She’d brought the seeds back with her from Galicia. Grelos, broccoli raab, rapini. She had been a bit afraid, thinking it was illegal to bring them into the US, but they had been packaged in a box with a label, and didn't look like they could possibly harbor any sort of fatal disease. She had chanced upon the package in O Toural, in a square with an old fountain. She’d gone into a shop that had been there for years, selling exactly the same things: seeds, bulbs, a set of white porcelain cups and pitcher for drinking blood-red yet thin Ribeiro or swarthy Barrantes wine, some small potted juniper bushes, and a couple of kitsch plates from Portugal. The plates were typical of the inexpensive ceramics sold in Barcelos at the open air market - like with the burgundy lobsters flanked by purplish-blue mussels, all sitting on a seaweed bed. The box’s white rectangle had a picture of grelos fanned open on the front, and thousands, maybe millions, of tiny brown-black seeds rattling inside. One couldn’t be discrete carrying it, she thought. “They’ll probably hear it and ask me to take it out’, she fretted. On the flight back to Maine, she’d heard the dark spheres clicking like a tiny, sad maraca far inside the plane’s hold. The minutest of sounds, like a distant heartbeat, unceasing and sad.
Long before she arrived home, the woman had begun to plan. ‘Will grelos grow in Maine? The season is so short. Is there time for them to germinate and mature for harvest?’ One had to be practical – just acquiring the seeds was a far cry from the actual production of the healthy, green, edible leaves of Galicia, the ones that painted so many fields and filled so many generations of hungry mouths. She’d chosen her garden with eyes and heart, but perhaps with less logic than needed. ‘It’s worth a try anyway’, she thought, recalling her grandmother’s oft-repeated phrase of encouragement: nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Ironic she should remember that adage. Her grandmother had been gone since she was a little girl of six. Still, it gave her the courage to plant the seeds that were so unfamiliar, so numerous, so vital to her future.
She asked herself, although didn’t bother to wait for an answer, how many leiras, how many ferrados or cuncas this box would sow? How much hunger could its seeds satisfy once they’d grown into leafy plants? How much hunger had the tiny seeds satisfied in the Galicia of generations past, when there were no potatoes due to the blight, money was unknown, and men left for America, for something, for something? One little box, so much to give. The grelos must be very ancient. They never seemed to die. There was such an intense, ferruginous green in the inexpensive box. Perhaps it could feed the world.
The woman had met a fellow there in Galicia, a younger man who appeared to be in his mid-thirties. She was just into her forties and it had been an accident. Everything had been an accident, from the unplanned excursion to Cacheiras that led to a jaunt off along the estrada de Ourense to O Quinco for some boiled polbo where they’d sat for an eternity watching the sun depart over the hill. An accident, but not a mistake.
They fell in love, but she had to return to her home because of her job. The man didn't understand, but he didn’t change his mind nor what he said to her from the first moment. On their last day together, they’d gone for a walk through the casco vello of Santiago and she’d remarked, while pointing in the store window: “They’ll remind me of you.” He’d ducked quickly inside, spoken to the owner, and paid for the box. He emerged with a broad smile on his face, suddenly looking more mature than before, and in a very steady, serious voice said that the seeds only began to measure his love for her. She had looked at him, wistfully wondering if it could be possible and promising herself she would know if he was telling the truth, wanting to believe him. It didn't matter if his words rang false. He seemed honest. He seemed to care. He seemed like a person who had been born and grown up in Galicia, whatever that meant.
He promised that he would come to be with her, to live with her and be her love. He'd promised. Now she was nearly back in Maine again with a small rectangle full of promise.
She only had to plant the little blackish-brown seeds, and when they were grown into plants with bright green leaves, he'd be there. She only had a small garden space, so the box would still be quite full, but it didn't matter how many she planted. The important thing was to plant them at the right time, make sure no late frost would come to burn the tender young shoots. Then she would have to take care to water them enough if there happened to be a long dry spell. Of course droughts weren’t common in Maine, even in the summer, any more than they were in Galicia.
“This is simple,” the woman told herself. She wasn’t inexperienced at gardening, but then again she’d never tried her hand at grelos. The climates might not match.
The first year, the woman barely planted a quarter of a ferrado. It was all she had room for in the small plot. Surprisingly, the grelos grew well. Picking an armful of the sturdy leaves and hugging them to her so as not to drop a single precious one, she hummed a Galician tune she’d heard on one of their trips to Rianxo or Muros, although there hadn’t been time to learn the words. She was aware now that whoever hears a gaita or bagpipe play under certain conditions can never get rid of its haunting, moaning notes. She knew now why her friend could burst into tears in the centro galego in New York City when the gaiteiros played. It wasn’t just music for tourists, even if the government tried to use it for that purpose. The gaita had a mind of its own.
In the kitchen, the woman washed the leaves, carefully caressing them as the cool flow of water traveled along their rough, veined surface. They’d needed no fertilizer but the good garden soil and strong sun. She thought of him and how he’d seemed to mean it when he promised to come. Then, heart beating a little faster than usual, she tried to make her first caldo galego using a recipe from Rodeiro. It wasn't a bad effort, but it didn't meet the standards for an experienced cook's caldo and she knew it. Still, it consoled her because it had the scent and texture of the caldo she had first tried when she was with him. Maybe it was just because the unto was different. She knew that, because in Galicia the tightly-molded yellowish roll of suet had the appearance of rural curing in a diet that found ways to fill in the empty corners of the stomach during years of hunger. The fresh, pink-streaked white slabs of suet in the grocery store here at home were mostly intended for bird feeders, not for human consumption. They were good to hold seeds in place for hungry chickadees and finches, but were merely a means to an end, not part of the end themselves. Most people would never even think of cooking with suet.
