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About the Author

Erika de Vasconcelos

Books by this Author
Between the Stillness and the Grove
Excerpt

Prologue

There is the sea. Dzovig is staring at it. She does this often in the early hours of the morning, makes her way to the wall at the edge of the beach, determined, like an addict seeking out her drug. And the sea is never very far in this country: Portugal, a thin strip of land stretching along the Atlantic, on the edge of the Continent. The people here also stare at the sea; they stare at it so often that reflections of light bouncing off the water pass across their eyes even after they have gone home, at night, even as they sleep. They carry the smell of the sea with them in the wool of their coats, in the breath they exhale, after bread and wine. But they don’t think of the sea, as Dzovig does. They dismiss it as husbands and wives of decades dismiss each other, or as peoples of the mountains dismiss geography, though it has shaped all that they are. But Dzovig is from another country, and therefore different. She stores up the sea like a beggar at a feast.

In her favourite painting of Pessoa, his shape is also standing at the edge of the water, a thin black line before a huge expanse of grey, in this country where the sea is rarely grey, or white.

In every painting of him that she has seen, he always wears a hat, a black fedora which sits on his head like an extension of his body. Even a picture of his room that depicts little else but squares of sunlight on the floor and half a chest of drawers contains his hat, left on a chair. She likes this about him, a carapace. She likes the hat, the round glasses, the cropped moustache and bow tie. Such a prim dresser, for a modernist. She likes the empty bronze chair that stands beside him, part of that sculpture in front of the Brasileira café, as if in wait for someone. She had gladly occupied that chair. She could think of him now as an old lover, as real as any man whose body she has ever slept beside, though she won’t. Pessoa has been dead for more than fifty years.

Best of all she likes his name: Pessoa, meaning, literally, person. Anyone, or everyone.

The sea is particularly blue today, or perhaps only seems so because of the intensity with which Dzovig is watching, wondering if she will ever come back here, to this stone wall, to this adopted country. She had thought for a time that she would never leave Portugal, like Pessoa. That any other place would be a poor substitute for the black and white mosaics of pavements, all leading to the water. But tomorrow she will cross the Atlantic in a plane full of Portuguese who, given steaming towelettes, will wipe the surface of their dinner trays rather than their own hands. She will land in Toronto, a city without sea, where, her friend tells her, there are flowers like blue planets. Where, Vecihe tells her, everything is new. Come and visit, her friend says. But Dzovig knows that there are no visits. She knows now, deep in her stomach, that each arrival is a return.

Chapter One

TOMAS

The steady grinding of wheels comes to a stop. She is still sleeping; not even the shuffle of bodies leaving the train wakes her. It is the man sitting across the aisle who pulls at her arm, saying “Menina. Lisboa.” On the platform dozens of people are walking in semi-darkness, a network of black beams high overhead, under a glass roof that has grown opaque. Daylight seeps through it as if through layers of green water.

Dzovig’s hair is cropped short and falls haphazardly into place when she shakes it out. She is wearing a shapeless sweater and a green skirt, a skirt she has held onto since Armenia. In a bag she carries the rest of her clothes, a hair comb, a few pens.

It is early morning in the streets of Lisbon. Outside the station, by the doors, two women are selling flowers, each with her own buckets of roses set out at her feet. The women are dressed in black wool. They could belong anywhere, Dzovig thinks: the widows of Europe. They throw words at each other across the passing people, oblivious, apparently, to the loss their clothes are commemorating. Maybe this is all it takes to get through it, she thinks, to dress in black wool and sell flowers.

She hasn’t eaten for hours and she is very hungry, her last meal a sandwich with the French student, Jean, who had offered to follow her across Europe, thinking, perhaps, that she was one of those students with giant backpacks that gathered outside the train stations of European cities. “Non merci,” Dzovig had said. She might have slept with him if she’d thought that he had any money, but she knew by then that only older men would pay. She had enough, in any case, to last her for a while.

She approaches one of the widows, and asks in French for a place to buy food. The woman consults her companion. She speaks only Portuguese but points with thick fingers in one direction. “A Menina quer a baixa,” she says.

“Menina, baixa?” Dzovig repeats. She doesn’t understand.

The women laugh and confer again. They point to Dzovig. “Menina,” they say. Finally they add, almost in unison, “Centre, centre.”

She walks down a long, wide avenue, past squares where the fountains are running, past a statue of a man on horseback in a sea of pigeons. She has grown accustomed to it now, the beauty of non-Soviet cities. In the beginning it had struck her with a kind of perverse pleasure, like vengeance. Look at us, Tomas used to say, packaged into neat little Soviet boxes.... He liked to say that Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, wasn’t an Armenian city at all.

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