Borderline, and: Seven Stories
By the time Leon realized it, nearly an hour had gone by since he passed the turnoff for Salto. But the sign still hadn't appeared. At that point, the highway had become a trackless, straight line, and if memory served, it would continue like that for hundreds of kilometers, a monotonous landscape rising and falling until the final thoroughfare to the coast. The temperature there, unlike what most people are used to, gets colder the farther north you go. The strip of ash suspended above the horizon was already broadcasting the misty cold that for a good part of the year covers the highlands. To the right, if you exited any offramp, the ocean wouldn't be far. Innumerable times when crossing that stretch of land as a child, he would imagine a simple and purifying flight: pedal to the metal and the car would have liftoff; a few seconds more, free of any hindrances, the ocean would materialize, beckoning you eastward.
Now he was the one who should be careful when passing the semitrucks. Curveless, the highway was deceptive: a vehicle, seemingly alone, could hide an entire convoy aligned in back. That was one of the warnings his father, so familiar with that territory, liked to repeat to Leon and his little brother, Henrique, when he would take them to their grandparents' place every July. During the trip, as the landscape reeled along the highway, their dad would invent his own nuanced geography for the route. Some stone wall had been constructed by slaves; an abandoned house dated back to the sixteenth century. The unexplored stretch between Lajedo and Alecrim was probably rich in radioactive minerals; at Lapinha there were once jaguars, alligators, and a forest full of jacaranda trees. As for the kids on the side of the road, they possessed a rare vocabulary and were more intelligent than city kids. From his brown Chevy Veraneio, three-on-the-tree, their father would point to things outside, shift a gear, and in such a way mark the rhythm of his exposé. After they spent a whole day on the road, the approaching sign was always greeted with an unexpected silence; on the other side of the border, the need to narrate went away. Twenty years had come and gone, yet the scenery reeling through the window was almost indifferent to Leon, unyielding in his memory.
He went on for several more kilometers. Without knowing exactly where he [End Page 41] was, he decided to pull onto the shoulder. He had been driving for over four hours. His leg had begun to fall asleep. Killing the engine, he rested his arms on the steering wheel and sat there. In the lane beside him, one truck after another passed by—the same coal-hauling trucks that had taken him hours to pass. He wanted to understand why—after all that time outside Brazil (five years in Barcelona), and to the surprise of everyone who wanted to reconnect with him—he had simply decided to rent a car and once again immerse himself in that oblique and distant hinterland. He got out of the car and went up the hillside. Perhaps stretching his legs, getting circulation back, he could figure out which way to go. The thin breeze of the scrubland bent the scrappy grasses over the asphalt along the highway. Down in the lowlands, dominating the landscape, some monolith rose in contrast to the dull tones of vegetation that the evening light would eventually accentuate.
Yellow, ash, brown, cream, orange, green-butter. A world in a perfect state for observation. His experience with photography, of course, helped him see those colors better. Here and there, herds in dispersed blemishes, ranches, a country house or two. Beyond the plain, an orchard or perhaps a great paneira tree, which no map would register. On the road, at the end of the slope, you could make out a small bridge. For an instant, such equilibrium seemed absurd and exasperating to him, a simulation of nature. Did the sign no longer exist? Had the state line moved?
He went back to the car and grabbed a map from the glovebox. He opened it on the hillside, putting a rock on each corner to hold it down. He lined up the direction of the highway with the one traced on paper, making the two geographies match, as if suddenly the land could configure itself as a concrete extension of the map, the folds in turn a representation of a condensed terrain. Between Salto and the border, the map indicated a river, but the one that ran ahead was too small to correspond to the one on the map. There also failed to appear the scrubby pasture, the fence lines, the windmills, the fieldworkers. The border between states, marked on the sheet with a thick line, suggested some undeniable feature in the real world—a chasm or a mountain chain. Was that not the answer relief mapping lent the eyes? If the river on the map corresponded to what he could descry out there, then the sign should be close, no more than five kilometers away. But in reality, the distance between Salto and the state line would be considerably larger than what the paper showed. Something didn't fit. Once again, Leon had reached the boundary between two incompatible territories.
