I was eleven years old when I saw a woman for the first time, and I was seized by such sudden surprise that I burst into tears. I lived in a wasteland inhabited only by five men. My father had given the place a name. It was called quite simply Jezoosalem. It was the land where Jesus would uncrucify himself. And that was the end of the matter, full stop.

My old man, Silvestre Vitalício, explained to us that the world had come to an end and we were the only survivors. Beyond the horizon lay territory devoid of any life, that he referred to vaguely as “Over There”. The entire planet could be summed up in a nutshell like this: stripped of people, with neither roads nor trace of any living creature. In those faraway places, even tormented souls had become extinct.

In Jezoosalem, on the other hand, there were only the living. Folk knew nothing of what it was like to yearn for the past or hope for the future, but they were alive. There we were, so alone that we didn’t even suffer from any illnesses, and I believed we were immortal. Round about us, only animals and plants died. And when there was a drought, our nameless river faded into untruth, becoming a little stream that flowed round the back of our camp.

Mankind consisted of me, my father, my brother Ntunzi and Zachary Kalash, our servant who, as you will see, was not a man of any presence at all. And there was no one else. Or almost no one. To tell you the truth, I forgot two semi-inhabitants: the jenny, Jezebel, who was so human that she satisfied the sexual needs of my old father. And I also forgot my Uncle Aproximado. This member of the family needs special mention, for he didn’t live with us in the camp. He lived next to the entrance gate to the game reserve, well beyond the permitted distance, and he only visited us from time to time. From where we lived to his hut was a farness full of hours and wild animals.

For us children, Aproximado’s arrival was an excuse for great rejoicing, a jolt to our tedious routine. Uncle would bring us provisions, clothes, the basic necessities of life. My father would step out nervously to meet the truck piled high with our goods. He would intercept the visitor before he passed the fence that surrounded our dwellings. At this point, Aproximado was obliged to wash himself, so as not to bring in any contamination from the city. He would wash himself with earth and with water, no matter whether it was cold or whether night had fallen. After his bath, Silvestre would unload the truck, hurrying his delivery and hastening his departure. In a flash, quicker than a wing beat, Aproximado would once again disappear beyond the horizon before our anguished gaze.

- He’s not a real brother – Silvestre would justify himself. – I don’t want too much talk, the man doesn’t know our customs.

This little cluster of humanity, joined like the five fingers on a hand, was, however, divided: my father, Uncle and Zachary were dark skinned; Ntunzi and I were black as well, but had lighter skin.

- Are we of different race? – I asked one day. My father replied:

- No one is from one race alone. Races – he said – are uniforms we put on.

Maybe Silvestre was right. But I learnt too late that the uniform sometimes sticks to the soul of men.

- You get that light skin from your mother, Dordalma. Little Alma had a touch of mulatto in her – Uncle explained.


* * *

Family, school, other people, they all elect some spark of promise in us, some domain in which we may shine. Some are born to sing, others to dance, others are born merely to be someone else. I was born to keep quiet. My only vocation is silence. It was my father who explained this to me: I have an inclination to remain speechless, a talent for perfecting silences. I’ve written that deliberately, silences in the plural. Yes, because there isn’t one sole silence. Every silence contains music in a state of gestation.

When people saw me, quiet and withdrawn in my invisible sanctum, I wasn’t being dumb. I was hard at it, busy in body and soul: I was weaving together the delicate threads out of which quiescence is made. I was a tuner of silences.

- Come here, son, come and help me be quiet.

At the end of the day, the old man would sit back in his chair on the veranda. It was like that every night: I would sit at his feet, gazing at the stars high up in the darkness. My father would close his eyes, his head swaying this way and that, as if his tranquillity were driven by some inner rhythm. Then, he would take a deep breath and say:

- That was the prettiest silence I’ve ever heard. Thank you, Mwanito.

It takes years of practice to remain duly silent. I had a natural gift for it, some ancestral legacy. Maybe I inherited it from my mother, Dona Dordalma, who could be sure? She was so silent, she had ceased to exist and no one even noticed that she no longer dwelt among us, the livelong living.

- You know son: there’s the stillness of cemeteries. But the quiet of this veranda is different.

My father. His voice was so discreet that it seemed just another type of silence. He coughed a bit and that hoarse cough of his was a hidden speech, without words or grammar.

In the window of the next house, the flickering light of an oil lamp could be seen. My brother was keeping an eye on us for sure. My heart was scuffed with guilt: I was the chosen one, the only one to share intimacies with our eternal progenitor.

- Aren’t we going to call Ntunzi?

- Leave your brother to himself. You’re the one I like to be alone with.

- But I’m almost falling asleep, father.

- Just stay a bit longer. I’ve got so much rage inside me, so much pent up rage. I need to drown this rage, and I haven’t got the strength.

- What rage is this, father?

- For many years, I gave sustenance to wild beasts thinking they were household pets.

I was the one who complained of feeling sleepy, but he was the one who was falling asleep. I left him nodding off in his chair and went back to the room where Ntunzi was waiting for me, wide awake. My brother looked at me with a mixture of envy and commiseration:

- Did he give you all that nonsense about silence again?

- Don’t talk like that, Ntunzi.

- That old man’s gone mad. And to cap it all the guy doesn’t like me.

- He does.

- Why doesn’t he ever call me then?

- He says I’m a tuner of silences.

- And do you believe him? Can’t you see it’s all a big lie?

- I don’t know, brother, what can I do if he wants me to sit there all nice and quiet?

- Don’t you understand it's all just talk? The truth of it is you remind him of our dead mother.

