There goes another neguinho from Glicério messing with drugs, babbled a neighbor to anyone who wanted to listen, at any square in Baixada. Kids playing soccer, drunkards inebriated with beer and laughter, guys in flatbills getting high in unseen corners of the street.
But the boy she talked about, she’d seen him in another square, better known and way more frequented: Praça da Sé. His mother had just gone up the steep hill, dragging her youngest daughter with her. It was already night, and the boy was not back.
And what did you expect, continued the tattletale, with a family like that! A single mother who’s never home, each child from a different man. The eldest daughter spends the entire day out, doing God knows what. Soon enough she’ll pop out a kid. Poor boy had to take care of his younger sister, the one who’s always sick; a good folk healer, that’s what she needs. Now he’s a pickpocket. Why else would he be there, talking every day to this moribund negro in the middle of Sé?
The brat’s got an addiction, and he found a dealer in Sé, she was sure of it. He wanted to sell some, wanted to use the rest.
The brat was Heitor. And what Heitor wanted were stories.
He was curious, that one, ears always ready wherever he went. That’s where his dumbo ears come from, explained Maia, the fourteen-year-old sister. From the corner of his eye, he read headlines of newspapers, texts from cellphone screens, and tidbits of other people’s books; that’s where his zoiões come from, mocked Antônia, the youngest.
That very morning, he carried three hot buns in the grocery line—one for him, one for each sister. Their mother had gone to work without eating and left some coins for bread on the table; she would eat something at the house of the lady she worked for. Heitor wanted to know why the elderly woman in front of him stuffed her cart with food so early, and the young man before her hurried with powdered milk and two packets of cigarettes. The milk is for children above the age of one, warned the cashier.
Oops! The man ran to change it while the impatient queue awaited. A baby! That’s why he needed to buy it as fast as possible. He should stop smoking! Heitor had read all the warnings on the back of every packet in the bakery and the ones thrown in the streets; there were no happy endings in them.
Aw, mister, don’t take so long, begged the old lady. She turned to the helpful cashier and said her granddaughter was coming over; she wanted to bake a chocolate cake. If he takes any longer, I won’t have the time!
That explained the cart full of snacks and sweets, Heitor realized. His mouth watered. He would love a grandma’s cake. He asked about the kids. Both were girls. The man’s daughter was about to reach her first birthday, and the other was four. Just like his baby sister! Two adorable children, cute as buttons, at least in the loving eyes of their father and grandmother. Heitor could only imagine.
Lucky kids, raised in love and presence.
Unlike him, the man and the woman were not from São Paulo. Dad had just arrived from Cape Verde. Grandma left Piauí almost fifty years ago. The ten-year-old widened his eyes—zoiões, like his sister said—at the immeasurable amount of time. Despite so many coincidences, each story made them special.
The magic lies there.
When Heitor got home, the bread was cold, and he was late for school. He shoved it inside his mouth and left.
“That’s where the huge cheeks come from!” said the sisters in unison.
Baixada do Glicério had tons of squares and tales. In books and in life, modern or ancient, of the Americas, Asia, Africa. But Heitor wanted more: he wanted stories of São Paulo, of the world.
Back from school, he still dreamed of the store’s tales. He had eaten at break and had no homework. At five, he would get Antônia from day care. He would spend the rest of the afternoon at Sé.
Street sweepers, hawkers, vendors selling clothes, self-proclaimed prophets, travelers, homeless people, businessmen, and Heitor. Sé received anyone that wanted a plate of food and a night of good dreams by the end of the day. Conversations from all four extremes of regional simplicity crossed the zero milestone of São Paulo.
Sé was magical, Heitor knew. But he found what he never imagined he would, over the reflecting pool, the mirror of time.
Sitting on the metal footbridge over the fountain was an old black man. Almost as dark as Heitor, but his hair, white like his clothes and beard, was like his: wispy and afro-textured. Large ears and deep lines in his sunken face showed the decades he carried. But, to Heitor, he was the liveliest spirit of Praça da Sé.
He was the walkway of people coming and going in a rush; they ignored him like he wasn’t there. He was the scenery of a tourist’s picture; they cut him like he didn’t exist.
If he didn’t, why avoid him?
Was it because of his eyes? Brought down by bags, his eyes were intimidating. Profound until the very soul, like the eyes of a spider. He smoked a pipe and weaved—Heitor wasn’t sure if it was a mantle, a smock, a life. Entwined as perfectly as nature would have. He reminded Heitor of his mother, the first storyteller he’d ever met. Between one stitch and the other, she had narrated fables, remembering her own girlhood in Ghana and telling ancestral legends to lull little Heitor to sleep.
