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The Word Tree

Author: Teolinda Gersão

Translator: Margaret Jull Costa   Cover design: Marie Lane  

To reach the back yard you had to go through the narrow kitchen door. And although it’s true that the kitchen was dark, you could still see all the objects in it, the aluminium pans and fat pots, the jugs and enamel bowls, the old white oven with its brass rings, the big table with the marble top on which some piece of crockery had always been left out by mistake. But you tended to ignore the kitchen, you didn’t really look at it, but ran in the direction of the yard, as if you were being sucked towards it by the light, and you staggered a little as you went through the door, because you were blinded for a few seconds, and only the smell and the heat guided your first steps, the smell of earth, grass and over-ripe fruit that wafted to you on the warm wind like the breath of some living animal.
Everything in the back yard danced: the broad leaves of a banana tree, the flowers and leaves of the hibiscus, the still tender branches of the jacaranda, the blades of grass that grew like weeds and against which, after a certain point, we gave up the struggle.
It was only when you lay down in the grass that you noticed how slender the jacaranda leaves were, sweeping the sky, and how the sun was a blue and gold eye watching, blinding all other eyes, so that only he could see; up there above the garden and the house, the sun was the only seeing eye.
But as I said, you didn’t need eyes to see because you could do that even with your eyes closed, through your eyelids inundated with light – the chicken wire on the hen coop at the back of the yard, the wall, the tiled roof of the house, the windows, the dark doorway, always open, the balcony on the first floor, where, at the end of the day, Laureano would sit drinking a beer. You didn’t need eyes to see because you knew everything, it was yours, you didn’t even need to hope or wish for anything because things simply happened of their own accord and came to meet you – and so, for example, at the end of the day, you just had to raise your head to see Laureano sitting out on the balcony.
Then night fell, like a glass of dark beer spilled by the sky. Or like an eyelid closing. Because the dusk came quickly - well, there wasn’t really any dusk to speak of, there was no gradual transition: it was either dark or light.
Down below, while Laureano was sitting on the balcony, the garden grew like a wild thing. A sorghum plant would sprout from seed dropped by accident or put out for the birds; a clandestine beanstalk would shoot up among the daisies; brambles and nettles and nameless weeds grew among the golden-shower orchids and the bauhinia; any seed carried by the wind eventually burgeoned into green leaves licked by the summer rains. And Amélia would say, frowning: ‘The garden’s turning into a jungle.’ And she’d slam the window shut.
It wasn’t a garden, it was a wilderness, which you either loved or hated; there were no half measures, because you couldn’t compete with it. It was there and it surrounded us, and you were either part of it or you weren’t. Amélia wasn’t. Or didn’t want to be. That’s why she continued to try and tame it. ‘I want this swept,’ she would say to Lóia. No fruit peel could be left lying on the ground, no seed or stone could be thrown down. ‘That kind of thing might be all right in the shanty-towns,’ she would say about anything that displeased her, ‘but not here.’
And so the house was divided in two, the White House and the Black House. The White House belonged to Amélia, the Black House to Lóia. The yard surrounded the Black House. I belonged to the Black House and to the yard.
‘You have to be careful,’ Amélia said. ‘alert. Things look all right on the surface, but the city is rotten and full of contagions. It was built on swampland, you know.’
When anyone fell ill, she always assumed it was one of the old fevers that periodically returned and left people weak and hollow-eyed, as if sucked dry by evil spirits. The swamp, or the memory of the swamp, which she had never known because it had ceased to exist almost a century before, seemed to besiege her with nightmare visions, as if the putrid, marshy water was still there, close by. And she herself would always accompany the sanitary inspector and the local black official, who made the occasional rare visit, wearing yellow armbands, to poke around in the yard, spraying the corners and the walls with a foul-smelling chemical that was supposed to eliminate or repel mosquitos.
