top of page
  • Writer's pictureLannie Neely III

Of Pigs and Pigeons

Updated: Jun 28

I come home dead tired after a full day of washing dishes to Zé Lacerda calling for me to inspect his nipples.

Zé Lacerda and I have been friends since we were young enough to steal bikes without getting into serious trouble. Our crusty apartment on Avenue Barra Funda is barely big enough for half a person, let alone four halves, but we’ve shared it for five years and at least the rent gets paid. Ever since his father died—a father he had never met, a foreigner, who had a guilty conscience about all the children he had scattered around as an international pilot—Zé has been living off a small, healthy inheritance that he intends to last the rest of his life. To this end, he embraces the motions of poverty. Sandals have holes. Clean laundry is only for dates. He licks every plate.

“Do my nipples look longer to you, brother?” he yells from the bathroom less than three meters away.

I hang my jacket, place my work shoes beside the door.

He turns to me, his button-up shirt open, chest bare. He’s wiry, no fat on him, the lean muscles of a person who bounces from wall to wall with life and then is quick to sleep wherever he falls. He’s also short (the top of his head comes to my chin), a little sponge of black curls for hair, a thin, eager mustache, and a mouth that always seems to be playing a joyful trick no matter his mood. His nipples do appear longer than I remember, and longer than seems normal. Also there are twelve of them.

“You shouldn’t have that many,” I say.

“Yeah, I thought that too.” He flicks one at the bottom, peaking out of his waistband like a newborn rat, pink and furless and tired. “But they’re also longer, right?”

“What do you think it is? A rash?”

“I dunno, brother. Maybe it’s a curse.”

I think it over for a second. A curse is a quick guess, a good guess. He’s always sleeping with women he shouldn’t, getting them to buy him drinks and then going to their condo where he claims to eat like a king and screw like a concubine. He becomes their pet for a week or a weekend. It’s during these excursions that I manage to get the apartment to smell good and look presentable. But, inevitably, mothers will chase him out with sandals. Fathers will pay him to “disappear.” Even the women themselves, often studying urban design at Mackenzie University or working the files of private law firms, will realize that Zé isn’t embracing poverty with the same sort of bohemian infatuation or rebellious irony as they are, and they’ll send him crawling back to our hovel, cursing his name. He has plenty of enemies this way, and troubles more than he can count.

“I’ve never heard of a nipple curse,” I say.

“All kinds of curses. They happen all the time in Mato Grosso. My aunt told me.”

“But São Paulo is more sophisticated.” I tap a finger to my skull. “You need to register everything.”

“Really? These things confuse me.” Zé looks at the clock on the microwave, a reassuring blink of 12:00. “We have time to get to the registry, yeah?”

“I just got home, man. Boss made me work an hour longer again, and I know he’s not going to pay me extra.”

“You need to stop letting assholes pull you around by the arm.” He winks and tugs my arm towards the door. “Very quick, don’t worry. You’re better with these paperwork things than me. The registry is just down the street!”

We slide on our sandals and walk a few blocks down Avenue Barra Funda, carefully dodging a pile of matted fabric and a broken bottle. Zé waves to Ronaldo at the newspaper stand.

“You pickin’ up some of these expired chips today, Zé?” Ronaldo sits behind the array of snacks and magazines as if he were born there and never plans to leave. “I have some I need to toss out.”

“Not now, brother. I got nipple business.”

We get to the registry, a simple, humble building that wouldn’t look governmental were it not for the scroll and quill graffiti near the entrance labeling it as “35th Cartório.” There are no windows and the main lights are broken, but there’s enough afternoon sunlight pouring in from the street to keep the place from feeling abandoned.

“Sorry,” one of the clerks says to us after Zé rips open his shirt and presents his twelve pink friends. “We don’t handle hexes at this location. You need to go to the 19th registry in Perdizes.”

“Can’t you just look on the computer and see?”

“Nah, the paperwork needs to be physical.” The clerk waves to a wall of binders behind her, a dusty mural of whimpering celebration to the masterwork of Brazilian bureaucracy. “The 19th keeps all the official hex and curse registration for six different neighborhoods. Ours included.”

