The God of Ferns
Illustrations by Oliver Munday. An adapted excerpt of the novella by Daniel Galera, translated from the Portuguese by Julia Sanches. Manuela hates that it’s taking so long. For the past two weeks, she’s hauled her belly up and down the stairs of their building, and along sidewalks where dirty water from the last October rainfall still splashes against her swollen ankles—and she’s sick of it. She wants to sleep belly-down, without pillows to support her. She wants to get up from the toilet without needing to hold on to the sink, to stop being kicked on the inside of her ribs, to have normal sex again. And Lucas, who’s always thought of himself as the kind of guy who can fight off exhaustion, confident in the perpetuum mobile of stamina that’s stored in his guts and keeps him in action no matter how badly he’s being pounded—lately, Lucas has been feeling paralyzed by a fear that he can’t fully understand. He’s scared he won’t make enough money to cover the basics, that Manuela will get hurt, that he’ll have a stroke or a heart attack, that come Monday morning the country will be at war with itself. The autobiography he’d spent six months ghostwriting was published in June, and the book’s subject, a young businessman who competed in ultramarathons all over the world and had a near-death experience in the Atacama Desert, finally wired him the last installment of his advance just a week ago. Now Lucas, who in the past few years has found himself having to settle for more and more freelance assignments, each less inspired than the last, is barely working. He often wonders whether he should finally give up journalism and take a job doing public relations for a construction company, just so they won’t have to move out of the city to the countryside. Maybe, he now realizes, it was a matter of inertia. It’s as if he had wanted to take things slowly for a couple of years to savor the last dregs of inactivity, to ease into this unplanned fatherhood. Some days, he feels sure that he’s done everything he could have, but the truth of the matter is that he’s been in a state of denial. He should have said yes to every depressing, low-paid gig that came his way. He should have harassed his contacts and past clients until he had more work than he knew what to do with. He’s been attending boxing classes religiously at a cheap, dungeon-like gym near Avenida Goethe, where bald, middle-aged bodybuilders give him lip because when they look at him, all they see is a communist hippie who probably took a wrong turn somewhere. In the past few months, he’s exercised even more than usual, as though in response to the fact that his body, unlike Manuela’s, refuses to change. But he knows he’s too old for all of this hard work to make a real difference. Ever since they decided their apartment would be mostly a cigarette-free zone, he’s been going out to smoke at a small square two blocks from the house, where he does pull-ups on the steel bar of the swing set, making everyone around him feel awkward. Not long ago, he’d caught himself smoking and doing pull-ups at the same time, taking a drag of his Camel on the way down and blowing out smoke on the way up, all while his mind fabricated soothing, hyperrealistic scenes in which he died by illness, accident, or suicide. But they’re happy. They’ve come home at almost the same time—he from the dentist, where they fixed a chipped molar, the last on a list of items he wanted to cross off his to-do list before his son was born, and she from the beauty salon, where she got a wax and a mani-pedi. The late-afternoon traffic was heavier than usual, and Manuela ended up stuck for twenty minutes in the car she’d summoned with an app before finally deciding to get out and walk the six blocks to their front door, relishing the cool breeze and the five o’clock sun, which still shone brightly as pedestrians made way for her belly, as though she were a prophet parting the waters. Lucas, on the other hand, had stood on a packed bus, chewing his lips and keeping his eyes averted from the incessant ads on the bus’s small TV. In the narrow entrance to their apartment, Manuela takes off her sandals and Lucas praises her dark, porcelain-smooth toenails, the skin around them still pink from their recent encounter with the clippers. The house is untidy in a way both of them find comforting. A mound of just-washed towels waits on the sofa to be folded and put away. A frying pan caked with scrambled-egg leftovers sits on the stovetop. Mugs are balanced precariously on the plush ottoman, from which they give off the smell of dried coffee. Manuela’s white socks and Lucas’s aquamarine bathrobe lie forgotten on the bathroom floor among tangles of hair. Stacks of books and magazines clamor for attention on every available surface. Electronics and their chargers wait doglike for their owners wherever they’ve been left. Manuela is responsible for the pieces by young local artists hanging in every room, for the bulky ceiling
An adapted excerpt of the novella by Daniel Galera, translated from the Portuguese by Julia Sanches.
