I grew up with a mouth that wasn’t mine.
Fuck off! I try to scream, but something different escapes my mouth.
“Please, don’t hurt me.”
Diogo has a thick stick in his hand, clearly wanting to beat the shit outta me. The dude’s my classmate.
My mind screams, Go fuck yourself, leave me alone, I’ll kill you!
My lips say:
“Get out of here, please.”
Routed thoughts, filtered and processed to mold my voice according to the Norm, making me obey the linguistic standards to be someone who fits in society.
We’ve gotta stick that shit in your head, Abá. C’mon, girl, Mamãe had said, dragging me by the hand to Dr. Edmilson’s clinic. The shit was the graft, Normalizer—a word I only learned to speak after I turned sixteen.
Dr. Edmilson jammed the thing in my head almost carelessly. Hurt like hell when the wires mingled with my brain. I felt everything. Mamãe stood there, her hands on mine while Dr. Edmilson split my skull open.
You wanna scrub the shit off people in Leblon?
In the end, it was all okay.
I staggered out of the clinic with blurry vision, crying like a baby. I don’t think I’ve ever cried so much. Mamãe cried too, of course, but hers were tears of relief because I was gonna fit into society, I was gonna be someone.
And here I am, twenty-four years later, being someone, weeping again, and trying to at least curse this fucker Diogo, who’s about to smash my face in.
Leave me alone, you son of a bitch! I try to scream.
“Please, Diogo,” my mouth begs instead. My back’s against the wall of a stinky alley next to an overpriced restaurant’s fetid grease trap.
“Tell the truth, bitch!” Diogo yells, fiddling with the piece of wood in his hand. One of its ends has a nail sticking out. “Your sentences are weird. You’re too old for high school. Shouldn’t you be in college? You’re using the favela hack. Do you think it’s right to steal a seat from someone else?”
If I confess, then this scumbag who always wears a different shirt to school will kill me for sure. According to him, I’m just another Black woman stealing someone else’s place in school thanks to a hack some favelado put in her head. I know at least two stories like this one, and they don’t end well.
“I don’t use it. Let me go!”
I can do whatever you want, I think. I want to say it. I need to. Rosana is waiting for me in our flat upstairs, and if I want to enroll her in a school one day, I need to make it to my high school graduation first.
“I can do whatever you want.” Luckily, the Normalizer doesn’t alter my message.
“Whatever I want?” Diogo smiles, loosening his grip on the board. He’s distracted.
I kick his hand. The weapon flies out of it. He tries to grab my leg, but I’m outta here. I run. I run like hell, like Mamãe taught me. I run, like I did when they swept up the favela’s overpopulation, snatching surplus bodies to wax the floors of government buildings. I run, like I ran when Seu Lenilson from Buteco da Roça told me Mamãe was dying, beaten to death because she got caught teaching without the Norm certification.
And now I’m running away from Diogo, who twice lent me a pencil and once flaked out on our group botany assignment.
I can hear his footsteps behind me, splattering through the mud. His white Nike shoes will be filthy. I’m quicker than him, and I don’t care about my slippers. I’ve drowned my feet in filth before.
I dart across the sidewalk, passing my high school, passing the fountain with the plaque announcing The government offers free Portuguese books! and dash toward the favela, praying no one notices. I don’t cry, because there’s no time. I’m just another Black girl running.
“I’ll report you!” Diogo screams after me, coming to a halt at the edge of the favela.
I’m not going be able to go back to school.
Rosana gives me a big hug when I get home. I tuck stray hairs behind her ears and sit on the torn couch. I don’t say anything about Diogo. My little girl doesn’t need to know what the world’s like down there, even if it’s the one she’ll have to face sooner or later.
“Is everything all right?” I ask. I sound artificial. In my hurry, I forgot to turn off the Normalizer.
“Funny voice, Mamãe.” Rosana giggles.
I pull my left eyelid down and touch it with a thumb. I feel the mild headache that indicates the Normalizer is off. Relief.
“I did the dishes, Mamãe,” says Rosana.
“Thanks.” I try to smile, but today was hell. “Rosana, I have something to tell you. I can’t go to school anymore.”
“But Grandma said you become real people in school!”
