Sea of Azov

By HÉLIO PÓLVORA
Translated by AMANDA SARASIEN

 

The sea was unfurling bolts of cotton on the beach.

But now, at least in this cove, the sea is muddy. The waves sprawling on the sand, under the spotlight of an intense sun, exhibit a strange hue—a corrupt, corrosive red that might be called ocher, as if the sea, in its incessant flow, had passed through steep, muddy ravines before subsiding here, and dislodged clumps of earth that dissolved to contaminate green water, bluish water.

The man gazes at the slope climbing to Olivença square. He doesn’t need to go up there to know that the small, circular plaza, carpeted with grass, has a large cross and a white church—and that from there, as far as the eye can see, the coast, bordered with coconut palms, lies shimmering in the distance, far to the south, under the surveillance of a petrified sea.

 

One day, two figures descend the slope. They are traveling by bicycle and press the brakes. Still, they are riding fast, plummeting toward the cove.

“Is it far, Dad?”

“A hop, skip, and a jump. We’ll be there in no time.”

The boy knows this vague expression that usually entails kilometers, leagues.

“How many leagues, Dad?”

“About two.”

The father always underestimates distances, and so the boy factors this in. Two and a half leagues, at least, until Pontal. One league equals six kilometers. He does the calculations. Fifteen kilometers. Will they take the dirt road that skirts the coast and founders among coconut palms, or will they follow the beaches north, toward Cururupe and Praia do Sul?

The sea unfurls bolts of cotton on the sand. As if, coming to the beach, the sea laid down and unfurled bundles of cotton, only for them to unravel, at times seething, other times tracing a silent lacework across the brownish sand. In the distance, the blue deepens, the beach narrows, and the summer sun dazzles, creating the illusion of droplets suspended in air, of countless needles pricking the eyes.

“Are we taking the dirt road or going along the beach, Dad?”

“The beach is better.”

They pedal. The sand is compact, recalling the toppled wall of a recently shuttered house. The father rides more to the middle, leans toward the fringe of the sea. He likes watching the wheels and wheelrims kicking up spray. The sand there is looser; the tires of the bicycle sink a bit, requiring more strength in the legs. But the water gushes, and sometimes the calm waves unfold farther ashore, passing under the bicycles. The sea is an enormous animal that arches its back, roars and snorts, snarls and moans, by your side, at your feet. A few meters off, the waves, mounted by flecks of foam, rear up, then promptly break—and the father has the sense that he is racing along the edge of a watery tomb that might suddenly rise up like a wall and bury him.

Just ahead, the unforeseen obstacle of a small promontory. He knows it’s a promontory because the geography books describe such a feature as “a point of rocky and elevated land that projects into the sea.” Well, then, that promontory, where several times he had gone in search of dried coconuts knocked down by the windstorms, or looking for cashews on the opposite sandbanks, culminates in sheer, rugged terrain, where black, slimy rocks cluster like mushrooms. Some are covered in small shells containing shellfish. The sea slips quick, ravenous tongues between them, seeming to lap up unseen food from those passages, then retreats with the alacrity of a scent hound. Here the sand breaks off, and they cannot pass through on their bicycles.

“Get off. Let’s go up here,” says the father.

They lope up the hillside. At the top, the wind bends coconut palms, rips off dry fronds, and shrieks inside the thickets of untamed pitangueira trees. Seen from up here, the sea expands, spreads out like a treasured mirror covering some three-quarters of the surface of the globe. The sea sways and crawls, becoming high seas, deep sea, now it’s an ocean. They descend the other slope of the promontory, meet up with the beach, and return to their bicycle seats.

