MARGINEA -- On a December night in the forested foothills of the Carpathian range, epic borderland that marks a new edge of modern Europe after Romania joined the European Union on Monday, darkness and fog conspired. Sight shrank to 10 feet, two. History dissolved, the future fled, the present hid.
Then, with a wash of midmorning sun, only faint wisps of white lingered above the village of Voronet and a stone church adorned with frescoes in rich red, gold, and blue. The Orthodox images of Adam plowing, of the Last Judgment, and more were not sheltered inside a sanctuary, but exposed, vulnerable, on outside walls.
When they were painted on wet plaster five centuries ago, a time when Turks attacked from the south, the murals on this and other churches nearby were meant to teach tales of Christian saints and soldiers to illiterate masses. In the centuries since, they have weathered not only sleet and snow, heat and sunlight, but also the strong hand of Austro-Hungarian rule, the chaos of World War II battles, and a forced silence that ended with the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu's conspiratorial communist regime in 1989.
During this winter of change, the open-air frescoes, unique in Europe, witness not the struggle of empires, but the uncertainty of individual lives.
Only a few dozen feet from Voronet's painted Church of St. George, breath blew hot as a white-haired man stooped in a cemetery to turn chunks of black earth, spade by spade, shovel by shovel.
A passing woman, her gray hair wrapped in a rust-colored scarf, sang out: "Watch the bones!"
"What will we find?" the grave-digger sang back. "There was a 5 -month-old baby. So what bones will we find here?"
Vasile Lucaci , a soft-skinned man with short whiskers on his chin and few teeth in his mouth, climbed from the shallow pit to smoke a Saint George cigarette. When he is not digging graves, Lucaci, 60, butchers pigs, scythes hay in the fields, and chops timber in the hills.
"Whatever somebody asks me to do," he said, "for money."
He mocked the coming of the European Union and the busy bureaucrats he feared would dictate how much hay to harvest, how much milk to draw from a cow.
"In the old times, you could wash the udder a bit, drink, and not get sick," Lucaci said, describing a method his neighbors still use.
"Now, in Europe, you need a machine. And next year," he joked, "they will have regulations about how to drink the milk."
But what is a man like Lucaci to do?
He watched a concrete bridge replace the wooden one that connected his village to the world beyond the Voronet River. He has looked across a new chasm between poor and rich in capitalist Romania; how likely is it that billions of dollars in EU investment will trickle down to him?
So Lucaci shrugged and crossed the cemetery toward one grave he did not dig; it held the remains of his wife of 38 years, Georgeta. She died in June, 58 years old.
"She escaped UEFA," Lucaci joked, referring to the EU by the acronym for the governing body of the continent's soccer leagues.
During Ceausescu's rule, soccer provided a rare link to Western Europe: In 1986, Steaua Bucuresti, a professional team from the capital, Bucharest, won Europe's Champions League title at a match in Seville, Spain.
Lucaci smiled and rested his thick hand, so used to wielding picks and axes, atop the wooden cross marking his wife's grave. Suddenly, though, it was all too much, this banter about life's changes, this pretending the stakes are really not that high. Lucaci's chin dropped toward his wool sweater. His hand lifted, as if to coax words from a silent mouth, then settled across his heart. Tears cleaned his cheeks.
He told of trips from his wooden home by the river to kneel beneath the cross.
"I light a candle," he said.
What is a flame but a symbol, an attempt to give light to a life, an idea?
Dozens of churches, symbols of the victories over Turks, rose 500 years ago in the hilly hamlets and wide valleys of southern Bucovina, as this region is known. Several -- including those in Voronet, Arbore, Vatra Moldovitei, and Sucevita -- are especially celebrated for their holiness and artistic beauty. Seven were named UNESCO World Heritage sites in 1993.
The churches are sheltered by fortified monastery walls. Two, three, or four stories high, they are capped with sloped wooden roofs. Yet the frescoes loom largest.
Consider the northern facade of the church in Sucevita, a village set beneath a mountain pass. The church is said to have been built in the 1580s by descendants of Stefan the Great, a 15th-century Moldovan ruler with a record of 34 and 2 in battles against Ottomans; he is still celebrated as one of Romania's greatest heroes. Two artists, Ioan and Sofronie, in 1596 applied paint onto a wet mixture of lime and hemp, locking colorful images onto the surface.
Outsiders who came during the reign of Austrians and Hungarians in Bucovina, which lasted for more than a century until World War I, scratched names and initials into frescoes. Russian soldiers pillaged the monastery, home to nuns, during World War II. The church's northern facade, though, is well preserved and considered a masterpiece of medieval painting. It shows an account in muted hues of the "Ladder of John Climax," inspired by a sixth-century saint who lived on Mount Sinai. Robed monks climb 32 flights toward the virtues of love, hope, and faith, and ascension to heaven. Above the monks wait orderly rows of winged angels, their heads shrouded in golden halos. Below the ladder, tempted, twisted monks fall toward hell.
