A Bouquet of Tongues
Translated from the Portuguese by Clifford E. Landers
The explosion shook our world on the D line. The crowded subway train braked suddenly, squealing. The violent shock tossed us in all directions; shouts, cries, shoves, chaos. Stopped between two stations in the dark tunnel, its doors locked, the machine puffed like an angry dragon, discharging smoke from eyes it didn't possess. Trapped in the car, we became accidental prisoners of technology, politics, fate. A second explosion burst closer than the firs; were we under attack from terrorists? In New York? Are you crazy? We're not in Iran, exclaimed a nervous old man with a bluish goatee, gold-rimmed glasses, in a gray suit, looking at me disdainfully. My dark skin, straight black hair, large round eyes, sensual mouth, dangling earrings, and long red cotton skirt must make him think I come from that country. Before I can say I'm from South America, someone comes to my rescue. And where were you when they bombed the World Trade Center? Yes, that's right. A chorus of voices comes to the support of the author of the challenge. The old man shuts his mouth. The lights come on: the man who questioned him shows his face. By Allah! He is the personification of Iran, with fierce eyes, moving to demand satisfaction from the American.
A woman sitting on the floor begins to sob convulsively, interrupting the scene.
Everyone turns; she pounds her chest, weeps, becomes hysterical, screams. We're being taken to the concentration camp like cattle. Soon the doors will open and the Gestapo will show up. We're trapped. It happens in Germany every day. then she stopped speaking English, gesturing and screaming in German; no one could calm her. A frail-looking boy came from the back of the car, took the woman's hand, said something in German. She looked at him, got up from the floor, apparently embarrassed, straightened her clothes and purse, composed herself. An awkward silence, broken by the metallic voice of the loudspeaker asking us to remain calm, there was an accident on the Manhattan Bridge, we'd be out of there soon; firemen, police, EMS are waiting outside the station. Stay calm. Everything is under control. What control? shouted the Iranian. We're buried alive in this tunnel, I want out, get me out of here, it's not my fault, I did not betray anybody, I never plotted against the Ayatollah, I always obeyed the laws of the Koran, I never wrote any Satanic verses, why did they convict me? I know they will kill me with their horrible torture, my family does not know where I am, I will be hanged and cursed, my memory will cover my ancestors and my descendants in sham. All in the name of a crime I did not commit. What am I accused of? I am innocent! Let me out of here! Trembling, his eyes and mouth open wide, drenched in sweat, the man was terror incarnate, tormented by some dark nightmare so real that it was impossible for us, who knew nothing of his history, to calm him. We had no means, no chance of reaching him. How to assuage buried anguish when you don't know its origin or its nature? Nor our own.
A new silence, More than awkward: somber. T-r-i-c-k-l-i-n-g among us.
Fear seemed to take on substance; we could not only sense it but touch it. It made our skin crawl, our hair stand on end, kept our ears as erect as a dog's in search of game. But in this case we were the game, at the mercy of a force that held us motionless because we were ignorant of its nature, its aims, its ferocity. Our numbed muscles and brains were yielding to terror. Nearly petrified, we began to look at each other as if begging for help. As if help could come from anyone who was in the same danger. We were all equals. Never had there been such equality among human beings. No one could save anyone, much less himself. The accident had brought us to the same level. Fear paralyzed us. Suddenly I came out of my lethargy and had an idea. What if we could talk about something other than the explosion? Talk about what? Anything, funny, tragic, ridiculous, emotional, whatever. Use our tongues. What mattered was to shatter that silence that was growing like some weed, climbing to our throats and threatening to strangle us. We were facing a verbal emergency. I don't know exactly where this insight came from; maybe because I am a storyteller, from being born in the Brazilian Wetlands and having spent my childhood listening to stories from my elders, fantastic stories that flooded my imagination more powerfully than the deluges of November. Or maybe I just that that getting it out would be a relief, that imagination can free us; dreams, myths, legends, some kind of channel for catharsis that would ease the tension. Could that be? I wasn't sure, nor did I have to be. All I had to do was make the attempt, prevent fear from solidifying and turning us into statues. Not of salt—we didn't live in Sodom and Gomorra—but of marble or steel, the dominant material of New York architecture. With no time to lose, I put my plan in action. Squeezing between two passengers, I approached the woman and asked, Are you feeling any better?
Yes, but it's only temporary. The memories always come back to torment me. My parents were taken by the Gestapo as we were leaving Berlin by train late one night. I was only seven, they didn't see me. I hid behind a fat woman's skirt and they passed right by me. That lady took me in and treated me affectionately. But I never forgot that scene: the two of them being carried off, screaming, and me so frightened I couldn't make a sound. They died at Auschwitz. And I died inside. I feel guilty that I hid, guilty that I did nothing, guilty for being alive.
But you were only seven....
It doesn't matter. The feeling of guilt lodges inside us, it grows and puts out barbs, thorns, stings you like a jellyfish, it never leaves you. it hurts for a lifetime.
