinction, he places a flower that cost a heart.

Isa Prospero lives in São Paulo, where she translates, copyedits, and hoards books. Her fiction has appeared in Brazilian publications like Trasgo, Mafagafo, and Superinteressante, as well in The Fantasist magazine and international anthologies. To see some of her work, visit her website.
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26 Feb 2024

I can’t say any of this to the man next to me because he is wearing a tie
Language blasts through the malicious intentions and blows them to ash. Language rises triumphant over fangs and claws. Language, in other words, is presented as something more than a medium for communication. Language, regardless of how it is purposed, must be recognized as a weapon.
verb 4 [C] to constantly be at war, spill your blood and drink. to faint and revive yourself. to brag of your scars.
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