I hesitated at the door.
Also because the unexpected simplicity of the dwelling disoriented me: I really didn’t even know where to start arranging things, or even if there was anything to arrange.
I looked despondently at the nakedness of the minaret:
The bed, stripped of its sheets, exposed the dusty cloth mattress, with its long faded stains that looked like sweat or watery blood, old and pale stains. The odd fibrous horsehair pierced the cloth of the mattress that was so dry it was rotten, and stuck out erect in the air.
Along one of the walls, three old suitcases were stacked with such perfect symmetry that I hadn’t noticed them, since they did nothing to alter the emptiness of the room. Upon them, and upon the nearly dead sign of a “G. H.”, an already calm and sedimented accumulation of dust.
And there was also the narrow wardrobe: it had a single door, and was the height of a person, my height. The wood continuously dried by the sun opened in fissures and barbs. So that Janair had never closed the window? She’d taken more advantage than I had of the view from the “penthouse.”
The room was so different from the rest of the apartment that going in there was as if I had first left my house and slammed the door. The room was the opposite of what I’d created in my home, the opposite of the soft beauty I’d made from my talent for arrangement, my talent for living, the opposite of my serene irony, of my sweet and absentminded irony: it was a violation of my quotation marks, the quotation marks that made me a citation of myself. The room was the portrait of an empty stomach.
And nothing there was made by me. In the rest of the house the sun filtered from the outside in, ray upon gentle ray, the result of my employment of both heavy and light curtains. But here the sun didn’t seem to come from outside: it was the sun’s own place, fixed and unmoving, in a harsh light as if it never shut its eyes even at night. Everything there was sliced-up nerves that had been hung up and dried on a clothesline. I was prepared to clean dirty things but dealing with that absence disoriented me.
I realized then that I was irritated. The room was making me physically uncomfortable as if the air still contained the sound of dry charcoal scratching the dry lime. The room’s inaudible sound was like a needle sweeping across a record after the music has stopped. A neutral hissing of thing was what made up the substance of its silence. Charcoal and fingernail coming together, charcoal and fingernail, calm and compact rage of that woman who represented a silence as though representing a foreign country, the African queen. And she’d been lodging there inside my house, the foreigner, the indifferent enemy.
I wondered if Janair had really despised me—or if I, who hadn’t even looked at her, had been the one who despised her. Just as I was discovering now with irritation that the room didn’t just irritate me, I detested it, that cubicle with nothing but surfaces: its entrails had been parched. I looked at it with disgust and disappointment.
Until I forced myself to summon some courage and a violence: on this very day everything there would have to be altered.
First I’d drag the few things inside the room into the hallway. And then I’d throw into the empty room bucket upon bucket of water that the hard air would swallow, and then I’d swamp the dust until a moistness was finally born in that desert, destroying the minaret that haughtily overlooked a horizon of rooftops. I’d throw water into the wardrobe to flood it up to its mouth—and then at last, at last I’d see the wood start to rot. An inexplicable rage, but which came naturally, overwhelmed me: I wanted to kill something there.
And then, then I’d cover that dried-out straw mattress with a soft, clean, cold sheet, one of my own sheets with my embroidered initials, replacing the one Janair must have thrown in the wash.
But first I’d scrape the gritty dryness of the charcoal off the wall, I’d carve off the dog with a knife, erasing the exposed palms of the man, destroying the too-small head of that large naked woman. And I’d throw water and water that would run in rivers down the scraped-down wall.
As if already seeing a picture of the room after being transformed into me and mine, I sighed with relief.
I then went in.
How to explain, except that something I don’t understand was happening. What did she want, that woman who is me? what was happening to a G. H. on the leather of her suitcases?
Nothing, nothing, only that my nerves were now awake—my nerves that had been calm or simply arranged? had my silence been a silence or a high mute voice?
How can I explain it to you: suddenly the whole world that was me shriveled up in fatigue, I could no longer bear on my shoulders—what?—and was succumbing to a tension that I didn’t know had always been mine. They were already starting, and I still didn’t realize it, the first signs inside me of a landslide, of underground limestone caves, collapsing beneath the weight of stratified archeological layers—and the weight of the first landslide was bringing down the corners of my mouth, making my arms fall. What was happening to me? I’ll never understand but there must be someone who understands. And it’s inside myself that I must create that someone who will understand.
