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Natanael

II

 

When Natanael arrived, the first thing he wondered was, “Am I in the right place?” The taxi driver could not understand why my friend wanted to get out at that spot on the riverside road. Now Natanael found himself on the verge between the several lanes of the highway and the concrete incline that sloped down to the half-dead river. To avoid the stench, he followed Faustine’s advice and put his hand in his pocket, drawing out a handkerchief perfumed with vanilla essence. “Ah,” Natanael inhaled, as the cars and helicopters hammered about him. The white flag was more visible now than when he’d seen it from inside the taxi. Attached to a buoy, which was floating in the waters, its corner trailed in the river. Natanael grimaced: the vanilla had the collateral effect of accentuating the aroma of rotten eggs emanating from the river. There was nothing for it but to inhale the handkerchief ever more strongly, his gaze fixed on a huge concrete pilaster, one of the countless that were supporting the nearby viaduct, which, from that angle, looked to him like a parody of some extinct animal. There’s a lot we could say about the relationship between Faustine and Natanael, but at least one thing would be accurate: she always kept him well-informed. By reading a newspaper article that she had brought to his attention, he had arrived in this place. 

*

“And how did the initial approach happen, Natanael?” I asked.

“I managed to get hold of his contact details from journalist friends, so I called, I wrote e-mails. Have I told you about what I’m planning? I’m writing a book, but it’s going to bring together lots of different kinds of writing, which is why I chose this guy to be at the center of the whole thing,” he replied.

“The whole thing?”

“I’m completely immune to your sarcasm, Faustine. But anyway, my plan was to . . . To dive with him.”

At that moment we all exclaimed in surprise and Natanael couldn’t hide his satisfaction.

“And did you do it?” I asked, filling another glass.

“Of course I did, Lucas. Just like the old days.”

“The old days?!”

“Come on, Faustine—I’m a diver!”

We all exchanged glances.

“But you do know that I’ve done diving courses, you know I’ve been on diving holidays. Even this year, before setting it all up with him, I did get myself ready, months earlier, by doing another course!”

“And when, pray, did you do this course, Natanael?”

He shrugged off Faustine’s question, then replied:

“This year.”

“When exactly?”

“Yeah, right—” I said, “I don’t remember you saying anything about that, or about any diving course, Natanael!”

“Can I go on?”

The others in the audience were also annoyed, but with us.

“I simply wanted to know if this was just another of those things you’re always doing, Natanael.”

“‘Those things I’m always doing’, Faustine?”

“Sounds like a nice story, anyway,” I said.

“I don’t care if it’s a nice story, Lucas! Facts are facts.”

“What exactly are you implying?”

“That there are certain . . . how can I put it . . . flights of fancy to your stories, Natanael.”

“Nonsense!” he shouted, but half-smiling.

III

I think our friend’s gaze was on the large metallic spikes of the viaduct. “You know how”—Natanael gave an example, if I recall correctly—“when we go to a beach, or to some tourist spot or other, and there’s always this artisan guy selling things like, say, a Don Quixote made of antique pieces taken from all sorts of mechanical devices?” This impression created a second impression on my friend, that he was in a kind of open-air museum, but not one that was a traditional museum, which are always filled with the spoils of war.

Further off, beyond the far bank, Natanael could make out a group of skyscrapers, part of one of São Paulo’s significant financial districts. Their summits were now pointy, now rounded, and there were all kinds of subtle differences between their diameters, their recesses and the outlines of those bony structures. What they had, mostly, in common, was the giants’ being clothed in reflective material; one of them seemed covered in a fine layer—if such a thing were possible, and purchasable—that was traced directly onto the sky; another building attracted toward it multiple beams of light that combined, for a fraction of a second, into a clot; then right away the giant hurled them out again into space. All about them, helicopters, restless as grasshoppers, buzzed and swung their locks around and around.

The vanilla didn’t stop stinging. The river flowed slow and oily. Fatty strands of color slid by, reflecting the hues of the rainbow. Despite being just half-alive, despite the heavy sense of grief, despite that thickness, it seemed, Natanael assured us, that at any moment from out of those depths some revelation would occur—that the river would open up its own entrails and spit some poor exile back out.

