Here is the first chapter of a story that I wrote in 2019:
Once upon a time there was a little girl who lived in a stone house. This stone house wasn’t one of those cold, dark houses from the middle ages, nor was it a new modern house with mildew and weird windows; no, this house was much older and all the better for it.
The little girl’s uncle told her that the Romans themselves had built the thing which couldn’t have been true, but there were some especially large stones and an attention to beauty and, the uncle said, aerodynamics. The little girl wasn’t sure about this last word or the way her uncle pronounced the word. Anyway, the house was beautiful and surrounded by a large garden with a deep pool, a ring of tall cypress trees, and a stone wall. There was even a small patch of wheat that her uncle grew for his bread and to feed to the chickens. It was surprising how much food her uncle could grow in such a small space.
Everyone called the little girl Teresa, but that was not her real name. Unfortunately, she didn’t know her real name until much later, but her real name is what this story is about.
Teresa lived on the outskirts of Lisbon in, well, a ghetto called Mem Martins, near a mountain called Sintra, upon which grew an ancient forest. Some people will be offended by the word ghetto, but that is what the place had become in Teresa’s day. And another group of people will object to the term Ancient Forest because the forest had been decimated in the nineteenth century but regrown in more recent times. Oh, well.
Teresa’s house was one of the oldest in the area and had once been surrounded by similarly beautiful houses, but they had been torn down one-by-one and god-awful apartment buildings built in their place where frustrated humans foraged 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 was where these people came home after work to lick their wounds.
One day Teresa’s uncle asked her to take his disability check to the bank. He had spent a good deal of time in a war in the African colonies and had returned to Portugal with a limp, a beard, and a difficult personality for which the government compensated him each month. On especially difficult days Teresa thought the government should compensate her for his personality, too, but she was too young to figure out how to work the system. She just smiled and waited quietly to take an opportunity in her own favor, which was soon in coming.
Her uncle didn’t leave the house often, but contented himself to work in the garden. His few trips outside were to a local pub and to the bank. A recent incident with a bank manager, which he would not explain to Teresa, resulted in her uncle contenting himself with half as many social interactions: he would visit the local pub and nothing more. So it was Teresa’s job to take his check to the bank for him.
The bank was across Mem Martins so Teresa would have to walk a few kilometers. She took down her favorite hat, inspected it, and put it on her head. She took her bag and a light jacket. It was a sunny day so the walk would be pleasant. 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, and shut the garden gate behind her. She 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 didn’t like the attention or the hand gesture. Yes, this was a ghetto.
She passed three cake shops which she marked mentally as possible places to stop on her return home as a reward for helping her uncle. She was thirteen after all and knew a few of the things that money could buy and, if her uncle didn’t want her to eating cakes with his money, why did he put her in the way of temptation? Teresa laughed to herself as she imagined this conversation.
Where was the bank? She was certain it was up this road, but perhaps she had taken the wrong turn. The roads ran parallel in this part of town, so it wasn’t a problem if she was a block away, but Teresa became a little annoyed that she couldn’t walk straight to the bank without pausing to consider which road to take.
As she paused for thought, she looked through a gate at the garden of a house. There was something strange about the place. It was too green and too hot; Teresa could feel the heat radiating off the grass. Then, she realized what it was: the garden was plastic.
The lawn was covered in plastic grass. At the edges, where most gardeners placed flowers, shrubs, and bushes in beds, this lawn had piles of white rock. Out of these piles of rock plastic flowers stuck. 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 saw that between the plastic grass and the rocks, a break in the plastic had opened and a single wild lettuce plant had rooted into the dirt below the plastic and had shot up a single, real, yellow flower, which stood out as the only living thing in the whole garden.
Teresa turned away with a shake of her head. The lawn was one of those quiet horrors that one must live with and can do nothing about because, as they say, good fences make good neighbors. One watches one’s neighbors hurt the land, hurt animals, and hurt themselves, but what can one do? One has to go to the bank, etc.
