Translated from the Portuguese by Meg Weeks
Natalina ran her hand over her belly lovingly, the child within moving in response to her touch. She smiled. It was her fourth pregnancy, but her first child. The first who would be truly hers. It wouldn’t belong to a man, or anyone else for that matter. Unlike the others, this child, she wanted. With the others, it was as if they had died somewhere along the way. They had been given away soon after or even before they were born. She had hated the other bellies she had grown. She couldn’t stand to see herself as an incubator, heavy and swollen, those alien things moving around inside her. Her heart had filled up with hate. She was sick to her stomach throughout the other pregnancies. The third time around, she vomited even as she was giving birth.
That had been the worst pregnancy for Natalina. Worse even than the first, although she was practically still a girl at the time. She and her little boyfriend used to play sweetly with each other almost every night, and by the time she realized what they were doing, their pleasure-filled games had turned into hide-and-seek all the way inside her belly. Her mother, distressed, asked if she wanted to keep the baby and if Bilico wanted to as well. She didn’t know what he wanted, but she knew that she, Natalina, didn’t want to have a baby. She begged her mother to forgive her, not to hit her, not to tell her father. She begged her mother to keep the pregnancy a secret even from Bilico. Natalina was full of hate and shame. Bilico would never play with her again if he knew. He wouldn’t want a girl who was expecting a child. She asked her mother to keep quiet. She was going to find a way to take care of it.
Natalina knew about certain teas. Several times she had seen her mother drinking them. She also knew that sometimes the teas took care of things, and other times they didn’t. She had overheard her mother telling a neighbor: “Ah, girl! My blood came today,” letting loose the relieved laugh of someone who knew the value of life and death.
Natalina prepared the teas and drank them over several days. While she waited for something to happen, she stayed home and took care of her younger siblings. She was about to turn 14. There was something growing inside her belly, and it would keep growing until it burst forth into the world. No, she didn’t want to keep it, she needed to be rid of it.
Natalina became more and more worried. She drank all of the teas but nothing happened. One day, her mother asked her if they had worked. She didn’t respond. Her mother understood the response hidden in her daughter’s silence and took it upon herself to make a new batch of teas. How could she care for one more child? What would they do once her daughter’s child was born? There were already so many people living in their small house: mother, father, and seven children. And now they would have the child of their child? She decided to keep trying the tonics, and if they didn’t work, she would bring the girl to Sá Praxedes. The old midwife would charge them a bit of money, but she would take care of things. Natalina, frightened, stayed silent. Not Sá Praxedes, she thought! She was scared to death of the old woman. It was rumored that she ate children. Women with large bellies would enter her shack, and when they left, some were carrying their babies while others were empty-handed. Where did Sá Praxedes put the children who had been inside those women? Natalina’s mother and the other mothers knew that they merely had to mention summoning the old woman in order for their children to become quiet and obedient. Sá Praxedes ate children! Natalina knew that. Even she had used tales of the old midwife to instill fear in her younger siblings.
Her mother must be angry with her indeed, if she wanted to take her to Sá Praxedes. The old woman would eat whatever it was that was in her belly. She would be able to do what the teas had not.
Natalina waited. The following day, when her mother left early to work in the kitchen of another woman, Natalina left the house as well, but for nowhere in particular. She didn’t know where to go. As she descended the hill where she lived, she passed by the alley that was home to Bilico’s shack. It was there that the two of them played their delightful games. She walked by quickly, stepping lightly for fear of being noticed.
She had to flee from Sá Praxedes. She found new streets and made them her home. She hid as far away from her parents’ house as she could manage. She made new friends as well. One day, together with another woman-child who was also expecting a baby, she took a train even further away. Only then did she breathe easy. Sá Praxedes would never get her there.
With the first and second pregnancies, she had been taken by surprise. She had grown up with Bilico, and they had discovered their bodies together. It was with him she learned that, despite hurting a bit, the opening between her legs expanded and there inside was pleasure and joy. When the child was born, his resemblance to Bilico was striking. The spitting image of his father. She had managed to escape the clutches of Sá Praxedes, but she didn’t want to keep the child. She just hadn’t wanted him to be eaten by the old woman. A nurse wanted the boy. The girl-mother left the hospital light and empty! It was as if she had been gifted a doll she didn’t want and had given it to someone who did.
