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The Most Beautiful Woman In the World

by Roberto de Sousa Causo

She was standing near a group of full-sized, human-shaped black wood African statues in the Michael Rockfeller wing of the Metropolitan Museum. They were made from the same wood carved into the best flutes by the skilful hands of men, and played in African villages to honour their gods. The woman herself was blond, golden, and her blue eyes caressed the statues. She was wearing a black dress and a glasslike necklace that could have been made of diamonds or cheap quartz, even drops of liquid life frozen in shining stones coming out of a dead sun.

When I saw her among the statues, I thought that’s what I want. I wanted that image, that woman. At that moment I didn’t care about anything else, not sparing a second thought for my fellow Brazilians dwelling in poverty, or the aliens who were visiting our planet.

I walked up to her quietly. She saw me approaching and I could see her try to figure out what was going on. Who was he? Am I doing something wrong? After all, people were not allowed to cross the white line and get too close to the statues.

„Do you know anything about art?“ I asked.

„Why?“ she said, with a half-embarrassed smile on her lips.

„I thought you could tell me something about these African works.“

„Well, you should really ask someone from the museum.“ She struggled for a second, considering whether I deserved an answer. „They’re carved sculptures, made by hand. They have the sort of primitivism that first struck Picasso and other European Modernist avant-garde artists.“ And then she noticed that I was looking at her more than at the art. „You’re not really interested in art, are you?“

„Sure I am,“ I said, picking up my camera. „I care for images I can use in my art.“ I quickly prepared the camera. „Don’t move, just stay right there.“

„What are you doing? Are you trying to make a pass at me?“

„I want you, and all the brilliance you lend these black statues.“

The whole time we spoke, I was taking pictures, the camera buzzing desperately.

„I’m not taking anything from you,“ I said. „And besides, you owe it to everyone who’ll ever catch a glimpse of you.“

She stood there, measuring my words. „I’m not flattered.“

„When you see the photos, you will be.“

„I get it. You’ll send them to me so you can get my phone number.“

I finished the shots and put the camera down. There was a moment of silence, then she said, „So you’re not going to send me the pictures.“

„You’ll see them around,“ I said. I thanked her, turned and left.

I wanted to have more than her image. I wanted her body, her warmth. I’m human. I wanted every piece of anything she could give to a man, but I felt that it wouldn’t last any longer than the light captured by my camera.

***

My exhibit was called „The Most Beautiful Woman in the World and the Pretty People“, and it was held in an alternative gallery on Greene Street, in Soho. It was a nice place, a world away from the Metropolitan Museum on the Upper East Side.

There was a good turnout. I hadn’t expected that. Somehow, with the aliens in town, there was so much excitement that people just had to do something, to move around, live their lives, think about things that affirmed human identity and values, such as „human“ art.

I had made sure that one of her pictures was used in the advertising, so I wasn’t all that surprised when she showed up.

She wore no makeup and intentionally came in wearing everyday clothes, which contrasted sharply with all the evening dresses and suites. I was the only other person in the place wearing street clothes. I never wore anything else. As soon as people saw the similarity, they understood that she was the model or the muse.

She blushed when people started asking her questions. She moved away with mild excuses, standing alone in a corner of the hall, looking a bit like a lost girl. Before she could decide to leave, I hurried over to her. She still was amazingly beautiful. I felt dizzy just looking at her.

„So you really did it,“ she said.

„Like I told you I would.“

„Now what should I tell my boyfriend?“

„You’ve really got me now.“

„I knew you had something else in mind.“ She was smiling. I forgot everything but the smile. „You still owe me an answer.“

„About what?“

„What I’m supposed to tell my boyfriend.“

„Oh, that’s not the issue. Is he here?“

„No. He still doesn’t know about this. But what do you mean by, ‚that’s not the issue?'“

„Come over here,“ I said, guiding her by the elbow. We walked over to the photos on the wall.

„The true question is why I did this work. Look. What do you see?“ I pointed to the images. Images of those dead wood carved statues absorbing light as black holes twisted into strange human shapes, contrasting with the luminescent blond female among them, shining among them like a she-sun.

„I see myself among African statues,“ she said.

