At Les Baux

by Ken Warner

The garden is beautiful and pleasant,
and garnished with every flower,
we go there for our pleasure
in the day, but mostly in the night...
- 14th Century French Traditional

They both stood there, disheveled and tourist-tired in the hot sun. Martin glanced over at Caitlin and felt as if they had metamorphosed into two tarnished angels. From the precipice of a high plateau, they gazed out over the verdant fields pocked with limestone coruscations and patches of tan arable earth. He saw it as Cezanne might have, the moment that it compelled him to paint it. He could not account for her thoughts, but he always wondered how she was perceiving the experiences they shared. She seemed either dazed and distracted or vaguely disoriented.

For him it was as if the landscape had come to imitate Cezanne himself; but Martin imagined that the painter had always felt taunted to do better in his endless quest to capture the ineffable yet strident essentials of this landscape, shaped so boldly by color and modeled by light. There was a spirit in the pores of the earth, singing like a fickle muse, who had suddenly turned to siren, whose cries were as fecund and sensual as newly turned earth in spring. "Mime me!" it whispered to the painter, then after laughing gently in his ear, it treated him as if he were a shy boy about to be taken into in the arms of a knowing woman.

But a pale thin haze would blur the maestro's best intentions today; it would float across his preternatural vision like a mist in the mind's eye. Every nuance of the scene would show up as an unreliable witness to his reshuffled architectonic reality. This veil of heat is made tangibly visible by the lemon-yellow light which withers in the air and slurs the vision of the two as they stand poised at the precipice of Les Baux. It defers the sharply focused colored facets of what might have been Cezanne's brushed, bravura apotheosis.

"It's so beautiful from here. But that strange haze," Martin said. "I feel like Gatsby reaching out for the light at the end of Daisy's dock. "

"It is gorgeous," Caitlin agreed, "but I feel a little like I do when I have been at a museum too long, I am kind of numbed by it all...over-stimulated. Then there's this is so relentless...I have never felt heat like this."

They left the edge of the plateau to wander among its pale bleached bones--those wind hewn stones that once formed the walls of this citadel of love. The niches and crannies of the broken towers and sunken dungeons still resonated, in a muted, way those curious chords and mesmerizing instrumentation. The insistent drumming of the tambours was like blood throbbing in the temple of a feverish lover, a voice of passion for an era of lust-struck men and women, prevented by religious canon from acting on the sexual yearning sliding urgently along their overheated veins. Mea Maxima culpa! Release could only be achieved within the cooler recesses of the walls. It seemed better suited to these castle deeps, psychic dungeons which so encouraged panic, fear, longing and loss--all ascribable to the beautifully unattainable. A shadow land of need where this self inflicted pain of amour dissolves into sweet languor.

Ce Jardin est belle et plaissaant...
On y prend son ebattemaent
Autant le nuit comme le jour...

Martin watched her mood sweep across Caitlin's features as she spoke, then in an attempt to stir or move her, he looked into her eyes and leaned forward to kiss her. He did not know her from the touch of her mouth anymore; it very rarely recognized him in the way it once had. Not in the way it did, that first time at her doorway. Her kiss on this sunny afternoon was as vague as the look in her tired eyes.

"Do you remember our first kiss?" he asked.

"I remember where it happened and how I wondered if you would ever get around to doing it. I had no idea whether you were going to get serious about me or just take me out on a few dates."

"Do you remember what it felt like?"

"No, only that I wanted you to do it. I always felt a little unhappy those first months every time we kissed or made love because I knew that you were still with someone else," she said, sitting down on a stone broken off from the castle wall. "I almost quit on it several times. I came very close. I still sometimes wonder if you would have ever broken it off with her if she hadn't found out about us."

"It would have been hard for me to hurt her, but it worked out despite my cowardice...she was terribly angry but she had always been so good to me and helped me through a bad time...and she did love me."

"The others in your past...for years I never felt certain about you..."

"But you must feel certain by now?"

She smiled wanly at him. She looked weary and he wondered if her feeling certain about him even mattered or was ever an issue for her any more after ten years together.

"Do you know that the legendary troubadours held forth here and sang songs of supposedly unrequited love for the women they adored? Lusted after in all likelihood. It was called courtly love. Some people say that romantic love, in many ways, was invented by these men."

"I didn't think romantic love had to be invented," Caitlin said. "Hasn't it always existed between men and women?"

"Some people say not in quite this way. Idealized love. . . perhaps, even platonic love but not this kind of self imposed, self inflicted, painful pining away for a dream vision of someone."

He didn't know, but he went on to speak of an old legend of Les Baux. Just a few leagues away, the story went, a jealous husband once vengefully fed his wife the flesh of the body of her illicit lover at dinner. Transfixed by her anguish, her psyche altered by the horror of the act and the depth of her loss, she leapt from the battlements of their castle to her death in an arc of pain and despair. Her plunge into the nothingness of night transported her to Hades to join those from the house of Atreus and all the numerous shades from the age of heroes.

"Did you ever love me that way?" She stood again, looking off into the haze. "Do you know that you have never written a poem to or about me?"

"But I haven't written a poem for years...not to anyone."

He began a journal entry the next morning while she slept. It took the form of a prose poem. In it, he recalled the way it looked and what he felt standing at the top of the plateau at Les Baux. It began with something about how he thought they both looked like "tarnished angels;" it was the first poem he had attempted in quite a while. He concluded with the following three lines which came to him as a triune of lines with a final rhyming couplet. He felt as if he had come to a curious recognition. She read it two days later and handed it back to him without much comment.

The Christ who took in Magdalene
had little time for such madness.
He could only avert his eyes in sadness.

Copyright 2003 by Ken Warner. All rights reserved.