Travel Writing

palais-des-papes-01

I have pages upon pages of journals when I was in Montpellier for school.  Some are intensely private, only for my eyes (besides I doubt they would interest any other). Others, I am willing to share.  So here we go…

A trip to Avignon–not merely to pass time but to stifle it, cage it, and make the most of it. The train took us past alternately hilly countryside and the open, sun-burned tops of cities looking like hundreds of sandcastles scattered across a paved beach. In France I am aware of my need not to bury my head in a book as I travel, but to crane and dissect every object in view. This is not just to study it as most of the time I look no further than its surface, a superficial inventory of southern certain trees, plants and rocks. The Palais des Papes inhabited all the size of its 14th century supremacy–it is easy to see the source of discontent in the Cevenols when so near towers a glittering symbol of clerical excess. Still the enormity swallowed me up and I was too speechless to chid the bones of old Popes for their love of gold and echoing halls clothed in tapestries. It would not be these soaring walls, however, that would  force me to pull out my journal and jot down words which I would not allow myself to forget. On display in one of the rooms, placed rudely off center, a square of wall remains from a prison that held Protestant prisoners. The scratched words, like some grooved decoration, have an unlikely symmetry–the words are complete, planned like hieroglyphics, without an alarming sign of crazed desperation marking itself in jolted words. In scanning all of these words only one word appeared twice: vigilate. My heart insisted it was the work of one person–the words shared a similar meticulous straightness, stiff against the stone, passed down from an angular hand. I will also claim for my prisoner the phrase following the first appearance of vigilate– 21 mois [months], distinct and spare in comparison to all around it. As a historian I am taught to ask the answerable questions–when did my prisoner die, what did he leave behind in a documented will, if his bloodline remains. When I have neither a name or lone statistic to locate the answers, I set aside my historian tools and give up on excavation. I now depend on fiction to fill mortar in the gaps–or to create a wall in the first place. My prisoner found rhythmic solace in counting: the trees along the Tarne, the slices of cheese on his sandwich, the number of bruises staining his sallow skin the color of red wine, relics left behind by the periodic beating from soldiers. 21 mois–this was merely another count, he told himself as the stone became pliable under his knife. It was no more important than the slick, swaying trees or the cheese upon his sandwich–all his bloodied misery was boiled away to leave only the salty remains of a number and a word. Yet this would be my prisoner’s only countdown, the last artifact of faith before he learned that numbers were as useless as shields and fortifications. Men still devised ways to steal around such defense and chip away where the foundation was the weakest. 21 mois–they have become a part of me, embedded scrap metal stuck between skin and marrow, which I can feel as my lungs heave like the sound of a hollow tunnel. I feel it but I do not understand. I grin at the worker in the Palace as if I have just been reconciled with all my heartbreaks and memories. She does not know the tale of my prisoner and I will not share it with her.

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