Read an Excerpt
"He's upstairs, on the balcony, listening to the blackbirds."
Carlos Sousa, the journalist, said thank you when she invited him in with the gesture of a smile. "Yes, thank you," he thought as he went up the stairs, "there should be two eyes like those at every front door."
Doctor Da Barca was sitting in a wicker chair, a small brazier under the table next to him, his hand resting on an open book, as if pressing and pondering on a brilliant page. He was looking out over the garden, which was shrouded in winter light. The scene would have been a peaceful one had it not been for the oxygen mask he was using to breathe. The tube linking him to the cylinder was draped over the white azalea flowers. Sousa found the image disturbingly and comically sad.
Doctor Da Barca, realizing he had a visit on account of the creaking floorboards, stood up and put the mask to one side with surprising agility, like the control of a child's console. He was tall and broad-shouldered, and held up his arms in a gesture of greeting. He seemed made for the act of embracing.
Sousa felt confused. He was expecting someone on their death-bed and was ill at ease with the task of drawing the last words from an old man whose life had been eventful. He thought the voice would be thin and incoherent, locked in a pathetic struggle against Alzheimer's disease. He never could have imagined such a luminous demise, as if in reality the patient were connected up to a generator. This was not his disease, but Doctor Da Barca had the consumptive beautyof those suffering from tuberculosis. His eyes wide like lamps veiled in blue. Pale as pottery, a pink varnish on his cheeks.
"Your reporter's here," she said, still smiling. "Isn't he young?"
"Not that young," Sousa replied with a modest look in her direction. "I'm not the man I used to be."
"Sit down, sit down," said Doctor Da Barca. "I was just trying the oxygen. Would you like some?"
The reporter Sousa felt partially relieved. This beautiful, ageing woman who had come to the door, seemingly chosen on a whim by the chisel of Time. This very sick man, out of hospital two days previously, with the spirit of a cycling champion. It had been suggested to him at the newspaper, "Why don't you give him an interview? He's an old exile. Apparently he even had dealings with Che Guevara in Mexico."
Who was interested in that nowadays? Only a head of local news who read Le Monde Diplomatique at night. Sousa detested politics. To tell the truth, he detested journalism. He had recently been working in Accident and Grime. It had got too much for him. The world was a dung-heap.
Doctor Da Barca's elongated fingers flapped like keys of their own volition, as if attached to the organ out of age-old loyalty. The reporter Sousa felt those fingers were exploring him, percussing his body. He had the suspicion the doctor was observing him, analysing the meaning of the bags under his eyes, his prematurely puffed-up eyelids, as if he were sick.
"I could well be," he thought.
"Marisa, love, bring us something to drink. We don't want to spoil the obituary."
"The things you come out with!" she exclaimed. "You shouldn't joke like that."
The reporter Sousa was about to decline but realized that turning down a drink would be a mistake. His body had been asking for one for hours drink, blasted drink ever since he had got out of bed, and it was at that moment he knew he was dealing with one of those sorcerers who can read others' minds.
"I don't suppose you're an H-Two-O man?"
"No," he said, continuing with the irony, "my problem is not exactly water."
"Wonderful. We've a Mexican tequila that brings back the dead. Two glasses, Marisa, if you please." He then winked in his direction, "My grandchildren do not forget their revolutionary grandfather."
"How are you feeling?" Sousa asked. He had to start somehow.
"As you can see," said the doctor, jovially spreading his arms, "I'm dying. Do you really think an interview with me holds any interest?"
The reporter Sousa recalled what he had been told over drinks at the Café Oeste. Doctor Da Barca was an old and uncompromising Republican, who had been condemned to death in 1936 and had saved his skin by a miracle. "By a miracle," one of the informants had concurred. After his prison sentence, he had gone into exile in Mexico, from where he had returned to the ancestral home only on the death of Franco. He still had his ideas. Or the Idea, as he used to say. "A man of another time," the informant had called him.
"I am what you would call an ectoplasm," the doctor told him. "Or an alien if you prefer. That is why I have trouble breathing."
The head of local news had given him a cutting from the paper with a photograph and a short notice about a public homage to the doctor. People were grateful for the way he cared for the humblest among them and never charged. "His front door's not been locked since the day of his return from exile," said one woman living next door. Sousa explained he was sorry not to have visited him sooner, the interview was meant for before his admission to hospital.
"You're not from here, are you, Sousa?" said the doctor, switching the conversation away from himself.
He replied that he wasn't, that he came from further north. He had only been there for a couple of years and what he liked most was the clemency of the weather, which was tropical for Galicia. Occasionally he would go to Portugal and eat bacalao à la Gomes de Sáa.
