“Mas a vida açoriana nao data espiritualmente da colonizaçao das ilhas: antes se projecta num passado telúrico que os geólogos reduzirao a tempo, se quiserem... Como homens, estamos soldados historicamente ao povo de onde viemos e enraizados pelo habitat a uns montes de lava que soltam de própia entranha uma sunstancia que nos penetra. A geografia, para nós, vale outro tanto como a história, e nao é debalde que nossas recordaçoes escritas inserem uns cinquenta por cento de relatos de sismos e enchentes. Como as sereias temos uma dupla natureza: somos de carne e pedra. Os nossos ossos mergulham no mar."
"Half a millennium of existence on volcanic tufts, under clouds that are wings and creatures that are clouds, is already a respectable load of time [...]. In a spiritual manner, life in the Azores does not date back to the times of colonization: it is rather a mirror of a telluric past which geologists may translate into time coordinates ... As human beings, we are historically bound to the people from whom we came and rooted by the habitat to a few mounts of lava that release from their own core a substance that penetrates us. For us, geography is as precious as history, as half our written memories are made of stories of earthquakes and floods. Like mermaids, we have a double nature: we are made of flesh and stone. Our bones are deeply rooted into the sea." -Vitorino Nemésio,"Açorianidade", in Ínsula, 1932
I will never understand how enough ink to dye the world in full could fit in a jar. And yet, when I pressed the novel dip-pen to the canvas paper, I managed to turn the earth black. That wooden chair shooting backwards, grating across the tiled floor, those howling whispers of various self-damnations, the paralyzing, sudden assault of so many pressing tasks: this all interrupted the equable quietude of a candle-lit evening after a morning that blazed before a wet afternoon- in which cumulous clouds came and went like spirits giving daily bread unto the pastoral congregation, returning the volcanic island to its original smoldering state… in which water streamed down the island's mountainous center and poured, washing the cobblestone streets on its way back to the Atlantic. Running with intention to the sides of the flat lying notebook, and then pooling in its middle binding once cradled in my ungainly hands, the excess ink dashed and streamed, rolling over the rolling pen (which I had foolishly dropped back onto the notebook), always obeying my over-compensatory defensive gestures too compliantly, with each momentary path of least resistance no less burdensome than the last, leaving each shift, each swing, each graceless attempt for equilibrium, for redemption of the last movement, unrewarded. The notebook bled onto the floor, and so, in my frantic approach to lie it back down onto the desk, I cloddishly knocked the jar onto its side. A black tide crashed upon the notebook, washing over the crude mess of fingerprints and unwritten words, and sprawled over the tired ligneous desk, cascading over its edge like a runny, dark-chocolate fondue about the orange-brown, ceramic floor. A deep breath... true hopelessness is peace. With this, I found myself gazing upon the puddling ink as it gathered around my bare feet, before it oozed down the floor of my meager, crooked apartment towards the kitchen. The obsidian creek drooled past my bed, a tributary meeting the grazing white bed linen and seeping into it- and no sooner had the surprise of my own unwillingness to hurriedly clean up this mess become an afterthought. Spellbound by the malignancy with which the ink channeled up the sheet's thousands of tiny threads and spread infectiously as one, I continued to watch unmoving, my mind falling asleep in this sedated, writhing black-purple glob, that crept over the virgin blankness like a casting shadow.
Abruptly waking, I set the jar upright, (and after hesitantly putting the pen back in it) scampered to wet a towel, and began cleaning the mess at the source. Dishrags later, I arrived at what I thought was the river's end, the back balcony door. A gap of about half an inch lay between the door and the tile, and I could see the ink ran through this. I stood back up and looked through the window in the door, only to glimpse the inky trail now cut off from its headspring, still spilling over the front edge of the balcony. Unable to espy the landing site three stories below, my eyes darted across to the hotel next door.
Its unnaturally white stucco façade reflected the sun harshly on clear days. In spite of this, and yet, because of this, one found the hotel especially welcoming inside, for it’s lobby’s coolness remained unrivaled by any neighboring buildings of the city center. Upon entrance, the marble walkway bestrode a giant granite sphere that softly gargled water at it’s zenith, even further adding to the refreshing features of the foyer. From there, one had only three places to go: ahead, behind glass doors, gleamed the breakfast banquet hall, to the left, the floating stairs to the rooms, and to the right, the concierge desk. The most and least interesting piece of furniture in the lobby rested behind this desk, for it was the concierge himself. One could enter during those crisp small hours, when sleepers revel in the gusts of deliverance slipping in through their windows, or daybreak, when stray party-goers tap at bakery shop windows in hopes of scoring some free bread on their cockeyed walk home, noontide, when shop owners give their most to their tasks and dealings before the island-wide lunch break, dusk, when the aromas of various dinners in preparation join forces to momentarily trump the saline troposphere that seems to hug the island, or much after that, when the sounding off of ships is most noticed in the stillness of that pre-witching hour, and always find this man, this everyday man, unadorned and restrained, standing there in his unchanging form. Whether he slept back there, or at all, for that matter, intrigued me deeply, but this issue was not at the heart of my attraction to him. It was, as silly as it sounds, that he possessed such an extraordinarily median face and body type that I found him fascinating. Brown hair and eyes, not a single birthmark or scar. His nose was proportional. He was not handsome, he was not ugly… he was exactly average. One only had seconds to roister in their escape from the merciless mugginess outdoors before being sobered by an interaction with this sad permanent fixture, this same man that looked especially like every other man, but with a disposition that was especially hard to admire. His mundane expression was only interrupted by what he apparently considered the untimely and unnecessary interruptions of hotel guests. Whenever some poor patron dared voice a concern or ask a question, his retorts were those of a worn out schoolmaster having to repeat himself to children. Such a curious thing- what he was being held from. Perhaps his patronizing manner was his one distinctive quality. Perhaps his bitterness was precisely due to that lack of space and sleep. He was obviously trustworthy if the owner, who was my landlord as well, found it necessary to keep him, and only him, behind this desk. Yet still, in my mind, it was said owner who was the subject of my begrudging attitude and distrust. I glared, inwardly cursing him for damning me to such curiosity of what lie beneath this balcony. How many times I had longed to open this back door that was locked or jammed shut. Which? I wasn't sure because of his varying accounts whenever I asked. I remembered one of our interactions last month…
Plainly discernible from two flights down, the proprietor's panting groans resounded even louder than those of the wilting steps. To rescue him the effort of knocking I often left my door open- through which he waddled with a tank of gas for the oven. Like the round fountain in the hotel lobby, water emerged from the top of his bald head, and moved about his old face (which he wiped with a handkerchief) and slid into the corners of his shirt (where his handy cloth did him no good). His protuberant belly detoured from his otherwise normal figure, and hung over his belt like a stuffed sack over ones shoulder.
"Sir, you said last time this door was locked with no key,” I stammered in timid Portuguese. “Is there some way we can get a-,” lapsing on the word for “locksmith” I reached for the next best noun, “a…a…a professional to open the door?”
“Yeah, umm. Someone who copies keys?”
"We can't make copies of a key we don't have,” he countered with hoisted eyebrows.
“Well yes, but can’t they force the lock open, then take it off and replace it.”
"You see, it’s…” he started towards the door, then stopped.
"Well maybe…” his eyes scurried about the room as if the answer hid in the corners of the apartment.
Having taken too long to finish his sentence, he shifted in his stance, now furrowing his eyebrows in regret. But then, a lightbulb. He continued towards the backdoor and pushed it halfheartedly.
"You see it’s actually not quite locked but jammed."
"Jammed?” I reiterated suspiciously.
"Jammed,” he said, this time with more assurance. Turning his back, his voice began trailing off. "But I have to go now. I have other-"
"But sir, can’t we have someone come down to fix it?"
"Well, I just don’t think anyone else will be able to open it." And then his signature phrase, "We'll see."
"Anyone else?" I quoted again, but by then I could only see the top of his wet head spiraling down the staircase.
Although I never knew which dubious explanation I would get, I could always count on it being told with uncommitted lips. And after invariably assuring that the door would not and could not be opened, he without fail, bolted down the steps much faster than he came. The lopsided man got away much easier in those first days of my living there, but the uneasiness of arguing with someone I had only just met gave way to frustration in the following weeks, which soon swelled to a festering resentment. He had a secret, as did I- for he still seemed unaware that I knew one was being kept- and I soon developed a deviant amusement in watching this episode of the embarrassed proprietor clamoring to remember an excuse whenever I put the question to him pointedly. My devilish smile wore the mask of attentiveness well, always slightly nodding in acquiescence to his alibis. Procuring a locksmith on my own terms was always an alternative, and yet I insisted that it be his responsibility. Now I was paying the price for taking part in such Schadenfreude and sloth.
A spirit of inquiry took hold of me and gave rise to visions of the ink dripping into a courtyard and running on through the streets to the highway, passing the clusters of houses and their fields, following gravity’s pull towards the island’s precipitous promontories, forever extending itself to land, water, and sky. I gazed out the door-window, still recovering from the frantic scene that just played out, brimming with self-deprecating thoughts.
"Bem feito, so much for your affinity for the classic- that says it all, a brute cannot refine a brute."
Like a colossal swarm of locusts, a thin darkness materialized from just behind the hilly skyline. The miscellany of rooftop dimensions and colorations in the foreground created a patchwork of sorts, reminding me of the "mantas" the old women of this island sew and hang on their balconies during "festas". However as the minutes passed, while coming under the increasing influence of the darkening sky and yellow street lamp posts, their orientations became less interpretable and their colors faded to sepia. The soft purple surged upward and outward, and I followed it to the other side of my apartment, joining it in chasing the sun down the opposite horizon.
Standing before the French windows overlooking the mini-plaza of Rua da Palha, I observed the cafes, shops, and apartments that line the strip leaking to the beach some fifty meters down. Sleepy swerves made up the plaza ground in the form of meticulously laid black and white cobblestone. The Portuguese translation of Albert Camus’ The Stranger lies by my foot, a casualty of the calamity an hour ago. I bought it at the paltriest of shops down the street, figuring that because I know the story well, it could help me with my still developing Portuguese. When I look out this window, I often pretend to be Monsieur Mersault, standing here, outside of time, full of simple thoughts. If only I smoked cigarettes…asthma.
