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from the March 2013 issue

The Devil Lives in Lisbon

On Mondays Mother always got up at five o’clock. She would leave half an hour after getting out of bed, once she had gathered up all the breakfast crockery, and then, looking at us again with a smile, she would not be back home till Saturday. When she’d come back down the same path that she had gone up on Monday. Nieves was seven at the time. I was six. Elisa, just three.

Mother worked as a schoolteacher. In La Comba, a small village in the mountains. The little bus would come to fetch her every Monday at the end of the path, the one with the chestnut trees, by the beech forest. There, in La Comba, she had a room that she rented for the whole week. And they gave her lunch and dinner right there. Breakfast, too. The owner of the house and his oldest son worked in the mine. His wife looked after the little ones, the cows, the pastures and the vegetable garden, as well as feeding the family and the schoolteacher who would arrive each Monday from Pola de Siero. And during that time the three of us would be left in the care of our aunt. We saw even less of our father then.

There were some weeks when Mother would take us with her. Just one of the three of us. But that was right near the beginning, when we weren’t yet in school, though sometimes, after we’d started at nursery, on turning four, Mother would make an exception and let us go with her, allowing us to miss class. Those weeks were like a great party for us. A party that we shared only with our mother, while all the others were left behind, down below in the town.

And so Elisa seemed to us to be the favorite, but it was really because in those days when we had to go to school, she was still very little and hadn’t even started nursery. When she spent the week with Mother she would run around in the fields, milk the cows, bathe in the stream, and eat all the fruit she wanted. Sour cherries. Apples. Pears. Even figs. And it was not that we didn’t have them here in town, it was that things tasted different there.

But there were some Saturdays when Mother did not return. It tended to coincide with the first Saturday of the month. Though not of every month. And right from the Monday, we—Nieves and I, perhaps even Elisa—knew it, because on those mornings she would be carrying a travel bag hanging over her shoulder and wearing a smile that was wider than usual, so wide that it made her look like a foreigner, a confident tourist, game for anything, arriving at a place she had dreamed of her whole life. The place many of us never reach.

And so Mother would walk away. The shadows from the chestnut trees playing on her shoulders. She would smile as she walked. In the rain. Or the sun. It was all the same. She walked like in the poem. Serene. Rapt. Glowing. Was it Prévert? Or Aragon? Perhaps Nieves would know. Or Mother, yes. Mother would definitely remember.

We also knew because on those weeks, when she disappeared, the hand-mirror disappeared, too, the one she always kept on top of the chest of drawers. In her bedroom. The only slightly showy object in the whole house. A house of whitewashed walls. Of large, old, simple pieces of furniture, worn with use and the passing of time.

The smile on those Mondays, Mother’s smile as she disappeared amid the chestnut trees, was the smile of someone who has received instructions for a mission, of someone who feels protected, transported by a single word. Father, however, noticed nothing at all. Or at least, he seemed not to notice. Or acted as though he didn’t see. As though he didn’t care. All he needed were his endless card games, the binges he’d go on with his buddies. And when Mother left with that bag and that smile, we would stay nearly an extra forty-eight hours with our aunt, linking one week to the next, barely seeing her, just for a moment, in the kitchen, when in the early hours of Monday morning she set about her climb back up to La Comba.

Where was it that she went on those two days that seemed so endless to me? For those hours we all felt as eternal? Perhaps even Father, too. For those days when I would always run, as perhaps my sisters Nieves and Elisa did, too, over to her bedroom, to consider the empty space left by the mirror. That mirror framed in complicated gold filigree, with a long, narrow handle, that Mother had inherited from old Aunt Freditas. Fredesvinda, her name was.

Where was it that she went? I don’t know. I don’t know where Mother would go off to. I’m not sure. All I know is that each time she came back, she told us she’d been somewhere different, some place new, in a different city, not too far away but exotic to our ears that were used only to the sparse sounds of the town. Whereas now, so long afterward, I think it was always the same place, one city, although I’m also not altogether sure which one. It’s just a hunch.

One fine day, much later, Mother started to miss those appointments. Or were they merely trips, and, therefore, nothing like the rituals with which I imagined she distanced herself from the tedious, gray life she lived in the town, with Father? Today, a bit more than twelve years on, having seen that smile of hers from those days again, I think I have been able to establish where it was she went.

Mother, do you believe in God? Elisa asked her this afternoon. Mother smiled and answered her, as usual, with another question. And what about the devil? Do you believe in the devil? My sister looked at her, puzzled. Perhaps she had got goosebumps, like me. Perhaps her hair was standing on end, like mine. Perhaps even Nieves was feeling the same. Could it be that we still believed in the existence of The Evil One? Or was it because of the expression we recognized in our mother’s face?

And Mother explained. José María used to say—do you remember him, one of my students from up there, in the mining village?—he used to say that the devil must be living in Lisbon. That's what he said in a fine essay that he wrote for me. Naturally he got a high mark that time, too. He was my favorite, after all. And the time I asked them to write down the name of one of the apostles, can you guess whose name José María wrote? Father Pío!

The three of us laughed. Nieves, who has already turned nineteen. Me, about to turn eighteen. And Elisa, who’s only fifteen. Father Pío was the parish priest of La Comba. A good man, but with a temper on him like a thousand demons. Just think! And the thing with the autos sacramentales! Do you remember? He thought they were the cars used by Popes, bishops, and senior priests.

