Issue 7, Fall-Winter 1954-1955
A little house. Abandoned. Rank with grasses. We must have passed it by a dozen times before we knew it was the place, so undistinguished it was, looking for all the world like any peasant cottage, squatting on its haunches behind a wooden gate closed up to stay with ivy and trumpet vine, mixed impartially in the business of regaining possession. Very dismal and deserted, the way I should always have known it would be. Not a modern house at all but a slightly reconverted farmer’s dwelling.
We recognized it in the end not by the famous ornamental well which was completely covered with climbing things shooting off in every direction like the hair of a poodle’s head, but by the garage that had been improvised out of a lean-to, the doors falling sadly inward serving now mostly to tell that civilization had once disgraced the place. The farthest cry from what the agent had described as possible, and in spite of the impressive key on its big brass ring, the front door would not even open. Would not budge, although the key-hole seemed to recognize the shape of its old friend (resentful perhaps for its long absence and sudden reappearance, sleek and confident as ever from its drawer in Paris), so after fighting our way through a wilderness of briars and snares of grass to bring about the mating, we had to climb through a window, which was futile too in the end, the back door being open as it must have been for years, judging from the way the moss on the stairs beneath was carpeting its way triumphantly inward.
There were five rooms, or six if you counted the back one which was too much damaged by the weather to be of use, all dark and damp and webbed by spiders. The stone floors of a farm everywhere except in the bedroom which had been added on later and was fairly dry though airless because of the smallness of the windows. A kitchen, or what must have been one once, piled up now with parts of rusted stove and other refuse, some recognizable as what they had been and some not quite. An electric coffee maker with the price tag still on looking as eccentric as a spring hat sitting in the sink. The promised plumbing was there all right but the pipes did not look in a usable condition. As for the furniture, it had disappeared long ago except for a bed with great gushing bloodstains on it and a kind of crazy cabinet with shelves going in every direction. A teeny chair. And aside from that, nothing. No one, no one, no one and nothing but beetles and spiders and the corpses of last years’s bees and, in a basket on the stove a kind of sleeping rat, looking awfully cosy I must say. He didn’t even yawn when I picked him up although it was nearly spring at that time and the place beside him where another had been was already vacant.
Just no one no one no one and nothing.
We hurried out again and began circling around the house, picking our way gingerly through the elephant plants holding cups of water and the briars and broken bottles and tins of things, trying to get up courage for the drive back. It all looked so desolate and unpromising, this snarl of early green. The wine cellar at the back blown open by some explosion, brackish water finding its level in it, swamped up with calendars of old leaves. German inscriptions gouged into the walls in places where the plaster was exposed. Tanks and swastikas and names and what the owners thought of one another in tedious gothic letters and, carved later after the danger had passed, “Vive la France” in capitals a little too large for the block so that the carver had had to recapitulate toward the end and “France” was very small and lost beside the “Vive”. Desolate and unpromising and over everything a pull of time. Not so much dreamy as dreamed-out, forgotten and forlorn.
The only pretty things were the fields behind the house which were full of brown grass bending down, and a little ruined rose garden sagging softly in the mist and the orchard with tiny fruit trees in it that could hardly have been there in their owner’s time. Waist high in weeds, bordered by a fragile fence that leaned a little outwards with the weight of vines crocheted into the wire like a kind of fuzzy pocket handkerchief. And a pond with a white board beside it where someone had been washing lately. Mysterious, but at least connected with the living. A marvelously glossy black chicken looking for worms...
While we were standing here looking, not saying much, an old woman crossed the field from the farm next door as in a dream, and started coming toward us with a stick. Very old she appeared, and mostly made of gunnysacks tied about with string. She seemed to think we were relatives of the former owner and began telling a long intricate story about how she used to cook for him and a lot of other things I forget now not being interested at that moment.
No, Olivier kept telling her, no, he didn’t think Madame would take the house but maybe now that we had been to see it someone else would come, not to disappoint her of a bit of gossip, but instead of accepting it she kept saying “Ah” in a very wise way, nodding her head and pursing up her mouth as if she were withholding some terribly vital piece of information like that the walls were wired to explode, the way country people are always doing when you tell them anything they have to turn over in their heads. It annoyed me, so while this was going on, the pursing and nodding and “Eh bien’s”, I left them standing by the pond, and began to wander back toward the house alone, where I found a Chinese Buddha sitting beneath a tree looking wise and knowing in another way holding onto his belly, and some more rusted boxes and nothing of interest.
