The Beggarwoman of Sé Cathedral

After bebê was born, I went from being the love of my parents’ lives for the past eleven years to persona non grata. Mãe spent all her time attending to the screaming newborn, but to no avail. Pai grew increasingly grumpy from lack of sleep and his long hours at the law firm. Instead of playing with me, he remained anchored to the parlor, engrossed in the newspapers. Occasionally, he blurted out “Maníaco!” about some German named “Hitler” and twirled the ends of his black handlebar moustache. Never a good sign.

The worst part was being banished to the second floor, a messy storage area which became my “bedroom.” Mãe could no longer leave bebê to come upstairs for our evening hair-brushing ritual. I felt utterly alone, shipwrecked in my own home.

However, I soon learned there were certain advantages to this new sleeping arrangement. I discovered my love of literature, the pleasantest way of ignoring life (as Pessoa would later write), and borrowed dozens of books from the local library. By disappearing into the faraway worlds of Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island, I found a way of tuning out bebê’s howls and cozied up to my new best friends and confidantes.

It was while reading at my window desk one evening, I first noticed Pessoa doing the same in his first-floor quarters across the street. I blew out the candle and studied him as he intensely scrutinized his text with thick, round spectacles. Sometimes he abruptly stood up and paced about the room, gesticulating with his cigarette. Other times, he used his pencil as a baton and waved it à la Toscanini over the pages, as if conducting a silent symphony of words.

In “Tabacaria,” Álvaro de Campos wrote, “Windows of my room, the room of one of the millions nobody knows.” I came to know my neighbor’s room intimately, first from a distance, and later on that fateful night. Watching him was more entertaining than seeing Shirley Temple at the picture show.

In the summer months, Pessoa, like most of our neighbors, kept the windows to his first-floor rooms open. Sometimes I would listen from the sidewalk as his fingers graced the typewriter, its sounds punctuating the seamless sky. On other occasions, I would lie on my bed and listen to the “click click click” echo through the window, followed by the bright ringing of a tiny bell.

# # #

I soon realized that some of the rhythms Pessoa produced on the machine followed a pattern. Although he usually typed quite smoothly and steadily, a sudden accelerando or rubato could erupt, followed by a long silence. A deeper pounding of the keys would then commence and crescendo into an argument, with harmony restored during a ritardando at the end of the paragraph.

Now and then, each letter arrived on the page in staccato form, which I attributed to Pessoa trying out a new character. This was followed by a luscious legato that lasted for long stretches, as if he were in a creative fog, or trance. During these moments, I imagined an unseen force guiding the writer’s fingertips, as if he couldn’t control what flowed out of them.

At other times, my ears picked up on an alternation between rhythms, or a slight syncopation, which I later attributed to the Brazilian adventures of Richard Reis. (Alberto Caeiro had already died of tuberculosis.) At my young age, I wasn’t yet aware of Pessoa’s various heteronyms.

Although pai complained about “all the racket” generated from our neighbor’s typewriter, when I look back, I can see there already were invisible hands weaving my destiny on those very nights.