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Beast21

Louis handed Modestine off to the son of the innkeeper, unstrapped his sack, and, without a word, entered the inn. It was like most of the others he’d encountered—rustic and spare—but the company he’d hoped for before and never quite received finally sat itself around a large table in the kitchen, eating a hardy meal and laughing. Five men who were in the area making a survey for the projected railroad welcomed him. For a brief moment, he thought to wave off the amity and continue with his sack to his bunk, making an early sleep for an early departure. The sooner he reached Alès, at this point, the better. But the smiling faces—as boisterous as his four French friends in Monastier—were too inviting a comfort, and Louis had always been an optimist at heart.

He tucked his sack in a corner and squeezed himself into a place at the table, where the hostess sat before him a sizable plate piled with beef, fish, parsnips, and bread. Louis put his hands together and gazed up at the crude wood ceiling—whomever it was that received his thanks had finally seen that he was at the end of his tether and surely must have sent this night as the cure for the malady that ailed him. He almost wished he could pull Modestine into the kitchen so that she could also partake.

As the walk was uneventful, the evening before bed was as well, in the sense that nothing in particular pulled at his heart and no one was killed. While there was not sufficient wine to be drunk, everyone got on so well that it didn’t matter. Together, they managed to solve all of France’s problems in the matter of a few hours, and all agreed on how to go about it. A rare occasion, indeed. The six men howled and occasionally gave way to hysterics, until at length, someone noted the time and they all scuttled off to the four beds in an upstairs room, snickering and stumbling up the narrow stairway.

Louis, clutching his sleeping sack, followed the group, feeling as much a part of it as he half-expected to begin his new occupation as a railroad surveyor the following morning. Courteously, the five men somehow managed in three beds, leaving Louis to have one to himself—each donned a nightcap, and Louis being without one, substituted his fur hat. The six friends chuckled themselves to sleep.

Louis woke on his own well before the sun threatened to spill over the hill.

Hé, Bourgeois; il est cinq heures![1] came the call through the open window. He stretched inside his sack and counted the five nightcaps lined up at the ends of the other beds. One or two stirred and Louis smiled. Whether weighed with the heaviness of a previous night’s drunk or not, the most satisfying follow-up to a night of good company and good fun is a long and glorious morning of sleep. Not so for these men, who must be up and about soon to get on with the company’s work. Nor for Louis, who swung his legs out of bed and dressed.

The previous day and night had been so unexpectedly without incident that Louis felt perhaps he’d insinuated more into the unfortunate events than was warranted. Whatever was going on—and whatever rules of truth had been broken—was tragic, no doubt, but chances were that it was out of his hands and completely unrelated to him.

He worked to make this new vision more substantial as he packed up. Rolling up his sack into its more convenient wiener shape and securing inside it his myriad effects, he worked through the incidents that had so unnerved him and discharged them as being, frankly, none of his business. As deflating as his life had been prior, it was, he realized, significantly preferable to the death and misfortune he’d stumbled into. Louis did not care that he was picking and choosing what to recall and what to dismiss. He did not concern himself with anything that might ruin his new vision of his experiences, which, as far as he was concerned, were not even his. He was, he told himself, merely a bystander witnessing events that had nothing to do with him. And now, he must only move forward, onto the next town—on through les Montagne du Goulet, through Bleymard and Villefort, to the Pic de Finiels, through . . .

Pont de Montvert. And here his decision to ignore all that had happened ruptured and bled out. For Louis could not reach his final destination without passing through the place his “friend,” the cloaked man, said he would meet him.

As Louis readied Modestine, he tried to save his fantasy by insisting that Father Prior had been wrong and that Louis hadn’t been the only writer in residence at Our Lady of the Snows. The man could easily have been referring to someone else. And Louis did not know this man.

As the sun rose just above the horizon and dawn rolled into full bloom, Louis and his donkey bade his hosts farewell. A few of his surveying friends, now awake, waved with smiles from the upstairs window. Louis smiled and waved back, although his thoughts still heaved against each other, trying to find the right combination of reason and whimsy that would relieve him of any responsibility to anything but himself. The two worked their way from town, Modestine requiring a few early-morning pokes to get her going, and as soon as they rounded a bend that put them out of sight of Chasseradès, Louis stopped and threw the goad to the ground.

“Damn it, damn it, straight to the damned devil with all of this,” he yelled. He picked up the goad and threw it down again, this time stomping on it with his boot. Modestine took a few steps away, eyeing him at an angle.

Louis continued to swear and throw down the goad, sometimes kicking it and running after it to kick it again, until he grew tired. Then he sat down on a nearby rock and stared at the ground. The donkey saw the storm was over and proceeded to find a tasty patch of grass to work over.

Whatever had happened had happened. It was what it was. Why he was involved somehow, he did not know. But he was. And regardless of the present respite, Louis felt deeply that it was not finished. He knew not where the assurance came from, and after having witnessed the beast on Apollinaris’s road, where it came from mattered not. Call it, stupidly, intuition. Fanny would call it second sight, the gift of which she wholly believed she possessed. If only it was a clear picture of what was to come and not just a nagging, sickening feeling of foreboding.

“The devil with it,” Louis muttered and he rose, picked up the goad, and pulled Modestine back on track. He resolved to think about nothing but the book that would eventually come from this voyage and so he set himself to memorizing every detail of everything around him.

They moved across another long plateau like the one before Chasseradès and moved through a number of tiny hamlets set steeply into the Chassezac valley walls. The houses and their presiding church clung perilously to the outcropped ridges; their chimneys sent dissipating trails of smoke that rose to join the high-off clouds. Louis wrote his notes in his head—and would later transfer them to his journal—every blooming broom flower, every hollow, every beech and every birch. He set to memory every corner and every gully until they finally came ascending into the village of Lestampes.

The tight street was packed with sheep, which slowed their progress considerably. Although Louis showed no signs of caring, Modestine snorted and gave the occasional bray. With his hand on Modestine’s bridle, Louis shuffled through and let his eyes bounce evenly from one wooly back to another, the din of their bells forming an ocean of sound that could be pushed into the stern of one’s mind. To bring himself out of his stupor, Louis found one black sheep amongst the field of white and focused on it until they reached the other end of the herd and could continue through the village. As they passed that black sheep, Louis bent and let his fingers trail along its back; it bleated a response that floated over the sound of the ringing bells. He thought, this must be some sign of either good luck or bad—run your hand down the black sheep’s back . . . . Maybe some French folklore he’d never heard of, or better, the legend of some far off Pacific island. Someplace he’d never been.

