For the sea rose up with him.
He hated the air of the dry land.
–The Second Odyssey, C.P. Cavafy.
They’d built the place with a small fortune made from selling beet sugar, around the time Napoleon was getting his second wind. Haiti, specifically the cane that was no longer coming from Haiti, is why beet sugar fortunes could be made back then. Turned an old farm building into a chateau, easily the largest structure in the village – though this’d be setting the bar low since, at the time, the village consisted of chateau, church and graveyard, built out of the same stone and with the same money, if not the same hands. The place changed little in the years that followed, saving the charcuterie that opened when it still looked like the money might stick around, and the fistful of town houses that got set up as the middle classes got priced and aged out of Paris proper. They – of the dwindling beet fortune – shifted from the house to a couple of nice plots in the graveyard, stopping at the church for the appropriate interval, and their various descendants repeated the procedure pretty faithfully. Each tombstone looked a little more modest than the last; you could see the evolution from mourning angel to marble slab if you stood in the attic window. It’s still the biggest building for a couple of miles around; a three-story structure, two rooms deep and about eight wide, roof the colour of oxidised copper and walls slate grey where they peak out behind the moss, two dozen windows gaping at the view they’ve been stuck with; past the graveyard, fields of wheat and beetroot, the backs of houses on the outer curve of the hamlet, a sliver of forest, sky.
If Guy was going to identify a turning point, a then-everything-changed-moment, it’d be when he stepped out of the poky offices in Observatory with paperwork tucked under a sweating armpit and a new message on his phone. The papers were saying that Guy had spent enough time and money at the embassy to have a fair shot of not getting turned away at Charles de Gaulle; the message was saying ‘Call me when you get this – T.’ He’d looked up from his phone, early spring light bouncing off of the windshields and the river up ahead, the park around it looking unspeakably lush, the beat-to-hell housing beyond it looking like the back end of a village, and gone to a bar. Even if the news wasn’t bad, and when the hell did that ever happen, he figured he could manage a congratulations-on-the-visa drink. Which was typical, probably; he’d be hedging bets on a drink in the middle of the big moment, if that was the moment.
“Chief,” The voice came on the other end of the line.
“Terence. You demanded my telepresence.”
“So I did. Thought we could do with a caucus.” Guy couldn’t tell if Terry was slurring his speech, or if that was the connection – which was telling in itself.
“Anything I should be worried about?”
“Now, I didn’t say that,” and here Guy heard the clink of ice in a glass, so he took a swig of his too. The bar wasn’t much; maybe because it wasn’t noon yet, maybe it just wasn’t a good bar. Hard to tell with the morning glare keeping the place in the dark.
“Sure. You just missed the sound of my voice.”
“And why not? It’s like birdsong.”
“Everything going okay up there?” Guy looked around the room, but there was nothing, nobody to look at; the bartender had gone to do whatever it is they do out back.
“Absolutely. It’s a gorgeous London afternoon.”
“London,” said Guy, leaning forward.
“London, like the capital of France? Big tower in the middle, arches, tourists milling about, getting upset because everybody speaks French? London, spelled with a P, ends with an Aris? Where you’re hosting me next week?”
“Ah, no. The other one.”
“Christ, Terry.” Guy was hunched over in his seat now, hissing into the phone. “What did they do, deport you?”
“No, nothing like that, head office just decided they’d rather have me back in London for the season.”
“Did you try it on with the intern?”
“I can neither confirm nor deny –”
“Unbe-fucking-lievable. And you couldn’t have arranged this before I bankrupted myself on a visa?”
“Oh, spare me. Mister ‘all my bridges are on fire, can I use your couch.’”
“Exactly, my shit got torched first. My downward spiral has right of way.”
“Well, forgive me. I’m not as familiar with these streets as you are,” said Terry.
Something in his voice made Guy respond, “Well. Welcome. And sorry. What the hell happens now?”
A garbled sigh. “You don’t maybe want to sell your ticket, cut your losses? Patch things up with, uh. Whatever his name was.”
