This breathtaking saga, set in the 1990s, tells the story of the landlords and tenants of a derelict canning factory in Southern Portugal. The wealthy, always-scheming Leandros have owned the building since before the Carnation Revolution, a peaceful coup that toppled a four-decade-long dictatorship and led to Portugal's withdrawal from its African colonies. It was Leandro matriarch Dona Regina who handed the keys to the Matas, the bustling family from Cape Verde who saw past the dusty machinery and converted the space into a warm - and welcoming - home.
When Dona Regina is found dead outside the factory on a holiday weekend, her granddaughter, Milene, investigates. Aware that her aunts and uncles, who are off on vacation, will berate her inability to articulate what has just happened, she approaches the factory riddled with anxiety. Hours later, the Matas return home to find this strange girl hiding behind their clotheslines, and with caution, they take her in...
Days later, the Leandros realize that Milene has become hopelessly entangled with their tenants, and their fear of political and financial ruin sets off a series of events that threatens to uproot the lives of everyone involved.
Release date: February 8, 2022
Publisher: Tantor Audio
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The Wind Whistling in the Cranes: A Novel
ON THAT HOT AUGUST AFTERNOON, THE LONG BODY OF THE Old Factory still lay stretched out in the sun. Not quite intact, because the greenish roof bulged and bowed as if it were a continuation of the sea’s undulating waves. And growing on some of the window ledges were bouquets of slender weeds like heads of hair, drawing the ledges down into the earth. Even the sign on the front, Fábrica de Conservas Leandro 1908, had lost nearly all its letters, and, from a distance, the only ones you could make out were servas and 908, like a Kabbalistic message inscribed on the white wall. Not that any of this mattered. Milene was standing outside the old building simply because she was waiting for the gates to open and for someone to come out and talk to her.
Milene had a beach bag slung over one shoulder, so her hands were free, but whenever she tried to clasp them together, they slithered apart as if covered in some sort of sticky ointment; this was because, since half past eleven that morning, she had been back and forth across the muddy, slurry-filled field, following what seemed to be a footpath, until that path joined the metal tracks, the two parallel lines where she had stopped. The three o’clock sun cast the very briefest of shadows on the ground, and her hair was stuck to her forehead, glued there by her straw hat. Seeing her right now in my mind’s eye, though, perhaps Milene had taken off her hat and was fanning herself with it, as she stood before the seemingly endless body of the Old Factory.
It really was a very hot day.
The Clio that she had parked at a slight angle on the shoulder of the road sat baking in the hot sun. Not a leaf stirred on the eleven palm trees flanking the walls, as though the leaves were made of green metal. Not a single car drove down the narrow street, as if a long Spanish siesta had descended upon the seashore. Milene had positioned herself facing the main gates, hoping to summon someone who could explain what had happened the previous Thursday night. That’s why she’d so carefully rehearsed her words, until she knew them by heart. Hey, is anyone there? Factory people, is there anyone who can explain what happened last Thursday? There would be no need to repeat the question. She felt very pleased with herself, because this was exactly the right question to ask. As she walked tentatively toward the building, she took a handkerchief from her bag to wipe the sweat from her brow, but as soon as she stepped onto the tarmac, she hesitated. She still wasn’t sure.
She needed to think.
On second thought, calling out to someone at that hour, the hottest time of the day, when not even the birds seemed to be awake, would be like bringing to a complete halt the search she’d begun by walking back and forth along that path. And this would mean abandoning all hope of discovering a clue she could take back to her aunts and uncles. Something very private and secret, to be shared only with the closest members of her family. If she started shouting—Hey, is anyone there?—that would be a sign that she’d given up trying to find, by her own means, the necessary words to explain what had happened to Grandma Regina during the night of the fourteenth of August, or a sign that she needed other people’s words to construct her own version of the facts. When her aunts and uncles got back, she wanted to start by telling them: Dear aunts and uncles, at around midday on Friday, I was at home listening to Simple Minds, when someone knocked on the door, and two policemen asked if I knew where Grandma Regina was. And then, just like that, they looked away and told me the news . . . That’s what she wanted to say.
