Shiver and Decay
I looked into a plastic salad bowl filled with shrimp heads and sighed. Hundreds of beady eyes stared at my clothes. I could hear little tiny squeak voices saying that everything I wore that day was too big for me. It was true, my hair net sagged over my face as I blinked, and my disposable vinyl gloves went well past my fingers like I was some stringy ghost. Made cracking their heads off difficult. One by one I cracked and tossed cracked and tossed and was thinking I might go vegetarian.
The faded 70s French cookbook titled Sushi Facile said to let simmer until air tunnels shot vertically down the mass of rice. I was tempted to stir the cauldron size aluminum pot, the book said don't do it man. A thick layer stuck and burned but luckily I wasn’t on dishes.
Shrimpwise, it was ‘out with the innards’ and I began feeling ill and went out for a smoke.
I usually volunteered to cook for the leisure of it, the mindless peeling of carrots or potatoes and the simple, no stress directions from the chef. I’d rather be out in the rain picking weeds in the garden. They ask the volunteers every week—what new items should we include on the menu? And I foolishly said sushi with an exclamation, little did I know I'd be decapitating sea life.
An arm lifted up the fly curtain, which was mostly unsuccessful at keeping the troves from coming in and out. It was the Village co-director Anais Flouteau. She was holding a bamboo thing and some special sauce and said, “Here, use this,” and quickly departed. I dangled the bamboo in the air and had no idea what to do with it.
With the rice done and the shrimp heads in the compost bucket, (later I found out that shrimp attracts animals into the compost and is to be avoided) I was ready to roll anything but sushi. I slowly made myself a cigarette out on the patio and admired a beautiful view of the garden and mountain. Watching muddy volunteers weeding around the squash was a good distraction. They were listening to bossa nova music from little portable speakers, and I thought of the night before in La Taverne where I talked to Adam about jaded university professors. Was I ever going to go to school? I’ll never get jaded.
“It seems to me that academia is where dreams go to die,” I said.
Adam laughed and said, "Well I can tell you that at times, yes. Because all the joy of reading or making disappears for a while. The over saturation, over intellectualized concepts, the repetitiveness of teaching, it's numbing and there are days where you don't feel a damn thing good or bad, you're just sitting there, analyzing everything to death. But there comes a critical moment when you have to accept the necessity of certain things and move on, and find the pleasure of what you do all over again, after you learned the structure and your place in it."
"I just don't feel like I belong there."
"Shit, none of us do. But if you have the opportunity some day, take it. Not that you need it to be validated by society or that you will write better or paint better, or research better, but if anything for the exposure to other landscapes of consciousnesses. I am glad I did it, and now I appreciate the mountains that much more. The only sad thing is, I hardly have the time these days to enjoy it."
We were sipping on under-fermented-over-carbonated beer that was made in the Village by volunteers. I asked Adam what he would do after this. He wasn’t sure but he had plans to go to the Amazon for a while to study and record endangered languages. How are people doing things like that? I was only interested in survival and becoming enlightened and here these people were off working in NGOs making a difference. I’d never felt so selfish. I’d gone to France for myself, basically. I couldn’t possibly have imagined making an impact.
The Village goat, le Chevre, appeared limping. He stamped as if he was awaiting a personalized meal and I strained my brow to communicate an ‘oh piss off’ sentiment. But instead of doing anything like that, he dropped his head down as if he had no muscle control and started eating the contents inside the compost bucket.
“Aie!” I yelled and waved with my arms. He kicked over the compost and his hind legs flung up shrimp heads scattering them all over the patio. His legs gave in and he slammed his knees on the outdoor tile making a loud thump. Then he produced a spectacular hop over the recycling area and trotted off towards the garden. What a fucking mess this was.
I heard volunteers in the garden yelling, le Chevre found a hole in the fence. He was throwing up shrimp all over the zucchinis. Meanwhile I’m sweeping up the heads on the patio, they’re chasing the damned thing around the garden, trying to get him out of there. Fast runner by the way. You had to get him in a smackdown wrestling move. I see Djuna roll on the ground, goat between his legs, he’s practically riding him like an earthworm. Luckily another volunteer helps him to accomplish the desired chokehold and escort him out of the garden. They proceed to tie him up to a tree for the rest of the day.
