The Unstable Life of Planets


I didn’t initially understand the nervous scribbles Madeleine had left me on the table before leaving early for school that rainy Thursday morning, August 24, 2006. When I got up around eight, I thought better of watching the news, where they would certainly already be reporting the verdict from the previous day. I felt affected by a tremendous uneasiness, still confused by the argument we’d had last night and throughout the early morning, after all the provocations during the week. Suddenly that bitter wave which had built up to that moment came crashing through the window, disturbing my memory with its injuries. I brewed a cup of coffee, lit a cigarette, went to the veranda to watch the sea: it seemed loud to me, agitated, full of spume. Just making waves and rocking the boat, typical for those born under Pisces, but at least I had enough humor left in me for my infamous puns that at a daily rate cost me several swift kicks from Madeleine.

The argument with Madeleine (born under Aries) hung in my throat, like that impertinent, plumb-colored cargo ship I always saw on the same distant point of the bay. It was difficult to understand how we had gotten to that point, over a simple geographical question, no, over a cosmographic question. She was the one who corrected me—maybe it was a cosmological question—whatever it was, I shouldn’t have provoked such lack of restraint. She rudely accused me again, yelling and gesticulating like an offended intellectual, accused me of being conservative, narrow-minded and outdated. She all but accused me of studying engineering. She even tossed in that I was an in-the-closet male chauvinist, all the while so sexy in her rampage, which I ironically pointed out only to provoke her. Then she accused me of not understanding the complex mechanisms through which the contemporary world operates.

I saw the world in the least progressive way possible, Madeleine would say. I needed to educate myself on all currents of thought, all intuitive and counterintuitive tides, all vortexes and inclinations; but no, I was listless and sluggish, only wanting to remain on stagnant ground, not to mention I had refused to pursue a master’s, a doctorate, and photography at the school of fine arts. That’s why I would be left behind, exactly like that planet at the center of our argument. But that’s what I thought, not her. Madeleine hovered above me with her nose stuck in the air, and since she could curse up a storm with all her linguistic and logical faculties, my answer had simply been nostalgia, nostalgia was my only argument. This had a cinematic effect as I struck a match to light my cigarette—at least that was one thing she didn’t want me to change. But fuck, man, fighting that way over mere classification, over taxonomy, or taxonomy still, since I had already verified it once with the dictionary in my last-ditch effort over something so minuscule…well, from her point of view at least, not mine, because I saw it as something much more enthralling than just classification, a severe shift, a paradigm shift. I started using that term which wasn’t even mine, but hers. I cited the name of my childhood dog, same as the planet, only to show my cynical partner its importance in the imagination of a generation. She laughed as she nervously went up and down the veranda, grabbing and throwing back her wonderful hair like fire and saying, You’ll realize your stupidity tomorrow; read the headlines and you’ll see. God that woman is gorgeous when she paces up and down the veranda like that.

I went down to the apartment lobby, the cavernous sounds of the waves accompanying my bad humor, my bad love. Puns never get old to me. I went by the doorman, Zacarias, hurrying my step so as not to be seen. I was trying to avoid him giving me the newspaper, already certain the guillotine would be there in the science section. But the shitty thing was that no newspaper meant I couldn’t check my horoscope and find out what the stars were saying at this vital time, even though I never fully bought into the whole horoscope thing. Just making waves. When you’re hungover you repeat a lot of phrases.

It had been a while since I’d seen the water around Barra so turbid like this. I’d even forgotten how the city became another when the ocean was hung over, and to make things worse it started to rain. The city became unrecognizable in the rain. I’d never seen a city so dependent on the sun like this one, but as soon as the eastern wind pushed the clouds to the mainland, we’d get the old city back again. Lost in such thought, I almost got run over. The honking car squealed onto the boardwalk and rattled my eardrums because, like the water, I was also hung over, hung over Madeleine, hung over our stupid argument, hung over all our arguments which up to that point had become a daily arm wrestle.

I stopped at a juice stand in front of the marina where you could see the boats sloshing like bits of fruit in a blender, like the bits of our fight jostling in my head. It would be better to walk along the waterfront all day in the rain, until the sun came out. I called to Joca in the mud-bathed boatyard. I said under these conditions he had no work and he volleyed back impatiently from the other side, It’s Madeline again, isn’t it? I was quiet, then responded that my head was spinning, stomach in a knot. I had an urge to throw up but I couldn’t even do that. The name Joca always made me think of some archaic verb. I don’t know why.

