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Words Without Borders “stands as a monument to international collaboration and a shared belief in artistic possibility.”
— 2018 Whiting Literary Magazine Prize Citation

An Elemental Man

By Lucílio Manjate
Translated By Eric M. B. Becker


The man stood for hours before the tiny stone, gazing at nothing, much less the aforementioned stone. Finally, his lips opened like a clam, and out came a baritone voice. Atop the rows of acácias, the bilobilanas ceased their singing, their wings fluttering on fear, and in the yards, guinea fowl pecked away beneath the shelter of centuries-old trees. At the gate of one abode—on the brink of collapse, like all old things—a cat, undone by the trembling earth, abandoned the trail of a mouse as intrepid as every imaginary mouse. An old woman who often passed by turned to stone, raising one hand to her heart and the other to her head in sudden, rapid orbit; in the act, a basket filled with a jar of fresh milk, a bunch of lettuce, two heads of cauliflower, bananas, and oranges spilled onto the sidewalk. Before dying of cardiac shock, the woman sat down, looked to the stone and then to the man. She smiled at them and asked the man who was bringing about her death to call her granddaughter so she could pick up the produce, Or else, bury me right here, in this milk, she said, and smiled one last time, picturing herself milking a cow—at her age! Then she leaned up against the tiny wall lining the yard in front of the crumbling house. There, she died.

The stone was nothing special, nothing special at all, one of those often referred to as a pebble, as a Mozambican poet filled with love for stones once had. This is the best we can describe it. The stone didn’t moveand I’m not casting aspersions—because the stone didn’t move, nestled up against the based of the sidewalk. And that was where the man came to a halt and began to speak in his baritone voice that brought on the death of the old woman’s world. The woman became petrified once and for all when she recognized, in his voice, her son who had disappeared more than fifty years earlier. When he departed, he must have been nineteen, the neighborhood assured her the war was to blame, as the draft had just come to an end and the puppeteers demanded more flesh for their bullets. After all this time, enough for a man to grow old and die, her son retained his youth, still twenty-five. (If earlier it had been nineteen, this is owing to a miscalculation by the narrator, it was and is twenty-five, for that was the age at which the man died. A miscalculation, or even simple ignorance, on the part of the narrator who gives him life.) The fact is that they saw each other daily, as was the case between the man and the rest of the neighborhood, too, but the old woman—after these fifty years, enough for a man to grow old and die, in the bush, snatched up as he crossed the river by enemies transformed into crocodiles—only then did she recognize him. The things that happen to those about to die. The world is rather simple when we begin our return to unconditional matter. But there are also those who say the woman had gone mad. Perhaps those who’ve gone mad can see ghosts. Could her son have inherited this blessing after her death? Those who saw him at the door to the church already knew that at some point the man would stop and begin to speak. There were those who enjoyed seeing him like this, babbling as he did now, before the stone, unconcerned about his forgotten mother, delivered to the tranquil waters of a river of which we’ll say more in just a bit. I can tell you now that she found herself upon the wings of a flamingo, mounted like a witch in the night. The bird suspended its flight atop the rushing river, which also suspended its flow, suddenly, in the presence of the ghost. An old ladder from one of the missions rose from the water, until six of its rungs could be seen atop the waterline. The old woman stepped and climbed down until she was immersed in the river, and then the march of the ghosts resumed.

There were those who liked to watch him babble, as he did now, before the stone. Others ignored him, the way they ignored anyone who talks to himself, or people in tatters, people who on Fridays, at the door of the mosque, beg their way to scraps of bread to scrape away their hunger. The same way, in the end, they ignore someone who has in fact died. There was good reason for all this ignorance, after all the man always returned to sleep at the door of the bread mosque. The next day, other than Sundays, he would wander the city, saying things that no one could stand to hear, no one can stand what they don’t comprehend, that’s why they turned their backs to him, hurled insults at him, or tossed him coins he would have to chase, until they could be sure he was far away, as far away as the monks, and as he was now, motionless, standing before the stone, like one difficult dead man.

His name is Sunday Does Him Good. You’ll pardon me for saying so, but this is hardly true, even if he doesn’t know that with any certainty. It could not possibly be the true name for the man in question—but it no doubt is for those who are a far cry from Sunday, because such people exist, and naturally—for no other reason than the paltry imagination of his progenitors who had the disastrous idea of giving him such a name so lame. Here the man is thought to be mad, because he claims he’s dead, standing still, as he was right then, at the edge of the sidewalk, assailing the blessed stone:

“Open up, I want to come in! . . .”

I always knew about his excesses, his thundering voice, aggressive and convincing words—I’ve lost count of all the people who, hypnotized by his mutterings, drew close to the man and, carelessly, subjected themselves to blow after blow until they lost consciousness. So common was it that it was decreed that Sundays Do Him Good was mad, and thenceforth they prohibited him from entering the church on Sundays. They allowed the man to watch Mass from the door of the holy abode, but as soon as the priest gave his final blessing, security guards closed in with their billy clubs and everyone, including the dead in the nearby cemetery, could hear his laughter tinged with Jesuit irony:

“You’ve come armed with sticks and swords to expel me as though I were a thief,” he cried, and they looked on as, unimpeded, he entered the crypts, leaping like a child playing hopscotch between the tombs of unloved ones, If it weren’t so, they’d still be alive, he bellowed from inside to passersby bemoaning the madman’s existence.

But these events took place on days of great revelations, as now before the stone. He took a knee, grabbed the stone, and began to passionately kiss it. He ground his teeth against the pebble until he dislodged a front incisor. Well, looking at it another way, it was the stone that delivered the man a blow—after all, it had no desire to be bothered, much less to listen to the prattle of that tiresome Sunday character. That should wipe that sarcastic smile off his face, the stone thought, Sunday may go on smiling, but in return the world will only mock him for his diminished state.

“If you don’t open up, you’re coming with me.”

The madman stood up. He placed the stone in an old straw bag rescued from one of the neighborhood trash cans he visited religiously. Now the reader understands why the stone didn’t go anywhere. The man set off at a pace that was serious, determined, measured, sure of itself, as though some magnetic force were impelling him toward an inescapable destiny. He passed from street to street, then wended around the neighborhood market, indifferent to the cries of traders from Nigeria, Mozambique, and China, advertising their prices before their products, many of which were past the expiration date, as you might expect in these times of economic crisis. He even heard the neighborhood barber, Uncle Chizora, calling from a ways off, “Sunday, let me cut that Samson-like hair of yours, my Delilah awaits, she’ll fix you up nice,” before flashing an enormous pair of scissors. But Sunday ignored him and kept walking, his eyes closed, like someone entering a dark world. The man put so much distance between him and the neighborhood that before long night fell. But he continued on for many dimly lit kilometers. The beaten-earth lots, the site of houses of wood and sheet metal, gave way to a liquid, crystalline surface. It was then that he saw two golden alligators with flamingo wings headed in his direction. He flailed left and right as he tried to escape the river, but the harder he fought, the more he felt himself sink. When he dove beneath the surface, he discovered he was an amphibian and was pleased. He smiled like a child when he saw his mother swimming toward him with slow armstrokes:

“Did you really need fifty years, Sunday? Fifty years!? For a dead man, you sure do make matters difficult, son.” 

 

“An Elemental Man” originally appeared in the Brazilian journal Revista Pessoa. It appears here as part of WWB’s ongoing partnership with Revista Pessoa. Several times a year, WWB will bring readers new work that originally appeared in Pessoa here in English translation, and Pessoa will publish work from WWB’s pages in translation into Brazilian Portuguese.


Published Feb 28, 2019   Copyright 2019 Lucílio Manjate

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