It made Antone nervous to be in his home waters again. His dread, his version of Saudade, that wistful, painful, Portuguese nostalgia. Antone was forty-two when a whaler brought him back to Pico. Breathing the same air, watching serried clouds and mid-ocean waves break against its terraced peak, dredged up painful memories. Wild Hydrangea dotting the hillsides, smelling sulfur rising out of crusted volcanic vents, these took him further into his past than he ever wanted to go.
Antone’s physique had developed over his years at sea. Short and stocky he grew compact and hard in command of his emotions. He hides his feelings. Keeps to himself. Crew-mates know to leave him alone. He does his job. Will help a mate in need; but he has no patience for the common pleasantries that lubricate a crew’s time at sea.
He’s ready to let things go, but any outright challenge brings on rage. Lashing out at a crewmate who’s crossed him, laying him out flat on his back, nursing a broken nose, missing teeth, or worse. No one tries a second time.
The Bark Harmony sails a course across the wind under reduced canvas: fore, main tops’ls, and spanker, jogging into the set of the current to hold position below the island’s towering cliffs. The mate is edgy, A wind shift’ll put us against a lee shore in a heartbeat!
The captain’s boat is lowered away. Antone is lead oar on the mate’s boat, Is none of my concern…. He stands aloof. The captain, clutching a soft leather satchel under his arm, bursts from under the quarter deck shelter, stepping from deep shadow into strong sunlight pouring through a hole in ragged clouds, screwing his cap on his head. Antone fingers the rigging-lines along the starboard rail. They collide, knocking the breath out of each other, “Antone! Watch it man!”
“Sir.” Antone averts his eyes. The captain goes on around the mainmast to the port rail where his boat lies tethered below. Antone turns away. Angry at his own reaction. The captain’s footfalls return. Heading to his day-cabin, he stops. Spins on his heel. Comes back around the mast. Taking a worn black oilskin from under his arm, “Antone, You are from this island are you not?” He struggles, shifting his satchel from hand to hand, “Well? Are you?”
Antone turns to face his captain. Shoulders hunched. Hands clenched, “Sir.”
“Come with me!” The captain turns on his heel, trailing his coat behind, stabbing a fist into its stubborn folds, seeking the arm hole. Antone freezes. His ruddy, tan face blanches. Eyes blank. He follows his captain over the rail with a slap of his bare feet against the deck.
“Tammy there! Give Antone your oar. Report to the mate on deck!” Antone gathers the young Irishman in a tight embrace as they pass, standing tall on crowded thwarts. Their physiques are incompatible. Antone grabs the spindly lad by the shoulders, gripping him to his chest. The young man goes limp. A swooning maiden accepting Antone’s lead. They circle.
Young Beebo slaps at Tammy’s heel, teasing his friend for getting left behind. Hits Antone’s leg instead. His laughter dies in his throat. Rushing to apologize, “Sorry, Antone. Di’nt see y’a the’ah.” He concentrates on holding his oar as straight as he can. Focusing with all his might, Don’t bump the hull, towering alongside their tipsy boat.
Antone heads aft. Passes Tammy’s thwart to take his customary seat at the stroke oar, facing the captain. He’s busy ordering a knot of men peering down at them from the ship’s rail. The captain squints up at their dark forms carved from a bright patch of sky.
Antone holds his oar vertical along with the rest, shutting himself off behind his duty. A small brass-bound case is lowered from above. Stowed at his feet. The captain calls out, “Cast Off!” Only then noticing Antone, “Good….”
They accelerate away across a broad swell’s back. Long oars draw them around in a wide arc. A few hundred yards from the ship they enter a heavy squall of rain. Fat, warm drops soak them in an instant. The ship sits bathed in bright sunlight over the captain’s shoulder.
Closing the shore, breakers boom against the cliffs, smothering outlying rocks. Only the captain at the tiller can see what is ahead. His face betrays his concern. Oarsmen know to read their officer’s countenance for signs of what lies ahead, behind them. He fingers the tiller, tapping, shifting in his seat, peering.
The whaleboat must thread a narrow unmarked passage between exposed rocks alternately awash and laid bare by the surf. A cobbled ramp descends into rough water. They must turn sharply at a small cleft. A handful of islanders stand to either side. Eager to haul the boat clear. If there’s any delay the powerful surge will dash the boat to pieces.
