Wildness, and the fact that we had entered its lair, struck me somewhere between the fast train out of Paris and the local bus ride through purple fields full of growing, buzzing life. Surrounding us was a beautiful, ancient nowhere, fit to my imagination exactly—right down to the circles of cypresses waving their pointy treetops. One dirt road trickled past tiny white towns. The air smelled like a soap shop. Crows cawed and soared between rolling hills. Orange sun. Blue sky. Grapes.
I could hardly believe our good fortune, and yet, this one-way bus ticket to the farmhouse, officially called ‘Les Moutons’, felt like the second chance I knew we’d get. The three of us dreamed of a bucolic adventure in the South of France, and though we had gotten a little sidetracked, we were here. Ready. Determined to live off the land.
I bothered Mae again for the arrangements she had made with Denis, the proprietor of Les Moutons whom she sweet-talked into giving us a chance:
- We were to wait at this unremarkable, one-bench-on-the-side-of-the-road station.
- “Someone” would meet us.
- In exchange for room and board, we were to mix cement, lay brick, hammer old plaster and stone, garden, pitch hay into the stables, share amenities and meals with the other travelers and ideally speak French since most of them weren’t native English speakers.
All of this had sounded enticing and rustic from the noisy youth hostel pay phone in Paris. Just perfect, in fact. But the bus had roared off thirty minutes ago and besides the old men and tidy, country grandmothers who lowered their eyes or suspiciously glanced our way, we were alone. I thought about the manual labor.
“How hard could it be?” Mae said easily, handing me her last cigarette.
“What does ‘Les Moutons” mean?”
“It means ‘the sheep’,” she answered.
I opened a bag of peanut M & M’s and worriedly munched.
Kay, inspired by the remote station, pulled out her sketchpad and boldly drew one lingering fellow in a dirty trench coat with charcoal, not handsome, slightly creepy.
Young. American. Girls the old people said with their eyes.
I counted my 75 francs, reminding myself we were on the border of the French and Italian countryside, one of Europe’s lands of plenty. For a while we could live for free and keep our eyes open for a grape-picking job, a goal I felt oddly determined to fulfill. I had told everyone I knew—friends, neighbors, even my parents’ colleagues—that I’d be picking grapes for three months, and the wonder in their eyes allowed me to see myself, finally, as a girl who lived on the edge. My mother’s coworkers in particular marveled, what an adventurous departure and what kind of city girl would take such a risk. If I failed to pick a single grape, I’d have to handle their disappointment in addition to my own. I needed to at least try to find my edge. Truthfully, I was terrified I didn’t have one.
I reminded Mae and Kay of the lucrative grape scenario awaiting us in the next four weeks. The leaves hadn’t even started to turn down south, but I knew harvest finished by late October.
“We don’t have to pick grapes,” Kay said, still sketching. “There are figs to pick in Nice. There are oranges to pick in Italy.”
“But we came to Provence to pick grapes,” I insisted.
“And to drink wine,” Mae laughed.
I might have joined in if it were three weeks ago in the 107th bistro, if I were still operating on the hope of making Eve’s Starry Night portrait of our French adventure come to life. But things were not exactly going to plan. On one hand we were running on a dream, but the cosmic order wouldn’t carry us for long.
“I believe life will help us out,” Kay countered. “We just have to recognize the signs.”
She looked up to show her drawing to the creepy bystander, who squinted and shuffled away. Un-offended, she tucked the page into her notebook and started another.
I agreed about signs. The statue of Pan practically led me here. But when would the next one come?
A pickup truck full of grapes rambled past and spilled purple bunches at our feet. The three of us scrambled to collect the fruit and, while hungrily eating even the brown ones, an angular female driver with a wino’s smile waved us over to her tiny, filthy car; our chariot to Les Moutons.
“I’m Fabian,” she said. “No English.”
It was a long, upward drive. She wheeled around hairpin turns, chatting nonstop and too fast for me to translate. Road signs for every new mountain town showed up 20 kilometers apart. We entered Forcalquier, once the capital of Haute-Provence with its bell tower and cathedral, but now a small city of 12th century doorways and aerial views of the whole region. On an empty cobblestone street thick with late afternoon shadows, Fabian pulled up on the curb and turned to us with serious eyes.
“Do you need something to smoke?”
“Cigarettes?” Mae said, politely declining the offer of drugs.
“Cigarettes.” Fabian laughed. “Okay, mes Americaines.”
She disappeared into a dark apartment and left us in the car.
