(My translation of O número da sepultura, which was published in the Revista Sousa Cruz in 1921)
Translator’s note: The ‘animal game’ mentioned in this story originated in 1892 when, in order to attract more visitors, the Vila Isabel Zoo in Rio de Janeiro gave its entry tickets an extra function as raffle tickets. Each ticket had the picture of one of 25 animals on it – the example below is from 1895 – the winning animal being revealed at the end of each day. The game soon ‘escaped’ from the zoo, combinations of numbers were added to the tickets, and the jogo do bicho took hold of Brazil.
The number in the story – 1724 – comprises ‘the ten’ (24), ‘the hundred’ (724) and ‘the thousand’ (the whole number.
fter three months of marriage, what did she have to say about it? Was it good? Was it bad? She couldn’t really say one way or the other. Basically it seemed to come down to a simple change of house.
The house she’d left had neither more nor less rooms than the house she’d moved to. The latter wasn’t bigger, as such, but it had a tiny little garden and a sink in the dining room. When all was said and done, the difference between the two was no more than that.
Passing from filial to uxorial obedience, what she felt was what one feels when one moves house. In the beginning there’s hustle and bustle; there’s thinking of ways to adapt the furniture to the new house and, consequently, of ways to adapt the new occupants themselves. But that doesn’t last long. After a month, each item of furniture is firmly anchored to its spot and the inhabitants forget they’ve only recently arrived.
A further factor that stopped her feeling marriage had profoundly altered her way of life was the great similarity between the characteristics and habits of father and husband. Each of them was not only courteous towards her, mild-mannered, calm and well-spoken, but also meticulous, precise and methodical. Thus her transplantation from one home to the other had been uneventful.
Nevertheless, she’d expected marriage to bring something completely new: a radiant and continual joy in being alive, in being a woman. Quite the contrary, however: she felt nothing of the sort.
Whatever was special in her change of status was insufficient to cause her to look at life and the world in an entirely new way. She didn’t notice anything particularly novel…
That lustrous, roseate-and-gold aurora with which marriage beckons all young men and women…. she never saw it at all. That feeling of complete liberty, embracing walks, parties, theatres, visits – everything the idea of marriage suggests to a woman – lasted just one week in her case.
During that week she’d promenaded and gone to parties and theatres, but none of it had greatly engaged her; she’d not been surprised by any great or profound emotion; nor had she dreamt about anything other than the trivialities of day-to-day life. She’d even found it all rather boring! At first she’d felt a certain happiness and contentment; by the end, however, it all seemed tedious and she was looking forward to returning to her quiet suburban home, where she was at ease and could daydream without worrying that people would discover the vague yearnings of her misty, bourgeois, nostalgic little soul.
It was also not uncommon for her, under the influence of all that theatre and cinema stuff, to think nostalgically of her paternal home. She wouldn’t have been able to describe her feelings on remembering the old furniture and other familiar things that had surrounded her in her childhood home. There’d been an old rocking-chair made of jacaranda wood, an antique china milk-jug, painted blue, the octagonal clock without a pendulum – also old – and other domestic knick-knacks, which had engraved themselves on her memory much more strongly than the furniture and utensils she’d recently acquired.
Her husband was a young man of excellent matrimonial qualities and, even in the nebulous state of Zilda’s soul, there was no question of her disliking him or of his having disappointed her. Well-bred, and scrupulous in carrying out his duties in the section presided over by her father, he had all those middling qualities necessary for being a good head of family, a dutiful continuator of the species, and a good chief in a secretariat or some other department, or in a bank or a commercial office.
On the other hand, he had nothing to distinguish him whatsoever with respect to intelligence or activity. He was, and would always be, a serviceable piece of machinery, well-fitted, well-polished and which – properly oiled – would maintain output but always need an external force to set it in motion.
Zilda’s parents had brought the two of them together; her grandmother, whom she thought the world of, had made the usual encouraging noises; and, seeing that everyone was for it, she’d decided – more from curiosity than from love or anything like that – to marry her father’s clerk. They married. They lived very well. Not the faintest shadow had fallen between them, nor was there the least misunderstanding that might mar their married life; but neither did there exist the expected deep and constant mutual empathy with respect to desires, feelings, pain and happiness.
