The following is an excerpt from Susana Moreira Marques's Now and at the Hour of our Death, a nonfiction work that resulted from Moreira Marques's trip with a palliative care team to Trás-os-Montes, a forgotten corner of northern Portugal, a rural area abandoned by the young. While there, she visits villages where rural ways of life are disappearing. Her book presents stories from families facing death in their own words and through Moreira Marques's own meditations. One of those meditations, about a couple named João and Maria, follows below.
He pulls down his light, well-ironed shirt over his urine bag. He flicks his hat up, uncovering his eyes. He smiles. Finishes the card game. Wins. Smiles. He gets up and pays for the bottle of water. Says see you tomorrow. Smiles. He leaves the café. With his slim legs and slight swagger, he has the grace of vast landscapes. He pushes open the small gate that leads to his front yard, climbs the step to the porch and sits on a bench facing west, like in an old cowboy movie, the evening sun falling across his face. He smiles.
The woman walks out of the house, slowly, her legs swollen. She has tended to her garden and left everything ready in the kitchen so she can start cooking dinner later. She adjusts her headband on her graying hair and sits beside her husband. She doesn’t lean back, but instead rests her hands on her knees, as if poised to get up again at any moment.
They greet the passers-by. They wait. Usually, nothing special happens. They wait. Together, they watch the sun set. The next day will be like this one, which has been just like the previous one.
Nearly every time I visited Santulhão, I’d found Senhor João and Senhora Maria sitting on their front porch. Except for the first time, when they’d been in their house. A folder containing the paperwork for the farm they had once owned in Angola lay on the kitchen table, beside boxes of medicines, as if placed there by chance. Inside was a document that read: “Angola, Huíla province, 1965, João Manuel Fernandes, 35 years old, Originally from Santulhão, Farmer by trade, is hereby certified, having paid 300 escudos for this license, Hoque, Municipality or District of Lubango.” And from that moment on, in my mind Santulhão became linked to Angola.
I returned time and again to Santulhão. I was intrigued by Senhor João, a man who had clearly been a hypochondriac his whole life and who now had a very real and serious illness, cancer, but who smiled as he spoke melodramatically of how he suffered, of how little time he believed he had left. Every time I went back there, I wanted to ask Senhor João if he was afraid of dying. I wanted to ask him what it was like to be eighty years old, what it was like to reach the end of your life: if he had any regrets, if it had all been worthwhile, and, if so, what exactly had been worthwhile? But instead I always ended up asking him about Angola, about how they had made it from there, Santulhão, in the Municipality of Vimioso, in Trás-os-Montes, to Hoque, Lubango, in the Huíla Province, how had they readjusted, and what place did those particular memories occupy in their minds?
They were rusty when it came to talking about their memories and about themselves. Like many from Trás-os-Montes, Senhor João and Senhora Maria would sometimes use third-person verb tenses when speaking in the first person. Instead of “I have done” they would say “I has done,” which gave the impression their lives could have been lived by someone else. Their story may not have been unique, but it was long. It would have to be reassembled with some perseverance, with a willingness to merge certain decades into others and with particular attention to sowing and to harvesting, to rain and to drought. Their story, to be honest, was never complete. Last time I visited, we spoke for so long that I ended up watching the sun set with them. I didn’t know what so many hours of recorded material might be worth, but I thought of how my own grandfather always said that history is written by the rich, and I wanted to give Senhor João and Senhora Maria a right to theirs. And anyway, what sense does it make at the age of eighty to speak of death without speaking of everything you have lived? It would be like visiting your hometown without setting foot in your house.
It was clear, and did not have to be discussed at length, that their greatest fear was not death—that was for the young—but being left alone. Beyond that, it terrified them that they might lose their senses, and with them their memories, and with their memories the story of their lives. They don’t want—Senhor João repeats, still smiling—to die in poor health. Because you could end up spending years lying in a bed or, if you’re unlucky, in a bed in a home, or worse still, in a hospital bed, hooked up to machines and to tubes. Was it just their impression, or did people use to be healthier when they died?
When I visited them in August, illness was not their only company. The porch was no longer still, with children and grandchildren constantly coming in and out of the house. Their eldest son, who has since spent time in Angola trying to reclaim his parents’ farm, and the emigrant son, who lives in France and who, that year, was a mordomo–one of the organizers of the August festival–were both in Santulhão. Their granddaughters, skinny little things from the city in skin-tight clothes, would get up late, wander to the kitchen and pick at the food left in their grandmother’s pots and pans, their eyes feverish with both the doubts and the certainties of their futures. The grandchildren, more grown-up and more nostalgic by the year, wanted to talk about their childhood: about how they ran through fields, falling into ponds, then laughing into the night so they could stay awake and stretch out those long Trás-os-Montes summers.
In the house that belonged to their daughter-in-law, the wife of their eldest son, there was a large yard that had once been a corral. There, they barbecued Mirandesa steak and lean cuts, and the table was very long so everyone, family and friends, could fit around it. Senhor João and Senhora Maria ate calmly and spoke little. No one asked them much, but this didn’t seem to bother them. On the contrary, they enjoyed listening to the loud muddled voices and observing the youthfulness that surrounded them, the spectacle of the different generations. At dinner they talked about the festival and about money, of which there was less and less for performances that were increasingly sophisticated; they talked about emigration: France, Angola, Brazil, the United States, Canada. After the meal, Senhor João and Senhora Maria did not go see the band play since the music would only begin after midnight, which was too late for them. Later, though only the faintest of sounds reached the porch, they could still feel the night’s euphoria in their chests.
One time, after visiting Santulhão and hearing Senhor João talk about the dreams he’d had in which he returned to Angola, to farming and to hunting, I also dreamt of Angola. I went back there with my father and brother, we walked along a beach, and in my dream I was aware we were only visiting; we would soon leave. When I woke up the next morning, I couldn’t stop thinking of the trip I’d taken to Luanda, years earlier, without my family. The cemetery, perched above the city, had impressed me. As I read the names on the tombstones a mother’s voice cried out in the background, and I thought of how lucky we were that no one in our family had stayed behind, that none of us were buried there. “Mommy has to leave you now, my love. Mommy has to go.” And as two men dragged the woman out of the cemetery, carrying her out in their arms, I finally understood how tragic it is to leave the dead behind, to leave them alone.
Now that their children have started traveling back to Angola, to try to reclaim the farm that was once theirs, in the south of the country, I wonder if Senhor João and Senhora Maria ever think of the possibility of their children moving so very far away, and then of their grandchildren leaving too; of how, after they die, the younger generations might never visit Santulhão again. The cemetery, which is just there, you can see it from their porch, to the left of the house and in front of the café—will it become a place exclusively for the dead?
It doesn’t make Senhor João and Senhora Maria unhappy to spend their old age in the place they were born, and yet they can’t but help feel that they’ve lost part of their identity to history and that there is more defeat in life than there ever will be in death.
Senhor João crosses his long, tanned hands over his belly, his urine bag pushed to one side, and turns to face the sun, the west, looking out into the distance. Senhora Maria looks out at her vegetable garden in their front yard, at the road, at her husband.
As they sit on the porch, at the end of the day, Senhor João and Senhora Maria see what the younger generations do not: bygone landscapes. In their eyes, the sun slowly bruising through long months of unbearable heat, there is still time to hope everything ends there, on that purple horizon.
Now and at the Hour of our Death will be published in the United States on October 22 by And Other Stories.