Certain people look like they belong anywhere, and Mae, once out of the car and surveying the busy town square, was one of those people. She was small-framed like a southern belle but dark, with giant, wide set eyes and a braid down her back, gypsy-like. I envied how Mae invited casual hellos from cool-looking French people: a thoughtful, cap-wearing fellow with a guitar case, an exquisitely plain teenaged girl in a hand-woven sweater. Minutes had passed, and already Mae had been offered a bouquet of fresh wildflowers by a grocer like any other beloved local.
I had tried acting like a local in New York, but never came into my own. After work at the jazz club, I walked down Riverside Drive dreaming of living in one of the grand, pre-war apartments, writing art films by day and socializing by night. On weekends I braved gang-ridden neighborhoods in order to stay at my trumpet player boyfriend’s apartment on Avenue D, where late night parties meant sitting on the floor listening to music, getting high. But none of it, not the walks of wishful thinking or the daring downtown love life, brought out my inner Manhattanite. Perhaps the wine and the valleys in Provence, the distance from city pressures, was a better fit for the inner me, who was now free to emerge like a ghost unchained. And Forcalquier was ghostly. Shards of sun light played tricks with the shadows, and the rugged, thin townies striding in suede jackets weren’t just distant and cool, but wary and even cautious of the eerie mountain echoes, of the low, bright moon that shone simultaneously with the setting sun.
It struck me then; we were in the land of Pan.
Fabian emerged from the apartment, dreamy eyed and ready for the moonlight drive.
An hour later, the car strained its way up a different, west-facing hill. At the top I saw the silhouette of a crumbling chateau, beautiful 500 years ago, and the dusty, candlelit faces of a half dozen smiling strangers. Denis was not among them. These were the workers, people like us, who helped haul our backpacks out of the car and into our chambers. Mine was a monastic room flanking the barn. I set my bag down next to the mattress—sheet, wool blanket and pillow on the floor—and regarded the tiny desk and chair, a candle and a box of matches. That was it, besides a glassless window overlooking a frighteningly dark pasture.
We dined in the dark on the outdoor terrace. I couldn’t see the food, but it tasted delectably herby. Eleven of us all talked at once including Denis who, at the head of the table and unlit by anything more than stars, was just the presence of a medium-sized man with a loud, emphatic voice. He talked about the charm of the estate; the large stone terrace; the dilapidated house itself, and the fairytale views of white hilltop towns. Someone used the word ‘magical.’ As he promised, all became visible the next morning during our communal breakfast of breads, preserves and coffee–a meal that would at once make me feel nostalgic for and superior to New York Sunday brunches. But that first night alone in my bed, tipsy from the wine, all I saw was shape-shifting darkness– out the window, behind my own eyes, and in the empty, unremarkable room I had wanted so badly to find.
I wrote to my parents, just one long letter over the course of our stay. I maintained a portrait of good, European living and downplayed the blur of construction. Long, happy outdoor dinners into the night, local wines, and peculiar sights like the ruins of a citadel, and horses in medieval dress parading through town on market days. I didn’t mention that sledge hammering stone and mixing cement started at sunrise. Or how I had sliced my finger while wrapping a wire mesh. The truth was, I overlooked my own white, dusty underwear. I smelled, but so did everyone unless they took a cold shower on a dirt floor bathroom. Though my body ached with each step to the swimming hole, a blue crevasse in a stone quarry, I maintained my idealism; I was happy—happier—to be living a hard adventure than going through the motions of lectures and libraries.
Dear Mom and Dad,
Writing to you from the dining table on the terrace of this soon to be ‘maison extraordinaire’. This is where we (down to the six of us) eat all our meals (including afternoon tea) together, as well as practice French and English skills, sometimes late into the evening. Today is Monday, and only Mae, Kay and I are doing work on the house, while Denis (the owner) and Patrick (the native Marseillan construction professional) are in a nearby town purchasing some more cement. As you might have gathered from my vague descriptions, everything here at Les Moutons is outdoors, made of stone, and electricity-free–our living quarters included. The work is going well, that, is, what there is of it for us to do. According to a few young people also on leave from University, things will slow down a bit as a good percentage of the workers have left and returned to their other lives. What remains to be done is the electricity, for which we need an electrician. Hopefully Denis will still have things for us to do. Hopefully the idea that we are three young women and not three young men will not settle in until we are ready to leave.
