Evolution by Sharon Collins

Chapter 1: One Small Step

Standing on the edge of Judgement, for that is what this cliff-edge is called, her prehensile toes curl over the rim.  Her body fights exhaustion while her brain, uncomfortably large in its sloping brain-case, fights frustration. For countless generations this cliff-edge has been where guilt is decided and punishment delivered.  The accused stand on Judgement for three moonrises.  The watchers rotating through the hours, are also required to stand. Victims, when the crime is not victimless, are allowed to crouch and watch as well.  On this third night, the entire clan crouches in condemnation as the Headsman has argued all are victims of her crime.  The witnesses know the guilty are always weak and when sleep loosens their knots of protest, they fall into Justice, as that is what the abyss is called.  The innocent stay strong; their knots never loosen; they stand and walk into the Fourth Sunrise.

She is so close to the Fourth Sunrise. Already its pearlescence warms the East reminding her of the evidence against her. Scattered at her feet are beautiful shells, perfect in their half-wholeness, not shattered as tradition demands. Suddenly the wounded pad of her thumb throbs; she licks the ragged cut still seeping and remembers…

Four days ago as the tide receded, she collected clams with the woman.  Sitting on the hardpan, they arranged their smashing stones and began the dangerous business of extracting the juicy meat.  The clacking clatter of their work, reminded her of the gulls, also feasting on the beach.  Watching them, she hit a large shell with a glancing blow. It exploded, a shard embedding itself in the flesh of her thumb.  Nursing the wound, she witnessed a gull scoop a shell and flap back into the sky.  Hovering above her, it let the shell drop.  Landing with a loud crack, she watched as the shell released its lock and slowly swung open.  Seconds later, the gull swallowed its glistening bounty and scooped up another.   Struck by the simplicity, she gathered several clams and climbed the steep track up the cliffside and cast them onto the hard sand at the water’s edge.  By the time she climbed back down the gulls had enjoyed her efforts.  All the open shells were empty.  Angry, she adapted. Calling her daughter, she explained.  Again, she climbed and cast.  This time the reward was theirs to reap, and reap they did.  Her clay bowl, filled to the rim, drew envious glances. Suddenly they were all collecting, climbing, and casting.  That is, all were except the Headsman’s First-Wife.  Returning to the cave, she reported.  Crime was being committed; tradition was being broken.  Change could not tolerated; evolution not allowed.  She was accused of the greatest transgression. She had done something different.

As the sun breaks above the horizon, the Headsman approaches, hands open in welcome and holding a necklace of broken shells, symbol of acquiescence. Hers to accept.  She hovers like a gull, step back into ignorance? Step forward into freedom? She steps..

Chapter 2: Sapiens

I did not witness Grandmother’s Judgement, although I was present, within Mother’s womb, but present nonetheless. To ensure our continued survival that Fourth-Dawn, Mother donned the Shattered-Shell-Necklace and became the Headman’s Third-Wife. The Clan believe me to be his, but my long bones and flat-brow, speak otherwise.

Today Mother sews me a new tunic. I fear it will be her last, for she is nearing her end. Bent with toil and shame, her greying hair tangles in the shells of The Necklace she must never remove, Grandmother’s lasting legacy. Laboriously she pierces the skin with a stone awl and then hole by hole pushes the gut-lacing along. I will wear it with pride when she is gone, but I will not wear The Necklace. I will weigh it down with a stone and cast it back into the sea.

I wish to take the work from Mother’s tired fingers, but the Headman’s First-Wife watches, and I dare not. I wait patiently for her to turn away. I have the tool tucked inside my tunic. Its point pokes me, and the small pain makes me smile as I remember the day I thought to create it.

Sitting on the beach breaking clam shells, I watched a crab drag a still-glistening string of fish-gut home to its lair. Depositing its dinner before the opening, it worked its way around the string of flesh and begin to push it through the hole. Try as it might, the piece of gut folded and twisted but would not go through. Failing to push its treasure in, the crab dragged the soggy lump aside and retreated into the den. I thought it had given up when I saw a claw reach out, grasp one end of the stringy mess, and pull the prize in with ease. The simplicity struck me. Pull the gut; do not push it…if only Mother could do this too…

It took many attempts before I got the tool just right. I tried making it of shell first, but the point was too brittle to pierce even the softest skin. I looked for a sharp stone with a hole, but I never found one. Finally I thought to use bone. Slyly, I secreted several wing bones from the midden and ground each to a point. Then using the stone awl, I tried to pierce the other end. How I wanted to cry when they cracked. But I did not give up. I shaped a new one and left it in sea-water to soften so I could drill without damage. Once dry, I had a perfect sewing tool. Today it pokes me and tells me that the moment has come. First-Wife has gone off to scold Second-Wife.

I take the tunic from my mother and thread my tool. I press its sharp point through the soft hide. In and out it goes. I pull the gut through. I smile but Mother closes her eyes. She does not see me complete the first stitch in Time.

Chapter 3: Moment of Truth

Shadows darker than death lurk in the nightshade. Their hungry eyes float, fluorescing green in the waning firelight. My courage, sputtering and flickering with the flames, like the moonlight is nearly gone. My Judgement has begun. The presence of a dozen clansmen waiting in the forest pines, does little to relieve my fear as the fangs are closer now than they.  I will not die it, but I will suffer. Still believed to be the Headsman’s child, neither my complete failure nor full Justice will be allowed. This privilege angers me. I would rather die than be his. Another bitter benefit of Mother’s deceit I am forced to bear, like the crumbling necklace of shattered shell. The yellowed shells have gotten sharper with age and cut into my neck with each trembling breath.

After my Mother’s death ceremony, I tried to destroy the shameful thing. Intending to send it back into the sea, I climbed the very cliff Grandmother climbed when she invented the New Way to harvest the juicy sweetness of the clams. Trickster-Gull must have needed a laugh that day, because he did not warn me. With the wind in my eyes and the surf in my ears, I did not see or hear the approach of the Headsman’s First-Wife, who had come to harvest the clams herself. She, and only She, is allowed to use the New Way of harvesting. Dropping her basketful, she snatched the necklace from my hand just as I was about to fling it far into the waves. Slapping me over and over, she dragged me before the Elders…again.

‘Twice in the same Moon,’ I think and smile to myself as I draw close the dying glow of the embers. ‘Even the Headsman’s true son has never been sent to the Elders twice in the same Moon!’ I am a thorn in their side and I am glad of it. My first disobedience was creating that sewing tool. Of course First-Wife discovered my invention and complained. She demanded Judgement as she had for Grandmother and hoped for the same Justice. I would have been sent to the cliff-edge, but Mother left us that very night, and I needed to sew her death tunic. Since I was already half done with the one I was making, the Elders bade me finish quickly, despite tradition. A daughter’s last duty, it took less than one sunrise and sunset to complete, even with the tears in my eyes. Mother wears it now on her journey, and I have not been allowed to use the sewing tool again. First-Wife has it for herself.

Shaking away the memory, I rise to a crouch; I can hear their soft footpads despite the pine-needled floor…I can almost feel their hungry breath. I raise my spear as the firelight goes out.

Chapter 4: Next Step

My next step, my very next step changes everything…just like Grandmother’s…just like Mother’s. In the torchlight, He stands before me, the Headsman, his hooded-eyes dark with doubt. The others ring him, their dark eyes full of menace. Watchers all, they have arrived to witness the result of my Judgement and determine Justice. Bleeding, but still alive, I stand, the stone behind supports me more than I let on and meet his dark gaze with my green one.

Sprawled before me, its life’s-blood soaking the pine needles is the She-Wolf. Clamped in her terrible jaws, a shattered shell embedded deep in her throat, is Mother’s Necklace of Shame.

Dizzy with pain, I cannot give satisfactory explanation. Searching for words, I replay the chaotic memory… in the falling gloom, they strike. Snapping fangs circle; pain explodes with each lunge. Their attack coordinated and precise becomes a dance of death. Mine. Muscle meets tooth and gives way. Shoulders to the rock-ledge, I stab, lash, whirl, over and over and over… when I can fight no longer, I cry out for Mother. I know not how, but she comes; she protects me. A feral screech deafens me as fur and fury leap from the rock ledge. An enormous Forest-Cat launches and collides with the She-Wolf. Wolf-fangs reaching for my neck snap instead on sharp shell. It howls; its agony cut short by fangs, sharper yet, piercing its throat. As the death-echo fades, she straddles her kill, muzzle dark with blood, and looks at me, freezing me with Mother’s amber eyes. Her growl scatters the pack. I wait captive in the spell of her stare. Slowly she blinks and is gone, a swirl of shadow among the trees. I collapse in grateful sobs until I hear the Watchers approach.

Struggling to stand, I cannot explain that Mother’s spirit has saved me in death even as her sacrifice saved me in life, so I stand mute. My Judgement and Justice are satisfactory or they are not… I can do no more than wait. Refusing to lower my gaze, I watch as the Headman pries The Necklace from the She-Wolf’s mouth. Wiping a crimson smudge from the longest shard, He approaches cautiously and marks my forehead. Then folding the shattered-shell necklace into his pouch, He steps back…He steps back leaving my way clear.

Swallowing the turmoil, accepting the pain, I step just as Grandmother did.

