The Vintner in His Vineyard
Mores of the Philippes
I paid them a visit for the new year.
I had left a bushy country, I have rediscovered it barren, but greener than in October because the wheat is now sprouting from the ground. The long-scorched grass has been refreshed by a new and short grass that the steers can’t grasp with their fat lips. They had to be returned to the farm. You no longer see, in the country, the families of cattle who were living there. A few horses, alone, remain at pasture. They know how to take their nourishment where the steer managed nothing. They fear the cold less and dress for winter in a thick coat with a velvet sheen.
Except for one species of oak whose leaf persists and will only fall to cede its place to the new, all the trees have lost all their leaves.
The impenetrable hedge has become transparent, and the blackbird can’t hide there easily.
The poplar holds, at its peak, an old spiky magpie’s nest in the shape of a cleaning brush, as if it wants to sweep away the clouds that hang, finer than cobwebs, in the sky.
As for the magpie, she’s not far. She hops, feet together, on the ground, then in straight and mechanical flight she makes for a tree. Sometimes she misses it and can only stop in the neighboring tree. Solitary and commonplace, she’s the only one you meet along the road. Costumed from morning till night, she’s our most French bird.
All the sour apples are picked, all the hazelnuts broken.
The blackberry has vanished from the aggressive brambles.
The wilted sloe berries finish scattering and, as the frost has passed through, those who like them find them delicious.
But the red fruit of the wild rosebush holds its own and will die last because it has a prickly name and a full-bristled heart.
At the entrance of the village, I’m surprised at how little it is. Their gardens stripped down, the houses that were separated by them seem to become one against the church. The château draws nearer, as well as the scattered farms, the distinct fields, the clear vineyards, the see-through woods, and from one point to another on the marked-out horizon, the river runs naked.
No one outside. No door opens at my passing. A few occasional chimneys smoke. Other people are smoking, no doubt, inside.
Finally I arrive at Philippe’s and have the pleasure of seeing them again, him and his wife. He’s dressed like it’s the month of August, only he wears his beard for the winter. My visit only surprises and moves him up to a certain point. He gives me his cracked hand to touch and tells me there’s no news.
“No deaths, since my departure?”
“You wouldn’t wish that,” he says.
“No, Philippe, but what would be so strange about it?”
“If the townsfolk died just like that,” says Philippe, “Soon there wouldn’t be any left.”
“You’re right… Are you working hard at the moment?”
“I tinker,” says Philippe, “while waiting till it’s good for digging; I break rocks to do my part; I bundle sticks; I sharpen stakes for the vineyard; I haul manure to the garden and the rest of the time I keep warm and then I go to bed.”
“At what time?”
“I have trouble making it past eight o’clock. If I try to read the almanac, I fall asleep with my nose on the page.”
“And you, Madame Philippe, after your housework, what do you do.”
“As you can see,” replies Madame Philippe, “I knit a stocking.”
“Always the same one?”
“That would be unfortunate,” she says.
“Who’s that one for? For Pierre?”
“No, for Antoine.”
“The soldier. Is he happy in the military?”
“It’s difficult to know,” replies Madame Philippe. “He hardly writes, because it takes three days to obtain a stamp, and he doesn’t write much at a time.”
“When will you see him?”
“Excuse me, tonight?”
“Yes; in his last letter he announced to us his arrival today, by the evening train. He didn’t write again telling us otherwise.”
“So he’s coming. Aren’t you going, Philippe, ahead of him?”
“To bring him back from the station.”
“He knows the way,” says Philippe. “He’ll bring himself. He’s grown up.”
“You could have given him a nice warm kiss.”
“Oh, that’s enough!”
“What! You love your Antoine.”
“It’s not usual for us to go to the station,” says Philippe, embarrassed. “Besides, I don’t think he’s coming; he would already be here.”
As Philippe looks at the clock and calculates hours in his head, I hear a sound of bells.
“Listen,” I say, “it’s him.”
“In a carriage! That would surprise me,” says Philippe with calm. “He would have needed a piece of luck!”
Madame Philippe rises and her stocking needles stir like the antenna of a nervous creature. Philippe opens the door and goes to see.
It’s not Antoine, it’s an accommodating farmer dropping off a package addressed to Philippe that was handed over to him by a man from the station.
Madame Philippe, on her knees, unties the package and there she finds Antoine’s personal effects. He would have brought them himself if he was coming on leave.
“So he’s not coming,” she says.
“Perhaps,” I say to her, “There’s a letter in the package?”
“No,” she says.
“Look at the bottom.”
“Nothing,” she says.
“You’ll surely receive it tomorrow, a message from the mailman. Antoine will explain to you why he’s not coming and he’ll wish you a happy new year.”
“That’s likely,” says Philippe.
Madame Philippe unfolds and shakes out the effects: underpants, a jacket, a floppy hat, a braided tie and a little dirty linen.
“There you have it,” she says, “all the old clothes he was bundled in when he left us. You would think he was dead.”
I hope you’ve enjoyed the second part of this translation series. Stay tuned to Lit All Over for more from Renard’s Le Vigneron dans sa vigne as well as other translations, like this one of Mallarmé’s famous “swan” sonnet.
Translation and art by Elisabeth Cook © 2016