My name is Katerina, and I will soon be eighty years old.
After Easter I returned to my native village and to my father’s farm, small and dilapidated, with no building left intact except this hut where I’m living. But it has one single window, open wide, and it allows in the breadth of the world. My eyes, in truth, have grown weaker, but the desire to see still throbs within them. At noon, when the light is most powerful, open space expands before me as far as the banks of the Prut, whose water is blue this season, vibrant with splendor.
I left this place behind more than sixty years ago—but it hasn’t changed much. The vegetation, that green eternity which envelops these hills, stands tall. If my eyes do not deceive me, it’s even greener. A few trees from my distant childhood still stand straight and sprout leaves, not to mention that enchanting, wavelike movement of these hills. Everything in its place, except for the people. They’ve all left and gone away.
In the early morning hours, I remove the heavy veils that obscure the many years and examine them, with silent observation, face to face, as they say in Scripture.
The summer nights in this season are long and splendid, and not only are the oaks reflected in the lake, but the simple reeds also draw vigor from that clear water. I always loved that modest lake, but I especially loved it during the brilliant summer nights, when the line between heaven and earth is erased and the whole cosmos is suffused with heavenly light. The years in a foreign land distanced me from these marvels, and they were obliterated from my memory, but not, apparently, from my heart. Not I know that light is what drew me back. Such purity, oh Lord! Sometimes I wish to stretch out my hand and touch the breezes that meet me on my way, because in this season they are soft as silk.
It's hard to sleep on these brilliant summer nights. Sometimes it seems to me that it’s a sin to sleep in this brilliance. I understand now what it says in the Holy Scriptures: “He who stretches out the heaven like a thin curtain.” The word curtain
always sounded strange and distant. Now I can see the thin curtain.
Walking is very hard for me. Without the broad window, which is open wide, without it taking me out and bringing me in, I would be locked up in here like in prison, but this opening, by its grace, brings me out easily, and I wander over the meadows as in my youth. Late at night, when the light dims on the horizon, I return to my cage, my hunger sated and my thirst slaked, and I shut my eyes. When I close my eyes I encounter other faces, faces I haven’t seen before.
On Sundays I pull myself together and go down to the chapel. The distance from my hut to the chapel isn’t great, a quarter of an hour’s walk. In my youth I used to cover the distance in a single bound. Then all my life was a single puff of breeze, but today, though every step is painful, that walk is still very important to me. These stones awaken my memory from before memory, and I see not only my departed mother but everyone who ever passed over these paths, knelt, wept, and prayed. For some reason it now seems that they all used to wear fur coats. Maybe because of a nameless peasant, who came here secretly, prayed, and afterward took his life with his own hand. He shouts pierced my temples.
The chapel building is old and rickety yet lovely in its simplicity. The wooden buttresses that my father installed still protect it. My father wasn’t scrupulous about keeping our religion, but he saw it as his duty not to neglect this small sanctuary. I remember, as though in a twilight, the beams he carried on his shoulders, thick staves, and the way he pounded them into the earth with a huge wooden mallet. My father seemed like a giant to me then, and his work was the work of giants. Those beams, though they’ve rotted, are still rooted in their place. Inanimate objects live a long life; only man is snatched away untimely.
Whoever thought I would come back here? I had erased this first bosom from my memory like an animal, but a person’s memory is stronger than he is. What the will doesn’t do is done by necessity, and necessity ultimately becomes will. I’m not sorry I returned. Apparently, it was ordained.
I sit on a low bench in a chapel for an hour or two. The silence here is massive, perhaps because of the valley that surrounds the place. As a girl I used to run after cows and goats on these trails. How blind and marvelous my life was then. I was like one of the animals I drove, strong like them and just as mute. Of those years no outward trace remains, just me, the years crammed into me, and my old age. Old age brings a person closer to himself and to the dead. The beloved dead bring us close to God.
Copyright © 2006 by Aharon Appelfeld. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.