When Olivier still didn’t come I sat down on my heels in front of the locked front door, and began listlessly pulling up the elephant cars that were growing there, to keep my hands from freezing. The leaves came off quite easily though I could feel the roots still sticking to the ground, and by the time we left I had made a neat clearing about the door-way where you could see the long wild grasses, yellow from being so long away from the light, and a few stones beneath, where— saddest yet—a path had been. It warmed me though and I didn’t notice until we were in the car how wet it had made my gloves and how there were deep green stains across the palm.
“What were yon talking about all that time”, I asked Olivier, “the two of you down by the pond?”
“Nothing much”, Olivier told me, “Just the way things were in Monsieur Lester’s time”, and we began saying to each other what a queer man be must have been living alone like that in his peasant house with plumbing, too far away to invite anyone for the week-end and nothing to amuse him and Olivier said probably he had his reasons although he couldn’t see what they were just then, and I shivered and got out a rag and began wiping off the windows which had clouded up almost completely with the mist so that we could hardly see from the time we left the house until we got to Fontainebleau. And that way, with the windows fogged over and the radio on talking of other things, the whole trip—the house, the mined garden, the pond and even the old woman—turned more dream than anything else. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the big key still rattling around in the front of the car and my spoiled gloves I could have thought we had never been there. There certainly seemed no reason for going back, so when Olivier, laughing, asked me at dinner if I thought it was the right house I was more surprised than he was to bear myself answering,
“Yes. Yes... I think it is...”
And I meant it too.
The only thing was it was more difficult convincing myself to go than making up my mind. For one thing I was working for a maison de couture at this time, modelling dresses and I love to model. I always have. Love posing, primping, dressing up, getting in and out of clothes, even when I’m not going any further than the first salon to show myself to a couple of old ladies who have come to copy designs from the last show, knowing as they always do a little place just off the Madeleine where they can get the same thing for nothing. “Regardez comme elle est mal faite dans le dos, Chirie !” Eyes piercing. Voices lowered.
I love the touch, the air, the cling, the solemn believable fantasy of everything, changing, changing all the time like a sort of human weather without end. The gilt chairs, the little sofas, grey vendeuses in the wings. Whispering. Directrice everywhere at once, playing perpetual hostess to an affair that never quite gets given.
Oh, it’s lovely!
I even enjoy just sitting around in the dressing-room where someone is always furious and it is too hot or too cold and there is never any drinking water and a person of no importance is asking to see the clothes of someone who is sick. Or standing in the studio being pinned and unpinned. It’s tedious, but the materials have such a smell as they come out of the bolt. It’s great fun watching genius, mouthful of pins, at work. Being photographed and drawn. There is a satisfaction in being transferred to a long white sheet of paper without any effort of your own. It gives you a sense of vicarious accomplishment. At least to me it does and... oh, I like all of it. Could pass my life that way —just being pinned and unpinned and too hot or too cold or reading “Vogue”—and not even wonder where the days had gone later. Not that I’m lazier than most but I enjoy it.
Then too there was Olivier, so all in all, though I knew I wanted to write my book by this time and kept talking about it and making preparations and turning it over in my head, I didn’t go. Didn’t really believe it and kept having things come up (people visiting in Paris, an appointment with the hairdresser, going to one more play, eating one more dinner, staying for one more show), kept finding hundreds of things which combined to stretch the time right up to the last second when I was packed and leaving, and even then I was not quite sure it was real.
“How pretty the scenery is,” I thought to myself, “what a fine day for the races. I really must call Sue...”
When Olivier stopped at a country store and made me buy a pair of rubber boots I laughed at him and it occurred to me we had brought a mighty lot of sardines for one person. I never stopped chattering for a minute and I was gayer than ever as we approached the gate, this time forcing the vines back brutally. I laughed as we made the first damp smokey fire and sat down gingerly to eat some bisquits. In fact the whole thing seemed more like more like a delicious picnic than a housewarming of the chilliest sort and it wasn’t until an hour or so later when my suitcase was in and Olivier was starting the car that I began looking around and shivering.
“Well,” said Olivier, sensing I expect that if he stayed on much longer I might be going to be difficult, “well...”
By the time he had reached the car door I was up on him.
“No no no no,” I cried, “Never in a million years! You come back here this instant! I refuse! You’re not going to leave me in this awful house,” and I began throwing together my possessions as quickly as I could manage. “Take this, and this. And that...”
I still do not know how the idea came to me to cut off my hair. Perhaps it was the nail scissors slipping out onto the bricks the way they did like a kind of omen, or perhaps I was showing off, or perhaps it was for reasons even deeper. I don’t suppose I shall ever know, but while I was still crying and Olivier was still carrying away the sardines and the groceries I went into the cold silent oozing bathroom and started clipping. Hacking and sawing. Any old way, close to the scalp.