Chapter 5: Too Late

The trek back is an agony of pain and dread. Pain from tooth and claw pulses with each step. Dread of First-Wife’s anger when she sees me living still, mounts with every breath. I know she thought to have me dead. Her Judgement will be worse than the one I leave behind. I shiver at the memory of the She-Wolf’s death-throes, clamped in the fangs of the Forest Cat with Mother’s amber eyes. I see the bloody shard in the Headsman’s fingers and touch the wet warmth where he has marked my forehead. I stumble. Two Watchers walking beside steady me, as the Headsman hurries us at a furious pace. Behind me, four Watchers struggle, dragging the carcass of the enormous beast back to the cave. It will be my privilege to take her fur. I will fashion boots and perhaps a cape. There will certainly be hide enough.

The other six Watchers carry, each, a wolf pup. The She-Wolf’s children will be welcomed by the Clan. Our Wise-Man has spoken with Men of the Ice and has learned that wolf-pups can be trained to help in the hunt. These six will be tried once they learn to stop snarling and biting. I do not envy the unlucky Watchers carrying them any more than I envy the unlucky pups that now share my orphan-grief. Their brindled fur bristles and their yellow eyes glare; they are both brave and foolish…like me.

As we near the mouth of the cave, I hear it. Riding the wind, an unearthly echo clogs my ears and sets my teeth on edge. The pups cease squirming and begin to whimper. They too recognize the anguish of Death-Keening. The Watchers drop them in their rush forward. Too weary and hurt to stand, I sink to the ground beside their dead mother. They clamber over me and nuzzle her. Foolish girl that I am, I want to sob for their loss despite my survival. Unable to resist further, I give in and close my eyes.

A sunset and sunrise later, I wake to the drumming of Death-Rites and the taste of fish broth spooned by Second-Wife. She tells me how it happened, how First-Wife boasted the night of my Judgement; how she gleefully feasted on roast fowl; how she snapped its bones and sucked the marrow; how a sharp shard lodged in her throat and choked her to death. Unfortunately, Second-Wife also tells the Headsman how I laugh until I cry when I hear this. She tells how I call out to Mother’s Spirit, thanking her for saving me from both She-Wolves.

Too late I realize my mistake. My reckless words curse me. Only the Wise-Man may speak with Spirits and even he may not command them. Shunned and forbidden to return, I am outcast. Barely healed, wearing my wolf-cape, I retrace my steps to the foot of the rock ledge where Mother’s Spirit fought for my life. Kneeling in the soft pine needles to bury her Necklace, stolen from the Headsman’s pouch, I feel her amber gaze upon me once again.

Chapter 6: Reunion

As my torn skin knit itself into thick, puckered seams, angry and red, the fever and the Wiseman came together to condemned me. Dancing around me as I lay on the She-Wolf’sfreshly scraped hide, he tossed grave-herbs into the fire, surrounding me with choking smoke, a barrier to protect The Clan from my dark powers. In rare moments of consciousness, I learn that I am judged too dangerous to be allowed sanctuary. Once healed, I am told, I must leave. The  Wiseman has spoken and The Clan has listened. He has called me a cursed thing, a creature of darkness and evil. I am no such thing; I am only a daughter lost. But, I become voiceless, my pleas fall unheard, unheeded. I am unwanted. The Hunters did not speak for me though I still wear their crusty mark on my forehead. The Headsman did not speak for me in his grief over First-Wife’s Death. Child of his I might be, but child of a third wife, especially one whose dark spirit caused the death of his favorite, I do not deserve the weight of his words. None of the women have any words left to speak for me; their words have dried up like blood on the edges of their hissing curses.

Shunned and alone, the Forest’s silence is a balm to my wounded ears and broken heart. Sighing, I watch the last shattered shell disappear beneath a blanket of brittle, brown needles. Rising from my knees at the foot of the rock ledge, I whisper to the pine-scented emptiness, “I am no creature of darkness… Mother is no creature of darkness,” I add as afterthought, although of that I am not truly certain. I cannot forget her amber gaze as She…It…She licked the Wolf’s lifeblood from her fangs. I cannot forget her scream as She leapt to my rescue. Thinking to honor and perhaps appease Her spirit, I take two pieces of dried fish from my pouch and lay them atop the buried Necklace.

Stepping out of this now sacred spot, I gather my water-skin tying it and the pouch to my belt with a precious sinew lacing. I look at my spear and fire-bowl with its ash-covered embers, still glowing, and smile a teary smile. Second-Wife has not been unkind. I am grateful. I reach for my brindled-fur cape and scream as it jerks from my fingers and growls. Every one of Wiseman’s dark words rush through my mind in the moment it take me to realize. And then I begin to laugh. It almost hurts to laugh; it has been so long… Carefully I lift a corner of the cape and peer under. Two unblinking eyes peer back. The growling stops and a warm tongue licks my hand; I am no longer alone. The She-Wolf’s seventh pup, pale as a mid-winter moon, has also come to say farewell to her mother. We are both Daughters Lost. I will call her Sister.

Chapter 7: Acceptance

Sister sniffs the scent of dried-fish and keeps licking my fingers, her pale eyes unblinking.  Not wanting to threaten, I lower my eyes and offer another piece of fish. Hunger makes her brave and she inches closer, slipping  from beneath her mother’s fur. Like her eyes, her coat is colorless except for a spot of brownish red on her forehead.  Sensing she will allow, I reach to rub the spot.  It is prickly.  Horrified, I realize the red is dried blood as bits crumble between my fingers.  After the Watchers captured the other pups and we left the clearing dragging her dead mother, Sister must have come out of hiding and rolled in the She-Wolf’s blood.  Like me she has been marked.  Unlike me, she has not been able to remove it.  I raise my green eyes to her pale ones and offer the silent apology of hunter to victim.  I owe her much.

With two hungry mouths, my food-store will not last long, so instead of heading upriver toward the Summer-Gathering as suggested by Second-Wife, I will go back to the sea where I know there is food. The Clans of the Great-Water and those of the Endless-Ice will gather at the end of this moon.   I was to travel this year on the journey to trade salt, as I am old enough to find a mate.  Mother wanted a mate for me from among the Men of the Ice. Whispered stories of fierce, white bears and giant fish wearing spears on their heads, of tall men with red hair, and warrior women, delighted me as a child.  Whenever I cried for more, she would hush me, saying that her stories were our secret and not for the Clans’ ears.  I asked once where she learned them.  She never answered, only smiled and sighed.  For whatever the reason, she wanted me to find one of the tall men with red hair, like my own, from the edge of the Ice.   The other women scoffed at her grand plans for me.  A mate from any clan would be good enough for a tall, skinny, ugly girl like me they sneered. Suddenly I was glad the Clan released me. I did not want to be just any man’s mate, and I certainly did not want to be any man’s second or third wife.

While Sister busily gnaws a third piece of fish, I untie the lacing from around my waist and slip a loop over her head.  Instantly rigid, she growls her best puppy growl. She shakes furiously hopping and dancing away from me.  But the sinew holds fast.  I remain still, holding the piece of fish and humming softly.  Realizing she is not hurt, Sister edges back to me and the fish.  I gather my pouch and water-skin in what is now OUR  brindled fur cape, wrap the lacing around my wrist, and pick up my fire-bowl.  Sisters, linked by loss and need, we head back to the sea.

Chapter 8: Harmony

Nearing the sea, I remove the loop from Sister, as she no longer wants to leave me. We have shared much on our journey.  I know her true name now; it is not a sound I can make with my mouth. It is much prettier when she sings it with her mouth.  Her name means the same as the Clan’s word for Snow-Moon.

Although snow no longer falls in the lands of the Clan, the Wiseman still tells tales of dark and brutal winters. In the days of the great, great, grandfathers, when the snow was about to fall, the Clan would heed the Snow-Moon’s misty warning and stay close to the caves. He says the Warrior-Men of the Endless-Ice, must still battle deep snows and terrible storms.  Mother told me stories of the same, but added the courageous deeds of the Ice-Maidens and their white wolves.  Oh how I longed to be one when I was younger.  “Mother,” I whisper to the salt-breeze rising from the sea-grass, “Look at me! I have a white wolf…Perhaps someday, I will….”

My words clot in my throat as we reach the top of the dune.  In the distance gather the women of the Clan.  They are harvesting; I can hear the crack and clatter of stone upon shell.  Dropping to the sand, I pull Sister close.  She senses my terror and begins to whine.  “Silence,” I beg.  “Danger,” I warn.  She stills.  We wait, finally drifting into sleep cradled by the warm sand as the tide turns, sending the women away.  I wake as the last disappears carrying her clay bowl.

Fairly drooling at the memory of the clam’s juicy sweetness, I tickle Sister’s belly to wake her and we race to the water’s edge. Spotting a telltale bubble hole, I dig.  Sister quickly understands and digs too.  When we have enough for our meal.  I ask her to stand guard against the greedy gulls and climb the cliff-path.   Soon we are feasting.  Full and happy for the first time since Mother left, I lead Sister along the shore away from the Clan’s Sand.   There are many empty caves and not all fill with salt-water when the waves are high.  I will find one for us, and we will settle.