Manuela hates that it’s taking so long. For the past two weeks, she’s hauled her belly up and down the stairs of their building, and along sidewalks where dirty water from the last October rainfall still splashes against her swollen ankles—and she’s sick of it. She wants to sleep belly-down, without pillows to support her. She wants to get up from the toilet without needing to hold on to the sink, to stop being kicked on the inside of her ribs, to have normal sex again. And Lucas, who’s always thought of himself as the kind of guy who can fight off exhaustion, confident in the perpetuum mobile of stamina that’s stored in his guts and keeps him in action no matter how badly he’s being pounded—lately, Lucas has been feeling paralyzed by a fear that he can’t fully understand. He’s scared he won’t make enough money to cover the basics, that Manuela will get hurt, that he’ll have a stroke or a heart attack, that come Monday morning the country will be at war with itself. The autobiography he’d spent six months ghostwriting was published in June, and the book’s subject, a young businessman who competed in ultramarathons all over the world and had a near-death experience in the Atacama Desert, finally wired him the last installment of his advance just a week ago. Now Lucas, who in the past few years has found himself having to settle for more and more freelance assignments, each less inspired than the last, is barely working. He often wonders whether he should finally give up journalism and take a job doing public relations for a construction company, just so they won’t have to move out of the city to the countryside. Maybe, he now realizes, it was a matter of inertia. It’s as if he had wanted to take things slowly for a couple of years to savor the last dregs of inactivity, to ease into this unplanned fatherhood. Some days, he feels sure that he’s done everything he could have, but the truth of the matter is that he’s been in a state of denial. He should have said yes to every depressing, low-paid gig that came his way. He should have harassed his contacts and past clients until he had more work than he knew what to do with. He’s been attending boxing classes religiously at a cheap, dungeon-like gym near Avenida Goethe, where bald, middle-aged bodybuilders give him lip because when they look at him, all they see is a communist hippie who probably took a wrong turn somewhere. In the past few months, he’s exercised even more than usual, as though in response to the fact that his body, unlike Manuela’s, refuses to change. But he knows he’s too old for all of this hard work to make a real difference. Ever since they decided their apartment would be mostly a cigarette-free zone, he’s been going out to smoke at a small square two blocks from the house, where he does pull-ups on the steel bar of the swing set, making everyone around him feel awkward. Not long ago, he’d caught himself smoking and doing pull-ups at the same time, taking a drag of his Camel on the way down and blowing out smoke on the way up, all while his mind fabricated soothing, hyperrealistic scenes in which he died by illness, accident, or suicide.
But they’re happy. They’ve come home at almost the same time—he from the dentist, where they fixed a chipped molar, the last on a list of items he wanted to cross off his to-do list before his son was born, and she from the beauty salon, where she got a wax and a mani-pedi. The late-afternoon traffic was heavier than usual, and Manuela ended up stuck for twenty minutes in the car she’d summoned with an app before finally deciding to get out and walk the six blocks to their front door, relishing the cool breeze and the five o’clock sun, which still shone brightly as pedestrians made way for her belly, as though she were a prophet parting the waters. Lucas, on the other hand, had stood on a packed bus, chewing his lips and keeping his eyes averted from the incessant ads on the bus’s small TV. In the narrow entrance to their apartment, Manuela takes off her sandals and Lucas praises her dark, porcelain-smooth toenails, the skin around them still pink from their recent encounter with the clippers.
The house is untidy in a way both of them find comforting. A mound of just-washed towels waits on the sofa to be folded and put away. A frying pan caked with scrambled-egg leftovers sits on the stovetop. Mugs are balanced precariously on the plush ottoman, from which they give off the smell of dried coffee. Manuela’s white socks and Lucas’s aquamarine bathrobe lie forgotten on the bathroom floor among tangles of hair. Stacks of books and magazines clamor for attention on every available surface. Electronics and their chargers wait doglike for their owners wherever they’ve been left. Manuela is responsible for the pieces by young local artists hanging in every room, for the bulky ceiling fixtures that dim the light, for the pyrites and the quartzes adorning the shelves, including the amethyst cluster whose provenance and emotional import she insists on keeping secret. When Lucas moved into the apartment that she’d been living in for half a decade, he had no trouble filling the shelves vacated by her previous boyfriend with hundreds of his own books and their faded spines, and he found it easy to clutter the kitchen with spirits and processed foods. But he couldn’t care less whether he had a say in the decor. His being there left a different kind of impression on the space. There was the stench of tobacco, the pungent seasoning and artificial scents. There was his bodily detritus, the electricity of his constant unrest and of his obsession with alignment, which meant that you could often find him rearranging the kitchen towels on the oven door and the bottles in the bathroom in an unceasing quest for parallel lines, straight angles, and level surfaces.
