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The Mariner (A Static Drama in One Scene)

translated from the Portuguese by Geoffrey Brock

For Carlos Franco



A room that is doubtless in an ancient castle and that appears to be round. At its center, on a bier, a coffin holding a maiden in white. Four candles at the corners. On the right, almost directly facing whomever imagines the room, a single window, tall and narrow, through which can be seen, between two distant mountains, a small patch of ocean.

Near the window three maidens hold a wake. The first is seated facing the window, her back toward the right rear candle. The other two are seated on either side of the window.

It’s night and there’s a vague trace of moonlight.


First Watcher: The hour hasn’t struck yet.


Second: We couldn’t have heard it. There are no clocks around. It should be morning before long.


Third: No—the horizon is black.


First: Don’t you think, sisters, that we ought to pass the time by telling stories of what we’ve been? It’s beautiful, and always false...


Second: No, let’s not talk about that. And besides, have we been anything?


First: Perhaps. I don’t know. But in any case it’s always beautiful to talk about the past... The hours have slipped by and we’ve kept silent. As for me, I’ve been staring at the flame of that candle. Sometimes it trembles, sometimes it flares to a brighter yellow, sometimes it pales. I don’t know why this happens. But do we know, sisters, why anything happens?




First (continuing): To speak of the past: that must be beautiful, since it’s useless and causes so much grief...


Second: We could speak, if you’d like, of a past we could never have had.


Third: No. We could, perhaps, have had it...


First: What you’re saying is nothing but words. Speaking is so sad! Such a false way of forgetting ourselves! What if we were to go for a walk?


Third: Where?


First: Right here, from one side to the other. Sometimes that conjures up dreams.


Third: Dreams of what?


First: I don’t know. Why should I know of what?



Second: This whole country is so sad... I once lived somewhere that wasn’t so sad. There, as evening fell, I would sit by my window and weave. The window looked out on the ocean, and sometimes you could see an island in the distance... Often I didn’t weave; I gazed at the sea and forgot I was alive. I don’t know if I was happy. I’d never go back to being what I may never have been...


First: I’ve never seen the ocean, except from here. And from this window—the only one with a view of the ocean—you can see so little of it! Is the sea of other countries beautiful?


Second: Only the sea of other countries is beautiful. The sea we’re looking at always inspires nostalgia for what we’ll never see.




First: Didn’t we say we were going to talk about our past?


Second: No, we didn’t.


Third: Why aren’t there any clocks in this room?


Second: I don’t know... But this way, with no clocks, everything is so remote and mysterious! The night belongs more to itself... Who knows if we could speak like this if we knew what time it was?


First: Sister, everything in me is sad—a December of the soul... I’m trying not to look out the window. I know you can see mountains in the distance... I was happy beyond those mountains, once... I was little. I gathered flowers all day, and before falling asleep asked that they not be taken from me... I don’t know why this feels so irreparable that it makes me want to cry... This could have happened a long way from here... When will dawn come?


Third: Who cares? It always comes in the same way... Always, always, always...




Second: Let’s tell each other stories... I don’t know any stories, but there’s no harm in that... Only life can harm us... Let’s not brush against life, not even with the hems of our dresses... No, don’t get up. That would be a gesture, and every gesture interrupts a dream... I wasn’t dreaming at all just then, but it’s nice to think I might have been... But the past—why don’t we talk about the past?


First: We decided not to... Soon day will break and we might regret what we’d said... In the light of day, dreams become dormant... The past is nothing but a dream... As for that, I don’t even know what isn’t a dream... If I watch the present closely, it seems already past... So what is any given thing? What is its passing like? What, from the inside, is the manner of its passing? Oh, let us speak, my sisters, let us speak out loud, with one voice... The silence is beginning to take shape, to become a thing... I feel it enveloping me like a cloud... Oh, speak, speak!


Second: Why? I look at both of you and yet can’t immediately see you... It’s as if chasms were opening between us, widening... I have to struggle to believe I can see you in order to actually see you... This warm air makes me cold inside, in that region that borders the spirit... Right now I should feel impossible hands running through my hair—it’s the gesture we use to speak of sirens... (Crosses her hands over her knees. Pauses.) Just a little while ago, while not thinking of anything, I was thinking of my past.


