I had not been the first to find it. That I knew. The flat, smooth rocks that lined the pool at the edge of it were dotted with small, round stones that only could have been placed by other hands at other times.
I had come across it completely by chance. A late-spring walk in the mountains had taken me off the path, for a path is exactly that, something with a precise start and finish and nothing unexpected along the way.
It was a garden. But a garden in the most surprising and astonishing place. Almost three-quarters the way up La Tête de Louis XVI, it was tucked away in one of the last stands of mélèzes, a moist spot fed by a stream that tumbled its way into the valley below.
I had started my hike just outside the village of Le Lauzet, a warren of cobblestones and restored villas, crossing over the Roman bridge to begin my ascent. Fairly soon, chased off by a shepherd’s dog with a most unfriendly snarl, I began to create my own way up the mountain, a way removed from the way of the sheep and shepherds and other hikers who might have been out that day.
My first discovery had been an abandoned hameau, a dozen or so buildings of fallen timbers and still-standing stones. Amidst the rubble and overgrowth of one structure, a startling blue caught my eye. Brushing aside the nettle that covered it, I unearthed the weathered remains of a baby’s cradle. Its oaken wood headboard and footboard had been decorated with an intricate spiraling design of interwoven flowers, all painted in an intense shade of blue.
Eager to see more of my find, I reached to pick it up, but a thin vine, tendrilling up its sides stopped me short. Delicate heart-shaped leaves and ringlets of stems caressed the cradle’s edges, setting it in a place, and, in turn, me in mine. For how many years it had been there I could not guess, but there it was supposed to be. To disturb it would be to disturb something that was more important than my curiosity and my longing.
Leaving it amidst the vines and the stones, I continued to explore the hameau. At the edge of it, an unmistakable steeple marked a small chapel, almost completely intact. The heavy door that led to its interior creaked on hinges nearly rusted through as I entered. Light streamed through the rafters, illuminating the chapel’s four carved benches and a stone altar. Covering the walls on three sides were murals, exquisite scenes of birds and flowers and white doves backdropped against a vast sky that echoed the same intense blue of the cradle.
I sat for almost an hour on one of the benches, gazing at the murals, and more questions than answers came to me as my eyes tried to capture in memory every fine detail. Pulling my journal from my backpack, my hands opened it to fresh pages where I started to draw. I could only attempt to pattern the tracery of what I saw. My mind, instead, was filled with unanswerable questions: Who had been this artist? What was the story of this little village? Why had it been forgotten?
As I left the chapel and continued my way up the mountain, I stopped for a moment to drink from my canteen. I set my backpack on the ground to open it, and as I unzipped it, my eyes alighted on something else. On a small round stone was a piece of a woman’s shoe, a delicate curve of leather and hand-tooled holes for laces. I thought of the woman who had once slipped this shoe on her most certainly small-boned foot–and then of the cradle and the chapel.
I put the piece of leather and the stone in my pocket, somehow knowing that they would become a part of the wonderful puzzle that was this place, and resumed my hike, but I was lost in thought and wonder.
A bit later, I found myself following the wanderings of a butterfly that had been flittering haphazardly and half-heartedly from the isolated flowers that dotted the rocky landscape I had now entered. At the same moment my ears caught wind of a decidedly persistent hum, the butterfly’s flight took on a different dimension. Leaving the scree behind, his wings beat with purpose I had never imagined.
The feathery branches of the mélèzes created no obstacle course for this determined butterfly. I clumsied behind, brushing aside the branches and breathing in the musky potpourri of spring sap and fallen needles. The hum buzzed louder and louder in my ears, and within seconds, I found out why.
The mélèzes opened up into a small clearing. The clearing was alive with thousands of bees. Clearly, there was a reason why.
The reason, of course, was the garden. Shaped in a circle, it was a union of earth and heaven. Every flower was blue, from scatterings of forget-me-nots to crowds of columbines, from bunches of larkspursto huddlings of bellflowers, from a constellation of gentians to a collection of basket flowers, from gatherings of toadflax to patches of cornflowers, from stalks of lavender to seas of sage, from stands of primroses and flax to clusters of wild irises. Even the small pond in its center was blue, its surface a mirror of the Southern Alps skies.
Retrieving the round stone from my pocket, I placed it by the edge of the pond with the others, and with my head spinning with fragments of stories, I quietly walked out of this sacred place.
For days and weeks and months, the questions and stories persisted. How these things had all been connected I could not piece together, but often I would hold the scrap of worn leather in my hand, turning it over and over, searching for answers.
The end of summer and a chance happening gave them to me.
