"An ordinary woman" short story by E. Zerbini






- A woman of genius leading an ordinary life.

13-year-old Marcel Proust’s questionnaire answer in Antoinette Felix-Faure’s album


Far away on the very hot sand                       

A people came to light                       

Leaving behind a stone inheritance                

Built by the king’s dominance           

On this lovely night                            

The veils of history we lift upright                 

And the Nile for the avenue we trade

for all of its mysteries to illustrate                  


            - Neivinha’s potato pie is delicious -, said Mr. Wilson as he chewed on yet another mouthful.

            It was Carnival time. There they were in Neivinha’s apartment watching the Samba Schools parade down the avenue. Mr. Wilson was the next-door neighbor, married to Dona Dora. The elderly couple had been deserted by children and grandchildren in the narrow building on Siqueira Campos street, Copacabana. The migration of their descendents to the new homes of the badly delineated district of Barra didn’t seem to have embittered the old couple. Wilson and Dora roamed happily around their old quarter bordered by Barata Ribeiro, Santa Clara and surroundings, which included the charms of Peixoto Square. Neivinha and her live-in divorced sister were now the only real support to the aged pair.

            - It’s so light and airy, declared Dona Dora echoing her husband’s praise.

            - The secret is to mash the boiled potatoes through the potato press twice, and let it cool before adding the yolks, the butter and the flour -, said Neivinha as she walked down the narrow corridor from the kitchen to the living room. She was hurriedly rubbing her hands on the sides of the flowery dress, drying the last drops of water from the sink or perhaps simply out of a nervous habit. God only knows. Neivinha halted abruptly as she spotted the parade on television:

            - They weren’t kings, they were pharaohs -, she corrected assertively. In old Egyptian, pharaoh, per-o, meant “great house” or “royal house.”

            This observation left her lips involuntarily. Her intent was to explain to Dona Dora why the potatoes had to be cold before adding the other ingredients: so they don’t absorb the moisture of the butter and yolks, and avoid the need for excessive flour.

 Nevertheless, the Yellow and Black school, indifferent to the details of Neivinha’s recipe, was coming out on the Samba Avenue broadcast live and in color to the entire nation. Its samba theme that year was the history and glory of old Egypt land.

                                    They dotted the desert with pyramids           

                                    Rocky dreams in the moonlight                     

                                    Celebrating the majesty of the gods              

                                    Isis, Osiris and Amun-Ra                              


            Standing still at the living room door, Neivinha stared at the television set as it monopolized everyone’s eyes. In a doorless cabinet next to the entertainment unit, standing out among Neivinha’s small collection of books almost entirely dedicated to Egyptian themes, was a thick volume. It was an imported book with illustrations and photographs, for which the young woman had spent a small fortune, paid in three installments at Da Vinci Bookstore in downtown Rio de Janeiro. If opened randomly, a paragraph on any page could read like this:


             Only late in old Egypt’s history did the divinities take up human form. The early gods were animal shaped. Hathor was a cow; Nefertum, a lotus flower; Bastet, a she-cat. After the pre-dynastic period, the representation of some of these gods kept souvenirs of their animal parts: Anubis flaunted the head of a jackal, Horus, a falcon’s. This often unnoticed detail mirrors the evolution of the very consciousness of humankind, as it coins its gods in its own image. From beast to human.



            The couple was hypnotized by the television images and didn’t realize the semi-trance into which Neivinha had sunk.

- Besides the potatoes, you put in some sardines too, right? -, Dona Dora asked absent-mindedly.

            - Canned sardines. But tuna will do -, answered Neivinha, with her thoughts lost in the distance, onboard a time machine, sending hieroglyphic messages from a far away oasis lined with date trees.

            Her father had christened her Neiva. His only explanation was that, as he wanted a boy, he had registered the unexpected girl with a name that would apply to both sexes. Whimsical as he had been, he had also been wrong. Neiva is a woman’s name, Spanish in origin, a variation for “nieve”. Snow.

 The family was from Juiz de Fora, state of Minas Gerais. Neivinha had moved to Rio to study Library Science at university. With a degree in her hands, she got a position in the public service and never left the city again. Just like her father, she had unaccounted for whims. Neivinha had an obsession for Egypt. 


