In Eufrasia’s Worlds

Part I


It’s funny how life brings people together. Or people’s stories. I wasn’t paying the slightest attention to the conversation. You know when someone starts talking in front of you and you sit there thinking about other things, watching their mouth opening and closing, opening and closing, without taking in a word, a sentence? That’s the state I was in. They started talking about death. And whenever people talk about death around me, that’s what happens. I go into a stupor, a kind of lethargy. I just don’t want to hear it. I risked it once, and opening my ears to death was like raising my face before looking to see what was coming. I could get an enormous slap square across my cheek. Or maybe I’d get my cheek square across a slap? Who knows what’s in store for us when we don’t know what’s in store. They say it’s the reminder that life is mortal that’s terrifying. That must be it. It must be an unconscious reaction or something. I’m not sure. All I know is that an alarm sounds in my mind, and off it goes. Where to, not even I can predict. [private]But I get an odd, almost urgent need to occupy myself with living things. My eyes frenetically seek everything that breathes. People, flowers, animals. Especially flowers and animals, which live in a spontaneous, almost unconscious state. It gives them a vibration without thought. A throbbing of existence. When there are only people around me, like then, I look around expectantly for gazes, colours, movements that contain in themselves a flower’s opening, an animal’s hunger. How enchanted I am by this state, almost pure. A purity made of blood and earth, which for me is the purest. Yes, the sort that isn’t clean. It’s what connects me like a paw full of claws to the consistency of everything that vibrates. I become impregnated. As the mouth opened and closed saying this and that about death, coffin, cemetery, wow, I breathed in the air and aroma of every perfume. What’s more, I tried to go beyond the balsam to get to the raw smell of people. I imagined their bodies without clothes on. And it wasn’t sex, but the absence of modesty that interested me. As the mouth closed and opened: coffin, wake, cemetery — I touched my skin, which was warm. I felt my hairs, goose bumps. The sharp blades of my fingernails. Life tugged at me with a feline-like elasticity. It wrapped me in its concrete wings. Yes, life is concrete. That’s the thought I always want to carry, like a hope. I want to think living things, no matter how small. The sensation of the skin, the pores. Someone next to me was drinking juice and I imagined the taste of the fruit. Liquid mixing with tongue. I drifted further and further away from what was being said. Everyday things started invading my mind. I’ve always harboured the suspicion that the most vivid of things are the ones that occupy us daily. That was when I thought about the ants. It’s almost pathetic to allow myself to get caught up in something so tiny. But lately they’ve been a constant presence in my days. It started with one or two that I absent-mindedly noticed in the kitchen sink. I watched their miniscule scurrying as they noticed my gigantic presence. But I’m incapable of brutality. I let them multiply. One or two became a hundred, five hundred, a thousand. They’re everywhere. I often find them on my body. Even so, I’ve never lifted a finger in violence. I have too much respect for delicate things. But visitors make remarks. People think it’s strange. The truth is simple: I like animals. Big, small, it doesn’t matter, I like them. Sometimes more than people. That’s what I was thinking when out of the blue I heard the word ant, of all words, and realised it hadn’t come from inside my head, but outside. It was as if something had clicked in me, forcing me to listen to the conversation. I looked at the people as if I was seeing them for the first time. Suddenly the mouth wasn’t talking about death anymore. Now it was telling a story that had to do with ants. I thought the coincidence was amazing. The person was talking about the little critters exactly as I was thinking about them. This simultaneity was, for me, an open window to infinity. Coincidences have always terrified me. And terror has always fascinated me. Maybe for that reason, or some other obscure impulse, it struck me that there must be something in the story that I needed to know. I started listening, absorbed. Just as death had taken me far away, the ants had brought me back. It’s funny, really, very funny how life brings people together.