In the Black House no one was afraid of mosquitos, or, for that matter, of anything else. In the Black House things sang and danced. The hens would escape from the coop and walk all over any washing that happened to fall from the line, blithely shitting wherever they pleased. Lóia would shout at the hens and shoo them away, but then, kneeling down, she would burst out laughing and scrub at the soiled washing with a bar of soap and rinse it with a watering-can full of water. She obviously enjoyed doing these things because she was always laughing and never really bothered to keep the hens locked up, and so they would shit on the clothes again, and she would wash them again – the water fell like rain from the spout of the watering-can that swung in her hand as she carried it, and on the way from tap to clothes, it revived the flowers too.
And so the flowers never died for very long, but bloomed again; all it took was for Lóia to go back and forth a few times with the watering-can in her hand and the water was transformed into rain. And one day, while she sat on a bench at the entrance to the yard, she even brought a cockerel back to life, having first killed it on the kitchen table and plunged it, plucked, into boiling water.
It lay on her bloodstained apron, beak open and wings outspread, looking like a sack of jugo beans. If it had slipped from her grasp, it would have made quite a noise as it fell. But she kept a firm grip; she pulled out the feathers and threw them over her head. As the wind caught them, she sat surrounded by a cloud of soft fluff that hovered about her and took time to fall once again to earth, while the cockerel turned into a fat, roundish, yellow, wingless thing that appeared triumphantly that night on the table, having first vanished into the gaping maw of the oven.
The following morning, though, she produced it from her apron and put it back in the chicken-run. And then you could see how she had put the bones together and covered them with that thick skin, yellow with fat and with little pimples where the feathers had been, and how easy it had been for her to stick each feather into its allotted place and skilfully reshape the little cockerel as if it were made of clay, and replace feet, claws, beak, eyes, one on either side, and finally the crest on top of its head.
Lóia opens his eyes by lifting his fallen lids, smooths his feathers, and blows into his beak. The cockerel lifts his neck, flutters his wings and finally opens his eyes. Now he’s standing up on the table, crowing.
Laureano belongs to the Black House too. He’s not afraid of mosquitos and he himself planted a castor-oil tree at the bottom of the yard. The cat Simba, which he brought home one day in his jacket pocket, sleeps on the carpet beside his chair at siesta time, on the days when he comes back for lunch, which is most days. Laureano doesn’t really sleep in the afternoon, he dozes, sitting in the reclining chair with its broad arms, and which we call his aviator’s chair.
The best moment, though, is the night-time, before I go to sleep, when he picks up a music box that has a dancing cat on the lid. It’s a most surprising animal. Dressed in a satin doublet and a flounced shirt with a lace jabot, he holds an arched garland of flowers above his head while he dances in his high-heeled blue shoes. Everything about him intrigues and fascinates me, because he’s a most unusual cat, of whom you would never think, as you would of Simba, that he was a cousin to the wild cat and still knows a lot about the jungle.
Laureano turns the handle and the cat twirls round to the music, whose light, tinny notes sound vaguely like a marimba. Questions occur to me – why is he dressed like that and why does he wear those shoes? – but I don’t say anything because I want to listen and I’ll have fallen asleep by the time he finishes his dance.
In exchange for that cat and his music, I’ll play a game with you. When you arrive home in the afternoon and you call out as you come through the door: Giiii-taaa… only the silence answers, the house seems empty and sleepy. Because I’m not here, as I was at lunchtime, waiting for you by the window, I’ve transformed myself into a small animal that has crept away behind the cupboard on furtive feet. And you have stopped being you and are now a large animal creeping unstoppably ever closer.
I feel you walking, invisible, past the furniture in the hallway, pushing open the living-room door, sniffing the air, peering under tables and behind curtains, while I almost disappear into the shadows, heart beating faster and faster, conscious that nothing will give me greater pleasure than the moment of near-terror when you find me, when you are still not yet you, nor even a man, but the unknown, the animal, the monster, bursting into the house and violating the old order.
Being found is a death, a joy, the crossing of a line. That’s why I scream, out of terror, pleasure and fear. And then you pick me up and I know I’m at your mercy and that, like a vanquishing beast, you could carry me off into the depths of the jungle. That moment is a small joyful death. You triumph over me and I disappear into your arms as if I were being devoured. Then suddenly I’m alive, on the other side of a gigantic wave.
