A Short Story By Mia Couto Translated By Rita Ray

বাংলা English
MIA COUTO
Mia Couto  or António Emílio Leite Couto is a Mozambican writer. He was born in the coastal town of Beira in 1955. In 1971, he moved to the capital Lourenço Marques (renamed Maputo after the independence) and began to study medicine at the University of Lourenço Marques. During this time, the anti-colonial guerrilla and political movement FRELIMO was struggling to overthrow the Portuguese colonial rule in Mozambique. In 1974, FRELIMO asked Mia Couto to suspend his studies for a year to work as a journalist for Tribuna until September 1975 and then as the director of the newly created Mozambique Information Agency (AIM). Later, he ran the magazine Tempo until 1981. His first book of poems, Raiz de Orvalho, was published in 1983; it included texts aimed against the dominance of Marxist militant propaganda. He continued to work for the newspaper Notícias until 1985 when he left to finish his course of study in biology. He is considered to be one of the most important writers in Mozambique and translations of his works have been published in more than 20 countries and in various languages, including Bengali, English, French, German, Czech, Italian, Serbian, Catalan, Estonian and Chinese. In many of his texts, he undertakes to recreate the Portuguese language by infusing it with regional vocabulary and structures from Mozambique, thus producing a new model for the African narrative. Stylistically, his writing is influenced by magical realism. He has been noted for creating proverbs, sometimes known as "improverbs", in his fiction, as well as riddles, legends, metaphors, giving his work a poetic dimension. He won the Camões Prize in 2013, the most important literary award in the Portuguese language, and the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 2014. An international jury at the Zimbabwe International Book Fair named his first novel, Terra Sonâmbula, one of the best 12 African books of the 20th century. In 1998, Couto was elected into the Brazilian Academy of Letters, the first African writer to receive such an honour. By profession he is a biologist. 
The story translated here, “O ultimo aviso do corvo falador” is from his first collection  of short stories called Vozes Anoitecidas published in 1986. 

The last warning of the speaking crow

Mia Couto
Translated by Rita Ray

It was there in the middle of the marketplace full of people talking softly at the food shop. Zuzé Paraza, retired trickster, spat out bits of the “kill-rats” cigarette. After that he coughed, shaking the thinness of his entire body. It was then, that’s what those who saw narrate, that he vomited a live crow. The bird came out whole from of his guts. It had been inside him for such a long time that it could talk. Covered in spittle, at first it didn’t seem to. People gathered around Zuzé, peeping at the bird that fell out with his cough. The beast shook of the mucus, lifted up its beak and, to the general astonishment, said the words. With bad pronunciation, but with conviction. Those present asked:

– That geezer is speaking?                                          

Some laughed. But the women’s voice interrupted them:

– Don’t laugh.

Zuzé Paraza gave an advice:

– This is not an ordinary bird. It will be good to show it some respect.

– Eh, Zuzé. Translate its discourse for us. You must be knowing the crow’s dialect.

– Most certainly I know. But not now, now I don’t want to translate. – Already the

centre of attraction, he added: – This crow knows a lot of secrets.  

         And putting the bird on his left shoulder, he went away. The comments stayed behind him. Now they could understand the coughing attacks of the trickster. It was a piece of sky that was lodged inside him. Or perhaps the feathers were causing itches in his throat. The doubts amounted to more than the replies.

         – A man can give birth in his lungs?

         – Giving birth to a bird? Only if the old man had been dating the female crows up there in the trees.

         – You’ll see that it’s the soul of the dead woman that got transferred to the inside of the widower.

         The next day, Zuzé confirmed this last version. The crow came from life’s border, made a nest in his entrails and chose the public moment for its appearance.

         Others could take this opportunity to get news of the dead, the state and the whereabouts of their ancestors. The crow, through his translation, will reply to the questions. The requests were soon made, in huge numbers. Zuzé didn’t have a room anymore, it was an office. He didn’t make conversations, he gave consultations. He rendered favours, postponed the dates, delayed the appointments. There was a chart for the payments: for those who have died in the current year, fifty escudos; communication with those who have died in previous years, hundred and fifty; for those who have died after the deadline, two hundred and fifty.

