The Miserable Gite
An extract from my fourth novel, “Walking on the Bones”. This section stands by itself and is supposedly the work of a character in the novel, Victoria “Vee” Pynegar.
THE MISERABLE GITE
by Vee Pynegar
There was once a farmer called Bourdelotte, and her husband called Bourdelot. They lived in a valley, along the stream of a river. They herded goats and sold goats and kept a pair of huge dogs which barked and barked at strangers and were not to be trifled with but which were really quite friendly when you got to know them.
Their little house was charming and its walls and roof shone golden-red in the sunlight. But often the valley was in shadow and the burbling of the water was ominous and sinister and because the valley was sometimes cold and the water was so nearby the house was often damp. Very often damp. Bourdelotte, Bourdelot, and their five children often had the coughs and splutters and the chest infections and one autumn it looked as though the smallest child, Sandrine, might not survive.
“This we cannot put up with,” said Bourdelotte. “Why should our poor daughter not survive the winter? I myself shall have a word with the river and with the damp ones who live within. I shall go and see the River Queen.”
“There are no damp ones,” said Bourdelot. “There is certainly no River Queen.”
“That is what they want you to think,” said Bourdelotte.
So she went down to the stream on an Autumn evening and as the sun was setting over the hills, casting the valley into slow darkness, she called upon the spirits of the river to guide her.
“Go upstream,” said a nixie.
“No, go downstream,” said another.
The two lithe white creatures giggled and swum around one another in the water.
“I see,” said Bourdelotte. “And if I were to ask each of you what the other would say?”
“She would say go upstream,” said both in unison.
“Thank you,” said Bourdelotte and returned to the miserable gite to pack her bag for the morning.
“Take care of the children,” she said in the morning when the sun peeped over the eastern hills, turning the sky pink and gold. “I shall return.”
And so doing, she set off to the stream, and followed it downstream, through reed beds and along pebble-strewn paths and past the ruins of vast old farms abandoned in this place since the war of the Cathars many years before and the stands of bougainvillea and jasmine and osiers where reed warblers cried and plovers called and further she went along the white scalded paths of her country.
Soon she came to a river and an iron bridge and there the nixies played and pouted at her, for she asked them no questions whatsoever, and they turned back into fish and plunged beneath the welcoming grey waters of the river. She rested and ate her breakfast of bread and cheese then she walked on. All the time the kept the river close by her and at a bridge a Damptroll stood, panting softly, its huge watery eye staring at her blankly.
“None shall pass,” it said.
“Nonsense,” said Bourdelotte and strode past it, feeling its hellish damp upon her. Defeated, it huffed and padded back under the bridge like a huge donkey.
She ate her lunch beside a ruined church where all had dampened and been covered in vast bracket fungus. The Damp Ones were more in evidence here. Flickering traces of moisture licked at her like a huge frog and snickered in the shadows. She resumed her journey along the little river until it joined a larger river.
“Is this the great river,” she asked.
“It is great enough,” said a man in a boat. “It has fish and eels and if you were to stay by its shores you would be happy.”
“Nonsense,” she said.
For in his eyes something green and chthonic had begun to flicker and she knew he was yet another of the Damp Ones.
Walking by the river in late afternoon she came across a land where a thousand tiny lakes spread across the landscape like silver ingots, or speckles upon diseased skin. She shuddered, certain that each tiny lake contained a nixie or worse. The larger river wound between the tiny lakes and Bourdelotte walked along, singing, and occasionally passed another traveller, but they were vague as to where the place she sought might be found.
“I seek the River Queen,” she said.
Travellers walked away, snickering.
Shortly she came to a town and saw that the river passed between two hills. On one of these hills low and invidious workshops of several stories stood, tumbling in ochre-coloured walls and courtyards to the river’s edge where boats lay high in the water, clearly not taking any cargoes for the present. She walked along the quayside.
“What places are these,” she asked, and was told they were the factories and warehouses and dwellings of silk weavers.
“And what do you seek,” she was asked.
“I seek the River Queen,” she said.
“Connais pas,” said the first and the second and the third she asked. But some sprite bid her climb that hill among the weavers’ factories and so doing she shortly stood at the top of a flight of steps, where an ancient Roman amphitheatre stood abandoned to the sun and the rain, and there, looking out over the town and down a street that tumbled in red and ochre and grey and silver to the other side, she saw another river, even wider than the one she had left behind her.
A finger prodded her in the back. She twisted round.
