Berries in the summer

Berries. That’s what the summer was made of. That, and all the other things, but berries were first. There was also the crowing of magpies, playing counterpoint against the quiet silence of the warm afternoons; the suggestive yet monotonous and ever-present murmur of the river, which seemed to resolve into words if one listened just right; the prattle of the crickets; the slithering and running of snakes and lizards, under the sun, by the side of the road, made into soft dough by the unforgiving heat; and the children, running and playing and shouting and making mischief; and those old people, a glass of brandy for breakfast, who had seen it all before, so many times that nothing ever required a new thought any more. That was the summer. At least a lot of the summer. One could conceive of a summer without ice cream, or swimming suits, or even without television in the mornings. A summer without berries, though, could not have been thought of: if the notion were ever to arise, it would have immediately been discarded: summer was made of berries.

Those were periods when clocks had little power. Time could stand still contemplating a syllable, a fragrance, or the noise of a wooden stick splashing water. Sometimes, time would shatter under the load of a particularly fresh and startling euphony. A girl’s name, or one of those old words, worn by use but exoticly dusty after decades kept in the realm of books and people too stubborn to know it was out of fashion, could begin an endless excursion into forgotten or unknown places of my mother tongue. The consonants rolled one after another from the mouths of those people older than the sun and the stars, wiser than any teacher and more certain than anyone. Their pronouncements, stern as the force of law, lacked all boundaries, free from all shadows of doubt. Some people, when they have lived enough, can speak with such purpose. My private geography, where I understood about places and their names, had to be expanded with the sonorous and portentuous cadences of Castile. A heritage which only half belonged to me, was introduced in casual conversation, as though such villages, mountains, paths, fields, fountains and streams were the centre of the known universe, which, of course, for those speaking of them, they were. Little stones were no longer content to be called thus, but had their peculiar, apt designation, which embraced their essence in a way stronger and surer than words had ever done before. Rooms had, too, their arcane signifiers, on which, somehow, the platonic form of all such was encompassed, as well as the individual, peculiar story of each.

Patience and boredom had no meaning. Summer was made of experiences which stood separately as unique and infungible flavours. Each sunflower seed had its shape, its size, made its noise as I shelled it, and carried its own identity. Sitting on a bench as the birds trilled, and the crickets chirped, and the insets buzzed, and the few cars passed by slowly, and the sun poured its inescapable heat, was a single moment: a moment which could sometimes last seconds, and sometimes hours. Moments chose when to begin and end, and I was there to pay attention and make them justice. Summer was hot, and cold, and dry, and wet, and windy, and calm, and noisy, and there were always more sounds and smells than I could ever hope to recognise. Every species of wood, cow skins we used as rugs, goat’s milk, curing sausages, madre selvas, bushes, wax, butter, lard, spilled wine, kindling, and the endless objects and activities which I could hardly aspire to ever comprehend, left each their own imprint in the air, which mixed in my nose to create a landscape of layers and textures, a notion that no matter how many summers I lived, I would never understand it all.

Summer was made of so many things. Not all of them were pleasant. Autumn’s bad taste was mostly made of disappointment and longings, winter was bitter with loneliness and desperation, spring laid its bonds of worry and exhaustion, but it was only summer which offered us fear. Fear was, as it often is, bitter-sweet: we scared each other, we scared ourselves. How we loved to feel her gallop in our breast, riding our veins and trampling our temples, beating our nerves and muscles into so much lifeless rope and water. Anything could be feared in the summer, and everyone could provide: a long anecdote from times when wolves were more than a legend, a short description of an ossifrage’s talents, a half-heard half-imagined whisper blown by the wind, the stories told by twilight, the creaking of a wooden house at night, they all added their weight to a real, and potent, yet often delicious fear. Anything could happen in summer, and often, anything did.

The summer had many songs. All through, there were bells, of minor, middling and major sorts. The minor bells sung as children’s bicycles passed by, breaking the silence only briefly and the conversation not at all. The middling bells came hanging from the necks of cows, herded through the village roads, each morning and each evening, their passage a basis for a heterodox chronometry far more elastic, yet also sterner in some of its imperatives. Conversation was then sometimes made impossible for a while, at least without shouting, and it was a good excuse to exchange greetings and regards with the cowherds. The major bell called us from the church. It didn’t demean its worth in announcing the time, when anyone who mattered could look at the sun and reckon it close enough. It called the whole village to Mass, or it spoke of sad news. When it called, the village, or at least much of it, heard and obeyed, and voices were silent, at least for as long as it took to understand the nature of the call. Summer had a subtle but constant taste of incense and piety, and murmured rosaries, and the slow hypnotizing rhythms of the liturgy. Each Sunday, at the minimum, I’d find myself following the rite: stand, sit, kneel, respond, all things were a performance, followed almost by rote, as my mind leapt and twirled into theological fancies or simply remained quiescent, waiting. Not all summers were the same, though they all largely tasted alike. No meal can be serve twice in all exactness, though, and not every summer had quite the same components in quite the same proportions. Sometimes, there was a certain earnestly felt dutiful religious conviction, which made attending church a little more involving. Sometimes, the intriguing flavour of doubt, and other times, the crystalized sharp essence of uncompromising scepticism. No matter. All summers needed bells, and the cold church, with its hard wooden benches.

Summers had other sounds. The sound of dominoes, and cards smacked onto the wooden tables of the one single tavern. The sound of coins being reshuffled as points were counted in the game. The sound of arguments between people so certain in their truth that it seemed easier to believe the world could admit both their irreconcilable statements. The lovely sound of girls squealing, all too often after boys had given them not as much a reason as a good excuse. Gravel under foot, wind blowing through the pine trees, partridges and those attempting to call them by imitating their distinct noise, dogs, cows, sheep, goats, hens, chickens, the talk of old women so religious and outwardly righteous one wondered why they hadn’t been assumed into Heaven like Our Lady, and many other things I could name, would only begin to tell of what one could hear in summer. Sometimes, one could even hear the fire roaring at night, towards the end of August, as cards were played at some neighbour’s house. The pines crackled as they burned, and their nuts were roasted and eaten. Eventually everyone would agree it had really become quite unbearably late, and, in a seamless feat of coordination, decide to head back home, putting an end to the visit, a complex ritual in itself where time, place, quantity and mode seemed to weigh as heavily as they do in Latin composition.