But how could he? The boy never wanted a full stop, whether in story or in cloth. Both fascinated him. Whenever Abena’s fingers grew callused, she stopped. Then, the rest of the night was filled with fantasies and waking dreams. She told him one of his favorite stories when he was five. It was about her name, Abena. It meant “born on a Tuesday.” She, her two older sisters, and her four youngest ones occupied all days of the week in a sequence.
“Grandma’s a witch?”
Abena laughed because she had asked the same thing when she was Heitor’s age and her last sister was born on a Saturday. She explained that Grandma was not a witch, but had the wisdom of the old ones.
“The old ones were wizards!” Heitor concluded.
Ever since his mother began to study to be a licensed practical nurse and had to do night shifts as an intern, Heitor no longer heard her stories. She left before dawn and slept in her working clothes. When she didn’t sleep, she cried. It was exhaustion, stress, heartache, guilt.
His father had never told him a story. Heitor didn’t even have a name for him. It was the only tale Abena refused to tell. The man had left before he was born. Maia—they had the same father, despite what their neighbor said—had met him, but their mother forbade her from mentioning him. If he didn’t want to be a father, Heitor didn’t need to be a son.
Antônia lived with her dad. He was from Cambuci, a neighboring district, and took her to Aclimação Square on Saturdays.
When Antônia returned with a new doll and a fresh smile after a Sunday with her dad, Heitor threw a tantrum. He demanded answers to his many paternal questions: why don’t I have one? Where is he? How is he? Why did he leave? Abena distracted him with a story about a clever spider that fooled even the gods, telling stories across the globe.
Heitor was like that spider: he filled himself with stories.
“Tell me another one?”
The old man raised his big eyes to look at the boy. Heitor felt goose bumps on the back of his neck, legs softening and smile widening.
“Which story, son?” His voice was low, but it vibrated through Heitor’s bones. They were sharing something intimate. Something in the skin, in the blood, in the soul.
He answered without a doubt: “Of the world!”
The old man revealed dark and crooked teeth. The world happened in São Paulo. In São Paulo, he could tell any story. He began with Sé. Before it was a square, it was a field. And how beautiful it was! The Field of Sé did not intend to be landscape, future, or Europe. It was just Sé. Then, they created the subway … The old man said the subway was the most venomous snake he ever met. Passengers squeezed into the train and hatched in the station, reminding him of the wildest of wasp nests.
Then, another story: Liberdade, a central district nowadays, used to be a ghetto. Heitor gaped. São Paulo had grown so much! The old man collected anecdotes from the neighborhood because he had lived there for decades. The charming Manor of Count of Sarzedas? “Little love castle”? Ha! Rumor says it was constructed for the French lover of a nineteenth-century aristocrat, but the old man knew the truth. He stopped weaving, and whispered in Heitor’s ear without considering his age: “That’s where some big names from the government did their libertine parties.”
The boy widened his big eyes. The old man did too, and they both laughed, like the two naughty children that they were.
“Love doesn’t fit greed, son,” the old man reflected, continuing to weave. Then, he spoke of the enslaved black souls executed in Praça da Forca. He had met them, he said. Liberdade, before Japan, was resistance. He told Heitor about his lost friends, but reassured him they were still there. “At night, they enjoy the moonlight to celebrate the manumission of life at Capela dos Aflitos. I don’t know if it was wise of me, when I refused to die instead.”
Heitor wanted to know the man’s age. He looked as ancient as São Paulo, as the world itself. It would take an eternity to live as many stories as he had.
Hours passed between tales and stitches. The sun had grown shy, the temperature dropped, and Heitor shivered. Soon, he would have to go get Antônia, but before that he wanted one more story. He got up and puffed out his chest. Of all curiosities, Heitor asked:
“Why do you have eight eyes?”
And the old man’s eight black eyes popped.
“Can you see?”
“Tell me!” Heitor tapped his foot against the metal, consumed by his own anxiety. The eight eyes attracted him; the eight eyes repelled him. Black and deep, like a spider. “Please …”
The boy could see the old man as he was. One day, Heitor thought, he would be like that: spreading stories across the world.
The man finished weaving, and gave the result to Heitor. A shirt. Heitor thanked him with a timid smile. He hadn’t imagined the shirt was for him. It fit his body, and offered the right amount of warmth. The man saw him as he was.