But it was exactly that difference which fascinated him. The land that one day had been familiar to him had now, before his eyes, become a rocky and violent version of the printed map, without the aid of a legend or coordinates. Every photographer believed in this: it's always the world that brings its image to the paper. And that logic should undoubtedly be what guides a primal translation in which words, covered by a layer of incomprehension, become coarse and alluring all at once, strange in their own language. [End Page 42]
Leon looked at the highway, framed the landscape with his fingers, calculated the effect of the light. The heat gently compressed the air. He grabbed the water bottle in the car and drank the rest of the hot liquid in one gulp. No, you couldn't take a good picture from here.
He was already at the wheel again when he noticed the bulky figure moving in the brush. A man on a horse. He skirted along the highway, slowly, on the other side of the fence. Must have been a vaqueiro from some ranch, probably knew the region well. Sticking his head out the window, Leon called him over with a shout.
The figure halted. He was a lanky old man with a calm face. Turning the animal skillfully, he approached the fence, not far from the highway. Leon greeted him with a good morning.
"Please, could the senhor tell me where the borderline is?"
The man remained silent, observing Leon from atop his horse. He wore a leather jerkin that matched his chapéu; his waist and legs were well vested and adorned. If Leon had his camera at hand, this would have made a great portrait of a bygone time (his father, of course, wouldn't have found anything novel about the image).
"The coal mine?" he finally replied, scratching his chin like someone solving a riddle.
"No, senhor. I'm looking for the border. The state line …"
The old man pushed back his chapéu and wiped his brow. He hadn't understood the question. He regarded Leon the way a person looks at some strange apparition. His eyes scanned the horizon, the head of his horse raised. He indicated some faraway point in the scrubland, in the direction of the monolith, mumbled some words. Leon also didn't understand—their encounter seemed a joke without a punchline. Perhaps he had heard "grotto" or "stucco" or "barbwire" or "league"—were they words from the past?—but Leon already regretted he had asked. What's not on a map is an invention; here, two stories had crossed paths by mistake.
A truck passed on the blacktop, honking, at full speed. The wind that whipped by shook the car and got Leon's attention. The vehicle slid down the hillside. He thanked the vaqueiro and sped off down the highway.
He could try to go a bit farther. He crossed the bridge: a small sign announced the Rio do Peixe, but what remained was a dried-up bog. On the other side, bean and corn shoots lined the road and from there extended westward, creating patterns across the land. He accelerated, shifted into fourth gear. If he had rented a Chevy Veraneio, the trip would be much more enjoyable; the windows in these new cars framed things poorly.
He made out a gigantic sign up ahead, advertising artificial insemination [End Page 43] at a stud farm. Below the name of the landowner, the silhouette of a white bull took up the whole panel. Unlike the black bull that had become commonplace along the Spanish highways, and had become the country's national icon, this solitary bull subtly conjured within Leon, like the waste of a dream, a sort of ghost that, fleeing some world in ruins, had by chance come to confound the mind of a photographer in the middle of the road, a photographer who had left the South in search of a sign. For an instant, under the tow of a false bull, the images of his life became confused, without proprietorship or affection, and now they no longer made sense (could that sign be the entrance to a labyrinth?). He felt a dizziness start to take hold. But the bull was already behind him.
A kilometer later there appeared another weigh station. Up close it was little more than an abandoned hovel: a single block of concrete and glass, a broken placard, and a microphone. On the gravel to the side, the carcass of a semitruck. Now there was no doubt: he had crossed the state line and was on the other side. If he continued, he would catch sight of Conquista by nightfall. This city yet remained an oblong strip of dusty light in the most secluded reaches of his mind, like the Milky Way. But he had no reason to carry on; to be on one side of the border or the other wasn't important. He slowed down, looking for a place to turn around. It would be better to go back to Salto and get some information. There was still time to find the sign before it got dark.
The city of Salto had never boasted more than fifteen thousand inhabitants, but as the last stop before the borderline, it was a reference point for travelers. There was always somebody to remember its name, showing it on the map, recommending it as a place to spend the night. Such spontaneous and certain reference in some way changed the size of the place. On the imaginary map of those who crossed the state line, Salto was a shining light.
