A nameless town grows into a mythic city in this excerpt from Dina Salústio's novel Veromar.
The residents of See-the-Sea, most of whom hailed from distant places, made friends easily and had no qualms about baring their lives to anyone who passed by. They particularly liked telling stories about the place, as though sharing its secrets imbued their words with new meaning, bridged distances, and, most importantly, cast tired objects and situations in a fantastical new light.
Their favorite story went like this: one day, in an unspecified year, all the newspapers and radio announcers started talking about beautiful See-the-Sea, which, though not yet a household name or a sleepless city, had by this time become known as a wealthy inland capital, a city of gold, a city of dreams. And it was the latter characterization that many people started to wonder about.
What exactly is a city of dreams? What joys does it conceal? How many nightmares lurk just behind its various faces? How many crimes, tragedies, poems does it harbor? How to measure its portents and its passions? How great are the secrets that it keeps? Do dreams mean the same thing to everyone, or are they so nuanced that the opposite is true?
There’s some truth to the story they told. Their inland city is in fact named See-the-Sea. It has no ocean or seagulls. There are no boats to be seen there, no talk of sailors courting young girls; no one tells tales of men yearning for mermaids, fishermen boasting of their catches, crews lost to shipwreck, or believers saved by miracles; no special preparations are made for weddings on the feast of Our Lady of the Sea, and no one speaks of ships decorated on feast days, of women’s gazes shifting from beach to waves in search of men who have disappeared; you won’t find any young girls planning, in a great show of independence, to take up the sailor’s life. There is no place in the city where you might shield your eyes with your hands, searching the distant horizon for sails; you won’t hear the salty tidal winds blow nor see signs of whales passing by. See-the-Sea is another story, and there are so many versions of it told in so many ways that you could construct an entirely different one if you wished. For now, though, the most common variant will do.
One Sunday afternoon, when a few men erecting what would become their city tired of playing cards, they started talking, without even realizing it, about the places they were born. They remembered the families they had left behind and, with sudden emotion, let it be understood that they had no plans to return. The letters they sent home barely mentioned prosperity, but spoke rather of longing and the desire to embrace each other again in the new region.
To help pass the time, one of them challenged each of the others to reveal his innermost desire. They viewed it not as a challenge, but as an innocent game.
“No, it’s better we don’t say it out loud. Let’s write it down. That way, it’s like an oath,” another chimed in, clinging to each word as if afraid it might escape or wander off.
They all knew the written word carried more weight than spoken language, because blank paper, as soon as it’s written on, signed, and read, ceases to be an open page to which ideas, words, or commas can be added; it becomes a definitive record with a life of its own, respected and revered—in other words, an authority that speaks, listens, condemns, and absolves. That’s how it was in all the places they and everyone they knew had ever set foot. There was no reason for it to be any different in mining country.
They resolved that each of them would commit his greatest wish to paper. Thus the record of a simple desire would become a covenant that they would live to fulfill.
Cheerfully—it seemed the game had given them access to a new side of themselves—the men sought out the means for their task. They divided the only two pencils they could find into thirds. The pencils were even smaller after they finished sharpening them with a penknife, but it didn’t matter; they had very little to write. Only the essential.
One of them suggested that they take the opportunity to pick a name for the region where they lived. “Since we’re all writers now, let’s give this place a name,” he said, showing just how easily they were adjusting to their new roles on this slow-moving afternoon. It would be the second point they were to commit to the record.
They heard the word “record” for the third time and, cognizant of its solemn weight, wrapped up the playing cards in a colorless cloth so marred by stains that—as often happens with people—it seemed not to have any spots, scars, or memories at all. It took them longer than usual to fold it up.
The proposal, or maybe something larger than that, a tremendous desire for belonging, stirred the workers, who would normally be enjoying their Sunday rest before resuming the week’s never-ending tasks.
They were delighted by their colleague’s idea, and each of them almost swore—or rather, really did swear—that not a night went by when he didn’t think the place where they lived ought to have a proper name.
“A real name . . . a matter of honor . . . a right,” they said, finishing each other’s sentences.
“It’s not right that people think we live in the middle of nowhere, a few miles from point A or on the other side of point B.” The words sprang up of their own accord, independent of and certainly more resolute than the person saying them.
They discussed the matter for some time and finally discovered that every last one of them, every day, thought about how unfair it was that there was no record of the place they lived, no name they could mention in letters to their families or even keep in their heads and resort to in moments of need.
“And this place is so big it actually makes you angry to think it’s gone without a name for so long!” This was followed by a sort of applause.
The worker who seemed most inclined to steer the conversation toward other subjects echoed his colleague and added dreamily that the place where we live is like a friend or relative: when we fail to call it by its name or give it a nickname, no matter how simple, it’s as if we were treating it with enormous disregard.