 

This cove, the man thinks, hasn’t changed a bit. Yet, why should it change? It is perhaps narrower, smaller. I grew, and it shrank to my eyes. Apart from this, the coconut palms grew taller and at the same time straighter; the wind coaxes from their fronds creaky chords. I swam here, on these rocks, as defenseless now as they were then. I searched for shellfish in pools of water, and from there, on mornings of calm sea, I cast my fishhook. The sea’s nocturnal phosphorescence, known as ardentia—ardor, ardency, a burning from the depths. We were here three years ago. Three years, only three? It was more, five years now. I remember the car sat under those two coconut trees, by the cabana where people retreated for shade. In that calm and quiet way of hers, she took off her dress, and soon emerged in a black, one-piece swimsuit. A small, slender woman in her fifties, her skin already sagging at the bust and thighs, one leg a bit shorter than the other. Only then did he notice the imperfection, seeing that she limped slightly. They crossed the beach, so vast it would resemble a dune or sand mine, were it not for its smooth, flat surface, and came to the sea. Or the sea came to them. Better yet, all of them came together, they and the sea, in a single maneuver, the sea extending the frothy tip of its waters, they kicking up grains of sand with the flesh of their big toes. They surrendered to the sea, which gave a muffled, pacified, singing roar, the roar of a sated beast. They abandoned themselves to its warm, free embrace; their tense, white bodies relaxed then, and their skin began to tingle with the heat of salt and sun. The tropics tumbled on the waves and swells, racing toward what seemed to be the power plant for the brightest of lights. I must hold on to this moment, the man thought then. Hold on, at least, to the outline of this moment. And he went to the car to grab the camera. The colors, he said to himself, will never repeat this flood of light, will never reproduce this prismatic babel—but it doesn’t matter. I will put her in a pinewood picture frame, she with her black bathing suit and clumsy gestures, framed by a radiance more intense than a halo, than a rainbow. He halved the exposure, and she protested that he should save his film for better shots. Then they went swimming in the old Tororomba spring, now a bathhouse. Ah, what he wouldn’t give for those photos. The person who doubtless picked up that camera and film from the middle of the brush, among the wreckage, was not sentimental, was not thinking of anyone else. Otherwise the person would have wound the film up tightly, would have looked for news in the following day’s newspapers so they could find a way to restore something that would be of value only for him, the man who had suffered an accident and was reborn. He would give the person the camera but keep the film.

The man returns to the car and makes his way slowly over the asphalt on the coastal road. On the beach, beyond the promontory of black rocks that resemble pustules among the smooth waves, there is no one in sight.

 

His leg muscles began to ache. For the first time, the boy realizes that the beach leading to Pontal dos Ilhéus is a long, unswerving stretch of river that disappears into the early-morning haze, into the pricking predawn twilight, which extracts reflections from the wet sand.

The father stops his bicycle and peers into the distance with his hand shading his eyes.

“Mon Dieu,” says the father, “je vous remercie pour toute cette beauté.”

He opens his arms and laughs heartily.

“What language were you speaking, Dad?”

“French.”

“And what does it mean?”

“‘Lord, thank you very much for all this beauty.’”

They decide to walk to stretch their legs. The father is happy. He lets go of the bicycle and falls to his knees.

“Thank you, my Lord. God is my Lord.”

“Now you’re speaking another language,” says the boy.

“Yes. English. Have you ever read the Bible?”

“Yeah. Only Genesis and a chapter about Gideon and the Midianites.”

“I know,” says the father. “It’s in the Book of Judges.”

“But what did you say?”

“I said, ‘Thank you, my God.’”

They fall silent. The sun projects its slanting shadows, shorter as noon approaches, as from the middle of the sky the sun lowers a thread so taut with light. The sea crawls, bows down. Waves recede, exposing ghost crabs outside their holes.

“I imitated Robinson Crusoe,” says the father.

“What do you mean, Dad?”

“From that part where he climbs a mountain, opens his arms and exclaims, ‘Deus é o meu Senhor.’ In English: ‘God is my Lord.’”

“Ah.”

They continue walking, pushing their bicycles.

“Dad?” says the boy.

“What is it?”

“I don’t remember Robinson saying that. I read the book.”

“Maybe I’m thinking of the film,” the father says.

They walk a bit farther; there are patches where the sand is drier, softer. Their heels break the surface of the sand and sink sideways. Looking back, the boy sees the parallel tracks of the bicycle tires. The still-wet sand is a mosaic.

“It is one of the Psalms of David,” says the father.

“What?” says the boy.

“The sentence ‘God is my Lord.’”