“What d’ye lack,” said a woman staring up into her face.
“I seek the River Queen,” said Bourdelotte.
“Don’t know about that,” said the woman, “but you look like a lady who has walked a long way. Come and have tea with me.”
Now this sounded like a trap to Bourdelotte, but she had indeed walked a long way, and those who wished to trap her were down by the river, not here inland.
So Bourdelotte did, entering the house of the woman whose name was Henin. Here were her three sons and three daughters, all of whom were silk weavers. Above the rude quarters where they lived was the weaving room, huge and with large windows so the correct colours of the silk could be easily seen.
“I know of what you speak,” Henin had said. “I believe there are those who may help you.”
Accompanied by Henin’s son Georges and her daughter Yvette, Bourdelotte set out.
But this low dive, literally, a subterranean cellar crowded with men and women. On a table at the end of the cellar a man was standing, caught in mid-oratory. Bourdelotte listened but could hear little other than ‘rebellion’, ‘escape’, ‘take down the frames’.
This, Bourdelotte wondered at. She was no stranger to dispute, on many occasions she had known farmers rebel against the merchants who forced prices lower and lower still.
There were, she realised to her satisfaction, none of the Damp Ones here. But,
“Madame,” said the man on the table, catching her eye. “You are a farmer, are you not?”
“I am,” she said, astonished.
“And so what brings you here?” he said with a gallant grin.
“My children are dying of damp,” she said. “I seek the River Queen who I understand can bind the Damp Ones who live in the river.”
“I sympathise,” said the man. “I have two little ones myself and they cry often for they do not have sufficient food, now that the merchants have forced down prices. But what can we do? And what you? We are forbidden to sell directly to customers and must sell to the merchants, but they will not give us a living price. Many are in revolt. “But you seek the River Queen and that is another matter.”
“Do you know of her?” said Bourdelotte.
“Hush,” said the man.
“I will not be told to hush by a factory worker,” said Bourdelotte.
“I mean no disrespect,” said the man “but...”
and he hopped down off the platform.
“May I have a word where there are fewer ears?” he said.
Bourdelotte nodded grimly and followed him.
In a side room stacked with empty wine flasks he told her,
“The River Queen, eh? I’m told you don’t go looking for her. She finds you.”
“But how does she know...” Bourdelotte began.
“She knows,” said the man. “That is why she is the Queen and I am merely Pierre Duval. Not my real name, you understand. I am one of the ‘canuts’. Craftsmen weavers, but still not allowed to set our own prices.”
“I am sympathetic,” said Bourdelotte.
“And I welcome that, said ‘Duval’. But I fear they will send an army from Paris against us. As ever the capital interferes in the workings of a supposedly lesser city and sides with the masters. Even the Prefet sides with us, he has declared there should be a fixed price and the bosses can’t chisel us down below that. But Paris overrules in the end. Perhaps, he mused, they see it as the region shaking off their yoke. And maybe they are not wrong. We shall see.
“The damp,” he mused. “We take our silk to sell to the bosses on wet days because we are paid by the kilogramme, and it weighs more when wet. But of course the bosses have got wise to this and leave it to dry for several days before paying us. I know Madame Henin. She is a good person. Stay with her. The Queen will know her own.”
Fires burned through the night, fires along the rivers, the Saone which she had travelled down, and the Rhone, twice the width of the Saone, a grey, imperturbable thing that left Bourdelotte feeling uneasy. She, walking by its edges, trying to summon the Queen if she dared, thought she saw sharp-toothed red nixies, some other species that lived in the Rhone only perhaps, darting in the flows, under the iron chainlink bridges. Huge barges lay at anchor in the flow and in the twilight she saw rowing boats rowing out to them. Generally she walked down there with George as her companion and protector, and he had himself provided her with a knife of the kind they used to cut the weaves, just in case. Hunched in a red hooded coat borrowed from Mme Henin, she felt completely detached from the Bourdelotte she had been, the goat-herding farmer beset by nixies and the Damp Ones.
But here, between rivers, she was hardly getting away from the Damp Ones, now was she? Nixies were an annoyance, little more, even if the Rhone variety looked as though they could scissor your throat open for you without the slightest trouble, the true Damp Ones like the troll were another matter.
Fires burned well away from the silk lofts, obviously. The slightest spark and the whole would go up in a roaring ruinous incandescence of nightmare and loss of earnings. There was talk of new methods, of gas lamps, but for now work could only be done in daylight. You could never get the right colours by artificial light, either. Stain silk so that a woman’s hair looked brown, and when you looked at it in daylight she had purple hair. What was that all about, then?
