One of the strangest things in my professional life — since half the world got mad at me for making Ill Met by Moonlight the title of my first book, because it was the name of a WWII non fiction book (spoiler, I didn’t. The publisher did. The original title was Down the Rushy Glen.) — was when a number of people got mad at Witchfinder for political reasons.
This was funny, first because Witchfinder is a Regency fantasy, so you’re kind of obligated to have a king in it at least in England (yes, I have toyed with the idea of the American revolution in that world) and second because they were upset I was endorsing the divine right of kings.
Which I wasn’t, of course. Anymore than I was endorsing shape shifters, witches, or spells. They, like the bond between the land and the king are not a thing in our world, but would be a thing in a magical world maybe.
Over breakfast, looking out the breakfast nook balcony door at the parched landscape — I actually prefer the view in winter, because it’s dark at 7 am, so I don’t see the neighbors backyards, but the lights of the city — I thought about the king and the land and their union.
Most fantasy stories are sort of allegories, or perhaps a deep dive into our racial (in the sense of the human race, oh, idiot skimmers) memory, having their roots in fairytales, I think. I must here say that I am a thoroughly 20th century woman. I don’t believe in spells or magic (though I do believe in prayers, but it’ll take too long to explain why they’re different if you don’t know.) Part of the reason why I read more science fiction than fantasy, I guess, is that the magic being in the discovery of some gadget that does this thing we now think impossible is more internally acceptable than people being able to change reality with words or really strong belief.
To me fantasy partakes of Jung’s theories (I was once upon a time fascinated with Jung, whose theories feel more right to the creative mind than Freud’s neurotic lens on the world) and reaches or tries to reach into something very deep in the human mind. So deep that our rationality can’t compass it or fully access it. Which is why we have these stories.
And I realized suddenly why people were so upset at “the land and the king are one” and “The land will suffer until the rightful king (or in this case princess) is found.” We don’t have that link, or at least most of us don’t, but moreso, after several generations of high mobility, we can’t even imagine or empathize with the link between man (or woman) and land.
Like many things, modern man has not only lost this link, but isn’t even really aware it ever existed, or how it felt, or of its weight and heft upon the soul.
Not that this is all bad, mind. A lot of feeling a strong link with a land implies that you and your family had very little mobility, and therefore you were in many ways stuck, yes, even if you were a lord.
I mean, it’s not so much that I lament it, as I’m trying to explain, because even though I like you have lost that link, I remember having it. Just like I remember being part of a society where losing half your children in childhood was only one generation distant, which puts a different weight and value on the relationship between parent and child. You both relish them more, to an extent, because you think of the grief that is likely, and you don’t take them seriously as people until they’ve passed some internal marker you view as “safe.” For my mom this appeared to be early adolescence. When hearing of someone losing a child, it added extra weight to her sorrow if the child was between 14 and 20. “Oh, no,” she would say. “And he almost grown.” And you could see she considered this a particularly cruel blow for the parent, because after all they’d done the work of bringing that child through the hardest part, the times when most kids died, and now the goal was in sight and was snatched away.
Her extra sympathy was not for the poor young soul lost (partly because everyone there and then believed the young and relatively innocent dead went straight to heaven) but for the parents’ wasted labor, and one less defense against their lonely and uncared for old age.
I think I’m one of a very few people to even have that kind of memory, to be that close to that kind of widespread child mortality imprinting on the culture. I think most Americans my age have at least another generation between them and that. So, in that way I’m closer to the human beings of history. Though fortunate, since in my generation death was no longer so common for the young.
In the same way (though there’s more of us) I’m probably one of a small percentage of Americans to get “this portion of land, this space I live in, is a part of me. As it was the part of my ancestors going back a long time and possibly back far enough to when there were first humans on the Earth.”
Before I explain this, I want to point out the village I grew up in no longer exists. It’s long been submerged beneath countless stack a prol apartments, buried under highways, its people scattered to the seven winds, starting with a government relocation when the first highway cut the village in half, which had the local farming tenant families relocated to projects with urban poor. Because to the government, particularly those of a socialist bend, the care for “people” is for the collective people, and the individual is assumed to be a widget interchangeable with others.