At the city's entrance is a long stretch of speed bumps. Cars slow down, a swarm of peddlers throw themselves at your windows. Sugar apples, mangos, peppers and watermelons, oranges, cornmeal, jars of honey. Back when he traveled with his family, they would stop there on the way home. His mom and Henrique, who was really little, only liked the biscuits and couldn't wait to stop. Lucia, the youngest aunt, would get out of the car to smoke, watching the others from a distance.
With little time to spare, he stopped near the roundabout at a gas station that he vaguely recalled. The city lay hidden up ahead, along a cobblestoned avenue (a faded brick arch welcomed visitors). In the courtyard, in front of the gas pumps, sat the diner, flanked by a small mechanic's shop and various businesses. On the other side in the garage, several semitrucks slept. The platform for the bus was practically empty. He went into the diner, ordered a coffee at the counter. Through the back window and beyond the red dirt, he could see the strip of highway, life there zipping along between North and South. The [End Page 44] cleanliness of the diner caught his eye. The spotless floor, the painted walls, the food on display beneath the warmer. A dozen tables well arranged, waiting. On each of them, a plastic flower, pepper, and napkins. It was self-service, but the trays were stacked and showed no signs of lunch.
"The buses only stop here early in the morning," said the girl at the counter, without Leon having asked. "At night, this place is hopping."
Carefully aligned on a candy and pastry stand at the exit by the register was a package whose brand name Leon recognized. To most anyone, the package would be unremarkable. But in his family these tiny hardtack biscuits, with their undefined taste, neither salty nor sweet, had been for some years an obsession. One time, his dad had scavenged several supermarkets in search of them. He came to the conclusion that they were only distributed there, around Salto. Since then he always took rations of the biscuits back home; for months they served as reminders of the trip. Not even Lùcia, with her powers of reason and logic, could doubt the fact: the city of Peraus, which gave its name to the biscuits, was an invention of the manufacturer and only existed on the packaging.
"Another coffee and a bottle of water," Leon said to the girl, who had only him to wait on. He went to the bathroom, then paid and left. It was just after three. There was practically no movement in the courtyard. Near the gas pumps, one of the attendants, hunched over the hose in his hand, had just finished fueling up a Volkswagen Bug. Leon greeted him with a nod.
"Amigo, could you tell me … please, where the state line is?" he asked. "I need to know the exact place, where the sign is."
Without raising his head, the attendant remained glued to the gas pump. "Look," he answered with a sluggish voice, "to tell you the truth, to be really certain, that exact point … no one knows for sure where it is. For every person you ask, you're going to get a different answer. But the border is there, some aught fifty kilometers ahead."
Leon opened the bottle of water, took a sip, looked around. The vapors around the brim of the gas tank distorted the attendant's face and gave the impression of heat waves. A few seconds went by, marked by a click. The pump shut off. Time always passes by more slowly at gas stations.
"But do you know," Leon persisted, "if there is some sort of indication on the highway? A marker, even a fence post, a rock?"
Sitting on the curb at the base of the pump, another attendant, who cleaned his teeth with a toothpick, spoke up.
"Hey, Alex. Isn't the state line close to the insemination farm? I think there's a sign there."
Alex looked up with a mocking expression on his face.
"Near the farm? No way, Tadeu. The farm is on the other side. That sign you've got in your head is the one with the bull. The border comes before, like thirty kilometers before," he said with conviction as he returned the hose to the pump. "Soon after Rio Mosquito. But there's no sign there. There used to be, but not anymore. It must have been taken down." [End Page 45]
A truck hauling cement pulled over, wheezing and squeaking. Tadeu spit his toothpick on the ground and went to tend to the customer. Neither of the two seemed to know exactly what Leon was saying. He leaned against the gas pump, hoping a third would come to resolve the problem. The price and quantity of the gas spun around on a mechanical dial; the station's pumps had yet to enter the digital age.
"You can fill her till it spills over!" yelled the truck driver to Tadeu before entering the diner. The owner of the Bug forked over his gas payment and started his car.
Alex saw a coworker appear out of nowhere.
"Ernani! Hey, Ernani!" he yelled, waving his rag in the air. The man, who was walking toward the highway, turned and quickly came over, tucking his shirt into his pants. He had just gotten off work and showered in the truckers' bathroom.