The owner of Cafe Marques, a woman with black, curly hair, scurried, stacking the metal chairs as fast as she could, paying no regard to how loud a racket all the clanking made- she never did. The echoing clatter always signaled to me the end of the business day, and I knew I could not be the only one. It must have been the only time of day not dictated by the sun nor the church bells for the surrounding residents. I leaned over the railing that ran across the lower part of the window. Groups of young friends episodically walked through the plaza- laughing, shouting obscenities, whistling, and apparently unable to wait to hear the popular songs they had heard the previous night, and all the previous weekends, so that they played the music on their phones on their way to the seaside “tasca” before heading down to the port. The only business still operating was the restaurant directly below me. Curiously under the same spell as the callow juveniles, just about every night this restaurant played music equally bad in taste and unbefitting of the scenery. For whatever reason though, tonight it remained silent. Relief and gratitude brought about expediency, and I jumped at the opportunity to provide an ambiance more apposite to the environment of the plaza. With the needle on the once idling “fado” record and the volume turned up, I returned to the window and listened to the disconsolate songs, picking out the vibrato-rich exhalations from actual words as I deciphered the Portuguese into English.
“O Fado nasceu um dia, Quando o vento mal bulia, E o céu o mar prolongava, Na amurada dum veleiro, No peito dum marinheiro, Que, estando triste, cantava, Que, estando triste, cantava.”
"Fado (fate) was born on a day, When the wind barely stirred, And the seas elongated the skies, On the Main rail of a sailing ship, In the chest of a seaman, While sorrowful he sang, While sorrowful he sang." He could not have sung it more sorrowful than her…
A second wave of darkness, this time of a much more sable tone, spread in such minute pulses that it appeared as one slow giant swipe, eventually taking over the canopy of the sky and swamping the more distant natural landmarks once in my view. No longer could I see Monte Brasil, the natural monument that dominated this scene only hours ago. A peninsula in its own right, the mountain’s walkways wrapped around a deep basin so that the sea lied down below on one side and the valley on the other; however, such were the tunnels of trees that lined these paths that one was only acutely aware of either. To trek its serpentine trails was to wander through a corporeal imagination- both personal and shared- for it’s shady passages sauntered one into reverie; they swayed those spurious concerns of one’s daily exploits to sleep, and left awake only the animal-like quiddity that is most with us when we are born. One simply took everything in on this hike- the big picture soaked, developed, and rinsed. Tributes to God’s creativity rung recurrently while consumed by that fantastical wonderment of the universe looking back at itself. The steeper parts of the uphill climb warranted periodic breaks, and the interesting thing is, in those moments when I’d sit and look intently at a particular spot in my immediate surroundings, I’d perceive more of what makes life in that small vicinity (the veins of leaves, birds' nests, various insects, etc.) than I’d seen in all the previous kilometers of my climb.
I meditated on the mountain-world’s absence before soaking the rags in the sink and heading downstairs port-bound. An oppressive humidity, the offspring of the day's earlier meteorological affairs, created a heavy pressure around ones' body. The leaden, soupy air was vacant of any onshore gale, and one could only occasionally feel its hot breath that made people fidget in their clothes. I stepped before the ocean, so space-like, so black, and so calm, and for the first time while gazing at the usually-lush shore, it was hard to think of anything living beneath. And then the thought arose, "Have I killed the sea?"
Had it not been for its white dress-shirt, the figure upon the bluff would have gone unnoticed, for its black pants, vest, and hat all amalgamated with the grim, summer sky. Much like those resting moments during my day hikes on Mount Brasil, certain discreet, life-indicating features of the figure came into focus under my anchored glare: its olive skin that cantilevered out of the shirt's rolled up sleeves was with a muted red hue, and its hunched posture suggested old age. Upon these minute findings, the figure's frame gained volume, a sentient palpability, and became a man. It- he was still too distant for my staring to be felt, and so too far away for some of the more particular parts of him to be made out, so when it is said that earnestness shone through the cloudiness of his aged green eyes -that appeared as sullied emeralds- this is, I fear, a projection of my imagination. What was certain, however, was that those eyes looked fixedly at the alien vessel and the calamitous scene below. Leaping in billions of short bursts, and skipping mesmerizingly across the infinite pockets and peaks of the rough-surfaced water, the harlequin lights of the commercially-developed, concrete port made a spectacle of the blank sea, and seemed to accompany the relentless booming, pounding pulses, and abrasive, treble-rich strikes that thrashed off tombstone walls through glass window fronts; such garish sounds upset the typical hush of night on such an isolated island. Although, one wouldn't think this land to be so remote if they witnessed the bouncing mob of the discoteca, with their hands that reached for the looming cloud of smoke.
The old man stood still. I wished to cement him there- he was perfect there- and it was not the impossibility of actualizing this noble scheme that deterred me from pursuing it deeper in thought, but the realization that if indeed erected, the monument would surely be turned into an effigy. No, he would not bide there forever, and although I am a foreigner here, and this island and that bluff in particular were very new to me, I found it intolerable that he should turn his back and limp away. However reluctantly, I still recognized the inevitability of this ill-fated departure (I could envision him cane in hand, eventually becoming eclipsed by the hillside along the meandering uphill road), but felt most perturbed by the presentiment of its imminence. I strained to remember a time before his existence to no avail.
What is it about the old, the antiquated, that makes historic times seem so romantic and artful- so much more authentic than our present day existence? Why do the most touching poems and hymns carry nostalgic tones? What is it we long for? It seems as though even the most glorified of golden ages had their own golden ages. And yet, it also seems as though there can be no more golden ages after us. What was this sympathy I felt for him? Shouldn't I be with the others? Did his supposed plight even exist?
Surely it existed, that sentinel presence, it said it all. It is what has conceived this budding curiosity and continues to feed it: this thriving need for answers, this determined wonderment that has turned me into an over-eager detective, forging conclusions exhaustedly cultivated from once seedling presuppositions grown into mature, unwavering verdicts- harvested assumptions made up of hand-picked and sorted intuitive guesses and conjectures, then fluffed, straightened, spun, and woven together into coherency, fabricating actualities I have only just convinced myself to be true and making a blanket of them- a blanket for warmth in a land of such stifling humidity. Was this not why I came here in the first place? To play detective in my estranged homeland? To find what I could not find by asking my father? Perhaps a search for answers is most often, unknowingly, a search for the right question.
He had a steadiness about him, a level of self-possession that can only be born out of a period of profound irresolution- as if he stood there before on nights such as this, nights where the sultriness of the air made one mad with exasperation, nights in which he grew weary of his own impatience and had to escape the cloistral confines of his home; the paltry stone house he had built with his father and brothers (all of whom he had outlived) cramped his thinking space, for there existed no area that wasn't explicitly made for the most basic of those circadian undertakings necessary for living, like cooking, eating, and sleeping. The snoring of his wife (over whom he brooded most) disturbed the silence demanded during such contemplation; the all too familiar pictures and austere furniture retained the form he had filled out in this life, and the sleeping farm animals outside, with their rude shelters and soon-to-be wanting cisterns, only brought his mind to the next day’s chores. My mental mechanisms gaining momentum, I continued to build on my hypothetical composition of this man’s story. I imagined him bolting out of the house, his legs continually pushing forward in rhythmic haste, towards this place, where cooled by the ocean's sprightly breeze, and calmed by the sonorous exhalations of the sea, he could release his body from his mind’s grip, and allow his worries to be replaced by plaudits for the serene mystique of the night. The source of his recurrent internal discord withstood as a missing supposition of my reaching theory- this I surprisingly found, unto myself, as satisfactory. In any case, he had not ventured here by foot in years- this being his special place for contemplation- he didn't think he had such a walk in him anymore, moreover, throughout that time he had enjoyed uniform restfulness without incident. Though on that particular night, he had a stirringly reminiscent dream that made a trip to the coast appropriate. But instead of the resonances of the breathing sea, he stumbled into the cacophony of the festivities below.
A nearby holler briefly woke me from hypnosis. Two young men walked past on a mid-bluff road above me towards the discoteca- a third, a rather conspicuous chap with spiked bleached hair and a diamond-embroidered shirt, ran to catch up from behind. Once bringing my study back to the old man, my intrigue came to a head, and I began to walk east from the beach, parallel with the young men, and closer to him. I stopped when I reached the beginnings of the port, still about one hundred yards from the line of night clubs. Although still high above me, I could see the old man’s face more distinctly. I noticed his line of attention move to the young men; locked in, he followed them with his eyes. Just then, the ostentatious fellow with neon hair looked up, and just as quickly his head shot down. It appeared as though he avoided meeting eyes with the old man. I pondered on what the interaction could mean, but quelled my instinct to postulate further. Of course, this could be a man that lived in this here capital of the island, Angra do Heroismo, and not in some hermitage of a more inland “freguesia”. And this man probably had no inner-quarrel for the bay to pacify in the first place. After all, according to my father, older Portuguese men were never ones to give situations enough thought as to complicate them. But still, I found solace in the idea that someone here had been as incensed as me by this scene at the far end of the port.
Excluding the modernization of a few buildings, docking stations, and walkways, not all too much had actually changed on this section of coast for some time. Even though this port, named Porto das Pipas, was now a hot-spot for nightlife activity, it still contained the shipyard where boats have been built and repaired since its inception in the mid 1500's. The fortifications of the castle of Sao Joao Baptista still lined the harbor, and the little beach, where I just came from, called "Prainha", was still the local spot for swimming and summer contests, bullfights, and soccer. The old man could easily look upon the same locale and see himself and his friend Françisco as children. They would depart from here on his friend's tiny white wooden boat; "Madre de Deus" was just big enough for the two of them to sit comfortably with a bucket for the sardines between their skinny bodies. Francisco, being from Angra of sea-faring lineage, taught him how to fish, swim, and read the ocean, often ruminating his own father's lectures with a level of pride. The fact that their boat had no sail meant little to him. They often took Francisco's shaggy puppy with them and when the day's fishing was done, would row back to Prainha and run ashore, pegging each other with mud colored sand clods, casting jocular aspersions between laughs, while the dog and whitewash nipped at their heels. They heedlessly scaled and leapt amongst the sharp, obsidian coral, competing to get the most lapas mansas, all the while, trying to pinch each other with little, black crabs who poked out to feed whenever the tide pulled back. It seemed to be day around the clock in those times- the sun never left them.
