translated from Portuguese by Alexis Levitin
The North Sea, green and grey, surrounded the island of Vig, and spume swept its dark rocks. On this early afternoon, there was a constant coming and going of marine birds, the surge slowly grew, clouds pushed by the south wind thickened, and Hans could see that a storm was gathering. But he was not afraid of the storm and, his clothes billowing with the wind, he walked to the end of the promontory.
The flight of the seagulls was growing more and more restless and anxious, the force and the tumult more and more violent, and far off distances were turning dark. The storm, like a good orchestra, was tuning up.
Hans was focusing his spirit for the swelling exaltation of the great song of the sea. Everything inside him was alert, as when he listened to the organ’s song in the Lutheran church, that austere, solemn, passionate, icy cold church.
To resist the wind, he stretched himself out at the edge of the cliff. From there he watched the swelling of the waves right before him, thickening as if the waters were growing heavier.
Now the seagulls were returning to the land. Only the petrels continued their sharp flight, grazing the waves. To the right, tall transparent blades of grass, bent by the wind, stretched their thin stems along the ground. Dark clouds were gathering in enormous curling locks and, beneath a strange light, simultaneously somber and sparkling, space was transfigured. Suddenly, it began to rain.
Hans’ family lived in the interior of the island. There, one could hear the roar of the sea through the distant forest only on stormy days.
But he came often to the tiny coastal village and, slipping through the narrow streets, he would walk the length of the docks, alongside fishing barks and sailboats, cross the beach and climb up to the end of the promontory. There, in the breathing of the waves, he could hear the indistinguishable breath of his own passion.
That day, returning home at nightfall, Hans bent his head as he entered. For at the age of fourteen he already was almost as tall as a man and, in Vig, the doorways were low.
That’s how they had been since war-like olden times, when invaders who occupied the island entered the houses heads erect, but forced the people of the island to bow down before them. So, the men of Vig lowered the lintels of their doors, obliging the conquerors to lower their heads, as well.
Sören, Hans’ father, was a tall, thin man, with eyes the color of blue porcelain, clear-cut features, and lovely sensitive hands that, later on, for generations, his descendants would inherit. In him, as in the Lutheran church, there was something austere and solemn, impassioned and cold. Upon his house and his family he impressed an unspoken law of silence and reserve from which the spirit of each of them gathered its strength. In a certain way, Sören knew the risk he was running: he knew it was in silence that one could hear the tumult, that in silence the challenge gathers force. But he imposed upon himself and the others a discipline of responsibility and of choice, within which each of them remained fearfully free. There was, however, something taciturn and anxious in Sören: perhaps he believed that human integrity, even the most perfect, could do nothing against destiny. From duties fulfilled, from shouldered freedom, he expected neither prosperity nor peace.
His younger brothers—Gustav and Niels—had died in the wreck of the sailing vessel they all owned. Sören knew that the boat was a good boat, whose every cable and every plank he had inspected meticulously, he knew that his younger brothers were perfect seafaring men and that the captain to whom they entrusted it all was skilled and highly competent. Nonetheless, the ship went down when experience and reckoning did not correctly gauge the force and proximity of an approaching storm.
No sooner was news of the shipwreck confirmed by the British freighter that two days later encountered the scattered remains of the demolished ship– the broken mast, the buoys, the overturned hull—than Sören sold his remaining boats and bought land in the interior of the island. They said he never again even looked at the sea. They said that on that day he even had tried to flog the sea.
Nonetheless, Hans yearned after and, during the long winter nights, tried to hear, when the wind blew from the south, among the whispering of the firs, the distant, guessed at murmur of breaking waves. Laden with imaginings, he wanted to become, like his uncles and grandfathers, a sailor. Not just to navigate among the islands and the coast of the North, following schools of fish through the cold waves. He wanted to sail to the South. He imagined the vast solitude of the ocean, the solemn rising of promontories, beaches where palm trees swayed and where the breath of the desert reached the sea. He imagined islands of blue coral like the blue eyes of the sea. He imagined the tumult, the heat, the smell of cinnamon and oranges in southern climes.