“It had happened,” Georges said. “The true soyeur, the silker, has a perfect eye for colour. We could be painters, he said, if we had the patience and the influence to stand painting some silly Duke or a scene from the Bible.”
“You sound very vehement about that,” said Bourdelotte.
“I am,” said Georges. “At times I will draw and paint on anything.”
And so saying he produced a stick of charcoal from his pocket and tore a handbill from a wall. He put it on the pavement and crouched, sketching the scene in front of him, the street descending to the Rhone, the trees, the small knot of people standing at the far end whom Bourdelotte had noticed some time earlier but had said nothing.
“That’ll do,” Georges said, standing up, showing her the picture then taking her by the arm. “Shall we continue our walk?”
They went uphill away from the river, away from the knotlet of people and through a series of passageways between buildings until they arrived at the workshop once more.
That night, in a sleeping space shared with two of Henin’s daughters, she looked up at the ceiling and wondered if she was actually awake or whether her sleeping mind conjured the low, watery voice at the far edge of her hearing. For a start she wasn’t even sure it was a voice, there didn’t seem to be words, just a soft tidal moan that could have been the Rhone or the Saone berceusing her and the family and the thousands of workers of the Croix-Rousse district to sleep before the endless fight for bread and against the bosses. What really sucks, she thought, is these are intelligent and skilled craftspeople, not the straw-chewing yokels I’m used to up in the upland valleys where we live. And yet they are kept back, by the system that allots everyone their position.
“It is not safe for you here,” said Mme Henin the next day. “I expect every day now that Paris has decided M le Prefet’s decision was illegal, that they will send the troops in with musket and blade to cut us down.”
“Then it is no more safe for yourselves,” said Bourdelotte.
“But it is not your fight,” said Henin. “You are welcome to stay here, we can feed you in return for your work if you care to clean and tidy up, that is no matter. You also have a husband and children and if you are to negotiate with... herself...”
“Herself?” said Bourdelotte.
“This River Queen you speak of.”
“You said Herself. You know, do you not, Madame Henin?”
“They say things,” Henin said. They were seated under a window, drinking bowls of bitter chocolate. “They say that she controls the flow between the rivers, that she is the Saone and... himself... embodies the Rhone. You followed your stream until you reached the Saone and then came down that way? Then... herself... would be for you. I don’t know if she looks out for travellers or lies in wait for them.”
In the clear light of an October day up on the hill such muggy, damp suppositions were far away. Somewhere a bell sounded the hours, drifting between clarity and mugginess, seven hours of the morning and dawn had risen once more.
“Keep the coat,” said Henin. “And the blade. You may need them both. Come back here if night falls and you have nowhere else to stay.”
“I am grateful,” said Bourdelotte.
In the streets it was clear that something was afoot. A patrol of riders swept up from the Rhone and clattered up the steep streets of Les Pentes. Workers stood on street corners, defiant, muttering, anything but working. Placards carried words like STRIKE. A group of men, walking close together, swept up one of the streets. A placard reading CLOSE THE WORKSHOPS.
“What is going on,” Bourdelotte asked.
“General strike,” the man on the end said. “We are getting all the workshops to close down. Until they recognise our guild and the right to a decent wage. You’re not from around here, are you?”
“No,” said Bourdelotte.
“Well I’d get out of town then, he said. If I were you. For your own good, citizen.”
“That sounds like a threat,” said Bourdelotte.
“Not from me, citizen,” the man said. “Not from me.”
She wasn’t sure. And the use of the old revolutionary-era word ‘citizen’ had unsettled her. Yes, the weavers deserved a fixed wage and the right to organise, but there were always hotheads who would take over and use situations to their own ends.
Avoiding the Rhone side of Croix-Rousse she reached the Saone and stood looking at the simple stone bridge she had seen when she arrived. Somewhere there were bangs, and shouts. Gunfire? She thought. What Georges had said about the capital not trusting the second city might well be true. Had Paris sent the army in already?
“It’s the National Guard,” madame, she was told. “The strikers are making for the barracks. I hope those shots were a one-off.”
“So do I,” said Bourdelotte. Crossing the river she skulked among the ancient houses on the other side, turning a corner she was suddenly confronted by a mass of grey.