I went back to the kitchen and saw directions on how to roll sushi with the bamboo thing. I made over forty rolls in about an hour and everyone came inside for lunch, it was too rainy to eat outdoors. Goat rant aside, the sushi was a hit, and everyone commented on the rice, cooked to perfection, and the shrimp divine. During the meal Yohann yelled out, “Vee should eat zeh goat!” in his German-French-English accent.
In this house called l'Hôtellerie, with its massive eating area, curved support pillars and great open fireplace, my head throbbed from the day’s stress of cooking, and from thirty simultaneous conversations happening in at least six languages. I couldn’t eat. I sat on the patio with a rolled-up cigarette and saw le Chevre tied up to the sureau tree. He was completely stretched out, reaching for a leaf to eat. That crazy goat. What an insane goat. With his infected eye. Sans scrupule, my favourite French term meaning without principle, guilt free, he’d stand on the picnic tables during lunches on nice sunny days and knock plates over. He’d step from bench to table to bench until someone threw him off and tied him up all over again.
After the sushi I went to Cabin Three Things to spend some time with the Sage from Belgium. He slouched in a beat up chair and listened to angry sounding French rap, knew all the words. He made a sign with his hand like the rappers do at the end of each phrase, and half whispered lyrics. Cabin Three Things was dark and had no electricity. The Sage had candles lit and a few friends around him as he spoke of the world entering into a new spiritual epoch.
“The superstructure is all too illuminated,” he said, “We’ve got ourselves cornered by ‘productivity.’ And computers can already manipulate. Like little playdough dolls, you see? In this age we’re undermining our own existence by the economic means. More and more like quicksand, sucking culture and everything else along with it, theology, literature, art, gone. Do you know what I mean?”
We nodded and took puffs.
“We’re entering a new age. Big revolutions, you’ll see. Just give it time. The moon is ready to eclipse. This ‘too much’ is making us sick.”
And then I thought of those satellite images and how you can see all the city lights from space, like on one of those Moroccan lamps. Space was space and earth was earth in my mind, I couldn’t put the two together. The night sky was always covered by the light haze of Los Angeles. Hardly any stars. The only week I lived with stars was in Arizona. It seemed like there were more stars than space in the sky and the milky way had coenesthesia to it, like you could run your fingers through muddy light and grab a piece of it and put it in your pocket like the gold rush or something. But here—almost every night, stars forced me to contemplate. Terrifying to realize that I didn’t really have an inner space in my spirit to believe in outer space, and yet it was there looming every night. Was that by design? Did this God need us to have that much space? The human brain has borders that seem so ambiguous. I read that the very edge of the universe starts to bend. And it starts to loop back into the opposite direction, like an endless pool. I felt something that wasn’t a thought, and not quite a feeling, but an ineffable presence. Cabin Three Things? What were the Three Things? A trinity or a triptych?
I’d not only never heard conversations like that before—but for the first time in a language other than English. This new language was stripped of associations that I’d had in my native tongue. Like any language, American English is a minefield of “mayonnaise” or ideas that aren’t questioned but set. Stereotypes thicken like whipped eggs for the fridge. But each language may have different kinds of mayonnaise depending on the eggs (or the fridge size). The Sage stared at a playlist on his laptop screen, the moon shined into the dirty little garden cabin. I was happy to realize that I was holding my favourite thee Bellowing Bee festival cup. The wine cube was running low and I was exhausted from cleaning shrimp heads off the patio.
Anais knocked on the door to the cabin, and everyone made a shhhhh. The Sage got up and opened the door, it was his new residence since he’d moved out of the volunteer house after a dispute.
“Mais vous faites quoi là?" she said. I pretended I didn't understand and looked blankly out the cabin window at the moon glow. "You guys are never with the others.”
“Well, to be fair, we’ve been working all day with them” Gillem said.
“You’re always sneaking off and having your own private little club,” Anais said.
“We eat with them, play with them, what do you want us to do? Brush their teeth?”
“They feel weird never seeing you in the evening, you’re all werewolves,” Anais said.
“You want me to spend my only few hours of true relaxation playing some card game?” the Sage said.
“Yes, that’s exactly what we need you to do, It’s in the project description.”
