The Bed of Nails
He is amazed that they aren't any different. Beneath the old man staring sullenly at the bedspread, he can still see his brother Paris perfectly well. He can see him aged just over twenty, around the time of their last great bout of fraternal fisticuffs. He doesn't remember his own cracked lip, or the clumsy punches they traded, or even the reason for them. His brother has always remained in his memory as the one who, having stopped fighting, had threatened him from far off, running away and crying, with that ridiculous disadvantage he'd always had of shrieking whenever he got excited. Paris would stammer, his arm raised, searching for the word that could most hurt him from a distance. A wish that was itself contradictory, for wasn't Paris the one screaming that nothing could ever hurt Adonis?
They are, therefore, the same two brothers, but old now. Just one or two differences in appearance have been heightened: Paris is thinner, with a bigger nose and more hunched, whilst Adonis has become more solid over the years, thickset, redder, with the same voracious gesture of placing his hand over his breast, always ready for action. And then there was the fatal difference: Paris had been dead, had been forcibly revived, and all that he had gained from death was despondency and a tremendous lack of patience for everyday life. He had already had this in abundance before dying, so that, in fact, he had changed very little after the crisis, except in the eyes of other people.
Adonis stands on the threshold, his right foot slightly forward. But he does not hesitate for very long, he has immediately recognised the crease between Paris's eyebrows, after twenty years, and he moves towards his brother like somebody with a mission, all at once. He stops in front of the wheelchair, represses the desire to smooth his thinning hair combed from right to left in a rainbow from ear to ear, sits on the bedspread of tiny roses and chooses his words:
"Well, then?' he asks. "How's it going?'
His sister-in-law comes in at that moment with a glass of milk.
"He's never forgotten, never forgiven,' she says. "What you see there is all your own work.'
She was still referring to the dispute over the dining-room furniture. Their father dead, their mother dead, their aunts and uncles out of the way, all that was left was the furniture of the house: in the living-room, in the bedrooms, the hall-stand. A list was made, it couldn't be divided up evenly. There was a crystal bowl, there was a mirror, there was the picture frame with the small etching, there were the portraits, how could some be kept and others lost? Adonis tossed a coin. The pine table and chairs blackened by use and time went to him, with Paris silenced by his own resentment at his brother's levity. Adonis sold everything by weight, including the sentimental furniture, immediately afterwards. He said that he wanted to take a trip to the Far East. He was forty-five years old, and still lived like a young man, from this and that, with no obligations.
"Paris's colitis,' said his sister-in-law, "comes from that time. From his colitis came his heart trouble. From his heart trouble came the attack. And now here he is in a wheelchair. One day I found him purple in the face, lying on the kitchen floor, panting his heart out, with a gash across his brow...'
They both contemplated Paris's silent brow, his head lowered even further. Instead of the gash, all they could see were his eyebrows, his defence against attention.
"But that's exactly why I came here,' Adonis interrupted her. "First of all, to ask for forgiveness. And then to tell Paris that I want to compensate him as much as possible.'
"Compensation, now...' wailed his sister-in-law.
"What do the doctors say?'
Quickly, his sister-in-law insulted each of the doctors in their respective specialities. Along came one and he did it one way, followed by another who was different, she didn't even understand the language he was using, but in the end what she could understand didn't help much. It was mainly through their faces that she derived the meaning of the illness. His sister-in-law preferred the serious ones, who always treated her politely, whatever the results of the tests. There were some who deceived her greatly, the bastards used to smile and shake their heads at the same time. When talking about these, she used to say:
"A quack. I never went back.'
Paris shrugged his shoulders. He still had a great sense of opportunity. He hadn't spoken, hadn't raised his head. His hands hung down from the arms of the chair. Adonis focused his attention either on his sister-in-law's face or on the part of the bedspread that his brother was contemplating. From time to time, he looked around him, with a wry smile.
"You know that I've been in the East, in China, India and Pakistan. I brought back a very valuable piece of furniture with me, which can perform real miracles in cases like this.'
It was the bed of nails belonging to the famous Fakir Mudami, proficient in all the arts of suffering and self-mortification, who, although he had practically been canonised, continued to carry out painful experiments on both himself and his disciples with a methodical spirit.
