ISSN 2359-4101

Brazilian Literature in Translation / Literatura Brasileña en Traducción

Issue / Numero

year/año: 2012
issue/numero: # 06

Time to Cast Away Stones

Author | Autor: Estevão Azevedo

Translated by Lucy Greaves

The miner’s sleep is full of explosions, the metallic thumps of iron against

rock, the rattle of sieves loaded with sand and gravel. Lying on his pallet

bed, he dreams more about the arduous work that leads to the stone

than about the dream stone itself. That stone of riches is more the stuff

of his daydreams – the miner’s resting body and sluggish mind are more accustomed

to reality than his fully conscious self, during waking hours. Neither do

women enter his reverie, for in wakefulness he can have any he might want, he

falls in love with whomever most pleases him, and she reciprocates, whether she is

married – when knife and revolver tend to succeed gallant words – single, or woman

of ill repute. Nor does he dream of another life since it pains him to imagine it,

surrounded as he is by the imposing plateaus and the universe they delimit. If he

does not go beyond them, if he is squeezed by them into valleys and plains, that

universe expands ever inwards, towards the bowels of the earth where no man

dare go, however brave he might be, in danger of turning off his lamp and earning

himself a darker and more expansive coffin than the richest of men. Or towards the

caverns which man himself constructs with gunpowder and his own hands, with

tools and obsessions, in search of what the earth hides yet wants to show him,

much as women tend to do.

Gomes was startled awake by the blasts. In the half-light he noticed that Vitória’s

eyes, like those of a black cat shot through with the bile of foreboding, reflected a

thread of moonlight that was coming in through the window, opened to drive away

the terrible heat that seemed to rise from the dry mud floor. Among the night’s

sounds, a frequent impact, coming from somewhere nearby, disturbed his sleep.

Gomes remained quiet, straining to make out what was due to the dream and still

feeling the weight of the pan, which a few moments ago he had been loading with

the gold-bearing gravel his slumbering imagination made him sift while he slept,

such that still felt tired. Vitória did not stir or say a word, perhaps she had died and

her spirit was just waiting for Gomes to push down her eyelids so it could ascend –

or descend, if what terrified the old woman did indeed come to pass. Gomes grew

uneasy. Was she still sleeping, and so feared the things that the divine only discusses

with the fallen and vice-versa? A sound that he knew well, of a pickaxe hitting stone,

rang out, coming from an indefinite distance. Gomes was now convinced: she was

awake. Still lying down, he stared at his wife and saw her face tilt towards him, as if

to say “Yes, I hear it too”, before returning to its previous stillness.

Sleeping in her room, Ximena did not even notice the strangeness of that

night. Not because her ears were accustomed to the sound of the miners’ instru-

ments and thus were not stimulated by them. They were indeed accustomed, but

that was not the reason. She slept on because she had drunk too much. In some

dream, that booming, attenuated by her alcoholic stupor, might perhaps have

sounded like the pleasing rhythm of the negroes’ drums, which made Ximena,

if wanton, spin around clutching her skirt, and perhaps the illusory tune would

have wound her up in her hammock. Gomes, whose thoughts tended to be even

less compatible with sleep than the sounds that were running through the narrow

streets that night, could not bear his bed and got up. Vitória had remained immobile

and he believed she was sleeping. He lit a candle on the oratory, in the living

room. Leaning his shoulder against the doorjamb, through the open door Gomes

could see his daughter moulded to the curve of the hammock, the heat flickering

on the clammy skin of her upstretched legs. Gomes turned his gaze to the living

room. The living room with its little furniture. The floor with scratches in the thin

layer of earth covering the great slabs of rock on which the small town had prospered.

The oratory devoid of images. The little table he had built himself. On the

table, a dirty metal plate, a pair of Vitória’s needles, an unlit lamp, two bottles.

Around it, three chairs, one of them with a broken back, attached to only one of

the stiles. He repeated his nightly promise: I’ll fix it tomorrow. A threadbare rug on

the floor near the threshold. All so very unremarkable. Unable to settle on these

objects worn out by constant observation, he returned to his daughter’s room, into

which slipped a sliver of candlelight that extended across the floor and, in trying to

reach the opposite wall, climbed up and dragged itself across her stomach, seeming

to scribble lazily on her when the lukewarm breeze caused the flame to waver.

Gomes took a step into the room. His shoulder hurt, that was it, he needed to

change position, and he did not feel tired enough to go back to bed. The heat in

there seemed to bother him more still. The breeze that was hardly blowing – when

it did, it was warm breath flowing from the world’s gaping mouth – was an alibi;

the silly girl had not even opened the window before she fell sleep. Instinctively, he

stretched out his arm towards his daughter. He moved his hand quickly up and down,

fanning her. If the awkward movement and his rhythm displaced any air, even hot air,

his daughter’s neck manifested no change. Droplets slipped slowly from her chest,

from behind her ears, from the fine down that covered the nape of her neck and was

so different to her hair, towards the fallen strap of her dress, which the girl had been

in no condition to change for her nightgown before she drunkenly collapsed. The

old man felt thirsty. His mouth seemed filled with dry dust. Gomes retracted his arm,

which was now equally damp from the rhythm he had uselessly kept up, and went

out in search of something to drink. He looked at the bottles on the table and took

the wrong one: more than thirsty, he was hallucinating, he had thoughts like those

of the men he hated. He drank. Far from banishing the dust from his throat, down

with the gulps had gone the stifling air from outside, and now Gomes was the one

scorching the walls, the few pieces of furniture, the daughter who was sleeping just

out of his line of sight. He grew calm. He was, like the dry vegetation each August,

drawn to the flames. The bottle was then drained.

