‘Not my name. I live on the streets of an era in which saying one’s name is a cause for suspicion… The name I bear today may not recognise me tomorrow. So I do not bind my face to a particular name.’
João Gilberto Noll
This is how it begins. When it seems as if it’s all over.
Staring at the ground without blinking, I notice a piece of damp earth that seems like it’s in the wrong place. I pick it up with both hands and without really knowing why, I put the fistful of damp earth that’s in the wrong place in my pocket, and decide to walk until I know where I’m trying to get to.
Maybe to a place where this bit of earth fits.
I pass by a neighbour’s house, knock on the door, and while I’m waiting for them to answer, I notice the outline of a perfect rectangle on the ground where a doormat has been removed. Without really knowing why, other than the strong smell that seems to be coming from it, I push the outline of the mat further down into the tightly packed earth and exchange the damp earth in my pockets for a dry clump. I fill both pockets again and depart, as if I’ve just left a message.
I go up a hill. I dig a hole to leave the dry earth in and take a bit of quartz stone which, I don’t know if you know, is the most common stone on our planet and can be used to make many things: soap, toothpaste, sandpaper, optic fibres, watches, radios, ashtrays, even cheap jewellery.
I don’t want to do anything with this stone, I just want to carry it. I pick up the stone which also smells of damp earth and don’t look back.
For reasons not worth mentioning, I move on.
Some would say: I depart.
But I say: I split.
I arrive at the border between my city and the next.
A river separates the two. I feel my quartz stone works perfectly as a border marker. I put it down by the river’s edge and fill my pockets with shells from the bank.
In this city I have no neighbours whose doors I can knock on.
I come to a halt at a bus stop by an abandoned quarry. I crush the shells into a fine powder which I try to insert into the cracks in the stones, exchanging them for a lovely piece of marble. It’s too heavy to carry on foot, so it’s lucky I’m near a bus stop. I get on the first bus that looks as if it’s going somewhere far away. I doze during the journey and wake to find someone asking to see my passport. I have no real reason to be scared, but I am, very much so, and without really knowing how, nor why, I hide. Behind the marble. At the first opportunity, I flee. I walk the whole night, dragging my portion of earth, which is made of stone, and by the time I get to a place that’s far away from the place I’ve escaped from, it’s getting dark again. It occurs to me that I might now be in another country, otherwise they wouldn’t have asked for my passport. Some countries are so small, you can lose them just like that, even when they’re difficult to enter or leave. The distance is never the issue.
There’s not a living soul to be seen in this far-off place, which may well be another country. Without really knowing what brings me there, I knock on the first door I find, probably a government office. As there’s no one around, without thinking twice I set down the marble on the counter and take a piece of slate from a blackboard lying there on the floor, propped up against a wall. I keep going until I arrive in another city, maybe even a third country. There’s not a single flowerbed. Everything is set upon structures made of steel and concrete. I find a drill and a yellow high-vis suit, neither of which seems to belong to anyone. I choose a motorway under construction so that I can go about as I please for a few days, in my discreet, fluorescent uniform. I join a team of workers who are all apparently as foreign as I am and help them with the more arduous tasks. No one asks any questions. By the third day I’m sharing my lunch with the team and at three in the afternoon I choose my place, right by the entrance of a service station. With the drill, I cut out a piece of tarmac. It takes me a few hours, but the result far exceeds my expectations. In the tarmac’s place I drop the piece of slate from the office. I water it, just as I’d water any other piece of earth, and I inaugurate this new territory by putting up a red and white ribbon around it to keep out trespassers. I keep a bit of tarmac to take with me. I depart immediately in the hope of quickly finding a new resting place, for it’s summer and this piece of road is hot.
Before I’ve even walked half a dozen kilometres, I notice a wall.
That divides a city.
That divides a country.
That divides an entire world in two.
I crush the piece of tarmac against the cement and use it to fill the cracks in an extremely high wall that is due to be demolished, and I take a piece of wall the same size as the tarmac, all broken up into tiny pieces, like little souvenirs. I continue on to the next country and when I get there I find another wall which, because it’s bigger, because it’s older, and because it defends a king from enemy attacks while stemming the exodus of the poorest people, is called a ram- part, and as I’m getting ready to exchange several bits of graffiti-covered wall for an ancient pebble, I remember that this rampart may be protected, because it is used in the telling of an official story, and so cannot be demolished. Stripped of my belongings and documents, it doesn’t seem wise for me to challenge patrimony; so I scrape off all the lichen and seal the holes in a ruined tower with my brick and cement.
With all the moss I can carry, I keep heading north, to a tundra.
To one side, trees. To the other, polar ice. I feel like the moss goes well with the ice. With a pick, I split open an iceberg, which immediately comes unstuck, sliding off towards the south, with me on top of it, at a speed I find simply astonishing for an iceberg, considering their tendency to move extremely slowly.
