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  The Wheelbarrow Dance on the Harbor of Cascais

By Beth Kephart

The weather had been announcing itself all day, first as a mist tossed high off the distant hills of Sintra, then as a quick bleating pulse through the angled streets of Cascais.  By evening we were wishing for the sweaters we hadn’t thought to bring to Portugal at the summer’s height.  We were remembering the Seville we’d left two days before, where the sun was a caustic taste on our tongues and the beggars stole the shade from covert alleys.

We chose to eat at an outdoor terrace on a hill above the small town’s heart.  Across the way and down we could see the bruised lip of the Atlantic, the bedded fishing boats, the tourists who had come out into the night like us, riddled by wind and auspiciously strange among the black-shirted fishermen, home from the sea, among the fishing wives whose too-short legs had been bowed out by the hills.

Cascais sounds like KissKiss.  We said the word to ourselves, over and over.  Cascais. KissKiss.  Derived from cascal, which means small pebbles.  The right word for a place that feels Lilliputian, storied, veiled.  The right sound for a town in which peacocks run wild and argumentative through the Gandarinha Park and school children in soft matching smocks and whimsical hats walk hand-in-hand between tiled buildings on tiled streets.  In Cascais they've found traces of Paleolithic man.  In Cascais there is the intimation of both the Christians and the Moors.  In Cascais, there are the remembered tales of galley ships blown in from Venice, the fabled heroics of the once-embattled Citadel, the seductive suggestion of the Portuguese royals who made Cascais their summer home, and of the foreigners -- the Count of Barcelona, King Umberto of Italy, King Carol of Romania -- who took refuge during World War II upon this neutral soil.  In Cascais there is history, but there is also the absence of history, the suggestion of all that was destroyed or crumbled by conquests, wars, earthquakes, the weather the lonely lighthouse didn't see coming.

From the terrace on the hill that night, we felt the air continue its anxious kick about our ankles, felt the flap of the tablecloth at our knees, watched the sun shiver out of the sky. On the heel of one exceptional gust, the extended umbrella on the table behind us snapped off its metal stand and pirouetted, Mary Poppins style, then tumbled down on plates.  It grew harder to hear one another speak, easier, after a while, to content ourselves with private thoughts, and the more the wind blew, the more the air filled with sounds; it was as if the peacocks were screaming cautions, as if the sea had a voice and had chosen now to speak. Cascais.  KissKiss.  Small pebbles.  I thought I saw moving lights on the harbor near the boats.  I thought the peacocks had escaped the park and depraved themselves with a parade.

It was only afterwards, after we'd signaled the waiter and pooled our escudos and started down the hill toward the harbor that we understood what the wind and the darkness had both obscured and exaggerated.  A crowd had gathered and knitted tight against the weather, but over others' shoulders we could finally see.  It was a parade, but not of peacocks.  It was toddlers, teens, scattered adults, Portuguese families that had come into town on a noisy rented bus.  Kitschy and clamoring, it was a parade that wheeled and spun, tracing a tassled oblong on the wide dock beside the sea.

The toddlers stood with their fathers and looked for ways to get away.  The women, with all steady seriousness, sang.  The teens did the rest, ambitious and earnest -- the girls in their overlarge hats and their flared matching dresses; the boys in strange Tyrolean fare --suspendered trousers cut short above the ankles, soft-brimmed constructions perched perilously upon their heads.  By the time we arrived, the boys were holding wooden wheelbarrows like protest signs before them, and it was these wheelbarrows that had borne the sparks we'd guessed at from the distance, these wheelbarrows upon which illuminated tubes had been laid -- rose, lilac, turquoise sheaths of light that had been folded and pinned into the ebullience of flowers.

Unencumbered by wheelbarrows, the girls were free to dance -- to skip, to spin, to lose their backless shoes, to curtsy on the front lines, yank at misbehaving underwear.  All this they did before the watchful eye of the proud maestro, a little man in a felty suit who waved his arms, lifted his chin, scanned the crowd for effect.  Every once in a while, the girls would trace a circle around their wheelbarrow-bearing partners, and the boys would stop, force a smile to their faces, tighten the muscles in their already-vexed biceps to stop the wheelbarrows from noticeably shaking.  And then the girls would skip out forward and the paraders would march again, and the wind would lift the hats up free, poke naughty fingers up inside the dresses.

So that it was only when the maestro dropped his chin that the wheelbarrows came clattering down.  Only then that the lights went out on the harbor of Cascais, and only right then that the boys took a breath and bowed and the girls pinched up their hems and curtsied.  The circle straightened into a single shabby line, and headed out, away from the harbor, into the town, behind the maestro.  We were left stranded on Europe's most western shore, not certain what we had seen or why, or whose history had come to entertain us.  We were left with the wind and the smell of the sea, left anchoring ourselves to one other.


Beth Kephart is the award-winning author of three memoirs, including A Slant of the Sun, and the latest, Still Love in Strange Places (W.W. Norton), which looks at love and loss on a Salvadoran coffee farm.  She has just completed a novel entitled The Drowning Girl.

 

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