Excursion in the Pyrenees




            “Oh, you want the Dutch woman?” said the tipsy gendarme with a smirk. (She would have throttled him on the spot to hear him call her a Dutch woman. But, as she was to tell me many times afterwards, brains in the mountains do not operate in normal ways.) “It’s up there,” – and he waved at a swollen hill called Le Mamelon Vert , or Green Teat, steep, forested, with pastures hacked out in rectangular patches. “There’s a road there, take the road till you come to a gate, then take the mule path to the left and you can’t miss it.”

.           We found the gate, but the mule-path was more like a goat-path and eventually no path at all to our inexperienced eyes, and we floundered up what I estimated was an 80-degree slope through brambles and branches till we found ourselves, muddy and tattered and bug-bitten and bleeding, at the bottom of a short steep grassy slope with a hedge on top of it. It was slippery and we were on our hands and knees and not knowing what else to do I called out, Bronchia, Bronchia. And sure enough, two enormous arms appeared through a slit in the hedge and reached down and clasped the two of us firmly and dragged us up. And there was Bronchia, as big as ever, as regal as she ever was when she strode through Montparnasse, trumpeting her way among the artists.

            “Make yourselves at home in the mountains,” she said. “My home is your home now.”Stay as long as you like “

            Marion, rubbing her bites and bruises, was still southern and polite. “We don’t want to impose on you,” she said.

            “Nonsense, child,” said Bronchia, “you will stay with us as long as you like. You are too skinny anyway.”

            She showed off her domain with a grand sweep of the arm. A terrace hacked out of the hillside. Some tables with parasols, for she had started a little business serving crèpes (which she had learned how to make in Brittany when she came there fresh from Poland to work as a young nurse) and drinks to the hikers who clambered over the mountainsides for their health. The little old stone building had a sign painted on it to identify it as La Soulayte, meaning sunny place in the patois of the province of Bigorre. It hd once been a sheep barn in a winter pasture, abandoned and gone to ruin. About fifteen years earlier, somebody had repaired the walls and given the establishment a name but he never got around to stocking it with liquor or putting in furniture or dividing it into rooms. How did Bronchia get it? Well, she said, let’s begin at the beginning.

 

            The beginning was two or three years back, when her lungs went bad and the doctor said the pollution had rotted them away and she had at most six more months to. live and she might as well spend it in the mountains where the air was good and she wouldn’t suffer so much with her coughing.

            Cauterets, in the department of Hautes Pyrénées, up above Lourdes, close to the Spanish border, is famous for that kind of air, and fashionable people have been going there to breathe it since at least the time of Prince Talleyrand. 

            So to Cauterets she came, and she found a place to sleep in a refuge, a stone hut, up in the mountains, between a cascade and a glacier, at the foot of the summer sheep-runs. There she passed some peaceful weeks, listening to the waterfalls, and breathing deep of the mountain air. Very occasionally she would hear the sound of someone passing by, and after a while she became used to a certain cheery whistling sound which turned out to come up from a little man named Joseph, about half her size but as tough as they make them, a part-time butcher, carpenter, mason and mountain-guide. She would hear him whistle as he went bounding past the hut, looking for chamois, and he would look in the window and seeing that great mountain of flesh must have stirred him the way his Cro-Magnon ancestors were stirred when they carved those Earth Goddesses. They got acquainted, and he taught her how to live in the mountains, how to keep warm, build fires, get up and down precipices. She once got lost and spent three days alone up among the savage peaks, but with what he had taught her she came through fine. What she taught him she would only hint at when she said, “It isn’t love he feels for me, it’s madness. Don’t pay any attention to the way he looks,” she said, “of course it’s quite a comedown for me after the life I had in Paris, when you think of the people I’ve known, all the great artists. For gods sakes don’t tell any of our pals. But I will say for Joseph, he’s a hard worker. He’s fixed this barn up as you can see, I couldn’t have done it without him. He’s quite savage, you’ll see, say something nice about the country, that’s what he likes to hear. Of course it is a trial having Mémée around.”

            Mémée came shuffling out of the house about this time, an old dirty red-eyed woman all wrapped in black. “This is Joseph’s mother,” said Bronchia, none too cordially, “and these are old friends of mine, shake hands with them, Mémée.”

            “Where is my son?” said Mémée.

            “Gone down to get drunk, I suppose,” said Bronchia.

            “What are you doing to him?” said Mémée.

            “Shut up,” said Bronchia.

            We were introduced to other bits of livestock as we circled the house: a goat named Djali, a pair of Pyrenean sheep-dogs, some chickens, some rabbits, some ducks.