They lived in the placid tranquillity of a lake surrounded by high mountains that prevent gales from ruffling the still surface of the water.
The beauty of the life of that novice couple wasn’t that they managed to make one mind out of two, but rather that each of them continued to be a separate personality, without, however, ever finding the least cause for conflict. Once, however… But we’ll leave that for later – it had a lot to do with their respective character and education.
He, a fastidious bureaucrat, was sober, calm, prudent and dry as dust. She was almost passive and, having been educated under the ultra-conformist, spit-and-polish regime of her father, an old administrator – obedient to the chiefs, the ministers, the ministers’ secretaries and other sycophants, and to the laws and regulations – had neither fits of anger nor whims, nor any strong desires. She found refuge in dreams and was in favour of anything that was generally acceptable.
Her husband’s habits were as regular as clockwork, without the least variation. He’d get out of bed very early, almost at sunrise, even before Genoveva, the maid. Once up, he’d percolate some coffee and, as soon as it was ready, pour himself a large cup. Whilst awaiting the paper (just one), he’d go into the little garden, sweep it, make sure the rose bushes and carnations were tied back, and then feed some maize to the hens and chicks and look after the birds. When the paper arrived, he’d read it meticulously, imbibing his daily quota of opinions about literature, science, art and society, not to mention international politics and the various wars around the world. As for Brazilian politics, he had some opinions but didn’t reveal them to anyone, because they were mainly anti-government and he was looking for promotion.
At half past nine, breakfasted and dressed, he’d take leave of his wife with a perfunctory kiss and off he’d go to catch the train. He’d clock in as per the regulations, i.e. never later than half past ten.
In the office he’d fulfil his most sacred clerical duties with religious fervour.
It had always been thus, except that, after the marriage, his zeal had increased still further, with a view to making his father-in-law’s section a byword for celerity and promptitude in the expedition of paperwork. When he was short of work himself, he’d patrol the desks of his clerical colleagues and if he found a job that was late he wouldn’t hesitate to get stuck into it himself.
After returning from such a day at the office, he’d get changed, sit down to his dinner, and his first words would be: ‘My God, Zilda, I’ve been working like the Devil today!’
‘Well might you ask! Those colleagues of mine are a bunch of…’
‘Why?! What happened?’
‘Would you believe that Pantaleão’s a week late with that file of his, the one for the Admiralty?! I had to sort it out for him…’
‘Was it Daddy who asked you to do that?’
‘No, but it was my duty, as his son-in-law, to prevent the section he’s responsible for being labelled as sloppy. And anyway… I can’t stand seeing work that’s late…’
‘Does that Pantaleão take much time off?’
‘I should say so! His excuse is that he’s studying for a law degree. But I also studied, and I hardly had any time off.’
With information of this sort, together with titbits he told her about the private lives, moral defects and vices of his colleagues, Zilda became acquainted with life in the directorate where her husband worked: not just the bureaucratic life, but the personal and family life of the individual employees. She knew that Calçoene drank cachaça, that Zé Fagundes lived in sin with a Creole woman who’d borne him children, one of whom had successfully applied to the section and would soon be a colleague of her husband; that Feliciano Brites das Novas had gambled away all his savings; that Nepomuceno’s wife was the lover of General T, with whose help he’d got promoted ahead of all the others etc., etc.
This office stuff was all Zilda’s husband talked to her about; he had no other topic of conversation for her. With visitors and the odd colleague from work he discussed patriotic subjects: the army and navy, our natural resources etc.
He had a special predilection for such discussions and would always find a way to bring them round to the bee in his bonnet, i.e., everything Brazilian was No.1 in the world or, at least, in South America. And woe betide anyone who disagreed! Before they knew it, he’d hit them with his shibboleth: ‘And that’s why Brazil’s not progressing: the worst enemies of Brazil are Brazilians!’
