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August 2016



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Aug. 24th, 2016

Get naked. It's an order.

Since the latest terrorist attacks have been driving much of France crazy, we seem to wait every week for the newest controversy, outrageous statement or ridiculous debate, with varying degrees of anxiety. In the past two weeks, some seaside towns have decided to take a completely unnecessary and possibly quite illegal step, as you've probably read in international media: they have forbidden bathers to wear burkini, a type of swimwear used by some Muslim women to hide their bodies while they bathe.

My first reaction was to feel a little bit more exhausted than usual. I'm not the target of those regulations, I'm not part of a religious minority, and I won't pretend I'm the victim of anything here. But I still have to live in this country. Most of my students are Muslims. Part of what makes my job so complicated is the wedge that these politics are driving, day after day, between 'people like me' and 'people like them'. I'm using quotation marks because that's how my students see it. I'm not part of their world, so why should they listen to me? Once again, I have to thank some clueless politicians for making my job a little bit harder. Great. I can't way for the first school days.

I want to be completely honest about one thing, even though it may not be the safest admission to make. I have very little sympathy for women who insist on dressing 'modestly'. I think women's modesty is a very loaded issue, and I don't feel very comfortable around people who insist that coverig your body is a sign of moral virtue. What does it mean, then--am I a bad person for not wanting to hide my body? I'm certain that lots of people would reply that obviously, women who cover themselves up do not do it for or against me, they do it for their own personal reasons and it has no implications about my personal virtue or lack thereof. They would certainly be right, although that doesn't make me more comfortable. When I walk around Marseilles, I get more or less unpleasant comments from men on a regular basis. The idea that I deserve less respect because I wear short skirts doesn't seem so foreign to them. That's why I'm not comfortable around people who parade female modesty as a sign of virtue. Like it or not, it does impact my life.

But there's one thing this does not change: I'd rather have a real conversation about this, rather than see people toss humiliating regulations around. I know I'll never get to discuss the implications of female modesty and the presence of the female body in the public space with my students, because one question will always come back to pollute the debate: if women should be able to wear whatever they want without being judged, why are religious clothes prohibited? And I know I can't answer that question, becuse there's no good answer. Yes, France is supposed to guarantee freedom of religion, and yet some religions should not be seen in public... Also, I don't believe that the purpose of law is to make people comfortable, and it's certainly not to make me comfortable. I'm fine with being uncomfortable as long as I can discuss why. The only thing we've gained is that now, there will be no discussion. Only hurt.

There's another thing. Earlier this year, I considered shopping for a burkini myself. Not for religious reasons, but for a very simple practical one: my skin is extremely fair, burns very easily, and I want to stop using sunscreen on the beach as much as possible, because sunscreen is very damaging for marine wildlife (just imagine that blanket of clouds that blocks out all sunlight in The Matrix, only the blanket is made of sunscreen particles diluted in the water--you get the idea). I didn't, because burkinis are not form-fitting and I assumed it would be a pain in the arse to swim around wearing one. But there was one thing I couldn't help noticing: apparently, when you're on the beach, you're supposed to be as naked as possible. Long-sleeved swimwear is almost non-existant, and I found nothing that could cover my legs. Seriously, am I the only person in this continent whose skin is prone to burning? If I want to take a swim while protecting my skin, what is the fucking problem with that?

It's summer. Go naked. Wear a bikini even if you're a little girl with no breasts. Bare your legs even if you're a self-conscious teenager who'd rather stay in her bedroom. If you can't be bothered to shave, face the judgement that will inevitably come, you don't simply have the option of wearing something on top of your unsightly legs. Groom that skin cancer or hide in the shade, there's no alternative for you. It sucks. A lot. That's why I raised an eyebrow today, when reading an article by a famous French (female) polemist, who argued that yes, of course banning burkinis is probably illegal, but that's a shame because 'people go to the beach to relax, not to collide head first with other people's convictions or ideologies'. Fair enough, but who are these mysterious 'people'? Apparently not women who would like to wear burkinis, because they will definitely have to confront other people's ideologies (and have to disrobe) instead of just being able to enjoy a nice day in the sun. Not people like me either, because life's a bitch and now it makes me so sad to put on sunscreen and realise how I'm contributing to killing off the sea I love more than so many things in the world, and so I don't always get to relax either. It must be nice to feel so important you imagine that the purpose of your society's laws and organisation must be to help you relax. Don't worry, the police are here to make sure that just the right people are publicly humiliated and that 'other people's convictions' won't hurt your nice day on the beach.

Jul. 11th, 2016

(no subject)

In the Mediterranean, there are special kinds of reefs covered in long, tough leaves called posidonia. From above, they look like waving pillows, or particularly coarse hair. From further away, they make wide, dark spots on the sea floor. Underwater, they look like prairies, with myriads of grazing fish.

Posidonia are the Amazon of the Mediterranea sea floor. Stumbling on a reef underwater feels like crashing a party. Coloured fish swim all around you, others burrow in the sand and dry leaves, waving their barbels and tails, others flee in schools when they see you approach. Starfish and anemones make bright spots on the bottom. Clams as wide as two hands gape at you, covered in hair-like seaweed. Every now and then an octopus hides from sight. If the sun is bright above you, its rays will make milky curtains in the water. It's an exceptional sight, a few dozen metres away from the beach.

I can't really explain why, however, but for a few years now, the thought of swimming over posidonia has filled me with dread. If I feel long leaves brushing my legs as I swim by, I feel close to panicking. Especially if they're really close, which makes no sense because if the water is so shallow, there would be absolutely no risk of drowning, and stepping on posidonia is much like stepping on a bed of dry leaves in the forest. And yet, somehow, they're frightening. Not just to me, either: I was a little relieved to discover that a lot of people I know share this fear. Why, I have no idea.

So I recently decided to fight the fear, put on a snorkel and diving mask, and go swimming above the reefs. And it was wonderful. I stopped there for a moment, trying not to disturb the fish, hearing nothing but my breath amplified by the mask, watching schools of fish swim all around me, paying no attention at all. The sun was high in the sky and the water crystal-clear. It was beautiful, peaceful beyond saying. And yet... I still felt ill at ease. I swam away and came back every now and then, so I wouldn't stay for too long above the sea grass.

There is something about those reefs which cannot make one entirely comfortable. However warm the water, however long you spend getting acquainted with breams and giant clams, this is not your home. You're not truly supposed to be there and you know it. You're disturbing something, and you're only safe as long as that something tolerates you. This is not your geography, not even your geometry. Spend too long swimming from reef to reef and you won't know where you are. Well, you will know if you raise your head above the water, but once it's down again, you've crossed the line back into that world that isn't yours. There are no sounds aside from your breath, no feelings except from the water, and as for sight, you have to choose between the familiar surface, or the depths of the sea. It is beautiful, beyond compare. But it is not your home.
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Jun. 29th, 2016

Doghouse in the tree

I met my neighbours (mother and daughter) juste outside our building a little while ago. I was trying to set up a nest box for blue tits in the chestnut tree just under our window. Because I like blue tits and also why not. So, my neighbours saw me perched in a precarious position on a tiny stool (somehow evolution failed to calculate that I would end up being one metre sixty and that's really not practical when tits refuse to nest in places lower than two metres).

Their very natural reaction was to lose it. But they're too polite to show it, so they just watched me with aghast faces.

'You shouldn't do that, you know,' the mother said. 'We don't mind, but people are going to be very unhappy.'

'They have no reason to be. And then if someone really dislikes it, I'll take it down.'

'It's going to attract pigeons.'

'The hole is tiny. It's for blue tits. Pigeons won't even notice it.'

'It's very... visible.'

'Once the leaves have finished growing, nobody will see a thing, I promise.'

'Well, if you must. But people are going to disagree. You know how people are around here.'

Side note: I just love it when someone uses 'people' as an excuse for telling you off while trying not to sound too close-minded. 'People' are such bastards.

The daughter watched me with obvious disapproval, while I did my best not to land on my backside with a massive nest box embedded in my chest (did you know how heavy these things are? Because bloody hell, they are heavy).

'Well, I think it's very big,' she said with pursed lips. 'And I say that if people start doing whatever they want around here, then I'll just come down and put my dog's house up in the tree, and let's see what people will say!'

So here's the moral of the story:

You know the famous 'slippery slope' argument? Aka. when people tell you that if you take some ever so slightly progressive steps in society, then everything is going to magically descend into chaos because there will be no limits anymore, and that's why doing something perfectly logical and reasonable like allowing everyone to marry whoever they like (or hanging a nest box in a tree that's regularly visited by birds) is for some reason going to cause people to do all sorts of ugly things like committing incest and starting the apocalypse that will wipe out mankind?

As far as I'm concerned, this argument is now known as the 'doghouse in the tree' argument.

And if you're curious about what became of the nest box: it's still there, but I put it up too late and no bird took residence in it yet. In any case, incredibly enough... 'people' have failed to complain.

Jun. 16th, 2016

Creatures by the side of the road

Recently I came across a number of beasts I had not, or rarely, seen before. They were all somewhere by the side of a road. They were all striking enough to pause.

A badger, its black fur bristly and coarse.

A grass snake, probably a Montpellier snake, its back greenish and glistening, almost a metre long.

A green lizard with sparkling scales.

A rare species of kestrel (unless I misidentified it).

A boar.

It could be a lovely thing: so many creatures living next to us, in so little space. It could be wonderful, if three of these five creatures had not been dead. The badger was probably poisoned; its tongue hung out of its mouth, but it bore no trace of wound on its body. The grass snake's head had been either run over or smashed with a bottle (there were fragments of broken glass around it). The lizard was crushed on the side of the road.

Of course they would be dead. It's a road. It's noisy, and it's dangerous. I suppose most animals steer clear of it, and that's why the dead ones are easier to spot. Humans should probably steer clear of it too; last time we went biking, we narrowly escaped being hit by a careening Prsche, whose owner probably wanted to prove the already fairly solid point that people who drive expensive cars tend to be slightly more despicable than the rest of the population (but since this has been scientifically proven already, I'm not sure what killing us would have accomplished). Still, its a bit depressing to find yourself face to face with just how murderous the things that allow us to move faster are. Killing something every now and then is unavoidable. That's the toll we have to pay for... um... being able to afford living forty-five minutes away from work but at least you have a house with a swimming pool?

Jun. 11th, 2016

Last school day

Getting off the bus in Marseilles, very late for work, I heard voices call me from the other side of the street: 'Madame! Madame!' Turning around, I saw a group of students waving at me, the very same students I was supposed to be in class with at that moment. They were smiling and waving happily. I suppose I wasn't such an appalling teacher to them, even though adjusting to high school was a massive challenge...

We exchanged news. I congratulated some of them on the documentaries they shot for their cinema class. We talked very little about the upcoming baccalauréat, which they will be thinking about soon enough. We didn't mention the fact that all of us were supposed to be in class together; it was the last day of the school year after all. It made me smile to remember that the exact same thing happened to me during the last year of high school--I was taking a walk in the city during a history class, when I was greeted by none other that my history teacher, which triggered a very short moment of panic ('Oh crap, he's caught me skipping class--Wait a minute, what is he doing here?'). I left them to go to school, where, in a completely unsusprising turn, I spent the rest of the day in front of a computer, waiting for students who I suppose comfortably sat out Ramadan at home.

They're right. It was much too warm to study anyway.

May. 28th, 2016

Digging up lasagna

Quarter to ten in the morning; we've just arrived in front of a neat wooden fence, at the foot of a slightly run-down, unsusprisingly hideous 1970's building nested between two motorways, in one of the least attractive parts of the city. There are three or four people already there. We apologise for being early.

'Oh no, not at all! Come on in. You must be Cécile... Cristo...?'

Introductions are made as we take in the little haven we've just walked into. Straw and mulch cover the ground; vegetables and flowers grow everywhere in tidy little bunches, although rarely in rows. Permaculture is the keyword here. A pergola has been built near the wicket gate, but the trumpet vines still barely grow high enough to cover the main posts, let alone provide some real shade. At ten o'clock in the morning, we're already sweating.

We all gather around a table with coffee and biscuits, and introductions begin, everyone explaining what we're doing in this little haven, the shared garden of Lou Grillet, a subsidised housing complex. Some leave nearby and come everyday to tend their little plot of land, others supervise gardens in other places and have come for a chat, others, like me, are complete novices wishoug to set up their own garden one day. When my turn comes, I explain that I don't have the slightest idea how to do it (I don't disclose that so far, my greatest gardening success has been to keep a little sage bush for almost a whole year without seeing it die), or where to do it for that matter, the only sizeable piece of land in my neighbourhood being reputedly unavailable, but I want to try anyway and I have three million questions (the lady in charge soberly tells me that three million is a lot, but if I start now, yes, she will answer them all).

And questions we all have. The morning is a fascinating moment, especially for someone with absolutely everything to learn: how people made the garden together, with successes and failures, the bumps along the way, and we end up digging up all over the place to make a water-retention system using buried wood, and to build a lasagna of cardboard, wood, freshly-cut grass, compost, earth and straw (in that order: it's a sophisticated device used to filter the pollution out of the groud you will plant your crops on, and retain water as well). We all sit together for lunch and share approximately five tons of food between the twenty-or-so of us. We exchange addresses, tricks for making homemade mint cordial and telling wild spinach apart from poisonous mini-tomato-something (nobody was sure what that particular plant was, only that it's a solanacea, and that it makes fruit that look like tiny tomatoes and are extremely toxic, so I'm going with killer-mini-tomato for the time being). We rub on litres of sunscreen and taste omelettes made from chards grown in the garden. Above all, we talk.

The people who have come to the meeting are mostly women. And I notice a very special thing: everybody waits for their turn to talk, without needing anyone to remind them that they've been taking up a lot of space in the discussion and now it's time to listen to others. Opinions are voiced, ideas exchanged, but no one talks louder than the others, no one tries to drown others in their knowledge. When time comes to take up spades and garden forks to break up the ground, women start digging without making a fuss. All right, a couple of jokes are exchanged when it becomes apparent that only women are digging while men watch, but they soon stop. The men go back to ripping out weeds and wheeling them to the compost heap, the rest get to work on the lasagna. And that's all. No pathetic jokes about men and women and football and shopping. No one taking the load out of anyone else's hands because it's 'too heavy' for them. No awkwardness. Everything seems taken straight out of a little feminist paradise.

I have no idea why that is. All right, perhaps I do have an idea, maybe a silly one but I'll say it anyway. Sometimes there are things that men and women will do differently, because of their bodies of because they've been taught to, and then that will be the object of endless attention and comments, about men being stronger or women being better at noticing things, and it will be established that there has to be a gender difference. Sometimes there are things that men and women can do exactly as well as each other, like video games or playing flamenco guitar, and then some men will feel threatened and won't rest until they've managed to harass every woman out of their playground, and what could have been an enjoyable activity for everyone becomes a boys' club for absolutely no good reason. But perhaps you can't harass women out of a garden. First of all, more often than not, women are the ones building it. Secondly, those beans won't grow themselves, and if it's a woman telling you how to water them so they stop dying, you can't really afford to pretend she's not entitled to knowing how things work. Thirdly, if her plot overflows with produce while you struggle to get a single ripe tomato, maybe it's just going to become obvious to everyone that she knows what she's doing.

Or maybe this is simply because gardening is one of those very necessary, and yet entirely disregarded activities that we're taught have no value because they don't make money. We disregard housework because most of the time it's not paid for, even though taking care of the house is essential to our sanity if not our direct survival. What society disregards it has left to women. Growing vegetables for the family's everyday use brings no money either, it might as well be just another kind of housework, to be done while the men take care of important things. Yet when you sit in a garden nested between two motorways, in a drab, unappealing part of town, and you realise that you feel like you're taking a lungful of fresh air in the countryside and that makes you want to smile so hard it hurts, you suddenly see that, in the most litteral sense of the phrase, gardening has just changed a part of the word.

Am I dreaming, or are we just now understanding that things that are not bought have the most power?

May. 21st, 2016

The last butterflies

Cycling around Aix is a breath of fresh air, on so many more levels than the litteral one. The fields alternate with groves of pines and white oaks, there are few sounds aside from birds, and one just has to glance at the side of the road to see more plants than in a whole week working in Marseilles. Then there are the smells, too, those smells of early summer you could spend hours picking apart: wet leaves, drier leaves, earth, elderflowers, rosemary, wheat fields. One hour out there and it feels like the part of you that got the best workout was not your legs, but your brain. There is so much going on: a jay taking flight from a cherry tree, a bid of prey soaring up with a snake in its talons, willow pollen tormenting your eyes, the sweet, sudden smell of elderflowers, unknown plants pricking at your legs, roots working their way under the roads and making them bumpy, the temptation to snach almonds from a branch leaning out of a garden, tiny streams that would barely have registered as rivulets back in Québec, but that are dignified with a name and a signpost here, the red assault of a cluster of poppies, your whole body feeling the change when you leave the side of the field and enter the drier regions of pine woods, with their dry warmth and deep aromatic scent, the changing silhouettes of trees, sinuous for oaks, straight for pines, mangled for plane trees, bushy for elders...

There is an ongoing debate about whether spending your time on a computer is likely to make you less intelligent in the long run, and I'm not going to voice an opinion on it, but I wonder if we are not missing something crucial from that debate. The point is, perhaps spending your time online may allow you to reach more information, or perhaps it only allows you to memorise paths to that information and cripples your capacity to remember things by yourself, I have no idea. But what about all the information that cannot be found online? The smells, the feelings, and the dizzying diversity that remains there even though we have done an awe-inspiring job so far at destroying as much as you can? Half of the butterflies are now gone from European fields. Yet when you cycle through the countryside for a couple of hours, you come across half a dozen species, at least. There is more diversity in the last of the butterflies than in what the average person browses online in a week--and for that matter, in what could be found in most libraries of the world. There is a certain type of knowledge we have learned to conveive as all-important, and that is knowledge that can be expressed through words on a page. I'm not denying the importance of that knowledge. But what about all the information we are depriving our brains of, the sound of a lizard in the grass, the prickly touch of weeds, the way the smells change in the spring?

I recently read about a species of ants that evolved to live underground, then came back to the surface after a few thousand years. While living underground, their brains adapted to their new conditions. But they did not simply become different; they became atrophied. Life underground is much simpler than life overground. There is almost no light, there are fewer sounds, the touches and smells are mostly all the same. With so little information to process, brains can become lazy. They simply stop being ready for an overload of information that will never come.

We couldn't turn into ants underground, could we? I hope not. I hope that there is something I've failed to notice in the videos and online conversations my student spend their lives following on their smartphones. I sincerely hope so, because if there's not, our descendants will know the fate of the ants underground. Their brains will be shut to the flutter of a butterfly's wings. And so much will be lost to us. 

Apr. 16th, 2016


The holidays are almost over. There's one very funny thing with teaching: how much it exhausts you greatly varies with the seasons. While it can be physically and emotionally shattering in winter, it's much easier to teach in the spring, when students, colleagues and yourself are in a better mood and you don't have to rise too long before the sun. I don't know how many jobs remain so strongly tied to seasonal rhythms. It certainly didn't feel the same doing research in Québec, even if the seasonal changes were far more dramatic than they are here.

Now spring has come back, it was time for us to do a few small jobs we had left aside. Learning how to use lime and whitewash rooms was much more interesting than it sounds. It's messy, time-consuming and particularly fickle depending on the materials you're trying to paint, and I really understand why people invented ready-made acrylic paints for that sort of job, but I still like knowing that I can now paint my home any colour I like without depending on whatever mysterious chemicals paint-makers will choose to mix in their wares, and for a quarter of the price. Plus, the ochre we used came from fifty kilometres away, and it looks gorgeous. It was well worth the hours spent mixing lime and plaster and scrubbing white stains off the floor. All right, maybe we could have done it all just as well without forgetting that we had bought plastic covers for the floor (I'm not certain what I was thinking, splashing paint all over and thinking it would be easy to clean afterwards), but it was very satisfying nonetheless.

Shopping around to find potted plants for the balcony, I noticed one particular thing. Gardens today are not gardens anymore. They're outdoors dining rooms with a splatter of living-room if you have enough space. Taking care of your garden, terrace or balcony seems to imply that you'll cram as many tables and chairs as you can in there, plus a barbecue and a pizza oven if you have enough space, and don't forget the swimming-pool. It's nothing new, I know. But when you pause to think about it, it raises questions that are not all that comfortable. Having a garden in South-East France today is an incredible luxury, given how over-populated the area is. You'd think possessing a little bit of nature, or an outdoor space wide enough to recreate it, would be precious. Instead, the only value of a garden seems to be the extra space, that you can colonise little by little to make it as similar to an indoor space as you can, only with a little more sun and fresh air. Is that the best we can do? People pour concrete or gravel over the ground to have a stable surface on which to place their lounging chairs, they dig hole and line them with ceramic to swim in chlorinated water a few days a year, and what's really unique to nature, the smell of grass and the shade of trees, they relegate in narrow borders bounded by more concrete, to make sure nothing will grow outside the meagre designated area. Is that really the best we can wish for? Is that all the luxury nature can afford us: to be beaten back even outside, so we can get the sun but none of those pesky living things?

Every year in South-East France, we get torrential rains, and at least a couple of people (sometimes a couple dozens) die in the subsequent floods. It is common knowledge now that these are not natural catastrophes. The contemporary tendency to plaster concrete or asphalt over open ground is largely responsible: there is nowhere left where water can seep into the ground. The heat in summer gets close to unbearable, because instead of being absorbed by plants and subdued by evaporating water from the leaves, it is reflected by the stone tiles that make up most of today's gardens, and there is no shade anymore to counter it. What a luxury indeed, to choke in the heat and, for the unlucky, to drown in water that couldn't find any earth to peacefully sink in.

Some of my neighbours want to turn the greenery below our building into extra parking spaces. The sixties don't want to die, it seems. I hope the twenty-first century will eventually wake up and fight back. Living, growing things are our only way out.

Apr. 4th, 2016

And sail into the sunset

Three weeks ago, my brother departed on schooner Sonate as part of a crew of five, for a round-the-world trip that may not bring them back until next year. They left from the Old Port of Marseilles, on a white-skied morning with just enough wind to flap in the sails. There were two hours of hesitation and near-stillness in the harbour as families and friends took coffee on the deck, the stocks of fuel were replenished and a hundred little details nobody could see except for the sailors were fixed. Then they navigated out of the harbour, motor growling, sails unfurling little by little until they glided past the levees. Then they took out their violins and accordions, and sang a goodbye song which said something about a harmonica, even though none of them had one. They sailed very close to us one last time, waving their hands. With that, they were gone.

There are few real goodbyes left today. Usually, you hug and kiss and almost walk backwards as you leave so as not to lose one precious second together, only to storm back through the door five minutes later because you forgot your coat, blow a hasty kiss and go. Or you follow people through a window pane when they go through security at the airport, feeling vaguely stupid as you look at each other in the eyes but can't hear anything and wonder how long the awkwardness is going to last. As soon as you're out of view, you exchange a couple of text messages, or skype each other as soon as an internet connection becomes available. It's goodbye, but watered down.

As that ship grew smaller on the horizon and we grew further apart with every passing minute, we knew there would be no turning back, no forgotten mobile phone in the car. It's not the first time I've hugged my brother goodbye. He's left before--to Antarctica, to Norway--and I've left too, and we've ended on opposite sides of the globe quite a few times. One year will just barely be the longest time we've been without meeting. And yet, there will be no skyping out on the open sea. He'll have no solid ground under his feet for a while. I trust the sea, and yet there's something more poignant than I imagined about a ship putting wide golden waters between you and your brother.

Before he sailed away, he came to visit my school and tell my students about his travels and his future work on sea life. He told them about young albatrosses dying of hunger after being unwittingly fed plastic scraps by their parents, about chemical pollution and the gigantic plastic maelstroms twirling at the center of the oceans. But what one of my students really wanted to know about was the whales.

'What will you do if a whale crashes into your ship? Will you sink?'

'Well, there are very few whales left today,' my brother said. 'It's very unlikely. They also have a sonar to help them swim, so they won't crash into us unless they have a big problem. If it does happen, we'll sink. But then it would also mean fate is after us and we're meant to die, so there's no point worrying about it.'

I'm not sure this is what she expected to hear, but she was still all ears for the rest of the conference.

A few days ago I dreamt of a river, frozen over and quite still under the snow. But when the current broke again, the ice went away one chunk after another, and under there in the deep, large shadows were revealed, monstrous, quiet catfish placidly weaving under the ice.

They swam away, in one slow swarm, huge slithering shapes too large to pay attention to us.

I hope the whales swim clear of my brother's ship.

Feb. 28th, 2016

Two days late: The grandfather who made trees blossom

Tell-a-Fairy-Tale Day was two days ago, but due to having to stay late in Marseilles for work, I didn't get around to it. Let's make it Tell-a-Fairy-Tale Sunday instead, then.

I had plenty of story books when I grew up. Some of the stories stuck with mefor longer than others, sometimes for reasons I didn't realise at the time. The grandfather who made trees bloom is a very simple tale, but underneath the surface, there is so much going on--about grief, moving on, happiness and happy endings--that I couldn't resist expanding on it a little bit. You can probably see at which point the story becomes mine. That's the part of the story that played in my head between the lines, as soon as I was old enough to realise why this story intrigued me so much.

The Grandfather Who Made Trees Blossom

Once upon a time there lived a grandfather and a grandmother. Well, 'Grandfather' and 'Grandmother' is what the people affectionately called them, because they had no children. This was their only regret in life; as for the rest, they were quite satisfied, even if there wasn't always much food on the table and the roof was leaky sometimes.

One winter day the grandfather went into the forest to cut some firewood. It was a cold winter, so there was very little usable wood left, and he wasn't strong enough to fell a whole tree by himself. In the end he decided to cut chips from an old tree stump. But as soon as the axe hit the stump, it parted into, and out of it leapt a tiny white dog. The puppy slipped on the snowy ground, fumbled around and ran to the old man, wagging its tail and making big happy eyes at him. The grandfather's heart melted at once. He took the little dog in his arms to protect him against the cold (he instinctively knew that it was him, not it) and ran back home before the little critter got hungry.

Seeing him come back with no firewood, the grandmother was unhappy at first. But when she saw the puppy, tears welled in her eyes.

'How beautiful he is! Grandfather, we never had a son. Let him be our sons, to give us warmth for our old days.'

The grandfather could not agree more, and it was plain that the puppy agreed, too. So they kept him with them. Through the winter, the puppy grew bigger and stronger, and in a few months he had become a large, healthy white dog, who was always well-behaved, never barked unduly at neighbours and always brought the grandfather safely home when he had to stay in the forest after dark. They were very happy.

The next winter, however, food grew even scarcer than usual. Throwing out the dog and letting him fend for himself was out of the question, so the grandmother just sighed whenever her stomach rumbled as she had to divide the food into three portions. But one day, when the grandfather called the dog for their daily trip to the forest, the dog replied:

'Grandfather, don't take your axe today. Take a shovel and ask Grandmother to pack some food for you. We're going to the mountain.'

The grandfather was a bit puzzled.

'You can talk?'

'Of course I can talk. Haven't I always?'

The grandfather had never thought about it. But of course it was right: had they not always understood each other perfectly, with nothing more than a hello, a little wag of the tale, a pat between the ears? He beamed at the dog.

'All right then. Let's go to the mountain!'

Up then went, and up and up and up. It was not long before the grandfather was the one who panted hardest. So the dog stopped and told him:

'Grandfather, get on my back, I'll carry you the rest of the way.'

'Out of the question! I'm old and heavy and...'

'And I'm young and strang and you weight no more than a feather. Come, grandfather. On my back!'

So the grandfather rode on the dog's back all the way to the top. When they arrived, he split the grandmother's victuals and they shared a scant feast. Then the dog told him to get his shovel and dig. One, two, three, and the fourth time the shovel hit the dirt, it clanked against something hard. The grandfather bent and was astonished to retrieve from the earth a antique golden plate, a very heavy one.

'Well, this will see us through winter! Oh, my dog, how can I thank you?'

'Why would you thank me? You keep me fed and warm and I'm very happy with you, because I love you two. Come on, let's go tell grandmother!'

The grandmother was overjoyed. In the city, they would be able to sell the plate for a good price, and then they wouldn't have to worry for the rest of the winter. In fact, the plate impressed a local merchant so much that he gave them enough money to buy food and fix their leaky roof. They celebrated that night, eating lovely rice balls and drinking fine rice wine, and the sounds of their laughter and joy was so much that their neighbour wondered what was going on and came down to see for himself.

Unlike the grandfather and the grandmother, this neighbour was not a good man. He was well-off, but never offered any help to anyone, and more than once he had teased the grandfather and grandmother who chose to feed a useless dog when they should have cast him out long ago. How surprised was he when he discovered that they were eating fine food inside their newly-thatched house! He put on his best smile and offered congratulations. The grandfather welcomed him and offered him some wine.

'It's all thanks to the dog, you know! Such a clever lad. Who knows how he knew about it, but he led me to a treasure in the mountain. Now we have enough food to last us all winter! Isn't that wonderful?'

'Oh yes, yes it is,' the neighbour said. He kept smiling, but the smile strained his face and his stomach curled with envy. 'Say, grandfather, wouldn't you let me borrow your dog, just once? I need to to get some firewood, and you know the forest is not safe after dark.'

'Of course, he won't mind at all! Come here tomorrow and he'll go with you.'

The dog looked a the grandfather for a long time, but he said nothing. He was a good dog. He would help the neighbour, even if he had a bad, bad feeling about this man.

The next day, the neighbour came to fetch the dog. But instead of going to the forest, he headed straight for the mountain. When he got ther, he jumped on the dog's back and slapped his sides hard. The dog yelped in pain, but the man shouted:

'Faster, you stupid beast! Lead me to the treasure, I don't have all day!'

The dog had no choice but move ahead. After a while he stopped. The neighbour took out his lunch and wolfed it down without leaving a single scrap for the dog. Then he barked:

'Where is the treasure?'

The dog stubbornly sat on his hind quarters and said nothing. Irritated, the neighbour started digging. He dug and dug and dug, but all he could find was an old pot full of rubbish. Enraged, he threw it, as hard as he could, at the dog's head. Then he went back home on foot, alone. He never looked back twice. He never cared a bit that out there in the mountain, the dog lay still and never followed him.

When the grandfather saw him come back alone, he ran to him, worried sick.

'What happened? Why isn't the dog with you?'

'Oh, that useless animal? He made a fool of me. There was no treasure up there. Well, if he hasn't come back, it means I killed him, I suppose. Good riddance.'

The grandfather's heart broke. He ran to the mountain and called for hours, until he found the poor dog lying with his head broken. He wept, but it was too late. All he could do was bring him nack and bury him next to the house.

They were very sad, the grandmother and him, but what could they do? There was wood to cut and a home to tend to. When the spring came back a tree grew on the dog's grave, and their hearts lightened a bit, because they had a reminder of their beloved dog, the only child they ever had to ease their old age.

The grandfather loved to take naps under the tree. Sometimes he dreamed of the dog, and in the dreams, the dog stirred as he carried him down from the mountain and it always seemed that the wound on his head was not so serious after all. The dreams broke his heart a little every time. And then he had to get up and carry on cutting wood and talking about little things with the grandmother. After all, they had managed all this time, poor and childless. They could manage a bit longer.

Winter came again. They had long spend the money from the treasure, and food was hard to come by again. One chilly day, the grandfather sat under the tree, and he fell asleep. In his dreams, as usual, the dog came to him. But this was no ordinary dream. The dog looked at him and spoke clearly:

'Grandfather, the tree is big enough now. You need to cut it and make a mortar and pestle from the biggest part of the trunk. Trust me.'

The grandfather woke with his heart racing. What vision was this? He knew, he was certain that he could trust his dog. He took his axe, and worked all day, carving a beaufitul mortar and pestle from the wood.

The grandmother gaped at him when she saw what he had done. But she didn't discuss the dog's instructions. She took the mortar and started pounding a little leftover rice. But as soon as the pestle hit, there was twice as much rice in the mortar, and when she pounded again, the mortar overflowed. Soon she had to stop pounding, or the kitchen would have been smothered under a tide of delicious, fragrant rice!

She called the grandfather and they gave tearful thanks to the memory of their dog. Now they wouldn't have to worry for the rest of the winter.

But their neighbour walked past their house again, and heard them feast and rejoice. He didn't like hearing people rejoice. It was unnatural to him, and he always wondered what reason they had to be happy that he didn't have. So he greeted them with his best-looking smile. The grandmother showed him the mortar, and explained that the dog was still helping them from beyond the grave.

'Oh, what a beautiful mortar!' the neighbour said. 'Might I borrow it? My wife always complains that her mortar is cracked.'

The heart of good people is a beautiful thing, always big enough for love, always too small for rancour. They hadn't forgotten what had happened to their dog, but they assumed it must have been an accident--if people can die for the most mundane reasons, why wouldn't dogs? So they gave him the mortar. The neighbour thanked them casually, but deep inside he started counting the fortune he would make selling all the rice the mortar would create. He stormed home and barked at his wife to start pounding some rice, and fast. But as soon as the pestle hit, suddenly there was only have as much rice in the mortar as before. She pounded again, and half the rice disappeared. If she hadn't stopped, soon there wouldn't have been a single grain left.

The neighbour was enraged. He tossed the mortar into the fire. Soon there was nothing left but ashes. When the grandfather came to ask for his mortar back, he told him:

'It was a bad mortar and it deceived me. I burned it. Good riddance.'

The grandfather was sad to have lost his last memory of his loyal dog, but what could he do? He went home and told the grandmother that the mortar had broken--what use was it to discuss the neighbour's bad temper anyway?

But when night came, the dog came to him again in his dream.

'Grandfather, go get some of the ashes from the mortar and prepare for a trip to the city. Sprinkle some ashes on the trees near the princes' palace. You'll see what happens!'

He woke up brutally and sprang to his feet, almost laughing out loud. His dog was still with him! Even though the tree was cut and the mortar was burned, he still talked to him! He could barely wait until dawn. At first light, he went to his neighbour's house. He said he needed to get some ashes from the mortar and braced himself for the mocking remarks that inevitably came. The old man had bothered himself with a disloyal dog, a tree that had threatened to throw down the house and a ridiculous mortar, if he now wanted to treasure some ashes, it was his own problem! The grandfather thanked him anyway and went to town. Once he was near the prince's palace, he sprinkled the ashes into the wind.

What a wonderful sight! As soon as the ashes touched the trees, myriad of lovely pink flowers blossomed. Passers-by stopped and gaped, and the grandfather himself couldn't close his mouth. But the most surprising was yet to come! A voice called him from the castle, and ordered him in the presence of the prince. The grandfather was so scared he barely dared to move. Perhaps the prince didn't like flowers? But the servants smiled and some even bowed to him. They brought him where he had never imagined he would ever go, inside the castle and into the prince's own presence.

The prince looked at him curiously.

'So you can make trees blossom in the middle of winter? What a strange thing, what a wonder. I do love flowers and my wife does too. I want to thank you for what you did.'

He clapped his hands and servants appeared. They bore a set of silk robes of the kind worn in court, cut in fabric so delicate it seemed that fairies had made it.

'A small token of my gratitude. Now this talent of yours will be veru useful. You see, I am preparing for war, and no soldiers like to fight in the middle of winter. But if they see the trees blossom before them, think about how they will feel! They will see that even the order of nature bows to my claim! They will march for me and crush our ennemies by surprise! What a boon, what a blessing! Now you will become part of my court. You will come with me to war as my herald. What a great idea. We should march tomorrow.'

The grandfather's heart went still. He bowed very deeply.

'My lord, I am undeserving of such an honour. I barely dare to lay my request at your feet. My wife doesn't know I am here, she is just a poor grandmother from the mountain. She will never imagine that you have done me such a favour. She will be terrified if I don't come back home. May I go home and tell her?'

The prince dismissed him with a wave of his hand.

'Go. Take the robes with you. I'll expect you tomorrow at dawn.'

The grandfather practically ran out of the city. In his hands he held the beautiful robes. What had he done? War! There would be a terrible war, and all that was because of him! Couldn't he be content with the parting gifts his dog had given him already? What would he do now? Surely the prince would be terribly angry if he didn't show up in the morning, and he would go to war anyway! What was he to do?

He went to bed, praying for a dream that would advise him. He had trouble finding sleep, but in the end the exhaustion got the better of him. He slept uneasily, but at last, the dog appeared to him.

'You are here! Thank the gods! Please, my friend, tell me what I must do!'

The dog looked at him with big, loving eyes, wagging his tail. He said nothing.

'I beg you, I need your help. Please, help me out of this!'

The dog still said nothing. And that was when the grandfather understood. His dog wouldn't speak to him, because he was dead and buried. You should never try to bring the dead back. Only misery will come from it. And now they saw each other one last time across the veil of death, he understood that at last.

With tears in his eyes, he held out his hands, but he did not touch him. One should not touch the spirit of the dead.

'Thank you, my friend, my only son. Thank you for all you've done for us. For what little life I haveleft, I will never forget it.'

It was just a dream, but the tears were real. When he woke up, there was already a little light on the horizon. He knew ewactly what he should do.

The grandfather put on the heavy, majestic robes the prince had given him and stolled outside. When he arrived in front of his neighbour's house, he said out loud:

'Ah, what a lovely day! How happy I am!'

Soon the neighbour was outside and staring at his new outfit with ill-concealed envy. The grandfather greeted him and said:

'See what the prince gave me, all because I sprinkled some ashes from the mortar beneath his window. I hear the princess loves flowers even more!'

He went back home and took off the robes. Now he looked at them more closely, he realised that there was enough fabric there to make a new kimono for the grandmother, too. It was a good gift, after all.

As for the neighbour, he ran straight to the city and to the princess's palace, loudly shouting that he could make trees blossom. Out came the princess, who had heard of the miracle. But when he threw the ashes, nothing happened at all. Worst, a little fleck flew into the princess's eye. She cried out in pain and her servants covered their mouths in horror. When she recovered from her shock, she was still so angry that she ordered to have the man tossed in jail, and she decreed that if anyone came near the palace claiming they could make trees blossom, they would suffer the same fate, war or not.

Thus the war never happened, and the grandfather and the grandmother went on with their lives, often recalling the memories of their dog with fond smiles. As for the neighbour, I don't know what became of him. If nobody remembered about him, perhaps he is still in jail.

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