By Clarice Lispector, from The Chandelier, a novel that will be published in March by New Directions. Lispector (1920–77) was the author of more than a dozen novels and story collections. Translated from the Portuguese by Magdalena Edwards and Benjamin Moser.
She was looking at herself in the mirror, her white and delicate face lost in the half-light, her eyes open, her lips without expression. She was enjoying herself, liking that sleek, so sinuous way about her, her shaded hair, her small and skinny shoulders. How lovely I am, she said. Who will buy me? Who will buy me?—she’d give a quick smooch to the mirror—who will buy me: agile, funny, funny as if I were blond but I’m not blond. I have lovely, cold, extraordinary brown hair. But I want someone to buy me so much that. . . that. . . that. . . I’ll kill myself! she exclaimed and peering at her face frightened by the phrase, proud of her own ardor, she laughed a fake guffaw, low and shining. Yes, yes, she’d need a secret life in order to be able to exist. From one instant to the next she was once again serious, tired—her heart was beating in the shadow, slow and red. A new element, foreign until now, had penetrated into her body. Now she was learning that she was good but that her goodness would not impede her badness. This feeling was almost old; it had been discovered days ago. And a new desire was touching her heart: to free herself still more. To go beyond the limits of her life—it was a phrase without words that was rolling around her body like nothing more than a push. To go beyond the limits of my life, she didn’t know what she was saying, looking at herself in the mirror in the guest room. I could kill them all, she was thinking with a smile and a new freedom, staring childishly at her image. She was waiting for an instant, watchful. But no: nothing had been created inside herself with the feeling provoked, neither joy nor fear. And where had the idea been born to her?—ever since the morning she spent in the basement questions were arising easily; and at every moment she was heading in what direction? Moving ahead learning things whose beginnings all her life she hadn’t even felt. Where had the idea been born? From her body; and if her body was her destiny . . . Or was she inhaling thoughts from the air and giving them back as if they were her own, forcing herself to follow them? . . . There she was in the mirror! she screamed at herself, brutish and happy. But what could she and what couldn’t she do? No, she didn’t want to await some condition in order to kill, if she had to kill she wished it freely without any circumstances . . . that would mean going beyond the limits of her life, she didn’t know what she was thinking. In a sudden exhaustion where there was a certain voluptuousness and well-being, she lay down on the guest bed. And like a door that closes hurriedly and without noise, she quickly fell asleep. And quickly dreamed. She dreamed that her strength was saying loudly and to the ends of the earth: I want to go beyond the limits of my life, without words, only the dark power guiding itself. A cruel and living impulse pushed her forward and she would have wished to die forever if dying gave her a single instant of pleasure, such was the seriousness at which her body had arrived. She would hand over her own heart to be bitten, she wanted to go beyond the limits of her own life as a supreme cruelty.
Then she walked outside the house and went searching, searching with the most ferocious thing she had; she was looking for an inspiration, her nostrils sensitive as those of a thin and frightened animal, but everything around her was sweetness, and sweetness was something she already knew, and now sweetness was the absence of fear and danger. She’d do something so beyond her limits that she’d never understand it—but she didn’t have the strength, ah, she couldn’t go beyond her own powers. She had to close her eyes for an instant and pray to herself brutally with disdain until in a deep sigh, ridding herself of the final pain, forgetting at last, she headed toward the sacrifice of destiny. Because if I am free, if with a gesture I can make everything new again—she was heading through the field beneath a whitish sky—then nothing keeps me from making that gesture; that was the murky and restless sensation.
While she was walking she was looking at a dog and in a gasping effort like that of emerging from closed waters, like leaving the realm of what one could do, she was deciding to kill him as she walked. He was moving his tail, defenseless—she thought about killing him and the idea was cold but she was afraid she was tricking herself by telling herself that the idea was cold in order to escape it. So she led the dog with gestures to the bridge over the river and with her foot pushed him surely to his death in the waters, heard him whimpering, saw him struggling, dragged by the current, and saw him die—nothing was left, not even a hat. She continued serenely.
