The house had several bedrooms. I asked which of them I was supposed to sleep in. She took me to a bedroom that was close to hers.
I sat on the bed, tested the mattress.
"No good, it's too soft. It'll kill my back."
I tested the mattresses in all the bedrooms until I found a firm one.
"This one's good. You got a shirt I can use? I forgot to bring anything to sleep in."
The woman came back right away with a white shirt.
"This is the largest I have. I just wore it once, does it matter?"
I thanked the woman and said good night. I put on the shirt, smelled the scent in the fabric, a mixture of clean skin and perfume.
I looked for a position to sleep. My back hurt. I had a lot of broken and badly healed bones scattered around my body.
The woman knocked on the door so softly that I nearly didn't hear her.
"It's me. I'd like to speak to you."
I put on my pants and opened the door.
She was wearing a robe, and a woman in a robe always reminds me of my mother. In fact, the only thing I remember about my mother is the robe.
"You're too far away, I don't feel protected. I can't sleep. Can't you go to the room next to mine? We can take the firm mattress from this bed and exchange it for the other one."
I took my firm mattress to the bedroom next to hers.
I sat on the bed.
"I think everything's all right now. I can sleep on this. Good night."
I couldn't take more then ten minutes lying down. The pain in my spine increased. I got out of bed and sat in an armchair that was in the room.
Another knock on the door.
"What is it?"
"I heard a noise in the garden," she whispered through the door. "I think there's someone in the garden."
I put on my pants. Opened the door. She was still in her robe.
"It must be your imagination. You're very nervous. Where In the garden?"
"In the magnolia grove. There aren't any lights there, and I had the impression that I saw a light going on and off."
"You have a flashlight?"
The woman gave me the flashlight.
"Be careful. I've told you the horrible things that have been happening with me, haven't I?"
"You ought to go to your apartment in the city."
"It's worse there. I had to disconnect the telephone because of the calls in the middle of the night, threatening me. And there are people following me in the street. Here, at least, there are bars on all the windows and the doors are metal. Take the revolver."
"It's better if you keep the revolver. Lock the door. And don't go looking out through the window."
It was a large country estate. A lawn with flowerbeds ringed the house. In the middle of the grass, a swimming pool In the rear, the caretaker's house and the garden. The rest of the estate was woods and large trees, which made the night even darker. Stone benches were scattered among the trees. I sat down on one of them, in the magnolia grove. I waited, with the lit flashlight on the bench.
Sonya emerged silently from the darkness and sat down beside me on the stone bench.
"Did you leave the revolver where she could see it?"
"I left it in her hand. I'm following your plan."
"Listen to this noise," Sonya said, taking a recorder from her purse and turning it on. It sounded like the moan of someone dying. "Doesn't it sound like a ghost?"
"You two are lucky there's no dog here."
"There was. We poisoned it. Jorge poisoned it. When's she going to use the revolver?"
"She's scared to death, let's wait a bit. Who's Jorge?"
"If you don't know, I'm not going to tell you."
"Why do you want the woman dead?"
"That's none of your concern."
"I'm going back to the house. Turn off the moans. That's enough for now."
"Don't forget our agreement," Sonya said. "This has to be taken care of within three days. If she's still undecided, you put the bullet in her head yourself."
I went back to the house. The woman opened the door, holding my revolver. She was trembling, her eyes wide.
"What was that noise?"
"Nothing? I heard it. Do you think I'm crazy?"
"I know, I know you think I'm crazy." The woman pointed the revolver at me.
"Tell me the truth. You think I'm crazy. The caretakers thought I was crazy and ran off one night without saying a word. I've just heard a loud moan, the sound of a soul in agony, like mine, and you tell me it was nothing? And this revolver with no bullets? Is that how you were going to defend me? With an unloaded gun?"
"How do you know it's not loaded?"
"I put it up to my head and pulled the trigger six times. Nothing happened."
"I forgot to load it. I don't know how that happened, I'm very careful."
"You removed the bullets because you thought I was crazy and would shoot myself."
"I'm here to protect you. Go to sleep. Tomorrow we'll talk."
"Don't speak to me that way. I'm very nervous. Come sleep in my room."
The woman lay down without taking off her robe, covering herself with a sheet. I sat down in the armchair in the room. All the bedrooms had armchairs and their own bathroom.