         And here Dona Candida enters the story, a mulatto woman with voluminous goodness, a woman without any enemy. Recently widowed, but already an ex-widow. She married for a second time very fast, compensating for the excesses of absence. When she remarried, she chose Sulemane Amade, an Indian tradesman of the settlement. Much time hasn’t passed since her first husband, Evaristo Muchanga, had died.

          But Candida couldn’t put her life on hold. Her body still craved to be touched, she could even become a mother. The truth is that, in the intervening time, she hasn’t been much of a widow. She was single by accident, not by belief. She never slowed down in being a woman.

         – I married. So what? Do I need to give explanations?

         And with theses words, Dona Candida began her complaint to Zuzé Paraza. When the request was known, the fortune-teller even brought the date of the consultation forward. Never ever had a mulatto woman come. The services of Zuzé had never been requested for from such high up.     

         – I’m not just anyone, Mr. Paraza. How can something like this happen to me?

         The fat lady explained her afflictions: the second marriage was running without any incident. Till the new husband, Sulemane, started suffering from strange attacks. They used to happen at night, at the time when they were about to make love. She took off her brassiere, Sulemane, heavy, approached her. It was then that the spell appeared: groans in place of speech, drooling lips, crossed eyes. Sulemane, she confessed, my Sulemane jumps off the bed and like that, completely naked, he crawls, sniffs, rolls on the floor, and finally, falls face down on the floor. After that, covered in sweat, the poor thing asks for water and finishes a big bottle. He doesn’t become normal immediately: he takes some time to recover. He stutters, can only hear from the right and sleeps with his eyes open. The whole night, those eyes lying that they can see, it’s a horror.  Oh, Mr. Zuzé, save me. I suffer too much, I even doubt the God. This is Evaristo’s work, his curse. We were happy, me and Sulemane. Now two of us are already three. My God, why didn’t I wait? Why doesn’t he leave me?

         Zuzé Paraza crossed his hands, stroked the crow. He had his suspicions: Evaristo was black, he was born in this region. Dona Candida had definitely not performed the traditional ceremonies to keep away the first husband’s death. He was mistaken, she had performed them.

         – All the ceremonies?

         – Of course, Mr. Paraza.

         – But how? Madam, with your complexion like this you are a mulatto, but almost white in your soul?

         – He was black, you know, sir. The request was from his family and I followed it.

         Paraza, intrigued, seemed even more to doubt.

         – Did you kill the goat?

         – I did.

         – The beast cried while you sang?

         – It cried, yes.

         – And what else, Dona Candida?

         – I went to the river to wash myself off his death. The widows took me along, they took bath with me. They took out a piece of glass and slashed me here, in the groin. They said that it was there that my husband used to sleep. Poor things, if they knew where Evaristo used to sleep…   

         – And the blood flowed out well?

         – Complete haemorrhage. The widows saw it. By the look of the blood they said that I had a good understanding with him. I didn’t correct them, I preferred it that way

         Zuzé Paraza medidated, dramatically. After that, he let the crow loose. The beast flew around and came to rest on Candida’s ample shoulder. She shrank her flesh, shuddering from the tickling. She looked at the animal, with distrust. Seen like that, the crow was too ugly. Whoever wants to appreciate the beauty of a bird should not look at its claws. Birds’ feet preserve their scaly past, a legacy of the slithering lizards.

          The crow turned round and round on the plump perch of the mulatto woman.

         – Excuse me, Mr. Zuzé: it’s not going to shit on me?

         – Don’t talk, Dona Candida. The beast needs to concentrate.

         Finally, the bird spoke. Zuzé listened with his eyes closed, busy with his translating efforts.  

         – What did it say?

         – It wasn’t the bird that spoke. It was Varisto.

         – Evaristo? – she was mistrustful. – With that voice?

         – He spoke through the beast, don’t forget that.

         The fat woman became serious, beginning to believe.

         – Mr. Zuzé, take this opportunity of connecting with him to ask… ask him…

         Repenting, Dona Candida lets go off the intermediary and it’s she who starts shouting at the crow perched on her shoulder:

         – Evaristo, leave me in peace. Do me this favour, leave me alone, peaceful in my life.

