My Country by Marie Queen of Rumania

Much more would I delight to relate about these little churches. For me the topic is full of unending charm; but there are many things that I must still talk about, so regretfully I turn away to other scenes.

The most lonely inhabitants of Rumania are the shepherds—more lonely even than the monks in their cells, for the monks are gathered together in congregations, whilst the shepherds spend whole months alone with their dogs upon desolate mountain-tops.

Often when roaming on horseback on the summits have I come upon these silent watchers leaning on their staffs, standing so still that they might have been figures carved out of stone.

Silent watchers leaning on their staffs.

The great blue sky was theirs, and the marvellous view over limitless horizons; theirs were the shifting clouds, floating sometimes above their heads, sometimes rising like steam out of the chasms at their feet; theirs were also the silence and the sunsets, the sunrise and the little mountain flowers with their marvellous tints. But also the storm was theirs, and the rain, and the days of impenetrable mist; theirs was the wordless solitude unrelieved by human voice.

These lonely mountain-dwellers become almost one in colour with the rocks and earth by which they are surrounded.

These lonely mountain-dwellers.

Enormous mantles do they wear, made of skins taken from sheep of their flock, fallen by the way. These shaggy garments give them a wild appearance resembling nothing I have ever seen; even tiny boys wear these extraordinary coats that cover them from head to foot, sheltering them from rain and storm, and even from the too ardent rays of the sun. Their only refuges are dug-outs, half beneath the earth, of which the roofs are covered with turf, so that even at a short distance they can hardly be seen. Here, in company with their dogs, they spend the long summer months, till the frosts of autumn send them and their flocks back to the plains.

These shaggy garments give them a wild appearance.

Even tiny boys wear these extraordinary coats.

Their only refuges are dug-outs.

Here, in company with their dogs, they spend the long summer months.

Fierce-looking creatures are these shepherds, almost as unkempt as their dogs. Solitude seems to have crept into their eyes, that look at you without sympathy, as though they had lost the habit of focusing them to the faces of men.

A sore danger to the wanderer are those savage dogs, and often will their masters look on at the attacks they make upon the unfortunate intruder, without moving a finger in his defence.

No doubt sometimes a poet's soul is to be found amongst these highland-watchers. He will then tell tales worth listening to, for Nature will have been his teacher, the voices of the wilds have entered his heart.

Less unsociable is the shepherd tending his flock in greener pastures. He is less lonely; even when not living with a companion he receives the visits of passers-by—his expression is less grim, his eyes less hard, and the tunes he plays on his flute have a softer note.

Here the great-coat is discarded, but the "cioban's" attitude is always the same: be he on bare mountain pinnacles, or on juicy pastures near clear-flowing stream, or on the burning plains of the Dobrudja where for miles around no tree is to be seen, the "cioban" stands, for hours at a time, both hands under his chin, leaning on his staff. He keeps no record of time; he stares before him, and slowly the hours pass over his head.

On juicy pastures near clear-flowing stream.

On the burning plains of the Dobrudja where for miles around no tree is to be seen.

Once I had a curious impression. I was riding over some endless downs near the sea. Nothing could be flatter than the landscape that stretched before me; the sea was a dead calm, resembling a mirror of spangled blue; the sand was white and dazzling; waves of heat rose from the ground, scorching my face; the entire world seemed to be gasping for breath. I alone was moving upon this immensity; sky, sea, and sand belonged to me.

In spite of the suffocating temperature, my horse was galloping briskly, happy to feel the soft sand beneath his hoofs. I had the sensation of moving through the desert.

All at once the animal became restive; he snorted through dilated nostrils, I felt him tremble beneath me; sweat broke out all over his body; suddenly he stopped short, and, swerving round unexpectedly, refused to advance! Nothing was to be seen but a series of flat, curving sand-hills, with here and there a tuft of hard grass, or sprays of sea-lavender, bending beneath the overpowering heat, yet I also had an uncanny sensation, the curious feeling that something was breathing, as though the ground itself were throbbing beneath our feet. In a way I shared my horse's apprehension. 'What could it be?

In spite of his reluctance, I pushed him forward, keeping a firm grip on the reins, as at each moment he tried to swing round.

Then I saw something strange appear on the horizon; a mysterious line undulating across one of the mounds, something that was alive. I had the keen perception that it was breathing, that it was even gasping for breath.

All at once a man rose from somewhere and stood, a dark splotch, against the brooding heat of the sky. The man was a shepherd! Then I understood the meaning of that weirdly palpitating line—it was his flock of sheep!

Stifled by the overwhelming temperature, they had massed themselves together, heads turned inwards, seeking shelter one from the other. Finding no relief, they were panting out their silent distress.

The "cioban" stood quite still, staring at me with stupefied indifference.

I think that never before and never since have I had an acuter sensation of intolerable heat. . . .

Wherever I have met them, be it on the mountains or in the plains, on green pastures or on arid wastes, these silent shepherds have seemed to me the very personification of solitude, of mystery, of things unsaid.

Stifled by the overwhelming temperature, they had massed themselves together.

Wherever I have met them, be it on the mountains or in the plains, these
silent shepherds have seemed to me the very personification of solitude.

Because of their lonely vigils amongst voiceless wilds, they have surely returned to a nearer comprehension of nature; perchance they have discovered strange secrets that none of us know!

In autumn and early spring the shepherds lead their flocks back from the mountains. One meets them trudging slowly along the high-roads—a silent mass with a weather-beaten leader at their head, man and beast the colour of dust ; footsore, weary, passive, knowing that their way is not yet at an end.

Fleeting visions of the wilds, wraiths come back from solitudes of which we know naught. The men with brooding faces and far-seeing eyes, the animals with hanging heads, come towards one out of the distance, pass, move away, and are gone . . . leaving behind them on the road thousands and thousands of tiny traces that, wind or rain soon efface. . . .