"This guy here," Alex said, pointing to Leon, "wants to go to the border. Can you show him where it is? You live close, right?"
Ernani said yes, patting down his hair. "If the senhor can give me a ride, I'll show him where. I'm going home right now."
"Great," said Leon, "but I need to see the sign. Can you guarantee me you can find it?"
"I can, senhor, the sign still exists," answered Ernani while Alex looked on doubtfully.
"Is the senhor from INCRA?" Ernani ventured, curious.
Leon didn't understand.
"INCRA? Why INCRA? No, not at all."
"Last week there was another invasion round these parts. They always come from the ministry. A land surveyor. Sometimes people also come from FUNAI."
"No, I've got nothing to do with that. Not with INCRA or FUNAI. I just want to see where the state line is, that's all."
The two got in Leon's car.
Ernani was a young guy, very skinny and constantly grinning. He had to be younger than Leon, but the effects of hard work made up the difference. He sat on the bench seat, slouched his shoulders, and brought his legs together, like someone asking permission to go into another's house.
Leon started the car. In silence, he passed the roundabout once again (now just a few kids were there) and took the road north, this time encouraged by having at his side, in flesh and blood and off the map, an inhabitant of the border. It was almost four in the afternoon.
The sun was going down, and a narrow band of orange light modified the tone of the pastureland. The highway was flying by now. [End Page 46]
"You're a photographer?" Ernani asked Leon upon seeing a camera and a pair of lenses poking out the backpack on the bench seat.
The inquiry caught Leon off guard, sounded odd to him. Not because a stranger evoked the world he came from without permission, as though he had discovered him and stolen his anonymity. No, it was a strange question because it felt as though he was hearing it for the first time, as if for an instant he had gone back in time and once again become the aspiring photographer of twenty years ago, when he had no recognizable job and did freelance work, when he still hadn't abandoned his sociology studies to go with his first wife to Europe. So he found it pretentious to answer affirmatively. A banal question, yet when the past crossed paths with the present, there was no answer; or any answer would be incomplete and absurd.
"What are those blotches there?" asked Leon, pointing to a field.
Even at a distance, you could see a handful of tents covered in black plastic and a faded flag on a stick. It was the encampment of the landless and displaced. Leon hadn't noticed it when passing by the first time.
They had crossed Rio Mosquito. He was covering the same stretch of land he had previously traversed, and he thought of this as a second chance. A waft of burned rubber came from the truck in front, the same smell that thrilled him as a kid and now had no effect on him whatsoever. Just like the smell of scorched land, of inky bus fumes, of factory sulfur, of carrion, a lunchbox packed with chicken, wet asphalt—any of those smells. No matter how much Leon tried to give them new meaning, he would be left with the mere shadow of some remote experience on a primitive journey, conditioned to it in such a way that it had lost its natural brutality—an injection of life and resolve entirely sanguine.
Thirty kilometers. A fallen sign indicated Taboäo, which didn't exist on any map and which nobody knew anything about and where no one was born. Perhaps Leon hadn't passed a sign on the roadside. If someday he had to hide from the police, or flee from someone, he would certainly come here.
"You can slow down," said Ernani. "It's just up ahead."
"There, after that anthill, on the tallest fence post. Way on that side, there's a little road that goes through the brush, see?"
"I'm not seeing any sign there."
"It's there, you'll see. You can stop."
For an instant, doubting the sanity of the other man, Leon became apprehensive, not understanding what this meant. He pulled the car over. Ernani unbuckled his seatbelt and hopped out. He ran to where the road ended, and pointed to the side.
"Didn't you say it was here?" Without turning off the engine, Leon observed from inside the car.
"Get out, man!" shouted Ernani.
Leon finally walked over. The smell of burned rubber wafted more strongly. [End Page 47]
It seemed to come from beneath the ground. On a small mound hidden by brush, he could distinguish the shape of an old and twisted sign, covered in rust. The lettering was lackluster, but it was possible to make out the old words: state line …
Under the curious and watchful eye of Ernani, Leon bent over, trying to smooth out the remains of a frame corroded by time. After some effort, he stood up, looked around slowly, scanning the horizon. He went to the car and returned with a notebook that was under the seat. From inside the notebook he took out a photograph taken decades before. A portrait of travelers long ago, standing on the borderline: his dad, mom, Henrique, and himself. He had one foot in front of the other, simultaneously occupying both territories divided by the sign. A smile crossed the four faces, as though happiness were there, inscribed in that lost recess of absolute disinterest. Lùcia, absent from the image, was taking the picture.
