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Eleven Minutes

Paulo Coelho



  Translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa

  O, Mary, conceived without sin,

  pray for us who turn to you. Amen.


  On 29th May 2002, just hours before I put the finishing touches to this book, I visited the Grotto in Lourdes, in France, to fill a few bottles with miraculous water from the spring. Inside the Basilica, a gentleman in his seventies said to me: "You know, you look just like Paulo Coelho." I said that I was Paulo Coelho. The man embraced me and introduced me to his wife and granddaughter. He spoke of the importance of my books in his life, concluding: "They make me dream." I have often heard these words before, and they always please me greatly. At that moment, however, I felt really frightened, because I knew that my new novel, Eleven Minutes, dealt with a subject that was harsh, difficult, shocking. I went over to the spring, filled my bottles, then came back and asked him where he lived (in northern France, near Belgium) and noted down his name.

  This book is dedicated to you, Maurice Gravelines. I have a duty to you, your wife and granddaughter and to myself to talk about the things that concern me and not only about what everyone would like to hear. Some books make us dream, others bring us face to face with reality, but what matters most to the author is the honesty with which a book is written.

  And, behold, a woman which was in the city, a sinner; and when she knew that Jesus was sitting at meat in the Pharisee's house, she brought an alabaster cruse of ointment.

  And standing behind at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.

  Now when the Pharisee which had bidden him saw it, he spake within himself, saying, This man, if he were a prophet, would have perceived who and what manner of woman this is which toucheth him, that she is a sinner.

  And Jesus answering said unto him, Simon, I have somewhat to say unto thee. And he saith, Master, say on.

  A certain lender had two debtors: the one owed five hundred pence, and the other fifty.

  And when they had not wherewith to pay, he forgave them both. Which of them therefore will love him most?

  Simon answered and said, He, I suppose, to whom he forgave the most. And he said unto him, Thou hast rightly judged.

  And turning to the woman, he said unto Simon, Seest thou this woman? I entered into thine house, thou gavest me no water for my feet; but she hath washed my feet with her tears, and wiped them her hair.

  Thou gavest me no kiss: but she, since the time I came in, hath not ceased to kiss my feet.

  My head with oil thou didst not anoint: but this she hath anointed my feet with ointment.

  Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little.

  Luke 7:37-47


  For I am the first and the last I am the venerated and the despised I am the prostitute and the saint I am the wife and the virgin I am the mother and the daughter I am the arms of my mother

  I am barren and my children are many I am the married woman and the spinster I am the woman who gives birth and she who never procreated I am the consolation for the pain of birth I am the wife and the husband And it was my man who created me I am the mother of my father I am the sister of my husband And he is my rejected son

  Always respect me

  For I am the shameful and the magnificent one Hymn to Isis, third or fourth century B.C., discovered in Nag Hammadi














  Once upon a time, there was a prostitute called Maria. Wait a minute. "Once upon a time" is how all the best children's stories begin and "prostitute" is a word for adults. How can I start a book with this apparent contradiction? But since, at every moment of our lives, we all have one foot in a fairy tale and the other in the abyss, let's keep that beginning.

  Once upon a time, there was a prostitute called Maria.

  Like all prostitutes, she was born both innocent and a virgin, and, as an adolescent, she dreamed of meeting the man of her life (rich, handsome, intelligent), of getting married (in a wedding dress), having two children (who would grow up to be famous) and living in a lovely house (with a sea view). Her father was a travelling salesman, her mother a seamstress, and her hometown, in the interior of Brazil, had only one cinema, one nightclub and one bank, which was why Maria was always hoping that one day, without warning, her Prince Charming would arrive, sweep her off her feet and take her away with him so that they could conquer the world together.

  While she was waiting for her Prince Charming to appear, all she could do was dream. She fell in love for the first time when she was eleven, en route from her house to school. On the first day of term, she discovered that she was not alone on her way to school: making the same journey was a boy who lived in her neighborhood and who shared the same timetable. They never exchanged a single word, but gradually Maria became aware that, for her, the best part of the day were those moments spent going to school: moments of dust, thirst and weariness, with the sun beating down, the boy walking fast, and with her trying her hardest to keep up.

  This scene was repeated month after month; Maria, who hated studying and whose only other distraction in life was television, began to wish that the days would pass quickly; she waited eagerly for each journey to school and, unlike other girls her age, she found the weekends deadly dull. Given that the hours pass more slowly for a child than for an adult, she suffered greatly and found the days far too long simply because they allowed her only ten minutes to be with the love of her life and thousands of hours to spend thinking about him, imagining how good it would be if they could talk.

  Then it happened.