“My stories are treasures, son. And this is the most precious one in my chest.”
And smoked his pipe.
Heitor could barely wait, but he did. He had learned slowly that each story had its right time, and their time had to be appreciated.
“I won’t tell you,” he proclaimed. The boy opened his mouth, but the eight eyes stopped him, and his voice failed. “But … There is only one story I don’t know in all São Paulo. If you bring it to me, I will give you any story you want. What do you say?”
“Tell me!” repeated Heitor. This time he allowed the euphoria to draw lines in his face without shame.
The old man coughed a laugh, amused by his youth. Some people were crossing the footbridge, and the old man abruptly turned to them and shouted, “Don’t you see?” They were startled by his sudden approach, but continued on their way, laughing to each other about the decrepit man’s insanity.
“They don’t see, son,” the old man murmured, exhaling smoke from his pipe. “They don’t see São Paulo. They don’t want to. See it for yourself: São Paulo gives hope to lone souls from other lands. It gives hope to those who have only met misery.”
Heitor smiled. He remembered the old lady from Piauí, and the young father from Cape Verde at the grocery shop. São Paulo was magical.
“Yet São Paulo’s also vain, son.” The eight eyes that stared at him turned even darker, and his smile was gone. “In exchange, it takes the world’s tales for itself. It curses those who challenge its charms, those who tell its stories. And it cursed me. It took what was most precious to me, my purest jewels. I can’t recognize them anymore … What do I have eight eyes for?”
The question was for himself. His eyes blackened even more, losing all spark, looking like empty holes. The pipe was put out. The boy’s joy disappeared.
What had he lost?
Heitor heard the man’s voice in the wind. Then, he was sure: the eight eyes saw his soul and spoke to it.
“Two fadas. Two enchanted spirits, two fairies. First, São Paulo gifted me with a fairy,” he said. “The most delightful being I’ve ever met! A generous gift the city gave me, but I wanted more. It gave me a second one, my son. I didn’t accept him. It wasn’t enough. Or I didn’t think so, back then. I wanted to discover the other wonders of São Paulo! And I did. But my fairies … I can no longer know them, until they know me first.”
Heitor’s throat ached at every word. Tears trembled, as heavy as tons. If they fell, they would denounce the old man’s guilt. He had no right to commit a mistake, but he had to try. He had no right to cry, but he wanted to. Heitor saw himself in that old man; he knew emptiness, and both of them filled it with stories, but the boy didn’t accumulate wrinkles of guilt and regret. And, if that man was his future, he didn’t want the wrinkles, only the spirit that had attracted him to the footbridge of Praça da Sé.
“What’s your name?”
The eight black orbs widened. The old man hadn’t said his name in ages; for ages, it hadn’t been important.
Heitor found that amusing. A clever spider, certainly.
“I’ll bring you your fadas, Mr. Aranha!” He ran, shooting the footbridge with his quick steps.
In Sé station, the eyes Heitor feared were not spidery. They were like a leopard’s, watching, waiting to strike. He noticed them in the station. Eyes from the little shops of purses and clothes, from the snack kiosk and the ticket office. All eyes on the boy who sat on the cold floor, and leaned against a pilaster in front of the turnstiles.
Thousands of people walked past him. Thousands of stories, none of them fairies. Heitor began retelling himself the tale of the astute spider that faced a giant serpent, survived a swarm of venomous wasps, and defeated a ferocious leopard to win all the stories of the world. He needed to be the spider. Past and future passengers gave him unfriendly looks, then avoided his gaze. Nobody saw him for himself. Did he have eight eyes? He felt like Aranha.
A man asked how to take the Red Line, another wanted to board on Blue, and a lady even included Coral, that began at Luz. Heitor felt sorry for his sister Maia, who went from Sé to Luz and back facing that crowd every day, but she was happy to have her first formal job as an administrative assistant. She used to babysit or bring shopping bags from the street market for the neighbors for some coins. Now, she had a salary.
Some asked him for money. One real, fifty cents, five cents. To buy a ticket, to eat. Heitor couldn’t afford his own hunger. Vendors offered umbrellas, phone cases, chocolate, bubble gum. No, he repeated, thank you, and they departed for the next potential client. Heitor wanted to meet them all, but it wasn’t the right time for those stories.
Someone didn’t accept his dismissal: a leopard.
“What are you doing there, boy?” asked a police officer. According to him, Heitor bothered other passengers. According to Heitor, he bothered himself. The boy said he was waiting for someone.
“Oh, yeah? Who?”