The second pregnancy was also an accident, but by that time she was cleverer. She continued to play her delightful games with men, but she looked out for herself. When she sensed that something was afoot inside her, she drank her teas, sometimes throughout the entire month. Her blood came each month, flowing copiously like a river. Yet one day, a single stubborn seed rebelled. Natalina once again felt the shame of discovering herself to be with child. She wasn’t going to tell Tonho, but he suspected something was up. There were nights when they sat on a bench in the park without speaking because Natalina couldn’t stay awake. Once she vomited at the scent of popcorn. One day, in the room where Tonho lived, Natalina took off her clothes and he kindly asked about her rounded belly. She, embarrassed, told him she was expecting a child. She asked him to forgive her, telling him that she had drank her teas, but they hadn’t worked. She even went so far as to mention that she knew a woman named Sá Praxedes. When she finished speaking she looked at Tonho, who was crying and laughing at the same time. He hugged Natalina and repeated happily that they were going to have a child. That they would be a family. Natalina became worried then. She didn’t want to be with anyone, nor did she want a family. She didn’t even want a child. So when little Toinzinho was born, she and Tonho had already arranged everything. She liked him, but she didn’t want to keep living with him. Tonho wept and returned to his hometown, never understanding why Natalina had refused what he considered to be an offer that would make any woman happy. A house, a husband, a child… When he left, he took with him the child that Natalina did not want.
Nor did she want the third child that grew inside her. But the couple who she worked for did. The two of them had a good life. They traveled frequently and when they came home they would host parties. Natalina liked working for them. It was quiet and calm when she was left to take care of the apartment on her own. She cooked, ironed, and washed, but just for herself. When she was alone, the place even seemed like it belonged to her. One day, as she daydreamed of being the lady of the house, the telephone rang. It was her boss calling from abroad, sobbing, asking for her help. She wanted very much, in fact she needed, to have a child. Only Natalina could help her. Natalina didn’t understand the motive of the call, nor the words of her mistress. She awaited the return of the couple. In a few days, her mistress came back. Natalina listened to her and understood what she had meant. The woman wanted a child but she was unable to conceive. She was anguished and embarrassed by this. She and her husband had spoken and decided that their maid, Natalina, could give them a child. The two women even looked a bit alike, only Natalina’s skin was a shade darker than that of her boss. A child of the husband and Natalina could pass for hers. Natalina remembered then the tales of Sá Praxedes eating children. Perhaps the old woman, once upon a time, had eaten her boss’s child without her knowledge. She remembered the first child she had given birth to, a child she hadn’t even seen properly, as he went directly into the arms and heart of the nurse who would be his mother. She recalled the second child who she had left with Tonho, the happy father. She didn’t understand why this woman was so anguished and embarrassed that she could not have a child. But very well, she would sleep with the husband, without pay, however many times were necessary. She would sleep with him until his wife became pregnant, until she found in the deep recesses of a womb that wasn’t hers a baby lost at the threshold of a time that only old Praxedes remembered. Her mistress cried with relief when Natalina agreed. Natalina stood up abruptly and went to the bathroom, her mouth thick with saliva. The nausea had already begun.
Natalina’s boss began traveling by herself. Her husband stayed in his room mostly, but at night he roused himself and sought out Natalina in the maid’s room. They didn’t speak at all during those encounters of restrained pleasure. Each time the mistress came back, her expectant gaze betrayed her yearning for Natalina to be pregnant. The three of them went in search of pregnancy for months and months until finally, Natalina’s period didn’t come. Her anxious mistress asked for a sample of her urine and the test came back positive. The three of them were pregnant. The father smiled and went back to traveling as he had done before. The wife stayed by Natalina’s side all the time. She hired a new maid. She took Natalina to the doctor, looked after her nutrition, and tried to distract her as well. Natalina was sick, so very sick. She vomited constantly. Her belly grew slowly, lazily. Her mistress took measurements as it grew, which made her happy. She would call her husband and inform him of all the details. One day, when Natalina was seven months along, her boss summoned her husband, father of the child who was temporarily housed inside their maid. She grabbed his hand and laid it carefully on Natalina’s belly. The child moved, and the couple hugged each other happily, while Natalina was suddenly overcome by the urge to vomit. Her boss became worried. The effort of vomiting was so great that it brought tears to Natalina’s eyes. She took advantage of the fact that her eyes were already wet to silently cry.