Hours later, bright flames warm our small cave as Sister and I lie on the brindled fur of her mother.  She dreams puppy dreams and I watch the moon rise. Arrows of great birds cross her face; their honking saddens me. I do not believe I will journey to the Great Gathering of Clans this season, as I have nothing to trade.  But I will next summer.  I will harvest the precious salt to bring with much dried-fish.  I will also make more sewing tools.  “We will be most welcome,” I promise, waking Sister, who sings her name to the moon. I join her, singing my own true name, “Yy-sha… Yy-sha…Yy-sha…” our voices become one.  Sisters, we keep nothing secret now.

Chapter 9: Yellow-Brights

Towering waves lashing the cliffside frighten Sister but not me. I know they cannot reach us. I love watching the flashes turn night into day. I love the echoes that boom and bounce off the cave walls. Tonight the storm is more terrible than any I can remember. I am wild with the joy of it. Sister is wild with the terror of it. Singing her fear song louder and louder tying to drown the keening winds, she paces and pants until she is exhausted. I draw her close and wrap her mother’s fur around our heads. It dulls the sound and we sleep.

In the morning, the cloudless blue invites us out. Grabbing my gathering-basket and clam-bowl, we answer How strange the world looks; I barely recognize the dunes, all flattened and rearranged. Wandering onto the beach, Sister and I notice bits of yellow-bright bobbing along the water’s edge. Glinting gold in the white sea-foam, they remind me of Sister’s eyes in the firelight. Churned from the sea bottom by the wild wind and waves, I think how lucky we are to spy them first. I know they are called Amber, but Mother always called them yellow-brights. First-Wife wore a magical necklace made of them. Only she was allowed, as they are so very precious. Suddenly an idea forms; I grin and shout over the screeching gulls, “Sister, help me!! We will have something better to trade than salt!”

Leaping and chasing the floating pebbles, she splashes salty water everywhere. At first I am unhappy to be so wet, but then I think that maybe this game is a good idea. Sister is beginning to smell like old fish. Tossing our brindled cape aside, I plunge into the chilly waves with her. Together, we play at being seabirds, floating and diving and scooping. Sister snaps at the yellow-bights with her sharp teeth; I with my fingers. I capture and toss mine. Sister dashes and drops hers. When we tire of the game, we collapse onto the warm sand, our noses nearly touching the glowing, golden pile. As the salt dries on my skin and Sister’s fur, I pick bits of seaweed from the yellow-brights and arrange them, biggest to littlest. I am thrilled there are so many, as many as ALL my fingers and toes AND Sister’s claws! Some are round. Some are flat. All are smooth and beautiful and weigh nearly nothing. Dropping them into the basket, I imagine how pleasant my trading pack will be filled with bird-bone sewing tools and precious yellow-brights instead of heavy salt and smelly dried fish.

Realizing I am hungry, I rise and brush away the sand, but I can do nothing about my sticky hair or Sister’s stiffening fur. So together we search for clam-bubble-holes and our very late breakfast. Clay bowl full, we start the trek back. On the way, I run Sister through the waterfalls shimmering off the cliffside. The rains have swollen them to a pounding strength, enough to hurt my head, but I endure the brief pain to clean the salt from my hair and Sister’s fur. She growls at the hissing walls of fresh water, but for fear that I may disappear, she follows.

Later, seated by the fire, warm and dry, I peer into the largest yellow-bright, big as a gull’s egg. Rolling it round and round in my hand. I enjoy its warmth and the way it swallows up the firelight. Thinking Sister will also enjoy, I rub it back and forth along her muzzle. We both yelp when the yellow-bright crackles and spits the fire back out. I fear we are burned, but strangely, we are not. I do it again. This time only Sister yelps. I laugh and rub it along my hair. It crackles and spits sparks at me as well. “Magic…” I whisper as an image forms in my mind. I see myself arriving at the Clan-Gathering leading a full-grown She-Wolf, pale as moonlight. And we both wear necklaces of precious amber fit only for a Headswoman and her Sister.

Chapter 10:Shy Smiles

Sister is shy. So am I. It is difficult not to be shy when you look so different from the rest. I think about how different Sister looks from other wolves. In the deep pine-shadows of the forest, she must have shone like a ray of moonlight with her yellow-bright eyes. It is no wonder the She-Wolf kept her hidden. Being different is dangerous. I know this to be true, for I too know what it is to hide my smile, to walk with eyes cast down, to try to remain unnoticed.

I have finally come to understand just how different I do look, for I have seen myself in the still water puddled at the mouth of our cave. I have known always that my bones are too long. But staring back from the water’s surface was a stranger with green eyes far too large, and a pale face much too flat. And then there was the seaweed-tangle of her strange hair. “It is true,” I almost sobbed to Sister. “What the women used to whisper behind my back is true; I am ugly.” How their hushed words had hurt. They claimed my ugliness was the result of a curse put on the Headman by Grandmother as she fell from Judgement into Justice. They said she cursed his seed, that he should have only ugly, useless girl-children from that day forth. They said his laughter roared as the echoes of Grandmother’s cries faded and as he gave Mother the choice of her punishment. Offering the necklace of guilt and shame, he said she could take her turn on the cliff-edge for her part in Grandmother’s crime, or she could don the shattered shells and take her place in his bedroll, as his least wife, and become servant to his First and Second. Knowing she was already carrying me, babe of a man taller than most with fox-red hair and green eyes recently met at the Summer Gathering, she chose the Headman’s bedroll, the necklace, and endless obedience. He claimed his rights immediately and often, boasting that Mother’s quickly swelling belly held another handsome son to sit at his side. When I was born, a girl, useless and ugly, no one dared speak aloud of Grandmother’s curse, but everyone whispered of it. When I grew old enough to understand, I stopped smiling and learned to hide my hurt in plain sight.

Remembering makes me hungry so I call Sister and we sneak to the top of the dunes. The gulls lay their speckled eggs in sea-grass nests. Both gulls and their eggs are delicious. My mouth waters at the thought. Luckily Sister blends well with the white sand, and the gulls never notice her until it is too late. She snaps one by the neck, shakes it hard, sending feathers floating on the breeze. She does this again. We will eat well tonight. Swallowing the still-warm insides of an egg, I smile.

Chapter 11: Without Warning

Sister journeys away from me more often of late. She is gone again tonight. I fear she seeks to leave me. I will miss my beautiful, white she-wolf if she does leave, as I need her far more now than she needs me. Long past are the nights when I curled around her, keeping her little puppy bones warm. Now full-grown, she sleeps curled at my back instead. How our lives have changed. Besides sharing her warmth, Sister shares her food. Mid-way though the days of the early-dark, she decided food from the sea is not only smelly, it is not nearly as tasty as the rabbits she could hunt at the forest’s edge. Thanks to Sister, many rabbits have given their meat to our bellies and their white fur to my sewing tool. Tonight I lie beneath a cape of white rabbit rubbing my favorite yellow-bright back forth against the soft fur, sending bits of fire dancing into the dark. Lonesome, I stare at the sky and wonder if the moon is lonesome too, but decide not. The honking-birds that return with the long-days are keeping her company tonight. I asked the Wise-man once if they flew all the way to the foot of the Endless Ice. He said it was not necessary for a girl to know such things. But I wished to know…I always wish to know.

Without warning, my wishing vanishes as the floor of our cave begins to shiver like a live thing. I try to stand, and crash to my knees when the floor suddenly slants sideways scattering my bowl of yellow-brights toward the fire-pit and almost rolling me into it after them. The walls tremble and groan like a beast in great pain, and stones, shaken loose tumble toward me. One strikes my head and the last I see is a yellow-bright melt and puddle like honey.

I wake to a sound I have never heard before, a low, rumbling hiss. Scrambling to the cave’s mouth, I cry out for Sister. I do not know if I am angry or grateful she is gone this night, for the sight before my eyes terrifies me. The sea is gone. Far below, where there should be water and waves, there is nothing but empty sand, dark and damp in the cold moonlight. I sense this is very wrong and for the first time in a very long time, I do not wish to know why. In the distance, there is movement. The hissing rumble becomes a roar. I cover my ears but do not cover my eyes as I cannot believe what I see. A wall of water races toward me, getting bigger with each frantic beat of my heart. I am sure I am screaming as the towering wave slams into the cliffside, but I cannot hear myself over the grinding and groaning of water pounding on stone as the flood rises to within an arm’s-length of the ledge where I kneel.

Chapter 12: Phantom Shadow

I wake sprawled on the ledge and damp with sea spray. Struggling to stand I discover I hurt and I think one of my teeth is loose. I probe with my finger. Yes, one of the grinders wiggles and it should not. I touch the throbbing spot on my head and feel the swelling beneath the sticky mat of my hair. I push gently; that hurts more. I see my yellow-brights spilled and notice my fire has almost burned out. I cannot think why I did not tend the coals properly before I slept or why I slept so near the edge . Suddenly I remember and spin around in panic. The movement makes me gag with pain and the need to empty my stomach. On my hands and knees I stare out in wonder. In the glow of the rising sun, I see the sea has returned. Small waves foam far below; seagulls circle and call. All is as it should be. There is nothing to fear. Slowly this time with my hand to the wall, I manage to get back on my feet. “Where are you Sister? I need you!” I cry as the pain in my head pounds with each beat of my heart. For the first time in a many, many days, I wish not to be alone.

