Inside the Belly of Brazil’s Mysticism

    Life for Lucille Bellucci began in Shanghai, China, where she grew up during WWII dodging bombs and, up until 1949, Chinese Communist street demonstrators. At 18, she landed in the interrogation room of the Communist secret police.

    Was she a spy for the Americans? they wanted to know. Who were her collaborators? Write their names down. Each day for six weeks she repeated her denials of spying. Finally, she made up names and addresses of fellow spies. Anything to get an exit visa for herself and her family.

    When this fiction became evident, she found herself in worse trouble than ever. The police threatened execution by firing squad. She had to sign a confession and apologize to the People’s Republic for her evil activities.

    Although Bellucci refused to sign, believing that martyrdom (she was 18 and Catholic) assured her of heaven, her picture and confession appeared in the newspaper anyway. Her Italian citizenship saved her from execution.

    In 1952, her family – parents and a sister – forthwith received their exit visas. Trouble was, each was allowed to carry 50 American dollars to start a new life in Italy. Even in a refugee camp in Catania, Sicily, that was a scanty grubstake. Her novel, Journey from Shanghai, was born of that experience.

    Bellucci’s looks beleaguered her throughout the five years she lived in Italy. Her father was Italian-Dutch-Indonesian, her mother Chinese. The Italians stared at "exotic" Bellucci, and her mother’s bound feet.

    Her emigration to the United States soon brought a decent paycheck, and life began to look up. Then she married Renato Bellucci and was dragged, kicking and screaming, to Brazil. She became an overseas American corporate wife!

    They lived in Ipanema, known wryly among locals as the American Slum. Bellucci says, "If you weren’t American, you couldn’t afford Ipanema." Hyperbole, of course; their neighbors were German, French, and, even Brazilians.

    Amid so much foreign affluence, Bellucci noted candlelit offerings of food on street corners. She learned from Antonia, their maid, that when a piece of blue cloth was laid on the bowl of manioc meal, the petition went to the Virgin Mary. If an opened bottle of beer accompanied the manioc, Exu the Devil ruled.

    Bellucci kept asking to go to a spirit ritual and was routinely forbidden by Renato. She cast about for something to do and launched an unpaid singing career in The Little Theatre.

    She produced a play, "Table Manners," by Alan Ayckbourne. Renato found himself eating dinner on a card table because their furniture was on stage. "He didn’t mind," Bellucci says, "as long as we didn’t have to go to a spirit ritual."

    When they returned home to California in 1980, Bellucci hit the research books on Umbanda, commonly known erroneously as voodoo. On his trips back to Brazil, Renato bought more books for her. That is how she discovered Quimbanda, a ritual prohibited by the government as evil, diabolical, foul, villainous.

    Bellucci’s project brightened. Although the book described only how to undo Quimbanda, she worked the procedure backwards and came up with The Snake Woman of Ipanema:

    "When Maggie Dalton finds a slaughtered black cockerel on her car, Tonia, her maid, says, ‘Someone means you harm.’ Jon Dalton’s affair with a Brazilian woman is skewing Maggie’s soul. She broods on the occult.

    "To foreigners, Brazil is all about beaches and bikinis. Beneath the surface of Rio de Janeiro’s good life runs the cult of spiritism, brought over 450 years ago by captive slaves from West Africa."

    After Snake Woman, Bellucci wrote The Year of the Rat, a historical novel set in Shanghai. "I am in it as a 12-year-old child," she explains. The political story behind the Communist encroachment winds through a love affair, murder, and survival.

    Bellucci has published nearly 50 short stories, essays, poems, humor/satire, children’s fact and fiction. She has won six first-place awards.

    Her latest novel is Stone of Heaven, set in America.

    Excerpts from The Snake Woman of Ipanema

    "The No mask fooled them all. They never saw the lacquered ceremonial face hiding her real one. They saw her Midnight Silk stockings and satin pumps, a black silk sheath, and her hair coiled at the neck with a jewel. No one knew her slow, exacting movements were an ancient Japanese dance, or that she had the visage of a supernatural being with a high white forehead and painted red cheeks and lion hair."

    She was many things at once. Tonight she was also a swan. If she wished, she could unfurl her wings and, in a blaze of quilled snowiness, whip Jon’s head into ruby-spattered pulp.

    "Five minutes receiving line, an hour of chitchat, another hour and a half for soup and filet mignon, a bunch of ‘brief’ remarks running twenty minutes each," Jon said.

    He was resorting to the intimate sarcasms married couples affect in public. His grumbling differed from the other times, and both of them knew it. She felt their separateness as a stranger who was always present and watching; they spoke their lines for this stranger out of wariness and exhaustion with combat, and sometimes out of hope they could be themselves again.

    Jon went on, "The new man is going to say he’s happy to meet the troops down here and he always wanted to see Brazil, which he secretly can’t tell apart from any other country on the South American continent."

    She murmured something in agreement as they entered the wide glass doors of the Copacabana Palace.

    "This is going to be a godawful night," he said. "I can tell. The moment Roper came off the plane he started in on cutbacks and bottom lines. Why are we spending the money on this circus at the Palace? He could have saved a million just by coming down by himself." He nodded a greeting to a couple across the lobby. "Can that be his wife? She looks younger."

    Several rejoinders crackled in Maggie’s mind; in confusion at their color and variety she spoke none of them. Keep floating, she reminded herself. Forget the Main. Hang onto whatever brain you’ve got left for tonight. It was the only way to get through the biggest company party of the year.

