Once upon a time there was a little girl who lived in a stone house. One day her uncle called her to help him in the garden.
Uncle: Teresa, take this letter to the bank for me.
Uncle: Come on. Don’t be difficult.
Teresa: I thought you wanted my help in the garden.
Uncle: My disability check came in the mail today.
Teresa: You’ve gotten mud on it.
Uncle: That won’t matter.
Teresa: You know, uncle, I’m busy today, and you like walking to the bank yourself.
Uncle: Not anymore.
Teresa: What happened?
Uncle: Bank manager.
Teresa: You go back right now. Today. If you don’t, that manager will own you.
Uncle: I have an aversion to that kind of man.
Teresa: What if I develop aversions to doing everything for you? Huh?
Uncle: You are just a kid; you don’t have aversions. You can take some money and buy a cake afterward.
Teresa: I won’t be bribed with cake!
Uncle: I don’t get any thanks for raising you for my brother, do I?
Teresa: That is called guilt. You can try to control me with it, but I know what it is so it won’t work.
Uncle: Teenage girls are the worst; come help me with these lettuces.
Teresa: I don’t like lettuce! You pick the lettuce yourself!
Teresa said this with a smile on her face and she happily set to work harvesting lettuce with her uncle.
Uncle: Haha, that’s my good girl.
After a while working in silence, her uncle paused and stood up.
Uncle: You know, I was wrong to use guilt to control you earlier. We adults don’t know what we are doing most of the time and we just say the same stuff we learned as kids. Problems are inherited. The sins of the fathers.
Teresa: That’s OK uncle. I know you like to blame other people for your problems.
Uncle: Haha. Did you know that Teresa isn’t your real name?
Uncle: I don’t know what your real name is; I heard it once, but then I just immediately called you Teresa instead. Started with a T.
Teresa: Well, but, I mean, Uncle? Why would you do that?
Uncle: It started with a T.
Teresa: And now I’ll never know! Who would know my real name?
Uncle: I suspect there are a few people who know it; we just have to ask.
Teresa: Who? Which people? You don’t know anyone other than three strangers at the pub and the bank–although, apparently, your bank friends haven’t been playing nice.
Uncle: The people who built this house will know your real name.
Teresa: Who built this house? You said it was built by the Romans.
Uncle: That was an exaggeration. It is old and cleverly designed with impressive stones and aerodynamics, but the people weren’t Roman.
Teresa: Yeah, their name started with an R so you called them Romans.
Uncle: Yes, like that. When I came here with my brother, he told me and I called the house an old Roman house.
Teresa: Uncle, you–
Teresa was exasperated and frustrated, but she immediately gave up because she knew that anger was useless.
Teresa: That’s OK, uncle. I know you’ve done your best.
Uncle: You say that with such conviction–like a curse.
Teresa (spitting the words): You did your best!
They laughed and worked together in silence for a moment.
Uncle: Years ago, this whole area was supposed to be villas with large gardens like ours. But, financial interests came in and persuade differently: why give everyone a garden when you can build a god-awful apartment building 20 stories up? Imagine how much money you can make if you sell the same land 20 times instead of once?
Teresa: Is that why this part of Mem Martins is so ugly.
Uncle: One of the reasons, yes.
Teresa: What are some other reasons?
Uncle: Bank managers. Lisbon. The weather in Sintra.
Teresa: I love the Sintra weather. We wouldn’t have the ancient forest without the weather!
Uncle: That forest isn’t ancient; it was planted recently. The whole mountain was deforested in the nineteenth century; it has been replanted recently.
Her uncle paused in his work and looked out over his garden wall at the buildings in the distance.
Uncle: Mem Martins, where frustrated humans forage for subsistence in the underbelly of Capitalism: the service industry. Or is the underbelly retail? I’m not sure which is worse, but Mem Martins is where these people come home after work to lick their wounds, grow old, and…
Uncle: I was going to say “watch TV.” You’d better go to the bank now so you can be back for lunch.
Teresa: Only if I can buy a cake on the way home.
Uncle: Don’t spoil your lunch.
Teresa: With my metabolism, I don’t need to worry.
Uncle: Yes, but youthful habits stay with you as your body changes and that’s the danger.
Teresa: You stop drinking beers and I’ll stop eating cakes, uncle.
