From Now and at the Hour of Our Death

from Agora e Na Hora da Nossa Morte; translated by Julia Sanches

At the end of the road is a village from which the children have disappeared. And at the end of another road, another village from which the children have disappeared.

In the village there is a chapel, a communal oven, eight lived-in houses. There is no café, grocery, post office, town hall, or bus stop. On one side of the village, there is a hill that caught fire last summer, an event remembered not only for the alarm it caused, but also for its beauty. On the other side snakes a steep road that freezes in the winter and is often impassable. People here live their lives between their homes and their gardens, inhabitants of a Pompeii that has suffered no such natural disaster.

There are metaphors along the road: ripe fruit falling from trees; paths cut off abruptly; and the journey itself, an age-old metaphor for life and for the end of life. And yet, the surest metaphor for death is war: a person struggling in bed for years and years until their breathing is finally mistaken for moaning.

We obsess over lasts as we do over firsts. Last days, last images, last words. We want signs.

I knock on the door of a man who knows he will die, hoping he’ll tell me how it feels to be a man who knows he will die. He has prepared his family for their mourning so that it is easier on them; he has said goodbye to those he wanted to say goodbye to.

The nurse shaves his beard so that he may appear dignified despite the pajamas, the diapers, the drool. For a few seconds, the man, his eyes bulging, looks at me, a stranger. His eyes roll back into his head. I haven’t made it in time. The man can no longer speak. He is focused solely on dying, a task that seems to require a tremendous effort.

Survival Guide:
Think of death in detail. Don’t think of the whole.

There are crosses on the way, marking car crashes. There are crosses on the way, marking people who fell off horses. There are crosses on the way, marking people who died while walking along its edge. The crosses are made of stone, some are very old and others ghostly new.

All that survived in the fire that began with an electric blanket and ended with a wrecked room was a Bible. This was considered a miracle, a sign that God is vigilant and watches over us despite all proof to the contrary. The woman who kept the Bible that survived the fire as a talisman lives with her widowed sister and with a niece who neither talks nor walks; who spends days on end in a windowless room; who, at fifty-seven, still cries and is easily startled; who is scared of strangers and for whom the world — she was very young when she once went to see a doctor in a neighboring country — is no more than those two or three streets.

God visits in the spring, and in the winter, perhaps having forgotten, He does not watch over her to see if she rolls her wheelchair into the light.

The same road does not seem the same, and yet every road seems the same. We move in circles, like eagles.

Up until just two months ago the shepherd, accompanied by his mad and lovesick wife, would walk every day to the São João fountain to drink water, striving for his miracle. Now he no longer leaves the back room of the retirement home; the room’s windows look out onto the yard and have been blacked out with plastic.He lies shrunken in bed, with an oxygen tank by his side, in a blue robe the color of his eyes. That is where they hid him from his wife who, at the age of eighty, still insisted on trying to sleep with him, which is how he fell out of bed and ended up in the hospital. But his wife, who now sits in the waiting room, sometimes more and sometimes less absent than the rest of the home’s elderly, has already forgotten him. She has forgotten she had a husband who she’d been madly in love with from the age of eighteen, and who made her violently jealous. She no longer asks about him and, when asked herself, answers she was never married. When he dies, she might not even realize and might not even cry.

Perhaps the shepherd, lying in bed with eyes closed, has flashes of his childhood raising sheep on the hill behind the home. At the top of the hill sit the ruins of a castle, proof of the village’s former importance, proof that nothing important lasts.

On the hill there is a sculpture trail that re-enacts the Passion of Christ, and maybe that’s why the shepherd believed there was something sacred in that spot where he would spend nights sleeping under the open sky.

In the same way that some will wait their whole lives to win the lottery, playing the same numbers over and over, week after week, the shepherd repeated the prayers his grandparents had taught him, hoping he might see the Virgin — as Francisco, Jacinta and Lúcia had in Fátima. He was intensely devoted to the three little shepherds and had visited the shrine there three times. He thought those kinds of miracles, real miracles, were the privilege — the only privilege — of the poor. After growing up and becoming a father, after growing old, and even up until just a few weeks ago, when his cancerous lung still allowed him to walk to the São João fountain to drink water, striving for his miracle, he would look towards the hilltop and it would seem to him that She was there. Watching.

And at night, in dreams, the old are young and the sick, healthy; in our minds we are no more than ourselves and in our dreams the best of ourselves.

The blinds on the upper floor are drawn, the tables and chairs wrapped in plastic. Her husband proudly shows off their large living room, as well as the other fully furnished rooms and their fully equipped bathroom. He built all this for his wife, even though she can no longer walk up the stairs and they are now both confined to two or three rooms on the ground floor.

Man is not God. Man is not God. Man is not God. Man is not God. Man is not God. Man is not God. Man is not God. Man is not God. Man is not God. Man is not God. Man is not God. Man is not God. Man is not God. Man is not We should scrawl this in notebooks, filling page after page. We should be punished for thinking we can control everything, even death; for thinking that we can foresee it, and, who knows, maybe even avoid it.

The eagle soars in circles high above the river bluffs. Standing beside the water, with our feet planted on the earth, we are tiny; we are creatures governed by fear.

Survival Guide:
Make people into characters.
Don’t stop crying over characters.