Zilda was a petit-bourgeois woman of limited education and, like any woman, she didn’t have much intellectual curiosity when she heard him talk like this with his friends; it made her bored and sleepy; she much preferred the tittle-tattle about his colleagues’ home life…
Thus her married days slipped by. Already three months had passed and there’d only been one event that had broken the rigid monotony, an event that caused her anguish, that tortured her but which had, at least, dispelled the tedium of her bland, anodyne life for a few hours. Let me tell you about it.
Augusto – Augusto Serpa de Castro, that was her husband’s name – had a dour and grumpy air about him; there was something of the native Indian in his shiny, silky, intensely black hair and coppery complexion. His eyes were large, black, inert and dull, lacking in expression, especially with respect to happiness.
He was five or six years older than his wife, who was coming up to twenty. She, for her part, had a vivacious physiognomy, very supple and varied, although her light-brown eyes generally had a notably melancholic and dreamy expression. Of fine and delicate features, quite tall and with an attractive, slender figure, she had the gracefulness of a reed: not fearing the wind, simply bending even more elegantly under its force, while rustling complaints about being fated to be fragile, quite forgetting that her very fragility is what makes her strong.
After their marriage, they came to live in Saudade Street. It’s a picturesque road, only a little distance from the railway lines of the Central Station, an up-and-down road, blessed with a capricious wobbliness, both along and across. It’s populated with trees and bamboo on both sides, and runs almost directly north-south. The numerous dwellings on its east side crouch in a dip formed by the unevenness of the road, and are even more obscured by the liana-strung trees. The dwellings on its west side, however, rise up and gaze directly out – over those on the other side – at the dawn, with its indescribable sheen of colours and hues.
Just as Augusto had done at the end of the previous month, at the end of the next month – the second since his marriage –, as soon as he’d been paid and had checked the bills, he gave his wife the wherewithal to pay them, together with the money for the rent.
Zilda promptly paid the butcher, the baker and the vintner, but their landlord’s agent was rather tardy in calling. She mentioned this to her husband one morning when he was giving her a small amount to pay the greengrocer and for other little domestic expenses. But he left the rent money with her.
The rent was already four days overdue, and the rent-collector had still not appeared.
On the morning of that fourth day, she woke up happy and apprehensive at the same time. She’d had a dream, and what a dream! She’d dreamt about her grandma, whom she loved deeply and who’d been so much in favour of her marrying Augusto. Grandma had died a few months before they married, but they were already engaged.
The number of her grandma’s grave plot – 1724 – had appeared in her dream and she’d heard her grandma’s voice saying: ‘Bet on this number, my sweet!’
The dream made a deep impression on her, but she said nothing to her husband. After he’d left for the office, she gave instructions to the maid and tried to put the strange dream out of her mind; but there was no way of doing that. Despite all her efforts to the contrary, she couldn’t stop thinking about it; and thinking about it exerted a pressure on her brain that demanded a way out, a safety valve, because she couldn’t contain it any more. She had to speak, to talk, to tell someone about it…
She confided in Genoveva. The cook thought for a moment and said: ‘If I was you, Ma’am, I’d take a bet on the animal game.’
‘What animal is it?’
‘Twenty-four’s the goat, but you shouldn’t just bet on one side. You need to cover each part and give weight to the ten, the hundred, even the thousand. You don’t have a dream like that for no reason.’
‘Do you know how to make out the card?’
‘No, Ma’am. When I place a bet it’s Mr Manuel from the bar who does my card, but Mrs Iracema next door can tell you all about it, Ma’am.’
‘Call her and say I want to speak to her.’
The neighbour arrived in due course and Zilda told her about the dream. Mrs Iracema thought about it for a moment before giving her advice:
‘You can’t ignore a dream like that, young lady. If I was you, I’d make a big bet.’
‘But, Mrs Iracema, I’ve only got eighty thousand for the rent. What can I do?’
The neighbour was cautious with her reply:
‘I can’t give you any advice about that. Do what your heart tells you, but a dream like that…’
Zilda was much younger than Iracema and deferred to her experience and wisdom. She immediately sensed that Iracema was in favour of a bet. That’s what her neighbour’s forty-something-year-old eyes were saying.
It didn’t take long before Zilda blurted out ‘I’ll bet the lot!’
And she added:
‘Let’s do a card. What do you say, Mrs Iracema?’
