In Pastures High

Writing Residency Day 5

Today I risked my life for my protagonist.

I would have been perfectly happy to sit and write at my desk all day, looking at the shy mountain from my window.

That’s what I did do until lunchtime. Then my protagonist – let’s call him, say, Eole – woke up. He’s a teenager, which explains the late rising.

“Let’s go climb,” he said. “Got to check on the sheep.”

It was nice to have some active company rather than the usual passive paper characters. My boots had dried out, the sun was kind of shining in parts of the valley and I had promised him we’d go out together today.

So off we went in the car to Aucun, then up the hairpin bends to the Col du Couraduque (1367m).

Eole’s weekend task is to check on the family’s flock of ewes, which graze up on the mountain pastures above the treeline from June to September. He has to check their feet, spray antiseptic on any cuts etc., and if any are hobbling too much he brings them back down to the valley.

Eole is too young to drive, so he often gets a lift up to the Col with his mates from the paragliding school, who run-and-jump from there. I think he spends more time watching the colourful wings floating in the air than minding the ewes.

I was relieved to discover that mountain roads are far less scary when you’re driving than when you’re a passenger.

(I was in tears last year when my partner drove us between the Col du Soulor and the Col d’Aubisque in a thick mist. As passenger, I was on the steep slope side of the road, which fell into swirling white nothingness. And he was going far too fast at 30kmh).

I parked at the Col, and Eole and I walked towards the rocky ridge.

“Just forget I’m here,” I said as I followed him up the path.

I think that was my error. Because – unusually for a teenager – he did exactly what I suggested.

Why is it that teenagers walk at the same speed as grandparents when they’re in town, but as soon as they’re on a mountain they race up it?

I was trying to take photos – so that we would remember the scenery when we’re back in Cognac and Eole returns to his passive state on paper – which meant I was much slower than him.

On and on Eole walked, higher and higher into the pastures until we found his sheep, grazing in a loose group and clanging their bells as they walked (yes, I know those are cows in the photo…).

To begin with, all was well. Eole threw himself down in the springy, heathy grass and gazed upwards, while I admired the flowers, insects, hoofprints – anything that was firmly on the ground. Above us, clouds skimmed the rocky heights, and he seemed fascinated by them, probably because there were no paragliders today.

But the sheep kept wandering off and climbing higher. Eole followed. I followed Eole, taking pictures and jotting down notes as I went.

At one point I saw the following sign: ‘Passages Délicats’, which translates as ‘dangerous paths’.

Last time I saw this sign, I nearly lost my daughter (flesh and blood, not a story character) down the side of a mountain, so you can imagine I was a little nervous. I mean, Eole wasn’t exactly going to throw me a rope or call the emergency services if I had an accident, was he? And there was nobody else about.

I suggested we could perhaps take the forest variant, but he just shrugged and jerked his head to the unperturbed sheep. “No grass in the woods.”

So on we went, me looking nervously down at the steep drop to one side and Eole looking up at the sky.

I was just getting used to it when we arrived at a ridge, a rocky crête, and there were suddenly two steep drops.

By now we were pretty high, and I noticed some birds of prey circling. A helpful information sign lower down had mentioned that Griffon vultures fed on dead animals up here, so this wasn’t reassuring either. All it would take was a slipping foot as I crouched to photograph a butterfly.

At which point I slipped

And rolled

A little.

Grabbed grass

And very quickly came to a standstill.

 

Strangely, I felt better after this. I threw myself down (well, lowered myself gently) into a safe-ish position and followed Eole’s example of looking up and around instead of down.

The view was stunning. I tried to remember the names the old man had given me and pin them on the peaks. There’s a quality to the silence – when combined with the cold, thin air and the view – that tastes of freedom.

I started to understand why Eole likes it up here; why he’s the one in his family who deals with the sheep all summer.

But I think there’s an additional reason why Eole comes up here. I think he has a secret.

Anyway, I let Eole do his stuff with the sheep, and, as I watched him, I realised that he needs a sheepdog.

The clouds were blackening, so I left Eole up there with his sheep and made my way down, having agreed to meet him tomorrow afternoon in a different pasture with a different flock of sheep.

Back at the Maison des Arts a plastic bag was waiting on the doormat outside the door. A present? For me? I picked it up.

Inside were two freshly dead birds.

I flicked through my knowledge of French superstitions and witchcraft, to no avail. Puzzled, I left them there and opened the door.

A lady was waiting on the stairs.

“Hello,” I said.

But she didn’t reply.

Well, she wouldn’t, would she? Not without a head.

Upstairs, three of her comrades were huddled together by my door: naked, beautiful – and also headless.

There’ll be no sleepwalking for me tonight.

***

Thank you for reading right down to here. I’d just like to remind you that I write fiction, so there’s no need to take everything in this post as being 100% true…

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