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Forward: Act of Courage

What’s on your bucket list?

I contemplated my life from my funeral backward: sobering. What do I aspire to accomplish before I die? My bucket list is short. At the top? Write a novel.

I value words, appreciate literature, relish a good book, revel in a beautiful poem. I want to create something from nothing, leave a legacy, inspire future generations through words after I am dead. Am I worthy of the goal? You be the judge.

I have just stepped out of the writer’s closet. I am writing a novel. And, I want you to read it. It is entitled “Life by Fire”.

Read the novel as it progresses. If you have something to say about what you have read, please leave a comment.

Preface: Birth of a Story

Saturday, July 25, 2009:

I lay face forward, sprawled across a pile of pillows, eyes shut, as another wave of contraction shudders through my core. My mouth opens wide into an O and I feel a deep long loud “ooooohhhhh” pass over my lips. Deep breath in, deep breath out, “ooohhhhhhmmmmm”. The compression around my middle extends downward with ever-increasing pressure. Two fists press hard into my sacrum—my husband’s or the midwives, I don’t know which. My eyes shut tight to the room around me, the dark world within my womb my only reality. I can do this. If I need to do this forever, I can do this.

Time stops. I drift into sleep and out as another contraction overtakes my body and rises, rises, rises to a crescendo of sensation. The midwife instructs me to change position, up onto my hands and knees, hips swaying. Then, a change—downward pressure. My spine lengthens, my head arches back, a guttural call escapes my throat. An urgent, primal force, drives me. I flip forward into a crunched position, legs bent outward, chest pulled over my hard, massive belly. Pushing, resting, breath in, breath out. Pushing, pushing, resting, breath in, breath out. Pushing, pushing, pushing.

An eternity spans between each exertion. The overwhelming sensation changes from pressure to burning—deep, intense. My mind leaps outward, picturing flesh tearing. No, no, no, back in, back in, eyes shut. A rose blooming. It’s just burning, just a sensation, deep heat, just heat, only heat. A full scream, unrecognizable as my own; the pain rises to a final precipice. I hear “the head is out”. One final push, the sensation of emptying, a large red gush. Euphoria replaces pain. Laying her on my chest, wide, black, eyes stare up into mine. Inspired awe.

The birth of a story.

Phoenix Dreaming

Suggested music accompaniment to this post: Eminem & Rihanna “Love the Way You Lie”
Instrumental with Hook (thanks to 2010EminemRecovery on YouTube)


Monday, February 12, 2007:

Death by fire. I dream of dying in a burst of flames. Searing heat traveling from my feet, up my legs, swirling around me. I throw my head back to see a black sky scattered with stars, extinguished by a cloud of white smoke. It’s just burning, just a sensation, deep heat, just heat, only heat. A full scream, unrecognizable as my own; the pain rises to a final precipice.

Hot, dry, release. My soul purified by fire—a quick, dramatic death, nothing left but ash. The antithesis of my life. By day, I barely tread water, barely keep afloat. Perpetually behind, perpetually overwhelmed, stuck in a whirlpool going round, round, and around. Life by drowning.

Laying in bed, startled awake by the flames, my breath shallow, my heart racing, I throw off the covers to feel cold air flow across my sweat-soaked body and stare through the darkness at shadows haunting the ceiling. My mind returns to the safety of my bedroom, my husband’s even breathing beside me, my penchant for analysis. How does one interpret dreaming of death by fire? Past life: witch.

Then, as I relax into the present, it happens: my head fills with nervous thoughts: worry. Once turned on, the engine of my brain accelerates ahead. Work. Money. Lagging tasks. Unfulfilled commitments. Inadequate excuses.

My husband stirs in his sleep, prompting me to stealthily slink from our bed and navigate my way around furniture and into my office down the hall. Closing the door quietly, I awaken my computer and sit down facing it. What to do at 3am?

There is a yearning deep inside me, stretching from my very core; an angst. I want to write. But, I don’t. Seven years of university education in English Rhetoric, twenty-five grand in student loans, countless writing assignments, but I don’t write—not what I yearn to write. I write empty words to fulfill other people’s desires: marketing materials, corporate newsletters, website copy…all submerging my will to write my own story.

