Poor Mother. She had to deal with me all alone. I had never known my father. People whispered that he had disappeared into the forest.
In the end, João, I let them lower your body into the grave: a hole like a gaping mouth, which they had dug hastily, as if reluctant to part with this beautiful offering. Yes. Your body was still beautiful until the end. It was as people say: the dead beloved often look like they are merely asleep. You were like that too, João. Isabella once said to me that no matter how cruel a man might be in his waking moments, no matter how severe his spirit, when sleeping they all look like heavenly boys. And, said Isabella, the moment you see the sleeping face of a man for whom you might have the tiniest hint of liking, you shall be doomed to love him.
I do not know if this would be true for every waking woman and every sleeping man. What I know is that it was true for me, with you.
I was 13 years old and you, João, were 16. Thirteen was my age of rebellion. Looking back, I feel sorry for my mother. I was a difficult girl. All those sensations were churning in my body as if trying to shout out something important. But I did not understand what it was. All I wanted to do was to disobey my mother. I couldn’t be told anything.
Poor Mother. She had to deal with me all alone. I had never known my father. People whispered that he had disappeared into the forest. When Mother asked me to go fetch a bucketful of water from the spring half an hour away, I’d return two, three hours later with a bucket two-thirds full. I drove my mother crazy, but I didn’t care. My mother had told me to come back home immediately but instead I’d walk slowly around the hilly savannah between the spring and my house. Chunks of limestone were scattered all over the place among grasses and occasional trees.
You were sleeping under one of those trees one such disobedient day. At first I only saw the goats owned by your parents. You were told to look after the herd. They were grazing lazily while the wind gently blew. No wonder you dozed off. The moment I saw your sleeping face, something inside my heart melted into warm liquid amber in which I saw a vision of me having your children and growing old with you. Imagine how overwhelming it was for a 13-year-old girl to experience such a stir. It was a very innocent notion, João, I know. But that was what started all these whirlwinds. That’s why I stood there while they covered your grave with charred soil while we could still hear gunshots outside. To me, you have been beautiful since that day long ago, when you were a boy sleeping in the savannah. You were, are, still beautiful. In death, even. Your face was fixed in serenity. The back of your head was missing, but you looked like you were merely asleep. And so I fell in love with you all over again.
Oh, João. How did we come to this?
Several years after I saw you sleeping in the savannah, we had inevitably grown up. You finally noticed me, the girl with thick pigtails walking awkwardly in front of your parents’ house every day on her way to morning Mass. You eventually fell in love with me as well. So we got married. One month after that, we moved down to the city because you got a job at the central post office. We were happy: so happy experiencing every aspect of each other’s being, in a new place, one moment a time. The city was a world in itself and I was with the man I loved. People say that fascination and infatuation would gradually, irrevocably, recede as the honeymoon phase ended. It has never ended for me, João.
It was just your breath that stopped. We were blissfully unaware of the unrest slithering under the surface of this land, waiting to show its dreadful face at any time. It was grotesque. You were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. By the Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili that day,[Insert note: *) This refers to the shooting of protestors by the Indonesian military in Dili, East Timor, on November 12, 1991.] they were protesting over those mysterious deaths when the men in uniforms opened fire. You were crossing the street on your way home for lunch, to my cooking, when you heard the gunshots from the cemetery about two blocks away. You ducked, you ran, you did not want to be caught in the midst of this insanity. But a stray bullet exploded in the back of your head, taking the life from your body even before it hit the ground.
We were considered lucky, João, because by coincidence you were killed right in front of Roberto’s and Maria’s house. They saw everything. The moment you fell Roberto ran to you—braving the flying bullets, the chaotic crying and yelling, the running, the killing—to drag your body into his house. Maria slipped through the back streets filled with people running with frightened faces and wild eyes and rushed to find me. I was waiting for you at home, but it was Maria who appeared. Without so many words, she told me to come with her, said something bad had happened. It was only at her house that I fully understood what had happened. As I saw you lying there in the middle of the living room, the warm liquid amber children in my heart—the ones we were supposed to have—froze and faded, one by one.
Roberto tried to convince me that we had to bury you fast, immediately, before your body could be found by those who had killed you so recklessly. Roberto said they’d surely take your body by force and bury you with the others in a big hole somewhere. It was not supposed to happen, the massacre. No proof should be left behind. They would try to erase all traces of the incident.
Maria added that it would be best to bury you as soon as possible in their small backyard, which was protected by high walls on all sides, with no tombstones or any other recognizable marker. Yes, she said, this would be difficult for me, but it would still be better than to lose your remains forever.
“You can always be certain he’s here, Elisabet,” Maria said gently. I could not respond immediately. People were still yelling in the streets. Other sounds could be heard: occasional gunshots, running footsteps, the stomp of boots, heavy vehicles roaring by. Perhaps they’d soon start searching from house to house.
I gazed down at your face, João. I was still trying to come to terms with the fact that I had lost you and that I had to bury you without a coffin, without a funeral. Eventually, inevitably, I acquiesced. I was still too much in shock for tears. My hands trembled uncontrollably. I was drenched in cold sweat. I felt weak.
Helplessly I watched as Roberto and Maria furiously dug into the soil under the big old tamarind tree in the backyard. Driven by desperation, the strength and speed of their work was amazing. I could do nothing to help them.
Finally, João, after wrapping your body with two pieces of woven cloth, they lowered you into the hole. We mustered up a hurried version of the final prayers, and they filled the hole.
Maria and Roberto leveled the soil evenly so that it would not be a tell-tale mound and then quickly spread gravel on top of your grave. They had been planning to use the gravel to build a small fish pond. Instead they hung a used tire from a strong branch of the ancient tamarind tree so that it dangled exactly over you, João. The gravel was now a landing pad for the swing.
Our children could have played there. Maria’s and Roberto’s future children could have taken turns swinging and pushing. Yes, we all wanted our children to carry on our ancestral names, as well as the Portuguese names we would have given them after baptism. But these were dangerous times, too dangerous even to let our bodies dream of becoming pregnant. Without exchanging a word, I saw this in Maria’s and Roberto’s eyes.
The three of us stared in silence at the tire swing hung over the gravel. None of us could bring children into this turbulent world. We simply couldn’t. But for Maria and Roberto, it was not yet time. For you and I, João, it would never be. Ah, João. We were only trying to be happy. Now I am back at mother’s. That very night, I had to flee to our village for fear they might come after me. For now it is safer at my mother’s than in the city where they killed you. Maybe. In the mornings, I gaze at the savannah hills where I first saw you sleeping years ago. And I take a deep breath, inhaling the smell of dry grass. My aged mother has been very worried because four days later I still haven’t been able to cry. Maybe tomorrow I’ll finally cry for you, João. Maybe.
Written in English by the Author