One such foggy night, in Salema, Portugal, Agua, a lone Portuguese Water Dog, appears on Natalia's doorstep.
Where did he come from? Why was he there? Could he help the little fishing village become prosperous again? Could he help Natalia's Mama get well?
Could one mysterious dog really change their lives forever?
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ÁGUA The Mysterious Portuguese Water Dog
By Reneé Kelahan
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2009 Reneé Kelahan
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSilent tears slid down twelve-year-old Natalia's face as she looked out the window. Her father and younger brother were walking home from the waterfront; and even from this distance, she could see the dejected slump of their shoulders. Through the falling dusk, she could see that, once again, they had little to show for a full day of fishing.
Natalia and her brother, Tomas, were learning at a young age that the sea could be cruel. Months had passed since anyone in the Portuguese fishing village of Salema could claim a successful catch for even a single day. The little town was withering away, like uvas velhas (old grapes) on the vine. Slowly, one by one, people were packing up and leaving for the mountains to find a new, more stable life as sheep herders. But Natalia's family could not leave because of Mama. Mama ...
Natalia's head drooped, and her shiny black curls spilled forward like a curtain around her sun-kissed face. She dreaded telling Mama that yet another day had come and gone with Papa and Tomas returning home empty handed. Mama was so brave and strong, more than any of the rest of them, even though the mystery illness was slowly wearing her away. Natalia had heard the neighbor women murmuring something about escorbuto (scurvy) andclucking their tongues about how it was a shame that such a fine young woman as Olivia had fallen so ill. Natalia also heard the women saying that just a bit of fresh fruit could help her Mama get better. But they could not grow it so far south along the coast, and it had been months since any of the village families had fish to sell or trade in the nearby city of Lagos. Every day Mama's inner light seemed to dim just a little more, and Natalia was afraid it would soon flicker out, never to brighten their world again.
Slowly, she straightened and turned from the window, wiping her eyes with her apron as she went. She bravely put on a cheerful face and stepped into the small alcove just off the kitchen area where her mother quietly rested on a lumpy old mattress. Mama's bright, keen eyes found hers. She smiled tiredly but determinedly and slowly lifted a hand toward her daughter. "The men are on their way back, are they?" she asked.
"Yes," Natalia replied, taking her mother's hand. "It seems that o mar (the sea) has once again not given father and Tomas the big catch we have been praying for."
"Ah, so that is why your eyes are so sad, my daughter. Have faith. Remember, the Lord moves in mysterious ways."
Chapter TwoTired from a long day of cooking, caring for her mother, and repairing fishing nets, Natalia quietly went about preparing dinner that night. In the not too distant past she would have been happily humming one of the local chulas (folk songs), but tonight there was not much happiness in the little fishing hut. Dinner was a simple meal of feijoada (bean stew) and flat bread that Natalia had been given by a neighbor earlier in the day. Everyone was quiet, as there seemed little to say. Mama was not able to come to the table that night and ate few of the spoonfuls that Natalia tried to feed her. Shadows filled the little hut, cast from a single oil lamp set in the middle of the table, a lamp that would soon be empty because they had no oil to refill it.
After dinner, Mama dozed off, her rosary still clasped in her hands. Natalia cleaned up the cooking area, while Papa read aloud from the Bible. She closed her eyes and listened. And she prayed with all her heart that God was watching over them, that Mama would get better, and that somehow a miracle would come along to keep the little fishing village alive.
Father and Tomas soon turned in for the night, sharing a small pallet and ragged blanket in a corner of the little hut. Natalia dimmed the oil lamp and carried it to her mother's room where she slept beside her every night on a pallet on the floor. She walked to the window to close the lace curtains. As she did so, she noticed a wispy fog creeping in low upon the sea. A light shiver ran through her, for as a little girl she had heard reverently whispered stories (stories she was not meant to hear) about mysterious occurrences that happened whenever this particular fog drifted in. "Névoa do milagre" ("miracle fog") the villagers called it. At the same time, off in the distance, Natalia thought she heard the echoing sound of a dog barking. Yet she knew that no dogs remained in or even around the little village.
Giving a sigh and turning from the window, Natalia changed into a flannel nightgown and climbed under the rough woolen blanket. But, tired as she was, she could not sleep. Her thoughts kept returning to the fog and what it might mean. She lay awake for what seemed like hours, when she thought she heard an odd scratching sound coming from somewhere close by. Then it stopped, only to start again moments later. Natalia slowly pulled back the blanket and quietly stood up. She tiptoed silently across the dark room and peered into the main area. The sound seemed to be coming from the door and grew louder as the moments went by.