Louis wondered vaguely if there were sheep in the Pacific and he held the sound of the black sheep in his thoughts until the bells diminished behind them to a faint tinkling. Resetting his stride beside Modestine, he tapped her rump with the goad.

In the village, they passed two men in a tree, pruning the branches. Three little girls danced around the trunk of another nearby tree. One of them sang:

Promenons-nous dans les bois
pendant que le loup n’y est pas
si le loup y était
il nous mangerait,
mais comme il n’y est pas
il n’ nous mangera pas.
“Loup, y es-tu?
Entends-tu?
Que fais-tu?”
“Je prends mon fusil. J’arrive!”

Louis heard the tune, but didn’t translate the words, and so he hummed along as they passed. He waved at the men and they waved back.

The road that ran through Lestampes bent itself before and after, with a straight-away through the center of the village, all of it inclined up and up. As Louis made his way to the end of town, ready for the winding to begin again, the girls’ play song faded and was replaced with the sound of cocks crowing to the air of a flute. It was played by someone Louis did not see, but the sound helped to push the bleakness from his soul. The flute-player could be anyone—the village priest, a talented milkmaid, or maybe a country schoolteacher. Whomever it was, they filled this late day with song and Louis was glad for the player’s leisure. The somewhat shapeless melody structured itself around the song of the children dancing around the tree, and Louis was cheered by the confluence of experience.

Even uphill, Modestine picked up her step a bit and although Louis was reluctant to leave the joyful music of Lestampes, he knew she was right and they’d better keep moving. As much as these small moments lightened the load he carried, and as much as the surrounding countryside warmed his heart —finally made pleasing with good weather—it could not completely erase the solemn sense of dread.

Soon, they were treading past the last few houses and out of the range of the flute player, up and up still, following the road as it twisted and turned past boulders and their companion rocks, and around the occasional ancient tree whose trunk rivaled the width of the road. Higher still they rose until they finally stopped upon a flat to rest before moving ever upwards.

The constant incline was bad enough, but that it snaked back and forth—likely doubling or tripling the length of the walk—was worse. For the first time, Louis was required to consult the map the pamphleteer in Monastier had left him, that previously-silly Beast paraphernalia. He was determined not to think on it, and instead sought a short cut, but there wasn’t one. There was no route but this exhausting upward winding path to breach the summit, and Modestine climbed slower and slower.

Louis rolled a cigarette and smoked it. He examined the donkey’s legs, which were healing well, and dug into the sack in search of the ointment he’d been given in Cheylard. Finding it, he slathered some onto the pink donkey flesh and then stowed it away again. Now, they were ready to continue.

The two moved slow but steadily, Louis’s eyes always searching for another way, when finally they came upon a section not rockily walled in—to their right, the land moved off at a gentle slope and he could see a reasonably straight path through a wood of dwarf pines. He steered Modestine in that direction, but she immediately became stubborn, which was not unusual at first.

He manned the goad, but to no avail. He thwacked her a few times, but, again, nothing. She snorted and reared. This was worse than usual. Louis shouldered her behind and pushed, but she brayed back in retaliation. Little by little, Louis managed to move her off the road and into the small wood, every inch of it a struggle. She wailed and kicked, screeched and bucked with every step, so that Louis was forced to hold the pack onto her back so as not to lose it. A few times she came close to toppling over backwards, so much did she fight on the incline. At one point Louis thought to just give up and lead her back to the winding road, but her obduracy only fueled his own, and from that point on it was a sheer battle of wills. Louis vowed he would rather camp another night on the ground, forgoing the safety of an inn, than give in to this impious little brute.

Still in the wood, Louis went around front and grabbed Modestine’s bridle with both hands, set his boots firmly, and pulled as hard as he could, swearing between clenched teeth. Drops of sweat fell from him and landed on his arms, so profusely he glanced up to see if it was raining. But the sky through the branches was clear. As he continued to pull, he directed his gaze down, where, amongst the fallen and exploded drops of his own sweat on the carpet of pine needles were blood drops of similar size.

Louis stopped pulling so abruptly that Modestine almost fell back head over hooves. He immediately searched his hands and then around the donkey’s bridle. Finding nothing, he re-examined her forelegs, and again found naught. Finally, he looked all about the both of them, trying to locate the source, but they were unscathed. After a moment’s thought, he looked back over the path they’d made and then forward in the direction they’d been going. They had been inadvertently following this trail of blood, which Louis did not notice but Modestine apparently had. Or, she sensed the spring.

[1] “Hey, middle class, it is 5a.m.!”

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Beast20

Chasseradès, Lestampes,

Bleymard, Le Pic de Finiels,

Le Pont de Montvert

She’d burnt the bread. Fanny stomped through the apartment toward Louis, her face angry and her brow slick with sweat. For a moment, he tensed, but she only closed the bed curtains with a huff and returned to the oven. He heard windows opening. They hadn’t opened the windows for weeks, fearing the chill might worsen his condition.

Under the nutty smell of smoke, Louis could discern the green smell of leaves. Something clean. He wheezed a small, innocuous cough. It had been subsiding, the coughing.

“It’s ruined,” she bellowed from around the corner.

Louis had taught himself to play the flageolet, and he wished he’d had the lung capacity to play it now. It might cheer her; it would certainly cheer him. He didn’t care about the bread, and frankly, the loaves she didn’t burn didn’t taste like bread either. They were always still doughy in the middle, but he ate them anyway, when he could eat.

He wanted to call out to her that nothing was ruined. He heard the oven door open, slam closed, then what he perceived to be the muffled thud of the loaf hitting the ground in the garden. Out the window it had gone.

*

At dawn, after a simple and silent breakfast, Louis gathered his things and packed Modestine by the gate. The donkey seemed relaxed, much to Louis’s consternation—he would continue to travel with this little beast, to whom he was growing closer despite himself, and yet who couldn’t be told of the previous night’s horrors. But then, he thought, perhaps it was a relief, that this creature, with her big brown eyes and tiny, searching feet—whose only concern is to get from one point to another without stumbling—should carry on without fear.

“It is better that you do not know,” Louis whispered into Modestine’s long ear.

“You take your leave early,” a voice said behind him.

Louis spun to find Father Prior, his hands, as usual, hidden inside his sleeves.

“Yes,” Louis said after a quick recovery, though he wiped his palms on his coat as they’d broken instantly into a sweat. “Early to leave, early to arrive.”

“Your next stop?” Father Prior chose not to draw attention to Louis’s obvious nervousness.

“Chasseradès.”

The friar nodded. There was a moment of silence between them.

“I am very sorry for what happened to Father Apollinaris,” Louis stated as he played with Modestine’s ears, to her delight.

