BIRDS OF A FEATHER
Copyright © 2003 All Rights Reserved
The house was mysterious to everyone, because few had gone inside either the front building that was inhabited, or the back building that was more or less empty, or in the yard between the two buildings that was closed up by two walls. People could see a couple of trees sticking up over the walls, a couple of crawling plants trying to get over one of the walls, the wall along the small street that went up to the church overlooking the village. The two plants were a hydrangea and a honeysuckle. And everyone knew that in this house a man lived nearly as a recluse. They saw him every morning when he went out to the post office to get his mail from his P.O. Box and to get his every-other-daily bread at the village bakery. Everyone saw him when he was in his garden some three hundred yards further on at the end of a path in another section of the village. The garden was clean and grew a lot of vegetables with a few fruit-trees, a cross between a vegetable patch and an orchard. They of course saw him best in the summer, or at least in the dry and hot season when he was carrying water to his garden. He always said hello to everyone, except those who did not answer or care, which is rare in such a small village, and he even stopped at times to blabber a little bit when carrying his water to the garden, probably to breathe some. But the bouse remained mysterious.
One could see the curtains behind the first floor windows. One could see the shutters being opened and closed regularly morning and evening. One could even see the man go out some afternoons for a bike ride on the roads. But no one knew what he was doing in his house, how he lived, what were his interests. He was kind of locked up in his house and evaded all kind of scrutiny.
But his life was rich and full of ghosts and culture. The ghosts of a previous life that had more or less gotten loose and unwoven. The culture of a previous life that went on in his head and in his rooms. His wife was working far away and was visiting only every other week-end, or so. She had tried to find some work in the direct vicinity but had failed or rather had been refused. His son had left some time back to find some work in an even more distant place. He sure had tried to find some work around, but he had failed for reasons that no one knew but everyone suspected to be the result of a suspiscion from people in the area. His daughter had taken the easy way out and had married a man who lived in a distant town. She had never liked the young people around the village. So the man was mostly alone in his house and in the village, a mystery to all and the object of a lot of scrutiny and curiosity.
He got up regularly around seven or eight, had breakfast in his kitchen, smoked a pipe in his yard, then started working in his study, or in his music room, or in his living room. He listened to a lot of music and watched a lot of films. He read a lot of books and wrote a lot of articles or stories for magazines or publications so far away that the village did not even know their names. Most of the people in the village did not even know the articles or the stories that had never reached the village. And yet it was a nice village in some old mountains, surrounded by forests and some fields with cows and sheep. It was a nice village that was built a long time ago and had the charm of old stones. Some of those old stones went back to the twelfth century, though the man's house was only about a hundred and fifty years old.
And the man went on with his life, living it mostly in his own mind.
One morning in April, he noticed some moss on the doorstep of his yard door. He was amazed by it and did not know why this moss had landed on the step. He did not question the fact for a while. He just pushed the moss away to keep his doorstep clean. But this event brought some music to his mind. Some jazz music because the event was unexplained and for him jazz was the music of mystery, the mysterious people who invented it from scratch in various communities overthere in America. He imagined at once those poor black boys scratching a washboard or picking an old guitar or even blowing in some cheap and wornout saxophone or clarinet. But his attention concentrated little by little on another family whose father was a miner who pushed his sons into practicing music, pushed them so much that they decided one day to go on the road just for the sake of their music. He had just seen a film about them and remembered their strife and their struggle to become something in the field of the music business. He heard a clarinet or a saxophone playing duets with a trombone to the background of some drums. He went up to his music room and got a CD of that music and listened to it and dreamed of this vast world that had essentially disappeared but that marvelously survived in the music itself, that swinging music that rocked his soul and his mind into some oblivion of his solitude. He saw swinging crowds in some bars or clubs. He saw some swinging legs, stamping feet and dancing knees in some poor houses, huts at times, following the music that was pouring down from old radios or that was flying up from old records. There was some joy in this music, some deep belief in life and its natural beauty. Yet he could not ignore the suffering, the melancholy of this life in which the music was a compensation for the lack of happiness and pleasure, an evasion from work, social limitations and all kinds of frustrations. The impossibility to speak one's mind, to build a happier world, to invent a new life in which everyone would be equal, merry and joyful. The man remembered his life, when he had his family around him and when his house was living as some kind of open house, open to friends and acquaintances who regularly dropped by and had discussions and drinks. But that time was gone and little by little friends and acquaintances had lost the memory of the way to this house, of the man who was living in it.
