In a time long ago, when my first marriage was fresh and new, I lived in a small villa along the coast of the Algarve in Portugal.
At the end of the dirt road that ran down to the lighthouse, my rooftop terrace looked out across the straits towards Casablanca on the North African coast.
On very clear mornings — or nights of the full moon — I would imagine I could make out the far edge of Africa but that was never true. The life of my wife and myself there was simple and romantic. We worked at writing and painting and at swimming and fishing. There was no electricity and our lights were kerosene lanterns. There was no running water and we drew what we needed from a vast cistern next to the house that collected the rains; a cistern that saved all the rainwater that fell on the Algarve; that fell on this semi-arid band of sand and stone carved deep with grottos and enhanced by endless small pocket beaches each with its own surfside bar.
What supplies we needed came from the village at the Pria de Carvoeiro about two miles from the villa. We’d go too and from the parking plaza at the sand’s edge in a clapped out old Peugeot that would see us through all of Europe. In the village you could buy two kinds of cheese, young or old. You could take your pick of fish carried up from the boats that had caught them the night before. If you wanted (really wanted) beef you might have to ask the town butcher to brush the coat of flies off the carcass in his window. There was a fine crusted loaf of bread to be had as well as any vegetable or fruit you could want as long as it was in season and raised within five miles of the village. There were three kinds of wine, red, white, and Vino Verde (light green and everywhere). If you wanted a cake you asked Casilda.
Casilda was from peasant stock; a woman who’d grown strong and stolid in the soil of the Algarve. Casilda was as blunt as she was beautiful. Her skin was mahogany. She was of the pear persuasion and had no formal education beyond rudimentary reading and writing. She had six children at the farm she shared with her family and her husband’s family. Her husband was — as so many men of Portugal’s Algarve had been since the dawn of the Age of Exploration — a sailor. Now her husband sailed away for months on the large Portuguese ships that fished for cod in the far northern seas. Those seas frightened Casilda and her prayers to God to spare her husband in any storms were part of the faint songs she would sing every day that she appeared at our house to take care of us and the house.
Casilda was a part of the house when we arrived and would always be there after we left. The house could not be the house without Casilda, it was some sort of unwritten Portuguese contract you signed on the air when you rented the house. Casilda was the best thing about the house. She didn’t speak a word of English. And nobody but the Portuguese speaks Portuguese. Except of course all of Brazil.
That didn’t matter because when you wanted cake Casilda would bring eggs fresh from her farm and whip up an angel food cake that would have angels standing in line before the shrine of St. Casilda of the Cakes. Beyond that, she was remarkable in her ability to care for the house and the grounds and her helpless “artiste” renters. Beyond even that, she was the most unfailingly kind soul I’ve ever known. This was true in many small gestures I’d observed — replacing fledglings falling from nests… that sort of thing. But the time when I shared her kindness was when we both saved “Escudo”[Sch-udoo].
Like most mornings I was writing on the roof terrace which gave me sweeping views of the coast and the ocean beyond. Below me, a two hundred yard dirt road ended at a lighthouse that had been keeping ships moving to or from the Straits of Gibraltar from wrecking on the rocky Algarve coast for centuries. My new wife was painting in her small studio downstairs or somewhere up along the line of cliffs that ran from the house to the village. Casilda was baking a cake in the kitchen and puttering about below.
I wrote/rewrote lines from Seed in my notebook secretly wishing it was the afternoon so my wife and I could go to the beach for some grilled fish and cold beer after a swim in the grotto. Then I noticed a tumbling cluster of what looked like some twenty dogs coming up the road to the lighthouse — rolling and barking and jumping on something small and screaming in the center of the pack — and then dogs were jumping out of and back into the pack all barking madly in the hot dust of the road — and the whole seething shebang was coming right up the dirt road near my house — and I saw what it was and I was down the stairs and out the gate with my walking stick running into a canine gang rape in progress.
Somewhere in the center of these twenty dogs of all shapes and sizes was a small female mongrel in heat. That was what had gotten into the dogs until they were all trying to get a turn; trying to have a go. It was not a pretty sight but it was also an intimidating one. Approaching the pack it dawned on me I was going to face down some twenty feral dogs with a walking stick. It gave me pause. I hesitated.
Not so Casilda. She just came down the road with the purposeful one foot in front of the other blunt stride that she had, snatched my walking stick from my hand without asking, and waded into the center of the dog pack. The stick became a blur clubbing any dog near it with a force that let you hear the ribs crack. The dog gang-bang evaporated in under twenty seconds with all mutts yipping, running, limping, or hobbling towards the exits. Between Casilda’s feet was a small and shivering bitch with bites and claw marks tearing her skin and a beaten exhausted slackness in her eyes and all over her body. Casilda picked her up in her apron and we took her back to the house.
Casilda and I had a kind of pidgin language that we used to communicate; Englisuese or Portulish if you will. I got towels while she soothed the little dog in her lap in the kitchen. Casilda talked to the dog in, of course, Portuguese… And soothed the animal’s anxiety level down to simply shivers.
We wrapped part of her in a towel and then we took a closer look at this rape victim. What we’d saved was a dog that would have been dead in a day. She only weighed about 10 pounds and was obviously a very young dog that had come into her first heat. Her coat had a number of bites and scratches where the other dogs had tried to hold her. She had a gaunt uncared-for look that said she was one of the numberless ownerless dogs that floated around the Algarve. Her eyes were rheumy and focused on the nearest being to her as if she thought you might at any moment just reach down and kill her. She had no fight left in her. She was a complete mutt with a coat part ochre and part dusky yellow. Under her muzzle and encircling her throat around and behind the ears and down around the throat was a necklace of eighty-six well-fed, blood-gorged ticks.
