ISSN 2359-4101

Brazilian Literature in Translation / Literatura Brasileña en Traducción

Issue / Numero

year/año: 2012
issue/numero: # 05

The Absent Word

Author | Autor: Marcelo Moutinho

Translated by Kimberly M. Hastings

Dona Sophia

I was smoothing down the sheets when I heard the door open behind me. I
turned in surprise and Dr. Fernando scowled. I thought he was going to say the
room was supposed to be ready by then, but he didn’t say a word. Beside him
were Severino, the bellhop, and a very thin lady with curly gray hair and light
eyes. It was Dona Sophia.

She waited a few minutes until I finished making the bed and thanked me quietly,
I don’t even know if Dr. Fernando heard. She talked funny, in the same language we
do, but it sounded different, I don’t know. I had to keep myself from laughing.

After we left the room, Dr. Fernando complained to me about the delay and said
that our new guest was a famous writer, from Portugal. She was going to receive
a prize at the Amazon Theater and that’s why she was in Manaus. The Amazon
Theater is beautiful. I’ve never been, but if everyone says so, it has to be.

The prize would be awarded in two days, Dr. Fernando told me. And I should
devote my full attention to Dona Sophia. Full attention, understand? He repeated
this five or six times. I’d understood the first time.

When Dona Sophia arrived, it was almost eleven at night. I thought she was
going to stay in her room, given her age, but I was wrong. Just before midnight, she
appeared in the lobby—I was cleaning the elevators—and asked if the hotel had an
outdoor site where she could relax. I asked her to wait and went to ask Dr. Fernando
what the devil a site was. He told me that was how they say place over in Portugal.
So I showed her the pool area, which faces the Rio Negro—people here call it a deck.
Before heading there, she asked if I would please serve her some tea. Yes, ma’am, of
course, just one moment. What kind would you like?

Oh, and a glass of wine. White. I’d like it chilled.

I didn’t see Dona Sophia again until the next morning. Around nine, she asked
them to ring for me. I’m not the one who decides such things, but I think Dona
Sophia liked me because I make a point of always being polite with guests. She
wanted me to adjust the temperature of the air conditioning. It’s very hot here in
Manaus, and we leave the air on high. She must have gotten cold during the night,
poor thing. And I think she went to bed late, because Dr. Fernando told the front
desk that this was a special case, breakfast could be served at any time. She then
let me know that she was going down to eat something and asked if I would kindly
keep her company in the elevator. Yes, ma’am, of course. Dona Sophia must have
been pretty important. And I was all excited to be able to wait on her, even more
so because she was the one who requested me personally. I’d never seen a writer
before. Much less an award-winning one. Dr. Fernando said that she won a lot of
awards in Europe and that it was an honor for the city of Manaus to welcome a
person known all over the world.

And Dr. Fernando knows about everything. He’s very smart; he reads all the
time. He told me that of the top ten books on the newspaper’s bestseller list, he
always reads at least three. But I didn’t ask if he’d read anything by Dona Sophia. I
felt embarrassed, because Dr. Fernando is very serious. Dona Sophia is too. As far as
I could tell, she’s not one to chitchat.

This heavy, silent river, listen closely, you can hear the night breathing, she said,
when I brought her white wine the second night. The line amazed me and Dona
Sophia continued. I wanted to set my love on that silence like a rose on the sea.
She remained by the pool, same as the day before, in a chair facing the riverbank,
studying the dark water and taking notes in a brown notebook.

I backed away and hid behind the restaurant curtain, watching from a distance.
At times it seemed she was talking to herself. Or that someone was there, a friend,
maybe, having a conversation with her. She waved her arms. Then she turned back
to the notebook and scrawled on the pages with her pen.

I was getting ready to go to bed when she stood up. She set the notebook and
pen on the table and began to move from side to side, slowly, as if she heard music
no one else did and that made her body sway. Dona Sophia was dancing.

