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Still life

Large canva   old photos in the wooden box

You see the house and its time, the house and the house alone, though your secrets, your fears and silences still exist there, locked away behind the denseness of the closed doors and shuttered windows, your fears and silences desperate for an opening to escape a winter that seems eternal, to leave behind the low rumble of trapped accumulation to which they are held captive and ownerless, and you see, you see the house, you don’t flee from it or ignore it, you see that the only thing that seems to move in its atmosphere is dust suspended against a fine thread of sunlight, that time itself sleeps lazily on the stupefied clocks, you see the proud furniture relinquishing its strength to despondency, cracking and losing its exuberance and shine, the quilt on the silent bed becoming a filthy cloak where any trace of the smell of its owners is lost amid the dusty fury, the grime, the tears on the ceiling and the weeping in every corner

at first he didn’t want to buy the plot and thought the whole thing absurd but I argued that nowhere in the world was so perfect for us to live as here, only here could we be eternally happy, as I’d dreamed of since childhood, and who doesn’t want happiness, we’d build the house of our dreams here and live out the countless days that lay ahead of us, and Paulo just looked at me, silent, aloof, proud, his eyes condemning me as if it were inappropriate to want to be happy here, thinking me mad and crazy and fragile, and I loved him for it, even for that, for making me feel simple in his arms, paralysed under the stare of his dark eyes, all those cold nights together, squeezed against each other, submerged under the covers, yes, your madwoman, I’m your madwoman, I said in silence, and he there, staring at me as if buying a plot of land in a place as boggy and humid as Irajá was something really quite stupid, Paulo always so intelligent and learned and me so ignorant, as he would say shamefaced to his friends, forgive her for not speaking properly and not knowing anything about politics, yes, a little airhead, and I know I’ve only ever really understood my sewing machine, which was all I had in life besides God, my dear God, that machine has brought me pleasure, bricks and mortar, the two of us alone night after night, doing battle, dreaming, accomplices, keeping secrets that we still share, I knew it wasn’t stupid to buy that plot and I said come on, man, are you made of sugar, for Paulinho was always so clean and perfumed and he hated mud and dirt and always wiped his feet on the mat, even though the mat was so filthy it was like not wiping them, he wiped them more for the gesture, he furnished himself with gestures, and he went mad whenever his son, all smiles, took the dog into the living room, years later, when the sludge had gone and the house existed and the neighbours had multiplied, and then I went further, I said come on, man, this is where I want to have children, I said, and he ended up giving in, though not without first thinking it was all madness, a godforsaken shithole with no tarmac or anything out there in the back of beyond, but it was a simple matter of me having headaches for weeks and weeks until he changed his mind, feeling nauseous whenever he came close to me in bed in our little rented room in Cascadura and there I’d be, hearing the deep breathing of my heart, and there I’d be, feeling the smooth fabric of my nightdress touched along the line of my buttocks, and even then I had terrible headaches that only stopped when he finally gave in, I who was
always excessively pretty and who always got the men worked up on the tram or the tramps in the streets where I walked, restless, as if I were inappropriately clothed, feeling myself naked in front of everyone but keeping a calm face for I was Paulo’s woman, the man I love and the father of my child

the house, you see the house, with its abandoned backyard and the for sale sign now rusted and cracked in the relentless heat, the wilted yellow leaves scattered about the yard and dancing to the circular motion of the wind, the old wooden dog kennel surrendering to the termites, the grass relentlessly growing, even in gaps in the tarmac, gradually invading a world it used to rule

