from “The History of the Bones”

Alberto Martins's History of the Bones opens with the narrator receiving a phone call from the provincial seaside cemetery where his father is buried. In a brief conversation, he learns that that block of the cemetery is being used for other purposes, so he will need to exhume his father's bones and reinter them elsewhere. At the cemetery, the narrator discovers that the crematorium of this rundown city (the city of his childhood) no longer operates. So he leaves the graveyard, carrying his father's bones in a box, and heads for the crematorium of a nearby city. En route he revisits the old city and decides to choose the destiny of his father's bones himself.

I wanted to get out of there.

At the corner of Floriano and Isabel: the house. My father wasn't there. My father was with me inside a bag in my hand. The house was there. It wouldn't crumble like a cookie. Bones inside a plastic bag. The house was there. I didn't want to knock. Who would be living inside it?

I was tired.

I wanted to stop. To drink. To let go of my father at any corner at all.

I sought out a street with people talking, cars, radio, trucks.

I wandered for blocks without thinking much.

I entered a bar.

*

She looked like she couldn't be more than seventeen, eighteen. White skin with moles on her arms and neck. But she was skinny, full of sharp edges when she leaned over her guaraná. She drank poorly. Her eyes accompanied the little gas bubbles as they rose, clinging to the walls of her cup. Each bubble, a weight released from the bottom. Then I felt a stupid desire to screw. The girl. The bones. The froth on the cup. To screw. I waved to her with my bottle.

*

We went up a few steps with an iron handrail falling to pieces. In the middle of the room, a vase with live plastic roses. Behind a counter, without moving his eyes from the TV, a boy held out two cans of beer. Two fifty each. Ahead, a hallway and a row of doors. The girl entered the third room. A red lamp lit the ceiling along the corridor.

I set my parcel and clothing on top of a chair. With her foot, the girl pulled out a basin from under the bed; turning away, she crouched over it and together with the pee rose the sound of a crushed can. Then she opened the window and, tipping the basin, poured the liquid in a thin stream into the open sky. She stuck two fingers in a jar of cream and then disappeared with them between her legs.

*

On the wooden pier, a boy dragged a basket with entrails and giblets through the dark water. Silt and muck. A cormorant on top of a stump chewed on an earthworm. I looked around—at the stilt houses scattered along the bank of the estuary. It was there the city began. The geography of my father. The inside side of the sea. The chain of water that linked port to port, the mouth of one beach to another beach, the unending canals that varied the land here, behind the island, at the foot of the mountain.

The boy lifted the basket, baited his hook with a piece of meat and lowered his fishing line. Beside him sat an aluminum boat.

I asked who the owner was.

It was him.

Did he rent it?

For twelve reais an hour.

I propped the bag of bones on the prow, arranged myself on top of a roll of cords, and dipped the oar into the water. A dog barked on the bank. The boy pulled in the basket with a live thing full of legs. The dark, grainy muck rose along the banks of the river. In the middle, the water stretched out, ashen and always: it rose behind a small island, turned; in every direction, it was always water, swirling in front of me passing below the bridges the ships the grapplers climbing by degrees along the rocks invading the gutters the sidewalks sticking its water tongue into the pipes the tubes the waste and returning later by the middle of the routes soaking the sand the cement the bricks until it filtered into the wood of the stilt houses to pour out afterward between mangrove roots in the narrow slits of a bamboo trap—until the city disappeared completely.

From A História dos Ossos. Published 2005 by Editora 34. Copyright 2005 Alberto Martins. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2007 by Idra Novey. Illustration by Alberto Martins. All rights reserved.