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Chapter From an Unfinished Book: Looking for Magic in the Mountains of Romania
In memory of Ham: "one-third bear, one-third wolf, one third Scooby-doo on roller-skates"
I am sitting on the terrace of Stuart’s house in Harghita province, Romania.
It’s where I have been for the last four days.
There’s a small lake in the garden, a sort of pale, limpid green, full of tiny, darting fish, fed by a tinkling stream, and a family of swallows, maybe fifteen of them, who dart and dive over the surface of the lake, wheeling this way and that, looking for insects. They hit the surface with a splash, skimming over it, before plucking themselves from the water and ascending again. Skilful and happy aviators, I believe they express joy in their work.
It feels like a cycle of time has ended, like a new chapter has begun.
The house sits high-up, backed against a hill on the edge of a forest, overlooking a wide, flat upland plain. The village is down below and winds its way towards the plain along a tree-lined dusty street where it ends at the white steeple of the church in the distance, it’s destination. Around us the serried hills buck and heave, like slow-motion waves on the ocean of the world.
My nearest neighbours are some woodcutters who live in a wooden caravan in a fold of the hill just along the valley a few hundred yards away. They work it in shifts. Sometimes there’s two old guys, sometimes one younger guy with his wife. They have oxen in a shed which they bring out to feed by the verge everyday, and which are used for hauling logs. They also have a huge, oil-smeared tractor which roars and splutters like some prehistoric creature, more primeval looking than the oxen. Sometimes they build a fire and you see smoke coming from their chimney. I always raise my hand in greeting as I pass, and they always wave back.
And my next nearest neighbour is a snake. On the slope just beyond the boundary of the house lives a large brown and black snake. I came across it one day as I was going for a walk. I think our reaction was mutual. I jumped back maybe three feet while he darted quickly down his hole. He looked to be about four foot long.
The hillside meadows around me are terraced, showing evidence of large-scale human activity some time in the past, and are festooned with flowers. I counted maybe twenty different species in the space of only a few more yards. And one day I saw this spectacular iridescent blue flower that then flapped its wings and flew away. It was a butterfly. And beyond that, rustling quietly in the breathless light, lies the forest, hushed and dark like a cathedral, the all-pervading presence that encircles our lives.
Did I say fifteen swallows? A whole tribe has just flashed by, riding in on the waves of the air like an Indian raiding party, maybe a hundred or more, strimming and scriving across the surface of the lake, weaving water droplet patterns in the sparkling air.
For the last two days I’ve woken up from a dream in which men and heavy machinery are working outside. It’s like there’s some great construction project going on. Earthmovers are sculpting the landscape, moving the earth about. Only when I wake up and look out it’s all quiet. Just the static electric buzz of the crickets. The only construction work going on around here is what is happening inside my head.
There’s a family of redstart in the woodshed. They’ve been here since I first arrived: first of all as eggs in the nest, then as chicks, and now as fully fledged youngsters. I think there may be four or five of them, including the adults. They have the most incredible flight patterns. They swoop and dive, turn and flit, shifting about this way and that, in complete control of their medium. They seem to be able to stop dead in midair. Sometimes the woodshed door is open, sometimes it is closed. In order to enter when the door is closed they have to slip through a one inch gap. So they drop down and position themselves, poised like trapeze artists on the changeover, before, with the faintest twist of a feather, a wriggle and a shimmy, they go swooping and swinging through the gap.
The only reason I know they are redstart is that I’ve just looked it up in my Kingfisher Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe. They look like such modest, grey little birds, but then there’s that sudden impolite flash of red as they fan out their tail, like a smartly-dressed secretary who suddenly lifts up her skirt to show you her scarlet underwear.
There are also at least three buzzards in the valley who wheel and circle about in the great arc of the sky, riding the waves of the air on muscular wings, and once, while Stuart was here, one of them dropped down next to the car as we were driving and with a flurry of flapping wings and claws, brought up a field mouse.
Well I say they are buzzards and I’ve looked them up in my Kingfisher Field Guide, but I can’t really be sure. I’m a city boy. The most I ever spotted when I was growing up was cigarette packets and buses. I’ve been sitting here all day and I haven’t seen one bus go by yet.
