The Czech woman had returned to the wrong place, that much we knew, and we weren’t about to watch out for anyone, especially this pearl smeared with oil. She arrived in one of the local public vans, not in her own car as you would expect. Taking the van could only mean money was scarce.
She stepped onto the street in front of our bar, at the route’s final stop, having trouble with her bulging suitcase. We figured she must be over forty now, her face thin and pale like paper, her hair streaked with long white lines. As she trundled that suitcase in the direction of Samuel’s house, the left wheel dislodged from the main frame, wobbling and then toppling over like a broken leg. I’d done my share of schlepping around without going anywhere, but this story isn’t about me. The thought of putting down my beer glass, walking over, and offering her a hand did occur to me, but I figured she should get used to how things would be from now on. Still, I had to hand it to her, she found her way back to this off-road Brazilian village we liked to call the end of the line. A spot for those in the know.
We were sitting on Cheeks’ outdoor stools and watched her go by, as really, none of us had anything better to do. Low season was lull season. At most, we’d be repainting or renaming our fishing boats, “artisanal” dinghies, as tourists liked to call them. Cheeks’ son, Yuri, was doing just that when the woman appeared. He was peeling off the old paint of his father’s boat jutting out of the side entrance. With his green eyes and mottled hair that matched his shorts, Yuri looked like the stray cats around, furtive and alert. He noticed the woman just as we all did, though you heard no peep out of him, his eyes and hands on the boat’s hull.
“What’s she doing back here?” said Nando next to me, wiping his sweaty chin on his red T-shirt. “Her husband is dead. She should be with her family.”
“Look at that outfit. Putting on airs like always. She doesn’t even look like a foreigner,” added Grazi from across the counter. Slim and of medium height, the woman had hazel eyes, auburn hair, and light skin. If it weren’t for the accent and the airs, she could’ve been anyone’s city cousin from Rio de Janeiro, a couple hours away from here. In the wind, that slapping September wind, her dress clung and cut through her form as she moved, her long hair trailing her like a windswept casuarina tree. She had no children, no friends, no one to speak of, as far as we knew.
“Do you think she’ll want me to go over there?” asked Marcela, squinting at the slice of sun that struck her leathery face. “If she wants me to clean that house, she’d better pay more. Samuel was always stingy and sure did ask for the world.”
Marcela cleaned the houses for tourists during high season and rich people’s houses all year round, which meant she was mostly unemployed right now, but that didn’t bother her so much after a couple of beers, especially since she often didn’t pay for them, being friendly with Cheeks’ wife, Grazi, who kept a generous, drink-three-pay-for-one tab for whomever fell into her graces. And, like Nando, Marcela often had the currency of fresh gossip and jokes, which mostly involved the people she worked for.
Nando downed his dregs and raised his glass as an interjection. “Ah, let it go! Samuel was a good sort. He got us work. He paid and looked everyone in the eye. Him we don’t talk about.” So that was that. Samuel remained sacred. In a way, so was she. Except that no one really knew anything about her. We didn’t even know her name. She was the official wife, though Samuel always went around with many women. Then he crashed into another driver on his way home one night, and after that she went away and now, here she was again.
Samuel had owned a chain of bakeries and made a pretty penny during high season when the town floods with rapacious tourists. During the rest of the year, he could take it easy, devoting time to his house. He had employed everyone out of work in the neighborhood—gardeners, electricians, plumbers, construction workers, housekeepers—to make and maintain that house of his. We all knew its layout, as we had all been there at one point or another, some of us to work when he was alive, others to filch a generator or other household appliance once he was gone. As Nando said, “What’s the use of a house to a dead man?” By now there was nothing left to take, though.
The veranda was one long white strip with three pillars vined with jasmine. Javier, the Argentinean architect in the neighborhood, called it a rustic outpost for modernists—whatever that means. Samuel had built it in sections, the scale of the rooms in direct proportion to the bounty of the summer, each piece tacked together like Legos. The centerpiece was the living room, its ceiling as high as a cathedral with exposed beams and tiles—both grand and crude. Half gentleman, half beast himself, Samuel would by turns build and destroy another part of that house when a part of it no longer interested him. Once he demolished the entire concrete stairway on the side of the house that led to the terrace. “Tacky and predictable,” Samuel had said about the staircase when asked about it—“And there’s nothing worse than that.” Well, we could think of a few things worse than that, such as not having enough for a bag of rice or a beer, but as we say around here, “Those who can, can.”
Often enough, someone would see Samuel naked while he went about discarding blocks of wood or plants onto the street in the middle of the night. “My husband said he’d kill him if he pranced around with his sack of marbles while I was cleaning,” Marcela said, recalling those days.
