Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘France’

Beast15

The town of Luc lay just between the hills of Gévaudan and Vivarais. As Louis and Modestine, leaving Luc the following morning, made their way up the valley he paused to consider the border. Gévaudan was plainer, whereas Vivarais embraced more underwood, but both were mapped with patches of dark fir, broken up now and then with tended fields. A section of railroad track ran alongside the river, gleaming and new atop its clean ballast bed, its sleepers dark and ready for the weight. It was the only section of track in Gévaudan, but soon, Louis thought, the French would be speeding all over their fair country, just like in America. Or so he’d heard.

At La Bastide, Louis was directed by a bent peasant to leave the river and head into the hills of Vivarais via a road. Their intended destination: Our Lady of the Snows, a Trappist monastery. Compared to some of the crumbling fortresses he’d passed—and even some of the inns in which he slept—this place was of fairly new construct, having been built in 1850. Louis anticipated, though, an atmosphere older than time. The name of the strict Cistercian order derives from La Trappe Abbey, an abbey in Normandy; the order itself is the product of reform in 1660s as a reaction to the perceived lax practices of the Cistercian monasteries at the time. The monks follow the rule of Saint Benedict, adhering to the three vows: stability, fidelity to religious life, and obedience. Further, Louis had heard they practiced a strict vow of silence.

Again, his Protestant blood stirred, though chilled now instead of hot. There was, in Louis’s mind, something unnatural to discounting a man’s speech, for surely, these robed men—more than anyone—must have something useful to say.

The pair made their way along the road through a dark, piney wood, cool in the morning air, and upon emerging into a new valley, the sun dazzled their eyes and warmed their skin. All was heaven—the craggy rock shone blue through rise after rise of heather, twisting trunks stretched their limbs modestly throughout the hollows. Louis stood there for a few minutes, breathing deeply and letting the sun’s heat play on his face until his skin tingled. Modestine munched on something by the path. All around was pure nature, unbridled and rampaging wildly about him, a well-worn path the only sign of man.

Or he thought, until he noticed that each hilltop was marked with a spindly little cross, each calling attention to its corresponding religious house. About a quarter-mile away, a large statue of the Virgin, gleaming white, stood beckoning at the corner of a recently cultivated field. This, Louis thought, must be the post that pointed his way.

As they drew closer, the breeze brought with it the sound of a bell, causing both travelers to freeze. For a flash, Louis could swear it was the tinkling of the dead foal’s little bell, but as the wind came again, another toll—it was not the light chime he now so dreadfully associated with bloody death, but the clanging of the monastery’s signal. They continued, but he couldn’t shake this foreboding feeling. Turning past the statue of Mary, not nearly as large as she seemed from the ridge, Louis’s heart sank with each step. If he was honest with himself, he wasn’t looking forward to his stay at Our Lady of the Snows—all the silent countenances, the shadowy corridors, the oppressive miasma of incense and wax that must certainly inundate all within the white walls. It was as if, upon entering the prison—for it seemed like one—he would essentially be damning any possibility that he would pull himself from this general malaise before he reached Alès.

Now it was Louis’s turn to drag his feet. Modestine trip-trotted along and even stopped at one point as if to wait for him. But as they turned the corner from around a hedge, his heart sank even deeper. For there, a little further up on the path he trod, was a friar. The man was exactly as Louis had seen in any number of Flemish paintings—his black and white robes hung heavily about him, gathering soil along the hem, and his hood was back on his shoulders, revealing a bald head as yellow as any parchment.

Apart from his familial religious background, holy men, particularly of the Catholic persuasion, presented him with a kind of abhorrence which he chalked up to his having read The Monk at, perhaps, too early an age. Could this creature, or any he might soon encounter, harbor any of the satanic lasciviousness of Lewis’s Ambrosio?

The cleric struggled with a barrowful of sod. As Louis approached him, he did so cautiously, completely at a loss as to how to greet a man who’d taken a vow of silence, and at the last moment he’d settled on a tilt of his cap. A simple greeting, saying nothing, and expecting nothing in return.

“Why hello!” said the friar, his face like two red apples capping the corners of a wide, white smile. “Are you heading for the monastery?”

Louis hadn’t expected so cheerful a salutation, or any greeting at all. He nodded and was about to explain his purpose.

“Are you English? Irish?” the friar went on.

“Scots,” Louis answered, much to the man’s delight.

“Wonderful,” he beamed. “I am Father Apollinaris. I’ve never seen a Scotsman before. What is this?” He motioned towards Modestine.

Louis looked at him strangely and wondered exactly how isolated this monastery was.

“She is my donkey,” he began, and the friar laughed.

“Oh, no, I mean this,” and he stepped forward and patted Louis’s sleeping sack, stretched sausage-like over Modestine’s back.

Louis explained.

“You must show this to Father Prior,” Father Apollinaris insisted. “Now, I regret to say that Our Lady of the Snows cannot receive you, but you can certainly get a meal, and then . . .”

“But I was hoping for lodging,” Louis said, confused.

“Well,” the friar stumbled. “It’s . . . there is a policy . . . for peddlers . . .”

Louis laughed.

“Oh, I’m not here, or anywhere, to sell anything,” he said. “I’m writing a book.”

Father Apollinaris clapped his hands together, his eyes dancing.

“Oh, how exciting! That is very different, then,” he said. “Come, I will take you to the gates. May I say you are a geographer?”

“Um, no,” Louis thought for a moment. “I don’t think so. In the interest of truth.”

“I see,” the friar said. He almost sounded disappointed, which amused Louis. “An author, then?”

Louis agreed, and so the friar joined him in his walk, and they talked of the ecclesiastical affairs of England, for Father Apollinaris had been in seminary with a number of Irish. They talked about the road on which they walked, a road, apparently, the friar had constructed entirely himself, as this was his preferred industry. They skirted the issue of Louis’s own faith, and upon admitting that he was, indeed, not of the friar’s “true faith,” the honorable man merely waved his hand and smiled, determined to preserve the good will between them. Louis’s admiration for him, and his faith, grew.

Before long, the holy edifice loomed before them. What Louis assumed were the living quarters stood almost five stories and was peaked with thirteen gables across; behind this stood the abbey, its steeple jutting skyward from the side of the roof. The whole was whitewashed, the tile rooves of dark ochre—all of the outbuildings matched the main.

“Here, I must stop,” said Father Apollinaris. “I certainly mustn’t be seen in conversation, as you understand.”

Louis nodded and was grateful for the private, loose chat they’d had, for he figured the next evening and day would be like one long, silent burial.

“Ask for Brother Porter,” the friar continued. “All will be well. We must not speak, but do see me on your way out. I am charmed by your acquaintance.” And with that, he gathered his robes and turned, his torso twisting back and flapping his fingers at Louis as if to wave him on his way. “I must not speak!” he called back and patted his lips, grinning.

Louis smiled, waved, and turned to the daunting holy castle before him.

* * *

As a knight-errant, Louis pounded on the door in what he thought was a rather valiant form, then he stood back with Modestine, who, for the first time, seemed resistant to barging into someone’s house.

The entrance creaked and a single eye peered warily out at them. With the half-look of only one eye, Louis realized that perhaps his tact hadn’t been the customary thing. He took his hat in his hands and lowered his head.

Pardon,” he stammered. “Father Apollinaris suggested I—”

The eyeball disappeared and the door closed. Louis heard whispering, and then the sound of the bolt being drawn. Three robed figures, one followed by two others, filed out, heads bowed.

“How can we help you?” asked the head man. The black scapular he wore over his white robe, like Father Apollinaris, distinguished him from his companions, whose white habits were unadorned. He cut a tall, intimidating figure, his hands presumably joining through his wide sleeves, his head shaved in tonsure, his monastic crown silver and trimmed very short. His face was stern, but his eyes kind.

Louis explained whom he was and that Father Apollinaris had directed him here.

“I was told to justify myself to a Brother Porter,” Louis added, thinking the more names he dropped, the more legitimate he might appear. “And to show Father Prior this.” He gestured to his sleeping sack.

“This is Brother Porter,” the head man said, gesturing to the man at his left. “I’m afraid,” he turned to the man on his right, “we are, perhaps, one too many. Brother Michael, you may return to your prayers.”

Brother Michael, his face smooth and young, smiled slightly, nodded silently, and disappeared inside the door. Brother Porter neither smiled nor frowned, but only gazed on pleasantly.

“I am Father Prior,” the head man said. “And what is this that Father Apollinaris thought I should like to see?”

Louis untied the cord that fastened the sack to Modestine and removed the bundle. He noticed a hand gesture, almost imperceptible, from Father Prior to Brother Porter, and the novice stepped forward and led Modestine away to the stable. By this, Louis assumed, he could, indeed, stay the night.

When Brother Porter returned, Father Prior was still enthusiastically inspecting Louis’s sleeping sack.

“Quite an amazing invention,” he said, and then showed it to Brother Porter, speaking in low tones. The young monk joined the old in his interest. He whispered an inquiry, the father answered, and Louis heard none of it. For a moment, he missed Modestine.

Finally, the sack was returned to Louis.

“An author,” Father Prior said.

“Yes.” He wanted to add more—to somehow defend his occupation—but he wasn’t sure what would sound better or worse. So he changed the subject. “May I ask?”

Father Prior nodded benignly.

“I was of the understanding that there was a vow—”

“Of silence?” The father smiled. He moved closer to Louis and Brother Porter understood the signal for privacy and stepped away. “There is no vow, on its face. Saint Benedict did not want us to cut our chords, so to speak. He only intended that words be used with temperance. No idle chit chat, but to converse only when it is necessary.”

Louis nodded. “I see.”

The monk moved even closer and whispered.

“Here, you will find some have indeed taken the vow entirely, and as a rule, talk is kept to a minimum, as we can easily communicate with signals, but,” he paused, and glanced at Brother Porter. “When we have guests, some of our brothers find that they’d forgotten how much they enjoy the sound of their own voices.”

Louis thought of jolly Father Apollinaris, waving his hands and calling I cannot speak! in what, to Louis, was a good and pleasant accent. It seemed a shame, for even if the men themselves should not take too much pride in their own speech, surely the sound of a pleasant voice should be allowed to give comfort to his fellow man in the midst of trying times.

Louis nodded again.

“But come,” said Father Prior. “We will give you a glass of brandy to keep you until the next meal, and then Brother Porter will show you to your cell.”

