Maria and the Ocean

Bruno Martins Soares

Not many people know this story. A story from before the waves. Before the winds. Before the sandstorms and tropical storms and all the other storms. Many would say it’s not true. But they said the same thing about carbon and look at us now.

There was a town in Portugal, West of Paris, North of Lisbon, South of Oporto, called Aveiro. At the end of a river that came from the mountains nearby, the town had its own kind of charm and tenderness. A few colorful fishing boats with an ancient philosophy had the habit of docking near the low bridges, while waiting for the evident but rare decisions to go to sea. The buildings were humble, not too tall, not too shabby, but solid. It had a football stadium, and a football team and a railway station. It was even big enough for every Portuguese man, women or children to have ever heard of it, but not big enough for anyone outside the country ever to notice it.

In that town, lived a little girl called Maria. Maria was shy and candid. People who knew her loved her, but those who didn’t barely noticed her. Many or even most of those who didn’t know Maria actually knew her grandmother, Graça. Some knew Maria’s brothers, a bit older than her, maybe twelve or thirteen, who always teased and ignored her the few times they were around. No-one had ever seen her parents, though. Well, at least not for a long time. Once, when she was really little, maybe two or three, they had come to her, at the beach where she was looking for shells to offer them, and they said: “You need to stay with your grandmother and your brothers, okay, Maria? We will see each other soon.” And then they left. Maybe forever.

Graça lived near the beach and Maria liked the sand and the sea very much. Her grandmother trusted her, so sometimes she would be almost all alone on the beach, playing and running around. Graça would be near, but she would be telling stories to her friends and hearing tales about indiscrete neighbors. And Maria would be smiling to herself, her big brown eyes searching through the sand, her small feet splashing on the foam of the waves.

Her brothers, Júlio and José Luís only witnesses of the first significantly strange thing that happened with Maria. They were all at the beach, by the Atlantic Ocean. The two boys, always a handful, experts at teasing Maria, were for once quiet, talking to each other, enjoying the afternoon sun. Graça was further away. She had things to do. And Maria was sitting on the sand carefully and calmly counting the shells and little peddles she had collected. She must have been fifty or sixty feet from the lazy waves that came to the shore. But then, in a moment—Júlio and José Luís swear to this—the sea did something strange. The only way they could describe it was like a tongue, a wave in a shape similar to a tongue, coming towards the little girl. It was a low wave, not scary at all, and the ‘tongue’ that stretched through the sand was barely a couple of inches tall. But it stretched. It stretched in a weird fashion. In a way that Júlio and José Luís, who’d been living by the sea their whole lives, would never forget. The water ‘stretched’—they’d repeat over and over—it stretched fifty or sixty feet towards Maria. She saw it also, finally. She looked at the water coming for her feet and she smiled, amused, even though it was a very strange happening. The water stretched, and touched Maria’s feet pleasantly, and then the tongue retreated, back down fifty or sixty feet, and the Ocean went back to its usual manner, doing what it had always done as far as anyone could tell.

No-one gave much credit to Júlio and José Luís’s story, of course. A ‘tongue of water’ coming to touch Maria’s feet? What a lame, unimaginative story. And the girl would report nothing out of the ordinary. So many would just believe that the boys had been experimenting with marijuana, or glue, or something of the sort. They were at that age. The age to get high and then, scarce of experience, be naïve enough to tell other people the strange things they had seen. Still, they maintained their story for years to come. There was a ‘weird tongue’ in the sea that day. A ‘weird tongue’ that touched Maria’s feet.

By this time, some changes going on in the world were already felt. The ice was melting and islands had submerged and coral reefs were dying everywhere. Still, no-one yet recognized the links between all that was going on with the weather and the earthquakes that were plaguing the planet. They would soon.

A year after the incident witnessed by the brothers, the first large earthquake off the coast of Portugal occurred. The news would classify it as a shallow 7.2 earthquake, which vibrated just shy of three o’clock in the afternoon. The event originated several miles offshore and, not surprisingly, created a considerable tsunami. The horrifying footage can be found online and I encourage you all to find it and look at it, as it shows very impressive images of Oporto, Vigo, Lisbon, the Azores, even the Irish coast. Curiously enough, there are no images of what happened in Aveiro.

We have, however, a few testimonies from witnesses. They recall the sea level decreasing and then rising and rising even more, as a wave that comes but never backs down again. And the wave covered the whole beach and continued inland, climbing the river, climbing the river shore, climbing the roads.

The stories say that Maria was walking to her grandmother’s house at that point. She was on the street, walking alone, as she would sometimes, and she would have reached the house in a few more minutes.

