The Trash-Pickers


Photo: @karmatheux, Unsplash.

Editor’s Note: This text is available in English translation and in the original Portuguese. Click here to read in Portuguese.





                                                                                                                                        soaring    s l o w l y


                                  and forth
                                                                   across the sky in a black dance
                                                                          above the trash heap 
cans, plastic, food, paper, clothes, glass, cans, food, cans, rats, bottles, food, plastic, peels, crumbs, plastic, stubs, metal, all smeared with a nauseating syrup that oozes across the ground, hands picking up what has already been discarded, and in the middle of all those men and women, foraging for their food under the sun, in that waste, stands Maria, surrounded by filth, from where she draws her sustenance, and on a pyramid of rubble further ahead, rummaging through the muck that a dump truck had spewed atop all those layers of waste, standing among the swarm of trash-pickers, is José, his shirt wrapped around his neck, no longer able to smell the landfill's putrid stench, the stench that intoxicates the nostrils and anesthetizes even the eyes, and as he sifts out the plastic Coca-Cola and Guaraná bottles, stuffing them into a black bag, José tries to make out, beyond those mountains of scrap, Maria's silhouette, and hopes that she hasn't heard about what Mateus just found, a little while ago, and Maria, as if she could feel that José, even off in the distance, were watching her, shoos the cockroach climbing her leg and grins thinking about her special find, the one that today, along with other things, she will take back to her shanty, and so they work, each one thinking of the other while over their heads soar the


The sun,
(same as the both of them)
from divvying itself up
into countless rays 
that battle, in the day outside,
against the cracks
and opaque spaces, 
has already begun to give way to night,
which, unceremoniously, occupies its slot,
like a spare part
                                                            in the gears of time,
and José, until now submerged
in a corner of the trash-heap,
drags along inside a bag what he found there
of value,
making the most out of
what, for others, 
are just leftover scrap;
and Maria, on the other side 
of that ungodly sea,
also makes her way home
(but first 
turns to herself,
who there, on the landfill, 
she, or anyone else, 
just thinks about the things
she sees and grabs,
the woman Maria is
abandons her
whenever she's
scratching and pecking
in the garbage),
she will get home before José,
who follows behind at his
weary pace;
both of them carrying
the most precious
                                                       and unexpected 
thing that day had given them,
for him, in his memory,
and hers in her hands
— these two ways
of taking what does not fit,
by right or duty,
dumping it along the way,
though what Maria has found is light,
almost weightless
the way she carries it,
folded up;
the same cannot be said of José,
it's rock, 
a ton,
and lacerating even, 
what Mateus had found
and, by telling him,
wound up driving itself
into his memory,
and that's something that will never be shut off,
sometimes it even,
out of the blue,
in the fury of sorting memories, 
its voltage turns
even more frenetic.



By that hour, the couple had already had dinner. 
Maria washed the dishes in the basin with water, 
and José, sitting on the stool, the aluminum plate in his hand, gazed through
the gap between the wooden planks, 
— makeshift window —
at the shadows of the night outside, 
when he heard,
above the murmur of the stream 
that flowed behind their shanty, 
the sound of Globo breaking news
coming from João's bar.
It had to be something bad, some misfortune in Brazil or the world. 
(José recalled what had happened, that afternoon, at the landfill)
And if that sound sent chills one moment, 
the next, the bar was packed with people in front of the TV, 
— the only one around — 
their hunger for facts on their faces, eyes fixed, mouths agape. 
A few weeks ago, José had gone there to sniff around: 
it was an earthquake in Chile – some towns destroyed, a thousand dead, another thousand missing... 
Another night, already on his mattress, exhausted, he recognized that macabre sound, but he didn't budge. His body ached, ached all over.
But Maria went. And came back with the news: tsunami in Japan.
A few days ago, the sound had blared again: the death of Dr. Socrates, former midfielder for Corinthians and the Brazilian national team.      
What could it be now?
José thought about what had happened, 
that afternoon, 
at the landfill. 
No, it wouldn't be on TV. No one cared about what happened there, in the city dump. 
The memory inside him seethed. He didn't want to be alone, with that, on his mind. It weighed on him, too much. 
If he spoke, he'd share his shock. 
But it wasn't fair to dump more burden
on Maria's shoulders. 
The final chords of the breaking news intro sounded, when she turned  and said, 
Here we go again, another tragedy! 
She took the plate from his hand and added:
What'll it be this time?
José remained silent.
Yearning for the thing that had happened
to just stay in his mind, 
like a dry seed, 
and to never grow into a tree.
Maria endured the rat bites, 
the shards of glass, 
the itch and stink of the garbage, 
but sometimes, 
one word was all it took, 
for her eyes to well, 
her resistance, melted away in a second. 
He should spare her, especially because of her dream: in daily conversation, Maria toyed with, 
for the two of them,
a child.    



