22nd of July
While riding the bicycles to the beach, we would see a great of number of scooters swooshing along the streets and maneuvering between large and slow cars. Julia set her heart on a particular Vespa in red, announcing one day that she dreamt about buying one for herself.
So, Robert took a guitar, I took a tambourine, and we all drove to Le Castellet where Julia was singing her favorite old French songs. We had lots of fun. We were joined by a group of boys who were dancing to our music but, unfortunately, the money we raised wouldn’t be enough to purchase the red Vespa.
“We can still buy some churros with that money,” Robert said comfortingly, and I was afraid for a moment that he would add his “maybe it was all supposed to be like that”.
We packed our instruments back into cases and decided to get to know Le Castellet.
It was a town of artists that we fell in love with at the spot, walking along its streets not in order to get anywhere specific but for the sheer pleasure of strolling around. We visited a number of studios belonging to painters, sculptors, and musicians. A Frenchman offering a wide range of seasonings smiled at us from the depths of his store, while an artist was setting up her easel in the street to start creating a painting that could become her future masterpiece. We tried on linen Provençal shirts and filmy dresses, and we stepped into a candy store where we tasted little marzipan dogs. The perfumery, whose owner enchanted us with richness of scents, kept us for a longer while. Her eyes sparkled when she talked about her perfumes. She told us that everything in her house had its own scent – her bed smelled like green tea, the couch brought a cedar tree to mind, and the interior of her car scented like a watermelon. I was feeling a bit giddy when I purchased a lavender perfume, thinking about how much it would remind me Provence when I get home.
We returned to Le Castellet one more time to participate in Le Nuit de Conte. It was a late evening, and the darkness had already swept the hills covered in the fields of grapevine, the cypress paths, and the olive lanes. However, the castle square, located in the heart of the town, shone like a single star that had fallen to the ocean bottom. The residents gathered there in order to observe the three men who came out onto the stage in silence and transformed that silence into something incredible and unique, inviting the people to the world of pantomime. The narrator began telling a story; he was accompanied by a guitar the sounds of which seemed to originate not in the guitar itself but rather in the sky, flowing down in a honey-colored stream that penetrated the window shutters, poured over the flower beds, and embraced the entire town to let the collective imagination of its residents run riot.
Listening to the performance, I realized how long it had been since I had written anything myself. “Well,” I said to myself, “I have focused on living.” However, then it dawned on me that everything that is beautiful withers away, sooner or later. I felt a sudden desire to somehow prevent that from happening and preserve the moments that would be soon lost forever. Once we returned to the house, Julia and Robert went to their beds while I switched on the lamp and opened the door leading to the fascinating world of a woman I met in Le Castellet on that day.
The painting in an herb shop
The cicadas stopped singing their song. The world lapsed into silence. Lights in the windows were disappearing house by house. The wind was slowly and calmly strolling along the streets of Le Castellet, collecting the abandoned flower petals and lifting them up to the stars. The trees came to a standstill as if they had fallen asleep. The air was becoming brisker, lighter, and fresher; it was getting cleaned of the daytime hustle and bustle, the babble of voices, and the acoustic burden of steps. In the air of the night, there were ghosts of the past and the visions of the unknown, sinking into oblivion or being born in the daylight. A bunch of cats was rambling in the dark alleyways; other residents of the town were either already dreaming or standing at the dream’s door. In a quarter or so, clocks in Le Castellet were going to strike midnight.
Isabelle was sitting on a sofa. She was alone, and she was breathing slowly. A single lamp was looking over her shoulder, illuminating a letter she held in her hand. It was an important letter. She had been supposed to read it a long time ago but a petrifying fear had prevented her from doing so. She knew what had possibly been written in that letter as if she could feel the words through the envelope with her gentle fingers. She knew – that was the reason for the fear. Nonetheless, she couldn’t delay any longer. She ripped the envelope open with a quick motion of her hand, held her breath, and started to read.
She finished after a couple of minutes. She put the letter back on the table but she wanted to be as far from it as possible; she wished it flew away so that everything could be as it had been up until that point. Everything used to be fine. Fine? What does it mean that “things were fine”? It’s quite foolish, isn’t it?
Isabelle’s world found itself on the edge of an abyss. A few years back, she had opened an herb shop – it was her job and her livelihood. As a matter of fact, the place wasn’t popular but occasionally someone stepped in, and she could spent entire days sitting in the store and cheating time passing by. She deluded herself by claiming everything was alright. She had a job that brought money. Her parents had run their own herb shops, and they were doing fine. Yes, everything was fine. She hated that expression so much.