First: I must have been thinking of mine, too...


Third: I no longer know what I was thinking of—other people’s pasts, perhaps... The pasts of marvelous people who never existed... A brook flowed near my mother’s house. Why did it flow, and why there? Why not farther away, or nearer? Is there any reason for anything to be as it is? Is there any reason that’s as true and real as my hands?


Second: Hands are neither true nor real... They are mysteries that inhabit our lives... Sometimes when I look at my hands, I fear God... There’s no wind to make those candles move, but look, they move... What are they tilting toward? What a pity if anyone could answer! I long to hear a wild music that’s playing even now in palaces on other continents... Always this distance in my soul... Perhaps because, as a little girl, I used to run after waves on the beach. I took life by the hand among rocks, at low tide, when it seemed that the sea had folded its arms across its chest and gone to sleep like an angel statue, so that no one would ever look at it again.


Third: Your words make me recall my soul.


Second: That might be because they aren’t true... I barely know I’m saying them... I’m repeating after a voice I can’t hear that’s murmuring them to me... But I really must have lived on the coast... I love anything that moves like waves... There are waves in my soul... I rock when I walk... I’d like to go for a walk now—but I won’t, since it’s never worth doing anything, above all what one wants to do... The mountains are what I’m scared of. It’s impossible for them to be so still and so large... They must have some stone secret they refuse to reveal... If I were able to stop seeing mountains by leaning out of this window, someone would for a moment lean out of my soul, someone in whom I could feel happy...


First: As for me, I love mountains... On this side of all mountains, life is always ugly... On the other side, where my mother lives, we’d sit in the shade of tamarind trees and talk of visiting other lands... Everything there was long and happy, like the song of two birds, one on each side of the path... The forest had no clearings but our thoughts... And in our dreams, the trees cast onto the ground a calm other than their shade... Certainly we lived there, I and—I don’t know who else... Tell me this was true so I won’t have to weep...


Second: I lived among rocks and watched the sea... The hem of my skirt was cool and salty against my bare legs... I was small and wild... Today I’m afraid of having been... In the present I seem to be asleep... Speak to me of fairies. No one’s ever spoken to me of fairies... The sea was too large to make us think of them... In life, being small is a comfort... Were you happy, sister?


First: I’m beginning right now to have once been happy... Besides, my past all happened in the shade... The trees lived it more than I... It never fully arrived, nor did I expect it to... And you, sister, why don’t you speak?


Third: I have the horrible feeling that a little while ago I may have already said what I’m about to say. My present words, as soon as I’ve said them, will belong to the past, will remain outside me, I don’t know where, inflexible and fatal... I speak, and I think about this in my throat, and my words resemble people... I have a fear larger than myself... I feel as if the key to an unknown door were in my hand, I don’t know how. And as if all of me were a talisman or a sanctuary that’s conscious of itself. That’s why I’m terrified to penetrate the mystery of speech, as though it were a dark forest... And, finally, who knows if I’m like this, if it’s truly this that I feel?


First: It’s so hard to know what we feel when we watch ourselves closely! Just living seems hard when we recognize it as that... Speak, then, without realizing you exist... Weren’t you going to tell us who you were?


Third: Whoever I once was no longer recalls who I am... What a poor, happy creature I was! I lived among shadows of branches; everything in my soul is a trembling leaf. When I walk in the sun my shadow is cool. I spent my fugitive days by fountains, in which I dipped the calm tips of my fingers while dreaming of living... Occasionally, on the edges of lakes, I’d lean over and gaze at myself... When I smiled, my teeth were mysteries in the water... That smile was theirs alone, apart from me... Whenever I smiled, it was for no reason... Speak to me of death, of the end of everything, to give me a reason to remember...


