The Rise and Fall of Cative Verbs

God didn't need to create hell: it exists in a child's head, fully formed, waiting for the merest nod to belch sulfur and hot ash. For me, a taste of it arrived in the form of cative verbs, one fine afternoon in fourth grade—and just as quickly vanished, leaving behind relief and a surprising tinge of disappointment.

To back off a month or so, it was a March morning, the beginning of the school year in Brazil. My hand swallowed up by Father's, we walked up to the Episcopalian parish school. “Excellent school. Very expensive.” He wasn't the sort to waste words. That was my father: a man of big hands and few words.

He didn't seem to notice the sweaty palm of the blonde she-Daniel he was taking to the lions, but that's because I wiped it on my new blue pleated skirt. This walk up the hill marked the end of my year away from school—yes, I had spent a year out of school, Mother having decided I suffered from “frail health.” Initially, I had especially relished the thought of my former classmates chained to desks in stuffy school rooms while I was free— viva a liberdade!— to air out my brain with sweet tropical breezes. But weeks had turned into months and then into a lonely and aimless year—too much time, too little to do. Freedom became as boring as last year's captivity.

So that's how I began fourth grade. The long absence had morphed me into a clumsy calf among (I thought) a herd of graceful, self-assured deer. My new classmates knew each other from the previous school year; I was a solitary transplant from another school. They were ten, I was eleven and just about the tallest in the class. I was a blond “Germanoid,” they mostly had dark hair and olive skin. But I was smarter, I found out when the first few tests put me at the top of the class. Finally, something to feel good about.

Cative verbs rose out of this brew of abject self-doubt and brittle pride. The afternoon started out like many others, warm and muggy, flies making slow circles above our heads. We had just settled down to study grammar. Now, Portuguese grammar is burdened with declensions, participles, verb tenses, conjugations, and other nightmares of childhood. This afternoon was dedicated to verb forms. Dona Célia, our teacher, called on one of the boys:

“Miguel, come to the board to analyze a verb form. Let's do the verb ‘I prepare.'”

Miguel scooted from behind his desk, smoothed the wrinkles in his khaki uniform, marched to the blackboard, stretched to reach the top, and wrote a couple of lines in his large, meticulous handwriting. The teacher casually nodded her approval:

“That's great, Miguel. You may go back to your seat.”

I stared, frozen, at the blackboard. A cative regular verb? The words were clearly there, insolent, mocking. “Cative verb.” They pounded in my ears like a jackhammer. Miguel was not likely to make a mistake, and the teacher said he was right. Perhaps he'd forgotten a “p”? Could this be a captive verb, forever chained to noun and adjective ? This new category must have been introduced in my year away from school. Of course! The regular kids must have learned all about captive verbs, not to be confused with free verbs, while I had dozed in the sun for a year like a lazy, fat lizard.

Or maybe--my brain jumped to another possibility--Miguel had written correctly, and this was indeed a cative, not a captive, verb. But if so, here it was, precise and elegant and comfortably perched on the blackboard, a word I had never met before. So much for my standing as The Brain, O Cérebro! Dona Célia's voice, droning on with more grammar, came from far away, lost in the din of public scorn inside my head.

I must look normal at all costs, I thought, as if no disaster had happened, and wait for the end of the day to look up cative verbs when I got home. Yes! I would run the four blocks from the streetcar stop and consult the big grammar book before my backpack hit the floor, my trembling fingers revealing the chapter on cative verbs. I could already see the chapter title in bold type, followed by subheadings: cative regular, cative irregular. The passive cative tense would need a preposition, the subjunctive would be hyphenated. From now on, I pledged the Great God of Grammar, I would be the world's expert on cative verbs.

Perhaps I relaxed a bit after this mental trip to the headwaters of knowledge. My eyes swept around the room, where business proceeded as usual, a world removed from my turmoil. On the blackboard, Miguel's assignment still stood. By now I felt calm enough to read it again:

I Prepare. First person singular, present tense, indi-
cative regular verb.

Indi-cative ?!! Indicative! Like a dummy, I hadn't read the first line! Que vergonha! How could I not have seen it? The truth was there, white on black. Miguel had merely run out of space and hyphenated the word “indicative.”

So cative verbs did not exist after all! It took me a moment to take in the sudden shift in my fate, relief seeping away into disappointment. I had met “indicative” a hundred times already, I knew it perfectly well, I was bored with the indicative tense— a word tired, rumpled and worn. I missed cative verbs already. With indecent haste, that elegant term had clunked back together with its other half, the whole definitely less than the sum of the parts.

I should introduce cative verbs someday. Surely I didn't become the world's expert for nothing. Such an exotic new verb form has every right to its own chapter in the Nova Gramática Portuguesa.

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