The following story, newly translated and never before appearing in English, is from Clarice Lispector’s The Complete Stories forthcoming from New Directions. Lispector was born in 1920 in western Ukraine; her family fled to Brazil in 1922 because of anti-Semitic violence. She died in Rio de Janeiro in 1977, and is considered Brazil's greatest modern writer.
Well, so she left the beauty salon by the elevator in the Copacabana Palace Hotel. Her driver wasn’t there. She looked at her watch: it was four in the afternoon. And suddenly she remembered: she’d told “her” José to pick her up at five, not factoring in that she wouldn’t get a manicure or pedicure, just a massage. What should she do? Take a taxi? But she had a five-hundred-cruzeiro bill on her and the cab driver wouldn’t have change. She’d brought cash because her husband had told her you should never go out without cash. It crossed her mind to go back to the beauty salon and ask for change. But–but it was a May afternoon and the cool air was a flower blooming with its perfume. And so she thought it wonderful and unusual to be standing on the street–out in the wind that was ruffling her hair. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been alone with herself. Maybe never. It was always her–with others, and in these others she was reflected and the others were reflected in her. Nothing was–was pure, she thought without understanding what she meant. When she saw herself in the mirror —her skin, tawny from sunbathing, made the gold flowers in her black hair stand out against her face–, she held back from exclaiming “ah!”–for she was fifty million units of beautiful people. Never had there been–in all the world’s history–anyone like her. And then, in three trillion trillion years–there wouldn’t be a single girl exactly like her.
“I am a burning flame! And I shine and shine all that darkness!”
This moment was unique–and she would have in the course of her life thousands of unique moments. Her forehead even broke out in a cold sweat, because so much had been given her and eagerly taken by her.
“Beauty can lead to the kind of madness that is passion.” She thought: “I am married, I have three children, I am safe.”
She had a name to uphold: it was Carla de Sousa e Santos. The “de” and the “e” were important: they denoted class and a four-hundred-year-old Rio family. She lived among the herds of women and men who, yes, who simply “could.” Could what? Look, they just could. And to top it off, they were slick because their “could” was just so greasy in the machines that ran without the sound of rusty metal. She, who was a powerful woman. A generator of electric energy. She, who made use of the vineyards on her country estate to relax. She possessed traditions in decay but still standing. And since there was no new criterion to sustain all those vague and grandiose hopes, the weighty tradition still held. Tradition of what? Of nothing, if you had to pry. The only argument in its favor was the fact that the inhabitants were backed by a long lineage, which, though plebeian, was enough to grant them a certain pose of dignity.
She thought, all tangled: She who, being a woman, which seemed to her a funny thing to be or not to be, knew that, if she were a man, she’d naturally be a banker, a normal thing that happens among “her” people, that is, those of her social class, which her husband, on the other hand, had attained after a lot of hard work and which classified him as a “self-made man” whereas she was not a “self-made woman.” At the end of the long train of thought, it seemed to her that–that she hadn’t been thinking about anything.
A man missing a leg, dragging himself along on a crutch, stopped before her and said: “Miss, won’t you give me some money so I can eat?”
“Help!!!” she screamed in her head upon seeing the enormous wound in the man’s leg. “Help me, God,” she said very softly.
She was exposed to that man. She was completely exposed. Had she told “her” José to come to the exit on the Avenida Atlântica, the hotel where the hairdresser’s was wouldn’t have allowed “those people” to come near. But on the Avenida Copacabana anything was possible: people of every sort. At least a different sort from hers. “Hers”? “What sort of she was she for it to be “hers”?
She–the others. But, but death doesn’t separate us, she thought suddenly and her face took on the aspect of a mask of beauty and not human beauty: her face hardened for a moment.
The beggar’s thoughts: “this lady with all that makeup and little gold stars on her forehead, either won’t give me anything or just a little.” It struck him then, a bit wearily: “or next to nothing.”
She was alarmed: since she practically never walked down the street– she was chauffeured from door to door– she started thinking: is he going to kill me? She was distraught and asked:
“How much do people usually give?”
“However much they can and want to,” answered the shocked beggar.
She, who never paid at the beauty salon, the manager there sent her monthly bill to her husband’s secretary. “Husband.” She thought: her husband, what would he do with the beggar? She knew what: nothing. They don’t do anything. And she–she was “them” too. All that she could give? She could give her husband’s bank, she might give him their apartment, her country house, her jewelry . . .