She wanted to explain everything that had happened in her own words, because she wanted to be mistress of a situation that had more to do with her than with anyone else. But she intended to tell the story with the confidence befitting the grown-up she was, and not like the sort of grown-up child they all took her for. She wasn’t a ten- or twelve-year-old, or even a twenty-year-old, she was a responsible adult, and the proof was that she had walked back and forth along that path, looking for some trace of her grandmother, a footprint, a hair, a handkerchief, a tube, a bottle, or even a crushed leaf or twig, anything to explain or at least confirm what had happened. She had carried out a detailed search, but had found nothing, even though she knew better than anyone that her grandmother had gone this way. The bare, arid landscape and its various objects knew this too. Yes, there was no doubt about it, they knew this as well as she did. But the sand, gravel, and slurry, along with the occasional old fallen tree, and the railway lines along which the wagons used to carry timber, were all part of the stubborn silence maintained by those silent things, mere passive witnesses, Nature’s mute figures who, of course, had knowledge and memory, but who, when it came to it, never spoke. However many questions you asked, they remained hidden away, secret, silent. That was their response—silence. Milene almost felt like turning around and saying out loud—Speak, you sneaky things, you cretins, you fools!
Except that in the middle of that empty space, she couldn’t start berating the world’s objects as if she were an imbecile. Or as if she were only ten years old. All she had to do was imagine that these silent objects were deliberately conspiring to cover up what had happened on Thursday so that she wouldn’t know what to tell her aunts and uncles. Milene stood there, fanning herself and staring angrily at the dumb creatures that made up the landscape, knowing that she would never get anything out of them.
You idiots, you fools, speak . . .
That’s why she’d spent all morning searching. If it had been just her, she wouldn’t have bothered, because she had more than enough facts and didn’t need any more. Indeed, over the last few days, she’d gathered enough information to reconstruct the night when her grandma Regina had given the ambulance men the slip. And Milene had done this purely because she wanted to. Right there, in that very place, beneath the baking three o’clock sun, she could close her eyes and, with no effort at all, she could see her grandma Regina in her nightdress, filling the whole landscape, her body and nightdress occupying every inch of that black-and-white Thursday night. Right there, whenever she wanted, Milene could rewind the images, like rewinding a video on the TV screen, and the atmosphere of that afternoon would appear before her with utter clarity, along with the vaporous red clouds of sunset sliding over the plain, followed by the gloom of dusk descending on the service station, and growing still denser along the path taken by her grandma Regina. She could see her grandma Regina as clearly as if she’d been there with her, could see the marks left by her bare feet on the earth track. She could imagine her stumbling, stubborn, unstoppable steps as she made her way to the place she wanted to get to, and that place was the Fábrica de Conservas Leandro 1908, the factory, that heap of masonry, halfway down Mar de Prainhas, and which the family secretly called the Diamond. And she could imagine her grandmother’s hands too, gnarled and ringless, her bare bent neck unadorned by gold chains or necklaces, her white hair which, lately, seemed to be getting shorter and shorter, as if someone, for some reason, were determined to deprive her face of its frame.
But it was one thing seeing and accompanying her grandmother in her imagination, and, still in her imagination, knowing for certain what had happened: that her grandmother had walked there alone, without anyone helping her along that beaten track, as far as the main gates of the factory, where she would have sat down to rest. It was quite another thing producing actual proof. That’s why Milene had decided to revisit, yet again, the places where the weed-free path would have been soft enough to retain a footprint that would allow her to say to her aunts and uncles—Yes, I’m quite sure no one carried her, she walked there entirely alone, all the way to the Diamond. She ran away from the ambulance when it stopped at the gas station. She set off on her own, I even found a footprint . . . And that would be proof enough that her grandmother had passed that way. Milene, however, had lost count of the number of times she’d crouched down to study the sparse sand and the mud, to no avail, which is why something was telling her now that there was no point going back and trying yet again. She had decided. She would abandon her searches among the mud and slurry.
