I had a kind of depression that landed on my face like flies. When sheep passed through and laid their waste over the Village, there was no deficit. My coffee seemed to be their favourite watering hole. On this particularly sad morning, I was listening to a strong-willed mooche—as the French call them—buzz artlessly, stuck in a yellow dangling fly trap. Ocelot was on the sofa and looked at me with an air of condescension. She yawned and moved her gaze to the noisy fly, who was dying for what seemed like all morning. Incapable of going to work, I stared out the window at a freak June snowstorm that diminished any motivation I had to go to the morning meeting. It was nine-thirty, and I heard my name echo through the curved stone hallway. I hadn’t shown up in a few days to work. For my punishment, or as they put it, a “breather” I was signed up to participate in the renovation of Château de Lesdiguières. A few days later, a blue Renault Trafic picked me up in a nearby town called Le Saix.
The van door scratched metal-on-metal as it opened and I saw the group of volunteers I would be working with for the next three weeks. We all put on an excited-to-meet-you face, though I could tell they were all tired and didn’t care. We shook hands, said our names and where we were from, and someone made a joke of how to pronounce Le Saix. We drove out east to a higher part of the Alps. The van’s windows didn’t work. I sat in the back seat scrunched between four people in one row. I was pressed against the panel and someone’s thighs and felt air being sucked away as I held my stomach on the viraging mountain passes. Summer was just beginning but the skin on my arms still felt the enveloping drift of a very late snowstorm. We all watched the trees jostle in an oddly sexual motion, rubbing against a caressing wind, until someone said ‘get a room’ and we laughed and stopped looking out the window. I opened a book of poetry by Jaques Prévert that I had found in the free library exchange at the farm, and read the line, “In summer like winter, in mud, in dust, lying on old newspaper, a man with flat shoes takes in water, looking at boats from afar,” and I got too carsick to finish it. For that book I traded Across the Empty Quarter, which describes a British explorer’s journey through an immense desert. I saw a circus camel grazing on the side of the highway, tied up to a water gauge of the Super U. I immediately thought of the Bedu guides who could tell which direction animals came from, how many children they gave birth to, eating habits, and how long they had gone without water all from footprints and feces. I wanted to be a tracker. But we, the camel and I that is, were both driving in different cars in different directions. I suppose I could have tracked this majestic creature using the circus fliers posted on the vine-covered stone walls and the light poles all over the region but instead I just felt sick.
When we got to the campground it was dark and grey outside, the borders of light drew the angles of houses in the little village nearby. We climbed out of the van to choose our tents. I lucked out and got the tent used for storing camping gear, so I didn’t have to have a tentmate. The camp was just a plain grass patch near the château, but I couldn’t see what was around except those contrasted rooftops. Huddled by a little fire, we each told a childhood memory and an embarrassing moment. Tomas, a Russian volunteer, began the conversations of the evening. He told us how he accidentally walked out of a store wearing an expensive coat. A policeman came running and tackled him to the ground violently. A sizable hole ripped in the sleeve against the rough Moscow concrete. They made him choose to either pay for the coat or to go to jail for three months. With all the money he had saved for his wedding, he chose the coat. His fiancée cut the right sleeve off his old jacket and then sewed it to this new expensive coat. He proudly showed everyone his mismatched sleeves. A resounding ‘ah’ ensued.
“Why did you bring a winter coat to France in the summertime?” a French volunteer named Chloe asked him.
“What do you mean why? This is my lucky coat.”
“Oh, sure it is. Just like your rabbit’s foot that ripped a hole in your pocket?” Chloe said and laughed.
“Did it not snow last week while we went hiking?”
“Oui ok,” she said, annoyed.
“And who was prepared?” Tomas said.
“It didn’t help you from falling on your face on that hill,” Sophia, the leader of our group said. Tomas swatted the air like he gave up. I could feel the discussion turn to me.
“Maybe you need some lucky shoes. Look at that sole ripping off,” someone said and he started flapping the sole and you could see his foot permeating the thin fibers of his dirty tattered sock.
“Gross. So who’s next?” Chloe said.
“Play us a song, Henri, please,” Sophia said, handing me the guitar, her question a polite command.
This kind of musical request always made me feel like a trained sea otter. I usually regret telling people that I sing and play an instrument, but perhaps I secretly enjoy the thrill. So I reached out my arm and grabbed the sticky neck of the cheap Spanish guitar. “Now, for my most embarrassing moment,” I said.
I sang a song called “Les Amoureux des Bancs Publics” by George Brassens. I imagined myself as one of those naive lovers kissing on the green bench that Brassens spoke of. I looked at Sophia’s eyes flickering lavish saccades and I began to blush. What was in her mind? An ember jumped on someone’s pant leg but it went out before they noticed.
