Melissa Wiley won the 2019 Autumn House Press Nonfiction Contest for her book Skull Cathedral, which was longlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award and interweaves reflections on the body's vestigial organs with autobiographical fragments. She is also author of the personal essay collection Antlers in Space and Other Common Phenomena (Split/Lip Press, 2017).
Women wearing headscarves fold their clothes around the base of a fountain. Singing a melody that mimics the tides, they compress cotton shirts into squares. Among wandering newspaper salesmen, among other men who immure themselves in gold or silver spray paint to stand for hours as statues for tourists, these seven women live out their lives here as if in private. After only a week inside this city, Mary feels she understands why they do this here, of all places. The nearby laundromat, which she herself has used by now, has only a single folding chair and no table on which to set clothes. The women’s apartments may be nearly as crowded—whereas this public square, warmed by the generous Lisbon sun, allows them to spread their legs beneath their flowing dresses, to pile laundered clothing inside woven baskets.
This is a life she could have led, one of many. Until Portugal, her sole departure from the only country she has known, she had never given herself permission to consider alternatives. Only here, among the city’s profusion of iron balconies, among its yellow streetcars overwritten with graffiti, has something inside her begun to yield to the pull of other possibilities. Something inside her, previously sturdy and resistant, has begun surrendering to the pleasant mayhem of Lisbon’s outdoor markets, to its sunken awnings, its embrace of its own dilapidation. There is a splendor that comes with decay, Mary sees now. She observes the shining skin of the women folding laundry, their fingers clasping fabric as she passes.
This morning she dressed with her normal care, tying a floral scarf around her neck, applying foundation and light lipstick, while avoiding her eyes in the mirror. She has reached a stage of life when she no longer wants to see everything that others are seeing. She no longer wants to detect new creases in her skin, further evidence of the leaching of what was always a modest beauty. A deeper softness has also emerged in her aspect over the past decade—though she doesn’t realize this—making her lovelier, in ways, than she was in her twenties, when she married.
In her early forties now, with narrow shoulders and eyes that squint into the distance, Mary walks toward the shoreline, savoring the lingering aftertaste of a hard roll and coffee. She plans to do nothing with the rest of her morning beyond breathe the cooler air that swims above the water’s gray expanse. Five months since the death of her husband, and she is walking to watch the Tagus River empty itself into the ocean. For as long as she feels the need, she will sit on a stone wall crumbling at its edges. She will sit and stare past the barges as the river cedes itself so completely to a larger body that there should be nothing left. Yet the river keeps flowing as if nothing were lost, nothing given.
She listens to waves smoothing the sands, the foreign tongues of children filtering through music as young boys and girls run toward, then away from, foaming crests continually dissolving into blueness. A girl of no more than five or six stands farther from the water than the others. With dark and curling hair, she kneels down to examine something in the sand, letting warm clumps fall through her fingers. In a silver bucket, she has gathered glittering shards of abalone, resembling the human ear. She places one to her own, shouting for her mother to come and bear witness. Sunlight splashes her cheek as water rushes toward her feet. Moving herself and her bucket into a space of safer dryness, the girl holds the shell up once again, telling her mother to come. To listen.
The mother only laughs. She laughs and takes her time heaving herself up from where she’s been sitting among the nearby rocks, where she has pulled the straps of her bathing suit past her shoulders so her upper body tans evenly. Mary watches, almost certain the woman fails to hurry only because she assumes there is nothing new for her to see here, nothing from this abalone shell that she has not heard already, because the world for her has lost its freshness. The woman has failed to consider that the daughter may hear a distinct rhythm or melody, one the mother has either never known or forgotten. As the girl’s hands dig deeper beneath the sand for shells possibly resembling other parts of the human body, Mary allows herself to imagine that nothing in her life has gone missing.
Time passes, feels timeless. A cloud comes to eclipse the sun for a few fleeting moments, and Mary leaves the waves. She takes a bus to another part of the city, closer to its Moorish section, where fishermen hang their nets freely from fences. There is a puppetry museum here that she has read about in a magazine and wants to see in person. Walking in its direction after leaving the bus and all those other passengers with their own histories, she still feels some shock at the fact she can do this, go anywhere she pleases without her husband knowing or interfering.
She still feels as if she is breaching borders meant to remain intact, violating once inviolable limits, as she climbs several steps into a world of shadows, as she enters a museum whose rooms, as she’s read on a plaque outside the gate, served as a convent for several centuries. She walks inside the main exhibit, footsteps echoing in the silence. No one else, it seems, has come at this hour, not on a day with this soft of a breeze, this prelapsarian. Yet the puppets still astonish with the lapidary precision of their carving, with their likenesses to people whom Mary has never met or known existed. A passel looking particularly lifelike is arranged behind panes of glass, some playing croquet and tennis, others seated at lavish banquets—appearing to inhabit a whole society, one richer and more varied than the one Mary has known all her life back in St. Louis. The puppets’ worlds, miniature and foreign, seem to date from hundreds of years ago.