And that’s what happened.

Following a dry aperitif, Brother Porter led Louis into the monastery garden.

“Please rest,” he said in a voice so quiet Louis sped to him and faced him with his ear. “I will confirm where you will sleep and then come fetch you.”

Louis thanked him and then watched the man’s feet move beneath his robes, hardly disturbing the small pebbles of the path.

It was one of many that very attractively segmented the garden, which was enclosed like a large courtyard with buildings on all sides—two dormitories, the abbey, and the stable. There were two dormitories, not because there were so many brothers, but because one was reserved for messieurs les retraitants—gentlemen who, perhaps not equipped to make the kind of commitment the men here have, came for a quiet, religious retreat of calm and contemplation.

In a way, Louis thought, that’s exactly what he was doing. Not specifically in this place, but his reason for journeying at all—contemplation. Rather than practitioners of either faith—Catholic or Protestant—Louis preferred to make his confession and do his penance to the naked sky, the infinite space above where his atonement housed itself in the stabbing sparkle of a stupefying inventory of stars. He favored the council of the wind through the trees. And this, perhaps, represents a small but significant measurement of the rift between he and his father. Louis didn’t quite know which made him more miserable—that the trappings of his religion carried more weight with his father than did his morality and endeavors to be a good man, or that, in the end, they would all be so much stardust.

Table of Contents

Read Full Post »

Beast13

Louis was able to discern four houses, not three. This was not Fouzilhic, but, he believed, its twin, Fouzilhac. The rain fell sideways into his face as he gazed at the glowing panes. Modestine shivered and shook her head. Did Benoît say Fouzilhic or Fouzilhac? He considered the old man who helped him find the road. Surely he could not be a member of that cursed family, being the only inhabitant with enough human decency to care a stalk of parsley how Louis ended the night. But he hadn’t warned him of the split in the road, and then there was that strange gesture he’d left him with—the curled fingers above his head, the screeching. Louis had only thought him a strange old Frenchman, but perfectly agreeable otherwise. Now he wondered if the gesticulation had been less silly and more menacing; was it a gesture at all, or what it a curse?

Louis’s eyes grew wide at the thought. Had that bizarre old man in Fouzilhic laid upon him some regional, rural hex? A nervous snort erupted from him and he covered his mouth. The thought was both quaint, yet terrifying. When he related this story to his friends back home, he would laugh and everyone would comment on the peculiar behaviors of these rustic peoples. But now, knowing the radiance of these windows was only temporary and that soon enough, he would be back out into the sinister night, it was less than funny.

The door he knocked upon stood between him and an old, lame lady who claimed to be alone, and therefore couldn’t possibly open the door to a stranger in the dark. And this was fair enough, albeit frustrating. He moved on to the next house.

The entire family opened the door—a man, two women, and a girl—carrying lanterns to best scrutinize he who dared disturb their peace. The man leaned against the doorframe and asked what Louis wanted, seemingly amused by the worn and soggy condition of the wretch and his donkey before him. His hair was unkempt and shabbily trimmed, hanging straight down to his eyes over a thick, dark brow.

Pardon, monsieur,” Louis said, “I was hoping I might find a guide to Cheylard.”

The man shied away slightly and the women behind him smirked.

“But, you see, it’s awfully dark out,” he said.

“I’m aware. That is the reason I am in need of a guide, you see,” Louis replied.

“I understand, but,” the man whinged. “It is difficult . . .”

“No one knows better than I, sir.” Louis grew impatient. “I will pay.”

The man shook his head as the rain continued to fall on Louis and Modestine.

“Ten francs,” Louis tried. But the man still shook his head.

“It is difficult,” he repeated.

“If no one should take me, what exactly do you propose I do?”

“Where are you going?” the man asked. “Beyond Cheylard?”

“It is not your business. It has no bearing on where I am trying to go tonight, and how.”

The man laughed and the light giggles behind him gave the sound a preternatural air.

C’est vrai, monsieur,” he said. “That is very true.”

Just then, Louis recognized the girl behind the man in the doorway.

“You!” he exclaimed. “Didn’t I see you in the fields, while it was still light?”

“You did,” she said. “I told him to follow the cows.”

The man looked at Louis as if he’d finally found the reason he really couldn’t be bothered to help this rude foreigner on his doorstep—the Scot must have been stupid.

“And how,” the man began, “did you manage to get lost?”

“You,” Louis pointed past the man to the girl, “you think it’s funny.”

The girl laughed and receded into the cottage.

“I’m sorry, monsieur,” the man said. “But, no. It is dark.”

“Then bring along a lantern,” Louis rejoined, annoyed.

The man shook his head.

“You, sir, are a coward.”

Louis hoped that would provoke the man into feeling obligated to defend his honor, but, much to his disappointment, it did not. The man simply crossed his arms, shook his head, and said, “It is what it is.”

Feeling he might lose his temper, Louis turned his back on the family, the cottage, and heard the sound of the door being closed and latched, and then, to his loathing, laughter—the girl’s loudest among them. Modestine snorted and Louis patted her neck.

As his night vision slowly and reluctantly returned, the pair stumbled over stony patches and rubbish heaps. He left Modestine to knock on other doors, but the windows were dark and no one replied. After another twenty minutes of blind groping to rediscover his cohort, he decided, water or none, they had to put down for the night.

Though the wind still blew, the rain had stopped, and Louis was thankful for that small fortune. They walked as straight as they could muster from the collection of houses, looking for a wooded area in which to shelter themselves from the wind. An hour later, an exasperated Louis and thoroughly drenched donkey finally located something suitable. On the opposite side of what Louis thought was a road stood a thicket of trees—the limbs arced overhead and formed what could be described as an arboreal cave.

Louis led Modestine into the grove, felt around for a sturdy branch, and tied her off. More groping revealed that the trees actually grew against a short stone wall that flanked the road. As he spread his pack at the base of the wall he wondered at the many possibilities that he’d be waking to in the morning, as he really had no idea what was around him. He felt around for a candle, but instead joyously happened upon the lamp.

The wind howled through branches that stretched back, he assumed, for at least half a mile. One match failed almost immediately, but the second match—as he cupped the wick as close to the wall as was possible—brought long-yearned-for light to his small, bleak nook of the world. Louis’s success was instantly tainted when his beloved light actually made him feel more vulnerable. While the night was black as coal, by the time his eyes had adjusted fully, he was able to make out the vaguest shapes, but now, beyond the short reach of the lantern, he could see absolutely nothing. He couldn’t have imagined the blackness could turn blacker. But it did, and he felt more cut off from mankind than ever.

He resolved to make his preparations quickly and extinguish the light. He retied Modestine so she could better make her bed and then fished out a half-loaf of black bread for her dinner. Then, he arranged anything he thought he might need in close proximity to his sleeping sack, took off his sodden boots and gaiters, and crawled inside his bag, adjusting his knapsack as a pillow. His own dinner was a tin of Bologna sausage and a cake of chocolate, washed down with a bit of brandy, neat. It was as disgusting as it seemed, but he swallowed dutifully and rewarded himself with a much-savored cigarette.

Before he leaned back against his makeshift pillow, he put out the lamp and once again allowed the night to engulf them. Modestine, for a while, was lit dimly by the inhaling red glow of his cigarette, until he was finished, and then it was dark. He sank into his sleeping sack—over his head with more than enough room to spare—and marveled at its quick accumulation of warmth. The wind whipped the foliage overhead, sending the occasional shower of rain from the slippery still-green leaves. The drops hit, then beaded and slid from the canvas. Louis glowed inside gratifyingly. This was not a fireside in Cheylard, and it may have indeed been even better.

And then, beneath the roar of wind, there came a sound. It rolled in with each gust, rippling in volume as it did. A howl, and not just any howl—a wolf’s howl. Into the warmth he’d managed to generate, a chill intruded, beginning in his toes and shooting straight up to the crown of his skull. His hair bristled. At once, the woods in which he lay were teaming with sounds he’d not previously noticed, every one of them a sign that some monster lingered just a breath away, in this brush, or behind those trees. What he thought may have been a half-mile of forest could very well have been mile upon mile, all inundated with those hackled grey pelts housing no more than a stomach and a set of fangs.

One howl joined another, and then another, and another, in a sickening chorus of fiends. Louis wished for the rain again, cold and hard, anything to drive the beasts back into whatever shelter they kept for themselves. But the unholy refrain only swelled until Louis felt sure it came accompanied with some music—the tinkling of a pianoforte, perhaps. It was so faint and the wind so loud that Louis stopped straining to hear and gave it up as an invention of his weary brain. It could very well have been some strange night bird, like the wolves, unafraid of a little wind and rain. But the howling went on.

It seemed to go on for an hour, and the imagined music came and went, so that Louis thought perhaps he’d go mad before dawn. But he was also exhausted from the day’s trek, and despite it all, he found himself drifting into sleep. The howls followed him there, and his slumber was haunted by nightmarish images, the most memorable of which was the old man from Fouzilhic, gesticulating in his strange way, blood pouring from his mouth. At his feet, the mauled, pale corpse of the girl from Fouzilhac, her dress shredded, her flesh slashed.

Though Louis didn’t wake until it was with the sun, his sleep had run from deep to shallow as he tried desperately to escape the images his mind threw at him. When he did wake, it was to music. It was the music he couldn’t with certainty hear the night before, under the wind and the wolves.

Louis sat up stark in his sleeping sack and looked about him. There was the short stone wall and the road. Above him was the canopy of trees that had sheltered him from the worst of the rain, and whose density only ran back fifteen feet or so—hardly the sprawling forest of impending death he’d imagined in the dark.

And there was that tinkling.

Modestine stood nearby where he’d left her. Her eyes were large and round, and looked as though she had a million things she needed to relate, but alas, could not. Around her neck hung a piece of twine and a small bell: the bell of the slaughtered foal near Pradelles.

Louis thought he might scream, and if he did, it would be the most emasculating sound known to any man. Instead, he darted forward, tore the bell from the poor donkey, and threw it out onto the road. Modestine seemed relieved.

Over breakfast—more black bread for Modestine, more sausage and chocolate for Louis—his mind went over the entire scene again and again. It didn’t make sense. The only way that it did was that someone followed him from Pradelles and put the bell there as he slept. But who would do such a thing and why? He tried to match any faces he’d seen near here to any he might have glimpsed huddling around the poor carcass of the foal at Pradelles, but came up with nothing absolute, except the flimsy theory that the strange old man of Fouzilhic had been there and somehow managed to get ahead of him, back to his own cottage.

