The death sentence for Maria Catarina Pereira Vaz Gato de Freitas came at her birth. She was left near the stone well of the old woman whose name had long ago been replaced with the title Tecelao dos Anjos. This was in Camacha, right outside Funchal, so the girl was in a wicker basket, since the local industry was to shape reeds into dolls, chairs, and bowls. Everyone called the woman Tessie, the nickname bestowed by the British who could not pronounce “Tecelao” but also used her services. Her job was to smother or drown unwanted newborns, weaving their immaculate souls into garlands while they were still angels, before hardships drove them to sin.
The baby—nameless at the hour of her execution—kicked off a blanket to reveal a lacy gown, as if she were dressed for a pageant at the palace in Queluz. Tessie’s fee bought her secrecy (for whatever that was worth on an island) about love affairs, about girls spirited into hiding as their bodies swelled, but this child had the most shocking parentage of Tessie’s career. The crank shrieked as she lowered the bucket and drew up water while the baby gurgled. Tessie dipped a clamshell and intoned, “I baptize thee in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,” while trickling water onto the baby’s forehead and racing through the sacrament, the denouncing of Satan and so forth. She was suffering double her usual hangover.
“Now you’ll fly to paradise,” said Tessie, but she paused. The mother was a silly rich girl now locked up in a nearby convent, but the larger-than-life father was a famous wielder of cruelty who claimed to be divine. Likely he would be grateful to be spared another bastard. Or would he order Tessie’s guts wound on a windlass? Her grandmother and mother had been Weavers of Angels, and she enjoyed being regarded with fear, which is far better than reverence, and how many women made enough money to buy freedom from other humans? Due to her sore shoulder, she figured pressing a pillow over this tiny face was easier than stuffing her in the bucket and working the pulley again.
The pillow’s underside was amber from the choked exhalations of the by-products of mortal mistakes, of nuns and priests or wealthy, straying spouses. Some angels were deformed, or unwanted girls, and sometimes commoners could not afford an eighth child.
Tessie was a spiritual midwife, a creator of instant saints.
Parakeets screeched overhead, swooping in parabolas.
She nestled the infant in a dirt indentation, grunting because a diet of firewater and goat made her inflexible. A pity that the last earthly sight for the babies was Tessie’s cracked molars and goitered neck. Her flesh got increasingly disfigured as she absorbed the crimes that the true guilty ones were too cowardly to own—part of the bargain. Under the raised pillow, the baby giggled, and that rocked Tessie backward, scared of what sounded like defiant amusement.
It would be sweet to think her pausing was on account of the baby’s being special, or especially lovely. But this angel held vectors of the highest corporal powers, and Tessie could sell her bloodlines to an eager parent for an excellent fee.
Augusto Pereira Vaz Gato de Freitas calls his new daughter Maria Catarina—to honor his wife, who died in childbirth two decades earlier as their son emerged strangled on the umbilical cord. His grief is well known. Delivered in a reed basket, Maria Catarina is his uncanny Moses, bearing back to him his wife’s lime eyes and black locks. He is forty-six, head gardener of the Botanical Garden owned by an aristocrat, though the flowers and trees, reveling in their view of the sea jostling itself into curls, whisper that they are really his.
The gargoyle who brought her offered a tall tale of parentage to maximize the extortive price—Augusto could laugh at the fairy-tale rudiments of a crone tottering out of the woods with the prettiest child in the kingdom—and caused him to investigate and conclude that it is possible his daughter has such a powerful birth-father that she might be kidnapped or killed. The birth-mother resides in silence-insuring shame in the convent.
A wet nurse gives Maria Catarina’s scalp an odor of milk and marzipan.
Upon exiting their cottage every cantaloupe dawn, the scent of honeysuckle so heavy she dons it as a coverlet, he sets her near custard-apple trees as he prunes the rosemallows before descending the hill to soothe her with the sight of black sand, a beach the shade of ground-up darkness, with sparkles; the moment is everlasting. When he carries her into the city, people fawn over this treasure in a widower’s arms. Everything is yours, darling, the manicured yards where dragonflies stitch up and down, the factories and kirks of the British invaders. The basaltic pieces called dragon’s teeth turn the sidewalks into mosaic pictures—O Meu Mais Do Que Tudo, let us stroll upon a black-and-white caravel, a compass. Observing the skiffs at the tideline, their hulls painted with Phoenician eyes to see through fog, he shares a lesson: Never sail away without a woolen hat, because if you get lost, you can wring the mist out of it to survive on unsalted water.
He brings her when he dines at one of the hotels along the beach, in the cool, pink-tinged dining room where utensils tap china and the pearls dangling from the throats of foreign women shoot off bite-sized panes scraped from a rainbow. His suppers are light, often clams in garlic broth.
Basting in the humidity, the tourists at the tables speak of leaping east across the water to Casablanca. Augusto tells Maria Catarina to listen to their news of the globe:
A place billed as the first nightclub is open in Paris!
