Brazil hadn’t been an easy place to live for the people who already lived there. It hadn’t been going to be easy for them having moved there either. Slavery may have been gone but it had left its marks, as the street urchins roaming the favelas attested. Without work, many had turned to crime to survive, and local authorities had become correspondingly unforgiving. Moreover, so many fish and trees fell victim to capitalism’s advance there it seemed neither of them would ever run out of work there. Some lost things weren’t as easy to replace as others.
Mano was impressed by the carnivals. She told herself that because people were poor and sad, it must’ve been important to them to have had large celebrations like that to cheer up, to make themselves believe in the show they were putting on, to fake it until they made it. She told herself some of the richest countries had some of the highest suicide rates, trying to dampen the blow of their own lack of resources for herself. She didn’t want her will to live to hinge on a goal that she might never reach.
Elizabeth hated the carnivals. They reminded her of every public event she’d been dragged to when she’d been a kid where she’d been forced to wear a smile on her face even though she wanted to die, and she felt sorry for people she saw as being in the same situation she’d been. She thought they were doing violence to themselves by hiding how sad they must’ve been. Some conservatives she’d get into arguments with would tell her that money couldn’t buy happiness, and that the poor could be happy, so who cared if they stayed poor forever, really?
‘Quit staring at me, will you?’
Still making her way through the bus station as her thoughts looped, her emotional state wavered between maelstroms and stagnancy. Mano valued calm in the face of adversity, but calm action, not calm inaction. Part snapping turtle, part hermit crab, Elizabeth would’ve been the first to tell Mano that she should’ve been airing out her pain then and there, no matter what anyone else thought. It’d been something the cephalopod envied her, weirdly.
Misery loved company. Elizabeth had already been brought up with so many emotional barriers that it made it especially difficult for her to learn to come out of her shell when people didn’t even go the trouble of trying to understand her at all. People had never taken her complaints seriously unless she’d put them in a situation in which they had to, and she’d transferred what she’d internalized from political debate to everyday life. She’d cared about everyone on a mass level, but most people got on her nerves. She’d been fiercely protective of Mano.
‘Look where you’re going, damn you!’
Elizabeth had found herself hideous, so much that she would’ve worn a mask or a veil or made herself invisible before going out in public if she’d been able to. She never brought up transitioning or pronoun switching as such but Mano could tell there were ways in which she was uncomfortable with her birth gender. Mano found her to have been the most beautiful person in the world, but she understood that it could only mean a drop in the bucket.
Elizabeth had been a poet and an activist. The two of them had met in India, then moved to the Middle East, then to Brazil. Elizabeth used to say the desert inspired her, that it was like the world’s greatest unfulfilled promise: an infinite beach with no ocean in sight. Mano had hated the desert for having been so dry, but she’d grin and bear it for Eli’s sake. With the right purpose and meaning you could bear almost anything, couldn’t you? It was so hard to find the right place to live.
Of course there could be more to the desert that met the eye, as most biologists would’ve told you, and a lot more could live in it than most laypeople might’ve thought. Mano would’ve probably enjoyed it more if she hadn’t been busy spending most of the day running around under a rain of fire for scraps of war journalism to bring back for her job. The ink the cephalopod spilled wasn’t meant to blind others but to allow them to see. It was the black liquid she hoped would triumph in the area, where another one held so much more sway.
It’d made Mano sick to her stomach that so much of the fighting would’ve been religiously motivated. The cephalopod was a Hindu, and she’d been brought up with more respect for life than this. Elizabeth had been a passionate atheist. “It makes some of what you say ring true,” Mano had admitted to her. “All religions are the same, Mano,” the turtle-crab had answered, “but you’ve already saved me from other fanatics before. And I know you can do it again.”
Mano would go out, get the facts, and bring them back; Elizabeth would then use them to debate, write speeches, and editorialize. It was a good day when the cephalopod came home alive at all, but bringing back anything valuable from field work challenged her survival skills. She grew to care little for honor and courage, when all they did was make people kill and die for them. She felt bad for running at times, but faced with overwhelming odds, the smart thing to do was run. She may have had her Kalari training, but was no more bulletproof than a Boxer.
