Lights illuminated the hilltop. Shadows danced across the wide expanse of oceans. The almond trees in full blossom sent out into the night a most luxuriant smell. From certain vantage points, one could make out their various poses through the arches of the aqueduct that stretched across the old cobblestone streets. The impressive structure had been built during the reign of King Urbain, whose public works in the area also included a home for the destitute. Its elevated domed roof edged heavenwards, and the inner garden was meticulously cared for by those thankfully afforded a place to rest. Palm trees towered above, their leaves stretching out as if the king himself was smiling most benevolently upon them.
One should not, however, imagine that it was only a city for the struggling as there was indeed great prosperity, due in large part to the high demand for the Nouvelle almond, whose taste and texture had made it one of the world’s most prized varieties. Businessmen had come from the more prosperous countries of the north to invest and had established an active minority presence. They built for themselves grand houses with fountains and statues. Their children were educated at a school that had been established by the Sisters of Mercy. There was a Catholic church and synagogue, and the local cemetery, which although predominantly Orthodox, had a resting place for Catholics and Jews as well.
Surrounding Nouvelle were mountains dotted with pine trees and villages with stone houses that could only be reached by windy roads and hairpin corners. Here a simple life could still be found, and everything was at a decidedly slower pace. Small stores still catered to individual needs. The seamstress could with a roll of fabric and pattern design a dress one would be proud to wear on the occasion of a baptism, wedding, or name day. The bakery with its freshly baked bread gave the morning air a pleasant scent, although the unmistakable smell of animals was still everywhere. While the huge cows might startle the newcomer, the residents were used to their presence. Goats agilely climbed the rocky hillsides nibbling whatever they could find. Chickens scurried about in a frenzy. Flocks of sheep roamed mountain pastures taking orders from barking sheepdogs and shepherds with their knotty staffs, whose haunting melody could sometimes be heard in the city during the early morning hours.
On clear days, one could see in the distance an island, which had in antiquity been the source of gold that had brought great wealth into the area, and whose marble had been highly praised throughout the realm.
Along the port, a variety of fishing vessels were anchored. Filled or emptied wooden crates were a common sight both on and off the ships. The intense sun brazened the faces of the fishermen smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and threading nets. Different languages could be heard spoken by those who had come hoping for a better life. Ships were named for loved ones and mythical heroes of the past. Fishing was a huge industry, and stalls sold the latest catch.
Cats, forever on the lookout for a meal, stealthily crawled about the streets. Wary of dogs, they always managed to escape their grip by sliding beneath cars. At other times of the day, when the boats had gone out to sea, they frequented the window ledges of houses.
The market was alive again with fresh fruit and vegetables. Young and old alike advertised their wares as though they were chanting the Divine Liturgy: “Oranges, fresh oranges, fresh juicy oranges! Tomatoes, fresh tomatoes, fresh juicy tomatoes!”
Spring seemed to be everywhere. The swallows had returned, and their mud nests were carefully constructed in balcony corners. They swooped about, and the sky was alive with their graceful movements. There was also the sound of the collared dove, whose hoo-hoo-hoo, hoo-hoo-hoo was a resonant herald of spring; it mingled with the scent of flowers that were everywhere exploding with color and the sun’s renewed strength.
The storks were again in their massive nests, constructed with care atop telephone poles. Their fluttering wings could be heard as they flew in search of food for their young. Dogs scurried about the streets without masters but were more than willing to accept the hospitality of any they might come across for a little something to eat or drink. They were always on some mission or another, usually running at a steady pace, sniffing about and marking territory as their own. People were generally leery of them, and parents had taught their children to avoid them. A young woman might easily freeze in her tracks if one approached. When they gathered in packs, even the large-hipped middle-aged women in colorful skirts peddling intricately woven baskets were frightened. From families that never settled in any one place, the menfolk worked the almond fields or sold whatever goods they happened to obtain. The women gave birth to children at an early age, and their presence near the aqueduct was a familiar sight. Their baskets were much in demand and stood outside many a store.
