CHAPTER 3 – Memories of the Time of the Plague, by Ana Cristina Silva

©Tania Simões, Momentum /tania.simoes

Translated by Andrew McDougall

Edited by Paul Crick

“During this time in which we have stayed at home, we have lived inside an individual cell, in the greatest solitude. Each person’s mind has turned to whatever filters it could so as not to collapse. The prison has shifted from the walls and embedded itself in your very skin.”

At that moment, Professor Cacilda called her to the meeting and Teresa hastily bid the former boss farewell, fearing unwelcome confessions. As a scientist, she knew the project could change the coordinates upon which humanity moved. Beneath her timid appearance, she was a young woman with clear ideas and obsessive thoughts, but only where research was concerned. This explained her bewilderment when encountering heated arguments, and when she was amongst such brilliant people, where the issue at hand was contested leadership. It was as if the fear of being seen as a secondary character superseded the common good. Apparently, she had not inherited the competitive gene that, in her opinion, devoured too much energy, which would be better directed towards key breakthroughs. She walked slowly down the long, white corridor to the meeting room, sliding a hand into her lab coat pocket. Inside was a letter from a grandfather she never had the chance to meet. She could recall every one of its words from memory, because that letter proved that everything which had already happened, would happen again. And she had volunteered for this dangerous and innovative project so that the world would embrace permanent changes. Before joining her colleagues, she closed her eyes and invoked her grandfather’s voice, as if reciting a prayer:

“Dear granddaughter,

They have discovered the vaccine. It will be a few more months before they produce sufficient quantities to inoculate the whole world. The march of darkness has finally been halted. For months, people’s thoughts have been primarily occupied by fear, showing their inability to adapt to a time when the most basic acts of humanity were forbidden. Hugs have been banned, kisses cancelled and the world shut down since the outbreak of the virus. During this time in which we have stayed at home, we have lived inside an individual cell, in the greatest solitude. Each person’s mind has turned to whatever filters it could so as not to collapse. The prison has shifted from the walls and embedded itself in your very skin.

I peer out of the window; outside everything remains the same: the afternoon is on its deathbed and twilight falls softly from the sky, inside and outside the house. There is no one in the streets, no voices can be heard in the distance, no echo of footsteps. Laughter is heard even less so. The pain of these empty spaces causes a chill that seeps through your whole body. The sky’s absolute quietness and the ashen outline of the buildings define the situation by the parameters of a strange fiction. 

The road to death is flat, smooth and crystal clear like ice. The time to slip away draws close. I am an old man who in other circumstances could live many more years. And even more so now the cure has been found. Yesterday, the upstairs neighbour knocked on my door, a forty-year-old woman, thin and dry, with a long, narrow face which never lit up in a smile. I did not know her well, we had never exchanged even a word, but I had overheard her insult and threaten her next-door neighbour over a dog’s antics. I looked through the door’s peephole. The image of my neighbour resembled someone we see on a screen, perhaps a sign of spending too much time without company. More than dangerous, she seemed miserable to me. Judging by the way she leaned on the door, I suspected she was ill. The next moment, I couldn’t see her, I merely heard the thud of a body falling. Right then, time divided in two, even in the absence of any way to record this fork. From where I was, from that distance which separated danger from survival, I could have chosen to live, but I didn’t think. Or rather I decided, perhaps foolishly, that I wished to keep being a man and not close my heart to the pain of others. I opened the door and that neighbour, so nasty and unpleasant, ended up dying in my arms.

You are still in your mother’s belly. When you grow up, the world will have reconciled itself with the light and of this terrible year there will remain but memories trapped in the anguish of the most elderly. I will never know you, but promise me you will create a dream and, bursting with that dream, strive to improve the world.”

Her grandfather’s last words propelled Teresa into the meeting room. It was his voice that she placed in her mouth to overcome her own singular shyness and thus manage to enunciate innovative formulae before that group of scientists with jacked-up egos who evidently had greater appreciation for repetitions and small variations on the same theories than for revolutions in knowledge.

Read the original chapter in Portuguese

Ana Cristina Silva was born in Lisbon and teaches at the city’s ISPA-IU University. She has a PhD in Educational Psychology and is the author of 14 novels: Mariana, Todas as Cartas (2002), A Mulher Transparente (2003), Bela (2005), À Meia Luz (2006), As Fogueiras da Inquisição (2008), A Dama Negra da Ilha dos Escravos (2009), Crónica do Rei Poeta Al-Mu‘Tamid (2010), Cartas Vermelhas (2011, selected as book of the year by newspaper Expresso and shortlisted for the Prémio Literário Fernando Namora), O Rei do Monte Brasil (2012, shortlisted for the Prémio SPA/RTP and the Prémio Literario Fernando Namora, and winner of the Prémio Urbano Tavares Rodrigues) and A Segunda Morte de Anna Karenina (2013, shortlisted for the Prémio Literário Fernando Namora). In 2017, A Noite não é Eterna was awarded the Prémio Literário Fernando Namora. In 2019, her novel Salvação was published by Parsifal, and As Longas Noites de Caxias by Planeta. Rimbault, o Viajante e o seu Inferno was published by Exclamação in 2020. A number of her books have been published in Brazil and Germany.

Andrew McDougall was born in Glasgow and studied Portuguese and English literature at the University of Edinburgh. He has also lived in Sussex, Lisbon, Coimbra, Logroño, Vitoria-Gasteiz and Norwich, where he completed an MA in Literary Translation. His work has included co-translating a book by José Eduardo Agualusa. He translates from Portuguese and Spanish.

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