“Three Fires” originally appeared in the Brazilian journal Revista Pessoa. It appears here as a part of WWB’s ongoing partnership with Revista Pessoa. Each month, WWB will bring readers new work that originally appeared in Pessoa here in English translation, and Pessoa will publish work from WWB's pages in translation into Brazilian Portuguese.
In 2016, I came across three different individuals whose homes had smoldered to the ground in recent decades. Only in December did I realize the coincidence. I was ridding myself of some papers when I was dizzily whisked back to the living room of an olive-green abode. Recalling the cup of coffee that the homeowner had served me one afternoon in September, I shuddered. The first of these individuals had been Severino, before January had let out. Then, Celeste, the precocious grandma whose mother burned alive together with everything else in a fire of which no newspaper, that I can remember, took note. In September, Dulce. What did it all mean? Was it a bad omen or merely a coincidence?
As I sought to place things in perspective, the reason behind our encounters seemed shrouded in mystery. Bit by bit, the places we live take on the shape of our demons. The novelist Rachel Cusk wrote that entering a house is akin to entering a woman’s body: “everything I do there will be felt more intimately by her than by anyone else.” Visiting the homes where people live reminds me of walking through a cluttered exhibition of something that, because we fear its loss, we refuse to imagine will ever rise up against us.
January was Severino’s month. As we said goodbye, he showed me a brick he’d rescued after the fire died out, in a Polaroid he’d taken from his wallet, next to which Severino also appeared, as though the brick were posing next to the person. He held the brick in his hand and smiled for the camera as though he were an athlete obsessed with his looks or the fawning father of a newborn. For a second, as I peered at the image, it looked as if the photo were showing two young men, or, at least, a smiling person and another creature curiously made of brick, a trophy from the hunt, still warm. Severino referred to his house not as an organ of his body but as though he were alluding to a life he had left behind, and I was once again returned to my discomfort. The shanty where he lived with his mother and two cousins burned down ten years ago. All that was left were the bricks. After the fire, he and the women of the family built another with supplies gathered at twilight from construction sites, board by board, brick by brick, bag of cement by bag of cement. He lived in the reconstructed shack until he married, at which point he moved to a housing project a few short steps from the tin-can neighborhood where the scorched shanty once stood. The police never investigated the incident. The neighbor women suggested a curse was the cause. An estranged cousin, justice. Others imputed blame to an exposed electrical outlet. Recalling the tragedy, Severino preferred the explanation that it was divine provocation, reciting the Book of Job by heart between irritatingly impassive sips of cappuccino on an esplanade in the Chiado, in Lisboa’s city center.
In July, I met Celeste. Her home had burned down in 2012. A police investigation concluded the cause was a short-circuit. “My mother had gone to get her hair cut and had just arrived home. Everything inside burned—and she burned with it.” A staggering Miss Odete with her flawless set hair has haunted me ever since the day we spoke. I imagine her disheveled, her hair falling over her shoulders in shades of gold, trying to make it across the ground floor hallway of a home I’ve never stepped foot in, the flames licking her heels, her coughing, suffocating, the life slowly leaving her body as she clung to the doorframe. Then, minutes later, already lifeless, unrecognizable even to those who knew her, her red nail polish, the black flesh of her fingers. The hands of the woman’s daughter trembled when I met her during a visit for afternoon tea at the apartment she had moved to four years earlier, the new home where she did not yet feel at home. “You always think that you’ll start arranging things, but then you put it off, put it off, and years go by,” she told me in a voice full of jangling nerves and the timbre of an evasive girl. The room where we spoke resembled a museum, and yet its arrangement could not hide the fact that Celeste had been moving for four years, that there were boxes to open, dishes wrapped in newspaper, and little piles of paper all around the space composed exclusively of furniture inherited from two aunts who had died in the meantime. There was hardly any room for your feet to touch the ground, and yet nothing appeared out of place.
In September, I visited Dulce. Her floor of an apartment complex burned down thirty years ago. A gas lamp had fallen over a Persian rug before setting fire to the living room drapes. Not a single item survived. When we met, Dulce had just returned from the beach, her dyed-blonde hair still moist with salt water. She had the scorched skin of those women who, living near the beach, spend hours beneath the sun the whole year round. She boasted healthy wrinkles around her tiny gray eyes and thick, freckled lips the color of antique roses. She rebuilt her house at her own expense, without the help of the landlord of the building where she’s lived for the last forty years. She repurposed a veranda as a second office. She exchanged the carpet in the hallways and bedrooms for hardwood floors. Over the years, her confidence growing, she installed a fireplace in the living room where the flames once roared, and where we sat down to talk. She recalled the events without any change in her expression, treating the episode like a distant memory and not a threat whose possible recurrence hovered over her life, as though a house could only burn once. Even after so much time passed, I began to find it odd that Dulce’s living room no longer smelled of smoke. On the contrary, everything in that room gave off a thirty-year-old perfume and not a scent of emptiness. An irrational fear nearly made me forget that Severino, Celeste, and Dulce had entrusted me with the moments in which they had lost everything. Forgetting is a skill we only master with our eyes closed.
The Italian architect and thinker Aldo Rossi (1931–1997) wrote that “every moment of becoming conscious of things is merged with a wish to be able to abandon them.” Rossi was speaking about abandoning architecture, at the end of his life, a point at which he took written stock of his oeuvre. Considering his observations more than an autobiography, he thought about naming these professional memories Forgetting Architecture. “I have always liked things that have been brought to a conclusion,” he affirmed at the end of A Scientific Autobiography. A declaration that, in the face of the fires of my past year, seemed to me in retrospect like a rogue peal of laughter in the face of death. Severino, Celeste, and Dulce’s fires are far from over, flaring up apropos of nothing, in the middle of a trivial conversation about the weather, one’s health, or work. Rossi’s memoirs offer no map for forgetting, nor do they make clear what we must do so as not to disappear together with that which we erase after all we have learned. Few things depend so little upon us as an ending or a forgetting. But not knowing how to forget something is, after all, to yet understand very little about that something. Aldo Rossi, it seems, intuited that oblivion carries us the way a giant throws a sack over its shoulder. We build our homes with our own hands, we grow, we suffer, we love, and we feel safe at home despite knowing little about how we will forget that home should it become necessary. No one, it seems, prepares to learn to abandon her home. Will we be ready when our homes expel us? They demand very little of us. Like the body we have been given, they show an unsettling generosity toward our ignorance of them. Though they burn, they teach us nothing about the sudden art of setting fire to all that we are.