It was complicated. First, she scraped the leftover food into the bin. Then she rinsed the plates and cutlery under the tap. Then she placed them one by one in a bowl of hot, soapy water and scoured them clean. Then she heated more water and poured it into the sink with two measures of detergent and again washed plates, spoons, knives and forks. Finally, she rinsed the dishes and the cutlery and left them to drain on the stone counter top.
Her hands felt rough, she was tired of being on her feet and her back ached a little.
Within herself, she felt a great sense of cleanliness, as if, instead of washing dishes, she had been washing her soul. The bare lightbulb made the white tiles gleam. Outside, a cypress tree was swaying gently in the balmy summer night.
The bread was in its basket, the clothes in their drawer, the glasses in the cupboard. The hustle and bustle and tumult of the day were over.
Peace reigned. Everything was in its place, and the day was done.
And Joana walked slowly through the house.
She opened and closed doors as she went, turning lights on and off. The rooms disappeared into darkness and emerged from darkness into light.
A sweet, unquenchable silence hung in the air.
The silence defined walls, covered tables, framed pictures. The silence carved out contours, sharpened edges, deepened spaces. Everything was palpable and alive, dense with its own reality. The silence, like a deep tremor, ran through the house.
The familiar things – the wall, the door, the mirror – each in turn showed their beauty and serenity. And the June night showed its starry, expectant face at the window.
Joana walked slowly round the room. She touched glass, whitewash, wood. Everything had long since found its place. And it was as if that place, as if the relationship between table, mirror and door, were the expression of an order that transcended the house itself.
The things seemed somehow attentive. And the woman who had washed the dishes was seeking the focus of their attention. She had always done so, but it seemed for ever out of reach.
Now the silence was even greater. Like a flower in full bloom, every petal unfurled.
And orbiting this silence were all the stars and planets, whose imperceptible movement embraced the order and silence of the house.
Joana touched the white walls and breathed gently. There lay her kingdom, there in the tranquillity of that nocturnal contemplation. Out of the order and silence of the universe a limitless freedom arose. She breathed in that freedom, it was the law of her life, the sustenance of her being.
The peace surrounding her was open and transparent. The shape of things was a calligraphy, a script. A script she recognised, but did not understand.
She crossed the living room and leaned on the sill of the open window, the pure blue moment of the night before her.
The stars were shining, distant and yet somehow intimate. And in her mind there had always been a bond between herself and the house and the stars. It was as if the weight of her consciousness were necessary to keep the constellations in balance, as if a great oneness suffused the whole universe.
And she inhabited that oneness, present and alive in the relationship between those elements, while that same ever-attentive reality sheltered her within its vast, intense presence.
She leaned out of the window and rested her arms on the cool stone sill.
A light breeze rustled the branches of the cedar trees. From the river came the hoarse cry of a ship’s horn. In the tower, the bell tolled twice. It was then that she heard the scream.
A long scream, shrill and wild. A scream that penetrated the walls, the doors, the living room, the branches of the cedar trees.
Joana turned away from the window. There was a pause. A brief, hesitant moment, still and tense. But then more screams pierced the night. There was someone out in the street, on the other side of the house. A female voice. A naked, lost, desolate voice that became more and more distorted and disfigured, until it was transformed into a howl. A hoarse, blind howl. Then the voice wavered, fell away, took on a sobbing rhythm, a mournful tone. Then it grew louder, angry, despairing, violent.
The screams sliced through the peace of the night, leaving a monstrous gash, a wound. Just as water begins to gush in through a breach in the hull of a ship, so now, terror, disorder, division and panic rushed through the wound the screams had opened, flooding the house, the night, the whole world.
Joana moved away from the window overlooking the garden, walked across the living room, the hall, the bedroom and, on the other side of the house now, leaned out of the window overlooking the street.
In the dim light, flattened against the wall on the opposite pavement, the woman was barely visible. Her wild, naked screams, now so close, filled the gloom. In her voice, earth and life had torn off their veils, their modesty, to reveal an unfathomable abyss, disorder and darkness. The screams ran up and down the street hammering on the locked doors.
