Illustration by Ansellia Kulikku. Source images: "A Popular Treatise on Comets" (1861) by James C. Watson; and Plate 67 from Ernst Haeckel’s "Kunstformen der Natur, (Art Forms of Nature)," 1904. H/t: The Public Domain Review.

The garden lane was deserted. The old Chinese gatekeeper wore a cap with The Grotto of Camões written on the plastic brim.

We’re closing, the gatekeeper said, I’m about to close the gates. I don’t need much time, I tried with a smile, just a quick trip to the Grotto of Camões. He answered, reasonably: Why go at this late hour? Come back tomorrow morning, sir, the garden will be cool, the cave will be cool, tomorrow morning you can enjoy the cool air, now all you’ll find are sleeping bats. Yes, I understand, I said, but it just so happens that I really do need to visit the cave tonight: I’ve had an inspiration. The gatekeeper removed his cap and scratched his head. I don’t understand, he said. What’s your name? I asked. He gave me a timid smile. In the registry office, my name is Manuel, he answered, because in the registry office here, we have Portuguese names, but my real name, my Chinese name, is something else. He uttered a Chinese name and smiled again. And what does your name mean in Chinese? I asked. It means Light Shining Upon Water, he said. This seemed like the perfect opportunity, and I slipped my arm into his. Listen, Light Shining Upon Water, I said, I have a shining light as well, and it’s this light that made me think to visit the cave this very night, look, see up there? I pointed to a bright star, the brightest in the sky. It’s from there, I said, that I get my inspiration, or my idea, call it what you will. He raised his arm as I did and pointed. The stars are guides, he said, they guide everything, and we pitiful humans just don’t know it. My friend, you comfort me, I said, because you understand me, you know, I got a message from that shining light, it’s called Sirius. He brought his raised arm alongside mine and looked at me doubtfully. You’re not familiar with the Macao sky, he said, his voice apologetic, sorry, but you’re really not familiar with our sky, that star has a different name in Chinese, in Latin, it’s something else, if I’m saying it correctly in your language, it’s called Canopus, that star is Canopus, you’re a bit confused, my friend: from these latitudes your star can’t be seen; I know the sky, I’ve studied it. Now I, too, scratched my head. All right, I said, I’ll give you that; still, I did receive a message—from Sirius or Canopus, I couldn’t say—but I have to get inside that cave where that great, half-blind poet praised Christianity in the sixteenth century, and I have to get in there tonight.

He dug in his pocket and pulled out a bunch of keys. The only ones who come here are Chinese, all of them with birdcages, he said, following a logic that escaped me, they each have a little songbird in a cage and they’ll get their bird to converse with their neighbor’s bird, and this is how it’s done in China, the birdies chatter and make friends, and so their owners also make friends, and they, too, get to talk. He paused and stared at me, looking distressed. But you don’t have a birdcage, he went on, and there’s no one else here with a birdcage, the only ones left in the garden are two old Mahjong players who’ll leave by the smaller gate, what else is there for you to do here now, except run into bats? I need to get into the cave tonight, I insisted, you know, friend, you might say it’s part of my destiny, that destiny the stars steer, you yourself believe in the stars, please let me stay, I’ll leave by the smaller gate, too, let me stay, please, maybe that half-blind poet of the sixteenth century will even help me out tonight, here in this garden that smells of magnolias. The gatekeeper looked at me with something like pity. This garden doesn’t smell of magnolias, he replied, this garden smells of piss, because all the Chinese piss on the trees, they’re too lazy to go to the bathrooms we installed near the fountain, and so this garden stinks of piss. Very well, I agreed, under the light of that star which guides my terrestrial journey, I’ll remain in this garden that stinks of piss; it’s true, I haven’t brought any birds in a cage, but I’m here to follow a destiny which I’ll eventually come to know.

