Fim do Mundo, meteorites, Prince Henry the Navigator, Portugal, Santa Cruz ghetto, suicide, The Last Chance & Cretan mazes.
Fim do Mundo, meteorites, Prince Henry the Navigator, Portugal, Santa Cruz ghetto, suicide, The Last Chance & Cretan mazes.
I arrived in Fim do Mundo nearly five hundred years after Prince Henry the Navigator. He believed that the edge of the world was the visible horizon; any ship venturing out of sight would simply drop off the rim and disappear. His castle, bleak and spare, still overlooks the Atlantic. Fim do Mundo is a desert, a region even the locals call the End of the World. Three fingers of land make a splayed hand at this southern tip of Portugal. On the western spit is the brightest lighthouse on the continent, with a blazing brass reflector. On the central peninsula is the castle, its façade facing away from the sea. To the east is Sagres, a village of fishermen and tourists.
My first hour here, I walked the circumference of the reddening castle. Three old men stood on a rock behind the crumbling chapel and threaded their rods. They cast, one after the other, invisible arcs from ground to ocean, hundreds of feet below, describing partial ellipses. The sky hung pale and cloudless, a great gape of no-time-at-all. It could have been morning or dusk, but I knew it was somewhere near evening because I had traveled since dawn from Sevilla.
The sky hung pale and cloudless, a great gape of no-time-at-all.
Even here, Americans like myself crowd the narrow streets. Americans, I think, will journey unreasonable distances for isolation, the perverse luxury of desolation. The guidebooks say little about Sagres, but it is a place of pilgrimage, like Mecca or Jerusalem. It seduces people like me, the lure of termination of travel. Death by suicide is not uncommon, and the dead are always foreigners—estranhos, the Portuguese call us, the estranged.
At The Last Chance, an incongruously Wild West saloon perched at the edge of Sagres, young tawny men with eyes like the centers of sunflowers seek American princesses to take them to the New World, to Hollywood and Dallas. João, Joaquim and Paulo court me, all three, each more alluring than the last, skin the color of burnt sand, brown hair striped blond from streaks of sun. They look deeply into my eyes, trying to coax me into confessing that I am indeed the daughter of a movie mogul–land baron–oil man. Like Humphrey Bogart, they puff at cigarettes without using their hands and speak from the corners of their mouths. They admire James Dean, Sylvester Stallone, John Wayne—whose larger-than-life countenances bluster from the walls. For João-Joaquim-Paulo, would-be explorers all, I am a ticket, a contemporary vessel to the new land.
But the reason I like this bar is the floor-to-ceiling windows that look east over the sea. I come early every evening to steal a seat on the bench, from where I can see only water and horizon. When night falls, I place my eye directly on the glass and watch the waves batter the cliff’s feet so far below.
Lightning clarified everything: the ocean, cliffs, my bare feet on the wooden floor, my hand on the pane. João-Joaquim-Paulo asked if I was afraid, if I wouldn’t rather be somewhere safer, out of the wrath of the tempestade…
Yesterday it stormed: lightning forked masses of cloud, and thunder rocked the barely anchored wood shack. The Last Chance lost power, and we remained in darkness—except for the fluorescent flashes—for perhaps fifteen minutes until the bartender found candles. Lightning clarified everything: the ocean, cliffs, my bare feet on the wooden floor, my hand on the pane. João-Joaquim-Paulo asked if I was afraid, if I wouldn’t rather be somewhere safer, out of the wrath of the tempestade, but I said no. “I study weather,” I told them. “Clouds, storms and jet streams. I came to see the meteorite shower.” At this they were puzzled, finding it peculiar that America had no such natural gifts. “You traveled all the way to Portugal for that?” they asked. I wanted to please them, so I said yes.
In Madrid, weeks ago, I lost my perspective. In the midnight crowd of families and promenaders, everyone was out in the street, but I was alone. Men called me from doorways, pawed the air like mimes, chased me down alleys. They caressed their genitals and pointed to me, as if I might want to share that pleasure, and bared a missing tooth or two. They forced me inside, and I learned to eat and drink alone in my room after sunset. My skin bloated and turned gray, polluted from the city’s elegant grime. The hotel proprietor stopped speaking to me, and other guests stepped out of my way as I lugged my body through the sultry lobby. The men who scavenge for women knew I was alone; they could smell my fear across a room, a train compartment, even a boulevard. I left for southern Spain, hoping the Moorish winds would cleanse me, imagining the colored bougainvillea would scare the dirt from my skin.
