My mistake it was--and nearly my death, as well--to assume that with but a credit card and an American passport, I could travel anywhere in the world without trouble: money and diplomacy solved everything. Indeed I had travelled far and wide with little else, but the absurdity of this assumption was made frighteningly clear to me when, while hiking alone in the Carpathian Mountains, I found myself lost, without food, and soon to be caught in a rapidly encroaching, violent looking thunderstorm.
The storm arrived and began to pummel me with impossibly large raindrops. Stupidly, I ran. As I thought raindrops represented danger, I sought to escape them, but the danger was in fact in my unfamiliarity with the situation, and by running I worsened it. I gave up following any semblance of a trail, the last traces of which had long since vanished. I ran, feebly trying to escape the storm. I ran, not knowing where I was running to, or even where I was running from, as I had been lost even then. The only shelter I could find was against a flat rock face angled slightly from the shredding wind. The rain still came at me from above and three sides, but at least I was protected from the chillingly sharp wind, and, as I looked out over the darkening treeless hills, I knew I would not be able to find a more protective place to wait out the storm. So I sat there, wet through and shivering. I jumped at every crack of thunder. I tried to think, "it's only thunder, it's not going to hurt you," but the primal shock generated by explosions of such volume cannot be calmed with logic, and I jumped at each one. I curled myself into the tightest possible ball, set my backpack on my windward side, and--in lieu of anything better to do--slept.
When I awoke, the storm had passed. It was early evening, the sky was clear, and the clouds had reduced themselves to an unthreatening wisp of charcoal gray on the horizon. The hills were an emerald green. The sky was crystalline. The whole view was spectacular, but that spectacle didn't fill my growling stomach, nor did it indicate to me the way to return to civilization. But for me to do so was imperative, for the pain of hunger was becoming unbearable. I'd experienced the hunger of one who has missed a meal, but that was nothing compared to the hunger of one who has not eaten in thirty-six hours and could not reasonably expect to eat in the immediate future. I walked. I tried to head north, vaguely recalling that the trail had led south from the town I'd left. I kept walking hoping to find a village or a road to follow to a village. I wondered how many American men there were in the world, like me at that moment, lost and wandering, being where they had no business to be. I wondered how they had got to be where they were. Nature abhors a vacuum, and sucked me constantly to places I'd never been. The particle physics of my existence, the chaos, the fractal patterns traced by my footsteps, were the only force to guide me: the path I had to follow.
I kept the setting sun my left, and when it perished in the teeth of the mountains, I followed the North Star. And when the sun rose on my right I knew my direction was true. I kept walking over the crests of hills, and down into valleys, wading or hopping over small creeks, and up over the next hill. Lakes passed me on every side, looking like pieces of fallen sky. Time passed slowly as I walked, the sun mounted to the apex of the great dome of sky above me, as it rose higher it became harder to tell the right direction, and looking up made me dizzy. The hills and convolutions of land confounded my straight lines of travel. The summer sun grew bright and strong near midday, and it hurt my eyes to keep them open. I was beginning to suffer from exhaustion. I had walked for nearly a day straight and I'd been hungry when I started. The landscape didn't change: the same rolling alpine meadows and sharp crags beyond, the same shallow lakes and streams. In my desperate thought it seemed I was marching too much and not going anywhere, and every step made my feet heavier. I sat in a wide open place where the grass was short and looked at the sky. I held my weak head up with my hands and stared at the enormous blue glass bowl above me. The blue pressed in on my eyes and into my mind. I collapsed.
I lay unconscious for several hours before she found me. She was a shepherdess who lived alone in the hills. She saw me while searching for a lamb that had strayed from the flock, and saw that I needed help. Returning to her hut to fetch a drag, she fastened it to a strong ram and rolled me onto it. In this manner she took me back to her house.
