An Afternoon Can Last Forever, In Provence
As I emerged from the trees into a clearing that only a dream could appreciate, I stopped in my tracks.
It usually took the beauty of a woman to halt my forward momentum, but this time is was God’s work. The natural amphitheatre setting of this Provencal meadow took my breath away. I lowered myself into a batch of knee-high alfalfa, feeling the stalks part to accommodate my bulk, then languidly lean back in, encircling me. I looked in awe, feeling as if I was knocking on heaven’s door.
In front of me, splayed out like an ethereal French countryside painting, was a sloping flower-filled hill running away down to a quaint log cabin, complete with smoke curling up from a brick chimney that clung to its side like a stone caterpillar, the last six feet of brick piercing into the sky like an exclamation point. For a moment, in my mind the smoke froze in mid air and the entire scene became a still-life image, as if my brain were snapping a photo for my memory bank.
The natural slope was inhabited by such an array of wildflowers and fauna that it was visually stunning, warmly inviting, and yet intimidating to imagine walking through it, as if such a stroll would impart a hideous scratch across this celestial panorama of the best nature had to offer. Man’s intrusion on earth’s beauty takes on many forms. Besmirching this vision of nature’s purest glory would be a violation bordering on moral turpitude.
Off to the left of the cabin was a detached structure, a weathered red barn, but not in the classic sense as its slanted roof was almost flat. Its wide front door was open and inside I could see where two Camargue white horses stood, heads bowed. Born dark brown or black, these horses turned white about four years after being born, yet remained the size of large ponies. I watched as they munched lazily on the loose scattered hay that lay at their feet.
I remained seated.
As my eyes spanned back and forth over the luscious tableau of color and serenity, a Roe deer’s head rose and fell above the flowers, munching silently, eyeing me placidly, then returned to eating. Off to the left, a wild boar co-existed, its brown brutishness visually at odds with the soft, peaceful pastel world around it. Its behavior projected no sense of foreboding as it wandered back and forth down near the cabin. It was likely a pet; its foraging seemed aimless as it paid no attention to the deer.
The variety of bird life was almost staggering as no two birds appeared alike. Small, medium and large birds whizzed through the air in this natural aviary like a miniature bombing raid over Berlin from some seventy years ago. Huge Queen Bees could be seen bouncing between pollinated flowers, unhurried amid the security of their standing in the bee world. Their lurching flight pattern, a result of their walnut ball-shaped body simply thumbing its nose at the concept of aerodynamics, mirrored the languorous waving back and forth of a conductor’s baton, soothing in its hypnotic rhythms.
There was a sense of seamless cohesion between animal and nature, a co-existence that had never involved negotiation, tumult or compromise, but merely acceptance, instinctive acquiescence and ultimately, self-reliance.
It was nature at its finest, almost embarrassed by its own richness, beauty and sense of community, feeling no need to pontificate about its ability to intermingle; a gift humans often found elusive.
A small fox trotted in that nervous gait associated with lost dogs, though it is the natural pace for the staggeringly beautiful red fox of Southern France. Regal, innocent, yet eyeing potential prey with every short choppy stride.
I noticed the horses occasionally looked up from their hay as if to track the whereabouts of the boar, but with no fear or caution in the gesture. A natural, atavistic impulse that proved unnecessary.
The myriad of birdlife consisted of darting and dive-bombing smaller species combined with the casual, lazy looping flight of the Night Heron and the Little Egret, two birds clearly more designed for cruising the small mosquito-infested, man-made lake that spilled away from the cabin to the right. Once the Egret spotted the water and swooped down toward it, the Heron followed suit and they both glided back and forth two feet above the stagnant surface; patient, and poised for breakfast to present itself.
The soundless world in front of me, broken only by the giddiness emanating from the birds as they flitted about their playground, drew me in to a solitary, focused mindset of awe. I felt more intrusive then at any point in my life.
It was a kaleidoscope of the best nature had to offer, and I sat mesmerized, watching.