The dawn was now full upon them, so Louis smoked a final cigarette and readied Modestine for the continuation of their journey, wolves or no wolves; bell or no bell. They mounted the road and Louis kicked the bell off to the side as Modestine refused to cross it. A shimmer of sun fell dappled through the trees and onto their faces. With a brisk wind at their backs—and surprisingly little goading from Louis—the two struck out for Cheylard and the country beyond.

Around a close corner, Louis found the cottages of Fouzilhic, and for a moment, his courage failed him. Then he moved to pick up the pace a bit and pass by hopefully unobserved.

Jeune homme!” a frail voice called. The strange old man appeared from behind his door, his face a mass of folds pulled awkwardly in dismay. “My poor boy!”

He ran out to Louis, his palms held up to him. Louis, he realized, must have looked as if he’d pulled himself from the bottom of a river. And with his troubled sleep, he must have appeared doubly wretched. But should the old man be surprised?

“But how could this be?” the man asked, then gestured a flat palm to the road, opposite the direction Louis and Modestine now traveled. “I thought you could not go astray.”

Louis shrugged.

“Did you come upon Fouzilhac?”

“I did,” Louis began. “But no one would assist me.”

The old mans’ face turned red with anger and he grit his flat teeth.

“You knocked on all doors?”

Louis nodded, tired. The man let forth a stream of expletives in French, some of which even Louis hadn’t heard of.

“A man, a little girl, some women?”

Louis nodded again. The old man again swore.

Fils de pute!” He made a fist and shook it down the road. “Them, I should have warned you about. They scatter about this country like a plague.”

Louis asked for more information, relieved to be sure that this was indeed the family he’d been warned against, not this sweet old man. Fouzilhac, not Fouzilhic. But the old man just shook his head.

“Never mind,” he said. He gestured for Louis to stay where he was, then went into his cottage. He returned with a small cloth bundle and wearing a warm overcoat. “This time, at least,” he said, “there shall be no mistake.” And with that, the old man from Fouzilhic, limp by limp, led both Louis and Modestine down the road, past Fouzilhac—the windows and yards of which slept silent and seemingly vacant—and within sight of the town. Louis offered payment once more, but the man yelled non! and shook his clawed hands over his head. This time he smiled. He handed the bundle to Louis and they parted with a firm, but warm handshake and a peck on both cheeks. In a few minutes, Louis and Modestine would finally see the streets of Cheylard.

Table of Contents

Read Full Post »

Beast12

Despite Benoît’s warning at the inn in Bouchet, Louis saw no alternative to staying the night in Langogne. More populated than Bouchet, he chose one of two inns, the one closest to the other side of the town, his morning departure point.

The evening was, much to his relief, uneventful. He was not accosted by members of a cultish wolf-family; he was not bothered unduly at all. Though he knew he should be throwing off his gloom and recording in his journal all the details of the town, the people, the rooms and the talk, he could only think of the foal’s black, staring eyes.

Louis ate a good, hot bowl of stew, so good he sopped the remainder with a requested extra hunk of bread. Full to the point of bursting, he donned his coat and fur hat, went outside for not one, but two cigarettes, allowing the rustic medicine in his belly to sooth the wounds of the day.

Two men joined him outside, but not too closely. Beside him, they spoke of the horrific find just outside the next town—the mutilated foal. They prattled and gossiped. Louis stubbed out his second cigarette half-smoked and forced himself to retire early on a straw-stuffed cot in a corner of a warm room. Here he scribbled away in his journal until he fell asleep, dreaming disjointed dreams that would evade his waking memory and be lost in his psyche forever.

He set out early the following day with the innkeeper’s prediction that a man could walk to Le Cheylard l’Évêque in an hour and a half. With Modestine, he guessed perhaps four hours. He breakfasted as he walked on a final piece of bread and followed it with a cigarette he sheltered in his sleeve. The weather had not improved since his crossing into Langogne the evening before, and, in fact, was significantly worse. It alternated rain and hail, and the wind never ceased, hastening every breed of cloud known to man: wispy, gauze-like wraiths; soupy, misshapen ogres; out-of-place, fluffy pillows; and jagged, black fiends that seemed to bare teeth to bite. They came and went overhead, sometimes drenching, sometimes merely shading, but on and on they went, running swiftly in the opposite direction, back from whence the two travelers came.

Once they crested the steep hill that led up and away from Langogne, the terrain changed dramatically. Gone were the fields and oxen, gone were the laborers of dirt and hay. Louis found himself in a landscape infinitely more familiar to him—a marshy wetland of heather greeted them and it worked more to lighten his mood than anything had since the previous day. It was almost as if his homeland had heard his heart breaking and sent along a message to say it would all be well. Admittedly, at home, the barren tracts of the Scottish moors had never been the most uplifting scenes, but they were home, and this was as close to home as he could be. Thin and twisted pines mingled amongst the yellowing birch and grey stones that protruded from the earth, skirted by lush grasses soon doomed to an early frost.

The way to Cheylard was as circuitous as a path could be and the multitude of interconnecting tracks this way and that did little to ease the journey. It was late in the afternoon when they passed through Sagnerousse, a tiny hamlet signaling the start of the Cheylard territory. Then, following two hours lost in a forest of fir, he emerged seemingly no closer to his destination—in marshes and amongst a tangle of paths over twisted hills—with dusk falling rapidly.

For some time, he’d been hearing the clank of cows’ bells that seemed to bounce from tree to tree within the wood he traveled, and now that he was clear of the wood, he was presented with about a dozen head of cattle. Beyond them, hard to distinguish in the gloaming, danced small, shadowy figures. Louis squinted, trying to force his vision to accomplish more than it ever could under such conditions; the limbs of the figures distorted in the murky evening, giving the devilish impression of imps. As he and Modestine passed, he could now see that these strange, unearthly beings were, in fact, children. Young herders like the girl in Bochet.

They followed each other in a circular pattern, round and round, joining hands and letting go, calling some rhyme that Louis could not make out. In any other setting, in a better light, at a more clear time of day, the dancing and playing of children would have warmed the heart and eased the adult mind. But here, on the yawning French moors, surrounded by a creeping, malevolent fog that swirled about the trees like a serpent, the vision was unsettling.

Louis felt superstition crawl slowly up his back and over his shoulder, whispering some pestilence in his ear. He shook it off and recalled that he was a reader of Herbert Spencer, refusing to fall victim to such folly. He tried to steer Modestine on, and so long as she was on a path she moved fairly forward, but once off and amid the heather, she became disoriented. Her step took on the circular course of lost travelers and if left on her own, she’d wander in circles until daybreak.

For Louis, between the dancing of the children and the circles Modestine seemed intent on tracing, the effect was dizzying. He hauled her by the bridle to right her way as much as he could see to. The children and cattle were now disbanding, save for two girls who followed him as he made his way to a collection of houses.

The first man he asked direction simply went into his abode and shut the door. The second man pointed to some vague course that led Louis nowhere and plainly watched him with amusement as he turned Modestine back to the houses in frustration. Finally, Louis turned to the two girls, who’d been standing by observing with pleasure.

“The way to Cheylard, s’il vous plait,” he said. There was a brief break in the rain and the wind lowed to a strong breeze that whistled around the dwellings.

One girl stuck her tongue out at him, and then both girls performed childish gestures that Louis could not interpret but knew could not be flattering. He sighed. The girls were blond, and yet one cultivated the thickest eyebrows Louis had ever seen on any young face, and dark as his own mustache.

“Why don’t you follow the cows?” the heavy-browed girl said, and she elbowed her companion who giggled uncontrollably.

Surely, Louis thought, La Bête du Gévaudan must have had good reason to eat so many children of this region. He turned from them as true night hung by a slender fiber over their heads.

Louis had, by this time, forgotten anything that Benoît, the man at Bouchet with the wounded wife, had warned. The immediate situation was too pressing, and he trudged on through the boggy evening, through another copse of trees, and finally onto a reasonably traveled road. Opposite the trees he found the hamlet of Fouzilhic—three houses nestled in the side of a hill covered with birch. The name itself brought the warnings from Bouchet back to him. Fouzilhic. Steer clear.

But he’d already made it through Langogne unscathed, and when he now came upon a charming old man, he knew this must not be the collection of families that harbored the infamous one unnamed. The man walked with Louis in the intermittent rain and set him securely on the road to Cheylard. When Louis insisted on rewarding him, he flatly refused, and upon being pressed on the matter, he shook his hands above his head menacingly, fingers crooked, and shrieking his rejection. Louis accepted this as some strange local convention and goaded Modestine forward after many thanks.

Despite the rain, which came harder now, Louis felt more at ease than he had all day. So long as he kept to the road, he should find himself at Cheylard in no time, drying out before a fire and sitting down to a proper meal. And then, almost all at once, night plummeted down about them. The pale of the road before him disappeared, so black was this night. The faint gleam of a rock was no longer helpful in determining the way and could have indicated a path off in any direction. Louis could not see his own hands, let alone the goad, and even less Modestine’s rump to prod, nor could he distinguish the sky from the horizon, so pitch-black was this night.

Louis shuffled along the track, Modestine’s bridle in hand, pulling her whenever she tended toward another circular course. So long as he felt gravel under his feet, he could be plausibly sure of the road, but when a sudden clump of turf claimed his toe and movement in all directions indicated a split in as many routes, Louis heaved a deep sigh and decided to let his partner chose the way. Perhaps her animal instinct would prove better than his human judgment. Certainly, his human judgment had failed, for soon she wandered aimlessly off the road and over the stony sod. She had the instincts of an ass. And now, all signs of the path had vanished, eaten up by the hungry dark.

He thought for a moment to just stop and camp, but without water to drink—though drenched to the bone—it would be an unpleasant night indeed, and so he rallied his fellow traveler and turned around, resolving to return to Fouzilhic.

Adrift and somewhat bewildered by the blind terrain—a wind that blew in all directions at once, unscalable rocky barriers, and shin-deep bogs that sent up smells worse than the filthiest gutters of Paris—Louis and Modestine pushed forward, which was now back, or so he hoped. Eventually, perseverance paid off and a scatter of warmly lighted windows appeared through the oppressive darkness.