The water was indeed moving, creating circles, which overlapped with one another making hundreds of bubbles; then a form emerged from the thick water; and the form was that of a body, the body of a man, who swam over to the buoy. He grabbed hold of it and then began, easily enough, to climb the slope, heading in a straight line towards Natanael. The explorer, as we might call him, was in a black suit made of some rubberlike material. His head was protected by a golden helmet, which revealed nothing of the face it was protecting; in the place of the mouth, a rounded valve; in the place of the eyes, two glass circles that reflected the sunlight; at the top of the helmet, a lamp that was still lit. In his right hand he was holding an object that resembled a pistol. His free hand, however, was making a gesture of greeting that was not at all hostile. Natanael didn’t move. Soon the diver was right in front of him and put the oxygen canisters down on the ground. Only then did he remove his helmet, which made a noise as he took it off. Under the suit was a dark-skinned man, fat, with short gray hair. Once he had taken off his gloves, he held his hand out to Natanael and said:

“Batista. You must be the writer?”

“Something like that.” And they shook hands.

Car horns were honking and Natanael realized, to his surprise, that some of them were being honked at the two of them. People were pointing at Batista. They were gesturing and taking photos. He, in return, gave a smile, tilting his head slightly, gave a thumbs-up. If he noticed children, however, they’d even get a pose. And people didn’t even need to get out of their cars to take photos—the traffic really was solid.

“So, looks like you’re famous, then?”

“Right,” he replied, and looked down. Then straightaway looked back up—“but that’s partly why you’re here.”

“Yes, yes.”

“Did you like my answers?”

“Yes! And thanks for letting me come to . . . your work.”

Batista glanced at the river.

“This isn’t the only place I dive, but, well, of course it’s the most famous.”

More honking.

“So, when do we dive, then?”

Batista was watching Natanael.

“This is no place for amateurs, Son. I do get where you’re coming from and all that, and thanks for your interest, but . . .”

“I do have experience.”

“Yes! But the Caribbean is one thing, or the Fernando de Noronha archipelago—but all this here, this is something else.”

(At this point, Faustine elbowed me, and said, quietly, “The Caribbean?!”)

“Perhaps it would be better, Natanael, to take a few classes first. I’ll give you a few theory lessons and we’ll do some practical classes back at the Center.”

“Won’t that lose us a lot of time, Batista?”

“It’s a shame. Look—here . . .” He pointed at the river. “Everything here is lost — and everything is found.” 

IV

If Natanael is to be believed, the great lesson of his theory classes, the two or three classes led by Batista, was this phrase: “down there, your greatest enemy is fear.” There would have been practical lessons, too, such as diving in tanks of cloudy water, for example.

It was quite clear: Batista wanted to see Natanael swim. When telling us about it, Natanael made a point of stressing just how impressed his classmates and Batista himself had been at his “remarkable” ability to orient himself in the classroom, despite the blindfold and the cotton wool in his ears. But Natanael did admit to some anxiety. “It was totally safe”—except that from time to time a diver would get hurt or, in rare cases, needed to amputate something, “but all the same, I was constantly wondering: what was there in the river?” 

*

The night before the dive, he awoke from a nightmare: it was two in the morning. His throat burned. Natanael hit the fan a few times: the warm breeze soothed his face and tried to ruffle his drenched hair. Not moving, he could hear the rain. The river will be full, he thought, worried. He tried to remember the nightmare that had just woken him. Were there horses, and a moon? He wiped his forehead as he dug around for the dream in his memory. Nothing. And he couldn’t sleep. He took a volume of poetry off his improvised bookcase, turned on the bedside lamp, and began to leaf through it. 

V

“Batista . . . have they ever found any creatures, any kinds of animal, round here? I don’t remember your mentioning it.”

On the riverbank the two of them were getting ready.

“Well?”

“One this size,” Batista said at last, opening his arms as wide as he could. “A huge snake . . .”

“A snake?!”

“As strong as an alligator! And it was white, a proper albino. We found it a few months back. This big!”

“And what was it hunting for here? Or was it lost?”

Batista let out a laugh. Touching Natanael’s shoulder, he said:

“Oh there was no such thing, Son. Down there all you get are an unpleasant kind of fish, they’re the only things that don’t die. Or bite. I’ve seen some capybara, too, but not right here, not on this spot.”

Right there, on the crust of the water, bubbles and spirals were popping. Batista’s face turned serious. His two hands gripped Natanael’s scrawny shoulders:

“For a diver, fear brings trouble. What I mean is . . . a little bit of fear is good. Fear of getting hurt, or the real fear of death. You do have to be careful. But a greater fear, one of those fears that’s more than just a fear of a thing, a fear out of expectation, you’re to get rid of that completely, son!”

He inspected Natanael’s clothing from top to bottom, and some bits of his gear.

“All seems to be in order,” he commented.

“I’m ready.”

By way of reply, Batista pointed toward some newly formed bubbles, but said nothing. 

