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Wendy Mewes writing about Brittany

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© Wendy Mewes  -  all text and photos on this website are protected by copyright

The Stolen Saint  - extracts

 

1/Prelude


What is a magical place?


In a deep valley behind the last houses was a stream. This later joined a river that passed near the centre of the village. Sometimes in winter it even raged in a white-topped torrent, driving down debris from toppled trees over the smoothed rocks in its bed.


Feeding that stream in the valley above the village was a spring almost obscured by grass and foliage, at the foot of a steep stone façade. On one side of the spring was an upright stone about two feet high but so mossed and worn that it was hard to see, despite the fact that it had been placed there carefully more than five thousand years before.


And that stone had meant something to people for all that time, through periods of neglect and ignorance, through hard and soft times, because it was a living stone, guarding the spring, protecting the little push of water that was the source of life. And the stone itself held the power of ancestral spirits and the elemental forces that drive our world even when we believe it is our will that turns the wheels.


On the other side of the spring was another stone, low and rounded, completely swallowed up by ivy and nettles, a smooth sphere of a stone which had stood there for rather less time but was once equally carefully placed to honour the life-giving trickle of water that fed the stream, then as now, now as then.


Around the spring itself was a little stone house, once the home of a saintly statue, hundreds of years old, and venerated for its powers of healing, although it was the water really that had the ability because it was the heart of everything, and people once remembered this and had marked the spot with prayers and offerings.  


And when folk stopped coming and later the statue disappeared, all was not quite lost, as a guardian still watched over the spring and kept faith with the ancient past of this sacred spot, with the stones and the water, a guardian who understood the transformative powers that had dwelt here for the longest of times.   


But now death had put an end to that tutelage, and the valley was empty and silent, save for the gentle gurgle of the spring and the dancing murmur of the stream and the breath of west wind that could soothe or stir all in its path. No-one came here now but there was still a latent magic, waiting to be found again.



2/ The priest spoke words by rote over the relics as they were briefly dipped, gathered in a white cloth and replaced in their splendid little silver house, outing over for another year. Duroc apparently had some miraculous powers still in his old, dessicated bones. The few suppliants knelt or stooped to the sanctified water and dabbed it on their eyes. A young mother gently removed the heavy spectacles from her little son’s face and dampened his eyelids, lips moving in a silent prayer. Yuna’s heart gave a lurch at the tender gestures, the unselfconscious hope of the rite. All the pomp and ceremony of the procession and ritual were ultimately superficial compared to the simple essence of faith practised by ordinary human beings.


And then it was all over and people began to retrace their steps towards the village, more than ready for the festive parts of the day. Yuna felt hot and eager for a cool drink in a shady place. It was surprisingly warm for the end of April. As she turned away from the wall, she suddenly spied her friend from the bar, grinning at her from a little huddle of people in the middle of the road. He came over and shook her warmly by the hand.

‘Yuna Kermadec. It’s a fine sight to see you taking your grandmother’s place,’ he said.

‘Well, I...’

‘People relied on her, you know.’

‘But I...’

‘I expect we’ll be saying the same of you before too long.’

‘I don’t...’

He leaned in confidentially.

‘This is only half the story, you know.’ He cast out a hand towards the fontaine and returning clergy, and gave her another of his speciality mischievous grins. ‘There was another saint before him, but the church won’t tell you about that.’

‘I’m sorry…?’ She had no idea how to respond to revelations of disputed sainthood.

‘Your grandmother knew all about it, I reckon.’

‘But she ….’

‘Shsssh’. He put a finger to his lips theatrically, then stepped away with a wink and an expression of the greatest self-satisfaction as if he had shared some precious secret with her.

‘Come on, Michel,’ one of his cronies called.

‘Must go,’ he said, moving away to re-join them. ‘Time for lunch now.’


Yuna reeled from this brief and bizarre exchange and longed for a quiet sit down out of the warm sun to settle herself and think about what he’d said. What did her grandmother know? What was this covert information about another saint? Had Duroc surpassed him in some way? It was a mystery she felt incapable of solving in this heavy throng of people, which was clearly not conducive to serious reflection. Her infuriating friend Michel with his tantalising hints had disappeared and Yuna allowed herself to be drifted along, lost in confused thoughts of what it might all mean, if anything at all. She had a sense of consequence lurking on the edge of their exchange, despite the jovial tone of the old man, but with a deep sigh decided to give it up for now and make the most of the moment. The crowd carried her along to the large space behind the church and with the others she filtered through a metal barrier manned by a few men whose bright red faces were an indication of exposure either to the fierce sunshine or the kegs of cider they had been guarding during the procession. Yuna added her ten euro note to the urn as she passed and was about to sit down with relief on the end of a bench at the nearest table when she heard her name called.


‘Over here.’ Marie-Laure waved at an empty seat beside the family and she was glad to join familiar faces that were not the Durants. Loic and his wife were much more congenial companions, and even the children greeted her easily.

‘Did you enjoy the procession?’ she asked them.

Did you?’ said Loic, playfully gripping his eldest son Alban in an armlock.

‘It was nul,’ was the strangled reply. ‘There were no dragons. You said there’d be a dragon and a big fight.’

‘You didn’t?’  Marie-Laure looked in affectionate exasperation at her husband.

‘Not exactly. I said saints often fought dragons, and told them the story of St Armel tossing a great big serpent into the river, that’s all. He was a bit more brawny than old Duroc.’

‘My husband has about the same grasp of the line between truth and fantasy as the children.’

‘And Dad said if you asked Saint Duroc to make your eyes better and he didn’t, you could punch him on the nose,’ Alban added helpfully.

