“The scent of the Earth is richer in autumn. The light is tender and sweet, and the Sun becomes golden-white, like an old person, like my grandma. You don’t know what I am speaking about, do you? ‘Cos you grew up on the dusty streets of a city smelling like gasoline and looking like white serpents on the sunset.”
The girl looked puzzled. “No, I don’t,” she said softly, then stopped to pick up a little rock from the dust.
Mom kept walking. “That’s OK, ‘cos the things we knew once won’t come back ever again.”
“Yes, they will. There are still farms out there, and cows, and all that stuff.”
“Yeah, right.” She sighed. “It’s not the same. It’s different. Here, come here!”
The little girl ran fast by her mom’s legs. “What is it?” she asked.
“My father used to make wine right here, right on this spot.”
“Oh, but there is nothing here,” said the girl, looking at the stamped ground beneath her feet. “Doesn’t he make wine anymore?”
“No,” said the mom. “But he still drinks it, hahaha…”
“Yuck!” The girl’s face expressed such disgust that her mom couldn’t suppress a loud laugh, still remembering the time, years ago, when she had given her spinach puree. She was just a baby then – her mouth wide open, her eyes pointed with naive trust towards her mother – nothing wrong could happen. And then the sudden repugnance…such an unpleasant surprise…unbelievable…coming from her own mom…and she was soooo confident; she thought of that sweet mash she always got before nap time.
“Ha, ha, ha,” laughed the mom again. “Have you ever had wine?”
The child started jumping up and down around the small room crying, “Yuck, yuck, yuck, the wine is yuck! Yuck, yuck, yuck, the wine is yuck!”
Her shout was echoing, bouncing from one wall to another, and even the girl noticed that it was a little out of place. “Mom, can we go now?”
“You go find your father, Elena. He must be by the gate with your aunt. I’ll be back soon.”
They had to wake up early in the morning and make a four hour drive from Bucharest to this remote village, somewhere by the feet of the mountains. She hadn’t been back there for 20 years, since the revolution. “I really do not remember that trip,” she had confessed in a letter to her sister, but that was a time of turbulence in which the important things were happening elsewhere. The house, the village, the place she grew up, would be there forever for her to visit at her convenience, she had thought, not contemplating that possibility would be half a world away. Now, when the time finally had come to go back, she could only take 30 minutes to see what remained after all these years.
“I have always been thinking about those poplars by the fence, the rustle of the leaves in the mellow wind of autumn. I never liked the dusk. No light anywhere, because it is too early for people to turn on their lights, and because there isn’t any street lamp. And I hated the sunset. What have you done to those poplars, Father?”
“I cut them down long ago. They weren’t good for nothing. They only made leaves for me to clean. Sorry, I didn’t know you like them so much; I could have sent you a stick. Hee, hee.” Her father took off his hat and wiped his head with his cracked, dirty hands. The fire was reflecting on his shiny baldness. He was making Tuica, a strong alcoholic beverage made out of plum and grape marc. He would be distilling it three times, until it came out of the copper pipe as clear as spring water and as strong as a poison. “Here, take a sip,” he said, handing her a little glass.
The Tuica was like fire, burning down the throat. “Yuck! Jeez, dad, are you gonna drink this?”
Her father laughed; and when he did so, he looked like a goblin that had just played a trick on somebody. Otherwise, he was still a handsome man in his late 50’s, with few dip wrinkles around the mouth and an always fit body.
“I have three customers lined up for it, already,” he said, suddenly serious. “I have to rebuild the south part of the house, ‘cos it is coming down on us.”
He put more wood on the fire, arousing a storm of sparks that floated in the air for a while before vanishing in the bluish light of the evening.
“I don’t like evenings,” she said, looking out through the open door of the porch. “I like the daytime, when the Sun is up.”
“Don’t you worry, girl; there is a place where the Sun never dies. You can go there.” Her father was mysteriously smiling.
“Yeah? Like where? In your mind?” she said.
Her father laughed again like a mischievous goblin, and said, “The Arctic Pole! Have you ever heard of it?”
Standing there, right on the spot where so many spirits had been brewed and so much wine been bottled, she remembered the place where her dad used to store the wine for winter. If she could only find a shovel.
The porch was still standing, although the roof was almost gone. On the walls hung some of her father’s tools. The chimney and the fireplace had been destroyed, but the ground beneath was still black and burned. Across the front door, on that corner, there was a pile of things she could not identify, so she went to check them out. And bingo! the shovel. It was a big rusty piece of metal, which she thought was still smelling like cow dung.
The broken handle was nailed together in a few places, and felt sturdy. She took it and walked outside. Finding the spot took no time at all. Ah, she could not have forgotten the place where she would always dig when they had guests, taking her father’s tasks just because she imagined she was digging for a treasure. There was the corner of the house, and once there were some raspberry bushes a few steps apart. Now there were only weeds.
She started digging. The soil was hard as a rock because it hadn’t rained for weeks. She took off her jacket after a while. Drops of sweat were coming down her forehead, oozing around the ears and face, making her cheeks itchy. “Why am I doing this?” she whispered. She must have been close, because the shovel made a harsh noise; she gave it two more strokes, then threw the shovel and knelt. Her hands reached inside the hole, and one by one brought out the moldy pegs that her father had placed over the hole. The last item she got out was a bottle of wine.
Everybody was waiting for her by the gate. The neighbors were there too. They were all talking loud and laughing. Elena, followed by some instant friends at her age, was chasing some puffy yellow chicks, screaming in plain English, “Get them, get them!”
Only her sister was wandering around with a nostalgic look on her face. She came close and showed her the bottle of wine, hidden in the sleeve of her jacket. “Look what I found,” she said; “let’s have some dinner!” They all left before the dark took over one more time. As far as she could tell, she still didn’t like evenings. “Where was that place that the sun never dies? Oh, yeah…,” she remembered. “In my mind.”