ISSN 2359-4101

Brazilian Literature in Translation / Literatura Brasileña en Traducción

Issue / Numero

year/año: 2012
issue/numero: # 02

The Dead, The Tide, and Us

Author | Autor: Antonio Carlos Viana

Translated by John Gledson

Funerals were the best. The night was full of singing, the old people howling out their pain, in a long-suffering voice, only interrupted by the singing of some relative of the deceased. It was a day of celebration for people who had nothing better on the face of the earth. Only the adults could go along the next day; the children couldn’t, for they soon tired. That’s why we all wanted to grow up fast. Those who could go put their best clothes on and got distressed for when the coffin appeared at the doorway full of people. It was our chance to go somewhere beyond that place with its humble houses, where the health inspectors only came once a year. There was no set time for the funeral to leave; it depended on the tide. When it went down, whatever time it was, we set off, always under a sun that burnt your brains out. Beforehand, we went to look for stones, and filled our pockets with them. The rounder the better. The moment of leave-taking was always the hardest; the relatives lay on the coffin as if they didn’t want it to go. The shouts sent you crazy, and even affected those who had nothing to do with the matter. It was impossible not to feel a lump in your throat, at least. Everyone got their own water, because it was a long journey. When cashews were in season, we took cashew-fruit; when it was guavas, guavas. The women opened their faded parasols, the men wore hats, and the younger ones tied a shirt round their heads.
  The road to the cemetery went through the middle of the mangrove- swamp, where little crabs called gorés scampered about – there were thousands of them there. When the tide rose, the poor things were exposed in the trails in the mud where the water didn’t reach. The cortège proceeded in total silence, only broken by the splashing of the water and our feet squashing the little gorés without the least pity. You felt heartache inside. We counted under our breath, to see who could squash most. The houses slowly dropped out of sight, until there was nothing but the tide-flats, us and the dead body. The mangroves were an endless watery waste, just water, water and more water. Sometimes the wind blew, a light breeze that felt good, bringing us a smell of green leaves mixed with salt. When the funeral was in the afternoon, we had to push onwards; in no time, daylight quickly began to fade.
  Along the way, when the men found a bit of open space, they let the coffin down to relieve themselves of the heavy weight and the fatigue. They wiped their brows and said we had to hurry because there was still a way to go. It seemed as if the body weighed more than when it was alive. Our greatest fear was that the cemetery would be shut and then they would have to go back with the coffin. It didn’t happen often, but when it did we had to burn cashew nuts all night, and a lot of spurge, to keep the bad smell coming out between the rough planks. Only that way the body wouldn’t be alone. It was good because the smoke kept the mosquitoes off too.
  After the rest, we set off again. When we got further on, the men lowered the coffin again and stopped, as if they were lost. We looked around us and saw only mud, water, and lots and lots of sky. An empty space, terrifying in case there was a downpour. A good thing there wasn’t.
  After we’d come a long way, we got to a little hump with a cross on it, the only thing to guide ourselves by. It marked the place where a man had been murdered, a long time ago, when many of us hadn’t even been born. This was what we’d been waiting for. We took the stones out of our pockets and threw them at the cross.
  They said it was to frighten the dead man’s ghost, so that he’d never come back to frighten the living.
  When we got to the cemetery, luckily the grave was already open. There was no priest, nothing, just a lot of sand and clay around the hole.
  The gravedigger was expecting us, as if we were his enemies. He always complained about the delay, it was no joke waiting in this bleak place, under such a hot sun. He only had a small hut where he kept his tools, spades and hoes, and a little wheelbarrow, where children’s coffins were put to keep them off the ground.
  Above the graves, only a cross with the name of the deceased; the older tombs were covered with a lot of weeds, only the odd one had a glass with a plastic flower bleached by the sun.
  The men crossed themselves, and we followed them, a woman’s voice began an ave Maria, mother of God, hope of the world, while the coffin slowly went down. A sob or two maybe, but that was unusual. Those who really cried stayed at home, not to get in the way. Then it was only the pounding of the clay balls, everyone chose the best clod he could find, and flung it hard at the coffin, as if taking vengeance on the deceased.
  Lucky that when you’re dead you don’t feel anything, noise, sadness, longing, nothing. A blessing, as they say.
  The return was always harder, not because of the body we left behind, but because of the tide. Our flip-flops hanging from our fingers, a step here, another there, so as not to slip or fall into the quicksand. That was why we always took a dog to go in front of us. When the tide had gone right down, then we had to struggle through the mud, any false step and we would slip and get home covered in muck, as filthy as a crabgatherer.
  At high tide, it was better. The women rolled up their skirts, it was a sight to behold, the patches of flesh glittered next to the shining water. When any of them got stuck, we burst out laughing and everyone got together to pull her out of the hole. We got back home very late at night, all of us tired and dirty, but no longer sad.
  We’d already forgotten the deceased.

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