for Dr. Carvalho
if from these stones one announced what creates silence: here, close by, [ . . . ] this would open, like a wound you would have to plunge into
–Paul Celan, “The Power of Light”
A fluid sound ran through the house, brushed against the dust on the garden vines, swayed the mangoes and the papayas as they ripened, terrified a drunken dragonfly that was dozing there, made the sun diminish, and settled still strong, still distinct, at the woman’s ear. Followed by a smile.
From the stereo the sound flowed continuously, without interruption. The doctor was locked into this Sunday habit of sitting outdoors on his veranda listening for long periods to the Brazilian singer Adriana Calcanhoto. Now he slept, now he read, now he wrote, now he simply lay back with teary eyes contemplating the fat clouds fleeing the sky. For him nothing more anointed a Sunday than his own peace. “Sunday” was, for the doctor, a deeply personal word, a wellspring.
Knowing this-that the doctor appeared deep in his Sunday routine-the woman hesitated. She lay her head against the iron gate and wanted to believe the impossible: that she was not thirsty. Her head throbbed; her eyes truly wanted to close, to forget the world, to stop rendering their visual services. The cold gate brought pleasure to the fingers and the heart. The music invaded her pores. Right then she and the doctor shared a common sensation. At the same moment he thought: This voice, yes, it can be shared. The voice of Adriana, purring into the afternoon: “People will be crazy, or sane… when they want everything to become music.”
When the voice fell quiet, the dragonfly decided to wake up, moving in an open zigzag and landing near the doctor’s notes. Scratchings, denied memories, fragments of more sensitive times that he did not need to accept as his own. “I forget the ground, I don’t find the words,” the voice sang on. It had been years since he settled accounts with the animals and settled into a balanced relationship with them. He maintained a still-conflicted relationship with the cockroaches and the lizards, but he was no killer. Instead, he used to smile. In the morning he often yearned to see Angolan antelope running like he used to see as a child in the southwestern province of Namibe; sometimes at the beach he found sweaty horses and was held back by eyes that wanted to shut, savoring the strong scent of lathering horse flesh. He was happy only on the eve of a trip, when he dreamt of white or delicately yellow butterflies, and never got an interpretation of the dream. It had been years since he made peace with the animals, including the Dengue cat that he had dealt a mortal wound. The cats, mainly cats, brought the insects back to mind.
It was after the dragonfly that he noticed the woman resting at his gate with closed eyes, listening, it seemed to him, to the music of Adriana: “On principle I never close doors, but . . . keep them open at all times . . . ”
He uncrossed his legs and slowly released them from the other chair: he slipped into his sandals. Walking, he was looking at the tranquil dragonfly strolling over his letters, over the smell of his Violet #971 ink. The ink was so sticky that he had to write at a furious pace, since it dried quickly once it met the air. But the dragonfly, not particularly curious, couldn’t reach the bottle and couldn’t drink. One step, two. He was near the gate and the woman, despite his wishes, didn’t open her eyes. But she did speak.
-Forgive the interruption …
It was neither a shock nor anything really describable. The doctor simply hadn’t counted on that feeling of closeness.
-I recognize the smell of the ink . . . Sir, do you write with a quill?
-No… It’s… Well, OK, it’s a kind of quill.
The gate was unlocked. He mentioned opening it; she opened her eyes, taking her eyes off the grillwork.
-Forgive the interruption, but I’m so thirsty-maybe hoping that the doctor would reveal whether or not he forgave the disturbance, she shifted tone.
The gate was opened by the doctor’s precise hand, while his other offered a friendly gesture. He was not easily ruffled. “Right there I forgot that destiny, always wanted me alone,” sang Adriana.
-Water or soft drink?-the doctor.
The woman noticed the still dragonfly. Its heart was too alive for it to be dead or embalmed, but it was totally immune to the wind that ruffled the sheets of paper. The woman approached the table but didn’t sit down. Out of curiosity she looked at the inky letters against the whiteness without intending to read the message, but more in appreciation of the beauty of the masculine handwriting. It was, she later saw, a “type of quill,” as the doctor told her, that had produced those enchanting scratches. It offered no resistance and came to her nearby hand; it seemed crystalline.
-It’s glass. Yes, glass. Isn’t it lovely?-the doctor.
-Very . . . It’s a very special quill-the woman.
He brought the water, in a normal glass, to her hands. The doctor still kept the pitcher on a long side of the table, without disturbing the dragonfly. He invited the woman to sit down.
