Thursday, September 9, 2004

It has been raining non-stop since yesterday afternoon. I even heard the wind blowing when I woke up in the middle of the night. And the wind hardly ever visits this place. Rain and wind and darkness. It reminded me of home.

I sat down by the window and stared out into the darkness. The light from the street lamps reflected in small puddles of water, scattered around on the road. Even though I knew it was mild outside, the sound of the wind made it feel so cold. Mostly because this time of year, I am usually heading back home to take part in the yearly driving of the sheep, down from their summer grazing on the mountains.

This is the time of big, waxed parkas. Of thick wool-sweaters. Creaky saddles. Old riding boots. Bad-tasting cigarettes. Mending bridles. Getting re-acquainting with the horses.

You drive up there from the city. An hour and a half. It used to be two to three hours. Half a day. Now it's all asphalt, and new, shorter roads. Kind of takes a bit of the charm out of the trip. But then, it has all lost its shine in so many ways. There are no thousand sheep to be found there. No thirty good horses to choose from. The houses are not fresh and all-white anymore. Bustling with people. So many have grown up or grown old and died, and not that many have replaced them.

I spent my summers up there. Eight until fourteen. Actually, the first year I only stayed a week, I think. But what a week. You see, I grew up surrounded by women. Older sisters. Aunts. My mother and grandmother. So I was leading a pretty sheltered life. And then I got sent to this place. I didn't want to go, naturally. Everything was big. And scary. Rough characters and pretty tough work, for a kid. When the farmer's nephew drove me up there, the summer I turned ten, he stopped by the side of the road as soon as he was out of the jurisdiction of the city police, and mixed a flask of moonshine and coca-cola to sip on. Made him drive the rest of the way a hell of a lot faster. He also used to wake up the working hands – that would be me and a handful of other boys – by standing in the stairs below our bedroom and yelling "Rise, hookers, ship!" You get the picture.

But I quickly became fond of the place. Sure you got banged up a bit. Some tumbles, cuts and bruises. Most of them to your ego. But it built character. It really did. Because you could feel that, despite their roughness, the people there still did give a damn. And they were larger than life. The farmer was a seven-foot tall giant of a man, especially in the eyes of a scragly boy. He always wore these strange, thick denim pants, made by his sister. Designing clothes was not her strongpoint. The pants only augmented the farmer's uneven image. But then this was contrasted by how well read he was. The farm had a fairly-sized library. As was common on a farm of this size. Roughly 5-7000 titles. Many of them were cheap thrillers. And sappy love stories. But a large portion of it were real books. And the range was impressive. Mill, Faulkner, Kierkegaard, Joyce, Steinbeck, Ibsen, Shakespeare, Lagerlöf, Twain, Eliot, Blixen, Dostoyevsky, and Laxness. Lots of Laxness. And the farmer seemed to have read them all. You could be standing on a rocky hill, trying to hold a fence post straight in the everblowing wind, while he pounded it into the ground with an over-sized, two handed hammer. If it didn't go fast enough, he would maybe mumble a few obscene curses, and then break into a poem by Byron. Impressive. Then he was libel to follow it up with some foul and often badly-constructed limericks of his own. Not as impressive. He was a chronic asthma patient, but still persisted in running a large farm, spending most of his summers gasping for breath while haying. So he was a true contradiction in terms. An enigma.

After leaving for school in the fall, we would always return for a day in late September for the sheep roundup. A group of men would have set off, a few days earlier, into the mountains on horses for a two-day journey, to gather the sheep that had been grazing there over the summer. They would drive them down to the valley, to a large common area. There, each farmer would have his group of kids to draw his sheep from the sea of animals. It was always quite a sight, seeing the mostly white droves pouring down the sides of the mountains. And it could be hard work, drawing these stubborn sheep, more than half your size, by their horns or heads.

After my last summer there, when I turned fourteen, I was finally invited to join the men, as they set off for the mountains. It was as undramatic as anything connected with the place. I was just told, as I left for the summer, that I would need to show up three days earlier for the roundup since I would be joining the men that fall. That was it.

There were four of us heading up from the farm I had worked on. Each one had a pair of well-rested horses, and a saddlebag with a few sandwiches, a thick slice of blood sausage, and a bottle of milk. We started our ascend at first light, about six o'clock. This early, even the wind is not awake yet. We floated lazily up the neck of the mountain, along the canyon, where the river tirelessly pushed itself down one waterfall after the other. As we reached the shoulder, the wind had picked up, and it began to rain. After reaching the middle of the moor, around mid-day, we ate quietly, and then split up. As we parted, one of the other men reached over and stuffed a package of cigarettes and a box of matches into my coat pocket. "You'll need it", he said, and rode away.

And then there were just the four of us. Me, the two horses, and this pack of cigarettes. In a hall of mountains, with nothing but the plateau between you and the blue ridges on the horizon, you quickly realize your solitude. Your independence. Your responsibility. And then it gets really, really cold. That's where the cigarettes come in. I had practically never smoked before. Except for the requisite odd one behind school during recess, just to see what it tasted like. So I spent the first part of this journey green in the face. But there was something so fitting in inhaling these toxic fumes, right there where everything is pure and unspoilt. I was like this little locomotion, chugging through the swamps and over the hills, spewing smoke and yelling at the sheep that crossed my path. And it became a part of it. Each year since, I began my trip by searching out a Russian troller, docked in the city harbor. By then, I was working there during the summers anyway, so, like everybody else there, I became adept at avoiding the customs officers. The sailors were always stocked with cheap vodka and bad tobacco. They would exchange a few packets of these horrid, strange cigarettes for a single-use, plastic lighter. Not only was the tobacco foul-tasting, but most of the cigarette was comprised of a narrow, cardboard-like cylinder. Therefore, each cigarette didn't even contain that much tobacco. This suited me fine, because I could feel that I would easily start smoking for real, if I started to like the taste, and I didn't want to do that. I just wanted a way to have my smoke while on these sheep rounding journeys. Sadly, after Russia started to crawl to its feet economically, fewer and fewer of their trollers would show up. And when they did, their vodka wasn't cheap anymore and they brought no more Russian cigarettes to sell. So I turned to filterless Camels. It wasn't the same, but it was rough enough, and tasted almost as bad.

The rounding is in ten days. Which means that they will probably head up a week from now. I know that I will not hear from them. Just as certainly as I know that if I were to show up there, they would have found two horses for me to ride.