She would go back to her car.
Between thinking and acting, though, there is an atom inhabited by someone else, a swift stranger, an unexpectable, as João Paulo used to say. And so, instead of returning to her car and setting off to Praia Pequena, where her friend Violante was waiting for her, having served coffee all morning behind the bar, Milene strode over to the factory, shouting: “Hey! Is anyone there . . . ?”
She started shouting loudly, throwing all her energy into it, surprised to hear her slight, fragile voice on that hot afternoon, and surprised that it sounded the way it did, reverberating importantly in the air. Hearing her words spreading and multiplying around her as if they were increasing in size and volume. Excited, Milene again filled her all-powerful lungs with air before shouting—“Listen . . . Please . . . Is anyone there?”
No answer came from inside the long building. The red-brick chimney rose up above the roof like a clenched fist. The image of a gigantic raised fist, emerging from the decaying reality of the factory, in defiance of something invisible to the eye, but which hung in the air like a threat. A security tower, the Diamond’s own personal security tower. So Milene continued to shout, until her voice gave out completely, and sounded to her like the ridiculous quacking of a duck—“Can anyone hear me?
“Is anyone there?”
At that moment, a truck laden with salt appeared from the direction of Bairro dos Espelhos, grinding along, and the driver, enthroned in his seat and looking straight ahead, leaning slightly toward the windshield, his eyes fixed on the road, as if all he had to do in life was carry behind him that mountain of salt, passed her by without even seeing her. Milene waited for the great open-top trailer to head off down the road and disappear into the distance. Then she stared at the factory gates, beneath the intense three o’clock light, which neither retreated nor withdrew, and she accepted the facts as they were: If someone was hunkered down in there, they were either deaf or deliberately refusing to answer. No use to her at all. And so she didn’t know what to tell her aunts and uncles.
As often happened, she had all the right elements lined up in her mind, and even though she knew what she wanted to say, she couldn’t. Cousin João Paulo had always been of the view that, if a person didn’t have words of their own to explain something, then they should use other people’s. And she did sometimes think such a strategy both good and useful, helpful to those who lacked the necessary arguments to explain important thoughts. The more important the thought, the more likely people were to lack the right words. People like her. So she needed to think very carefully before deciding whether she had enough words to explain what had happened on that Thursday night.
She had certainly tried hard enough to find them.
Only the day before, Sunday the seventeenth, between eleven in the morning and three in the afternoon, Milene had sat in the Church of São Francisco, waiting for someone to come through the gates and talk to her, and it had been a long wait. She had waited until she’d exhausted her entire store of good thoughts, which included memories of Star Wars and U2, and other movies and records, boat rides and road trips, sitting with her cousins, next to João Paulo. Then, at one point, feeling too alone beneath that white vault, in the shadow of those saints who seemed to have been sleeping for whole eternities with their eyes wide open, Milene had looked around and managed to decipher a few important words on the white walls, in between the various other ornaments. Among others, she had read—Alms Box, Pax Domini, Introibo ad Altarem Dei, and then, getting to her feet and standing in the middle of the transept, it occurred to Milene that she might be able to make use of them. Putting them all together, one by one, she could perhaps say to her aunts and uncles—Dear aunts and uncles, no need to worry about me. They brought Grandma Regina into the church and I spent a few hours next to the Alms Boxand the Totus Tuus, and because Grandma Regina was still there at that point, I felt I was in company, and thought about nice things to pass the time . . .
Yes, she might have begun by saying that, but she soon changed her mind. On further thought, she realized that it wasn’t enough to explain why she hadn’t felt alone, because her aunts and uncles certainly wouldn’t be concerned about the hours she’d spent alone in the church with Grandma Regina. By then it would all be over, and she herself was still alive. Her aunts and uncles would want to know the circumstances in which her grandmother had died, and other people’s words couldn’t help her then.
