C R E A T I V E N O N F I C T I O N
VISIT TO FUNCHAL, MADEIRA
b y s h e i l a n i c k e r s o n ~ b e l l i n g h a m, w a s h i n g t o n
WE ARRIVED at Quinta Palmeira, Cousin Theo's Funchal estate, on a warm September afternoon of faded flowers. Cousin Theo's mind was like the season, waning but still capable of color. Once, she had directed sixteen gardeners and knew each plant by name. Now she leaned on Stacy, her nurse, and Fernanda, her maid, as she walked beside the hibiscus mutabilis, which blooms white in the morning, dies pink in the evening.
Another maid, 89-year-old Carolina, had greeted guests at Quinta Palmeira for sixty years. Once, many years ago, she eloped for a day with the chauffeur but was back by night. Now she opened the door for us and led us into the dark marble hall swelling with the sweetness of frangipani. When Cousin George was alive, huge fires burned in the fireplaces of the vestibule after dinner. Carolina led us past the empty grates and up past rooms filled with treasures to the room with orchids where Cousin Theo waited.
It was hard for Cousin Theo to concentrate on us, to remember who we were—her godson, whom she had never met, and his wife from America. Every so often, she would seem to remember, and conversation would rise. At the large dining room table, she would summon the next course—brought up from the basement kitchen—by ringing a small silver bell that once was a child's rattle. While she slept in the afternoons, we would drive over the torturous roads of Madeira; once, to the festival at Camacha.
We wandered through her numerous gardens. In one was set the stone frame of a huge window—said to be the Columbus window. Before his famous voyage, Columbus had lived in Madeira and married the daughter of the governor of the neighboring island, Porto Santo, and had a son.
I looked through the window that Columbus had looked through before he set sail to the west in order to find the east. I looked through his eyes. There I was—very small, a drop in a cloud on the far horizon. I was traveling from one world to the next without ship or wings. Because I was neither bird nor storm, the great navigator had no interest. He looked away, but I kept watching him. Soon, his wife dead, he would leave Madeira for Spain. Later, by way of the Azores, he would catch the guardian current that would carry him into history. Much later, I would fly, by way of England, to Madeira. I would lean through his window. Everywhere I looked, I would see flowers. The autumn air would be thick and crowded where worlds had merged while Cousin Theo napped.
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