Today a bouquet of lilies arranged in a vase on the small, square dining room table exudes the sugary scent of fermentation. In the fridge is a festive stash of whole and sliced fruit, coconut water, a bowl of gazpacho, various jams, and goat cheese. The maidenhair ferns are still vibrant, even though they’ve been deprived of Manuela’s menstrual blood for nine months. On the Saturday of the hottest week of the previous summer, Manuela had fertilized her plants and left a small glass with the remainder of her nutrition-rich concoction on the kitchen counter. Even though Lucas knew all about this ritual, he’d been tipsy when he got home and assumed the glass before him held a finger of the Serra Gaúcha grape juice they’d recently purchased at the José Bonifácio farmers’ market. To this day, they remain unsettled by his accidental ingestion of her diluted menstrual blood, not because they were embarrassed or disgusted but because, in retrospect, it felt like an impromptu ceremony binding them together, an unpremeditated pact that sealed their fate. A few weeks later, she took a pregnancy test. Her foolproof cycle-tracker app was not, in fact, foolproof. Though they gazed at each other in shock, neither of them spoke about an abortion. They hugged and whispered that they loved each other and that everything would be okay, and they slept more peacefully that night than they had in a long time.
At seven o’clock on this Friday, as the summer sun peeks over the roofs of the neighboring buildings one last time, Manuela summons Lucas to the living room and tells him she’s just had a contraction. She is sitting on the Eames-style armchair she’d brought with her from her parents’ house in Caxias do Sul back when she moved to Porto Alegre for school, knees open and feet touching, one hand resting on her belly as the other hand grips her phone. Her lower jaw is projected forward and her bottom teeth are covering the tips of her upper teeth in a pose that she inadvertently slips into now and then when emotions are running high, much to the delight of Lucas, who finds it all terribly charming and never passes up an opportunity to compliment her pointed lower canines. He pictures her giving birth right then and there, in a matter of minutes, the way people say sometimes happens. He secretly wishes that he’ll be forced to deal with the expulsion, the placenta and the mucus: a dopey grown man awkwardly cradling a dripping-wet newborn who is still attached to his mother by the umbilical cord.
Manuela knows there are fake contractions, practice ones. For several minutes, nothing happens. She sets aside her phone and picks up a copy of J. G. Ballard’s Crash, which she’s been hooked on since yesterday. The final weeks of her pregnancy have whetted her appetite for extreme stories, complete with body horror. She’s calmly watched movies that make Lucas want to find an excuse to leave the living room. In the thirty-seventh week, they’d torrented all four Alien films for a two-night movie marathon. Neither of them had remembered the ending of the fourth movie, in which a monster queen—the daughter of a Ripley clone from one of the previous movies—gives birth to an alien with human traits. More than the carnage, more than the gushing slime and other secretions, it was the hybrid alien’s sharp, anxious distress that had struck them as a chilling augury of what was to come. Lucas had noticed Manuela seemed more frightened by her condition than before. So frightened that she hadn’t managed to sleep and they’d spent their first wakeful night together.
The next contraction arrives ten minutes later and catches Manuela engrossed in her book. She frowns, grits her teeth, sucks in air, and immediately exhales, looking down at her belly and then over at Lucas with an expression that contains fear, a question, and the shadow of a smile. It’s the same expression, he realizes, that she uses to give her consent in the heat of the moment whenever they want to try something new or play rough in bed. He faces her expectantly, waiting for her to describe things in a way that is useful, for her to say something that makes sense, so he can weigh in or jump into action. This time she knows it’s not a drill. The pain radiates through her torso, her belly hardens. Lucas walks up to the broadband modem—lights flashing diligently as though pleading for their lives—and closes his fingers around the plug. He glances at Manuela, who quickly nods her head. He unplugs the modem. They take their smartphones and switch off their cellular data. Cutting the internet seems to strip a layer of noise and commotion from the room, like when you turn off a burner underneath a pan. They’d decided on the blackout at the last ultrasound, when the baby had held his small, amphibian fingers over his face, as if wanting to protect himself from the high-frequency sound waves. They were going to create a shelter not only from the din of motors on the streets of Porto Alegre’s historical center, from the deluge of information and notifications, from the fake news and the toxic cloud of political polarization, but also from their friends and family, who would only be notified once they were at the hospital. Manuela’s obstetrician, a short-haired woman in her forties who looked like she could have been a weightlifter, one of the few people in Porto Alegre with experience in natural births, had told them to call her on the phone when the contractions started.
Manuela rings the obstetrician, who doesn’t pick up. She and Lucas look at each other. Had it been a good idea to rely exclusively on phone calls? It hasn’t been five minutes and already they’re itching to get online again. Manuela starts wandering around the apartment picking up clothes, crumpled napkins, and alfajor wrappers. Lucas follows her around, and runs his hands through her hair and along her hips. He feels a dumb sort of affection toward her, like they’re about to say goodbye. She smooths the duvet with her hands and raises the possibility that she could be out of the hospital in time to vote on Sunday. He does the math and says it doesn’t seem likely, but she insists it’s within the realm of possibility. If they do have a natural birth and everything goes well, she could be discharged from the hospital as early as tomorrow. Lots of European countries let you out on the same day. They might have to take turns; he could stay with the baby while she takes a quick trip to the polling place. Lucas wants to know if she thinks they’ll let her into the priority line if she takes the baby with her. Does giving birth a day and a half ago constitute a priority? Would they believe her? As they contemplate these scenarios, Manuela’s cell phone rings.