  One morning, on the way to school, the boy came up to her and asked if he could borrow a pencil. Maria didn't reply; in fact, she seemed rather irritated by this unexpected approach and even quickened her step. She had felt petrified when she saw him coming toward her, terrified that he might realize how much she loved him, how eagerly she had waited for him, how she had dreamed of taking his hand, of walking straight past the school gates with him and continuing along the road to the end, where--people said--there was a big city, film stars and television stars, cars, lots of cinemas, and an endless number of fun things to do.

  For the rest of the day, she couldn't concentrate on her lessons, tormented by her own absurd behavior, but, at the same time, relieved, because she knew that the boy had noticed her too, and that the pencil had just been an excuse to start a conversation, because when he came over to her, she had noticed that he already had a pen in his pocket. She waited for the next time, and during that night--and the nights that followed--she went over and over what she would say to him, until she found the right way to begin a story that would never end.

  But there was no next time, for although they continued to walk to school together, with Maria sometimes a few steps ahead, clutching a pencil in her right hand, and at other times, walking slightly behind him so that she could gaze at him tenderly, he never said another word to her, and she had to content herself with loving and suffering in silence until the end of the school year.

  During the interminable school holidays that followed, she woke up one morning to find that she had blood on her legs and was convinced she was going to die. She d
ecided to leave a letter for the boy, telling him that he had been the great love of her life, and then she would go off into the bush and doubtless be killed by one of the two monsters that terrorized the country people round about: the werewolf and the mula-sem-cabeca (said to be a priest's mistress transformed into a mule and doomed to wander the night). That way, her parents wouldn't suffer too much over her death, for, although constantly beset by tragedies, the poor are always hopeful, and her parents would persuade themselves that she had been kidnapped by a wealthy, childless family, but would return one day, rich and famous, while the current (and eternal) love of her life would never forget her, torturing himself each day for not having spoken to her again.

  She never did write that letter because her mother came into the room, saw the bloodstained sheets, smiled and said:

  "Now you're a young woman."

  Maria wondered what the connection was between the blood on her legs and her becoming a young woman, but her mother wasn't able to give her a satisfactory explanation: she just said that it was normal, and that, from now on, for four or five days a month, she would have to wear something like a doll's pillow between her legs. Maria asked if men used some kind of tube to stop the blood going all over their trousers, and was told that this was something that only happened to women.

  Maria complained to God, but, in the end, she got used to menstruating. She could not, however, get used to the boy's absence, and kept blaming herself for her own stupidity in running away from the very thing she most wanted. The day before the new term began, she went to the only church in town and vowed to the image of St. Anthony that she would take the initiative and speak to the boy.

  The following day, she put on her smartest dress, one that her mother had made specially for the occasion, and set off to school, thanking God that the holidays had finally ended. But the boy did not appear. And so another agonizing week passed, until she found out, through some schoolfriends, that he had left town.

  "He's gone somewhere far away," someone said.

  At that moment, Maria learned that certain things are lost forever. She learned too that there was a place called "somewhere far away," that the world was vast and her own town very small, and that, in the end, the most interesting people always leave. She too would like to leave, but she was still very young. Nevertheless, looking at the dusty streets of the town where she lived, she decided that one day she would follow in the boy's footsteps. On the nine Fridays that followed, she took communion, as was the custom in her religion, and asked the Virgin Mary to take her away from there.

  She grieved for a while too and tried vainly to find out where the boy had gone, but no one knew where his parents had moved to. It began to seem to Maria that the world was too large, that love was something very dangerous and that the Virgin was a saint who inhabited a distant heaven and didn't listen to the prayers of children.

  Three years passed; she learned geography and mathematics, she began following the soaps on TV; at school, she read her first erotic magazine; and she began writing a diary describing her humdrum life and her desire to experience firsthand the things they told her about in class--the ocean, snow, men in turbans, elegant women covered in jewels. But since no one can live on impossible dreams--especially when their mother is a seamstress and their father is hardly ever at home--she soon realized that she needed to take more notice of what was going on around her. She studied in order to get on in life, at the same time looking for someone with whom she could share her dreams of adventure. When she had just turned fifteen, she fell in love with a boy she had met in a Holy Week procession.

  She did not repeat her childhood mistake: they talked, became friends and started going to the cinema and to parties together. She also noticed that, as had happened with the first boy, she associated love more with the person's absence than with their presence: she would miss her boyfriend intensely, would spend hours imagining what they would talk about when next they met, and remembering every second they had spent together, trying to work out what she had done right and what she had done wrong. She liked to think of herself as an experienced young woman, who had already allowed one grand passion to slip from her grasp and who knew the pain that this caused, and now she was determined to fight with all her might for this man and for marriage, determined that he was the man for marriage, children and the house by the sea. She went to talk to her mother, who said imploringly:

  "But you're still very young, my dear."

  "You got married to my father when you were sixteen."

  Her mother preferred not to explain that this had been because of an unexpected pregnancy, and so she used the "things were different then" argument and brought the matter to a close.

