The Maiden of Mont Saint Michel

by Mark on December 2, 2009

Mont_Saint_Michel_bordercropped

Tall hedgerows lined the road, forming a green canyon in the French countryside.  Except for an occasional chateau, it wasn’t much different from Wisconsin.  At the wheel was my dad, The Professor.  He taught history and literature back home.  Sporting a burly gray beard, like his hero, Ernest Hemingway, Dad’s voice boomed as if he was in front of a lecture class.

“Think of it!  All the great armies that  roamed these fields.  Romans, Normans, Germans and the Allies!”

“Dad, didn’t they all say auv war a long time ago?”

“That’s au revoir, Todd!  O-ruvwar!’  Lucky your mother didn’t hear you abuse her favorite language.”

My mom, The French Teacher, and my younger sister, Sally, were still in Paris.  Mom thought father and son could use a few days of bonding before I went to college.

“Have you written Penny?”

“No stamps.”

“You’re going to lose her, Todd, just like the others.  You’ve got to start showing some interest.”

Little did he know that I lost Penny over a month ago.  She was tired of waiting for me to make up my mind.  Did I love her?  Did I care where she was going to college?  Penny claimed I demonstrated an abnormal fear of making a commitment.

“Hey Dad, why don’t we detour south to the Riviera?  I hear the beaches at Nice have historical significance.”

“Maybe you should have chosen Nice when we were putting together the itinerary.  I believe you chose not to vote.  Besides, Paris provided enough excitement for all of us.”

“Yeah, right.”  All my visions of flirting with French beauties on the Champ Ely sees faded in an unrelenting flow of stained glass, sculptures and gargoyles.  I’d hoped that the Normandy invasion sites would be more interesting, but went numb after we spent the first day studying a moldy tapestry at Bayeux.

We broke through the hedgerows to the coastline.  An elaborate sand castle on an island, just off the shore, emerged from the mist.  Half cathedral and half fortress,  ramparts ringed the huge citadel with towers and spires shooting a couple hundred feet into the air.  A tiny medieval village rested in its shadow.  A wet blanket of sand surrounded the island.  I could imagine armies of knights sinking in that muck as defenders on the ramparts showered them with arrows and fire.

“You’re looking at Mont Saint-Michel, a thousand year old abbey,” said The Professor.

“Never heard of Saint Michelle.  Was she a local holy woman or something?”

“That’s M-I-C-H-E-L, Todd.  It’s the French pronunciation for Saint Michael the Archangel!  Hemingway stayed there.”

“I didn’t know Hemingway was a monk.”

“Hardly,” he said with a laugh.  Dad was unflappable when talking about his hero.  “He came here for the omelets.  Described them as big as birthday cakes.  I can’t wait to try one.”

The causeway to the abbey was about a mile.  We parked on the upper levy, or the tide of the English Channel would swallow the car along with the surrounding marsh by late afternoon.

We checked into Le Pollard, just inside the walls.  Near the lobby, chefs beat eggs and cook omelets over an open hearth. To the Professor’s delight, his hero’s picture, as well as the photos of other VIP’s, decorated the walls.  He arranged for a tour before lunch.

“Todd, you’ll probably get bored.  If you want to explore this place on your own, please meet me back at the hotel in a couple hours for lunch.  We’ll try some of those omelets.”

“Do you think they have pizza?”

Dad shook his head and followed his guide up some steps toward the abbey.  I began strolling down a narrow cobblestone lane.  Tourists packed the timber framed slovenlier shops.  The pathway followed a seemingly endless hill snaking around the island.  It was too hot to climb, so I ducked into a tiny chapel.

The church’s floor was like a jigsaw puzzle of slate.  A religious skylight showered the altar with a heavenly light.  Saint Michael dominated a huge stained glass window.  His face twisted with rage as he drove the devils out of heaven with a bloody sword.

A song echoing from a room behind the altar broke my concentration on the carnage.  Inside was a young maiden was on her hands and knees scrubbing the floor.  Short brown hair bounce on her long smooth neck.  A simple gold cross adorned a white collarless blouse.  Rather than jeans, she wore a long black pleated skirt with laced high top boots.  The song was familiar.  Maybe a Gregorian chant?  No, the angelic voice and the setting confused me.

Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away . . .  “

“The Beatles, right?”

She jumped up, knocking over a pale, and backed away.   Huge almond eyes stared back at me.

“I didn’t mean to scare you.”  No answer.   “Do you speak, English?”

Still silent.  “Bone–jer madame-asal.” The French Teacher would have cringed.

A giggle burst from her lips, which cracked into a smile of seemingly endless dimples.

“Bonjour monsiuer.” She said in a whisper.

“Your name?  Comment vous . . . uh . . . appelez-vous?”

“Jean,” she said.  “Yours?”

“Todd.  You do speak English!”

“I’m not supposed to be speaking.”

“Oh yeah.  We’re in a church.  Let’s go to the cafe across the street.”

Jean shook her head.

“Strict boss, huh?  Don’t worry.  I’ve been there.  How about later?”

“There are plenty of other girls around.  Don’t waste your time with me.”

“None of those girls will have the same appreciation for The Beatles.  In fact the Parisian girls . . . “

“I love Paris!”  Her smile broadened.  “Wasn’t Notre Dame grand? Did you tour the Louver?”

“It was all right, but not nearly as good as this place promises to be – especially after you show me around.

“That’s not possible.”

“Please?”

“You don’t understand . . .”

“C’mon Jean, you don’t want me to get lost and sink into the sand outside the wall.”

She studied me a moment while stroking the cross.   Her eyes projected a mixture of mirth, intrigue and modesty.  Some type of tumultuous debate was going on inside.  I prayed my side was winning.

“We could not meet before twenty-two hundred hours.”

“That’s great!”

“Perhaps not as great as you think.  Once you learn something more about me, I don’t believe you will come.”

“I’ll be here regardless of what you say.”

She reached into a pocket and pulled out a black cloth.  Slowly bowing, she pinned the cloth to her head.  I was stunned as she looked up at me.

“Oh my God!  You’re a nun.”

“I am a postulate.  Tomorrow, I will take my final vows.”  She announced it loudly, as if she needed to hear it again.

“None of the nuns, who used to torture me, looked as good as you.”

“My order does not torment anyone.  We are cloistered.  We speak to no one, but God.”

Maybe I already stepped into the sandpit.  Sure, she was beautiful, but cloistered?  On the other hand, Penny talked a lot, but hadn’t said anything.  I half wanted to run, but where would I run?  Whom would I run to?  God, her eyes were beautiful.

“I’ll be here at twenty-two hundred,” I said.

“Why should I come, Todd?”

“It’s your last night out.  You’re curious.  Will tomorrow bring decades of silence or will fate intercede?

“I’m not a believer in fate.”

“Then, you have nothing to worry about.”

Her dimples were back.  “Twenty-two hundred hours it is.”

* * * *

A huge folded omelet smothered the plate .  The Professor devoured his with gusto while I picked at the edges.

“Something wrong, son?”

“Yeah, I’m worried about the cholesterol.”

“Thanks son.  All I need is a guilt complex on vacation,” he said.  “Besides, Hemingway survived this delight.”

“You never know, Dad.  Maybe it was the hardening of the arteries that pushed him to suicide.”

He pushed back his plate and put down his fork.  “I deal with young adults every day.   You’d think I would get used to insolence. Maybe I’m just tired of your misery.  Please go off and wander somewhere so I can harden my arteries in peace.”

Outside, the tide was coming in as water inched toward the cars parked on the lower levy.  In a few hours the city would seal its doors for the night.  In a few hours I rendezvous with Jean.  Both events gave Mont Saint-Michel a cozy seclusion and enchantment.

* * * *

The Professor seemed relieved that I declined his invitation to attend a choral recital.  I sat in the chapel, staring at the offertory candles, tapping my right foot.  My mother could always tell I was excited, whether it was Christmas Eve or before a big test, by my tapping toe.  Jean arrived on the hour wearing the same ‘habit’ without the veil.

“There’s a disco by the gate,” I said.

“Follow me.”  Taking my hand, she pulled me through a back door.  Soon we climbed narrow steps through tight alleys.  We paused at a small cemetery.  Flat marble slabs, decorated with bouquets of porcelain flowers, glimmered in the moonlight.  She made the sign of the cross and we continued on our journey.

