Tap tap, sound the feet on hollow platforms.
Badum badum, pound the sticks on leather-capped drums.
Women dressed as colorfully as Darwin’s finches, sway their hips and tap tap their feet as the float moves down the avenue. They gyrate in ellipses more perfect than planetary orbits, and sway the universe around them too — remind it of its promise at the beginning of all things.
The collective vision of millions accentuates the smiles and the pigments of each twirling bird with painful clarity (that woman’s ankles are bleeding from the incessant pressure of celebration; another staggers, and collapses, faint from the gripping heat and deafening noise, before being elevated back into the motion by her compatriots).
Solemn faced men, streaks of gray behind the plumage, are blurred into the periphery, beating out the rhythm on leather-capped drums. They alone seem to resist the motion about them, stares fixed on some point beyond the women, beyond the horizon. It is with these leather drums, this dead flesh that the men make their song, while the women tap tap on feet that twist, that curl, that bounce — every moment reaffirming the life in their veins.
Tap tap, sound the feet, keeping pace with the rhythm.
Badum badum, pound the sticks, more vigorously against the surface of drums.
The rhythm hastens, loudens, and a vague hand guides attention from the women to the wall of gray men behind. Their strain is visible in rippling muscles, ready to burst. Still they keep the beat, they stand sturdy as stone, expressionless, in the float’s advance.
But now, a whisper elevates to a shout, and eyes jump to the dancing women. Their smiles melt as they struggle to keep the beat. The rhythm outpaces the melody, and one by one, they fall. Some collapse, and rest on their backs. Others shed and throw down their costumes in a violent rage. Most weep, for the samba is ruined.
Yet the gray men still beat their drums.
Tap tap, sound its feet, landing upon a cloud shaped birthmark.
Scratch scratch, go its wings, rubbing together, excitedly.
Tsk tsk, pulses its body with inward rush of blood.
Tap tap. Scratch scratch . Tsk tsk. Faster. Tap. Scratch. Tsk. Faster. Tapscratchtsk. Faster. Tpscrtchtsk. Faster. Tsrtsk. Tzk. Tzzz. Tzzzzzzz.
Badum badum, pounds the drum.
Nerves resound like the broken crash of a cymbal. It takes a moment for Thomas to forget the pain and focus once more on his reflection. He eyes the red and black splotch on his cheek before nudging the remains of the insect onto his shoulder sleeve. Blue suds drip from his mouth and the toothbrush that protrudes through teeth and half-open lips. Scratch scratching the sour morning from his breath, he listens to the sounds of Carnival float from downtown and through the cobbled streets of Salvador’s old city to his father’s apartment.
Off towards the samba’s siren call, Thomas swings out of the room holding the insides of jean pockets tightly. Now onto the diminuendo of the stairs and the final note, which launches him all at once through the salon and out the chiming door.
Thomas, startled by the childish yelp, turns towards the source: a small boy in an oversized t-shirt. The boy holds a nearly deflated soccer ball in one hand, and rubs his head with the other. From across the cobble partition, another boy laughs and shouts things that Thomas does not understand, twist about in his mind. Neither wears shoes.
Before Thomas can slip away on another rising samba beat, the first boy approaches him, drops the soccer ball and, looking up at the pale countenance, elevates his hand to the height of Thomas’s chest.
It cuts to the point. Thomas, remembering, he immediately jerks his hands from his pockets. Recovering from the twitch and from the boys’ disparaging looks, with momentary stillness, he then shakes his head briskly, no money, and walks off in sixteenth notes.
As he beats onward, a gap between two buildings shoots the sun through, and pierces his quiet guilt like a balloon. He steps into it. Here, the fringe of the old city perches on a hill, which beyond drops off into skyscrapers and the bay. He closes his eyes, and stretches his hearing towards the sounds of Carnival. Yet the music rings ghostly in his ears — every note stretched out half a beat too long by its echo, spilling into the next.
He opens his eyes, and his heart falls. Forgotten, the mud, grit, and aluminum roofs of the favelas stretch down the hillside before him.
Thomas catches sight of a figure against a shining metal roof. A boy holding a stick. Clank clanking his implement against the tin in a monotonous beat, the boy shifts his feet to the rhythm of the spectral samba.
