The lawyer beside me shrugs in silence. His body language seems to suggest that some stories can’t be captured in words. He tries nonetheless. To make his narrative more palatable, he loosens his necktie and speaks slowly, as if rationing out his words . . .. He’s a middle-aged man, tired and earnest. We’ve been talking for a while in the hotel bar. Drink in hand, he braces himself to tell of an episode he lived through, back when he was still in the Dominican Republic, his homeland.

At that time, he was beginning a career as a criminal lawyer. He would often visit Santo Domingo’s central prison, to interview clients and unearth new causes. He liked the old colonial pavilion, with its generous proportions and yellowish tones, its six floors overlooking an interior courtyard, its halls constantly echoing sounds and voices. The cells were filled with all types: criminals and drunks, union leaders and pimps. He used to hunker down beside the cell bars and talk to his clients for hours on end, pen and pad in his lap. A journalist at heart, he hoped someday to write books.

On one of these visits, he heard a bloodcurdling scream that seemed to come from an adjacent cell. A little while later, word got around: a prisoner had just been killed by his fellow inmates. It wasn’t the first time. But the crime had been brutal.

The victim was the captain of a fishing boat, involved in trafficking immigrants along the Florida route. There had been a malaria outbreak in the prison, and during the night the captain had shouted: “Señor capitán! Señor capitán!” in tones ranging from pleading to utter indignation. By morning, in the throes of delirium, he had embarked on a long monologue. After listening with undivided attention and making him repeat details more than once, the prisoners had split into two groups. One had backed up against the cell bars, the other had surrounded his bed in shadows. The captain then had his tongue ripped out and his eyes gouged.

Although the violence of the crime bordered on the unusual, the reasons behind it remained unclear. But since the prisoners kept quiet, the press had forgotten the case before long. The lawyer hadn’t pushed either: he knew the subject would come up, slowly, like the remains of a shipwreck that, sooner or later, wash up on shore. As in fact it did.

The fishing boat could hold thirty passengers out on the deck. Sometimes more—if they were children or elderly. They were people of humble origins, usually from inland. Some had relatives in Florida, others took their chances on what they hoped would be a one-way trip. Before the port lights had even faded from view, bowls of fish soup were passed around. The children, who usually complained about the strong and bitter taste, were given slices of cake.

An hour later, far from shore, the food did its job and the travelers became sluggish. The lights would then go out. The men barely put up a fight: one by one, they were thrown overboard. The women were next. Sobbing and pleading, they were easily dragged and tossed into the waves. Once in the water, the bodies struggled briefly, like dolls waking from a dream—but their cries were soon drowned by the surf. Moonlit nights brought out the blood red of the water when sharks attacked.

The children were last—the sailors pitched them into the dark with their eyes closed. At this point of his story, the captain had shifted tone and, as if warning the little ones of grave danger, he’d raised a finger in the air, a cross between a grandfather and a witch: “Watch out for the sharks, dearies!” he’d cackled, already half out of his mind.

Poor captain . . .. On the last trip, a young girl had refused the soup and hadn’t touched the cake. Hidden in the dark, hands over her ears, a look of terror in her eyes, she’d watched her family being thrown overboard, father, mother, sister. Once the commotion was over, however, she’d been found amid the silence, clinging to the mast. Such evident horror had intimidated the crew—and they’d hesitated, waiting for a sign from their boss. “Perdóname niña . . .,” he’d said, leaning over her as if fulfilling a duty. And the girl, suspended over the water, had summed up the indignation of the universe with a single cry: “Señor capitán!”

The lawyer tosses back his cognac and I my vodka. With a wave, he dismisses the approaching waiter. We need to be quite alone, he and I—time for the Caribbean waters to lap up against Florida and come back to us with the evening breeze. Time for five centuries of absurdity and misery to flicker and die. The way stars die.

In his final moment, the captain had begged forgiveness. Not from the men who surrounded him with breath stinking of vomit—much less from the gods who had forsaken him. He’d asked forgiveness from the girl who danced before his eyes, taking up what little remained of his life.

The lawyer had given up on becoming a writer. “What’s there to write about?” he’d asked. I believe he’d even given up on happiness. “Tell this story,” he asked of me. And, with his hand on my arm, he added, “But not to your children. Much less mine.”

"Señor capitán!" from O livro das pequenas infidelidades (Companhia das letras, 1994; Editora Record, 2004.) © Edgard Telles Ribeiro. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2013 by Kim M. Hastings. All rights reserved.

O advogado a meu lado encolhe silenciosamente os ombros. Com o gesto parece dizer: Certas histórias não cabem em palavras. Ainda assim, faz um esforço. Para tornar sua narrativa mais aceitável, afrouxa o nó da gravata e passa a falar devagar, como se fatiasse suas frases e as servisse em tiras finas... É um homem de meia idade, sincero e cansado. Conversamos há algum tempo no bar do hotel. Balançando o copo de conhaque entre os dedos abertos, dispõe-se a contar um episódio vivido em tempos passados, quando ainda morava na República Dominicana, sua terra natal.

Naquela época iniciava carreira como criminalista. Visitava com frequência a prisão central de Santo Domingo, para entrevistar clientes e garimpar novas causas. Gostava do velho pavilhão colonial, de proporções generosas e tons amarelados, com seus seis andares que se debruçavam sobre um pátio interno e seus corredores tomados por um constante eco de ruídos e vozes. Havia de tudo nas celas lotadas, de criminosos a bêbados,  de líderes sindicais a proxenetas. Costumava sentar-se ao lado das grades e conversar com seus clientes por horas a fio, bloco e caneta no colo. Tinha alma de jornalista - esperava um dia escrever livros.                