“You might as well let me get it even anyway,” I remember saying as Olivier came in blank with surprise and while he stood there too bewildered to protest I went on until there was nothing left but a kind of prickle and a few long limp strands like the only survivors of some ghastly massacre. Very proud and lonely they looked too, and rather at a loss.
“Goodbye,” I said when I had finished, “I’ll be seeing you when it grows out...”
I did not trust myself to wave from the gate though or even to go to the window. Nor did I open the door when he came back again a few minutes later. I just stood numb and cold by the hearth, and when he continued to knock and call and knock I shouted rudely.
“Go away. Don’t be a baby...” and covered my ears until I was sure he was gone. Then I seized the first thing that came to hand, which was a pair of wooden bloomers as it happened, and wrapped up my head and went out to try to get acquainted with my prison. To look it over again and try to get resigned.
Round and round I went. Round and round and round in my new boots and woolen bloomers, like we had walked the first day only so dismally not. Looking across the fields, naming the trees to myself. Seeing the dark come on as one day I would have seen it come on a hundred times yet always different. Damp. Grey. Day turning to night as gradually as a photograph left too long in the developer and just as relentlessly...
“Oh God,” I thought. “Oh mercy, oh heavens, oh saints...I’ve made a terrible mistake but there must still be some way out of it. I certainly don’t have to stay...”
And then, quite softly, it began to rain.
Day and night it rained. Sunup till sundown it rained, sundown till dawn. Sometimes hard and sometimes not and sometimes just a drizzle, but all the time it rained.
Water was everywhere. In the yard and in the house and rushing in the gulleys. It flowed down the road under the doors and into the shed until there wasn’t a stick of dry wood left and the walls steamed and sweated. Nothing and nowhere was dry and sometimes it seemed to me as if it never could have been. I stood at the window watching the water come down and felt like Noah without animals. Sometimes after dark, hearing the slush and splash and seeing nothing, I was certain the house had already gone afloat.
It was a fearful time.
There was nothing to do but dust and read and make tea on the hearth from which by now all fun had vanished. I could not even wash the floors for fear they would never be dry again. At intervals while it was day I would go out and walk around in my rubber boots in the sodden yard looking into the sky, trying to see a clearing, but I never did and I would have to come back in again and start reading detective stories and dusting and making tea or soup on the embers.
Then I caught flu.
After that I did not care if it rained or hailed or snowed as long as I didn’t have to go out in it. I didn’t care to eat or read or even much to think. I didn’t care for anything as long as I could lie by the fire and be warm and do nothing and sleep. I would get up every few hours and go to the garage and carry back more logs for the fire and lie down again and go back to dreaming.
Except at night. And then I could not sleep for listening.
As soon as the sun gave up I would close the shutters and bolt the doors and light the lamps and turn on my battery radio at the head of the bed and that is how I would stay until morning, listening to the radio and looking at the fire and trying not to hear the rain and the silence outside, and trying to tell the difference in the difference noises that broke it.
The program I liked best was the no-language program that came on the air about midnight and stayed till nearly dawn. It was the only program I could get after one o’clock and it was very faint as though it was coming from terribly faraway and you could not tell what the people were saying. You could not even tell what language they were saying it in. It sounded like Greek and Latin and German and French and Portugese and everything there is rolled into one. But when it was very late at night and there was nothing else to hear except the silence and the water dripping off the caves I often understood the words of it.
Sometimes I would hear whole sentences in French or English. Crazy things like “cream your fountains in live rice” and “the blinds are drawn too far” or unrelated things like “bring your children to the shoemaker and treat their burns” Or simple endearing things like “come back soon”, “we are waiting”. Nothing that made sense but it was wonderful to hear people saying something even when you knew it was crazy. And later—very late at night—I could almost make it say what I wanted. That was the best thing about the no-language program—that I could almost make it speak to me.
The worst thing I had to put up with besides the silence and the rain was the moths that came in all the time throwing enormous shadows and beating their wings against the light above my head. When they came in I killed them as quickly as I could, batting and batting at them with a paper and then throwing the paper into the fire without looking at it because when you look at a moth you have killed you see that it is nothing really. That it is just a sort of feathery powder that you have killed with nothing inside that could have been living, and thinking how you have killed something that was not alive to kill is terrible.
