dona malva and senhor jose ferreiro
dona malva had prayed so fervently that her dead husband would come back, she’d wished for this so passionately, that she started hearing voices coming from the attic one night. the voices seemed to be whispering, whispering words she couldn’t understand, words that floated down in dry spirals and then seemed to fall through the floor as guttural grunts.
dona malva ran through the house yelling and rosa woke up but couldn’t get to her feet. mom, mommy, why are you yelling. and dona malva, bitter, furious, said that the dead had entered the house and that they were coming to take rosa away. after that she took her own head in her hands and didn’t know what she was saying or doing. sometimes she said one thing and did the opposite. the dead are in the house because they want to return someone to me. it’s my husband, she said to herself, they’re calling me to the attic because of my husband, and rosa started crying, she refused to believe it, until the voices in the attic finally went quiet. after a few minutes, dona malva quietly climbed the stairs, tears leaking down her face as from an old faucet. she couldn’t stop herself, though fear was tight around her chest, and every second seemed to bring her closer to death, closer to heaven, or better yet, closer to eternal hellfire.
dona malva had hardly grasped the handle of the attic door when the noises began again, sending her rushing back down the steps. the dead struck the walls of the attic with such force that tremors reverberated throughout the whole house. they were speaking again too. when rosa and dona malva realized this, they both went quiet and listened. one dry voice whispered incessantly, and to dona malva it seemed gentle, full of tenderness. it seemed to be saying, i’m your father, i’m your father. but how could she be sure? after death, it’s easy to impersonate anyone you want, even a woman or an innocent child. as the voice continued whispering and the dead went on striking the walls, dona malva and rosa struggled to give definitive shape and sense to the words, but they weren’t comprehensible, weren’t understandable, and they made no progress. perhaps the dead only persist in the shadows of the mind, hidden from the human eye. and perhaps they’d leave the house if no one there ever wanted the dead to return again.
but no. as the days passed, the voices in the attic were heard more and more often. eventually dona malva and rosa thought it quite normal to see the sun shining outside while listening to the dead banging on the attic walls. something would fall because of the vibrations and dona malva didn’t bother asking why. silently, with trembling hands, she’d put the fallen objects back into place. she knew of course that supernatural beings could cause things to fall. and sometimes objects would be hurled with such force that anyone passing by the house would jump in surprise. and on the third day, the walls began to weep. it’s the blood of the dead, dona malva said to herself, though their blood is only an exhalation of vapor, a fine curtain of water that evaporates as soon as it touches the walls. but the water didn’t evaporate. it seeped through the whole house, from the attic down to the rooms below. they pulled rosa’s bed away from the walls so that she wouldn’t have to smell or touch it. dona malva even opened the windows in the hope that fresh air would cause the blood of the dead to dry. i watched as she gathered flowers from our garden and placed them on the windowsill, trying to make the house more cheerful. but every hope eventually gave way before the relentless dead.
on the seventh day, someone saw the figure of the dead man on the roof. people came running, but only a few could actually make him out, the others strained their eyes but saw nothing. even dona malva went out into the square, rosa crying in terror at being left alone. no one thought to enter the house and keep the girl company. maybe they didn’t care, or were too afraid. but there, though only visible to a few, was the ghost of senhor josé ferreiro, larger than life, standing on the roof, terrible in the gathering wind. then the gathering wind gathered in a storm, and the rain chased everyone back into their homes.
it’s true that dona malva had wanted senhor josé to return. at the same time, she wasn’t sure if she was all that comfortable with the notion of being a wife to the undead. come to think of it, she wasn’t even sure what she’d really seen on the roof that night. there had been such confusion. although she could hardly rule out the possibility that rooftop apparitions were an entirely normal part of the process of a dead person returning to the living. all in all, she was at a loss, and even my grandfather, who was, at heart, an ignorant and thoughtless man, tried to do what he could to spare her any more pain. anyone who hears and sees things that aren’t there is probably a liar, he said, but someone who encourages that kind of insanity is even worse than whatever evil thing has possessed the liar in the first place. sometimes when dona malva went out, we’d all stop whatever we were doing and crane our necks toward the street to see the crazy woman as she passed. eventually my grandmother changed the kitchen curtains for a darker linen. that way we wouldn’t have to see what was going on in the neighboring garden. that way, we wouldn’t have to think so much about the threat next door.
a short time later, senhor josé ferreiro appeared in the kitchen, a phantom giving off a weak and intermittent light. he sat down at the table and didn’t move or speak. dona malva watched him in the hope that he would eventually give her some sign or other, but he remained perfectly still. he was like a strange refraction of light, a dull reflection of what he’d been in life, or perhaps a television channel only partly tuned-in. rosa called for her mother and her mother ignored her. during this time, no one in that house
paid the slightest attention to other people. it seemed they’d become ghosts themselves. all the members of the household, senhor josé as well as the insane mother and daughter who could see him, no longer bothered acknowledging the presence of anyone else in the neighborhood.
word still spread, however, and neighbors crowded into dona malva’s house to see if senhor josé really was sitting at the kitchen table. no one else besides an old widow could see him. most people just caught a strong scent of mold coming from the shadows. no weak refraction of light, they thought, no nothing. they told themselves that the old widow who’d corroborated senhor josé’s presence was probably just overtired, and while they wouldn’t rule out the possibility that something strange was going on, it certainly wasn’t that senhor josé ferreiro, they said, was back from the dead and sitting at his kitchen table as though waiting for his supper. after that, dona malva longed for someone to see him on the roof again, like they’d seen him the first time, looking like a rooster crowing at the night. that’s right, thought dona malva, he looked like a rooster, crowing at the night instead of the day, because it stands to reason that night is like day to the dead. though even then not everyone could see him. i certainly didn’t.
i went into rosa’s room and sat down on her bed which had been pulled into the middle of the room, away from the walls whose colors had started to blend and run. it’s vapor from the attic, she told me. my body is disappearing. my mother will find me evaporating too, i’m going to disappear forever. when we die, i said to her, we become nothing. it’s your imagination. she sat up so abruptly it shook the bed. my father is sitting at our kitchen table and one day he’s going to speak and he’s going to make everyone understand him.
the two crazy people in the house were due to get a few more surprises. one night dona malva went to bed late. she’d been begging senhor josé ferreiro to say something to her or at least to silence the other voices still coming from the attic. suddenly she heard the sizzle of something burning and thought the house was on fire. she got up and looked around but nothing seemed wrong. just the noise. the only other thing out of the ordinary was that the ghost of senhor josé had moved. he appeared right in front of her,
and dona malva thought she was going to die of fright, but instead fell into a profound sleep. she dreamed that the voices had deepened, that they surrounded her, thick, tangible, capable of swallowing a person whole. she sank into the voices and then there was nothing but the sensation of being enfolded by them, suspended within them. rosa is screaming, she thought, and the voices are entering me. all at once, she woke up with her stomach enormous, bloated. she woke up pregnant, in the final weeks, needing to throw up.
the next day, my grandmother visited dona malva’s house and didn’t touch anything. dona malva was weeping in terror, and my grandmother waited to see how the lunatic was going to react to her famous empty chair today. that’s all we saw, an empty chair. but dona malva was overcome, begging, josé josé, tell me what you want from me, what are you doing to me, and it’s true that dona malva’s skirts were giving off a little smoke, smoke that writhed downward and disappeared before reaching the floor. of course, my grandmother didn’t want to believe that a ghost could get a woman pregnant, or that a woman could have spirits leaking out of her body like excess gas. dona malva put her hands on her stomach and stumbled to the front of her house. i myself went into their house then and made my way slowly and fearfully toward the kitchen, determined to prove to myself that senhor josé ferreiro didn’t exist. though it was getting harder and harder to know what to believe. as rosa said, if her father had returned and gotten her mother pregnant, who else could it be in her mother’s stomach right now. i saw dona malva at the end of the hall surrounded by my grandmother and some other women now and i imagined senhor josé ferreiro bursting out of her gut so that he could live again and buy himself nice things. that was the sort of nonsense filling my head. it was hard to keep oneself thinking sensible things when a ghost-birth was about to take place.
dona malva vomited and then the other women got sick too. chaos. the women were screaming and i thought, well, this sort of malicious impossibility might very well destroy the world. dona malva herself yelled and swore and then fell into a stupor. without realizing it she opened her legs wide so that something could pass or be passed through, like gas being expelled. the smell was overpowering and the other women rushed to open the windows, screaming in unison. after that they drew together into a circle, facing outward, watching for any sign of evil. a few men came in too, but left quickly enough thereafter, since dona malva with her legs spread wasn’t a fit sight to be seen. if they watched her from the back, however, the married men were allowed to stay. as the smoke leaked from between dona malva’s legs, the men turned their faces away and called to each other for comfort. all was confusion and it became obvious that the men couldn’t handle the situation as well as the women. they either lacked courage or a natural tolerance for such occurrences. so finally they gathered together in the doorway and reminisced about how senhor josé ferreiro had been a good man and, truth be told, had never hurt anyone in life. they said that senhor josé must have come back like this because dona malva had been such a bitch to him. he’d been a peaceful man, they said, but now apparently he’d become a little impulsive. no, said someone else, once you’re dead it’s like you’re deaf and dumb. josé ferreiro is nothing more than a deaf, sad spirit now. he doesn’t know what he’s doing. another disagreed. death isn’t like going to sleep, it’s like waking up, he said. it’s like a blow to the head that gets all your senses going at last. dona malva vomited again and the men turned their eyes down the hall to the kitchen and then turned back, frightened, disgusted, numb, saying, that senhor josé, that son of a bitch, he’s really there, he’s sitting at the kitchen table, just sitting there while his widow succumbs to this insanity. and then everyone began to file out again and i went into the small backyard with my grandmother.
the blossoms on the orange tree perfumed our walk, my grandmother behind me. we didn’t talk about anything important for a while. sometimes your grandfather seems so rude, she said, that son of a bitch. i’ve learned to expect anything. if he gets hungry, he demands to be fed on the spot. and i asked, grandmother, can you see senhor josé. and she said no, but fear can make him real. fear can make people think they see him. we had a good talk until my grandfather got back from the market and then we stopped as if we’d been switched off and pretended we were occupied with unrelated things. my grandfather came into our house looking preoccupied, went up and rummaged through the drawers in his room, and finally left again via the backyard. perhaps he needed to kill some bugs out in the garden, or perhaps two cats were wandering around out back and he wanted to give them a good kick. he was as hard as a rock, or like iron hardened in water.
dona malva’s belly stayed distended for a few days and our daily life in the neighborhood took on a rather improvised, hurried pace. at the market, we loaded ourselves down with vegetables for soups and herbs for tea. there was a hand on dona malva’s stomach most of the day to measure her progress and check for changes. dona malva waddled around like an old woman, sad and with an enormous stomach, though she moaned convincingly enough like a new mother about to give birth. fumes constantly leaked from out of her skirts. slowly, very slowly, the days would darken. small children trailed behind her, frightened and fascinated, expecting her to act like a witch from their fairy tales. they told each other that she was going to mix vegetables with hair and nails, with dirt from new graves or else from some holy site, that she was going to cast a spell to drive away the fire in her belly. dona malva ignored their taunting and hurried on her way. rosa, left alone in the house, began to starve, and eventually the solitude ate away at what was left of her sanity. the more alone she was, the more the voices tortured her, and the more the blood of the dead seeped into the walls of her room.
one day dona malva collapsed in mid step and more smoke began to seep out from between her legs. the black fumes thickened and eventually hid the moaning woman as people ran all around her calling for help. dona malva emptied out her belly right there and then, and in the darkness no one could tell if she was giving birth to anything living. when the smoke dissipated, only the groaning woman was there, obviously in agony, broken, as if she’d been carrying a whole house in her body. people approached cautiously, refusing to believe that all dona malva had held inside her was fire. people looking closely saw that her clothes were charred. it was ridiculous. there she was, alive and smokeless now, although she’d certainly smelled like smoke from time to time. dona malva was still moaning, begging for someone to help her. she said her soul had escaped between her legs and that she couldn’t stand up. a few terrified men picked her up and threw her into her house like a sandbag over a cliff. when she heard rosa calling out, she finally moved a little. it was late in the day, the sun was just a sliver in the sky. finally, my courageous grandmother went over and helped the disgraced woman get up, leading her to senhor josé’s old chair and telling her to rest while she saw to rosa. i stood in the doorway but didn’t enter. everyone else stood behind me and said that a house so corrupted by evil should be burned to the ground. they said that dona malva’s remains would continue to smoke even after everything else was ash. they stepped back then as my grandfather arrived, hoe in hand, crying out, you there, it’s only idiots like you who waste time being afraid of things that don’t exist. then he shook his hoe and threatened to split their heads open if they came any closer. like potatoes, he said. any one of you.
dona malva stood up and pushed senhor josé’s chair against the wall. she looked at it a long time. she said, we’ll never move it. she said, and we’ll never see each other again. then my grandfather came right in and moved the chair. dona malva protested. be quiet, senhora ferreira, for god’s sake, my grandfather said, and he pushed her to the floor. she went quiet and seemed to doubt herself, rubbing her stomach, now shrunken. when nothing else happened, my grandfather approached the chair again, thought a moment, and then left to bring back bricks and cement. dona malva didn’t object. she watched him wall in that chair, and as she watched she seemed increasingly defiant. you’re not going to move from there ever again, josé. you’re going to be trapped between these walls. yet as soon as the bricks reached the ceiling, the noise in the attic started up again, louder than ever, and then louder still, until it seemed as if all the dead of the world had squeezed into the top of the house. dona malva cried out in desperation and collapsed. i looked for rosa. no one had the courage to acknowledge what was going on. an impossible wind began to blow through the house, picking objects up and then smashing them apart. again, chaos. objects began to revolve around rosa, knocking her to the floor. i grabbed her and held her against me, and i thought, what if this wind never stops, we’ll spend the rest of our lives like this, or else, what if we get ripped to pieces, they’ll have to search for us among the flowers. it was as though life had stopped. in that moment, life felt suspended.
the following day was christmas eve. whenever someone tried to enter the house, they’d hear a soft snarl. rags were stuffed in the chinks in the walls and all the curtains were drawn. the members of the household worried that this supper would be their last, especially since the blood of the dead had begun descending from the attic again, seeping into every wall of dona malva’s house, except the one my grandfather had built. soon the dead too began coming down from the attic again. this is apparently what the dead do.