The journey is long and the iceberg does not withstand the increase in temperature, so it melts, raising the sea level with it. In a flooded land, still drifting, I rest. I wake up and realise that the earth around me has dried up, and is now made of salt. Partially buried, my hands touch a piece of mosaic under the salt. I can feel it. An empire beneath the salt: chambers, atria, springs, roads, houses, tables, candelabra, emperors, vendors, tax collectors, prostitutes, all intact, fro- zen in time, as if in brine. And beneath the empire, a sheet of lava.
For a few short moments I convince myself that I’ve sailed into the earth’s crust, all the way through to the opposing hemisphere, getting to the other side without going all the way round. This beautiful image notwithstanding, know- ing where I am doesn’t seem that important.
I set foot upon the empire, and exchange the salt for basalt.
At this exact moment, the pillaging begins.
Men appear, seemingly from nowhere, and lay waste to what remains of the empire, in search of relics, precious jewels, antiques, food, shelter. A market springs up on this saline soil, above an empire, above a cloak of lava. Without leaving the place, I exchange the basalt for limestone, which I exchange for granite, which I exchange for lead, which I exchange for iron, which I exchange for zinc, which I exchange for bronze, which I exchange for pewter, which I exchange for silver, which I exchange for jade, which I exchange for nickel, which I exchange for phosphorus, which I exchange for uranium, which, I don’t know if you know, is a radioactive element, white and combustible, number 92 on the periodic table, and which we once used as a yellowish dye before we found out it could cause nuclear explosions.
I grab the uranium and take it to an atoll.
I sit down, facing the sea. To plant uranium on a beach is no easy task, in fact I think it’s illegal unless a government has told you to do it. I choose a location set back from the shore, and dig metres and metres down, days and days of arduous labour beneath a blazing sun, without eating or sleeping, until I reach the first layer of rock. I bury my potential nuclear explosion. I take the sand I’ve dug out with me. I board an inflatable boat and enter the terrible, unrelenting sea, and as I travel it occurs to me that the sea is also a country. I exchange the sand crystals for crystalline water. I do my sums and fill the boat with litres and litres of salty waves. I’m so focused on what I’m doing that I forget boats can’t hold that much water, especially when there are people in them.
And so I sink.
You’d say: I’m shipwrecked.
I hit the bottom. That’s what happens.
Strangely, I can still breathe at the bottom. Carried along by the kind of current that is said to carry turtles on their annual migrations to Australia, I enter a cave. I lose consciousness. Of myself and of the purpose of my journey. I come to on a beach, clinging to a piece of abyssolith, a rock so old and so fossilised that it can tell our story from the earth’s very beginnings, and yet we don’t even notice it, perhaps because we don’t want to know.
I’m not in Australia, I think. But I am on an island which trembles when I drop the abyssolith. I open my eyes and I’m alone again, standing before a lifeless body. The thought occurs to me that a body is also a country, that it too smells of wet earth.
I grab the body, kiss it like I’m in love with it, and bury it in a church said to be the birthplace of every prophet of every doctrine, though officially it belongs to just one of them.
I bury the body under the right side of the nave and get ready to take a slab of stone with no name on it. When I get up there’s a man behind me, and he grabs me by the neck and asks who I am. I say my name, but that’s not what he wants, he wants the name of the dead person, which I don’t know, and when he squeezes my throat and suggests a name, I repeat that I don’t know, that I found the body in another country, in another city, no, an island, in a hole that had abyssolith in it, and he keeps squeezing my throat, and as I struggle to breathe it occurs to me that death can also be a country, an interminable country with no borders, no languages, a country I do not want to live in just yet. I grab my death by the horns and throw it at the man who is strangling me. It’s a simple reflex, one that neither demands courage, nor brings satisfaction. Now, regardless of my own personal feelings, it seems wise to change country, above all because our stories are always different when told by other people, and I don’t want to risk anyone comparing my story with someone else’s.
I run all night long, hoping I’m running in the right direction, and I reach yet another border which, for reasons again unknown to me (even if they weren’t, they’d make no sense to anyone who is not running for their life, like me), I show the passport of the man I threw my death at, pay for my visa with his money, go from being a woman to being a man, and cross the border, bearing the load of the stone with no name on my back.
Identity is a kind of country too. A temporary one, but a country nevertheless. It’s not a body, it’s not a piece of land, it’s not an ocean, it may not be our own identity, but nevertheless it’s still a country of sorts.
