Nobody Goes to Mértola

By OONA PATRICK

 

The Alentejo is the landscape of heartbreak. Or at least it was to me. Even its trees are clearly loners, set apart from each other at distant intervals across miles of sere brown fields. The Alentejo is all about waiting, from its numbered cork trees, with their skinned underbellies between harvest years, to the fabled, and perhaps fictional, nun Mariana, writing from Beja to a lover who will never come back. The Letters of a Portuguese Nun have been awaiting an author, an answer, for three and a half centuries now. Once celebrated for sparking a revolution in the European epistolary novel, now considered out of fashion even in Portugal, they remain a literary enigma, the country’s Mona Lisa

The region’s lonely woods and wilds, undergirded with forgotten megaliths and dolmens, are there for the heartbroken too. Ancient standing stones outside Évora, arranged in an oval on a sheep farmer’s hillside, click into place with the sunrise on the winter solstice, like a clock running unattended for seven thousand years. Older than the pyramids, older than Stonehenge, these stones, some of which appear to have carved faces, are the only thing in Portugal that has ever made my feeling of perpetual waiting stop cold. 

 

I visited the Alentejo for the first time in the winter of 2009, and spent my first hour there waiting. I’d arrived in Mértola, in Portugal’s far southeast corner near the Spanish border, at nine o’clock at night. Alone in a desolate town square, I made a fist around the small white plastic cell phone I’d bought the day before, which had only one number in it. He wasn’t answering. 

“Nobody goes to Mértola,” the waiter at the gold and white Café Nicola in Lisbon had warned me. “Especially not this time of year. There’s nothing there.” I hadn’t listened. 

My destination had sounded idyllic. In a year in which everything had gone wrong, I had been anticipating this adventure for months: two weeks writing at an artists’ colony in the Baixo (Lower) Alentejo, bookended by a few days in Lisbon. It was my first trip to the Portuguese mainland. I’d been drawn to apply to the colony by online photos of a former monastery brimming with artwork and animated by groups of European artists. 

I’d also been able to time this long November trip just right to avoid spending Thanksgiving at home, where I knew I would be unwelcome after the screaming driveway fight with my sister-in-law the previous year. 

I was here, in part, because I’d stopped waiting for a guy I’d met during grad school, although I never thought I’d give up. I believed in my own patience. I believed that he was kind, that he cared as much as, or more than, I did. And that he was the love of my life. After years of effort to keep it going while he found a job that would bring him near me, the relationship had run out over distance and a long spate of unanswered emails and texts. Now all I wanted was a traveling high from unfettered movement and unknown places. But could I find that in the same country my ancestors—impoverished fishing people from the Azores—had struggled to escape? Could it ever be that simple for me in Portugal?

On one of my first days in Lisbon, I had lunch outdoors at the Café Martinho da Arcada, one of the poet Fernando Pessoa’s former haunts. A waiter insisted on reading Pessoa’s poems to me off the backs of the café’s postcards. I already knew some of them, and knew that reading Pessoa and his seventy-plus heteronyms, his poetic alter egos, wasn’t good for my mental state right now. His solitude, the bleakness of his outlook, and the feeling that his inner life overtook him and was all he ever really had, often left me in despair. But the waiter couldn’t stop. 

He tossed me half a dozen of the postcards, then gestured for me to come inside so he could show me Pessoa’s favorite table. They kept it set for him, demitasse and spoon just so, though, by all accounts, he’d died in 1935. He’d drunk himself to death that November at the age of forty-seven. The man and I stood in front of the table for a polite interval, however, and silently waited. 


Image of a man sitting in a cafeImage of two men sitting in a cafe.

The waiter gave me the postcard on the left, showing Pessoa at work at the Café Martinho da Arcada in 1914. Only years later did I run across the original photo, at right, and realize that Pessoa’s friend had been erased. 

 

The association between the Portuguese capital and waiting is embedded in the mythic origins of its name. Lisbon was called Olisipo during the Roman Empire; it’s thought that this word might have derived from the name Ulysses. As Teolinda Gersão writes in City of Ulysses:

This gave Lisbon a singular status: a real city founded by a fictional character. […] the story has established itself in Lisbon’s imagination like a second skin: Ulysses sets off for war, leaving his wife and child behind. For centuries, this has been Portugal’s story too, women waiting at home alone, children growing up without fathers. It happened in the Crusades, the Age of Discovery, the colonial wars and times of emigration. 

 

The Convento

I left Lisbon on the night bus to Mértola, delayed because of a dispute between the driver and a woman trying to board carrying a cage in which two brown bunnies, perhaps a breeding pair, munched on leaves. They apparently ended up riding in the dark compartment below, because the woman returned empty-handed. 

We rolled out of Sete Rios station and into the rain, and I leaned against the cool glass window. My face still burned with embarrassment from buying my ticket. I’d tried to ask for it in Portuguese. A harassed-looking woman with cat-eye glasses and dark hair in a severe bun scowled in response. I paid, and looked down at the ticket she shoved toward me through a hole in the plexiglass. All I could decipher was something about a “seat number” and a “line number.” The line number was blank. I pointed and asked. 