"Twenty years later you come here to insult us in this way? After stealing the living-room furniture from us and being the cause of your brother's misfortune, you come here and give us a bed of nails?
It's not a bed of nails, it's the bed of nails that belonged to the Fakir Mudami, and it has unique healing properties. It's been tried out by several of my patients and it's always produced marvellous results.
"Your patients?' Paris finally articulated. "What kind of racket are you involved in now?'
And he was particularly clear. He often had difficulty in controlling his tongue, which would get entangled in his molars, or difficulties prior to using his tongue, when his head couldn't remember the words, but this time the sentences that he uttered could be written straight down on paper. And after he'd uttered them, he finally drank down in one gulp the glass of milk that had been standing on the bedside table.
"Believe me. Trust me. This Fakir Mudami, who I studied under for about five years, isn't one of those people who go around swallowing swords whole. He's a saint, a great man. He's always gone on long fasts to purify himself, I used to be really amazed when I saw him standing or praying in very uncomfortable positions. Comfort is hell for the soul. His bed doesn't prevent him from sleeping, it just gives him a different kind of sleep, one that's more spiritual. He was a yogi, as well, you know what that is? It's...'
"Eat this glass,' Paris interrupted him. "If you're such a fakir, you can eat glass.'
"You don't believe me.'
"Do what I tell you and I'll believe you.'
"You don't believe me, or else you wouldn't ask me to prove it.'
Paris picked up the glass and held it out towards his brother. His illness hadn't altered his eye for detail. He noticed that there were hairs growing out of Adonis's ears and this filled him with great contentment.
"There's no commitment,' Adonis said. "If you're not satisfied with the bed, you can give it back to me and that's the end of it.'
"Why don't you just go away? Don't you think you've made enough fun of me?'
Adonis stood up suddenly, with a sense of relief. This was the end to a visit that hadn't augured well right from the start. But the game was his: he had tried to help his brother and sister-in-law, but they had refused. Two years ago he had come back to Lisbon and he'd insisted, at least twice. The first time, they'd been rude to him on the phone. His sister-in-law had pretended not to recognise him. Adonis? We don't know any Adonis! If you don't mind, would you please hang up and not bother us? He had let a few months pass. During a period of idleness that he'd been forced into by a lack of work, he had made another attempt at reconciliation. This was the way it was to end. He had come round, made an offer, and they were putting him out. He was dismissed.
Sitting in his chair, Paris still thought of following the paradigm of laughing diabolically over his victory, but he lost his nerve. He almost smiled, the glass in his hand, weak, without any fight. He was sorry. It would have been a good ending, if reality were what we always hoped it would be. But he was tired, he felt sleepy and wanted to urinate and all of this was too much of a burden for him, on top of it all, to have to laugh diabolically at his brother - the clown, the cheat, now pretending to be a fakir.
For a long time Paris and his wife had discussed the Adonis phenomenon. Everything about him seemed repellent. Paris delved deep into the past to uncover the various forms of deceit of which his brother was guilty and he was the victim. There had been obvious lies, such as this one of having studied under the Fakir Mudami for five years, there had been lies that had only been discovered by chance, bumping into someone in the street who casually contradicted what Adonis had tried to make him believe, there had been omissions, dissimulations, inventions, falsifications of facts and words - Paris had later discovered that their parents' furniture wasn't made of pine, such a vile wood, as Adonis had claimed in order to run it down, but of cherry, which was much more valuable. It certainly hadn't been enough to pay for the trip to India, but the intention had been spiteful and it was the intention that killed.
Paris maintained that Adonis lied out of malice, with the aim of creating a certain expectation, addicted to the pleasure of watching the other's desolation, but his wife, who didn't know him so well, and with the aim perhaps merely of contradicting the sick man, thought that she knew that Adonis often wasn't even aware that he was lying. It was a trait of individuality that defined him, like being hairy and short-legged. It was still, nonetheless, grievous and hurtful for all concerned. Both for himself, who lived in a world of fantasies, and for others, who found themselves forced not to take him seriously. Above all, Paris saw no great difference between lying out of malice or lying unwittingly, since the results were the same. It was trust that was at stake. Trust that had been shaken to the core.