Across the border, someone is standing before me, and they say: ‘I’ve been waiting for you.’ I don’t understand her language but I understand what she’s trying to tell me. She calls me by what I presume is the name of the man with whom I exchanged my death, gives me her arm, we feel a tiny electric shock when our shoulders, encased in nylon, meet, and then she takes me to her house. I exchange my woman’s body and the body of the man I killed for a living body. I begin to doubt my own intentions behind the initial exchange of earth. I get some clean clothes and take a hot bath. The wedding takes place the following day. I try to explain myself, but only false justifications escape from my mouth, and her religion doesn’t permit questions. I begin reading out loud in order to clarify my misunderstandings, and when the morning comes I exchange the slab for brick, and the brick for a roof tile, and I build a house, a family, a new language, a dog, a garden, a job in the family business. We won’t have children.
But I start again. So I think.
You’re mistaken, I hear you say.
In reality, I’m never the same again.
Everything loses its urgency and becomes habit.
I go along with it, but on the inside I’m still running as fast as I can.
I wake before dawn, drenched in the sweat of my nocturnal marathons.
In the mornings I slow down almost to the point of paralysis. And I’m beginning to repeat myself. I am my own earth, and every day I exchange myself. Then one day it happens again: I wake up even earlier than usual and notice that the earth smells not like earth, but like that one piece of wet earth. My eyes are soaking wet. I stop myself from getting up until I find a solution. I just lie there, listening, feeling. I hear an explosion. I go out on to the streets in my pyjamas, carrying a torch, to find the engine-room door wide open, with all the wires cut. The smell is coming from in there, but not just from in there. I look at the cables again, remember that cables also contain earth, and think: that’s it! I strip the wires and the cables and repeat the explosion that had woken me up. Oil pours from the earth where we’ve built our home, our family, our language, our garden, my job, the business which has no heirs to run it in the future. Petrol is not easy to transport but it can easily be exchanged for any other kind of earth, that much is obvious. And suddenly I’m not alone, though everyone is a stranger. They speak to me in a language I understand but which belongs neither to them nor to me, asking me what I’m doing there. I don’t know how to respond. I realise I’m in a fix, and only then do I think to ask myself: Can it be that they also know the cables are earth? Sometimes we make decisions that come from nowhere and which we cannot stop, and I feel an uncontrollable urge to prove my existence by gently beating the earth with my hands as I answer the only question they don’t ask me and I tell them I urgently need to measure our current, our resistance, our voltage, to understand where it is we’re all going and when. I raise my eyes, and she responds, my wife who’s not there, and I see her being escorted by these unknown men, and in an attempt to change the topic of conversation or maybe to pursue it further, she tells me that my problem is sim- ply one of alterity. I realise that what follows is one more attempt at restitution, not of the earth or the current but of the truth, and it’s then I hear her say, ‘Being with me turns you into someone else, doesn’t it?’, and I don’t know what to say because I know what awaits me and she continues, ‘Being with me lifts you up from yourself, like a hoisting cable, just as other cables keep us connected to the ground’. ‘That’s it, that’s exactly it,’ I say. Things have a strange way of being understood even in the most unexpected circumstances. Before I realise it I find myself in a car boot with my hands bound and a bandage covering my eyes. I’m struggling to think and so I let things be for a moment, finding out if what’s happening to me is actually happening. When I come round, it smells of earth again – a very strong odour this time, of burnt earth.
I decide I’m in a film, that this isn’t really happening to me, and I think of Harrison Ford, who’s so good at freeing himself when his hands are bound with rope, always dragging himself along to a sharp object and thus dealing with the situation. So, like Harrison Ford, I drag myself along on the ground. And I do in fact manage to free myself, not because I find a sharp object but because the earth around me is burning and the fire burns my hands and burns through the ropes. Instinctively I put my hands to the ground to put out the flames (funny how the earth lights fires but also extinguishes them, it’s like it can’t make its mind up), and then I bring them to my eyes to rip off the bandage; I fill the pock- ets of my shirt, trousers and coat with ashes. I don’t know if I want to go back to the house I own, the house I owned, or to the house I’d like to have found.
I think we all suffer from mild cases of aporia, the tremendous difficulty in choosing between two contrary opinions on the same principle; and when there is no space to think, one simply runs.
So I run.
And I’m still running.
Going towards that familiar border.
I realise that the identity I now possess (which was once someone else’s) does not allow me to enter into that country which may well once have been mine. I want to re-enter, I really do, for the first time it makes so much sense, it makes all the difference, for reasons obvious only to me (which should more than suffice). I don’t want to go anywhere else, I want to go there, that is, here, and when I’m refused entry I head to the customs office, and tell them I’ve come from a country at war and am seeking political asylum from my former country. I fill out a form, sign it, get a passport photo taken and, exchanging the ashes of the fire I put out for the dust on the bench in the customs office I become a citizen of a country I’ve never been to as a woman, in order to seek political asylum from my own country, where they speak my own language.
