The silence was broken by a dully ad inviting passengers to the dining car but anyone could guess from the begging tone of the bartender’s voice that his business was bad.
After the bartender’s jeremiad ended with a pathetic plea, erratic electronic beeps conveyed the odd feeling that they paced a runaway train.
Apart from a controller onto the platform who scanned electronic ticket’s bar-code, and checked traveler’s ID before letting them boarding the train; passengers were self-reliant in that low-cost experimental train. It was a feeble attempt at dismantling a stifling rail transport’s monopoly that held passengers hostage of insufferable strikes for decades.
Nothing stirred an eyelash from the wanderer who was engrossed in his reading. A bleak view of muddy bovines trudging in water-soaked meadows in Morvan was a good excuse for everyone inside the car to kill time by listening podcast music with headset and playing video game. On the other hand, the eldest passengers who were not fan of electronic gadgetry preferred doing crosswords that got their memory functioning.
A young attractive woman with cascading dark hair was rhythmically thumbing pages of a women’s magazine. Because other issues were stacked onto the tablet in front of her seat, she conveyed the message that she made up for lost time. Besides, her stern face implied that she should not be disturbed with flirtatious chitchat.
The whiteness of her hands was emphasized by the vermilion color of her varnished fingertips. She did not wear a ring but a chain silver bracelet, which jingled onto the tablet when she swiftly turned a page, which hissed in the same manner of a fiery snake warning an interloper.
Next to the young woman was seated the wanderer, a middle-aged man, who passed unnoticed while holding composedly a digital reader book. The progress-resistant individual bought one after braving a hurricane on the Appalachian Trail that soaked his backpack, including his passport photo, which stirred the concern of a watchful immigration officer.
Long solo hikes drove him desperate for reading after he set up his tent in the wilderness, and especially in the fall season when duration of darkness was superior to daylight. He accepted his oblivion as his quest for wilderness increased accordingly.
The choice of a book while preparing his backpack was an overriding concern. A thick book was insurance for reading long hours under the tent. However, a heavy backpack was detrimental to his pacing onto the trail. Therefore, his backpack was balanced on a razor’s edge.
The wanderer was twice compelled to part with a book. As an incoming hurricane brought torrential rain and ghastly wind, which shook trees and broke branches in the forest, he was forced to quit the trail. He walked alongside a busy road where uncaring car drivers splashed the pedestrian while overtaking him. The poor fellow took an over-lay day in a motel room where he scattered his belongings onto the carpet in order to let them dry. Because the delay put in jeopardy his tight schedule, he was forced to lighten his backpack in order to make up for lost time.
When a benevolent taxi driver drove him back to the trail-head, the wanderer offered him “Moby-Dick,” which was still damp.“I will probably give it to my daughter who is in college,” said the taxi-driver who scratched his head in disbelief.
After returning to seclusion in the woods where nothing could detract him from lengthy introspection, the wanderer felt a pang of remorse. He thought that he had been disloyal to a writer who was erroneously viewed as a minor figure in American literature when he died.
Only three-thousand and two hundred copies of Moby-Dick were sold in his lifetime, and the book was out of print during the last four years of his life. With the help of his wife’s relatives, Melville obtained a position at the U.S. Customs Service in New York City where he won the odd reputation of being an “honest” employee. Under the tenure of William Tweed also known as “Boss Tweed,” Tammany Hall ran a corrupt ring based on patronage and graft. Tammany Hall was the Democratic Party political machine that both controlled New York City and New York State.
The second parting occurred a decade later when the wanderer returned to the Massachusetts border after hitting the Canadian’s one that was marked by an ugly straight line cutting woods in the forest, which arbitrarily ran along the 49th parallel north.
Diplomats who negotiated the treaty of 1818 claimed that a straight line-boundary would be easier to survey than the former one that was based on watersheds. Nothing is more erroneous than ignoring geography whilst dealing with borders. A natural boundary is a river, a mountain range, or an ocean. A political boundary is an abstruse line drawn with a pencil on a napkin by overtired delegations bickering late into the night. Hubris prevailed over wisdom.
The challenging crisscross of Vermont in five weeks did not let time to indulge in the tent after dark. With the fickle flame of a candle in order to spare the battery of the flashlight, the wanderer laboriously read a chapter of David Copperfield before falling asleep like a log.
