Lucinda sat very straight on a chair in front of the small window in the tiny living room. She stared out, as though watching a movie screen. A dozen or so onlookers had already gathered outside the window by the time Ana and I arrived, our arms full of flowers. “White, the flowers must be white,” Lucinda’s mother had said. “Get plenty for a bouquet and for throwing. I want Lucinda lost in a shower of white.”
We pushed our way forward to the front of the group.
Lucinda’s dress was made of white organza and lace. The dress had a long, full skirt, a lace collar, and short puffy sleeves from which thin arms stuck out, reminding me of the dead branches of the sickly quince tree in my back garden. Her face was covered with a thin, short veil. Maria, the milkman’s wife, standing next to me, thin face thrust forward, as though not believing what she was seeing, said, “Thank God someone is finally marrying the poor girl.” She made the sign of the cross.
“But what’s with the white dress?” A woman dressed in mourning black beside her retorted. Laughter.
A man behind Maria hollered, “Red, she should be wearing red.”
I turned around. The man had a fat, veiny face and was smoking a cigar. Another man said, “One less female for Casmurro to feed.” Lucinda’s father’s name was Manuel Ferreira, but people called him a curmudgeon because he was ill-tempered. He’d been a foreman at my father’s factory before his first stroke two years ago.
“Why are they laughing?” I whispered to Ana.
“Lucinda is wearing white.”
“But she’s a bride. Brides wear white.”
“Yes, yes, I’ll tell you someday. We have to go in now—the wedding will soon start.”
I followed Ana to the front door of the single-story, white-washed house with a low red-tiled roof. The green paint on the door was parched and cracking.
The laughter and chatter behind us continued until we stepped inside.
The front door led directly into Lucinda’s kitchen. It was dark inside. I could hear voices and feel movement but couldn’t decipher faces.
After the jeering and laughter outside, my excitement began to wane, like when the sun hides behind clouds at a Sunday picnic. I’d hardly slept all night, my eyes flipping open a few times when midnight-black still filtered through the shutters. Now an emptiness was taking over, where a feeling of fullness had been. Last summer came to mind. My father spilled a glass of red wine down my new white organza dress trimmed with a large taffeta blue bow at the back. My mother often reminded me that the organza had been the most expensive the store had in stock. It was the first day of the Festa de São Pedro, June 29, when everyone in town had to be seen wearing something new. (Later, I’d be wearing the dress to Lucinda’s wedding, though the stain had never really disappeared, the dress never feeling as special.)
“We’re lucky,” Ana said this morning, as we departed to the Pinhal, the pine and eucalyptus woods a distance away. At that early hour, the sky had hung over us like a grey canopy but soon the sun began showing its face, lighting up the dirt road and the misty farms along the way. Dew filled the air, making the day too cool for May-First, Labour Day. A national holiday, why Lucinda’s wedding was taking place on a Thursday. My father said the holiday ought to be called Unemployment Day since so many men were out of work. Two of the three cork factories in Montijo, where most of the men from our town were employed, had been shut down for months, and one, where my father worked, had reduced the work-week to three days. Strikes had ended in terrible violence. One of the strike leaders was shot dead in front of the protesting men last month outside my father’s factory gates. My father blamed all of our troubles on Salazar, our prime minister. “A son of a bitch,” he called him.
“Yes, yes, we’re lucky,” Ana continued, “lucky that Lucinda’s mother picked us to gather the flowers for Lucinda’s bouquet. It means you and I will marry someday. It’s a guarantee.”
Ana was my second cousin, two years older than me, and already preparing for Communion. She knew things.
She knew Lucinda had long waited for her paramour with an Elvis pompadour, who’d left for Brazil to make his fortune years ago. He never returned or called for her. Rumors had it that he’d killed a man in a bar brawl and ended up in a prison camp in the Brazilian jungle. Others said he’d made up the story so Lucinda would stop writing letters he never answered. Ana knew Lucinda had had an abortion by the Velha, the old woman in Sarilhos, that nearly killed her. Lucinda grew thinner and paler and sadder afterward. People stared and whispered, as she passed them on the street, not with meanness but pity. They called her, The Jilted One. But last August, a stranger, wearing a light blue suit and driving an Opel convertible the same color, stopped at the Esso station in town facing the main highway. He was partly bald, portly, and sported a thick black mustache. He’d worn white shoes, one thicker than the other to camouflage his limp. She’d seen him enter Antonio’s Taberna that afternoon. I’d seen him since then.