“…Oawr!” she said. 

She glared. Suddenly she pantomimed a square frame around her face, tilted her head, and sighed. A window? But the other ticket windows were closed. Then she pointed to the sky and meowed again. This time louder. 

Kitty… window… heaven? 

I gave up and walked away, and found the bus on my own. She probably hadn’t switched to English because she wasn’t convinced I understood any language. Fair enough, I thought. 

I wasn’t even quite sure how to pronounce Mértola, but I did know that the name Alentejo comes from além (“beyond”), paired with Tejo (the Tagus River). “Beyond the Tagus.” My destination was outback, backwater, back of beyond. And Portugal’s poorest region.

Two hours outside Lisbon, the Alentejo appeared to be so unpopulated and unlit that I couldn’t see anything past the window. For all I knew, we were traveling into nothingness, into a black hole that had opened up in my life and contained only a road, a Rede Expressos bus, and some rapidly multiplying bunnies pinging around in the dark.

 

Mértola was the last stop in the Alentejo before the bus continued to a far corner of the Algarve, the country’s sunny south coast. I got off and stood with my suitcase while a handful of other people found their rides or vanished down dark streets. When there was no car waiting for me in the village square, I tried to send a text to my colony host using the phone I’d bought in Lisbon, but my hand was shaking from cold and nerves, and as I tried to type a few words, the phone kept correcting them to Portuguese phrases whose meaning I could only imagine. 

I knew that it was much too far to walk, so I sat in a chrome and straw chair on the deck of a closed café in the square. Then I realized I was wearing my usual cheery ensemble of black sweater and black blazer, accented with a black hat from St. Mark’s Place for an extra pop of black. Pretty good chance he wouldn’t even see me. I told myself to look for something like a dusty truck, because the artists’ colony was a working farm. Just then I watched an older man drive by in a shiny, low-slung white sports car and stare at me. I sat up straighter minutes later as he drove by a second time, even slower. Shit

I tried to look tough, and occupied the time with thoughts like: “Stranger comes to town.” “Someone goes on a journey.” The only stories in the world. 

But what about man kills a woman?

A little before 10:00 p.m., an extremely dusty red 1980s sports car pulled up near me. A thin, youngish man with wispy blonde hair sprang out and grabbed my suitcase. The artist son of the original Dutch farm owners—I’ll call him Anders—explained in a few choppy sentences that he was late because I had arrived during a party. As we drove off in fitful silence, he seemed in another world, on the artists’ plane. It struck me that he had a spectacular skull. 

We drove for less than ten minutes, crossed a bridge, and turned onto an overgrown dirt road. I saw leaves all around us, spotlit by the headlights; it felt like we were hacking a tunnel through a rainforest. When we arrived at the old monastery, which they called the convento, the party was still going on. Anders and several curious dogs led me through stone halls and under archways draped in fabric, and finally to an enclosed porch. Out the windows I saw Mértola’s castle, the road leading up to it outlined in lights. It looked like a frightened person on a stool peering down at a mouse. Two rivers met below the castle, and the smaller one flowed far below the convento. 

At the little gathering on the porch, Anders introduced me to an American painter, Ellie (also not her real name), who’d been teaching in Lisbon for three years. The other guests were neighbors. That was when I realized that it was just her and me and the owners: Anders, his mother, and his brother. There would be no other residents that month. Nobody goes to Mértola.

I woke up the next morning filled with regret. I didn’t want to be in the big, romantic room and courtyard they’d allotted me. The bed was draped with a thick canopy of white netting for the mosquitoes, who hadn’t even deigned to visit. A pale pink cord tangled in the mesh was all that had kept my bower from mummifying me in gauze while I slept. 

I wanted to go back to sleep. I wanted to shut out this fluttering and squawking Alentejo place beyond my balcony, but I couldn’t. Something was screaming its heart out from up on the roof. And it wasn’t even me. 

 

The Letters

When I say the Alentejo is the landscape of heartbreak, I don’t necessarily mean mine. Long before the literary-celebrity complex had made Lisbon the landscape of Pessoa key rings and mini shower-gel bottles, there was a lovelorn Portuguese nun named Mariana, whose supposed letters would become a literary sensation. When I first went to Mértola, I knew vaguely of her from Katherine Vaz’s 1997 novel Mariana, though I hadn’t read that book or any of the others inspired by the nun’s story. I thought she had lived farther north, and at the time, I wanted nothing to do with a lovesick nun. I didn’t even want anything to do with my lovesick self. Still, over the next few years, Mariana and her story came to mean more to me than Pessoa ever has. 

In 1669, a French publisher printed a book made up of five letters said to be from a Portuguese nun to a French officer who had served in Portugal while the country was at war with Spain. After an intense affair, he had left to take up a new post in France. The book was billed as a translation from Portuguese into French, listing a Frenchman, Gabriel de Lavergne, Vicomte de Guilleragues, as translator on an early edition. No author was named.

The forty-page book of letters boomeranged through Western Europe (at first with the exception of Portugal itself). It’s still possible to see why. The letters are searing, complex, and questioning. 

