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It’s chilly now. A big rain fell morosely out of the wrinkles of darkness. The streets sobbed with relief, and the footsteps so often clicking and sighing in the street below suddenly vanished. We were alone with the sky at that moment. It was hanging down within reach, and our windows were growing cataracts that made the streetlight fan out like shattered glass. Our village house is not exactly watertight; the ceiling has multiple rusty looking stains around the seams of the chimney, and lower down the roof cats have been pooping for the last year or more. Water clogs up there in the old tiles and forms a pool that can only seep down to the floor below. We live with it; but at some point we are going to have to hire a mason to lay new tile, or pull up the entire roof and replace it with the latest thing, tiles glued to thick slabs of insulation. Scaffolds will go up, and the street will be closed for a few weeks, to our neighbors’ dismay. But rain must be heeded, and now the chilly air tells us that autumn has begun a few days early.
There is an ancient silence presiding over us now that the summer renters have gone. The landlords cleaned up and battened down the shutters for the year. The cobbles gleam as if someone had waxed them. The sky above is thin and papery with a new, more fragile light. The fields below are beginning to glow with fat pumpkins that will be piled high in the markets. Toy stores will display costumes featuring hags in cone hats, monster masks with one eye hanging by a wire, and a mouth slobbering out of ruinous teeth. I smell wisps of cinnamon coming from a few windowsills, where pies are cooling. A ham hangs by rope from a ceiling hook and will be dissected one thin slice at a time for breakfast and bean stews.
Children are all back in school; the older ones catch the village bus at first light and head down to the market town to a Spartan school house with drab walls and tiled hallways, a few stark-faced teachers awaiting their noisy procession to split off into their classrooms. They will drudge the whole day long, with a two-hour lunch break and recess, and then back to the books until dark begins to fall. The buses will line up and take everyone back to the outlying villages, to farms, parched hamlets, a few big houses with sheep grazing in a field, and farmers towing wagons full of newly picked grapes. It will be dark then, and the windows will be as gold as sunset where the old women sit peeling potatoes and sorting piles of green beans.
Little changes out in these hills. The stone tells you that hours and days are nothing against the worn escarpments, the crags of limestone jutting out fiercely among the broom plants, the thorn bushes, the scrappy little junipers that weather the cold with stoic resolve. Boars roam around all winter, and grub up roots with their curved tusks. They have been here since the Greeks first wandered in, and have traveled in clans along paths their ancestors carved out long ago.
When the hunters come in for their brief season of culling the males, they will haul out the carcasses on the hood of a car or the back of a pick up, divvy up the meat with an axe in someone’s barn and the oldest man among them will cut off the tail and nail it to a barn rafter under the crudely painted numbers of the present year. You smell marc and sour wine on their breath, and the acrid smoke of cigars. They have potbellies and three chins covered in bristles, and talk in such garbled syllables I can’t recognize anything said. But the men are friendly and accommodating and go home with a bloody haunch or shoulder wrapped in newspaper and laid carefully on the rags of a trunk. Good cold-weather eating, to be accompanied by mounds of boiled potatoes, jars of pickles, bowls of carrots and beets, and a basket brimming with baguettes. Night will fold the house in bolts of silky obscurity as the evening progresses, and the men put down their forks reluctantly and check to see if the cows have been brought in. All’s well and the dogs bark before entering the house for the night.
It’s not a bad life, not even a hard one now that the faithful tractor does all the hard work. A man can farm his ten acres with his attachments, his balers and cultivators, and be in front of the fire before six. His days go by without worrying about the stock market or the developers coming to get his property. One can’t buy agricultural land for any other purpose than to farm, so the worst of the predators are kept at bay, at least for now. But when the children come of age and leave for the bigger towns to find jobs, it becomes harder to find a few more hands to help out with the plowing, the fertilizing of the fields. Somehow it still manages to work, and the farms are passed on and the old men play boules next to the village bar and have their pastis or glass of cognac to stiffen their backs. A cup of bitter espresso helps get the heart moving again, as they go back home and spend time in the yard grinding the tines of a hay fork, or oiling a power saw for cutting wood fuel. They don’t look up, and they don’t expect anything more untoward than a hailstorm or a long freeze. Time means little, and they barely notice when the belfry of the church bongs the hour and then repeats the time two minutes later.
Once in a while we are summoned to the church foyer to pay our last respects to a departed soul, and to follow behind the family to the graveyard to witness the opening of a crypt and the installment of a shiny new coffin. Someone sobs and dabs her eyes, another comforts her as they go back down the narrow streets into the dark labyrinth where we live. And the sky overhead is radiant and joyful, unmoved by these vicissitudes of village evolution. The cats preen in the sun, and the dogs follow along as if they too were in mourning for an hour or so.
And in spring, we are treated to the mayhem of a bridal party blowing car horns and shouting from the windows as they gather before the mayor’s office for the civil ceremony. Later, the invited will troop up the steps to the church wearing their finest dresses and new suits. Everyone is handsome and floating over the ground as if gravity has not yet caught their tense bodies in its grip. They will make their vows and everyone will kiss and hug and then file down to the bar for aperitifs and olives and plates of pizza cut up in tiny squares. The women are beautiful and their long black hair gathers the strains of Italy, Spain and the Gallic depths of ancient France into a glittering wave. The men are full of chatter and teasing and look over their shoulders at the elders who might be scowling from their tables. A pulse throbs in the depths below us, as the urge to love and procreate seizes all of our veins. We are one human surge under the swaying plane trees, with the kids racing in and out of legs to get to a soccer ball kicked into the crowd.
The rain was a baptism washing us in renewed faith, bathing our souls in the promise that we are doing all we can to make this life whole and rewarding. I am an outsider and always will be no matter how long I come and spend my summers here. I don’t mind; I like my existence framed this way, with enough sunlight to comfort my skin and aging body, and my ears thirsting to hear French laughter, and French whispers below my window. I smell the past on the air, with its tangy herbs, but also the future, with all its wisps of assurance that nothing will ever change. There is so much granite running through these hills, so many unfathomable reaches of limestone and quartz, so many veins of chert and gneiss and pockets of coal, and fossils of trilobites and scorpions, so many eroded footprints of dinosaurs and the indentations of boar tracks to make one feel that eternity hides in the nearest shadow where you sit.
(c) 2021 Paul Christensen
Paul Christensen is a writer and poet who divides his time between Vermont and the south of France.