solar tree art by Brianna Castagnozzi

by Renan Bernardo

I know how Solândia’s June Party will taste and smell before I arrive—burnt popcorn. It’s that charred, ever-so-slightly buttery sensation of being in the right place, but in a time that can never be right again.

Alana died five months ago after a quick, but merciless battle against cystic fibrosis. Yet here I am, at a party, being disrespectful.

A mocking undertone pervades the air as I cross the flag-ornamented arc of the entrance. In every child yelping after winning a plushy sunflower in a fishing game, and in the wafting chaos of farofa-coated bio-frankfurters, corn pudding, and love apples. When I dare to feel but a fleeting satisfaction for being back in Solândia, it’s quickly gouged out of me by my guilt and held before my eyes, as if saying, “Hey, is that what you’re doing here? Being joyful… Aren’t you supposed to be mourning?”

It’s the first time I’m coming here after she died. We used to come many times a year until the disease grabbed her away. I’m here now because it’s that time of the year again, time for her party. Although Solândia’s June Party is all-year long, for me—as it was for her—June is supposed to be our special moment. It’s in the name of the party, yeah. But it’s also in the way the wind blows, chillier, drier, carrying hints of spending the evening together, snuggling and acknowledging half of the year has slipped by fast and ruthless, but there’s always something to grasp ahead of you.

Perhaps, I’m here to challenge the party, this monstrous, continuous entity looming in the countryside. Because how could there exist a place that gobbles up people across two square kilometers of happiness and laughter and dance and affection? Alana is dead. I’ve set the canister with her resomated body on her mother’s doorstep myself. The June Party should be in mourning.

I walk across one of the roads that branch through all the party sectors like veins. Many of the places are now foggy in my mind as if I watched a movie about it a long time ago and couldn’t recall more than the vague setting. The surroundings bloom, remembrances returning back where they’re supposed to be. I realize—recall, exhume—that Solândia is the party of our firsts. 

First kiss (underneath a moon-bulb sky, a couple dissonantly slipping from the quadrille, our makeup—fake mustaches, goatees, and freckles—smearing each other, straw hats too big for our touching lips). 

First time making love (hidden in the vacant booth of the fishing game because Mr. Marques was sick and didn’t come). 

First time telling each other we would always come together to Solândia, no matter what.

A girl with a straw hat, braided black hair, and a patched dress with sewn flaps stops in front of me, smiling, a heart-shaped pad on her hand casting a pink glow on her painted freckles.

“Ah! It’s you,” she says, taking a good look at me.

“What is it?” But I know what it is. Love Mail. A tradition of June parties where people need to follow clues to find a secret admirer. “I’m going to pass on this…”

The girl scrunches up her face.

“You don’t reject a love letter unread…” She extends her pad to my arm, where my skin blinks with letter icons, notifying me of an incoming message.

“Look…” I say, glancing at my arm.

The girl leaps forward, taps “Accept” on my arm, and skitters away, disappearing in the multitude of people lining up in front of booths to buy candies—crunchy pé-de-moleque or nutty cocada—and tickets to the games.

The back of my neck emits a haptic nudge. I look at my arm.

❤️~❤️~❤️~FOLLOW THE LOVE~❤️~❤️~❤️
Under St. John’s starlit sky.
I stared deep into your eye.
Find me where the devil meets the saint.
❤️~❤️~❤️~FOLLOW THE LOVE~❤️~❤️~❤️

A riddle. My finger hovers above “Discard.” But I don’t tap it. Alana would agree with the courier. Even after we started our relationship, she’d never have let me deny it. At June parties, you owe a debt with love letters, even if it’s just to say a polite ‘no.’ Love—be it that jittery shift in your belly or that mammoth depth inside your soul—isn’t supposed to be promptly discarded, she’d say.

I sigh, lifting my head and looking to the sea of colored flags and balloons bedecking the party, plucked by the sunset breeze. I have no idea where the riddle points.

I set out to find my secret admirer, guilt gnawing at my chest while I look for clues. The party unfurls around me, droplets of memories beading up here and there. A kiss under a booth, a joke by the road’s edge, an eagerness before a rendezvous. Go back home… You’re supposed to be muffling your cries with your pillow. I clench my teeth to ward off the thought.

Solândia’s June Party is the world’s largest, extending over an area of two square kilometers. And the only one everlasting, going on for fifteen uninterrupted years and counting. The party boasts the biggest quadrille dance in the world, the tug-of-war with most participants, and the most pompous fake marriages, even more elaborate than real ones.

The road slopes up to a plain field where biogas lampposts cast swatches of green and orange across hundreds of white bamboo tables, booths, and sprout-booths carved into hollowed-out tree trunks, all crowded by visitors. Pockmarking the field, dozens of color-shifting bonfires flank the dance squares where couples boast their joy with forró songs, hands clasping together, circles rhythmically shrinking and broadening, fake goatees and fake freckles glistening with sweat. All acting as if death isn’t part of the world.

