There it is, the sea, the most unintelligible of non-human existences. And here is the woman, standing on the beach, the most unintelligible of living beings. As a human being she once posed a question about herself, becoming the most unintelligible of living beings. She and the sea.
Their mysteries could only meet if one surrendered to the other: the surrender of two unknowable worlds made with the trust by which two understandings would surrender to each other.
She looks at the sea, that’s what she can do. It is only cut off for her by the line of the horizon, that is, by her human incapacity to see the Earth’s curvature.
It is six in the morning. There is only a free dog hesitating on the beach, a black dog. Why is a dog so free? Because it is the living mystery that doesn’t wonder about itself. The woman hesitates because she’s about to go in.
Her body soothes itself with its own slightness compared to the vastness of the sea because it’s her body’s slightness that lets her stay warm and it’s this slightness that makes her a poor and free person, with her portion of a dog’s freedom on the sands. That body will enter the limitless cold that roars without rage in the silence of six o’clock. The woman doesn’t know it: but she’s fulfilling a courage. With the beach empty at this morning hour, she doesn’t have the example of other humans who transform the entry into the sea into a simple lighthearted game of living. She is alone. The salty sea is not alone because it’s salty and vast, and this is an achievement. Right then she knows herself even less than she knows the sea. Her courage comes from not knowing herself, but going ahead nevertheless. Not knowing yourself is inevitable, and not knowing yourself demands courage.
She goes in. The salt water is cold enough to make her legs shiver in a ritual. But an inevitable joy—joy is an inevitability—has already seized her, though smiling doesn’t even occur to her. On the contrary, she is very serious. The smell is of a heady sea air that awakens her most dormant age-old slumbers. And now she is alert, even without thinking, as a hunter is alert without thinking. The woman is now a compact and a light and a sharp one—and cuts a path through the iciness that, liquid, opposes her, yet lets her in, as in love when opposition can be a request.
The slow journey fortifies her secret courage. And suddenly she lets herself be covered by the first wave. The salt, iodine, everything liquid, blind her for a few instants, streaming all over—surprised standing up, fertilized.
Now the cold becomes frigid. Moving ahead, she splits the sea down the middle. She no longer needs courage, now already ancient in the ritual. She lowers her head into the shine of the sea, and then lifts out the hair that emerges streaming over her salty eyes that are stinging. She plays with her hand in the water, leisurely, her hair in the sun almost immediately stiffens with salt. With cupped hands she does what she’s always done in the sea, and with the pride of people who never explain even to themselves: with cupped hands filled with water, she drinks in great, good gulps.
And that was what she’d been missing: the sea inside her like the thick liquid of a man. Now she’s entirely equal to herself. Her nourished throat constricts from the salt, her eyes redden from the salt dried by the sun, the gentle waves slap against her and retreat for she is a compact embankment.
She dives again, again drinks more water, no longer greedy for she doesn’t need more. She is the lover who knows she’ll have everything all over again. The sun rises higher and makes her bristle as it dries her, she dives again: she is ever less greedy and less sharp. Now she knows what she wants. She wants to stand still inside the sea. So she does. As against the sides of a ship, the water slaps, retreats, slaps. The woman receives no transmissions. She doesn’t need communication.
Afterward she walks in the water back to the beach. She’s not walking on the water—ah she’d never do that since they walked on water millennia ago—but no one can keep her from: walking in the water. Sometimes the sea resists her, powerfully dragging her backward, but then the woman’s prow pushes ahead a bit harder and tougher.
And now she steps onto the sand. She knows she is glistening with water, and salt and sun. Even if she forgets a few minutes from now, she can never lose all this. And she knows in some obscure way that her streaming hair is that of a castaway. Because she knows—she knows she has created a danger. A danger as ancient as the human being.
Clarice Lispector was born in 1920 to a Jewish family in western Ukraine. As a result of the anti-Semitic violence they endured, the family fled to Brazil in 1922, and Clarice Lispector grew up in Recife. Following the death of her mother when Clarice was nine, she moved to Rio de Janeiro with her father and two sisters, and she went on to study law. With her husband, who worked for the Foreign Service, she lived in Italy, Switzerland, England, and the United States until they separated and she returned to Rio in 1959; she died there in 1977. Since her death, Clarice Lispector has earned universal recognition as Brazil’s greatest modern writer.
Katrina Dodson’s work has appeared in several journals, including Granta, McSweeney’s, and Two Lines. She is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley.
From Complete Stories, “The Waters of the World” is published by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp. Copyright © 1960 by the Heirs of Clarice Lispector. Translation copyright © 2015 by Katrina Dodson.