            “Where is Dulcinée,” asked Bronchia.

            “Never mind,” said Mémée.

            Bronchia accompanied us down to our car, and helped bring up our suitcases by a more reliable path then the one we had followed. She showed us around the house. Below, a kitchen-diningroom, a bedroom and a sort of muddy store-room. Above, a loft, reached by a ladder. “You will sleep in our bed,” said Bronchia, “and began ripping off the blankets.” “You’ll be comfortable here,” she said, “and I’ll cook something good for you, if Mémée has remembered to wash the pans. Don’t mind Mémée,” she said, “she is just like all these old alcoholics. The wine cask is behind that door there, here is the key, don’t let Mémée. get hold of it. If I weren’t here she’d be drinking all day long, she hasn’t done anything else all her life, Poor Joseph, think of his childhood, it was a martyrdom”.

            She grabbed a chicken that was walking by, wrung its neck, went into the kitchen to start cooking it, then she fetched a few bottles of wine out of their hiding-place and we sat down all four of us on the terrace. The sky was cloudless, the distant waterfalls softly roared, chickens ran around us, a lone hawk circled silently overhead. We chatted with Bronchia about the old days in Montparnasse, before the war, before Pierre ran off with that other woman.. Mémée sat silently, except for an occasional murmur, “Where is my Joseph,” and an occasional disconcerting noise, somewhere between a chirp and a squeak, which came out of her, came out of someplace in her too low to be her mouth too high to be her stomach. We found at where the noise came from when two little white whiskers appeared between the black folds across her withered breasts, followed by a little brown head. It was Dulcinée, her guinea pig and I suppose her familiar (for, as we were to learn, she practiced witchcraft and performed abortions on the side), and while she patted it and murmured back at it, she forgot her maternal woes for a time.

            Evening had come, it was dinner time. Mémée wouldn’t eat hers. She began to cry and shake and mumble, and finally we could make words out: “Oh mon Joseph,” she said, “he’s gone and killed himself.”

            “Shut your trap, Mémée,” said Bronchia, “and eat “.

            “He’s committed suicide. Just like his father. I knew it,.I knew it.”

            “Ta gueule, vieille bique. Shut up, you old sow. Eat your soup and behave yourself.”

            Obediently Memee. slurped up her soup, then following the custom of the country poured a glass of wine into the plate, lifted it to her lips and drained it off. Her eyes were redder than ever, but her blubbering diminished.

            We were through the chicken, which was delicious, and into the cheese, when Joseph did arrive, with mountain-man stealth, leaping from rock to rock like a goat, with a look of mountain-man suspicion as he inspected his new guests, a short, wiry little man. His hair has reddish-black tints of the sort that Frenchwomen like to put in their locks. His eyes appeared to be about the same color, heavy-lidded. He spoke with a strong accent of the Bigorre, and occasionally broke into a mountaineer song about his beret, his stout stick, his freedom..He did not look at me very cordially. He had been working on the roof of a hotel all day. He grumbled and cursed about something and Bronchia told him to keep his dirty mouth shut. “Have you fed the dogs?” he asked as he sat down at the table to pour himself a glass of wine. “Mind your own business,” said Bronchia. He said something else I couldn’t catch and she said something else, and he swallowed another glass of wine and jumped right off the ledge on which our terrace was located, straight down the mountain-side, out of sight in the brambles and branches before we had time to turn our heads to look.

            “Oh mon Joseph,” wailed Mémée.

            “Don’t pay any attention to him,” said Bronchia. “He’ll be all right, he has a good heart.”

            Mémée bustled about, bedding down her Dulcinée.

            It was quite dark by now, totally black except for the carpet of stars and a couple of candles which Bronchia had lit.

            “You must be tired”, said Bronchia, “you’d better go to bed.”

            “Perhaps we ought to get a room in town,” said Marion.

            “And how are we going to get down the mountain in the dark?” I asked

            “You take our bed,” said Bronchia, “I’ll go upstairs.” She climbed a ladder to the loft.

            We undressed and got into the bed, which was big and comfortable. Then Mémée came into the room, peeled off three or four black garments, unrolled a little pallet at the foot of the bed and lay down on it and snored. The candle blew out by itself. “I don’t like this at all,” whispered Marion, but having nothing else to do, and being quite worn out by our long drive through the mountains that day, she fell asleep like a baby.. 

            We slept a bit. Then there was a noise, of a banging door and of someone climbing the ladder. Then various crashing sounds, one object hitting another. Then angry words, shouts, screams..