"Forgive my curiosity, but do you live alone?"
The reporter Sousa looked around for the woman, but she had slipped away quietly, leaving the glasses and the bottle of tequila. It was a strange situation, the interviewer being interviewed. He was going to say he did, he lived very alone, far too alone, but he responded by laughing. "I've got my landlady, she worries terribly that I'm growing thin. She's a Portuguese, married to a Galician. When they argue, she calls her husband a Portuguese and he says she's just like a Galician. That's without the adjectives, of course. They're a bit strong."
Doctor Da Barca smiled thoughtfully. Then he said, "The only good thing about borders are the secret crossings. It's incredible the effect an imaginary line can have. It gets traced one day by some doddering king in his bed or drawn on the table by powerful men as if they were playing a game of poker. I remember a terrible thing a man once said to me, `My grandfather was the lowest of the low.' `Why? What did he do?' I asked. `Did he kill someone?' `No, no. My paternal grandfather served a Portuguese.' He was drunk with historical bile. `Well,' I said to annoy him, `if I were to choose a passport, I'd be a Portuguese.' Fortunately, however, this border will soon be swallowed up in its own absurdity. True borders are those that keep the poor away from a share of the cake."
Doctor Da Barca moistened his lips on the glass and then raised it in a toast. "You know? I am a revolutionary," he said suddenly, "an internationalist. Of the kind that existed before. Of the kind who belonged to the First International, I would have to confess. Now, I bet that sounds strange to you."
"I'm not interested in politics," Sousa replied instinctively. "I'm interested in the person."
"In the person, yes," murmured Da Barca. "Have you heard of Doctor Nóvoa Santos?"
"He was a very interesting person. He expounded the theory of intelligent reality."
"I'm afraid I do not know him."
"That's nothing to be ashamed of. Hardly anyone remembers him, beginning with the majority of doctors. Intelligent reality, that was it. We all let out a thread, like silkworms. We gnaw at and fight over the white mulberry leaves, but that thread, if it crosses over with others and intertwines, can make a beautiful fabric, an unforgettable cloth."
It was getting late. A blackbird flew in a pentagram out of the orchard as if in haste to make a forgotten rendezvous on the other side of the border. The beautiful, ageing woman approached the balcony again with the gentle flow of a water-clock.
"Marisa," he said all of a sudden, "what was that poem about the blackbird, the one poor Faustino wrote?"
So much passion and so much melody
Was squeezed into your veins,
Add another passion, your body
Is so frail it would break.
He recited it uncoaxed and unaffected, as if in response to a natural request. What moved the reporter Sousa was his expression, a glow of stained-glass windows in the twilight. He took a swig of the tequila to see how much it burned.
"What do you think?"
"Very beautiful," Sousa said. "Who's it by?"
"A priest who was a poet and was very fond of women." He smiled, "A case of intelligent reality."
"So how did you two meet?" the reporter asked, ready at last to take notes.
"I had noticed him walking in the Alameda. But the first time I heard him speak was in a theatre," explained Marisa, her eyes on the doctor. "Some girl friends had taken me. It was a Republican event to debate whether or not women should have the right to vote. Now it seems strange, but in those days there was a lot of controversy, even among women. Isn't that so? And then Daniel stood up and told the story about the queen of the bees ... Do you remember, Daniel?"
"What's the story about the queen of the bees?" Sousa asked, intrigued.
"In antiquity no-one knew where bees came from. Wise men such as Aristotle invented outlandish theories. It was said, for example, that bees emerged from the stomach of dead oxen. This carried on for centuries. And do you know why it carried on for so long? Because no-one had the courage to see that the king was a queen. How can freedom be maintained on the basis of such a lie?"
"The clapping went on for ages," Marisa added.
"Well, it was not an indescribable ovation," remarked the doctor humorously. "But yes, there was some applause."
"I liked him. But after hearing him that day I began to like him a lot. Even more so when my family warned me off him, `You should have nothing to do with that man.' They soon found out who he was."
"I thought she was a seamstress."
"Yes, I lied to him. I went to get a dress made at a tailor's opposite his mother's house. I came out of the fitting and he was on his way back from visiting patients. He looked at me, carried on walking, and suddenly turned around, `Do you work here?' I nodded. `Well, you're the prettiest seamstress I know. You must sew with silk.'"
Doctor Da Barca looked at her, his old eyes tattooed with desire.
"Somewhere amongst the archaeological ruins of Santiago, there must still be a rusty revolver, the one she brought us in prison in an attempt to save us."