It wasn’t often drivers bothered to get out of their cars when they stopped at the Esso station. A veil of dust blew up from the unpaved streets, even when it wasn’t windy. In winter, rain sometimes lasted for days, turning the two main streets into bogs more fit for pigs. Lucinda helped Antonio’s wife with cooking and serving meals to men with no families to cook for them. She happened to be working the counter that day. She told everyone afterward that the man-in-the-light-blue-suit ordered a Sagres and told her he lived in Lisbon, was a widower, and had two grown sons. He returned a week later to propose marriage. Lucinda was twenty-seven.
Soon there were rumors, rumors whispered from one person to another behind closed doors. Some swore that the man-in-the-light-blue-suit was a PIDE informer, a spy for Salazar’s brutal dictatorship and his terrorizing secret police. That he’d come to Amendoeiro to spy on the cork factory workers after the last strike. His hands were un-calloused, they said, nails trimmed, and two strike collaborators had disappeared in the night since he’d appeared. They’d never returned. Who else could afford a blue Opel convertible? Everyone knew PIDE informers were well paid. It was clear as day that the man-in-the-light-blue-suit was not to be trusted. At least they stopped calling Lucinda, The Jilted One.
Inside Lucinda’s kitchen, my eyes grew accustomed to the darkness. The place was crowded with boxes, chairs, clothes, people. No one seemed to notice us. Some of Lucinda’s sisters were yelling at one another, looking for things they seemed to have misplaced. There were many sisters. Lucinda fell somewhere in the middle and was the first to get married. The youngest sister, the one we called Simples, was standing in the middle of the kitchen, crying. She was about twelve or thirteen and looked like an overgrown small child. People began calling her simple after she repeated grade one so often the mother finally took her out of school. “No woman should have children after forty,” my mother said whenever we encountered Simples on the street and she’d be talking to herself or laughing out loud. “This is what happens—you give birth to idiots.”
Simples had a protruding chin, the yellow eyes of a cat, and curly hair the color of rusty iron. Her hair was never combed, and it stuck out of her head like coils. Sometimes boys mocked her when she passed them; some girls did too. They bent over, scratched themselves and grunted like monkeys. I only did it once; Ana had urged me on. Afterward, I asked God for forgiveness. Simples had started to cry.
Lucinda’s mother, a thin, gaunt woman with small nervous eyes and greying hair pulled tightly back into a small bun, took the flowers from us. “Calla lilies,” she said, “good, the flowers of the Virgin.” She didn’t thank us or ask us to sit down or offer us anything to drink or eat. We were hungry, having departed to the Pinhal before breakfast. We expected there’d be cakes and cookies and laughter, happy laughter, not the scornful laughter outside the window.
We stood watching Lucinda’s mother place the flowers on the wooden round table. She separated the white calla lilies neighbors had given us, from the wild daisies we picked in the Pinhal. Then she took a pair of scissors and began decapitating the daisies, throwing them into a white basket. One of Lucinda’s sisters, the one with the moon-face everyone called Feia (though, with her long wavy hair, I’d never thought she was ugly), walked in humming a fado about a lost love. She was the eldest.
“Stop that, stop singing that sad song on this happy day,” Lucinda’s mother yelled, the hand holding the open scissors in mid-air. “Stop it this minute. Don’t bring any more bad luck into the house.”
A muffled sigh came from a dark corner of the kitchen. It was then I saw Lucinda’s father, sitting in his wheelchair. The last stroke had taken away his speech.
He stared at me—I was sure it was me and not Ana he was staring at—as though trying to tell me something. Maybe he remembered that my father had worked for him. His white mustache moved, but no words came out. I felt sorry for him in spite of my father saying Casmurro was a Salazar sympathizer amidst men who cursed the name. He wasn’t missed when he left.