Serenely she kept searching. She saw a man, a man, a man. His long trousers were sticking to the wind, his legs, his thin legs. The man, the man was mulatto. And his hair, my God, his hair was going gray. Trembling with disgust she headed toward him between air and space—and stopped. He, too, halted, old eyes waiting. Nothing in her face would make him guess what was simply waiting to happen. She had to speak and didn’t know how to say it. She said: “Take me.”
The mulatto man’s eyes opened. And before long, silhouetted against the pure air and the wind, against the light and dark green of the grass and the trees, before long he was laughing, understanding. He lifted her, mute, laughing, his hair graying, laughing, and beyond the prairie was stretching beneath the wind. He lifted her, mute, laughing, a smell of kept meat was coming from his mouth, from his stomach through his mouth, a breath of blood; from his open shirt long and dirty hairs were emerging and around them the air was lively, he lifted her by the arms and the sensation of ridiculousness was hardening her with ferocity—he was dangling her in the air to prove that she was light. She pushed him with violence and he mute laughing mute walked and dragged her and invincible kissed her. Yet he was still laughing when she stood and serenely, like the end of going beyond the limits of her life, stepped with calm power on his wrinkled face and spat on him while he, mute, looking, wasn’t understanding and the sky was lengthening in a single blue air.
She awoke immediately and when she opened her eyes she was almost standing, her face clear and anxious. Motionless she was feeling her own body all the way to the end, large, her muscles meek and happy. She wasn’t feeling numbness but a possibility of moving herself with balance. What had happened? quickly she understood, for a second she was confused, she thought she’d really left the house, hesitated, returned to a vague good sense. It had been a short dream, enough to let her leave the limits of her life. Swollen and slow sensations were broadening her body. Surprised as after an act of sleepwalking, she headed toward the mirror: What was happening to her?
There was a strange ambiguity in her face where her weakened eye was always dreaming, a determination in her lips as if she were obeying the fatality of a hallucination. She was feeling that some countless time had passed and she was remembering the house in whose center she found herself as something far away. A sweet power was weighing on her hips, lengthening the smooth neck to which the big and irregular cleavage was giving birth. In some way she was no longer a virgin. She had lived more than she had dreamed, lived, she would swear to it, sincerely, though she also knew the truth and scorned it.
Father was calling her from the parlor with his voice that was never raised but could be heard throughout the house. In a difficult reminiscence she noticed that he had already called her while she was dreaming. She went down a few steps, stopped in the middle of the staircase: “Daddy, you called me?”
Esmeralda with her face wet with tears was hesitating by his side, on her cheek the red outline of the palm of a hand—Mother was hovering on the threshold without support staring her old rat’s dusky, slow gaze.
“Repeat what you . . . what we heard from that person,” her father said to her.
Father looked at everyone, victorious, old, sullen. In those moments of rage he seemed fatter and shorter. “Then listen and confirm it: this slut over here meets a male in the garden.”
Esmeralda sobbed: “But nothing happened this time, nor ever. . . I already swore!”
“God!” screamed Father with sudden eloquence.
“What’s a poor man done in order to receive evil spirits in his house for the second time! What has a poor man done to see his life and that of the house he made brought low by his own daughter! Punish me, Lord, but bring down thy punishment upon my own head!”
Virginia was watching him lucidly, her eyes mobile and cunning. Her whole body was aching in anticipation. Her father brusquely calmed down, turned toward her: “Confirm what you said.”
“She’s the one who told?!” Mother screamed.