  The following day, Maria and her boyfriend went for a walk in the countryside. They talked a little, and Maria asked if he wanted to travel, but, instead of answering the question, he took her in his arms and kissed her.

  Her first kiss! How she had dreamed of that moment! And the landscape was special too--the herons flying, the sunset, the wild beauty of that semi-arid region, the sound of distant music. Maria pretended to draw back, but then she embraced him and repeated what she had seen so often on the cinema, in magazines and on TV: she rubbed her lips against his with some violence, moving her head from side to side, half-rhythmic, half-frenzied. Now and then, she felt the boy's tongue touch her teeth and thought it felt delicious.

  Then suddenly he stopped kissing her and asked:

  "Don't you want to?"

  What was she supposed to say? Did she want to? Of course she did! But a woman shouldn't expose herself in that way, especially not to her future husband, otherwise he would spend the rest of his life suspecting that she might say "yes" that easily to anything. She decided not to answer.

  He kissed her again, this time with rather less enthusiasm. Again he stopped, red-faced, and Maria knew that something was very wrong, but she was afraid to ask what it was. She took his hand, and they walked back to the town together, talking about other things, as if nothing had happened.

  That night--using the occasional difficult word because she was sure that, one day, everything she had written would be read by someone else, and because she was convinced that something very important had happened--she wrote in her diary:

  When we meet someone and fall in love, we have a sense that the whole universe is on our side. I saw this happen today as the sun went down. And yet if something goes wrong, there is nothing left! No herons, no distant music, not even the taste of his lips. How is it possible for the beauty that was there only minutes before to vanish so quickly?

  Life moves very fast. It rushes us from heaven to hell in a matter of seconds.

  The following day, she talked to her girlfriends. They had all seen her going out for a walk with her future "betrothed." After all, it is not enough just to have a great love in your life, you must make sure that everyone knows what a desirable person you are. They were dying to know what had happened, and Maria, very full of herself, said that the best bit was when his tongue touched her teeth. One of the other girls laughed.

  "Didn't you open your mouth?"

  Suddenly everything became clear--his question, his disappointment.

  "What for?"

  "To let him put his tongue inside."

  "What difference does it make?"

  "It's not something you can explain. That's just how people kiss."

  There was much giggling, pretend pity and gleeful feelings of revenge amongst these girls who had never had a boy in love with them. Maria pretended not to care and she laughed too, although her soul was weeping. She secretly cursed the films she had seen in the cinema, from which she had learned to close her eyes, place her hand on the man's head and move her head slightly to right and left, but which had failed to show the essential, most important thing. She made up the perfect excuse (I didn't want to give myself at once, because I wasn't sure, but now I realize that you are the love of my life) and waited for the next

  She didn't see him until three days later, at a party in a local club, and he was holding the hand of a friend of hers, the one who had asked her about the kiss. She again pretended that she didn't care, and survived until the end of the evening talking with her girlfriends about film stars and about other local boys, and pretending not to notice her friends' occasional pitying looks. When she arrived home, though, she allowed her universe to crumble; she cried all night, suffered for the next eight months and concluded that love clearly wasn't made for her and that she wasn't made for love. She considered becoming a nun and devoting the rest of her life to a kind of love that didn't hurt and didn't leave painful scars on the heart--love for Jesus. At school, they learned about missionaries who went to Africa, and she decided that there lay an escape from her dull existence. She planned to enter a convent, she learned first aid (according to some teachers, a lot of people were dying in Africa), worked harder in her religious knowledge classes, and began to imagine herself as a modern-day saint, saving lives and visiting jungles inhabited by lions and tigers.

  However, her fifteenth year brought with it not only the discovery that you were supposed to kiss with your mouth open, and that love is, above all, a cause of suffering. She discovered a third thing: masturbation. It happened almost by chance, as she was touching her genitals while waiting for her mother to come home. She used to do this when she was a child and she liked the feeling, until, one day, her father saw her and slapped her hard, without explaining why. She never forgot being hit like that, and she learned that she shouldn't touch herself in front of other people; since she couldn't do it in the middle of the street and she didn't have a room of her own at home, she forgot all about the pleasurable sensation.

  Until that afternoon, almost six months after the kiss. Her mother was late coming home, and she had nothing to do; her father had just gone out with a friend, and since there was nothing interesting on the TV, she began examining her own body, in the hope that she might find some unwanted hair which could immediately be tweezed out. To her surprise, she noticed a small gland above her vagina; she began touching it and found that she couldn't stop; the feelings provoked were so strong and so pleasurable, and her whole body--particularly the part she was touching--became tense. After a while, she began to enter a kind of paradise, the feelings grew intensity, until she noticed that she could no longer see or hear clearly, everything appeared to be tinged with yellow, and then she moaned with pleasure and had her first orgasm.