|Claude Monet - Snow Scene at Argenteuil, 1875|
I had moved to the village only recently. With Julius Caesar's writings having made a strong impression on me, I was wondering if the name of the village, Argenteuil, denotes some sort of silver extraction, if the Romans found a treasure within the bowels of the earth and the savage Franks forgot about it. Maybe there's still loads of silver lurking under this very hill I'm climbing, just waiting to be discovered. Maybe just a hit of the spade in the spring, once the snow slides down, will bring out the sparkling ore. Oh, wait, it's not going to sparkle, is it? Silver, the pure silver, the silver that's useful, comes mixed with rocks of all sorts, just an impure mess of uselessness until a master metallurgist boils it to extract only the bits that spark people's greed. Bah, I'm no metallurgist. But what if... what if, maybe, some Roman nobleman had some chest of silver coins he had to leave behind when this land was abandoned to barbarians? And what if that same nobleman had the foresight to bury his silver, hoping that the mighty legions of Rome are still mighty enough to push back these pesky barbarians, so he can come back to his villa next summer to enjoy the sweet wine of Gaul once more? Which, of course, never happened, as the boundaries of the empire were pulling always backwards, so our poor patrician ended up ruined back in Rome, living off the mercy of his relatives. Or maybe he got killed by some lone riders while trying to push forward ever faster his huge caravan of slaves, house wares and jewelry? Years came and years went, the hill went up and then pulled back again and his chest of silver is just here somewhere, just under the surface, ready to pop out this coming spring? Perhaps I should tread more carefully...
It was with these thoughts that I was clambering up the snow covered hilltop to be alone for a while and to soak in the view. It was always a relaxing journey, even if right now the climb was rather difficult, as the virgin snow would reach up to my waist, every step needing to first pull my feet all the way out from the hole left by my previous step. And every now and then my foot would slip down, dragging me back a few meters and dumping my face in the snow which caused me, after a few falls, to stop feeling my nostrils. Still, the thought of warming by the fire once I get back home in the evening, with a steaming cup of tea in my hand, was energizing enough to keep me going. In the summer, ah! This stroll is an absolute delight, although it usually takes me longer to get to the top as I stop every few steps to admire some flower or the immense blue of the sky, or just to lay in the dew kissed grass for a few minutes. Right now, it's a bit of a challenge, but a challenge I eagerly take on as it reminds me of childhood and who knows how many more winters we'll have to wait until we get this perfect snow? Better take advantage while it's here... Oh, there's the tree, not long now. I think I can see the river from here. Woop, let's turn around. The locals say the name of the village comes from the gleaming of the river in the moonlight though in all my nightly strolls I've never... OH. MY. GOD! That is absolutely fabulous! There must be a God, there's no better proof for it than this view. All silver in the world is worth less than this glorious, glorious, image. 'Hallelujah!' I shouted at the top of my lungs then dropped back, a broad smile illuminating my otherwise reddened face. Gosh, it was well worth it enduring this freezing cold, and then some!
I must've laid in the snow for about 15 minutes, lifting my head every now and then to marvel at the beauty of our village. Well, our... I guess I can say it's my village too, I live here now. It's true, the locals still see me as a curiosity, as the stranger, and will probably do so for at least another year or so. After all, I only landed in their midst not 8 months ago, coming from nowhere, not speaking the language very well and with no apparent reason. Argenteuil is one of those places where nothing changes and nothing happens. And when it does, everyone knows about it and it's all everyone talks about, gosh, there might even be stories told about it, like the one with the guy who claimed to see and UFO... and pretended he had a chat with a creature on it. I have been the talk of the town for most of last year and I expect this to continue deep into this year too, unless another UFO appears or some sort of war starts and shocks the village to the core.
For some reason, the way down seemed considerably easier. I was pretty much frozen all over by now and eager to get home. I did still slow my pace once the cart got into my field of view. Old Jean-Paul was coming from the forest of Saint Germain, just a black spot on a gigantic white blanket. I followed him with my eyes and kept following him as I was coming down, pacing myself so we'd be at the bottom of the hill at the same time.
'Ça va, Jean-Paul?' I shouted.
From underneath the two blankets he kept tightly wrapped around his body Jean-Paul lifted his head and struggled for a second to understand where the noise was coming from. 'Ça va, ça va, merci! Et vous?'