He wanted to be one of those men who live aboard their ship intimate with wonder and with terror, one of those men with a swaying gait, with a face burned by a thousand suns, clothes faded and stiff with salt, body straight as a mast, shoulders broad from rowing and a chest rounded with the breath of tempests. One of those men whose absence led to dreams and whose return, the moment their ship was glimpsed in the distance, made the women and children of Vig rush to the docks, and whose stories were repeated, passed on mouth to mouth, from generation to generation, as if each speaker had lived it themselves.
Sören and Maria were eating dinner with their children, Hans and Cristina, gathered round the luminous circle of the oil lamp. Outside the wooden shutters were banging, through the forest heaved the rumbling sea sounds of the storm. Among the pine needles and the branches of the birches there was a stir of echoes, whispers, cries and, against the low sky of clouds, resounded the distant tumult of the breaking waves.
“Sören, what news did you hear today in the village?” asked Maria.
“Bad news. The Elsinore should have crossed the bar by mid-afternoon, but at sunset it still had not been sighted. They will have to ride out the storm and the night at sea.”
“It is a good ship,” said Hans, who knew every inch of the Elsinore. “It is a ship that can handle a rough sea.”
“May God protect them,” murmured Maria.
For the Elsinore was the best ship from Vig and its crew was made up of people from the island, young men she had known in their cradles, or old sea-wolves who had known her since her own childhood.
However, that night, while Hans was asleep, the Elsinore broke apart on the dark rocks of the cliffs.
No one was saved. The wind scattered their cries in the clamor of the savage darkness, the strength of their strokes was defeated by the swirling waters, and the sea covered their mouths. Even those who climbed the masts were not saved, nor those who took to the lifeboats, nor those who swam toward land. The sea smashed to bits the hull, the masts, the lifeboats, and the sailors were tossed about between the rocks and the sea.
That was the news the housemaids brought back from the market in the morning.
That day, at night, after dinner, when his wife and daughter arose from the table, Sören remained seated and said to Hans:
Hans leaned against the great carved cupboard, beyond the circle of light cast by the lamp, half hidden in the shadows. Outside the storm continued and the heavy wind shook the closed doors.
“Sit down,” Sören commanded.
Hans, stepping forward, entering the circle of light, sat down opposite Sören, and stared at the whiteness of the tablecloth.
When the wind diminished, they heard the tinkling of dishes from further inside the house.
A moment passed, as heavy as a long stretch of time. Finally, Sören spoke:
“Today I wrote to Copenhagen. At the end of the summer you will go there to study. Decide what you want to study.”
“I want to be a sailor,” answered Hans.
“No. Choose something else. You can study law or medicine or engineering.”
“I want to be the captain of a ship.”
Sören placed his hands upon the table under the sharp white light of the lamp. Hans noticed once again how beautiful they were, beautiful and rich with control in their austere and contained passion. Nonetheless, at that moment, they were trembling a bit and Sören was squeezing them together as he spoke.
“Listen,” he said. “This morning I went down to where the ship was wrecked at North Cape. I went along with Knud, who was searching for the bodies of his two sons. The sea had already tossed many bodies up on the beach. But they were all completely disfigured from having been beaten against the rocky cliffs. The beach was filled with people. They all were looking for their dead. Knud could only recognize his sons by the silver rings each one wore on the third finger of his right hand. He said: “Cursed be the sea!” You will not be a sailor, Hans. Choose some other kind of work. I don’t want to curse the world into which I was born nor accuse God who created me. Change your mind. Promise me you will never be a man of the sea. Give me your word.”
Hans stared at the tablecloth. Slowly, in a low voice, he answered:
Sören squeezed his hands together, got up in silence and left without closing the door. Beneath his steps one could hear the creaking of the wooden stairs. Then, from inside the house, came the tinkling of dishes and a woman’s laughter.
Hans stood in the dim light, leaning against the carved wooden cupboard.
Outside all the harps of the wind were resounding.
In August, a British cargo ship called the Angus came to Vig from Norway, then continued on its way south. The captain was a man with a red beard and a frightening aspect who had sailed as far as the China Seas. It was on the Angus that Hans fled Vig, signing on as a cabin-boy.