The glare of the blank white screen offends my eyes. What if I just started writing and didn’t stop—surrendering to the story? I picture myself seated comfortably, long after midnight, a cat asleep beside me, my fingers effortlessly tapping out word after beautiful word onto the glowing screen. My mind fearlessly opening to the page, revealing my deepest thoughts faster than I can type them. What would I say?

I open a blank document and sit with fingers poised over the keys. I could write about my inability to write: ironic…or pathetic? How do writers lay themselves bare—covered only by words, exposing their innermost thoughts to the world? Like peeling back their skin with a can opener and revealing the bloody inner core for all to scrutinize. If the sculptor’s chisel reveals their art, how many layers must I peel away to reveal my story? Raw, naked, exposed. They say, “The truth will set you free”. Or get you into a shitload of trouble.

My baby girl cries from the next room and I’m up like a shot to her bedside. Untangling her from the covers, I tuck her back in, and head back to my own bed. Distracted again—the story of my life.

Phoenix Slouching

Tuesday, February 13, 2007:

I awaken to the offensively chipper chatter of morning show hosts from the clock radio at my husband’s bedside. Pulling up my knees, I withdraw deeper into the dark, warm covers and lift them over the back of my head, relieved when he hits “snooze” and heads to the bathroom. A ten-minute reprieve.

Visions of flame and smoke creep into my consciousness. My heartbeat quickens. I writhe, throw back the covers, and sit up abruptly, shaking the memory from my mind. No rest for the wicked. My feet search out their slippers and I drag myself to standing, only to feel a burning pain in my foot. Falling back onto the bed, lifting my left foot up onto my right thigh, I find the sole of my left foot blackened and my other foot similarly smudged. Good grief, I’ve got to wash my floors. (Although, in March, my feet have been perpetually covered in layers of socks and slippers.) I examine a puffy watery pocket on the ball of my left foot before pulling a sock over it. I’m incapable of analysis before 8am. I head for the kitchen, coffee my soul focus. Phoenix limping.

The day transpires much the same as usual, one distraction to the next. After lunch, I succeed in lulling my daughter into a nap (small victory) and head to my computer. My in-box reveals a letter from the “Institute of Children’s Writing” through which I have been failing miserably at completing a basic children’s story writing course. They state: “We regret that, despite our best efforts to help you, you have been unable to complete the requested assignments. We are hereby closing your course account. Should you wish to re-initiate the course in the future, we will be happy to accommodate your request based on the fee structure provided below….” I leave my office and slouch onto the livingroom couch, the last vestiges of perseverance draining from my core. A new low.

I pick up my latest self-help book from the table beside me and randomly read: “You’re not meant to be perfect, you’re meant to be whole. So, what is there to fear?”. What is there to fear?! This is what I fear: to break open and spill into a million tiny fragments onto the floor of the universe. Frozen shards that I alone must gather up again one-by-one—the never-ending tediousness of stooping, scrounging to pick up little, gorey bits of myself and put them back together, imperfectly. “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold….” But, my daughter awakens from her slumber and I pick myself up off the couch to get her. After all, life goes on; there’s only so much room for melodrama.

Then, suddenly, the clock reads five and I survey my current state through the eyes of my husband, who will soon arrive home to witness it. Me, unshowered, wearing the same sweatpants as yesterday; my daughter unbathed with lunch on her shirt; the day’s and perhaps yesterday’s dirty dishes unwashed; toys scattered. Adrenalin sets in. William Tell’s finale plays in my head as I race through the house in an attempt to accomplish the tasks of a day in twenty minutes. Phoenix galloping.


  • Did you notice the “typo” in this section? “Coffee my soul focus” should be “coffee my sole focus”. “Sole” referring to the sole of a foot or “only”. But, in this case, the character’s soul yearns for coffee as much as her physical body so it applies.
  • For me, the word “slouching” took on a more devious connotation after reading the poem “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats. In this section, the quote “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold….” is also a reference from this poem. You can read the poem by following the Related Posts link below.
  • This post introduces the novel’s first reference to an extraordinary event, occurring in an otherwise mundane existence. The novel belongs within the genre of Magic Realism. Find out more about the genre of Magic Realism in the related post below.


