Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Sportswoman's Notebook - Eberle Umbach (excerpt)


Given all the time I have lived—enough time for centuries of shades, of specters clanking chains or alighting with voluptuous claws on the nightly body—it is remarkable that the first ghost I should ever encounter would smell of cheap perfume, would be, in fact, a majorette.

It was noon, a Sunday in the rainy season.  A few hours before, the air had been filled with the sounds of market-day: melodious shouts and the horns of the trucks; horses snorting; church bells and the smell of butchering up on the hill.  It struck me today that I would probably never forget this particular smell, of fresh blood and fear mixing with the thin, high-pitched smell of ripe pineapples spread out in the marketplace on an abundance of newspaper. 

Heaps of pineapples, lightly bruised and oozing—a sweetness in the throat as soft as frog-song.  We had, in the interior, an obvious abundance of fruit.  The newspaper, however, was another story—a mystery that was never to be solved by Emily or me during our stay at Treis Aguas.  There were no newspapers for sale in the region, for the fairly obvious reason that almost no one could read.  Neither could pens be purchased at the market; Emily and I bought ours at the ocean, a day’s journey away, in the stinking coastal city of Tierra Branca.

Emily, I believe, loved that stink because it meant pens and paper and lovely beer.  In Treis Aguas she made do with sugar-cane spirits like everybody else; what bothered her more was the absence of pens.  She never completely believed that no one else in our household had even a slight desire for these implements.  The night that Florissima and Antoni taught us to play dominoes she nudged me when it came time to keep score.  “Now,” she whispered, “they will have to write.”  But Florissima went into the next room where the setting hens were sleeping under baskets; when she came back, she spilled a handful of dried corn onto the table to use as counters.   

In spite of the fact that no one read newspapers, an enormous supply of them flowed continuously into the interior.  Some ended up at the market in Mbicci, for wrapping purchases of goiaba, manioc flour, soap, and hunks of the various animals freshly slaughtered whose blood made a thin wash of red run between the cobblestones outside the meat market.

It was after lunch that the ghost appeared, in the quasi-delirium buzzing with flies that takes hold after the women have cooked the weekly meal of meat and the men have eaten it.  A breeze came out of nowhere, stirring the fronds of the coconut palm in the courtyard outside my window and wafting the smell of cowshit and orange blossom across the mud yard that bloomed, each day of the rains, with green shapes like huge algae, monstrously amorphous.  She came marching across the courtyard in white boots, twirling a baton in a cloud of glittering dust—which made it immediately clear to me that what I saw was a vision.  No boots could stay white in the mud that steamed behind her, and dust was only a distant dream until the dry season.

I smiled to think that death could include intricate tricks with a sparkling baton, and I rested my arms on the window sill, leaned out farther.  The sharp little heels of her boots did not sink into the muddy clay of the courtyard, patterned with the marks of chicken and guinea fowl feet, cat and duck feet, that everyone else had to cross on a wobbly mesh of long cut twigs.  Twirling and tossing the baton she marched in front of the smoking ashes of the clay-brick stove where a clay pot still rested holding the remains of the midday beans. 

The buttons running down her milkless breasts made double rows of bright gold polished nipples and I saw the fighting cock, captive in a woven basket against the wall, twitch his green-gold tail feathers as she passed.  She marched on—so ringleted so well-fed and young-- her strong white teeth and strong white thighs part of some terrible machine of destruction that men, with their peculiar masochism, would tend to desire painfully.

Then I became aware of the sound of corn being ground for the evening meal.  The grinding of corn is slow painstaking work, performed only by women.  It seemed to be an endless task: somewhere, there was always a woman grinding corn.  As I formulated that thought, the majorette vanished into the thin steaming air.  The sound of grinding became suddenly loud, grating on my nerves as it often did.

The sound of the grinding was worse, for me, than the tiny but mesmerizing sound of cockroaches chewing all night that bothered Emily.  They were eating her manuscripts, she pointed out, and she wondered if she would ever be able to write quickly enough to keep ahead of them.  Secretly, however, I believe she liked the idea.  The cockroaches ate her words and the chickens ate the cockroaches and then we ate the chickens—so in the end, she fed us.  That was Emily’s notion of domestic economy.

