© Joana Caiano
Gonçalo M. Tavares
Gonçalo M. Tavares was born in Angola in 1970 and teaches Theory of Science in Lisbon. His work has been published in more than 50 countries. In 2005 he won the José Saramago Prize for young writers under 35. Jerusalém was also awarded the Prêmio Portugal Telecom de Literatura em Língua Portuguesa 2007 and the LER/Millenium Prize. He has received the prestigious Prize of the Best Foreign Book 2010 in France, the renowned Grande Prêmio da Associação Portuguesa de Escritores, as well as the prestigious Prémio Literário Fernando Namora 2011. “Jerusalém” and “Senhor Walser e a Floresta” are translated into Japanese.
Gonçalo M. Tavares
Translated by Daniel Hahn
Olga is happy because everything necessary is connected now, and she might not completely know the rules of positive and negative, but she has already understood that there are elements and materials that need to be connected for the electricity to pass from one point to the other.
Alexander is playing orchestra-conductor but he is concerned because he doesn’t know the whole piece. It is Olga, always the smartest, the one who likes to pre-empt, to take the lead, it’s little Olga, who even knows how to write already without too many mistakes, she is the one who makes the connection and who is first disappointed because something isn’t going right, because the frog doesn’t move and remains dead on the table. Of course, in the books, things looked easier. This was not what they had wanted, and it was not the last time Alexander reprimanded his sister, very smart though she was.
Of course the Doll is a different matter, but, in any case, the big advantage is that when, out of absent-mindedness or just for fun, she finds herself missing an arm, over time, she doesn’t start to decompose or to smell bad and that’s why the little girl likes that Doll so much, and does not like, for example, some animals that have little legs and always make her want to rip them off until their heads starve to death owing to, down below, not being able to move.
Once, Alexander had said, they did an experiment in which they blinded a crow and then put it into an enormous shed in the dark, without a single speck of light, and the blind crow managed to orient itself perfectly.
Crows don’t orient themselves with their eyes, they orient themselves with their ears, Alexander told Olga, who’s always so smart but who didn’t know this, thinks Alexander. Crows give off squeaks that are inaudible, below the range we’re capable of hearing, and it’s these squeaks that allow them to see, said Alexander.
But that probably wasn’t it – and the children were muddling crows up with bats. But they’re children, what does it matter? Alexander explained, then, with all the certainty that children possess, that the squeaks, non-existent to the siblings’ ears, bumped into things and the things gave off an echo, a sonar response that we also cannot hear, and it was through that response, the sonar response, the echo, that crows could see – that is, they heard things and could tell where these things were, what their weight was and their position, if they were living things or dead ones; all this the crows could tell just with their ears. They don’t see at night, they hear, it’s totally different, said Alexander to Olga, who was always so smart, and who didn’t know this.
And once, some bad men, very bad men, blinded three crows and put them into a very dark shed. And they shut the children inside, and the children knew the story already and they were afraid the crows could hear; which is why they said ssshhhh to one another, they told one another to shut up, tried to suspend their breathing, tried not to move, not even move one of their feet to the side, as if they were playing hide-and-seek, but the crows, who didn’t miss their eyes to allow them to know where things were in the dark, the crows, even so, were angry, they were furious, because now they didn’t have eyes, they were blind, and even in the pitch-black night, in a shed without a single point of light, at a time and in a place where they did not remotely need their eyes, even here the crows did not like having been blinded, that experiments had been performed on them, and that is why they were filled with rage, with real rage, and their teeth were sharpened (even though they didn’t have teeth) and they hurled themselves against things because they were looking for the children, they hurled themselves at things because the things were in front of the children, and the children were well hidden behind the things, but still the crows didn’t stop and now they were many crows, a flock of crows that was uncountable and all of them enraged against the children and wanting to bite them, some because they were blind, others because they were hungry.
