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All written in impact-like font, capital letters, her name in cerulean, the text in black, the number in red, and the shadows in bright, mustard yellow. This kind of announcement is common in the entire town as marketing for all sorts of services and stores, mostly in posters glued to posts or painted on walls, so the gaudiness of it can be easily overlooked. At distance, actually, the house looks pretty bland: underneath the rough white paint, the wall is made of bricks and cement, and the lower part is stained by moss and dirt. Treetops appear from behind, and a small door is seen in the middle.
Trembling, Maju looks around. She’s heard of Cuca before, she’s even holding a ripped poster with the same sayings as the painting, only printed in cheap monochrome instead. She’s never come this far before, though, always out of fear. “No one messes with Cuca,” she overheard a kid saying at school, during lunch break. “Even politicians fear her. She can do anything. Also,” he added, talking and chewing, “some people say she has an alligator head”.
And there she is, twelve years old in a month and a half, green bicycle in one hand, and the pamphlet in the other. It took a forty-minute ride on a massive dirt road with a few dry trees around, only to find a vast property outside of their little town. Spooky. Maju folds the piece of paper and puts it back in the pocket of her white t-shirt.
All of that to prove to some superstitious classmates that a fortuneteller has a normal human body. Alright. She might as well do the entire job, then.
Maju walks to the grated front gate, looks at the small camera, and rings the bell.
– Mama Cuca, readings and services?—It’s a masculine voice, and she wants to run back home, before considering it might be the secretary.
– Ah… Um, I called yesterday,—she stutters, painfully aware of how childish her voice is sounding. Her sneakers are white and pink, to fit the rest of her garment: a cotton t-shirt with two small pockets over her hip bones, a white hippie skirt covering her bony knees, and a school backpack. Under the skirt, she’s also wearing pink shorts, but they hardly show.—I have an appointment for Maria Júlia.
– Card reading for Maria Júlia. I’m opening the gate.
Cuca is a weird name for a fortuneteller. Anyone in Brazil has already heard that noun, either because of the coffee cake, or the folkloric monster. An old witch with an alligator body and the most terrifying mood, willing to take badly behaved children away from their parents. Maju opens the door after hearing the click. Her dad used to sing her a lullaby about the creature, something along these lines: sleep, baby / or the Cuca will get you / Daddy went to the field / and Mommy’s off to work.
Chuckling, the girl is already inside, front gate locked. The house has only one floor, and is prettier than its outside, with creamy walls and a roof made of bricks. Not the most welcoming place, for sure, but better. It’s surrounded by low grass, with palm, guava and lime trees. Maju parks her bicycle against a trunk, and runs to the man waiting outside.
– Um, hi.—Maju attempts a polite smile, showing parts of her tiny teeth. She’s not particularly tall for her age, but the man is almost her size, with the exception of width. He’s brawny, with broad shoulders, slim waist and thick arms, very muscular and tanned, looking orange-brown.
– Mama Cuca is waiting for you,—he says, looking like someone who takes his job very seriously for a bald, shirtless man who answers the telephone for a Tarot reader. Maju’s palms are sweating when he points to the open door.—You first, miss.
– Well, um, sure.—Maju holds her backpack fiercely. The man has been nothing but courteous , but the situation frightens her, as it goes against every single motherly rule of not talking to strange men nor going too far away alone.—And you are?
– Ricardo. Assistant,—he adds, as if trying to prove something. His eyebrows are very bushy and black, and curl when he says the word. Inside, the living room has two sofas covered with textured sheets for clients to wait comfortably. Ricardo has a desk of his own, with two telephones, a computer, a printer, and even a smartphone. He sits on the office chair, and begins to type.—You’re pretty young to be here, aren’t you?
– I’m not.—Her words are quick, although he isn’t aggressive at all. Rather, he sounds sympathetic. It’s still very weird to talk to someone barely dressed.—I mean, I am, but I’m not. Too young, I mean, just… young.
– No judgment.—Ricardo’s baldness shines a little bit under the warm reflection of the sun entering through the window. The entire house smells like incense.—If you’re here, it must be something important. Cuca is very picky with her clients.
Not really. The thought crosses Maju’s mind, as a euphoric reassurance of her skepticism. She is convinced that stories of monsters and inhuman powers are child’s play—and twelve is hardly a child, right?—even when a small tickling of nervousness is rolling down her neck. That’s what Mom says, at least. At twelve, you need some maturity, and she is putting that knowledge into practice.
