Wallflower Dispatches

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The Charming Mountain Goat – The Breton Couple

March 23rd, 2011 · No Comments · Charming Mountain Goat, Provence, South of France

The bottle-green caterpillar made us stop. He was negotiating his way up on a thin thread of silk he had spun himself and that was hanging down from a large tree. It looked like he was hugging the silk into a ball. We stopped and stared for a good while.

We were some way along a lonely country road; the sun was hot, the dust creeping in between the toes into my open sandals.

The man appeared out of nowhere – or so it seemed afterwards. He mistook our concentrated interest in the caterpillar for an adoration of tree the little creature was hanging from.

“Yes, yes,” he announced excitedly. “This is a such and such tree.” (I did catch the name, but wouldn’t remember it because it was not often repeated enough and I had not seen it written down. Such is the way with learning or not learning new words in a foreign language.)

As we continued to stare at the caterpillar, the man had already progressed in his lecture about the tree, which was special to the Provencal region, and soon we found ourselves next to him further inside his garden, nodding interestedly at the wonders of aforementioned tree. Now and again we even repeated its name to each other as if to say: “Yes, what an amazing tree! Just look.”

He made us come in and led the way around the extensive and immaculate grounds of his garden. It was normal and strange at the same time. If it had been 1698, it would have felt part of our routine, but in the 21st century where these things are less common and always associated with strange behaviour, we did feel apprehensive for quite a while. “STRANGER! if you, passing, meet me, and desire to speak to me, why should you not speak to me? And why should I not speak to you?” I kept humming in my brain by way of explanation.

The man talked incessantly, pointing out every plant and corner in the garden, the beauty of his stone house, detailing every feature like a historian or a salesperson, we couldn’t quite settle on which.

This lasted for a good 15 minutes.

Already, we had decided that his incessant talk was a form of nervousness and not bragging because he showed interest in us in equal measure, but the nervous energy always overtook him in spite himself.

We reached the front door. “Just look at those stone walls. I built them myself. Every single stone I put there myself. And I am 82 this year. You live in a stone house too?! That’s great. There is nothing better than stone. Come in, come in. Meet my wife.”

Inside, the sweetest old lady welcomed us like friends, greeting us and like a discreet melody joined in the strange song her husband had been singing, only her voice was quieter. This unaccustomed harmony and her old-fashioned polite obedience (a word that has taken on such a negative meaning) relaxed us and soon our little innocent jokes had her in peals of shy laughter as we interrupted her cooking lunch.

She called me into the kitchen, which was basic and beautiful and clearly her domain. It smelled inviting and like home.

Afterwards I realized I had noticed it straight away, even though it wasn’t in a prominent place and I obviously couldn’t have guessed as to its significance. It was a small non-descript photo of a young boy, faded, black and white and dated to the early 1960s by its fashion and the boy’s haircut.

The husband had moved us on inside the house to point out the larder and the doors; heavy dark oak hung on beautiful hinges. The unsolicited tour and lecture continued. In the lounge, the photo had a more prominent place. It was the same shot of the same boy.

“Come and look at the plastering in our bedroom,” he beckoned us. Another commentary followed where the boy’s photograph was again seen next to – what I guessed to be her – side of the bed. Suddenly, we noticed the heavy atmosphere, sad and fragrant with brave pain.

He led us out of the bedroom into the small room next to it. It was filled with shells, cramped onto shelves and little side tables. A sofa bed was placed against the wall.

The commentary sped up. “Yes, it’s the same good workmanship in this room. It’s our son’s room. He collected all these shells. But he died in an accident. Yes, that’s right, an accident. Well, it’s over 40 years ago. He was only nine. But look at the hinges on this door. And the sun shines through the window all day.”

Back in the lounge, his wife had set out a variety of drinks, offering us an aperitif. “Won’t you have a pastis?”

We passed a pleasant half hour with these two friendly welcoming people, learned they were from Brittany, laughed with them about their accent, and discreetly tried to tell them how we shared their pain. In the nicest sense, they discreetly communicated they didn’t want to know, but appreciated the thought.

Then we bid a warm farewell and turned our back on the house of stone that was built strong enough to retain the sweet memories of a boy who collected shells and repel any other cruel accidental attacks of fate lest they might contemplate breaking and entering.

And another thing I noticed only afterwards were the incredible muscles on this 82-year man, which he had developed arranging these stones into an impenetrable, protective shelter.

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