Part II


She was a woman of eighty, or almost. She lived alone in a huge house. A manor, actually. One of those 19th-century type buildings. Just thinking about it gives me goose bumps. Living in a house burdened with so many years. If it were today, it’d be two centuries, but the ants episode took place in the early 20th century. There were, thus, one hundred years of solid memory in the walls. Of voices and silences that had traversed each chamber, each room. Like I said, she was about eighty, give or take a few years. And it was at this age that she moved through the house, taking with her every one of those years. The lighter ones, the heavier ones. The entirety of her life marked on every piece of furniture, every wall, as it was on every part of her body, every furrow of her skin.


One day she was going down the long corridor that led to the kitchen. She must have been lost in thought, her gaze more inward, or focused on other times, because she was walking along without seeing things, without really looking where she was going. She was more focused on her own line of thought, which hovered there, like a ghost. Then, suddenly, something in her surroundings caught her eye. She turned, slowly, and found her father’s firm, tender gaze. The impression was so strong that she steadied herself on the wall so she wouldn’t fall. Her father, before her, looked much younger than she did herself, his own daughter. While she was mulling over eight decades, he was a man of few wrinkles.


And he was staring at her deeply, as he always had. She felt as if she could reach out and touch him. Her fingers moved slightly, tenderly. She saw herself as a young woman, her father in front of her, talking about business, books. And then she was a girl and he was teaching her mathematics, or leaning over to hand her a toy. The image was so real that it took her a while to understand that it wasn’t really him she was seeing, but his portrait. By the time she understood it was already too late. At her ripe old age, she felt like a little girl waiting for her father’s embrace. She gazed at the picture on the wall. But it wasn’t the picture that she saw: it was the person.


That day the servants had thoroughly cleaned the drawing room, a part of the house she rarely visited, and had taken down all of the pictures to clean the walls. And they had put him there, probably so as not to leave him on the ground or lying around. It had completely slipped her mind. And coming across him like that, without warning, brought a strange feeling: her memories no longer came from the past but surged through her as if they belonged to the present.


Yes, it really was her father calling her, at the other end of the corridor, and she was going to him. It was he who was complimenting her on her dress and stroking her face. She closed her eyes. Her skin, smooth again, received his caress. He asked about everything she had wished for and achieved in life, his voice deep and solid. And she, young as the day she had buried him, opened and closed her lips, yearning to reveal and omit everything she had done since his death, over fifty years earlier. Yes, it had been more than fifty years since she’d seen him. An eternity. Her mother too, since they had died very close to one another, in the space of a year. Two eternities, then. She opened her eyes, almost as if she wasn’t really opening them. And she saw, her vision limpid, the wall, not as it was, completely white, but as it had been, with decorative paint and wallpaper imported from France. She then heard the slave women chattering in the kitchen, peeling vegetables, stirring pots. Sounds from another era, another time, but which reached her unfalteringly, as everything that is real reaches us. She also heard her mother’s voice, checking to see how the food was coming along, if dessert was done. She felt an urge to run to her, brimming with tenderness. Her body even tilted forward in space, her mouth a whisper, mother. But she found herself before the white wall once again. And so much whiteness disoriented her, as it also does with reality.


It was only then that she realised that her mother’s portrait wasn’t next to her father’s, as always. She looked for it, unable to understand how they weren’t together. But suddenly, she heard her soft, almost singsong voice again in the kitchen. And the aroma of the food washed over her. And once more the French wallpaper. The tiniest details of the painting. The bright, vivid colours. Then, without blinking, she saw her father alone again. The missing portrait. And the abruptly white wall. She ran her hand over its pallid surface, feeling the texture of the paint. She stared into the empty space, thinking that perhaps the image was there. Perhaps the exact vision of what she really saw or felt was there. She travelled the length of the corridor, turning here and there, in a fluster. And it was exactly at that instant, searching for the portrait as one might a person, that she saw the ants.


