The Head Of The Saint by Socorro AcioliThe Head Of The Saint by Socorro Acioli

The Head Of The Saint

bySocorro AcioliTranslated byDaniel Hahn

Hardcover | March 8, 2016

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A 2017 LA Times Book Prize Finalist

A quirky story of love, mischief, and forgiveness from Brazil’s foremost award-winning author for young readers, in her U.S. debut.

 
Fourteen-year-old Samuel is newly orphaned and homeless in a small town in Brazil. He lives in a giant, hollow, concrete head of St. Anthony, the lingering evidence of the village’s inept and failed attempt to build a monolith over a decade ago. He didn’t know what it was when he crawled into it, seeking shelter during a storm, but since coming there, he hears beautiful singing, echoing like magic in the head twice a day. So he stays.

Miraculously, he can also hear the private prayers and longings of the villagers. Feeling mischievous, Samuel begins to help answer these prayers, hoping that if he does, their noise will quiet down and he can listen to the beautiful singing in peace. Ironically, his miracles gain him so many fans that he starts to worry he will never fulfill his own true longing and find the source of the singing.
 
Filled with beautiful turns of phrase and wonderfully quirky characters, The Head of the Saint is a riotous story of faith and magic that won’t soon leave your thoughts.
Socorro Acioli was born in Fortaleza, Ceara, Brazil. She is a journalist and has a master’s degree in Brazilian literature and a PhD in literary studies. She started her writing career in 2001 and since then has published books in various genres, including children’s short stories and YA novels, and has received Brazil’s most prestigio...
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Title:The Head Of The SaintFormat:HardcoverDimensions:192 pages, 8.5 × 5.88 × 0.7 inPublished:March 8, 2016Publisher:Random House Children's BooksLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:055353792X

