The Man With Horses

 

Jean is a man in our village. Tall, with wide shoulders, a broad chest and a belly that knows a balance of both good food and a life of walking and tending to his horses, he lives with his wife in the house right next to the one remaining sawmill. He strides with long legs. He has a bushy white beard and long white hair that forms an aurora around his clear and open face, ageing in skin only since his eyes are bright and alive.

He is an anomaly in this village of smaller, quieter people. It is said he is not well-liked by the other old-timers. Who knows. He is part of the as-yet impenetrable French community around me that I will never really be a part of, though many may open themselves to me along our way. We met Jean in the fall when a portal into his life opened in front of us. But I will tell you that story later. First I will tell you about this morning.

Walter has been heavily pruning the old apple and plum trees in the small orchard on the strip of land next to us that we bought last summer. This strip is, in turn, next to the land owned by Jean. All these pieces of land run down to the little river that flows through the village. There are a few old apple trees on his strip and grazing land for his horses.

Walter and our friend David had just been spending several days with David’s chainsaw and Walter’s expertise as an orchard pruner, opening up the ancient trees, giving them another life. They looked as odd and wounded as the pollarded Plane trees lining the village streets did last spring when the town crews went to work on them. It is a radical method employed for hundreds of years to revive old trees and give them more years to leaf and to florish. Walter’s long experience pruning had shown him the results of his work. He was looking forward to the flush of apples in two years time.

Everyone from the village passes by our place to get to the outside world. The trees of the orchard are a well-known sight. As with much in this area, tucked into the foothills, such a place seen so frequently, so familiar to the villagers, carries the emotions of more than just those who own it on paper. The apples of two of the trees are famous to the locals in the village for their flavor. They were the trees planted by the grandfather of a woman just the other side of the bridge whose family has lived here for generations.

The old inhabitants have their own way of pruning. Neglect of the trees is not necessarily considered a bad thing. They provide apples anyway till they begin to die, more than what is considered enough. Pruning, when still done, is an act of allowing the branches of the trees to lean down and put the fruit in your hand rather than a way to open the tree to the light.

As I sat at my desk on this early Saturday morning, writing and reading, I watched as Jean, returning from an early morning hike, perhaps a visit to his horses in a field at some distance, staff in hand and small pack on his back, stopped for many long moments to look at the apple trees, so starkly different from a week ago. I was ideally positioned to watch his face, the dim light of the room and the partially opened shutters shielding him from the magnetic pull of a focused pair of eyes. I indulged my curiosity.

He looked into the trees as they parade down the soft slope, studying the whole scene. He too was curious. Even as I sat, trying to plumb his thoughts, no judgement seemed to appear. There was nothing in the line of his mouth, the direction of his eyes, the plane of his forehead that expressed either approval or accusation. He stepped forward as if to see some detail more closely, noting the last of the pile of dirt that the village workers had dumped on our land for Walter’s use in the garden. He stepped back into the road, looked ahead and then back for one more long look at the trees before walking on more slowly down the road towards his house in the center of the village.

In those moments, unseen, I had picked up the subtle transmissions from inside another organism. His thoughts, though well protected, the same in any language, transmitted a color, a flavor, a texture from the subtle energy of his mind, his emotion. Some receptors in me had awakened to listen, to see.

Still in my nightgown, I suppressed an urge to run down the stairs and out the front door to talk with him, to ask him what he thought of what he had seen, why he had stopped. I wondered if he had been thinking about how he, too, could give his trees another life. Or perhaps he looked at this cut and that, analyzing what he would have done differently. Or perhaps he was recalling a conversation with the last owner of the house years ago about the pruning of the trees. He would have been speaking, then, with a man respected and loved in the village, a man who would have been his senior by many years. Perhaps he was comparing that advice with what he saw of the work of this American, surely an upstart and a radical.  The energy that had passed from one human to another was not really about the content of the thoughts, but some other more subtle quality.  Whatever passed through the obvious concentration of his mind, it occurred to me it was likely colored by the empathy of a bond made months ago.

It was at the height of summer, just as a second heatwave was due to hit and just before a long holiday weekend. Four horses appeared in the field next to our land.

They were the beautiful horses I’d admired in another field on the opposite side of the river during our first summer in the village. Three were large-chested and heavy, as you would imagine a destrier to have been, carrying a knight in full armour into battle. These were a chestnut brown, each with a white blaze down its long nose,  with blond manes, blond tales, and blond feathering above their heavy hoofs. The fourth was smaller and black, more agile-looking and lively.

The next afternoon we were working in the garden when we noticed that one of the biggest chestnuts horses had been lying on the ground for a long while. Walter mentioned it as we sat outside having a break from garden work. It was unusual for a horse, he said, to spend so much time on the ground. As we watched, it seemed she was having trouble lifting her head from the grass.

“It’s an old mare. She’s really ill,” he said.

I hope the owner is doing something about it. It wouldn’t be good for her to just die there.”

Soon, the man with long white hair and a white beard we had seen driving past from deeper in the village arrived in his familiar turquoise van. Clearly the owner of the horses, he opened the gate and petted each one in turn before quietly approaching the big chestnut on the ground. He knelt beside her, clearly stiff himself, and spoke to her softly. She tried again to lift herself on her knees, but, failing, let her head drop again into the grass.

After a few moments, the man stood and turned to walk back to the van. Thinking he might be leaving, I went to call to him over the fence. “Elle est malade?” I enquired. “Oui,” he said “elle a tourne un pate (she twisted a foot)”

I was so sorry to hear that. “Desolee!” I said, in empathy with them both. I wondered aloud if there were anything we could do to help.

“Non. Merci.” he said, smiling slightly. He thought, he said, that he would try to help her up as the vet had suggested. It would take pressure off her big chest.

“If they lie too long when they’re in pain, they may never be able to rise. “

I went back to join Walter with the weeding, noting that Walter’s attention, as he hoed, was both on the weeds and on what was unfolding in the next field.

