The smell of alcohol arrived before him. The fisherman followed its trail, bringing the odor of stale fish, its entrails and fins, but all this only after spreading the nets on the yard and washing his feet with a hose. Mandinho, the dog, left whimpering because of some stupidity of its owner, and she felt an urge to flee from the back of the house. But fearing that her daughter would cry, she already imagined herself coming back through the front door to prove, in the sour smell of the mixture, that the drunkard had overcome the fisherman.
Without crying, their daughter played at discovering her own hands, touching a small yarn of intertwined threads, irregular in color and thickness. She had already been fed, and the pacifier helped her to sleep. Her father left the clean fish on a board on the sink, where his wife could see it. Frying it was the order.
They were cutlets, and she salted them, covered them with wheat flour and reached for a jar under the sink, where she had left fish fat. She heard father approaching child, before the bath, to say some things in a peculiar language, making the child cry out loud. So she left the oil warming and put the pacifier in her daughter’s mouth again.
She had already eaten – rice cakes – and the smell of fried food disgusted her. Predicting a storm if her child were to cry again, she dragged the girl’s Moses basket to the kitchen and soon, needing to pee, she took the basket as she went to the bathroom. Behind the shower curtain, under the shower, her husband made up her ghost, and she admitted that she would not stand that life anymore. She was going to become insane next to a man who drowned himself in drink. She looked at her daughter who was falling asleep, a miserable life ahead, which would reveal to her, over the years, an unhappy mother. It was for the girl’s sake, after all. Whatever people said, it would be the best thing to do. The girl would at least grow up with a father. Rubem.
Five months had gone by, perhaps. All the signs given by Rubem pointed to the idea, a life that she could never have known: she would go into the grocery carrying her daughter, and he would curtsy, entertaining the girl so as to follow her mother’s hips. Older, with squared calloused hands, wearing a buttoned shirt and always well shaven, he would show dignity in being simple, but careful at wrapping vegetables bit by bit. Without needing to ask anyone, Rubem knew everything about her house: a husband with a red face like a beet, struck by drink, and a sleepless wife. If, at first, he had not said anything it was because he was an evangelic pastor and respected other people’s marriages. And this was also because he had feared being spied around the corners, he knew, when he assisted Pastor Tadeu on Saturday cults. But when the sum in the grocery’s little notepad went past the limit, Rubem had to speak to her. Her husband was ill, but she’d find a way.
She didn’t. So, Rubem stopped noting down in his pad. But he insisted on her continuing to buy at the grocery – for the girl’s sake, he would say, and would offer pots of honey or condensed milk fudge that he had made himself. Five months, perhaps.
She had never been to the church, but Rubem’s invitation demanded at least an attitude of respect, if not an obligation due to what she owed beyond the numbers of the notepad. At the cult on Saturday, Rubem talked about the walls of Jericho with vehemence. He pointed to the ways and barriers to be transposed. It was raining outside, but God was in Rubem’s mouth, renovating what was green in things. As soon as Rubem came down to give the microphone to another pastor, he came to sit next to her, on the first row and offered to carry the girl for a while, in order to rest the mother’s arms, under the risk of the looks of certain members of the congregation that had a sharp tongue. She thought, with dread, about her husband, who, at that time, would have been arguing at a snooker table. She could foresee the man waking up at half past eleven, with a headache, shouting at the walls and asking for soup, so as not to stamp on his stomach. Rubem wanted to ensure he would see her home where they said their goodbyes with fear and a certain incompletion in their gestures.
Two days later, the proposal came. Rubem knew that the husband had not come back that morning and sent a note to the boy that worked at the counter: to go to the grocery, before midday; come in through the back door. She took the girl inside a Moses basket. Rubem was waiting for her and, as soon as he saw her opening the wooden gate warily, he ran to help her with the kid. They were surrounded with boxes of vegetables that had been rejected for sale and that would be given to the chicken, which had already eaten, and to the pigs, at the other pen at the back of the patio. Rubem cried before he could say anything. But he did say it. He showed that what he had wasn’t much, but, at least, it was a life. He knew that God permitted nothing he was going to have to say, but he was running the risk for her and the girl’s sake. Then he took the Moses basket from her hands and asked her to leave her husband.
