Issue 101, Winter 1986
For a few years I had a garden in a ruined village. I worked through the long summer afternoons on a limestone upland full of the sound of cicadas, in a place that I had found.
The garden was a long triangle surrounded by gray limestone walls worn at the tops like old mountains. When I first came to it there was no garden to be seen. Only one wall was visible. The highest one, chin level. No doubt the oldest. The wall ran along the lane, with long streamers of blackberry canes flowing over it into the bleached rubble and thin grass, the wild marjoram and red herb robin scribbled along the way. It faced south and saw the whole day. The other side of the wall was deep in a rough sea of wild blackberry bushes. They crowded the undefined corner west of the ruined one-roomed house with its roofless stones, its whole west wall the back of a chimney.
I looked over from the lane onto the storm of blackberry bushes. Beyond that there were three walnut trees standing in broken stones, and then a grove of small oaks, dark and still, with their feet in their own leaves and shadow. M. Vert said they were truffle oaks, and that was a truffle grove. But he added, though he wanted to sell the land, that no one had found a truffle there for a very long time. It was also true that anyone who knew where truffles grew would deny the fact, to keep it secret.
M. Vert pointed to splashes of shiny black balls spilled in the lane. Fresh sheep droppings. “The neighbor,” he said, with contempt. He meant, as I realized in a moment, the neighbor’s sheep. The neighbor, he explained, pushing up his lower lip hard against the rest of his face, the neighbor permitted his sheep to go anywhere. As though the whole place belonged to him. The neighbor took his sheep in there too, he said, jutting his chin toward the ruin and the enclosure around it.
He showed me where the neighbor had deliberately let his sheep in to that bit of stony upland. The old entrance from the lane, with its stone gate posts, had been destroyed at some time in the past. The huge rough stones that had once been there had been removed. M. Vert told me that he had dragged them away himself, on the trailer behind his tractor. The frayed ends of the wall had collapsed into the long grass and blackberry tangles. A barrier of dead sloe branches, laid across the opening, had been pushed aside. Behind the wall, in the shadow of the bushes, the lush green grass of spring, sick-lewort, agrimony, horsemint, had been broken and trampled here and there, in thin lines. M. Vert indicated more sheep droppings, pale and old. I would do well, he said, to tell the neighbor he had no business in there, and keep him out.
They were no good in that family, any of them, M. Vert told me, shaking his head as slowly as a bull’s, all the way from one side to the other, with his lower lip crumpled up again. They were good for nothing. “They have nothing,” he said, as though he were saying everything.
He had stopped under the mossy walnut tree just inside the barrier, to make his point, jabbing the stumps of two lost fingers of his right hand in my direction, twisting one side of his face and closing one eye as he peered up at me. The father was like that, he said to me, and the grandfather. The old woman is just the same. “They do nothing,” he said. “They do nothing.”
Some land they sold for debts, he told me, and he looked to see whether I knew what “debts” meant. In the pause I realized that he had dropped his voice, and that the oaks were utterly still. The grandfather drank, he continued, still more quietly. They sold some land for that. He touched his forehead and shook his head. “Look,” he said, stepping aside, covering his mouth with his hand. “The father. He drank too. He and the sons went hunting. They were always going hunting. They loved to hunt. They had time for that. Doing nothing.
“One day they were going out hunting. They had the dogs. They were just along from the green across from the house, there. Already—” M. Vert held an invisible bottle up to his face, with the stumps of his fingers, and tossed back his head. “And it was the morning. They were climbing over the wall, and the father caught his leg in a bush and the shotgun went off. They got him home but nobody would go for the doctor, and he died. The sons were drunk at the funeral.
“You mustn’t let them in here,” M. Vert said. “They’re not to be trusted. Things have been known to disappear. One knows what one knows. The neighbor can’t work for anybody around here. He doesn’t do anything anyway. He takes out the sheep. The old woman isn’t any better. She’s always out looking for something. She has her pension, you understand, and as long as they have that, that’s what they have. They’re crazy.”
It was an old walnut tree, over us, but it had stayed small in that thin soil. Three others of the same age followed the wall along the lane, shading an overgrown inner enclosure. M. Vert was standing outside the gray wreck of the stone house. A shepherd’s house. The stones of its front door, like the entrance stones along the lane, had been extracted. M. Vert said that he had pulled them out at the same time that he had taken the tiles off the roof, and the stones framing the nearer of the two windows. The stones of the other window were already cracked from the frost, at the time, he explained, and so he had left those. That was years ago.
The single room of the ruin was full of whitened rubble from the walls, pieces of stone clicking underfoot, moss and nettles and blackberry bushes clouding the corners. And yet the walls appeared to be intact except for the jagged spaces laced with blackberry canes where the door and front window had been. They still bore, along their steep-pitched upper edges, the shallow staircases of flat stones, lapped to keep the rain out. And there were sockets for the ends of the oak beams. M. Vert had “pulled” those too, he said, and the rafters, they were good. He had used them. One heavy beam that was the mantlepiece of the fireplace was still there at eye level, running most of the way across the western end of the room into a notch in the upright slab of rough limestone that made, all by itself, the chimney corner. Between that stone and the wall, M. Vert explained, they had piled firewood to keep it dry. It was one of the few things, I thought, that we knew about them. In the back of the fireplace the small hollow left by their fires was disappearing under the wiry tangle of small bushes but it was there, washed white again.
The south wall, where the door and one window had been, and the north wall, with the other window embrasure across from the door, were the lower walls, on which the eaves had rested. The stones inside had been covered, up to the height of the beams, with an uneven coat of sandy cement in which, at a later date, on the east wall, a cross had been scratched, and a few illegible initials, something that looked like a date, over near the north window. The east wall rose higher, to take the end of the roof tree. Above the level where the loft floor had lain on the beams the stones were not cemented or mortared. There was a small stone window hole up there facing out into the walnut leaves and the blue sky. The east wall was already leaning outward. It was, M. Vert said, merely the stones. He turned, and it was clear that he was referring to the whole building.