I laughed. „You have no sense of poetry.“

„Yes, I do. What I don’t have is a sense of humour, Mr. Ferreira.“

Senhor Ferreira, for you,“ I said, suddenly losing my sense of humour. „You think this is a joke?“ I pointed to the images. „You see no beauty in them? If that’s true then I feel sorry for you. I have to say I don’t agree with your opinion. You’re a subject. If you think I’m exploiting your image, sue me. You could make some money. As for your boyfriend,“ I added, „if he can’t see the beauty in these pictures, then I don’t have any answers for him.“

She said nothing. I could sense a burning in her chest, like a volcano building up steam, about to erupt, but she calmed down and took a deep breath.

„That’s your job, I’ve heard, to turn daily life into beautiful photos. I admit you’re good at it. These pictures are really something.“ She turned her gaze once again to the images. I couldn’t tell what she was feeling.

„You’re wrong,“ I said. „This time I simply recorded a true beauty, your beauty. But let me show you something else.“

I led her to another room, featuring the second part of the exhibit subtitled „The Pretty People”. The room was filled with the results of six years of my life as a photographer. A thousand photographs, all of them in tiny reproductions crammed onto every available space on the wall.

„God,“ she whispered, her blue eyes squinting at all the poor people of Brazil and other places in Latin America. The photos did not show a proud proletariat or peasant people, nor did they glorify them in any way. If there was any beauty in them, it was there despite the camera. It was theirs, not mine.

„The usual dramas of daily life,“ I said. „At least in my country and most of the planet.“ My voice grew bitter. „People sleeping in the streets, eating garbage, living in cardboard-malocas, defecating on their own floors, selling their children into prostitution, offering them to rich sterile couples from First World countries, handing them over to the black-market for their organs. But sometimes they help each other to hang on, and to survive as families and communities, to raise their children the best they can.“

She was silent for some time, studying the images as she walked through the whole room. I felt no pity for the pain she was experiencing. All my pity went out to the people in the photographs.

At last she turned her eyes on me and said, „You use this to raise money for them. I saw that in The New Yorker article. You hope to contrast my beauty and the so-called beauty in these photos.“

„Right. And it works. People come here and they either get sick and run away, or they take out their wallets.“

„I guess I can’t sue you.“

I smiled faintly at her. We both left the room and for the first time I did not sense tension between us. She even forgot the crowd’s inquisitive eyes.

„What does it mean?“ she asked me. „Does it mean I’m to be alienated? I’m just another pretty face, while the world starves?“

„I don’t know what it means. Perhaps it just means I am a bit tired of all that ugliness, even of the dignity I find in ugliness. Now I long for the simple sexual and aesthetic desire I can find in your image, the mythic power of the most beautiful woman who exists despite all that other stuff. Those are some pretty sexy statues, if you don’t mind me saying so.“

„You’re just saying that because you’re black, too.“

„I’m not black. I’m mulatto – but that makes no difference for you gringos.“

„I wonder how that would sound in your language,“ she said.

Você é tão bonita que os meus olhos doem só de olhar pra você“ I said in Portuguese. „E o que vejo é mais, muito mais do que uma moça bonita e alienada. Eu te quero. Tudo o que você tiver pra dar, pelo tempo que for possível.

„It sounds good. Now translate it.“

„Nope.“

„Oh, c’mon.“ She giggled. „Well, I know enough of Spanish to mostly understand some of the second part. I knew what you had in mind all along. Women always know.“

We stood staring at one another, when they arrived.

***

The alien was even taller than its bodyguards. There was something about those men in black suits. Of course, they wore last-generation body armour and zap-guns. A couple of them, their eyes hidden behind black sunglasses, were from the UN’s Extraterrestrial Tourist Corps.

The UN was giving tours to the alien visitors. Of course, there were no visits to Harlem, Rio’s favelas, or the ghettos of Calcutta; only safe tours to museums, UN sessions, and highly rehearsed congressional meetings in rich countries. From airport to airport they went, without ever getting a glance at the whole picture.

Nobody knew what the aliens wanted from us.

The public was uneasy. Riots were already breaking out in lots of places, protesters claiming their right to know what was going on. The UN’s explanation of the aliens as „cultural ambassadors“ did little to quell the unrest.

Nevertheless, the alien cultural ambassador in my exhibition was staring attentively at my pictures, like a critic from another star system.

The woman took hold of my left arm when the alien and its entourage approached us.

„Aliens also read The New Yorker,“ I said, and she relaxed a little, smiling.