He thought of the event that determined this change, an event he had not seen coming and that had taken him by surprise and aback. The charge that he was an outsider after all in this community and that he did not stick to it, to its functioning and criticized its closedness and even jingoistic isolation. When he arrived in this village some years back he was accepted as some kind of entertainment, but he wanted to play a role in the village, to have his say on the village business, and the people started resenting it because he was considered as a meddler, as meddling with local business that he did not know. So, little by little, he was isolated and rejected. And now he was living in his own mental world. He knew he had to go out in the world to conquer a position. In fact he was doing that in the distant world but the village ignored that distant world and he was totally unknown in his achievements in the village. When he was too bored by this isolation, he took his tools and went to his garden. When he was too bored by this rejection he took his bike and went for a ride. And he listened again to the Dorseys and their music and he enjoyed their swinging happiness, their dancing light, their inspiring motifs. His mental world got some color and some depth. Life was becoming a success, but only in his mind and he felt kind of sad and nostalgic about a life he had before, before coming to this village and opening his house. But nostalgia was not exactly his cup of tea, or of coffee as for that. So he moved to his study and buried himself in his computer to check his email, his regular link to the outside world, and then into a book.
There was a catch in his life and he thought the catch was numbered 22. He remembered the book and looked at his life and considered that it was just that. He had bought a house and had opened it in the village. Hence he had become part of the village and could speak to people and exchange ideas. But he was not born in the village, he was not from the area, from this territory, and that implied that he was not supposed to meddle with the business of the village. He could live in it, speak about the weather or the growing of his vegetables, but he was not part of it, part enough to have his say on local business, on the renovation of the church, on the discussions in the city council, on anything that was of any importance for the village. Catch 22. You live in the village but you are not part of it because your roots are too young.
And thus he went back to his yard to smoke a second pipe, since he never smoked inside the house. And this time he noticed a couple of birds, nothing glamorous, just a pair of sparrows, jumping from one branch to another in the sorrel tree, jumping or flying from one wall to the other, from the honeysuckle to the yew, from the ferns to the hydrangea, and finally to a hole over the door. This last move surprised the man who decided to look up. He could not see much from his sitting position on the doorstep. So he got up and moved slightly away from the door and he could see what amounted to a nest over the door in the triangular hole that was built as a support to the wall, a nest of moss and a bird more or less guarding it against invaders. He sat back down on the doorstep and started thinking what he could do to make friends with these birds who had chosen his house to build their nest. He welcomed them in his heart and wanted to get acquainted with these visitors. But it is not easy to befriend a couple of sparrows.
And that's when his life completely changed.
Every morning, and regularly during the day, he came out and observed the birds who clicked nicely while guarding the nest. After a while only one bird was guarding the nest. The man assumed the other bird was sitting on her eggs, since it was spring. He never did anything rash that could have frightened the birds. He put out a small plate with bread crumbs in it. He put out a small saucer with some water. He started giving the birds some comfort, hoping he would be able to make friends with them. But that was going to be a lot more difficult than he had thought at first.
But after a few days something else changed. He was sitting in his study, reading a book when he heard some cracking noise. He was not surprised really because an old house cracks naturally, but the cracking was louder than usual and it lasted longer. So he stopped reading and listened to that noise. At the same time he could hear the birds chirping lightly in the yard through the open window. And the two noises became some kind of dialogue, some kind of story that was told to him. He listened and listened and little by little delved himself into that story and tried to follow it.
