With nothing but an old black and white photograph to go on, a writer searches for his ancestors in the Azores.
“O destino enviou você para sua família?” Carla asked as we drove through the dim yellow fog in the port city whose name I never knew. I had been lost in thought and had not caught what had preceded her statement, but that word, destiny, brought me back.
“I don’t believe in that sort of stuff,” I said in jumbled Portuguese.
Carla held a thin cigarette between her lips. She inhaled and blew the smoke in the direction of her cracked window.
“But you’re a Buddhist,” she said and turned to face me. I kept my eyes on the road and hoped that she would be persuaded to do the same.
“That doesn’t have anything to do with mysticism. It’s grounded. It has nothing to do with destiny.”
Carla tossed the cigarette from the window and rolled it up. We slowed as we approached the city. The radio skipped as we left the highway behind and rolled onto the cobblestone streets of Angra Do Heroísmo.
“Then why did you come here?” Carla asked after a pause. “If you don’t believe in anything, what made you come all the way here?”
I thought about that for a few minutes and believed that I had a response, but after thinking on it more, I decided that I did not. I knew why I had left America, and I even knew logically why I had chosen Terceira Island. But that wasn’t what she was asking me.
I walked the wheelbarrow and tools into the woods, to a clearing where Carla’s past volunteers had chopped down the overgrown trees to reveal the vineyard. For as far as one walked through the woodlands, the vineyard was there underfoot, long walls and deep pits of stacked volcanic stone. It was difficult to comprehend that men had constructed something that vast, just to let it be retaken by the invasive, thin trees that grew in dense patches across the island.
I set the wheelbarrow down and climbed into one of the old pits, where a Verdelho vine had once been cultivated. I grabbed the shovel and began to dig out the rocky soil and sieve it into the bucket. There were more rocks than dirt, but the soil itself was as fine as coffee grounds. Anything would grow in it. That much had been proven all over the island; it was one of the most biodiverse places I had ever been.
After the third bucket, I removed my shirt to let the sun warm my back. Wisps of cloud raced across the sky at a speed only possible on an archipelago. I tried to lose myself in the work, but it was hopeless. Carla’s question had returned, and I found myself hoping that the shovel would strike something in the dirt.
I would get down on my knees and dig with my city-clean fingers. I would find a bottle sealed with a cork. I would try to peer inside, but find it too foggy to view the contents. I would pull the cork from it and withdraw an old set of letters and, perhaps, a photograph. The photograph would show a family, the men bearing a resemblance to me so striking that it would be beyond doubt that they were my kin. Unfurling the papers, brittle in my now-dirtied fingertips, I would find a letter from them, telling me that I had found my home, that I had found my culture. You are Azorean, it would proclaim.
After digging for another hour, when the shovel finally did strike something solid, it turned out to be nothing more than a set of old animal bones.
After working in the garden, I would sit down for lunch with Carla. Sometimes I wouldn’t speak at all, only listen. She would tell me everything about her life, the pain and ruthlessness of it, the unfairness. She would tell me about the men she had loved, and she would tell me of the family she wished she had.
“What do you write in your little journal?” she asked. It was raining and the smoke of her cigarette floated around her like the heavy fog that crawled over the dormant Santa Barbara volcano in the early morning sun. I had my notebook in my lap.
“Nothing, just notes.”
“You are a writer?”
“No. I used to like to write, but I quit,” I said.
“You are a mystery. A dark mystery.”
“I guess you could put it that way,” I said, but it wasn’t true. I tried to think of myself as nothing at all. But that wasn’t true either.
I was a collection of unwanted and heaped-on things. Perhaps I had gone there to try and release a few of them, or to at least justify their being present. I hoped to find some proof that they had been inherited, some ancestry to satisfy my growing list of quirks.
Over post-lunch coffee, Carla said to me, “I am waiting for my mother to win the lottery, because I know she will share with me. She says that she will share with all of the family, but who knows, maybe she will not give to me.”
I worried that she would expect a response, but she did not meet my eyes. I watched the rain pound the trees, and I wondered if we were all waiting for our mothers to win the lottery. I wondered if we all doubted whether or not she would share with us.
I thought of my own mother, two thousand miles away, and I remembered the question that Carla had asked me.
If you don’t believe in anything, what made you come all the way here?
The first weeks passed in a different way than I knew from the deserts of Arizona. The weather changed and morphed like a living organism, and one morning, staring at the too-green mountains, I understood that it was. It was a glimmer of understanding, and it too passed without complaint.
