Translated from the Portuguese by Adria Frizzi
Without the thick glasses, my dead godfather looks like another man. He is another man. He was looking at me from behind his lenses, saying all those things about my mother, the day he gave me Canária. The sermon exuded offense and cruelty, slowly escaping his nostrils; he didn’t walk fast either, but with cautious little steps, the steps of a turtle. Since he was dead, and I was his godson, my father had no choice but to take me to town with him. There he is, sitting with his mouth open, listening to the many bells of Goiana tolling for his friend. When he’s distracted his mouth hangs open; his eyes never rest, though, they scrutinize everything with suspicion. Even though he isn’t speaking, his voice resonates in my ears. I hear his voice day and night, ceaselessly. It’s not for him, or for my godfather, it’s for the six women from Goiana, strange creatures unlike anything I’ve seen on the farm (two sitting on the bench, their faces resting in their hands, the third one standing, in the sun, tying her hair up, another staring into space, sitting on the sofa by herself with her arms resting over the back, and two plucking petals from carnations and scattering them on the corpse), it’s for them that I’d like to have six eyes. Aliçona, is she a woman? She wears a dress, sure, similar to these girls' skirts and blouses. But is she a woman? When she bathes in the river, naked, she looks like a gnarled trunk, gray and green, thick, covered with slime. Her hair is black. Even so, I see in her verdigris face, wide and creased with lines, ages that fill me with fear. These girls' aren’t frightening. Delicate skin, soft hands, white or print dresses, earrings, light shoes. How pretty they are! They could play with me, perhaps, roll in the leaves, sleep in my bed. This, which sounds like a chorus of cicadas, is the perfume of my six Goianians.
No one can see me here. Canária meekly yields to my caresses. With my eyes closed, I try to bite the blaze on her forehead. Thinking about the girls' perfume, I drown myself in her young mare's scent, still hot from the sun. The light becomes entangled in the branches, pleasure mounts, slowly creeping up my legs. My body transcends its limits merges with the shiny golden flanks, with the arch of the back, the raised head. The sun disappears earlier on these plains. The spongy light reflected by the clouds filters through the branches of the old orange trees beneath which the mare and I are hiding. Night has fallen and soon the first stars will appear through the leaves. Because of this, and also because of my long hair, which covers my ears (months pass before someone remembers to cut it), I can’t see my profile. Joaquim, far away, is felling a tree; I feel the ax blows, muffled, in my knees. One more day for Canária to mature, one more day before we take her to the horse waiting for her in some pasture, horse of cacti, mane of agave, tail of burrs.
The copper lamp glowing on the milk wood table hewn by adz on which we eat. When we hunch over the blue enameled tin dishes, we always look as if we were crying: the table is low, almost as low as a bed. Our father sits at one end, opposite Joaquim. He’s the tallest and the whitest of us all. Hair almost completely black, falling over his forehead. The paralyzed left arm hasn’t diminished his energy. At his right sit Jerônimo and Domingos, both pushing forty and still single; at his left, in charge of cutting the old man's meat, when necessary, Balduíno. My father's head is turned towards me. He’s looking at me, an amused, sideways look. All his looks, even when he’s angry, seem amused. Joaquim, his hand reaching for the water jug, is also looking at me. Face the color of earth, bald head, bushy eyebrows and hairy ears. His skull gleams beneath the lamplight. Domingos mumbles, laughs for no reason. He brings the knife to his mouth, with a big piece of sun-dried meat on its tip. Jerônimo, forgetting the silverware, has raised both hands and is droning his usual accusations against me. He has a sour expression: I taste lemon on my tongue when he looks at me. Balduíno and I keep our heads down, hunched over the blue dishes. The shadows of those sitting at the sides of the table are larger than father's and Joaquim's, who are farther away from the lamp. The shadow of Jerônimo's hands on the blackened tiles across which bold white-bellied possums sometimes scurry, is almost invisible. I place my hands on my shoulders and sadly kiss my shaved head.
I feel the weight of the scythe in my hand. I’ve lit the tinplate lamp, to better judge the vigor and fire of the horse. On his legs, on his flanks and near his nostrils, the smoky light reveals the design of his veins. His dark hair, on the curves of his body, reflects the flame. He’s a horse of iron, covered with rust. First, turning his head, he examined me with his left eye, enlarged with excitement and unbearably bright. Then, reassured, he went back to his fresh hay. This body conceals in its belly the instrument of my humiliation. I test the edge of the scythe with my thumb. No one like Joaquim to sharpen steel, he could turn a knife handle into a razor. I lean over and stroke the horse between his legs. Little by little he begins to show his attributes, it’s as if he were opening his chest and exposing, defenselessly, the source of life, then I close my eyes, set my jaw and, with my entire hand, my vine-woven arms tenser than ever, I seize the streaked penis and cut it off with the scythe, in a single quick blow. The lord of mares and father of a hundred other horses, who was a sun in the pastures, comes undone in his gushing blood, his quarters harnessed, as if succumbing to the weight of a carriage, he who never knew the yoke in his life. The shiny black eyes turn dim, a gray film covers them, his head struggles to stay up, the way it used to, in the fields where for years he unfurled his strength like a red banner, but soon it collapses on the ground, lifeless and dishonored. The light of the lamp flickers. The lustrous reflections on the horse's skin die out, the veins disappear, his quivering hooves turn whiter. The foaming blood is black and sweet-smelling.
