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The Buffalo

Katrina Dodson is the winner of the 2016 PEN Translation Prize for her translation of The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector. This collection of 86 stories written throughout Lispector's lifetime is a quirky whirlind of prose that draws the reader into the unique mind of its author. Lispector, a celebrated Brazilian author, is, according to Colm Toíbín, "one of the hidden genuises of the twentieth century." The following story, "The Buffalo," is from the collection.

 

But it was spring. Even the lion licked the lioness’s smooth forehead. Both animals blond. The woman averted her eyes from the cage, where the hot smell alone recalled the carnage she’d come looking for at the Zoological Gardens. Then the lion paced calmly, mane flowing, and the lioness slowly recomposed the head of a sphinx upon her outstretched paws. “But this is love, it’s love again,” railed the woman trying to locate her own hatred but it was spring and two lions had been in love. Fists in her coat pockets, she looked around, surrounded by the cages, caged by the shut cages. She kept walking. Her eyes were so focused on searching that her vision sometimes darkened into a kind of sleep, and then she’d recompose herself as in the coolness of a pit.

But the giraffe was a virgin with freshly shorn braids. With the mindless innocence of large and nimble and guiltless things. The woman in the brown coat averted her eyes, feeling sick, sick. Unable—in front of the perching aerial giraffe, in front of that silent wingless bird—unable to locate inside herself the spot where her sickness was the worst, the sickest spot, the spot of hatred, she who had gone to the Zoological Gardens to get sick. But not in front of the giraffe that was more landscape than being. Not in front of that flesh that had become distracted in its height and remoteness, the nearly verdant giraffe. She was searching for other animals, trying to learn from them how to hate. The hippopotamus, the moist hippopotamus. That plump roll of flesh, rounded and mute flesh awaiting some other plump and mute flesh. No. For there was such humble love in remaining just flesh, such sweet martyrdom in not knowing how to think.

But it was spring, and, tightening the fist in her coat pocket, she’d kill those monkeys levitating in their cage, monkeys happy as weeds, monkeys leaping about gently, the female monkey with her resigned, loving gaze, and the other female suckling her young. She’d kill them with fifteen dry bullets: the woman’s teeth clenched until her jaw ached. The nakedness of the monkeys. The world that saw no danger in being naked. She’d kill the nakedness of the monkeys. One monkey stared back at her as he gripped the bars, his emaciated arms outstretched in a crucifix, his bare chest exposed without pride. But she wouldn’t aim at his chest, she’d shoot the monkey between the eyes, she’d shoot between those eyes that were staring at her without blinking. Suddenly the woman averted her face: because the monkey’s pupils were covered with a gelatinous white veil, in his eyes the sweetness of sickness, he was an old monkey—the woman averted her face, trapping between her teeth a feeling she hadn’t come looking for, she quickened her step, even so, turned her head in alarm back toward the monkey with its arms outstretched: he kept staring straight ahead. “Oh no, not this,” she thought. And as she fled, she said: “God, teach me only how to hate.”

“I hate you,” she said to a man whose only crime was not loving her. “I hate you,” she said in a rush. But she didn’t even know how you were supposed to do it. How did you dig in the earth until locating that black water, how did you open a passage through the hard earth and never reach yourself? She roamed the zoo amid mothers and children. But the elephant withstood his own weight. That whole elephant endowed with the capacity to crush with a mere foot. But he didn’t crush anything. That power that nevertheless would tamely let itself be led to a circus, a children’s elephant. And his eyes, with an old man’s benevolence, trapped inside that hulking, inherited flesh. The oriental elephant. And the oriental spring too, and everything being born, everything flowing downstream.

The woman then tried the camel. The camel in rags, humpbacked, chewing at himself, absorbed in the process of getting to know his food. She felt weak and tired, she’d hardly eaten in two days. The camel’s large, dusty eyelashes above eyes dedicated to the patience of an internal craft. Patience, patience, patience, was all she was finding in this windblown spring. Tears filled the woman’s eyes, tears that didn’t spill over, trapped inside the patience of her inherited flesh. The camel’s dusty odor was all that arose from this encounter she had come for: for dry hatred, not for tears. She approached the bars of the pen, inhaled the dust of that old carpet where ashen blood flowed, sought its impure tepidness, pleasure ran down her back into the distress, but still not the distress she’d come looking for. In her stomach the urge to kill convulsed in hunger pangs. But not the camel in ragged burlap. “Dear God, who shall be my mate in this world?”

So she went alone to have her violence. In the zoo’s small amusement park she waited meditatively in the line of lovers for her turn on the roller coaster.

And there she was sitting now, quiet in her brown coat. Her seat stopped for now, the rollercoaster machinery stopped for now. Separate from everyone in her seat, she looked like she was sitting in a Church. Her lowered eyes saw the ground between the tracks. The ground where simply out of love—love, love, not love!—where out of pure love weeds sprouted between the tracks in a light green so dizzying that she had to avert her eyes in tormented temptation. The breeze made the hair rise on the back of her neck, she shivered refusing it, in temptation refusing, it was always so much easier to love.

But all of a sudden came that lurch of the guts, that halting of a heart caught by surprise in midair, that fright, the triumphant fury with which her seat hurtled her into the nothing and immediately swept her up like a rag doll, skirts flying, the deep resentment with which she became mechanical, her body automatically joyful—the girlfriends’ shrieks!—her gaze wounded by that enormous surprise, that offense, “they were having their way with her,” that enormous offense—the girlfriends’ shrieks!—the enormous bewilderment at finding herself spasmodically frolicking, they were having their way with her, her pure whiteness suddenly exposed. How many minutes? the minutes of an extended scream of a train rounding the bend, and the joy of another plunge through the air insulting her like a kick, her dancing erratically in the wind, dancing frantically, whether or not she wanted it her body shook like someone laughing, that sensation of laughing to death, the sudden death of someone who had neglected to shred all those papers in the drawer, not other people’s death, her own, always her own. She who could have taken advantage of the others screaming to let out her own howl of lament, she forgot herself, all she felt was fright.

And now this silence, sudden too. They’d come back to earth, the machinery once again completely stopped.

Pale, kicked out of a Church, she looked at the stationary earth from which she’d departed and back to which she’d been delivered. She straightened out her skirts primly. She didn’t look at anyone. Contrite as on that day when in the middle of everyone the entire contents of her purse had spilled onto the ground and everything that was valuable while lying secretly in her purse, once exposed in the dust of the street, revealed the pettiness of a private life of precautions: face powder, receipt, fountain pen, her retrieving from the curb the scaffolding of her life. She rose from her seat stunned as if shaking off a collision. Though no one was paying attention, she smoothed her skirt again, did what she could so no one would notice how weak and disgraced she was, haughtily protecting her broken bones. But the sky was spinning in her empty stomach; the earth, rising and falling before her eyes, remained distant for a few moments, the earth that is always so troublesome. For a moment the woman wanted, in mutely sobbing fatigue, to reach out her hand to the troublesome earth: her hand reached out like that of a crippled beggar. But as if she had swallowed the void, her heart stunned.

Was that it? That was it. Of the violence, that was it.

She headed back toward the animals. The ordeal of the roller coaster had left her subdued. She didn’t make it much further: she had to rest her forehead against the bars of a cage, exhausted, her breath coming quick and shallow. From inside the cage the coati looked at her. She looked at him. Not a single word exchanged. She could never hate that coati who looked at her with the silence of an inquiring body. Disturbed, she averted her eyes from the coati’s simplicity. The curious coati asking her a question the way a child asks. And she averting her eyes, concealing from him her deadly mission. Her forehead was pressed against the bars so firmly that for an instant it looked like she was the caged one and a free coati was examining her.

The cage was always on the side she was: she let out a moan that seemed to come from the soles of her feet. After that another moan.

Then, born from her womb, it rose again, beseeching, in a swelling wave, that urge to kill—her eyes welled up grateful and black in a near-happiness, it wasn’t hatred yet, for the time being just the tormented urge to hate like a desire, the promise of cruel blossoming, a torment like love, the urge to hate promising itself sacred blood and triumph, the spurned female had become spiritualized through her great hope. But where, where to find the animal that would teach her to have her own hatred? the hatred that was hers by right but that lay excruciatingly out of reach? where could she learn to hate so as not to die of love? And from whom? The world of spring, the world of beasts that in spring Christianize themselves with paws that claw but do not wound . . . oh no more of this world! no more of this perfume, of this weary panting, no more of this forgiveness in everything that will die one day as if made to surrender. Never forgiveness, if that woman forgave one more time, even just once, her life would be lost—she let out a hoarse, brief moan, the coati gave a start—caged in she looked around, and since she wasn’t the kind of person people paid attention to, she crouched down like an old solitary assassin, a child ran past without noticing her.

Then she started walking again, smaller now, tough, fists once again braced in her pockets, the undercover assassin, and everything was caught in her chest. In her chest that knew only how to give up, knew only how to withstand, knew only how to beg forgiveness, knew only how to forgive, that had only learned how to have the sweetness of unhappiness, and learned only how to love, love, love. Imagining that she might never experience the hatred of which her forgiveness had always been made, this caused her heart to moan indecently, she began walking so fast that she seemed to have found a sudden destiny. She was almost running, her shoes throwing her off balance, and giving her a physical fragility that once again reduced her to the imprisoned female, her steps mechanically assumed the beseeching despair of the frail, she who was nothing more than a frail woman herself. But, if she could take off her shoes, could she avoid the joy of walking barefoot? how could you not love the ground on which you walk? She moaned again, stopped before the bars of an enclosure, pressed her hot face against the iron’s rusty coolness. Eyes deeply shut she tried to bury her face between the hardness of the railings, her face attempted an impossible passage through the narrow bars, just as before when she’d seen the newborn monkey seek in the blindness of hunger the female’s breast. A fleeting comfort came from how the bars seemed to hate her while opposing her with the resistance of frozen iron.

She opened her eyes slowly. Her eyes coming from their own darkness couldn’t see a thing in the afternoon’s faint light. She stood there breathing. Gradually she started to make things out again, gradually shapes began solidifying, she was tired, crushed by the sweetness of tiredness. Her head tilted inquiringly toward the budding trees, her eyes saw the small white clouds. Without hope, she heard the lightness of a stream. She lowered her head again and stood gazing at the buffalo in the distance. Inside a brown coat, breathing without interest, no one interested in her, she interested in no one.

A certain peace at last. The breeze ruffling the hair on her forehead as if brushing the hair of someone who had just died, whose forehead was still damp with sweat. Gazing detachedly at that great dry plot surrounded by tall railings, the buffalo plot. The black buffalo was standing still at the far end of that plot. Then he paced in the distance on his narrow haunches, his dense haunches. His neck thicker than his tensed flanks. Seen straight on, his large head was broader than his body, blocking the rest from view, like a severed head. And on his head those horns. At a distance he slowly paced with his torso. He was a black buffalo. So black that from afar his face looked featureless. Atop his blackness the erect stark whiteness of his horns.

The woman might have left but the silence felt good in the waning afternoon.

And in the silence of the paddock, those meandering steps, the dry dust beneath those dry hooves. At a distance, in the midst of his calm pacing, the black buffalo looked at her for an instant. The next instant, the woman again saw only the hard muscle of his body. Maybe he hadn’t looked at her. She couldn’t tell, since all she could discern of that shadowy head were its outlines. But once more he seemed to have either seen or sensed her.

The woman raised her head a little, retracted it slightly in misgiving. Body motionless, head back, she waited.

And once more the buffalo seemed to notice her.

As if she couldn’t stand feeling what she had felt, she suddenly averted her face and looked at a tree. Her heart didn’t beat in her chest, her heart was beating hollowly somewhere between her stomach and intestines.

The buffalo made another slow loop. The dust. The woman clenched her teeth, her whole face ached a little.

The buffalo with his constricted torso. In the luminous dusk he was a body blackened with tranquil rage, the woman sighed slowly. A white thing had spread out inside her, white as paper, fragile as paper, intense as a whiteness. Death droned in her ears. The buffalo’s renewed pacing brought her back to herself and, with another long sigh, she returned to the surface. She didn’t know where she’d been. She was standing, very feeble, just emerged from that white and remote thing where she’d been.

And from where she looked back at the buffalo.

The buffalo larger now. The black buffalo. Ah, she said suddenly with a pang. The buffalo with his back turned to her, standing still. The woman’s whitened face didn’t know how to call him. Ah! she said provoking him. Ah! she said. Her face was covered in deathly whiteness, her suddenly gaunt face held purity and veneration. Ah! she goaded him through clenched teeth. But with his back turned, the buffalo completely still.

She picked up a rock off the ground and hurled it into the paddock. The torso’s stillness, quieted down even blacker: the rock rolled away uselessly.

Ah! she said shaking the bars. That white thing was spreading inside her, viscous like a kind of saliva. The buffalo with his back turned.

Ah, she said. But this time because inside her at last was flowing a first trickle of black blood.

The first instant was one of pain. As if the world had convulsed for this blood to flow. She stood there, listening to that first bitter oil drip as in a grotto, the spurned female. Her strength was still trapped between the bars, but something incomprehensible and burning, ultimately incomprehensible, was happening, a thing like a joy tasted in her mouth. Then the buffalo turned toward her.

The buffalo turned, stood still, and faced her from afar.

I love you, she then said with hatred to the man whose great unpunishable crime was not wanting her. I hate you, she said beseeching the buffalo’s love.

Provoked at last, the enormous buffalo approached unhurriedly.

He approached, the dust rose. The woman waited with her arms hanging alongside her coat. Slowly he approached. She didn’t take a single step back. Until he reached the railings and stopped there. There stood the buffalo and the woman, face to face. She didn’t look at his face, or his mouth, or his horns. She looked him in the eye.

And the buffalo’s eyes, his eyes looked her in the eye. And such a deep pallor was exchanged that the woman fell into a drowsy torpor. Standing, in a deep sleep. Small red eyes were looking at her. The eyes of the buffalo. The woman was dazed in surprise, slowly shaking her head. The calm buffalo. Slowly the woman was shaking her head, astonished by the hatred with which the buffalo, tranquil with hatred, was looking at her. Nearly absolved, shaking an incredulous head, her mouth slightly open. Innocent, curious, plunging deeper and deeper into those eyes staring unhurriedly at her, simple, with a drowsy sigh, neither wanting nor able to flee, trapped in this mutual murder. Trapped as if her hand were forever stuck to the dagger she herself had thrust. Trapped, as she slid spellbound down the railing. In such slow dizziness that just before her body gently crumpled the woman saw the whole sky and a buffalo.

'The Buffalo'' By Clarice Lispector, translation by Katrina Dodson, from COMPLETE STORIES, copyright © 1951, 1955, 1960, 1965, 1978, 2010, 2015 by the Heirs of Clarice Lispector, translation copyright © 2015 by Katrina Dodson. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.


Read other excerpts from the 2016 PEN Literary Award winners here.

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