A long, sinuous highway cuts the town in half, stretching as far as the eye can see. The road connects and disconnects the southern and northern halves of the country, accentuating their differences, reawakening their desires. Adrift in the middle of nowhere, the town battles against boredom and oblivion. Old people in the streets and gardens. Shouts of children filling the air. I turn to face the past, and, in an instant, it brings back those times from deep inside me, as if they were still in touch with the present.
Every year at this time, the sky beats with the wings of red- and yellow-breasted macaws. Dozens and dozens of them, plunging into the colours that spill over the horizon. All of us, the papaya trees, mango trees, mangaba trees, avocado trees and everything that’s colourful and alive; we’re all swept up in their commotion.
Somehow it makes you want to fly away with them. You don’t see many macaws anymore – they’re almost extinct. It makes people feel sad, when we ought to feel sad for all the other creatures that make less of an exhibition of themselves. What about the armadillos? Wasps? Weasels? Hyenas? Humans only care about things that look pretty; the hyenas can go to hell with their stinking, sarcastic laugh. On those sorts of days when the macaws came, I just wanted to hide myself among them and fly away to the edge of the sky, until I ran out of air.
I remember myself as a little girl, eight years old, and Auntie Florinda, who was already twelve. The two of us were following a tiny trail of those ‘foot-washer’ ants, traipsing halfway round the world. They were devouring the rose garden, the devil in insect guise, and there were three or four of us in our little gang plotting against them. Hugging onto their leaves, they marched forwards in contented ignorance. We, submerged in the night, followed behind their big red heads, lanterns in our hands and eyes fixed on the trail, the chewed-off rose leaves bleeding on the backs of the heartless, hungry, big-bummed insects. Regardless of the sacrifice, their tiny bodies stayed glued to their prize. If we pulled them by their bodies, trying to separate them from the leaves, they might well lose their heads (and many did), but never the leaves; they never let go of the leaves.
We went on and on and still didn’t find the entrance to their nest, never actually got to the oldest bit, the daddy nest. It was all a great mystery; the ants imposed a strict code of secrecy. They had their own grandiose highway of intense, interstate, international traffic – perhaps more important than our national highway. The scent of the night, thick with dew, lay on our brows, floating over us.
Auntie Florinda was all eyes, a jaguar watching her prey, completely engrossed in their movements. At times she ran fast, taking care not to tread on the highway, worn bare and sunken into the ground by all the bugs’ toing and froing. Discovering the epicentre was as difficult as tracking down the source of a piece of vile gossip. Ants don’t give away secrets; their organisation is impenetrable, their home a sanctuary. We spent whole days and nights in the search, always starting again where we’d stopped the night before. We would stick little red tags to mark where we’d got to, so we wouldn’t get lost – a painstaking and meticulous business. Whenever we discovered one of their hideouts, we could do whatever we liked before administering the coup de grâce, but we never found the source we were looking for, never pinned down the queen’s hiding place. To our endless delight, Auntie used to come up with all sorts of suggestions about how and when the battle would end. The discovery would be celebrated with a little jet of kerosene, or maybe a firecracker to start with. Then would come the alcohol – an enormous explosion, set off by a medium-sized homemade bomb – and that would be that! It was a real war we were planning, and the corpses of those big-headed bugs would go flying in all directions. It was the beginning of the end. We skipped back into the house, breathing the air of conquering heroes: cool, clear, pure.
Our garden was a busy place: roses for the church sacristy, flowers for the doctor’s surgery, for the school office, for the funerals that hardly ever took place – but when they came, they seemed more like a torrent – “it never rains but it pours,” as the old folk used to say. But since the town’s size and birth rate remained the same, the number of deaths hadn’t changed either, and what the old people viewed with fear and exaggeration was just the normal cycle of life, and death. The little devotional shrines of the houses tucked away in the backstreets also got their flowers. Our garden provided for everyone, even for the more than twenty trails of ants we exterminated every month. The garden covered two hectares of land, more or less eight blocks (to us it seemed more like a dozen), increasing both the size and the charms of the town.
Back then, I found all that hard work really dull. I had to feed the plants from a big bag of compost on my back and I was always covered in leaves, twigs and muck, scratched by the vicious thorns. As I grew up, I began to pay attention to the meaning of each rose, the jobs they did, the energy they brought, the romances they repaired, the spells they wove. The beauty of every species. You can’t look at a flower without a heart – it’s usually the heart that sees them. If I’d understood this before, I wouldn’t have cared so much about picking them all, with their thick, stubby stems, and chopping off their bruised petals.
