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from the January 2010 issue

If Nothing Else Helps, Read Clarice

I’m afraid of turning on the TV and, like someone going into the Underground at rush hour, of having my intelligence stepped on, whether out of carelessness or malice. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to.” Curled up in a corner of the room, I turn on the telly, pretending I’m not there; but if I stumble across some brutal-looking individual, I turn it off right away. Then I close my eyes and dream up a fish. An old fisherman from Pernambuco taught me how. I was sitting on the beach at Itamaracá with a pad of paper on my knees, finishing a watercolor. He came up behind me and watched me for a moment.

“Why are you doing that?” he asked. “The sea doesn’t fit in there!”

He sat down beside me. He told me that sometimes when he woke up, there was a pain on the left side of his chest—humanity. That’s when he’d walk to the beach, lie down in the sand, and dream up a fish.

“You know, it was Clarice. She initiated me.”

At the time I didn’t understand who he was talking about. He had started by dreaming up small fish, very rudimentary fish, just a quick dash of silver, a light comma flashing in the air, but with time, as he developed his technique, he came to dream up serrans, black groupers, even swordfish. His ambition was one day to dream up a whale. A blue whale.

“Watch the color of the water,” was his tip. “For example, really early in the morning, if the sea is calm and silvery, that’s a good time to dream up shad. The tarpon, one of our fish here, a big thing, is much easier after it’s rained and the river waters darken the sea. Golden mackerel though, are better dreamt with a blue sea.”

And mermaids? He looked at me, shocked.

“Mermaids?! What good are mermaids? Mermaids are badly dreamt creatures, like duck-billed platypuses, or generals. You’ll do better than that.”

And so I try. I never knew the fisherman’s name. He was a tall guy, straight as a pole, his eyes were alive and his skin healthy, stretched taut over his bones. His voice was so clear and warm that, when he spoke at night, it seemed like he was spitting fireflies. You should be able to bequeath a voice like that in your will. It reminded me of Fernando Alves’ voice. People on the island said that the old man had been lost at sea for three weeks. He’d had a miraculous rescue. On his thirteenth day at sea Our Lady had appeared to him on his skiff, bringing him a leg of pork and a liter bottle of Coke. He himself flatly denied the miracle, sounding a little annoyed.

“Our Lady?! Rubbish! It was Clarice Lispector who appeared to me! . . .”

All fishermen’s tales contain exaggerations, sometimes even barefaced lies, else they wouldn’t be fishermen’s tales. On this particular point, however, I must preclude debate (I’m using this phrase for the first time in my life, see how it shines?): he was a reader! He was a fervent devotee of Clarice Lispector and Alberto Caeiro. He told me that Clarice had appeared to him at daybreak holding The Apple in the Dark, and read the entire novel to him. Afterward, when she saw that he felt better, she taught him to dream up fish.

“Dreaming up fish is good for the soul. Just remember that for every bad person in the world, there are a thousand good fish in the sea.”

My fisherman didn’t have a television. Sometimes he’d be dawdling in a bar or the square (there was a television in the square), and the din of distant wars would rob him of his sleep. Other people’s mistakes caused him suffering. He would walk around with The Hour of the Star tucked under his arm, trying, without any success, to convert the other islanders. I was the only one who paid him any attention:

“If nothing else works, read Clarice.”

One afternoon I saw him dream up a dolphin. “It was my first mammal,” he told me afterward, exhausted by the effort. “Next week I’ll try for an orca.” I never went back to Itamaracá, and never saw him again, but I reckon that by now he has managed to dream up his blue whale. He’ll have launched it into the sea, one hundred and thirty tons of pure dream, and its song must be resounding through the waters now. One day the whales will come to save humanity.

Read more from the January 2010 issue
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