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Le_Bouchet_Saint_Nicolas

Thwack went the switch and as Modestine scurried forward, the straps on the pack let loose like a noodle and Louis’s things made a trail down the path. The sun was already descending and after the half-hour it took for Louis to gather and repack his things, it was coming on dusk. Flustered, he picked a path, prodded Modestine to follow it, and before long, just as he felt surely he would at length fall into the fit of weeping he’d been warding off all day, he saw two figures striding toward him over the gravel.

The man was lanky and dismal, staring blindly ahead and followed by a small older woman. She wore what looked like her Sabbath best, layers of pressed petticoats and an embroidered ribbon decorating a pristine felt hat. From beneath this pretty frame, she muttered such a litany of obscenities that, on the streets of New Town would have made Louis blush.

Louis hailed the man.

Pardon, do you know the way to Bouchet?”

The man pointed west and northwest, mumbled something inaudible, and stalked past the well-traveled pair. The woman tacked behind him, still swearing, without so much as a cursory acknowledgment of Louis. Modestine snorted.

He watched them incredulously as they sped along the hillside, and realizing his one chance of reaching any place restful this night was disappearing into the twilight, he shouted after them. Then he ran. They finally stopped once he’d outrun them and, blocking their way, he asked again his direction.

The man, presumably the son, again mumbled uselessly and made to continue, but Louis caught the woman, presumably the mother—who had still not stopped swearing to herself—by the shoulder.

Désolé, excusez-moi,”[1] Louis began. “I simply cannot let you go until you’ve pointed me my way, or I am forever lost.”

“You can follow us the whole damned way, should you like,” the woman answered.

Merci,” Louis said, doubtfully.

“What the hell do you want at Lac du Bouchet?”

Louis didn’t know what to make of this woman’s language and so dodged the inquiry.

“Is it very far?”

“About a bloody hour and a half,” she answered, and with that, the pair turned and continued on their way as if they’d never been stopped.

Louis called to Modestine, who ignored him, and then he ran back to beat her forward.

Twenty minutes put them on the flat upland and Louis paused a moment to look back upon the hills and valleys of the day. Mount Mézenc and that beyond St Julien stretched behind him, a field of shadows broken only by the light patches of farms and villages that blushed beneath the gloom of evening. Instead of satisfaction, Louis felt the sting of loneliness and gripped Modestine’s bridle tighter so as to not be tempted to throw himself down the ragged slope in despair.

Then, in the gloom, a silhouette moved far down the ragged path he’d just scaled. Louis squinted, and could make out a cloaked man standing there. His face was masked by the shade of his hood, though he was too distant for Louis to distinguish features at any rate. As Louis made a few steps forward, the cloaked figure moved with him. Perplexed, Louis saw that his guides were fast losing him, and so, cloaked figure or no cloaked figure, he simply must move on so as not to become hopelessly lost in the dark. Resolving to think no more of it, Louis pulled Modestine to follow.

He caught up and the group moved along a high road when Louis eventually recognized signs of a village coming into view, which surprised him as he had been told the lake was unoccupied. Soon, he found himself caught amongst the bustling closing of the day—cattle lurched down the road from pasture, driven by children; women dashed past on horses, legs astride and wearing caps.

Louis stopped a dirty-faced, black-haired boy.

Pardon,” he said. “What village is this?”

“Bouchet St Nicolas,” the child said and moved ahead to rustle his small herd.

Louis stopped abruptly and Modestine followed suit with no questions asked. His shoulders slumped, his chin met his chest which tightened in the grasp of disappointment. The two strange peasants had lead him exactly a mile south of the lake. Ahead, the couple had blended with the assembly and would disappear from Louis’s life. The cord of his basket scored painfully into his shoulder and his whipping arm ached heavily at his side. With a sigh, he feebly stopped another child.

“Which way to the inn?”


[1] “I’m sorry, excuse me.”

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riotApologies again for the sparseness of the blog lately. If you can bear with me, April’s a rough month when you’re starting a massive garden from scratch. Come May, it will hopefully be less crazy here. In the meantime, I’m still making sure the Wednesday’s Words get posted! Here they are now!