She blinked, surprised. Her head felt as though it shifted somehow, but not physically, more as if she had moved sideways into another space.
The thing in front of her occupied the space between seventeenth-century row houses, and was about the same size as one. A pattern of irregularly-placed eyes stared at her, blinking lazily, and palps moved slowly and blindly. As she looked at it she began to see how it made sense, she was looking at the head of the creature and its body extruded into several dimensions behind it. It was chewing slowly on something she could not see because it was not exactly there.
“By God’s blood,” she said beneath her breath. For Bourdelotte this was about as strong as language could get.
She stepped back slowly, turning away and as she did so the sky turned with her. A wash of golden light exploded, if an explosion could be so slow and definite that it could be observed nicely over what seemed like several minutes. She clutched at the knife secreted beneath her red coat. Tried to turn and spin and cut and slash at the hand that seized her by the arm as she fell clattering to the golden-brown setts of the ancient street.
For several seconds she was looking up at the sky as a perfect white cloud passed overhead.
The next thing she was wide awake, or so she felt, and in some kind of room. Dark stone walls surrounded her and in two of those walls passageways led off.
“Where am I,” she said, unoriginally. Trying to move she realised she was sitting on a rough wooden chair. She did not appear to be bound but at the same time movement was difficult, as though she were in some way underwater.
“In a place between places,” said a voice. A low, female-sounding voice. It seemed to come from all around, but then Bourdelotte had always had hearing problems and even as a child her so-called friends would trick her by talking from behind a hedge, say, thus making it impossible for her to tell where the voice came from.
“In a place that isn’t entirely here,” the voice went on. “Or not entirely there, your choice. A point where parallel passageways, the ‘traboules’ they call them here, intersect. As the old song goes, there may be traboules ahead. I’m sorry, that’s terrible and after your time as well.”
“That .. thing,” Bourdelotte said. “The grey thing. Yours?”
“Good gods no,” said the voice. “You know what that was, Bourdelotte. That was one of the Damp Ones. Call it a scaled-up woodlouse which it sort of is. It’s big but it isn’t clever. Ever so malign though. Like a hamster. Stupid and very very vicious. I like gerbils myself. They’re neither of those things. By rodent standards. Imagine being suspended over a pit of rats.” She relished the word, the ‘r’ long and drawn out.
“Now one of gerbils,” she went on, “they would just climb all over you and play. But hamsters are another matter.
“But anyway, how naughty of me. I haven’t introduced myself.”
The wall to her right began to glow a weird silver and fluctuate, once again as though underwater. Although Bourdelotte could breathe very well, with just the feeling that she was in some kind of cave underground. Beneath the Croix-Rousse she wondered.
Then the owner of the voice was there. Tall, imperious, she had blue hair to her shoulders, a low-cut turquoise dress showing off entirely too much blue-tinged white skin and the start of some impressive cleavage. Her face was aquiline if not a little fishy and detracted from any claim to be truly magnificent.
Which in every other way she was. Bourdelotte, while generally heterosexual when she bothered to think about that kind of thing beyond the production of children, started to get a warm, shifting feeling between her thighs. The woman-creature smiled oddly.
Bourdelotte stood up.
“Are you the River Queen?” she said.
“That’s me,” said the woman. “Though queens and kings aren’t very popular round here. The silk industry lost half their workforce when the king made their religion illegal. All pissed off to England where the weather is much damper but it didn’t stop them. Their descendants still work the silk mills of London. Spitalfields, Whitechapel, Bethnal Green.”
“I see,” said Bourdelotte.
“And you’ve been looking for me,” said the Queen. “Drink?”
“No thanks,” said Bourdelotte remembering the stories her grandmother told her. Drink fairy wine and you’ll be down there forever.
“Suit yourself,” said the Queen. “Now, what can I do for you?”
“I’d like,” said Bourdelotte. She had a sudden fantastical image of the Queen naked with her no doubt strong thighs wrapped around Bourdelotte’s waist, their mouths going at one another’s so frantically they were practically chewing each other’s face off, Bourdelotte rubbing her petite chatte against the Queen’s legs....
“Dear me,” the Queen said. “For a provincial farmer, that’s some detailed lesbian fantasy you’ve got there. You do know that if you did that, and for what it’s worth, I would probably enjoy it, if you did that, I would never be able to grant you your boon.”
“Besides,” the farmer said, “I don’t actually know you’ve even got legs under that pretty turquoise dress of yours.”
