By Kathleen Barber
Provence, France, July 2014
As I climb from the village to the Château de Lacoste, the castle home of the Marquis de Sade, I realize that I am little more than a papered-over fourteen year old. I am still searching for my life, even though by now, I have lived most of it. I stop on the precariously steep path to wait for my friend, Lorraine. She has known me since I was fourteen and I marvel at her generosity in forgetting who I was back then: a swirling vortex of disappointment and desire laced with a foolish belief that there was something out there that would put me in order—if only I could find it.
A slice of gold catches my eye. I peer down a long, dark alley formed by two ochre buildings standing like angry lovers, an arms-length apart. Beyond the alley lies a quilt pattern of gold and green farmland. Lorraine passes me, good-naturedly complaining about my fascination with going up hills.
Hills excite me and Lorraine never says ‘no’, which is fortunate as we are spending a week in the Luberon, the hill country of Provence. Cobblestones make the path uneven: we aren’t ashamed to hold on to the handrails. In America, we probably wouldn’t be allowed to walk up here. In America, we are so bent on suing our neighbors for every bump that life gives us that we allow little risk . . . little adventure. I imagine the servants of the Marquis trudging this path, bringing grapes from the farm, a blue bowl recently fired, or perhaps a query about a daughter last seen following the Marquis through a side door of the local church. Hanging on a coral-colored wall of a butcher’s shop is a poster announcing Festival de Lacoste, an annual celebration of music and theater created by Pierre Cardin who is also the current owner of the Château. The poster lists Puccinni, Tchaikovsky, Natalie Dessay, and I want to hear everything.
We navigate the last of the cobblestone pathway and all at once are entering the upper courtyard of the eleventh century castle. At this level the building is mostly a limestone ruin. I wonder if there are ghosts. My breathing is heavy with anticipation; my heart is bursting with the discovery of a new world. I turn to see a road and a carpark nearby, but rather than feel foolish for having made the climb from the village, I feel sorry for the tourists who have driven. I smile at Lorraine and she grins back, then makes her way to the magnificent sculpture of a muscular man, his form unnaturally posed. The statue is both beautiful and disturbing, and its placement against the canvas of the sky, magnificent.
A sculpture of a disembodied, imprisoned head of the Marquis de Sade draws me to it. Though his victims have been long at rest, his torment is still not over. I shudder. Instead of thinking about gardens and wine, I find myself trying to reconcile the impulse of life that is sometimes loving and sometimes cruel. What has brought me here?
I go to the edge of the hill and look down and down and do not fall and do not step back. My eyes sweep over the Luberon valley, and I long to explore every town, stand in fields of grapes, climb every hill. A forgotten self writhes beneath the layers of family, career, husband, friends . . . of definitions unsought and dreams abandoned. Time is running out.
“Ready?” Lorriane asks. “There’s plenty more to see today.” I have known Lorraine since she was fourteen, too. When I look at her, I see her sisters, brother, parents—see my own family. Days of unfulfilled longing and moments of exaltation have brought us here. Layers of my life peel away and they float down the hill on a Provence breeze. There is more to see, and Lorraine and I are both still looking. We go back the way we came, and nothing looks the same.
Click images to enlarge. Copyright © 2015, Kathleen Barber
Kathleen Barber, on the right, stands with her friend Lorraine in a field of Provence lavender. Ms. Barber has had over fifteen plays produced in Baltimore community theaters, most recently In the Shadow of Lushan, produced by Fells Point Corner Theater as part of The Baltimore Playwrights Festival. Kathleen is a partner in a manufacturing business, The Fairlawn Tool & Die Company, founded by her father, which has served as the basis for several of her plays. She has had short stories published in Teen Magazine, New England Senior Citizen, and The Maryland Poetry Review.
Beautifully written and evocative. Would like to visit there myself. Thank you for sharing, Kathleen. The image you have created of the daughter last seen entering the church with the Marquis de Sade could be the opening of a play.
It is as you say . . . both the place in Provence and the memories in my heart. Memories of childhood friends and of ourselves at a younger time evoke such passionate emotions. Thanks Kathleen for sharing your lovely thoughts.
How fortunate you are to have a life-long friend such as Lorraine, who shares your childhood history as well as your continuing love of exploration and discovery. Her presence in your essay confirms your intuition that your essential self remains unchanged, despite the “layers of family, husband, career” accumulated over the years. Your essay was such a pleasure to read.
I enjoyed the vivid and thought-provoking journey with you and your friend back in time to Provence. Thanks for taking us along.