An unmistakable voice is present from the opening lines, in which Mariana might actually be talking to herself, not her lover: 

Only consider, my love, how you have carried your lack of foresight to the point of exaggeration. You have been betrayed, poor thing, and you have betrayed me with false hopes. A passion on which you had founded so many plans to achieve pleasure brings you now nothing but a mortal despair; nothing can compare with it unless it is the cruelty of the absence that occasions it.

 

Soon after the first edition was published, a pirated edition of the book named the French officer: Noël Bouton, the Chevalier de Chamilly, a real man who never publicly denied the story. The “Mariane” of the French text remained unidentified until 1810, when a scholar said he found a note in an early edition naming her as Sister Mariana Alcoforado. The book finally appeared in translation in Portugal in the nineteenth century (no Portuguese originals have ever been found). Scholars there soon proved that a nun by that name had lived in the Convento da Conceição in Beja in the late 1660s. She had been in her late twenties when Chamilly was posted nearby.

The affair had started at a viewpoint named for the very town I was stuck in. In the letters, Mariana says she first saw the chevalier riding by her convent from “the balcony with the view over Mértola,” a site now known as the Mértola Window. She writes, “I was on this balcony on the fatal day when I began to feel the first symptoms of my unhappy passion. […] I imagined that when you stopped, you were pleased that I should have a better view of you and admire your address and your gracefulness as you set spurs to your horse.”

Image of Noel.

Noël Bouton, the tall, handsome, and (allegedly) not-so-witty Marquis of Chamilly.


The view out from the Convento da Conceição in Beja toward Mértola looked in an almost direct line, interrupted by hills, to my balcony, only thirty-three miles away. I’d unknowingly landed within the geography of a literary legend. Like the few other specific details in the letters, the name
Mértola became key both to the story and to later arguments against the letters’ authenticity. A view toward Mértola in the distance was possible—a view over the town was not. You had to trust that the balcony was named for the direction it faced, for the gate and road to Mértola in the distance. 

Over the centuries, what seems like an entire industry, dominated mostly by male scholars, sprang up to prove that Mariana could not have written the letters: the writing was too intelligent and complex. They attributed the supposed fiction to the Frenchman Guilleragues, whose name now takes the place of Mariana’s on many editions, including my 1996 English one. It should be noted that prominent male writers and artists, including Rilke, Stendhal, and Matisse, have also been among the proponents of Mariana as the true author. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, however, famously said, “Women know neither how to describe nor experience love itself. […] I would bet everything I have that the Portuguese letters were written by a man.” 

 

The Convento

The intruders on my roof turned out to be peacocks. An ostentation, a muster, of peacocks. A family of twelve leaving droppings all over my balcony and screaming their little nutbrains out. 

My first day was warm and sunny, just as I’d imagined the Alentejo would be. I had acres to wander on the property. I discovered that I was surrounded by persimmon and olive trees, nine cats, seven dogs, six horses, no cows, and more fountains than I could count. Great. Paradise. I was in a Bosch painting. Artist-gardeners had filled hidden nooks with sculptures and benches. Anders’s own strange machines carried water from wells while mimicking the movement of donkeys. 

It was not entirely peaceful. Anders said he’d had run-ins with the local hunters. He and his brother Frans had rescued most of their dogs from them. It sounded like the conflict had been over for years, but I soon heard the night sounds: gunshots after midnight that seemed to threaten us from all directions. As I lay in bed, I could outline the boundaries of the estate just by the popping and cracking that seemed to jump from one side to another. On one of my first walks into town, I saw a hunter’s truck with dozens of long, skinny rabbits strung up in rows in the back. The driver looked out his rear window through a bouncing veil of carnage.

Each day I walked and walked, fending off a dark mood as Thanksgiving approached. I talked to Ellie as much as possible, but she spent a lot of time in her studio during the day, and we didn’t interrupt each other. We had dinner together, and she told me about her life as an itinerant art teacher in Europe. She was fifty-three and dating men online in a foreign city she didn’t really care for, in which she had lived for three years without learning much of the language. And now she was interviewing for the next European city, and the next. She would keep moving; it was what she did. She was kind, and I was grateful for the conversation, but at the time I found her life frightening.

Two days later, after Ellie left for good for her Thanksgiving vacation in Vienna, I stood in my bathroom with my hand in the shower stream. I waited for the warm water to arrive from the solar tank on the roof, if it ever would, and sobbed. I’d gone wrong, wasted time waiting for someone I thought I loved. I decided I should just stay home forever after this. Travel wasn’t mine anymore. 

I heard Frans chatting with his dogs in a chirpy singsong voice as he passed through the courtyard below my room. I was afraid he would hear me, even though I’d closed the windows against the unusually frigid morning. My hand still in the stream as I shivered in my dirty clothes, I kept thinking the water was getting warmer, but I was just getting used to the cold. 

 

The Letters

The Letters of a Portuguese Nun are not maudlin, but they stir a swarm of responses for me: mostly fear, empathy, and anger. As snarky and unsentimental as I try to be, I cry every single time I reread them. I’m there with Mariana. Sometimes I’m back in Mértola, in that space between, when I too thought the guy I’d waited on would at least get back in touch, that all those years of trying couldn’t end so carelessly, with silence. I need to laugh and swear because the letters still hurt.