And now you’re you again, a man, the beloved man of the house. I see your face, your body, especially your eyes, and I don’t know how an animal – or some evil thing - could ever have taken your place, because now you’re as familiar to me as the wind and the rain.
Then there follows much laughter and great peace, at the dizzying moment when the formless terror shatters and is transformed once more into you. And I laugh with pleasure because I was the one who invented the game. It was me, crouching very still behind the door, who changed you into an animal, when the blood beat so hard in my chest that my heart almost leapt into my mouth. I’m the one who allows myself to be discovered and who turns you back into a man again.
At that point, I feel such tenderness for you and such pity for being so slow to understand, because it’s just a game, but you’ll never realise that and will always fall into it as if into a well, and I’ll stay up above, laughing, and that laughter will be like a stone thrown into the water, sending out ripple upon ripple.
And then I close my eyes and I know that I’m going to fall in too, that this game is carrying me, like water, into the luminous depths of the well. Even though I know it’s a game, which I invent and reinvent every day, each time you come home. A repeated game, like the sun or the moon at the window.
Yes, everything in the yard danced, the leaves, the earth, the spots of sunlight, the branches, the trees, the shadows. They danced and had no limits, nothing did, not even your own body, which grew in all directions and was as big as the world. Your body was the tree and the wind. It could touch the sky simply by raising its head a little, swaying on the dancing wind; life was a dance then, and just placing one foot in front of the other set the body celebrating: everything was in the body and of the body, the shrill cries of the birds flying overhead, the hot breath of the African summer, the great night dotted with stars. But the infinite didn’t frighten or surprise us really; it was a simple idea, the certainty that we could grow up as high as the sky.
And perhaps it was because of that we knew all the secrets - the world was familiar and we knew it down to its tiniest details, knew the curved shell of the snail and the sound of the rain on leaves. The sunlight on the wall and the high trill of the cicadas. The taste of the earth on the tongue and the sickly savour of ants.
The yard and the house had no limits either, they were large enough to contain everything. You could hear, when you were lost in thought, the stealthy steps of wild beasts, and when you slept, you could feel their breath on your face. And when you slept deeply like that, your feet and arms joined with their wild bodies and you suddenly knew how to leap from branch to branch, even, when necessary, over the torrents and waterfalls of dreams.
Then you would sigh, breathing through your half-open mouth into the sheets, you would turn your head on the pillow, but you were still running through the forest, alighting noiselessly on large paws, sniffing the warm night air, alert to the slightest rustle among the leaves. You would travel long paths in the forest and in the night. Then you would drink, at last, from the long-sought water. You would lower your head until your lips touched the surface and then be off again, light-footed as an antelope.
Or you would plunge into the water in order to slake your thirst more quickly, and then your body felt as muddy and contented as a submerged pachyderm.
All night you wandered free and could change your skin at any moment. You could be the swift body of the polecat and eat the juicy fruit of the mampsincha, or you could sniff the wind with the angry snout of the hyena.
You could be everything, and in the morning you returned. You opened your eyes, but, even with eyes wide open, nothing changed. You leapt out of bed with the cloven hooves of the zebra and, in front of the bathroom mirror, you brushed your sharp rabbit teeth. Lóia would place milk and fruit on the table, and you’d devour it all like a famished animal, then leave, tail wagging.
The day didn’t interrupt your dreams. You could sleep with your eyes open, and life was pleasurable, as easy as playing and dreaming. You could spread wide your arms and shout: I’m alive, but there was no need for such exultant, exaggerated gestures; things were so close and simple that you barely noticed them. For example, you would go out of the kitchen door, unaware that you were crossing a threshold. There was no separation between spaces, no intervals separating the days.
Because your body joined earth to sky.


RRP: £9.99

No. of pages: 204

Publication date: 09.03.2010

ISBN numbers:
978 1 903517 88 8
978 1 909232 57 0

World English