January 22, 2018

The Portuguese Couple

short story

The Portuguese Couple

by Shahinur Islam

Neither of the couple—Delgado and Adriano, would ever look. They wouldn’t cast their eyes on others’, either. They wouldn’t look in the sense we always shift our eye, in the sense we take our eye from one thing and quickly cast on another. They would look, but it was a stare, in fact. They’d stare as if they’d been two stone-sculptures.

Their eyesight was good as well in their late age. Still they would stare and stare for hours. And their stare had made us curious and astonished for a long time. A question would always peer into our mind, “How on earth do they live everyday life?”

We wouldn’t see them smiling, either.

The village we lived in was neat and clean, nestling snugly on a small, narrow river, and a two-hour drive to the West from Ottawa. On the sandy shore of the river, there was a big pine tree, standing on a mound compared to other trees around. Delgado and Adriano would sit up routinely nearly every afternoon of summer on a bench fixed to the mound and stare at the river. And we, boys and girls, would play volleyball together at that time. When we finished playing, we’d swim and dive in the river, take sunbath on the sand. We’d see them as silent and speechless when we came to play, we’d see them so when we returned home.

One afternoon while we were playing, someone of us served the ball so forcefully that it arrived near the couple. One of our female friends, Sophie Simmons, shouted to them to throw the ball back to us. She was one of the naughtiest among us. While many of us dithered over something, she could give a good talking-to without any hesitance. So when she saw that her words didn’t work in the slightest, she herself fetched the ball. Even so, she didn’t spare them from taunting. While bringing the ball back, she prodded Delgado’s white-bearded cheeks with her sharp points of words, “If only you wore smiles across the face like the beard you’re wearing, you wouldn’t look so unbecoming. You could just throw it.” She also said to Adriano, “Oh, you’re a pot of pretensions, too!”

Her interesting and incisive remarks made us burst into laughing. We laughed so much so that we fell down on the sand and wallowed on one another. But we never saw the couple moving their lips in the slightest even at such remarks—neither with laughing nor with countering as a protest.

But we had yet another wonder. A wonder that turned all our words into silence. And it was their being silent. Yes, we never heard them talking. At least till the time we began to see them.  It would be two years or so. They’d chosen the place perhaps for its calm, peaceful, and solitary atmosphere. But we didn’t know exactly where they’d moved from.

Their unbroken silence would set us thinking. But we’d never say it before them publicly. Only one day someone of us, while returning home, commented, “They seem to be muzzled.” Sophie, too, billed them as “a living pair of sculptures”. But we were not sure whether they could hear these comments. Failing to draw any response from them, another of us named Allan Crite brought himself to say, “Perhaps dumb too”.

We kind of got used to them gradually, lost interest in them after a year. We wouldn’t feel enthusiastic and curious to know about them that much. We’d come to the beach, play volleyball, swim in the river, and go to our respective homes. Steadily, we began to liken them as silent, static, and irresponsive as the pine tree. At one point, their issue came to be normal to us.

But life doesn’t remain static. Its arrangement and necessity are also different from time to time, calling people in different ways, especially in time of career-building. The call often doesn’t approve of staying together with juvenile playmates. It happened to us, too. We scattered to different cities. Only Allan stayed. And I got admitted into Algonquin College to study Business Administration in the fall semester.

I was under pressure at college. I had to digest new concepts and theories, do regular homework, assignments, presentations, class tests, etc. On top of those, I started working part-time in the weekend. In fact, I had no time to think of myself for straight three months. I couldn’t even talk to Sophie or others, let alone meeting with them. For the first time in my nineteen-year-old life, I was so busy for a long time. As a whole, I was about to gasp like a migratory winter bird, eager to be warmed in the chitchat and company of my village friends.

The holiday came at last. About twenty-day vacation for Christmas and the New Year. But my workplace gave less than that, so I had to take some days off from work. When I got the leave, I began to feel relieved. Although it was not summer, I was feeling fresh to think of going home. To be specific, my joy doubled because I heard people saying “green Christmas will be there this time”.


I packed my luggage. To do the trifling stuff, it took me the late afternoon. I got in the car and started driving home. The evening almost fell, yet the sunshine was throwing a gentle gaze at either side of the road, at the skeletons of grass, at the dry bones of the trees. When I glanced at the pale forest beamed against the sunshine and bluish, ash-colour clouds, some of them looked like brown, glistening mynas. Or sometimes I felt they were casting their glance back to me as adorably as wild ducklings.