Phoenix Delivered

Phoenix Delivered

Thursday, July 16, 2009:

The year transpires much the same, one distraction to the next.

By day, I split myself in two—half domesticated mom, half professional businesswoman—accomplishing neither whole-heartedly. Perpetually fatigued and scattered. Between ABC’s and client brochures, I dapple in poetry and journaling. Petty narcissistic drivel; who needs critics.

By night, I burn. Every dream a new interpretation of the same theme; flames, searing heat, hot ash. Tired of scrubbing metaphysical black soot from white sheets, I invest in a luxurious charcoal-grey silk bed set, much to my husband’s dismay at the sudden splurge. I defy analysis.

On a bright summer afternoon, I take my daughter outside to chase the sunlight. We walk to the mailbox and I extract from it a single letter, the lack of usual flyers and coupons amplifying its uniqueness.

“Mine, Mommy?” my daughter asks, always eager for any gifts the mailbox may bestow upon her especially.

“No, honey, it’s for Mommy…” I reply absently as I stare down at a familiar, yet unexpected airmail envelope trimmed in yellow-and-green stripes and smattered with stamps.

“Why, Mommy?” my daughter asks as she pulls my hand downward. “Me see.”

“It’s from Brazil, I think,” I observe aloud as I relent to her tugging and I squat down to show her the brightly coloured stamps with “Brasil” down the side and typical airmail trim. “These are Brazil’s colours.”

She grabs the envelope and turns it over. “Birdie!” she exclaims, pointing to another sticker—a return address sticker with a bird illustration and red border. I read the address twice: “52 College Street, Kitchener, ON N2H 5A1”. The top of the sticker has been cut off as well as a small square from between the “52” and “College”.

“It’s…it’s a return address sticker,” I reply faintly. I know that address; I lived in an apartment there over fifteen years ago as a university student. How did an envelope sent from Brazil, addressed to me, come to have a return address sticker on the back from a place I lived almost two decades ago?

I resist opening the envelope until we have returned to our backyard and my daughter plays contentedly. Perched on a garden rock, I carefully split apart the top seam, extract a thin sheet of paper, and open it to reveal two short lines written in elegantly formed blue cursive:

Step out of your prison; it is self-imposed. Leave it to burn behind you, igniting the fires of your imagination and life will follow.


Phoenix Sleuthing

Phoenix Sleuthing

Monday, July 20, 2009:

In the days that follow, I carry the mysterious letter with me everywhere, pausing often to re-read it and re-examine the envelope. My nightly dreams of fire evolve: I find myself in a maze of cedar shrubbery, with an arched door ahead. As I move toward it, the high green walls ignite, engulfing me in flame and smoke as I run blindly forward.

On Monday morning, I arrange a sitter for my daughter and drive into downtown Kitchener. My old stomping ground. I park in front of the apartment building I lived in for most of university: 52 College Street. A vibrant energy envelopes me as I step out of my car. My current country home offers peace and quiet but this neighbourhood lives and breathes interesting faces.

I stand in front of the dwellings, surveying the architecture. Two twin, three-storey brick buildings with narrow courtyards, each leading to three separate entrances. The building to the left, a chestnut-brown brick with rounded arched entry embellished with the name “Wales Apartments” in white Edwardian letters. My own building, in red brick with the name “Royal Apartments” over the archway.

I wonder, does my old landlord still keep the place? I head under the archway of my old apartment, through the entrance directly ahead and down a short flight of stairs into the basement. The office door is ajar but I find it empty. With no other plan in mind, I indulgently wander through the building despite the sensation that I’m trespassing. Returning up the stairs, I visit the door of my first student abode, a tiny 300-square-foot apartment at the back of the building.

Then, I return to the outside courtyard and enter the front section of the building through the right-hand door. After a year in the tiny back apartment, a roomier two-bedroom had opened up on the third floor facing the street and I had moved up into it. I feel the same comforting creek as the stairs bare my weight up to the door of my second apartment—the one in which I spent six studious years. The same subtle scent intensifies my nostalgia—earthy, but not dirty (despite that it is)—the smell of bricks and mortar and plaster standing stoically for the last hundred years.

