Excerpt from an upcoming novel
In the 1890s, a wig-maker by the name of Dubois flees his native Paris in order to escape his past, and settles in the small town of Tampa, Florida. He takes a new name, Lucien Goulet, so he can’t be traced. In this scene at his studio, Monsieur Goulet is in conversation with a new client, Albert Flood, who wants a toupée. Mr. Flood is an avid collector of tree-snails from the Florida Everglades.
‘Have you ever visited France, Monsieur Flood?’ I asked, although I was well aware that he never travels beyond the swamps.
‘France?’ he said.
‘I am thinking of a village in Provence, where the snail is especially esteemed,’ I said. ‘To be accurate,’ I added, for I know men like Flood appreciate attention to detail, ‘the border has shifted many times, and the area has sometimes been in France and sometimes in Italy.’
‘Go on,’ he said.
‘Four men go into the fields,’ I said. ‘The first carries a drum, which he beats to simulate thunder. The second carries a watering can with which he sprinkles the ground in imitation of rain. The third carries a veiled lamp which he uncovers for a second or two at a time -’
‘The lightning,’ said Flood.
‘The lightning. And the fourth man – he collects the snails, who love wet weather, as you know, and who have been fooled into believing that a storm has broken.’
‘Intriguing,’ said Flood.
I paused. ‘To answer your question, Monsieur, the reason for the cost is that the hair comes from so far away. With such a fine, dark sheen as yours to match, I must look to the Continent, indeed to this very region of France, for my material.’
And I told the thinning Mr. Flood of the cliffside village of Gorbio, which I visited in 1858, as an eighteen-year-old hair buyer.
‘On the Thursday after Corpus Christi, the Procession des Limaces is celebrated there,’ I said, and I saw my listener frown at the foreign expression. ‘The Procession of Slugs,’ I said, ‘although in the provencal dialect it is understood as snails.’ The magic word; he beamed. ‘Snail shells are filled with oil and wicks and placed in every window, and when it is dark they are struck with a taper, and the people begin to follow the trail of little flames.’
I described for him the White Penitents, an order of flagellants who lead the procession dressed in snowy robes, and I described the girls who lean from the windows, their dark curtains of hair burnished by the flames. And as I spoke, my voice ushering him through the coiling streets, the White Penitents just ahead of us like spirits, the shells shimmering with oil, I felt such a stillness descend on me that I wanted to stay in that misty village, that place of shifting boundaries. Privately I recalled how I once had found myself in Gorbio on the night of the procession without a place to stay. It was my practice to arrange lodgings in the house or barn of one of the women who sold me her hair, but that day it seemed that all the females of Gorbio visited me in the village square, and I was so busy that I had not stopped to organise shelter of any kind. Most chattered about the procession, and it crossed my mind that perhaps they were ridding themselves of their hair as an acknowledgement to the White Penitents, who not only shaved their heads but whipped themselves, and willingly performed the deeds despised or feared by others: the visiting of the dying, the burial of victims of infectious disease. I joined the procession, certain I would meet one of my donors who would oblige me with accommodation, and perhaps it was a trick of the light or the mist, but as we made our way along the close streets every face seemed distorted by the oily flames, and I recognised nobody. I was just beginning to consider sleeping on one of the olive terraces – although they make a hard bed, I had done so before – when I was greeted by a pretty maid who watched from her window. ‘You are Monsieur Dubois, the hair collector?’ she called.
‘Yes,’ I said.
She bent forward, her dark hair billowing like a cloak, and if I had lifted my hands I might have touched it. ‘How much?’ she said.
‘I would have to examine it more closely,’ I replied.
She moved from the window, setting the flames trembling in their shells, and in a moment she was at the door and inviting me inside and pouring me a glass of wine.
I lifted her hair in my hands, as I had done with countless other females in village squares and fairgrounds. Here, however, where the ceiling was low and the walls were creeping with roses – surely a fresco, although they looked real – the action acquired an intimacy for which I was not prepared. Her exposed neck glimmered in the light of the oil-filled shells and the candles in their brass sconces. ‘Why didn’t you come to the square today, when I was cutting the other girls’ hair?’ I said.
‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘Maybe I was frightened.’ She sipped at her wine, the tendon at the side of her neck flexing and relaxing.
My fingers had crept to her collarbone now, and to the hollow at the base of her throat. I could feel her pulse. ‘I can’t cut at night,’ I said. ‘We’ll have to wait until the morning.’
She nodded, pouring me some more wine. ‘Do you have anywhere to sleep?’
‘No,’ I said.
‘Then you’ll stay with me.’ She blew out the candles, but left the snail shells to gutter out one by one. Under musty sheets she began to kiss my face and chest, her little tongue leaving trails on my skin. ‘Do you have to leave tomorrow?’ she said. ‘Can’t you stay longer?’ In a voice unlike my own, I said that perhaps I could, and I felt I was in neither Italy nor France, but some borderless land.
It may have been the wine, to which I was unaccustomed in those days, my master allowing me one glass only on Sundays, but I had never slept so soundly, nor have I since. When I awoke the room was just becoming light, and on the walls the painted roses wound about their painted lattice. My young companion lay face down, and when I lifted the covers I saw that she had quite coiled herself into a knot, her limbs and back and head a tawny whorl against the linen. I hesitated for a moment, then unsheathed my scissors and began to cut. She did not wake, but obligingly stirred her head so that I could reach the other side, and it was then that I saw she was not a girl at all, but a woman of forty or more: twice my age. Perhaps it was for this reason that I pulled some coins from my purse and placed them on the pillow, shiny little second thoughts. They amounted to much more than I would have paid had she come to me in the square, but by now I was anxious to leave. And so I slipped outside, to where the streets were cool and silent, and charred shells lined the window ledges, marking my way towards the next village. As I hurried up the mountain to Sainte-Agnès, Gorbio faded below me, and when it had disappeared into the mist I sat and caught my breath. There was not enough air up there. All around me grew patches of mandrake, and clusters of starry cranesbill, and sometimes little moths of the same shade of blue flew up from the leaves, and I had to look very closely to tell the flower from the insect. I held the skein of dark hair in my lap and wondered whether I might not keep it for myself, tucked away in a place where my master would never look. But I could think of no such place.
‘A celebration of the snail,’ Albert Flood was saying. ‘An homage to the mollusc.’
I could not help but marvel that the home of this drool of a man is each week visited by Marion Chandler. Before he could expand any further on his hobby, I flung open the door to my storeroom and began unhooking skeins of hair. My stock is plentiful since I have taken on my Cuban, who has a nose for the job, and sometimes produces more hair in one night than I did in a week. ‘Shall we match your colour?’ I said, and I was back in Tampa.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Catherine Chidgey completed the MA in Creative Writing at Victoria in 1997. She is the author of two prize-winning novels, In a fishbone church and Golden Deeds, and has just returned from Menton, France, where she held the 2001 Meridian Energy Katherine Mansfield Memorial Fellowship. She currently lives in Christchurch.