It was a long time ago. An old family lived in the house. There were many children. They were always laughing and fooling about with games and songs and some work too. They were happy. But a war came to the country, the war, and the parents and grandparents who were living in the house, the parents in the front house and the grandparents in the back house, the older generations did not remain neutral in the occupation that followed the loss of the war. They started organizing some kind of circulation of agricultural goods to those who could buy them, to the occupying troops and to the puppet administration that governed the country under occupation. They also used the black market as an outlet and they accumulated some riches by exploiting the situation. In the village that was not seen as a good thing to do. Of course everyone understood that they could not refuse to sell their goods to various authorities, but people considered that they had to be more prudent, more careful and less willing, that they had to support the resistance too, and the occupants of the house did not support it at all. They seemed to be happy with the situation and to make a profit out of it. They did not show the profit too much, but they lived in a comfort, a luxury which was frowned upon by most other people in the village.
Suddenly the father of the house spoke to the man.
"Peter, what would you have done ? Would you have stopped growing and producing just because you would have refused to collaborate ? That was going against our grain, our traditions. The land had to be tilled and the produces had to be sold. Otherwise the earth, the soil, the fields would have turned sour. We had to do what we did, and we were not the only ones."
And another voice, coming from a farther layer of history said :
"But you did not help those who resisted this occupation."
"Why should we have ? History was going its own way and we were only following it."
"You could have followed the way of the resistance."
"That was too dangerous. We could have been found out and severely punished, probably by death."
"So you were afraid, you were cowards, yellow bellies."
"Maybe we were but we had to follow the trend. And you must admit that we did not oppose the final victory of the resistance."
"But you did not help it and you did not quicken the coming of the victory."
And the voice stopped. Peter, since now we know his name, thought of that period that was before his birth. He thought of what he had heard from his own parents, about this period, how people were divided between the two sides, and how so many were helping both sides, getting immediate peace by collaborating with the authorities, and peace of mind and future peace by helping the resistance. But he was surprised by the tale he was starting to get from the house in those strange visions of the past. He did not believe at all in supernatural events, and yet he had to admit someone, something was telling him a story.
The following day he got out of his house, after greeting his birds in the yard, and went to visit an old man in the village and asked him some questions about the war and what the people in his house had done at the time.
"What was the attitude of the people in the house during the war ?"
"A lot of things were said at the time and are still told by older people who still remember. From what I have heard the people in this house had a big farm in the mountain and they were producing a lot during the war. I have often heard my own father telling how these people during that period sold their products and produces to anyone who was ready to pay for them. That was not rare in our village. Many farmers did that, including selling on the black market, but this family was the only one who refused to give some of their goods to the people who were organizing themselves in the woods to fight against the Germans and the puppets of Vichy. But it ended up in some kind of drama."
"What drama ?"
"One night, or rather afternoon, the resistance killed a member of the militia of the puppet governement on the very platform of the railwaystation, as he was getting down from the train. Some hostages were taken at once, ten of them, and all of them shot on the main square as a retribution or retaliation to this assassination. The point is that one member of the family we are speaking of was picked as a hostage. And the family managed, through their connections, to have him liberated and hence not executed. Another man was picked to replace him. This shocked the village deeply, that they did not accept the fate that was befalling the village after the assassination of the militia man. And this hatred, that started on that day, went on after the war. But after the war, they managed to get total security because of their connections from during the war, connections with people who managed, most of them, to stay in their official positions."
"But that was common after the war, and what is so particular about this family ?"
"The particularity of this family is that after the war they went on with their farm, but the people in the village hated them. So some of their cows were poisoned, their sources in their fields were soiled and hampered with, some salt was spread on their meadows. They were in a way victimized after the war, till they decided to sell their property and to leave the country, I mean the village. But I remember some more dramatic event in 1947, just before they decided to leave."
" And what was that ?"