Soon the man, carrying what looked to be a length of heavy rope, was heading back to the downed mare. Kneeling for long moments beside her, he seemed to be wrapping one end around her front leg, close to the belly. He stood, grabbing the rope, and walked back several paces before he leaned back and pulled with all his strength, moving her top leg over toward the ground so her body would follow.

She moved a bit as her leg came down towards the ground, dramatic in her heaving enormity. Almost, almost, but not quite.

Walter, a man of action, propped his hoe against a post where he was working and quickly began striding over to the road where he could go around the electric fencing. “Come over to the fence!” he called to me as he walked away.

Rounding the fence and going down through the trees, he approached the spot where Jean stood near the mare, considering his next move. I watched as Walter said the obligatory “Bonjour” and shook hands. He then motioned that he would help turn the horse. The first effort had come close. It just needed a bit more weight.

Understanding immediately, Jean smiled as he took up the rope again. They worked together with a mixture of English and French, knowing the necessary motions without speech.

Walter took hold of the rope behind Jean. I watched as, with two, the task became possible. They pulled together and over came the leg, followed inevitably by the enormous weight of her huge body. Walter stood back, deferentially, watching to make sure she had settled.

Jean helped her arrange her legs more comfortably. Then, kneeling by her head, he stroked her neck and spoke to her quietly. After a long moment, he pushed himself up and, looking like a biblical giant, walked towards Walter, aextending his big hand. Walter, a big man himself, took it in his. They shook hands firmly, both, as I could see, with large black patches of sweat spreading on their shirts.

I walked to the end of the fence to meet them and translated Jean’s thank you’s to Walter, who, as he does, nodded them off and, looking briefly at Jean, said

“Good! Of course. I’m glad we could do it! It just took two,”

and motioned that he was going back to work in the garden. They shook hands again in good-bye. I lingered to talk to Jean for a moment.

The vet would be coming in a little while, he said, and he would wait to meet her. They would decide together what was possible. With emotion evident in every part of his face and in the stoop of his shoulders, impossible to hide even in front of a stranger, wanting to talk, he explained that the other two large brown horses were the huge mare’s children, all of them Comtois, an old French breed of draft horse.

He had bought her as a yearling, he said, some thirty two years ago. They were family. He had never ridden or worked them, just cared for them. The fourth horse was a Merens, a breed of the Ariege, hearty and small. He had come later, rescued from a friend. He spent time with them every day.

I went back to the garden. Walter, having grown up around horses and cows, was clear the old horse would never stand again. It was not good to let her suffer, he said. He wondered if Jean had yet accepted that fact and planned for it. In the heat, the body would not do well. I nodded. The heat was extreme and it was predicted to get even hotter over the weekend to come.

Later in the day, the vet came. We watched briefly as they talked, gathering our tools at the end of the day. The next morning, the horse was still there, a mound under the tree now completely covered with a blue tarp. And Jean was there, clothes looking rumpled, an arm around the neck of one of her children. She had died in the night, whether helped by the vet or on her own.

After breakfast, I went out to the fence and waved hello. Jean walked over and said bonjour.

“ We gave her an injection last night,” he said.

“She was suffering too much.”

Tears came to his eyes.

“I’m so sorry,” I said. “She was so much a part of your life. “

For a short moment, he didn’t turn away. Somehow, with some sense of what was at hand, he was allowing this stranger whose partner had known, without asking, what to do to help, allowing this woman from another place, to see the pain, the depth of it in his eyes.

When he turned, it was to look at the mound of her and say,

“I’ve wetted her down to keep her cooler. I hope the men will get here before the weekend with the truck.”

The practicalities.

Small moments. The distance from one human to another is as great as the infinite distances of the universe.

Yet when we are truly distant from each other in our own space, our own time, this sense transforms. Every day of our habitual lives, we pass alongside each other, touching, contaminating, exchanging hosts of molecules here and there in our attempts to see ourselves in another, to question the isolation of the flesh.

Yet, in flashes, there it is. The truth of our condition. There is no inside and no outside. We are all in that same infinity–exploring.

Remember this.

 

The Man with Two Canes

I am in Lavelanet, the town down the road where the white tops of the Pyrenees sparkle in the near distance. I sit in the kinesiology clinic, lifting my weighted leg over and over, strengthening the places that had been weakened by the surgery for my broken femur, my mind opening out into the void as I listen to the music of the French conversations floating around me. 

M. Paradis banters and jokes with all his clients as he juggles the needs of the six to ten people present in his modern, new clinic at any given time, striding back and forth, manipulating the arm of one old man wincing in a chair, gently calling out directions to a young woman, telling a long, funny story to a man on the stationary bike, heating up the warming compound he applies to aching joints, calling out, “Ca va, Madame Lyons?” “Oui, ca va!” I follow his directions. Sometimes he peppers his French with excellent English, corrects my French unabashedly and jabs me mildly about the leadership of the US.

 

In such a setting, I understand about half of the conversations drifting into my ears over the cubicle walls or from the open gym. The vocabulary becomes local, flavored with Occitane, fast- paced, colloquial. I begin to feel like a child who hasn’t studied enough at school, ashamed, small. When M. Paradis speaks with the old men and women who come in taxis from the Residence down the road, with  their wheelchairs or their canes, the conversations become quickly obscure as he flows into the flattened accent he grew up with, the particular way of kidding and the obscure usage of the Ariege. 

 

As I stretch out on a therapy bench in a cubicle, lifting my weighted leg over and over, counting to twenty each time I lift,  waiting for M. Paradis to say, “Madame Lyons, vous pouvez terminer quand vous voulez!” a bit of conversation becomes distinct. 

 

The old man with his canes is making his way from the recumbent stationary bike in the big room, following M. Paradis’ direction to move to “un box”.  M. Paradis is saying, “No not that cubicle. Here, over here, there’s one with an ocean view.” The old man, slowly making his way responds, “Will I be able to hear the waves washing in and out? Will I smell the salt air? Will I be able to go out for a swim in the morning?”

