Thursday, June 4, 2009

Osman Lins | Pastoral

Osman Lins
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.

Our father, with his lifeless left arm, yells out Balduíno's name and orders him to cut my hair. "He looks like a Veronica!" Everything that reminds him of a woman fills him with anger. "Shave it off!" Balduíno Gaudério is the youngest son of my father's first wife, who died after twenty years of marriage. "I never heard that woman raise her voice, Baltazar. What was there to say? My father only asked that she be faithful and do her share of the work. But when she died she let out a scream, an amen to make anyone's hair stand on end. Her life left her with that cry." My father doesn’t understand why Balduíno Gaudério never grew up; he can only find one reason: someone put a spell on him, gave him the evil eye when he was a child. There seems to be, in Gaudério, a man made for a body bigger than his own: he weighs almost as much as Domingos or Jerônimo. He’s not as coarse as our two brothers and seems to feel some friendship for me, even though he doesn’t show it, to avoid reproaches. He takes the blade sharpened by Joaquim and shaves my head, without saying a word. I don’t speak either. Standing with my arms hanging at my sides, submissive, I lie down on the floor, following the operation and even taking pleasure in it. It’s so rare to feel someone's touch, even a rough one. Not even Aliçona, who’s a woman, caresses me. Aliçona is a woman, Baltazar? Yes. No, she isn’t. She walks around the big house sullenly, with the air of someone condemned to carry its weight on her shoulders. She sweeps the broom across the tiles perfunctorily, sweeps like a blind woman, dusts carelessly, washes the dishes and our clothes in hardly any water. Barefoot, the skin on her heels cracked, her toenails horny and yellow, always whispering and laughing to herself, full of hatred. No, she’s not a woman. From behind Balduíno, I look at my neck, at my pale nape. I never understood why I’m made of woven vines. And how old am I? I have no idea. Balduíno, our brothers Jerônimo and Domingos, my father and Joaquim, the distant relative who got off his horse nearly eight years ago and made himself at home here, have also forgotten. They don’t know whether they should treat me like a man or like a boy. They all agree, though, that I bear a strong resemblance (they never say to whom), that I’m always going to be a dead weight and that one day, even though I don’t mean to, I will betray them. It’s possible. I’m indolent and I don’t have any muscles.

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 watch myself sleeping, my limbs splayed, five-pointed star. At the same time I hear the mare's bells in the stable and the sound of her hooves trotting in my dream. I occupy this huge room, which used to be my parents', all by myself. There are no longer any images on the black family altar; harnesses hang from the inch thick nail stuck in the wall from which my mother used to suspend the purse with her jewels at night; the locked chest, which is never opened—its four keys must have been lost—and where perhaps shoes and clothes are molding, is still there; in the wooden box, painted red and blue, I keep horns, stones, bones of animals, cowbells and the few coins Gaudério occasionally gives me. After his first wife died, the old man didn’t change anything for his second marriage. We were all born on this iron bed with the metal frame. And there, on the mattress of wormwood and damp straw, grow, night after night, the vines I am made of, they grow quickly, but not as fast as Canária.

Naked, my legs in the murky water, half a gourd in my hand, I climb out of the swamp, pulling my mare by the rope. The color of my skin tends to bay; compared to the copper-colored mare, it’s as white as the moon. They like to torment me, Canária. Even yesterday, at supper, what did they do? I’m a good-for-nothing, worth less than a dog, because I can’t even bark. And I’m cruel. Jerônimo claims that he knows things, when a horse is not good to mount; when a dog will attack people; in me, he sees cruelty: I am the hole, in a river that can be waded. The hidden whirlpool. Domingos was laughing, grinding me between his dirty teeth. Father was giving me looks harsher than Jerônimo's words, even though amused. For Joaquim I am a poisoned fish. If I could, Canária, I’d drown them one by one, even Balduíno, who didn’t take my side. They talked about the woman. Not by her name; not about what she did. They talked without talking. Don't they recognize an animal by its tracks? I am the tracks of a stolen animal. Or of a fugitive one. My mouth pressed against the mare's forehead, against her damp blaze, I see the midday sun above the valleys, the mountains, like a herd of a hundred white goats, all with bells strung around their horns. My body is made of the same malleable and tough fiber out of which horses are molded.

