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Woman in Black

Tradução do conto "Vestida de Preto", de Mario de Andrade

Tradução: Daveena Kataria (University of Birmingham, Reino Unido)
Revisão Técnica: Alzira Allegro

So much concern has been shown lately about defining the short story that I am not really sure whether what I am about to tell is indeed a short story or not. I know this is true. My impression is that I have always been in love… After the deep love for myself that sprouted within me at the tender age of three until around the time I was five, my love found another subject towards which it could be directed: a sort of distant cousin of mine, who often visited us. As it is clear, I had never been one to suffer from Oedipus complex, thank the Lord. Throughout my entire life, I always maintained a very friendly relationship with my mother – none of those risky feelings of love.

Maria was my first love.  In our tender age of five, nothing ever happened between us, of course; but to this day I struggle to understand the divine feeling of melancholy that would get hold of us each time we found ourselves together and alone. We would speak in hushed tones, and, more than that, the words between us were scarce and very simple. An immense tenderness, firm and almost tangible, did away with the need for any gesture. All that never lasted very long, however, because soon the other children would arrive. By then we both felt an instinctive anger towards siblings and cousins of ours, the kind of anger always expressed through taunting jibes and gestures. It was a feeling of love only present in those instances  we found ourselves alone.

It wasn’t until much later, when I was about nine or ten years of age, that we kissed for the first and only time; and what a wonderful kiss it was!  If ever all of us children happened to be together at Old Aunt’s gardenless house, it was inevitable that we would end up playing family, for how else was the old woman supposed to avoid total chaos? We enjoyed playing family quite a bit, despite our advanced age for that. The fact is that Old Aunt’s house had many rooms, so we could marry quickly, just by saying between us the customary words, without any of those make-believe ceremonies that used to interest us so much, and then we would run off to our rooms. The best childish interests of the game, like playing kitchen and cooking, nursing dolls, and paying family visits – these we would generously and hastily leave for the younger ones. Maria and I would go to our room and stay there and live life. Whatever the others got up to, I do not know. As for us, Maria and I – we did nothing. I just loved being alone with her, many naughty thoughts already crossing my mind at that age, but without acting on any of them. Sometimes there was – or there was not – but, on second thoughts, it was as though an imminent danger attached itself to the intimacy of that solitude. It was something extremely soft and scary.

Maria made some gestures, said some words. It was someone’s birthday, I don’t remember exactly. The room we were in had been converted into a pantry and contained a number of dressers and cabinets full of dessert plates ready for the tea that would follow shortly. However, would we think of touching those delicacies, most of them dry ones, easy to steal, without being caught? Not us – we were far from that. What interested us most at the time was our grave seclusion.

Maria’s eyes fell on a pillow missing its case which was placed atop a basket of dirty laundry in a corner of the room. And then my wife came up with a bright idea that I myself was not far from having. From the moment I came into the room I focused all my instincts on the presence of that pillow, and the pillow seemed to grow relentlessly within me and turn criminal. Criminal, no, “sinful”, is perhaps how they would’ve described it back in those Christian times… It was for that very reason that I had managed up until then not to think about the pillow.

“It’s already late. Let’s sleep”, said Maria.

I stood there, appalled, my pleading and wide eyes still fixed on the warm pillow; but it just stared back pitilessly. Maria – she was too composed to look at me, surprising me with the effect of her suggestion: she looked around and at last, searching the basket of dirty laundry, selected a warm bath towel which she then spread over the floor. She placed the pillow at the  head of the ‘bed’, closed the shutters on the late afternoon and then lay down, arranging her dress so as not to crease it.

But I, definitely, I would never place my head on that small remainder of the pillow that she’d left before turning her back on me. That small remainder, yes, small for such a large pillow. But try to imagine an exploding mop of hair such as Maria’s breathtaking locks, a mandatory mention and the pride of all in the family. Old Aunt, bitterly jealous for she favoured one of her granddaughters, whom she worshipped, was the only one to find fault with Maria’s hair.

“You’re not coming to sleep?” Maria’s loud voice pierced the silence, interrupting my tragic thoughts.

