It was an afternoon in late November, autumn already left behind.
The city lifted up its walls of dark stone. The sky was high, desolate, the color of cold. Men walked along, jostling each other on the sidewalks. Cars passed rapidly by.
It must have been four in the afternoon of a day without sun or rain.
There were a lot of people on the street that day. I was walking rapidly along the sidewalk. At a certain moment, I found myself behind a very poorly dressed man carrying a blond child in his arms, one of those children whose beauty can barely be described. It is the beauty of a summer dawn, the beauty of a rose, the beauty of dew, all united with the incredible beauty of human innocence. Instinctively, my gaze fixed itself on the face of the child. But the man was walking very slowly and I, carried along by the bustle of the city, overtook him. But as I passed, I turned my head around to look again at the child.
Alexis Levitin's thirty-six books of translation include Clarice Lispector's Soulstorm and Eugenio de Andrade's Forbidden Words, both from New Directions. Recent books include Santiago Vizcaino's Destruction in the Afternoon (Diálogos Books, 2015), 28 Portuguese Poets (Dedalus Press, 2015), Eugenio de Andrade's The Art of Patience (Red Dragonfly Press, 2013), Ana Minga's Tobacco Dogs (The Bitter Oleander Press, 2013) and Salgado Maranhão's Blood of the Sun (Milkweed Editions, 2012).
more fiction by Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen
It was then that I saw the man. Instantly, I came to a halt. He was an extraordinarily handsome man of about thirty, his face etched with misery, abandonment, aloneness. His suit, faded and tarnished green, allowed one to guess at the body eaten up by hunger. His hair was light brown, parted in the middle, a bit long. His beard, not cut for a long time, was growing to a point. Sharply sculpted by poverty, his face revealed the beautiful bone structure beneath. But more beautiful than anything else were his eyes, light eyes, luminous with solitude and gentleness. At the very moment I looked at him, the man raised his face to the sky.
How to describe his gesture?
It was a high sky, without an answer, the color of cold. The man raised his head in the gesture of one who, having passed beyond a certain point, no longer has anything to give and turns to the outside in search of an answer. His face dripped suffering. His expression was simultaneously one of resignation, astonishment, and questioning. He walked along slowly, very slowly, on the inside of the sidewalk, close to the wall. He held himself very straight, as if his entire body were rising up with his question. Head upturned, he looked at the sky. But the heavens were prairies of silence.
All this happened in just a moment and, as a result, I, who remember in great detail the man's suit, his face, his look, and his gestures, cannot recapture with any clarity what happened inside myself. It was as if I had turned empty as I watched the man.
The crowd continued to pass. It was the heart of the heart of the city. The man was alone, utterly alone. Rivers of people were passing by without noticing him.
Only I had stopped, but quite in vain. The man did not look at me. I wanted to do something, but I didn't know what. It was as if his solitude were beyond all of my gestures, as if it had enveloped him and separated him from me, and it was too late for any word and there was no longer any cure for anything. It was as if my hands were tied. Just as sometimes in dreams we want to act but cannot.
The man was walking very slowly. I had stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, facing the passing crowd. I could feel the city pushing me and separating me from the man. No one had seen him walking along so slowly, so very slowly, head erect and a child in his arms, close to the wall of cold stone.
Now I realize what I could have done. I would have had to decide right away. But I felt my soul and my hands weighed down with indecision. I couldn't see clearly. I was only able to hesitate and doubt. That's why I stood there, impotent, in the middle of the sidewalk. The city was pushing me and a clock struck the hour.
I remembered that someone was waiting for me and that I was late. The people who hadn't noticed the man began to notice me. It was impossible to continue standing there.
Then, like a swimmer caught in a current who ceases to struggle and allows himself to go with the water's flow, I stopped opposing myself to the motion of the city and allowed myself to be carried away by the wave of people, far from the man.
But as I continued along the sidewalk surrounded by shoulders and heads, the image of the man remained suspended in my eyes. And a confused sensation grew in me that there had been something or someone in him that I had known.
Quickly I called forth all the places where I had lived. I played back the film of time in reverse. Wavering images rushed by, a bit tremulous and jerky. But I didn't find anything. I tried to reunite and reexamine all my memories of pictures, books, photographs. But the image of the man remained alone: the uplifted head gazing at the sky with an expression of infinite solitude, abandonment, questioning.
And from deep in my memory, brought forth by the image, very slowly, one by one, unmistakable, the words appeared:
"My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"
Then I understood why the man I had left behind was not a stranger. His image was exactly the same as the other image that took shape in my mind when I read:
"My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"
That was it, exactly, that carriage of the head, that gaze, that suffering, that look of abandonment, that aloneness.
Beyond the hardness and betrayals of mankind, beyond the agony of the flesh, the trial of the last torment begins: the silence of God.
And the heavens seem empty and deserted above the dark cities.
I went back. I struggled against the flow of the river of people. I was afraid I had lost him. There were so many people, shoulders, heads, more shoulders. But suddenly, I saw him.
He had stopped, but he was still holding the child and gazing at the sky.
I began to run, almost shoving people aside. I was just a couple of steps away. But at that very moment, the man fell down. From his mouth flowed a river of blood and in his eyes the same expression of infinite patience remained.
The child had fallen with him and was crying in the middle of the sidewalk, hiding its face in the skirt of its blood-stained dress.
Then the crowd stopped and formed a circle around the man. Shoulders stronger than mine forced me back. I was on the outer ring of the circle. I tried to get back inside, but I couldn't. The people pressing against one another were like a single closed body. In front of me were men taller than I who prevented me from seeing. I wanted to catch a glimpse, I said excuse me, pardon, I tried to push, but no one let me pass. I heard wailing, orders, whistles. Later I saw an ambulance. When the circle opened, the man and the child had disappeared.
Then the crowd dispersed and I remained in the middle of the sidewalk, walking on, carried along by the movement of the city.
Many years have passed. The man, no doubt, is dead. But he continues at our side. Passing through the streets.