© Celia Micklefield
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Clair de Lune
as told in the novel TROBAIRITZ
Superstitions abound in this corner of southwest Languedoc. It has been shaped by many civilisations. Ancient Greek artefacts lie buried in the volcanic soils. The ruins of Roman villas line the Via Domitia to Spain. Even older are the Celtic symbols carved into the cliff faces of the mountain passes.
A host of gods and goddesses have lived here. Some say they live here still and argue with each other. Taranis bellows from the sky until Apollo returns. Venus vies with Sucellos. Pagans, Moors and Christians inhabited these villages; Cathars and Catholics: a heady mix of rites and rituals, arcane beliefs and practices. Troubadours passed through these lands and entertained the people with their cansos of courtly love.
This is how legends are made. Stories are handed down. Some are tales of enlightenment; others hint at darker things.
Yet there is a sense of equilibrium. As in nature, as in the whole of life itself, there must be balance. And so, in order to love the rain we must feel the burning rays of the sun. To appreciate the light, we must experience the dark, for there is truth also in the shadows.
The stranger on the doorstep of Linda’s Maison de Vigneron had a kind face. His eyes, squinting against the sun were honest eyes; the lines creasing his tanned skin curved upwards so that the whole of his face was smiling.
‘My water bottle is empty,’ he said in simple English, holding out a battered metal canister.
She saw his dirty clothes, his lank hair, and as she stepped forward to take the bottle from him she could smell him. He waited patiently at her door as she disappeared into the kitchen to fill his water container. Her two children asked what she was doing and followed on after her to see the stranger.
‘Are you a tramp?’ her youngest child asked him.
‘Louise, don’t be rude,’ Linda scolded.
‘He can’t be a tramp. Tramps are older than that,’ Harry informed his sister with all the conviction of a ten-year-old big brother.
‘But he looks like a tramp,’ the little girl insisted. She stared up at the dishevelled figure. ‘So what are you, then?’
‘Thank you for the water,’ the stranger said, still smiling. ‘I’ll be on my way now.’
He turned away and began walking down the gravelled drive towards the gate. Louise ran after him.
‘Louise, come back!’ her mother shouted and started after them.
The stranger stopped walking. Harry ran up and grabbed hold of Louise’s hand.
‘My mummy says it’s rude not to answer questions,’ Louise told the man.
He reached into his canvas backpack and brought out a scallop shell.
‘Do you know what this is?’ he asked the children.
Harry inspected it. ‘It’s just a sea-shell,’ he said.
Linda sucked in a deep breath. ‘You’re a Pilgrim!’
‘What’s a pill-grim, mummy? Tell me. What’s a pill-grim?’ Louise asked, hopping from one leg to the other.
Guilhem, the Pilgrim came into Linda’s kitchen wearing her husband’s bath robe.
‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘That was perfect. I have been on the road for three weeks. Now I feel like a human being again.’
She offered him a seat at the table.
The children stared at him. He looked different in their father’s towelling robe, clean hair shining. Younger.
‘I don’t shave until I have finished my journey,’ he explained, smoothing down his short beard.
‘So you’ve been there before?’ Linda asked him.
‘Yes. Many times.’
‘Your English is very good.’
‘Your clothes will be dry soon,’ she told him.
‘Then I will leave you in peace.’
‘Where is he going, mummy?’ Louise climbed onto a chair beside the stranger in the kitchen and scrutinised him.
‘Somewhere in Spain, sweetheart. Perhaps Guilhem will tell us.’
She poured him some coffee and smiled.
‘It is a beautiful house,’ the Pilgrim said.
‘Thank you. Yes. We love it. We always wanted to live in this part of France. I love the history, the traditions. It’s fascinating.’
‘Where is the father?’ he asked. ‘Is that him?’ He pointed to a framed family photograph on the wall, John in a tee shirt, arm around Harry, Linda holding Louise when she was three. Four fair heads, four pairs of laughing eyes.
‘Yes. That’s John. He works in England. That’s where he is at the moment.’
‘And he comes home?’
‘Whenever he can.’
Louise pulled at the stranger’s sleeve.
‘Yes, of course,’ he nodded at her. ‘It is rude not to answer questions.’
He sipped his coffee.
‘I am going to Santiago de Compostella,’ he told them.
‘Why?’ Louise wanted to know.
‘How far is that?’ Harry asked, running to the bookshelf for the book of road maps as he knew his father would have.
‘It is many hundreds of kilometres from my home.’
‘Where’s your car?’ Louise asked.
‘I walk all the way,’ Guilhem replied.
The Pilgrim waited for a moment and took another sip of coffee. He looked at the children, eyes kindly smiling.
‘Sometimes there are things we just have to do.’ He glanced at Linda.