The nine months went by slowly, an endless expanse of nausea. The burden she carried in her belly would make the man and the woman happy. Somehow, the child that would come out of her body would be theirs. She was ashamed of herself, and of them.
One day, the child was born, beautiful and weak. His parents cried in anguish, but he survived. Natalina almost died. Her breasts were empty, no traces of milk left to feed the child of another woman. To her great relief she was soon forgotten by both husband and wife.
Natalina’s fourth pregnancy left her indebted to no one. She didn’t owe the pleasure of discovering herself to be a woman, as had been the case in her encounters with Bilico. She owed nothing this time, unlike the second pregnancy which left her indebted to Tonho, who had offered himself to her, hoping that they would live out their days as a couple that believes itself to be happy. Nor was she tethered to her own sympathy for a woman who craved the feeling of her womb opening up to the movement of a child-flower, as had been the case with the third. She had donated her fertility so that another could create a life, and in doing so she became the receptacle of an alien child.
No, this time she didn’t owe anything to anyone. If this belly had a price, she had paid it herself in precious currency. She was going to have a child that would be only hers, without the threat of a father, a mother, of Sá Praxedes, of any man or any boss. And she would have to teach him that life was for living and dying. That it brings things forth before killing them off.
Natalina’s child fidgeted in her belly as if he were accompanying her as she mined her memories. She wanted to remember the route taken by the car, a route that, no matter how hard she tried, she could never manage to recreate. She had not been able to see it, after all, because she had been blindfolded by the men who appeared suddenly in her shack, overpowering her by force and asking after her brother. She didn’t know how to respond, since she didn’t have a brother. She had left home years ago, leaving her mother, father, and six sisters. But the men insisted. They shouted at her, saying it did no good to hide the truth from them, before taking her away in their car. Once in a while, the one who was seated in the backseat next to her touched her legs. She bristled with fear. Her hands ached, as they had been tied together. Eventually, the car stopped and the man next to her got out. He bade farewell by running his hand over her legs. He thumped the driver on the back and wished him a good time. The driver stayed silent. The car continued on its route. She calculated that it must be about three o’clock in the morning, as the men had appeared in her shack around midnight. It was very cold. Natalina sensed that the car had begun to slow, that they had left the highway and were entering the forest. She heard the snapping of dry branches around her. The driver got out of the car and pulled her out violently, throwing her to the ground. He untied her hands and ordered her to make him feel good. Natalina, suspended between hate and fear, obeyed. Right when he was about to come, he pulled off her blindfold. She trembled, her body, her head nearly exploding with pain. The darkness of the night didn’t allow her to see the man’s face. He climaxed like a mad beast on top of her. Afterwards, he fell to her side in a sleepy daze. Upon pulling away from him, Natalina felt something on the ground. It was his gun. Her movement was fast, her shot sure and so close that it almost felt as if she were killing herself. She fled. She kept everything for herself. Who could she tell? What could she do? She kept more than just the hate, shame, and fear, the pain of having been violated. She kept more than the courage it took to avenge herself. She kept the invasive seed of the man. Several months later, Natalina discovered she was pregnant.
She was happy. The child would burst forth into the world at any moment. She was eager to see this child who wouldn’t bear the traces of anyone, perhaps not even of her. She was happy and alone. She remembered Sá Praxedes and smiled. Sá Praxedes would never eat this child. Once, when she was a girl, she had left the city where she was born to flee from the old midwife. Not long ago, she had left another city, the one she had made her home, fleeing from the associates of the man she had killed. She knew that danger was present, but she was happy. She would soon give birth to a child. A child that was conceived on the fragile border between life and death.
The original version of this story first appeared as “Quantos filhos Natalina teve?” in Olhos d’água, 2014, Pallas Editora.