For some reason, when he had torn out everything he had wanted, he had left the shallow stone sink in the base of the south window, where the dishes had been washed. Outside the window, hens had followed us in from the lane. The neighbor’s, M. Vert said. From the trees, voices of chaffinches and black-capped warblers circled us. The walls held the light like a prism, framing a piece of sky in which a few clouds slipped southward so that when I looked up the ruin seemed to be rolling silently toward the shadowy oak trees. It smelled as though the roof were still on and the house had been standing closed.
“I saw it inhabited,” M. Vert said. “The old woman here,” he said, speaking of the last person who had lived in the house, “grew good potatoes in the garden there.”
The inner wall of the garden, on the side away from the lane toward the oaks, ran along under bushes to a low building at the end, round as the houses of the Gauls and roofed with stone slabs of limestone broad as table tops, piled up in the shape of a straw beehive. An oven. A stone shelf crossed the front of it at waist level: a sill, plain, elegant, and practical. Neglect had roughened it. But inside, the vaulted brick ceiling had never moved. The rusted oven door was still leaning against the dark arch of the opening, held in place by black-berry vines, and the dust on the square bricks of the oven floor was still gray with the ashes of brambles. The gray dust hung in the cobwebs and the few hair roots that had found their way down through the stone roof into the still cave. Field mice lived along the sill. In time I pulled the brambles from the cracks outside, and replanted irises and shepherd’s thyme where they had grown before, around the edge of the oven roof and along the tops of the garden walls as they emerged.
The back of the oven occupied one corner of the garden, a small Romanesque apse, a formal cave in the open, floating through the centuries like an ark on a river. The stones had been as beautifully cut and fitted as they were in the masonry of the churches of the region, and the stone eaves, at waist-level if one were standing in the garden, sat on the walls in perfect shallow tiers, like the rings on the cap of a mushroom.
As the brambles were drawn away from the back of the oven their shadows came with them, dark green shadows, and the stone appeared, pale to the sunlight and also facing south, but in a curve, looking onto the south of the world, the southern stars, the south wind with its lashing rain.
By the time I had got to there I had indeed found the garden. I wanted to see where she had grown her potatoes. I wanted to grow some there again.
I had brought a sickle and an old pitchfork with a handle made of hazelnut sapling, for clearing the brambles. I had watched the people of the region cutting blackberry bushes, the branches that moved in as you turned your back, and made the old men welcome the new machines not as means of profit but as weapons of vengeance upon the brambles that had beaten them from the fields. The machines vindicated them, avenged them, routed the enemy. But even with machines appearing here and there, the old continued to cut the brambles with sickle and pitchfork, at the edges of fields, along the crumbling walls. It was good for them, they said, clearing under the walnut trees before the walnuts fell, and under the plum trees before the plums ripened. And before the plums, here and there the cherries, if they bothered with cherries. Sometimes they cleared the brambles from around the roses at the edges of manure piles, the Autumn Flowering Damasks, the Roses of Four Seasons, as they called them.
The cantonniers used a sickle and a pitchfork. They kept their murky bottles tucked under piles of freshly cut green grass in the shade of the sloe bushes as they worked their way along the blowsy verges of the back roads, clearing and leaving a trail of neat piles to vouch for them. They knew where the springs were in the shade. They paused to roll cigarettes, which they smoked soaking wet. They sharpened their sickles carefully, patiently, endlessly. The sweat of a cantonnier, according to a local saying, is very had. The saying was repeated like a chorus, as the cantonniers sharpened their sickles in the shade. Some of them were rotund and red and had worked at other things at one time. They kept their hair cut short up the backs of their necks, and they glared and puffed and sweated. Some were languid, silent, fair-haired. It was surprising to learn that they had wives and children. It was also surprising to see how much they had cleared in a day, and where they piled the brambles, keeping them separate from the grass. At one time the young canes of blackberry bushes were used for wrapping the rye straw and then stitching the long rolls into beehives. And the dried bramble cuttings were piled up to burn in the ovens, to bake the big loaves of bread for the week. For cutting thick brush, sometimes the people of the region used a heavy crescent-shaped sickle at the end of a long handle—a billhook, a serpette—but I was never very adept with one of those. With the ordinary sickle I could watch what I was doing, catch sight of what was growing under the brambles before I swung the blade, cutting the years.
The hens followed me through the barrier and scratched among the oak leaves. There were so few people on that upland that there were almost no words in the day. To the left of the place where the entrance from the lane had once stood framed in stone the bushes were thick and lush, the soil under them black. Some kind of outbuilding must have stood there, with its back to the beautifully built wall that formed the narrow end of the garden. That section of wall, I saw as the brambles were drawn back, still bore its top course of flat stones lapped vertically. All of the walls that were built to last, it was said — which meant all of the walls until the present century—were built like that. The vertical stones held the tops of the walls together, and the sheep, and even the goats, did not like to run on them. The entrance to the garden was at the narrow, eastern end, just at the corner near the house. There was a stone sill at the opening, for a gate, one step up. A garden of blackberries, nettles, and wild marjoram. I wondered why I should change it, but I did.
In the fair afternoons of spring, with the light still downy, the air sweet from the ground, I came day after day to slip through the newly reopened garden entrance and cut another patch of brambles. I carried off the thrashing, snatching, scratching tangles of vines on the end of the pitchfork, out of the old garden, to stack them along the low places in the walls, where the hens came over. The narrow end of the garden was not much more than a dozen feet across. West of there, the garden ran for some sixty feet or more. The far wall, hidden in brambles, seemed buried in the remote future. Here and there through gaps in the brambles I could see that it too had most of its vertical course of stones along the top. One morning while the air was still cool I found, in the dark damp shadow of the brambles the white translucent skin of a large harmless snake. In two pieces.
When I had laid bare a little of the inside of the wall along the lane, M. Vert came by one afternoon with a load of sheep manure and forked it over the wall, where I found it later in the day. A present. He had told me that he liked my efforts to revive the garden, and when I saw him and spoke of the manure he said that he had been taking it out to the fields anyway, and had just brought me a load in passing.
