Emilio’s mother was long-practiced in the art of summoning a saint. For a burn, she’d appeal to the apostle John. It was John who got the call twice a day for a year when Emilio was only three.
His mother had left him alone in the kitchen, a dishtowel tied around his neck to catch the canjica she’d made for their breakfast. It simmered over a low flame. A noise at the front door pulled her away. Emilio remembers this day in flashes: his mother’s bare ankle, a sharp hoot of laugher, a shrill rebuke, a sliver of his father in a doorframe, only just returning from the night before, black beard, guitar in hand. In front of Emilio, the eye-level flame dances the bossa nova. Two dancers slide through an eight-beat box step below their cast iron pot. He knows this step. His parents dance this step on their happiest days, right here in this kitchen. Emilio leans in for a closer work.
Little Emilio was never afraid of the flame, even after the dishtowel around his neck had caught fire.
“It’s John’s work,” his mother says now as she touches his face. At twenty-two, he’s able to conceal the rippled skin behind a full hedge of beard. “John’s restored you.” Yet his mother’s fingers linger over the lopsided triangle on his right cheek where the hair never grew back at all. She flicks her fingers back and forth, her lips moving faintly. It’s an incantation, a summoning. Maybe it’s John again. Or maybe there’s a patron saint for beards.
“Where are you going?” she asks, her eyes searching his. “It’s that lovely young woman from university, isn’t it? Isadora? Oh, Querido, take her somewhere nice. Under the arches of the old mansion? They’ll have music tonight. You two could dance.”
But there would be no dancing. Isadora told him as much after he turned down her father’s job offer. “Go ahead,” she’d said, “enjoy a life playing guitar on the street for tourists.” His mother wouldn’t dance with him either, if she knew the truth. Isadora meant salvation. Salvation that was summoned, his mother probably believed, by incantations. St. Elizabeth and Anthony of Padua please intercede on my son’s behalf and restore him to the life denied us by his musician father, God rest his soul. By Isadora, I mean the one whose father owns the telecom company. Amen.
Outside, a dappled, silver hook of moon hangs above Christ the Redeemer. A soft rain has painted the street a vibrant, new palette. Even the rust on the gate glows crimson and the moss has reappeared verdant and old as the street itself.
He opens the trunk of his car, first checking the windows for his mother’s silhouette. He removes his guitar and stool and starts up the hill through cobblestone alleys and hairpin turns. The rhythm of Santa Teresa beats in him like a second, stronger, heart.
He’s in his usual spot in the artist’s quarter, the tram rolling by at regular intervals. If a tourist looks his direction, he strums harder. They always ask for “The Girl from Ipanema.” He’s arranged it four ways to keep it interesting. The reals collect in his hat. People dance. One woman lifts her dress and shows him canary yellow panties. He’s nearly finished his university degree. He’s been the dutiful son, taken good care of his mother, hasn’t he? But the street changes color again. A group of youths share their beer with him. A woman gives him something to smoke. He drops into his father’s style, flexible and loose. He keeps his eyes closed. The night becomes a lullaby.
It’s late when they approach. More tourists. British, he thinks, but it’s hard to say.
“Play something, love,” says the lone woman among them. Her hair is blue-black like dragonfly wings, a pinup girl is inked on her slender arm. She laughs, gleeful yet strained, a cackle that leaps an octave.
He plays “The Girl from Ipanema,” the jazz version.
“Oh, no, baby,” she interrupts him, more laughter. “It’s cool, but what else you got?”
He plays “O Leãozinho.” He gives it a heartbreak turn, whistling through some of the lyrics. He’s perfected this particular longing.
The woman closes her eyes and dances, precarious on the cobblestone in her red, platform heels. She grabs the hand of one of her companions to steady herself. This man is a Hercules with the face of a toddler.
“What’s that song?” she asks when he’s finished. She crouches in front of him, hugging her knees, compacted now into a small knot.
“Little Lion. Veloso wrote it for someone he admired from afar, with hair like a lion’s mane. He was content to simply watch his love swim in the ocean. Just to be near.”
“That’s what I was saying earlier!” she yells over her shoulder. Two of the men have wandered off but the child Hercules remains. “This! This is what I meant,” she says sadly, turning back to him. “All the music today is like I don’t need you or You don’t own me, and I’m like—”. The woman looks to the side and blinks back a tear. “We need more of these lion songs, mate. More I’ll rip my heart out for you and I don’t give a fuck if you ever know my name. Where are those bloody songs I’d like to know? I was born at the wrong time.”
Emilio had never thought about it before, but she was right. Where had it all gone? He whispers, because these words are only for her, “In Brazil we call this saudade. A desire for something unknown, some uncertain thing, something we’ve lost to the past.”
The woman seems to relax a bit. She leans forward and kisses his bare triangle of cheek with a red, cigarette mouth. “Come back to Santa Teresa tomorrow and play some lion songs with me.” She pulls a business card from her bra and hands it to him.
The hotel was once a coffee plantation. In the more recent past, it had also been a flophouse for artists and addicts, musicians, too, including his father during his own misspent youth. Emilio hands the business card to the concierge who escorts him to a suite appointed in rich walnut with a terrace overlooking the city’s mountains and Guanabara Bay. Seated at the baby grand is the woman from the night before. Her hair is tied up now in a red, polka-dot wrap. Emilio lifts his guitar case in greeting.
She grins but it’s not a smile. “Let’s sing some saudade, lion man.”
The light in the bar is rose-colored. Word of the impromptu performance has spread through the neighborhood and people stream into the bar, phones uplifted.
“I learned a new word last night…” she says into the microphone.
He plays bossa nova rhythm and her band joins in. They’re no longer fixed in time. Emilio’s mother appears among the crowd. She dances as if his father was still alive.
Amy sings, “Over futile odds, and laughed at by the gods…”
But no saints are summoned on this night. All is left to the ones still firmly rooted to the earth, if only for a time.