Fragrant Stillness

Because of things not even remembered
we are here
listening to the water

W. S. Merwin

Portugal is a popular holiday destination for people living in Europe. The cobbled, historic cities of Lisbon and Porto, the adrenaline-soaked surf destinations of Peniche and Nazaré, the idyllic beaches of the Algarve, the fresh sardines and pastel de nata, the relatively affordable prices and friendly locals, the Mediterranean climate. There is a lot to love. But I don’t hear people talking about the interior parts of the country nearly as much as the coast. I might be wrong about this, but it seems that the land-locked regions of Portugal are less well-known as holiday destinations.

A couple of years ago, my partner at the time (now a good friend), Ella, convinced me to join her on a trip to Pesos Fundeiros. Neither of us knew anything about this quiet speck on the map of Europe, but Ella had met an expat woman and her husband who were looking for a couple of young volunteers to help out on their small farm in this tiny village. We’d spent a chaotic summer in Berlin, caught up in the violent thrills of strobe and techno, grunge and graffiti. We decided to take a break from the churning city and reconnect with the elemental aspects of life we had begun to desperately crave.

After several flights and long bus rides, we arrived on the small farm in a region of Portugal known as the Leiria District. The farm was connected to the dusty, almost deserted hamlet of Pesos Fundeiros, which seemed to have a population of not more than twenty. No shops. No petrol station. Certainly no bank. One tiny white chapel in the woods. A village rooted in the red earth and nestled amongst green hills of pine forest below a vast, smoke-blue sky. The residents were—aside from our expat hosts—old Portuguese farming families who lived off their own meagre farm produce. But most of the stone houses seemed abandoned.

Our hosts, June and Gary, were a couple in their 50s who had quit their jobs to pursue their dream of living off the grid. Their kids were grown up and living far away in Wales, and they needed help maintaining their little piece of land during the sweltering summer months.

 June was a petite woman with fiercely caring blue eyes and a strong Scottish accent. Gary was a greying, softly spoken, giant of a man, with the biggest, thickest hands I’ve ever seen and gentle eyes beneath bushy grey eyebrows.

On the day we arrived we were introduced to the animals: an Alsatian named Bobbie, a black Labrador named Cindy, a small pink piglet named Shelly, and an enormous black pig named Mama (who had massive sagging cheeks and hairy black folds of fat on her forehead that almost engulfed her mahogany eyes). There were also about fifteen neurotic chickens.

We were then shown the little caravan which was to be our temporary home. It was covered with colourful murals (purple fish swimming in a sea of sunflowers)—painted by June herself—and parked under the shade of a large orange tree. It was a small caravan, but fully kitted out with a little kitchen, bathroom and a small double bed. June and Gary lived in the old stone farmhouse that was dark and cool inside, protecting them from the punishing summer heat, when most days crackled between 35 and 45 degrees Celsius.

In the time we lived there, we’d often be awoken in the night by the blunt thud of a ripe orange dropping onto the roof of the caravan, abruptly silencing the huge din of the crickets. We’d lie there in the dark listening as their reprise—tentative at first, then swelling again into a disjointed crescendo—carried us back into dreams.

Sometimes it was the dreams themselves that woke us. We both quit smoking on the day we arrived in Portugal, and the withdrawal, almost physically painful in the first week, uncoiled itself into a lingering anxiety and regular night terrors. I always had the same nightmare: I was trying to play guitar, getting tangled in the strings, the strings becoming snakes, the snakes biting me. I’d jolt from sleep, sweat soaked and gasping, clawing the air in fear.

When we couldn’t fall back to sleep, we’d read until the first grey notes of predawn light touched the faux-pine panels on the caravan wall above the bed. We’d brought a stack of books with us from Berlin. It was here that I discovered the deadpan brilliance of Ben Lerner. His novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, helped me to understand my addiction to smoking. The protagonist, Adam, ruminates on his own complex relationship to smoking, noting how “the cigarette or spliff was an indispensable technology, a substitute for speech in social situations, a way to occupy the hands and mouth when alone, a deep breathing technique that rendered exhalation material, a way to measure and/or pass the time”.