Stuart’s dog, Ham, now lives in Harghita with me. He’s this great, clumsy, soppy, oversized mountain dog, one-third bear, one-third wolf, one third Scooby-doo on roller-skates. Aurelia and I went down to the Danube Delta to pick him up, where he had been living in a dusty hole in her Grandmother’s back yard for three years. He was this filthy, flea bitten, drooping ghost of a dog when I first saw him, thin and wasted, the bones of his spine and hips raised like fins. It wasn’t that he didn’t get enough to eat: it was that he had lost the will to live, and had stopped eating. But this place is like therapy for a dog. It has space and it has smells and it has ragged valleys full of hidden wonder to get lost in. He was getting better the minute he climbed down from the van.
Ham is well-fed and healthy now and is simply the happiest dog alive.
Sometimes we go for great long walks into the hills. I just stroll along and think while Ham ties himself up in the undergrowth, snuffling about and wagging his tail. He likes to come running through the long grasses, head up, tail up, the white patches around his eyes like spectacles making him look like a professor. A professor of snuffling and wild smells, thundering through the seas of golden meadow grasses, looking for the next adventure.
There’s a place in the woods we like to visit: a quicksilver stream beneath the dappled eves of the forest, where I just sit and contemplate while Ham follows the trails of ripe and interesting smells into the tangled knots of the undergrowth. He likes the shadowy places and the damp places best of all, and usually comes back soaking wet and caked in mud.
“Ham”, by the way, is the Romanian word for “woof”. It’s what the Romanians say a dog says when it barks: “Ham-ham, ham-ham.” So that’s what the Romanians are hearing every time I call out for him to come to me. “Woof,” I’m shouting, “woof, woof, come here will you, woof -” echoing through the hills - “woof, woof, woof!” They must think I’m trying to talk to him in his own language.
He’s a very disobedient dog being almost entirely untrained.
But this place is great therapy for humans too. Every day I have this ritual. I like to watch the sun go down. There’s a string of hills in the distance, on the other side of that sweeping plain, whose outline looks vaguely like a reclining giant. You can see his nose, his face, his gaping mouth. And below that, his chest rising and then falling towards his belly and his groin. He has a “lazy-lob” on as they say in the navy, a half-lob flopped out against his belly, and his legs stretch out into the distance. It’s behind this form – specifically behind the mound of his groin - that the sun disappears every evening.
The ritual varies. Some times I will put on some music, just randomly selecting songs from my music cache, and then putting them on at a certain time: and whatever song is playing as the sun sinks below the horizon, that’s the significant song for the day.
One day it was the Mingulay Boat Song by Richard Thompson. It’s about a ship returning home after a long voyage. This was striking because before I’d left England I had started collecting songs about leaving home, and now I was listening to a song about going home. I thought, while listening to Richard Thompson’s sparkling guitar weaving spells in the evening air, that maybe this signified that I had to return home, back to England. I mean: put it anyway you like, things had not quite gone as I had planned, and sometimes I was very lonely here. Sometimes I could go for weeks without meeting or speaking to another soul, only the birds and the trees.
The song has a certain poignancy. It is a yearning mixed with hope. It is about men returning home to their wives and to their loved-ones after a long time apart.
The sun was sinking slowly sending sprays of intense light radiating into the air, like a halo around the giant’s mound, as the following words drifted from the speakers. I’d never heard them before.
Wives are waiting at the pier-head
Gazing seaward from the heather
Heave around and here we’ll anchor,
‘Ere the sun sets on Mingulay
This was at the exact moment that the sun dipped it’s final shimmering light behind the giant form stretched out on the horizon.
It was like that moment in the cathedral in Timisoara: a jolt of meaning through the circuit of existence. “THIS is Mingulay,” I thought. “THIS is home,” and I let out a sob, half of anguish, half of joy. Or rather, to be precise, it wasn’t clear to me what the sob meant. It just kind of burst out from my chest, from some deep place of unknowing within.
Another time it was Bob Dylan singing Desolation Row - I had to rearrange their faces and give them all another name.
Or the Grateful Dead singing Ripple:
There is a road, no simple highway, between the dawn and the dark of night,
And if you go, no one may follow, that path is for your steps alone.
The songs have been my companions.