By then I had begun, with an old digging fork, to turn over a little of the area I had cleared, working the tines down into the heavy red clay and the mass of roots that had become the possessors of the place. I laid bare the hard brown knots of ancient blackberry kingdoms, the wiry arteries leading down between stones, mats of finer roots full of the dark soil that they had helped to make. The limestone base of the garden was seldom more than a foot below the surface, and I came to learn, a few inches at a time, clefts and fissures that led down through the porous shield of the upland with its endless galleries and caverns and underground streams far below me out of the sun. The place itself was a memory that I was recovering. Some few of the living, perhaps, and many of the dead, one by one, had known it this way, inch by inch, root by root. They had carried many fields in their minds, like this, and had spoken from that knowledge and had died with it. It was not something you could tell, apart from particular details, now and then. Every day it was strange to me to realize that I was letting the light in, and that as I did so the colors emerged without hesitation from where they had always been.
The first time the soil was turned over was devoted chiefly to the roots, levering them, tracing them, working them loose from their lives in the dark, hauling them into the sunlight. But even in that first disturbance of the contented ground I found signals of other lives to which I was wholly unforeseen. The shafts of worms. The iridescent tracks of snails. The crumbled litter of field mice and their children in the walls. The moles that had tunnels under the walls down into the cracks of the rock. One hot day as I went on interfering I lifted a stone and surprised a viper under it, who flexed, watching me, and waited. I let the stone back down carefully and never saw him afterwards. The same encounter had happened years before, miles from there, and I began to expect it to come round again.
The heavy soil was full of stones, fragments of the bedrock, pieces shattered by the front or fallen from the hands of the builders of walls, or from the walls themselves. There were fossils: extinct mollusks as large as lemons, etchings of sections of ferns. Small square nails made by hand. The iron sole from a wooden shoe. A bone button. A small coin from the last century, which someone had missed. Shards of crockery with pictures of flowers. The day I broke the second tine of the digging fork in a cleft of the rock I found an older digging fork in the ground next to the wall, the handle rotted out and all of its tines broken at different lengths. Even with short teeth, M. Vert explained to me later, the old forks were still good for digging potatoes. The day I reached the back of the oven, in my clearing, and pulled the brambles back from the masonry, I found, tucked among the flat stones of the eaves, part of the curved blade of a sickle.
By the time M. Vert had brought his load of manure I was ready to start layering some of it into the compost pile of weeds and grass roots that I had started in the corner, and digging some in where I thought to put in the first seeds, along the inner wall. Radishes, to have something soon from that garden to encourage me. There was a variety that promised radishes in eighteen days, and it was true. Less than three weeks after I had sowed them I took some up the lane for my supper, and some to Mme. Vert for theirs. She gave me a handful of lettuce plants from her garden, wrapped in a piece of wet newspaper. And I set in the first furrow of beans. Broad beans. It was still early enough in the year for them, and they grew well in the heavy lime soil of the region. They could even be sowed there in the fall, like St. Catherine peas. You wanted to get them in late, so that they would scarcely have begun to make leaves before the real frosts, otherwise the tender shoots would be bitten back by the winter. But if you caught the right moment in late October or early November, and the moon and the rain were right, and it was a mild winter, they would start off early in the spring while the ground was dark. A late hard frost could kill them then too, if it was severe enough, but you had a good chance of having young broad beans and St. Catherine peas weeks early, and if you lost them you could dig them under as soon as it was dry enough, and start again.
The wide trench for planting broad beans always looked like part of an archaeological survey. Any roots that were still left after the soil had been dug arid dug and manured and dug again trailed in from the sides like hair and could be lifted out and tossed to the pile in the corner. I had one of the wide heavy mattocks of the region, bought at a fair without a handle—the handle came later. It seemed to do the job by itself, lifting out the soil a few inches deep, along the stretched white string.
The flat beans went in with the brown eye facing upward. An old woman in her walled ga:rden in the village three miles away explained that the reason for that is that the sprout comes out of the eye and grows upward. If you have the bean on its side or with the eye downward the sprout has to grow farther. It may have to grow all the way around the bean to get to the surface, and it takes several days for it to do that. It will be behind the shoots that started the right way up. In heavy rains, she said, the bean planted wrong way up may even rot before its shoot reaches the surface.
I never knew beans of that kind when I was a child. They were unheard of where I grew up, in Pennsylvania, unless they were grown by some of those “foreigners” whose gardens my parents and their friends made fun of because instead of having patches of dazed shorn grass known as lawns, and nameless unnoticed bushes around their houses in the approved fashion, they “crowded every inch with vegetables.” It is still important in many neighborhoods, no doubt, to show that you are above the need to do anything of the kind for yourself. It seems to me that I saw, outside: Pisanelli’s Italian grocery store, on the steep curve of Lower Taylor street, leading down into town, tall wicker baskets full of beans of that kind, lying on their sides, a pinkish or greenish tan, thicker than lima beans, longer and not so round, shaped more like a human ear or fetus. There were other baskets nearly filled with snails. If I was with my mother she remarked each time that foreigners ate those things. Everything about the place drew me as it was not supposed to: the sharp, troubling smells, the cheeses, sausages and hams hanging in string halters, the bundles of herbs, the gold of the cans. My mother shook her head at the flies and hurried us along home. When I was older and alone I walked past more slowly, a little anxious, listening to the strange language coming out of the darkness inside: the foreign language station on the radio, which I learned to find in my room at home and play quietly, in secret. I suppose the beans in those baskets had been imported. I remember now the light sound they made when someone, thinking of buying some, picked up a handful and let them run out between fingers and fall back into the basket like the dripping of eaves. Dried like that, they are smooth as foreheads, and it was a pleasure, those years later, to set each one back into the ground.
