Today I went walking with Salomé. We took a usual route, around the corner and up the gravel road that ends atop the hill. We walked past the property that is occupied by a goat and two cats that belong to a friend. I always stop to say hello. Salomé considers it enemy territory and sits at the entrance to the land waiting for me to finish and continue our walk. The goat is lonely and bleats out the moment she hears me approaching. The two cats, a black one and a smaller white one with black and grey stains, run out mewing and rub themselves against my legs. Salomé, disgusted, observes from a safe distance. The cats are both scrawny. I remember the bag of chicken bones I dumped in the trash after making soup and wish I had thought to bring them. Sometimes I find the goat all tangled up and unable to move, so I have to set about untangling her or call her owner to come and do it. Today she is ok, with a length of chain that permits her to move around, drink and perhaps nibble on some greenery. On the way out, the cats follow me into the road and arch themselves menacingly at Salomé who has already moved a safe distance up the hill.
A little further up, we come across what could be a large tool shed. It is shuttered and locked. To one side, car or tractor tracks lead downhill into the forest. The afternoon is sunny and I decide to investigate. I have walked down these tracks before, but never very far as I have no idea where they come out or if I can even pass through the forest and arrive at some road farther down the hill. Today I feel adventurous. The speckled sunlight through the trees, the fact that someone seems to have cleared away a great amount of underbrush, the pulsing energy of the trees all around reaching for the sky is an invitation to try my luck. I can always walk back if the going gets tough.
Salomé notices I have left the road and follows me as far as the edge of the forest. There she sits down, at attention, watching me progress through the trees. The way is mostly downhill as the road we have been following has taken us to the top of a very tall hill and anyway we go from here descend. I stop and call to Salomé. She watches me with no intention of budging; I pick up a stick and show it to her. She tilts her head but doesn’t move. So I toss it gently ahead of me on the path and say “Busca” (search) in a playful tone. The lure works and she races ahead looking for the stick in the short underbrush.
I am pleasantly surprised at how nicely kept the forest floor is and how easy that makes walking even though it is a steep hill. Halfway down we come upon a cluster of fig trees. I pick two figs for my breakfast and put them in one of the bags for Salomé’s droppings. Every once in a while my canine companion decides she has gone far enough and sits decidedly down on the forest bed with a look on her face that definitely says, “Let’s go back to the road”. I call and coax and throw sticks, and finally look for an easier way down off to the side of some tall trees. She sees the new route and takes it.
Before us and way down below there are roofs of houses and as long as there are no fences impossible to climb or ravines impossible to cross, we will eventually come out into someone’s garden and from there, hopefully, onto a street from whence we can find our way home. I am hopeful.
As I draw nearer I notice there is one house whose garden seems not to have a fence so I steer Salomé in that direction, calling and coaxing and rewarding by throwing another stick until we are no more than twenty meters from the property.
It is then that a man appears on the back door step of the house and looks straight up at me. I wonder if he is friendly or is going to accuse me of trespassing.
“Do you have any unfriendly dogs” I call out in my poor French. There is no answer. He shades his eyes as if to see me more clearly and then begins to gesticulate rather wildly that I should come down off the hill. The direction he is instructing me to descend to is his back yard so I figure we have not met the enemy. Calling to Salomé, I quickly make my way down the rest of the hill. As I get closer I see that he is worried I will fall and is trying to show me the best way to descend. Finally we meet up. He wears a big smile.
“No one has ever come through my woods before. I can’t believe it. I heard noises and then saw this figure up amongst the trees and then you came out; it is the first time,” he says shaking my hand vigorously.
“I’m a wood fairy,” I say jokingly. “Are those are your woods?” I ask a bit surprised that a person can actually own woods.
“Oh, yes, all 17,000 square meters of them. I cleared out the underbrush about twenty years ago with my own hands, but I have never seen anyone ever walking in them before.” It was obvious he was excited that someone had finally taken advantage and enjoyed his cleaning job.
“They are truly beautiful woods, it was a lovely walk, and I did wonder who had cleared them so nicely,” I say looking into his round face which has a boyish air about it in spite of his obvious years.
Gently he corrects my French; I had used the feminine “belle” for woods which are masculine. I smile. “How old are you,” point-blank and without introduction, he fires the question at me. “Oh, I know, one is not supposed to ask the age of a lady but, how old are you? I will tell you my age. I am seventy five.”
“I am a thousand and sixty,” I say laughing, “well, take off the thousand and add nine.”
“Ah, I knew it. I said to myself: she is about six or seven years younger than I am,” he seems terribly pleased at having guessed my age. “Please come into my woods whenever you like.”
“I also stole two of your figs,” I confess holding up the dog-doo bag.
“Oh, take all you want; there is another fig tree over there,” he points to our right, “there might be more on it.”
I shake my head. “What is your name?” I ask him. After all we already know each other’s age which is much more intimate than a name. He gives me his surname because I didn’t specify that I wanted his first name. I ask again, using the correct term for first name this time. It is Jean Claude. I hold out my hand and introduce myself.
“My name is Brianda, it is a Spanish name; but my last name if Bearnaise, it is Domecq,” I say thinking that as long as he knows my age he might as well have a bit of history.
“Ah, Domecq, yes that is from around here; there was a family of Domecq’s that moved to Spain a long time ago.”
“Yes, that was my family. Later my father moved to Mexico and founded the House of Domecq there to produce wines and brandy.”
We are standing at the bottom of the hill alongside the woods that rise above us. I ask him if he lives alone. No, his wife lives with him but she has gone to the market. I ask him if the street in front of his house comes out to the Avenue des Pyrénées which is where I live. Yes, I am right so I now know where we are. After a few more exchanges I take my leave. He accompanies us to the road, gives precise instructions on how I should get home and then leans in to kiss me on both cheeks.
As I trek off in the direction of home, my imagination tells me the story of how excited he will be when his wife gets home, as he tells her of the stranger that suddenly appeared in his woods leading a small whiskered dog and turned out to be from an old Salisienne family. I smile. Goodness it is a friendly place I live in!