Though Mary has never attended a single puppet performance, she takes for granted that few of these displays here are for children. There are far too many wooden women baring exaggerated breasts, in what appear to be tableaux of brothels, too many men brandishing deadly weapons as battle scenes ensue toward the exit. Another section behind a dark curtain features Hindu gods and goddesses, seemingly designed to shock or scare their devotees into homage. Trying to imagine their movements as directed by a human hand, their words spoken in human voices, Mary feels shades of melancholy make themselves known. She has no one with whom to discuss the puppets’ adventures, their unchanging expressions, or that the lives behind their wooden forms are destined to stay invisible. Nameless. The real and throbbing lives, not the wooden ones, will go unacknowledged. In this, though, she also takes some consolation. She is similarly alive, here in Lisbon, even if there is no one to notice.
Leaving the museum, thanking the man standing behind the cash register at its entrance, she walks downhill, back toward the river, until she steps inside a restaurant with windows framed by scalloped curtains. A waiter wearing a dirtied apron seats her near the kitchen, at a table beside a longcase clock whose hands stay stagnant, the grandfather behind the clockface preserving his silence. She orders a bowl of soup thickened with potatoes and purple cabbage while finding herself to be the only woman in this establishment, all the other patrons men looking to be in their sixties or seventies, men who are observing her freely as she tries to keep from returning their stares. Mary sips from her water glass instead, training her eyes on the placemat. She takes her spoon and unfolds her napkin once her soup comes, wishing she had brought a book. From the mild heat of their eyes behind their glasses, Mary understands these men consider her a desirable woman, something that both surprises and amuses.
Looking up at the clock, feigning study of its craftsmanship even as its time never changes, she dares herself to turn and smile at the men but looks down into her lap instead. She almost laughs at the thought of marrying an older man from Portugal, of going home to face her parents, who had always loved her husband for never drawing any unwanted attention to himself or their daughter, for his frugal spending and laconic responses. Now with him gone and never coming back, she avoids asking herself whether she too had loved him for this reason. She is afraid to know whether, in truth, she loved him or lacked simple courage to live a bolder life, to breach any Midwestern boundaries when she was younger. Part of her wonders how she will keep living without him as another part of her suspects her entire married life was a way of hiding, a way of limiting the threat of possibility.
Unlike these men who murmur about her body as she finishes her soup, her husband always took the neat, clean lines of her silhouette for granted. He hardly ever took time to register the fullness of her hair or how her clothes fit and did so even less as their years together resolved more deeply into routine and passive companionship. Only on rare occasions had she caught appreciative glances as she undressed before bed or stepped inside the shower while he shaved or brushed his teeth. Well before a doctor identified the reason for his growing exhaustion, well before he was diagnosed with the blood disease that refused to respond to treatment, he and Mary had stopped making love. Once, when she surprised him by kissing him with real ardor, he admitted he no longer had the desire, the energy. Stroking her forehead, he said he hoped she could accept this, which Mary did in the way she did most things, with a quiet resignation that left room for wondering at her world’s smallness.
By their later thirties, they’d given up hope of having children. Neither had wanted to take out loans to afford fertility treatments. Nor did they consider adopting. They’d wanted their lives to mimic those of every other couple around them, for a child to come into being on its own instead, essentially choosing them. Over time, they grew used to the sameness of their evenings in front of the TV, to the stillness of their kitchen in the early mornings as they read the newspaper or made milky coffee. Mary had taught herself to live with this man and his modesty, with the economy of his speech and his need for each week to resemble the one prior.
It took her considerably more time, however, to learn to live with a man who ignored the nerve endings that lay bare beneath her skin. When several months passed with no grazing of her breasts or buttocks, even as they lay in bed, Mary began to ask herself whether she missed most the contact or simply being wanted.
She leaves the restaurant and its old men, turns and walks past teenage boys chasing a soccer ball down an alley. One of these boys could have been her son, her cousin or brother. Had she never come to Lisbon, she would have missed the rollicking crackle of their voices, missed them running past a grocery store little larger than her closet back home. She would have missed them, as well as the women folding laundry, had she not been captivated by an aerial photograph of the city—a spread of its seven hills—inside a magazine left at her dentist’s office. Had it not been for the magazine, for the timing of her cleaning, or had the receptionist thrown away the magazine by then, she would have missed the little girl gathering abalone, missed all the wood-faced puppets. Had she not flipped through its pages, had part of her not sensed a need to go somewhere she had never heard anyone else mention, where people spoke a language to which she could listen without a vestige of understanding, only watching their lips continually open and close.
