The Keeper of All Mystery

Bahorel: Giscaro, 1817

At school, he was called Gustave Bahorel and spoke French; at home, he was Gustau Bahoreu, and he spoke Occitan. A strong lad of seventeen, he was helping with one final harvest before going to Paris, that great central metropolis none of his family had ever seen. The Bahoreus were Gascons, growers of wheat and vines, the vines of late doing better in the market than the wheat. They were well on their way to becoming the chief family of the district, having bought into the national lands, but they were people of labour, sending their son away to school so he might attempt to aggrandise his position someday. It was not for the family as a whole to worry about. They were not that sort of people. Their bread was well-mixed with rye, even though they could afford to keep the pure wheat from their own fields, because thrift was second nature, and they could not bear to be seen in the district as ambitious for luxury. White bread was for the foreigners and occasionally for the invalid elderly who could no longer eat the rough brown bread. That was the sort of people the Bahoreus were.

Thus Gustau was hefting baskets of grapes into the wagons that would take them to the cuvier, or pressing room. He was away from home too much to be trusted to cut the grapes; carrying was what he could be trusted to do. To take the large baskets at the end of the row, where the cutters emptied the baskets they carried on their backs, and stack them in the wagons, placing an empty basket at the end of the next row for the cutters. When the wagon was full, M. Bahoreu would send it, driven by one of the old men, to the cuvier, where Gustau would then unload the grapes in preparation for the evening’s pressing. All this was for the table wine the Bahoreus sold in large quantities and drank themselves; Gustau was not to touch the grapes on the hillside that would be pressed separately and stored for years for the finer vintage he had never tasted.

He was unloading the wagon with a bitterness his father would hope not transfer to the wine were he able to see. Gustau was the second son, he had been given a very good education and would have still more in the law school at Paris, and here he was, trusted only to unload the cheap grapes. His brother Joan was being groomed to inherit the farm, the idea being that Gustau would find some professional career and, after his father died, sell his share of the inheritance back to his brother. The additional lands had been acquired too carefully to admit a split so soon. Thus Gustau had been sent to school, Gustau would go to Paris to become a lawyer, and the family would do what it must to assure Gustau a fine career far from the ancestral lands. If one thought of the family holdings as ancestral lands - the phrase sounded far too noble for Gascon farmers but Gustau could think of no other. But Gustau was their son, not a hired labourer, and here he was, given the least worthy of the necessary work, his position undermined before he had even left. His father had said he needed someone trustworthy, and of physical strength, but that could be one person of importance, instead of Gustau and old Paire Arzac. He knew he was shunted aside from the very fact that he was off in the cuvier while Paire Arzac waited.

It was heavy work, shifting the grapes. They were round with water this year after heavier than average rains, which meant the wine would be dull, with a heavy minerality, though the quantity would be high. The berries were round and heavy with water, wanting to burst before their time, before the pressing began. They needed a careful touch to avoid being bruised and broken, spilling the precious juice into the dust, and it was with this task Gustau had been entrusted, though he refused to believe anyone with half a brain could possibly fail to see where undue pressure was being placed when stacking grapes in baskets, after all. He was seventeen, and in a month, he would be leaving home, probably forever. He had thought himself, when he returned home two months earlier, to be the hope of his family. Now, shifting the grapes, he felt about to enter into exile. Exiled already, really.

Back and forth, from the vineyards to the cuvier and back again, all morning. The sun felt terribly hot - in Gascony, the harvest came at the end of summer, not at the beginning of autumn, and the heat was still intense at midday, particularly with all the physical exertion. The vines provided the little shade on the exposed hills, and the children brought lukewarm water to the workers, the only relief coming from the evaporation of sweat on necks and foreheads. Even Paire Arzac was not protected in the least from the sun. He sat on the wagon seat, occasionally fanning himself with his broad straw hat. In the hottest portion of the day, the workers retreated to rest, there being no sign of rain that might hurry their efforts.