At first, they had good weather, and they ran full before the wind. Swaying with the ship, Hans, washing the deck, polishing the fittings or coiling cables, inhaled the vehemence of that vast maritime breath. His ears heard the living force of the ship as, mounting the waves, it would find again its balance upon the swaying sea.
Then they passed through the storms of the Bay of Biscay. There the waves were thirty feet high and the water grew thick and brutal in its metallic greyness. All the planks groaned, as if they were being torn apart, and one could feel the tension in the strain of the rigging. The waves swept the deck, and the ship, now riding the crest of a wave, now plunging heavily downwards, seemed at any moment to be on the verge of breaking apart. But Hans felt the elasticity of the vessel, its precision from stem to stern, and the balance that, from wave to counter wave, never faltered. And later none of Hans’s ships ever sank.
Sailing along the shore, they headed south and, late one afternoon, beneath an arc of seagulls, they penetrated through the narrows of a turbid, greenish river floating with images between its carved-out banks. To the left, climbing steeply, there arose a cluster of houses, white, yellow and green, intermingled with dark trimmings of granite.
In the red light of sunset, the city seemed laden with memories, unfathomably ancient, fairy-like and magnetic, with all its windows glistening. It was animated by an indistinct vehemence that here and there blossomed forth in echoes, murmurings, the gliding by of shadows, distant, lost cries, the reflection of lights upon the river.
From the very first moment, Hans loved the hoarse breath of the city, its intense and somber hues, its rustling, thick foliage, the scattered green of the river. Along the road running beside its banks one could see decorated red oxen, pulling wooden carts that creaking beneath the weight of barrels, stones, and sand.
The ship remained a good number of days at the dock, loading and unloading. On the eve of departure, there was a violent altercation between Hans and the Captain.
Hans was standing on the dock, dressed in a polar bear skin he had found in the hold. In the center of a circle of sailors, clapping hands to keep time, he was dancing and laughing, shaking a tambourine. People were gathering round. As if in a traveling circus, a cabin boy pulled off his cap and held it out to the spectators, who began to throw him money. And the afternoon was flowing away with the river.
It was this scene that the captain saw when, all of a sudden, he burst forth on the deck. His red beard was glistening with rage. Hans, alone, in the middle of the empty circle, confronted the furious face staring at him with a calm smile. There was a heavy silence.
“Take it off,” yelled the captain. “This isn’t a circus.”
Hans, slowly, with a petulant smile, took the bearskin off and held it out to the other cabin boy, saying:
“Take it, my page, here is my mantle.”
And the bearskin, with no arm reaching out to receive it, fell softly to the ground.
“This is not a theater,” said the captain, staring Hans in the face.
Hans endured the gaze and his smile turned hard and stubborn.
“Take the skin,” ordered the captain. “And go on board, you and the others, everyone on board.”
In the hold, the captain flogged Hans in front of the silent men.
In the end, he said:
“That will put some sense in you.”
But that dawn, in secret, Hans abandoned ship.
He wandered without direction through the unknown city, lost in the sound of alien words, lost in the difference of the sounds, the light, the faces and the smells, carrying his small bag, seeking out the dark side of every street. Through wrought-iron gratings painted green, he caught a glimpse of the rustling interiors of unfathomable gardens, where, beneath towering masses of foliage, tremulous jonquils were just opening. He paused before the jewelers to look in the windows, and at the doors of wine cellars he breathed in the dark freshness and the smell of spilled wine. He walked beside the river, along the bank where women, barefoot, carried baskets filled with sand, while others, in clusters, bickered, slicing the smooth air of morning with great cries and broad gestures. He entered churches lined with tiles and carvings which were not clear and cold like the churches of his own country, but golden and somber, with a trembling penumbra of candles, where obscurity and splendor gave life to the faces of images which, with an uncertain smile, seemed to recognize him. He slept on the steps of stairways, beneath the arches of the square, and on benches in the public gardens, and the nights seemed to him both warm and transparent.
Thus, it is said, he wandered for four days, drunk with discovery, with astonishment and solitude. But on the fifth day his spirit was broken. The foreign language closed in a circle around him. Suddenly, he recognized his exile, his weakness. It was at this point that an Englishman named Hoyle who lived beside the river found him in tears, leaning against the wall of his estate and, slapping him on the shoulder, led him inside and gave him shelter.