Her family and coworkers consider Mary’s time here a waste. Still something inside her remains hushed and patient. This watching, which is all she does here, has significance. This watching of people inside an ancient city, as some vital part of her knows, carries its own meaning. Even as a nurse back in Missouri, this is how she earns her living: watching in silence. She walks into a room, takes a patient’s vital signs, and notices skin that has begun to bruise from an injection. She sees a film of perspiration forming across a forehead despite the chill of the room. Though Mary has never been able to heal anyone of disease, she has always been able to see signs of life stirring or ebbing beneath the surface, has observed warmth rising in a face countless times during sleep, eyes once bright turning dull and listless. Countless times she has seen those whose pain only worsens after surgery, those with a minor illness who die unexpectedly, those who heal and go home to their families.
Were she never to fly home again, she might stay here and earn a living, survive as a cleaning woman. She could spend her days folding pants at their creases beside the public fountain, work at the puppet museum on weekends, handing visitors their tickets. While Mary would never admit this to anyone who’d once known her husband, since his death she’s begun to taste a sweetness, one whose source remains inexplicable. Hidden. In her hotel room as she undresses, as she listens to a couple on the other side of the wall, there’s a taste at the back of her tongue, redolent of honey. It lingers even as she wakes again next morning.
Her husband wasn’t interested in new places, not even other parts of their own country. He had never seen a reason to spend time or money on fleeting experiences—though he failed to realize in the process that nothing in life was exempt from impermanence. He always preferred investing his free time in more practical matters, as he deemed things like repainting the garage, refurbishing the basement; measures intended to increase the value of their property, though as far as Mary knew they had no plans to ever sell. Their neighborhood was much too peaceful, too quiet. An ideal setting to raise a family.
Only now has she begun to realize there were always signs of death, intimations of decay, even before her husband’s diagnosis or their infertility. There was the progressive death of wildness for one thing, the gradual shrinking of forests from even before her grandparents’ time, the mounting disappearance of wildflowers and pollinating honeybees. There was the closing of hardware stores and florists that had been owned for generations by local families. Even in a place as unremarkable as suburban St. Louis, there was the incremental loss of something animal and human.
No one else in her family has lost a spouse. No one with whom she is remotely close has experienced a death decades earlier than expected. Once she told her parents she was going to Lisbon, they said in so many words that another country could not alter her new reality, could not bring him back. Mary understands they are not the only ones who see her time here as a form of avoidance. Her sisters, both with teenage sons and daughters, have hinted this as well, even while their own lives brim with too many plans and appointments to hold any awareness of the true depths of emptiness, the syrup lurking at its bottom.
Mary is the only one who knows she has not run away from grief or loneliness. She is the only one who recognizes she has run, instead, toward seagulls lining the stone wall where lovers sit staring out at the lazy flotilla of barges. She has run toward the old men humming as they walk, hands clasped behind their backs, in the early evenings. She has run toward bakeries with mirrors reflecting endless custard pastries, toward street carts peddling shots of cherry brandy. Toward another space inside her that’s opened with her husband’s absence. Toward an unfamiliar splendor.
From her first day in Lisbon, she has found the evenings cooler than expected, cooler than the forecast said. During the day too, the air is much milder than in Missouri, where over the years the summers have become unbearably humid. One early evening, as she begins walking to another area of Lisbon she has yet to visit—one where the hills are almost too steep for her legs and where the stairs feel smooth to slipperiness—she decides to buy herself a shawl or sweater. Walking uphill only to reach the end of a street and then find she must walk uphill still farther, she passes stores selling women’s clothing. She passes them without mustering the confidence to enter. She can only bring herself to look through their windows, feeling these clothes already belong to other women, those with spouses who will accompany them to even farther-flung foreign countries. As the skin of her arms pickles in the deepening coolness, as the early evening grows more clouded, she enters a shop selling only candles, seeking warmth from the light there.
A woman with auburn hair, eyeglasses hanging from a long, beaded necklace, stands behind an ancient, polished counter. Behind her, through a door that hangs partly open, Mary glimpses two men shaping wax into tapered candlesticks. Their fingers twist the ends of the wicks before the men seal them with their saliva. Scrutinizing the way Mary dresses, the looser fit of her less stylish clothes, the woman addresses her in English. All of her candles, she explains, are made from beeswax. The shop has been in business since the 1700s, she adds, her hand gesturing toward the ceiling.