Gertrude Shulman stopped talking. the other passengers began to speak at the same time. The noise was almost deafening. Suddenly there was a third explosion; the train shook and we were again thrown against one another. Silence again, this time broken within seconds by the Iranian, who gesturing wilding, said, I want to say something too, please, don't think I'm crazy because I reacted the way I did. I'm a simple man, peaceful, religious. I worked hard for my uncle Amir in a carpet factory in Teheran, I lived for my family, I never had any trouble with the law. The same thing with Samir, my younger brother. But he wrote poems and some of them talked about human rights. The government thought they were subversive and put him in prison, incommunicado. After many months they let him out, the poor man. He was thin, covered with scars, limping on one leg. He'd been tortured, almost killed. Beatings, electric shocks, besides psychological torments. He returned very depressed, withdrew into himself, but he went on writing. The police were keeping close watch on him, the telephone was tapped, and anonymous threatening calls were coming in all the time. Finally he couldn't stand the pressure and decided to leave the country for a time. He chose Switzerland. He got a passport and his ticket with no objections from the authorities. No one said anything. The family went with him to the airport. Everything okay. We came home, relieved. Some time later we found out that government agents removed him from the plane on some pretext, took him to a prison far away from the city, and he's still there today, suffering barbaric tortures. But officially he got on the flight and disappeared in Switzerland.
Can't you do anything? I asked, astonished.
We're doing everything we can. We've even contacted several international organizations that promised to intervene in the case, but realistically changes are minimal. How can you confront the violence of a dictatorial system?
Mohammed, his gaze vacant, lost in a reality whose trials he alone knew, moved away. His expression softened, and something in him made us think that as a result of his discourse he had come to glimpse some kind of hope for Samir. The hint of a gentle smile began to emerge at the corners of his mouth, then fled.
There was a pause, of silence and tense expectation about the improbable future of each of us.
The thin blonde girl, medium height, almost swallowed by her brown fur coat, surprised us her with soprano voice. Abbreviating, more than the silence, the intermission of a performance that had become vital to our momentary lucidity. Instead of telling her story, she revealed herself through an aria of La Traviata, smothering the creaking of the metal gears with the power of voice. The train groaned, she sang the refrain fortissimo, holding the high notes, her cheeks flushed with the effort. Che bello! exclaimed a compatriot. And he stepped onto the improvised stage, forming a duet with the ragazza.
Ah, we sighed, moved, delighting in the operatic passages. Ma che bello! The two Italians concluded their presentation to applause and more applause. Braaaaavoo! Braaaavoo!
And the stage was not to empty, neither for lack of talent nor for absence of desperation. Filling the void of our shared fate came to be the only weapon capable of defeating our common enemy: panic. An appeal, purely circumstantial and with no legal standing, was lodged: music.
Fiery and impassioned, the lament of a ballad began to insinuate itself. First the violin, then the man—long hair, dark pants, red shirt, gray felt hat. I thought I recognized him. He must be one of those musicians who spend all day in the subway, changing trains, their hands callused, making their living from executing the only two or three scores they knew. He must be one of them, but he wasn't. His name: Jerzy Aziz Duka, 64, dark-skinned, bushing mustache and eyebrows, thick beard, penetrating, eagle-like eyes—a Gypsy passing through New York. Born in Romania, leader of a large clan camped in the Bronx. His caravan was on its way to Europe. Why do you live like vagabonds? asked a scowling man, his arms crossed, his tone aggressive.
Because we don't like staying in the same place. The world is so vast....
But wouldn't it be better to have a permanent house where you and your family could live in greater security?
A house? If I lived in a house I'd suffocate. Security? Is there such a thing? Where? Ha, ha, ha. Danger? It doesn't matter, all of us are going to die someday. Death is very natural.... (Sylvia Plath's verses come to my mind: Dying! Is an art, like everything else. / I do it exceptionally well.) We have to accept it, Jerzy Duka continued. Princes, kings, presidents, beggars, celebrities, all have the same fate. It is ridiculous to fear death. He spread his arms provocatively, drawing out his profane laughter, a sharpened dagger brushing the delicate flesh of the imaginary. The bubble was ready to burst. Death. Explicit and decisive, the forbidden word had been introduced into out midst, just like that, unceremoniously. An impassable word to shake that vulnerable stage where we improving actors judged ourselves to be safe. suspended in the mesh of the fragile instant, holding our breath, we prayed to the gods for something to happen. It did. The scowling man turned red, the veins in his neck bulging. He leapt from his seat as skillfully as an acrobat, stuck his finer under the Gypsy's nose and began speaking in a strange language. The discussion was becoming heated. First one talked, then the other, shouting. Without doubt they were insulting each other. An Indian woman whispered to me between clenched teeth: they're fighting in Romany; that one there (she pointed to the scowling man) is a sedentary Gypsy, and the violin player is a nomad. It's natural for them to disagree. Their philosophies are diametrically opposed. In a little while they'll be hitting each other.
She was wrong. Soon the shouting stopped and they were laughing, shaking hands, each embracing the other and weeping. Then they began talking in hushed tones, almost whispering, like old acquaintances who hadn't seen each other in a long time. What could have happened? We exchanged wary glances.
