A horse named Liquiçá
War and Humanity through the eyes of a child
This short story is inspired by the real story told by Mariazinha (little Mary), a Portuguese woman-girl who, in her childhood in East Timor, experienced the magical nature of things that many believe only happen in tales. The narrative was written a few years ago and has not been published before for reasons that even the author cannot explain. At this point it could no longer remain in the drawer.
REMARK: This is the first part of the story which is structured in 3 parts as described below; the last two will be published during the next weeks.
I — The happy days in East Timor
II — Life and war in Liquiçá
III — The other side of life, the other side of the world
Inspiration: The true story on which this tale is inspired is narrated in the 2017 documentary film Rosas de Ermera (Roses of Ermera), directed by Luís Filipe Rocha in which the protagonist, Maria Afonso and her brother João Afonso, both siblings of the iconic and missed Portuguese singer-songwriter Zeca Afonso, are interviewed.
Illustration credits: all illustrations are original by the author of the story and can be found on this Instagram page.
Portuguese version: the original (Portuguese) version of the story can be found on this Blogger page.
Je vois la guerre sous les mêmes couleurs que mon enfance.¹
I — The happy days in East Timor
It was in East Timor, during the time of the war, the Second World War, as the adults called it.
I had a horse named Liquiçá. His fur was dark grey, bluish, almost black, with a white patch on his forehead, a heart-shaped patch. I was told that it had the same name as a land by the sea, which in the Tetum language was called Likisá. That’s why I started calling him Liki. It was easier and more affectionate.
Liki had been given to me on my seventh birthday by a friend of my father, Dr. Fonseca. So I started riding at the age of seven and at nine I was already riding freely around the island. I didn’t use a saddle, just the reins and bridle. In Timor few people had horses. And many were amazed to see me ride so young and alone.
Before the war we didn’t even listen to Portuguese radio. I don’t know if it was because we were so far away from Portugal or because we wanted to live away from all the problems. I was totally free in that land where I had so much space, space to walk, to ride. And time, lots of time. Time to be alone, standing there looking, standing there thinking, standing in time. There was a stream behind our house. I used to go there, just to listen to the undulating song of the water that got lost among rocks and roots. I realized that after I had stopped there, listening for a while, I could hear the silence of the stream.
And there was the sea… that infinite realm of deep and tranquil blue. It was near it that I forgot everything and lost myself. On horseback in Liquiçá along the sandy shore, I could see the vivid colours of the fish through the water. I stared at them, amazed at their differences — some small and restless, always on the move; others solemn and slow, as if they were afraid of nothing — all of them amused in their midst, unaware of our presence, of our world. They seemed happy.
I especially loved listening to the sea. The sound of the calm swell unfurling on the beach seemed to come from as far away as the horizon, or perhaps from even further away, mixing on its way all the sounds of the ocean — the voices of all the fish, all the seabirds, all the sailors, all the ships — to reach me like a murmur without time and place. And I wondered if on the other side, far beyond the horizon, there was someone also sitting by the sea dreaming about this side of the world.
With Liki I didn’t care about distance. I could be distracted on the beach or in the forest, and speed back home. Galloping along, with my head resting against his neck, I felt the wind’s hair ripple across my face.
Those were my happy days in Timor. We lived in a large, white-walled house. It was on a mountainside near the capital, Dili. From our balcony we had sight of the sea through the flowering branches of a jacaranda tree. Early in the morning, the house was flooded by the sun that rose on the whiteness of my bedroom walls and set the red tiled floor on fire with a warm light that filled me with joy and the desire to go out and discover the new day. But there was a shadow of sorrow in the house… in my mother’s heart. She disguised it, she smiled, but I knew her sadness. She couldn’t be happy without the two children she had left behind to study in Portugal. My two brothers, whom I had barely known.
In the evening, after dinner, I liked to go out on the porch and watch the sky. Sometimes I would sneak out of the house to watch the fireflies. I was fascinated by those tiny, bright lights like stars fallen to Earth. Before I fell asleep my mother always read me a short story. Most were amazing stories that sometimes I didn’t understand, or had an ending that I didn’t want to accept. For me, many were too sad, although the adults seemed to find them beautiful. Even now there are many things in those stories that I don’t understand. But as time went by I began to believe that everything the tales say is possible, because in life it is too.
And then, one day, Australian and Dutch troops settled in Timor. After them came the Japanese. It was war. Before, we only had news of it from family letters or newspapers. Then the Japanese military occupied the island and imposed their authority. But they kept my father in charge as judge of the district. Until one morning the Allied planes bombed some buildings in Dili and fear set in. We were told that we had to leave the city and go to Liquiçá. When I heard the name of that town, I felt happy. My dear Liki would get to know the land that had given him his name. And I was sure he would enjoy living there.