 

In that moment, I experience the opening of all minds into one. The way in which there is no barrier to the flow of imagination. We imagine each other.  We create the languages that express those thoughts drifting through like clouds. We create each other. Time and culture have no meaning. There is only the expanse of mind that encompasses everything.

dig

Teddy

 

Teddy, the way I remember it,  just appeared one day. But maybe that’s not true. There may have been discussions and plans.  When I came to visit for the first time he was established there on the land that nestled so beautifully between the breasts of the Vermont hills, so fragrantly colored in autumn, so dusted with white on bare branches in winter, green and soft and flowing in the heat of summer. 

 

He was not in the old sugar shack they had converted into a home, but off at a distance. He had built a tiny log cabin, chinked with moss, roofed with scrounged shingles, where he lived on his own. It was a beautiful little place, everything neatly done with a kind of meticulous care. At first it was very simple, I was told, a single layer of logs,a bed on a shelf on one side, a small old wood stove in another, a small pile of books and some blankets and cushions. Perhaps a stool for the rare visitor. He came for super with the group most days, cooking in his turn, his two long braids dangling over his shoulders, tied together in back to tend to the beans or the soup or to cut into the huge wheel of Vermont cheddar.

 

It’s hard to remember his face. It seems it was tanned, even in winter. His eyes were dark brown and settled rarely on human faces, preferring the focus of trees, earth and, while cooking, beans and fire and pans. When my eyes did settle on his in the moments together, sitting for a break after cutting trees for our winter wood , they were steady, intent, clear, dark, yet shining gently from the interior. But that was later, when we had a few more precious conversations as we worked together in the woods, I learning he had been, unbelievably, an Eagle Scout and he learning, impressed, that my father had been an editor of Boys’ Life Magazine and had written responses to the “Letters to Pedro”, the mascot donkey of the Boy Scouts.  Incongruities. 

 

It’s the way he moved that I remember most. His slim body glided across the paths, his feet silent on the leaves and earth. He was neither tall nor short, but straight, erect still when climbing up the rocks on a trail, the presence of his form always held quietly. He might have been an old man, but he was not. There was patience about his movements. 

 

He spent much of his time in and around his cabin, tending to the world from his position in its center. The rest of his days must have been spent out in the forest, exploring, looking, finding, mostly solitary. 

 

One day when I was sent to find him to see whether he wanted to join a trip to town, he was gathering moss from the circle around his cabin and pushing it into tiny holes in the insulation of the cracks between the logs of its walls with a small stick. He was squatting on the ground  as I approached, saying,

 

“Hi, Teddy.” 

 

He gracefully stood, pushing himself up without effort, and turned to come towards me. Stopping a few feet from me, in seeming respect, he said,

 

 “Hello.” 

 

 “I’ve come to see if you want to go on a shopping trip to town.”  I said. 

 

“No,” he replied. “I don’t need anything.” He paused for a long moment. 

 

“Would you like to see my cabin?” 

 

“Oh, very much!” I said, feeling greatly honored  as a newcomer by this offer. He gestured with a sweep of his arm towards the wooden door.

 

As I remember, it was late autumn, the brilliance of the leaves mostly gone, some orange and bronzey-brown clinging to the trees lower on the hills where the sun came late in the day. A trail of smoke came through the metal pipe on the cabin’s roof. I ducked a bit to go through the door and entered into an enchanted room that seemed somehow larger than the tiny cabin could contain. 

 

The small wood stove to the left of the door filled the space with heat. A bed on a platform to the right was covered with two woolen blankets, one a dark red. To the left on the other side of the stove was an alcove with a small window looking out towards the hill behind. A round of a very large log was set under the window with a green plastic basin on top. A black cast iron pot and pan hung to one side and a plate, a bowl and a handmade ceramic mug sat on a shelf on the left-hand wall of the room. He showed me how the hook for the round cover on top of the woodstove hung on a convenient hook. He took it down, and inserting it into the small square opening in the cover, lifted the round cast iron piece and set it to the back on the stove top, revealing the glowing logs underneath. He reached behind us for the cast iron pot and put it over the hole. 

 

“This is how I cook.”

 

“Have a seat.” he said, motioning to the stool. “I’ll make some tea.” 

 

He took a plastic water container from the side of the makeshift log sink and poured a little into the pot.

 

“That will heat soon.”

 

He stepped past me and reached to a wooden shelf carved from a split of a log and took down an old book. Opening it, he showed me a page with pictures of several kinds of trees. 

 

“I found this in a shop in town this summer. I’m studying the types of trees.” 

 

He handed it towards me, and I took it from him. “Look through it. The pictures are beautiful.” 

 

He busied himself getting tea leaves from a small metal tobacco tin, a strainer and the mug. I looked through the book, exclaiming to him over one tree or another and asking a question or two about whether or where a tree was found in these woods around us. The water soon boiled and he poured it through the tea strainer into the mug, setting it on the stove. He carefully took down a small basket which hung on a hook by the opening side of the door, away from the heat of the stove, and brought it to me.

 

“Owl and hawk feathers,” he said. “I find them from time to time up on the hill. Feel them.” 

 

As I gently reached out my hand, he tipped the basket toward me and my fingers touched what felt like the energy of the air, smooth and soft and without weight.

 

When the tea was brewed, he handed it to me. “None for you?” I said.

 

“No. It’s for you.” 

 

“Thank you,” I said, sincerely grateful and feeling a bit guilty and suddenly shy. 

 

I took a sip. It was lovely, a bit minty but smoothed by some green, slightly fruity tasting leaf.

 

“It’s so good. What is it?” I asked.

 

“Wild mint and verbena I planted in the garden.”

 

He showed me other small treasures as I sipped my tea. A piece of wood that seemed to have the head of a duck, A large piece of quartz with a rose streak. An owl pellet. A fat, long, oblong seed pod. A big piece of birch bark, so smooth and white with its black markings.  “I’m still thinking what to paint on that,” he said. He stood over me and we looked at it together, admiring its markings.