Everyone started talking over each other and the debate got heated. No one wanted to be thrown under the bus for avoiding the groups we hosted. Why would anyone want to stay in this bizarre village where an individual seems subject to criticism the more they separate from the group? There were many people who didn’t want to be there.
Selim Yavuz, for example, thought that he was going to Paris when he read the wrong address in the project description. He went from Istanbul straight to Paris and knocked on the door of the French National Voluntary Bureau. The administrators had no idea why he was in Paris. Selim said he was there for the project. They tried to explain that he had to go to the Alps. What Selim wanted was an exciting city adventure; to be culturally stimulated, and busy, not isolated in some mountain commune. They calmed him down and gave the address. Miles and miles from anything, it’s one of the more remote places in France. Hard to do in such a small country. I remember the day he moved in; I had made the choice to give him his own bedroom because I was scared that we couldn’t communicate. We sat there at dinner in almost complete silence, every question fizzled instantly. We all could tell that he was still mourning Paris.
Towards the end of the awkward meal Anais said to me, “Hey, why don’t you have Selim stay in your room?” I couldn’t grasp sleeping in the same tiny room for a year with someone that I couldn’t communicate with.
“I–I–I think he’d be more comfortable with his own space, for now, just to get settled. I’ll let him have my room, and I’ll go get my stuff,” I said and excused myself from the table to try to figure something out.
Desperately, I moved my clothes out into the hallway, but as I got to the room that I wanted, I was told that it was reserved for the incoming girls from Germany and the UK. I was then stuck with the Welshman, Cody. And I dropped my sweater onto the floor in defeat.
Selim was confused as to why I changed rooms but was preoccupied with the shock of how remote the Village was. He was staring at the map downstairs for an hour—calculating distances to cities. That night I saw Cody in bed with his lover who came to visit. I couldn’t sleep, I heard everything just feet away from me, I just laid there in the dark, trying not to listen.
That year volunteers changed where they slept constantly, from one uncomfortable situation to another. It was hard to keep track of who was sleeping where, not that it really mattered, but it kind of did. Cody left the window open and bugs were flying inside. I couldn't get up to close it or I’d interrupt them. The sounds went on for a while until they fell asleep. I had to wake up in two hours to get ready for the workday.
February morning. A miserable snowstorm came to destroy any novelty that one might accrue for snow. I didn’t have enough clothes to layer for that kind of cold. I was told to go to the Free Shop, a place where they put the-volunteers-who-got-lost-in-the-alps' clothes. There you could find everything from torn and bleached jeans, neon green high heels, pink jackets with sequenced names sewn into them.
As I was going through bins of 80s outfits, the dogs were barking outside, waiting for me in the snow. The shepherd was working in the barn so the dogs turned to us. I kept digging and digging for a jacket, but the barks got more and more anxious. Finally, I spotted a purple hoodie with black corduroy elbows. I’d keep that sweater for the next ten years. I bundled up and headed back out, trying not to be late to the morning meeting.
I show up five minutes after the dot, but everyone is still talking and swirling sugar cubes into their plastic festival cups of tea.
“Bonjour everybody! Does anyone have any news?” Anais said, ushering in the new day. This was how we got our updates, from the one or two people who read le Monde which was delivered by the yellow Poste van once a week. “Anybody have any news from the Village?” It was usually about the goat and what damage he may have caused the day before, not that many people needed to be reminded. Yohann usually had a story about his basement in Berlin flooding. Or the evolution of the front lines in World War Two. Selim’s face was zoning out on the mountain with his hands in his pockets. How to get back to the city? Can I really do a whole year here? I decided that I’d much rather room with Selim than Cody after that sonorous display pendant la nuit.
That evening I asked if I could move my things back into what was now Selim's room. An awkward sleep that night but we made jokes imitating the dogs who were anxiously following us around all day and he pointed at my new found purple sweater and said it was nice.
I spent that next day with Cody. Sometimes the morning meeting ruined your whole week. An unlucky pick while deciding who got what job created hundreds of micro changes in the day’s events. Cody had just smoked his ninth cigarette of the morning. The Village was in the middle of doing a total renovation of an old bathroom in the Three Wheel House. I was painting something in the bright blue bathroom when I saw a leg fall through the ceiling. I yelled and watched his foot dance in the air above my head. After a few seconds of incomprehensible Welsh, he said, “Push my leg back up! Quick! I’m falling!” What did he want me to do?
