The house, simple but rather big, felt even bigger without children living in it. The oldest would marry soon enough, the twins were living in the neighboring city, where the public university had just opened its doors, and they only came home on Saturdays.
As ever, her husband passed every cachaça-and-domino night at the bar. But there were two developments: for one thing, he now showered before heading off to his watering hole; for another, he no longer sought out her body for their little weekly bout of lovemaking.
So, she wore perfume, she wore the black nightgown, she gave every indication that she wanted her man. But he only came home, greeting her coldly, asking if she’d had any word from their children. Then he turned on the TV, ate his supper, and slept. Right there on the couch, sometimes.
On Saturdays, they sold their vegetables at the market. On one particular Saturday, however, her husband never came home. Not once had this happened, not once in twenty-four years of marriage. Even if he’d stumbled in at the break of day, still he’d come to work at the market.
He couldn’t have died, she thought to herself: news that bad would’ve reached me by now. She asked a neighbor lady to drive the truck, and together they went to sell the family wares. She worked in silence, selling everything she had, wondering all the while where her husband could possibly be. Up until then, he’d been a good man, he loved his kids, he was a hard worker, he never beat her, never yelled. He was far from affectionate, of course, but he fulfilled his duty well enough. Now that he didn’t want to have sex, though, she couldn’t help missing it a bit—at least, sometimes.
On the way home, she told the neighbor lady that she’d been puzzled by the way some people had been looking at her lately—a couple friends of her husband, in particular. What do they know that I don’t? she asked.
After a pause, the woman spoke of a house she’d heard about, out on the outskirts of town, maybe half a league from the headwaters of the river, deep in the jungle. Lately, she said, her husband had frequently been seen there. Maybe, said the neighbor lady, he’d thought it unwise to leave such a place in the early hours of the morning, maybe he’d spent the night. Recently, a few calves had been found, flies buzzing about their corpses.
Are you going to look for him there, wondered the neighbor?
No, she answered. I don’t believe I will.
At home, her mind churned with hatred and doubt. In spite of what she now knew, she was resolved to go find the father of her children. Maybe, she would later wonder, she’d known all along what she planned to do. She wasn’t the sort to wait around for a man to turn up so she could give him a kick in the ass, not after so many years. She closed the front door of the house but left the window half open, as people do when they’re at home but don’t want to be disturbed. She took up the machete, and went out the backdoor.
She took the most discrete route possible, not wishing to meet with anybody she knew on the way. As her insides turned with rage, only the moon bore witness. She came at last to the house her neighbor had described. It was shuttered, her husband’s boots discarded just outside the front door.
She circled the house until she came to a crack that would let her peer inside, and what she saw there was shocking, indeed: a woman lay on the bed and a man, her husband, stood at the stove. He’d made coffee and a little something for her to eat. Couscous, banana, yams. Only once in twenty-four years of marriage had he made couscous for their children—and only then because her sister had happened to be running late. As for her, he’d never brought her so much as a glass of sugarcane juice. And here he was, in another woman’s house, fixing coffee to bring to her in bed! The man’s wife didn’t react to this, she just let it all sink in: the emotional abandonment after so many years.
When her husband had brought the coffee to his beloved, he began to whisper in her ear. Dirty talk, it must’ve been, because the little strumpet laughed for as long as it took him to walk to the stove and fetch her breakfast. When the wife saw her husband feeding this woman, she could hardly believe her eyes. She thought of all the times she’d had other things to do, how she’d had to fight with him just to feed the children.
It seemed that he’d asked the young lady for something, and that she’d answered, no, she wouldn’t give it to him. First, she said, my bath. No, he answered, you’re not getting out of this bed. You’ll get your bath right there. From a pot on the stove, he poured warm water into a basin. He dipped a rag into the water and moved it over her body, whispering something. He’d begun at the very roots of her hair and moved down, past her ears, over her face, her neck, her arms, her fingers. There he lingered, kissing them one by one, so that she laughed.
He wet the towel again, drawing it over her belly, over her thighs, her calves, her feet. He paused, whispering into her ear as she laughed and laughed. He dipped the towel once more into the water, brought it to her body.
Who was he, this stranger? And now, the older woman shut her eyes fast over the tears, even as they began to fall. But it wasn’t over yet: when she opened her eyes once more, her husband was lying down, the woman sitting on his face.
His wife, she could’ve died. She’d often asked him to satisfy her in this way, but he said such things were for whores—wasn’t she a mother, with a family? This was back when she was young, back when they made love often. And as time had passed and her desire dried up, the memory of that desire remained—and here was her husband, living out some old fantasy of her own making.
It would’ve been the perfect time to do away with the both of them—to strike him unawares, prostrate, wet with his lover’s juices—while the woman’s back was turned. She’d start by burying the machete just under his beltline, and then she’d cut off the girl’s head before moving back to her husband (who, by now, would be writhing in agony) and, coolly and calmly, she’d finish the job.
She thought of doing this, but she didn’t have the strength to pull it off. Just the hate. She made up her mind to slip once again through the banana trees, find the main road and, once there, make up her mind about the whole thing. Before long she heard her husband slipping on his boots, giving the woman a little farewell kiss: when he got home, he said, he was going to tell his wife that he was leaving her.
I’ll go pack my stuff, my love, he told that other woman, and come live by your side always and forever.
But his wife made it back to the house well before him. She entered by the backdoor, cleaned the machete and set it on the wall, next to his axe and other tools. She bathed, opened the window and stood staring up at the moon, as though in waiting for him. She slept well that night, even if she knew better than to think he would ever return.
Some people she knew came to the house the next morning, carrying with them her husband’s body. She received the body without surprise, without tears. Nevertheless, she fulfilled her wifely duties and called her son. She sent her boy to the city, to fetch his sisters, to bring them home for the funeral.
The two friends who prepared the body pointed at the deep claw marks across the husband’s back and chest, at the bite on his neck that had severed his jugular. The man was withered, the blood all but drained from his veins.
Must’ve been attacked by the jaguar, said one man to the other, the one who’s been killing all that livestock.
At least he died happy, his companion answered. The two cackled.
Without relish, the widow executed the task of receiving condolences for a man who had long since stopped meaning anything much to her. She hugged her sobbing daughters, consoled them. When her four-year-old grandson arrived with her daughter-in-law, she rejoiced, holding the boy in her lap as she fed him cookies from the jar in her kitchen. And it was he who first recognized the threads of his grandfather’s clothes in the widow’s teeth.
(translated from the Portuguese by J.P. Gritton with Courtney Crumpler)