The fear of believing in Mariana’s letters is the fear of falling for something pathetic or false. There’s also the fear that nothing has ever changed or will ever change for women.

In what is most often called the second letter, though the order of the middle three letters is almost as uncertain as the fragments of Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet, Mariana says: “I leave my room, where you so often used to come to see me, as little as possible, and I constantly look at your likeness, which is to me a thousand times clearer than life itself. It gives me some pleasure, but also much sorrow, when I consider that I shall perchance never see you again.” You feel for her, but all you want is for her to stop gazing at that dumb guy’s portrait, to stop waiting.

Rage dominates the later letters. I connect to that the most. It’s productive, like a cough. Part of the reader’s anger stems from the fact that Mariana’s intellect and character come across as superior: “you ought not to maltreat me as you do by a forgetfulness which thrusts me into despair, and which even for you is dishonorable.” She figures it out, just not as quickly as the reader does: there wasn’t much to him. He’s uninteresting, a hottie on a horse. You don’t want the chevalier to return—you want him to have been a better person.

Then there’s the bottomless, hopeless anger at the history of the book itself. You can’t read the letters without having feelings about their authenticity, or about all that came after. Yes, there are obvious contradictions. For example, Mariana refers to her mother, when only her father would have been alive. But were they fake, or just poorly copyedited, so to speak? Because the errors that the doubters point to (mother instead of mother superior, perhaps) are the errors editors like me see every day. Most especially when there’s no writer available to query. I’ve had men change my words without asking, too.

As others point out, attributing the letters to Guilleragues doesn’t align with what’s known about him, nor what we can see in the letters themselves. Even the idea of Guilleragues as translator doesn’t add up: There’s nothing to show that he knew any Portuguese, and it seems most likely that Mariana, as an educated nun and scribe, would have written the originals in French anyway. The Alcoforado family library is known to have contained French books, and cultured Portuguese spoke French for centuries, the way they speak English now. 

Twentieth-century doubters have argued the French of the letters was too stylistically sophisticated for someone from the boonies. In that case, the fashionable Guilleragues’s “translation” (or heavy edit) of a rougher French original makes sense. But the intensity and unplanned, disordered thought of the letters’ content? The odd but correct details of convent life? Many before me have pointed out that the letters do not seem to have been consciously written for a literary audience in the style of their time. Mariana doesn’t say much about her looks. She says even less about God or religion. The convent setting is taken for granted, not detailed for anyone’s amusement.

According to Elizabeth Kingsley in her blog A Course of Steady Reading, Guilleragues was a cheap social climber—an indebted aristocrat and failed writer described as a “fringe-dweller” by French scholars. However, while he did parlay the success of the letters into a letter-writing position with the French king, he never claimed outright authorship. It may be that anonymity sold better, but how often do social climbers resist such a shot at fame? How often do they display great interiority, or the abject humility seen in the letters? Most of all, while he wrote valentines and short poems, he never published anything at all like the letters for the rest of his life. But in the end, he’s got his credit here on the book in front of me. 

A man a man a man wrote this. 

Thinking you’re going to solve the mystery of the letters is dangerous. But still: I struggle to believe a man could have written them. I’m partly joking when I say this, but not once does the writer tell us her breast size or describe her legs (#MenWritingWomen). 

Image of Mariana, painted by a 19th-century painter.Image of Mariana, painted by an 18th-centity painter.

Men imagining Mariana. Engraving after the Englishman William Marshall Craig, 1808 (left), and by Frenchman Jean Massard, 1770 (right).

There is little in the letters to hint at one of their multitude of strange fates, which you’ll find if you Google too far: they inspired a 1977 nunsploitation film. (Reader, don’t go there.) Scholar Anna Klobucka tells us that the pornographic film was shot in what are now well-trammeled tourist sites around Lisbon, such as Belém’s Jerónimos Monastery (where national heroes like Camões, da Gama, and now Pessoa are buried) and two Sintra castles, including the National Palace of Portugal. According to IMDb.com, Mariana Alcoforado actually got a writing credit on the film. I suppose that’s something. 

 

Mértola

Mértola is a museum town, because, it turns out, everyone actually has gone to Mértola. Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Sephardic Jews, Muslim North Africans, and Templars left thousands of years of layers under the streets. The country’s largest collection of Islamic art sits blocks from Portugal’s best-preserved medieval mosque. You couldn’t renovate the city hall basement without having to glass over the Romans’ mini-storage-locker pits and open an eleventh town-funded museum that, at least in the winter, was eerily quiet. 

 On the hillside in the old town above the Guadiana River, I walked around a Roman forum. While following the path over the remains of a columned walkway, I came across a hole in the mosaic floor, through which I could glimpse another level below. An underground portico ran beneath: a cryptoportico. Nearby, I took a picture of a perfect mosaic of a rounded, cartoonish duck just like the ducks on the farm right across the river gorge. 