“It’s as if we were wiping it from the face of the earth,” said a stonemason with a voice as hard as the boulders he cut.
The harsh afternoon weather had clearly made them sentimental, although that is, of course, just a conjecture, as they seldom offered any opportunity for the world to guess at their inner lives.
As time passed, the atmosphere grew so tense—so unsettling, even—that the men shrank before the pieces of paper that stared back at them, sarcastic, cruel, and seductive, as if offering themselves up and then refusing; as if simultaneously opening their arms and turning away; like someone who kisses and then forgets you; like, for that matter, all blank pages. The pencils, moistened by ardent tongues, shaped each letter. Some of the men pressed too hard and tore the paper, but then started writing again, more gently, in the unharmed spaces. Learning as they went.
"You who have no fear of a virgin page, no dread before a fountain pen, no horror of the written word, by all means, confess it now. These things attract us, they undeniably attract us, but they reduce us to an expression so simple as to crush us, to show us the meaning of uncertainty and fear. They defy, provoke, and lead us to death, and then we are reborn.” The voice of the madman from their natal village—a poet, you might say—spoke through the memory of one of the stonemasons, and they all understood the fundamental difficulty he described.
When one of the men read aloud what each of them had written, they could see that besides the same profession, the same employer, and the same fondness for gambling, they all shared the same yearning that now coalesced into a single desire: to see the sea before they died.
Caught in a flood of conflicting emotions, they had forgotten the second part of their challenge, and none of them had written a name for what was then a land of solitude, where they had begun the construction of a manufacturing city.
Worn out from writing, which had consumed quite a bit of energy, and eager to complete their task, the men agreed not to write another word—they already had enough material to choose a name.
“That’s life,” said one of the workers, tossing his pencil fragment into a box with the others without the slightest hint of frustration. To tell the truth, he liked to keep a couple of doubts and unanswered questions in his head. He couldn’t say why, but he made sure to abandon a line of thought before ever reaching the end, before arriving at an answer or clarification, maybe because it allowed him to return to the problem whenever he wanted, without the extra work of thinking up or searching for new questions. Circular questions that followed their defined paths and never strayed: this was the secret between him and the nights of stubborn insomnia and relentless doubts. Nights, in truth, that inspired a certain tenderness in him, and even the occasional shout of joy.
The worker who had been appointed secretary began to read the scraps of paper on which each of them had written “to see-the-sea before dying.” Written just like that, with hyphens. Maybe to fill the whole piece of paper, or because that was the shape they imagined for their longing, or because they didn’t know the words any other way.
“The name of the city can only be Dying. That’s the one word that stands out. Dying will be the name of our city,” he repeated, his strong voice marked by a note of displeasure that might have been defiance.
The word “dying” was written on every scrap of paper.
“No!” A shout rose up, brimming with the outrage the name had inspired.
“There are three nearby cities called Dying: Dying-up-above, Dying-down-below, and Dying. The last thing we want is to be accused of plagiarizing historical names.”
Admittedly, no one used the word “plagiarize,” but based on their spirited exchanges, it would have been the most fitting term for the situation.
“If we were the second or even the third city called Dying, it wouldn’t be so bad—the neighbors would probably understand. But to be the fourth community with that name would be humiliating, like we were admitting defeat.”
“What’s more, it might seem like we weren’t thinking for ourselves.”
“Dying-halfway wouldn’t be such a bad name, though.”
“I guess Dying-halfway might be all right.” No one sounded very confident.
They looked again at the scraps of paper, the only thing they still had in common, and in the interest of consensus—highly advisable in matters of names—they decided, after much contemplation, that the city would be called See-the-Sea. It was the second idea that tied them together. They never knew, of course, that their city was born of an accident (or many accidents), because without thinking twice, every single one of them had joined the verb, the article, and the noun with hyphens, apparently fulfilling some very strange psychological urge.
But an accident? Who’s in a position to say that a city’s name is derived from an accident? Does anyone have such power? Can we really know how many accidents we are made of? How many lies we are built on? An eclipse: is that an accident? A thunderstorm, a wave, a longing . . . are all of us accidents wandering through other people’s lives? Through other people’s accidents? Was the name they had chosen born of an accident? Maybe, but it was also born of a desire. Of the desire they all shared, and that was what mattered.
And so it became See-the-Sea.
Now with a name for their city, and certainly without realizing it, the workers began to speak and act differently. It was as if that immense piece of earth, newly christened, had transformed into a woman, a person; it filled them with warmth. They weren’t alone anymore.
And yet See-the-Sea evoked distant joys, called for whispered exchanges and renewed embraces. The men hurried to send for their families.
All who heard them were touched by their descriptions of what they felt upon breathing in the unmistakable scent of the land that was now theirs, upon seeing the sky, the clouds, and the soil of the mining country in colors that the best painters from the most vibrant continents hadn’t yet attempted. They talked at such length that most people, even today, take exceptional care in repeating what they said, so as not to cause any embarrassment for the descendants of the founding Seamen.