Another blast, like the ones that had woken him that night, interrupted his reverie.

He drew the curtain back, waited for his eyes to adjust to the semi-darkness

and confirmed: Vitória remained motionless. He leaned over, moved his ear close

to the bed and noticed the low snoring of that woman who, skilled in the education

of the senses, had decided not to bother herself with anything more that night. Her

eyes, ears and skin only sensed what she approved. She feigned pain at Gomes’

blows, if that was what her husband’s intention required; she only saw the furtive

shadows in the yard, near to Ximena’s window, if she needed to warn her daughter

that her father was approaching; she did not even notice the imprecations that

Gomes, Rodrigo or other miners hurled at the colonel.

Gomes closed the curtain and walked back to the room he had built for his

daughter. He went in and closed the wooden door; he did not want his footsteps

to disturb his wife’s rest now that she was finally sleeping. If he got his hands on

the hoodlum who worked by night so as to sleep all day... He sat on a stool near

one of the hooks to which Ximena’s hammock was attached. From where he was

he could not see his daughter’s face, he saw only her long body extending away

from him, and she looked much taller than when she was standing, when she barely

compared in height of the women of the night, not because they were taller

or better proportioned but because they balanced on high heels and clogs. He

separated a lock of his daughter’s hair with his fingers, bent down until his face

was but a short distance from the strand he was holding and sniffed it. A strong

smell of sweat and smoke. Some residue of contact with men? He would kill Rodrigo,

kill him. He tried to push the scenes out of his mind, but they would not stop

forming, ever more visible, ever more daring, more painful. Night, the territory of

dreams. When he slept his dreams were outlandish, senseless and, of this he was

glad, quick and easy to forget once he opened his eyes. His daydreams were what

he found unbearable – he would think about something else, concentrate or try

to empty himself by staring at a point on the wall illuminated by the weak light of

the candle. Rodrigo and Ximena were seen going in and out of the woods, talking

in the square. People talked. Vitória said nothing, the no-good wench. She did not

watch over her daughter.

Yet another blast interrupted his suffering. His daughter shifted in the hammock,

in search of a new position. The strap of her dress fell down slightly more

and a breast slipped out of the long garment, leaving her pink nipple visible in the

semi-darkness like a stain on the fabric. Gomes turned his eyes away. He tried to

dress her again. In doing so, seeking the best way to execute the movement, he

had to fix his gaze on his daughter’s nakedness. He moved closer. He touched her

arm with one hand in search of the fallen strap and felt her clammy, almost feverish

skin with the tips of his fingers. He shuddered. He remembered Vitória and tried to

pray, but the relief that drew near as he began murmuring the prayers to himself

simply covered his guilt with a torn cloth, as if his wife were threatening him with

infernal punishment and divine justice. He stood up. He stepped beneath the hammock’s

hook, went to the window and did not open it. He leant against it, turned

towards the centre of the room. The vision of the body in the hammock now offered

itself from new angles, which awakened new thoughts. How much of that

was his desire to, with his own love, keep her out of the reach of men who would

lead her to certain perdition? He was confused. He did not know if it was the right

thing. Was it – did he? No. But he knew he was a man, he could not fool anyone

about that, so if... and he only knew how to affirm it with violence or intimacy. If he

fled from desire, was he showing weakness? He did not know. But it was possible.

How many times in a moment like that, tortured by what his body determined for

him, had he rushed back to bed and forced himself on a sleeping Vitória. He would

lift her nightgown and, before she could groan in protest, cover her mouth with the

palm of his hand – and it was for her own good, because he stopped her, by simply

rejecting him, impelling him towards an abject destiny that he was still fighting to

escape. He would penetrate Vitória with a rage that she silently believed diabolic,

moving as fast as he could, panting, because for him too that intercourse was a

sacrifice to which he submitted in the sole intention of ridding himself, for a few

hours, of the incubated sickness that one day would transform him into the vile

thing he dreaded becoming.

