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Alentejo Blue: A Novelby Monica Ali
At first he thought it was a scarecrow. Coming outside in the tired morning light to relieve his bladder, blessing as always the old Judas tree, João turned his head and saw the dark shape in the woods. It took some time to zip his trousers. His fingers were like enemy agents. They pretended to be his instruments but secretly worked against him.
João walked out beneath the moss-skinned branches thinking only this: Eighty-four years upon the earth is an eternity.
He touched Rui's boots. They almost reached the ground. "My friend," he said, "let me help you." He waited for the courage to look up and see his face. When it came, he whispered in his lacerated old man's voice. "Querido," he said. "Ruizinho."
Standing on the log that Rui had kicked away, João took his penknife and began to cut the rope. He put his free arm across Rui's chest and up beneath his armpit, felt the weight begin to shift as the fibers sprang apart beneath the blade.
The almond blossom was early this year. The tomatoes too would come early and turn a quick, deceiving red. They would not taste of anything. João took Rui's crooked hand in his own and thought: These are the things that I know. It was time to put the broad beans in. The soil that had grown the corn needed to rest. The olives this year would be hard and small.
He sat in the long grass with his back against the log and Rui resting against him. He moved Rui's head so it lay more comfortably on his shoulder. He wrapped his arms around Rui's body. For the second time he held him.
They were seventeen and hungry when they first met, in the back of a cattle wagon heading east to the wheat fields. Rui pulled him up without a word, but later he said, "There's work enough for all. That's what I hear." João nodded, and when the hills had subsided and the great plains stretched out like a golden promise, he leaned across and said, "Anyone who wants work can find it." They moved their arses on the wooden slats and pretended they weren't sore and looked out farther than they had ever seen before, white villages stamped like foam on the blue, the land breaking against the sky.
On the third day they put down at the edge of a small town and the children who ran up to meet the wagon were bitten hard, no different from João's brothers and sisters. João looked at Rui but Rui set his mouth and swung his legs over the side the same as the other men. The older ones got called and went to cut cork or plow the fields while João and Rui stood up tall with their hands in their pockets. João was so hungry he felt it in his legs and his hands and his scalp. They walked through the hovels, the women lining the doorways, the dogs nosing the gutters, and came to the center. "We'll stick together," said Rui. He had green eyes and a fine nose and white skin, as though he had never been out in the sun.
"If someone wants us, he'll have to take us both," said João, as if he were master of his destiny.
They scrounged half a loaf at the café by scrubbing the floor and humping the rubbish to the tip, and slept on the cobbled street with their mouths open. When he woke, the first thing João saw was Rui's face. He thought the pain in his stomach was pure hunger.
Side by side they scavenged and slept. They milled about with the other men waiting for work and learned a lot: how to eke out a few words to last a conversation, how to lean against a wall, how to spit, and how to fill up on indifference.
At the top of the square was a two-story building with bars on the bottom window. João had never seen a prison before. The prisoners sat in the window and talked to friends or received food from relatives. One day a dozen or more people had gathered. João and Rui had nothing else to do.
"He talks about sacrifice. Who is making these sacrifices, my friends? Ask yourselves."
No one looked at the prisoner. They were just hanging around waiting, though there was nothing to wait for.
The prisoner clutched the bars and pressed his face to them. His nose escaped. "Salazar," he said, "is not making sacrifices."
There was a general stirring, as if fear had blown in on the dry wind.
"Listen to me," said the prisoner. His face was thin and pinched, as though he had spent too long trying to squeeze it out of the narrow opening. "In the whole of the Alentejo, four families own three quarters of the land. It was like this too in other countries, like Russia. But now the Russian land belongs to the Russian people."
Each man averted his face from every other. It was not safe to read another's thoughts.
João glanced at Rui. Rui did not know what the others knew, or was too reckless to care. He looked directly at the prisoner.
"The people make the wealth, but the wealth does not belong to the people."