Mértola is only a midsize town now, having lost half its population in the 1960s after the local mines closed, but it had once been an entire kingdom of its own. So had Beja, and Faro to the south. Everyone had come to Mértola because of its strategic location on the river. Everyone had come to Mértola and shed their stuff, and now Mértola has it in storage, waiting. 

 

On what would turn out to be my last sunny day in Mértola, I wrote at the café in the square where the bus had dropped me off. I’d learned that we were in an interlude called St. Martin’s Summer—unseasonable warmth in the first two weeks of November. The same chrome and straw chairs I’d sat in the night I arrived felt better prewarmed by the sun. A crisp blue-and-white-striped awning shaded my table on the deck as I gazed out at an orange tree still laden with green and yellow fruit. A dozen schoolchildren and teenagers were waiting for a bus and buying snacks with coins, and I appreciated their noise. When they left, the town suddenly hushed. Elderly men and women whiled away the hours with cigarettes and espresso. 

This was what I’d come here for. But I wasn’t ready to work on my book. Instead, I was filling journal pages with notable cheeses I’d met, life stories of hangdog waiters, and poetic stammering about the yellow light in Lisbon’s Rossio Square, site of something like a thousand massacres, give or take. 

Mértola of the sun, Mértola in the off-season. The sun that is slowly killing me and, for some reason, letting me live. Mote by mote, Mértola by Mértola. How many more Mértolas will I get to see? 

Who was I writing this for? 

 

On my walk back at dusk with a few sparse groceries, it began to rain, apparently for the first time in months. I shivered and walked faster. I hadn’t brought enough clothes, thinking traveling light for three weeks was going to make me feel free. I hoped no one noticed I wore the same thin sweater under a sweatshirt every day, with that same black hat. 

The colony dogs came to my room that night. The golden dog—the friendly, round Bella—whom I started calling the Countess of Mértola (no dogs’ names have been changed), with her head too small for her body. Bella the survivor with the cold intelligence in her eyes when you drew close for her affectionate greetings. Sweet Terra of Mértola, the spindly, pale Spanish greyhound with the long nose resting on the table, the fur on it the color of the inside of an almond. And Crazy Harry, the recalcitrant one-eared mutt of Mértola. 

I didn’t have the heart to inform the pups that I’m allergic to dogs, but they didn’t bother me. They worked as a team, and let themselves in and out of the room as they pleased, led by Bella. The rest of the crew hung back, though only one or two seemed truly afraid of people. 

I shared crackers and cheese with Bella, Harry, and Terra. The others left when the food was gone, but Bella curled up and went to sleep. For a while I researched other towns to visit in the area, but I gave up. The bus schedules were too complicated. Resigned to sticking it out in Mértola, I crawled into my awful, beautiful canopied bed. 

 

The Letters

Letters three and four are part of the literature of waiting, and of waiting as an escape, too. Postponement of what the world, or the guy, is about to do to you. Refusal of the now. Waiting as protective. As protest. 

Mariana writes, 

How far I am now from all that I had looked forward to! I hoped that you would write me from every place you passed through, and that your letters would be very long ones—that you would feed my love by the hope of seeing you again, that full trust in your fidelity would give me some sort of rest, and that I should then remain in a state bearable enough, and without the extremes of sorrow. 

She’s losing hope. I can’t help trying to picture her waiting in a nun’s cell, but in truth, the wealthy Mariana may have lived in her own large quarters, with servants, as others like her did at the convent in Beja. Historians found that her father had sent her there as a child and forbidden her to marry, so that her brother could inherit everything. Her cell was more mental and emotional than literal, but still, she could not leave. She writes in the first letter, “If it were possible for me to abandon this wretched cloister I would not wait in Portugal for the fulfilment of your promises: I would go, heedless of all restraint, to look for you.” 

She rages and threatens the worst. “I saw you leave, I can never hope to see you come back, and in spite of all I yet breathe! […] Doubtless a tragic end would force you to think of me often, my memory would become dear to you, and perhaps you would be really touched by so uncommon a death.” But she can’t throw him off just yet. She ends the third letter with “I thank you from the bottom of my heart for the despair which you cause me, and I hate the peace which I lived in before I knew you. Good-bye! My love grows stronger each moment. Oh what a world of things I have to tell you of!”

In that last line, he is still her confidant, her mind’s companion: What happens to the thoughts we store for someone, wait to tell them, and never get the chance? The impulse toward an imagined audience grows. In the fourth letter, Mariana makes a leap in the space of two pages from “I imagine that I am talking to you as I write” to “I am writing more for myself than for you.”

Waiting. That slow giving up on the other who had once (if only in the mind) been a part of the self. Your own voice gone out and toward some distant person, and then to an invisible, even unreal other. Then it’s your voice and yourself that finally returns to you. 

Boomerang, ricochet, echo. 

 

Thanksgiving 

I had Thanksgiving with Crazy Harry Potter, the one-eared dog. I didn’t have much: just bread and cheese, olives, and a pear in a dark hovel of a spare kitchen set aside for the residents. But the olives still had long stems and tiny leaves attached, like an extra gift from the trees. Harry begged scraps with his entire portfolio of tilted, one-eared expressions, though not as effectively as Bella, the regal master, who thought it such a poor feast she didn’t even attend. 