Other times I have had parties up here, just me and the dog and the swallows. I’ve drunk copious amounts of cheap red wine and toasted the electric disco-light sunset while dancing to random compilation albums. That’s how I found the Mingulay Boat Song. It was on a compilation of sea shanties I downloaded from the internet, and which I hadn’t heard until I got here. That seemed weirdly appropriate: sea shanties, jigs and reels, and old English folk tunes in the Mountains of Harghita.
Sometimes I think the meadow grasses are dancing along with me. Ham certainly does. He rolls his head and does a little jig every time the sun goes down, tossing a bit of wood in the air.
Most of the time, though, I miss out the music and the wine, and just watch while nature does it’s work, as this whirling ball of living matter-in-space gives obeisance to the solar energetic heart and cosmic fires rage across the evening sky. Such paintings as only God can achieve. A light-show every evening, a radiation-burst of indescribable splendour.
And then I throw a little charidy to the dipping sun, hoping that it will carry my words right around the Earth, till they burst back into this place with the dawn.
“Make these words fly,” I say. “Make them sing!”
It is August now, Lammas. Things have been changing even as I’ve been writing.
Since I moved up here the hay in the meadows has all been cut. There have been gangs all over the hills wearing wide-brimmed sun-hats made of woven reeds, with scythes and with pitchforks, slicing the hay down and then gathering it into piles before, finally, loading it onto the backs of carts and taking it away. All along the roads you see the hay-carts trundling, piled vertiginously high, pulled by straining horses, with a family, perhaps, perched on top, eating their lunch.
The only meadow grass left on the hillside now is the strip running down behind the house which forms the extent of Stuart’s land. The hillside now has a Mohican haircut.
Also the woodcutters moved out today. When I got up this morning their caravan was still there, but when I went out to look later it was gone. I’ll miss them. Though we never said a word, they were my neighbours, and they were always ready with a cheery wave.
This weekend, which was the nearest weekend to Lammas-Day, people were holding parties all over the place. In Miercurea-Ciuc there was a stage with bands playing, with stalls selling beer and various meaty snacks. The smell of cooked meat and wood smoke was drifting through the air everywhere I went, and on Saturday night I could see bonfires scattered across the countryside.
I guess this marks some kind of a turning in the year, the first harvest. People will be getting ready for winter soon, will be filling up the wood stores, chopping the wood and piling it into neat piles, like log walls under the eves as an extra layer of insulation. The summer fruits have all been picked and are even now being made into jam. The autumn fruits are beginning to ripen. You see gypsy families by the side of the road selling tubs full of berries they’ve collected from the forest, and a week or two ago I bought a jar of honey from a roadside hawker with drooping eyelids who looked like he was stoned on some super-charged narcotic drug. I think it was the honey. It was delicious. He said, as I left with my prize, “you will come back next year.”
I had my own Lammas-Day party. I lit a fire in the house and got out the beer and put on some music while toasting the sunset, as usual. The unusual thing was what I burned on the fire. It was a big log, already half-charred, which had been sitting in the remains of a bonfire in a semi-circular fire-pit by the lake ever since May Day. It was a Beltane log from the fire we had here six months ago.
That was when we brought Ham up here to stay. Aurelia and I drove down to her mother’s house in Bucharest in the Love Machine a few days before Beltane to pick up her mum and Anastasia, and then on to her grandmother’s house in the Danube Delta. We arrived about ten o’clock at night and were fed pork stew with potatoes and sweet cheese pie. We made a toast with cherry Tuica, and Aurelia’s grandmother insisted I drink some of her home made wine, which tasted like musty grapes. She’s tiny, about 4 ft 6 I would imagine, wearing a headscarf and woven slippers with leggings, like some figure from a Nursery Rhyme or a fairy tale, the Old Woman Who Lived In A Shoe, or the grandmother from Little Red Riding Hood. She has unflinching candid eyes and a look of amused tolerance on her face. She said she wished that Stuart had come here too so that they could jump the Beltane fire together again as they had last year.
The house was tiny too, like a fairy-tale cottage, with a bowed ceiling on which I bumped my head, arranged around a tiled stove which Aurelia’s grandmother fed with pine cones, next to which a black and white TV twittered on in Romanian. This was the only concession to the modern world. No one was watching. And all around the walls, pinned up as decoration in every room, or draped over the furniture, were these brightly coloured woven strips of cloth in linear patterns with tasselled ends.