But it was worse there: I got lost in the winding stairways of the Santa Cruz ghetto, a deliberate maze of dead ends and twisted steps, its street signs marking Life, Hope, Water. The guidebooks said that Jews built the ghetto to confuse the enemy, to outsmart their captors while they hid in all-but-inaccessible apartments, confounding Ferdinand and Isabella’s soldiers with snaking cul-de-sacs. Even so, no Jews remain in the post-Inquisition ghetto. I found a place to stay in a triangular dead end studded with three crosses. The owner gave me a well-handled postcard of the Trinity to help find my way back. As with Gretel, my trail disappeared behind me. I was the only guest in a room with many beds. When I lay down, my head filled with the spiked calls of the Madrileños, the thorny words of strangers on the train. I can speak other languages, but I cannot understand the hostility of certain smiles, the malignity implicit in a raised eyebrow, the condescension of a cocked ear. I forgot why I came, and slept, and dreamed of Daedalus designing his Cretan maze from which even he could not escape, except by air. He made wings for himself and his son, and they flew from the labyrinth like great human birds. I woke wanting wings, my arms so pitiful in their spindliness and pallor. I wanted a place from which to launch myself, so I studied my maps and settled on Fim do Mundo.
I wanted a place from which to launch myself, so I studied my maps and settled on Fim do Mundo.
In California, I had worked at the Rand McNally Travel Store, selling globes and guides, saving for this trip. “You’re so brave to go alone,” my co-workers said, gray-laced men and women who rarely left the state. “When I was twenty, I never would have dreamed of it,” said the map director, a sweet widow in nurse’s shoes. “Ah, the courage of youth,” she sighed. I, too, thought I was brave. I was so organized, with a map for every route, and a plan for every place. They threw a party for me, with illuminated globe lamps and paper plates imprinted with Europe’s auto routes. I could remember home and its routines until Madrid. Perhaps it was the crone who unnerved me; in the Retiro she followed me from bench to bench, rasping prophecies I could not understand, her Spanish an ancient dialect. I fled the park and felt relieved. But the next afternoon, she shadowed me in the zoo, met my reflection in the lake, reached to clutch me. Her black eyes mirrored my struggling, spittle collecting in the corners of her mouth as she tried to speak, spitting words at me. Mija, mija was all I could make out. My daughter. I must have resembled her daughter, dead, maybe, or missing. She would not let go of me, so I made myself absolutely still, as if acquiescing, and when she dropped my hands to stroke my face, I ran away. I left her far behind and found a crowded, formal café in which hordes of New Yorkers loudly demanded the name of a hotel where everyone spoke English.
No one speaks English in Sagres except for the Americans. The Portuguese can understand it, and of course the jangle of coin is intelligible to all, but mostly I hear melodious Portuguese, a pleasantly incomprehensible susurration, like jaguars whispering. I speak Spanish when necessary, French whenever possible, because I have not lost my bearings in that language. On these almost-islands of desert, I have somehow found rest. A body no longer in motion, once at rest—or so I understand—tends to remain at rest.
She would not let go of me, so I made myself absolutely still, as if acquiescing, and when she dropped my hands to stroke my face, I ran away.
Every morning in the harbor I watch the fleet of lobster boats, their clay potsherds littering the docks, blue netting like old women’s hair drying in the sun. Sometimes sailboats arrive by accident. A Dutch family out seeing the world tied up at dawn today after the turbulent waters had subsided. The bright blond heads of a pair of twins startled the dark fishermen. The father needed to see the harbormaster, he said, or anyone who could help. His little boys trailed behind him like an afterthought. His wife emerged from below, naked, to look around, and her blue eyes met fifty pairs of black ones; no noise or wind ruffled the moment. She gazed, openmouthed, and returned below.
“We’re lost,” said the Dutchman. “This is not the island of Madeira.”
Ignorant foreigners, spits a white-haired man mending his net. They traipse the world without destination and know nothing of survival. They cannot fish or barter labor; they can only squander money. All the fishermen agree, smoking their pipes, inspecting their lobster pots. I wonder if they include me in their condemnations, but I blend better than most, with my dark hair-skin-eyes. In every Mediterranean country people think I am native, at least until they hear me speak. I am French-Italian-Spanish-Greek, and now Portuguese.
All afternoon I read by the base of the lighthouse, sampling the region’s young, green wine. The unswerving horizon discloses nothing. Prince Henry’s theory was disproved by Columbus, but I don’t know which to believe. I concede the Earth is round, not flat, but I prefer the Prince’s vision of a universe with visible edges.
Here in the Old World I had hoped to revel in the treasures of history, to shed my skin like a moth its chrysalis, but I couldn’t shake it off, not anywhere—not in Madrid, not here in Sagres.
The father reports no solace although his wife and daughter are found the same day, together, the baby’s fingernails embedded in her mother’s arms.