And though I’d gone into the room, I seemed to have gone into nothing. Even once inside it, I was still somehow outside. As if the room weren’t deep enough to hold me and I had to leave pieces of myself in the hallway, in the worst rejection to which I’d ever fallen victim: I didn’t fit.
At the same time, looking at the low sky of the whitewashed ceiling, I was feeling suffocated by confinement and restriction. And I was already longing for my house. I forced myself to remember that that room too was my possession, and inside my house: I’d walked to the room without leaving my apartment, without going upstairs or down. Unless one could fall into a well horizontally, as if they’d slightly warped the building and I, slipping, had been tossed from door to door until reaching this highest one of all.
Caught there in a web of vacancies, I once again forgot the plan I’d outlined for arranging the room, and wasn’t sure where to begin. The room didn’t have a point that could be called its beginning, nor one that could be considered its end. It had a sameness that made it endless.
I ran my eyes over the wardrobe, lifted them toward a crack in the ceiling, trying to get a slightly better grip on that vast emptiness. With more daring, though without the slightest intimacy, I ran my fingers over the bunched-up cloth atop the mattress.
I got excited by an idea: the wardrobe, well-nourished with water, its fibers gorged, could be polished until it shined, and I would wax the inside too, since the interior was probably even more scorched.
I cracked the wardrobe’s narrow door, and the darkness inside escaped like a puff. I tried to open it a bit more, but the door was blocked by the foot of the bed, which it was knocking up against. Inside the breach, I put as much of my face as I could fit. And, as if the darkness inside were spying on me, we briefly spied each other without seeing each other. I saw nothing, only managing to whiff the dry, burnt odor like the smell of a live hen. Yet by pushing the bed closer to the window, I managed to open the door a few centimeters more.
Then, before understanding, my heart went gray as hair goes gray.
Then, before understanding, my heart went gray as hair goes gray.
Meeting the face I had put inside the opening, right near my eyes, in the half-darkness, the fat cockroach had moved. My cry was so muffled that only the contrasting silence let me know I hadn’t screamed. The scream had stayed beating in my chest.
Nothing, it was nothing—I immediately tried to calm down from my fright. I’d never expected in a house meticulously disinfected against my disgust for cockroaches that this room had escaped. No, it was nothing. It was a cockroach that was slowly moving toward the gap.
From its bulk and slowness, it had to be a very old cockroach. With my archaic horror of cockroaches I’d learned to guess, even from a distance, their ages and dangers; even without ever having really looked a cockroach in the face I knew the ways they existed.
It was just that discovering sudden life in the nakedness of the room had startled me as if I’d discovered that the dead room was in fact mighty. Everything there had dried up—but a cockroach remained. A cockroach so old that it was immemorial. What I had always found repulsive in roaches is that they were obsolete yet still here. Knowing that they were already on the earth, and the same as they are today, even before the first dinosaurs appeared, knowing the first man already found them proliferated and crawling alive, knowing that they had witnessed the formation of the great deposits of oil and coal in the world, and there they were during the great advance and then during the great retreat of the glaciers—the peaceful resistance. I knew that roaches could endure for more than a month without food or water. And that they could even make a usable nutritive substance from wood. And that, even after being crushed, they slowly decompressed and kept on walking. even when frozen, they kept on marching once thawed. . . . For three hundred and fifty million years they had been replicating themselves without being transformed. When the world was nearly naked, they were already sluggishly covering it.
Like there, in the naked and parched room, the virulent drop: in the clean test-tube a drop of matter.
I looked at the room with distrust. So there was a roach. Or roaches. Where? behind the suitcases perhaps. One? two? how many? Behind the motionless silence of the suitcases, perhaps a whole darkness of roaches. Each immobilized atop another? Layers of roaches—which all of a sudden reminded me what I’d discovered as a child when I lifted the mattress I slept on: the blackness of hundreds and hundreds of bedbugs, crowded together one atop the other.
The memory of my childhood poverty, with bedbugs, leaky roofs, cockroaches and rats, was like that of my prehistoric past, I had already lived with the first creatures of the earth.
