Short story contest: a successful second edition
22 February 2023
Here is Allauch! says the doctor, we are perhaps saved. Walk in good order and smile. They are waiting for us. Do not speak to them. It is useless. Nobody would believe you. Let me tell them. I can.
For several days, they had been crossing Provence at a faster pace than usual, driven by the icy gusts of a winter Mistral as much as by the impatience to finally reach their goal. Then they had crossed the last valley, reached the top of the last hill and there they had stopped. In front of them, the village of Allauch, at a distance of one or two leagues approximately, offered to their incredulous glance, a garland of red brick roofs decorating the slope of the hill which dominated the graceful campanile of the church Saint Sebastian. Finally, above the bell tower of Notre-Dame du Château, the reassuring vision of the Virgin Mary, whose statue seemed to float in the pure December air. “Don’t talk to them, let me tell them”. Leaning against a rocky asperity that protected them from the frozen bite of the wind, the doctor’s companions approved the order in silence. Between them, there was no need for gestures and even less for words, they understood each other with a sign. A blink of the eyelids, a movement of the chin, an outline of smile was enough to express an agreement always almost unanimous, because it was very rare that one of them opposed to the benevolent authority of the one whom they followed loyally and since times so remote that they had lost until the memory of the day when all had begun… Who were these hairy and bearded men, dressed in poor, moth-eaten clothes, wearing imposing hats stuck on their heads, wearing boots worn and blackened by the mud of the roads they had traveled? Where did they come from, these curious penniless wanderers, these strange pilgrims without bags, these strange travelers without luggage who seemed to know where they were going because there, where the finger of the “doctor” pointed, they were expected.
Since they had left the village one distant autumn morning, Allauch had been waiting for their return. But when exactly had they left? Who could remember that year? Was it after the summer of the great drought that had decimated half the herds and plunged so many families into misery? Or was it after the fire that had ravaged pine forests and scrubland, spreading as far as the gates of Marseille? No one was sure, everyone had forgotten, except for the oldest of the Allaudians who still remembered that fateful day of the great departure, when many young men had left to make their fortune. But no matter how many months or years passed, it was certain that one day they would return to the country, as the legend predicted. Engraved in the stone of the fountains for centuries, an inscription in Latin, although illegible and impossible to translate, seemed to give power to whoever quenched his thirst with a single sip of water taken from each of the three springs, to always return “safe and sound” to his native land. This is why the elders were not surprised when the news reached them, vigorously carried to them by the most majestic and tempestuous of the sons of Aeolus. That day, Mistral swept the sky with so much power that several roofs were stripped of their tiles and the chimney of Mr. Barnabé was torn from its ridge, picked like a flower to fly in the air for a few seconds, before falling with a bang and ending up in pieces, without having miraculously injured any passer-by. No doubt, the message was clear.
They were back! And so that everyone would be informed, Célestin, the beadle, rushed to the bell tower of Saint Sébastien to ring the tocsin.
The troop of wanderers set off again, walking two by two as usual, adjusting their steps to the rhythm of the one who was leading them and whom they all respectfully called “Doctor. Although he did not have a degree from any faculty, not even a degree in medicine or in the Belles Lettres, this title was not usurped. Since they had been travelling together, this man, whose real name was Clément Gautier, who was neither a bonesetter nor a charlatan but who possessed “the gift”, had treated and cured them all, one after the other. The only son of a stonecutter and a mother who died too early for him to remember, he had understood from an early age that his hands held an invisible power that made him different from others and that his place was not with his father, in a mineral world made of noise, sweat and dust. Neither the priest’s nor the teacher’s teachings satisfied his thirst for learning. In a universe as vast as the sky and the earth, Clément’s life could not be limited to the Massif de l’Etoile or the hills of Garlaban. Carried by the southern winds, the scents and spicy fragrances coming from the nearby Mediterranean tickled his nostrils so strongly that he was suffocating with envy. So, when he became a man, Clément left Allauch, taking advantage of an opportunity that only luck, chance or destiny can offer to those who meet them. One autumn evening, he had joined a group of men who had decided to try an adventure, believing to escape misery for some, the gallows for others, hoping to find beyond the seas and borders, a different life and a better future. Clandestinely embarked on the first ship bound for the southern seas, they were dispersed throughout the ports of call and finally only a dozen disembarked in India.
