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PEN World Voices Feature: “Under My Feet, My Whole Body,” by Marcia Tiburi

By Marcia Tiburi
Translated By ​Magdalena Edwards

Brazilian writer, philosopher, and activist Marcia Tiburi currently lives in Pittsburgh, where she is writer-in-residence at City of Asylum. On Saturday, May 11, she will join Scholastique Mukasonga and Idra Novey in "Voices of the Silenced," a PEN World Voices Festival discussion on writing about violence and its survivors at Albertine Books in New York.

For years I thought about visiting the grave on whose headstone my name appears: Alice de Souza, born 12/3/1953, died 4/6/1972. Today is my birthday, and I’ll extend my almost habitual stroll, which usually stretches from the Praça da República to my apartment in the Copan building, where I spend the rest of the day with the television muted, dozing with a book in front of the ghosts on the screen. This time, I’ll continue on to the Pacaembu neighborhood. An unusual route even for me, accustomed as I am to unfamiliar detours. I could spend my time clocking the kilometers, millimeter by millimeter, of this faceless city, until the day I die. 

There’s something of a double meaning to be found in my journey ending in a cemetery, a place where the whole human enterprise ends when you are lucky enough for it not to have ended elsewhere. At the same time, it is a possibility increasingly deserving of consideration. Dying in the streets of a major city, in the all-out war that intensifies each day, is more than a mere probability. Caught in a war between criminals and police where you no longer know who is who, a war common to gangrene megalopolises, there are certainly more stray bullets flying about than possible outcomes. Even so, seized by certain existential doubts that allow them to suspend their fear, there are others who, like me, have ventured out on this windy afternoon.

It is true that, sooner or later, all roads lead to the grave, I say to myself, looking for a way to shorten the route. I cannot stop thinking that to live and to die are but two sides of the same coin: namely, time. São Paulo, its lifeless corpse, the clogged streets and the paradoxical sensation of inching along in a race to your destination—these are the images that come to mind. Even though it is December, the air is cold and the ashen atmosphere matches everything about the journey. 

I breathe the heavy air, overcome by the realization that life is simply a matter of time, and for that reason, as the master of my own existence, without fear, without anything to lose, I remain convinced of the chosen course. More than a year without rain, says a woman peddling cleaning rags to the woman sitting next to her, back against the wall and begging for coins. I wonder who might have use for such white rags in a city made of smog. It is illusions that are sold, not things, one of them says to me. A cyclist wearing a gas mask crosses the bike path. A third woman with three dogs on leashes and a piglet in her lap casts a shadow on a fourth woman, pregnant and spraying graffiti—incomprehensible slogans and colorful flowers that no longer exist in reality—on the wall of a gated apartment complex, one of those that give the impression of being safer than the others. They betray no concern about the worst-case scenario that awaits them as soon as the police take them to prison, the one for the graffitti, and the other for being her accomplice. I ask myself why she might be pregnant at a time like this when you can no longer ask anyone to take part in this world. 

I think about the people who still want to have kids and I get chills. The Higienópolis shopping mall, overrun with people who used to live on the streets, children among them, still boasts a Starbucks on the ground floor, as if nothing has changed. The gaudy refinement of the shops has given way to encampments. The walls are covered in graffiti, the escalators, at a standstill. From the bathrooms, a smell of sewage that is unbearable. I plug my nose while I buy a bottle of water for a price far exceeding the intensity of my thirst. The guards at the café who prevent the invasion of the starving have machine guns in hand and allow entry to those who, according to rules that I do not know, are adequately dressed. The bottled water is almost as expensive as the water we still get from the faucets, straight from the dwindling state reservoir. Meanwhile, the governor responsible for this catastrophe, whose body has been taken over by a type of cancer unknown to science, sips from a full glass of whiskey to forget his days are numbered. 

Absurd, illogical, I would have said not long ago, when I did not understand that the city is a living organism capable of adapting to anything. It is daytime and it is late. And still, the dream of that shit dam, cadavers shrouded in gauze cast along the roadside, the child at the scaffold. I ask myself if it is my soullessness or if it is some kind of luck that will get me home later and will make me sleep in this context of distress.

It is my first time at the Araçá cemetery and, luckily, guided with a patience that I’ve carried with me for decades, the patience of someone who clings to the hope that there will still be time, I will arrive at my destination step by step and without much effort. I don’t say this without a certain eeriness, considering that it is my name I’ll read on the gravestone in a few short minutes. I am unhurried along the internal arteries of this city, a city of the dead within the city of the living, with no one around but its eternal residents. Every now and then an employee can be seen walking the rows and I consider talking to him, to ask for information and to save time searching for the grave that I can call my own. I might discover, in my conversation with the gravedigger, interesting aspects of this silent city situated within the larger city, the noisy city where those who will one day be dead now live. But I am too embarrassed to interrupt Charon’s accomplice with my living curiosity. The curiosity characteristic of those who still stand on this side of the landscape of time. When I reflect that impatience and saving time are problems of the living, I’m startled by my own thought. I look for the way forward and continue, now inside the cemetery, to search for the plot, as if the idea of a place had been interrupted. There is a breeze of irony that improves my stroll. 

I find the grave of Cacilda Becker and I stop to look. Cacilda, for some reason, is so familiar to me, and I thank the god of chance for making my visit less inhospitable. 

There are people who, when visiting a museum, avoid immediately getting close to a painting they wish to see more than any other. I remember when I went to Amsterdam to see Vermeer’s “The Milkmaid” how I avoided immediately running to the room that held the painting. En route, a portrait by Van Gogh occupied me for more than an hour. Now, in the cemetery, like that time in the museum, I want to buy time. It’s true that my lack of urgency is partly due to a desire never to arrive. I do not try to allay my fear that the final moment is likely to include some disappointment.

I stop to read Cacilda Becker’s headstone. I cannot help but be astounded by her premature death. The date of her birth coincides with the date of my death and that touches me somehow. I heard that she died onstage, and it is not difficult to conclude that the actress was doing what she loved most in that moment when a life on the brink has nearly no life to it. A sliver of envy shoots through my body, causes a shiver proportional to the misery of the feeling that pervades the moment. It was during the intermission of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, as far as I know, that Cacilda felt unwell. I watched that play a few times; truth be told, it was the only Beckett play I saw in my entire life. I try to remember the text. Estragon and Vladimir, the boy warning that Godot will never come. I can’t remember the protagonists’ parents very clearly. 

Thinking about these otherworldy beings meditating on the brevity of life as I do now, I look up in the direction of a grave nearby, practically touching the one where Cacilda is buried, were they not separated by a third grave, and I see that I am not alone. 

I contemplate the scene, waiting for the image to evaporate or for the person, if flesh and blood, to leave at once. Watching her pull weeds that grow around the grave at that time of year when all the other plants that could exist have already withered, I become aware of her being thirty-something, maybe forty, of her thick hair, black like Adriana’s, of her similar stature. She drops a bouquet of plastic roses on the grave. I get closer without making noise, certain that ghosts are fleeting, at least the ones that I have seen over my lifetime. I am surprised to find her, wearing a serious expression, before the grave I myself seek. The grave that, somehow, is my own. 

There is something solemn about it all, the scene has the veil of ritual. I must respect the peculiarity of the situation, but curiosity flies like a crazed bird whose beating wings fuse with the night sky. It brings the past back as a mishmash of indiscernible scenes. Fear paralyzing my entire body, I ask who lies there if I myself am standing here.

From Sob os pés, meu corpo inteiro © Marcia Tiburi. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Magdalena Edwards. All rights reserved.

Published May 9, 2019   Copyright 2019 Marcia Tiburi

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