La Montagne Qui Chante
I often wake up to the sound of my ears ringing a pitch I will never hear again. I don’t know how it works, but that’s the risk, they say, when you listen to loud music. I had just finished breakfast and could hear doors opening and closing. Footsteps scattered in nonsensical directions; how many ways were there to go down a hallway? The shower turned on and water droplets sprinkled far off making tiny bouncing noises like fuzz or rain from a battery powered speaker. My ears weren’t ringing anymore and that was a nice feeling.
Nicolas refilled my coffee and told me I needed to drive a group to La Fayette for a festival called La Montagne Qui Chante. In English directly it translates as The Mountain Who Sings, and I don’t think any other translation would work quite as well. The festival originated around the year I was born when a curious sound engineer blasted music out of his stereo speakers in search of the perfect mountain canyon echo. After serious research, he found a sweet spot. He asked his friends to help him set up a wall of speakers and amplifiers to try to push the sound even more. But it didn’t work well and he realized sound was more complicated than he originally thought. Things had to be just right. The hard part isn’t blasting music at the mountain side, it’s being able to hear the space between the echoes without mud.
A meeting was called and some of the best sound engineers in France came to turn a medium alp into a legendary stereo system. By 1994 three giant speakers made of cement, metal, and wood were erected from the ground. The bass speaker is the showstopper—it appears like something out of a psychedelic animation, in the shape of a trumpet horn, roughly the size of a small house. This massive speaker points towards the opposite canyon wall exactly where the rock is slightly dented. The medium and high frequencies are sent to two smaller (but still massive) horns at the top of the hill above the bass. Covered in a blue tarp most of the year, they are a rare sight. The ensemble is an acoustic masterpiece, perfectly calculated to encompass a 2.3 second echo delay.
People who live in the Village love to attend local festivals. So if there was ever an event going on, at least three vans would be summoned to transport us. It was a comical scene to watch volunteers and teenagers work out who got to sit in which seat and ride in which van. There was always one person per van who got car sick and had to sit up front, leaving the rest of us to sit in the second, third or even fourth row of the van, none of which had working back windows. All of these little intricacies and preferences took careful organization and patience. I was not particularly thrilled to be involved in these human logistics, but nonetheless I rushed to arrive in advance at our rendezvous point on time. I was even early. We did say to meet at the pétanque court adjacent to the volunteer house at ten? I began to doubt as I was waiting for my group to show up, I heard some loud smacking and oomfing sounds coming from the cellar window. I opened the door and peered inside and saw two shirtless men boxing. They danced around jabbing and swinging at each other’s chests. Their bodies and minds seemed in tune with their bulging muscles, hardened from an innumerable amount of hitting. I stood in silence watching them rattle flesh with flesh. After a missed swing, they both turned and looked at me. They stopped their fight and the taller man started walking towards me.
“Hey, Henri c’est ça?” he said.
“Yeah. Looks intense, I don’t want to bother you, was just curious. Continuez,” I said.
“Oh no problem, no problem. Want to try?” he said and looked at his sparring partner and then back at me.
“Uhhh, I don’t know. It’s a little early to get my ass kicked,” I said but in French.
“No come on, allez, facile, facile,” he said and tapped me lightly on the shoulder with his glove two times.
“Ah. Hm. Uh. Well... Okay. Allez, je vais essayer,” what the hell I thought, I had ten minutes to spare.
"Bon! Très bien. Let’s put this on, oui, comment ça,” he said and helped me set up my face mask and gloves.
“Ok, so just stand there and put your hands up, comment ça, oui, oui, bien,” he said.
“Alright, what do I do now?”
“Ok, so I’ll tap here, and here. And here. And you block me, then attack when you see fit, don’t lache ton regard,” he said.
We danced around in circles for thirty seconds, and playful punched each other in the arms and chest. I thought, hey this is kind of fun. We were communicating with our body language, in muscle twitches, and quick and agile wisping phrases led by feet. These tangible streams of story unfolded in seconds. Then in a moment suspended in my memory, he pulled his arm back and jabbed me right in the nose as if he was trying to punch through a wall. The air exuded out of my lungs like thick sludge, and I was dangling by teeth from a giant table in a dark room. I think I’m K.O.