At present, only Clément and six children from Allauch were returning safely to their native land. To their group, a small number of foreigners without homeland or place of birth, survivors of various shipwrecks, crippled by life, forgotten on the roadside, had been added along their long way back. A state of affairs that took the place of a passport but did not facilitate their nomadic life, making it perilous to cross the borders and almost impossible to settle in the cities, where they were regularly questioned by a suspicious and fussy marshal. In truth, these “estrangers” only owed their freedom of movement to the presence of Clément, who produced a dozen perfectly “authentic” civil status documents, all duly stamped, signed and stamped in the eyes of the competent authorities. However, it became urgent to reach Allauch. Serious troubles were shaking the country. Like an epidemic, an air of revolt was spreading in the countryside. The cities feared looting and barricaded themselves. The roads were open to all kinds of robberies and no longer offered security to travelers. Clement and his people had to press on.
The tocsin! Allauch could not believe the noise that Célestin was making as he pulled with all his strength on the heavy bell named after Eleonore, in homage to the Blessed daughter of the Count of Provence. Rushing from the four corners of the village, troubled and worried men and women asked questions of the councillors, who were as disconcerted as their fellow citizens. Why sound the alarm? No fires or smoke could be seen on the horizon of the hills, no fires were reported in the vicinity. Was war declared? Should we fear an invasion? An epidemic? Was it necessary to take
the weapons? Who was the enemy? The Saracens? The rats? The plague? What should we do? Resist? Lock themselves in? When “Eléonore” had finished sounding, the mayor and his deputies, followed by a number of agitated Allaudians, rushed to the church where they found the exhausted beadle sitting against a pillar, his forehead sweating, his cheeks reddened, still out of breath from the effort he had made. When asked to explain himself, Célestin stammered out a few sentences: “They’re coming, they’re back, they’ll be here soon, maybe tomorrow. The water from the three fountains, the legend… They are coming, Mistral told me, they are back…”. From the crowd, several voices rose up. Who was this man talking about? Who was back? What legend was he talking about? What did he say? That Mistral had spoken to him… Fan de chichourle! Poor Célestin, he had gone mad! Faced with such delirium, pity replaced anger. Charitably, he was helped to his feet, offered a drink of liquor to comfort him, and was escorted home with many kind gestures. Célestin was certainly not mad, but he seemed to be the only one among the older people in the village to understand that the men of the “great departure” had returned. After so many years of absence and oblivion, would Allauch recognize its lost children? How would they be welcomed?
Clement’s reassuring words to his companions concealed fears that were not unfounded. Having left to seek their fortune at the dawn of their twenties, they were returning home miserable and without glory. Their parents were surely no longer of this world. Who would wait for them? Who would remember them? Perhaps they were thought to be dead as well? If so, who would recognize them when they showed up muddy, shabby and hairy? In fact, walking in good order and smiling was certainly the best way to make people forget their sad state of vagrancy. And since it was necessary to talk to them, it was up to him, Clément, to speak. He, the storyteller, the juggler of words, he who knew how to invent fables populated with characters as real as imaginary, to create a whole universe of multicolored images to dress with dream the darkness of the most icy nights. With each step that brought him closer to Allauch, he built and then deconstructed the story of his adventures. His memory, however excellent, struggled to restore the order of the things. He lacked the reference points to reconstitute the puzzle of a life of wandering led with his companions at the mercy of chance alone. But what does the order of time matter after all! Clément would not lack words to tell them about the sea and its boiling waves, to make them hear the deafening tumult of the storms and breathe the sea wind full of iodine and salt. He would teach them to sail close to the whales and orcas, to fish in the translucent waters of the lagoons while tasting the sweet tranquility of the islands, true gardens of paradise. He would describe to them the valleys dug by majestic rivers with banks so fertile that everywhere there was abundance, the tops of the highest mountains which were on the level of the sky, piercing the clouds, without forgetting to paint them the colors of the prodigious spectacle of the volcanoes, from where lava and fire came from the underworld. And to tell them all about so many adventures, stories and legends, it would not be enough for him to spend one winter, he would have to go at least until summer.