I walked along the shore in the mornings, where I would look towards America and question what had led me there. I used to entertain more questions than I do now; I used to think that I would find answers to all of them. More and more often, I suspected that I would never find my family, that there was nothing buried in the dirt in the vineyard.
Yet, more days than not, I still dug. In the early afternoon, the wind would come down from the mountains and the thin trees would bend over me, like family members over the corpse of a loved one.
The black and white photograph that my mother had given me showed five Azorean people. My mother had written names and relations beneath some of them; your great great grandmother, your great uncle. Some of them were unknown. On the back of the postcard was a crude family tree that I had never been able to decipher, a list of names in cursive. I thought of the photo as I walked in the nature preserve at the center of the island.
At the end of the Misterios Negros trail, there was a viewpoint that looked into the crater of the volcano. Inside of it was a small farmhouse, a dot among the green fields. I would stare down at that farmhouse and imagine myself in it.
I often prayed that someone would exit the farmhouse, someone who looked like the people in the photograph, but no one ever did. The fog was always so thick that it would have been impossible for me to make out their features anyway.
“You have a familiar face,” Pedro said to me. His eyes glowed with youth, but his cheeks were sallow and his beard thin. He had an accent brought on by that unbounded joy that I was coming to recognize in certain people I met. He had volunteered to come and work Carla’s land, the same as I had.
We spoke over coffee in a cobblestone alleyway in Angra do Heroísmo, the oldest city in the Azores. It was also once a “refuel” stop between Europe and the New World. It was not lost on me that I was going in the opposite direction of my ancestors.
An Azorean woman passed by, her heels clicking on the stone. Her perfume comforted me, and I thought of love, I thought of time. How often had this scene played out?
“You are thinking of your family?” Pedro asked.
“I am,” I said. “But the trail is growing dimmer. And I am worried about finding nothing.”
He took a bite of his custard tart, washed it down with a sip of his coffee, and then stroked his beard with his thumb and forefinger.
“That’s the trouble,” he said. “You can’t lose your way; there’s no escaping it. Life and coincidence never let you stray too far… But I think that you already know this.”
His voice was hushed, but his eyes shown radiant. “I think you will find what you need.”
Pedro smiled over his coffee. He studied me for a moment, and his lips parted, but he only sipped his coffee and said nothing more.
After Pedro left, Carla and I drove back to Biscoitos. We went into a nameless cafe across the street from a nameless Catholic church. I sat down while Carla ordered and spoke to the owner of the cafe. She showed him the photograph, and he put on a pair of glasses and studied it.
“He says he does not know the names,” Carla said as she sat down. “But a man is coming who will.”
I raised my eyebrows. “I told you,” she said. “This is Azores. You can find anyone in a cafe.”
The seventy-year-old-man had never left Terceira. He wore a flat cap and a plaid overcoat, like the men in the photograph. He could have lived in the crater farmhouse. When he shook my hand, he paid no mind to my tattoos, a rare sentiment from an elderly man. He sat beside me and looked over the names on the photograph.
He stopped, his finger on a name. He looked at me and grinned, then turned to Carla and spoke, but I understood nothing. He finished scrolling over the family tree and shook his head. He shrugged, shook my hand again, and left the cafe. Carla had her lips pursed.
“What did he say?” I asked.
“He only knew one man in the picture,” she said. “All of the others are dead.”
“And what of the man he knew?”
“Well,” Carla looked at her empty espresso. “He said that man just moved to America.”
I laughed in a way that I had not in many years. When it became clear that it was not a laugh of pain, Carla joined in as well. I wiped the tears from my eyes and steadied myself.
“Looks like my search is over,” I said.
“Are you satisfied?” she asked as she lit a cigarette.
I thought of the vast crater and the farmhouse, and the great waves against Biscoitos’ coast, so powerful that they shook the island. I thought of Pedro’s eyes and the scent of perfume on the ancient city street that felt so familiar. Above all, I thought of my mother and the tears that had formed in her eyes when I had told her that I was going to leave America behind to find our Azorean ancestors.
“No,” I said. “But I have found enough.”
I do not believe in destiny. But I do believe in love, and I do believe in mystery. And in these subtle beliefs, there is a quiet satisfaction that is rivaled by nothing else. It is a satisfaction that is often only heard when one is many miles from home, on a search without end, but not without meaning.