A rose by any other name… still has thorns
It is hard to imagine, in pastoral moments driving the beautiful country roads around here, why the ancestors chose to describe their environs with such sinister bleakness, but the place names in translation map with uncanny exactitude to the names I grew up with in the colonies settled by the same people:
Sadroc. Skint Rock. Dead Man’s Pass. Malpas. The Brambles. Briarcliff. L’Homme Mort. Snakebite. La Serpent. Falling Rock. Shotgun Road. Malemort. Lost Cove. Bloody Creek. Cold Mountain. Malmont. Broken Mill. Le Gour du Diable. Devil’s Bottom. Rocky Top. Cripple Creek. Bear Maul. Lagrave. Bent Arrow. Le Chemin des Penitents. Windy Hill. La Quitterie. Tumbledown. La Croix Pintoux. Hell’s Bay. Froidchapelle. Calfkiller. Little Hope. La Redoubterrie.
The list of depressingly named locations on both shores is inexhaustible. It is a very regular and unmistakable tendance, and especially in the mountains.
We wonder if it was a bid by the holler-dwellers to scare away foreigners and interlopers from their corner of paradise, or rather an innate pure, almost religious, pessimism.
This strange Saturday, I found that it could be both at once.
I left Sadroc in the dark with an old crescent moon guiding the way through the trees. As I sometimes do when alone, I sang to myself a goofy song about my voyage, set to the tune of “Hey Eugene,” by Pink Martini:
So I’m driving
At dawn… in fog…
Gonna see some sheep go past
Before a visit to the Black Virgin.
Hey Eugene… Eugene…
Are you listening, Eugene?
I been with my friends
At a book fair
And ate some perfectly-seasoned chouxcroute
Then got up to this crescent moon… in the dark
Because I got to bed so early.
Are you listening, Eugene?
Can you hear me, Eugene?
I can’t sing on tune, but this song is very forgiving, and it’s an easy song to make up words to. It’s a way to frame the life I am living at any given moment with a trusty chorus about the ubiquitous and mysteriously silent Eugene.
The thing is, Eugene never answers in the song. It is only sung to him, addressing him. And even in the rousing finales, he never says a word. It’s not about that, it’s about the ragtag storyline being recounted for his benefit. For all we know, he does not exist, but he makes an excellent hedge to our adventures.
But of course I sing only when I am safely alone. No one would want to hear that caterwaul.
I reached Rocamadour just as the sun crested the horizon and sent gold light blasting through the forests of the Départment du Lot and onto the cliffs where the city and its famous effigy of the black goddess cling to the same rocky escarpments which have been occupied by our ancestors since before we could call ourselves human.
Would you look at that, Eugene.
As an immigrant to France, I live in one sense very far from my immediate ancestors, who occupied the United States for the past two or three hundred years. But the climate and landscape are actually quite similar in places to my family’s native Tennessee hills.
I am distantly related to Lester Flatt, the bluegrass picker who famously played the Beverly Hillbillies theme and Foggy Mountain Breakdown, and I seem to have come full circle with that notion, back to a temperate climate with lots of jagged rocky mountains and clannish hollers with threatening names.
Here also I am closer than my recent family were to our more distant shared ancestors, the ones who lived in these European hills and hamlets from time immemorial, all the way back to the first cave peoples.
The chances are statistically high that in my DNA are strands whose progenitors lived in the very grottos of the French valley where I stand at any given moment. Perhaps even quite recently some of them lived in the ruined stone huts I pass on the side of the road.
Before there was such a thing as ships to carry them to any New World, this for a long time was the Only World.
And their only world is my world now again. I want to know it intimately, as a new normal, inside and out. That is why I decided to take the winding back roads home. They are more scenic and history reaches right out to touch you.