I could faintly hear a honking car horn. I thought maybe it was the Traffic, calling me to hurry? The two men laughing as I lay there? I finally sat up against the Cote d’Azurian curved pillar and caught my breath. I took off the sparring mask and rubbed my nose frantically, as if to check if it was still there. Bleeding a bit, putain, I thought connard. Just then, Nicolas entered and said, “Hey Henri, where have you been? Your group has been looking everywhere for you. Had a rendez-vous, remember?” Yeah, I remember.
“Sorry, I don’t know what hit me.”
“Well, they’re pretty annoyed waiting for you, you’d better go out there,” he said.
I slowly got up, and dizzy walked outside. That was not how I was expecting to start out my morning, now I was supposed to drive a group of people? I looked left and right, no van. That was just great. There goes my credibility, huh? Right when I was starting to get some responsibility here. Well, shit. I wondered if I could still make it to the thing.
Luckily for me, the Shepherd was going into town and had a seat in his car between a lamb and a dog. I truly didn’t want to miss the festival. He had asked me why I don’t sing with his choir anymore. I told him I don’t want to sing tenor, and now all the basses hate me for switching. He let me out at Le Saix, and I hitchhiked from there. A musician who was playing that night picked me up. He had a 1955 green Citroën DS. The futuristic vision of the design was wishful thinking. An Argentinian tango was playing on a cassette live recording that he must have bootlegged himself from one of his tours there. He was wearing a torn straw hat, and a flowered shirt. His car smelt of an herbal patchouli oil and warm melons.
The back seat was full of instruments including a Spanish guitar with no case and a missing G string, and 1990s PSR keyboard with so much dust on the keys you could hardly see the color-coded duct tape showing the note names. He let me out at the bottom of the winding canyon road to La Fayette, because he said the weight of his car couldn’t make the road with both his instruments and me inside. I got out and thanked him, see you later.
As the dust from his tires blew away and the sound of his car grew distant, I heard it. A distinct sound that you only get glimpses of in a lifetime. An ethereal sound that moves through land hunting softly for your gut or spirit like a hawk, and yet somehow loud enough to be felt in your bones. The sound was a version of “Ave Maria” but it wasn’t from the direct source, it was an echo of it from miles away, shooting through the canyon walls, flying like waves of ghosts in delayed groupings, utterances of a type of perfection that can’t be simulated. The place was so beautiful. I embodied the cascading creek water making its way down the mountain canyon. And those strange musical wave layers of rock which formed a sandwiched geological record. It imprinted into my eyes, still half dazed from being sucker punched by some asshole. Being coerced into a sparring match moments before my big break into the French professional world was my kind of luck. I was then re-reduced to a confused-lost-young-twenty-something-man, not really to be trusted with anything. I had fucked up many times and bailed on people several times. I abandoned the hopeless lasagna. Couldn’t even get out of a hole in the tree, I was a child time and time again. And there I was, kind of getting reborn to the tune of Maria.
Making my way up to the musical mountain canyon festival, I saw my friends drunk by a waterfall. I stopped and said hey, and they told me to join them. They were sitting in a crystal-clear pool that was created by a massive boulder, which slowed the river’s inevitable fall into the valley. I took off my shirt and sat in the cold water with them. They had a cube of wine and were taking turns jumping off of a small overhanging cliff. We drank that afternoon like Les Nabis, the post-impressionist group, and I took myself for Édouard Vuillard, the great painter of furniture and faces. I had just seen a piece of his while I was in Paris, and I couldn’t stop looking at faces the way that he painted them, with detail missing and ambiguous brushstrokes implying an ear or a forehead or a chin embedded with the background wallpaper.
“Ave Maria” was no longer. It was now a strange piano sonata that was slowed down, as to play off of the rhythm and tempo of the echoes.
Sort of like that, just notes appearing out of the canyon as incoming birds, syncopating with the smacking bodies of my friends as they hit the water from the cliff. And by the time that we needed to go, we were feeling good. Ready to see a live band play on the little pondside stage.