“Christ, no. In for a bad penny, in for a bad pound, is how I’m feeling. Don’t you have anybody up there with a friendly couch? I could figure something out.”
“Afraid not. I mean, I did, and then, I didn’t. But lookit – and you’re not going to like this – there’s a little place about two hours north of the city. Chores for food and rent kind of situation; pick eggs, collect berries, whatever. Farm stuff. You’ve got a room reserved.”
“I do. And why would that be?”
“You’re welcome, you shit. And it was a contingency – in the event that difficulties arose. And they have, in a way.”
“So, you were going to pack me off to a farm if you got sick of me?”
“Like your childhood dog. Only, the farm exists. Do you want the room or not?”
“Huh. Well, okay, what the hell.”
“You’re not convincing me.”
“Yes, I want the room. Obviously. Thanks.”
“Any old time. What are you drinking?”
Which is how Guy found himself, maybe a week later, yanking the bell cord at the front gate of a big, dilapidated property in Picardy, sending three mutts tumbling out of the front door and across the long gravel walk, frantic and asymmetrical.
He looked like hell. Sixteen hours in the air, an hour and a half to get through security, including a fun five minutes where the young woman behind the booth tried to say his surname right, another yellow-faced hour on the metro avoiding the gaze of overequipped rent-a-cops and badly disappointing an old Congolese guy when his response to “Baise le pouvoir, enh?” was, “I’m sorry?”; a small white child had looked from Guy to the old man and back, then asked his mother something before being firmly shushed. Brief gratitude from Guy at not having enough French to translate the question, though if he was honest he didn’t need any to know what was being asked. About twenty minutes navigating the architecture of Gare du Nord feeling less like a seasoned traveller than an especially obedient breed of cattle. Two hours by train to the north, with only the briefest of backwards glances at the city of a thousand you-know-whats, watching ivy-covered apartments turn into poured concrete projects turn into countryside broken up by suburban villages turn into something else; hopping off at some footnote of a train station and hiking for half an hour along flattened farmlands, past nervous-looking clumps of trees. Then he was there; the house, the windows, the sky.
Standing outside the front gate, light from the autumn sun and the harvested wheat at his back, the building looming before him, dogs straining against the iron bars, whining, but not barking for a welcome change, Guy thought Brideshead, thought Satis House, realized that he’d never really pictured what the house of Usher might have looked like. Behind him, yellow nothing. After so many hours watching the landscape dance to the tempo of his journey, seeing it now in repose seemed unnatural to him; the slight creaking of a bough in the wind only reinforced the static frame around it. While he was noticing this – all precious journal fodder – out came the owner, his landlady-to-be. A ruined old thing, outside of her ruined old house, baggy grey t-shirt, gardening gloves, Fellini shades and a pair of shears in her waving hand. Big onrush of welcoming French while she wrenches open the gates, fractional hesitation then a shorter deluge in English, not much easier to decipher. Guy, wanting to be a good sport about all this, managed to assemble an apology in French, citing the long, tiresome journey, exhausting his reserve of the language in the process. Of course, she agreed, leading him with a skinny arm up the drive and into the cool wood and dust air of the house, such a long journey, coming all the way from Africa, dogs sniffing and yelping and trailing, and as soon as he’d met the others and helped them finish with the pears, he could go right up to his room.
