The grapes hang from the vine, full, ready, but my father can no longer drive up the Marão mountains to get a few baskets of them: an autumnal ritual, the remains of a centuries-old way of life which included a wine farm in northern Portugal.
In my family's memory there is only an end to this story; the mythical beginning lives on in a fog of deeds and letters, some lost, others too faded to read, all dating to the late 17th century. Down the generations came the terraced mountainsides covered in braids of vineyard stalks and branches, the corn fields in the lower lands, closer to the river, the orchards bordering clusters of granite dwellings, grey and earth-toned, invisible to a stranger's eye. With it came laborers, gamekeepers, vineyard pruners, and wine pressers whose legs moved up and down to millenary rhythms.
In my lifetime we moved up there every summer from the big bustling city of Porto, from the good schools, from my mother's practice as a psychoanalyst, from my father's boardroom management he carried on via couriers. Not long after we arrived the peace of the mountains began to inhabit each one of us and my memory of a life filled with school, piano and ballet lessons receded like a bad dream. I roamed barefoot on the hills, swam in the river, watched the boys kill tiny fish with pebbles and helped the young girls wash their families' clothes with hard soap, beating them rhythmically on the smooth river stones. I learned to feed cows, donkeys and pigs with vegetable peels and fruit fallen from the trees, and came to know well the inside of thatched huts: one bed, one mattress on the floor, two or three stools, and an iron pot in a twig fire in the corner of the room.
"There's something healing here," sighed my parents' friends when they visited, rising from lounge chairs to pluck a grape hanging from the vine that shielded the patio from the worst of the summer's sun. Filtered light drew lace patterns on their bare arms, danced delicately on the schist floor. The view of the stepped hills lured painters and writers; through the years, the house attracted the talented, and the jaded.
"Our cities are killing us," they muttered.
"You might want to come here in the winter," said my father. "You'd think differently of the city then."
But not many listened when he grumbled, as he often did, about "the poverty." They admired him for driving women in labor to the hospital far away, often against their own husbands' wishes but they thought it was foolish, even dangerous that he set his mind on getting the village a school so the children wouldn't have to walk miles up craggy mountain sides to attend the only school in the region. They were right. Under Salazar's fascist rule, reading led to thinking, which was to be avoided. Yet, this was Europe and Britain a historic ally, so the cities got their schools; the remote countryside, however, was offered a few token establishments. As soon as my father began to move his idea forward through inquiry and petitions, the State Police summoned every villager to their headquarters. Early in the morning they set off on foot to the city of Vila Real, ten miles away, leaving the fields behind; the children stood by the road all day watching for a sign of their return. My mother said their resignation was unbearable, and my father went with them.
"Were you summoned?" asked a man standing by the large oak door of the headquarters.
"I was not," he answered, "but there has been a mistake. It was I who asked for a school, not these men and women."
"We know who you are. You were not summoned."
"I'd like to speak to someone in command."
"You will come when we call you."
They escorted him down the steps and never called him, not on this account anyway. This marked the end of my father's village school project.
One does not change such a regime easily, but one can change it fast. In very few years, the 1974 Revolution changed everything: literacy rates soared, a new generation grew ten inches taller than their parents, and families like ours could no longer afford to keep the land. The end was exhilarating, devastating, and complete. Only the taste of the grapes remained the same: sweet, fleshy Alvarilhão and Muscatel, once served at King Midas' funeral feast. I take my place in the family history and drive to what is left of the old farm. Personal and national histories blend in this trip, a direct result of a "gentleman's agreement" entered into soon after the Revolution: Joaquim, a descendent from the former caretakers, farms the land that is left in his spare time. Everything it yields is his; in return, he gives us some of the produce at harvest time. A token. Enough to fill the trunk of a car.
Sheltered by barriers, today's road cuts straight lines over the mountain and through long tunnels and I wonder what is left of the old one, scenic, breathtaking, offering more than a tinge of danger. There was almost nothing between the tires and the deep gorges and the car climbed slowly with the windows down so my father could have a better feel for the distance from the edge. Half way up our ear drums began to hurt and soon after that we would get sick from the turns and bends. We stopped to feel better and to taste the water springing from the mountain side; we also stopped now and then to watch the eagles and to hear the silence. "The mountain is breathing," my mother would say.
The modern road has a more visual appeal, going past giant windmills poised on mountain tops, their long, white arms turning elegantly against a background of impossible colors: transparent baby blue sky, clouds of silver grey, purple and green hillsides. Anything but minimalist, nature takes hold of my senses, sweeping away prepackaged ideas on beauty, on love; leaving me answer-less, suspended, like a woman holding her first newborn.
