The Sex of Angels / O Sexo dos Anjos

I

More excited than she’d ever been before, Ankbanatacha rushed into her parents’ bedroom — feeling indulged as only a loving, guileless ten-year-old only child could be — where she found her father alone, getting ready for work.

“Daddy, Daddy,” the little girl cried.

“Yes, girl, what is it,” Perestrelo answered, only half listening because she had caught him while he was in a hurry.

“Daddy, an angel was born,” said Ankbanatacha, visibly excited, bubbling over like a girl who had just solved a mystery.

“A what?”

“An angel.”

“O Tachinha,” Perestrelo began warily, “let me get ready, I’m already late for work. We’ll talk about this later.”

Ankbanatacha, hurt by her father’s attitude, turned her back on him sulkily and retreated into an unusual silence. This caught Perestrelo’s attention.

“Girl, what’s the matter? Are you sad? Don’t be that way. So what’s this story about an angel?”

“Daddy, it’s not a story, they said on the radio that yesterday an angel was born in Mecuburi.”

“Did you hear that?”

“Yes, Daddy, I did.”

“All right, all right, that’s OK, don’t stay sulky like that, we’ll talk about it as soon as I get back from work, won’t we, angel?”

“I know you don’t believe me, Daddy, but I heard it, they even said that Mecuburi is a district situated in the North of the province of Nampula.”

At his daughter’s mention of the geographic details, Perestrelo looked at her a little apprehensively, but didn’t say anything.

“If you don’t believe me, I’m going to tell Mummy. I know she will. But you’ve always believed me before Daddy,” she said earnestly, as if she wasn’t quite sure any more.

With an effort to hide his doubts, Perestrelo tried an evasion:

“Go on, girl, go and tell Mummy about the angel in Mecuburi, and we’ll talk about it soon.”

 

II

Someone who saw Perestrelo would have thought it was only his body sitting there in front of his desk, and that his soul had gone on a long journey. His colleague Cantola, who had been watching him ever since he had arrived at the office, spoke to him carefully:

“My dear Perestrelo, you seem to be thinking about something, is anything the matter?”

“No, nothing, Cantola, I’m only thinking about what kids’ imaginations lead them to. My little girl has convinced herself that an angel was born somewhere in the North,” Perestrelo confided.

“A what,” Cantola exclaimed, astonished.

“An angel, Cantola…an angel,” he explained.

“It’s just her imagination, but it’s made you depressed. And you are usually the life of the party!”

“No, it isn’t exactly that, what bothers me is that she says she heard it on the radio! If that’s true, just think what the babblers will go around saying — when there are so many more serious things going on which people need to know about!”

“Oh, yes, you’re perfectly right! But did you believe your little daughter? You know, Perestrelo, angels are mythological beings, they don’t really exist, they are a product of human imagination in its constant attempt to solve its real problems. So, for this reason it invented winged beings, preferably young children, who, at the Creator’s demand, protect people from the tricks of this world. Anyway, I’m wasting my Latin here. I’m not going to teach you theology. You were the man who stayed for many years in the seminary, studying to become a priest.”

“Yes, Cantola, you’re right — but the problem is, my little daughter gives amazingly precise details about the place where the ‘visitation’ took place — beyond what she could normally know.”

“But…beyond what she normally would know…how could she give such surprising geographical details,” Cantola fretted.

“My dear friend, because the detailed report my daughter made was purely and simply a paraphrase of someone else’s information, she didn’t think it up herself… besides, you know that as far as memorisation goes, children are better than we are,” Perestrelo explained.

“Tell me one thing, Perestrelo, did the speaker say that an angel was born in Mecuburi, exactly,” Cantola asked, without hiding his perplexity.

“Well, I don’t really know, I didn’t question her. I took it as childishness and delegated her to my wife because I thought it was a good idea that she should tell her mother, so that she would get the work of settling her down. Besides, mothers have something like a magic wand to put their daughters right when they get silly. That thing about the guardian angel is only a religious convention and the conviction of those who profess their faith. They aren’t real, as you well said, Cantola — the idea of an angel being born, an angel of flesh and bones, and what’s worse, in this end of the world where we live! You wait, I’m going to listen to the story again carefully, to put an end to it. I don’t want my daughter to ruin her little mind with cheap hallucinations.”