ISBN - 13:9780553537925

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CharityHe was no longer wearing shoes, and his feet, by now, had turned into something else: a pair of deformed animals. Two filthy, toothy things. Two wild creatures attached to his ankles, untiring, moving forward, one after another, leading Samuel on for sixteen long, painful days under the sun.For the first of those days, blood and water seeped from the burst blisters on his feet and hissed as they touched the harsh, red-hot tarmac. Now his feet were dry, so dry they made no sound at all. A new layer of skin had appeared, almost a snakeskin--a shriveled thing, an impressive achievement from nature. His legs were a paradox: the thinner they got, the stronger they became. His muscles grew, even on the dirty shins that supported his emaciated thighs. And his body, as dirty as if newly exhumed, walked constantly straight ahead.Sixteen days. Sometimes he would look down, afraid that his belly would be clinging to his ribs. Like in the story of the fallen man that his mother, Mariinha, used to tell him. That day, she would say, had been very hot--with more than just the hot wind they were used to. She had heard the sound of someone outside, clapping to attract her attention. She went to open the door, ready with the modest happiness that she always shared with her neighbors or those who bought hats from her. Her smile disappeared with the shock of what she found: a man lying on the floor, so starved that the skin over his stomach clung to his ribs. The man was handsome, and it was this that saved him. The women in the neighborhood lost no time in boiling him up a cornmeal porridge, roasting a fat chicken, making a kilo of sauteed rice with garlic and salt, frying a large pan of manioc flour mixed with dried beef and coriander, pouring nine glasses of milk with cinnamon and boiling eight eggs. There was no shortage of volunteers to deliver the dishes, to feed him, shave him, clean his face with a piece of cloth scented with cologne. It took two days of the unfortunate man gorging on food for his belly to unstick from his ribs with a loud, dry popping sound that could be heard right across Horto. He returned from the land of the dead with such desire that it took him no time at all to ask for the hand of one of the girls in marriage. The girl was Estelita, the one who had brought him the cornmeal porridge.Samuel’s own belly was almost stuck to his ribs, too, and he could only hope it would still be possible to unstick it when the time came. Would anybody help him? Would anyone bring food to a walking dead man? He thought about roast chicken, about bananas, about his mother’s hands filling his milky-white porcelain plate, with its chipped edges and little peeling floral design. His mother’s hands were something he tried not to remember. The memory was a pain that had no name.Shoes, trouser legs, shirtsleeves, just a little money: everything had been left behind along the way. (Amazing, but there are people who will buy shirtsleeves.) His ill-protected torso was two different colors. His arms, sunburned now, were no use for anything but to support his hands. Of all the things a body requires, he had almost none of them. His body beseeched and punished him in equal measure. The suitcase he had been carrying when he set off from home was traded on the fifth day. It was that or starvation. He swapped it for a dish of cooked meat and bean stew. The owner of a boardinghouse had agreed, reluctantly, only because she needed a suitcase to keep her tablecloths in.All he had left were the few words of the address in his left-hand pocket. In the heat he worried that the little piece of paper would roast and the only clue to his destiny would catch fire. Samuel would put his hand in his pocket desperately: that would be the worst of the day’s whole roster of nightmares. He wanted to get there, to the place described in those eight words and one number. Getting there was the only purpose he had in life.His smooth dark hair had grown quickly and was already flopping irritatingly over his forehead, obstructing his vision. He had small eyes, generous eyebrows that met above his nose, a fleshy mouth and other features that he had inherited from his mother.Samuel’s was a thin, hungry body, almost a shadow, which didn’t stop walking. Almost ten hours of walking a day. Not much water, scant food, sleep only in brief bursts. He shed everything along the way: youth, happiness, bits of skin, milliliters of sweat, kilos of flesh and the paltry remaining threads of faith that there might be something invisible on earth that could help men. This faith had never been his own--it was Mariinha’s; he would borrow it only seldom. At that moment, Samuel didn’t have the slightest faith in matters of the spirit.On the other side of the road, meanwhile, walking toward the place he’d come from, were perfect examples of his extreme opposite.CandeiaThey were eight people of faith: three men, two women, three children. All of them in exactly the same tunic of thick brown fabric that St. Francis used to wear, so they believed. A cord tied round the waist, a few provisions. Not a lot: they were at the end of their journey, wilted and empty. They walked away from the towering statue of St. Francis of Caninde, brown and huge, with its palms outstretched.They were walking slowly, the younger man on his knees, the others close around him. The smaller children were being carried; the older one was on foot and endured his penance without complaint, not realizing he did not yet owe any saint anything at all. They babbled the whole time, praying constantly, for the saint was listening to them. They walked under the gaze of St. Francis so that he might see them, see their sacrifice, and look kindly upon the petitions they brought with them.It didn’t take long for them to notice the lone half-naked youth on the other side of the road. One of the women hurriedly took a bottle of water out of her cloth bag, as well as a rag, a flask of rubbing alcohol, a bit of dry bread. They were there to help him, just as St. Francis helped them. She and her husband ran over to take care of this presumed pilgrim boy. The closer they got, the more painfully apparent his wretched condition was.“You won’t lack for charity, brother. St. Francis is watching you!” said the woman, quick and devoted.Samuel took the bottle and drank the water desperately, letting it run down the sides of his mouth, his neck, his chest.“St. Francis will give you strength, brother! You will find solace in his blessings,” said her husband with a smile.“But I’m not a pilgrim, senhor,” said Samuel, his rotten breath laced with sarcasm. “I just want to know whether it’s still far to Candeia, but if you do have more food, I’d also be grateful for that.”The woman was enraged. He wasn’t a pilgrim; he was some good-for-nothing kid--a thief, a rapist, a murderer, a swindler. . . . No good at all, that was for sure. A good kid doesn’t walk filthy along the road or respond in that way to the charity of those trying to lessen his afflictions. Her analysis of his character had moved, in mere moments, from one end of the scale to the other. She threw the dry bread onto the ground and crossed the road back to her people. Her husband remained; he knew a bit more about life and having patience for human weakness. He had already seen a lot of decent people going crazy on the Chagas road--it was a regular occurrence. In all these years as a pilgrim he had seen everything on the road and had learned to take pity, because sometimes God does deliver man from his madness. The Devil is an artist. Few are they who can escape Satan’s tricks.He pointed over to the statue of St. Francis and showed Samuel how close he already was to reaching the foot of the saint.