The Work of Irene Fialho

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The House

This is not the story of a home, although there was a house there. This is the story of a site that once was and will be inside of me forever, the place where I go to when I am too lonely, when I need self-assurance, when I can not sleep.

The village was so small it could not be even called a village: it was a “lugar”, a simple place; its streets had no name: they were mentioned by the important things they included: the “eira”, barn floor where the corn was dried; the “lavadouro” where women went to wash the family clothes. The house was at the “cabeceiro”, a small hill that crowned the place, the only important thing there was an old female oak tree, and people sat under it during afternoons.

In that house lives the memory of a small girl, brown-blonde hair, sitting in a bench too high for her legs, trying to reach the table to eat in an old green china dish, with an aluminium spoon, a delicious soup of red beans and cabbage.

The little girl had arrived there in an old black “Ford” and she had been sick the entire trip, trying to catch her straw hat by its pink ribbon. She did not know by then, but she would spend at that “lugar” the happiest days of her life.

The house was a typical northern Portuguese house. Built in dark granite stone, covered with red terracotta tiles, the wooden windows were green, and they were framed by white “cal” paint. It was surrounded by a yard, covered with “American” grape lattice. It was a new world for the city girl and her straw hat.

She had to discover it, to go in the big drawing room, with its old fashioned furniture, the divan, the cupboard, the table with a flower-vase-fruitier and envelopes, letter paper, fountain pens. She had to smell the smell of the small rooms, iron beds, pictures of saints, a strange smell of candles and lavender. She had to listen to the tic-tac of the big wall clock, to sit in the bamboo chairs of the dinning room. She had to found in the larder old books could sit next to potatoes and onions. She had to sit by the fire in the tiny kitchen; she had to listen to rain falling in the wooden veranda. She did not know why, but that place was her place.

In the yard, she found the luxurious scent of American grapes, the heather, rosemary and fern that covered the old stone slabs of the patio. She kept asking about the holes in the walls: this one was for the chickens, that one for the dogs, there lived the cat. Alice, Alice, dreaming in wonderland. And the oven, the wine-presser room, the alembic room, all were there; what was there? The “lojas”, cows and horses barns, then transformed into store rooms and their big wooden boxes, full of corn, full of beans, and salted hams hanging from the ceiling.

A brand new world, so full of magic, could not be perfect without a green gate, secret entrance to a secret garden. There the fruit trees, the olive trees, the violets and wild strawberries surrounding the pool told her confidences of the of the wind blowing in the woods, and advised her to follow the sound of the stream down in the valley. So she did, and she followed all the mountain voices for 14 years.

That was a house of women. There lived an old lady, dressed in black, hairdressing every day her long white tress by a small mirror, and there lived during summer her daughter and her daughter’s daughter. The small girl was not a family member, but she called the middle woman “Ma Lina”. Everyday those women did all the women jobs: they backed bread, they fed the beasts, and they pulled their needles over linen that was washed with lots of clear spring water. They would go to the fountain, climbing the mountain, with their water-pots in their heads, just because water was purer there. There they met other women, for gossip and laughter. They would walk two miles to work at the vegetable garden, outside the “lugar”, to sow and to water seeds, to take huge yellow pumpkins or water melons, to watch the sunset at the hills. They would walk to the watermill on the valley just because flour was thicker. They had time, and used it with joy.

What would a city girl do there, besides learning women’s secrets? When she was too young, she made her dolls dresses, from the linen left aside by grown ups. Then she began reading aloud for them all the stories she loved in her books. When that became annoying, she would catch her note book and glue long cut pictures there, or just write about the happiness of being happy there and starting to know she was happy.

She once wrote:

Nature has lost her balance right there. Suddenly, in the middle of the hill, the pine trees disappeared and gave place to a land ribbon. In the middle of it grows a tree, the only one of its species that lives here. She is alone in that ribbon, and seems to be the last one on Earth. In this place it is difficult to imagine the end of Earth: when you close your eyes the hens and cocks, the ravens, the children, the wind, persist telling you Earth is alive. I like rainy days, when sky cries and water sings. I like rainy days when the grey chroma key of the sky brings trees and houses to three dimensional views. After the rain, the pinewoods floor is clean and smelly. Heather and furze open their purple and yellow flowers. In my city, when rain falls, we smell dust, but here the smell comes from Earth and plants. — September, 12, 1981

She was no old enough for adventure. The teen would secretly get off the house and get to the forest all alone. She would hug trees there, feeling their warm embrace, their blood flowing in their veins. She would smell resin and leaves. She would lie under fern, completely covered by its green lace blankets. The stream was calling, the girl found a place there she could only compare to Switzerland calendars. She bathed, alone, naked, in the cold water. She picked up all the berries and ate them with delight. She climbed rocks when thunderstorms arrived, to watch lightning fall in the other side of the hill. She was free, and wild, and she did not know that, but she knew she was happy.

When returning to the house, her dress in pieces, her head and feet full of dust, women cried she was crazy, she could find “bad men” on the way, that would do “bad things” to her. She did not mind: what “bad things” could men do her? She was naïve, and this, or some deity of the forest, may have helped her to arrive safe every day to sit, exhaust, by the fire.

The last time the girl went to that house she stood for three days, instead of the three usual months. She could not tell why, she was not comfortable. She left, knowing she would not return.

Next day, a phone call told the girl a fire had destroyed all the forests around the house, around the “lugar”. No pines, no oaks, no brown nut trees, no fern, no grass by the stream. Ashes.

Now, she knew she could not return. She was away from that place for good.

The old lady died, her soon took the house from the women, living a life of alcohol there. The girl got to know the man in the portrait hanging on the drawing wall had committed suicide in one “loja”, reason for the old lady black dresses. She lost her naiveté with real world stories and some “bad men”, but every night, before going to sleep, she tells herself stories about the house, the hills, the forest, and the stream. She uses different characters and plays, but always the same scenery. These stories are not to be written, they are just lullabies, so the little girl with a straw hat and pink ribbons can go on dreaming.

Irene Fialho - September 2002
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