“Ah.”

Farther up the beach, near the roadside brush, the ghost crabs prove bolder outside their holes.

“Dad?”

“Huh?”

“Does Mom know we’re coming?”

“No, she doesn’t. It’s a surprise.”

They sit down on the stump of an abandoned raft and wipe the sweat from their faces.

“I’m hungry,” says the boy.

“Okay. We’re going to eat.”

 

The car continues at thirty kilometers per hour. The man looks to both sides of the highway. Farms and more farms, almost all of them fenced. Sometimes the fences stretch all the way down to the sea; all that’s left is to turn the beach, the rocks, the sea, and the seagulls into private property. Plots of land, houses spaced apart for now. Gone are the days when Tororomba was a deep, therapeutic spring in the middle of nowhere, when the Indians of the region were not propped up drunk against the bodega counters. What attracts me to this region, what draws me here? he asks himself. Because I don’t like it here. I detest these cities that live and breathe by wealth, that think only about the accumulation of capital. The have-not, spit out by the system because he cared much more about being, is forever marginalized in the opinion of those who splurge and flaunt their possessions. And, nevertheless, I always return here, perhaps in search of an identity not exactly lost but scattered across various landscapes, diluted in several experiences, fragmented across a number of events. A need for atonement, that same need which makes some criminals in old crime novels return to the scene of their crime? The man at the steering wheel puts the car into gear, steps lightly on the accelerator. Coconut palms, white sands mottled with the tarnished green of sparse vegetation, begin passing by. The outskirts of Cururupe Beach where a section of mangrove forest opens into a clearing. It was here they passed through, that quiet and almost deserted workday evening, on their way to Pontal dos Ilhéus after taking pictures in the cove in Olivença. Three or four days after that dream he’d had, more than a thousand kilometers away, that had not struck him as foreboding. The dark figure of his grandfather, whom he addresses in the dream. His grandfather does not embrace him, because he is not a man of affectionate gestures. He merely puts a hand on his shoulder and looks him deep in the eyes. And then, over his grandfather’s shoulder, he sees that next to his grandfather’s tomb there is an empty tomb, perhaps newly dug.

Rising tide behind. Tide of living water ahead. Rough sea. Are we coming to the new moon, with the sun and moon in conjunction? the man asks himself. Flux. The mysterious ebb and flow of the waters, their steady, rising motions, according to ancient laws of gravity—and this in all oceans, in all seas, even in the gulfs, bays, and estuaries. The seas’ daily menstruation and retreat from the world.

 

On the beach, at low tide, the boy decides to take a dip before they unpack their lunch. As he undresses near the spot where the front-line waves will fall and retreat, he feels himself blush. It is the presence of his father above, seated on the abandoned raft stump. I really must be growing up, he admits. Before long, in only two or three more years, I will be a man. How will the change happen, and what part will I play in it? The wave envelops him, deposits onto his skin a fine residue of salt which the sun will not take long to dry up, leaving behind a redness, followed by a tan. If those waves I can barely make out on the high sea, beyond the coastline, rolled in the opposite direction, they would surely break on the shores of Africa, on islands, in bays whose names I don’t know. But he knows where to find the Weddell Sea, the Barrow Sea, the North Sea, Baffin Bay, the Dead Sea. Open seas, inland seas. He pulls on his short pants over wet skin.

 

“Dad, I often think: What will I be in life?”

“Do you mean a profession?” says the father.

“Yes, a line of work.”

“You’ll be a doctor.”

“You’re not a doctor.”

“No.”

“Do you regret it?”

“Not quite.”

They finish eating and lie down in the sand with their hands laced under their necks.

“What I was actually thinking is that I want to travel,” the boy says.

“Do you have somewhere in mind?” says the father.

“The Sea of Azov.”

“Where is that?”

“On the Russian border. In Asia.”

“Seek and ye shall find,” says the father.

Geography lessons. River names. “You’re great at potamography,” his teacher had told him. The capitals of Asian countries and territories. Persia or Iran—capital? Tehran. Afghanistan—capital? Kabul. Bhutan—capital? Punakha.[1] Nepal—capital? Kathmandu.

