By Jennifer Summerhays, Global Education
The driver accelerated, and the Fiat whined up the final stretch of road. He wedged his stomach against the steering wheel to keep the tires from twisting in the sand blown up from the dunes below.
“Muito peso, senhora,” he puffed.
I flushed with shame. I was arrogant about living well on so little, and now! Carting so much stuff marked me American. Rich. Pampered. I despised that, wanting to remain unburdened and free like the wind. But this trip was not a vacation. I’d come to stay. To experiment with solitude. To write.
“Chegamos!” the driver said with a wet spray. He pushed himself out of the car with a fart, like toothpaste leaving a tube. I walked through the salty metal gate of the villa, and looked down over the dunes.
Ocean unfolded flat and wide, striped with bands of blue: khaki-azure, turquoise, and indigo that fell over the horizon’s edge. It stretched from there to everywhere. A hotel with comic-yellow awnings added color between the villa and the sea. Tiki huts and bars dotted the beach, and fifty meters up from the shore, the dunes were smeared with poverty. A chain of favelas: small slums were connected like knots on a single rope. A dirt path was the expressway between hardship, deficiency, indigence, and privation. Crumbling brick walls and patched tile roofs crouched in low armpits of the land, extending along the coastline. Laundry flapped between open windows, and the smoke from small beach-fires filled the air with gray. Daylight was sinking into the sea, and boys atop mountains of trash cheered for teammates who scored goals between piles of donkey dung.
A swath of yellow grassland was middle earth, where the shanties ended and the villa began.
“My name is Rinaldo,” he said. “But, Naldo will do, just fine.” That was my cue to pay. I handed the driver forty reis, and then I saw that he’d left my bags on the front step of the North house, while I’d been hypnotized by the view.
“Naldo, por favor aceita um pouco mais.” I pushed the extra cash into his hand. He didn’t resist.
“Boa sorte, a senhora,” he said, and then he was off. And I was alone with the sea, and the wind at A Rainha dos Ventos, an isolated villa in northeastern Brazil.
The wind blew seven days a week, and swaybacked donkeys wandered the dunes with dry mouths. Eeeeeeeeawawawawaw! The bray shocked me. Even during the day they were terrifying. Deep, honking exhales changed to screams in the wind.
The wind was relentless, howling through the villa nestled in the dunes above Praia do Futuro. The miniature owls roosting in the beach grass bobbed to dodge the persistent blasts. And all the while, the villa walls were unmovable, defending the four houses from the eastern gale. It was in The Garden of Paradise where the East Wind had taken the hero to visit the eponymous garden. But this was a far different East Wind at the villa, that forced itself between the hinge cracks, and loosened window latches at night. This was the trickster North Wind I knew from myth; the wind that is naughty sometimes.
I felt defenseless.
The villa’s exterior wall was thick, white-washed cement. It stood twelve feet high around the entire circumference of the property. A heavy sconce perched on each of the high corners, transforming the villa into a fortress. The four cottages inside were simple, single-story colonials with straight lines. They looked out onto an interior agave garden and fountain, an oasis for black birds and parched creeping things.
The South house was the largest, and painted mustard yellow. The West house was slightly smaller and washed white. The East house was salmon-orange with decorative round curves and shell-like shapes. I lived in the North house, the only cottage with an elevated veranda, and no buffer from the sea winds. Except for mine, the cottages were vacant, waiting for the one-off tourist with a penchant for the primitive.
The straight lines of the villa drew clean boundaries between civilization and savage wilderness, but the wind was a perpetual trespasser. It peeked through keyholes and leaked into electrical outlets. There was no such thing as privacy from the wind.
* * *
I stood at the square bedroom window, pressed my hips against the windowsill, and
leaned out as far as I could without falling. The wind had blown the sea clean all the way from the west coast of Africa. I closed my right eye like a land surveyor, and measured the distance from water’s edge to windowpane. The space between my extended thumb and pointer finger was about a half mile, a trick I’d picked up watching my mother paint landscapes. A kite-seller on the beach held four red diamonds on a string. I drifted to my childhood and the foggy summer months in Daly City with my cousin Bryan and his dragon kite.
I closed the other eye and listened blindly. A wave of sound that started out at sea, was gathering notes as it rolled up the dunes: wet fishing nets slapping wooden decks, a bottle breaking, motorcycle engine, baby babble, snarling dogs, Pentecostal preacher, phone ringing, donkey cry, and a yellow-bellied canary all turned to a wild swell that rode in on the wind, broke through my window, and flooded the room with song.