it was mad to buy a plot so far away from where I worked as a horseback guard, riding through the Olaria bush until I was exhausted, until the stars cried out in the coal-black sky, a cool breeze cut through the stuffy heat of the thick scrub and I felt at one with the animal, breathing to the same rhythm as he and feeling content, lost to the music of the gathered night, and then trotting proudly along the trails of a morning, whistling at the girls and frightening away the boys who ran about killing whatever creatures they found, riding along the pathways, working and studying a lot, putting up with ten years of sleeping badly in that house that took shape without any help from me as money was so scarce, sleeping with pain in my back, lying there drained on the improvised bed and listening to Vera in the half-light pedalling away on her machine, sewing non-stop, sewing as if milking her subsistence from the ether, until I managed to get into the police and could finally buy a decent bed with an American mattress and I began to sleep peacefully and without any pain in my back,
then I bought a suit to wear for my new job, an elegant suit like film stars wore, the American and English ones I so admired and that appeared in magazines, and I went about walking on air but always in the same dark green suit as I hadn’t enough money to buy another one, that suit was my fortress, and as it tore I’d get embarrassed in front of my friends because of my wife’s awful patching, but I resigned myself to it as there was nothing else for it with so little money, and what money there was went on the house, a man dependent on his woman for subsistence, depending on her sewing and tailoring to be able to live a little of the life I wanted to have but lacked the resources for, sometimes I found a note or a bit of shrapnel in the pockets of my trousers and she smiled at me in complicity, quietly, never saying a word, and that was the money I used to go out with my superiors, to get to know the world and see things and I felt guilty that she couldn’t join in with what I saw, even though I didn’t want her there in my world, even though I wanted to be free of her charitable stare, always planning to leave her but never daring to go through with it, always fantasizing about escape routes, until finally she got pregnant after years of silent suffering, years of thinking she was dry, that she was a desert, wanting it for years, and when I saw her full and expectant smile I knew I’d never leave her, she doubled the amount of sewing she did and put money aside, in a hole behind the wardrobe, for when the child came, she talked of her plans for extending the house and I listened in horror because I wanted to get out of there, a desire that would forever be frustrated for lack of courage, for loving her too sincerely, for admiring her without daring to admit it nor totally giving myself over to it as she did, she who was busy building walls in her mind, walls that would further and forever reinforce the foundations of that prison I wanted to leave without saying a thing, leave her to her mad dreams that grew in every sense and direction, go and live like the police in films, but I did worry about her, the image of her bent over the sewing machine all day disturbed me, I was scared of her stomach bursting and flooding the house, I feared showing signs of my wanting to escape, signs she hardly noticed as she made her little self-sacrifices, wearing the same threadbare clothes and eating second-rate meat, saving crumbs to build the castle of her dreams, ignoring the present and living in the future like a madwoman, shaming me with those charitable eyes, the thought of which made me feel sick when I was with the other women I slept with, Verinha putting money aside and me running around with other women, lying, deceiving myself, rehearsing how I’d escape, spending what I didn’t have, until one day

the house, you see the house, its crockery lost in an ocean of reflections and deceptions, in a labyrinth of repetitions behind closed cupboards and drawers, the fine crockery used for the boy’s wedding imprisoned with its hopes and best intentions, the knife that no longer hangs