Uncle: God help us with teenage girls…
Teresa (spitting): I’m doing my best!
Teresa turned and walked away. She went inside the house and took down her favorite hat, inspected it, and put it on her head. She took her bag and a jacket. It was a sunny day so the walk would be pleasant, but one never knows. She left the house, said bye to the fish in the pool, walked through the wheat patch with an outstretched hand to let the wheat touch her palm.
Uncle: Shut the gate behind you!
Teresa: I did! See you in an hour!
Teresa walked lost in thought for a while until someone honked at her, which awoke her and made her a little self conscious. She couldn’t understand why the guy had honked but she did understand the hand gesture.
Teresa: Which cake shop should I visit on my return home?
The walk to the bank brought her past three cake shops which she could use to buy her reward for helping her uncle.
Teresa: A bribe.
Teresa shook her head. She was thirteen and knew a few of the things that money could buy.
Teresa: I like that my uncle actually thinks I buy cakes with the money he give me. If only he knew the truth and saw my savings. How much will I have this week? 5 euros saved. That’s good. Let’s see.
Teresa did the math in her head.
Teresa: Five euros a week for a year: that is five multiplied by fifty-two. That comes to two hundred and sixty. Multiply that by five years and what do we have? Let’s see. Five times two is ten; and, five times six is thirty, so we can, let’s see, that is one thousand and three hundred euros. Not bad for being just a kid. I hope I can see his face when I announce I’m going to live and study in Lisbon.
Teresa laughed to herself.
Teresa: Where is the bank? I thought it was up this road, but I don’t see it yet.
As she paused for thought, she looked through a gate at the garden of a house.
Teresa: Why is this grass so green and… hot?
Teresa could feel the heat radiating off the grass in the garden: it was too green and too hot. Then, she realized what it was:
Teresa: Oh, the grass is plastic!
The lawn was covered in plastic grass. At the edges, where most gardeners placed flower beds, this garden had piles of white rock with plastic flowers sticking out every couple of feet. The flowers had faded in the sunlight but were still sickly red, blue, yellow, and orange. At the corner of the garden near the house, a plastic tree stood leading a little to the left.
Teresa: There isn’t a living thing in this garden! What is the point? Yuck! Wait, I can see one flower just there.
Teresa saw that between the strips of plastic grass, a small slit of dirt had opened and there was a single wild lettuce rooted and flowering bright yellow in the sunlight.
Teresa: One poor wild lettuce. I suppose the home owner will spray that with poison soon. What a horror. And there is nothing I can do about it because it is not my land. I suppose I should think this is normal.
Teresa: THIS IS NOT NORMAL!
Teresa said aloud and walked up the street to find the bank. There, at the corner of the block was the bank. The entered the bank and asked a bear of a man who was last in line.
Teresa: Excuse me, are you last in line?
Bear: Yes, I am.
Teresa stood behind him and contented herself with her own thoughts as a mouse of a woman came to stand behind her. After a moment, Teresa heard a buzz thump buzz thump and looked up at the bank window. There was a bee bounding off the glass as it tried to escape the bank lobby.
Teresa: Oh, that poor bee!
Bear: What is it?
Mouse: A bee! There’s a bee!
Bear: Leave it alone and it won’t hurt you.
Mouse: I’m allergic: if it stings me, I might die.
Bear: I can kill it with this newspaper if you want.
Mouse: Yes, please!
Teresa quickly stepped up to the window, took off her had, and cupped her hat over the bee against the window.
Bank manager: What is the matter here? Who is saying ‘eek’?
Mouse: A bee. I’m allergic. If that bee stings me, I might die.
Manager: Where is the bee?
Mouse: The girl has it in her hat. Please kill it!
Manager: I have bug spray for this scenario. Have no fear, lady!
Bear: I can kill it with the sports section.
Manager: No need to worry. I have this under control. I’ll be right back with the spray.”
Manager: You stand still. Don’t move for a moment.
Teresa stood still until the manager was out of sight and then, with her free hand, she pulled her uncle’s letter out of her pocket and flipped the page open. The check was printed on a full A4 sized page, so she flipped her hand back and forth a few times until the letter opened completely.
Mouse: Stop! What are you doing! Wait! The manager said hold still!
Teresa slipped the letter between her hat and the glass. She carefully lifted her hat and the paper off the glass. The bee was safe inside her hat!