Memories engrossed the old man. Where mindful surveillance had consumed his countenance, a dead stare now lived; what was once a glittering sea was now a nebulous wall of coalescing shades. Transfixed in the sloshing colors he lost sight of the ocean’s edge and found himself once more a child, staring into the water point-blank. With his neck fully-stretched, he peered anxiously over the port side of the boat. An eruption of bubbles preceded Francisco's dark-haired head. Gasping heavily, he threw his large knife into the boat before being pulled in. With his goggles still on, Francisco emptied his pockets of caracas onto his lap, eager to display how many he had gotten in just a single breath. "Okay, now your turn", holding out the handle side of the knife to him. "Oh, no- I'm not going in there." Francisco looked at him disappointedly. "I just learned to swim!" "That was months ago!" Françisco exhorted, "Just try." "No. I don't feel like it."
Francisco gave up his efforts and forgot about his friend's cowardice quickly, until an hour later when he was asked, "Aren't you afraid of drowning? Or even worse, of a shark or jelly fish down there?" "No. No sharks down there. Too shallow.” After a pause, Francisco continued. “You don’t know what you’re missing. It’s a whole world down there. It’s right here below us- all around us. You grew out of this ocean- how could you be afraid of it?” The old man, then a child and beginning those strange years in which one can muse on real things they haven’t ever witnessed and can understand that the world is infinite, and consists of things that one could not yet begin to imagine, marveled at the idea of the unknown; and although he didn't understand too much of what his friend said, he admired Francisco's intrepidity and believed him that something very special lay beneath the depths. That wonder, however, would evaporate, for as his duties on the farm increased, his relationship with the ocean would dwindle, until by the time he was married, there was little more than a casual thought of worlds below or beyond his small one... until tonight, that is.
Vessels nod on the horizon and I start my day thinking about the Redeemer. This island, now called Terceira, was in fact officially named "Ilheu de Jesus Cristo" until the more colloquial label won out. My kitchen is ever-so-tenderly waking up, primed to crawl out of this blue-grey everything. No other signs of life exist in the plaza quite yet, so I abandon my window, cast off my legs, and drop back on my bed, falling asleep and rising again more somnolent than the first time. A repast of bread and water enlivens my sensibility for the delicate. By now the sun roundly shines through my kitchen backdoor window as if it were bitter- bitter to all still indoors, who by missing its seminal opening act, its foundation laying proem, will now be forever lost, uninitiated, behind on the weaving thread of the day and ill-privy to its untold subtleties. Pushing open the heavy wooden door and stepping into the plaza, my face shrinks and blood surges to my brain so vigorously that I can feel it turning over and over in the back of my head. Everything around me, it’s all so overwhelmingly bright. I am Meursault with a gun in my hand. My softening skin begins to sweat uncomfortably. Perhaps the sun's vengeance is just, for it is true, I am bubbling with disdain and have begun my uphill walk full of questions.
The westward cobblestone path to the library (I will not call it a street, nor road) is so thin that the brave pedestrians who walk (what will have to be called) the sidewalk have to put their backs to the wall, and suck in their abdomens to avoid being taken out by the review mirrors of passing vehicles. What further complicates things is that the most widely distributed paper on the island is printed on this path. This means a single van regularly returns to pick up more issues for delivery throughout the morning, stopping in the middle of the one-way path while one man, the driver, sluggishly loads it entirely by himself. Any cars already committed to the street must wait the entire time while the paper is loaded. But to make matters more interesting, the van most often arrives by backing up into the path towards the printing shop from the opposing direction (yes, against traffic). This makes drivers, who are all too familiar with the routine, barrel up the path (on which I am walking uphill) to avoid being caught behind the last second, impromptu half-hour road block. I might add that the intersections in the urban areas of the city are without traffic lights. With apartment buildings and storefronts taking up every inch of turf, it is impossible to see the advancing perpendicular traffic, but the locals have crafted an ingenious method to safeguard this precarious situation: they merely honk before entering an intersection to make other cars aware of their approach and intent to cross. Any other route to the library from my apartment constituted a considerable detour, so I soon took up the notion that this game of risk was an exceptional means to getting the blood running on early mornings.
Across the island stretch fields, meadows, forests, and rolling hills- all manifestations of such open space that they impress upon the witness that this is no island, but a continent. Even more boundless than this extensive viridescence is the backdrop of sapphire, the infinite ocean and sky, where serenity and God lay and sway. From the vista of Serra do Cume one can gaze upon all this vastness that only sailors and astronauts can relate to, and feel truly small. Yet here, in this three by thirty meter stretch, a foreign storm brews: compact and complex, it is order's only and ever-present sibling: disorder. I hug the adjacent shade-casting buildings for safety- safety from the cars as well as the sun.
Clang! Clang! Clong! Clang! Across the street faithful parishioners pull the church bells. Whatever it is they’re playing, it is beyond the mere marking of the hour, and it being a weekday, I doubt there is an actual occasion to ceremonialize with such babel. How I reveled in the romanticism when I first looked out my apartment window, and found the view graced by a steeple of a three hundred year old church. Today, I cannot think of anything less reverent than the peal of those ungodly bells. Clang! Clang! I push up the incline as fast as I can, my head swimming, my calves burning. Clong! Clang! The reverberations ricochet off the walls, I cover my ears. The ground shakes and I see that a bolting car is about to pass from behind. I press up against the cool concrete wall. It’s going to hit me- I know it- I can feel it. If it doesn’t, my head will explode- if not from the invasive clanking of the bells, then from the heat, and if not from the heat, then from my resounding bafflement in face of all of this. Despite my presence, the car hurtles past, kicking up a wake of dusty, hot air that engulfs me. I am sadly not relieved by the success of my evasion; I am too taken up with an arising sensation of vertigo, and now for some reason, tearing eyes, but still, I manage to flee by way of running up the remaining path.
I stumble into the stone library, rubbing my temples; my vision, not yet adjusted, is murky at best. The library houses cool air through which I wade- dry or moist, I cannot tell. Feeling a bit better but keeping my head down, I make my way through walking by memory. The wide swept steps of the entrance hall branch in opposite directions and wrap around to the second floor. Along the way I pass the Azulejos, blue and white tiles depicting great ships’ explorations and battles, on the walls. These are of particularly Boroque style, which I quite like.
Although they lie upon the Atlantic's heart, alone- with arms stretched between old world and new, the Azores islands seem to be oft missing from earthlings’ geographical recollection; and, while the archipelago's inhabitants have a distinct experience, and therefore unique perspective from those of the mainland, the "outside world" stirs a special sentiment within all Portuguese peoples. Perhaps because the most celebrated accomplishments in Portuguese history have taken place so far from Portugal itself, when at the vanguard of the Age of Discovery, Portuguese explorers pushed beyond the safeguards of conscience and sliced their way through an endless plane of the most unwelcoming, watery frontiers. Charging waves that were mountains, they cut into winds that cut to the bone, sailing by the diminutive whites of the great black night skies, only to land in often hostile lands of odd people with odd faces and clothes and smells who ate odd foods and kept odd animals from odd bushes; upon these lands they casted their nets wide, connected the dots, and reaped an empire.
Champions of the sea and celebrated as such, they fetched the world for Europe's delight and more significantly in their eyes, blessed the rest of Earth with the gift of Europe. It is from this period of attempted global domination that Portugal derives much of it pride, and owes tribute for many of its self-renowned great works. The Portuguese national anthem, like most others is a call to arms ("over land and sea"), and was actually written as protest to the 1890 British Ultimatum that forced Portugal out of the southern tip of Africa.
"Heroes of the sea," It calls out! "Noble people, Brave and immortal nation, Rise once again today, The splendor of Portugal! Among the haze of memory, Oh Fatherland, one feels the voice Of your distinguished forefathers, That shall lead you to victory! To arms, to arms! Over land, over sea, To arms, to arms! For the Fatherland, fight! Against the cannons, march on, march on!"
I appear to be staying in the land of these "noble people" for this city, the only real one on the island of Terçeira, and the most historically recognized in all of the Azores, is Angra do Heroísmo (Bay of Heroism). It must be said that it is not exclusive to the nation of Portugal to consider its forefathers as heroes, but I found it odd that these small people from this small island, few of whom have seen nor heard from much of the “outside” world, were such supporters of Portugal's dreams of world domination. It seems to me that relevance that they would acquire, would be very little, being a sort of colony themselves. But words have power, I suppose, and if put in the right combinations and expressed in the right manner, they can make up continuity and purpose where there is only horrific alienation. Even when put most convincingly, the aim of empire makes me cringe. This aim was the subject of Luíz Vaz de Camões’ "Os Lusiades", what many consider to be the greatest literary work ever to come out of Portugal. I've found it rare to look through any section in the library where the librarian didn't find some justification to place a copy of this epic poem. I've thumbed through it on occasion, but usually find it difficult to get past the first few stanzas without being nettled by its vainglory, and forced to set it back down.
ARMS and the Heroes, who from Lisbon's shore, Thro' seas where sail was never spread before, Beyond where Ceylon lifts her spicy breast, And waves her woods above the wat'ry waste, With prowess more than human forc'd their way To the fair kingdoms of the rising day: What wars they wag'd, what seas, what dangers pass'd, What glorious empire crown'd their toils at last, Vent'rous I sing, on soaring pinions borne, And all my country's wars the song adorn; What kings, what heroes of my native land Thunder'd on Asia's and on Afric's strand: Illustrious shades, who levell'd in the dust The idol-temples and the shrines of lust: And where, erewhile, foul demons were rever'd, To Holy Faith unnumber'd altars rear'd, Illustrious names, with deathless laurels crown'd, While time rolls on in every clime renown'd!
Let Fame with wonder name the Greek no more, What lands he saw, what toils at sea he bore; Nor more the Trojan's wand'ring voyage boast, What storms he brav'd on many a perilous coast: No more let Rome exult in Trajan's name, Nor Eastern conquests Ammon's pride proclaim; A nobler hero's deeds demand my lays Than e'er adorn'd the song of ancient days, Illustrious Gama, whom the waves obey'd, And whose dread sword the fate of empire sway'd.
Empire wishes to eat everything and spit it out in its image... and so it is forever hungry. Camões here exhibits an imperial lust so voracious, it aspired to conquer all the world's past great empires as well- as if recognition held more weight than the feat itself, as if the Portuguese Empire could cast its net of dominance into the past, and reap all of history's glory for themselves. But then again what is empire if not a reach for greatness? And what is greatness if not a place in people's reverential memory? And how does an empire instill itself into the world’s collective psyche without first making room for itself?