Leon then held the picture in the air, overlapping, in the same space, the old image with the present. The surrounding shade was a different tone, but the size of the mountains and the prominence of the landscape confirmed the scene from 1975, duplicated now, thirty years later.
"Could you please excuse me, it's getting dark," said Ernani, interrupting Leon's scrutiny.
"Where do you live?" asked Leon.
"At the end of this little road." Ernani pointed his nose at the trail.
For a few minutes, Leon remained there, on the side of the highway, until the world resumed its habitual indifference.
Night was already upon him when he got in the car. He started it up again and headed south. [End Page 48]
The easiest way to entangle two or three strands of wool yarn is to store them in a drawer and forget about them. The same goes for thread and twine, silver chains, ribbons, string. Everything works out in a very simple manner: suffice it to stay clear, and nature will take its course—almost irreversibly so. This phenomenon is obviously not limited to drawers; it lends itself to lifeforms, to cosmic space, and even to worlds ever so tiny and microscopic. It explains the tendency of certain slender plants to embrace one another as they grow, or why the chromosomes of a cell (those two ribbons tied in a bow) plummet in a spiral, compact and elegant, in an ensnared meshwork. For the same reason it's possible to explain certain everyday incidents, like lines at banks (which inevitably become wound), and some traffic jams. The law even encroaches on the domains of abstraction: it's currently known, contrary to what Euclides postulated, that two parallel lines do meet and become confused along some point of infinity. Something similar occurs with sequential memories, but there is still no consensus on the matter. The most convincing case, nevertheless, continues to be books and the lines printed on their pages. Upon opening a volume, the reader unfailingly comes across some tract of line offset with the one below or an entire phrase tangled with another. That sort of disorder, that wordy confusion, is undoubtedly the most reckless of all.
the behavior of water
The reintroduction of fish to their natural habitat has been painstakingly accomplished without major setbacks. With the help of volunteers, who go from house to house, the fish are picked up in the morning and by the end of the day are already swimming freely in oceans, lakes, and some rivers. Even the most fragile and temperamental species, like the ones with blue stripes (whose hue varies according to their mood), have managed to survive. The ill-adapted ones are humanely put down, and eventually no specimen will go to waste. Meanwhile, the biggest problem continues to be the behavior of water. Despite the meticulous and obsessive procedures that endeavor to preserve water, the task is almost impossible. Returned to its natural course, beyond tanks and aquariums, there is no way to contain its suicidal instinct. [End Page 49]
a meteorological question
The funnel forms when you least expect it. A small peloton collects on the avenue and begins to rotate. Others then emerge from the adjacent streets. Ten, fifteen, twenty, countless bicycles, lined up or in swarms, approach the roundabout and enter, a swooshing on the rise. The power of the vortex sucks up those who hesitate, the slowest ones, and the entire roadway spins, always counterclockwise. Some, unable to resist the centrifugal force, are spit out onto the avenue again. Attracted by the rush, by the spiral movement, pedestrians stop along the curb and watch the whole thing while basking in the fresh wind. The bicycles remain like this for several minutes, sometimes for more than an hour, and then they disperse as spontaneously as they gathered. That whirling accumulation has in fact become a natural phenomenon beyond human control, regulated by the same laws that command hurricanes, cold fronts, oceans. Berliners themselves say it's already possible, based solely on observation, to calculate the chances of the next event. But like all weather forecasts, this one is also subject to inaccuracies.