“I’m coming”, I said, “I’m just checking off the shopping list.”

With deep reluctance, I neared the ‘bed’, sat on the floor, careful not to touch even her dress. Gee! Her dress, too, was really frightened. What a difficult situation! Still reluctant, I laid my head on the pillow. But Maria’s hair touched my nose lightly, which was even worse; I might sneeze – and husbands don’t sneeze. I felt, or better still, I sensed, that sneezing at that moment would be foolish; it would have to be a really loud sneeze, loud enough to reach those in the far-off sitting room, and it would no doubt have signalled the end of our secret.

I buried my face in Maria’s hair and night fell, but her hair began poking at my eyes (and I swear it was really soft hair). When I couldn’t see a thing, it was easy to keep burying my face, my whole face, my soul, my life, in those locks. How wonderful! And then my nose met her plump little neck. Then I was using my lips – I had nice full lips; well, they weren’t  exactly lips; they were bug pouting lips, my mouth puckered until it found her roundish neck. Could it be that she was actually sleeping?... Unceremoniously I made myself comfortable – oh, the little woman! – and then I kissed her. Whoever said this world is cruel? It’s just a matter of recollection… I kissed Maria, lads! And I, who never even knew how to kiss, that’s certain, for I’d only give mommy loud and noisy kisses – but nothing sensual.

Maria stirred lightly; with a very gentle bending backwards, she let me know she was with me in our love. Nothing else happened. No, nothing else. Had that lasted one long night, there would be nothing more, for it’s funny how perfection ties us. That kiss had left me absolutely pure, without any other curiosity, not even any desire for anything else; good riddance to sins and good riddance to darkness! A large white light had produced itself within my mind, my shoulder hurt from lying against the floor, but the violent white light didn’t allow me to think, to imagine, to act. Kissing.

Old Aunt – I’d never liked Old Aunt – opened the door in utter and rowdy astonishment. I could see most clearly in her eyes that what we were doing was absolutely indecorous.

“Get up right now! I’m going to tell your Mother, Juca!

I rose with the most cynical loyalty in the world and said:

“Old Aunt, will you give me a sweet?

Old Aunt – I’d always hated Old Aunt, with her Berlitz kindness, unfair and unsystematic – let her perverse look seep out of her in my direction, and only several years later could I realize more clearly what it meant. At that moment, I only wanted to disguise, feigning an innocence that few seconds earlier was genuine.

“Quickly! Out of the room!”

Slowly, we exited the room in silence and complete embarrassment, Old Aunt alongside us, holding the plates she’d come to fetch for tea.

Very strangely, after this forcible awakening provoked by Old Aunt, Maria started showing an inexplicable indifference towards me; as a matter of fact, more than indifference; it was a persistent frostiness, bordering on hatred. During that tea she’d even found a way to revile me in front of everyone. I was stunned.

Ten, thirteen, fourteen… fifteen years of age. It was then that I suffered the insult I deemed definitive. I was attending high school, a real drag, something I was totally uninterested in. I was full of anger and hated studying and only ever did well in Drawing and Writing in which I had the best marks. This was a constant: ten in those subjects, zero in all the others.  Every year it was the same expected fatality: one, two fails (mainly in Maths) that I was just able to turn around in my end of semester examinations.

I continued loving Maria, more and more as time passed, and consciously now, too. However, I was almost absolutely certain that she was over me. Who’d love me? … My mother… yes, mommy liked me, but back then I would begin to believe that she did so just out of obligation. My father, oh, he had always been insufferable, as incapable of showing even the slightest sign of affection as he was of any reprimand. He couldn’t even bring himself to scold me, the family good-for-nothing. But that’s a story for another day. What’s certain is that in my frantic outrage at the world around me, a feeling of pride in myself that I never tried to understand, so absurd I sensed it, I had already started accepting that I was a lost cause, unworthy of improvement.

