The village is getting ready to celebrate one of the great turning points of the year, the feast of the Assumption on August 15th, when Mary rises on the shoulders of ecstatic angels into the fleecy blue heavens. She looks upward with a beatific expression, her hands outstretched. She is dressed in the colors of the planet, cloud white, deep-sea blue, with touches here and there of silvery stars. As my neighbor reminded me, not only Christians bow down to Mary, so do Muslims. The Quran celebrates her as a woman of great purity worthy of being the mother of god. You rub your eyes to realize that this figure from an ancient religion is venerated by a rival religion, one nearly as big as Catholicism.
So the village fathers, the committee of festivities, has ordered a bandstand to be erected in the soccer field on the edge of town, where a band will play rock classics and American songs, and there will be kiosks on either side where one can wager a bet at a roulette table, order wine or beer, and bring your kids to the inflated castle where they can bounce around. Last year there was a kind of parachute ride for toddlers, who got strapped into a harness and raised six feet into the air to be jiggled by hydraulic arms powered by a droning motor. Some cried and were rescued by a frowning parent; the rest were serenely wafted away into the darkness and came down again looking sleepy and delirious.
There's not much of the original sacred meaning of Mary's ascension, but the cheesy carnival atmosphere offers a thin taste of what it might have meant once. Teenagers slouch around in the harsh glare of the stage, which throbs with strobe lights as the band thumps its way through the playlist. The old farmers, short stocky men with hard shoes, push their wives backward on the narrow dance floor, a rectangle of boards laid down over the grass. Two-year olds dance with their mothers in wild gyrations, and everyone else sits on wooden bleachers arranged haphazardly behind a booth where a man controls the mixing board and floodlights illuminating the musicians.
The entertainment hasn't changed much in the thirty years I have been attending this little festival. Some of the concessionaires have given up coming since the crowds have grown sparse. The format of the show, based on Paris night club acts from the 1950s, used to feature topless chorus girls at one point, usually in the second half of the program, but even they are gone, replaced by young women who can actually sing and sometimes fill the night air with strong voices.
The more sophisticated villagers roll up their eyes at the kitschy routines; the rest continue to be dazzled by the lighting effects, the occasional burst of white smoke, the deafening volume pumped out of giant speakers. It's all quite boring to watch each year, but it tells you something important about these remote villages in the hills -- hardly anything changes in them. The crops come up and are harvested, the grapes are piled high in wagons for tractors to take down to the vinicole in Apt, the cooperative where farmers get a discount on purchases of new wine to stretch their euros a bit. The weather is pretty much the same year in and year out, except for the Saharan heat waves raging each summer. There is little to affect the tenure of these primitive conditions, even though I have witnessed three generations come and go.
But like every other festival of the religious year, this one has its pagan roots and wisdom and marks the end of summer. There's still a month to go, of course, but after August 15, the winds blow and dark clouds roll over us and begin to drop heavy rain. The air is thinner, the nights are so cool people dig out their blankets and fall jackets. The supermarkets are full of tablets and cheap ballpoint pens, shiny plastic book bags, school clothes, and all the rest of the equipment kids will need to start the school year. Mothers pore over the bargains and dads wince at the check out. Smells are different; you feel the difference in your taste buds, and want stronger red wine at night, and you crave the smell of bacon and rye bread.
Mary's ascent into the heavens seems to close the door on summer's innocence, and to let the chill of autumn take hold. She is like Persephone in that way, going into another world as summer rots on the vine and the memories of spring fade away. She is the virgin, after all, a goddess of beginnings and fruitfulness, but not of aging. With her absence, the burdens of maturity sink down firmly onto the shoulders of the children, who must sit at desks well into the twilight and come home famished and exhausted from a day of rote work in crowded classrooms. She represents some cosmic principle about the departure of motherhood from the world. The kindness, compassion, forgiveness of mothers is taken with her, as she rises into the abstract blueness of eternity. If Aphrodite brought love into the world on her clamshell, Mary takes that love with her into the remote sky. We must do without it except through those monotonous rosaries we were made to recite all through my parochial school years. Those novenas late at night in the church to forestall some impending disaster in a family are what replace this notion that someone cares nearby. There is a small fenced shrine in the town of Mane to the east of the village, and if you find it, you will discover a statue of Mary with a sign below, "Here's your mother." Perhaps those three words summarize the mythology of a mother's departure, her sudden inaccessibility as she reposes in a lump of vaguely sculpted plaster.
So while the roulette table blazes under pressure lamps and the rock music blasts out into the starry night, there is some vague sense of melancholy presiding over the festival of Mary's assumption. You can't quite define it, except that the villagers are trying too hard to have a good time. People meander around in the grass, which is already turning brown, and step into the rhythm of a song briefly and then sit down again, to sip warm beer out of a plastic cup. A child wants to be held and a young mother pulls her up into her lap and puts her cheek against the child's hair. It's that momentary avatar of the goddess that tells you how powerful the myth remains, no matter how shallow the celebrations may seem.
When we sit down in the dark living room and ponder the tedious, almost trashy atmosphere of the festival, an aching loneliness takes hold of me. I can't say why, but no father's departure could ever mean as much. The house falls apart as if it were in the path of a tornado, and the rubble that surrounds you is not physical, but spiritual. The air has no blossoms in it; the night is spinning into ice and snow, and the forest is shrinking around a core of frozen thoughts. You sip on a glass of whiskey, but the elixir has no power to transform you. It is merely whiskey, slightly acrid, moldy, tinged with ashes, from some grain that was once blowing in a field in Scotland.