In the Land of the Gauls
by Harrison Kim
It’s November 1974. I’m a young man travelling in France. To save money, I sleep on the covered concrete bleachers of village soccer fields. My sore back seems better flat on the hard cement. Tonight, though, I choose a small city’s stadium with wide wooden slats. Wood seems to have a bit more give. I have to struggle over a fence to get in. It’s raining slightly, so I feel triumphant finding a shelter like this.
“Sors d’ici immédiatement !” screams a voice. I turn my head.
“Allez. Allez !” I perceive a large woman down by the playing field brandishing a black rolling pin.
“What would be the best response here?” I wonder. I use my French. “I’m Canadian. We helped liberate your country during World War Two.”
The woman wears a heavy nightgown, her eyes bug out of her crimson face. She’s slamming the rolling pin on a steel beam that holds up the bleacher area roof. “I don’t care who you are!” she yells.
That’s likely her husband right behind her in striped pyjamas, smoking a cigarette and yawning. They must live here below the stadium. I’ve been preparing to sleep right above their caretaker home. They heard me stomping about.
“If it weren’t for us, you’d be under the thumb of the Nazis!” I reiterate. My packsack is completely on my back now. “How do I get out of here?”
“The same way you got in!” the woman yells.
I hike down towards the fence that I had somehow clambered over earlier. These people aren’t at all grateful for Canada’s World War Two sacrifice.
I shout, “Where can I obtain a fresh baguette?”
“Get the hell out!” I hear the woman yell again. “Or we’ll call the police.”
I try jumping the fence, but it’s too high. I take off my pack and throw it over, then scramble up. Luckily, I don’t rip my pants on the pointy iron spikes at the top.
I’ve been sleeping on local outdoor bleachers every night this November, and this is the first time there have been problems. A week ago, there was even a dog who stayed with me. I fed him some bologna and Muenster cheese.
I cross the sidewalk and get out on the highway again. It’s pretty dark now, but I hitchhike anyway. It seems a low chance anyone will pick me up, but an old Citroen stops. I run over and it’s a young long-hair around eighteen. “I’m going to Les Eyzies,” he says.
“I’m heading anywhere you are!” I say and hop in.
Driver Pierre is short and stocky with long blond hair in front of his eyes and a big, even-toothed grin. “The Gauls lived in stone huts in this area,” he says. “Look, there’s the English castle!” He points, and a huge ruin shadow rears up in a field by the side of the road. “Built during the Hundred Years War,” he says. He points across another field. “The Romans constructed that mile marker.”
I can’t see much, because the fog has rolled in. “This place is very history-intense,” I say. “Tell me about Les Eyzies.”
He grins. “I’ve lived there my whole life. It’s where the Cro-Magnon men created cave paintings. You know, the painted horses.”
“I might sleep in a cave tonight,” I say. “I’ve been having trouble finding a cheap hotel.”
“I’m going to meet some friends for a movie,” he offers. “Would you like to come?”
It’s quite sudden, but after my confrontational encounter with the caretakers, I’m wishing for friendly companionship. “What’s the movie called?”
“The Exorcist,” says Pierre.
“Sounds interesting,” I say.
Pierre, Yves and Sophie and I watch The Exorcist at the tiny gargoyle-decorated theatre in Les Eyzies. It’s the scariest movie I’ve seen in my life. The possessed little girl’s cursing is overdubbed in French. Her lips are not in sync with the sounds she makes.
During the show, I’m aware of a kind of floating stink from time to time, which adds to my growing unease. I ask Pierre: “Do you have a gas refinery around here?”
“No,” he says, “that’s not part of our history.”
Afterwards we all walk outside into thick fog, light spray rain drifting down within it.
“You can stay with me at my parents’ place,” says Pierre. “We live out in the country a bit, near the Cro-Magnon caves.”
“Frankly, I’ve been sleeping in the covered bleachers at soccer fields,” I say. “Do you have any of those in your town? They feel very good on my back.”
“No,” Pierre chuckles. “Nothing covered. You’d get pneumonia. Better to stay at my place.”
I’m very used to being alone the past few weeks, but Pierre’s friendliness and the fear of The Exorcist lead me to accept his kind offer.
Yves and Sophie head down the street, their two dark heads bobbing under the dull yellow lamps.
Pierre drives us out to his parents’ farm. “It’s a stone house like the Gauls used to live in,” he says.
Pierre’s mom bustles out of the kitchen in her nightgown, hefting a tray. She looks almost exactly like the angry lady in the stadium this evening. Red face, big arms, buttery colored hair all plastered close to her scalp.
“Have a piece of baguette,” she says, “with some of this Camembert.”
“Thanks,” I say. “It’s very fresh.”
We step into a tiny living room and there’s Pierre’s dad’s sitting in front of a tiny TV in slippers and a tattered brown robe, smoking Turkish cigarettes. He’s the spitting image of the fellow in the striped pajamas this morning. “Pass me those matches,” he tells his son. “This guy, maybe he can help us with the sheep tomorrow.”