Feia kept humming her fado, as if her mother hadn’t said anything; Lucinda’s mother kept cutting the heads off the daisies, lips pursed, silent; Simples kept crying; Ana and I kept waiting, not sure what it was we waited for.
We watched Feia arrange the calla lilies into a bouquet. She’d stretch out her arm holding the bouquet, gaze at it, then add another calla lily, as though Lucinda’s wedding day and Feia’s own life depended on the perfection of the bouquet. She tied it with a white ribbon.
Then she looked at Simples and said, “Baby, baby, why you crying?”
“I don’t want Lucinda to go. Who’s gonna sleep with me?”
A sudden sadness seemed to sweep the kitchen, the way a chill enters a room.
“I will sleep with you,” Feia said. “Let us be happy for Lucinda. She’s the lucky one.”
Then Feia turned to face me. I wasn’t sure she’d noticed us until this point.
“You take this to Lucinda. You’re the youngest and the prettiest.”
She handed me the bouquet and led me to the living room where Lucinda was sitting. Feia walked out and shut the door behind her.
The room was gloomy—the crowd outside the window had grown larger, blocking out the grey light. The sun had returned to its hiding place behind heavy clouds, as if not wanting to show its face again. It seemed a fiery storm was coming. I dreaded the month of May, dreaded the thunder and lightning it brought.
Quiet, the room was quiet with the door shut. The heart-stopping-quiet of madrugada, that early time of morning, as the last scraps of night fade away just before the roosters crow.
The only sound came from Lucinda’s chattering teeth. This surprised me, considering the room was stuffy, as if something had swallowed up the air.
Lucinda turned away from the window and faced me. She lifted up her veil.
Her face was pale, paler than her white organza dress, eyelids painted turquoise and thickly lined with charcoal, lips and cheeks, a cherry red. She reminded me of a rag-doll my grandmother had made me and I still played with when Ana wasn’t around. Ana had long ago stopped playing with dolls.
“You beautiful child,” Lucinda said. Then she began to cry deep, raucous sobs. Tears ran down her cheeks, carving a smudgy line through her rouge. One tear stained the front of her dress, leaving a pink spot. She didn’t seem to notice.
I wanted her to stop crying, wanted her to be happy on her wedding day. Joyful, she should be joyful, after the man-with-the-light-blue-Opel rescued her from the town’s pity.
But here I stood, bouquet of calla lilies in hand, words failing me to stop her tears.
Her twiggy arms finally reached out for the bouquet. Her hands were trembling.
I opened the door and ran out of the room.
Lucinda walked out of the white-washed chapel that once had been a small cork factory on Main Street, and stood by the door. Her trembling thin red lips were kissed by the man-with-the-light-blue-Opel. Today he was dressed in a black suit and black shoes, one sole thicker than the other. The decapitated daisies were showered on them as they walked back to Lucinda’s house, fifteen minutes away, the whole town following, including my mother and the groom’s two grown sons who’d come to Amendoeiro for the first time. They didn’t limp.
After the cod and shrimp cakes and cookies and cakes and small plates of rice pudding were passed around in Lucinda’s patio, and the Port drunk in tiny glasses, even by Ana and me; after the clown, dancing and jeering to the music of the accordion player made us all laugh; and after everyone stood on the curb waving goodbye, as the light blue Opel convertible rode away to Montijo, where Lucinda would now be living, I asked Ana, “Why was Lucinda crying when I handed her the bouquet this morning?”
“What do you mean, Lucinda was crying?”
“Crying. She was crying. Tears were running down her cheeks, smudging her rouge and staining her dress.”
“You silly, tch… tch… tch… Ana clicked her tongue in mockery. “Brides aren’t sad on their wedding day! They cry because they’re happy. They can’t believe their good luck.”
Ana knew things. Things I didn’t know. But I’d seen what I’d seen.
I said nothing.
The next day I took a kitchen knife and carved out the red cheeks and lips and the turquoise lids out of my rag-doll and buried them in my back garden. Then threw the rest of her body parts onto the garbage dump.
“Good,” my mother said as she watched me. “It’s time you grew up.”