Natalia was undecided. Should she wake her father and brother? Or should she investigate the noise herself? The memory of the fog and her own curiosity got the better of her, and she lit the lantern and quietly moved toward the door.
Chapter ThreeNatalia opened the door a crack and peeked out. At first she saw nothing, but then a small noise made her look down. There, sitting on the doorstep, was a dog. Its hair was black and white and curly, and Natalia could see that it was soaking wet and shivering. It gazed up at her with peaceful, trusting brown eyes as if to say, "Will you take me in and care for me?" Unsure of what to do, Natalia opened the door wider. As she did so, the dog stood up and padded into the little hut. Upon closer inspection, she decided he was male and was bigger than she had first thought, a solid animal with a large head and long ears, broad shoulders, narrow hips, larger-than-expected feet, and with a tail that, oddly enough, curled up and over his back. Remarkably, the tail had a fluffy plume of white fur on its tip that waved like a flag in the air. His hair from waist to tail was shorter than the hair on his upper body and head. In fact, he had a lion-like look with a stance that could only be described as régio (regal).
Natalia had never seen anything quite like him. She watched as he lifted his nose in the air, sniffing as if perhaps he could sense something about the occupants of the home. Satisfied, he turned and walked back toward Natalia, who was still holding the door. He sat down in front of her, wagging his impossibly curly tail back and forth and staring at her with expectant eyes. "Hello, boy," she offered. "Where did you come from?" She held out her hand, and he licked it softly. As if he understood her question, he looked at the door and gave a low woof. Natalia sensed that he was asking her to close the door, so she did. The dog moved closer to her, leaning against her legs and pressing her back into the room
Once again, Natalia noticed how wet he was, so she went in search of a rag to dry him with. He followed closely behind her, as if he could not bear to be separated from her. Natalia knelt in front of him and, as she dried him, she talked softly to him. "Who is your owner, and what is your name, I wonder?" He stared at her patiently. "No matter. For now I shall call you Água, as you have obviously come to me from out of the water. In the morning I shall see if I can somehow find your owner." She then turned and walked back to her pallet, settling down once again to sleep. Only this time, she had a companion who lay close by her side as she drifted off to sleep. And as Água laid his head down on his large paws, unbeknown to Natalia, the miracle fog slowly drifted back out to sea.
Chapter FourThe morning dawned clear and bright. Natalia awakened at the first crack of light that shone through the window. She lay with her eyes closed, thinking of the dream she had the night before of the majestic dog who had come to her in the night. "What an odd dream," she thought, as she stretched, one arm extending out to her side. She started as she touched the softest fur she had ever felt. Sitting up abruptly, she turned to see the creature she remembered from her dream lying at her side, sleeping deeply as if he had been on a long journey and was now able to rest.
Natalia's hand flew to her mouth. It had not been a dream after all! Água really did exist! She turned on her side and looked more closely at him. In the dim light of the lantern last night, she had not noticed that he had a white streak down the center of his curly head and totally white front legs. And he had a fringe of bang that hung over his now closed eyes. As she watched him, he opened his eyes, which were a deeper, darker brown than she remembered. As he quickly blinked his right eye closed and then open again, she was sure that he had purposely winked at her! Shaking her head at her fanciful thoughts, Natalia softly said, "Good morning, Água. Did you sleep well?" In answer, he rolled on to his back and stretched, arching his back and presenting his stomach to her for attention. She laughed quietly and said, "All right, boy, I will pet your stomach," and she reached out and rubbed him back and forth, again marveling at the softness of what most people would think was fur but which felt more like human hair.
"Well, boy," Natalia again said softly so that she would not wake Mama. "We cannot lie here all morning. I must get up and prepare breakfast for Papa and Tomas before they go off to fish for the day. Here we go." She stood up and quietly rolled up her pallet then reached for her seven-flannel skirt, cotton top, and the apron that her mother had lovingly embroidered for her as a gift on her tenth birthday. Natalia never could look at her apron without smiling in wonderment at the time and love her Mama had put into it. She quickly changed out of her nightgown and into her clothes, smoothing the skirt and apron as she stood looking at Mama, who was still sleeping fitfully. She said a quick prayer and turned to walk out into the next room.
Chapter FivePapa and Tomas had already awakened, and Natalia could see through the window that they were examining the nets she had mended yesterday. They had brought several more back from the boat with them last night, so she knew she would be busy again today. She also had several nets from neighbor fishermen to repair in trade for small amounts of flour, sugar, and beans.
