Wednesday, November 22, 2006

In the valley

They may have come from the north, those first ones, passing along the shore of the great deep lake and into the marshes between the mountains, searching in small boats for beaver and elk or for other game now gone forever from earth. Or perhaps they came from the south, through the low hills, in small numbers, camping but not settling, not at first. Maybe they even came straight across the mountains to the west; in midsummer, pursuing the trail of deer, they climbed to the tree-covered peaks and saw the long plain that lay beyond, and in the distance the parallel ridge of mountains on the opposite side. They descended from the heights to hunt and fish and stayed on until the nuts were ripe and then they went away before the cold set in again.

Later there were others, who burned the lowland scrub and planted crops along the creek beds, in places where the ground wasn't so stony and the scars of the glacier were covered deep in good soil. As their prey thinned out the hunters went further into the mountains, away for weeks sometimes. In the valley the villages became towns. Creeks were guided and divided, and along them fields stretched for miles, clinging to the land's gentle swell and fall.

For centuries there were travelers from beyond the mountains, carrying flint and shell in exchange for pelts and dried flesh. But when the new traders came, in their strange clothes, this time the sickness arrived with them. The towns were soon abandoned. The survivors retreated into the hills, hunting or taking what they needed to live, until their numbers thinned out and they were forgotten.

The settlers brought new tools, new seeds, beasts from another world, and slaves. They ploughed the lowlands and cleared the foothills for their stock to graze, built mills on the creeks to grind their grain. In the cold winters smoke rose from their houses above the white fields. Some starved, more died of fever, but in time their numbers increased. New towns appeared, clusters of strong stone buildings encircled by others of wood, ringed with fields and fences and orchards and connected by muddy roads.

Once or twice armies crossed the valley and skirmished, then marched away. The towns spread out. On the slopes that rose behind the mansions of the manufacturers, of the merchants and the bankers, the slums filled with immigrants drawn to labor in clattering factories. A few were drawn off to distant wars or answered the call of distant enterprise. Then the great mills died, leaving their stone carcasses behind.

The little city of silversmiths and academies grew slowly, in the new century's first decades; then the tourists brought money in. Still, outside of town the farms remained, utilitarian and trim. Later, the reckoning came beyond the mountains, and the bad years began. The valley declined in its turn, but only so far; its people were poorer but survived.

When the scholars began to build the first new town, according to plan in an empty field, they were ridiculed. Later, the idea was imitated, around the valley and beyond. Ingenuity replaced some of what had once been brought in from afar; the rest they did without. Every year, when the corn was brought in, they organized a feast; then they huddled together and steeled themselves against the long winter to come.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

In our time

A bonfire on a bare hill, whipped high by the wind. High clouds and a moon with no mercy. In the shadows apart from the blaze, scattered voices, a tongue now known to no one, rapid steps, then nothing but chill. The scuttle of dry leaves blown over hard earth.

In the cities the rain is falling harder now, as the cars wait for the lights to change to green, the rubber blades working furiously against the flood. Beyond the iron railing the sycamores stand like giant bones. A woman shuts the taxi's door, a white umbrella in her hand, and hurries off.

The traveller sees the belfry in the distance below and heads in that direction. Around his neck is a double horn, one bell facing either way. The shepherds far across the slope stand and watch as he descends, but do not wave. His heavy boots leave a trail of crushed acorns, pale and sour-smelling among their broken shells.

The woman looks out the window from the room over the bar. Her worn white robe wrapped around her, she listens to the buzz of the neon sign across the street. Its garish green has summoned an insect from the reeds along the shore. It swoops and rises in rapid figure eights, bumping its wings against the glass.