A selection of short pieces by Veronica Stigger
Todo empezó como una broma. When Pedro realised that he’d been living for a decade in the city he’d chosen to call his own, there in that foreign country, and in all that time, he’d never once crossed the weathered, old Roman bridge, he decided he never would. And that’s not all: he also decided that under no circumstances would he ever cross over to the other side of the river, even if that meant taking the long way round on circuitous, almost impassable streets in order to leave the city solely by northern routes. Years passed and what was once merely a childish whim, had turned into a strange phobia. It was impossible to determine precisely when Pedro began to believe in the excuses he made for avoiding the bridge and that side of the city: it was dangerous, there were wolves and students and, if he crossed it, something unexpected – a bolt of lightning, a meteorite, a piece of wreckage from a spaceship – would surely strike him down. Another ten years went by, and Pedro not only stood firm in his resolve but grew even stricter with regards to his established precepts: he wouldn’t go anywhere near the bridge. Relatives who visited from far away resented not being able to cross said bridge in the pleasure of his company. He even refused to utter the bridge’s name. If it couldn’t be avoided, he would whisper it, almost inaudibly, as if saying ‘cancer’, or ‘death’. His stubbornness – perhaps now it could more accurately be described as fear – prevented him from knowing that the bridge was covered in cobblestones and had granite walls; that on one side an imposing prehistoric sculpture of a bull watched over all those who crossed it; that in the very middle were stone benches, where, during the day, passersby would pause for a moment to admire the landscape, take some pictures, or just rest, and at night students from the university would gather there to count shooting stars; that on its other side there were numerous trees, much leafier than those on this side, which, when blown by the wind, made a strange sound, like steady, pouring rain; and they weren’t wolves, but dogs who let out long howls as they listened to the song of the frantically moving leaves. Late on one of the hottest mornings in August, when no one dared venture out into the unrelenting sun, Pedro went to take out the trash and, having accomplished the task, something, which he would never be able to put his finger on, prompted him to go for a walk. He strolled down toward the city centre, past the university, past Antonio’s bar, which was closed for summer holidays, past the cathedral, past the alleyways that led to the Art Nouveau Museum, the empty square, the bookstore, the church, the school. Maybe it was all that sun setting his fiery head of hair even more aglow, maybe it was a touch of delirium from impending dehydration that drove Pedro down to the riverbank. Without realising where he was, he kept on walking, head down, sweating, thirsty as he’d never been before. He walked a few more yards until something gleaming on the stone pavement caught his eye. He came closer, saw it was a coin. Its silver surface reflected the sun with such intensity that it almost blinded anyone who looked at it. Pedro stooped down to pick it up and saw that it was a coin from another age, of very low value, without any current economic worth, and one of its sides bore the effigy of an old dictator, no less. He grinned, blew on the coin (more out of habit than actually believing it was dusty) and tucked it in his pocket, he was wearing shorts he had set aside for decades to wear only on unusually hot days, as was the case then. When he stood back up, he noticed that he was facing the fateful bridge, the bridge he had avoided for so many years and that, like a hidden god (he realised only now), had determined his movements within the world up to that point. Although he’d refused to look at it, even in photos, drawings, or paintings, he had no doubt that he was now standing before it. He had never come so close to the Roman bridge and was now paralysed, unable to move. He wanted to scream out, cry for help, but when he opened his mouth, he produced nothing more than a murmur. He wanted to text someone to rescue him from that place, but he had forgotten his phone on the living room table – after all, he had only gone to take out the trash. It was even hotter now, the sun’s rays beating down. Not a soul passed by, nor would one. With no alternative, Pedro stood beside the imposing prehistoric sculpture of the bull, staring at the bridge. He’d had no idea it was so long, or that it was so hot down there on the riverbanks. Even after the sun went down, the air was still scorching. Pedro thought that if he stayed where he was any longer, the heat accumulated in the cobblestones would melt the rubber soles of his flip-flops. But he didn’t budge. Night fell and Pedro still stood there, staring at the bridge. He was no longer sweating, or thirsty. It was the middle of the night when he saw the boat approaching. It was a simple fishing boat, with no motor, no sail, no oar, no flag. It drifted along with the wind, swaying to and fro, at times nearly tipping over. It rocked so lightly and so weightlessly that it seemed to be made of paper. The blue and white paint on the wood, weathered by time and water, was peeling off in various places, but the name, scrawled in oxblood, remained intact: Gaia. Or was it Gaio? Pedro’s nearsighted eyes couldn’t tell for sure. The boat was adorned with strings of colourful, old-fashioned lanterns, of the kind no longer made, hoisted up with what from a distance appeared to be two broomsticks wedged crudely into the bow and stern. Altogether, the whole thing resembled a sort of floating country fair. A rectangular wooden table, covered with a red and white checkered tablecloth, occupied nearly the