The short story, “Cristal Partido” (Broken Crystal) by Marilia Arnaud, translated from Portuguese by Ilze Duarte.
For Valéria Rezende and Pepita Cavalcanti
It was you, wasn’t it, Belmira? I know you can’t hear me, now that you’ve gone someplace far away and there’s no point in thinking you’ll ever come back. I’m alone, I and our secret, and I don’t even know how long I’ll be able to keep it, because the note, forgive me, Bel, I think I left the damn thing at Antonio’s house, I don’t know exactly where, but in that moment of shock, I ended up dropping the envelope in the middle of all that mess and only realized I’d left it behind when I’d already made it out into the street.
Ah, Bel, if I were given the gift of turning back time, just a little while, just until yesterday, so things could happen in a different way… I should’ve taken better care of you, I know, I know quite well what a mistake it was to let you leave last night, when you seemed so hurt. I should’ve told you lots of things, don’t be silly, he doesn’t deserve your suffering and going so far away from the people who truly love you, stay, Bel, don’t despair, this will all pass, I promise it will. But I couldn’t say anything with all that emotion cutting my voice.
Today it’s late and you’re gone, you left me the note, which I actually don’t have anymore, and this longing and this pain and this fear, a fear that’s bigger than the biggest of fears, how can I explain? The terror of a nightmare. Why are we all so alone in nightmares, Bel? Only, now there’s no way I can get rid of this one, and I won’t ever wake up, because I’m not sleeping and everything I saw is real, just as I am real, as are the people who walk by me, the ground I walk on, the rain that falls, and the house I’m going back to, this time without you.
I should’ve at least walked with you to the bus station and waited for you to get on the bus. Isn’t that what people who love each other and have to part do? But it wasn’t inattention, Bel, it’s just that it was past eight o’clock and Mom was home, waiting for me so we could talk about the usual topic, you know, my lousy grades in school. What would she do when she looked around the house for me and found out you too had disappeared and taken all your belongings with you? I don’t even want to think about the fit she would throw. There—I think it was all her fault, you know? Because if I’d gone with you, nothing would’ve happened. I keep wondering what could possibly have been going on inside you last night to make you veer off your path. I wanted to know when exactly you changed your mind and instead of going straight to the bus station you decided to go see Antonio for the last time. You weren’t even angry when we said goodbye, no, just sad, very sad. I’m sure he was the one who infuriated you, and hurt you, and humiliated you, as he’d been doing lately, and you had a really bad fight, didn’t you?
Why didn’t you tell me, huh, Bel? You could’ve called and told me, like this: Ursinha, I’m so sorry, but something very bad happened and the note doesn’t make sense anymore, tear it, forget about it, forget everything, and don’t say a word to anyone. Forget it, really forget it, I couldn’t, but to betray your trust, never! Don’t you know you’re my best friend, Belmira? Not my best friend, my only friend. If you’d told me everything, you would’ve spared me a pain greater than that of losing you. You knew full well how terrified I am of blood… Remember that time I fainted when the neighbor’s dog bit a piece of the mailman’s arm off? Oh, Bel, Belzinha, why?
I’ve been walking in the rain since I left Antonio’s house. Even the sky seems to be crying for you and for him. If only the water that’s soaking my clothes could wash away what is going on inside me… You leaving, the note, the blood, everything I saw would go down the gutters into the darkness of the earth and I’d go back to being clean, without memories, saved, Bel, saved! But the rain only makes me feel more abandoned, and I get the feeling that all those who pass me by know about me, about us. It’s as though I were walking naked down the street. With each pair of eyes, a pang of discomfort, of agony.
You know what, Bel? Fear, that darned fear, dark and sticky like a worm’s belly, has tangled my legs and made me stumble around. I don’t know if I’ll even be able to get back home. A woman catches up with me and looks at me weird, then offers me her umbrella. A knife-sharpener who’s found shelter for his grinding-wheel cart under a ledge waves to someone across the street, a silver blade quavering in his hand. In my chest, drums rumble furiously.