Tap tap, sound his feet.
Creak creak, goes the shoddy roof as it pulses up and down.
Clank clank, pounds the stick.
In the fading blue heat, Thomas wanders through the red crumble remains of the sugar mill. It is one room, cut through the heart by a stream of sewage. Bursting, a corpse full of sound, swelling and distended. Lizards screech, birds squawk, and, as the cool blanket of night settles onto the city, mosquitos begin their song too. The voices combined produce, beneath the clamor, a dull hum that the mixes with the air like starch, making it more viscous. More alive.
Another voice joins the chorus.
“Cut!” His father—a stout, cross-legged man, taking notes—roars. He and several others are surrounded and separated from the rest of the mill by a tight-knit, green film of mosquito net. “Fernando, stop slapping your neck. If you get bitten, you get bitten.”
“Puta que pariu, Bernard, it’s dengue season!” Another man shouts back. He is dressed in a white shirt and shorts that fit tight. “I’ll end up vomiting my insides out like Luiz. Look at you, all of you! All covered up. You’ve got no reason to complain.”
“I’m not acting, it’s not my responsibility to be out there. But you’ve got a job to do.”
The crew breaks off from the background, and takes over the melody of the mill with mechanical chatter. Thomas approaches the netting. He shakes it gently, watching it ripple from end to end. His father looks up from his notepad.
“Thomas, you should get behind here.”
Mosquitos are not what fill up the cracks of Thomas’s mind. Disease is not what he fears. Thomas shakes the net again.
“Do you want something for your film studies class? I’ll get you a flash drive with some scenes. It should be interesting to see how the movie is, uncut.” His father scribbles something down, and then stands up, coming face to face with Thomas, hands in his pockets. He smiles gently.
“Jel and I are going are taking you out tonight — to talk.”
He sighs a melancholy flavor into the crumbling mill. “No, it wouldn’t make sense for me to come. I have to finish filming, before June.”
The noise of the birds, and the crew, and the mosquitos freezes, while the mill breathes in again. His father sits back down.
“Okay, Fernando, this time I don’t want to get the impression that you’re in a soap opera. Enunciate ‘quem foi,’ but do it with more cold, calculated anger. Let’s see another take.”
Cough cough, goes the actor in the white shirt.
Cough cough, goes the actor, lurching each beat.
Cough cough, goes the actor, falling to his knees.
Cough cough, goes the actor, spitting black bile onto his polished floor.
Tzzz tzzzz, sings the mosquito.
Here is Thomas, in a different pair of jeans, in a different city, shuffling his feet through a different song. He dons his earphones like a sleep mask — keen dreamer, reluctant realist — listens to the same one over and over again. This is his routine: listen to one until it bores him to death.
Today, in the offices of the television station, reports of disaster have reigned in consecutive nightmares. The high-ups are thrilled. Lo, the viewership counts are “through the fuckin’ roof!” Never mind the jet black excretions, and hell-fueled fever, the hundreds dead, the rumor of global epidemic. The real event is that half the country is calling the outbreak the “Samba Sickness,” a neat little name coined by the station — for patient zero was a drummer for the Brazilian Carnival.
“How can we trademark this?” They asked, dinheiro glinting in their eyes. That is when Thomas leaves for the day, thinking about a father quarantined, hiding again behind nets and barriers from his family.
The home door opens and in comes Thomas, throwing down his coat.
“Hey Tom. You feeling alright?” His mother’s fiancée, Frank, appears from the space between unwelcome and the living room couch.
“There’s no food yet, your mother went to pick something up.” Frank wears the painful look of obligation. “If you want to talk about anything that happened today, I’d be happy to.”
“Well, Anne’s been emailing your dad — we made sure that he’s fine. His citizenship should help him get out of there as soon as possible.”
“Tom, I’m just trying to do my job, here.
“You might not think it, but it can be hard to operate without acknowledgment or appreciation.”
No job, I’m not yours.
“I’m gonna be your mother’s husband damn soon. I think I deserve more respect than that.” Frank is a beached whale, his lungs heaving in and out, struggling for air. His face is turning purple. “What are you doing here, Tom?”