José got up. 
He went behind the shanty to urinate in the stream. 
He stayed there for a while, now also part of
the outside world.
Set aside from everything,
like the stuff he picked out of the garbage.
Dissociated from everything else.
In his sole, and intimate, existence. 
And the night – moonless and starless.
Maria, lying on the mattress, was reading, 
in the dim light,
a magazine, 
the smell 
and the stains 
of the slurry
on its pages
(which persisted, no matter how hard she wiped).
José returned to the shanty. 
He brushed his teeth with water from the bucket. 
He took off his shorts and T-shirt
and before he laid down beside her, 
in his underwear,
he took the alarm clock 
(which, like almost everything there, he had collected from the trash)
and set the alarm for six am.
No need, Maria said, You know I never oversleep.
Just to be safe, José said.
She nodded, agreeing, 
My body's gotten used to it, 
and he said,
I know,
and put the clock on the floor:
But some days we're a worn out wreck!
Turning the page of the magazine, she said,
Still, I'm always up before it goes off...
You're right! José agreed.
From far, far away,
came the echo of pagode music.
It got louder and louder, 
reached its peak, so close, 
and then got quieter, 
until it disappeared.
Some car had gone past on the road.
The noise of life, there, 
in that stack of shanties, on the edge of the landfill,
was sullied
by silence.
Maria closed the magazine and asked:
What happened today, over on your side?
José, unresponsive. 
But quick with his resolve: 
if she doesn't hear it from me, she'll hear it from somebody else. 
Like anywhere else, news on the landfill travels fast.
So it was better to tell her. In the softness of his words. 
Because her imagination, on its own, would just drive spikes into what happened
and roil the details.



What happened? Maria asked again.
Joseph bowed his head and replied:
They found a baby!
And to hold back, at least for a moment,
her shock,
he added,
It came in one of the last trucks.
Maria in an uproar, nearly spewing out her soul. So much so that instinctively she covered her mouth with her hands.
My God! My God!
Another spatter of silence.
And was he alive? she asked, wanting the miracle.
How could somebody do that?
When you think you've seen it all...
Maria needed details. 
She was unable, on her own, to lift that reality into thought. The world owed her the whole picture: boy or girl? White or Black? Clothed or naked? And other questions lined up, haunted at not being able to keep quiet. As if... 
But José just replied 
(because he knew that one detail, because it was a detail, 
would spill out and 
I don't know, I didn't see, I don't know.
And, so as not to leave her there, helpless, charged with reinventing the entire story for herself, he said:
Mateus, Mateus saw it first. He saw it and took it to the cooperative.
Inside, the quiet night interjected. 
And the ripple of the stream.
The two of them there, blameless, in a moment that didn't belong to them, although the pain of others was as if it were their own.
Then, believing you can only react to an ending with a beginning, Maria cracked a smile, her voice like someone rejoicing:
And what about our baby?
José picked up the alarm clock, just to have something in his hands, under his control. 
I told you, everything in its own time, he replied, trying to be as gentle as he could.
I know! she said.
It won't be long, he added. Soon I'll get a better job.
And Maria:
We have to finish our little house... 
Over the weekend, I'll put up another wall there. 
José shifted on the mattress, moving closer to her to prove that what he was saying was true.
But we're going to have to stop work, he continued: The cement's running out.