         The bird, hassled with all this shouting, jumped down from the perch. Paraza imposed order:

         – Dona Candida, it’s no use agitating. Did you see? The bird was startled.

         The client, exhausted, wept.

         – Madam, did you hear the request of the deceased?

         With her head, she said no. She had only heard the crow, same as the others, those that hopped around on the coconut trees.

         – The deceased, Dona Candida, is asking for a bag full with his clothes, those that he used to wear.

         – His clothes? I don’t have them anymore. Didn’t I tell you that I performed these ceremonies of yours? I tore, made holes in the clothes, when he died. That’s what they asked me to do. They said that I should make holes for the clothes to let out the last breath. Yes, I know: had it been now, I wouldn’t have cut anything. I would have used everything. But at that time, Mr. Paraza…  

         – That’s annoying, Dona Candida. The deceased is really in need. You can’t even imagine the cold that the dead feel.

         The mulatto woman sat still, imagining Evaristo trembling, without the support of cloth. In spite of the wrongs he had done to her, he didn’t deserve such vengeance. She corrected what she had said: she would have to steal Sulemane’s clothes and bring them all in a hidden bundle.

         – Sulemane shouldn’t know of this. My God, if he suspects!

         – Don’t worry, Dona Candida. Nobody will know. Only me and the crow.

         And, at the very last moment, before leaving, the fat woman said:

         – How is it that Evaristo will accept, with that jealousy that he took along with him to the other world, how can he accept the clothes of my new husband?  

         – He will accept. Clothes are clothes. The cold is stronger than jealousy.

         – Are you sure, Mr. Paraza?

         – The experience that I have is this. The dead feel the cold because they have winds and drizzles. That’s why they become jealous of the warmth that the living have. You’ll see, Dona Candida, that those clothes will calm down Evaristo’s vengefulness.

         And the fat mulatto woman confessed her fear, not really of the dead nor of the living:

         – I’m scared, now, of Sulemane. He’ll kill me, both you and me.

         Zuzé Paraza got up, confident. He placed his hand on his client’s arm and calmed her down:

         – I was also thinking the same, Dona Candida. And found the solution. You will discover the stealing and inform your husband. So, it was some thief, there are so many of them around here.

         One week later, a bag arrived, very much full. Trousers, shirts, underpants, ties, everything. A fortune. Zuzé began to try on the brown suit. It was large, the size was that of a tradesman, a man who waits sitting, eats well. While he, a trickster, wore a smaller size. He was so thin that not even bugs or ticks would choose him.  

         He looked for a matching tie in the bag. There were more than ten. Along with long-legged underpants, socks without mending. Sulemane must now be without underpants. His wardrobe was now a ward-nothing. 

         Dressed by the antics invented by himself, Zuzé Paraza brought out the bottle of xicadjú. To celebrate, he swallowed more than ten glasses. It was then that the alcohol began conning his cleverness too. There was a voice that harped on from within:

         – These clothes are mine, nobody gave them, they didn’t come from anywhere. They are mine!

And, thus, convinced that he was the owner of the finery, he decided to go out, waddling. He stopped by at the food shop, showed his vanity, dressed up in coat and tie:

         – Those clothes are not his. It seems I’ve already seen someone with them.

         And those present, recollecting, arrived at who the owner was: they belonged to Sulemane Amade. Precisely, they were his. How did the clothes end up on Zuzé, the rascal, phone operator for souls? He stole them, the motherfucker. This crowman entered Sulemane’s house. And they went to warn the Indian.   

         Unaware of the manoeuvres, Zuzé went on showing off the belongings that were not his. The crow went with him, sitting on him and cawing. He, not straightening up, joined in the chorus.

         It was then, at the crossing of the food shop, Sulemane emerged, fuming in fury. He advanced towards the trickster and squeezed his neck. Zuzé dangled inside the large suit.   

         – From where did you bring out this suit, you thief?