I go out on to the streets, overcome with the happiness of someone who does not know what they’re doing but is convinced they’re doing the right thing, and I take a look around. Lorries are arriving and departing, taking many pieces of earth from many countries to many others. I stand there while the earth moves on its own, without me. Without a soul.
And I watch cement being exchanged for clay being exchanged for painted tiles being exchanged for crystal being exchanged for porcelain being exchanged for tea being exchanged for opium being exchanged for cotton being exchanged for coffee being exchanged for spices being exchanged for amber being exchanged for resin being exchanged for honey being exchanged for sugar cane being exchanged for palm oil being exchanged for butter being exchanged for seeds being exchanged for roots being exchanged for coal being exchanged for gas being exchanged for sulphur which, I don’t know if you knew, perfumes the depths of hell, is essential for living organisms, and is used to make fertilisers, insecticides, laxatives, gunpowder and matchstick heads.
One day so much of the world will have been exchanged that we’ll feel at home anywhere. As I think about this, I suddenly notice that I’m in a lorry, I must have got in without thinking, and the lorry sets off with me inside, and I’m picked up at a roadside check with a declaration in my pocket confirming I come from a country that is at war and am therefore illegal in this country which, despite being my own land, has still not offered me asylum. I’m deported to an unknown country, one I’ve never been to, but which my papers insist is my own country; the earth there smells completely different from all the earth I’ve collected up to this point.
It no longer makes any sense to stop.
I sell my declaration of citizenship of a country at war for a tent, in the middle of a savannah. I hammer in the first peg and find a diamond. I sell the first one, sell the second one, sell the third and fourth, and exchange the ones that follow for a bigger mine, which I exchange for an even more valuable one, which I exchange for weapons with which to defend my business (and to buy every passport going at gunpoint), which I exchange for even more money, which I exchange for a private plane, so that I can exchange many lands for many others, which I accidentally exchange for 1,000 millibars of atmospheric pressure, which is exchanged for many many decibels when I crash into the first plateau that resembles mine, at least from afar. I think to myself: I’ve arrived!
I try to enter my house but the door is locked. It has other walls, other windows. I look for my keys. I forget that I exchanged them for two spades for two coffees for three nights’ sleep for an overall for two sheets for a fridge for three bowls of soup, basically, to survive. I have no keys. I knock on the door. Inside someone shouts that they’re closed for lunch. From outside I explain that I used to live there. Inside they reply that no one has lived here for a long time. I ignore what they tell me and inside they keep saying, ‘Yes, this is the right place, but it’s not yours, it’s a government office now’. ‘Wait there,’ I say, ‘Yes, it’s mine, but it wasn’t right there, it was more over that way’. ‘It may well have been,’ the person inside says, ‘but the fact is that now it’s a government office’. ‘This makes no sense,’ I think, and as if the person inside has heard me, they reply, ‘It may not make sense, but we own the land, we own the house, we have the key, it’s ours now, and if you wouldn’t mind, please stop bothering us, don’t you see we’re on our lunch break?’
I’m speechless, something almost as serious as being landless. I take the opportunity to go over to what may have been my first flowerbed in front of what may not be my house.
And that’s when my courage fails.
I sit down, to avoid falling over. I remember that it all began when I decided to run against the wind. And once again the wind decided to run against me. And it changed the way the earth smells. I find a ring. It’s not mine. But it reminds me of one I lost there. Perhaps time is also earth, also a country, one bigger than all the others, soaring above all of them, as it accumulates every state on earth before occasionally letting one fall, like residual pieces of places in places of places, in places where these places never were until now. How can the earth be made of a single word, when so many others fit inside it?
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
PATRÍCIA PORTELA is a writer and performance maker, living between Belgium and Portugal. She studied set and costume design in Lisbon, scenography in Utrecht, The Netherlands, film in Ebeltoft, Denmark and Helsinki, Finland, and Philosophy in Leuven, Belgium. She won the Revelation Prize in 1994 for her creative work in performance and cinema, the Prize Teatro na Década for T5 in 1999, the Gulbenkian Foundation Prize Madalena de Azeredo Perdigão for the performance Flatland I in 2004 and was one of the five finalists of the Sonae Media Art Prize 2015 with her installation Parasomnia, amongst other prizes. She is the author of novels including Banquet (finalist for the APEL Novel Prize 2012), and has been a writer for the prestigious Jornal de Letras since 2017. The story in this issue is taken from her 2017 collection Dias Úteis (Working Days), which contains one story for each day of the week.
Rahul Bery, a secondary school teacher and translator from Spanish and Portuguese, is based in Cardiff. He has translated essays and stories by Daniel Galera, Cesar Aíra and Enrique Vila-Matas, all for this publication.