Because he could never finish reading the book on the trail, he thought about someone who might have a keen interest in placing it onto his bookshelves. As the book was invaluable for him, the idea lightened him up. On his north bound’s hike, he befriended an affable eighty-nine year’s old man whose Inn was managed by his son. The patriarch entertained the clientele with witty joke. His personal account as a Navy Ensign « My War » during the Second World War was displayed in the quaint parlor.
The wanderer spent a night in the cheapest room that had neither toilet nor bathroom. He was lucky because Tuesday was the slowest day of the week in the leaf peeping season. When leaves changed colors in New England, it took twice as much greenback for making a reservation on a week’s day, and thrice as much on Columbus Day’s weekend, which coincided with foliage’s peak.
The peaceful, expensive, but predictable leisure in New England was the opposite of another favorite pastime that took place in the Midwest in the spring, which consisted in getting closer to a tornado’s track. The second experience was not for the faint-hearted; it required a mixture of patience, skill, bravery, madness, and luck all together.
A Dickensian porcelain chamber pot was at the disposal of the clientele in the quaint room. Whatever the old-fashioned courtesy that was kept alive, the wanderer preferred to go to a toilet, which was at the end of a dark hallway whose wood floor crunched despite his surreptitious barefoot steps. The communal bathroom was also Dickensian with a copper bathtub whose greenish oxidation gave the odd feeling of bathing in a moraine lake, which had silted in. He appreciated the true value of simple life and self-sufficiency that carried him through his fancy in a cabin near Walden Pond.
In exchange of David Copperfield, the friendly owner invited him to pick up any book from his bookshelves. Flattered by his gesture, he chose “The Yearling” by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings for the sole reason that it was a small book. To his surprise, the reading brought him back to Florida where he had trudged in the Everglade’s swamp while following elusive signposts after dark.
Ezra Baxter, a character in the novel who was nicknamed Penny because of his diminutive size, was bitten in the arm by a rattlesnake. In order to save his life, he shot a doe in order to use its bloody liver for drawing out the snake’s venom. The cure reflected the belief that liver dissolved enzymes contained in snake’s poison. However, a liver needs steady blood supply in order to perform any task. In truth, the survival rate depended on “dry” snakebite; in other words, when no venom was injected.
The wanderer encountered a moccasin snake in the swamp when he filtered genuine freshwater in a small pool that was insulated from brackish water by a hummock. The swamp was dotted with hummocks whose height did not exceed five feet, but it was enough to accommodate a diversified wildlife. The semi-aquatic viper was not a threat on a cold morning in January; it hardly moved when the wanderer poked it with a stick.
Ophidiophobia haunted the wanderer’s dreams. He jerked out of his bed when a snake crawled inside the sheet. “Again!” said he to himself with a resigned and fatalistic tone after the same nightmare wrecked his night’s sleep for the umpteenth time.
In real life, the wanderer had many close encounters with rattlesnakes. On one occasion, he stepped over a black one that was warming up onto the trail because he was distracted by a beautiful sunrise above the San Gabriel Range. He narrowly avoided the strike of the grumpy snake while doing a split jump. A couple of years later when he returned to Los Angeles with his wife, he lighted a candle at the Mission San Gabriel Arcangel in order to thank the guardian angel who saved his life.
Another time, he ventured to take pictures upon a rocky peninsula, which cut through a beautiful lake in New Jersey. Whilst he held the camera in front of his eyes, he heard a voice begging him to stay motionless. Whilst he partly complied with the warning, he slowly lowered his head, and saw a copper rattlesnake, which surreptitiously weaved from behind him, and managed to cross between his feet that were slightly ajar. He stopped breathing whereas his testicles reflexively snuggled up to the base of his penis. The quick withdrawing of his testicles into his body was triggered by a mortal fear. Despite the sharp pain in the balls and the urgent need to relieve it through a huge gasp of air, he remained unfazed. Only after the poisonous snake was at a safe distance did he venture to take a deep breath. “Let’s call it a day!” said to himself the happy-go-lucky before turning his back on the cold-blooded creature.
