CHAPTER 27 – What the Trees Are Trying to Say, by Joel Neto

©Diogo Pinto, s/ título (a partir de duas caricaturas de Ernesto Melo e Castro), 2020 /

Translated by Charlotte Hammond Matthews

Edited by Lin Falk van Rooyen

“And he didn’t know if they were expressions of his desire to be a man, or inventions of his mind to fill in the blank spaces, nor whether they were invented by the part of his mind that was still human or the part that was machine, like a bug.” 

And once he had stopped laughing, determined now to learn how to cry, Reboredo found himself assaulted by a series of memories whose origin he could not fathom.

He usually occupied himself with silly, happy things – yes, him too – and this was all new and subversive: what he was thinking and what he was feeling and what he was fearing and what he was imagining, the way complete men thought and felt and feared and imagined.

He would plant a flower and water it every day until it bloomed. He would cook a meal and take his time tasting it, trying to identify its aromas and tones. He would pat a dog’s head and feel the animal’s tongue licking his ear with gratitude.

He would watch sheep on a hillside, the gentle chill of dusk striking his face. And the sheep weren’t electric. He would hang out a whole basket of washing in the breeze, and fold a pair of threadbare socks, and put those socks on, still warm from the sun, so comfortable.

He would scribble a shopping list, and head out to a Saturday morning market, and greet the neighbours as he passed, and stop the car to drink a hot coffee in the company of others. And then he would call home, just because, to check if everything was okay, if everything was still okay since he had left not quite fifteen minutes earlier, because he had a wife and he loved her, and that wife had Teresa’s face.

“Happy, silly things,” he repeated.

He wondered if they really existed. If he had existed, if she might exist. If all of them existed, or if they might in fact have been conjured up by the twisted imagination of somebody, a writer, several writers, many writers, one writer with many minds – by his attempts, vital and futile, to put the world in order again, by the stories he invented and h how, in the end, he followed their trail, so often haphazardly and incoherently, in the hope that they might, in spite of everything, contain a truth, and for one single, redemptive moment, one miraculous and solitary instance, he might be capable of understanding it.

And there had been a grandfather.

Was it a grandfather? His grandfather? Her grandfather?

He had spoken to him of trees.

Yes, trees.

He had spoken of trees and how he liked eucaliptos.  He talked a lot about eucaliptos, the grandfather. And he had recited some lines from an old poet:

            What the trees are trying to say

            In their slow silence, their vague murmurings,

            the sense they have in the place they are in,

            reverence, resonance, transparency,

            the bright and gloomy inflections of an aerial sentence.

Yes, he did have a grandfather, his grandfather. And it was during the time of the first pandemic. And his grandfather recited those lines, and he too was called Reboredo. And he told him that, in the final days, when mankind had begun to demonize the trees as well, the trees and everything that had once been useful, and before that beautiful, and before that good, even, there was simply nothing else that could be done for it.

And now Reboredo wasn’t sure if these were memories, all of this, none of this, or if they might instead be defences, grafted on by whoever had programmed him, in order to convince him he existed.

And he didn’t know if they were memories or expressions of his desire to be a man.

And he didn’t know if they were expressions of his desire to be a man, or inventions of his mind to fill in the blank spaces, nor whether they were invented by the part of his mind that was still human or the part that was machine, like a bug. And neither could he decide which of the two he would prefer, because he wasn’t sure which of these parts might be the least deceptive.

But he knew that there was a desire somewhere in the midst of it all, and he clung to that desire, because that also defines a man: the desire to be one. And maybe the others knew it already, all of them, from the resistance, even Alberto himself – the whole truth, perhaps, far more even than he knew – but regardless, he could barely wait to tell him about it.

Read the original chapter in Portuguese

Joel Neto (1974) is the author of Arquipélago and Meridiano 28, among other novels, as well as the diary series A Vida no Campo, which was awarded the Grande Prémio APE de Literatura Biográfica. He was born in the Azores, on Ilha Terceira, and lived in Lisbon for 20 years, where he wrote for most of the national newspapers and magazines. He returned to the Azores in 2012, to dedicated himself entirely to literature.

©António Araújo

Charlotte Hammond Matthews lives in Nova Scotia, where she farms, teaches English, and occasionally gets to indulge her love of literary translation.

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