A narrow yellow bridge shines across the hills. The road is in perfect condition, perhaps too well kept. I haven’t seen other cars for a while. A few kilometres behind the hills there is a discreet crossing, and from there a winding and steep road leads down the valley to a small village.
In the summer, sometimes fires blaze on the hills, surrounding the village. In the winter, it is cold, sometimes it snows, sometimes it doesn’t, but the ice builds invisible traps on the road making travelling outside difficult.
The village has only a couple of streets and there are no shops or services to be seen. The one café there has recently closed. Only eight of the houses are inhabited all year round. The rest belong mainly to emigrants who come back to their birthplace once a year, usually in the summer.
I’m here to speak with the youngest couple living in the village: they are around 60 years old. The husband is a strong and tall man. He looks confident, yet timid. He uses words sparely and doesn’t say much about how he became unemployed before retirement age. The wife is a small woman and fragile but wears a smile on her face and is immediately warm. She has cancer and is recovering from an operation. We sit at the dining table talking in circles, chatting around what isn’t said: loneliness, fear, death. What is said: the practical problems of being sick and living far away from hospitals, the pain and the physical limitations of her daily life, the longing for her lost routine, the hope for getting stronger, the love of the children who live in the city and come for visits, the kindness of strangers who have helped her. They drive me in their tractor to their small plot of land, where they tend their vegetables and fruit trees every day. There, we watch the sun setting behind the hill and we drive back lowering our heads to avoid the shadowy tree branches in the magical hour. The night will be longer here, I think.
I was following a home palliative care team caring for people at the end of their lives in villages in the northern interior of Portugal, perhaps the most remote region of the country. As I travelled and recorded the deaths – and the lives, since one cannot be done without the other – of people there, I was aware of how much everything around me alerted me to forgetfulness. It wasn’t only the cherries falling from the trees, or the eagles circling above the roads looking for their prey, or the stream of the river Douro, ceaselessly running. I was witnessing the end of a way of life and a way of perceiving the world that is dying with these people, not only in Trás-os-Montes but also all over the deserted interior of a country that has changed very rapidly from a rural society to a mainly urban one, in very few decades.
In that village, particularly, I felt like it could all disappear without a trace, that a from-dust-to-dust process would soon happen and it would be as if it had never existed.
Now, after having written about it in Now and at the Hour of Our Death, I remember it as a place of beauty, albeit painful beauty. I remember the isolation of its inhabitants, but also the way they seemed to come together, baking bread or meat in the village’s communal oven.
This choice of verb, ‘remember’: its repetition is intentional. I want to keep remembering, even if a little distanced, a little distorted, tainted or romanticized. In my book, I described this one village as a Pompeii that has suffered no such natural disaster, the sentence implying the action or lack of action by people, but I have come to think since, that it was not the best description, because Pompeii stands as a memory of itself and has become almost a symbol for memory itself. We like to look at monuments and think that something lasts beyond the span of its time, yet monuments are almost always exclusive to extraordinary moments or lives. Common life is unimportant. That’s how it should be. That’s the best we’ve got.
Since writing my book, I have gone back to Trás-os-Montes for brief visits. One of the joys of being a non-fiction writer is being able to meet again, and in the flesh, my characters.
Some of the people featured in the book have since passed away. Some relatives were still grieving intensely. Others had remade their lives. A widow and widower had met each other, fallen in love, remarried. The children I had seen, a precious sight in the region, were growing fast.
For some reason I did not return to the village in the valley. Later, I heard that the husband had died, suddenly, death always finding a way of making itself unpredictable and uncontrollable, and that the wife had survived. I often think of visiting again, writing some more. In that village, very far from Pompeii, words had seemed like the only thing I could really put my hands to. They still do.