The Hills of Sighisoara

SOUCE: The Atlantic, October 1, 1998

The sun was setting over Sighisoara, a medieval town of needle spires and cobbled alleyways in the Romanian countryside. Three cows were grazing on a nearby hillside. I followed a muddy path marked by cow dung and cart tracks, jumped a tattered fence, and climbed until I reached the cows.

I sat under a lonesome tree, watching the facing hillsides as daylight began to fade. The hills were smooth, gentle like the curves of a woman’s body. The light caught in unpredictable corners, painting a patchwork of silver and gray. The sounds of the town life below were muffled. I heard the steady clanking of a hammer against steel, theĀ clip clop of a distant horse-drawn cart, the occasional high-pitched syllable from a distant conversation.

A man came into view, climbing the hill. He wore a black hat and carried a walking stick. He walked to the cows and hit one on the backside with his stick — an affectionate tap, a “good day” from a friendly neighbor.

The man came closer. I could see the heavy wrinkles that streaked his face. His mouth was an uneven ridge of missing teeth and withered gums. He stared curiously at me as I sat there, hunched under a tree and staring out at empty hills.

He sat with me under the tree. He wavered as he sat, almost toppling over, and as he spoke I could smell the alcohol in his breath.

“Where are you from?” he asked, in Romanian.

I told him I was from America.

“Ah, America,” he said. “Big car,” he added, in English. “Big car, big house, big life.”

Then he stood. “Elvis,” he said. “You know Elvis?” Before I could answer, he sang, “You ain’t nothing but a hound dog” — but in a Romanian accent, so that it came out “oo ain no be hundog.” He started to dance, a slow shuffle of drunken feet which accelerated into a whirling tempest of uncontrolled limbs. He grabbed me by the arm and tried to get me to join him. I declined. “Ah, America,” he said, and sat back down.

Then he became serious. He looked at me and held me by the shoulder and said something unintelligible in Romanian. I shook my head, signalling that I didn’t understand.

Meine Frau, meine Frau,” he said, and threw his hand over his shoulder. Again, I shook my head, although I was beginning to understand. “Meine Frau. Au revoir. Partie.

He started to cry. I could not believe what was happening. I was sitting on a hill in Transylvania, with the sun casting a golden light over Dracula’s town, and a man I didn’t know was crying to me because his wife had left him.

“Hmmm,” I said as his tears flowed. “Okay, okay,” I said. “It’s all right.” Before I knew it, I was holding his hand. I began patting it, and then realized that this was as much a gesture of need as it was of comfort. His was the first hand I had touched in months of solitary travel. It had been a lonely time; now, unexpectedly, I had made a friend.

I began to tell him about my life. “In America,” I said, “life is not so big. Many things, they make you feel small.” I do not think he understood.

“You solo?” he asked. I said that I was traveling alone. “In America,” he said, shaking his head, pointing at me. “Frau?Amour?” I told him that I was not married, but maybe in love.

There followed a silence. My friend — I never found out his name — sat licking his tears, his sturdy tongue darting in and out from the corners of his mouth. A strange sort of fellowship filled the silence; for a while I even continued to hold his hand. I think we were both happy to have someone with whom to share the sunset.

Then the tears were all licked, and it was the end of the day. The sun sank over the hills, and the dark blue light of late day gave way to the gray light of early night. We stood and shook hands. “La revedere,” I said, and he said the same. There was nothing more to say. We were strangers again, awkward for our moment of friendship, embarrassed at our intimacy.

He walked away first. I waited as he descended the hill, and, until the darkness finally drew a curtain between us, watched as he followed the slender path away from town.

I took the same path, leading the other way. I walked for fifteen minutes in the dark until I reached the house in which I had rented a room. It was dimly lit inside.

I climbed into bed, hugged my cushion, and thought of my evening on the hills of Sighisoara. The companionship had lasted just a moment, a flicker of comfort in a world unexpectedly rendered familiar under a fading light. Had it been an illusion? I was once again a solitary traveler in a big world of strangers, none of whom would invite me to dance, or ask if I had ever been in love.

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