Guy stared at the woman who looked like a wooden carving of herself, smiling a little girl’s smile – troubling, when you bear in mind the kinds of things little girls can smile at – and said, of course, and put down his bags in the pile of junk next to a staircase. He followed her through the darkened building and out into a garden that couldn’t tell if it wanted to be woods or orchard or lawn, succeeding only in overlapped approximations of each. Over the garden wall, farmland ran on to the horizon, so Guy joined the figures gathered beneath a cluster of pear trees feeling a little becalmed; mutely he acknowledged the other workers –a blonde couple, maybe siblings, a bearded man with a grin that Guy filed for later, and a young woman with heavily kohled eyes – and began to sort through fallen fruit. The grey-haired grand-dame and her dogs had vanished. This was, he knew, the time to learn names, faces, distinguish between those having gap years and those having mid- and quarter-life crises, rattle off some jokes and otherwise settle in; he also knew that this was, for the moment, beyond him. The others seemed similarly reconciled to silence, exchanging the odd word here and there during the harvest, then falling still. This continued into the kitchen, all swollen wood and peeling wallpaper, as they weighed pear-flesh against sugar on scales that might’ve been museum pieces. It wasn’t a five-person job, but nobody seemed to want to get caught slacking, so they took turns cooking the stuff in warped copper pots and boiling up glass jars, applying a layer of burnt sugar and cinnamon on top of the room’s pervading aroma of oil and old salt.
Too tired to care about eating, Guy carried these smells with him as he mounted the sighing stairs to his attic bedroom, some hazy time later, acquiescing to the strangeness and weariness and sleep.
The old woman had been living in the place for about thirty years; born a little after the war, she’d known the chateau as a sanctuary where her family could avoid the American-infested Paris, and later as a summer home, a house in the country and all that that implied. Sharing it with her siblings had been easy enough in the sixties, when she only ever left Paris if it was to go to London, or later, when the punk outfit she’d fallen in with started touring, New York. She interviewed leftist directors for the International Times, she recorded faux-Piaf chansons on albums put out through a lover’s production company, she married a poet, she was employed as a tightrope walker, she put her friends in plays in theatres that exist now only in newspaper clippings in the rare conversations she has with strung-out old acquaintances when they come to visit. She woke up at some point in the late eighties, her husband under dialysis somewhere, her body aware of more aches than needs, and aware that whatever ‘making it’ meant, she hadn’t done that. So she saved up the residuals from her knockoff albums, which still sell pretty respectably in South Korea, bought out her siblings’ shares in the old country house, and made a home among the relics of her childhood. She rented out studio space to artists, farmed a little with the help of idiotic-but-eager volontourists, let the municipality use her garden for fêtes so long as they turned a blind eye to her selling preserves without a license. It wasn’t ’68, but that was sort of the point.
By the sixth day Guy had stopped asking himself what he was doing there. Not because he had an answer resolved in his mind, but because he had tired of asking it, and there were enough things with which to tire himself as it was. The floors needed scrubbing, the windows needed cleaning, the dogs needed more than he could provide but he had to walk them anyway, the bread needed picking up on the days they didn’t deliver, the walkways needed clearing of leaves and moss and a century’s seasonal neglect, and just as there was always air to breath (or so he trusted), so there were always more weeds to get at – and when these and a million other little things were accomplished, or at least embarked upon, the sliver of starlight that squeezed past a crack in the blinds above his bed needed staring at, for all the long hours of night and dwindling minutes of morning.
The church bells jolted Guy, gasping, out of bed every single morning – some urban throwback that he could never quite grow out of insisting to him that any sound which pierced the air so clearly or urgently could not be anything but a warning. He would wash his face, avoid his reflection’s eye, fail to descend the stairs without setting the whole house creaking, step in and out of shoes so as to switch on the faulty kitchen lights without electrocuting himself, and sit down to the coffee, bread and honey that lay waiting for him and the others, beside the scrawled parchment of instructions for the day’s work, which they would decipher over breakfast like a crossword. They never saw the old woman write these down, nor did they know what intelligence motivated their rotating chores, since she rarely left her rooms, and when she did it was to go abroad in the hours before the rest of the house woke.
“What is cuellir? Spoon? We have to spoon something?” asked Pamela, the one with the dark eyes. Dutch, it turned out. Indonesian grandmother.
“It’s – making tidy? Let me see. We need to pick up the apples. Gather them.” Thibault, leaning over her, laughing, Thibault who had been kicked out of his place off of Oberkampf and was figuring things out. Thibault who went back to Paris on his days off. They used him as a translator of last resort, or when they were tired of the game. Some mornings they were tired of everything.
