Doutor Compaixão

I’ve just (re-)discovered Twitter, and on about the second day, Cat Rambo posted a tweet from the Magical Realism Bot: “A Brazilian math teacher proposes marriage to compassion.” She challenged the world to write a story of it. I took up the challenge. This is the result.

Doutor Compaixão

R. Jean Mathieu

They called him “the beggar who counts.”

They called him a saint.

They called him “Doutor Compaixão.”

But when the pacification police came in heavy gear with shields and guns, they didn’t call him anything. They said they had never seen the man Pedro Sores Canto.

Word had come from Rebeca Itoh Silviera, down in the city at the university, that a raid was coming to the old favela she had escaped. A man inside the police came to visit his parents and give them the remittance and the bribes he won as a policeman the day before, saying that the raid was seeking out the old math teacher who gave lessons and refused reals for it. No, he did not know for what crime. He was a policeman, how was he to know what crime a man was to be arrested for?

Word reached Pedro Sores Canto as he held a chalkboard to his knee, cracked chalk showing the curve of a bell that held the secrets of all the universe, probably. Word came the same way all his payment came, as a butchered chicken or a jug of beer or a whispered word of forgiveness. The children scattered like crows from the stern faces of their mothers, anxious that the man who had freed Rebeca Itoh Silviera should do the same for their children. If the pacification police took him away, who would teach the children to make numbers dance and speak Portuguesa as the rich in the city do?

“Do not worry for me, Senhora de Assis, Senhora Ventura, Senhora Quintana.” He smiled. “Have compassion for yourselves and your children. Keep a close eye on them tomorrow, and remind them to count.”

As he carried home the butchered chicken and the jug of beer and the terrible news, he thought of Alcione. He had come to Cantagalo, first climbed the steep hills between tar-paper and tin, five years before, latest in a string of hidden places that had been his life since her words to him. He wondered what had become of her. Either dead or married, he decided, a cloud of children underfoot like flies in sweltering winter.

Either way, she had long since departed from him. All that was left of her to him were those words:

“You have no compassion.”

Passion he had had. Passion enough that, in the irrational way of very rational men, he had killed her lover. Passion enough to conceal his love until it burst from him, passion enough to confess it to her after the deed was done.

Compassion was something else again, a limit to converge on and never reach. It was not the passion one could have for a woman, for the woman, for Alcione, but a love for her and everyone and everything. It was as particular as the names of Senhora  de Assis and Senhora Ventura and Senhora Quintana and Vitor Ferraz de Avis and Rebeca Itoh Silviera and Alexandre Cubano Sozinho. It was as grand as Sugarloaf Mountain and deep as the Pacific. It was an idea that he, Dr. Pedro Sores Canto, once the brightest young turk in Brazilian mathematics, could not grasp.

As he had lay in shallow ditches outside São Paulo at night, or slapped mosquitos from his skin and calculated his grim odds of survival on elaborate bell curves in the Amazon jungle, or lay awake watching reflected fires in the tin roof of some favela or another, the bitter sting of Alcione’s other words had left, along with her face, and her voice, and so, insensibly, his obsession had moved from her to the idea, compassion, the idea that was to him a nebulous air and an equation to solve and to her an immediate reality to experience.

It was his attempt to solve the equation and to make the nebulous idea concrete and real that had kept him to the favelas. He had learnt the Buddhist mantras and the Catholic prayers and the strange notions of the poor and criminal Evangelicals he had found himself hiding among. Santa Teresa de Kalkota had stayed with the poor for compassion, so, too, would he. He could have hidden from the authorities a dozen other ways, perhaps even returned to academia. But it was safer in the favelas, and it was in the favelas he would finally solve compassion.

His trail had started in São Paulo a murderer, and ended here, at the top of Cantalgo Hill, in the garret of a brick building that smelled always of frying onions and the human drift, a saint. Doutor Compaixão.

Senhora de Assis had said the raid would come tomorrow. Senhora Ventura tonight. Indeterminate. Very well, he could study his chances. 50% chance they would come tonight, 50% tomorrow. He need only play the probabilities, what his students and their fathers called gambling.

“Senhora Preto, I must leave tonight,” he told the elderly landlady smoking her hand-rolled at the living room table. “Please tell any visitors I have already gone.”

Senhora Preto nodded, exhaling a little puff. He was not the first tenant to leave suddenly as rumors of another raid swirled around the streets and markets and living room tables. She approved of his good manners in announcing it beforehand, though. It spoke to good breeding.

He climbed the stairs to his garret for the last time. There was not much to pack. Only a few shirts, another pair of pants, the hundred-year-old calculus textbook that Jorge Figueiredo Boaventura’s father had given him many years before, before Jorge had broken his leg and died. Poor child, almost a man, and then…

Pedro Sores Canto sighed. Jorge had died three years before, and all Pedro could rouse in his heart was regret that such a promising mind had been snuffed out like a candle. He muttered prayers for him, but there was no heart in it.

Still, it was nearly fifteen years since Arthur Castilho Nakata had died under his hand and Alcione had left his life forever. Still his death-rattle and her compassion animated him. And he had remembered Jorge’s name, and said prayers for him. He converged on compassion…

The startled cry of Senhora Preto jarred him from his meditations. The pacification police moved fast these days, lightning war, not like the old days. That they would arrive so soon was more than three standard deviations from the mean, less than 0.16% likely. He did not have to look out the tiny window to know that the house was surrounded, that there was no more running for him unless he sprout wings and fly. He would be taken, and tried, and, in the end, executed. Perhaps Alcione would appear, after all these years, to testify against him.

A second cry, from Senhora Preto, stabbing through the shouts and buffets and bullets of the pacification police. It was a cry of pain. Pedro Sores Canto felt something rise in him, a stone in his throat and a balloon in his mind. Senhora Preto had done nothing to earn whatever the pacification police had done to elicit that cry from her. No more than Jorge Figueiredo Boaventura had deserved to die.

No more than Arthur Castilho Nakata had deserved to die.

The room seemed bathed in light, though only a cheap flashlight flickered feebly. He saw there the faces and names of all the students he had taught, all the parents he had consoled, saw again Alcione’s face as it had been when it had driven him to madness, Arthur’s face in serene repose and free of suffering. He saw faces that he knew were attached to the boots storming up the stairs, the voices screaming guttural cries. He saw his own face. They were all individual and crystal clear, they were all as one.

The stone in his throat was desire. He desired that they all be free of suffering, sinners and saints both, and especially all the fallen, glorious, troubled, human souls in between. He wished it with his whole body, so hard it ached, heedless of the tramp of boots and the oncoming cries.

Alcione would never have married him. She had been right, he had no compassion. And now? Had he approached the apex, converged on the limit at last? Or was his teaching, his kindness, his genius of little pains and remembered names, only a “good-enough” approximation?

This was the last unknown in the equation, the last x to solve for. There was a way to solve it.

Alcione would never have married him, but…

“Compassion,” he asked, sinking to his knees on the bare floor, “will you marry me?”

Something inside him said yes, and he felt himself lift as if on wings.

When the pacification police kicked the thin plywood castoff excuse for a door open, they found only an empty room. In confusion, they dripped into the tiny room. Behind his helmet, Vitor Ferraz de Avis muttered a prayer of thanks to Santa Maria, who in her compassion had liberated old Doutor Compaixão.


About R. Jean Mathieu

They say he speaks five languages, was conceived on a chess board, and once seduced a tong boss' daughter and lived to tell the tale. All we know is, he's called Roscoe. You can find more scurrilous lies at and buy his books at View all posts by R. Jean Mathieu

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