The sounds of the piano were swirling around us as we headed towards La Fayette. We decided to take the bottom trail that leads to the giant-cement-trumpet-speaker where we could stand inside and feel the sound emerge from the source. It was very loud at the bell hole. Standing inside the big one is like standing inside someone’s ear canal. It slopes inward into the mountain side and you can’t stay long without hurting. As I was in there, “Ave Maria” came on again, this time though, the first notes shook inside my skull, fighting to be set free, and shot straight to the canyon wall. It knew the way out of the canyon. It was a very different feeling than when I heard it at the bottom of the valley where it sang slowly and mingled and waited. Here, it was earnest and loud, like it needed to be somewhere else. To get space from its own source and space from me and space from the ground. That’s when I fully realized that ethereal music, to be visceral, is best consumed in nature, like the wind. I had always thought that music was best heard indoors or in a theater, but here, the mixture of calculation and engineering of acoustics with the natural curves of the canyon wall, the trees that dampen, solid rock that deflects, the water that absorbs and internalizes, creates a relationship—not just a vehicle for the clearest message.
I once heard a priest talking about how he had to slow down his sermon after his parish cathedral had been renovated. The interior ceiling was being reworked and they had taken off some acoustic foam. The result was that words became too hard for the congregation to understand when he spoke too fast. Then I thought, well isn’t that a good thing? To slow down? Are we not giving our voices a space to breathe, and echo naturally as they do? The priest said, ‘Well at least I only have to write about half the length of sermon that I used to.’ Acoustic padding seems to be a human solution to a man-made problem, maybe cathedral reverb is best left to canyons and valleys and mountains, because there, I understood every word.
I got out of the singing ear canal. The stars were finally out, and the festival was at its peak. As we climbed the garden dirt stairs to la Fayette, laughter and conversations were now audible to us, louder than the crickets chirping. We arrived from the side of the sloped garden gate and walked up to a circle of people that we knew. They stopped using the speaker, and a folk-dance-band began to play at the center of the village on a little side stage. There was a decorated bar with origami birds and little paper mâché lamps twined around a hand painted yellow and black cursive sign that read Bouvette. Next to the bar was a truck with a big water tank. La Fayette was having issues with bacteria in the water and had to drive to town to get drinkable water.
After much mingling, and apparently, we weren’t the only ones with a goat problem, I went to the volunteer kitchen and was offered vegan cake. Selim was there talking with a girl from Russia named Sophia. Selim smiled at me and said, “Hey, Henry! Ça va?” He was definitely the most formally dressed there. Most of us looked like neo-hippies. Or even ‘baba-cool,’ but less commercial. The general style was a better, thriftier ‘baba-cool,’ where most people weren’t trying too hard to look a certain way.
“Ça va, et toi?” I said, smiling as he shook my hand and put his other arm around my shoulder. He was drunker than I was. Selim was the friendliest drunk I had ever seen, and maybe that is because it was such a stark contrast to how he was normally. He was a nice guy, but he became a saint-on-crack when he had some wine in him, and it was a joy to witness.
It had been almost a year since he had unintentionally signed up for a rural mountain life, and here he was, laughing and in good company, speaking Turkish to other Turkish volunteers, speaking French to a Russian, English to a Palestinian. I saw that language is founded in the body and spirit. It seems that people aren’t as interested in how big your vocabulary is, or how well-spoken you are, it’s in the attitude.
Looking back, I was a wild card, and I shouldn’t have been trusted with that group, no matter how badly I wanted to have responsibility and be in the ‘in-crowd,’ to belong just as much as a native French person. Now I saw Selim in the inner circle, people loved him. And I was still a wildcard. It didn’t matter as much as I thought, how well I spoke French or not. It didn’t define me.
Maybe I didn’t allow myself to be accepted for a reason. In kindergarten, I couldn’t stand the group activities. I never wanted to play along if it meant compromising my individualism, and here the quality of my sense of self seemed directly based on my ability to conform to the community.