At Dr. Fernando’s orders, I was ready and waiting bright and early the next
morning. It was the day the prize would be given, and she had to be ready at ten,
because the driver would be coming by the hotel promptly. I didn’t think Dona
Sophia was excited about the award. She seemed happier sitting by the pool with
her tea, or her wine, than when she had to go out for her travel engagements.

I congratulated our guest at breakfast. She smiled and then I didn’t see her again
until late that afternoon. I was leaving work and she was arriving from the ceremony.
She looked tired, like someone who just wanted a shower and bed. As I headed out,
she nodded to me and I gave a little wave goodbye. I deserved a rest too.

The writer left a package for you, Dr. Fernando told me as soon as I set foot in
the hotel. Huh? For me? That’s right, she left you a present, it’s at the front desk. I
punched in and ran to the lobby. They handed me a brown envelope. Inside was a
thick, hardcover book. The title read “Anthology,” and beneath it was a name: Sophia
de Mello Brayner Andresen.

I didn’t know what the word anthology meant and went to ask Dr. Fernando.
He told me it was a selection of the best works. It’s like in soccer. Aren’t Brazil’s best
players the selection for the national team?

I understood.

Then he wanted to know why I was interested in that word, and I told him about
the present. She gave you a book? he asked, as if about to laugh, and said that I
might not understand the poems. He could help me if I didn’t.

I’d never read a book, but I was so happy, so surprised by Dona Sophia’s gift,
that I promised myself I’d read that one, without having to beg Dr. Fernando for help.
And I did read it.

It wasn’t easy. First, because I found it strange. I thought poetry had to rhyme.
But if t he cover said poetry and there was no rhyme inside, it had to be poetry. I
didn’t have to ask Dr. Fernando that. I had a feeling that if I did, he’d make fun of me.

And the book had lots of strange words. Crete, cedars, Cacela, Kronos, amphora,
Pergamon, rhododendrons. Delphos, cupidity, Nereids, Knossos, oilskin, Manueline,
nards. They weren’t even in the dictionary that Dr. Fernando lent me, which he said
was the best. But I was able to understand some of them.

She wrote in the book that one day she wants to be the sea and the sand. I
got to thinking what it would be like if we suddenly became water in the middle of
so much water, or drifted like sand, carried by the wind, with no way to hold to the
ground. I wonder if Dona Sophia turns into sand when she dances by herself?

I’ve never been in the sea. Never even seen it. I’ve only heard the waves. I
remember it well: I was a little girl when my mother brought a shell and told me to
hold it up to my ear. What a beautiful sound.

In Dona Sophia’s book there are also waves, trees, the sun, the moon, flowers,
forests, words about nature. But mostly there’s the sea. It’s funny to read so much
poetry about the sea and know that Dona Sophia spent a long time sitting by the
pool, looking at the river.

And rivers are different, they’re fresh water. I’ve seen rivers. Been in rivers. I’ve
grown up with rivers. The Negro, the Solimões, the Amazon. A river for me is a boat
crossing. A place to fish for piranha, pirarucu. Or to take a swim. A river is Mom
calling us for lunch, Dad climbing into his canoe to go work, a chicken fight, the
bittersweet taste of cupuaçu.

Before reading Dona Sophia’s book, I’d never thought about this. Before, rivers
were just rivers to me, sometimes deep, sometimes shallow, sometimes clean,
sometimes dirty, but only that: rivers. And I confess that the first time I read the
book I didn’t understand very well what she wrote about the sea. I think for people
to feel something, they have to have been near it, smelled it, at least seen it up close.

But then I read the book again and again, and saw that even though we’re so
different and I haven’t stuck so much as a toe in salt water, I’m a lot like Dona Sophia.
I know I’ll never win an award, I’ll never write a book, I’ll never be famous like her. And
I never thought about being the sea. But a river, yes. There are times when I want
to be a river. And sand. Fine, light, free in the air. To be able to dance alone, just like
Dona Sophia, to the secret beat only the two of us know.

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