ISSN 2359-4101

Brazilian Literature in Translation / Literatura Brasileña en Traducción

Issue / Numero

year/año: 2012
issue/numero: # 04


Author | Autor: Ivone Benedetti

Translated by Jethro Soutar

At two o’clock in the afternoon the following day, Annunziata was on
the veranda with Immaculada, leafing through a book of embroidery
patterns, when she noticed a man approaching. Though distant and
small, she could see the figure was hunched up and walked disjointedly,
feet splayed, with the ungainliness of a man who had, since birth, worn his humility
physically. Annunziata recognised her father. The figure got nearer, and nearer, and
as it neared and gained shape, her sense of terror grew, a terror that had stirred
inside her since the previous day... She could see drops of sweat pouring down her
father’s face in the mid-afternoon heat, like a rash running off his bald pate, bronzed
by the tropical sun...
When he was practically at the foot of the lower staircase, Fattori caught sight
of his daughter. He came to a halt, looked up and smiled happily: there’d be no need
to call someone to announce his arrival! His simple expression, seen from on high,
emanated with the honest and unassailable innocence of a man totally oblivious to
something that was almost second nature to most, something they acquired in the
cradle, along with nappies: class. Old Fattori didn’t understand the concept: he hadn’t
understood it in Italy, had gone on not understanding it in Brazil and would die never
having understood it. And so there he stood, lacking the courage to set foot on the
steps that led to the Dantas’ veranda, but smiling all the same, waiting to be invited
in. Annunziata stood up and went down the steps. She talked to him for a moment -
Immaculada watching them from above - then returned. She told Immaculada it was
her father and that he had come to give Dona Helena a present. Immaculada went
down to meet him. Fattori found the girl enchanting. It briefly crossed his mind that
it would be a blessing to have such a girl as a daughter-in-law. She invited him in. As
they went into the house, he made no attempt to hide his amazement at the beauty
and luxury, the like of which he’d perhaps never seen before in his life. He stared at
everything, stopping here and there, nodding with his head, producing an upturned U
with his lips and thus articulating the words he inferred but did not speak. Immaculada
asked him to sit down and said she would call her mother. She asked if he would like a
drink of some sort. No, thank you, just some water.
Helena appeared five minutes later. The glass of water was by then empty. As
soon as she came in, Annunziata explained that the man was her father and that he
had come to give her, Dona Helena, a present, something he’d made. At the same
time, Fattori stood up and, with a certain reverence, held out a package. Then he said:
“Good day, Dona Helena. It’s a small and modest thing, but made with heart.”
He paused for a moment, as he tried to think of a polite way to finish in
Portuguese, and said:
“Don’t feel the need to...”
Helena said nothing. She didn’t return the old man’s greeting, didn’t ask him to
sit down. She opened the package, and her lips stretched into a sort of smile, teeth
hidden. Satisfied, Fattori smiled back, showing all of his. Helena relaxed her smile,
looked at the shoes, then at the Italian man’s face, and finally said:
“Thank you. Please be seated. Immá, order a coffee or drink of some sort for Mr...”
“Giacomo Fattori.”
“Make yourself at home.”
And she left, carrying the package.
Fattori remained where he was, half hunched over, watching, if no longer
smiling at, the woman as she left through one of the doors, perhaps expecting her
to come back with the shoes on her feet, praising his workmanship. The drink soon
arrived and went down his throat with the same three gulps as had done for the
water. It was an absentminded May, a May that had forgotten to be cool and that
had only May’s dryness. He mopped his brow, commenting on the weather, while
Annunziata, eyes fixed on the glass, recalled all the unhelpful ways her father had
tried to help out his offspring over the years. He was a father-mother, always acting
with exaggerated affection, overcompensating for what their mother refused them
due to her narrow-mindedness, simplicity and, to some extent, stupidity. Fifteen
minutes went by. Immaculada made conversation, asking about the different ways
of making a shoe, and he explained them as best he could in that bastard tongue,
comprised of morsels picked up travelling; the tongue of immigrants, of the restless,
the nomadic, the erratic.
Having given up hope of Helena returning, Fattori got up and bid them farewell.
Annunziata left with him. They walked together a little way from the house, stopped
and talked, exchanged kisses, and he left. Immaculada watched them. Annunziata
came back, entered head bowed, sat down in the same chair she’d been in before,
picked up the magazine and opened it at the same page. The girl sat down next to
her. Everything began again as if it had never stopped.
Dantas got back on Friday, laden down with chocolate bonbons and pentup
affection. Dantas never just got back: it was always a getting back, excited and
prolonged like a dance. The house never regained its sense of sobriety until the next
day. And even then, with traces of a hangover. By late morning on the Saturday,
Helena was still breakfasting with her husband. Immaculada read on the veranda while
Annunziata impatiently awaited the end of breakfast (Helena had to give her some
instructions before she could go out and do the shopping). To kill time she took a
