paulo da costa
By the hand of your great-uncle Zé and great-aunt Fernanda, you and your sister Amari enter the enormous bird enclosure. The cackle begins. The geese do what they do best, warn those inside and those one hundred metres around the farm that intruders have arrived. The sound is deafening. The peacocks join the chorus. You inspect the clay roost lined with straw, where the chickens lay their eggs.
“How many, Koah?”
You shrug, disappointed. There are none to collect.
The daily visits to the farm and to the animals offer you a type of informal schooling that no longer exists in this neighbourhood. You are the last student of this farmland, entering the pens, cages, coops to play with the animals, or running across the fields to inspect the bugs that hide under scattered implements. No other child is seen holding a ladybug on the palm of a hand, or sticking twigs into the mole’s underground tunnels, hoping to stir one out of its hide-and-seek game.
In these five months in Portugal you are becoming fluent in more than another human language to aid you in relating with different cultures. You are also learning to converse with the animals, the trees and the stones. You are listening to those who will soon be killed and eaten, and learning about the violence of the world. This is a place where the pigs hang by their hind legs, splayed at the spine like crimson books in butcher windows. At the end of our road, the suckling ones are a delicacy on a spit. The price of one euro per kilo is offensively low for a life, if there ever was a fair price for death.
Great-uncle Zé walks you around the little cement pond. Ducks race in laps, motored by their orange paddles, pretending it is not another typical day of mayhem. The blend of mud and fowl droppings, its squish, squish, arrests your steps. You stare at your once flashy green runners. Sighing, you carry on. The raft of ducks makes no waves until you arrive at the rectangular wooden bird house on stilts, home to the Pekin bantams. Then the ducks also quack up their own storm. You crawl and disappear inside the deep and narrow hens’ house too short even for your four years. Moments later you hold a tiny bantam egg. Your palm opens and closes, feeling the small frail shell.
The striking white feathers of the pheasant distract us from the ruthless beak that last week killed a Helmeted guinea fowl, and a peacock several times his size. The strong farm arms of your great-uncle Zé lift you to where, balanced and woven against a grapevine, baby pigeons chirp in their nest.
“We leave those babies be, Koah,” Uncle Zé tells you, as your hand stretches out to touch the nest.
Iridescent in the light, the nest shines from the blue-green peacock feathers collected to decorate it. The mother pigeon flies frenetically about the enclosure. Other pigeons fly in and out through the small gaps in the wire ceiling. These are racing pigeon refugees from the neighbour; birds no longer capable of earning their keep in medals or pride. They now seek shelter, easy food and company amid the larger family of winged ones.
This is the same uncle who decades ago invited me and the neighbourhood children for an afternoon of killings in the orchard. Hosts of sparrows had been pecking at the cherries, irritating him and other neighbours also at war with the hungry birds competing for their favourite fruits.
I remember wounded sparrows, wings broken by shots of the pellet gun, flapping sideways on the grass. I remember sparrows missing an eye, frozen in shock, blood trickling down the neck, the soft grey feathers in my hand staining red. I have never stopped remembering.
I stayed at a distance as the other houndlike boys raced after the fired shot and fetched the wounded creatures, who remained very still in the grass, stunned by fright, pain or by the smell of death. The boys collected the quasi-dead sparrows and strung them by the feet, twenty to a twine, a cascade of death that hung from a post as a warning to other winged creatures. Including their ineffective guardian angels.
The neighbourhood boys and your great-uncle Zé proceeded to pluck the feathers from the tiny sparrows after they had been immersed in the stockpots of boiled water. This was the boys’ initiation into a mass killing that apparently had been a pastime in your great-uncle’s childhood. He sang the praises of the delicacy to come as a reward for the hard work of the afternoon soldiers: a well-earned tomato-rice bird stew. I remained a little behind the eager boys, chopping onions. My lips were clenched.
During the extended dinner preparation, great-uncle Zé entertained the boys with tales of ambushes, exotic snake attacks and night guerrilla battles during his time in a West African war, one of the bloodiest Portuguese colonial battles. Within fourteen years, in Guinea-Bissau, ten thousand conscripted soldiers lost their lives, and one hundred thousand Africans lost theirs. Many young Portuguese men fled the country to avoid the draft. Your underage great-uncle Zé was an eager early volunteer, later returning with a ‘love’ tattoo for his regiment on his forearm.
When the dinner call arrived, I did not sit at the long table of twelve. Hearing the tiny bird-bones crunching inside the joyful mouths of the other children served as the conclusion to that story. That was the afternoon I became a non-meat eater in my mind, although it took two more decades before it became daily practice.