‘Am I the only person on the planet who’s ever even heard of the concept of personal space?’
There’d nothing Mano had wanted more after coming home from a day’s work than to have gotten a break from the negativity on which she’d felt she’d been overdosing. Out there, attention meant death. There’d been nothing after a whole day of having argued with people who didn’t agree with her that Elizabeth had wanted more than to have been able to spend time talking to someone who did. “I didn’t need to watch the news, I was there,” Mano would say. “That means you have a valuably direct perspective on it,” Elizabeth would reply.
“I’ve seen so much anger, Eli...”
Elizabeth had resented how hard it’d been for Mano to bring back anything really useful a lot of the time. “I wish there was something I could use,” she’d complain. Mano would apologize, hurt by what she saw as a slam at her efforts. “It’s not your fault, I just need to have critical thinking, you know?” the turtle-crab would explain. “I know, it’s just... You don’t know what it’s like out there,” the cephalopod had strained to put into words. Elizabeth was agoraphobic. “Well, you don’t know what it’s like in here,” she’d frowned. “You’re right. I don’t. I’m sorry.”
‘If you’re not going to walk around me then could you at least give me enough time to get out of your way?’
When Elizabeth had watched or read the news, she couldn’t distance herself from it the way most people did. To her, it’d been personal, all of it had been. They’d make her scream in rage or break down in tears. Mano couldn’t stand seeing her suffer like this, but when she’d say they should take a break from the news, Elizabeth would have none of it. “No one was ever saved by an ostrich with its head in the sand, Mano,” she’d say. “If our bodies didn’t feel pain, we’d never fix our wounds. If our hearts don’t feel pain, we’ll never fix the world.”
Mano had sighed. “I know you’re right. I just wish you could still be happy, my love...”
The more time had passed, the more disappointed with life in the Middle East Elizabeth had become. She felt as though they were treading water, as little of it as there was. The only wish-granting jinn the desert had seemed to hold was a mirage over quicksand. It was so hard to bring beauty to a world which was sinking so fast around them. Her poetry seemed to do so little to improve anything. There was no more uninspiring place than a war zone for someone who would’ve already been fighting against the urge to hide inside in a civilian zone as it was.
A turtle could only grow as big as the tank it grew in.
Thinking about Mano risking life and her many limbs out there every day had worried her more and more. Eventually she’d brought up the idea of finding a way of moving to another part of the world. Mano managed to get transferred to Brazil, which would keep them where a lot of social problems were while giving them what they’d hoped could be a welcome change of pace.
“I’d give so much to be able to get out of here right now, you have no idea how much.”
She didn’t like the direction her mind was going, but it was so hard not to think about the past altogether that she decided to try to keep pushing even further back instead. They’d met in India, they’d been so much younger back then, she thought. Elizabeth’s parents had loved England, the Church and capitalism as much as she’d grown to hate them, and they’d made a fortune from their own hypocrisy. As they ferried her back and forth between England and India, she became an outspoken detractor of colonialism everywhere, much to their chagrin.
They’d talked often about how much they’d wanted a heir from her and whichever man they imagined she’d grow up to marry. They’d genetically engineered her body to be well-night invulnerable, to make sure that she could carry on their genes to another generation, but they hadn’t touched the traces of dementia which had made the family history that they were so proud of what it was. When she’d been abused by a relative she’d been told to grin and bear it because talking would make them look bad. She swore she’d grow up to grin and bear nothing.
Mano’s mother had been their mechanic, her father their gardener. Her mother had taught her how to fight, her father how to heal. They taught her she had six arms because the gods had made her in their image. They’d been going to arrange a marriage for her, as was their custom, but noticed she didn’t seem to be so into it. When she tried to get into journalism to make a life for herself, they’d encouraged her, even though it meant she’d ended up stripping shipwrecks for parts for cash on the side for a bit. Mano would get homesick sometimes.
They wouldn’t talk about family. They just couldn’t.
‘Gahh! Why do people have to keep popping out of nowhere like that?’