At daybreak, we drove to the site where we were supposed to excavate an old wall of the château. We met an architect and an historian who were interested in a specific wall that was almost completely covered in dirt. If history happened there, it was as if the weeds and dirt were trying to sweep it under a rug of roots and photosynthesizing green pigment.
The architect had curly hair and wore a white button down shirt and brown khakis. He stood up onto a flatbed of a small truck with a megaphone and cleared his throat. “This is the Château of Duke Lesdiguières, erected in fifteen-eighty. On the day of the Duke’s birth the nearby stronghold at St. Bonnet burned to the ground. His mother fled to this site where the château now stands. Religious wars between Protestants and Catholics were common, and Lesdiguières decided to build a defensive fort. On one account, under the Catholic Duke of Savoy, an insane captain, a self-proclaimed Caprara, came here with a group of Germanic-Lombard savages. The Duke of Savoy had given no orders for the captain’s regiment to be here, but they came with a violent agenda of orgy, massacre, and pillage. The priest was killed. The château was sacked. The historical documentation of these events strangely lost. Throughout the terrible years of murdered family members, servants, friends, and financial ruin, Lesdiguières held his Protestant beliefs, despite overwhelming pressure to convert. Towards the end of his days, however, after a lifetime of fighting rather successfully, Lesdiguières converted to Catholicism, and on the day of his death the stronghold of St. Bonnet burned to the ground again.” The architect stopped and looked at the mound. The historian nodded as our group looked at them both in silence.
“Anyway—on to the dig. Be aware that the deeper you find something, the older it is, and you must report any objects found in the excavation even if it looks like trash,” the megaphone had some feedback, and he pointed it away for a second. “Sorry about that. Well, all we can say is congratulations again for being a part of history here, this is going to be an important excavation. Tonight we have organized a dinner with you fine ladies and gentlemen and the local inhabitants of Glaizil, they are very excited.”
We stepped back and watched a tractor drive its bucket into the mound. The earth seemed like it did not want to be disturbed. After the mound was loosened up like a careful and slow massage knotting out muscles, we went in to examine the ruins. We formed a human chain and removed stones for hours. We placed them into a pile which we would use to rebuild the wall later. Time passed and my arms felt inflated with air like balloons. I was bored. Nothing happened but dirt clods crumbling in my hands and stones rolling at my feet. Sheep baaed on the hills, accompanying the sound of buckets being emptied. I examined each rock for a second before passing it to the next person. Finally we found an object. An old can of sardines. “Anyone hungry?” Chloe said as she waved the can around and looked at a worm wiggling half out of it. As she shook the can in the air the worm fell out. There was something inside the can that sounded like a small piece of round metal.
“Something is in there,” Tomas said and took the can. He peered in. “Hm, I can’t see anything, let me shake it out,” he shook it around until the object flung out hitting the dirt and bouncing several times.
“Look, a bullet!” we all said at the same time.
“What do you think that’s from?” Chloe said.
“Probably just kids doing target practice,” Tomas said.
I grabbed the dirty, yellow can of sardines from Tomas and looked closely at the hole that was shot through the rust and circus font that read, À l’huile d’olive. As I was reading the tin, the architect came by and said, “let me take that,” and he snatched it out of my hands. He then put his hand out flat to Tomas and said with a smile, “the bullet please.” Tomas looked at the bullet one last time and put it in the architect’s hand. He walked away quickly and stood under a tree like he was thinking. He then went to talk to the historian.
The next object we found was a nail from the fifteenth century. It was from the roof of a small horse stable that would have been attached to the wall. We all gathered around the nail as if it was a holy relic. After hours of finding odd bits of roof tiles, more nails, and more sardine cans, our workday was over.
On the way back to the camp Sophia stopped the van at a tourist gift shop. She purchased Hits of the Summer 2012 and put it in the van’s CD player. Everyone bounced their shoulders in the car and sang songs that I had never heard. Chloe saw that I didn’t know any of the songs that were playing and asked, “do you live under a rock?”
“Worse, he lives under a mountain,” Sophia said.
“Hey, just because I can’t stand this music doesn’t mean I—”
“Oh, you’re no fun,” Chloe said and turned the music up louder from the passenger seat. Sophia nodded her head in approval. I don’t know what it was about that nod, but it was a nod that made me feel like I was from a different dimension. No fun? Me? Was I becoming closed minded? Can I not simply enjoy things anymore? All these criteria I’ve set for pleasure. I was having a crisis because all I could think about were how the drums were poorly programmed and tasteless. The keyboards-were-over-compressed and the auto-tune-on-the-vocals-disregarded-any-notion-of-subtlety. The lyrics were only about having fun in the sun and partying until the break of dawn and such things that didn’t have any artistic depth. These people were my coworkers and friends—born in the same era. So why did I feel so left out, so incapable of relating to anybody or anything that was produced by the mainstream of my generation?
As heads continued to bob to blasting summer beats, I heard, “Don’t mind Henri, he has taste.” Sophia then turned her head and smiled with a wink holding the steering wheel with her left hand and making a wave motion with the right.