The property was demarcated by little home-made fences into various gardens containing a cornucopia of fresh produce: tomatoes, green beans, kale, red cabbage, yellow peppers, purple eggplants and cucumbers – all in fertile profusion and covered in a fine, soft dust. There was also a scattering of orange, apple and olive trees, and the bright green tangle of grape vines that covered the walls, fences and veranda. Beyond the rusty back fence of the little farm a valley dipped out of view. Rising up on the other side of the valley was a dense pine forest that covered the rolling, grey-green hills off into a distant blanket of cloud that lay between earth and sky. Dotted sporadically through the forest were the peeping terracotta roofs of secluded cottages. The fragrant scent of pine needles was always present. Down the hill from the farm, a pristine lake glittered quietly.

We had had a savagely unhealthy past few months in Berlin and we’d been longing for a change in lifestyle. So here in Pesos Fundeiros we untangled our techno-battered bodies and cleansed ourselves: besides cigarettes (and all party condiments) we also gave up meat and cut down our screen time drastically. We feasted on the fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as eggs laid by the chickens.

June and Gary assigned us a fairly breezy work schedule. We fed the pigs and chickens twice a day, watered the vegetable gardens, and one day we made a mosaic for the back steps of the farmhouse from some broken tiles we found in a shed. The mosaic ended up, rather embarrassingly, looking like a kaleidoscope of vomit, but June said it was wonderful—bless her heart. But most of our work time was spent waging a silent and futile war against the weeds: an unrelenting force of choking green tendrils that seemed to ooze from the pores of the earth like acne. We’d spend all morning pulling them up, but by the next day, reinforcements would have arrived.

By midday the heat would be almost unbearable for us soft Western millennials, but it didn’t stop old Gary from solemnly (almost somnolently) plodding on with his own work such as mending fences or fixing the rusty Jeep, the sun exploding on his shimmering back. June was a professional gargoyle sculptor by trade (and there were plenty of these eerie effigies leering at us from all over the farm), but she wasn’t afraid to get stuck into the heavier farm work. I once saw her standing on top of a ladder, pruning the upper branches of a tall tree at noon on an oppressively hot day. Watching her from the shade of the veranda, it looked like she was shaking her glinting hedge-clippers at the sun.

By 1pm the temperature would march past 35 degrees, and Ella and I would down our tools and make our sweaty, sun-roasted retreat to the veranda until early evening when it would begin to cool. Then we’d take the dogs for a walk down to the lake.

In our spare time, Ella painted and I wrote. Sometimes we explored the surrounding area on rickety old mountain bikes. And still the cravings would come, our palms growing clammy, our stomachs twisting with anxiety. I kept turning to Lerner, who said that, “more important than the easily satisfiable addiction, what the little cylinder provided me was a prefabricated motivation and transition, a way to approach or depart from a group of people or a topic, enter or exit a room, conjoin or punctuate a sentence. The hardest part of quitting would be the loss of narrative function; it would be like removing telephones or newspapers from the movies of Hollywood’s golden age; there would be no possible link between scenes, no way to circulate information or close distance”. And that’s why being in this deserted region was such a good place to quit smoking. We had no social pressures. No temptations. But there was still the cold claw of addiction.

One afternoon, about three weeks into our stay, we were reading on the veranda, our bodies drenched in green shade punctured by glowing stamps of sunlight through the grapevines overhead. Shadows shifted and lengthened as the day leaned into dusk. I put my book down and started biting my nails. I was feeling antsy, agitated, anxious. How could I feel this way in the fragrant stillness of these silent, sun-struck hills? It was like living in a grey bubble that dulled the senses, inflected the sunshine with sadness. An orange plonked onto the roof of the caravan and bobbled off the edge. I stood up to go and feed the pigs and chickens and pick some vegetables for dinner. Ella drew snowflakes in pencil around the margins of War & Peace. She had dirt under her fingernails from working in the garden. I felt a drop of sweat break free from my left arm pit and slide down my flank, felt my shoulders throbbing with sunburn, felt a grey shudder of withdrawal ripple through me. Several flies buzzed in spasmodic loops. I walked off towards the pig pen.

I could hear Mama and Shelly’s guttural grunts and snorts in eager anticipation of dinner, the sweet pungency of their sty like a halo beyond its perimeter. The sky was a vault of blue slowly fading into lighter hues. I swatted furiously (and inaccurately) at a persistent fly and decided to walk the dogs. Bobbie and Cindy seemed to be thinking along the same lines. They looked at me with twitching eye-brows and eager whines, their heads cocked to one side and then the other, their eyes imploring me. After feeding the animals, I asked Ella if she wanted to join us, but she was still absorbed in Tolstoy, snowy 19th Century Russia in her eyes, her dark blonde hair tied into a plait that rested on her delicate collarbone.

