CHAPTER 14 – That Ambiguous Face, by José Mário Silva

©Manuel Botelho, Selfie, 22-03-2020 www./pt

Translated by Beth Fowler

Edited by Sarah Jacobs

“That ambiguous face gave her the shivers, a sudden burst of terror, but then she remembered that Reboredo’s profession was precisely that: the home delivery of fear. And she unlocked the door.”

After a long silence, the line went dead. Somewhat concerned, Teresa tried to call back. Nothing. In his C3PO voice, Tommy, the digital communication assistant, asked whether he should send the address to Reboredo as an animated message. “Yes, send it Tommy. And you can add: ‘We aren’t leaving the house. Come any time, but make it as soon as you can. I mean it, Reboredo, we’re counting on you.’”

As she disconnected the smartphone with its 3D holograph projector, Teresa felt a shiver down her spine. Behind her, Maria’s silent recrimination was mounting, like a towering black cumulonimbus, with lightning bolts heralding a storm. Their increasingly frequent rows always started this way. A thick, almost palpable silence, static electricity filling the room. The merest spark, then the explosion: malicious jibes, low blows, infinite tears, raised arms, yelling. Comments like poison. Words like razorblades. They would be at it for hours. Later, exhausted, they would take refuge at opposite ends of the house, which they would leave only to eat or sleep, at different times. Or they would make it up immediately in the only way possible: surrendering to sex with an animalistic fury, be it up against the mirrored wall or on the kitchen floor. 

“You shouldn’t have done that,” Maria began.

“What do you mean?”

“Going into detail about how he’s been programmed, he’s a machine, that was a big mistake. You’ve basically turned his life upside down. Jeez, you even told him he came from a defective batch, and all the rest of it. Have you gone mad?”

“What’s the problem? I came clean so that he would trust us, that’s all. Otherwise, I doubt he’ll accept us carrying out any analysis on him.”

“And we’re going to try to recover his deepest memories, as well as the hidden protocols, just the two of us ourselves, are we?” Maria pressed.

“Of course. What else?” Teresa was surprised.

“I think you know the answer to that question.”

“No, I don’t know.”

“Yes, you do. We shouldn’t go any further without Lúcia. And coming from me, that’s saying something.

For Maria, the very existence of a highly intelligent woman like Lúcia, somewhere out there, had always cast a shadow over her relationship with Teresa. She knew the two women had been romantically involved, years ago, in the days of the cave laboratory. During one of their sessions of pouring their hearts out to each other at the kitchen table, already well into their second bottle of Papa Figos, Teresa had told her how Lúcia, by that time promoted to Cacilda’s right-hand woman, took her out drinking one night and, in the Uber on the way home, kissed her suddenly, voraciously, tongue on tongue, as her hand slid up her thigh and between her legs. Confined to the house for three days, they enjoyed an intense romance that ran out of steam shortly afterwards, marred by fights and grievances, just weeks before Teresa set up the Tinder account that led her to Maria. “It’s in the past, all in the past,” Teresa concluded tersely. But Maria could never stop seeing Lúcia as a source of danger, a threat. Many of the couple’s crises stemmed from that insecurity.

“Lúcia has nothing to do with this!” exclaimed Teresa, in a peremptory tone.

“Why not?” Maria countered. “Are you afraid you might still have feelings for her?”

“Don’t be silly.”

“Isn’t it true that you worked at the Decontamination Institute at the same time?”

“Yes, but we were in different departments. We didn’t even talk to each other back then.”

“So what did she do?”

“She formatted the programming for the para-humans. She was always an ace at coding.”

“Well there you have it. Bingo. She’s just the person to help us dig up the hidden protocols in Reboredo’s deepest memories.”

“Hmmm, I don’t know. I haven’t seen her for years.”

“Do you still have her number?”


“Then I hope Reboredo doesn’t see the message straight away. Otherwise, we’ll have to stall him.”


“So what’s stopping you calling Lúcia?” Maria asked.

Teresa shrugged, as if disheartened. And in a thin, reedy voice:

“Are you sure we should be doing this?”

“No. But what’s the alternative?”

As soon as Teresa went into the bedroom, where she would feel more comfortable speaking to her former lover, the doorbell gave five blasts. Short. Nervous. Impatient. Maria pressed the button to open the external door to the building and kept her eye on the screen: in the space that used to be an antechamber for disinfection – now transformed into a retro lobby, complete with 2040-style décor – stood a man, elegant but muscular, with fine features below a high forehead encircled by a red band. “So this is the famous Reboredo,” she thought. As he entered the vestibule, the man sought out a corner next to the door to the stairway, out of sight of the surveillance cameras. “Where’s he gone?” wondered Maria, puzzled. Once he was certain he wouldn’t be seen, Reboredo unscrewed his left arm, removing an object from within and hiding it in the back pocket of his trousers, and then screwed the arm back on before heading for number five. His image now filled the screen. Maria noted an almost imperceptible smile, a slight twitch at the corner of his mouth. That ambiguous face gave her the shivers, a sudden burst of terror, but then she remembered that Reboredo’s profession was precisely that: the home delivery of fear. And she unlocked the door.

Read the original chapter in Portuguese

José Mário Silva was born in 1972, in Paris. He graduated in biology from the Faculdade de Ciências da Universidade de Lisboa, and has been a journalist since 1993. He currently works as a freelancer, and is a literary critic for the newspaper Expresso. He also moderates book clubs and public talks by writers. His published works include Nuvens & Labirintos (poetry, Gótica, 2001), Efeito Borboleta e outras histórias (short stories, Oficina do Livro, 2008), Luz Indecisa (poetry, Oceanos, 2009) and Escorço (poetry, Nova Mymosa, 2020). He coordinated the anthology Os Cem Melhores Poemas Portugueses dos Últimos Cem Anos (Companhia das Letras, 2017). He has translated books by Lydia Davis, James Baldwin, Jacques Roubaud and Nicolas Bouvier, among other authors, into Portuguese. With Inês Bernardo, he is the co-author of a book podcast (Biblioteca de Bolso). 

Beth Fowler studied Hispanic Studies at the University of Glasgow and is now a translator from Portuguese and Spanish to English, working mainly in the fields of art and tourism, as well as literary translation. In 2010, she won the inaugural Harvill Secker Young Translators’ Prize and since then has translated four novels and several short stories. She lives near Glasgow with her husband and two children.

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