“So are we making some kind of dessert?” asked Guy.
“She does not say. I think that I don’t need more dessert,” said Thibault, prodding at his waist. Pamela and then Guy laughed; Guy couldn’t decide if his standards for comedy were lower because they were in the country, because they were working through language barriers, or because of Thibault’s cheekbones.
Max and Cleo, the Romanian couple, said nothing, chewing their bread. But then, their cheekbones were immaculate.
She’d shut up most of the other rooms; the apartments on the second floor, where she, her brother, and sister had slept; as much of the attic as she could spare. Partially this was reluctance to allow strangers access to rooms that existed chiefly as memories for her; partially this was prudence, since who knew how competent or careful a given worker might be. Half of the attic was for sleeping in; the rest had been closed off to store the house’s more obscure hoard – a broken writing desk, rotting piles of fashion magazines from the sixties and seventies, hand-lettered posters protesting forgotten fascists, hooped skirts and clustered fabrics, sacks of walnuts, stockpiles of flour, oil, rice, coffee, all purchased in a paranoid moment, the shadowy outline of what might once have been a wedding dress, oil paintings of people whom she could no longer positively identify. The ground floor rooms still saw some use; enough of the workers were musical so as to keep the piano in tune, and there was the billiard table where she would keep them late some nights, taking no less pleasure in her victories just because nobody knew how to play anymore. And, a quiet concession to age, her bedroom was on the ground floor – with the old portrait of her mother, and her records, and clothes which she no longer wore.
The farm was not a farm, really – not in the way the lands around them were farmlands, vast flattened-out things punctuated by the cresting waves of yellow hay bales and the black silhouettes of crows like the negatives of seascapes, their fruits hauled over to the refineries two towns over, repackaged and shipped back in uniform plastic. Guy cycled past these, through these, on the days when he had to stumble through the ritual of buying oil or honey or eggs or whatever else the kitchen garden had failed to produce, conscious of the gazes of men driving their box-shaped cars into the city, or their lumbering machines along fields that had smoothed out their furrows. He knew the glancing was no more personal than lightning striking a tree in a broad plain – but for Guy, as for the tree, this was rather beside the point.
Nor was the farm like the ones back home, though there Guy could hardly call himself an expert, having only a couple of dry weekends in his youth to draw from. Still. Here was none of the economy that could look like avarice, the routine hardened into the muscle of hands that knew how to build things against an indifferent future, that were not surprised by the seeds of their labours bearing fruit nor by the failure of their endeavours, because surprise was superfluous when every decision was determined by necessity. More to the point, here was no familiar smell or cadence that might for a moment unpick that knot that had come to live in the back of his neck, that might let him forget where he was and by extension all the places he was not. Working in that scorched-pear kitchen he was conscious of participating in the preservation of half-remembered tastes and smells from someone else’s childhood, and the halls echoed with the noise of rapid, muttered French – and often, after a short silence, with heavily accented English. If he could have willed clumsy hands and clumsy lips to better perform their tasks, he thought, he might have been better able to forget himself; but as it was, he stumbled through his works and days, apologetic, harassed.
So this was neither a farm, exactly, nor he exactly a farmworker. Though he wasn’t sure what to do with an observation like that when he stood before a field of nettles with a scythe held to him, sweating and breathless and strange.
She tried not to regard these people as interchangeable, with indifferent success; perhaps in the first season, but even then, she had understood that these were simply tourists in her house. Here and there a moment, a conversation, would stand out; but she was rarely conscious of more than a shifting collection of names and faces and trajectories, disappearing when time or money or patience ran out, as soon replaced. The stout Florentine who’d come because the place wasn’t too far from Paris, who’d wanted to brush up on French before taking up an internship in the city; she left within a day of arriving, half-hour hike to the station be damned. Brandon, something American, wanted somewhere cheap to hole up while he waited for his brother to come down from seeing a girl in London; he knew about plants, which was useful, and stayed about a fortnight. The teacher from somewhere in China, who had arrived on a bicycle with few possessions, less English, and no French, who stayed for a week, then vanished on a Sunday evening. She was no longer upset, when they left; they needed somewhere to stay, and she needed to keep her house going. These interests would not always intersect.