In the early 90s when I visited, going to the fairs (no, not like a farmer’s market. Fairs have been going on since the middle ages, many are in stalls built by some medieval king on ground sprawling a few acres, and they sell everything, from fish to handcrafts, from things that fell off the back of a truck, to illegal copies of Disney movies. Which I suppose they didn’t, in the middle ages. Unless there is time travel) I’d meet these familiar faces from my childhood, like the lady who used to give us kids a drink of water because she lived across from the school, and they’d clutch my hands or hug me and cry. These ladies and men, the age I’m now, took the bus from the city to come and haunt these markets for a reassuring glimpse of the village where they and their ancestors had lived forever. Even if that glimpse was just a familiar face.
Now I can walk up the village main street and no one has any idea who I am. To understand how staggering this is, you’d have to understand how I wished that I could go unnoticed right after my grandad’s funeral, when curtains twitched up the street as I passed, and I knew the neighbors would gather to discuss whether I was properly grieved. Or how much I hated having just some random neighbor come out the front door and ask me how my exam went, or if I’d had a fight with my boyfriend (here I must point out village gossip gave me a far more exciting love life than I ever had.) The fact that maybe 20 elderly women crashed my wedding ceremony and sat at the back of the church engaging excited gossip is, on the other hand, almost endearing.
But it still feels weird that no one knows me, and I know no one. When people pass me on the street, I instinctively look at their faces to determine their ancestry, and of course, I don’t know, because most of them are transplants from the country or other cities. Some of them are even (gasp) southerners.
Beyond the people, though, there is another bond.
The place I grew up in was called Granja, which yes, comes from the Roman for farm, and not only it but other villages nearby (the one called oven or the one called Clay Manufacture) seem to have been part of a vast estate. (Going further back, the entire region is apparently one of the oldest inhabited places in Europe, and its name derives from one of the few surviving words of Indo European, in this case meaning “a humid and fertile valley.”) Casual digging at the Oven did unearth a vast industrial-scale Roman bakery, and I suppose like many such things it operated well into the Medieval period and people probably took their loaves to be baked at “the oven.”
There was a washing place, built original by a Roman Emperor, and rebuilt by various kings, which is a vast tank, with built in stone scrubbing boards and a roof over the whole thing (It rains a lot.) The water from a creek runs in and out continuous, which I suppose is better than having to kneel or bend down to wash clothes. My family didn’t use it, because we had our own washing tank in the yard, but most people did, and it was the central place for the exchange of gossip. (I think there’s now a garage, in its place.) That was located on the roman road, which was no longer the main road of the village, but was the main secondary one.
Surrounding the village was what to me seemed like endless woods. The place of lightenings. (It was actually its name.) My dad and I used to go for long hikes in it, and, because kids are weird, you know? I assumed it was primeval forest that had survived the various waves of colonization. Which is stupid, because we often sat down to eat a picnic lunch at a fallen/abandoned (and about 12 feet wide) stone mill wheel. And dad liked showing me the wild life and nesting birds living in an abandoned wall. Also, in the middle of the woods, there would be — suddenly — a very old apple or olive tree in a clearing. Or a rose bush. But kids are weird, and to me those were natural features.
It wasn’t until about ten years ago, when I heard of the death of someone who was a features in my childhood, and became morose and looked at aerial maps of the village that I saw there were ruins under those forests, outstripping even those woods and merging into the next village. A cursory look on line showed me the fall back was because of the Black Plague which seems to have killed oh, 9/10th of the village (which makes sense, as the small and very polluted river I grew up with was apparently once upon a time navigable. And the village was a center of trade. Hence all the fairs around the area, one for each day of the week.)
So growing up there, I knew I owned… No, I belonged to, I was owned by that land, that place, for that period of time. I knew it changed. My dad always told me how much things had changed from his time. (Nothing like now.)
