B O O K E X C E R P T ~ I N T R A N S L A T I O N
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WHEN JOĂO-LÁZARO REAPPEARED IN THE PARISH, DESPAIR WAS ALREADY A GREAT BLACK BIRD HANGING WITH OPEN WINGS IN THE MIDDLE OF THE RAIN, AND HIS LUCIFERINE GAZE STOPPED TO CONTEMPLATE DEATH FROM AS CLOSE AS A HUMAN CREATURE COULD WITHOUT THE RISK OF BEING STRUCK DOWN BY IT.
The same arid, blond fever was burning in him with uncommon intensity on that day, and his white voice had grown somewhat hoarse from weeping. That was also unusual in his life without memory where he had always felt an almost fantastic clarity as visible as illuminated crystal. His sumptuous red beard, woven out of many threads and skeins, in the midst of which two eyes of earth blue glowed, his feet callused and curved, the same as his ancient sacred nails, his whole bird-man being with a hooked, bone-round nose, suddenly filled with that despair because the plague had already brought death to a few children and was secretly continuing its visitation from house to house. It had already been seen, according to what they said, sitting on the bed of a boy three years old who was reciting psalms from the Bible, and it was a woman without a face who expressed herself only with gestures and spread a sulfurous breath over every object she touched. Others swore that his own smell was sulfurous and scorched the air perhaps forever.
Joăo-Lázaro went back to begging cracklings and crusts with his innocent white voice out of paradise, crying in the wilderness and touched with pity to the point of weeping over the misery of the women and the suffering of the children. As they had neither cracklings nor crusts to give him, they began to offer him white and black coins, but Joăo-Lázaro would only accept the dark money, since it was of secondary value. His poor man's pouch was growing empty and hunger soon obliged him to eat roots and wild mulberries. He wandered about indifferent to the rain and the lightning and began to render small domestic services and to take the place of men who were sick or even dead. In payment they would give him a bowl of barley or pumpkin soup and he would sip it without relish, as if concentrating on the act of feeding. His inexhaustive energy of a raw-boned, obstinate old man led him to grab his ax and chop piles of tree stumps without the slightest drop of sweat. He persisted until he brought all other chores upon himself, and he did it with such a feeling of service and delivery that soon after cutting firewood he would clean cattle sheds and pigsties and even after that repair broken fences, huts knocked down by the wind, and plugged drains, and he would whitewash buildings and walls, reroof houses, seal up cracked fireplaces, and proceed on to a whole endless series of other services. Sometimes people had to invent senseless tasks, such as arranging rows of sacks that were in perfect order, sweeping the street, or watering plants already drenched, because Joăo-Lázaro would only desist when the Sun went down, considering his work at an end then. No one ever managed to understand a single word from his mouth, but when they gave him instructions in Portuguese they would explain what had to be done first, detailing everything that was needed, and he showed signs of a perfect understanding of the language. Nevertheless, it was impossible to converse with him since his speech consisted only of bird whistles and great open and monotonous syllables. They tried to pay him with bright silver money, pork and chicken meat, or simply a few ears of corn, a quart of beans, eggs, and other items of food, but Joăo-Lázaro persisted in his immediate refusal and would only accept dark coins, cracklings, and crusts. If there was none of that, he would show no signs of annoyance whatever and go on his way.
