…including the warmest weather on record, much fog, some guava jam which we scored at an international grocer and made into a Cuban tart, and the annual pilgrimmage to Brive for fantastical Christmas dinner(s).
But most importantly this end-year, we finally are closing in on the last of the rubble and junk in the house. That’s not counting the cratefuls of garbage still down in the cave, but after three years we will take what laurels we can salvage for our self esteem. Most of the hardcore dead-pigeon debris is now off the first and second floors and out of the attic and most of the barn spaces.
Above ground, at least, we are almost there. These are hopefully the last of the truly scuzzy photos of le Camparol.
The assault on the final big Restauration-era armoire at the end of the upstairs hall we had put off for years because we were unsure of its secrets, and so loathe to disturb it. In the end it held only a few and very minor treasures and a whole lot of filth in rats’ nests and dead pigeons. Mostly it was packed with piles of dry-rotted workshirts from an era that apparently enjoyed plastic buttons, but on an architecture of linen raiment not unlike that of the Middle Ages.
Fashion in the everyday was quite late in coming to le Camparol, it seems, at least for some.
One of the more dress-like shirts had an seemingly feminine high pleated neckline which wouldn’t fit around a small bird, and another simpler sack-cloth smock had sewn on the lapel the initials “LP,” in crude red cross-stitch.
We shall never know who LP was, or what he or she did in these shirts, and why so many appear to have been made at great manual effort, only to be left pressed and folded like new for a century in this cupboard, to waste in pigeon dung and water stains, their only purpose ever being to make a nonsensical time capsule for us to discover.
There was a framed 1897 matriculation certificate from Salvagnac for a “Monsieur Beauté” tucked into the shirts about halfway up. It did not mention any LP. So the mystery is goes unsolved, filed as another cold case.
Though the rubbish piles are mostly evacuated now, we can be sure that LP’s unused and carefully folded shirts are not the last unsolvable mystery we’ll find here, not by a long stretch.
We often find that sense of open-endedness in this house. So many things we will never know – why that window was bricked up but this other one left without even a drape across it to prevent the pigeons from layering the place with a half-meter of excrement and bird skeletons. Or what exactly the owners a century back (maybe while wearing those linen work dresses) were doing on what appears to have been a staging platform to the West side with access to the cave window-chutes.
Or why or even how there was a full chassis of a Model-T era automobile on the third floor in the attic!
Or why certain papers were stacked, while others seemingly more important papers were wadded without care. Or who was the big drinker responsible for the mountains of wine and liquor bottles from the post-WW2 era (okay, on that one count we’ve heard rumors, but still).
Or why so much foie gras, so laborious and expensive to produce and process, was left uneaten in the cupboards – so old now in the oversize jars that the rubber rings have dry-rotted from around them, the meat however spookily remaining exactly the flesh-putty color it would have been when still fresh. (See photo.) M calls it zombie liver.
We can only hope that the former occupants had their fill of all these nice things before their final departure, and that their lifetimes passed here at least as joyfully as ours so far.
Of the rest about their lives here, we know, and will know, nothing. Which is exactly what they knew of us.
That partitioning veil of agnosticism goes not only for the occupants of the past, but the very distant past, before these bricks were so arranged into the facade we see today, way on back before anyone’s memory and about which no hard local evidence persists, when Gaston Fébus plied this land, and when the Cathars ruled before him, and when the Spanish Moors were here, and the Viking bandits and the Romans before them ran this river, and even farther back, when le Camparol was just a steep creek-bed feeding into a major river that had yet to be named the Tarn, when migrant cave people huddled along the riverbank near fresh water.
And it goes also for the future, a future we cannot anticipate any more than LP was expecting us, of all possible options, after we are gone from this place: Who will be here, who will build what, neglect what, destroy what, and perhaps seek refuge as we have, either culturally or more fraught, out of defense from threats we cannot yet imagine.
We are only custodians of this link between an unknowable past and equally unpredictable future, our little landbridge in time, that brief moment during which two middle-aged men from another continent far away settled here as their chosen place to love and live. During their short time here, they _______.
Let us fill in that predicate with care.
I multiply this unknowable history backward and forward for every house and creek along this river, and then outward up onto the plateau and down to the Pyrénées and beyond, all the way across seas and oceans. And I wonder, how big is this thing we call our story? How broad is human experience, both common and extraordinary.
What a small window onto it each of us has.
M watches zombie shows. It’s his secret vice. He’s a veritable addict. And so he occasionally addresses information to me, even in his waking life away from the screen, with a straight face, on the order of “What to do if zombies attack.”