That night my resolve broke down. I tried sending a text to California from my cell phone. He hadn’t answered my emails before I’d left, saying I was taking myself to Portugal, so I refused to send any more, but this was our habit for years—always a text on a holiday. 

The next evening, after making more rounds of the museums, I walked back at dusk again, passing over the concrete bridge spanning the river gorge. I analyzed my unanswered text in my head: Happy Thanksgiving! (Plus my name, because of my new number.) What was so pressure-y about that? I asked myself. So my very existence must have been too much pressure. What with his new job and new life, the one he’d said would include me. The one I’d waited for.

I approached the village side of the bridge. Happy Thanksgiving. Happy Thanksgiving. Was it the Happy? It is America’s worst made-up holiday, after Columbus Day. Have a nice Thanksgiving, I should have said. It’s the best anyone can hope for. 

The bridge scared me every time I crossed. It wobbled whenever a vehicle passed, when I would huddle against the too-low metal railing to make room, equally afraid of the hunters’ trucks hung with bobblehead bunnies and the bottomless gorge below. 

But that night I stopped halfway across, my hands in the pockets of my stinky sweatshirt, the right one gripping the white rectangle of the phone. My head was tumbling over in thoughts of him; my heart was a shish kebab. I turned to face the railing.

On one of my first days crossing the bridge, I’d tested whether the gorge had an echo. I couldn’t see the bottom, so I’d tossed a pebble and listened. Nothing came back. No sound of rockfalls or splash of water. With so little rain, the small river had probably dried up. Now I heard none of the other, usual sounds. No dogs in the distance. Too early for gunshots. Phone, of course, silent as a brick in my pocket. 

I made myself look down at the jumbled rock slopes below. I leaned a little toward the gorge. And I lost my balance. 

My free left hand shot out of my pocket and grabbed the slick metal railing. The other still clung to the phone. The hazy gray-green gorge seemed to shudder as I awkwardly righted myself. 

No echo, no ricochet, no boomerang. No returning to you after this. Nobody to tell this to. Nobody is my name. 

Please, please get off the bridge, some part of my brain said. Don’t wait. I obeyed, turned away from the railing, and walked faster and faster to the end of the bridge. I sped off toward the entrance to the dirt road to the convento. The ground felt good. 

In a story by Hélia Correia called “Twenty Steps,” there’s a passage that reminds me of that time in Mértola. A girl named Rosa, born in the hinterlands of Portugal, is crippled by a “duplicitous bridge that had tempted her with suicide and left the job undone.” It sounded like the gorge: 

She […] had thrown herself off and landed on the sharp rocks below. She lay there for hours, shouting. “It wasn’t bloody high enough!” she yelled. Soon she was laughing as she said it. Love had counselled her to die, but ultimately, matters of the heart are no more important than a snake. They give you a fright, then slither away. 

 

What I didn’t know then about the Baixo Alentejo, where I’d decided to spend my heartbreak vacation, my anti-honeymoon, my throw-your-phone-or-yourself-in-the-gorgemoon, was that it is the suicide capital of Portugal. Almost every year in the past few decades, more residents kill themselves here than in any other region of the country. It’s an epidemic among the older men. I read reports that offered reasons, theories: unemployment, desertification of farmland, economic crisis, depopulation, and isolation. Along with access to popular methods: car accidents on deserted roads, farm pesticides, and hunting weapons. 

 

The Letters 

“Granted, then, that all of literature is a long letter to an invisible other, a present, a possible, or a future passion that we rid ourselves of, feed, or seek.” This is the first sentence of the New Portuguese Letters, a landmark work in feminist literature by three women living under the Portuguese dictatorship in 1971—Maria Teresa Horta, Maria Isabel Barreno, and Maria Velho da Costa, known as the Three Marias. By not signing their individual pieces, the three taunted the censors and freed themselves to tell forbidden, explicit stories from women’s lives. The first time I read Mariana’s letters all the way through, a few years after my Mértola trip, was because of this book. 

“What difference is there, then, between Mariana’s time and ours?” the Three Marias ask. In the New Portuguese Letters, the writers exposed conditions for women in Portugal and demanded change. We see that it’s collective centuries of women’s rage that “burn that Alentejan plain,” to borrow a phrase from that book. Rage at the dictator Salazar’s pronouncement that “the great nations should set an example by confining women to their homes.” Rage at women not even being able to get a passport during the dictatorship without a male relative’s permission, or that beating one’s spouse was perfectly within the law. Rage, as always, at men killing women and getting away with it. 

Mariana’s letters could never be the same after the Three Marias answered them. They gave her new life as a modern fictional character woven into a lineage of women’s stories set in her own country. The letters had always been good company, and now they themselves have company among the many voices of the New Letters. In their hands, the old letters grew peopled: Their audience had been expanded, their context extended, their timeline lengthened. 