On Canária's back, on top of the mountain, I see a stretch of the creek, down below, where ducks are swimming and a calf lies, chewing its cud, growing in the morning. It was there. Some dresses were drying, among men's shirts and the patchwork quilt. Aliçona is time in human form, a growling time; and her black clothes, nobody can say that they belong to a woman. That’s why she enters our house, sets the table, does the wash, roasts the sun-dried meat, makes the mush. Because she’s not a woman. Those, though, were pretty dresses, very different from Aliçona's clothes. One with big red flowers, another the color of honey, a girl's white dress, all on the line, billowing. It looked like a conversation among dresses. I don’t know the people from this farm. The washerwoman, the owners of the dresses and the masters of the owners of the dresses, are they people? Or perhaps only clothes live here? The one with the big flowers was dancing, telling some funny story, the honey-colored one was smiling. The men's clothes couldn’t hear or see anything, but the white dress was calling me. There they are, more than the last time, all still, hanging on the line, spread on the stones on the banks of the creek and on the branches of two gooseberry bushes. I recognize the white dress among the branches.
In the cornfield, among the tall stalks and swollen ears. In two, three weeks, they’ll be snapped from their stems by the hands of Jerônimo, Joaquim, Domingos, Balduíno Gaudério. My father, with the gestures of a master, will pull some off. The cornfield, luminous refuge. On one side, the crescent moon is rising, almost full. The sun hasn’t set yet: it’s sinking on the other side, face without ears, conniving eyes and a big fiery mouth. The scent of the white dress. Naked, stretched out on the mare's back, her curly mane on my neck, in my hands the dress still damp, inhaling at the same time Cánaria's smell and the smell of soap, of corn and earth, I let out a sob. The mare's back is hot, the cloth of the dress, coarse and slippery, frays between my fingers, a cicada is singing, the girl of the sofa is caressing my feet, my buttocks, my stiffened back, I see the sun and the moon, their two lights meet in my breast, I split in two, discover why I’m crying, it’s the silence, the pinwheels of pleasure are turning inside me, I forget everything, fall face down. Still sobbing. My face buried in the dress. Coursing through my blood I hear the voice, a happy song, it’s a man singing, and this man is walking toward me, which is impossible, because the man is myself in the prime of life. Canária is sniffing the ground near the small of my back.
The moonlight, through the windowpanes, shines on the dress, lying on the floor and even whiter than before. I’m sitting on the bed, and standing by the altar. From the stable comes the tinkling of Canária's bell, as clear as the dress. From the dinner table, thundering, come Joaquim's voice and Domingos' coarse laugh. Balduíno, small, always at our father's left, pretends to be smiling; for him, who has a small mouth, it’s easy. Domingos is really laughing, he has gotten up and is looking down, his obscene hands open, wide apart. Jerônimo examines him with his sour eyes. My father, tall and white, his lifeless arm lying on the table, like a rag, blows his nose and stares at the wall, beyond the commotion and laughter. They’re talking about Canária, the dead horse, what they will do tomorrow. Yearning to go to the corral, kiss Canária's dark flanks, chew her mane. I won’t go. Canária is a possession I can no longer claim. Her master is the horse, a half-hour walk from here, which my father and brothers are talking about.
Lying on the table, without candles, with my hands crossed, the fox skin covering my groin. Sitting silently in their usual places, my father, Joaquim and my brothers surround me. Thinking they would have supper early (the cemetery is far), Aliçona has set the table: the blue dishes, the copper lamp. The few men who have come to my funeral are talking outside, they don’t have the courage to come in. Some look up at the sky apprehensively. It’s a cloudy, cold afternoon. It’s going to rain before night. Perhaps with remorse, or with relief, maybe, since he’ll never again see this son of his, who doesn’t resemble him at all, and who, every day, reminded him of the woman who dared to leave him, my father looks at me; the others keep their heads down. From the stable comes the sound of bells, Canária, still untouched by a horse. Now that I’m naked and exposed, without the permanent and morose scowl with which I protected myself, I see what a child I was. Protruding nipples, a girl's shoulders. Jerônimo and Domingos returned with me lying across Canária's back. It was Balduíno Gaudério who washed my body and gently wiped off the dried blood. It was he who put the fox skin over my groin, he who crossed my hands and put a corn tassel between my fingers. He won’t have to cut my hair at my father's command, never again. Of all of them, he’s the only one who’s crying, silently, with muffled sobs. He envies me, the only one in this cold household who was capable of loving and of dying for it. His hands under the table, he promises to himself that he will have a wife, that he will love her, that he will never be like these other men.
Born in 1924 in Pernambuco state in northeastern Brazil, Osman Lins was one of the most innovative writers of contemporary Brazilian writers. Among his notable books are Nine, Novena, where the above story was published, Avalovara (1973), and The Queen of the Prisons of Greece (1976). Nine, Novena will be published by Green Integer in late 2009. Lins died in 1978.
English-language copyright ©2009 by Adria Frizzi.