Always when they were planted it was cool. And each time I put them in I saw again the first field of them that I had come upon, long before I ever grew any myself. That was in Spain, in Mallorca, at the middle of the century. The north coast of the island. In the first weeks of the year when the days were sunny I climbed the stone paths and the steps built into the faces of the olive terraces far above the sea, toward the oak woods where the pigs ran, toward the huts of the charcoal burners, and the cliffs looming above me. The almond trees were in flower and the peaches in bud. The spring wild flowers on the terraces changed from one day to the next: anemones, lilies, cyclamens. The air was heavy with the smell of flowers, and as I climbed the fragrance grew still more intense. I heard a man singing a few long phrases, then talking, then singing again. I climbed a terrace wall and beyond two rows of olive trees there was a small open field, a surprise on the steep mountainside. The air was cooler up there, and there were wisps of cloud drifting from the cliff down across the field, and the strongest and sweetest smell was coming with them. The field was full of grayish-green broad-leaved plants, less than two feet tall, covered with flowers like white and black butterflies. A young man in black was walking away between the rows behind a mule that was pulling a small cultivator. He was talking to the mule, and singing. Then he came to the end of the row and turned and started back, and saw me. He stopped singing, and he talked to the mule in a lower voice. When he came near and I greeted him he scarcely answered. He wanted me to go, and I knew it, but I asked him what the plants were that he was growing. Not believing me —how could anybody not know that?—he told me that they were beans, and I left. But it was not until I grew broad beans myself, years later, and the oval leaves unfurled and the white and black flowers opened and the scent was there again, that I knew what kind of beans those were with the chill mist flowing through them.
The beans came up along the inner wall facing south, and I set some young plants of savory, that I had grown in pots, at the ends of the rows, thinking already of picking savory sprigs to steam with the beans when they were ready. The limestone upland, the causse, was fragrant too, in whatever season, and its scents changed through the hours as the shadows moved, and the cool patches in the air, the damp currents from under the trees. Beyond the west wall of the garden, in the spring, three big bird cherry trees silently exploded in white flowers, their thick sweetness laced with a rank bitterness like that of almonds. The bees hovered for hours in the sunlight reflected from the clouds of translucent petals among the small, waxy, pale green leaves. The smells of wet leaves and moss wandered along the walls under the oaks and walnuts. In the middle of the day the sun brought out the subtle smell of the upland itself, made up of scents of thyme and marjoram, of the baked stones and leaves and earth, the acrid notes of box and ivy. They turned through the day, undefinable but clear, and out in the garden on the causse, among the network of overgrown walls, they came to be a kind of sundial. From the scent of the air I could tell what part of the day it was.
And the causse was not silent. Bending toward the soil I would hear the sounds of the upland rise in my ears like water, though a moment before I might not have noticed that they were there. The leaves and the grass rustling. Cicadas, as the days grew warm. Crows off in the woods, half echo. Finches. The tsip of titmice. The occasional distant clonk of a sheep bell. The pensive hens cawing to themselves up the lane, reminding me of someone. There were few voices, and few sounds that broke the low continuo. Sometimes on the breeze I would hear M. Vert herding his half dozen red cows down another lane beyond the broad green, taking them to pasture in the morning, usually on foot. “Veng, veng, veng,” he would be calling. He was away out of sight of the garden, but I knew that he was walking along rapidly in his black rubber boots crusted from the barn, a man short as a dwarf in a fairy tale, with his rod over his shoulder, looking back from time to time at the lead cow whose clear bell was singing behind him. If it was raining he walked more slowly under his big black umbrella.
Some days he came with his daughter Jacinthe, taller and more robust than he, and the black dog Montagne, who barked along behind them. Sometimes she came by herself, calling “Veng, veng, veng,” more melodically than her father, more like the bell. Or one of them drove after the cows in their Citroen 2CV fourgonette that could take two sheep in the back and you could squeeze their lambs in after them. If the cows were brought down to one of M. Vert’s pastures in the morning after milking, they would be fetched home at milking time in the evening, and when I heard him or Jacinthe talking them up the lane, and the bell steadily receding, it was time to start putting the garden tools away in the oven and — once the garden had begun to supply me with things to eat— to start picking something for supper.
But I did not hear that every day. M. Vert had several pastures and moved the cows around for reasons having to do with the weather, the grass, or where he happened to be working. There were other sounds that told of the progress of the day, that it was growing late. There were the birds. And there was that other herding voice, the neighbor’s, coming from the direction opposite to M. Vert’s—from the east, from out of sight too, when the neighbor was bringing his flock of thirty-seven sheep home along the lane where it dipped through dark oak woods, widened as it descended across a slope of naked rock, still between walls, then wound through a green hollow with lush young grass in meadows on either side and more woods beyond them, and passed beside the spring under over-hanging rocks that had been the water source for the ruined shepherd’s house. An arch of rusted iron and the crumbling lace of a pulley were reflected against the sky in the surface below.
I could hear the neighbor coming from as far as the oak woods, shouting at his sheep, “Mehl mehl veux tu?” Scolding at their tails, while their heads were poked through wooden gates into the tempting green. He was pretending to drive them past the rich grass that was not his, but he waited until they had a chance to get a bit of grazing first. A voice thick rather than deep. Rapid and crabbed, belligerent and anxious.
The sheep pattered through the mud and wet grass below the spring and scattered on the green space where the walls fell aside unevenly at the site of an intersection of lanes, some of which had long been abandoned, one of them leading down into the thickets and shadows of a hollow of oaks and sloe bushes. Two that were still used parted on the slope and continued to climb in diverging directions. From the spring the neighbor could take his sheep home along either of them. He could bear to the right and go up the bank to the paved road that had buried the lane for some distance, and follow the road to the left, under the railroad bridge, and then pick up the lane again —his and mine —on the other side, and clamber over the big rocks, like steps, on the slope, toward the garden. But he never came that way, although M. Vert said it was the way he was supposed to come. I could see why the neighbor would not want to take his sheep on the paved road. the long way around, under the railroad bridge. Instead he came the way he was not supposed to, turning left on the track made by his own sheep, up the railroad embankment and across the track, and on up through the no-man’s land of rocks and scrub on the other side, to pick up the old lane there.
They crossed at a spot where a small maintenance hut stood by the tracks on a bed of crushed stone that looked alien, like the rest of the embankment, even though the actual stone had come from nearby. There was a grilled opening under the wooden eaves of the shed, and the door was seldom locked. The neighbor always paused to peer in through the grille, and sometimes opened the door to look inside, as though he were checking. And then he shut it carefully, quietly, and turned to his loud reminding of the sheep. He knew, of course, the hours when the trains came by, but even so he hurried them off the right-of-way, the single track, and onto the rough hill-side beyond it where they knew the way up the slope and along to the left, to the walls that led under the walnut trees before the garden. Once the sheep were well away from the track his scolding lost some of its urgency. His voice dropped and became more absent-minded, even confidential, shooing them home, the few old bells bonking their dull notes, the lambs baaing, the ewes’ guttural answers. They were still hidden from my sight, around the curve of the lane, behind the ruin of the shepherd’s house and the overgrown enclosure under the walnut trees, when I began to hear their hooves coming like a rain squall on the bare rock of the lane, and then the sound of their jaws tearing at the grass at the foot of the walls. Then if I straightened up in the garden I would see them nosing in at the entrance. When they saw me they always startled and panicked and rushed a few steps backward, falling over each other, and usually about then the neighbor would appear around the bend, from the left.