I reach the top landing and pause facing my old door, tempted to knock. But, then I hear the squeak of the apartment entrance opening below and I turn tail and retreat; I’ve trespassed long enough. At the bottom of the stairs, a middle-aged female postal carrier has just opened a set of old brass mailboxes that line the wall inside the doorway with the master key and begun stuffing envelopes and flyers into the compartments.

I hesitantly approach her: “Ahem, I hope you don’t mind the interruption. I’m here trying to solve a bit of a mystery. I received this letter in the mail. But, the return address sticker uses this address.” I pull out the letter from my purse and she willingly takes it.

“It was sent from Brazil, not here,” she states the obvious.

“Yes, I figured that. But, I wondered if you have seen anyone in this building using these kind of return address stickers?”

“No, I only deal with incoming mail. I wouldn’t know if they did. Why is the name and apartment number cut out? Looks like they didn’t want you to know who it was from.”

“No, I guess not. Thanks anyway.”

I return to my car none the wiser for my sleuthing. Sherlock I’m not.

Phoenix Rising

Suggested music accompaniment to this post: Alicia Keys “Girl on Fire” – Instrumental with Hook (thanks to Brenton Mosley on YouTube)

Wednesday, July 22, 2009:

My curiosity over the letter’s origin turns to obsession. The postmark from Brazil, the return address sticker from my old apartment building, the eerie reference to fire and self-induced imprisonment, which I had recently described in my journal…. Who could have written such a letter and under what circumstances? The question rests on my pillow, and the letter under it, as I drift off to sleep that night.

At 3am, I awaken to a familiar sensation, heart racing, pajamas damp with sweat, images of fire and smoke still emblazoned on my eyelids. But, this time, mingled with a tingling exhilaration. I search my mind for the details of the dream…the cedar maze, fire and smoke, but then…the sensation of my body rising upward, up, over the flames, floating, swirling on cool night air, like a campfire spark joining stars in the sky.

Quietly, I leave my bedroom, dawning housecoat and slippers as I go. The cat meets me in the hallway, blinking sleepily and pausing to stretch his back legs out behind him as he follows me into my little office, where I sit down and awaken my computer.

Without hesitation, I open a blank document and begin to type…

Gisa Catarina Gertner was born at sea on October 5, 1933, halfway between the province of Tirol, Austria, and the state of Santa Catarina, Brazil….


The phrase “a campfire spark joining stars in the sky.” refers to a poem I wrote for my daughter, Tessa, who was born on July 25, 2009. You can read it by following the “related posts” below to the “Other Works” section.




October 5, 1933:

Gisa Catarina Gärtner was born at sea on October 5, 1933, halfway between the province of Tirol, Austria, and the state of Santa Catarina, Brazil, thereby becoming the youngest of 91 Catholic Austrian emigrants headed to found a new colony in the New World.

Her fellow emigrants greeted her arrival dubiously for two reasons: First, no one had been aware of her mother’s pregnancy so they assumed she had concealed it. Second, an unaccounted colonizer would require explanation and additional paperwork with the Brazilian authorities.

Her family greeted her arrival with equal dubiety. The last of eight children, tiny Gisa’s closest sibling outstripped her by 12 years; her eldest already married and settled in Canada at age 27. A large woman, her mother had only started to suspect she was with child in the final days leading to Gisa’s birth. At 49-years-old, her menses had become sporadic; when they ceased completely, she assumed her childbearing years had ended and good riddance. Totally unprepared to care for an infant on the crowded ship, Gisa’s arrival caused her family both great inconvenience and great embarrassment.

Upon arrival on Brazilian soil, the immigration authorities debated Gisa’s status. Her fellow colonizers would enjoy privileges as Brazilian citizens while retaining their Austrian rights. But, having never touched Austrian soil, Gisa had no such claim. In the end, Gisa unconsciously gained another dubious distinction: as the only non-Austrian settler present on October 13, 1933 when their Director of Colonization, Andreas Thaler, officially founded and named the new settlement Dreizehnlinden, or Thirteen Lindens, after a poem of the same name by German poet Friedrich Wilhelm Weber.

