Excerpt from The Secret Bird

Marilia Arnaud

Translated from Portuguese by Ilze Duarte

Chapter 8 (an excerpt) We didn’t go to school the morning Thalie arrived. Although it wasn’t a Saturday, Sunday, or holiday, it was an extraordinary day, after all it wasn’t every day that a new person came along to live with us, not to mention someone we had never laid eyes on, not even in a photograph. My father left early for the airport with an urgency he didn’t bother to hide. With my mother holed up in her room since the night before, we were left to fend for ourselves, each in our own bubble of shock. Heitor wrestled with his video game, and Eufrosine took it upon herself to do what we should all have done the day before: she washed the dishes, mopped the kitchen floor, swept the bedrooms, picked up the newspapers and magazines strewn on the sofa and rug, put back into their sleeves the records we had listened to and left by the console next to the player. I stood in the balcony all morning, waiting for them. I had reached the limits of my patience. Because the garage was under construction, my father parked his car across the street. When I spotted his car, I took a step back. They sat in the car for a while, and I wondered what they might be talking about, what topics couldn’t be discussed inside our apartment, in front of us. I ran to the bathroom to relieve myself of the nausea that had soured my mouth, anxious to rinse it off and resume my post in the balcony before the car door opened and she finally came out. She was wearing jeans and a dark coat over a blue t-shirt. I wiped my glasses with the bottom of shirt and put them back on, hoping that white blob she had in her arms wasn’t what it seemed to be. No! A dog! My heart leaped into a somersault. None of us had ever been allowed to have a pet. Not even a quiet one like a cat, or a small one like a cockatiel. For years my wish to keep a harmless little fish in a one-gallon aquarium was expressly denied. Now, that other one showed up with an animal that would shed, pee, and poop all over the apartment, and no one could do or say anything about it. My father got out of the car. He grabbed a backpack from the back seat and a large suitcase from the trunk, then stood beside the girl. I was stunned to see they were almost the same height. He took her arm, and they crossed the street. Thalie walked with the cadence of those who are not concerned about time, who know the world will stop to let them go by. In both directions, cars screeched to a halt for the girl with the red hair flowing in the wind, in a fire that burned my heart. I retreated from the balcony into the back of the living room, my chest in flames, and yelled, “They’re here!” Heitor and Eufrosine came almost immediately, and in less than five minutes the front door swung open. Voilà la belle jeune! Close up, the first thing I noticed in her was rosy cheeks, the freckles around her nose, and the long lashes fringing her eyes, where my father’s precious gems shined. The dog nestled in her arms, she smiled with her lips, her eyes, and the dimples in her cheeks. My father walked right behind with her backpack on his back, one hand pulling the rolling suitcase, the other resting on Thalie’s shoulder. I didn’t know what was so amusing as to justify that smile, and I tried hard not to break down in tears in front of everyone. I was shaking so hard I could hardly stand. I felt as though I was falling from a great height, even as my feet were firmly nailed to the ground. Followed by my father, Thalie walked to the center of the room. She had rings on almost every finger and lots of bangles that jingled annoyingly every time she moved her arms. Heitor hesitated but eventually approached Thalie and hugged her, dog and all. Limp as it was, that was still a hug. Eufrosine stepped forward, but that was all. She said, “Welcome, Thalie,” and added bashfully, “Make yourself at home.” I didn’t move, nor did I open my mouth. A thousand beetles buzzed in my ears. My father stroked the dog’s muzzle and said, “This is Chéri, un trés sympatique chien.” I guessed he was talking to me, since Heitor and Eufrosine didn’t know a word of French. An excavator’s fury scraped the stone of my chest, and I promised myself I would never again read or write a single word in the French language, let alone open my mouth to say it. At that very moment, I crossed the map of France out of my world. I finally saw the truth behind my father’s insistence that I learn the warm language. Warm? What an idiot I was! That was the real reason he wanted me to read Une Saison En Enfer and Les Fleurs Du Mal in the original. I now understood why Truffaut, Godard, and Chabrol were infinitely superior to Visconti, Fellini, Brian de Palma, or Martin Scorcese; why the Nouvelle Vague had been the event of the century; the impressionist movement, with is themes of light and imprecision, the most important historical fact of modern painting; Edith Piaf, the best singer in the world, Ne Me Quite Pas the most beautiful song of all time. I now knew why Molière and Racine were the visionary creators of the greatest, true theatre — my father would make an exception for Shakespeare, for Shakespeare had written man, Shakespeare had written the world, and even though the world had changed, the contemporary man in his essence was still the same man revealed by Shakespeare almost five centuries ago. How could a father turn a daughter into a tragedy? I didn’t have to go far, to King Lear and Cordelia. Great Britain was right there in our home. One day, who knows, my father would pluck out his own eyes for having scorned the daughter who truly loved him.
