From The Besieged City, a novel that will be published this month by New Directions. Lispector’s novel The Chandelier was published last year by New Directions. Edited by Benjamin Moser and translated from the Portuguese by Johnny Lorenz.
On one of his final business trips, instead of leaving his wife on Market Street, Mateus rented the little house on the island for her, hoping the sea would give her some color.
At the first excuse, because of a missing cheese, Lucrécia Neves Correia had fought with the maid and dismissed her. And finally—alone with her former careful way of living—she’d notice each creak of wood, keep an eye on the roses growing in the garden, do quick laps, and give sharp cries of recognition. At night the cut roses would dimly illuminate the bedroom and leave the woman sleepless; the waters beating on the distant beach wanted to transport her but the croaking of frogs was monitoring her from close by.
She’d fall asleep watchful as if dawn could find the house surrounded by horses. And it would resemble the first night of sleep after someone was buried.
The spider had already woven several webs in the window when the woman headed down the road that would take her to the center of town.
At dusk, tired of walking around, she saw finally Doctor Lucas’s office open and from it a man emerge with a heavy gait. He seemed to her quite aged yet as calm as she’d remembered him. The woman quickly crossed the sidewalk and stood before him laughing quietly.
In the half-darkness she didn’t see his surprise but heard his muffled voice mumbling her name, and she grew serious for still being that person they could call: Lucrécia Neves from São Geraldo.
They took a walk through the city park. The doctor was pointing out to her the public monuments . . . and from afar the sanatorium where his wife now lived, forcing him to relocate his practice to the island.
Lucrécia was strolling beside him, the small city darkening dizzily, the lights finally came on. The doctor even ended up buying her a little bag of bonbons, Lucrécia was looking uneasily at the dark sky.
She spoke to him of Mateus, of the house on Market Street, in the night that the sea was filling with salt, but nothing was reaching its own end, the breeze was bringing and taking away the words and the lampposts were being deformed in the water.
Doctor Lucas, calm as a man who really worked. It was somehow humiliating to realize that, strong and hardly talkative, he was neither revealing nor concealing himself.
When he went to assist her with her coat, and while he was brushing his arm across her shoulders—for just an instant Lucrécia Neves leaned back . . . had he made her arms more lively? had he noticed? or was she imagining it? Out of uncertainty the hazy light of a lamppost lit up, the instant turning gold in the night, out of uncertainty and delight the little lady was breathing, observing severely the car that was moving ahead over the irregular stones: the wheels were screeching and Doctor Lucas was speaking about what he’d done that day, she interrupting him with her errant mouth:
“Doctor Lucas, Doctor Lucas, you work too much, sir!” she was saying taking the opportunity to touch his clothes.
The doctor, with tired and vibrant eyes, was laughing at her. . . .
“Ah!” mumbled the woman.
“What happened . . . ”
“That star,” she said with tears in her eyes in a sincerity that, in search of expression, was making her lie. “It’s just that I turned around and saw the star,” she said, bathed by the grace of her lie.
This time the doctor looked at her through the darkness.
She blushed. But he was also looking at her with understanding and strength, leading her now with a first firmness through the dark lane, and avoiding touching her.
A moment more and, not touching, they were both thrown off balance, not touching was almost bringing them to a certain extreme point. Everything had become precious as if Lucrécia Neves Correia were holding such heavy things with her left hand: a low branch almost undid the bun in her hair, stealing from her a slightly painful exclamation of rapture.
“See,” he said with clarity and strength, “on such a lovely night I’ll have to work”—through the darkness he was looking at her, imposing on her, severely, a more dignified attitude . . .
“ . . . Impossible!” she yelled, shattered, her happy chest lighting up without paying attention to the man’s warning. “Impossible to work so much,” she added foolishly.
“Can you see all right?” asked the doctor imperiously.
He wanted to take responsibility for what he had unleashed, and did he look guilty? She obeyed with her mouth half-open.
“Here we are”—the jammed door was cracking open and the man smiled—“did the walk do you any good?” he asked in another tone.
“It did, doctor.”
Was the doctor angry? The frogs were croaking hoarsely.
“I don’t know how to thank you, doctor . . . ” —she was speaking with effort, with an ardor slightly out of place, her hair fluttering.
“Don’t thank me then,” he responded curtly.
Oh how annoyed he was!
Through the darkness dimly illuminated by the proximity of the sea, he looking at her now curious, almost amused—finally smiling:
“Well then, good night, get some rest.”
He reached out his hand thinking to meet hers and accidentally touched her arm—she blanched: “Good night,” she answered, and the man walked off stepping on leaves.
She went into the house and turned on the light. Inside everything was lightweight, blown. The bed, the table, the lamp. Nothing could be touched—the slight and upright extremities in the wind. Why don’t I go over and touch them? she couldn’t and yawned, shivery.