            “What are they fighting about?” asked Marion.

            “Politics,” I said.

            I meant domestic politics. Most of the conversation consisted of deep angry rumbles from Joseph, in which from time to time I could distinguish a phase, “Alors c’est ton Bop! Or, la falcon que tu m‘as traité cet après-midi était ignoble que je te dis, ignoble! [So that is your Bop! The way you treated me this afternoon was disgusting.”] The rumble sometimes rose to a kind of yelp, and at times there was a hoarse response from Bronchia, “Tu me fais chier!” [You’re a pain in the ass.]

            Then there was silence for a while, complete silence but for what Wordsworth called the stationary blast of waterfalls. Then there was more noise, a crescendo of noise, beginning with a jangling of bedsprings such that I couldn’t tell if love or madness was at work, then a great banging as of a table falling over, then a scuffling spitting sound, a few Merdes!, a heavy pounding of feet, then a house-shaking sound as of a human body felled like high timber, and after a few seconds (minutes, hours) of renewed silence, a quiet steady drop, drip, drop of something on to the floor of our room beside our bed, light and regular against the massed background of the distant cascades.

            We were both wide awake by now, consumed by a desire to know something and do something, but what could we either know or do, naked in the blackness. So we simply waited for other sounds, but there were none. Even Mémée had relapsed into silence. After a long while the drops stopped, and the Pyrenees went back to their diurnal round, and having nothing else to do, we went back to sleep.

            We woke to a cheerful sunny morning, with warm smacks and embraces from Bronchia as she brought us our coffee in bed. She cleared up the mystery of the night for us at once, and in English. {For Bronchia, though she sometimes claimed to come from a long line of Polish counts, was really the daughter of a Polish miner and had been born and spend her first two or three years in Pennsylvania, and used to enthral GI’s during the war with her rendition of the American anthem she had learned there, Yas Yas Kiss My Ass.} “That Joseph very bad boy, I box him, you understand, I box him “.

            And indeed he had one eye puffed shut and the cheek under it was unhealthily flushed. Otherwise, he was in good spirits.

            She added details later. He had had an epileptic fit.

            “What? I was afraid he might be attacking you.”

            “Oh don’t hold it against him. It wasn’t his fault. He was drunk, of course and very upset. He saw your signature on that letter you wrote me, and he thought you were my husband, my Pierre, come back to take me away. [Aside from Marion: “Who in hell did he think I was?”] You know what it’s like in the mountains. With an alcoholic mother, you know, he is always having those fits, but this was the worst I ever saw. It gave me a turn to see him, I was afraid he was going to bite his tongue off, they do that you know. That’s why I threw the chamber pot it in his face.”

            “Oh. I had an idea it might have been blood dripping down on us.”

            “No, no, don’t worry about anything. He fell down and it stopped the fit right away. He’s as gentle as a lamb. Poor, Joseph, he isn’t much after the life I’ve led, me who has been married to the greatest painter of our time, and did I tell you that Pompidou can’t get enough of his painting to put in the presidential palace? But you kinow how it is, that’s life. And I have to give Jsoeph credit for some things. You’ll see, he’ll be like a lamb tonight.”

            He was positively sheepish.

            Anyway, that was the end of the melodrama. We stayed there four or five days, and they were superb days, sunny and bracing, the valley walls changing color patterns every night. Joseph took me up to great gray lake fed by a glacier, and Bronchia took Marion mushroom-picking in the upland meadows. Mémée, Dulcinée, Djali, everybody seemed to like us.

 

            Mémée would sometimes stagger around behind Bronchia and make spitting noises. Bronchia would whirl around and roar at her, and Mémée would sputter some Bigorran oaths, all about the Devil and Shit. At times she would get her old claws up to the level of her eyes and make wicked gestures. “Lie down you filthy old drunk,” said Bronchia. “Yah Yah,” said Mémée, “dirty woman, thief, what did you do with my money?” She skipped around the building counterclockwise, and she made hex marks in the ground, upside down crosses pointed at Bronchia, saying, “Bad woman, thief, thief.”