Hoyle was a shipowner involved in transporting wine to countries in the North. He had been living in that city for thirty years, but always as a foreigner, without ever learning decently the language of the land or getting used to local food. He only got used to the climate and the wines. Beyond his relations with his employees, servants, and a few businessmen, he had little contact with the local people. His relations and friendships were only with other Englishmen, he only read English newspapers, and he only ate English food with English mustard, in his house furnished with English tables, chairs, wardrobes, beds, and engravings, and where there always hovered a pharmaceutical English smell.
Hans ended up living in that house, partly as an employee, partly as an adopted son.
His adolescence grew among the docks, the warehouses, and the ships; in conversations with sailors, deck hands, and businessmen. Of boats he knew everything from the hold to the top of the highest mast. And, whether on board or on land, whether bent over maps and calculations on his desk at school or diving into stories of voyages, studying, dreaming, and practicing, he was preparing himself to fulfill his project: to return to Vig as captain of a ship, to be forgiven by his father and welcomed back into his home.
Two days after having given shelter to Hans, Hoyle brought him to the center of the city and bought him the clothes he needed as well as paper and pen.
Hans wrote home: he begged forgiveness for his flight, gave his reasons, told of his adventures, and his whereabouts. He promised one day to return to Vig and become the captain of a great sailing vessel.
The answer came only after several months. It was a letter from his mother. He read:
“May God forgive you, Hans, for you have left us wounded and abandoned. Your father orders me to tell you not to return to Vig, for he will refuse to see you.”
After this letter, Hans dreamed often of Vig. He was awakened at night by the roar of storms, leaving him shipwrecked within sight of the island, but unable to reach it. Or he was gliding along beside his father, on a large frozen lake, close to a crystal light and there was all around him an infinite silence, an infinite transparency, a lightness and a happiness without name. But other nights he awoke sobbing and in tears, for his father was the captain of a ship and was whipping him brutally on the deck and he would flee and once again find himself alone and lost in a foreign city.
The years passed and Hans learned the art of navigation and the art of commerce.
Hoyle had never married and, in a land that remained foreign to him, had no family, and his few friendships were less than intimate. In the runaway teenager, he saw now a reflection of his own adventurous youth that, long ago, had anchored him to that city. For him, Hans was his second chance, his destiny offered him once again, the one who would live for him his true life, the one that he, Hoyle, had already lost, as if destiny, having failed in its plans, were to make, with a new youth, a new attempt. Thus, Hans was for him not the heir to what he owned, but rather would become the heir to what he had lost. That is why he followed step by step the studies and the apprenticeship of the young man, overseeing the quality of instruction he received in the schools where he had enrolled him and watching over the competence of the superiors aboard ship under whose orders he placed him. At the age of twenty-one, Hans was already captain of one of Hoyle’s vessels and a trusted partner in his commercial dealings.
Thus, from a young age, Hans had come to know the islands of the Atlantic, the coasts of Africa and Brazil, and the seas of China. He set the sails and he directed others in the setting of the sails, he unloaded freight himself and he oversaw the loading and unloading of merchandise.
He breathed in the heave of storms and the blue immensity of calms. He walked along great white beaches where palm trees swayed, rounded promontories and wild coastlines, lost himself in the alleys of unknown cities, traded goods in ports and across borders.
Dripping sea water, stretched out on the beach, at a distance from his companions, he would place over his ears two big white conch shells, pinkish, semi-transparent, and would think: “One day I will take these conch shells back to Vig.” And at night, back on board, he would write a long letter home telling about the conches of India.
Leaning against the rail of the ship on a calm, moonlit night, with his eyes fixed on the great magnetic eye of the moon, whose trembling path of brightness cut like the back of a fish through the ecstatic darkness of the waters, he would think: “One day I will speak of this brilliance back in Vig, this transparent darkness, this silence.” The next day he would write home, telling of the night, the sea, the moonlight.
In a distant port, seated at his meal on the veranda of his rooming house, beneath the light of colored lanterns, bedazzled with the beauty of the porcelain, with its blue designs and white glaze, and discovering the wise flavor of exotic seasonings, he would think: “I will bring to Vig this porcelain and these spices to enliven and give warmth to our winter meals.” And, the following day, he would write home telling of the blue of the china, the beauty of the silks and fans, and the wonder of the seasoning.