Luckily the distance isn’t too far. Perdizes is a nicer neighborhood as well, and we talk about stopping by Água Branca Park on the way back to chase the ducks and chickens that clamber among the tropical trees, walking paths, and stray cats. We catch a bus. Zé hasn’t refilled his bus card, so I scan mine twice. He takes a seat marked “priority seating” while I stand gripping the yellow support bar, palms sticky with the accumulated sweat of the day’s working class.

The 19th registry is nicer than the 35th: it has working lights and windows. We kick our way through a group of pigeons, then enter. The archives reach the ceiling. Several workers meander behind the counter in purposeful slow motion while Zé and I wait in uncomfortable grey chairs lined against the opposite wall. Zé’s skin is reddening. He’s swelling like rice in a pot.

“You sure you aren’t having an allergic reaction?”

Zé smiles. “To what? I’ve been sleeping on the couch for the last twenty hours. Am I allergic to naps?”

Once all the chairs fill, an older woman lifts her head and calls us over.

“We’ve been waiting half an hour,” Zé complains.

The attendant sighs. “I’ll admit, we take our time a bit. If the room gets too empty the boss makes us clean the back areas to stay busy.” She shakes her head slowly, sucking on her bottom lip as if holding back frustration. “I’m not a damned cleaning lady. Not anymore.”

Zé explains his case. Before he can open his shirt she pushes a request form into his hands. I fill it out for him—he never remembers his government ID number—while the attendant goes to the wall and fishes out a binder.

“Well, Mr. Lacerda,” she says without looking up, “looks like someone dropped off a Maldition and Hexation Registration Form B-65 late last night. We just filed it this morning. Looks like it’s foooor...” her index finger slides down the page, turns to the next, then stops near the top, “... an Animal Transformation Curse.”

“Damn.” He scratches his chin. “Does it say which animal?”

“Pig.”

I can’t help but laugh. Zé elbows me in the stomach.

“Who did it to me?”

“Could be anyone. This was registered by a small business that does these sorts of things for money. They sent the paperwork by pigeon.” She motions to a line of bird-sized holes above the shelves, barely visible without standing without a little hop. Pieces of straw rest on the metal top like a scarecrow hat, and some of the binders have trails of muddy water and pigeon shit solidified mid-drip down the binding. “Most curses these days are filed by the for-hire businesses instead of the clients. Part of the package. To keep anonymity.”

“Anonymity!?” Zé slams his fist on the counter, startling some pigeons he didn’t realize were sleeping behind the printer. “Then why even have a filing system, sister? What’s the point of all this registration if there’s no accountability?”

The attendant sucks her lip harder and shrugs. “Here’s the address.” She scribbles the details on the back of a shopping receipt instead of official stationery. “This is where the curse is registered. Dona Mariana. It’s been around longer than I’ve worked here, which is a long time. About half of our Maldita Forms come from there. Nothing else I can tell you.”

Zé and I sit down on the curb outside. A few pigeons approach and Zé lets them hop around, cooing, pecking at the gutter near his feet. His head is in his hands. I feel bad, but I don’t have the courage to say anything.

“I’m turning twenty-eight next week, brother.”

“I know, man.” I place my hand on his back. “How old do you think that is in pig years?”

We laugh and he shoves me aside, almost knocking me into the road. He springs to his feet, fresh, as if nothing bad has happened, like always. The only time I’ve ever seen him shed a tear was over a woman who would kiss him once instead of twice. But when he turns to me, his mouth all shining teeth framed by wisps of facial hair, I can’t help but wince at the perfect pig snout that has replaced his crooked nose.

“Even nicer than my old nose,” Zé laughs, looking at his reflection in the window of a car stopped at the intersection. The couple inside the car try to ignore him, but they’re clearly uncomfortable. “If you ask me, Ana Maria Braga paid for a nose job much worse than what I got now.”