“Candeia is on the slopes of St. Francis, on this side of the road, after Caninde. Go with God, brother.”Samuel didn’t answer. The pilgrim smiled, just slightly. His eyes were trying to express faith and strength to the weakened youth.Samuel felt much stronger having met the man and drunk the water. The man watched him from the other side of the road as Samuel quickened his pace and saw that he really was close to Candeia. In this the pilgrim had been useful, he thought. He could already spot a few houses out in the distance, to the right. He looked at the piece of paper in his pocket: “Niceia Rocha Vale, Manoel Vale, Rua da Matriz, 52.”CafeCandeia had almost nothing to it. A collection of dead houses, a little old church, the remnants of a square. Some of the buildings didn’t even have a roof, and others had been taken over by the forest and were missing their walls. Even the windless air seemed to have lost all hope. It was hard to believe that anyone lived here.The only sign of life came from an open cafe. Two wooden tables were out front, and beside those a truck, with a man and a woman in the driver’s cab. They listened to music, hugged and kissed each other. It was even more sad and desolate than Horto Hill, this village--much more. In Horto, part of Juazeiro do Norte, there were people, the town was alive. And in the midst of all those people it was always possible to find a good soul, like his mother, a pretty girl, a lively friend. Candeia was dead. It was especially bad at this time of day, when even the sun was ending its life.Samuel was a little glad, though, to hear the truck driver’s music. He almost smiled. This quick wisp of gladness lasted until the appearance of a terrifying woman through the badly painted blue cafe door. She was cursing, with a broom in her hand, and shouting to the truck driver to turn that bloody music off. The driver addressed her by name.“Where’s my coffee, Helenice? Stop grumbling, you old terror!”Out of the same door now appeared a young woman, very young, with a red thermos and two cups. She came and went quickly, bringing two plates, four small bread rolls, two baked bananas and a tub of margarine.“Five reais,” commanded Helenice, her hand on the thermos. “If you don’t pay, you don’t eat.”Laughing at Helenice the whole time, the man paid. He was visibly drunk, constantly trying to bite the woman in the driver’s cab, who was badly dressed, wretched, half-naked, pretty ugly. It seemed almost impossible that all this should be contained within a single person.Samuel envied the driver and the food that he ate. He remembered Mariinha, who liked tapioca pancakes with coffee. That was how they were, these memories of Mariinha, always surfacing, wordless; photos from a memory, hurried scenes. With a scent, sometimes. Always her scent.Helenice took her broom back inside, and the girl went round to the side of the house. Samuel followed her, giving no thought to how much more frightening his presence would be in the twilight.“Please, for the love of God, can you spare any bread?”He didn’t recognize himself in this boy who used God’s name to ask for bread, but he had learned on Horto Hill that the only way to move people in this lost part of the world was to threaten that God was watching everything and that He would not forgive a lack of charity.The girl jumped at the sound of his voice. He saw a mixture of fear and pity in her face as she said a hurried “Wait there” and came back quickly, tossing him a bag.His hunger didn’t stop him from noticing how attractive the girl was, with a fine body and honey eyes. Samuel reached into the bag and attacked the old bread fiercely, gnawing desperately at it and choking on the dry crusts. His face quickly turned purple, he couldn’t breathe--he’d always eaten too fast since he was a kid. It wasn’t a pretty sight.The girl took a bottle that was dirty with something and filled it with water from the tap. She handed it to the suffocating boy, who drank--all flustered--and cleared his throat. She felt sorry for him. Perhaps he was even her age. It would have been better if he had been old, really old--that way he would be harmless and she could help him more. Maybe then even her mother would take pity on him, too. The girl had a selfish thought: he was suffering more than she was. How good it was to see someone suffering more. How good. That wretched destiny, however it might have come about, made her own fate a little lighter. She had never thought she would find someone who suffered more than she did. But she had, just for a moment.Helenice appeared in a rage and shooed Samuel out with her broom, as though he were an animal. She was the animal, not him, Samuel thought, still coughing. She asked the girl to take the bottle from him, but the girl didn’t do what she was told. She ran into the cafe while Helenice launched herself at Samuel, yelling, brandishing the broom as though it were a sword. There was nothing for him to do but run.He was in Candeia, at last, but where nobody knew him. Where he had only just arrived and already been chased off with a broomstick, where he’d only managed to get a bag of dry bread with dirty water, where it was hard to believe anyone lived, where the sun was beginning to take its leave.Three potbellied little boys, practically naked, were running through those Saturday afternoon streets. The dust, the thin cats, everything suffered from desolation and despair.He sat down on a bit of pavement to continue eating the dry crusts, more carefully this time. He drank some water, slowly, until he saw a tap on the wall of the house next to where he was sitting. Now he drank as much as he wanted; he’d be able to refill the bottle, even wash his face before seeking out the address. He was there to find a house, find a woman, ask after a man, settle an ancient debt and then leave. It should not take long. He was driven more by fury than planning. He trusted he’d know what to do when the time came.

Editorial Reviews

A 2017 LA Times Book Prize Finalist A New York Public Library Best Book for Teens, 2016“…the unexplained miracles, intricately entwined stories, and long-buried family secrets would be at home in a García Márquez novel…With an offbeat approach and beautiful, evocative language, this unusual, fablelike novel will appeal to literary-minded teens.” —Booklist starred review“Indeed, all of humanity and no small measure of godliness are on display in this translated Brazilian import that evokes a sense of wonder and treats readers to a fascinating glimpse of a setting and worldview seldom seen in Anglophone youth literature.” —The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books starred review