On a Saturday morning, a few dozen villagers walked past the "Ladder" fresco and ducked beneath an arch into a small chapel in a monastery building. They crowded among black-robed nuns and a chanting priest. Bulbous loaves of coliva, a sweet bread of wheat, walnuts, and raisins, covered a table. Nuns sang sweetly as worshipers hoisted the table up and down, their words spilling forth in Romanian, a Latin-rooted language unique in a regional sea of Slavic tongues. They made promises to the dead: The living would continue to labor for virtue.
Only hours later, up and over the mountain pass and beyond the painted church in Vatra Moldovitei, where a lone nun knelt to polish ornately carved wooden chairs in a chapel, Gheorghe Dujac hunched over the lifeless body of a 400-pound pig.
Pigs were meeting the same fate in farmyards all along the banks of the shallow, stone-washed river that traced the village of Argel . The Lobiuc family, their home set at a bend near a lumber mill, would do the work themselves; a son, recently returned from migrant work in Italy, would help. The owner of a nearby shop would slaughter his father's pig. Another family would hire a butcher to cut loin, chops, intestines, and more from two pigs.
Butchers and villagers bantered in a mix of Romanian and an old Ukrainian dialect. After World War I, this section of Bucovina and more to the north united with the young Kingdom of Romania . In 1940, Soviet soldiers reclaimed the northern half, drawing a border 10 miles north of Argel that now divides Romania and Ukraine.
Dujac, who rose at 3 a.m. to butcher another pig in a neighboring village, had been hired by Ghiocel Hlosciuc to come to his farmyard. The lot was slick with mud and sloppy stacks of lumber. Thick-feathered chickens clucked in a coop. Three cows kept silent in their stalls.
On the crest of a nearby ridge, a farmhouse not yet reached by plumbing or electricity lingered as a reminder of life untouched, on the surface, at least, during communist years.
Below, Hlosciuc's homestead was a work in progress. Hlosciuc, 30, whose brother tended the cows, made his relative fortune where he could: trading lumber from the forests , shipping local mushrooms to markets in Italy, peddling
In the meantime, he stood with his two children, 5 and 3, and watched as Dujac plucked the pig, singed it with a blow torch, then hoisted it beneath a frame of tree trunks for gutting. A police officer, his lean face halved by a bushy mustache, stopped for plum brandy and conversation. He scoffed at speculation about tough EU requirements for butchering animals.
"Next year I won't be here to drink, but to fine them," he said. "Not even Ceausescu was able to stop this, so why now?"
Dujac hoped for a silver lining in a nation laced with corruption from local cops to corporate chiefs.
"We will see," he said, his hands slick with pig fat. "Maybe the thieves will disappear."
He tossed choice cuts of meat, taken from the pig's neck, into a pot with chunks of fat. Hlosciuc's wife, Simona, carted the pot to a kitchen in the couple's older two-room home. She set it on an iron range above a wood fire, and added an onion, then salt. Soon tochitura, a stew eaten after the slaughter of a pig, would be served alongside a thick potato polenta and home-pickled cucumbers.
Simona rushed tradition; she needed to prepare for a geography class the next morning, one step toward her goal of teaching at the village school. As she stirred and salted, Georgel, the 5-year-old, seemed oblivious. He had been mesmerized by Dujac's backyard butchery; now he sat before a small color television, watching cartoons.
Tensions of time seemed to dissolve the next morning, inside the wide monastery walls in Putna . Putna's church, though not painted on the exterior, is the burial place of Stefan the Great. A steady flow of hundreds of locals, dressed in urban black and peasant wool, passed Stefan's grave en route to priests leading prayers for health, family, and forgiveness.
Robed monks, men committed to the simple ways symbolized by their black caps and long beards, wandered the monastery grounds. Only one, Father Teofilact, nearly 80, had been at Putna during Ceausescu's time, when monks and nuns were chased from monasteries. Most at Putna were younger, and as Sunday worshipers returned to their homes, one told of today's dangers.
"Communism comes as an enemy you know," said the tall monk, his voice soft and steady. "Capitalism comes luring you. It comes with a whole set of temptations. Everybody who is weak can find comfort in those temptations."
The monk, 27, who preferred not to be known by name, criticized those corrupted by an economy that booms only for some.
"Pride is one of the ultimate sins," he said. "It is the sin that took Lucifer from heaven."
He stopped at the low wooden doorway leading outside the monastery. He said he would minister to all who come seeking God's love. But few people are drawn to righteous living in the face of worldly reward.
"To spread the Orthodox message now," the monk said, "is tough."
By twilight, on the main street of the neighboring village of Vicovu de Sus, teenage girls in tight pants walked arm-in-arm past many-sweatered grandmothers. A Mercedes sedan careered past a plodding horse cart. Wet wind lifted the elusive arc of a broken rainbow until, with the quickly fallen night, it was gone.
Contact Tom Haines at email@example.com.