I’d run through the bush and sit down in the mud with the toads, which leapt about excitedly, running away and invading the creeks, and when I got tired of chasing toads I’d sit on a rock and settle down to some fishing with my little cane and I’d catch a few tiddlers until night drew in behind the hill and then go running back to the house, running along as the afternoon slowly died and was overtaken by shadows, hearing noises like the laughter of ghosts getting louder until everything finally became night, I’d go running into the living room and find my mother submerged in the half-light, propelling the levers of the sewing machine with her feet, the incessant creaking and bashing echoing about the house like voices of the tortured coming out of the beyond, and she’d look at me and say good God what a dirty little pig and she’d shoo me into the bathroom like she did with the chickens when she fed them in the pen in the yard and I’d throw myself laughing into the bath and become a fish, a toad lost in the marshes, and Mum too, a little toad, a toad-pig, and I’d get her wet with my furious splashing and I’d laugh because I was a fish at the bottom of the sea, swimming with the whales and sharks, and Mum, is it true that if you swim really deep you get to China, and she’d laugh, and later I’d hide behind the kitchen door afraid of the screaming chickens, Mum breaking their necks one by one and gathering their blood in a pan and it was terrifying to see the bare chicken and its severed head staring at me on the marble table and then, Mum, is it true that humans come from monkeys, and she’d laugh and say go ask your father, he’s the clever one, I’m just a seamstress, but the next day I was older, watching the trams go by with my dad, in Vicente de Carvalho Square, stealing sips of cold beer from his glass and trying to inhale the smoke from the cigarettes I smoked awkwardly, pretending I was interested in the panic of the people betting on horse races and the results announced in Morse code by taciturn men on stands, laughing at the mules and asses as they kicked out and neighed, admiring the pretty girls coming out of church who stared at the ground as they passed by in groups, accompanied by their aunts and helpers, Dad telling me with wonder that one day hundreds of iron horses would cross right through Irajá and into the town centre in under twenty minutes and me thinking he was going mad, that the horse was too fine an animal to stop being used just like that and anyway what would happen to all the asses and mules and Dad saying that every house would keep one as a pet, colleagues from school sitting around the bandstand waiting to go into the cinema and admiring me from afar because I was drinking and smoking with the adults, I’d stand at the side of the table as they played rummy and watch them cheat and now and again I’d run to a far-off house carrying the groceries of one of my father’s friends, who’d decided to stay out with his friends because our friends are all we have, lad, don’t ever forget it, and I was always glad to go to Nazário’s house with his groceries as I got to see his three daughters and Nazário would tell my father that I was helpful but a fool if he thinks I won’t chop his balls off out of friendship then he’s very much mistaken, but what old Nazário didn’t know was that I’d already kissed all three of them in the backyard of the house and promised to marry them all

unclaimed photographs pile up in drawers, the last vestiges of remembrance holding on until everything is finally destroyed, because when the house loses the smell of its owners, and its objects resign themselves to tedium, there will be no more memory and the clock will become just a clock, the key just a key, the glass just a glass, grease encrusting every nook and cranny in the old kitchen, a black shadow spreading everywhere, rotting the air and staining the white of the tiles, the old fridge robbed of its integrity by cavities of rust, the penguin at the top offering a lost look of exile

when Ana had left I took all his clothes and angrily threw them in the dirt in the backyard so that the few neighbours we had could see that he’d been thrown out of my life, out of my house, even though I knew he was the only thing that mattered to me, Paulo, dear Paulo, watching me from behind the wall, making kind and gallant signals that I pretended had no effect on me, such pretty hands with long fingers, green and blue veins against his pale skin, and smiling that soft smile that first charmed me, before a friend gave me a little message from him, written in round, timid handwriting and full of pompous words I was unfamiliar with but that lifted me up to the clouds, my friends saying that if I didn’t steal away with him then they surely would, and my torturing him by withholding the only answer I was ever going to give him, the man I chose to be mine the very moment we started courting, and then finally getting engaged in the living room with an aunt watching, entwining our fingers in love and privation, his smooth voice whispering sweet nothings in my ear, words that stilled my beating heart, and I felt like the happiest most complete woman in all the world, and when my aunt left the room I squeezed his thighs and gave him longer kisses, and I felt him get excited, and I turned red and crazy, my world spinning and I let him see my legs just a little, wanting and desiring and worrying, imagining what it would be like, hearing stories from my older cousins, being given confusing and alarming advice, nobody knew how to love back then and they still don’t, I bathed and felt my legs and my whole body, my hand ran all over my bristling skin and I let the water run down to my feet, happy seeing myself in the steamed-up mirror, torturing myself as I touched myself until one terrifying day I felt all that I’d only previously imagined those feverish nights, and right away I thought my cousins had lied, could it be so simple, a little that was a lot and that I wanted more of, that I wanted again laughing happily at life in our little room in Cascadura, hugging my man, and now this, dear Paulo with another woman, Ana tells me, thinking I’d die of shame and feeling ridiculously pregnant and hating myself for loving him the way I loved him, wanting to die when neighbours stared at me as I

