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from the July 2016 issue

The Pharmacist’s First Report

The following is an excerpt from Lúcio Cardoso’s Chronicle of a Murdered House, forthcoming in December 2016 from Open Letter Books.

My name is Aurélio dos Santos, and for many years I have been established in our small town with a business selling medicines and pharmaceutical products. Indeed my shop could be considered the only such establishment in the town, for there is little competition from the stall selling homeopathic remedies on the Praça da Matriz. Thus, almost everyone comes to me to make their purchases, and I have even written prescriptions for the Meneses family.

I well remember the night he came looking for me. I was sitting with a lamp immediately beside me so as to make the most of its poor light (our town’s electricity supply leaves much to be desired), consulting a dictionary of medicinal powders printed in excessively small type. Night had just begun to fall and the shop was filled with moths circling ever closer around the lamp. This bothered me and, since both my hands were occupied in holding the thick volume, I had to keep shaking my head to chase them away. I had left the door ajar, just in case a customer should appear even at that late hour. Hearing a gentle creaking, I raised my head and caught sight of a hand pushing the door open; then a face slowly emerged, not with the intention of producing any dramatic effect, but merely to avoid startling me. The person stepped forward and I then recognized who it was. He looked paler than usual, his movements hesitant, his eyes distrustful.

“Good evening, Senhor Demétrio,” I said, naturally somewhat surprised by such a visit.

I should perhaps explain why his arrival did not strike me as an everyday occurrence. The reason is simply that they, the Meneses, whether out of pride or conceit, were the only customers who never set foot in my establishment. Any errands or prescriptions or bills to be paid were dealt with by their servants. I would see the men of the Meneses household passing by reasonably frequently, distant and disdainful, and almost always dressed in black. I would say to myself: “It’s the Chácara brigade,” and content myself with tipping my hat in the time-honored manner. Furthermore, I should add that Senhor Valdo and Senhor Demétrio were almost always together. At home they may well not, as rumor had it, be very close, but in the streets they were always to be seen side by side, as if there were in this world no better brothers. On one solitary occasion I saw Senhor Demétrio in the company of his wife, Dona Ana, who, again according to rumor, remained obstinately confined to the house, weeping over the mistake she had made in marrying Senhor Demétrio. She wasn’t a Meneses—she came from a family that had once lived on the outskirts of Vila Velha, and little by little she had been worn down by the dull, dreary life led by the inhabitants of the Chácara. Her fate was widely lamented and some even said that, although somewhat lifeless, she was not entirely devoid of beauty.

“Good evening,” replied Senhor Demétrio and stood there, quite still, no doubt waiting for me to initiate the conversation. I don’t know what strange malice took hold of my heart at that moment—oh, those Meneses!—and out of sheer capriciousness I remained silent, with the dictionary open in my hands, staring at the face before me. I should first of all explain that it belonged to a man who was short rather than tall, and extraordinarily pale. Nothing about his physical appearance stood out, for nature had charged itself with molding a series of flat, featureless contours, all somewhat randomly thrown together around a central point, for the only object discernible from a distance and the only one to attract immediate attention was his nose—large and almost aggressive, an authentic Meneses nose. The most noticeable thing about him was, I repeat, his sickly appearance, appropriate to those who live in the shadows, cut off from the world. Perhaps this was due merely to his wan complexion, but the truth is that he immediately gave the impression of being a creature of unusual habits, a night bird dazzled and laid bare by the sun.

“I would like your advice,” he said at last with a sigh.

I nodded and set the book down on the table, indicating that I was at his disposal. He did not attempt to elaborate on what had brought him there, preferring perhaps to be asked, and he continued staring at me, his beady eyes darting from side to side.

“Of course, if I can be of any assistance . . .” I ventured.

