The Woman of Porto Pim by Antonio Tabucchi

I sing every evening, because that’s what I’m paid to do, but the songs you heard were pesinhos and sapateiras for the tour­ists and for those Americans over there laughing at the back. They’ll get up and stagger off soon. My real songs are chamari­tas, just four of them, because I don’t have a big repertoire and then I’m getting on, and I smoke a lot, my voice is hoarse. I have to wear this balandrau, the traditional old Azores cos­tume, because Americans like things to be picturesque, then they go back to Texas and say how they went to a tavern on a godforsaken island where there was an old man dressed in an ancient cloak singing his people’s folksongs. They want the viola de arame, which has this proud, melancholy sound, and I sing them sugary modinhas, with the same rhyme all the time, but it doesn’t matter because they don’t understand, and then as you can see, they’re drinking gin and tonics. But what about you, though, what are you after, coming here every evening? You’re curious and you’re looking for something different, because this is the second time you’ve offered me a drink, you order cheiro wine as if you were one of us, you’re a foreigner and you pretend to speak like us, but you don’t drink much and then you don’t say anything either, you wait for me to speak. You said you were a writer, and that maybe your job was something like mine. All books are stupid, there’s never much truth in them, still I’ve read a lot over the last thirty years, I haven’t had much else to do, Italian books too, all in translation of course. The one I liked most was called Cana­viais no vento, by someone called Deledda, do you know it? And then you’re young and you have an eye for the women, I saw the way you were looking at that beautiful woman with the long neck, you’ve been watching her all evening, I don’t know if she’s your girlfriend, she was looking at you too, and maybe you’ll find it strange but all this has reawakened some­thing in me, it must be because I’ve had too much to drink. I’ve always done things to excess in life, a road that leads to perdition, but if you’re born like that you can’t do anything about it.

In front of our house there was an atafona, that’s what they’re called on this island, a sort of wheel for drawing up water that turned round and round, they don’t exist any more, I’m talking about years and years ago, before you were even born. If I think of it now, I can still hear it creaking, it’s one of the childhood sounds that have stuck in my memory, my mother would send me with a pitcher to get some water and to make it less tiring I used to sing a lullaby as I pushed and sometimes I really would fall asleep. Beyond the water wheel there was a low whitewashed wall and then a sheer drop down to the sea. There were three of us children and I was the youngest. My father was a slow man, he used to weigh his words and gestures and his eyes were so clear they looked like water. His boat was called Madrugada, which was also my mother’s maiden name. My father was a whaleman, like his father before him, but in the seasons when there were no whales, he used to fish for moray eels, and we went with him, and our mother too. People don’t do it now, but when I was a child there was a ritual that was part of going fishing. You catch morays in the evening, with a waxing moon, and to call them there was a song which had no words: it was a song, a tune, that started low and languid, then turned shrill. I never heard a song so sorrowful, it sounded like it was coming from the bottom of the sea, or from lost souls in the night, a song as old as our islands. Nobody knows it any more, it’s been lost, and maybe it’s better that way, since there was a curse in it, or a destiny, like a spell. My father went out with the boat, it was dark, he moved the oars softly, dipping them in vertically so as not to make any noise, and the rest of us, my brothers and my mother, would sit on the rocks and start to sing. Some­times the others would keep quiet, they wanted me to call the eels, because they said my voice was more melodious than anybody else’s and the morays couldn’t resist it. I don’t believe my voice was any better than theirs: they wanted me to sing on my own because I was the youngest and people used to say that the eels liked clear voices. Perhaps it was just superstition and there was nothing in it, but that hardly matters.

Then we grew up and my mother died. My father became more taciturn and sometimes, at night, he would sit on the wall by the cliffs and look at the sea. By now we only went out after whales; we three boys were big and strong and Father gave us the harpoons and the lances, since he was getting too old. Then one day my brothers left. The second oldest went to America, he only told us the day he left, I went to the harbour to see him off, my father didn’t come. The other went to be a truck driver on the mainland, he was always laughing and he’d always loved the sound of engines; when the army man came to tell us about the accident I was at home alone and I told my father over supper.

