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The Madwoman of Serrano

Author: Dina Salústio

Translator: Jethro Soutar   Cover design: Marie Lane  

(from the start, page 1)

This is the story of Serrano, a village of one hundred and ninety-three souls, including a young madwoman, a few newborns and three still on their way, two of them twin girls, according to the midwife, who'd been peering through a chink in the window when she’d seen a woman’s shadow crossing the square at the exact same moment the sun crossed the moon, sending deep vibrations through the valley and playing havoc with time. The unremitting wind took advantage of the situation to remove the woman's white dress, plucking it like two petals from a flower, then sticking and tangling it around her rigid body until the woman, practically an adolescent, was too dumbfounded to sense the ground and light escaping from her or check the fabulous dance of her arms in the air, or her legs as they waded through cloud, and her hair as it settled in the intense, freshly dewed earth.
From her peephole, the midwife, very much part of the scene, rubbed her belly with fingers spread firm and wide, in a manner long deemed to be highly sensual, and watched with quivering nostrils and salivating mouth as the young woman, just a few seconds or hours later, it was hard to tell, picked herself up off the ground and staggered over to retrieve her cotton dress, which had deposited itself on the highest branch of a bush like a flag signalling victory, conquest or surrender.
The sun roasted the ground while the midwife kept her alert and vigilant eyes fixed on the square and villagers, caressing the moles that marked her and gathering her strength to let go of what she'd seen and move away from the window, until finally she rose, pulling up the shawl that had slipped from her waist, tying it tightly at the hip, and lit a fat, pure-wax candle that spread a smell of life about the house, a hint of honey. With slow movements, much slower than usual, she lifted the lid of what looked to be a stone trunk, took out a piece of flint and carved two dashes into the polished flagstone, at the end of a line of other dashes, some of them struck through halfway.
The days passed and then Virginia, after several sleepless nights, came to see the midwife to complain of sharp pains biting her insides. She wasn't aware of the near imperceptible tremor that ran through her as she spoke, but it froze the midwife to the spot and made her head turn towards the basin where a handful of leaves were swimming, the only free-moving objects in the confined space of her house.
If it were possible to block out everything that distracts the spirit at the surface level, one would have heard the leaves bobbing about in the tepid water, Virginia summoning the courage to get through the consultation and the midwife in conversation with her own thoughts, recalling the scene she'd witnessed thirteen days ago when her gaze had filled with the glare of the sun and a glimpse of the moon, traces of cloud and wind, the dewy black earth and Virginia's naked body, which in the wake of that strange encounter had immediately shown a slight swelling of the skin beneath the navel down to the right, the unmistakable sign of a uterus bearing more than one being, but not more than two. Without taking her eyes off the basin, which seemed to be eating up the room, and speaking in the peculiar fashion Serrano midwives had always spoken, a whisper that accentuated the strange serenity of the atmosphere, she told the mournful girl that for better or worse, as far as Serrano and its people were concerned, she was expecting twice over. Then she gave the girl some teas to take away and told her to come back when the fifth moon had set behind the mountain range they could see from the village, which immediately lost its majestic air and became an accessory in the story of the morning now awoken. The youngster wasn't afforded even time enough to say she couldn't be pregnant for she'd not so much as seen a male in the raw, unaware as she was of all the women around the world who’d fallen pregnant without having been touched by a man, women who’d kept quiet and conformed to established labels and rituals so as not to incur the wrath of their incredulous fellow creatures.
The midwife closed the door, but stayed glued to it, almost boring herself into the wood, as she listened to the footsteps retreat but bring visions that spoke to her of the end. She desperately tried to understand what role destiny wished her to fulfil, but gave up, exhausted, fifteen hours later, dragged herself to her cold bed and lay down.
Nobody questioned the midwife's methods for up until then, in her many years of service, she'd lost only one woman and one child, both on the same night, in that imprecise hour that's no longer today but is not yet tomorrow, a time when human beings become powerless and situations can only be controlled through prayer, vigorous chanting, well-wielded amulets and careful vigilance. An hour when the midwife was unable to concentrate all the powers necessary to secure victory because the women who stood at the threshold holding out for the birth, and the men who awaited its outcome at a greater distance, had all been there for over half the day, from the moment they’d learned that the pregnant girl's waters were refusing to break despite the sludge she'd been forced to drink, a concoction of crow's blood and black mud taken from a well-known spring, a foolproof remedy for women with lazy waters, and everyone, including the midwife, the dog that had yelped throughout the labour whenever a shriek escaped from the walls or the window, the mother-to-be and the creature inside her uterus, all fell into a deep sleep.
In the last beat of the first minute of the following day, the midwife, the dog and the midwife's assistants were the only ones to wake and, though they could barely keep their eyes open, they rushed over to the woman who lay shrunk and mute in the depths of the bed, in the exact same position she'd been in when her stomach had contracted for the seventh and final time, which by chance had coincided with the critical moment when everyone had neglectfully nodded off. Nothing was known of the baby, although the young madwoman who spent her nights perched on the branch of a tree near by swore she'd seen it flying in the direction of the mountains, carried by the wind inside a bag and leaving a luminous trail in the sky the shape of a whale's tail, proof it was a girl.