Badum badum, sound the boy’s fists against the man’s stomach.
Crash crash, echoes the boy’s head, shaken on its axis.
Click click, goes the lock on the door.
Stop stop, yells the mother, holding bags of groceries.
Smash smash, fall the bags, as the boy runs out, head ringing.
Here is Thomas, slamming the door, shuffling his feet through a different song. The chill hand of the night makes him shiver. He dons his earphones like a sleep mask — keen dreamer, reluctant realist — listens to the same song over and over again. This is his routine: listen to the same one until it bores him to death. Like inoculation.
The drums, the strings, the voices — they remind him of a promise he once made.
Aromas of New York City escape from the steaming kitchen, while the television plays out another human drama.
“We should leave.”
The men and women stare at a fixed point beyond the horizon.
Thomas waits inside the delicatessen for someone, something to arrive. Aromas of New York City, and angry shouts escape from the blurry kitchen, while the television plays out surprise.
“We should leave now.”
The drums falter, the strings break, the voices crack.
Thomas waits inside the delicatessen for help to arrive. Aromas of burnt bagels, and frightened shouts escape from the bubbling kitchen, while the television plays out panic.
“We need to leave, now.”
The current of the morning pushes Thomas through sidewalks like so many streams, ferries him under the sun-stained concrete, and then back up again. The sun-speckled streets bode well, yet something tense presses at the air, as he walks from stone monolith to stone monolith — some stiffness.
Turning towards a delicatessen in order to buy his resolve for the day in a styrofoam cup, he notices a woman, stern featured, pounding on the glass. Vigorously, she waves him inside.
“I can’t explain. Just watch the TV. Things are getting worse every minute, so…we’d better stay in here for now.”
“Nina. My name is Nina.”
Inside, he follows the gaze of all the gaping sandwich-eaters and coffee-drinkers to a silver screen.
Time stretches onwards round and round the room, all beings angled towards the television. Fire and gray faces punctuate the reports intermittently. “We recommend that you stay indoors.” Unlikely dissections enter the picture. “Rioting in the financial district.” Now and then, sobs erupt around the room, earth boiling over. “The exits from the city through Queens and the Bronx have been blocked. New York City is effectively under quarantine.” Thomas and Nina remain silent, focused, waiting for help to arrive. “Help is on its way.” The gray faces come closer, closer.
Suddenly, aromas of burnt bagels, and frightened shouts escape from the kitchen, while the television plays out panic and then blinks into oblivion.
Tzzzzzz, hisses the static.
“We should leave.” The once strong countenance, that had beckoned him from the window, is tear-streaked. “We need to leave, now.”
But trickling round the edges of buildings, the street corners outside, the gray faces are upon them.
Back inside, back inside, yells Nina.
Thwack, thwack, falls Thomas, falling on the curb, and the faces bear down on him. But —
But they are not looking at him.
Thomas follows the stares of all the gray men and women above him to the fixed point beyond the horizon, and finds himself looking within. At his organs, sticky and warm. At his pulsing core. Faltering. Faltering. Fading.
And now from within it comes. It is dim at first — a sound so microscopically dim that he cannot be sure if it is heart, still beating yet. He feels like a child, guessing uncertainly at the beeps of a doctor’s otoscope — until, yes, he can be certain that he hears pluck of a guitar string from somewhere in the vicinity of his left leg, and, how strange, the familiar sound of a piano from his liver. The chorus adds a drumbeat here, and there a new voice — shaking in vibrato or cloaked in raspy emotion. He lifts himself and begins, tentatively, to smile.
The gray people smile too, for the sounds that their own bodies make, and for his added sound. The people around them scatter and run, because they do not understand. Birds only understand color, and sight, and mouths that sing. They only know dinheiro, desire. They do not know that there is more.
Still, all is not flawless. The drums falter, the strings break, the voices crack. But these sounds—they move and sway him. No. They remind him of a promise he once made. A promise at the beginning of all things. And though his body has been frozen in silence and inexpression for so long that it is unaccustomed to such perpetual motion, he dances, and shouts:
Yes, Thomas. Blood sings.