At the time, the goons from the mayor’s office had also threatened fines, but Samuel would just grin and invite them in for coffee. They mostly figured him for a well-off madman and left him alone. The front yard was a mixture of sand and earth jumbled with cactuses, shrubs, and Bird of Paradise. Now the garden was overtaken by so many plants you could hardly see it from the street. No one had been inside that house for at least three years.
The Czech woman took the shortcut to the beachside street, where Samuel’s house stood. Someone saw her standing in front of it for a long time, her suitcase left on the pavement, her eyes fixed on the mesh of green tangled over the wooden gate. Somehow she managed to go inside. God knows what she saw in there—termites, roaches, mounds of sand, and nature’s spoils. There was a light on in the house well into the night and she slept there, that’s all we knew. She must have really had nowhere else to go.
The next morning the woman walked over the path that led to the bar, the van stop, and the rest of the neighborhood—the well-off and the rest of us separated by this shortcut. On the beachfront were the big nice houses, and just behind it there we were, the workers and grocers and bar owners that everyone came to sooner or later. Even those who shopped in town eventually came to us if they spent any real time here. They all needed mineral water from Cheeks. Sure enough, she came and ordered a twenty-liter container.
Hours later, when the water container still hadn’t arrived at the house, she returned to ask about the delivery. She spoke Portuguese well enough, but that accent—too nice, too polite, too formal—rattled our nerves. Cheeks wasn’t in, so Grazi eyed the woman with lowered lids in an expression both challenging and insolent. We knew that look. “He’s not back yet. When he’s back I’ll tell him you stopped by,” she said. The woman went next door to Big Paul, the grocer, to buy small water containers and other basics, lugging them home herself.
When Cheeks returned, Grazi didn’t mention a thing about the woman stopping by and neither did we, truth be told. If she wanted water, she would need to come get it, which is what she did. She started coming every day. She found Seu João to do some gardening for her. He was too hard up to refuse and, besides, he had been loyal to Samuel, figuring his old boss wouldn’t want him to mistreat the widow. He was there for an entire week, chopping, pruning, and weeding so that cartloads of the house’s brambles were being dumped on the empty side lot. Once, when he returned from his toil, he stood with us at the bar. Nando, ever curious, started to joke about Seu João’s time at the house. “What did she give you?” he asked.
“Coffee, toast, and cabbage salad with yogurt,” the old man answered, which got a laugh from all of us.
“We mean money, fool. How much did she pay you in money and ass?” Nando asked.
Seu João, crunching up his face like he’d eaten a bagful of sour limes, snorted, shook his mug and said, “You’re all rotten. Leave her alone.” That we did. The women even harbored a special distaste, an enmity towards the foreign woman who, truth be told, was in much better shape than most of them, and since coming back here she had gained a little weight and got some color in her cheeks. You could even say she was pretty, but not like an actress, more like one of those deities in prayer cards that had been torn in a drunken fit and taped back together in repentance. The beatific look invited both curiosity and aversion. We had come to think of her as one of the flowers in that wild garden of Samuel’s—too strange to touch.
Some of us pretended not to understand her accent. We all watched and laughed, waiting for her to repeat herself. She’d ask Marco, the butcher, for chicken and get liver; she’d ask for pork chops and get sausage or ground beef. When she protested, she’d get the eyebrow raise and the taunting sneer. “Take it or leave it,” Marco would say. She took it.
Then she stayed indoors a few days, no one saw her anywhere. “What’s she eating, owls?” Nando quipped. You could spot an owl everywhere at night, in the middle of the street as well as on fences and power lines. The wind showed no mercy in October, shaking up the panes and whistling through the cracks in the roof of even the best houses, and Samuel’s was no different. Seu João said the tiles were blowing away. “They need to be fastened in place. I’d do it myself, but my back won’t let me,” said the old gardener. “One of you layabouts should help her out.” We didn’t, of course. What was in it for us? She now seemed to have even less money than we did.
When she finally came around again, Nando asked when she was leaving. By then she’d been here almost two months. At first she didn’t say anything, but then she stared at him squarely and answered, “I am here for as long as I am here. Not that it is any of your business.”
“Did you get that out of a phrase book?” Nando said, his face red from the cachaça, the whiteheads on his nose erupting. From then on, Yuri started to make regular water deliveries to her house, bypassing his father and Grazi.
When leaving Big Paul’s grocery, she would cast one look at Yuri and within minutes he’d hand his post over to Grazi, grab the hefty container, drop it inside his father’s car, and make the short ride to the house—way too laborious for the sake of one delivery. He could have easily dragged it there by foot on a cart, but Yuri was young enough to be dazzled by a middle-aged foreign lady with good manners and soft eyes. Let him. We kept hoping he’d come back with a decent story. But when pressed he just gave us that grin of his and handed us another beer. Not a bad businessman, that one. Sly as the best of ’em.