Then she changed clothes and lay down. A gentle joy was already starting to circulate in her blood with the first warmth, her teeth were once again sharpening and her nails hardening, her heart finally becoming precise in beats hard and curt. She, succumbing to an extreme fatigue that no man would love. Fatigue and remorse and horror, insomnia that the lighthouse was haunting in silence.
She didn’t want to take the path of love, it would be a too-bloody reality, the rats—the lighthouse lit her in a flash and revealed the unknown face of lust.
She started losing her mind imagining a conversation in which Doctor Lucas would seem even more severe, she even humbler, asking him, to buy time, a thousand questions that would be a dance around him, destined to confound the man’s strength: Sir, do you like big houses? sir, do you believe in me? if I were about to die would you save me, sir? do you speak many languages, sir? that’s wonderful! and quickly showing him her things: here’s my house for the time being, this city looks so much like São Geraldo! That’s my window.
So much shyness didn’t come from shame, it came from beauty, from fear, she back again with the great frogs.
But suddenly humble, hard: I’ll give you my life and nothing more. Doctor Lucas, one couldn’t make up the expression he’d have just then, crying out: I want less than your life, I want you! She responding with pain, with modesty: When it comes to love it’s undignified to ask for so little, buddy.
Once the tensest moment of the night had passed, some streak of humidity was finally broken, the waves were beating softly. The woman nodded off and Doctor Lucas mumbled a bit ridiculously with his somber face: so you don’t know how to be free. And her answering: ah, I can’t, you know, and she ended up free, so much that she fell asleep.
The next day she was waiting for him on the sidewalk in front of his office.
When he saw her he stopped short with the key in his hand, his lips pressed tight. He was irritated.
But she was looking at him, patient, modest; night was falling.
Without speaking Lucas closed the door of his office and they went off together. They were walking around the small city immersed in shadow. The woman would sometimes walk ahead, and Doctor Lucas would stop. She’d then go on ahead, fatigued in the park, making sure with a quick glance that he was still observing her; she’d go on, stumble, lean in perdition on the stone eagles, running her fingers over the reliefs. . . . He was watching, mute—while Lucrécia Neves was displaying herself, trying to make herself understood in the only way she had to speak, displaying with monotonous perseverance; he becoming a harder man while watching—she carrying on silently, spinning around in front of him, working him with patience in order to form her counterpart in this world, looking at the low sky.
They went on. He belonging to his wife while, without getting discouraged, Lucrécia Neves was spinning around him; and the more the man was catching on, the more inscrutable he was becoming. Sometimes the woman would realize he was feeling the urge to get rid of her, he was so annoyed. But she’d keep on gently provoking him, with a resignation that would sometimes make her think she’d been walking in the dust for years without a single breeze to bring relief to the air. She was very tired. Eventually there was established between them at last a short and brusque relationship whose possibilities they wouldn’t know how to measure: Lucas would take out a cigarette, she’d remove with insufferable gentleness the lighter from his hand, Lucas holding back a movement of repulsion; she’d light the small flame, conquering him, he, conquered but increasingly gruff: when she’d give him back the lighter, they’d go on.
One night they were standing on the hill. The dawn took on a sharp stained-glass tone; he with his dark face.
It was at this time that Lucas began to be scared. When the light of the lighthouse would pass over them, it revealed two unknown faces. Lucrécia Neves unknown, yes, but at peace, concentrated on her utmost surface. Sometimes a rapid contraction would pass over her face as if a fly had landed upon it. Then she’d move her hooves, patient. He unknown but already anxious, looking around, placing his hand on the trunk of the chestnut . . . Then Lucrécia placed her hand on the trunk of the chestnut. Through the tree Lucrécia was touching him. The indirect world.
Loving him, returning to the necessity of that gesture that was pointing things out and, with the same single movement, creating whatever there was of the unknown inside them—all of her was on the verge of that gesture when she was touching the trunk his hand was touching—just as she’d looked at a household object in order to reach the city: humble, touching whatever she could. For the first time she was tempting him through herself, and through the overvaluation of that small part of individuality that until now had not surpassed itself nor brought her to love of herself. But now, with a final effort she was tempting solitude. Solitude with a man: with a final effort, she was loving him.
Then she returned by the footpaths that were dawning.
Lucas finally said it was impossible.
Lucrécia was shocked as if unaware what this was all about, and he, seeing so much fake innocence, got mad. The woman started to cry, softly at first—she really did seem surprised by his haste—saying she’d been forever wounded, that everything had been ruined forever, though both hardly knew what “everything” she was referring to; that she’d expected from him “some enormous thing, oh Doctor Lucas,” and that he’d wounded her forever, she was repeating amid tears and syllables swallowed by sobs. The man was looking at her with brutality, seeing her crying mixing up her words; she seemed pure and puritan. He said severely like a doctor: calm down. The weeping subsided immediately. She wiped her eyes and blew her nose.