For centuries See-the-Sea was an isolated region, often loved, sometimes rejected, happy or sad depending on the year, the season, and the characters, just like any other place known to man. Not any place, but most places. Well, to be completely honest, not even most, but just a few defined places, whether beloved or unloved.
Whenever the region came up in conversation, its inhabitants were promptly described as extravagant, mistrustful, and a whole series of qualities that, it must be said, are hardly enough to merit a black mark against someone or set them apart from the rest. Yet those who passed through the area said the only assertion that could be even partially proven—and that was not in itself relevant or worthy of censure—was that the residents of See-the-Sea were very careful with their words and said only what was strictly necessary (and often not even that). “Tight-lipped even in death,” the gossips whispered.
For the many who treat speech as a cheap and meaningless activity, this particular personality trait would clearly fall outside the realm of normality.
But how do we define what’s worth putting into words and what isn’t? By what authority do we draw distinctions and render statutes, give voice and impose silence? The red pencil that strikes stupidity and lauds intelligence—where does it stop?
The women of See-the-Sea were more talkative than the men, and between one chore and the next they opened up to each other, though always partway, always wary, always in the hypothetical, whispering, “What’s wrong with our men? What are they hiding from us? What could be bothering them so?”
They didn’t know that the same silence that plagued their male counterparts plagued them too, despite their daily routines allowing for a few exchanges that might aptly be termed “subsistence dialogue,” but which inhabitants of the region would certainly consider excessive. The men found it very easy to accuse the women of foolishness, but the latter paid no attention and even provoked the men just to hear their voices and feel some sense of emotional life in that place.
The truth was that the men didn’t reveal their feelings to anyone, not even their own shadows, which at a certain time of day became so small as to vanish into their bodies, a phenomenon also experienced by the women and all the other creatures in the region, whether they had souls or not.
The people of See-the-Sea—at least the most radical among them—came to believe that at that time of day, the body and the mind actually devoured the shadow. They were so convinced of this strange dietary regimen that when they felt the moment approaching, they perched on strategically located rocks until their shadows reappeared. Visitors to the region reported that residents wished for the extinction of shadows everywhere so they would never again have to worry about that little fragment of time. Evidently, the people of See-the-Sea had a penchant for exaggeration, a compulsion that permeated their society. This is corroborated by historical accounts.
That special moment when bodies lost their shadows became known as the Waning Time, lord of all that transpired during that little slice of the day. It was said that no one with any sense dared defy it.
Certain prohibitions took effect during that part of the day. Set off on a journey in the Waning Time? Never. Harvest or sow during Waning Time? No. Give birth during Waning Time? Not on your life. Mix ingredients, be they for bread, cheese mass, pastries, or even concrete, during Waning Time? Absolutely forbidden. Pursue a romance during Waning Time? Romance was permitted, but only when it was murky, extraordinary, complicated, terrible, and, why not, reprehensible, of the kind that puts people between a dagger and a sword, both pointed at the soul, whether radiant or bathed in sadness. At times, an endless nightmare.
In spite of the silences, the extravagances, and the power attributed to the Waning Time, in spite of all that, which is already strange enough, what really frustrated the people of See-the-Sea and forced them to rigorously measure their every word was nothing more than their inability to guess what those around them, whether neighbor or relative, friend or enemy, platonic or intimate companion, was thinking. And they believed—just imagine it—that everyone else had that ability.
This drama—or perhaps tragedy?—strengthened the individuality and individualism of each citizen of See-the-Sea, and gave rise to such fervent personal conviction that outside observers ascribed it to the realm of faith.
As a result, everyone in See-the-Sea shielded themselves behind mistrust, trapped in the nonsensical belief that someone was listening in on their thoughts.
This was the basis underlying the decision—the radical decision—each took, and therefore all of them took, to put a definitive end to thinking at all and transform the place into a sphere of profound silence. Smug smiles, complicit glances, and any gestures that might be considered compromising were relegated to the darkness, and so the act of thinking in See-the-Sea became a strictly prohibited exercise that was at once highly seductive.
Who was responsible for this society that gave words so much power? Why did an entire population silence itself, forbidding both thought and speech? What do words have to do with happiness? How long could the silence sustain so much loneliness, so much neglect—so many lives?
Time, the best cure for all ills, completed hundreds of millions of revolutions, and one day, when the people woke up, they felt different—they forgot that everyone else could read their thoughts. Their conversations were normal, as were their demeanors. When the weekend arrived and it came time to play “the game of truth,” or their favorite, “guess what I’m thinking,” they felt calm and confident, like someone heading to church, at the appointed time, for an encounter with the divine.
© Dina Salústio. Translation © 2020 by Nina Perrotta. All rights reserved.