He is kind of a strange character, Denis. Harmless, but strange. He is going about building this bed and breakfast maison all by himself and as frugally as possible. He has had ads in at least 20 newspapers through Europe for workers—amateur or professional, male or female, to come live in Forcalquier, a beautiful medieval enclave, and work to help rebuild this house. Indeed it is a good idea and a clever way to go about doing it, but seems like it will take a long time (it’s already been two years) and it might begin to get frustrating. It seems like we arrived during a transitional phase for him; like he might be totally reworking his original plans of action in buildings this place. I am finding his behavior a little disconcerting…
On the night we were to cement the second floor, Denis actually spoke to me. By starlight, I shoveled stones and dry clay into the cement mixer while Denis turned the crank. He had balanced a Buddha lamp on an overturned wheelbarrow, plugging it into a portable generator. He handed me a cup of tea when I stopped to wipe my brow.
“It’s hard work, eh?”
It was an obvious question, and yet after days of not saying so I almost started to cry. The construction site was a mess; boards laid as walkways over deep pits, buckets of brick, piles of white plaster.
“This house. I’m at the end of my money. We should have been done by now,” he said.
I said something plain and accommodating. What I had thought would be a conversation about my formidable attitude, about Mae, Kay and my exceptional efforts, was just a forum for Denis’s bitterness, which he tried to hide.
“It’s beautiful, though eh?” he picked up a shovel and threw the cement mixture into the machine twice as fast as me. “We are lucky to be in Haute-Provence. To work by the light of the Buddha together, in the mountains, for just a short time.”
I didn’t really know who the Buddha was. The statue’s green belly glowed, and its smile mocked me in a way that made me think for the first time about returning to college.
Denis’s bullish movements and distracted small talk pulled us toward an uncomfortable bottom line.
“So, what else do you girls have planned?”
“We’re waiting for a sign,” I said mysteriously.
“Me too,” he said into the dark.
That night, after pouring the cement perfectly over 1800 square feet, I went to bed feeling like Denis and I had bonded. Even if the construction work tapered off in coming days, I believed he wouldn’t mind our staying on for a while. Not because he was particularly good natured, or sensitive, but because he understood about waiting for signs.
* * *
“You know, there’s not much for you to do. Besides the electrician, I’m not taking anyone else until next year. One of you can stay with me, but otherwise you girls need to go.”
It was three days later and everyone had left Les Moutons; back to Universities, warmer parts of the Mediterranean, or regular lives from which they had vacationed. Mae, Kay and I had tried busying ourselves with light gardening work and organizing in the garage, but our mock activities failed to convince even Patrick, who was fond of our crappy language skills and bourgeois expectations of things like laundry.
I tried not to show Denis I was hurt. “But we haven’t gotten our sign.”
His temper started to turn. “I’ve got my own problems, Suzanne. Torrential floods are predicted to hit the area. All of this work will be ruined unless we shut things down. All of you can’t stay here.”
Again, this second mention of just one of us staying on, presumably as Denis’s “friend,” fell heavily. Frankly, I didn’t want to share Denis’s bed. He had a temper and a mustache. But besides packing our bags and walking down the road, he wasn’t offering another option. Panic rose in my chest.
“We’ll figure something out,” Mae added quickly, preparing to negotiate. “How long do we have? When does the electrician come? When do the floods come?”
Denis quickly checked with Patrick en Francais. “The floods are coming next week, Wednesday or Thursday. Richard Simmons will be here after the weekend,” he murmured to himself, now. “He’ll have a couple of days to get the lights and heat going, to set up the pump so I don’t drown.”
“Richard Simmons?” Kay asked.
Denis looked up. “The electrician. He’s driving down from England.”
“Yes, really. What’s so funny?”
We could barely speak, picturing the tiny shorts, the wild hair, and the homosexually charged enthusiasm. How could this not be our sign?
We were still laughing as Denis stormed away, mounted his neglected stallion, and rode off until he disappeared into a tiny, inconsequential dot.
…this past weekend, which just ended today, we spent in the city of Marseille. Denis suggested we go see more of France, and Patrick, the carpenter, drives there each weekend to see his son Julian, so we drove with him there and back. We ended up staying in the shady part of town, near the Old Port where all the fishing commerce takes place between France, Spain, and North Africa. We walked around and took the bus to visit the beaches, which was nice, but there’s an ominous undercurrent of corruption here, even at night in the center square where all the young people hang out on motorbikes. There was a lawless feeling that anything could happen at anytime (Marseille is also the heroin capital of the world). I’m not interested in going back anytime soon.
Denis sort of insisted that we take the weekend to travel, but I’m looking forward to getting back to the farm. I’m thinking about renting a bicycle for easier transportation. It is starting to get cold, though, and it’s supposed to flood. If you could please find my blue Levis (in the bottom drawer of my dresser) and send them, I’d be a lot warmer. I’ll confirm an address for you in the next letter, since I’m not quite sure where I’ll be (don’t worry—everything will work out!).