If there had just been one or two maybe they wouldn’t even have caught her eye. But she had come across an enormous trail on the white background, traipsing, silently and quickly, towards the kitchen. For a few moments she just stared at them, absorbed. Suspended, as if her mind had been sucked from one sphere and thrown brutally into another. Her feet suddenly firmly entrenched in the earth, while the rest of her body was still struggling to catch its balance. While her eyes pierced the wall like fingers digging into the cement. She gazed at the ants and there was no doubt about it: they were ants. There are realities that, at times, are not deceptive. Yes, there it was, concreteness. She slowly walked back to see where the Indian file ended. And she realised that it didn’t end. It ran down the corridors, from the library to the study, from one room to another. She followed them, amazed. And suddenly so devoid of past. No future, no nothing. Just that moment. That great silence of ants marching across the wall. Her body, made of so many years, suddenly bore a single instant. That one. And an instant like that one was light, with the minimal density of an ant.
When she got to the back yard she found the point at which they converged, forming their trail. They gathered there, coming from different places, in small groups. A short distance away, a tall negro, her employee of many years, was tending the garden and came over when he saw her staring at the ground. In turn, the sight of the man’s large, heavy feet terrified her. Careful, Ramiro, she said, not to step on the ants. He looked down at his own feet, smiling. Come now, there are so many that if I were to watch my every step there’d be no ground left to walk on. She smiled too, but stayed alert. She asked if he knew where the ant nest was. He said he did, and that it wasn’t just one, but several, scattered throughout the yard. And he quickly added that he had the poison to put an end to them once and for all; that he’d already tried alcohol, kerosene, but nothing had made any difference. They were strong little critters. A shiver ran down her spine. No, Ramiro, I don’t want you to kill the ants. He didn’t understand. But, ma’am, they’re everywhere already, the yard’s not enough for them. They’re in the kitchen, the rooms, even the ballroom, I saw them the other day, they’re very cheeky, they are. She looked at the ground. There they were, scurrying back and forth, tiny, like an instant. No, Ramiro, she repeated. What harm can they do? she argued. She answered herself, none at all. Ahh… that’s where you’re mistaken, ma’am. They take dirt into the house, they walk on the food, clothes, leave their mess. She shrugged. That’s an exaggeration. I’ve always heard that ants are clean. She argued knowing there was little she could say. The most sensible thing was to exterminate the nests for once and for all. But she didn’t want to. She loved watching the way they marched over the earth, with so much tenacity and delicacy. Ramiro scratched his shiny face, looking from his employer to the ants, from the ants to his employer. Let them live, she said finally, in a definitive tone of voice. Yes, ma’am, he stammered and went back to the garden, perplexed.


She turned and went into the house, taking her own perplexity with her. She returned to the ant trail, observing their patience, their organisation. They weren’t afraid, nor did they interrupt their routine because of her enormous, silent presence. Nothing made them stray from their determined path. How concentrated they were. Focused only on what they were doing, one thing at a time. One instant at each instant. It must be a life without memory, she thought. And she hurried to the kitchen, where she crumbled a piece of bread, making little piles here and there, as if they had fallen there by accident. She didn’t want them to suspect she had left them there on purpose. They might not appreciate finding so easily what they had been looking for with such calculated, precise effort. As she crumbled the bread, she did only that. And she found herself light. Her mind occupied with her hands and fingers. A whole, solitary instant, without the burden of any other instant, no other decade inside it.


She waited anxiously for the first ants to arrive. She tried to act natural, as if she’d gone there to drink a glass of water, or to get something, a jar, a cup, a plate. She finally decided to just wait. The kitchen was huge and empty. She could barely contain herself when she saw them approaching. She thought that her enormous, unmoving presence must look like a frightened statue. She lost sight of them as she tried to follow them across the wooden floor, where they disappeared. She cursed old age, which had taken away her eagle eye, which used to let nothing escape. They were eighty-year-old eyes, after all. Eyes saturated with seeing, exhausted by images.


But it was a quick thought, almost weightless. She soon spotted them climbing the table leg. They split into groups. Some headed for the sugar bowl, while others crossed the distance to the little piles of crumbs. She kept her eyes wide open so she wouldn’t make the mistake of blinking and miss a movement. This is what she saw: first the ants split up, undoing their organisation, each going its own way, from one crumb to the next. Then each chose its favourite, hoisted it onto its back and headed off in single file to meet the others. Along the way, they met up with the group from the sugar bowl, reorganised their line and began their trip back.