The goats bleat; they recognize your voice in the distance. We climb the knoll to the upper fields where they await. In heat, the buck reeks. My eyebrows rise. You do not seem to mind the gallant’s choice of perfume. The goats press their bodies to the double wire fence that cannot prevent their heads from squeezing through. They stretch their tongues to reach for the deep green collard in your hand. After an hour of back and forth snapping collard leaves from the field, you lie down on the grassy ditch next to the fence and converse with the four-legged. I cannot hear what you say. Goats stare and listen, despite the lack of collard in your hands. Once in a while, the large male or the baby bleats.
You are learning about the imprisonments that condition the free movement of beings, and how a prison also conditions the guards, who can never live far from the fences themselves. One day, you will learn that this profession is still called husbandry, a practice rooted in domesticating and controlling the lands and its non-human creatures. And one day, a little or a lot later, you may choose to have a woman companion that convention will call a ‘wife’. Then you may want to question the links, the meanings encooped in these words, in these practices, and also choose not to be husband to a wife. Or a husband to a husband.
While you feed the goats collard leaves, your great-aunt Fernanda arrives with a glimmer in her eye. “Come.” You giggle and follow her; you appreciate surprises. It takes all your might to control the pace of your steps and remain behind your great-aunt. In the kitchen, by the fireplace, sits a shoebox. Ti Fernanda opens it. Piu . . . piu . . . . Your eyes widen to the fluffy chick inside, born just hours ago. The bird cowers and attempts to hide in the corner of the shoebox.
“You can pick her up, Koah,” great-aunt Fernanda encourages.
You are not so sure.
“Where’s the mamma?”
“It doesn’t have a mamma.”
You do not believe her.
A dish, the size of a jar lid, has overturned inside the shoebox, scattering gritty cornmeal feed. The bird burrows under the thin layer of wood shavings cushioning the shoebox.
Your great-aunt cups her hands, lifts the chick up. The bird attempts to jump. A fall on the hard tile could break her toothpick-thin legs. Ti Fernanda passes the bird to your cupped hand. Your index finger runs over the bald and bony head no larger than your thumb, then caresses the yellow fuzz on her wing. A combination of tenderness and awkwardness, since the bird wants to walk out of your hand, and you are unsure how to handle this fragility asserting her own will.
After a time, the fast-pulsing chest suggests a stressed bird. I propose walking outside to see the goats. You stay a moment longer, kneeling by the box, watching, talking to her with the tenderness of a father loving his own offspring.
Another day has passed. I steer you to the goats’ fenced field and avoid walking near the kitchen. Your great-uncle Zé tells me the chick dehydrated, forgotten in front of the heater.
When you ask about the newborn chick, I mumble about it not being in the kitchen any longer. You know it is an excuse, yet you ask nothing more. There is another side to your great-aunt and -uncle that you do not yet see or understand. It is a paradoxical equation of affections. For all the incommensurable love Ti Fernanda and Ti Zé show you, there is also their unconscious side, in neglecting their farm animals. I don’t know why I believe I must wait for another time to explain best the unintended or intended cruelty of those who are close to us. The most difficult affections, you will learn, will be when love and harm intersect. Some of your deepest hurts in memory will likely come from me, since I have already provided you with your first disappointments, anger, and conflicts.
Sometimes those who love us are willing to listen, and even willing to change because of our emotional gravitational pull in their lives. You grandfather Agosto stopped caging birds after a few years of listening to my unhappiness at seeing the birds in captivity. I suggested he could also enjoy them flying about in the sky and yard. He would fall silent and stare at the caged birds. One day I arrived from Canada to find the bird enclosures not only empty, but also dismantled.
“They are never far, anyway,” he told me, pointing out a nest in the tall ornamental cedar beside us. In the ensuing quiet, the chirping of baby melros trickled down. Soon, a mother darted in with a wriggling worm on her beak.
Your grandfather smiled.
On arriving in Portugal, you cringed upon seeing chained dogs barking frantically from their tiny cement doghouses. “Why does Ti Zé tie them up? Why is that second dog barking so madly at me?” After a few weeks you have begun to accept their neurotic condition, and to imitate your great-uncle, who taught you to use an osier twig to strike Bolinhas, eliciting compliance for sitting and rolling on the lawn.