"They had several children, and one of their daughters was about eighteen and she was beautiful. She used to be courageous and hardworking. What happened was a real drama. She took her cows to a pasture one day but never came back. So a search party was organized by the family and they found her dead in the mountain, a hayfork planted in her chest. And that's when things became very sad. The police never found the criminal. Names were murmured and whispered in the village, but no prosecution came out of it. The killer went free and is probably still living in the village or around. It was said it was a young man who wanted to marry her but she had refused. It was also said that the local police chief was an old member of the resistance and that he refused to look into the business because of the role the family played during the war. Some say that he would have declared, in private, that it was the punishment for the hostage business. Some old people who have been christians all their lives even say, still say, that it was a punishment from God and that no one was supposed to go against it."
"A crime like that can go unpunished in a village like this ?"
"O, yes, and that happens more often than we think."
After this discussion Peter was puzzled by such hatred in a small village like this one. A hatred that can lead to a horrible drama, a hatred founded on some unpunished evil deed in a certain period and that can lead to a horrible vengeance. He went back to his house. He smoked a pipe in his yard with the two birds flying from branch to branch and clicking and chirping gently, especially now that the nest was full of little fledglings that were getting ready to fly away sooner or later. He went back to his study and looked for a big file where he had sorted out and put away letters and papers he had found in the house. He looked at them and tried to find some relevant documents. And he did find a letter from July 1944 and he was amazed by its content.
"Dear uncle Thomas,
"…It is surprising to learn from people in Vichy that you delivered two cows, three sheep, and five kilograms of butter to the Militia. I am surprised that you are so careless in the present period. That may lead to sorrows and sad events. You cannot ignore that the puppet government and the occupying troops are on the move out and that defeat is at hand, sooner or later, and probably sooner than later. You should take some distance from those people and refuse to provide them with goods that should go to those who fight against them. …"
This letter confirmed what Peter had learned from the old man. So he let himself be transported in some kind of reverie when he heard the house cracking again. Was the house going to speak to him again ?
"I don't understand the gendarmes. Mary has been killed. We all know by whom and why, and they refuse to prosecute, to investigate, to do anything."
"But Thomas, you must understand why it is so. You are not accepted in the village any more because of what we did during the war."
"Does that mean we will have to leave the village ?"
"Probably, Thomas. Look at things in retrospective. Our springs poisoned, our pastures salted, our fields vandalized, our house egged and soiled with all kinds of stuff. We have to look carefully before we step out of our front door. Manure dropped there regularly. That cannot go on for ever. We definitely have to do something about it."
"I guess you must be right. I will see the notary public tomorrow."
And the voices stopped, and the birds in the yard chirped, and Peter understood that no one can go against the mental disposition of the villagers. He looked at the birds through the window and he listened to the chirping fledglings and finally decided to look into what he could do to change his position in the village.
This very evening he went to one of his acquaintances in the village, a man who had come to his house quite often in the past and he had a direct and truthful discussion with him.
"Why do you think I am so isolated ?"
"It's partly your fault. You wanted to take part in debates you do not understand entirely. In a village like ours we have families and everyone is the cousin of someone else. Those families are some kinds of clans and the debate, any debate, even if it is about a fountain to be put up in the main square, has to go along those lines and a consensus must be found between those families who must agree on the project, otherwise the village is divided. You generally took positions that were right in principle but that were going against the fragile agreements that the various families had worked out. So you found yourself rejected and no reason was given, so you felt rejected blindly. That is what we call to belong. You must integrate one of those families, but you can't because you are a newcomer, so you must remain neutral."
"But that goes against all traditions in our country. Everyone has the right to speak his mind and to be listened to."
"Maybe. But there is another thing that you probably do not know about. You reopened a house that had been closed for a long time. There is some kind of curse against this house."
"I think I know about it. It has to do with the war."
"Yes, and you are the victim, in a way, of the house. Remember when you tried to put up pots with flowers in front of your house."
"The pots were broken and the plants were killed."
"Right. It is part of the curse."
"But I am not responsible for the house, for what the old inhabitants used to do and for their mistakes."
"You sure are not, but it has been an old tradition to reject the house. Old people could not go along it without signing themselves and more or less invoking God to punish this evil house. Younger people who do not believe in God any more, just look for ways of attacking the house, showing their hatred to the house."
"But those younger people do not know about the inhabitants of old who left the house in 1947 ?"
