ISSN 2359-4101

Brazilian Literature in Translation / Literatura Brasileña en Traducción

Issue / Numero

year/año: 2012
issue/numero: # 03


Author | Autor: Nilma Lacerda

Translated by Tonia L. Wind


Jemanvé! Jemanvé! Blanche called out in the dead of night from her deep
sleep. Only Ismê Catureba and I awakened from our sleep. Everyone else
just grumbled, turned over on their straw mats, covered their heads with
their arms or rags, and went back to sleep. The two of us get up and go
over to her side, yet again. It must be the damned memories, inside her nightmare,
raining down on her, searing down on her. But what of this Jemanvé that she cries
out to no end? She must be possessed by the devil, her head contorting as if she
were someone trying to escape being hanged by a noose, her hands clenched like
someone who sees that which is not meant to be seen.
Jemanvé. She always went back to speaking in French whenever she lost
her senses. Je m’en vais, she taught me. I’m leaving. That is what she screamed
and shouted time and time again. Our mother grew exasperated and shouted
“Go, go ahead and leave.” Branca stopped yelling and replied sobbing “You don’t
understand. You don’t understand that you are going to die, you’re going to die
and I’m the one, I’m the one…” And she never finished what she had to say, as she
would take up her screaming once again. Our mother told her “I didn’t teach you
to see in your dreams.” To which Blanche replied: “It’s not in my dreams that I see,
it’s not in my dreams. You know where it is, you know where. I’m scared.”
Our mother didn’t ask where Blanche had read that fortune that she roared
so loudly; after a while she got up, and went to get some calming herbs, prepared
the tea and practically forced the other woman to drink the soothing remedy.
Blanche calmed down and, sobbing quietly with Ismê by her side and without
saying another word, pondered in silent meditation.
The night was a loss; I wasn’t going to be able to sleep any more. I went to my
room, gathered the things I needed, and took them to the table out on the veranda.
I lit the candle, flattened out the rolled-up papers, and wet the quill in the inkwell.


The nightmares that disturbed the house of Ismê Catureba. Other nightmares that
didn’t resonate though the calm of the house, and that should remain in silence.
The story of Branca de Villamor up until the moment that is known well enough to
tell. The story of Caim de Node, which can be told in its entirety.

I too have my own nightmares. I awake gasping for breath, in a sweat or with my
skin stone cold, turn over in my hammock, take a deep breath, grip my Saint
Benedict tightly, pray for help, and wait for my heartbeat to go back to normal.
That’s why I don’t understand Branca’s constant screaming, and why she makes
such a hellish uproar, and why our mother doesn’t apply some type of corrective
measure on her to control these disorderly outbursts.
Everyone in the house was taken by such surprise the first time she had a
shouting fit in the middle of the night. Everyone rubbed their eyes, looking around
scared trying to figure out what was happening. Was it evil spirits? Were there
demons invading the house? Was it the hell that the priests had described so well?
Was it the people from over the sea wanting their princess back again? Ismê put
order in the house, saying “Everyone dreams of their own fears, and it appears that
this young girl’s head is full of fear. Come along, everyone back to sleep.” And with
that she went to tend to Branca, who was drenched in sweat.
It was very hot anyway, and hell was also hot. Was it hell or was it the hot
night of that city of Salvador in the middle of January? Branca didn’t know. She sat
down on the bed, breathing heavily, looking around as if for the first time: the water
jug on the small table beside the macramé curtain, the heavy wooden latch on the
window, the woven straw ceiling, the trodden dirt floor. By her side, Ismê Catureba
was a loving mother: “What nightmare are you having, my daughter? Does it have
something to do with the shipwreck? Is it something to do with your homeland?”
Branca gasped for breath, as if she were fleeing from a dreadful fear. Ismê
said: “Stay calm, my child. You are safe; no one will do you any harm while you are
in this house.” She looked at me, standing in place, and called me over: “Stay by her
side, Caim, while I go and prepare another herbal remedy.”
I did as asked, but I was scared. I feared the terror still lingering in the air: her
eyes bore inwards into her soul; her hands clutched the clothes on her body, her
body recoiled, withdrawing and retreating. I tried to restrain her, but she managed
to roll off the mat, falling face down on the floor. When Ismê came back, Branca
was curled up on the floor, like a cornered animal, and we had a hard time getting
up her back up on the mat. It was a struggle for her to get down her tea, and it took
a while to finally calm down again.
That is what happened the first time, and that is how it happened many other
times with Branca. These nightmares didn’t pay her a visit every night. There was
many a night where she slept safely and soundly, as it should be. But when we
were least expecting it, the nightmarish yells began again: “Jemanvé! Jemanvé!”
There was a hellish uproar within her nightmare, an uproar of laughter and
screams, leaps and thuds, a millenary of garbled noises and, before the sun had yet
to rise, a piercing light that shone through the roof, scorching its way through the
slating; a red light, intense and poisonous that made everything in its path bleed to
death. And when the things died they turned to ash, and then everything became
either red or gray, and the ash fell from the roof, on the faces of those sleeping
below, covering their eyes, noses, and mouths. When all that was visible was ashes,
and nothing more than ashes, a hole would open in the ceiling so that the dead
could float up through it and watch the horrific scene of witches entering the
bodies of cats, a sizeable number of diabolical cats, who were no longer cats, but
rather women, meowing, growling, yelling, hellish noises, hellish dancing, that went
on until the first light of day. Only then, crippled by the rays of light, would the
witches writhe in pain and abandon the bodies of the small cats that, transformed
back into innocent little kitties, would walk exhausted and battered along the
treetop sand rooftops back to their homes.
Ismê Catureba had to know about the uproar, about hell, about the light and the
cats. She was the only one capable of calming Branca from her nightmares, the yells
of “Jemanvé, Jemanvé” thoughout the house. She got up drowsily and went to care
for the young girl with dreams of bad fortune, arising from the depths of darkness.