As he wanted to return to the trail where he had left his backpack, he took a step forward when he heard a rapid succession of sharp clattering sounds. In a stupor, he realized that he faced four other rattlesnakes. Unlike the first one, which was unconcerned by an intruder on its territory, they were not complacent at all! Two were tightly coiled to defend themselves, but the other two had a threatening posture with the head raised of the ground. The most belligerent flicked out its forked tongue, and showed its fangs. The wanderer had a knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. That is the least that can be said!
Evolutionary psychologists traced ophidiophobia in prehistoric time when fear was byproduct of survival technique. Snakes were a huge danger when people slept on the floor. Among the most deadly animals in the world nowadays, snake’s bite remains the second cause of human death after mosquito’s bite.
Back to our subject, size’s book and success did not equate. “Tobacco Road” by Erskine Caldwell was also a small book, which left its mark on the wanderer on the trail. The innocuous title of the book concealed an unrivaled poison of sickness and horror in the American South during the Great Depression with the Lester’s family. Consanguinity and intimation of hillbilly degeneration were a strong rebuttal of languid Spanish moss, which lullabied children in patrician properties. Erskine Cadwell wanted to destroy the myth of perfumed moonlight and magnolia’s literature of the south that was conveyed by Thomas Nelson Page in “Ole Virginia.”
Getting down to brass tacks, hundreds of collected works could be downloaded and stored into a digital reader book. Icing on the cake with the advent of lithium battery, its eight hour’s autonomy was adequate between two recharges in town.
When the phantom train emerged from a long tunnel, which squeezed eardrums and made cry a baby, sunlight bedazzled passengers. Deep blue sky was instant cure for melancholy that beset souls under low and gray clouds that lingered in Morvan. Chitchat took slowly over dreary silence inside the car. However, it was beyond understanding because it sounded like a chirp of early birds at sunrise.
Cypress trees were bent by Mistral blowing in the embedded Rhone River. Unfortunately, the towering landscape was tarnished by giant wind turbines whose tacky whiteness was an eyesore. With their exposed blade tips spinning at a speed up to two-hundred miles per hour, they were a serious threat for migratory birds. Understand if you will the logic, thousands of birds were mangled or chopped in order to produce clean energy demanded by devotees of Gaia, the mythological mother of all life on earth.
The debate between renewable and fossil energies was incongruous in the nineteenth century because steam engine eased harsh working conditions, and dramatically improved productivity. When steam mill replaced old four-sail post mill, Alphonse Daudet established himself as a maverick. He came to the defense of the latter that he immortalized in his “Letters from my Windmill,” a collection of short stories, which was serialized by The Figaro. Having relocated his home in Fontvieille after suffering homesickness in Paris, he recounted a tale from his beloved Provence.
Maitre Cornille was a stubborn progress-resistant individual. His competitors were flourmill’s owners who used steam engine. The old cranky miller said to everyone in town, “Don’t buy their flour because they use steam, which is a devil’s invention while I am working with Mistral, which is God’s breath.” He boasted that he exported his flour abroad. His windmill was running idle but he managed to keep it secretly for two reasons. First, he did not allow people to visit his windmill; secondly and most importantly, nobody cared for the old fool! When two children unmasked the ploy, his neighbors showed repentance. They flocked to his windmill with loads of wheat. When Cornille died, nobody wanted to replace him.
There was nothing new under the sun. Daudet’s tale was an unintentional reminder of Israel’s fickleness toward God. People pretended to follow his commandments, but they were smitten with the grass that was always greener on the other side of the fence. They were inconstant in temperament, and thinking that a variety of experiences rather than following God’s exhortations was the answer to their discontented impatience.
“However, it is unlikely that those bombastic wind turbines, which spoil the landscape with their staggering height, would be remembered by any poet or writer,” pondered the nostalgic wanderer who bore in mind a painter who glorified a past that no longer existed.
Besides the disappearance of windmills, steam engine marked also the end of riverboats that were pulled by horses on towpaths. Alfred Sisley’s work was a harbinger of vanishing towpaths. Sisley’s father business failed after the Franco-Prussian War when watertight custom barriers were set up by the new German Empire. As a result, the bohemian artist was forced to leave Paris when his father’s allowance dried up. He moved to Moret-sur-Loing where he sparingly lived with his family the rest of his life. With its changing atmosphere at every season, the gentle landscape was attuned to his talent. Sisley focused on painting towpaths along canals and rivers that were shaded by birch and poplar trees. Because Moret-sur-Loing was at the confluence of the Loing with the Seine River, Sisley did not waste time and money searching for an inspiration that was under his nose.
