Ana Margarida de Carvalho
Translated by Victor Meadowcroft
Acordar de estar acordada
O, let no one give me pitying intentions,
No one ask me for definitions!
Black Canticle, José Régio
For some time now she had been waking up on the day before. Don’t ask me for explanations. Throughout the 38 years of her life she had always woken up in the present, on the new day just beginning. A strange feeling, not entirely disagreeable, to wake up yesterday or the day before. Curious, to always go backwards. Incessantly backwards, never ahead. But, judging by the number of strange things that had recently been hijacking her daily life, it would simply be a matter of modifying the expression, today I woke up yesterday, no major event, how often must this have taken place within the labyrinths of language and verb tense, but no one ask me for definitions, I’ll leave that to the philologists. She, a mere tax lawyer, on extended maternity leave, the single mother of triplets. Ready for anything, her only certainty being that she and her small triplets would be safe from the siege. Even if she had to hurl boiling oil from the battlements, blow Greek fire, toss glass shards through the arrow slits. Or all of these at once. She had always heard it said that the besieged, within the fortress, would take refuge by retreating into an inner citadel with weapons and provisions. For her and the children, who were just beginning to take their first steps, Verónica had reserved the old wardrobe, left to her by a distant aunt, hardwood and disproportionately large for a two-room flat. The sole proof of the existence of her scattered and dysfunctional family. How ironic, thought Verónica, this piece of furniture that now resembled a womb, sheltering her and the children, inherited from relatives she hardly knew, only vague visits to detox centres, the bloodshot eyes of fish suffocating on a countertop, foster parents and much older siblings with blowgun mouths spitting venomous darts. Nothing but fear and bewilderment, she always hiding behind the legs of adults she deemed less belligerent. Life takes many turns, offered the caretaker who would hold the lift door to allow her to enter with the triple pushchair. She could say that again. How long since they’d last seen each other, that ever-obliging caretaker, foot propping the door and eyes wandering out into the hallway. Such a kind lady; would she still be alive? How many twists and turns must that life have taken. She had never thought to ask why an engineer might be hiding behind a mop inside a block of flats. It was the caretaker who had invented the contraption of pulleys used to raise the family wardrobe dumped on the pavement. The removal men, oh, well now, you’d have to take the whole thing apart, madam, and we can’t be held responsible for antique furniture. And the caretaker, is that so, well you just wait right there, I’ll show you. She scrawled some lines on a bit of paper, did a few sums in her head, and then Verónica found herself listening to the caretaker’s hammering, as she played rotating mum, barely rising from the armchair, for no sooner would she finish feeding one baby than she had to change the nappy of another, and then it was time for baths, another assembly line operation. Two days later, obstructing her balcony, a wooden trapezium appeared, with a system of pulleys to raise the gigantic cupboard. It looked to her like an extravagant device for medieval warfare, a catapult, perhaps. At the time it had proven just the ticket for dealing with that wardrobe, and now served to raise provisions without setting foot in the street. So handy that caretaker, we must all look out for one another, so gifted, it was always she who repaired the lifts in the building, unclogged drains in the flats, climbed into the air vents, detected gas leaks, got stubborn home appliances up and running. Verónica had never been one for asking questions, it wasn’t her style, not even on the night when she watched as the caretaker was bundled into the back of a black car, aka a vehicle, her head shielded by that protective gesture always adopted by these men, aka officers. Verónica had asked nothing the next morning, the caretaker already on the entrance step holding the door open for the pushchair, mop in hand, toolbelt around her waist. Verónica never investigated these nocturnal transgressions, nor did the caretaker inquire into her tenant’s autonomous triple-impregnation. In spite of her inquisitive eyes, already wandering into the hallway, trying to glimpse tiny first teeth, discover if any of the three had started walking, if they were still giving their mother sleepless nights, Verónica cloaked her domestic affairs in a veil of discretion which, like the Veil belonging to that other Veronica, conveyed nothing but a vague and blurry impression. The caretaker could hardly distinguish between their faces, was barely able to tell the girl from the two boys, and her curiosity never crossed over from the hallway; two quick raps at the door with her knuckles and Verónica would hand over the old bitch for its invaluable evening walk. It was the only assistance she would allow, taking her sovereign family project very seriously, permitting no interference, not even well-intentioned, which was the only sort the obliging caretaker had to offer. Don’t come to me with pitying intentions. As for the children, no mystery there, for her simply waiting around for Mr. Right had presented too much uncertainty, and, many failures and various bank loans later, the three implanted embryos took, as the doctor had jubilantly informed her. A risky pregnancy, a risky delivery, an exhausting introduction to motherhood, and, on top of this, there was the asthmatic bitch that one night had become entangled in her legs thick with retained fluids, as she returned home from the bus station. And with Verónica already weighed down by an overcrowded uterus, heavily pregnant, moving with difficulty, every metre a hundred, every kilometre twenty. And that bitch, grubby-looking, smallish and ungainly, the fruit of improbable crossings, hadn’t followed her, quite the opposite, it ran on ahead, braving that labyrinth of homeward-hurrying legs, as though instinctively guessing the way, entering the building and the lift before her, wheezing like a stifled saxophone. In truth, it wasn’t Verónica who’d found the old bitch, asthmatic and helpless on the street, but the bitch who found her. Not a week later, the caretaker and the nameless bitch had watched from the building entrance as Verónica went off with her maternity bag, both wearing the exact expression, a