ISSN 2359-4101

Brazilian Literature in Translation / Literatura Brasileña en Traducción

Issue / Numero

year/año: 2015
issue/numero: # 07



The Boundless Frontier


Author | Autor: João Batista Melo


Translated by Marina Coelho

The street is in all my memories. Without the street, there wouldn’t be any

houses. Without the houses, there wouldn’t be the toys, the games, and

the stories. I can see myself running on the sidewalk, leaves falling from

the trees on my restless feet. I can see Sophie with her blonde braided

hair, hoping through the squares, and her small sandals covering the numbers. A

dog watches us with lowered ears.

I’m not sure if it was 1935 or 1940 the same way as I don’t know if we were

10 or 12 years old. It’s just a remote memory crossing my mind. A framed picture I

could hang on the wall. It could be an illusion built from fragments of reality. Perhaps,

that single afternoon has never happened, and the girl jumping on the chalk

hopscotch grid is just a synthesis of the moments I spent on that street.

Once again, the street: a paved stone road crossing my past. From that street

houses would grow, and in their midst, people would move. Daddy and Mommy.

Sophie. The Germans and other neighbors. All of them walking through the street,

from one side to the other. It was like a river where I sailed with my childhood

dreams, polishing a feeling of happiness built of small, yet deep, moments of joy.

If I looked for that river today I wouldn’t find it. It’s true that the street is still

there, somewhere in Belo Horizonte, even if it’s covered by asphalt and enclosed

between sky-high buildings. Even if the houses where still there and the asphalt

didn’t fill the space once occupied by cobble stones, the street still wouldn’t be the

same. That old one is trapped in time, framed by my own story.

I can’t tell when exactly the order broke. Maybe on that afternoon of hopscotch

games. Maybe sometime later. Anyway, every time I think about that time,

about my affection for the German girl, or even about the change that transformed

my father before my eyes – like some of the characters from Mr Konrad’s stories

-, the first encounter with Erika comes always to my mind. Maybe she came in our

direction when we were playing hopscotch. Her steps were steady; her blond hair

flew along with the leaves that fell from the trees. She had a big bag with a few

pieces of clothing and lots of books, and a little child wrapped in a blue blanket

sleeping in her arms.

I remember all these things and also things that I haven’t even seen. Sentences

that I once heard turned into images, giving life to my imagination as if they conducted

reality. That is how I recreate my past and the world as I knew it, hoping to

find reasons for my dreams that have never become true and for the nightmares I

still bring with me.

The stone hits the square. Sophie bends one of her legs like an egret while

the other one carries the weight of her body. Then she slightly hops with her eyes

closed. Her dress is blown up by the same movement that also makes her stockings

drop down to her ankles. The squares cover the sidewalk forming a pattern that

ends in a semicircle where it reads “safe” written with chalk. I wait for her on the

safe area, always anxious that at some point her feet might touch the wrong square.

From this point on, I guide my memories. I don’t allow the facts to command

my mind. I prefer the impressions, the emotions, and the senses. I forget about the

solitude and the longing. This image is all I care about. Sophie raises her hands to

regain balance, like a bird about to take off. A fountain statue in the static fluidity

of the garden. When arriving at the end of the drawn course, she loses balance.

The bent leg touches the ground, while her small body tumbles forward. Then I

give her my hand in support, and convert that moment into the most tender memory

of my childhood.


1

Building walls


She looked at the sea fearing the ultimate destination of the ship. The captain

had informed hundreds of passengers that the Brazilians hadn’t authorized

him to moor Buena Esperanza. Although very close, the shore was a forbidden

land. From the crowded third class deck to the wealthiest passengers’ deck, faces

turned to the South America coast visible on the background.

Erika turned her back to that scene, refusing to look at the distant land outlined

like a pencil trace in the horizon. She walked to Hans; his little body rested on

a very small portion of the queen-sized bed. He slept with his legs bent in a fetal

position and his forefinger slightly touching his lips. He showed a fleeting smile

oblivious of the tempest that disturbed his mother’s blue eyes.

Erika walked around the cabin making sure Hans would be safe if he awakened

before her return. She knew he wasn’t likely to wake up around that time, but

even if he did, he would probably be quietly playing with his own hands, waiting for

her to open the door. He then would happily open his arms and say the only word

to give some sense to his recent existence: mom.