Teresa: There, now I’ll just step outside with this little bee.
Mouse: You’ll lose your place in line.
Bear: I don’t know about that.
Teresa shouldered open the bank door and walked out into the sunlight. She lifted the letter off the hat and held the hat out a ways from her face, but at an angle so she could look inside. The bee climbed onto the brim of the hat and did a little dance like a figure eight as it oriented itself to the sun and the earth’s magnetic field. Then, the bee flew up into the air in a North-by-northwest direction out of sight above the houses.
As Teresa watched the bee disappear, a wind rushed up the street and her uncle’s check flew out of her hand.
Teresa: Oh, no!
The wind carried the letter up and up into the sky twice as high as the bank building. The letter somersaulted twice and then began an erratic descent to the earth. The letter sailed slowly down and off to one side.
Teresa: That letter will land in someone’s garden!
She ran after the letter and kept it in sight until it disappeared two blocks down the street behind an abandoned house.
Teresa: I hope it isn’t in the water or on a roof!
The house was an abandoned house that had been built in the 1940s; there was a placard on the face of the house stamped with the date. The house was two stories but without roof or windows. A stone wall surrounded the front yard and appeared to circle around to the back of the house. Teresa climbed up and over the stone wall. She dropped down into the yard.
Teresa: Oh, no! I can’t pass through this bramble!
The front yard was completely overgrown with a blackberry bramble. Teresa climbed back up the wall and walked along the wall to the back of the house.
Teresa: There! I see the letter in that apple tree!
The letter was high up in an apple tree in the middle of the back yard.
Teresa: Oh, what a lovely garden!
The back yard was not an overgrown bramble; it was a well-kept kitchen garden with an apple tree in the middle of the yard. As she walked further down the wall looking for a spot to jump down, she saw a break in the wall and a gate. Before she jumped down, she looked at the house again: a boy stood in the doorway.
Boy: What are you doing here?
Teresa: I’m looking for that letter.
Teresa pointed at the letter in the apple tree.
Boy: How did it get there?
Teresa: The wind.
The boy looked skeptical.
Teresa: I was at the bank and the wind caught the letter and brought it here.
Boy: Oh, I see.
Teresa: I thought this was an abandoned house.
Boy: No, I live here; my father and I renovated it.
Teresa: Why is the front yard abandoned?
Boy: To discourage trespassers like yourself.
Teresa: Well, but…
Boy: It is okay.
Teresa: I just want that letter.
Boy: I can help you.
The boy removed a handkerchief from his neck and placed in on a table just inside the door.
Teresa: Are you eating lunch?
Teresa: I’ve never seen a young person like you eating with a handkerchief.
Boy: That’s unfortunate; I find them terribly comfortable.
Teresa: I see.
Teresa stood on the wall for a moment and looked around not sure what to do next.
Boy: I’m Rene.
The boy extended his hand and walked towards Teresa.
Teresa: I’m Teresa. Nice to meet you.
Teresa jumped down and walked to meet Rene. They shook hands.
Rene: A pleasure to meet you.
Teresa: Yes, nice to meet you.
There was a moment of silence.
Teresa: You are not Portuguese.
Teresa could hear a baa from inside the house.
Teresa: Is that a sheep?
Rene: a goat. I have three goats: two adults and a baby. Here they come.
Three goats came out into the garden.
Rene: They want to eat the cabbages; see how they look at me and then at the cabbages.
Teresa: I’ve never seen goats with horns like these.
Rene walked towards the goats and the goats retreated into the kitchen.
Rene: They are Greek goats. An ancient breed. Almost extinct but some of us are saving them.
Teresa: Do you think I can climb your apple tree for the letter?
Rene: This apple tree is old and weak. Apple wood is soft which makes it great for grafting, shaping, and training over an arbor, but because it is soft it is susceptible to rot. This tree has a hollow place up the whole trunk; if I climb this tree, I will break a tree limb or one of my own limbs.”
Teresa laughed but regretted it immediately.
Teresa: I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to laugh. I was laughing at something else I was thinking about.
Rene: I do not have a ladder.
Teresa: What can we do?
Rene: Up the road some canes grow. They grow as tall as this tree. I’ll go cut one and bring it here. We should be able to knock the page free.
Teresa: That is a good idea.
Rene: Every task has a tool, my father would say.
