We were sleeping the first time we heard the alarms. We woke up in fright and went to the window. The alarms came from somewhere in the middle of the city, somewhere near the fire. Later we heard a continuous, mechanical roar circulating in the sky and sometimes vanishing in cycles. The sound grew louder and louder, then it seemed to be inside our house. The room was shaking and our parents came running down the stairs. We looked at the city and there it was, the huge helicopter pouring water over buildings consumed by flames.
Our house stood at the top of the hill. From up there we could see the city and the river. At night the city was lit by yellow and red lamps. By day it seemed to be surrounded by a translucent haze. We stood at the window, staring at the city. Our parents did not take us there and we never understood why. Over there, we knew it, there were amusement parks, candy stores, and movie theaters.
The next day everything was normal again. In the morning we played cards and at night we watched the news. But when the journalists started talking about the fire, threatening us with groundbreaking, new information, that’s when our mother took the remote. She turned off the television and sent us to bed. We lied down and closed our eyes, but we didn’t sleep. Still we could hear the muffled voices of journalists talking about last night’s disaster.
The alarms rang once more that week and again at night. But this time no helicopter appeared in the sky. The flames spread rapidly from one building to the other and we heard a massive explosion. The fire lasted all night and only stopped burning the next morning, when there was nothing left to burn.
It was then that the first of them appeared. Suit and tie covered in ashes, his face full of scratches. He was slowly approaching our house, hugging the leather briefcase where he kept all of his personal belongings. When he saw us, he asked to speak to our father. He said he was a lawyer and that he needed help. The city, the entire city, had been destroyed. I just want a place to sleep, he said. Our father was willing to help him as long as the lawyer worked for it. Since we were not involved in legal imbroglios, our father offered him to look after our kitchen garden. We still did not have a kitchen garden, of course, so our father asked the man to cultivate one.
The gardener wore flannel shirt and jeans and worked from six in the morning to five in the afternoon. After work, he would fall on a pile of leaves and sleep there until sunrise. Inside his briefcase, among letters and contracts and bills, there was a cell phone, a photo album, and a flashlight. We took the flashlight and the phone to play. We left him with only the photographs.
Throughout that week, three more appeared. An engineer, a pharmacist and an artist. Their clothes were covered with ashes and they wanted a place to sleep. Since we did not need bridges, drugs, or beautiful paintings at the time, our father offered them to take care of the garden’s irrigation system. We still did not have an irrigation system, of course, so our father asked them to build one.
The three men joined the gardener. That week they erected walls of cardboard and garbage bags around the piles of leaves. Each of them slept in a cubicle. Sometimes, when the weather was cold, they cuddled each other. That week we got new toys: pencils, notebooks, test tubes, canvases, and brushes.
Two weeks later, there were seven men living and working in our yard. They took care of our vegetables, managed the irrigation system, and set up cages for birds and small rodents. That’s when our father asked them to build a wall around the hill. He said our house was an oasis of prosperity in the neighborhood. Who knows what could happen if we stood exposed and unprotected? There was so much going on, so many people fleeing from the destroyed city. They had nothing left and now they wanted what we worked to achieve. The workers argued cautiously with our father. They had come from the destroyed city and never did anything wrong. They worked hard. That’s when our father got emotional and said: you no longer belong to the destroyed city, but to this family.
For ten days the workers took turns on long trips along the riverbank. From there, they brought rocks to be broken and stacked around the hill. It took them another fifteen days to finish the wall. When the construction was completed, our father placed a chair next to the wall and asked a man to stay on guard. Tell anyone passing by they are about to trespass forbidden area. That man used to be a doctor.
At night, our father announced a celebration. The wallmaking was done., We were now safe and should be happy. He killed a chicken, which our mother roasted and served with some vegetables from the garden. We and our parents had a wonderful evening and the giblets were offered to the workers.
In exchange for the food, they washed our dishes.
Matheus Borges was born in the city of Porto Alegre, southern Brazil, and studied Filmmaking at Unisinos, where he specialized in screenwriting and animation. His stories have appeared in several Brazilian literary journals, such as Sexus, Gueto and Subversa.
You can find him online on Medium, where he writes about film, music and art: @matheusmedeborg