Thee Bellowing Bee
My head plopped on a long cylinder pillow. Why did the Village make me calm and anxious at the same time? I wondered if life would always be that way—you want to leave, but you also never want to really leave. Most volunteers went home for the holidays, some longer than others, some stayed in the Three Wheels. Out the window, the chapel sat alone in the night—my pupils darted to follow a few bugs. The stories that consumed me then are starting to slowly pixelate in my mind’s eye. Some dissolve to dark. One by one they seem to fly off or permeate to the other side of the fugue. Wahhhh wahhh wahhhhh wahhhhhhhhhh, the synthesizer organ patch wails, I hardly remember the phone call that got me here. Unless that wah phrase reminds me. And unless I smell lavender or taste Alpine honey, I can’t make sense of the void my memories lie dormant in. The chapel bell rings, and someone leaves, that’s how it works.
Memories are unsteady towers of glued popsicle sticks—but not the good glue—the glue that dries up in pointed orange caps, the glue I grew up unclogging with plastic scissors. Remember those cutouts of turkeys and pilgrims? French glue is scented with an almond aroma mimicking the flavor used in the frangipane filling for Galettes des Rois. I have been tempted to squeeze the bottle in my mouth and shake it in case a ceramic figurine might be left inside. As I lay there on New Year's Eve, I thought about my failed marriage. I thought about that glue smell that was in the Galette. I thought about my cousin-in-law whom I’d never see again but once so dearly loved. She was my sister. She’s grown up by now but will stay the same age she is in the memory of the last time I saw her. It was odd to think that the girl who used to eat glue is old now. She once gave me the honour to sit under the table and call out the names of people who would get a slice of the Galette, she would’ve been the one to do it. I see a twenty-something year old me under the table. Ha. The only advice she gave me was to say, “Papi!” first. Apparently, he would mind the least if he didn’t get the ceramic prize, and especially because he hated wearing the paper crown. The very first slice was a kind of Russian roulette. But with each name called, the odds grew more and more that Mama would catch a glimpse of a figurine and make sure their favourite won. I won four times, frustrating the other kids who were in competition. Either I had incredible luck, or Mama was trying to make me—the outsider, feel a part of the tradition. I didn’t like calling out the names from under the table, I didn’t even like winning because of the guilt of taking something away, taking the paper crown for the day.
The ceramics I won included a special edition hotdog mobile, a tiny Coca-Cola bottle, red lips, and a Victorian armchair. But this was nothing compared to my cousin-in-law, she had hundreds. Her figurines became so impressive that if on the off chance someone else besides her got it, they’d just hand over the prize to her out of respect to the collection. It felt like adding to an art gallery archive. She wanted that hotdog mobile. I know it sounds juvenile, but it pained me to give it up, because who knows? Maybe I’d start my own collection. But before I left for the Village again, I gave her all my figurines. You are too kind, she said, I could tell they were exactly the pieces she wanted. As we said goodbye, she said wait! Keep them. And this one’s for you.
I still couldn’t sleep and it was one of those nights that made me want to read fairy tales by a fire. I walked downstairs into the living room of Three Wheels and put some newspaper in the fireplace, struck a match, and then threw on some sticks. I got the kettle ready and went over to the bookshelf. I pulled out the large dusty book of Alpine folk tales. The cover had a toad drawn in ink and watercolour. There was a strange castle in the background with triangle Alps all over. The clouds were quickly scribbled and cross-hatched. As I flipped through stories of wolves and goblins, I heard the door open. It was Adam and Sarah.
“Henrinski! So good to see you! How’s your eye?” Adam said and laughed.
“Where has the time gone?” Sarah said.
I moved the long wooden bench to give them a hug. As I went to hug Sarah, she ran into me and tried to pick me up or crack my back, she made an excited groan sound and said we missed you. I asked about their latest adventures, where have they been, what have they seen. We made tea and they told me a story about traversing the Alps with a mule.
“We ditched our laptop. And I had the only manuscript for our book in my backpack, but it rained so hard one night that even through my overcoat the bag was completely soaked. The manuscript absorbed like a sponge all that water and all the ink smeared and blotched together, two hundred or so pages, just an illegible mess. I was so angry. It has never rained like that here before, the drops felt so heavy, Henri. The weather is telling us something isn’t right. I let the pages dry in the sun and tried to peel them off, but I only managed to save a few paragraphs here and there, the rest was lost.”
“That was a bad morning,” Sarah said. “But after we grieved that out, we heard music from a cottage off in the hills. That night we danced.” Adam looked happy and said he was fine about the ruined manuscript, though I could tell it must be strange to lose that much work. They then told me of their plan to start an artist collective and garden house in L’Ardèch.
“You would love it there Henri. We should all go.”
“That’s the dream, isn’t it?”
“Il est quelle heure?” Sarah said.