Aurelia said, “my grandmother make these.”
She said that in the old economy, during Ceausescu’s time and before, everyone had a particular skill to offer the village, something to barter with, and these woven cloths were what her grandmother did.
Aurelia’s mother said, “how do you like my countryside?”
I said I liked it very much.
I was shown to a room in an annexe which was cold, but snug enough once you were under the covers. It was obviously the best room, hardly used, and was full of old sepia photographs in frames.
The following morning we ate outside in the shade of a vine and Aurelia’s grandmother showed me the outside oven she had made with her own hands, of clay mixed with straw mixed with horse manure.
The toilet was in the back garden in the vegetable patch and consisted of a wooden shed with a raised seat covered in cardboard over a hole in the ground. And there was a chicken coup nearby with a gobbling turkey and some pigs and a small dog that yelped. And then Ham, in a kind of shed with a dirt-floor with a rattling door made of chicken wire, this drooping, broken-down wreck of a dog, chained up in the corner, whining and barking.
Mind you, I was scared of him at first. Stuart had built up all these myths about him: how big he was, how wild, how ferocious, how he would take down horses, how only Stuart could handle him. But Aurelia fed him herbal tranquilisers, we chained him up in the back of the van with some water to drink, and he was as docile as a child.
After that we headed off, back to Harghita.
Meanwhile Stuart had already driven over with his daughter Tasha, who was over on holiday, so when we arrived, five or so hours later after a gruelling drive through the mountains, there were cold beers waiting and the grill in the garden was already fired-up ready for the pork steaks.
We spent the next few days preparing for Beltane. We went shopping and bought packs of beer and bottles of wine and snacks and cakes. We went down into the village and announced our intention to have a party. Stuart said to the barmaid in one of the bars, “it’s an old English tradition. We light bonfires and then jump through them,” and he told her to invite everyone in the village. “Everyone welcome,” he said. “Tell them it’s free beer.”
We bought a chain for Ham and some tools: a pickaxe and a shovel.
But then there were problems with the Love Machine again. The gears were fixed but now it wouldn’t start.
Stuart said, “don’t worry we’ll bump start it.” It was on top of the driveway into the house, but the wrong way round.
Stuart said, “we’ll start it in reverse.” So we tried bump-starting it in reverse but I was in a panic and my reverse driving was all skew-whiff and I wasn’t properly in gear and suddenly I was veering it towards the fence.
Stuart said, “did you know that you’re getting very close to that fence?” And the next thing I knew the wing mirror had caught the fence and had been yanked off.
Stuart said, “look we’ll get it past the gate and then turn it round. You can bump start it down the hill from there.” But once we got to the gate I didn’t swing it round hard enough and the next thing I knew I was in a ditch on the edge of a potato field and there was no way anyone was going to move it from there.
Stuart said, “we’ll get the woodcutters to help us. They’ll bring the tractor up.” So he went down to talk to the woodcutters and then the next thing I saw were the oxen yoked together, these great, hulking, yellow beasts, tails flicking, lumbering slowly up the path, swinging their heads and their shoulders in unison, still chewing on some hay, with one of the woodcutters close by wielding a switch stick giving them the occasional flick of encouragement from behind.
And that was the moment I knew I was glad to be in Romania. After all the panic, and the disappointment, and the confusion, and the hardship, and the loneliness and the isolation, this was the moment that made it all worth while, watching with expectation as a pair of oxen laboured ponderously up the hill ready to pull my old VW camper out of a ditch. I thought, “I’d never get to see this in England.”
And then I got in the van and those great old beasts were chained to the tow bar and with a thunderous jerk the van was being pulled backwards up the hill to a point where I could bump start it, and after being unleashed with a push and a shout from the others – Stuart and Aurelia and Tasha and the two woodcutters - I was off down the hill, and with a splutter and a start and a cough of black smoke, the van was chugging down the track under its own steam again.
There’s a photo which I would have liked to have shown you here. Unfortunately it is totally out-of-focus and with a thumb print smeared across it. That’s Aurelia’s photography for you. But it shows the van resting at an awkward angle, nose down, in a potato field, with the oxen behind, straining against the weight, pulling it backwards up the hill, with the old woodcutters in their thin-brimmed trilbies close behind.