But the children hid themselves well. There was an old tractor in there, which hadn’t worked for ages, unable to move a metre forward or backward, but it was this old tractor, which no longer worked, that hid Alexander and little Tatiana behind it, and also Olga who, being always so smart, understood that the tractor was large enough and an appropriate shape for hiding three children from the crows, three children, yes, but not four, four would not fit, but Maria did not realise this and that was why she had a part of her body outside the protection of the old tractor that no longer moved and that part of her body was right there, unprotected, and the crows had realised this, but Maria’s head is well protected and also her lungs, her heart, her brain, her feet, her legs, almost every part of Maria’s body was protected behind the tractor. But where is Anastasia? Where is she? They could no longer see her. Anastasia is always doing this, thinks Alexander, irritated, she always gets lost when we’re in danger, she disappears when we’re scared, we lose her when we’re about to die. Alexander gets irritated at this thought and he shouts, losing his head. He shouts for his sister, for little Anastasia. But his sister is not there, she isn’t even in the shed. She got herself lost from her siblings long ago so is in no danger. They are the ones in danger, the other four siblings. All the more because Alexander moved, and the crows all attacked in that direction, and they’re furious, and, being dumb creatures, they attack the old tractor and, being stupid, they break their own bones but they hurl themselves again, seconds later, back against the old tractor’s metallic plate. And that is how they kill themselves, as if in a mass suicide, the crows kill themselves hurling themselves head-first hard against the old tractor. And only Maria gets bitten on the backside, but a little nip from a crow is not as serious as all that and her siblings will take care of her, as soon as the last crow has killed itself – they are crazy because they have been blinded, they’re totally enraged, and there the last ones are, stupidly attacking the rusty metal, the crows are blind but they give off their squeaks and they can hear very well, but they are stupid and they die, the whole flock, one by one, or several at a time, and they manage just one victory, such a small victory, since with those dangerous teeth they only bit the backside of Maria, who didn’t have space to hide her whole body, Maria’s backside bleeds, she’ll have a mark, when she grows up and undresses the mark will still be there – but what does a mark on the buttocks matter if the children are still alive, and Olga, who is always so smart, doesn’t stop asking Maria questions to keep her from thinking about it, about that bad, very bad bite.
But the day has already begun and at last the light starts to come into the shed. Alexander takes a look, but it is little Tatiana, Doll in hand, who is the first to cry out. On the floor of the shed, there aren’t seven or eight dead crows, there are dozens and dozens of crow corpses, heaped up on top of one another, almost all of them right there, in front of the old tractor, a black mountain of stupid animals that give off squeaks that people can’t hear and which, with these squeaks, orient themselves in the dark, animals that are so well equipped in their hearing, but too stupid to find their way around an old tractor and attack four children, and not five (where’s Anastasia?).
Alexander, after the shock, gets up onto the tractor. It is Olga who removes a dead crow from the seat and throws it in disgust onto the pile below. Alexander wants to get the old tractor working. The key is in the ignition. Maria has a wound on her backside, but the crow bite is not venomous. She cries, but sometimes she forgets. Tatiana first throws the Doll up, onto the tractor, and only then does she go up herself, helped by Olga, who is always so smart, who shows her where to put her feet to make that little climb. The four children are on the tractor and it is the oldest, Alexander, who tries over and over to get it working. But the tractor is old or it doesn’t have petrol and it doesn’t move. It was capable of killing the evil crows but it doesn’t move, so Maria calls the tractor names, and also Olga and Tatiana, who always copies whatever she sees, they insult the old tractor, only Alexander does not call the machine names and he doesn’t know why, he can’t understand.
Who is guilty?, Alexander wonders to himself: the crows, themselves, the five siblings, the older humans or the tractor that no longer works and that was ultimately responsible for the death of the crows?
Alexander wants to find whoever’s guilty, but he’s just a boy, so he tires after just a few minutes of seeking the guilty party and, sitting in the middle of the floor, he counts the dead crows as if he was learning evil and mathematics at the same time. As if those two sciences – evil and accounting – were ultimately just one; and as if there was nothing to growing up but that: learning this one science.