“As are we all,” Father Prior began, “but, it is something that would have happened whether or not you slept under our roof. It is what it is. These hills are full of wolves. We must simply not allow ourselves to become complacent, as, perhaps, Father Apollinaris had.”

It is what it is. It dawned on Louis that he kept hearing this phrase, or some version of it.

He nodded, but could no longer look at Father Prior, so he returned to fastening his pack and making sure all the knots were secure.

There was little left to say except their goodbyes, which they did warmly. Father Prior opened the gate and Louis and his donkey left the relative safety of Our Lady of the Snows, continuing on their journey.

They again aligned themselves with the Allier river, backtracking into Gévaudan once more, and then forsaking the river’s direction to take an advised trail that blazed over a hill and across a long and comparably flat terrain. The wind had calmed to a pleasant breeze and the grey skies had born themselves miles away. It was, in fact, perhaps the most agreeable leg of the trek so far, and Louis found himself wishing for rain, for a strong wind to force him to fight to steady his pack, as he did on the way to Luc, anything to engage him away from the multitude of thoughts that invaded his weary brain.

His mind on the subject of the cloaked man and the werewolf—and the terrible carnage that unfolded from this still puzzling situation—fell upon itself in a circular fashion, getting absolutely nowhere. So he tried to return to his intended purpose—to take advantage of this wide-open space and meditate on his life and where he was going—and was disturbed to find that it took him more than a few seconds to form a picture of Fanny’s face. Granted, it didn’t take long, but long enough to concern him. Just a handful of days ago, Louis was positive the woman’s image was tattooed forever along the folds, and in the deepest recesses, of his brain.

He spent the rest of the walk occasionally goading Modestine, who would slow and stop to munch, and wondering whether he should be alarmed or thankful for this distraction from his Fanny troubles. On one hand, the situation that he would return to was such stunning chaos that, though he was reluctant to agree with his friends, he did not see a clear way out of the heartache, and secretly feared he was growing accustomed to the constant, throbbing pain it put him in. In this way, his fate was entirely in her hands, and it did not seem as if she felt particularly uncomfortable with this burden, if it was, indeed, a burden at all. On the other hand, the obvious way out of that mess seemed to be right here, but only not in the manner he might have envisioned. It was as if his dependence on Fanny was being secretly severed each time he found himself diverted. And he didn’t think that he liked it.

Quite suddenly, it occurred to Louis that perhaps Fanny’s husband, Sam, knew of their affair, and perhaps it was he—or one of his many unsavory cohorts whom Fanny had occasionally described—who followed him along this passage. Whomever it was, they knew him, knew he was a writer . . . but, alas, even Fanny would only know of this adventure through a letter that may yet have been delivered, much less Sam. No, it was unlikely, if not impossible, though the idea gave Louis a brief spate of comfort, if only to have an answer. Any answer. He pushed it away.

It was on this walk—the route from Our Lady of the Snows to the town of Chasseradès—that he had to admit to himself that he really hadn’t taken this journey to sort out his emotional affairs, or even to gather material for another travel book. These things were not absent, but they had been so low on his list of priorities that pretending to them had become cumbersome. No, Louis ventured off into the French mountains to wallow in self-pity and then throw his hardships into Fanny’s face as proof of his perpetual love, to show her to what lengths she had the power to send him. Now, with this sliver of emotional distance wedged between them, he wondered if, when he’d set forth on this adventure, he’d been in his right mind. In this moment of lucidity, he was beginning to have his doubts.

The longer the walk to Chasseradès, the more agitated and angry Louis became. Ultimately, he thought, the end question was what it was to be a man. Was it defying every last one of his friends and family to be with the woman he loved—to have made that life-altering decision and to have stuck with it? Or was it cleanly abandoning a love that was not equally and clearly returned? Louis feared to find an answer to that question, because, as things set, he felt capable of the former, but perhaps not the latter. It didn’t matter because neither felt easy.

Oh, why couldn’t she just write and say the divorce had been petitioned, and that they could be married?

Modestine snorted. They walked on.

Louis had managed to direct his attention from his immediate troubles back to his more existential troubles, to the extent that he found himself complacently returning to the internal pleas from his mindset in Monastier—begging Fanny to just say yes and solve all of these problems for him. Instead of falling limply over the precipice, he could claim he was pushed. Lo, the burden was still his to bear.

Finally, over a slight hill, the town of Chasseradès came into view, and the two travelers entered uneventfully with Louis as troubled as when he left the monastery, only for a different reason.

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Beast19

Louis was in the room, a part of the proceedings, but he felt miles away. He listened to the words swirling around him and fingered the handle of the clawed thing in the pocket of his coat, which he had yet to remove. He stared at his thin legs sprawled out in front of him. Sitting in the middle of three chairs in the office of Father Prior, flanked by his fellow werewolf hunters, Louis felt the breeze of the friar’s robes as he paced back and forth behind them.

Pierrick and Roland described to the saintly man what they’d seen. It was followed by silence, but more pacing. Finally—

“And you have a pistol,” he said, addressing Louis.

Louis nodded slightly.

“Under other circumstances, you would be asked to leave,” Father Prior said. “But tonight, I am thankful that we are not mourning the loss of three more souls.”

The friar set his hand on Louis’s shoulder, gave it a soft squeeze, then withdrew to resume his pacing.

There was some discussion about the beast: that the two men trailed it by the blood it left for about a mile, until concluding that, though wounded, it was likely outrunning them. Louis hardly heard—he was considering whether or not to reveal his find. When he’d first stumbled upon it so literally, he had fully and quite readily assumed it the murder weapon, wielded by human hands, monstrous though the deed. But now, with the very presence of that ferocious, inhuman thing at the scene, Louis was unsure, and thus, also uncertain as to the usefulness of such a revelation.

Further, and perhaps more important to Louis, he couldn’t help but feel personally tied to what had happened. Not because he’d felt a personal connection with Father Apollinaris, pleasant though their forbidden conversation was, but because of all previous events: all the warnings; the poor foal at Pradelles, as tattered as the unfortunate friar; the bizarre interaction at Fouzilhac; and not least, the possibility of the cloaked man.

With that thought, Louis started upright his in chair, startling the others. He turned to Roland.

“You had said earlier, before we went out into the fields, that there was another man housed in the public dormitory. Who was he? What did he look like?”

The old man crossed his arms and looked away.

Louis was surprised to see the soldier’s face still red from where he’d hit him, though it did nothing to raise much sympathy in him. For a brief moment, Louis felt ashamed—not of the slap itself, but of his lack of compassion, particularly as he was surrounded by men of the cloth. He was who he was, and he was not a holy man. He returned to ignoring the old soldier and turned to address the present Father Carthage, who’d been a part of that earlier conversation.