Table of Contents

Read Full Post »

Beast11

Pradelles, Langogne, Sagnerousse,

Fouzilhic/Fouzilhac, Cheylard, Luc,

Our Lady of the Snows

“You know nothing of men if you don’t know how they can be beasts,” Fanny said as she made tea. The apartment at Grez was small and he could hear her clearly though she was around the corner. Louis blinked his eyes slowly. The bed in which he lay was curtained off in an alcove, though the drapes were open and he wished them closed. The sun was too bright. “Nevada is where I learned to shoot, in a mining camp. My husband left me there and I learned to shoot. Because men are beasts. They are like wolves.”

            Louis could not respond. He was exhausted and too many words could potentially trigger another coughing fit, which at this point, was too agonizing to risk. And his father had taught him to not argue with the fairer sex, thought he didn’t want to argue. He wanted only to say that a man that is a beast is no man, but merely, always, only a beast.

He wanted, also, to beg her, again, to refrain from reminding him of her husband. And that he was hot, and could she please uncover his legs?

*

Louis had risen in the dark in order to do his washing up well before his fellow travelers awoke, so that the wife could perform her own morning rituals in as much privacy and leisure as the situation allowed. He fortified himself with a bowl of milk and then set off to explore the environs of Bouchet.

There was really little to it: the inn, a loose grouping of familial houses, and a narrow stone church that seemed to grow upwards rather than at all out. Unlike the heat that exacerbated his agony the day before, this dawn was wintery and grey; the clammy mist, carried swiftly by a glacial wind, sped across the streets and fields, pushing the early-rising shepherds and their flocks to their business.

Louis trotted from one point to another with his hands thrust into his pockets. The laborers stared at him—they were the same people he’d walked into town with the previous evening. Life here seemed less complicated than anything Louis had encountered, and the inspiration to stay and live out his productive years here came and went like the wind that tore at his hair. The local faces were ruddy and tough, like their hands. While Louis was in the middle of a spate of good health, he knew by experience that it would hardly last, and that a life in the field would kill him faster than any wolf in the wood.

When he returned to the inn, the hostess was up and about the kitchen and the young herdess prepared herself to take their cattle out to pasture, seemingly having gotten over last night’s trauma and no longer believing she was now the property of this strange, thin foreigner. She ignored Louis, probably angry at him for having fooled her. Her mother set a plate of hard fish and omelet—breakfast being the same as dinner in these parts—and Louis sat down for as proper a meal as could be expected.

“And where is monsieur this morning?” he asked, taming his moustache with the side of his fork.

“The master of the house is upstairs,” she said. “Making you a goad.”

The donkey goad, it seemed to Louis, was one of such incredible and useful inventions that he could not understand how he hadn’t heard of it, despite his absolute remoteness from the donkey race prior to this trip. A more simple design could not exist—a wand of local wood tipped with a metal pin about an eighth of an inch in length.

When his host emerged from the stable and put it in Louis’s hand, it transformed itself into a holy crosier, and himself an honorable prelate, ready to lead Modestine along the righteous path. Or, at least, he will poke the beast into submission until they arrive at day’s end.

Louis gathered his pack and possessions while the family with whom he’d bunked made their way downstairs and to their own repast. Before they departed, his wife and son atop a slightly sway-backed mare, Benoît handed his wife the reigns and sat with Louis for a moment on the bench beside the door. The wind still swept over every worn façade in the village, so the man’s words were likely inaudible to all but Louis, who leaned in to hear.

“You are heading south?” Benoît asked.

“I am,” Louis replied. “I intend to next camp near Cheylard l’Évêque.”

“You will do what you want, and as I said last night, I am not a superstitious man, but . . .” He glanced back at his wife, who merely gazed off in the direction of their journey, her handless arm wrapped around the belly of her son, the fingers of her remaining hand wrapped around the strip of leather. They were sinewy and strong.

“Stop at Pradelles, but do not stop at Langogne,” Benoît went on. He described the region as being downright infested with the feared family of legend and warned Louis against stopping most anywhere, particularly as he approaches his destination. There would be a handful of communes that were hardly big enough to be called anything but the shared space of a few families. He mentioned two in particular, the names of which were similar, almost twins, to be exceptionally wary of. And with that, he was gone. Louis watched the family become smaller as they made their way down the main thoroughfare and eventually veered off on one of many cattle trails that led away from Le Bouchet St. Nicolas. By the time they were gone, he had already forgotten most of what Benoît had said.

* * *

Louis made his goodbyes to his hosts and neatly hurried Modestine out of the stable and down the street, prod by prod.

The entire walk to Pradelles was lonely save the occasional convoy of women on horses and two post-runners. Louis thought he might fall asleep mid-stride, but was soon distracted by the tinkling of a bell. He looked about himself to discern the sound and beheld what but a fine looking, spindly-legged foal, the bell strung around his neck. He’d charged up from the bordering field, stopped near the traveling pair, and sniffed the air, buoyant with self-confidence. Modestine snorted without interest and Louis could only look on, smiling. The foal’s assertive manner melted sweetly into the universal timidity of a child, and the boy turned and ran back from where he’d come. Louis laughed and poked Modestine’s rump as she’d thought to slow and dine at the side of the road.

“Not until Pradelles, woman,” he said to her, still smiling. And for some time following, he would hear the bell and see, a little in the distance, the head of the foal prick up over whatever brush or hill lay between them.

Above the river Allier, surrounded by meadows, Pradelles perched along a hillside. The smell of hay permeated the air as laborers worked to slash the grass that had sprung up after the last harvest. Telegraph wires spread like a web from the distant buildings of the town, towards and past Louis, down the road on which they walked. On the opposite bank of the Allier, the terrain lifted skyward, up and up, layering over itself to the horizon. The peaks and valleys traded cyclically shade for sun, deep shadows of purple mist and low-glowing golden outcrops of stone and brush. It struck Louis, in all its sublimity, both beautiful and full of sadness, as these visions often do. There was, though, a particular stabbing point to this melancholy that needled him like the goad to the donkey, and it took him several steps to place it.

The most immediate landscape—what could be seen with the eye from the edge of the town—was completely, and deliberately, deforested. What should have leant a natural mystery to the scene was nothing more than a field of stumps and hacked verdure. Nothing was left to the imagination, and instead of the thrill of what unknown things the forest keeps, there was left only the bare and ragged eeriness of a land blighted.

Wolves.

A chill zipped up Louis’s spine like the crack of a pistol. Again, like the difference between listening to the rambling of drunken locals and witnessing the tragic deformity of a young woman, seeing the physical consequence of the fear of an entire population—the magnitude of the resulting act—brought with it a better sense of dread. Modestine stopped abruptly and sniffed the air, as if they’d both concluded the same at the very same moment, and Louis didn’t prod her with the goad. He let her process the feeling as he did.

Quite suddenly, Louis saw a figure striding a little ways up the road, just before the final rise. The skirt of his cloak danced about his ankles; surely, this was the figure Louis had spotted in the shadowy valley before Bouchet. But how did he manage to get ahead, or, if he was always ahead, how did Louis not see him until now? And with that, the figure was gone over the low crest.

There was a tinkling of the foal’s bell, and Louis looked up gratefully to see the boy looking back at them. Then, with a flourish, he kicked his hooves, knocking his round knees, and trotted off over the last hill between them and the town of Pradelles.

Louis tapped Modestine with the side of the goad, not wanting to shake her so violently and perhaps prematurely from the roadside reverie, and to his surprise, she took up the expected pace without argument. These little things adorned the day like jewels—the cooperation of a reluctant companion; the wide-eyed, youthful enthusiasm of a joyful stranger, whether on two legs or four. Louis thought that, with these two things, he could lay his head down this night and still grin.

The final low crest that stood between him and a hearty lunch was a little distance—the foal had disappeared over it much faster than he and Modestine would, but indeed they would get there.

“We’re coming!” he half-shouted to the foal, who was too far to hear and too equestrian to understand. The pair continued toward the town.

The wind with which he’d begun the day at Bouchet had never let up, and the lifeless cold followed throughout the morning. Louis pulled the collar of his coat closed around his throat and made a note to unpack his fur hat after lunch when he heard a cry from just over the hill he was fast approaching.

His first instinct was to run towards it, to see if he could be of assistance. He picked up his pace a little and goaded Modestine enough to convey the urgency, and a minute or two earlier than they would have, they crested the low ridge and saw immediately a loose gathering of laborers slowly pulling together to form a knot around something on the ground. Louis let go of Modestine’s reins and she drifted slowly off to the side of the road to take up some weeds there. He ran to the group, both from curiosity and a genuine desire to help.

As he approached, he could make out some of the panicked chatter that ricocheted between them.

“But how?”

“Still warm.”

“No one saw?”

“Still fresh.”

“Is he yours?”

“Not mine. Down the way.”

“Who will tell him?”

“Not me.”

Louis pushed through the crowd as politely as he could and finally broke through to the center, which he immediately regretted.

His poor foal lay slaughtered in the yet-cut grass. His throat was savaged, his guts lay strewn, and his eyes had not yet glazed over. So recent was this attack, the blood still trickled wet a little ways from the carcass. The twine that held aloft the bell that announced the boy from the fields was embedded in the gaping wound of his neck; the bell was gone.

“How could it be so?”

“How did no one see?”

It didn’t make sense. The forest edge, that used to lie so close, was, through the work of the men of the village, now some distance off. The wolf would have had to lope across the long, bare terrain in order to make this kill.

“He is either too fast, or we are too blind,” someone said, and Louis pushed himself backwards through the group, his chin trembling. The pitiable thing had been his lively companion all morning, and now he was dead. Louis said nothing to anyone, turned, and sniffling, walked back to Modestine.

At once, he recalled the cloaked figure and very nearly injured himself, so violently he looked about the landscape. But there was no one of that description to be found, only an empty, wasted wood and fields nearly ready for winter.

A few prods and they were making their way to Pradelles, where Louis ate a light lunch, and only then because he knew he needed to in order to make decent time. He made notes for his writing hurriedly, but was back on the trail with Modestine within three-quarters of an hour, winding their steep descent along the Allier, towards Langogne.

Past field upon field, past laborers solitary and in pairs, past teams of oxen ploughing the rich soil. The wind carried alternating scents of dry straw and wet earth, the fact of which would have normally delighted Louis’s senses, but now, today, could not lift even an agreeable thought in his head. One of an ox team, his large ponderous head set firm to the yoke, turned his dark and faithful eyes towards the pair, with a look that alone from the surrounding world conveyed a message of commiseration. As if the beast knew the departed and wanted to, at least, join hearts in grief. Louis refrained from walking off into the field and embracing the enormous coffee-colored ox and merely nodded to it and continued along his way.

The highlands of Gévaudan towered before him, frowned down upon him, and for a moment, he’d almost forgotten why he was here at all. He saw Fanny’s features, but it only provoked more sorrow. He saw Colvin’s image, his friend and editor, but he feared the words he’d eventually have to write would never come. He saw the faces of his parents and they wept for him. And though his mind wasn’t in the disposition for a true and thorough contemplation, his soul began to acknowledge that he could not be out here for any other reason than to search for something larger than these small troubles that tormented him. These quandaries that, in the comfort of his own bed in Edinburgh, or even in Paris, seemed all that there was to everything, out here, with the wind tearing at his eyes and ears, with the smell of the blood of that innocent in his nose, seemed the dilemmas of someone else. As painful as this discovery was, he hoped that when he was back in more comfortable climes, he would be able to call it up, but knew that he was easily piqued and would likely fall indulgently back into another storm of self-pity and worry. And with that knowledge, he sunk deeper into despair.

Two rivers he’d have crossed in two days—the Loire and now the Allier. At the bridge coming into Langogne, the rain that had threatened them all day began to fall. A young girl of about eight stopped before the bridge as she was about to run past him and stared for a few moments before addressing him.

D’où’st-se-que vous venez?” she asked, for he must have looked strange.

“I do not know,” he answered, because, at the moment, he really wasn’t sure where he had come from, nor if he was equipped for where he was going.

Table of Contents

Read Full Post »

Beast10

The inn at le Bouchet St. Nicolas was two stories of irregular red brick joined by a copious amount of grey mortar. Its roof was of the same orange clay tile as in Monastier; a weathered bench stretched along the wall beside the door. The stable and the kitchen shared opposite ends of the same space; the floors were of the earth. The furniture was perhaps the plainest Louis had ever sat upon. There was one sleeping chamber for travelers and it held two beds and nothing more.

Louis took his meal—here, of hard fish and an omelet—at a solid, scoured table. The place setting was a glass, a slice of bread, and a fork. To cut, Louis used his jack knife, which the host much admired.

“This must have cost you,” the man said, “no less than five francs.”

“No less than twenty,” Louis confided. The man’s eyes grew wide.

Louis offered him some brandy, but the host refused.

Merci, but I am too inclined. I will leave nothing for you.”

As Louis stabbed a bit of dinner with the knife and prepared to lift it to his mouth, something rubbed against his leg beneath the table. He leaned at an angle to see a fat sow routing about his feet, and when he saw that this was, apparently, no unusual activity, he declined to mention it.

The man, while friendly, seemed not particularly bright, though the wife could read and spoke with a sharp tongue, indicating that there was but one sovereign here.

“He knows nothing,” she referred to her husband as she entered the room, as if the conversation between host and traveler could only be of one breed—to obtain information—and to ask her husband would benefit no one.

The man shrugged and nodded. In another household, amongst other people, this display might have seemed ugly, but the tone in the room was one of familiarity and acknowledgement. Louis’s hostess was the brains of the operation, his host the brawn, and both seemed perfectly comfortable in the situation.

Over the course of his meal, the woman asked about his travels and why, which he explained as best he could. That anyone would wander many miles for no reason other than to write it down seemed strange to the couple, but they enjoyed Louis’s tales of misfortune thus far and Modestine, whose chewing he could hear in accompaniment to his own, their quarters were so close, punctuated his story with the occasional stomp of her hoof.

They had been joined by one of the couple’s daughters, a young herder, and the mother patiently pulled a comb through the girl’s long golden hair, untangling the knots of the day. When she complained of the roughness, the mother tsked her.

“You are lucky,” the father said. Apparently, the girl was not yet the best herdswoman, and a few head of cattle had been misplaced and required wrangling earlier in the day. “Some knots in your hair are the least of your troubles,” the man winked at Louis. “For I’ve sold you to this gentlemen.”

Louis saw the man’s game and joined him eagerly. Nothing blotted out real-life hassles than engaging in boyish behavior, and a good joke fell squarely into that realm of being.

“Yes,” he responded. “I paid ten halfpence; it was a little dear, but . . .”

“But,” the man finished. “Monsieur was willing to make a sacrifice. You will leave with him on his journey in the morning.”

Louis winked at the girl, who had been eying him suspiciously, but when her father said she’d be leaving with him, her doubt vanished. She stood without a word and walked into the stable area. Modestine acknowledged her with a snort. Soon, her sobs floated over the straw and into the warmth of the kitchen. Louis’s smile drooped with his mustache. The wife slapped her husband on the arm and left to console her daughter. The man shook his head.

“Tomorrow,” said the man, “I will fashion you something better than that switch.”

Louis’s only remotely effective tool in moving Modestine was beginning to fray and proved less successful than it began. He expressed his gratitude and guiltily slipped upstairs to the sleeping quarters.

Though happy to see he had a bed to himself, he was dismayed to find a man, woman, and child, crawling into the other. Louis had never been in the position to have to share sleeping arrangements with anyone other than his cousins in childhood, let alone a man and his barely-clad wife.

Pardon,” he said hardly above a whisper. He slinked to his bed, his back to them, and sat there stiffly for a few minutes.

The man was not yet in bed and still undressing.

“Where are you from?” he asked.

“I’ve just come from le Monastier-sur-Gazeille,” Louis answered quietly.

“But you are not from there.”

Non, I am Scots.”

There was no answer. Louis rightly assumed the man was nodding an acknowledgement and began to relax a little.

“I must apologize again for intruding,” Louis began, and then it came to him to make a peace offering. He reached into his knapsack and produced the bottle of brandy.

“There is nothing to apologize for,” the man said. “These places are what they are.”

But Louis was already twisting around from his bed and lofting the bottle toward the man.

“For your troubles,” he began, but try as he might to keep his eyes on the man—to be the gentleman he was—they ultimately fell to the man’s wife, who lay in the opposite bed, her face to the wall and her small son at her back. He couldn’t tell if she slept naked or wore a slip, but the arm that rested languidly over her shapely hip was bare. Though the wayward glance must have only lasted a fraction of a second, the scene had imprinted itself behind Louis’s eyes and his face became warm, for many reasons.

Her shoulder was pale and without blemish, a smooth curve from her neck, and it ran into an arm that, even while resting, denoted a graceful strength to the elbow. But there the beauty ended, as beyond the joint, the flesh distorted and seemed to pull at itself. It was a rough topography of scars, dark in the valleys and a pale pink across the ridges, the border of which was the wrist, for there was nothing after.

Louis’s embarrassment was replaced instantly with shocking revulsion and he struggled to hide it from the poor woman’s husband. Still reaching the brandy bottle toward the man, Louis made eye contact. Where he expected to find anger, he instead found a deep melancholy. The man took the bottle, drank from it, then wiped the rim and handed it back to Louis.

“Where are you traveling from?” Louis asked, attempting to diffuse the moment.

“I am from Alès,” the man said. “We are coming from there. I am a cooper and there is a dearth of work. We are heading to St Etienne to see if our situation can be improved.” He went on to explain that when he wasn’t making barrels, he was making matches—a dangerous occupation, as working with the white phosphorous used to produce them led to “phossy jaw,” a necrosis of that part of the anatomy.

“With one of us already injured,” he continued, “it would be wise to avoid us both being debilitated.”

The man moved to Louis’s side of the room and sat down beside him on the bed. They passed the bottle back and forth, taking tiny sips. Neither wanted to be drunk, but the motion between them facilitated a comradery that denoted some sense of sympathy.

“My name is Benoît. Aurélie comes from Langogne,” he said, low. In the following pause, the two men could hear the wife’s breathing, deep and steady—the sound of slumber. “As a girl, while herding her family’s cattle, she was attacked. A wolf.”

Louis’s reaction was one that he had not expected. True ambivalence—on one hand, if he’d heard another word of wolves he felt he might thrash someone, and on the other, with the image of the poor woman’s pink stump stamped into his brain, his blood tingled cold.

“The locals, all through this region, talk of monsters,” Benoît went on, but shook his head. “The stories are the basis of family feuds, of bad politics, but mostly, I think, of instilling fear in the children. In my wife’s case, her family swears against another family. And she . . .” He looked over at her for a moment, his eyes heavy with grief. “She was only one of many, over many, many years.”

Louis gently insisted he go on, now curious.

The family of Aurélie had lost a number of members, mostly as children, though the occasional grown woman might also be taken. Though she had two aunts, she should have had four. Though she’d had a sister, she now had none. And so on, back generations. There were quiet but constant rumors that when Jean Chastel had slayed the second Beast of Gévaudan the killings did not cease; only the story changed.

That the killing of the first beast didn’t stop the attacks fell upon the King as an embarrassment, for it was his man who had done the job. And when it was a local huntsman that killed the second, that the attacks continued turned the humiliation of the small town politicians a degree even greater than that of the king, and all further attacks were hushed. Bullying tactics and threats were used to keep villagers silent when their loved ones were bloodied and eaten in the fields and forests; they gathered up what they could of their dead, buried them, and proceeded to sink, generation after generation, into a miserable complacent certainty that the people of their region were indeed cursed. God had abandoned Gévaudan.

“You said there was a feud,” Louis, now fascinated, prodded lightly.

Oui,” Benoît continued. “Although my wife is like her family—and it is hard to find fault in that—I have never believed the stories. I cannot recall the name of the family, but they are spread out all over the land, from Le Puy to Alès, and in every village they inhabit—they say—there are attacks and death.”

There was silence between them. Everything that could be said on the subject had clearly been said and both men felt the weight of sleep pressing upon them.

Benoît handed Louis back his bottle of brandy, hardly emptied, and shook his hand.

“You are kind,” he said. “We should turn in.”

“Agreed,” Louis replied. “Long journeys for all of us.”

Benoît nodded, finished undressing, and joined his unfortunate wife and innocent son in their own bed.