The chirp inside the car turned boisterous when the train came to a screeching halt in the depths of the countryside. A stern message was broadcasted to passengers by a dull voice, which forbade them from opening doors. “The train is stopped because the ballast is damaged by river flooding; we’ll let you know when we resume our travel,” said the anonymous voice.
Unlike any pilot who introduced himself while welcoming passengers boarding a plane, the “voice” did not do it in the phantom train. Let it be a freight train or a passenger train, it did not make any difference. Customer satisfaction was not in the corporate culture of a nationalized company that had a lasting monopoly.
The mishap was counterbalanced by the discovery that an unknown person was in control of the phantom train. Everyone inside the car was relieved. After a short euphoria, passengers realized that they would never be on time to their final destination. Consequently, they placed frantic calls or sent text messages to relatives or friends who were waiting for them.
Not only passengers were stranded in the middle of nowhere, but for an unknown period. Uncertainty of whereabouts and delay was rebuttal evidence of digital era. In “Master of Space and Time,” a 1984 science fiction novel by Rudy Rucker, an inventor created his own tailor-made universe. Truth became stranger than fiction with the advent of social media. With a string of disseminated friends sharing a borderless and doubtful community, everyone was able to create a tailor-made universe.
The same reaction of people, which was the produce of onslaught of technological gadgetry, and especially the omnipresent distraction of cell phone, made laugh the young woman and the wanderer. When she asked out of the blue, “What are you reading in German?” The question surprised the wanderer who hemmed and hawed a bit before answering, “Oh! It is just a small biography of Queen Marie-Antoinette by Stefan Zweig.” Because she read women’s magazines and seemed unfazed by her environment, he had underestimated her abilities to look over his reading. After a mischievous smile revealing her understanding of German, she said that she was a student at the Department of Literature at the University of Aix-en-Provence. She commuted between Aix-en-Provence and Paris because her parents had relocated their home to the capital. She was stuck in a mundane existence that seemed to bore her.
The wanderer listened politely while keeping from himself his perplexity. There was a discrepancy between her earlier haughty attitude in the car and her latter self-deprecating tone, which tended to disparage herself. Alike most students, she had no idea of what she wanted to do after her studies. It was a torrent of words after she took the initiative of breaking the ice. The wanderer closely watched her beautiful hands in motion that betrayed her anxiety of the future. After a while, and because he was only beguiled by her fidgety thin white hands, he dreamed about a concert hall where he would be seated on the front row while watching closely her hands playing Franz Schubert’s impromptu.
When the train resumed its running, it did not take long before it reached a curving viaduct over the Rhone River. Whereas the train slowed its speed as it neared Avignon station, the wanderer nervously scrutinized the left bank of the river. He excused himself to the young woman, and jumped out of his seat. Four white crenelated towers circled a massive donjon, with an adjacent terrace on a bluff, which dwarfed the river. The shining castle reflected itself in the bluish flow that was lazily streaming toward the Rhone delta in Camargue.
The wanderer had a keen interest in the castle after watching the Lion in Winter, a 1968 historical drama film based on a Broadway play, which depicted personal and political conflicts of Henry II of England, with his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine. Katharine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole played a Homeric couple onto the terrace. The fleeting and inspirational view brought back a witty quote from the dead.
-Eleanor: I adored you. I still do.
-Henry II: Of all the lies, you have told me, that is the most terrible.
-Eleanor: I know. That is why I have saved it up until now.
For her brilliant performance, Katharine Hepburn won the Academy Award for best actress in a leading role for the third time! Anthony Harvey, the film director, delivered the Oscar to Hepburn because she did not bother to attend the ceremony. The trophy remained wrapped in a paper bag that was hidden in a closet for the rest of her life.