            Later she went down the mountain (she was 74, but mountains meant nothing to her) to help a lady down there plant herbs. They broke out a barrel of red wine in the traditional way, and when Mémée came up a couple of hours later she was swollen and incoherent. Bronchia picked her up and peeled off all her black skirts and shirts and shifts and shawls and bodices, and finally dumped her into bed. Merde, she said. Merde merde merde, said Mémée, and leaned over to make more hex marks on the floor. “If Joseph find s you like this,” said Bronchia, “he’ll break your head open.” And looking down on the now snoring Mémée she said, “What a pig, you can’t imagine what it’s like among these people, I thought the mentality of the Parisian worker was frightful when I was in the sugar factory, but you should see the mentality around here. The first time she saw me washing my behind, she said, Ooh, it’s dirty. What do you mean, dirty? I said. It’s dirty, she said, I would never do anything like that.”

            “Doesn’t she ever wash herself?”

             “Certainly not. Every so often it gets too bad and Joseph grabs her by the head and I pull up her skirts and we rub her down with soap, you should hear her squeal. Here comes Joseph.”

            Joseph came up springing as usual, but surly. He was working on the roads, and the weather as bad, and a slave-driver in charge, and somebody had had his foot crushed by a load of cement. That was probably a good thing for us, because nothing pleases Joseph so much as a good bloody tale of calamity. “You know that cascade just out of town,” he would say; “there was a girl there leaning over to pick a flower, and it’s slippery you know with all the spray, so over she went, and they found her fifteen miles below, smooth like a rock. Then there was that guide at the Vignemale, only a month ago, he was going with a customer and they were crossing over to the glacier and whoof, a crevasse opened and he went straight down, it took us days to find him, I was one of the first, he was standing at the bottom, just where he fell, wedged in, he couldn’t move down there. During the war you could see them all over the place, men trying to escape to Spain, and they would take off with a little food and no guide, and first thing they knew they were lost and going up and around, and in the spring we would find them frozen stiff. You’d be surprised how many people disappear in the Pyrenees. You take an Englishman, he comes here with a light pair of shoes, nobody ever saw him before, nobody knows he’s in the Pyrenees, maybe years later they find him coming out at the bottom of the glacier”.

 

            The climate in the household improved the day after the government announced it was increasing old-age pensions massively. Mémée poured down her glasses of wine without any recrimination and said “Merci Bronchia” every time a plate was passed. Bronchia gave Memee the credit for having chosen the spot for the vegetable garden, a slaty cliff side now all neatly terraced and bearing the biggest cabbages in Cauterets. “Yes,” she said, “Mémée has a feel for things. She was in bed with her husband once at four in the morning and she heard three knocks on the wall, just like that; and learned later that her brother-in-law Octave had died at four in the morning. And only recently we were setting the table on the terrace outside the house and there, over in the meadow we heard a cry, like this: Aooh.” “No, no,” said Mémée, “ like this: Uh-ee, uh-ee.” But they were agreed it was the cry of one who suffered. There was nobody in the meadow. But at that very moment, they later discovered, Joseph’s cousin Gustave was killed by a cement block falling on his head while he was at work. “Of course I don’t believe in that sort of thing,” said Bronchia, “still you can’t deny that when I was a little girl my mother always used to come to my bed to pull the covers over my shoulders because I was so delicate, and years later I woke up because I had a dream that some one was plucking the covers over my shoulders, and would you believe on that day my mother died.”

 

            At the table before dinner, Mémée suddenly began plucking at her withered little breasts. “I used to have some when I was a girl,” she said, “just like Bronchia. Yes I did, and there were young men who wanted to cuddle them, let me tell you. Oh I was a devil in those days. I went to school with the sisters, and they were always locking me up, they had a hard time with me.” “ I bet they did, said Bronchia, “you were with them till you were twenty-one and you never learned how to read or write.” “That’s all right,” said Mémée, “we had a good time, oh I had the devil in me.” Chuckling and her eyes watering, she told us how her copine and her, they used to go to church and when they saw two old women kneeling side by side, the would sneak up behind them and kneel and pin their dresses together, so that when they got up and tried to go their separate ways there would be such fun.

 

