La Bodega Rose
Jackie and I live in the land of the Troubadours
The heat beat upon the stones. Pascale stopped climbing for a moment to watch two red kites circling far above the cliff face. Sweat stung his eyes, and he blinked to clear his vision. The effort made him look down, way down below his feet; the dizzying drop robbing him of willpower.
‘My Lady Mary hear me,’ he whispered. ‘Do not let me fall.’ He felt above his head with his right hand. Summoning the last of his strength, he heaved himself onto the narrow ledge of rock. A fissure in the face of the rock was wide enough for him to turn and sit. Within minutes his breathing steadied and his strength returned. Far below, the waters of the Dordogne rumbled through the gorge, softening on the plain below Rocamadour, laying still in the meadows below his home.
It wasn’t his imagination; the melody was much clearer now. The magical bleating of pipes – hypnotic and enchanting – drawing him ever higher. Again his eyes stung, but this time with tears, tears of remembrance.
‘Pascale, you must be brave. From henceforth you are the head of the family,’ his father said, holding the boy’s upturned face in his two strong, calloused hands. ‘Do not grieve for me my son, death is simply the beginning.’ They left Carcassone by the Northern Gate, the fleshers’ Gate. Once behind the French lines they regrouped. His mother brought them all together. She spoke to each one in their turn, in soft and earnest tone. Then it was Pascale’s turn. His mother Mary pulled him close.
‘My oath, given years ago is to your father. A Troubador, brother to Gui d’Ussel, your uncle. He will die a Parfait, a pure and obedient being. I go to join him, my birthright, my wedding vow.’ She kissed his brow, just once. ‘Honour him,’ she said, and then was gone.
Pascale held the image close. An image of blood and tears; and yet more, the sweet smell of wild thyme, of lavender, and the perfume of orange blossom. It was the Goddess smell, Christ’s bride, the Magdalene. He began to climb, resolution in every stretch. And so he reached the high plateau, and the source of the magic air. The old man sitting in the lee of the rock, looked as if he had been carved from the same stone. Despite his great age, the eyes were alive; bright and questioning. His smile was the balm of Gilead. Pascale paused, unsure of the source of this last observation. All he could say with certainty, was that the old man’s gaze held him in a soft, warming caress. Looking closer, Pascale could see that the man’s costume was a red and yellow patchwork of cloth diamonds. The colours were faded, indeed the short doublet and the breeches were threadbare, almost worn through in places. He wore brown boots, of soft leather. There was ruffled cotton at his cuffs and at his boot tops.
‘Come Pascale, sit here beside me,’ he said, ‘you will want to see the music which brought you here.’
‘No,’ he shouted. ‘ Who are you? How do you know my name?’
‘Come boy, sit. If I meant you harm need I go to all this trouble?’ Pascale must have looked doubtful, for the old man took him gently by the shoulder. ‘I’m your Uncle, your Uncle Gui, your father’s brother.’
‘My uncle? said the boy. ‘I heard the music. It called me on; it spoke to me.’ The old man sat and from behind his back drew out a bodega, the native French bagpipe. It appeared to be made of a very shiny black wood, though the bag itself was of soft brown leather.
‘La Bodega Rose,’ said Gui, as though saying a prayer.
‘La Bodega Rose,’ repeated the boy, ‘But why? It isn’t even pink.’
‘Maybe it once belonged to La Rose,’ said the old man, his eyebrows rising in query. ‘Well?’
Pascale ran his fingers along the aged wood. ‘It is very old,’ The boy peered closely ‘And it has these strange marks.’
‘It is Aramaic. The language of the Holy Land.’ Gui placed the bufet between his lips and blew. As the bagpipe filled with air he placed his fingers on the graile and began the haunting melody from earlier. It came to Pascale in that moment.
‘My parents always called her La Rose – Our Lady Mary; Mary the Magdalene. This is her Bodega?’ Gazing up from under the rim of his velvet cap, the old Troubador smiled.
‘Come play her. This is your birth-right, Pascale de Carcassone.’ The old man’s eyes brimmed with tears. ‘You must take the message to our people. We are scattered across the breadth of France. You are a Troubador of The Cathars. Your verse will speak to our people in the dark night of their soul,’ he said. ‘They will hear you and be heartened.’
As a sixteen year old farm labourer, the boy hadn’t the leisure to learn anything of music. It had been eight years since he’d heard the word Cathar mentioned. In that shadow world before the French Crusade. And yet he put the bufet to his lips without hesitation. His fingers danced on the graile, and the haunting melody echoed in the lee of the rocks. The old man nodded his approval then reached into the rear of the rock.
‘These were your father’s,’ he whispered, handing the boy a stout canvas sack. Pascale drew out a pair of soft leather boots, then a lawn shirt with ruffled cuffs. Finally he drew forth a costume similar to the old man’s; only the red and yellow diamond patches were new and bright. ‘Put them on Pascale and honour your father’s wish.’ In an instant the young peasant was transformed. Gui reached inside his doublet and drew out a piece of polished metal. Pascale caught his breath as he saw in the reflection, his father, as a young man. He looked across at the old man, as if seeking approval.
‘Pascale de Carcassone, the Rose Troubador.’ The old man prowled around the young minstrel poet. ‘There’s something missing,’ he said, frowning. He bent to the Bodega and slung it over the young man’s shoulder. ‘No,’ he shook his head. ‘It’s still not right.’ Pascale looked downcast as he studied himself carefully.
‘Please Uncle, what’s the matter?’ The old man stood in front of the boy, then reached up and ruffled Pascale’s hair. He smiled as he removed his blue velvet cap. He straightened the brooch, an egg of pearly-white soapstone, then smoothed the peacock feather with his fingertips. Positioning the cap on the boy’s head, he stood back and with a flourish dipped a swaggering bow.
‘I did the same for my brother. I had no son to succeed me. You look so like your father,’ said the old man with a shake of the head. ‘Now you must return to the valley before nightfall. Come, I will show you the path.’
At the head of the narrow goat path, the old man gathered Pascale in his arms.
‘I can go no further,’ he said kissing the boy on the forehead. He brought his mouth close to Pascale’s ear. ‘Long may you prosper Troubador.’
Long afterwards, down on the valley floor, Pascale pondered the old man’s words. ‘I did the same for my brother, I had no son to succeed me.’ No, it was something his own father had told him; but what? He swung the Bodega across his chest, feeling a strange warmth in the contact; a hand reaching over the ages. Pascale stopped and turned to face the mountain.
‘You were born in the year your uncle, the great Gui d’Ussel died.’ The haunting melody seemed to fill the wide valley floor.