I was reminded of this longer scope of time when I visited the prehistoric stone circle outside the Alentejan city of Évora. Among a crowd of imposing, nearly figural stones standing about six feet tall, you can see the horizon, look out over the countryside, and understand why the ancients chose this gentle slope. The stones lift you from the ditch of close time, from your small horizon, for long enough to imagine something vaster. And the waiting stops. For a moment, there is nothing before or since; there is just this enduring place.

 

Obrigada

In my last few days in Mértola, I wrote and wandered the backstreets. In the grocery store, a clerk seemed to be complimenting the rooster bag I’d gotten gratis in Lisbon. I couldn’t understand her, so I just said obrigada a couple extra times in response to everything she said. She smiled. 

That worked so well I started saying obrigada to everything. On a steep cobblestone street, I passed a man talking to an old woman in a doorway. She snapped something loud at me with a cracked smile; I figured it wasn’t nice, but I said “OBRIGADA!” and smiled. She tilted her head and looked at me strangely. “Obrigada?” she said to the man beside her. 

I rushed down the street, embarrassed at being a crazed stranger-come-to-town who’d run out of words. I never did things like this at home. But I soon realized that I was feeling better, saying thank you to everyone I met, for no reason at all. Thank you for existing! Thank you for confusing me! Thank you for turning from sweet to sinister and even for wasting my life and ghosting me and leaving me all alone out in the world! 

 

The last lines of Mariana’s final letter are: “I must leave you, and think no more on you. I even think that I shall not write to you again. Am I under any obligation to render you an exact account of all I do?” 

 

The Red Suitcase

On the day I was to leave Mértola, I overslept. The brothers’ mom shouted for me, and I raced to the cab waiting outside my courtyard. In town, I ran to the ticket booth, mortified by my English-only fumbling at the window, and was the last one to board the day’s sole bus. 

I was glad I’d given the dogs extra dog-hugs and snacks the night before, as there wasn’t time to find them all to say a proper goodbye; only a few of them milled around the cab like nervous hostesses. They were not young, and it seemed unlikely that I’d make it back to Mértola within a dog’s lifetime. It was the same thing I’d found myself thinking, for no reason I could pinpoint, the last time I ever hugged that man: I’m not going to see you for years, am I? 

It was about seven on a Monday morning when the half-empty bus drove out of Mértola in a queasy greenish fog. I was exhausted and uncaffeinated and so relieved. I didn’t feel better yet, but I could picture it happening. I thought the fog might last all the way to Lisbon, but twenty minutes out of town, the mist began burning off, and I finally saw the rest of the Baixo Alentejo, and all that had been hiding in the darkness my first trip through.

The fog lifted to reveal the lower trunks of isolated trees standing near the side of the road. Cork and holm oaks and olive trees appeared suddenly and hovered, shaggy foliage congealed in thick vapor. I sat up and fumbled for my camera. I clicked and clicked until something stayed in the frame long enough to leave a streaky impression: trees, branches, and pale sheep amassing like an eerie regiment halted in its advance on the road. 

I loved this landscape. Obrigada, obrigada. 

Suddenly I saw a man standing in the dry ditch beside the road ahead. He was trying to haul an enormous red suitcase up from the bottom with both hands. I thought he was a passenger about to hail the bus until I saw the brown metal underside of a car lying in the ditch near him. A chevalier thrown from his horse. 

Perhaps it was an accident from the night before, and this was some kind of do-it-yourself cleanup, the man a strangely calm survivor retrieving his suitcase so he could be on his way. I felt a surge of unexpected tenderness for the struggling man. I was getting out of Alentejo, but what about him? The men I’d seen here, could they leave? The men who are somehow both terrifying from a distance and suffering on the inside. 

 

Beja

If the Alentejo is the landscape of heartbreak, then Beja is its capital. In 2018, it was time to meet the ghost whose story had unwittingly haunted my first ride into that outback. I decided I’d make an inland detour on my way to a beach town and go to Beja for a weekend to see Mariana’s convent and the Mértola Window. I didn’t tell any of my writer friends in Lisbon. I didn’t want to explain why I had grown interested in sappy-sounding love letters that had been done to death. 

I wouldn’t venture as far as Mértola. In March 2015, I’d learned on Facebook that Bella had died. Anders pointed out that even in the midst of hunters and traps and all those gunshots, she’d ended up surviving an incredible seventeen years at the farm, longer than any of their other rescued dogs. After comforting dozens of idiots like me visiting the convento, the beautiful countess with the delicate little head had departed. 

It had been nine years since I’d been this close to Mértola; the cork trees stripped then were ready for harvesting again. I knew now that the trees are numbered by year of harvest in white paint. Like the megalithic circle, they’re calendars too. As the bus rolled through the montado, I watched for recently harvested trees. The peeled skin of their trunks ranged from the powdery orange of beached starfish to the red ochre of cave paintings. I had also learned that the cork trees’ resistance to fire had mostly spared the region from the blazes that were now afflicting the eucalyptus-shrouded north. Still, while it was a relatively cool weekend, that summer the Alentejo approached temperatures hardly ever seen before in Western Europe—a portent of what may lie ahead for the region.