Gustau hid in the chai, the dark storeroom, among the aging barrels of wine. It was not any cooler than the house or any of the other outbuildings, but there was a heavy mustiness from mold and mushrooms and fermenting wine, so no one else had chosen to rest or nap there. Everyone else was at dinner, after which they would disperse around the farm to rest before returning to the vines. Gustau did not feel hungry, even after all the work, for the heat had taken care of that. He was merely tired, and bored, and bitter. He had come home for the harvest every year since he was sent to school in Toulouse, but this year he suddenly felt the unwanted guest in his own home. He was in the way, unaccomplished in the modes of country life, a city-dwelling French speaker thrown on the mercy of country relations until his fortunes might change. At some point in the past year, the boys of the locale had become men, or at least were treated as men, while he was treated as a boy still, or at least as a foreigner. Even when the war had ended two years ago, and the conscripts began trickling home, they were treated as men, members of society, welcomed back and given the position of men. He had only been away for ten months, and he was a boy, or a foreigner, someone who was dependent on others, while the other boys his age were treated as men, the future heads of families. He wanted nothing so much as to be back at school, where he knew the ropes, was one of the big ones and exerted power over the little boys, taunting them for their faltering French and country manners. Now he was the one taunted for how he held a knife and sometimes answered in French out of habit. Better to nap than to endure the jabs everyone else thought good-natured and he could only see as contempt.

The floor of the chai was hard-packed soil, trampled by generations working the grapes and unsoftened by any straw or even dust. Still, Gustau laid down in a corner, hiding behind a group of casks, his hat over his face to keep out the little light that came through the one window and open door and to keep off the flies. He might have dozed - he did not know - but he rarely fully slept anymore during the afternoon sieste. Naps were not on the schedule in Toulouse, no matter how hot the weather or how frequent the complaints of the local merchants’ sons - their fathers might close shop for a couple hours in the heat of the day, but their minds could not afford such idleness. A smack of the cane and back to work, concentrate, the heat is only in your stupid, idle minds. The heat was perfectly real, of course, as was the drowsiness, but after seven years, it was hard to take drowsiness all the way to sleep, even after such a hard morning.

Eventually, Gustau sat up, resting his elbows on his knees. There was no point in counting down the days until he left. He was not even certain he wanted to leave. Even if he had spent seven years at school, he always came back here. Once he left for Paris, by design he would never see the family lands again. He would never see his parents again, or his brother or three sisters or the uncles and cousins that composed so much of the life of this country. A few of his school friends were going to Paris as well, but fully half of them were town boys, who had grown up in Toulouse and had ambitious fathers. Gustau’s father was not so much ambitious as prudent, and Gustau knew it. If he had been the elder son, he would be staying at home, learning the land and the markets, instead of being sent away to seek his own fortune. If the law were different, he would not inherit any of the lands at all. So be it, then, he’d not want to inherit the land anyway. He’d been groomed for the life of the mind? Bring on the life of the mind, then, not the stagnation of the life of the country.

He was sitting sulking - he might have said brooding, but at seventeen, he was sulking - when his cousin Marcèra came looking for him, bearing a wineskin. She was his cousin in some roundabout way, as was everyone in the region somehow at some distance, but she was close to his age and had started to turn rather pretty in the past year. He tried glaring at her for interrupting his reverie, but she merely offered him the wineskin.

The cheap red wine was warm and harsh where it hit the back of his palate. He could grow lightheaded from too much of it on an empty stomach, but Marcèra also produced a chunk of brown bread and some dried sausage. These tempted him out of the dark, musty chai back into the cuvier, bright with sunlight streaming through the windows. She sat down on the pressed dirt floor, bread and sausage in her lap, and with Gustau’s knife cut pieces of sausage for them both. He was hungrier than he had realised and ate with relish. Marcèra used the wineskin with rather mannish skill, which impressed Gustau even as it annoyed him. He had been out of practice when he first returned and had caused much laughter over his faults. She did not pause to think before she squeezed a hefty stream into her mouth; it came to her naturally. But she had brought him something to sate his hunger and his thirst, and she made no conversation, which in itself was a blessing. He was tired of conversation about his education and prospects in which he always saw, veiled or overt, jabs at how his father had made a foreigner of him. They were all the more vexing because he saw the truth in them no matter how much he tried to deny it.