The wedge of sky between the two nearest buildings has turned salmon with streaks of red, and evidence of renewed activity can be seen through the windows. Grown-ups and children have come home from work or from school, and they walk from room to room wrapped in towels, talking to each other in loud voices that seem muted from afar, televisions aglow with bluish news programs and neon cartoons. Lucas shuts the soundproof windows they had installed in the living room and in both bedrooms to ensure their future baby’s slumber, courtesy of Manuela’s parents, who’d also bought a good chunk of the clothes, the baby bottles, and the other trimmings that were simply indispensable, or so claimed a life coach for new parents who happened to be an acquaintance of Manuela’s mother—the daughter of her best friend from school in Caxias, that kind of thing. They’d made a point of buying most of the baby furniture themselves, in four installments, and had also managed to stay on top of their healthcare premiums, thanks in part to Manuela’s salary at PUCRS, where she teaches literature at the graduate level, and to Lucas’s savings, which he’d padded with what was left of his ghostwriting money and the various payments he’d received for a few dozen pieces he’d written mostly for news agencies that were founded in the past couple of years by a younger generation of journalists, many of them the most recent victims of the mass layoffs that had swept through traditional media companies, young men and women who’d struck out on their own, either out of conviction or a lack of alternatives, hoping to make their comeback by providing content to the same companies that had laid them off, except this time for less money and less security. Lucas shuts the windows in the baby’s room, which used to be his old office, and listens to Manuela on the phone with the obstetrician. Midconversation, she has a contraction and tries to describe it. She falls quiet for a few minutes and simply listens, then responds in monosyllables. Lucas grabs the pack of cigarettes from the living room table and tries to catch Manuela’s eye, but she ignores him with an intent expression, so he goes to the laundry room to smoke. He misses being able to smoke wherever he wanted to in the apartment—back when he lived on his own, he even had the occasional cigarette in the bathroom. Then again, a close friend of his recently kicked the habit after hearing his three-year-old say that his daddy smelled bad. Lucas checks his phone out of reflex, then remembers they’ve gone offline. His fingers chew on the phone as if touch could somehow satisfy his mental hunger. He thinks of Manuela in the living room. They have everything they need right there, everything, he tells himself, the taste of the singed filter in his mouth. He has always done his best to make the right decisions and to plan for the future, and yet he doesn’t feel he’s ready to have a family all of a sudden. Because it did happen all of a sudden, even though they’d been gradually paving the way for this version of their life, at the expense of other versions, and with varying degrees of intentionality and awareness. The fear that hits him every now and then—does it have something to do with the fact that he has been making the wrong decisions all this time? Or is it about his failure to recognize the pivotal moments in his life, the consequences of his choices in the past few years? Or does it have more to do with the instability of the country, the threats to his material well-being, to the values he believes are central to a dignified life? He and Manuela are the kind of couple who like to entertain fantasies of mandatory isolation. He, at least, often catches himself daydreaming about scenarios involving social upheaval, climate apocalypse, and a clean break with an urban lifestyle that would force them into a heroic, hedonistic confinement. Only people who love each other beyond a doubt crave this kind of isolation, he thought.
Before he’d gotten to know her, Manuela had struck Lucas as imperious, maybe even a bit cruel—a daughter of the aporophobic Serra Gaúcha elite. Around the time they met, there were only a handful of decent clubs left in Porto Alegre, and every so often they’d bump into each other and exchange a cautious greeting, curious but unwilling to make an approach. Plus, she was seeing someone, the scion of a winery who always seemed to be off somewhere on his motorcycle. When a mutual friend died in a car accident, Manuela and Lucas met at the wake and shared their favorite memories of him, weaving together partial accounts of a life interrupted. It was the only thing brought Lucas any consolation. A while later, he ran into her at a billiard room where some of his friends from college regularly played in a grunge cover band. That night, their conversation flowed more easily, and he discovered that beneath Manuela’s aristocratic facade was a revolutionary who translated ecofeminist texts pro bono for a collective that published them both online and in cheap physical editions. Generally tacit, Manuela kept her cards close to her chest, but the right question could unlock doors like the ones to hidden rooms in a small-town museum that allows in only a handful of visitors. He’d taken a chance when he’d said to look him up once she and the biker broke things off. She navigated the situation gracefully and even stood up for the guy. About two months later, Manuela texted Lucas to ask for his address. That same day, a motorcycle courier rang the doorbell and handed him a key card to a room at Hotel Everest, with a note attached that said there was no need to knock. He went to the hotel, took the elevator up to the tenth floor, and swiped the card in the door. Halfway through his next cigarette, Manuela is still on the phone with the obstetrician. Lucas glances at the kitchen and thinks back to the moment he finally caught on to Manuela’s habit of moving the kettle and the pots around whenever he was about to boil some water or cook on the stovetop. When he asked her about it, she told him that each burner had to be used equally, that you shouldn’t neglect any of them or play favorites. Manuela, he realized, had a special kind of empathy for objects. She felt strongly that they needed to be cleaned and stored in a way that honored their every function, that they had to be treated with the same consideration and respect normally reserved for the animate beings in their lives.
