Beyond the Pont de la Daurade and its arched abutments, the high rose walls of the L’Hopital de la Grave, past the monastery estates of the Feuillants, a Cistercian order whose members ate and slept on the floor, and the city walls and its surrounding moat, there the sun slipped to its rest. There fomented a chaos of creed against creed, Catholic against Protestant. The second in line to the French throne the Duke of Anjou had yet to die. The Protestant prince, Henri de Navarre, would not yet proclaim his right to the French throne. For now, peace was assured as the setting sun, and Claude was grateful for his bounty of fish—hard won from a fishwife with a diarrheic mouth.
A long tape of fishermen boats unrolled the sights of drenched wood and tarred hues on the eastern bank of the Garonne. Barges pregnant with things Claude would never own floating by. The river had floated worse presents. Twelve years ago while Claude was tending sheep in the Pyrenees Mountains, students and maids dumped four thousand corpses of Protestants into the river. Toulouse reaffirmed its status as the most Catholic city in France, a strange status given that it had once been a stronghold for the Cathar heresy. Then in that time of maimed truth and idolatry, the river shimmered red with the blood of heretics as the Church and North Frenchmen subjugated the city for truth. After defeat, the people of Toulouse learnt they said their yeses wrong, saying the Occitan ‘oc’ instead of the French ‘oui’. The river had no thoughts on identity or truth; rather it cried with a gnawing stench of dumped offal, human effluents from holy and unholy places, and run-off from the dye works and tanneries.
Toulouse, despite its mephitic river, was still the city most in God’s favor, a fact the black-robed Jacobin caterwauling at the Daurade church square never failed to remind the passersby. His eyes were like cracked eggshells. His tonsure looked thornier than Christ’s thorns. Over the chatter flinging names across the square, “Jean… Jean-Louis… Jean-Baptiste….” the friar preached to his audience of three, something about the Black Virgin and milk tears, a summer of dust and plague. “God, God, God. Sin, sin, sin.” He yelled, he wailed, he jumped for a mind-clenching moment; still those barbaric choruses of Jean’s defeated his rondo of God and sin
“Maman, why does he yell so?” a child said.
“Hush. He gives the good word.”
Claude had since been deaf to the monk and lost on the young porter hauling cargo from a barge. The porter’s sleeves were folded far back into the shoulders, and his hose had been rolled up to the thighs as he had earlier being wading in the water. Lost and undone, Claude flailed in the far away dreams unfolding over the man’s angular jaw.
A random moment of silence layered over the square, and the voice of the friar rang clear, “Verily, I beheld the Black Virgin shedding tears. She hears all. She sees all.”
Claude cringed and winced at the thought of the Our Lady peeping down from heaven, observing his lips crimp ignominiously and the direction of his gaze, which was fixed now upon the sweat-polished arms of the porter.
He felt shame enough to shift his weight onto one foot then another foot … up in the sky, the clouds looked like the holy eyes of the Blessed Mother. He grunted, forced his eyes away from the knave, and began his way back home. But the friar had been waiting, pointing a trembling black flag of a finger at him.
“Your rot, your filth deceives no one. She is aggrieved. Terribly aggrieved. God sends his Angel of Death for you.”
Claude tried to laugh it off, but his throat knotted and his lips burned. The friar continued to pound his crucifying nails. The crowd grumbled whispers. This morning and last night and tomorrow morning and tonight. Sin. Sin. Sin. Black hands, a mind defiled. His ears grew hot with accusations.
The smell of the earthy river and the reek of fish ravaged in his nostrils, and decay glided down his bitter throat. He clasped at the wicker bag of fish, stepping back in preparation to flee. Something bumped into his back. He spun around, startled and panting hard.
A little girl glared at him. Black hair, freckled cheeks, a fragrant open flower… a black lily. The mother’s eyes narrowed, her lips tight, recriminations as thick as her furrowed brow… a black lily. A man chewing a stalk, certainly no flower, still a black lily. Everywhere faces stared eyeless and guiltless. Claude’s eyes circled wide and high to the rose window of the church, the niches housing saints earthen and guiltless; his gaze skipped from black hat to black hat till his vision was a pastiche of daze and grey.
Feet scuffled against cobbled ground.
Claude jerked around to its source: nuns with wimples as massive as cathedrals. The horde parted the crowd and pressed for the church door. A cool breeze nipped at his earlobes, and he exhaled a long breath of calm.