“Stop kicking then!” I said.
“Want me to hold still?” he yelled. I grabbed his shoe as he kicked but his heel hit my lips and my mouth started to bleed. I kept trying to push up, but he started sinking into the ceiling more and more. I jumped out of the way at that point. After thirty seconds of air pedaling, he managed to secure another foot on a support beam. Still stuck though. Then, out of nowhere, an arm pulled him up out of the purgatorial transition between the two floors. I stood there in the dusty bathroom, now looking at a hole in the ceiling, Nicolas’s head passed by from upstairs. I heard footsteps stamp. Cody came down the stairs with Nicolas.
“Thanks for nothing Henri,” he said and went out for a tenth cigarette. The debris from the ceiling had caked all over the fresh coat of paint.
I let them handle that hole in the ceiling. I asked what do I do now, this is pointless?
They said the other bathroom stalls were waiting for me.
Selim got me fantasizing about Paris. My first French friend Melanie DuChamp, whom I met in California back in elementary school lived in a bourgeois house across the street from Palace D’Élysée. Presidential guards stand in the alleyway from her piano room window at all hours of the day since September eleventh. She told me that sometimes they doze off and she would make strange sounds to startle them. I remember climbing rocks with her at some beach in California before all the crazy stuff happened. We became good friends and I liked her style. I never met anyone with such a worldview, such curly hair. She talked about oppression, colonialism, capitalism, de tout quoi. (Note: I like how the French say quoi as a reflex, kind of how English speakers say like) Is this what they talked about in French cafés? She was writing an essay on Colombia’s bleak social services for her thesis at some prestigious Parisian University. She was the one to pick me up from Charles de Gaulle airport with her father who worked in politics. He wore a nice fitting suit and chic prescription men’s sunglasses. She was learning to drive then, and her father was spouting out directions in French as they asked me how my flight went. I said it went très bon had my first legal glass of wine in the sky.
“Non pas gauche, à droite, à droite Melanie! Allez, allez, allez.”
“What does à droite mean?”
“Right,” she said with a nervous tone, glancing back at me.
We made it to Madeline Quarter in the fourth arrondissement where I would be staying for a week. “Laisse moi la garée,” her father said. He had little faith in his daughter’s driving. The space was tiny. They both got out of the car and he walked around the front while she walked around the back. I stayed in the back seat. She came up to my window and tapped the glass with her knuckle signaling for me to get out. Her father looked over his shoulder directly at me in a way that said ‘does this guy not understand a damn thing?’ He smiled as I got out.
“Don’t mind him,” she said. “He gets like that with driving, such a drag to learn from him, don’t look so nervous, it’s fine.” He got a call and was talking loudly on his phone as he started to park the car.
“Melanie, take his bags, I need to go to the office for a while. So nice to meet you Henri, see you tomorrow. Tonight, I go to Opera with ma femme. Do you like Opera? Don’t have that in America, do you?” and before I could nod or say anything, he looked at Melanie.
“Merci papa,” she said and kissed his cheek. The hatchback trunk popped open and Melanie went to grab my stuff, I stepped to her side and reached for the suitcase, she got the backpack and slammed the trunk shut. He drove down Rue Duras.
We went into the building through a courtyard door and up a small elevator into their place. She called it a maison, but it was set up like a big three-bedroom apartment. Including that glorious dark stained baroque piano. She went around telling me here is your room, and here is my room, here is the parent’s room and so forth.
“So! What do you want to do first?” she said, and I could tell she grew up seeing different architecture and light by the way her eyes glimmered.
“I don’t know, you tell me.”