Lucas heads back to the living room, where Manuela sits in the half-dark, looking irritated and fidgeting with her phone. The obstetrician had said her contractions were still mild, that it could be hours before they reached the level of intensity that indicated sufficient dilation. She’s trying to use the app she downloaded a few days ago to keep track of her contractions, but there are limitations to the free version and since the ads won’t load, she can’t get it to work. Manuela has another contraction, which lasts forty-five seconds. Fuck, she says, her face tensed up. Lucas fetches his laptop from the bedroom while Manuela lowers the temperature on the AC unit to twenty-one degrees Celsius, turns on the two table lamps, puts on a playlist she had made and downloaded to her phone, and goes to the freezer for a small pot of açaí. They sit on the sofa and Lucas opens up Excel as he chats with the baby, saying he should bring a swimsuit and a towel because it’s going to be hot out. Manuela is wearing a pair of white sweatpants and a silk blue-violet robe she bought at a thrift store in São Francisco de Paula on a trip they took to the Serra. Her belly and breasts jut out from her gaunt body like fleshy, rubbery mutations. Her face is red, her feet are bloated. A CocoRosie song ends and one by Tom Zé begins. Manuela is bringing a spoonful of açaí to her mouth when she freezes, groans, and clutches the armrest. Lucas times it. The contraction lasts fifty seconds and comes six minutes after the last one. They look at each other and smile. Everything seems to be going according to plan. Their hospital bag has been packed for days. In it are the baby’s first clothes, bonnet, and socks, a change of clothes for them, whole-wheat crackers, chargers, documents, and e-readers. Lucas turns his laptop screen to Manuela. He has created a spreadsheet to monitor her contractions, with separate fields for the start and end times. There are formulas that automatically update the duration of each contraction, the thirty-minute average, and the interval between one contraction and the next. He says they could use colors to illustrate the contractions’ intensities. Another document translates this information into charts that for the moment are just geometric shapes, anomalies that convey nothing. The sunlight has waned. What is left is the glow of the public streetlights and of the lamps in neighboring apartments, which tinge the walls of the city a sulfurous shade of yellow. The high beams of the cars that drive up the street cast the occasional orange strip across the ceiling, and it’s as if the light were traveling through the shutter of an old camera, burning unknowable images onto the plaster.
Manuela stares at the wedge of unstarred sky. She still gets a chill when she thinks about the night she almost died from a rare reaction to an antidepressant she was prescribed. These days she doubts she even needed the medication at all. Following the eight-day stint at the ICU, during which her kidney function was compromised by rhabdomyolysis, she’s never had another depressive episode. But a different kind of gloom settled in, one that was seasonal and less debilitating, one that seemed to want to ask questions more than it wanted to suffocate her. She feels like she’s being watched by the eyes of a nocturnal darkness. The apartment is her cocoon, and Lucas a kind of doorman or caretaker. He had won her over because, from the onset, he hadn’t seemed to expect more from their relationship than companionship and physical intimacy. With time she learned to see the insecurity behind his crude cishet male aesthetic, the rebelliousness behind his admirable aptitude for work, the pleasure he got from making people happy in the simplest ways. His appetites could be brutal, but she enjoys submitting to them. She holds out her hand and moves it down to Lucas’s cock. Now half-asleep on the sofa, he clears his throat and tilts his pelvis in response. They tease each other about how great it would be to have sex right then and there, playfully describing the hypothetical scenario until Manuela starts moaning in pain and pants for almost a minute straight. Lucas adds it all to the spreadsheet.
Three hours later, Manuela tries the obstetrician on the phone again while Lucas studies the spreadsheet with the fury of an investigative journalist. According to all of the guidance they’d received, her contractions would grow more intense and more frequent. There was the promise of order. But Manuela’s contractions are all over the place. They range from mild to excruciating, with intervals that range between two and ten minutes, with no discernible pattern. She’s already taken two hot showers on the Pilates ball. Her water hasn’t broken; there’s no blood or mucus. Right now, her phone is pressed to her ear as she sits on the sofa with her eyes shut and the look of someone being forced to wade through the quagmire of a large corporation’s support line in search of a human voice—in this case, her obstetrician’s. Cut off from the world, the apartment now occupies a dimension isolated in time and space. If they haven’t cracked open the window or turned on the TV, it’s because they’ve put their faith in an algorithm that should have delivered results by now, and it feels imprudent to interfere. Little by little, they are becoming aware of how naive their expectations had been.