 

He showed me how on the inside the planks were fitted together. “I have the logs on the outside and left over ends of planks from the yard in town on the inside. Between the two are pine needles for insulation. There are no air leaks. I have to open the door every once in awhile, even in the cold, just to let in some air.”

 

“And, oh,” he said, as if an afterthought, “I almost forgot this. I just finished it.” 

 

Animated in a way I hadn’t seen before, his eyes smiling, he showed me that in the corner behind the wood stove, a  kind of small metal wash tub hung on a nail. Above it, hanging from the ceiling, was a large tin can with holes punched in the bottom. Around it on the wooden planked ceiling was painted a blue sky with a fluffy white cloud in the middle just above the suspended can. He demonstrated how the cloud hid a hole, plugged with a piece of wood, painted to match the cloud and large enough for the end of a small hose. He went to the door, opened it and motioned me to come outside. 

 

He pointed  to the roof near the stove pipe.

 

“See. I have a five gallon container of water that I can put up on top. Then I run a hose with a valve down through the hole and into the can. When I’m ready, I put down the basin, get undressed, stand in it, and open the valve. A shower. The water’s cold, but I’m warm.”

  

Going back inside, that warmth embraced us.

 

“It seems like a perfect little home,” I said, as I picked up the mug to finish the last of my tea.

 

At the compliment, he looked away slightly, out the small window at the back.

 

“Yes. I like it, too,” he said, with nothing but an internal smile, now settled and still once more behind his eyes.

 

Having finished my tea, I handed him the empty mug, and, putting on my coat, said “I guess I’d better get going. We’ll be leaving for town soon.” 

 

He pushed open the door and waited, standing aside, for me to step outside before following me and closing the door behind him. As I turned to say goodbye, I saw the face of a racoon appear briefly in the bushes at the edge of the small cleared area. It quickly turned and vanished.

 

Teddy had seen it too. “That’s Ralph,” he said. “He’s a friend.”

 

“I thought racoons were untamable. I’ve heard they can be dangerous,” I said.

 

“Oh, yes,” said Teddy. “He’s not tame. He just comes to live near me about this time of year. This is the third year. He hangs out and eats with me. Last year he climbed down from the roof onto my shoulder. Now he’ll sit on my shoulder sometimes and come with me into the woods. He won’t let anyone else come near him. “ 

 

“That’s amazing!” I said. 

 

“Yes, but it’s a big responsibility. I have to make sure he doesn’t get into things in the outdoor kitchen. He’s learned to open jars. Their paws are almost hands. And I have to make sure I have enough for us both to eat.”

 

He paused for a moment, looking out into the trees.

 

“He came to me so I’m responsible for him. But it’s not just him.”  He looked all around us. 

 

Indicating a broad circle around us with his outstretched hand, he said, “I’m responsible for everything in my universe, the cabin, the trees, the rocks, the plants, the animals, the humans, the insects, everything. I care for them constantly.”

 

He looked away as if the act of speaking this had been a serious decision, a risk.

 

He followed deferentially behind me down the path towards the main house in the big old sugar shack, where several people bunked together. Just before the garden, put to bed for the winter, he stopped. 

 

“Thanks for showing me your cabin. See you later,” I said, and walked on.

 

A few steps later, I turned  to see him still standing there, contained, straight yet at ease;  solitary, in his way. He waved. I waved back, reflecting his respect–for me, as part of his universe with the plants, the earth, the animals, the bark of the trees; for him, as part of mine, still living inside me now along with the paths through the forest, the walks with friends down the road in the snow, and the unbelievable illumination of the blazing colors of the trees for those brief days in the autumns of Vermont. It is living alongside the sight of the dark, furry pine  trees that I see through my window in this moment of my life,  an accompaniment to the browns and greys of the bare branched trees, vibrating always upward.

Winter Light With Birds

In the morning
It looked like rain in the air
But it was just the light
Crinkling through the little bits of mist
Here and there
As the sun broke over the southern hills

Now the warm areas of glowing light
Have settled so briefly
Along the tops of the hills to the east
Lingering for a few more moments in the north
Before fading into grey.
The air is dimming
Drained of sparkle
Quieting.

In between these moments of shifting light
The winter warmth radiated from the pure blue
And birds flew in all their crazy patterns
In the same world we seem to inhabit
But in another perhaps entirely
Ignorant of the thoughts of all of us
In these strange blocks of stone and wood
Not heeding our motions
Except in odd moments of curiosity
Perched on a wire, watching
As when we stop to hear the sounds
Of what we count as song.
.
Here we are. Our lives stretching out
This way and that way
Through the air.
On the wind
We sniff the fragrance of one emotion
Or another. A message across the room
Or across the globe
Thousands of miles
Carried by the light
By the wind
By the air
Random
Like the flights of birds.
Finding its mark like
The falcon
Soaring then plunging down
Through the warm
Afternoon sun.

 

A New Year and A Memory of Violets

The year is quickly coming to an end. I suppose we have a need for beginnings and endings, however arbitrary. The world of people around me seems paused, a bit listless, waiting, relaxed but a little bored.

Here, they are anticipating a feast on New Year’s Eve, perhaps some inebriated viewing of fireworks down by a lake. For me, it will be quiet, one day just melding into the next.

The ground is covered with frost these last few mornings, the sky clear and blue-grey until the sun rises high enough over the foothills to fill it with that intense yet evanescent blue of winter. Last night the moon hung there above the mountains in its most fragile form, the slimmest crescent facing Jupiter, the two sparkling and exerting their magnetism, one towards the other. A concert of such delicacy and jollity that it was almost unbearable.

Things are beginning to hum a bit now as the village comes to life in its Sunday form, some people driving to the boulangerie before it closes at noon, only to reopen on Tuesday. One or two quietly, almost secretly perhaps going to church in the town nearby but more going to hike somewhere in the mountains, their “batons” stored in the trunk. Soon there will be cyclists going by, just one or two now and then, not the chatting groups of summer, coming one after another down the road that lead up to Montsegur.