After this conversation, Paris had fallen into a state of lethargy. He stopped eating and didn't say a word for days. His wife was worried, railed at him, threatened him. If he didn't eat, he would die. And he would open his mouth a little, make an effort to swallow, close his hollow eyes, and pucker up his eyebrows. He couldn't do it. The doctor came with the drip, they kept an eye on him and thought that he was once again about to die. His heart, however, stood firm, at the helm. It beat regularly. Indifferent to Paris's suffering.
Christmas came, New Year's Day went by and Paris improved. He would sit up in bed, chatter to his wife and a neighbour who liked sick people and illnesses. Towards the end of an afternoon that had been just as inactive as all the others, the neighbour having left making a whole host of recommendations, Paris asked his wife:
"Have you got my brother's phone number anywhere? I feel that I could talk to him now about the bed.'
His wife stared at him as if she were now seeing him for the first time.
"Have you gone mad? What bed?'
He was, of course, referring to the bed of the Fakir Mudami, who, even so, had seemed to him to be an innocent and kindly man. He had managed, in this period that the others had considered to be one of death and actually had been one of reflection, to disengage the personality of the fakir from that of its author, Adonis - and to believe in one, whilst hating the other. It can't, however, be said that Paris and his wife had exhausted all the therapeutic possibilities. One knows all about the suffering of those who, disheartened by the incompetence of official medicine, give themselves up to all kinds of pious deceptions that operate more at the level of psychological hope than actually on the kidneys. Paris was not one of these. He had considered himself to be paralysed, although he wasn't, for he was perfectly capable of getting out of bed and sitting in the chair, or getting out of the chair and lying in bed; and he had claimed to be incurable, although nobody had made such a prognosis. Death would be a huge relief. First and foremost for him, whose curiosity about the absolute sleep was simultaneously a blessing and a curse.
Paris felt great difficulty in explaining why on earth the idea had wormed its way into his mind of seeking out his brother and reclaiming the Fakir Mudami's bed of nails. The long fast that he had forced upon himself, the sleepless nights spent ruminating, remembering Adonis's insults, had brought him impassively to consider himself quite close to this saintly man who slept on nails in order not to forget his body. This was what Paris felt above all else: the impossibility of forgetting his body, when remembering it gave him no pleasure and was of no use. A dead weight. Paris's ascetic side had probably been born with him. Who knows if he wasn't already performing exercises in self-control, hunched into very uncomfortable positions in a corner of his mother's womb, in the same womb where Adonis was later to wallow, belly up, occupying the whole space?
Around Christmas, insensible and half-dead in his double bed, Paris had seen the Fakir Mudami's bed of nails, in the sweet early hours of the morning, hovering above the chest of drawers. He had seen it quite clearly, rotating one way and then the other, presenting itself from every angle before Paris's half-closed eyes, like a beautiful product in a shop window. It was made of rough, dark wood and had the form of a gigantic clothes brush, but a brush that was almost square, closer to the shape of the ferule. Instead of bristles, there were nails, placed very close together, their pointed ends flattened by hammer blows, forming a concave metal sheet, the surface that received the skin and bone of the fakir's back.
In mid-January, Paris had summoned up enough courage to ask his wife for his brother's phone number. She had looked at him in such a way that Paris had thought it best to keep quiet and had begun searching furtively around the house, whenever his wife went out shopping. The number wasn't in her diary by the phone. It wasn't on the bedside-table, nor was it in the old writing-desk in the living-room, which already had one foot in the grave, with one of its lopers missing and the other one jammed, so that its title of writing-desk was a polite euphemism, rather like using the name of interior decorator to describe the labourer who comes to lay the tiles. Wheeling himself feverishly around the house in his chair, Paris had sifted through all the likely hiding-places. One afternoon, quite brilliantly, he remembered the phone-book. There was an Adonis, but he wasn't Moreira. He decided to phone, perhaps considering it possible that all the Adonises in Lisbon were friends with one another. The number had been changed, directory enquiries didn't know his brother's whereabouts and Paris found himself forced to ask his wife once more.