I never knew for sure why my father decided that we should travel on foot, on alternative routes, instead of going by car like many others. He told us that it was safer because there were frequent attacks on those travelling by car on the road. There were rumours of Timorese militias attacking the Portuguese. I didn’t want to believe it. But it was true that very strange things happened in those days. Sometimes that scared me, but most of the time I felt like I was delighted with the news. We kept hearing different, sometimes contradictory, news. We had new and strange visitors, some men coming from Lisbon who I heard were spies… and unknown Timorese who appeared to meet discreetly at the house. And then that trip to a place named like my horse that would take a few days because we had to walk through the mountains. All this created an atmosphere of mystery that fascinated me. At the time I believed my father’s justification, but later I came to think that he wanted to do the trip differently because it was an adventure. He used to say that when we always do things the same way, and like everyone else, we learn very little. According to him, in life it was important to always try to see the other side of things. I think that’s why one day he decided to leave Lisbon and go to that side of the world.
In fact I was frightened by some weird things that happened from time to time. Like the day a group of Japanese military surrounded our house and ordered us all to go out into the yard. My parents were very quiet. They were holding my hand. For the first time in my life I thought they were afraid. And then I got scared too. But then my father decided to talk to the head of the group of soldiers. He advanced directly to him without bowing as other people did. They both spoke calmly in a language I didn’t understand. Then the Japanese walked away leaving us alone. This is how I began to learn to deal with fear.
We left towards our new address in the late morning. Me, my parents and a Timorese guide. At the end of that first day of hiking, we were all very tired. I must have been less tired because I had ridden Liquiçá most of the time. My father was leading him by the bridle and I didn’t have to worry about the path. I just looked around. The landscape there was very different from what I knew. We had walked for a long time along the mountainside, from where the sea could be seen far below. Sometimes I felt as if I were a bird flying very high, watching from above that blue world of water merged in the distance with the sky. At the bottom of the slope where we were following there was a narrow white strip that I recognized as the foam of waves breaking on the beach. In some places the mountains sloped so steeply down to the sea that there seemed to be no place for sand. There was only dark green on the side where we were and deep blue on the other. The two sides only separated by that white lace band. Facing that immensity I realised how small we were. That didn’t scare me, I even felt a certain warmth in the idea that such a vast and beautiful planet would welcome us and give us shelter. But I thought that, contrary to what some adults were trying to teach me, we were not so special after all; maybe we were not important to the world at all. And it saddened me to see how there were human beings making it a worse place to live, a land of fear and suffering.
I only stopped looking at the sea when we had to cut our way through the mountain.
That night we had to sleep in the forest, surrounded by trees with very thick, black trunks and low branches with roots protruding like giant animal claws. Our guide lit a fire and after we had eaten he started talking in Tetum with my father. I couldn’t understand them. I leaned my head on my mother’s shoulder and just sat there silently watching them talk on the other side of the fire. The flames sometimes brushed them with light and I could see the serious and thoughtful expressions on their faces. What struck me most was the face of our guide. In that environment, his skin looked even blacker and glowed intensely on his rounded cheeks. And his eyes, yes, were really black and reflected the firelight as if they were throwing golden sparks.
It was when the magic moment happened. I don’t remember if Liquiçá had been tied to a tree trunk or if we had let him loose. I never tied him up. Usually, when I was close to my parents and other people, he remained silent and still, always at some distance. Someone once said that he seemed like a polite person who didn’t want to intrude on conversations. Sometimes I called him: Likiii… He took a few slow steps closer to us. I stroke his muzzle and he would stay in our company, closer but always separate. Like a lonely person.
Then, that night of the campfire, Liki approached without us realizing it. He didn’t make any noise. All I remember is looking and seeing his head suspended between that of our fellow Timorese and that of my father. They were three faces gathered in conversation, illuminated from time to time by the warm light of the fire. I couldn’t see Liquiçá’s body, lost in the darkness. I just admired the white spot on his forehead and the white glow of his huge eye like a quarter moon in a starless sky. I don’t remember how long the three of them were there, so close, so complicit, speaking languages that were foreign to me and about subjects I could never understand. I only recall the beauty of that image, the magic of that moment. They were engraved in me in something deeper than memory.
It took us two more days to reach Liquiçá. I thought we wouldn’t find any Japanese there. I was wrong. They were much less than in Dili but they were already there. They were the ones who showed us the house where we were going to live. And it was at that time that we met Mr. Kato, the officer who commanded the Japanese troops in that region.
(to be continued in the coming weeks…)
- I see the war in the same colours as my childhood. Marguerite Duras. L’Amant, Paris, Éditions de Minuit, 1984