The Tagus River Bridge
Elliot Blake Hueske
We were thinking about cork. Driving from the deadlands of the Portuguese Alentejo, the car had spit at us while burning in the dry heat, and all we could see was cork. Long grasses brushed the air and old skeleton farmhouses stood black with ash. There was a flatness and an arid loneliness in abandoned vineyards and lavender fields, and all we could see was cork.
Alentejo is beyond the Tagus River, far from electricity. It is scattered terra cotta villages with wrinkled black widows that gather to speak about their lost husbands and bite the heads off small birds. It is walled cities, fortresses for Fatima’s lost children, and dry aqueducts. These are the plains of aproned Catholics and breathy heat winds where my Grandfather comes for cerveja and silence.
We (my mother, grandmother, and sister) drove from Sagres to Evora and counted the trees as we went. My grandmother is not as frail as she looks. Her bones are weak and her skin tears like paper, but her voice is strong and biting. She cries when she reads from Genesis and thinks her tears are those of Fatima. She taught my sister and me to pick pine nuts from the cone and snack on them in the orchard. Oftentimes, she takes my face in her hands and tells me that Teresa is the protector of all children, that she is Teresa, and that she is stronger than she looks.
There is an old convent that we visited once. They were preparing for a wedding. Lilies were arranged in large bowls below the crucifixion and a guest book lay open for signatures. As we walked, the groom stuck his head out of an upper story chapel window. He blessed himself as his tie hung limp around his collar and sucked in a deep breath of that evening Alentejo air.
There is something about the place that pacifies. It is as if it is deep, sultry wine; rich with welcomed toxins. We’re so far from the ocean, yet it is the same drunkenness that leaves you tired and warm after a day on the coast.
My sister is the same age as me. We were born together, hand clamping hand in the dimness of our mother’s stomach. When she came into the world, fourteen minutes after me, the umbilical cord wrapped its long tail around her neck. She was the same purple grey as the granite rock faces that litter this terrain, and her little body was the rolling hills of grain. She is now the chapel that rings in the little village; strong and pure, calling for the holy.
She sat next to me that day in the car. Her wrist was adorned with a little bracelet from France that had traveled from the gilded inner dome of Sacre Cœur to the blue Riviera; splashed with summer kisses and holy water. Walking on the Avenue, Princess Grace, she told me that the gold and diamonds excited her, but not as much as the open plains of North Dakota. She wanted to bathe in the Painted Desert and make new again from the petrified forest. She was like this; beautiful and embellished and made from the Earth.
My sister gave me little presents when we were young: envelopes of coins she had collected from between the couch cushions, dust bunnies in glass cases (that fed on little bread crumbs), finger paintings. I would like to know where they ended up, but I don’t think she or I would mind anymore. Things that come and go with age probably threw them in the wastebasket after stuffing the coins in a purse.
With my sister, the Alentejo welcomes us. It is the same pure that she is, an old spirit that shares the same clay heart and olive oil blood. We sang songs in the backseat of the Fiat, and though we smiled at each other every time we passed over a bump in the road, it was that Alentejo air spreading us apart even when we were close. Maybe everybody there was so isolated already that it naturally pushed people away from each other. On a twenty-mile stretch, two lone farmhouses were, at closest, five miles apart. There is a space between them filled with grasses and cicadas; it is a land of lonely hills. The Alentejo has lived in silence with a scythe on its back. The air we breathe there is too used to filling space and pushes us away from each other because change is too sudden and too feared for an ancient country.
There is a magnetism in the way the place divides us even in the compactness of a small car. We are silent. We are silent as the wedding was at the old convent when the groom tried to find something solid, something to grasp. But the Alentejo is unforgiving; it is air when you are falling and it was skeleton doors between the preacher and his parishioners when saying their vows. In the car we are miles apart, yet when I look at my sister, it is as it has always been. Our fingers brush against each other when we hit a bump and retract as coiled snakes do. We hum to ourselves as we drive across the barren shins of a land that forgot how to walk.
We are driving to get to Lisbon. It is grey and raining. It’s raining much like the day my sister ran her bike into a tree. She and another girl were competing. It was right after older brothers showed us the Daytona 500. I was still too concerned about falling to race, so I trailed along in a little wagon observing the action. My sister was going fast, much faster than the other girl, and all the while there was this hard-heavy rain falling down on us like lead fishing weights.
The racetrack was a driveway. This long and forested cement path that led from the outer gates to the house tucked by the edge of a lake. The end of the racetrack was naturally the end of this long drive and I waited there to see the two of them pedaling around the potholes and blowing loose strands of hair from their faces. My sister never made eye contact with me but she made it to the end first. Whipping the front end of her bike back around, something went awry. The chain fell off and her feet madly poked for some gripping on the pedals. She was falling out of control and all I could hear was a slight buzzing—metal on metal, rubber hitting the curb and thrusting her, and her Saltwater Sandals and her bike against a tree.
She and her friend were both wearing green t-shirts that day. The rain was coming hard against my eyelids and it was the first time I hoped something wrong on another. As I numbly found my footing out of the wagon, I hoped that the figure in the green t-shirt was the other girl. I hoped that I would find my sister’s friend in the turmoil. I hoped that it would be a trip to the hospital as a friend and not as a relative because I didn’t know how to comprehend something that big.
When I found my sister below that bike with the helmet tossed to the side, I thought there must have been something else there. Something inhuman; something like air. When I finally screamed it was out in front of me before I could recognize it was me making the noise. Something had pulled it out of my throat and left it hanging it front of my face. I heard myself saying her name, pulling at her and holding her and abandoning the wagon to run the distance down the long drive to find my mother.