I’m sure there were people running and cars turning around and fear on everyone’s faces. That’s what you see in these cases. But, by several accounts, Maria just froze. There were people screaming at her and honking their horns, not knowing what to do, but Maria stayed there, in the middle of the road, in utter shock.

The best proof we have that these accounts are true is that she should have died that day. If all of this was untrue and she was there, in the path of a wall of water dragging tons of everything through the land, she would have been dead after that day. And we are fairly certain she didn’t die.

What happened, then? Testimonies tell us that as the wave came in, as the wave approached this little girl with big brown eyes, she didn’t move an inch. She didn’t run. It was the wave that stopped. It just stopped. The unstoppable ocean stopped in front of that girl. She kept staring at it and the sea, impossibly, stood there. It was miles across, tall and heavy, but it stopped for that little girl.

Maria could see the water revolving over itself, just a few feet from her. Like it was digesting the moment. Eventually, she wanted to leave. She turned around and walked a few steps. But that’s when the wave did the same. It followed her. She stopped almost immediately, sensing the danger. And the wave stopped as well. She tried again. And again the sea followed her from a few steps away. Maria saw it destroy a couple of lamp posts and swallow an empty car. So she stopped again and looked at it. And the wave stopped in front of her. And Maria stood there. She looked around, restless. What should she do? For a long time, she didn’t know. She just stood there, in the cold, her legs getting tired. She stood there maybe for an hour, maybe a little less. No-one dared go near her, all more interested in saving their own lives. Actually, it seems to have taken a long time for people to perceive that the sea wasn’t rising anymore. No-one was expecting it. Meanwhile, little Maria was there, alone, facing the deadly wave.

The more Maria looked at the wave, the more she felt puzzled and confused. No-one seemed to be coming to her rescue. She was a bit scared. But she didn’t cry. She wouldn’t. She kept saying to herself that everything was going to be okay. Finally, she made a decision. She made a brave and impetuous decision. She advanced towards the sea. She advanced a couple of steps. And, surprisingly, the wave receded. The wave went back a few feet. So Maria advanced a little more. And the wave went back again. And so Maria kept walking. She just went for it. And the sea went back and back. At one time, Maria was almost running, but still, the sea retreated. And finally, they made it to the beach, and the wave seemed to regain composure and its own will back and went into the deep as every other wave would have done by now. And Maria collapsed on the sand and looked at the sea. Maria looked and saw the Ocean equal to itself, the same it had ever been. She was there for a few minutes, not sure about anything. And then she got up, turned away and ran home. It was over.

Not many people, but Maria’s grandmother and two brothers actually believed her story. In fact, she only told it once, it seems, even though a pair of witnesses dared to repeat it on rare occasions. Still, the fact remains: the tsunami that wrecked most of Portugal’s shoreline did spare Aveiro.

A few years went by. One day, Maria fell in love. António was a nice boy, three or four years her elder. He was tall and even though he talked a lot, people would describe him as quiet. Maybe it was that calm, relaxed way how he talked. He was always smiling and was an optimist and a romantic. He was an electrician by trade, even though he would help his father and his uncles on the fishing boat on the weekends.

She met him at the mouth of the Vouga River, the place they called the Ria. He was there one day with that strange wooden contraption they used to collect clams in the sand. He smiled at her and she blushed before walking away. A few days later, the scene repeated itself almost in every detail. She passed, barely looking at him, and he stopped what he was doing and smiled at her and she walked away.

The third time she walked by, he walked towards her. She was startled and didn’t say a word as he smiled and greeted her and put a small bag of fresh clams in her hand, speaking about the weather and the sea as he did that. Not really knowing what to do, she let slip a shy smile as she went away. Her grandmother loved the clams.

She went to the beach the next day, but was deeply disappointed. António wasn’t there. She kept going back. She didn’t mean to, but somehow she found herself at the Ria once and again. It wasn’t until a week after that she found António back on the sand, looking for clams. This time, she went to him. Still, she didn’t know what to say. Luckily, he did. And he invited her to lunch, and she nodded in agreement. Their first date was among the dunes, looking at the sea and the river dancing together. António cooked some clams with butter and coriander using a small camping stove. A piece of fresh bread, a couple of beers, and two mint drops for dessert completed the feast. At the end of the meal, they were hopelessly in love. They married a few months later.

Their marriage was happy, apart from never having had children, something they’d both deeply hoped for. Maria grew up and became a worker in a shoe factory on the outskirts of Aveiro. António went on being an electrician and a weekend fisherman.