“What’s happened?” the mustachioed Norman was at his side, still in his day clothes. Louis assumed he’d meant to sleep in them.

“Boy’s dead,” Louis answered.

“Oh dear, that’s horrible,” the man said. “How?”

But Louis’s mind was elsewhere. He turned to ask Clarisse what the cloaked man’s name was, but she was gone. He craned his neck around, trying to see behind him, and then in front of him, amongst the assembly of gawkers. There were a number of lanterns carried, and even a few torches, but the light they threw only carried a few feet from the source and Clarisse didn’t seem to be near any of them.

The people mumbled to each other in hushed tones, the mother still wept, and a few women pulled close to her, wrapping their arms around her in the solidarity of grief.

“This boy is dead!” a cry went up.

The crowd’s murmurs fell silent and everyone looked around to see where the voice had come from, to see to whom they were supposed to be listening to.

“Nothing can bring him back!” the call went again.

On the other side of the throng—which was at least thirty-to-forty head by now—someone had jumped upon the edge of the community well. Louis stood again on his toes, but so did everyone else, so it helped little.

“And I know who perpetrated this terrible crime!” the voice rang again. The entire crowd had turned toward the man clinging to the well. Louis tried to position himself better to see, first left, then right, and finally, his eyes locked on the cloaked man. Many of the peasants had now pushed back their hoods to better see within such close quarters, but this man—who perched with one foot along the edge of the well and clutched the beam that held aloft the roped bucket with one hand, while the other waved in the air above him—this man wore his hood and wore it low, and still Louis could not see his face. His cloak was bloody, for it was he who had brought the boy in from the field.

“And I believe that you all also know who perpetrated this unthinkable crime!” he yelled.

Louis attempted to push his way through the crowd to the front, but it was locked tight, and his shame would not allow him to too roughly jostle the women therein. There was no going around, as the mass filled the narrow street.

La Famille de Loups!

And with that, fists flew into the air and yells erupted all around Louis. Lanterns waved and torches were swung about above the heads of the people as the cloaked man continued to stir the frenzy.

Then, to their left, the stable door flung open and the chestnut mare came bolting out, Clarisse astride and whipping the horse into a firm gallop past the mob and out of the village. All heads turned and watched while the cloaked man’s waving hand pointed to her and he yelled.

“And she is one of them! This must be stopped, tonight!”

As he signaled after the escaping Clarisse, his cloak opened at the breast, and though his face was still hidden in his cavernous hood, Louis glimpsed—for but a brief moment—a wooden handle protruding from his peasant’s belt. From this handle sprung four steel claws. And just like that, the cloak closed and it was gone.

Louis had been right; it had been a pair.

Suddenly, the crowd lurched forward and Louis could hear the yells of the people, crying out for blood and for vengeance. The cloaked man had come down from his position on the well and Louis could see the stricken mother close to him, cradling her small boy, whose limbs sagged like wilted flowers. She had stopped crying, stopped wailing, and now her face set grimly, her eyes filled with crimson murder.

The mustachioed Norman beside him moved ahead to join the rabble, and Louis grabbed at his sleeve.

“What on earth are you doing, man?”

“They say they know who the murderer is,” the man said. “There is justice to be had tonight.” And he shook free of Louis’s grasp and disappeared into the mass of fury.

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Cows-at-NIght-1024x714For some time, he’d been hearing the clank of cows’ bells that seemed to bounce from tree to tree within the wood he traveled, and now that he was clear of the wood, he was presented with about a dozen head of cattle. Beyond them, hard to distinguish in the gloaming, danced small, shadowy figures. Louis squinted, trying to force his vision to accomplish more than it ever could under such conditions; the limbs of the figures distorted in the murky evening, giving the impression of devils and imps. As he and Modestine passed, he could now see that these strange, unearthly beings were, in fact, children. Young herders like the girl in Bochet.