Milene continued to think as she stood before the eleven palm trees.
The Clio was still baking in the sun, and Milene was thinking about the return of her aunts and uncles. Imagining them, one by one, opening the doors of their cars, the engines still running, flinging wide the doors and emerging from their air-conditioned interiors just to ask—Milene, how do you explain this, eh? . . . She could see her aunts and uncles as they each, one by one, removed their dark glasses so as to look her in the eye, the car doors opening and closing one after the other, and Uncle Rui Ludovice’s chauffeur looking at her while pretending to be studying the ground—How do you explain it, eh? And, standing there before them, she might begin by saying that it had all been a terrible coincidence, various coincidences, for which she even had proof if they insisted. No problem at all.
Then, if her aunts and uncles cared to consult their diaries, they would see that Friday, the fifteenth of August, had been the first day of that holiday weekend, which is why there was no one to be found in offices and so on or in any of the other places you’d normally expect them to be, it was why the roads were swarming with cars beeping and honking crazily. Houses that were usually inhabited stood empty, while those that stood empty all year were occupied, with the outside lights on. The houses on either side of Villa Regina, for example, were all closed up, with no one at home. And Milene could prove this, or perhaps find someone who would back her up, but as for the phone calls she’d made to the houses of her aunts and uncles, the phones ringing and ringing with no one answering, she had no proof of that at all.
Yes, she’d made dozens of phone calls. When there was no answer, she’d gone around to their houses, and only then did she learn, from Aunt Gininha’s gardener, that not one of them was in Valmares that weekend. Finally, on the morning of Saturday the sixteenth, she’d gone to the council offices, in the hope that, in Uncle Rui’s absence, someone would be on duty. And the front door had been open, revealing a spacious lobby furnished with two large metal desks, behind which someone should have been sitting, except no one was. No one. The only sign of another human presence was Uncle Rui’s giant face staring down at her from above his neat white collar on which was printed the slogan: Others Make Promises, We Take Action, words that appeared beneath the photo in two wavy lines, as if they were part of a poem. That had been Uncle Rui’s campaign poster, when he’d won the election a year and a half before, and it was still there—unjustifiably, some might say. At the time, though, these details were unimportant. What mattered was that Uncle Rui, at least, had not disappeared completely. Then Milene had called out, imagining that if there was anyone there, they would hear her and realize the gravity of the situation—“Hello? Can anyone hear me? It’s just to say that the mayor’s mother-in-law has been found dead outside the Old Factory . . . She’s dead . . .” Milene’s voice had echoed around the vast hallway of what, three centuries before, had been home to a company of discalced nuns. But no one answered. There was no doubt about it, the solemn edifice where Aunt Ângela Margarida’s husband was mayor was completely deserted. In the courtyard, where, at ten in the morning, the sun was already beating fiercely down as if intent on melting or cracking the paving stones, there was not a soul to be seen. In the streets of Santa Maria de Valmares, groups of foreigners were wandering about, looking vaguely alarmed beneath the peaks of their baseball caps, and stopping to wonder at the white houses, as if they were gazing upon the dried-up bed of the River Nile. Milene had made eye contact with a few nice people, who even smiled at her as they passed, but none of them had anything to do with her life, let alone the lives of her aunts and uncles. She certainly wasn’t going to stop them on the sidewalk and tell them what had happened.
She hadn’t even told the waiter in the café, where she’d sat down on the terrace to eat ice cream. At one point, the waiter had come over to her unasked. He’d leaned on the table and said—“Excuse me, but that’s your fifth ice cream. All that ice cream could make you sick . . .”
“Yes, five ice creams.”