Even though Portugal sustained one of the largest and (technically) longest-running empires in history, the championing of its successes as the fulfillment of Camões' prophecy is a gross misconstruction. Portugal would fall to Spanish rule in 1580 and by the time it regained its sovereignty, most of its colonies and trading posts had either been reclaimed by natives or seized by other European enterprises. Out of fear and frailty, Portugal committed to a rule of brutal obstinacy and obstinate brutality over their last few colonies, clenching them even tighter in a time when other European nations were letting go, finally leaving Macau, its last colony, in 1999. Much like the storyline of the Portugese Empire, the closing chapter of Camões’ biography is hardly one of resolution. Ironically, Camoes, a writer of legends with the acclaimed ability of Homer, a man who would win the approbation and criticism of Voltaire, wrote in a land plagued with illiteracy, and never received the recognition he sought in his lifetime. Furthermore, his missing eye (lost in batte) made an outcast of him, for which the nobles of the higher class supposedly excluded him. Fighting alienation with alienation, he boarded a ship to India, allegedly shouting the words inscribed in the monument of the Roman General Scipio the Elder, "Ingrata patria, non possidebis ossa mea!" (Ungrateful country, thou shalt not possess my bones!) I wonder if this was the day fado was born.
Before me, war horses leap out of the waves and whirlpools of a violent sea storm. What looks to be Poseidon in the background, is in the act of hurling his trident at a piper on a cliff. Infant angels crawl upon the border and peek over, anxious to see what will happen next. For centuries the tin-glazed ceramic tiles, of both Roman and Arab influence, have had other purposes beyond art. Moroccans and Brazilians had a practical use for them, covering whole walls for temperature control. After the Great Earthquake of 1755 in Lisbon, small devotional azulejo panels served a more superstitious cause, appearing on buildings as protection against future disasters, but judging from the political and environmental history of Portugal since then, I have doubts as to their efficacy. I make it to the computer hall where I catch up on the news of the world at large, tend to the smaller world of my personal communications, and explore the even more immediate world of myself, writing all of what you have just read.
Just as I have completely acclimated to the climate inside, and -with the day’s work behind me- feel quite well again, I see that the hour hand has tip-toed all the way to the first hour after noon, and I must once again wage war on the outdoors. Although it may appear to be of downcast or doleful tone, I say quite contentedly that my arrival on this island is to the singular delight of one person. My grandfather’s sister, my great-aunt Dores requires that I see her everyday, and everyday I am met with the utmost enthusiasm, for which I am most grateful. Although my aunt is barely mobile, she is terribly energetic, for age has done to her body what it could not to her spirit. Unlike the other elders of my family, she is an open book, and I can ask any question and be assured that she will answer deliberately and to the best of her ability. She is to date, my most generous source of information about my family’s past and I value our time together as much as with anyone.
Outside, I feel indebted to the breeze that has picked up in the last hour. Some passing clouds keep the sun at bay for now, but I know this is momentary. Still avoiding the main road, the lumpy back streets call to mind the narrow corridors on Monte Brasil. Tiny termites have determined that all buildings on the island -buildings built by strong, industrious men- be made of concrete instead of wood. Most of the buildings on this southern facing ridge are connected, stand three stories high, and range from livable to sufferable to uninhabitable. Some buildings are no buildings at all, but ossified skeletons missing more than just the necessary sinews to make them whole. Frames, containing only parts of second and third story floors, resemble the fall out in Cologne after War War II. Ripped open facades lay bare interiors with abandoned belongings: a desk, a chair, a wheel burrow, a bucket and rags- unfinished chores. To discern which of the intact structures still serve as homes, one need only to look for drapes. Hand sewn with white embroidery, the curtains almost always enshrine small statues of Mary and Jesus on the window sills. Like the azulejos, these figures are thought to protect the home and family from any outside force that might do harm. A visitor might wonder what compels the inhabitants to be so stern and withdrawn in the manner that I have described them, whilst so eager to petition the protective powers of religious figures. The fact is, the people here are walking bits of the island: heavily guarded, isolated, made tough and tense by unpredictable and unforgiving weather and seismology.
Volcanic in origin, the Azores islands lie in a tectonically complex area on either side of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, between the European, Eurasian, and African plate boundaries, forming their own microplate. Given their enterprising colonial past, this seems fitting for the Portuguese. Local history is made up of floods, landslides, and earthquakes, and the fact that the plates continue to move, the underground volcanos remain active, and the sea levels are slowly but surely rising, means that the threat of any and all of these natural disasters is as present as ever. An earthquake in 1980 destroyed about seventy percent of homes in Angra, and I can see that resulting fires did as much damage to the buildings as the shifting ground. Charred bruises, chipped paint, branching fissures, and small cavities come together to make what looks like old world maps upon their exteriors. As for the more afflicted casualties of immolation, their first floor windows are all either boarded, barred with grid-iron, or bricked shut, while the windows of the higher floors enjoy no greater fate; they are mostly shattered and veiled with dismembered blinds. Through these, blackened hallways and doorways lie visible. The only refuge they offer is to the pigeons who have claimed their balconies and busted awnings. The sad truth is that no one will repair these houses, for it is apparently cheaper to build a new home from scratch somewhere else on the island. I wonder what will come of them. Will anyone ever look out of these windows to watch the rain in the warmth of their homes, to answer to friends calling up, to huddle in the summer and applaud street bullfights and parades, to judge strolling tourists, to play the character of Monsieur Mersault and shower their pretended indifference to all below? I'm afraid the saddest of accounts are the answers to questions concerning sad sights.
Mysteriously moved by all this decay, I add a couple short blocks to my stroll to take a peak at my grandmother’s old home. This is, in fact, where I was to stay on this visit, however, two months before flying out, news of the most upsetting kind confronted me. My grandmother’s house had burned down. Surprisingly, it was not the work of any seismic activity but a rogue pack of drug addicts. Yes, modern narcotics such as heroin have found their way here, and the locals are convinced it is an epidemic. I question whether the situation is that grievous (chalking it up to bad luck) but I am no doubt angered by the missed opportunity of living in my deceased grandmother's home; I cannot help but to think of the prospective insights garnered by seeing things from her perspective in the daily setting. However, I think I am even more disturbed by the idea that people out here are susceptible to these types of cravings in the first place. I cannot reconcile the two. After consulting neighbors and the responding firemen, the police informed my family that the miscreants had been squatting in the home for some time. The filled windows in abandoned buildings is a preventative measure for this kind of predicament. Because the electricity had been shut off, the sorry fiends used candles, and the rest is history.
I suppose it was inevitable, a case of “if it wasn’t going to happen one way, it was going to happen another”. Aside from the boarded windows and doorframe (and mostly because the front half of the building is still intact), the house looks like any other from the street, but is in fact missing most of its second and third floors and the back half of it’s roof. Two standing wooden boards are chained to the main entrance; I can just barely pull them inches apart to see the stairs dead-on. A wilderness has grown out of the ashes; the house is as overtaken by plants as I am by the beauty of it all. Various flora, mostly shrubs, some quite large, grow throughout the bottom floor and make their way up the stairs. In the middle, defiantly growing, a single flower catches a sun beam. Such a grand exhibition of contrast lays before me; some pockets of the home remain secluded in deep shadows, while other areas gleam, the beneficiaries of the open roof. Inexplicable as it is, I have always been moved by nature taking back what is its own. This scene exists throughout the city: full trees pop out the tops of abandoned buildings, vines climb out of windows, flowers even grow out of cement walls- all attesting to the strength and vigor of otherwise tender nature. For me, this is the ultimate story of redemption- one without the petty motifs of revenge and triumph, but one of subsistence- subsistence in the face of desolation.
Right behind me, a young girl with a brutish voice hollers to someone down the street, and for the second time in two days I am startled out of reverie in this fashion. The children here have adult faces. They pepper the street with their cigarettes while shouting, always shouting. Instead of walking inland towards the main street to reach my aunt’s, my legs pull south, passed the unfavorable monuments, towards the bluff down the block. My aunt will surely be upset about this departure. On this higher part of the bluff one gets a better view of the fortress that stands before Monte Brasil. Forte de Sao Joao Baptista was built by the Spanish under the Iberian Union in the late 16th century, and is just as often referred to as “O Castelo”. The walls of the castle are built at a slant, an innovative technique at the time to add strength. Star-like points, each garnished with cannons increase defense space. A main set of cannons face me from across the bay, one of them pointing at Praca Velha, the city center. What appears to be a lookout, commonly referred to as the “castelinho” sits opposite the peninsula. Today, the fort is used as a base for the local military, with modern barracks built inside. Along its most exposed wall and lawn is now, of all things, a parking lot for these soldiers. Automobiles feet away from a 16th century fortress create a puzzling scene. I think of the architects of this fort and am besieged by more questions. What was the distant future to a time centuries before electricity? A progression in dress, business, weaponry… thought even, these scenarios they could likely foresee- and even perhaps this fort as it is, overtaken by weeds and ivy, eroded by wind and tremors, could be imagined. But a parking lot? Inconceivable. Which prompts me to wonder: what will come of us? What will be the that which we cannot fathom?