These simple words seemed to lift a great weight off his mind. Something in his face flickered dimly, and he leaned over the counter in a gesture of greater intimacy. I would not say his voice was entirely steady, but it gradually overcame its difficulties to the point where he was able to speak with relative calm. He confessed to me that his wife had lately been much concerned by a strange occurrence at the Chácara. Then, after a brief digression about the perils of life in the country, he stopped and scrutinized my face to see if I believed what he was saying, and I don’t know why, but in the unexpected silence that arose between us, I had the instinctive feeling that he was lying, and that he earnestly wanted me to believe his lie. Now, for a Meneses to come to my house, something of real significance must have occurred, given that it was being presented to me swathed in such an elaborate lie. I stood up, my attention now entirely awakened, and leaned over the counter beside him. Thus, with his face almost touching my own, not even the most fleeting of emotions flitting across it would escape me. Such close attention seemed to displease him and, watching me out of the corner of his eye, he returned once again to the strange occurrences that were worrying Dona Ana. Now, everyone in our quiet little town knew very well that anything to do with the Chácara was of almost no interest to Dona Ana and that her days were filled with weeping and bemoaning the misfortunes of her life. So it was inconceivable that she should interest herself in any “strange occurrence” that might have occurred in the Meneses household. I remained silent, however, and he would have been far better off contenting himself with that silence. My head bent low, leafing randomly through the yellowing pages of my dictionary, I heard him give me the curious information that a strange animal was prowling around, causing concern to the inhabitants of the Chácara. There was nothing apparently outlandish about such a piece of news, but his emphasis on the word “strange” and the particular manner in which he described the noises made by the creature and the footprints it left behind brought an unwitting smile to my lips. He noticed the smile and repeated the phrase with a certain vehemence.

“A strange animal?” I asked, trying to catch his eye.

“Yes, a wild dog or a wolf.”

Once again there was a short silence. I shut the book firmly and enquired:

“In that case, how can I be of assistance?”

He reached out and placed his hand on my arm, and by the way that hand trembled I understood that we had reached the crux of the matter.

“What do you advise?” he asked. “It is for this, and only this, that I have come.”

It must of course be true, for nothing would induce me to suspect a lie lurking behind such a bold affirmation, but even so I could not help but laugh:

“But, Senhor Demétrio, I know nothing about hunting! You would perhaps be better off asking . . .”

He shook his head violently:

“No! No! There are reasons why I have come to you. You could, for example, suggest to me a poison, or some deadly substance that could be placed in a trap.”

“One does not kill wolves with poison,” I said, and ostentatiously put the dictionary back in its usual place on top of the cash register. The precise meaning of my gesture, its willful indifference, was not lost on him. He stared at me, and with such hard eyes, filled with such sudden, aggressive resentment, that I felt a shudder run through me. There was no doubt he had come here for some other reason, of that I was certain, and, since he feared broaching the subject directly, he was equivocating, circling around the problem, waiting for me to come to his rescue. He could see that I had not the slightest intention of helping him out (why should I? For a very long time, indeed since time immemorial, there had never been the slightest hint of affection between the Meneses family and me), and it was this that had drawn from him such a piercing look of rage. Instead of encouraging him in his confession (or whatever it might be), I changed the subject completely, as if that story about a wolf had never been mentioned. As it happened, one wall of the pharmacy was in a very bad state due to a small explosion caused by an inexperienced assistant. I pointed to the exposed bricks and ruined plasterwork, adding with a smile:

“These are hard times we live in, Senhor Demétrio! Just look at that wall in dire need of repair. For two months now I’ve been trying to raise the necessary funds, but I still haven’t enough to purchase even one brick!”

Standing before me, motionless, he followed this apparent digression with the utmost attention. He was probably trying to find in my words a hidden meaning, an insinuation of some sort. All I meant was that the wall needed repairing and I did not have the necessary funds. Nevertheless, he had a sudden flash of inspiration, and his eyes lit up as he once again reached out his hand and touched my arm:

“Perhaps I can help you. Who knows? A brick or two here or there; we’re always glad to help our friends.”

I was standing with my back to him as he said these words. I turned around slowly and looked deep into his eyes. I thought I could see stirring in those depths a glimmer of something like hope—what kind of hope I could not possibly say, so shrouded and secretly did it flicker before me, so seared into the sad depths of that soul. He did not look away; on the contrary, he offered himself to me like an open book, and we stood for several seconds as there passed between us, rapidly and invisibly from one to the other, incoherent thoughts, fragments of ideas and feelings, things that the subconscious barely brought to the surface, but through which we were able to reach an important level of mutual understanding.