The priest had been so busy gauging the silent, ugly communication between Louis and Brother Roland, he’d almost forgotten Louis’s inquiry.

“Oh!” he remarked as it came back to him. He thought for a moment. “The other man, yes.” He turned to Father Prior, who’d stopped pacing and listened intently. “Father, the man who arrived this morning, just after myself. I didn’t see his face, but he wore a rather imposing hooded cloak. Of a charcoal color.”

Father Prior’s eyes grew wide, as something he’d forgotten flooded his brain.

“Indeed!” He turned to Louis. “Please pardon my lapse in memory, Monsieur Stevenson. Your friend arrived this afternoon, and his message for you slipped my mind completely. And even more so after this night’s events. I do hope you’ll forgive me.”

Louis’s brow furrowed in utter confusion.

“My friend?”

Oui,” Father Prior continued. “He said to tell you that he will meet you at le Pont de Montvert, though he would likely see you before then.”

“What did he look like?” Louis pressed.

“I could not tell,” Father Prior said, “as Father Carthage expressed, the man wore a rather deep hood. It fell over his face.” He turned his palms up. “It is not our custom to pry, Monsieur Stevenson. Not in matters that appear so delicate—I assumed that he was hiding some deformity, and since I did not note any lesions on his hands, I felt safe that leprosy was not the issue, and perhaps merely a terrible accident of the past had left him malformed.”

The man, Louis presumed, was deliberately hiding his identity.

“Did he call me by name?”

“Why, no, he did not,” Father Prior answered. “In fact, he only called you the writer. And as we are housing no other writer, I presumed it must have been you. You do not know him?”

Louis almost missed the question as he’d nearly slipped back into the private room of his thoughts. There was a cloaked man, and he was being followed.

“Yes,” Louis mumbled. “I suppose I do know him.”

“Well,” Father Prior put his hands together. “Then I suppose you will be meeting up with him soon enough. If you will all excuse me, there are still preparations that need to be made for the interment of Father Apollinaris.”

Father Prior made to leave, but Louis stopped him with a hand on his sleeve.

“May I, Father,” he began. “May I pay my last respects?”

Father Prior’s face grew ashen and grim.

“My son,” he said. “While it is only a shell, it is somewhat . . .” He paused, not finding the appropriate word.

“Ghastly,” Louis finished.

Father Prior nodded.

“But if you feel up to it, you may view him and pray over him.”

Louis thanked him and the friar slipped from the room, the heavy hem of his robe sweeping the floor.

* * *

The chapel of Our Lady of the Snows was plainer than Louis had expected. Instead of muraled, plaster arches and towering stained-glass windows, the vaulted roof was modest and constructed of simple wooden beams. The pews were unadorned, the crosses wood, and the candleholders iron.

When Louis entered, there were but two monks sitting separately in two front pews, whispering their prayers, heads bowed. There was no haze of incense, but the scent lingered tangibly from so many years of vigils and vespers. He walked slowly up the main aisle and the two monks rose silently, moving to the outer ends of the pews, and back up to the exit, acknowledging, he presumed, his need for privacy. Indeed, he thought, he needed it.

In front of the altar—his feet pointing to the nave, his head to the apse—lay Father Apollinaris. Louis approached the corpse, though he was loathe to. It was not dressed, but only covered to the chin with a set of clean robes, as though it had been too difficult to dress such a ravaged body. No part of the man was bare except for his head. The friar’s face was ivory, and Louis studied it, wondering at the stillness of his dead skin, taking note that, in life, the very flesh must have some barely-perceptible movement that signifies the soul surging beneath. The dead man’s mouth set strangely, and Louis saw that it was propped closed with a wooden block beneath the chin. Looking around to be sure he was alone, he pushed the edge of the robe down just a bit. Indeed, he suspected the only part of the poor friar that went unscathed was his peaceful face, as even the block that held his jaw shut sank into the wounds he’d received in that area.

To their devoted credit, there was no blood. None to soil the habit that covered him, none to stain the wood of the block. His body had been so thoroughly cleaned, the men that performed the duty could sleep well knowing they’d helped deliver Father Apollinaris to his heavenly Father cleaner than he’d come into this world. Louis pushed the robes down a little further, searching for the thing that would answer his troublesome question. He prayed he would not have to see more than his spirit could take.

Below the block, the holy man’s flesh lay mangled and torn. Louis marveled at the man’s resilience, for his wounds were so grave, his lingering time had defied the truth of them. His eyes searched the carnage anxiously, hoping not to have to descend to the man’s belly, which, judging by the shape of the covering, could not be seen without a lifetime of nightmares. Then, he found it. Around the edge of the butchery that extended from the friar’s chest to his right shoulder, spread four claw marks, as from an animal.

Louis looked around again, and seeing he was still alone, he moved to the other side of the dead man and looked closely. He thought of the monster’s spread forepaws, its talons flashing. These marks, Louis thought, just didn’t seem large enough—widely spaced enough—to accommodate the size of the wolf. Le loup-garou.

Louis shuddered. He considered his excitable state at the time he’d seen the thing and knew that, in such situations, one’s memory could become exaggerated. He thought briefly to search the body for fur, perhaps embedded in the wounds, but his conscience and his stomach forbade him. Also, it is likely that the brothers had washed away anything that might have remained.

He stared at the marks on Father Apollinaris’s shoulder, and then remembered that he held evidence right in his pocket. If he cannot disprove one, maybe he can prove the other. With that, Louis pulled the bizarre clawed tool from his coat pocket and unwrapped it from the handkerchief. The blood had dried, and the cloth stuck, having to be pulled away. He set the points of it against the dead man’s flesh, just where the wounds ended.

It was a match. Louis re-wrapped the weapon quickly and pulled the robe back up to the friar’s chin. He’d found what he’d needed and best to put things back as they were. But he remained. Louis felt elated at the discovery, but also didn’t know how it resolved anything. It answered the question as to whether or not the murder had been committed by the beast or by a man, but it did not allow Louis to unsee what he’d seen in the fields, nor did it corral and catch this cloaked man, Louis’s only suspect.

It didn’t matter. It was one solid piece of information that could not be disputed. The claws of the creature were too broad to have caused these particular wounds, whereas the claws of the cultivator matched perfectly. One single piece of true evidence was all Louis needed to, at least, be able to sleep a few hours this night, as it gave him that small foothold back to the world he knew, where he could find purchase and return, something he fully intended to do.

