(first appeared in Cobra Milk Vol. II)
I was always waiting for four-thirty. The end of the working day, or as the French called it, “l’heure du goûter.” It was a snack time of transition marking the end of heavy lifting and dragged on minutes weighted with wandering thoughts of where-else-I-could-be’s. It all seemed to dissipate into toasted tartines, homemade jams, and honey. The porous round walls were like tunnels not hallways and everything at teatime looked wet as if you could just roll your body up and around like a slip and slide half-pipe.
There wasn’t a straight angle in Three Wheel House. Even the open fireplace was round and crooked. The lack of corners flung echoes of sounds to every room, which made me think that I heard ghosts from the bottom floor where sheep and cows used to live. When someone sat on the couch a poof of air shot out of the torn cushions sending a signal to all those in their rooms who were lonely.
I grabbed an instrument and sank in, committing to the couch. Whoever came into the long term volunteer kitchen and common space would probably talk for a while. Shortly after I made the poof, Adam walked in. Adam was a Ph.D. student studying eco-philosophy (as he put it) at the University of Brest.
“Henrinski! How about respecting la Zeek a little today huh?” he said.
“Am I that out of tune?” I said, strumming a variation of the DADGAD tuning on an old grimy guitar.
No comment, I guess, and on went the water boiler for tea. He walked over and picked up a guitar that eternally leaned up against a wall then grabbed a dusty pick from atop the electric box. “Oui. Nice. J’aime ça. Tuned anarchy,” he said watching me play. I wasn’t trying to do anything special, but I took the compliment. He looked intently at his fretboard and an atonal rhythm formed if you could call it a form.
“In eco-philosophy…” he said plucking away, “we look at the relationship between man and nature. Which is really one in the same: the True Self, we are not separate. This right here makes me think of that relationship,” Adam said as he detuned his low E string to a D on the beat: dow doow dooow doooow going low. “This guitar is unnatural but the product of the instrument, the sound, is, in fact, natural,” half talking half playing. I readjusted my legs and pulled down a pale green knitted blanket that was bunching up from under me. “How much of what you play is determined by the instrument itself?”
“I guess that’s why I like this tuning, it makes new possibilities,” I said.
“You’re still using an instrument.”
A lot of talking for a jam. Sometimes I didn’t know what he was talking about or even how to jam with him for that matter. I used to just play music with people, now it was a lecture on Socrates. And he made me second guess the most basic of notions. For the moment he slept outside “sous les belles étoiles” and listened obsessively for wolf howls and looked day and night for wolf droppings on the way to his bed. It was wolf this and wolf that.
“There are four hundred and eighty-two wolves in France and about forty of them in the area,” he said. I wasn’t about to tell him that I saw a wolf the first week I arrived, but Sarah who just walked in at that moment told all.
“Henri actually had a beautiful experience with a wolf you know, did he tell you about that? Just at the entrance of the Village, came up as close as you are to me,” she said. I affirmed. I could see Adam was jealous, he got unusually quiet. “Looked at him right in the eyes. Tell him Henri.”
Have to admit, it was a transcendent moment. Picture death in all of death’s expansiveness. Wide dreamscapes of ocean labyrinths leading nowhere, dark figures fiddling with coins leaned up on lamp posts, multiplying and screeching diagonally upward and away, tetherballs wrapping around close to the point of the center but never fully ending turn on a chess board with no pieces. Chairs folding into themselves like primary colored cubes and floating numbers and words of different languages describing it better in those listless moments, something like a thought is just as big as a thought can possibly be—but this—no this was something different, not an end of anything or a zero degree on the x and y axis, it was a compressed infinity that fit snug into the size of a blue and yellow eyeball. It stares you up and down, snorts, and continues walking its mysterious way.
“It was cool,” I said.
Adam told me that the Alps once had very old trees that were all massacred at the turn of the century, “effacée comme la lune,” he said making a flat whooshing motion with his arm.
“Almost all of the Alpine trees nowadays were planted within the last hundred years, a lot of which are black pine, many seeds taken from Romania for their robustness. Plus, they grow fast.” Pine, birch, elm, larch, fir—all essential for just about everything: warmth, Napoleon’s furniture, Notre Dame de Paris.
“Why does man still fear wolves when we have the power to destroy their entire ecosystem? Why did we halfheartedly bring them back? Bears are still in Romania, but they are a little too much predator for Western Europe, I think there’s like ten in the Alps. Have you heard of the wolf resistance? Just the other day I ripped off Anti-wolf posters that were glued on our village news bulletin outside.”
“Who put them up?” I said.
“We assumed some agriculteurs nearby. You didn’t hear about this? Of course, no one cares. They had graphic images of bleeding sheep with teeth marks on their sides, and a wolf tip-toeing away with a title: Kill If Seen.”
“Did you know there are lawyers that specialize in helping people justify killing wolves?” Sarah said.
“Wolf Law?” I chuckled.
“Yeah, you laugh, but this guy at the market gave me his business card, it looked like one of those scam traffic lawyer billboard types,” she said.
“That reminds me of the book called Aveugle Mais Pas Blind. About a man who lived like a mole for a few months,” Adam said.
“I don’t see how that’s related,” Sarah said and made a face like why do I bother.