My own pain, by now, was a stump. I still saw the ghost-guy in other people sometimes, and not in a good way. Across a table once in Lisbon, a man threw his head back to laugh at something I had said. When his mouth fell open, all in a flash I saw the other man’s teeth, the improbable cheekbones, and the outline of his skull—one inside the other, a death’s-head turducken.

 

Beja is a small city on a rise on the plains with a tall castle tower in the center. Fields of long golden grasses flow right up to the town’s perimeter. I got off the bus from Lisbon and decided to brave the bus station bathroom before I got lost walking to my hotel. The first thing I noticed in the bathroom stall was a line of graffiti: A Mariana tem grande cu! I burst out laughing. “Mariana has big ass!” Girl, that’s one more thing we have in common.

At the hotel, I hoped no one would ask me why I’d come. I figured I was part of a cringeworthy caminho of heartbreak over the years, made up mostly of women seeking Mariana. But what was wrong with my pilgrimage? While Mariana might not be verifiably real, Fernando’s seventy-three (or so) amigos certainly weren’t either, and men like José Saramago, Antonio Tabucchi, and Wim Wenders went around making art that pretended they were still alive even long after their author’s death. If those three can chase invented ghosts around Lisbon (in The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, Requiem, and Lisbon Story, respectively), I can chase Mariana’s in the Alentejo. 

In a country with almost no women writers’ houses to visit, I couldn’t wait to see the Convento da Conceição, although much of the sprawling original structure was torn down long ago. The remaining chapel and cloister still felt like the jewel box of Beja, a pile of gold sitting atop a not-so-wealthy town. I headed there first.

Upstairs in the convent, at the foot of a long hallway, I found the Mértola Window. It had been moved and altered by generations of well-meaning Alcoforadistas at the museum, so I took it as symbol more than fact. 

The only text I found in the museum about Mariana was on the tiny index card stuck to the right of the window, which generously named her the “presumed author of the celebrated love letters.” 

At the museum’s front counter, I picked up a lone bundle of cards that I quickly realized were all images of Mariana, her window, and Chamilly. The clerk said, “Oh, that’s sold as a set. Three euros.” She took them from my hand and moved to put them back. 

“No, I want those.” 

“I defy you to forget me entirely,” Mariana once wrote. 
   

Image of an ad in Beja.Image of street art portraying Mariana.

A giant advertisement pasted on the doors of a hair salon leers stickily
at a street-art homage to Mariana in Beja. 

The Road

Someone goes on a journey. Stranger comes to town. What was that quote? Mary Morris wrote about it in 1987: “John Gardner once said that there are only two plots in all of literature: you go on a journey, or the stranger comes to town. Since women, for so many years, were denied the journey, we were left with only one plot to our lives—to await the stranger. […] Women’s literature, from Austen to Woolf, is mostly about waiting, usually for love. Denied the freedom to roam outside themselves, women turned inward, into their emotions.” Had all our literature been a letter to an invisible other saying, I’m waiting, honey, yoo-hoo!

Portuguese literature begins with ancient songs of longing from women’s perspectives, the cantigas de amigo taken over and reworked by male scribes. Women and their experiences are, from the beginning, both absent and absolutely central. 

And what do I want now? To haunt some hottie on a horse who erased my humanity by ghosting? Actually, no. I want the timescape of that era in my life to grow smaller. I want it to become a blip among more productive years. I want to throw off the oppressive fantasy that there will ever be someone listening. 

In Mértola, I’d somehow managed to be both waiting and on a journey. Instead of waiting at home for something that would never get better, I’d taken off, because I could. Looking back, I want to tell that self that I’d be visiting endless Portuguese towns in the years to come. And that every one of them would remind me of the gift that my particular place in time has allowed me: I’m free to leave them just as quickly. Unlike my ancestors. Unlike Mariana and so many women then and now.

I’d swoop into my villages of oblivion, visiting them faster and faster, afraid my freedom would end. I’d have Sete Rios bus station figured out, down to the least bad café and pasteis, the coin needed for the bathroom with the uniformed attendants from the former colonies, and the televisão screen near the ceiling that would soon announce the number of my smoggy indoor departure bay. 

And through all those villages, I’d be shouting obrigada and waving out the window of some dream ride. Or from the last bus out of Beja creaking toward the coast, with the driver’s oldies station blaring MC Hammer and Sinéad O’Connor for Eighties Festa (and Eighties Festa, I now know, is relentless). Obrigada a todos! Thank you all, I love you all, but I can’t stop. I’m the fucking chevalier now. 

 

Oona Patrick grew up in the Portuguese community in Provincetown, Massachusetts. She earned a BA from Brown and an MFA from Bennington and received a fellowship in creative nonfiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts. For her third trip to Portugal, she helped start the DISQUIET International Literary Program in Lisbon. In 2019, she became both the co-editor of the first all-DISQUIET anthology,Behind the Stars, More Stars: The Tagus/Disquiet Collection of New Luso-American Writing, and the guest editor of Springhouse Journal 6: The Lusa Issue: Women Writing the Lusophone World.

[Purchase Issue 20 here.] 

Nobody Goes to Mértola

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