"They do not know, but they were raised in the hatred of this house. And that hatred cannot be erased easily."
"What do you suggest then ?"
"Next Sunday, for the traditional festivities of Saint John, the village organizes a big night of activities. Everyone is supposed to take part and participate, with what they can. Some will be playing music, of a type or another, some will be telling old stories and what they remember of the past. Some will be dancing some traditional dances. Maybe you should take part and propose something that will make you a member of the village again, something that will integrate you in the village."
"But what ? All the things I do have nothing to do with the village itself."
"From what I know, you seem to be learned about the past, about the old past. Why not tell a short story about some old squire of the village, about the one who built the first bridge, about this same one who extended the chapel into a church and who incited peace and the raising of many children in the fifteenth century after the wars. I guess you can do that, you can think of something."
"That's an idea. I am going to think about it. Where am supposed to register ?"
"At the city hall, like everyone else."
"Well, thank you. I am going to see what I can do."
And Peter left his old acquaintance, maybe friend. And he went home to think of this curse on a house that is automatically transferred onto the inhabitants of the house, no matter who they are. He went back to his study but could not concentrate. So he moved to his music room and listened to some CD, to the Flying Dutchman and realised that curses are not supernatural but simply the result of human hatred or human fears. When a community hates or fears someone, a curse is thrown upon him or her. They are accused of being witches or beings of darkness and they are rejected. But in the Flying Dutchman he wondered if the curse was not more attached to the ship than to the captain. He thought that the ship was banned from all harbors and that the captain was banned at the same time. But why this banning of a ship ? And his thinking moved to the house again. He thought of the causes of the curse and he tried to think of a way to get out of it, to get rid of the curse and save the house and himself. And he came to the conclusion that it might be a nice idea to evoke this squire of the fifteenth century who is attached to the prosperity of the village, Agne IV was his name. And he let himself work on the idea, collect some knowledge, memories of what he had read and some way of presenting this man, this period. And he looked for documents, for ideas, and he did find something. So he registered at the city hall for the celebration.
On the morning of the feast he went out in his yard for a smoke and he was amazed to hear so much chirping. He looked around and found out that the little birds were no longer fledglings but were now flying about. The yard was literally overflown with nearly a dozen birds, all of them warbling and singing joyfully at their new ability. They were ready to leave the nest and go on their own road to maturity. The parents were standing on top of the wall along the small street and admiring, probably proudly, their little kids, the new generation that they had brought to life. And then suddenly, as if on a signal from someone, a signal that Peter could not identify, all the younger birds flew away into the sky, probably never to return. The parents stayed on the wall for a while and then flew away too, probably never to return either, or at least not to return for some time since the nest was now useless. They were going to live in the branches of trees and in the bushes of gardens and paths, hiding away from hawks and preparing for the summer and of course the winter that will come afterwards. Peter got inspired in a way by this living and natural fate. The nest, and the house, became a background to life and its joys or dangers, a background you can always come back to but that is no longer needed in order to be, to exist. He understood that he was not supposed to lock himself up in his house, but that he had to live outside, the house only being a retreat for the night, for the periods when he had to work. He understood he had to move out toward the village, toward people in the village and assume his position by making it present all the time. He had to take part, to be a member of the community and to accept their rules, even if they seemed at times unacceptable.
The night of Saint John, at the end of June, came and the village was tremendously joyful, festive, overwhelmed with this celebration of the coming summer and also of the future crops. Young people played some music, loud music with amplified guitars and drums. Some others, less young, played some traditional music coming from older times, mainly from the nineteenth century and some danced to that music. The dancers had taken out their traditional costumes, dresses and hats, and especially their old wooden clogs that banged on the ground in pace with the hurdy-gurdies, bagpipes and accordeons. A couple of old people told old stories about witches and other supernatural beings living in the mountains and the adventures of those who fought against them, to nullify their powers or their misdeeds. And Peter's turn came and he started telling his story.