(from page 63)

Jeronimo had learned from the other men to take everything thrown at him without complaint, good and bad, so he accepted that he and Maninha couldn't have children without argument or bitterness, and thus justified his indifference to her great drama. Yes, because in the few words the men of Serrano did exchange, they said it was women who could fail in procreation, it had nothing to do with men, one only had to look at the visible mechanisms of their sexuality to see that a child – nay dozens, hundreds, thousands! – could be born every time it filled and emptied. A soil is either fertile or not and females are the soil, some uteruses are simply dry – the men would state in frustration whenever descendants refused to appear, only to accept it as normal, and with no little pride, when offspring did then come along. Serrano men were not in the least bit curious about how the women, after several unproductive years and without having undergone any complicated treatments, could fall suddenly pregnant after going for consultations with the specialists in the city, for the people there knew about such things; nor did they show any interest in the city's technologies that performed these miracles on their women's bodies and egos. On returning to the valley, the Serrano women would insist on frequent sexual relations as part of their therapy, one of the very few times, incidentally, that they insisted on anything at all and stood up to their men without fear, protected as they were by the authority of the midwife. What the women themselves thought about these miracles is not known for great secrecy surrounded the advice the midwife, backed by the older women in the village, gave to young women whose lives had become insufferable through an accumulation of betrayals and beatings, threats and humiliations, sex deliberately withheld or violently forced, all on account of their supposed inability to procreate.
From her hiding place behind the spring, the Madwoman of Serrano would yell, her screams piercing the mountainside, that pharmaceuticals were women's revenge. Other times, on sorrowful afternoons, she'd simply say they were women's greatest sadness.
The only Serrano female ever to rebel against the village’s means of soothing men's humours and reducing women's suffering, or stroking their hidden egos, we know not which, was Gremiana. She confronted the whole village one afternoon when the sky was so low you could feel the clouds' breath on your face, after hearing Valentim, the man she'd lived with since she was thirteen, bragging in the bar that he could have had all the children in the world if it hadn’t been for his defective woman, going on to accuse her of being false and shameless because she cheated him every time they lay down together, rolling around like a bitch on heat, even faking that fever a man can sense in a woman when he’s activated an offspring – he then proceeded to replicate the noises she made for the benefit of the other men – and in such perfect duplicity that he, a wise man, had fallen for the sham that she loved him. Gremiana had never followed the midwife’s advice and dealt with her husband’s abuse by seeking a pharmaceutical in the city, a mere emergency or sudden urge away, nor had she shown any inclination to even want to have a child; but that day, as dusk fell and Valentim offered up their intimacies to the whole bar, proclaiming his virility and denouncing her as faulty, she forget her shame at being but a humble woman and lost her fear of the beatings and injuries that would follow and pronounced a few home truths, all of them in fact, to the men who were present, which was all of them, husbands, fathers, brothers, friends, enemies, relatives and their every acquaintance, the old and the young, the upstanding and the down-and-out, the sober and the drunk, and they turned on her and chased her with insults and sticks all the way from the village square and the House of Light, as the midwife's house was known, to the riverbank where the currents were fiercest, shouting like men possessed that Gremiana was a shameless tramp with a hollow belly. Seeing their masculine pride and painfully won power under threat, their voices betraying the fear that so undermined them, the men screamed out all the hatred they felt for Gremiana, which was ultimately all the hatred they felt for the women of Serrano, for all the women of the world. The midwife locked her door and


RRP: £11.99

No. of pages: 224

Publication date: 05.09.2019

Re-print date: 22.05.2024

ISBN numbers:
978 1 910213 98 8
978 1 912868 31 5

World English