All the letters don’t make a word

A small town in Minas Gerais. A traveling circus. The yellow and blue canvas took me back to my childhood, when I used to watch many circus shows when my grandparents took me there. Fascinated by the magic of the circus, I experienced moments of pure enchantment. It was impossible not to smile at the sweet memories that fuelled my childhood imagination. The circus had occupied a plot of land owned by the town hall and was waiting for the weekend to open. It was a time when I was gloomy and discouraged. The joy that was so common to my temperament had disappeared for no apparent reason. Life was dull and boring. Nothing good or interesting was happening. I decided to take a week off to visit an old friend who, tired of practising law and the routine of the metropolises, had decided to take up dairy farming. Maybe I’d find the inspiration I was missing. When I saw the tarpaulin set up, I couldn’t resist. I parked the car. The popcorn and cotton candy stalls, although empty, were already set up. I went inside. There was no-one there. Taken by a burst of daring, I walked to the centre of the arena, where the central mast supported the entire structure that also surrounded the grandstand made up of unsophisticated wooden planks. For a few moments, I closed my eyes and, in the centre of the arena, I could imagine some of the many dreams I had as a child, in which I was the magician who drew gasps from the audience by surprising them with the imponderable. I was the trapeze artist who made the audience hold their breath for a fraction of a second as they waited for me to reach the other trapeze that swung in synchronised movement with mine. I heard the enthusiastic applause. I smiled. That’s when a deep, high voice, like an operatic baritone, brought me back to reality: “Respectable audience! Welcome to the Great Siberian Circus!”. A clown walked down the bleachers towards me. His face covered in excessive make-up and his wide smile made of paint prevented me from reading his face. His clothes were colourful and disjointed; he wore gloves and his shoes were huge. He had a rehearsed gesture that hinted at innocence and clumsiness. He was carrying a box in his hands. He approached and asked if I knew what was inside. I shook my head. He revealed: “Your greatest wish”.

The clown warned me: “No generic wishes, such as an end to wars or hunger, a cure for all diseases or a smile on everyone’s face. Nor do I treat specific illnesses or raise the dead. I’m talking about an almost unattainable wish that will only benefit you. It can’t be something immaterial like love, any other virtue or plenitude. It’s something material and for personal use. We all have the right to small and large pleasures. I’m talking about a pleasure typical of celebrity magazines”. Since he was a clown, I decided to play along and asked him if he was referring to a very selfish choice. He said yes and added: “It serves a temptation never before revealed to anyone. Not even to you.”

For some reason that I couldn’t quite put my finger on at the time, I felt a little uncomfortable, as if the joke had lost its humour. Or it wasn’t a joke. It was something much more serious. He was a strange clown.

Before I could say anything, he announced: “A Rolex, a Ferrari, a helicopter, a yacht, a penthouse by the sea or a mansion with a swimming pool. Anything you want”. Then he issued a warning: “By granting your most secret wish, I’m going to take something you own. Something I will choose. But don’t worry, it will only be a small, simple pleasure of little value. Something that you have always enjoyed, you will no longer have access to. Nothing more.”

I asked what would be taken from me. The clown was honest: “It depends on the wish. For any of the ones I’ve just listed, you’ll no longer be able to watch, from the window of your small flat, the sun rise every morning behind Pedra da Gávea, while you drink coffee from a cheap bar and write your books full of philosophy that do nothing to help people pay their bills”. He paused and pondered: “There’s nothing that a penthouse overlooking Central Park or a villa in Tuscany won’t compensate you for with plenty left over. I make very generous offers.”

Seeing me at a loss for words. The clown continued with his proposal: “The choice could be a delicious trip around the world for years on end, visiting all the cities you choose, dining in the restaurants of the most famous chefs, visiting museums, palaces and monuments built by human art over the centuries. Nothing will be missing.” I wanted to know the price of that enchanting dream. Sincerely, the clown warned: “You won’t be able to hug your daughters any more. That’s all”. Before I could protest, he said: “Nothing bad will happen to them, I promise. They’ll get on with their lives, they’ll be happy and you’ll be able to talk to them by phone and video whenever you want. But the mismatches will prevent you from meeting them in person to exchange a hug. That’s it”. He went on to say: “There’s nothing that a lunch at the Osteria Francescana or a coffee at the D’Orsay, after appreciating Van Gogh’s paintings, won’t make up for and fill you with pleasure. Then you can go from Paris to Venice in an exclusive Orient Express carriage. A life so interesting that you won’t miss a single hug”. 

The clown’s words hit me like arrows. They shouldn’t have, but they hit me. He continued: “I can offer some things that are impossible for many. You know that beautiful, famous actress who starred in a blockbuster film and filled your adolescent dreams? She could become a passionate girlfriend, if that’s what you want. There’s also the possibility of making the person who caused you the most grief kneel down in front of you and ask for forgiveness. Giving you the right to determine the penalty imposed on the unfortunate person”. I waited for him to talk about the little that would be taken from me. As if reading my thoughts, he proposed: “If you choose to date the Hollywood actress, Denise will disappear from your life and your memory. It will be as if you had never met.” He paused for me to consider the offer and then went on to say: “The request for forgiveness from the person who hurt you the most will prevent you from asking anyone for forgiveness for your mistakes. You’ll have to carry all your mistakes with you without ever allowing yourself any regrets or undoing the harm you’ve caused someone.” He shrugged and finished with a comment of apparent innocence: “Keep pushing it under the carpet. Nobody will care, you won’t even have time to remember who you really are in the face of so many exciting things waiting for you. Glamour and pleasures will do just fine.”