"It was a time when life was terrible, I mean full of terror. Wars had been going on for nearly a century, with all kinds of armies roaming in the valleys and the mountains, the English army as well as the French army, but also local bands of soldiers who were more highwaymen and robbers than anything else. Every night houses and villages were locked up against the intrusion of some groups of thieves or outlaws. But the end of these wars arrived and in the village a new and young baron arrived too. He was also a viscount due to his marriage with his cousin to avoid some family strife. He dedicated his long life to provide his barony with security and prosperity. He built the first bridge over the river to link the two sides and encourage commerce. He rebuilt the castle and the churches and he put up some police force to fight against all kinds of thieving rebels. He encouraged the population to have as many children as possible to provide hands for the fields and to work in the village after the disaster and deep wounds the plague and the wars had inflicted on the people, the village, the hamlets and the cultivation of the soil. He encouraged the growing and weaving of hemp to put on the market canvas, cloth and ropes that were so needed after all the mishaps of the previous decades. He had the chapel of the castle extended into a church to provide the whole village with religion, sacraments and services. He also had the roads repaired and the moats and ditches cleaned up and taken care of. He set an example to the people by having thirteen surviving kids and the barony started to flourish again with the textile industry that provided work for the winter, with the mills on the river, the tanneries, the cheese production, and of course the agriculture in the valley as well as in the mountains. Pretty soon the barony was powerful and strong. It is at this moment that a myth developed. The evil times were represented in popular lore by the existence and the exactions of a beast living in the mountains and the new baron brought peace on that front too. People started telling that a young man came to the village and went up into the mountains to kill the beast, and the beast was killed. Peace in the valley and prosperity in the homes of all the hard-working people of the barony. The lesson of this time is that one must have the courage to kill the past, especially to put aside the evil habits and beliefs of the past to build a new future for the community. This baron, Agne IV, should be recognized as a great man in our village and should be honored for his strong influence for the renaissance of the community. Are those old times much different from modern times ? I believe not because history is a constant repetition of cycles of prosperity and of fear. We have to step beyond our fears to get to a new era of prestige."
When the story was finished, and everyone liked its shortness, there was a moment of silence among the audience and then they started whispering about what no one will ever know, and they began clapping, timidly at first and then with more strength and enthusiasm.
On the following day Peter was greeted with more warmth from the people in the village. They asked him questions about his life and what he was doing. One, the Mayor, even said that it was a pity that Peter's house was more or less cursed and that everyone should forget about past evils and only look at the present. And they started to concentrate on the present and some apologized for having thought of the past too much, since Peter had nothing to do with it. They started again knocking on the door and ringing the bell to say hello and to have a chat every so often. Life had won a new battle and Peter was part of the community again.
One evening in July, he was sitting in his yard and smoking his pipe, and suddenly he heard some warbling and chirping all around him. He saw a whole band of sparrows dancing in the trees and visiting the nest that had been unoccupied for some time over the door. It was some kind of a family reunion before the winter when every one of them will have to go once and for all along their own different ways. The birds knew that they had a common starting point but that they, each one of them, also had completely different destinations. The yard had the taste of life, both sweet and sour.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jacques Coulardeau is dedicating a lot of his research to multimedia literature, particularly horror and fantastique (Stephen King, Anne Rice, Clive Barker,...). But his scope is a lot wider, from the Middle Ages to modern times in the field of English, European and American literatures and arts. He is particularly working today on the relation between language and music, bringing together, for example, Shakespeare and his multivaried linguistic music and Purcell, a musician that brings the language into the music. On another level he also works in theoretical linguistics, which enables him to look for the intricate and deep levels of the language that build its music, its power. He has extensively travelled in Africa, the USA and Europe, and has taught in many universities (University of California at Davis, Université Lille III, Université Paris IX Dauphine, Université de Paris II Panthéon Assas, Université de Perpignan) as well as in many secondary schools in "Zaire", the USA, France. He has also been involved in many cultural movements and actions as an author for the radio, the theatre, the press; for kids as well as adults. He also works with other artists and musicians in order to create, in various places, cultural events that bring together various artistic forms.