But when, after many months, he would return from his journey and Hoyle would hand over the mail that had accumulated in his absence, the letters from his mother, responding to the news he had sent from the ends of the earth, there was always the same message: “May God protect you and give you health. But don’t come back to Vig, for your father will not receive you.”
When first youth had already passed, one day, coming back from one of his voyages, Hans found the Englishman in ill health. His disease had attacked his eyes and blindness was advancing rapidly.
“Hans,” he said, “I am old and growing blind, I can no longer carry on with my boats, my warehouses, my trade. Stay here with me.”
Hans stayed. He ceased to be Hoyle’s employee and became his partner. Seated behind the heavy oak table, he received the businessmen, the warehouse bosses, the captains of the ships. His nostrils quivered when men come directly from ships entered the office. For the smell of the sea came with them. Renunciation had hardened their muscles. At night he would recount for Hoyle his conversations and his decisions. Then they would drink a glass of wine together.
Life had taken a new turn for Hans. No longer those long voyages to the ends of the earth, the adventurous advance along luxuriant or desert coastlines, from peoples to peoples, from bay to bay. Now he was in charge of order in the warehouses, good conditions onboard the ships, the soundness of equipment, while overseeing the loading and unloading of cargo and discussing trade deals and contracts. His journeys were growing shorter and less frequent.
And Hans understood that, as with all lives, his life would no longer be his own life, something impatient and latent in himself, but a mixture of meetings and missed encounters, of wishes fulfilled and hopes that were dashed, in other words, strictly speaking, everything was possible. And he understood that his great victories would be those he had not wished for, which, for that very reason, would not be victories, after all.
He wrote to his father. He told him he was no longer a sailor in the midst of waves and wind. That he was an established man, on solid earth, and that he wanted to come back to Vig. It was his mother who answered his letter, saying that his father would not receive him.
In association with the Englishman, Hans began to build a fortune he never had imagined. He was a skillful businessman because he was aware of the nature of things and the nature of people and he negotiated without passion. Wealth was neither his ambition, nor his adventure nor his game, and nothing of his true self was involved. He grew rich because his perceptions and his calculations were accurate.
Sometime later he married the daughter of a liberal general who disembarked in Mindelo and whose sword, as time passed, descending from legacy to legacy, remained in the family.
He chose Ana because she had a round and rosy face and smelled of apples like the first woman ever created and like the house in which he had been born, and because her blond Minho hair reminded him of the tresses of the women of Vig.
A short time after his marriage, Hoyle died and Hans established his own company, whose prosperity grew. Now he was a rich man, listened to and respected. He was famous for his honesty and his word was golden.
He seemed entirely integrated into the city where, practically a child still, he had once wandered about, an outsider and lost. He got to know, one by one, the eminent men of the town: he himself was now one of those eminent men of the town. He loved the river, the granite of the houses and sidewalks, the enormous linden trees billowing with the breeze, the camellias with their polished leaves that blossomed from November till May.
And it was at the time of the last camellias (red, heavy and broad) that his first son was born. They had decided that the child would be baptized on its seventh day and that, after the baptism, Hans first new ship would be launched.
Everything was readied for the festivities when, at dawn on the sixth day, the newborn grew ill. He was baptized in a rush, receiving the name Sören. It was Hans who, bending over, placed the little body lying in his open hands into its coffin.
But he didn’t allow the launching of the ship to be delayed, and the next day he went on foot from the cemetery to the docks.
On that morning in May, the trees were filled with new leaves, and far off, on the other side of the river, the bright light was shining on the breaking waves at the beach and the waves shook their manes like happy horses and the seagulls traced great festive arcs in the skies.
As the ship began to slide down the skids, Hans said:
“Go, Sören, may God protect you and guide you over all the seas.”
His second son was born at the time of the first camellias, in November. He was a large, robust boy and when he began to walk, Hans once again wrote to Vig. And once again it was his mother who answered, saying his father would not receive him.
The years went by and Hans’ wealth continued to grow. Five more children were born, three boys and two girls. The number of his ships also grew, along with a broadening of his business concerns.