It was a narrow street, wedged between drab buildings, heavy and sad. The night was leaden, the air dull, stagnant, muggy.
Stray dogs were sniffing the ground and rummaging in the rubbish bins trying to get at any leftovers, peelings perhaps or discarded bits of chicken.
The enormous, looming prison filled the whole left-hand side of the streets, its high walls punctuated by small barred windows. That was the wall the woman was leaning against. Sometimes, she would look up, exposing her face, twisted and disfigured by her screaming. By her side, the shape of a man emerged out of the shadows. It was late. People lay asleep behind locked doors and shuttered windows, and the street was deserted. The only other noise to break the silence was the occasional squeal of tyres rounding some distant corner.
The man was trying to drag the woman away and when, for a moment, her screams subsided, he would beg her to be quiet, saying:
“Come on, let’s go.”
But she didn’t hear him. She was screaming as though she were the only person left alive in the world, as if all company and reason had deserted her and she were completely alone. Her screams ricocheted off walls, off stones, even off the dark recesses of the night. She raised her voice as if she were hauling it up from the ground itself, as if her pain and despair were burgeoning forth from the earth beneath her. She raised her voice as if she wanted to reach the farthest edges of the universe and, there, touch someone, awaken someone, demand that someone respond. She screamed against the silence.
She would sometimes go quiet for a moment and tilt her head back, as if expecting to receive an answer.
Then, again, the man would plead with her:
“Be quiet, be quiet now. Let’s go.”
But she would start screaming again, pounding her fists on the prison wall, as if she wanted to force the stone to answer her.
She screamed as though trying to reach someone who wasn’t there, to rouse someone from sleep, to rattle a cold, indifferent conscience and even, in her crazed state, touch the heart of someone who had died.
Through the walls, the doors, the streets, she screamed into the depths of the universe, into the depths of space, into the depths of the enveloping night, into the depths of the silence.
Suddenly she stopped and, bowing her head, she buried her face in her hands. The man then covered her head with a shawl, and putting one arm about her shoulders, led her away from the wall. Together, they walked slowly down the street and around the corner.
For a while, the echo of sobbing hung in the close air of the street, along with the sound of their receding, fading footsteps. Then the silence returned.
An opaque, sinister silence, broken only by the sound of the dogs scratching and scavenging.
Joana went back into the living room. Everything, from the burning stars to the polished sheen of the table, seemed unfamiliar now. Everything was mere meaningless coincidence, all connections severed, a kingdom lost. The things were no longer hers, they were neither of her nor with her. Everything had become estranged and alien, an unrecognisable ruin.
And touching, but not feeling the glass, the wood and the whitewashed walls, Joana walked back through her house like a stranger.
~ trans. City University Literary Translation Summer School
Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen (1919-2004) is considered to be one of Portugal’s finest poets and short story writers. Her poetry has been widely translated, but her short stories are less well known outside of Portugal. Like her poetry, they are deeply rooted in the physical world, but also have both a spiritual and a political edge to them.
Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen’s ‘Silence’ was translated into English during the 2015 City University Literary Translation Summer School in London by Jennifer Alexander, Elenice B. Araujo, Sally Bolton, Clara Buxton, Tom Gatehouse, Margaret Jull Costa, Felix Macpherson, and Maria Reimóndez.
A note on the translation, by Margaret Jull Costa:
We translated Sophia’s story during the morning sessions of the 2015 City University Literary Translation Summer School, where I was tutor of the Portuguese group. We worked together for a week on the whole story, sentence by sentence, swapping ideas, discussing what worked and didn’t work. Each morning I would bring in a clean version of what we had done the day before, and we would again discuss anything that was still perhaps not quite right. By the end of the week, we had almost finished, and so we divided out the few remaining untranslated paragraphs and each person provided their version, which was then fitted into what we had done already. The result is a completely consensual translation, in which we have all considered and contributed to every word and sentence. I think we all learned an enormous amount about the painstaking process of drafting and re-drafting, of editing and re-editing and the pleasure of finding the right word or phrase.