Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism/An Excerpt from SAUDADE by Katherine Vaz

Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

b y   k a t h e r i n e   v a z   ~   t h e   a z o r e s


A Portuguese word considered untranslatable. One definition: Yearning so intense for those who are missing, or for vanished times or places, that their absence is the most profound presence in one's life. A state of being, rather than merely a sentiment.

F R O M    B O O K    O N E    ~    C H A P T E R    O N E

The mermaid who fell in love with a mortal man asked for feet so she could hurry to him from the sea. She wanted her green tail split into legs to wrap around him. The water-gods warned that if she ventured into another world, her new body would constantly tremble, and each step would cut like a sword.

Despite this she said, "I must go." As she ran toward the man's arms, her scales littered the ground like mother-of-pearl monocles and enclosed, as if in skins, the blood that dropped from her freshly carved feet. Many water-children arose from this trail, all doomed to sharp pains on land.

They made their homes in the islands of the Azores, which float like the shells of enormous ashy turtles in the Atlantic. Many of the men spent long months away on fishing voyages. Some women, while running to the incoming fleets to discover which fishermen had survived, removed their shoes in the hope that stones would lacerate their feet. A sacrifice of slicing the body might forfend a slicing of the heart. They bled on the sand like the first ocean beauty and waited for the men to sail in on the tenders sent ahead from the ships. No one but the water-gods could distinguish the night howls of making love from the keening of the newly widowed, and they wound their sentences like lassos of kelp around the women who crouched alone: "Come to us; come back -- the ocean is your steadfast groom."

"Water is a rich drink, but it pours through our fingers, and with the fish we could have many affairs, but they slip instantly away," the women moaned. "Flesh we can hold, if only for a while."

"Good luck, then," the water-gods concluded, "for here is the mark on your brow: The feeling of Absence will become your truest Presence. Your longing will wax until it becomes the giant looming at your side."

...JOSÉ FRANCISCO Cruz watched the women of Nazaré stretch sea-dampened nets dyed cobalt, olive, and orange over the shoreline's mosaic sidewalk. The women wore brightly flowered blouses with plaid skirts of unmatching shades and were like a troop of moving garlands as they worked. He sat in the long line of fishermen mending tears in the nets with lilac thread, or jade-green, or whatever anyone felt was the color of the day. At a distance, farther down the row facing the beach, the thread was invisible to José Francisco as arms guiding needles swayed in unison to give the ocean a concert with ghost violins. The violin playing was slow and even, and the song of the men was so elegant and silent that it seemed mournful.

He was already homesick and felt out of place because he was not wearing trousers and a shirt in jumbled plaids like the Nazarean men, and his notes as a musician of the nets were jittery and a step off-key because too much was new to him. He considered asking the fisherman next to him about the Soup of Sorrow, but the man never glanced up from his work as salt dried lime-white in the weave of the strings and the creases in his hands, and he had cataracts that were like sea haze drifting across his eyes.

I should ask him, thought José Francisco; it looks as if this guy has drunk barrels of it.

But he was afraid of how his islander's accent would sound. He took refuge in a nearby café. A waiter brandished a bowl of fish stew at him, and although he was hungry and the steam was laced thickly with the smell of peppers and onions, he hesitated. It might be the Soup of Sorrow.

"Forget it. Bring me a steak with a fried egg and a bottle of wine," he said a bit harshly, in case he had to show that he knew the waiter had been trying to trick him.

Dismay at his brusqueness with the waiter made José Francisco eat quickly. He missed Conceição: He could picture her leaning over to admire the abyss near the village of Biscoitos, where jellyfish parachuted, their quivering heads growing round at the water's surface. He saw her brushing her hair while bent over to entice him into climbing onto her from behind, or dabbing vanilla as a fragrance behind her ears, or chewing dried fava beans during the cravings of pregnancy. Longing clutched in a fist inside him.

He grabbed his knapsack and as an apology to the waiter left a tip that was more than the price of the lunch. Once outside, he had to restrain himself from waving at the docked boats painted crimson, sienna, cream, and sky-blue and decorated, as the Phoenicians had done to protect voyagers, with eyes on either side of the prows. The eyes, in spite of their flashy sockets, seemed to grow heavy as the boats bobbed in the water under the rhythm of the violin concert of the men. Pursuing the secrets of the Soup of Sorrow was futile -- that much he suspected -- but he could not resist running to the ship's cook, who was heading for the gangplank with a cauldron and utensils bundled like sticks on his back. José Francisco was sure that long after storms died, the cook's deeply wrinkled face would still course with filled riverbeds.

