Small Memories

José Saramago

Artwork by Kazunari Negishi

The child I was did not see the landscape as the adult he became would be tempted to see it from the lofty height of manhood. The child, while he was a child, was simply in the landscape, formed part of it and never questioned it, never said or thought, in these or other words: "What a beautiful landscape, what a magnificent panorama, what a fabulous view!" Naturally, when he climbed the stairs to the church belfry or scrambled to the top of a sixty-foot ash tree, his young eyes were capable of appreciating and noticing the wide open spaces before him, but it must be said that he was always more drawn to singling out and focusing on things and beings that were close, on what he could touch with his hands, on what offered itself to him as something which, without him being aware of it, demanded to be understood and absorbed into his spirit (the latter being a jewel which, needless to say, the child had no idea he carried within him): a snake slithering away, an ant carrying on high a crumb of wheat, a pig eating from the trough, a toad lolloping along on bent legs, or a stone, a spider's web, the soil turned up by the blade of the plough, an abandoned bird's nest, the drop of resin running like a tear down the trunk of a peach tree, the frost glittering on the undergrowth. Or the river. Many years later, using the words of the adult he then was, the adolescent would write a poem about that river — a humble stream of water that is now polluted and fetid — where he had bathed and which he had navigated. He called it "Protopoem" and here it is: "Out of the tangled skein of memory, out of the darkness of its inextricable knots, I tug at what appears to be a loose end./ Slowly I pull it free, afraid it might fall to pieces in my fingers./ It's a long thread, green and blue, and smells of slime, warm and soft as living mud./ It's a river./ It drenches my now wet hands./ The water flows over my outspread palms, and suddenly I'm not sure if the water is flowing out of me or washing over me./ I continue to tug at the thread, which is not just a memory now, but the actual body of the river itself./ Boats sail over my skin, and I am the boats and the sky above them, and the tall poplars that slide serenely across the luminous film of my eyes./ Fish swim in my blood and hesitate between staying too near the surface and plumbing the depths, just like the vague summonses issued by memory./ I feel the strength of my arms and the pole that prolongs them./ It pushes down into the river and into me like a slow, steady heartbeat./ Now the sky is nearer and has changed color./ It's all green and full of singing because the songs of birds are springing awake on every branch./ And when the boat stops in a large clearing, my naked body gleams in the sun, among the still brighter light igniting the surface of the waters./ There, memory's confused recollections and the suddenly revealed face of the future fuse into one truth./ A nameless bird appears out of nowhere and perches silently on the stiff prow of the boat./ I wait motionless for the whole river to be bathed in blue and for the birds on the branches to explain to me why the poplars are so tall and their leaves so full of murmurings./ Then, with the body of the boat and the river safely back in the human dimension, I continue on toward the golden pool surrounded by the raised swords of the bulrushes./ There I will bury my pole two feet down in the living rock./ A great primordial silence will fall when hands join with hands./ And then I will know everything." No one can know everything or ever will, but there are moments when we're capable of believing that we will, perhaps because at that moment, soul, consciousness, mind, or whatever you care to call the thing that makes us more or less human, was filled to overflowing. I gaze down from the bank at the barely moving current, the almost stagnant water and, absurdly, I imagine that everything would go back to being as it was if only I could once again plunge my childhood nakedness into the river, if I could grasp in today's hands the long, damp pole or the sonorous oars of yesteryear, and propel across the water's smooth skin the rustic boat that used to carry, to the very frontiers of dreams, the being I was then and whom I left stranded somewhere in time.

The house where I was born no longer exists, not that it matters, because I have no memory of having lived in it. The other house, the impoverished dwelling of my maternal grandparents, Josefa and Jerónimo, has also disappeared beneath a mound of rubble, the house which, for ten or twelve years, was my true home, in the most intimate and profound sense of the word, the magical cocoon in which the metamorphoses vital to both the child and the adolescent took place. That loss, however, has long since ceased to cause me any suffering because, thanks to the memory's reconstructive powers, I can, at any moment, rebuild its white walls, replant the olive tree that shaded the entrance, open and close the low front door and the gate to the vegetable garden where I once saw a small snake coiled and waiting, or I can go into the pigsties and watch the piglets suckling, enter the kitchen and pour from the jug into the chipped mug the water which, for the thousandth time, will quench that summer's thirst. Then I say to my grandmother: "Grandma, I'm going for a walk." And she says: "Off you go, then," but she doesn't warn me to be careful, no, in those days, grownups had more confidence in the children they brought up. I put a slice of cornbread and a handful of olives and dried figs in my bag, grab a stick just in case I have to fend off some canine attack, and set off into the countryside. I don't have many routes to choose from: it's either the river and the almost inextricable vegetation that clothes and protects its banks or the olive groves and the hard stubble of the recently harvested wheat, or the dense thicket of tamarisks, beeches, ash trees and poplars that flank the Tejo downstream, beyond the point where it meets the Almonda, or else, to the north, about three or four miles from the village, the Paul do Boquilobo, a lake, pond or pool that the creator of these landscapes neglected to carry off to paradise. There wasn't much choice, it's true, but for the melancholy child, for the contemplative and often sad adolescent, these were the four quarters into which the universe was divided — indeed, each was a universe in itself. The adventure could last hours, but never finished until I had achieved my goal. To cross alone the burning expanses of the olive groves, to cut a difficult path through the bushes, treetrunks, brambles and climbers that raised thick walls along the banks of the two rivers, to sit and listen in a shady clearing to the silence of the woods broken only by the piping of the birds and the creaking of the branches in the wind, to travel across the pond by scrambling from branch to branch of the weeping willows that grew in the water; these, you will say, are not feats deserving of special mention in an age like ours, in which, by the age of five or six, any child, however sedentary and indolent, who is born in the civilized world, has already traveled to Mars to crush however many little green men he may encounter, has decimated the terrible army of mechanical dragons guarding the gold in Fort Knox, has blown Tyrannosaurus rex to smithereens, has plumbed the deepest of submarine trenches without benefit of diving suit or bathyscape, and has saved humankind from the monstrous meteorite that was heading straight for earth. Beside such superior exploits, the little boy from Azinhaga could only offer his ascent to the topmost branch of the sixty-foot ash tree or, more modestly, but affording far greater pleasure to the palate, climbing the fig tree in the yard, early in the morning, to pick the fruit while it was still wet with dew and to sip, like a greedy bird, the drop of honey that oozed from within. Small beer perhaps, but then that heroic conqueror of tyrannosauruses would doubtless be incapable of catching a lizard in his bare hands.

Many people solemnly state, supporting their words with some authoritative quotation from the classics, that landscape is a state of mind, which, put into ordinary words, must mean that the impression made on us by contemplating any landscape is always dependent on our temperamental ups and downs and on whatever mood, cheerful or irascible, we happen to be in at the precise moment when that landscape lies before us. Now far be it from me to disagree, but this assumes that states of mind are the exclusive property of the mature adult, of grown-ups, of those people who are already capable of using, more or less correctly, the kind of grave concepts necessary to analyze, define and tease out such subtleties, the property of adults, who think they know everything. For example, no one ever asked that adolescent what kind of mood he was in or what intriguing tremors were being recorded on the seismograph of his soul when, one unforgettable morning, while it was still dark, he emerged from the stable, where he had slept among the horses, and his forehead, face and body, and something beyond the body, were touched by the white light of the most brilliant moon that human eyes had ever seen. Nor what he felt when, with the sun already up, while he was herding the pigs across hill and vale on his way back from the market where he had managed to sell most of them, he realized that he was walking across a stretch of rough paving made from apparently ill-fitting slabs of stone, a strange discovery in the middle of an area that seemed to have lain deserted and empty since the beginning of time. Only much later, many years afterward, would he realize that he had been walking along what must have been the remains of a Roman road.

Nevertheless, these marvels, both mine and those of the precocious manipulators of virtual universes, are as nothing compared with the time when, just as the sun was setting, I left Azinhaga and my grandparents' house (I would have been about fifteen then) to go to a distant village, on the other side of the Tejo, in order to meet a girl with whom I thought I was in love. An old boatman called Gabriel (the villagers called him Graviel) took me across the river; he was red from the sun and from the brandy he drank, a kind of white-haired giant, as sturdily built as St. Christopher. I had sat down to wait for him on this side of the river, on the bare boards of the jetty, which we called the port, while I listened to the rhythmic sound of the oars on the surface of the water as it was touched by the last light of day. He was approaching slowly, and I realized (or was it just my state of mind?) that this was a moment I would never forget. A little way along from the jetty on the other side was an enormous plane tree, beneath which the estate's herd of oxen used to sleep out the siesta hours. I set off to the right, cutting across fallow fields, low walls, ditches, through puddles and past cornfields, like a stealthy hunter on the trail of some rare beast. Night had fallen, and the only sound in the silence of the countryside was that of my footsteps. As to whether the encounter with the girl proved a happy one or not, I will tell you later. There was dancing and fireworks, and I think I left the village close on midnight. A full moon, although less splendid than that earlier one, lit everything around. Before I reached the point where I would have to leave the road and set off across country, the narrow path I was following seemed suddenly to end and disappear behind a large hedge, and there before me, as if blocking my way, stood a single, tall tree, very dark at first against the transparently clear night sky. Out of nowhere, a breeze got up. It set the tender stems of the grasses shivering, made the green blades of the reeds shudder and sent a ripple across the brown waters of a puddle. Like a wave, it lifted up the spreading branches of the tree and, murmuring, climbed the trunk, and then, suddenly, the leaves turned their undersides to the moon and the whole beech tree (because it was a beech) was covered in white as far as the topmost branch. It was only a moment, no more than that, but the memory of it will last as long as my life lasts. There were no tyrannosauruses, Martians or mechanical dragons, but a meteor did cross the sky (which is not so hard to believe), although, as became clear afterward, mankind was never at risk. After walking for a long time, and with dawn still far off , I found myself in the middle of the countryside, standing outside a roughly built shack. There, to stave off hunger, I ate a piece of moldy cornbread someone else had left behind, and there I slept. When I woke in the first light of morning and emerged, rubbing my eyes, to find a luminous mist obscuring the fields all around, I felt — if I remember rightly, and always assuming I'm not just making it up — that I had finally been born. High time.

translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa

Small Memories is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company in May 2011.

Excerpt and photo from SMALL MEMORIES by José Saramago. Copyright © 2006 by José Saramago and Editorial Caminho, SA, Lisbon, by arrangement with Literarische Agentur Mertin, Inh. Nicole Witt e. K., Frankfurt am Main, Germany. English translation copyright © 2009 by Margaret Jull Costa. Photo courtesy of the author's archive. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.