At the edge of San Francisco is a park called Land’s End. Signs near the cliffs read, “Danger Area. People have been swept from the rocks and drowned. Enter at your own risk.” I did. Vertigo enveloped me as I looked over the rim of earth to the smashing sea below. To be swept away involves no volition, requires no parting note to destroy those who remain. I waited, but no wave came to take me. I read in a newspaper about the stealthiness of the Pacific, how, on one particular beach, the waves loom so huge, so unexpected, that one must never turn one’s back. A picnicking family is decimated when the father leaves to urinate behind a rock, and the mother and infant stop paying attention to the sea. He returns to find the spot wiped clean where the yellow blanket had been, sandals and diaper bag disappeared. Their bodies wash up three days later, a hundred miles south. The father reports no solace although his wife and daughter are found the same day, together, the baby’s fingernails embedded in her mother’s arms.
I dangle my feet in the air, see blue veins crossing arches, a gold chain encircling an ankle—all in focus—and the blurred slate sea beneath. The sound of breakers reassures me with its predictability: crash, withdraw, wait. It begins again. The wine soothes, smooths my jagged thoughts. Crash, withdraw, wait. I am falling asleep on my cliff perch when I hear a voice.
Someone is calling me, using the name I gave at the bar, so it must be João-Joaquim-Paulo. It is the latter, the youngest and loveliest of the three, perhaps sixteen years old. His skin is almost indistinguishable from the earth beneath his feet. He does not join me at the edge but stands far away, hazy and uncollected, holding out his supple arms.
“Esperança—come to me. I don’t like how close you sit there.” In America, I am too cynical to be charming, too sharp to be pretty. None of this matters here. Paulo walks toward me, arms extended. I brush the sand from my skirt and attempt to stand, am reaching for his hand when vertigo seizes me, plunges me down and over the cliff, stabs me into the sea; head over heels, I am falling, like Icarus, wings burnt to uselessness, diving in slow motion and sped-up time at the same time when Paulo grabs my shoulder.
I am falling, like Icarus, wings burnt to uselessness, diving in slow motion and sped-up time at the same time when Paulo grabs my shoulder.
“You see, querida? You must not stand so close.”
He is right. If I dive, I do not want it to be a mistake, a clumsy fall from Earth.
The evening of the meteorite shower is cold and crystalline. Tall cacti guard the door of the Last Chance Saloon, like sentinels permitting entry. I take my seat as the sky begins to darken, and João-Joaquim-Paulo murmur among themselves, survey new faces, gauge bodies with their opaque eyes. A new American woman drinks beer alone at the bar, dressed in shorts and no sleeves, attracting attention she may not desire. In Portugal, women do not enter the night, and during the day, they wear only black. The grandmother who rents me a room in her house asks why I am so far from home. If I were her daughter, she says, she would never let me go.
It is difficult to read in the dusky light, but I begin my book again, The Myth of Sisyphus. People laugh around me, exchange jokes, chatter and flirt. João-Joaquim-Paulo entertain the stranger, so I am quite alone again, transparent beside the window. I imagine the trajectory of Sisyphus reversed: falling from a cliff (as I nearly did this afternoon) and then being reeled back to the top, as if in a rewound film, and falling anew, endlessly. It is just light enough to see the gaping rocks below, the hard jaws of Prince Henry’s ocean, their evident appetite for ships and flesh.
“You drink too much,” says Paulo, detached now from the others. “If the windows weren’t here, you would almost fall again.”
“Not really.” I am steady-handed, clear-willed. He pushes my drink away and offers his hand, a tender palm, daring me to take it. I shake my head.
“Here.” I empty my change purse on the table, escudos rolling crazily before dropping out of sight. “Buy us both a drink, please?” He frowns and leaves me.
Darkness makes reading impossible; the print fuses into scribble. Everyone crowds around the windows, awaiting the meteorite shower. The bartender switches off the lamps, and I inhale, unhinged.
Stars burn to death. Embers drift everywhere, streaking across the sky like feathers falling, dying quickly in the sea, gleaming and sizzling in their final descent. I remember Icarus, his singed wings, the fiery death of excess.
When Paulo returns, he has no drinks in hand, and he is not kind. He tosses my book and then forces my face up against the glass, his dark hand buried in my hair, his grip tight enough to hurt.
“Which way do you look? Which way? Down?” And he pushes my head downward, as everyone looks up, so that I am forced to see the rocks again, the shattered ships that never dropped off any edges, whose failures were no fantasy but a splintering of timbers hard against these cliffs.
“Now look up,” Paulo says, tugging my head back, “look this way.” And the meteorites hurl themselves toward us, a fusillade of flaming myths, crashing everywhere in Fim do Mundo in brilliant demises. Paulo does not let go of me, even when the shower is over, and all the stars are dead.
Annie Dawid has published three books of fiction. Most recently, she won the 2013 Northern Colorado Writers Award in the Personal Essay and the 2013 New Rocky Mountain Voices Award for her short play, “Gunplay.” She has taught two workshops at the Taos Summer Writers Conference, University of New Mexico and at the Castle Rock Writers Conference (Colorado). Currently, she teaches fiction writing at Arapahoe Community College in Littleton, Colorado, after retiring as Professor of English and Director of Creative Writing at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon.
Lead Photograph by John Fowler