The Captain is accustomed to stalking within inches of giant, menacing flukes twenty feet across. He appears out of his element. Leaning forward, speaking in a low voice, “Antone, which side of that rock?”
Antone shifts at his oar to look. Twenty years since I here last. My home village up that path. I watch boats land here since before I can walk.
We’re out of position. Not too bad. We go this way? Trouble. The surge suck us in, capsize boat.
Basta! Enough! We end it here on this rock. We die here!
A nervous cough from a crew-mate breaks through his funk. Concern clouds the captain’s face. A gull cries, swooping, carving brilliant air.
Gesturing to starboard, “Go to pointy rock.” He scribes an arc with his outstretched arm, “Turn hard. Line up ramp.” Nodding, pointing ahead, gesturing to the right. “Wait two waves. Stay away from rocks. Wait for lull. Is five here, no three.” Meeting his captain’s eye. “Watch for bounce.” Gesturing to show the rebound, “Bigger than wave that go in!” He lowers his eyes. Waits for the order to stroke.
At the sharp turn for the cleft a reflected wave sends a curling crest waist-high, striking the whaleboat broadside, dousing them in a sheet of clear, cold green water. Antone doesn’t register it. Their keel bounces once and scrapes on shingle. They stow oars with practiced alacrity, jumping out on either side to help the islanders haul the boat clear before the next wave rolls in. Ashore the sound of the wind and waves turns sharp and metallic, echoing off glistening rock walls on either side. Unaccustomed to solid ground after months at sea they all tilt and sway as they walk. Reeling on this crag of rock as if it were bobbing over the deep instead of firmly rooted in the foundations of the Earth.
Antone stands by, waiting the order to pull the boat the rest of the way up the ramp. There’s a sharp bend before they reach a flat pavement where the islander’s canoas are kept between whale hunts. A line is hitched to the tow-ring low on the stem. Islanders place greased timbers across the boat’s path. With a shout four men put their backs into turning pikes on a capstan. The crew half trot up the steep ramp, fighting for footing on slippery stones, spinning the boat with its own momentum to bring it to rest between two brightly painted canoas.
The captain, satchel in hand, tells two of his men to gather his strong-box and, “Follow me!”
Antone stands to the side. His hand on the rail of the proximate canoa. The ship telescoped into proximity by a framing cleft in the rock. The captain pauses, “Thank ye for the bearings. Haven’t been here in over ten years!”
“Yes, captain. For me is twenty.” Antone swallows hard, regretting having said anything, turning his back on the path up the hill where a knot of islanders has gathered.
“You don’t look anxious to get reacquainted.” “You in trouble here?” Gesturing conspiratorially over his shoulder.
“No, Captain. Is nothing.”
“Suit yourself.” The captain sighs. Goes on in a commanding voice directed at the group at large, “I’ll be four hours! You men may go into the village; but I want you back by sunset. If I’m much delayed I’ll send Jackson with word. Don’t keep me waiting!” He eyes each man in turn but Antone. Rests his stare on Corvo, his Cape Verdean harpooner. Over six feet tall. Dark olive brown. Lithe.
Corvo returns the captain’s stare with a confident smile, flirting with open disrespect before slowly lowering his golden eyes, turning a theatrical gaze up the trail.
“All right! Jackson, Perry! Let’s go!” The captain and his helpers start up the hill balancing his heavy case. Hung from an oar. Jackson, taller, holds its loom waist height. Perry carries the blade on his shoulder. They struggle to keep the load balanced on the steep trail. Stagger cater-corner. It swings between them. The crew snigger.
A customs official appears with his assistant in tow. Both dressed fine in white shirts, black vests. A bright red sash cuts across his chest and pinches at his belly, waving papers. The captain presses onward. They gesticulate in his wake. They round the crest of the hill, disappearing from view.
One of Corvo’s cronies makes a crack. Antone can’t tell what was said. The little group laughs. Corvo loudest, a rich self-satisfied baritone. He slaps his mate on the shoulder. Smiles broadly. Leans back and starts to amble up the hill. The rest line up behind.
Antone doesn’t move. Young Beebo, lags. Turns to ask, “You commin’?”
Antone’s pained expression scares him on his way.
