In the immediate aftermath of our mother’s death, we weren’t allowed to laugh, run, watch television or even eat here in the house. We were obliged, by the omnipresent sorrow of father
who never left his room, his bed, the pillows he drenched until he fell asleep in his lake of tears
to suffer in a state of penitence, cilice about the waist, until all of us, all at the same time, became very thin and sickly-looking, and were incapable of doing our schoolwork because our brains, desperate for fuel, began to deal only with those functions essential for life, which is not quite the case with education.
When my thirteen-year-old brother fainted in the schoolyard, someone on the governing board correctly decided it was time to intervene in a mourning process that threatened, through its prolongation, to multiply and produce more victims. The physics teacher and the religion and morals teacher came here to the house and father got out of bed with great difficulty and met them at the door
his first reaction was to point a finger and send them on their way, I’ve no wish to see anyone, he whispered from behind the pillow that protected him from the pale light of the gas lamp, –
dishevelled and dirty, eyelids drooping like a weightlifter stuck halfway through a thrust, holding on to his pyjama bottoms to prevent them from falling down, so scrawny had he become, and his voice
father had a voice that made me tingle with joy inside, as did the whiff of beer on his breath when he gave me my goodnight kiss and the smell of cigarettes on his fingertips when he squeezed my cheeks, flattening out the creases of the smile on my face
struggled weakly up the olympic ascent of the trachea, which for several days had been employed solely in bringing forth saliva to provide an offbeat accompaniment to the continuous roll of tears: what do you want?
And so they explained the concern that had spread through the school and said that, as school spokesmen, they too were worried, because four children without proper adult care could easily end up needing and
heavens above, neither I nor Professor Vítor wish to alarm you out of the blue, but,
quite conceivably, they might consider only the criminal underworld of drugs and gratuitous violence, with its illusory rewards of riches and happiness, able to provide them with what the family home had failed even to identify as a need, and which school, with the limited range of its influence, cannot hope to combat, only remedy through charity, you see, Senhor Fontes, the dual root of the problem, said the physics teacher, delivering the rest of his argument in a manner appropriate to a man who feeds on and belches out algorithms, and who turns the everyday world into something approaching a rally-paper, to be completed with Kantian punctuality.
Father, having stopped listening to them or affording them the least importance, stared at the house as if through a telescopic lens, and he saw that in his absence it had quickly become a wreck, a wreck occupied by pre-pubescent adolescents and toddlers barely out of nappies and off their mother’s breast, and in a moment of domestic epiphany, he thanked God we were still all alive, blamed himself for letting us descend to such levels of degradation and realized he could no longer just lie there hoping the death cart would pass by again soon, or even turn around and bring mother back, pale at first but then he’d cover her with warm kisses and nurse her just as he had done, unremittingly, until they took her from his arms so the earth might receive her.
I’ll deal with it, father said interrupting them, I’ll deal with it, thank you for coming, and as each syllable left his mouth, in the melody of someone newly recovered from a stroke, he closed the door a little further on the two teachers who, from the other side of the door, said their last thank yous and take cares, washing their hands of a task that had undoubtedly been unpleasant for both of them.
Father soon returned to his bed and his sorrow, abandoning the sudden energetic resolve that had surged in him when contemplating the state of us. He lay back down in his blankets and wallowed for another full day and night, until we got back from school and decided
in truth it was me and my older brother who decided, for we were aged twelve and thirteen respectively, and the other two were only three and four, so their votes didn’t count in this particular act of suffrage
that there had to be a limit to all this, and that the limit should not be the gradual and seemingly inevitable extinction of our entire family, and so we drew up a plan to get father out of bed and force a hunk of bread down his throat, bread I would toast in the toaster that only I was allowed to operate. We set the table in the lounge, covered it in a smart-looking table cloth, one mother liked to save for special occasions, new year and baptisms, and which was dark coloured, in a show of subservience to the mood that held an iron grip on the household, and as a finishing touch we laid an extra place for mother, and we made a piece of toast for her too, which no one was allowed to touch, nor steal during a moment of collective distraction, and next to her plate, to honour her memory and respect the reality that had recently established itself in the home, we placed a photograph of her on their wedding day, some fifteen years earlier, in which she smiled, a smile that, though still and fixed in time, we each of us imitated, unconsciously, as if through some magnetic sense of empathy.
We told our youngest brothers to drag father from his bed, no matter what he said or how he reacted. It was imperative that he get up and eat something, not just to prevent us from ending up like aimless dogs, running down the road chasing headlights and then falling in the gutter, lying there until the first rains dislodge them, but also so that life, hanging menacingly over us like a cloud of acid rain, might go on, despite death having torn part of it from us, perhaps the better part, perhaps the most important part.
When father reached the table, pulled there by our younger brothers as if it were Christmas and he had to give out the presents, the hunger and sadness that had enclosed him on all sides began to unravel, and very reverently he picked up the picture of mother, held it to his chest and cried, and cried, and cried, and gradually we began to hug him, and we cried too, until we were five bodies engaged in a monophasic retrospective reaction to death.