Marcèra brushed the crumbs out of her apron outside, to at least try to keep the rats and mice out of the grapes, but she left the wineskin with Gustau, who drank down several more large swallows before she returned. Had she been kind, or was this the way she expressed her contempt? he wondered. Did it even matter? The foreigner who did not debase himself deserved the contempt of the native for not knowing his place, and he had been doing a damned fine job of not knowing his place.

Gustau was never quite certain what propelled him, when she returned for the wineskin, to push her up against the wall of the cuvier and kiss her. Perhaps it was because he preferred her contempt to her kindness. Perhaps it was because she was a woman and a distant cousin and thus could be made to do something he wanted, just as he was forced to do only what everyone else wanted. Perhaps he was merely big enough to act on ideas that had percolated for a long time and he was finally alone with a girl. The reason did not matter in the end, or even in the moment. Marcèra made no resistance to his kiss. Nor did she resist when he cupped one of her pert breasts in his large hand. She showed no excitement, either - she merely permitted him to touch her however he wanted.

This very permissiveness was unexpected. He fondled her breast for some time, untying her bodice so he could access the organ in all its glory, warm and white with a somewhat resistant softness, and she did not stop him. Indeed, she looked rather bored, and finally said in a tone that reminded him too much of his mother’s tired chastisements of an evening, “Gustau, I’m not a cow for you to milk. Either do or don’t, but we don’t have all day.”

It was the tone that pushed him to attention, the sense that he was making a child of himself and needed to prove otherwise. She was only his own age - it was hardly appropriate for her to tell him that he was wasting time. His manhood primed by his explorations and affronted by her boredom, Gustau was fully alert to the possibilities inherent in the encounter. He knew the mechanics of what he might do, if humans and horses might be said to enjoy similar reproductive structures. Marcèra looked away while he raised her skirt, unbuttoned his trousers, and fumbled to push his rising prick inside her. With one hand, he guided his prick between her legs but bumped up against her anatomy several times before finally finding the entrance. She gave him no assistance or encouragement but her acquiescence, tamping down her lips when what might have been a pleasurable moan threatened to escape her throat. Gustau noted her stiffness and tried to exert his best efforts, but he had no experience on which to draw, since Marcèra was seemingly different from the cows and horses of the farm, their needs dictated by instinct alone. They were locked together now, her back to the rough wooden wall, the pale kerchief sliding further and further off her head with the friction, threatening to loose her dark hair at any moment. Her hips followed his, pulling back when he thrust forward and pushing forward when he pulled away, even as her hands were balled in her skirt and she looked to the side rather than at his face. Her cheeks flushed darkly as she withheld from him whatever emotion the act might otherwise have brought out, the excitement or the anger he believed he sought.

When at last he climaxed and went limp, she slid out of his grasp, wiped between her legs with her petticoat in a business-like manner, and shouldered the wineskin. “Is there anything else you need before they start again?” she asked, as if they had not copulated at all. The red had left her cheeks as quickly as it had come, and other than some disorder to her hair and scarf, there was no sign anything had happened.

“No,” Gustau answered, confused. Had they not just shared a moment of intense instinct, even if not of love or hate or any strong human emotion? How could she walk away with a wineskin over her shoulder as if he were nothing? He was supposed to have taken something from her, wasn’t that how it went? He stole back the wineskin and sent a stream into his cheek rather than his mouth, an embarrassing fumble he quickly corrected. Marcèra did not mock him for his trouble; she merely waited, hands on hips, for him to finish and hand it back. Even when she took a final drink herself, with the dexterity he lacked, Gustau could not see it as a mockery of him but merely the fact that she, too, needed a drink after their exertions. A sign of instinct, alone, since that was all that seemed to have driven her as they stood together. Women were perhaps not so different to cows after all - both looked at you with calm eyes, making you think yourself an idiot.

“They’ll be starting up again soon. Get the wagon down to the lower vineyard.” She slung the wineskin over her shoulder and left him standing in the chai, his trousers still open, feeling more like a foreign schoolboy than ever.


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