“Well. . . you have to just sit at a typical Parisian café and smoke a cigarette. The cliché thing to do,” she said. We took the elevator down and popped into the street. I could see her thinking as we walked: where should we go, where should we go? Walking with her made me feel like a local, not an expatriate or tourist, though I was both of those. “Here this one, what do you think? C’est la classe.” It was a beautiful café with golden brown wicker chairs and a red awning. The bar inside had deep, dark wood that seemed timeless. The front glass window was thin and had a golden border, graphic details squared around the bar café’s two-hundred-year-old logo: depuis 1820 it read underneath the coronal and floral features. Servers wearing white dress shirts with black vests were speedily walking in and out as they prompted tight lip smiles on the crowd in the terrace—young professionals sitting in those wicker chairs all facing the street. Two espressos. It was sunny and warm for the end of January, but they still had the heaters on. Melanie invited me to attend a lecture the next day on Eco-Villages and Late Stage Capitalism.
Before we got up she asked, "Do you ever feel like this is all just a simulation? I don't but I get a weird feeling sometimes."
"Yea, I feel more like I'm being listened to by agents in lab coats. Like I'm part of a large experiment poking the different layers of my subconscious but then I see how ridiculous that is and it goes away."
"Oh no are you a conspiracy theorist Henry?"
"No, ew. Do I think the French government wants something from me? Maybe."
"Let's go to one more bar. Tell me more about this village you're going to," Melanie said.
We walked to her favourite bar in all of Paris and I told her what I knew.
Melanie had a friend over that night. They were playing a vinyl record of the psychedelic rock band called the Swampettes. I fell asleep in a small bed with music as familiar as the back of my hand bleeding through the walls like a lamenting lullaby of adolescence.
That morning for breakfast I ate a clementine and cereal with bits of dark chocolate. Melanie said that she didn’t like croissants, chocolate, wine or cheese.
“I can’t believe you know the Swampettes! I thought they were so obscure,” I said at the table. She smiled as she stood at the doorway to the kitchen in a long t-shirt. She scratched her messy curly hair and walked towards the pantry.
“So, how do you like Paris so far?”
“I like it, but I think I prefer places with more nature. And the people here seem so insular, they don't look up at a stranger, you'd think there wasn't a world beyond their routine in their little quarter except for when they talk about the vacations they've been on. But I’m gonna walk the Seine today,” I said with my tourist map sprawled out. Melanie stood on her tiptoes and reached for a box of biscuits.
"Is it not the same anywhere? You've been here what five minutes?"
"Feels like a few lifetimes already."
"Well then you should know better. You have to try this—fig jam with these biscuits.”
I dipped a paint roller into a plastic grooved tray of sea foam turquoise paint. It was strange to paint the walls the same colour I saw the world with. The longer that I rolled paint up and down the bathroom walls, the more pensive I became—couldn’t get those beautiful laughs out of my head. When painting the bathrooms was finally over, I went inside the volunteer’s house. I grabbed a book from the library room and dried my soggy clothes by the chimney. I couldn’t understand most of Paroles by Jaques Prévert, but just looking at the page made me feel smarter, more poetic, deep, in love. My mind began to wander for a few minutes. I picked up Les Schmoofs, those little pink elves, and read a story that walked through the phases of how a fascist society develops. “Le Schmoofissime” I think it was called. When I was reading that I thought of home—how fascism seemed like an abstract theory and not the reality of what was trying to form all around me and how home felt far away and how I wanted to be in Paris, too.
I began singing that Swampette’s song. It was this six-minute ballad of a dream. The lyrics speak of the spiders that lived in the singer's room since she was a child. At eight years old she drew her first spider, the one living in the popcorn ceiling above her bed. Spider cities bustling up there. Day after day, as the light flickered on and off the spiders told myths of the giant who lived below. It was a funny tune. The song says, if the spiders lost grip on the ceiling, they would fall into the giant's bed and be eaten.
I woke up in my room with Selim and I noticed his arm stretched out, reaching for his phone on a nightstand. He was rolled on his side and snoring. He looked like some war monument, a casualty of technological dependence. How did he fall asleep like that? When his phone illuminated, it looked like his arm stretched out even further and attached to the distant light—as one elongates their body as they spring upwards in water ascending from a deep dive.
The loneliness here was intense. And when the phone was a part of your life on such an intrinsic level, only the saved items and pictures remain without Wi-Fi. New thoughts and new stimuli become inaccessible. The ping of excitement that comes with new messages and new posts can only be felt through already-seen-messages, already-seen-posts and it doesn’t hit. One quickly does their rounds.