Teresa walked further up the street. Ah, there it was: the bank stood at the corner. Teresa entered the bank and asked a bear of a man if he was the last in line. He said that he was and she stood behind him and contented herself with her own thoughts until she heard a buzz thump buzz thump and looked up at the window. A bee was bouncing off the glass. The bee threw itself against the window again and again trying to escape the bank lobby.
“Eek!” said a voice behind Teresa. It was an old woman with a nose like a mouse. The woman pointed at the bee and said Eek again and shook her finger dramatically.
“A bee! There’s a bee!”
“Leave it alone and it won’t hurt you,” suggested another woman.
“I’m allergic: if it stings me, I might die.”
“I’ll kill it,” said the bear of a man who rolled up a newspaper he had been reading.
Teresa had never been stung by a bee and didn’t know if she would die from the sting or not, but the little bee obviously wanted to visit flowers in the sunlight, which Teresa could understand, so she suggested the following:
“Wait!” she said.
“Please, kill it,” said the woman.
The bear of a man stepped forward with his newspaper.
“Wait,” said Teresa and she pulled off her hat and caught the bee in the cavity of the hat against the window.
“What’s the matter here? Who is saying ‘eek’?” asked an authoritative voice; it was the bank manager.
“A bee. I’m allergic. If that bee stings me, I might die,” said the woman.
“Where’s the bee?” demanded the manager.
“The girl had it in her hat. Please kill it!”
“I have just the thing: we keep bug spray for this scenario. Have no fear, lady,” said the manager heroically.
“I could just hit it with the sports section,” suggested the bear of a man.
“No, please, no: I have it all under control: I’ll be right back with the spray can.” The bank manager looked at Teresa and said, “You stand still. Don’t move.”
Teresa did stand still for a moment but she heard the little bee buzz in the hat and she knew she needed to act quickly. With her free hand she pulled her uncle’s check 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 page was completely open.
“Stop! What are you doing! Wait,” cried the little mouse.
Teresa slipped the page between her hat and the window glass. She carefully lifted her hat and the paper off the glass. The bee was safe inside her hat!
“There,” said Teresa, “Now, I’ll just step outside.”
“You’ll lose your place in line,” said the mouse woman.
Teresa shouldered open the bank door and walked out into the sunlight. She lifted the page 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 out of the hat and then 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 and flew 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. The wind carried the page up and up into the sky twice as high as the bank building. The page somersaulted twice and then began an erratic descent to the earth. The page sailed slowly down and off to one side so Teresa knew it would land in someone’s garden, but she would have to follow the page with her eyes or the paper would be lost. Teresa ran keeping the paper in sight. Two blocks away, the page made a sudden dip behind an abandoned house. Teresa hoped it had landed in a back garden where she could reach it. Hopefully it wasn’t in a pool of water.
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. At this point, the house was a stone facade of walls with open holes where the windows had been. The garden was surrounded by a stone wall, which Teresa climbed up and over. She dropped down into the yard but immediately saw her problem: the yard was overgrown with blackberry bushes that reached up as high as her head and higher in places. She climbed back up the wall and walked along the wall to the back of the house.
There, she saw the paper. It was in an apple tree high up above the ground. Teresa saw that the back garden was not overgrown with brambles like the front of the house. She could see that there was a well-tended kitchen garden and some close-cut grass on this side of the house.
“What are you doing here,” said a voice.
Teresa turned and saw a boy standing in the doorway of the house. Something about his face reminded Teresa of a bird of prey. She looked past him and saw that the inside of the house behind him looked like a normal house: it had a roof and windows and she could see furniture inside. He was standing in a kitchen doorway.
“I thought this was an abandoned house,” she said.
“The other side is abandoned. I renovated this half. This is my house and garden. What are you doing here?”
“I’m getting that letter,” she pointed at her uncle’s check high up in the apple tree.
“How did it get there?”
“The wind; I was at the bank and the wind blew it here.”
“I see,” said the boy and he removed a handkerchief that was hanging from his shirt collar (he had been eating lunch when Teresa entered his garden). He put the handkerchief on the kitchen table next to a plate of food and stepped out of the house and approached Teresa.