(…) But not all nightmares are noisy. Mine, for example, were silent. I
dreamed that I was dying and, facing the final judgment that every soul
must face on judgment day, had been awarded entrance to heaven on account
of my good actions. Having fulfilled my religious duties, I was lead upwards to
Heaven but once I arrived there, I found that there was in fact no Heaven. No sky,
no angels, no saints, nothing, nothing. Not even a voice to mock me or to give a
face to Heaven; nothing but silence and emptiness. The Heaven that didn’t exist
made me break out into a cold sweat in the middle of the night.
The priests had described Hell in perfect detail in their sermons, but Heaven
had not been awarded even one word that would prevent it from spilling over into
my dreams. However, I didn’t mention this to anyone; I didn’t say one word about
this amorphous world to our mother, as she already had enough things to worry
about with the hell of Branca’s nightmares.

If we knew what went on inside her dreams, we knew very little about the foreign
lady who had arrived here bearing her soul half-outside of her body, which was
still disputed by the depths of darkness, from that shipwreck that had thrown the
ship upon the coral reefs and all its passengers, except for her, to perish at the
bottom of the sea. We found out about this afterwards, as when she was left by the
front door of the house in the middle of the night, her clothes were dry and salty.
Ismê ran out to see what the deafening commotion was at such a late hour, and
came across the young girl left for dead on the ground, her skirt and petticoats all
tattered and violated, and she understood right away what had happened to the
young girl. She said nothing, mute and wide-eyed, her lifeless body fell into our
arms. Ismê spoke as if asking a question, but without really expecting a response
“Who is this girl? She must be a foreigner. No one around here has a skin that color,
or hair that color, or clothes like that. And so battered and bruised.”
I helped her take the girl inside and over to Ismê’s mat on the floor, who then
ordered me to leave her alone with the girl, and to make sure that no one else in the
house got up. She went over to her, and cared for the young girl. And from my side
of the macramé curtain I could hear her muttering “lt’s always the same. This blossom
they wish to harvest, as early as possible, plucked preferably from the mother flower.”
Many days passed before the young girl finally refused the call of death. We
found out that she was responding to life at the moment in which she let out a
terrifying shriek, as if she had seen the Hound of Hell himself. She got up from the
mat and, running into Ismê, me, and the rest of the people in the house, she began
to scream and shout as if she were going to die, until she saw Malvina and hugged
her. So that’s what it was. She didn’t like blacks. It would be best that she took
the path of the sea, and go back to from whence she had come, because in São
Salvador the picture she was most likely to see was precisely that: one of mulatto
and black faces and bodies.
But she didn’t take the path of the sea. It would seem that she grew
accustomed to our color as she stopped yelling and finally began to talk. She was
familiar with our language, which arose from within the language she spoke. Even
so, in the beginning it was impossible to understand hardly anything she said.
Ismê Catureba and I listened to her out of humanitarian duty, as a survivor needs
someone to listen to what she has to say and also because she was polite and we
noted her good manners.
Branca carried in her soul a far-away, unknown world, which arrived in
the form of a patchwork, sewn in both words and silence. It was a struggle to
understand the jumbled language, a kind of third language she had created, but
she was intelligent, and it didn’t take her long to make herself understood in a
reasonable manner. It was fascinating to listen to the surge of a language that I
didn’t understand and, spoken by her, my own language beat against the earth like
a breaking wave of the familiar sea.
In the first few days, her presence was a novelty and aroused a great deal
of curiosity in the children and brought many visitors to the house, but she was
a patient there, an abandoned body on the mat, without much to see above the
sheets that covered her. They commented on her lily-white skin, her russet hair, and
asked the same questions as always. When she recovered and was able to get up,
it was she who admired the world that surrounded her. It was not hard to see this
in her face, the look of fright and fear engraved on her face, searching for her old
life in the new world in which she now found herself.
Known and unknown worlds mingle daily in each person’s life. But one does
not usually notice them; common experiences impose themselves upon the small
explosions of new things and end up extinguishing them in the process. We take the
path to the market, we see the same houses, the same doors and windows, fences
and plants, some luxuriant others rickety, and the first image of an opening cocoon
mounts the rump of a gaunt horse passing by and departing at a tired pace.
For Branca, there was no gaunt horse with a tired pace in the life she had
started in São Salvador. She was a child who was learning to get to know the
universe around her, to give names to things, and this vitality helped her to
become part of the land. She asked about everything, repeated the answers that
she received: sarrdine, cilantrro, shrrimp, pea-nu-t, Rapadurra1, molasses, okra. She
tried sugar and would ask, “du sucre?”,quickly correcting herself, “sugarr?” The
“r’s” rolled off her tongue like a car purring along a long, flat highway.