It turned out that the herb shop wasn’t profitable enough. Isabelle was several months in arrears with her rent. The owner of the building wrote to her that she would have to say goodbye to her store unless the debt was cleared by the end of the week. And that probably wouldn’t happen. Well, tough luck. She would survive since her husband made good money. She would be alive but at the same time, she would become nobody since she had been destined to be an herbalist. Everything she kept believing in for a long time would just burst like a bubble pricked with a finger.
“It’s not a big deal,” she muttered, sinking in the soft upholstery of the sofa, as most of us would do in the face of making one of the most important decisions in our life.
Next morning, while having breakfast consisting of a cup of chicory coffee, an orange, and a crumby slice of bread with honey, Isabelle reviewed the most memorable days she had spent in the store, flipping them in her memory like the pages of a dust-covered photo album.
Nobody was interested in running an herb shop anymore. Nobody believed in herbal medicine like Isabelle did. She had only three customers, all of whom were her friends, but she had a gut feeling that she should continue her passion. She had that feeling until the moment something broke inside her, the world she had constructed so diligently fell into ruin once she opened the letter. Nevertheless, she was still able to hold tight to her passion, it was like grasping the last branch after falling into a rapid torrent. She drew strength from the words her parents had always repeated to her.
One of the most vivid memories from her childhood was taking a walk across the meadow. She could remember herself running around under the blue sky with a smile that had been as valuable as the sunlight. She could remember stooping down to pick up flowers and a variety of green plants for arranging bouquets, inhaling so that their scent would start to circulate within her body, and then throwing the bouquet into the air to let it be snatched by the wind. Her Mum would observe Isabelle, standing next to her and smiling. Then, she said for the first time: “You should become an herbalist.”
Later, together with her Dad, they had started to tell her that on a frequent basis so Isabelle naturally followed that path, taking her parents at their word. She had heard the same thing from her friends so often that finally she had really started to dream about becoming an herbalist, taking care of herbs, and putting their magic into hands of other people. With that dream as a template, she had begun to draw her future, repeating to herself the phrase about becoming an herbalist so many times that eventually she had been left with no other path to take. Her dream had turned into reality but she couldn’t notice that mysterious and dazzling light, which according to her expectations was supposed to be her main nutrient after opening an herb shop. No, there had been nothing unusual. After a year, however, she had accustomed herself to sitting in a room and waiting for customers who wouldn’t come, with days merging into something great in terms of size, but empty and nondescript. Sometimes, when she felt awkwardly nostalgic, she would surrender herself to a mysterious waft of air, which would make her buy a brush, a scrap of canvas, and colors. Then, she would paint.
Her husband had “a more serious job”, as he used to describe it. It actually meant standard salary plus longer working hours. He could spend every moment of his spare time on watching Isabelle painting. Slow movements of the brush settled him down; he loved the look of her intent face and sparkling eyes, and the way she brightened in front of an easel. When she talked about the medicinal properties of various herbs, she was a different person, an ordinary man.
Their house was richly decorated with her paintings. Everybody who visited them was amazed but Isabelle led them to believe she had inherited the pictures. She didn’t want others to know since she was not a painter – all in all, she was just an herbalist. One of her paintings embellished her herb shop. It depicted a pair of lovers walking along a rainswept street in Le Castellet under an umbrella covered in colorful imitations of mythical cicadas. Isabelle would spend so much time gazing at the picture that it ultimately became the light at the end of the tunnel, which she subconsciously tried to reach.
Isabelle couldn’t stand being alone with her thoughts anymore. She finished breakfast, raised from the chair and, without taking anything with her, she ran out into the street, where she was welcomed by the golden rays of sunshine, transporting pride of the grapevine and serenity of olive trees. It wasn’t until then that she realized what she had just done. So, she clutched her head and immediately returned to the house, where she carefully put all the scattered items on their proper place, she prepared herself accurately, and left again, making a promise in front of the mirror that she would never again act on the spur of the moment. She headed for the house of her friend who perfectly understood her; probably because she lived in a completely different world.
Joanne was sitting in one of her least typical spots, in one of the least typical positions.
“Oh, it’s you! Thank God!” She jumped to her feet, jostling a cupboard from the top of which a beautiful faience jug fell off. Without paying any attention to the accident, she greeted Isabelle with great energy. “You look so sad!” she added, making a sad face.