For a man who is ordinarily devoid of fantasy or any ability to dream beyond a very certain and finite horizonline, for a man who hates Star Wars and Harry Potter with equal derision, this is an extraordinary development.
And so naturally I encourage it as a much-cherished eccentricity.
When we take long walks, I like to hear all about the zombies and their superpowers and habits, what non-zombie people do – both successfully and as lessons in how to get slaughtered fast – to address this pervasive problem of the undead.
Sometimes we imagine that other walkers loping slowly toward us along the path – senior citizen groups, mostly – are in fact already “turned.” See, they take the course of least resistance, plying the roadways, mostly, open paths like this one, in agglomerated groups. Now you see them coming, what do you do next?, he queries. Because I well know from previous zombie lessons that though they move slowly and haplessly, running from them is proven doom. You have to out-SMART them, you see.
This occasions sheer delight in me from a man who, so unlike me, spends most other hours analyzing dry statistics and refusing to dream ahead for what cannot be assured absolutely.
But when he pointed out offhandedly, during a recent burst of fantasy-driven pontification, that our house would very likely not repel but instead attract stragglers, refugees and therefore eventually the zombies themselves, as a sort of evident landmark on the main route, deeming us as ultimately hopeless in terms of defense, I realized with a start for the first time that not fantastical zombies (yet, anyway), but actual Nazis had certainly been here. That we had been searched!
That’s where my head went, straight from zombies to Nazis. You see M is not the only eccentric in the family. As cultural riffs go, zombies and Nazis might be quite closely aligned, but as history – Alors ! I think my head must be still messed up about the encounter with the blockhaus on the beach last fall. But I went directly to actual Nazis.
Of course we would have been searched by German troops. At that time the house would have stood out along the road just as it does today, as an ample place to hide in – and for the invaders to pillage.
Or were those invaders perhaps instead welcomed into the house, back then? We will never know (unless the recent discovery of a trashbag-sized cache of mid-20th century love letters might drop new clues). That time is long gone.
But LP would have known. LP would have encountered actual Nazis, at least as an old woman or man, with opened arms or with closed ones. Or were those shirts cached there because LP never did, as expected, need them for use? A life cut short long before any Germans arrived at the door, with a mother who could not bear to clean out a closet, and so these pressed work shirts were preserved long after every other vestige of those lives faded away? Even more possible.
And in that case, since the sediment looks to have been already in place by then by two generations or more, we were unlikely to be the first to rifle through this big armoire, big enough to hide a whole family. At least in the movie versions, they looked everywhere. It hardly seems believable, but it must be true, or else something even stranger.
In any case I am counting us among a very select and bizarrely motivated few to ever sift through this silt quite so carefully. In a way, as inquisitors prying up unprecedented full access to the stacks, we are seeking very similar clues as to what really went on here. Did they find any more than we have?
And now – now – if such a dire time comes again, and it always does come again in history, from Viking raiders to Roman legions to Third Reich collaborators – where would I hide someone?
The answer was obvious to me: Not here. M is right. This house attracts bandits and government officials alike. Too high profile. Too visible along the road. Even our cabanes and outbuildings would raise suspicion, much less that we are not lifelong locals, etc.
Dig a pit? On the roof? In the cuvées? A false wall? A secret room? In a floating basket like Moses along the river? Under piles of filthy rag shirts. Don’t even try.
What can you possibly hide from that won’t find you in the end? The best you can hope for is a critical delay.
Our landbridge in time is fragile. We will not always be allowed to stay here, come zombies or not, come neo-Nazis or not. The thing is, there is drama like that, in temporary occupations, but it’s the decayed work shirts that are the more intractable certainty: That slower, staggering, stalking and persistent circumstance of decay, forgetfulness, and the eventual extinction from memory, death so far being common to all comers in this life, will soon evict us in any case.
But I do wonder what artifacts they will find of us left behind when that day comes. I may take to monogramming our shirts in cross-stitch, parking the car upstairs, and expending more than the usual effort in keeping out any errant pigeons, to save any future excavators the trouble of shoveling quite so much.
We are making friends with LP in this way, making right by rites, unable to know a thing about him or her. Even in burning the filthy shirts and so erasing forever the last vestige that she or he ever lived, we are linking ourselves to them by a stitch in time. LP, and all the LPs, known and unknown, have become the anonymous everyman in an intricate daisy chain linking every one, us included.
And that we couldn’t hide from if we tried.