The friar insisted on the Blessed Mother’s doleful hobbies, and the jaws of self-judgment would snap at Claude again, but he clenched his fists and glared studiously as he marked one by one the physical traits that deemed the friar unattractive. Oc, the index finger that was missing a nail, the flea-ridden robes hiding a useless manhood, lips that drooped to the left, even in gaping and in shouting. The one blind eye that never blinked or focused on anything. Just another rogue who could use a tight hole. Anger flamed anew, and he made for the strip of light lining the road, which skimmed off to sanity.
His concerns for God were mostly cosmetic but with just enough seriousness not to land too deep in hell. Admittedly, he did not think too much on the conversion rate between sin and hell depth. But he knew the Virgin did not cry for him. God did not hear him. The friar was just an unraveling spool of Lenten hysteria.
Yet, Claude’s chest glowed a dull heat, and everywhere on le Grand Rue black lilies bloomed.
Supper was a lovely affair over the bounties of fish. The apprentices Luc and Henri gobbled their portion of fish and bread in one gluttonous moment then played among themselves a game of stab-the-hand to the tune of fish, fish, fish. The table banged their tedious glee. Claude suffered weary bites and long draughts, swearing and un-swearing never to buy fish again. Serge ate just as greedily, rapping his cup against the table and scrawling hyperactive thick fingers over bread. Fish was not on his mind. Dona Bonace, his soon-to-be mother-in-law, was going to visit the house in two days.
Serge slammed his cup and said one more time, “Claude, you will be perfect. She will not have cause for complaint.”
The table banged again. Claude glared at the happy fifteen-year old boys. Serge glared at him. He decided he could not afford more mishaps, or Serge would turn him out too early.
He timidly refilled Serge’s cup of sour wine. “The house will be in order for the Dona.”
The house had been Serge’s father and his father before him. For a house of a carpenter, the common room was lacking in ornate furniture. The table was a simple construction of board and trestles. Claude and the apprentices sat on benches. Serge had the solitary chair at the head of the table. From the fireplace coursed a low warmth, and the scent of smoldering rosemary laced the air.
After supper Claude put away the saltcellar and aquamanile, and cleared the plates and cups. In the adjoining kitchen, the reek of one-year old encrusted sweat crowded at its backdoor. Beggars had gathered with their own bowls, waiting on leftovers, like piglets around a sow. They outstretched tattered arms and invoked the blessings and curses of myriads saints as they demanded the good wine and the good bread. Claude apportioned them sop all the same. They were arrogantly grateful. They shamed him into living more fully.
“He needs a bigger member, yours needs to shrivel,” Claude said to a beggar who had complained of his generous portions to a boy Peyre. Cackles of laughter rippled in the cold air. Peyre stuffed his mouth with little hands yet unstained, not yet winkled or weathered, free and innocent. Claude smiled and plopped more sop onto his bread.
Far outside the circle of his stall side activity, the garden, his garden of herbs and vegetables lay before the moonless dark. A chestnut tree towered like a black mushroom, straddling the boundary between the yard and the neighbor’s. Two red globes floated among black leaves. Strange fruit. Blinking. Open, close, open.
Claude squinted and lost himself to the red mystery, the Jacobin, the Angel of Death and their affinity for chestnuts.
“I could use some fish. I know you have some fish,” the beggar said.
Claude growled, gave more bread to Peyre, and had to look again at the tree. The stars twinkled the same. Nothing—in the neighbor’s yard, but by a supporting beam of the back stall…
“Say Claude, what fish?” the beggar tugged on Claude’s tunic.
A murmur frothed in the chill evening, demanding better food, claiming the neighbor gave better food. Claude was deaf to the grousing as his gaze wandered the darkness curdling over the neighboring yard. A conifer of shadows provided a low canopy over the shrubbery palisading a garden patch, and again save for the faint disturbances of whiffling leaves, nothing risible piqued. He turned back to the circle of haggard men, fresh with a desire to knock rotten teeth out the black mouths of ingrates.
“More porridge?” Peyre said.
The delicate childlike voice, Claude thought hopefully, disarmed whatever bad omen lay out there in the indeterminable night. A smile crept onto Claude’s face, thawing his cold cast of a frown. For once, rude beggars were welcome.