She didn't take kindly to his insistence. What was he after? What idea was this about the fakir? What fresh madness would she have to put up with now? Raising her voice, his wife surprised even herself with her final disjunctive: either Paris gave up the idea of his brother and the fakir or else he would have to give her up. She would go and live with the woman next-door. She would continue to bring him his meals, but she would refuse to live under the same roof as a madman in pursuit of a bed of nails, whose existence was highly unlikely.
In view of the silence exhibited by Paris, who was staring most determinedly at the bedspread of roses, his back to the window as was his habit, his wife packed her bags and headed for the door. Before leaving, she threw him a small scrap of crumpled paper, which landed by the foot of the bed. Paris did not look at the paper for long, although he understood that the transaction would probably cost him very dear. He dialled the number and heard Adonis's voice on the answering machine, introducing himself as a naturalist doctor and iridologist and asking callers to leave their numbers. This was what Paris did, in a curt, grudging voice.
Adonis showed up the next day, appearing triumphant to Paris's eyes. When his brother sat down in the worn-out armchair, Paris already regretted being who he was.
"What about the bed?' he asked.
It was kept in a warehouse in Mem Martins, where the troubled naturalist had stored the rare treasures from his travels. That was where he kept the thousand-bead rosary from the Sufi Abdullah and the sword that had killed Rami, the dervish, who had fallen on the blade by divine decree, in a dancing ecstasy. He told him that he had brought medicinal herbs in large sacks, but that now they were rotting and losing their virtues, because of the damp out there in Sintra.
"You don't happen to have any storage space, do you? It's just that everything's getting ruined... They're extremely rare plants, it's a pity. I have few patients, people are healthier nowadays, it seems. They eat more vegetables, drink milk, it all has consequences.'
Before he knew it, Paris was promising his brother the free space in the cupboard of the adjoining room for his exotic herbs. In exchange, Adonis would bring the bed.
"But you need training,' he said. "Don't think that just anybody can allow themselves the luxury of sleeping on one of those things. I'll have to stay with you for a few days, until you get acclimatised to it. What's happened to your wife?'
That evening, Adonis was to move into his brother's house, with the bed and the plants. There were also some kitchen utensils with a special propensity for the concoction of potions, and these would be coming too. Even while he was agreeing to this, Paris was already beginning to deeply regret everything. It had always seemed to him that his brother was winning, ever since he was born, he had been winning every game. During the night, he thought of a way of getting rid of him, whilst at the same time keeping the bed that belonged to him. During the night, it all became clear. He would tell his brother:
"I don't have any room for you after all, nor for your things. My house is just big enough for me and the fakir's bed.'
This was what he told him the next morning, to which Adonis replied:
"I see. Don't worry, I'll bring the bed today and give you the instructions.'
But he still sat for a while drinking a tisane that he had made, and, after a ritual silence, he crossed his short legs and explained:
"This Fakir Mudami is a funny fellow. He drinks like a fish, disobeying all the rules of his religion, and fasts. He sleeps on the bed of nails, alone, but he has more than twenty children living close by him. And he prays, days and night on end, after beating his disciples.'
"He's a hypocrite!' shouted Paris.
"I don't know about that. That wasn't what he seemed to me. God isn't always good either, is he? But what He does is always good.'
Paris felt that he was beginning to get some feeling back in his legs. Feeling, it froze him. He thought, but very quickly, about the devil. About Adonis and the devil. He closed his eyes.
"You madman. You oughtn't to say that.'
Adonis's effect on Paris, fifty years ago, or even today, had always been the same. One of them would lie and the other would act as a minor inquisitor. One of them would be economical with the truth, the other would point the finger. One of them would invent a story, a heresy, the other would take a moral stance. Paris, who didn't believe in anything other than the prison of his body, and faced with his brother Adonis, who was talking nonsense about God, surprised himself by behaving almost like a seminarist. And he was being eaten away by envy: Adonis had an effect on him, and he had no effect on Adonis.