In Marseille we found no welcoming bars, no new leads into our next occupation, and not even a friendly face at the youth hostel. Fed up one night, we splurged on an Indian dinner in the city center only to ‘dine and ditch,’ rationalizing right along with Mae the meal was overpriced.
“You don’t pay for rice when you order Indian food,” she said once we had safely run three blocks. The soft glint in her eye had sharpened, ignited. “I don’t care where you are in the world.”
We hadn’t talked about Denis’s dismissal of us, but Mae’s acting out and Kay’s recess into her thoughts couldn’t have occurred for any other reason. On some level I didn’t believe he would insist on our evacuation—how could he—with such a shining work ethic as ours, so much personality, and honestly no other option yet. I had expected to find a grape-picking job by now, three and a half weeks in, but with the long days and isolation at Les Moutons, there simply hadn’t been time. Surely, I said over coffee the morning we were to meet Patrick, Denis would give us more time.
We sped out of the fishy city into golden mountains, dying wildflowers and looming storm clouds. No one said much on the peaceful ride. At once, I felt the contentment of going home and the dull panic of displacement, but instead admired the scenery, the scraggly plant-life against robust hills.
Pan, after all, was the God of Panic.
The goat skull was sitting in the tall grass, bleached and picked clean as if it had fallen out of the haunting O’Keefe painting Ram’s Head White Hollyhock and Little Hills. Kay found it when Patrick pulled over for lunch about half way to Les Moutons.
“This is our sign,” she said, roping it to her backpack. Patrick and Mae were inside a small restaurant having a quick glass of wine.
“But I thought Richard Simmons was our sign.” I said.
“I’m thinking we’re going to need more than Richard Simmons,” Kay said,
as if she could see the future.
Patrick stopped her from getting in the car once he saw the dead long horn.
“Why that goat?” he said in horrified, broken English.
“It’s a talisman,” Kay said sweetly. “You know, magic.”
“No.” He blocked her way to the car.
“Why? It’s beautiful. C’est belle.”
“Ca n’est pas belle,” he said pointing to the trunk. He turned on his heel as if offended, but I detected some fear in his eyes.
Being American, we had no understanding that centuries of superstition threaded Provencal folklore and trickled down into common, everyday thought. Later we would learn that the goat skull, also viewed as an inverted pentagram, was the medieval symbol of the witch; that Denis had joked as much about the three of us arriving on his farm, single, American girls, seemingly out of nowhere, without reason or real ability. Our bewitchedness would not come to matter for another twenty-four hours, so Patrick’s total silence on the drive home, his shake of the head and tossing of Kay’s backpack in the dirt even after our profuse thanks, only confused us.
Dusk at Les Moutons was a gray, stagnant haze. The woodpile, the tool shed and the dying garden all took on a haunted animation that felt related to the stalled momentum. We were home, but no part of the farm felt serene; nowhere did I feel particularly safe. And then, further up the driveway I spotted another car, trunk open, with a lanky fellow in army pants and a buzz cut leaning over bags of spilling cords and tools. We all saw him. Patrick approached hastily. The two men shook his hands like they were old drinking buddies in another lifetime. Within moments, we heard the loud hearty laugh of our non-aerobic hero, Richard Simmons.
“We’ve been looking forward to your arrival,” Mae sang after introductions.
Richard Simmons looked slightly confused. He had a sweet smile and honest eyes in which I saw myself four weeks ago, excited, up for adventure, like I was the luckiest person alive.
“Glad I made it, then.“ His English accent charmed us instantly, another indication he was our sign. He seemed pleased to chat us up; someone not yet paralyzed by the bad luck of Les Moutons. It was more noticeable to me since our return, the crumbling amenities, the neglect. But Richard Simmons commented on none of this, only the ridge of the mountains, a steaming hot vegetarian meal in front of him, and copious amounts of wine.
During dinner, when Denis returned from his trip on horseback, he strode onto the terrace in his riding boots, a king assessing his subjects. He greeted Richard with a cordial handshake; his eyes flitted over Mae, Kay and I.
‘Girls,” he said. “How was Marseille?”
Though it was only half true, I planned to gush about returning to the hominess of the farm. Before I had a chance, Kay chimed in, “Look what I found,” and pointed to the goat skull on her backpack.
I had not seen blood drain from a face before. I thought Denis might disintegrate on the spot. He glared at Patrick and began sputtering in a combination of angry English and French, much of which I didn’t understand per se, except for a few clear phrases.
What is wrong with you three? You are possessed. I saw this coming.