‘Loic! What sort of ridiculous ideas are you giving our children?’

‘No, no, my darling. It’s true. We Bretons are pragmatic. In the old days, if the saints didn’t help after being given lots of offerings, people might get angry with them.’

‘What would they do?’ Yuna asked, trying to suppress a smile.

‘Don’t you encourage him,’ Marie-Laure begged.

‘Have you heard of Saint Corentin?’ Loic asked.

‘Of course. One of the founding saints of Brittany, now with a beautiful cathedral in Quimper.’

‘Exactly. A much revered figure. And yet on the Ile de Sein, when he didn’t grant the favourable wind sailors requested, he might be shut up in a cupboard for his inefficacy.’

‘Presumably they let him out when the wind changed.’

‘Ah, you are teasing me now. But it is true. Saint Peter himself was taken from the church and beaten with gorse by the stern women of Penmarc’h for not granting their prayers. So old Duroc had better watch out today for dissatisfied customers!’

They all laughed as the food arrived, a heaped plate slapped down before each of them with practised rapidity. It held stewed pork with carrots in a faintly piquant sauce, a towering pile of rice and some skinny green beans. Bread, water and open bottles of red wine were already on the table, and they began to eat as chatter lulled all around them in the first throes of the meal.

‘Did you know we’ve got a new neighbour?,’ Loic asked during the pause between courses.

Yuna was immediately all attention.

‘I saw a motorbike earlier this week,’ she said. ‘And then nothing.’

‘It’s a bit odd,’ said Marie-Laure. ‘We’ve haven’t met face to face. He was there alone for a day or so, and then we saw a woman just for a moment in the garden, but she shot indoors at the sight of us.’

‘Not surprising,’ Loic replied. ‘Fancy starting a new life in France and finding us lot as neighbours!’

He nodded his head towards the boys, now running round the edge of the car-park aeroplane style, with full sound effects.

Loic and Marie-Laure both laughed at this idea of their undesirability with the easy self-confidence Yuna so admired.

‘Just a minute – you said a new life in France as if they were foreign? I thought you hadn’t spoken to them?’

‘The bike had English plates, ‘ Loic shrugged as he got up to reel in the boys to eat their huge slices of apple cake.

Yuna’s spirits fell a bit at the thought of English residents in what she firmly felt to be the French half of the village. It was mean-spirited, she knew, but she had not come to France to live with British people and speak English to her neighbours. Was that rather ghostly face she’d seen at the window the shy woman who ran away from the sight of this friendly pair? Another mystery to add to the day’s tally.


3/And that was all Jean-Pierre Le Hir had to say on the subject of Brannec and his hidden place in the valley. It had clarified a great deal about the peculiar two saint situation, but he wrote apparently without knowledge of the shrine’s continuing existence except local rumours, and definitely no mention of the statue that had once presided over the spring. It was all a bit of a mystery, and one Yuna felt ill-equipped to solve, given the unknown factors at play. She was used to collecting and assessing historical material, piecing together possibilities, but her own experience in the valley had already gone beyond anything with rational explanation. It was a daunting prospect, but she wanted desperately to fulfil her grand-mother’s wish. Enora had not provided her with the key to the puzzle, however, and it looked as if Yuna would be left entirely to her own resources.


Madame Le Hir rocked in her chair and gazed sightlessly over the tree-filled valley. Ever since she had looked out that little booklet for Enora Kermadec’s girl she had felt her husband close again, and now the past was playing her another teasing visit. One moment she felt the soothing presence of Jean-Pierre, seated opposite as they had liked to spend their evenings, engrossed in books or talk, content in each other’s presence. The next his image evaporated and she heard somebody crying in despair, and then suddenly there was shouting and lashing out in rage, striking over and over… But who was it provoked by such anger and desire for destruction? Her heart was racing now and blood surged through her old veins in a swift flood, frightening her with its urgency and alien speed. She gripped both arms of her chair. The little box she had been holding slipped to the floor. She had wanted something so badly, but what was it? And what had caused the passion in that beating? Had she seen something she shouldn’t have? What was her own role in the event? She couldn’t remember. It was hopeless, this cruel stirring and fretting. It could lead nowhere. She closed her eyes and tried to breathe calmly, and soon she began to sing softly:


In the wood

Lives a monk

Who can save us

From the pain

Who can make us

Whole again

Still the mind

Soothe the brain

Who can make us

Whole again


A tear ran down her lined face as she repeated the verse over and over, until breaking off abruptly.

Liar, liar, she whispered.


4/ All was still in the valley. Not a leaf stirred, no crow’s wing cut the air. She was quite alone in her special place. Physically alone that is, but the sense of other lives was all around. Especially Brannec. She thought of the hermit praying by the water, touching the sacred stones, healing those sick in their minds or hearts who came to him for succour. Living here in contentment, surviving on the simple gifts of nature and grateful suppliants. How little changed the place must be in its elemental form.  Whenever she sat beside the spring, time took on a new dimension, stretching out into the past and yet embracing the lives of the villagers today. Perhaps it was ever thus, and Brannec felt the spirits of the men who placed the stones, thousands of years before he found his place of refuge under the oaks, sheltered by the sheer face of granite. She felt his presence now, sitting with her, gently sharing the special energy of the spot. Yuna thought again of the depiction of Brannec in the church window as a rough peasant cowed by the power of the established church, which was turning its back on the flexible rural ways of earlier times. She imagined him here at the secret spring and looked aside to the empty niche above the basin. Suddenly the real nature of her allotted task came to her with total clarity. She had to find and restore the statue of the stolen saint.