I always believed I would return to Macau one day. I always knew that the breath of hot air I felt as I left the ferry would once again stroke my skin with a caress that had remained lodged in my memory. Twenty years ago I saw this land for the first time during a week’s short holiday in the company of a group of young people who, like me, were still on the threshold of closing the door on adolescence and dreaming of new horizons. We were all prize-winners in a competition for which we had written texts about the places we came from; but this was a horizon that transcended our dreams. There was the typical Portuguese cobbled calçada, the buildings in the historical centre, the voracious humidity and heat of August, the faces, the indecipherable languages, the Red Market where animals that by western standards were considered uneatable were sold for human consumption, the Chinese quarter of the city, the tin-tins... Everything so new and so strange that, however hard I tried, my gaze could not apprehend or record it all.
Now I have come back riding astride a dream: my job had been as a journalist but one rejected by my country which, in the days of the Troika, dumped me into the queues at the Job Centre after spending many years working trying to uncover the hidden realities so often obscured in the swamp of powerful interests. In fact, I could have turned my life around in another way, done something else without leaving my “comfort zone”, already a cliché. But if journalism has always been what has made my soul vibrate, how could I accept to change direction and confine myself to floating around like a rudderless boat?
I look at the crowds of people surrounding me and try to read in their anxious faces all the stories they are hiding. The suitcases arrive piled high on metal trolleys. The ferry terminal does not yet have a conveyor belt. Everyone rushes forward each time one of these pallets arrives in the hope of rescuing their luggage, those fragments of life that will underpin and nourish their everyday life in this place –irrespective of whether they are in their home country or their host country. The truth is that the Chinese New Year is about to be born and two thousand and twelve will fly on the back of the Dragon, one of the most revered animals in the zodiac to the point where the number of pregnancies increases substantially so that children may be born under this auspicious sign.
Time passes. The people start to slip away in the gentle rhythmic flowof a stream. I see my suitcase with its yellow identifying stripe emerging from the confusion like a flag belatedly indicating the land of dreams. I grab hold of it and head towards the door where, as well as all the fears and feelings of nostalgia, the future lies waiting. My name is Soraia and I know Macau can also be this: the place where the seeds of tomorrow are sown, cradled by the unfolding of uncertainties in the flow of stories waiting to be told.
The roulette of life1
Yan clutchesthe hammer tightly and hides behind anabandoned kiosk. She must be almost about to walk past. He only needs to be patient, to wait perhaps for a few minutes and then... the fatal blow! Concealed and covered by the darkness of the night, nobody will see anything. Macau is a safe city. You can walk in the street at any time, without fear, without problems.There are very few crimes;those there are being linked to settling scores related to gambling. And it was in fact in the casino that it all began.
The dice had been thrown, the numbers spilled out in a luminous leap. The light from the lamps flowed down the walls caressing the nervousness showing on each ageless face. Yan Jin devoured each number with his eyes... Jin, gold, Yan, a type of god...a powerful name sculpted in benevolent omens of good luck that contrasted with his pale figure: thin, almost skeletal, a brown cap protecting his skull.
The coming of the Year of the Monkey spreads an atmosphere of happiness around the city, which twists and turns in a blurry haze to the rhythm of thefirecrackers that are used to bring good luck and chase away evil spirits. Yan came from mainland China on an organised excursion –a group of people thirsting to feed their gambling addiction since gambling was only permitted in Macau. He refused to follow them as they headed towards the more modern casinos. He wanted to walk once again along the corridors where, twelve years earlier, his family’s disgrace had been decided. It was there in that old casino that his father had ruined himself, squandering in justa few hours all the family’s wealth that had been founded on shrewdness and hard work.
One rainy day, his father had left home with some friends. At that time, their life was comfortable although they had never lived with too many luxuries since saving was a priority. He adored gambling, but he never bet a lot. He was known for his unusual self-control, his admirable sang-froid and reasonableness both in gambling and for alcohol, always knowing what was the last drop of rice brandy he could swallow as well as the right moment to place his last bet. But that time they say he arrived at the casino nervous, a slave to a strange anxiety... It is said that after he had lost everything, he handed over his gold watch, which he had also lost, and went out into the damp night already crisscrossed with neon lights. Perhaps he walked around the streets, with no aim or direction. It is said that later he came to one of the bridges and flew like a latter-day Icarus plummeting with a whack into the muddy waters...and that his body re-surfaced in Taipa, or perhaps in Coloane... Various news items expended judicious flowsof ink in Chinese, Portuguese and English. Merely one more among so many, a situation so common in gambling lands where life, luck and fortune all depend on a combination of colours, on an ephemeral conjoiningof numbers. For Yan it had meant the loss of their home, the family’s possessions, their lands, even the meagre bowl of rice. Everything taken away, usurped from one moment to the next.
