Sondra Boliek and Richard Brookes
Vie de Sainte-Marthe » - Anonyme XIVème siècle
"Il y avait dans ce temps-là, au-dessus du Rhône, entre Arles et Avignon, un drac, mi-poisson mi-bête, plus gros qu'un œuf et plus long qu'un cheval, qui avait des dents tranchantes comme une épée; et il se tenait dans l'eau, quand il le voulait et dans le bois quand il le désirait et tuait tous ceux qui passaient par le chemin, près du bois. Quant à ceux qui passaient sur l'eau, il faisait chavirer leurs barques et les tuait aussi.
Le drac était venu par la mer, de Galatie, et il avait été engendré en Asie par Léviathan, qui est un serpent d'eau très féroce et très cruel et par Bonac, bête qui naît dans le pays de Galatie, et a une nature telle que sur ceux qui veulent la poursuivre, et sur une étendue d'un arpent, elle jette sa fiente comme un trait, si bien que tout ce qu'elle touche brûle comme du feu. C'est vers cette bête qu'alla sainte Marthe. Elle la trouva dans le bois en train de manger un homme; elle jeta alors sur le drac de l'eau bénite tout en faisant sur lui le signe de croix. Aussitôt la bête fut soumise comme une brebis et Marthe l'attacha de sa ceinture; et, sans attendre le peuple la tua à coups de lances et de pierres. Ce drac était appelé la Tarasque, et c'est pour cette raison que le lieu est dit Tarascon. Il était autrefois appelé Narluc, ce qui veut dire «lieu noir » parce qu'il y avait là de grands bois sombres.
Après quoi sainte Marthe demeura là, avec la permission de saint Maximin, son maître et elle restait en oraison. Elle créa en ce lieu un couvent de femmes, en honneur de sainte Marie-Madeleine, et elle y mena une vie très rude, ne vivant que de pain et d'eau, une fois par jour, et s'agenouillant cent fois le jour et la nuit pour prier Dieu."
I chalked it up to jet lag at first. I never can sleep on a plane. I had been in the air for sixteen hours from California. I got into Paris at six in the morning, and immediately took the TGV south to Montélimar. It was as fast as the plane and far more comfortable. My French family was at the Gare waiting for me. We drove to their farm near Beaucaire where lunch was waiting. After a wonderful salade complete, they sent me up to rest in my third floor room with a view over the red tiles of the stable to the Rhone and the farms beyond. I didn't sleep. Too excited. My body didn't know if it were day or night. I set myself up for that dream. Or was it meant to be?
That night the family had tickets for a spectacle of sound and light, son et lumiere, at the castle of Tarascon. The spectacle covered the history the rescue of the town from a dragon who was climbing out of the river at night to attack women and children. Good King René began the festival in 1474, and I didn't want to miss a minute of it. Jousting games with shining knights dominated the field between the grandstand and the spotlighted castle walls. At the high point of the evening a parade with a dragon animated by dozens of village boys would enter the gate at the city wall, and the Festival of Tarascon would be underway. First the knights would attack the dragon, and when unsuccessful, the dragon parade moved on to the church. There stood Saint Martha, who knew Jesus, who would quell him with a Cross held on high thereby saving the city .
One knight caught my eye, a darkly handsome man in black gilded armor carrying his helm beneath his arm. As I was watching him, I became aware that my frank gaze had not escaped his notice. I turned my attention to my cousin when I saw him leading his equally finely arrayed black steed in my direction. That did not discourage him.
He smiled and spoke to me in English. How he could have known that I was American, I have no idea. I was somewhat dismayed by that, even through my French was not yet up to speed. His English was not perfect, but very good despite the heavy accent and unusually deep timbre of his voice.
"I see you admire my armor?" he smiled. His heavy brows arched gothically above his dark eyes. "It was made by my employer who happens to be an expert armorer among many other talents."
"I admire your horse, chevalier". The stallions black neck was glistening and stretched in a perfect arc as his muzzle drew back to his chest, and his tail was full, brushing the ground. His elegant gilded chanfron was styled and etched in the same fashion as the knight's armor.
"You do well to admire him, Cherie. He is from Andalusia, bred from Moorish stock. His name is Cauchemar... that means...."
"Yes, I know, he's black as night!" I was embarrassed at the familiarity of the horseman's address, so I shifted my eye to the etchings in his armor. Seeing my interest, he held out his arm so I could see the exquisite workmanship, the finely crafted elbow joint, the elegant embossing. The stallion was dancing in place, so we walked him along, separated by a temporary barrier, and talked. He told me that the finished armor had to be heated to a very high temperature to impart the very dark blue, not black, color. How the gilding was done with a gold amalgam, and the steel heated so that the mercury was boiled away. It seems his employer had the facilities for doing all this.
As we reached the end of the barrier and the entrance to the stables, he removed the gauntlet from his right hand and took my hand. He asked to take me to dinner the following night. I told him we did not know each other well enough, and anyway, I was visiting someone.
"I know." He said as he walked away. I immediately regretted my coyness. He was very handsome, this black knight with his night black steed.
That night, over-stimulated and exhausted, I dropped off to sleep in the antique bed and down quilts of my garret. In the early morning hours, I awoke panting, wet with perspiration, my vision blurred with tears. I could not breathe. I could not bear it. The images of a most horrific dream remained with me. Creatures, like enormous bats or winged dinosaurs were pursuing me. And there were others, leaping dogs, indistinct in the dark but ugly beyond description. Disturbed and frightened, I rose and looked out at the river. The moon darkened and the reflections of it rolled in pulses of dark and light on the water. I did not dare return to my bed.
As soon as I heard noises in the kitchen I went down to be in the company of people instead of my nightmare. Fruit, and homemade jams were already on the table. I looked for the big breakfast coffee cups in the armoire where I remembered them, and looked forward to drinking steaming café au lait. The bakers truck passed by, paused and I was sent out to buy fresh butter croissants.
"You look tired, mon petit choux." my aunt said.
How could I tell her that I had had the most frightening night of my life, dreaming of the creatures of Hell like the gargoyles on the churches.. I had never had a dream like that. I could never have had a dream like that in America. This was old Europe, the home of legends, and sorcery and demons that have never found their way to America. Home of gargoyles, sarcophagi, and the bones of Saints. All of these dark fears that had been rehearsed in my mind in the waking hours after the dream; how could I burden her with them.
"Oh, it's just jet lag, Tante. I'll be my old vital self soon." I feared I would never be the same. I wanted to go home. I started to cry.
"Karen! Tu es malade?"
I hugged my beautiful cousin. She was fifteen and we adored each other.
"Non, Marine darling, I'm just tired."
"We don't have to go back to the faire today. Karen, you rest up. Then, you two can pick me some berries down by the river." said my aunt.
So it was that Marine and I spent an idyllic morning, gathering berries, eating them, and basking in the June sunshine. She must have left me there not wanting to wake me, because when I opened my eyes, there was my handsome knight, sitting beside me on the grass.
"C'est toi?" I gasped, my French coming back to me.
"C'est moi." he answered.
"Who are you." I asked.
"My name is André." he answered.
"How did you know where I was?"
He didn't answer, but looked away, into the sky, and then down to the water of the river. I watched the profile of his face, and I didn't care how he had found me.
"Will you be riding tonight? I asked.
"Oui, I ride all night."
As I said, his English wasn't perfect, but it was the satyric way he was looking at me that made me shiver. I sat up suddenly, thinking I was exposing my body too much. It only brought me closer to his lips, and he knew that too. In a fluid movement his lips were pressed to mine, and his body too, as we both sank back into the grass. The virtual electric shock of it paralyzed me and I let him kiss me as I had never been kissed.
"André," I breathed. "Is this all part of my dream?"
He frowned and said, "You dreamed?"
I told André of my dreams, nightmares only experienced in the environs of France. He seemed concerned, even alarmed. His reaction made me even more anxious about the nightmare. I didn't know what his consternation signified and I did not get the opportunity to ask, but it frightened me to think that it would frighten a man like him.
It was obvious to me that André was ready to make love to me at that moment. And it was equally obvious that it is exactly what he intended, perhaps from the time he had seen me looking at him at the festival. I had broken the spell, for now anyway, and I disengaged myself from his embrace.
As I rose and straightened my clothing, he took my hand and kissed it. "Tonight, Cherie..." he said softly. He left as quietly as he had come, that is with no sound at all. As much as I was aggrieved by his attentions, I felt bereft that he was gone. He was so attractive. So captivating. So romantic. So... frightening.
I found Marine at the house. She was preoccupied when I arrived, reading a book the title of which seemed to be Démons et Diables. At least that is what I read at the top of the page, upside down. When I asked her about what she was reading, she responded "I am reading about him!" I was too distracted to concern myself with her puzzles. She did not explain leaving me alone with André. Perhaps she had not even seen him. I didn't ask her. And no one asked me what I had been doing down by the river.
At dinner, the talk flowed around the dishes served, how they were flavored, how they were prepared, how they compared with the last time that they had eaten that dish. Marine stared at me, but I smiled at the others and was not asked to contribute to the chatter. After the meal, as Marine went to her room, and the older folks took their coffee. I went outside to see the moon, and the lights of the son et lumiere down river. The gibbous moon reflected garishly in the water, wavelets and ripples breaking the image into a thousand pieces, then assembling it again for another performance. Swells rose onto the banks like sea serpents and slipped back into the depths.
I sat on the bank watching the moonlit river thinking about my dark knight, dark lover. Wishing what? Not wishing that André were there with me! Non.
Did I fall asleep? I am not at all sure, I had lost the distinction between real and fantasy. But suddenly, silently as before, he was there with me. There was no polite prelude to his lovemaking this time. His hands possessed me. I reacted as if it were a dream, and it must have been, for I had never given myself to a man like that. My arms went around his neck; I pulled him close. My eyes closed and I felt his fingers quickly, adeptly unbuttoning my dress. His lips were on my neck, my chest, my breasts.
Then I heard them. Their ungodly screeching. The beat of wings against the night air, the vibration making my skin crawl. This time they were so close I could smell their unclean stench, the odor of rotting fruit, the smell of death. I opened my eyes, oh God, fearing what I would see. And here they came, a host of them with shrieks and roars, their beaks agape, teeth bared. They flew, bounded, leaped and crawled toward me out of the mists of the river. Gargoyles! Chimera! Fantastic beasts from the roofs and eaves of the cathedral or sculpted in Hell. My hell, learned in European art classes.
Suddenly I was in the midst of them. Talons plied the air inches from my face. Teeth gnashed, spittle and saliva splashed on my skin. The air from huge wings pounded my body, and there was a tumult of beastly sounds assaulting my ears. Their foul odor pervaded the atmosphere. I covered my face with my arms and drew my legs up to my chest, lying on the riverbank in total terror. They were past me and I was unscathed, untouched. André was gone.
I ran up the field, through the gates, and breathless, stopped at the lighted door of the house.
"Karen, your dress is a mess! Do you want an infusion of tea?
"Non, merci, Tante. May I use the bathtub."
On the way to the bath, I passed Marine's room. She opened the door and pulled me in. "A demon," she whispered. "He is a demon. Tarasque!"
"What on earth are you talking about?" I asked Marine. "Who is a demon?"
"André, of course!" she replied. "Your lover."
"He is not my lover! Why would you think he is a demon, Marine?"
"I have a sense for these things. I knew it from the first time I saw him at the festival. Lucifer's disciple. He is an incubus, Karen; it is his task to seduce innocents and steal their souls. Or worse, to impregnate them with a demon's child! You are emmasqué- bewitched."
"Oh, Marine, I thought you were serious," I smiled. I wasn't quite sure I had understood her French.
"I am very serious," she replied. "You must wear this." Marine opened her hand and in the palm was a large silver cross and chain. "It will protect you from him."
"André is gone," I said. "I sort of panicked and must have scared him away." It spilled out of me, the whole story including the gargoyle dream and André's disappearance.
"Dieu merci, then the legends are right. The gargoyles were created to terrify evil spirits. You are very lucky. Very lucky, indeed, that they found you."
The shock of what she said melted my insides. I didn't want to believe what I had seen was real. And I didn't want sweet Marine living with fantasies. I dismissed her gently saying, "Cherie, you have a great imagination."
I sank into the warm, healing waters of the tub, and all the ugliness washed away. In my bed chamber, I looked at the moonlight now steady in the cloudless night sky. I thanked God, and put on Marine's cross. I went to my bed and slept immediately, a long, refreshing, dreamless sleep.
Life of Saint Martha – Anonymous, 14th century
In those days, there lived above the Rhone River, between Arles and Avignon, a monster half-fish, half-beast. It was bigger than an ox and longer than a horse, with teeth as sharp as a sword. Sometimes it lived in water and sometimes in the nearby forest, where it killed all humans who ventured on the road near the forest. It capsized the boats of those who came by the river and killed them too.
The dragon had come by sea from Galicia. It was the issue of a union between Leviathan, a ferocious and most cruel sea-serpent, and Bonac, a Galatian beast which burns with jets of fiery dung human beings who are bold enough to chase it. This Dragon was called Tarasque, and for this reason the area is called Tarascon. It was previously called Narluc, which is to say, “dark place”.
Saint Martha came to live with the people and found the monster in the forest, where it was devouring a man. Martha threw holy water to the beast while making upon it the sign of the cross. The monster became immediately as meek as a lamb, whereupon the people killed it with thrusts of lances and with stones.
Sondra Boliek is a travel writer and romance writer. Her collaborator, Richard Brookes, is a screen playwright.
Published by permission of the author.