Men withdrew their hands from their pockets as if emptying their savings before leaving town. The prisoner slid his fingers between the bars. "It is forbidden for us to go barefoot. Salazar forbids it." The man laughed, and the laugh was as free as the body was caged. "Look, this is how we must bind our feet. As long as our feet are in slippers and rags, our bellies must be full."
An old man with a bent back, obliged to gaze at feet the long day through, grunted a loud assent. A younger man, blinking back tears of fury, said, "It is true."
The prisoner tipped back into the dark cell as though wrenched by some unknown force, perhaps by the darkness itself. Each free man discovered he had something to do elsewhere.
"Rui," said João, "we better go."
Rui stood with his hands on his hips and tossed his head like a bullfighter. "It's finished," said João. He grabbed Rui's elbow and dragged him away.
Later a man came to the square and beckoned João. "You want to work?"
"Anything," said João. "Please."
"Come," said the man and turned around.
"My friend," said João, looking over at Rui, who whistled and kicked his heels against the wall.
The man kept walking.
"Wait," called João. "I'm coming."
He looked up and saw Rui's hat on a large stone, bathed in a circle of milky light. He imagined Rui sitting there, taking off his hat for the last time.
João's spine was stiff and there was an ache in his chest. He shifted in the damp grass and looked across and saw how oddly Rui's legs were lying. His trousers were hemmed with mud. One boot faced down and the other faced up. For us, thought João, there can be no ease.
He had been there as usual on Thursday, outside the Junta de Freguesia for the game. Everyone was there: José, Manuel, Nelson, Carlos, Abel, and the rest. Only Mario did not come, because Mario had broken his hip. "That Manuel," said Rui, "is a cheating bastard." "That Rui," said Manuel, "is a stupid donkey." Everything went on the way it had for the past eighteen years, since Rui turned up in Mamarrosa, though Rui and João had been the young ones then. "Carlos," said Abel, "you bowl like a woman." "Shut up," said Carlos. "What do you know about women?"
Malhadinha was the best way for men to talk. You rolled the balls out onto the green and rolled the words out after them. You didn't have to face each other.
Afterward they locked the balls in the Junta and went to the café to drink.
"My granddaughter wants to go to Lisbon," said José.
"My son left London and went to Glasgow," said Rui.
"My daughter," said Carlos, "says she will throw me out if I cough once more in the night. But she always says that."
When it was time to go to bed, João walked with Nelson, and Rui walked with Manuel. Sometimes João walked with Manuel. Sometimes he walked with José or Antonio or Mario. But in all those years he had never walked alone with Rui.
João thought he did not want to be the one to return Rui's hat to his wife. He thought and thought about what to do. A bird flew down and landed on the hat's ridge. It was gold with a black head and black feet. João had never seen a bird like that before, and he knew it was a sign that he should keep the hat. Then he remembered about Rui's wife. Dona Rosa Maria had died not last year but the year before that. The day they buried her was a scorcher. July the fourth: memorial day of Isabella of Portugal, patron saint of difficult marriages and the falsely accused.
* * *
When they met for the second time, they were men.
João passed the greenshirt parade in the Praça Souza Prado and climbed the steps up to the Rua Fortunato Simões Dos Santos, heading for his favorite bar. At the top of the steps, he turned and watched as a boy marched out of the ranks and raised his right arm in the infamous salute. João went into the bar and saw Rui. His skin had darkened and his nose was no longer fine (it looked as though it had been broken), but João knew it was Rui because he brought back the pain in João's stomach.
He was talking, drawing people in from the corners of the room. "All I am saying is that a man who owns ten thousand hectares or more and dines on six courses twice a day is living a life of excess. Doesn't the Public Man himself tell us we must restrain our desires?" Rui wore a checked shirt, a frayed jacket, and his hair dangerously long: It came to within an inch of his collar. "Nobody can contradict Salazar."
"But you speak like a . . . a . . ." The man sitting opposite Rui dropped his voice. "A Communist."
"'From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.' That's what they say." Rui waved his hand. "Whoever heard such nonsense? Why should a man work according to his ability? Why should a man receive according to his needs? Imagine what would happen if people took this nonsense into their heads! Álvaro Cunhal" — he let the name of the Communist Party leader hang for a while — "must rot in his cell forever."