Over the next few days, we repeated the exercise, setting the same places at the table and again affording mother centre stage by stationing her picture frame, in which she slept so angelically, so it was visible to all. Father began to leave his bed more often and for longer periods and he even involved himself in preparing dinner, the only meal we all ate together, breakfast being taken on the run. We were managing, bit by bit, to get father to reacquire healthier habits, like eating and getting dressed and washing himself, and though he did them irregularly, the irregularity allowed us to calibrate his anchoring on the endless carousel of life, and though there were bad days, when even getting him out of bed took tremendous effort, much lamenting and blackmail of a spiritual nature, whereby we said mother would be cross if he didn’t eat, there were good days too, days that felt like spring, when the sun, though hidden, makes its presence felt through the breeze.
One evening at the dinner table, my older brother came out with some jokes he’d heard at school
because the enforced solemnity was like a jack-in-the-box that required our constant attention, so as not to inadvertently smile at something and father, head bowed, eating reluctantly, slowly stood up to leave the communal table, because for once those gathered around him had failed in their duty to cower before the eminence of his woe, and when my older brother, who always had a knack for clowning, a knack discouraged by father with the same vigour and intensity that mother encouraged it, saw that father had turned the corner of the corridor, he began to mimic mother, her voice, her accent, her very particular way of turning the ends of phrases into drops of honey that came to rest in the ear holes of everyone who heard them, and we were left dumbstruck, the younger brothers and I, because our older brother was clearly breaking the most elementary of the surreptitious rules that governed the household’s mourning process, and we saw father coming back, feeling his way along the walls because he was totally disorientated
because my brother sounded just like mother, sounded so like mother that it brought a tear to my eye that I struggled to hold back
and then, leaning against the back of the empty chair, smiling a gentle and unexpected smile, such as we’d not seen since before the hospital, before the internment, the chemo, the X-rays, the operation that turned her two breasts into two scars shaped like angry eyebrows over her diaphragm, and my brother, on whose forehead hung numerous drops of sweat, despite the mild temperature, because he knew he had the raw material but he didn’t know where it would take him, went on addressing father, facing him more and more directly, telling him to sit down, telling him to eat up, telling him to keep the children in check, which he usually did whenever we started shouting or playing with our food, making little trampolines of our spoons, and father sat down, still smiling, and he put his index finger to his lips, a gesture that said we should keep quiet and listen to mother, like he was doing, for she was right, she was always right.
With the passing of time we got used to hearing our brother being our mother, especially at dinner, when father, back at work for the second time
the first time he went back he spent the whole day locked in the toilet and they had to call the fire brigade to get him out, as he couldn’t even open the door
wanted to talk to her and, above all, when he wanted us children to ask questions that could only be answered by the joint unity of a couple, all of which our brother managed to pull off admirably, brilliantly reproducing the manner of her voice and its content, and the two of them chatted away and we watched them as we’d always done, or as we used to do, and our brother, alongside the photograph of our mother on the table, sometimes seemed like one of those quack mediums who become suddenly possessed by a spirit that takes control of their vocal chords and makes their eyes move up and down.
At night, when father went to bed
what he lost in hunger he gained in sleep
me and my older brother stayed up watching soap operas and European films in which the lives of couples, from the most trivial to the most fundamental matters, were examined in great detail, and we felt that by absorbing and digesting all this we became better
especially him, who practised alone before the mirror, in the manner of an actor preparing for a play
at understanding the importance adults afforded to things we barely knew existed, and as the days went by our vocabulary began to take on adult characteristics, adopting new words that my brother would later try out in mother’s mouth for father to hear, saying things that caused our younger brothers to furrow their brows in incomprehension, but that father, on the other hand, welcomed with a smile, or even, when my brother got the voice just right, or very close, a burst of laughter, which was contagious because our father laughing was the only reason the rest of us had to laugh.
One day, father got home and told me not to make dinner, for he’d brought back a takeaway roast chicken and a couple of bottles of red wine, to celebrate. I jumped up and down and hugged him, overcome with a singular sense of happiness, and as he held me around the waist I asked him what we were celebrating, after all it was a long time since we’d celebrated anything in the house, not even the very respectable end of term school reports we’d all received, a term in which we’d been through so much in so little time, and father said out loud, though very softly, that we were celebrating mother’s birthday, which I’d forgotten about, indeed everyone except father had forgotten about it, despite the fact that he and our older brother had talked lightheartedly about it over dinner the previous week.
That night father insisted that we, the kids, as he called us, ate in the kitchen, and that he and our brother ate in the lounge, like a proper couple, and we could not and should not interrupt them, he said, conjugal complicity couldn’t flourish in a place overflowing with people, he griped, and they ought to eat alone more often, he and mother, it was something we kids would just have to get used to, he said, for we had to understand that either there was room for both worlds or there was room for neither, he concluded, ending the lecture on a questioning note, and so we nodded our heads to say yes, because we were, indeed had been all along, too stunned to do anything but keep on nodding them.