Once a bat came in too, probably from the shed and circled around and around. I saw the shadow of it before I saw the bat and I knew it was there but I could not look up and see it take shape. I could not look up and I could not look up and finally I thought to myself that it was because I would not look up and so I did and saw it circling around and around, dipping and gliding the way a bat flies, up and down, and I screamed. That is an unpleasant thing too—to hear yourself scream—but it did not trouble the bat and finally it went away again as it had come, out through the back of the house.
Another time there was a little slimy toad that fastened itself onto the windowpane by queer sorts of suction cups on its feet. It was nearly transparent and with the light shining you could see the workings of his insides like the workings in a crystal clock, and I couldn’t believe it. I just sat and looked and looked and thought it could not possibly be, until after a while I went near and saw that it was true and even beautiful, hanging by those pale suction cups, its heart beating fast against the pane, and it seemed more dreadful still.
Day and night I was listening. Holding my breath and straining my ears. I got so I could hear almost anything even when there was nothing to hear, and when I breathed it was like a hurricane.
Often, lying on my bed late at night listening and watching the fire and trying to calm my fear, I would begin to feel sorry for myself thinking how they would come and find me after the rains, passed away with a bowl of broth and a crust of bread at my feet and it would make me very unhappy. Any other time I could have amused myself for hours that way—thinking how forlorn I was and coughing and aching. It would have been almost worth while. But the way things were I didn’t quite dare to let myself get too drawn in. It seemed too possible. Too likely. And so before it went very far I would start to concentrate on the flames or the no-language program instead and that way, listening and concentrating, I heard some of the best things. The tenderest and the most poetic, you might say.
One thing I never let myself think even when I was the sorriest, was how it would be if the fire went out and the battery in the radio went dead. Never. Not even the day it did...
Then one morning the sun came out. For twenty minutes or so, and an orange cat slipped through the hedge from the farm across the way. Indolent, caressante, professing interest in my connection with the sausage I was eating on the doorstep. A simple orange cat without pretensions, but oh a handsome beast she seemed to me!
ROOTS AND BRIARS
I fed her, rubbed her down the back. Spoke to her the first words I had spoken since I came, remarking the while how well a cat becomes a doorstep. So proper and domestic. Paws tucked up. So tame and civilized against my jungle of a yard. And, thinking this, I fell almost at once to dreaming.
Of a lawn... smooth and green and briar less stretching from house to hedge... a path from door to gate... a flowerbed... perhaps a little arbor for the vines... order and tidiness... The same dream people have been having on doorsteps since the beginning of time, I guess, though new to me, and a few minutes later I began the battle that went on nearly every day thereafter, through rain and shine and drizzle. Pulling and tugging and stamping, blisters growing on my hands and heels, exploding, re-forming, turning gradually into callouses until I was impervious. Worn out and weary, and sleeping fearlessly. It was nearly a month before I knew I was having fun, but it was satisfactory from the beginning.
Slowly the paths emerged and then the house and garden. Little by little. Inch by inch. Every day another bit, like eating your cereal down to the picture, on the bottom of the bowl. And it amused me to get to know the nature of my enemy. To discover the different ways of weeds. Those that were yielding, those that were subtle, those that were difficult, elusive, wily, cunning. They kept me company those first days when I was alone and prehistoric, living mostly in a mist and I looked forward in the mornings to our battles, planning ways to outwit them.
Briars, by the way, are the most fierce thing there is in a garden. A sort of lion in the world of green. They are very strong and lively and when you try to take them out they fight you back, usually from the place you least expect them. For instance, when you are working on one end of a branch, thinking you have got it down and licked, the other end, is sure to spring around and catch you. Or if you have the whole thing in control while you are cutting, it hinges up and strikes when you let go of it.
It is always on the offensive, pouncing and dodging and spinning. If you have left one place uncovered on you, like the place between your glove and sleeve, a briar can find it, and even when they’re cut, and dead they go on jumping and leaping and lashing out at you, while you’re dragging them off to be burned.
I like briars better than the things that look like elephant ears, though. Briars are infuriating and full of audacity, but once you have cut them down and dug them up and carted them away they stay away. At least as long as you are there to scratch the soil from time to tune. There is nothing mulish or malignant in their natures.
Elephant ears do not fight at all. They just sit about quietly growing enormous leaves that keep other plants from having light. Huge and passive and rather magnificent, not even troubling themselves to bloom. To cut them with a knife is no more work than cutting rhubarb, crisp and clean, and if you seize them by the stems they break off quickly, a little sound of kissing at their feet. By the way they come off in your hand, you would think them barely fastened on to anything.