To this day, only my godfather has spoken to me the way you speak to a human being. I brought you this little mare, Baltazar, to keep you company. I know what it's like to live alone, like you. I, too, went through hell, believe me. And no one knows. He’s sitting in the shade of this tree, perched on its roots, sucking star fruits, his eyes like slugs stuck to his glasses. A drawling and twangy voice, full of bad scratches. I like the little beast and choose for her, right then and there, the name Canária, Aliçona's sheep and Gaudério's goats suddenly don’t mean anything to me anymore. None of these animals, whose docility I take for granted and whose rebellions enrage me, will ever have for me the beauty and the value of Canária. I wonder how you came to be, Baltazar. How your mother could do such a thing, agree to marry that brute, while I was still alive. And have a son from him. Imagine, your father plowing that sweetness. People do such things! And the worst is that you look just like her. You can't remember, but seeing you is like seeing her. Ah, if only I had known. And I could have guessed. But I didn't have the courage, I always lived in fear. So what if I was her son's godfather? I wonder where she is now! That tramp wasn’t the man for her. He liked gold, too much. That's what he saw: her gold. As for me, I would have taken her without all those jewels, those rings, those necklaces. Like a glass of water.

I don’t say anything, but I understand. His words stay with me: the point of a knife sharpened by Joaquim couldn’t carve them more deeply in wood. Did I know this black figure, standing on the porch, a huge cross of gold and diamonds, hanging by a heavy chain on her breast? No. Did I know those black leather shoes, those black cotton stockings, those long sleeves? No. And yet I see. She put a black silk veil over her head. Her face floats in the light of the stars, barely twinkling in the calm November night. This is, after all the decisions have been made, the last moment of hesitation. After all the ties have been cut, there was still this one hanging loose—and offering resistance. The house is quiet, the dawn, still distant, is beginning to form within the night. The roosters are sleeping. Not very far, a white horse, harnessed, is waiting for her. The metal of the stirrups, the buckles of the leather straps and the rivets adorning the harness do not shine as brightly as its white mane. Firefly horse. The man in the saddle, waiting for that pale woman, whose age is more or less that of her stepsons Jerônimo and Domingos, and who accentuates her pallor with her black blouses with loose sleeves, her black earrings, her two black braids tied with big black ribbons. Always covered with rings, some times four on the same finger, bracelets, gold chains around her neck. Her life receives its only nourishment from all these jewels; or maybe gold and stones drain her strength, suck her bones, drink her clear blood. The man, already in the saddle, gives just one order. To take, of all her treasures, only those she’s had since she was a girl. No clothes. No shoes. Nothing my father has given her. Just your body and what you're wearing. The child isn't coming either.

The sun sets, red mouth and darting eyes. It falls, yellow, hard in its pride, amid blood-red panaches. The bay mare, with me on her back, darts across the afternoon, four hooves in the wind, her tail extending the line of her back and her mane flying above her ears, as if forever launched in a gallop that reverberates in the distance. How she grew, in just a little over a year! I want to be like this, have this strength, gallop over my brothers, over Joaquim and his earth-colored face, over my father and his authority, go out in the world in search of my mother, kneel at her feet. The purples, the golds and the greens of the clouds blend with one another, three black vultures glide over the farm. On the ground, under the trees, I see the roots, their black claws. The strength of the body beneath mine, stretching into space, fast, in the sun, enters me and churns in my blood. I turn into twenty, a hundred pinwheels, green, purple, golden like the clouds, spinning on top of the flying mare.

Of all the rooms, only one has a window: big, with thick panes, double hinges, iron handles. Under the weight of my body the bed sags, almost like a hammock. Through the open window, I see moon, stars, countryside and stables, the movements of the older mares, Canária's flanks, the tinkling of her bell, smell of grass, of stale piss, the stallion in the smaller stable. I see everything. If only I had half of a horse's body! Or half of Joaquim's body. He sleeps with a knife across his chest, his torso is almost as wide as the table, he fills the end opposite my father's completely. If he weren’t so powerful he’d be a field hand, who takes orders and ordinary wages; instead he rules, makes decisions. It was he who brought the white-footed horse for Canária. Haughty head, wary look, clipped mane: alone in the stable, sun beams in his bones and blood, he waits for the morning. They’ll let my little beast loose in the courtyard, and then they’ll wait. With his mere presence, he will conquer her, he will be a more secure prison than the highest fence. Here she is circling around his chest, his mane, his hooves, without being able to escape. He neighs, kicks his front legs in the air, tears up the mare's entrails, with furor and glory.
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.