João knew what Rui was doing. He could see by the way the others shifted and glanced around that they knew too.
"We are with the other side," said Rui. He looked up and saw João, and something passed across his face. "Blackshirts and greenshirts stick together."
"Excuse me," said a little vole of a man sitting by the window, "but do you accuse Salazar of fascism?"
"Accuse?" said Rui. "I certainly accuse him of nothing. In 1945, when he decreed all flags to fly at half mast as a sign of respect for our dear departed Hitler, I saluted him. We supported the Germans, so of course it was a sad day for us all."
"But no," cried the little man with his lips aquiver, "we weren't with anybody."
"Oh," said Rui, stroking his nose, "I forget. But nevertheless, I am sad when I am told to be sad."
It was 1951, the third year João passed in Lindoso with his sister, her husband, their four children, and the husband's brother, mother, and aunt in a long low house with three doors and one window. In the season he cut cork, and when the season was over, he did whatever he could. Over the years he had been a grape picker, an olive picker, a goatherd; a tanner of hides in Olhão, a laborer on the roads in Ourique, and a gutter of fish in Portimão.
He tried to warn Rui. "There are spies," he said. "Informers. That little man with the shrunken head, how does he make his living? Nobody knows."
Rui shrugged. He felt his nose, pinching down from the bridge to the tip. He could never get used to his nose. "The PIDE pays him, I am sure. These secret police are not so secret."
"Please," said João. "Be careful."
Rui cast his line again into the dark waters of the Mira. "Nobody speaks more highly of Salazar than me."
He had been in France after the War, with all the other illegals, working the construction sites. He learned to read and write. "Liberté, egalité, fraternité," he said. "In France," he said, "a man has rights. He has dignity. He has respect."
"He has freedom," said João. He sat down on the riverbank.
Rui sat next to him. In the cafés and bars, you could not talk freely. Out here there was privacy.
João could hear Rui breathing. He could hear his heart beating, or perhaps that was his own heart, banging in its cage. He looked in Rui's face, and for a long moment they held each other's gaze. Rui looked away, as he always did.
"For the love of God," said João.
"Tell me about Portimão," said Rui.
In the months since they found each other in the Rua Fortunato Simões Dos Santos, João had told it many times. Rui wanted to know everything about the sardine-processing factory. The worker who read out articles from Avante! — who had snitched on him? What, exactly, did he look like? Was João sure he did not come from Aljustrel, because he sounded like a Comrade that Rui had met there. He wanted to know as well: Did the men respond? Were they interested in joining the Party? Did they see that the means of production should be owned by the people? Did they understand about surplus value?
João did not like to think about the factory. Rui kept making him describe the workers' barracks. The smell there was, if anything, worse than in the main building. The floor was a permanent slime: the result of loose tiles, faulty drains, blocked souls.
"There's nothing more to tell," said João. What would happen if he put his hand on Rui's cheek? Just to think about it made him tremble.
"The barracks," said Rui, "did it bring men closer, living together like that?"
"No," said João harshly. He thought about the men he had known there who came to his bunk at night, who had wives waiting at home, children to be fed.
"All right," said Rui. "Let's be quiet, then. We are not afraid of silence."
They looked down at the Mira, the never-ending pilgrimage of water, moving blindly, relentlessly on. A rowboat went by. Rui touched his hat.
João turned his head to Rui. Rui would not look at him. João kept waiting, out of spite. If he put his hand between Rui's legs, if he led him up a dark alley and turned around, if he took him into the woods and dropped to his knees and kept his eyes down — these things Rui would accept. João wasn't having it. His desire was so strong it felt like hate.
"Salazar," said Rui, who was, after all, afraid of silence, "has not told a single truth from the day he was born. If he tells you that the sun will rise in the east, you know it will rise in the west. But we keep pretending to believe his lies. That's the problem with our people. If you pretend for long enough, you forget you were only pretending in the first place. The illusion becomes a kind of reality." He looked underneath his jacket where he had thrown it down and found the tin of bait and then began to wind in his line. "It's like me. I didn't start coming to the river to fish, but now I think I'm a fisherman."
