The summer of 1951, before I turned seven, was the best one ever. The sun shone brighter, the melons were bigger, and the four o’clocks massed against the side of my grandparents’ farm house breathed out clouds of scent during the endless evenings when, after supper, the family congregated under the apple tree by the well.
|The well, the apple tree, my father, and me in 1946
My parents, my grandparents, my mother’s two sisters and her brother, my grandmother’s sister and her husband, and three older cousins sat on the stone benches or on the brittle grass and talked while the stars came out and the frogs croaked by the stream. When my father took out his pocket watch and said, “It’s time to go to the fountain, don’t you think?” the family, still talking, would process into the silent village, greeting the occasional black-clad woman sitting on the stoop (“bona nit!”).
In the empty square, they filled two enormous càntirs at the fountain that, day and night, disgorged water from an underground spring. The càntirs were large clay vessels shaped roughly like beehives and closed except for two openings at the top, one for filling and another smaller one for drinking. In the dry Mediterranean climate, and thanks to the complex physics of evaporation, càntirs have been used to keep water cold for over four thousand years.
Although the water that came out of the kitchen and bathroom spigots was perfectly drinkable, once you had tasted water from the village fountain you never wanted to drink anything else. The entire family drank out of the same càntir. This was possible because, unlike me, the adults had mastered the skill of lifting the vessel high and tilting the head just right so that the water poured into the mouth without the lips ever touching the càntir. But the càntir was too heavy for me to lift, so when I wanted a drink someone would hold it above my open mouth and trickle the delicious, cold water onto my tongue.
That summer, I was occasionally allowed to accompany the family on their nightly errand to the fountain. Proud and thrilled to be up so late, I walked along, scuffing my espadrilles on the dusty road, engulfed in the endless stream of talk.
On the way back to the house, the men would carry the full, heavy càntirs on their shoulders while the women entreated them not to spill a single drop. My aunt Xin would show me the Milky Way, known in Catalan as el camí de Sant Jaume (the road of Saint James), because in medieval times it was said to point pilgrims to the shrine in faraway Compostela, on the northwest coast of Spain.
“Look at all those stars!” Xin would say. “They look like clouds, don’t they? But do you know what they really are? They are the dust that Saint James’s white horse kicked up as it galloped towards Compostela.”
I was well acquainted with dust. Every day as I wandered on the dry summer roads, passing flocks of sheep or the occasional motorcycle would leave me dust-covered in their wake. Saint James, I reflected, must have had an enormous horse to kick up an entire galaxy of dust. And, I wondered, did the horse really gallop because it was in a hurry to get to Compostela? It seemed more likely to me, knowing the skittish nature of the species, that it had been frightened by those two bears grazing nearby, Ursa Major and her smaller friend, Ursa Minor.
Back at the house, I would beg someone to give me one last drink from the càntir before I was sent to bed. And I would fall asleep with the feel of dust between my toes, the cool earthiness of the water in my mouth, and the image of Saint James’s great horse cantering and curvetting in the sky.