the old record player thrown in the corner with a collection of old vinyls, a rusty gas canister and piles of ancient newspapers announcing the breaking news of bygone days, corroded and burned a dull yellow: the house, you see the house, abandoned to its fate, its stories silenced with no one to tell them to

a goddamn bullet in the chest, now is that any way to die, Pedro, for a man like Getúlio to end his days like that, in such a way, the life of the most prized and principled man this country has ever seen coming to an end like that, it’s disgraceful, it’s absurd, and I never saw Dad drink like he did that day, spitting and cursing, saying to himself that these days presidents killed themselves fucking hell, fucking hell, if presidents killed themselves then why not bakers, and mechanics and postmen, and chauffeurs and engineers, that presidents killing themselves really took the biscuit, and there were thousands of angry people ganging up together in the town centre, news of crowds gathering outside the Tribune’s offices and Son, now what, Son, what a fucking mess Son, you work for nothing in this country Son, you sweat blood in this country and it’s all for nothing Son, if there’s no longer room for people like Getúlio in this world then what’s to become of the rest of us Son, I was no longer so young and by then I smoked my own cigarettes and drank beer from my own glass and Dad wanted Lacerda’s head for writing all those venemous articles against Getúlio, that swine, that bastard, that Nazi, my father said, death to Lacerda and his family, may his children and grandchildren and greatgrandchildren all die for what he’s done, it’s disgraceful, that’s no way to die, but I didn’t care, I saw people fighting in Cinelândia and Lavradio and I didn’t care, I preferred talking to the whores in the brothels of Olaria and Madureira, fixing a car door would matter more to me than fixing a country, they could kill the lot of them for all I cared so long as they spared the whores, the world would be unbearable without the sad affections of a whore, if they killed the whores then I’d set the whole world on fire but fuck the president, he never whispered false sweet nothings in my ear for a few coins, fuck the president and his children and Lacerda and his children and the fact that they owned the country and that we were the doomed, that we worked for people who lived the high life without ever getting their hands dirty, I earned money as a typist on a magazine but I never read the news I set down, and Dad telling me things I didn’t care about, Dad lost amid the confusion of the shouting and anger and running and fighting and broken bottles and people crying, Dad trying to imagine where it would all lead and saying to himself that Brazil was fucked, that Brazil murdered its own future every bloody day, a country with no enemies destroying itself, humiliating itself and humiliating everyone who dared dream beautiful dreams, that was what he said, that everything beautiful died young in this fucked-up country, the country had lost its innocence, said my father, and I didn’t care, I didn’t care, I didn’t care about the future, what I did care about was reading mechanics journals and understanding the cars I so restlessly admired, hanging about the garage near home, watching the people at work, the parts and the motors, I loved cars without ever having seen inside one, loved them from afar, until one day the owner of the garage asked me to go fetch some oil from Madureira and he gave me some money and I bought it and then when it came to him paying me I said I didn’t want to be paid, what I wanted was to work in the garage and he laughed and said very well, that I took after my father and that I could stay so long as I didn’t set fire to anything

dozens of old tools and apparatus abandoned in the loft, rubbish accumulating in the corners of the living room, in the hallways, dense dust encrusted in the indentations on plastic containers, in the grooves of the furniture, the threadbare fabric of the sofas, the sad and disorderly holes of the fan’s rusted mesh covering, the sun entering the living room and orbiting the dark clammy dust in a slow and circular ballet