of the vulnerability of objects
The smaller the object, the more sensitive it is, he thinks, examining the bundle with his hands, without so much as the courage to look at her. If he could go back, if he could choose once more, perhaps make a trade, perhaps buy some-thing else, but now it is too late, he thinks, he must see it through until the end. Objects are insecure, orphans by nature, and they are also treacherous, he thinks; you can't be in a hurry, treat them any which way—you must be very careful with objects, he thinks, searching the bundle for a loose point from which to open it. Before giving in to the temptation, to the appeal of an object, he thinks, and thus becoming wrapped up in it, you must study the climate, the language, the risks of exposure in a strange place; you must understand that a sudden change of place affects the life of objects, their light, their form, and also their force; understand that substances like wood and iron, for example, resin and ink, present in various objects, tend to experience a transmutation before a stranger's touch, to lose their original properties, and that the object is never the same after leaving its packaging on another continent, even though the words that announce it and the hands that artfully guide it attempt to offset the natural distortion of its elements. That's what he thinks, turning the bundle over and over again. On the one hand, he continues, an exiled object, an object separated from the hundreds of other identical objects on some store's shelf, of some bazaar, can finally breathe and operate with the gravity of its own mass, he thinks, and then the case would be admitting that they, the objects, function as nourishment and that you should treat leather and bronze like you treat sugar, salt, and starch, understanding that, for instance, when candy migrates, especially the most exquisite kind, from a hot and dry land to a cold city, it will never be recognized without the heat that is integral to the [End Page 50] candy itself, even though it's not in the recipe, and that the simple presence of other edibles where the candy is stored, with the exchange of smells among these substances, integrates the substances themselves and, just like that, once it is displaced, the object, any object, like candy, loses a part of itself, or exists outside itself, he thinks, as his fingers try to free themselves from the twine that holds firm the bundle's second skin of blue cellophane found under the dark paper already torn off and strewn on the floor, entirely massacred by his clumsy hands, hands which now seem strange to him, themselves a lost object in that room with light walls, much lighter than those at the hotel he had abandoned the night before. After all, he thinks, the walls of a house are always lighter than the walls of any hotel, exactly like a body's sunburn on the beach looks more burned in the mirror of a house than in the mirror at a hotel, he thinks, avoiding her gaze, her quiescence and anticipation, and his back and face are already bathed in sweat from his search for an opening where he might free himself of the blue cellophane, beneath which there awaits a layer of plastic bubble wrap and another of tissue paper, since after long trips the general consensus is to apply numerous layers of protection, he thinks. You must therefore, he thinks, thinks and breathes, comprehend once and for all the vulnerability of objects, that although objects are ennobled and strengthened by voyages and overseas flights, he thinks, it is by crossing the Atlantic or the Pacific that an object is magnetized with the experience of water, absorbs in its porcelain memory the darkness and the fury of the sea, he thinks, but nothing eliminates the risk, the possibility of failure or injury, the lack of control over objects. Well, he thinks, turning the bundle over and over, in the end it's not just that—objects also depend, and perhaps more so, on how they are received, on how well they are welcomed, and their capacity to surprise; a donation depends not solely on the donor but also on the donee, he thinks, a present only becomes a present when the other welcomes it, just like a word becomes a word only when the other welcomes it, and therein lies the link that can unite one person to another, the link fragile like a porcelain teacup or a clay jar, he thinks, thinks, prolonging the movement of his fingers as much as he can, still lacking the courage to look at her, not knowing what she thinks, hardly attuned now to her hospitality, hoping that an object, any object, will grant solace, no matter how useless or nonsensical, charmless, ugly, or silly, or misguided even. You must believe, he thinks, that an object can always infiltrate the domain of other objects or other beings, like a chair that turns into a jaguar that turns into a chair, the intimate mechanisms of objects, he thinks, even more so of those that sleep in shops at night and there achieve their impure permutations, he thinks. Objects can be deceiving, they can increase or diminish in size, like the old fruit bowl on the table, he thinks, there before the two of them, the fruit bowl that would hold oranges, ripe apples, who knows what berries and sweetsop, but today hosts a wrench set and an electricity bill, and certainly that's why it shrinks in solitude, he thinks, he, the newcomer, with the shaky hands that seem to hesitate, seem to not want to or not have the courage necessary to pull off the [End Page 51] last layer of wrapping that conceals the object, a present, the memory foretold and brought to her, he thinks, and she observes him and waits for that which is called a surprise, but he is afraid, afraid of the final instant when the disaster is celebrated—the inevitable passage from one world to another we all await, he thinks, giving it a go, but it seems he already regrets it.
on the pen and the sword
The historical record does not corroborate it, but the arrow that mortally wounded Achilles at the gates of Troy was probably engraved with his name and the body part it was meant to strike. from paris to achilles, in care of his right heel—that's what the text presumably said. Fleeing the tumult, the archer climbs the city wall, chooses an arrow, and on it engraves the death sentence. Before he lets it fly, he mutters the words like a prayer. A thousand years later, a Greek named Aster, inhabitant of Methone, takes a potshot at Phillip, king of Macedon, who marches with his armies to sack the city. On the arrow, Aster writes, for phillip's right eye. The projectile twangs out a bullseye, blinding the king. That's how projectiles found their mark in Antiquity.