She wore black for years before she died because in the end it was her husband, who had fallen ill after her, also with cancer, who died first. She even lived to see her great-granddaughter baptized; it happened in August, the month of saints, promises, and celebrations. This was her first great-grandchild and her emigrant son had wanted the baby to be baptized in his parents’ village. She’d had many children, but only the ‘girl,’ her handicapped daughter, was still with her. Before she died, they assured her that the ‘girl,’ by then thirty-nine years old, would be looked after at an institution. They came and took her. Her mother told her it wouldn’t be for long.

And so, before she died, she found herself alone. She’d already stopped tending to her garden, then she stopped sitting at her front door, in the shade of her flowers, from where she used to like looking out at the other side of the street, at the house that belonged to her son who lived abroad — a large, freshly painted house. She would come to forget those she had recently met, but she never forgot any of her children, even those who had died as babies — on the fingers of one hand she counted the children she still had and on the fingers of the other the ones she had lost. It was strange that a body that was once so fertile could now be so barren. Before she died, she underwent so many operations that
there was now nothing in her belly but the pains she felt like rocks in her gut. She was left with a scar that gave her the inhuman appearance of possessing two bellies, and she carried a bag for her needs. Not long before she died, she stopped getting up because when she did she would feel dizzy and fall and one day she even banged her head. She spent her days in bed in a room that was cool and dark in the summer, and cold and grim after it, and in which still stood the bed that had once belonged to the ‘girl.’

O blessed Mother, who in your voyages have known weariness and the dangers of travel, protect these your children who are now embarking on a journey, be with them always, watch over their well-being and their needs, and help them arrive safely at their destination. Let it be so.

In the café they don’t talk about people who are bedridden or in homes, of the old slowly vanishing. They talk about sudden and unexpected deaths, which are considered events. They talk, for example, about a boy who died just hours after he turned eighteen. He died on a distant foreign road, but was buried in his parents’ village. The motorcycle he crashed was a birthday present. There was not a single visible scratch on his body, the café owner explained, so they held an open-casket wake.

Immortal in the morning. At night, the fear of never waking.

And yet another metaphor: the border. The eagle crossing it, circling. How easy it is to believe in the immortality of eagles.

I return to the first village. Daughter and granddaughter have gone back to the city and so the widow is now alone. She goes to the cemetery every day, where not only her husband but also her parents and siblings are buried. Her husband asked that, instead of a tombstone, a simple cross be placed over his grave, and she respected his request. Our Lady didn’t heed the wish she made before he died — that she be taken three days after him, since she didn’t want to be left behind — but she continues to pray, with discipline, and goes to church every day. She is not sure her husband can hear her but she prays that God will pass her message along.

The empty house seems to breathe. When she lies down, the iron bed she shared with her husband for over sixty years creaks loudly. In the dead of night, it is almost as if the figures in the framed black-and-white photographs that hang above the dresser were shifting.

Even though she’s been afraid of being on her own ever since she heard about the burglars, she refuses to move to the city. She does not want to leave behind her village or her home, her bed and her photographs, the cherry orchard, her vegetable garden, the olive grove and chestnut trees, her ancient donkey, or her family’s graves in the cemetery.

It is in her village and in her home that her husband lives on. For her, as well as for telephone companies:



‘He isn’t home. He’s in heaven.’


‘Look, my daughter will be here tomorrow or the day after and can talk to you then.’

Her daughter always visits. An only child, she was always close to her parents. She looks like her mother, with a long face and a stoic air. On one of her visits, she brought along the book she was reading, The Kite Runner, and said the greatest gift her father, who was illiterate, had given her was the ability to read books like The Kite Runner, and to know where faraway cities like Kabul were. As she said this, she cried, even though the doctors had told her before her father died that she would no longer be able to produce tears.

In the cemetery: a photograph and at times no more than a name. Names may survive, but they were never what made us unique.

The photograph of the great-grandfather who traveled the world hangs on a wall in the hallway. In the picture stands an elegant man in a suit with an antique traveling bag and an old-fashioned mustache. The family walks through the hallway, carrying trays of food for the dinner party. They no longer glance at their great-grandfather. He is distant in the way someone whose voice you’ve never heard is distant. Pictures also die.

At the entrance to each village, right before or right after the exit off the main road, there is typically a Virgin. Normally, she is inside a bell jar, as if needing special care; as if, without the glass, and unprotected by people, she in turn would be incapable of protecting them.

The boy skates from one end of the empty café to the other, pretending not to hear the conversation taking place between his parents and the nurse. They are talking about medication, about nutrition, about how much longer his father will have to wait for a liver transplant. His mother speaks loudly, and briskly, having decided to spare her husband the need to discuss his own health. The boy’s skateboard makes a monotonous sound on the café floor reminiscent of a fan or any machine that, when left on in an empty room, amplifies the silence. Out there runs a wide road, but there are few cars. A client comes into the café for coffee. The boy stops skating, goes to the counter, serves him; the man leaves again. Out there might lie a continent of wide-open spaces, yes, of large deserts. The boy resumes skating, resumes his role as just another teenager, pretending once again to feel alienated and unconcerned with the passing of time.


Excerpted from Now and at the Hour of our Death (Agora e Na Hora da Nossa Morte) by Susana Moreira Marques, translated by Julia Sanches. Copyright (c) 2015 by Susana Moreira Marques. Reprinted with permission of  & Other Stories.

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