Besides, discovering something huge like magic (or lack of it) will surely put her in the spotlight, at least in class. Making friends is hard when everyone already has a clique, and all the boys and girls have been obsessed with meeting Cuca, without any success.
– What kind of person is Mama Cuca?—The question causes Ricardo to chuckle and rest his large hands over the purple velvet covering the table.
Next to his computer, there are small statues of saints: the dark Our Lady of Aparecida with her crown and blue cloak, a scarlet devil-like man with a hat, and a laughing woman wearing only a small piece of red loincloth. The last two are Exu and Pomba Gira, very similar to the statues her mother also has at home. Maju is used to the imagery, because the building they own is divided in three different floors. Upstairs, where the family lives. The main store, focused on selling religious artifacts for Umbanda and Candomblé, like candles for rituals, herbal baths, statuettes, and musical instruments. And, finally, downstairs in the basement, the temple they use at night and during the weekends.
Maju was raised there; her mother has been the mãe-de-santo, the main priestess, since before Maju was born, and puts in a lot of effort to keep the belief alive in their town. The temple is always full, and Maju is eager to help in her free time, impressed by the chanting, the dancing, and the usual ceremonies for different entities. They never allow her to participate in the Exu and Pomba Gira rituals, though, claiming that she is still too young for that.
– Oh, you’ll see.
– And, um, I… Do I need to pay now?
– Don’t worry about that.—Ricardo is playing with the smartphone now. Maju stops squeezing the panda-shaped purse inside her backpack.—It’s like Cuca always says. “The client will know the price after the results.”
– But it’s not too expensive, right? I don’t…
She is going to say more and explain details of her monthly allowance, but a deep, disembodied voice interrupts her:
– Maria Júlia? Mmmmariiiiiaaa Jjúúúúliiiaaa, I’m waiting for you…
Ricardo makes a sign for her to go, pointing to an entrance with a thin curtain as a door. Maju waves yes, getting up. Before entering, she breathes in, and fixes her hair. Her light brown afro was combed into a high and puffy ponytail by her mother earlier in the day, making some tight ringlets pop over the top of her head. The rest of the hair, the part that had been pulled back so much it hurt, is braided. The man seems to notice she’s nervous, and he smiles reassuringly in a way that reminds her of her dad. Alright, she thinks, slapping her own round cheek, a couple of tones darker than her eyes and curls, here I come.
– I’m going!—she shrieks, noticing now how scared she truly is. “My aunt says she sold her soul to the Devil,” Maju remembers her classmate saying, making gestures with the hands to imitate horns. “That’s why she has powers now. Powers… And that head.”
The sneakers make a plastic sound, and the lace of her skirt brushes against the Bermuda shorts underneath. Maju trembles, but she swallows her fear, and walks through the curtain.
A wave of smoke hits her in the face, a mixture of garlic, rue, gully root, rosemary, and a little bit of common cigarette. Quickly, in the fog, she realizes it’s coming from a silver object hanging from the ceiling. She still can’t see Mama Cuca, only a shadow behind the white and gray remainders of incense. Maju feels the synthetic rug under her shoes, and uses one of her hands—the one that’s not holding the strap of her backpack—to flap the air, trying to breathe.
– Maria Júlia…—The penetrating voice of Mama Cuca fills the entire environment, making it seem smaller, caging her with smoke, furniture and walls.—Maria Júlia Salles… Your mother and your father call you Maju, little Maju, don’t they? Can I call you that, too?
Maju freezes. Her knees don’t respond to her brain’s pleas for action, and her lungs burn from the incense. I’m used to this, she thinks, narrowing her close-set eyes, trying to ignore what seems to be a crocodile-like form on the other side. We always have incense at home. Suddenly, the smoke is not as thick anymore, and she starts to see the room.
– Um, yes… I mean, of course!—Maju walks forward, seeing a flashy armchair in front of a round table. All the windows are covered by dense drapes, and candles are the only things illuminating her room.—Hi.
And there is Cuca. No giant alligator head, no sign of demonic activities, no supernatural element to it. Just a woman—but a very big one, indeed. Mama Cuca, as she sees, is sitting behind the table and surrounded by images of the most different entities: Catholic saints, a very cheap Buddha statuette, two white maneki-nekos, and an impressive collection of different Exu and Pomba Gira made out of painted plaster. The whole setting makes her look somewhat unreliable and fake. There are lit incenses and candles of all colors on the floor, close to the straw armchair she’s sitting on.