“Don’t worry too much,” says the father.

“What?”

“You’re growing up; soon you’ll be a man. Without feeling it.”

A solitary seagull passes overhead and, farther on, seems to stop in midair, then dives in search of fish, like a stone discarded in the air.

“You will wear long pants,” says the father. “Your behavior will change. And you will have desires.”

“What sorts of desires?”

“All sorts. Many. Desires for women. For starting a family. Desires to come and go, ambitions, frustrations.”

“What does it mean to be a man, Dad?”

The father reflects.

“Being a man means shouldering reality.”

“Like Robinson?”

“Yes, like Robinson Crusoe.”

I am changing, yes, sir, the boy thinks as he feels an idle drowsiness in his tired muscles. I’m confused. He remembers that a few days ago, in Pontal dos Ilhéus, he was standing before the sea—on his way to the sea—and had trouble getting out to the water’s edge to swim. He was wearing a red bathing suit. A very short bathing suit that was ripped in the butt and clung to his body, accentuating bulges and molding to hollows. Fishermen were gathering up their nets. Their arms worked in sync, swinging back and forth as if governed by the rhythm of an inaudible march. The waves wove together music that sounded like a lullaby. It would be nice to stretch out on the sand, let the advancing water toss him from side to side, up and down, just like that log that ceaselessly bobbed around, never coming to rest. Soon the nets would be ashore, water streaming from their black mesh, revealing scaly undersides. Women and kids were already approaching the fishermen. He longed to be at the shore’s edge but had been trapped by the ripped bathing suit, seated on the grass right in front of windows now crowded with women, in front of doorways where men were leaning, and in front of a sidewalk where an elderly gentleman had arranged a lounge chair to read the newspaper. He wanted to stand up naturally, walk toward the sea, get in the water—and yet he felt weighed down by an enormous anchor. The other boys would not hesitate, probably the contretemps of the ripped and clingy bathing suit had not even crossed their minds. The tide was beginning to rise. If he didn’t decide soon, his mother could appear at the door and forbid him from swimming at high tide. The waves were sprawling on the sand, gently crashing one after another, as the nets drew ever closer on Pontal Beach. A run for the sea would solve everything, though laughter exploded behind him. He looked back, glimpsed the expressions of the people on the sidewalk, at the windows. Did they have nothing else to do? Might as well gather up their chairs and return to their domestic duties. The nets were now coming ashore, and the music of the waves sounded triumphant. It was then that he began to scoot across the grass, supporting himself with the palms of his hands flat on the ground, sticking out his body. He moved with extreme caution towards the sea. Reaching the edge of the sand, he cast a suspicious glance over his shoulder. No one was laughing. He rubbed a section of butt cheek that showed through the hole in the bathing suit: the skin was scratched and red, the sea salt brushed it, and he cried out.

“Let’s go,” says the father.

They get up, climb onto their bicycles and pedal. Their pace slows; the sand feels looser. At a distance, they spy a small bridge and a fascinating inlet that looks like an extension of the sea. But the water is darker and, at least from there, gives the impression of stillness, stagnation.

“It’s a lagoon,” says the father.

At last, Cururupe.

 

The man parks the car in the shadow of an almond tree and walks up to the edge of the estuary. There must be crabs in this dark and shallow water, he thinks. He climbs up to the bridge. In those days, it was a small bridge; cars had to cross with the greatest caution, balancing the wheels atop two logs. He looks down at the expanse of sand. The mangrove forest has found its repose and sprawled along the bay. I almost sank there, he thinks. I believe I was ten years old, that I was bicycling from Olivença with my father and felt tired. A delicate boy with a penchant for reading, I wasn’t used to the physical exertion. He had felt the sand give way. Maybe it wasn’t exactly sand. Maybe it was a deceptive mixture of sand and soil, lacking the usual consistency of plaster; his feet were sinking, and he was dislodging them with the strength of someone who has fallen into a quagmire. Land of lagoons, of deep swamps and hidden seaside bogs. He heard the soil or the sand stirring below, as if convulsed by tiny seismic shocks, and his legs sank further, with that viscous murmur of a mule’s hooves or people’s legs on a giant mudflat. He let go of the bicycle. The surrounding soil gave way even further, as if sucked down by subterranean tongues, and he found himself waist-deep in sand and soil. Only then did he think of quicksands—those snares of nature set for adventurers in exotic countries.

