CHAPTER 29 – The Simplest Acts of Humanity, by Raquel Patriarca

©Edgar Massul, sem título, da série Spherical Animals, dimensões variáveis, 2020 /

Translated by Gitanjali Patel

Edited by Andrew McDougall

“Either way, what we do here is not enough. There’s no way we can save humankind if none of us, not a single one, is capable of the simplest acts of humanity.”

The voice in Teresa’s head was evolving from stubborn advice to urgent demand. Get out, Teresa“.

Those were the words and yet, Teresa didn’t quite know what they meant, where they came from exactly, and what they wanted her to do.

She woke up as if returning to the world were an intolerable sacrifice. Her body and willpower had been seized by immense exhaustion. Get out, Teresa, the voice repeated like a motion sensor. A marching order dragging her out of the shell in which she was hiding. A cavern of dejection, inside another, physical one, where everyone was sheltered but no one felt protected. She took herself back to the laboratory, to the instruments, to the papers on earlier results and subsequent hypotheses. It only takes one breakthrough, she thought determinedly, as the failures accumulated and she methodically noted down each dead end.

Get out, Teresa. Those insistent words created a vacuum which drew the lifeblood from her faith in science and her ability to choose a new path. It emptied her of everything except a toxic sense of uselessness. What are you going to do, Teresa? She asked herself. What path is this? And how far have you deviated from the original plan? Don’t you remember how this all started?

Yes, she remembered all right. This was, perhaps, the only molecule of certainty she still had left.

Promise me you will create a dream and, bursting with that dream, strive to improve the world.  That dream, promised by her grandfather before she had come into the world, was the beginning of everything. She directed all her decisions and work in pursuit of this ill-defined dream. Because, whatever happened, she had to succeed in bringing the world together with conviction.Teresa defended every gradual and meticulous act in favour of the bright idea of reconciliation.

The voice, however, spoke louder, rejecting this rationale. Get out, Teresa. At that moment, instead of inspiring movement, the words paralysed, her gaze absorbed in her gloved hands, in the equipment and the receptacles around her.

It’s all wrong, she heard herself say. It’s all wrong. Cacilda’s hellish machine, Ricardo’s absurd immortality, Reboredo’s supposedly functioning software. This is not the path. Teresa abandoned the laboratory with a self-confident swagger she hadn’t had in a while. She barely noticed the decontamination showers, the irritating sounds the security doors made before they opened. That day, she thought, freeing herself from the gloves, the lab coat, the mask and hairnet, and shoving them into a container all twisted together. That day they took away the dogs and almost fired me for violating the sanitation protocol. Maybe I reacted badly, given the contamination I caused. Maybe the immediate, protective urge was a good thing. Maybe both are true. Either way, what we do here is not enough. There’s no way we can save humankind if none of us, not a single one, is capable of the simplest acts of humanity.

That thought shook Teresa to her core. She was a scientist, a believer in the hard facts only science could generate. The battle waged against that merciless and cunning death could, inevitably, only be won by science. But the scientist had reached breaking point within herself. Get out, Teresa. If you don’t preserve the humanity left in your soul, there’ll be no saving you.

She only needed a few things, which she hastily gathered up into her travel bag. She saw she had received a new message from Maria that morning, bringing the number of times Maria had made contact up to twelve, without Teresa having responded. We’ll be speaking in person in two hours, she thought. Better that way. She walked past several people in the corridors without really seeing them. Are you leaving? She heard Cacilda’s voice as they passed each other close to the cave’s exit. Yes, she replied without further explanation. And when will you be back? The professor persisted, partly uneasy, partly offended. I don’t know. Teresa ended the conversation, feeling the night air touching her face. She welcomed it gladly, like the sign of humanity she had been looking for.

When she finally got home, Teresa sensed an unusual stillness. She closed the door and put down her bag. She called Maria and peeked into the rooms on her way to her bedroom. It was late and therefore unsurprising that Maria had gone to sleep. She switched on the lamp and immediately clapped her hands to her face in an attempt to stifle the horrified scream that was leaping from her throat. Maria was not sleeping. She was dead. She had died alone, struck by the very affliction that Teresa had been trying to combat for so long.

Read the original chapter in Portuguese

Raquel Patriarca was born in Benguela, in 1974. She lives in Porto, in a house packed with books and toys, and a magnolia tree in the garden where the grass is often overgrown. She asks a lot of questions about the nature of things, takes off her shoes without untying them and, if she were an animal, would be a platypus. She’s a librarian and collector of bookmarks. She likes cats, fuzzy pyjamas and chocolate milk. When she grows up, she wants to be a poet.

Gitanjali Patel is a translator and social researcher. She translates in a range of media, from film and radio to fiction, including stories by Luisa Geisler, Miriam Mambrini, Fernanda Torres and, most recently, Evando Nascimento. She is the co-founder of Shadow Heroes, an initiative which uses translation as a means of teaching critical thinking skills to secondary school students. 

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