“Grandma was right, but…”
What should I say? Rosana was here, doing the dishes with ten-year-old hands, mopping the floor, being a nobody while her mother tries to be someone, to fit into society so she can put her kids through school.
They’re gonna need to speak according to the Norm.
My heart sinks. It tears me apart to imagine a stubbled Dr. Edmilson biting a cigarette and opening my child’s head with a scalpel. It’s worse than imagining being beaten up by Diogo.
But I’m trapped.
Diogo must’ve snitched on me by now, and his word’s as valuable as his birthplace. If I go down to the school, they’ll search me, jab detectors into my face.
I pull Rosana’s arm, tugging her into the seat beside me. I take her small, chore-calloused hands. I’ve been teaching her to be submissive. She’s the one who should be studying, not me, but the fucking Norm won’t allow parents without high school degrees to enroll their children in school.
For a perfect society, or so the plaques vomit.
“What you wanna do when you grow up, Rosana?”
Do you want to scrub off the shit of people in Leblon?
“What can I be?”
“Whatever you want.”
“Really? Why don’t we have those people who protect other people here? The ones with neat suits…”
She looks up, mulling it over. “I think so.”
“They live down there.”
“So then I can’t be what I want, Mamãe.”
“You’re gonna be a lawyer.” I get up before she can question me. My belly twists, and a tear spills from the corner of my eye.
But now the idea’s stuck in my head. I have no idea how I’ll do it, but my little girl is gonna protect people someday. All I need—all I want—is that goddamn high school degree. I could scrounge enough money to buy a counterfeit one, but those usually get found out. I could risk going back down there, to the school Mamãe had fought for me to attend, to that den of designer shirts and sharp tongues. The Normalizer made me talk properly, but they’d always doubted me—if it wasn’t some classmate like Diogo, it was the teachers or the security guards who accompanied me until they could validate my student ID at the entrance.
It was a pain in the ass, but at least I was someone. I know how to read and write the language from Down There—I’d studied the free government books—but speaking it is harder. I’m a native from Up Here. I know the language of the people here: Seu Lenilson’s haggling, Dona Zefa’s gossip about soap operas, Seu Irineu’s lyrical pagodes about romance and loneliness. If I spit out the wrong word, I would be denounced by the people Down There.
But Rosana is gonna defend people. She’s gonna wear a suit.
I kiss her cheeks and leave again.
Somewhere nearby, a funk party makes the ground vibrate. I follow the raw sewage running in gutters toward Dr. Edmilson’s loft. The dumpsters’ rotten food stink is the sign I need. I turn right and see it: a brick-walled loft with boarded-up windows over a first-floor bar that sells the cheapest beer around—and the medicines Dr. Edmilson prescribes.
I climb the tight stairway in the dark, my hands on the walls, then knock at the door. The strong tang of cigarette smoke whiffs out of the open transom over the door.
“Who is it?” asks Dr. Edmilson’s scratched voice.
He pries the door open. “Someone found you?”
“A playboy classmate from school wants to snitch on me. I’m here because I want you to rip out this shit out of my head.”
“You have to be more careful.” He wipes his sweaty, scarred forehead. His lips are dry, and his hair seems a bit whiter. “People are always getting caught Down There. Sooner or later, there’s gonna be shakedowns Up Here, too.
“Speaking of careful, close that fuckin’ window. If the police come up here, you’re screwed.” I sit on the chair next to his desk. It’s not the same one my mom would sit in when they talked for hours while I ignored them and read tattered comic books. I’d had no idea then what I’d have to go through to be someone.
His old computer is the way I remember it, though: covered in stickers. Skulls, snakes, and even the Devil. But Jesus is still there, too—stuck right beside a yellowed photo held up by magnets shaped like Saint George and Ogum: Dr. Edmilson himself hugging a little girl on a slab.
“What do you want?” Dr. Edmilson paces from side to side—another thing I remember clearly, just like Mamãe clasping the table’s edge, nervous as hell, and the doctor pacing, uneasy, staring at nothing and puffing out nicotine like a broken chimney.
“What would you charge to make another Normalizer?”
He stops, pulls out his office chair—it’s missing a wheel—and sits. I’ve never seen that man sit before.
“Do you think life Down There is freedom?”
He asks the question with a gravity that makes me itch, then opens a drawer and picks up a pack of cigarettes, holding one out for me. I take it.
