from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

The Pyrenees, the Cathars and Imago: part 1

The Pyrenees
I want to tell you now about the genesis of my novel Imago, due out any day.

The first time I went to the Pyrenees I was 14, and travelling with my French penfriend and her family. We were crossing to stay in a village by the sea in the foothills in Spanish Catalonia.

I remember three things from that trip: a sense that this hauntingly beautiful mountain range was in some important way significant to me; a day's ride into the mountains on big grey (white) Spanish horses, just me with my penfriend's gorgeous and rather awe-inspiring older male cousins; and a severe and acute mystery illness, where I was delirious for several days, and couldn't even keep down water. This is the first time I remember having what would have to be called an out-of-body experience. The doctor (I have no memory of this) was apparently completely baffled by what was going on with me; my penfriend's grandmother sat vigil at my bedside for three days and nights. They felt I was too ill to go home. I remember with total clarity my return to 'normal' consciousness: I distinctly heard the piano piece 'Fur Elise' being played close by, and it 'brought me back'. I also remember vividly the taste of a peach, the first thing I'd eaten and kept down in nearly a week. What was interesting is that there was no piano anywhere near the house in which I was staying; but I discovered when I returned to the UK that my younger sister had played exactly that piece of music, on the day and yes the time when I'd heard it, in Braunton Village Hall, in England, for the WI.

In my late teens/early twenties I spent some months on each of two separate trips in the French Pyrenees. The first of these two trips I stayed in a friend's mother's little house in the hills behind Ceret. This was an impulse trip: he'd turned up in Devon from Cambridge and simply asked if I'd like to go and spend the summer there. I'd recently taken my driving test, and my father trustingly lent me his car, so I drove to Wales to pick up a passport, and then left with J with a tenner in my pocket and no date for return except in time for uni in the autumn. It was an idyllic time of reading, hanging out in the sun, walking in the mountains and harvesting fruit from J's mum's orchards surrounding the house to sell in the market when we needed money.

The next time was quite different. There were wild boar who hounded me up an apple tree, a brief abduction (yes really – but only for about 30 minutes), smuggling over the border, bumping into a fellow-student on a tiny boar-track in the middle of unpopulated mountains, and meeting an Italian whom I would marry, the father of my daughter. And the ever-present Cathars, whose lives have shaped mine in some indistinct way since.

The mountains are, I think, one of those 'thin veil' places.

It's a very long story, so in outline only, I ended up in the high mountains beyond Albi in a small commune right on the Spanish border (but still in France). Albi was the centre of the Cathar, or Albigensian, 'heresy', and here, for the first time, I learnt something of the Cathars, their beliefs and their tragic story. This area is the Languedoc, from the Langue d'Oc, Occitania being the old name of the region. Everywhere are Cathar and Occitanian symbols – or at least I started to see them everywhere. The region is studded with Cathar castles on their high peaks ('puigs' or 'pogs'), and somehow, increasingly, I felt myself moving between times.

It was a profound and disorienting time; and once again I became ill (I'm normally a fit and healthily active person). This time it was a kind of semi-paralysis: my legs and lower back simply refused to hold me upright. I'd had a couple of riding accidents so at first I put it down to an old childhood spinal injury; but it went on and on. I was immobilised for a couple of weeks with no sign of improvement. Then a couple of the guys from the commune made a makeshift stretcher and carried me down the hill (the nearest track for a car stopped a couple of miles away) to an old man, a healer, who lived in a house called Les Cerisiers (surrounded by cherry trees). 'It's being here', he said. And I knew it.

He asked me to turn over onto my stomach, lifted my shirt, put his hands on my lower back, and ten minutes later I walked back up the track unsupported.

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