Once again, I find myself caught in the waggish circumstance invariably precipitated by my great-aunt Ana, whenever I call on her intercom. Entry requires “the password”, and although the humbling phrase means little to me, I feel like I’m doing my grandfather service by not immediately conceding to her demands. The stand off allows for a second of downtime, which for me, is a lifetime of thought. I turn within and the acreage of my mind unfolds before me. Trekking the idea of legacy within the bounds of family, I comb for that which binds the generations of a lineage, lurching among the slippery slopes of duty and hacking through the thick jungle of its conventions (i.e. responsibility and obligation, pride and honor, survival and support), only to stumble upon a river. Walking along it, it dawns upon me that a river is a fixed thing, or a fixed concept at least, and yet, never does the same water flow through it. I suppose the same goes for the family and its pedigree. And what holds water together? I'd have to say its most basic, elemental composition is on the molecular level- in its hydrogen bonds- interestingly enough, the same bonds that make up much of the DNA structure. But a family line looks less like water and more like cars on a train, and in terms of legacy, I have seen the strength of genetic bonds trumped by the most trivial, and therefore, puzzling of phenomena. Often times, the successive following of a common idea or entity (be it loyalty to an institution, membership to an organization, or adherence to a particular philosophy) becomes an emblem of a family, an association that its antecedents wear as a badge of honor, of which any deviation -on the part of their descendants- is shamed as sacrilege. In the most passionate of instances, people will defend their family’s customs to the death, without even really knowing how or why said custom originated in the first place, for a counterpart will always extract the extreme within each pole. Somewhere along our proud history, my family came under the proverbial rift that can ruin families, when one side relinquishes their faith and support in the customary entity, and moves to the supposed adversarial side. I have only seen the bond of family nullified in this type of situation, but thankfully, my family’s division was not to this degree. Which part of our family delineated from the current will forever be a mystery, but here, now, my aunt and I were on opposing sides of a battlefield and she was using this mandatory password, for a truce that was also mandatory, to coax me into switching my allegiance. No, our war was not fought over petty affiliations like politics or religion, this was a disputation of much graver import... this was fútbol.
“Come on, you know you want to say it. You’ve been wanting to say it your whole life,” she taunts me through the speaker box that adds static to her already grainy voice.
“Viva Sporting,” I muttered, feigning the contempt I didn’t actually feel towards the team. I played the game because it made her happy. Walking up the stairs to an already open door, my entrance is met with cries of joy and curses alike. She grabs my head with both hands and barrages my face with kisses until her glasses fog up, merrily scolding me for showing an hour late.
“I’ve been sitting here this whole time- I thought you might not come at all. You leave me waiting like a… like a… like a rock on a side of the road! Come look at the clock with me, I want to show you what one o’clock looks like. You know you shouldn’t keep old people waiting, you know? Men wait on women, not the other way around!”
My apologies are made of paper. She proceeds to push me into the dining table and begins hitting my backside with a dish cloth. Her jests bring me relief, for I’ve come to know my aunt as a sensitive person. I remember once when my arrival was overdue (even by the island’s lackadaisical standards) and her feelings seemed genuinely hurt, even worse, another time, when I was ill in bed for a handful of days and thus did not embark on the hike to her home, she nearly renounced our friendship and familial bond, saying sourly, “I don’t care anymore. I don’t know why you chose to come to this island in the first place, if not to spend time with your soon to be dead family.” A definitive cause -or even general mainspring- of her emotions, be they merry or miserable, isn’t always discernible, and when it is, her sentiments can shift between the two so suddenly and dramatically. A sole frequent visitor like myself has learned to make the most of our jovial moments together, for a great laugh can be followed by a wake of mournful tears, in which she decries the pains of sending off loved ones and the subsequent loneliness brought on by such loss. Her husband has been dead for ten years now, and her brother (my grandfather) for much longer than that. Once she catches her breath we move to the TV nook. She is still smiling as she takes up her needles and resumes knitting a blanket.
“How are you doing?” I ask, opportunistically.
“Ai”, she sighs, “correndo para a morte, meu filho.”
Her dark, and if anything, curious response can be translated as “running towards death, my son”. I falter to find an appropriate response. She breaks the silence by springing up (as much as she can spring up) and bringing photo books to the coffee table two at a time.
“Look through these, my son. You’re grandfather is in there.”
I scrutinize every person in every picture to see if I can recognize that old face I remember as a young child, as a young face now that I am a man.
“He used to sing all the time,” Aunt Ana informs me.
“Really? He used to sing? I’ve never heard of this.”
“All the time. He would sing to me. He was a great singer.”
I can hear him singing now, out in a field, on this far away land in some far away time, as the sun rains light upon his shoulders.
“What kind of songs did he sing?”
“What did he sing about?”
The squeaking of sneakers ascending the stairs divert Aunt Ana's attention. Her son, the only other one who lives in the home, is well fed but slender (like everyone else on the island), about forty years of age, with short and somewhat curly black hair. Long eyelashes adorn his big, glossy llama-like eyes. My cousin is named Alvaro but I don’t think I’ve ever called him by his actual name.
“Ze Grita-” He refers to me as the local flamboyant homosexual in town. “Ah, Rosa.” I reference the pink shirt he’s wearing.
“Mom, what are you doing! He doesn’t want to look at pictures!”
“I was only-”
“How come you always pull out the photo albums whenever there’s a guest. Poor guy- he doesn’t want to be bored with that.” Alvaro begins returning the albums to their shelves. I hesitate to let him take mine.
“Come on, let’s go get an espresso.”
“He just got here.”
“Ah, mom. Come on, he’s here everyday. What’s he supposed to do here?”
The way my aunt contritely apologizes to us both breaks my heart, but I am a coward. I give my aunt a hug and return the apology for my short stay.
"We were the first to...", "And many think he was Italian, but actually, he was Portuguese...", "...many great things came out of colonialism, too...", "Your books in America are very biased and their writers don't understand that..."
My cousin cemented our respective roles in the relationship the day we met: he was to be the teacher and I the student, and as the student, I had little say in the matter. I adapted to the part of a stultified schoolchild well, shifting my eyes, kicking the floor, and letting my mind wander off within the first few minutes of every lecture. We sit in an outdoor cafe that takes up a small shady plaza in front of the monastery of São Francisco. Below this church lies Vasco da Gama’s brother who fell ill on their return from discovering the sea-route from Europe to India. What his name is or what else he accomplished in his life, escapes me at the moment. The botanical garden that flanks the church exhibits plants and architecture of endemic and extraordinarily exotic origin. Beginning with the geometric layouts of formal French models, the garden surges upward and inward; stairs and zig-zagging inclines lead people through the multi-tiered cultural mosaic: canopies reminiscent of English Romantic gardens, fountains and a pond overrun with frogs, iron wrought gates, basalt walls, and Portuguese paving stone make up but a few features of the second and third levels- their paths growing steeper, and trickier towards the summit. Here you find a lookout from the islands first fortification called the Castelo de Moinhos, memorialized by the Alto de Memoria, a giant sharp golden steeple in the center. I think of the grand view one gains from up there; the city, it’s homes, churches, plazas, stores, the fort, and Monte Brasil- it all stands still like a painting. Head up, my eyes are led over to a peak to the East, where only two homes sit, and I am reminded of a story Alvaro once told me.
The story of João Marco is a true one, and it begins with the time-honored plot of a father who rejects the lower-class love-interest of his daughter, Maria Luisa. Being a wealthy and expressly proud man, and fond of the idea of standing alone as the exception to all others below, the father, Luis Perreira, begins building a house at the crown of the mount before me. By the time he finishes, the two admirers are lovers; their infatuation is deeper than ever as they take their last sanguine strides out of teenage-hood toward the acceptable age for marriage. Luis’ solution is to confine Maria Luisa in the new home from which João Marco is forbade. Not to be so deftly thwarted, João Marco hikes the mountain and implores Maria Luisa to run away with him but she is recreant, and cannot sit with the idea of never seeing her family again. Stunted and yet consumed by that frenetically proactive drive that grips one with a broken heart, João Marco sets sail to Africa where he becomes a lucratively profitable businessman. A decade later the young man, now an adult, returns. He finds that Maria Luisa had been married off during his absence and is now settled with a family. He buys the land just above Luis Perreira’s house on the hill, where he builds a mansion, which is strategically positioned to cast an all-day shadow upon that of the once disapproving father’s home. João Marco never married and lived there until he died.
In this local tale even the anticipated protagonist fails in his righteous quest and must live out his life in the shadow of his own resentment. I too feel to be in a shadow here- but one of a different shade. I wonder if he could never find an equal love, or if his natural desire for a partner was quenched by an even more primordial need of man- retribution. The characters have long been dead, but as long as the two homes remain, so will their story. It pains me that this tale will likely never be rectified with a true, happy- Teresinha’s familiar face approaches.
“Hola. How do you do?” I ask, thankful for the interruption.
“Ah, correndo para a morte,” she groans.
I twist my face. Alvaro orders his espresso, I ask for a juice, and she is off.
A wretched sound is introduced to the layers of chirping birds and prattling people. The same music of the port barrels toward the peaceful plaza, its source is a metallic-glitter neon car. Its driver, sporting silver sunglasses and jewelry, has all the trappings of a person desperately seeking attention. Everyone in the plaza has been successfully coerced into pausing their conversations and now all rubberneck the driver who pretends to not notice the disruption he’s caused. His fluorescent hair gives him away and I recognize him as the straggler from last night. Yes, this was the flashy dresser that avoided eye contact with the old man on the hill. I am usually quite perturbed at the sight of this particular sect of youth on the island- these sheltered twenty-somethings who so readily embrace the modern pop culture of mainland Europe and yet lack context in their understanding of it, and tolerance in their embracing of it, and reservation in their emulation of it- these native animals being overtaken by a foreign predator with no natural enemy, these descendants of colonizers who are now themselves colonized by the globalization their early predecessors spawned, who reject the values of their parents and ancestors, who confuse rashness with expressiveness and fanaticism with profundity, who shout down grace, reverence, and silence, in the name of a new age that proclaims itself as the antithesis of boredom and rigidity, and so try to make a high-circus of every moment; yes, too many and too much are these walking tragedies who break my heart every time I see them, but the break from Alvaro’s voice, and the transmutation from his over-bearing confidence to a mute, stupefied expression, makes me warm inside and now I find myself grinning. The rumbling car gradually fades down the street.
“Sometimes,” Alvaro’s anger is palpable, “I know this is terrible to say, but sometimes I understand Hitler.” My smile turns to a snicker that dies on the vine.
“But like I was saying, don’t judge yesterday by today’s standards.”
“Oh, come on- you’re telling me murder and rape weren’t just as wrong then? You’re the one that believes that the bible gives society a moral code- I’m pretty sure they brought one with them on their crusades. And you presume that today’s standards have since changed but most people still justify war and occupation on those same religious grounds today.”
I feel my voice rising in my flexing throat.
“Listen, listen, listen- you’re wrong.”
(Well, I’m glad I heeded his call to listen!)
“You cannot view history from bird’s eye view. Context is everything.”
“I thought that’s exactly why a birds eye view is most useful.”
“No, no, no,” he continues, stepping over my point, “context is everything.”
A deep breath... true hopelessness is peace.