It was the most repulsive display of parasitism I had ever seen and I dropped the dog back down on the table when I saw this. Not Casilda. She gave me to understand that, repulsed as I might be, I had to hold the mutt in the towel she’d bundled it in. Then she went into the pantry closet where the things of Casilda were kept. She came back with a candle, a flat screwdriver, a bottle of sulfur powder, and a jar full of some sort of vaguely taupe cream. She lit the candle and put the screwdriver beside it. Then she took the dog from me and wrapped her even more snugly in the towel. Then she just sat. Sat still. Sat still petting the animal slowly for about five minutes and then began to sing to it. What did she sing? I never knew since I never knew the Portuguese words she sang. But the dog did and very slowly the animal’s anxiety slackened and, amazingly, she fell asleep in Casilda’s lap.
Casilda held the screwdriver’s flat tip over the candle flame and then very gently brought it close to where each tick’s head was embedded into the dog’s neck with its bloated with blood belly above. Close to the tick but away from the neck. After a moment the tick stirred and backed itself a bit out of the neck. Casilda’s free hand would dart in and pluck the tick out with the head still on it and drop it into a bucket she’d put on the floor with some kerosene in the bottom. Then her hand would lift up the bottle of sulfur powder and give the wound a quick dusting. The dog, knowing what she was about after the first tick, lay quietly in her lap and submitted to it.
It took Casilda the better part of two hours to get rid of the 86 fat ticks that had formed a collar of parasites around the neck of the dog. (I counted the repulsive bodies in the kerosene bucket.) Then Casilda heated some water and washed the dog’s wounds and dried them and then put some more sulfur over the wounds, and then applied the strange taupe cream, and then wrapped a bandana around the dog’s wounded neck; a bandana that turned out to be a piece Casilda trimmed out of her neckerchief. She took some towels, made a nest on the bottom of a cupboard, and settled the dog into its folds where, at last, and gazing at Casilda as you would gaze upon a goddess, she fell finally asleep.
But Casilda was not quite done since during the hours it had taken to care for the dog it was still in heat. The scent was attracting the dogs Casilda had scattered with a stick and they had come skulking back to see if they could have another go. About six of them were roaming about the yard of the villa when Casilda came around the corner from the kitchen door.
Six rocks, six thwacks, six howls and six dogs gone down the dirt road never to be seen again.
My wife and I went down to the beach for the evening swim, barbequed chicken with fried potatoes and a green salad washed down with a cold carafe of Vino Verde and finished off with a sharp strong shot of aguardiente. When we got back Casilda was gone along with the little dog.
But the dog was back again the next morning. Back right at the heels of Casilda that day and every day after. It didn’t matter after that where Casilda moved the little dog was never, ever more than five feet away from the woman who had snatched it out of a gang of rapists, pulled 86 ticks from its neck, and stoned its tormentors. The dog was, how shall I say it, spot-welded to Casilda’s heels. From that morning on Casilda’s every move had its small canine shadow. In time the wounds around the neck healed even though the fur never really grew back and gave her a coat with a collar of scars. She didn’t care. She had Casilda and that was all she knew on earth and all she needed to know.
We named her “Escudo” after the basic unit of Portuguese money — think “Penny.” If Casilda was around I could get Escudo to take some petting and romping from time to time, but if Casilda left the room Escudo was right after her on the bounce.
This went on for nearly three months until the morning Casilda and Escudo showed up with a raffia basket slung over Casilda’s shoulder. With Escudo at her feet, Casilda showed me the basket which contained an even smaller Escudo. It was her single puppy, a girl.
Every day after Casilda would work and clean at my villa in the Algarve. Every day Escudo would follow her around and then nurse her puppy until the time came when the puppy began to follow Escudo who was following Casilda. Soon it was like watching a puppy train with a Portuguese folk-song soundtrack move about the house.
And so it went until life recalled my first wife and me to move to Aix-en-Provence and we had to say goodbye. It was, frankly, a tear-filled goodbye since all knew we would never see each other again. And so one noon, Casilda turned in the doorway and walked — stolid blunt strong –up the dirt road towards her farm with Escudo behind her and the puppy scampering behind Escudo.
All long, long ago. At least six lifetimes ago. And here I am now remembering what my original motive was for starting to tell of this far faded incident nobody else alive will remember. That was a few days back. That thought had to do with the parasites around the dog’s neck. It was going to be some long pocket essay about how a society can only take so many blood-sucking parasites on its neck before it begins to die unless some strong sort of de-ticking is deployed. Was that it?
Yes, that was it. Some sort of vague morality tale about the blighted culture we currently inhabit. Who needs that? There are a million stories about the naked and the dead cities of America. We know the disease and we dread the cure but we don’t need another homily. God knows I don’t need one. So I think I will just drop it.
Instead, I want to recall an afternoon when a woman who did not speak my language sat with me and taught me about the simple humanity of caring for the broken, the wounded, and the worthless. I hope Casilda and the descendants of Escudo are still living on her family farm in the Algarve. I hope she has the pleasure of her husband safe at home at last. I hope she has held her grandchildren and thinks, not often but sometimes, of the strange Americans who helped her one summer afternoon long ago save Escudo.