seat in the parlour between the pantry and dining room and went back to reading
her book, The Count of Monte Cristo, which she’d started a few days earlier and had
found hard to put down. Dantès was in the thick of discussion with Abbé Faria when
the magical words of the text were drowned out by a word from the other room:
said Dantas. It wasn’t a word to be aired and soon fade away, like most words
heard over the course of a day; weightless words that underpinned the walls of our
ideas, like unidentified foundations. This word, which Annunziata had never heard
before, reverberated in the atmosphere, resounded in the brain, resonated with
questionable feeling. After a few moments of reaction and reflection, Annunziata
got up and went to the door, to listen to the conversation.
“Where did you pluck that word from?” Dantas laughed.
“Don’t you know it? My grandfather used it all the time. He had a worker who
wore shoes with steel toecaps and heels, treading heavy and hard, like a horse. If he
went into the house to speak to my grandfather, the whole farmyard knew about it.
Grandfather would say: “Here comes Joe Clodhopper.”
Dantas laughed.
Annunziata was returning to her seat, when she heard:
“Well anyway, he came here, hobbling along, hunched over against the sun, a
pathetic-looking figure, you should have seen him. And he’d come just to give me
these clodhoppers. I don’t know what got into the wop’s head to make him think
he should give me a present.” (She lowered her voice.) “It can only have been the
daughter’s idea. They must think I can be bought off with a pair of shoes.”
“A pair of clodhoppers!” Dantas corrected her, laughing.
“I’ll show you them later. You know the sort you see in 18th century paintings?
Just like them.”
Dantas guffawed.
Annunziata, standing there, unnoticed, felt a pain inside her, a pain known only
to children, or those able to recall childhood: the pain of hearing your father spoken
of badly. A deep and profound pain that, on spreading out and diverging into the
atmosphere, converges back upon the heart in a strangling revolution. Only two
things can heal such pain: tears and revenge.
From then on, Immaculada’s dreams wove everything together and always
ended with the same image: Virgin semi-nude, exchanging chaste kisses in the light
of the moon. But the weight of truth really lay in the next line: And you are Juliet.
Because all the ingredients were there for a rerun of the classic drama: she, Juliette;
he, Romeo; Annunziata, the nurse; Dantas and Helena, the parents concerned with
their social standing; Francisco, the betrothed husband. All that was missing was
the friar. A friar to marry them. But one able to plot avoiding misunderstandings, to
make sure the classic drama didn’t end in tragedy again.
A few days later, Immaculada told Annunziata that she would be prepared to leave
the house in order to meet Paolo somewhere. Annunziata thought it impossible: he
worked all day, right there, and his absence would be noticed. As would Immaculada’s.
But the following Friday, just after breakfast, Annunziata told the girl:
“I’ve thought of a way for you to meet.”
She spoke while tidying towels away in the drawer of a large dresser, where
they kept the finished fruits of their embroidery projects. She spoke and then went
quiet, meaning Immaculada had to ask:
“He goes up to your room. It’s the only way.”
Annunziata closed the drawer and leaned against the dresser. She folded her arms
and waited for the girl’s reaction. Immaculada, who was sitting on the bed, stood up
with both hands held to her face, not knowing whether to thank the ‘nurse’ for daring
to make her dreams come true, or to get angry at the indecency of the suggestion.
The downside to Annunziata’s proposal was that it put all three of them in a
very risky position, but with the (sufficient and requisite) upside of totally disgracing
Immaculada. On particular, well-chosen days, once his work was done, Paolo would
say goodbye to everyone and pretend to go down to the stables (everyone knew
he liked horses and he’d even been talking about buying one). He would stay there
until, upon Annunziata’s signal, he could double back to the house, enter the laundry
room and hide in one of the big built-in wardrobes (the one with fabrics in the
bottom drawer, to which only Annunziata and Immaculada had keys). There he
would remain until everyone had gone to bed. Then, in the middle of the night,
Annunziata would come down, open the back door and lead her brother through
the recesses of the house, between the laundry room and the sewing room and up
the back staircase. The stairway began in a hall between the kitchen and the pantry,
and came out in a corridor that led to all the rooms that opened on to the back of
the house. Helena and Dantas’ room was on a different corridor, which connected
to that one some twenty feet beyond the top of the staircase. And how would he
leave? Via the same route – Annunziata explained. He’d go back to the wardrobe and
stay there until just before daybreak: she had it all planned out.
Immaculada said she’d have to think about it. She spent Friday and Saturday
locked in her room, refusing to eat. Her mother went to see her but found Immaculada
withdrawn and elusive. Helena thought her daughter must be missing her father:
such inconsolable bouts of sadness were not unknown when Dantas was travelling.
Helena was on her way out when Immaculada asked:
“The wedding… Have there been any developments?”
“No. I haven’t managed to dissuade your father. Is that what’s making you sad?”
“No,” said Immaculada. Then she went quiet again, leaving her mother standing
holding the door knob, halfway between the door and the threshold, not knowing