He was stocky and short. Somewhere in his late thirties. He dressed like no one else on the causse. A tight sleeveless tank top, of a bright color, usually red. Satin athletic shorts, usually red. Sneakers. (In the summer.) His arms and legs were thick and tanned, and he wore no hat—a fact that, for M. Vert, was the ultimate mark of depravity. But M. Vert regarded the entire costume, which obviously had been imitated from pictures in the sports sections of the papers, as evidence of insanity, and a deliberate affront to the world as it should be. “He doesn’t wear a hat,” he said, shrugging his shoulders to sum it all up. “He’ll kill himself.” M. Vert washed his hands of the whole had business, and deliberately talked of other things for a minute or two.
M. Vert had a fund of calumny about the neighbor which he referred to whenever I saw him. He would inquire about the neighbor and leer confidentially and then fish out the next morsel of innuendo. Things missing from empty houses in the village across the upland. Things missing from another empty house among the pastures. Nobody else around there would have taken anything, M. Vert repeated. Then a few years before when a nice young foreigner camped by the green the neighbor had come and hung over the wall and made remarks. He had made remarks, M. Vert repeated. “Reflections, even,” he added by way of elucidation, but he raised his face with an expression indicating that he would carry the nature of those reflections in silence to the grave. The reflections had got worse, if possible, when the young foreigner was joined by a young woman and they both slept in the same tent and sometimes took naps in the hot afternoons. The neighbor leaned over the wall and watched them, and tried unsuccessfully to start conversations. He called in at them when they were in the tent in the afternoons. On the Sundays when his brother the roofer came from town to visit, bringing his fiancee in her tight bright clothes who stood and watched while the brother dismantled his car outside the house, on the green, she and the neighbor and the brother played the car radio as loud as they could and made the car engine roar, vroom, vroom, vroom, just to keep the foreigner and his girlfriend awake. And the neighbor had leaned over the wall and shouted, “Shouldn’t sleep in the daytime,” over and over. He and his brother went and sat on the roof of the hen house where they could look down into the grass around the tent, and from there they threw nutshells, twigs, and little stones at the tent. The neighbor’s two dogs never stopped barking at the foreigners. When the foreigner had guests once or twice, who went home after dark, the neighbor jumped out from behind a bush, in the lane, to frighten them. M. Vert ended every installment of his detraction by saying, “He’s crazy. They’re all crazy,” and often with an insistence that it had always been so.
I wondered, in fact, how the legend surrounding the excluded family had grown up, and how it had started, and whether it had been part of the neighbor’s life from the beginning. I did not want to ask M. Vert, but I was not surprised one day to hear him mention as a further detail of his scorn for his neighbor, “He can’t read. The old woman either.” The neighbor had been the youngest child, M. Vert told me, and had scarcely gone to school at all.
M. Vert’s scorn included the neighbor’s dogs, Tikou and Finou. “Somebody gave them to him,” M. Vert said. It was the usual way of acquiring dogs in the country, but M. Vert’s tone implied that in this case it had been a way of disposing of animals nobody would have wanted. Many farms had two dogs at least. One would be the working dog, the herd dog, the dog in charge of the place, the watch dog, who on some farms was shut in with the cows or the sheep at night. The other, which was needed as a sign of gentlemanly leisure, was the hunting dog, who did nothing most of the year but eat soup and wander under the brambles snifl&ng, until hunting season.
The neighbor’s hunting dog had been a trial to the young foreigners too, M. Vert informed me. And they were perfectly correct, the young people, he insisted indignantly. But the neighbor’s dog had got in there more than once and stolen their food and left his dirt. When they emerged from their camp the dog barked at them, running in circles around them. That was the older dog, a rather large, dirty, white and black fox terrier, more or less. Tikou. When he had run around the green barking for an hour or so, Tikou was capable of picking up some scent or other, down a lane, or over a rock pile, and then he would be gone for hours, not returning until late, and there had been complaints from the village across the causse of visits from Tikou. Stray dogs might be shot in the country. and the owners, M. Vert said, were liable for any damages they caused. The neighbor took to locking Tikou into his kennel, an ancient stone pig-sty roofed with slabs of stone in the ruins behind the house, from which Tikou’s muffled barking might rise, as from the grave, at any hour, and go on and on.
The other dog, Finou, was a dark smooth-haired bitch of no recognizable ancestry who had arrived, skinny and half-grown, and had learned all she knew from Tikou: how to run around the green and bark, how to duck around corners and bark, how to find things and slink off with them. She was the working dog. But she spent most of her time nosing around the green or tied up to the doghouse inside the chain link fence that enclosed a few square feet of ground in front of the neighbor’s house. The brother the roofer had built it like the pictures, with a tile roof, and Finou would jump onto the roof and bark for a while and then slither down into the doghouse below. Finou obviously was not much help with the sheep, ignoring them, rushing off in one direction or another, having to be shouted back, and the neighbor seldom took her with him. If she was along he could be heard coming from farther away, roaring at her to come back, “Finou! Ici!” much louder than he bawled at his sheep. And because they were coming home she was likely to be well ahead of the sheep, coming around the bend in the lane. Then she would catch sight of me over the wall, and though she knew perfectly well who I was she would stop as though she had been caught in a robbery, and start to bark, and back up, and run back, colliding with the sheep, and hide behind the neighbor, peering around his legs and growling.