 

III

The first shivers of the night were already falling when Perestrelo arrived home, where he found his wife alone in the living-room. This was very unusual, for every day when he arrived, as soon as he opened the door his daughter would run to meet him, radiant, and put her arms round his waist, addressing him a cascade of loving words.

Pretending not to be bothered by this, though he was not peaceful inside, he said to his wife:

“Hoticha, get me a drink, whisky if you can, while I’m taking a bath. I need to relax, today I worked like a dog!”

“Right away, dear,” Hoticha agreed, adding: “your wishes are like a command for someone who loves you as dearly as I do.”

“Thank you so much, dear! It is so refreshing to get home exhausted and to hear friendly, loving and comforting words like these! What about Tachinha, where did she hide herself?”

“Listen, your daughter made me laugh so much that I was sorry for her!”

“Why?”

“She told me she was hurt by the way you treated her this morning, when she told you she had heard on the radio that an angel was born in Mecuburi.”

“Oh, yes, she talked about that, but I thought the story was totally imaginary, that’s why I didn’t listen to her.”

“Well, she was upset, because you usually pay attention to her. You’ve taught her to expect that! That’s the big treat for daddy’s girl!”

“Oh well, all right, all right, and then?”

“Then I wanted to know whether the speaker had said in so many words that an angel was born in Mecuburi.”

“What did she say?”

“After I persisted, she ended up saying that the speaker had said that ‘a sexless child was born in the district of Mecuburi, in the province of Nampula.'”

“And what made her associate this with the birth of an angel?”

“That’s what I asked her too, and do you know what she answered? It’s really peculiar!”

“I’m dying to hear it!”

“She answered that she heard us say sometimes, when we were talking about this or that. Listen, it’s not worth going on talking about the sex of angels, it won’t get us anywhere.”

“But what has it got to do with this birth of an angel in Mecuburi?”

“You know, Telo, she once asked me, quite a long time ago: ‘Mummy, why is it that discussions about the sex of angels don’t get people anywhere? I heard you and Dad say “it’s not worth going on talking about the sex of angels, it won’t get us anywhere!”‘ and I answered: ‘Listen, girl, it’s because angels are sexless, they’re divine creatures intended to protect people in daily life. That’s why they are called “guardian angels”, and every person has his own. They are sexless, and, for this reason, when people are discussing something where there’s no answer, they say it’s the same as discussing the sex of angels, because we will never know which it is.'”

“Ah, she was analysing! What a smart girl! Then this business of a sexless child was just a biological accident involving the malformation of its organs! She made the connection, by God!”

 

IV

Perestrelo came into the office whistling, bouncy and cheerful, which naturally surprised his colleagues.

“You look happier today, Perestrelo, when we saw you yesterday you had a gloomy face as if you had seen a devil!”

“Yes, Cantalo, I am really happy — you know that the Mecuburi angel mystery is solved,” Perestrelo said, explaining his cheerfulness.

“In fact, you see, the child heard the news about what had happened in Mecuburi on the radio, but what the speaker said wasn’t that an angel was born in Mecuburi, but that a sexless child was born, and she extrapolated to the business about angels because of the expression ‘discussing the sex of angels’ — her mother had told her once that the divine, winged beings, were sexless and had explained the reason for using this expression in everyday life.”

“How imaginative — but listen, this birth of a sexless child was announced by the BBC, I heard it the morning before yesterday, but I didn’t think of connecting this to your daughter’s mental exercise. You now know that you have a serious thinker at home!”

“That girl, that girl, she even listens to the BBC! I must not have been paying attention, because I listen to the BBC every morning. This is an opportunity to say: like father, like daughter!”

Continuing the conversation a little further, Cantola added:

“Isn’t that something, Perestrelo, a sexless child — can you imagine that! This will require a tricky and expensive operation!”

“Certainly, Cantola, the doctors will have to work very carefully to correct this congenital condition,” Perestrelo added.

Translated by J. Pailler

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