Adonis smiled, adjusted his cream-coloured socks, which were breathing calmly through the small holes in his shoes, and stopped speaking. On the way out, dragging with him two light burlap sacks containing his herbs, he said that he would be back soon, he just had to find someone to help him carry the bed. He said that, although it was small, the bed was still heavy. And that care would have to be taken not to put it at the intersection of electric currents, which could alter its properties.
Paris was left in a state of complete disbelief. If he could, without hurting himself, have banged his head physically against the walls, blaming himself for his naivety, his gullibility, his absolute stupidity, he would have done so. All he noticed himself doing was beating his hand slowly against his chest, absent-mindedly, without managing to stop turning over in his mind all the contradictions uttered by his brother: first, the fakir fasted and prayed until the community were amazed by his resistance, then, after all, he was a drunkard, who could barely stand up, and now the saintly man was being transformed into a foul-tempered fornicator who fathered babies two at a time and beat his disciples right, left and centre. What virtues could the bed of a man like that have? Paris was finally arriving at the real question, via intraversable paths, after a great deal of uninterrupted reflection, and he raised his head, was left hanging, for he had cocked an ear to listen to the roar of the only sensible question:
"What illness does he think I have, to suggest such a cure to me?'
It was no longer the bed that he was after. He wanted to know, once and for all, what Adonis thought about him. He rang, listened to the recorded message, and left one of his own. He waited for Adonis and the fulfilment of his promise. Adonis had disappeared. Paris was discovering unprecedented resources to search for his brother. He paid the neighbour, unbeknown to his wife, to go to Adonis's house and leave a note for him under the door. He rang Adonis's neighbour, whose number he had got from directory enquiries, saying that it was an emergency and asking her to call his brother. All to no avail. At night, he rang every half hour, until three or four in the morning.
His wife came back home, but kept herself at a distance. Paris could hear her dragging the furniture around and sewing at her old machine. It wasn't a sound that kept him company, but rather it irritated him, because he couldn't get used to a noise that wasn't regular. It was something that happened from time to time, and this exhausted his patience.
A fortnight had passed since Adonis's last visit, and then it was three weeks. When almost a month had gone by, Paris gave up waiting. It was the phenomenon of night turning to day, literally. Paris went to bed obsessively preoccupied, going over and over his thoughts, making plans, noting down his complaints for the next conversation he would have with his brother, and woke up feeling calm, clear, happy. Deactivated. That afternoon, he turned towards the window and felt some curiosity about what was happening in the street. He saw a woman in high heels chasing after a boy who was running away from her, laughing, into the middle of the road, where a tram was passing at that very moment. He saw the gesture made by the driver, the ticking-off that they gave the boy, who continued laughing, a tiny tot, in his mother's arms. He became interested in a blind violinist, with his money-box hung round his neck, an object of derision for two boys, one white and one black, who were pretending to be his assistants so that they could keep his proceeds. The rickety sound of the violin reached his ears, as it played a kind of fado with a Viennese air about it, and he could see the affliction of the blind man, who was listening, his head tilted to one side, to the tumult of the passers-by and was surprised by the lack of alms-givers. He saw buses passing by. He heard cars hooting and arguments between drivers. A van stopped to unload some kitchen stoves. The queue was growing longer. From above, Paris could see the arms of the drivers, gesticulating at the pair of unflustered lads carrying the goods to the shop, chatting to each other. At the door, unmoving, stood an Indian in a blue overall, taking in the scene, in silence, with his right hand on his cheek. From inside the shop came another one, just the same, who stood beside him. Then he said something, and they both went back into the shop. By that time, the most irritated of the drivers was already leaving his car and making his way to the van, which he began to shake energetically. The two Indians came out again, watched, went back in. One of them came out again to chase away two street dogs, one very fat and the other very long, who got up, pretended to move away, waited for him to go in and sat down again, a couple of yards further on. Paris was having enormous fun. He considered calling his wife and sharing with her such Lisbon specialities. But the terms of their relationship were not so good any more, and it would take more than a simple street scene to change them.
Paris slept badly that night, full of vivid images from Almirante Reis. In his sleep, he never managed to find the simple pleasure of being curious about ordinary things. Everything appeared to him to be monstrous, threatening, and the street was a huge river of rubbish and dust, along which the wind blew, carrying with it newspapers, plastic bags, the odd cap, cardboard boxes.