At first the neighbor looked at me that way himself, when he saw me in the garden straightening up beside a pile of cut brambles. The dog was not with him, and he was surprised and glowered and clearly was not disposed to answer my greeting with anything more than the unavoidable monosyllables. Yet day by day, evening by evening, the solemnities lengthened. They were warmed by mutual curiosity. The neighbor passed with the wall at his chin level, and he glanced over. But he said nothing and shooed the sheep homeward, sounding like rain going ahead of him. The hens and ducks had gathered in the lane and were waiting for his mother to get back with her load of firewood, to feed them outside the disused stone barn with holes in the roof that she used as a hen house. “It doesn’t belong to them,” M. Vert said. “It belongs to a cousin who bought it from the family. But they use it as though it were their own. Some day he’s going to want it.” It was part of a whole farm, with a yard in front of it full of brambles, and several huge walnut and oak trees. In the middle of the courtyard the stone lid of a cistern full of water, and a stone drinking trough awash with dead leaves. As he got to the entrance to that courtyard the neighbor always turned to look back.
It went from “Good evening,” to “Good evening. How are you?” “Very well. And you?” “Very well. Thank you. Lovely evening.” “Oh yes. So you’re making a garden.” “Seeing what I can do.” “The old woman” (he had a slight stammer) he said, “who used to live here raised good potatoes.” “What did she use for manure?” “Oh, I think it was sheep.” Before each sentence his eyelids leaped up drawing the eyes wide and his mouth opened into a small “o” through which he inhaled. “I don’t know whether she had rabbits.” A revelation came to him. “She had her goats,” he said. “And her sheep. Yes. That’s what she used. I’m sure of it. That’s what she used.”
We became friends.
One evening as I was going up the lane toward the west, after leaving the garden for the night, with my vegetables and some of the tools in the wheelbarrow, I saw him watching me over the wall in back of his house, to my right. The wall was beautifully built up to shoulder level, and above that a few sticks propped up a couple of feet of chicken wire. The chicken wire gate hung open. The neighbor was standing inside, in weeds up to his chest.
“This,” he said, “is my mother’s garden.”
“Oh, is it?”
“She has lettuces,” he said. He reached down and pulled up a beautiful broad head of lettuce and handed it to me. “Here,” he said. “And here’s another.” I protested. “That’s pure manure,” he said. “She puts chicken, too. From those,” he added, pointing to the red fowls waiting with the draggled white ducks in the lane. “She grows vegetables,” he said —and words failed him for a moment. Then he raised one finger and shut his eyes and said, “Extra.”
As I thanked him I said I imagined the soil must be very good in there. “Oh yes,” he said. I asked whether they suffered from moles. “Oh — ” he shook his head as at a proof of immorality. “It’s disgusting.”
“What do you do?” I asked. But he told me instead what you could do, and we went down the list, hoping that that would keep the problem at bay for the night. You could put a piece of bramble down the mole tunnel, the “gallery,” leaving the thorns on, and then the mole would run into it in the dark and mole onto it and hurt its nose and go away. Some said that if you put onions into the galleries the moles went somewhere else, but the neighbor said he believed those sly beasts only made other tunnels around the onions, right away. He was sure of it. And they could do it faster than you could move. “They’re sly, those sly beasts,” he said. Then there was the plant. The mole plant. The neighbor’s uncle had a mole plant and he never had a mole on his place. I said I had the plant, and the moles had come up under it and uprooted it.
“You can trap them,” he said. “At one time they trapped them. With traps. In the tunnels. Everyone set them. That’s the best. You can be sure that way. You can go with that.”
I asked him whether he could do that.
“Oh yes,” he said, not believing it himself And then there was poison. I asked whether they used poison. “Oh no,” he
“There’s gas,” he remembered. He had heard that some used that, but he was not sure how they did it. “And rockets.” Rockets appealed to him. “Say,” he said, “it’s like this. You take the rocket. You put the match to the end. Sssss! You put it in the tunnel. You stamp the ground down on top of it so it can’t get out. Ssssss! Phoooo! It goes everywhere. Like a rocket. You see smoke coming up out of the ground over here, over there, over there.”
“Have you seen it?”
“Oh yes. At my brother-in-law’s. I saw it in the strawberries. My God.”
“And is that what you use?”
I stopped asking what they used. The chicken wire held up a few pea vines loaded with peas. He told me they grew by themselves. “We haven’t put anything in here this year,” he said. “I should do some work here. If I had time. Leeks,” he said. “There are leeks.” He pointed down through the long spring grass where I could make out rows of leeks fattening.
“Sometimes I work here,” he said. “Sometimes my mother. She likes flowers.” Several clumps of lush weed complete with soil and root flew through the gate into the lane, where the hens began to worry them. Tikou’s ghostly barking beat at us steadily but without hope.
“Would you like some radishes?” I asked the neighbor, holding out a bunch.
“Oh, how beautiful they are,” he said.
“Take them,” I said.
“Oh no. One doesn’t need them,” he said, his eyebrows making a wild leap. “One doesn’t need anything.”
“You gave me those beautiful lettuces for my supper.”
“That was a present. That doesn’t count.”
“It’s a small return. It would be my pleasure.”
“Well, after all” but he didn’t move.
“Do you eat radishes?”
“Oh yes,” he said, firmly dispelling any notion that they might not eat radishes. But he looked doubtful. I held them out to him again. “It’s very kind,” he said, “but there was no need.”
The hens broke and moved back down the lane to intercept the neighbor’s mother who was arriving slowly dragging a small dead tree. We turned and watched.
“It’s my mother,” he said. “She’s bringing some wood. For the fire.” After a moment he asked, “Do you eat soup?”
I assured him that I did. His mother came up to where we were and stopped. She appeared to be in her seventies, thin, with a handsome narrow aquiline face, leathery, but hatched with deep white lines. Her head was constantly tilted backward so that she looked out along her nose from under narrowed lids. She was wearing a faded cotton dress that reached almost to her ankles, with an apron bleached to pale gray over it, and frayed sneakers without socks. Her gray hair was pulled back into a bun.
“It’s my mother,” he said to me again.
“Good evening, Madame,” I said. We had already spoken when I had seen her passing in the lane. But she had never gone beyond returning my greeting. “Good evening,” she said, as always, distantly, as though she were looking past me and might be greeting anyone at all.
“Look at that. What he has given us,” the neighbor said, holding up the radishes.
