“The Boat That Doesn’t Float”

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1He could still vividly remember the first time he’d seen his home: the sun, the summer, those who’d come there before him. He, who had grown up swimming in the ice-cube clear waters of the north, found the warm water of the dark lagoon irresistible.

A champion-triathlete-turned-angoleiro2, he’d forget the words of that old mestre: If one foot is doing a cakewalk, the other foot is stepping in dogshit. He watched the skinny, black boys diving into the water, doing his best to imitate them with his wide, pale frame.

And so many ropes seemed to drag him under, to the bottom. Wake up! I’m up! Mud, rags: like so much food brought before her. The water that fell as rain, that water of the sea, the brackish water of the lagoon. Voices, echoes of laments, of suffering. He couldn’t resist any longer, he fell into the arms of Zumbá3, who welcomed yet another stranger to her table.

When it was all over and the waters calm again, the work of the crabs began, whose job it was to prepare his body for the feast.

(translated from the Portuguese by J.P. Gritton with Courtney Crumpler)


1 The original title of this piece, Jangada é pau que boia, refers to an idiomatic expression whose literal translation is: “a jangada (a type of small, masted fishing boat common in northern Brazil) is wood that floats.” The expression is used to observe the glaring obviousness of a thing. As the author clarifies in a personal correspondence, “There are certain types of wood suitable for the construction of boats. A jangada is an old-fashioned type of boat (uma espécie embarcação bem rústica) that floats.” The inverse (nem tudo que bóia é jangada – not everything that floats is a jangada) is also a common expression.
2 i.e., a practitioner of Capoeira Angola, a martial dance developed by enslaved peoples living in Brazil.
3 One of the names for one of the goddesses of the Angola-Congo pantheon. According to candomblé tradition, Zumbá presides over a primordial “mud” and lives at the bottom of a lake.