*

They made their way into the water gradually, seeking permission, after having almost slipped down the slope that ended in the river. Natanael touched the bottom with timid steps; sometimes his foot sank. His arms, which at first he kept close to his body, gradually felt freer and were released as though they were the tentacles of jellyfish. The river got wider and wider as they progressed. Soon there was nothing beneath his feet; for a second or two, his body fell victim to a kind of turbulence until he finally achieved equilibrium. Batista, ahead of him, turned toward him and gave a thumbs-up; in reply, Natanael copied the gesture from the diver who again turned his back on my friend. The dark substance, centimeter by centimeter, was erasing Batista. Natanael looked around him: the light from the buildings spilled out right into his visor; shaking his head, his hands protecting his face, Natanael looked down: spikes and the cement bones and the flurries and the still water. His hands, free, free, tried to grip onto something solid, opening and closing frantically.

“Take it easy, take it easy.”

There was no one else in the water. Giving a slight lurch upward, Natanael sank, his eyes still closed in spite of the visor; he seemed to hear his own body, which, adrift, was shifting heavy plates about; the blazes of light were still contracting within it. When he opened his eyes, Natanael couldn’t see a thing. A darkness that was so very pure. And this point in Natanael’s story reminded me of a sight from when I was still living in Recife. For certain particular months of the year, the old customs area, down by the Madredeus church, is transformed into a peculiar tourist attraction. Under a bridge that connects one of the islands in the city center to another, ever since the 1980s, thousands of bats had decided to make their home. And so it became a tradition for the city’s inhabitants or its tourists to gather on the bridge’s pedestrian walkway, or on the banks of the Capibaribe River, to wait for the sun to set and the bats to emerge. And while the sun set, making a golden corona, the color of the church domes, radiating a kind of whitish blue, a blue tending toward pink, the bats woke up and began to tumble out from under the bridge, spinning in circles above the Capibaribe water. They looked like bits of paper that had been thrown into the air by some turbine. There, watching the bats, we find couples holding hands, sleepy Europeans, street vendors, young bohemians, tropical hippies, tropical hipsters, tropical yuppies, Californians, street kids, lawyers, perhaps some magistrate or other, engineers, civil servants; a lot of them applaud when the bats gather and begin to explore the atmosphere—thousands of wings beating at once and resounding with a sharp leathery noise. The bats commonly come together in a row that recreates the pattern and thickness of an artery; then they usually split into two thick arteries, which, well above the constructions of the city centre, then combine again and move in a way that, from a distance, resembles a long banner full of breaks, patches, and holes; the banner, despite being corroded, yet retains a minimum amount of structure.

All of this was in the darkness visited by Natanael. And now my friend was unsure whether he really had opened his eyes, or whether he would be able to open them. Out of instinct, his right hand moved toward his face: he felt the whole paraphernalia of metal and plastic. Submerged, with circular movements in the middle of the gloom, Natanael kept blinking until he was quite sure he did have eyelids; there was already some force pushing him out toward the light; his body, however, reacted and managed to sink even further. And Batista? No sign of the man at all. Everything was closed up, and there might be that albino serpent, just as there might be a ghastly painting, found by Natanael on some street corner on his way there, depicting a sea-serpent, coiled like a screw, in wine-colored waters; there might be the crocodiles, those monstrous crocodiles from the worst films in the world that terrorize the sewers; and Tiamat, sliced open from her throat to her claws, rotting; and the leeches; and the blind alligators, bright white, whose prey over time take on strange forms and sizes; and all the Dagons, Molochs, Azazels, Baals. But nothing appeared. No threat at all. No movement, no presence, nobody. There was only an absolute silence.

Natanael remembered the lamp attached to his diving helmet.

“Oh God!” he might have said.

He had found all kinds of objects together in the river, but as soon as the lamp came on, he couldn’t recognize a thing; Natanael moved his head from side to side and the beams of light showed him glimpses of a landscape that he could only describe by use of the word “carnage.” Something glimmered at around the level of his knee: something metal, sticking out the middle of a block made of plastic, paper, and some gooey substance, was about to tear his protective suit. It looked like the metal was getting ready to strike.

“Down there, down there, it was like I was in the farthest future, or in the most distant past! At a point where everything already had, or will have, its eyes closed. I moved a bit away from the metal bar and reached out my hand to grab the first object that, for the first time, I was able to recognize: guys, it had been constructed out of some material that was smooth to the touch, and which wasn’t very big, on the contrary, you could almost have fit it in a human hand. The shape of the object suggested an ‘inside’ and an ‘outside.’ At one point on its surface, it was attached to a prosthesis that stuck out elegantly, self-contained, curved, full of meaning!”

We all exchanged glances, apart from Faustine, who kept her gaze fixed on our flatmate.

“ . . .?”