Thinking to make a bowl of pain-killing tea from the bark of the long-haired trees, I spread my soup-stones in the fire-pit and add wood to reawaken the flame. While the soup-stones heat. I gather my yellow-brights and then limp to the pool at the back of our cave The fresh-water is why I chose this cave even though it is so high and difficult to reach. Leaning over the edge, I am startled. Little sunlight reaches this far back, but enough lights the surface for me to see dark stain on the side of my face. As I fill my bowl, I notice something odd. The water-level is rising. The trickle that fills the pool has grown into a small stream. Before my eyes, the surface reaches the lower edge on the pool’s far side and spills away, deeper into the cave. I am grateful my bed-roll and fire-pit are on the high side.

Warmed soup-stones dropped into my bowl, heat the tea. Waiting for the bark to release its magic, I sing Sister’s name as she has taught me. Wolf-song carries far on the wind. I squeeze my eyes tight against the pain and howl her name until I am exhausted, opening them only when I feel a chill. The shadow of a wolf appears as Sister steps between the sunlight and me. Then another shadow, a much larger shadow, appears next to hers. I barely breathe as Sister sings the great, grey He-Wolf’s name for me… the eerie notes of Phantom’s name echo from the rock walls. Sister tells me I may call him Shadow and asks me to make him welcome.

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Laurel Doves (Updated and Final Version)

Laurel Doves

By Sharon Collins

(A story inspired by Sacred France 2015 – A Journey with Kathleen McGowan author of the Magdalene Line Series)

Le Couvent, Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume, May 1244

The novices were as prickly as their newly shorn heads. The scabs forming on their scalps, echoed those forming on their broken hearts. Isolated in the misery of memory, six frightened faces searched the failing light and found the darkness in each other’s eyes. While the mourning doves cooed under the eaves and as the teardrops fell, a small miracle occurred…it was just a twitch of a smile, so unexpected in this place and at this time, followed by a slight giggle, followed by the single word, “Demori!” The tallest of the six whispered with a fierce pride, “Je m’appelle Geneviève, and I remain!

In the gathering twilight, six ancient souls shivered, their frail bodies, deemed too young to burn upon the pyres of Montsegur. With crooked smiles, five of the six, united in the full understanding of the whispered word, “Demori,” drew closer. They tugged worn leather sandals from their tender feet, scrubbed raw by the sisters. Their sandals, too costly to replace, were the only remnants of their old lives the novices had been allowed to keep. Everything else, forfeit in an effort to erase their identities.

Wriggling thin fingers, each drew forth a single, green, laurel leaf from between the frayed layers of their leather soles. Holding them up in silent communion, they again searched each other’s eyes and then one by one repeated, “Demori.”

“Je ne comprende pas,” trembled the sixth novice. “I do not understand these leaves…this word…Demori…” whispered Virginie, a wisp of a girl and the only one of the six who had not just arrived. Virginie had appeared ten years ago, a newborn, passed through the gate into the keeping of the sisters. The cloistered world within the convent walls was all she knew.

“You do not understand tonight, ma petite, but you will,” assured Geneviève, and she pulled apart the sole of her other sandal. Handing a second, hidden leaf to Virginie, she grinned with sudden comprehension. Now she knew why Père Jean had admonished the other girls to pick one, and only one leaf, but had instructed her to select two leaves from the branches of the sacred Laurel Tree.

And so the last day of their old life ended, and the first night of their new life began. After returning their precious leaves to the hiding place between the layers of leather, all six occupants of the upper room pretended to sleep, but the rustling of straw pallets filled the gloom and gave them away. Imagining herself a roosting dove, Geneviève could see the full moon from her nest, nearest the window. Smiling again, she thought of all she would teach winsome, Virginie, all the wonderful secrets to which the other five had already been initiated. She knew she was destined to be, the student who would become the teacher. Père Jean had told her so, many times. Virginie would be her very first student. She also knew that her dear friends, Hèléne and Marie-Claude, could share in the teaching. Each had excelled in classes taught by Geneviève’s own Parfaite Grand-mère during the months spent in the sanctuary of Montsegur.

Remembering suddenly, that she and her friends were not the only ones to escape the flames that awful day, two months ago, Geneviève whispered a quick prayer for the L’Attendu, Catheline, the Expected One. Together, she and The Treasure had been lowered down the sheer cliff walls of Montsegur just hours before the dawn arrival of Père Jean. With great effort Geneviève forced herself to stop thinking of her petite, auburn-haired friend. For the story of L’Attendu, was one another must tell.

Back in the moment, Geneviève’s thoughts settled on two of her traveling companions. Both girls had been waiting under the sacred Laurel at the foot of Montsegur. The sprite-like Lisette and the very, very quiet Giselle had been trained in The Way as well. Père Jean had sworn that she could trust them, despite their unusual ways. Père Jean had promised true. Lisette, who spoke with spirits and Giselle, who spoke with horses became her fast and true friends on their two month journey from Montsegur to their new home at Le Couvent in Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte Baume. Now that she had met Virginie, and discovered the owner of the sixth, sacred laurel leaf, Genevieve believed their circle to be complete. They were anonymous now, and they were safe.

Relaxing at last, she let her musing slowly deepen into memory… Again she was at Montsegur, and it was not yet dawn; Grand-mère was fretting, and her Grand-mère did not fret. Braiding Geneviève’s long, chestnut hair, she argued aloud with herself. “C’est impossible! We are beyond the likes of La Malvoisine, the Bad Neighbor.” Montforte’s trebuchet, nicknamed thus and his brutal, summertime attack thirty-four years ago on Minerve, the city of her birth, still brought nightmare visions to Grand-mère’s sleep.

She had been away that terrible summer visiting her husband’s family with her infant daughter, Geneviéve’s mother. She had returned to a riverside, mass grave. The sight of so many beautiful Cathar souls burned and buried in the mud would never leave her and returned nightly to haunt her dreams.

“We have the protection of the nobles; we are safe from the Pope’s fires. We must be safe! The soldiers cannot reach us here, not at Montsegur! Montsegur, our safe-mountain!!!” Each and every exclamation was punctuated by a sharp tug to Geneviève’s tightly stretched scalp. ‘My braids will last an eternity,’ she was tempted to say. But of course she voiced no such thought. A fretting Grand-mère bode ill and Geneviève was no fool.

The tension building within the castle, the very last of the Cathar strongholds, had reached a breaking point in recent days. As difficult as the ten siege months had been, this morning’s air of utter despair, was far, far worse. Yesterday, the Perfecti had stopped smiling and humming. No matter the chill or hunger, the Teachers had always warmed the air with gentle smiles and filled the ears (if not the bellies) of the few Cathar children among them with song. Geneviève was both freezing and starving this morning. Finally finished with the second braid, Grand-mère gave one last, sharp tug. “Such a lovely chestnut color is your hair, granddaughter. Not faded red like mine. It is burnished with moonbeams to be sure.” One of the few girls within the stronghold walls without the signature auburn or blonde hair of so many Cathar women, Geneviève felt lacking because of the plain brownness of her tresses. This rare but strange compliment from Grand-mère, although tainted with foreboding, was precious to her tall and solemn granddaughter.

Suddenly dear Père Jean, Grand-mère’s gracious friend, appeared in their doorway. “It is time Isobel! She and the other two must attend me now!” Strict in her expectations, Grand-mère had trained Geneviève well. Today, just as yesterday, when Père Jean appeared with neither his usual smile nor small treats, a bit of honeycomb for her and a beeswax candle for Grand-mère, she did not question. No, she gathered her few belongings as urgently bade. With quick kisses, moist upon both cheeks and a whispered word, “Demori,” lingering in her ears, Geneviève bade farewell to her beloved Grand-mère. Walking obediently behind Père Jean, she joined Hèléne and Marie-Claude just inside the gates as dawn broke on March 16, 1244.

Three silent girls, heads down, followed Père Jean through the gates and past the Pope’s guards. Marveling at his most unusual display of richly embroidered attire, Geneviève wondered what had happened to his simple, dark blue robe. ‘Who is this powerful looking figure full of authority to whom the soldiers bowed with averted eyes? Why are they addressing him as, “Your Excellence?’ None of these wonderings did she give voice to. The tension in the two hands holding hers magnified the early morning chill and precluded any action other than silent obedience. So thus it was that, Père Jean, L’Évêque, the Bishop, led the littlest heretics away from the pyre and out of recorded history.

Smoke

Climbing down Montsegur is harder than climbing up it. Its steepness and treacherous stones tempt delicate ankles to twist and snap when mornings are clear and eyes are tear-free. But the smoke that clogged the dawn air of March 16th stung four sets of tear-filled eyes and made a safe descent impossible. Marie-Claude lost her footing first. Grasping the hood of Hèléne’s cloak in desperation, they both slid from the narrow path and tumbled several feet down the sharp incline. Coming to rest in a tangle at the base of a large pine, both scrambled to their feet, bruised and in muddy disarray. Geneviève helped straighten their cloaks and pick the blue-green pine needles from Marie-Claude’s golden hair and Hèléne’s bright ginger. Smearing her own pretty face with even more mud, Hèléne hugged away Marie-Claude’s apologies and helped her back up onto the path.