There he was, looking straight at me and commanding, “Take Thalie to your bedroom and show her the wardrobe where she will be keeping her clothes.” He had already put a third bed in our tiny room, and Eufrosine and I had had to give up the little desk and lamp that used to be between our beds. I lamented that arrangement more than she; I would never again be able to read in bed at night, now that I had started The Heart of Darkness and was bursting with curiosity. On the front matter, my father had written under his own name: “the horror, the horror.” We had no choice. Sending her away or expecting she would leave of her own volition was out of the question. Where could she go? None of us would dare say or do anything, however small, to show hostility toward Thalie. Who in that household would be crazy enough to challenge Heleno Negromonte? Besides, we would hear from our mother that the girl wasn’t to blame for what had happened so long ago, or even recently, and that my father was acting properly, doing what had to be done. It was Eufrosine who took Thalie to our bedroom, which from that day on would be hers too. As Thalie walked by me, the hairy white dog with the pinkish nose, a poodle — or bichon frisé, as she later corrected me — barked angrily and tried to escape his owner’s arms, stretching out towards me. Right away I knew the little beast had sniffed out the Thing. I smiled with my lips closed, and a cold sweat ran through the palms of my hands. Thalie looked at me kindly and offered a “desculpe-me” with a thick accent, her smile widening to no end. She exuded an orange blossom scent — Grandma Sarita had orange trees in her orchard — a sweetness that made me tremble. I kept quiet. If she thought she could expect anything from me, she was sorely mistaken. Best to be aware from that moment on how detestable her presence was to me. Ignoring her was beyond me. I didn’t want it to be true, but being my father’s daughter, she couldn’t help but being part of that mess. Although I had told myself a million times that Thalie had knocked on the wrong door, deep inside I knew what I wished I didn’t know. It was impossible for me to stop wondering how my father had been able to keep from us a life that mattered not only to him but to all of us and some many years later show up with her hanging on his arm. He seemed to have bought the girl at the corner store or conjured her up, pulling her out of a hat Copperfield-style, “What have we here? Suspense! What could it be? What could it be? Abracadabra! Ah, a girl!” Up to the last minute before Thalie’s arrival, I had my fingers crossed that some new fact would preclude her from coming to live with us, that she might fall gravely ill and the doctors would not allow her to board the plane, or that she would hate my father and refuse to leave her country and find refuge at a friend’s house. I hoped somehow she would disappear, I didn’t care how, and if the only way was for the plane she was on to explode over the Atlantic Ocean, that would be all right with me. But there she was, Thalie Aubert — who, unlike me, used her mother’s last name only — right before my eyes, her hair tumbling down her back and the sides of my freckled face in a cascade of light, her cover-girl smile showing white, perfectly aligned teeth. She was excessively and surprisingly confident, even though she had ample reason to feel embarrassed. She seemed to be quite at ease, unperturbed really, as if the home where she had just set foot for the first time, our home, had been hers since forever. She was behaving as if she had just returned from a long trip — I knew that self-confidence well, so characteristic of my father, who thought he belonged anyplace in the world by right or by grace. Thalie could only be Heleno Montenegro’s daughter. I ran to my mother’s room. Having remained sheltered there since the night before, she still didn’t know of Thalie’s arrival. I found her in bed, curled up under the sheets, snoring slightly — a little animal with shorn hair, docked tail. I lay by her side gently. Her hair draped over half her face. The exposed half reminded me of Grandma Adelaide, whom I never met but knew from a picture on the living room console. Was it possible to age overnight? At that moment I promised myself I would never let someone hurt me that way, even if that someone were the person I loved, if my beloved were the most charming, well-read, and talented, the most revered man on the face of the Earth.