After I drove for about two hours, I arrived near the front of the house of the Portuguese couple. We were to pass through them to go home. How many times we played pranks and made fun of them! As their house came within the purview of my sight, all the stuff began to occur to me one after another. I stopped the car in front of their house. As it was winter, the slight darkness fell before five o’clock. Their house gave me a hint of light through the closed window. But I couldn’t spot them.

I drove away near our home in a minute and happened to meet with Allan, his hand holding some luggage.

“Where’re you going this time?” I asked.

“I’ll tell you after. I’m in hush now,’’ he replied.

He’d call lots of things in an opposite way. For instance, he just went, “hush” for “rush”. This kind of peculiarity would sometimes make us laugh or sometimes puzzle us. He’d also say, “I’ll go to the mare.” For the first time when I heard it from him, I got bamboozled. That time someone helped me to make it out by explaining, “He goes mare for fair.”  Like this, he’d say popping mall for shopping mall, smokesperson for spokesperson. He’d even call the Portuguese couple Port-of-geese-call. His peculiarities made us distort his full name as well, so we’d coin an epithet for him and oft and on call him by it: Hypocrite.

He also possessed some other eccentricities. For instance, if someone would begin to tell a story in the classical style—once upon a time there was an old man in a country…He’d chime in with a question, “Was there only a single old man there?” Whenever we ran into him on the way, or sat for chitchat with him, we’d laugh at least once at his peculiarities.

But I couldn’t laugh now even after I met with him three months later. My lips didn’t twitch in the slightest, let alone laugh. Instead, my eyes stuck out of shock and wonder and hung loosely like guavas in the branches. I’m not here to hear it, I thought, I had so many plans for Christmas and the New Year! We’d make up for all the outstanding joy by partying together. You, too, are leaving. Everything got screwed up!

The news unsettled me as soon as I heard it.

“Why’s Sophie been arrested? Did police know who’d murdered?”, I said to Allan.

“The furthered guy was her boyfriend. So police suspected and arrested her,” he said.

“They did a good job! Get in the car now.”

I realized his peculiarity didn’t know any situations, either. He himself didn’t know what he’d said and what he should have said. He thought as if he was right, as if the world went like him. I felt like telling him, “You just live in a pond. If you lived in a sea, you’d know how fathomless life is.” But I said nothing.

“Where you wanna go? I don’t have any time,” he said.

“Get in first. I’ll tell you. It won’t take much time. Only five minutes.”

He got in my car without arguing further.

“You didn’t say where we’re heading,” he asked again.

“To the spot. Tell me where it happened.”

He showed me the direction as perfectly as an eye-witness. In two minutes, we reached the spot. I saw in the darkness that the murdering had taken place on a slope behind the house of the couple.  Police had surrounded the spot with red ribbons.

The house of the couple was standing on a knoll and facing a big yard in front. Behind was the river at which they would stare, sitting under the pine tree. Who knew as long as they stayed home, they might have stared through the window.

I was feeling so sad for Sophie that I thought of going to the couple and asking them if they knew anything of the murdering. But it dawned on me after a moment what they could say. There was nothing unknown to us about them. And if they spotted, there was no point in it. They didn’t know how to speak, how to write. Who knew they might have stared like a dead fish when the thing occurred. I better asked the pine tree. It might give me some information.

“The furthering happened exactly under the pine tree this morning,” he said, pointing to the tree.

With that, he turned me from my thought. I said to him,

“Do you think we should go to them once? If we get any clue…”

“To whom?”

“To the couple.”

“No good. I can’t afford time, either. Do you think you can get some?”

I was wondering if there was any use seeing them. On top of that, he, too, discouraged me perhaps for the lack of his time. Meanwhile, darkness also began to claw everything like an osprey. Tomorrow morning I better come again, I thought, and dropped him to the train station and returned home.

In these three months, our house had listened only to the music of silence. Both mom and dad had left for Bangladesh last year. They’d stay two years there for work. Whenever I stepped into our house and turned on the light bulbs, I glanced at a rat scuttling off. Wherever I ran my hand on the furniture, the specks of dust went like tchtch. Who knew what other creatures were reigning! All the rooms were dank to some extent because of the long term absence of heat. I realized I was mistaken. I had to come during the day. Before, I was never away from home for such a long time. It was my first experience.

I started dusting the bed and promised—I’ll come back at daytime only, if nobody is at home.