By early morning I went to sleep in the forest along the path connecting La Fayette’s village and a Roman chapel ruin, no sleeping bag. I covered myself in a pile of leaves as a blanket. The cold air traced lines along the edge of the leaves, and I could feel their exact contours. To warm up and to rid myself of the overwhelming shapes, I rolled around in the leaves and grass and bumped into a girl who was doing the same. The light was naturally dim because even on the longest day of the year the sun only hits La Fayette directly for a few hours because of the towering canyon walls making it hard to see her face. She wore violet plaid shorts and a red and blue striped tank top. The sunlight passed for a quick moment between the leaves over us and the ones in our hair, we said hello. Have I seen her before? I thought I was the only one sleeping in this forest.
“I just couldn’t stand being with the group up there, you can only handle so much,” she said. I understood that well.
“The whole summer has been like that, constant waves of people coming and going, I am supposed to be leading a group right now actually,” I said.
“Ah bon? Well, where are they?” she said, flowers in her hair.
“I have no idea!” I said and began a sort of crazy laugh.
“I don’t know where mine is either, oh well! Hi, I’m Misty,” she said, and then she just laid in the leaves again. She rolled around like a deer trying to get a tick off of her back. I didn’t know how to react to that if I should just walk away and let her roll in leaf bliss or join her. I chose the latter, and for the first time, the wonderment and curiosity were greater than the fear of losing my wildness.
We stayed talking in the forest until the sun debarked on other ventures and before we lost sight of where we were. We hitchhiked back to the Village. I hadn’t seen my group in a few days now, I selfishly made excuses to be somewhere else. I got punched in the face, was tired, had a phone call to make, etc. That night this mysterious leaf girl Misty and I sat on haystacks overlooking the moon. I chewed on a piece of straw, had itchy pants. The stars sent me on a thought swerve to La Feria d’Arles.
“Quatre toro! Quatre toro!” the announcer’s voice distorted out of a megaphone that hung off a café balcony. You don’t see them at first. There is just a quiet anticipation, a loomed exciting dread lofting, airborne. The town seems to feel a communal concentrated dose of adrenaline and thought patterns. Some feel it more strongly than others, some get obsessed, some merely inconvenienced on their way to the market because a popular couple was getting married. It’s a self-inflicted terrorism of sorts, much like love. And yet it is difficult to think of any specific notion of love when four bulls with hysterical eyes are sizing you up. After this period of inebriated reflective pause, you see a crowd of people react and run, and you can tell which level of adrenaline certain people are on. The bride, in her white dress, is holding hands with her father, high as a kite off adrenaline. The groom, arms locked with his mother, wasted, walking slowly from the house to the church. In the same image a parade of children dressed up in old costumes pass on bikes, and bulls in the shop windows are looking out onto the street.
The ones that get out of the way by going through the metal barriers are five times higher than the crowd behind the barrier. The ones that actually go in between the bulls are ten times higher, and the ones that run the entire course through are absolutely insane. So high, they might not ever come back, or be the same after that. As the toros get closer, keratin hooves pound against the cobblestone. The sound escalates like a snare drumroll of an early 1900s Russian fanfare declaring the death of Rasputin. Depending on the time of day and the level of abuse that they had been dealt, their anger and wrath is analyzed accordingly. If tired, the experienced runners will taunt them and test their luck, seeking a better thrill. If in a full blood rage, the game is truly on.
A teenaged boy came running up and attempted to put on a ring around the horn of a particularly upset bull and got flung upside down by the bull’s swooping head. In a quick jolting motion, as if trying to nag off a fly or an annoying child, he sent the boy off into the world. I could hear a loud crack sound as the ulna bone in his arm snapped against the pavement. But I swear I saw him the very next day run past a bull and cling up against the metal barrier. I took a picture of him in that pose with his fresh arm cast and red bandana. I also got married.
I exited the madness and found the yellow Café de la Nuit and felt calm all of a sudden. I ordered a cafe allongée and sat there feeling nauseous and low. Then I see Cody walking up, soggy, clothes completely wet.