Great fear of silence. It didn't last as long as it threatened to.
A pale young man with dark circles under his eyes and long, black, curly hair sprang from anonymity to say, My name is Jean Marc, I'm a poet and I'm going to recite some verses that I wrote. And he spoke. Spoke, velvety, sublimely, in French. Few understood but the feeling he conveyed through his art enveloped us in soft, feathery hands. We traveled without leaving the spot. The train snorted.
The Chinese sitting on the bench with two seats, near the conductor, did not move. Impassive, they watched events as if they had nothing to do with them. Maybe they were thinking about Westerners' lack of self-control, their impatience, their ignorance of the profound science of coping with time. Serene expressions, the innocence of ivory. If it depended on them, the silence would go on as solid and impenetrable as the Great Wall. this culture of stone, silk, porcelain challenging us with its age-old philosophy; two delicate figures, a mixture of jade and lotus, resisting....
Exactly the opposite of the fat Mexican woman, effusive in her full skirts, her rings, her silver bracelets, her face flushed as she shouted, Viva Zapata! Viva Zapata! A cry muffled by her younger countrymen as they sang mockingly: La cucaracha, la cucaracha, tra, la, la, la. And the group of Cubans, yelling even louder: Cuba Libre! And Fidel! Che Guevara! from other Cubans. Pablo Neruda! Pablo Neruda! should some Chileans. there was no rejoinder to the creator of the Canto General.
Once the Latina clamor had subsided, a Russian with wary eyes, who appeared to be about 35, his clothes wrinkled, his manner somewhat indecisive, stood up. He explained something, gestured, laughed; under his reddish mustache, teeth yellowed from nicotine, his lips invisible. His voice resounded, his song, the clapping, the slap slap of his frenetic boots. He danced in that tiny space, masterfully. He seemed to be flying. The crowd kept time with their feet as Vladimir carefully executed the turns. He paused, asked something or other, someone answered. We found an interpreter, another Russian from Brighton Beach, who spoke fluent English. that's how we discovered that the dance had recently come from Moscow and that he was performing an allegory of his own creation. He was telling of a little girl abandoned in a field of sunflowers. And of how the flowers protected her from the cold and hunger and sang her to sleep with lullabies until she was rescued by peasants who live in the Urals. A very lovely fable, replete with symbols and images evocative of a fantastic and tragic culture. The trains started moving.
People began to rejoice. We're saved! We're saved! Exclamations in every intonation, language, dialect. Tears of happiness. What about the bomb? There wasn't any bomb. There was. There wasn't. then what was it? A short circuit, some mechanical problem, human error. They don't know exactly. On the platform, police, firefighters, CIA, FBI; as usual, they would confirm nothing. The scene is surreal. In a little whole they'll be saying we dreamed it all. New York is full of lunatics. they may have made up the whole thing to see how people would react in a dangerous situation. Or maybe (in the Big Apple everything is possible) it's like Augusto Boal's Theater of the Invisible in the American Babylon, said a young man with a Brazilian accent. I don't know. And who could? We're coming to the station. the train stops with a dull squeak.
The steel dragon opens its mouth. The prisoners escape, damp from the viscous humus of fear.
The scene evokes ancient echoes. The biblical figure of Jonah being vomited forth by the whale on a deserted beach comes to my mind. I don't know what his reaction was. I do know ours. We ran from the station in terror. Looking back might be bad luck or at least an unwise gesture since the causes of the accident were still unclear. Let's get out of here. When I made it to the street, panting, I feel a chilly gust of wind and see that boy (the one who whispered in the Jewish woman's ear, remember?) smile directly at me. What a pleasurable sensation. I smile back, both at him and at the wind that for the first time doesn't bother me. Hesitantly, timidly, the boy hands me a cream-colored card and says, I don't know if it's any good. I'm an art student. What do you think of it? I looked at the piece of paper in surprise. It's splendid! As unexpected as everything that happened during our confinement together. He had drawn an enormous bouquet, held between clasped hands, the fingers formed by colored ribbons. But instead of flowers there were tongues of every size and shape, arranged so that they seemed to move. Look at it, I said, it's wonderful!
It's for you, he said.
He ran away; I didn't even have time to say thank you. I went to my office, placed it in a Chinese porcelain vase in the center of the table. My bouquet of tongues. Alive.
In the evening I turned on the news. It was a bomb.
Among Tereza Albues's published fictions are Pedra Canga, published in English by Green Integer, Chapada da Palma Roxa (1991), A Travessia dos Sempre Vivos (1993), O Berro do Cordeiro ien Nova York (1995), and Danca do Jaguar (2001). The story above, "Bouquet de Linguas," written prior to the 9/11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, won the Guimaraes Rosa Prize in 1999, a prize for short fiction sponsored by Radio France International. Albues died in 2005.
English-language translation copyright ©2009 by Clifford E. Landers.
English-language translation copyright ©2009 by Clifford E. Landers.
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