The next story we know about Maria happened a couple of years later, when the great storms became so frequent over the Atlantic Ocean. One day, she was on her way home on Saturday, after visiting her sister-in-law and her nephews. António had gone to sea and word spread across the town that his boat had sunk. As soon as she heard it, they say Maria ran to the beach deaf to all warnings. They saw her come near the raging sea and shout in the rain as mad. She was shouting: ”Bring him back!! Bring him back!! Bring him back!!” She was there for hours, shouting until her voice faltered. That night, as no word came in about the fishermen, they had to drag her from the sand and bring her home to bed.

The next day, they found António alive, far at sea, floating in an orange vest. Some say that the ocean responded to Maria’s pleas, others would praise the efficient Portuguese Navy, which managed to rescue, at the time, 98% of all victims cast at sea. I’ll let you decide on what to believe in.

Maria died young. Forty-two years old. It was a stupid, work-related accident. A loader ran her over after a silly mistake from an ill-trained worker. They took her to the hospital very swiftly, and the surgeons were capable and fast. António was there when she woke up. He held her hand and smiled. She tried to raise the other hand, but didn’t have the strength. António picked it up and took it to his face, where he knew she wanted it to be. They were there for a long time. Her hand on his face. António unusually quiet. Talking with his eyes.

That night, they took Maria to the operating room once more. She didn’t make it out.

I met with António a few years later. He was a very nice man. We had a lengthy conversation about Maria. Who she was. How she was. And then he said a curious thing. I was speaking about the environment, about the seas and the tides and the storms, and he said:

“We’ve lost all respect.”

I nodded, but replied:

“There are more and more of us. We want… we need to respect Nature.”

He waved his head.

“No, that’s not what I meant. Not respect for Nature. Respect from Nature. We lost it.”

I never forgot what he said. There was nothing really remarkable about Maria. Nothing very special, very different. But maybe that’s our fault. Maybe the way we look for remarkable and special is part of the problem. Maybe it has been from the start. I’ve been looking at these phenomena all over the world. Places where the relentless counter-attack from Nature has been delayed by these… relationships. Not by the way people regard Nature but by the way Nature seems to regard some people. Maybe it’s all my imagination, but the cases have been piling up on my desk for some time.

Maybe we’re all remarkable. Maybe that’s the thing. Maybe we’re all ‘special’. We’re all different. Maybe the problem is this ‘looking for’ that has obsessed us from the beginning. Maybe there’s nothing to look for. Maybe it has been here since the start. Nothing stood out about Maria. What stood out was the Ocean. In the end, it was the Ocean that behaved differently about her, not the other way around. And that’s what I found all over the world with many other people and many other places. There’s nothing remarkable about people. Or, paradoxically, everything’s remarkable about people. Maybe it’s just hubris that we run around saying we know what’s important. Do we really?

Aveiro is now another of those common places under water. In the years after Maria’s death, the tides have risen and a few bold and influential storms had the sea invade the town. It didn’t survive. There is a small company out there right now that offers scuba diving tours of Aveiro, but it’s not very successful. People prefer to dive into underwater classical cities, as Lisbon or Barcelona. Aveiro is just one of those places that will be forgotten. Like so many others.

Sometimes I doubt my findings, or the use of them. Maybe all these files piling up on my desk aren’t really related. Maybe all these strange, incredible stories are nothing more than that: figments of our active and desperate imagination. What if Maria and the Ocean never really have a particular relationship? What if it’s all a hoax? An unwitting hoax by abandoned people cast into the winds. And then again, in the end, what does it matter?

António told me one last story. A story he didn’t really try to explain. He didn’t really care about explanations anyhow. After he buried Maria, he went to the beach all alone. For some reason, that’s where he thought he should go to say goodbye. He walked barefooted across the dunes and stopped on the flat sand to watch the waves reach the shore in an anguished cry. He knew Maria would stand there like that many times, looking at the sea. So he stood there, in her honor, the wind lifting his hair as his brow sank deeper. That’s when it happened. As if knowing what he was feeling, a low wave, a tongue of water, just reached across fifty or sixty feet to embrace his toes. The wave came to him. It gently swallowed his feet in a tender caress. And then it went back again, in the same smooth manner. And next to António… Next to his feet… There were two clear footprints where the water had been. Two small feminine footprints António knew for sure were Maria’s. A fleeting drawing in the sand by a worthy artist.

António didn’t remember crying many times in his life, but he remembered crying that day as he saw those footprints. He thanked the sea. He looked at the waters and whispered a thankful word for this unexpected and loving gift. And there they stayed for a little while. António and the Ocean. Two old friends remembering their lost love.

Maybe Maria will be forgotten one day. Maybe you or I or all the crowds in the land will forget her. But not these two. Not soon. Not for an eternity.