She didn’t leave him. Not for fear, but because she felt tied to the house whose back would get lost in the river where the husband went fishing. At times, she had the impression of being followed by the fisherman, the sour smell that came up from his stomach. None of that seemed right. In a month and a half, however, the patrons noticed that Rubem did not work at the counter of the grocery on Mondays. It was the day of the ferry and the boy would say that the boss had gone fetch some new goods in another town, but on Tuesdays no one would find anything new on the trays. Only the boy knew what the others suspected: it was also the day of the nets and the woman’s husband would leave the house already on Sunday to assemble them and would come back from the boat only on Monday afternoon, bringing the stock to the fishmongers; so she would come in the middle of the night on Sunday with the girl in the Moses basket and, taking care to be discreet, would come in through the back door, where Rubens lived, to lie with him and leave at dawn on Monday.
They carried on like that for another three months, she’d visit regularly the church and Rubem’s house, with her daughter in the basket, until the boy at the counter gave a message: that she shouldn’t come that Sunday, that she should look for Rubem the following day for something important. She hardly slept imagining what she would hear. And, close to midday on Monday, she walked through the front door of the grocery. Scared, Rubem took her to the back, before any eagle-eye would have a chance to come, and told her everything: people in the town already knew the entire story, including in the church; Pastor Tadeu had condemned him vehemently, and he would leave on Wednesday; on Friday, he would come back to the other side of the river with the blue pick-up truck and would wait for her until three in the morning; they would find where and on what to live in Argentina; they could grow with a house together; her daughter would have a better life in the grace and severity of God; he had already thought of everything: she would cross the river on a boat; upon waking up, her husband would need to wait the 8 o’clock ferry to cross to the other side and they would be far; in sum, if she didn’t turn up, he would understand and he would leave anyway. But she surprised them both by saying that she also couldn’t stand all that; that she knew how to row and would cross the river to run away with Rubem.
During that week she didn’t come to the grocery and Rubem didn’t set his foot at the church until he disappeared on the Wednesday morning. The prattle had turned into uproar. To her ears arrived rumors that the fisherman knew. But her husband would arrive drunk, sleeping in the garden or passing out in the bathroom.
So it was precisely that Friday and the shadow of the husband behind the shower curtain scared her. She would take her daughter in the Moses basket and would take the two bags, which had been already prepared, from under the bed. She would have to row to the other side of the river and start to live again. But her husband was now opening the shower curtain and she saw that the man was wet, his knees were wounded, he was sunburnt, still red due to alcohol and had the impression of looking like a body vomited by a river. She left the bathroom, fearing she wouldn’t be able to do it.
She put her daughter in the cot. From the bathroom door, the husband called her names, using words that seemed to come out of his mouth with enormous difficulty. The oil had almost caught fire and the house was covered by an infernal haze that forced one to open the windows and tie up the curtains. What is this thing today?, her husband shouted and she said that she had a headache and he turned, naked and wet, to get a plastic bottle from the refrigerator. She lowered the heat quickly and put the fish in a frying pan. Soon, she took out the golden cutlets, slightly charred by the edges. She knew they were raw inside, but she couldn’t stand it anymore. Breaking stale bread, still undressed, her husband looked at her and ate.
She washed the dishes while her ideas boiled her senses. Sometimes she looked at her husband, who spread fish bones on the tablecloth with the head bent down. He choked, coughed like an animal and then calmed everything in a glass. If he died there, she wouldn’t need to cross the river. She repented immediately of what she had thought, but she made sure that she looked and memorized what she left in that house, so that she could run away with the certainty that she was doing the most mature thing in her life.
Without finishing off the fish, the man finished his drink. How could there be stomach for all that. Then he crawled to bed without saying a word and, if he did go in the bathroom, it was to urinate around the toilet before sleeping heavily.
While closing the kitchen window, she thought about Rubem: he had left the grocery and was now driving on a dark road, with the money he had managed to put together, rechecking in his mind the clothes in his suitcase, the route of the car and a house in Argentina. Rubem drove firmly and God would guide them in what was to be a restart after all. Rubem would pray for her and for her daughter. He loved that way.
She still tidied up the things of the house without understanding why. She would leave at night without the possibility of coming back, so why bother? But she put the space that had been hers in order and, this way, she felt stronger to leave everything as she had always kept. That was her way of leaving the house completely. And it was because of this that, before getting ready for the river, she still cleaned the kitchen and the bathroom and left the fisherman’s clean clothes on the back of the only chair in the living room.
