Letters and passageways (4): Cathar country

This is a series of rewritten journal entries from the summer I spent in the south of France, the first entry here.

Allanah and Gregory seem to me a bit bats. It’s more Allanah with her self-taught fortune telling, Gregory’s bats by association. They’re Canadian and buy old houses along the south of France, fix them up and then flip them. They don’t have much competition as the French don’t seem like real entrepreneurs to me, even though they should be (it’s their word, entrepreneur).

My only work since I’ve been here is working for Gregory. Since I have no real construction skills I just hang around Gregory and fetch stuff, with my dust mask. Gregory demonstrates how to use a vise grip to pull out rusty nails, how to saw off carriage bolts, how to use a hammer and chisel. At the end of the day my hands are swollen but I can’t feel them because of all the wine we had with lunch. Gregory seems amused by the fact that I’m a writer, regularly saying put THAT in your book. His tone grows aggressive the more times he says it, often punctuating the ‘that’ by throwing a piece of rotten wood or using his nail gun. Put that in your book!

Allanah’s into art and history, the pathways between mysticism, the occult, ancient religions, and the Cathars: a 12th-century Christian movement that took on the corruption of the Catholic church (and lost) with related stories of hidden treasure, the Holy Grail, an infamous priest in the hills. It’s the same priest and patchwork of conspiracy theories Dan Brown later wrote about in The DaVinci Code. She has an American friend named MJ who lives in a nearby village (recently divorced) and researching cults, writing a book. Allanah’s got a lazy eye she employs in an almost comic, trance-like face she puts on when she pre-cognates: she predicts I’ll find my soul mate at a paella party in the country this weekend.

Laurent picks me up for the party at 9, it seems nothing starts here before that time. I’m eager, and wait for him out front. His car is so small it’s hard to believe he can fit inside. He smokes and shifts, never losing his cool when driving. It’s one of my first times outside of Collioure, a half an hour inland to a town called Elne. We cross an old stone bridge with Roman archways and a river below reflecting the red sky. Allanah said something about crossing large bodies of water, that it has an impact on the spirit we’re not aware of, and it takes time to recover from that. Maybe that’s my problem, and why she’s having bad dreams about me.

When we get to the party it’s finally dark, and looks like the guy has a farm with an old barn. I have trouble tying together how we know the host, it’s Laurent’s sister’s fiancée Bruno’s childhood friend, a veterinarian. They have a bonfire going and a tent with a large cauldron of paella, everyone drinking red wine mixed with Coke. I ask Laurent about the girl, and he says “I sink it would be perfect,” puts his arm around my shoulder and leads me to her, then points with the same hand he’s holding his drink, “Zat one.”

But the girl doesn’t speak English, not a lick, so we smile and just exchange phrases, sipping our drinks. In the absence of verbal language you have to rely on the non-verbal, and there is a fair amount of light touching on the arms and shoulders. Her name is Muriel, a name that sounds awful in English, but musical in French. She’s from Toulouse and writes her number in my notepad, hands it back to me, smiles…

For the days that follow, my journal details the pained planning for the follow-up call. I have three English-French dictionaries face down on the coffee table, and triangulate between all three. I have to script everything out so it will sound natural. It’s almost 10 PM, and my skin feels hot from the sun. I think of telling her that, but fear it won’t come out right (my skin feels hot). I take a cold shower, a “let’s-go-team” shower, and decide to call her just past 10. But it’s a bust. She says something I don’t understand, so I say ‘quoi?’ like I didn’t hear her, but it’s not going anywhere so I just hang up.

Put that in your book!

Allanah’s friend MJ needs a two-story wall on the outside of her house painted and offers to have me do the job: in return, she’ll show me around the region and share her research about a church in the strange town Rennes-le-Château. There’s also the medieval fortress where the Cathars were slaughtered but may have snuck something out before they were besieged (a painting or treasure, religious artifact?). MJ says the church is dedicated to Mary Magdalene and there’s a line of thinking that Mary was pregnant with a child from Jesus who went on to lead the Merovingians (and ruled most of modern day France and some of Germany, and wore their hair long). There’s a statue of the devil in the church she says, but someone sawed its head off. 

