Right in those first days you could feel that there was a man on the ranch. And you could also guess that the person in charge was a woman: since despite the threat of drought and the fundamental needs of that poor attempt at a farm, what suddenly worried Vitória the most was the appearance of the place. As if until the man’s arrival she hadn’t noticed the slovenliness of the fields, she was now greedy to transform them. She seemed to be looking forward to the date of a party before which time everything had to be ready. A fever for precision had overtaken her. And the details to which she descended were like a fly taking off. By midmorning, there she was pointing out the crooked fence. And the calm strength of the man would uncrook it. From far off Francisco, brooding and skeptical, saw the woman pointing out the disorder of the odd flower beds—and smiling saw that in silence Martim was digging, cleaning, pruning. Between Martim and Vitória there had been established a mute already mechanized relationship that was fully functioning: constituted by the coincidence of the woman’s wanting to give orders and of his acquiescence in obeying them. With avidity, the woman was the boss. And some thing in her had intensified: the happy severity with which she was now stepping atop something that was hers, disguising the glory of possession with a defiant glance at the passing clouds.
—And what about the stables? she interrogated him one day attentive, you never cleaned out the stables! she said to him impatiently, with that blinking of the eyes of someone who no longer knew what she wanted; but time was pressing.
That’s then how Martim—as if he were copying in his work of making concrete an inevitable evolution whose trace he was fumbling about for—that’s how the new and confused step of the man left one morning his kingdom on the plot to the half-light of the stables where the cows were more difficult than the plants.
His contact with the cows was a painstaking effort. The light in the stable was different from the light outside to the point that a vague threshold was established in the doorway. Where the man stopped. Used to numbers, he cringed at disorder. That’s because inside was an atmosphere of intestines and a difficult dream full of flies. And only God feels no disgust. At the threshold, then, he stopped unwilling.
The mist was rising from the animals and slowly wrapping them up. He looked farther on. In the shadowy filth there was something of a workshop and of concentration as if from that shapeless tangle yet another shape were bit by bit taking concrete form. The crude smell was that of wasted raw materials. That’s where cows were made. Out of disgust, the man who suddenly had become once again abstract as a fingernail, wanted to draw back; he wiped with the back of his hand his dry mouth like a doctor confronted with his first wound. At the threshold of the stable however he seemed to recognize the pale light that was being exhaled from the snouts of the animals. That man had already seen that vapor of light floating up from sewers on certain cold mornings. And he’d seen that light coming off hot garbage. He’d also seen it like a halo around the love of two dogs; and his own breath was that same light. That’s where profound cows were bade. A person with little courage might vomit at the nasty fragrance, and upon seeing the attraction that flies had for that open sore, a clean person could feel sick in the face of the tranquility with which the standing cows were heavily wetting the ground. Martim was that person with little courage who had never placed his hands into the intimate part of a stable.
However, though averting his eyes, he grudgingly seemed to understand that things had been set up in such a way that in a stable one day a child had been born. For it was right that great smell of matter. Except that Martim was not yet prepared for such a spiritual advance. More than dread, it was a modesty. And he hesitated at the door, pale and offended like a child when all of a sudden the root of life is revealed to him.
Then he disguised his cowardice with a sudden revolt: he was offended that Vitória had pushed him from the silence of the plants into that place. Where, with repugnance and curiosity, he unexpectedly remembered that there was a dead age in which enormous reptiles had wings. Because in that place a person couldn’t escape certain thoughts. There he couldn’t escape the feeling that, with horror and impersonal joy, things were being fulfilled.
Might that have been what turned his stomach, or just the lukewarm smell? Hard to know. Yet it would have been enough for him to take a step back, and he’d find himself in the full fragrance of the morning which is already a thing perfected in the slightest flowers and in the smallest stones, and it’s a complete work and without fissures—and that a person can look without any danger because there’s nowhere to come in and get lost. All he had to do was take a step back.
He then took a step forward. And, obfuscated, halted. At the beginning he saw nothing, as when you enter a cave. But the cows used to the darkness had noticed the stranger. And he felt in his whole body that his body was being tested by the cows: they started to moo slowly and were moving their feet without at least looking at him—with that lack of the need to see in order to know that animals have, as if they’d already crossed the infinite extension of their own subjectivity to the point of reaching the other side: the perfect objectivity that no longer needs to be demonstrated. Whereas he, in the stables, had reduced himself to the weak man: that dubious thing that never went from one side to the other.