"Why did you come, then?" said João, wanting to hear it.
"I'll tell you something," said Rui, finally letting his eyes meet João's. It was safe now that he was standing. "Salazar has told so many lies that his tongue has begun to rot. Really, it is what I heard. That's why he likes to hide away. Yes, my friend, it is true. This is true: Salazar's tongue is black."
Not long after, they took him far away, to Porto. Within a day or two it was known over the town that the address of the PIDE headquarters in Porto was 329 Rua do Heroismo. It was said that the back door connected with a cemetery.
João's nephew, who was in the Portuguese Youth, drilling every Wednesday and Saturday afternoon with a wooden gun, said, "Will they nail his wee-wee to the wall?"
"Get out," said João. "Is that what they teach you? Get out."
Everybody knew the stories. They beat a pregnant woman on the belly. They burned a man's hands and threw him out of the top-floor window. They made prisoners do "the statue," standing by a wall for ten days at a time with only their fingertips touching it. Everybody knew the stories. The children seemed to know them first.
João was getting a cramp. He needed to stand up. He pushed Rui's hip gently to roll him off. The bone was sharp beneath his hand. He slid his palm up beneath the undershirt and felt the stomach, the ribs, the looseness of the skin like a newborn calf's. The scent of eucalyptus anointed the day as the heat rose up from the ground. Somewhere a dog began to moan. The cork trees kept their counsel. It was two hundred years old, the tree that Rui had chosen. Eighty-four years was barely a beginning.
João went over to the large stone and picked up the hat. The felt was warm between his fingers. He sat down on the stone and put the hat on his head. Where were the tears? Why didn't they come?
He looked down at some old goat droppings and thought about the posters all over the village. PCP, they said in large red letters. A hammer and sickle sat proud in the top corner. VALEU A PENA LUTAR!
The struggle was worthwhile! Fifty years ago men died for the right to say so. Even those who remained alive died a little. What did the young ones think? What did they think when they looked at Rui, his squashed nose, his whiskery ears, the humble bend in his back? Of course they never looked; and the struggle belonged to them now, and it was not of a kind that João could understand. João lifted his eyes. "What do you think?" he asked Rui. "Shall we say this, as our last rites, that it was all worthwhile?"
They had one night together, when Rui brought his broken nose and his bruised limbs and heart and his green eyes that had lost their lashes back from Porto and knocked at one of the three doors on the long low house. The others moved out of their way, and João held Rui afterward, their feet pushed up against the rusting iron bed frame, knowing they could be heard, that his sister and brother-in-law would listen in the dark and hold their breath and think that the weeping was for the torture that had been, when it was only for the torture that was about to begin.
Rui would not be alone with him after that. Within six months he had married. Dona Rosa Maria was the local mortician's daughter. She had an overbite and a way of holding her hands behind her back that made it look as if she were hiding something, a pancreas, perhaps, or a kidney. Two months later they moved away. That night a man followed João out of the bar, and they went together into the woods.
A cuckoo called out, fell silent, and began again. A bird, thought João, never has to think about what to do next. This reflection struck him now with tremendous force, as if it had never before entered his head. A bird always knows how he feels. If he is hungry he will look for food. If he is frightened he will fly away. If he needs a mate he will find one. He is either hungry or not hungry. He is either frightened or not frightened. He knows when to be quiet, and he knows when to sing.
João went to lie down with Rui. He closed his eyes and put his hand along Rui's shoulder and stroked at his collarbone; he put his fingertips on the rope around his neck; he followed the bruise spreading like an ink stain up to his ear, which was cool and soft as a puffball; if he pressed down hard, it would explode in a gentle cloud. Rui's papery scalp showed through his thin white hair, spotted brown with age and red, perhaps, with death. João inched his head closer to Rui. He wanted to smell him. All he could smell was the life of the forest floor. "So many lies," he said to Rui. "Every day and every day, the lies."