And she could easily have explained what had happened, but was afraid that mixing up her family life with the number of ice creams she’d consumed might open the door to an endless conversation she wasn’t ready to begin. So all she said was that she hadn’t been counting. Besides, it was getting late. Only then did she notice how the shade from the awning had shifted, how the boldest of the pigeons were gathering around her table, picking up crumbs scattered on the ground, even right next to her sandals. From the harbor came a rich smell, at once putrid and salty. It reminded her of the great Ocean, of which it must be a part. It reminded her of Mar de Prainhas. Why hadn’t she gone swimming with Violante, hand-in-hand, in the gentle waves of Praia Pequena? Why? For the simple reason that she couldn’t bring herself to announce to her aunts and uncles when they arrived—Since I didn’t know quite where Grandma Regina was, I decided to go for a swim . . .
Milene had asked the waiter—“Did I really eat five ice creams? Well, if I did, I didn’t realize . . .”
And, feeling distinctly stupid, sitting there all alone, apart from a few plump pigeons, with the waters of the Ria gently advancing and retreating, insinuating themselves into Santa Maria de Valmares and perfuming the town with the odor of shellfish and mud, she’d decided to go home. For at that moment—it was already late afternoon on Saturday the sixteenth—she felt it was her duty to find certain items belonging to her grandmother, and take them to her. Clothes, scarves, even her grandmother’s favorite walking stick, which must be lost somewhere among the winter umbrellas, inside one of the many deep wardrobes to be found in Villa Regina. Yes, that’s what she would do. Having made this decision, Milene left the waiter a fat tip for allowing her to sit there while he served her ice cream after ice cream. Now she really was going to put body and soul into collecting those items of clothing, however long it took. And so she left the table and hurried off to the house.
In her memory of that night, however, the past and present became completely interwoven, which is why it had taken her so long to separate out the sort of clothes her grandmother was still wearing at the time of her death from the sort she used to wear twenty-five years before, when Milene was a little girl. It was hard to tell. With all the lights on and the wardrobe doors flung wide, she had scoured every room on the two floors of Villa Regina, searching out objects in every corner of that rather large house. And without her even noticing, Sunday the seventeenth of August dawned, yes, in the midst of all those open drawers it was a brand-new day. No matter. After that frenzy of activity, Milene would be able to choose what was most important. Just how she would explain what had happened, though, she didn’t know. And that was when she remembered her cousin João Paulo.
She had just found her grandmother’s silver-tipped walking stick, and with it still tucked under her arm, Milene walked over to the phone. To dial or not to dial? Normally it was Grandma Regina who dialed the number, and even stayed to listen to the conversation, to observe and record, then report back to her son Afonso what Milene and João Paulo had talked about. Now that her grandmother was going to be shut up in that thing forever, Milene would have to dial the number herself.
She dialed the number.
It wasn’t long before she heard her cousin’s voice on the answering machine speaking softly and in English. “João Paulo?”—Milene spoke equally softly into the mouthpiece, that is, into her cousin’s answering machine, linked to the same current, coming from the other side of the Atlantic—“João Paulo? Grandma has died . . .” The word died suddenly seemed inappropriate—“Passed away, I mean.” The house turned upside down, the lights blazing. No answer from the other side. She hung up. Then she saw that it was six o’clock on a Sunday morning. In Massachusetts it would only be one or two a.m. On this side of the Ocean, the sun was coming up above the tops of the olive trees. And it was then that she recalled João Paulo saying to her five years ago, one autumn morning, right there in Villa Regina—“Don’t be silly, Milene, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t make use of someone else’s words when you need to. What are other people’s words for if not for us to make use of them? . . . When you think about it, none of the words we pronounce are actually ours. Someone created them before we came along . . . Nothing belongs to us . . .” Remembering these words, it felt as if João Paulo were about to come into Grandma Regina’s living room, as if he were about to walk over to the table and say, right there and then—“Did you hear me, Milene? Nothing belongs to us. We’re the ones obsessed with owning things . . .”