"Sorry to trouble you," said José Francisco, pointing to the forks and spoons tarnished and bent as if they had stirred acid, "but do these prepare the Soup of Sorrow?"

The cook laughed and set down the cauldron. "This again. Look, nobody can prepare you ahead of time, because what turns out to be the Soup of Sorrow to one man is nothing to another. Relax. You won't understand it -- "

"Until I've tasted it! And then it's too late! I know!" cried José Francisco. He wanted to ask what exactly everyone feared about it, or why a sailor should worry about a soup that might enchant him into returning to the sea, but he was tired of riddles. To be safe, however, he resolved that once on board he would consume nothing but dried meat, maybe chickpeas, and avoid anything that might be a siren's song.

In the freezing waters around the Grand Banks, José Francisco fished in his own dory, like the other men alone in theirs, before returning to the ship in the evening. They pushed increasingly farther afield in pursuit of the harvest, plowing through the rows and acres of codfish. One morning he disappeared in the fog, but he was smart enough not to row aimlessly. He would let the ship read the currents and find him. There was no cause for panic. Settling into the boat's shell and, to keep from being seasick, staring where the horizon occasionally split the impenetrable curtain, he ate raw cod, and when he was thirsty, he would wring his woolen cap to drink the mist out of it. When he urinated, he tried to hit the fish. It was cold but not unpleasant, and the night arrived as wondrous as a cave that gapes in front of a boy, but as the second night approached he felt helplessly unmoored and spoke his name aloud, hoping to stamp it in large letters on the heavens. Instead his voice mixed with the groans of the dead sailors that are inseparable from the winds because the weight of their bellowing is too massive to ascend. His name was torn up in the flurry and swirled lost within the last words of the dead. Where was his rescue? He would never get home! Would the fish abandon him to starvation? Would he have to save the last one's dorsal bone to pare strips of himself to chew until, half-gone, a man of latticed muscle, loneliness would drive him to plunge a hand through the prison bars of his ribs and squeeze his heart to end his misery?

As he curled up inside the hull, creatures bumped underneath to overturn him and black waves curled over the edge like claws. He had to replace ideas of carnage with living red memories -- reds that could flare out of his head as a summons to the ship: Redness of his birth. Red bloom of childhood -- Mother had shrunk her days into little red pellets by whining steadily of minor ailments. Ai, ai, ai. AI was marked naturally on hyacinths. Good on flowers, tedious from mothers. Brought her roses. Forgot to check them for insects. Said, "Stop screaming, Mamae. Ladybugs are good luck!" Caught measles. Was wrapped with red flannel to draw out poison. Built a fort with crimson brocade pillows. Mosquito bites. Mixed baking soda with burgundy wine for poultices. Useless. Drank the wine. Better. Got slapped red by Papai. Worth it. Tomatoes (relish in eating them destroyed when informed they were slang for testicles). First kiss (Luisa, age ten) -- got slapped red. Worth it. Eyes inflamed circles from reading Dante and Cicero. Tried a trick of the ancient mariners one night: dipped hands in a red tide while on a boat between the islands of Pico and Faial; held fluorescent hands over a map in the dark to read it. Lobsters. Paprika. Cocks' combs. Conceição, red flower, red lips, wine-colored candle. Declarations of love: blushes. Red flushes.

His Tio Mario had his throat slashed in an argument over a drink. He cited with a smile of blood on his neck. José Francisco took it as a warning that he could say, "Life is a narrow red grin." Or he could say, "Life is a prism and its spectrum throws down everything from red to clearness."

He stared upward, waiting to see what the air above shed on him. The white stars soaked up his red thoughts and changed into the color of the Azorean night wish:

Sonhos na cor-de-rosa.
Pink dreams. I wish you pink dreams.
Rest in a light that is a gentle shade.
Steer with our pink lanterns toward morning.

He slept soundly as an infant in a crib under the redness he had spread as a blanket in the night, under the shining pinkness it tucked around him in return, as the swells rocked him.

