From A to X
Went to see your mother. All things considered, she’s not bad. When you go through the front door you still have the feeling of kissing her straight on the mouth.
The kitchen spotless, shutters closed in the bedroom to keep it cool. She asked me to read out loud a letter she had from your brother in Covas. When I was young, she said, it wasn’t so serious that I couldn’t read or write, because people discussed everything that mattered, but today so much happens in silence, and you need to be able to read in order to know what people are deciding.
I read the letter out loud to her. Apparently he’s making friends and money in Covas. If he wasn’t, he would probably have said the same thing. After a certain age men often treat their mothers as if they were small children and they are wrong. Mother, literate and illiterate, can take everything.
We drank green tea and talked about you.
Has he lost much weight?
I haven’t seen him, mother.
He’s all right. I would know if he wasn’t, she says.
She goes into the bedroom. I can hear her breathing heavily. When she comes back into the kitchen she is holding something wrapped in a tissue paper, the colour of cyclamen. She hands it to me to unwrap. I do so slowly. It’s a ring with a blue lazurite stone. Lazurites belong to the silicate group. If you like, mi guapo, I can tell you their formula! (Na,Ca)₈ (AlSiO₄)₆ (SO₄,S,Cl)₂.
Do the precious stones of old women sparkle more than the jewels of other women? Perhaps. The jewels they wore when young retain the glow they themselves once had. Like the glow we see in certain flowers, immediately after the sun has gone down.
In the kitchen, you mother’s deep blue lazurite glows in the palm of my hand.
You keep it for me, I said.
Xavier would like me to give it to you today, she announces.
They deferred our right to get married, I remind her.
Picking up the ring, she slips it over the fourth finger of my left hand. I make a gesture as if stroking a dog’s head.
And your mother holds her breath, remembering in the immense stillness of her body how she made the same gesture with the same ring on her hand fifty years ago.
To tell the truth? Words tortured until they give themselves up to their polar opposites: Democracy, Freedom, Progress, when returned to their cells, are incoherent. And then there are other words, Imperialism, Capitalism, Slavery, which are refused entry, are turned back at every frontier point, and their confiscated papers given to imposters such as Globalisation, Free Market, Natural Order.
Solution: the evening language of the poor. With this some truths can be told and held.
John Berger is a storyteller, essayist, novelist, screenwriter, dramatist and critic, whose body of work embodies his concern for, in Geoff Dyer's words, "the enduring mystery of great art and the lived experience of the oppressed."