Back at the camp, everyone changed out of their work clothes and got ready for the evening dinner. It was at a fancy, yet rustic Inn called Le Rocher des Ducs. How do you dress for that? Sophia asked. We entered and saw a table full of food already laid out. I felt like a hero coming home from a war that I didn’t fight in. A woman at the door said, “It is wonderful what you are doing for our community, we are so grateful to have you,” and she held my shoulders as if she wanted to shake me.
“Thank you, I am happy to be here.” I smiled.
“Let me pour you a drink,” she said and left to the kitchen to look for a bottle of cider.
We all quieted and sat down with our plates empty and ready to eat. The architect, wearing the same clothes as he was in the morning, said, “Again, everyone, thank you for joining us, this is a fantastic celebration of cultures helping to preserve history, a truly splendid evening. You all must be very hungry, so without further ado, bon appétit!”
The dinner dishes were passed around and I grabbed a healthy portion of whatever I could get my hands on. I sat back and took slow bites. I looked around the room and saw Tomas laughing with the girls. The historian sat next to me. I noticed his green tweed vest and checkered collared shirt were ironed.
“Hey, jeune homme, are you enjoying the food?” he asked.
“Yes, it is all wonderful! Thank you,” I said.
“Good, I’m glad. That is my Beaufort. I made it on my farm,” he said, proudly pointing to the cheese on my plate.
“Oh wow! That is my favourite one, honestly.”
“Don’t say that too loud. A lot of cheesemakers here.”
“Oh right, sorry. I thought you were a historian.”
“I got interested in cheese later in life. It must be the aging process that fascinates me.”
“I could see how they’re related.”
“Half of the people in Glaizil don’t approve of my methods. But I’ll tell you, when it comes to cheese, they can be very particular. It’s like religion or something.”
“That seems like a stretch.”
“Well it's a sacred mold. Cheese, you see, is milk with a story. You can still scent the trace of the original milk before the colonies of bacteria settle and develop, you can even identify qualities of the grass the cow ate, the bugs that the cow’s tail whipped away. And after a year of aging, oh mon dieu, it transforms into something so complex—an entire universe with historical ages and evolving ecosystems, it becomes a space of...” He said all this, and many more things about cheese. He described the way it is linked to the portals into multiple dimensional plains and at that moment he looked me in the eyes and scrunched his lips together as if he wanted to tell me some kind of secret—but changed his mind. “Speaking of stories, I saw you found some things today, exciting stuff huh? We appreciate the help,” he said.
“Who’s Jean-Pierre?” I asked, “I saw his name graffitied on a stone earlier, something in French, the tag-lines sounded angry from what I understood.”
The historian wiped his mouth off with a napkin and looked at the architect talking across the room. “The association never tells this story to the volunteers. Scares newcomers away, but you seem like you can handle it, and I guess I should be the one to tell it. About forty years ago, a group of teenagers came here dressed in sheets and pretended to be ghosts. They would go on the ruins and recite incantations until sunrise mimicking dance rituals performed by pagans who famously lived in the deep mountains of this region. The teenagers unknowingly scared the people of Glaizil half to death with their loud and strange laughter in the night. One evening Jean-Pierre had enough. He took his hunting rifle with him on a night that he heard their ‘haunting sounds’ and he shot three of the four teenagers dead over by the wall. Said he thought they were ghosts or witches.” The historian let out a sigh. He saw my discomfort. After a pause, he pointed out of the window of Le Rocher des Ducs in the direction of the mound. A large part of the wall was now visible after the work we had done.
“Right over there,” he said.
“How awful,” I said. “What happened to Jean-Pierre?”
“He was able to claim self-defense against the supernatural since they were dressed up in pagan outfits and ghost stuff and menacing him sort-of-speak. But I don’t know—he should have known they were human, maybe talked to them first. But I suppose in his mind, they really were ghosts. The teenagers were never verified. A farmer questioned the one survivor briefly, but she just answered with a few soft words before leaving. Poor thing. Didn’t live locally. Must have been camping here for a summer vacation.”
“How could somebody do such a thing?”
“Apparently, there was more to it. Jean-Pierre claimed that every day for weeks they’d move items around his garden, like real poltergeists would, you know, those subtle tricks. Lawn gnomes turned about. He said they were good and crafty and knew what bugged him on a personal level. Said they even got to his car keys and misplaced those. But what I can’t wrap my head around, is the one girl who survived said they never even stepped foot on his property.”
“—” I didn’t know how to respond. I just thought how sad and where she could be now? Then I thought to ask, “Did he say anything to them before he—”
The historian, with his gaze out the window said, “This may be local legend hearsay, but apparently that night when it all happened, he was shouting—sardines, sardines! You are all just ghosts in a can of sardines! Come here and let me get you out.”