The sky was like pale opals when he awakened with the absolute calm that comes from dropping into the middle of terror and continuing to fall through it and out the opposite side. He assembled the best possible celebration within his reach by squeezing the moisture in his cap into a tin cup and flavoring it with some cod bones and a twig that floated along, a vegetable already salted. It was the perfect banquet. He slid a wet strip of his shirt back and forth between his lips to blow music from a cloth harmonica and leaned back in his shell as the surges of the waves kept time with his pulses.

He sat up with a start. A swimmer in cold water is in the greatest peril when in the midst of stroking along he seems to enter a warm, well-lit tunnel. His core temperature changes and he forgets where he is. He does not realize that he has invaded a bright but dangerous dream until it is too late, because while there he thinks, I'm not at sea, but in a safe harbor.

Actually in succumbing to the dream, he is lost to all but the dream.

He will want to stay with its serenity even if it kills him.

He will need to keep searching for it if he reenters the cold.

José Francisco sealed his face with his hands and sobbed. "For me it was a bone and a plant and a fog and the sea, but I have made myself the Soup of Sorrow."

He was enamored of water.

It was like the taste of Conceição.

Love condemned anyone who had drunk of it to return to it, somehow, again and again. The beautiful shackles: the embrace, then the sadness of the embrace gone.

He wiped his face and stood in the dory. The ship was drawing closer out of the distance to retrieve him. He would be rescued, although not from the dream into which he had fallen, and not from the melancholy fate lurking within all passions. He would be taken home, where he could go on learning the longer sorrows of love.

They whispered words over the crib to open their daughter's ears -- mão, são, pão; sim, mim, latim; nó, farol, girassol -- and any words with the swallowed letters and hummed endings that would mix with air to create a chiming cloud. This cloud was referred to in Portuguese lands as the white sound, the mist of reverberations that rose from the throats and guts and mouths of speakers to hover in a white buzzing overhead. High over the marketplace or plaza, the white sound hung like a comfortable canopy. José Francisco and Conceição thought that steering some white sound toward Clara might penetrate her deafness and tap its soft rain on the stiffened drums inside her. She had been born with both hands clamped over the sides of her head, and although her arms eventually lowered, she appeared to hear no noises and offered no sound.

Every morning when he was not at sea, at home on the island of Terceira in the Azores, José Francisco took her, dozing against his chest, to visit the corn. The green husks in a tight clasp over each ear reminded him of children with their hands raised to block out clamor: The corn was deaf and sealed away. "Here are your brothers and sisters, Clara," he said. He sang hymns and chanteys until his bones vibrated with music. "Can you feel my singing?" He had not guessed that sorrow would take the form of invading her, or that it would rob him of her cries.

He wondered if she sponged up his quavering when he spoke to her about the night of his red thoughts and the stars that had turned pink, because although she uttered nothing as the years passed, not a cough, not a sigh, she mastered color adventures: She became yellow when she ate mashed carrots, her mouth curving in soundless amusement, and she especially liked beets for making her lavender. Conceição was proud of her daughter's insistence that foods would be paints.

Like steam from a teakettle, Clara was light but sharp, directed, and uncatchable. Soon she was roaming into gardens throughout the village of Agualva to lie prone and inhale the coffee grounds, prawn shells like peelings of sunburned skin, lemon rinds, and eggshells that were stored in canisters in all the homes until a homemade-brandy odor signaled that the compost was ready for mulching. No one could teach her not to wander into places uninvited to stretch inside a square of sunlight. With her animal patience she could sit against churned earth for hours, like a tiger calmly awaiting its prey. Maria Josefa Magalhães, during sessions of scrubbing the black shadows on Agualva's pathways, convinced that they were traps that would snare the rabbits, often came across her holding silent court with the corncob dolls made by her father, their milk-teeth dried into ridged jewels. Maria Josefa could never remove very many shadow-traps and needed to protect something: She would cover her own eyes and trace pretend-tears down her cheeks to caution Clara that she must not stare directly at the sun. She believed the girl had ordered her mother's womb to shut down and leave her an only child -- in mangling her ears, it had lost its right to try again. (Some people said that Clara's ear covering at birth had been to deflect the screams of the world, but Maria Josefa sided with those who felt Clara had come out refusing to listen to anybody.)

One morning when José Francisco was singing, Clara bolted around, touching the floor so that sounds could travel through her palms and soles, or up her spine as though it were a xylophone. She lowered her ear to the ground and smiled.