This is my occupation as I sit, not disturbing too much the bone that is mending itself stealthily with new cells somehow, deep inside, blood carrying the materials where they are needed. Who knows?

This afternoon I lay down for a nap in my study, the sunlight streaming in the southern window, a chill still in the room. In the moments of waking, the great luxury of it bathing me, the little memories of a Christmas some sixty years ago floated in on the particular quality of the light.

When I was some eight or nine years old, my father gave me a box of candied violets for Christmas. What else he gave me that year in the usual extravagance of his Christmas giving, I can no longer remember. There were certainly marzipan figures of Santas and snowmen and apples and peaches in my stocking and expensive toys under the tree, but it’s the beautiful little hat-box-like container with a violet colored satin ribbon handle that captivated me.

When at first I unwrapped it, I remember only the delight of how pretty it was, violet and cream with clusters of painted purple violets strewn around on the label. The words on the box were in French, a language I’d already begun to learn in my enlightened school. My mother spoke French and taught it sometimes in the schools where she worked. She read aloud the writing on the box as she pointed to the words, “Les Violettes de Toulouse”.

Entranced by the evocation of a city far away, I gently worked the top off the cylindrical box. Inside, cushioned in violet-colored tissue, were the purple violets I knew from my days of playing near the stream where they grew up in the grass and between the rocks. I picked them for decorations for my tiny rock villages. But somehow these had been transformed into fragile-seeming crystal rocks. A fragrance of sweet flowers and sugar, somehow a bit musky like the leaves of the forest floor. Pulling back the tissue, I inhaled and inhaled again, sitting cross-legged in front of the Christmas tree, The light in the big windows of the living room warming my cheeks, I touched them, all packed together, crunching a bit against each other. With my thumb and finger, I pulled one from its nest and put it in the palm of my hand where I could study it better.

“Eat it!” said my father.

“Really?” I asked, aghast.

“Yes,” he chuckled. “It’s candy made of real violets.”

I put it in my mouth. The sugar began to melt, carrying with it a flavor on the tongue of that fragrance of the sweetest of flowers, of spring forest and sunlight, of gardens from picture books–a revelation. I crunched it a bit between my teeth, a delicate crunching like nothing else, a little explosion of a flavor sweet and touched with the slightest acid of green stems.  A treasure from France.

For the next month, as school resumed and the days became ordinary once again, it sat on the dresser in my bedroom. Each day, going to my room to change out of school clothes, there it would be, that exotic box, waiting there. I’d hurry, and half changed, eat just one, letting it melt on my tongue like that first moment under the Christmas tree, recalling something extraordinary, something of another world.

I wanted to make the box of them last forever, but, of course, well before spring, they were gone. The empty box with its tissue paper sat on my dresser for years, a hiding places for treasures, preserving just a small whiff of the fragrance of France–violets.

Now this memory transplants itself to the Toulouse I am getting to know, a city of rosy red brick buildings, of a beautiful tea shop, a cozy restaurant, a beautiful square, parking garages, spreading banlieus and streets filled with university students and demonstrating yellow-vests and police barriers.  A place where, at a Prefecture in an office building, we got the Cartes Sejours that allow us to continue to live in France. Now I remember it is also the city of violets, the city of those transfigured flowers.

The light recedes onto the eastern hills, rosy. Another day is passing. There will be a fire in the woodstove and dinner with vegetables from the garden. Somewhere in all of this a transition must be happening, a movement of one cycle into another, spiralling onwards.

 

 

 

The Dream

Swim I said, “Come swim  with me!”  

Tide shifts soon from dark to light. 

We float adrift in some vast sea

Where forms are hazy, lost from sight.

Here we dwell where even stars

In their nature are not bright

Seen through remnants of desire

Present only through some sense

Drawn from nights we spent with fire.

Time is done, this space untethered , so immense.

The forms of day can only catch us

By setting clever traps of pretence.

 

“Swim,” I said, “Come swim with me”

The passage through from night to night 

 Is sought in dream and memory.

Nothing hold us from our flight

Through dim cool tunnels drawn by tide

Concealed from senses smell and sight

Discovered only when we slide

Through some great hole unknown by mind

That travels inside to inside.

Here where we drift, we’re far from blind

This nothing is where sight begins

Here exists the unconfined.

 

Swim with me. “Come swim with me!”

Dark is drifting into light

Let us surface from this sea

Yet hold the vastness of this night. 

Let us slip the reins of earth

That grasp and clutch to hold us tight.

Swim the swelling of that well

In the silence calm and deep

Float where only being dwells.

 

dav

The Body

There comes a time when, in the life of anyone who writes anything, it is the moment to write about becoming old. My time has come. The telling begins in small pieces, travelling around in the infinite spaces. It begins with the body.

Interesting now to stand back in the vastness of my mind and view this body I have both loved and contested for so many years. I have never liked to view it as if from the outside in photos or in mirrors. I can look at it only from far away in the shop windows in cities or as a ghost in my train window as the whole huge machine passes through the darkness. Only then does it appear as the spector it must be.

I “see” it mostly from the inside, my view of my hands, my legs, my feet the indicators of its boundaries. I feel the periodic and rhythmic surging of something in the middle of the space I seem to occupy. I sense tinglings and aches that seem to come from different points in that small bubble.

Ever since this bubble first floated to the surface of this particular world, I have spent most of the time being only that bubble, aware only of what it contained and how it bounced up against furniture, other bubbles, breezes, heavy winds, always trying to float up and away but finding that some force kept it trapped.

It is a body that has piloted my awareness and allowed me to experience the great joy of the senses. It has done miraculous things like master the coordination of nerve impulses necessary to walk, to swim, to ride a bicycle, to dance with abandon, to play a flute with some proficiency– at some point even to run.

