Then the Sun Sets Fire to the Sea

When church bells toll seven, Porto is still sleeping off a gold lamé night of cherry liquor and tawny brandy. Most shops still sleep behind shutters, but the butchers and bakers are aberto, open quite literally, with doors propped to lure in the pale blue morning. Quayside, French doors are flung wide, waiting for the drowsy sun to blink out from her pillowed clouds.

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At the Mercado do Bolhão, lanes of covered stalls run like lines on a treasure map, leading to crates of gemlike dried fruit—citrine pineapple, peridot kiwi, and garnet passionflower—barrels of olives green and black like orbs of jade and jet, alien produce with spikes or fur, and fresh-caught fish sheathed in silver scales.

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In the stone passageway that opens on the market, The Organ Grinder’s child sits with Papa’s music box and a staring puppet. Wearing the same old newsboy cap and an oversized black coat, the child reads a picture book, sitting yardstick-straight in the tiny chair, performing already. Self-consciousness illuminates the pale face as brightly as stage lights. The Organ Grinder returns, holding up a slender jar of royally purple jam. Father and child tear a white roll in half, dolloping the craggy bread with gems of jam. Still splashed in imagined light, they eat slowly, performing ‘scrumptious’ and ‘satisfaction.’ They look out at me through the invisible panes that insulate their time from mine. They live in a liminal space between tick-marks on the timeline, a box with an airlock, where they breathe the rarefied vapors that keep their aura unmussed by modernity. If they tasted our toxic oxygen, they would corrode like onionskin manuscripts. I want to breathe their air. What does it smell like, in the space between times?

Back on the quay, Uncle Porto is waking up, tossing off his hangover like a bearskin rug. He’s rumpled this morning, the quayside houses all bunched together like a folded accordion. He has scattered the exotic contents of his wardrobe across the city, a colorful jumble of jonquil, blood orange, tiger’s eye, solstice sky, and waterlily.

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I walk miles down the Douro to where the river falls in love with the sea. As waves fling themselves at dark rocks, sea shells of spume spray up, and any moment Aphrodite will step from the white froth. Gulls slice fleeting cyphers across the sky, gliding and slashing like trick kites. Scattered across the coarse sand like bronze coins, the sunbathers glint with oil.

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I sit on the seawall, reading, as the sun follows the river’s plot line, out over the ocean. The shadows stretch, sleepy and sunburnt. Then the sun sets fire to the oily black waves. White flames burn the water platinum, veiling the horizon in silver haze.

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