In the months that followed, harsh reality and relentless mosquitoes set upon the colonists as they endeavoured to acclimatize to the hot Brazilian sun and reversed seasons, all packed together into one rudimentary communal barracks. They worked together; they ate together; they slept together.

In those her first months, Gisa received the minimal care required to keep her quiet. Passed from one sibling to the next, she only enjoyed the warmth of her mother’s bosom when hunger spurned her to wail inconsolably and she was indulged to guzzle a quick, greedy drink before being returned unceremoniously into the hands of whoever would take her. The exhausting work required to start anew spared no able body. Sometimes, one of the children would simply forget Gisa laying somewhere and only her crying would alert someone else passing to her abandoned state. Yet, miraculously, she not only survived but she grew and developed alongside the developing settlement.

So began Gisa Catarina Gärtner’s life: an afterthought in every sense of the word.


This post marks the beginning of the story “Death by Water”, within the story “Life by Drowning”, to which I alluded when I called this a “multi-dimensional novel”. Although Gisa Catarina Gärtner and the Gärtner family is fictional, the setting is real and the historical details are accurate to the best of my knowledge. Find out more about the history of these brave immigrants in the related post And So It Began.

Foundations Laid

Foundations Laid

1933 – 1939: Dreizehnlinden, Santa Catarina, Brazil

thaler-house-dreizehnlindenBy the time Gisa grew old enough to go to school, the rudimentary communal barracks had transformed into small neat houses and productive farms, and the settlement of Dreizehnlinden into a community complete with a church and a store, as well as a school.

As stonemasons and bricklayers, Gisa’s father and her two eldest brothers played an integral part in laying the foundations on which the community grew. In 1937, the town’s seasoned workmen completed its crowning accent, a tall red-brick residence sitting high on a hill for the settlement’s founder, Andreas Thaler. They called it Das Kleine SchlossThe Little Castle—or O Castelinho in Portuguese.

Gisa gloried in walking past the castle and stopping to gaze up into the windows in the tall round tower. She would exclaim wistfully in her small five-year-old voice, “a real castle, right here in Dreizehnlinden!” to which her sister, or whoever was with her, would reply: “Silly girl, you’ve never seen a real castle before. In Austria, there are many castles.”

“In Austria…in Austria…” A statement Gisa heard often as a child. Her family had left Austria to find a better land, a better life. Yet, their hearts remained tied to the Homeland. Their memories fixated on the mountains, the comradeship, the feasts, to the exclusion of the overcrowding, the religious discrimination, and the hunger that had driven them to leave. Nostalgia does that.

Her father, a tall wiry man with large calloused hands, called Gisa his “Little Brazilian”. Even at five, she felt the condescension. When she occasionally interjected a Portuguese word or phrase, which she picked up so naturally, into conversation, her family chided her: “Deutsch, Gisa, Deutsch.”

Outside Dreizehnlinden’s isolated community, Brazil’s political structures shifted on tenuous footings. On November 10, 1937, based on the pretext of protecting the country from a communist revolution rumoured to have support from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Brazilian President Getúlio Vargas staged a political coup. With military and popular support, he called a state of emergency, dropped the Constitution of 1934, banned all political organizations, dissolved the Congress, and proclaimed himself Dictator over this Estado Novo (New State). Under Vargas’ nationalist agenda, power shifted from the states to the central government, and from the landowners to the urban middle and lower classes. Dreizehnlinden’s inhabitants read about these changes with mild concern; constitution or no constitution, life continued.

The end of 1938 found only her youngest brother, age 20, and her sister, age 17, at home with Gisa. Her two eldest brothers—strong and self-reliant, in their late twenties—had married two sisters from within one of the Austrian colonial families and established homes of their own. Not long after, her two sisters next in line—healthy, robust girls in their early twenties—had each married as well. At home, Gisa’s youngest sister, Teresa, had taken over much of the housekeeping while their mother tended their garden and chickens. Like the rest of the men in her family, her youngest brother worked in construction.

In 1939, Gisa’s world widened to attending school. Walking to and from by herself—a tiny, wisp of a child, small for her age, and so slight in comparison to her sturdy, grown siblings, with fine blond hair tied in braids down her back. She surveyed everything around her with intense seriousness through ever-changing blue-grey-green eyes—eyes the colour of the sea she had been born on. And so she grew, apart from the rest, and only partly aware why.