Finally my concentration, linked by incredulity and wonder at the constant movement of the plant-life, due to the fragrant zephyr that flowed horizontally across the field, and animal’s natural instinct for mobility, was broken by the emergence of a blonde woman of indiscriminate age from the cabin’s huge front door. It remained open behind her as she strode over toward the barn. Even from my perch up on the small hill, about two hundred yards away, I could sense her imperiousness, that vague French indifference to the beauty and sanctity of herself and her surroundings, not quite taking it for granted, merely reticent to show obvious appreciation, which would have been such an American thing to do. So gauche.
The boar, the deer and the fox all took note of her strides across the dirt patch in front of her home, then returned to foraging.
She entered the barn, stroked each horse affectionately about the neck and muzzle, slipped something into each animal’s mouth, and disappeared into the shadows of the rear of the barn.
She wore a grey sweatshirt, sleeves pushed a quarter of the way up her arm, blue jeans that fit snug but not tight, and tan work boots. Her hair was swept up and pinned in the back, and even from my vantage point, which was like viewing the scene at an outdoor movie theatre, I could tell she did not have makeup on, and her tan was completely natural.
Much like the mind numbing acreage on which she lived, she was a French country woman in all her glory, self contained by her almost contrived, overt poise, and the bountiful jungle of colors and species by which her home was surrounded. A protective, verdant quilt nature had woven for her, and in which she had wrapped herself. With the wispy smoke climbing from the chimney top acting as a carefully timed steam release, to keep all things evenhanded and copacetic, the vibe of this idyllic life, percolating just below consciousness in a peaceful gurgling, was like a lonely stream meandering through a vacant countryside. Not overpowering in its obviousness, but enthralling in its ability to impact every sense.
I was willing to bet she had dirt under her fingernails, and the thought did nothing to distract from the pristine setting I was encased in. She was as much at home in her habitat as the animal and plant life. The birds continued carving their invisible flight patterns into the morning air, the fox had ventured down a row of Daglans and disappeared, and the boar had entered the barn, waddled past the suddenly very alert pair of Camargues and vanished into blackness.
Paul Cezanne once said of the countryside of Provence that it "conceals treasures which have not yet found the artist capable of expressing the riches to be discovered here". And though he tried, he felt in his waning years as a famous painter that he’d fallen short of capturing the true beauty of the region. Cézanne was said to have formed the bridge between late 19th century Impressionism and the early 20th century's Cubism.
The line attributed to both Matisse and Picasso that Cézanne was "…the father of us all" was reportedly dismissed by the painter as hyperbole.
Considering the sentiment of Cezanne’s own statement, that man’s inability to truly express the beauty of nature was inevitable, the humble painter seemed destined to fall short of his expectations. Some of the great ones are never satisfied.
I closed my eyes and raised my nose to the fragrant wave of flora that wafted over me, as the wind had shifted and the slight breeze, pregnant with fresh flower scent, now curled over me like a dream sequence.
I heard horse hooves and looked down to see the woman lead one of the Camargues out into the bright daylight of late morning. The other horse remained in the barn, apparently tethered to an unseen post. She left the horse standing in front of the cabin and retrieved a brush from the low, broad front steps that lead up to her small porch. As she began slowly brushing the mane of the patient animal, I could make out the sound of her soothing voice, but no words.
The surrealness of the past half hour had not been shattered by any of this movement or human intrusion. Au contraire, as she might say. Her presence was equally as bountiful and beautiful as the nature that enveloped her. She had, merely by her entrance, integrated herself unobtrusively into the not quite silent, not quite motionless, tableau.
There was a snort and then a sudden emergence from the barn of the boar, waddling and holding in its mouth what looked like a vermin of indeterminate species, still wiggling. He proudly moved past the woman and the horse, displaying the fruits of his labor, and wandered over near the little lake, lay down and began to gnaw at the still-moving creature.
The circle of life. A not so subtle reminder of the potential for danger in even the most serene of settings.