"Keep going," said Conceição. "You've reached her."

He sang until his lungs almost burst from flooding out notes and white sounds while leaning down to let Clara position her head against his ribs, without moving from the rise and fall of him. Every night after that he danced with her for a serenade from his bones, pressing her head to his heart so that she could feel his ballads and nonsense-tunes converting him into whirring tissue and purring skeleton, a body's lullaby.

Once while listening to the roar of the sea caught in a nautilus shell, it occurred to him that if the ocean could throw its voice into objects, forcefully enough for them to retain a maritime song even when they were on land, then he could do the same. He practiced projecting his melodies into the chorus lines of limpet and conch shells that he strewed through the house. They jangled, Come dance! Dance with me!

When Clara grabbed the ones he had set astir, he and Conceição were elated.

By adjusting the angles of the shells, switching them around on shelves, or heaping them into pyramids, their reception of his voice improved. How quickly Clara clutched one to feel it vibrating told them which were the first to spring alive with tremors. He also wanted to reach his wife and daughter from a ship, just as the sounds of the sea could still inhabit shells inside someone's house. Once he commanded them from close range, he sang from the chicken coop until Conceição leaned out the window to yell, "She's grabbed one up! It's working!" He pushed into farther territory, projecting from down the road, or the market, or while ocean swimming to test how well he would fly to them from the water.

Conceição smashed uncooperative shells with the hammer, mixed them into a paste with water, and molded new shapes, cubes, donkeys, and bowls, scattering them until she detected where they thrived as collectors of music. She stretched the curtains to the sill and nailed them into taut eardrums. The prize receiver and transmitter was a queen conch, its puckered lip facing outward on the mantel and its own anthem of the ocean blending with the harmonies of José Francisco.

When the shells were stubbornly quiet, Conceição filled a fountain pen with lemon juice and drew jottings that soaked into the paper. She then held the seemingly blank paper a close but safe distance over a burning candle, and rust-colored bars and circles appeared, converting the unspoken messages of the lemons into visible designs. Clara would run outside, return with an armful of lemons, and stamp her feet to urge her mother to make every one of them speak in shapes.

The mightiest success with the flight of music happened when José Francisco went pier fishing with Henrique Cerqueira, whose hands were so bloated from milking that José Francisco had to help him bait his hook. They drank beer and spent the afternoon untangling their lines as Henrique, gesturing with his enormous hands, told once again his favorite tale of the big cow riot. "It started when we untied them one day and fed them sunflowers, since we had run out of grain," he began.

"And having guts full of sunflowers made them stampede outside to turn their faces toward the sun!" thundered José Francisco.

"Whose story is this?"

"After you."

"We couldn't catch them. The flowers and the heat had made them too drunk, and -- "

José Francisco rolled laughing on the pier. He knew how it ended.

"Zé, would you quit interrupting? The best story of my career, the finest -- "

"Shut up and go on."

"They went crazy sucking one another's udders. We had to tie them up, but it took ten men at a time to pull them apart. We were soaked with milk by the time the riot was over."

The two men pretended to be lovesick cows and howled loud opera, their heads thrown back under the brilliant yellow cape of the sun. Patches of algae glittered like eyes in the distant water.

When José Francisco was returning home, humming fragments of the afternoon's songs, Conceição rushed to meet him. "Hurry," she said, grabbing his hand to pull him along. "Keep singing and hurry."

Clara was posed in front of the mantel, with her eyes closed and face tilted skyward, egg yolk-smooth. Her arms were raised high and unshaking above her head as antennae, and she did not move. They could both see that silence was no barrier to their daughter being someone who not only loved a triumph but who liked to declare it in a grand pose.

"She's been like that for a while now," said Conceição. "How did you do it? You skipped over the shells and went right through her arms and into her." She stroked her daughter's waves of brown hair. Behind them was the queen conch, like a trumpet from the sea. Maybe reaching toward it had taught Clara to extend her hands upward to claim her father's music as her own.

Though they tried, setting Clara in the same position and having Henrique on the pier (to his delight) retell the tale of the big cow riot, followed by the same renditions of opera, her expression did not again contain the same signs of such a transport and possession by her father's music. It was a onetime gift that did not bleed over the edges of the moment in which it had occurred, but it was enough for José Francisco to banish thoughts of sorrow, forgetting how it bides its time and feeds upon joy before performing its works.

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