“Are you okay, man?” I said. We were getting dressed for work. Selim looked like he had to architect a smile. He was not happy here and I couldn’t believe how he must have felt when I moved rooms the other night on top of everything else he must have been going through. His smile continued to build in structure.
“Paris is so beautiful, what is here? I don’t like it so much,” he said.
“Just wait it out. We’ve got a lot of new people arriving. It will be amazing soon.”
“It’s very hard. Difficult. Difficult,” he said.
"I'd be lying if I told you I was happy here," I said.
We both started to cry.
He smiled and laughed and we hugged. And I said in his shoulder, “I won’t leave the room, never again.”
“Until we go to Paris together,” Selim said.
“Until we go to Paris,” I said.
"And we have work in ten minutes. You might need to leave the room for that."
"Ok, fine. And work."
That was the week the Sage arrived from Belgium and became our next roommate (though briefly). Cody was still by himself in the other room, except for his ‘conjugal visits’ as he called them, and he wanted it no other way.
During breakfast Cody was talking and talking.
“War games in the Royal Army are no joke. At the time we shot bean bag rifles. Those hurt man,” he said and smiled with his sparse yellow teeth.
“They use lasers now. Well, this one time we were in the countryside infiltrating a stone cottage that Prince Charles was held hostage in. So I kicked down the door of a closet and there was the actual Prince hiding behind a rack of baked beans in a prone position, like he was playing hide and seek. The arsehole rose, with his hands up and his elbows tucked as to not knock over any cans. But get this. He grabs a can and says, ‘should I keep my Heinz up?’”
“And I grabbed Thee Prince of fooking Wales by the collar and said, ‘shut the fook up, you’re comin’ with me,’ and I slapped him across the face with me other hand”
“No! You didn’t do that!” I gasped.
“You bet your arse. Best laugh of my shit life,” he said.
Selim was smiling there looking at himself in a metallic bowl of fruit examining his hair. He then analyzed the cleanliness of his Adidas sport jacket.
“When will some more ladies arrive, the girls?” Selim said. We all laughed, and Cody spit out some bread nearly choking.
It was time for work, I washed my glass jar of coffee. That morning we were to drag tree trunks from the chalets using an old orange tractor. It was only snowing lightly, and we got the tractor to start on the first try. I sat on the back rim of the tractor and bounced with the bumps as Cody drove. Selim was the first to volunteer for the kitchen. I needed a break from the kitchen anyway after the shrimp fiasco.
There were no shocks on this tractor and the exhaust was blowing straight into my face with the wind. We drove a way up to the source until we found the trunk that was to be dragged down with rope. We jumped off and looked at the tree.
To see such a massive old growth just sprawled out stiff was painful. We tied it up and attached it to the back of the tractor. We rode back down, and I watched it bounce off the snow-crusted-grass like the tree was wakeboarding. The cold exhaust smoke fluttered in the mist, and at the same moment the sun exited out of the clouds and a rainbow materialized. For whatever reason, almost all of the smoke turned into a complex, floating prism of light that danced above the trunk as it dragged. I couldn’t hear the thud, thud over the tractor engine, which filled up the sonic space of the mountain. The only other sound was that of a chainsaw in the distance, that pierced a machinal harmony together with the tractor. My eyes fixated on the tree trunk. Thud…...thud. Thud, thud, thud.
Cody said to me, “Hey why don’t you try riding it,” as he stopped the tractor in the middle of the field. I hesitated a second but that actually sounded fun.
“Alright, but go slow,” I said, hopping off.
So I sat down on the massive trunk tied with a rope and he drove down. I managed to stay on for twenty seconds as it bounced and slid through the dead wet grass until an unexpected dip came and I was thrown off. I rolled and scraped my knee and elbows. He laughed. It was so stupid.
We got back to the volunteer house and Djuna was there. He saw our load and went into a rage. At first, I thought that we had tied up the trunk wrong, but no, this was something else.
“Who gave you permission to do that?” Djuna said to Cody.
“Will you please excuse us, some people actually work around here,” Cody said, he didn’t care.
“Tell me, who was it? Hey, don’t look at me like that, I’m not kidding man,” Djuna said.
“Uhh we’re building the green house. . . even I know that. You’re the one talking in most of those boring meetings, you should know. What are you, high?” Then Cody laughed.