Smiling, Mary notices that many of the candles have been molded into human heads. Similar, slightly varied waxen portraits sit serene and impassive behind glass-paneled cabinets. Others have been fashioned into pieces of fruit and small species of birds. She wants, but hesitates, to ask the woman which is cheapest.
In spite of all the promise of light inside this small and wooden room, in spite of the glow cast by electric bulbs hidden behind the candles as lambent backlighting, there is a familiar stillness, a darkness that Mary associates with churches back home. Encased by oaken walls exuding their own subtle warmth, the candles here, regardless of their shapes and what those shapes may conjure, will not allow her to escape the feeling she has stepped inside a holy place. She draws a breath and turns to look out on the street, where light rain has started to fall. Mary has no umbrella, no clothing that covers her arms. She asks the woman whether customers buy the candles for special occasions, and the woman, fingering the glasses hanging at her chest, nods and adds that most are sold for marriages and baptisms. Mary only smiles in response, knowing now that she will not buy one. All of these candles are too precious.
Though she’ll return to St. Louis within another week, her husband’s death has unleashed a quiet wildness that is untangling her from the world she has always known, unraveling her lifelong allegiance to its rules and customs. She knows now as it is she will have no more use for ceremonies. Even if she were to adopt a child as a single woman, she would not arrange a baptism, not even for her Catholic parents. Her own child would be freer than she herself, freer of religion and its threat of a heaven or hell. Wishing the woman behind the counter a pleasant evening, Mary leaves the shop as the final crepuscular rays turn from golden to bruised blue and violet.
Facing a stretch of cafés where lean-legged couples sit gazing into one another’s faces, suddenly she finds herself missing him. As the last of the light rain withers to nothing at all, she misses a man she may well never have loved. She is surprised, even though she shouldn’t be. She looks toward hundreds of plates of fish and salad—the café tables’ dents and scratches concealed by linen—and remembers how, in her husband’s final months, his taste for food lapsed into complete indifference. His pale blue eyes lost their pigment. He said very little then, even less than he did normally, but there were times when he squeezed her hand before his arm fell limp to his side once more. The skin of his palms felt coarse and chalky. His lips were prone to chapping, yet he turned his head away whenever she reached to apply some lotion.
Olive-skinned, dreadlocked men play guitars on street corners, gaping at women much younger than herself, and the thought comes to Mary that her husband had never known what to do with darkness. He had never even eaten dinner this late in the evening, between seven thirty and eight. And she is aware she feels almost as clueless as he would have been, here in this place of comparative sybaritism, as if she too has forgotten how to use her senses. She has been so long out of practice.
There are few trees here. She catches only rare glimpses of foliage among the many newspaper stands and ludic sprawl of performance artists, among mimes and accordion players. Everywhere she walks, she encounters an alarming absence of flowerbeds despite all the nectar the Portuguese bees have to alchemize into the honey she tastes here without having tried. Wandering a mile or so in a new direction, she leaves the cafés’ quiet ferment, the streets beginning to narrow. She walks past rows of apartments that must be inhabited by families; rooms where children have already changed into pajamas. Most of the shutters hang ajar, and as Mary gazes at the upper stories, she catches the flashing blue of televisions.
After eight in the evening now, she stands in the street. All the city’s flora and vegetation seem gathered on the balconies above her. Three in a row overflow with potted gardens, with prodigal blossoms and leaves, spilling with pollen—each iron balcony accommodating no more than one person at a time to stand among ceramic vases of varying heights while watering an astonishing abundance of flowers and succulents. Mary stretches her neck up toward the sky, and all the lush verdancy hanging above, as a door opens behind her.
Feeling a presence, she turns. An engraved metal sign says the space belongs to a florist, and allowing herself curiosity, she steps past the man who must be the owner, who has been watching her rib cage expand and contract, playing its silent music. She walks across his threshold without asking herself why a flower shop has stayed open this late, especially in an area with so little foot traffic. Inside its brick walls are, immediately, all the flowering plants she has been missing throughout the rest of Lisbon. Against the deepening shadows of nightfall, the colors feel riotous, bacchanalian in their flaunting of stamens and pistils, their petaled decadence.
The owner had merely nodded as she walked in and said good evening in Portuguese. As she lingers, though, he clears his throat and confesses in English that he was about to close. Then in the next breath, he seems to change his mind and offers to stay open a little longer if she wants to keep looking. Mary thanks him and walks through a corridor smelling of mulch and the underbelly of decaying things. She crosses over into a walled outdoor garden. Entering the night once more, where the surrounding walls are overspread with clematis, she stands beneath the impassive gazes of naked men and women made of stone—stands supplicant beneath their unblinking eyes that perpetually examine neighboring potted palms and cypresses. Mary stretches her neck upward again, sees a spray of stars appear as the lights inside the shop dim.