I felt like I was trapped in a dead end. Although I didn’t say anything, the clown said: “It’s not me who’s cornering you, it’s your conscience”. He whirled round as a reenactment of his show and reminded me: “You can say yes to any of these desires. Or no to all of them. Don’t forget that for each great desire you’ll only lose a tiny, almost insignificant piece of your life. It’s certainly a tempting offer, an impossible to deny of a deal.” It was my turn to ask: “Who are you, clown?”.

He nodded as if he were introducing himself and said: “I’m just a clown, one  of those who has a crude and clumsy way of moving, clumsy in dress, simple in thought and innocent in speech. We have always revealed the truths to kings and the powerful as if they were nothing more than incoherent anecdotes or the fruit of an ignorant mind. We show the frailties of the proud and the masks of the vain, without them taking offence, because clowns are fools whose only job is to make them laugh. In doing so, we reveal the subterfuge of those who hide from their own essence and refuse to see reality. To the untrained eye, we are nothing more than despicable buffoons performing a minor function. The truths contained in our jokes are accepted as common misunderstandings uttered by the naive and, because they are mere trivialities, they don’t even deserve any punishment. We are the Shakespearean fools who reveal the truth like gardeners sowing seeds in arid soil, waiting for the rain that will one day make them sprout.”

I argued with him: “That’s not what you did to me. You made me a tempting offer. Nothing more.” The clown spread his arms like someone stating the obvious and pondered: “You’re wrong, mate. That’s exactly what I did.” He paused for me to prepare myself and continued: “I showed you a truth that you, like most people, refuse to accept: you have everything you need to be happy. But you can’t because you’re so preoccupied with what you don’t have yet that you’re unable to enjoy the marvellous things you already have in your hands”.

I told him he was wrong. I argued that there was nothing wrong with wanting a more exciting and lively life. The clown asked: “Then why haven’t you accepted my offer yet?”. He then justified himself: “I’m offering a lot more than I’m charging”. He looked at me seriously and urged me: “Come on, just ask. I’m at the disposal of your most unmentionable desire. Live your greatest pleasure and be happy!”.

I felt the circus revolve around me. From the centre of the arena I had the feeling that the grandstand was a carousel at high speed. I held on to the centre pole to keep me from falling. I couldn’t ask. The clown looked at me without compassion. He teased me: “Until when are you going keep tripping over your own legs?”. I told him it was just a sudden feeling of dizziness. It would soon pass. The clown corrected my understanding: “I’m not talking about this imbalance. I’m talking about the fact that you want all the letters when you don’t know which word to write”.

The carousel spun clockwise. As if it were a bizarre screen, images of my greatest desires appeared. Material goods of all kinds, such as yachts, mansions, trips to luxurious places. As well as film novels and people who had hurt me deeply, now on their knees, begging me for forgiveness. It was time to have a life of dreams, it was time for a reckoning, I thought.

The clown gestured with his hands and the stands stopped spinning, disappearing with the images. Another gesture. The stands began to spin in the opposite direction. The images that began to emerge were of the things I might miss. The sun rising through the window of the small flat where I live, while I write my books and drink my coffee. Denise’s unforgettable smile and the touch of her hands that I would never have again. I’d talk to my daughters, but we’d no longer be able to hug, walk arm in arm as we love to do. As well as other simple things, like sitting on a bench in any square and just talking about life. I didn’t want to be without any of these great little things. They were too valuable to me.

Another gesture from the clown and the carousel stopped. He held out his arms with the box in his hands and said: “Open it and take your greatest wish”. I smiled at the clown; I smiled at myself. Never before had I been enveloped in such certainty. The ideas were clear and fluid as I spoke: “There is nothing inside this box that is more valuable to me than what I already have outside it. There is nothing you can offer me that is more precious than the riches I already possess.” I paused and said: “There is nothing exterior from the heart that is worth more than what makes my heart happy.” I was sincere: “Thank you for reminding me of this. I promise I will never forget that.” I paused again and said: “In your own way, you’ve given me back my best wishes. They’ve always been with me. I’d forgotten how important they are.”

The clown commented: “We all hold the joys of the days and the pleasures of life in our hands. Few realise that joy lies in the simple things of everyday life, those that speak to our hearts. Joy finds pleasure in the things that speak to one’s own heart and dialogue with the hearts of other people. There is no greater pleasure. Everything else may be pleasant, but it’s not indispensable. All the letters don’t make up a word. It’s not necessary to have them all. Words like love and peace can be written with just four or five letters.” 

He closed his eyes as if remembering distant days and said: “Often, when we don’t understand the value of what we’ve lived, life takes it from us so that we can miss what we’ve always had in our hands, but never really valued. It’s not malice; it’s a lesson. We’ll need that lesson later on.” He then concluded: “No one lacks anything, except to find in their own heart the joys of the days and the pleasures of life. If you don’t have them, it means you haven’t yet understood the search.”

The clown made an exaggerated bow, signalling that the show was over. Without another word, he left me alone in the arena. Nothing was missing in me.

Translated by Cazmilian Zórdic.

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