José María must have imagined Lisbon as a magnificent place to live. That is probably why he thought of posting the devil there. Though he may have had a mistaken idea of what the city was like. And that’s what I think, speaking as someone who also believes it must be the best place to live. What’s certain is that the poor boy has never been there himself. Nor have I ever been in Lisbon, either. He at most would have come down here occasionally. To La Pola. And what of the devil? Could he know what or who the devil is?

And what became of little José María?, Nieves asked then. With an imagination like that, he should have become a writer. The poet of La Comba. He ended up at the mine, like everyone else, said Mother with a look of uneasy resignation.

Just imagine, Juan, in Lisbon, she said not long after that, turning toward me and tickling the back of my neck. Just like then, I now recall. On those Mondays when Mother had decided to leave on one of her trips, while we had our breakfast milk and bread, she would play with our hair, putting her fingers on the back of our neck and running them up to the crown of the head and ruffling our hair. We particularly liked that affectionate gesture, but soon understood that it was the prelude to her going away and received it with a bitter gladness.

Smiling, Mother suddenly exclaimed: Satan living in Lisbon. With that smile of twelve years earlier. The one from those Mondays when she’d walk away with her bag hanging over her shoulder. Glowing. Rapt. Serene. And I thought I saw in her eyes the fleeting passing of flowers, the reflection of bottles of wine. “Green wine,” like they call it in Portugal, Mother? Yes, like your eyes. A transparent green. Like the glass of one of those bottles.

It almost felt as though I could feel her heart beating. Racing slightly. Then nostalgia clouded over them, her eyes. Like the mist of the sea when it wraps itself around cities, those cities you always feel far away from, even when you arrive there. The light of sadness was illuminating her face. And Mother shivered, as if she were feeling cold, sitting beside me on the bench, her tired old back leaning up against the wall of the house, against the stones that at this time in the evening were giving off the heat of the sun that they’d been storing up all day long. Mother shivered from head to toe, perhaps because she knew those secret days would never be returning.

Would she go to Lisbon? And would Madame see the devil there? I pictured a hotel room. Always the same one. And a table at a café. Perhaps that, too, was always the same. Walks among strangers along steeply sloping alleyways. Races to the platform on a station with tile-covered walls. And siestas on a beach. Fire and water at your feet, running over your body, your fresh skin covered in sand. Alone? With a girlfriend? Or with the diabo?

And I was jealous of him. Yes, jealous of the devil. And of her. Of my mother. And angry at Father. Always hunched over a wooden table, the wood covered in cuts. The cuts that he used to make with his penknife. With a concentration of absolute rage. And stained. Stained by grease and fire, from the hot base of the saucepans, stains which were impossible to get rid of. And Father with the deck of cards constantly in his hands. Bright and dirty, the corners worn.

You were, and still are, an intelligent, determined woman. Hardworking. Tireless. And at the same time, you seemed to be filled with knots, as though you were always at a crossroads, about to enter the sanctuary of your dreams. To leave forever. Sweet and accessible at the same time. Why didn’t you leave him, Mother? Why have you remained tied to this destiny, to a man you certainly no longer loved, and who probably didn’t love you either? Who had never loved you as you deserved. Eternal love only lasts four months, that’s what he used to say. Our father. And the other kind, two years, he would pronounce immediately afterward. Always so destructive, that sense of humor he had.

Was it because of us, Mother? Losing you would have been hard, but I would have liked to remember you always with that smile. Not to have you stroking our necks except in our dreams. There was this suicidal wish I had in which I imagined losing you, I’ve had it ever since I was a boy. Your being lost in another land. In other arms. With your smile. A smile to drive a man crazy. To drive men crazy. All of them.

Mother, did you drive men crazy? I’m sure you did, that you’d be able to do it still. Able to, without even putting your mind to it. Perhaps even driving yourself crazy, too. So did you drive men crazy? Or did you find yourself a man who was mad for love, whom you were too afraid to follow? And what if it was all just my imagining? And in reality you never were in Lisbon? Nor ever in the arms of the devil? And what if, after all, the devil never existed?

No. You’ve seen him, face to face. I know it. And that is why the mirror is broken now. In there, on top of the chest of drawers, in your bedroom. It’s been there for years. Never moving. You probably never even look into it any more. Perhaps for fear of capturing an image that was lost in some corner of the past. The devil’s reflection, suspended there in the void. Would it be there? In the mirror? And as for me, when I see that split in the glass, from one side to the other, my soul aches. This soul that I would have been ready to sell if it meant you would be able to leave here for ever.

Now, when winter returns and the chestnut trees lose their leaves, when the house falls silent and the windows are drenched with rain, we are the ones who will have to leave. And Elisa, as usual, the youngest, the one who looks most like you, will stay behind. Her green eyes, frank and alert, will stay with you for longer. Though you never know. Perhaps she will be the first to run into the devil. A proper, honest-to-God devil. And then she will walk away. Like you, smiling. Serene, rapt, glowing. Remember that, Mother.

“El demonio vive en Lisboa” © Berta Vias Mahou. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2013 by Daniel Hahn. All rights reserved.

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