Like the clever spider, Heitor noticed the world around him, even being easy prey. The rest of the pack approached. The hungriest one placed a hand on the holster. People lowered their heads, murmuring, cautious. They still looked aside, but they were curious about that story; Heitor feared getting to the end of it.
“Nobody in particular, sir,” he replied. His mother had taught him from a young age that leopards don’t believe in fairy tales.
They always ask for stories, but never hear them.
“Really? Then get up and come with me, brat!” the leopard roared, and took the handcuffs from his duty belt.
“But I need to stay—”
In an instant, the officer loomed gigantic over the boy. He sank his claws in Heitor’s skinny arm. He was not like the cleverest of spiders. He could not face the savage leopards. Maybe not even the spider could, not against the pack. The boy swallowed a scream, but his eyes filled with tears of fear and pain.
Heitor stopped. The officer stopped. The passengers stopped. Time stopped.
His palms were up, his breath ragged, his eyes wide, his lips dry, his legs heavy. It was Maia.
Seeing her brother being eaten by leopards was a recurring nightmare; this time, she wasn’t waking.
“Please. He’s my brother, he—” Her voice faltered, fighting to speak instead of throwing up. “He’s waiting for me.”
The scorned cats did not yield immediately to Maia’s pleas, but dozens of cellphones around them filmed the scene, until they released Heitor and left in silence. Brother and sister hugged each other. The whispers in the station returned: some passengers were relieved, others left, surveying the boy with their eyes.
“I did nothing, Maia, I swear,” cried Heitor, staining her shirt with tears.
“I know,” she said. “But what are you doing here? What about Tônia?”
Heitor looked down. For the first time in his life, he wanted to keep a story to himself. But Maia wouldn’t have it. He told her, then, of São Paulo’s stories, the fadas, the man with eight eyes in Praça da Sé.
“Heitor …” his sister breathed. “Where is this man?”
The boy grabbed her shaking, freezing hand. Maia looked like someone had put a gun to her head. She insisted that they should hurry to find Aranha. Heitor guided her. Through the station, through the escalator, through the flights of stairs, through to the other Praça da Sé that only appeared after dark.
Streetlights illuminated the square. Less cameras in hands, more plastic bags. Some scavenged trash cans for scraps of food or a drink can. Others encircled a man preaching about God’s mission in front of the Cathedral. Groups were formed, sharing old bread, a shot of cachaça, the stub of a cigarette, smiles. Young volunteers wearing vests distributed soup, socks, and blankets.
The moon made the night even more magical in São Paulo, Heitor remembered. It brightened the smiles and celebrations of the souls in Capela dos Aflitos, and made the people lying on the ground of Sé visible again. Heitor was dazzled.
His sister stopped.
Her hand, still cold, sweated. Her dark skin was pale. Her eyes focused on the old man sitting in the middle of the footbridge.
Two voices crossed midair. One was a soft breeze, the other a windstorm. The first had hope, the other determined the end.
“I see you,” said the first voice, aged, arachnid. “I know you.”
Maia ran toward Aranha. It was the first time Heitor saw the old man stand. He opened his arms, ready for an eternal hug. He would not abandon her, not again.
The second voice was Abena. Sweat ran down her face as she panted. Antônia, lighter than the rest of her family, was flustered. Abena forced her way between Maia and Aranha, facing her daughter, her eyes begging.
The girl looked at the man. She had lunged at him in the pain of abandonment, and he had answered with the pain of remorse. Both felt the pain of missing.
But now, Maia chose her mother.
Abena had received a phone call from day care: Heitor hadn’t appeared, and Antônia was crying. He wasn’t at home either. The only person who’d seen him was the neighbor. Her son was sitting with an old black man at Sé. Messing with drugs, said the tattletale, but Abena knew the truth. She knew it was that man.
“Stay away from them, Ananse!”
Heitor had never heard that tone in his mother’s voice. It could freeze anyone to the bone.
Ananse fell to his knees and hugged himself, sobbing. Abena embraced her daughters. An embrace that protected, that apologized. Even exhausted, her maternal shield had no cracks, and not even Ananse could trespass it.
But the cleverest of spiders could—Heitor. He crossed the heart-shield. Abena called him back. She wanted to stop him, protect him, but the boy, curious as he was, had the right to any story. He walked past the three women of his life to reach the man that had never been in it.
“Why did you leave me?”
“My son—” The old man stopped talking. Aranha didn’t know how to tell that story.
Tears fell from sixteen deep black eyes.