Three excerpts from The Piano Cemetery, by José Luís Peixoto
There’s no difference between what actually happened and what I kept distorting in my imagination, over and over again, across the years. There’s no difference between the dull pictures I remember, and the raw, cruel words I think I remember but which are merely reflections constructed out of guilt. Time – like a wall, a tower, any construction – makes their stop being differences between truth and lie. Time mixes truth and lie together. What happened mixes together with what I want to have happened and with what they told me happened. My memory isn’t my own. My memory is me distorted by time and mixed up with myself – with my fear, with my guilt, with my repentance. When I remember being four years old and playing in the yard, I don’t know where the images end that my four-year-old eyes saw and which remain with me to this day, and where the images begin that I invented whenever I tried to remember that afternoon. It was an afternoon that I was spending among the branches of the peach trees. The light, laid out on the earth, was like shapes in lace, like a lace bedspread with the pattern of peach tree branches and leaves that shivered. Beyond the tangled treetops, there must have been the sky and the birds, because it was a peaceful May afternoon. My mother was in the kitchen. Occasionally I saw her face looking at me through the glass of the window. My sisters were perhaps in their room, or somewhere else I didn’t know. I was four years old and there were many things I didn’t know. I was sitting on the earth of the yard. I was stacking planks that were leftover wood my father had brought back from the workshop and which I was making into little huts. The bitch went slowly by, her brown eyes lost on the ground. Under an orange tree, half-buried, was a long piece of rusty wire. I think I can remember the moment when my four-year-old body got up to pull the piece of wire two-handed from out of the earth. I can see this moment with the same lack of clarity with which I now look to one side and can make out treetops, leaves mixed together, one after another as I pass. Like an image of liquid colours dissolving into one another. That day I sat back down beside my piled-up planks, which were the little huts I had made. I held the wire and began to find clumsy shapes with it. On my hands I had scratches of earth and rust. I heard the movement of the gate to the street opening. It was my brother, smiling. His clothes were dirty with sawdust because he was our father’s apprentice and he was coming home from work. He said something to me in greeting before noticing that I had the wire in my hand. The flowerbeds my mother had been over with a hoe were blossoming behind him. Simão was a lad of ten years old. Sometimes he’d put his hands in his pocket and laugh. When I remember him in the days that came before that day, the first image that comes to me is him with his hands in his pockets, laughing. That afternoon he had his shirt untucked from his trousers. When he saw me with the wire in my hand, he took three quick steps towards me. From then it was all very fast, but now, as I recall it, it’s all very slow. Simão’s hands were bigger than mine and tried to get the wire off me. I don’t know what words he chose to tell me I shouldn’t play with bits of wire, because before I was able to understand them, perhaps as a reflex, perhaps because at that moment it seemed that that was how it had to be, perhaps because I also knew what ought to be done, perhaps for no reason, for no reason, I didn’t let go of the wire right away. I held on to it with both hands. I felt my brother’s strength on the rusty wire pulling with all his strength against the palms of my hands. And it was very fast, I know it was just a moment, but now it seems like it was every minute of an hour. Every movement split. Everything very slow. The tip of the wire moved towards my brother’s face. As though there was a straight line there to show it the way. The rusty tip of the wire moved forwards. His face. In a single movement the tip of the wire touched the damp white part of his right eye, pressed it lightly and sank, irreversible, into a rip. My brother let go of the wire, stepped back and brought both his hands to his right eye. It was a moment of absolute silence. I was four years old and I knew that something terrible had happened. My brother was gripping his face and making sounds of pain like I’d never heard before. They weren’t cries. They were the sounds of a pain that was destroying him slowly. I was four years old and I was still holding on to the wire. That was the moment our mother saw us through the glass of the kitchen window. The moment ended when our mother came running out through the door, asking, ‘What happened? What happened?’ I couldn’t say anything. My brother was holding his face, and from behind his hands threads of blood were appearing that slipped down his arm and down his cheek and down his neck. They were threads of very living blood that ran down his wrists, over the light, smooth skin of his inner arms, and dripped off the tip of his elbow. Our mother, who had no idea what was going on, approached him, saying, ‘Calm down, calm down.’ With no idea what was going on, trying for a serene, motherly voice, she said to him, ‘Let’s see what’s happened.’ Simão, still wanting to believe there might be a possibility that what had happened hadn’t happened, drew his hands away slowly. Through the blood my mother and I saw how the right side of his face was a bloody hole where there was the empty white skin of the eye, the flattened circular design of the iris, and that slipping down his face mixed with the blood was a thick, viscous substance, like the white of an egg, that had previously been inside his eye. On the left side of Simão’s face, the other eye, hurt and innocent, waited to see my mother’s reaction. I was four years old and I was still holding on to the wire. I let go of it when my mother couldn’t stop the bitter cry that tore through her. My brother went back to covering his face. My sisters came running into the yard from the kitchen door. Neighbours came in from the door to the street. My mother shouted with all the strength she had in her throat. Someone went to fetch my father from the workshop. Someone grabbed me by the waist, picked me up off the earth of the yard and took me in to the kitchen. Between the bodies of the people who were supporting my mother, between my sisters clinging to one another crying, between the people who surrounded my brother with clean towels, soon drenched in blood, I was four years old and I was consumed by a fear like blades. I was silent, still, my eyes open, wide, being consumed by a fear like blades. At a certain moment my father came into the kitchen. No one could stop him. Only his breathing could be heard. He went through between the people, took my brother by the arm, and with the men who were in the kitchen following him they went to the hospital. When they left it was nighttime. As the door slammed shut, all that remained was my mother’s and sisters’ anxiety, followed by the drawling voices of the neighbour women trying to console them. It was one of these neighbour women who, amid the shadows of the others, struck a match and lit the oil lamp on the table. From then, as my mother’s and sisters’ crying started to weaken, the neighbour women began to say goodbye and leave. We were left alone in the kitchen – the stones of the kitchen floor, the wooden table and benches. Through the light and the shadows of the oil lamp, my mother and sisters had their eyes open to a picture only they could see. Cold time passed, with shrieks and blades. Late in the evening, my father and Simão arrived in silence. My brother had the right side of his head wrapped in bandages that covered his eye. No one said a thing. We went to sleep. That night was like the nights of many months that followed. There was a heavy weight within us, pulling us towards our blackest insides. Months passed. My brother never went back to working with my father at the workshop. After removing the bandages, for some weeks he wore the leather patch they gave him at the hospital. One day he appeared with his eye clean and uncovered, the lid stretched and white over the empty eye. In the hospital, the doctor told him he could go back to doing everything he did before; but when Simão talked about going back to the workshop as an apprentice, my father talked about a lot of things and, always in other words, showed him that it couldn’t be. He asked him to wait a little longer and he changed the subject. One night, at dinner – he hadn’t yet turned twelve – my brother decided to tell us that he’d fixed up some work as a stonemason’s assistant. That was the first time my father hit him after the day he lost his sight. After that he got angry with him many times, and hit him many times. Over all those years he never got angry with me, and never hit me. It was always clear to me that my father got angry with my brother and hit him because this was his way of dealing with the sadness, with the hurt he felt since that afternoon when my brother had become blind in one eye. This was his way of punishing him. It was always equally clear to me that my father didn’t get angry with me and didn’t hit me for the same reason. That was his way of punishing me.
when it was time to set the table, we were five:
my father, my mother, my sisters
and me. then my older sister
got married. then, my younger sister
got married. then, my father died. today,
when it’s time to set the table, we are five,
except for my older sister who is
in her own home, except for my younger
sister, who is in her own home, except for my
father, except for my widowed mother. each one
of them is an empty space at the table where
I eat alone. but they’ll always be here.
when it’s time to set the table, we’ll always be five.
as long as one of us is alive, we’ll
always be five.
Another summer afternoon comes to an end. Marta is already a woman, she’s sixteen years old. Maria imitates all her gestures awkwardly – she is fourteen years old. In the kitchen our mother is doing something simple, superfluous, and another summer afternoon comes to an end. The lightness that comes in through the bedroom window, that touches the folds in the curtains, is yellow and sweet-honey. Beyond the window, the sun comes down on buildings and for a moment turns their edges incandescent. The lightness touches the face of my sister Marta, sitting on her made bed, and touches the face of my sister Maria, sitting on the floor, sitting on her feet, knees bent in front of her, leaning against the wall. Marta has a boyfriend, and no one knows, no one must know, except for Maria. Sometimes at dinner Maria and Marta exchange a look because something has reminded them of their secrets. Maria dreams of the day when she too will have a boyfriend, she dreams about him. For a few moments, like a lightning flash, she believes she can see his face: every detail, the eyes, the lips, the lines that are so real. Marta and Maria’s voices and dreams are mingled together. Marta describes everything she feels, she describes a thousand times all the little encounters she has with her boyfriend, everything she believes, everything she understands. Maria describes the stories she has read in romance novels, she describes how they end, she says, ‘If this hadn’t happened, and if that hadn’t happened, if he hadn’t been jealous, if she hadn’t been proud.’ Maria listens to her sister as though she has finally met a heroine from a romance novel. Marta listens to her sister, imagining herself having the same dilemmas as the heroine from a romance novel. Their voices are feminine, and luminous. The afternoon draws to an end slowly. Simão arrives from work, comes by me and my mother. Time is calm over the objects of the world, and in the motion of the world. My father will arrive later. Until then, the evening falling, like torn paper raining down from the sky.