We two still went out whaling. It was more difficult now, we had to take on casual labour for the day, because you can’t go out with less than five, then my father would have liked me to get married, because a home without a woman isn’t a real home. But I was twenty-five and I liked playing at love; every Sunday I’d go down to the harbour and get a new girlfriend. It was wartime in Europe and there were lots of people passing through the Azores. Every day a ship would moor here or on another island, and in Porto Pim you could hear all kinds of languages.

I met her one Sunday in the harbour. She was wearing white, her shoulders were bare and she had a lace cap. She looked as though she’d climbed out of a painting, not from one of those ships full of people fleeing to the Americas. I looked at her a long time and she looked at me too. It’s strange how love can find a way through to you. It got to me when I noticed two small wrinkles just forming round her eyes and I thought: she isn’t that young. Maybe I thought like that because, being the boy I still was then, a mature woman seemed older to me than her real age. I only found out she wasn’t much over thirty a lot later, when knowing her age would be of no use at all. I said good morning to her and asked if I could help her in any way. She pointed to the suitcase at her feet. Take it to the Bote, she said in my own language. The Bote is no place for a lady, I said. I’m not a lady, she answered, I’m the new owner.

Next Sunday I went down to town again. In those days the Bote was a strange kind of bar, not exactly a place for fisher­men, and I’d only been there once before. I knew there were two private rooms at the back where rumour had it people gambled, and that the bar itself had a low ceiling, a large ornate mirror and tables made out of fig wood. The custom­ers were all foreigners, they looked as though they were on holiday, while the truth was they spent all day spying on each other and pretending to come from countries they didn’t really come from, and when they weren’t spying they played cards. Faial was an incredible place in those days. Behind the bar was a Canadian called Denis, a short man with pointed sideburns who spoke Portuguese like someone from Cape Verde. I knew him because he came to the harbour on Satur­days to buy fish; you could eat at the Bote on Sunday evening. It was Denis who later taught me English.

I want to speak to the owner, I said. The owner doesn’t come until after eight, he answered haughtily. I sat down at a table and ordered supper. She came in towards nine, there were other regulars around, she saw me and nodded vaguely, then sat in a corner with an old man with a white moustache. It was only then that I realised how beautiful she was, a beauty that made my temples burn. This was what had brought me there, but until then I hadn’t really understood. And now, in the space of a moment, it all fell into place inside me so clearly it almost made me dizzy. I spent the evening staring at her, my temples resting on my fists, and when she went out I followed her at a distance. She walked with a light step, without turning; she didn’t seem to be worried about being followed. She went under the gate in the big wall of Porto Pim and began to go down to the bay. On the other side of the bay, where the prom­ontory ends, isolated among the rocks, between a cane thicket and a palm tree, there’s a stone house. Maybe you’ve already noticed it. It’s abandoned now and the windows are in poor shape, there’s something sinister about it; some day the roof will fall in, if it hasn’t already. She lived there, but in those days it was a white house with blue panels over the doors and windows. She went in and closed the door and the light went out. I sat on a rock and waited; halfway through the night a window lit up, she looked out and I looked at her. The nights are quiet in Porto Pim, you only need to whisper in the dark to be heard far away. Let me in, I begged her. She closed the shutter and turned off the light. The moon was coming up in a veil of red, a summer moon. I felt a great longing, the water lapped around me, everything was so intense and so unattain­able, and I remembered when I was a child, how at night I used to call the eels from the rocks: then an idea came to me, I couldn’t resist, and I began to sing that song. I sang it very softly, like a lament, or a supplication, with a hand held to my ear to guide my voice. A few moments later the door opened and I went into the dark of the house and found myself in her arms. I’m called Yeborath, was all she said.