Fada or not, the beadle was right to sound the alarm. A group of wanderers had indeed been spotted in the hills, walking in the direction of Allauch. The rumor that preceded them described them as harmless pilgrims seeking shelter, but who knows? The cautious Allauchians were on guard and kept a close eye on the access to the village. As for Célestin, he was agitated in all directions and was calling back the elders, those who, like him, had lived through the day of the great departure. Even if many of them were now resting in the cemetery, the event had left traces in the memory of the older ones. When the “returnees” would be confronted with the mistrust of the population, the presence of a few elders, respected for their wisdom, would undoubtedly help to calm the spirits and to recognize the children of the country.
Walking quietly in good order, mute and smiling, a group of about ten men headed towards the center of the village, followed at a good distance by the inhabitants who were more curious than frightened. These travelers were dressed like beggars, but their faces were not threatening. The one who was ahead of the others and seemed to be their leader even had a gentle, reassuring look in his eyes as he greeted them with a nod. When Clément and his companions arrived in the main square, the whole village of Allauch was waiting for them. There was a great silence where everyone observed each other. Then Célestin approached them, holding the hand of an old woman with a clumsy gait. Clément immediately took off his hat, indicating with a gesture to his comrades to imitate him. Without uttering a word, Célestin made the woman move forward in front of Clément and then took a few steps back. The old woman raised her hands towards the man and put them gently on his face. Clément had understood, he did not move an eyelash. With infinite slowness, the gnarled fingers of the blind woman explored every detail, every wrinkle, from the forehead to the chin. She took Clément’s hands between hers and remained immobile for a long moment. Then, as if to confirm what her fingers had guessed, she returned one last time to caress the cheeks of the one she had just recognized:
You, I recognize you, you are the one who has the gift, you are Clement, son of Joseph, the stonecutter. Welcome to the country, boy!
Then, the sky purified by the wind leaves its blue-night dress, is tinted of a cottony whiteness before putting on its usual coat of azure. Majestic and powerful, the sun suddenly bursts over the hills. Nestled between pines and cypresses, at the bottom of a valley on the road to Aubagne, the old stone farmhouse is illuminated and warmed by a shower of rays. Through the badly closed shutters, the sunlight infiltrates without modesty, drawing geometrical shadows on the walls of the room. Softly, the sleeper wakes up, blinks the eyelids, straightens up while grimacing, the nape of his neck aching from an agitated sleep. Clément looks around him with an astonished air, gradually becomes aware of the place and the time. Aix, the train station, the icy wind, the night already fallen and the cab that takes him to the guest house. “Where? Allauch? I don’t know! But if you do, Allauch is Marcel Pagnol! His boss had left him no choice, he had to accept to isolate himself far from the capital to work seriously. And it was the evening before that he had arrived at the “Mas de Jousé”, between Allauch and Aubagne. Clément, finally awake, sat down on the edge of the bed, remembered the warm welcome of the couple in their fifties who owned the place, the excellent Provencal daube served for dinner, the warmth of a wood fire in a large fireplace, and the long discussion he had had with his hosts, Antoine and Marion. What had they talked about? About their homeland, Allauch, about Pagnol of course, but also about their ancestor, a strange character, half doctor, half bonesetter, who, after having sailed for years on all the seas of the world, had come back to his homeland according to a legend that… Damn! Clément leaps to his feet! The restless night, the sleep that flees him, the dream. His dream is still present, almost real, engraved in his memory, within reach of words. Words that he only has to write. Feverishly, Clément turns on his laptop, validates the password. The blank page no longer frightens him. A smile on his lips, his hands move on the keyboard, while the incipit of his next novel is written on the screen.