S H O R T S T O R Y
CONSTANÇA'S WAR WITH THE ELEMENTS
b y d . k a s t i n o v i c h ~ s o u t h e r n o r e g o n
AS THE first tremors shook the earth, Constança Morais opened her eyes and rose from her bed for the first time in seven years. She scurried to the back door and called to her children. “Manuela, Francisco…come now.” Her voice sounded like the rasp of an old gate that had rusted shut.
It was soon discovered that the tremor had opened a vent in the ground out in the fields. Steam and smoke emitted from the crack and the smell of sulfur filled the air.
Constança's husband, Álvaro, was cured instantly of his love for the grocer, Pereira’s wife. After all, Constança, even though she had slept for seven years, secretly knew everything that had gone on.
"In my dreams," she confided to her best friend, Filipa, "I heard and saw everything."
Without Constança saying a word, Álvaro felt the heavy weight of shame and remorse for the accumulation of all his terrible sins over the last seven years, illuminated, or so it seemed to him, by Constança's sudden wakefulness, and doubly illuminated as he saw them, like a shopping list whenever he looked upon the unforgiving eyes of his newly wakened wife.
He resolved at long last to reform himself. "How could I do this to the woman I love?" he was heard to ask. "Still, what right has a woman to sleep for seven long years?"
It was a question no one was prepared to answer.
Constança felt her insides twist up in knots with the knowledge that her daughter, Manuela, was no longer living her own life, but had somehow slipped into living what was obviously Constança's life. It was as clear as Holy Water the mistakes Manuela would soon make. So Constança ordered her daughter to make her way to the church on her knees every day of the week, to do penance for improper behavior with a neighbor boy, whom Constança had never liked, and whom she banished forever from her sight, from the property and from Manuela's heart. "How could she see that Gonçalves boy?" Constança moaned. "He is just as bad as his father and everyone else in that family of bad blood! One drop of their blood is enough to cause ruin for seven generations!"
"Are you sure?" Filipa asked. "I never saw them together."
"Of course, I'm sure,” Constança declared. “I've seen the way they make eyes at one another. I must put a stop to it right now. Trust me, once you start down that road, I know all too well where it leads you."
Their son, Francisco, who hired on with men making a new road and repairing the old one, was gone much of the time working. And when he wasn't working he drank and chased women.
"I should think," Constança said to Filipa, "that something, perhaps, in all that time would have changed, but look, nothing is different. Nothing ever changes. My son thinks he’s Don Juan."
"Perhaps, you shouldn’t be too hard on them," Filipa said. "After all, there was no one around to make sure they didn't go bad. Anyone can see Manuela is a beautiful girl; it's not her fault that Carlos Gonçalves finds her attractive."
"You forget I too was cursed that way, and look where it got me," Constança replied. "No, this suffering will do her good. She will be strengthened for it."
Álvaro was asked how it had been living with a sleeping woman for seven years.
"You get used to anything," he said.
The men snickered and laughed because all of them knew that Álvaro had had no shortage of company during those seven long years of sleep, and because they knew that his time of plenty had come to an abrupt end. "Still, my dear wife was always foremost on my mind," he said.
"Why did this happen?" Filipa asked Constança.
"I do not know. Perhaps to see things clearer."
"Look what a good husband he has suddenly become. He was never like this. Not even before we were married."
It was true. Álvaro now waited on the woman hand and foot. Not only did he stay away from other women completely but Constança was all he could talk about: Constança the watchful, Constança the wakeful, Constança the ever vigilant.
Constança, meanwhile, sat in her bed, holding a copy of her favorite book, The Unsolvable Enigma, by Nicolau Augusto do Canto e Castro. She could not remember when or even if she had read it, though she was aware she knew its contents from beginning to end, in that mysterious way she seemed to know everything. "Ah, Filipa, how that man could write. A regular philosopher!"
"I have no time for books," Filipa said. "Why fill your head with all that nonsense?"
The villagers ran out of their homes at the occasional rumbling of the earth and the sound of the buildings shaking. They set up blankets or, if they were lucky, a tent outside, where they slept beneath the glass eye of the moon. Constança, however, ignored the tremors, and refused to budge.
"What is this thing for?" Constança said with disgust, spreading her hands at the bed on which she lay.
Filipa, who sat nearby, looked up. "What?"
"This bed. I have no idea. I haven't been able to sleep since I woke."
"I knew this would happen!" said Álvaro, who had just stepped into the bedroom to ask if Constança needed anything. "You used up all your sleep during those seven years."
"You mean—" said Filipa.
"She will be awake for seven more years."