I hunched over the corner of the table to look at the clock on the wall by the kitchen window. “Wow, it’s almost five, I’ve stayed up all night again, I should probably go try to get some sleep.”
“Oh! Look the morning glow is starting just a little. We should go catch the sunrise.” Sarah said and looked at Adam to see if he was on the same page. He nodded and smiled.
“Oui bonne idée! On y va? Henri, you in?” he said.
When I am asked to do something spontaneous my brain goes through a million thoughts evaluating every detail of the pros and cons to going and staying. 1. My body is exhausted. 2. I’ve been traveling and am emotionally drained. 3. I want to see the sunrise. 4. It will be a difficult climb. 5. I really want to see the sunrise. And if by the fifth thought the first thought seems irrelevant, then I will probably say yes. “On y va.”
“Let’s go,” Adam said.
“Pack some snacks and water,” Sarah said.
In five minutes, we were ready to go on this impromptu expedition to the summit of Mount Délire. We turned off the lights in the Three Wheels and I saw the book I was reading glowing silver in the very early grey light. Toons, one of the Shepperd’s dogs was out already.
“Toons!” I whispered loudly, hoping he would come with us. He can follow an unknown group of hikers up the mountain and always find his way back to the Village on his own.
“That’s not Toons,” Sarah said, and I looked closer at the figure running towards us from the fountain. “Nouveau chein. Je ne connais pas son nom.”
“Where is Toons? That really looks like Toons.”
“Toons died about six months ago,” Sarah said.
I was shocked to hear about Toon’s passing. He was the first living being I saw driving up the six kilometer road to the Village. He came running up to the car, by the side of my window, barking a polite melody, his tail smacking the car door. He went off in his own direction after the bridge by the creek. The death of such an iconic part of that place for me was harder than hearing the chapel bell ring and hugging a friend goodbye, even if in both cases we would never see each other again.
We began our walk up the sloping land between the two long and steep fields that were full of wildflowers. I could make out silhouettes of dragonflies hovering above tilted sleepy flowers. As the way narrows after cutting across the edge of the field at the top tree line you have to be prepared for navigating the river rocks before reaching the path that goes upwards in a series of switchbacks. I stumbled on a few and had to adjust my footing after nearly slipping on a boulder, but we finally came to the tree with two arrow signs nailed to it. In one direction read, Mount Délire with the kilometers part faded and illegible. The other direction read, La Source 6 km. I calculated in my head this series of thoughts: It is 6km from where I am right now to La Source. It is 6km from the Village to the main road. And it is an unknown number of km from here to the top of Mount Délire, I was curious and found it worth asking.
“How many Kilometers to the summit?”
“Was it not on the sign? I don’t know, it’s not far. It’s just very steep, well you know that” Sarah said. “We can’t get to the actual summit by the way.” The air was cold and vibrant and we could see out through the trees down onto the Village. It was disorienting seeing a place I lived in from so high above. I hardly recognized the buildings.
“Why can’t we get to the summit?”
“It’s one of those things that every climber says, where you think you’re at the top, but in the distance, you can see a higher point, and then you go to that point, and you see another higher point.”
“It’s only frustrating for those who have something to prove by getting to the highest elevation possible, to be the human to see the furthest from the highest vantage,” Adam said.
“I’ve never even tried to go up further on Mount Délire past the first look out,” I said.
“Oh, after all these years of living here? What have you been waiting for?” Adam said.
“I guess I didn’t think to do it alone.”
“Really, is that it? There are plenty of people who would go with you,” Sarah said, we were reaching a difficult point where rocks slid down under our feet.
“Well, I don’t know, maybe it’s something else.”
“You can’t put your finger on it?”
“Maybe I’m scared.”
“Oui peut-être ça. Je ne sais pas,” I said and looked down at my shoes which were not suited to climbing whatsoever. They were the same undyed canvas shoes I had on when I arrive in the Village. We continued climbing for a long while. My mind became restless, and I thought about all the reasons and all the times I declined doing something again. Sometimes I felt like I made the right decision to stay home or not talk to someone and sometimes I felt like I should have made the effort—I wish I had the nerve. Yes, that’s exactly it, after kindness, one must have nerve in this world if they are to get anywhere.
“Henri, have you been listening?”
“Oh sorry, no, what?”
“We are here now—look!” Sarah said and a wave of clouds rolled in from the other side of the ridge line. We reached the edge that towered over the two valleys. Sarah’s voice in that moment was the clearest sound to ever exist. The sun was rising over a dead tidal relief of old mountains and an orange flash that spanned the horizon came and disappeared as the fog covered us.
We continued walking on the slope in the fog and the bottom of Adam and Sarah’s shoes were getting less and less rendered. The image began to pixelate like a glitch and above me the sounds of shoes to stone resembled footsteps on the kitchen tile, like radio static or echoes from the hallway about to ascend the stairs.