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The Unsettled Sound of the Landscape

By Itamar Vieira Junior
Translated By Tiffany M. Higgins


The wind was strong, and the clothes hanging all along the barbed wire fence began to fall. From the doorway, she saw the violent path of the leaves and the dirt swept along the ground. They ran, returned, wandered without a destination. Next it was the birds that moved about, agitated, shredding the sky with their disoriented forays and sheltering in the lower branches. The hens sought out their perches, as if they expected night to fall. Day had broken a few hours before, enough light for her to finish the chores of washing and hanging the garments, and give the animals water. That’s when it became dark all of a sudden, and the sun, which hadn’t gone very far on its way to the opposite side of the firmament, was extinguished. Night surged forth like a black veil covering a body’s shame. A long, sharp song, like a scream coming from the depths of the sea, crossed the island, splitting the atmosphere.

On her knees when she found herself surrounded by the unexpected night, she arose from the clay ground, steadying herself against the wall, and set off on the pathway. The wind had let up a bit but was still strong enough to lift the tips of the kerchief covering her head. As she walked, light began to peek between the clouds again to reach the almost-cold body on its way to meet the unknown.

Voices wandered through the path, along with the murmur of the ocean and the waves that were dissolving on the beach. On the horizon, birds crossed the sky: it was the day starting up again. With her feet on a spit rooted in the sand, she looked east. She caught sight of a large, dark rock encircled by fishermen. There were many of them, but they appeared small as she moved toward them. Ships were coming back to the shore, and they lined up along the strip of sand.

Step by step, leaving footprints in her wake, she drew nearer, breaking the wind’s resistance. She overtook the boats, got tangled in the fishing nets, and then advanced on the men. She paused, containing her shock; first she put her hand to her mouth, and then, conquering her terror, put that hand on the rock, living, cool to the touch, but at the same time, emanating a body’s subtle heat. It was a dark fish. Gigantic. It was breathing, and the air was slowly shifting around her. It was an animal that, on account of its great size, made her feel smaller than she truly was, as if she were a seed lying on the earth.

In the hours that followed, the inhabitants of the island surrounded the animal. The buckets holding their catch were emptied and filled with water they tossed on its drying skin. Observing its breaths growing slower, they gathered on one side of it and, using the strength of their powerful arms, tried to return it to the tides. The women kept it upright, their kerchiefs moving like the raised sails of the boats. They were trying to contain the children, who were laughing, running, and insisting on drawing close to the great fish. The women even shouted at the men, hoping their words would reach them as they labored. But the dark fish remained on the sand, unmoving, capable only of emitting hisses with more and more space between them, making the air tremble, invading her body, sprialing like a whirlwind around its core.

The sweet smell of life and death seeped into her clothing, her very skin, provoking a nausea shared by the most fragile among them.

And from the animal’s little eyes, flickering in agony, came the request that she, and only she, could understand.

Perhaps because of the increasing heat, the mood changed. The wind was throwing bits of sand that seemed heavier, sharp crystals lashing their bodies, wounding the flesh. The fishermen gave up trying to return the great fish to the sea. The women grew tired of waiting. One of them remembered that the stock of oil for their lamps was almost out and that no shipment was expected in the weeks to come. Their catch and the harvest from their fields wouldn’t be enough to supply their houses. One of the men smiled as he looked at the animal. And she, who understood smiles and mockery, once again anticipated what was to come.

The fog that hovered over their eyes was tinted red. Machetes, knives, and spears were raised. She broke through the wall of men preparing for the slaughter and screamed, wiping away the sweat that was melting her face. One of the men argued impatiently that the animal would die shortly and there was nothing more to do. Then wait, she said. We have our fields, we have the sea, our catch, we have the fish market. Life doesn’t stop. So just go on, and I’ll continue to bathe the animal. They lowered their arms, called her crazy, but didn’t oppose her supplication. One by one, they left the vigil that had formed around the animal.

She remained alone, without eating, carrying the bucket of water by herself. Sometimes, she’d hear the little moan. She couldn’t say whether it came from the sea, from the sky, from the great fish, or from her own skin, scarred by memories of the past. Already scarred by the uncertainty of the future.

***

You awaken in a dark, windowless room. You look up at the ceiling and observe the lamp hanging down and floating on the sea of mold stains, the vague memory of the island to the north. The low bed holds your body stuck in the firmament of the house. You don’t move, you’re an inert, solitary animal, each image from the past rises up and disperses in waves that break on the cell walls.

When you arrived at the house in town, which you had resisted, since it seemed to be yet another ruin, they inspected your teeth, measured you from head to toe, palpated your breasts. Just like at the fish market, they scaled off your clothing, searching for a glassy shine in your eyes. You tried to say that you were on the road for work, that your work was housecleaning and making daily meals for a family. They laughed like fishermen who lure fish with ordinary bait.

The first night you woke up in the filthy room, it was as if you were trying to come up for air. The rotting odor of the sweaty blankets drenching the mattress provoked a pervasive nausea, as if you were wandering on the open sea. It’s an illusion, it’ll pass, you think. You don’t fit what they want.

The woman who owns the townhouse knocks on the door, and you sit on the edge of the bed. One by one they enter the room and lie down. Some undress completely, others only unbutton their pants. You are pushed, brutally, to the back of the bed, and under this immense weight, you barely feel alive. When they leave you alone, the room lights up discreetly. With the sun rising after the eclipse. You go out the door and clean yourself, your breasts hanging onto your stomach. From the crevices of your body, you drain off the despair of those men. You water the half-open corpse flower. You return the plate of food untouched and, though famished, you feel sated. Weeks from now you’ll be able to count the bones protruding from the surface of your body. They remove the pale fat from you, piece by piece, and make light from it.

The woman woke under a cloudy sky. The night ran aground on the island and it was morning again. In the place where the animal had lain in agony, now there dwelled a huge white carcass atop little pools of guts. She looked at her own hands, soiled with blood, and felt afraid. But about her face, previously twisted with fright, arose a serene air, from which nothing else remained to be made.

The fish must have gotten lost on its journey and ended up stranded on the beach by the will of God, who confused animals and people alike with the darkness of night.

That’s when she remembered Dinorá, of whom she had had no news. Soon she’d take the same route bound for the city, because there is no salvation for those who live surrounded by a violent sea. The same sea that gives us food throws an enormous fish onto our land and changes the moods that reside in us, she thought. There’s no avoiding the question of what Dinorá would say if she could have seen the impotence and melancholy of the great fish.

With her feet on the sand, stepping forcefully, she returned through the marshes. The people of the island were still sleeping. In this house and that house, she saw lamps lit, burning the whale's white fat. It was on this path home from the shore that she cleaned her hands on her garments, now red. She stretched her fingers out toward the burning light. She took one of the lamps off the wall and brought it with her.

She lay down on the mat on the ground. The fire slowly burned the oil. And, all of a sudden, as she closed her mouth, she felt as if once again she were inside the belly of the giant fish.


“The Unsettled Sound of the Landscape” 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 Jun 3, 2020   Copyright 2020 Itamar Vieira Junior

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