The obstetrician picks up a couple of minutes later. She is in the hospital cafeteria, eating a sandwich after completing a caesarean. Manuela says the contractions are now five minutes apart. She listens to the woman and then, a few minutes later, says goodbye, puts her phone down on the sofa, and bursts into tears. Lucas strokes her neck, which is a little sticky, and asks what’s the matter. The obstetrician had insisted it would still be a while before she was ready to go to the hospital. The sound of Manuela’s voice had been too normal, too lucid. The obstetrician suggested having a friend, a parent, a doula come over to keep her company. She’d said to call only if things changed or they were on their way to the hospital. She was heading home to see her children and get some sleep.
Manuela is interrupted by a contraction. It’s a strong one. She tries to breathe normally. She hugs her knees, and Lucas rubs her back. They don’t know if all massages help or if he should be giving her a special kind of massage. It begins to dawn on them just how unprepared they are, even though they’d planned out every last detail, but Manuela doesn’t want her relatives around. She doesn’t hate her parents. There has been no unpleasant Sunday-lunch argument. But a consequence of avoiding conflict at all costs is that they spend less and less time together. A heated altercation might do their relationship some good, maybe even bring them closer, but at the moment they are in something of a cold war. It’s as if she and her parents each have a secret cache of weapons from which they can draw to obliterate the parties involved. Manuela recognizes her parents’ right to vote for a right-wing bigot, as she and Lucas believe they will two days from now. At the same time, she recognizes her right to affirm her own understanding of order and decency by excluding them from this personal milestone. If her mother had any say in the matter, Manuela would be in the hospital right this minute, under the scalpel of some renowned doctor and friend of the family. As far as her friends are concerned, she just doesn’t think she needs them right now. And though Manuela had seen a doula at some point during the pregnancy, she’d been put off by the woman’s mystical take on motherhood and idealistic views on femininity. Lucas and Manuela know of couples who have weathered the initial stages of childbirth independently, on their own, in the privacy of their homes. They’d thought they were part of the same clan. Now they’re beginning to suspect that these couples hadn’t shared the whole story.
Manuela remembers hearing a pregnant woman say laughter is the best way to induce labor. Lucas is excited for this new project. He makes popcorn in a frying pan while Manuela scrolls through the movies and TV series they have downloaded onto their external hard drive over the past few years, respecting their moratorium on internet and streaming services. When Lucas returns to the living room, he’s thrilled to see that Manuela has put on the episode of Louie in which the antihero’s sister goes into labor and screams bloody murder all the way to the hospital. He kisses Manuela and squeezes her face, his greasy fingers dusted with salt. His love for her and her off-brand sense of humor immediately loosens the tension stiffening his joints. Manuela’s angular traits, faintly padded by the weight she has put on during the pregnancy, light up when she breaks into a childish smile. They laugh for all twenty minutes of the episode, even though they already know the punchline—that all the mayhem and all the woman’s hollering will be interrupted by a huge fart in the hospital bed. Manuela has a long contraction and cries tears of laughter and pain as she clutches her colossal belly as though it could come loose from her body and roll along the shaggy rug. Lucas doesn’t neglect to update the spreadsheet, a reflex they both find so ridiculous that it doubles their laughter until finally they’re sent into a fit of hysterics when Lucas, as though wanting to punctuate the situation, lets out a brief yet perfectly audible toot. They try to control themselves—all that laughing is starting to feel at odds with the circumstances, and dangerous in some unidentifiable way—but can’t help giggling a bit longer. The torpor that follows is almost postcoital. Manuela says she could really use a drink right now and for a few minutes they seriously consider making a whiskey sour, but then reality sinks in and they decide to watch a couple more episodes. After that, they put on a movie about a group of young pothead celebrities who get stuck at a party in James Franco’s Hollywood mansion as the world comes to an end. Though they’ve seen the movie half a dozen times, it always hits the spot. They sit holding hands under the glow of the television and the lamplight, their heads drooping slightly and their eyes glazed as they laugh and yawn. Manuela gives Lucas’s hand a hard squeeze, and even though he knows it’s a cliché, he tells her to breathe, to take deep, relaxed breaths, that’s right, just like that. The rest of the night passes this way.
They still can’t tell whether the contractions are getting stronger. Apprehension slowly settles back in. In the air hang whispers that things happen. Bodies break down, babies die. Life is resilient until it isn’t. Manuela tells herself again and again, like a mantra, that the opposite of death is not life but birth. No one knows what the opposite of life is. It’s unclear to her whether she’s doing this to self-soothe or to embrace the despair; either way, the sentence gets stuck in her head. Now they’re just trying to stay distracted, to kill time. After watching a few early episodes of Seinfeld, Manuela gets up and starts pacing around the apartment. Not long after, she stops and climbs into bed. Lucas sits on the edge of the mattress and squeezes her thigh through another wave of pain, then lies down, a touch hesitant. Manuela tells Lucas to go watch a movie, read a book, smoke, but he isn’t in the right headspace for any of that. He feels a mix of guilt and helplessness, he says. This annoys Manuela. The kid hasn’t even been born yet, man up.