It has never been able to coordinate with any brilliance the impulses from this brain with its movement of sinews and muscles, lungs and heartbeats, but it has done well enough to move me through a brilliant array of encounters with the life all around it.

In the past few months, it has become increasingly obvious that it no longer has the resilience I have counted on since the “I” of it began.  As appendages appear in view, it is clear that the strange stuff that covers them is drying out. There are strange discolorations. The molecules of the muscles, sinews, ligaments and bone are no longer fresh and flaccid, vibrant with life.

Despite all the lovely vegetables this stomach receives from our garden and converts into humming nutrients, all the little spheres and globules, the pulsating atoms of this bubble are slowing.

All their infinities of activity have brought me here to a place far away from their habitual rounds–to a place where the very air they draw in vibrates with the lives of so many humans. The place is thick with the stories they left in their wake like lines of forgotten poetry covering the floor. For aeons, these other bodies trod over these paths through these hills, drank this water, listened to other generations of the same birds, spoke words, sang songs, loved and died in every way imaginable. Although it knows it will likely be floating around in this environment for some time to come, drinking it all in, t

his bubble that I have called “me” has begun to sense it is joining this coming in and going out, that it too will burst, leaving drops of an essence that perfumes the wind. Begun to accept.

 

 

 

 

dav

In Cahors

We are on our way to the Dordogne, the refuge of the Neandertal, the land of the caves where the ancient humans painted and carved on walls tens of thousands of years ago. The beautiful, rich valley of that big river, lined with limestone cliffs. On our way to finally see Lascaux (of course not the cave itself where we nearly destroyed the artwork of the ancestors before closing it off, but the elaborate replica, Lascaux Four, there at the base of the hill where the cave itself sits, closed to all but a few occasional scientists in moon suits). On our way to the valleys of the Dordogne and its tributary the Viesse, we stopped for a pique-nique in the city of Cahors.

We drove in the way we had come four summers ago when we were wandering the area, looking for a new home. We remembered the cafes by the river, away from the flow of the big old buildings of the city, and the trees that will flower later in July. We turned to the left to stay close to the river and settled on a spot with benches that looked over the water to the cliffs beyond, old houses with their clay tile roofs nestled at the base of the rock, next to the river.

It was just beside the road, but it didn’t really matter. There were trees, grass and rose bushes. We found a bench beside a fig tree, poured ourselves some wine, brought out the bread and cheese and olives, ate and watched the parade of humans, cars, buses and bicycles.

When we had almost eaten our fill and were pouring a second glass of wine, we each, in our own way, gradually became aware of a presence quite near us on the lawn. I had hesitated to turn and look, sensing it might be some semi-wild creature we would scare away. Walter had looked. He turned slightly and touched my leg. “See that woman? She has a parrot in the tree.” I turned squarely to see.

“Bonjour”, I said, suddenly unsure of the gender to the person who stood there, close to our bench, chopped brown hair under a nondescript cap, loose-jacketed, looking up at a big, brightly colored parrot in a fig tree beside us.

“Bonjour” replied the person, the voice either male or female, a bit rough. The parrot looked at me, cocked its head and squawked.

“Il est curieux de vous.” the person explained, glancing quickly at us and turning back to the bird.

“Comment dit-on ‘parrot’ en francais?” I wondered aloud.

A blank look passed quickly over the face turned towards me, incomprehension.  Something in the eyes, perhaps a directness in the brown-eyed glance, made me recognize this person was a woman.

“Quel es le nom de cet oiseau?” I stumbled.

“Bertrand,” she replied. “Bertrand, mon perroquet.”

Confused for a moment, I thought, no it can’t be a parakeet, it’s too big, then remembering some lesson I’d had with the French word for parrot, I said,

“Oui, perroquet! Il est beau avec le rouge et le bleu et le vert. Quel âge a-t-il?”

A small smile of pride, just a hint, appeared on her face as she calculated the length of time and then replied that he was thirty-four years old. I translated for Walter, who was picking up much of the meaning already. He said,

”I wonder how long parrots can live? That’s pretty old.”

I asked. She said with some confidence that they could live to be about fifty but most kept in a house lived to be about forty.

“I’ve had him since he was a few months old,” she told us, with an accent that seemed part of the air she had breathed since a child.

We talked for quite some time, learning that he like being outside and would not fly away, that he couldn’t say any words but imitated the bark of the neighbor’s little dog quite nicely, that he sometimes imitated a laugh from the television.  It was clear that this bird had been her closest companion for all those years. We learned somehow that she watched movies about the old days in France. In fact, she watched a lot of old movies on her TV at home. She had been born in a nearby village and lived in Cahors all of her adult life. There was much I wondered about her life but didn’t dare to ask, what she had done, had she been married, did she have children, what kind of home did she have.

We told her we were going to the caves at Lascaux, about a hundred kilometres north on the Dordogne River.  Her round, tanned face crinkled. She had heard of them, of their paintings, but had never been. It reminded her somehow of a movie she’d seen about men who wore plumes on their helmets. She had been to Toulouse with her father once or twice she remarked, hearing we lived further south, near the Pyrenees.

Our conversation could have stretched on and on. She was clearly content to have our interest. We could have become acquainted. But the road called us, the paintings in the caves, the river itself. We made our excuses. She motioned to Bertrand who sidled up the branch and jumped to her shoulder where she snapped a leash on a ring around his leg.

As we gathered our things she stood, watching, Bertrand squawking, impatient. She waved, unmoving, as we walked toward the road. “Au revoir!”

“Bonne journée!” I called back.

For those moments, walking away, I was filled unexpectedly with a certain kind of joy. Having seen through the window of her eyes some part of a life, some flicker of recognition beyond the filters of language and culture, I was stirred, happy to be able to communicate in my imperfect French. As we climbed into the somewhat battered car we’d bought a few months ago here in France, I looked forward eagerly to the next things we would experience on the road–together; the beauty of the cave paintings, the unknown stretches of a big river that had supported so much life for so long.