The next morning, Adonis rang the doorbell. He had come to bring the bed of nails and say goodbye, all in one go. He was going back to India, he said.
"To do what?' asked his brother.
Adonis complained that he had no place in the West. He also said something about the multi-millennial wisdom of other civilisations, with those tufts of hair in his ears and his short legs crossed, fiddling with his cream-coloured sock. Paris imagined that he was involved in some sort of trafficking, possibly drugs, or women, something sordid and dangerous.
They then set to thinking where the bed of nails should be installed. His wife, who occupied the rest of the house, had not appeared in order to greet Adonis. This was a sign that a space would have to be found for the fakir's bed in Paris's room. Which was cramped and had just the essential furniture.
"We can stand it over there, upright, against the wall.'
Adonis, very swiftly, went to the stairs to call the boys.
"Bring the bed up!' he shouted down.
Seeing the two dark-complexioned ephebes who were doing favours for his brother, Paris had a sudden flash. Trafficking in young boys, was he? No, it wasn't possible for him to sink so low. Adonis was giving them precise instructions. Pass through on your right, lift it another foot or so, carefully, put your right side down first, hold it underneath with both hands, lean it against the wall at a thirty-degree angle. Paris, still in bed, and with his first curiosity now satiated, looked towards the window. Once the operation of wedging the bed of nails in between the chest of drawers and the cupboard had been completed, Adonis said:
"So, what do you think?'
"Thank you,' said Paris. "I think it looks all right.'
The bed was not as he had imagined and seen it. It was a simple slab of chipboard, crumbling at the corners, with a few new steel nails scattered here and there. It was clearly something that had been knocked up in a hurry by Adonis himself, perhaps even at that supposed warehouse in Mem Martins, where he kept the rosary, the herbs and the sword.
"I'll give you the instructions now, because this has its complications. To make good use of the Fakir Mudami's bed of nails, you can choose one of two methods: either you learn to levitate, so as not to touch the nails with your back - which takes time - or you control the pain. To control the pain, you have three types of exercises: relaxation, concentration and imagination. First you breathe in, one, two, three, four, five, six and think about every part of your body...'
The youths, standing in the doorway, looked alternately at Adonis and his brother. Paris, now prey to the worst suspicions, imagining the horrors that had been committed by Adonis in both East and West, pretended to be listening and agreeing to everything that he said, not daring to look at the boys. One of them said:
"Excuse me, Mr Moreira, but we're off to have a cup of coffee,' and he did up the shirt that he had on unbuttoned over his vest.
Adonis did not interrupt his explanations, making only a gesture to indicate that he had heard. The idea was, therefore, by means of all these exercises, to achieve a state of such spiritual concentration that physical pain would not cease to exist in itself, but would completely lose its negative value and come to represent a trophy for the sufferer. But it wasn't a twenty-minute summary that would transform Paris into a yogi. This was what his brother told him, already on his feet, displaying an urgent need to leave and go about his life. He scrawled a telephone number on the back of an envelope, in a childish handwriting, and held it out to his brother:
"Look, this is the man who can help you. Master Antonio, that's what they call him. He lives in Estefonia, by the Jardim Constantino.
"That garden's all covered in pigeon shit,' said Paris.
This was how he bid farewell to his brother. Adonis didn't even turn round, he was already late for the boys. Paris was left with the envelope in his hand and realised that it was an unpaid electricity bill. A huge bill. Even so, he smiled.
Placed upright and leant against the old damp wall, the slab of chipboard with its dozen or so shiny, half-twisted nails looked like the remains of something else. The back of a cupboard, the base of a bed, the bottom of a chest of drawers, something incomplete to which other things should be joined in order to be what they are. Paris tried not to look. He turned his wheelchair to the window and stayed there feeling the light on his face. Before he knew it, he was breathing in, one, two, three, four, five, six.
Luísa Costa Gomes was born in Lisbon in 1954 and graduated in Philosophy in 1976. She has published four short story collections, three long novels and about ten plays. She currently edits the only short story magazine in Portugal, "Ficcones".