“Beware mes petites colombes; you cannot truly fly and it is a long way down,” cautioned Père Jean. Père Jean’s nickname (my little doves) for the trio of friends, brought the only smiles that would shine on this most tragic of days.

Despite the desperate urgency of their flight, Père Jean gathered his little flock, and ushered them, limping, back up the path to where a side trail split off. Through the dense brush 100 feet and around another hairpin turn was a small clearing, a resting place used in happier times by merchants to store their wares as bundles were ferried up the final ascent. There he let the girls catch their breath but refused their questioning eyes. Gazing at them with their hoods thrown back and huddled together, it seemed to him as if three halos gleamed in the early light. ‘Angels, not doves,’ he mused; ‘one golden blonde, one bright ginger, and one burnished brown.’ Then with his hands lifted in prayer he said aloud, “Thy will be done. God’s will, not mine.”

Acceptance had been the hardest lesson for Jean. He had battled the outcome of this day for so long…since Béziers and Minerve, three decades of fire and grief. Today that struggle would end and fade like the smoke-filled breeze into memory. Today, though, a new and more subtle campaign would begin, and its warriors would not be tired, old priests; they would be little girls. His young charges, so different in appearance and personality, but united by blood, a very special line of blood, were destined to become the newest Soldiers of The Way. Père Jean knew keeping them safe, was the most important promise of his life.

Stepping back toward their tight huddle, he allowed that they should all take time to rest and perhaps meditate. Confused as they were by his sudden switch from urgency to leisure, the girls did as he asked.

Geneviève quieted her chaotic thoughts. Closing her eyes as Grand-mère taught her, she opened herself to her surroundings. Joining the flow of nature, she welcomed the warmth of the sun on the crown of her head, the chill of the dew on her toes, the kiss of the breeze on her cheek, and the citrus scent of yellow primroses. She felt it then, the arrival. She knew they would come, just as they always had, if she meditated correctly. The Lady Bugs arrived. With delight at the first contact on her open palm, Geneviève opened her eyes and her ears. She heard it then, a song of perfection filling the air. Motes of shiny black and red, hummed about her, ‘Lady Bug, Lady Bug, fly away home. Your house is on fire and your children are alone…’ the child’s rhyme echoed in her mind. ‘But were are not alone,’ she reminded herself. ‘We have Père Jean.

It was then that Geneviève heard the actual singing. The strangely lilting melody, grief and joy in harmony, came from just beyond the hairpin turn in the path. It was getting louder by the moment, as the singers approached. Then it began to fade as the singers turned and continued the descent. She had never heard this song before, and she believed she knew all the songs of The Way. The surprise of her own ignorance made her blurt out a forbidden question. “Père Jean, who is singing that strange song and why?” He just shook his head in answer. How could he tell her that it was the Song of Ending sung by the remaining Perfecti as they were marched barefoot to their martyrdoms? “Let us pray,” he said instead. And together the four spent an hour with the Lord in different garden as another great crime was committed.

The sun had climbed quite a bit higher in the sky when Père Jean suggested they leave the Lady Bug Clearing and continue their descent. By the time they reached the grassy field at the bottom, all three girls bore painful souvenirs of their dangerous trek down the mountain. Bare toes left unprotected by leather sandals were bruised and bloody. Fingernails were broken from grasping at stone and bark. And all three faces were red and puffy with fear and grief. Although no one had spoken the words, each of Père Jean’s fleeing doves had come to understand the meaning behind the smoke stinging their eyes and burning their lungs. The pyres had been lit just after dawn. It was past these charred altars of hatred and darkness that three doves of love and light hurried.

“Do NOT look!” ordered Père Jean. Two doves listened. One did not. Geneviève could have sworn she heard Grand-mère’s voice on the wind. “Demori, Geneviève, Demori…” Despite the iron in Père Jean’s command, she whirled, searching through the smoke. The horror she witnessed as a sudden gust revealed the scorched field, forced a sob from her soul that echoes still at the foot of Montsegur. All the rosy color of exertion drained in an instant and she crumpled, limp to the ground. Gathering her in his arms, Père Jean hurried the girls past the charred remains.

Thankfully within minutes, Geneviève swam back to consciousness and opened her eyes to see the broad yellow-green leaves of the sacred Laurel above her. Père Jean was repeating, ”Je suis dèsolè, ma petite, dèsolè…” as he tenderly tucked her wayward braids back under her hood. “My foolish, brave, petite colombe, I tried to shield you.” ‘Thankfully the wind has calmed and none more can see,’ he thought to himself. But the damage had been done. Geneviève’s eyes had seen because her ears had heard the whispered word on the wind. “Demori.”

Père Jean she gasped from a throat choked with smoke and grief, “What, what does Demori mean?”

“It means, I Remain,” he replied. “It means, that although the Light has been dimmed, because You remain, the Light has not been completely burned out.” He might have said more, but Hèléne’s insistent tugging at his robe finally drew his attention. “What, ma petite colombe, is it, that cannot wait?”

“Her hair! Père Jean! Geneviève’s hair! Are you not going to tell…”

“Hush child…” he sighed with a finger to his lips. “Now is not the time.” Hèléne quieted but continued to stare at Geneviève, whose far-seeing eyes noticed not at all.

Sisters

Once more in formation, Père Jean’s flock of doves flew on. As the sacred Laurel receded into the distance Hèléne’s eyes remained glued on stray strands of Geneviève’s hair, waving like silken antennae in the breeze. Later, when their journey was long hours old and they had stopped by a quiet stream to rest, Geneviève finally noticed her friend’s awkward attention and wryly thought, ‘I was wrong. Apparently, my braids have not lasted an eternity after all.’ Leaning over the bank, to catch a glimpse of herself and perhaps tidy her hair, she gasped. But it was was not the sorry state of disarray that made her sob aloud. Gone was the chestnut glory that Grand-mère had so recently complimented. Her unruly hair had turned completely white. Reflected in the water, she saw wayward tendrils the color of mist against the gray wool of her hood, white and gray like the mist and smoke of the morning. Sadly, cupping dusty hands in the cool water, she blotted out her eerie appearance, and whispered again, “Demori, Grand-mère, Demori…”

When she finally managed to speak, it was to her ginger-haired friend that Geneviève turned in her moment of crisis. When it came to matters of appearance, Hèléne knew how to turn plain girls into pretty girls, and how to turn pretty girls into even prettier ones. Despite the personal plainness embraced by the Perfecti, the girls’ small vanities had been indulged, and Hèléne’s beauty advice tolerated. She had taught Geneviève and Marie-Claude all kinds of wonderful secrets. Who ever knew that rubbing honey into one’s skin would soften it, or lemon juice could fade freckles, or bring out the kiss of sunlight in a girl’s blonde hair? She taught them that a little pinch to the apples of their cheeks would bring an alluring blush and that nibbled lips turn an even prettier pink. Geneviève trusted her beautiful friend, so it was to Hèléne she turned.

“Is it truly awful?” she managed to croak through her tears. “Tell me true, Hèléne ; it IS horrible is it not?”

“Non, ma cherie,” she assured her stricken friend with a hug. “N’est pas horrible. C’est très belle, like moonlight on snow…” But of course it was not tres belle. Hèléne hated her dishonesty but on this day of supreme grief, she could not add anymore.

‘It matters not, not really,’ Geneviève supposed. ‘ I will not be allowed to keep it anyway, not where we are going. Snow-white or chestnut-brown, it makes little difference.’ But she did not say this aloud. The other girls did not yet know the extent of sacrifice awaiting them at journey’s end. Grand-mère had fully informed her but had not wanted to frighten Hèléne or Marie-Claude. Geneviève was also certain that neither Giselle nor Lisette were aware of the vows necessary to become a novice. ‘Poverty, chastity, humility…the last one will take care of my ghostly hair,’ she thought, as she dried her hands on her patched skirt, picked up her bundle, and stepped back into her spot in line behind Père Jean.

The odd assortment, a bishop and his little flock of doves continued on their dangerous way. They walked day after day, along late spring byways bursting with riotous color, stark in contrast to their dark moods. Each evening found them approaching an inn. Neither Père Jean’s authority nor his seemingly bottomless purse were ever questioned, and the girls had a bed to share every night. Thankfully they were all petite except for Geneviève, whom Marie-Claude insisted sleep across the bottom of the big, communal bed. Her sensible arrangement saved someone from sleeping on the floor, so no one complained. As the saying goes, “Misery loves company,” and the five grew closer as they shared in an abundance of both.

One day, two weeks into their trek, inquisitive Lisette, learned that Hèléne and Marie-Claude were twins, sent to study with Geneviève’s Parfaite Grand-mère. The two girls had arrived just before the siege of Montsegur began. Like Geneviève, they had a grandmother whose dreams were haunted by the Holy Army of Pope Innocent III. Only her dreams were of pikes and swords, and the cruel words,” Kill them all. God will know his own… ” As Geneviève’s Grand-mère had been, she too had been away from her home of Béziers when it was sacked. Thus on July 22, 1209, she had been spared.

Surrendering to growing curiosity about her traveling companions, Lisette finally questioned Geneviève. “I cannot believe they are sisters let alone twins! How can this be?” she quipped, nodding her pert chin toward the two. Except for their milk-white skin, they look nothing alike. How can one twin have red hair and the other have blonde?