She, on the other hand, was probably returning slowly, by way of several familiar stops, to some small old house nearby, perhaps to chat for a while with a neighbor, then a meal in her kitchen and an evening to watch old movies with her parrot chattering in the background. Perhaps content. A good day. A recognition. Small things.

The Mists of Fougax

There is a time when the mist here floats on the hills behind the house in the morning. As dreams mingle with visions of what we call the solid world, as I move from sleep to what we call waking, there is less division on such mornings. One morning the mist may be violet, sitting as if it were the warm breath of the still-sleeping hill itself clinging to the silence. Another morning like this one, the mist seems to float yet is without movement. Obscuring yet filled with light as the still colorless sky becomes infused so very gradually with the warmth from the sun rising over the mountain to the east.

There is also a time when one comes to a new place when the separation between that which we have come to know as our self and that which is not self is as imperceptible as the separation between mist and hill, mist and tree, mist and sky, between dream and the re-assembling morning world.

This morning when I was awake enough to tell my body to move and start the conscious day, I walked in my nightgown into our front room, a room lined with windows facing the road and a tiny kitchen space. As I passed by the windows on my way to the kettle, there was a flash of yellow at the corner of my eye. Two yellow-vested women seemed to be standing on the other side of our garden fence, in front of the row of rose bushes. Yellow vests. Signifiers of emotions and opinions which are not quite clear. A restlessness I cannot yet penetrate.

There’s a way in which the mood is turning, unwilling to continue along a disturbing path where the desires of the haves push the lives of the have-nots in ways they cannot control. As I went to set the water to boil for tea I wondered—was it this restlessness settling here in front of the house on the road into the village on a Sunday morning? Was it village workers responding to some emergency? The range of possibilities is as yet unclear to me, jumping into a new world of complexities woven over thousands of years.  The cues of a very different culture, cemented into my awareness since childhood,  can mislead.  And imagery of the yellow-vest is ambiguous even to the French that surround me. 

Then another flash out of the corner of my eye–a runner coming down the road opposite ours, down from the trail through the woods and turning left in front of our house. Then another and another, all with leggings or shorts, little backpacks of different sizes and all holding some sort of collapsible walking sticks.

Ah, yes, a cross country race! It began to come into focus. The women with the vests were officials, guiding the runners. The logo on the yellow vests became clear–”Trail des Citadelles.” They were running from one high Cathar citadel to another. Walter, about to come naked into the front room, forewarned, put on some clothes, looked at the situation in the road and said, “We have to bring those women some coffee.”

Moments later, two cups of strong coffee in hand, we walked out together to the fence and offered them. Both women, seeing the cups, said “Oh! Oui! C’est si gentil!” We stood for a while talking with them over the little fence as they greeted runners with “Par la. Tenez a gauche.”That way. Stay to the left.)

In my faulty French, I ask questions about the race and the weather. They answer warmly and willingly. They had been coming to this very spot every Easter morning for the past eight years, through the shifting dates of Easter and through rain, cold, heat and even snow. They had seen the house empty for four years in a row and were now glad to see it alive again. Today was just right. Fresh, but not at all cold. A bit of rain and grey skies, but definitely spring.

Back under the eaves of the house, we pulled out a couple of chairs and watched, dry, through the light rain as families with children waited to see a husband or father, aunt or mother come down the road to take the bend around the corner. Some on the course had already been running for three or more hours and faced many more. As each one was sighted, their small groups of supporters clapped and cheered them on. Sometimes the father or mother stopped briefly to kiss each one in their little crowd on both cheeks before running on to cheers of “Allez! Allez!” from behind.

Each interaction that connects us to this place, this home, that allows us to penetrate just a little into the life of the people here is like waking into one reality from another, dream to dream. The man who, for instance, has a beautiful garden at the other end of the village, where the river winds past the old mill and past green patches and lilac bushes. This man who was eager, when asked, to tell us all about the work he does to make a beautiful vegetable garden with rows of hoop houses and beautifully mounded potatoes and how he protects his cherry trees and harvests them and how he cuts and stores up his wood.

Or the woman standing just outside her door at the turning before the bridge whose little dogs barked at me as I passed, who said “Beaucoup de bruit avec peu de cause.” ( Lots of noise with little cause.”) We both laughed in the amber light of a sunset descending over the mountains around us, both touched by it in ways beyond apprehension.

Or the old man carrying in a huge chunk of wood through his blue front door who said “Ah. Oui, mon poêle est vraiment grand,” (Yes, my stove is truly large) when I commented on how huge it was, there in his old strong arms. The woman who gave me a ride in her little car she pulled out of the garage when I knocked on her door and said, “J’ai tourné le genou pendant la randonnée. Ça fait mal. Vous pouvez me conduire à l’autre bout du village??” (I turned my knee while I was hiking. It hurts. Can you give me a life to the other end of the village?)  Concerned, she asked if I needed to go to the doctor. When I said it was not that bad, we chatted on the way about the house we’d bought whose previous owners were her friends of many years

Such beauty to be found. Here we are in the midst of it. Eyes open. Ears open. Nostrils flaring to smell the incredible blossoms of spring. Hearts listening, wondering, caught by the intensities of sunlight through parting clouds, sense of self dissipating like the mists over the hills, stirring and waking from dream into dream. So many other realities exist. This is one.

 

Paris

 

Paris.  A city.  A city with the ills of big cities. A city like all cities with a million individual worlds swirling around in its boundaries. A city with such flavor that the whole world holds it in the heart of its imaginings like some living treasure.

We went to Paris from our new home in the countryside of the Ariege in the foothills of the Pyrenees, from the fresh winds of the south to the stinking air of the Metros and wide streets filled with cars and buses spewing carbon monoxide. from the work in the garden and the planning for the work on the house to the city that is so richly imagined. Walter had never been. I had never been there with him, only told him stories of the Paris I had loved in its days after the student revolt.  We had just three nights in Paris.

We went to some of the usual places. We walked past the badly wounded Cathedral of Notre Dame where the smell of charred wood still lingers and tourists stand at the barriers clicking their tongues and discussing various theories they’ve read about the cause of the conflagration.

