The Dead Man in the Sea at Urca

Hiroshi Sugimoto. Tasman Sea, Ngarupupu. 1990. Courtesy Guggenheim Museum.


I WAS AT THE apartment of Dona Lourdes, a seamstress, trying on my dress painted by Olly—and Dona Lourdes said: ‘A man died in the sea, look at all the lifeguards.’ I looked and all I saw was the sea that must have been very salty, blue sea, white houses. What about the dead man?

The dead man in brine. I don’t want to die! I screamed mutely inside my dress. The dress is yellow and blue. What about me? dying of heat, not dead from the blue sea.

I’m going to tell a secret: my dress is lovely and I don’t want to die. On Friday the dress will be at my house, and on Saturday I’ll wear it. No death, just blue sea. Are there yellow clouds? There are golden ones. I don’t have a story. Does the dead man? He does: he went to swim in the sea at Urca, the fool, and died, who gave the order? I swim in the sea with caution, I’m not an idiot, and I only go to Urca to try on dresses. And three blouses. S. came along. She’s meticulous when it comes to fittings. What about the dead man? meticulously dead?

I’m going to tell a story: once upon a time there was a still-young man who enjoyed swimming in the sea. And then, one Wednesday morning he went to Urca. In Urca, on the rocks of Urca, I don’t go because it’s full of rats. But the young man didn’t care about the rats. Nor did the rats care about him. The white row houses in Urca. He cared about those. Then there was a woman trying on a dress and who got there too late: the young man was already dead. Salty. Were there piranhas in the sea? I pretended not to understand. I really don’t understand death. A young man dead?

Dead from being the fool he was. You should only go to Urca to try on cheerful dresses. The woman, that’s me, wants only cheerfulness. But I bow before death. Which shall come, shall come, shall come. When? That’s the thing, it can come at any moment. But I, who was trying on the dress in the morning heat, asked for a proof of God. And I smelled the most intense thing, an overwhelmingly intense fragrance of roses. So I had fitting proof, the fitting and the proof; of the dress and of God.

One should only die of natural causes, never from disaster, never from drowning in the sea. I beg protection for my loved ones, who are many. And this protection, I am sure, shall come.

But what about the young man? And his story? He might have been a student. I’ll never know. I just stood looking at the sea and the houses. Dona Lourdes unflappable, asking whether to take it in at the waist. I said yes, that waistlines are supposed to look tight. But I was stunned. Stunned in my lovely dress.

Clarice Lispector (1920-1977) was a Brazilian author, acclaimed for her innovative fiction. The Dead Man in the Sea at Urca (1974), was published in Soulstorm, a collection of Lispector’s short stories.