Patrick interrupted with what sounded like mollifications. Clearly, he had argued with Denis before. He made reasonable gestures with one open hand to each of the three of us, as if it were all a misunderstanding; as if we were just a few culturally ignorant fools.
Get off of my farm, Denis roared.
The sun had dissolved some time ago, so we hadn’t noticed the arrival of black clouds or any other signs—the sharp, moist wind, the onset of ambient chill—that foretold imminent rain. Richard Simmons’ smile dimmed. He shivered as he excused himself, claiming fatigue. Almost immediately after Mae, Kay and I took shelter in our respective rooms, the rain fell severely.
* * *
In the morning, I awoke to banging on my door. I don’t know why I smiled when I saw Denis standing solemnly in a windbreaker; gray clouds and light rain behind him, keys in hand, as if somehow this indicated he had come around.
“Come to breakfast, and then put your things in the van. You’re leaving.”
On the terrace Kay and Mae were already stirring sugar into their coffee, their hair in ponytails, their clothes disheveled. They had been awakened and evicted moments earlier, and I had the feeling Mae had tried to fight but lost.
“Let’s just say he’s not in a good mood,” she said under her breath.
“Wrong side of the bed,” Kay added, with a smirk.
Patrick explained: After everyone turned in, Denis had seen a ghost. A woman in a black dress loitered by the woodpile. He ranted and raved to Patrick, convinced we had brought her back from Marseille, and threatened to drive us off the farm in the middle of the night. Patrick, after several hours of argument, convinced him to wait until morning.
Mae looked irritated, like lawyer who lost a case, and Kay contained her disappointment behind down cast, angry eyes.
“Where’s Richard Simmons?” He was all I could think of, our one, cosmic sign of hope. The alternative conversation–commenting on Denis’s ghostly vision and its plausibility– was beyond me.
Richard Simmons, however, had encountered an even stranger fate in the night. Violent thunder had awakened him, and as he crept down his chamber steps to find matches in the kitchen, he fell—about 12 feet—breaking and dislocating his shoulder. Denis rushed him to the hospital thirty miles away, where Richard Simmons had checked in and would remain for, the doctor predicted, ten days.
“There goes our sign,” Kay said. The rain, gaining momentum again, whacked the plastic tarps pulled over the open pits, the exposed reconstruction, and the now abandoned car of the English electrician.
By the time we finished our coffee, Denis had already put our backpacks in his van, a window less white Dodge splattered with mud and loaded with lumber. Kay and I sat pressed against each other in the two-person backseat, while Mae took the front and grilled Denis about our destination.
“I have to bring you to a friend’s– he owns a horse ranch-about twenty kilometers from here. I talked to him. He can help you out.” His tone was friendly, as if freeloading or witchcraft had never been associated with our presence. But I had seen his red, miserable eyes. He talked manically all the way to the long white cattle fence that marked the property of his friend’s riding camp. Like a porter at a hotel, he slid our door open, offering his hand as we stepped out into the mud. We stood in the light rain. He pulled out our bags and, seeing no person or horses in view, hurriedly handed me all the reading materials he had crumpled on the passenger’s seat floor—a tourist magazine for all of Haute-Provence, a small phone book for the municipality of Manosque, the closest village, and something else stuck to a napkin. I thought for a second it was pastry, a thin crepe being secretly served just to me from an otherwise irrational Denis. I wanted the impossible, to see him not as someone about to abandon us, but as a reluctant caretaker, stuck in a crisis.
It was a postcard, the only piece of mail I received in almost two months. The front had a picture of a purple spiral artfully drawn in crayon, as if by a child, with a quote at the bottom about infinity, or the vastness of the world. I turned it over. It was signed by my mother and every single one of her coworkers: the seven development officers, the mail carrier, the receptionist, the publications editor, each of whom had written a small, pithy quote about squishing grapes or dining on caviar. The thoughtfulness, the little bits of care sparkling in their script written with fancy, Rollerball pens overwhelmed me. But one message, from the woman who raised money for the School of Dentistry, said nothing about missing me or raising a glass. She wrote:
DO BAD THINGS. YOU WON’T GET CAUGHT.
It wasn’t a good luck wish, but a command, and the instructional tone was especially jarring as Denis ran around to the driver’s side of the van, gunned the engine, and spun in the dust to face the drive’s exit.
“I’m sorry to have to leave you like this, girls.” He shouted over the idling motor. His elbow already pointed out the window comfortably. “I have to get back. My friend should be here soon. I’ll call you in a few days to see how things are going.”
The white Dodge was the last car we saw that day.
He never called. He didn’t even wave goodbye.
End of Part 2