They followed each other in a circular pattern, round and round, joining hands and letting go, calling out some rhyme that Louis could not make out. In any other setting, in a better light, at a more clear time of day, the dancing and playing of children would have warmed the heart and eased the adult mind. But here, on the yawning French moors, surrounded by a creeping, malevolent fog that swirled about the trees like a serpent, the vision was unsettling.

Louis felt superstition crawl slowly up his back and over his shoulder, whispering some pestilence in his ear. He shook it off and recalled that he was a reader of Herbert Spencer, refusing to fall victim to such folly. He tried to steer Modestine on, and so long as she was on a path she moved fairly forward, but once off and amid the heather, she became disoriented. Her step took on the circular course of lost travelers and if left on her own, she’d wander in circles until daybreak.

For Louis, the effect was dizzying, between the dancing of the children and the circles Modestine seemed intent on tracing. He hauled her by the bridle to right her way as much as he could see to. The children and cattle were now disbanding, save for two girls who followed him as he made his way to a collection of houses.

The first man he asked direction simply went into his abode and shut the door. The second man pointed in some vague direction that lead Louis nowhere and plainly watched him with amusement as he turned Modestine back to the houses in frustration. Finally, Louis turned to the two girls, who’d been standing by observing with pleasure.

“The way to Cheylard, s’il vous plait,” he said. There was a brief break in the rain and the wind lowed to a strong breeze that whistled around the dwellings.

One girl stuck her tongue out at him, and then both girls performed childish gestures that Louis could not interpret but knew could not be flattering. He sighed. Both girls were blond, and yet one cultivated the thickest eyebrows Louis had ever seen on any young face, and dark as his own mustache.

“Why don’t you follow the cows?” one girl said, and she elbowed her companion who giggled uncontrollably.

Surely, Louis thought, La Bête du Gévaudan must have had good reason to eat so many children of this region. He turned from them as true night hung by a slender fiber over their heads.

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DonkeyPostcard1Note for this week’s words: “proot” is what RLS had been instructed to yell at his donkey in order to get her moving. It is, apparently, French slang for “fart.”

As they moved up the opposite hill, before they were even out of sight of the town, Modestine slowed her measure as to have effectively stopped, and the switch barely stirred her an inch. Louis prooted. He prooted loudly, softly, far, and wide. He prooted closely, tightly, high and low. He prooted until his lips ached and his beatings almost brought him to tears of disgrace. Although, it could have been tears of frustration, as he would certainly not reach the lake by dusk, perhaps not even all night. Once he ceased the lashings altogether and once he prooted his final proot, Modestine began to move, though at her own pace, which was hardly at all and with frequent stops to chew at anything green that garnished the wayside.

When Louis thought it could not get worse, they came upon another ass, of seemingly worse behavior than Modestine, as he roamed the hillside at will and without his master. The reciprocated attraction between the two lovers was immediate and horrifying. As the swine masquerading as a pack animal attempted to mount poor, guiltless Modestine, Louis renewed his thrashing to the both of them, anything to quash the budding romance. As he whipped wildly, he grew more disgusted with Modestine’s suitor, for any man worth his pride should have, at the very least, defended his lady.

When Louis finally got themselves rid of the amorous beast, new troubles arose. Perhaps the many thousands of knots strapping his pack to Modestine had loosened since the morning, but the sack was now sliding one way and then the other, until finally, as they arrived to the village of Ussel, the entire blasted contraption had spun around completely and hung from Modestine’s belly.

As Louis considered Modestine and wondered if, indeed, donkeys could smile, a man, woman, and two children had gathered around him in a semi-circle and joined the beast. It was then that Louis fully realized how hot it was. The high southern French sun beat down upon his shoulders like he’d beaten Modestine, and if he wasn’t already in such a state of castigation, he’d have welcomed it as punishment for so mistreating the donkey.

Louis worked to right his pack, sweat burning his eyes and the laughs of this family from Ussel needling his ears, and once he finally arranged it in a position so as to tighten the straps, it fell over the other side and resumed its place under Modestine.

No one offered to assist.