-Thank you. You must be surprised, hmm?
-Asking for water. No one has rung the bells to ask for water, right?
-That’s right. You’re not from here, no?
The woman served herself again. She drank slowly, as suited her.
-I remember one of my grandmothers in Silva Porto who once had a man come into her house dying of thirst and asking her for water. My grandmother returned to the room with a jug of very cold water and he chugged three glasses without stopping.
-He did. The man only had time to return the jug to her before he dropped the glass to the floor. He died right there, you know? Ever since, my grandmother lived to tell this story, and my grandfather swore that it was true-the doctor concluded.
-That doesn’t scare me.
-Sorry, it wasn’t meant to scare you.
-And what was it that your grandfather said?
-Mind you, my grandfather was a man of refined temperament and sensibility. When I was little he confirmed the whole story and at the end he said: That man never thanked your grandmother for the water.
The woman held the glass and inhaled deeply.
-Do you know why I asked for water here in your house?
-Because of the music… This sweet voice.
-Adriana Calcanhoto, a Brazilian singer.
-Is she a poet too?
-No . . . Sir. . . Sir, are you a poet?
-Ah, me! No, I’m a doctor. And you?
-I’m here on vacation.
The dragonfly made its way to the ground. At last it moved, walking.
In the expression of both of them one could see the fear of two children who, with grave open-mouthed attention, watched the sudden graceful movement of a stone. The dragonfly walked toward the object. In a short shake of its wings it jumped and became quiet-a warrior marking its conquered territory. “And the grievance of the stars is for me alone” wafted toward the porch in the afternoon.
The object was a thick glass dome, certainly expensive, that covered a small ordinary gray stone. The most that could be said of it was that it was a tiny stone, neither charming, nor unusual, nor exotic or attractive. It was a crudely common stone. The glass enclosure, however, raised its value.
-I think that the value of this stone can’t be measured by its looks. Do you agree?
-But this dome is beautifully made . . .
The doctor, in a confident gesture, shook the dragonfly-a surprise for both the woman and the dragonfly. The insect returned to rest on the letters. The stone and its glass dome were hurled to the floor. The woman didn’t have time to be scared. The object noisily hit the floor twice and, after rolling a while, ended its journey. The doctor caught the object and returned to put it on the table at the foot of the letters, the papers, the dragonfly. The insect, in a short sprinkling of wings, returned to its post.
-All glass is fragile, my grandfather said. This glass dome is very good at protecting valuable objects.
The woman started to feel thirsty but she didn’t want to inconvenience him.
-Yes, a very special gift, very sincere.
-Do doctors receive many gifts?
-Some; it’s a way for people to express thanks and affection.
And he fell silent.
The woman didn’t want to leave, but she thought she was forcing the moment. The doctor stayed quiet for more than five minutes. The woman thought it was time to leave. The music seemed to stop and the voice, the voice was difficult to record in memory’s ear.
-Adriana, you say?
-Adriana Calcanhoto. She’s Brazilian.
-Thank you very much for the water.
-You’re welcome. You know, always drink slowly.
-And thanks before I die!
The doctor sort of smiled. His lips contorted; only an attempt at a smile. Maybe.
The gate was open. The woman, grabbing the iron grates purposefully, recognized the sensation of that coldness of skin.
-You know, it was on Sunday-the doctor started. -I was called to the battlefront and no one wanted to operate on the man: he had some kind of explosive lodged in his leg. It was a very delicate operation; I still think about it today. I had to do everything very slowly so that he wouldn’t be in any pain, and both of us had to be patient. Near the end, the soldier said to me: Let me die; I’m already so tired. I answered: I’ll let you die, but first let me save you.
-So he died?
-No. The operation went well. In the end, he wanted to offer me a gift. As if nothing had happened, he took off the boot and said: Now I know why the stone kept bothering me for two days. Take it, doctor, just so we don’t forget our conversation today. You keep the stone, I’ll keep the scar.
The gate closed. The thirst had passed. The woman, walking slowly down the sidewalk, understood that it was the stone that gave value to the enclosure. She heard footsteps. The music started again: “My music wants to transcend taste, it doesn’t want to have a face, it doesn’t want to be culture.”
Between two sepia pages-in a window of dust-the woman watched the dragonfly stop, undulating. It was a dance. At its feet lay the crudely common stone. Between the memory of the man and the unbreakable dome of glass.