As he had nothing to lose, Yan emigrated to the United States. In New York he took refuge in a rented cubicle in a poor rundown house in Chinatown. He worked endless hours in a restaurant. Like a puppet, he dragged himself mechanically two blocks both in the winter snow and when caressed by the summer breeze. He cooked, he served at table, he washed dishes, he cleaned. He then dragged himself back to his room again, stretched out on the tiny bed, the only piece of furniture, kicked off his shoes and slept without even getting undressed. He only woke up hours later. And so the weeks, months and years rolled past. He never left Chinatown and the Big Apple was nothing more than a tiny sliver of China transplanted to another place. An exile making no attempt to integrate, with no feelings of nostalgia or loss or even deterritorialisation. Completely anaesthetised, heplunged into a world that was a faithful reproduction of the world he had left behind. Then one morning he awoke from that lethargy. He realised the time had come to marry the girl he was already betrothed to and that he had saved enough to return to his homeland and pay off the lien on the house, but... he wanted more! He wanted to get the lost fortune back, to recover from the cruel encircling walls of the past what his father had lost. He wanted to marry Lok Nui and give her one of the finest engagement rings that could be found in a jeweller’s shop window. So he was here fo rall of this; here in Macau to see the Year of the Monkey be born, a year that would bring luck.
The roulette wheel continues spinning, the ball licking the numbers and running away in a frenetic dance. The light spills down from the lamps in cascades of whiteness dappled with the red and blue of the slot machines. Alone in front of the roulette wheel, he obsessively presses the button as if there were no tomorrow, no today, no yesterday, no world, no life. Only him, at the round table, his brown cap slipping with the eternity of those moments. On his other side, a beginner extracts strange noises from a slot machine when he tries to insert a hundred pataca note. The other players, staring with glazed eyes at their screens, build and dismantle their worlds.
But there, it is only he that exists at that time, at the height of his ambition to win back a new tomorrow. Suddenly: eight, eight, eight (ba ba ba, the Cantonese sound corresponding to the number), red! Eight,the lucky number! The bet climbs up to nine hundred thousand Hong Kong dollars... He doesn’t want to believe it! It could be just a beginning, he could triple that amount or even quadruple it! He is about to press the button again and continue betting when the petrified image of his father, a shadow corroded by the waters of the Pearl River, makes him hesitate... He must decide: keep playing to wards a fortune or stop? He moves over to another roulette and leaves luck suspended for now, crystallised in the sheath of frozen time. He sits down at the large round table where other players are also betting. Among them are old men and young people full of hope wandering around in the quicksand of gambling. Suddenly, the empty chair next to him is taken by a young Thai girl. Luck flows every time she makes a bet. Whatever the colour or the number, everything converges for her. Yan sees what he has won and what he has gambled fade away, flowing in the direction of that creature. First, the wads of banknotes, then the jewels, the creditcard, everything is blown to bits in a cloud of bad luck. Aware of his ruin which becomes more obvious with each bet, he feels himself being possessed by hatred. The woman does not deserve it! Luck is a treacherous lover and that young girl is its personification... he must take his revenge!
After losing everything, Yan leaves the casino, alienated by the desire for vengeance. He walks to the nearest supermarket, grabs a hammer, pays and walks out. The cold damp night air seems to breathe new life int ohis thoughts: “That evil thief who stole his fortune will see... it won’t be long coming. She must have stayed in the casino drinking champagne to celebrate. But she’ll see! The right blow with the hammer and here he’llbe with“his” fortune restored. ”He practises the gesture in his mind a few dozen times. His brain is like a scratched record: she comes nearer, the hammer splits her skull open and her bag, full of money, is in his hands for ever... After ward she runs to the barrier gate at Portas do Cerco, crosses the border to Zhuhai and... he rewinds the scene and the woman appears again and falls at his feet in a pool of blood... her bag could become spattered, dirty, attract suspicion... he must be careful. She will never steal anyone’s good luck again! Yes, because to win in that way is stealing, the most shameless of robberies! He only wants to restore justice and the natural order of things, avoid the same evils from happening again... He was born to win and that evil woman is going to end up dead there, on the cobblestones, at his feet. And his father, floating in the river like an imaginary lotus blossom, will finally applaud, avenged for his failure. Basically, life is buta game, a gigantic roulette wheel where each person’s fortune and world are placed as bets, are dissipated or reborn. All it takes is a moment for everything to be decided: good luck or bad luck, life or death, fortune, love, everything spins around, nothing is safe or guaranteed, all it takes is a minute, the beating of a hummingbird’s wings, a white vapour trail in the sky, for everything to change.
Suddenly he hears steps pattering on the stone pavement, an elusive shadow crosses the night. It is her! It can only be her! With his back to the wall, he raises the hammer just as he has rehearsed so well; he wants to shut his eyes so as not to see, not to feel... but just then... at the very moment when the fatal blow starts to fall, an unexpected hand grabs hold o fhim, attacks him. The body that falls to the ground is his. A police car’s siren can be heard. Light floods the asphalt. Yan is handcuffed. His fortune draws away, walks down the road in the woman’s handbag, accompanied by the man who appeared out of nowhereto save her, a lost soul created in the womb of the night. Tears wash over his face, heavy like the flow of vanishing luck. In the distance, the neon lights throw out fake flames trying to deceive the roulette of life.