“You know, if you don’t mind, I’d like to change the subject. I’m just a little burnt out on this.” I had not even brought up anything other than local history.
“Hold on, I’ve been wanting to say this to you.”
“I’ve heard all this before.”
“Well, you won’t let me get to my point.”
I sigh and Alvaro continues. I keep with the protocol, first internally questioning why I keep coming to this cafe with him, and then letting my mind drift once more. My daydreams during these speeches often start by a meditation on the details of my immediate surroundings, but spawned by a slew of flashing memories, always seem to make their way to the remembrance of a certain fateful afternoon.
The tangible expectancy of the crowd unfailingly prevails as the first memory of that day. Only a few hours before dusk and the sun burnt magnificently- as if it admired the way it shone upon this portion of Earth, and knowing its longing to freeze the moment was in vain, gave everything it had to make the best of its waning hours, bursting to make its presence known beyond its cooling descent, and win the respect of its audience, its subjects, its children. Its searing light casted a thick shadow that covered the western quarter of the bull fighting arena, contrasting brilliantly with the golden dirt. Women fanned themselves so vivaciously that the opposite end of the stadium appeared to be overtaken by behemoth, white butterflies. The spectators that had stayed down on the main floor to catch site of the matador leaving the private chapel where he made his pre-fight prayers, were now trickling into the arena, begging pardons as they clumsily slid through the packed rows to get to their seats. Beer, cigarette smoke, beef, cattle, and clay all fused in the westerly breeze, obliging us with the unique smell known only at bullfights, while sharing the air with the permeating hum of jovial greetings and gossip.
Abilio “O Patrono” Lourenço read in red, block letters across the top half of the event’s program on my lap. Sitting two seats below me, a large man with grey whiskers spoke about having been present at “O Patrono’s” first bullfight. He bellowed so everyone nearby could hear, hoping, perhaps, to enjoy the refracted light of fame of having been a primary witness to such a historical event.
“The kid had the poise of a king. His feet never touched the ground! That first bull shot out like a canon, a big one, who drove his horns upward, but he didn’t flinch. The first sorte- a perfect veronica, feet put from the charge to the pass, but how slow and low, how smoothly he swung the cape. He cut no corners like amateurs- even most professionals still do. Then again, on the right side. Perfect again. I remember the hair on the back of my neck standing up! He had to work extra hard to tire the bull’s neck. He then went from passé naturals to derechazos, winding the bull like a bird, and then a gaonera to drive the point home- fixing the bull in place and allowing him to walk away- Gaona couldn’t have done it better himself.”
The immaculate, even strained, and to me, somewhat unnatural and bourgeois pronunciation of every letter and syllable to its fullest extent gave away that the man must have been from continental Portugal, probably Lisbon, and definitely not the Azores. He went on to recount the matador’s proficiency and artistic expression with his use of the banderillas.
“Feet together, spine straight, so close the blood of the bull was upon his sash, over the horn, and bimba!”
I was impressed by both the compelling ardor and showmanship with which the man spoke, but perhaps even more-so, with his capacity for doing it all while devouring his bifana. At no time, throughout his glittering prose and eccentric gesticulations, did the man with the now morsel-spotted mustache hesitate to take substantial bites of his pork sandwich, even mid-sentence, often projecting crumbs through the air with his impassioned inflections. Quite the paradox- the man so convincingly spoke like one of the elite class, and yet ate like he was starved. *This may be a testament to the power of the bifana.
“The bulls were all provided for by the Rebelo farm, known for breeding large and ferocious bulls audiences love. They’re seed bull: the legendary Ulisses, a mad bull with an appetite for blood so powerful it subsisted over generations despite the granaderia’s attempts to temper it with selective breeding. Rebelo bulls are still often favored even amongst matadors because they see well -“sempre pra frente”- and are never cowardly or lazy. A cavaleiro has never had to throw his hat to incite a Rebelo bull- always a good fight- everyone gets what they want."
I remember him inhaling sharply through his nose so as not to suffocate.
"On that day, every bull was as fierce as the last- none of that good bull, bad bull business. In fact, as fate would have it, the other two matadors were both injured on their first turns. “O Patrono” fought the fifth and sixth bulls as well! He didn’t have to do it- but everyone had come to see a bullfight and that’s what he gave them. You should have seen the skill with which he reduced each animal to subserviency. It was more than skill, though. He respected the bull, because he understood that his body and fate lie intertwined with the bull's. He made the bull mad for him and like a temptress, and he led the audience on just as much as the bull. Such finesse, such artifice, such elan, flair, such composure! At the tender age of seventeen, his destiny to become the world's greatest matador was written that day, the first day of his professional career.”
The man finished his monologue shaking his fist with his finger in the air.
“Abilio “O Patrono” Lourenço, son of famed bullfighter, Antonio “O Sussurrodor” Lourenço, came not to bow, but to conquer!”
Much time had passed since the day the mustached thespian spoke of, and over the decades since then, “O Patrono”, or The Patron as in patron saint, would fulfill all their dreams of what the Portuguese hoped he would become. Although keeping his official place of residence in Lisbon, which was about two hours from his birthplace in a village just south of Evora, “O Patrono” spent most of his younger adult years in Ronda, the small, historic bullfighting town in Andalucia in southern Spain, where he learned and honed the intricacies of his skill and knowledge, and could implement it all where the law did not prohibit him from killing the bull. Taking his act across Europe, “O Patrono” received adoration in many forms beyond the mere throwing of roses (emulation being chiefly among them), but for the Portuguese, “O Patrono’s” appearance alone stood for something beyond the spectacle of bullfighting, beyond good entertainment, and more as a symbol of good in the sense of virtue, for when with a Portuguese audience he was not watched, he was felt. For them, “O Patrono’s” presence spoke volumes in the way that a legendary general showing up to a nearly defeated platoon’s encampment would- it was a visceral assertion that all wrong would be righted, that all suffering would be alleviated. One may find it bizarre, that a matador could posses the magnitude for such influence upon a nation, but in the words of my cousin’s once misguided assertion (that I find more aptly placed here), (a phrase which coincidentally can be said for each aspect of and for the art of bullfighting as a whole) “context is everything”.
“O Patrono” emerged as a star during reign of the Estado Novo, a corporatist, authoritarian regime that had successfully stabilized the rampant corruption and continual governmental overthrow that laid the country to waste since the end of its constitutional monarchy (1). To balance such a topsy-turvy affair proved the Estado Novo’s leader, Antonio Salazar, to be both cunning and competent, but sadly, he was not impervious to the universal law that when something is won another is lost, for all progress took place at the expense of the citizens' personal freedom and social liberty. A virtuoso of productivity, Salazar assembled the most efficient secret police the country had ever seen… or never saw, by which strict censorship, arbitrary arrests, and disappearances served as common practice, turning citizens against one another, and ultimately cultivating an atmosphere subsumed in fear. Even as I sit here in this plaza, forty years after the reign of the Estado Novo, less than eighty of the last four hundred years in this country have been carried out in expressional freedom. I shutter to think of how stifling this must have been to the creative potential of a land known for its grand history of cultural exchange- its artistic, intellectual, and political evolution held hostage, tamed to an unhealthy, foul-smelling stagnancy, like the ocean in the ports of Lisbon. Even fado, the most pure Portuguese art form, once revolutionary and often anarchistic in its message, was outlawed for some time before only state sponsored versions were allowed.
As the only art form left untouched by the political maelstrom of the past century, bullfighting persisted as one of the few facets of society people could rely on remaining as it was, and ultimately as a tie to the better times of their forefathers- valuable to a society that hadn’t let go of its nationalist tendencies of glorifying past eras. Having not lived through any of that, to say that I lack a penchant for Portuguese bullfights would be to employ the contrivance of euphemism perhaps too freely. The violence is of course the big turn-off, but in a strange way, it seems that for the bullfight to have the valor it proclaims itself to possess, the sanguinary effects of the ordeal should be a lot more prevalent, like those of the bullfights in Spain. For in Spain, the bull's horns are not capped. This makes not only for a more tense but fair fight, in which either the bull or matador dies, and it is true that the strong majority of Spanish bullfighters, when the time is right, perish in the ring. For that reason, they are simply braver, and in my opinion, are entitled to the dazzling raiment, the showers of roses, and the admiration of their country people, as well as the prerogative to receive it all with the utmost narcissism. It seems like Portuguese matadors wish to be sanctioned with the same honor as Spanish bullfighters, and carry themselves with equal bravado, even though they are not risking their lives in a battle 'til death. This was all with exception to “O Patrono” of course who had killed many bulls.
But perhaps I've fallen too heavily under the influence of Hemingway's "Death in the Afternoon", in which he describes the tragedy, ritual, and emotion of the Spanish bullfight, all of which seems to become nullified without a fatal ending, whereas the Portuguese bullfight feels more like its poor rendition, with childish men taunting a handicapped animal. Or maybe I do not know enough about bullfighting to have a worthy opinion on it. I feel that I should reiterate that I speak not in favor of more violent bullfights, for I support none of them. Nor is my critique about the integrity of the performances I've seen or on this day saw, for my main case in the comparison of the two nation's methods is not about bullfighting in the first place, but rather about doing things in their full and right manner, about taking the artist's approach when no easy answer presents itself, and about taking pride in only worthwhile achievements. ... If anything, the bullfight to me was representative of the general western view of life before civilization. Here you had a wild, horned-beast, an animal bereft of logic and rationality, unconsciously living without past nor future, ramming its head into a world over which men asserted control by way of steel, and numbers, and guile. To stab the bull repeatedly, to celebrate its humiliation with pageantry, to bring it to its knees before staring it in the eyes and walking away, was to validate the modern man, and to reaffirm that humans were better off now having crawled out of that hellish, witless savagery of the so-called prehistoric era. The horns, old dress, horses, the preceding and post-ceremony, the bullfight itself was a commemoration of that triumph, and at the head stood the most honorable main act, a leader who made a people whole in times of fragmentation, their protector from a disparaging fate, the man with the perfect epithet, “O Patrono”.
