The seamstress - By Frances de Pontes Peebles


Recife, Brazil

January 14, 1935

Emília awoke alone. She lay in the massive antique that had once been her mother-in-law’s bridal bed and was now her own. It was the color of burnt sugar with clusters of cashew fruits carved into its giant head-and footboard. The meaty, bell-shaped fruits that emerged from the jacarandá wood looked so smooth and real that, on her first few evenings in this bed, Emília had imagined them ripening overnight—their wooden skins turning pink and yellow, their solid meat becoming soft and fragrant by morning. By the end of her first year in the Coelho house, Emília had given up such childish imaginings.

Outside, it was dark. The street was quiet. The Coelho family’s white house was the largest of all of the newly built estates on Rua Real da Torre, a recently paved road that stretched from the old Capunga Bridge and out into unclaimed swampland. Emília always woke before sunrise, before peddlers invaded Recife’s streets with their creaking carts and their voices that rose to her window like the calls of strange birds. In her old home in the countryside, she’d been accustomed to waking up to roosters, to her aunt Sofia’s whispered prayers, and most of all, to her sister Luzia’s breath, even and hot against her shoulder. As a girl, Emília had disliked sharing a bed with her sister. Luzia was too tall; she kicked open the mosquito net with her long legs. She stole the covers. Their aunt Sofia couldn’t afford to buy them separate beds and insisted it was good to have a sleeping companion—it would teach the girls to occupy little space, to move gently, to sleep silently, preparing them to be good wives.

In the first days of her marriage, Emília had kept to her side of the bed, afraid to move. Degas complained that her skin was too warm, her breathing too loud, her feet too cold. After a week, he’d moved across the hall, back to the snug sheets and narrow mattress of his childhood bed. Emília quickly learned to sleep alone, to sprawl, to take up space. Only one male shared her room and he slept in the corner, in a crib that was quickly becoming too small to hold his growing body. At three years of age, Expedito’s hands and feet nearly touched the crib’s wooden bars. One day, Emília hoped, he would have a real bed in his own room, but not here. Not while they lived in the Coelhos’ house.

The sun rose and the sky lightened. Emília heard shouting in the streets. Six years before, on her first morning in the Coelho house, Emília had trembled and held the bedsheet to her chest until she realized the voices outside the gates were not intruders. They were not calling her name, but the names of fruits and vegetables, baskets and brooms. Each Carnaval, the peddlers’ voices were replaced by the thunderous beating of maracatu drums and the drunken shouts of revelers. Five years earlier, during the first week of October, the peddlers had disappeared completely. Throughout Brazil there were gunshots and calls for a new president. By the next year, things had calmed. The government had changed hands. The peddlers returned.

Emília now found comfort in their voices. The men and women sang the names of their wares: “Oranges! Brooms! Alpercata sandals! Belts! Brushes! Needles!” Their voices were strong and cheerful, a relief from the whispers Emília had endured all week. A long, black ribbon hung from the bell attached to the Coelhos’ iron gate. The ribbon warned neighbors, the milkman, the ice wagon, and all delivery boys dropping off flowers and black-bordered condolence cards that this was a house in mourning. The family inside was nurturing its grief, and should not be disturbed by loud noises or unnecessary visits. Those who rang the bell did so tentatively. Some clapped to announce their presence, afraid to touch the black ribbon. The peddlers ignored it. They shouted over the fence, their voices carrying past the massive metal gate, through the Coelho house’s drawn curtains, and into its dark hallways. “Soap! String! Flour! Thread!” The peddlers didn’t concern themselves with death; even grieving people needed the things the peddlers sold, the small necessities of life.

Emília rose from bed.

She slipped a dress over her head but didn’t zip it; the noise might wake Expedito. He lay diagonally across his crib, safely beneath mosquito netting. His forehead shone with sweat. His mouth was set in a tight line. Even in sleep he