Book Excerpt: 'The Historian'

At this point, my sense of guilt -- and something else, too -- made me put the letter hastily back in its envelope, but I thought about it all that day and all the next. When my father returned from his latest trip, I looked for an opportunity to ask him about the letters and the strange book. I waited for him to be free, for us to be alone, but he was very busy in those days, and something about what I had found made me hesitate to approach him. Finally I asked him to take me on his next trip. It was the first time I had kept a secret from him and the first time I had ever insisted on anything.

Reluctantly, my father agreed. He talked with my teachers and with Mrs. Clay, and reminded me that there would be ample time for my homework while he was in meetings. I wasn't surprised; for a diplomat's child there was always waiting to be done. I packed my navy suitcase, taking my schoolbooks and too many pairs of clean kneesocks. Instead of leaving the house for school that morning, I departed with my father, walking silently and gladly beside him toward the station. A train carried us to Vienna; my father hated planes, which he said took the travel out of traveling. There we spent one short night in a hotel. Another train took us through the Alps, past all the white-and-blue heights of our map at home. Outside a dusty yellow station, my father started up our rented car, and I held my breath until we turned in at the gates of a city he had described to me so many times that I could already see it in my dreams.

Autumn comes early to the foot of the Slovenian Alps. Even before September, the abundant harvests are followed by a sudden, poignant rain that lasts for days and brings down leaves in the lanes of the villages. Now, in my fifties, I find myself wandering that direction every few years, reliving my first glimpse of the Slovenian countryside. This is old country. Every autumn mellows it a little more, in aeternum, each beginning with the same three colors: a green landscape, two or three yellow leaves falling through a gray afternoon. I suppose the Romans -- who left their walls here and their gargantuan arenas to the west, on the coast -- saw the same autumn and gave the same shiver. When my father's car swung through the gates of the oldest of Julian cities, I hugged myself. For the first time, I had been struck by the excitement of the traveler who looks history in her subtle face.

Because this city is where my story starts, I'll call it Emona, its Roman name, to shield it a little from the sort of tourist who follows doom around with a guidebook. Emona was built on Bronze Age pilings along a river now lined with art-nouveau architecture. During the next day or two, we would walk past the mayor's mansion, past seventeenth-century town houses trimmed with silver fleurs-de-lis, past the solid golden back of a great market building, its steps leading down to the surface of the water from heavily barred old doors. For centuries, river cargo had been hoisted up at that place to feed the town. And where primitive huts had once proliferated on the shore, sycamores -- the European plane tree -- now grew to an immense girth above the river walls and dropped curls of bark into the current.

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