“And your son gave me these beautiful lettuces of yours,” I said to her.
“Oh yes, I gave him some lettuces.”
“Oh yes,” she said, her voice trailing off. “Good.”
“One has too many,” he said to us both, and to the world. I thought it the moment for formalities, and told her my name.
She nodded, narrowing her eyes further, and wiped her hand on her apron before shaking mine. Her hand was cold, like a chicken’s legs. I turned to shake the neighbor’s warmer, substantial hand.
“I’m called Michel,” he said to me.
“Good evening,” she said again, faintly, behind me, and started off, dragging the dead tree on to the corner of the building, the sound of scratching branches and of hens clucking after her suddenly cut off as she disappeared.
“She’s going to make soup,” Michel said. I said I must do the same.
“You make soup?” he asked. It seemed hard for him to believe.
“I eat what I’ve got,” I said, pointing to the first peas beside the lettuces and radishes in the wheelbarrow.
“That’s very good,” he said, to say something, and I thanked him again and picked up the handles of the wheelbarrow, to be going.
“After all, we’re neighbors,” Michel said. “If you need anything.”
“Thank you,” I said. “And the same to you.” And we nodded to each other and I took the same route his mother had taken, along the wall of the low building. It was set at an angle to the corner and formed one side of a kind of gateway into the open green. From the back it looked incongruous: a beautifully made wall built of dressed dry stone, with huge slabs for eaves not six feet above the ground, and a course or two of flat stones above those, giving way to an elaborate patchwork of overlapping pieces of rusty tin, old signs, lengths of sheathing and of stamped metal panelling, carefully laid, and held in place with rocks.
But the end wall, rising to a blunt peak, and topped all the way up with lapped flat stones, appeared to be perfect, and the facade, around the corner, made it plain that the building was very ancient, its real age beyond determining and its structure exemplifying a tradition that went back to the architecture of the Gauls.
Everything was built of stone. The eaves, at eye level, as on the other side of the building, were covered with similar slabs of flat stone, and the stones continued to the top of the roof, as on a pyramid. The facade was utterly simple: one door in the middle, a step below ground level. The ceiling inside, as I learned, was a stone vault. The building was what the family referred to as their cellar.
On the causse, in many places, it was all but impossible to dig cellars in the solid limestone that underlay most of the upland. If the houses were built out on the relatively level pastures an adjoining building was set in a few feet into the ground to hold the coolness of the earth, for a cellar. In many places the cellar was much older than the present house, and had seen several houses come and go with their owners and clothes and languages.
In the cellar they stored potatoes and hung carcasses, kept eggs and wine, cheese in flat baskets, sausages hanging from hooks. Each cellar had an intimacy of its own, like that of the family bedrooms. Only the family went there. Only the family knew what was in there. In the daily course of existence people did not pry into each others’ cellars, and did not go along if their hosts went to fill a bottle. It was not altogether polite to stare into a cellar, any more than it would have been to stare at a bedroom window. This was particularly true of the neighbor’s family. The cellar was full of what they needed.
Attics were another matter. Unless someone was ashamed of something in the past, attics simply represented storage of what was no longer needed. The owners could recognize it and laugh about it. The things people used to wear. The family knew what was in the cellar. They had forgotten what was in the attic, except perhaps for a cleared area where walnuts were dried, or grapes left to shrivel, to be made into liqueurs. In some houses the attic was simply a disused room on the ground floor, full of piled up furniture. No one from outside the family had seen into the cellar at the neighbor’s house. But no one outside the family had seen the attic either, and few had stepped inside the front door. There was an invisible wall halfway between the chain link front gate set between columns of cemented causse limestone, and the doorway, which stood open in good weather if anyone was home. On summer evenings Michel could be seen sitting inside there at the table in the main room, which was called the kitchen. He was eating, or simply sitting. He waved. But if he wanted to talk he came out to the gate.
The house was much more recent than the cellar. Perhaps a couple of hundred years old, but it was hard to tell because it had been covered with make-up. The brother the roofer had replaced its dark mossed red tiles with bright red, modern, pressed, “mechanical” tiles. From the pitch of the roof it was plain that the house was not of an age to have been built, originally, with a roof entirely of stone. Thatch to begin with, perhaps, or the flat tiles—in either case with a few layers of flat stones along the eaves, at the base.
“It’s more convenient,” the brother the roofer, whose name was Robert, told me one Sunday, referring to the bright “mechanical” tiles. We were standing outside the strip of chain link fence in front of the neighbor’s house, on the green, with the ducks and sheep clattering among the stones behind us, nosing the curled grass and clover and calamint out from under the scrub sloe bushes and long gray velvet leaves of mullein. “It’s more convenient. You can go with it.” He leaned back in satisfaction against the wall of the stone oven, and looked at the roof. The stone eaves had gone, and the lips of the lowest tiles hung over the edge of the roof, above a new metal rain gutter.
“It doesn’t fear the frost as much as the old kind,” he said. “The old ones are good, though, if you put them on right,” he added, slightly patronizing, straightening the visor of his peaked cap made of brown suiting material. The jacket of his brown suit was draped through the open window of his worn pale green car, in which the radio was playing softly. He was wearing a white shirt and his vest. He was not planning to tune up the car that Sunday.
He had brought out a few bottles of store wine from town. Michel was still picking pieces of chicken from between his teeth with his fingers. Robert’s pale fiancée (as she was always called; her name was Martine), in a tight blouse, an aquamarine cardigan drawn around her shoulders, was standing with her arms folded, looking out at nothing over the green. It did not seem likely that they would be staying long. But meanwhile Robert gazed with approval at his handiwork on the front of the family house. A simple facade: a solid door in the middle, one window to either side, the woodwork painted brown. A fly curtain of strips of red and yellow plastic drawn back in the doorway. “The mother’s” two pairs of white fantail pigeons came and went from a pigeon box tacked up under the eaves by the door. The massive flat polished stone set in the ground in front of the door was safely embedded in cement, which extended under the wooden threshold and some way into the room before the board floor started. And in front of the house where the old wall had been, only the stone foundation remained; above that the chain link fence now enclosed Finou’s tile-roofed dog house, the pigeons’ cement drinking dish surrounded by duck droppings, and a patch of “the mother’s” hollyhocks, dahlias, and marigolds.