Actually though they have the longest, toughest, meanest roots in all the world, plunging straight down to the heart of the earth and sticking there. An ugly, stringy, singleminded root, devoid of filaments or sprouts as if its only interest in the ground were just to suck a living from it. And as long as any trace of any elephant plant is left, another one will grow. Almost immediately.
To look at the new plants, so meek and small, you might almost feel sorry for them, starting life anew, but you would be wasting your sympathy. Nothing that I know can really stop them growing. Nothing makes them sick. I tried everything on the ones that grew beside the doorstep and finally bricked them over and made a whole new platform on their heads and still they came back, shoving their little green leaves between the bricks, nourished by their greedy, stringy, deathless sprouts. I really hate elephant ears and what admiration I feel for their determination is tempered by disgust, seeing the way they keep on growing there where no one wants them to be.
A friend of mine says the worst thing to kill is a porcupine because it is like elephant ears and briars at the same moment. He once had occasion to kill one and it took for hours getting bloodier the whole while. Every time he thought he had it done for it bounded back, enraged and ready to go. He would have given up much earlier if he had known how things would be. He says a porcupine is practically invincible.
I think dandelions really have the most deathless kind of natures, though. They hang on tightly to the ground and have little rudimentary briars on their leaves in imitation of their betters; but that is just to tease you. Their true defence is simple propagation. You can dig them up or stamp them down quite easily, or take them off before they come to flower, but a thousand others keep on coming back, floating in from places that you can’t imagine. The wind is their friend and cows replant them with a breath. As long as there is air a dandelion will grow, modest and cheerful, repeating the sun the way they do in any place they find an inch to live on.
They made a lovely covering for ground, especially side by side with daisies. Like quilts of printed calico, bumping gently in between the posts. I would love to have them in my garden if I didn’t know them to be weeds.
The important thing about a garden, though, is order. Not what looks the best.
Of course it took me quite a time to find that out and it used to make me sad seeing how things were uglier and uglier the tidier they were. How the violets gave way before the path. How the morning glories shrivelled as they relaxed their hold upon the fence. How the driven to cover and the daisies diminished. And at first I used to try to spare them, but seeing how things were I grew more calloused and behaved to match my hands. I treated all these things as casualties of battle, and went about gardening as people have always done, righteous and ruthless, pulling things into their place, and when anything was in my way I dug it up or hacked it down without a second’s hesitation.
Not even trees were safe, although at first I hated cutting them, and I only cut two in the yard—a chestnut tree and a flowering one that sprang between two others in a way I didn’t care for.
It gave me a real sense of destruction to see them lying on the ground, so long and springy still, filled with leaves that haven’t guessed the end, their centers of communication being like ours in the country, slow though eventual.
To look at the sky in the place where a tree is gone makes you feel uncovered and disclosed, and cutting up a large tree is rather like a hatchet murder, but when I needed wood and began to take it from the forest I didn’t mind. I hardly even noticed how the stumps thrust up so sharply from the ground or how the sap ran out of them. It seemed quite right that I should have a fire and they should soon become the homes of beetles.
THE FOREST AND THE PIT
I liked the forest though. The three ponds in it. The moss. The hollow logs. The water so secret and everything unfamiliar. Mysterious. Unattainable, I guess you’d say. The rain mist static in it, coming as much from earth as from above.
Liked it, and was rather frightened too. Of the silence. The insidiousness. The way the place seemed not so much forbidden as forbidding (the sign saying “Chasse Gardée” fallen long ago to the ground). Not so much forbearing as bearing itself apart, holding about its ponds and forgetting me. Like a forest seen through a train window: fleeting and gone, leaving an impression but no details to cling to. Showing barely a trace of my print even after a long day’s work. Perhaps like any forest, or perhaps not, because the cat felt it too.
She used to come along behind me when I went there, shaking her paws at the puddles less in dread of getting wet than putting off the moment. Doubtful, half a mind to turn back, yet advancing still along the road drawn by the mysterious foliage. Like me she would pause at the entrance, listening, waiting for some sign from our speechless host. Then suddenly, off she would go on her belly through the thicket—she to her frogs and I to my sawing.
We must have made a silly pair, so bold and timorous. I used to keep talking to her to bear up my courage and every few minutes she would come running back to rub my leg and reassure herself, neither of us quite wanting to be left alone. But in a while I would be too absorbed in my work to notice the snapping of twigs, the quiet alertness, and I would start thinking in the back of my mind the thing that I was often thinking in those days: About the links in the Chain of Existence, as I called it to myself—cutting wood and growing warm, and having logs to keep me warm again and making room, room in the forest for more trees to grow to be sawed again by someone keeping warm and cooking, and on and on until I would be so interested that I did not hear the silence.