Finally, Louis laid his hand across the cold forehead of the dead friar and said a small prayer of his own composition. Then, as a few brothers entered to continue their vigil, Louis bowed silently to them and left the chapel. He made his way to his dark cell, undressed, and crawled into his sack spread across the cot. He penciled the events into his journal—a few of his own thoughts on the matter, some short, rudimentary sketches—and then he extinguished the candle and fell almost immediately into a deep, dreamless sleep that went unperturbed until dawn, even sleeping through the ringing bells that woke the brothers for their first office of the day at 2 a.m.

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Beast18

The three lanterns threw barely enough light to see five feet of road before them, and Louis strained to remember what the terrain had looked like in the daylight just this morning as he’d arrived. But he could only envision Father Apollinaris’s dirty habit trailing along the ground, sullied by a happy day of honest labor.

There was no point in searching around the edge of the light of the lanterns, as it only served to make the band more nervous than they already were. So, the three men merely cast their eyes down to their feet—to avoid loose stones and random divots—and hoped for the best. They could have walked this road entirely blind, as it was—to Father Apollinaris’s great credit—as smooth as the barrel of the gun in Louis’s coat. In this fashion, the trek out into the field, which seemed to have been much longer for the good talk with the friar along the way that morning, came to an unexpectedly abrupt end in a tacky pool of blood.

They stood around it with their lanterns. Pierrick had already seen it and only wiped his mouth, Roland stood stoically gazing down at it, hardened, Louis supposed, by years of the carnage of war. Louis, though, struggled to force his dinner to settle and remain tranquil.

Silently, the three men circled the immediate area, each piecing together what might have happened. The blood on the ground told a short story—Father Apollinaris was attacked suddenly, dragged only a few feet, then eviscerated.

“It is a miracle he survived long enough to die in the comfort of his brothers,” said Louis.

“Well, it is good to see you believe in miracles,” Roland answered.

Louis was about to reply hotly when he was interrupted.

“Over here,” Pierrick called, and the two men followed his voice.

Pierrick stood beside Father Apollinaris’s barrow. Inside lay a few hand tools deemed worthless because of the close proximity required to use them for defense. But there were also two long-handled tools: an edger and a tamp. While one could use them at a distance and the heads were of iron, they looked to be from the last century and well worn. Pierrick handed the edger to Roland and kept the tamp for himself, as he was younger and strong enough to heft and swing the heavy head if necessary. Once everyone was armed, Louis wandered away—the lantern in one hand and his revolver in the other—to explore the area a bit more.

There was little in the way of topography: just the compacted soil of the road with its paper-straight border—the work of the tamp and edger, now makeshift weapons—and the grassy fields on either side. Louis walked, his lantern illuminating only the ground beneath his feet, fading quickly into pitch on all sides. Like the night before Cheylard, the light felt isolating, and again, he felt cut off from the world, not to mention his two companions.

He drifted a little ways down the road from which they came, while the other two explored other directions. As he scrutinized the perimeter of light, Louis noticed distractedly that the boots and gaiters he’d bought so recently, just for this trip, were so scuffed and worn they looked to be as old as Father Apollinaris’s tools. His thoughts drifted, perhaps as a reprieve from the immediate tragedy—to images of his family, his friends, and Fanny. He wondered what they were all doing, this very moment, to pass the evening. Did they have clear skies, or was it raining? Were they reading by a fire? Enjoying the company of others for whom they cared and by whom the same?

Then, Louis tripped.

The road had been so meticulously compressed and cleaned of debris that he immediately blamed his own clumsy feet and awkward limbs, but instinctively returned to the spot with his lantern to inspect it. Lying there, points down and into the ground—probably from the force of Louis’s toe against it—was a strange thing. He recognized it as similar to a common, claw-shaped garden cultivator, such as the one his mother used with her potted herbs. Though this was different.

He set the lantern beside it and got down on his queasy belly to inspect it. The iron claws of the thing, instead of being bent at angles were curved and of two pieces each—one like the finger of the thing and then tipped separately with another, smaller piece that was ground to a sharpened point. The handle was of wood and just an inch or two longer than the average hand tool. Most curious, it was engraved with the crude figure of a snarling wolf. The wooden end had been drilled and a thick strip of leather was looped through the hole, as if to wear over one’s wrist for better, surer service. And as if all of this was not sufficient, it was coated in gore.

Louis brought himself to his knees, carefully lifted the thing by its leather strap, proceeded to wrap it in a handkerchief and then pocketed it. He then stood with his lantern and revolver, and was about to call out to the other men when he heard a yell.

“Here!” called Roland. “The beast!”

Louis ran, and as he did he heard first a growling, and then a vicious snarling, as a wild dog over a piece of meat. Pierrick reached Roland first. Louis heard both men shouting. As he approached, he could make out what was happening.

The two men held their weapons in front of them, their lanterns on the ground, staring into the darkness. Roland looked frantic. Whatever it was must have already attacked once and then retreated back into the shadows, as the blade of the edger was wet with blood. Beyond, in the black, an angry growl rumbled cavernously, building.

“Where is that goddamned Camisard with his goddamned pistol?” Roland bellowed.

As he ran, Louis could feel the awkward weight of the clawed thing he’d found bouncing against his hip through his coat pocket. When he finally arrived, his additional lantern gave just enough added light to reveal what it was the men cowered from.

At the edge of the light, bleeding from a wound in its side, was a massive wolf-like creature. It hung its enormous head low and glared up at the men with yellow eyes that sat strangely in their sockets, and when it blinked, it seemed less an eyelid than a fur-covered membrane that slid over the orb somewhat sideways and snapped back. Overall, it was fawn colored, except for its hackles, which began at the top of its head and trailed down its thick neck to its back and beyond—this was a reddish color, striped black. Its tail and hind legs were of a wolf’s, only significantly larger; its forelegs were thicker, longer. The four toes featured four corresponding claws which flexed and penetrated the earth beneath them and extended long past the unguicular crests, not at all like a dog or wolf, but like a cat.

Louis had to take all of this in over mere moments, for just as he arrived and had enough time to set down his lantern, the beast reared. Or, Louis thought it was rearing, when, in fact, it was only standing. The three men gawped as they watched a thing they’d never experienced before do something they’d never expected. It was certainly an action Louis had never witnessed in a wolf, or dog, or any sort of canine creature. The thing raised itself on its hind legs in such a way that didn’t seem as if it required much balancing, but was as natural as its menacing crouch. When it reached its full height, which Louis guessed to be roughly nine or ten feet, it spread its claws as wide each as a dinner plate, and its mouth gave way to rows of vicious, jagged teeth. It snarled and Louis could see the pink flesh of its throat tremble with the sound. And just as is seemed poised to strike, Louis heard a gunshot.

