© Vincent Bridges 2003
I was in bed asleep in the tower room of the Hotel les Antiques when something, some sound from outside, awakened me. The French doors to the balcony stood open and the curtains drifted slightly in the breeze. The air tasted of crushed sage and lavender, and the breeze did have a voice, whispering quietly as the edge of the lace trimming danced over marble. The window squeaked faintly, opening a little wider as the breeze stirred up from the town with a promise like a goddess’ kiss.
Then I was on the balcony, watching a gibbous moon drift up in the east through a sky that might have inspired Van Gogh’s visions. Down toward town, the lights had dimmed except for those on the ring road, the endless circle of cafes and shops that follow the town’s ancient walls, and now form a wall of glitter, a shell of tourist glitz, to hide the old town’s medieval ambiance. That night, the old town was dark, with just the lights at the Hotel de Ville, the town hall, glowing up from the depths.
The breeze returned, and this time I heard it. Not very clearly, certainly not so as to understand it, but there was some one talking deep down in the old town. I strained to hear, leaning out from the balcony.
Then I was on the street in front of the hotel, walking down toward the ancient gate and the town hall. I was dressed in black, as I had been all day, and somehow I didn’t think anything about it. The street was solid, and real, just as it had been a few hours before; I assumed that I had dressed and left the hotel, even if I couldn’t quite remember it.
The ring road was empty, and very dark as I crossed it and passed through the old south gate. There was some light down toward the town hall, but it looked pale and thin, and I decided to avoid it. I turn left into a small street, and was immediately lost.
I stopped, trying to sense my surroundings. The street narrowed ahead, and the dark shapes of the houses seemed to be leaning in over me. There was no light but the moon, which cast a soft bluish mist on the edges of the shadows and not much else. And then I heard the voice again. Someone murmuring softly, rhythmically off in the distance… It wasn’t loud, but I found that I could follow it.
The street narrowed, twisted through various courtyards, and emptied into a small square. The voice grew louder as I turned right onto the next street.
As I turned the corner several things happened at once. For just an instant, I saw the area in front of the pilgrim hostel of St Jacques as it must have been at the peak of the middle ages, overflowing with humanity, all joyous and happy like a carnival crowd. Almost at the same instant, I recognized where I was, and the overlay was gone. Then I realized that if I was really there, I had just walked through a wall. Before that thought could travel across my consciousness, I heard the voice again, just around the curve in the street ahead.
I plunged on. As the street curved, I saw him standing in front of a dilapidated looking house, no. 6 Rue Hoche, counting backwards in French and keeping time with his walking stick. He was dressed in black, with soft boots and a clean white shirt peeking from collar and cuffs. His hair was short, iron-grey and stiff in spots, but he had a long and elegantly coiffed beard of greyish chesnut, with a sprightly twist to the moustache.
As he counted “Cinq…” I stepped out of the shadows.
I think we spoke in French. It sounded that way at the time. I understood it in English, so that’s how I’ll reproduce it here.
“You are in time, barely… How long does it take to get here from your time? No time at all, and still you are almost late…” He frowned, but his eyes were twinkling. “So, did you not hear me? We only have this brief minute, and if you are not here, then I have an even shorter time. Just five more seconds, and I might have missed you…”
“Wait, you mean…”
He stepped out and took my arm, patting it in a comforting manner, like the successful doctor he was. “Not to worry. I will be more than happy to explain all. Truly, you must hear what I am going to tell you, otherwise, well, let us say it is not something to contemplate…”
We strolled down the rue Hoche toward rue de Lapin Blanc, and even though it was all solid, and recognizable from the present, there was a thinness, a gossamer quality to the scene. Houses would flow through time as we approached and moved past, first looking old, then crumbling and being rebuilt, until they looked modern as we came even, then crumbling back into the past behind us.
As we walked, I noticed another bit of pure strangeness. The shadows were moving with us; sinuous slices of inky darkness flowed out of corners and from under the eves of the ancient roofs and slipped silently along ahead of us. Small bright eye-lights blinked briefly before their shadows glided across gutters and storefronts.
“Cats…” I said.
“Oh yes, the cats… They gather like this whenever I venture into the zone. Cats do not live fully in our world, much of their lives takes place here, in the zone between worlds and times, between memory and phantasm…”
We turned into what I recognized as the Place Favier and stopped before a wrought iron gate in front of a moderately sized town house. My host opened it, and bowed for me to enter first. As I did, I felt a shift in the air and the light changed. Before, I had felt solid, and the world was a little thin. Now, the world was solid, and I was the one who was thin. He followed me through, and we sat down on a comfortable bench tucked into a cosy arbour by the fountain, which was topped by an exquisitely beautiful fragment of a Greek nymph. Warm yellow light spilled out from under the shutters on the first floor of the house on the opposite side of the courtyard, and I listened to the small sounds of a house full of people and animals settling down for the night.
“This is my father’s house, Jaume the jocular and always joking business man of St. Remy. It is the night of September 16th, one thousand five hundred twenty one years, as Denis the Short reckons it, from our Saviour’s birth. The world seemed at that moment balanced on the edge of destruction. I had just seen my first glimpse of the Black Death, and its twin sister the Red, in Avignon. The rivers flooded, washing the dead out of their tombs and they floated rotting down the boulevards to wash up in their hundreds against the very steps of the Pope’s Palace. And then it began? death, death and more death…”
As he spoke, the shadow cats, deepest black to smoky grey, drifted up around us. Their bright eyes blinked like astral fireflies as they settled in to listen. I felt them brush pass me like tiny puffs of warm air.