She looked at me from the bed, sighing like someone about to cry.
"Come over here, hold my hand."
I held her hand.
"You have large hands. Did you used to be a manual laborer?"
"Have you always been a companion for sick people?"
"When I was young, I spent two years pushing an old man's wheelchair. It was the best time of my life. I liked to read, he had thousands of books, and I spent all day reading."
"I've never seen you reading here."
"I haven't had time yet and your books don't appeal to me."
"I'm sorry. And after you worked in the house with all those books that appealed to you?"
"Then I took care of the old man."
"Was he mentally ill?"
"No. It was a sickness of old age." The guy killed himself, with my help, but I wouldn't tell her that. "Now try to get a little sleep."
"Am I crazy?"
"No. You're just very nervous."
The woman fell asleep. I let go of her hand. I went to the armchair and spent the entire night awake, thinking, smelling the scent of her shirt on my body and looking at the woman as she slept. Primitive man would devour like hyenas the remains of dead animals that had been hunted down by other animals. He didn't become a hunter himself until he invented pointed weapons. I loaded the bullets into the chamber of the revolver.
The woman in the bed looked like a dead dog that would be easy to kick. I don't ask questions when I'm hired for a job. But in this case I'd like to know who wanted her to put a bullet in her head. Some scumbag husband terrifying his hysterical wife to make her kill herself so the bastard could keep the money? I'd been through a situation more or less like that, once during Carnival week.
Dawn broke, birds started to chirp, and the woman woke up. She smiled at me.
"I feel better today. I think the nightmare is coming to an end. I'm going to do some work in the garden, will you stay close to me?"
I left her bedroom. In my bathroom, I washed my face and brushed my teeth. I went to the garden.
The woman was wearing a hat to protect her from the sun. She asked me to accompany her to the tool shed next to the garage. They were pickaxes, shovels, an electric lawnmower, a pump for cleaning the pool. She picked up a pair of shears, the kind used in gardens.
"My garden is pretty, isn't it? I planted those flowers myself, aren't they pretty?"
I don't care much about flowers, but I listened patiently as she mentioned the names of the ones growing in the flowerbeds.
"I have to make a phone call."
"The telephone is disconnected."
"I'll go to the village."
"Please, don't leave me by myself."
"Then come with me. You can work in the garden later."
We took her car.
"Do you like music?"
"If you want to listen to music, it doesn't bother me."
She popped a violin concerto into the car's player.
"Doesn't it give you a peaceful feeling?"
Violin music makes me restless, but I put up with it without saying anything. We arrived at the small square in the village. I stopped at the door of the little market, full of sacks of cat and dog food.
She got out of the car with me. "I'm going to buy some things. I'm tired of eating frozen food."
The man in the market greeted her amicably; the woman had owned the estate for many years. The man asked if I was the new caretaker, and the woman replied that I was a friend.
Nearby there was a bakery. I called Sonya from there.
"I'm going to do the job. But first I want to talk to you and Jorge. I want the rest of the money. Tonight, the same place where we met last night."
"Jorge won't go."
"That's his problem. If he doesn't come talk to me, the deal's off. Nine o'clock."
I hung up the phone. Went back to the market. I picked up the bag of groceries and we went back to the car.
The woman worked in the garden, then made something for us to eat. But she just sat at the table, without eating a thing. Then she went back to work in the garden, listening to music, with me at her side the whole time, suffering from the violins, wanting everything to be over and done with.
At fifteen till nine I told the woman that I was going to take a look around the grounds and might be gone for a while.
"Don't leave me alone." I got the flashlight.
"I won't be far away, nothing to worry about. Lock everything and only open the door to me. And stay away from the window."
I left, taking the revolver. At the tool shed I grabbed two shovels and a pickax and went to the magnolia grove. I sat down on the stone bench, with the flashlight on. I placed the shovels and pickax beside the bench.
Sonya and Jorge were slow to show up. The man was wearing a hat that covered half his face.
"Turn off that flashlight. What did you want with me?"
I recognized him at once. If you want to stay alive in this shitty world you can't forget anyone's face or voice. It was the son of old man Baglioni, whom I had helped make it to the other world. I pretended not to recognize him.
"Just one question. Is the woman your wife?"