As for his family name, well it stood as a common one among Portuguese speaking nations, containing variations throughout the Romance regions of Europe. Derived from the Roman surname Laurentius, Lourenço can mean “of Laurentum”, the Roman city so widely considered by Roman writers as the earliest capital of the Latins, or simply “one that wears a laurel wreath”. I had witnessed a trend among these island people- many asserted their origin to be Lusitanian; but in my mind, the arithmetic of it all is flawed to say the least. I suspect they trace their lineage by following the inclinations of their own hope, making unstudied leaps and bounds, over-simplifying along the way, towards their feasible but improbable desired destination, wishing ancestry was up to their discretion. I doubt their ability to muddle through the muck, to disentangle the haphazardly strung genetic web of an international mecca like that, the west coast of the Iberian Peninsula. Portugal- dominated by Pre-Celts, inhabited by Phoenicians and Carthaginans, occupied and populated by the Lusitani who fought off Roman incursion for half a century before being annexed to their empire (2), followed by Visigoths who were conquered by Suebi Germanic peoples, invaded by the Moors, who, I admit, actually left a surprisingly meager genetic footprint before being expelled during the Christian Reconquista of this headland, during and after which, Portugal emerged at the heart of the aforementioned Age of Exploration, crafting the longest-lived Empire of modern European colonies spanning six hundred years across the Americas, Asia, and Africa, in which they were not exempt from the phenomenon of the colonized emigrating to the land of the colonizer -is not a land with an easy to sort out genetic history, and still even harder may be to do that for its offspring, these islands, and more specifically this island, of whose discovery is still cloaked in ambiguity, while its first settler is said to be either French or Flem, settled by the people of Flanders and Northern Portugal, decreed as a statutory port of call for fleets of equatorial Africa and the East and West Indies, eventually also being settled by both colonists and the colonized, namely African slaves, in addition to prisoners, new Christians, and Spanish settlers (3). I’m afraid even all this is a gross over-simplification. I must say that it is for this exact fact that my stay here, for truth, to find out who I am, is especially intimidating. I am, as it were, an infant penguin, separated from its mother and now trying to wade my way through colossal bodies on rough terrain, squelching out, hoping for that previously unknown and yet familiar warm fin to tuck me in. In any case, the name Lourenço seemed equally fitting for the esteemed matador, for he seemed to rest, perhaps, a little to heavily upon his laurels.
The day I sat in the ring was fifty years to the day of “O Patrono’s” first bullfight, and eight years since his last bullfight. The newspapers drummed the event up for months, rewording previously printed information and stretching the most mundane of details, no matter how trivial or irrelevant, in an opportunistic endeavor to break the newest scoop and incite the typical craze that precedes the resurrection of a icon. “O Patrono”, never absent from newspaper headlines (even during his previous retirement), had no history of making the attention unwelcome, for he quite liked the mystique and clout garnered over the years by the obituaries and commendations, by the reaching speculations, and by the reports of his fast life that included being spotted with dignitaries and actresses, with full backgrounds of each new wife, and long, rambling prose about his most recent expenditures, and only lashed back when some pugnacious, gadfly of a critic had an unflattering review his performance in the ring. Lately, however, the media’s focus turned to the consequences of his lavish living, mainly the tremendous debt he accrued during his last retirement and the unfolding dramas of his last two divorces, of which can be said to be both a factor and a result of his insolvency. However, this didn’t seem to sever the symbiotic relationship between “O Patrono” and the media, for the more people lapped up the unremitting, round-the-clock roll-out of particulars regarding the scandals, the more excited people grew to see him. I had overheard a couple arguments as to whether the fiftieth anniversary of his first bullfight was just a farce for the real reason for his return: money. I appeared to be the only one with no real opinion on the matter, other than I thought it both sad and disturbing that spectacle had superseded honor, that for the hour he was an attraction- one that was not felt, but watched.
Some of my assumptions were corrected, however, as soon as the bullfight started. The swell of anticipation felt genuine, smiles flooded the arena, and I could see that even the children in the audience understood, by the feeling and indications of the adults around them, that they were to see something special. From the moment the horns bugled the classic bullfighting tune to announce the beginning of the ceremonies, I could tell that more than money had brought this man back. People roared and whooped as he entered the ring with the entire cast of the bullfight, his arms opened wide as if to hug the entire stadium. His smile was one of a euphoric spirit and even I, detached from all of this as I was, smiled back. The way he drank up their attention, their eyes, their applause, intrigued me profoundly. I remember thinking, “How does one go back from such glory? After becoming accustomed to such a response everywhere one goes, how does one accept that it is no longer.”
The first two bullfights were merely a formality, and through the whistles and general disinterestedness of the crowd, it became apparent that everyone would have paid full price just to see "O Patrono" fight his two bulls alone. As if the world balanced upon his chest, he stomped into the arena, heart to the sun with hands on his hips, his toes dragging into the earth. He sweated profusely, the sun glistening off his face and neck. The crowd continued to stand, cheering as the speedy, lightweight bull sprinted into the arena. "O Patrono's" rounds with his cape were acceptable only on the basis of his age, for the distance he kept from the bull by hanging his hips outward on the passes would not have been acceptable for a younger matador. He then summoned his peone for the banderillos, and I saw the spectators’ collective spine straighten. The bull charged bobbing his head ever so slightly upon his approach, causing "O Patrono" to balk. In an unwieldy attempt to make up for his dithering, he shuffled his feet in a frenzy, then hurdled to the flank of the bull, plunging both banderillos in its back. The crowd gasped, appalled, for he completely missed the mark, the two banderillos dangling from the center of the bull's back mid way between his neck and tail. The matador quickly asked for two more, conveying his eagerness to redeem his mistake. By now the crowd murmured heavily. Again the bull charged, again the matador dashed and thrusted. But this time the cries of the crowd had cascaded from dismay to horror. He missed the morillo even worse this time, hitting only slightly higher on the body, but off to the bull's side... a poor trade-off. When the matador rushed over to his peone to grab a third pair, he was met with a pointing finger. The peone pointed high up in the stands through the whistles and jeers, towards the director’s booth. The man born Abilio Lourenço assumed that because of his stature that a third chance was his for the taking, however, whenever a matador makes as grave of mistakes as he had, it is up to the director to decide whether he is allowed to continue, and this director was clearly internally debating this. Abilio held his arms out wide, but this time as a plead for another chance. No one ever thought in their lives they would see “O Patrono” appealing for a third chance. He never looked older than in that moment. The director, after a period of uneasiness, granted a third try- charity if anything. The matador marched over and grabbed the smallest banderillos, a desperate stunt to make up for his irretrievable losses. Sympathetic adherents shushed the jabbering crowd, to give him the typical quiet that is afforded to all matadors before the charge. The bull attacked once more as the audience held their breath. The matador leapt so far out of the bull’s way on the third charge that he was only able to get one of the tiny banderillos to stick, before throwing the other to the ground, being helped over the barreira, and storming out of sight, casting aspersions on the bull- a bull he personally chose.
The matador did not return for his second bull and was absent in the bullfight's ending ceremony. He had only won the people’s embarrassment for they saw that age and fragility now made him afraid of the same animal that he once commanded. “How could he use his old counterpart, the bovine beast he loved so reverently, as a means to an end?” they thought while I wondered why he could not see the beauty of his old age- his skin crinkled by the experience of a full life full of a full spectrum of emotions, bearing scars from adventures most people couldn’t dream of. How could the honor of living such an inspiring life not sustain his contentment until the end?
Once again haunted by these visions of “O Patrono”, I sigh, and pull myself back to the present. Joao Marco’s voice and face come back into focus.
“They wanted us there because of everything we-“
“Hey, did my grandfather sing?”
“Your mother said my grandfather used to sing.”
Alvaro chuckles. “Listen, you cannot believe anything my mother says.”
“What do you mean?”
“My mother is bipolar, man. She’s not right in the head; she makes things up all the time. You have to take what she says with a grain of salt.”
Words, in their naked state, are just guttural noises, vibrations passed up from the diaphragm to the throat and modified by the mouth. Their sounds only carry meaning because we’ve agreed on their associations, but they are, as it were, just random sounds. And yet, they can reach out and punch you right in the gut. Everything I thought were answers, were perhaps false. Surprised by the level of devastation I feel, I long to go home and go to bed and wake up from this nasty dream. I have to wonder if Joao Marco is being hyperbolic, but what he says actually makes sense. Anxiety is starting to grip me by the shoulders. This whole venture is beyond me, the frustration tiring, and only coped by the acknowledgement of, “Well, at least I tried”. The particulars of my return to America increasingly take over my thoughts, and I am already loathing the humiliation of returning home early. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------- (1) The preceding political era that hot-dogged the constitutional monarchy and the Estado Novo, called the Portuguese First Republic, bull-headed through nine presidents and forty four ministries in just sixteen years, all marked by assassinations, rioting, pillaging, and religious persecution. (2) Rome was only able to fully takeover when the Roman Consul was able to bribe the closest companions of the Lusitani leader, Viriathus, to kill him in his sleep. When the three men came to receive their bounty, Consul Servilius Caepio ordered their execution, stating, “Rome does not pay traitors.” (3) My research has actually disclosed that most of us from the island are the descendants of Sephardic Jews, whom being driven out of Spain, found refuge in Portugal for only a few short years before being pushed farther west to the Azores.
This morning, my only saving grace from the memory of yesterday’s setback is the daunting apprehensiveness of today’s prospects. My father’s maternal cousin, Duarte, will be arriving shortly from Lisbon, where he attended a funeral for his wife's aunt. It seems he is mostly coming to the island to check on a vacation home he is having built for his family, and consequently will only be staying for a few days. All this is good and fine, but why he has relayed this message to the hotel concierge and picked a date for us to spend together is beyond me. Only having met him once as a child when my family visited his home in Toronto, Canada, I cannot for the life of me remember his face, but his energy, I recall as being especially buoyant and optimistic. This meet up, I must say, is a dreadful thing of awful timing; today of all days, I least wish to “perform” for this man, and do the social dance of long-lost relative. I am certain he will want to conduct an interview in which I am to dictate my resume; he’ll expect to be impressed and eager to hear of everything I’ve accomplished in my short life- for what else could we talk about? I sincerely hope he does not wish to spend the entire day in tandem, that awkward silences are kept to a minimum, and an opportunity to bid farewell will present itself clearly and agreeably.
The doorbell chimes and I take my time, ambling down the stairs to receive him. Upon opening the door, I instantly recognize his face- somehow it has withstood the disfiguring force of time. He is still equipped with the same blockish head, with bushy eyebrows adorning his aviator eye-glasses, a wooly mustache and small gap between his two front teeth. Duarte takes me in his arms and holds me tight- he will not allow for any formal warming-up- to him we are family. I offer my condolences for his loss.