“Perhaps,” suggested the man from Ussel, “your pack should be of a different contour.”

Tais-toi!” Louis snapped. The man smiled and shut up, per instructions.

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RLSMOD1Today’s words are brought to you by Page 57:

Louis inhaled hard from his cigarette. As if she heard his thought, he saw Modestine peek a nose and eye from behind the nearby stable wall, munching a golden breakfast of hay, then withdrew, chewing.

He supposed that wolf, man, or both, it didn’t matter. His journey was unfurling before him and it was not the flag he’d expected to follow. These were not the reflections he’d anticipated. And, in fact, at the realization that his plans had, in a way, been hijacked, Louis fumed. He was supposed to be figuring out and re-aligning his mess of a life! He was supposed to be experiencing and recording, making plans for a book that would further his literary career—and about what? “Superstitions with a Donkey in the French Highlands?”

He was supposed to be meditating on the perplexing nature of one Fanny Osbourne, stealing himself for the terrible news that would come to him via Alès, or fortifying his heart for the great joy he’d shamelessly indulge at the perfumed letter he’d receive rejoining him, come to America and I will be your wife! On his life, he was supposed to be sorting out if he was even fit to serve as husband, or if the institution of marriage was still too ferocious and fearsome an adventure for even Robert Louis Stevenson, experienced canoesman and driver of donkeys.

No closer to a conclusion regarding his situation thus far, Louis crushed the stub of his cigarette under his boot, gathered his things from the inn, and made his way to the stable.

The host of the inn was there with Modestine.

“This package should be changed,” he said. “Maybe divided. Then, you could even carry more.”

“But I do not need to carry more,” Louis answered. “And I cannot very well carve up my sleeping sack, or it ceases to be what it is and is of no use.” Louis could hardly disguise his annoyance at one more possible hitch, all of which, at this point, bordered on crisis in his mind.

“But it tires her,” the man said, and pointed to the donkey’s forelegs which were rubbed raw.

Louis set down his pack and softened to the plight of his companion. He was so distracted by everything else, this he failed to notice. He pet Modestine down her forehead and nose.

“She can be patched up?” he asked. The man nodded, and Louis nodded back.

After only ten minutes, the man had fixed up the traveler with a salve, and though the sack could not be cut in two, it was now adjusted so that it hung lengthwise over her back, like a massive green frankfurter. He purchased a new cord from the innkeeper and tied up his effects so that they would not spill onto the trail, and the weight of the thing was now equally and more easily balanced across the little donkey.

“See?” the man said. “It feels lighter to her.”

And Louis did feel better about it. As frustrating as she could be, his constant prodding with the goad, though better than the switch and more effective than the staff, still pained him somewhat, for he didn’t like to be cruel. If even against every other catastrophe, this one load was lightened a little, and if he should find himself in the position to sleep again, he might a little more soundly.

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vesalius-p559Straight to the words!

In front of the alter—his feet pointing to the nave, his head to the apse—lay Father Apollinaris. Louis approached the corpse, though he was loathe to. It was not dressed, but only covered to the chin with a set of clean robes, as though it had been too difficult to dress such a ravaged body. No part of the man was bare except for his head. The friar’s face was ivory, and Louis studied it, wondering at the stillness of his dead skin, taking note that, in life, the very flesh must have some barely-perceptible movement that signifies the soul surging underneath. The dead man’s mouth set strangely, and Louis saw that it was propped closed with a wooden block beneath the chin. Looking around to be sure he was alone, he pushed the edge of the robe down just a bit. Indeed, he suspected the only part of the poor friar that went unscathed was his peaceful face, as even the block that held his jaw shut sank into the wounds he’d received in that area.

To their devoted credit, there was no blood. None to soil the habit that covered him, none to stain the wood of the block. His body had been so thoroughly cleaned, the men that performed the duty could sleep well knowing they’d helped deliver Father Apollinaris to his Heavenly Father cleaner than he’d come into this world. Louis pushed the robes down a little further, searching for the thing that would answer his troublesome question. He prayed he would not have to see more than his spirit could take.