The woman continued with her long, almost sensuous soft strokes, having moved to the side of the horse, rubbing the visible slats of the animal’s rib cage.
My good fortune at wandering into this luscious portrayal of nature at the top of its game, and the bonus of the fresh scrubbed innocence of the slight French woman, now brushing the hind quarters of her horse, made it easy to appreciate the overall preposterous beauty of the setting. It was as if God was staging the scene for the next great young Rene Magritte, the Belgian surrealist painter.
The view was so fanciful that I began to fight earnestly the urge to get up and stroll down to the cabin and introduce myself. Intrusion seemed crass and destructive at this juncture.
I’d taken an odd turn in my morning walk from the gorgeous, quaint, antique-filled Bed and Breakfast I’d been staying at for most of a month here in Provence. Normally I would stroll into the small town about a mile from the Inn, but today I’d veered sharply left, literally taken the road less traveled, having grown bored with the sameness the little French town presented each morning. I had forged through some thick foliage and over a steep hill before stumbling onto this little slice of paradise.
I knew almost immediately I’d made the right turn, and promised myself to include this destination in future morning strolls. But now, sitting poised at the foot of nature’s finest stage, I longed to share it with someone. Having forgotten my camera, I resisted the urge to remove the pen and pad I’d slipped into my small satchel this morning, ever the optimist that, as a writer, I’d encounter something worth recording. I had indeed done just that, but writing about it seemed to represent a removal from it. Good writing required, oddly, some type of journalistic distance, so as not to compromise things. I was pretty close to violating that precept now simply by nuzzling into the flowery hillside as I had, not unlike a puppy suckling at the teat of its mother, warm against the still-swollen belly, totally at peace with the safety of the surroundings.
I was in danger of becoming part of this potential story, and though the pull was intense to do so, I knew it carried with it the off-chance that getting too close to the picture distorted it.
The flower-filled meadow, the peaceful presence of animals, and the serene vision of the woman tending to her horse’s grooming all combined to give birth to emotions best left unsaid, unwritten, and undisturbed. Or so I had been told.
Maybe it was time to break through that glass barrier, burst through the fourth wall that kept writers insular, alone, and almost always battling depression. Though I could argue that writing about something could be interpreted as living it and breathing it and engaging it, I could just as easily posit that injecting oneself into an already perfect moment compromises both parties, potentially cheapens the moment, and pigeonholes it into a discomfiting linguistic straightjacket.
That being said, the sight of the woman bent over checking the rear hooves of her shiny-coated Camargue propelled me from my alfalfa cocoon to my feet and striding forthrightly down through the myriad of flowers toward her.
Halfway down the hill, about a hundred yards out, she heard me and turned to watch, gently letting the horse lower his left leg to the ground. The gelding, his status now evident as such from my increasingly closer viewpoint, eyed me warily, even stamping his hoof once and snorting loudly. She rubbed his muzzle and patted him under the chin, which seemed to relax the horse, something the surgical procedure was supposed to have done.
As I approached her, I realized something that surprised me, only because I had not recognized it before. I was also dressed in a grey sweatshirt and blue jeans, and though suede to her canvas, my boots were of the same color. And my blonde hair must have intrigued her, as she stared at it when I approached, stepping from a flower bed thriving with thigh high, beautiful pink orchids, blooming as if in triumph.
My boots crunched on the gravel as I extended my hand in a peaceful, disarming gesture.
“Hi, I’m Jesse. From America.”
She grinned broadly; set down her huge oak-handled horse brush, wiped her right hand on her jeans, and shook my hand.
“I’m Margaux. Aren’t we a pair of bookends? We could be twins, almost.”
Her accent was heavy, but her diction was excellent and she’d clearly studied English.
“I noticed. This is an incredible slice of heaven you have here.”
She nodded. “Merci.”
“My French is not so good, but your English sounds quite proficient.”