We check the receipt for directions to Dona Mariana’s.


São Paulo Cemetery via Sumaré

Take six left turns around perimeter

1362.6 Beco da Bruxa, at end of alley


“We need to go to the big cemetery in Pinheiros,” I say. “You think it’s worth it?”

“Unless you want me laying eggs all over the apartment.”

“Dude... you won’t lay eggs! Psht!” I think back to our biology class, which we never finished because both of us dropped out of school at sixteen. “That’s just women pigs who lay eggs.”

“Oh yeah.” He nods in agreement. Then his eyes widen. He presses his hands to the dimples in his shirt. “What if I’m turning into a woman pig!?”

We walk to the bus stop and flag down the 214-J. I step on and run my Bilhete Unico card to pay admission. I’m about to run the card again for Zé but the driver steadies my wrist with the palm of his hand.

“No pets,” he says. His face is weathered by the sun on one side and yet still very pale. He has one toothpick sticking out between his thick lips and another tucked behind his ear, wet with the oil from his hair. “I don’t mean no difficulty, but it’s the way it is.”

“He’s not a pet,” I say. “He’s Zé Lacerda!”

The driver looks Zé up and down, taking in his pink flesh, hunched posture, and most noticeably his enormous snout. “He turning into a pig?”

“Yeah.”

“Pigs ain’t allowed neither.”

“He’s only half a pig!”

“Well that half needs to walk.”

So we walk. We follow the bus route into Avenue Sumaré. The asphalt curves like a gentle river. The bike lane is printed into the center of the meridian like a stripe on a candy cane. It was repainted just last month—bright red with white lines—but even in that short amount of time has faded with foot traffic, relentless sun and rain, and the black marks of bicycles and rogue motorcycles trying to find quick passage for a delivery. The neighborhood is safe for runners and cyclists, and Zé’s head turns at every woman in tight leggings that jogs by. An old man is spooked when Zé and I greet him, Zé with his trademark “brother” spoken in English instead of Portuguese, his little pink nose wiggling against his fattening cheeks and balding head. By the time we reach the overpass of the Sumaré metro line, Zé is on all fours. His spongy curls are falling like black snow. His shirt is flapping in the wind like a cape and his sandals are long gone. His feet, half hoof at this point, are slick with grime and the juices of mulberries freshly fallen from the occasional trees that manage to spring to life in early September.

I grab his discarded pants and wrap the legs around my waist like a belt. “You weren’t wearing any underwear?”

Zé tilts his head and winks.

We reach the wall of the São Paulo Cemetery. The walls are high, crowned with razor wire, so we can’t see the ornate gravestones and tiny mausoleums inside. We walk around the rectangular perimeter three full times before realizing we’ve been taking right turns instead of left turns. We’ve wasted about thirty-five minutes. We both make fun of each other for being the stupid one. We turn around and start counting again. One left. Two lefts. Three lefts.

“I’m hungry, man.” My stomach gurgles. I had to wake up at five in the morning to work the breakfast and early lunch shift in the kitchen of the Yuca Brava. The restaurant serves the upper-middle class and sometimes tourists, so there’s no reason I get paid so little. Good food, too. Duck confit and toast. Moqueca made from Amazonian freshwater fish. Saffron this and black truffle that. My legs are tired. They always are.

“It’s Wednesday,” Zé says. “We could get some feijoada.”

Feijoada is a Brazilian food with a long history, although I don’t know much about all that. I just know it tastes good and it’s cheap. A slow-cooked stew made of beans and any part of the animal you might not consider eating if it were outside of the feijoada.

“It would be cannibalism if you ate the feijoada,” I tell Zé. “They use every part of the pig.”

“My mouth is used to eating other people,” he says.

We make the fourth left turn and pass a dead chicken, ceremonially killed by one of the fringe religions that’s woven into the tapestry of Brazil. The smell of the decaying bird quells my appetite.

“Maybe we should just take you to the hospital instead of all this.”

“The hospital? I’m in perfect health, brother. What I need is a beer.”