“Dad!” he shouted.

The father kept going; he hadn’t heard.

“Help!” he shouted. “Dad, help me!”

Help, I shouted then, on the quagmire of the lagoon, and my father yanked me out by the arms. The other time, five years ago, I said nothing. I remember that I got to my feet with someone’s help. This person—I believe it was a man—asked me if I could manage alone. I answered yes. The person went to help other victims. After some time—I don’t know if it was minutes or seconds—I found myself in the back seat of a car that still smelled new, and I discovered that my hands were bleeding, that blood was dripping from my face, that my body hurt all over as if I had taken a beating—a beating with a stick, meant to kill. Only then did I speak. “I will stain your car with blood.” “Fuck the car,” the figure responded.

 

“It was a dangerous quagmire,” says the father.

The boy walks over to the sea to remove the mud from his legs and pants.

“Quicksands,” he says over his shoulder.

“I don’t think so,” says the father. “A simple quagmire, a marsh.”

They had decided to abandon the beach and take the earth-and-gravel road running along the waterfront. At first the bicycles pick up speed, in spite of their sore legs. But there are rough patches, stretches of mud, and sharp stones. The loose gravel on the roadbed resembles shards of glass and gives the road the appearance of a dried-up mountain river. The bicycle wheels slip and rattle, progress becomes difficult, and already there are signs that evening is fast approaching.

“Dad, will we get there early?”

“It looks like it.”

“We’ll get in at night.”

“Maybe not.”

They pedal a bit farther.

“How ‘bout it, maestro—have you given up on the Sea of Azov?”

The boy laughs.

“When I get home, I’m going straight to bed,” he says.

 

How many more kilometers? Though he would really like to see the granite rock formations, covered in mud and shellfish, that mark the beginning of the village of Pontal on Pontal Beach. Seen from above, from the road, the sea is greener, a concentrated green like the bottom of a glass bottle. And the sea tirelessly unrolls its bundles of cotton, which advance in parallel as far as the middle of the swath of sand. There they churn and dissolve into the ebb. The beach then acquires a gleaming strip of linoleum. Dense, firm sand, almost like plaster, into which a foot does not sink, where feet leave only faint tracks.

He still can’t be sure how it happened. He was half numb. He felt only the sudden crash of the bicycle wheel against an obstacle—and the pain in his arm. His hands let go of the handle bar, his body fell sideways, his outstretched arm struck the stone at the side of the road. He can’t swear by it, but he has the impression that he’d heard a snap.

 

He knows there has been an accident. Therefore, he does not get up right away. He merely stares at his right arm, which now appears shriveled and crooked, like a bird’s broken wing. The father runs over to him and lifts him up by the armpits.

“Easy now,” says the father. “You broke your arm.”

He stems his flow of tears.

“Cry if you want, if it helps,” says the father.

The sobs come in spasms, smothering his words.

“Crying is comforting,” says the father. “I’ve cried a time or two.”

“Even when you were grown up?” he says.

“Even after I was grown up. As an adult. Now listen: I’m going to twist your lower arm so the bone returns to its proper position. To set the fracture. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir. Will it hurt?”

“It will. Do you want me to count to three?”

“Yes.”

“One, two, three.”

A stabbing pain.

“Now,” says the father, “you hold the arm with your left hand. Tight. Here. Just like this.”

The father stands back, the sweat dripping from his face.

“Don’t move, you hear? Don’t let go of that arm. I’ll go get help.”

“Yes, sir.”

He returns more than half an hour later, carrying strips of bamboo, a large knife, and some twine. He trims the strips to the correct length, wielding the knife like a wood planer. Applied to the flesh and secured with strong knots of twine, the strips serve as makeshift plaster for immobilizing fractured limbs. Finally, the father improvises a sling with the napkin in which they carried their lunch.

