It was true that Mozart’s music seemed simple, sometimes almost insignificant, but anyone who knew how to listen could understand what lay beneath the surface, which merely covered it like a piece of transparent glass. You might, for example, come across an apparently banal chord, followed by two notes, the first very short, the second just an interval of a fourth away from the first. And then everything would continue with the same simplicity, as if it couldn’t be any other way — it was as if anyone, yes, even you, could have invented that phrase, but then it suddenly sent you off in a different direction: something was being proclaimed in those simple notes that apparently any child could play. And that was it; Mozart despised no one and even learned from the birds. Yes, it was true. Mozart had learned a lot from the birds. In fact, she could never hear birdsong without thinking that.
His music might seem easy — the bare score, a few clean notes, sometimes so close together that they looked almost like scales — but it wasn’t easy and only someone who understood nothing could doubt that this apparent simplicity was the most difficult thing of all — the fingers all equally flexible, very close to the keys, unable to obey at first, until finally they broke free and you could hear the music.
Listening was a secret. She heard a lot of things, some of them impossible. For example, she only had to look at the score to hear the music written there. This had happened to her for the first time with Mozart, but then she realised that she could hear any music, just by reading the score. As if someone were playing the music inside her. And not just one instrument, the violin, for example, or the piano; she was sure that she would be able to hear a whole orchestra too.
But this was a secret she would never tell anyone, least of all Uncle Octávio, who used to kick the door when he thought she was getting out of time and who would shout and stamp his feet: ‘No, no, no, no, no!’
Sometimes, she would leave the house immediately afterwards and walk down the street, playing the music in her head so as not to be interrupted. She would walk past the houses and listen and listen, and no one kicked the door or shouted. The trees waved their branches, cars and people passed, but they didn’t interrupt her. Only when it was raining and she had to take shelter beneath a balcony or in a doorway did she stop and mentally close the piano lid.
Then she would hear the rain. Hearing meant giving full attention to things. Everything stopped, stood still. And then sound happened: the rain, the wind, the sea. The wind in the leaves, along the sandy path, on rooftops, in the rain. Now she was listening to the rain, the fleeting watery shapes. (Music — not the music of the rain, but music itself — was it like liquid or air? Liquid, she decided. Yes, liquid, she thought.)
But hearing was not a separate activity from seeing, feeling or understanding. Nor could you hear one isolated thing without being aware of the context, even though it was your perception of the context that made each thing stand out with extraordinary clarity. And then it was never enough to hear it just once, you always wanted to hear it a thousand times over.
The many voices of things. The voices of Bach playing with one another, crossing, converging, diverging. Pure play, like the sea and the waves. That is how the world was made.
She liked to wander through the neighbourhood, listening to whatever there was to hear — car horns, engines, voices, the mechanical clamour and hammer of a workshop, the clang of metal, doors slamming, people’s footsteps on the pavement, and, occasionally, a piece of articulated music in the midst of all the other sounds: the shrill cry launched onto the air by some market trader, the trill of a bird, the knife-grinder’s whistle, the accordion played by a blind man on a corner.
But all the rest — car horns, voices, sirens, machines — could also be a kind of music. Even silence was part of listening — the silence between one thing and another, a breath or a pause, before something else happened.
They used her as an intermediary on the most difficult days. They were afraid of his winking and his mocking grin — which always boded ill — afraid of his malice.
Listening and hearing meant allowing the world to enter you. When she listened, she was left entirely without defences. The sound followed its own course and she ceased to exist separately and became part of what was happening. And that, she thought sometimes, was dangerous, almost mortally so, because music, in a way, broke her into pieces, forced her out of herself and drew her into an undifferentiated, non-human state, over which the music finally triumphed. It was an imperfect victory, though, because the music always had to begin again, to happen again, so that chaos did not prevail. For as long as it lasted (although it could never last for ever), music was a way of conquering chaos and forcing it to fit a shape. Perhaps that was what listening meant, engaging in the struggle between form and chaos.
Sometimes, during the night, Uncle Inácio would shout out. She would cover her ears with her hands, but she couldn’t stop listening. At other times, she would grow rigid with concentration, trying to decipher the words, but to no avail, all she heard were screams.
Then there were the fits, when he would writhe around on the floor, frothing at the mouth, his eyes rolled back, and they had to put a folded handkerchief in his mouth so that he wouldn’t bite his tongue. Then he would calm down and fall asleep, sometimes peeing himself while he slept, and there were times when he slept all day. Something took him over. And she felt she could understand the dangers of that unchained, untamed energy, like a river bursting its banks.
Perhaps he had gone mad because he couldn’t communicate. No one talked to him, apart from her. He didn’t appear to understand, and yet he nodded and sighed. One of his main concerns was with keys. He threw away all the keys in the house, including the one for the front door, because he was afraid they might stop him leaving. That’s why he sometimes ran away, disappearing for several days, which he spent wandering the streets, until, when he wanted to be found and brought home, he came to rest by the river, on the same bench. For there always did come a moment when he wanted to be found and brought home: when hunger grew pressing, when his begging in the street failed to yield enough money, or when the nights grew too cold. Then he would go and sit on that bench and wait. As soon as someone arrived (usually her, Júlia), he would simply get up and follow, as docile as a child. She thought it best to leave him free like that: he wouldn’t go far, nor did he seem to be at any risk of getting lost; he rarely strayed beyond certain streets, and there was no point in looking for him elsewhere, given that the bench by the river was the only place where he could ever be found. The man who sold newspapers in the kiosk opposite would always let them know when he arrived.
But Uncle Octávio didn’t agree: the sight of Uncle Inácio begging in the streets, vacant-eyed and wearing a threadbare jacket, seemed to him a violation of his privacy. That’s why he preferred to hide him away in the depths of the house.
It was usually when Inácio was locked up, though, that he had his rages, not that these were predictable: you could never know for sure when he would shift from one extreme to the other and his child-like smile become a threat.
They used her as an intermediary on the most difficult days. They were afraid of his winking and his mocking grin — which always boded ill — afraid of his malice. He had already burned holes in Arménia’s new outfit with a lit cigarette, crushed Uncle Octávio’s silver cigarette case, thrown some pieces of fish out of the open window, and used secateurs to cut up the velvet table cloth.
‘Take Uncle Inácio his supper, will you,’ they would say nervously, handing her the tray.
She would knock on his bedroom door and make some comment or other just so that he could hear and identify her voice. He would eventually come and open the door, then immediately sit down on the floor, ignoring her and the tray completely, and continue whatever he had been doing before: putting marbles in a box or cutting out shapes from a newspaper with blunt scissors, and he wouldn’t look up until she had left the room. Yet once she was on the other side of the door he would spring to his feet and turn the key in the lock. She would hear him give a sigh of satisfaction, then noisily gobble down his food.