The young boys scoured them for their favorite pieces of candy. The girls, their hair in ponytails, were much more restrained. But then again they attended classes in piano and ballet. After putting down their jump ropes, they would slowly approach the baskets, commenting on the beautiful design. Delicately lifting the lid, they would gaze inside before deciding what might be to their liking.
Old women wearing the traditional mourning color talked in worried tones of the afflictions presently plaguing them. Elderly men with canes walked slowly down the streets of their youth or sat on the hard wooden chairs at the coffee shops that were exclusively their domain. Sipping their coffee loudly, they wondered what else their eyes would see, eyes that had already seen so much.
Their country was at the crossroads of nations, and the great powers had considered it important strategically, and they had suffered accordingly. War had played a part in their lives ever since they could remember. In the days in which their fathers had trudged through the cold across frontiers in the most horrendous conditions imaginable. When sleet felt as if bullets had again been unleashed by the caprice of a merciless god. For many it was their only experience of the outside world, and it would forever shape their perception. As for their children, they would find themselves in another war. Some were taken for labor, working in factories amongst the splendor of majestic cities like Vienna, which the war had not yet ravaged and whose Danube flowed peacefully, oblivious of the turn of events that were unfolding. Years later, they would receive a tiny pension in Austrian schillings. Soon they would make another kind of journey but to a place from which they would never return.
The cemetery was located on the outskirts of the city. As one passed through the gates there was a chapel with icons hanging to be kissed, white and tan candles to choose from, and a coin box. Scarcely did a day go by that another funeral wasn’t held, a grave opened, and wreaths placed upon the mound of dirt covering the newly deceased. A woman in black, her nose reddened from crying, clutching a handkerchief, stood still after having lit a candle near her husband’s grave, unable to move from the spot.
There were all manner of tombs, and without glancing at the date of birth, one could understand which were old, and it was not just the worn marble that had lost its original luster. Clearly in the present no one would deem a tomb with a wrought iron fence surrounding it and steps leading down into a crypt an appropriate resting place. Yet, others had withstood the passage of time: cemetery columns, on top of which were angels, a cross, or the crucified Savior.
Photos of the deceased were on the gravestone as were lanterns lit. If one passed at night, one would be reminded that the souls of the deceased still lived. Flowers were carefully arranged in vases. Bees, buzzing about, did not have to wait for their paradise in the afterlife: it was in the here and now. In their wake, the marble was dotted with wax. Pollen coming down in clouds from the huge cypress trees also thinly coated the surface.
On Sundays people went to honor their dead. As they made their way to the gravesite, they glanced at the dates stretching back in time. A family whose members held some key to longevity, the earliest dying at eight-six, and the oldest at one hundred and four. And in an area where tall weeds sprouted, funeral shrouds and withered wreaths inexplicably littering the ground, was the grave of a four-month-old still immaculately kept some thirty years after his death.
In the case of the elderly, the death was often preceded by years of hardship faced by the family as they witnessed their loved one’s slow demise. Lost from nearly all contact with the world around him, not realizing that the home in which he was staying was his own, he was still remarkably able to multiply large sums, speak coherently in a foreign language, and understand that he had crossed his Rubicon. At the end, he could not comb his hair or brush his teeth. He was no longer able to recognize his wife, daughter, or even himself. The sea breeze had once blown into the family home, but now the air inside was stale, thick as the blankets used in vain to try to keep his body warm. Well looked after, he was still unable to realize how very fortunate he had been as a person.
But solace would come to the bereaved, and to some extent, the irretrievable loss of their beloved was alleviated by the visit to the graveside and the care and attention spent.
Marie sometimes went to the Catholic cemetery to light a candle for those whom time had forgotten. Occasionally on tiptoes, she glanced over the wall into the Jewish cemetery and saw the headstones with their Hebrew letters, and the pebbles left atop by visitors.