Below the block, the holy man’s flesh lay mangled and torn. Louis marveled at the man’s resilience, for his wounds were so grave, his lingering time had defied the truth of them. His eyes searched the carnage, hoping not to have to descend to the man’s belly, which, judging by the shape of the covering, could not be seen without a lifetime of nightmares. Then, he found it. Around the edge of the butchery that extended from the friar’s chest to his right shoulder, spread four claw marks, as from an animal.

Not too much to say about this excerpt. It’s obviously not in Stevenson’s original Travels with a Donkey, though it would have been a doozy if it was.

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ValleyWoodcutLast week, I started a weekly feature that would include excerpts from the novel I’m working on. I’ve decided to do this week’s installment today, Monday, instead of Wednesday, as I have something else that needs to be posted on the 20th. And it’s a fun way to start the week.

So, onto today’s words! Here’s a little something from page 41:

Above the river Allier, surrounded by meadows, Pradelles perched along a hillside. The smell of hay permeated the air as laborers worked to slash the grass that had sprung up after the last harvest. Telegraph wires spread like a web from the distant buildings of the town, towards and past Louis, down the road on which he walked. On the opposite bank of the Allier, the terrain lifted skyward, up and up, layering over itself to the horizon. The peaks and valleys traded cyclically shade for sun, deep shadows of purple mist and low-glowing golden outcrops of stone and brush. It struck Louis, in all its sublimity, both beautiful and full of sadness, as these visions often do. There was, though, a particular stabbing point to this melancholy that needled at him like the goad to the donkey, and it took him several steps to place it.

The most immediate landscape—what could be seen with the eye from the edge of the town—was completely, and deliberately, deforested. What should have leant a natural mystery to the scene was nothing more than a field of stumps and hacked verdure. Nothing was left to the imagination, and instead of the thrill of what unknown things the forest keeps, there was left only the bare and ragged eeriness of a land blighted.

Wolves.

A chill zipped up Louis’s spine like the crack of a whip. Again, like the difference between listening to the rambling of drunken locals and witnessing the tragic deformity of a young woman, seeing the physical consequence of the fear of an entire population—the magnitude of the resulting act—brought with it a better sense of dread. Modestine stopped abruptly and sniffed the air, as if they’d both concluded the same at the very same moment, and Louis didn’t prod her with the goad. He let her process the feeling as he did.

Quite suddenly, Louis saw a figure striding a little ways up the road, just before the final rise. The skirt of his cloak danced about his ankles; surely, this was the figure Louis had spotted in the shadowy valley before Bouchet. But how did he manage to get ahead, or, if he was always ahead, how did Louis not see him until now? And with that, the figure was gone over the low crest.

There’s not a ton to say about this excerpt, actually. It gives me a brief opportunity, though, to mention that I have been trying to retain a bit of the travel-writing style of RLS’s original. Not his style, per se, but of the type of writing that includes a fair amount of scenic description. To an extent, mind you. I have had zero desire to re-create those long and drawn out passages—pages and pages and pages—of the naturalistic diatribes, say, of Anne Radcliffe (thanks so much, 18th-centry Sublime Sentimentality!). Mercifully, neither did Stevenson, and I’ve definitely taken that cue from him.

I just wanted to retain at least that feature of travel writing, the purpose of which is to transport the reader to the place about which they read. I think all writing should do that, really, but it all depends on the effect you’re trying to create. I’ve read some books that have very little physical description of anything—people, places, etc.—but carried the plot so well that it didn’t matter and my brain happily filled in all of those gaps. And then, there are the Ann Radcliffe’s of the world, which give their own kind of satisfaction. I like to have a little something, generally, and seeing that this was inspired by a piece of travel writing, it seemed right to run with it.

You will have noticed the mention of “tragic deformity of a young woman,” and while I won’t go into that, I will say that he has, by this point in the story, come across enough nastiness that he’s starting to become a tad concerned about his journey. Also, this is the second time he comes across this mysterious cloaked man, and frankly, he’s a little weirded out. You would be too…

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