A wicker chair rests beside a waterless fountain, and this is where she lets herself further pause for a moment, resisting the need to leave this place and find something to eat before she returns to her hotel. Absorbing her own tiredness, she crosses her legs and listens to the man open his cash register as he counts his day’s earnings. Despite avoiding her own gaze in the mirror, a sense of her own somatic presence still seems to warm her, though all hints of sunlight have long gone away. She leans back in her chair. Relishes the feeling.
The man at the cash register must be ten or more years younger than Mary. After closing the cash register, he comes and lingers at the doorway, facing the garden. He switches on a string of electric lights that hang suspended above her head to graze the many stone shoulders of this garden’s more natural residents. He steps forward, and Mary apologizes, says she shouldn’t keep him. He looks up toward the sky, lights a cigarette, confesses he has nowhere better to be.
Moving toward the flowerbed farthest from the waterless fountain, he says these particular plants are not for sale, though everything else is. He taps his cigarette free of ashes and explains he has planted them only for the sake of attracting honeybees. As he pauses, looking lost in thought, Mary notices the heaviness of his eyelids, his dark lashes. After an intake of breath, he adds that his shop, this entire planet, would be barren without them. Without the bees, he would have nothing to sell, need to find another way to make a living. Seeing Mary’s expression grow sober, he gestures toward his crocuses, his marigolds and borage. Instinctively he wants something heavy in this slight, middle-aged American woman to lighten, become buoyant. So he tells her she is standing beside the statue of a fertility goddess. The pause between them lengthens and he cannot help adding that even goddesses count for nothing, not in this world or in this business. It is only the bees that matter, the true pollinating agents.
Mary knits her lips together. This man, she thinks, is probably too young to have known real loss or absence. He has no way of knowing that emptiness brings its own form of sweetness. Maybe only women as solitary as she can understand this, however, and she sees no reason to bother telling him she also once planted a bee garden, one that survives back in St. Louis. At the time, she was trying to coax more life into her life, trying to have a normal family. This was before she accepted no more lovemaking.
No children to make the lovemaking less necessary.
Back then, she had read a newspaper article, sitting beside her husband one suburban weekend morning, about how worker bees were dying now in unprecedented masses, likely from a combination of viruses and pesticides. Worker bees, she’d read, are nothing more than infertile females at bottom. Born sterile, they spend their lives gathering nectar, the bulk of which is consumed by the drones and queen, those bees that do nothing with their lives beyond mating.
Years afterward, as her husband lay dying, worker bees continued to gather on their lawn, circling Mary’s flowerbeds, all her own marigolds and borage. They kept gathering outside her kitchen window as her husband’s blood turned watery and left him struggling for oxygen. They fattened themselves outside her kitchen window while he disappeared, his life making no difference to their sweetness. These memories return to Mary as stone gods and goddesses keep watching, their eyes never closing.
It is only once she flies home that she knows for certain why the worker bees are vanishing from this earth. While her plane passes over the ocean, the knowledge comes unbidden. Closing the shade of her window against the water and clouds below, Mary believes she understands now why so many colonies are collapsing. There may easily be too many pesticides and viruses, but the worker bees have also begun tiring of their role. The sterile females have finished collecting honey for those who never leave the hive to forage. If any sweetness remains in this world, they have gone to seek it on their own. Flown toward some unfamiliar beauty.
Back in St. Louis, Mary will never be able to clearly picture his face again. His features will come to her in fragments, just before she wakes or falls asleep. The string of electric lights hanging above them almost blinded her at moments, and she will never know or need to know how it happened exactly. She will never offer an explanation to her sisters or coworkers or parents. Nor will she attempt to find her child’s father, the nameless florist who was dependent on bees to earn a living. When another summer comes to Missouri, her daughter will seem quieter than other young children around her in the park closest to their home, fond of watching strangers without seeking their attention. She will have a way of grasping onto Mary’s forefinger that feels less like affection and closer to a way of interpreting her mother’s thoughts, which might have been better expressed in Portuguese, had Mary ever learned more than a few phrases.
Before her daughter begins to crawl, she will enjoy tracing those veins on Mary’s hands that widen from her wrist toward her fingertips, that only come closer to breaching her skin as Lisbon recedes farther into memory. Mary will never fly again across an ocean, though at times she will be tempted. She will drive to the hospital where she takes her patients’ blood pressure, watches over the living and the dying.