The steep climb left me breathless.  At the abbey’s base we approached a wooden door with a ringed iron handle.  Jean carefully looked around while unlocking the entrance.  The old hinges creaked, as the door opened, and we entered a dark tunnel.  She lit a candle and we crept forward.   I kept my head low, fearing bats would swoop into our hair.  Dark stains spotted some of the cobblestones.  I shuddered, thinking of the many poor souls dragged through this passage.

After a series of turns and steps, Jean unlocked another door and we stepped into a garden, bathed in the moonlight.  The shadows of well groomed topiaries reflected against the abbey’s wall.  She led me to a bench, tucked into a dark corner.  We continued to hold hands, but didn’t speak.

I was the first to break the silence.  “You know, The Beatles broke up way before we were born.”

Jean replied.  “My mother told me she used to scream so much at their concerts that she almost passed out.”

“Do your parents live on Mont Saint-Michel?”

More silence.  I was beginning to understand why Jean chose a cloistered life.  She finally spoke.   “Why don’t you tell me about you.”

I told her all about my family and other highlights, including the decision to attend the university in my home town.

“You must truly love your family to go to a university in your home town.”  She said with admiration.

“The truth is that I could have gone to a lot of places, but I couldn’t make up my mind.  My parents tried everything to get me to fill-out applications and visit colleges.  After all the deadlines passed, they got me into the university where they worked.”

“That is unbelievable.”  She stood up.  “Such an important decision and you didn’t make it?”

After squirming a little, I reached for her hand and gently pulled her back to the bench.  “It didn’t seem important at the time.”

“The rest of your life is not important?”

“I’m a big believer in fate.  Things happen.  You roll with the punches.  I ducked into a church today and I met you.  Fate!”

She frowned.  “You asked for us to meet.  That was a choice, not fate.  I’ve chosen to spend the rest of my life in a cloistered convent.  That’s a choice, not fate.”

“You’re going to be completely silent?”

“I can sing to God.  I can talk to Him through my heart.”

“Jean, something like this can’t be your choice.  Is it your parents?  Are they living some dream of having a holy person in their family?”

She withdrew her hand and fingered the cross on her necklace.  “My parents are with God.  They died in an accident.”

“I’m sorry!”

“Don’t be.  It will be good to talk to someone about it one more time.  We were on a trip.   I was asleep in the back seat when a truck ran into us.  I wasn’t hurt, but my parents were killed.”  She wiped away a tear and then placed her hand back into my palm.

“I am so sorry!”

“Do not trouble yourself.  They are with God.  I can speak to them through Him.”

I should have kept my mouth shut,  but the words just spilled out.  “There must be better ways to remember them than being locked into a convent.  Their fate doesn’t have to be yours.”

Her grip tightened.  “Todd, the accident was not fate.  Two drivers made the wrong decision.  Their choices led them to their graves.”

“Your choice seems a step closer to joining them.”

“The abbey is not death!  To me it is life.  I used to concern myself with fashions and other materials.  These worldly goods never gave me the peace that I feel in prayer.”

“The world outside Mont Saint-Michel is more than fashions and possessions.  You need to see other oceans and buildings.  Even a quiet Wisconsin pasture can offer more peace than this place.”

Jean laughed.  “For one, who cannot make his own decision, you seem quick to make choices for me.”

I stroked her hand saying, “All I am trying to say is you’re lovely, you’re intelligent and you’re still dreaming about what might have been.  God will eventually get us all.  Give yourself some time before you plunge into an eternity of silence.”

She squeezed my hand.  “What would I do with this time?”

I could hardly believe it was me talking.  “Come back to Paris with me.  We’ll enjoy it, together.  Afterwards, you can come back here or you can go back to  Wisconsin with us.  Your choice.”

Jean kissed me on the cheek.  “You are sweet.”   I kissed her on the lips.  Our embrace only lasted a moment.  Then she pushed me away.

“This is wrong!”

“How can it be?  Are you going to spend the rest of your life wondering about love and passion in silence?”

“You talk about love.  We barely know each other.”

“I know we have magic.  Your decisiveness and my procrastination is a perfect balance.”

She laughed.  “Is fate leading you?  I think I prefer your indecision.  What would your parents say?”