Margarida had reached the age of eighteen, the age of her first and last romance. In the big cities, modern habits loosen people’s commitments, but that sort of thing doesn’t always reach towns like ours.”
At dusk, Auntie Margarida, Florinda’s older sister, would always be waiting for us outside the house. She’d be sitting in her chair with its saggy, time-worn backside, her voice chuckling with laughter at our hunting escapades and saying, every time, “I suppose that’s what happens when you haven’t got enough to do? Is it? Tomorrow I’ll give you a hoe each, and you can get rid of all the weeds and burrs in Tenório’s garden. Or wouldn’t you like that, eh?”
Auntie Florinda, always quick to answer back, retorted that she seemed to be having fun watching us do it, and, anyway, we’d learnt the game from her. What a dull, boring life, piggy-backing on other people’s thrills.
Margarida had reached the age of eighteen, the age of her first and last romance. In the big cities, modern habits loosen people’s commitments, but that sort of thing doesn’t always reach towns like ours. Loads of places are still stuck back in the decades when they were built, locked into their tidy set of rules and morals so they can clamp down on the ne’er-do-wells’ shenanigans and keep an eye on the floozies. Stunted, the towns drag on unchanged from year to year, carrying on with their petty intrigues and nonsense, relishing their insularity and carefully keeping up everyone’s appearances.
My aunt was also keeping up appearances; marriage already figured in her plans and she was preparing for it carefully. “A promising young lad from the town,” she would say, “with everything a woman could look for in a man.” She listed his qualities, getting more and more animated. Good-looking, so you’d wake up and go to sleep in a good mood. Kind and affectionate, so you’d miss him. Apparently faithful, so you’d forgive him his first betrayal and believe he’d find a second one difficult. Intelligent, so that at least he’d hide his subsequent betrayals. A good talker, to lessen the other little irritants you’d only find out about later. A lovely voice – the thing a woman notices most in a man – seducing you over the phone, right in your ear, like the man on the radio. And, finally, a decent, respectable job – often the most important thing of all for making a marriage last. Now that would be a man to look up to! All made worse by living out in the sticks, where women’s tongues work overtime to make things happen in a place where nothing happens.
Their victims used to say that all the agony caused by these old busybodies would be revealed at their funerals, written on their tongues, which would roll out like scrolls, telling of all their evil deeds. When they died, the gossips’ tongues would revolt and leave their bodies. The tongues would be dragged alongside the coffin in carts, skips or trucks, depending on how outrageous their gossiping had been and how much damage it had done. They’d smell so badly that no one, not even their very few loved ones, would go with them to the graveside. When the owners of these tongues heard these curses, they reined in their urges for a while and prayed dozens of novenas, but they quickly fell back into their old ways. “Your tongue will be buried in a wheelbarrow, stinking of rotten eggs,” people would shout whenever some new piece of gossip was unearthed.
Auntie Margarida was sure she’d made the right choices. Her body remained firm, alluring, overwhelming; her thighs, of course, couldn’t be shown in any corner of the town. She bowed instantly to the first suggestion of gossip, and so she avoided even the slightest hint of scandal. It’s the envious who make the rules, and Auntie didn’t test them. Maybe it was her sense of family responsibility that didn’t allow for chasing ants or wasting time on things that didn’t lead anywhere. She could sleep with boys in her thoughts, while we would often sleep up in an old inga tree, gazing at its fruit that looked like snakes, each of us curled around a thick, comforting branch for an arm. At daybreak, the tree swayed and the leaves made a sombre sound, gently shedding legends that we would tell in low whispers, like a pretend medicine that made us shudder but also comforted. It reached both the innermost, ghostly marshes of our minds, and the gentle, afternoon rocking of the most peaceful, sleeping child. It smelt of shadows and things that were hidden, never quite revealed. The stars shone languidly, brazenly. In the clear August light, as the sun went down, everything, everyone, was tinged with shades of orange, and when the rusty, golden yellow came, it was as if the evening itself was on fire.
During the sunset, you could see the other side of the world, right there. We could even smell it: the smell of words left to soak, and remarks stewed over, grimly, during all those hours slaving over a hot stove. Our little gang came up with more and more theories: that Night had murdered Day, and that the colours which invaded us came from the various stages of Day’s fight to the death.