entire length of the boat. Around it – who knows how, given the tiny space – were five wooden chairs with cane seats. Seated on four of them were two young men and two young women. The men had beards and were also redheads, like Pedro. They were dressed only in shorts, no shirts or t-shirts, and wore colourful flip-flops. A third man – the only one wearing a hat, a wide-brimmed, light-coloured Panama hat – stood at the bow, chest held high, hands on his waist like a sentry. The women, meanwhile, had skin so white they appeared almost translucent. Their hair, by contrast, was dark as night. Their bodies were draped in light, sleeveless, floral cotton dresses and, like the men, they also wore colourful flip-flops. On the table were two bottles of white wine, a roast leg of lamb, a dish of red potatoes, a green salad with tomatoes, a block of cheese cut in half, a large round loaf of bread, five plates, five glasses, five forks, and five knives, all plastic, as well as apples, pears, oranges, and grapes, bunches and bunches of grapes. With the exception of the sentry, everyone was smiling and chatting away. When they saw Pedro, they stopped talking and waved. Pedro looked around and saw that there was no one else there, that night, in the Provincia Negra. Their waving, therefore, could only be directed at him. Pedro! Pedro! Pedro! they shouted. And Pedro was not the least bit taken aback that those strangers knew his name. Hail, Pedro! They were now on their feet, greeting him as they waved. With all the commotion, the boat went catawampus, tossing this way and that. Before Pedro could decide whether or not to raise his arm and wave back, the boat, as if powered by the simple will of those who traveled aboard it, docked at the riverbank. The sentry then extended his right hand to Pedro, palm up. Pedro was surprised that his palm did not have a single line or wrinkle or callus: it was entirely smooth, the way a newborn’s palms must be. The sentry waggled his hand impatiently, closed it, then opened it again, indicating with this gesture that he wanted something. Pedro felt in his pockets and found the coin he’d picked up by the bridge. He smiled for the second time that day and placed it in the sentry’s outstretched hand, who then closed it and stepped back, making way. Pedro climbed aboard the boat, sat on the only empty chair, which he now understood was reserved for him, and smiled one last time before setting sail.
For Donizete Galvão
I lay my whole body down, like a pope, at the edge of the well, my ribs brushing against the ground and red ants climbing up my belly and towards my arms, which at that precise moment were wrapped in an embrace around the well’s unexpectedly warm rim, but when I tilted my head to kiss the pure waters, as I’d done every day when I shut my eyes before drifting to sleep, since that Sunday the well was left behind, there was no water; the well was no longer a well, but an endless, black hole emanating a damp heat, which made me smile as I realised I had finally found what I’d been looking for all those years when, under the pretense of quenching my thirst, I lay my whole body down, like a pope, at the edge of the well: the only possible path of return to the earth’s fiery womb.
Eduardo had been putting off this violence and this bliss for some time. Finally, at eleven a.m. on the longest day of the year, there he was, standing in front of José, a rancher on the border between Uruguay and Rio Grande do Sul, a legendary practitioner of the art of roasting cattle in its own hide. José had been clear: the shot should be fired from behind, and in the head. If the bull had any inkling it was about to die, the meat would toughen. Eduardo nodded. As he approached the bull, however, he whispered something, perhaps a name, or a prayer, so that the animal turned round and, the moment Eduardo pulled the trigger, the bull looked him straight in the eye.
Quand avez-vous le plus souffert?
It was at the park. That park downtown. It was a sunny afternoon in October. She was building a play hut. She said she would build a house for me. She snapped branches from the bushes and stuck them in the ground. She was making a ring of branches around her. I was sitting on one of the colorful park benches. I looked at her, having fun with her hut. She smiled at me and I smiled back. She waved at me, cheerfully, and I waved too. My eyes welled with tears and my nose began to run. I took the yarn and needles from my bag and began to knit. At some point, she came over and sat beside me. She asked me for a piece of yarn. I gave her a piece of the gold wool. Then she turned to me and, wrapping the piece of yarn around my neck, said: ‘Mommy, did you know you could make necklaces out of this?’ She repeated the gesture, now placing the yarn around her own neck. ‘Look, isn’t it pretty?’ she asked me. She crouched between my legs, her back to me. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘It is pretty, very pretty.’ I was clutching the yarn between my fingertips. I started to pull it tighter around her neck. I tugged, tighter and tighter. She asked me to stop, she said I was hurting her. I wanted to loosen it, but, at the same time, I couldn’t stand the thought of her chiding me for having tried to hurt her and I kept pulling for what felt like an eternity. She tried to free herself from the golden strand cutting into her dark skin. But she couldn’t. I kept clutching until she stopped moving.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
Zoë Perry's translations of contemporary Portuguese-language fiction and non-fiction have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Words Without Borders, and the Washington Square Review. She was awarded a PEN/Heim grant for her translation of Veronica Stigger's novel Opisanie świata. Zoë is a founding member of the London-based translators collective, The Starling Bureau.