If I’d taken a bus, as you would’ve advised me to, I would’ve escaped the water but not this misery. Every time I feel my mouth dry up and my stomach tighten, like now, someone always shows up to ask me: are you feeling ill, Úrsula? I can’t crumble, Bel, not now, when I’m about to step into my home. A little longer now, just a little. When I get home, I’ll run to my room, to my bed, and I’ll hide under the covers. Mom can’t see me like this, and if she looks into my eyes, I’m dead meat, she’ll see right away the horror I carry with me and then, God forbid, I may, and forgive me for it, Belzinha, I may tell.
I know if you were in my place and I were the one who’d written the note, you’d go back there to pick it up. I’m sorry, Bel, but I don’t have the guts. It’s all so monstrous! I think they’ll find it and it’ll be all my fault. Why did I have to leave it there if Antonio couldn’t read it anymore?
Shucks. I think I’m going to throw up. What I swallowed at breakfast at Mom’s insistence is churning inside and making me gag, pushing from my stomach to my throat and back. If you were here, you’d have me suck on ice until I felt better, with that knack all your own for convincing me of what’s best for me, right, Belzinha?
A few more blocks and I’ll be home. From my bedroom-refuge, I’ll hear Mom’s complaints, that you left us without so much as a goodbye, that ungrateful Belmira, after so many years and the kindness we’ve shown her, all we deserved was disrespect. That was what we got for being so generous with the help.
I’ll listen to it all in silence, isn’t that what we agreed? We’d made so many arrangements… Too bad they didn’t go the way you’d imagined. I did everything you asked me, Bel, but Antonio didn’t come to the door, which was only ajar, and I couldn’t even check whether he was as handsome as you’d said. I knocked twice, three times. Nothing. Is someone there? I pushed the door slowly and peeked inside, a bad feeling hammering inside me, don’t go in, Úrsula, don’t go in, but I kept going, and then I found myself in the middle of the room, the note crumpled in my sweaty hand, my heart sinking. At that moment, I trembled, thinking of how Mother and Father would react if they had an inkling of what I was doing.
You know the feeling of a forbidden thing? Of a great sin staining your heart? So, I thought of you, Bel, the hopeless look on your face, your eyes red from so many tears, although the note said you weren’t going to “cry over that goodbye,” like in that song by Evaldo Braga that you liked so much.
Inside I found the windows closed and the lights off. I assumed Antonio was asleep. You’d told me that when he didn’t have a job, he’d put off going to bed and then he’d sleep in the next morning. I didn’t know what to do, stuck in the middle of a dark and strange room, with no invitation by anyone to stay there, but I couldn’t leave without seeing him, because I’d given you my word, Bel, that the note, at whatever cost, would be delivered to Antonio, and besides what I really wanted to do was look him in the eye, shake his hand, so he wouldn’t question the trust that you’d put in me, I knew everything, everything!
I walked across the room and barely missed falling on a bunch of bottles and empty glasses strewn on the floor. I pricked up my ears, where was he hiding? At any moment he could pop in through the door, see the intruder and get all upset, call me a nosey girl, and kick me out of his home, it’d be his right to do that, darn it!
I opened one window wide and spent quite a while watching the disorder of all those things, albums, clothes, old newspapers, everything piled up on the couch. Cigarette butts, ashes, and food scraps everywhere, and on the wall, a framed portrait of the girl that wasn’t you. Ah, there she was, smiling at her beloved triumphantly, not prettier than you, my Bel, believe me! The moment I saw you, when you came to live with us, I thought to myself, that’s the most beautiful girl I know. But look, Bel, I’m not talking about that plasticized beauty of movie stars, who go to sleep and wake up without puffy eyes or messed-up hair. To me, the day you looked the most beautiful was when you dressed up as a flapper, remember? It was that carnaval when you met Antonio. You looked like an angel. Can it be, Bel? An angel in a short fringed dress, with long painted nails, mouth red with lipstick, a long cigarette holder, and a little pouch for confetti and streamers? Once you even confessed that that may’ve been the happiest day of your life. And now I wonder why life does this to people, so much happiness and hope only to end up in such senselessness, which is you without Antonio and me without you.