Yuri was the only person the Czech lady came to depend on aside from Seu João. She cleaned the house herself, never hiring Marcela or anyone else. Still, Yuri treaded in that house like walking on owls’ eggshells. Once, while going to the beach, Nando and I saw him pull up and yell out Samuel’s name, of all things, as if to ask for the dead man’s permission to cross the threshold. We stood there watching from across the street as the woman called him from inside. Yuri left the wooden gate open, carrying that twenty-liter thing on his shoulder as he made his way from the sandy courtyard to the kitchen in the back. We leaned on the green wall across the street, waiting to see how long Yuri would stay, how far he’d get with her, but no sooner had he gone in and already he was walking out of the gate with an empty container. “You should’ve unloaded something else,” Nando yelled. He pretended he didn’t hear us.
Just as the wind began to quiet down, easing into a summer breeze, the woman could be found at the beach, sitting on the raised wooden planks. If you were being generous, you’d call it a bench, but it was only raised on account of a nail haphazardly tacked on each side, and it cracked and fell every month or so. Someone put it up on the spur of the moment, and we’d fix it when we felt like it. The woman went there several times a day and just stared out. Her stillness was disturbing. She seemed as unfathomable as the sea itself—at times very tranquil, at other times turbulent, waves cutting each other sideways, and then suddenly still, not calm but still, like those undercurrents that have trapped and killed so many when they thought they were swimming in a nice pool, an oasis, unaware they couldn’t touch the ground and could only swim in place unless they managed to follow the current. But how many could see the current? Not many. It’s hard to know when you’re stuck. Most panic. Most run out of breath eventually. Most get swilled and ground onto the rocks like broken oyster shells. Many children have been lost this way. Nando’s son, for instance, but we don’t talk about that anymore.
The thing about living near the sea, especially in a remote village, is you feel the roar of the ocean at all times, the presence a constantly running engine that buzzes in your brain. The massiveness keeps you sedated for the most part. Hemmed in, we grow tense and oppressed by the weight of too much of the big nothing. We now hate more easily than we love, and we trust nothing—least of all beauty. Passing ships at dusk, that’s probably the only thing that still rouses us, reminders of chances come and gone.
That woman, we saw her swimming and wondered if she was aware of the undertow. We figured Samuel must have mentioned it, as she skirted around these treacherous pools like a pro. Grazi and Marcela often made snide comments about that, envious of having forfeited their skills long ago—the mixture of chores, children, and grievances keeping them mostly indoors, tuned into TV fantasies.
The woman swam well, back and forth in a synchronized, breathe-in breathe-out manner. This riled up Nando and he would pace, imitating her movements. “This isn’t a pool, honey,” he shouted once but she kept going. Eventually the taunting started to get old. If she wanted to stay, let her. There sure was plenty of sea for all of us.
Sometimes the woman took long walks, going from one end of the beach to the other, either along the shore or through the restinga, braiding through the thicket before retreating into the house. One day Yuri showed up at the bar with a book, which he quickly slipped under the counter. “Ah—ah—ahhh! What’s this?” asked Nando, leaning over the counter for a look. With a slight forward motion of his hand, Yuri pushed back Nando’s fat pimply face without touching him.
“It was Samuel’s. It’s about Prague.”
“Prague, eh? As if you’ll ever go there! You’ll get no farther than the end of the block.”
“I might. I still have time, unlike all of you. Time is on my side, like the Roooling Stones says.”
“Rolling Stones, eh? Now you’re talking,” said Javier, the Argentinean old-timer who, after many years, was one of us. Grazi huffed: “Your father wants you to pick up the ice from the back.” Grazi was the kind of person who demanded something by saying someone else, namely her husband, wanted it. Yuri nodded. He was barely out the back door when Grazi tossed the book aside. “Wait till Milena finds out about this,” she said. Milena was Yuri’s on-again, off-again girlfriend. Apparently, they were on again.
Javier threw in his two cents. “No harm in a book,” he said.
Grazi pointed to his empty beer glass as a way to answer Javier, her eyelids half-closed in that blasé glaze of hers. Javier shrugged, accepting the small consolation prize that came with the rebuff. Yuri soon returned to leaf through the book. “Look at this,” he said to Javier, “it’s an astronomical clock, measuring, um, celestial bodies. It measures time in different ways. It shows where the sky and the moon are in relation to the place.”
Grazi popped some peanuts in her mouth. “Like I need a clock to tell me where the moon and sky is at. That’s why that woman is so dense. Needs everything explained to her.”