The mention of beer dries my mouth. For a second I consider abandoning our mission, ordering a drink instead.

We finish the sixth left turn. The area has changed. Instead of the one-way street we passed countless times before, there is now a thin alley, curving like a blade. A street sign, cocked in the wrong direction from what must have been a car smashing into the base, indicates that this is Beco da Bruxa. The backs of poor apartments are alley walls. Garbage baskets along the street overflow with plastic bags from convenient stores reused for waste. At the end of the alley is a boteco—a small Brazilian bar that has the accessibility of a gas station and the food of a street vendor—with the faded words DONA MARIANA on the green awning. The opening of the boteco is big enough for two cars, providing full view of its shallow interior. Inside is a tiled floor and a single countertop with three barstools. There are plastic tables and chairs on the sidewalk, obnoxiously yellow, branded by national beer companies, a man asleep at one of them. The left side of the counter has a glass display of fried food. Zé and I each order a coxinha—potato puree filled with shredded chicken, then battered and deep fried. We also order a glass of beer each. I sip mine slowly from an “American”-style cup while Zé laps from a red plastic bowl provided by the worker.

After I’m satisfied I finally manage to ask, “Do you do curses here?”

The man behind the counter is thick, both in fat and muscle, and his skin is wet with sweat and grease and anything else. He looks sixty. He doesn’t answer, just nods. He wipes his hands on a dishrag and walks through the swing-door to the back. “Dona Mariana!” His yell is both fatherly and business-like.

Dona Mariana walks out. She’s sixteen, maybe seventeen, and bone thin. Pale. Her hair is dark and dyed darker, her lips conveying rebellion while also pouting. But she lacks no confidence and walks directly up to the counter. The logo from Jurassic Park peeks out from beneath her apron like an inelegant sunrise. She leans over the counter and looks down at Zé who is greedily licking the sides of his empty bowl. 

“Ugly pig.”

“That’s just Zé Lacerda,” I say. “He’s always ugly, but not always a pig.”

“Yup. Transformation spell. Contextual.”

“Contextual?”

She lets out a heavy sigh like she’s never been more bored in her life. I suspect it’s just for show. “Yeah. Lazy people become pigs. Greedy people become frogs. Cowards become pigeons.” She motions outside, past my face, where a few grey birds hop around the garbage. “Lots of pigeons in this city.”

Zé kicks the bowl aside. “But... the notary at the 19th registry said I was gonna be a pig. It was on the paper. How?”

“We always mark pig,” she says. She drums her pitch-black nails against the countertop, an arpeggio of boredom. “Gets the bureaucracy done faster. No one really cares, it’s São Paulo.”

Zé stands on his hind legs and struggles to perch his chubby face on the stool beside me. “I’m a pig because of destiny, brother. Because I’m lazy, you believe that?” He smiles, an unnerving contortion of pig muscles with human lips. “I wonder what I’d have to do to become an alligator!”

I ask if she knows who is responsible.

“I can’t reveal clients, you should know that.” She scowls, pure teenage anger. “We’d never get new customers.”

“Is there a way to... make it stop?”

She closes her eyes and points over her shoulder. In the corner of the boteco is a small barrel on a stack of beer crates, oriented sideways. It has a tap, plugged. There are two shot glasses on either side, empty and dusty. On top is a snake skin, coiled, dry, white as bone. “That pinga can cure animal transformation, but it costs 150 reais per shot.” 

“150 reais for a shot of pinga!?” Zé looks offended. Pinga is the hard alcohol of Brazil, a style of rum made from pure sugar cane juice, usually cheap and effective. Never worth 150 reais for even a full bottle. “No way I’m paying that much for pinga. Five reais, okay?”

“It’s been aged twelve years and it’s from Minas, so it’s really good stuff,” she assures us, opening one eye. “Also... like, it cures pig.”

Zé is about to leave but Dona Mariana makes another proposition.

“If you give me your ear, I’ll cast a revenge spell. It’s the best I can do.”

“What do you mean... my ear?”