When I awoke, I found myself between blankets, in a lamplit house, but these were things I noticed afterwards. What I noticed first was the face of the woman who knelt by the bed. It was the face of a goddess. She had deep blue eyes, serious eyes, concentrated eyes. Her hair fell in dark gold ringlets across her brow, around her face, and over her shoulders. Her lips, nose, and jaw were perfectly drawn and angled. She was, in short, beautiful: not pretty or cute but frighteningly, terrifyingly beautiful. I stared at her; she stared back. Afraid I'd lost my sanity and was hallucinating, I closed my eyes.
I opened them again when I felt something hard push against my lips. She was still there, quite real, and trying to feed me. I sipped from the wooden spoon. It was some sort of meat broth, and quite good. She continued to spoon-feed me, though I was surely quite capable of doing it myself. I lay still beneath the heavy wool blankets, slurping the soup, watching her eyes.
When she was satisfied that I'd been fed, she stood up and took away the pod from which she'd been spooning. I looked around the place. It was a one-room hut. All the walls had shelves and things hanging on them, cookery and such. There was a stove. And the questions came.
"Um, excuse me? Where am I? Who are you? How did I get here?" I asked. She turned and looked at me with a quizzical expression on her face.
"Do you speak English?" I asked. No answer. "Parlez-vous français?" No answer. So much for the world's diplomatic languages. And I knew no others.
She continued to look at me as though I were a mumbling drunkard. Then her face softened and she smiled understandingly.
"********" she said, and I understood her about as much as she did me. Her language sounded like nothing I'd ever heard. I thought it might be Turkish or Arabic.
"Please..." I begged, and sat up in the bed. She rushed over and tried, with soothing words and hands, to get me to lie down.
"No, listen!" I said and pushed her aside. I stood up from the bed and realized that I was naked, which only compounded my consternation with embarrassment. I grabbed my pants, which had been set to dry by the fire, and put them on, still damp as they were.
"I need to find a telephone," I said, stumbling into my jeans. Of whom I would call, I had no idea, but I was frantic for some comfort of civilization. I opened the door to leave the house. Outside I was stunned by the vast emptiness before me. The house was alone on its hill. I walked around it. She has a small vegetable garden and an enclosure for her sheep. Beyond that was the empty tundra that stretched over the rippling hills to the horizon. On two sides ran rows of jagged mountains. Shirtless, I shivered.
I went back inside and said, "please, I have to find a town, where is the nearest town?" But it was useless; I couldn't understand her language and she couldn't understand mine. She sat down on the bed, confused by my sudden anger. Exasperated, I sat next to her with my head in my hands. My arm brushed against hers. I looked at her more closely. She was dressed in loose garments of thick, rough wool, but the shape of her body was evident beneath them. She couldn't have been more than twenty. She has small, proud breasts. Her arms were strong yet slender, with thin wrists. She had plump round hips and her legs were short, but graceful, and her feet were brown. She had pale skin, but her arms and cheeks were dark from the sunrays that easily penetrated the thin mountain air. Her body seemed so very suited to her life, or what I imagined it to be, whereas my body--that of a first-world, middle-class idler--seemed unsuited for anything. I got up and dressed my useless body: put on the rest of my damp clothes and went outside.
I walked a few meters from her hut and sat down on the grass to try to decide what to do. Though I was fed and rested, my situation was little better than before. I'd found the signs of human life I was looking for, but it wasn't what I wanted. I wanted airports and taxicabs, and I'd found just a lone shepherdess. And what of her? How had she come to be here? How did she survive alone in the alpine meadows? Where was her family? Perhaps she wasn't alone and was waiting for a husband to return in the evening. I turned to the house to look at her. She was outside and letting me pout while she went about her housekeeping. I watched her tidy up the area just outside the door. I say, she seemed very young, barely more than a girl, and so beautiful. I looked away, back toward the mountains that, as the sun set behind them, seemed cut from purple construction paper. The air was crisp clear. There was no noise. There were murmurs, sounds, and whispers of wind, but no noise. My benefactress's life seemed beautiful, like herself.