That year I failed only one subject. Upon my return from a private class one day, I noticed the clique on veranda, Maria amongst them. I felt a little embarrassed as I passed  them, for they were all enjoying their holidays, and then there were the books I held in my hand betraying me, a reminder that I was nothing more than a humiliating failure, a lost cause. I said a half-hearted “hello” to them and headed for my father’s office next-door in order to hide my books in the desk. As I was about to make my way back to join the group, I heard none other than Matilde, Old Aunt’s nagging pest, the stupid goddess whom she so dearly  pampered:

“Your boyfriend’s here, Maria.”

“I won’t marry a failure”, Maria responded immediately in the most awful voice she could muster, so awful that it stopped me in my tracks. That signalled the final decision for me; I had no doubt whatsoever. Maria no longer loved me. Stupidly, I just stood there, glued to the spot, barely even able to breathe.

By the way, a recent case added insult to injury and sealed my fate. In comparison with Maria and her folks, who would even afford to travel around Europe, we would be considered people with limited means. Not long ago, her parents made their status very clear by indecorously opposing the marriage between a daughter and a supposedly poor, but very decent, guy.  Just like that, whole friendships broke off, leaving a real sense of discomfort among the relatives involved. The incident became somewhat of a topic to be chewed over and over during many a dinner – all because of money.

Even if I insisted on loving Maria, marriage was out of the question, for her parents were sure to reject me. It occurred to me that I ought to buy a lottery ticket. ‘I won’t marry a failure. ..’ Books still in my arms, I raised them to my face and caressed them; I touched my lips to one of the dusty and sweating covers but recoiled in disgust. I didn’t know it back then, but I do today:  it was the second time I kissed Maria, the very last kiss I was to give Maria; the farewell kiss, one confirmed by the unpleasant smell of the paper. Whatever we had between us was over.

I didn’t have the courage to return to the veranda to talk to… the others.  I was filled with a scathing anger towards everyone, particularly towards Matilde. No, actually, I wasn’t angry with anyone, not even with Matilde;  it wasn’t worth it. The insult had come from her, yes, and was of her own making; yet I had no anger towards her, no, only sadness, some feeling of emptiness, I don’t know… I think it was a desire to kneel, to kneel there, by the desk, and stay like that, kneeling. After all, I was really a lost cause. Maria was right… she was right… she was right… how sad!

Was that the end? Well, some years later the craziest thing of all happened. I’d even say that it’s not very easy for me to tell clearly everything that happened. We’d better go in order. I put so much determination into not loving Maria, that not even my own thoughts could betray me. Moreover, my youth was booming and I had everything to learn. What happened to me was absolutely astonishing. Without giving up my “lost boy” attitude – in fact, I even cultivated it – I finished school and began to enjoy studying.  I’d even turned into a conscientious student, with an irritating eagerness to learn. Indeed, it was a rabid hunger which led me to devour whole libraries without any guidance. But still, I shone; I’d give inflated lectures in small circles of young boys, who found my ideas really shocking. And all of them began to say that I was very intelligent but dangerous.

As for Maria, it appeared as though she’d become a complete madwoman. She dated God and everyone else; and at just twenty years of age, she became engaged to a man of significant wealth. But their engagement lasted  only  around three months, and they broke up suddenly. It was only a few days later that she found herself in yet another relationship, this time getting engaged to a filthy rich diplomat, whom she married in two weeks. She was all smiles at the altar, and before long, there she departed for Europe with her fancy husband after an embassy.

Sometimes, a little bewildered because of such forceful occurrences, which I followed from some distance, I thought of the past, but only to smile at our childishness and to devour in one afternoon an incomprehensible book of philosophy. Besides, there was Rose, a girl I began seeing at night, and pretty Violeta, my official girlfriend. My friends used to call me “gardener”, and from the coincidence of those two flowers I derived some kind of force, some doomed fate. So incredible was this coincidence that one day I stumbled upon Tagore’s “The Gardener” in a bookstore; I bought it and began studying English like a madman. In one of his books, Mario de Andrade confesses that he began learning German because of a newly-arrived foreign girl – an  ‘emboaba’ –… something similar occurred to me: my English came from a Violet and a Rose.