“So I came here, to my family. I was young, not yet 18, and I was scared beyond all imagining. Friends had died in my arms, living vital and warm one day, sick, dying from the most horrible of the Red Death’s embrace the next. Frankly, I was mad at God. This was not the Grand God that my grandfather had taught me to love and respect. This was some nightmare God, something vengeful and capricious, and I wanted no part of it.
“But of course, they didn’t understand what disturbed me. My father was a good man, truly honest, correct and yet warm and kind, always laughing. But he could not see what troubled my soul. To him, God gave life, and He was likely to take it back at any time, so why waste any of His gift in worrying? My mother thought it was simple indigestion and that a few days of her cooking would make me see the world in its correct perspective once again. Of course, in their way they were both right, but it wasn’t the answer I needed.
“A few hours ago, in this very garden, my father and I had the closest to an argument we ever managed. I realize now that I provoked the old man beyond what his simple and basically happy soul could take. He had other sons, but I was his firstborn. Although it saddened him, he agreed to my decision to leave, and to take my share of the patrimony. Like my grandfather, I would become a doctor of philosophy at the college of Montpelier…”
The light went out on the first floor, and the sounds of soft footsteps could be heard descending to the ground floor stables. Soon, the wide round doors at the end of the courtyard swung open, revealing a tall and intensely thin young man, reddish brown hair curling over his collar and blending with the darker beard just beginning its luxuriant career. He was leading a donkey, pilled high with bundles of books, a leather satchel, a bedroll and a few clothes, several wineskins and food bags. The young man quietly closed the doors, and stood gazing up at the dark front of the old house. At last he shrugged, chuckled softly under his breath, and with the clatter of donkey hooves, vanished into the shadows.
“And so it began… I come often to admire that young man, so unlike what he would become in just a few seconds more. So full of belief, so hopeful and brave, crammed full of knowledge and yet completely stupid about the world and the ways of mankind… But, that is about to change…forever…” In the distance, the footsteps faded quietly away, then, sharp as a knife, the donkey brayed once in surprise. The young man called something, the word chopped sharply into silence. Then nothing. The shadow cats bristled, as at the passage of a sudden wind none but they could feel.
“Mother of God protect me,” he slowly finished the young man’s cry.
In the silence, the world of the courtyard and its fountain lost its solidity. Time flowed in odd ways and it was hard to focus. For an instant, I clearly saw the present day Place Favier around the fountain, but just as quickly as it came, it morphed again back to Jaume’s courtyard.
“You see, that young man, my self in the September of 1521, has just discovered a great secret, a portal in time, a hidden backdoor to eternity, a long forgotten zone of metaphors become reality, memories driven by a nostalgia for the future creating the past by living with the future perfect present of the absolute. Here, in the zone… Such an experience is enough to destroy an unprepared mind. My first experience was unpleasant, to say the least…”
He looked up, and down the street came a startling image. The young man we had just seen leave was floating a few feet off the ground, flames pouring from his body, his hair a mass of flickering fire, his mouth open in an empty wordless scream that allowed the flames to belch forth like a dragon’s angriest exhalation. He danced, or twitched, rising higher with each motion until, as he passed over the courtyard above us, he blazed up and vanished altogether.
“Ecstatically unpleasant, in actual truth… I like to see that also, to remind myself of the power of a belief. I landed next in the valley of the inferno, and the fey ones took care of me. But I did think I had died and gone to hell, purgatory at least. Not until the energy ran out and I came back to the present, his present, did I realize that something even stranger than death had occurred. I would not return here for seven long years…”
Not wanting too much of a lapse of silence, and therefore more time drifting, I gathered myself to ask a question.
“Oh my yes, I had forgotten. A thousand pardons my friend. You must be consumed with curiosity, yes, so many questions that I promised to answer, and here we are indulging an old man fancy about his youth. To be sure, my friend, it is all inter-woven like an old women’s market basket… We are between times, between one clock striking the hour and its companion’s chiming. One minute eternally out of time, the dot of then which is always next to everyone’s now.
“But come, let us walk as we talk, and I will tell you the story. It is a long and sad story and answers all your questions. I know no other way to tell you, at least so that you will understand.” He gently pulled me to my feet, and we walked out of the gate, or rather out through the now closed gate. The slinky shapes stirred with us, thronging ahead and behind like a flock of shadows, like a feline processional honour guard in monochrome or the acolytes of some noir master.
“Once upon a time, there was a harmony with the land. Here, in the Sun’s empire, there is no life without water… The maidens, the elves of the springs, bestowed both life and water to all who were in need, to all who were thirsty for new life. All the people of the land honoured them for their gifts, for it was life itself they gave so freely… And then, an evil man, a king by might of his arms and his fearfulness, stole the Golden Bowl, and violated the goddess of the spring. The land became a desert, and the paradise of the garden was lost.
“The descendants of the king were cursed to live in the land as guardians of a secret that they could never understand or unravel, waiting for the end of that age of the world, and the holy fool who would restore the Golden Bowl to the sacred well and heal the split in the world…”
We passed across the square in the Place Favier toward a wall of dark blankness. The shadow cats lashed around us in a foaming frenzy of ethereal fur. My host and guide laughed and called to them: “Don’t fret, my children of the zone. We’ll back before you know we are gone…”
To me, he said this: “Remember, every village has its church. Every village has its well, its spring or fountain, without which there would be no life. Every village has its wise ones, who guard the secrets, and its wild ones, who have experienced them directly… Such is our destiny…”
And then we stepped into the darkness and disappeared.