Digging in the dirt plot next to my parents’ house which is now sold and the set of two apartment buildings, but which back then was our “vegetable garden” my grandfather and I often found fibulas or human bones. The procedure was to dig a deep grave in the corner and dump all “found” into it. You can’t really tell anyone, or you’d never own any piece of land. What the village was built on was the village. (Though that portion of the village, the terraces going down to what used to be swamps was left unbuilt and there were no foundation markings there, from the air, until the sixties. My parents’ house was the second on that street. Local legend said it was the site of a great battle where the Celts came boiling up out of the swamp and swallowed the first legionaires to venture into the area. Later someone building an industrial-like cowshed nearby found a whole hasty Roman Cemetery with legionaries in it, some in mass graves, which seems to indicate the legend was true. And no, he said nothing. He wanted the cow shed.)
One thing I kept was little silver necklace with tiny silver star charms. I presume a legionnaire gaud, since you know legionaries wore jewelry we’d consider fit for eight year old girls. Eventually I lost it, which is a pity. I thought I was perfectly entitled to it, btw, because (if you read the studies of when they find pre-historic skeletons you know this is true) until highways and the widespread use of cars (in Portugal that was the 90s) people tended to stay more or less in an area. So, though probably minimal, I’m sure I shared some DNA with the original owner, unless he didn’t live long enough to lay a local woman. I probably share some DNA too with the people who turned to dust in the massive and completely eroded tombs in the churchyard, and probably even with the never opened tomb found inside a false wall in the church, which predates the Romans, and who knows what else, as that church is built on the foundations of an ancient temple to who knows whom.
The people who erected that massive millstone, and used to grind grain when the river was wider and stronger are probably part of what made me. So even though it’s abandoned and they likely died in the plague, I hope they looked kindly when dad and I sat there to eat our sandwiches and drink our lemonade.
I belonged to that land, and it to me. The dust that blew in the wind was probably particles of my ancestors, good bad and indifferent.
When I first came to the states, I said that I wasn’t really Portuguese, I never really had fit in, but I was from Granja, and it was part of me, even the parts of it I didn’t like.
And though the village is gone, as gone as Atlantis and Carthage. But if I close my eyes, I can see how it would have looked like right now, with the vines bare, the field filled with stubble, and people starting to fire up fireplaces and wood stoves, whose smoke made a tracery of black on the pale winter sky.
I’d like to believe somewhere that place exists, with other lost lands, and it being November, grandma is chopping wood for the franklin stove, and wondering when I’ll show up. She has some chestnuts ready to roast…
Because of that, perhaps, I needed to love a place to feel whole. I needed to love the place I lived in, to belong to it, and it to me. I needed to adopt its dead as mine and its future as my kin’s.
I never felt that about Charlotte. I loved North Carolina, but Charlotte in the eighties had the character of vanilla pudding. There was nothing individual enough to love there.
However, the first time we drove into Denver I felt in a weird way that it was my home. Like a long lost home I’d never known existed.
I loved the Natural History Museum. I loved city park next to it, where I walked with my boys when they could barely walk. I loved the zoo. I loved Pete’s Kitchen, even back when it was really sketchy. I loved Lakeside park, decayed and old though it was. I loved the mystery bookstore. I’d walk the streets an feel I belonged.
That too is gone, part under high-priced and showy development. Part destroyed by a government that knows it can produce enough fraud via vote by mail not to have to answer to small businesses destroyed, and expensive property devalued y filling the city with feral drug addicts under the name of “compassion for the homeless.”
As gone as the village. As irretrievable. It was might for a portion of time, but is no more. Doesn’t exist.
And perhaps for those of us who transferred out love to it utterly, there will always be a Republic, where the individual rights are paramount, and where a ruler is not proclaimed by acclaim of the enlightened or trickery, but by the will of the people to choose the rule of the piece of land they inhabit.
Perhaps when like Atlantis it is lost under the waves of collectivism and becomes a legend, we who love it will still be able to find our place to it, plunging through the waves of collective memory to happy conjunction of time and land where a lady stands holding her lamp and eternally welcoming those who want to be free and not merely the playthings of the self-proclaimed elites.
It is worth dreaming.