“I want to tell you…”
“No, just wait there!” Joanne interrupted her with an abrupt gesture, wobbling on her feet. “In the first place, let’s have some tea,” she declared slowly and clearly, stressing the last word. Joanne was one of the kind; everybody who knew her, or rather thought they knew her, said so.
Isabelle agreed, rolling her eyes and thinking to herself that drinking tea was the dumbest idea possible on a scorching hot day. Joanne clapped her hands joyfully, tidied up her short hair, and put on a pearl necklace and a pair of earrings, which she wore only for the occasions involving the act of drinking tea. She took her friend out to the garden where, according to the ritual, they poured hot water into the cups, waited exactly three minutes, then slowly moved their teaspoons in circles, five times clockwise and five times counter-clockwise, clinked the silver spoons against their cups, and drank the hot tea, slurping loudly – the behavior that is so primitive but pleasant.
“Now, you can tell me everything.” Joanne straightened up, interlocking her hands on her inseparable notepad and sticking a pencil behind her ear. She was a poet, at least she was convinced so, and her thoughts were so numerous and rich that it was almost impossible to commit them to paper.
Isabelle asked Joanne to remain silent for a while and so she did. As the story continued, she was becoming more serious and when the only audible sound was the music of the cicadas, Joanne spoke.
“You know, life is not that simple and…” she suddenly became silent like someone who’s afraid they could accidentally give away their secret. Although she was still sitting in the exact same spot, she was somehow growing away and sinking into the depth of herself, being unable to utter any other word. Nobody broke the silence for the next several minutes.
“I think I should go,” said Isabelle, rising from the chair. She was a bit disappointed. She was a castaway, and she had hoped to reach land through her friend.
“Wait, wait a moment!” Joanne shouted. Isabelle turned round over her shoulder. “You’ve got beautiful paintings at your house,” she said in a fashion that clearly implied she understood, knew and believed in Isabelle, believed that she was a genuine painter and that painting should be the path to follow.
Remaining silent, the herbalist maintained eye contact with her friend for a moment. Then, she turned away and headed back home.
The rest of the day was just a regular Sunday, with the ceremonious toll of the church bells resounding between the buildings, accompanying the people dressed in white who were walking along the streets and having pleasant chats with each other. In the evening, Isabelle took a solitary walk in the hope that the night would soothe her fears and offer a string leading out of the maze.
On that evening, the cicadas’ singing lasted longer than usually. Isabelle admired the
sickle-shaped moon that dominated the colorful sky painted with lavender, ocher and a gentle shade of rose. The air was filled with a variety of scents but she was fed up with them; she had enough of everything and wanted to run away, to become someone else. She made herself believe that she couldn’t resign from the profession of an herbalist until she was left with no other choice. Well, she was an herbalist. That was the thing for her. She had heard it from everybody. But now she wasn’t sure anymore, she didn’t know anything, she had been thrown into emptiness. In an attempt to fill that emptiness, she imagined that she was painting the sky reflected in her nephrite eyes.
She spent the following days in the herb shop, being lost among hundreds of smells and shelves packed with herbs, which made her feel secure by enabling her to hold the fruits of her imagination on a leash and to keep telling herself that everything was fine. Since nobody came in, Isabelle kept staring at her painting that hung on the wall, the only picture among all the herbs.
The next day, the painting was gone. Isabelle panicked. She ran to her husband and asked him whether he knew anything about it, but he only shook his head in disbelief. Isabelle asked around – none of her friends knew anything about the picture, and nobody could understand how come it was so important for her since she had inherited it and had always declared it had been indifferent to her. Yes, she was quite good at lying. On many occasions, she deluded even herself.
She reported the theft to the police. After a week, she was summoned to the station because the perpetrator had been apprehended together with the painting.
She faced a young man in moccasins and a panama hat. He was smiling innocently. Isabelle couldn’t understand why he had broken into the herb shop to steal the painting instead of the herbs. She looked at him inquiringly.
“I’m terribly sorry. It was the most valuable thing I found in the store,” he answered. His voice was full of praise. “Did you paint it? Are you the painter?”
“Yes, I am,” said Isabelle after a short moment of reflection.
Today, if you take a walk along this street, you’ll see a woman painting in her studio. Tourists peep in every now and then in order to admire her works, while the painter herself stands in front of the easel with a brush in her hand, lighting up with joy, and her smile is as valuable as the sunlight.
To be continued
The whole book can be purchased here: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00W63AV26?*Version*=1&*entries*=0