Or even mind too much about the trees that got away. Slipped into the pond in fulling and lay there, too heavy to drag out again and were lost after all that work. Oh, it was infuriating, but not so infuriating as things that went wrong between me and the outer world. In that time that was timeless I did not ever seem to have time to be bothered. I would just start in cutting again while the ducks swam past and the sun sank into the mist like a bowl lowered into the ocean. Simply keeping myself alive—the ways and means— appeared to me wonderfully new and important. I remembered Robinson Crusoe for the first time in years. Invented additions. Thought of my ancestors grubbing out a living in a new born world. Saw the creation of the earth as the water in the ponds diminished, forming islands and extending the continents. Reorganized my position with relation to the universe...
Not that I didn’t know it was rather ridiculous, such thoughts as these. Hardly suitable for the edge of a small duck pond in the center of France; still you have to consider that life was more primitive for me than it was for others— the owners of those neat fields—with nothing between me and nature but a hack saw and a hammer and not much skill in using them. Knowing that if there was anything I needed I would have to invent it. If I could think of it, that is. It was forever before it came to me what a marvellous thing a wheelbarrow was and thought to put a basket on my bicycle to imitate it.
Almost everything I did took me longer than anyone who was not me could imagine because there were so many systems to be tried. Every article I came onto had to be revalued (broken pots and pans, bottomless washtubs, old tablewear) and fitted into the picture, so I forgave myself a little more than I usually would for the grandness of my imaginings, and do not feel too embarrassed repeating them now.
But the thing that occupied most of my time and thought after I got started was neither cutting wood nor weeding, nor inventing handy tools. Was not even very useful in fact, and thinking of it now seems quite silly.
It was filling up the pit.
The one left by the Germans at the back of the house. That old explosion with the leaves swimming in it and the plaster lying about. That great rude hole in the earth by the terrace. I don’t know why but I resented it and longed to see it disappear.
I got so I could never pass without putting something in it. Broken bottles and clods of earth. Pieces of tile and pails of cinders. Hits of cotton wool, envelopes... nothing seemed too small or too ridiculous. And before long nearly every work I did led in a round about way to this, the most discouraging and rewarding of my businesses.
Sticks and weeds and leaves and the sweepings from the house, rocks from the path and ashes from the hearth. Every conceivable thing for which there wasn’t any other use. I had it so much at heart that I would walk all the way from the kitchen to put in a bottle cork or some potato peelings. Anything and everything that raised the level a millionth of an inch seemed not too pitiful. And if it was something big like a great tangle of briars I would save them and let them mount up to the last minute thinking the while if I would stuff them in the corner or spread them out thin or lay them down amongst the bricks. And in the evening after I had hacked and pruned and trimmed it was not so much the clearing I was looking forward to viewing but my pit.
That is what I was thinking about as I went preparing for my dinner and the long lonely evening.
Of course during these first two weeks I spent alone and speechless I was not utterly unconscious of other human beings. At least once a day a car passed on the road. Usually some rickety remnant of the twenties made in the shape of a boat. Aeroplanes passed overhead (I formed a special attachment for the big, four motored one that went to Rome and I once dreamed that it landed in my field). I heard voices on the farm and saw figures in the distance.
I did not get to know Madame Joumard right away though because I was so busy all the time and because I did not see that we had a great deal to say to each other—she on her side of the road and I on mine—living not much the same lives, I supposed, except for weather. Also I felt she was a little resentful of my being there, knowing how she used to graze her cows every place on my grounds and nest the chickens in the orchard. How she took the fruit from the plum and apple trees in summer and fall. I knew she thought of this property as hers, and my presence annoyed her, so I let her alone, nodding ‘good morning’ and ‘good evening’ sometimes through the fog.
It was not until I had been to the muddy doorway of her kitchen half a dozen times to buy eggs (handled carefully in silence before putting them into the basket), and begun to borrow things (the second best rake, the wheelbarrow that turned out to be so heavy I couldn’t lift it), and given back the pasture that we became neighbors. Then the thing that surprised me most was how beautiful she was. A real bellefemme, with her white hair and her deep blue eyes. Younger than I’d thought the first time I had seen her beneath her hundreds of shawls and trappings, though still in a way beyond age
She had a lively way to walk that pleased me to watch even before I had much idea of her at close range, rather like the dirt chaser on the Dutch Cleanser boxes in America, wooden shoes on her feet and her skirts flowing out behind, stick in hand shouting, “Bollarrrr... Capitaine... viens ici!” at the top of her lungs to the cows. But the real beauty of her, the purity of feature, had not come to me across the marsh and grass that separated us one from the other beneath the interminable rain.