When Louis had first entered the sleeping chamber and saw the family he was joining, he expected to spend the whole of the night in dark contemplation. What was Fanny’s situation? Where was she sleeping tonight—her own bed, or her matrimonial bed? That her husband himself lived openly with his own mistress made no difference. The idea that, upon their foolish attempts to make their abortion of a marriage appear legitimate, Fanny’s husband might still insist she perform her wifely duties was like a knife through the heart of the young Scot. He expected to spend this night willfully distinguishing his breath from the breath of the couple beside him, if only to keep from feeling like a third wheel and a fool.

Instead, the small sounds of the couple retreated behind a veil of secrets and legends, of sharp white teeth and ragged grey fur, of blood and bones. It was one thing to tolerate the warnings of a handful of superstitious villagers—to charitably entertain the ravings of a parish peddler—and quite another to actually see the terrible evidence. Granted, it was proof of nothing otherworldly—only the poignant fact of civilization and wilderness co-existing too closely side by side. But somehow this new and awful presentation of the legend of Gévaudan transformed the story from a silly irritation to a living example of the romantic lore that grew amongst these fir-covered mountains like a silver moss over its stones.

Table of Contents

Read Full Post »

Beast9

As Louis considered Modestine and wondered if, indeed, donkeys could smile, a man, woman, and two children had gathered around him in a semi-circle and joined the beast. It was then that Louis fully realized how hot it was. The high southern French sun beat down upon his shoulders like he’d beaten Modestine, and if he wasn’t already in such a state of castigation, he’d have welcomed it as punishment for so mistreating the donkey.

Louis worked to right his pack, sweat burning his eyes and the laughs of this family from Ussel needling his ears, and once he finally arranged it in a position so as to tighten the straps, it fell over the other side and resumed its place under the donkey.

No one offered to assist.

“Perhaps,” suggested the man from Ussel, “your pack should be of a different contour.”

Tais-toi!” Louis snapped. The man smiled and shut up, per instructions.

Ignoring his audience—which he seemed to attract at all stops—he rearranged his pack to take on the burden of some of it, and, much to his abhorrence, alter the shape of the sack to better fit the animal. He removed a cane, the milk flask, the weighted pilot coat, two pounds of black bread (Modestine’s supper), and the open basket of meats and wine. As he devised his own pack and hefted it upon himself, the courageous aspect of his fortitude allowed him some satisfaction. He’d meant to rough it. He’d meant to, in some way, chastise himself for . . . something. For his own weaknesses, for the weakness and moral failures of those around him, for Fanny’s rejection, for something and everything, and this seemed like a good place to start.

And it could only get worse.

As they made their way through Ussel, Modestine insisted on inquiring at every door they passed and Louis, now struggling with his own yoke, was powerless to stop her. As they passed a church in the course of repair, the examining priest and fellow onlookers forgot the Sabbath and offered up a mirthful chorus. Louis imagined his own amusement at the misfortune of others—his natural inclination to schadenfreude—added up over the course of his life had probably amounted to what he received in turn this afternoon, and he imagined, certainly, that he would never laugh again. At anything. Ever.

Leaving the town, Modestine decided to continue their journey on some useless by-road, and Louis decided that it was better to take a break than break down crying. He unpacked a little black bread and gave it to his companion, leaving her to wander to wherever she might roam (which wasn’t far), then he sat down beside the path, rolled a cigarette and quelled himself with a nip of brandy. Passers-by still wound around them, observing and snickering, but Louis was able to ignore them until one man took a chance to instigate trouble.

“Look how tired she is,” he cried, “the poor beast!”

At that, Louis hurled himself at the man and screamed until his face, already red from the sun, grew redder.

“If your donkey can carry more than this measly load,” he gestured at Modestine’s pack as she chewed lazily, “I suggest you keep your observations to yourself! Unless, I say, you would like to help me carry my basket!”

To Louis’s surprise, the allegiance of the people of Ussel had shifted and they laughed at the man, whose turn it was to grow red. A few clapped.

Elle est petite . . .” he mumbled weakly.

Tais-toi!” Louis retorted, evidently his signature phrase of the day.

Slowly, seeing that the winds had changed and this foreigner was clearly finished being toyed with, the crowd dispersed to go about their daily routines. Louis, reinvigorated, set to action. Sacrifices must be made. After downing half, he set aside his flask of milk, his white bread and mutton leg, and finally his egg-whisk, although he suspected Henley’s wife might never forgive him, and he lamented the future absence of his newly-acquired love of egg-and-brandy nog which he enjoyed with his morning coffee. These things he discarded and he readjusted the basket. After applying a cord to it, he slung it over one shoulder and then draped the coat, which trailed almost to the ground, over the top. Now, his load lightened and one arm free, he turned his attention to Modestine who finished her snack and looked at her abuser.

Renewed, Louis set to tapping out a harsh tune on the flanks of the donkey, who finally gave up her indignant refusal to cooperate. Her little hooves scissored back and forth to produce a speed of motion though not as fast as Louis would prefer, certainly miles above their earlier progress. They worked this way until they came upon what seemed to be the last escarpment that would ascend to his final destination. To his misery, it was intersected with seemingly a thousand by-roads so as to form one massive rocky labyrinth with no indication as to which one to take.

Modestine let out a bray of laughter to which Louis responded with his trademarked, “Tais-toi!

Thwack went the switch and as Modestine scurried forward, the straps on the pack let loose like a noodle and Louis’s things made a trail down the path. The sun was already descending and after the half-hour it took for Louis to gather and repack his things, it was coming on dusk. Flustered, he picked a path, and prodded Modestine to follow it. Before long, just when he felt surely he would at length fall into the fit of weeping he’d been warding off all day, two figures strode toward him over the gravel.

The man was tall and dismal, staring blindly ahead and followed by a small older woman. She wore what looked like her Sabbath best, layers of pressed petticoats and an embroidered ribbon decorating a pristine felt hat. From behind this pretty frame, she muttered a vast inventory of profanity that, on the streets of New Town, would have made Louis blush.

Louis hailed the man.

Pardon, do you know the way to Bouchet?”

The man pointed west and northwest, mumbled something inaudible, and stalked past. The woman tacked behind him, still swearing, without so much as a cursory acknowledgment of Louis. Modestine snorted.

He watched them incredulously as they sped along the hillside, and realizing his one chance of reaching any restful place this night was disappearing into the twilight, he shouted after them. Then he ran. They finally stopped once he’d outrun them and, blocking their way, he asked again his direction.

The man, presumably the son, again mumbled uselessly and made to continue, but Louis caught the woman, presumably the mother—who had still not stopped swearing to herself—by the shoulder.

Désolé, excusez-moi,” Louis began. “I simply cannot let you go until you’ve pointed me my way, or I am forever lost.”

“You can follow us the whole damned way, should you like,” the woman answered.

Merci,” Louis said, doubtfully.

“What the hell do you want at Lac du Bouchet?”

Louis didn’t know what to make of this woman’s language and so dodged the inquiry.

“Is it very far?”

“About a bloody hour and a half,” she answered, and with that, the pair turned and continued on their way as if they’d never been stopped.

Louis called to Modestine, who ignored him, and then he ran back to beat her forward.

Twenty minutes put them on the flat upland and Louis paused a moment to look back upon the hills and valleys of the day. Mount Mézenc and that beyond St. Julien stretched behind him, a field of shadow broken only by the light patches of farms and villages that blushed beneath the anonymity of evening. Instead of satisfaction, Louis felt the sting of loneliness and gripped Modestine’s bridle tighter so as to not be tempted to throw himself down the rocky slope in despair.

Then, in the gloom, a silhouette moved far down the ragged path he’d just scaled. Louis squinted, and could make out a cloaked man standing there. His face was masked by the shade of his hood, though he was too distant for Louis to distinguish features at any rate. As Louis made a few steps forward, the cloaked figure moved with him. Perplexed, Louis saw that he was fast losing his guides, and so, cloaked figure or no cloaked figure, he simply must move on so as not to become hopelessly lost in the dark. Resolving to think no more of it, Louis pulled Modestine to follow, and tripped twice before finding the rhythm of his stride along the path again.

He caught up and the group moved along a high road when Louis eventually recognized signs of a village coming into view, which surprised him as he had been told the lake was unoccupied. Soon, he found himself caught amongst the bustling closing of the day—cattle lurched down the road from pasture, driven by children; women dashed past on horses, legs astride and wearing caps.

Louis stopped a dirty-faced, black-haired boy.

Pardon,” he said. “What village is this?”

“Bouchet St. Nicolas,” the child said and moved ahead to rustle his small herd.

Louis stopped abruptly and Modestine followed suit with no questions asked. His shoulders slumped; his chin met his chest which tightened in the grasp of disappointment. The two strange peasants had led him exactly a mile south of the lake. Ahead, the couple had blended with the assembly and would disappear from Louis’s life. The cord of his basket scored painfully into his shoulder and his whipping arm ached heavily at his side. With a sigh, he feebly stopped another child.

“Which way to the inn?”

Table of Contents

Read Full Post »

Beast8

Modestine moved at a steady speed, but her gait being so narrow, that pace was slower than a walk is slower than a run. Louis matched her stride until they breached the ridge and found themselves out of sight of the village, when Louis found the small courage to take his walking staff and apply it docilely to the donkey’s flank. She tripped three steps faster, then returned to her molasses stride. Louis tried a second time, and then a third, with similar affect. Modestine presented to him her shaking knees and her huffing breath, so that Louis’s face burned with shame and he tried to resign himself to the idea that his journey may take several weeks longer than anticipated.

They plodded along the trail, Modestine at her leisure and Louis growing increasingly frustrated that they would not make his first scheduled destination; he’d intended to camp out on the shores of Lac du Bouchet, a reputedly uninhabited circular crater lake surrounded by forests. He attempted to cheer himself by remarking to Modestine the beautiful weather they were enjoying, and then he lifted his spirits with a series of cigarettes, which, once started, could not be easily stopped with the sluggish monotony of the pace.