“C’est ridicule, and no I’m not! And you’re just laughing. Stop that smug s’il te plait,” Djuna said, and he shook his head in disbelief with his hands on his waist. “Do you realize how old that tree is? Do you have any idea what you’ve done?
“I am so tired of you hippies,” Cody said, and at the end of the ‘s’ in hippies Djuna slapped him across the cheek.
Cody laughed and said loudly, “You twat!” and walked away to untie the tree trunk. He rolled it by the side of the pétanque court, jumped up into the tractor, and drove back up to the chalets without me. I awkwardly stood by Djuna and shook my head. We shared a solemn look at the old tree laying in the gravel next to scattered pétanque boules from last night's match. I remembered I left my plastic cup on the planter and picked it up to go wash it after a sensitive nod to Djuna saying sorry about your loss, and though it was my loss too, I had a harder time with feeling anything.
An hour later, just before the lunch bell, Cody came walking down the sloped field from the chalets to the volunteer house. He smiled and said, “Look, my mouth is bleeding you fooks.” He was missing a tooth and the tractor was dead.
La Taverne was under heavy saxophone playing from a CD player. There were about thirty people out that night all seemingly in good spirits and proud of the work that we had been doing on building a greenhouse. As I was behind the bar serving, I watched people dancing around the old, rounded columns that held up the building. Everyone was having a great time except for Sarah. She was sitting in the corner with her head down on the table and her giant hand-sewn elf-like hood over her head. During a lull in the drink orders, I stepped outside for a break. I leaned against the wall outside and looked at the moon.
“Nice night,” I said. She was sitting hunched over on a stone that used to be a part of a house circa 1600s.
“You know how I found this place?” she said, looking at the stars.
I shook my head no.
“About a year ago, I was in an RV with a guy, living our best van life as they say. We were driving along the highway through the mountains. We saw that there were electric lines leading somewhere… We were looking for a place to sleep that wasn’t sketchy, thinking we would hit another dairy farm. The electric pole lines kept going and going, the road winded through this valley. It was all dark by the time we got up the road, when we saw a bunch of lights in the windows and smoke coming out of the chimney. I knew right away when we parked our RV that this was a place I could stay. It is a multi-coloured universe here, isn't it? We were drawn by the vivid possibilities of realizing actual dreams. The next morning, we took a tour with Anais and discovered all the projects and activities here. Seemed like a perfect place for me to do my wood sculptures and try more gardening. I told the guy I was with, ‘Look– I am going to stay here, and you can do what you want.’ He left, of course. I am so grateful he did. The mountains here have a way of slowing life down. It really put things in perspective. But then I fell in love with Nicolas and well, love just throws everything for a ride.”
Nicolas was one of my best friends in the Village. He was like a wizard, wise, and always smoking something. He was one of those guys that could do anything. He could build a house, play the saxophone, maintain a garden, cut trees, drive a tractor, herd sheep, and even deal with Cody. It saddened me to know things weren’t going well between Nicolas and Sarah. I looked up to them and saw beauty in their relationship—like together they could accomplish everything they ever wanted, or even just exist in the forest in a cabin and be happy.
“Things are a little complicated now, but just look at those mountains. You know how they were made?” she asked with a tone of wonder.
“Tectonic plates?” I said.
“Mother Nature and Father Time made love, and mountains are their shivers of joy,” she said at first with the enthusiasm of a philosopher then with disconnect on the word joy as she looked over at Nicolas and Djuna talking under La Taverne sign which gave little light to the conversing beer drinkers. They were both clearly upset. Djuna jested with his arms in the air with a fierce, expressive purpose. I couldn’t make out what they were saying, but Nicolas looked so sad and defenseless.
“Is that about the tree, you think?”
“I have to go,” Sarah said.
The next day I went to the woodshop and saw her in there working on her newest sculpture. I helped her pick out the block of wood in the forest a couple of weeks back and now it had been transformed into a rotten looking man in a tragic pose. The rot in the wood deteriorated about half of his head. I examined closely the direction of the chisel marks; different rays of light were dancing through the window of the woodshop casting geometric shadows on the divots. There was dust floating everywhere around me. I looked at the man who escaped the wooden block. When I turned to compliment Sarah’s work, she was already out the door.