It is hard for me to describe her character now because I came to know her too well and like any person I know she eludes me. Has too many contradictions. She has a firm way about her,though, that never changes and she does not have to talk for long to tell you what she means. Except when standing at the gate of an evening when it takes longer for anyone to express himself, meaning nothing definite but only desiring to reveal his temperature toward you and things in general. I suppose this firmness is because her husband has been so long dead and, unlike most women in the country, she is used to making decisions. It is said in the village that you must never contrary her and this is true. Still, there are ways around her like there are around anyone.
She is not over-fond of people. Likes animals better. And her feeling for plants and vegetables is deeper yet unless you count Capitaine who is a black and brown closely built type of dog that she took around everywhere with her on an old piece of string, pretending he was herding sheep, though generally he was just asleep under her stool keeping watch over her spools of thread and bits of material, snuffing a bit at the ground.
“Don’t approach too closely,” she would say. “He bites when he does not have his freedom.”
“Then why don’t you let him go?” I used to ask until I knew there wasn’t any answer. The truth was she just liked to have him with her to keep her company and it pleased her to think he was vicious.
While she was knitting or sewing yon could hear her running on to him in an undertone sometimes raising her voice to direct his movements among the cattle where he wasn’t. Even when she had taken a grudge to him as she sometimes did and left him in the barn, she went on talking to him as if he were there. As if perhaps he were the ghost of all the dogs called Capitaine she had had all her life, more inside herself than visible. So you might say one side of Madame Joumard’s character is a black and brown dog called Capitaine.
(She also had a fox terrier named Mimis that ran everywhere and was her pet. But that is different...)
There was never a minute of the day when Madame Joumard was not busy. Scouring out her kitchen, or making jam, or helping in the fields. Carting loads of cow dung around. The only time she had to sit down and rest was when she was minding the cows or sitting in the kitchen in the evening after everyone had gone to bed and usually during these intervals she was mending. But whatever she was doing, wherever she was doing it, she usually managed to be alone because she liked to think.
I do not have any idea what she thinks about when she thinks and perhaps she didn’t either. But in this way too she is different from most women who work the way she does. She had got this thinking in her and had to go on doing it and she did not like to have it interrupted by people just because they had something to say. She did not want to be forgotten and she liked to exchange a word from time to time, but if she saw someone around too often she would suddenly say.
“Eh bien, il faut que je me dépêcher,” and turn her back and get on with whatever she was doing in her head and in her hands at the top speed, as if in one more minute she might lose the thread or the grain of it.
Although she considered quite a lot of things I did peculiar and we have not always seen eye to eye she never felt it odd the way I lived alone. It seemed to her quite natural, and whenever anyone came out for a day she would commiserate with me beforehand if she knew they were coming and smile when they were gone saying.
“Dieu merci, revient le paradis!”
It was also said in the village that she was a terrible miser and skinflint. Even that she was an old thief. I suppose this is true or not depending on your position with regard to her. I had plenty of benefits from her almost from the beginning and not for grazing the cows which she considered her right. Every delicious thing in season and chicken whenever one of them broke a leg or got stepped on, which was about every week. All kinds of jams and jellies (n’otibliez pas de me rapporter le pot) and any vegetable that was in danger of going to seed. Almost anything that I did not ask for in fact, or seem to need.
When I asked her for one of the beds belonging to this house which I knew she had on her place though, she told me it had blown into a stream while she was wheeling it off to hide it from the Germans. As for the armchairs, she said the soldiers had taken them away on their hacks during the retreat. Not that she had any use for these things. It simply was her intention to give them back piece by piece as she saw fit and hell could have frozen over before she could have been convinced to do it differently. In respects of that nature you might say she is rather like a queen.
She had a keen feeling for anything that came under her rule and she would not let any animal or farmhand be mistreated so long as it was not harmful or unmanageable. She understood their natures and treated them accordingly so that they didn’t have to be sneaking or slinking and if an animal was sick it was let to lie by the fire and live or die in warmth depending how it felt even if it was not an animal that was useful. When she talked about an animal she called it by a name as if it were worth something more than just so many pounds of meat. Any animal that came into the world and passed a certain age without being found was allowed to go on living which was why there were so many cats and dogs. Even the hogs were accorded a certain dignity and once she told me the proper way to kill slugs without causing them too much pain. (You cut them in two with a pair of scissors).
