How It Will Happen

(Homage to José Saramago)

José Ribeiro Gonçalves da Silva Morreira, generally known as Zé, had moved often in his life, because he had been given to questioning his place not only in the universe but in the neighborhood. But he has been here for 10 years, and that is because he has ceased his habitual self-interrogration, ceased it ever since Maria Estrela da Madrugada reproached him for such baseless worrying — though, of course, not with the intention of hurting his feelings. If Zé is now hoping to live in this town forever, it is mainly because of Maria Estrela.

Zé lives with a dog who is generally known as Tobo, although his name is actually Roberto Cardoso de Oliveira. Tobo is a highly intelligent dog and often engages Zé in conversation about this or that, or that or this, depending on what he, Tobo, has had for dinner and what he, still Tobo, has been listening to on the radio, which is always turned on though not always loud enough for Zé to hear the program, it being a well-known fact that the hearing of dogs is far superior to the hearing of human beings, and Zé having bought the radio for Tobo in the first place.

Zé works in a pharmacy that is also a library, which he finds a challenging but very rewarding job, since he always has a way of knowing if someone who comes in looking for a pill really needs a book. He used to keep the medicines and the books in separate parts of the store, but one day it occurred to him that this was not, in fact, necessary. He will not be proved wrong about that, though a different tragedy will befall him in connection with his work, or rather, one might say, his vocation.

This is how it will happen:

Zé will be in the back of his establishment, perhaps at his pharmacy counter, with its smooth marble surface, spotlessly clean and refreshingly cool, where he likes to rest on his hands and contemplate the white and gray spirals in the stone, his mind following the curving paths of the grain, bits and pieces of unrelated thoughts caught here and there to be carried by a random current. At this moment, though, he will perhaps be busy counting out the small oval pills that have just arrived in the mail. Perhaps they will be a surprising shade of deep red, with an indentation to break them apart in the middle for half a dose, and perhaps the inside will be white. If he is occupied in this way with a newly arrived medication, he will be arranging the pills into piles of 10 so that he can be sure that each bottle into which he puts them will have the right number for a specific prescription.

The bell up front will ring, and, much to his delight, it will be Maria Estrela who comes in. She will be carrying her wicker basket, not yet containing eggs and milk, since she always stops first to find a book. She will be wearing her beautiful red and black shawl that she pins on with a cameo, the shawl with the gold fringes. He will give a smile that is far beyond friendliness, but equally far from anything disrespectful or presumptuous, since Zé would as soon lust after Maria Estrela as he would lust after the blessed Saint Isabel.

He will be happier even than usual to see her, since he has a new book that he is holding especially for her. He will not tell her what it is about, since he wants her to be surprised and delighted as she reads it. But we can know what it is about now.

The book is about a widow in a small town in Brazil, a widow very much like Maria Estrela, who is still beautiful, sweet and relatively young. Like Maria Estrela, this widow has lost her beloved husband, who was handsome and charming but not always reliable — he, too, was overly fond of drinking and playing cards, though he stopped short of running after other women, as did Maria Estrela’s husband since, clearly, no other woman could compare with her. In the book, the widow remarries (and, by the way, Zé often wonders why Maria Estrela has not), this time to someone less dashing but very reliable, who takes good care of her and sees that she has everything she could possibly want. But that is not the good part. The good part is that her first husband comes back as a ghost, and she gets to have them both! So, even as she leads a safe and orderly life, with her finances in order and her days comfortingly predictable, she can be entertained — in any number of ways — by her first husband.

Wouldn’t anyone think that this is just the right book for Maria Estrela? Certainly Zé will think so.

On this day of his special surprise, Maria Estrela will come in with her own idea of a book she wants to read. It will also be a book from Brazil, those being the ones she likes the best, as does Zé, since they agree that so many Portuguese books leave you longing for more color, light, music, laughter, adventure, neither of them ever saying what else there is a lot more of in books from Brazil.