A cart pulled by a donkey passed by on the avenue, against traffic. Now that’s an anachronism, Madeleine, not me. I apologized to Joca, took a taxi and went to Ribeira where I felt at home because Madeleine detested Ribeira. On the way back I strolled through every inch of the market, came out stinking like goat and shrimp—what a ridiculous argument, but it clearly wasn’t just over some celestial body.

Madeleine defended the precarity of science, the impossibility of totalization, the illusion of experience, the condition of perception, and those words rhymed, which further tormented me. Madeleine hated it when I spoke of nomenclature, of the past, of grammar, of right and wrong, of marriage and charity. For Madeleine it was unthinkable to feel any gratuitous affection for a planet and wish to save it out of pure friendship, as if I were voting for some candidate simply because he was my neighbor. Why had that whole argument come about after all? Madeleine was neither a physicist nor an astronomer. She was no scientist. She didn’t teach philosophy of science. She was a fucking high school history teacher. Ugly she was not, and smart as hell, but she didn’t know important historical dates like I did, ever since my grandfather had obligated me to learn them before I could even read yet. Clearly that wasn’t worth a damn. But at least I had memorized them by heart.

My balls were busted, my nostalgia resolved nothing, nothing gained from the support of my old friends who thought as abhorrently as I, nothing at all. At the end of the day, when the eastern wind blew and I had the courage to open the newspaper, I read the results of the final battle. Yes, she had triumphed in the conspiracy, a conspiracy of cosmologists in which no astrologist had taken part for more than five hundred years. And the poor planet had been demoted, there in fucking Prague, capital of the republic called Czech, by an assembly of half a dozen scientists who, without mythology or childhood, had manipulated the unstable life of planets.

And there with the newspaper in hand, so used to the pendulum swing of place along the seaside, I waited for a sudden reversal. I felt a fleeting hope that another wind would blow and things would suddenly fall back into orbit around the sun, like the beginning when Madeleine’s convictions didn’t blind her. Yet the fact is my beloved Pluto was demoted by a vile assembly of men and women, not gods. Much to Madeleine’s amusement it had become an uninteresting asteroid, a dwarf planet, and after that Thursday, August 24, 2006, she never returned.

It’s all good. Madeleine’s decision was, communicated in her own unintelligible scribbles that morning, irreversible. But not the decision which demoted Pluto, since another assembly could overturn it at any moment.


Marcílio França Castro

Marcílio França Castro was born in 1967 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, the city in which he now resides. His first book, A casa dos outros (7Letras, Rio de Janeiro, 2009), won the Brazilian Union of Writers Award in 2010. In 2009, he was also the recipient of the Funarte de Criação Literária Grant, which he used to write and publish his second short story collection, Breve cartografia de lugares sem nenhum interesse (7Letras, 2011), where the story featured here appears. This book would subsequently go on to win Brazil’s prestigious Clarice Lispector Award from the National Library Foundation in 2012. He is the author of a new book of short stories entitled Histórias naturais (Companhia das Letras, São Paulo, 2016), which earned him an invitation to present as a keynote speaker at Brazil’s largest international literary festival FLIP (Festa Literária Internacional de Paraty) in 2016. Histórias naturais is also currently nominated for the Rio de Literatura award. Castro earned his master’s degree in literary studies at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), where he also received a law degree.

Heath Wing

Heath Wing earned a Ph.D. in Spanish with a Portuguese minor from Texas Tech University in 2015. He is currently an assistant professor of Spanish at North Dakota State University. He teaches courses in Latin American civilization and culture, Latin American literature, Spanish American women writers, and Chicano literature. Aside from his research, Heath translates poetry and prose by contemporary Latin American writers. He has published translations of poetry and prose by the Spanish poet Sara Gallardo in Shadowgraph and Fishousepoems, as well as translations of poetry by the Argentine writer Federico Falco, which appeared in Hinchas de Poesía. His most recent translations of writing by the Brazilian poet Ana Martins appeared in Waxwing, and he has a forthcoming translation in Asymptote. Since arriving to Fargo in 2015, he has become an avid curler and stone thrower. He is also a dedicated collector of alpargatas and other rural footwear.  

Breve cartografia de lugares sem nenhum interesse. Copyright (c) Marcílio França Castro, 2011. English translation copyright (c) Heath Wing, 2017.