She squinted her eyes when looking outside, in an attempt to diminish the
strength of the light from these tropical skies, she would always walk around with
a fan in her hand to help reduce the heat, she would make exaggerated gestures
upon seeing the baskets with fruits and vegetables purchased at the market. “How
diferrent!” she would say, as happy as a lark.
And yet, the world that Branca carried within was in itself so very different
than ours; a world without Blacks or slaves, free from excessive heat and blinding
sunlight that harmed her eyes. A world in which the king lived in the same land as his
subjects, in which there were professions unknown to us, and the markets displayed
merchandise never before seen by our eyes, which were accustomed to the strong
punishment dealt to the people, to the sea of Bahia, to the hard-skinned fruits.
The first conversations we held were full of silence, of brief intermittences in
search of words. She learned Portuguese from me, and I learned French from her. I
was amazed at the amount of letters needed to write certain words. A simple word
like “is” needed three letters in French: est. However, it didn’t need an accent like in
other languages, Branca said. “How do you say this?” we were constantly asking
each other. “But how to you write it?” I would always want to know. We would talk in
the yard, using the sand floor as writing paper, and thin sticks, made out of feathers.
It took us a long time to have a full conversation without having to stop the
entire time to check the correct meaning of our words. When we arrived at this
point, I was then able to piece together the foreigner’s story, told in pieces and full
of holes of missing details. She would retell certain parts to clarify any questions I
had about her story.
It was never clear to me what it was that her family had decided to come and
do here in Brazil, and why they had chosen this country, which is so different than
the France they had left behind. She was of noble birth: her great-grandfather,
who had been born a commoner, had received as an adult the title of Duke from
the hands of Louis XIV, the Sun King, himself. With the loss of her family in the
shipwreck, she was the last remaining descendent of the Duke of Villemaur, who
had been baptized under the name of Nathanael de Séguier.
Nathanael had owned some land, which he had abandoned to dedicate his
efforts to the book publishing industry and, with a lot of hard work and a good
nose for business, he soon became the greatest publisher of travel literature in
all of France. He published accounts of exploration expeditions to the Americas
and of trips to the West Indies. He highlighted the actions of the corsairs and
guided the authors to dedicate the works that praised French successes in foreign
lands to the King. Louis XIV soon realized the importance of the circulation of
these books and how they greatly aided in the expansion of the empire and, after
granting one privilege to another upon the publisher, ultimately bestowed upon
Nathanael the title of Duke of Villemaur. When he died, his son carried on his work
and considerably increased the family’s fortune.
But the son of this son gradually lost interest in the book publishing industry,
and once again took up the obligations with the lands that his grandfather had
abandoned, and dedicated himself to the tasks of the nobility: beautification of the
castle, parties, hunts and palace intrigues. He was a Duke, after all. When Branca’s
father became an adult, the family no longer possessed the royal privilege of
printer, and the Séguier de Troyes publishing industry had been sold for much less
than its actual worth. He was a man who loved books and he greatly lamented
this loss. After a great deal of effort, finding one copy here and another there, he
ultimately managed to recover the majority of the works that carried the family
seal. It was with these works that Branca had learned how to read, following along
with her father fantastical stories in the midst of a ferocious nature, in a fascinating
world of strange lands and people.
Even with the initial confusion, I was able to follow Branca’s story up to that
point, but from that point onwards until her having embarked upon the ship on route
to Brazil was as tangled as a ball of yarn without an end. There was no way to know
why her father had chosen to come over here or what he had decided to do here. I
think that not even Branca really knows the true motive for their voyage over here.
At times she implied that they had been fleeing from the revolution that he father
felt was approaching, other times that he had a very clear business project in Brazil.
Branca knew where this land was that had appeared in many of the travel books
she had read with her father. She had seen many a drawing of our animals and our
plants, she knew of the heat, of the bright light that was so bothersome to foreigners.
Brazil was a welcoming country, and there was many an opportunity for making
one’s fortune in Brazil, which was what her father had told her. It would be a period of
waiting until the mood returned to normal in France. The peasants were no longer the
same as they had always been, nor were the workers. The climate of revolt in the air
was intense, and he was unsure as to what might happen in their homeland. He wanted
to be removed from everything, while at the same time to expand the family’s fortune.
He sold what he saw fit to sell, and invested the money in books. They had
been banned by the Portuguese Crown, and would be worth a fortune to the
scholars of the land. He had to hide them between bed linen and dried cod fish
that he had purchased to assure their survival upon their arrival in the new land.

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