There is a tale of two chained dogs on your great-uncle Zé’s farm. Bolinhas, a recently acquired puppy, lives in a cement doghouse next to the raven’s now empty cage. This Labrador belongs to Ti Zé’s granddaughter, who lives in Brussels. She requested a puppy to play with twice a year on her Christmas and summer visits. Willing to please his granddaughter, Ti Zé unchains Bolinhas to run off-leash in the yard most days and feeds him store-bought dog food and treats, while the twelve-year-old mutt Caima, two chain lengths away on the other side of the link fence, looks on, and sniffs the drifting air. His bones mimic the ribcage of a disintegrating caravel. Never off his chain, Caima watches from the adjacent muddy field. Any time we bring the veggie scraps from grandmother Micas’ house to feed Ti Fernanda’s sheep, we also carry a bowl of left-over soup, chicken bones and day-old cornbread for Caima. He yaps and wags his tail. It is not every day we have leftovers.
You are learning about human incoherence, witnessing that some affections are narrow, selective, leaving the heart blind to others. It is a roulette of fortune. The ball seldom lands twice on the same lucky number. That is why, when the sun shines on us, it is essential to be grateful for privilege and not be blinded by self-absorption. In those moments, it is kind to look around, seeking those who need the warmth and have been confined to the shadows.
Ti Zé and Ti Fernanda are not conscious of the harm they inflict on animals, having been born into farming practices carried out for centuries. The absence of day-to-day moral dissent also permits unchallenged behaviour to flourish. You and I are also at the mercy of our cultural blindness, and it is our obligation to peel away such blinds to make our choices free from obvious social and cultural conditioning. You hold significant emotional influence over those around you, as they are willing to hear and please you. They want your happiness, and will expand that circle of care to others, if you so insist.
I encourage you to speak your worries about the chained dogs to Ti Zé.
Ti Zé does not know what to tell you. It is the way he has lived his life with farm animals. By domination. Punishment. Their servitude. He once shot his dog in anger for biting him when he struck the dog with a hose for having disobeyed a command. It will take another trillion raindrops to change the shape of a stone that believes its present form is all it can be. Patience is the most difficult practice for those who do not have a thousand years to live, those witnessing animals already dying every day from neglect and abuse. Patience is difficult for those of us recognizing another’s pain.
Day after day, following the slowness of the seasons, you have already grown to understand the necessary courage to make this world a better place. Yet, the one who names the injustice while standing among those benefiting from that injustice becomes vulnerable, often triggering redirected wrath.
I look forward to you growing older, even more articulate and assertive, and bringing to light the numerous, varied enclosures in my mind. I hope to be grateful, while dismantling such mental cages, to free the possible dreams still invisible to me. That day will mark the beginning of another journey, one more reciprocal, in the learning exchange between us.
It is our last week in the valley, and you are turning stones on a field, looking for worms, finding snails instead, which you roll on your hand to inspect.
When you attempt to separate a snail from its shell, I explain that the snail will die without it, and since it is attached, it would likely be as painful as tearing your arm from your body. You move your attention on to the glistening black slugs in collard paradise. I harvest sweet-smelling tangerines from a wooden ladder propped against the roof tiles on the herb-drying building.
I have only collected a dozen tangerines in the bag when you arrive.
In your hand you hold a tiny snail. Its broken shell reveals a hole the size of your thumb. Your face tells me that you are upset.
“Will it die?”
“It might. A shell doesn’t grow back. Small and fragile creatures depend on our gentleness.”
You become silent, staring at the snail you have returned to the ground. It is not moving.
I have seen or heard the perishing stories of the animals in this farm. From territorial fowl that should not be sharing crowded enclosures to sheep without their water replenished on scorching days, from infirm ostrich, rabbits, or chickens to an ailing, gaunt mare meeting her last moment, the plethora of agonies are endless.
The animals are ornamental objects Ti Fernanda and Ti Zé dream up for their vision of a farm. The creatures become living toys to entertain grandchildren and other visitors. Your great-aunt and uncle fail to see farm animals as feeling beings who suffer and require the love, attention and care dispensed to you and your sister. Fernanda and Zé’s perennial struggle to remain within the limits of accomplishable farm tasks in a day costs these incarcerated creatures their lives. The animals cannot help themselves and will live or die at the mercy of an unreliable hand.
You do not yet know that it breaks your mother’s heart to walk into this farm, yet she does not let her sadness diminish with your joy in your interaction with the animals. This farm is a playpen for you, but an animal concentration camp for us.
Since childhood Ti Fernanda and Ti Zé have been my favourite aunt and uncle for their generosity, playfulness, spontaneity and good disposition. Despite contradictions and my ethical and moral divergence, they continue to be dear to me as they already are dear to you. It is a tense cliff edge at times. They understand where my values clash with theirs. In our complex web of human and family affections, we hold this reality: a great-aunt and -uncle who can be ignorant of the suffering they cause.