'Jean-Paul, where I come from we say the wise man will build a cart in the winter and a sleigh in the summer. Bit late to be carrying wood this time of year, no?'
'Monsieur, I would pass for a very wise man where you come from, then. These logs won't probably see fire until next winter.'
'Oh, surely for that it is too early?'
'Never know, never know. I should be ok for all the rest of the winter, but I freed up some space in the shed so I thought, why not? Mon Bernard enjoys a bit of exercise, he gets nervous if he stays in too much. And I had nothing else to do!'
'He certainly doesn't look like he's enjoying it, but you know him better.' The poor horse was clearly struggling pulling the cart full of logs in the cold. His nostrils were inflated and steam was pumping out of them with every step.
'He does, monsieur. He might look unhappy now, but the exercise is good for him. A ready supply of carrots and a good sleep under blankets, he'll be good as new tomorrow. And he'll be gleaming for a week! Enfait, he would be all too happy to give you a ride home, n-est ce pas, Bernard?'
The horse gave a slow neighing upon hearing his name.
'Nah, merci, Jean-Paul, but I'm good. I enjoy walking as much as Bernard.'
'As you wish, monsieur, but Bernard walks faster than yourself. I shall bid you a good day and leave you, alors. Au revoir, monsieur!'
'Au revoir, Jean-Paul! Au revoir, Bernard!'
I watched Jean-Paul and Bernard disappearing round the corner in a slow, half-hearted trot, with the old cart shifting left to right like a ship on a windy sea. I stopped for a second to catch my breath by the old wall. To me, the wall was the most fascinating feature of the village. Was this really the old abbey wall, 15 centuries old? But they said the abbey burnt completely more than 100 years ago, with no traces remaining. And no one knew who built the wall. Is this just a slip-up of historians, and this is actually the remain of the old abbey estate? Maybe Charlemagne himself stopped next to this very wall all those centuries back... Hm! Worth investigating, for sure...
To my right, the tall spire of the church was stabbing the grey sky with its skewed cross at the top, bent visibly forward in an unnatural way, as if someone pulled it from the ground with a rope, or as if... as if someone just pushed at it from behind. Which would be both difficult and pointless. Why would anyone...
'Oh, what's the matter, Jean-Baptiste?'
'I discovered, monsieur! I know who you are! I went to Paris last week and saw it in a bookshop, so now I know!'
'It's you, monsieur, n-est pas?'
The words were coming fast from between the red cheeks of Jean-Baptiste and I'm not sure if he was cold, blushing, over-excited or all at once as he pushed towards me a copy of my latest book.
'Well, Jean-Baptiste, since you uncovered my secret I will have you know it is only half of me. It's true, I do write, but I also paint.'
'What are you painting about? I mean... how is... like, you're painting walls?'
'Canvases, Jean-Baptiste. I see things I like, then put them on a canvas. Some people pay good money for that.'
'In Paris, monsieur?'
'In Paris, but not only.' I could clearly see how confused I got poor Jean-Baptiste.
'And... like... you paint persons and such?'
'Persons, too, but not my forte. I like nature more.'
'And people pay you money?'
'Quite a lot, sometimes. More than I'm worth it, I'd say.'
'And you also write about nature, monsieur?'
'I write... about various stuff. Not only what I see, but also what I imagine. I make up stories.'
'Like this story, monsieur, about the little Arab boy?'
'Like this one, yes.'
'But you do have an Arab boy, monsieur.'
'I take care of a little boy, yes, but he's not the one in the story. The one in the story is a mush, much sadder boy than the boy I take care of.'
'You know, monsieur, people are saying...'
'People are saying, monsieur, that you have no place to look after an Arab boy. Why is he not in his country? I don't think it's right, monsieur.'
'Well, Jean-Baptiste, I'm afraid that's none of your business. Or anyone else's in the village. And he's not Arab. And I don't want to hear another word about it! Au revoir!'
I half-muttered half-shouted the last few words. I told myself a number of times I shouldn't get so worked up about this and that the villagers are unlikely to understand it, yet I always found it hard to control myself, to not have a go to anyone who would unknowingly utter an insult not necessarily out of hatred, but out of ignorance.
'Bloody band of bastards, when will they stop?' I growled at myself as I was stepping in, ready to get cosy by the fire.