In a resigned sigh, it seemed to the slow man that “not looking” would also be his only way to enter into contact with the animals. Imitating the cows, in an almost calculated mimicry, he standing there didn’t look at anything at all, trying he too to dispense with direct vision. And in an intelligence forced by the very inferiority of his situation, he let himself grow submissive and watchful. Then, out of an altruism of identification, he almost took the shape of one of the animals. And it was by doing that that, with a certain surprise, he unexpectedly seemed to understand what a cow is like.
Having somehow understood, a heavy guile made him, now quite motionless, let himself be known by them. Without exchanging so much as a glance, he endured with grinding teeth the cows’ getting to know him with intolerable slowness as if hands were running over his secret. It was with unease that he felt the cows choosing in him only the part of themselves that there was in him; as a thief would see in him the part that he, Martim, had of eagerness to steal, and as a woman would want of him something a child wouldn’t understand. Except the cows were choosing in him something that he himself wasn’t aware of—and that was bit by bit being created.
It was a great effort, the man’s. Never, until then, had he become so much of a presence. Being materialized for the cows was a great intimate work of concretization. The fingernail was finally aching.
For a moment of lack of faith, the man felt certain that he was going to lose and that he would never manage the ascension into the stables. Since the odd wide glance was running unhurriedly over him, followed by a long moo of a heavy uplifted head: repudiating him. Amidst the intense heat of the stables, they were noticing his acid smell of people.
But it’s also true that, by now, the joy of living had already overtaken him, that delicate joy that sometimes overtakes us in the middle of life itself as if the same note of music were intensified: that joy had overtaken him and was leading him instinctively in the fight. Martim already wasn’t sure if he was just obeying the unformulated order by which cows end up forcing a cowboy to a peculiar way of looking and standing. Or if, in truth, he himself were the one who was seeking, in a painful spiritual effort, to free himself at last from the kingdom of rats and of plants—and to reach the mysterious breathing of the greater animals.
What he merely know—since he had already reached the same simply essential intelligence of a cow—what he merely knew was a simple law. That he oughtn’t brutalize their own rhythm, and that he ought to give them time, their time. That it was an entirely dark time, and they were ruminating hay with drool. Bit by bit this too became the time of the man. Round, slow, uncountable by a calendar, since that is the way that a cow crosses a field.
Then—since things tend to reach a conclusion and to rest at a stage—the stables finally started to settle down. The heat of the body of the man and of the animals mingled in the same ammoniac warmth of the air. The silence of the man was automatically transformed. He finally had gained a dimension that a plant doesn’t have. And the cows, pacified by the justification that Martim had given them, stopped paying attention to him.
In shaking jubilation, the man felt that some thing had finally happened. It then gave him an intense affliction as when you’re happy and have nothing to apply the happiness to, and you look around and there’s no way to give that instant of happiness—which up till now had happened with more frequency to that man on Saturday nights.
Some thing had happened. And though the threads were still escaping him, he finally had some thing in his hand and his chest puffed with subtle victory. Martim breathed deeply. He now belonged to the stables.
And finally he could look at it as a cow would see it:
The stable was a hot and nice place that was pulsing like a thick vein. It was from that wide vein that men and beasts had young. Martim sighed tired with the great effort: he’d just “unveiled.” It was from that wide vein that a big animal would cross a stream scattering water that shimmers—which the man had already seen, having however had just that minimum warning of beauty that now was settling on a deep base. It was because of that pulsation that the mountains were far and high. It was because of this that the cows were wetting the ground with a strong noise. It was from a stable that time is indefinitely substituted by time. It was because of that throb that migratory groups left cold zones for temperate ones. That—that was a hot place that was throbbing.
All this the man might have felt because he felt so satisfied that he spit on the ground. After which, with his heart filled with heavy vigor, hiding his emotion, he held out his hand and gave a few slaps to the parched body of a cow. A great tranquil transfusion had begun between him and the animals.
You need to give soil to the corn! Vitória said to him irritated.
So he gave soil to the corn. But the cows were waiting for him, and he knew it.
From Apples in the Dark by Clarice Lispector, translated by Benjamin Moser, copyright © 1961 by Clarice Lispector. Translation copyright © 2023 by Benjamin Moser. Used by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.