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This article is taken from PN Review 51, Volume 13 Number 1, September - October 1986.Journey to Petrópolis
She was a tiny, shrivelled-up old woman who, sweet and obstinate, did not seem to understand that she was all alone in the world. Her eyes were always watering, her hands resting on her black, opaque dress, the fading document of her life. In the fabric which had become hard there were small crumbs of bread stuck together by the spittle which appeared once more as she recalled her childhood. There was a yellowish smudge, the remains of an egg she had eaten two weeks earlier. And tell-tale signs of the places where she had slept. She always found somewhere to doss down, someone's house here or there. When they asked her name, she would reply in a voice refined by failing strength and many years of good breeding:
People smiled. Pleased at the interest she had aroused, she would explain:
- Name, my real name is Marguerite.
Her body was tiny and sallow, even though she had once been tall and fair. She once had a father, and a mother, a husband and two children. They had all died one by one. She alone had remained with her rheumy, expectant eyes, which were almost entirely covered by a white, velvety membrane. Whenever anyone gave her alms, they gave her very little, for she was so minute and really did not need much food. When they gave her a bed to sleep on, it was invariably narrow and hard, for Marguerite had physically shrunk over the years. She herself was sparing in her thanks. She would smile and nod her head.
She was now sleeping, no one knew for what reason, in a room at the back of a large house in a tree-lined street in Botafogo. The family found Missy quaint but ignored her existence most of the time. For they were also dealing with a mysterious old girl. She got up early each morning, made her bed fit for a dwarf, and darted out hastily, as if the house were on fire. No one knew where she was heading. One day, one of the daughters in the house asked her where she was going. She replied with an amiable smile.
- I'm going for a stroll.
They found it amusing that an old woman living on charity should go for a stroll. But it was true. Missy was born in Maranhão, where she had always lived. She had only recently arrived in Rio accompanied by a kind-hearted woman who planned to intern Missy in a hospice, but this turned out to be impossible: the woman had travelled on to Minas and given Missy some money to get herself settled in Rio. And the old woman strolled the streets to get to know the city. It was sufficient, however, for someone to sit down on a bench in any square in order to see Rio de Janeiro at a glance.
Missy's life ran smoothly until one day it dawned on the family in the house in Botafogo just how long she had been there, and they decided it was time she moved on. To some extent, they were right. Everyone in that household was kept extremely busy; from time to time, there were weddings, parties, engagements, social visits. And when they encountered the old woman, as they rushed backwards and forwards, they were startled as if they had been stopped in their tracks, and accosted with a tap on the shoulder and a sudden: 'Hey there!' One of the girls in particular felt irritated and uneasy, the old woman got on her nerves for some reason. Especially that permanent smile, even though the girl realized that it was a harmless rictus. Perhaps because there was never any time, no one discussed the matter. But the moment someone suggested sending her to live in Petrópolis, at the house of their German sister-in-law, the consensus was more lively than any old woman could have expected to provoke.
So when the son of the household, accompanied by his girlfriend and his two sisters, went to spend a weekend in Petrópolis, they took the old woman with them in the car.
What had kept Missy awake the previous night? Just to think of a journey caused her parched, diseased heart to shed its rust inside that brittle body as if she had swallowed a large pill without any water. At times, she even found it difficult to breathe. She spent the night talking to herself, sometimes aloud. The excitement of the promised excursion and a different life suddenly clarified certain ideas. She remembered things that some days before she would have sworn had never existed. Beginning with the son who had been run over and died beneath a train in Maranhão - if he had lived amidst the traffic of Rio de Janeiro, he would have been run over and died right here. She remembered her son's hair, his clothes. She remembered the coffee cup that Maria Rosa had broken, and how she had screamed at her. If only she had known that her daughter would die giving birth, she would never have screamed at her. And she remembered her husband. She could only remember her husband in his shirt-sleeves. But that was difficult to understand for she was certain that he always went to the office dressed formally as befitted a clerk; he always went to functions wearing a jacket and obviously he would never have attended the funerals of his own children in his shirt-sleeves.
Trying to remember her husband's jacket only made the old woman feel even more exhausted, as she tossed and turned in her bed. Suddenly she discovered that the bed was hard.
- What a hard bed, she said in a very loud voice in the middle of the night.