We teach you that this or any other farm’s existence is not a validation, much less an endorsement, of an animal’s natural fate. Month by month, year by year, we will teach you to see beyond the veneer of appearances, and to read between the lines, seeking the missing narratives. Ignorance can carry on for eternities, like sadness and its acceptance. How we treat those vulnerable is an elemental matter to our higher consciousness and will reflect our core being. We will be defined not only by what we choose to create, but also by what we refuse to destroy.
Today is April 25, Revolution Day. The Portuguese celebrate deposing a fascist government that ruled the country for forty years, until 1974, the year Aunt Marina was born. I was nine years old. The image I retain most vividly replays an old woman in black scurrying along the cobblestone road shouting, “The revolution has arrived, the revolution has arrived. Olive oil is going down to cinco tostões a bottle now, five cents. Viva a Revolução!” Olive oil’s price increased every year thereafter. It is two hundred times more expensive today and no longer the cooking staple of the working people. It has been substituted in their kitchens by imported sunflower oil. Not only had the people become free that day, the market had also. The median wage has risen a mere fourteen times since that April day. More importantly, a myriad other essential gains, from education to health, have been achieved, and every citizen is free to complain now, meaning that political imprisonment or torture is no longer permitted.
This holiday afternoon we prepare to visit the cousins from your grandfather’s side of the family in the neighbouring county of Oliveira. Their semi-rural, three-house cluster holds nine people. Their extended clan across three generations of committed hobby-farmers grows most of their vegetables and fruit, animal flesh and herbs.
Every year, our cousins effusively receive you and Amari. In fine Portuguese-hospitality style, a banquet of home-baked sweet cakes and breads awaits us, including vegetarian dips and healthy options for the odd Canadians we are. They believe the non-meat inclination is a generalized Canadian trait, not our fringe family preference.
The cousins immediately take you and Amari to visit the two dozen rabbits they raise in cages. You pet them and their babies. No one tells you the rabbits are food. A dinner plate destiny for these long-eared, fuzzy creatures does not cross your mind. When I look at those rabbits, a deep stomach knot reaches back to my childhood. Every Saturday, I accompanied my father, often with my mother, to your great-grandfather Manuel da Costa’s farm in the village of Vermoim, over the Cambra hills. That is where I met these second cousins weekly, and we played in terraced fields and back woods. Several times a year I watched your grandfather Agosto kill and prepare a rabbit for the Sunday roast the following day, a special lunch to reward the long work week.
On one of those Saturday afternoons, your grandfather selected the plumpest rabbit from the wooden cage and brought the buck dangling from hind legs to the cement washing tank. The water gurgled in a continuous stream, overflowing to a channel that irrigated the cornfields down below. In the past some rabbits had squirmed and sprung, resisting what they must have smelled was their approaching end. Others dangled, resigned, or perhaps frozen in fear. Beneath the hanging pigeon house and the cooing birds, vovô Agosto would hold the rabbit upside-down. A swift hack of his hand to the rabbit’s neck was as good as an axe. The strike aimed to fracture the rabbit’s spine, to instantly kill. Two or three strikes sufficed.
The smack, smack, smack, echoed against the tender splash of water flowing from the black plastic pipe that brought cool water from the spring on the hill, several hundred metres above. The two pigeons stopped their cooing at the first strike of bone on bone.
With unease, I watched the fear in the rabbit’s eyes intensifying after the first strike, its springing legs attempting to hop away from the nightmare, yet finding no ground beneath. Your grandfather struggled to aim the next strike at the neck, now made more difficult by the wildly swinging rabbit in his grasp. He clenched his lips, not enjoying the task.
At the third strike, the rabbit became motionless. Your grandfather tied its hind legs with a cord and dangled the rabbit from the two knobs on the double door. The white, soft belly faced us. A couple of quick slices along the heel revealed muscle, allowing a hold for your grandfather’s fingers to pull off the rabbit’s fur coat in a steady, loud rip. The first tear echoed in the still air of the hot afternoon as the rabbit began to violently swing from the wall. The carpal bone strikes of the hand had only stunned the rabbit to unconsciousness. I screamed. Your grandfather turned pale.
“Stop. He is alive.”
“They’re only muscle spasms,” your grandfather tried to assuage me.
Blanch-faced, he continued ripping the fur to end everyone’s agony sooner. The rabbit stopped jerking after a few seconds, succumbing to the pain of being skinned alive, having woken up from one horror to experience another far worse.
You cradle your cousin’s rabbit against your chest. It kicks, wanting to hop away. The jostle frightens you. You move on to visiting the chickens and stomp in their fenced yard, attempting to catch one, cautioned not to step on their droppings. A car zooms past on the nearby road and the song that symbolizes the revolution, played today on every radio and TV, drifts away with it. “Grândola Vila Morena” always makes me think of your other great-aunt Fernanda, imprisoned and tortured while in the resistance movement, and whose mental health, after release, was never the same. I had planned for you to finally meet her on this trip, while showing you Coimbra, the city of my university years; however, she died days before we landed, having choked on her breakfast, alone in the bedroom of her old age home.