No, actually it came from Maria. About five years later Maria was to return to Brazil for the first time; her rather stout mother, complaining about her daughter’s prolonged absence, was speaking to my mother in front of me and said in that unbridled way of hers:

“So, it is! Maria loved you so much, yet you didn’t return her feelings!... And now she lives so far away from us!”

For the third time in this short story, I was dumbfounded. All of a sudden everything became clear to me. In hindsight, I could see her fooling around, dating one guy, marrying another, being driven by money and glamour. I realized that I had been a blithering idiot; yes, now that I’d begun being someone, studying by myself out of school, thriving in verses that many people were already enjoying. And, horrified, I became aware that – not Rose! not Violet, none of them! – it was Maria that I madly loved! It was Mara that I had always loved like a madman: oh, how I had suffered my entire life, absolutely disgraced, learning to overcome it only out of rage, imposing myself on the world only out of spite, trying to feel superior to myself only out of a desperate attempt at revenge. How could I have ever imagined myself happy – worse still, how could I have ever been happy suffering that way? Me? No, not me; it was Maria; it was entirely Maria all that feeling of superiority that was beginning to grow in me… And all that was absolutely disgraceful. For were they not talking a lot about Maria? They used to say that she was always whooping it up with friends, that she had become notorious for her extravagance and adventures. She had been on the point of divorcing over a scandal involving a renowned painter who would only paint lighting effects. Maria, the talk of the town, Maria getting drunk, Maria being passed around, Maria posing in the nude…

It was almost as if our destinies had traded places…

That moment, a thought comforted me:  if the good within me now came from Maria, if she was becoming the very imperfect Juca that I had been, if I was but a projection of her, as she was now but a projection of me, if we had swapped places through a foolish deception in love; but at least I might become very nasty, very nasty indeed yet again in order to match her. That was the reason for my merciless fight with Violet and the spree I went on that night – to the point that I fell unconscious, had bouts of dizziness, needed a doctor, caused a scandal and a heartfelt cry from my mother along with my sister.

Well, I had to visit Maria – this was very clear: we were “grown-ups” now. When I found out that she’d be going to a banquet, I thought to myself: “great, I’ll be there today right after dinner, I won’t find her and I’ll leave the card…” But I was too early.

I arrived at her parents’ house at about 9 o’clock, and found myself involved in all those trimmings typical of wealthy people, such as servants carrying cards atop a silver tray etc. Everyone was still eating.  They showed me into a small sitting room to the left, fashioned in the style of Louis XV, but a rather shoddy one, entirely decorated in gold and opening on to the central hall. I was then told to do the favour of waiting, for they were on their way.

As I sat examining the pink engraving, all of a sudden, I sensed that there was someone else in the room, and so I turned. Maria was standing in the doorway, looking at me, smiling, dressed entirely in black. Look: I know people exaggerate when they are in love; that is much obvious. But if God’s will was ever on my side, then it was to see Maria like that, all dressed in black, a fantastically all woman. My entire body broke into an enormous sob and again I was dumbfounded.

“At least, say good evening, Juca….”

“Good evening , Maria, I’m off…,however.” I wanted to escape, I wanted to stay and I wanted her to stay too, but, yes, without touching each other. I know, I swear that I know that she was ready to give in to me, promising me everything, giving me everything I wanted, in that free way she let me look at her, with a faint smile, her hands together resting in her lap, all dressed in black. At one point, just for a second, I thought about ravishing her for an hour or so in a hotel room; it was a horrible image. But there was no doubt: Maria evoked within me an instinct of perfection. Eventually, I managed to stammer out an indifferent “Good night”, as  the sound of huddled voices from the arriving guests streamed in from the hall.

It was this one, the first of four eternal loves that have turned my life into a severe inner compression. I am a false loner. Four loves accompany me, care for me, come and talk to me. I never saw Maria again. Eventually divorced, she stayed somewhere in Europe and now they say she is living with an Austrian interested in international fairs – an ordinary adventurer. But within me, Maria… well, I guess I’ll end up speaking in clichés.

(Rio, 1939 – S. Paulo, 17-11-43)


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