The thing yelped and flew back, then yapped and squealed a trail through the field to a nearby wood. Louis felt his palms throb against the butt of the pistol, aching with the recoil of its action. Smoke floated like a fog from the barrel.

“After it!” Pierrick yelled, and the two other men grabbed their lanterns and ran. Louis, though, stood for another few moments, gazing at the contraption in his hands, and finally let out the breath he’d been holding since he’d put down his lantern. His legs shook beneath him and, slowly, he lowered himself to a seated position.

Everything he’d been told in this strange land was true, and therefore everything he’d believed about the world was scattered. He could almost feel his convictions landing on the ground around him, some up facing, some down, none what they previously had been. As he sat, he felt the clawed thing in his pocket poke his outer thigh and he shifted enough to silence that sensation. After the realization that he could never trust anything ever again, his mind merely went blank. He thought of nothing—not of family, nor friends, nor even of his beloved Fanny, on whose image, in other times of crisis, he’d relied wholly. He thought nothing, neither saw, nor heard, anything—later, of those following minutes, he would only remember the sulfur smell of the shot he’d so recently fired.

By the time the two men had returned, Louis was standing and wandering around his circle of light, pistol drawn, and thinking. He’d gathered himself, but the only reason he didn’t shoot the advancing men was because they were smart enough to call ahead their approach.

“Why didn’t you follow?” Roland demanded.

Louis said nothing, only placed his pistol, hammer uncocked, into the pocket opposite the clawed thing, and picked up his lantern.

Indignant he was being ignored, Roland placed himself between Louis and the way back to the monastery.

“Protestant coward,” the old soldier hissed.

Louis, with his free hand, hauled back and slapped the man across the face, hard.

Roland’s eyes grew and his cheek reddened. Pierrick said nothing, did nothing, as though he knew exactly why Louis hadn’t gone along and chased the beast. The peasant’s eyes said to Louis, you are not from here. You’ve never seen what we’ve seen.

“Now get out of my way,” Louis said to Roland, almost calm.

The old man obeyed, and with that, they made their way back to the holy sanctuary, Pierrick wheeling Father Apollinaris’s barrow full of tools.

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Beast17

Out of patience, but to some degree pleasantly engaged, Louis was about to explain that Modestine, his irascible donkey, led him here, and if the men were game to argue the guidance of two asses then he’d be happy to stay up all night. But it was just then that a commotion sounded at the close-by gate. All three men were to their feet.

Au secours!” a haggard voice called from the gate.

Il été a attaqué!” another voice shouted.

Louis, the priest, and the soldier ran from the kitchen and joined a collection of monks, robes flying, all hurrying to the gate.

The night beyond the threshold of the monastery was as black as the blind eve Louis had spent beside the road to Cheylard. Lanterns were hastily lighted, and soon a glowing procession made its way to the wrought iron entry that stood between the blessed retreat and the fields. As they approached, the light revealed an unholy sight.

Two peasants struggled to carry what seemed to Louis but a large, unruly sack of entrails. The habit was clearly of their order, and once a brother had wiped the blood from the man’s face with the hem of his own robe, he was shown to be no other than poor Father Apollinaris.

Louis groaned, and the two laymen, who wept openly, handed the dying man off to his brethren. They gathered him silently and rushed him into the shelter of their sacred house. At first, they began to carry him to his private cell, but he cried out in such pain that they stopped and laid him on the cold, hard floor of the corridor, unsure of exactly what to do. Brother Porter cradled the father’s head in his lap. Father Prior had been called for immediately and he joined them now, assessing the situation. Louis, Father Carthage, Brother Roland, and one of the peasants stood nearby, hating to hear the man’s weeping, but wanting to be close in case they were needed. The second peasant had tearfully excused himself, stating that he could take no more than he had already seen, and afraid to make his way home alone, he waited amongst the three empty bowls in the kitchen.

Father Prior knelt beside Father Apollinaris, spreading his hands over the friar’s lacerated body, haltingly, as if searching for a place untorn to lay them. Not finding that place, he finally took the man’s dirty face in his hands, gently but firmly, and beseeched him.

“You must tell me what happened,” Father Prior said.

Father Apollinaris’s mouth gaped like an airborne fish for water; he brought one bloody hand up to touch Father Prior’s tear-streaked cheek, and then his shaking fingers fell to his own throat and he gasped.

“He cannot speak,” Father Prior announced quietly.

Louis heard the poor friar in his memory, I cannot speak! At this, he could no longer hold back and sobbed loudly at first, but then he turned from his companions, facing the wall. He fought desperately to erase this image from his memory and hold only that smiling, red-cheeked face, that builder of roads, who took so much pleasure in their conversation. Louis lamented that he would, indeed, not be able to search for this good man at the edge of the wood on his way out of the valley tomorrow, for the chance to let a few more fine words flow between them. Father Apollinaris cannot speak, would likely never speak again.

In the gloom of the hallway, the friar’s gurgles faded into unconsciousness, and a steady, but weak and belabored breath. Father Prior directed some brothers to move Father Apollinaris to the chapel. At this, some of the younger of the brothers wept, as it meant the savaged friar was not expected to live. Other brothers were instructed to fetch clean water and rags with which to gently cleanse their brother so that he may enter the kingdom of heaven as uncontaminated as was feasible.

As they lifted his limp, white body, he made no sound, and all that could be heard was the shuffling of the men’s’ sandals against floorboards.

Louis wiped his eyes and face with his sleeve.

“Let us return to the kitchen,” said Father Carthage. “There is nothing we can do.”

The peasant who had been in the kitchen jumped as the door opened and the men filed in. Once he saw who it was, he let his face fall back into his hands, his fingers tangled in a rosary, his lips moving quietly.

After they returned to the benches around the table, Brother Roland broke the sad silence.

“What are your names?”

Je m’appelle Pierrick,” the peasant who stood with them in the hallway said. He was bearded and filthy from his daytime toil; his eyes were dark, but honest. “Et il s’appelle Rémy.” He pointed to the praying man at the table. Heads nodded.

“Wolves?” This time Father Carthage spoke.

“Maybe,” answered Pierrick. “We found him on the monastery road. We sometimes cut through from his field to mine. We were later coming home tonight than usual. Mostly we see him at dusk and he waves. I did not expect to find him.”

“Why would he have been out there still in the dark?” Louis asked, angry.

“Perhaps time slipped from him,” said Rémy softly.

“Not likely,” Louis retorted. “He’s building a road. In the dark?”

“Then he may have been attacked before the sun went down,” Brother Roland said.

The thought of poor Father Apollinaris laying on his own road slowly bleeding to death made Louis’s heart ache.

“Well,” said Brother Roland as he stood. “Let us go and look.”

Quoi?” said Rémy. “Non, I go nowhere but home and only then with a party. Or I sleep here until daybreak.”

“Coward,” said Roland, his chest swelling with disgust. Rémy only glared at the old soldier.

Brother Roland looked at Father Carthage, who turned his eyes away and put up his hand.

“I am best employed in prayer, I’m afraid,” he said.

Roland snorted and then looked at Pierrick. “And so it is only the two of us,” Roland said.

Pierrick nodded.

“I am going,” said Louis, angry he’d been excluded.

Brother Roland shook his head.

“I cannot trust my back to a heretic,” he said coldly.

Louis thought he might lash out and strike the old man, but Pierrick spoke up.

“I don’t care how this man worships,” he said. “His eyes are as good as any, and the more on my back the better.”

“I am willing to bet,” Louis added, “that despite anyone’s little red ribbons, I am the only man here holding a pistol.”

Roland’s face turned crimson, and Father Carthage gasped. Louis insisted they remain until he returned with it, and with that, he dashed to his cell and retrieved the revolver from his knapsack.

“But there is another man,” Father Carthage insisted as Louis walked through the door and stood by it.

“Right,” said Roland. “I saw him in the afternoon, but I haven’t seen him since. And he hasn’t seen fit to dine with us. Perhaps he is already gone on his way.”

“Perhaps,” said Father Carthage and the matter of the extra man was dropped. Louis didn’t think much of it. Four men would be preferable, but he felt confident that, with three plus his pistol, they’d be safe enough.

“We have no other weapons,” Roland said.

“The father’s barrow and tools were nearby,” Pierrick said. “Obviously, it didn’t seem important at the time.”

“We will make our way . . .” Louis began, but Roland spoke loudly over him.

“Our unit will make its way to Father Apollinaris’s barrow and then inspect the area.”

Louis closed his mouth and resolved not to concern himself. In the end, the old soldier would arm himself with a stick, whereas Louis would be able to blast anything that growled in the shadows.

“Father,” Roland turned to Father Carthage. “Please inform Father Prior of our operation.”

All but Rémy stood and they left the kitchen. Each grabbed a lantern from the line that remained glowing just inside the door.

“My son,” Father Carthage addressed Louis. “It is not too late.”

For a moment, Louis couldn’t see what Carthage was getting at.

“Your sect,” the priest went on, “for I think you will admit I would be doing it too much honor to call it a religion, will not shield you from what is out there.”

Louis’s face burned.

“Where ever should my sect fail me, Father Carthage,” he spit, “The three of us shall be shielded by the God of steel.” He patted the revolver beneath his coat and Father Carthage crossed himself.

The three men let themselves out through the door and then paused at the gate to open it. As they did, the abbey bells rang out across the night, echoing their somber song over the hills and valleys of Vivarais. Father Apollinaris had died. The men stopped and bowed their heads, except for Louis, who looked up to the sky above the belfry, half-expecting to see the jolly white-clad friar ascending on a beam. The chimes changed from sad to joyous, as if welcoming the dawn of a new day, and in fact, he supposed they were, for one man, at least. After a moment, Louis could discern the distant song of what must have been the bells of a hundred surrounding holy houses, all joining their brothers in both their joy and sorrow. And, despite Brother Roland and Father Carthage, Louis’s esteem for the Catholic faith expanded a little more.

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Beast16

Brothers in the garden came and went. Three took their prayers on the terrace, a few tended the browning vegetation, which Louis could see must have bloomed beautifully in the spring and summer months. Others walked alone or in pairs, all in silence. The monastery and garden sat in its hallowed valley between two hills; on one side, the slope ascended nakedly, and on the other, a blue carpet of firs. The atmosphere, though not as sterile as he’d feared, still felt ultimately lifeless, for life was more than quiet contemplation. Life was action. It was more than the bare contours of a rocky terrain; it was the sun warming the needles of the pine and sending its scent up to heaven. It was the comforting shade beneath the boughs. It must be more than this.

Louis sat on a bench looking at his hands. His wrists were slight, his fingers thin, with two gold bands on the left—one on his ring finger, the other on the index. The tips and cuticles of his right were ink stained, the knot of his middle finger pronounced. He examined them because he didn’t know where else to look, being surrounded by people, but not really, as it felt a veil had been drawn between him and them. It was not quite dusk yet, but the light took on that affected golden tone that murmured the coming of night.

Finally, a brother approached. He had so quickly blended back in with his brethren, Louis didn’t know the monk until he was practically upon him. Brother Porter made a slight hand gesture to Louis and smiled. Louis followed him.

He was taken to the part of the building reserved for messieurs les retraitants and to a compact cell that was, like the outside, whitewashed and clean, and sparsely furnished, as he’d expected. Brother Porter humbly received Louis’s thanks and departed. There was a cot, a crucifix on the wall, and a bust of the Pope on the windowsill. Next to the cot was a tiny nightstand, upon which was stacked a book of religious meditations, Kempis’s De Imitatione Christi, and a copy of the Life of Elizabeth Seton. Above the stand were instructions for the visitor, a schedule of prayers, and whatnot. Attached, a note that read: “Free time is used for examining the conscience, for confession, and for making good resolutions.”

Yes, it is, thought Louis, and indeed, all the world really was his own monastic cell.

He spread his sack double over the cot, for a moment feeling guilty and sure no one else in the building would be as warm. They were, though, living this life by choice, whereas he was merely passing through. He set his knapsack—full of his other effects—by the bed and then crept stealthily out the door to explore his surroundings.

This more public section of the building was nearest the gate through which he and Modestine had entered. There was a dining room on the ground floor, in addition to another corridor leading to more visitors’ cells. The adventure was briefer than he’d expected, as there really wasn’t anything exciting or complicated about this place. It made sense, he supposed. The fewer distractions, the closer the mind gets to God, and so follows the spirit.

He lingered in the halls for another ten minutes or so, walking the length and back again, listening. Small noises met his ear amidst the ambient silence—the shuffling of a page, the slight clearing of a throat. So, he wasn’t alone in this part of the monastery. This gave him a sense of relief, as he felt he’d never be able to sleep, entombed as he’d be in this empty honeycomb of rooms. After a few more minutes, no one emerged from any room and Louis’s hopes to find conversation diminished enough to send him back to his own cell, and take up the Life of Elizabeth Seton. With that—boring words on dreary paper, revealing the dull life of this American Catholic convert-turned-Saint—he fell asleep and dreamt disjointedly of friars and firs, of donkeys and dormitories.