Her whole body had become sensitive. Parts of her body which she had ignored for some considerable time now reclaimed her attention. And suddenly - she felt a terrible hunger! Delirious, she got up, untied her tiny bundle, and took out a stale chunk of buttered bread, which she had furtively kept for two days. She devoured the bread like a rat, causing her gums to bleed. As she ate, she became more and more animated. She succeeded, however fleetingly, in visualizing her husband saying goodbye as he left for work. Only after the image had passed did she realize that she had forgotten to observe if he was in his shirt-sleeves. She lay down once more, scratching her feverish body which was itching all over. She spent the rest of the night playing this obsessive game of seeing something for an instant only to lose sight of it. Hours later, she fell asleep.
And, for the very first time, it was necessary to rouse her. The house was still in darkness when one of the girls came to call her with a kerchief tied round her head and a suitcase in one hand. Unexpectedly, Missy begged a few minutes to comb her hair. Her trembling hands clutched the broken comb. She had never been the sort of woman who went for a stroll without first combing her hair properly.
When she finally approached the car, the young man and the girls were surprised at her cheerful expression and her brisk steps. 'She's fitter than I am,' the young man quipped. He reminded his girlfriend: 'And to think I almost felt sorry for her.'
Missy sat on the back seat of the car near the window, somewhat cramped by the two girls who shared the same seat. She remained silent, smiling. But when the car gave the first jolt, throwing her backwards, she felt a stab of pain in her breast. It was not simply happiness, it was affliction. The young man turned round:
- I hope you won't be sick, granny!
The girls laughed, especially the one who sat at the front, who from time to time rested her head on the young man's shoulder. Out of politeness, the old woman wanted to reply, but could find no words. She wanted to smile, but no smile came. She looked at all of them, her eyes watering, which they no longer mistook for weeping. Something in Missy's expression numbed any sense of happiness and gave her an air of stubbornness.
The journey was most agreeable.
The girls were jovial, Missy was now smiling again. And although her heart was still beating furiously, she felt much better. They passed a cemetery, a grocer's shop, a tree, two women, a soldier, a cat!, hoardings - all swallowed up by the speed at which they were travelling.
When Missy woke up, she did not know where she was. The road had become visible in the morning light: it was narrow and dangerous. The old woman's mouth was burning, but her hands and feet were so cold that they had become detached from the rest of her body. The girls were conversing, the one in front resting her head on the young man's shoulder. Parcels kept toppling over.
Then Missy's brain started functioning. Her husband appeared to her wearing his jacket - I've found it, I've found it! My jacket was hanging in the wardrobe all the time. She remembered the name of Maria Rosa's friend, the girl who lived opposite: Elvira, and Elvira's mother who was lame. These memories almost made her call out. Then she slowly moved her lips and muttered some words in a whisper.
The girls were chatting.
- Thank you, I want no such present!
That was when Missy finally began not to understand. What was she doing in this car? How had she met her husband and where? How did the mother of Maria Rosa and Rafael, their own mother, come to be in the car with these people? A moment later she calmed down again and accepted the situation.
The young man said to his sisters:
- I think it's better if we don't stop in front of the house, to avoid any scenes. The old girl will get out, we'll show her where the house is, and she will go there alone and explain that she's come for good.
One of the girls felt apprehensive. She feared that her brother, with that lack of tact which was so typical of men, might say too much in front of his girlfriend. They no longer visited their brother in Petrópolis, much less their sister-in-law.
- That's right, she interrupted him before he could say any more. Listen Missy, you go down that side-street and you won't go wrong: at the red-brick house ask for Arnaldo, my brother, do you understand? Arnaldo. Tell him that you cannot stay with us any longer, tell Arnaldo that he's got room for you and that you might even keep an eye on their child, is that clear ...
Missy got out of the car, and stood there for some time, hesitant and dazed as she hovered over the wheels. The fresh breeze flapped her long skirt between her legs.
Arnaldo was not at home. Missy entered the small sitting-room, where the mistress of the house, a duster covering her head, was drinking coffee. A fair-haired little boy - clearly the child Missy was supposed to look after - was seated before a plate of onions and tomatoes which he ate almost dozing, while his white, freckled legs dangled under the table. The German woman filled the child's plate with gruel and pushed some buttered toast within his reach. The flies droned. Missy felt weak. If she were to drink a little coffee, perhaps she would get some warmth into her body.
The German woman stared at her from time to time in silence. She did not believe the tale about her sister-in-law's recommendation, although one could expect anything from 'that lot'. Perhaps the old woman had got their address from someone else, perhaps even from a stranger on a tram, because such things happened, one only had to open a newspaper to see what could happen. But there was something fishy about her story, the old woman had a shifty look, and she made no attempt to disguise that knowing smile. It would be wise not to leave her alone in the sitting-room with the display cabinet full of valuable china.
I must finish my coffee first. Then when my husband arrives, we'll see what's to be done.