“Life goes on, my friend,” he utters through his smile, and we move upstairs into the apartment.
Because of the custom of referring to one's elders in the formal conjugation, it is hard to know what to call him, for he is as old as my father and yet he is only my cousin. For now I’ll assume that calling him by his first name will be of satisfactory taste. Duarte inspects the apartment as thoroughly as an interested buyer.
“This is perfect, very cool. How much do you pay?”
“Eh, that’s not bad. I could’ve found you something cheaper.”
He opens the closet door without hesitation and inspects its dimensions, then next, all the cabinets and drawers in the apartment, as if they weren't filled with someone else's stuff. He goes to open the backdoor in the kitchen.
“Locked?” I explained my situation with the landlord.
“Bullshit,” he says. “We’ll go talk to him right now!”
"Well, I don't know if that's necessary. I-"
“Is it resolved?”
“Resolved? No, maybe not quite resolved, but-”
“Then how can it be alright? You’re paying for that balcony, you get the balcony!”
Perhaps the will to resolution is a trait that Duarte and I share. Or maybe we're just both interminably ruffled by scenes of injustice, no matter how slight. Duarte sticks his head in a couple more nooks while he catches his breath.
“Are you ready?”
“I think so- where are we going?”
“Out to breakfast, but first take me to the owner.” I walk on the balls of my feet into the hotel, a couple steps behind Duarte as he approaches the concierge.
“Bom dia, I need to speak with the owner.”
“What seems to be the problem?" The concierge inquires while glaring at me.
“Nevermind that, just call the owner for me.”
“Well, he’s not here. If you tell me what you need I can leave a message for-“
The concierge’s voice trails off as the owner enters the lobby from the banquet hall.
“How can I help you, sir?”
“Perhaps, you’ll be able to tell me. Are you the owner of the building next door?”
“You’ve been telling my dear cousin you can’t fix the balcony door?”
“Surely his father explained the nature of his visit.”
“And you no doubt assured him that his son would find the apartment in good up-keep?” “
“And yet, I repeat, you told him that you can’t fix the door?”
“Well, you have to understand-“
“I understand very clearly already- you don’t feel like fixing the door, but it needs to be fixed immediately.”
“I had no idea it was such an issue. If we can, we’ll have someone upstairs fixing it today.”
Duarte scoffs, parroting under his breath, “We.” He turns to me. “Is that okay with you?”
The concierge, although quiet, is practically snarling.
“What are you looking at?”, my cousin barks at him before turning his back. He puts his heavy hand on my shoulder as we walk out.
“Don’t mention it… assholes.”
We walk into the restaurant under my apartment. Duarte orders two coffees at the register and motions for me to pick out a pastry. He pays for it up front. At the sight of my reaching into my pocket he displays the international symbol for halt, and with his hand halfway up delivers an even more menacing look than he afforded the concierge. My hand emerges from my pocket empty, and we sit down.
“Sir, you’re not going to eat?” I ask, uncomfortable that he’s only having coffee, while I chew away on his dime. He chuckles.
“No need for sir. And no, no pastries for me”, he says patting his belly, “my wife, my love, my dear, my friend is afraid for my health. She’s right- I have to think about these things now. I can’t afford the luxuries I enjoyed at your age. Back then I was as skinny as you. You know, when you’re young and you live with your mother, you go downstairs to the kitchen for a late-night snack, you open the fridge, look, and say, ‘Same, damn thing every night.’ You shut the door and go to bed. When you’re married you go to your bed, look at your wife, and say, ’same damn thing every night’ and go downstairs to the kitchen.”
After sharing a laugh he becomes inquisitive.
“So what have you been doing over here?”
“Just trying to enjoy myself.”
“Trying? Who needs to try in paradise?”
“You’re right- no -it’s been nice.”
"You've seen your grandmother's house?"
"You've visited the other side of your dad's family?"
"Just about everyday."
“That's good. And you’ve visited your grandfather’s old farm?”
“No? My God, what have you been doing? Trying to have a good time?”
“I don’t know where it is and…”
I abandon my excuse out of the realization that Duarte is giggling at my Portuguese. Since his arrival, I’ve observed him curiously snickering my words to himself, but just attributed this to his being an odd character. Now I see that I’ve been the butt of a running joke. My cheeks flush, but I resist the inclination to become apoplectic because I genuinely do not believe he comprehends how patronizing his amusement is to me.
“I'll show you where it is. Today, we go to see my new house, okay? It’s almost done- it should already be, but the workers here are slow as goats. But first I want to see my mother.”
Although Duarte has already proven to be welcome company, I am disappointed to hear this. I much prefer taking a drive around the island or so, and not cooped up in an old house, with some old lady, drinking tea and eating cookies, trying to feel like a visitor and not an unwelcome stranger. We get in his jeep and drive east through Porto Judeu towards São Sebastião, passing the humbler pastures of the island along the coastline highway, and snaking through the misaligned junctions of the villages it connects. Vividly painted Imperios, yapping puppies, haphazardly arranged construction sites, and old men on benches color the sides of the smaller streets before we embark up a singular road that splits a grass field, and pull up to a hillside cemetery. I am embarrassed to be relieved. Duarte points to the tiled tablet at the entrance gate that credits the cemetery's consecration to Father Joaquim Esteves. “You know who that is? You know who that is, right?” Duarte hounds me. The name looks familiar but I have to admit that I don’t. “You’re kidding me, right? That’s your great-uncle, the brother of your grandfather.” Duarte disapprovingly shakes his head at me with a face that I've grown accustomed to here. It's a face that says (to me at least) how don't you know about things of which no one has ever told you, even when you've asked?
We tip toe along the tomb stones and epitaphs. Duarte finds his mother’s quickly and for the first time since I met him this morning, he falls silent. I stay as long as I think is expected of me, and then retreat, pretending to look for perhaps another relative of mine, but really just exploring the cemetery, basking in the opportunity to be left alone with my thoughts. How awful of a thing- to die- to go to sleep and never wake up. To be lost in that black blankness of senselessness forever. To be forgotten and occasionally remembered, then sparingly visited out of duty. To not have anything to leave behind that will last. To be washed over by new people with new things in new times at new speeds and to be pitied by them. “Correndo para o morte”, indeed. I find it disconcerting, the Terceiran view of death- they neither ignore it nor do they readily accept it; they quite comfortably acknowledge death on the real, personal level often, while passively accepting this steamrolling of the modern world over their village life and culture, but somehow, their nationalistic tendencies still urge them to hold onto and attempt to breath life into their legacy of empire which has long been dead. I wonder how many of these here departed used the phrase “correndo para o morte”, perceiving themselves to be ascended into heaven in death, but instead just lie here rotting underground, their freakish corpses like cut off branches- contorted things in the midst of desiccation- expressing themselves as one last mangled manifestation of horror before fading to dust, then nothing at all.
We return to the jeep and drive towards what I presume to be Duarte’s house, when only five minutes into the trip, Duarte begins to slow down.
“If you don’t mind, I’d like to light a candle for my mother and my wife’s aunt who we just lost.”
We approach a meager white and grey-rock church across from a small plaza. “Igreja de Matriz,” Duarte says softly, “built by the first settlers.”
I do not follow Duarte when he heads straight for the candles, but hold back, taking in the stone archways and stained-glass windows. I begin to scan the church more vigorously as the most peculiar of sensations creeps over me, of which I can only describe as an eerie inspiration. As charmed as I am by the serenity of the chapel, I sense, for some strange reason, that I am being watched. I feel a pull towards the front of the church, but resist out of distrust. Duarte is no longer by the candles and it seems he is gone. With a deep breath, I give into the magnetization walking along the side aisle. I freeze when something along the wall catches my eye. A decrepit fresco in the process of being restored stretches across the partition. This is not what steals my attention, but actually the plaque beside it, more than that, a name that shines once more amongst the many words upon the plaque, "Joaquim Esteves". Upon reading the plaque, I learn that this painting is from the late medieval period and was discovered by none other than my great uncle in 1932, after being covered in lime. Another odd feeling, I'm somehow proud of my great-uncle who I’ve only known to have existed for the last hour. The invisible tug towards the head of the church makes itself known once more. With confidence this time, I walk up the center aisle towards a stone baptismal font, feeling progressively warmer as I approach. Streams of sunlight beam through the window across the basin, catching sleepy dust particles for brief moments as they pass through. The specks, like black birds in a formation, or schooling silverfish, move in perfect unison and my attention is brought to the atomic level of my own body. This ethereal vacuum has drawn me in and made of me no man, no thing. For a moment, however long that is, however long this is, the moment is I. A whisper in my ear, does not break the spell, but rather amplifies it. It is the voice of Duarte.
“Your father, his father, and his father- all baptized right here in this font.”
7 Duarte left just as quickly as he came. So quickly in fact, that I’ve wondered if he was real at all, and not some sympathetic spirit giving me one last push of encouragement… nonsense. In any case, I find it curious that I’m so regretful for his departure. But then again, the impact of his friendship cannot be understated. We spent a good part of his last couple days on the island together. We went to the market, where he haggled vendors for even lower prices for things he was never interested in buying in the first place. He took me to his winsome, almost finished home just a few miles from the church. We talked about life in Canada, life in America, and life on the island while he cooked sardines and potatoes in his rooster-adorned, yet modern kitchen, then enjoyed them on his rooftop deck with a stirring vista of the sea, his additional offerings extending to cornbread, morcela (blood sausage), and figs, all of which I respectfully rejected. I was able to walk upon my grandfather’s old farm, now owned by a man who was happy to let us carouse the property, while Duarte shared hilarious stories of his and my father’s childhoods. Tales of barefoot pig bladder soccer games and pet grasshoppers on sewing string leashes brought us to a time that we both longed for in different ways. I stand here now, on my back balcony looking down on the inkless orange tree of the hotel courtyard below, the shaven door with new lock left open upon my return home on that first day with Duarte. Each amusing moment, each story told, each greeting, each salutation between us will have its own place within me. And yet, above all that resides most heavily in my heart and mind is the baptismal font from the church. My only suffering as of that day in the church, is from only a sort of spiritual restlessness, which I know not how to quell. Nor do I wish to, for I’ve been inches off the ground ever since…