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from the November 2018 issue

You Died on Me

The author remembers how his father asked for American cookies from the hospital bed, and how, after a tumor claimed his life, no one ate the oranges in the garden.  

In memory of José João Serrano Peixoto

The day begins to stir and things around me begin to stir a little also. I open the shutters. The flowers in the vases lift themselves toward the slender light that bathes them. The light skims low over the earth, like a plague stretching out and galloping, advancing like a wave that never retreats. Little by little, tiny movements begin to stir in the hanging branches of the trees. Behind the whitewashed wall of our back yard, the olive trees stretch into the distance. The sparrows in the sky begin to waken. Time is light, Dad. And you come with the sun, banishing night, bringing with you the morning, like when it was Saturday and you would come and get me out of bed and, on our way to the vegetable patch, I would gradually wake up. And we would pick and eat some oranges or peaches, depending on the season. If it was raining, we would pull on rubber boots and I would follow you along the muddy paths between the plants dripping with rain. If the sun was in the sky, I would follow you to the top of the vegetable patch and, from the tank, we would make the water run down between the rows, fresh, clear water running over earth, and on its descent we would divert it into every thirsty square you had planted. And it would seep slowly into the pores of the earth, slaking the fire that consumed it within. We could feel the burning earth beneath our feet. Clumps of earth: cinders. Water running down between the rows, like the purest blood. And we would unroll yards and yards of hose until it reached the trees you had planted; serenely, a little round lake would form at the foot of each trunk. That winter when you were still here, Dad, no one ate the oranges in our garden. The boots stayed where we left them, between hoes and seeds, as if at any moment you might open the door and pull them on once again. I know you can’t. I feel as if I am the only one who knows, but cannot tell this terrible secret. I feel stranded in my pain when the morning sweeps across the sky, across the whole world. The morning you longed for and which came without you. The morning we went to fetch you from the hospital, so that at last you could leave it, as you had longed for so many times. Dad, I see the nomadic singing of the sparrows and I know; I see the newborn day and I know; I see the pureness of the dew on the green earth and I know. I know and still I wait.

Morning came and I left our house. I closed the doors and shutters; darkness. I locked in the shadows. I rummaged in my pocket, deep like yours, and with the keys that were yours and are still yours and that you left us, I double-locked the door of the back yard. I locked in the ground covered with leaves that fell for you; the peach trees, grateful for spring, also covered with leaves; I locked in the armlike branches of the plants, clinging silently to the walls; the henhouse, the rabbit hutches, the dovecote, already lifeless, already emptied; I locked in the washtub and the olive grove and the lemon tree which no longer provides lemonade for afternoon refreshments. I locked the yard door and, in the van, I left. Nobody ventured into the streets I passed through, only the whitewash and the sun and the houses remained in the place where we had known them for so long. I drove fast, fleeing the streets and the houses; fast, unlike that other sleepless morning when they made us drive slowly, you with us for the last time, slowly suffering the plodding journey and people people people behind us.

Dad, the streets I used to take to go to school, my schoolbag on my back, the yellow schoolbag you gave me. The streets I raced around on my bike, and someone would tell you that I was going too fast, the blue bike you brought home one day, on my birthday, in the van. The bicycle and a football. I haven’t forgotten, Dad. I drove quickly through the streets I know and will always know by heart. Engraved on my memory. And I went past the school, and at the entrance to, the exit from our own piece of earth, I stopped. In front of those iron gates that close every day to separate us from each other, in front of the tall, thick whitewashed walls, I heard the bells chiming softly in the breeze, in the silence. The white cemetery, only white, its outlines only black. I held the gate, cold like all things that exist and separate us, made of iron much stronger than our failing flesh, our flesh too weak to conquer and yet always struggling on. I went in.