The distant noise grew louder and brought Gomes back to his senses. He

recognised its tones: someone was mining in the town. This unexpected conclusion

was enough to preoccupy him, and his body, still leaning against the window,

relaxed. The distraction did not last long, however. Even if he had seen a vein of

gold shine magically among the cracks in the walls, at that moment he would not

bind himself to it, despite the hunger and the privations of recent times, because

nothing would be able to pull him away from the most intense feelings a man

could possibly experience, except if he were holding the point of his knife against

an opponent’s stomach or with a blade dancing in front of his own, at times moving

off as if recoiling, at others feeling the point burning his skin. A lightening bolt

ran through his body in waves, from top to bottom: just like a tree-lily that quickly

catches fire at the least contact from a spark, after the first shiver caused by the

obscene image that always offered itself up in the end, reasons came together

in the old man’s thus far confused mind, reasons that would legitimise in obtuse

contortion the gesture which until that moment he had been strong enough to

abort – or fearing God, as he thought most of the time, in the intention of obtaining,

without Vitória even imagining, his pardon. His daughter’s parted lips, with a

trace of saliva pooling at the corners, pronounced incomprehensible words, issuing

from some dream. Gomes held his breath, startled by what seemed to him a moan.

Provocation? The desperate mechanism of the search for an external reason to

explain the desire that lacerated him was in motion. It did no good to fight against

that which seemed uncontrollable, against what he already felt was beating him,

and he ought perhaps to make an effort to construct from air and dreams another

target for his licentiousness. He imagined himself crossing the threshold of the

whorehouse, where he had been so many times before and where for a short while,

with controlled brutality and a few coins, he was capable of ridding his thoughts

of Vitória and Ximena, who troubled him with the conflicting feelings they stirred

in him: one, disgust, the other, arousal. Gomes imagined a room with few lamps

and little light, then in its corners he placed the women he tended to sleep with,

but with certain improvements – they, as they were, with their scanty clothing,

wrinkles and scars, were no good to him at that moment, since they were pitted

against a real adversary who, even if she too gained scars and wrinkles one day, in

the darkness of that room had only charms. He imagined their legs. They balanced

awkwardly on high-heeled shoes, which gave them pigeon chests and thrust out

their buttocks and breasts. Sweet perfumes, diluted with generous doses of alcohol

to multiply the bottles or, if the night was just beginning, the smell of the talc

that stuck to tongues. Strawflowers in the hair of the older ones, lending them

their freshness. Above all, the manner of wanting to please, to be only yeses for

few hours or many coins. The strategy was efficient, Gomes felt their effect. He

touched himself. The warmth of his hand inside his trousers brought him wellbeing,

but this became incompatible with the attention required to sustain the fantasises

that lifted him out of that detestable room, and so little by little the women

of the night started fragmenting, turning into impossible bodies whose parts

became blurred, configuring monstrous beings. As soon as the chimeras disappeared,

Gomes’s eyes returned to the silhouette of Ximena, lying in the somewhat

ridiculous position of a partially broken doll, yet within reach, and he no longer felt

able to control himself. He was like a wretch who runs in fear down an unknown

path and, after running as fast as he can for a long time, with his tongue lolling

out, realises that some imperceptible curve will take him back to his starting point,

where his captors have been lamenting his loss, and the effort made in this failed

flight will have wasted all the energy he had for kicks and punches. Composed of

ethereal matter, the lascivious figures to which Gomes had appealed offered him

delights he never had the courage to ask their flesh-and-blood counterparts, but

which demanded of him greater concentration than he could muster, given his current

state. When his body abstained from the external energy that nourished him

and started feeding off the sensation that his own stimulation produced – a perpetual

motion machine of desire – the succubi dissipated and behind the clouds

that stopped him blinding himself rose once more the pale, yet more hypnotic, sun

that was the possibility of his daughter’s offensive nakedness. Gomes paused, but

now he felt his insides burning. He made one last effort to rescue the demons that,

instead of saving him, had distracted him and stoked his fire, leaving him on the

verge of that absolute and irreversible state which precedes violence or pleasure.

He approached the hammock where his daughter, in her alcoholic stupor, was reverberating,

and he grabbed the loose ends of the hem of her dress. For the time

that he remained immobile, the rough, greasy and slightly damp texture of the

fabric held between the tips of his thumbs and forefingers made him shudder, as

if those pieces of cloth absorbed all the qualities of the contents they enveloped.

Prisoner of the moment – undetectable by the clock, inexhaustible to the mind –

that precedes the crime, Gomes was surprised by the brusque movement made

by Ximena who, sleepy and drunk, lifted her head in a still-instinctive attempt to

find in reality the beings that assailed her in her nightmare. Gomes moved away

before his daughter awoke completely, but did not leave. Ximena rubbed her face

with the backs of her hands; this movement rearranged her torso and waist in the

hammock and left the forbidden part of her thighs on show. Gomes clenched his

fists and dug his nails into his palms. Ximena gave a long yawn and said “Father?”.

Like the great wave that follows a storm at the head of a river and sweeps with

it tree trunks, stones, men and animals, that ineluctable desire would carry the

man’s body to the deflagration of the huge accumulated energy, and thus when his

daughter’s voice, soft, hoarse and childlike from interrupted sleep reached his ears,

Gomes made an unexpected movement and with his closed fist hit her between

chin and mouth, causing her tooth to wound her lip and a stream of blood to spurt

out and stain the wall and floor. When she reached the room, after hearing her

daughter’s sobbing mixed with the clanking of iron on rock that was disturbing the

village, Vitória did not even notice the absence of her husband, who was walking

away from the house with heavy steps.

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