“I fell in a fountain, don’t ask,” he said giddy.
Anais was there and laughing behind him, also soaked.
“He made us look like a couple of idiot tourists!” she said.
“Did you bring a towel?”
“Seriously, how do these things keep happening to you? Did you try to dance with a bull or something?” I said.
“Hey, at least I ran with them, you both just stood behind the barrier!” Cody said as he loudly scooted a chair back and sat down at my table. Whatever conversation you have at Café de la Nuit feels like it's being listened to by Van Gogh. I had always dreamt of being there on a romantic date or having a late night discussion with friends about music or poetry, etching on the ethers of philosophy. Anais was still red in the face from the image of a hundred people staring and laughing at them around the fountain. They sat dripping in their chairs as the waiter, annoyed, asked them if they’d like napkins to wipe off and what they’d like to drink. Cody wanted to see a menu. We sat in silence for a minute. Had they fallen in the fountain and it was freezing with broken ice they could have died from hypothermia like my great grandfather did in Ukraine.
“Why would someone paint a portrait of this café? They don’t even have Wi-Fi?” he said in a strange, uncharacteristically cute tone of voice directed towards the ground as he pulled up his hand-woven bag that he got in Chile and out came a little brown puppy that I didn’t notice was in there. Everyone’s general disgust and annoyance instantly disappeared, and their attention was now on the puppy making tiny squeaks and slight whimpers as Cody held her up to his nose.
“Who loves Eskimo kisses! Aww yes she does. Yes she does,” Cody said.
Just then I could almost see its muscles twitch into a wolf and proceed to eat Cody. And the farmers sitting next to us interrupted, “See what happens... See! I knew we should have put up more posters.”
“Cut the crap! Wolves can make good hunting dogs, but you just gotta walk ‘em,” someone said.
“It’s the same thing with Minotaurs. Their calves can be temperamental,” the wolf said.
“Bizarre” I said in the presence of a stiff dead butterfly caught in a thin beam of sunlight in an abandoned chapel. In quiet, I could feel its wings catch on any reference to a breeze, any alludes to changes in air pressure, even my muscle movement as I turned my neck behind me to watch it. If I said a word, it would have been obliterated. Suddenly the butterfly gets up and flutters out the door to the summer sky and abandons me there in my silent kneeling confused worship. Why did I get the task to clean the graveyard of its weeds? I sighed and went to look for a rake and clippers. It wouldn’t take long, there were not many graves to clean, and the vines on the walls were dried up and brittle. I found my tools and put on cheap gardener’s gloves that were often wrongly used for plastering and began to chop the vines with the big clippers.
I ripped away some bristled weeds and saw a surprising tombstone. The last name read MARTEL, the same family name as the Shepherd. That was not the surprising detail though, I saw that the years only added up to seven and they were fairly recent. Every other tomb in there was from the late nineteenth century or older, with the exception of a couple from World War Two. I think the Shepherd had mentioned that he had a kid, but he just said, oh he went away with his mother, “il est parti avec sa mère.”
The Shepherd was, years ago, a successful artist living in Paris. He did hyperrealism oil paintings of cartoonized Greek goddesses and gods with melted faces in forms of the hundreds of types of cheese in France. He was classically trained at the famous École des Beaux-Arts and sold his paintings to collectors and exhibited at contemporary art clubs. I could see it though, this mountain man with grizzly facial hair, wool sweaters, and a flock of sheep wining and dining with the clean-cut Parisian art intellectuals.
He told me that his favourite part of Paris was Pigalle. He sat on benches and sketched people as they went about their ‘banal and scandalous lives’ as he put it. He told me to go get lost in Montmartre and Pigalle and see for myself the sexy-neon-signs. There was a night club that doesn’t exist anymore that his grandfather frequented called Comme à l'Enfer, Like in Hell, and apparently, the façade was a giant demented head of Zeus with the curly hair and beard, and you walked in through his mouth. They served ‘magic potions’ that would make you fall in love. He said it was mostly just dyed absinthe. In those days they’d drink absinthe and have sorts of hallucinations, and the absurd hell-like dimension of the bar turned into a reality of its own, they even spoke differently with a variation-dialect of street French, fueled by sexual innuendos and Freudian desires. This was before they realized that absinthe could drive people mad. When absinthe was outlawed in March 1915, that’s when the real weirdos came. “In fact,” he said, “I was conceived in the apartment above that bar,” he said laughing. “Though this was after it already turned into a laundry mat.”