Mano had asked her parents what they wanted most out of her on the night before Elizabeth and she had taken off with a sizeable portion of Elizabeth’s parents’ money that she’d stolen from them. They’d said what they wanted most was for her to be happy. She’d told them she couldn’t in good conscience promise them that, but that she’d always try to do the right thing. They’d said they’d hoped that doing the right thing would make her happy more often than not. So she’d made the sacrifice of leaving, for the one she loved.
It was in Brazil that she’d first met Klein.
She found out he’d only been visiting Brazil from up north for a capoeira seminar for a couple of weeks. She’d asked him about it, he’d asked her about Kalari, and they’d ended up drifting on from there to comparing and contrasting candomblé and Hinduism by extension. Mano had no longer been sure by that point of whether or not she’d disagreed with Elizabeth about how the fewer people would read scripture at all, the better off everyone would be. That was how Klein had first heard about her.
‘You never know where they’re gonna come from.’
“Don’t you think it’s at least good that some religions would teach forgiveness?” Mano had asked. “Lot of good that does,” Elizabeth had answered, “with the cycle of revenge it’s actually causing. The only people who the slaving fanatics who colonized the world forgave were themselves.” Mano hadn’t been able to deny that. “What about those of us who are religious and forgiving of the right people, though?” Elizabeth had shrugged. “You’d still be forgiving if you weren’t religious. I know that because I’m not religious, and I forgive you,” she’d replied.
“If people should believe without seeing, they wouldn’t need journalists to bring back any facts to them.” She’d known how to play to her audience. “You may not agree with your faith’s extremists, but a lot of people will assume that you’re enabling them.” Mano had also known who she’d been talking to. “Shouldn’t we not be letting people’s assumptions control us, though?” she’d countered. “We should think about the consequences of the messages we send.” The cephalopod hadn’t had a good comeback to that.
“It never bothered me that you don’t believe in reincarnation,” she’d simply said, “it’s mostly a metaphor to me anyway, to put myself in other creatures’ shoes.” But metaphors were the poet’s field. “That people who have bad things happen to them must deserve them because they must’ve done something to deserve it? That there are superior and inferior lives inherently, just as for castes?” The cephalopod had never thought of karma this way. “I guess I can see why that would hit a nerve. It seems what’s healed me has hurt you,” she’d conceded.
“I’m sorry. I’m not asking you to give it up for me if it helps you or anything like that. I just kind of have a bad history with it myself, and it’s hard to get past it” the turtle-crab had apologized. “For me it’s just a more poetic language in which to put philosophy, really. Symbols that have a way of gripping the mind,” the cephalopod had explained. “Poetry can already do that without pretending to be anything it’s not, though,” Elizabeth had smiled. “You should know fishermen all tend to exaggerate for effect. Especially that one,” she’d tried to defuse the tension.
‘Nobody even cares where they’re going, as long as they get somewhere.’
As much as they’d left with initially, as time passed and little came in, their resources had been dwindling, and it had taken its toll. Every day they’d shared with the very people they wrote for their animal struggle against resignation. So many times, they’d tried to start their lives over, only to have it fall apart, so many times they’d been hurt, and unable to find ways to heal. They’d all lost so much. Had it really been the world that had been the problem, or had it really been them all along? Elizabeth couldn’t help wondering deep down.
‘This is getting to be too much for me.’
Elizabeth had internalized so much anhedonia and perfectionism, in spite of her best efforts to resist. Mano had been taught that every problem had a solution, but progress in anything they’d cared about had dragged along at a snail’s pace, they could never get to the root of anything, and every trap had been so interconnected so as to appear inextricable. So many barriers to break down, so few connections to turn to, so many hoops to jump through, it must’ve been so easy for people who could simply put their conscience aside.
‘Will this ever end?’
Elizabeth had become afraid that her parents would track her down and drag her back to England with them. She’d begun to believe that she’d really deserved all the suffering that she’d been through. Her adversaries had been cruel to her, and she’d felt bad for letting it get to her around Mano. She’d begun to fear that her best work had been behind her, and that she could never help others or herself.
‘This place is driving me crazy.’
Mano hadn’t been blind.