The incident I’m about to narrate is difficult even for me to understand. I’m not saying we’re fools, lacking the delicacy the soul should have, but just that perhaps we put up a sort of resistance to hearing things that might move us. It’ll become obvious that I’m speaking of love, but it can be so difficult to speak of love while holding on to that simple desire to remain immutable. Time is immutable, yet we still talk about time like a clever child who pushes beyond his limits.

Poem could not even say how she got her name. She had no idea where she came from, how she’d come to life, nor where the exits were. Like a hazy dream, she seemed to have entered life as if she’d been squeezed through a gap made just for her. The simple fact is that, when she opened her eyes, she was alive. And since she couldn’t turn back, she just stood there, right in the middle of a street full of cars, people, and buildings, lots of buildings. 

She seemed like a sweet person; her sweetness, however, was actually awkwardness. Two enormous eyes set in a thin face, a sad smile that was confused about what went through her head—everything about her was inside out. Her friend at work couldn’t tell when she was happy or sad, even when she swept the rooms of the hotel where she worked. For Poem, being a chambermaid represented her greatest happiness, since work was all she had; she had no other way to survive in such a big city. She could never be a whore, for example, because she lacked good looks. Ever since she’d arrived from the impoverished Northeast, such an idea had never crossed her mind. No one would ever look at her with desire, even if she were a chicken roasting in a rotisserie in a bakery window—not even dogs would stop in front to drool over her.

So it was that she never knew what love was. The only thing she ever wanted was to love. She didn’t know why, nor did she know what she’d do with love. She thought everyone in the world lived for the sake of loving and being loved. “One day I’m going to be loved so much that I might be loved to death, because they say the heart can die from happiness,” she told her roommates. 

Poem lived with three other women in a small apartment downtown. She slept on a mattress in the corner next to the window, where she could peek out at the sky and count the stars before falling asleep. Since she didn’t know how to count very well, she always had to go back to zero and start counting all over again. This tired her out so much that she would soon fall asleep.

Even though she found it hard to read and write, she’d had the habit ever since she was a teenager of memorizing slogans on the sides of trucks that drove by on the highway running past her house. She thought they were poetry, and this made her delight in her own name, since she figured that poetry was related to poems or something like that. “Forget it, girl,” her friend at work said. “Since when does a poor person’s name have anything to do with something pretty? There must be some other reason behind such a name.” Poem leaned the broom up against the wall. Her friend wanted to show how wrong her idea was and prove how silly she was.

Poem’s lack of understanding about things may have seemed unfortunate, but, for her, it served as a sort of valve that timidly opened up her curiosity. As unlikely as it may have seemed to others, she sought to understand the meaning of things. One time she spent hours wondering why she had to clean the toilets every single day in the hotel guest rooms. At home, the chore of cleaning the bathroom took place on Saturdays, and the roommates took turns each week cleaning the toilet. When it was Poem’s turn, the task would put her through turmoil. It triggered so many memories of the time when food was scarce, sleep was scarce, and only hopes remained. The stench that impregnated the grimy floor tiles overwhelmed her with the tragic sense that she was condemned to a life of continual punishment, as if she would never find happiness. For her, happiness might lie in a small detail, something that might last only one day.

At times, the girl who cleaned toilets would listen to music to brighten up her movements. She would turn on the radio she’d bought on layaway so she could listen to music and, in her off-key voice, sing some verses she knew in the songs she heard, delighting in the sound that emerged from her mouth, playing with the acoustics of the bathrooms, as if she were a child discovering the world around her. 

One day, while listening to a song on the radio, she heard the singer recite a verse of poetry: “All love letters are ridiculous. They would not be love letters if they were not ridiculous.”

She felt confusion deep inside, almost shock. Since she had trouble putting things in focus, it was difficult for her to believe that love letters were ridiculous. But since she had never known love, she felt ridiculous herself. For the rest of the day, she kept hearing the verse of the poem hammering in her head like some kind of torture. She’d always had trouble reading, but, over time, she developed the ability to memorize things that caught her interest. 

When she went to bed that night, lying in the narrow corner with her head resting against the wall below the window sill, she kept repeating the verse that was stuck in her memory, whispering it softly so she wouldn’t wake up the other girls. She dreamed of so many love letters that her heart lightened up and, even though she was asleep, her sad expression turned into a smile. 

The next morning, this simple girl woke up all excited: being Sunday, she had the day off, and, besides, she was restless, having dreamed all night long of love. Even though the verse of poetry continued to hammer in her head that love letters were ridiculous, nothing bothered her today. 