Em uma dessas visitas, ouviu um grito de dor que parecia vir de uma cela vizinha. Passado algum tempo, a notícia correu: um detento acabara de ser morto por seus companheiros. Não chegava a ser um episódio inédito naquela prisão. Mas o crime havia sido brutal.

A vítima era capitão de um barco pesqueiro, dedicava-se ao tráfico de imigrantes na rota da Flórida. Na prisão tivera um surto de malária e, durante a noite, gritara: “Señor capitán! Señor capitán!” em tons que iam da súplica à mais forte indignação. Ao amanhecer, em um estertor de delírio, dera início a um longo monólogo. Depois de ouvi-lo com toda atenção e fazê-lo repetir suas frases por mais de uma vez, os presos tinham-se dividido em dois grupos. Um se colocara de costas nas grades, o outro cercara sua cama de sombras. O capitão tivera a língua arrancada e os olhos vazados. 

Se a violência do crime beirava o incomum, as razões para o gesto se mantinham obscuras. Mas como os presos guardassem silêncio, a imprensa logo se esquecera do caso. O advogado tampouco insistira: sabia que o assunto ainda viria à tona, devagarinho, como os destroços de uma embarcação perdida em naufrágio que, cedo ou tarde, batem na praia. Como, de fato, ocorreu.                      

Cabiam trinta viajantes no pesqueiro, acomodados ao ar livre sobre a coberta. Por vezes mais - se fossem crianças ou pessoas idosas. Era uma gente de origem modesta, em geral do interior. Alguns tinham parentes na Flórida, outros arrriscavam a sorte em uma viagem que desejavam sem volta. Com as luzes do porto ainda visíveis, uma sopa de peixe era servida a todos. As crianças, que em geral reclamavam do sabor forte e amargo, ganhavam fatias de bolo.            

Uma hora depois, já distantes da costa, a comida fazia efeito e um torpor se abatia sobre os viajantes. As luzes então se apagavam. Os homens quase não ofereciam resistência: um a um, eram jogados ao mar. Seguiam-se as mulheres. Em meio a soluços e apelos eram arrastadas, molemente, e atiradas nas ondas. Em contato com a água os corpos se debatiam por um instante, como bonecos que despertassem de um sonho - mas os gritos logo morriam na espuma. Espuma que, nas noites de lua, se tingia de vermelho - os tubarões atacavam. 

Por fim, vinham as crianças - os marinheiros as lançavam na escuridão de olhos fechados. Nesse ponto de sua narrativa o capitão mudara de tom e, como se advertisse aquela gente miúda contra um grave perigo, erguera no ar um dedo de avô feiticeiro: Niños! Ti-bu-ro-nes!  - exclamara já quase demente.

Pobre capitão... Na última viagem uma menina recusara a sopa e não tocara no bolo. Escondida na escuridão, as mãos nos ouvidos, um grito nos olhos, vira a família sendo jogada ao mar, o pai, a mãe, a irmã. Passado a agitação, contudo, fora descoberta em meio ao silêncio, colada no mastro. A tripulação se intimidara perante tamanho fragmento de horror - e hesitara, à espera de um gesto do chefe. “Perdoname niña...”, dissera ele então, inclinando-se sobre ela como se cumprisse um dever. E a menina, suspensa sobre as águas, resumira com um grito a indignação do universo: “Señor capitán!...”.

O advogado engole seu conhaque e eu minha vodca. Com um gesto da mão pára o garçom que se aproxima solícito. É preciso que fiquemos bem sós, ele e eu - o tempo das águas do Caribe baterem na Flórida e regressarem até nós com a brisa da noite. O tempo de cinco séculos de absurdo e miséria cintilarem um segundo e morrerem. Como morrem as estrelas.

Em seu momento final, o capitão pedira perdão. Não aos homens que já o cercavam com um hálito de vômito - e menos ainda aos deuses que o haviam esquecido. Pedira perdão à menina  que dançava em seus olhos, ocupando todo o espaço que lhe restava de vida. 

O advogado desistira de ser escritor. “Escrever sobre o quê?”, indagara. Desistira, creio até, de ser totalmente feliz. “Conte essa história”, pediu-me. E acrescentou, a mão em meu braço: “Mas não a seus filhos. E menos ainda aos meus”.




Edgard Telles RibeiroEdgard Telles Ribeiro

Edgard Telles Ribeiro is an award-winning Brazilian author of eight novels and three short-story collections. His latest novel, His Own Man, won the Brazilian PEN Prize for Best Novel (2011) and will be published this coming year in England, Australia, Spain, and Latin America, and in the US by Other Press in 2014 in Kim M. Hastings's translation.  A career diplomat, he is currently posted in New York.

Translated from PortuguesePortuguese by Kim M. HastingsKim M. Hastings

Kim M. Hastings was raised overseas and lived for several years in São Paulo. She  studied Brazilian language and literature at Brown University and has a PhD in Spanish and Portuguese from Yale. For the past fifteen years, she has been a freelance editor and translator, working with academic presses and commercial publishers. Her translations include fiction by Rubem Fonseca, Rachel Jardim, Adriana Lisboa, and Edgard Telles Ribeiro.