“Rosana wants to be a lawyer,” I say while he lights our cigarettes. “I’m scared I’m gonna blow it.”
“Have you ever seen a successful favelado?” Dr. Edmilson takes a drag on his cigarette. “My father cracked open a lot of people’s heads to put in Normalizers. He sent a bunch of people Down There to be someone, but I never saw any of them turn out to be anything.”
“I don’t fuckin’ know. There’s a barrier for people like us. The Norm’s just one of them. Like your mom used to say, we’re born to clean shit.”
That makes me feel like crap, like I’m wasting my time caring about Rosana. Better teach her obedience so she can keep other people’s houses tidy. I value the doctor’s opinion because Mamãe loved him, but I wish he believed in me like she did.
“Do you want me to watch my little one slave away for a handful of coins?”
“Look, Dona Abá.” Dr. Edmilson gets up, taking one last drag on his cigarette before smashing its tip in an ashtray. “The gringos come up here, visiting our streets like we live on Brazil’s fucking Champ-Élysées, speaking with their accents. There’s no Norm for them. Our accent is aggressive to them. It’s not a white language, you know? To them, it’s dirty, smells like an old mop. It’s the language of people who sell fake watches, the language of thieves and pickpockets.”
He straightens up on his chair. “I don’t want to put the Normalizer in anyone else. Shit’s coming to a head, and, anyway, I don’t think it works.”
It makes people be someone, I think, but I don’t have the strength to say it.
“Let’s take this thing out so it doesn’t cause any more trouble,” he says, rising.
A few minutes later, he’s jabbing his scalpel into my head, twisting it. He rubs some weird fluid on my wound to close it and erase the scar completely. I don’t see any sign of it in the mirror, just a strip of shorn hair.
Rosana’s got something no one else up here has—ambition. A daughter’s dream is her mother’s dream, too. I have to graduate. I have to find a way to fill Rosana’s words and tongue with the Norm’s pomp. I won’t have my girl scraping her dreams off the soles of other people’s Nikes.
It’s math class, my favorite.
“Does anyone know the value of sine 60 degrees?” Ms. Mariana asks, her pen ready to write on the whiteboard. Above her head, on a banner, are big letters reminding us, Cultured language is the gateway to the world.
I know the answer, but don’t say it. Ms. Mariana stares at me for a while, knowing I usually respond, but I fix my gaze on my blank notebook.
It’s the end of my second year. One more, and I can ensure a future for Rosana. I just need to stay quiet and measure each word when I do speak. The principal says I’m proof that with enough effort, you can be someone.
Down There, people grow up hearing that shit. Reality is far from it.
Mamãe was from a time before the Norm, when there were still lots of guns in the favela. Then they disarmed everyone, legalized drugs, and gave free books to everyone—but they also forced the Norm down our throats. Tear down one wall just to build another. It’s always like that. Mamãe struggled like hell, defying anything and everyone, until she lost her life to all that struggling. She never got what she had earned.
“Abá.” Ms. Mariana’s voice wakes me up. She’s not talking about sines anymore. Everybody’s looking me.
“Yes?” I say, shivering at the sound of my voice. I can’t let anything come out wrong.
“Is it true?” she says, frowning. Diogo is bent over her desk, whispering some shit into her ear. “Diogo says you’re using a device that performs neural alterations.”
“I’m not—” I cough. My heart’s beating like a drum.
“She uses the favela hack,” Diogo says, straightening his back and giving me a mocking smile. “There’s a secret doctor Up There who installs them.”
“Those are very serious accusations,” Ms. Mariana says, pinching her lips and looking at Diogo. “We’ll need her to visit the Reviser’s office, but your parents will be prosecuted if your accusations are proven false. Am I clear?”
“I know, Ms. Mariana,” Diogo says. “But I’m right.”
Ms. Mariana adores me. I’m one of her favorite students. But above all, she respects the Norm.
She comes over to me and says, “The Reviser can clear you, Abá. Go over to their office and bring your certificate. I’m sorry, but rules are rules.”
“I’ve never needed to do a Revision before,” I say.
“No problem,” she says, pressing a button on her cell phone. “The Reviser just needs to ask you a few quick questions.”
“Teacher.” Diogo raises his hand. “Remind her that she could lose custody of her daughter.”
