Moldova, September 2003

She took the jug from the table and the soap from the dish and the basin from the floor and we went outside. She set the basin down on the steps and poured water into it. She dipped her hands into the water and started to work them around the soap.

Thorough. Taking her time.

Her hands were broad and short and strong, the skin was tanned from the summer that had almost passed, the nails cut short and straight across. Not fancy hands but not rough either. The hands of a woman born of peasant stock who no longer worked the land, the hands of a woman of a different race from mine. Not so different, but different.

She knelt on the step and I stood over her with the jug. When she had finished her soaping and cleaning she signed for me to pour water. I poured-a small steady strand from the lip of the jug. She moved her hands under this narrow flow till the soap was all washed away. She soaped them again then she signed again. I poured again. She looked up at me and smiled and I smiled back. She took the towel from the rail and she dried her hands. Her hair had chestnut lights in the sun and behind her the flowers that are called a name that means ‘the innkeeper’s wife’ stood bright and simple and strong.

I had never helped an adult wash their hands before. Hair, yes, but not hands. I liked it, liked the way we were together, the way it used less water and her hands were cleaner. Then there was the attentiveness, and the need to wait courteously. Her acceptance that made me quiet and calm.

She signed to ask would I like her to do it for me? I shook my head. I liked everything, but I had not yet reached that place, could not yet bow. It didn’t matter. That place moved nearer with each hour that passed – the shadows stretched and joined things up.

I went down the steps and sat on the sparse, dry grass in the scrawny splotched shade of a plum tree. She carried the basin to where the tomatoes and peppers were wilting, selected a plant, poured out the water to seep to its roots. She carried the basin back to the steps.

Later on, the heat began to slide back and a wind sprang up, stirring the leaves in the light that was golden and thick as honey.

A woman came down the path and stopped by the rusty gate and pushed it open. Her skin was tanned and her body was easy and she was still beautiful. She raised her hands to her head and pulled them through her white hair and spoke to us in broken English. She didn’t like the wind, she said, there was headache in it, and sickness – had we heard of Chernobyl?

He came out of the house and she sat with us and drank a glass of the milk that the kerchiefed woman had sold from her cart that morning. All their fathers had been eaten up by the war. Then, after the war, the famines and epidemics :mcl deportations. His mother had had a cow that she loved whose name was Joyous. She sang to the cow and told her stories. Then she died of typhoid and the cow went into mourning and wouldn’t give any more milk and slowly turned into a bull. His grandmother said such things happened.

Later again all the light drained down from the dome of the sky and lay in an amber glow around its rim. The leaves turned black and the roofs of the houses turned black and everything sank down into the earth. The stars came out, myriads of stars all over the sky that was vast as the land, and the land was vast as an ocean. It made everything small – the dwellings, the forests around us, our lives. I sat on the steps and watched the night sky. He sat at the table and sang slow sad songs that came out of the ‘Stans, beating time with his open hand on the table. The Milky Way was a deep wide road. The white haired woman got up to go. She said they called it the Road of the Slaves.

When we were home again I said this to Moya. It was because of that poem she’d written about the Milky Way – Bealach na Bó Finne in Irish – the Path of the White Cow. We were at a launch at the AIB in Dublin to raise money for the homeless.

‘So many,’ she said slowly, looking down at the crab claws littering her plate. ‘I had not thought death had undone so many…’

It was startling. You could hear the tramp of Empires. Millions undone on the Eastern edge of Europe. I thought I had never heard those lines quoted so well.