Ruling over the secrets of the afterlife           

Barbarian nations they aimed to present        

With the magic and science they taught        

And which they continue to enchant  


            The parade carried on. At this moment, the cameras captured the passage of a block of people in dark attire covered with small mirrors, flickering like stars in heaven, coruscating under the spotlights. Their heads crowned with a headset of black feathers, the group had been announced as the dark knights of the god Seth.

            - Seth murdered Osiris, the sacred representation of the Nile River. However, Isis, Osiris’ wife and sister, rescued him from the dead and gave birth to his son Horus. In fact, the holy trinity of Ancient Egypt was Isis, Osiris and Horus. Amun-Ra wasn’t part of it -, she mumbled as though in a dream.

            Indifferent to Neivinha’s corrections, the knights sambaed on, singing and dancing in front of the cameras.

            - Neivinha, you should go to Egypt on your next vacation. No one would enjoy this trip as much as you -, said Dona Dora, eyes glued on the TV.

            - I would love to, but I haven’t got the money -, she said in a whisper, self-conscious that she was the only working hand in the house. Her younger sister, who, after the divorce ten years ago, had moved in, bringing along her son, never kept a job for very long. After a brief affair with a police investigator, she’d had a second child, kept by Neivinha. Tonight that boy, who was going on four, was fast asleep in one of the living room armchairs.


The oldest nephew wasn’t a headache. He attended the Naval School in Angra dos Reis. The sister made the constant apology that she took care of the housework. Where was she, though, at this time?

The crowd of merrymakers had been replaced by a dazzling light show playing around one of the floats topped with a colossal golden pyramid. The parade presenter announced the arrival of the great Pyramid of Queops.

Neivinha had never been abroad, but she collected travel brochures. In one of them, several years old, there was a small text under a photo of Queops:


Built around 2,500 b.C., the Great Pyramid was the earliest of the three pyramids of Giza. It was originally covered in polished stone, which gave it not only a special shine, but also visibility from a distance of many kilometers. With its 146 meters in height, it was up to the end of the 19th century, when the Eiffel Tower was erected, the highest building on the planet.

Without losing her sleepwalking air, Neivinha took a step towards the TV and declaimed in a flimsy voice:

 – Those who built with granite, who walled in a chamber within the pyramid, who adorned and embellished this beautiful construction… their actions are as empty as those of the tired worker who died by the river with no descendant to carry his name.

- That’s lovely, Neivinha! -, complimented Mr. Wilson, raising an iced cold glass of beer from the coffee table in the middle of the room, offering a toast to his hostess. It was the first time he looked at her, the first time he moved his gaze away from the television.

- It’s an Egyptian saying I know by heart -, replied Neivinha.

At this moment of trance, Neivinha’s dreamy eyes met the two red stones glued for eyes on the head of the plaster, flea market snake posed in strike position and debatable taste, which now decorated the cabinet where Neivinha kept her books.


On the screen of the machine that had such power over the guests’ attention and which evoked Neivinha’s Egyptian ecstasy, there came the Yellow and Black, moving on with her magical parade. The highlight now was the Nefertiti and Akhenaton couple, and the ensuing Cleopatra, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony trio, all united in one single plotline. When the school came to the end of its evolution down the avenue, one by one the other schools would follow, until it was all finished, in the early hours of the morning.

When it all finally ended, the fake eyes of the cheap ornamental snake wouldn’t see that, half a mile away, on the warm sands of Copacabana beach, a couple of drunken merrymakers had just made love in the darkened area shaded by the Atlântica Avenue boardwalk wall.


About the same distance from the flat, at the opposite end of the same Siqueira Campos street, beyond the slope of Tabajaras Hill, only the dead on São João Batista cemetery rested in peace.

And, on the other side of the globe, under the high sun of a new day, a fat lazy-eyed crocodile followed with its semi-closed eyes the movement of the vessels going up and down the godly waters of the sacred Nile.





Eugenia Zerbini is a writer and a lawyer. The above, translated by Fernanda Sampaio, is a short story from her lates book "Harém", published in Brazil by Editora Patuá.








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