It was warm enough to have the windows down as I continued to sing my impromptu poem to Eugene on the hairpin turns through picturesque vignettes: foggy mountain vistas, grazing sheep, low rock walls and scraggly oaks with morning light streaking through their lichen-crusted branches. Above the car as I drove into the steepest ravines gaped the occasional circular shadows of prehistoric holes in the white cliffs where cave people first learned to survive here.
I could sense the succession of the thousands of generations of lives lived in the hills of le Lot, including now my own as I passed through.
It was too perfect.
At a remote bend in the road just after St. Martin de Vers, another motorist heading toward me flagged me down. He was pale and addled. He blurted out that he had passed an accident just up the road. It was bad. He was going to find a cell signal and call for help. I should go ahead to assist them, he said. I didn’t have time for more than a nod. Then he screeched his tires speeding away. He never knew I was not a Francophone.
It was indeed very bad. The two bloody victims were smashed and broken. One man had crawled into the road but was unable to move from the waist down. He could talk, at least. But the other man was pinned in the driver side of the car, which was crushed into an interlocking metal ball around him.
That man was screaming uncontrollably, not like a man in the usual kind of pain, but like an animal. I had never heard anything like it, unmeasured and unforgettably savage. This nameless stranger was trapped in agony with nothing to lose, no dignity left, no hope, nothing but pain and fear driving the bellows of his lungs.
Sometimes I could understand bits of French argot in the successive howls: Help me. Get me out of here. I hurt. I’m dying. But mostly it was just unordered gutteral bursts which were piercingly and singularly intelligible to the human ear from very far away as suffering beyond imagination.
Ripped so suddenly from my singsong idyll in which I was going to take pictures of the next medieval village, I have rarely felt so utterly helpless, forced to watch life pass as it will, brutally, on its own terms, without even the naivety of prayer to intervene. I fumbled for the doors, the broken pieces, but unlike in the movies, bent and twisted car frames do not yield to adrenaline.
If they did, he could have freed himself.
So on an otherwise perfect autumn morning, his raw animal wails carried on unanswered through the quiet and foggy woods, announcing the three of us there alone to an indifferent picturesque landscape, one of us out of his mind and the other two waiting helplessly.
Nothing and no one in that nature stirred in recognition.
This situation lasted less than 30 minutes total, I later discovered, according to the clock.
But the clock is partisan with that grand but indifferent natural world, because those minutes for each of us surely stretched into eternity.
Et in Appalachia ego
Our eternity in a bubble was very full, but very small. The absolute normalcy of the world just a few centimeters from the car – just a few steps away, a tree was growing, a boulder covered in moss, the solid road continuing around the next bend in the glittering fall foliage – claimed its own version of eternity. But it was another eternity from ours, on another scale, in another dimension as far away from us now as the few minutes before when the twisted waste of car was purring along the asphalt and these two men were laughing together.
The congested chaos we felt in those minutes of static tension made a mockery of the rest of the Universe which was not inside our bubble with us three: The screaming man, the bleeding man, and the hapless witness forced to watch.
If this, then… The illusion of a benevolent normal cannot be tolerated ever again. You have seen for sure that normal is not benevolent, but only the flipside of the capricious whims of chance. Either way, for better and worse, you are its helpless victim. Anything else is intentional naïveté.
What, you would look away now because the suffering is not your own? Is it too… ugly? Impossible. You can turn your eyes but you cannot unsee.
I was not even angry. I just felt nothing but a kind of forceful gyroscope inside my head – tension without direction. The man lying in the road began to make less sense as he talked, and his eyes began to lob around. Was his brain hurt, too? The shrieking continued as the driver thrashed at the wheel begging to be freed. I ran back and forth around the exposed parts of the car until I realized that I was wasting time away from the man lying in the road, the only one who even recognized my presence and who might be helped by comfort.
To the other I kept talking, yelling, for both their sakes: Hang in there. Les pompiers arrivent de Cahors, Monsieur. On ecoute pour les sirènes! Ecoute! Ecoute pour les sirènes! Ne bouge pas. Ne bouge pas…
He moved plenty, thrashing and wailing, and yet nothing changed. No death, and yet no sirens.