As for her, she is large in every sense. Her limbs are plump, her fingers are stubby, her neck is wide and short with a fold in the middle, her chest is hefty, her belly broad and inflated, without a single flap appearing under the shoulderless top. Instead, her whole body looks hard and strong, like she could choke a bull with her bare hands. More than that, Mama Cuca is tall, adding to the perception of her bigness, even when sitting down. Her hair, dyed a very yellow blonde, looks like cooked noodles falling over her shoulders, covered partially by a pink turban with an artificial flower in the front. Her exposed orange-white skin is marked by considerable decades and freckled by the sun, but it’s hard to define her correct age.
– Sit down, doll,—she purrs, pointing to the other chair with her absurdly long and pointy nails. Her toes are also claw-like, and equally painted with rose polish and rhinestones. Maju has been avoiding eye contact so far, but when she looks up, she finally sees more of Cuca’s face. Her eyes are piercing and amber, with blue eyeliner adorning the lower eyelid. The eyebrows are nonexistent, and have been replaced by brown, arched tattoos. Cuca is not pretty, but she is, most definitely, terrifying, alligator head or not.
– Um, sure.—The little girl obeys. Her head is hurting from the tight ponytail, but the pain makes her feel safer.
– Want a coffee, darling? Cappuccino? A soda, maybe? Oh, I bet you like guarana better than coke, don’t you?—She does, it’s true; she’s never liked cola as much as she likes the national soft drink. Maju waves her head, and the hair moves with her.— Jorge… Jorge!
Another man appears, dressed in a similar fashion to Ricardo. Unlike the secretary, he is neither short nor bald, and has dark finger coils falling over his forehead. But, like Ricardo, he only wears trousers, and his skin is shiny from being outside.
– Bring our little friend a can of guarana, yes, dear? Oh, and tell Ricardo to open the front door. The afternoon breeze is bliss.
While Cuca talks, Maju pays attention to small details: the tie-dye pattern of her top, the silicon straps of her bra sinking into her skin, the tacky butterfly tattoo on the back of her leg, the feet-long skirt draped in a way that shows up to her knee. When Jorge is gone, she looks back to Maju.
– Maju, why are you here?—It’s funny how something said in such a soft voice can sound so threatening. The tiny curls of her nape rise in a shiver. Cuca picks up a box of cigars, and puts one in the middle of her yellowed teeth. If she could get closer, she would smell the specific scent of tobacco, similar to the ones used in rituals.—What goes through that little head of yours?
Mama Cuca is looking at her, no, into her; she’s opening a hole through her mild brown eyes. In return, Maju smiles. The woman uncovers the table, throwing the cloth over the arm of her own chair, and brushing the statues aside. Underneath, there is a carved wood plate with white and brown cowrie-shells, and a battered Tarot deck. The way she keeps everything seems to be skipping all the rules Maju knows of divination, but Cuca doesn’t care.
– Ah, I’m here for… a reading?—Her voice is unsure, and her short nails, the result of prolonged nail-biting, scratch the fabric of her skirt, pulling it up accidentally and showing the lower part of the long pink shorts, along with her scrawny knees.—Just, like, um… in general?
– I see. A reading it is, then.—One of Cuca’s hand covers the cowries, and then throws them on the table with no kind of preparation. The other touches the deck. This is all wrong, Maju thinks, with rules yelling behind her eyes. What is she doing? What is she, really, because even the Tarot makes no sense. She is mixing cowries and cards, she’s not shuffling the latter, she’s just casting them together.—Maria Júlia Salles da Cunha, only daughter of Regina Salles Rossa and Antenor Soares da Cunha. Born September 2nd… A Virgo, I like that…
Maju’s untouched eyebrows curl, almost creating a single line with the help of the hair that has been growing between them in the last year.
– How do you know all of that?
– I know your parents, doll. Good ol’ Regina is weary of the likes of me, has been tellin’ the whole town to keep away from my house. Ever since that occasion, years ago…—Another deep, husky laugh. Maju wants to know more, wants to ask how they met, but she’s unsure if that counts as part of the appointment.—And Antenor, darling man… Oh, Jorge, you took too long! Poor little Maju would die of thirst, if it was for you! Did Ricardo distract you again with those silly videos? He’s obsessed with the cat ones, I’m telling you.
Maju didn’t see Jorge entering the room through the smoke. He smiles at Cuca’s comment, putting a glass of guarana with plastic ice cubes in front of her. They are shaped after fruits, of two different colors. She thanks him, but he is already gone.