“Don’t do it, Zé,” I say. “She’s gonna make you feijoada.” I look into the glass food case hoping I won’t find any deep-fried pig ears.

“An ear like yours is rich for spells,” she says. “Pig ear, human blood. Good for making the stick rise. Worth a lot to certain politicians.” She walks towards the back area, then turns before entering the swing door. “A revenge spell. For one ear. Take it or leave it.”

“She’s messing with you, Zé. This is how Hans and Gretel got turned into gingerbread!”

“I have one ear too many as it is,” he says with a wink, and trots to her heel.

I break a 100-real bill and order another little beer. The man behind the counter serves me and disappears to the back room. Ten minutes pass. Squeals. High-pitched, desperate. They even sound like Zé, despite being animal in nature. I stay seated. I have never been good at confrontation. Then I hear the pig swearing, calling the girl nasty names no one deserves to be called, so I know he’s all right.

We leave after a saideira—a gratuity “exit” drink that is custom in Brazil—Zé with a big wet bandage on his right ear. The alley is dark now, the sun down.

“Aren’t you in pain?”

“Yeah,” Zé squeals. “I didn’t expect that skinny little brat to be so good with a knife. But they always are, eh?”

I don’t bother to ask what he means by that. “Aren’t you worried about having one ear?”

“Remember that old science cartoon? They grow back on pigs.”

We exit Beco da Bruxa through the only road, the same way we entered. The area is different. It’s nowhere near the cemetary. We’re now up north more than five kilometers, near the river Tietê. The smell of feces and detritus is almost overwhelming. Zé’s snout twitches wildly as he digs up and swallows a piece of trash (at least I think it’s trash) from beside a sapling.

“It’s not all bad,” Zé says after he swallows. “I got good news, too. That mini-witch back there was talking to the other guy—her boss or dad or whatever. I know who did this to me.”

“Who?”

“I heard her say she needs to make that revenge spell for my brother! You believe that asshole?”

“Diego?”

“Diego... or, more likely, Gabriel. One of those assholes.” Zé has two brothers, both older, and neither from the rich foreign father who left Zé his meager inheritance. “I owe Gabriel money. I out-drank him one night and I had to be dragged home. He picked up the bill. He’s been hissing at me ever since. Could be him.”

I agree that Gabriel’s a possibility. “We going to pay him a visit?”

“My hooves are tired.” Zé lifts a foot. “Are these hooves?” They’re black and cracked from all the walking along the cement. Traces of blood.

It’s dark and the streetlights are on. We walk around a corner where the lamps are hidden by the overgrowth of tall, thick trees that look like pieces of stretched gum. The wind of the valley blows cold enough to make me wish I had a jacket, then stops exactly at a warmth enough to make me wish I had no shirt at all.

“What do you think he’ll turn into?” Zé oinks. He is now fully a pig. No shirt, no shoes, no pants, his body rounded with little white hairs, almost transparent, but mildly reflective in the light of the passing cars.

I’m unsure how to answer. “Your brother, you mean? Gabriel?”

“Hopefully he’ll turn into an alligator. No, a... a... what’s something a pig would hunt and kill?”

“A truffle?

“Yeah, make that asshole a truffle! I’ll chase him around, ha!” Zé is trotting now, his little chest puffed like he just won a soccer match. “What’s a truffle?”

Before I can answer, two teenagers run by, one of them grabbing Zé by the waist and yanking him under his arm. They are laughing. Maybe they’re thieves, or just teens having fun, or maybe they’re high on drugs. I stop for half a second, unable to register what just happened.

I yell, “What the hell do you need a pig for, you shits!?”

I run close behind them, maybe ten meters, following the high-pitched squeal. One teen hops on a bicycle with no gears or seat, takes Zé from the other, and with his free hand on the handlebars coasts down the street. The second culprit jumps onto his back like a backpack. The teens are lanky, too big for the bike, yet by some practiced circus miracle they maintain balance as they speed into the darkness of Avenue Macedo Soares.