So what I was actually saying was, I exist. And I confirm that you exist. We share this existence. What colder comfort is possible?
I chose to be inside that bubble of hell for them and with them, and it turned me against everything silent outside. How dare the world continue to exist? How dare they not already be here.
I did not volunteer, mind you. This happened to me, just as it happened to them.
That egalitarian logic is dangerously expansive, particularly under the influence of panic. It’s practically religious.
How many travelers have died on that road? How many assaulted by Roman-era or medieval or Depression-era bandits, how many felled by hardship in a young overworked body, how many fallen from the cliffs, arrested in battle with a blade, or in more modern times, by Nazi rifles, or, like these men, crushed in a vehicle pinned against the rock wall?
Those repeating choruses of tragic happenstance are eerily all the same, and they are not poetic, nor, it turns out, ever silent. They scream, and we hear the scream, and sometimes it is we who scream, and yet there is no answer. Even in the crescendos. Just like the song.
I had been on my way to tour Cirq la Popie next. To take more pretty pictures of this gorgeous landscape in fall. To fantasize frivolously about medieval recreations and imagined past lives along the winding streets. And perhaps to sit on a bench in the sun with a doughnut.
Instead I crouched by the more cogent man and tried to keep him awake with nonsensical conversation.
I want to sleep. I need not to sleep. People die like this when they go to sleep, don’t they? I need to stay awake.
Where were you coming from?
I don’t know. We were driving.
Where are you from?
I know nothing. I can’t feel my legs. You talk French for shit. Can you make him shut up – Shut up, bastard! Shut up! – Can you see him?
He’s on drugs. He’s druggy. That’s why he’s screaming, too. Not me, though. Not me on the drugs. All my teeth are loose, all of them at once, can you see?
Try not to swallow any of them. Spit instead. [Why would I say something like that?] What is your name?
He was already out of his mind, that’s why this happened. Look what he has done to me – Shut up, bastard! Stop your screaming. No one is here yet to help you. The man said they are coming. Look what you have done to both of us – He is saying that he wants you to try to recline the seat from behind him.
It’s wedged by the back door. I can’t. The pompiers are coming. Do you want anything?
Anything at all. I know it’s ridiculous to ask. But… water? Look, rest your head on this.
My head does not matter. He’s afraid he’s going to die – Bastard, asshole, shut up! Stop it. If you die, you die! You fool wrecked us and I am going to be paralyzed now, you good for nothing bastard. I can’t move anything below and your bellowing helps nothing – Can you see him?
His face is messed up, but he’s moving all his parts that aren’t pinned down. I don’t know, I can’t see everything under the dash, but he’s moving. He’s still alive.
I damn well know that. I can hear him, can barely hear you for his screaming. I can’t move my legs. Take my hand. Take it, take it… Pull me so I can lie flat.
I don’t think you should… Here, here. Okay. Easy now. Heave.
Arghhhhhh!! It’s cracking. Stop! Just… make him stop screaming, just… – Shut up, you bastard! Bastard! Bastard!! Bastard!!
But the animal part of the other trapped in the car could not be silenced.
That is how we looped for an eternity under the earsplitting waves of the other man’s animal howls, in a kind of cyclical aural and spatial bubble, a delicate, fragile stasis inside which roiled chaos, circling around, pinging off the walls of our enclosed, endangered system.
Another person (another better and stronger person, the guilt tells me) might have burst that sphere in which we were suspended. Much less an ambulance holding metal saws and the Jaws of Life. Even the promising call of a siren in the distance.
Instead, despite its apparent fragility, like the bent and shattered frame of the car itself, it held for an amazingly long and stable time, secure as bars on a prison cell with a view of the ignorant world beyond masquerading as normal.