mixture of pride and apprehension, with which biologists release their specimens into the wild after having cared for them, opening the cage door slowly, always awaiting the final glance. And the bitch’s hormones bounced all over the place when the woman she had selected arrived home with three pups. As did those of the caretaker, who, summoning experience she did not possess, wanted to answer the alternating cries of the little ones, help bathe them, but Verónica barred her entrance and her aid. I’d sooner slip in muddy alleys, whirl in the wind. She placed more trust in the asthmatic bitch, sensitive to the smallest vibrations, pricking up its ears the moment one of them stirred from sleep into wakefulness, and only relaxing again once discomfort had left the tiny creature. Worse was when all three began dragging themselves around the flat, in different directions, with the bitch, propelled by its herding instinct, carrying them back in its gentle sheepdog canines. At the rap of the caretaker’s knuckles the bitch would wheeze in resignation, consent to a brisk walk in the street and return anxious, sniffing each child, ensuring all three remained unharmed. At night, Verónica would lie in a permanent state of alertness, yet always one step ahead was the bitch, reacting a second earlier to the slightest shiver from the triplets and dragging its rattling breathing over to the cribs. In the dark, in rare moments of peace, Verónica would find herself overcome by an unknown emotion, perhaps a tenderness toward that unlikely presence, that being of another species that watched over her and the little ones. She who so often forgot to buy dog food, to change its water, and was forever putting off a visit to the vet that might alleviate its bronchioles. Tomorrow, yes. She would give the bitch a stroke, lay down a little blanket in a corner for its weary paws, respond with kind exclamations to the wagging of its tail, avoid rebuffing that dry little snout when it nuzzled against her hands. Yet no sooner would day break, than bottles and nappies would intervene in her nocturnal plans, and any remnant of benevolence disintegrate into tiny pieces like the crumbs Verónica hurriedly swept up off the floor. In truth, she wasn’t geared toward gratitude, she’d never been anybody’s priority, didn’t know how to reciprocate, had never been taught. And so the days would race by, that tireless double act milling around the three babes, and the watchful caretaker at a distance. But this was all before. When that smell of bleach had yet to become entangled in her hair. When Verónica’s nails were yet to dissolve from so much scrubbing with corrosive detergents. When the noises from outside had not yet begun to arrive with the remoteness of an aquarium, for the siege had started, and Verónica had boarded up the doors and windows with bed slats. When there had still been time within time. Now, events had ceased to follow on from each other, everything was an accumulation, and hours became elastic; it might just as well be morning as night, things could have happened yesterday or tomorrow or taken place an entire month apart, it made no difference, the scale of sequences had been lost, and she always woke up on the day before. And today I woke up yesterday. This was also before Verónica had propped the mattresses against her door, consigning the caretaker’s knuckles to the past. Before the entire flat had become a storehouse for provisions, with tunnels dug between columns of nappies and tins of powdered milk. And before Verónica had placed an order for sacks of bricks and mortar, delivered via the catapult in the window. She foresaw every breach, anticipated every ambush, obstructed every draught from outside; she needed to guard against an assault, defend the children at all cost, keep them safe, which is why they had retreated, trench by trench, into the family wardrobe. They spent the better part of their days shut up in there, the babes, dazed by the fizzle of the chemicals, the absence of light. Having shared cribs, incubators, and even the same uterus, they would soon adjust to the back of the wardrobe, their mother consoled herself. And the mangy bitch, having struggled across the entire stockpile of rations, would lie down exhausted beside the enormous wardrobe, the mother listening to its heavy breathing. This was also before the bitch had felt that prick to its protruding bones, so sharp it brought a muffled yelp, yet this was no splinter but Verónica’s eyes upon its back. The bitch had hesitated when the woman opened the balcony door, hoping she might step through. It dithered for a few moments, but then a broom handle had helped provide the required impetus. It sat watching Verónica, its weary eyes full of irony and fatigue, as she blocked off the balcony door, brick by brick, until they were both walled in. Relieved, Verónica felt certain that the bitch, exposed to the outside air in its comings and goings, had been carrying in its fur those germs that contaminated the streets, the breath of the world. For a long time the bitch’s sob-like breathing could be heard, then two howls like a very faint whistle. Then nothing more. But Verónica is unable to say whether that was yesterday, or a month ago, or was supposed to happen tomorrow. She awoke the day before and felt the frigid legs of her babes. In addition to the bleach on the floor, the chlorine on the walls and the ozone fumigations, Verónica had acquired the habit of boiling the children’s milk repeatedly, and she needed to be careful not to lose track of time, to avoid the cream bubbling over and putting out the flame, allowing the gas to run freely, because sleep was a sweet imperative that gave her no option, and, on waking later, perhaps yesterday or the day before, the children’s arms and legs no longer felt so cold, given that her own hands too were cold, now that everything was under her unbroken control; she mustn’t let the milk spill over, only sleep within that disinfected peace, inside the wardrobe citadel, everything duly sanitized, surrounded by boxes of ammonia, packs of nappies and tins of powdered milk piled up to the ceiling, for the duration of the siege outside; perhaps she’d already filled the bottles, perhaps she’d already turned off the gas burner, it was even possible she hadn’t started yet, she would boil the milk for all three of them tomorrow, but now she allowed herself to slide like a soft, sticky droplet, the contours of her body moulding to the rigid angles of the wardrobe, Waking From Being Awake, within that oscillation between sleep and non-existence.
Lisbon, September 25, 2020