“Lagniappe” is a New Orleans creole word. It means “a little something …extra.” This is where you can get a peek at some of my flash fiction or what I’m working on next. The first story came from a challenge from the inestimable Cat Rambo, namely, take the prompt “A Brazilian math teacher proposes marriage to compassion” and make a story of it.
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.
The next story is a dangling conversation between a nurse and an old man in a box. Enjoy.
Roscoe Jean-Castle Mathieu
“How are you today, Mr. Gedde?” The archivist asked. The old man in a box turned toward the sound with liquefied eyes.
“Who’re you?” He asked. The archivist sat down next to the box, in the warm morning sun coming through Mr. Gedde’s hospital window.
“Still Amir Safavi, Mr. Gedde.” He said, thumbing through his paperback. It was going to be a long visit. “Do you remember when I came in yesterday? We talked about birds.”
The old man in a box let out a hoarse laugh.
“I remember I saw a little brown and grey thing, whistling a pretty tune like a nightingale, this morning on my way to the factory.” He said, smiling. A sunlit memory, a break in the clouds that had settled on Gedde without his knowing God knows how many decades ago.
“I know, Mr. Gedde.” The archivist said. “You came home and told your family about it. They wept for joy when you said it, because it meant you had remembered something.”
And they hadn’t come to see him since. Just the archivist, making his rounds, paid to talk the old bodies and worn-out minds out of their stuck memories. The geriatric drug kept them alive, certainly, but the pseudo-Alzheimer’s still took its nasty toll. The old man frowned.
“Did I?” He said. “I don’t remember that.”
“Didn’t think you would.” The archivist said, finding his page. He wondered who was visiting his grandparents.
“A beautiful sound, rustling paper.” The old man said. “I don’t like the datalinks or the holos, some things are eternal, like books…who needs a holo about formal logic, or of Shakespeare or the Holy Bible? I remember telling Rudy he was a damn fool for buying one of those computer-bibles they had for ten dollars at the dollar store…”
“Would you like to talk about the news, Mr. Gedde?” The archivist asked blandly.
“Why bother? It all just repeats anyway, says the same thing, over and over.” Mr. Gedde said, his wrinkles massing into a scowl.
The archivist looked up, hopeful for just a moment. There was a chance, however slight, that a Rerentol patient would reverse, begin to learn anew, beat back the demon degeneration that ate at all of their minds eventually. A renaissant…
Mr. Gedde had seen centuries. If all he could see were those old centuries, like a barely-living exhibit, they’d send him off to the museums. But if he could see the present, as well as the past…
“Once, Jan switched it to the news during…one of the elections…and the man was talking about a new deal, a great society, so I took my shoe and I threw it at the screen…”
The archivist sighed, and went back to his reading.
“I wonder if she’s still sitting and staring out the kitchen door…” The old man wondered aloud. One wizened hand idly twitched at a life support cord.
“Your wife is dead, Mr. Gedde.” The archivist said, looking away from the withered body in the box. He folded his book in his lap.
The silence dragged on. It was almost worse than Mr. Gedde’s endless Grampa Stories.
“I think you might be better off that way.”
Still not a word.
“My wife, I think she’s seeing someone else.” Amir said in a burst. He clapped his knees together around his hands, steadfastly staring at the wall. “My brother. He…we live together, and she and I…it hasn’t been fights so much as we’ve been …living apart, in the same house, if you know that one. She’s going one place, I’m going another, and he seems to be where she’s going. There’s so many times they’re on the couch together watching a holo and I’m sitting off on my seiza cushion reading a book…”
He looked down at the paperback in his hands. He couldn’t make out the title any more, and he couldn’t remember.
“Do you love her?” Mr. Gedde asked.
“…Maria?” Amir said absently, lost in thought. “I…I think I did, once. I … don’t know. Any more.”
“You did love her, or else it wouldn’t hurt so much now.” Mr. Gedde said. “Remember that and hold onto it. You did love her. You’re going to have a hard time through this, whatever you do. But remember, more for yourself than for her, that you were once kind to each other, even if you can never be so again. And if you must go, go. Don’t let convenience stop you.”
Uncontrollably, a memory from her room, when they were just kids, and Maria was laughing and he pulled her close and laughed with her. The archivist and the old man met eye to eye, and the archivist saw a spark there.
“Don’t turn out like me and Jan.” Mr. Gedde said.
The archivist felt a cool prickling across his skin.
“Renaissant.” He whispered. The old man blinked, his milky eyes covered over and the spark gone.
“We had three children.” He said. “Did I ever tell you about them?”
The archivist just smiled.
“Yes, Mr. Gedde.”
“Joan and Jay, they live in Ohio.” The old man said. “And Patrick’s a go-getter in New York. We lost Simon in the Iraq war, still don’t know what for, don’t matter anymore…”
The archivist sighed. The process would be slow, and uncertain, and he would have to tell Mr. Gedde many things about 2319, and endure many more Grampa Stories…but Mr. Gedde had seen the present. And that was enough for now.
Roscoe Jean-Castle Mathieu lives in Shenzhen, China. He does whatever work comes his way, mostly importing electronics and teaching English, and in stolen hours writes about what he sees.