And once again his journeys increased. But these were no longer the adventurous voyages of his youth: they were the trips of a businessman studying markets, opening branch offices, considering contracts and contacts. However, when he was on board, at night, alone on the poop deck, gazing at the wake of white foam, breathing in the salty wind, or when in his bunk he would feel the beating of the waves against the hull, at times, suddenly, he would rediscover the voice, the language of his destiny. But it was only the ghost of his destiny. In truth, he no longer was who he had been and was in fact stuck fast in his own life. He was no longer the sailor who on board ship and at sea was at home, but just a traveler who for a time had left behind his own house to which he would soon return. It no longer was as if the ship were his own body, as if the emergence of new lands were his own soul, his own face, as if his very being were indistinguishable from the waters of the sea.
His long ago flight from Vig, in a way, had been useless. Not even treason had given him his destiny.
And so, between business and nostalgia, journeys and undertakings, the years went by. And yet, it seemed to Hans that somewhere in his life, even though it was so late, there was still hope, an open space, possibility.
When his mother died, he wrote once again to his father. But from his father there came no reply, and it was then that Hans understood that he would never return to Vig.
A few months later he bought a property that dropped down from high on a hill to the docks at the mouth of the river.
One entered the farm from the side facing the fields, through an iron gate that, after one passed through, swung shut with a heavy clang.
Before one, arose the house, enormous, beyond measure, with high windows, broad doors and a wide stairway of granite, opening like a fan. In the back, there was a long veranda looking down on the garden of roses facing the setting sun.
Hans had major work done on the house. From Bohemia came fancy crystal glass paneling for the doors, translucent and frosted, engraved with his initials, and there came glasses, vases, jars, plates and desert cups whose transparency shone and glistened during lunches and dinners. From Germany, from France, from Italy came silks and velvets for curtains, and furniture in the latest fashion and much wine from wine cellars, wine from the Rhineland and the Mossel and red Burgundy wine, and wine from Champagne and wine from Italy, all lined up according to place of origin, beside the wines of the Douro and of Madeira. Much later, in those half-empty cellars filled with spider webs and fears, Hans’ grand- children, hidden from governess and servants, wandered about in dreamy explorations.
At that time new things were constantly arriving: the enormous billiard table with its ivory balls of red and white, to which all the champions of the region would come to compete, the grand piano, which talented girls as well as true pianists would come to play, mirrors tarnished green, lacquered boxes with mother-of-pearl chips, paintings of romantic realism depicting fields, villages, bridges and sleepy peasants dressed in Calabrian fashion. Chandeliers, too, were arriving, busts, statues and a huge globe on which his children and grandchildren pondered their geography. But the greatest marvel for the children was a tall, rectangular box into which one gazed through two eye pieces. Inside one could see, in colors and in three dimensions, scenes from operas and ballets. One could turn a button and the scenes would change. And for hours the children would peer in, since for them the stereoscope was a window opening on to the garden of another world, a world where princesses, hunters, pages and ballerinas lived their mysterious dramas, a world as real and inaccessible as the true destiny of each of us.
Everything in the house was immense, from the bedrooms where the children rode their bicycles to the enormous hall on to which all the rooms opened and where, as Hans would say, one could mount the skeleton of the whale that for years had remained packed in various containers in the basement of the Faculty of Sciences, since there was no space there where it would all fit together.
Now that the children were grown, Hans enjoyed lengthy dinners. Besides family, there were always friends and guests, many of them passing through, ship captains, businessmen, musicians coming from concerts down in the city. Hans needed variety in his companions, in conversations that brought him an echo from other lands and lives. And he enjoyed the animation of voices, the abundance and good quality of different foods, the excellence of the wines, the freshness and beauty of the roses, the glistening of the plates and the tinkling of glasses and utensils.
In the meantime, as life went through its cycles, engagements, marriages, births, baptisms would fill the house with a whirl of festivities and celebrations, animating and giving drama to the days, rearranging the relations between people, as in a kaleidoscope, where, with a click, the relations between figures are realigned.
The children were grown. The four seasons continued their turning.