For a long while he lay there against the body. "Let me feel something," he pleaded, as bitterness welled like blood in a deep white wound. When desire is gone, he thought, this is all that remains.
Before Rui moved to Mamarrosa, João saw him only once again. João was in São Teotónio visiting his youngest brother. He walked through the little town looking for something and saw a woman scrubbing clothes in the tanque outside the Casa do Povo. Dona Rosa Maria straightened up and slipped her hands behind her back.
She led João the two miles to the house, balancing a large basket on her head and speaking barely a word. There were rows of tomatoes and beans outside the house and, as well, a row of children who tugged at her dress as she passed.
Rui sat at a table fashioned from rough planks. He stood up when he saw João, then sank back down and said, "You've come."
Rui was a truck driver's assistant, and his work took him away from home for days at a time. "When I am at home," he said, "I sleep." He looked at the children who had gathered around, the youngest still unsteady on his feet, as if wondering where they had sprung from.
They drank rough red wine while Dona Rosa filled a large iron with hot charcoal and worked on the end of the table.
"My woman," said Rui, pressing at his nose, "works as a maid at the doctor's house. This is her day off, but she is ironing their clothes."
They finished the wine, and Rui roared at Dona Rosa to walk back to the town to buy more. He leaned forward and clamped his hands on his knees. His eyelashes had grown back white. "I'm still part of it," he said. "Those bastards."
"You are careful, I hope," said João.
"Yes, of course." He shook his head. "A change is coming. This is what I know. A change is coming, my friend, and then it will no longer be our turn to be careful."
They drank more and spoke less, and João spent the night on a rag rug in front of the hearth with a dog curled up on his feet and the sound of five small breathing bodies in the room.
In the morning Rui went out before it was light, and Dona Rosa kicked João's shoulder to wake him. It was raining, and Dona Rosa pulled a shawl over her head and locked the little ones inside to keep them dry while she went to cook for the doctor and his wife and their children.
João looked up at the tittering leaves. I am old and I am calm, he thought. It is not wisdom. It is not experience. It is the passing of desire. Change had come, was still coming. To think that change was once something to be struggled for!
The cork oaks that had stood two hundred years, how much longer would they stand? João had not seen it with his own eyes, but he had heard that there were plastic corks for wine bottles now. No, nothing was safe from change.
The big estates broke up, as Rui said they would, after the revolution he had always known would come. But the workers' collectives were mostly gone too. The landowners, born to win, bought the land back dirt cheap. And now they were selling it. There was talk of a six-hundred-bed hotel down at the coast, a golf course, a park with water slides. Some said Japanese owners. Some said Marco Afonso Rodrigues was coming back and it was he who would build this hotel.
Rui used to say, "We should drive them out of their quintas." The Germans, the Dutch, and the British were taking care of that.
When Rui and Dona Rosa came to live in Mamarrosa, all their children, the three who had lived, had gone to work abroad.
"They are good children," said Rui. "Real workers."
João was shocked at the thinness of his hair, the slope of his shoulders.
"They never forget us," Rui would say, meaning they sent money back.
And at other times, "They have forgotten us," meaning they did not often come home.
They met every Thursday for the game and in between in the street and in the bread shop. "Oh," complained Rui once when the bread was baked too hard, "things are not the same anymore."
João cradled Rui's head in his lap. Rui was never afraid of death. That he had proved long ago. There was only one thing that scared him; one thing he would never say. João smiled now because he finally understood that in death Rui had spoken. He looked up at the branch, the lovely moss-skinned branch that Rui had chosen on this tree in this place and no other, where he had, in silence, told the truth at last.
João looked into Rui's face. One eyelid was nearly all the way down, as far as it would stretch across the eyeball, which seemed almost to burst from the socket. The eyebrows were long and white and curling. There was a purple bruise across his nose. Rui's mouth had fixed open to make his final admission. The tongue, his tongue, was turning black.
Copyright ©2006 by Monica Ali
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