"That old bag? She's my partner. She's off her rocker and has been screwing up the business. What did you want from me?"
"To get what you owe me."
"Before you do the job? Impossible. A deal's a deal."
"I'm going to kill the woman today and disappear. How am I supposed to get the rest?"
"You know where to find Sonya. She'll pay you later."
I turned on the flashlight. I pointed to the shovels and pickax.
"I want you two to help me dig a grave. If I do it by myself it'll take a really long time. The body has to vanish. I went shopping with her in the village today and they saw my face."
"That's all we needed," said Jorge.
"No grave, no body."
"All right, all right," Jorge said, grabbing one of the shovels. I picked up the other one and the pickax.
"Not here. We have to go outside the estate, in the forest."
"I can't walk very far in these heels," Sonya said.
"That's your problem."
We went into the forest, with Sonya complaining that her shoes were getting ruined.
"This is good," I said.
Sonya refused to dig. Jorge and I worked in silence, the way gravediggers do. It's not easy to open up a large grave, especially in that type of hard earth. Our shirts were soaked in sweat. Jorge was sweating more than me but didn't take off the hat that concealed his face.
Jorge laid down the shovel. "That's deep enough," he said.
I still had the pickax in my hand.
"There's still one thing missing," I said.
I struck Jorge in the head with all my strength, using the point of the pickax. He fell. Sonya began to run but only managed a few steps and a shout of fear, not really a shout, more a kind of howl.
I checked to see they were really dead, I didn't want to bury them alive. I deepened the cavity a little more. I threw them into the hole and covered it with dirt. I patted down the earth with the shovel and covered the grave with rocks and tree branches. In the forest there was nothing but birds, toads, snakes, insects and other harmless animals. They weren't going to dig up that grave, but I didn't want to take any chances.
I washed the shovels and the pickax and returned them to the tool shed. I knocked on the iron door of the house.
"It's me, you can open the door."
The woman opened the door, as frightened as ever. "Did you see anything?"
"No. And I didn't hear any strange noises. Did you?"
"No," she answered. "Would you like some tea? I'll make us some tea."
I stayed at the estate for another week with the woman, despite the music. There's nothing more irritating than violin music. Every day I would go to the grave where those two were rotting, to see if there was any bad smell in the air. Nothing. In the market in the village they recommended an elderly couple as caretakers for the woman. The old man was a robust type who worked all day in the garden, him and my mother. I'm joking, but I wish she could have been my mother. I liked her. If I'd had a mother like her I'd be a different man, my fate would be different, and I'd take care of her. I'd have someone to love.
She was in the garden with the caretaker, puttering in the soil. "I have to leave," I said.
"I don't know how to repay you for what you've done for me. I'm well. I'm no longer afraid."
"You're not well. But no one is going to phone you in the middle of the night anymore or follow you in the streets to frighten you."
"How can I pay you? You must be needing some money."
"I've already been paid. But you can give me a ride to the bus station in the city."
The woman drove me to the bus station.
"When you need anything, look for me. Give me your telephone number," she said.
"I don't have a phone."
"Sonya must know how to find you if I need you, doesn't she? She was very kind, recommending you as my guardian angel."
I didn't answer. The woman waited with me until the bus arrived, the two of us in the car listening to the music she liked, and the violin didn't seem so irritating.
I got onto the bus. She waved at me as the bus pulled away.
Translation from the Portuguese
By Clifford E. Landers
Rubem Fonseca (b. 1925) is recognized by many as Brazil's most important living writer. He has received the Juan Rulfo Prize, considered Latin America's Nobel Prize in Literature; the Jabuti Prize, Brazil's highest literary honor; as well as the Camoes Prize, the premier literary award in the Portuguese language. The first collection of his short stories in English translation, The Taker and Other Stories, appeared in November from Open Letter.
Clifford E. Landers has translated some two dozen book-length works from Portuguese, including novels by Rubem Fonseca, Jorge Amado, Joao Ubaldo Ribeiro, Patricia Melo, Jose de Alencar, Chico Buarque, AntOnio Lobo Antunes, Nelida Pinon, Paulo Coelho, and Marcos Rey. A recipient of the Mario Ferreira Award and a National Endowment for the Arts grant for prose translation, he is the author of Literary Translation: A Practical Guide (Multilingual Matters, 2001).