whether to come in or go out. Eventually she went out, deciding her daughter was not
about to open up to her. Helena was growing accustomed to this new Immaculada.
Immaculada had to hold her mouth shut to prevent the storm brewing inside
her from exploding forth. The storm brewing inside her over her father’s betrayal.
Helena didn’t know it, but her words - “I haven’t managed to dissuade your father”
- became Immaculada’s alibi. Such stubbornness from a father who had always
previously been kind, justified her powerful, guilty desire to give herself over to
the forbidden man. To the unknown man, the voiceless man who spoke to her in
unfamiliar written words. Her father’s obstinacy would be the cause of an act that
was to be committed as soon as possible. If Paolo loved her as much as his poets
said he did, the two of them might elope. They had Annunziata, who would help
with everything, and if they eloped, the only way to avoid dishonour would be for
the parents to consent to marriage. Many couples had resolved complicated love
affairs this way. But... What if Dantas wouldn’t bend and disowned his daughter,
disinherited her? And what if Paolo abandoned her? Poverty and prostitution, it
was said, was what became of rebellious, fallen women. But she wouldn’t prostitute
herself. She had her art, she would just have to become a great painter. A good many
women already lived freely, even in this backward country! Laura was one example.
And thus, flitting between reasoning and terrifying herself, did Immaculada spend
the next two days, one moment a fearless Minerva, the next a damned Danaide.
Paolo was Alexander the great one moment, Don Juan the seducer the next. (After
all, hadn’t he omitted to send her the third verse of Três Amores?) As ever, desire
won out. Immaculada concluded that her dreams were fast approaching reality, and
that the only one who could embrace them was herself.
She told Annunziata her decision on the Saturday. Annunziata was getting
ready to go out when she heard Immaculada offer her consent: yes, let him come
up. But just this once. After that they’d have to arrange a different way of meeting.
Immaculada didn’t mention eloping, nor would she for the time being. She thought
it premature. Such a proposition was liable to frighten a man. Especially a voiceless
man. And so Immaculada showed her understanding of the human soul, a soul she
mistrusted because, though she didn’t know it for sure, she sensed that a person’s
voice echoed a person’s ego.
The door opened slowly, without a squeak, Annunziata having gone to the
trouble of oiling the hinges to avoid any creaking. Paolo entered in almost total
darkness. Followed by his sister. Only then did Immaculada turn on the oil lamp that
usually shone day and night upon an image of Our Lady of Lourdes on top of the
dresser. Leaning against the chest of drawers, she saw the young man at the other
end of the room, framed by the dark doorway. His gaze ran quickly round the room
before settling on Immaculada who, standing beside the dresser, was experiencing
the strange sensation of having fire in her entrails and ice in her limbs. Paolo turned
to his sister and asked her, in Neopolitan, to leave him and Immaculada alone. His
voice, at long last. A deep voice. A strong voice, that started off low, but lifted on
certain syllables, rebelling against the enforced silence. Annunziata left the room. He
came over to Immaculada and took hold of her hands. The icy touch of someone
who had come in from the cold winter night sent a shiver through her that fluctuated
between hot and cold as it passed through her heart and her stomach. There were
no words. He pulled her towards him. The kiss. Immaculada had anticipated it. But
it wasn’t a kiss that lasted seconds, like in her dreams. It was an entanglement of
lips and tongues, a sloppy gluing together, impatient and never-ending, and driven
along by increasingly aggressive groping, a general delirium that brought back
memories of an insufferable cousin one Sunday afternoon, after a suckling pig roast.
Immaculada realised then that a kiss was never an odourless act. Paolo’s breath
smelled of cigarettes and fog. And yet it wasn’t altogether unpleasant. The contrast
between his romantic declarations and the reality of his launching himself upon her
was striking, the sharp leap from poetic allusion to prosaic statement. And in this
way, without preamble, the whole thing became rather intimidating. Immaculada
felt she wasn’t just being dominated: she was being possessed. In her mouth, a
strange tongue; over her body, hands searching for points of entry without asking
permission. She pushed the lad away from her.
He stood there motionless for a moment, then looked down, arms dangling, and
said remorsefully:
“I’m sorry. It’s just that I’m very innamored... It was stronger than I...”
His Italian accent produced a certain unease in Immaculada. He spoke like
his sister! Here was a man who would be loathed by her family, and there she was
throwing herself at him!
But his voice was nice, and it would be stupid to imagine he ought to arrive
speaking Portuguese like the poets he copied. Besides, the rather quirky innamored
sounded enough like enamoured for Immaculada to be able to translate the emotion,
and this was sufficient for her to take hold of his hands again, rest her head on his
chest and ask:
“Are you really so fond of me?”
“I am very, very fond of you,” came the reply.
From then on he was more reserved and gentle. Immaculada finally recognised
the physical contact of her dreams. And Paolo learned that the journey would be a
longer one than expected.

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