when I finally earned my first promotion and became a detective, I started to earn a little more and Verinha cut down on her clothes orders and was able to read magazines and listen to the radio and I could buy the little
wooden horse Pedro wanted so badly, to run around the backyard like an animal, leaping and getting dirty and falling and laughing, giving military orders to huge armies that fought against the poisonous threat of the flowers in the garden, killing the hordes of camellias with his wooden sword, a boy who killed camellias would end up either an imbecile or a crook, to calm him down I’d walk with him for hours, following the tramlines almost as far as Olaria, and I tried to answer all the questions he asked me about the stars and animals and machines and dinosaurs, making things up to leave him satisfied when faced with the inexplicable, only heading home once evening was drawing in and he sat on the sofa in the living room with his arms folded, silently waiting to be brought his bread and butter and milk like Lord Muck, milk just appearing in his glass while I had to steal it from the cow, and Vera always looking at me with eyes full of hurt and nothing I could say would make her look at me the way she used to, a look that had always annoyed me but now that I didn’t have it was all that I wanted, to win back that look, to be held hostage to her dreams once more, to have her include me in the future she imagined in her head and that no longer featured me, but I’d have to wince in shame for many years yet, face the disapproving looks of neighbours who’d witnessed the scandal of my clothes thrown out in the backyard, then one day I bought her flowers for the first time since we’d got married, with a note saying madwoman I love you, and she put the flowers to one side and went back to her sewing and I felt alone in the world and when I went to say something to her all that came out were tears, I wanted to thank her for everything she’d done for me and tears came out, I wanted to say what a blessing our son was and tears came out, that the modest house we now had was like a fortress to me and only tears came out, and faced with her silence I thought I’d lost her forever and all night I felt adrift in a bed that was a foreign country, until the next day when I found some shrapnel in my trouser pocket and I understood, the world became vast and expansive once more and I understood and I spent the whole day waiting to go home, and when I got off the tram I quickened my pace and when I got to my street I started to run scared that the house might no longer be there but it was, just as the table was there, ready with roast beef and potatoes, and the bed was made and fragrant and without a word being said I understood, I put my hands on her hips and she purred and I understood that I’d won back what I thought I’d lost forever

the floor bestrewn and lustreless, termites gnawing the corners of the floorboards and hiding in the door frames, fearful, lazily devouring what will soon no longer exist

Mila was lying on the ground as if she were asleep and I came sneaking out from behind the wall to give her a fright, laughing, screaming with all my might, and I screamed again, startling the pigeons on the telephone lines, a terrified flock that made a shadow as it flew away over the backyard, but nothing, Mila kept lying there on the ground pretending she hadn’t seen me, pretending to be asleep just to alarm me, I poked her under the tummy with a small stick and nothing, she’s good at pretending, the little devil, if only Dad could see how good at pretending she is, this dog’s an artist, we should take her to the circus and earn some money because she’s an artist, once I made her hold her breath for half an hour, but she was very wise, she learned that Chinese trick, and she was stubborn besides, and Dad told me Mila had died, but that was impossible because only that morning she had run with me and played with me and even bit me and she’d eaten too and she’d done a poo in the living room so it wasn’t possible, she was dead like when we played cops and robbers and so I told her the game had finished, which was why I didn’t like the Chinese because they only played for real, and now how could I get my dog to stop playing the game, but Dad said she wasn’t going to wake up again and that dying meant going to sleep forever and I told Dad that I wouldn’t like to go to sleep forever and he went quiet and fetched a bread sack and put Mila in it and at dawn he went out and I ran to the door and asked if I could go with him and we went out into the dark night walking in silence, I played with the lantern and the fireflies and the sounds around us were strange, the world seemed to be plotting against us ever making it home again and we got to the river and we threw Mila in the river and when the sack hit the water it started to sink and disappear and Mila had turned into a fish, she would bark at the other fish and lead them to the riverbed to help me when I went fishing, when we got back home I asked Dad if I’d die too and Dad said that everything dies, one day and that’s just the way life is, so everything dies, and he said yes, that was the price for being alive and that was why every day was very important, and in bed I closed my eyes and tried to imagine what it would be like to go to sleep forever and I got bored because it was boring and the next morning I told Dad that if I died he was not to hurry into throwing me in the river but rather be patient and wait because I’d find a way of waking up


Vinicius Jatoba
Published with the permission of the author.

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