And, all of a sudden, Hans no longer recognized time. Like someone who, distracted, allows the hour to pass in which he was supposed to appear in a certain garden and is shocked to notice that it is now so late, that was the shock he now felt as if he had not recognized the days as they passed, as if through carelessness, he had allowed the years to pass without participating in his own life. And he didn’t know exactly how so much time had been lost, entangled in habits, in daily doings and delays, without him ever rising, looming at the prow of a ship, with Vig there on the horizon. Something owed to him was missing.
And now he would go to bed late. When the guests had left and the house had gone to sleep, he would remain alone in the great hall, seated at the round table where the monthly magazines and the weekly newspapers were piled up. He would flip through The Times, look at the quotations from the London stock market, plan and ponder his own enterprises. He would think of his wife, his children who were now grown, and who, in growing up had defined themselves, while he, attentively, searched for similarities in them—echoes of memories, shadows of faces, loved and lost. Then his thoughts would wander, and he would be moving forward at the prow of a great ship, land in sight, stretches of deserted beaches. The smells of Africa filled his breast. He saw forests, estuaries, heard the creaking of the masts. Various memories would burst forth: beneath the vast Atlantic night he would be lying down on the deck with the gleaming of the stars upon his face, listening to the beating of the sea against the ship and the beating of the billowing sails, and across his body breezes and salt-laden trade winds would flow, and softly he would penetrate to the interior of the universe and the night. He was seated on a low wall facing the dock in a Chinese port where junks and sailing barges crossed each other’s paths, adorned with vivid colors, filled with voices, lights, and music: and the colors and the lights were reflected sliding over the waters and the voices and the music floated in the nighttime air, both heavy and light. And in a souk in Morocco a boy seated on the ground inhaled a rose. He could still sense the freshness of milk and the sweetness of dates offered him when he first arrived and how then he discovered a luxury that wasn’t the heavy richness of Europe, but rather the silence and murmurs of the water and the ceremony of voices, of words, and of gestures. In the corner of the empty hall, he sat vaguely pondering, not even knowing what he was pondering, bent over paperwork, bills, and English newspapers. But suddenly he quivered and passed beyond his own daydreaming: the memory of Vig rose to the surface of the sea. Sea mist invaded his breath. From the horizon, ships were sailing towards the island. Huge concave billowing sails, black hulls cutting through the cold waters. Rough voices on the docks, straining cables, hawsers, the bustle of coming alongside and mooring, the caress of water on the rocks, the coming and going of smaller boats. Unloading, pulleys, maneuvers, orders. And one by one, in a nimbus of distance and salt, burned by the wind and the sun, tall men with broad shoulders left their ships in the cold afternoon and, within a few hours, from mouth to mouth, from house to house, ran news of their catch, of storms they had weathered, of long hauls endured, of dangers, fears, and marvels they had encountered. And from then on their story would be told beside the hearth during long winter evenings and, pondered by children, dreamt over by adolescents, they would enter the large mythic space that is the soul of life. But of him, Hans, a prosperous bourgeois, competent businessman, who had neither been lost in a storm nor returned home to the wharf, no one would ever tell a story, nor from generation to generation would his saga be sung.
He closed his account books, folded his newspapers, slowly got to his feet and walked through his house like a stranger. Empty mirrors glistened in the dim light. Through them passed a heavy image of himself, unrecognizable.
Meanwhile, around the house with the passing years the gardens and the orchards flourished. The white cherries and the camellias from his estate became famous. In his white cherries there was a slight taste of almonds, a light bitterness cutting through the juicy sweetness of the pulp. In November the first camelias blossomed, rose-colored, pale and transparent, standing firm and erect on their stems. The trunks would leave a dark powder on one’s fingers, which the children would clean off on their smocks.
And to the rhythm of the four seasons, the years kept passing by and, like the linden trees and the orchards, the new generation of children grew up.
At the back of his land, facing the harbor, Hans ordered a tower to be built. According to him it was to watch the arrival and departure of his ships.
From that time on, now and then in the afternoon, instead of working in his office, he would work in a room in the tower, where he would receive his employees and people who were looking for him. He managed, once in a while, to bring Joana, his oldest grandchild, who found the tower a place of great adventure and mystery, and to whom he taught the names and the history of the various ships.