It seemed the noise of my dusting got a strike from another noise. I stopped dusting to distinguish it and cocked my ears. Knock…knock…knock. It was distinctively audible. I glanced at my wrist-watch striking at twelve. Is Allan back then? –I thought—nobody but him knows of my return. Another sharp rap on the door.

When I opened the door, the ground under my feet seemed to split into two halves, and I sank in the hole to my astonishment. I couldn’t say a word. I just cast a blank stare for a moment. They seemed to understand my situation, so they beckoned me to shut the door without waiting for my permission.

The ground of my belief jolted so much so that I was speechless for five minutes or so. Lots of questions were swirling in my mind. Still the overriding question was “Why are they at our home so late at night?” I was scared to think if they were some incorporeal souls. I didn’t believe in them though. But darkness doesn’t care what I believe or not. It simply makes us believe the unbelievable in its clutch.

I tried to manage myself. Tried to be cool and calm. Pretended that I had exchanged pleasantries with them before. I asked, “Why are you here so late at night? Any danger?”

Immediately after I asked the question, it struck me that they were the couple who would stare silently at the river. What response could I expect from them? I simply requested them to have a seat on my just-swept bed. I saw them twitching their lips while they were sitting down. But they couldn’t make any sounds. It occurred to me that they wanted to say something. With a wave of his hand, Delgado asked me for a glass of water. I went away to the kitchen and found everything kind of dirty. I tidied the sink quickly, filled the glass with water and went back to them. As soon as I stepped in the room, I heard an audible but indistinct sound. When I passed the glass over to him, he emptied it with big gulps. As if he’d come here to drink water only. He returned the glass to me and screamed like a poisoned patient. The scream rang like a ‘no’ sound.

Adriano pointed her forefinger across her lips and nose to beckon Delgado to keep silent. She also beckoned him to leave the place. When they two stood up, I said nothing. They went out for home and I kept standing at our door as long as I could see them in the darkness and said bye.

I couldn’t sleep for the rest of the night. It only struck me that it meant they knew how to look, how to see. Otherwise, they couldn’t be able to come here all by themselves so late at night. But I wasn’t sure whether they could know how to talk. I was lying on bed and changing my position from side to side, and I wondered if they’d come here to give me any hints of the murder.

At early dawn when the darkness was loosening its claw, I went to the couple’s. This time I didn’t dither over as they cleared the way when they themselves came to our home. When I arrived at their yard, I saw the lights on inside. As soon as I knocked, Adriano opened the door and let me in. As if they were expecting me this time.

“We know why you’re here.”

“We went to you just to say it.”

At first, Delgado and then Adriano said, brushing off my preconception and depriving me the opportunity to say anything. She grabbed a chair and told me to sit on, too. When I heard them speak, it seemed to me that it was a distinct, rhythmic pronunciation. Honey seemed to ooze from the two sentences. But I didn’t hear them talk before. To listen to the details, I pricked my ears like a rabbit and fixed my eyes like the Pole star.

“We committed a sin,” Delgado said and paused.

I couldn’t match the things.

“We broke our promise,” Adriano added.

I couldn’t make it out, either.

“What sin? Which promise?” I asked.

They didn’t answer right away. Meanwhile, the restlessness possessed me and began to stir my bones forcefully to hear who made the thing happen. But I didn’t make them sense it. If I happened to make them bristle, and they refrained from talking, I couldn’t be able to convince anybody that they knew how to look, how to hear, or even how to speak. I tried to contain myself.

“We committed a sin by talking,” Delgado said.

I knew that talking is sometimes a sin, when it hurts or harms somebody. They wouldn’t mix with people. Who could they hurt?

“Talking is not a sin. Only humans can talk. So we’re different from other creatures,” I said to extract information from them.

None of them cared. In the yellowish light of the electric bulbs I noticed their eyes glistening with some water.

“We didn’t want to talk. Didn’t want to break the promise. But we couldn’t bear it, either,” Delgado said.

“What?” I asked.

“That’s another story, my son,” Adriano responded, with a soft voice like a tender stalk of a gourd.

It seemed that Delgado dived deep into a thought. Dived like a diver searching for a lost treasure in the water. After a moment, he broke the silence,

“Listen, my son! One murder gives you the name of a murderer. Dozens of murders also give you the same name. For both, at best one time death penalty is ordered as the supreme punishment. Not the dozen times. As we committed a sin by talking once, its punishment would be the same, even if we tell you again. It’ll be neither decreased nor relieved.”