“No . . . no!” groaned Virginia, white, looking at Father. He hesitated for an instant with clouded and hot eyes: “It doesn’t matter who it was, what matters is that this . . . ”
Quick thoughts were crisscrossing inside her and before anyone could expect it she let out a piercing scream and fell. Her father kept her from rolling down the stairs. Eyes closed, ears tensely on the lookout for whatever was happening, she felt carried upward in a slow flight. She was smiling inwardly without knowing why amid the alert terror. The effort she was making not to open her eyes and to stay lifeless was absorbing her so strongly that for several instants she stopped hearing and being aware. When she cracked open her eyes she found herself on the bed in the empty bedroom. A great silence was enveloping the house, whispering through every corner as on a Sunday. She stayed for a few moments almost distracted pulsating sweetly. In her body the blood was renewing itself. Standing in a light thrust she was at the door, searching through the air in order to find out where the people were. Nothing could be felt, the mansion vast and naked. She felt herself smiling, brought her fingers to her lips but these were still closed and narrow and the smile had been only a thought. A thought without joy but that was making her smile: her goodness wasn’t preventing her badness. She had committed a corrupt and vile act. Never though had she seemed to have acted so freely and with such freshness of desire. She needed to study herself in the mirror, yes, yes, she thought with urgency and hope. She was sensing that the guest room could be reached without anyone’s seeing her. She crossed the hallway rapidly, the steps of her bare feet muffled by the purple carpet, her heart beating violent and pale.
So there she was. Her face for an instant as if eternal, her flesh devoutly mortal. There she was, then, her innocent eyes peering inside her own degradation. She would never manage to repeat what she was thinking and what she was feeling was happening to her evanescently, so immaterial and fleeting that she couldn’t stop on any thought. Surprised, intimidated by her own ignorance, she was dangling for an instant, interrupting the movement of her life and looking at herself in the mirror: that shape expressing something without laughter but so inside itself that its meaning could never be grasped. Looking at herself she wouldn’t be able to understand, only to agree. She was agreeing with that deep body in shadows, with her silent smile, life as if being born from that confusion. Now her permission for herself was seeming even more ardent as if she were allowing her own future too. And she was seeing the future … yes, in a glance made of seeing and hearing, in a pure instant the whole future … Though she knew only that she was seeing and not what she was seeing, just as all she could say about blue was: I saw blue, and nothing more. What had existed in her life was an indistinct and infinite power, infinite and wild. But she could never have demonstrated the existence of that power as it would be difficult to prove that she had the will to go on, that the color of the rose was pleasing to her, that she was feeling strength, that she was connected to the stone in the garden. What had existed in her life, untouched and never lived, had raised her through the world. But just after accomplishing some act—having one day looked one more time at the sky? Having watched the man who was walking? Or after a simple instant?—after accomplishing some act impossible to refrain from, something fatal and mysterious, her power had ceased.
Previously her most secure movement of life had been disinterested, she’d notice things she’d never use, a leaf falling would intercept the path she had started out on, the wind would undo her thoughts forever. In her being something had become more serious and inflexible, a trembling brutality. Or was she seeing it for the first time? Suddenly the words from which she lived in childhood seemed to have run out and she couldn’t find any others. She was experiencing a worried feeling of regret for living that moment, for being almost a young woman and for being the one to whom the instant was happening—she was seeming to feel that from a deep untouchable freedom she could garner strength in order to not allow herself. She was looking at the silent and pale air of the room, an instant immobile and without destiny.
How fatal it was to have lived. For the first time she had aged. For the first time she was aware of a time behind her and the restless notion of something she could never touch, of something that no longer belonged to her because it was complete but that she still clung to because of her incapacity to create another life and a new time. Her childhood had been wrinkled by the cold air that hurt inside her nose with icy ardor; she was seeing herself as if from far away, small, the dark shape in the fog already gilded by the sun, looking on the ground at something she could no longer name; now her own breath was seeming to surround her with a tepid atmosphere, her eyes were opening in wide color, her body was straightening into a human creature.
She gave a little shout of joy and promise: ah! But she was just barely thinking the surface of what was happening to her in those instants and was paying attention to herself as if she were placing her hand atop her beating heart and not being able to touch it. She waited for an instant. Nothing was happening then. Silence surrounded her and she calmed down, looked at the mirror somberly shining. Stubborn, she was staring at her face trying to define its fleeting magic, the softness of the movement of breathing that was lighting it and slowly putting it out. The corruption was bathing her in a sweet light. So there she was. So there she was. There was no one who could save or lose her. And that’s how the moments were unfurling and dying while her quiet face was floating in expectation. So there she was. Even yesterday the pleasure of laughing had made her laugh. And ahead of her stretched the entire future.