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SUMMERTIME


We just came through a heat wave here in southern France. It was like riding in an old-fashioned tourist bus through the lowlands around Camargue, the marshes where salt is harvested in brutally humid weather. The heat doesn't dissipate from the stone houses standing shoulder to shoulder in the narrow streets. In fact, a stone house is a lot like a pizza oven; once you have lit the fire the stones absorb the heat and keep it for much of the day. The houses here in my village keep the heat from the sun and release it during the night, so that you toss and turn with the sheets sticking to you. A few dwellings have bit the bullet and now discreetly conceal compressors bolted to the wall.

The rest of us keep the windows open all through the day. But there's an old custom, still observed, to close the shutters at dusk to the outside world. There is no police force here; the mayor must be roused rom bed and told someone has tried to break in, or that someone is having a domestic quarrel and is making a lot of noise. Neighbors are reluctant to get involved and would prefer that the parties solve their own problems. They usually do.

This part of France is famous for its intransigence. It continues to resist Paris as an authority over the entire state, a prejudice going back to the French Revolution and the establishment of a central authority. Napoleon made sure that his hand was on all the levers at once, from national security to education. Hardly anything happens without a faded blue stamp appearing on the right documents, and the clerks in their dimly lit offices tucked away in basements and annexes know exactly which page to flip to to find such a stamp, and if not there, you get the whole file thrown back to you with a polite "Come back when you have the approval."

Okay, so the village at night is handed over to dogs roaming the streets, and the cats, depending on the season, that let out primal screams when a tom tries to mount them. It's a wild scene, full of shadows and flickering street lamps, an atmosphere in which you might find some skulking figure out of Victor Hugo or Balzac lighting his pipe and waiting for his prey to come sauntering out of the darkness. I don't venture out at such an hour, unless the bag of garbage is beginning to reek after a day's stewing.

You hear tales down at the bar that someone may have threatened a neighbor, which arouses the imagination to dream of monsters that evening. But in the heart of summer, when a heat wave is hanging like a Bedouin's tent over the village, and you find it difficult to fall asleep or even to breathe, you might hear the cry of a girl below your window in the throes of puberty, warding off the advances of some young man whose hands have no rules. It's the ritual each year of this and countless other villages, in which teenagers are primed to discover each other. The soggy heat, murmurs of insects in the pine trees, the pulse of the river far below, all add to a certain license to let go. And the girls, reluctant, spirited, well brought up, can't help but bat away someone's eager face only so many times. At some point, in the dark of the playing field down the road, the will of nature overpowers them. Not cruelly, but surely the ephemeral nature of a summer in the provinces means you can't fend off curiosity forever.

The dark is like some extraordinary classroom to such eager students; older kids pass on the mystery of adulthood in the form of a cigarette, or a joint, or the sight of a glittering condom wrapper, and the talk diminishes to urgent whispers of instruction. And everyone, at one time or another, drifts out of the lights of the village bar and into the velvet thickness of summer night to sprawl on the grass and to feel the tug of some dark thrill shared by toads, bats, slithering night snakes, and human beings with hair pins and tight pants. Everyone is part of the rhythm of such nights, and the heat spreads its demonic arms around all the figures of this annual rut.

In such moments, morality is left at home; the good book, the restrictive wisdom of an aunt, the dirty jokes of a lush old uncle, seem equally irrelevant to what is transpiring under the stars. It's a world governed by the full moon, and by the insinuations of trees moving in an inaudible breeze. Spirits are afoot, the past is aroused out of its grave, and all the girls that lived in that moment seem to stand at the foot of the road observing without judgment what is about to happen. In many cases, of course, nothing happens; just a few liberties, some surprising detours in logic, a failed conversation that ends in mouths talking a sort of gibberish with slathered tongues and sweaty cheeks. But here and there a certain boldness strikes out further and someone is no longer innocent under a panting, determined, not very sophisticated lover.

Even if nothing more than a few hurried kisses occur, it's customary for the returning night folk to look as if transformed by their secret rituals. The girls repair to the washroom, the boys order a beer and wait self-consciously. Like an old triple-decker Victorian novel, there's more to the night than this abrupt recess. When the girls come out, they are treated to cold drinks, a cigarette, some nasal slang and longing looks, and when the first couple gets up and makes it way back to the tall pines, others yawn and stretch and grab a hand to continue the night's paradoxes.

The adults have all been there; there's no use objecting or cautioning. The collective soul of the village means everyone has had a first kiss in that very same crimp in the grass, and been bitten on the knuckle by some meddling insect fearful of being crushed by the slow dance on the ground. The second part of the courtship is probably no more certain or daring than the first, except that summer's book of enticements seems more knowable, less dangerous. The girl who first walked down from her house in a crisp blouse and gold sandals, with a bracelet given by her godmother, has a certain look in her eyes, not of recklessness, but of knowing something she doesn't fear as much. There's always danger lurking, or it wouldn't be deep summer; but the mystery of her coming of age seems to have a path that her feet find on their own. She's willing to know what the next step is, where it might lead, and how it might liberate her still further.

In the morning, all is different. The bees hum in the window boxes, the hollyhocks have that strangled look of sun-battered old suitors in the crannies of the street; the clouds are like unmade beds where someone tossed all night. The old village women are out under the tilleul tree knitting and crocheting as usual, keeping an eye on everyone strolling by. But their antennas are flexed to pick up the thinly perfumed appearance of one of the village daughters, who comes along with a tense expression in her face and a gushing hello to all. Before she can escape their stern gaze, she knows she is being judged.

The court of female justice is a stern arm of the law, and the women are not afraid to condemn anyone of being a tramp, a whore, a girl bound for a life on the streets. No one can save her from perdition; she has ventured out beyond the perimeters of repressive life. She has undone the buttons of her own blouse and led a hand to grasp what is hers by birthright and her own infantile authority -- she is turning into a woman and is willing to share the wonder of it. The old women are authorities on this transformation, this miracle of the female body and soul, this elixir of youth that once you drink it, changes everything about you. So there goes the lost soul, the dangerous one, the imp of Satan, the dregs of whatever stood for probity and honor and the future of France. Although if offered the opportunity to drift down to the woods at night with a handsome young man, the knitting would go flying in the air and the race to the fertile grove would be won by all of them.

Of course, my own daughters deny this is exactly how it happened to them. But something happened, and it wasn't ordinary, or forgettable, or of no consequence. The truth is, summer happened, and nothing can hold back the urge that is the song of the toads, the throb of the earth itself. And the vast leaden heat wave that pulls July through the year is followed by these red-faced, smiling couples who were not brave before this alchemical season. Love will follow, and there will be more serious excursions from village censure. At some point, everyone disappears back into school, and the next wave of youth will know something dangerous and mysterious awaits them as the year melts away into another summer.

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