         The trickster wanted to explain but couldn’t. Around him, the crow hopped about, trying to sit on his unstable head. When the Indian eased his hold, Zuzé murmured:

         – Sulemane, don’t kill me. I didn’t steal. These clothes were given to me.

         The Indian didn’t let go his violence. He changed his tactics: from the neck to kicks.  Zuzé jumped  about, competing with his crow.

         – Who gave you my clothes, you crook?

         – Stop kicking! I’ll explain.

         Zuzé Paraza took advantage of a respite and shot at, accurately:

         – It was your wife, Sulemane. It was Dona Candida who gave me these clothes.

         – Candida gave you? It’s a lie, you rascal.

         Punches, kicks, blows rained down. The onlookers applauded.  

         – Speak out the truth, Paraza. Don’t make me ashamed with this story about my wife.

         But the old trickster didn’t speak, too much taken up by the effort of avoiding the blows. One of those blows that flew in the direction of Paraza’s nose hit the bird. Flung off, the crow fluttered to the ground, wings broken, kicking its end. Everyone stood around the bird’s agony. The distressed voices:

         – Sulemane, if you have killed the crow, then your life will be hell.

         – I feel bad, goddamn it! Who believes in a crow speaking to spirits?     

         Zuzé, bleeding from his nose, replied, gravely:

         – If you don’t believe, leave it. This crow whom you dealt that blow is going to bring you misfortune.     

           Bad memory of Zuzé Paraza. The Indian started the beating again. Two blows were given, three missed the mark. The trickster decreased his resistance. The alcohol in his blood hampered his efforts to avoid the blows. Till a punch knocked Zuzé down. Supportless, he fell down on top of the crow. In the middle of the dust Zuzé Paraza removes the dead bird from under himself. He holds the magical crow up and points it to the Indian.

         – You killed the bird, Sulemane! You’re damned. You’ll see what’s going to happen to you! You’ll crawl like a pig!

         Then the incredible happened. Sulemane began to tremble, groan, grunt, drool and froth. He falls down on his knees, crouches, rolls in the sand. The terrified people flee: Zuzé’s curse has turned true. Sulemane, having seizures, looks like a hen whose head has been cut. Finally, he stops, tired of the demons that shook him. Zuzé knows that next he’ll feel thirsty. He grabs this opportunity and orders:  

         – You’ll remain thirsty, you porcupine! You’ll cry for water!

         The proofs of Zuzé’s power were there: knelt down Sulemane praying for water, weeping so that his thirst, that’s killing him, be quenched.

         The news spread like a lightning around the settlement. After all, that Zuzé! It was really him, that guy. A master of wizardry, really. The next day, everyone got up early. They ran to Zuzé Paraza’s house. Everyone wanted to see the trickster, everyone wanted to ask him a favour, place an order for happiness.

         When they reached there, they found the house empty. Zuzé Paraza had left. They searched the horizon for traces of the fortune-teller. But their gazes died in the faraway fields where the crickets fall silent. They minutely searched the deserted house. The old man had taken everything with him. A bird-cage remained hanging from the ceiling. It swung back and forth, solitarily, guest of the silence. With fear growing inside, the visitors went out from the back. It was then that, in the courtyard, they came across the signs of the curse: a dead bird, dug up. On the quiet life a breeze was blowing that, slowly, pulled out and threw in the air the thin feathers of the speaking crow.

         Accepting the warning, the residents began to leave the settlement. Some left in groups, others by themselves, and for many days wanderers roamed around like the feathers that the wind dissolved in the distance.     

RITA RAY
ঋতা রায় (১৯৬৫) ইংরেজিতে স্নাতকত্তোর করার পর পর্তুগিজ কবি ফির্ণান্দু পেসোয়ার ওপর গবেষণা করেন। পঁচিশ বছর দিল্লি আর কলকাতার বিভিন্ন বিশ্ববিদ্যালয়ে পর্তুগিজ ভাষা ও সংক্স্কৃতি পড়ানোর পর গত পাঁচ বছর ধরে বিভিন্ন ভাষার সাহিত্য বাংলা, ইংরেজি ও পর্তুগিজে অনুবাদ করে চলেছেন।

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