Time has broken away from its usual circadian rhythm. The orbits of the sun and the moon have given way to a series of contractions. Sometimes Manuela drifts off between contractions; other times she mumbles and begs for help, for an opinion, for relief. Lucas tries to imagine what it would feel like for your cervix to be dilating. Manuela has lost her appetite but concedes to small sips of water. Around one in the morning, the pain has become excruciating. She is incoherent, secluded from the world around her. The end of one ordeal is just the terrifying prelude to the next. At two in the morning, seven hours after Manuela’s first contraction, Lucas calls the obstetrician and tells her they’re on their way to the hospital. The obstetrician’s voice is thick and drowsy, and when she says she will meet them there in an hour Lucas isn’t convinced.
All of their doubts as to whether they should be going to the hospital vanish the moment they slide into the back of the taxi. There’s something comfortingly filmic about the whole thing. Their car glides steadily down the asphalted road, flanked every now and then by other cars taking people who aren’t pregnant to late Friday-night parties—people who aren’t having children but are instead going out to dance, get drunk, pick fights, stuff themselves with cheese and fried foods, make out, fuck, eyeball each other’s outfits and bodies, have loud conversations about the latest TV, and celebrate or mourn the latest polling data in the streets and the bars. Lucas and Manuela have nothing to do with that right now, they’re just asking to be let through. The driver, a large, clean-shaven man who sounds like he might be from one of the state’s German settlements, remains calm and slows down when Manuela begins whimpering with pain. He tells them that one of his sons was born in the hospital they are going to now, and that even though they’d gotten stuck in rush-hour traffic, they’d made it there in time and everything had turned out all right. Now all he can remember of that day is an immense feeling of joy. The hospital abuts a semirural area in the urban heart of Porto Alegre, an enclave of small country houses and villas, old mansions and leper colonies that over the decades has been engulfed by venerable gardens, groves, and fields of grass which most residents know nothing about, even though it’s only a fifteen-minute drive from the center. The taxi crawls up a windy hill between precarious housing and large native trees littered with plastic and garbage. There are more stars here.
They are let out at the emergency entrance. A triage nurse spots them and immediately ascertains what is going on. As she wheels Manuela through a heavy tinted-glass door, Lucas is told to fill out forms at the maternity ward registration desk on the second floor. The hospital building looks as if it’s asleep. Motion-sensitive lights click on as he crosses an empty lobby and walks upstairs. He passes walls pinned with informative posters about measles and how to donate blood. The woman at the counter asks for his health insurance card and the name of the baby. The waiting room is empty. In it are three rows of narrow chairs, a water fountain, and a small, wall-mounted television, which is thankfully off. He finally feels calm. He takes out his phone, scrolls through the last few photographs he’s taken, and resists the temptation to go online. He and Manuela had agreed to leave the bubble only once they had given the baby his first bath. He thinks of his parents, who live an hour and a half from Porto Alegre in Imbé, with four dogs that are so anatomically asymmetrical that each looks like the product of a demented geneticist. Their house is three blocks from a chocolate-hued ocean and faces a lawn that smells faintly of sewage. Manuela once described his parents as two hypertrophied children. They are loud, apolitical, kind—but only in the sense that we attribute kindness to people who don’t know any better—and addicted to pizza and low-budget TV. The main advantage to them being this way is that they seem to be almost oblivious to the fact that there is an election on, and they always vote for whomever Lucas tells them to. At least, that’s what they say. Their happiness is immune to crises, and though most self-serious people find this quality to be offensive, it is also contagious for a brief period, after which Lucas always feels the intense urge to never see them again. He is going to have to call them in an hour or so and brace himself for their furious joy and unsuitable gifts. He pictures his mother’s slobbery euphoria and his dad’s doll-like face punctuated by a pair of misty eyes, and thinks that part of the fun in having a child is paying back the emotional debt we owe to our forebears. It’s just that when he thinks of their happiness, he can’t help also thinking of the spiritual exhaustion that he will feel thirty minutes later.