The woman finished off the batch of caldo by herself.
The second year, the woman was concerned that the seeds would not sprout, but she need not have worried. At first she wasn't going to plant anything, since obviously he had not kept his promise, but something made her measure out another small handful of the contents and plant them. This time, instead of the usual variety, she filled most of her garden space with grelos, even though she knew they would produce more than she could eat if they did grow. If he came, they could eat them together. She might look for another recipe, too. ‘Dona Teresa made bertóns. I think that was what she called them’, the woman recalled. ‘The stuffing didn’t seem too complicated’. They’d reminded her of dolmades and she knew they were full of iron. Women often need extra iron.
The harvest was good – oddly, even more abundant than the year before - and she thought it might be the way she laid the seeds in the earth. She’d sown the seeds a bit more carefully and tenderly this time, maybe because there had been a bit more morriña in her fingers as she picked them up a few at a time and placed them in the shallow furrows Again, she prepared a large pot of caldo, and this too was a little more like the way she remembered it had tasted when she was in Galicia. She was learning. She even located the recipe for the bertóns, making a batch for herself and another for her elderly neighbor, Hulda
He didn't come, however. He couldn't come. There was a reason, apparently, but he did not come. He wrote, apologizing, but gave no details. He said he hadn’t changed his mind. She could be sure of that. She had to believe him. As was logical, she wept a little, but that was all. She knew there were a lot of seeds remaining in the box.
The third year, she found out how resistant grelos seeds really are. The box was indeed bottomless. She had a surplus with which to sow the plot again. This year, on a whim, she devoted the entire garden to them. The bright green leaves grew and grew. Even dormant inside their box, the spheres seemed to have been growing more acclimated to Maine. Then too, the gardener was becoming more experienced, more patient and more aware of the tiny details that helped create the perfect growing conditions. As a cook, she was making the same progress. She made a glowing caldo – her best yet - and then noticed a few gray hairs escaping from her head, which she had pulled back while cooking. Her temples were moist and the hairs stuck to them in soft waves, refusing to be pushed out of sight. She thought of him and knew it was time he came. He didn't. Only his letters told her she wasn’t forgotten and allowed her to continue cultivating the scant hope that he would come to Maine some day.
The fourth year came. She planted the last of the little grelos seeds, discovering – a bit to her surprise - that the box wasn't bottomless after all. True, she had to add another tiny area of garden in order to use up the last black spheres whose number was still quite significant, but she’d planned to expand the space anyway. The empty box sat beside the rows, soaking up some of the moisture from the just-watered soil. It was hard to tell if it still held the original promise of a shared life or not.
The woman made her finest caldo yet on July 24, the day before the Galician national holiday. By now she had included some of her own culinary intuition, while time had also sharpened her memory regarding the way it was supposed to taste. It was steaming as she leaned over the kitchen counter and tried it. She knew it had finally reached perfection, and the combination of the greens with the Maine potatoes was perhaps even an improvement over the native version. Then she thought about the festas that had been going on in Santiago since last June and felt an immense desire to be there. She had enjoyed herself so much walking about the streets hour after hour. She’d give anything to return, watch the people, the mimes and other street performers, the pilgrims of all types and motives. The memories did not make her forget she was alone, but she didn’t want to let them fade, either.
* * *
The huge pot of caldo stood on the stove, still hot, although she is not tending to it now.
Remnants of grelos leaves still stand out brightly in the garden, awaiting a second, smaller batch of caldo.
The sun is shining; it is one of those hot, blue, cloudless days that spread from ground to sky. Summer in Maine, so soft and alive.
The heat and light make it feel like July in Galicia, exactly like it. Azure, gray, white and pure green painting the paisaxe and framing distance with utter intimacy.
There are some rough, rounded stones at the end of the back yard, gray granite with flecks of mica that sparkle in the sun. Although too round to be part of a menhir or dolmen, their rough surface resembles that of some stones in Compostela and others in Asados, near Rianxo.
The woman has come out into the back yard again to look around at all the gray, green, and blue that are definitely more an obsession than a group of colors. She holds the knife she used for peeling potatoes and cutting up the grelos when she comes out into the yard. On a whim she sticks the knife handle into the ground of the plot. The metal blade glints momentarily in the strong light, like the rocks of the Celtic castro de Baroña shimmered the day they walked among them beside the Atlantic Ocean.
The sturdy, strong-veined grelos leaves turn crimson. They gleam furiously in the sun, then darken and become still. The future caldo continues to wait deliciously in a huge aluminum pot on the stove. The first batch, in fact, is ready. Soon after, the letter carrier delivers the mail. There is a postcard among the items placed in the deep metal box beside the front door. The postcard shows an azure sky. In the middle sits a cluster of hórreos, standing vigil beside a ría. It should not have taken so long to arrive, but sometimes the mail is slow or we don’t send something as soon as we write it. We may want to add more to the message, or need to locate the address, or have to find out how much the overseas postage is.
The woman did not see that the postcard with its hórreos had very little written on it - just a few words, a bit smudged:
"I'll be there on July 25, early."