Ntunzi had reminded me a thousand times why my father had chosen me as his favorite. The reason for this preference of his had originated in one never-repeated instant: at our mother’s funeral, Silvestre didn’t know how to express his grief in public, and took himself off into a corner in order to cry his eyes out. That was when I approached my father and he got down on his knees so as to look into my three-year old face. I raised my arms and instead of wiping away his tears, I placed my little hands over his ears. As if I were trying to turn him into an island and were distancing him from anything that had a voice. Silvestre shut his eyes inside this echoless haven: and he saw that Dordalma had not died. His arm stretched blindly in the shadow:

- My dearest Alma!

That was the last time he ever uttered her name. Nor did he ever again openly recall the time when he had been a husband. He wanted it all kept quiet, consigned to oblivion.

- And you, my son, must help me.

As far as Silvestre Vitalício was concerned, my vocation had been decided: I was to take care of this incurable absence, put out to pasture those demons that consumed his sleep. One time, when we were busy sharing our silence, I broached the subject:

- Ntunzi says I remind you of our mother. Is that so, father?

- It’s the opposite, you protect me from those memories. It’s that Ntunzi who keeps bringing back the afflictions of the past to me.

- Do you know something, father? Yesterday I dreamed of my mother.

- How can you dream of someone you never knew?

- I knew her, I just don’t remember.

- That’s the same thing.

- But I remember her voice.

- What voice? Dordalma hardly ever said a word.

- I can remember a peace that seemed, I don’t know, that seemed like water. Sometimes I think I can remember the house, the great peacefulness of that house…

- And Ntunzi?

- What about Ntunzi, father?

- Is he so sure he can remember your mother?

- Not a day goes by without him recalling her.

My father didn’t answer. He brooded despondently for a while and then, his voice hoarse as if he’d been to the depths of his soul and back, he declared:

- I’m going to say this once and never again: you children can’t remember anything or dream of anything at all.

- But I do dream, father. And Ntunzi can remember so many things.

- It’s all a lie. What you dream is what I produced in your heads. Do you understand?

- I understand, father.

- And whatever you remember, I’m the one who planted it in your heads.

A dream is a conversation with the dead, a journey to the land of the souls. But there were no longer any dead, nor was there a territory for the souls. The world had ended and its demise brought with it obliteration: death without any dead. The land of the departed had been annulled, the realm of the gods cancelled. That’s what my father said all in one breath. Even today, I find Silvestre Vitalício’s explanation harrowing and confusing. But at that particular moment, he was peremptory:

- That’s why you must neither dream nor remember. Because I don’t dream or remember.

- But father, don’t you have any memory of our mother?

- Not of her, not of the house, not of anything. I don’t remember anything any more.

He got up with a groan to go and heat up the coffee. His steps were like a baobab pulling up its own roots. He looked at the fire as if he were looking at himself in a mirror, then closed his eyes and inhaled the aromatic steam rising from the coffee pot. And with his eyes still shut, he whispered:

- I’m going to confess a sin: I stopped praying when you were born.

- Don’t say that, father.

- I’m telling you.

Some people have children in order to get closer to God. He had become God ever since he was my father. That’s what Silvestre Vitalício said. And he continued: the falsely downhearted, the insincere loners, they believe that their lamentations are heard in the heavens.

- But God is deaf, he said.

He paused so as to raise his cup and taste his coffee with relish, and then he insisted:

- And even if he wasn’t deaf: what is there to say to God?

In Jezoosalem, there was no church of stone with a cross in it. My father made a cathedral out of my silence. It was there that he awaited God’s return.


* * *

To be truthful, I wasn’t born in Jezoosalem. I am, let us say, an emigrant from a place without name, geography, or history. Straight after my mother died, when I was three, my father grabbed me and my elder brother and abandoned the city. He crossed forests, rivers and deserts until he reached what he guessed must be the most inaccessible spot. During our odyssey we passed thousands of people going in the opposite direction: fleeing the countryside for the city, escaping a rural war to seek shelter in an urban misery. People thought it strange: why was our family striking off into the interior, where the nation was burning?

My father was travelling up front, in the passenger seat. He looked sick, maybe he thought he was travelling on a ship rather than in a road vehicle.

- This is Noah's Ark on wheels – he proclaimed as we were still taking our places in the old rattletrap.

Next to us, at the back of the truck, sat Zachary Kalash, the former soldier who helped my old man in his daily tasks.

- But where are we going? - My brother asked.

- From now on there's no where to talk about – Silvestre declared.

At the end of our great journey, we settled on a game reserve that had long been abandoned, and took shelter in an old camp that had once been used by hunters. Round about, all was emptiness because of the war, and there was no human presence whatsoever. Even animals were scarce. There was only an abundance of bushland, unpenetrated by any road for many years.

We settled in the ruins of the camp. My father in the central ruin, Ntunzi and I in a building next to it. Zachary made himself at home in an old shed out at the back. The old administrative building was left unoccupied.

- That house – my father said – is inhabited by shadows and governed by memories.

Later, he issued an order:

- No one is to enter that place!

Rebuilding work was minimal. Silvestre didn't want to disrespect what he called “the work of time”. He did, however, busy himself with one task: at the entrance to the encampment, there was a little square with a pole, where flags were hoisted in the old days. My father turned the flagpole into a support for a huge crucifix. Above Christ's head, he fixed a sign which read: “Welcome, Mister God”. This was his belief:

- One day, God will come and apologize to us.

Uncle and the assistant crossed themselves frantically, so as to exorcize the heresy. We smiled confidently: we must be the beneficiaries of some divine protection as we never suffered an illness, or were bitten by a snake or pounced upon by a wild animal.