I step on the gas and picture the place I am heading to, a granite, thick-walled cowshed from 1710 that my mother transformed into a genteel summer place; it sits in the valley where I used to watch men and women cut off the corn heads and peel away the parched layers of skin, all the while singing along with the men whose shoulders seemed about to cave in under the weight of baskets overflowing with grapes. From the wide verandah on the first floor, where once the beads of corn were left to dry, one sees high-rise buildings growing like giant mushrooms just beyond the river that borders what is left of the property. They are the tentacles of the nearby city, the lively university town of Vila Real, teeming with Ph.D. students researching wine and organic farming. My father may have lost his land but, as he proudly puts it, the land did get its schools.
At the Vila Real exit I turn a sharp right and drive down the narrowest of roads. It doesn't take long to find myself back in paths I recognize, uneven, earthen, strewn with branches and pebbles. I slow down as I approach the small Roman bridge, now vandalized, many of its side stones staring at me amidst brambles from the dry river bed below. I drive on and pass a building I haven't seen before, a farm house with an ornate front yard ending in an altar open to the road; the statue of the Virgin holding baby Jesus is painted brightly in white, reds and blues and surrounded with flowers, an odd sight in this low toned green and brown environment. I am now about a mile from the house tucked away behind the sharp bend ahead. As I make the turn, I see Joaquim standing by the gate against a backdrop of trays and baskets brimming with grapes, quince and pumpkin. I let the car go down the soft-sloped driveway till I can feel the ground move slightly, moist from the river close by.
"Hello there, Miss," he says, bringing back the past in one instant. "Welcome back," he adds with some solemnity. "There's nothing like one's land, I'd say. You've been away too long."
I don't know whether he means this piece of land, or Portugal, and I'm not sure how I feel about either, but I am close to tears and decide to move towards the fruit.
"Nothing like these in America, right?" he says, pointing to the grapes, filled with pride in his ability to produce a good crop. We exchange generalities about the States, where I have lived for the past few years and finally we begin to load, the baskets first, one, two … and suddenly Jorge, my first boyfriend, walks up. "I thought you might need some help," he says, picking up a tray. We work together in apparent calm for a while though my arms' sudden weakness makes it hard to hold my side of the baskets. While we come and go, close the trunk and open the back seat doors, he tells me about his family: his daughter, a Ph.D. candidate; his son, a marine life researcher; his wife, the head of Vila Real prison system.
How would my mother feel if she could hear this story, I wonder, a story no one predicted when villagers saw us kissing under the Roman bridge.
"How dare you!" shouted his father.
"I care about her. You can't do a thing about that," he shouted back.
But he was only 19 and in Salazar's Portugal you didn't mess lightly with the social order. He got several lashes with the oxen belt and was sent off to fight in the colonial war in Africa. He had already been conscripted, told he would leave in six months, but his father's request sped things up. He would fight in Angola for two years.
"How dare you!" shouted my mother, slapping me hard, for the first time.
"I am 16. I'm not a child anymore," I said. I did not cry.
"Have you no shame?" she screamed.
I did not know this mother.
"You should have never let him kiss you, Miss," said the woman who brought in fresh milk every morning. "He should have gotten 50 lashes. A laborer's son! What's the world coming to?"
I never saw him again until eight years later, at a wedding in the village. We were both married.
"I have to know," he said, during a moment alone. "Why did you not answer any of my letters?"
"Yes, the letters I wrote you from Angola."
"I never got any letter."
Those were the last words we spoke and it hurts to think about it. I'm glad the loading is done. Both men open the gate and wave at me as I drive away slowly, the car heavy with fruit as I am with history, mine and my country's, woven so tightly I cannot tell them apart.
Inevitably, perhaps, he calls. It has been about a week and I think I have regained some composure. I am sitting in my office talking to a student about her dissertation.
"I would really like to see you," he says.
I turn towards the office window, away from the student who sits at the other end of the table.
"When?" I ask, buying time till my voice can hold a steady note because his brings it all back: my teenage body walking towards the first kiss, steadily treading the crumbling rocks of the river bed; the mossy underbelly of the Roman bridge; the wheezing sound of his father's belt; the weight of my mother's hand; his war in Africa; my own war at home; the silence.
"I'm only two hours away – now that you're here."