She thought of the small boat and repeated in her head the scenes that she had already gone through: before her pregnancy, she had helped her husband put the net and retrieve what the river would allow. So yes, she knew how to row. But she had never been in a boat at night and her throat tightened imagining it turning, her daughter’s Moses basket submerging the cry in the dark and in the cold. Then, the image of Rubem in prayer would come to cover her in a new calmness and she would promise to herself to make an effort to find a way to like the man as much as all the effort. And it was like this that Rubem’s arms holding the Moses basket would come, asking her to come. Because of this everything assented to cross the river.
Not long before two in the morning, she got up from the sofa in silence. Without turning on the light in the bedroom, she looked for the two packed bags that she had left under the bed. She heard her husband, his white body breathing with difficulty and felt mentally that she was saying goodbye to the father of her daughter. She brought the girl from the bedroom already in the Moses basket. The child turned around, lost her pacifier, but she acted quickly enough to avoid alarm. She closed the door ever so carefully and left into the clean cloudless night, with a thin moon and a slow breeze. Mandinho came to sniff her and she startled: she hadn’t expected the dog; if he barked out loud, Rubem would go to Argentina alone. And Mandinho did bark, not loud, but sufficiently so that the woman fell on her knees scared. He came to please her, but retreated two dry slaps and stayed at some distance, wagging an indecisive tail. From there, she walked to the river, listening to the sound of the water washing rocks and the banks. The boat, which was less than two meters long, was tied to a guava tree, and she fitted her daughter’s Moses basket on the tin bottom, hanging it on the sides with the clothes bags. She couldn’t see the other margin and she knew that the river wasn’t narrow. Perhaps she would have to row for twenty minutes before she would be able to see the lights and whisper for Rubem’s help.
And she began. She could still remember the secrets of the oars. Both of them together, in synchrony, wanting the same thing. So she rowed, leaving the house with an only light at the back and a weight in her chest. The arms had to manage. After that, it would be Rubem’s turn: driving the pick-up around Spanish speaking lands so that they could sleep for a week in a new bed without thinking about anything left behind. She rowed.
How long for? And her arms hurt, under the shoulders, near the armpits. And also the hands, from the fingers to the wrists. She stopped to rest, letting the body fall backwards. She had breathed in so many times the disgusting air and now the absolutely new air of the river. When she sat up to restart, the girl started to cry and everything turned into a panic. She hardly had the strength to put the oars back inside and, but it was also necessary, she knew, to find the lost pacifier at the bottom of the Moses basket, underneath an almost moonless a night. But she managed: first the oars, then her daughter, whom she kissed and nestled in her lap until she held the pacifier in her mouth and fell back to sleep.
She looked around her, looking for Rubem’s margin and a new panic came to dry her mouth: she couldn’t see any margin at all, she couldn’t even imagine where it could have been. The river transformed into an enormous black hole, travelling sleepily to somewhere she feared that it was far from the safe margin. And when she regained strength, knowing that she would have to row no matter where to, her daughter started crying even on her lap, as she had lost the pacifier, this time in the water. And however much she tried to find it around the small boat, she wouldn’t find it. She held her daughter close. It had occurred to her that the boat would turn with the girl and every minute she dreaded recognizing the future scene.
Now the cry overpowered the night and the river, it seemed to cut the banks from one side to the other and she got the oars and rowed as much as he could. Everything hurt, but the child’s cry begged her to row unceasingly and almost uselessly to the margin of the good father. She would end up losing one oar. Among everything that despaired her, at least the certainty of her daughter being alive, the scream between the night and the cold water, would give her the necessary courage to continue fighting against the river.
Almost surrendering, with her chest burning and a lame oar, she saw the light on the margin where Rubem waited for her, in front of the headlights, without having anything he could do. The boat was filling with water and her daughter was wet, crying as much as she still could. Exhausted, the mother still rowed, risking to capsize, as she would make an effort with both arms at only one side of the boat until the oar touched the bottom and that, from the future margin, Rubem went into the water and struggled enormously to pull her and get the baby from her and to transform himself, under the lights of the back of the house, into the husband who held her with the smell of drink that had recently arisen.
Translation by Lilia Loman