I dragged open the heavy rusted gate and the dogs streaked past me onto one of only two roads in Pesos Fundeiros. I walked along, passing the mostly deserted houses, dusty and cobwebbed stone buildings crumbling to ruin in the setting sun. Dead plants, bone-dry on balconies, lay draped like skeletons from cracked clay pots. Windows were nailed shut with rotting planks. Where had all the people gone? Had the younger generations been pulled away by the allure of the big cities? Or had they been shoved away by mega factory farming conglomerates? Or had the increasingly volatile climate scared them off? (A year after we left, the area was ravaged by horrendous wildfires). The dogs dashed back and forth excitedly, stopping occasionally to cock a leg or sniff the over-grown hedges and wild grass that lined the pot-holed road, their expressions switching continuously between absorbed concentration and care-free delight. I picked up a fallen pine cone and started a game of fetch with Bobbie. Why was I still feeling anxious? When would this lingering withdrawal leave me alone? Or was it not withdrawal? Was I simply incapable of feeling peace? What was wrong with me?

I saw an ancient man with sparse white hair and a leathery face deeply rutted by the plow of time. He sat on a plastic chair in front of his house, tenderly biting into a green apple, a slight dribble on his chin. My shadow stretched jaggedly across his weed-infested lawn. The windows of his cottage reflected the molten sky. “Boa tarde,” I said to the old man as I passed. He looked up, squinting into the sunset behind me and swallowed his mouthful. His face crumpled into a smile. “Boa tarde,” he croaked.

Soon we left the village behind and entered the dark and sombre congregation of tall trees: pine, cork and weeping willow, parted by the winding road that snaked through the forest and down to the lake. The fading light graded into a deeper gloom as the last slither of sun sank behind us and the glow of its embers was lost in the thick forest. The pine cone grew increasingly chewed-up and slimy with Bobbie’s saliva as the game wore on.

At the parking lot overlooking the lake, I was surprised to see a car: an old-ish red Fiat with tinted windows, covered in dust. The car was empty, but I heard laughter from down by the lake. Maybe some kids had come back for a rare weekend to visit the last remaining relatives in Pesos Fundeiros. Then I noticed a still-burning, half-smoked cigarette on the ground, a faint ring of red lipstick around the filter. It was the first cigarette I’d seen in nearly a month. I thought of the subtle rush, the nicotine buzz in the blood. I hesitated, thought about picking up the butt and smoking it, felt its magnetic, tantalizing pull. I looked up and saw the moon step backwards into a cloud. The lake was shrouded in darkness.

I felt like I was standing on a fine, invisible line stretching down towards the lake, across the sleeping hills of pine forest, out towards the distant Atlantic and off into the world, curving around the blue-green planet, gathering speed and returning like an accusing arrow towards my heart. Yes, I was probably being melodramatic, but I felt if I crossed that line for the vile remnant of a cigarette, then how would I ever stop myself from falling headlong into the death grip of the other substances I’d been tangled up with since my adolescence? I’d been flirting with addiction on several fronts for years. I suddenly saw the frantic, pallid faces of various amphetamine compounds beckoning me closer. I took a step forward . . . and then crushed the butt under my shoe. Radiant waves of relief. Then the feeling of something shifting inside me, some small yet crucial victory.

I turned around and started back up the dark road to the farm. The air was still and velvety with dew. I felt a strange sort of giddy, triumphant graveness. All I could hear was the high ringing of crickets in the woods and the dogs’ nails clicking on the road. Bobbie and I had abandoned our game of fetch. Most of the village seemed empty, boarded up. But the house belonging to the old man I’d passed earlier had a cosy light shining through the kitchen window. I saw a pair of old, buckled hands holding open a newspaper at the kitchen table, a lonely blue teapot on the stove.

Arriving back at the farm, I heaved open the rusty old gate and the dogs bounded off to their water bowls. I made my way around the farmhouse and stopped a little way off from the caravan. The door was open and a cone of warm light, awhirl with moths, shone out into the darkness. I realised that I’d been so locked up in myself, unable to feel any peace. Now the fragrant stillness of this place seemed more tranquil, more healing than ever. I heard Ella singing, preparing dinner. How lucky was I to have this beautiful, courageous person to share the journey with? I stepped towards the light.

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