One cockroach? many? how many?! I asked myself in a rage. I let my gaze wander over the naked room. No sound, no sign: but how many? No sound and yet I distinctly felt an emphatic resonance, which was that of silence chafing against silence. Hostility overwhelmed me. It’s more than just not liking roaches: I don’t want them. Besides which they’re the miniature version of an enormous animal. My hostility was growing.
It wasn’t I who spurned the room, as I’d felt for a moment at the door. The room, with its secret cockroach, had spurned me. At first I’d been rejected by a vision of a nakedness as powerful as that of a mirage; though what I’d seen wasn’t the mirage of an oasis, but the mirage of a desert. Then I’d been immobilized by the hard message on the wall: the open-palmed figures had been one of the successive sentries at the entrance to the sarcophagus. And now I was understanding that the roach and Janair were the true inhabitants of the room.
No, I wouldn’t arrange anything—not if there were roaches. The new maid would devote her first day at work to that dusty and empty hutch.
A wave of goose bumps, inside the great heat of the sun, covered me: I rushed to get out of the blazing room.
My first physical movement of fear, finally expressed, was what revealed to me to my surprise that I was fearful. And it ushered me into an even greater fear—when I tried to leave, I tripped between the foot of the bed and the wardrobe. A possible fall in that room of silence caused my body to shrink back in profound revulsion—tripping had made my attempt to flee an abortive act in itself—could this be how “they,” the ones by the sarcophagus, had of preventing me from ever leaving again? They had kept me from leaving and just in this simple way: they left me entirely free, since they knew I could no longer leave without tripping and falling.
I wasn’t imprisoned but I was located. As located as if they’d stuck me there with the simple and single gesture of pointing at me with a finger, pointing at me and at a place.
I’d already known the feeling of place. As a child, I unexpectedly became aware of lying in a bed located in a city located on the earth located in the World. As in childhood, I then had the strong sense that I was entirely alone in a house, and that the house was high and floating in the air, and that the house had invisible roaches.
Before, when I’d located myself, I’d be magnified. Now I located myself with limits—limiting myself to the point that, inside the room, the only place for me was between the foot of the bed and the wardrobe door.
Only now the feeling of place was luckily not coming to me at night, as in childhood, since it must have been around ten in the morning.
And unexpectedly the approaching eleven o’clock seemed to me an element of terror—like the place, time too had become palpable, it was like wanting to flee from inside a clock, and I hurried wildly.
But to be able to leave the corner where, having cracked the wardrobe door, I’d blocked myself in, I’d first have to shut the door pinning me to the foot of the bed: there I had no free path, trapped by the sun that was now burning the hairs on the nape of my neck, in the dry oven called ten a.m.
My quick hand went to the wardrobe door to shut it and make way for me—but I withdrew again.
Because inside the cockroach had moved.
I quieted down. My breath was light, superficial. I now felt there was no going back. And I already knew that, absurd as it may seem, my only chance of getting out of there was by admitting head-on and absurdly that something was becoming irremediable. I knew I had to admit the danger I was in, even though I was aware that it was madness to believe in an entirely nonexistent danger. But I had to believe in myself—my whole life just like everybody else I’d been in danger—but now, in order to leave, I had the delirious responsibility of having to know it.
Penned between the wardrobe door and the foot of the bed, I still hadn’t tried to move my feet again, drawing back instead as if, even in its extreme slowness, the roach might spring forward—I’d seen roaches who suddenly fly, the winged fauna.
I stayed still, calculating wildly. I was alert, I was totally alert. Inside me a feeling of intense expectation had grown, and a surprised resignation: because in this state of alert expectation I was seeing all my earlier expectations, I was seeing the awareness from which I’d also lived before, an awareness that never leaves me and that in the final analysis might be the thing that most attached to my life—perhaps that awareness was my life itself. The cockroach too: what’s the only feeling a cockroach has? the awareness of living, inextricable from its body. In me, everything I had superimposed upon the inextricable part of myself, would probably never manage to stifle the awareness that, more than awareness of life, was the actual process of life inside me.
That was when the cockroach began to emerge.
The above is an excerpt from The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector, which was translated from the Portuguese by Idra Novey, and edited by Benjamin Moser. Lispector is also the author of Near to the Wild Heart, A Breath of Life, The Hour of the Star, Agua Viva, The Foreign Legion, Selected Crônicas, and Soulstorm, all published by and available from New Directions.