Then, I know I’m going the wrong way. Not because grief is clouding my mind, but because grief is sticky. It wants to stay with you. And it knows if I go along the right path, it might be washed out to a bittersweet memory.

I tap my arm. All love letters have an expiration time. I may let it die by not finding the next clue. Instead, I decide to make a pact, to bargain with my grief and make this deal with the party. If I follow the love mail clues and honor my debt, then it won’t be disrespectful to Alana’s memory. When it’s all sorted out, I can just go back home.

I go back along the road and follow the right path.

Where the devil meets the saint. The Quentão Factory, a barrel-shaped restaurant where waiters prepare the typical warm drink using two liters of wine, half a cup of cachaça, sugar, cinnamon, ginger, and water. A chiton-dressed St. John pours a glass of water from a gallon jug while a reddened, grinning man pours a glass of cachaça. The place is packed. It’s June. There won’t be a single spot that isn’t swarming with that anticipation of amusement and romance inherent to all June Parties.

An empty guardian mecha silently watches from the corner. Somewhere nearby, a woman sings in a boisterous voice. “Tá me esperando na janela, ai, ai.” The dancers echo. “Não sei se vou me segurar.”

Alana was already coughing that day. She held her breath after a fit, a few steps from me, her smile unwavering even then. She sported an eyeliner-drawn mustache and goatee, her hair dyed in red and yellow, puffing out from underneath her straw hat. The quentão cup in her hand tilted to the side, the dark red liquid almost spilling.

“Don’t look at me like that,” she said, mocking me, carefully sipping the drink from the straw. She stopped and inhaled, sucking in the air with difficulty. When she stepped forward, I thought she was falling. I felt my tendons and muscles tauten up to grab her in my arms and prevent her from falling… My teeth grating my lips… The aftertaste of a tumble that never happened.

She was only leaning in to kiss the tip of my nose.

“Let’s get some paçoca before the dance,” she said, breath whiffing out cinnamon and alcohol.

I can’t remember the feeling of relief anymore, the dimpling of my cheeks as I smiled back at her and kissed her on her earlobe. The after-scent of a floral perfume—delicately sprayed on each side of her neck—I thought I would never forget. Only the tension remains, as if my muscles never relaxed and never will.

A nudge throbs in my neck. I peek at my arm.

❤️~❤️~❤️~FOLLOW THE LOVE~❤️~❤️~❤️
Where the ground is smashed.
In June, pleas of love, people gathered.
Find me where sweat and heat converge.
❤️~❤️~❤️~FOLLOW THE LOVE~❤️~❤️~❤️

I smile, then grimace. Smiling tastes like overcooked corn.

But this clue is obvious. It leads to Solândia’s Central Field, the place where the party converges.

The walk to the Central Field takes fifteen minutes. This is not the only path leading to the center. Like a web, eleven other roads lead to the Central Field, coming from all seventy-two party entrances.

Photovoltaic cells line up on the soil, whole gardens of them chaotically mingled with more bamboo tables, sprout-booths, and dance squares. Underneath my feet, the patched dirt road and the grass surrounding it reveals the metallic glints of the thermoelectric and kinetic generators that underlay Solândia’s soil. The dance harvester—as people like to call it—underneath Solândia’s grounds harnesses all the movement from footsteps and dances, and all the heat from bonfires and bodies exuding joy. It not only helps power the communities all around, but also provides increased moisture capacity and granular structure to the soil of the vegetable gardens that feed Solândia.

Shining in the middle of the field, St. John’s Fogueirão casts its gilded glares across the party. That’s not something grief can block from me. It never could, maybe because of its glaring light: One tall, vivid fire, yet many symbols. Some people go to Solândia only to see it, to leave offerings to St. John and pray, in gratitude or gloom. And then there are people like Alana and me who went for the warmth on our backs, the kindling crackle of the flames, and the shadows dancing in front of us while we talked about the surrounding communities and of how Solândia distributed the energy harvested from dance and movement to five different towns.

It would be her postdoctoral research had she lived. She’d promised herself to make that fire shine brighter for a lot of other communities. She had plans to use artificial intelligence and machine learning to improve the efficiency and management of the generators. Once, during a peculiarly quiet evening around the Fogueirão, she’d told me how she wanted to turn the party into a living organism, something that could spread beyond its boundaries and supply energy and comfort throughout other parts of the country using a relay of underground networks. Joy and life bequeathing dignity and solace.

“It’s not machine learning,” she’d told me, chuckling with an afterthought, pressing her forehead against my shoulder. “It’s party learning. The party will learn and improve itself.”