First: Let’s not talk about anything, anything at all... It’s colder now, but why? There’s no reason for it to be colder. Or perhaps it isn’t colder, exactly... Why do we have to talk? It’s better to sing, I don’t know why... A song—when sung at night—is a happy, fearless person suddenly entering the room, warming it and consoling us... I could sing you a song we used to sing in the house of my past. Why don’t you want me to sing it to you?


Third: It’s not worth the trouble, sister... When someone sings I can’t be with myself. I’m obliged to forget myself. And then my entire past becomes another, and I mourn the dead life I carry with me but have never lived. It’s always too late to sing, and always too late not to sing...




First: Soon it will be morning... Let’s remain silent... Life wants it that way. Outside the house where I was born there was a lake. I used to go there and sit on the shore, on a tree trunk that had fallen at the water’s edge... I’d sit on the tip, feet dangling in the water, and stretch my fingers toward the base. Then I’d stare for too long at the tips of my feet, but not in order to see them. I don’t know why, but it seems this lake never existed... Remembering it is like not being able to remember anything... Who knows why I say this and whether it was I who lived what I remember?


Second: We are sad when we dream by the sea... We can’t be what we want to be, because what we want to be, we want always to have been... When the wave spreads and the foam hisses, it seems at least a thousand voices speak... The foam seems novel only to those who judge it as one thing... Everything is many, and we know nothing... Would you like me to tell you the story of what I was dreaming by the sea?


First: You can tell it, sister, but nothing in us needs to hear you tell it... If it’s beautiful, I already foresee the sorrow of having heard it. And if it’s not beautiful, wait... Tell it only after altering it...


Second: I’ll tell it to you. It isn’t entirely false, because certainly nothing’s entirely false. It must have been like this... One day I found myself resting on the cold summit of a cliff, and I’d forgotten that I’d once had a mother and father, that I’d harbored within me a childhood and other days—and that day I saw in the distance, like something I would only have imagined, the vague passing of a sail... Then it vanished... When I returned to myself, I saw that I already contained this dream... I don’t know where it began, and I never went back to see another sail... None of the sails on the ships that come from these harbors resemble that sail, even when there’s a moon and the ships pass slowly in the distance...


First: From the window I can see a ship in the distance. Perhaps it’s the same one you saw...


Second: No, sister—the one you see is bound for some harbor... It wasn’t possible that the one I saw sought any harbor...


First: Why do you answer so sharply? It could be... But I saw no ship from the window... I wanted to see one, and I spoke to avoid suffering... Tell us now what you were dreaming by the sea...


Second: I was dreaming of a mariner who was lost on a distant island... On this island there were a few stiff palms, vague birds flitting among them... I couldn’t see whether any had perched on the branches... The mariner had lived there since his shipwreck... Because he had no way to return to his homeland and suffered whenever he remembered it, he set out to dream a homeland he’d never had, to make it so that it was his, and had always been—a different kind of country with other landscapes, other people, other ways of walking down streets, of leaning out windows... Every hour he built in his dreams this false homeland, never ceasing to dream, by day in the brief shade of the great palms that cast their beaked images on the hot sand, and by night stretched on his back on the beach, heedless of the stars.


First: May there never have been a tree that cast on my outstretched hands the shadow of a dream like that one!


Third: Let her speak... Don’t interrupt... She knows words the sirens taught her... I’m going to close my eyes so I can listen to her... Speak, my sister, speak... My heart aches that I wasn’t you when you were dreaming by the sea...


Second: For years and years, day after day, the mariner, in one continuous dream, constructed his new native land... Each day he added an imagined stone to his impossible edifice... Soon he had a country already many times traversed. He already remembered thousands of hours he’d passed along its coasts. He knew the usual color of twilight in a northern bay, and what it was to glide, late at night, with one’s soul basking in the murmur of ship-parted water, into a large southern port he’d once visited, perhaps happily, in his supposed youth...




First: Sister, why have you stopped?


Second: One shouldn’t speak too much. Life is always watching us. Every hour is the mother of dreams, but we must not be aware of that... When I talk too much I begin to separate from myself and hear myself talk. I pity myself and feel my heart too sharply. Then I have this hysterical desire to take it in my arms and rock it like a baby... Look: the horizon is paling... Morning can’t be too far off... Do I need to tell you any more of my dream?