The alien was as tall and lean as a basketball player. Its head had an insect-like conical shape, with large buggy eyes without pupils. It had four legs, the hind ones somewhat shorter. It was giraffe-like, taking cumbersome steps as its long upper body balanced shakily behind the short legs. Covered with white fabric, its body hinted at an erect intelligent quadruped. Its four hands were permanently cupped in an almost Buddha-like greeting.

One of the gallery staff members, Lucas Figueroa, a second-generation Brazilian émigré, approached the UN officers, and was quickly dismissed with a single gesture.

No talking near the alien.

„This is the first time I’ve ever seen one of them live,“ the woman told me.

„Me, too.“

The alien and the others went to „The Pretty People“ room. Every one in the main hall caught their breath. Some people who were in the smaller room left quickly.

„I wonder what it sees through those four eyes. What do you think? Are you curious?“ I could say she was deeply curious.

„Very. We could go inside and take a look.“ Her voice trembled, but she was brave.

„No,“ I said, remembering the way they dealt with Figueroa.

„Afraid?“ she teased.

„More of the guarda-roupas than of the monster from outer space.“

„You shouldn’t call it that. What’s this Portuguese word you used?“

„Those secret agents, they’re as big as wardrobes. They may get upset if we get too close to the cultural ambassador.“ To tell the truth, I was afraid that our presence could spoil the alien’s viewing of my photos. Some things are better faced alone.

Time ticked by, but still the alien did not come back out of the room. Suddenly I understood what was happening: it was an altogether different type of experience this time. No masks, any ugliness avoided.

„Let’s leave it alone. It’s having its moment,“ I said.

It took an hour. When they left, the alien seemed as impenetrable as before, but the UN people were definitely uneasy, which could be seen in their gestures, adjusting sunglasses, a straightening of ties and skirts. Body language saying ”we’ve got trouble”. They left as they had entered, without uttering a word.

„My party is over,“ I said. „The alien stole the show.“

Indeed, half an hour later the place was empty except for the gallery staff, and the two of us. I turned to her. „Thanks for coming,“ I said, feeling disappointed. She would leave now, vanishing from my life forever.

„Aren’t you going to stay here to close the show?“

„No. My friend Figueroa will do that.“

„Well. Let’s go out, then. Can you call a cab for us?“

For us!

***

She was everything I expected, and more. Strong and lean and passionate. She had an inner stillness in every one of her movements that spoke of feminine mysteries, of ocean waves and dark wells of fluid femininity, as in that poem by João Cabral de Mello Neto:

sóuma água vertical
pode, de alguma maneira
ser a imagen do que és

Only vertical water can somehow be the image of what
you are. Only vertical water, water still in itself,
the vertical water of a well, water in depth.

The woman was a languid wave, rippling with soft power. That was it. That was her. She was passion, a symbol. Maybe I, too, caught the alien syndrome. I also wanted to experience all that was human, all that was animal and passionate. The alien ambassadors did this to us. Their mere presence made all of humankind long for what it meant to be human.

I didn’t keep these thoughts from her. She knew she was my personal shelter against the absolute otherness threatening me. I couldn’t say if she felt differently. She was shy when talking about herself. She had left her previous boyfriend because he was too jealous. He was a co-worker, and she was dating him almost out of courtesy. Our affair was of another sort. More than the love of a man for a woman and of a woman for a man. It was the love of two human beings, their deepest humanity projected on one another.

But it all ended when they came again.

***

It was the same alien individual as far as I could tell, and had the same escort of secret service guarda-roupas and UN officers. But this time it brought along a strange object, white like its clothes, which it held in its four six-fingered hands.

We were in her apartment at the time, in the middle of a session of taking nude photos – she was reclined on a bed of deep blue flowers which matched her eyes. Her apartment gave us a night view of New York’s skyscrapers, police and federal airships hovering under heavy clouds like whales among underwater mountains covered with bioluminescent algae. They would never let the alien travel on its own.

As they barged in, she ran to dress herself in a short robe, while I stood my ground, shirtless.

I didn’t waste time asking them how they found us; after all, they were the secret service. Nor did I ask what they wanted. The alien came nearer, towering above us. Then it turned on the device.

It was a holoprojector. It made images dance around in the air like cinemascoped snowflakes, and I instantly knew by the entourage’s reaction, that they had never seen this type of show before.