Her voice seemed to come from far away, from way over there.

Natanael stood up, went to get some water from the kitchen, asked whether anyone else wanted some wine or beer. It was already late, but no one gave any sign of leaving.

When he had returned, he said:

“It was then that the strangest thing happened.”

In the water Natanael took one of the objects in his hand and lit it up.

“Lucas, remember when we had a fish tank? You remember?” Yes, I remember: a fish tank, not that small, which was in the living room in that apartment, and whose expenses and upkeep I shared with Natanael for a time. There was only one species of fish in the tank, a really small, thin kind of fish, about the size of a little finger, perhaps, if not smaller; we had —I don’t know—about twenty of those fish, that always swam around together. Their movement reminded me of those ballet-dancers or circus performers whose circlings around the ring are adorned with a long piece of cloth, usually in some bold color, a blue, a red, gold, and which spreads all over, undulating; these little fish had gray scales and their backs had a phosphorescent blue strip across them; under the strip of neon, their belly was a red that was almost verging on orange. Before Faustine moved in with us we used to love turning off the living-room lights (only the light in the fish tank would remain on), putting cushions down on the floor, lying down on them and spending a long time watching the coming and going of those fish. I’d usually put on one of the first two albums by Pink Floyd, or a Mutantes one, or that Cream record in the colorful cover, or even Tommy, and we’d stay like that until Natanael fell asleep. Sometimes I’d open a beer. For quite a long time that was the only way Natanael could get to sleep without the help of medication.

When he focused his lamp on the object and touched it, what he saw were lights, lights that looked like fish.

“But that doesn’t seem strange to me at all, Natanael!”

“Why not, Lucas?”

“Let him finish!” Someone spoke.

Faustine was looking at me.

“Say again what you saw.”

“What I saw, Lucas, was an accumulation of lights that moved around my hand, around my arm, around the Object. I . . . They were small particles, or rather, tiny strands, and it was only then I realized they couldn’t be fish, perhaps if they were, perhaps if they were . . . They were a lot smaller than our fish, but the way they moved—the way they moved!—they gave the impression that they were being led, orchestrated, that there was one, just one rule there, just one will.”

“But the ones in our tank went round and round without anywhere to go.”

“That’s true, but at the same time didn’t it look kind of like a dance? Like a display?”

A pause.

“Those phosphorescent strands moved and vibrated.”

“Something in your eye, maybe some effect of the reflection of the light from the buildings, Natanael. And you didn’t sleep properly, either, you said so yourself. On top of that, if you were down there and it really was that dark . . .”

“It was! But it all lasted not very long. I mean, it seemed long—really long!—that I was watching the movement, the”—suddenly he clapped—“the tingling! It’s as though I’d understood that my hand and that same object, not only that—everything was running aground. I saw them, like things actually existing, but less solid! Down there everything could be inside everything, overlapping, mixing together. Slipping around without any trouble. Because there was a place for it, there could be space, if it weren’t for those fish that down there, among it all, enemies to one another, insisting on banging into each other head-on, preventing the wonder that would be a world all meshed together. Then the light went out! And I thought: you haven’t got an arm any more. They’re out there, lost. And I could feel myself like that, less and less, each little strand stretching out to give place to the darkness that filled me and filled me more and more, washing through my name. I don’t know how long I stayed like that and I don’t remember having moved a centimeter. But my body still belonged to me and what happened was that I moved, who knows where, because anyway a ‘where’ wasn’t any use to me. And that kind of woke me up. And I felt about for the things surrounding me, swimming and feeling and trying to guess, and I was quite certain now, I had the certainty that my body, unless something went very badly wrong, would continue to be more or less as expected—” At that moment, perhaps for no particular reason, Faustine got up and left. Without saying good-bye to anyone, without saying another word, we didn’t see her again the whole night. “—and I know I felt all kinds of different objects, you all have no idea how much there is at the bottom of that river, and how if I reached out here, for example, and I seemed to be touching a . . . —or, or, or a . . ., and, the banks . . .”

Natanael’s hands, which hadn’t stopped gesticulating, suddenly froze in the air and seemed to be trembling, quite deliberately. His gaze was on some unspecific point, his chest heaving. His mouth, slightly open, had accumulated some saliva in it, rather unpleasantly. Finally he drew back his hands and closed his lips. After clearing his throat, he said:

“My light never came back, but a light did appear, there in the depths. But I didn’t feel relief, or anything like it. The light made me angry. The light—this is what I felt—wasn’t bringing good news, it was giving me back a ‘where,’ it was giving me back day and night. If previously I simply was, now I was being. And this weighed so heavily in my chest that I pushed myself off, and rose.”