At the top of the inga tree, holding court like a ring-master, Auntie Florinda began the story: the yellow was the start of a blazing row, the beginning of a great battle; the purple was the first stab, followed by the fatal thrust; the red was his blood spilling over the horizon. Then, at the end, the half-light of darkness was Night dragging away Day’s body, throwing it over the precipice into the other side of the world, and taking his place. To kill Day, Night used a special dagger encrusted with diamonds which, after the deed was done, scattered out across the sky to form the stars.
The sky there is wider, deeper and more beautiful than anywhere else. Whenever one of them told the saga of the battle between the two giants, Night and Day, I’d sometimes tell my own version:
“Our Lady embroiders the heavens just for us, on a piece of cloth that goes on and on and never ends. It’s like there are different heavens for every night and every place, to keep us company. Our Lady gives this cloth to us. The day doesn’t die; Our Lady merely covers it up so we can sleep under a thick blanket, as old as time itself. The little holes are because it’s so old, and they let some of the light through, so we aren’t left completely in the dark.”
The day neither advanced nor retreated; I looked at everything with the amazement of someone discovering something new every instant. Slowly, sincerely, I took in all the senses and smells.”
Auntie Florinda would laugh at this story and make a point of telling it to all the neighbours, along, of course, with her reply: “Our Lady has better things to do than hang around embroidering, embroidering, embroidering.” My dream crumbled every time she said that.
When I woke up, time seemed to be standing still. The day neither advanced nor retreated; I looked at everything with the amazement of someone discovering something new every instant. Slowly, sincerely, I took in all the senses and smells. Everything, from the house to the fruit, seemed enormous. Sometimes I think that, as we get older, our powers of observation diminish along with our sense of smell, touch, sight and love of life, and our perception gradually fades away with our daily chores and distractions. We lose the openness of childhood, when we perceive both the smallest details and the enormity of things around us.
At the far side of the big enclosure that joined onto the garden, there were some mango trees that must have been over a hundred years old. When the fruit was ripe, the ground would be splattered with the smell of mangos: little coquinhos, big espadas, bourbons, sabinas, ox mangoes and all types of bee mangos. Then there were the beetles, a handful of furry animals and, high up in the leafy canopies, macaws and other birds that somehow managed to sound like they were everywhere at once. They all had their mate, hitched up for life, monogamous until death and even beyond. And the large, leafy ladies, which we said looked like women from Bahia, provided generously for creatures of every shape and size, right down to the creepy-crawlies. Even for our neighbour Tenório’s cows, who stretched their necks right down over the fence to reach the fruit, their plaintive, begging eyes saying “please” and “thank you” for them. They learnt how to get more mangos with every appreciative moo – it was an orgy of abundance. When a little mango fell before it was ripe, we’d join it to a bigger one with a small bit of wood, and poke four more twigs in the bigger one to look like legs.
So the forbidden fruit was an apple?
Well, only if Eve had never seen a mango!
We got ourselves filthy from ear to ear and from fingertips to elbow, and our thoughts were never quite the same.
We had delicious ways of making ourselves happy. We didn’t depend on luxuries or anything more elaborate than our own mischief. While kids in the big cities played with their Lego, we had the ants, day after day, again and again, and we loved it. Life couldn’t get any better; it was a swollen river of wonderful happenings. Not that bad things never happened, of course, but they were just passing through, like the north wind or the macaws. They were no concern of ours.
Translated by Robin Patterson. Reproduced in association with the Mertin Agency.
Vanessa da Mata was born in Mato Grosso in 1976 and is a Latin Grammy Award-winning singer and songwriter. She has released four studio albums, repeatedly scoring number-one hits in Brazil. A filha das flores, her debut novel, is published in Portuguese by Companhia das Letras in Brazil and by Quetzal in Portugal. A German edition is forthcoming from Ullstein/List, and the book was pitched for adaptation at the 2014 Berlinale Film Festival.
Author portrait © Geraldo Pestalozzi
Robin Patterson is currently working on his first book-length translation, Nosso Musseque by the Angolan novelist José Luandino Vieira, to be published by Dedalus Books. He is a member of the And Other Stories Portuguese reading group and has translated samples for a number of publishers, authors and literary agencies.