‘It’s all right,’ she told him. ‘You can tell them what it’s about.’
He got up and went to his backpack. The pockets were stuffed with maps, pads and notebooks. Delving into one of the pouches, he pulled out a photograph.
‘Soon I am to be married. This is my fiancée, Hélène.’ He passed the picture to Linda who showed it to the children.
‘What’s the matter with her legs?’ Louise blundered.
‘Oh, Louise!’ Linda cried and apologised for her daughter’s candour.
‘She needs those supports on her legs to help her to walk,’ Guilhem explained to the youngster. ‘When we are married it will be difficult to make the pilgrimage, the journey. This may be the last time. And when I am there I will ask for . . . blessings for Hélène.
‘Who will you ask?’ Louise again.
‘The heavens,’ he replied.
‘You mean like the moon and the stars?’
‘Yes. Something like that.’
The Pilgrim sat and waited for his clothes to dry. The children, bored with adult conversation had gone outside to play. Linda began to prepare the evening meal. She couldn’t let him go without giving him food.
‘Stay and eat with us,’ she said. ‘There’s plenty.’
‘That is very kind. Thank you.’
In his freshly ironed clothes, he joined them at their table and thanked them again.
‘Tell me about the moon and the stars,’ Louise begged. ‘Please.’
‘And the shell,’ Harry added.
The Pilgrim smiled.
‘I will tell you about the sun,’ he said and bringing the shell from his pocket, laid it on the table in front of them. ‘Look, it is the shape of the sun and do you see these lines? They are like the rays of the sun. They all end at the same place here at the edge of the shell. Just like the roads that lead to Santiago de Compostella.’
‘Why?’ Louise began.
‘Shush,’ her mother warned.
‘And Compostella means the field of stars,’ Guilhem went on. ‘In ancient times it was believed that the world stopped at the coast beyond Santiago. No person had ever travelled further. It was the place where dying stars fell into the ocean. We make the journey today for other reasons. But they are the same paths we travel. It is a magical trip.’
‘Dad says there’s no such thing as magic,’ Harry said.
‘I believe there is magic everywhere,’ the Pilgrim replied.
‘Come on, eat your dinner,’ Linda said to the children.
She cleared the empty dinner plates and served ice cream for dessert. As she put down a dish in front of the Pilgrim she looked straight into his eyes.
‘This village is not on the route, is it?’ she said.
‘No, it isn’t. You are correct.’
‘Then why are you here?’
‘I always came this way. Except for the last five years.’
‘That’s how long we’ve been here!’ Louise laughed.
A crawling sensation snatched at Linda’s throat. ‘How?’ she demanded. ‘How do you know that?’
‘Because I knew the family who lived here before.’
‘Oh,’ Linda breathed, her momentary panic lifting. ‘I see. We never met them, did we children? The house was already empty when we first saw it. It looked like it had been empty for a long time.’
‘Yes,’ he agreed.
‘So you used to call at the house before?’
He thanked her for the food.
‘It was a wonderful meal, Madame,’ he said.
‘Thank you. You're welcome.'
‘But it is a lonely life for you here. You and the children with your husband away.’
‘We have to pay the bills.’
‘You could let rooms in a house this size. The house would be your, how do you say? Impôt. Income.’
‘Yes. I have thought about that. But I couldn’t do it by myself. It would take both of us. But John, he . . .’
‘He is unable to decide. And so you live in a middle ground. Is that good English?’
‘I know what you mean.’
‘It will work out. In the end, all things do,’ and he began to gather up his things.
‘Where do you go next?’ Linda asked him.
‘But that’s miles. And you’re on foot.’
‘Yes. It’s what I do.’
‘You won’t make it tonight.’
‘Eventually. I must have my credencial stamped. It is my official document. Would you like to see it?’
He showed her the papers with the stamps of St. James: proof of his journey this far.
‘When I reach Capestang I will stay at the rooming house to wait for my stamp. There is free lodging there for all pilgrims. The house with the shell over the door.’
‘You can stay here tonight.’ The words had tumbled from her lips.
‘That is very kind. Thank you.’
Guilhem, the Pilgrim sat outside, writing in a journal and enjoying the last of the daylight from the terrace, while Linda settled the children in their beds.
‘That’s enough questions,’ she told them. ‘It’s late. Go to sleep now. It’s school in the morning. We’ll talk about it some more tomorrow.’
She kissed them, told them everything was all right and crept away.
The garden glowed in the gentle warmth of the evening. Colours took on an ephemeral extra vibrancy in the half-light before finally they slipped into the gloom. A full moon appeared above the rooftops. She joined him on the terrace, but sat at the garden table behind him.
‘Clair de lune,’ she said
Closing his notebook he turned his head swiftly to stare at her. ‘You have heard of her?’