My grandmother Sarita used to say marriage is a kind of black box, like those on planes: people only have access to what goes on inside it when everything has blown up in the air. The little I know about marriages comes from the beauty and horror of my parents’ relationship. They say people get married and make children in the name of love. I don’t know if love is what I would call what keeps my parents together. Even back then I wondered if other marriages were like theirs. It couldn’t be that people chose to live inside the prison of their obsessions and weaknesses. That couldn’t be love. It is not true that children are innocent creatures. Speaking for myself, I can affirm unequivocally that is not the case. It is impossible to live with an adult and not be blemished by their survival tactics. As evidence, I can point to how much their relationship tormented me — I hated them for making me feel absurdly inadequate — as I quickly internalized the enormous chasm between the affection my mother had for my father and the affection he had for her. Like a piece of furniture, she was there, permanently available, where he would lie down to sleep, take a seat to read, watch TV, eat, but if he were asked what material it was made of, he wouldn’t be able to say because he simply didn’t see her. There were moments when they shared interests and had fun together. I remember the Friday or Saturday nights, when they sat on the sofa to watch movies my father had picked at the local video rental and paused here and there to make comments about the acting, dialog, characterization, narrative devices. In the cinema my parents shared there was no room for linear plots and well-behaved treatments of the narrative. The French, of course, occupied the top spot in my father’s preferences. Sometimes they would allow me to join them. The movies directed by Bergman — my mother’s favorite — sent me into a stupor. As I was lulled by voices speaking a foreign language, slowly and unwittingly I would close my eyes and give in to those caresses, as if cradled by a starry sky. I remember being amused by Titta’s shenanigans in Amarcord, and then at the end of the movie, being stunned by my father’s words, as he spoke at length about fascism. Bruno Ricci’s relationship with his father in Bicycle Thief and Totó’s relationship with the projectionist in Cinema Paradiso made me cry a river, and Kurosawa’s mesmerizing and macabre Dreams took my breath away, as had the pictures in my father’s art books, which existed purely in their beauty, with no need for meaning. One movie in particular, with its phantomlike and in some ways enigmatic atmosphere, left a profound impression on me. Ana, an orphan who lived with her sisters, aunt, and disabled grandmother in a dark, large house, wrapped herself around me like a straitjacket. For days and months, I struggled to break free of that anguish, rolling over those black, round, dramatic eyes that wouldn’t be erased. Her memories became my memories, and I couldn’t chase them away, her mother dead, her father dead, her garden dead, her house dead. I don’t know how much of her was in me but enough for me to see myself in the contemplative, lonely girl, immersed in fantasies and questions — childhood is a time of many questions and few answers — and endlessly confronted with the ambivalent feelings that overwhelmed her. I had forgotten the title of the movie, so I asked my mother recently if she remembered the girl who had seen her mother die and believed she was responsible for her father’s death — poison can kill an elephant. She denied vehemently she had ever seen or allowed me to watch such a movie, but when I started singing its theme song, a beat one could dance to and lyrics to break the toughest heart, her eyes brimmed with tears, and she took me in her arms. My parents’ nights were too short for so much rock’n’roll, soul, jazz, blues, Brazilian pop music. They would take speakers out onto the balcony and put on the turntable the LPs that added scratching, crackling, and rasping to the music. They hadn’t surrendered to CD technology yet, and even after they did, they kept their turntable and went on listening to their vinyl records. They had good taste in music. At bedtime, my mother would sing us songs by Chico Buarque, Caetano Veloso, and Gilberto Gil, the Holy Trinity, as my father would call them to tease her. On the table we had on the balcony, she would arrange a tray of appetizers. They would drink wine or whisky, sometimes vodka. They would talk into the wee hours of the morning about theatre, movies, literature, music, politics. Especially theatre