Foundations Shaken

1939 – 1942: Dreizehnlinden, Santa Catarina, Brazil

No sooner had the stalwart community of Dreizehnlinden established foundations, than political unrest and natural disaster combined to shake them to the core.

Even in the far reaches of the south of Brazil, they could not escape the turmoil that embroiled their Austrian countrymen in Europe. In March 1938, Austria’s formalized Anschluss (connection) with the German Reich, made administration of the settlement of Dreizehnlinden subject to the German Consulate General in the nearby town of Joaçaba. The Nazi Party considered the area as prime real estate for the settlement of their own emigrants—Sudeten Germans from Czechoslovakia. Led by Andreas Thaler, and supported by his influential connections, the families in Dreizehnlinden argued vehemently against this unwelcome invasion onto the lands they had prepared.

On June 28, 1939, more fundamental concerns temporarily overshadowed their political ones when a torrential rainstorm assaulted the community, flooding the river, damaging crops, and injuring livestock. When the rains finally abated, to their horror, they discovered Andreas Thaler drowned, assumedly in an attempt to rescue a cow from the river’s swift current. Without Thaler as representative, the town became evermore susceptible to German agendas.

On September 1, 1939, Germany turned its attention toward Poland, provoking France and the United Kingdom to retaliate. Thus began the Great War. From late 1939 to early 1941, through a series of campaigns and treaties, Germany conquered or controlled much of continental Europe, and formed the Axis alliance with Italy and Japan. The Nazi’s long reach extended further and further.

Little Gisa experienced Germany’s influence as an absence. The regular influx of bad news from abroad, and the continued interference from the German Consulate, diverted her family’s attention away from household tasks, and her care. All around her, people half functioned in a full state of distraction. Too young to understand events on a global scale, Gisa simply felt them…in her father’s cynicism, her mother’s apathy, her sister’s impatience…. She retreated into herself, only deepening her isolation. As quiet as a mouse, she received as much attention as one. And the war raged on.

Foundations Shifted

Foundations Shifted

1942: Dreizehnlinden / Papuan, Santa Catarina, Brazil

In the face of war abroad, Brazil’s President Vargas attempted to remain neutral. Brazil depended upon trading partnerships with both Germany and the United States, the manufacture and sale of arms to Germany making up a significant percentage of that trade. However, increasing cooperation and financial investment from the United States motivated Brazil to officially sever diplomatic relations with Germany, Japan, and Italy on January 28, 1942.

In July 1942, the press credited German U-Boats with sinking thirteen Brazilian merchant vessels in the South Atlantic. Others speculated that credit for the attacks belonged elsewhere. Regardless of the perpetrators, Vargas resisted further measures against the Axis. The Brazilian public, on the other hand, took to the streets to demand that the government retaliate with a declaration of war. In the capital of Rio de Janeiro, restless ne’er-do-wells exercised their frustration on German-owned restaurants and other businesses.

Still, the thousand-kilometre distance between Rio and Dreizehnlinden shielded Gisa, her family, and other German-speaking residents from any direct confrontation and the undercurrents of conflict continued to affect Gisa as only a vague, indescribable sense of discomfort. At age eight, she still more closely resembled a child several years younger, small and thin with too-large eyes. She quietly kept to corners and preferred to sit with her legs pulled tight to her chest and her arms around her knees, when allowed the option.

After school, Gisa tended to drop her books inside the front door and then disappear again without a sound. She would wander around Dreizehnlinden, sometimes people-watching through the open windows of the town’s stores. Often, she stopped to gaze up into the vacant windows of the tall red-brick tower of the Kleine Schloss, now devoid of its master. When encountering her fellow townspeople, whether superior or peer, she would scurry quietly away in another direction. Occasionally, she walked up into the hills to visit the cows. Her family left her to her own devises, as long as she returned in time for dinner, which she usually did, led by her appetite.

Then, in August 1942, definitive news reached the small town that a single German submarine, the U-507, had sunk five Brazilian vessels in two days, causing more than six hundred deaths. These new attacks, combined with diplomatic pressure plus economic incentives from the United States, finally led Vargas to declare war on the Axis on August 22, 1942, officially joining Brazil with the Allies. That’s when the war truly reached Dreizehnlinden, forever shifting its foundations.