First: Yes, sister, keep going... Don’t stop; pay no attention to the breaking day... The day never breaks when you lay your head on the breast of dreamed hours... Don’t wring your hands—it makes a noise like a furtive snake... Tell us much more about your dream. It’s so true that it makes no sense at all. The mere thought of listening to you touches my soul with music...


Second: Yes, I’ll go on. I need to tell you this. In telling you, I’m also telling myself... All three of us will listen... (Suddenly, looking at the coffin and shuddering.) No, not three... I don’t know... I don’t know how many...


Third: Don’t talk like that... Hurry and tell us more, tell us again... Say nothing about who might be listening... We never know how many things are really alive, watching and listening... Go back to your dream... The mariner—what was the mariner dreaming?


Second (softer, and very slowly): First he created landscapes, then he created cities, then streets and alleys, one by one, chiseling them into the substance of his soul—one by one the streets, neighborhood by neighborhood, as far as the walls of the quays where he then created the ports... One by one the streets, and the people who passed through them and watched over them from their windows... He began to encounter people he scarcely recognized... He’d get to know their life stories, their conversations, and all this like one who goes on seeing a landscape he’s merely dreamed... Then he traveled, by memory, across the country he’d created... And thus he built his past... Soon he had lived another life... Already, in this new homeland, he had a birthplace, places where he’d spent his youth, ports he’d embarked from... He began to have had childhood companions and later the friends and enemies of manhood... Everything was different from what he had known—neither the country, nor the people, nor his own past resembled what had actually been... Should I go on? It makes me so sad to speak of it! Now, because I’m speaking of this, I’d rather speak of other dreams...


Third: Go on, even if you don’t know why... The more I listen to you the less I belong to myself...


First: Is it really a good idea to go on? Does every story have to have an end? But speak anyway... It matters so little what we say or don’t say... We’ll keep vigil over the passing hours... Our task is useless as Life...


Second: One day, after heavy rains, the horizon still a blur, the mariner grew tired of dreaming... He wished then to remember his true homeland, but realized that he could remember nothing of it, that it didn’t exist for him... The only childhood he remembered was the one in his dream country, the adolescence he remembered was the one he’d created... All his life had now been the life he’d dreamed... And he saw that it was impossible for any other life to have existed... If he recalled not a single street, not one figure, not even some maternal gesture... As for the life he thought he had dreamed, everything was real, had actually been... He couldn’t even dream another past or conceive of having had a different one—something everyone, for a moment, can imagine... O my sisters, my sisters... There’s something I haven’t told you, I don’t know what, something that would explain all this... My soul chills me... I’m barely aware of having spoken... Speak to me, shout, so I might wake, so I might know that I’m here before you and that there are things that are merely dreams...


First (in a very low voice): I don’t know what to tell you... I don’t dare look at things... What happens next in the dream?


Second: I don’t know what happens next... I barely know... Why should it go on?


First: But what happens after?


Second: After? After what? Does “after” mean anything? One day a boat came by... One day a boat came by... Yes, yes, it could only have been that... One day a boat came by, and it passed that island, and the mariner wasn’t there...


Third: Perhaps he had gone back home... But to which one?


First: Yes—to which one? And what could have become of him? Will anyone ever know?


Second: Why ask me? Must there be an answer for everything?




Third: Is it absolutely necessary, even in your dream, for there to have been that mariner and that island?


Second: No, sister; nothing is absolutely necessary.


First: At least tell us how the dream ended.


Second: It didn’t end... I don’t know... No dream ends... Can I know for certain that I’m not still dreaming without knowing it, or that the dreaming itself isn’t this vague thing I call my life? Don’t talk to me anymore... I begin to be sure of something, I don’t know of what... Then, during some night that isn’t this one, they advance toward me, the footsteps of a horror I don’t recognize... Who would’ve been likely to wake up during the dream of mine that I’ve recounted to you? I have a grotesque fear that God may have prohibited my dream, which is doubtless more real than God allows... Don’t remain silent... Tell me at least that the night is passing, though I know it is... See, it’s almost daylight... Look: the real day is beginning to dawn... Let’s stop... Let’s not think any more... Let’s not try to follow this interior adventure... Who knows what’s at the end of it? All this, my sisters, happened in the night... We must never speak of it, not even to ourselves... It’s human and necessary that we maintain, each of us, our own posture of sadness.