Robert shrugged. “As for the pitch, the roof didn’t need to be so steep for the mechanicals,” he said. “That was the way they built it for the old ones. But to change it? All the rafters? My faith! For that? And besides, one needs the attic.” He sucked his teeth. “It’s a good chimney,” he said. “Doesn’t smoke much. Oh, maybe when it blows from the south, like everywhere. But I don’t like that roof the way it is around in the back there,” he said, tipping his head toward the cellar. “It needs some work. It’s old. My faith. The stones froze. With time. The cats live up there. It’s better. For the rats. It was full of little bones up there.”
“What kind of bones?”
“Every kind of bones. The cats took them, you know. New bones, old bones.”
“That one,” Michel said, pointing to a very small, stringy, whitish cat with thin fur, slipping out of the house and dashing along the wall toward the lane, “My God she’s good for the rats. Oh! One has no rats, that’s all. That’s how it is.”
“The females are the best,” Robert said.
“You mustn’t nourish them too much,” Michel said. “Just enough.”
I asked Robert what he would use to repair the cellar roof.
“Tin is cheapest,” he said. “The undulated galvanized. I can even get it wholesale second hand.”
“Yes,” Michel said. “That’s the cheapest.”
“But it’s not worth it, to put it up there,” Robert said. “By the time you put up something to nail it to. You might just as well put up rafters and lath and do it in tiles. Old tiles. Even channel tiles. The pitch is better for channel tiles. But one doesn’t pick them up so easily. Tiles are expensive now.”
“Oh, they’re expensive now,” Michel said. “One has some saved,” he added, with a sly, conspiratorial look. “There,” he pointed to a walnut tree beyond the house. The brambles were head high underneath it and among the brambles I could make out the square bulk of a mossy stack of tiles.
“One keeps them,” Michel said. “And one has more.” And he remembered, “Have to stack them the right way. Or they freeze.” He chopped the air with his hand. “Zero.”
“They’re falling all the time,” I said, pointing across the green to the west, to another ruined shepherd’s house like the one at the garden down the lane. It had stood there empty for as long as I had known the green and the parallel walls of its lanes trailing off in three directions over the limestone. Off to the east, to the ruin where I had to garden. To the north, all the way to the paved road, passing on the way another empty farmhouse under big lime trees, and then the home fields of M. Vert’s farm, and to M. Vert’s farmhouse, and beyond the farm and the road, on up the hill through the woods, past ruins, ruins. And to the west past the great half-ruined half-restored farmhouse where I was living, and on out between pastures to another empty house among massive rocks, and more oak woods.
Every year I watched the shepherd’s house on the green move farther into decay. When I first saw it one could peer through a crack in a shutter on the south and through another on the west, and see that it was full of furniture. There, emerging from the night of the room, were the ends of machine-made nineteenth century high beds with headboards, foot-boards, lathed wooden globes on square columns at the corners, the old wood varnished, the varnish blackened like tires. White lace bedspread. White opaline glass kerosene lamp hanging from a beam. I thought it would be wonderful to be inside, to see it. But I saw it through the shutter. There was one room. I saw the end of a table, part of a shelf over the fireplace.
The house sat back inside its wall, which ran along the green and turned a corner. The sheep barn that had accompanied the house had dissolved into a pile of stones on which the hound’s-tongue and stonecrops grew in the spring, and the neighbor’s sheep rattled and browsed in the first evenings of summer. The walnut trees that had stood near the house had died. A few cherry trees still lingered, with dead branches and yellow leaves. A small stone out-building at the entrance, perhaps a cart shed or goat shed or hen house once, was no longer anything but an enclosure, the roof long since gone. The owners had taken its tiles to repair the house roof, which in turn was falling. On nights of storm and wind I could hear tiles slide down the roof and smash on the ground, and the rain would come down harder afterwards. At times on still nights a tile would let go and grate its hoarse way down the roof and crash like splashing water, leaving the green startled and dark.
On the stone above the door the date 1819 had been chiselled, with a heart upside-down above it. A date meant nothing. It could have been put on at a later time. Or the stone could have been brought from an earlier building. But that looked to be about the date of the house. Talleyrand’s Europe. The local pieties of the time. Some of the same bells are still ringing.
“Too had they don’t fix that,” I said.
“It’s the family,” Michel said. “Can’t do anything.”
“All that furniture,” I said.
“I don’t know,” Michel said. He accompanied his sheep in there around the house almost daily, as though it were a home pasture, to M. Vert’s disgust. The grass was cropped short among the fallen stones and tiles, right up to the walls.
“They can’t reach an agreement,” Robert said. “There are four or five heirs. The children. They’re old. Some are in Tulle, I believe. Some are in Limoges. They never got along. They came here once a few years ago to reach some decision about the property. They couldn’t. They argued. The wives argued and the husbands argued. One of them said that if the others reached an agreement he wouldn’t. So they left it. And now he’s in an asylum.” He turned to look at the house. “They’ll die.”
“But the house will fall down.”
“That may be,” Robert agreed, with a resigned sigh.
The empty house along the lane to the north was also the property of aged heirs who lived elsewhere.
“The old man,” Robert said, “is in a home. He doesn’t know anything. And the sisters can’t do anything. They’ve tried. He won’t let them do anything. It’s the law. They don’t want to live here, I don’t think. But they can’t do anything with the place.”
“The roof is still good,” Michel said. Robert rocked his head from side to side, expressing doubt.
“Oh yes, it’s good, it’s good,” Michel insisted.
“The cistern is good,” Robert allowed.
“It’s clean,” Robert said. The sheep did not go in there, much. The grass was thin in the shade of the big lime trees which on spring nights scented the lane and the green and the fields around. Along the boundary wall between that property and the neighbor’s was an arbor built of long split chestnut vine stakes, with grapes trained along the top — a rare sight on the causse, where relatively few grapes were cultivated and arbors were almost never used. Another arbor had been built in the neighbor’s side of the wall, and the vines had grown together.
“It gives good grapes,” Michel said.
“They’re sour,” Robert said. His fiancee ma