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2013-05-23 | |
I lived quite well between childhood’s charms and temptations until about the age of thirteen. Then some people began to build a dam in our village. From it came all the trouble in my life, I used to think with bitterness. Life has not been the same since then, and death moved from the city to mow down at will the elder and younger people of the village.
Before the dam was there, the river was impetuous and foamy like a horse ambling fast, getting loose from its traces. Almost every year floods covered the ground and even a small tributary creek puffed and burst out of its otherwise gentle nature. When I had to go to the station, my grandfather carried me piggyback, almost always joking that I held his neck too tight for fear of slipping as he carried me over the water.
Village elders said that fifty years ago the river froze more than a meter wide, and in summer they washed hemp crops in the river and caught big, sweet fish there. Those were story-like times when waters were clear, before chemical plants blackened river.
Many years before the dam was completed, villagers and others passed over a narrow bridge that swung between two poles, sometimes making one shiver with fear. In time planks rotted, a few went missing, and the icy ones in winter were a real danger to step upon. From time to time rumors came that someone had drowned there.
The river also took its toll in lives of horses lost on an islet when their master could not find them. Wagons and cars traversed the river on a cable ferry gliding on a thick rope of steel. A Gypsy man was hired to spin the crank, guiding the “ship” from one bank to another. He slept in a mud hut on the village shore. The last one, Nicholas, was lost to the world from that village after the dam was raised. An additional victim.
There were two engineers in my family. One worked in hydroelectric power, and he visited the village when I was still small. The second was my father. My father was a road engineer. One evening, sitting with us around the table, he revealed he had learned of a secret government plan, that a dam was to be built on the river and that the village there was to be demolished.
My grandparents did not believe him, but all of us were a little scared. The years passed and I found that somehow my father was right: nothing there was like before; the hidden paradise of my childhood was gone, and gone were the local inhabitants and their orchards stretching towards the riverbed.
In the summer of 1984 there was the traditional “village sons meeting,” where young and old, villagers and guests and children of the village gathered together, people willing to talk and listen to music, and to dance. One sunny day we walked to the meadow next to the river. I was among the youngsters.
Dam works were already underway. I remember piles of gravel and rare green grass. But we, the children, had no worries. It was the first time I tasted beer, only a little, because they did not sell juices. The next meeting of this type came 27 years later, when people, much fewer in number, came to the village on the road built over the dam.
There was neither the boat nor the footbridge, which boys used to swing, to annoy girls, and from which some of them jumped into the river to swim. Our house was located at the end of the village. It was among the last ones to be reached by the old way. Today it is one of the first you see after descending the road from the dam.
Many years cars did not use to go there. The road was filled with dried-out old wagon ruts, with cattle dung; children often walked barefoot there or made mud pies while playing in road dust and water. After the dam was built, the wheeled wooden chariots were replaced by cars bringing relatives to the village, passing in front of our windows.
We had a neighbor who was deaf. I saw her often when I was little. She took water from the street well because she did not have one in her yard. She wore the traditional folkloric blouse. She had a large, open smile that stretched to each corner of her headkerchief, and she talked loudly. Sometimes I felt repulsion; I did not like her to kiss me on the cheeks. But she was warm and generous, coming unexpectedly to our gate with her apron full of luscious, sweet golden pears... so wonderful.
Our other neighbors were few in number. Among them was the German cobbler, in whose house I tasted maybe too many sweets prepared by his wife. When I grew up, some village children, with whom I played in the evenings, proposed once an “adventure”: to go “stealing” pears from another neighbor. As a kind of joke, not in order to do any damage. I did not agree, but I could not spoil the mood of the others or renounce their company. I watched them skip over the stone fence and then come running back scared of some dog, disappointed that the pears were too raw.
Then I heard shocking news. One of that neighbor’s sons, a foundry worker, had died boiled alive in the factory’s boiler. I remembered that death my whole life, it was an accident which can impress the mind of a child. I thought the poor man must have suffered a lot.
The dam was completed after many years, in the nineties. The large majority of my mother’s generation had left to live in the city. Only a few new folks came from other places to settle in the village. One after another, old houses with cross-marks on the wall and with shuttered windows concealed empty nests.
For unknown reasons, Gypsies robbed and killed the village priest. Another gang of thieves ransacked deserted houses and looted the church. Then it was renovated and restored. One day I heard something else that threw a shadow over me: the river was demanding its rights. An old woman, the neighbor who brought me luscious pears when I was a child, drowned in mud near the dam. God knows what she gathered there, maybe brushwood for fire or maybe she was lost in thought about the old world, where that place was filled with dry gravel and was a wonderful backwater. I remembered the other neighbor drowned in the boiler of the factory where he worked. Both were people from the village of yesteryear, like us. And both drowned in something else, not in water.
Flooding did not stop after the dam was built. More trouble hit the Gypsies of the village, with their small huts and houses around another tributary of the river. Water also destroyed completely the house of the former cobbler, where someone else now dwelt.
What have I left for myself? From what was there before, nothing. My grandparents rest in the small cemetery. The area around the dam became a reserve for the protection of wildlife and plants. The riverbed is enclosed with barbed wire. Fishermen from different places began coming to the shores of the lake, and they still do. Unknown people bought land and raised new homes outside the village, near the lake.
Our house is one of the few houses built between three wells. Now the cellars are dry; waters don’t get in anymore. I am inclined to believe that one day everything will dry up, except the now-tamed river. The world will be quiet again, free of car engines and other sources of noise and dust. The air will be cleaner, and the blue mountains in the distance will grow bluer.
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