Agramonte was her playground when she was a child. Hand-in-hand with her mother, wearing her Sunday best right after church, Ines would arrive. Her mother would wash three gravestones while she used the time to stroke cats that she had named, treated them as she would any friend, talked to them as equals.
Her mother would begin with Duarte, the uncle she had lost in the war. She would pour water over the stone, use her hand to get rid of the dust and the odd dead leaf, use the cloth that she had left handy to wipe it, utilise a second one with polish. When the sun reflected beautifully from that surface, she would take off the flowers from a labelled bag, spread them over, and finally the cherry on top, the candle that was specially taken from the church for this purpose.
A similar ceremony would take place for her parents, but they somehow felt less splendid. They were not even blessed with a church candle, just one from the shop if they were lucky. Ines never understood the reason for her mother’s hostility towards the two people who were the reason for her existence. And she never asked.
Ines grew to be a beautiful woman, her hair the deepest russet of Porto sunsets. She stopped the tradition of being in tow of her mother on Sundays. She ran her own bar and with every sway of her hip, heads turned, the crowds undulated. She had her own specific way of serving drinks. She would put the glass down in front of a customer and very lightly brush a finger over the back of their hand, enough to make them shut their eyes and gasp. She would giggle and slap that hand before returning to the counter.
It was a day like any other. She had served a few regulars, put on some music to help pass the loll. She saw the silhouette of a man in a trench coat walk in, approach her in the counter, and turn into a real man as he placed both hands on the bar and asked for a whisky. There was a hoarseness in his voice that transported Ines to a past long gone, forcibly forgotten. But the claws of that voice scratched something in her, a feeling of warmth and intimacy. It scared her. She placed the drink in front of him, but did not touch his hand.
He stared at her, tilting his head, peering into her eyes, as if he was a scientist looking at a new species. This elongated pause ended in a dutiful ‘thank you’.
He took a deep breath and dropped his head.
“I’ve been summoned,” he said, in a much gentler voice.
“Excuse me?” said Innes.
“You remember me, don’t you?”
“I think you should,” he said, and slid his rucksack smoothly all the way to the floor.
“You were a happy kid. Even then you had your own world. You didn’t seem to care much for the people around you. Animals, on the other hand, were your real friends.”
“How do you know this? You must be younger than me.”
“Looks can be deceptive, if you will excuse the cliché.”
He saw Ines’s confusion and went on.
“Do you remember that seagull with the crooked beak? You’d named him. Wait a second. What was it? Trevor? Tony? No! Toby! Yes, it was Toby!”
He was now smiling a wide smile. You could see the joy of remembrance all over him.
“You’re freaking me out,” said Ines, “how do you know all about this? I have never told anyone.”
“You told me. All of it. We played together.”
“No we didn’t. I have not a clue who you are. And I never played with any boy.”
“I played the bugle for you,” he said.
Ines covered her mouth with the hand that had enchanted many revellers with its touch. She could neither speak, nor show any other form of reaction.
“Why are you so surprised? You would sit down by my feet and instruct me what to play for you. You would ask the cats you had befriended to dance to my sad songs.”
He could see that Ines’s brows were conspiring to become a knot. Her eyes moist and perturbed, as if she has seen a ghost.
“You are the sculpture of the bugler?” Ines took her time to manage that sentence. She felt her stomach turn into a crumpled piece of paper as she said it. She couldn’t believe that she had said it.
“You didn’t talk to a piece of bronze. You called me your friend. Nothing has changed.”
A moment of silence. They both lent their gazes to the other end of the bar, where a vase homed a single branch of magnolia.
“Glad your tastes haven’t changed much,” he said.
A thin, insubstantial rain began to drop. The man stood up, left a few coins on the bar, walked to Ines and rested his palm on her face. The music stopped. The air didn’t move an inch. The drinkers didn’t drink.
She was not able to respond or to move, as if his touch had turned her into a bronze sculpture, with her feet firmly glued to the ground.
“I’ve been summoned,” he said again, and turned into a silhouette.
Ines took a deep breath. It must have been a dream. She ran to the window and saw the back of the man’s coat, bugle sticking out of his bag, his heavy boots. A seagull flew by him and the man disappeared into the mist that hid the bridge.
Without hesitating any more, Ines left the bar and headed towards the graveyard, walking first, then bouncing into a run that created more music than speed in her high heels. She arrived at the entrance that she had avoided for many years.
As soon as she set foot into the soil of Agramonte, she turned eight. Trees were tall again. An old woman was feeding the cats. Ines stood a fair distance apart and watched. Considering it was midweek, a fair number of people were tending to tombs of their loved ones. Among the lanes were a man and a woman who picked random graves and studied them, then moved on their discovery, checking the sky and commenting on how blue it was.
The old woman spoke to the cats like equals, as if they were her friends. She fed them sardines that she had already deboned and cleaned. Her ankles were fat; as she kept balancing her weight from one foot to the next, you could see that they ached. She wore a serious face under her green, angular spectacles, but from time to time, as if a cat has cracked a joke, she changed to a short giggle that, in turn, made Ines smile.
Ines approached the group, taking light steps so that she wouldn’t disturb the feast. Although the woman’s bag was still half full and her feeding in full swing those cats who noticed Ines abandoned eating and gathered round her, rubbing their fur to her legs. There was a familiar tune in the air, or perhaps in Ines’s head. The old woman turned to her direction and their gazes met, locked for long: a mute conversation. She smiled and pointed down the lane, as if directing Ines to something.
She asked the cats to leave her alone as she was there for a different reason. Ines drifted down the trail and against her she saw her bugler, in his beautiful brownish green uniform, his crisp hat. He was already playing for her. Toby was flying overhead in circles. Ines went forward and without a word hugged her friend. She then sat by his foot and listened. Toby landed and sat by them.
Ines lost herself in the music. She cried. In every teardrop a thousand sail boats, each in their very own colours, shades that are unknown to human eye, hues that would put the whole pack of Renaissance painters to shame. She cried silent tears, a silence that froze the air around her, turning the people walking by into bronze statues. It rained magnolia petals in Agramonte. The scent travelled across the ocean, turned heads upwards to trace where it was coming from in the four corners of the Earth. People felt the colours of the sails in the smell of magnolia. They found enchantment in her sadness. They became one with her.