Marcia Slatkin

 

(USA)

 

 

Madness

 
As we walk toward our garden by the river, the distant cliffs of cave dwellers rise up on our right, and we see holes through which men must have passed tens of thousands of years ago. Small lizards scurry into cracks in the limestone wall near us, to which hardy plants cling. And then, near the water, the land broadens, and we notice piles of stone along the side of the path. They make a sinuous line rounding the bend under a railroad bridge, and bring us to someone who digs the earth furiously.

 

He is young, thin, blond, and his complexion as near to gold as human skin can get. There is a kind of elegance about his stance, although his clothes are worn and black with the stain of soil, and his hands full of grime. He looks up from his work, his eyes a piercing blue, and nods his “bonjour.” And when, in my careful French, I ask what he is doing, he shows me a strangely shaped rock and begins a cascade of elaborate explanation. All I can extract is the word “Os.” He has, he is sure, found a bone.

 

“Mad,” my husband says when we are quite out of earshot. “I’ve seen him before. I think he sleeps under the bridge. He was piling rocks last time I came down here too.”

 

“But maybe he’s an archeologist hot on the trail.”

 

We open our garden door with a key. Inside, we began to cut nettle, which grows 6 inches in the blink of an eye, and stings when touched. There is no way we can progress this garden, as we are in France two months of the year, and the nettle starts to grow three months before we arrive. So we strategize. Last year I pulled plants, but seed and root prevailed. Poison is repulsive, and would need repeated applications. We put down a tarp, but would need many, many more to cover our land. And what harvest can we expect if we plant in July and leave two months later?

 

My husband takes out the sickle and begins to cut. I pick up nettle in my gloved and long sleeved arms, and stack at the far side of the garden. We rake. I pull. I cut vines, he slashes and rolls back furze. We sweat, drink water, rest, and debate the efficacy of a lawn mower, a gas-run weed whacker, more tarps. What can we grow that would maximize pleasure? Continuing to cut, we survey. Have we made progress?

 

Locking up, we leave. And on the way back, we see the blond man again, still at it, his pile higher, his spirit undaunted. “Mais, vous avez bien fait,” I say, smiling at him.

 

“J’essaye,” he says, nodding modestly, admitting the difficulty of his task. His shirt and pants are indeed torn and totally filthy. He goes back to his work.

 

We walk. I turn to my husband. “He’s not any crazier than we are, really,” I say.
“You’re right.”
“What’s more, all of us are lucky.”
“Why’s that?”
“In time, we’ll all be nothing more than deeply buried bones. But right here, right now, we each have something to be crazy about.”

He nods, and takes my hand. We continue.

 

 

 

Bubbles

 

M. Autun, our neighbor one-garden over, is robust. He is perhaps 70, although it is hard to say with these French, they are often active and healthy until very old. We feel a sense of vital engagement with life, both an interest in the present, and a willingness to share it with us. He has come to our mangled and overgrown patch out of pity. Watching our slow, laborious furze-clearing techniques through the vine-covered wire fence separating his land from ours, he decides to demonstrate his sickle technique: short vigorous jabs against the nettle. But he is preoccupied, and cannot help but complain about an animal eating his produce. Indeed, his garden is as robust as he is. We have seen it through the fence. Intensely colored dahlias, rows of gleaming lettuce, firm tomatoes, fruit trees laden with apples, pears, walnuts –all look jaunty in sunlight.

 

We do not know the word he keeps repeating. “C’est un ragondon, vous comprenez,” he says, and when we look blankly at him, he runs his fingers through his short, white, stubbornly upright hair, then motions for us to follow him.