A large-bodied woman in scrubs makes her way to the entrance of the maternity ward. For a minute he thinks it’s their obstetrician, but the moment their eyes meet he realizes his mistake. He is beginning to wonder whether there’s any point to all this privacy, self-preservation, and autonomy. He has the strange feeling that he’s doing something secretive—like breaking out of prison or administering an abortion. He grabs his phone, opens the settings, and fixes his eyes on the toggle that could activate his cellular data. His body bristles in anticipation of what could come next. Then the door to the maternity ward swings open a second time and a slender blond nurse comes toward him. His finger pulls back from the glowing screen. Manuela is on her way out. Lucas slides the phone back into his pocket and takes out his lighter. He fiddles with it, head pounding for a cigarette. Manuela shows up one minute later in the company of a nurse, arms hanging at her sides and a deathly look on her face. The obstetrician on shift said she was only one centimeter dilated. One centimeter, Lucas, she repeats, stunned. The doctor offered to break her water and administer oxytocin, but she refused, so they told her to wait at home. As they stand by for the taxi, Manuela dials the obstetrician, who says that she told them so, that they should go home and relax and only call again if her water breaks or if the contractions grow more intense and more frequent; she needs to get a couple more hours of sleep before visiting a patient in recovery. Things are crazy this week, she says, it’s like all the babies are in cahoots. They shouldn’t worry if she’s not there when they return to the hospital, one of her colleagues will assist them until she arrives. They stare at the callous darkness around the hospital and can’t find anything to say. Silently, they come to terms with the end to the delusion that they ever had any control over what comes next.
When they enter their apartment, they have the feeling that it has been housing a secret occupant who has spent months on end hiding in the closet or under the bed. The windows and the blinds are still closed, while the AC unit and TV have been left on, which makes the air feel electric. They don’t remember using any of the dirty bowls, silverware, or glasses that are scattered around the apartment. The bathroom is hot and humid.
She sits on the nursing chair they bought for the baby’s room and swings back and forth. Lucas looks through the doorway at her drawn face, which is set in an almost-silent rictus. He can’t find any words to comfort her with. He smokes at the small window of the laundry room and between cigarettes, he checks to see if Manuela is still on the chair. After the fourth cigarette, he hears the sound of the shower and the murmur of a song on the speaker. The open bathroom door exhales a glowing mist that reminds him of a laboratory. He draws closer and sees Manuela sitting naked on the Pilates ball beneath a sheet of water, eyes closed and lips pinched, hands on her belly as she faintly moves her hips and hums a song that sounds like an incantation. The sight of her hits him full-on. Tears well in his eyes and he steps furtively into the half-dark of the master bedroom, which at the moment looks more like a storage unit for all the suitcases, books, mounds of shoes, and boxes full of stuff that they haven’t yet figured out where to put since reordering the space for the baby’s arrival. He lies on the bed and cries for a few minutes as he listens to Manuela quietly sing, moan, and take steady breaths, blanketed in a cloud of steam. He can’t get the image out of his head. He feels like he has witnessed a devastating miracle—mind and body perfectly aligned in the act of living, like one of those rare flowers in the heart of the jungle that only blooms for a few hours a year. What she is experiencing, Lucas concludes, is something he cannot; it is connected to things she experienced a long time before he came into her life, even though their lives are now inseparable, overlapping almost perfectly. This almost, though, is yawning; it’s the immeasurable width of a single strand of hair, the universe compressed to the tip of a pinhead, a slew of things that don’t concern him and never will. The rubber ball stops squeaking against the tile. Manuela takes another deep breath of air and then, in a pained cadence, exhales. This can’t go on much longer, he mumbles, it’s got to end soon, please let it end soon.
Lucas opens his eyes. He’d drifted off. Groggily he pulls himself out of bed and finds Manuela in the living room, lying down next to the sofa with her eyes open. Nothing’s changed, she says. She isn’t sure how long he was out for. An hour, maybe two. He cracks open the window, pulls the cord that draws the blinds. A glaring sliver of light pierces the darkness of the living room, drawing a golden rectangle on the wall. She shields her eyes. A gust of hot air braces against the cold of the air conditioner. She reaches for her phone on the sofa and activates the screen. It’s nine a.m., Saturday, she says. Outside there are the sounds of a helicopter hovering over the neighborhood and of street sweepers chatting loudly about their relationship problems. Lucas pulls the blind open a bit wider and sees them scattered along both sidewalks, black men and women in sunglasses and orange uniforms sweeping up cigarette butts, colorful plastic containers, stacks of election leaflets.
Daniel Galera was born in São Paulo. His novels include Blood-Drenched Beard (2012), The Shape of Bones (2017), and Twenty After Midnight (2020). He has translated works by John Cheever, David Foster Wallace, and Zadie Smith into Portuguese, and his latest book, The God of Ferns, is a collection of three novellas.
Julia Sanches has translated more than a dozen works from Spanish, Portuguese, and Catalan into English. Her translations and writing have appeared in Granta, LitHub, Poets & Writers, and The Common. She has received support for her work from the PEN/Heim Translation Fund, PEN Translates, and the New York State Council on the Arts.