The days went on like that and the rain kept up, furrowing the ground, knocking down walls, and opening ditches in plowed fields. The roads were practically impassable because of washouts and the yellow water that swirled along the streets in a flood until it split into successive branches. In a short time Achadinha had withdrawn into its original egg, shutting itself up inside its houses to let the downpour fulfill the prophecy of biblical waters. At the same time, the hateful fevers of the plague, with its vomiting and agony, its delirium, headaches, and nausea, was leaving people bilious and with tongues the color of brimstone, possessed with a sinful thirst, unable to urinate, and with bodies covered with sores. They would die sometimes in the middle of a gesture or a step as they were getting out of bed, they would die with their arms flexed and their legs stiff and would blink convulsively as if they had received an arrow in their heart. Death took on all those sudden forms, brought on by thirst and unusual suffocation, and people's afflicted mouths would open to give passage to a tongue that was burning like a lighted match. Joăo-Lázaro went about, indifferent to such family tragedies, not hearing the wailing, the cutting shrieks of mothers over the beds of their children, the short, spaced sobs of men without wives, the moaning of children and animals, as rats devoured each other and would sometimes burst from drinking rainwater. Joăo-Lázaro didn't even see the funeral processions going by almost continuously in the rain with the priest sheltering himself under a kind of bishop's canopy, and he was even far-removed from the meaning of those pine boxes on top of ox carts. By then they'd completely forgotten his miraculous blue eyes and the old effect his look had on dogs, bulls, and stones, his unexpected meekness, and because of that he'd gradually assumed his status as a beggar once again. Quite simply, he'd stopped wandering around the Island in order to be useful during the misfortune of death, and once more boys turned to throwing stones at him and sicking dogs on him, thinking that Joăo-Lázaro's arrival had coincided with the outbreak of the plague and the rain that had gone on for ninety-nine days without cease. They even ended up considering him an idiot, because it had never been possible to glimpse any indication of wisdom in him. On the contrary, everything led to their treating him with scorn, allowing that only a person of weak intelligence would reject silver coins and jealously guard dark money.
Joăo-Lázaro averred furthermore that he was a child of a tender age, saying so with a gesture of his fingers: when a boy asked him how old he was, he showed him two fingers, and he was rather annoyed at the laughter his gesture had brought on in the onlookers. And when asked where he'd been born and where he came from, he turned his back and went off up the street murmuring rude things in his strange language. Then the boys took on courage and went after him. They began by pulling his hair, then they tore his jacket, and one of them showed him his erect penis, saying he was going to stick it up his anus. It was then that Joăo-Lázaro's fearsome wrath made use of his acacia staff as he swung it about with satanic energy, capable of smashing the first head it hit. The boys swore afterwards that his eyes had grown in an inconceivable way and that serpents with tongues were coiled in his eyeballs, because the gleam of those eyes was liquid metal again, exactly like that of snakes and the poisonous bite of their saliva.
One day somebody noted a startling circumstance: the plague was disappearing and, what was even more noteworthy, it was doing so in houses where Joăo-Lázaro had gone to lend his services where it ceased to torment people and animals. The sick people would suddenly awaken from their larval sleep, as white and transparent as wax from being unwittingly in the shadow of death, and they would immediately arise from their beds and look around, all flustered, scarcely believing what was happening to them. Children of a tender age, in turn, with their heavy purple lashes, began to stretch and immediately sought their mothers' breasts, ending in that way their mortal duel with the darkness.
The one who'd begun to put the facts together and jot them down in his notebooks was Cadete the healer, whom the plague had already deprived of a long list of patients. The man had embarked on a stubborn marathon against death. He'd tried to invent a chemical product based on multiple mineral-vegetable essences, first by cooking, then distilling off a syrup, and finally using an alembic to clarify the product of the mixed herbs, the result of numerous and patient experiments in alchemy. Everything had been in vain, however. If he did manage to stanch the diarrhea, he couldn't suppress the fever or hydrate the body; if he eliminated the high fever, then the diarrhea would gush and the thirst would become even more devouring -- and death was only inconvenienced in its passage, but not abolished from the bosom of families. Having lost heart, confessing his impotence, he went back to consulting the stars, hoping to attain through astrological means what he hadn't produced in other ways with the slightest practical effect.
One night he stopped. There were phenomena on this earth that were strictly within God's competence and not that of men or even the stars. He tried to pray, but he didn't know how. If God did exist, it would have to be the same for good as for evil. Therefore prayers could go fuck. Wasn't it in God's purview, then, for Him to act directly? What was the use of praying? Here in the world, among the tiny little gods of Earth, help had been invented out of selfishness, which was forbidden to God -- because God was a winged being who flew above all objects and obstacles, he could very well dispense with listening to pleas for help.