I craned my neck out the window, but the majorette could no longer be seen.  The spell was broken and I flung myself into my hammock, suddenly overtaken by a dark and violent mood.  One arm over my eyes blocked out the sun as I listened to the chorus of the damned— flies the incessant sopranos, and irregular locusts deepening the pulse—a slow frenzy never breaking free of itself, always returning. 

Of course, I told myself bitterly, it would be a majorette.  I thought of the others who were like me, whom I had seen over the years and recognized—the ones with centuries behind their eyes.  Though they shared my fate in some ways, none had really resembled me.  They were men, for instance, who were reflecting together on the refined ironies of immortality—in Paris! —while I was wandering alone crashing through the stench of rain forests with screaming parrots my only teachers.  They were advising the rulers of Egypt while I was chained in the swan-plucking sheds, the endless frozen tundra around me and no traditions, no history I could recognize as my own. 
I was certain of one thing about those men: they would never be contacted for any reason by a majorette from the spirit-world.  Whatever spirits they encountered would be complex, with the elaborate ways of Medieval demons, with the smell of candle-smoke and burnt offerings clinging to them, not the smell of the majorette’s cheap perfume.  And the vision would be meaningful to them; it would not simply disappear, as mine had, without a message, without significance.  Apparently I could not escape the taint of the monstrous, even in my hallucinations.  The heat of the afternoon pressed on me heavily and I abandoned myself to the contemplation of hopelessness.

Then Emily appeared in my window, as she sometimes did, by climbing out of hers and crossing on the branches of the star-fruit tree that grew at the corner of the house.  I hadn’t heard her crossing, and couldn’t help but be delighted, in spite of my troubled thoughts, as she waggled her eyebrows at me with the impertinence of a schoolgirl.    

She crouched in the deep pale blue well of the window, framed by dark green shutters fastened open against the inside wall.  There was no window glass here, no screens, and we had always been glad of that.  She perched for a moment on her delicate haunches, then swung her legs into my room.  Behind her, the breeze moved again, rustling the deep green of the leaves and gently swelling the ribs of the star-fruit hanging in the boughs.   

Eberle Umbach
© 2001-present
all rights reserved


  1. Where do I start? (Am I even capable of defining my experience?)

    Overwhelmed! Exhilarated, excited, anticipating, aroused, intrigued, frustrated, activated, motivated...all these things.

    This is like nothing I've ever read before and yet it is familiar in some ways.
    I love the first person narrator and the onslaught of images will be floating around in my head for days, I expect.

    I want more! I want to have a heavy weight in my hands and be able to wend my way through it (I want to be sitting by a fire in the middle of winter with this book in my lap, my glasses perched on the end of my nose and a glass of something to enhance the already lush and exotic/erotic experience. WOW! (again and again).


  2. Hi Kat: I think Eberle may check in here later to respond, but in the meantime, a heartfelt thanks & we'll have to see what we can do about getting you that "heavy weight."

  3. Dear Kat!
    How delightful to read your response! - if you really want that heavy weight in your hands, I'd love for you to read the book. I'd be happy to send you a copy of the manuscript, or a file by email, for you to read at your leisure. The middle of winter IS the best time to read, I think. With snow falling outside and everything snug. By the end of summer, I always find myself longing for that winter feeling. Thanks again for your words, and your openness.

  4. Eberle, the middle of winter will, I hope be the time when I can settle in and do just that! At the moment I am in a high-anxiety state of limbo between selling our house and moving to a new on the outskirts of the country town where we used to live. (It will be a small subdivision, but the farms are just steps outside our door!)
    Madness ensues at the minute, but PLEASE, do send the ms by mail and I will enjoy sitting and reading it when everything has calmed down.


    P.S. We hope to be out of this house before November and will not move into the new one before March, so send it soon.

  5. So, this is where you've been hiding.

    Not that I've been having Big Bed Land withdrawals or anything... cough, cough...