Translated from the Portuguese by Francisco Vilhena


When I boarded the aeroplane, the lady immediately caught my eye. She had long grey hair and small eyes, her skin was dark and wrinkled. Sat by her side, a teenager held her by the hands, firmly. The old lady had a worryingly oblivious glare; the young girl looked like she was afraid. ‘I’m scared of take-offs too,’ I thought. I couldn’t have been more mistaken. The young girl – her great-granddaughter? – did not share my fear of flying.

Our flight was taking off from Recife and heading to São Paulo, where I live. I’d been in Recife to teach a course on contemporary literature, and also to launch two stories I wrote. I was feeling tired after the whirlwind of activities of the last couple of days, so I fell asleep right after take-off, something that very rarely happens to me. I wish I were able to recount some prophetic dream I had, riddled with images of obscure but significant meaning. However, my sleep was of a thick blackness only disturbed by the nervous rhythms of stomping feet, flashing lights and a hallowed voice requisitioning the presence of a doctor.

The old lady was having a heart attack. As I write, my memory, somewhat cruelly, insists on presenting a scene of melodramatic catharsis. As the Writer wakes up, the patient’s arms have already convulsed and foam spewed from her mouth; the old lady and her young companion, suspended in the sky miles away from the ground, have fought death. The truth is that I could not see a thing other than an amalgamation of people in the first row, where they sat, the mass of bodies muffling their voices. Because of the incident we had to make an emergency landing in Salvador. When the plane landed, I thought, inexplicably, ‘thank God I have my feet back on the ground.’ A couple of minutes later, the crew confirmed the death.

Three months went by and then the same thing happened: returning from the northeast, heading to São Paulo, an old lady fell ill during the flight and we again landed in Salvador. The incident occurred at 6 a.m. Shortly after the landing, a team of paramedics climbed aboard with a look of admirable purpose. For an instant, I felt we were all part of an American TV show (where the medical team were perhaps experiencing a love triangle, my melodramatic self hoped); afterwards, images from wildlife documentaries flashed before my eyes, the ones where we see small animals investigating their surroundings, with their muzzles, eyes and ears ready and alert. This time it was a blonde lady of about sixty years who left the cabin in a succession of staggering, dizzy steps. Her face remains obscured to me, I can only remember the plastic vein leaving one of her arms and connected to a serum-filled bag.

Well, if the Bible, Greek tragedies and Star Wars have taught me something it’s that anything of great importance will eventually come in threes: two weeks later, I was again returning home by plane and a third lady felt sick. Salvador, however, didn’t happen this time, as this was not as serious a case, and the flight proceeded all the way to São Paulo. As I picked my bag up from the baggage carousel at the airport, I remembered the strength I saw in the teenager’s hand during the first incident and I thought of the fragile balance her fingers were trying to maintain. On the taxi home, I kept thinking about that first incident. The deceased would come to me in fragments: hair over shoulders; feet I’ll never know; eyes half open.

The first person I ever told about this is a friend who teaches literature and criticism. ‘If this was one of your stories, I wouldn’t let you get away with it’, he confessed. And by saying this, he was hinting at the suspicion that even non-fiction can generate from time to time. The following days, I felt a strong need to keep telling and retelling this story (in this sense, I’m afraid you’ve got mixed up in it too, at the receiving end). While listening to me, friends and relatives placed science side by side with fate; they joked that I had been cursed; the word ‘message’ was used; the relation between in-flight atmospheric conditions and the risks of contracting certain illnesses – and how much information airlines could be hiding on the matter – was speculated upon. Every time I finished telling the story, we would be filled with a sense of relief, a similar feeling to when you’ve made it into a lift that was about to close its doors on your face. Everyone who’s heard my story has felt compelled to attribute some sort of meaning to the three ladies. Their spectral images hovered above me and my listeners, demanding tribute be paid with coherence and meaning. After all, whenever coincidences happen to me, I don’t look for a divine message. I don’t reach out for a hidden meaning. I don’t try to explain them. In this case, the case of their similar struggle, what I know is this: one day we will inadvertently become the protagonists and have to play the same bewildered part.


Photograph courtesy of Phil Thomas

S.J. Naudé and Ivan Vladislavić In Conversation
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