Poem proceeded to put on make-up in a thoughtful manner, carefully wielding the eyeliner and brow pencil. Even if she weren’t pretty, she was a woman and clung to a modest vanity. She applied some red lipstick borrowed from one of her roommates and dabbed some drugstore perfume on her neck, underarms, around her breasts, and even on the ends of her hair. All this aroused the curiosity of her roommates, who watched perplexed as they lay on their mattresses scattered around the floor. They wondered why such a girl, who ordinarily showed so little interest in her appearance, would suddenly get an impulse to fix herself up, for no other occasion than to sit around and watch television.

That’s how Poem usually was; she always looked disheveled, her curly hair damaged and showing not even the slightest attempt at styling. She could try pinning it back, brushing it to one side or the other, even turning it under—nothing did any good. But this morning was different; she didn’t even look like the same person.

Off she went, in the middle of the day, strolling leisurely down the street, her heart beating solemnly, letting herself be carried along like a bird floating in the sky. During her walk, she stopped from time to time in front of a billboard to read the advertisement and memorize it. It took her a while to join each letter to the next, forming words and completing the sentence, but she succeeded haltingly, courageously. She resumed walking, parroting what she’d just read: “The world is better with two tongues,” proclaimed an ad for English classes, showing a picture of a couple locked in a passionate kiss. She had paused longer in front of this billboard, getting confused as she tried to figure out what the words meant, although she knew exactly what the picture signified. And it made her mad. Because, in her innocence, this country girl who’d never been kissed, when confronted with what she was reading and seeing, felt like she didn’t belong in this world. Or else her world was just no good.

From time to time, she talked to herself, complaining about her fate, about the absences that seized her soul, the desires for so many things in life that maybe she’d have to multiply herself into a thousand Poems in this world to make enough room to hold everything she desired.

On this day, however, something unexpected was about to happen.

In her girlish heart, crushed between anguish and absence, she felt an immense wish to weep—to weep for what she had never seen, for what she had seen, for what she’d never experienced, for the absence of everything, even hope, which suddenly slipped through her fingers. Poem went inside the first shopping mall she saw and headed straight for the ladies’ room. She was embarrassed to cry in public; she thought crying was ugly and, since she was already born ugly, she figured she’d be even uglier if she were crying. She went into one of the stalls, closed the lid of the toilet, and sat down, crying like a child, streaking her make-up with her tears. Moaning as if in a daze, she dried her tears with a fistful of toilet paper, furiously repeating, “All love letters are ridiculous. They wouldn’t be love letters if they weren’t ridiculous.”

The girl known for her sad smile spent almost an hour sitting on the toilet lid in the ladies’ room of the shopping mall, weeping and mumbling. 

On that unexpected day, something had to happen that would rescue the soul of this young woman; even if it lasted only that one day, it had to be something true and good.

Even more dazed than usual, Poem stood up and went to the mirror to look at herself. Seeing her appearance spoiled, funereal, her make-up streaked and eyes swollen, she turned on the faucet and washed her face. 

She opened the door carelessly to leave the ladies’ room and went wandering through the busy shopping mall, like a ghost roaming among the living. Then a man in an elegant suit stopped in front of her, removed his hat, and greeted her, standing there admiring her for a few moments. They gazed at each other with such tenderness that it seemed as though they were already acquainted from some other time or place. Actually, he was the one who gazed as her, as if he were writing each part of her body with the subtlety of the soul, something that only poets know how to do.

Poem introduced herself timidly.

He approached her and, with a refined voice, introduced himself as Fernando.

She felt the urge to cry, not from anger this time, but from a sense of concordance. The way his eyes moved behind the lenses of his glasses aroused a sentiment in her that was so precise and, at the same time, so pure that, like him, she stood there entranced, like a thread that pauses as it sews the fabric that clothes and ennobles the human body. 

He held out his hand to her, and they proceeded to stroll through the mall arm in arm, without the slightest concern about being seen together. They stopped in front of a bookstore window, where piles of books were on display. Poem, afraid that she would get all confused and alienate him, wanted to leave the window.

Fernando whispered a secret to her, saying that he would like to create a drama of people or a drama of souls. She laughed, not because she understood exactly what he meant, but because she believed in what he said. She dropped the idea of leaving; indeed, she was becoming so enamored of this mysterious man that she did not want to let go of him.

“Now tell me a secret,” he said. Reveling in all that was happening, she could not describe what was swirling through her mind, but she managed to detect a yearning for love. Although she had never known love, she tried to decipher her emotions to understand what she was going through. 

The two stood there in front of the display window, their eyes wandering from the books to their reflection in the window, filled with awe at the wonder of the endless moment.

Thoughts suddenly began invading Poem’s mind; she felt overwhelmed by them, as if they were bombarding her. “Did I have a past? No doubt... Do I have a present? No doubt... Will I have a future? No doubt... Even if my life ends in a little while, I, I... I am me, I’m still me, me...”

