Crooked Plow, originally written in Portuguese, is shortlisted for the International Booker Prize 2024. Read an extract from the opening chapter here

Deep in Brazil’s neglected Bahia hinterland, two sisters find an ancient knife beneath their grandmother’s bed and, momentarily mystified by its power, decide to taste its metal. The shuddering violence that follows marks their lives and binds them together forever. 

Written by Itamar Vieira Junior and Johnny Lorenz

Publication date and time: Published

When I opened the suitcase and took out the knife, wrapped in a grimy old rag tied with a knot and covered in dark stains, I was just over seven years old. My sister Belonísia, at my side, was about a year younger than me. We’d been playing outside of our old house with dolls we’d fashioned from corn harvested the previous week. We’d transform the yellowing husks around the cobs into dresses, pretending the dolls were our daughters, the daughters of Bibiana and Belonísia. When we noticed Grandma Donana in the backyard, walking away from the house, we turned toward each other to give the nod: all clear. It was time to find out what she’d been hiding in her leather suitcase, among threadbare clothes that smelled like rancid lard. It wasn’t lost on Grandma how quickly we were growing up; curious girls, we’d push into her bedroom and interrogate her about conversations we’d overheard and things that piqued our interest, such as the objects buried in her suitcase. Our parents would reprimand us constantly, but Grandma only needed to give that fi rm look of hers, and we’d shiver and blush as if we’d drawn too close to the fire. 

So when I saw her walking through the backyard, I immediately looked over at Belonísia. Determined to rifle through Grandma’s things, I decided I’d tiptoe over to her room and open the suitcase, its worn leather tarnished and covered in a layer of dirt. That suitcase had been hidden beneath her bed for as long as we could remember. From the doorway I spied Grandma making her way toward the woods past the orchard and vegetable garden, beyond the old roosts of the chicken coop. In those days we were already accustomed to the way Grandma would talk to herself, muttering the strangest things, like when she’d ask someone—someone we couldn’t see—to stay away from Carmelita, the aunt we’d never met. Grandma would tell that ghost dwelling in her memory to leave her girls alone. She’d utter a jumble of random, disconnected phrases. She’d talk about beings we couldn’t see—spirits—or people we didn’t know, distant relatives and comadres. We were used to hearing Grandma ramble on like that in the house, at the front door, on her way out to the fields, and in the backyard, as though in deep conversation with the chickens or withered trees. Belonísia and I would glance over at each other, laugh under our breath, and draw closer without her noticing. We’d pretend to play with whatever was at hand just to eavesdrop on her, and later, in the company of our dolls and the plants and animals, we’d repeat what Grandma had said with great seriousness. We’d repeat, too, what our mother whispered to our father in the kitchen: “She was talking up a storm today, she’s been talking to herself more and more.” Our father was reluctant to admit that Grandma had been showing signs of dementia, claiming she’d always talked to herself, she’d always recited her prayers and incantations aloud with that same distracted air. 

Portrait of author Itamar Vieira Junior

On that day, we heard Grandma’s voice fading into the distance amid all the clucking and birdsong, as though her prayers and chants, meaningless to us, had been chased off by our own excited panting, triggered by the wicked thing we were about to do. Belonísia squeezed herself under the bed and pulled out the suitcase. The peccary hide covering the rough, earthen floor bunched up beneath her body. I opened the suitcase now lying before our eyes. I pulled out a few pieces of old clothing, mostly threadbare, and others still quite vibrant and made brighter by the sunlight of that dry day, a light I could never accurately describe. Among the disordered clothes lay something mysterious, covered with a filthy rag, and it attracted us like a precious stone. I was the one who undid the knot, listening for Grandma’s voice. I saw Belonísia’s eyes catch the metal’s radiance, as though she’d been presented with a gift still glowing from the forge. I picked up the knife, which was neither particularly large nor small, and my sister asked if she could hold it. I wouldn’t let her; I wanted to examine it first. I sniffed the blade. It didn’t have the rank odor of the other objects in my grandmother’s suitcase; it wasn’t stained or scratched. At that moment, what I wanted was to study my grandmother’s secret in depth, not squander the chance to discover the meaning of the gleaming blade in my hands. I saw part of my face reflected back at me, as if in a mirror, and I saw the reflection of my sister’s face behind mine. Belonísia tried to wrench the knife from my hand, but I jerked it backward. “Let me hold it, Bibiana.” “Just wait,” I said. It was then that I put the metal in my mouth, so intense was my desire to taste it, and just a moment later the knife was snatched violently away. My puzzled eyes locked on those of Belonísia, who was slipping the blade into her own mouth. Along with the lingering taste of metal came the flavor of the hot blood that began to run from a corner of my half-opened lips and drip from my chin. The blood further darkened the grimy, blotted cloth that had covered the knife. 

Buy the book

We benefit financially from any purchases you make when using the ‘Buy the book’ links.

It was then that I put the metal in my mouth, so intense was my desire to taste it, and just a moment later the knife was snatched violently away.

Belonísia pulled the blade from her mouth, too, then brought her other hand up, as if trying to hold something in. Her lips reddened, and I wasn’t sure if it was from the excitement of tasting the silver blade or from wounding herself, for she was also bleeding. I swallowed as much blood as I could. My sister was wiping her mouth frantically with her hand, her eyes squinting with tears as she tried to stand the pain. I heard my grandmother’s slow steps approach, then she called out to me, to Zezé, Domingas, and Belonísia. “Bibiana, can’t you see the potatoes are burning?” I became aware of a smell of burnt potatoes mingling with the smell of metal and the blood wetting our dresses. 

There was a curtain separating Grandma Donana’s room from the kitchen, and when she opened it, I’d already picked up the knife from the floor and wrapped it haphazardly with the soggy cloth, but I’d not yet pushed the leather suitcase back under the bed. I saw my grandmother’s startled eyes, before her heavy hand struck the side of my head and Belonísia’s in turn. I heard her ask what we were doing there, why her suitcase was out from under the bed, where did all that blood come from? “Say something!” she demanded, threatening to tear out our tongues. Little did she know that one of us was holding her tongue in her hand. 

Portrait of translator Johnny Lorenz