It showed images of the ambassador’s planet, images of an overpopulated world, its inhabitants piled up in skyscraper-like favelas, buildings fighting shoulder to shoulder to hold onto the mountainsides. Its „people“ roamed around in rags, throwing their trash down the hills, filling up rivers with it, dying by the thousands in floods and torrential rains, the bodies burned naked after being first stripped of their rags. When it wasn’t raining, two suns made the plastic roofs of the malocas, the shacks that were their homes, burn in reddish tones. There were images of alien children, skinny because of their version of diarrhoea; the adults washing out the faeces from upper levels, letting it splash down on those living on the lower levels.

Meanwhile, another population of the same giraffe-aliens went flying around in floating houses, hovering in pressurized palaces made of elaborate materials, and enjoying the good life in an upper atmosphere that was still clear, far above the stench below.

The device shut down.

The alien turned its back to me and, without a word, left the apartment, followed by its disoriented escorts.

Two days later CNN broadcast told the entire world that the alien „cultural ambassadors“ had left the planet Earth.

A picture is worth a thousands words.

***

„We have no solution for their problems, they have no solution for ours. That’s why I think they gave up. They had no purpose in staying here any longer, except to enjoy a little more of the UN’s hospitality.“

„You don’t know what was at stake, Mr. Ferreira,“ replied the FBI man in front of me. His name was Craven, and he was in charge of investigating in advance the alien’s tour. „New technological possibilities, scientific advances.“

„Old social diseases, social stratification,“ I interrupted. „Immobilization. Desperation. Alienated class relationships. You can’t hide all that under the carpet.“

„Yeah, but we were doing fine, you know. We were doing all right, until that ambassador decided to go to your exhibit. An art show, for Christ’s sake. Photos of a pretty bimbo – who’d have known.“

„You got nothing against me. You should have known what might happen; I had nothing to do with it. I said that I was raising donations for the poor of Brazil in the ad. You screwed up.“

Craven raised his chin in an angry movement full of defiant grandeur. „Yeah, but we’re ugly and bad and we have no mercy for you begging cucarachas. We’ll do something about your visa, and you’ll never set foot here again to beg for American dollars. Your crap won’t ever be seen anywhere in the world, pal.

„And one more thing,“ he added as he turned to leave, „We’ll do something about your girl, too. She’ll never get a permit to leave the country, got it?“

„You don’t like us damn cucarachas taking your women,“ I said, almost rising to punch him in the face, but I didn’t.

I fell silent. We held each other’s eyes. Something on Craven’s face told me he was ashamed for what he had just said. It was just a second, but in that split second I saw the man behind the bad cop act. He could not prevent an American citizen from leaving the country, even one involved in interplanetary affairs. I would see her again.

I was so happy I smiled. Craven ran a hand over his face and went to look out the window.

It was time for me to go back home and look the poverty in the eye. Por a mão na massa – get my hands dirty.

I thought about the beautiful woman, the beautiful face among those alien-like statues who allowed the extra-terrestrials to see human misery.

Come see the paradise.

I wondered whether that alien was a photographer in its own world. What were its commitments? Did it care for the wretched of its world? Had it come to Earth to study other social organizations, to seek different solutions? Maybe it too had gone back home to a harsh reality of despair and misery. I identified with it somehow. I wanted to believe we were kin.

Had it also seen her as beautiful?

The FBI man was waiting for something else, maybe to hear my last statement before kicking me out of the country and shipping me back to Brazil.

„I think we’re both unemployed,“ I said. Craven laughed a tired, muted laugh.

Then I noticed the cardboard boxes loaded with my photos, standing on Craven’s table. They would ship them back on the same flight that would take me home.

„Want to see my work?“ I asked. „There is some beauty in it.“

Translated by Roberto de Sousa Causo & Mary Elizabeth Ginway
First published in
SF World (China), September 1997
Copyright @ 1997 by Roberto de Sousa Causo

Roberto de Sousa Causo is one of the leading sf writers in Brazil. He is professionally published since 1989 and his works have appeared in ten countries. He has published four books, the two short story collections A Danca das Sombras (1999) and A Sombra dos Homes (2004), the novella Terra Verde (2000)  and Ficcao Cientifica. Fantasia e Horror no Brasil: 1875 a 1950 (2003), a study of science fiction. One of his critical works will be uploaded in the nonfiction section of InterNova.

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