Love was tracing its sweet and bitter path inside her, leading to a sense of despair that took her by surprise. She only knew that she was experiencing something new; she could never go back to not knowing what it felt like, just as a page of writing could never become blank again.
Fernando went into the store, picked out a book, and brought it back to Poem, who looked as pale as could be. “Poem, Poem,” he repeated, holding the book in his hands, looking intently at her as if he were trying to read what she was unable to say.

Their bond of communication was striking; although they had been together only a short time, they could already decipher each other with splendid clarity, as if consummating their happiness in sudden death.

Both of them were pale and both had fallen in love. They stood there in silence a long time. All of a sudden, Fernando opened the book and began to read:

“In the house across from me and my dreams,
So much happiness resides!

People live there whom I do not know, whom I have seen without seeing.
They are happy, since I am not.

The children, who play on the balconies above,
Live surrounded by potted flowers,
Forever, no doubt.

Voices that emerge from within their home
Are always singing, no doubt.
Yes, they must be singing.

When they hold a party outside, they hold a party inside. 
That’s how it must be where everything matches -- 
Human beings are part of nature, because the city is nature.

What great happiness to not be me!

Don’t others feel the same?
What others? There are no others.
What others feel is a house with closed windows,
Or, when they are opened,
It is only so the children can play on the grated porch,
Among the potted flowers, the kinds of flowers I never saw.

Others never feel anything.
We are the ones who feel,
Yes, all of us,
Even me, though I’m feeling nothing at the moment. 

Nothing? I don’t know...
A nothing that hurts...”

Fernando tried to murmur a name, Álva... Álvaro de Campos… but she interrupted him, desperately kissing his trembling mouth. A gentle kiss, a strange kiss, between life and death, and meant to be forever. She believed she had found love at last. 

The girl who was so ugly and thin, without a smile on her lips, who was called Poem and who seemed to be a blank page but who was actually filled with verses, who was slow to string together letters, form words, and create sentences, this girl found love at last, the same love as in the ridiculous letters and in the billboard pictures of kissing tongues. Here she was, strangely enough, being ridiculous and being kissed. Love suited her just fine.

Suddenly, the two of them tumbled to the floor, right on top of the book lying open on a page with some poetry that read, 

“Never, ever, in anything, 
Whether in dawn’s early rays, 
Or in splendid daylight, or in a golden sunset, 
Did I ever 
Take pleasure that lasted 
Longer than nothingness, lost before I could even begin 
To enjoy it.”

She was not surprised when she felt his hand resting between her breasts. 

They covered her body with a sheet. Although she was filled with love, her face looked sad but calm. The woman who cleaned the shopping mall told the other employees that she found the body collapsed between the toilet and the stall divider in the ladies’ room, describing her face as having no smile.

Fernando led her away with the same tenderness as always; he held out his hand to her and the two strolled off, arm in arm, in a gesture of love. Poem’s voice could be heard whispering tender words to him, almost like a prayer:

“When I die, my dear,
Since I am but a child, the smallest one, 
Take me in your arms
And carry me into your house.
Strip away my human, tired being,
And lay me in your bed.
Tell me stories if I awake,
So I will fall asleep again.
And give me your dreams to play with
Until a day comes,
You know which day I mean.”

* * *

Fernando Antônio Nogueira Pessoa (1888-1935), better known as Fernando Pessoa, was a poet, philosopher, and writer in Portugal. He is considered one of the greatest poets of the Portuguese language and of world literature. Throughout his life, he worked for various companies in Lisbon as an English and French correspondent. He was also a businessman, editor, literary critic, journalist, political commentator, translator, inventor, astrologist, and publicist, all the while writing his literary works in prose and poetry. As a poet, he developed several personas, which he called “heteronyms,” the subject of most studies of his life and works. As a nucleus spawning heteronyms, he called himself a “drama of people.”

Poems cited in this story: “Todas as cartas de amor são”, “Eu, eu mesmo”, “Na casa defronte de mim e dos meus sonhos” by Álvaro de Campos; “Leve, breve, suave” by Fernando Pessoa, and “O guardador de rebanhos”, Alberto Caeiro.

ALEX ANDRADE is a writer and art educator. He was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1971 and began to write stories as a child. 

Alex has published two children’s books, A galinha malcriada [The Naughty Chicken] and O pequeno Hamlet [Little Hamlet], both inspired by the works of the English bard William Shakespeare.

In 2001, he published his first book of short stories, A suspeita da imperfeição [The Suspicion of Imperfection], to great acclaim. He is also the author of the novel Longe dos olhos [Out of Sight]; another book of short stories, Poema [Poem]―one of its stories was translated to English and featured here―, and the forthcoming book Amores, truques e outras versões [Love Affairs, Ruses, and Other Versions]. 

Alex works with a reading incentive program, supported by the Rio de Janeiro City Hall, in which authors and storytellers bring literature to life for children and families in impoverished neighborhoods and communities.

In his blog, readers can follow Alex’s literary whereabouts.

Translated by