    She said, "Where is that reception line? Let’s get it over with."

    They merged with the crowd going into the ballroom and began shaking hands, starting with a man Maggie had met before in the Michigan home office but couldn’t place; his wife, and more men whose names she couldn’t remember and their wives. Just as both realized they had started at the wrong end of the line, Maggie and Jon finished up with the new company chairman and his wife, who was covered in pink satin with a fringe of pink feathers all around the hemline.

    "It’s really nice meeting you," Mrs. Roper said, sweet and befuddled. "And I think Argentina is a lovely country."

    "I think so, too," Maggie replied. "Are you planning to go there?"

    Jon muttered in her ear, "The next time she goes to Peru."

    They moved on, with Maggie pinching his arm as hard as she could and he tensing his lovely ex-athlete’s biceps in Morse code. When they had moments like this, the grief hit her anew like a blow to the stomach. After ten years of marriage, she thought, their instincts meshed like gear and clutch, machinery running a robot car.

    Then the instant of comradeship was over.

    She felt a starburst of rage. Her clothes felt afire from the heat of it. Her skin was not skin; it was like a lizard’s, scales shot with purple-green reflections from the chandelier’s thousand facets above. Her limbs coiled, striking sparks, molten beyond heat. One touch, and Jon would be a blackened cinder.

     –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –

    At his touch, the woman gasped and began to weep and tell through the weeping about her son gambling and consorting with bad people. The priest held her from falling to the ground. She had the legs of the terribly poor, scaled and blistered and raw where the scabs had rubbed off.

    "Very well, child. This is what you must do," said the priest. He is so gentle with her, Maggie thought. He loves this one as Jesus loves the poor.

    "Find a frog and place a coin in its mouth. Sew up its lips with black thread, and as you are doing so you must say, ‘Devil, eat this coin and be full.’ Say it three times. Place the frog under your son’s bed, and next morning take it and throw it into the forest and leave without looking back."

    "Yes, Father," the woman whispered. "And for my son’s bad friends?"

    Maggie’s neighbor stirred and hmmmmphed. "I’d throw them in the bay," she said, though softly. Her rustling sent an extra wave of armpit aroma into Maggie’s nostrils, but she was already feeling ill with disappointment. A frog, sewing up its lips, quackery for the ignorant and helpless, giving them false hopes. Tears trickled from her eyes. What good was love if it gave no strength?

    The priest said, "You must make an offering to Exu of the Crossroads. He is the best devil for your purpose. Your offering must be of yellow manioc meal mixed with palm oil, a fat, healthy black cock, and a bottle of rum. Use a new clay bowl – mind, now, the bowl must be brand-new – and place your despacho at a crossing of roads at midnight of a Thursday. The spell is strongest if you can find a stream, under a tree. When you have killed the cock, drain the blood into the yellow meal. Then make your request to Exu." Kindly, he asked, "Can you afford those things, daughter? If not, there are other ways you may gain good results, though this is the best."

    "Oh no, no, Father. I can do it. I have a little money."

    Embraced, blessed by the cross, happy as though she had just thrown away a crutch, she walked back to the group

    I’ve come on a fool’s chase. Swallowing rapidly to hold down her sickness, Maggie tried to get through the huddle of bodies to the door. She must get away…have air…

    A roar from the priest shocked her, froze her.

    "So the American wants to slink away! Ogum will not miss you! Oxalá does not need you! I, the Old Slave, dismiss you!"

    Maggie turned. Smoke billowed, obscuring his head, the smoke that had not issued once from his mouth when he drew the cigar into ash.

    She was heavy with weakness. She had no strength, no mind, no will. She stared at him, and he said, "Good."

    In a normal voice, he summoned his next petitioner, a man who grimaced and shivered in the embrace of a woman. He was protesting, arguing; the woman shook her head and pushed and tugged him toward the priest.

    The priest took hold of him and performed the ritual of greeting. The woman spoke. "He has pain all the time. The doctors give him drugs but they don’t help."

    The priest nodded and began to pass his hands over the head and sides of the man, the hands not touching, only flowing downward over the outline of his body. Every foot or so they clenched and made a throwing gesture. He prayed, "Jesus, who has suffered on earth for the evil of men and perished on Calvary. Jesus, who sees the suffering of others without end. Jesus, save this man with your divine grace as no other remedy has the power to do. Jesus, glory to God, forever!" With a final pass over the man’s back and sides, he said, "Your kidneys are working again. Go home and rest." He blew smoke into the man’s pale face.

    The man stumbled away muttering, "There is no more pain. There is no more pain." His woman ran outside after him.

    Maggie made her right foot move. The left; she tried to push the other foot ahead. She discovered that each movement spiked needles into her knees and hips. She was shuffling now; it hurt too much to lift her feet. The candles were very bright. She felt a heavy silence in the room which enclosed her in a tunnel devoid of sound or light. In that tunnel she saw nothing, only the priest in his fiery white garments at the end of the tunnel, waiting for her to come to him. He stood far away, at the end of the world, and Maggie wept because he was making her walk miles and years before he might permit her to stop and rest. A scarlet Saint George swam by; blue and green snakes slithered down the walls; the blood of Sebastian poured from wounds cloven like grins. She smelled decaying roses, their corruption seeming natural and fresh.

    She plodded on.

    Lucille Bellucci – www.lucillebellucci.com

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