‘I thought you spoke of her.’
‘I said clair de lune. You know, moonlight.’
‘It’s one of my favourite pieces of music too.’
‘Ah.’ He settled back into his deck chair.
‘What did you mean?’
Guilhem swallowed hard. A sigh escaped.
‘There was a daughter of the village,’ he began, his eyes lifted toward the sky. ‘Her name was Claire. She was born, how do you say in English? Different. She did not speak and walked in a strange way. Like an animal. Loping like a wolf.’
He stopped speaking and his face tightened. The moon climbed higher, turning the rooftops to silver.
‘That is so beautiful,’ Linda gasped, watching the garden sparkle in the moon’s gleam.
‘Yes, she was. She had a beautiful face. Full of light. Claire was a good name for her.’
Linda watched him, noted the stiffness in his shoulders. From where she sat, she could see that he held himself rigid. She wanted to see the expression on his face but he was facing away from her. She sat in silence. To listen.
The church bell chimed ten.
‘When she was seven years old she spoke for the first time. Her first words. *What time is it?* she said. Just that. Imagine. Her parents cried for joy. They thought the nightmare was over.’
He got up and moved towards her. Dilated pupils had turned his eyes to burnished black. He sat opposite her at the table. She lit a hurricane candle and began to roll a cigarette.
‘I like the smell of tobacco,’ he said. ‘Go ahead.’
‘I fancy a drink,’ she mused. ‘You?’ She went inside and brought out a bottle of whisky; poured two glasses.
‘So she never said anything else?’
‘No. Always *what time is it?* Sometimes she would say it over and over. Again and again like the dripping of a tap. *what time is it? what time is it? what time is it?*
‘Yes. Terrible. The mother could not cope. She said that it was better before when the child was silent. May I have one of those?’
She rolled another cigarette, passed one to him. Silently they shared the lighter. She inhaled deeply. Exhaled, long and slow.
‘Sometimes I forget how lucky I am that my children are healthy.’
‘We all forget to be thankful for those things.’
‘I’ve made up the spare room for you, next to the ground floor bathroom. Don’t trip over the coat stand in the hall, if you have to get up in the night.’
‘You are very kind, Madame.’
‘What happened to her?’
‘Claire? There was a tragedy; an accident on the roads. They say the father suffered a heart attack while he was at the wheel. They were both killed.’
‘Claire and her father?’
‘No. The parents. The mother was in the front. Claire survived the crash.’
‘Then what happened? Who cared for her?’
Slowly, he flicked ash into the tray.
‘Have you ever visited the Chateau de Quatre Tours, on the way to the river?’
‘No, I’ve never been in. But I’ve passed by a few times when I’ve taken the back road to Pezenas.’
‘So you know what it is now?’
‘A convalescent home, I think.’
‘Yes. It is what you call a half-house.’
‘A half-way house?’
‘That’s it. A place where people may learn to be independent. But, of course, some of the residents are permanent.’
‘Claire went into the Chateau?’
They sipped at their drinks. He commented on the quality of the single malt. One bell from the church tower signalled the passing of the half hour. Linda waited, but he didn’t recognise the remaining questions in her eyes.
‘What happened then?’
He shrugged. ‘She grew up at the Chateau. She got older but she was still a child. Every morning she came into the village centre and every morning she went into each of the shops. *What time is it?* she asked in the bakery. *What time is it?* she asked in the Tabac. We have an expression in French. ‘Elle est dans la lune.’ Do you know it?’
She nodded. ‘We would say something like away with the fairies’.
‘Ah, yes. I’ve heard that before. I like that saying. I must remember that one. So, when the people of the village saw her coming they would say, elle est dans la lune, and tap their heads.’
‘Claire de lune!’
‘Is she still there? In the Chateau?’
He fell silent. Again, Linda waited. She poured two more measures.
‘Guilhem?’ she whispered. ‘Tell me, please.’
‘There was another survivor of the accident. The baby. He was taken in by an uncle in Nîmes. As he grew older he visited his sister at the Chateau. He visited many times. He wanted to love her as a brother but she never knew who he was.’
A flash of a connection sparked between them and she saw the pain in his eyes. Suddenly, she wanted to reach out and touch him. He continued speaking.
‘Her way of walking got very bad. Very bad. She was big now. Heavy. Her legs ached. The brother bought for her a, I don’t know how to say in English, like a motor-chair.’
‘Yes, I know what you mean.’
‘She loved the freedom it gave to her. Now she could ride into the village. And beyond.’
A glimmer of a smile passed across his face, but his eyes stayed dark and troubled.
‘She began to sing to herself. The staff at the Chateau heard her in her room. They told the brother. They said they heard her crooning to her imaginary babies and singing them to sleep. But outside her room she would say only *What time is it?*.’