“Is that a handkerchief?” Teresa asked.
“I’ve never seen anyone eat with one in their shirt like that.”
“Hi, I’m Rene,” he said and extended his hand.
“Oh,” said Teresa and she jumped off the wall, dusted herself off and extended her hand. “I’m Teresa.”
“Nice to meet you.”
“A pleasure, I’m sure,” said Teresa.
There was a moment of silence.
“You are not Portuguese,” Teresa said.
“No,” said Rene.
“Baa!” said a voice from inside the house.
“This is one of my goats,” said Rene.
“You have goats!”
“Yes, three goats.”
“I’ve never seen goats with horns like these.”
“These are Greek goats with twisted horns.”
“Do you think I could climb that tree?”
“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 the tree, maybe even break one of my limbs.”
Teresa laughed but regretted doing it.
“I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to laugh. I was laughing at something else I was thinking about.”
“I don’t have a ladder, either.”
“What can we do?”
“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.”
“That’s a good idea.”
“Every task has a tool, my father would say.”
“Does he live here, too?”
“No, he lives in the ocean.”
Seeing this answer didn’t satisfy Teresa, Rene offered more information:
“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.”
“You live alone?”
“I live with the goats.”
“Don’t you go to school?”
“I take a yearly test; I teach myself.”
“You don’t go to school?”
“No, but don’t tell anyone that my father is not here. It is illegal.”
“If you don’t mind, I’ll wait here and watch the paper. If the wind comes back, I don’t want it to fly away again.”
“I assume I will need 8 minutes to retrieve the cane and return.”
“Okay,” Teresa laughed; Rene was a very serious boy and his analysis of the time it would take to complete a task made her laugh.
“What is it?”
“Nothing; I’ve never timed myself doing tasks like you do.”
“My life might depend on it.”
Teresa laughed again.
“There is no danger here,” said Teresa looking around at the abandoned house, “unless a roof tile falls and hits you on the head, or a goat attacks you.”
“Oh, I see,” said Rene and he tried to relax and adopt what he thought was a casual and populist tone. “Hey,” he said, “I’ll be back in a couple minutes.”
This made Teresa laugh even more.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
Rene didn’t say anything more but his face was a little red as he walked past the apple tree and to the back of the garden. Teresa could see that there was a gate in the back wall.
Teresa stepped into the house and looked around–just for a minute. She felt like she shouldn’t but Rene had left the door open and had not specifically said not to look, and Teresa was curious about this weird boy. She found three doors connected to the kitchen. In the kitchen the three goats stood watching her: two adults and a baby. At the end of the kitchen there was a bathroom with a toilet and a tub. There was another doorway leading to the rest of the house. Teresa stepped to this doorway and looked through. She saw the door led to two other rooms: a bedroom and another with a desk. The desk was covered in books and what appeared to be a chemistry experiment.
“Ba!” said a goat. The goat said this so loudly Teresa jumped a little 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 like 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.
“Seven minutes and thirty seconds,” said Rene, “and I didn’t run.”
Rene brandished an antique pocket watch which he then closed and put in his pocket.
“That cane looks tall enough,” said Teresa.
Rene approached the apple tree and gently poked the paper with the cane flower and the page dislodged from the tree and fell to the ground. Teresa picked up and inspected the page. There was a little scratch on the page, some moss, and a damp spot where some water had soaked, but the check was intact, readable, and safe. She folded the page and put it into her pocket.
“Thank you so much!” she said, “My uncle will be so pleased when I tell him.”
“It was my pleasure,” said Rene.
“May I go out that way?”
“Yes, there is a path to the street.”
“Well, thanks again, Rene,” said Teresa and she left through the garden gate.
It was close to lunch time when she arrived at the bank so 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 due for a cake. 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 and entered the garden through the path to the street. At the gate, she softly called out, “Rene?”
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 counter, adjusted it such that, hopefully, it communicated Thank You, and left the garden. She 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.