Some habits far outlast objects. Addressing arrows or bullets as if they were letters is a custom that traversed the centuries, adapted to the invention of gunpowder and firearms, and persisted in modern wars. At the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, the English defeated the Napoleonic fleet, but they failed to avoid the death of their leader—and since then national hero—Lord Horatio Nelson, who fell in the last moments of combat before the piercing death stare of a musket. The musket ball, fired from the mast of a French ship, entered the admiral's left shoulder, went through his shoulder blade, and lodged itself whimsically in his spine. Two hours later, he died. No one ever discovered the name of the musketeer, though R. Guillemard, an ex-sergeant who became a scrivener, would later lay claim to the shot's authorship. The small lead sphere, extracted by the doctor on board, was delivered to Queen Victoria and ended up on display in a hall at Windsor Castle. On the smutty surface of the musket ball, you can make out, in quivering handwriting, the exact note: pour h.n., á l'épine dorsale.
Small battles—sieges and ambushes, secret missions, guerrilla warfare—favor ammunition inscribed with the name of those pursued. Meanwhile, even in mass killings and bombings, where nearly everything is specter and commotion, there are also those who use ink as a weapon. Three examples taken from three photographs: during the Second World War, an Allied pilot signs a bomb intended for General Rommel in the desert. Before taking off, German soldiers inscribe the warhead they are about to unload on the Norwegian city of Narvik with auf nach narvik—one of the struts covering the initials of the addressee. On a riverbank of the Rhine, two children, playing with a cylindrical bomb emerging from the sand, attempt to read the owner's name. [End Page 52]
Nobody knows what will become of the pen's future association with the sword, but some soldiers continue to mark warheads with their chalky chicken scratch. The appeal, the purpose of this gesture, one can suppose, isn't meant to determine with exactness the destination of the bullet, but to turn words into weapons themselves, into that which will penetrate the enemy's flesh and with luck destroy him (words possess that natural desire to become weapons). Not always, of course, do things come out as they were written. A bullet on the loose traverses the body of a passerby, unforeseen. Another explodes in the chest of a friend you meant to protect. Everyone knows the story about the one that got away.
You could attribute these errors to the fallible and fragile nature of words. You could accuse the soldiers of a lack of training, of not knowing how to correctly spell homicidal formulas. Indifferent, arrows and bullets, once fired, continue to fly of their own accord, swift and solitary. At the last second, they can even change the meaning of words.
To test Abraham, God orders him to take his son Isaac to the top of a hill and sacrifice him. So Abraham saddles his donkey and in three days reaches the place indicated. He dismisses his servants, prepares the altar, binds his son upon kindling and logs. When he goes for the knife, a divine angel restrains him and commands him to suspend the execution—his faith has been proven. In place of Isaac, Abraham sacrifices a ram.
That story, as you know, is narrated in chapter 22 of Genesis, in the Old Testament, and it must have been jotted down for the first time some five or six centuries before Christ. For some interpreters, the passage is ominous: it foretells of biblical episodes well in advance, like the sacrifice of Jesus, for example. Others consider it an enigma—the path to understanding would fully reveal itself throughout the centuries, thanks to the work of scribes and copyists.
The passage contains nineteen verses, each one comprising a unit of reading. In the days of handwritten manuscripts, copyists had to transcribe those lines on leather parchment, consuming nearly four pages, or two folios, which came from lambskin they obtained in their spare time. So each time a scribe went for his quill to record the story of sacrifice, a lamb had to be sacrificed—exactly as the story foreshadowed.
