Editor’s Note: This text is available to read in English and Portuguese. Clicking “Español” will take you to the Portuguese text.
When the shadows cover part of the sky and the sun retreats just behind the mountains, the boys climb the street, euphoric.
The ball, carried with pride, passes from hand to hand. Everyone wants to touch it. Each of them paid for a piece. It took months to save up the money, doing odd jobs here and there. The ball had to be good enough for playing real soccer, on a field, from a famous brand, something professional.
Seven days a week, the seven boys take turns with the ball. Each one has a special place for it to sit. In the shacks where they live, amid all that scarcity, dust and stench, the ball is the only material possession they have, the only nice thing to admire at home.
At the top of the deserted street, they jump over the wall of a clandestine graveyard, which for them is just a piece of land with enough space to play soccer without being disturbed.
They cross the site to the other side, to a flat stretch of dirt where it’s easier to play. They mark the goal with what they find lying around, usually stones, sometimes pieces of dried-up bones.
The match starts: slowly, with skillful passes and vicious dribbling. Minutes later, cries for revenge and profanity are heard, and rude gestures are made. At least two of the boys show some talent and a possible future in the sport. But everyone is committed. It’s the moment they turn into imagined idols, when they forget about poverty and domestic violence.
They like being among the dead. Those dead. No name, age or past to identify them. Mortal remains mixed with rocks and scraps of wood. It’s hard to tell them apart.
Between one match and the next, they drink water from a tap and cool off by dousing their heads. They decide to play a penalty shootout. Two of the boys take turns inside the goal. It’s always the tensest moment of the game, where failure and success become clear, when talents stand out.
The gate to the graveyard opens, and a small truck pulls inside. The boys stop playing and go sit in a corner, watching the action.
Two men unload bags of bones from the truck. They lift the tarp covering a grave and toss the bones of several bodies inside. With a shovel, they cover the bones with a little dirt. One good rain will reveal what’s been hidden.
The men return to the truck and leave. The boys go back to the penalty kicks. Daylight is waning.
A boy, carrying a bag, hops over the wall and greets his friends.
He mills around while the others finish their game. Scattered about are some small, overturned crosses, broken skulls, forearms, femurs, jaws, ribs, and other shards and splinters of bone. He bends down and picks up some of the pieces and looks at them, trying to identify the body part. He decides on a jawbone and slips it into his bag.
The match comes to an end and so does the daylight. There’s only the grayish tinge of the last remaining light that makes them look like figures in silhouette.
They walk down the street, pleased with their soccer game, commenting on the highlights. The boy shows the others the jawbone he found. They laugh and call him crazy. He shrugs.
At home, the now clean ball gleams on a shelf. The boy falls asleep gazing at it, dreaming of a promising future, dreaming about the next day’s match.
In the house next door, the jaw gleams on a shelf alongside other pieces of bone. The boy falls asleep gazing at it, dreaming about that piece of bone. Maybe, just maybe it’s his dad.
Translated by Zoë Perry