The gatekeeper stepped aside and handed me a small flashlight. This should help, he said, you can leave it at the outside gate when you go. I walked down the path, breathing deeply, waiting for the stink of piss, but nothing stank, a cool breeze had risen and carried the smell of the sea. Beneath a streetlamp, two Chinese were playing Mahjong, I said hello and they nodded in return. One was building superior honors, with a row of four white dragons, the other was working on a set of characters. I thought I could use both dragons and characters that night, and I headed for the cave. I was halfway down the garden path when I heard a whistle behind me from one of the players. You want to watch? he called, we don’t have anyone to watch, and Mahjong needs an audience. I signaled no with my hand and continued on my way; at the cave entrance I turned on the gatekeeper’s flashlight.

And I simply walked in, like I would my own home. I thought I’d light a cigarette, I lit one, and just then a bat started to squeak. I caught the bat in the beam of the flashlight, in all that darkness, and the bat, squeaking, told me: Hello, handsome, have you made contact?

It was Magda’s voice.

Hello, I answered, I have. Where are you speaking from? the bat asked. From Macao, I answered, I’m in a cave in Macao, and what about you, Magda, where are you speaking from? Oh, the usual place, she answered, go ahead and guess. I couldn’t say, I murmured. It’s easy, she said, it’s easier than you think, we actually met right here. Listen, Magda, I said, I’m in no mood for games, if you want to tell me, okay, otherwise, just drop it.

The bat squeaked: I’m in the Brasileira do Chiado, you big dope, I’m having a coffee granita. So when is it there? I asked. The bat let out a little ringing laugh. It’s the sixties, you big, handsome dope—and when is it that you’d like your Magda to be talking with you? I heard the clinking of glasses and silverware, and then the bat squeaked: And to what do I owe this pleasure? You can thank Sirius, I said, or maybe Canopus, I can’t be sure now. You are so difficult, she said, and why are you in Macao? I’ll tell you why, I answered, but I want to hear your version first, what you spread around isn’t very convincing. My version of what? she asked, playing dumb. Of what happened to Isabel, I answered, you’re the one who spread that story around, all the final details we have about her came from you, I want to hear the real version, in your own words.

I directed the flashlight over the walls of the cave. To my right was a bronze bust of the half-blind poet. A few stalactites hung from the ceiling. All right, the bat squeaked, so listen. I found the bat with my beam, it let go of the rock with one foot and now dangled only by the other. I could see Magda clearly, sitting in her chair in Brasileira, calling the waiter over to order another drink, an agua de cebada. The waiter didn’t understand, and Magda, in a condescending tone, carefully explained that it was barley water, but in Valencia, it was called agua de cebada, that’s what the Spanish say, and it was high time the Portuguese learned this, if they wanted to call themselves Iberians. I lit another cigarette and waited.

Isabel committed suicide, the bat squeaked, this I’m sure of, she swallowed two bottles of pills, her last meal, Veronal of some kind, I can even describe the scene for you, listen: a modest room, a small pension in Campo de Ourique, a view out the window of the Estrela Basilica, she pulled back the curtains, a brilliant white moon, she covered the lamp with a blue scarf, the room turned pale blue, on the bed was a crocheted blanket, the kind found in provincial hotels, she rang for water. An ancient maid arrived. She was fat and had a visible mustache. Isabel said: I want some water, a big bottle of good water. And the maid returned with a bottle of Luso water. That’s it, Isabel said and laughed, it helps people to pee, I won’t need to pee anymore. It’s good for people to pee, said the maid with some regret, for you, too, Miss, you seem a bit wan, that must be toxins, that must be why you’re so pale, you’ll see, a bottle of Luso water, that’s just what you need to rid yourself of toxins and get some color back in your cheeks, like the color I had at your age, when I didn’t have so much pain from my arthritis. And so Isabel opened the bottle of Luso water and swallowed four or five pills to make herself feel calmer, then she looked out at the Estrela Basilica, which was white as a cookie, no, it was a cookie in the Lisbon sky, so ornate, embroidered like a piece of lace, and she thought: Maybe I’ll say a prayer to the Madonna, a prayer I haven’t prayed for a long while. Because a person getting ready for a long trip needs a viaticum, and Isabel needed a viaticum, she needed to talk to someone. But who, on that Lisbon summer night, with the moon so bright and the basilica like a cookie? Who? She asked the Veronal this, and felt calmer. Then she sat down at the small desk beside the washbasin and wrote a letter. It was a letter for me, for her friend Magda. She was saying goodbye and giving an exact account of that night, with no explanation of her reasons for this act. All she said, in an underlined postscript, was that the light was pale blue and that she was looking out at the Estrela Basilica. And that’s how Isabel passed away.