“J’aime beaucoup mes bêtes,” she often said, meaning her dependents. “J’aime mon métier.”She felt a kindly interest you could tell, for everything in her kingdom.
But as for people or animals or even plants in the outside world, she took no interest in them. They might as well not have existed.
Norbert was Madame Joumard’s only son.
She had a daughter called Liliane who was married and who came to the farm sometimes with her little boy, but she and Madame Joumard were not on very good terms. The postman said that when Liliane married her mother only gave her a sick pig and a dried up cow as dowry and that is why they were not so close together as they might have been, but probably there is more to the story than he told.
Norbert was not married when I came to the Hermitage and he lived in a tiny falling down house covered with ivy behind the main house which is mostly a barn except for the kitchen and a room beside it where his mother slept.
At first I used to ask Madame Joumard who lived in the little house with the vines because I thought it so delicious, but she always pretended she did not hear me or could not understand what I was saying, so after a while I stopped thinking it was the house of the Old Man and knew it was the house of Norbert. Although I had never been inside it I could easily imagine how it was. Just a bed and a mirror to shave by and perhaps a calendar and a chair, but it overlooked the forest on one hand and the vegetable garden on the other and it must have been pleasant to live in such a little house as this, where you saw out through vines in the morning. It seemed the most secret and cosy place in the world, hidden behind stacks of hay and half in the trees, though I do not suppose Norbert thought much about it. He was rarely inside except to sleep because Madame Joumard’s kitchen was the social center of the farm. It is there that the animals and ducks collected and people gathered around the table for their meals. It is there that I usually saw Norbert because otherwise he was working on the land beyond the stream.
Norbert was beautiful. Especially in the blue cloth suit he wore during the week. He looked the way you would expect a country boy to look but the way they never do. Tall and blonde with a ruddy face and somewhat the eyes of Madame Joumard, though more laughing.
That was the main thing about Norbert. He was always laughing, especially at animals. If you told him something queer an animal did or something bad or even how an animal arrived at a catastrophe be thought it was the best thing he had ever heard. He would say, “eh, alors!”, putting his hands on his hips, sticking his thumbs through his vest and laughing his head off, and if it was an animal that was there before him he would look at it and nod his head as if to say, “is it true you creature, did you do that? Did you?” Nothing interested him quite so much as the lives of creatures.
Cats were his favorites. Perhaps because there is so little use to them it makes them pets. He was always stooping down to catch one unawares and when he was at table they sat around his chair and on his knees and shoulders. Sometimes he played terrible jokes on them like rubbing bacon fat into their foreheads to make them lick themselves, washing and washing their faces to get the taste of meat. I hated this because I can’t bear to tease an animal even for a minute but the cats loved Norbert. Even Sauvage who hadn’t time for anyone else. She followed him around the farm like a dog and when she had her kittens Norbert could find them no matter where they were. When he saw Sauvage coming he would fling her over his shoulder and walk around like that, and going down the road to dinner at night he called minou! minou! minou! laughing and laughing.
He had thousands of jokes inside him, some of them very secret. I know because often he smiled in a mysterious way that was not meant to be told and if I should ask him what he was smiling about he would just smile more without answering.
Norbert did not wear wooden shoes the way his mother did but high laced boots that were blunt in the toes like army boots and his trousers were always a little too short for him. He did not address anyone formally if he could help it and when he called me “Madame” he gave a teasing sound to it either because be did not think me enough of a girl with my hair cut so short or because I hardly seemed deserving of such dignity. But he would not call me anything else for fear of naming me out and out.
Norbert and I did not talk a lot and what we did say we said by talking about the weather or catastrophe or things on the farm. Norbert could say more this way than most people, though he was too clever to reveal himself much. I don’t know what he said to his girl because she didn’t live on a farm but I suppose they had plenty to talk about. I only hoped they wouldn’t laugh too much when she came to live there because I was in love with Norbert some at first.
He was very good to Madame Joumard though she didn’t think he was because she is like all mothers. She said he didn’t know what luxury he was brought up in and told how she slaved her fingers to the bone to have him running off to town without even getting in the hay or feeding the horses. In her days farmers did not go up to Paris but stayed where they belonged like peasants should.
Norbert worked from morning to night and I never knew him to be away but three days in all the time I lived there. When he found his mother in the barn telling these things to the cows as she milked he teased her the way he teased the animals.
“Eh b'en!” he would say, “do I hear a noise in here? I think it must be bees. Bees in the cow barn... now there is something to think about! Perhaps they are tired of the beehive and have come to live with us...”
Madame Joumard loved Norbert better than anything in the world, I guess.
Nobody knew what Norbert loved best, though.