Sitting firm and erect on a chair in the kitchen, or, on other occasions, in the living room or back yard, she spent hours, sometimes whole days, her curious and admiring gaze following the miniscule movement of each ant, and the enormity of them all. The servants avoided bringing it up in front of her, but looked on in dismay as the house transformed, little by little, into an enormous ant nest. The walls, immense white canvases, were painted with dark images that formed and drifted apart before they could divine, as they did with the clouds in the sky, whether they had the shape of an animal, object or person. There were also times that, instead of following them all around, she’d just stay in one room of the house. She seemed so calm, reading a book, listening to music, engrossed in little things, while all around her the legion of ants also occupied themselves so calmly with their tiny chores. An incomprehensible sight for the servants and rare visitors, but perfectly fine by she who had always thought, ever since she had crawled on those very same floors of that very same house, that nothing living should die for any other reason but the death of itself, because it had run out of life.


Ramiro found it hard to accept, but his employer’s tone had been definitive. Let them live, she had said. And he did, but it wasn’t easy. All that’s missing now is an anthill in the middle of the living room, he grumbled daily. They multiplied, because there were always some crumbs of this or that in the kitchen and at the back door, every morning and every afternoon. And the little devils showed up at exactly the right time, as if they had wristwatches and appointments.
Worse, however, was when she decided to wait for them in the back yard. She’d get all anxious, as if it was a very important matter. Her eyes sparkled — and he hadn’t seen his employer’s eyes light up like that for a long time — but for such a silly reason, he thought. When the crafty little things finally arrived, she’d follow them through the house.
On a few occasions he could swear he’d seen her, a woman who’d spent her life reading, travelling and doing business, I kid you not, chatting with the ants. He’d already seen her talking to dogs and cats as one might speak to people. But to those teensy creatures, he thought it really strange. One day, not only was she talking, but she also seemed to be explaining why she left the crumbs so far away, in the kitchen, instead of just leaving them in the yard, much closer to the ants’ nest. It was so they wouldn’t lose their hard-working nature, she said; they’d have too much time on their hands if they had nothing to do, and that wasn’t good. At other times, Ramiro saw her in the backyard, going to see the ants smiling and full of cheer, as if she was going to meet friends. It may have just been his eyes, but she even seemed lighter and sprightlier as she walked. Before, in spite of her elegant, slender body, she had appeared to be carrying an enormous weight. And before, in spite of the good weather, she had almost never left the house, as if she was still in mid-winter in Europe, where she had lived for many years. After the ants, she became intimate once again with the ground, the yard and the good weather of her land. She’d just dally there, between the trees and flowers, nattering with the ants and turning her face up to catch the sunlight better.


It was as if she had regained the distance laid down by the years. As if all the fight and repose in her had finally struck a balance and she could finally breathe, without a Europe weighing on her chest, without a Brazil curving her shoulders. A Brazil that wasn’t that of her childhood or youth, but the distant country of her decades abroad, known only in her absence. Now, it was as if time was going back in time, until it became no time. Just the earth under her feet. Just her feet recognising the earth. Just the ants and that tiny instant, free of all of life.[/private]



Extracted from Claudia Lage’s biographical novel Eufrásia’s Worlds (Record), about the lives and love story of two great Brazilians, the idealistic abolitionist Joaquim Nabuco and the millionaire businesswoman Eufrásia Teixeira Leite, against the backdrop of Brazil’s late-19th and early-20th-century cultural and socio-economic transformations.


Claudia Lage’s collection of short stories A pequena morte e outras naturezas [The Little Death and Other States of Nature], is published by Record. In 1996, she won the Rio Arte Stanislaw Ponte Preta short story competition, and in 2001, the Radio França Internacional Guimarães Rosa short story award. She is a columnist on the literary journal Rascunho, a scriptwriter and teaches creative writing in Rio de Janeiro.

Leave a Comment