With four wins and eight nominations at the Oscars in her 66-year long career, she held a coveted record that seemed out of reach for anyone embracing that highly competitive career. She never went to receive her trophies at the Oscar ceremony. “As for me, prizes are nothing. My prize is my work,” she claimed. She only made an appearance at the 1974 Oscar Ceremony that went down in history. “I am the living proof that a person can wait forty years to be unselfish,” she said with a self-deprecating tone whilst she was modestly dressed with black gardening togs. She was more interested in the craft of acting than being worshiped by Hollywood celebrities.
If Eleanor of Aquitaine was a woman with hot temperament, great authority, and presence, Katharine Hepburn did not hide her true personality for anyone who met her. She was blunt and feisty. More intriguing, Katharina was the direct descendant from Eleanor’s son, King John, through one of his illegitimate children.
Before Henry II, Eleanor was married to King Louis VII of France when she was fifteen-years old. She insisted on taking part in the Second Crusade. Because she was dressed as an Amazon, she was compared to Penthesilea when she and her husband were the guests of the Byzantine emperor Manuel I Komnenos. Alike the Second Crusade, their marriage was a failure. Their differences were exacerbated abroad. Eleanor had an excessive affection for her uncle Raymond that was interpreted as an incestuous affair. Henry II and Eleanor went back home on separate ships. Eleanor lodged an annulment of her marriage but Pope Eugene did exactly the opposite. He confirmed the legality of the marriage, and arranged a bedroom specially prepared for their reconciliation. A second daughter, Alix, was conceived. Without a male heir, Louis was coerced by barons into divorcing his wife. With the approval of the fickle Pope, the divorce was granted on consanguinity within the four degree.
Three months later, Eleanor was married to King Henry II of England, who was eleven years younger than she was. Her second marriage ended badly when her husband jailed her for treason because she supported their son Henry Junior who revolted against him. After being imprisoned for fifteen years, she was released when Henry died. Their second son Richard replaced him. She acted as regent when he went on the Third Crusade. He was nicknamed Lionheart because he was a great warrior who exposed to combat on the front line.
Eleanor had two daughters from her first marriage, and five sons and three daughters from her second one. She outlived all her children, except for John and Eleanor. She was 82-year-old when she passed away.
Unlike Eleanor, Katharine did not bear any child. “Only when a woman decides not to have children, can a woman live like a man. That’s what I’ve done,” said Katharine to a reporter. “Acting is a nice childish profession, pretending that you are someone else, and at the same time selling yourself,” she mischievously added.
As she advanced in age, her self-deprecating tone worsened equally. “People have grown fond of me, like some old building.” Else, “At my age you don’t get much variety, usually some old nut, which is off the track.” Finally, “Afraid of death? Not at all! Be a great relief. Then I wouldn’t have to talk to you.” Katharine Hepburn was 96-year-old when she died in her mansion at Old Saybrook, Connecticut.
Eight centuries apart, Eleanor and Katharina were two nonconformist women who had a lasting impression on their contemporaries.
Because the train was late, the anonymous voice invited passengers to Aix-en-Provence to move with their belongings to the nearest exit of the car. They scampered onto the platform when the stationmaster whistled and waved the flag to the locomotive engineer. The stop had barely lasted a minute.
The station was built on a barren plateau that was swept by the Mistral. The glass and steel structure was ensconced under a shaped-wave roof. From air view, an ellipsoidal loop road surrounded the station itself and six symmetrical parking lots for visitors. More, two railroads crisscrossed the flattened ellipse from south to north, and two highways from east to west.
Avant-garde architects were more interested in hyperbole and greatness than with down-to-earth services rendered to passengers. The perfectly symmetrical design from the air set in contrast with the actual experience of passengers who either huddled around heating poles or kept walking onto the platform in order to stay warm.
“A Year in Provence” by Peter Mayle started with the recollection of icy Mistral cutting through his property when he settled there with his third wife Jennie at the end of the year. The expatriate couple was poorly prepared when the Mistral ripped a window off its hinges that had carelessly been left open.
After a balmy New Year’s Day that the couple celebrated in a gourmet restaurant, the temperature dropped twenty degrees overnight. With the sounds of branches snapping, the pipes burst, one after the other, under the pressure of water that had frozen in them. Jennie cooked in an overcoat whereas Peter tried to type in thin gloves in their new home. The deluded couple stopped talking about their first swim, and the repair to central heating became their uttermost priority.
PS: this is a chapter of a book in progress
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