Allanah does my number charts, says something life-changing will happen when I turn 45, because I’m a 3 person and that’s the culmination of a life arc or major series. She accuses me of holding a latent violence though, and says this in a distrustful tone like she’s looking at X-rays and found something she can’t put a name to. She calls it an air of violence. In her dreams about me there is the girl from the paella party and MJ, other women (faceless)…all of us levitating, me trying to climb on their shoulders. I have to bite my lip from laughing when Allanah rolls her eyes back, as though she’s scanning the universe, a mental divining rod looking for a hidden stream. There’s an interference she warns, and that could be me or it could be my step-dad, John.

It was early summer but we were high enough in the mountains it was cool and I remember most days needing a jacket. MJ lived by a river you could see out back from her bathroom, the most beautiful bathroom I’d ever seen. There was a large window right by the toilet she kept open all the time, and when it blew the curtains it seemed to beckon come relax by the river…a vase of fresh-cut wild lavender on the sill…an old bath tub (no shower) and a deep, porcelain sink with knobby handles that looked like miniature hands.

I wasn’t good at painting or interested to learn, and I think MJ wound up doing more than she planned to that week. I learned the French word for scaffolding, échafaudage, and relished the sound of it. MJ was a good 20 years older than me and I realized I’d stepped into a kind of fantasy scape of hers, but didn’t feel the same. We’d share a bottle of Blanquette at the end of the day and it would go right to her head. She got me to recite a poem one night in the doorway of my bedroom with the evening breeze coming through and the sound of the river but I wasn’t feeling it; I had to say goodnight and return to the collection of horror stories I’d brought from Collioure.

On the day we drove up to the church where the priest went missing, maybe it was my imagination or the altitude, but the fillings in my teeth vibrated and I had a strange sense from the place, like something bad was buried there. Conspiracy theories played out a number of scenarios explaining how the priest came into all the money needed to renovate the old church, that he was being blackmailed by the Catholics to keep quiet about something he found.

But when I went back and researched it, I found all the history, even some of the books, took elements that were true and distorted them into fiction. Even Mary Magdalene had that done to her by a pope, who conflated her with a different Mary, a prostitute, maybe as a genuine mistake or (more likely) to debase her. Hundreds of years later now, and some people still believe that.

My own history has the same blend of fact and fiction, with conflated characters and gaps in the sequence of events that now takes on a mysterious air, a patina of age that grows more unusual from a distance. Here I am at 27 calling out from the past, dead or as in danger of dying as the same characters and people I try to remember from that time.  

I made small talk with the guy who works the produce section at the store today about the lightning storm Saturday night, and he thinks it’s because the earth is being pulled out of its axis and has nothing to do with global warming, that there’s nothing we can do about it. I go home and read about the Mayan calendar, the glyphs. The 104-year cycle when the earth, sun, and Venus all line up for one day. They calculated that, and built their calendar on the logic of two cogs in a wheel moving at different speeds, all on that premise.

I scan my purchases with a handheld gun and then lay on the couch reading old journals, kneading my hands. I research the Visigoths, the slain King of Aragon, the Merovingians. And I’m convinced that we’re all connected somehow, that we just have to find the right passageways that lead us to each other.

Blog post image from the cover of Carlos Castaneda’s novel A Separate Reality, 1971.

Categories: Memoir, travel, writing

Tags: , , , , , ,

16 replies

  1. Great observation about the French as entrepreneurs — they ought to be good at it. And you included my favorite line from Dances With Wolves. Not sure about the wine and Coke, though. That sounds very un-Francais.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Bill, although I’m not much for woo-woo, I did enjoy this. Your ability to hint and suggest is so subtle. Love the reading poem and book of horror stories bit.

    I found I am approaching these longer pieces with trepidation – conditioned to short reads, perhaps? Or just shallow and time poor? But each one has been evocative and enjoyable. What pair of names will come next?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow quite a ramble down a lotta neural passageways! Loved it, a bit of a Borges feel to things, du Maurier – – labyrinths and conspiracies, paella party soul mates, secrets and nail-guns. Glad the nail-guns hadn’t been invented when the Visigoths might have gotten hold of them, I just don’t seem them using such technology in an adult manner – – it was probably that hairy lot that come up with wine & Coke. The buzzing in your teeth feeling, when you’re up in the mountains, like what the dowsers/water diviners sometimes report, and the side effects of crossing bodies of water, I put down to changes in the earth’s magnetic field, which is just as scientific as Cathar ghostly vibes or curses, and I’ve felt it when I’m near active volcanoes. A very cool read, Mr. Pearse. cheers from Ahmedabad.

    Liked by 1 person


  1. Letters and passageways (4): Cathar country — William Pearse | pinklightsabre | O LADO ESCURO DA LUA

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