A handful of the islanders linger. Huddled together by the stone boat-house beyond the farthest canoa, talking animatedly among themselves, taking turns looking over at Antone and looking away.
I know who they are.
For the first time since he left the island Antone hears his full name spoken out loud, “Antonio! Antonio Carlos Teixeira da Guerra!” The old man’s voice echoes off the rocks, a challenge. He marches towards Antone, circling the stern of the first canoa. His round belly too large to squeeze between the building’s brilliant ultramarine doors and the whaleboat’s carmine pink rails. Antone spins around. In the time it takes the other to arrive by his side he prepares himself, “Sou eu, Tio. It’s me, uncle.”
They embrace. The scrape of his uncle’s whiskers against his ear, the tang of hair oil, charootos and stale vinho on his breath transport him back twenty years. A seventeen year old boy again. Tears well up, flowing silently down his cheeks to mix with those of his uncle.
The intervening years collapse away. Anger, and beneath it despair, flashes through him and subsides. The rest of the group surround the two. Relations and old neighbors slap them on their backs. A cheer goes up.
His uncle takes him by the hand. Antone follows. The others form into a procession. Out of the corner of his eye Antone half-recognizes a face or a voice. At the rear a young man asks an older companion, “Quem é? Who’s that?”
Antone catches scraps of an answer, “Zé da Guerra’s boy. The one who… His mother…”
They crest the hill and turn towards the Taverna on one end of a small, cobble stoned square.
They pour through swinging saloon-doors into a cool, dark space. A wan wash of light shines in a little window swallowed in a deep recess in the thick stone wall. Glare clouds dirty rippled-glass. The sharp, sweet smell of spilled wine pierces his nostrils, flooding him with memories. A cloud of tobacco smoke obscures the low slung beams of the loja’s ceiling.
Five four and he can reach up and touch the rough floorboards of the room above.
A handful of old men sit on a low swaybacked bench outside. They stand and stretch to follow the group inside. Questions make another round, “Entao, que passa? O qui é tudo isto, ah? Quem é? Ah? Quem é? Quem voltou? What’s up? What’s all this? Who’s that? Eh? Who is it? Who came back?” Questions asked in bright anticipation of entertaining answers.
Someone chimes in. Kernels of explanation crisscross the room. Old people squint, trying to remember. Youngsters gape, trying to make sense of fractured details from stories told of times before they were born. Inside of five minutes the whole village knows something is up; but in what garbled form is anybody’s guess.
Pushed ahead Antone and his uncle press against the bar’s cool, stone counter. He hasn’t said anything since they met. He only grunts and grimaces in reply to all the pats on the back. Hard for him to tell who is who. Family resemblances and the passing years confuse him, Can’t be him! Is that José’s son? His nephew! Looks just like him! So long ago…
He expected ghosts not flesh and blood people. For him island life froze when he left. Fixated on what he imagined to be a series of catastrophes left in his wake. To most of these people his troubles are simply, História Antigá. Old News.
The tavern-keeper arrays short, shiny jelly-jar glasses along the bar. Assisted by, a young boy in too short trousers and a frayed collar-less shirt; they began pouring, preparing for an onslaught, as soon as they heard voices coming up the path. They pour sparkling, bright red wine from a height out of a line of damp casks propped on saw-horses along the back wall. Filled to the brim. Turning large, carved wooden spigots only when each glass threatens to overflow. Everyone expects it. A sign of generosity from a landlord. The glass may be small, the bottom thick; but at least it’s full. No one can argue with that!
They work fast, swinging around to set each one down with a smack! Surface tension holds the bright liquid bulging. Bubbles dance around their rims: Jewels pulling light from out of the dark room. Liquid rubies sparkling in a dark, dank grotto.
Antone’s uncle calls for silence, arms outstretched. He says simply, “Saúde!” Everyone within reach of a glass raises it, repeating his toast back to him, “Saúde!” Downing it in three or four gulps, slamming it down empty on the bar.
The tavern-keeper collects empties by the handful. A finger in each to slosh them in a basin of ruddy water. To stand on a wet towel stained pink. Left to drain for just a moment before refilling them again. He snaps at the boy, “Chama A senhora! Get my wife! Não posso fazer tudo sozinho! I can’t do all this alone!”
The boy ducks out from under the bar. His stained apron draped over his shoulder. He rushes out the door.