He looked at his wife, expecting some permission, and began again,

“Let me tell the whole story.”

She nodded, and he continued,

“It was nineteen years ago. We lived in Lisbon. I got married at 35. She’d be 30 then. Both of us desired to have a kid. The first year passed. The second year passed too. But we’d no kids. At last, after three years she began to carry a kid.  We were very happy. After that, our kid was born in due time. But…”

“But what?” Curious, I asked.

He continued,

“…but what an irony of fate! Our little dear didn’t cry or make any sound. He cast a blank look only for once. Then he closed the eyes and never opened again. We broke down completely. Broke down so much that I decided right away never to talk anymore. Why talk? Talk to whom? When she came round (raising his chin and beckoning Adriano), I let her know of my promise. She consented and said, ‘We’ll talk only if we’ve another kid.’ I said, ‘Be it so.’ From that time, the unbroken silence is our language.”

“How would you communicate all these years without talking?” I asked.

He kept silent for some time, and said,

“Didn’t man communicate before the invention of language? They did. Rather, language has limited the expression of feelings. The day when man turned silence into sound, they limited their feelings, too. Feelings are something infinite. Infinite like darkness, like silence. If you light or create sound there, you can get the instant benefit. But at the same time, you lose the whole. Other creatures, especially trees don’t need a language like humans.”

I couldn’t make out that much what he said. Perhaps I wasn’t that wise at all. Only what I got was that they’d realize the talking in silence better than I. Their eyes began to glisten more with water. He ran his fingers through the beard like a comb. She heaved a sigh and added,

“All these years we had a speechless communication. But our little dear would be your age if he lived now. He’d play like you all. That your friends and you played together near the pine tree and we sat silently nearby, was the reason. We only thought our little dear were playing secretly with you all.”

With that, she heaved a sigh again. I felt guilty, listening to the tragic story of their life. How many times we’d hurt them without knowing anything of them! Perhaps every life has some tragedy or other—I thought—we judge people with their present only. I felt it was my bounden duty to apologize to them.

“Forgive us, please.”

He stopped running his fingers through the beard and cast an affectionate look at me.

“You’re not to blame. None of you did know anything,” he said.

“So why did you break the promise?” I asked to come back to the previous point.

“My dear! We’ve been to you to say it at midnight. But again we thought we didn’t want to commit the same sin by talking. So we came back without saying anything to you,” she answered.

“Before our eyes, a young man was murdered. We couldn’t endure it. All day both of us thought a lot and decided to open our mouth. We were suffering more from the urge to open our mouth than the pain to keep it closed,” he said.

“So you saw who murdered?” I asked.

“Yes, we did,” they said at once.

“Who’s it?” restless, I asked.

“It’s Allan Crite!” They said at once again with aplomb.

The name seemed to resonate through the room. I felt my ears as betrayers. For the moment, the blood stopped flowing throughout my body.

“When you two came to the spot, we could know you were back. So we’ve been to you at midnight,” she added.

On hearing the name of Allan Crite, I was just electrocuted. And it was me who gave him a ride to the station. I committed such a big offence, unknowingly. I said to myself, “Hypocrite! I knew you were eccentric to say things. But I didn’t know you were also eccentric to do things. And when I got to know it, I had nothing to do.”

“Allan-Crite? But he’s out of reach now,” I said to them.

“Still within reach. Maybe police already arrested him,” he said, making me astonished again.

“In the evening when you two came to the spot, we saw Allan holding luggage and started to consult what’s to do. At one point, we were suffering so much to take decision that he (Delgado) blurted, ‘Police have to be informed.’ I simply said, ‘Inform now then.’ That was our first combined sin,” she explained.

After a long time I let out a sigh. I wasn’t sure if it was out of relief or out of upset.

“If the personal sin brings a universal virtue, it’s a divine sin. So there’s nothing called ‘sin’ here. Everything is a virtue,” I said.

The morning sun opened its eyes at that time. Its light pervaded the room through the closed window. The room seemed to be beamed with a new truth.

Before the time when I came here, I thought tigers eat deer; man kills man indiscriminately; a group annihilates another group. And it little matters to Nature. This way I also thought the couple was nonchalant like Nature. The things happening to their surroundings also don’t matter to them. But the light of a new day lit the dark corner of my mind and revealed that Nature fixes long-term irregularities by upending things through its abrupt cyclone, earthquake, or tsunami. As such, some people like them also try to balance the familial and social life silently and secretly through their self-sacrifices.

copyright © 2017 by the author

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