‘How do you want to do it?’
‘I don’t really know, but Genoveva will.’ And she shouted into the interior of the house:
‘Genoveva! Genoveva! Come here quickly!’
The cook arrived in no time. As soon as her mistress had put the problem to her, the humble negress hastened to explain:
‘I told you, Ma’am, you should cover the group on all sides; you should bet on the ten, the hundred and the thousand.’
Zilda asked Mrs Iracema: ‘Do you understand all that?’
‘Do I understand it?! Of course I do! How much do you want to bet?’
‘Everything! Eighty thousand!’
‘That’s too much, my dear. No one round here would accept it. It would have to be over in Engenho de Dentro, in Halavanca’s house. The bank’s strong there. But who’s going to place the bet? Have you got someone?’
The cook, who’d remained standing in the corner, listening to the preparations for this domestic derring-do, spoke up at once:
‘I can’t go, Ma’am! They’d only bamboozle me and if you win they won’t pay out to me. You need someone they’ll respect.’
At that point, Mrs Iracema interjected:
‘Carlito may be back from visiting his granny in Cascadura… Maybe he could… Go and find out, Genoveva!’
The girl went, and returned accompanied by Carlito, Mrs Iracema’s son. He was an eighteen-year-old lad, big, strapping, broad-shouldered. The card was duly made out and the lad carried it off to the ‘banker.’
It was just after one o’clock in the afternoon. The draw wasn’t till two. And it was at this moment that Zilda remembered the rent-collector. But there was no danger: if he hadn’t come by now, he wouldn’t come at all.
Mrs Iracema went home, Genoveva went to the kitchen and Zilda went to lie down to try and still the crisis of conscience and the mortifying uncertainty brought on by the risk she was taking. But as soon as she lay down she regretted what she’d done.
What would happen if she lost the money? Her husband… angry… stern… She didn’t know what had possessed her, she was mad… She tried to doze off but, as soon as she shut her eyes, there was the number – 1724. That gave her back some courage and stilled her jangled nerves a little.
And so – with Zilda alternating between hope and despair, anticipating both the satisfaction of winning and the distress of losing, on a roller-coaster of the most fretful imaginings – two o’clock arrived. It was time to find out what luck had in store. She went to the window.
Once in a while a person appeared in that dead and forgotten road. She was tempted to ask these passers-by what numbers had been drawn, but she felt too ashamed.
Suddenly Carlito appeared, shouting: ‘Mrs Zilda! Mrs Zilda! You’ve won!.. On the ten!’
Without even uttering an ‘Ah!’ Zilda fell on to the sofa of her modest lounge in a faint. But she came to quickly, thanks to the vinegar Mrs Iracema and Genoveva rubbed on her face.
Carlito went off to collect the winnings, which came to over two million. When he handed it over, she gave generous tips to him, his mother and Genoveva, the cook.
She’d calmed down completely by the time Augusto got home. She waited for him to get changed and come into the dining room, before announcing: ‘Augusto, if I’d bet the rent money on the animal game… would you have been mad with me?’
‘Of course I would! I’d be really mad with you and I’d tell you off in no uncertain terms, because a housewife does not…’
‘Well, I bet the rent money.’
‘You bet the rent money, Zilda?!’
‘I bet the rent money.’
‘Who on earth made you do such a stupid thing?! Don’t you realise we’re still paying for the wedding?!’
‘Well, we’ve certainly paid for it now!’
‘What do you mean? Don’t tell me you won?!’
‘I won! Here’s the money.’
She took the bundle of notes from her décolletage and gave it to her husband, who’d turned speechless from shock. He counted the notes very carefully, stood up and, hugging and kissing her, said to his wife with great feeling: ‘Aren’t you the lucky one, my sweet angel?!’
And all the rest of that afternoon there was nothing but joy in that house.
Mrs Iracema came, with her husband, their daughters, Carlito and some other neighbours. There was beer and cakes. Everyone was smiling and chatty, and it was only because the newlyweds had no piano that the general contentment didn’t erupt into dance. Augusto even had a patriotic discussion with Iracema’s husband.
The next month – just to be on the safe side – Augusto paid the bills himself.