Since that night in Berlin, Erika feared leaving her son by himself. But at the

Buena Esperanza, locked inside the cabin, nothing could take away her only link

with life. Moreover, she needed all the fresh air her lungs could absorb and all the

vastness her eyes could reach. She closed the hatch, locked the door, and went

up to the deck to join the crowd in contemplating the dense clouds and the lightning

on the distant traces of land. On her side, a man grumbled to himself with his

hands clawed on the gunwale. Down bellow, a big mass of people crowded onto

the third class deck uneasily waiting for the upcoming storm.

- Where are we going? – Asked the man while wiping his eyes with a handkerchief.

He sneezed and straightened his back in an effort to show some dignity.

- I don’t know. – Answered Erika, trying to sight the coast. – I don’t know.

- Rio de Janeiro is right there, just behind those clouds. – He pointed with

raised arms perhaps dreaming that he had the power to disperse the thickness of

the clouds lined up in the sky and pulling the looming land towards the boat.

- I don’t know. – Erika felt the humid wind blowing on her face. She stood

still expecting the rain to ascend upon her head clearing the debris of her mind.

For the sake of her son, she tried to find reasons to live in that unattractive and

hopeless world. Anything could be a good reason, even a blow of the wind or a

tempestuous storm.

- We are going south. – The man was young; he was maybe in his early twenties.

– Would they let us disembark in Buenos Aires? – She was also young, even

though she looked way older than the man. Seen together at the deck they could

be easily mistaken for mother and son. However, just a few months ago and despite

all the fears and problems, Erika was a beautiful and elegant woman, with

shiny legs and small and firm breasts. A figure completely different from that

shadowy one who leaned over the gunwale while refraining herself from jumping

into the waves.

- I haven’t seen any Argentinean – she mentioned.

- I haven’t either – he said. – But we need to land somewhere. I can’t just go

back to Germany.

- None of us could go back.

- Are you Jewish?

- Why does it matter?

It was getting dark and as the storm was getting closer people started to go back

to their cabins or to the covered deck. Though, Erika and the man remained still.

- That’s all that matters – he whispered. – For all of us. That’s why we are drifting

around. Nobody wants to deal with Jewish people. Not there, or here. Nowhere.

The first drops of rain clattered on the metallic surface of the ship. Little rivers

ran throughout the plate forming little lakes. The waves hit the side of the ship,

tilting it from one side to the other as the few remaining passengers left the decks.

Erika and the man were still over the gunwale. He took his hands off the handrail

ignoring the ship’s movement. With the hands on his head, he shouted to the ocean:

- Shit!

Then he repeated with a softer voice:

- Shit.

He lost balance and almost fell over Erika before leaning again on the handrail.

He excused himself both for losing his balance and for cursing. The rain came

heavier and they had to go into the cabin corridor.

- Are you traveling by yourself? - Erika asked.

- My wife and our two kids are sleeping. And so is my mother. My father

passed away last year, after they robbed our factory and house. We used everything

we had left to buy the tickets and the visa to enter Brazil.

- The visa is now expired. – She mentioned.

- Everybody’s visa is expired. We had to stop here and there. They knew we

would have to stop a few times. Why would they issue visas with such a short expiration

period?

- They do it so they expire.

- I can’t go back to Germany.

She felt the air with her hands, almost touching it with her fingers. One more

time she felt like a mother. It was lightning over the ship, invoking the daylight to invade

the evening. The roll of the ship was getting stronger, leading the passengers

to lean against the walls. Erika recalled her son was alone. She nodded goodbye and

went back to her cabin. The boy was still asleep. A strong thunder echoed inside the

Buena Esperanza, taking her mind to Berlin, to a dark and silent night in Berlin, when

the snow fell peacefully over the rooftops. Gunshots reverberating as if memory was

a great bell and inside it, the toll moved through life, intermittent, and interminable.

Hans moved on the bed. He brought his arms to his face, troubled by the light

coming through the windows. So many times he had a peculiar look on his face,

making Erika sure he somehow knew everything. During the months following that

night in Berlin she tried to make up for Albert’s absence. However, every time she

felt like she could protect her son from the weight of his father’s absence, the boy

would point to something as if to remind her she could not. It could be a balloon

like the ones his father used to inflate, or it could be a suit like the ones he used

to wear before the beginning of the terror. During these moments, Hans babbled

syllables that, to Erika, sounded like daddy.

After changing the dress that she quickly wore to go to the deck for a nightdress,

she lay down next to Hans and started singing to help him fall asleep again. The ceiling

light went on and off with the rhythm of the waves bringing penumbra to the cabin.