If the previous seven years had been difficult, Álvaro found this new condition even worse. He slinked through the house at all hours like a thief, shying away from the ever open eyes of his sleepless wife.
Sometimes she seemed to stare without seeing anything, then she would appear to pierce right through him, as though her eyes were daggers.
"I can't hide," Álvaro said in desperation. "Her eyes are everywhere."
It was more than he could stand. Still, he knew this, like her long sleep, was just one more sign that his wife was attempting to escape her fate.
He thought of running off to see Pereira’s wife, but he knew if he did, Constança would be there, watching. It was utterly hopeless.
"Where can a man go when no matter where he goes there are those eyes seeing everything?"
Álvaro stepped outside. He watched Manuela making her way back to the church with each agonizing step, as she now did every day. Tears ran down her cheeks, but the girl suffered the punishment imposed by her ever vigilant mother in silence, clutching her rosary, ignoring the cuts and bruises on her knees.
Constança watched Manuela from her window. "She will thank me later for this. When she stops living my life and finds her own."
Filipa propped Constança as comfortably as she could, where she could look out from the bedroom window and watch life pass by like a stream. Sparks of commentary fired from her mouth, her lips opened with a burst, then closed, tightly drawn together, as though soured by all the bitterness and remorse she tasted. She took notice of everything that passed by her window.
"Maria Aurora is in love," she said, looking after the figure of her neighbor.
"What have you heard?" Filipa asked.
"Nothing," Constança replied. "I don't need somebody to tell me when I can see with my own eyes Maria Aurora walk as only a woman in love can walk."
She continued to gaze down the quiet dirt street. "There is nothing down that road," she said. "It is empty."
"What are you saying, Constança?" Filipa asked.
"Look around you. Nothing is as it should be. When did this happen? Was it always this way?"
Filipa didn't understand a word of Constança's wild talk and, frightened that some new turn of events had taken place, she ran off to inform Alvaro.
Meanwhile, Manuela sat in the back of the house, back from her visit to the church, quietly knitting a shroud out of spider webs and the translucent wings of insects. She had forgotten to speak since her mother had awakened. Nor had she looked at anything or anyone. She had worn a path between the house and the church, and not once had she wavered from that track.
Now she was blind, deaf and dumb, and invisible, though she still heard, spoke, saw and was seen in her own fashion, as slight as a ghostly veil.
Álvaro, tired of feeling the penetrating gaze of his wife, and anxious from feeling exposed and unable to hide, came home.
"I will never set foot outside this house again," he said. "I can't go out there. Not like this!" He sat back in his chair, content to relinquish the life of coming and going.
He watched Manuela, no longer recognizing her as his own daughter, as she toyed with beams of light in the corner, sending them like tamed birds to fly this way and that. She chirupped in cheerful tones to the voices of the air, sea and earth, which sang their songs in a manner that had nothing to do with time, birth or death, but of that which had always been, and would be forever. All Álvaro saw was her mouth opening, closing, until she was done with her shroud, then he saw nothing.
Had his daughter vanished into thin air, or had she taken flight with a pair of luminous wings?
Constança's gaze, like a hawk's, saw even beyond the bend of the road, and the buildings that obscured the view. The shaking of the earth had gotten worse, and as everyone seemed to breathe fears that Pico would erupt they constantly looked over to watch the mountain.
"The whole world is upside down," Constança said while Filipa prayed hard and fast for the speedy recovery of her dear friend and companion.
"Maria da Conceição," Constança continued, "is very unhappy with her lot, and, in fact, I see that she is in love with Pedro's oldest boy, Eduardo, who of course went off and married that hussy, Maria Matos."
Constança went on and on, listing whom should be with whom, and what this person or that should be doing with his or her life.
"You!" she shouted when Guilherme Gomes, drunk and staggering, tried to sneak past unseen. "You should go off and hang yourself. Your poor wife and children! You are good for nothing."
And when Senhora Velas walked by: "You, senhora, are living a lie!" And again when Senhor Campos paid a visit next door: "Senhor Campos, you married someone else's wife!"
Manuela, once beautiful, and now invisible, covered her good looks with the disguises of her friends, the elements, who stole her laughter and happiness, her smiles and pretty features, and the natural radiance of her spirit. Instead, those things which had been hers now soared in the air with the feathers and songs of birds, swam with the fish and blew with the winds; they moved silently in the sunless subterranean pools of water; coursed through the soil to smile upon and to kiss the trees and plants, the green grass and fruit growing in such rich abundance, as well as becoming mixed with the rains which fell down upon everything.
Manuela left the house dressed in a hundred never minds, a thousand nos and nays, the words and sentiments of her prayers, in the shadow of her fasting and resolve and renunciation, and walked the course she had made to the church on her knees, which no longer registered pain. She felt instead only the voluptuous pleasures of her knees torn raw by the rocks, the stones and dirt embedded deeply in her flesh.
No one looked at her. No one saw.
Except Constança, who breathed a sign of relief. "She has saved herself, that girl. If she keeps this up she will be a saint!"
Manuela carried around a growing bundle of spider web refuse, of dirt and sticks and leaves, shedding the husks and skins, the remains of her vegetable, mineral and animal body.
Filipa told Constança that she had heard Senhor Campos was leaving for America. "They say his wife will wait, and join him later," Filipa said.
"No," Constança said.
"This land is the land of mother's milk. He will go and no matter how far he goes or for how long, he will think of this island, and all it means, and it will wring his heart. He will think of how he was born here, how all he knows is here, and how far away he is and will be. He will not be here, and he won't be there, but lost somewhere between. Until one day, when he envisions the island and his return, the future home he will have with Marisa, he will slip and fall into the sea and drown with the fishes. Even then he will swim toward here, but he will not reach our island. And she, she will sit in her window and look down the road for the rest of her life, unable to leave, wondering if and when her man will return down that road from which nothing will ever come."
Carlos, the boy who was discovered in love with Manuela once Constança woke from her long sleep, tried to lose himself in his work, feeding the cows, milking the cows, tending those very cows out in the fields every morning, tending to the grapes which grew in his yard. But he kept hearing Manuela's voice in the trees, heard her sweet whisper as birds flew overhead; he saw her face reflected in the pools of water and lakes; her laughter was heard when the wind came falling like a waterfall of stones down the side of Pico, and the skies at night were filled with Manuela's sparkling tears; even the rain tasted of Manuela. He felt her forbidden flesh on the ground under his feet. He bent down and kissed the earth, kissing the likeness of Manuela, which he found impossible to resist.
At the end of seven more long and arduous years, Constança finally closed her eyes and slept. Álvaro and his wife were old, but Manuela was even older. She cared for her parents, though her beauty had been transformed into the earth and into those things that sprang from the earth.
The earth seemed to sleep at long last, too--the shakings and rumblings having finally subsided.
Manuela's brother Francisco had found a young schoolteacher for a wife and she moved into the house after they were married.
Manuela married her virtue and solitude, her stony silence and prayers, her eyes of blind wood, her deaf ears of interminable patience. She clung to the whitewashed rock of her arms and legs, as well as the various nests, webs and assorted odds and ends she kept stitched together, found herself giving birth to two large and silent twins of misfortune. Her children were as mute, deaf, blind and invisible, as lifeless as Manuela, only more so, since they were nothing more than the husks and skins of her misery which over time she had discarded, shedding like a snake.
Carlos, the boy now grown into the man who had loved her, had become hardened to the endless work, and of loving the fleeting images of Manuela in the air, earth, water and plants, instead of the woman he hadn't seen since Constança had banished him from her home.
He drank deeply the kisses of Manuela from the red wine which grew on his vines, the grapes which grew of Manuela, of the earth that was Manuela, the water, the air, everything which was Manuela.
Álvaro crept off one night dragging Constança down to the cemetery. "We don't need to hang around here anymore," he said, though his words fell on deaf ears. He stood by the tiny piece of earth where all their ancestors had been placed one after the other. "This is now our place."
He planted Constança atop of the bones of the other relatives. He then crawled in himself and covered them both with the heavy blanket of fertile soil. He listened to the slow language of the centuries of fathers and sons, mothers and sons, and daughters, brothers, sisters, and so on; incomprehensible words of the eons; wordless messages which spoke the phrases of endless repetitions: of the ebb and flow, of the blind tenacity of life, pushing ever forward, striving to continue; the incredibly slow descent of the one, intermingling with the impossibly slow ascent of the others, until they were all one: one father and son, mother and daughter, brother and sister. Even Constança and Álvaro became one, melding with the mountain from whence they had sprung.
Manuela swept up the dust and dirt, the dry husks and spider web sheddings of her twins together, and brought them to the church where they sat by her side as she prayed. Fortified by drink, and drunk with the overpowering love he felt for the Manuela he found in everything, Carlos didn't even see her when he passed her and her two twins on their way to church. What happened every time he came near, clouds quickly gathered all about Manuela's body and the spiders, whose shroud masked her beauty, worked at a fantastic pace, spinning new webs to cover her face and shield her eyes from looking upon the boy she was forbidden to see.
Constança/Álvaro worked out the secrets of the universe. They and the ancestors who were part of them were absorbed into the bowels of the volcano, the spring water under the ground and the vegetable life of the island. Of course, part of them lived on in the form of Manuela and no one had forgotten that, either.
Least of all Constança.
By this time Francisco and his wife had several children of their own and naturally took over all the rooms of the house to contain their growing family. Francisco soon began to think that the house was too small for all of them. "Why shouldn't I sell the land and with the money we could move to America, like Senhor Campos?" he asked.
"Yes, we could have a big house there, and pretty things for us and our children," his wife said.
They had forgotten all about Manuela. No one had seen or heard her, so there was no reason to take her into consideration.
He began to talk, trying to find someone interested in the land, the house and cows, and made plans to go to America. Somebody suggested Carlos.
Francisco began to think perhaps he could convince Carlos to take over, after all he had money, and then Francisco could leave and get a better job and make some real money.
Constança/Álvaro's voice cried out at this scheme of Francisco's, as the hitherto silent stones began to speak: "After all the work I did, what will happen to Manuela? Especially if that boy moves into our house. I won't have it!"
"Or if they sell the house!" Álvaro/Constança added.
"And move to America!" said Constança/Álvaro.
"Our blood, spit and sweat is in this soil. How could they sell it and leave?" the endless list of one who was in fact many asked themselves, growing even more furious at the lack of answers.
They shook the ground with their fury. Constança/Álvaro determined to keep Manuela away from Carlos, Álvaro/Constança just as adamant about not losing the house, and both equally determined to prevent the family from moving to America.
"I'll rip a hole in the ground to swallow that Carlos boy."
"And I'll move the earth and knock the house to the ground so they've nothing to sell."
Their anger shook the island. Constança/Álvaro tried to swallow up Carlos, but only succeeded in destroying his house. Álvaro/Constança's anger bubbled to the surface, and found a weak spot just off the shore under the water.
Lava boiled the ocean, and bellows of steam and smoke shot high into the air. Ash and dead fish rained down on everything. The sea turned red from the eruptions.
Francisco and his wife threw themselves on the ground and cried. "How can we stay here?" she said. "Nothing is safe."
"But now our land will be worthless."
The ocean was covered with a layer of fire, bubbling and boiling, thunder rocked the world from the air, and Pico shook from deep within. The night turned blacker than black, and there were no stars or moon at night, and no sun during the day.
"We must go before we are killed," Francisco's wife cried.
Pico roared and rumbled as the whole island shook.
They gathered what little they could carry and left, leaving everything to Carlos for next to nothing.
Manuela whispered to the crack in the earth behind her house. She tried to soothe the fires and calm the noisy earth.
Carlos and others ran to the shore, prayers flying out of their mouths. Many brought food and gifts to appease their angry God. All of them made many promises to reform, to better themselves, repay old debts, give more to charity, stop bad habits, do good turns, “Please, anything you ask, dear Lord, if only this terror would stop.”
Someone carried the silver crown of the Holy Ghost, its dove with outstretched wings atop, in a show of penitence and prayer. Another brought out a brightly painted statue of Our Lady Of Miracles, who smiled with supreme beneficence upon the devastation before her.
"We will honor you with a procession of thanks, every year, if you stop this," they promised. Here and there men and women alike fell to their knees moaning, weeping and crying for help to a litany of saints.
Novenas were offered; nine weeks of prayers to Our Lady of Sorrows, nine special offerings to Saint Isabel of Portugal.
Several idiot children and adults of diminished capacity came out to help, guiding people this way and that, going where they were needed. Old women ran from their homes, shrieking and pulling at their hair. Grown men cowered on the ground.
Manuela tried to find her twins but they had disappeared. She kicked the earth and pleaded for her innocent babies to be given up. The earth responded, thanks to Constança/Álvaro, by trying to take her instead. She heard her mother calling, "Manuela, Manuela, come now my child, forget everything else. Come with us."
Manuela fought back, but Constança/Álvaro was cunning and powerful; she destroyed many of the trees of Manuela, as well as animals, lakes and pools, the fields of grass and even the thin layer of fertile soil that had captured Manuela's most precious gift, for Constança/Álvaro was of the hot inner earth, the lava that seeped down into the core of living earth from whence the lineage of all life sprang. And frankly there was more of herh er and all the ancestors than there was of Manuela, whose hold was rather tenuous.
Someone shouted, pointing up at the sky, "Look, there, a face!" There were clouds above Pico, and indeed they did form what was clearly a face, with eyes, nose and mouth, though only Carlos recognized the face as Manuela's.
The battle between Manuela and her mother waged on while everyone else was busy saving those who could be saved, as well as attempting to placate Álvaro/Constança, who ripped a gigantic gash on the ocean floor, churning the sea and filling the sky with black clouds and explosions.
Then the heavens exploded with a burst of thunder and the rains fell, while lightning lit up the skies.
The argumentative voices rose in collective shrieks and bellows.
Thunder shook the island from above, the volcano shook the island from below, and lightning danced between them both as the battle became one between the earth and sky.
Fierce winds swept across the sea and the island, lashing everything with pelting rain and crashing waves.
After twenty-nine days of continuous rain, Filipa, who, after Constança had gone had remained alone, slammed the door behind her and stepped out into the deluge. She was not going to spend the rest of forever locked up, afraid of a little rain. "God is displeased," said her neighbor Dona Marisa Campos, who sat facing out her window as if searching for something lost in all that wall of water; possibly awaiting the return of her husband who still searched for wealth in America.
"This is the end," Dona Marisa said. "Soon we will all be swept out to sea."
Filipa mumbled. "If it does, well then, fine!"
"It's a wonder it didn't happen a long time ago,” Dona Marisa said. “We should all be punished. Perhaps at the bottom of the sea we could be washed clean of the sins of this life."
"This rain can't last," Filipa said. "The skies have to dry up sometime."
She shuffled down the flooded street, her head and shoulders bent under the furious onslaught of rain. She passed the normally dry creek bed. It was overflowing.
"There has never been a rain such as this." The voice of Dona Marisa followed her. "The tears of heaven are falling, for there is only sadness in this world."
"Even God cannot cry forever," Filipa said.
Filipa navigated down the flooded streets toward the bakery. The wind whipped around her and the rain found its way through her protective clothing and shoes.
The bakery was closed.
She headed for the market. Perhaps there would be a little food there. People had to eat.
Everywhere there was the sound of water: waves crashed against the rocks, water rushed down the streets, and the continuous rain fell everywhere, running off roof tops.
She looked out toward the sea and sky but they were one. She couldn't tell where the horizon was or whether she stood at the bottom of the ocean or at the roof of the sky.
It was like Dona Marisa had said: the end had come, and the only thing that continued was the misery of life, which knew no end.
Filipa knew right then what she had to do, and so she waded down the rivers, which had once been streets, to go talk sense to that friend of hers, the only one who could end this nonsense: Constança.
The battle between the earth and sky came to a ridiculous stalemate.
The earthquakes and volcano had shaken many people and buildings into a state of fragmented and confused disarray. Then the rains destroyed much of what was left. Finally, the winds tore off roofs and uprooted trees, knocked down walls and cleared planted fields of any vestige of life.
There remained a wake of dead animals, ruined homes and those poor souls who had lost everything. Boats had sailed away with no one aboard to steer or guide the way, confusing the bottom of the sea with some safe distant port. Much of the island lay in tatters.
Hardly anyone remembered the volcano now. The earth's grumbling awoke and frightened some, but most people were too numb to care. They had lost too much.
Filipa talked to Constança, imploring her to sleep and spare everyone, the poor living, those who had no such luxuries as rest and sleep.
"You've made your point," Filipa said. "Now why don't you let things get back to normal?"
Constança/Álvaro saw it was of no use, that they would have to destroy the entire island and everyone on it, or else let Manuela go, now that she was stripped of the clouds, spider and spider webs, trees, rivers, lakes and gravel—everything that had given the girl her unequaled beauty.
She was no longer invisible and, of course, Carlos was the first to see. He cried with joy, and she did as well, for in her invisible blindness she hadn't seen him in all that time.
They marched with the others to the edge of the island offering a thousand good things if the volcano ceased its convulsions.
It was clear that the island would suffer a terrible drought and famine in the next year. Álvaro/Constança decided it was better that Carlos and Manuela have their house and land and raise a family now that Francisco and his family had left. Manuela would need someone at her side to help in order for her and the farm to survive. She and Carlos were soon married, and Álvaro/Constança worked hard to seep life back into the ground, exhaling their smoky breath from Pico's crest, and providing fertile soil for Carlos and Manuela's farmland. Constança smiled, for there was now a spark of life in Manuela's belly that was not only a part of Carlos, who perhaps wasn't quite so bad as she had once thought, but a part of her, too.
The island settled down and was quiet again, the villagers slowly rebuilding their homes and stores, replanting their fields, but not before Constança/Álvaro managed to open the earth below Filipa's feet, where she still stood, talking Constança's ear off. In this way she could keep her company in the ground below.
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