“A few bricks . . .” I murmured, “are exactly what I need.”

“Shall we say . . . a cartload?” he suggested, leaning familiarly over the counter.

He was certainly breathing faster, and his now bright eyes avidly scanned my face, searching for a word of ready acquiescence with an almost shocking degree of haste and lack of decorum. Even so, I shook my head sadly:

“A cartload? Let’s say three, Senhor Demétrio. I could scarcely fill that gaping hole with fewer than three cartloads of bricks!”

Something akin to a smile—a minuscule, meager smile of victory—appeared on his pallid face. As I was expecting, he nodded his agreement. We had reached a place from which it would be impossible for me to retreat, and so it was in the serenest of voices that I returned to the initial subject:

“A wolf on a country estate is always a dangerous thing. Nevertheless . . .”

He repeated that word back to me, as if pronouncing it took enormous effort.

“Nevertheless . . .”

I took a few paces around the shop, trying to behave as naturally as possible.

“Nevertheless, there do exist practical means of eliminating them, without having to resort to poison.”

“Such as . . . ?” he prompted.

I left him without an answer for a moment and stepped through into the rear of the house. I should explain that my private quarters consisted of a small, dimly-lit backroom with treacherous floorboards, whose only advantage was that it offered me a place to lay my head at night right next to the shop, and thus enabled me to attend to any customer who might appear at a late hour. However, news had spread that some thieves were operating in the town and this was probably why I had taken to keeping a small revolver among the linen in the top of the chest of drawers. “They won’t catch me unawares,” I said to myself. So I opened the drawer, rummaged through the sheets, and soon found what I was looking for. I returned to the pharmacy as silently as I had left, and placed the gun on the shop counter.

“What’s this?” asked Senhor Demétrio, not daring to touch the object.

“Oh,” I exclaimed, “just a little plaything. It’s very easy to handle, but will put paid to any wolf.”

He seemed to hesitate, staring all the while at the gun, still not touching it. I don’t know what conflicting thoughts were doing battle deep within him, only that in due course he slowly reached out his hand, took the revolver, and, raising it almost to eye level, examined it closely.

“It’s a woman’s gun,” he said, polishing the mother-of-pearl inlay on its grip.

“It belonged to my mother,” I explained.

He turned the revolver this way and that, and I could clearly see the satisfaction in his eyes.

“Does it work all right?” he asked, pointing the barrel toward the back of the shop.

“Perfectly.”

And, trying to dispel his last remaining scruples, I added:

“They don’t make guns like that anymore.”

From that moment on, he was, you might say, fully convinced. Watching him, I wondered whether he had come to my house specifically to obtain the gun. Would the Meneses, so richly endowed in resources and stratagems, really not already have such a weapon? In what circumstances would they use it? What reason would they have to compromise some other person by a course of action that they were, in all likelihood, about to embark upon? And if the matter did indeed concern a wolf—the idea seemed almost ridiculously naïve—then why did they not find a simpler way to kill it, with a trap, for example? I shrugged my shoulders: it was a transaction that suited me well.

Senhor Demétrio squeezed the trigger, swung out the cylinder, even rubbed the barrel on the sleeve of his jacket. It was evident that all this filled him with an intense, secret pleasure, as if, in the dim light of the pharmacy, he could already sense his enemies being felled. He eventually finished his examination and stared at me, and I swear that behind the smile that spread across his face lay a very deep, possibly ancient sentiment, shamefully immoral and cruel—ah, yes, the shrewd smile of someone who feels perfectly confident in the value of the transaction he has just entered into. At the same time he placed his hand on my arm:

“Thank you, my friend. I do believe there could be no better method for killing wolves.”

I returned his smile and we bade each other goodnight. Senhor Demétrio made his way out into the street, clutching the revolver in his pocket, while I, shaking my head over the mysteries of human nature, returned to my dictionary.

From Chronicle of the Murdered House. © 1959 by Lúcio Cardoso. Translation © 2016 by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson via arrangement with Open Letter Books.

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