Avoid Greece! A rebellion has ruined it!
Find a photography studio and buy an immortal image of yourself! An Englishman named Fox Talbot got a chemical from an astronomer and is producing portraits from glass negatives, and that heralds people captured forever, thanks to a silver liquid from someone who loves the stars.
When the wet nurse uses saliva to adhere filthy threads to the baby’s forehead, so that demons will find her too ugly to steal, Augusto snaps, “None of that foolishness under my roof,” though “my” is a stretch, since his cottage belongs to the estate’s owner. Augusto’s father in Aveiro, in the northern mainland of Portugal, is a municipal judge who despises superstition. When Augusto’s wife and son died, and he migrated to the steam-cleaning, pain-leaching languor of the subtropics, the reminders of his birthplace were the ovos moles his mother and sisters shipped from their shop—confectionary shells filled with yolk pudding—and a wish to better subscribe to his father’s belief in the supremacy of reason.
An attack on tranquility came brutally quickly.
Despite netting around her bassinet, Maria Catarina contracted malaria. Infusions of fenugreek did nothing; his talent as a magician with herbs deserted him.
While bargaining with a God he scarcely trusted, including an offer to swap his life for hers, Augusto rushed Maria Catarina to a physician named the Reverend Doctor Robert Reid Kalley, whose conversion of Madeirans to Presbyterianism was inflaming the powers that be. Jarred from the wicker sleigh that two giants had pulled up the slope, and with his child panting with fever, Augusto burst into tears the second he entered Kalley’s home, weeping that had been accumulating since losing his wife and son. Kalley steered him into a tapestry-covered chair. Sun enveloped the Reverend, turning him into an expertly shadowed portrait study as he said, “Your grandchild? My wife and I are not blessed with one of the Lord’s children. I needed to learn that everyone I meet is His offspring. Pardon me, Senhor Freitas! I speak Portuguese, too.”
Augusto replied that he knew a lot of English, and out gushed his story: gardener, widower. He would abandon Catholicism if the doctor saved Maria.
“I require no conversion from a faith in which you are comfortable,” Kalley said. When Maria Catarina shrieked, he added, “Your daughter agrees. We come to Jesus as we are, equal.” He winked at Augusto. “Even girls. I suspect the root of my troubles is my refusal to hold Eve responsible for men’s folly. Let me acquaint you with the properties of quinine, from cinchona trees. My Margaret has had cause to praise our Lord for its curative power.”
He administered a tincture to Maria Catarina from a vial, adding, “You’re looking less than hale, too, Senhor. Tobacco? A glass of port? I do not indulge, but I keep some for visitors.”
“I partake of neither.” No point in Augusto admitting how separate he was from most society. He lived with plants, and a foundling he had failed to keep well.
“A lemon drink? I flavor it with papaya, as sugar’s history with slavery gives it a taste of blood. No? All right.” He set a benedictive hand on Maria’s forehead. “She is cooler already. Let us pray, Senhor Freitas, you to your God, I to mine, an easy convergence.” Kalley closed his eyes and achieved that muscling into communion with the ether that people of faith found innate but that Augusto thought puzzling, almost embarrassing. Prayer seemed at root a pleading for God to change His decree that everyone must die. Kalley intoned, “Lord, in Your infinite wisdom, allow Maria Freitas the great destiny I am sure awaits, as she is clearly loved, and such things are sadly rare upon the earth You entrusted to us.”
Maria Catarina Pereira Vaz Gato de Freitas stands with Papa and many strangers on a hill. Behind them the tides ripple in the manner her skin does when she hears music, when Papa sings as he is doing now, ribbons of notes unspooling, and she joins in while a soprano chants like a sorceress, the whole day is a song! Papa shows her the hymnal with its tunes shaped like black wires and hooks. A little boy is locked in that building past a salt-dashed field. He is a caged sparrow. This is called a “vigil.” With tunes they are demanding his freedom. She hits a note high enough to get through the window to greet him. A taste of pineapple pours down her throat, since a protester wields a machete to open fruit so the juice will travel like edible yellow birds into the jail.
Papa says her wishes are forged of iron; she is made of iron.
Why, then, does she often feel so frightened? He vows to protect her, and as she drowses with him in the rocking chair, he recites the Portuguese Night Blessing that counsels a child to dread nothing, neither sleep, darkness, age, nor illness—Deus a abençoe, e a faça uma santa muiiiiito grande, boa noite, durma bem—God bless you, and make you a biiiiig saint, good night, sleep well—and he tucks her into her feather bed while wishing her sonhos cor-de-rosa, pink dreams, the Lusitanian way of granting sweet dreams, night-rest in the shade of peonies, the raptures of sunrise, and the tint of the camellias that got the best of God’s paintbrush . . . sail into pink and seize it as yours, my living angel, my own dream incarnate.
From Above the Salt by Katherine Vaz. Used with permission of the publisher, Flatiron Books. Copyright © 2023 by Katherine Vaz.
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