We spent a day wandering in the Louvre until our knees ached.

 

We wandered in the streets around the Sorbonne and the Pantheon in a thunderstorm and bought little music boxes in a wonderful toy store that we happened on in the downpour. We poked through the book stalls on the quays and browsed the books in front of Shakespeare and Co. We ate in bistros and sipped Armagnac in cafes while we made up stories about the people passing by. We walked under grey skies in the Jardins de Luxembourg and the Tuileries. We took the Metro to the Champs Elysee and bought a Paris umbrella to walk in the rain through rivers of water where the old cafes and the elegance are now lost to the visual noise of Mac Donald’s and Starbucks and arcades. We saw the Tour Eiffel looming as we went by the glamorous buildings of its neighborhood on the elevated tracks of the Metro. We spent hours in the Musee D’Orsay and the Orangerie. And I wandered in the neighborhood of Butte de Calle around our hotel, sampling the boulangeries, tabacs and epiceries while Walter rested—our usual routine.

And there we were, our first day, wandering in the evening near the Boul’Mich to see what had changed, pausing at the intersection at the corner near the Musée de Cluny, idly reading the affiche about the history of the place. Curious about the little ruin I could see through a gate, I popped in to take a closer look while Walter read. There, surrounded by the higher walls around the Cluny, in an obscure little place with a temporary-seeming fence in front of the stone ruins of the Roman bath, the sound and smell of the traffic faded suddenly and trees grew. A man of some middle age with an impulse similar to mine had walked in behind me and had gone to stand at the fence a small distance away. As we stood there quietly, wondering about the piles of stones, a bird began to sing, hidden in the greenery above.

 

Listening for a moment to its clear notes, a song that seemed not to repeat, going here, going there, lilting pure, I realized it might be a nightingale, the bird I have been waiting to hear for so long, a bird not heard in America. Impulsively, excited, I turned to the stranger there in the enclosure just off the busy thoroughfare of Boulevard Saint Germain, this man with a round sympathetic face, greying hair, unfashionable glasses and said, “Vous croyez que c’est un rossignol qui chant comme ca?” He listened a moment, head tilting up, and said, a bit uncertainly, “Oui, je crois que oui! C’est pas sur mais quatre-vingt-dix pourcent.” He turned to me and smiled a small smile. “Ici,” I said, “au milieu de cette grande ville?” He paused as we listened to the song still sprinkling down from one of the trees over the ruin and, nodding, said, “Oui, c’est ca, Oui. Je pense que oui.” and smiled again his small smile, turning only partly toward me in his deference towards a stranger. We listened for another brief moment, each smiling but not to each other, until the song ended and the characteristic sound of a Paris police car in the distance blended in to the sounds of the traffic going by outside the wall. We looked at each other briefly, smiled down at the ground, wishing not to look too directly at such a moment of fleeting intimacy and, saying our Au revoir, he walked through the gate of the enclosure into the street in one direction and I in the other to rejoin Walter on the corner.

 

And then, our last evening in Paris, after a lovely romantic dinner near the Place D’Italie where we shared a bottle of red Corbieres from our neighboring region of the Aude and ate duck and perfectly cooked steak (a rarity in France), we were walking back to our hotel when we noticed a man filling a bottle at a big metal spigot in a chrome structure in the middle of a small square. In our village in the Ariege, there is such a place where, although the water is not monitored by the city, it is gathered in bottles by the locals in the same way- from a metal spigot in a stone basin under a sign stating Eau non-contrôlée. Coming down the hillside above it, spring water untreated and uncontaminated by livestock is preferred by the locals to the village water. Watching the man filling a bottle from a spigot set in a public place, it was hard to believe we were seeing a source of spring water here in the middle of Paris, here in a tiny park off the Rue Bobillot in the Place de Paul Verlaine two minutes walk from the big indoor mall at Place D’Italie. Looking at each other to confirm we were thinking the same thing, we walked towards the man still filling a bottle under the spigot.

He seemed neither young nor very old, bent there with his water bottle. Saying hello, stumbling over French vocabulary, I asked whether this water was actually potable. He was immediately animated as if waking from a dream to find us, and, saying, yes, it was good water, held out his bottle to offer us each a taste. We each drank, knowing the other had quickly considered and rejected the notion to decline a drink from a stranger’s bottle. It was good– fresh, cold and slightly sweet. He told us that yes, in fact, it was from a deep artesian well that had been drilled in the nineteenth century, still used by locals.

Reading about it later, I discovered the well is near the Bievre River, where it dumps its overflow in times of heavy rain. The river, still flowing into the Seine, was covered over a century ago and now was somewhere under our feet as we walked. In the lovely old yellow and orange brick building on the park marked Piscine, an old pool draws on the water from the well. The man leaned on a pole to talk with us, saying he had grown up in a nearby neighborhood with a French father and Japanese mother. He had lived abroad for years and worked in environmental engineering. Now had come back to his native Paris where he felt he belonged. We talked more about our farm in the States, our move to France, our shared interest in the environment and water. Each invigorated by the encounter, we said our goodbyes, exchanged compliments and went our ways. As we walked away to go back to our room for our last night, still a bit drunk on wine and happenstance, we talked about water, always so precious to humans, the element around which they gather, how it flows through our village just as it does through Paris, still seeping up in this neighborhood of Butte de Caille, fresh water now more rare than ever.

 

Here in France where the Neanderthal evolved and lived skilfully till gradually overpowered by the modern humans with their complexities of language, we have gathered around water, rivers and coasts, lakes, springs and streams. We learned long ago to build systems to distribute the water and irrigate crops. But the water that comes directly from the source is the most precious of all. There it is, flowing pure in the midst of the sewers and roads and endless buildings of Paris like the improbable song of the nightingale and the small smile of a stranger with a round face. How we may come to count on such quiet knowledge of the essentials of life, stored by communities against all odds.