But something that was a greed in everyone, asked:
“Is five hundred cruzeiros enough? That’s all I have.”
The beggar stared at her in shock. “Are you making fun of me, miss?”
“Me?? No I’m not, I really do have the five hundred in my purse . . .”
She opened it, pulled out the bill and humbly handed it to the man, nearly begging his pardon.
The man bewildered.
And then laughing, showing his nearly toothless gums:
“Look,” he said, “either you’re very kind, ma’am, or you’re not right in the head . . . But, I’ll take it, don’t go saying later that I robbed you, no one’s gonna believe me. It would’ve been better if you gave me some change.”
“I don’t have any change, all I have is that five hundred.”
The man seemed to get scared, he said something nearly incomprehensible, garbled from his having so few teeth.
Meanwhile his head was thinking: food, food, good food, money, money.
Her head was full of parties, parties, parties. Celebrating what? Celebrating someone else’s wound? One thing united them: both had a vocation for money. The beggar spent every cent he had, whereas Carla’s husband, the banker, accumulated money. His bread and butter was the Stock Market, and inflation, and profit. The beggar’s bread and butter was his round gaping wound. And to top it off, he was probably afraid of healing, she guessed, because, if it got better, he’d have nothing to eat, that much Carla knew: “if you don’t have a good job by a certain age . . .” If he were younger, he could paint walls. Since he wasn’t, he invested in that big wound with living and pestilent flesh. No, life wasn’t pretty.
* * * *
She leaned against the wall and decided to think carefully. It was different because she wasn’t in the habit and she didn’t know thought was vision and comprehension and that no one could order herself to do it just like that: think! Fine. But it so happened that deciding to posed an obstacle. So then she started looking inside herself and they actually started happening. Only, she had the most ridiculous thoughts. Like: does that beggar speak English? Has that beggar ever eaten caviar, while drinking champagne? They were ridiculous thoughts because she clearly knew the beggar didn’t speak English, nor had he ever tasted caviar or champagne. But she couldn’t help watching another absurd thought arise in her: had he ever skied in Switzerland?
She grew desperate then. She grew so desperate that a thought came to her made of just two words: “Social Justice.”
Death to the rich! That would solve things, she thought cheerfully. But–who would give money to the poor?
Suddenly–suddenly everything stopped. The buses stopped, the cars stopped, the clocks stopped, the people on the street froze–only her heart was beating, and for what?
She saw that she didn’t know how to deal with the world. She was an incompetent person, with her black hair and her long, red nails. She was: as if in a blurry color photograph. Every day she made a list of what she needed or wanted to do the next day–that was how she’d stayed connected to the empty hours. She simply had nothing to do. Everything was done for her. Even her two children–well, her husband was the one who had decided they’d have two . . .
“You’ve got to make an effort to be a winner in life,” her late grandfather had told her. Was she, by any chance, a “winner”? If winning meant standing on the street in the middle of the bright afternoon, her face smeared with makeup and gold spangles . . . Was that winning? What patience she needed to have with herself. What patience she needed in order to save her own little life. Save it from what? Judgment? But who was judging? Her mouth felt completely dry and her throat on fire–just like whenever she had to take tests in school. And there was no water! Do you know what that’s like–not having water?
She wanted to think about something else and forget the difficult present moment. Then she recalled lines from a posthumous book by Eça de Queirós that she’d studied in high school: “Lake TIBERIAS shimmered transparently, covered in silence, bluer than the heavens, ringed entirely by flowering meadows, dense groves, rocks of porphyry, and pristine white lands among the palms, beneath the doves in flight.”
She knew it by heart because, as a teenager, she’d been very sensitive to words and because she’d desired for herself the same shimmering destiny as Lake TIBERIAS.
* * * *
She felt an unexpectedly murderous urge: to kill all the beggars in the world! Just so she, after the massacre, could enjoy her extraordinary well-being in peace.
No. The world wasn’t whispering.
The world was scre-am-ing!!! through that man’s toothless mouth.
The banker’s young wife thought she wasn’t going to withstand the lack of softness being hurled her impeccably made-up face.
And what about the party? How would she bring it up at the party, while dancing, how would she tell the partner who’d be in her arms . . . This: look, the beggar has a sex too, he said he had eleven children. He doesn’t go to social gatherings, he doesn’t appear in Ibrahim’s society columns, or in Zózimo’s, he’s hungry for bread not cake, actually all he should eat is porridge since he doesn’t have any teeth for chewing meat . . . “Meat?” She vaguely recalled that the cook had said the price of filet mignon had gone up. Yes. How could she dance? Only if it were a mad and macabre beggars’ dance.
No, she wasn’t the kind of woman prone to hysteria and nerves and fainting or feeling ill. Like some of her little society “colleagues.” She smiled a little thinking in terms of her little “colleagues.” Colleagues in what? in dressing up? in hosting dinners for thirty, forty people?
She herself taking advantage of the garden in late summer had thrown a reception for how many guests? No, she didn’t want to think about that, she recalled (why without the same pleasure?) the tables dispersed over the lawn, candlelight . . . “candlelight”? she thought, but am I out of my mind? have I fallen for a scam? Some rich people’s scam?
“Before I got married I was middle class, secretary to the banker I married and now–n ow candlelight. What I’m doing is playing at living,” she thought, “this isn’t life.” “
Beauty can be a great threat.” Extreme grace got mixed up with a bewilderment and a deep melancholy. “Beauty frightens.” “If I weren’t so pretty I’d have had a different fate,” she thought arranging the gold flowers in her jet black hair.
She’d once seen a friend whose heart got all twisted up and hurt and mad with forceful passion. So she’d never wanted to experience it. She had always been frightened of things that were too beautiful or too horrible: because she didn’t inherently know how to respond to them and whether she would respond if she were equally beautiful or equally horrible.
She was frightened as when she’d seen the Mona Lisa’s smile, right there, up close at the Louvre. As she’d been frightened by the man with the wound or the man’s wound.
She felt like screaming at the world: “I’m not awful! I’m a product of I don’t even know what, how can I know anything about this misery of the soul.”
To shift her feelings–since she couldn’t bear them and now felt like, in despair, violently kicking the beggar’s wound–, to shift her feelings she thought: this is my second marriage, I mean, my previous husband was alive.
Now she understood why she’d married the first time and was auctioned off: who’ll bid higher? who’ll bid higher? Sold, then. Yes, she’d married the first time to the man who “bid the highest,” she accepted him because he was rich and slightly above her social class. She had sold herself. And as for her second husband? Her second marriage was on the rocks, he had two mistresses . . . and she putting up with it all because a separation would have been scandalous: her name was mentioned too often in the society pages. And would she go back to her maiden name? Even getting used to her maiden name, that would take a long time. Anyway, she thought laughing at herself, anyway, she tolerated this second one because he gave her great prestige. Had she sold herself to the society pages? Yes. She was discovering that now. If there were a third marriage in store for her–for she was pretty and rich– , if there were, whom would she marry? She started laughing a little hysterically because she had the thought: her third husband was the beggar.
Suddenly she asked the beggar:
“Sir, do you speak English?”
The man didn’t have a clue what she’d asked. But, forced to answer since the woman had just bought him with all that money, he improvised: “Yes I do. Well aren’t I speaking with you right now, ma’am? Why? Are you deaf? Then I’ll shout: YES.”
Alarmed by the man’s ear-splitting shouts, she broke into a cold sweat. She was becoming fully aware that up till now she’d pretended there were no starving people, no people who don’t speak any foreign languages and that there were no anonymous masses begging in order to survive. She’d known it, yes, but she’d turned her head and covered her eyes. Everyone, but everyone– knows and pretends they don’t. And even if they didn’t they’d feel a certain distress. How could they not? No, they wouldn’t even feel that.
She was . . .
After all who was she?
No comment, especially since the question lasted a fraction of a second: question and answer hadn’t been thoughts in her head, but in her body.
I am the Devil, she thought remembering what she’d learned in childhood. And the beggar is Jesus. But– what he wants isn’t money, it’s love, that man has lost his way from humanity just as I too have lost mine.
She wanted to force herself to understand the world and could only manage to remember snippets of remarks from her husband’s friends: “those power plants won’t be enough.” What power plants, good Lord? the ones that belonged to Minister Galhardo? would he own power plants? “Electric energy . . . hydroelectric”?
And the essential magic of living–where was it now? In what corner of the world? in the man sitting on the corner?
Is money what makes the world go round? she asked herself. But she wanted to pretend it wasn’t. She felt so, so rich that she felt a certain pang.
The beggar’s thoughts: “Either that woman’s crazy or she stole the money because there’s no way she can be a millionaire,” millionaire was just a word to him and even if he wanted to see a millionaire in this woman he wouldn’t have been able to because: who’s ever seen a millionaire just standing around on the street, people? So he thought: what if she’s one of those high-class hookers who charges their customers a lot and she has to be keeping some kind of religious vow?
But suddenly that screaming thought: “How did I never realize I’m a beggar too? I’ve never asked for spare change but I beg for the love of my husband who has two mistresses, I beg for God’s sake for people to think I’m pretty, cheerful and acceptable, and my soul’s clothing is in tatters . . .”
“There are things that equalize us,” she thought desperately seeking another point of equality. The answer suddenly came: they were equal because they’d been born and they both would die. They were, therefore, brother and sister.
She felt like saying: look, man, I’m a poor wretch too, the only difference is that I’m rich. I . . . she thought ferociously, I’m about to undermine money threatening my husband’s credit in the market. I’m about to, any moment now, sit right on the curb. Being born was my worst disgrace. Now that I’ve paid for that accursed event, I feel I have a right to everything.
She was afraid. But suddenly she took the great leap of her life: courageously she sat on the ground.
“I bet she’s a communist!” the beggar thought half believing it. “And if she’s a communist I’d have a right to her jewels, her apartments, her money and even her perfumes.”
* * * *
Never again would she be the same person. Not that she’d never seen a beggar before. But–even this came at the wrong time, as if someone had jostled her and made her spill red wine all down a white lace dress. Suddenly she knew: that beggar was made of the same substance as she. Simple as that. The “why” was what made the difference. On a physical level they were equal. As for her, she had an average education, and he didn’t seem to know anything, not even who the President of Brazil was. She, however, had a keen capacity for understanding. Could it be that till now she’d possessed a buried intelligence? But what if she had just recently, coming into contact with a wound begging for money in order to eat–started thinking only of money? Money, which had always been obvious for her. And the wound, she’d never seen it so close up…
“Are you feeling bad, ma’am?”
“Not bad . . . but not good, I don’t know . . .”
She thought: the body is a thing that, when ill, we carry. The beggar carries himself by himself.
“Today at the party? you’ll feel better and everything will go back to normal,” said José.
Really at the party she’d refresh her attractiveness and everything would go back to normal.
She sat in the backseat of the air-conditioned car, casting before she left a final glance at that companion of an hour and a half. It seemed hard for her to say goodbye to him, he was now her alter ego “I,” he was forever a part of her life. Farewell. She was dreamy, distracted, her lips parted as if a word were hanging there. For some reason she couldn’t have explained– she was truly herself. And just like that, when the driver turned on the radio, she heard that codfish produced nine thousand eggs per year. She could deduce nothing from that statement, she who was in need of a destiny. She remembered how as a teenager she sought a destiny and chose to sing. As part of her upbringing, they easily found her a good teacher. But she sang badly, she herself knew it and her father, an opera lover, pretended not to notice that she sang badly. But there was a moment when she started to cry. Her perplexed teacher asked her what the matter was.
“It’s just, it’s just, I’m scared of, of, of, of singing well . . .”
But you sing very badly, the teacher had told her.
“I’m also scared, I’m also scared of singing much…much, much worse. Baaaaad way too bad!” she wailed and never had another singing lesson. That stuff about seeking art in order to understand had only happened to her once– afterward she had plunged into a forgetting that only now, at the age of thirty-five, through that wound, she needed either to sing very badly or very well–she was disoriented. How long since she had listened to so-called classical music because it might pull her out of the automatic sleep in which she lived. I–I’m playing at living. Next month she was going to New York and she realized the trip was like a new lie, like a daze. Having a wound in your leg–that’s a reality. And everything in her life, since she was born, everything in her life had been soft like the leap of a cat.
* * * *
(In the moving car)
Suddenly she thought: I didn’t even think to ask his name.
From THE COMPLETE STORIES. Used with permission of New Directions. Translation copyright © 2015 by Katrina Dodson. Copyright © 2015 by Heirs of Clarice Lispector.