In the silence that follows, the student turns the pages of her work, impatient. Outside, tourist boats move slowly up and down the Douro, their colored flags flapping in the autumn wind; sunlight fractures off a binocular lens aimed in my direction — a woman at the window of an ochre-tiled, concave building on one of Porto's river margins.
"The missing letters," his voice says. "I know what happened."
I turn around and silently ask the student to give me a few minutes. The door closes behind her.
"I have a short break for lunch, about an hour or so."
"I'll be there."
The boats keep cutting the river, wounds of white foam opening, closing, and opening the water again, like living, breathing organisms.
The memory of the waiting student awakens me to my duties. Back in the office, she talks with intelligence and grace about her work, a dissertation on the symmetry and order underlying the work of an ostensibly post-modern artist. If I were to tell her this story, would she be able to see the connections? Had any wounds ever opened in her? I try to stop my unruly mind and gather every bit of my scattered attention to focus on what she is saying but the sudden rain on the window pane finally defeats me. The boat flags must be sticking sadly to their poles and Jorge is driving down the mountain road in a storm. I can visualize the lines of symmetry but all I feel is chaos.
I am wet even before I get in my car, parked right outside my office building. The roads are locked in traffic jams coughing their way slowly forward. I break hard a thousand times, avoiding people running in front of me to catch a bus or hide under a doorway on the other side of the street. I get close to the restaurant where we'll meet 15 minutes late. I maneuver into the tiniest parking space, halfway on the pavement and am about to rush out when my daughter calls from Philadelphia with a fundamental question: What Law firm offer should she accept? The one in Los Angeles or the one in New York? I spot Jorge coming my way.
"Mum? Are you there?"
"Can we talk about this in about an hour or so?"
"Sure," she says, but she sounds disappointed so I stay on the phone a little longer. "It's huge, Mum. I never thought I'd get these offers."
It is huge and she has worked so hard; more importantly, she rarely asks my advice these days. I smile at Jorge apologetically but keep the phone glued to my ear until she seems able to reach a decision. It is the best decision, I tell her reassuringly before we hang up. Jorge is wet from head to toe and holds a bouquet of drenched wild flowers. "They're beautiful," I say.
The restaurant is packed and waiters shout their orders across a room steaming from people's clothes and hot soup. We realize we cannot do whatever it is we want to do in the 30 minutes I have left. We step out to the street that has turned into a river and stand by the door, unsure where to go.
"It was my sister who kept the letters," he says, "my eldest sister, Francisca."
"Does she still have them?"
"Where are they then?" It is suddenly very important that I read these letters, recover something of what I lost.
A car passing by splashes water all over the pavement. Jorge protects me with his body and comes too close. I step to the side. We are both embarrassed.
"She got rid of them a long time ago, Clara. She saw us talking when you came for the grapes and blurted it out later that day. She sounded happy. I think she expected me to be happy too, even grateful. 'I gave you your children,' she said. 'Think how different your life would have been if I hadn't done it.'"
That very moment, my daughters fill my senses to the brim and I miss them more than I ever have since we've been apart. A world without Francisca's repellent intrusion would be a world without them.
"She's right, of course," I say, "about your children. Can you imagine life without them?"
He has become silent. "Not now," he says, pausing again. "But I couldn't imagine life without you then. The day before I was to embark to Africa, I took the train to Porto and waited outside your house to say goodbye, to ask you to wait. But you came from school in your father's car, took your things from the trunk and went inside. You never looked my way. I stood there, God knows how long, hoping you'd see me from a window, but you didn't. And you never answered any of my letters so I stopped writing after a while. I no longer minded the war. I was in active combat longer than any other soldier and would have continued. But they gave me a few medals and ordered me home." He made another long pause. "That is what Francisca did."
A couple brushes past us, hand in hand; a group of businessmen stands by the restaurant door sharing umbrellas, talking about the country's dire future.
"You were always the one, the only one," he says, moving closer. I want him to hold me. But we hold back, together. We walk to my car in silence. He kisses my face lightly.
Another student waits by my office door eager to discuss his dissertation. I ask him to give me a minute and enter the office alone. From the window I see a bit of the road Jorge is driving on, back to a life shaped by his sister's actions that rooted us firmly in the margins of each other's life, throwing us on courses away from a center we have now recovered. Today's decision not to build on this center is ours, not hers.
The river flows, brown and full, its currents pulling in circular, opposing directions. Water never flows twice under the same bridge, they say, but what do they know? Brown, or blue, it is the same water, after all.
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