– You were telling me about Dad…
– Oh, yes, Daddy has to keep his two eyes open. Tell him to drop the salt, maybe start a diet. Actually…—She raises one hand to the air, and Maju swears she is seeing the incense burn a gray figure that looks like her father, choking, his hand grasping his own chest. Then, it’s gone.—A cardiologist would be the wisest choice, I’d say. Or in two years, your Father’s Day might be a tad lonely, know what I mean?
Horrified, Maju bobs her head. Not that she believes in it too much, but there is something about Cuca that is starting to feel painfully real.
– Old Regina is not leaving you alone lately, is she?—Cuca continues, and the guarana pops bubbles against the glass and the plastic grapes. The turban she wears is really badly done, Maju considers. It looks as if she pulled it back, and now it covers only a small part of her head.—The only peace you get at home is when you’re out, because Mommy is always complaining about everything you do. You need to study, you need to do the dishes, you need to act your age… Always so picky, ain’t she?
– Ye-yes…—she agrees. The last year and a half have been unbearable, in many aspects, to the point where the only time she’s not fighting with Mom is during holidays, celebrations and at the temple. Then, they can have fun like before, but in daily life, she seems to have switched from mother-of-a-child to mother-of-a-teenager pretty quickly.—How…?
– Cuca sees everything, darling doll.—She points her fingers to her forehead, scratching her skin with her long nails.—Nothing hides from Cuca. And, you’re angry, aren’t you? Normal for your age, and worse! You feel lonely. Not talking to anyone at school, only listening. Hard to make friends, is it?
– Very hard.—Maju looks down. She has to wake up six in the morning every day to get ready for school, and all her being yells against it. No one mistreats her there, but they don’t talk to her either, and she feels invisible, like furniture, like part of the cracked walls.—I don’t know why. Maybe I’m just not interesting enough?
– Ah, worry not.—Cuca blows out one of the candles, and the room gets darker. Maju can see the shape of her own head on the wall: the round forehead, the full ponytail.—This will change. Not if Daddy gets sick, though; if our friend Antenor mishandles his health, you will only grow angrier, and lonelier. Your upsetting mother will be even pickier, even more impatient. Ah, child, this won’t work out, no. You all need harmony.
– But how? How is it going to change? I don’t think I can do anything.—Maju’s body feels weak, but the sugar in the carbonated drink helps her go back to normal.—Mama, I don’t know what to do.
– Oh, but that’s why you’re here, isn’t it, Maju?—Her voice seems to resonate inside her chest, like the bells of a church.—You want to prove yourself. And you’re right, darling doll. Coming here, you will. You will gain friends, and popularity. I can’t say your mother will be proud, but you don’t really care about that right now, do you?
It’s true, she thinks, forgetting her investigative purposes. I want them to be impressed. And I want Mom to know I’m not like her…
Shaky, Maju says yes. The smoke gets thicker. The fire is gone, excepting two candles. The room is completely black, until she looks up and sees the shadows on the wall. Cuca’s smiling face is waxy and unnatural, her painted mouth looks robotic, her eyes glow oddly.
And there it is, the thing she has been looking for and has failed to find so far. Down Cuca’s neck, she sees no double chin anymore, but a thick line that appears to be a scar. Squinting her eyes, Maju focuses on it, and finally notices the stitches.
– What did they tell you about me, little Maria Júlia?—Her pink nail touches one of them, and the skin up her neck is wrinkling.—What do their silly rumors say?
– That… Um… That you have…—Maju gulps, because technically nothing is wrong, nothing but her vision. Behind Cuca, her shadow is elongating, like a very lengthy snout…—That you’re much older than you look like…
– That much is true,—she cackles, and the lighting does not allow Maju to know for sure if her skin is changing color or not.—What else, baby? Tell Cuca.
– That you sold your soul to the devil.—Her guarana is bubbling more, and the table is trembling.—That you can go anywhere you want. Anywhere in time.
– Do you believe that?—The other’s smile is arrogant, and makes her face look even more like a silicon mask.—Do you believe I can?
– I didn’t,—she admits, and her palms are cold and sweaty. Maju feels like even if she wanted, she would not be able to run away.—I didn’t before, but…
– You didn’t before, and you wanted to come here to find proof, is that right? But things have changed.—A loud bam against the table, and the cowrie shells fall on the ground. Cuca is not mad, but now she stands up.—Skeptical little girl wanted to prove herself to her gullible little classmates, and sees now how wrong she was. Am I wrong, Maju? Tell me, I need to hear it from you.
Maju doesn’t answer. She squeezes the arm of the chair, and looks at Cuca, unsure of what to say. The woman moves slowly to diminish the space between them, and holds the child by the chin.
– Tell me, Maju.