Later Stuart said, “one thing I’ve noticed about you since you got here is that you worry a lot. I knew the van would start.”
And I said, “Yes, I sort of go into a panic and then I don’t know what I’m doing: like when I was reversing down the hill and hit the fence.”
“That’s what it means when you say ‘blind panic’,” he said. “You can no longer see what you are doing.”
There’s a weird little symbol on the dashboard in my van. It flashes on and off in yellow for no apparent reason. It shows two elongated loops joined together side-by-side and looks like two oxen in a yoke.
As we were driving away later Stuart said, “what does that symbol mean?”
“It means, ‘oxen required’,” I said.
By now it was the day of the party. Stuart built the bonfire, a huge 8ft high wigwam structure made of planks surrounding two massive logs piled one on top of the other, the whole thing stuffed with paper and twigs, while I cut steps into the banks of the fire pit (a sort of dip by the lake) and lined them with planks to make seats. We moved all the bench-tables into a line outside the woodshed, and piled them up with goodies, with beer and wine and snacks, and then waited.
Not many people turned up. There was Marton and his girlfriend, Brigita, a female cousin of Marton’s, a male cousin and an uncle. There was Abraham from the bar and his wife. Then me, Aurelia, Stuart and Tasha. I think that’s it. Oh no: there were the two old woodcutters who had spent the afternoon delivering and cutting wood for us, but they left early saying we should invite more young people. They obviously thought they were too old.
I was drinking beer from about 4.30 in the afternoon. By sunset I was already fairly drunk.
The party was a bit awkward at first, with the Hungarian speakers on one side, and the English speakers on the other, with Aurelia as the only go-between and the only Romanian. People were standing on ceremony a little and the party was definitely divided. Tasha got bored and went inside to watch films. There were a lot of awkward silences. But then we lit the fire and Stuart got out the palinka and we started toasting, and that’s when the party hotted up.
I’ll tell you about palinka later.
Magic is imagination. To make a spell you spell it out. Enchantments are made by chanting. You cast your spell like you cast a bronze, or you weave it like you weave a tapestry, with words. It is an act of labour, an act of concentration, a working on the world. It is critical and precise. That is why, although there is an everyday kind of magic we do by ourselves, the special magic is made at critical times in numbers, when there is a window in the world. The window is made by the world’s turning. As the world turns so we all turn. We are all a part of the same big process.
There is nothing supernatural in this. It is natural. Between the destiny of the seasons, between the inevitability of growth and decay, there are spaces of opportunity through which us humans can imagine our own future, our own possibilities, and by imagining them make them come true.
We can guide our future.
This is something the modern world has forgotten. We are living under a spell in which the concentrated power of our collective imagination is creating something destructive and yet we think we can’t do anything about it. We watch as the world gets wilder and stranger, with more and more suffering, more and more pain, more and more hunger, with war and terror, with fear, with hatred, as our seasons lose their integrity and the weather goes crazy and all the wild places get eaten up by cash-crops, and we shrug our shoulders and say “well what can we do?”
This is what we can do. We can imagine a different world. We can imagine it collectively, and then work together to make it come true.
We can picture a different world.
Stuart is already doing this. He has plans for this house in Harghita. He calls it The Refuge, and he imagines it as a place where magic will be made. He says there will be a shower block, and a feasting hall and a fire pit and a sweat-lodge, and down the hill on his Mohican strip of land, he plans to build some yurts: maybe ten original Hungarian yurts, wooden frames and stretched canvas, with little wood-burning stoves in the middle, solid and cosy, but easy to dismantle and to rebuild again, to move and move again as the land requires it. At the entrance there will be a gate through which guests will enter, with runic symbols and magical signs, representing the border between ordinary reality and the magical world. And he plans to invite people along to share some of the magic of this place, to feast and to enjoy, to bond, to break down barriers, to relate, to sweat together in the darkness, to raise toasts and to make spells and incantations on the festival days to send out into the world to begin the re-birthing of reality.
This kind of magic is not strange or alien to us. We do it all the time. We honour the festive times at feasts of our choosing. We make festivals. And at Christmas round the festive table we raise a toast to peace on earth and goodwill to all men and on this one day at least we kind of half believe it. But what if we did this more often and with more will and more belief? Not just on Christmas day, but on all the other Christmas’ throughout the year? All the other turnings? On Candlemas and Beltane and Lammas and Halloween? On Mid-Summer’s day? On the Autumn Equinox and the Spring Equinox? On the rising of Sirius? What if we spelled out our future, letter by letter, not for ourselves alone, but for all of us. What kind of a world can you imagine? What kind of a world can we all imagine collectively?
So that’s what me and Stuart were doing now, on this Beltane eve, just as the sun was going down, crouched before the great pointed altar of Stuart’s giant 8ft high fire-structure, still unlit, with a lighter held between us, spelling out the future: to make this place into a refuge, to clear out all the shit that was holding us back, to commit the old, tired and worn out neuroses of the past to the flames, to set it burning as a light, as a beacon of hope for the future - for this book and its success - hands clasped in unison as we lit the fire and then stood back to watch as the flames licked and lapped around the tongues of wood, as sparks flew, and the fire began to rise and then to roar, and the flames leaped like suicidal demons into the night air, sizzling the trees, sending flickering shadows scurrying into all the corners of our little sacred space up here on the hill.
You would have seen it for miles.
This is when Stuart got out the palinka. So the party was hotting up from the inside as well as the outside.
I‘ve not told you about palinka yet. The word is Hungarian. It means, “distilled twice”. So it is like Tuica, only distilled a second time. And whereas Tuica is a nice, heart-warming spirit that will give any party a welcome kick, palinka is actually insane. It is the nearest thing to a psychedelic spirit I’ve ever tried. It is pure, unadulterated evil. I told my brother-in-law about it. I said, “I’ve got some evil spirit with me,” and he thought I meant something supernatural. Well I did. I meant palinka. Palinka is definitely supernatural.
It’s like this. You drink one shot of palinka – say about a double’s worth – and it’s like you’ve drunk a whole bottle of whiskey. The world takes on a strange new glow. This is the dangerous moment. It’s such an astounding sensation you think, “What on earth was that? I’d better have another.” Only you shouldn’t. You drink a second and that’s it: you no longer exist. You are wiped from the chronicles of existence. You disappear. It as if you had never been born.
I’m not exaggerating here. It’s like the whole world is swept away and you have no memory of it whatsoever. Gone.
So what follows is the record of what happened on that Beltane evening after the second palinka, as told to me by witnesses. I have to believe them as I wasn’t around to corroborate. I had been wiped from the chronicles of existence by an evil psychedelic spirit in a plastic bottle.
So it seems that we were toasting a lot. “Frate, frate. Friend, friend. Egeder Sheggeder. Slainge. Bottoms-up. Cheers. Etc etc.” We had very few words in common, but those we had we repeated endlessly. Every time we found a new word we could all relate to this lead to another round of toasts. “Frate, frate. Friend, friend. Egeder Sheggeder. Slainge. Bottoms-up. Cheers. Etc etc.” All over again.
After that we jumped the fire.
Actually I do remember this. The fire had been like a furnace all night, but, once it had died down enough, Stuart laid a plank across it and we all leapt through the flames. So I stepped onto the plank and leapt and rolled and went straight into the stream that trickles from the lake, my whole back getting plastered in mud.
Later, it appears, I went into my room in the annexe and was sitting in the dark. Stuart knocked and came in.
“What are you doing?” he said.
“I’m thinking about Laura.”
“Oh all right then,” he said, and left me to it.
Later again some more people turned up from the village and were teaching Stuart and Aurelia how to do Hungarian dancing. Spinning round and round in the flickering firelight to this wild, primeval gypsy music.
Later again Marton and I were asleep side-by-side by the fire while Ham stood on top of us licking our ears.
Later again – or at the same time, or before, or whenever, there is no sequence here – I fell on my face.
Smack. Face first on the concrete. No one else was there. I was all alone unconscious on the concrete floor.
And after that I woke up and it was the following day and I had gashes across my forehead and was wearing a sopping, mud-streaked fleece and it felt like the devil himself had been inside my head eating my brains out with a spoon.
I had been in Romania for exactly one month.
© 2011 CJStone