Adam continued, “This guy got sued by the government for making a cave home in his backyard. Nearly sacrificed his life empathizing with nature to bring awareness to the unfathomably vast forms of intellectual existences. He wore blinding covers over his eyes and lived underground. His hearing and sense of touch were astoundingly increased, and he could feel a faint percentage of what moles can feel, creatures who spend most of their lives in darkness.”
“I’ve heard of senses heightened due to the loss of other senses, but this puts method acting to a whole other level,” I said.
“Way to get into character, huh?” Adam said.
“Yeah, he could play a mole in a Greek tragedy, and be the most believable mole ever played by a human,” Sarah said.
“Imagine a Greek chorus of mole ghosts!”
“Did you know bats can sleep hanging upside down because their feet actually clinch in a relaxed state?” Adam said.
“Alright Adam. Let’s just play some music?” I said.
More and more volunteers came in after their post-work showers and the house was filled with sounds of the toaster popping, the refrigerator opening and closing, the wooden benches wobbling and scooching, and reblochon wafting along with the vapor of the electric kettle.
“LA PORTE!” Adam cried, as a newcomer from Belgium quickly stopped himself in his tracks on one leg to go back to close the door.
“Merci,” Adam said annoyed, “La chèvre entrera sinon!”
The atmosphere always depended on how everyone’s day went, and whether or not the goat got in and shit all over the house. Most of the time I was in a good mood, and hungry. My time there, a constant blur of eating and doing dishes, and watching that goat’s infected eye stare into a goat void. Or trying to figure out who stole rolling tobacco out of my cabin, in which the no-locked-doors policy was often at the tip of everyone’s tongue.
“Hey, can you help me with something? It won’t take long,” Adam said after our teatime conversations were through, crumbs all over the coffee table, which was nothing but ply-wood on a wobbly stand.
“Sure, what for?” I said.
“I just need to finish setting up my bed installation in the tree,” he said.
I had trouble imagining what type of “bed installation” he had in the works, but I was nonetheless intrigued. On the way to his soon-to-be outdoor Ph.D. office and house (he was working on his thesis that summer) he began telling me yet another tale of an extreme eco-protester. This man dressed up as a salmon and swam in rivers throughout France.
“It got to the point where he developed so many illnesses from the dirty water, he had to stop doing it all together,” Adam said and looked at me like, yeah, what a guy!
“He would get out of the water and start vomiting profusely,” he said.
“Why would he do that?” I was naive around him (I often felt like Adam was a father figure, explaining how the unknown “extreme” eco world worked).
“He did it to show how dirty the water was. He knew he was going to get sick,” he said, and I stopped walking for a second to shake my head as if to say incroyable. The small, tiled path was at its end. Now, careful. Watch your step, giant steps down this uneven dirt stairway. The volunteers made it with rusted shovels ten years ago. Listen to the cricket’s croak and the butterfly’s buttering and watch the lavender shed her seasonal summer feathers. Here’s the river bridge, where I years later played an experimental jazz concert with tied up rocks, bicycle parts, pots and pans, and other found object musical inventions.
“Ey, ouais, c’est comme ça. Life is messy. They say you never go back to the same river twice, but these days the river is so polluted you just wish it resembled something of what you thought a river was supposed to be,” he said.
I could hear the choir practicing from the Village chapel, preparing for the summer concert series. I sang in the choir on Saturday nights. The Shepherd, who sang a lovely bass, gave me rides to practice when they were held in Lus la Croix Haute. I too, wanted to sing bass, but the director discovered that I could sing tenor parts. But I liked bass. I liked filling space with a low boom, a foundation for the harmonies to intermingle and glisten above. I liked being present but not standing out too much. I was the only person under forty in the choir and when the conductor told me to go stand next to the tenors, I got a look from the bass singers that said how could you? I raised my shoulders telling them I didn’t know what I was doing, and they shrugged it off.
The mountain shot up quickly and circled the village in a two-hundred-and-seventy-degree magic ring with a slit just big enough to attach it to another magic ring. It felt like a circus tent. I was fascinated by how sound traveled, and how certain echoes could linger depending on the pitch and volume. How they could sound like vagabond wild horses let loose to the clouds. How certain crying could warble. Adam wasn’t so extreme. I was so heady looking at horse angel clowns in the sky.
We climbed up a hill on the other side of the creek. I thought of my first Friday in the Village. Cody the Welsh provided a Royal Military training day, where we were duped into running up and down the hill twenty-seven times. At the end of each sprint to the top or bottom we had to perform crunches and push-ups. Cigarette alit like a sports coach he ran at our side.
After making it up that hill just the one time with Adam I was already out of breath. I couldn’t imagine hiking up there every night for bed. He put down the big blue tarp he was carrying over his shoulders.
“If you could tie this end of the tarp to that branch, and then go over to the other side and I’ll throw you the rope,” he said.
“Ok, this one over h——”
My head jolted back, recoiling. I fell to the ground instantly covering my eye with my hand. I was rolling as if I was caught on fire, screaming.
“What happened? Ça va?” Adam said. He didn’t see.
My first thought, fuck I’m blind. I gouged my eye.
You never know what can happen when you sit down on that couch. Poof.
The music went on. Someone entered and picked up my jazz brushes and began a slow shuffle swing on the back of a broken guitar and it buzzed like a cracked drum kit.