His voice grew thick.
‘She began to ride further. To the boundaries of the village. To the river.’
Linda felt an involuntary shudder. A chill of fear ran through her.
‘And then she said one more thing.’
She had to know: ‘What did she say?’
‘She said *Claire de lune*. It made her happy to say it. Light shone from her eyes when she said it. She thought that’s who she was. You understand me? She had heard ‘Elle est dans la lune’ said to her so many times, she thought that’s where she belonged. Where she would be welcomed. In the moon.’
He gazed up at the sky. A breeze picked up and rustled through the dark trees.
No, Linda wanted to say. No, don’t tell me any more. I know where this is going. I don’t want to hear it. But she was transfixed. He took her hand across the table and looked deeply into her eyes.
‘Her face was still so beautiful,’ he said. ‘Still full of light. But her body ached. Her mind was diseased. One night . . . .’
Linda willed him to understand her thoughts. No. Please, no.
‘One night she rode to the river. She wanted to be in the moon. She wanted to follow the river to the moon. The brother understood her wishes. One final time she said *Claire de lune* and looked at him with pleading in her eyes. He knew he had to help her escape. Her face was still so beautiful as she drifted away.’
She pulled her hand away from his grasp and choked back her tears. Fear kept her glued to her seat. She dare not move.
‘I’m tired now, Madame,’ he said, picking up his notebook and pen. ‘Please forgive me. I must sleep. I have a long way to walk tomorrow.’
She heard him use the bathroom and close his door. Relief washed over her. Her brain screamed a warning and she raced upstairs to check on the children, her pulse drumming in her ears. Then quietly creeping, she came down again to stand guard. All of her senses prickled. She knew she must be vigilant. Sitting just inside the kitchen, she would be able to hear the slightest movement from him and then she would . . What would she do?
She cursed herself for inviting him to stay. He had been ready to leave. She should have let him go.
Long after he had gone to his room she sat in the dark, listening. She could hear his sleeping noises.
Her pulse calmed and she took control of her breathing, to make herself steady, to make sense of what precisely had happened. She started at the beginning and thought her way through the events of the day.
He was a Pilgrim. On his way to Santiago. He had the proof. He was kind to the children. Deferred to her for permission to tell them part of his story. He had been polite. Charming even. But he was something more.
She could call in a neighbour, but what would she tell them? In truth, he had done nothing wrong. It was only the story of Claire de lune which had unsettled her. He was sleeping: just a young man with plans for his future, and Hélène his fiancée waiting for him.
She was calmer now, told herself she had over-reacted. She stretched out on the day bed where she could see down the hall, just in case.
The early morning light streamed through the gap in the half-closed kitchen shutters and woke her. Startled, she ran upstairs to check again on her children. They slept soundly.
As she came back downstairs, she could see that the door to the spare room had been left open. The bed linens had been folded carefully and put to one side. Gingerly, she stepped inside the room. His things were gone. He was gone. Her shoulders relaxed. A note was propped up against the lamp on the nightstand, beside it a folded coloured leaflet. She carried them to the kitchen and put on the kettle for coffee.
She turned to the things he had left behind. The brightly-coloured leaflet advertised the ‘Jeux Floraux’ to be held in Toulouse on May the third. A design of medieval musical instruments bordered the flier, an arrangement of silhouetted flowers in the corners. She put it down on the kitchen table and picked up the note. She opened it slowly and carefully. His handwriting was big and bold.
‘CANTO DE LO SOLELH E LA LUNA E LAS ESTELAS’
Guilhem de Nîmes
She recognised the spelling of the Occitan language. ‘I sing of the sun and the moon and the stars.’ Underneath the writing he had sketched a small flower: a marigold.
And on the back he had written in English.
Thank you for your kindness and your hospitality. Many thanks also for understanding so quickly. Your suggestions have given me such a magical story to sing. I will dedicate it to you, Madame, and your beautiful children.
She ran to the study for her laptop and clicked it on to Google. Quickly, she brought up Wikipedia and saw the entry for ‘Jeux Floraux’. Her face creased into a smile when she read the history of the oldest literary institution in the western world. Then she tried to remember exactly what she had said to him.
So are legends made and stories handed down. Weavers of stories, like the ancient troubadours, take their inspiration from everything around them: a weft from here, a warp from there; a saying, a saw, from the past or from the present; an unexpected question from a child; an act of compassion from a stranger. These are the threads which make up the marvellous fabric.
And woven into the pattern is the singer’s own song. This is his voice. This is how we know him. Some of his stories are tales of enlightenment; others hint at darker things.
This song is new and as old as the hills where the gods live. We live in the land of the ancients. We travel the same paths.