And so, right there in front of me, in Antonio’s living room, was a picture of the chosen one. Because of her, he’d left you. I looked away, sorrow pummeling my chest. Never, Belmira, will I be able to forget the night when he kicked you out of there and you woke me up to tell me, I’ll never forget how you plunged your fingers into your hair and pulled it, and how you bit your finger nails and laughed and cried as you told me, he’s going to marry another, Ursinha, the jerk, her portrait’s there, I’ve seen it with these very eyes, it’s hanging there on the living room wall for all to see, a girl from a nice family, just a little older than you, can you believe it? She’s gone to school, she knows things. He got tired of the maid, that wretch!
Oh, Bel, so much suffering! And you, of all people. A girl who’s all kindness. So much loveliness only to end up the way it did. I remember the day I asked you if love ever died, and you laughed as you answered, certain that yours was everlasting, when crystal breaks, it’s because it wasn’t real crystal to start with. When I think of the things you told me about the nights you spent together, the kisses, the promises, the plans for the future, and the love! Ah, Bel, the love! You told me: when we make love, Ursinha, I think I’m going to die. And you didn’t have to explain anything, because the expression make love echoed in my ears, lingered for hours in my imagination, stoked a fire in my blood. And so, Bel, when I think of all this, of what you had and lost, then I understand how come love can turn into a dark night, into a ferocious beast, tormenting and devouring people, as it did you.
Do you know when I knew that you’d been there? When I saw on the record player the Evaldo Braga album that you were holding when you said goodbye to me last night. I saw the dedication on the cover, which I found behind the speaker, the dedication seen so many times before, To my darling Pomegranate, from your beloved, always, Antonio. Why Pomegranate, huh, Bel? You never answered that question, and even now I’d still like to know.
I thought at that moment, imagine that, that the two of you might’ve made up and fallen asleep together. That’s when I decided to take a peek in the bedroom. The door was ajar. In the dark, it took me a while to spot Antonio, lying on the floor by the bed, shirtless, his arms straight down the sides of his body, as if asleep. On his chest, a medallion of Our Lady of Perpetual Succor that you yourself had bought to protect his body, protect him from all evil. I smelled something funny and thought it was booze. Maybe he’d got drunk because you’d left and had rolled out of bed after listening to the same song over and over, I won’t cry over your goodbye…
I got down on my knees and crawled toward him. Then, I saw, Bel, the knife stuck in Antonio’s neck and the pool of blood around his body, so dark and curdled that it looked like chocolate sauce. I hid my face in my hands, but he remained there, so close that if he’d been alive, he could’ve touched my shoulder and pulled me in for a hug. I tried to move, but all I could do was start to moan, paralyzed with fear. What if I faltered and ended up falling on top of him, of all that blood? I don’t know how I could breathe, Bel, I’d never seen a corpse up close, let alone a corpse like that, in such a pitiful state of abandonment, poor guy, without a coffin, a candle, someone to cry or pray for him.
How I managed to get out of there, I can’t say. All I know is that I started backing up with my eyes closed, I didn’t want to see him again, ever again, and I ended up bumping into a wall, frozen in terror, Holy Virgin, help me, I repeated softly, very softly, as if my prayer could awaken Antonio, or rather, resurrect him. My heart ached as if bathed in a blood stream of ground crystal, and my legs shook so much that it’s hard to believe I was able to walk out of bedroom and then out of the house, without anyone’s help.
Now, I’m walking into my home and you’re not here to hold my hand and tell me that you didn’t do that, that you didn’t kill him, because that’s what I’d like to believe, Bel. If you were capable of it, then I need to start unlearning everything you taught me about love between people and think from now on that love is not that beautiful or that generous, that love is hatred too and that when one turns into night, the other takes over everything.