Nothing belongs to us, she thought as she chose a pair of shoes, and folded up a dress her grandmother had bought on her trip to London, along with a handkerchief and a Liberty scarf with a bold poppy print. If nothing belongs to us, then a person should get her duties done as quickly as possible, in order to be free of them. So Milene again rushed down the road, laden with all kinds of possessions, and arrived swiftly and efficiently beside the thing, only to find that, hours before, someone had already wrapped her grandmother first in a white cloth and then in a black one, thus obliging Milene to deposit the clothes and everything else she had brought next to Regina Leandro, as if they weren’t an important part of her attire: the hat, the gloves, the silver-tipped walking stick, and even the wedge-heel shoes she liked so much. Relegated, as if they didn’t even belong to her.
This was another detail that would be hard to explain to her absent aunts and uncles, which is why, when she arrived at the church, she had remained standing, hoping that someone would come in and say something to her so that she could use their words. Meanwhile, she’d stayed there, thinking. At around midday, once she’d exhausted all her nice thoughts, and all the others too, the silence had begun to rise up before her like a provocative, needling remark. She couldn’t remain in that expectant state for much longer. Her grandmother was covered now by the wooden lid, while Milene stood listening for any footsteps approaching from beyond the thick walls, people walking past the church, then heading off toward the beach. She waited with bated breath for anything happening outside, however insignificant—I’m sure someone’s going to come into the church now. Yes, something good is about to happen. Something very good . . .
And it did.
It had announced itself from some way off. A voice suddenly interrupted the silence. Then someone came in, but it wasn’t her aunts or uncles. It was a priest in his white cassock entering through the side door, walking across the tiled floor, following the stream of sunlight bathing the floral wreaths, and he wasn’t alone. He was accompanied by another, similarly dressed figure, and a woman whose heavy footsteps brought with them a pair of sturdy legs with powerful, square calf muscles. Yes, finally, three people, three officials, had entered, forming a kind of crowd, and when the priest addressed her, since she was the only person there, apart, that is, from Grandma Regina, Milene realized that this was her big chance to hear the words of a trustworthy person. The words that the priest enunciated so very clearly, with the help of some impeccably white teeth and two raised eyebrows that kept moving together and apart, forming circumflexes on his face. She wanted to hear the words that emerged from his person and from his surplice so as to be able to say to her aunts and uncles—Dear aunts and uncles, this is what happened . . . She wanted to memorize his words and repeat them. The only problem was, would she be able to transform them into things that would be useful? That was her great worry.
Milene’s eyes fell on the gleaming Christ that the carpenter had nailed to the coffin, a Christ made out of thick metal, his back so arched that he appeared to be hollow, and rather resembled an insect trying to wrench itself free from the wood, and, in the meantime, she could hear the booming words that the priest was hurling forth at that unseemly hour on a Sunday, as if he wanted to hit someone, as if he were throwing stones, although she retained only the very loudest, words like iniquity, pride, arrogance, a rumor that passes by, a ship that sails through the billowy water, a bird that flies through the air, while we were consumed in our wickedness . . . And many more. But all she could retain were those few disparate words and phrases hurled by the priest at the walls of the empty church. That priest, whom, for reasons that escaped her, she had never seen before, continued to speak in that over-loud voice, as if he were preaching to someone she couldn’t see, and Milene felt a kind of fear, the fear that perhaps might have been felt by the person or multitude he was addressing, only there was no one there. She felt afraid for herself too, afraid she wouldn’t be able to explain how she had accompanied her grandma Regina imprisoned in that thing. Afraid of being alone and hearing those words, unable to retain a single one that could be useful to her, of the many proffered by the priest at that strange hour. Until finally that whole business stopped, although she couldn’t have said quite how.
Because, as she would recall later, the last part happened very quickly.
It went like this.
