“They’re paying the poor to enjoy being poor,” Rosa said. And she laughed. Her afternoons were spent at the entrance to the metro. Since she was in a Hollywood movie, the busiest stations were off limits to her. Beggars didn’t get to decide these things. There were systems in place. The great hand picked each of them up, set them down where they belonged and then collected them up again later. The more gifted among them would sing or weep. Takings were higher that way. Anyone wanting to earn a living and who took a close look would see a military map. An expanse of interconnecting battlefields. The occupied zones, and perhaps their dead and wounded. It was all about territory. There were only a few places left that weren’t under anyone’s control, breathing spaces for the ephemeral beggars whom everyone walked past without a glance. In one of these places, on a flight of steps, sat Rosa. Four steps beneath her sat the blind man.
The blind man needed money, and she didn’t. But she was looking for distractions. Her roommate, the one with pink webbing between her fingers, had gone out one day and never come back. The dry weather didn’t agree with her and she took secret showers far more often than her rent allowed. The landlady was certainly very unusual, being so constantly racked with guilt, but the waste of water was the final straw even for her. She reverted to her social class and began to keep watch, as landladies often do. She muttered insults at her tenant, sniffing around after her, and eventually took to locking the bathroom, meaning they had to ask permission to use the toilet. The girl was fast losing the courteous manners of the brothel. She fanned herself with her webbed hands. She slammed doors and shouted obscenities down the corridor. In the end, she turned on Rosa. “You couldn’t even bloody kill yourself!” she said. Her cruelty grew and grew, and eventually their room wasn’t big enough; anger had turned the girl into a giant. She kicked her roommate out of bed and onto the floor. “The heat has sent her mad,” Rosa explained. The landlady could see a disaster looming, something that would be her fault and add yet another demon to her already sleepless nights.
And so it was: the girl went out one morning in July and never came back. Rosa went careering around the room in triumph, bumping into the furniture with her twisted foot, exultant at her victory. The landlady didn’t find anybody else to share the bed. And even as Rosa heard herself taking deep breaths, as if out in the fields, she felt boredom slipping silently and unmistakably in through the window.
“I need some fresh air,” she said to the landlady. And she went to display her foot in the metro. Not because she needed the money. She ate bread soaked in milky coffee. She wasn’t old yet, but she had adopted the food of old age, and with a few spoonfuls of sugar it was enough for her. The government handouts never let her down, and kept her from worrying about anything else. But tranquillity always bored her. That was why she’d thrown herself into her work before, going to lengths the other girls would never have dreamed of. That was why she was now staring up at the ceiling and sighing. So she picked up the empty biscuit tin, went to the metro station, and placed her foot and the tin in full view.
Four steps below, the blind man would lift his beaky little nose to take in all the information he could. Because although he was genuinely blind, he still had to report back to his mother. The heat and the cold passed through him, piercing his clothes like bullets. And he raised his powerful voice, an indignant voice that pursued passers-by, driving them away. The children cried and nobody stopped to throw him any change. “This is what you get for trying to look after yourself,” the blind man would say. When he sensed the presence of a rival, his tone became even more strident. Rosa kept talking about the bridge. The passers-by, giving the blind man a wide berth, didn’t walk past Rosa as slowly as they should have. Instead, they quickened their pace, muttering about the rain or the sun. Rosa didn’t want them to give her anything. She just wanted them to slow down. She hurled her story at them and it fell back, bruised, onto the steps. Abandoned, just like its owner.
“If you must go out, take a walking stick,” said the landlady. She couldn’t resist interfering. The blind man was curious about this new sound, the walking stick striking the concrete. “What do you suffer from?” he asked. He meant, what’s your excuse? He was thinking, what can you do for me?
Then the blind man heard shouts, the cracking of a skull and his moneybox rolling away.
“Look out for the guy who gives me bottle caps,” he said. “And tell me when he next comes past.”
“What do I get in return?”
“What do you want?”
“I want you to listen to what I’m going to say,” the woman, Rosa, replied.
And then she talked. She talked and talked about the bridge. About nice little bridges, moss-covered bridges that cradled the people walking across. And about others so high even planes were warned about them. But there weren’t any words for Rosa’s bridge, it was evil and that was that. And yet she was grateful for it. “Bridges are the devil’s pathways. They help him baptise his children,” the blind man explained.
“Don’t go making excuses for him.”
It was God who chose the accidents. And the illnesses. He was the one who’d sold the matches and petrol that destroyed her brothel.
“Because God doesn’t like losers. Or cripples,” the blind man said thoughtfully.
And they laughed. They laughed.
A few days later, the blind man asked: “How does He choose?” He had become rather philosophical lately. “Yes, how does He decide who to cripple?”
“He just chooses because he’s bored,” Rosa replied. She felt a moment of illumination. At last, she understood God: he’d do anything to entertain himself. “Do you know how many steps there are here? About twenty. I counted. To pass the time. God does that too. He’s counted everything in the world by now.”
“Because he’s bored and in a bad mood. And he probably can’t sleep,” the blind man said.
“Maybe every now and then he’ll have a stretch and stick out his cane so that someone trips and falls down the steps.”
“Someone who gives fake coins,” the blind man added bitterly.
Oh, no, not even that, thought Rosa. God doesn’t need a reason to throw someone down these twenty hard steps. That’s what makes him God.
Then the blind man heard shouts, the cracking of a skull and his moneybox rolling away. “She did it on purpose, with her stick!” people were saying. The sound of the blows they dealt out to Rosa echoed round about and made the blind man’s heart ache. “They’re attacking God,” he cried. But nobody took any notice.
Hélia Correia has written more than ten novels, as well as poetry, short stories, plays and children’s books. Among her novels are ‘Lillias Fraser’ (2008), about a young clairvoyant girl in Scotland and Portugal in the eighteenth century, who foresees the Lisbon earthquake; and ‘Adoecer’ (2010), a retelling of the tragic life of the poet and artist Elizabeth Siddall, Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s wife and muse. Her children’s books include a series about the exploits of Tiresias’ grandson, ‘Mopsos, the little Greek’. With its sly engagement with classical literature, deadpan strangeness and sparse, carefully-weighted language, Correia’s work contains shades of Anne Carson, Margaret Atwood, and even Samuel Beckett, though its close connection with the traditions and landscapes of rural Portugal makes it into something else entirely.
Annie McDermott is a literary translator working from Spanish and Portuguese. Her work has appeared in publications including Granta, World Literature Today, Two Lines, Asymptote and Alba, and her co-translation of ‘City of Ulysses’ by Teolinda Gersão (with Jethro Soutar) will be published in 2017 by Dalkey Archive Press. In 2013, she was the runner-up in the Harvill Secker Young Translators’ Prize, and in 2014 she took part in a six-month mentorship with Margaret Jull Costa, focusing on translating Brazilian literature.