But without tears she was horrible to look at. Her mouth so painted. Her face in the darkness was anonymous, repugnant, fantastic. The doctor fell silent confronted with this truth that had taken, to the surprise of his eyes, the form of a face. He wanted to ask how he’d wounded her but this no longer mattered; when he saw her face without disguise he knew he’d wounded her somehow. He also noticed that the woman hadn’t complained about any single fact. Except about himself, which was as vague as it was serious and accusatory; he’d been struck.
Lucrécia was now keeping absent in the shadow, he couldn’t see her nor did he know whom to address when he said in an empty and dry tone:
“I don’t know what I’m to blame for but I ask forgiveness.”—The light of the lighthouse revealed them so quickly that they couldn’t see each other.—“I ask forgiveness for not being a ‘star’ or ‘the sea’”—he said ironically—“or for not being something that gives itself,” he said blushing. “I ask forgiveness for not knowing how to give myself even to myself—until now I’ve only been asked for kindness—but never to . . . —in order to give myself in this way I’d lose my life if necessary—but again I ask forgiveness, Lucrécia: I don’t know how to lose my life.”
It had been his longest speech to date, and the most embarrassing. He’d spoken with difficulty and now was withdrawing into the dark. Was he understanding, more than she did, that Lucrécia might have been wanting just a gesture? asking for a feeling and nothing more?
He was hardly feeling the humidity of the night; he was walking serious, without future.
And Lucrécia too . . . but no, beneath her futility she was working with time running out as in war. He wasn’t feeling sorry for himself or for Lucrécia. He was calm, strong. Which hadn’t stopped Lucrécia from rattling him, making him wonder now where his own guilt lay. Which became so great that there was no longer any punishment.
Individual life? The dangerous thing is that each person was dealing with centuries.
His awareness was still making him at least hide the joy of being alone. Now, however, it was no longer a question of protecting himself. It was a question of losing himself until reaching the minimum of himself, throbbing spot that Lucrécia Neves had almost awoken—and at last he’d no longer need to be anonymous in order to conceal his pride, at last, maybe, he’d no longer need to be such a good doctor.
What to make of Lucrécia, what to make of his wife who was embroidering in the sanatorium and would ask for red thread and lift her head hopefully when her husband arrived. And of Lucrécia? Some tiny emphasis seemed to be Lucrécia’s only destiny, vehemence her only strength. Even before dying she was one of the raptured souls who even a tough man inhales in the air of the nights.
And Lucrécia’s, was that the true surrendered life? the one that gets lost, the waves that rise furiously over the rocks, the mortal fragrance of flowers—and there was the sweet evil, the boulders now submerged by the waves, and in Lucrécia’s innocence was evil, she waiting far away in the wind from the hill, waiting, sweet, dizzying, with her impure breath of roses, her neck crushable by one of his hands—she, waiting for him to heed at last the plea of the waves over the rocks and, leaping over the tallest escarpment of the night, unleash a howl, the long neigh with which he’d respond to the beauty and perdition of this world: Who hadn’t seen on windless nights how cruel and murderous the silver flowers were?
He wanted to reply, no longer to Lucrécia who was calling him—quickly he’d surpassed her, and if he were to speak he’d finally have managed to reply to a venetian blind flapping in the silence of a street, to a mirror that reflects, to everything that up till now we leave without an answer.
He’d waited his whole life for the moment in which he’d finally be lost.
He stopped again. The lighthouse was scanning the dark sky. Lucrécia’s immobilized smile was passing through the clouds . . .
But he didn’t go back. He went ahead tough, a conqueror, heading toward the city that was the shelter of his strength. The closer he drew to the lights, the more he was vanquishing Lucrécia.
The next day the doctor had hardly worked, awaiting the moment in which he’d see if the woman was still waiting for him in front of his office or if she’d disappeared. But with sudden horror and sudden joy—he found her. Standing, modest, smiling with her animal patience.
Their sleepwalking strolls began anew. And when late at night they stopped upon the hill, she said:
“Fortunately everything is impossible,” and started scratching at the ground with the tip of her shoe. “Because I think I’d hurt the one I loved,” she added gently and without pride.
“What do I care how you’d hurt me,” he said, irritated.
She immediately halted her small kicks in the dirt.
Dazed, almost recoiling, she was wondering how it was possible for him to love her without knowing her, forgetting that she herself knew no more of the man than the love he was giving her.
It seemed to her pointless to talk. Because all of a sudden on the hill beside him, calm love seemed to be pointing out all things like the gesture. Ever since she started loving him she’d found simply the sign of fate she’d sought for so long, that irreplaceable substance that you barely suspected in things, the irreplaceableness of death: like the gesture, love was being reduced until reaching the irreplaceable, with love you could point out the world. She was lost.
“Let’s stay friends,” said the man who also didn’t know how to speak and who for that reason needed to be forgiven.
“Friends?” mumbled the woman in soft surprise, “but we were never friends”—she breathed with pleasure—“we’re enemies, my love, forever.”