Do you know what betrayal is? Betrayal, real betrayal, is when you feel so ashamed you wish you were somebody else. I wished I’d been somebody else when I went to say goodbye to my father and his eyes followed me about as I wrapped my harpoon in oilskin and hung it on a nail in the kitchen, then slung the viola he’d given me for my twentieth birthday over my shoulder. I’ve decided to change jobs, I told him quickly, I’m going to sing in a bar in Porto Pim, I’ll come and see you Saturdays. But I didn’t go that Saturday, nor the Saturday after, and lying to myself I’d say I’d go and see him the next Saturday. So autumn came and the winter went, and I sang. I did other little jobs too, because sometimes customers would drink too much and to keep them on their feet or chase them off you needed a strong arm, which Denis didn’t have. And then I listened to what the customers said while they pre­tended to be on holiday; it’s easy to pick up people’s secrets when you sing in a bar, and, as you see, it’s easy to tell them too. She would wait for me in her house in Porto Pim and I didn’t have to knock any more now. I asked her: Who are you? Where are you from? Why don’t we leave these absurd people pretending to play cards? I want to be with you for ever. She laughed and left me to guess the reasons why she was living the way she was, and she said: Wait just a little longer and we’ll leave together, you have to trust me, I can’t tell you any more. Then she’d stand naked at the window, looking at the moon, and say: Sing me your eel song, but softly. And while I sang she’d ask me to make love to her, and I’d take her standing up, leaning against the windowsill, while she looked out into the night, as though waiting for something.

It happened on August 10. It was São Lourenço and the sky was full of shooting stars, I counted thirteen of them walking home. I found the door locked and I knocked. Then I knocked again louder, because there was a light on. She opened and stood in the doorway, but I pushed her aside. I’m going tomorrow, she said, the person I was waiting for has come back. She smiled, as if to thank me, and I don’t know why but I thought she was thinking of my song. At the back of the room a figure moved. He was an old man and he was getting dressed. What’s he want? he asked her in the language I now understood. He’s drunk, she said; he was a whaler once but he gave up his harpoon for the viola, while you were away he worked as my servant. Send him away, said the man, with­out looking at me.

There was a pale light over Porto Pim. I went around the bay as if in one of those dreams where you suddenly find yourself at the other end of the landscape. I didn’t think of anything, because I didn’t want to think. My father’s house was dark, since he went to bed early. But he wouldn’t sleep, he’d lie still in the dark the way old people often do, as if that were a kind of sleep. I went in without lighting the lamp, but he heard me. You’re back, he murmured. I went to the far wall and took my harpoon off the hook. I found my way in the moonlight. You can’t go after whales at this time of night, he said from his bunk. It’s an eel, I said. I don’t know if he under­stood what I meant, but he didn’t object, or get up. I think he lifted a hand to wave me goodbye, but maybe it was my imagi­nation or the play of shadows in the half dark. I never saw him again. He died long before I’d done my time. I’ve never seen my brother again either. Last year I got a photo of him, a fat man with white hair surrounded by a group of strangers who must be his sons and daughters-in-law, sitting on the veranda of a wooden house, and the colours are too bright, like in a postcard. He said if I wanted to go and live with him, there was work there for everybody and life was easy. That almost made me laugh. What could it mean, an easy life, when your life is already over?

And if you stay a bit longer and my voice doesn’t give out, I’ll sing you the song that decided the destiny of this life of mine. I haven’t sung it for thirty years and maybe my voice isn’t up to it. I don’t know why I’m offering, I’ll dedicate it to that woman with the long neck, and to the power a face has to surface again in another’s, maybe that’s what’s touched a chord. And to you, young Italian, coming here every eve­ning, I can see you’re hungry for true stories to turn them into paper, so I’ll make you a present of this story you’ve heard. You can even write down the name of the man who told it to you, but not the name they know me by in this bar, which is a name for tourists passing through. Write that this is the true story of Lucas Eduino who killed the woman he’d thought was his, with a harpoon, in Porto Pim.

Oh, there was just one thing she hadn’t lied to me about; I found out at the trial. She really was called Yeborath. If that’s important at all.

 

 

This work is excerpted from The Woman of Porto Pim by Antonio Tabucchi, translated from the Italian by Tim Parks. Available May 1, 2013 from Archipelago Books.

 

 

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