I don’t stop. After what seems like hours of running (probably minutes) I turn hard right. I assume they’re going to go south rather than cross the river, or somewhere with less traffic, to lay low. My only chance is to try to cut them off through the industrial storage areas and service roads. I run by parked cars, gated buildings with no markings, a group of homeless people, carts of trash. I’m beneath Avenue Antártica. The overpass is a dark ceiling. The smell of piss. A lost community of the poor and helpless. Graffiti of the current president kissing Uncle Sam in a full, emotional embrace, with his pants around his ankles and his advisors wearing blindfolds made of the Brazilian flag. I chuckle at the impeccable art of the greatest city, the Land of Mist. I trip on a curb and smash my head against a half-empty bottle of Velho Barreiro cachaça.

Time passes. It’s impossible to tell how much. The sky darkens but the light of the city fights against it. Maybe no time has passed at all. The cement smells like sewer water and something wet is sniffing my face.

“Who is saving who here?” Zé is above me.

I sit up and rub my head. My hand returns with a dark glistening, maybe blood. “You escaped?”

“I bit the fuckers. One on the hand and the other on the ankle. Kids are shit, but... they were having fun so I can’t condemn them.”

“Your side is bleeding.”

“Road rash. From when the bike fell.” Zé licks his side, then licks some liquid drizzling from the alcohol bottle that acted as my unwanted pillow. “You can’t steer a bike with a pig gum-deep in your finger, hehe.” He chokes a little and spits out the tip of a thumb, as long as a cork. “I guess I bit harder than I thought!”

We both laugh until our stomachs feel empty and tight.

I repurpose his pants into a harness and hold Zé against my chest. Luckily he isn’t a fat pig, as far as pigs go. He’s more like a little dog. His human scrawniness apparently carries over into pig form.

“We haven’t had an adventure like this in years,” I say.

“I feel like shit and you call this an adventure?” He chuckles. “We should do this more often.”

We walk for another forty minutes, slow and silent. The adrenaline has worn off and now I’m just an exhausted bag of flesh shuffling down the street with my porcine roommate wrapped like a newborn baby. There’s only one star visible—maybe a planet—in the lit layer of overcast and car emissions, a white sheet that emits its own phantom brightness that deepens the darkness in the sky beyond and the streets below. Ronaldo has shuttered the newstand. A group of old men are playing dominoes in the opening of a distant boteco, a TV above them with today’s game.

I fish the keys from Zé’s pants-turned-harness and practically fall through the door to our apartment. I drop the pig on the floor and he waddles to the couch. He leaves behind muddy pig-prints on the white tile. My shirt is ruined with dirt and sweat and blood and grime.

I take a deep breath. “Maybe we should clean up before we...?”

Zé stretches along the length of a cushion. “Brother, I’m tired as hell and beat up. And a pig. I need to relax a minute.” He grips the TV remote in his scissor hoof and fiddles with the buttons until soccer is on. Palmeiras vs. São Paulo. He burps. 

“Maybe it’s better you stay like that, all small.” I toss a ragged sheet behind him hoping he’ll use it to protect the couch, but he doesn’t take his eyes off the screen. “Less mess.”

“Just don’t eat me for breakfast,” he snorts. “Even if I stay a pig, I’ll get the last laugh. I paid my best ear to send this curse back to whichever brother thinks he’s so damned funny. My best ear!”

I go to the bathroom. The gash on my head is small, more blood than actual damage. I smell like a clogged sink. It was a long day. I take off my shirt and a few grey feathers fall out. Bird feathers. A couple are growing in my arm pits, and I let out a gasp that sounds a lot like a coo.

Zé oinks from the other room. “Shower later! You’re missing the game!”

I concede. I can’t muster the courage to say anything, to explain myself. I’m a coward. A traitor. A fool! I sit beside him, stroking his soft scalp, careful not to disturb the leaky bandage on his missing ear.

“That feels nice, brother,” he says.

We finish watching the soccer match in silence while I wonder if male pigeons lay eggs.




------------



Recent Posts

See All

Comments


bottom of page