AFTER THE EQUINOX
It's fall here in southern France. The tourists have thinned out to a trickle of rubbernecks aiming their smart phones at almost anything green or shaggy with vines. They hardly notice how the air has sweetened and left behind the ghost of lavender smells in the harvested fields. But something moves them to stand and stare at a few slow-moving shadows on the empty paths, and to marvel silently at the dark, rusty looking privet hedges that guard the stone houses here and there. I marvel too. I love fall, and relish the cool, crisp air that blows through my bedroom windows early in the morning. The sky is so thick with blue it hangs down like some emperor's silk mattress, draped over the roof eaves and bulging against the red tile rooftops.
Voices are clearer in this polished air. A woman's voice, always musical in French, is especially edged with silver like some well-played clarinet. Her laughter pours out of a champagne flute onto the wind and is carried away like so many bubbles. You ache to hear it. It makes me grope around in my memory for some vestige of youth I can put on, a rag of it to wear over my longings and regrets. I go out into the narrow stone street of my village and head for the bar, the place where everyone mingles, including the birds and the dogs and cats. A fountain invites even the wasps to socialize, and no one seems to mind. I order a pastis, the licorice-tasting liquor mixed with water and an ice cube until it is as white as skim milk. It eases down the throat and leaves behind a little back breath that is like mint. You sit there alone and before long you are shaking hands with people who hardly know you. But it is right, and the fall air makes friendship as tasty as the odor of wood smoke, or the smell of bacon in someone's kitchen.
But the shadows are deep with meaning, and are cut into the sunlight like M.C. Escher's black and white starlings. They tattoo themselves to the pale, dusty stone and stand there frozen in reality, until a tree shakes them apart when the wind blows. Perhaps such shadows are what inspired the invention of writing. Their delicate filigree could easily pass for language, Farsi or Cyrillic, or maybe just some monk's elaborate uncials bled into a sheet of vellum in a cold, vaulted scriptorium. The monk must have gazed out an arched window at the fading daylight and seen the language of the sun writing feverishly on the stubble of cornfields and browning grape vines, and realized he was touching nature's wrist as he moved his pen.
A friend of mine, a Dane who comes here a few times each year to stay in the village, told me a story of two old women who are the last to remember the old days of this town. They are stooped over, frail as dry leaves, but when they kiss you in greeting, he told me, there is nothing softer and more intimate than when their cheek touches yours. It is like a rabbit's fur, or softer, and it presses there as if you were once more in childhood and feeling an affection from someone else you will crave for the rest of your life. These old women, with their worn-out voices and faded eyes, bring something like autumn sunlight into your heart when they lean forward to give you les bises. Somehow, such touch belongs especially in fall, with its dark tales of the dying year and the end of all that effort of nature to rebirth itself in summer. The kiss is what stirs the immortal soul of the parched land awake, and you are reminded that being human gives you a reach all the way back to the beginning of the world, and all the way forward to its end. You are not one thing, or one moment in time, but a segment of an unending string stretching across eternity.
Pumpkins illuminate the fields this time of year; deep red squashes called courges lie there like smoldering balloons. Pomegranates are piled up in the Saturday market stalls, and the children eye them as they pass by. They are filled with little rubies of tart juice that taste like the coming of snow. You're hungry even if you just ate; the smoked hams from Spain and Italy hang in butcher shop windows and smell of fireplace soot. If you buy one and put it on your counter some evening, and open a bottle of wine, you have pried apart the doors to the land of the dead. The spirits come to your table and sit with you as you button up your sweater and stare at the last slivers of sunlight sliding down the wall like spent flames. Your hunger is spiritual; you feel your soul squirm under your clothes like some creature who has been buried in you all your life and now wants to speak. You have no idea what it wants to say; you dare not ask lest you are told something that might question the last pins holding you up in this life. Better to take a sip of wine, drag a sharp knife into the flesh of the ham and peel away a transparent skin of meat to put on your tongue. Your tongue puckers a little at the sudden harshness and relaxes as the flesh surrenders its delicate perfumed memories into your consciousness. This is the first dinner of the season, and you are entranced by some nameless emotion.
It's time to turn on more lights, and to push back the tumbling darkness in the room. The moon is late to rise, and the clouds of some impending rainstorm begin to gather and smother out the stars. You feel the shutters tremble after a breeze rolls down the street and out into the fields. It's a sign, an omen that the frozen darkness is not far behind. It is coming down from the north with slow feet, moving like a bear through the naked trees as he looks for his cave. There is fate in the air, and the wind croaks like an old man who has told too many stories to his children. How sad everything seems, until you turn on the lamp on your mantle and your shoes are painted with diluted gold and umber. No matter how tired the evening seems, it is full of lingering magic that makes you dream while you're still awake.
I will sleep well tonight. My mind will run through its list of worries and unsolved problems and begin to wander off like a child chasing after the neighbor's dog. You go deeper into the velvet blue darkness and run alongside the trembling silver light of a creek that shouldn't be there. It doesn't matter. It is fall, and the cold air has scraped away the habits that cover the mythical world. You fall effortlessly into the void where gravity has never struck its drum. You feel your heels go floating over your head as you breathe the soft icy foam of midnight into your lungs. An owl watches you with its enormous eyes, and forgets to blink at your strange intrusion into his world.
There are footprints in the woods where vagabonds have come through. They sleep in the little stone boriesthat were once used by goat herders to keep out of the rain. Now they stand empty and men who wander in the night curl up in them and let the stub of a candle gutter out. You are sleeping over them, dissolving everything you are in the dusty silence.
I will awake to a church bell clanging in a belfry above me. It is the hammer of time beating out its monotonous mathematics against infinity. Who cares about time in this season, you wonder. What could be more pressing than the smell of onions simmering in a skillet in the neighbor's house, or the voice of complaint as someone pulls out a chair on the tiled floor. A door slams in the wind, and a shutter claps its peeling wood against a window frame. These are the scrawls made against the marble surface of reality, and you note them while you sip coffee and cross your legs. Perhaps you should order more firewood for the cellar, or get the hearth glass fixed. It is cracked and needs attention, but you are slow to get up and write down this errand for the afternoon. So much for necessity and impingement, for the obdurate demands of the future. It is fall, and all is forgiven, all is folded away in the linen closet like the sheets. Nothing will pay you to come to awareness of anything but the stark, relentless expansion of cool weather at this moment.