Geneviève, at a loss to explain the dissimilarities between the fraternal twins, shrugged and whispered, “C’est la vie.” Giggling, they proceeded to eavesdrop on the two who were, as usual, teasing each other. Hélène was trying to practice her Latin by reading a Book of Prayers, as she always did whenever they stopped to rest and eat. And Marie-Claude was trying, as she always did, to get her sister to help prepare their midday meal of crusty bread and watered wine.

“Hèléne , put that book away now, I say! I am the eldest; you must abide! I need help. You cannot always be with your nose stuck in that book! Come! Help! Me! Now! ” Marie-Claude ordered her younger sister of barely ten minutes. With each command, she attempted to snatch away the little book given to the sisters by Père Jean.  Each time she missed, she stamped her foot raising clouds of dust in the path. Hèléne danced just out of reach, holding the precious book above her head. Round and round her indignant sister she twirled, laughing and teasing.

While Geneviève was the de facto leader of their little band, Marie-Claude was the self-acknowledged mother hen. Taking this responsibility seriously, she thought it highly unseemly that her sister preferred reading over domestic duties and complained frequently to Père Jean. He calmed her ire with the same scriptural reference each and every time. Taking Marie-Claude’s hands in his, he would say, “Ma petite colombe, our very own Martha, your sister, like Mary, has chosen the better part…let her learn all she can while she may.” Marie-Claude loved being compared to Martha, the righteous, elder sister and was always soothed by the compliment. Hèléne was just as pleased by her comparison to the willful Mary, and their squabbling would end with returning smiles of sisterhood. Of course the biggest smile of all was Père Jean’s, as he knew just how apt his comparison to the Biblical pair truly was. ‘Blood will always tell,’ he thought with satisfaction, ‘especially this blood.’

With matters settled, and the food laid out, they sank into the warm grass to share their meal. But before a single bite was taken, they recited the Lord’s Prayer as Père Jean had recently re-taught them, each girl saying her assigned portion. He started for them, “Our Father, which art in Heaven, Hallowed be thy name…”

“Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done…” continued quiet, little Giselle in the barest of whispers.

“On earth as it is in Heaven, ” added Geneviève without hesitation.

“Give us this day our supplementary bread, ” continued Marie-Claude with a nudge to her sister on the word bread.

“And remit our debts as we forgive our debtors…” offered Lisette tentatively, seeking assurance from Père Jean’s nod of encouragement.

“And keep us from temptation, and free us from evil,” finished Hèléne with a flourish and a return nudge to her sister on the word temptation.

“Thine is the kingdom, the power and glory, forever and ever. Amen,” they all chimed together.

“Well done mes colombes,” praised Père Jean as he broke apart the loaf of bread.

Eating in silence, each wondered why Père Jean had assigned her only a portion of the prayer that everyone knew in its entirety. Geneviève thought she might have an idea. In their final lesson together, Grand-mère explained the six-petaled rose at the center of the labyrinth paved into the central courtyard of Montsegur. “Each petal represents a portion of the Lord’s Prayer and offers a space to meditate on its meaning,” she said. “Empty your mind while you walk the circuits, so that when you enter each petal of the center rose, you will be open to the Prayer’s wisdom.” Père Jean’s six-part division seemed too similar to be happenstance. What did not make total sense however, was that there were only five of them. Without Père Jean to start them, the prayer could not be completed. Bothered as she was by this inconsistency, Geneviève decided she would think on it later. For at the moment, she needed to find a private place to attend to nature’s call. Kilting up her skirt, off toward the hedgerow she dashed followed by four, gray cloaks flaring in the breeze. From where Père Jean stood, the girls truly looked like doves flying free.

The Hiding Game

Geneviève’s sleepy musings continued to lighten as the moon slipped past the windowsill. Meanwhile the dreams of another sleeping dove darkened. In her dreaming, Lisette was playing the Hiding Game again. Crouched deep in the fields, alone and bored, her six-year-old-self scratched at the dirt, mimicking others she had watched. But her efforts were wasted. There was nothing to glean. The wheat stalks which had so fortunately hidden her, were not nearly ripe on this late-spring morning. An obedient child, she bravely continued to hide, despite the slowly passing hours of chilly boredom. Sitting in the dirt, finally, she started to cry, and thankfully she did. For it was just then that Mireille, the Gitane healer, limped within earshot.

An inviting copse of beech on the outskirts of Lisette’s tiny village yearly sheltered bands of the traveling people known as the Gitan. The month of May was waning and Mireille and her family, were on their way to the coastal town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer for the Feast Day of Sainte Sarah, the Patroness of the Gitan.

Contrary to the popular belief that all “gypsies” were thieves and scoundrels, Mireille was well-respected by the Cathar villagers and even welcomed into some of their homes. One belonged to Lisette’s family. Mireille in return for such uncommon hospitality, shared her considerable skills as a healer. She and Lisette’s Grandmother, a midwife, had much in common. Mireille eagerly anticipated their yearly visits and especially enjoyed the company of little Lisette with her bright golden hair, imaginary friends, and endless questions.

So when news of more Cathar burnings reached their encampment, Mirielle strode off toward the village, intent on helping where she might. In her rush she stumbled and turned her ankle sharply. Although she stopped to wrap it with a dock leaf and a tight linen bandage, she did not take time to brew willow tea. Pain and frustration slowed her progress, giving her fears ample time to multiply.

As she neared the village, the ache in her ankle and her growing unease were stoked by the smell of smoke on the breeze. Needing to save time and distance, Mireille dared to cut through the greening stalks. Whispering a small prayer, as she limped, she nearly missed the faint sobs coming from deep within the wheat field. Torn between her mission and investigating the cries, the fire-charred timbers she could now see in the distance made the decision for her. There was no longer anything she could do for her friend the midwife; of that she was certain. Heartbroken, she turned toward the center of the field.

Mireille was not much taller than a child herself, so the wheat stalks dancing around her felt like a maze, a labyrinth obscuring her view. She called softly, “Qui va là? Who is there?” The sobbing quieted, leaving only the hum of insects to fill the tense silence. Picturing, the midwife’s small granddaughter, Mireille shivered with fear and hope. “Lisette? ” she called again, “Is it you? Fear not little one; it is Miri. I have come for you. Cry out child so I can find you.”

With heaving relief, Lisette let out a loud sob and rushed toward the sound of her Miri’s voice. Standing still, Mireille saw the wheat flow like a miniature tidal wave heading straight for her. Ignoring the blaze of fire in her ankle, she bent and scooped the child up. No shoreline could have held back the tidal force in those tiny arms and legs as they wrapped themselves around her. It was clearly Lisette’s intent to never, ever, let go. Responding in kind, Mireille pledged her own heart with equal embrace, and in that moment, a bond was forged. Knowing the child would never have been abandoned, Mireille turned her back on the ruined village. Holding the small hand of her newly adopted granddaughter, she began the painful walk home.

“Miri, I am very hungry,” piped Lisette. “Maman took me for a walk so very early that we did not have time to eat. We played the Hiding Game, and I hid so well, that she could not find me, and then I heard the angry voices, and smelled the smoke, but when the men called my name to come out, I did not! I closed my eyes so they could not see me, and I said to myself, The Word — Demori, and I remained hidden. When I opened my eyes, the men were gone and Maman, was shining there…”

“Child, slow down,” cautioned Mireille, “You will give yourself une crise de hoquet, the hiccups. What do you mean, Maman was shining there?” The child’s litany of grim details made perfect sense, except for the last one. “Tell me more.”

“Maman was there in the wheat, right beside me. She looked so pretty, all bright white and golden, like sunlight, and she was smiling at me. She was pleased that I played The Hiding Game so well. But then she left, and I was alone again. I could hear her though. Maman said it was all right to cry, and I should cry if I wanted, so I did. That is when I heard you calling for me. Miri, where did Maman go?”

Thankfully a six-year-old’s questions do not probe too deeply, and Lisette was satisfied to learn that her Maman and Grand-mère had gone to visit with the angels. Lisette liked angels and spoke with them often, so a visit sounded simply fine to her. Just as she was about to ask if she could go too, a swarm of Lady Bugs descended upon them. Delightfully distracted, her wishful visit was forgotten. Hopping on one foot, still holding her Miri’s hand she thrilled, “Lady Bug, Lady Bug, fly away home. Your house is on fire and your children are alone…”

Singing down the path, Lisette, the little heretic, skipped her way into obscurity, protected now from the hard edge of hatred by her Miri. Mireille smiled sadly to herself at the irony of Lisette’s lilting rhyme. ‘No, child, you are not alone,’ she thought, ‘You have your angels and you have me. And I have Jean.’ She still thought of him by that name after all these years; Père Jean simply did not fit. ‘Ah, well, we shall see him soon enough, and he will know what to do.’

Dawning

Morning sun had not yet begun to gild the dust motes spiraling above the sleeping girls when Giselle whinnied loudly in her sleep. Five pairs of sleepy eyes blinked wide and five bald heads poked out of their blankets. Giselle tossed and repeated what could only be described as a frightened whinny. She certainly sounded more like a colt than a girl to the astounded listeners

“Oh no, she is whinnying again! She has not done that since she came Our Miri!  She was so frightened back then,” whispered Lisette.