Lying in the shade of a breadfruit tree, my back covered with whip marks, the welts throbbing, I discover a red and unbalanced world. There is a tree of delicate leaves, which stands out among the others: vigorous, with a gnarled trunk and dense foliage. All green, transparent green, thick green, deep green, pure, impure, green. The sky is red, red the ground. The tinamous are singing. Gaudério's whipping was the lightest–and the one that hurt most. The last one to whip me. Even Joaquim put in his share, four firm lashings, one after the other. The last time he pretended to miss the target and hit my neck. After that, I didn’t have the strength to cry out. The welts glisten, I look at them over my shoulder: mimosa embers. If only the girls who were keeping vigil over my godfather flew over my back now, with their green cicada song!

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 wooden floor on top of the dress, asleep, naked in the moonlight. Around me, the horns, the round stones, the coins, the cowbells without clappers, the animal bones, the shadows of the room, the harnesses on the nail, the empty altar, the calm of the night. My brothers, my father, Joaquim, they too are drinking in their sleep the strength with which they will perform their chores tomorrow. Which will take Canária? Jerônimo? Domingos? Will all of them go? I picture the horse: immobile, tall, a mountain, fiery eyes, huge chest, his tail like a thick black whirlwind. Galloping horses invade the room, bay, white, black, all covered with blood, all neighing, pursued by fierce hawks. The big horse doesn’t budge.

I walk between the coolness of the night and the heat of the morning. I haven’t eaten: I was in a hurry, my stomach knotted up. What time did Jerônimo and Domingos leave? Will I run into them on the road? Below these valleys, these mountains, these plantations, there are rivers of fire, into which the sun plunges and the eastern clouds bathe every night. That is why they take on this color, red. The red dyes the green of the foliage, somewhere between blue and purple at this hour, the cattle scattered in the field look like red embers, and the goats, transfixed by the light, glass. The roosters' crow is red too. I don’t know why I’m going; I’d rather not go, or never arrive. A wind is pushing me on, blowing at my back, a wind strong and hot. I put a hobble on my ankles—but, even without wanting to, I go faster, lighter and lighter, step, half-step, trot, wind on my chest, morning taste. My green mane grows, my blue tail, and I gallop full of hatred, flying down this hill, I’m a white horse, impetuous, hooves of stone, sharp teeth. Galloping, I raise my head above the crimson pastures, above the trees, the mountains and the birds flying, above the clouds of fire, the rising sun, and I neigh with all my might.

I see, in the eight men whose shadows are growing longer, tangled up with the shadows of the fence and of the horses, expressions of envy. Their eyes are fixed on the center of the corral, like men appraising someone else's wealth. One, very young, his black hair falling on his forehead, can’t conceal his pride behind his gaping mouth and drooping eyelids. He must be the master of the horse. Who is the center of everything. A beautiful animal, and of a very unusual color. Black, white tail and mane, shiny like corn silk when the corn is still green, and long, the way I’d like mine to be. He gently nibbles Canária's left ear. The ground is trampled, turned over, full of hoof marks. They’ve been circling around the same spot for a long time, restless, the male around the female, the female around the male, as if she were tied to a post, but steering clear of him. Maybe they fought. Now, both still, the horse bites Canária's ear. Between the posts and the figures of the men leaning over the fence, none of whom have noticed my presence, she must see me, unless she is blind. Will she break free from the horse's dominion, jump over the fence, come to me? She stands stiff, her hind legs spread apart. The skin on her flanks quivers. The men, always loud in these occasions, aren’t saying a word. Far off, in the calm of the morning, a lost sheep is bleating incessantly. The woman in black suddenly appears, on the other side of the fence, and urges me: "Go, Baltazar. It's worth it." I pick up a stone from the ground. Muffled ax blows in my knees. A cloud has passed, the sun is out again, and floods the animals with its light, an unexpected breeze ruffles the horse's mane. The cicadas' cries explode in the trees.
My slender body, woven with vines, but solid in appearance, becomes frail, a piece of clay, about to shatter under the horse's hooves. The eight men, out of surprise, and fear, don’t intervene. Less than sorrow, their faces express anger and incredulity, Canária has moved away, her head high and her ears raised. For me, this brief instant is a lightning bolt passing through my entire body. I still managed to throw my stone, without clear aim, at random. The horse's teeth, his galloping hooves fall upon me like thunder, and the white mane—cloud—blazes in the sun.

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.


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