When he awoke, it was hard on sunset and his stomach growled angrily. He opened his eyes just in time to watch the last sliver of golden light fade and turn the air blue with evening. He heard a door open and then close, but softly, as though the occupant was an elephant fumbling through the wine cabinet in search of a fluted glass.

* * *

The monastery kitchen, despite being as new as the rest of the building, felt more rustic than anything Louis had seen here so far. The walls were still white, and the tables and cabinets bore only the small scars of the last forty years, but the bowls and utensils—the most intimate objects relating to food—were wooden and pocked with age. There was a large brick oven built into the wall that operated like any rural fireplace, except in that you didn’t have to bend over as much. Long-handled ladles hung beside it; a number of hefty iron pots stacked on the floor. One nestled in the oven over a fire, steaming up the mouth-watering smells of a monkish soup—the best soup in the world.

When Louis entered the kitchen, there was one man sitting with a bowl in front of him, and another man—a religious man—filling his own. There were three lamps—one by the door, one on the table, and one by the oven—that threw three yellow rings of light that connected just around their edges. The rest of the room was in darkness.

Bonsoir,” Louis said quietly. “May I join you?”

The two men looked at him strangely.

“Of course,” said the religious man, as he sat down opposite the other man with his soup.

Louis knew he was religious because he wore a habit, although it was different from the robes of Our Lady of the Snows. It was brown, like sack cloth, only much heavier.

“I am Father Carthage,” he said. “And this is Brother Roland.”

Brother Roland nodded to Louis. He was a short, stocky man of perhaps fifty, with a grizzled peasant’s face. Although Father Carthage called him Brother, he wore a tweed suit with a red ribbon knotted in the top buttonhole, signifying that while he may be a religious novice now, he was, at some point, and still is, proud of having been a soldier.

Louis filled a bowl with the soup that was more of a stew. Although prepared entirely with vegetables, it was so thick with them, and of such variety, that it nearly tasted meaty.

As they ate, Louis learned that Father Carthage was a parish priest on holiday—he’d walked over that morning from Mende for a handful of days dedicated to seclusion and meditation. He complained of the trouble he’d had with his skirts over the rocky paths and grumbled that he would have to have a talk with the Sisters who did the hemming. Brother Roland was, as Louis suspected, an old soldier, who, immediately upon his discharge from a lengthy military career, sequestered himself to this religious life. He found, though, that no matter how calm his disposition became, the soldier in him was not easily quelled. Eventually, he had to conclude that his taking the robes was never meant to be, but that God had led him here for a reason, and therefore he would exist straddling that line, between soldier and monk.

Louis explained who he was and why he was there. The men nodded, seemingly disinterested, which struck Louis as odd. The priest kept glancing down at the hem of his robes and shaking them, as if the mud of the morning’s walk had still not come off completely. The soldier only sat bolt upright and spooned the stew into his mouth, elbow stiffly out. His bowl was empty in about ten seconds. He wiped his mouth and then retrieved another helping, which he readily dispatched as quickly as the first.

Louis dipped a piece of what might have been the most delicious bread he’d ever eaten—soft, but dense, with a nutty country flavor and a consistency that gave the impression of flying straight from the millstone to the oven. He was about to resign himself to the fact that conversation would never come. As with the four Frenchman at Monastier, Louis longed to relax into the charming conversationalist his friends knew him to be. He swore his muscles itched to fling him this way and that, to act out what news of the day happened upon topic, to flap his hands in the face of his audience to drive home whatever salient and belief-altering piece of philosophy he espoused. He missed his friends. But he’d just have to satisfy himself with this fine meal and be off to bed, when the soldier finally spoke.

“It is a shame about Mac-Mahon,” he said, and folded his napkin, placing it beside his empty bowl.

It was a start.

And from there, the three men launched into a dialogue that would fairly cover all aspects of contemporary French politics and last about an hour, until Louis inevitably made his fatal mistake.

“But at least Gambetta has acted in moderation,” Louis said, rubbing the now-dry bottom of his bowl with the edge of his spoon. This was worse than no conversation at all and he sought grounds to excuse himself.

It was as if the temperature in the room had dropped. Louis looked up to see perhaps that someone had walked through the door and caused both the chill and the silence. But the two men merely stared holes into Louis’s forehead. He traced his mistake and knew immediately—although Gambetta was politically moderate, and even kept Mac-Mahon from losing power sooner than he did, he was also a well-known anti-cleric. It made sense that it slipped Louis’s mind.

Comment, monsieur?” the old soldier finally exploded and he sprang from his seat. “Comment? Gambetta a moderate? Will you dare justify these words?”

The man’s anger shook the walls of the little kitchen and Louis cringed involuntarily, but as he was about to rally himself for a defense, the priest set his hand on Roland’s arm. The soldier looked at him and was thus reminded of where he was, and who he was trying to become. Brother Roland took a deep breath, composed himself by running his palms down the breast of his suit, inadvertently flicking the red ribbon as he did, and sat down. He didn’t look at Louis. And when Louis opened his mouth to explain, Father Carthage held up his hand to stop him. The priest gave him a look as if to say, he will not hear you; wait until he is truly calm. Louis nodded his assent.

It was an argument, but infinitely more interesting than the conversational route they had been on.

After a few minutes, the soldier, who seemed as if he’d spent that time meditating fruitfully and was entirely composed, spoke.

“And are you even of the true faith?” he asked Louis.

Louis sighed deeply and then watched Father Carthage’s face collapse slowly as the silence before Louis’s answer lengthened, clearly indicating that it would not be to the holy man’s liking. Louis stared at the bottom of his bowl, as if scrying the wood for a way out. Finally, the priest reached out and patted Louis on the shoulder.

“Well,” he said simply.

Louis was already thanking the stars for the forgiveness he was about to receive.

“Well,” the priest repeated. “You must simply be a Catholic, and come to heaven.”

And so went a defense, infuriating to commence, not simply of politics, but of personal faith. When Louis professed the faith of his countrymen, the priest answered:

“And you mean to die holding that sort of belief?”

When Louis fell to the justification of his parents, the priest answered:

“Very well; you will convert them in their turn when you go home.”

No motive, no matter the impetus, was any match for the holy man’s vindication. All mens’ faiths—apart from his own—were malleable, and once transformed, it could be spread to those equally pliable. Brother Roland sat with his palms now flat on the table before him, looking at Louis’s rings.

“No,” Louis said, finally. “I have no intention of changing.”

“But you must,” Father Carthage pressed. “God has led you here and you must embrace the opportunity.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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