Cadete judged the rigorous cardboard inscription of his motto to be useless and turned it toward the wall. Then, with the same impulse, he turned all the other inscriptions around, from the one that said THE SEA IS WHITE to the other one, the formidable phrase of Bárbaro the pilgrim: IS NOT WHITE THE MOST ANCIENT COLOR IN THE WORLD?, and successively in that way until his consultation room had the look of Lent about it, as when saints are forbidden to observe the world. Then he sat down in his chair in a spell of discouragement and tried to doze. But seeing Joăo-Lázaro pass on his way back to his animal lair at the extreme northern end of the parish, he leaped up and remembered that it was Saturday, the day when that soul there was accustomed to flit casually from house to house asking for cracklings and crusts. He then decided to follow his tracks and, taking his hat, went walking behind him, always at a distance. Joăo-Lázaro didn't walk, it was a kind of floating, like a dazed bird looking for its nest to sleep in. He felt a vague fascination with the tiny little steps he took and the way he would rise up at times above the walls along the street.
Cadete the healer mentally reviewed the details of Joăo-Lázaro's passage through the parish, from the day of his appearance with the crowd of pilgrims to the news of his prodigious and mysterious acts in surrounding settlements. Cadete had led the initiative for his expulsion at the head of a group of rowdies and he'd been able to witness the strange magnetism his eyes had for dogs: it was an ophidian and batrachian look, as the boys and a few superstitious women had been able to testify. At that time what had really worried Cadete the healer had been the eventuality that hiding in Joăo-Lázaro's wisdom was some occult power capable of competing with his art of expurgating illness and curses for sick people and believers. So famous was the word of Cadete's deeds in the parish and on the Island that it grew to be known that all that was needed was to invoke his name, the name Cadete, or to look toward his house and certain lesser illnesses would immediately disappear in a breath and cease to be a secret or reason for concern. So that since a new enthusiasm had spread with the arrival of that biblical prophet, Cadete had undertaken to exorcise him: he convinced the priest to give public testimony of his pact with the Devil and to excommunicate him, he lined up some of the most fervent defenders of good morals, he thought up new smoke screens to embalm his spirit, spread the most biased versions of his white voice, and proclaimed his madness.
Joăo-Lázaro's expulsion was imminent when a new outbreak of plague invaded Rozário, and then new and profound efforts were asked of Cadete to discover a cure for the epidemic. He shut himself up in his laboratory again, ready this time to challenge God Himself, and on the outside of the door he hung a sign bearing the stern inscription:
It was a slate inscribed with chalk and hanging from a piece of greasy twine and as sacred as a hieroglyph, which the usual frequenters of his consulting room, chronically ill people with many, repeated, and unusual ailments, respected to the point of panic. Six days and six nights he confronted the smell of sulfur from the flasks and test tubes with a stubbornness that carved thick blotches around his eyes. It was the despair of the agony and death of others against the despair of the plague, as was known. But the tense inventory of its origins and causes, his tests, his therapeutic experiments, all went for naught, and Cadete the healer recognized his impotence once more, this time in a definitive way. Only God, in case he existed and wanted to, could suppress the epidemic, not ordinary men, not even wise men.
The whole cycle of death by plague went along until the day Joăo-Lázaro had at last been accepted as a harmless being, closer to animals and children than to adults, and he began his chores and small services from house to house in exchange for some cracklings for his dinner. Wherever there was suffering he would arrive while the day was still young and knock on the door, and his euphoric energy, his bony nerve, and his great sacred feet would be turned over to the small tasks of people's homes, cutting firewood with vigorous blows of the ax, grasping a dung fork to clean out pigsties, unplugging muddy drains, pruning reed and boxwood hedges. Without anyone's suspecting, his miracles began there.
Cadete the healer, following him from a distance, at dusk on that Saturday, made one last effort to understand the most extraordinary coincidence in his sentient life. He worked all kinds of miracles through science, but he was a long way away from that supernatural power of curing the plague with a look. There were still a lot of sick people lying abed in all four corners of the parish at that time, but it was quite obvious that the illness had not only slowed its advance, but had ended up leaving children on the Rua Direita alone, as well as the animals in their houses.
"Well," Cadete concluded, "it was precisely along that street Joăo-Lázaro spent his days toiling from sunup to sundown in exchange for dark money, cracklings, and crusts."
Everything had been revealed, no mistake about it. Cadete suddenly felt the poor flesh of his mortal parchment seized by a shudder, as if he'd seen the Devil on a street corner, and he took off down the street at a run, fearful of being chased by the creatures without faces or eyes that habitually people the night. The enormous mouth of the darkness was wide open behind him except for the specks that indicated lights on houses or the doors of taverns, and a mixture of euphoria and fear drove his heavy protuberant body ever forward, stumbling along the way as he fell into ditches and his steps echoed at intersections. Panting, sweating, his eyes wide from the terror of his deductions, he slipped into Father Governo's house and dropped his shapeless elephant body onto the first seat, fanning himself and mopping his neck with his handkerchief.
"I've discovered everything, holiness. I've just discovered everything,
The priest's hearing had grown stiff, like rope that becomes firm in water or grains of corn in a frying pan, and he'd acquired the habit of speaking in a very loud voice, like a person who has an absolute need to hear himself through others. The people, as well, had been contaminated by that unusual way of roaring and they themselves would speak louder than was advisable.
"Come, come, my friend, get a hold of yourself. What is it you've discovered?"
Cadete was taken by an insect coughing attack, the kind that buzzes inside the neck veins and stiffens the tongue, and the priest was suddenly filled with irritation, impatience, because he wasn't in the habit of receiving anybody at that hour of the night and, being a practical sort, he wasn't used to delays and superfluous talk.
"The man," Cadete finally said. "That man has got the art of a wizard, or an apostle, or maybe a doctor of the Church. He can cure the plague."
"The man? What man? What's going on in your mind?" the priest roared from the depths of his confused deafness. And he got all aroused, sticking his spine out of his collar like a tortoise waking up out of its shell. "This is getting to be a land of poison!"
Cadete opened his hands wide in front of himself so as to calm him down, and went on to lay out the scientific basis and the details of his theory concerning Joăo-Lázaro. It could be a case of reincarnation, he whispered. Or a lost soul locked up in the appearance of a human ragpicker. But he could guarantee one thing: a house that Joăo-Lázaro had entered was a house free of the plague. But let your holiness see for himself... -- and he enumerated with excessive and lively detail dates and facts related to Joăo-Lázaro's comings and goings.
So thorough and complete was he in his convictions that the priest's body straightened up suddenly and he went into a kind of volcanic convulsion. He stood up, sat down, and stood up again, and there was a driving force in his legs similar to a sewing-machine pedal and his face grew as ashen as the lichen on busts in public squares. A chill of pins hitting their mark ran through the lobes of his ears, huge and arched forward and always so devoid of sound and understanding. His practical spirit then made a desperate appeal to his carnal forces and demanded action of them, and suddenly his legs and his arms seemed to take on all small actions, like the pieces of the great heroic machine of his life had entered into a cold accord with logic.
His former energy, which had had the church restored, had opened the cemetery on a level tract of land, and had conceived the cement and the crosses, that energy propelled him into the great bosom of the night in whose sightless eyes the priest stumbled, limping, swift, driven by the invisible hand of God, who was leading him to the encounter with Joăo-Lázaro and his drab, unsheltered den. He went along so wrapped up in his thoughts that he didn't even notice the crowd that was following him already and spreading the word from door to door, like a rebellion against the corsairs and invaders and plunderers who had threatened the parish in other times after its founding.
"There goes our priest. Let's go along, let's go." The boys had already taken the lead and it was a splashing of aimless voices and a shuffling of galoshes along the pavement, and women were coming to the windows and saying: "Lord in heaven, what sort of a mystery is this?"
And, going up the Rua do Caminho Fundo in the direction of Eira Velha, the crowd grew and a few torches appeared. The gray-haired old women, wrinkled by weariness, posted themselves behind their windowpanes and murmured prayers and exclamations that couldn't be heard outside. But children were crying, dogs were barking with their snipper shouts in the direction of the Moon, and the uproar was a maritime thing that carried horses and waves in its bosom and ships and a feeling of danger and shipwreck until the moment when someone climbed up the church tower and began to ring the bells of night, and the night was broken up again into many pieces of sound and breaking glass.
When they finally reached Joăo-Lázaro's shelter they saw him emerge from a hole, coming from the center of the earth, and his body was pale in the light of the torches and he was as rigid as a core of rock; he seemed encased in copper or bronze. They stopped at a distance, admiring his majestic red beard, woven of threads and skeins, his bare feet, curved and callused, with old, sacred nails; his clothing consisted of shreds and rags, his pants ending halfway down his legs, but his hair was so thick and long that no one noticed the half-nudity of his body. Then Father Governo made a sign to the crowd, with a grave gesture similar to the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. He went close to Joăo-Lázaro and had the sudden feeling that he was face to face with the Messiah himself on his return to Earth to save mankind. Their looks crossed and they could have fallen into each other's arms, but the priest forbade himself such a vulgar gesture and held out his arms, shouting from the depths of the silence, watched over by the flames of the torches:
"Joăo-Lázaro, spirit of good and of peace, be ye saint or sinner, I command you to follow us and practice charity for the sick and dying of this land!"
Joăo-Lázaro trembled all over with the animal fear of a beast that is alone and at bay, he slowly cast his eyes over the houses of the parish and then onto the priest and those following him, and his shoulders shook like the two wings of an eagle taking off on its last flight and, without anyone's knowing how or for what reason, he burst into sobs. Still weeping, he put on a woolen jacket and walked at the head of the crowd to the first street in the parish, entering all doors then and it was prodigious to watch the way in which his eyes awoke children prostrate in the sleep of death. The women and the men, on contact with his hands, received, in spirit, a command, the command that Christ had given paralytics in days gone by, "Arise and walk," and they would immediately rise up from their beds and felt cured and praised God for having sent His Son into the world again to save them. Witnessing all that, the people were so taken that they began to say to each other:
"It's all a dream, nothing is true, we ourselves haven't been born yet and that's why we don't exist either," and they asked each other to slap and pinch them so they would awaken and that was what they did, but in the end the miracle of the cures continued and Joăo-Lázaro went on touching bodies and the bodies were saved and there was so much joy then that men and women and their children and even their friends and their animals had no other wish then but that they should kiss and embrace and go weeping, and all did bless the Lord God the Father, for a mercy never seen nor wondered at anywhere in this dark world.
It was dawn when the visitation to the dying ended and by then there were only a few people around the priest, Cadete, and Joăo-Lázaro, because the others had scattered to celebrate their second birth with noisy and prolonged euphoria. They slaughtered lambs and goats and offered them up in sacrifice, and they drank wine and cheap liquor while night was still on. So it was that they didn't see or sense a white coldness of death suddenly coming over Joăo-Lázaro's body, feverish and tarnished with sweat as he began to become strangely disfigured, as if all his flesh were being devoured by fire or attacked by quicklime or some corrosive acid. His face suddenly filled with a great mortal weariness, his mouth gave forth a vomit of cracklings and saliva and his tongue became as yellow as brimstone, while his body puffed up and became covered with sores. All of that as sudden as the coming of rain or the birth of the Sun or lightning or the crumbling of a wall, so that in a few seconds Joăo-Lázaro fell to the ground and began to die, and Cadete was grave and bellowed into the ever-so-deaf ear of his holiness:
"He's absorbed all the plague on the Island, Father Governo. He's going to die. He's going to die, holy father."
And his shout of "plague! plague!" echoed again and flew over the houses of Rozário, reached all empty places, turned and came back all alone because no one could hear it anymore. Everyone was drunk on the wine and on the blood of the lambs and goats they had sacrificed to God. Father Governo himself, having quickly crossed himself, found the moment opportune to flee from the plague and recommended a like procedure to Cadete. Before fleeing he covered his nose with his handkerchief and blessed Joăo-Lázaro's corpse, saying:
"So may you be fortunate, oh, poor man, because the Kingdom shall be yours and not this world!" and he ran stumbling to the church to anoint himself with holy oils and holy water and the salt of baptism. He went to the bottle of sacred wine and got drunk on the blood of Christ. Then, calm and fatigued, he thought about going to bed, because no epidemic could enter his body sprinkled with the wine of the sacraments.
The next day they placed Joăo-Lázaro's body in a triangular wooden box, brought up a cart drawn by two mules, and put the coffin on it. They buried him in a restful spot in a corner of the cemetery between two rows of boxwood and beside the wailing wall. A week later hair had grown on top of his grave, and it was imagined that a white voice was crying out inaudibly from the bottom of the earth, because his body was still breathing and the ground itself was slowly going up and down in time with that respiration. But if a person asked whose body was buried there no one would remember his name, because there were really only two hypotheses to consider: either they had completely lost any memory of his acts, or it was certain, then, that Joăo-Lázaro had never existed.
THIS IS THE END OF PART ONE
CLICK HERE TO LINK TO PART TWO
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