That day, she had the air of someone overly conscious of one’s own fate. After a moment of silence, I’d lowered my head on her shoulder and absorbed the soft thumping of her heart as tears flowed across her body. There wasn’t much to be said by then.

I swallow the memories. They taste like cooled quentão. And farewells. I’ve already said my goodbyes to Alana. Once. Briefly. As she asked it to be. A kiss on the lips followed by walking away from her. No more visits in the hospital, no more trying to find her perfume amidst the antiseptic scent of intensive care.

A mecha trumpets nearby, whirring its gearwheels and flexing its supple legs. The sound of accordions, zabumbas, and triangles come out from speakers on its bulky belly. It’s all graffitied with the party’s motifs—balloons, peanut brittles, maria-moles, canjicas, bonfires, and stick men and women dressed in bridal gowns and mended jeans. The underside of the mecha’s arms is bedecked with colored, diamond-shaped flags in many different sizes. Children play Saci hop under its legs, giggling and tumbling, jumping on one leg . The mecha had been one of the guardians when sabotage was still common among all the groups wanting to take a bite from the party’s success. It provided security, monopolized energy production, and controlled the booths sales. Now it’s just a retired hunk of metal, a sturdy guardian walking around the bonfire for the children’s amusement.

My neck tickled and throbbed. I glance at my arm.

❤️~❤️~❤️~FOLLOW THE LOVE~❤️~❤️~❤️
❤️~❤️~❤️~FOLLOW THE LOVE~❤️~❤️~❤️

 Wrong place?

I frown and hit back to check the previous riddle.

Where the ground is smashed.

There are always mechas stomping the grounds around the Fogueirão

In June, pleas of love, people gathered.

The people who pray to the bonfire…

Find me where sweat and heat converge.

I lift my head and stare deeply into the fire. The party converges in the Fogueirão, but it’s not where people converge. They like to see it and make their prayers, but they don’t linger. Although it offers light and warmth, it can’t provide exhilaration. So where?

I traipse along on the grounds near the Fogueirão as if waddling my way through smog, trying to let the riddle solve itself. A shadow already creeps up on me, wanting to be cast over the Quentão Factory and the moments that regained clarity after I crossed Solândia’s arched gate. The more time passes, the more I need to just walk away fast  to the safety of my pain.

But I made a pact with my grief.

I sit on a bench, recomposing, hands slightly shivering on my lap. Nearby, children hop around a mecha, frolicking and giggling, still far from needing to bargain with life. Night drains the sky, leaving little space for blue, just a blackened, empty canvas in its place.

“Olá,” a little boy stops before me, words glowing on his arm. He has a thin mustache drawn underneath his nose. He hands me a love apple on a stick. Its sickly caramelized scent invades my senses.

“Are you giving it to me?”

He shakes his head. “Not me.”

I look around, searching for my secret admirer, expecting to see someone smiling or waving—or for my guilt to say I should be home, mourning. But there’s no one. And my guilt says nothing.

“I don’t see—”

But the boy has already vanished. I wonder for a split second if my mind’s playing tricks. But the love apple is real. As I eat it and surrender to its sweetness, I realize that, like before, I know where sweat and heat converge. I was just pretending the riddle was hard so I could flee from the solution. And like before, I can’t go back there. Why waste my time over memories that will never become real again? Why bother?

I finish the love apple and force myself to stand up from the bench with the same effort I exert to wake up every morning.

The answer to the riddle is the Quadrilha da Perpétua. It’s happening every day, every hour, every second, a ceaseless quadrille alternating dancers in synchronized sway in an eternal rotation of dance and music and unrestricted happiness. It’s where people go to find friendship and fun, joy and lightness, love and sex. It’s the vortex of all things, gobbling down sadness and spewing forth joy.

But there’s something else. My heart hammers in my chest. The Quentão Factory and Quadrilha da Perpétua aren’t just random places that a secret admirer would think of while elaborating riddles. There are hundreds of different spots around the party that could fit those descriptions. Those particular places are central to me.

It was in Quentão Factory where we had our last drink together.

It was in Quadrilha da Perpétua where we shared our first dance.

It can’t be a coincidence… but it can. It’s only my mind trying to find meaning in some stranger’s riddling logic. Those are only places. They’re significant to many people, famous to most partygoers. I’ve set the rest of her on her mother’s doorstep. I’ve signed the documents. There’s nothing to look for in Solândia.

Yet, sometimes, the only way forward is making sure there’s no way back. I look at the road from where I came and pretend it doesn’t exist. I touch my arm and check the love mail’s config.

No bonds last forever! This letter will expire in five minutes.

I shoo the children away from the mecha and climb its legs. The unused head-door grumbles when I open it and enter. I inhale the decade-old hydraulic fluid and neglected cushions.

And when I slip into its control gloves and brogans, it molds perfectly around my arms and legs. It’s like it has been made for me.