At the Harvest Fair’s market in Barcelonnette, behind a table covered in a cloth of Provençal blue and yellow and lined with jar after jar of honey, a woman stood, a faded straw bonnet on her head and a sun-crinkled sparkle in her eyes. As she greeted me merrily, I picked up one of the glass jars to read the label. A lovely script spelled out its origins: “Honey of Louis XVI.”
“The bees know a secret garden,” she smiled. The startled look on my face and the question behind it gave me away. “Perhaps you know it, too,” she laughed, tilting her head to look at me squarely.
“Oh, please. I’ve been haunted by this garden for days. I found it last spring and I’ve thought of nothing else since. And that chapel…And the ruined stone cottage with the—“
“The baby’s cradle?” she offered gently.
“Yes! The painted baby’s cradle! Do you know anything about it?” I held my breath, awaiting her reply.
Her hands buried themselves deep into the pockets of her apron. They pulled out a long silver chain, and attached to it was a locket. She held it out and then gently placed it in my shaking hand.
“My mother was her friend….”
I rubbed my fingers over the engraving. Time had not worn away the message: “To Lucie. Forever beauty. Forever love.” Nervously, I opened the clasp. Inside, a curl of red-gold hair lay atop a faded photograph of a man, his eyes deep and serious, his smile open and warm.
“They were married only three years when the War came. Of course he went when he was called, though he never should have. My grandmother was the postmistress. She said he wrote her every day. Then, one day, the letters stopped, and the baby was born soon afterwards. He never knew he had a son.”
I touched the tendril of hair tentatively.
“His eyes were blue, ‘Like his father’s,’ my grandmother said. But his hair was Lucie’s through and through.”
“Was?” I ventured slowly.
“He died before he turned one,” she offered. My eyes brimmed with tears. She placed a hand over my hand. “The winter of 1917 was cruel in so many ways.”
“But the chapel?” I had to know.
“They had wanted a child so badly. He was an artist, as you probably could have guessed. He painted her the chapel, and then he painted her a cradle, and then he went to war. My grandmother said everyone feared for him, even more than the others. He was an artist, made for paintbrushes, not for guns….”
“The garden?” I put forth, interrupting her thoughts.
“He had given her three beautiful years. They were a couple unlike so many others. ‘They lived on sunshine,’ my grandmother told me over and over again. But after the death of her baby, no one saw her for seven months. She left her stone cottage and found an abandoned shepherd’s hut high on the mountain. She lived there for the rest of her days.”
“But the garden?” I persisted.
“What could she do? He had made her a chapel and given her a cradle; she could create for him a garden. A garden of blues, like the memory of his eyes. A garden of blues, in honor of their son. A garden of blues, like the wonderful sky above. A garden of blue, of peace. To show him that even after all that had happened, there were those who could still live on sunshine. To show him that she had not forgotten the truth they had known. From the heavens, surely he could see.”
The woman hesitantly reached to take the locket from my hand and gazed upon its contents before shutting the clasp and then returning it to her apron pocket.
“Thank you,” I mumbled, “for telling me the story.” I turned to leave, but something stopped me. “The truth they had known? Forgive me, but what do you mean? I need to know exactly.”
She looked at me gravely. Then slowly she began, forming each word carefully before delivering it, “In all the world, creating beauty is the most noble of all endeavors. To create is to be in the heart all things good, and that is perfect love. And that love will endure, when all other things have fallen aside. If we are to live that love, then, we, too, must live to create. We must find our way to make the world more beautiful. We must find the way of peace.”
I heard her voice, but somehow I felt it was the voice of Lucie coming through the years to give me the message. I searched deep in the woman’s eyes, wondering if she had ever told anyone else this story.
Then I remembered the stones by the pond and the myriad stands of lavender about the valley and the hortensias that graced many a doorstep. I thought of the pots of lupines that lined the cobblestones of the Rue Manuel, the bluebells that edged the field near Bernadette’s vegetable patch, the wild irises along the river, and the window boxes of forget-me-nots.
They were all part of Lucie’s legacy, part of her heart, of her art, all part of the web. They were pieces of heaven on earth, pieces and places of peace. They were reminders of what we can do and what we can be.
I turned and walked home. I placed the bit of leather on the windowsill in my kitchen.
That afternoon, I began to dig my garden.
Debbie Robertson divides her year between the United States and France, loving the summer and winter skyline sunrises of Houston, Texas, and reveling in the spring and fall mountain sunsets in the Alpes de Haute Provence. Her works have appeared most recently in Heimat Review, Academy for the Heart and Mind, Writing in a Woman’s Voice, Ekphrastic Review, and Toute la Vallée, a French journal. She has written plays and “operas” for children’s theatre, and parallel text (English-French) short stories.