Later, when he wanted to work, he would give his granddaughter paper and pencil so she could draw, while he leaned over his contracts, letters, books, accounts.
But Joana didn’t draw much. She would lift her head and stare intently at Hans, for something in his face fascinated and disturbed her. And she noticed that he, too, was not really working: beyond the harbor, beyond the breaking of the waves, his eyes gazed at the blue greens of the distant sea.
“Grandpa,” said Joana, “why are you always looking out at the sea?”
“Ah,” Hans answered. “Because the sea is the way to my home.”
And the years began to pass rapidly. And a certain unreality began to grow.
Hans traveled no more. He was old, like a ship that no longer put to sea, but plank by plank was being dismantled. His hands trembled somewhat, the blue of his eyes had faded, deep furrows creased his brow, his hair and his side whiskers were completely white. But he was a powerful and frightening old man, tall and straight, with a heavy tread, authoritarian in the orders he gave and always a bit impatient and taciturn.
It was towards the end of November that his final illness came. The white camelias were blossoming, lightly pink, soft, transparent. They brought some to his room, gathered from beside the rose garden.
In that time before x-rays, one died at home in the old-fashioned way, of a poorly diagnosed ailment, surrounded by one’s wife, one’s children, one’s old servants and doctors and nurses. The uncertainty of the diagnosis was, in a way, a blessing. Almost to the end everyone expected that the robust old man would shake off his illness.
For six days, Hans, serene and conscious, seemed to be resisting. But on the seventh day, his fever rose, his respiration grew difficult, and something in his attention had changed. In the room the atmosphere grew to one of whispers, with shaded lights and silent gestures, as if each person were afraid of breaking a thread.
At nightfall, Hans, who for many hours had seemed half-asleep, opened his eyes and called out.
His wife and his children leaned over him in order to hear better.
“When I die,” Hans said, “have them erect a ship on my grave.”
“A ship?” murmured the oldest son.” “What kind of a ship?”
“A wrecked ship,” said Hans. And, until his death he never spoke again.
Maybe Hans was already delirious when he said those last words, they thought. Nonetheless, they honored his request.
Hans was buried on the south side of the cemetery, on land reserved for Protestants. From there one could see the river, the harbor, and, along the avenues, the plane trees rustling their leaves in the autumn air.
In stone and bronze, with broken masts and tattered sails, the ship was built over Hans’ grave. This strange sepulcher which, among engravings, busts, stone angels, flower beds, and pious crosses had something violent and savage about it, quickly became one of the most famous monuments in the city and people came from miles around to see it.
Its enormous shadow made those who passed down the avenue of plane trees alone uneasy and many asked the reason for that strange sepulcher. In any case, it is in that ship, on stormy nights, that Hans crosses the bar and sails north towards Vig, his island home.
Portuguese poet Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen (1919-2004) is the author of thirteen books of poetry including O nome das coisas (The Name of Things), Geografia (Geography), and Ilhas (Islands). In addition to poetry, she wrote collections of short stories, essays, plays, and children’s books. She was awarded the Camões Prize, the most prestigious award for poetry in Portugal; the Max Jacob Poetry Prize; the Portuguese PEN Club Prize for Poetry; and the Queen Sofia Prize for Ibero-American Poetry, among other honors. In 1974 she was elected Member of Parliament by the Socialist Party. She died in 2004 in Lisbon. She was awarded National Pantheon Honors posthumously in 2014.
Alexis Levitin has published forty-seven books in translation, mostly poetry from Portugal, Brazil, and Ecuador. His work includes Clarice Lispector’s Soulstorm and Eugénio de Andrade’s Forbidden Words. He has published translations of poetry by Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen in well over forty magazines such as Translation, Chelsea, Boulevard, and Prairie Schooner, as well as a collection of stories, Exemplary Tales. He has served as a Fulbright Lecturer at the Universities of Oporto and Coimbra, Portugal; the Catholic University in Guayaquil, Ecuador; and the Federal University of Santa Catarina in Brazil. He has held translation residencies at the Banff Center, Canada; the European Translators Collegium in Straelen, Germany; and the Rockefeller Foundation Study Center in Bellagio, Italy.
EXPLORE TLR: HAWKS DO NOT SHARE, THE HEMINGWAY ISSUE