I know. Dr. Edmilson already told me about the consequences of what Mamãe had done. I don’t need reminding.
I get up. Ms. Mariana takes my shoulder firmly, directing me to the door. When I walk by Diogo, I bend down and whisper what’s been stuck in my throat for so long:
A security guard enters the classroom.
The Reviser’s office is bigger than my house. The office walls are shiny as fuck, polished, and full of frames spouting propaganda.
My patria is the cultured Norm.
A mouth that swears is the same one that will take your life.
Does your neighbor’s child speak wrong? Do they still attend your child’s school? Report it!
There’s only a desk with a computer in the room, bathed by a bright, steady light overhead.
The security guard locks the door after he puts in here. I’m not going to get away, so I prepare my tongue. Time to be proper as fuck, to test all the pretty words my routed brain had forced me to speak for years.
The doorknob clicks.
The guy who enters is gaunt, but he’s got a well-trimmed beard, greasy hair, and stinks of expensive lotion. He wears a button-down dress shirt embroidered with the government’s symbol. And he smiles at me. He smiles at me as if I’m an old friend. A shiver runs through me.
Rosana, love, Mamãe will be home soon.
“Sit,” he says, pointing at a chair in front of the table. “My name is Roberval.” He walks around the desk and sits in the other chair, behind the computer. The frames behind him are reminder notices, the light above us glinting off the glass and Roberval’s greasy hair.
I sit down and the chair squeaks, startling me. Shit. I almost speak and damn myself right away, but luckily the only thing that comes out is a surprised squeak.
“Welcome to Revision, Abá,” Roberval says, not taking his eyes off me, not hiding his perfectly straight teeth. “Revision is a necessary procedure that ensures individuals are not violating the Norm. A Revision is just one step toward a perfect, trouble-free society.
“Do you know what you are being accused of?” he asks.
“They’re lies,” I say, taking a deep breath.
“Answer the question.”
“Have you ever used non-standard or vulgar speech inside a governmental institution, such as a school or university?”
He must know when I lie. He’s gotta be trained for it.
“Yes. I received a warning.”
“Have you ever used an illegal apparatus to fit your voice to the Norm?”
“No.” I pray the fucker doesn’t catch my lie.
“Do you know people who conduct illegal procedures related to the Norm?”
Dr. Edmilson. “No.”
“Do you educate your family according to the rules of the Norm, which are provided free of charge to all Brazilian citizens?”
“Are you aware of the Norm standards at this time?”
“Tell me about yourself and the people who live with you.”
This is where the assholes are gonna trip me up.
“I…” I hesitate. It’s hard to say it right when I know that Rosana is waiting for me, when I know she’ll have to go through this same shit in the future. “I live with my daughter. Her name’s Rosana. She works at home. I go to school.”
Roberval shakes his head, the smile fading on his slim, taut lips. I was too stiff. He’s got me. He stands, as slow as fuck, opens a desk drawer, and pulls out a needle-tipped iron object and sets it on the desk. I’m sweating. I can feel the drops running down my neck.
He comes around the table to stand beside me.
“Do you understand that your mother infringed on the Norm?”
I cough at the question. He puts his hands on my head, his fingers crawling through my hair as if seeking lice.
“Yes,” I say, against my will. I can route my thoughts, too. Don’t need no Normalizer for that.
“Do you understand that your mother deserved what she got?”
I squeeze the chair’s arms. I want to knock this fucker down. I could topple him with a single shove. I could steal the key in his pocket and flee.
He picks up the iron thing and jabs it into my head. It’s just a sting. Now he’ll find the damn scar or whatever’s left inside my head. Dr. Edmilson did everything he could to hide his work, but Revisers are trained to find the evidence.
“Answer the question.”
“Yes,” I say, crying. My sight blurs.
“Why did she deserve to die?”
I feel the apparatus wiggle inside of me. It feels like I’ve got hair growing into my head at lightspeed.
You wanna scrub the shit off people in Leblon?
You think life Down There is freedom?
“Because she…” She didn’t deserve it. “She offered free classes to kids who had nothing in their lives, but she disrespected the Norm’s rules.”
“And teaching outside the Norm is…”
He nods. “People from where you live often don’t comply with the Norm. What motivates you to follow the rules?”