“Three years at Stanford medical school will do that to almost anyone. I’ve made a concerted effort to keep my accent, as American education tends to eradicate geographical dialectic tendencies. An ironic effort by a country most known for its rugged individualism, to pursue a sort of audible neutering of its educated class.”
I laughed. “Indeed. I noticed when I lived on the east coast how a thick Long Island accent tended to vanish at the sight of an alpaca sweater, a pointer and a chalkboard.”
I stepped back to maintain a comfortable distance. Her gelding eyed me curiously. I knew some things about horses, and leaned over and let him nuzzle me, should he be inclined. He was.
“He likes you.”
“I like horses. Camargue’s are fascinating. Especially the chameleon-like color changes they go through.”
“You know about horses. Very nice. Bobby here is my favorite. I’ve been riding him since he turned one, about four years ago. He’s never tried to throw me.”
Bobby had become, up close, almost toy-like with his size and his polka-dotted, grey spotted undercarriage, which projected the illusion of something childlike, an image of frivolity and playfulness.
I scratched his muzzle and moved away.
“How long have you lived here, Margaux?”
She turned back and looked at her cabin, its front door remaining open. When she looked back at me, she said, “I have been here since I turned 31, when my father died and left
the property to me. I’m an only child. My mom lives about 17 kilometers from here.”
I’d not expected this type of intimate disclosure, having learned the French found such behavior unsavory and tacky. ‘Very American’, one thickly-accented shopkeeper had scolded me, after I’d regaled him with a swap meet tale about bargaining for fresh fruit from my days in New York.
She’d stopped short, of course, of divulging her marital status. She wore no ring. In fact, I could see no jewelry whatsoever.
“How much of your landscaping is natural?”
She gazed out at the rolling hillside that climbed away from us, and though it was the same scenario I’d viewed from above for the past hour, it was even more powerful when seen from this vantage point. It climbed subtly toward the top of the hill, drawing the eye as one got a much better sense of the layered flower beds when seen from below, a bright explosion of layered colors as if someone had coordinated, in various reds, blues and golds, an entire piano keyboard.
“I’d say about half. I could probably stop tending most of it and it would look almost as lush, but I enjoy it, and I have the time. Would you like to join me, Jesse, for a glass of wine? It’s almost lunch time. I don’t get many visitors out here, you know.”
I nodded. “Certainly. But I’d bet the visitors you do get return often.”
She turned and walked toward the porch. “Some do,” she said, with just a hint of a smile creeping into her tone. I was forced to conjecture since I could not see her face.
I noticed on the small porch a round pebbled glass table paired with two wicker rockers which had black cushions tied onto the seats and seat backs, and looked to be freshly painted white.
She’d left the horse standing where he had been and he showed no desire to move elsewhere, though he turned his head to watch her leave, much as I had, but for different reasons.
She stretched her left arm toward the rockers and suggested I take a seat.
I did as she retreated into the house. I could hear plates and silverware and glasses touching in high-pitched concert, a comforting timeless prelude to a meal that always seemed to enhance anticipation. I heard the soft pop of a cork being removed, and sat back, rocking gently. I moved a small glass vase of recently cut bright orange roses from the railing to the center of the table and waited.
She opened the door with her shapely rear end and backed out onto the porch, carrying a large round metallic tray festooned with sliced bread, white and red grapes, a variety of sliced cheeses, thick, roughly cut slabs of salami, two wine goblets and an open bottle of Rose. Rose, I’d read in a pamphlet at the Inn, accounted for more than half of the wine production in Provence. Though sweeter than I preferred, it meshed wonderfully with her array of snacks. We noshed happily, saying little, sneaking peaks at her beautiful hillside. Bobby had retreated to the shade of the barn as the noon time sun had begun to impact the temperature.
Though the silence was comfortable, I broke it casually. “I’ve been in France for almost two months now. It’s my first trip to your wonderful country.”
“Thanks for the compliment. We French love our country as well, but getting us to say it can be a struggle. I’ve been Americanized to the point that employing the tradition of French understatement, which we got from the British, I find tantamount to false modesty and simply unappealing to me. What has brought you to, uh, our wonderful country?”