The priest’s words were still rebounding off the saints, when a large car reversed its way toward the church, as if intent on actually driving into the building. Then everything went into rewind, and the external walls swallowed up the soothing gloom she’d been inhabiting since eleven o’clock that morning. The saints slithered away. Everything changed its appearance. She too was being carried off by that enormous car. She was sure of it. Milene closed her eyes, felt an engine throbbing beneath her seat, while around her the flowers filled all the available space, pressing up against the windows and shifting about as if they were living animals about to take a breath and make themselves comfortable, changing place and shape, gardenias on top of gladioli, and she could see the calm, very solid, white landscape of Rua de São Francisco through the smoked glass that protected her eyes from the intense afternoon brightness, as if the whole car were a giant pair of sunglasses. The dogs lying in the street scrambled to their feet to allow the heavy vehicle to pass, with Milene seated inside, as if on a throne, her eyes almost open, almost closed.
When she opened her eyes, some men with close-cropped hair were removing the flowers from the car and piling them up beside the open grave, into which six pairs of hands would place that thing, with her grandmother inside it. As it was being lowered in, Milene felt a kind of horror at the sheer brutality of the dug earth, but once the earth closed up again, she experienced a sense of relief, certain that Regina Leandro wasn’t there, and that she would be able to say as much to her aunts and uncles, even if she didn’t know where her grandmother actually was. Or, more precisely, where she, Milene, had left her. This surprising thought kept her rooted to the spot. No, she’s not here. She’s somewhere else instead . . . Milene would have said if the priest hadn’t been present. But he was.
The priest had positioned himself on a slightly higher piece of ground, and his shadow was as clearly delineated as if it had been drawn in charcoal. Apart from that, his forehead and cheeks were dripping with sweat. Milene saw him beckon to the woman with the square calf muscles, who, to judge by her headgear, must have been a nun, and the two stood talking in low voices. The priest descended from his elevated spot and asked Milene—“Do you feel all right?
“Are you feeling ill?
“Do you feel unwell?”
Milene wanted to answer there and then, which is why she allowed her eyes to drift around a little, this way and that, over small piles of earth, little marble houses, innumerable gold-painted names and dates, and then, once she’d reeled her eyes in again, she had nothing to say. Yes, she felt fine, especially after the priest’s unexpected question, his kindness in coming over to her and repeating the question, and that’s why she began to smile, only a little at first, then more and more broadly, a silent thank-you to the person asking the question, a way of demonstrating that she felt fine. She was smiling to show her gratitude to him for having spoken at such length in the church about Grandma Regina, when there was no one else there, apart from her and her grandmother and those official people. So many thoughts rushed into her head that she couldn’t say anything.
“As I said, Father Honório, she’s the mayor’s niece. His niece by marriage . . .” These words were spoken by the woman whose legs had appeared in the light of the church and which were there now planted on the dug soil, fleshy and strong with their distinctive calf muscles. “But God is great . . .” she added. And she beckoned to the man accompanying them. The three, their heads close together as they walked down the path, began to speak to each other as if they were sharing a secret. Then they walked away.
“God can do all . . .” the woman said.
The three of them, still keeping very close together, waited for Milene, who came stumbling over clods of earth and stones, over the faded flowers scattered along the narrow paths between the little houses. Then the four—because for a while all four had walked along together—drove down into town in the priest’s car, stopping at the church. The brief, intense shadows at the foot of the walls also appeared to have been outlined in black ink. But then she got into her Clio, where she had left it earlier that morning, and the three of them, including the priest, stood watching her, utterly still, as if they were three angels with wings furled, come down from the tops of those small stone houses to take a closer look at her. No one said a word.
Milene wished she knew why they were looking at her like that, because they seemed to be waiting for her to start the engine, as if wanting to be sure she could actually drive, for they all waved exuberantly when she drove off. Even when she was some way away, she could still see them in the rearview mirror, still watching. They seemed pleased, and Milene, in order to reassure them that she was perfectly at ease behind the wheel and was in complete control of the engine and the clutch, stopped at the top of the hill, performed a rather striking U-turn, then headed serenely down São Francisco de Valmares. They had stood there watching, doubtless feeling very satisfied with her. Or with her driving. But not even after that encounter, which had gone reasonably well, had she managed to find so much as two useful words. That is, words that could properly explain what had happened that day, up to the point when the grave was filled in. She still didn’t know what had happened between the gas station and the factory. And everything depended on her finding that out. What would her aunts and uncles say? Especially her aunts. She was very fond of her aunts.