He met his wife at one of his poorly attended art shows. She asked him if he was the artist and he said that he’d have to think about that. They went on dates for a year before getting married. He said, “Those were good times, but when we found out about our son, we just had to escape Paris, that city will tear families apart if you’re not careful. When my father died, we finally had a way out.”
“So you drop everything, your art studio, your connections, to go become a shepherd?”
“It’s not me who chose the profession.”
“You think it was predestined?” I said.
“Laisse moi tranquille,” he said and waved his hands away and gave a subtle breathy whistle to his pack of dogs to follow.
It never occurred to me that his son could be dead. I just assumed he, you know, left.
Twenty-vine-clips-in and a man comes up to the little rusty gate. I turn and he sees me with the clippers. Fiercely in French, he started yelling, “Mais non, non! Non c’est ne pas possible!” It was the Shepherd, and he was drunk, his eyes completely red with furry and lack of sleep.
Completely startled and taken off guard, in the nicest, softest voice I could muster, “Quoi? What? I’m sorry, desolée I don’t know what you mean,” I said, fidgeting with the clippers in my hand. What the hell? What was he freaking out about?
“Stupid American! Imbecile. Stop, stop, stop, stop!” he said and slammed the gate behind him and firmly grabbed the clippers out of my hand.
“You are fucked! Malade, malade!” he said, pointing his finger in my face. “What did I tell them, jamais, jamais, JAMAIS entrez ici. How do you say—never? Never. Enter. Here.”
“I am so sorry. I was just trying to help, and clean up a bit,” I said, but it was futile. The good intentions did not mean anything to him. This is a sacred spot and the weeds and overgrown vines where he laid his son to rest had not been cut or trimmed since the day that he buried him. I have never seen the look of someone actually thinking about killing me, I don’t doubt it was far off his mind.
The next morning, a foul stench found its way into the bedroom. Selim and the Sage got up and pinched their noses. We looked at each other thinking, okay fess up, who did it? You better check your pants kind of thing. But no, this was nonhuman. We had to investigate. We walked downstairs and saw the front door wide open, and the dining area covered in manure. On the floors, the walls, the tables, in crevices, nooks, and crannies; shit. It took me a second to realize that I was not imagining it. This was messier than if a few sheep got in through the front door. This looked deliberate.
“You know who did this right?” the Sage said from the entryway.
“Would he really do something like this? He’s too nice. Sure he’s upset, but he’s nice. He wouldn’t,” I said.
But this was a practical joke. The French love a good practical joke, and what more practical than pointing your manure spreader through someone's front door? As in wrestling, justice had been served, though I was still unsure how justice needed to be served to me tenfold and on a golden dish of sorts. I was told to clean the cemetery; I cleaned the cemetery. Didn’t even think twice about it. At least our house would be fertile now. In the distance, we could see the Shepherd on his tractor, smoking and driving up past the Chalets to check on his fields. I just wanted to roll around in the leaves again, but things were getting complicated.
The Village association was outraged by the incident and decided to have a sort of intervention with the Shepherd. He could not understand that he had done anything wrong or acted out of line. He walked out of the meeting after his excessive drinking was mentioned. All volunteers and all inhabitants of the Village were not to talk to the Shepherd under any circumstances and were to notify a responsible association organizer if he said or bothered anyone. And so it was, that the Shepherd solemnly walked with his head down or drove his tractor alone with his dogs, and never talked to anyone except for when Marcell visited him. The old man would say, “I better go check on the poor guy, this is just so sad,” and they’d watch a football match in private.
With the hundreds of people from all over the world passing through the Village every summer, it was difficult to explain why we didn’t talk to the Shepherd, our one and only neighbour.