I can’t imagine the time my sister spent unconscious in the rain alone. It was seconds, at most a minute. I ran so fast. At the time, I had to find someone older than me to help her and leaving her alone was the unideal side effect of the bigger picture. I don’t like to think that I didn’t even help her out of the tangled wires of the bike before I bolted for some help. I don’t like to think of it at all.
When my sister did wake up in a hospital the next day, the first thing she said was that she didn’t want to be different. We had seen movies of people with head trauma waking up unable to remember things or maybe even speak. The doctor assured her she was fine. However, I couldn’t look at her the same. She was my sister but there were things that could hurt her. She was not untouchable like I had seen her; she was something softer, fragile.
This is what the Alentejo does to us. It says everything stays the same when everything is lethargically changing, altering in a sedated haze of marmalade. It is misplacing the particles around us at such a slow speed we can’t register what is happening. It is like water erosion that cuts daggers into stone but takes years to do so. The Alentejo has placed us under a water drip: we are floating around in the emptiness of the land thinking that we are the only ones moving.
In the rain, we are driving to Lisbon. My grandmother sits in the front seat and asks us if we want to hear a story. We have most likely heard it before. She tells us a Portuguese fable that is very important at Sunday school and in the church’s children’s books. It is the Legend of Nazaré and she starts with a very soft, shaky voice.
It is early in the morning when Dom Fuas Roupinho decided to go hunting for deer. He is always respectful of the land, so does not go hunting often. However, he sees this beautiful stag, soft brown with gems for eyes. He follows it on his horse up the side of a cliff when a great fog arises. If he took a step further he could fall to the sea, so he prays to Our Lady who stops him from proceeding. He builds a chapel as a message of thanks to her.
I can’t help thinking what happened to the stag. That one day when I walk through the forests at Nazaré I will see a deer with gems for eyes come out of the fog. My sister tells another variation where a beautiful wooded chalet emerges from the fog and my grandmother says that her fog would bring her a Nicholas Sparks novel and a PedEgg for her feet.
There is something in Portugal called saudade. It is untranslatable in English, but is roughly understood as an emotional presence of deep melancholia for a loved one or thing who has left. It is an incomplete nostalgia that can be seen throughout Portugal. The Alentejo is saudade. It is summer homes and parasol-ed families that moved to Lisbon many years ago and left a thumbprint of broken homesteads and windmills. Maybe this is why it wants to keep us here; it slows us down and spreads us out, trying to find a filler.
It is raining and we are driving to Lisbon. We are leaving the Alentejo. Its sore fingers grab at us as we leave, filling our lungs with the sticky saudade emptiness that it thrives on. I think about my sister as we sit miles apart. I wonder what she thinks about. I wonder if she asks herself if the Alentejo air was there in the hospital room after the crash; if it was there in the hospital room when we came out together; if it has been there—connective tissue between our fingertips.
We are an elastic couple that gets close, separates, and snaps. The Alentejo is merely a friend that haunts us with an echo of ourselves from years ago. But wine country ends sometime. Dry plains cascade into something flatter, damper, busier. It has left us tired and alone; remnants of Fado twitching on our tongues.
We approach the Tagus River Bridge and pay our toll. It is raining and I lean my head against the glass. The bridge is long and raindrops pool on the window. I look at the Tagus. White caps dot the surface of the water and, at this point, it looks more like an ocean than a river. It’s a mouth that looms below us, dark and foggy, and it threatens to eat us up at any sudden move.
It’s at this point that I see something even darker on the surface: a black figure walking near a small motor boat on what must have been a sandbar. The figure carries a net and a pole, fishing during the storm. As we progress, out from the fog there were more. Figures in what must have been wetsuits walking amongst each other in the rain in the middle of this enormous river.
They just keep appearing, these fishermen, walking and casting nets and chatting amongst each other like a day at the beach. I never see their faces. We are too far away to see anything but their outlines like branched silhouettes on an old camera frame. Part of me questions their humanness. The river is deep; the water is rough. Yet these figures—these things—walk in the depth of the Tagus like something unreal. Fishermen, is all my grandmother says.
Sandbars is what I’ve determined it had to be. Sandbars and the water level is low and they need fish. Yet I still picture the grey sky and the even darker water with the black silhouettes of figures walking like it is land.
I think that if Dom Fuas Roupinho did fall at the cliffs at Nazaré, this is what he would see: a land where people, or people-like things, walked on water and swam through fog. Maybe there was a deer with gems for eyes among those figures, too. I don’t think Our Lady would let him die necessarily, but would let him live among these things in the middle of the Tagus, coming out when the rain is thick enough.
My grandmother and my sister are alike in the sense that they are stronger than they look. They are strong, but they are not impenetrable. There are things that can hurt them, like bicycles and trees; there are things that can hurt my sister, and she needs to protect herself sometimes.
She is the type of girl to choose nothingness over pain. She is the type of girl to stay in the Alentejo, not risking closeness. She is the type of girl who, if led through the fog off a cliff, would choose the purgatory water-walking on the Tagus over a definite end.
If I see cork, I want it to keep her afloat. Things are grey and things are inhuman. We pass over a bump; our fingers touch and retract; we see the outlines of the people fade into fog. I look back from the outside of the window. Thinking of all the ways to say her name.
ELLIOT BLAKE HUESKE is a junior at Charleston County School of the Arts in Charleston, SC, and is a creative writing major. She has been published in the Poetry Society of South Carolina. She has won several notable awards such as the Carl Sandberg Poetry Contest and the PTA Reflections Contest. She has won several Scholastic Art & Writing Awards throughout her writing career, with close to forty regional awards and over five national awards. She loves magical realism and her favorite author is Gabriel García Márquez.