I run. The mecha’s feet trample the road toward the quadrille.

Around the enormous square, sitting before the balloon-laden fence, unpaired people wait for an invitation to be carried into the whirlwind, loners feeding on the temporariness of solitude. It’s a trait of high seasons, when lines of couples wind alongside the square, waiting to take their turn, to become part of the rows of dancers and be swallowed by the arraiá and the balancê.

It was Alana who kneeled before me and invited me to dance with her, braided locks puffing out from her head with tiny colorful clips, a tattered straw hat in her hand. I was only looking around the square, thinking how beautiful the four bonfires in each of its corners were, like protective saints themselves, tricks making the light range from pink to green to orange. I hadn’t thought of dancing. But just as you don’t reject a love letter unread, you don’t refuse an invitation to dance.

While we waited in line, Alana told me how thirty percent of all party-generated energy in Quadrilha da Perpétua came from the feet stomping on the ground, all the frisking and rhythm translated into energy and dignity for all the surrounding communities. And she told me how it could reach seventy percent if the party itself was able to trim its energy expenditure, and how so many possibilities could come from that. She’d eagerly dive into the details, and I’d eagerly listen until the quadrille devoured us. If only we had the time.

And we danced. How we danced. Left, left, right, right, shuffling, thighs glued together in a xote symphony. When the couples moved away in two separate lines facing each other, we stared deep into each other’s eyes, already bound. And as the lines marched toward one another and we connected again, I pulled her closer and kissed her. If the Fogueirão was where it all ended, with the certainty of death looming over us like ghosts creeping out of the flames, then it was in Quadrilha da Perpétua where it all started.

I switch off the mecha near the square. People gape and gather around the guardian, clapping, booing, laughing, singing in everlasting energy.

I climb out of it, legs frail as I leap to the ground.

“Hey,” I call to a love courier standing in a corner and show him my arm. “Can you tell me when this love letter was written?” I need to make sure it’s a coincidence and not some past letter from Alana that only today was mapped to my arm. I need to rid it of meanings.

The boy frowns. “Probably today, mixter. I never saw love letters from any other days. It wouldn’t make sense because—”

“Just tell me, please.”

The boy shrugs and raises his heart-shaped pad near my arm. He peeks at it, gaping and sliding a finger over an icon.

“That’s weird…” he says. “These things get smarter day by day. It’s like the holo-fish escaping from the fishing game. It’s funny. It seems to have been self-generated as soon as it detected your arm. It doesn’t … have a date?”

Self-generated? I think of asking who sent it, but the words catch in my throat. No need.

I run, eyes hopping from people in the crowd to my arm, waiting for another link, praying for time like I did during Alana’s last weeks. A song blasts from the speakers around the square, which is so large its edges get fuzzy in the bonfires’ glare. Non-piloted mechas gather near the fences, each holding a couple of balloons in their mechanical hands, their feet stomping the field.

Foi numa noite igual a esta

Que tu me deste o coração

O céu estava assim em festa

Pois era noite de São João

My eyes tear up. Yes, it was on a night like this you gave me your heart.

I look at my arm as soon as it vibrates. It shows an automated message. 

❤️~❤️~❤️~FOLLOW THE LOVE~❤️~❤️~❤️
[You’ve found each other! Enjoy the love!]
❤️~❤️~❤️~FOLLOW THE LOVE~❤️~❤️~❤️

Beneath my skin, a soft thumping spreads throughout my arm. The beating of a heart, the tempo of a body crying…

Her way of saying goodbye. No hands interlaced on a bedside smelling of antiseptic certainty. No incessant beeps fading, dance steps coming to an end.

The bonfires around the square all shift to plum-hued flames, Alana’s favorite color.

Her way of saying a different kind of hello.

I force my legs to walk confidently to a young woman with braided brown hair underneath a straw hat full of green ribbons. My muscles relax. I extend a hand and invite her to dance. Other people receive messages in their arms and devices. They open up for us, giving us their place in line.

We enter the square, crossing our arms together, waving our hats.

My neck sends a signal, but I don’t look at my arm yet.

I just dance.

Olha pro céu, meu amor

Vê como ele está lindo

I look up to the sky. Small balloons stud the blackening night, released by the mechas around the square. The night smells of sweet cake and buttery popcorn.

Renan Bernardo (he/him) is a science fiction and fantasy writer from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. His fiction appeared or is forthcoming in Apex Magazine, Dark Matter Magazine, Simultaneous Times Podcast, and Life Beyond Us, an anthology organized by the European Astrobiology Institute. He was one of the selected for the Imagine 2200 climate fiction contest with his story When It’s Time to Harvest. In Brazil, he was a finalist for two important SFF awards and published multiple stories. His fiction has also appeared in Portuguese and Italian.