“What do you mean, whinnying? Why is she doing that?” demanded Hélène, as she pulled her blanket up, over her head, chilly without her bright red ringlets. Geneviève smiled to herself, as she also suffered from the pangs of needing to know.

Warming to her tale and bouncing with delight, Lisette continued, “When she came to live with Miri, she hardly spoke during the day; however, in her dreams she never stopped. But it was no language anyone had ever heard. Our Miri, who can speak to every animal and all plants, could not tell what Giselle says in her horse language. None of the Gitan families gathered at the festival of Sainte Sarah could tell either. Miri and many of their wise-woman sat at night and listened that first year.”

“How did she learn to speak horse?” asked Marie-Claude, shrugging back her woolen blanket despite the pre-dawn chill. Always the little mother, she tiptoed to Giselle and tucked the blanket closer, soothing her fretful dream.

“Our Miri, believes that she must have learned from Les Gardians of the White Horses. They live in the Carmargue and can speak the horse language. The leader of Les Gardians brought Giselle to Miri at Sainte Sarah’s festival.” Barely taking a moment to breathe, Lisette continued. “They, who herd the white horses and guard the black bulls of the saltwater marshes, found baby Giselle among the yearling horses. Although they are wild and hard to tame, the horses did not hurt her! She was all alone, no mother, no father, no name. Les Gardians are all men, and although they tried for a long while, they could not tend a growing girl-child, so they decided to gift Giselle to the Gitan. They gave her to Our Miri!” finished Lisette with a final bounce and a bright smile.

“How did they know her name, if she was still a baby when they found her?” piped Virginie. Giselle’s story was striking hard in her equally-orphaned heart and though so very shy, she managed to whisper the longest sentences of her young life. “Reverend Mother named me Marie Virginie for Mother Mary because I was passed through the convent wall on her feast day, August 15th. Why do you suppose Les Gardians named her so? Is there a Sainte Giselle?”

Geneviève, who knew the complete stories of both Lisette and Giselle’s strange backgrounds from Père Jean, answered. “Giselle comes from a very old word that means shared obligation. Les Gardians shared the duty of keeping Giselle safe until they gave her to the Gitan, who shared her with Miri. She shared her care with Père Jean and all of us. So you see, it is a perfect name.”

While the girls quietly discussed this tantalizing new mystery, Geneviève wondered if she should reveal the rest of Giselle’s story. Deciding that now was as good a time as any, she began again…”Miri told Père Jean another piece of information about Giselle that Lisette does not know. It will explain why she too is une petite colombe, one of Père Jean’s Little Doves. When Les Gardians discovered Giselle, she was wearing a red cape and on it someone had embroidered the word ‘Demori.’ Also she was playing with a little dove carved from the wood of a laurel tree. She, like each of us, is of The Way and must be hidden to be kept safe. That’s why Père Jean brought us here. To hide us in plain sight. The Pope would never look for heretics in a convent,” she giggled

Virginie looked at Geneviève with even wider eyes than before. “What do mean, ‘like each of US?’” I know not your ways; I know not why my hair was cut; I know nothing…not even who is my mother or my father.”

Embracing the lessons she knew were her destiny to safeguard, Geneviève began to teach. “Virginie, I can help you to know who your father is. Let us begin by saying the Lord’s Prayer, but not the way you know. Père Jean taught us to recite it in a different way. We each say a specific portion. He made us practice every day on our journey here and never told us why until the last day. Our portions hold a lesson that he believes each of us will come to understand better than the others. In a way we are the vessels that hold the meaning of the words and keep it safe. When we practiced, Père Jean always said, the first part, and then we girls would say our parts. I always wondered what we would do after he left us, and now I know. I believe he was saving the first part for you, to answer your question. It goes like this, “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name… Go ahead, Virginie, say your part.” And she did.

Revelation

The dusty dormitory was filled with delight as the girls explained to Virginie their conclusion that she must also be a daughter of The Way. As that could be the only explanation for her transformation from orphan, servant girl into one of Père Jean’s Petites Colombes.

Virginie warmed to her new sisters, as their excited chatter quieted. Since they had not yet heard the morning bells and were still exhausted from the ordeal of yesterday, all snuggled deeper into their blankets and drifted back to sleep. All except Geneviève, that is. Her restless mind could refused to settle as she pondered yesterday’s arrival at le Couvent.

Replaying her introduction to Mère Supérieure, she focused on the small details the others had missed. There was the unspoken affirmation she had witnessed between Père Jean and Mère Supérieure as she led timid Virginie out to join their group. Geneviève could not shake the feeling that she already knew the stern but kind matron, even though they had never met. Something about the humor in her voice when she reprimanded Père Jean for calling her by her given name, Magdalena, instead of her title, reminded her of Grand-mère.

Grand-mère and Père Jean had prepared her for so much, sharing the trials and challenges she could expect at le Couvent, giving her advice on how to help the others through the difficult days ahead, but neither had given her a clue about Viriginie. Geneviève was proud of the flash of insight that had shown her that Virginie was the Sixth Dove. It made sense that the bitter need of her orphaned state was answered by the wisdom found in the first part of the prayer. Our Father, who art…Suddenly realizing that her fingers were twirling the imaginary end of her missing braid, Geneviève concluded that she had been left ignorant of Virginie to test the ability of her eyes to see and her ears to hear.

Several years later when she began her instruction in the nature of the Sacred Marriage, Geneviève learned the full story. She learned that to know a great love often comes with a terrible price. She learned that her Grand-mére had a sister named Magdalena, and that they both had once loved a soldier of The Way named Jean. But he had loved a forbidden stranger named Mireille. She learned of a Magdalena’s daughter, dead in childbirth and of an orphaned grand-daughter born in August on the Feast of the Assumption. She learned that Virginie was her cousin. She learned of sacrifice greater than imagined possible. She learned that in this life, duty often must needs come before love. She learned of another truth, hidden in plain sight. Père Jean was not the only “sheep in wolf’s clothing” so to speak. Mère Supérieure too, wore powerful, borrowed robes. But of course she learned none of that on the first day at le Couvent.

Sighing Geneviève abandoned the idea of sleep and tiptoed to the washbasin. ‘A dunking in icy water is not usually a welcome way to wake. But if one’s scalp is all itchy and more than a little scabby, it feels wonderful,’ Geneviève admitted, as she toweled the cold rivulets dripping, unimpeded down her neck. The ringing of Matins brought an impish smile to her lips as she whispered, “Who is next, mes petites colombes?” Worming her way among the pallets, she whisked woolen coverlets from each sleepy novice, all the while singing, “Dormez-vous? Dormez-vous? Sonnez les matines! Sonnez les matines!”

“Stop that, now!” groused Marie-Claude and Hélène simultaneously. Lisette however, joined in with a sweet, “Ding, ding, dong!” Giselle giggled, while Virginie, snapping her finger to her lips, gave a fearsome frown. She, who knew the rules of the convent so very well, urged, “Hark, hark, hush! Please! The Sisters will hear…”

Fully awake now, Hélène, quipped, “Let them. Why should not we sing? They sang yesterday while they were torturing us!”

“The Sisters were not trying to hurt us,” defended Virginie. “All the novices must have their hair shorn. The vow of humility; it is required. You should be grateful this is not a convent where the vow is of silence as well.”

“Well, I for one, am not grateful,” interjected Marie-Claude, tenderly fingering a particularly raw spot on her temple. Turning to Geneviève, she asked the question they were all wondering, “Do I looked as awful as you?”

Sadly, the answer was yes. Bald and blighted, the remaining patches of ginger, blonde, and white on their scalps, were criss-crossed with angry red scrapes and dotted crusts of drying blood marking where the razor had bitten too deep.

“Thank goodness sweet little Mélisande showed up and saved us from Sister Berthe, the Brute!” Spouted Helene who had begun to give the nuns nicknames. Sister Berthe being none to gentle in her efforts as a barber, had fared poorly in her moniker.

“Is not Mélisande’s hair a wonder? I have never seen anyone with a braid that long!” interrupted Geneviève, trying to change the subject.

“She must never have been ill,” observed Mary-Claude, who knew of such things. “Everyone knows that long hair saps a person’s strength. When I was only five, I caught the spots. Ma mere braided my hair and cut off half, and I got better in three days…”

“That is foolishness,” interrupted Lisette, “Miri says that hair cannot steal our strength. You just got better. That is all. It would have happened anyway…”

“Who says your Miri knows more than…”

“That is enough you two,” Geneviève intervened. “I do not think we should argue; Père Jean would not approve. I am just so amazed at poor Mélisande’s wonderful braid. If it were only a bit longer, it would touch the ground behind her as she sweeps the courtyard, AND gathers the kindling, AND carries the water from the well.” Geneviève’s reminder that they were not the only girls who had burdens to bear, worked. Mary-Claude gave Lisette a sweet smile and a quick hug.

“Poor Mélisande is right,” offered Virginie. “She has been here as long as I have. We both serve the Sisters, but for some reason they are nicer to me than to her. Some of them are cruel to her, especially Sister Berthe and her friends. She is ever at their beck and call. Even when she has her hands full, she must drop everything and do whatever they demand.

Just yesterday before you all arrived, they were at her again. She was trying to tend the horses, which she so loves to do. They made her stop and take their turns at gathering nettles for poultices. Her poor hands were covered with stings.” Having everyone’s sympathetic attention, Virginie continued. “Did you know that after she finished cutting our hair, she had to sweep the entire courtyard? Then she had to draw water and wash the stones on her hands and knees. Sister Berthe probably made her do that twice. I imagine she did not finish until after the moon had set. I feel so sorry for her. I have tried to be friends with her, but Sister Berthe does not allow Mélisande to speak with me. The only friends she has are the animals. She especially loves to talk to the horses.”

“Well it is no wonder then, that she knew how to calm Our Giselle when Sister Berthe grabbed her…she must be able to understand the language of the horses!” piped Lisette.

“She may,” added Virginie. “She comes from the marshy land near the sea. I overheard one of the Sisters mention that Sister Berthe should not be so mean to Mélisande since they both come from the land of the black bulls and white horses. Yesterday, when it was Giselle’s turn and she started to shy away and make that whinny sound, I knew Sister would not be happy. She hates anything that reminds her of her home. I was glad when Giselle bit her hand and kicked her shin!”

Although the girls were smiling now at the memory, no one had smiled then. Giselle had been second to last to face the razor and with each successful shearing, Sister Berthe had gotten more enthusiastic. Reaching for Giselle, she had grabbed her face between rough hands and forced Giselle to look into her eyes. “You cannot hide; so do not even try!” she crowed. Geneviève remembered squeezing her eyes shut and whispering the Lord’s Prayer over and over during the ordeal, trying to block out the sound of Giselle’s terrified whinny. It was the same shrill sound she made during her nightmares. It fairly broke her heart to hear it. Eyes shut, she missed the substantial bite and the well-aimed kick but heard the aftermath. Nuns do not take the Lord’s name in vain, but they can curse when they have to, and Sister Berthe did just that as she swatted Giselle across the cheek. She was raising her arm to repeat when Mélisande rushed forward and stayed her hand. “Non, Non! From the side, you must approach her from the side. Like a horse, Sister, like a horse. She will allow you then…” Mélisande did not get a chance to finish her advice, as Sister Berthe’s backhand split her lip.

“Keep your advice to yourself, wretch!” spit Sister Berthe, as she took several vicious scrapes across Giselle’s pate. Waving the razor, still dangling blonde strands, under Mélisande’s nose, she ordered,” And since you know so much, you can finish this work yourself. See to it that all your other chores are finished before you even think of going to bed! And no supper for you! That will teach you to dare speak to your betters!” Dropping the razor, she stalked away. Geneviève opened her eyes to see the swinging hem of her black robe gather blonde, ginger, and auburn curls to it like an angry wind. Rushing to Mélisande, she used her sleeve to dab at the seeping cut on her lower lip. Up close she was sadden to see evidence of another cut recently healed and several older scars. Right then she promised herself she would learn the dark reason behind this cruelty. Père Jean would expect her to.

Sadly, that was a promise she would be unable to keep. Virginie had been correct in her assessment that Sister Berthe would demand the courtyard be swept and washed twice. Alone in the moonlight, and so very tired and hungry, Mélisande stopped to catch her breath. Resting the final, heavy bucketful on the edge of the well, she sat beside it, cooling her stinging palms in the water and thinking of the frightened horse-girl and how gentle and kind the girl with the white braid had been and how she had hated to cut it away. Soothed by the night sounds surrounding her, she nodded off for an instant and leaned hard against the bucket. Tragically, her long braid had become tangled in the rope, and when the heavy bucket tipped and plummeted, it dragged slight Mélisande with it. The well was deep and the cold water was dark and no one was about to noticed.

No one heeded Mélisande that night, but as the centuries passed, many who visited Le Couvent would report hearing her plaintive cries, especially if they were in the chapel on a cool June evening. Those sensitive enough, would swear they felt a gentle tug on their hair, especially if they wore a long braid, followed by the voice of a girl-child pleading to be released.

Washed and wearing their new robes, six novices welcomed the second day at Le Couvent, as they would do every morning of their time together. The girls joined hands forming a tight circle and recited the Lord’s Prayer in the manner Père Jean had instructed, each girl adding her own special insight as she saw it through the lens of their shared life. In this simple way, their daily meditations would fill them with wisdom well beyond their years.

“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…” they recited together. Virginie, the newest Laurel dove, taking her cue, spoke first. She offered her innocent interpretation.

“These words teach us that we must have faith that we are never alone and will never be alone. None of us is ever truly orphaned because we are loved by our parent in heaven who is ever watching over us, even when we face fearsome foes like Sister Berthe!”

The other girls nodded in agreement, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done…”Giselle moved into the center of the circle and quietly spoke. “We can be wild ponies, following the wind. But we must also at times accept the bit and bridle, and know that our way is being guided by God’s will not ours.” Again the girls nodded at the obvious truth of her words.

“On earth as it is in heaven…” Geneviève stepped in and Giselle stepped out of the center. “This portion is difficult… I think it teaches us that we must strive to be like Mélisande and always to be of service to those who need help, even if it hurts us. If we love our neighbors as ourselves, we can make Heaven on Earth, right here at Le Couvent. So I guess we are going to have to love Sister Berthe…” As Geneviève slipped back, not all the doves were as quick to nod in agreement this time, but they heard her words.

“Give us this day our supplementary bread…” they continued, stumbling a bit on the big word, and looked to Mary-Claude for her observation. “Well, I believe that we must be grateful for what we have. We are safe here, well-fed, and warm if not always happy. There are many in this world who would willingly exchange their woes for ours. We must be thankful for our blessings, such as they are, including Sister Berthe, as she is helping us to hide.” This time the nods came more quickly, for all six girls knew how lucky they were, just to be alive.

Stepping back, she made way for Lisette as together the group intoned,

“And remit our debts as we forgive our debtors…” Lisette cocked her head to one side as if listening to someone just out of earshot. Then she nodded in affirmation. Finally she shared what her angel had whispered. “We have to FORGIVE Sister Berthe as well as try to LOVE her. If we do not offer forgiveness, we cannot expect to receive it when we need it. I have been practicing this lesson ever since Miri found me. It gets easier each time I try.” With a little curtesy, she took her place back in the circle.

As six voices continued in unison, “And keep us from temptation, and free us from evil…” all eyes turned to Hélène. “Well that is obvious; we cannot give into the temptation of getting even with Sister Berthe. We will love AND forgive her and in doing so, we will to be surrounded by the Light and safe from the Darkness which seeks us, just as Père Jean has promised. Giving her sisters in The Way a confident smile, she stepped back as they finished, “Thine is the kingdom, the power and glory, forever and ever, Amen.”

Day after day, week after week, season after season, the girls put into practice their understanding of this prayer, the very heart of the Way of Love. Sometimes its wisdom came easily, other times with difficulty, but as Lisette said, practice helped.

Thus Père Jean’s petites colombes, his small flock of the Sacred Laurel Tree, carried the teachings of The Way into the future. Years passed and each grew into a thoughtful, kind, and courageous woman secure in her understanding of the divine within. Père Jean and his partner, Mère Supérieure arranged advantageous marriages for each dove, so cunningly hidden in plain sight, thus ensuring the continuation of their very precious bloodline for the next seven centuries

Epilogue: July 22, 2021

Under the Laurel at the foot of Montsegur, participants of the Sacred France 2021 Tour gather round Kathleen as she explains the 700-year-old Prophecy of this sacred tree. Six modern-day doves smile and reach for each other’s hands as they form a familiar circle. With heads bowed, one ginger, one auburn, three blonde, and one white, they listen. Kathleen holds the group mesmerized as she speaks, “According to The Prophecy, given in 1321, as the last of the Cathar Perfecti was martyred at the stake, the Way of Love, which honors the Divine Feminine and Masculine equally, will be reborn in 700 years with the re-greening of the Sacred Laurel Tree. When the Laurel fully blooms again, those who were once united in the Way of Love will experience the one joy greater than Union, that of re-Union. The Cathars will return and recognize each other in this lifetime. The world will embrace the teachings of The Way of Love. We will know that day has arrived when women…” The simultaneous chiming and vibrating of two dozen cell phones interrupt her. Squinting at screens, gasps and more than a few, “ Oh my Goddess!” erupt, as a gleeful babble breaks out. “Kathleen, are you seeing this?” Isobel, the other group leader, calls out.

“Yes, oh Yes, Demori! she sings in reply!”

“Demori!” shouts everyone in turn as laughter, hugs, and tears break out.

A sudden shift in the wind showers the group with a mist of white petals. While the rest stare up in awe at the sight of a fully blossomed Laurel Tree, six pairs of ancient eyes mirror the joy of recognition and re-union. Opening their circle to include Kathleen, they speak as one, “Les temps revient…” Later, none would be able to say which occurred first. Was it the re-blooming of the Sacred Laurel or the Breaking News from the Vatican, that with the official acknowledgement of Mary Magdalene as Apostle to the Apostles, women were to be welcomed back into the priesthood where they had always belonged.

Turning to begin their ascent of Montsegur, the Lady Bugs arrive with a breeze that whirls the petals away like smoke. From the Field of Martyrs, where still no trees grow, a tall and solemn granddaughter hears a distant Grand-mère’s whisper, “Demori, Genenviève, Demori!”