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new internationalist
issue 254 - April 1994

Biu's daughter Mercea
All photos on this page: Nancy Scheper-Hughes

The spirit-child
No-one blamed Biu for being out enjoying Carnival
when her daughter Mercea died.

Sister in grief: 'beautiful fat' Patricia. Of my three closest friends, Antonieta, Lordes and Biu, only Biu made an effort to play carnaval, though I did not meet up with her in the streets. Like her I soon got lost, swallowed up in the crush of bodies that followed the ‘Gypsies’ and the ‘Dames’ up and down and around the length and breadth of Bom Jesus.

The next time we met, carnaval was over and we were hurriedly assembled at the home of Antonieta to prepare little Mercea’s body for burial. She had died of pneumonia on her way to the hospital the night before. Biu was in a state of shock at the death of her child. Pelzinha had eloped, run off with her 15-year-old boyfriend. Xoxa, Mercea’s older sister and surrogate mother, was still away working on a banana plantation. Lordes was too preoccupied with her husband’s accident to respond to the call to her niece’s wake. A few of her children were sent in her place. Antonieta took charge of the preparations.

Sisters in grief at Mercea's funeral. The question that was foremost on everyone’s mind that day was ‘Why did Mercea die?’. Was it because Xoxa was away from her small charge? Was it because the child was never ‘well attended’ in the local hospital and municipal clinic? Was it because the remédios purchased at Feliciano’s pharmacy were the wrong ones? Was it because the municipal ambulance was just a little too late, the driver still groggy from playing carnaval the night before? Or was it because Mercea never really had a knack for life?

But at least no-one blamed Biu. They affirmed her right to brincar and gozar, to take some small pleasure in the life of the festival.

With Oscar, Pelzinha and Mercea gone from her life, Biu fell onto particularly hard times. She began to drink and she stopped eating. Food ‘tasted like dust’, she complained. She spent some time hospitalized with a severe attack of nervoso. Finally she cut her long hair, trimmed and painted her fingernails and took a job as a live-in domestic in Recife.

Surrogate mother Xoxa. Biu’s runaway daughter, Pelzinha, eventually came home and gave birth to a beautiful little baby girl with straight, dark hair. I put a gold figa around her wrist for protection. When Xoxa returned home from the plantation she grieved deeply. It specially bothered her that her sister was buried without stockings. For several weeks Xoxa was awakened by apparitions of Mercea hovering over her cot pointing to her bare feet.

Some time later Xoxa purchased a pretty pair of white stockings from a stall at the open-air market, but when we reached the cemetery we could no longer locate Mercea’s grave. It had been cleared and the space reused by an unlucky pair of twin infants. Mercea’s remains were thrown into the bone depository at the west wall of the cemetery. I comforted the weeping Xoxa, reminding her that Mercea was now a spirit-child and that Xoxa could bury the stockings in a small mound next to the bone depository where Mercea could easily find them.

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