I went in and, far from the morning, the sun bathed itself in cool obscured light, like sunset. And I passed down the line of tombstones, moss clinging to their marble. Inside me, you know, the constant pain the constant pain. You know. The chapel ahead of me drew closer in the slow monotony of my processional footsteps. The cypresses whispered their accumulated laments. And I walked as if my body was no longer with me. Bodiless. Immaterial and yet with my own inconvenient weight, above ground. I reached the chapel and went around it and there I caught a glimpse of you, Dad. In the distance, the shape of your stone bed, your last one, your simple altar. I followed a path between the graves, always looking at you. Walking without looking, following a line, looking at you, shining between the sleeping. Dad. Closer to you with every blackbird that glides above us; closer to you with every cloud that meets the weary sky. With every silence in the wind. I came to where I know you are, to where you lie, or where you lay; to where you are, under a glass bell-dome of crystallized time, of time that doesn’t pass, of marble. It has your name on it, Dad. Your momentous name, Dad. Written forever, like the clouds, like the things that don’t die. And your enameled face stared up at me from the photo on your gravestone. You haven’t seen me for a long time. We stared at each other and I know you wanted to speak to me, to ask me. I told you the news of my sister’s little girl who still asks for you, who can already say grandpa. And I saw a smile in the parenthesis of your gaze. Beneath your name the day you were born and the day you died. Do you remember when I brought you here? The silence, the mourning, and I wanted to carry you. The hearse stopped. The rain stopped. And I wanted to carry you. All the things you did for me; you made me, and I could only carry you. I took one of the handles, and your weight told me father things, and I crossed a wide expanse of time, and I left you on two planks over the grave, for you to be lowered down with ropes. And the earth on top of you, the earth falling on top of you, the earth. On top of you, the weight of your gravestone, no cross, the weight of the earth, of all the mornings. Wisps of grass grow around you, Dad. From you the cypresses reach blackly upward. Before leaving, because you know very well the visiting times, Dad, you know very well that if I stay longer the nurse will come and send me away and scold us both; before leaving, I said I can do it, Dad, I will build as you built; these arms are your arms, these arms are your arms, Dad. We looked at each other again. Yes, I’ll be back, Dad, I’ll be back. And you watched me walk away. And the constant pain, the constant pain. Together we wept. You know we did.

The van goes with me. It is carrying me now. Spring is here, Dad. Through the whole morning that still exists, like a gaze that you still hold, as long as the space between earth and sky, fresh and luminous as ever, smoothly luminous just as this spring is soft and the whole morning through. If only I could fall down and rest for as long a time as you, Dad.

Blind, in the earth, chest damp with sleep, in the night. So many decades and centuries, serene statue submersed in a clean fountain of drinking water. Angel impervious to fatigue, between flowers, between flowers, between fields and plains. Oh, Dad, if only I could fall down and be your enameled portrait, the reddened tones, the blood of your enameled portrait stuck to the marble. Dad. Here there is only sleepless time. And the light that now punishes the dry earth. And what passes blandly on for having passed so many times before. This road that goes with me, this road that carries me. This road that brought me here and now takes me away from you. This light that grabs hold of me with arms of light and won’t let me go and won’t let me go and compels me to follow. And I carry on, Dad. I carry on as if there was no will left inside me. But you know that there is. I inherited my willpower from you. And from here, from the indifference of it all, I remember our locked-up house. Yes, I’ll be back, Dad. I’ll be back to clean out the yard and tidy up the vegetable patch. From here, I remember your face in the country where you dwell, that immense white-black country, your face following me, lost, lost, needing me, lost in an archipelago of graves and grief and morning still. Dad. Your voice goes with me within me. I’m listening, Dad. Like when you’d call me over, when you’d take my hand and place it on your tumor-ridden belly. Blotches. Your deformed belly. Lumps. And in your innocent words, blotches and lumps, you were telling me that you were getting worse, that you wouldn’t get better. And I always lied to you, I always lied to you. Our sad, sad gazes. Dad. Like in the hospital, you asking us for American cookies. Maybe I’ll be able to chew them, because the food here just rolls around my mouth and does me no good at all. And us looking for them everywhere and people laughing, Dad. American cookies like the ones you used to eat at the fair in Estremoz, when you would go there with your mother and brothers and sisters. Dad. Your voice, the faint tremor in your breathing, my mother and I watching you, we who knew you, going to fetch you from your room, we who knew you, helping you to the bathroom. Dad, even this you couldn’t manage, and we who knew you, we held you by your arms, we carried you. The faint tremor in your voice, the failing strength in your legs. Your voice, Dad, which is my voice, reminds me of all this. All of it is fixed in the perpetual funereal morning that holds me tight and stops me from ever forgetting.

And I neither want nor can forget what I once felt from your gaze. I stayed in the silence of the winter you embraced. There is no spring without imagining new grass from the words new grass spoken by you; there will be no summer without imagining the sun from the word sun spoken by you; there will be no autumn without imagining the deep oblivion of the word death spoken from your lips. This is why, Dad, hanging in the air, the silence from you is to suffer, in the time that goes by, in the air, in the time that no longer goes by. Time does not pass, sustained by the lie of little falsehoods that merely change places, that merely follow one after another, lying but leaving their trace, rustling their way on little rat’s feet between the shriveled dead bushes and lush green ones. Then the sun rises from the last dusk that died with you, and the breezes mimic the true breezes that once touched your face; even the clouds and the stars are not the same: they are nothing but lies replacing lies at every moment in time that does not go by. We need you to make time go forward. We need your gaze to guide us if the rain pulls us back. Dad, having your memory within mine is like carrying a grudge, it’s like carrying a sack on my back with a grudge against this world that cruelly punishes us, this world that tramples on the other world where we could have lived together, the world we will always be proud of and which we loved and will never forget.

© José Luís Peixoto. By arrangement with the author. English translation © 2018 by Robin Patterson. All rights reserved.

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