Third: I loved listening to you... Don’t say I didn’t... Of course I know it wasn’t worth the trouble... That’s why I loved it... That wasn’t why, but let me say it was... Besides, the music of your voice, which I listened to more than the words, leaves me, perhaps simply because it is music, discontent...


Second: Everything leaves us discontent, sister... People who think get tired of everything, because everything changes. Those who die prove it, because they change with everything else... Only the dream is eternal and beautiful... Why are we still talking?


First: I don’t know... (looking at the coffin, in a lower voice) —Why do we die?


Second: Perhaps from not dreaming enough...


First: That’s possible... It wouldn’t be worth the trouble, then, to close ourselves into a dream and forget life, so that life might forget us?


Second: No, sister, nothing’s worth the trouble...


Third: Sisters, it’s morning already... Look, the outline of the hills is amazing itself... Why aren’t we weeping? She who pretends to be there was beautiful and young, like us, and she dreamed, too... I’m sure her dream was the most beautiful of all... What might she have dreamed of?


First: Speak more softly. Perhaps she’s listening to us, and already knows what dreams are for...




Second: Maybe none of this is true... All this silence, this corpse, this day that’s beginning—perhaps they’re nothing but a dream... Look closely at all this... Does it seem to you to belong to life?


First: I don’t know. I don’t know how it could belong to life. Ah, how rapt you are, sister! And how sad your eyes, and so uselessly, it seems...


Second: It’s not worth being sad any other way... Wouldn’t you like us to be silent? It’s so strange to be alive... Everything that happens defies belief, on the mariner’s island as in this world... Look, the sky is already green... The horizon a gold smile... My ears are burning for having thought of weeping...


First: You actually did cry, sister.


Second: Perhaps... It doesn’t matter... What is this cold? Ah, come now—come now! Tell me this... Tell me one more thing... Why couldn’t the only real thing in all this be the mariner, and us and everything here merely one of his dreams?


First: Stop talking, stop talking... That’s so strange it must be true... Don’t go on... I don’t know what you were about to say, but it is no doubt more than my soul could hear... I’m afraid of what you didn’t get a chance to say... Look, look: it’s day now... Look at the day... Do all you can to focus on this day, the real day, there outside... Look at it, look at it... It’s comforting... Don’t think, pay no attention to your thoughts... Look at it, the day is coming... It’s shining like gold in a land of silver. The light clouds are rounding out as they color... What if nothing existed, my sisters? What if everything were, in some way, absolutely nothing? Why are you staring like that?


(They don’t respond. And no one has been staring at anything.)


First (continuing): What was it you told me that scared me? I felt it so deeply I couldn’t tell what it was... Tell me what it was, because on hearing it a second time I might not be as frightened as before... No, no... Don’t answer... I asked not in order to be answered, but just to speak, to avoid thinking... I’m afraid of being able to remember what it was... But it was something large and frightening like the existence of God... We must already have ceased speaking... Some time ago our conversation stopped making sense... Whatever there is between us that makes us speak is overstretching itself... There are presences other than our souls here... Dawn should have come by now... My sisters should already have awoken... Something is late... Everything is late... What is it in things that happens in accordance with our terror? Oh, don’t abandon me... Speak with me, speak with me... Speak while I speak so I won’t be left alone with my voice... I’m less afraid of my voice than of the idea of my voice, if I’m aware that I’m speaking...


Third: Whose voice are you speaking with? It’s the voice of another... It comes as if from far away...


First: I don’t know... I can’t recall... I must have been speaking with a sharp and trembling voice, out of fear... But I no longer know how to speak... Between me and my voice an abyss has opened... All this—all this talk, this night, this fear—all this should have come to an end, should have ended quickly, after the horror you described to us... I’m beginning to feel I’m forgetting it—what you described and what made me think I should invent a new kind of scream to express its horror...


