Tomfoolery by Hilda Hilst translated from the Portuguese

I got tired of readings, concepts, and data. Of being austere and sad as a result. I got tired of seeing frivolities taken seriously and unimaginable cruelties treated with irrelevance, with admiration or utter contempt. I’m old and rich. My name is Leocádia. I decided to drink and screw around before disappearing into the earth, or fire or filth or nothingness. I hired a secretary-companion and said to her: you are young and appealing. When men want to have sex with you tell them to make an effort and sleep with me. I will pay each one of them very well and you will receive princely commissions with each success. She was perplexed. She looked at my still slender but diminished enough figure, asked me to lift my skirt, I lifted it, she looked stunned at my withered thighs. Ma’am, she retorted, it will be very difficult to convince them, but comply I shall, forgive my way of putting that . . . And she ran out of the room toward the bathroom. On returning she told me she had been a teacher and always felt slight nausea when juggling syntax, but before a subject so repugnant (in her view) plus complex syntax, she actually had to vomit. She was red-faced and tearful but proud. She continued: I will behave in an undignified manner to satisfy you so long as my salary is compatible with such awfulness. I told her the amount. She beamed. Her name is Joyce (!). She is mignon and delicious, with a teenager’s small breasts, she’s 30 but looks 20 (I’m not afraid of syntax), her mouth with slightly raised corners, the light eyes between yellow and brown, hair almost auburn, elegant in gait and posture. Out of nowhere she asked me, in the evening, before my first whiskey (I learned that every drink is less fatal if you start drinking from six o’clock on) if I was familiar with Chesterton. I did not believe what I heard. Was Chesterton some buddy of hers? A teacher? Some politician? No, ma’am, I mean Gilbert Keith Chesterton, English novelist, essayist, critic, and humorist. My God! I exclaimed, I who stopped thinking to continue living, see myself before someone who has read Chesterton. Please Joyce, I warn her, and warn her with a quoted phrase: “If thy head offend thee, cut it off.” That’s what happened with mine, because for me after all my reflections on the sordidness, the ignominy, the villainy of mankind, I would prefer to forget that a Chesterton existed.

very well, madam, we will not talk about him. would you like to sleep with a man every day?

no way. once per week is fine. on other days I prefer to have a drink by myself, fart, beat my box, and think about trifles.

what?

forget it.

On my fifth whiskey she had understood almost everything. I explained to her that above all the man should be young. That she would make sure of their potency. That she not send me anyone with a nib or a nub. That with me the man remain mute. That I had already arranged a beautiful pillowcase with French lace to slip over my head. She was astonished. I clarified: my wrinkles are sharp enough, I do not want to scare them.

I think, Senhora Leocádia, that you are being too cruel, just too cruel to yourself.

that’s none of your business. I know everything about cruelty. I know God.

I showed her a pair of beautiful blue satin pajamas and asked if she liked them. They’re beautiful, Senhora, you want to use them next week? They are for you, Joyce, when the young man is at that point send him to me.

perfect, ma’am.

the roll of money will be there.

where? in my room. order him to look all around him. he will discover it, money sparkles.

Well, now I want to tell you about my son. He is 40 years old. Married. His wife is a bit of an idiot, one of those who talk endlessly and always absurdities. She read someone who was talking about the importance of “speeding up the spoken concept,” of gushing. Her visit was hell. I put on my chestnut-colored shawl and sang in a low voice only for her a funny song from my college days: how is it goat beard / it’s been a while since we put it in / it’s been a while since we fucked . . . She completely stood on end. She said to my son: Leocádio, your mother is crazy. how can you leave her here alone when she should be in one of those beautiful places where little old ladies embroider, sing lullabies, fry up dumplings . . . you’ve seen the tools she has under the bed?

what tools?

rakes, shovels, hoes . . . and imagine! a tangle of rosaries!

Then I explained with perfect harmony between words that the most sensible thing was keeping tools there because the shed in the back could be targeted by thieves and here in my room only the gardener and Monsignor Ladeira come in.

they come in your room? for what?

the gardener to get the tools and the monsignor to pray. and he does not have his own rosary?

he does. but he can forget it. and here I have others for us to pray by together.

Of course all this was not true. Monsignor Ladeira was a great lover but always forgot his rosary and every week would buy a new one. They sent him to Rome. Pity. The tools were a taurus’s fetish. He loved the land so much that he could only achieve pleasure if he had shovels rakes hoes there at the foot of the bed. Disgusted with life he went to be a gardener in a convent. A Wittgenstein type. He had a good schlong. But my son seemed satisfied with those explanations upstairs and told my daughter-in-law the cretin: Leocádia is completely lucid. After having convinced him of my lucidity I hostilely hopped around my daughter-in-law and launching spit in her face I repeated my little song without my son hearing me. Thank God, now they don’t bother me any more. Leocádio phones me sometimes. Oh, how delicious and practical it is that people think us strange . . . The comfort of no longer being taken seriously, this farting all of a sudden and smiling as if it wasn’t you, and being able to caress a dead fish in the fish market and to cry before a scabied and starving dog. It’s good to be weird and old. Well. Joyce has been very shrewd. She meets young men and explains everything to them. The first was a very skinny man, sunken chest but a splendid cock, he looked at the money, stroked it, kept it and smiling told me: I’m always at your command, you see, lady? As he was leaving the room I lifted the pillowcase a little and saw his singed pubic hairs and I asked why.

it’s because I was making a batch of eggs and oven-baked potatoes there in the boarding house and the oven exploded.

ah . . .

does this mean that you talk, lady? and see without seeing?

of course, can’t you see?

do you have something else on your face to hide?

just old age.

my grandmother is old and I like her.

but you don’t fuck her, do you?

ah, but she doesn’t have that much money!

I understand.

He left the room. Suddenly he shouted from the other side of the door: I have a friend who is named Tomfoolery who also has an exceptional piece, can I refer him to Joyce? yes you can, I said. and why is he called Tomfoolery?

a guy wanted give up his ass and a lot of cash to him, and he responded: young ass I eye only and don’t put it in. everyone thought it foolish, because with cash people will put it in whatever hole.

of course. yes you can send Tomfoolery.

what do you know, lady. you are a very sensual old lady!

Tomfoolery also is very “sensual,” I thought two weeks later, when I got to know him. I’m happy. I even take off the pillowcase.


Hilda Hilst (1930–2004) was born in Jaú, a small town in the state of São Paulo, in 1930. a graduate of law from the University of São Paulo, she dedicated herself to literary creation from 1954 to her death. She is recognized as one of the most important and controversial names in Brazilian contemporary literature and received some of Brazil’s most prestigious literary prizes.


John Keene’s translation of “Tomfoolery” is excerpted from Letters from a Seducer by Hilda Hilst (Nightboat Books, 2014) and is reprinted with permission by Nightboat Books.

Letters from a Seducer by Hilda Hilst, Nighboat Books 2014


Image Credits: Luigi Morante