Luang Prabang, five in the morning. The gentle rubbing of the birds’ wings against the sides of the wicker cages. Life stirring but still lulled in the arms of the night. Tak Bat: the monks approachto collect alms–a line of orange, still embroidered on the edge of the darkness. Silence reigns, a rustlingof robes, of wings, of prayers secretly whispered to the wind.
Nali places a handful of rice and a packet of coffee in the monk’s basket. Their eyes meet for a few short moments. She is breaking a rule without meaning to since you should never look a monk in the eye and she knows that well –a strange tremor runs through her body like an electric shock. The other monks continue moving forward to collect the gifts but she is suddenly turned to stone. So many years spent far away without taking part in the ceremony... But hat morning, early, she had gone with a tourist who by chance was staying in her hotel –and you never knew what those idiotic tourists might do. It would be better to stay well away from traditions that are hundreds of years old so as not to corrupt or defile them. For seven hundred years, every day between five and six in the morning, the monks have walked through that part of the town to receive offerings from the people. This is how they have survived and been fed for more than seven centuries, although also sharing with the extremely poor who, truth be told, are the overwhelming majority. But lately people have been saying that the tourist idiots circle like a flock of ill-omened birds spreading bad luck and undoing blessings... What is more, several monks have fallen ill because of the poor qualityof the food they gave them... And let’s not forget their addiction to taking photos and using the flash which shows a lack of respect for the ceremony.
Nali remains trapped for an eternal instant in that gaze. She imagines those eyes in another face, a younger face. She sees her old school in the south of Laos, in a tiny village lost in the mountains: Chrenat, a boy a little older than herself, writes her love letters... Short walks in the forest, his hands in hers, the smooth warm touch on her skin in that age of innocence when everything seems possible, when dreams have still not been eroded, have still not been devoured by the rust of reality, nor torn to shreds by the blade of misfortune. It was at that time the civil war broke out. Like a crocodile’s egg incubating for a long time, the beast broke out from its shell and gobbled up everything around it. The year was 1963. The Communist guerrillas of the Pathet Laoled by Prince Souphanouvang were fighting the Kingdom of Laos, a constitutional monarchy of whichSouvanne Phouma was head...Nali’sfamily supported the government, Chrenat’s family was on the side of the rebels; inadvertently, life threw them onto opposite sides of the trench.
She and her parents left for Francewhere there was the chance to study and have a promising future. At first sight Paris seemed like the fairytale she had long dreamed about: the Christmas illuminations spilling on to the streets a dazzling light such as she had never imagined. However, the dream quickly turned into a nightmare: problems finding a house, a job, the inevitable life in the bidonville, the hopes of early adolescence gnawed awayby discrimination, by the otherness of that so different world. With her roots showing on the surface like the lotus blossom flower, she resisted, she adapted. The years raced past leaving their mark on her body and soul. Her parents died, she married a Thai man ten years older than her, a colleague at the bank where she had started working after completing her studies with distinction. It had not been a case of passion or even of love, simply the years were passing and her culture dictated that she had to marry someone. A mixture of chance, complicity and duty. Occasionally, Nali thought about Chrenat’s green eyes. His image was becoming blurred until all that remainedwere eyes in a face that already had no shape until it too faded away buried by the dust of time.
He stayed in Laos fighting for a new country, for a better future for everyone. They never contacted each other. How to understand life? How to understand the path that could lead a young Communist revolutionary to enter the temple as a monk? Thin, dry, wrinkled, he undulates like a flag in his orange robe. Which flag? Which nation? What does it say? What creed does it avow? Only the green eyes, so unusual in an Asian,remain: glowing headlights from the past reborn in a handful of rice and a packet of coffee.
Years and years went by and there she was, a refugee from the Parisian winter, in Laos, between Luang Prabang and Vientiane, the capital, where she had a house. She divided the year into two parts, just like her own life.
The monks disappear with their full bowls in a grubby cloud of orange. Having given offerings for their souls, all that is now needed is to free the small birds the people have bought, imprisoned souls thirsting to fly. She undoes part of the wicker cage, opening an improvised door and they disappear, drinking their freedom in a ray of light. Suchis life,buthow to understand it? A useless effort! Each person has their own karma, their destiny, the birds destined for freedom, the revolutionary Chrenat confined with in the walls of a temple having surrendered to the opium of the people after his Marxist struggle... And her? Two lives, two homes, two countries in two continents, health, her husband still living, grandchildren on the way... She slowly poursthe holy water on the trunk of the nearest tree, not to ask for somethingas tradition demands but to say thank you for the gifts of the present –and to keep those green eyes definitively in the pocket of memory, a safe haven for the shipwrecked illusions of an old love.
1 Short story published in Antologia de Contos Originais (Anthology of Original short Stories), org, by João de Mancelos, Edicções Colibri, 2020
2 A preliminary version of this story was published in the Caliban magazine of 1 July 2021