and literature. I loved to hear them, the experts that they were on topics I didn’t hear anyone else talk about, including and especially when they disagreed, which almost always happened when the subject was politics. My father despised my mother’s political positions, accused her of being idealistic and romantic, and encouraged her to free herself from the limiting idea that only the socialists desired humanity to be prosperous and worked in its behalf. He would remind her of the torture, assassinations, mass killings perpetrated by Stalin, Mao Tse-Dung, Pol Pot, Ho Chi Minh, Kim Il-Sung in the name of revolutions that were meant to save their countries, make them better, but had resulted in mourning, fear, abandonment, and more misery. Leaders of redemption? Bah! This would infuriate my mother, who would reply that the problem was my father’s authoritarian nature, his conservatism, his fundamentalist rhetoric, that the greatest tragedy in the world was people who thought the way he did, and would insist that indeed she would keep on dreaming of justice and equality, of a society free from hunger, hate, and oppression, because the mistakes of the past didn’t justify the election of petty, corrupt leaders who didn’t care an iota about the people. She loved him obsessively, and despite her indisputable talent for motherhood, it was not on us but on my father that she focused her loving energy, in her own impulsive, impetuous way. It hurt me to see her lack of interest in anything that wasn’t directly related to any of his wishes, to know there was nothing in the world she enjoyed particularly and genuinely unless it was closely connected with my father’s life. She never mentioned her work, her classrooms — what subject did she teach again?–her students, her colleagues. Friends? No one ever called or paid her a visit. She considered my father’s acquaintances — screen and stage playwrights, directors, actors, technicians — to be her friends. Although real friends, he really didn’t have any. Above all, jealousy reigned supreme. Jealousy disfigured her, made her ugly, petty, stupid — and there wasn’t even an Iago to torture her with his siren’s song. My mother, who had never read Othello and despised Shakespeare precisely because my father adored him, didn’t know that jealousy, unlike other feelings such as love, didn’t need any nourishment to stay alive. The women who costarred with my father, those he eyed shamelessly when she was not around, reporters who interviewed him, readers and fans who approached him on the street or came backstage to talk to him, the songs sung by Edith Piaf and written by Jacques Brel, my grandmother Sarita, and especially his art aroused such jealousy in my mother that she would come undone. I would lock myself in the bathroom for endless minutes and turn on the shower so I wouldn’t hear the roars and the blows. I could hardly believe that verbal abuse was coming out of my mother, who read to me at bedtime with her cottony voice. Possessed by the green-eyed monster, she would spew thousands of insults at my father, who would merely ask her to calm down, while she grabbed whatever she could get her hands on and smashed it against the wall. Finally, he would retire to his office, and she would pick up the pieces and go lock herself in her room. I would sit by her door and hear her cry, curse my father, and swear she would hate him forever. It hurt and embarrassed me to witness what seemed a commonplace weakness. Powerless, curled up on the cold floor, the Thing writhing inside, striking me in the chest and turning my stomach inside out, I would eventually fall asleep right here. The next morning, however, my mother would wake up the most loving of women, the most docile and flattering of wives, and I could guarantee that later, behind closed doors, they would fill the night with whispers and muffled laughter, this sealing of their truce as nauseating to me as their violent fights, which soon would start again.

Ilze Duarte writes short prose and translates works by contemporary Brazilian authors. Her stories and nonfiction appear in New Plains Review, Please See Me, Dear Damsels, and Hopscotch Translation, and her translations in Your Impossible Voice, Massachusetts Review, Columbia Journal Online, and Ambit. She lives in Milpitas, California.

Marilia Arnaud is a fiction writer living in João Pessoa, Brazil. She is the author of several short story collections and three novels. Her latest novel, The Secret Bird, won the 2021 Kindle Prize in Literature. Her stories appear in translation in Massachusetts Review and Columbia Journal Online.