            Late one afternoon the dogs began barking and Joseph said, “I hear a voice.” The rest of us could hear only the dogs and the wind, but Joseph was sure. He had a flashlight in his hand and was out the door and down past the garden and through the hedge and plunging down into the blackness before any of us could get up from table. We went out, and sure enough we could make out some one shouting. Joseph reached him in a few seconds, and then he brought him up. “I got down as far the hedge,” he said, “and I helped him through”. He was an old, old man, eighty-two he told us, frail and wrinkled, mustached and drunk. He was going up the mountain to rejoin his cows and calves, but he had lost his way and fallen down, and was crawling and scrambling around and screaming for help. “Putaing,” said Joseph in the rich accent of Bigorre [in French it is putain meaning whore], “I heard you howling in French.” “ Our friends here don’t speak patois,” said Bronchia nonchalantly. The old man began to howl imprecations, in French, at his nephew who had turned him out of house and home after he had made all his money over to him. “Putaing,” said Joseph, “and where have you been all day - at Argelès, I bet.” “Yes,” said the old man. He hadn’t been near his cows for at least two days that he could remember, they were locked in the barn up at Cambosque. “You were at Luz the day before?” said Joseph. “Oh yes,” said the old man, “and I lost my way and my footing coming here, I am not as strong as I used to be.” Bronchia offered him soup, but he would take only wine, he didn’t want to be beholden to anyone. It was a bitter thing, he said, to be alone on a mountainside cast off even by his nephew. Mémée cried. Bronchia said, “Poor old man.”.”Putaing,” said Joseph, “are you ever going to get up and take care of your cows?” “Going, going,” said the old man, and after another glass of wine he went, but staggering so that Joseph had to go along with him to light the way. He came back two or three hours later when we were almost through dinner.

            He told us he had got the old man up to the place where he had his donkey tethered. He got the old man up on the donkey, but you know how it is with a donkey, if you’re not on one side you’re on the other. The old man went straight to the other, and fell off and began to roll down the mountain while the donkey went straight up. Joseph leaped down to catch the old man, propped him up against a tree and then went after the donkey. He couldn’t get the old man to stay on its back, so he tethered the donkey again and picked up the old man, thank god he wasn’t heavy, and carried him up the remaining five kilometers to where his cows and calves were bawling their silly throats out. Then he came back home. “Poor old man,” said Bronchia. “Poor old man, poor old man,” repeated Joseph scornfully, “you can’t imagine how that man is méchant. I’ve seen him bite the ear of a calf off.”

            “Why would he do something like that?” I asked naively, and he stared at me with a mixture of scorn and disbelief.

            “I’ll tell you why,’ he said, ‘Say you’re milking a cow, here, and the calf comes over and tries to push you aside, because the calf wants milk too, but you want the calf over here, here. So what do you do? You get a bowl and you put some feed in it and soak it with water and you offer the mush to the calf, and you lead it over here, here, and you tether it. But a peasant, a méchant, like him, what does he do? The calf comes up and he turns around and bites its ear and drags it with his teeth over where he wants it. Here. He has such an evil temper, that man. I’ve seen him come to a stream in winter, well the stream is cold, and maybe there’s a calf that doesn’t want to cross it. I’ve seen him get so mad he picked up a stick and killed the calf, then and there. And the he’d sit down and blubber over it, like another calf. Putaing.”

            “But it’s sad,” insisted Bronchia, “about his nephew turning him out.”

            “Tu me fais chier,” said Joseph. “His nephew his nephew.”

            “But it wasn’t right for his nephew to throw him out”.

            “Oh throw him out throw him out. The nephew is after his money, what’s left of it, but he isn’t about to get it. It was the nephew that got the old man drunk, he wanted him to sign his property away, but he never got the paper out of his pocket. That old man had a head start on him, he was at the fair at Luz on Monday, yesterday was the fair at Argelès. He used to be one of the biggest landowners in these parts, he had a farm at Pierrefitte, he a farm at St. Savin. It all went to his mistresses.”

            “Mistresses?” said Bronchia.

            “Yes, he had, as we call it, mistresses. Like you, for example, are my mistress.”

            “I AM NOT YOUR MISTRESS,” trumpeted Bronchia, “I am my own mistress.”

            “Just as an example,” said Joseph. “First he had one, then he had another. They got all the farms. Now he has those six cows, he is up with them all summer long, he will be up with them till Christmas. Last year he came down, it was the day before there was 50 centimeters of snow, I say to him, why don’t you come down, putaing, one of these days you’re going to fall down and you’ll yell, and nobody will hear you and you’ll freeze to death. It’s none of your fucking business, he says to me, if I die or if I don’t die. Putaing, I say to him, and when you’re stuck in the snow, when you stay up too late, and we have to go up, twenty of us, to dig through the snow so that you and your fucking cows can come down? “Tu me fais chier,” he says to me.

            “But still, you carried him on your shoulders five kilometers up the mountain.”

            “Putaing,” said Joseph. “Where’s the food. I’m starving.”

 

            In the morning, a great heap of fresh butter came down the mountain for us.

            “Putaing,” said Joseph, “that old bastard howling in French down there. If it had been in patois, I would have recognized him right off, I would probably have left him there. You can’t imagine how méchant he is.”

 

©2004 Robert Wernick