Unlike Abraham, scribes are not always strong willed and dependable. Distracted, drowsy, they walk in the shadow of Error. They mix up their words and syllables, amend what they shouldn't, suppress sacred verses. A well-made Bible, after all, doesn't admit erasures or typos. Whenever a scribe makes a mistake, the lambskin must be discarded, and the entire folio has to be remade—the pictorial ornamentation, commentaries, glossaries. With each error, the story must be repeated, another lamb sacrificed, and a niche thereby created where demons participate in the work of God. [End Page 53]
of the love men have for their barbers
Every time we run into each other, Cyro extends his hand to me and reverently nods his head. For a few seconds he remains standing there, elegant, proud, and looks at me intently. Then he asks, with a slight tremor on his lips, where it was that I cut my hair. This is nothing new—he asks everyone the same question.
Perhaps Cyro is a bit senile. He is growing old, like me, and he has some serious complications; he takes a lot of medicine, can't manage on his own. His children beg your pardon and explain that the man is not well, that you can't make heads or tails of what he says and you shouldn't pay any heed to his nonsense.
I've known Cyro since we were kids. We were classmates at school, drank and traveled together, exchanged letters in our youth. We never grew apart, not even when he got married. Trying to see things from his point of view, I can't say he wasn't right.
One of the oldest memories I have is going with my mom to get a haircut. Once a month, she took me downtown to a barber named Melo, whom I imagined was the best, perhaps the only one who could get my hair right. I remember the metal chair, the booster seat he put out for me so I sat taller across the mirror. For a long time nothing really changed, and Melo became one of those untouchable characters who give childhood a sense of authenticity. My only future then was the day on which he would dispense with the booster seat and I would be authorized to sit directly in the chair.
Sometime later, we moved to another neighborhood; I moved to another barber. At that point, I don't know if my mom accompanied me or if I went alone. The new guy, younger, introduced me to a different haircut, which left my ears more exposed. It was the sign that my childhood was over.
I tend to believe in an intimate bond between men and their barbers—an alliance that should only be broken in cases of war, cataclysm, revolution. When I enlisted in the army, I felt I had arrived at one of those extremes, and searched out some stranger to shave my head. It was also around that time, I think, with my seventeen or eighteen years of age, that I took my first shot of whiskey and had my first ponderings about death. I became a regular at a new place—discreet, bureaucratic—Reis' Salon.
For thirty years, I cut my hair at Reis'. I considered him a sort of angel or accomplice who should be visited from time to time. I would arrive in silence, sit in the armchair, open the newspaper. He would render his service. I would pay and head out. One day, when my haircut was almost finished, I noticed the guy with scissors in the mirror was not the same person. That's how I realized Reis had died.
Some days ago, I ran into Cyro at the park; his daughter led him about. As always, we hugged and he fixed me with his glassy stare. I saw his eyes grow [End Page 54] red, full of tears; he couldn't quite manage to form the words. He calmed down, smiled. The inevitable question came: where had I cut my hair?
I get up early every day and walk to the bathroom. Above the sink, my wife had a large mirror installed. There is my thin and straight hair, well trimmed up front, high and tight on the sides. My sideburns flawlessly even—a perfect haircut. For a second I hear the snipping of scissors, the scant tufts of hair falling to the floor, carrying with them the afternoons and nights. The barber removes the cape, cleans my neck and shoulders, vacuums up any remaining strands of hair. He shows me how the nape of my neck looks; I breathe in the smell of cologne. There we are, staring each other down through the mirror, as if in a duel. I look myself over again, back at my house, all alone in the bathroom.
I think about Cyro, about the question he repeats. I make an effort, try to remember. It's true that when I run into my old friend, I always wait for the question. It's a relief to hear it. It would be terrible if, for some reason, Cyro didn't ask me the question. The problem I face in defeat is that I am no longer capable of answering it. I don't know how to answer—I will never again be able to answer it. [End Page 55]
Marcílio França Castro was born in Belo Horizonte in 1967. His first book, A casa dos outros [The house of the others] (2009), won the 2010 Brazilian Union of Writers Award. His second book of short fiction, Breve cartografia de lugares sem nenhum interesse [Brief cartography of places of no interest] (2011), won the 2012 Clarice Lispector Award from the Brazilian National Library Foundation.