In a show of pro-Brazilian nationalism and anti-German sentiment, Vargas immediately instituted a number of domestic sanctions. In one foul swoop, he banned use of the German language in public, expropriated German-speaking settlers’ lands, and demanded the renaming of Germanic place names with suitably Brazilian ones. Dreizehnlinden became Papuan. All around them, other German-speaking settlements endured the same treatment.

Poem-Book-Cover-Originalausgabe-Dreizehnlinden-1878Wide-eyed, Gisa and her stunned schoolmates watched as Brazilian officials carted their German-language books outside to the schoolyard in a wheelbarrow, tossed them into a pile, and then set them ablaze, feeding the already greedy flames with Dreizehnlinden’s beautifully carved sign as a final offering to the Brazilian nationalist gods. Her sister, Teresa, arrived, along with other neighbours, enfolding her arms around Gisa’s trembling shoulders. The wind changed direction, assaulting Gisa’s eyes with smoke, until tears streamed down her blanched cheeks. Trial by fire.

One of the bureaucrats approached the fire with one last armful of books and stopped to the right of Teresa and Gisa. Teresa’s eyes landed on an old green leather-bound volume with gold gilding and a red crest—the original epic poem by Fredrich Wilhelm Weber, entitled “Dreizehnlinden”, after which they had named their colony. The book had been sent from Austria as a gift for the new school.

As the man lifted the text with his left hand from the stack cradled in his right arm, Teresa stepped forward and grasped it. She locked eyes with the official with a look of half-defiance, half-entreaty, the book suspended between them. He paused, considering the consequences of his next move, then let go, saying “em casa só” (at home only). Teresa turned without a word, pulling Gisa protectively to her side and hastily escorted her and the book home, successfully salvaging a small piece of Dreizehnlinden’s history.

That night, Teresa, who shared a small back bedroom with Gisa, awoke suddenly to find Gisa’s side of the bed empty and cold. She whispered Gisa’s name and scanned the room. She searched the bathroom and kitchen. No Gisa. Panicking, she awoke her parents. Her father lit a lantern and they searched the house again. He noted the still-locked door but searched the yard regardless.

In desperation, they broke the night’s deep silence and called Gisa’s name aloud inside and out. Suddenly, a small movement caught Teresa’s eye through the open door into their room. She ran to the bed and dropped to her knees, peering under it. There, wrapped in a shawl on the bare floor, lay slender Gisa, bleary-eyed and confused.

When asked why she had crawled under the bed, Gisa responded “it feels safer there”, to which her mother matter-of-factly replied that it was not safe to sleep on the floor in Brazil with the spiders and the snakes, picked her up, returned her into her bed with her sister, and then promptly retreated to bed herself without another word.

But, night after night, Gisa’s sister would find her curled up under the bed rather than upon it. Finally, Teresa acquired some straw, sewed Gisa a small tick from an old wool blanket and slid it under the bed. Still unsatisfied, she opened the chest at the end of their bed and withdrew a white cotton-covered feather blanket. Intended for her dowry, she had diligently toiled for months to save feathers from their chickens and ducks to make this blanket for her future marital bed. But, she couldn’t bear to see Gisa lying on that hard floor any longer with only a shawl for cover and there were no other unused blankets left in the house. She half-slid under the bed herself to arrange the feather blanket folded in half over the straw tick, pushing it closer to the wall so her mother would not notice it. From then on, Gisa slept comfortably, safe in her little nest.

The Brazilian government replaced the school’s worn German schoolbooks with shiny new Portuguese ones and their familiar German-speaking teachers with native Portuguese-speakers. They even erected a new flimsy sign declaring the town as Papuan for all to see. With few other choices before them, the community endeavoured to adjust into this shifted reality.

Strangely, despite the shock and angst, these changes put Gisa on a more equal footing with her family and community: now, they must all become Little Brazilians.


I found an interesting propaganda video produced by the United States about Brazil in World War II. You can see it by following the Related Post, “Brazil at War”, below.