 

“I will stain your car,” he says. “Fuck the car,” responded the figure. Sitting close to the edge of the seat, erect and formal like a child going to school for the first time, he felt the blood flow from his mouth, from his lips, from wounds on his temples and around his eyes. From time to time he would lower his hands, see the blood flow between his fingers and drip onto the seat, onto the floor of the car, while on the backs of his hands and his wrist the clotting had already begun. If they were to leave him sitting like that, in a quiet place, he would follow the oozing of his blood, the inexorable dissipation of his life, drop by drop, without making a move to stem that flow, until he blacked out. He awoke in the middle of the night in a hospital bed. The first thing he saw was a black spot of matted blood on one of his thighs. He tried to change position—his right shoulder hurt; his ribs seemed to pierce his flesh with the splinters of his possibly broken extremities. His face felt swollen; one of his lips was extremely fat. With difficulty, he moistened his lips with his tongue. Relatives standing guard saw him awaken from his traumatic sleep and rushed over. “Where’s my mom?” he asked. His relatives exchanged glances. “In another hospital,” they replied. “But she’s okay?” he insisted. Again, the relatives exchanged glances. “She is responding well,” they said. And then he thought: She’s dead. For the next three days, he kept asking for news of his mother. They told him that she had sustained a strong blow to the chest, that the doctor had operated on her. But she was fine. And still he thought: She’s dead—dead and buried. On the fourth day of the fifteen he spent in the hospital, he stopped asking about his mother’s condition. His relatives found this strange, until one of the less patient of them showed up one day and, as the lights were coming on in the city, told him: “Your mother died.” He said nothing. The relative insisted: “Your mother died.” He looked straight at the relative and replied: “Fuck it.”

It was raining—he remembered that it was raining.

Tiny rain, water passed through a sieve. This last image was imprinted on his memory—tiny drops on the asphalt, a torrent of silent bullets. In the following scene, he sees himself standing in the middle of sparse vegetation. Someone has just lifted him up and asks, “Can you manage alone?” Between scenes, a gap he hopes one day to fill in. A censor took the scissors and cut off a few meters of film, he thinks with an almost imperceptible smile, while he was lying in the hospital bed. When he got out at the end of fifteen days and could move around with some effort, his relatives took him for a walk to distract him, and casually showed him the curve. “It was here,” they said. “Your car skidded, went off the road and, flipping, tumbled down the ravine.” He stared at the curve, which was not one of the sharpest and didn’t even have a dangerous-curve warning. And all he could say then was, “Stupid curve.”

The afternoon grows tender, or, in other words, it turns down the heat, dims the light, and ushers in dusk. The man at the steering wheel continues at thirty kilometers per hour. He passes the Cururupe bridge, looks out at the stunted mangrove bushes to the left, and observes that the farms and houses grow denser. The road is deserted, clean, and dry. Not a single animal wandering the roadway, no lumbering ox crossing the asphalt. Nor are there any visible oil slicks, slippery and dangerous on days of fine rain. The adjacent beach is nothing but a mute expanse of indifferent sand. Right around here, the man thinks, a boy fell off his bicycle thirty years ago and broke his arm on a stone. And once they had returned to the beach, eager to catch sight of Praia do Sul and the houses of Pontal dos Ilhéus, the father—I remember like it was yesterday—urged the boy on: “Now we’re close. Only a hop, skip, and a jump. But work those legs or you’ll never get to the Sea of Azov.”

 

“Dad, I can’t go on,” says the boy.

“Yes, you can. Almost there.”

His arm in the sling, bound by the strips of bamboo, is falling asleep. He feels a prickling in his palm, on his elbow. A tingle passes from forearm to elbow, spreading to his upper arm and shoulder.

“Dad, just a break. Only one.”

“Alright,” says the father.

The bicycles being pushed by the father fall on the wet sand. They sit down. The father runs a hand through his hair and scans the horizon with a far-off look.

“Soon it will be dark.”