Teresa: Does he live here, too?
Rene: No, he lives in the ocean.
Seeing this answer didn’t satisfy Teresa, Rene offered more information.
Rene: He owns an island on the ocean and has a house there, but right now he is in a rain forest conducting a scientific experiment. I will see him in two months and seven days.”
Teresa: You live alone?
Rene: No, I live with the goats.
Teresa laughed again but regretted it again.
Teresa: Do you go to school? I haven’t seen you.
Rene: I take a yearly test; I teach myself.
Teresa: You don’t go to school?
Rene: Yes, that is right.
Teresa: Isn’t that illegal?
Rene: I don’t know. I’ll ask my father about it when I see him.
Teresa: In two months and seven days.
Teresa: If you don’t mind, I’ll wait here to watch the letter. If the wind returns, I don’t want the letter to fly away again.
Rene took a pocket watch out of his pocket and looked at the time.
Rene: I assume I will need 8 minutes to retrieve the cane and return.
Teresa: Okay, haha.
Teresa laughed again; Rene was a very serious boy and his analysis of the time it would take to complete a task made her laugh.
Rene: What is it?
Teresa: Nothing; I’ve never timed myself doing tasks like you do.
Rene: My life might depend on it.
Teresa laughed again.
Teresa: There is no danger here. Unless a roof tile falls and hits you on the head or a goat charges you.
Rene: Oh, I see. I’ve been working on this.
Here Rene adopted a casual tone and slouched his body like an adolescent.
Rene: Hey, I’ll be back in a couple minutes.
This made Teresa laugh even more.
Teresa: I’m sorry.
Rene didn’t say anything more; his face was a little red as he walked past the apple tree and to the back of the garden where he opened the gate and disappeared.
Teresa stepped to the house and looked inside.
Teresa: I feel I shouldn’t look inside, but I’m curious.
She saw that she was looking at a large open kitchen with a fireplace at one wall. There were three doors connected to this central room. In the middle of the kitchen, the three goats stood watching her: two adults and a baby.
Teresa: Aren’t you so cute!
Two of the doors were open and Teresa could see a bathroom with a toilet and a tub and a workroom with a table and what appeared to be a half-finished chemistry experiment.
Teresa: The other room must be a bedroom.
The goat said Baa so loudly that Teresa jumped and she decided to step back outside and wait for Rene in the sunlight. She walked around the apple tree to inspect Rene’s kitchen garden. He grew kale, carrots, cabbage, and a lot of the vegetables her uncle grew–although Rene’s garden was not so large as her uncle’s.
After a moment, she saw a cane flower bobbing along the garden wall. The gate opened and Rene entered holding a cane that was three times his height.
Rene: Seven minutes and thirty seconds, and I didn’t run.
Teresa: Seven minutes for what?
Rene: The time; I timed myself.
Rene brandished an antique pocket watch which he then closed and put in his pocket.
Teresa: That cane looks tall enough.
Rene approached the apple tree and gently poked the letter with the cane flower and the letter dislodged from the tree and fell to the ground. Teresa picked up and inspected the letter. There was a little scratch on the page, some moss, and a damp spot where some water had soaked, but the letter was intact and readable. She folded the letter and put it into her pocket.
Teresa: Thank you so much! My uncle will be so pleased when I tell him.
Rene: It was my pleasure, but don’t tell your uncle about me.
Rene bowed as he said this, but Teresa stopped herself from laughing just in time.
Teresa: May I go out that way?
Rene: Yes, there is a path to the street.
Teresa: What do the goats eat when they can’t eat cabbage?
Rene: We walk in the hills.
Teresa: Well, thanks again, Rene.
It was time for lunch when she arrived at the bank. There was no line. Teresa deposited the check without any difficulty. She took some money with her and walked home. On the way, she passed a cake shop and remembered that she was supposed to bribe herself. She entered the shop and looked at each cake one at a time. She decided that the pastel nata looked the most fresh and she bought two. She walked back to the abandoned house, entered the back gate, approached the house, and called out.
Rene didn’t come when she called, so she approached the house and called again. Hearing no one inside, she placed one of the pastel natas on the kitchen table, adjusted it such that, hopefully, it communicated Thank You, and left the garden.
Teresa walked home, entered her own garden, said Hi to the fish in the pool, and put her uncle’s money on his desk in the library.