Maria stood up, 
so slow and soft 
that no one would ever notice that 
her entire life
hung in that motion,
(even José, who saw her, translucent, 
as if through glass,
realized it),
and taking that object out of a bag said,
Look what I found!
He looked, and looked again, not understanding.
What is that?
She unfolded before him, 
down to her feet, 
what had once been 
all white, 
together with its veil: 
a wedding dress!
It would still elicit ohs of admiration, 
even now, filthy and wrinkled,
just like an old man
muddied by time
is still
(taking good care)
the same boy from before.
Maria said nothing,
showing it off,
like she was wearing it,
something whole, the dress spoke for itself,
with its train
and its frills,
though not as many as before,
upon receiving,
snowy and virgin, 
its final fitting by the seamstress,
and yet it 
would still turn anyone's head, 
even José, 
not because he hadn't already seen,
with his eyes,
the beauty
that lies in pretty things,
or didn't take it in first
only to discover it later,
but because he was surprised by it.
That's how it was on the days he spent
digging in the rubble at the dump — 
all of a sudden he would spot a backpack, still in good shape,
some sunglasses, a picture frame, 
and then that light of distrust would ignite, 
which the truth 
                             soon after, 
                                                  would extinguish.
What do you think? Maria asked, Isn't it pretty?
Joseph nodded, 
in a partial yes,
You're not thinking...
Of course not, she said. 
And added:
I'm going to sell it, and then we'll have money for the cement.
He stared at her hard, 
skeptical but wanting to be a believer.
Sell it to who? Who's going to buy that?
She folded the dress,
returning it back to what it was, 
— a piece of hope, tucked away —
and replied:
Marta, from the thrift store. She buys everything. Washes and then sells them. Those pants of yours, I bought them there.
Is it worth anything?
Yeah, it's worth a lot! 
I hope so!
It's a wedding dress. It's still good. And it can be mended... 



José set the alarm clock aside and settled in on the mattress. Life was about to spill over that day. It was time to soothe it with the cover of sleep. 
Come, Maria! he called.
She went.
She turned off the light
and the world outside.
In the night, only the stream persisted with its waters.
The two of them, in profile, sank slowly into their quiet.
She embraced him from behind, as if she needed his body in order to feel her own. 
He took the dead baby out of his mind and began to sketch the face of his own baby, wanted and alive, in the future. 
José, imagining, 
eyes closed,
took another brick,
and built, in no hurry,
another wall of the house;
and the little house gradually appeared, complete,
coming from deep inside
of that revealing liquid,
the green dream
of both of theirs,
that the child,
and a decent job
away from the landfill,
would make whole.  
Then, slowly, they fell asleep as they listened, above the shanty, to the flapping of wings, and others, and still others:


Translated by Zoë Perry


Zoë Perry's translations have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Words Without Borders, Mānoa, and the Washington Square Review. In 2015 she was translator-in-residence at the FLIP international literary festival in Paraty, Brazil, and she was awarded a PEN/Heim grant for her translation of Veronica Stigger's novel Opisanie świata. Zoë was selected for a residency at the Banff International Translation Centre for her translation of Emilio Fraia’s Sevastopol, forthcoming from New Directions. She is a founding member of the London-based translators collective, The Starling Bureau.


LALT No. 18
Number 18

In our eighteenth issue, we feature the work of beloved Cuban poet Reina María Rodríguez alongside that of João Cabral de Melo Neto, renowned Brazilian poet and third Latin American winner of the Neustadt Prize. We also highlight Latin American women poets, indigenous literature from Brazil, new works in translation, and a return to the essay through the words of Mariano Picón Salas.

Table of Contents

Editor's Note

Featured Author: Reina María Rodríguez

Dossier: João Cabral de Melo Neto





Brazilian Literature

Indigenous Literature

Translation Previews and New Releases

On Translation

On Translation: Seeking Publisher

On the Essay

Nota Bene