Seated with his legs folded, near the spot where the waves loosen their last tongues, the boy discovers signs of life in the sand. The holes of minuscule diameter were made by small white crabs called graçuás, ghost crabs. They disguise themselves well, with their watery color, and seem  to have several eyes each. Sensing any attempt to come near them, they scurry off sideways, extremely agile, and burrow into the first hole they find. To catch one requires great skill. Sometimes they are not hiding in holes. They simply remain on the surface of the sand. The wave comes, washes away the sand, and exposes the ghost crab’s shell. Absent any sign of imminent danger, it does not move. For a few seconds, it remains in the same spot, awaiting the return of the wave, and then, with nimble movements of its claws, dives deeper into the sand. Or else it runs and hides in a softer spot. There are some that are quite large.

“Those ghost crabs are very wise,” the father says.

“True.”

“They can’t make mistakes,” says the father.

“What do you mean?”

“A mistake would be fatal to them. Now, man, he can make mistakes. More than once. Many times, even.”

The boy listens in silence.

“By making mistakes,” says the father, “man accumulates what is called experience. Want a good definition of experience?”

The boy nods his head.

“Experience is a succession of mistakes. I’m talking, of course, about life experience, which is more than living.”

“So the oldest are the most experienced,” says the boy.

“Sometimes. They learn from the mistakes they make and take away lessons from their faults and misfortunes. They suffer.”

“And then?”

“Then they become wise. Wisdom is this: the filter of experience.”

“But I thought that the wise man was someone educated, a doctor.”

“That too, but not necessarily,” says the father. “For me, wisdom is the direct and personal knowledge of life. And education is experience.”

“Alright,” says the boy. “Those ghost crabs are wise.”

“Instinctively wise,” says the father.

They remain silent for a few moments. The water suffuses the air with a slight chill.

“Old people make fewer mistakes, because they have had time to improve themselves more,” says the father. “But don’t think that wisdom is the privilege of all the old people in this world.”

“Right,” says the boy.

“And now, maestro, should we go home?”

“Let’s go.”

They continue walking. The beach begins to produce small puddles from the waves.

“Was Robinson wise, Dad?”

“Yes, he was. He was all alone, face to face with himself, and he learned to know himself.”

 

Certain trips are futile or ill-fated, the man at the steering wheel thinks. Because once he did not set out for the Sea of Azov? But this was later. Ah, he thinks, as he presses further on the gas pedal, four days off, including May Day, and one more which he planned to steal from work. Almost a week. So, he inspects the car, takes a seat at the wheel, and sets off. Little more than two thousand kilometers, round-trip. Time to get there, embrace his mother, sleep, chat with his mother, sleep, take his mother for a walk, sleep, revisit certain vistas, some landscapes, return. The road is a ribbon that sometimes spools around curves, and other times runs straight, even, monotonous. He travels at night and gets in at dawn. No passing on a solid line. Steep incline. Check the breaks. Dangerous curve. Beginning of truck lane. End of truck lane. Roadwork in three hundred meters. Roadwork in one hundred meters. Detour. Refueling. Put a tiger in your tank! Smileage! Authentic churrascaria, all-you-can-eat. Fog. Mountains. Those who follow the signs avoid accidents. Caution, animal crossing. Switch to low beams when there is an oncoming vehicle. Wee hours of the morning. With mechanical movements, he turns the wheel to the right, to the left, brakes, accelerates, bypasses an ox, a cow, avoids running over a calf, a mule. Trees assume fantastic shapes in the beam of the headlights. Fences, houses, road signs, even the road itself, are identifiable only at a few meters’ distance; only then, in that final moment, does he know which way to go, which road is real and which is illusory. He is getting closer. How many more kilometers? No stopping now. He wants to sleep at home after embracing his mother, after eating something delicious that she will surely whip up. But would I have the right to bring from afar, from over a thousand kilometers away, my boredom, my ennui, my sorrows and struggles, my wild joy, my violence? Not a violence that I may have cultivated, but the steady violence that was imposed on me, a violence into which I sank gradually, without realizing it, and which gradually took hold of me, dictated my moods and my actions, became, without my noticing, second nature? Would I have the right to bring from the big city a piece of the collective violence, unwanted by me yet assimilated by default, and then distribute it to peaceful people, or people who at least gave the appearance of living in peace? Would I have this right? Not at all—nor do I think I have exercised it. And yet I was the one chosen by the Angel of Death. Do you know, Mom, he says, stepping harder on the accelerator, heading toward Pontal dos Ilhéus, as fast as that night five years ago when he took off down the endless highway, do you know that I set out for the Sea of Azov? I caught a KLM plane in Amsterdam, after taking in the Van Gogh originals which I hadn’t yet seen, including that horrible wheat field with a flock of crows flying overhead. The plane was filled with dark, round-faced Indonesians, Arabs in turbans, and restless Filipinos and Malaysians. I touched down in Athens, checked into a hotel, and in the morning, when I opened the curtains, I nearly hit my head on the ruins of the Acropolis, those same ruins from my old readers. I have never been so close to the Sea of Azov, Mom. I just didn’t understand then that that trip, that search, that quest was futile. Only now do I understand that I’ve gone to the Sea of Azov again and again and already let its waters slip through my fingers.