Is the car going to catch fire? Oil is pouring out under us. Is there gas, too? I smell burnt rubber. Does that mean fire? Would I leave the one lying in the oil and try to break the car in a last-ditch effort to save the trapped one and risk them both burning, and maybe me, too? Or just take the sure bet and get to safety with the one? Should I leave them long enough to run to communicate with the other motorist now around the curve to flag oncoming traffic? Why is he not here speaking French and me standing over there alone waving dumbly? I cannot abandon these terrified men even for a second, when every second is so long. Where are the paramedics? Have they understood what has happened, where we are? Should I take photos? Should I try to locate any heavy bleeding? Is the screaming man going to exhaust himself in death before help arrives? Surely yes. His eyes are rolling back in his head, his hands are flapping limp by now, banging desperately against the steering wheel jammed under his neck.
There were no answers, only a repeating chorus of the same questions while his screams ricocheted off the cliffs of the ancestors, who had been nearly monkeys still when they had fought and worked to bring us to… this.
Colored strobe lights were flashing, reflected on the leaves and rocks and helmets. Stretchers were being strapped with bent limbs. Others better equipped than me were in charge.
It was time for me to go. I didn’t know what to do. Leaving the bubble of stasis seemed absurd, but of course the stasis was breaking open to reality again. The car was being cut apart. The screaming had not abated, but I had resigned myself that I would not hear it end. The good news there was that death was still at bay. As long as he was screaming, the animal was still alive. And so it was time to walk away from the strangers whose blood was on me but whose names I did not even know.
Before leaving the scene, I washed my hands with toothpaste from my suitcase in the back of my own car and threw up a little in the ditch. Hell’s Bend. I started driving away, and found out that I could not go faster than 40km/hour. Devil’s Curve. Malpas. Malemort. I could think of many apt names – new ones, too. And now every curve terrified me. Is that car ahead of me weaving??
It was like I had caught their trauma like an infection and taken it inside me, just by touching them inside that bubble.
How selfish! You were not hurt in any way but between the ears. Whereas they could die. They were bleeding. They may already be dead at this moment, and here you are driving like nothing happened.
At Cirq la Popie I parked where I had reception on the cell again and I called M. and explained what had happened and that I would be late getting home. For the first time my voice cracked and the emotions started to do the work of putting the pieces back in place which had broken apart so easily under stress. It felt like the hard-drive of my brain was being defragmented. The pun “hard drive” was not wasted on me.
Oh, I am fine. I was not the one who wrecked. So now I am supposed to believe in love and a happy trip home in the sun? That the next driver is not drugged? That the tunnels in the mountains won’t collapse?
I found that at least tentatively, I could.
I changed into dry socks and different boots. I bagged the coat he had used as a pillow and threw it away. Next right steps. But what was happening to them now?
That bubble had been intolerable, but noble and real. Now being outside it was suddenly worse. Stupid group-think anti-survival instincts flooded in: Guilt. Curiosity. Go back there. Empathy. Paralysis. More guilt. Remember.
I decided to walk for a while instead of drive. I bought a candied fruit bun and an espresso. I took a picture of another medieval tourist city on a cliff. Normal. Normal. Normal. And a bloody, treacherous, dangerous lie.
I had seen Cirq la Popie before, I told myself. I had seen all this before, in thorough history-buff style. I didn’t need to tour those carefully restored ruins yet again. And I didn’t need a damned fruit bun!
What I needed instead was to wash my hands with real soap now and pull myself together. I left the back roads and drove home by autoroute, the short way. I sang the continuing story to the air, which did not answer.
On that autoroute…
there is a rest stop
with the skeleton of a sabertooth lion which they found in a cave
while digging out the big highway.
It is set into the floor
beside the coffee shop
under plexiglass where children can gawk at it in both delight and horror,
and maybe for once with some accuracy
what other children before them must have faced in those same hills.
When you see the size of those teeth…
It’s a miracle that any of us survived.
In fact, when you look at an Audi or a Peugeot changing lanes, it still is.
Hey, are you getting all this, Eugene?