I couldn’t eat for fear that my brother wouldn’t be able to inhabit mother’s skin for so long, hold firm without my being there to kick him in the shins or give him a disapproving look via a toothy smile, and it was only when I saw them leave the room, him first, all smiles, father shortly after, a bit unsteady
I even got to thinking that my brother might end up giving father a slap for something he might say, or even in order to escape
from the wine he’d drank over dinner, to which he was no longer accustomed, that I felt any relief, and when my brother and father came into the kitchen I got the impression I was seeing them again, my mother and father, back from the theatre or the cinema and finding us awake, despite the promises from the babysitter that we’d be tucked in, promises that we were determined to ruin by asking for glasses of water, stories and wee-wees incessantly until our parents got home, tired and happy, so that we could share in it together, the tiredness and the happiness.
These conjugal dinners became fixtures in the household and occurred at least once a month, when we, the kids, would eat pizza in the kitchen, pizza that father brought home, or, in the worst case scenario, pasta with tuna, which I threw together at the last minute when father hadn’t the time or patience to call in at the pizzeria, and they’d eat in the lounge and we’d hear them laughing and jangling their cutlery about their plates, seeking out whatever delicacies father had fetched for them instead of us.
With time, our brother became increasingly authoritarian and intransigent. He began to order us about, telling us to get dressed, get undressed, brush our teeth and do the household chores, and he no longer ever did so in his own voice but always in mother’s, and he kept up the act until he got to school and, much to his irritation, had to talk as a thirteen-year-old kid talks to other thirteen-year-old kids, day in, day out. Sometimes I caught up with him at break time between classes and asked him to apologize for the way he’d treated me on such and such a night, or for no longer ever talking to me like he used to, when we were just brothers, and he would do his best to lick my wounds so as not to see me upset, or to shut me up at least, I never really knew which, and another day would pass and our multifaceted family went on being one thing by day and another thing by night and nobody seemed able to hold on to a form of identity that could be, at all times, one and boringly the same.
Whenever we started to get used to something, be it the dinners with just the two of them or our older brother’s diatribes, some sort of change would occur and force us to focus again on our plans for the future. One particular night, father, who had gradually reacquired the habits he’d abandoned when mother died, started arguing with my brother, father by now back to drinking more than he ought to and shouting at my brother that he was sick of being cooped up at home all the time, like an animal or a savage, as if he had some disease, but neither he nor she had any disease he was aware of, he added, and we sat there quietly before our plates, looking at him once in a while, as he shouted, and as one glass of wine followed the next, our brother, endowed with a certain feminine way of being unmoved by it all, asked father to calm down, at least in front of the children, at least for their sake.
Some kind of truce reigned over the nights that followed. But the rift that had risen between them had formed in such a way that dinner, normally spent in the sort of conversation whereby everyone informed everyone else of how they’d spent the day, became a solemn affair once more, all of us compelled to show the creator the tedious burden of our existence. It was only when, one inspired night, our elder brother appeared at the table wearing a blonde wig, a wig that in every way resembled mother’s haircut, that father, stunned by the unexpected turn of events, let out a loud howl of laughter, caressed our brother’s plentiful wig and thus allowed the nervous tension to lift, that laughter no longer had to be withheld.
Family life passed largely without incident for the whole of the second school term. By day we showed ourselves to be the increasingly mature survivors of the disaster that was losing your mother, and by night we reinvented ourselves, our father and oldest brother in particular, and thus, each in our role, we lived two separate lives, hermetically sealed, like characters jumping between scenes and plays. My elder brother couldn’t help but develop an increasingly distant relationship with us ‘kids’, because by emphasizing the contrast between himself and us he was better able to overcome the natural flaws in his character portrayal, flaws he endeavoured to iron out day by day, and so he moved further and further away from being our brother and closer and closer to being our mother, reunited with us via one huge about-turn, so much so that I caught myself asking him for new clothes, a request he passed on to father, or telling him what I wanted for my birthday, just as I used to do with her before.
One day father, drunk again
a habit he’d reacquired rather too keenly
called us into the lounge, dragging us there by our arms and pulling with unnecessary vigour, come here, he said, come here, you layabouts, I’ve got a surprise for you, and he said no more, in part because the alcohol dulled his capacity for lexical expression, and we reluctantly followed, somewhat alarmed by our father’s intense physicality and state of excitement, me trying to calm down the younger two who were holding on to each other and to me, and when we reached the lounge, father said, very solemnly
children, say welcome home to your mother
and before us stood, I only properly understood afterwards, once a little time had passed, our brother, dressed as a woman, dressed as our mother used to dress, in a skirt and a blouse with white frills, his hair combed and his face made-up, and we noticed that he’d got rid of the hairs on his legs, hairs he’d boasted about only two months before, and father stood beside him, as if presenting him to the rest of the family for the first time, and the younger two began to wail, and this prompted an angry outburst from father, who shouted: right, get out, go on, if you can’t greet your own mother properly, disgraceful, and I took my two little brothers by their hands and as we hurried out of the room we heard our elder brother say
in a voice that was increasingly perfectly that of mother
calm down, dear, it’s not their fault, give them time to understand and accept it, just give them time, and so our brother carried on, and father went quiet and for a moment we couldn’t hear them, until both of them, who knows why, disappeared giggling into the bedroom.
First published in Granta Portugal 1: Eu (Me).
Photograph by Jenny Ondioline