As I open the window of my third story apartment in Sintra, a paradise on the outskirts of Lisbon, the sky has returned to blue and appears refreshed from yesterday’s announcement that summer is ending, and autumn is imminent: a steely gray torrential downpour.
The heavenly sky provides a backdrop to the National Palace of Sintra, spectacular and resplendent in alabaster stucco. Whispers of Mughal architecture are present in Moorish arches that frame half the windows on the upper story while others showcase frames of Spanish Gothic style. From this viewpoint, one of the palace kitchen’s enormous conical chimneys rises to scattered clouds of white and soft gray, perfectly obstructing the twin chimney behind it.
A pleasant, cool breeze invites herself into the flat and brings with her four flies, so I have a quick search for a flyswatter but fail to find one. Despite the absence of weaponry, they could not have chosen a less fortunate place. I haven’t cooked anything yet and have only a modest selection of produce in the minifridge.
Having realized their predicament, they hover about and circle one another indecisively in the middle of the living room and I am reminded of many layovers of the last twenty-seven years with my pilots and fellow flight attendants—a bunch of drunk, disoriented, and hungry travelers arguing over who was in charge of finding a place with a cheap buffet.
Down on the street, restaurant workers scramble to place tables and chairs on the cobbled walks as onions and peppers destined for omelets sauté in olive oil and rich black coffee percolates. Their aromas lick at the town to invite guests.
I watch three groundskeepers as they refresh a trio of small planting beds in the roundabout below my window overlooking the town’s heart center. They strike the ground with hoes and pry out small plants with caps of white flowers, and the smell of upturned dirt travels to where I watch from behind an ornamental iron rail that crosses the terrace opening. They work the soil and remove the spreading roots, but leave after planting a petite bushy plant with variegated foliage in the center of two of the beds. Grassy clumps edge the inside of the tiled-off patches of earth, and I don’t know why they are taking out the flowers but leaving the grass.
Three floors beneath me, a vast bed of orange and yellow marigolds adorns the corner on the south side of the triangular roundabout. The bed is about two and a half feet tall and is contained by round snug timbers that stand upright in a log wall.
I was here a couple of months ago. In July, the beds were fluffy and prolific with blooms, but they would have been even more brilliant had someone regularly deadheaded the blossoms that were tired and shriveled. Spent blooms only task the plant by exerting its energy on converting the spent flowers into seeds.
Maybe it was a purposeful practice decided by the Sintra gardeners. Perhaps it is their agricultural preference to allow more seeds to form, drop and germinate, but I found it frustrating that they would choose that delayed gratification. If they were regularly deadheaded, the existing plants would flourish, growing and blooming, filling the beds much sooner.
Therefore, I asked a shopkeeper if he knew who maintains the landscaping in town. He indicated that he did not. Furthermore, the expression on his face as he shrugged his shoulders messaged that he didn’t care, or that the question had never been asked of him nor tickled his own curiosity.
I was tempted to furiously snap all the wilted, drying flowers and watch them sprout new ones over the following days, but thought better of it in case the Portuguese consider it trespassing or vandalism—in the same way that a common tourist should never touch the queen’s gardens in London. Still, I may have clandestinely snipped a few as I walked by anyway—the marigolds, not the queen’s flowers.
Now, in September, the marigolds look worse for their wear. Their volume has decreased considerably although the weather is still supportive. Much more of the dirt is visible as I look down on them because the plants have withdrawn or been thinned out. I should have saved them in July. They will soon be gone with the first frost, and never having reached their full potential.
I look back across the street to the sidewalk beneath the palace. There is a man tending to two horses hitched to a sightseeing carriage, waiting for a fare. The three of them claim the same spot where I saw them in July under a tilting tree that provides a generous patch of shade from the sun that reflects off the white tiles that line the street. The cooler temperatures are mercy for the man and his animals now that summer has passed.
The horse keeper wipes down the seats and bonnet of his carriage as he hums a tune that I hear between sporadic grumbles of tuk-tuk motors as the town is slowly coming to life after sleeping in late on a Wednesday. He then walks to the hind end of one horse and lifts his tail, examines what is revealed, then he lowers his gaze down the horse’s legs, and gives it a light playful slap on the rear before and walking around the back side of the carriage to the other horse where he repeats his steps. The tail is lifted, what is revealed is studied, and again the man looks downward, and as he slaps the horse’s rear, he shouts something that sounds like a mock-scolding, followed by lesser mumbling.
Only then do I notice the wide bucket that is suspended behind the horses’ backsides and wide enough to tail both of them. The man lifts a black plastic liner out of the bucket and carries it a few steps to one of two circular shallow waste dumpsters. He turns out its contents, shakes the bag three times to assist the evacuation, and plods back to where the horses stand.
Next to them sits a large concrete vat whose faucet juts out of the wall of the plinth where the palace sits. With a water hose that dangles from a square opening in the wall, he rinses the liner and returns it into the manure receptacle that hangs between the horses and his front seat on the carriage.
One of the horses seems content or bored, or possibly both. It stands still and quiet. The other awkwardly nods her head and stomps her front right foot onto the cobbled sidewalk. A few seconds later, repeats her statement. She jerks her head up and down again and lifts her right back hoof in a half kick before stomping it into the sidewalk. They are clearly cared for, but still I feel a sense of melancholy, wondering what they are thinking about and what would they rather be doing.
Their keeper crosses to the roundabout’s median to chat with the gardeners who appear to be finished with their work. I hope he’s telling them to pull the weeds and tend to the marigolds.
But the gardeners do neither. The horse man returns to his team and one of the gardeners takes a bag of uprooted white flowers to the same dumpster that swallowed the horse waste. One of his partners surveys the weedy grass surrounding the leafy plant and presses a flat green disk into place at the edge of the bed. Then the three of them pick up their shovels and hoes and walk away, but not toward the marigolds. They are spared the same fate as the white flowers, for now.
If I could stay awake late into the night, I would go down to the street after the bars close and no one is around, and pinch the marigolds. If they show enough life to continue a few more weeks, they will be a brilliant accompaniment to many of the trees that blanket the hills as they assume their fall colors amid the wildly diverse flora of Sintra.