Água had followed her out into the small room, peering around him as if deciding where to settle. He walked over toward the door and laid down in a most unusual position, his front paws extended straight out, as were his back legs. He looked utterly relaxed. Natalia laughed as she looked at him. "Making yourself right at home, I see! Well, do not get too comfortable there, boy, for I must make breakfast and then introduce you to father and Tomas." Água wagged his tail and cocked his head to one side, and, once again, she was sure he winked at her!
As Água looked on contentedly, Natalia cut pieces from a sweetbread loaf that her family had been given the day before. Breakfast was a very simple affair, even in better times. The men were always eager to get out on the ocean early in the morning for the best catches of the day. Before calling her father and brother in, Natalia looked in on her mother. She was still asleep, but she did not seem comfortable, as her head kept turning from side to side. Natalia tucked the blanket in a little more closely around her, said a short prayer for her mother's renewed health, and turned to go toward the door.
As Natalia drew near him, Água stood up and stretched mightily with his front feet sliding forward as far as they would go while his back legs stayed in place. This created a comical image, for his bottom stuck up in the air, and his plumed tail flew like a flag. Natalia laughed and ran her hand down his soft, fluffy back. Água then stood up straight and nuzzled her hand for more attention. Again she laughed, a merry sound that had not been heard for quite a while in the little hut. "Yes, yes, Água! We will go meet Papa and Tomas now. I am still not quite sure how I am going to explain you to them."
Natalia opened the door and took a step as if to go out, expecting Água to follow her. Instead, he suddenly came to an alert position and then took off running. She thought he was running toward Papa and Tomas, but as she watched him, he ran toward the dock down on the ocean inlet. Água's ears and hair were blowing back, he ran so fast. And he began barking furiously as he went.
Chapter SixFather and Tomas stood and watched Água bolt out of the fishing hut and tear past them, their mouths falling open in surprise. "Que era aquele?" (What was that?) her father asked. "Um cão de água, Papa. (A water dog, Papa). He came to the door last night while you and Tomas were asleep. He was all wet and looked so lost and alone that I brought him in, dried him off, and let him sleep next to me last night. I intend to ask around the village this morning to find out if anyone knows anything about him, but I do not know what he is doing now."
Natalia, her Papa, and Tomas all watched in amazement as Água sprinted down the short dock and made a running leap off the end. With a loud SPLASH! they heard him enter the water. The three of them began to run down to the dock to see what he was doing. As they approached, they saw no sign of him! Where had he gone? Suddenly his head broke through the surface of the water, and in his mouth was a fish! And not just any fish, but a large sea bass that looked as if it would make fish stew for ten people! "Elogie o Senhor!" (Praise the Lord) her father said, dropping to his knees in the sand. Água's catch was the first fish anyone had seen in two months in the little village.
CH7[ Água quickly swam to shore, the treasure in his mouth. He waded out of the surf and up onto the sand, where he gave a hard shake from the top of his head to the very tip of his tail. Sparkling drops flew everywhere.
He scanned the beach, quickly spotting Natalia and her family. He broke into a proud, prancing trot toward her as if to say, "Look at me! Look what I have!" He stopped directly in front of her, sat down immediately, and proudly held the fish, awaiting her praise. "Good boy, Água!" Natalia said, dropping down to give him a big hug.
As she continued to talk to him in a gentle, loving voice, Água turned his head slightly to look at her father and Tomas. Papa had stood up again, hugging Tomas to his side, tears of happiness rolling slowly down his face. Papa gently let go of Tomas and stepped up next to Água, extending his hand as he did so. Água promptly dropped the fish in Papa's hand, and a strong, loyal friendship was born. ]CH7
CH8[ Natalia, Tomas, and her Papa started to dance around with joy on the beach, Água jumping and yelping at their side. Soon their neighbors came down see what the commotion was all about. When they saw the fish Papa was holding, they immediately understood and began to dance and sing as well. But soon the men realized that the morning was quickly passing, as was their chance to fill their nets with more fish. They hurriedly ran to their boats, which they dragged up on the beach each night, and pushed them out into the small inlet. Then they swiftly rowed out into the sea and headed for deeper waters.
As soon as Papa and Tomas had run to their boat and begun pushing it toward the water, Água had jumped in the aft and stood facing the sea. He began to bark joyfully, his tail sweeping back and forth. As soon as their boat entered the water, he quieted suddenly. As Papa brought the boat about, Água moved to stand in the prow. He seemed to be looking out even beyond the horizon, seeing something that no human could see. At the same time, Natalia turned and headed back up the beach to tell Mama the wonderful news. Little did she know that soon they would all know the mystical power of Água.
Excerpted from ÁGUA The Mysterious Portuguese Water Dog by Reneé Kelahan Copyright © 2009 by Reneé Kelahan. Excerpted by permission.
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