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THE BREAKING OF THE SKY


A few days ago the winds came up; there were clouds north and east of us piled up like dark blue foot hills. We sat on the terrace of the village bar, my wife and I, sipping rose wine (me) and she a glass of Perrier and slice of lemon. Men and women were in the final eliminations of a game of petanque, the boules game played with iron balls and a tiny wooden peg called a piglet, which served as the target for every player trying to get as close to it as possible without letting the opposing side horn in. But before anyone scored on this latest game, the rain started falling. We had been waiting for two long, agonizing months for rain to come, for anything to cast a veil over a furious sun that dried out fields, withered up grape vines, even discouraged the cicadas from droning in the pines. Now the rain started falling, thick, icy gobbets of it, drenching us the moment it struck. I gathered up my hat and sunglasses and headed for home, while my wife paid the bill. She joined me a moment later and we were starting to run. The rain chilled us to the bone. When we got halfway through the village, a man stood in his doorway and implored us to take shelter. So we did. The house was modest; he was young, and his wife was all smiles as she rushed around the foyer making sure we had chairs to sit in.

She asked where we were from, and we said America. Bright smiles on both of their faces. His brother-in-law lived in Texas; he had been to North Carolina once. His wife stared at us, and then made her excuses to take care of her plump little boy, who was sitting patiently further back in the hallway. The husband was a writer, a poet who wrote lyrics for rap songs. He preferred hip-hop, he said. We stood around chatting a bit more and then he said it was letting up. So we thanked him warmly and ran the rest of the way to our house, a block further on. It was dark inside, and even a bit chilly. The first fresh air in a long dry spell, one of the historic droughts in this part of France. Water rationing was beginning to be imposed to our east, and there was word we might have to put up with dry taps in a few more days. But for now, the rain pelted the gutters and rushed down the street tumbling and sparkling like a sudden gush of mercury. I changed my shirt and sat there in the dark living room feeling strangely disoriented. No blinding sun, no suffocating heat. We might have to pull out a blanket tonight. It was glorious. The heat had broken.

I shouldn’t have been too surprised. Almost every 15th of August the rains and cooler weather usually come, as if to mark the advent of the feast of Mary, whose ascension into heaven occurred on this day. According to the Renaissance painters, she would rise up out of the streets accompanied, partly lifted by, a troop of snowy-white angels, with other angels blowing trumpets in celebration of her becoming a divinity. Even the Moslems prayed to her, and called her a savior in her own right. She is the only female deity in Islamic theology, and her place is very high up in the pantheon of prophets and seers. Who knows why the weather would honor this moment with all the respect of a drenching rainstorm and cool, bracing winds, but it nearly always does. It marks the beginning of fall, well ahead of the calendar, of course, but farmers around here know their next task is to harvest the grapes before they become soggy and diluted from all the coming precipitation.

A good day, in all. With predictions of more rain to come, and soon. I nibbled some cheese and took a sip of red wine to celebrate this gift from the high, remote, unreadable heavens above us. Two months is a very long time In the south, where limestone absorbs the sun and lets the hazy air rise and loom over us until we trudged around like wanderers in a desert. I cannot tell you how heavy the sky becomes in such heat waves; it presses down so hard it makes you weak, almost to the point of stumbling to find a shadow to recover in. Shop keepers are kind enough to let you stand around in their cool interiors, and to let us pretend to be shopping for a new skillet or some other commodity we didn’t need. But after a few minutes it became awkward to stand around smiling so hard, so we would leave and come back into the scissor-sharp hot air, the bruising weight of the sunlight at three o’clock. The poor dogs would be curled up in the shreds of a few shadows in the street, with a dry bowl next to them intended to provide water. I don’t know where all the cats were, but I suspect they had hiding places in all those underground chambers in town. Little kids complained mightily until someone handed them a stick of icy fruit-flavored water for them to such on. The young and not so young were gathered at the cafes gulping down iced wine or beer, chatting quietly, with a certain uneasy expression on their faces as the heat ground us down into powder.

So this is the brave new world we have inherited after two hundred years of wasteful living. Each generation passed the buck on to the next generation, and went humbly to their graves. It was our turn to be handed the tab for our fossil-fuel orgy at this tail-end of the Industrial Age. No one could find his check book to help defray the cost of solar panels or electric cars. Everyone looked around sheepishly, an apology not quite formed on their lips. But no matter how hot it became, it was understood deep in the interiors of the French mind that you accepted this punishment for being careless. It was the last remnant of guilt from the Catholic era, even though no one filed into church to say confession in some dark little cabinet. A priest was nowhere to be found. A few old women were attending the altars, bringing in freshly cut flowers, tidying the side tables, mopping the marble floors. Otherwise, the churches were empty, the organ covered in a white sheet for the next Sunday service.

Like so many cars of our vintage, ten years old or so, our air conditioning had gone on the fritz. We drove through the melting streets with the windows down, hair blowig like tiny whips in our faces. The supermarkets were jammed with late-summer tourists, the lesser variety who could afford only the more economical rentals and who brought along relatives and lots of kids and sat outside at sunset enjoying a trickle of cooler air while their supper sputtered on a grill. I doubt any of them slept that well at night, with the stone walls holding in the heat from the day. Maybe now, with the cold fingers of the rain penetrating the outer layers of the walls, one might find a bit of relief. I hope so. These were hard-working French citizens who ached to find some serenity at the end of a frenzied year of inflation and all the other ills attendant upon a fragile Europe. We all needed a break, some tiny compensation for living decent lives and finding government increasingly reluctant to open its purse to allay the anxiety creeping up one’s arms and into one’s dreams.

Driving along the two-lane country roads on the way into two, you gazed upon parched fields and pinched blackberry vines, the wanderings of a dry riverbed turned now to dust after so long a drought. The frogs no longer chanted out their guttural mating songs, but hung back into the slimy clay trying to cool off their skin. Here and there were tufts of weeds that had given up trying to eke out a life in this weather. What have we done, I asked myself, as the car moaned its way forward to the baking stone walls where we would do some light shopping. We were being severely chastised for our greed, for forgetting all the ancient principles of husbandry passed down by previous civilizations. We were indifferent to our heritage, no question. We didn’t think any of these warnings about an earth gone mad could apply to us. But one by one the wells were being depleted and the farmers were having to cart huge water tanks to secret places where a spring still dribbled out some moisture. I’m glad this is not cattle country; sheep are more cautious in slaking their thirsts.

When you look up into the heavens at night, you see all those desert stars and parched planets hanging down over you, mute but powerful omens of what might come if we cannot turn our habits around and discover how to share the earth with the rest of nature. To my right just now stands a vast junk yard, with a mountain of rusting carcasses burning without a flame. All those cars were driven with reckless indifference through the more innocent decades of the past, and then thrown away for more powerful cars with ever more wasteful indulgences built in. I can’t look a certain cat in the eye as I pass him in the village; he seems to be saying he has me to blame for his misfortune. He didn’t drive, he didn’t squander. He took his tiny footprint into the shadows and ate as little as he needed to to get by. He lived a saintly life, compared to mine. I thanked him for it, but I dare not admit how awful my crimes are against the world, from my own hand and all those who came before me who wanted to believe this was an endless paradise of plenty without a bill to pay.

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