While the book that Maria Estrela is looking for is indeed from Brazil, it is not about color, light, music and laughter. It is about poverty in the barren northeast of the country. Since she has read about this book in a newspaper, she tells him a bit about it, about the suffering of the family in the story, who are poor and often do not have enough to eat, about the drought that comes year after year. She also tells him that there is apparently a dog in the book, a dog that plays an important role. She tells him about the dog because she knows how much Zé cares about Tobo, and, in fact, she is very fond of Tobo herself (she will give him a pat on the head when he walks over to her as she and Zé stand talking together).

Zé does not think this book is at all the right thing for her, despite liking the idea of the dog. It is too sad, too desperate. But he would never consider criticizing her choice or arguing about even her slightest desire, much less something as important as her choice of a book. So, he will do something very unusual for him, something, indeed, he has perhaps never done before. He will tell a lie, the kind of lie that under normal circumstances could certainly be considered of the whitest white, but, then again, how can circumstances be counted upon to be normal?

Although the very book that Maria Estrela is seeking will, in fact, be present in that very place at that very time; although Zé will, in fact, be able to see it with his own two eyes if he just shifts his head to the right, past Maria Estrela’s left ear, her gold earring in the shape of almond flowers dangling from that graceful left ear and catching a ray of sunshine coming through the window; yes, indeed, there it is, that very book; he will instead say that he is expecting the book any day and will certainly let her know as soon as it arrives.

He will then tell her that he has something wonderful for her to read in the meanwhile. He will say that he does not want to tell her what it is about, since he does not want to spoil her pleasure in the story. He will say he believes it will be just right for her, that it might even become one of her very favorite books. He will tell her that he looks forward to hearing about it when she comes back to pick up the book she came in for.

So, Maria Estrela will read “Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands,” by Jorge Amado. And this is what Zé will not have known:

First, that she has never had and would never have any interest in having any husband other than her Francisco, her handsome, strong, beloved Francisco, who sang to her and told her that she was his beautiful morning star. How could there be another man worth marrying? How could she even begin to imagine such a thing?

Second, that she cannot believe Francisco will come back to her as a ghost since, if that were going to happen, surely it would have happened already. Francisco was never one for waiting.

But, most of all, Zé will have remained deceived by how lively and charming Maria Estrela forces herself to appear, so that no one can see that she is, in fact, sick at heart. He will not realize how tired she is of being cheerful when inside she is so sad, so sad and so tired that sometimes she just lies down on the floor when she comes home after going about her business, her business not being of the kind that might fill her soul.

So it will never enter Zé’s mind that Maria Estrela might decide to try a different way of being with Francisco again, since, who knows, she will think, it might work. That the urgency with which she will attempt this will be the result of her reading this book, with a husband that so reminds her of Francisco, so much so that the sorrow of being without him presses upon her unbearably as she finishes the last page.

And so, she will put down the book, go into the kitchen, take the bottle of Madeira from under the counter, the bottle she has kept in memory of her husband and that is still half-full because, until this very night, it is only her husband who has ever drunk from it, but on this night she will pour herself a large glass. She will go upstairs with this glass full of sherry and get from her medicine cabinet the bottle of sleeping pills that she will have bought from Zé just a month before with a prescription from Doctor Carvalho. There will be 47 pills left, since she will only have taken three so far. She will go into her bedroom, will swallow all of them and will finish the glass of Madeira.

Zé will never be the same after that. He will refrain from offering suggestions to his customers, allowing them, rather, to wander through the store by themselves; he will be indifferent to whether they are seeking cough syrup or Camões, penicillin or Pessoa, suppositories or Saramago. And he will never venture an opinion about any of his books.

Nor will he engage in the lively conversations he and Tobo so much enjoy in the present (listen — right now they are chatting happily, and I am sure you can hear them as you pass by in the street). The dog will try every possible topic, from the weather, to the distressing state of local politics, to recipes for dinner, to exciting astronomical discoveries, to whether pigs have wings. But Zé will remain sunk in sorrowful silence, pondering the sin of pride.

Judith Shapiro ’63, an anthropologist, has been a faculty member at the University of Chicago and Bryn Mawr College, where she became provost. She was president of Barnard College for 14 years and is currently president of the Teagle Foundation, which supports liberal-arts higher education. She is a member of the American Philosophical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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