“They’ll be thrilled they lived long enough for me to make a decision.  Mom teaches French.  You’ll fit right in.”

She stroked my face like a sculpture, studying every dimple or blemish.  “Todd, I am really flattered.  You make the impossible seem real.  I don’t know what to say.”

“Say yes.  When are your vows?”

“Tomorrow at ten.”

I pointed at the rampart and said, “Meet me up there at ten.  I’ll buy you an omelet at the Le Pollard.”

Our lips met, again.  Electricity sparked through every cell.  The abbey bells began clamoring at Midnight.  Jean jumped to her feet.

“We must go!” Her voice trembled.

“You’re not Cinderella?” I said, trying to calm her down.

“I must attend a prayer service.  You must go!”

She grabbed my hand and we raced into the cathedral and back down the tunnel.  The candle, bouncing up and down, was all I could see.  In no time we arrived at the wooden entrance.

“The rampart at ten,” I pleaded.

Tears streamed down Jean’s cheeks.  “Pray for me, tonight, as I will pray for you.”

She gently kissed me on the cheek, then stepped back into the doorway and blew out the candle.  The door slammed and the lock clicked.  I ran down the steps, wondering if her parents rested in the cemetery I passed.   Quickly, I was back at the chapel and then sprinted back to the hotel.

Dad was snoring, but left a note inviting me to breakfast.  I tossed and turned.  St. Michael, who was glaring at me and drawing back his sword, interrupted visions of Jean . . .

* * * *

I met The Professor in the hotel restaurant at eight-thirty.  He was enjoying another omelet.  Dad motioned to a waiter who produced a plate covered by a silver dome.

“Thought about your nutritional advice,” he said without looking up.  “This may be a breakfast more to your liking.”

With fanfare the waiter uncovered a plate full of assorted fruits, raw vegetables and a pile of eggs, still raw in their shells.  I had to laugh.

Biting on a carrot, I asked my Dad, “Do you think God has a plan for each of us.”

“A sudden interest in religion.  I’m intrigued.  Let’s take a walk and burn off those carrots.”

It was a bright morning.  Shop owners swept the cobblestones as a few of the islands overnight guests hunted for some early bargains.

“Theologians passionately debate your question about God’s plan.  Personally, I don’t believe he gives us more than an opportunity.  The rest is up to us.”

‘Do you think he gets irritated when the opportunists who mess up his plans for someone else.”

The Professor lit his pipe, took a few puffs and studied me.

“Making decisions is sometimes scary enough, let alone fearing eternal damnation about it.  I don’t think anyone inherited a plan.  All we have are choices.  They are ours to squander.”

I stared at him for a moment.  There was something more than a Hemingway wannabe behind the beard.  I reached out and shook his hand.

“Thanks, Dad.”

“I’m not sure what for, Todd, but I enjoyed our walk.”

He strolled around the stairway and blended into the other tourists.  At nine-fifty I reached our rendezvous point.  It was a little crowded. Would I recognize her in jeans or some other more casual outfit?  I looked down at the garden, its topiaries and our special bench. More people brushed against me.  The ten o’clock bells began to chime.

In the garden things began to stir.  A procession of some sort commenced.  A monk carried a cross, followed by a bishop with a gold staff.  Behind were pairs of monks in hooded brown robes in a long column.  A chorus came out of the cathedral.  Two-by-two, rows of singing nuns marched into the sunlight in black habits.  White linen covered their necks and ears.  A veil covered their hair, leaving only living masks with each muscle exalting the heavens in song.

The procession was snaking into a door in the abbey’s wall.  I leaned over to catch a closer look.  Most of the clergy bowed their heads, deep in prayer.  In the back row a nun looked up.  The morning sun caught her large almond eyes and pale complexion.  She gave me a brief smile that miraculously cracked into dozens of dimples.  The eyes were red, but her face was at peace.

The tide was beginning to recede.  Sandy patches appeared on the shore line.  The empty bench in the garden made me sigh.  Jean found her peace and then disappeared, like the tide.  How will I ever sort this all out?  Who will be there to help me through new passageways?  Along the beach children collected driftwood and shellfish.  The tide always leaves some gems for us.  I searched the crowd before running down the rampart, looking for the blue smoke of Ernest Hemmingway’s pipe.

The End

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: