Letters from Armorica- Growing Pains (15 January 35 AF)

First Letter

Dear Journal,

The goat came back today.

It is Sunday, and after Sunday dinner the bulk of the population of Bois-de-Bas headed off to the hot springs as it usual in times of peace. I say the bulk of the population: small children, of course, do not, nor do those who care for them. (In our case, Madame Truc and Jacques-le-Souris stayed behind with little Anne-Marie.) But there is another group as well: those, mostly young men, who came to Bois-de-Bois during the hostilities and have remained here.

It seems that the hot springs have always been by invitation only: not as an official policy, as it were, but as a matter of custom. Marc and Elise were invited by Marc's Onc' Herbert; and I was invited by them—after Onc' Herbert determined that I wasn't above caring for his goats. The folk of Bois-de-Bois respect learning and wit, but they respect a willingness to do the dirty jobs even more. And so I was welcomed to the springs of a Sunday, all unknowing that another man might not have been.

But the young men who came to Bois-de-Bas during the hostilities and have remained here mostly have not been. A few have, those who have come to know the local families and have married or are courting local girls; but not most, and it is beginning to cause some friction. These men have fought for Armorica against le Maréchal's troops, but they are shut out from the social life of the village—and not just from the social life, of course, but the political life as well, since what passes for politics mostly takes place at the springs.

One of them, a fellow named René Desjardins, came to me at my workshop a few days ago to complain about it. I had never met him before; none of the outsiders were ever admitted to our base on L'Isle-du-Grand-Blaireau.

I was rather inclined to invite him to the springs myself, but I was too aware of the collection of older men sitting in the front part of the shop, watching my every move. They were there for the company, and to advise me at need, but also to keep an eye on me. And though I liked René well enough at first glance, of course I knew nothing about him. So I put him off as gently as I could. "I'm a newcomer here myself," I said. "I'm stilling finding out how everything works. I'll raise the question, on Sonnedi and we will see what we will see. Come and see me next week." That got me a number of sidelong looks from the observers (and a resigned grimace from René but no actual comments).

And so, this afternoon, I asked the question: why weren't les nouveaux hommes welcomed to the springs?

There was a great deal of hemming and hawing, before one of the older gentlemen undertook to explain to me about the need for an invitation to keep the racaille, the "riff-raff" out of town.

"It's far from clear to me that these young men are riff-raff, at least not all of them," I said. "They fought for us after all."

"But if they are good young men, why have they not returned to their own places?" said M. Tremblay. "Are they not welcome there?"

"Not every place is as well off as Bois-de-Bas," I said. "Perhaps they don't wish to work for their older brothers." There was much nodding at that. "Perhaps they simply like getting truly warm in the winter," I said, waving at the steaming water. "Few villages are blessed as we are." That got me a chuckle.

I asked Marc, for he sits by me, whether an invitation to the springs had ever been rescinded: whether anyone had been barred for bad behavior?

"We've had to chuck Drunken Jacques out in the snow a time or two when he got too boisterous," Marc said, "but that's not what you mean." There was more laughter, at which Drunken-Jacques raised his leather cup and took a half-bow.

M. Rouquet spoke up. "Once, a long time ago, there was a fellow who laid hands on my daughter. We told him he was no longer welcome, and he left town in shame." Several of the other gray heads nodded at this.

"So if we let someone in and they caused a problem, we could eject them?" I said.

"Well, but," began one large fellow.

"But what?"

"But there's no more room!"

I looked around the grotto in which we sat. It was a comfortable place, a large irregular chamber in which bronzewood benches and walkways had been installed, down in the water; for no one wishes to rest their backside rough stone. And indeed, the benches were tolerably full.

"Could we extend the space? Are there other grottoes like this one?"

"Well, yes…but then they would be out of earshot. Who knows what they might decide?" There was general agreement.

Aha! If another chamber were added, it would make it harder to have the kinds of discussion we were having now; and might, I thought, even lead to factionalism! That was probably going to happen in the long run anyway, as the town grew, but I quite saw the problem.

Conversation became general as I mulled it over.

"Perhaps," I began, but no one ever heard what I was about to say next, for there was a ruckus at the entrance to the chamber. Michel Marchand, who is quite a big fellow, had been given the place closest to the entrance. No one said that it was so that he could handle any interlopers, but that was why he was there. I found later on that he'd heard a noise and when he'd gone to investigate he'd found the goat starting to chew on a basket of clothing in the hut where we men undress. The hut (for I believe I have not described it before) has a stove for warmth, and is built around the entrance to our part of the hot springs.

It was quite a surprise for him, and for the rest of us, too, for no one wants to face an Armorican goat without proper gear, let alone in the altogether.

He relayed the news; and then, of course, everyone turned to look at me.

When I peeked into the hut I saw that it was the same goat I had found on my roof on Tuesday. It was chewing reflectively on someone's small-clothes.

"You're like a bad penny," I said out loud, which was a mistake. The goat stopped chewing, the garment dangling from either side of its mouth, and looked at me. Its ears flickered, and it made a muffled goatish noise in its throat, and started towards me with every indication of pleasure.

Fortunately it had started on the basket closest to the entrance. I snatched up the nearest, a good stout wicker laundry basket with hoops for handles, and fended it off with the bottom. The clothes inside (including mine, alas) went tumbling to the floor where the goat trod on them with its muddy hooves as I retreated.

I backed into the passage, which was delightfully narrow. "Marc," I shouted. "Marc, this is your problem!" There was a murmur of laughter and conversation from behind me as Marc made his way from his spot. Meanwhile, the goat stood there and watched me. It swallowed the small-clothes, and then tried to take a bite out of the bottom of my basket. I clouted it on the head, and it made its noise again. I don't know what to call it, but it was much louder now that the small-clothes were gone, and it echoed.

I made a rush to push it out into the room. Marc snatched up a basket of his own, garments flying everywhere, and between the two of us we managed to back it up to the hut's entry way, and to hold it off while Drunken Jacques and Michel Marchand got their clothes on so they could take over while we did the same. We had a bad moment when the goat nearly got into the ladies' dressing room, and there was a lot of shouting (and cries of " Qu'est-ce que c'est?") from the ladies' grotto. But in time we managed to drive it out into the snow, and several of the men stood guard while one of Marc's men strode off to the farm for protective gear and a goat-chain.

We all got home late, with lots of washing and mending of garments to do; and we still haven't decided what to do about les nouveaux hommes. What le Bon Dieu was thinking when He made goats I am sure I do not know.

Next letter

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photo credit: marcoverch Geflochtene Körbe unterschiedlicher Größen und Formen am Naschmarkt via photopin (license)

2 comments

  1. Goats two weeks in a row!
    I had never noticed the word Armorica before, but since you’ve started writing these I’ve seen it turn up in various places. Entertaining me and educating me all in one go.

    1. Not that my Armorica has any real connection with the real one, except for being vaguely French. It’s meant to be a sort of fantasy analog of Canada (for extremely loose and uninformed values of Canada) in that it’s a frontier colony that mingles Provençese (i.e., French) and Cumbrian (i.e., English) influences. And Le Maréchal is of course an analog of Napoleon. But don’t take that too far! I’m using history as a source of ideas, but in no way as a constraint. 🙂

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