First Letter from Nina to Valdo Meneses
. . . Don’t be alarmed, Valdo, to find this letter among your papers. I know you haven’t expected any news from me in a long time, and that you essentially consider me to be dead. Ah, how things change in this world. With an effort of will that paralyzes the hand I’m writing with, I can even see you sitting with your brother and your sister-in-law on the verandah, as you used to do, and in between two long silences, I can hear you saying: “Poor Nina ended up taking the only path that lay open to her . . .” And Demétrio, who has never taken any interest in other people’s problems, folds up his newspaper and looks out at the garden with a sigh: “I warned you, Valdo, but you wouldn’t listen to the voice of reason.” (Yes, “the voice of reason,” those would be his exact words, with his usual lack of modesty when it comes to talking about himself.) Ana perhaps says nothing, her abstracted gaze fixed on the sky growing gradually dark as night falls. And so it has been for years and years, because the Meneses family is very sparing with its gestures and has rarely ever instigated anything. And suddenly, on the usual dust covering your bedside reading, you will find this letter. It might take you a while to recognize the writing and it might also take you a while to think: “It’s that poor woman Nina again,” while your heart beats a little faster.
For once in your life, Valdo, you will be right. That “poor woman Nina,” even poorer now, is once again standing humbly at your door, having sniffed her way home like a dog abandoned on the road. I should perhaps warn you that women like me are very hard to kill off, and you’ll have to make a few attempts before I actually disappear. But don’t worry, my dear, my objective this time is very simple, and once I’ve gotten what I want, I will return once more to the silence and distance to which the Meneses family relegated me. I don’t intend to return to the Chácara (although I do, sometimes, on a wave of nostalgia, remember the quiet drawing room, the imposing sideboard laden with dusty silverware, and above it, the painting of The Last Supper, which does not quite cover the obvious mark left by the portrait of Maria Sinhá that used to hang there long ago), nor, indeed, do I intend ever again to use the name of which you are so proud, and which for me merely marked the beginning of a series of errors and mistakes. No, I want only to reclaim what I judge to be rightfully mine. You once said to me that people who are always demanding their rights show a lack of love, which might be true in part, because despite all the love that may perhaps still exist between us, time has not changed me, Valdo, and although you may often have misinterpreted both me and my actions, I believe there is still a remnant in your heart of the sentiment that first brought us together—and, given my current situation, I feel it only right that I should demand the things I believe to be my due. You are doubtless looking a little alarmed now, asking yourself what those things could be—and I should, at this point, remind you that we are only separated, that there has been no legal separation, something so repugnant to your brother Demétrio, always so wary of anything that might tarnish the honorable family name. It is, therefore, only logical that I should enjoy the same help I would expect were I still by your side. Now do you see what I’m getting at? In the eyes of the law, I am still your wife, and while, during all this time, I haven’t received a single penny from you and you have proved tight-fisted almost to the point of propelling me into poverty, it is still your duty to watch over me and help me in difficult times.
I can see your furrowed brow, the suspicious expression you always adopt on these occasions, and the false accusations you’re storing up in your mind. I can foresee the suppositions and suspicions you have about the life I lead and my current situation. Don’t worry, Valdo, I’m not coming to you in order to satisfy mere whims or so that I can afford things that you deem to be luxuries and therefore unnecessary. I can guarantee that in this respect I am more than fortunate, because I do not lack for male friends who help me and give me what I need, and who are, to be frank, sometimes surplus to requirements. Yes, I do have male friends, I won’t hide the fact, and some of them occasionally say of me: “Nina has never looked lovelier”—men whom, I’m pleased to say, and you will be pleased to hear, I keep at a distance and even treat with a certain disdain. No, my problem is of quite a different nature. Imagine, for example, always assuming you’re capable of imagining such things, and that those things are capable of touching your heart, that a woman of my status, married into such a family—and what higher status could I have in the eyes of a Meneses?—finds herself obliged to live in a cramped apartment that reeks of poverty and of that unmentionable thing: the life of a woman abandoned by her husband. By now, you, who were always trying to second-guess my motives, will have said to yourself: “It’s as clear as day what she’s trying to get out of me!” I can’t deny it. . . ah, Valdo, how we honest souls do suffer, how we cover ourselves in unnecessary shame when it comes to dealing with certain of the world’s material values. On the other hand, consider that in the Chácara, where you enjoy a life of relative plenty ………………………………………………………………………………………………….. ………………………………………… and of all my friends, the person who takes the fairest view of the matter is the Colonel. He says that, even when legally separated, a wife deserves the full consideration of the man who was her husband—even more so when there is no legal separation. I can see Demétrio leaning over your shoulder like a shadow and roaring: “The lengths that woman will go to . . .” May God forgive me, but I very much doubt that any sensible person would take your brother’s opinions seriously, for they are fueled by prejudice rather than by any kind of fair, reasoned judgment. So think carefully, Valdo, especially since I am really not asking for very much at all. And even if I were, right would be on my side, I would have my reasons and my justifications. For example, the allowance you promised—do you remember?—and that never materialized, and for which I waited in the hope that the family situation would ease, even though, deep down, I was sure you would never get out of the cul-de-sac you have chosen to go down. I say this because I know now that building the Chácara, not to mention maintaining it, has been a complete waste of money, and could have been avoided if you weren’t all convinced that abandoning Vila Velha and this mansion of ours would be an act dis- crediting the family. The fact is that rather than dismembering the old Fazenda do Baú and dividing up the lands among creditors who could perfectly well have waited a little longer, you would have done far better to accept the situation and simply refurbish the old house that is now moldering away in the hills. I have to say that on the occasions when I rode up there, I felt it had a poetry and a dignity I did not always find in the pretentious mansion where you live today. . . If you had done what I always advised and sold the house, auctioned the furniture, dismissed some of the servants, divided the land up into lots and come to an agreement with the rest of the creditors, we wouldn’t be in this state of ……………………………………………………………………………………………. which are the same as before. This increases the not inconsiderable amount I’m having to pay out. I actually think that, at times, I might have gone hungry had it not been for the zealous male friends I mentioned earlier. Among them, Colonel Amadeu Gonçalves, who never lets a day go by without visiting me, encouraging me to despise men’s evil nature and, at the same time, bringing me a word of comfort. It’s hard to believe such men still exist: the devotion of the man, the constancy of his friendship, his selflessness; I sometimes find such qualities frightening. What would become of me were it not for his paternal zeal? Sometimes he arrives and finds me in tears, and then he says: “Nina, I don’t want to weigh you down with any more suffering, you have quite enough to cope with as it is, I just want you to know that I come here as a father and that you can depend upon me as if you were my daughter.” He was, of course, the only real friend my late father had, and I cannot but feel grateful, especially when he goes still further and often leaves lying about, as if absentmindedly, varying sums of money that have been my sole source of income. I sometimes say to him: “Please, Colonel, don’t do that, because I really don’t know that I’ll ever be able to repay you . . .” He smiles and shakes his head: “Don’t be silly, one day you’ll pay me back in full.” I feel ashamed, Valdo, because I know that day will probably never come. And I feel sorry for that quiet, humble, helpless man at my side. He, for his part, rails against the way you have treated me, saying: “Really, a woman of your quality, who deserved only the very best, who merited every respect!” In writing this letter, I only wish I could tell you all the sympathetic things he has to say about my situation. Perhaps only then would you understand that this world, whose opinion you seem to value so highly, is not on your side, but on mine. Yes, I am the person being wronged and persecuted, despite all Demétrio’s efforts to portray me as a flibbertigibbet, a femme fatale who would lead any man to his ruin. And strangely enough, the rumors you so fear are not about me, as you might expect, but about the Meneses family. The Meneses of Vila Velha, that ancient trunk whose roots reach down into the very origins of Minas Gerais. I can’t help but feel a certain pleasure when I say this and imagine Demétrio, tremulous with resentment, and Ana, disdainfully sticking her nose in the air whenever she passes me, meanwhile peering at me through every window and shutter she comes across. As I say, this world does not accuse me, it judges you as severely as the Colonel does.
I stopped writing for a moment to wipe away the tears filling my eyes. It’s hard to write and harder still to write when what rises to one’s lips are words of love that the heart silences beneath the weight of bitter grievances. No, Valdo, my situation could not be more wretched, and you could not possibly blame me were some misfortune to occur. I don’t sleep, I’m feverish; I pace back and forth, remembering how things once were, wondering what force it was that drove me to turn my back on everything that made up my life. It wasn’t me, you can be quite sure of that, I didn’t want it to end like this, it was someone else, prompted by secret powers bent on destroying me. I’m not accusing anyone, because I can’t say for certain that it was this person or that, and I can’t even pinpoint the motive, because I can’t say it was for this reason or that, but the truth is that I always felt a distinct lack of love and watched as the atmosphere I had always imagined to be warm and affectionate slowly turned to ice. When I wake in the night and sit up in bed, listening to the dogs barking in the darkness, behind the railings and gardens that surround more fortunate people—and when I imagine, although I don’t know why, that some horrible fate awaits me, and that death is tearing off the pages from the calendar of my allotted time . . . ah, Valdo, is there no pity in your heart? Are you Meneses not made of flesh and blood? Can you never forgive me, never forget an outrage I never actually committed? And can you not sympathize with my situation now, can you not see how you tore my heart in two? The worst thing is the active part played in all this by your brother. The day will come when you will understand what he did to me, the influence he had on my behavior. Until then, until that day, banished and forgotten, I must endure the painful insults heaped on me. (And yet I will say this: you should have seen the way he used to follow me with his eyes down the hallway, pretending, of course, that he wasn’t, but devouring my every gesture and opening any doors behind which I tried to take refuge—you should have felt the greedy touch of his hands, on the few occasions when he dared to touch me, revealing the sick desires that lay behind the Meneses mask—you should have heard the cry he let out—the only time—one afternoon when I was crossing the verandah aglow with sunlight. I was just about to open the door when I heard that strange yelp—Nina!—and it was as if the black, stagnant water of his lust had spouted forth from the very depths of his being . . . I hadn’t even seen him, but I could sense his presence behind me, the galloping beat of his heart. I swear I didn’t even turn around, but all that night, I could feel his eyes fixed on me, as if they could penetrate walls—the eyes of a lunatic, a starving man not brave enough to touch the food set before him. My hand fails, the pen falls from my grasp: how can I possibly describe the devil you have living in your house? But nothing I can say will convince you, Valdo, because you’ll think it’s just another of my extravagant claims.) And yet someone, even if that someone is me, needs to warn you against your own credulity. What kills us is nearly always the unrecognized cruelty of those around us. If only I could make you recall certain facts . . . certain long-past situations . . . the early days . . . life in the Pavilion. That day, Valdo, when you stood on the steps strewn with dead leaves and embraced me, saying: “Nothing will ever part us, Nina!” But we did part, and with each day that passes, we find ourselves further away from each other. At that moment, though, it appeared to be true, the air was filled with the scent of jasmine, and the whole burgeoning world around us seemed to approve and to promise that our love would remain alive. But what evil spell was cast on us, how was it that everything changed so quickly? What happened to me, what happened to our love? Are there no certainties in life, do we engender only forgetting and distance? Do words mean nothing at all, can they not be used to seal an oath? What are we, we who pass through life like so much foam, who leave no trace once we are gone, only a handful of ashes and shadows? I ask myself these questions, my heart in my mouth: does anything endure, does anything remain untouched by the rage of time, are there feelings that never die and are never betrayed?
But we have been here before. I can feel you retreating into sullen silence and staring off into the distance. Distance is the image of our weariness. There, where not a hint of me, not a shadow of my gestures, not an echo of my words will ever enter, there will you take refuge in your certainty and dig my grave with gnarled, heartless fingers. I am definitively dead for you, a vast, formless tombstone stands permanently between us. And that is what most wounds and consumes me. Imagining you far off, giving not so much as a pitying backward glance at what we were. Imagining your silence, the way you have completely forgotten what you swore and promised, and feeling that I was nothing but a name spoken long ago in a vast and now vanished garden. A name like a petal that falls. Ah, Valdo, Valdo!
On one such day, grown tired of thinking and suffering, I went to a pharmacist’s to buy a sleeping draught. I came back and sorted out all my things—boxes, ribbons, hats, the silly little bits and bobs I always have with me and that I find so helpful—putting everything in order so that, after my death, it could all be given to a friend of mine, a nurse. Then I scribbled a note to the Colonel, asking him to forgive me for not being the daughter he wanted me to be—and asking him to forget me, because things weren’t well with me. Lastly . . .
Anyway, you can imagine the letter. Then I filled a glass of water, emptied the whole contents of the tube into it and waited until I had courage enough to drink it. No, I’m lying, Valdo, that wasn’t the letter I wrote with the glass there before me. I wanted to write something that would be a summation of my life, my testament. I wanted the cries in that letter to echo through the vast spaces of your house and make the guilty parties tremble in their hiding places. I listed Demétrio’s crimes, stating that I would never forgive him, in this world or the next. I laid out all the reasons he would come up with once he learned I was no longer in this world. The adulteries and the sins he imagined I would be committing on the other side. It gave me such pleasure writing that letter, imagining my body lying there with a candle at each corner, to be gawked at by the curious. The dead have a language of their own and send a message that is, at once, a warning and a condemnation of our lives. I don’t know how much I wrote, but there were pages and pages of the stuff—and I don’t know what I wrote after that, what tears and pleas and curses I flung down on the paper. I know only that it was all very confused, that you would never have had the patience or the desire to decipher it. I can’t remember either how long I spent writing the letter, I do remember that it was already dark by the time I finished, and the pen had fallen from my hand when the door opened and I heard Colonel Gonçalves saying almost in my ear: “What were you thinking? Are you mad? Have you lost your reason?” I turned around; the floor was covered in sheets of paper. Gripped by a single thought, I made a grab for the glass, but the Colonel snatched it up and poured the contents down the sink. “Have you forgotten that you have a duty to your friends?” he went on. He helped me to my feet: “We must be patient with life.” He tilted my chin and shook his head reprovingly at the sight of my tear-filled eyes: “You need to get out more and have a little fun.” He gathered up the sheets of paper from the floor and tore them into pieces, then took me to a casino. I followed him like an automaton, blinded by the lights, feeling ill and weak. And yet I won thirty thousand cruzeiros. I have never known such luck. “You see!” exclaimed the Colonel “Fate is on our side.” I ended up almost forgetting my woes. We dined at a restaurant by the sea, the moonlight glinting on the water, we drank champagne, we danced. It was almost dawn by the time we came home: the sun was rising and lighting up the harbor. It was then that I decided to do as the Colonel advised, to forget and let my heart rest easy.
Don’t go thinking, though, that money was the cause of this transformation. You know very well that money has never been of great importance to me. What saved me was the Colonel’s disinterested friendship and concern. I know he’s not handsome or cultivated, and certainly not young, but there is genuine warmth in his gestures and sincerity in his words. We went everywhere together and, because he considered it to my advantage, he always introduced me as his niece. He would say: “She’s been living in Europe. She’s an artist.” For my part, I didn’t much care what anyone said. I knew I was being looked at and whispered about, but felt I had gone beyond worrying about what other people might think of me. Time seemed to pass infinitely slowly, and I would sigh, looking at people and things with equal indifference. But I made new acquaintances, even a few lasting friendships. I can see you smiling scornfully and murmuring: “Riffraff.” But what do I care about riffraff or dubious friendships: friendship can be a flower blooming on a dung heap, from which it draws its color and its sap. My whole life gradually changed. During that time, I must confess, not a day passed without the Colonel visiting me bearing gifts: “a souvenir, a memento of our friendship.” Now, Valdo, we come to the crux of the matter. If I were a free woman, I would have no hesitation in accepting gifts from this stranger. His courtship, because the truth demands that I call it that, would be justified, and I would not have the nagging sense that I’m leading someone on whose feelings I cannot reciprocate . . . I keep remembering that I have a legitimate husband—and I find the Colonel’s constant attentions troubling and vaguely humiliating. Despite this ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… unable to continue in the same tone. I find myself in a ridiculous position and, thanks to your lack of foresight in not paying me my agreed allowance, I have to resort to various stratagems and hope that other kind folk will take pity on me. No, a thousand times no, I cannot go on like this. When you swore those oaths of eternal love, little did I think this was the path that awaited me. Now it’s too late to shed any tears. What I want is for you to come to my aid and send me the promised money, to do something so that I can at last disabuse the poor Colonel and live in peace with my conscience. You have the right to expel me—when I think about it, my departure was precisely that, an expulsion—to deprive me of my son’s affection and deny me your name, and, as you have been doing, even expose me to public execration. But you cannot deny me the help you owe me, indeed, to do so now would be an act I could only describe as the lowest of the low. If, as I expect, you claim to have no money, then sell one of those useless bits of furniture cluttering up the Chácara, yes, sell one of those dead artifacts and come up with the necessary money to feed someone who is still living. Some things are worth more than mere furniture, and they could even be the bringers of justice. Remember that when I left your house, having been accused of the most horrible of crimes, I took nothing with me but a few handkerchiefs with which to dry my tears as I wept over my misfortune. It is time, then, for you all to think of me other than as someone to be accused and insulted. I am not alone in the world, thank God, and I know how to stand up for myself, even if that takes my last ounce of strength and my last drop of blood. Take heed, Valdo, and don’t force me to take extreme measures. (Again I tremble and my eyes fill with tears: no, Valdo, I feel that I can still trust in the memory of the love that once united us. I know that everything will be resolved quietly, that you will send me the money I need in order to live—and thus an act of justice and understanding will give succor to a woman who was once so ignominiously forced to abandon her own home.)
From CHRONICLE OF THE MURDERED HOUSE. Used with permission of Open Letter. Copyright © 2016 by Lúcio Cardoso.