She was asking herself this question as she stood before the eleven palm trees, whose shadows remained utterly still and upright, never stirring. She knew it. There was sure to be a confrontation. With her straw hat on her head and her bag over her shoulder, she once again thought that, as João Paulo had put it, between thinking and acting there is an atom inhabited by someone else.
The fact was she didn’t know what had happened, she’d merely reconstructed it in her imagination, based on the summary provided by the policemen and the scenes described in detail by the young man at the gas station, as eyewitness. That’s all she knew. The policemen themselves had taken her to the gas station on the Friday afternoon, and one of them had said—“Hey, you, stop working for a moment, will you? The girl’s a bit confused, and has no idea what happened . . .” And they’d left her alone with him.
Then the young man at the pumps, who was dressed from head to toe in yellow, repeated everything he’d already told the police officers, listing the facts in order, one by one, as if testifying were a matter of making the events happen all over again. Standing there near the gas pumps, he told how, the previous night, at around twenty-one hundred hours, an ambulance had appeared at the crossroads, scattering beams of blue light, beams of light that, in his account of events, had moved the way his arms were moving, whirling about his body. Blinding lights that would have lit up the final onset of dusk in vivid blue. Blue lights. Bright blue. These lights had obviously made a big impression on him, an impression he was making a point of passing on to Milene.
The young man described how the ambulance, lights flashing, had approached very tentatively and kept stopping, first at one house, then at another, until it came to a halt just short of the gas station. He pointed to the exact spot. The female ambulance driver and the male nurse with her had climbed out of the vehicle, both at the same time, and opened the two rear doors, so that anyone who wanted could peer inside. That’s what he said. He also said that he’d seen the driver and the nurse repeat this operation more than once since they’d stopped at the bend in the road by the Frame Store, and that certain passersby had gathered around and even leaned into the back of the ambulance to see what was happening. He’d done the same. But all he could see was a white shadow wrapped in a white sheet. And just as he leaned in, the ambulance driver had unceremoniously shone her flashlight at the face of the shadow lying on the white and blue rectangle of the stretcher. Feeling slightly confused himself, he asked if the shadow was a man or a woman, and the nurse, still trying hard to make sense of an address he had written on a piece of paper, had replied rather rudely—“Can’t you see it’s a woman?”
“Is she alive?” someone else had asked, leaning right inside the ambulance and tugging at the white sheet.
And the nurse, rather irritably, raised his voice loud enough to be heard all around the gas station—“Do you really think we’d be returning someone to her family if she was dead? Good grief, if stupidity was a tune, you’d be an entire concerto . . .” Angrily brandishing the incomprehensible piece of paper.
The young man, however, thought such rudeness perfectly understandable. It seemed to him that both the nurse and the ambulance driver wanted to be rid of that shadow, along with all the other shadows filling the beds in the local hospitals, because of the likely carnage on the roads that holiday weekend, and even more so because, by the time they reached the gas station, they’d already spent more than two hours looking for Kilometer 44, which was the address on the piece of paper they’d been given. And yet it would seem that, up until then, no one had been able to tell them where that particular kilometer was, or who the woman was that they were taking there. He himself didn’t know. And of all the people gathered beneath the whirling blue lights, not one of them knew the address or the name, and no one recognized the person inside. Only an emigrant newly returned from America, a middle-aged man, who had leaned in when the nurse again directed his flashlight at the patient, thought he recognized something about the woman’s heavy-lidded eyes, which he recalled seeing on the face of a woman he’d known when he was just a boy. But he couldn’t remember who she was.
“Do try to remember, ...
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