Louis set one hand on Modestine’s side, who seemed not to notice him, and he closed his eyes as he kept step beside her. He thought only to rest his vision. A moment to see something else besides every single patch of scrub, every single pebble, every darting rabbit, in such detail one’s head could burst. As his feet moved with the donkey, he imagined a cool night under the stars, testing the warmth of his new sleeping sack, listening to the sounds of the lake take over after Modestine had finished her bread chewing and gone off to donkey dream land. The night owls overhead roosting in tall pines whose sharp needle scent moved silently over the still water. To make out the line of trees and its twin on the lake, set against an inky sky specked with the light of distant stars. Louis stood at the edge of the lake, the fringe of trees highlighted silver from a gibbous moon, and bent to take up a stone and lob it far into the water. It arced high and Louis lost it amongst the stars, until it plopped and sank into the mysterious mere.

As it did, Louis barely saved himself from eating the trail in front of him as Modestine walked him straight over a low outcropping of rock. The near-fall startled him enough to stop the donkey and collect himself, vaguely aware that he was being laughed at.

A tall man of perhaps forty, wearing an emerald country tailcoat and a look of incongruity, walked toward them from the opposite direction and apparently saw everything.

“She is old, eh?” The man paused his brisk walk to ask.

“Not very, I don’t think,” Louis replied, trying hard to be polite but unable to not be offended.

“Ah, then you have traveled far,” the man continued.

“We have just left Monastier,” Louis sighed. And the man laughed again.

Mon ami,” the man began, “You must have no pity on these animals.” With that, he waded into a nearby thicket, returned with an ugly-looking switch, and proceeded to lash Modestine with the ridiculous cry of proot! Before Louis could protest, the little donkey’s ears stood and she began running full force, up and over the nearby hill, back the way the tall man had come. Louis trotted over the ridge to see the man standing there watching Modestine continue to run down the trail. He was smiling satisfactorily to himself.

Merci!” Louis cried, and as he ran past the man, he was handed the switch.

“Proot! Proot!” the man called after him and laughed.

When Louis caught up with Modestine, she was grazing on some brush beside the trail. He expected to find her half-dead, but indeed she was not. Her breathing was hardly labored and her look was as if she’d been caught in a terrible lie.

“You,” he said, pointing at her. “You.” He stopped and walked around her, gaping in disbelief, as if only by examining her from all angles would he discover, beyond doubt, the depths of her duplicity.

“I will refrain from insulting you, Madam, because you are a lady,” he said, combing his hair from his eyes with long, tapered fingers, “but I will no longer refrain from this!” And he smacked her across the rear with the switch. She snorted and started forward, going faster with each thwack of the switch until Louis got her to a pace he thought reasonable and then he merely tapped her when she slowed too much. Occasionally she would stop altogether and he would have to lace her rump to get her going again. Despite his annoyance with her, he still hated to do it. Surrel had been right about one thing—Louis’s frail little lady had broken his heart.

Louis, flicking the switch and bleating the call of the donkey-drivers, drove Modestine down through St. Martin de Frugères where, on this sunny Sabbath day, a mass of church goers crowded around the packed parish minster, kneeling on the steps in silence and listening intently to the words of the priest inside. The very sight helped heal his spirit so freshly wounded by his companion and by the time they reached Goudet, like Monastier, nestled at the end of a fertile valley, he was whistling, albeit poorly.

Stony footpaths trailed through rocky embankments, and Château Beaufort—a ruinous castle, its crumbling bricks first laid in the 13th century but allowed to collapse after the Revolution—stood opposite across a stream so clear one might mistake it for dry. Goudet gave the impression of extreme isolation, though in fact, via those footpaths the postman winds in and Goudet’s youth wind out, like Louis, ripe for adventure, as best modeled by Régis Senac, “Professor of Fencing of the Two Americas,” and nephew of the local innkeeper. Senac’s portrait took a place of honor on the wall of the inn’s café, where his life story could be read.

After taking a midday meal, Louis gazed at Senac’s portrait in the café, awaiting his empty milk bottle to be filled, smoking a cigarette, and day dreaming that, one day, his own portrait could be looked upon by the youth of Edinburgh—perhaps adorning the walls of Rutherford’s on Drummond Street—and he could serve as the inspiration and the impetus for any fresh, talented, and driven boy to make his way out of and beyond the cough-inducing damps of Auld Reekie.

Behind Louis, a woman cleared her throat, startling him.

He took his bottle, thanked her, and returned to Modestine, whom he had tethered outside, although he assumed that even should she get loose, she would not be long to catch up with given her natural and preferred pace. As he loosened the knot and guided her around in the direction of the footpath that would lead out of the valley, there seemed to have been a change in his lady—a sense of repudiation that could not bode well for the remainder of their day’s march.

As they moved up the opposite hill, before they were even out of the sight of town, Modestine slowed her measure as to have effectively stopped, and the switch barely stirred her an inch. Louis prooted. He prooted loudly, softly, far, and wide. He prooted closely, tightly, high, and low. He prooted until his lips ached and his beatings almost brought him to tears. Although, they could have been tears of frustration, as he would certainly not reach the lake by dusk, perhaps not even all night. Once he ceased the lashings altogether and once he prooted his final proot, Modestine began to move, though at her own pace, which was hardly at all and with frequent stops to chew at anything green that garnished the wayside.

When Louis thought it could not get worse, they came upon another ass, of seemingly worse behavior than Modestine, as he roamed the hillside at will and without his master. The reciprocated attraction between the two lovers was immediate and horrifying. As the swine masquerading as a pack animal attempted to mount poor, guiltless Modestine, Louis renewed his thrashing to the both of them, anything to quash the budding romance. As he whipped wildly, he grew more disgusted with Modestine’s suitor, for any man worth his pride should have, at the very least, defended his lady.

When Louis finally got them rid of the amorous beast, new troubles arose. Perhaps the many thousands of knots strapping his pack to Modestine had loosened since the morning, but the sack was now sliding one way and then the other, until finally, as they arrived to the village of Ussel, the entire blasted contraption had spun around completely and hung from Modestine’s belly.

Table of Contents

Read Full Post »

Beast7

It had been a beautiful dawn, exactly the sort of morning on which one would want to start a long trek. The sun peaked orange over the ridge, pinking the thin clouds above, clouds that would dissipate within the hour as the flaming sphere edged ever higher, opening its arms to all of humanity and embracing it with its light.

Louis struggled with his sack. Once full of his provisions, it weighed about forty kilos. He simultaneously thanked the universe for sending him Modestine and felt the rising redness of shame in his face at burdening so a delicate lady with such a load. In the rooming house, his bulk took out several pictures from the walls lining the stairwell while the landlady swore silently behind him as she picked up his mess. He apologized profusely. Finally, he and his sack fell into the street where he was greeted by his four French friends among about a dozen more well-wishers.

Louis was touched, but as the sack slipped from his grip, and he contorted himself every which way to avoid losing it, he realized why everyone was there: to watch him struggle. Several men whooped and everyone laughed.

Annoyed, Louis firmed his hold on the sack and when Henri motioned him to follow, he did. Antoine, Lucien, and Claude fell in line behind Louis, while the rest of the party of gawkers took step behind them. No one offered to help him with his sack.

To forget that he was, in effect, on display for the amusement of the whole village—as the crowd appeared to grow—he made a mental inventory of his sack, hoping to catch any forgotten essential. He brought with him a small spirit lamp and pan, a lantern, a few half-penny candles, a jack knife, and a large leather flask. There were two whole changes of warm clothing, his green velveteen jacket, his pilot coat, and a knitted Spenser waistcoat. His railway rug contained a few books, cakes of chocolate, and tins of Bologna sausage. He added his empty knapsack, for no reason other than to avoid leaving it but also avoid carrying it. Not in the sack, but intended for stowage in a basket alongside Modestine, he had arranged for a leg of cold mutton, a bottle of Beaujolais, an empty bottle for milk, an egg-beater (a gift from Henley’s wife), and several loaves of black and white bread (the former for Modestine, the latter for himself).

On his person he carried his revolver for although Surrel and company were quite mistaken about the threat on the road, threats indeed there could be.

Louis had originally planned to hike the mountains alone, with only what he absolutely needed on his own back. However the sleeping sack itself, empty, was too heavy and too awkward to convey. But, like everything else he packed, it was indispensable, for he meant to sleep as much under the stars as possible, shunning the comforts of the hostel. Louis was roughing it.

As they arrived at the stable, Louis could see his beloved Modestine, fitted with a simple, handsome leather pad furnished with a number of rings through which to slip the straps that would attach the sack to her back.

They began to apply the sack at six, and by six-ten, the pad having slid every possible way there was to slide off a donkey—much to the amusement of the farewell party—Louis had lost his patience. He returned the pad to its manufacturer, or, it could be said, he threw it at the man’s head, who, in turn, threw it back at Louis’s. And so on, back and forth, yelling obscenities that only swelled the audience in numbers, until they tired.

At six-thirty, toward the end of the pad throwing, Claude arrived with a bât—a pack-saddle—that seemed to fit Modestine sufficiently, and they—everyone—proceeded to assist Louis in affixing his things to the little donkey. The sack, his coat, the basket of provisions, all disappeared under a labyrinth of rope and knots, and just when Louis thought the time had come to say their goodbyes, a man would step forward and explain why this system of straps would not do, and he would disassemble the mess to start again. This repeated itself until nine-o’clock, as the last knot was pulled Louis, already exhausted, grabbed Modestine’s bridle and pulled her from the stable. Waving to the crowd over his shoulder, he called back, “Au revoir! Merci! Vous avez été très utile, mais je dois partir![1]

Laughter, the loudest of whom he recognized as his four friends, rose behind him, along with good-natured wishes for a safe and happy journey. Despite his annoyance and weariness, Louis could not suppress a smile, until he heard amongst the crowd what sounded like the baying of a wolf. Both he and Modestine froze and he whipped his head back to locate immediately amongst the crowd, Surrel. He smiled at Louis and winked. Louis glared, tugged gently on Modestine’s bridle, and slowly made his way out of Monastier.

[1] “Goodbye! Thank you! You’ve been very helpful, but I have to go!”

Table of Contents

Read Full Post »

Beast6

. . . and in the Castle of Besques, the marquess of Apcher showed us this animal who looked like a wolf but with a very different face and different proportions. Three hundred people may certify this.

Many hunters and a lot of experts made us remark that only the tail and the posterior of this animal is of a wolf. Its head is monstrous; its eyes have a particular membrane that can conceal the eye-socket. Its neck is covered with thick reddish hairs, crossed with some black stripes; it has a white mark shaped as a heart on its breast. Its legs have four fingers with longer nails than wolves. They are thick, especially the front legs, and their color is the one of a deer. This was remarkable because all hunters said they had never seen a wolf with such colors. Some also noticed its ribs did not look like the ones of a wolf, therefore this animal could turn around more easily than a wolf that has sidelong ribs.