A series of thoughts entered my head, each sillier than the last. I shooed them away; I was a city boy, I had to get back to the city. I approached her as she was picking tomatoes from her garden.
"Excuse me?" I said. She looked up at me, waiting.
I hesitated. Behind her the sun was setting. "Me," I pointed to myself, "sleep" and with my hands, palms together, I made a pillow beneath my canted head, "here," I pointed at her house, "tonight, and tomorrow I..." I stalled, trying to find convincing mimes for "tonight" and "tomorrow".
Her eyes were laughing in their cobalt blue. She looked at me as though I were a child trying to explain something completely obvious. And mixed with this expression was another, one that I'd seen before in the faces of other women. It was an expression that always made me timid and uncomfortable.
I glanced away. She had been gathering vegetables in her dress, holding the front of it up, leaving her legs exposed. A tomato tumbled from her dress and, thankful the event that broke the uncomfortable moment, I instantly stooped to pick it up. But with my knees bent and my fingers closed around the fruit, I was stuck, for before me were her naked thighs.
And I could smell her skin.
She saw me staring dumbly at her legs, but said nothing, just swished aside and took her tomatoes back to the house. I hurried after with the one that had fallen.
That evening, the vegetables were put to good use in a delicious stew. We ate together at the table in the middle of the room, lit by sheepsfat lamps whose acrid smoke wafted in layers about us. As I watched her sip her food, I wanted to say something, but even if I had found something to say she wouldn't have understood it. I could barely eat, the fatigue from the previous days' events came down on my shoulders like a heavy wet blanket. My benefactress noticed, guided me to the bed, and bade me to lie down.
I watched her under heavy eyelids as she cleared the table and made another attempt to communicate. "I really do need to go tomorrow. I want to thank you for all you've done. You probably saved my life, but I really need to go. If you could show me the way to the nearest town..." As I spoke, she made her way about the room, blowing out the lamps. "I don't even know your name, thank you for everything... but I should go," I said as she blew out the lamp by the bed. I began to speak again but she put her finger on my lips as she blew out the final lamp.
And there in the darkness, amidst all my talk of leaving, I found a reason to stay.
The weeks passed and I grew accustomed to life in the hills. I took on my share of the chores. Though it was less efficient, I tried as often as possible to help Galatea, for that was her name, with whatever she was doing, to be near her, rather than do something else on my own. I was deeply in love, and had been well before she blew out that final light.
There was work to be done. Dishes and crockery had to be taken down to the river and washed, clothes likewise. The house had to be swept and tidied, the plants in the garden had needed weeding and their fruit to be picked in a timely manner, so that nothing rotted. The sheep needed to be taken out in the morning at to graze and brought back in the afternoon. For firewood, we had to go down the hill to the river then follow it downstream for a mile or so, where there was a small woody thicket. There she showed me that the best wood for burning was dead branches still on the trees, rather than wood that had fallen to the ground, which was usually wet and unburnable. Winter was coming. Grass had to be cut, dried, and stored under the lean-to shed for the sheep.
I often wondered how she had come to live alone. Had her family died? Had she run away from home? And there were items indicative of a higher level of technology than she herself possessed, such as her steel knives, the stove, and the metal and ceramic pots. And what of her house? Houses didn't strike me as things that were built so isolated, but as a part of a town or a village. It occurred to me that I was basing myself on assumptions I'd brought with me from outside, that weren't valid in her world.
Whenever I tried to ask her, even later when I'd learned some of her language, she merely shook her head and waved my hand away, or sometimes her eyes would look distant, as though she herself were trying to remember. I never got my answers.