I waited a few seconds. Are you done? I asked. I’m done, the bat squeaked. Listen, Magda, I said, I have no idea why you’re telling me this bullshit—what’s in it for you? What on earth are you saying? she snapped, I know exactly what happened, I’m telling you the absolute truth. All right, I said, now you listen, I’m going to tell you the absolute truth, so listen up, you were a part of the antifascist network and you organized it all, Isabel took too many risks and had to go into hiding, you made sure she disappeared and then spread it around that she’d committed suicide due to romantic troubles, you even went so far as to publish her death notice in the paper and whipped up a story about a Seventh Day Adventist Mass at the Cascais Chapel, only just then, by pure coincidence, Isabel was picked up in a roundup by the secret police during a student protest, she didn’t have any papers and lied about her identity, said her name was Magda, they tossed her in Caxias without even questioning her, back then interrogations came later, but you know all this better than me, I don’t know why I’m wasting my breath, one day a girl wound up in a cell, she was covered in bruises, and she swallowed glass, that girl, yes, she really did commit suicide, and you organized Isabel’s escape with the help of a prison guard, and that night, you had Isabel board a plane for Macao, right here in Macao, where I happen to be at this very moment.

Silence followed. Then came Magda’s voice in a whisper: How did you manage to figure it out? Easy, I answered, I dug around, did a little investigating. So if you already know everything, she said, why get ahold of me? Because I don’t know everything, I said. I want to know who the Macao priest was that you sent Isabel to. She giggled. Oh, who can remember anymore, she said in a falsetto. Go on and try, I urged her. This waiter’s not coming back, she said, it’s been a half hour since I ordered my agua de cebada. Go on and try, I said, please, for once in your life, would you just show your cards? Sometimes, Magda sighed, telepathy can play such cruel jokes: you never know where you’re coming from in time, where are you coming from in time? Way ahead of you, I answered, a lot of time has passed. Then I don’t know if you’ll find him, she said, if he’s still alive, but his name is Father Domingos, he ran a leper colony on Coloane, that’s where we sent Isabel, I’m not sure what else I can tell you.

I said: So long, Magda. I think the bat waved goodbye with its tiny foot. I turned off the flashlight and left the cave.

Antonio Tabucchi

Antonio Tabucchi was born in Pisa in 1943 and died in Lisbon in 2012. A master of short fiction, he won the Prix Médicis Étranger for Indian Nocturne, the Italian PEN Prize for Requiem: A Hallucination, the Aristeion European Literature Prize for Pereira Declares, and was named a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by the French government. Together with his wife, Maria José de Lancastre, Tabucchi translated much of the work of Fernando Pessoa into Italian. Tabucchi’s works include The Flying Creatures of Fra Angelico (Archipelago), The Women of Porto Pim (Archipelago), Little Misunderstandings of No Importance, Letter from Casablanca, and The Edge of the Horizon (all from New Directions).

Elizabeth Harris

Elizabeth Harris’s translations from Italian include Mario Rigoni Stern's novel Giacomo's Seasons (Autumn Hill Books), Giulio Mozzi's story collection This Is the Garden (Open Letter Books), and Antonio Tabucchi's novel Tristano Dies (also with Archipelago Books). Her awards include a 2013 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant and the 2016 National Translation Award for Prose, both for Tabucchi’s Tristano Dies. A professor of creative writing for many years, Harris now translates full time. She lives with her family in a small town in Wisconsin, along the Mississippi.

One Comment on “For Isabel

  1. This is beautiful prose but it is hard to follow who said what when the conversations are in one single paragraph. It would have been better if there are more paragraphes

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