When Louis returned to his room, stuffed under the door, and with a cover now creased, was a pamphlet accompanied by a map of the region. The title shrieked: La Bête du Gévaudan! It looked to be a text cobbled together from various 18th-century reprints, the main body of which were the words of the royal notary Roche-Etienne Marin who described the second beast killed in June of 1767.

Louis had read about all of this before, on ferry crossing the Channel, if his memory was correct. One of a handful of sensational magazines lying about the boat recounting sordid histories of foreign lands. He’d picked it up as a brief escape from whatever torturous composition he was writing at the time, and ended up reading the thing cover to cover.

La Bête du Gévaudan was the collective name of perhaps more than one beast said to have terrorized the poor people of the département of Gévaudan—renamed Lozère after the Revolution—and areas of Haute-Loire. The first sighting was in early June 1764, when a Langogne woman was charged by what was described as a large wolf. She was saved by bulls from the farm. But by the end of the month Jeanne Boulet, fourteen years of age, was not so lucky.

The attacks continued, long and terrible enough to attract the attention of King Louis XV. It was he who hired the wolf-hunters Jean Charles and his son Jean-François, to track and kill the monster. In February of 1765, the two men brought with them eight bloodhounds and proceeded to thin the Gévaudan forests of wolves, large and small. But Surrel had his facts mixed up—it was not the father-son team d’Enneval that slayed La Bête, but François Antoine, harquebusbearer to the King, and Lieutenant of the Hunt. The old pamphleteer had his dates correct, though, as Antoine proved his mettle on September 21st of that same year, and announced, “We declare by the present report signed from our hand, we never saw a big wolf that could be compared to this one. Which is why we estimate that this could be the fearsome beast that caused so much damage.” La Bête was then stuffed—hopefully better than the poor specimen at le café du loup—and sent to Versailles, along with Antoine, who’d received a hero’s welcome, not to mention many medals and a large monetary reward.

However, by December, the attacks had resumed. Finally, a local hunter, Jean Chastel, on June 19, 1767, once again killed La Bête. And the region hoped this would be the last. La Bête de Chastel’s stomach contained human remains, and therefore confirmed that this was, indeed, one of the monsters that had been attacking villagers in the area. Chastel family tradition claimed that Jean, with his hunting party, sat down to read his Bible and pray, and as he prayed, La Bête emerged from the trees, staring at Chastel as if listening. Chastel finished his prayer and then shot La Bête dead.

Together, it was estimated that two hundred ten people were attacked over three years, one hundred thirteen dead, ninety-eight of whom seemed to have been devoured. But none of the accounts that Louis had read ever mentioned the idea of le loup-garou—a werewolf. Surely, this must be an invention of Surrel, local pamphleteer, to sell more wares. And it would make sense that the entire village believed it—those four Frenchman probably grew up reading Surrel’s imaginative leaflets.

Louis smiled and tossed the werewolfenalia toward the table by the bed with dramatic flourish, but then retrieved the map from the floor. Surrel was, at least, good for this one practical thing.

Once Louis was out of Monastier, he expected he would hear no more of the legendary Bête du Gévaudan. Perhaps he might hear of other creatures and mountain lore, perhaps he might hear the click of a rosary behind him as he passed through a village, but he found it unlikely that something so silly, from so long ago, still lived in this region, outside of this backwards enclave of drunken Frenchmen.

But enough of this! He had a donkey to pilot and a journey to begin!

Table of Contents

Read Full Post »

Beast5

There were, in fact, some establishments open in Monastier at dawn. Surprisingly, Surrel had Louis meet him in a quiet billiard room off le Place du Vallat. Still bristling from the old man’s treatment of his beloved Modestine the day before, Louis sat with his shoulder to the man and refrained from joining him after he’d ordered his glass of brandy. Surrel nipped daintily at his payment, smiling at Louis, who fidgeted with the cigarette pinched between his fingers. They spoke French.

“So, what brings a gangly-looking thing like you to my country?” Surrel asked.

Louis stared at the man.

“I said I would make payment of one glass of brandy, but there was nothing in our agreement that said I should sit here and drink it with you.” Louis made to stand. “Good day.”

“Oh, come,” the old man said, reaching a hand out to Louis’s velveteen jacket and tugging it down. “You are too sensitive. Like a woman.”

Again, Louis’s hackles stirred as he sat back down.

“I’ve things to do, you know,” he said to the old man. “Certainly better things than sit here and—”

“You are heading down into Gévaudan, I hear,” said Surrel. He sipped his brandy. His hands were covered with paper cuts in various states of mend, a hazard of his trade.

“Yes, south by way of Lozère,” Louis said, interested to know why the man had acted as if he didn’t know Louis’s business and more interested to know how he did. “It hasn’t been called Gévaudan since the Revolution. Surely, you’re not that old.”

“Some days, I feel it,” Surrel said. “And sometimes, I think, when a place has been soaked with so much blood, you can never change its name.” He looked at Louis from the corner of his eye, seeing if his words had the desired effect.

Louis stared at the old man for a moment.

“Don’t tell me,” he began. “Robbers, probably murderers. And wolves.”

“Wolves are murderers,” Surrel answered.

“They are animals.”

“Not always.” Surrel took another drink. “Just like not all men are men.”

“You would think that after centuries of dealing with wolves, your people would have mastered the art by now,” Louis said. “I’ve got a pistol and if there’s trouble, man or beast, I will let fly the bullet. Simple.”

Surrel shook his head and Louis could no longer control himself.

“Stop it. Stop shaking your head. French necks are full of ball bearings,” he said, exasperated. “They cannot keep them straight.”

“The English don’t know how to deal with beasts,” the old man shot back.

“Says the man who beats his donkey, one smaller than a dog,” Louis parried.

Surrel laughed.

“Your Modestine will break your heart, Monsieur,” he said, and then leveled Louis with a look hot enough to melt the ice between them if only enough to get the message through. “But your heart, Steams, is the least of your worries.”

Louis thought of Fanny and doubted that very much. He lit another cigarette.

“And what should I be worried about?” Louis asked, falling back into his chair and flopping one leg over the other, extending them both long out in front of him.

Surrel leaned over the café table between them, close so as to not rouse the alarm of the whole village.

“The men here will not tell you because they are as afraid as the women, and the women, let me tell you, are like the children that flew off the back of your ass in the courtyard.”

Louis leaned a little closer, but still looked away, watching a solitary man knock billiard balls around a green felt field and exclaiming “a-ya!” each time he sank one.

“Gévaudan is Gévaudan and will always be Gévaudan, so long as the blood of the children and the women push its vegetables up from the soil and the citizens eat of the terror that once roamed its hills,” Surrel continued. “This I believe. And not only that, I do believe that the terror still roams. It still hunts. It kills.”

Louis was now looking at the old man, tracing the lines on his face that ran down his throat and into the collar of his shirt. Although he was old, his eyes pinned Louis.

“What,” Louis said, “on earth are you talking about?”

Surrel leaned so far over as to almost touch noses with Louis and hissed.

“The beast!”

Louis shut his eyes to the man’s flying spittle and used the tablecloth to wipe it from his lids.

“Sit back, man,” he demanded, but Surrel was animated now.

“If you can’t stomach a little bit of saliva, you will no doubt faint away from the spit of loup-garou.”

Louis’s eyes fixed on the old man and refused to budge.

“Wait just a moment,” he said and then he slapped his hand on the table. “I am a fool.”

Surrel nodded, but Louis shook it away.

“No, not in the way you think. You are the fool in that way. You and everyone else in Monastier. I should have put it together right away. The Beast, or Beasts, of Gévaudan!”

Surrel’s face lit up and he threw his hands into the air.

“Yes!”

“No!” Louis shook his head and then it was his turn to lean to Surrel. “Look here, this journey will be difficult enough without you and your countrymen needlessly frightening the breeches off me with your silly tales of werewolves.”

Surrel crossed himself. Louis rolled his eyes.

“First, how long ago was that? If memory serves, it was the 1760s, even before your bloody Revolution, which, by the way, proved your countrymen to be as vicious as any wolf on the country side.”

“But we are not talking wolves, monsieur,” Surrel growled and glared.

You aren’t. I am. I am talking about the tragic deaths of poor villagers,” Louis argued.

“Two hundred!” Surrel yelled.

“Who were nothing more than the unlucky victims of a couple of particularly large wolves.”

“One hundred of whom were eaten!”

“When the men your king hired to hunt them down found them—”

“Jean Charles Marc Antoine Vaumesle d’Enneval and his brave son Jean-François, on September twenty-first, 1765, killed Le Loup de Chazes. Sixty kilos, two meters in length, and when they dragged its wicked carcass back to the village and stored it overnight in a citizen’s grain room, the next day it was gone.” Surrel snapped his fingers. “And in its place—”

“A man,” Louis finished. “Who?”

“They did not know his name, nor where he came from. It was what it was.”

“This is ridiculous,” Louis leaned back into his chair.

The old man emptied his glass.

“You cannot say, monsieur, that you have not been warned.”

Louis had been warned of a lot of things. He’d been warned by his father not to lose his faith in God; he’d been warned by his friends not to put faith in Fanny; and now he was being warned by these crazy Frenchmen to not embark on this journey, for fear of . . . werewolves.

“I have been warned,” he said to Surrel. “Merci.”

“Merci to you.” Surrel tipped his empty glass to Louis. “And may God have mercy on you.”

Louis thought of his father—both of his parents. He’d never seen two more broken people in his life since the day he’d admitted—after a particularly deadly episode of ill health—that he’d given up on the possibility of God. The sun, he’d thought, would never shine on the Stevenson household again, nor did he think still to this day that, if there were a God, he would smile mercifully on RLS. With his current predicament, with his heart strewn over an ocean and a continent, surely God hadn’t been merciful so far.

Louis looked at Surrel for one more moment, taking in the details of his face and hair, his garments and his smell, for his nightly notes.

“Without Modestine, how will you move your cart around?” Louis asked.

“The children!” Surrel answered and laughed.

And with that, Louis left the billiard room for his own quarters to take inventory of his pack and assemble everything for departure.

Table of Contents

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »