The Last Cathar

‘Are you okay in the back there Rae? You’re very quiet.’
                ‘Just thinking … and enjoying the scenery.’
                The road climbed steeply and Meri, the driver, dropped down a gear as the engine stared to strain. Through the window Rae watched the familiar garrigue sweep past; a rugged, jumbled landscape of steep scrubby hills separated by deep wooded gorges. Vines clinging to the hillsides, their roots seeking what little moisture they could find in the shallow red sandy soil filled clefts and crevices in the underlying limestone. She remembered hiking holidays with their father and the scent of the late summer blooming of the aromatic herbs; the lavender, sage, rosemary and wild thyme that flourished among the rocks. But instead of the scent of crushed herbs, the faint tang of acrid wood smoke creased her nostrils. ‘Smells like a fire somewhere,’ she said.
                ‘I can’t smell it,’ said Meri, sniffing. ‘Anyway I still think you’re very brave to be going home, so soon after …’
                ‘Peter’s death,’ said Rae. ‘It’s alright Meri, you can say it.’
                ‘It’s just that I worry about how you’ll cope up there, alone, in Tirvia. It’s so remote in the Pyrenees in the winter. I still think it would be better if you stayed with us, at least for a few weeks. I’m sure I wouldn’t be able to cope if anything happened to Gerrard.’
                ‘Nothing’s going to happen to me, as long as you focus on the driving.’ A truck swept past on the opposite direction, its wheels dangerously over onto the wrong side. ‘Your sister has made up her mind. We’re not that far away if she needs anything and we’re staying with her in Tirvia until she gets the cottage in order. I think you should stop worrying.’
                ‘Thank you Gerard.’ Rae smiled. Her sister took after their mother, an effervescent, gregarious English woman who had fussed over them all in the way that Meri now fussed over her own family. She took after their enigmatic father; an ascetic, austere Catalan from Lleida who had escaped to England after the city had finally fallen to Franco’s fascists. Whatever the attraction had been between two such dissimilar people as her parents it had been unbreakable until the day her father had passed peacefully away.
The smell of wood smoke had persisted and Rae had a familiar recollection of a small castle perched on a hill top overlooking a village. ‘I think there’s a town not far ahead,’ she said. ‘Perhaps we could stop for coffee?’
                ‘Vllerouge-Termenès,’ repeated Gerard, consulting the Michelin map spread open on his knees. ‘Quite right, how did you know?’
‘Something about the countryside jogged my memory.’
 ‘It means red town, I suppose,’ said Gerard.
                ‘Your French is improving,’ said Meri, chuckling.
                ‘Well I didn’t have the benefit of growing up in a multilingual household like you two,’ countered Gerard. ‘What’s Termenès mean, then?’
                ‘I think it comes from the Latin root for terminus, meaning it was the limit of Roman cultivation,’ said Rae.
                ‘What, before the bad-lands of you uncivilized Catalans?’
                ‘What did the Romans ever do for us?’ said Meri, laughing. ‘They didn’t even leave us any straight roads.’
                The road wound around a bend in the hillside revealing a narrow wooded gorge amongst the trees of which they caught glimpses of the village, a cluster of stone houses their mottled tiled roofs dominated by the pale grey ramparts of a small castle. A signpost indicated a cap park at the brow of the hill and Meri swung the car in and parked. A narrow lane led down to the village between high grey stone walls brightened by clumps and trailing tassels of bright green ivy. 
                It had been warm when Rae had arrived at Narbonne station the previous evening, but this morning there was a distinct feeling of autumn in the air. The sky was a washed, pale blue and a cool southerly breeze carried with it the scents of pine and the promise of early snow in the Pyrenees. Rae sniffed the air and caught the whiff of wood smoke, perhaps from a fire lit to warm one of the older, less well insulated houses. The lane led down to a narrow ravine that divided the village in half. A stream trickled along the concrete channel at the bottom but the deep, stone walled sides evidenced the torrent that would follow winter storms and spring snow melts. A narrow bridge linked the two halves of the village and they sat of the café terrace beside it, sipping bowls of steaming hot coffee, black for Rae. Gerard and Meri layered butter on their croissants but Rae was satisfied with a smear of jam on a slice of fresh baguette. A profusion of pink, red and orange geraniums overflowed from wooden flower boxes bolted to the stone parapet of the ravine and beyond it the north wall of the castle loomed over the roofs of the houses.
                ‘I’d like to have a look around the castle?’ said Rae. ‘I think we can spare half an hour and still be in time for lunch at Ax-les-Thermes.’
                ‘If you like,’ replied Meri and then with a wink to Rae. ‘Gerard still likes his history, even more now he’s retired. He’s always glad of an opportunity to look round a castle.’
                ‘Have to fill my declining years somehow,’ countered Gerard.
                The good natured bantering tugged at Rae’s heart and brought back to her how much she missed Peter and the joy of sharing with him all of life’s intimacies; the little as well as the great. She turned her head so that her sister and brother-in-law could not see the welling tears and pushed back her chair.
                The crossed the bridge and followed the narrow lane until a faded sign indicated that they should turn left towards the castle. The lane lead them along the side wall to the back where there was a narrow archway leading into the central courtyard. At the far end a wooden staircase lead up to a stout door. They climbed the stairs and looked at the notice advertising the opening hours.
                ‘Ten o’clock,’ read Gerard, knocking on the door and rattling the handle. ‘It’s already ten past, typical French. Probably not worth hanging about for anyway.
                He turned, stumped down the wooden steps and strode back across the courtyard, the two women trailing in his wake. As he reached the archway he had to stop to allow the passage of an elderly man coming the other way. Making an exaggerated gesture of checking his watch Gerard waited while the man approached through the narrow stone arch. The old man, who seemed to be in no hurry,  stopped when he drew abreast of the three visitors. Rae studied him with interest, observing the patched, wheat coloured smock and the drab, homespun wool trousers flecked with the reddish-brown of local lambs’ wool. His brown, calloused feet we encased in worn leather sandals. His tanned, weathered face, deeply lined and creased, was framed with grizzled white hair and beard. But his brown eyes sparkled clear under the heavy white brows and around his neck a Celtic cross hung on a leather thong.
                ‘You wish to visit the Chateau?’
                Before they had time register that he had addressed them in English, Meri had launched into French asking if the castle would be opening for visitors.
                ‘Oui Madame,’ replied the man, then reverting to English. ‘The curator is attending a meeting at le Marie, the town hall. She will be somewhat late. But I can let you in.’ He made no move towards the stairs, however; but stood and regarded them quizzically.’
                ‘I am Father William,’ he said, finally breaking the short silence. ‘I am, as you could say, the caretaker of the Chateau. Is this your first visit to Languedoc?’
                ‘No, we live in Narbonne.’ Gerard tilted his chin in the direction of Meri and then, with a glance at his watch, ‘And we are on our way to Ax-les-Thermes for lunch.’
                ‘And Madame, you live here also?’
                Rae returned his inquiring gaze, looking into eyes in which the pupils seemed to expand and to emit flashes of energy like black diamonds glinting in the sunlight. The tang of wood smoke wafted across the courtyard and Rae’s fingers unconsciously rubbed the outstretched wings of the small silver dove she wore on the chain around her neck.
                ‘I live in Tirvia, in northern Lleida,’ she replied. ‘My sister Meritxell and her husband Gerard are driving me home.’
                ‘You are not English then? I thought I heard a hint of Spanish in your sister’s accent.’
                ‘Catalan,’ interjected Meri. ‘We were born in England, but our father was from Lleida.’
                ‘And you have been away … Madame …’
                ‘Raemonda,’ replied Rae, surprised at how little objection she felt towards being questioned by a perfect stranger, albeit a priest. ‘Yes, I have been in England settling up my husband’s estate. Now I am returning home.’
                ‘Your husband was taken suddenly? I am deeply sorry Madame.’
                ‘He was involved in a car crash, the car caught fire and he was trapped,’ replied Rae, feeling her chest tighten as she recalled the late-night visit of the Policewoman to explain why Peter would not be coming home, ever again.
                ‘He did not suffer. I am sure he did not suffer,’ replied Father William reaching out his hands. Tentatively Rae stretched out her hand and let him take hold of it. His grip was firm but gentle and seemed to transmit a tingling energy that suffused her with a calming warmth.
                ‘The autopsy said that he was knocked unconscious by the force of the accident, he would have felt nothing,’ she replied.
                Benedicte, parcite nobis. I will pray that God lead him to a rightful end,’ He closed his eyes and raised his chin towards the sky. Then his faced relaxed into a smile and he released Rae’s hand.
                ‘But, Mesdames, Monsieur, you must please forgive me for my intrusion. You wished to visit the Chateau. I am sure you will find it interesting, if you still have time?’
                ‘Oh I think we can spare a few minutes, can’t we Gerard?’ said Rae, sensing her brother-in-law’s growing impatience.
                ‘Yes, come on,’ said Meri. ‘It doesn’t matter what time we get to Ax.’
                Father William led them back up the wooden stairs. Pointing to the keypad beside the door he turned to Gerard. ‘Please, Monsieur, the code is one, three, two, three.’
                Gerard punched the numbers on the keypad, there was a click and he pushed open the door, standing back to let Father William lead them into the cavernous gloom inside. Father William found pointed toward the light switches and Gerards flicked them on, lighting up the recreated great hall of the castle.
                ‘You will find a display of the history of the Chateau … and of the Cathars who lived in Languedoc in the 12th and 13th centuries. I think you will find it most interesting. I will leave you to wander around on your own. Please enjoy your visit.’
                ‘Thank you,’ said Meri, her words addressed to his back as Father William disappeared down a flight of narrow stone steps to a lower floor. ‘Are you all right Sis? He seemed very inquisitive.’
                ‘Far too familiar, if you ask me,’ said Gerard. “Looks more like an ancient hippy than a priest.’
                ‘Il est un bon homme … he seems like a good man to me,’ replied Rae. ‘I didn’t mind answering his questions. Anyway we’re here now so let’s have a look around.’
                There were illuminated display boards in the hall and there was silence for several minutes as they started to read.
                ‘This one talks about the Cathars,’ said Gerard. ‘They were some sort of Christian sect that believed in reincarnation. They thought that the material world was the creation of an evil being in opposition to God. They believed in the divinity of Jesus but denied his human aspect. They refused to acknowledge the cross as a symbol of worship.’
                ‘All sounds vaguely heretical to me,’ observed Meri. ‘Not what the Nuns taught us at school at all.’
                ‘That’s exactly what the Pope thought when he launched a Crusade against them in the 13th century,' replied Gerard. ‘Massacred thousands in Beziers and other towns, and the Inquisition burned hundreds of their holy men, Perfects, they were called, at the stake.’
                ‘Oh, how terrible,’ exclaimed Meri. ‘But I thought the Crusades were supposed to be about reclaiming the Holy Land.’
                ‘Nothing holy about any of it,’ snorted Gerard. ‘How men can kill and torture one another in the name of some superstitious mumbo jumbo, defeats me.’ He paused and glanced at the two sisters. ‘Present company excepted, of course.’
                ‘I’m more than a bit lapsed myself,’ said Meri, laughing. ‘And what was it you used to sometimes mumble, Rae, when one of the more annoying nuns insisted we make the sign of the cross? “This is my forehead, this is my chin, this is one ear and this is the other one?”’
                ‘Something like that,’ assented Rae.
                ‘Actually it sounds as if the Cathars were more Christian than some in the official church,’ said Gerard. ‘The strictly practised charity, poverty and non-violence and didn’t eat meat or animal products. They hated the Catholic Church for its accumulation of wealth and they regarded women as equals. Women could become Perfects as well as men. It also says there was a Cathar Perfect called Belibaste who was captured by the Inquisition and imprisoned in Carcassonne. He managed to escape and fled over the Pyrenees to Catalonia but was tricked into returning to Languedoc. On the way back he was following an old shepherd’s track through the Pyrenees when he was betrayed and arrested,’ he paused and glanced towards Rae, ‘in Tirvia! He was then brought here to Villerouge-Termenès and sentenced to death by the Bishop of Narbonne. Wow, listen to this, he …’
                ‘Mesdames, Monsieur, bon jour, good morning.’ Gerard’s narration was interrupted by the arrival of a stout, middle aged woman, breathing heavily after climbing the steps from the courtyard. ‘I am sorry that we were not open when you arrived, but I can see that you have found your way inside. The villagers are very helpful but,’ she grinned apologetically ‘they are sometimes too free with the access code.’
                ‘It was the caretaker who let us in,’ replied Meri. ‘Father William he said his name was, he told us the access code. What was it again? One three … two … three. Yes, that was it.’
                ‘Pere Guillaume? But we have no caretaker by that name. And the code … c’est bizarre! That is not the correct number. Eh bien! Perhaps there is some mistake, Madame.’ She shrugged her shoulders. ‘Voila, it is no problem, you are here now and you are most welcome to continue with you visit, please.’ Without waiting for a reply she turned and busied herself opening up the gift shop before disappearing into a tiny office at the back.
                ‘Guilhem,’ exclaimed Gerard. ‘Is that the same as Guillaume?’
                ‘Yes, it’s the Occitan version,’ replied Meri.
                ‘Occitan?’
                ‘The language originally spoken in Languedoc. It’s similar to Catalan,’ replied Meri.
                ‘Wow, you’d better come and see this.’ He beckoned them towards the display board and pointed. ‘Look there. Belibaste was Guilhem … William Belibaste. He was the last known Cathar Perfect and,’ he paused for emphasis, ‘he was burnt at the stake … in this castle … in the year 1323!’
                Meri’s mouth gaped. ‘You mean that Father William … there is no such caretaker … and the door opened with the wrong access code. My God have we seen …’
                ‘Just look at your faces, said Rae, laughing, ‘and listen to the two of you, making up ghost stories. I thought you were a rationalist Gerard with no time for superstitious nonsense. There must be a perfectly sensible explanation.’
                ‘Yes, of course, said Gerard, sheepishly. ‘But even so it’s an amazing coincidence.’ He raised his arm to glance at his wristwatch. ‘Goodness, look at the time. I think we should get back on the road.’
                Walking back up the lane to the car park Rae let Gerard and Meri draw ahead, chattering excitedly to each other about what they imagined they had seen. Rae thought about her father and the walks they had enjoyed together in the mountains around Tirvia. He knew the high country well and had used the same old shepherd’s route into France as Belibaste, to escape Franco’s inquisitors. Later she had brought Peter along and the three of them had enjoyed long summer hikes on both sides of the border. She remembered the long talks they had enjoyed, sitting on sun-warmed rocks gazing across endless miles of rugged peaks that appeared to float above the blue hazed valleys against a dazzling backdrop of crystal bright azure sky.  The mountains stretched westwards towards the sea and in the afternoon the moisture laden wind from the Atlantic would bloom with dazzling creamy white buds of cumulus that passed so low overhead that she imagined she could reach up and touch them.    
                She caught the scent of wood smoke on the breeze and turned for a last look at the castle. Father William was standing on the ramparts. He saw her and raised an arm in farewell. She waived back. ‘You can finally rest old friend,’ she whispered. ‘You've carried you burden long enough but there will be others to carry on the work now.
                At the car, Gerard was consulting the map. ‘I think we should skip lunch at Ax,’ said Rae. ‘We can pick up something along the way and I’ll cook you a good dinner when we get to Tirvia. I just want to get home, there is so much I have to do.’

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