“My daughter is going to be a lawyer.” The smile returns to Roberval’s lips. Now he’s gonna get me, gonna say he’s found everything, that he knows I’m lying about the favela hack.
I’m going to be expelled.
Rosana will never be a lawyer.
Gonna scrub the shit off others in Leblon.
“Abá, you’re in compliance with the Norm.” Roberval removes the needle from my head. My scalp tingles. “Thank you for your collaboration. Remember that passing a Revision is a question of citizenship. I’ll print your certificate of compliance, and then you can go.”
I’m on my way home, Rosana. I’m coming.
Seu Lenilson from Buteco da Roça is the nicest man I know. Slender, with a thin mustache, he usually carries the crates and crates of beer that fuel our sambas.
For me, he’s also the face of tragedy.
He’s the one who told me about the overpopulation cleansing. He’s the one who told me Mamãe was dying because of the Norm. He owns the first bar on the way up from the favela, so he’s also the doorman for our news.
“Dona Abá.” He wipes a cloth over his bald head. “A kid scrambled up the streets looking for you. He said he had a message.”
“Who?” But I already knew the answer.
“Neat shirt, gelled hair. Said he studies with you.”
I run like Mamãe taught me, up and up, faster than ever, stretching my legs as much as I can. I used to think I was running away from life, but now I realize it’s the other way around. I’m always running to face the shit life throws at me.
Dr. Edmilson’s on the ground outside my house, a bullet in his chest. Voices flurry through the air.
“An armed madman, Abá,” Seu Irineu tells me. “Stopped his car and went up into your house. The doctor tried to stop him, but it didn’t work.”
I swallow hard. My whole body trembles. Those two hours I just spent in traffic commuting home must have been enough time for the Reviser to file suit against Diogo’s family for his mistake.
“Don’t go in there,” Irineu says. “He’s got a gun.”
But I go in anyway, because I have no other choice. I throw open my front door and the son of a bitch is in the kitchen, his gun pointed at my little girl’s head. She’s sobbing, huddled in a corner near our wobbly table.
“Your hacker mother sued me, bebezinha,” Diogo says. He doesn’t speak according to the Norm. But he’s from Down There. He’s knows he’ll be protected.
“It wasn’t my fault, Diogo,” I say. “Leave her alone.”
“I freed Brazil from that corrupt doctor.” Diogo laughs. He’s nervous as shit, too. “And now I’ll rid this country of people like you.”
He points the gun at me, his hand shaking as he approaches.
“Mamãe!” Rosana yells.
“Diogo, let’s talk,” I say, as cultured as I can, routing my thoughts, seeking the best way out of this situation. But there are times when you can’t be reasonable. There are times life comes at you, full speed, and the only thing you can do is hit back.
I reach for the sink, grab a knife, and crouch.
Diogo fires. Once, twice—three times. They all miss.
I rush forward and thrust the knife into his arm.
The gun drops. He screams.
I’m disgusted and afraid. And I’m running, running straight at life. I raise the knife once more as the fucker falls to his knees.
In the chaos, I’ve forgotten Rosana is here. I raise the knife, sobbing. Tears are the ink they used to write the Norms Up Here.
My hands shake. The knife drops.
Rosana protected him. My girl defended someone.
People pour in from outside, pressing Diogo to the floor, surrounding Rosana and me, picking up the knife.
I take Rosana in my arms, trying not to touch her with my bloodstained hands. My fear vanishes the moment I feel her warm cheek on my shoulder. Relief follows it as I see all the people helping me, my house swelling with them, their steady hands putting things back into place.
Dr. Edmilson’s two assistants take Diogo outside to wait for the police. Even Seu Lenilson comes, helps tidy the things that have been knocked down, helps scrub the last drops of blood off the floor.
I feel Mamãe here among us, in me. In Dona Zefa, who learned multiplication tables from Mamãe. She takes my arm and rinses it with antiseptic. In Seu Irineu, who gossiped with Mamãe about soap operas, offering a cup of water to Rosana.
Mamãe is Up Here with us. There’s a drop of her in everyone.
And she was right about many things, but one of those things you can’t figure out until you’re out for a run: when you’re born a nobody, it’s fucking hard to become someone, but Up Here we never run alone.