“I tried to catch a sheep once,” I chuckle. “It knocked me over. I swore at it in French.”
Nobody laughs. I glance above the dad, and there’s a stuffed fox head nailed to the mantelpiece.
“We sleep down the hall,” says Pierre.
I follow him into a dark space. He flips on a low-lit lamp. “This is my bed. You take the left side.”
The room is cold, and the sheets feel damp with moisture. It’s small and stone-walled and there’s a picture of a man’s head attached to a horse’s body on the wall.
“Uh, OK,” I say. “In Canada, we sleep with our clothes on. It’s a very cold country.”
“Really?” Pierre flings off his pants and hefts on some striped pyjamas. “That must be very stinky.” He rolls back the thick blankets. A musty scent wafts up. He hops in. “Come on,” he says. I slowly climb in the other side, wearing everything but my boots. It’s freezing.
Pierre pulls the blankets over us and turns out the light.
“Have your parents ever worked in a soccer stadium, Pierre?”
“I don’t think so,” he says. “My dad’s more into bocce.”
I lie there in the dark, keeping an eye on my packsack. Every once in a while, I smell a waft of something rancid. I wonder if the septic system on this farm is overflowing tonight.
Pierre begins snoring loudly. What a trusting fellow, I think. I lay there a long while. I try to count French-cursing sheep, but come back to scenes from The Exorcist. I keep jiggling my legs to generate warmth. No use. I lift the blankets off. Pierre seems like an okay guy, I muse, but wow is he noisy. I sit up. Pierre keeps snoring. There is no way I can rest. All I have to do is sneak out slowly, sit on the side of the bed and pull on my boots, then rise up quietly like a phantom and move.
I’ll leave him a note, I think. I stick my feet in my boots and tie the laces up, then carefully zip open my pack and pull out a pen and some paper. “Thanks for your Gallic hospitality,” I write. “But as a Canadian I have trouble sleeping indoors. I”m more of a bushman. Hoping you will understand.”
I see the small Maple Leaf flag on my pack is coming loose. I pull it off, and leave the note and the flag on the bed.
Some kind of cow beast moos loudly outside.
I lift my packsack with two hands and hold it to my chest, then softly step my way out of the bedroom and down the very short hall. I turn to one side. I see a humungous shadow. Is that Pierre’s dad standing in the living room? I nod. Nothing moves. Maybe it’s a coat hanging up. Or another fox head.
I unlatch the door and step outside, close everything behind me and swing the packsack onto my back, then hike up the muddy road. Everything seems possessed, seeping through with evil deeds done over time, full of history and dread from the cave men to the castles, from the tall shadowy trees to the old movie theatre. It’s sprinkling rain and the fog is thick. At least it doesn’t smell so much out here.
I come to a crossroads and a trail that says Aux Grottes, which means “To the Caves.”
I head up the narrow path. I’m climbing back in time. Way back before Napoleon, the Romans or the Gauls, before the Catholic Church and all that exorcism business. I imagine time as illusion, as a magician’s conjured dream. Where I hike back to are the Cro-Magnon days. Cave painting and squatting before a fire. Adjusting the loincloth. Sleeping off supper on a bed of rocks. I feel less tense as I ascend, musing on the centuries falling behind me the higher I go.
I scan wet rocky bluffs, negotiate sliding rocks. There’s a ledge and a hole under the cliff. It’s only about ten feet in, but it is dry. There are sticks of wood scattered around; I can light a fire. It stinks in here, too. In fact, the smell is stronger now. I want to light a flame. I need to know if there are any ten-thousand year old paintings on the walls.
I reach into my back pocket for some matches and feel something very sticky. I pull my hand out, and it reeks of the stench I’ve been smelling for days. My hand is covered with a waxy white substance. I almost throw up like the little girl in The Exorcist.
“Here’s the mystery stink!” I exclaim. I run out into the night and rub my hand frantically along the wet leaves. I rip my pants off, upturn the rancid pocket and rub it along the wet foliage.
I’ve exorcised the mystery and the source of that odor I’ve been aware of the past few days. It’s the rest of the Muenster cheese I hadn’t fed to the friendly dog. It’s been decaying in my back pocket, growing bacterial culture for the past week and throwing out its death stench.
I find my waterproof matches in the other pocket and light a fire. It helps to be a former Boy Scout.
I lie back like a Cro-Magnon man on the rocks, my sleeping bag laid under me. I can see out into the dark wet world; my fire shadow flickers against the cave wall, the shape of a traveler finally finding a place to rest. I inhale the scent of burning pine. This country doesn’t stink after all; I do.
Tomorrow, I’ll return to Pierre’s farm and offer to help with the sheep.
Copyright © 2019 by Harrison Kim