Story by Iacyr Anderson Freitas, translated from the Portuguese by Désirée Jung
Many things have happened before they arrived in such life held by tomorrow’s emptiness.
What’s the importance of this now? I ask myself. Nothing. And yet, despite all my efforts, why have I never been able to forget what happened? Why this endless return against my will, the same image, the same afternoon, almost a memory by now but not quite? My strongest certainty: that interminable light, the unending agony of the cicadas, the sun stumping the landscape with fires. And not to mention the vertigo arriving straight from my childhood, turning life thicker, denser, and more terribly inexplicable at every passing day.
As a nine-year-old boy, unrecognizable to me today, I was often in agitation, high up on the mango tree, calmly measuring the afternoon from there, a place that in my view appeared more habitable than any other part in the world – despite its elusive difficult architecture of branches, embroidering shadows covering the house’s backyard. I remained there in silence, drinking the hours owed to me like a religious mystery, listening to this dark drum inside my chest, mouth, and bloody veins.
And that’s when, and how, I first noticed my mother and uncle – my father’s younger brother – slowly coming out from the back door and into the backyard, quietly speaking and appearing nervous.
My father had become paraplegic due to a major accident, and because of that forced, to deal with the limitations of this new reality, trading physical activities and business life for a wheelchair. Since then, nobody ever left him alone. People from the house, neighbors, family friends and relatives, shared an endless rotation of improvised card games, conversation, music gatherings, anything that could distract him from his profound depression. My mother even hid the drugs, the insecticides, and the revolver, fearing the worst. And this uncle – who, all these years in my memory, continued to go down the backyard’s stairs infinitely – was one of the house’s regulars, always kind and helpful. With me, especially, his favourite nephew.
As they speciously entered the backyard that day, I knew I remained unseen to them, up on the mango tree. Whispering, confused and with suspicion, they walked up to the end of a small lateral garden. There, protected by the foliage, they kissed. This image, my mother and uncle kissing, is forever what stayed with me like a murder. Lost and without escape, my life up became unbearable. All I recall was the blurred notion of an afternoon stretching through slime, clouded hours, and an entire life (nine years old) of useless questioning. Nothing else.
From that moment on, I turned into a poor miserable nobody, worse and more miserable after they turned around and went back to the kitchen. While, in the background, my father’s voice muffled and afar could be heard – or whatever was left of it after the accident – his syllables a rosary without brilliancy.
Almost two months later, on this uncle’s birthday, a strong blast raged through the door of my parent’s bedroom, a slit cutting the morning in half. Soon after, the yell of my mother. I was riding my bike in front of the house when it happened. Stunned by the sound, I ran towards it but was held before I could get closer to the room where my father’s body still boiled, his head cleaved by the old revolver’s bullet.
Why did he kill himself on that day precisely? My mind had created more than a thousand possibilities after witnessing that murderous kiss. When did my father find out about the affair? How did he have access, despite all family efforts, to a loaded revolver? These were some of the unending, unanswered questions I had pressing against my chest, crushing me into an unmapped darkness, stitched by silence at every minute. If it was up to me, the lovers should rest in peace, unforgiving and unmeasured, for everything else was already lost.
I never told this story to anyone. I held it as my secret, the live poison inside my blood. I kept the unpleasant arrival of that image, the ill feeling of its presence. I withheld everything in silence. Gradually, a foreign sadness grew in me. I became more distant and headstrong.
After the death of my father, our financial situation, which already wasn’t the best after his accident, worsened considerably. My uncle didn’t wait long to move away from the city, alleging work issues. A few years later, I also left the house to study. After a long time doing odd jobs here and there, I finally found something that allowed me to pay and finish my university degree. It also gave me the necessary alibi for when, if ever, I had to pack my bags and return to the place that made me so uncomfortable. Only occasionally I visited my mother.
By choice, my work holidays never coincided with my university break, and for that reason, I never traveled on vacations. My mother didn’t forgive my absence, though. And in turn, I felt the same: I couldn’t forgive her for what had happened. Even after so much time, I continued to punish her for the offence already trialed and condemned by higher magistrates – the voice of my father echoing in the uncanny image of that kiss, the revolver blast mercilessly seizing his memory in fear two months later. My own sense of abandonment, as well as my mother’s, and her sin, trembling before that image. The affection of two people, engine of an already dead kiss, stabbing me deeply in that cunning hour.
As soon as I finished my bachelor’s, I started my masters, followed up by my doctorate. Sometime later, as my temporary job expired, I was hired as a professor at the same university. I rarely returned to my mother’s house. She, likewise, never visited me. With the passing of years, our distance became unbearable. It was especially heavy for me since I’d finally recognized that poor woman’s suffering – the deaf magnitude of her pain. Her fight against my father’s depression, the consequences of his accident, and the financial difficulties that collapsed over our house. Life, for her, becoming a sudden enemy, an unannounced burden over her shoulders: house duties, children, the need to complement a small pension with sewing, renting rooms, desserts, and marriage cakes for sale. An endless ordeal that, without any doubt, costed her the erasure of her own existence in our name, her children. Moreover, the pressing need of a faraway desire, a slime grin between the sheets, that her body couldn’t forget.
Only now I’m able to recognize the power of this desire, how it is geared by darkness and many fires within. Unfortunately, to that nine-year-old boy up on the mango tree, shifting back and forth between the somber caves of his childhood, no comprehension or recognition was conceded. Shielded by a useless attempt to answer a question his own skin denied, rootless with a hatred without measure, he was blinded and prevented to transcend his own blood and semen, having before him only an inquisitional horizon – such punishment that hides within an extreme and obscure ignorance.
Why do we always understand a posteriori? Why do we overly condemn what exceeds us?
Because truly to forgive – if, indeed, one has such need – is to leave behind no marks or vestiges, to use a conjugation we barely accept to know as a verb. No one can blame for not trying to change my estrangement before the world, not even with my mother. My brothers exhausted me in their advises and demands. And yet tverything appeared false and roughly staged to me. Once the mask contrarily reshaped my face, I had no way to return to what I was. Instead, I became a distant and cold man.
Now, as I sit in the living room of our old house, facing the picture of my father in his thin moustache and brilliantine, I hope all my sorrows can bring back that old boy to life. I hope, also, that with his return, the destiny of our days can change forever. Like a clock walking in countermarch, he can pull the old mango from the earth by its hairs, and with it, the rumour of the cicadas on the riddled turn of Januarys.
At last, I hope his return can save me from my mother’s terrible gaze, present in all her many pictures, her face intensively stouter as time passes, despite my wish.
With her hands so close to my gaze now, they resemble a land racked by drought, the kind of that never leaves the memory of our souls. I look at her without haste, unveiling our very sisal of silence. Her unhappiness maybe a torture, maybe a redemption to me. Occasionally, one of us makes a fortuitous exclamation, or if much, a meaningless commentary. We barely talk, that much is true. And I must admit, fearfully, that this is an imprint of our entire life.
We can only hope that destiny doesn’t give us another chance in this world. For only warm, good food, can save us from Sundays. But the cooking is not even close to my mother’s. She can’t be in the kitchen anymore, due to her sickness. In fact, she can’t do much these, except, rather, allow her painful but dreamed passing hour. A large part of her memory even appears to have already left us, packing its suitcases for good. Just yesterday I saw her arguing with two of her (long-time dead) brothers. As for today, though, she is not into talking. She keeps staring at me as if I were a stranger, her arrogance long gone. At night, a few words escape from the thresholds, but no answers. In confidence, we talk. And like so, apart, we understand each other.
Published by the literary magazine El Portal, May feature.