“Oh I have,” said the Queen and showed one through a slit in the skirt. “See, not a mermaid. At least, not while out of water.”
“Nice,” said Bourdelotte.
The Queen smiled. She tossed back her blue hair to show pulsing slits in the side of her neck.
“Adaptable though,” she said. “Gills.”
I love you, Bourdelotte bit back. This is bad, she thought. The woman, if she is a woman, has put some kind of spell on me.
“Your majesty,” she said. “I would like (to rip that dress off you and kneel before you and lick your chatte until you plunge your hands in my ratty hair and cry out) you to drive the Damp Ones away from my valley and restore my family to health, especially my smallest daughter Sandrine.”
“That’s more like it,” said the Queen. “That is a money shot. That is the kind of talk I understand.”
“If you would be so kind, your majesty,” said Bourdelotte.
“Yes,” said the Queen. “Of course I will.”
“You will?” said Bourdelotte.
“Yes, although it comes at a price.”
“What price?” said Bourdelotte.
“Well, removing your river of course,” said the Queen. “The next valley over gets the whole lot.”
“And so someone else has to put up with the nixies and the Damp Ones,” said Bourdelotte. “And probably no fresh water for us. Well, suppose someone was to do that to me, she said. I don’t think I’d like that. Can you not just sort of exterminate the brutes?”
“You know,” said the Queen. “I’m a lot older than I look. I was thinking of retiring. You seem like an arse-kicking kind of lady to me. How about it?”
“How about what?”
“Taking over from me,” the Queen said. “I feel like spending a couple of centuries just swanning about the rivers of the world.”
“And what happened to the other ones who refused,” said Bourdelotte. “I might point out that I am technically a prisoner here.” She was too, she felt a rising panic, borne on the tide of being stuck here underground at the junction point of traboules that should never have intersected.
She looked down at her coat folded on the chair and at the knife still folded within it. She picked up the knife, studied it. It glowed red and orange for an instant. She looked at the Queen.
“Would you do it to me,” the Queen said.
“No,” said Bourdelotte. “In fact I might consider your offer. But not until my grandchildren grow old.”
“No worries,” said the Queen. “That is what, eighty years? I have lived much longer than that. Consider it your retirement plan around your year 1911. Come to think of it,” she mused, “you might need a safe place around then.”
“This isn’t a knife,” Bourdelotte said. “Well it is, isn’t it, and it isn’t, is it?”
“Confuse me,” said the Queen. “See if I care.”
“You can’t do anything about the Damp Ones, can you?” said Bourdelotte.
“I already do,” said the Queen. “I hold them back. From the Saone and her tributaries, just as the River King holds them back from the Rhone and his tributes.”
Bourdelotte looked into her emerald eyes and realised finally that she was telling the truth.
“I’m sorry,” Bourdelotte said. “I doubted you.”
“That,” the Queen said. “And I can be full of shit at times. There’s nobody to challenge me. Do what you have been doing. Build a sleeping quarters further up the hill. Burn lovage and tarragon and lungwort.”
Bourdelotte looked at the knife again. Outside she could hear the noise of riot and guns and horses. The red and orange spread and grew and a path of lights, red lights, opened in the wall.
She walked over to the Queen.
Why am I doing this, she wondered.
She kissed the Queen gravely on both cheeks, and then when the blue-skinned one was facing her, close enough that she could smell her clean breath between her blue-green lips, their mouths met. A jolt. The Queen’s knee softly between her thighs. Bourdelotte’s hands around the Queen’s waist. The kiss grew more and more intense. Finally they drew away, still holding one another gently.
“I love you,” Bourdelotte said. “You must be so lonely.”
“I love you, Bourdelotte,” the Queen said gravely. “Now go.”
“You said you could not grant me my boon,” said Bourdelotte. “But I think you were wrong.”
Slowly she extricated herself from the long arms and the webbed hands of her new lover. The knife pulsed red and orange, like a fiacre throbbing waiting. When she pointed it at one of the entrances the lights became stronger, and when she turned it away they dimmed again.
“That way,” the Queen said, pointing in the direction the knife was showing. “It gets you into traboules.”
“Doesn’t everything,” said Bourdelotte, and with a final squeeze of the Queen’s hand, walked towards the arched entrance, through it, and came out by the Montée de la Grande-Côte, blinking in subdued sunlight.
Gunfire echoed among the walls and trees, and the cries of wounded men and women.
Bourdelotte headed home.