We leave the chicken coop and stroll in the vegetable garden. Your Bustelo cousins tenderly lift you off the ground to reveal the three wild nests of melros and serin finches concealed among the dense foliage of their pear and apple trees. They leave them be.
After indulging in the afternoon feast disguised as a humble snack, we all stroll along a fallow field. A ladybug lands on your chest, a butterfly on your shoulder. You hold the ladybug on your open palm until it flies away. We soon say goodbye to our relatives, carrying home armfuls of arugula, lettuce, watercress, collards, cabbage, fresh lemon balm for tea, dill and oregano herbs. This green bounty will feed us for days.
On our return home from Bustelo, you want to squeeze in a visit to the goats and the sheep. Hoping to drop leftovers to Caima, you are disappointed when grandmother Micas says there are none today. The sun slides down the horizon, assailed by the cutting wind from the north. We are at the end of another Revolution Day. My mention of returning to the apartment, a three-hundred-metre walk from Ti Fernanda’s farm, prompts a sudden wave of tiredness, and you cannot drag one foot in front of the other.
I attempt to motivate you.
“Tomorrow is the start of your last week in school, Koah.”
“Paulo, school is boring. We sit most of the day.”
I understand. For the first time in your life you are experiencing entrapment. It is apartment life, in winter, at the busiest intersection of this small city; it is the lack of lushly treed parks; but mostly it is the confinement to four walls in school, for five weekdays. All of this is a new way of living after playing in the spacious green spaces, forests and shores of Victoria. You want to escape walls as a bird wants to escape a cage.
You have not been conditioned to stillness, hypnotized by screens, or inured to confined living spaces. You want your day to continue in your grandparents’ yard or your great-aunt’s farm across the lane. Domestication is a word you have yet to learn, although you smell its approach. That is also why you do not sleep under a blanket. Even in your sleep, the lightest bed sheet covering you is kicked away. You want no pressure, no weight upon your dreams.
We stroll down to where the lane joins the larger road leading to our apartment. At the corner, in the house with many pets, the effusive parrot greets you, “Olá”. You match his high-pitched screech with a returning “Olá”. You stop, lean over the spiked railing to talk, and admire the bird scratching his grey, feathery torso with his unchained leg. He walks sideways in frenetic steps along the stick-perch, excited to see you, pleased with your attention.
We finally begin moving again and are within sight of the apartment when we hear the cry of a bird in the sky. The insistent and long song accompanies the last droplets of light.
“Spring must be near, Koah.”
That is when you begin singing:
A seagull flew, flew
wings of wind,
heart of the sea.
Like her, we are free,
we are free to fly
My heart stops. You sing it freely and lightly. Acquainting you with the sounds of Portuguese while in the womb every night, I sang you this verse. I am surprised and unsure how you have memorized the words. You do not know the political context of this song, yet. I sang you revolutionary freedom songs from ’74 to welcome you into the world. What you do not yet know is that the people of Portugal borrowed the images of free animals, such as the gull in our ocean-kissed country, to inspire them to attain their own freedom. Now that the Portuguese people are freer than they were in my childhood, it is time to extend the favour to others who are not free: the animals still incarcerated in our midst.
Nearing the apartment, on our last week in the valley, you slow down our progress by first walking backwards, then testing your balancing skills and walking on the long, thin wall of another apartment complex. You pretend to be an acrobat probing your limits. Then without warning, you jump down from the wall like the kid you are.
“We have to free the goats, papá. Once we are gone to Canada, they need to be able to get the collards on their own.”
“You are right, Koah. I’ll let Ti Zé know.”
“Please don’t forget.” You say it with your most serious face.
“I will certainly not.”
You carry on along the wall, hopping up and down, until you stop and turn to me, full of conviction.
“And the chickens too need to be freed,” you conclude, adding a determined nod.
It is another April, four decades after carnations plugged the barrels of machine guns, and the revolution is yet to arrive at the enclosures of those animals we have used as inspiration for action in art and song. We are the jail keepers and dictators we believed we had freed ourselves from. Perhaps the April revolution will mature alongside you and your sister, as you run through the sandy Furadouro beach and dive into the Atlantic, seeking the perfect surf. The wave will curl up, almost shy, just before unravelling its power. It will propel you far and wide. Then the seagulls, flying freely above the sailing boats, will join you, singing their song.