Once, and only once, had the old woman spoken to Guy other than to tell him how terrible he was at billiards, or gardening, or cooking. Thibault was in Paris, the rest had taken their bikes into the woods in search of a war memorial that Guy had never heard of. He’d declined their invitations, claiming a fatigue he did not feel but was perfectly happy to emulate in his bedroom’s dusty attic light. The quiet, gloomy afternoon had been pierced by the unexpected honking of more cars than Guy had seen in the village at any one time before; opposite the old church, obscured by the row of pines that had been planted when the chateau was built, a small but vocal wedding reception gathered. Guy stood at the landing for some time, watching the generic figures of the bride and groom posed awkwardly by determined photographers, listening to terrible local music played through car speakers.
“Des barbares,” said a voice at his ear. Guy didn’t jump exactly, but it was close. The old woman stood behind him, holding two short glasses of ruddy liquid.
“Kir?” she asked, offering one. By the time Guy had stumbled through a merci, she was standing at the bubbled glass of the window, muttering about noise pollution. As if aware that parochial bile was out of step with her boho trappings, she fixed Guy with a corvid gaze.
“But you must understand,” she said. “For me, marriage has been a very difficult thing.”
Guy had nodded mutely – alarmed, he would later recognize, by the possibility that an old woman who had made a ramshackle dwelling of her past might recognize something sympathetic in him, who was at pains to carry no more history with him than absolutely necessary. So it was with a glazed expression that he listened to the old woman describe her disappointing daughter and unlovely son, as if these somehow explained her pensioner’s grumbling about the revels across the road. What did it matter, Guy wanted to ask, if your ordinary behaviours were motivated by strange and secret hurts? What possible difference could it make? But the old woman was still talking, and the guests were climbing into their cars and getting ready to drive away, and Guy hadn’t gotten any better at French, so he sipped the blackcurrant liqueur and wondered what it would have been like in the woods.
The world around Guy was empty enough to keep from getting tangled in the snare of symbolism, rescuing him from the expected sense of sin when he cycled past the one or two cast-iron crucifixes that somehow had not been rooted out by middle-class sprawl, or from the small but fatal sadness of scaring off a herd of deer when blundering through the arbor, or from regarding his prone form with more-than-usual contempt when Thibault left him alone in his bed in the dark. That last one had caught him by surprise simply because he had given up competing for attention with Pamela, who was better than he was French, and friendlier than he was in English. Guy and Thibault had been the last ones up, bored of billiards but willing to pretend for the sake of the unexpected second bottle of wine the old woman had opened at dinner, before vanishing into her rooms. The Romanians had surprised nobody by following her example – and Pamela, citing a necessary Skype call, had left too. So they stood in the games room, surrounded by portraits that might’ve been of the old woman’s dead relatives, and might not.
“You were going to look for a job?” asked Thibault, setting up a shot that Guy suspected was illegal.
“Sure, I thought I could maybe teach. They had openings in Mantes-la-Jolie.”
“Mantes-la-Jolie!” Thibault nearly dropped his cue doubling over, broad shoulders shaking. Guy couldn’t decide if this was a Gallic thing, or specific to Thibault. “You, with your ‘I would like a newspaper’ French, in Mantes. You would be eaten there.” He shook his head, face flushed. “Things must be very bad at home if you wanted to go there.”
Guy sipped at the wine. “Not so bad. I just need to get out for a while.”
Police looking for you?”
“What? No, I just – spent too much time drinking and fucking, you know?”
“And this?” Thibault stepped forward to point at Guy’s emptied glass.
Guy’s turn to laugh; less doubling over. “This isn’t really drinking.”
Broad, maybe-Gallic smile. “Then you must compensate with the other part.”