– I’m scared.—Her voice is but a whimper, and the confession makes Cuca laugh.
– Of course you are. But you don’t need to be, doll.—The pointy part of Cuca’s nail is scratching her skin, making a white line in the brown surface. Maju closes her eyes.—Many things people say about me are true, you see, but some are not… And I’m not one to hurt others that did nothing to me. Why would I hurt you?
Maja had thought her hand would feel cold, but Cuca’s fingers are hot and alive, much unlike the image of her shadowed face.
– I don’t know, ma’am.
– Then tell mama: what else did they tell you?—Maju feels a warm breath against her nose, and it is nothing human, like when her mother gives her kisses; it feels more like a hungry animal.—What do they say about my face?
– I… I…
– Stuttering won’t get you any friends, Maju,—she advises softly, aware of how the girl’s body is trembling from head to toe.—You have to talk clear and loud. Take this as a lesson for life… If you can’t say it, open your eyes. Show you me you’re brave, and I’ll give you something great.
This time, she doesn’t doubt. She opens her big brown eyes, glistering with candlelight, and raises her chin to face her.
Mama Cuca is still there, cigar in hand, blond hair falling over round shoulders, top and skirt, belly appearing, enormous in height and weight. The only difference between before and now is the head, since the skin mask is on the floor, and a crocodile with large yellow eyes is staring right at her.
– Ambition can take you to fantastic and horrifying places, little Maju.—Cuca’s gigantic mouth is still grinning, displaying her sharp teeth. Her reptilian scales stop abruptly at the stitches of her neck, like someone had sewn them to her body with needle and thread.—I made my choice. Would you make yours? Do you want my help, or not?
Maju looks back at her, facing the black slit pupils, like a cat’s.
– Yes. Yes, I do, Mama.
She hears a low, pleased chuckle. The alligator leers at Maju, and her human hands pull out a few strands of yellow hair, before tying it around the girl’s wrist.
– Well, then. With this, you’ll have what you want. If someone touches it, they’ll have a glimpse of proof of what you have seen here. And when you’re in need of help, you’ll have a glimpse of my sight, too.
– But the payment…—Maju tries to get her backpack and the money she has in there. Cuca’s hand is still tight around her arm.
– Listen to me, Maria Júlia Salles. Listen to me very carefully. This,—the nails again, now pulling the golden strand up to show the wristband,—is a gift. My prices are high, higher than you’d be able to even think. It’s not only money that I take, it’s much more than that. But I am giving it to you out of free will, because I was once a nosy little bug, just like you.—Maju agrees, never even blinking, afraid to lose eye contact.—Remember that. When no one did, Cuca liked you, Maria Júlia. So appreciate a small present for your curiosity and ambition. Understand?
Euphoric, Maju beams, vibrating with the words. The crocodile is not smiling anymore.
– Next time you need something, though…—Her voice echoes in the entire room, and a minor earthquake seems to start under her feet, the shadows moving swiftly across the walls. Cuca’s yellow eyes gleam.—My price will be nowhere as moderate as the marketing I’m expecting you to do for me. Are we… understood?
– Yes! Yes, we are, Mama!
Everything stops. The soft breeze wafts the curtains into the room, and the windows are now open. All the candles have been extinguished, and the smoke is also gone. Cuca is back to her initial, average self.
– Good, then.—The woman smiles, appearing completely normal.—Great to do business with you. Jorge! Ricardo! Will you please show little miss Maju the exit?
Maju watches as Ricardo appears again, without any sign of being aware of abnormal activities inside the house.
– Thank you!—she bursts out, her ponytail bouncing at the sudden movement.—Mama Cuca, will I ever get to see you again?
Cuca stares at Ricardo and Jorge, both with a thoughtful and confused look. Then, the woman points to her own wrist.
– If we happen to not be in this town anymore, you can either use your gift, or try that little song your dad used to sing when you were a kid. What was it, again? Sleep, baby…
– Or Cuca will get you…—Maju sings too, the lullaby still fresh in her memory. Cuca laughs out loud.—Thank you again, Mama Cuca.
– Well, then. Farewell, little Maju. Ricardo, accompany the lady to the exit, and then bring me some cashew nuts and beer. It’s about time to catch up with my TV shows.
Ricardo sighs, tired of the orders, but obeys anyway. He walks to the same door Maju entered an hour ago, and she runs after him. Her bicycle is still parked there, close to the palm tree. With her backpack hanging from one shoulder, she hops onto the seat and puts her violet helmet on. After leaving, she looks down at her new wristband, wondering exactly what will happen next.