Some of the necessary tasks shocked me at first, like when she slaughtered a sheep for its meat and hide. She would straddle its back; bending over with one hand lifting its head towards her face, she would whisper songs in its ear and kiss its nose just before her other hand drew the keen edge of the knife across the animal's throat. Her knees held it tightly as its life ebbed away. She would then slit the skin from crotch to throat and up the insides of its legs. The hooves and head were cut off completely. She would then slowly peel the hide from the body and cut out the internal organs. The intestines were stretched and hung dried to make tough cord. The whole carcass was then hung up to drain. Some pieces she would wrap up with herbs and spices (there was no salt) and hang to make cured meat. Others went fresh into the pot to make her wonderful stew. There were other foods as well: berries in the woods, and a sort of wild millet that could be ground and mixed with milk to make hard flat cakes. She also had bird traps that she would set in the morning and, with luck, find in the evening a fat grouse or pheasant. The drink of choice was sheep's milk, from which she also made small quantities of soft cheese. We ate surprisingly well.
I realized I was happy, that this life was better that any I had lived. The months passed; winter came. She made me a pair of sheepskin boots like her own. My trips in search of firewood became more frequent, and we found other ways of keeping each other warm. As we lay together naked one evening in the dull red glow of the lamps, I ran my finger along her back. I noticed two long jagged parallel scars running the length of her scapulae. I didn't say anything; it was the sort of thing that got no answers from her, but I did kiss them.
Our diet changed slightly during the winter, relying more on stored meat, and without the fresh vegetables.
Spring came. One evening I noticed she was visibly pregnant. This surprised me, even thought it was a natural consequence of our sheepskin activities (which had also become our grassy meadow activities, our riverbank activities, and our kitchen table activities). I pointed to her belly and said, "you're pregnant," in English, as I didn't know the word in her tongue. She nodded and smiled, but said nothing. I felt excited, and anxious, and elated. I was going to be a father. I tried to talk to her about it; we were going to have a baby. She refused to discuss it. I insisted, and she said, "***!" The refusal was violent on her face. Fine, I thought, and fell asleep, loving her more than ever.
The following day I awoke to a beautiful spring morning. Galatea had already gotten up. I dressed and went outside. The sun was faintly warm. A fresh, sweet breeze carried the taste of mountain wildflowers. Galatea was standing a few yards from the house, waiting for me. I ran to her and hugged her and kissed her and put my hand on her swollen belly. She was cold, and merely received my gestures. I was confused; she'd never acted that way before. Suddenly, I felt it in my viscera; something was amiss. She started walking and beckoned me to follow her. I did. I tried to ask her what was wrong, where we were going, and why we weren't taking the sheep out. She didn't answer. She just kept walking. After nearly an hour, she stopped and gave me a small leather satchel. She pointed south, kissed me on the cheek, pointed south again, and said one word, "********."
I was indeed perplexed. I looked in the direction she had pointed. The valley took a bend around a hillside and disappeared into green. When I looked back at her, she had vanished. I was stunned. I called her name once or twice. I opened the satchel and my heart broke. Inside were my wallet and my American passport. She had sent me away.
I sat down and cried for a moment, or several moments. I considered trying to find her, going back to her house. I probably could have found it, but she'd made it obvious she didn't want me to.
I stood up and walked south. In less than ten minutes, I reached a paved road. The whole time I'd been living an hour's walk from a highway! I walked along the road for a short while and heard a car behind me. It slowed and pulled over. Inside were a middle-aged couple and a sleeping teenager.
The man said something like "excuse me" in Romanian with a bad American accent.
"Are you Americans?" I asked.
"Ha, ha, ha, yes!" they laughed. "We are! Are you American, too?" I replied that I was, much to their amusement. But I was too soul-weary to enjoy the coincidence.
"I ain't never seen an American dressed like that!" they exclaimed. "Hey, we were trying to find our way over to Petrosani. Do you want a ride?"
I thought about it, but only for a moment, as there was really nothing else to be done. My borrowed time was up. I said yes and got in the car.
The last word Galatea had said to me was, "Thank you."