Missy did not understand her very well, for she spoke like a foreigner. But she understood that she was to remain seated. The smell of coffee gave her the most unbearable thirst and a vertigo which cast the whole room into darkness. Her parched lips were burning and her heart was beating furiously of its own accord. Coffee, coffee, she looked on smiling, her eyes watering. At her feet the dog was chewing its own paw and growling. The maid brought a plate of soft white cheese to the table. Tall, with a very thin neck and a big bosom, she also looked rather foreign. Without a word, the mother spread a thick layer of cheese on a slice of toast and pushed it towards the little boy. The child ate everything and, once his belly was full, he grabbed a tooth-pick and left the table.
- Mum, I need some money.
- Certainly not. What do you need money for?
- To buy sweets.
- No. Sunday is your day for pocket-money and that's tomorrow.
A glimmer of light illumined Missy: Sunday? What was she doing in that house on the eve of the Sabbath? She would never know. But she would dearly love to take that child in hand. She had always had a weakness for fair-haired children: all fair-haired children resembled the Infant Jesus. What was she doing in that house? For no good reason, they despatched her from one place to another, but she would spill the beans, she would let them see a thing or two. She smiled, feeling awkward: she would not tell them anything for all she really wanted was a cup of coffee.
The mistress of the house shouted in the direction of the kitchen, and the apathetic maid brought a soup plate, full of dark gruel. These foreigners eat such a lot in the morning, as Missy remembered from her days in Maranhão. The mistress of the house with that unfriendly expression, because foreigners in Petrópolis were as sullen as those in Maranhão, the mistress of the house took a large spoonful of white cheese, mashed it with a fork and stirred it into the gruel. Frankly, the kind of muck only a foreigner would relish. The German woman then started to eat, lost in thought, with the same bored expression Missy had seen on the faces of foreigners in Maranhão. Missy sat watching her. The dog growled at the fleas.
Arnaldo finally arrived when the sun was at its brightest, the china in the display cabinet gleaming. Arnaldo was not fair. He spoke to his wife in a low voice, and after a lengthy discussion he informed Missy with firmness and a hint of curiosity: No, it's out of the question, there is no room here.
And since the old woman made no protest and went on smiling, he spoke louder:
- There's no room here, do you hear?
Missy remained seated. Arnaldo tried gesticulating. He looked at the two women in the sitting room and vaguely sensed the absurd contrast they provided. His wife tense and red in the face. Behind her, the old woman, wrinkled and sallow, layers of dry skin sagging everywhere. Confronted with the old woman's malicious smile, he lost his patience:
- And now, if you'll excuse me, I'm rather busy. I'll give you some money to catch the train back to Rio, do you understand? Go back to my mother's house, and when you get there, you tell them: Arnaldo's house is not a refuge, have you got that? there is no room here. Just tell them what I said: Arnaldo's house is not a refuge.
Missy took the money and headed towards the door. As Arnaldo was about to sit down to eat, she reappeared:
- Thanks, may God bless you.
Back in the street, she began to think once more about Maria Rosa, Rafael and her husband. She did not feel the slightest nostalgia. But she remembered. She headed for the main road, walking further and further away from the station. She smiled, as if she were playing a trick on someone: instead of returning to Rio immediately, she would go for a little stroll. A man passed. Then something very curious and of no interest became clear: the men, when she was still a woman. She could not form a precise image of the men, but she could visualize herself with blouses in bright colours and long hair. The thirst came back, burning her throat. The sun was fierce and sparkled on every white pebble. The Petrópolis road is quite charming.
At the fountain made of lustrous black stone, set in the middle of the road, a black woman in her bare feet was filling a can with water.
Missy remained still, watching her. She saw the black woman join her hands in the form of a shell and drink.
When the road was deserted once more, Missy moved forward as if emerging from a hiding place, and stealthily approached the fountain. Threads of icy water trickled down the inside of her sleeves right up to her elbows, tiny drops of water gleamed,, caught in her hair.
Her thirst sated, she continued to walk, terrified, wide-eyed, conscious of the violent gyrations the heavy water was making in her stomach, awakening tiny reflexes like flashing lights throughout her entire body.
The road climbed steeply. The road was much more charming than any road in Rio de Janeiro, and it climbed steeply. Missy sat down on a boulder beside a tree to admire the view. The sky was immense, and without a cloud. And there were lots of birds flying from the chasm towards the road. The road bleached by the sun stretched over a green chasm. Then, because she felt tired, the old woman rested her head against the tree-trunk and died.
This article is taken from PN Review 51, Volume 13 Number 1, September - October 1986.