Well. Guy had enough time to reflect on the fact that he’d never managed to get picked up playing pool before, and to register that Thibault needed a shave – and then he wasn’t thinking very much at all.
Later, but not so much later, they sat up in Guy’s room, getting their breath back. They had sat here before, usually wearing more clothing; since all the beds were up in the attic, they had grown accustomed to floating into one another’s rooms in the early evenings. Perched on the mattresses squeezed under the sloped roof they would talk, at first about their lives, then about their plans for travel, eventually, always, about the next day’s work, the asparagus patch in the south corner and the fence that needed mending, their landlady’s childhood home clear in their minds as the world beyond the house and the woods faded from view.
Loosened, either by the sex or the drinking or something more treacherous still, Guy found himself wondering aloud about the old woman; at how a life might corner itself as hers had, into inviting strangers to her broken old house, living off of indifferent crops, frustrated and obscure. It seemed to be the wrong question; he felt Thibault’s body stiffen against his, and not in the fun way, and a minute later he’d murmured something meaningless and vanished.
There was a brother in the same department, maybe half an hour’s drive away, if she still drove. He’d studied medicine while she’d been otherwise engaged; when she came back for the last time, her round-faced, nervous brother had turned himself into a country doctor, anticipating middle age if he wasn’t there already. Once the legalities of disposing of their parents’ estate had been cleared, they found, not without relief, that there wasn’t anything they wanted to say to one another. Their correspondence consisted of invitations to functions – exhibitions at her grounds, his granddaughter’s christening – and notes to apologize for not being able to attend these functions. It suited them. Her sister, in Paris, retained rather more contact; either she wished to assuage the old woman’s disappointment in her for marrying an American, or she wished to retain some connection to their home, even after having sold her rights. The old woman was obscurely disappointed by this; she’d wanted to make a clean break. As they say.
“What are we doing this for?” asked Pamela, stung once again in her attempt at picking blackcurrants on the forest’s edge.
“What else would we be doing?” asked Guy.
They stared at each other, aware that something essential was failing to be communicated, and returned to their work, hidden from the dry autumn breeze by a steep embankment.
“There’ll be new people today,” she said, a little later. “Refreshing our weary troops.”
“Did you figure out where the twins were going?” asked Guy. He could reach over the thorns and get at more blackcurrants, but Pamela’s basket was filling up more quickly. But who was counting?
“Somewhere with more relaxed attitudes towards incest, I assume.”
“I hear Iceland’s nice this time of year.”
She laughed, and then stood back. “Fuck it; I don’t even know what she wants these things for. If a basket doesn’t cut it, that’ll just be too bad.”
“Look at you, stirring up revolution,” he said, and turned around. “Well, shit,” he added.
Pamela looked up from the roach she was lighting. “Would this be any less stereotypical if I said I got it off some guys in Nice?”
“I mean. No, but I guess I appreciate the effort.” He looked around; clouds had started to build in the east, throwing the dry yellow of the fields into relief. “You two are heading off tomorrow?”
She nodded, sat herself down on the embankment. “You could come with us, you know. Thibault said he could probably find a couch for you somewhere. You don’t need to keep things up at the dollhouse if you don’t want.”
“But who would look after the asparagus,” he said. And then, when it was clear that this wouldn’t suffice, he added: “Maybe I’ll catch you guys up, huh? We can exchange fax numbers. Give you guys a little time without a third wheel.”
“That’s really not what this is.
“Here, help me up.”
Pamela brushed at the seat of her pants, and then stooped to pick up her basket. “I should get these back. Here, do you want the rest of this?”
“Sure,” he said, “thanks.”
“See you back at barracks,” she called, and he admired the fact that she didn’t stop or turn back once on the walk back to the village.
The roach smoked like a burnt bridge. He stood there, holding it, looking around at the dry grass and wondering where it could be quenched.
About the Writer:
He currently resides in the American midwest; occasionally he complains about that on Instagram.