The car speeds ahead. Pontal is close. Down below, to the right, the man sees the first granite rock formations where the waves churn, spraying foam. Praia do Sul. The beach continues a ways, then eventually gives onto the hill that used to be inhabited by a reclusive order of friars, where at one time there was a lighthouse. At the foot of the hill, from the other side, Pontal Beach appears, though it actually begins at the mouth of the Cachoeira River.

 

“Have you given up?” says the father.

The boy is slumped over onto his good side.

“I give up,” he says.

“Only old people, the very old, give up,” says the father.

With his left hand, he holds the two bikes, hooked together by the handlebars, and lifts the boy by the armpit.

“That’s it, come on. You can stand on your own two feet,” says the father.

He links his arm through the boy’s good one, and, joined together, they enter Pontal by the beach road, near the lighthouse hill.

“Mom is going to be surprised when she sees us,” says the boy.

“True. She wasn’t expecting us until tomorrow.”

“I’m going to sleep right away,” says the boy.

“After I call the doctor,” says the father.

They drag themselves along languidly, passing beneath the tamarind and along the foot of the breadfruit tree.

The boy feels sleep closing his eyes, prying open his mouth with long yawns.

“Dad, is life difficult?”

“Of course,” says the father.

“Difficult like what?”

“It’s as difficult as… as carrying a cup filled with water.

“The water can’t spill,” says the boy.

“The water shouldn’t spill,” says the father. “But it does spill over, no matter how careful you are.”

“And what then?” says the boy.

“Always carry water, which is the ideal beverage, the only inoffensive one,” says the father.

“Yes, sir.”

“Be careful not to carry caustic soda, ant poison, or, simply, a cup of bitterness,” says the father.

“Yes, sir.”

“You can never be too careful when carrying poison,” says the father.

“Yes, sir.”

“This is how you will one day get to the shores of your Sea of Azov,” says the father.

“Yes, sir,” says the boy.

He is home, the sea of Pontal a mere whisper at his back. He pushes open the door.

“Mom,” he says.

No one answers. He goes on in.

“Mom, I’m back.”

 

[1] The capital of Bhutan was Punakha until 1955.

Hélio Pólvora, named by Juan Rulfo as one of Brazil’s most important writers, was born in Itabuna, Bahia, in 1928. His career as a journalist took him to Rio de Janeiro, where he became an assiduous editor, critic, and literary translator. His first story collection, Os Galos da Aurora, was published in 1958, to wide acclaim. He went on to publish some 130 stories. Pólvora returned to Bahia in 1990, where he died in 2015. He was a member of the Academia de Letras da Bahia, Academia Brasileira de Letras, and Academia de Letras de Ilhéus.

Amanda Sarasien is a writer and literary translator working from Portuguese and French. Past published translations have appeared in Aldus, a Journal of Translation; MAYDAY Magazine; Asymptote; and The Cossack Review. She reviews books, film, and art for various publications. A member of PEN, the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA), the Authors Guild, and the Third Coast Translators Collective (TCTC), she can be found at AmandaSarasien.com.

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Sea of Azov

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