Yuri ignored her as he leaned closer to Javier, his fingers tamped down on the open book. “And this skeleton here holding the hourglass, that can only mean—”
“Death,” said Javier, peering at the page. “Sand is like time. And time, my young friend, slips through your fingers like sand without you feeling a thing.”
“Ah, I could do with something besides sand and time. That’s all we ever get around here. Watching time go by,” said Yuri.
Javier took a swig, the edges of the glass frothy and dirty.
“Let me see that!” said Nando, snatching the book from the counter. Yuri snatched it back quickly, and as he did so, a page ripped. “Argh, look what you’ve done, you troglodyte!” he said—we laughed at that—“How am I going to hand it back to her now?”
Staggering off his stool, Nando stood facing him, pontificating. “You watch your mouth. What do you think, she’s going to take you away from here? She’s an old tart without a penny, fool!” Nando said. Yuri’s eyes went blank as he fumbled for some tape in the drawer. Milena then showed up with her jean shorts and tight T-shirt so revealing it was almost innocent. Slipping the book inside the drawer, Yuri stepped out, and they went across the street to the van stop. Little was more unoriginal than the news that soon followed: the girl announced she was pregnant.
Summer came around. We were all too busy then to pay much notice of anything besides squeezing money out of tourists. The Czech woman stayed on, and while no one ever really warmed up to her, she joined the ranks of the other lonely widows and retirees around. “Eleanor Rigby,” Javier called her. We didn’t know what he was talking about until he played the song on his cell phone, translating the lyrics on Google Translate.
When you passed the house on those balmy summer nights, you would hear music playing from a record player—of many genres. Samuel had a large record collection, but he mostly listened to jazz. Some of those records were worth something, Javier said, but few knew that, so they remained where they were. We played our own tunes. The woman would come and buy groceries, walking by us and smiling. “Lively,” she’d say sometimes, and we assumed she was mocking us. Throwaway compliments, you know, we didn’t trust them.
Yuri continued to deliver water at her place throughout the summer and, aside from Seu João, he was the only one who got to see the house from inside in those days. It now had that so-called woman’s touch, they said, with fresh flowers in vases, cushions on the wooden seats, and everything in order.
Seu João was the one who found her when he came for his bi-weekly pruning. He saw the front door open, and sensing something was off, rang the bell before walking in. By then, she had been dead for days. The old gardener was entrusted to the task of digging the grave right there in Samuel’s garden—where else? It’s the only option that made sense, that we all agreed on—and a few of us came by as witnesses, some to pay their respects, others to gawk. The widows and retirees now acted pious, some pressing hands to their hearts and reciting prayers. “Poor dear,” these ladies said. “If we had only known she was sick. She should’ve come to us.” Javier and I snorted at this. Medication was found inside the house, which those very same ladies examined knowledgeably, their eyes gleaming, almost salacious. “Heart failure,” they proclaimed. Suddenly, they were all praise about the woman, who was now officially deemed “a lady.” Even Grazi spoke well of her. “We won’t see the likes of her again,” Grazi said. “She asked for nothing and we gave her even less than that.”
Isn’t that the truth.
Apparently she had been ill all along and had chosen this godforsaken place to spend her last days like animals do, burrowing in solitude. Maybe she saw in this place what we’ve forgotten to see.
We fall in love by a pacified sea with the flitting glow of plankton under a long beam of moonlight. We learn to swim when we can barely walk. We surf and take up hang gliding, our days aligned with the horizon. It takes time to snuff out the magic, it only happens when time gets measured by gains and losses, only then do we spend most of our time at the bar, our wives turn into crabs for us, their glow and life dimmed by that same buzzing, that same expansiveness that once had us screaming in outpours of joy. But that takes time, scraps of time.
Yuri stayed away from the house when the lady died. When he heard, he nodded. Only twenty, he already bore the understanding of life’s undercurrents. When his son was born, he reopened the Prague book. “You’ll go there someday,” he said to the baby. Less than a year later, there would be another baby. Yuri’s own ship, we knew, had already sailed, but he still went to the beach with Milena and they dove under the plankton-lit sea. Maybe his son would be aboard his own ship someday. Maybe that ship would be named after the lady. “Eva. That was her name,” he told us. And we raised our glasses that reflected the amber moonlight: “To Eva.”
Mariana Sabino’s short stories can also be found or are forthcoming in Four Way Review, Paris Lit Up Magazine, Open Pen, and Mediterranean Poetry. In 2021, she was shortlisted for the Granum Foundation Fellowship Prize. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars.
Read more from Cleaver Magazine’s Issue #38.