I picked up a piece of sharp, brightly marbled blue cheese and bit into it, noting how it contrasted perfectly with the slightly acidic taste of the red grapes I’d eaten.
“Well, Margaux, what began as a pleasure trip quickly has merged into a soul-searching sojourn. I got to Paris about two months ago, anticipating the famous Parisian springtime weather, only to have each day greet me with rain and sad gray cumulous clouds. I adapted my wardrobe, and emotionally, began setting aside my tepid search for fun, while fully embracing introspection. I’m recovering from a divorce and going to write a book about my experiences. I’ve discovered both seem easier when the skies are overcast.”
“Your experiences in France?” She sipped her wine, watching me over the rim of her glass, her eyes unblinking.
“Yes, those too, I guess. But more like a memoir of my entire life.”
”You seem much too young to be writing a memoir.”
“Ahhh…you have aged well. But, as we say in France, ‘the zero year birthday is almost upon you’. Though it flows more lyrically in French. Loses quite a bit in the translation.”
“Most things do.”
“Cynical, I see. What do you do, Jesse?”
“Right now I am trying out this writing thing. Fortunately, I made enough money in my prior life to afford a life of leisure, if I choose to do so. This trip is the first thing I’ve done that could be construed as self-indulgent, since I retired and got divorced.”
“Hmmm. Sounds like a lot of significant change, all at once.”
“It was. Or is. The divorce came first. Retirement seemed a natural step after that.”
“What did you do before you retired?”
“Well, I was born in San Francisco. I got into graphic design in high school, stayed with it at Cal, then hooked up with a hot new Silicon Valley tech firm during the dot com bubble, well before it burst. Stock options followed, and the rest, as they say in Silicon Valley, is mystery.”
She poured us both some more Rose and helped herself to some brie, spreading a generous slab of the soft white gooey cheese on a piece of sliced sour dough bread. She grinned, placed a sliver of sliced red onion on top, took a bite and leaned back, rocking gently, watching me.
“So now you want to graduate from images, to words, in your creative process?”
“Process? That’s a good way of putting it. Implies growth, though that me a bit high-browed at this early stage. In a manner of speaking, yes. And it hasn’t been easy.”
“Writing can be a learned skill, but it’s a lot easier if you have a natural feel for it, so I’m told. I don’t have that knack. It was a struggle to get through medical school writing papers. So, you went to Cal?”
“Yes, I’m a Bear for life. I guess we’re rivals”
She laughed. “I did my undergrad studying at Cal. I think we may actually be blood brothers.”
It was my turn to laugh. “The world just keeps getting smaller and smaller, doesn’t it? Where do you sit at the Big Game?”
She shook her head. “I haven’t attended since I graduated. Divided loyalty, and all that. Maybe it’s a French thing.”
“What was your specialty, medically?”
“I was a Medical Oncologist. I guess I still am. But I’m retired, as you are.”
“Did you perform surgery as well?”
“No. Most of what I did involved helping people deal with and manage their cancer. Determining a course of treatment, and dealing with the resulting effects of it like pain and nausea. There is no curative therapy for that. There was some spiritual support, as well. Oncology can be emotionally hard but also rewarding. Surgery required more schooling.”
“How old are you, if I may ask?”
She hefted the Rose bottle then gestured toward me with it.
“Shall we open another?” A very female gesture, deflecting the oafish age question from the potential male suitor.
I grinned. “Of course.”
When she’d returned with a new opened bottle of Rose, she also carried a plate with replenishments for the snack tray.
She poured us each a glass.
She sat back down and propped her feet on the corner of the table, one ankle over the other, away from the food. “I’m 49. Just like you.”
I was stunned, and let it show. She looked to be in her mid 30s.
I tipped my wine glass toward her and said, “My compliments to the good Lord. You are blessed with incredible genetics.”
She smiled and nodded back at me. “Thank you. I get that a lot.”
