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A CUP OF LIGHT




Such sudden cool weather has me rushing to the car to get some free heat from the sun. The house is cold, the stones are numb with last night's frost; the birds have fallen silent like children after being scolded. You get the feeling that nothing is soft or pliable anymore. It's all a construction of jagged limestone and splintered wood, and the occasional reassurance of wood smoke dribbling out of chimneys. I sit in the car waiting for the desire to start it up and head for Apt, my little market town on the Calavon River. It was used by Hannibal in his surprise attack on Rome two thousand years ago; they found buckles in the silt embossed with two elephants facing each other, Hannibal's trademark. The river is home to complacent bullfrogs who sing their guttural songs in the heart of summer. Now, it's only razor grass and moss, and the falsetto cries of kids in the play yard of the school next door.

The car knows the way and I hardly have to tweak the wheel to guide it down the hills, under the balding plane trees, and along the dry and dusty vineyards. The sunlight has turned to a tarnished brass as it lowers down on the tops of the nearby hills. I'm heading to the supermarket to buy some eggs, a half dozen croissants, some fruit for dessert. I gaze at all the bins of produce, the plump flowers of the broccoli, the pale turnips with tiny hair roots still searching for some soil to nestle in. The mushrooms are sooty looking, and the potatoes now come in bags and seem to pout behind their mesh window. Down the aisle is the fishmonger's stall, and I eye the filets, the mussels heaped up on shaved ice, the fat arms of an octopus artfully posed on its own little iceberg. The shrimp are as plump as baby fingers and curl up without their heads. You can smell the sea as you lean forward to examine all these tasty wares. The woman behind the counter waits patiently with her plastic gloves on. But I merely say hello and move on to the sausage windows, the array of pintades (guinea fowl) tied up with bald heads tucked between their legs. They're my favorite dish. Some dressed pigeons are waiting for a celebration, but no one seems in a festive mood at this hour. I reach the cheese stall and a stout woman who knows all there is to know of cheese, waits for me to point. I indicate an interest in the Banon goat cheeses, and she scoops up two in their sweet-chestnut wrappers. The smell is of tangy goat breath and the moldty cellar where they aged. I look over the wines and the liquors in a distant aisle, buy a single malt for after dinner, and head to the check out. Mission accomplished.

The way back parts the soft light like combing a girl's hair. No one is out. It's time for the news, or a tiny glass of Pastis over ice and a dash of water. The kitchen is still dark. The fields all about are asleep, their hard summer labors are done and they dream away the fragile hours of autumn before the cold weather comes. This is the time when the old women come out and sit in their straight-backed cane chairs in the sunlight, warming old knees and letting their thoughts flow out of their mouths in soft, raspy voices to one another. It's a ritual going back centuries when cold stone houses made sitting by a dead fire lured women out to the last slivers of sunlight painting the west side of the house. They can't see me but I nod to them anyway.

Kids still push their fountain pens down the page as they copy dictation from the teacher. She will vet their spelling with a hawk's eye and fill the pages with tiny little scrawls of red ink. It's late, nearly five o'clock, and no one dares to yawn or stretch at their cramped desks. This is when tempers fray a little and everyone is thinking of hot cocoa on the table and a piece of cake to reward all the hours of drudgery. The teachers give longing looks to the darkening parking lot where their cars await. A glass of wine is twinkling on the counter, maybe a wedge of cheese from the dark valleys of the Cevennes. A soft chair will ease sore backs and a tiny stool will comfort the aching feet after a long day of talking at the blackboard.

A dog greets his master as he trundles home on his tractor. He has a load of carrots in a crate on his front forklift. The goats will gnaw on them, and the dog will paw at one with suspicious eyes. The cats gaze down from the barn loft after chasing field mice into the bales of hay. All is well in this fading light of southern France. No one tries to hold back the will of autumn; it comes with lordly self-possession and plumps its golden body down onto the hillsides, and lets the smoke of its breath dissipate into the moody air.

There are hidden virtues to stopping time and letting the years repeat themselves with the monotonous rimes of the seasons. The plump apples have been harvested and the trees are nearly airborne in their excitement to be black skeletons against the sky. They tremble with the wind, and they seem to dance in slow motion as the moon rises behind them.

Someone has started puttering among the pots and pans, choosing a jar of red peppers from the pantry, and laying out strips of meat on the drain board. Oil is poured into a skillet and the garlic begins to sizzle. The air is stained with hungry whispers and rumors of supper. An overhead light steals a cup of sunshine from the dying sky and spreads it thinly over the woman sorting through the onions. Potatoes tumble in the boiling water of a large pot, and in the oven are halves of butternut squash, each with a pat of butter melting in their hollows. A cloth still lies there full of flower dust beside a bowl where dough is slowly rising. Hands will soon knead the dough and shape it into lozenges where soggy fruit will be spooned out and folded into pockets sealed with a fork print. The earth turns slowly, and the clouds seem reluctant to give up the day to the black surf of night.

Soon enough the stars will appear like little nicks of light gouged into the darkness. Voices emerge from the ambiguity of evening as the kids return from school, grumpy and starving, and reach for a cup of hot chocolate and the first sugary taste of cake in their eager mouths. Night has found its gear and the house moves deeper into the unknown. The one-lane road outside lies torn in two by headlights; the brilliance dies immediately when the car passes on up the hill. Nothing ever changes in these stony hills but the tumbling of leaves, the ache of the rose arbor to burst with buds, the ancient eyes of spring staring from its grave at the rituals of slow death in the fields. A man comes into the kitchen and hugs his wife, who pulls the cork on a bottle of tart wine and fills his glass. He slumps down into his rocking chair near the fire and closes his eyes before sipping. Who needs the news when eternity has gripped the world in its arms and carries it to the edge of oblivion.

When I reach the village and lug my sack of food back to the house, I see my wife standing at the counter watching me enter. The fire is full of tongues gossiping about nothing. I lay on a new log and sit down with my own drink, a glass of ruby glints tasting of brown sugar and roasted walnuts. The fire keeps us safe, and we sit side by side under the vast cosmic opera of the heavens. We are as ephemeral as the shadow of a bird's wings as he flies over us. But here, in this stony embrace of timbers and roof tiles, in the glow of these old plaster walls and casement windows, we are as lasting as candle light. And the letting things go as night lifts us up into the heavens is reward enough for all our fretting about the human world. I smell the first rich perfume of singed meat in the oven and let my bones float in the sea of my contentment.


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