His garden looks even more beautiful when we walk through it. The Dahlias are 6 inches across, perennial in Poitiers. The Amaranth is already 3 feet tall, the golden rod and asters just about to bloom and nasturciuns are planted between the vigorous vegetables. We see rows of carrots, fabulous tomatoes – and then the poor destroyed lettuce and chard areas, reduced to stubble. The beast loves greens.
“Elle est ici,” M. Autun says, and leads us to a shed near the river bank where he keeps his live trap. He raises the cage to show us the beast – something like a beaver, its front teeth long and somehow orange, perhaps bloody with gnawing the wire. The animal has hair almost as fierce as the quills of a porcupine, but is clearly a rodent, with a broad face, like a muskrat. It is bulky, and can no doubt eat a vegetable patch bare within hours. “Je l’ai attrape il y a deux jours,” he says.
“Qu’est-ce  que vous allez faire de cette bête?” I ask.
M. Autun shrugs. “Je ne sais pas. Peut-être paté de sa chair, et une petite couverture de sa peau.”

 

“You’re going to kill it?” I cry, duress catapulting me into English.
“Mais, regarde,” he says, pointing to the destroyed lettuce, the stubbles of chard.

“Si vous êtes une bête, c’est naturel,” I cry.

 

But with each of my outcries, I see him straighten, swell, grow more firmly committed. “Bien sûr, je vais la tuer,” he insists, resolution hardening as he glares at me.“Bien sur.” Finally righteous enough, he walks to the small shed right near the river, and takes out a long rope. “La bête, elle va me ruiner,” he says.

 

Raising the cage with the rope now securely tied to its top handle, he walks to the edge of the river. Though from a distance a gentle, slow-moving green-brown, the water up close shimmers, a silvery darkness that swirls and looks very cold. M. Autun, now totally full of bravado before his audience, slips the cage into the water. It sinks.
The bubbles begin soon after. I watch for a while, then see an apple tree right at the water’s edge. The fruit is a golden peach color, and looks inviting. “Je peux?” I ask, and M. Autun looks up from the water.

 

“Ah, oui,” he says. .” La bête a mangé les pommes aussi.”

I pick one and bite into it. It is ripe enough, and thwacks loudly as the island under my teeth is separated from its mainland. It is juicy and delicious as I chew and watch the bubbles rise from the water. “Il respire encore,” I say to M. Autun.
“Parce qu’il vie dans l’eau. Il a l’habitude,” my neighbor says. “Il a mange toutes ses pommes,” and he points to bits of scattered apple on the grass.
Then, as we stand by the side of the river, the earth moist beneath our feet, the shade of the apple tree delicious, the juice of the apple filling my mouth with pleasure, M. Auton teaches my husband how to sharpen the sickle blade with a whetstone. He fills a bucket with river water, and wets the stone. Swish Swish Swish goes the wet stone against the metal blade. Thwack Thwack goes the apple as I bite and chew. And all the while, the ragondon in his ‘have a heart’ cage under the water is dying.

 

 

 

 

Two chapters of «Faith and Death in Poitiers, France: A Fugue »

 

« Faith and Death in Poitiers, France » is a collection of unpublished essays written in 2010 about our life in that magnificently preserved provincial city.

 

Her two daughters grown, she lives both in Poitiers France and NY State, where she and her partner Dan cultivate many gardens.  

 

 

 

 

 

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 Former English teacher, farmer, and care giver to her mother, an Alzheimer patient who lived with her between 2003- 2007,  Marcia Slatkin now plays cello, takes photographs with which she makes collages, and writes. Her fiction won two PEN awards, and many stories have been published in small magazines. Sixteen of her one-act plays have been produced in small venues in NYC, San Diego, and Long Island NY. Her full length play, UPSIDE DOWN, won a staged reading at the Long Beach Playhouse, Long Beach California in 2010, and had a 6 performance run in NYC, September, 2011. Honors include finalist status in the Samuel French one-act play contest three times, and the survival by her full length screen play, « HOME FRONT, » of first cut in the Sundance Film contest, 2004 – 5. Her first chapbook, A Season’s Milking, Pudding House Press 2003, was followed by a chapbook called I Kidnap My Mother: Alzheimer Poems, Finishing Line Press, 2005.  The full length « continuation » volumes of both of these chapbooks are available. « A WOMAN MILKING: Barnyard Poems » was published by WORD TECH  in 2006. « NOT YET: A Care-Giving Collage » is forthcoming from SFAPRESS, TEXAS, in early 2012.

 

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