“You get what?”
”Surprise at my age. Shock, even. Some don’t believe me.”
“Oh, I believe you. My time in France has opened even further my eye for beauty. I gave up trying to guess ages a few weeks ago. It’s not important. Beauty is beauty. Attaching a number diminishes it.”
Her smile was warm and inviting. I took the invitation to continue.
“Why did you retire so young?”
“When I retired, I moved back to France after my father’s death. My father died of a brain tumor. It was a powerful message of how far we have to go, in the war on cancer. His death made retiring early rather easy, on multiple levels. He left me some money in addition to this place, and I had grown a little tired of the American rat race. I’d had a particularly intense internship in an emergency room in a hospital in northern Michigan. I knew once I was through there, I’d no longer have be going that route, but it still really affected me. The gruesomeness. Oncology seemed too abstract, too removed from the real, day-to-day care people needed. I know cancer treatment is important. But I began to question why I had chosen a field where my efforts had dramatically less direct results. The daily grind of caring for and treating cancer patients made me long for the adrenaline rush I got from the immediacy of death, and thwarting same, which was ongoing in that emergency room. That pressure seemed to heighten my awareness more than the still noble pursuit of long-term, ongoing cancer care.”
“Oncology is a very necessary field, Margaux.”
“I know it is. It just seemed further from my ideal of what it is to help people. Hands off as opposed to hands on. And my internship drove that home, powerfully.”
“What about family? Did you ever get married? Have kids?”
She sighed and looked again out at the rolling landscape of both vibrant and muted colors, where a marriage of contrasting visual love was at play in the warm Spring French sunshine.
“I was close to getting married a couple of times. Backed out each time, the second time on my wedding day. Left him at the alter.” She looked at me and shrugged.
I watched her; still obviously struggling with the inner turmoil such a decision would create for anyone. The ‘children’ question faded into the fabric of silence now enveloping us.
I reached over and filled her wine glass, and mine, and then touched mine to hers and nodded.
Her fragile grin was the best she could offer, which I accepted.
There were now a half dozen Roe deer dotting the hillside, visible from only the neck up, until a periodic dip to nibble on something made them invisible.
I broke the comfortable silence. “We have more than a few things in common. Besides the same fashion consultant and hair colorist, we are approaching our ‘zero’ year having never worn the parenting suit.”
She looked at me for a long time, sipped her wine and set it on the table.
“It’s by far my biggest regret.”
“My marriage is mine.”
”Really? At least you took the plunge. I couldn’t even do that.”
“Plunge may be the operative word there. I loved her, but we did not mesh in most of the important areas. It began badly and got worse from there. Lasted only two years. Soured me on both love, and my ability to successfully seek it out and maintain it. I haven’t been remotely close to the alter since.”
“Wow. This got sad in a hurry.”
“Like life itself?”
She shook her head. “Though saddled with regrets as I lean on 50, I still see life as a glass half full. I would have thought my internship in an American inner city emergency room would have created a cynic, but it simply revealed a bleeding heart.”
She nodded. “A city waiting to die, one young person at a time.”
“That’s not a Pollyanna viewpoint.”
“I’m not a Pollyanna. It doesn’t truly matter how much water is in the glass. It only matters if you are thirsty. Optimists are not dumb or naïve, just hopeful.”
This had become thought provoking very quickly, with both of us revealing more than we‘d anticipated. I believed revealing oneself to a stranger was much easier. There was always an exit.
“I tend to be more cynical, though I shoot for skeptical. Probably why I have let only two years of rotten marriage sour me on the entire concept. Unconsciously embracing what I’d probably been harboring inside anyway.”
“Your glass is what then? Empty? Half empty?”
I leaned toward her with my empty goblet extended. “Well, at least I remain thirsty. You tell me?” I said as she poured more wine into my glass.
“Would it be arrogant to say full?” she asked, filling my glass.
Our eyes met.
“No, just accurate.”
© Copyright 2016 Bill Rayburn. All rights reserved.