Chapter Excerpt

HERE, IT'S MOSTLY countryside, land. Whatever else may be lacking, land has never been in short supply, indeed its sheer abundance can only be explained by some tireless miracle, because the land clearly predates man, and despite its long, long existence, it has still not expired. That's probably because it's constantly changing: at certain times of the year, the land is green, at others, yellow or brown or black. And in certain places it is red, the color of clay or spilled blood. This, however, depends on what has been planted or what has not yet been planted, or what has sprung up unaided and died simply because it reached its natural end. This is not the case with wheat, which still has some life left in it when it is cut. Nor with the cork oak, which, despite its solemn air, is full of life and cries out when its skin is ripped from it.
   There is no shortage of color in this landscape, but it isn't simply a matter of color. There are days as harsh as they are cold, and others when you can scarcely breathe for the heat: the world is never content, the day it is will be the day it dies. The world does not lack for smells either, not even here, which is, of course, part of the world and well provided with land. Were some insignificant creature to die in the undergrowth, it would smell of death and putrefaction. Not that anyone would notice if there were no wind, even if they were to pass close by. The bones would be either washed clean by the rain or baked dry by the sun, or not even that if the creature were very small, because the worms and the gravedigger beetles would have come and buried it.
   This, relatively speaking, is a fair-sized piece of land, and while it begins as undulating hills and a little stream-water, because the water that falls from the skies is just as likely to be feast as famine, farther on it flattens out as smooth as the palm of your hand, although many a hand, by life's decree, tends, with time, to close around the handle of a hoe, sickle or scythe. The land. And like the palm of a hand, it is crisscrossed by lines and paths, its royal or, later, national roads, or those owned by the gentlemen at the town hall, three such roads lie before us now, because three is a poetical, magical, spiritual number, but all the other paths arise from repeated comings and goings, from trails formed by bare or ill-shod feet walking over clods of earth or through undergrowth, stubble or wild flowers, between wall and wasteland. So much land. A man could spend his whole life wandering about here and never find himself, especially if he was born lost. And he won't mind dying when his time comes. He is no rabbit or genet to lie and rot in the sun, but if hunger, cold or heat were to lay him low in some secluded spot, or one of those illnesses that don't even give you time to think, still less cry out for help, sooner or later he would be found.
   Many have died of war and other plagues, both here and in other parts, and yet the people we see are still alive: some perceive this as an unfathomable mystery, but the real reasons lie in the land, in this vast estate, this latifundio, that rolls from high hills down to the plain below, as far as the eye can see. And if not this land, then some other piece of land, it really doesn't matter as long as we've sorted out what's mine and thine: everything was recorded in the census at the proper time, with boundaries to the north and south and to the east and west, as if this were how it had been ordained since the world began, when everything was simply land, with only a few large beasts and the occasional human being, all of them frightened. It was around that time, and later too, that the future shape of this present land was decided, and by very crooked means indeed, a shape carved out by those who owned the largest and sharpest knives and according to size of knife and quality of blade. For example, those of a king or a duke, or of a duke who then became his royal highness, a bishop or the master of an order, a legitimate son or the delicious fruit of bastardy or concubinage, a stain washed clean and made honorable, or the godfather of a mistress's daughter, and then there's that other high officer of the court with half a kingdom in his grasp, and sometimes it was more a case of, this, dear friends, is my land, take it and populate it to serve me and your offspring, and keep it safe from infidels and other such embarrassments. A magnificent book-of-hours-cum-sacred-accounts-ledger presented at both palace and monastery, prayed to in earthly mansions or in watchtowers, each coin an Our Father, ten coins a Hail Mary, one hundred a Hail Holy Queen, Mary is King. Deep coffers, bottomless silos, granaries the size of ships, vats and casks, coffers, my lady, and all measured in cubits, rods and bushels, in quarts, pottles and tuns, each piece of land according to its use.
   Thus flowed the rivers and the four seasons of the year, on those one can rely, even when they vary. The vast patience of time and the equally vast patience of money, which, with the exception of man, is the most constant of all measurements, although, like the seasons, it varies. We know, however, that men were bought and sold. Each century had its money, each kingdom its man to buy and sell for maravedis, or for gold and silver marks, reals, doubloons, cruzados, sovereigns or florins from abroad. Fickle, various metal, as airy as the bouquet of a flower or of wine: money rises, that's why it has wings, not in order to fall. Money's rightful place is in a kind of heaven, a lofty place where the saints change their names when they have to, but not the latifundio.
   A mother with full breasts, fit for large, greedy mouths, a womb, the land shared out between the largest and the large, or, more likely, joining large with larger, through purchase or perhaps through some alliance, or through sly theft, pure crime, the legacy of my grandparents and my good father, God rest their souls. It took centuries to get this far, who can doubt that it will always remain the same?
   But who are these other people, small and disparate, who came with the land, although their names do not appear in the deeds, dead souls perhaps, or are they still alive? God's wisdom, beloved children, is infinite: there is the land and those who will work it, go forth and multiply. Go forth and multiply me, says the latifundio. But there is another way to speak of all this.


Excerpted from Raised from the Ground by José Saramago
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