Third (to the Second): Sister, you shouldn’t have told us that story. Now life feels stranger, more horrifying. You told your story, and I was so distracted that I felt the sense of your words and their sound separately. And it seemed that you and your voice and the sense of what you were saying were three different beings, like three creatures speaking and walking together.


Second: They really are three different beings, each with its own, real life. God knows why, perhaps... Ah, but why are we speaking? Who is making us go on speaking? Why am I talking without wanting to talk? Why do we still not realize it’s morning?


First: If only someone could shout out to wake us! I can hear myself shouting within myself, but I no longer know the path from my will to my throat. I feel a ferocious need to fear that someone might knock on that door. Why isn’t anyone knocking on the door? It would be impossible, and I need to fear it, and to know what it is I fear... How strange I feel! It seems to me I no longer have a voice... A part of me went to sleep and is looking on... My fear grows but I no longer feel it... I don’t know where in my soul it can be felt... My body’s senses have been shrouded in lead... Why did you tell us your story?


Second: I don’t remember... I barely recall telling it... It already seems such a long time ago! What sleep, what sleep absorbs my way of looking at things! What is it we want to do? Or what are we thinking of doing? I no longer know if this is speaking or not speaking...


First: Let’s stop talking. The effort you make to speak exhausts me... I’m pained by the gap between what you think and what you say... My consciousness floats on the surface of my drowsiness, frightened of my senses by my skin... I don’t know what this is, but it’s what I feel... I need to use rather long confusing sentences, that are hard to say... Don’t you feel all this like a huge spider that moves from soul to soul, spinning a black web that holds us fast?


Second: I don’t feel anything... I feel my sensations like something one touches... Who am I being? Who’s that speaking with my voice? Ah, listen...


First & Third: Who was it?


Second: Nothing. I heard nothing... I wanted to pretend I’d heard something so you’d think you had too, so I could believe there had been something to hear... Oh, the horror, the inmost horror that unfastens our voice from our soul, our feelings from our thoughts, that makes us speak feel think when everything in us asks for silence and daybreak and unconsciousness of life... Who is the fifth person in this room who extends an arm to interrupt us whenever we’re about to feel?


First: Why are you trying to scare me? No more terror will fit in me... I’m too heavy for the arms of my senses to bear... I’m fully submerged in the tepid mud of what I imagine I feel. Something’s entering me through all my senses, something that catches and watches us. My eyelids weigh down all my sensations. My tongue gets tangled in all my feelings. A deep sleepiness glues together the ideas of all my gestures. Why were you looking at me like that?


Third (in a very slow, spent voice): Ah, it’s time, it’s time... Yes, someone has woken... People are waking... When someone comes in all this will end... Until then let’s try to believe that all this horror was a long dream we’ve slept through... It’s morning... Everything’s about to end... And after all this, my sister, you alone are happy, because you believe the dream...


Second: Why are you asking? Because I said so? No, I don’t believe...


A rooster crows. The light, all of a sudden, brightens. The three watchers remain silent, not looking at each other.

Not too far away, along a road, a roving carriage groans and squeaks.

11-12 October 1913



Geoffrey Brock is the author of Weighing Light and the translator of books by Umberto Eco, Cesare Pavese, and Roberto Calasso. His website is





Fernando Pessoa

Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) was the greatest Portuguese poet of the twentieth century, or perhaps the three greatest. He is most famous for creating dozens of "heteronyms,"including Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, and Alvaro de Campos, alter egos who were not mere pseudonyms but rather fully distinct author figures, each with his own aesthetic, personality, and biography. The Mariner, written in 1913, richly foreshadows the births, in 1914, of the great heteronyms and was one of the few texts Pessoa published under his own name, which itself became, in effect, just another heteronym. Several volumes of his work are available in English, including The Book of Disquiet and A Little Larger than the Entire Universe: Selected Poems, both translated beautifully by Richard Zenith.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2008

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