Berlin had a night like that months ago. Deserted streets besides the platoons

of soldiers and the hooligans, who wandered around aimlessly like a swarm

of bees. Buzzing around the city to create chaos. Eventually, some of those men

invaded Erika and Albert’s store, destroying books and furniture. In fact, the couple

no longer held illegal activities. They quit helping people to leave a so troubled

Germany since it became fatally dangerous. But even so, their store was thoroughly

ruined by those men who seemed to master the art of destruction.

Erika covered her ears to muffle the sound of the thunders while singing for

Hans, helping him to fall asleep once again. But the cupped hands over the ears, as

well as the closed eyelids to avoid the lightning, couldn’t hold her memories back

in time. They were tattooed inside her mind. When Hans subsided into sleep, she

got up to walk through the cabin.

Her hair danced around her face, like raindrops over the lightning flashes. It

covered her eyes while she leaned her head over the cabin door. Rocked by the

shadows of falling night, she fell asleep for a brief moment and dreamed that

the ship turned around to go back to its departure point. She could hear the men

whining and the women in despair, fearing an eventual return to Europe.

She opened her eyes and leaned over the bed rest. She dozed and awakened

several times, eventually hearing Albert calling her name. In another time they

danced together around her father’s castle, the music emerging from the accordion

bellows. She closed the window shades to block the sight of the sea but not

without seeing the stars reflecting on the dark waves. The storm was then over,

remaining only the howl of the winds.

The castle might not exist anymore. It might have been knocked down or,

most likely, occupied and secured by National Socialists. The memories faded in

time as its history was destroyed and erased. Her parents transformed into photographs

on a wall, and now, into photographs that didn’t even have a wall from

which to hang.

She threw the blanket over Hans to protect him from the bitter cold that invaded

the cabin. She recognized that gesture from another earlier moment: her

hands pulling the blanket to cover the sleeping body of the child. The blanket

rested softly on his body like a bird landing on the ground. Much as she rummaged

through her own thoughts, the only clear memory was the one of the blanket

touching Hans’ little body. The memory would always come back the same way,

without beginning or end, like a film roll with its extremities spliced together.

Hugging her son, Erika crashed on the uncomfortable pillow, waiting for the

darkness of the night to take her into unconsciousness. Hans whined in his sleep

reminding her of the oncoming morning. She kissed his face and lay him down

on the edge of the bed. She removed the diaper pins and set them aside. After

changing him into a clean cloth diaper, she dressed her son in pants and a quilted

fox t-shirt. She carried Hans to the cabins’ aisle where somebody greeted her in

German with a tone of voice that reminded her of Albert’s. She was going to lose it

if she had to stay much longer in such a limited space like the ship. Albert. Albert.

She loved him so much and the little baby was the only thing left of that love. That

and the memories of a night she would rather forget forever.

Erika and Albert went to the bookstore after the swirl of soldiers dispersed.

They knew they had to leave. They had to take the same route they once helped

so many people to take. The route to leave Germany. They had to pay for visas

and buy off the few authorities that could still be of help. They had to sell all their

valuables to pay for their own freedom. For some reason, even though they had

previously helped others in that situation, they didn’t anticipate how it was going

to be like when their turn arrived. Yet, after seeing the destruction left by the soldiers,

they had no doubts.

Erika had to feed Hans breakfast but decided to stop by the flagship first. Although

looking for the captain, she agreed to talk to the chief mate. He confirmed

they were going to Buenos Aires. They were hoping to be allowed to dock there.

They received only a reticent telegraph from the Argentineans, but heading to

Buenos Aires seemed to be their only option once they were already prohibited

to dock on Brazilian soil. Right after breakfast, Erika took Hans for a few tottering

steps around the deck. She looked down to the third class deck where the poorest

passengers crowded together for few minutes of sun. She thought about all the

people she had once helped board a ship like this one.

Holding a cloth doll, a little girl with a scarf on her head looked up and waved

in Hans’s direction. Right behind her, a man, maybe her father, looked away to the

horizon. After lunch, Erika sat down to watch Hans play with a ball at the deck. She

could feel the excitation around the ship and wished all the water around them

would disappear and give way to a port where they could disembark. She was impatient

with the neglect and the slowness of time. Sometime later Hans fell asleep

like he did that night in the past. On the second floor of the house in Berlin, Erika

woke up from a nap when she heard the knock on the door. On the first floor, Albert

stood still while she approached the edge of the stairs from where she could

see the broken door. Several men surrounded Albert and one of them pressed a

gun to his head. She wanted to scream but remembered that Hans was sleeping

in the room upstairs. Worrying about her son, she kept her mouth shut. When the

gun fired silencing the man she loved, all she could think of was the baby: “don’t

wake up, please, don’t wake up.”





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