Prologue to Ysabel

There is one story and one story only
That will prove worth your telling,
Whether as learned bard or gifted child;
To it all lines or lesser gauds belong
That startle with their shining
Such common stories as they stray into.

-Robert Graves


The woods came to the edge of the property; to the gravel of the drive, the electronic gate and the green twisted-wire fence that kept out the boars. The dark trees wrapped around one other home, hidden along the slope, and then stretched north of the villa, up the steep hill into what could properly be called a forest.

The wild boar—sanglier—foraged all around, especially in winter. Occasionally there might come the sound of rifle shots, though hunting was illegal in the oak trees and clearings surrounding such expensive homes. The well-off owners along the Chemin de l’Olivette did what they could to protect the serenity of their days and evenings here in the countryside above the city.

Because of those tall eastern trees, dawn declared itself—at any time of year—with a slow, pale brightening, not the disk of the sun itself above the horizon. If someone were watching from the villa windows or terrace, they would see the black cypresses on the lawn slowly shift towards green and take form from the top downwards, emerging from the silhouetted sentinels they were in the night.

Sometimes, in winter, there was mist, and the growing light would disperse it like a dream. However it announced itself, the beginning of day was a gift in this part of the world, celebrated in words and art for two thousand years and more: the light of Provence in the south of France.

Somewhere below Lyon and north of Avignon the change was said to begin: a difference in the air above the earth where men and women walked, and looked up.

No other sky was quite what this one was. At a late autumn’s cold dawn, or at midday in drowsy summer among the cicadas. Or when the knife of wind-the mistral-ripped down the Rhone valley (the way soldiers had so often come), making each olive or cypress tree, magpie, vineyard, lavender bush, aqueduct in the distance stand against the wind-scoured sky as if it were the first, the perfect, example in the world of what it was.

Aix-en-Provence, the city, lay in a valley bowl west of the villa. No trees in that direction to block the view from this high. The city, more than two thousand years old, founded by Romans conquering here-surveying and mapping, levelling and draining, laying down pipes for a spa, and building their dead-straight roads-could be seen on spring mornings like this one, crisply defined, almost supernaturally clear. Medieval houses and modern ones. A block of new apartment buildings on a northern slope, and—tucked into the old quarter—the bell tower of the cathedral rising.

They would all be going there this morning. A little later than this, but not too much so (two alarm clocks had gone off in the house by now, the one woman was already showering). You didn’t want to linger of a morning, not with what they were here to do.

Photographers knew about this light.

They would try to use it, to draw upon it as from an ancient well—then taste again at twilight to see how doorways and windows showed and shadowed differently when the light came from the west, or the sky was blood-red with sunset underlighting clouds, another kind of offering.

Gifts of different nuance, morning and evening here (noon was too bright, shadowless, for the camera’s eye). Gifts not always deserved by those dwelling—or arriving—in this too beautiful part of the world, where so much blood had been shed and so many bodies burned or buried or left unburied through warring centuries.

But as to that, in fairness, were there so many places where the inhabitants, through the long millennia, could be said to have been always worthy of the blessings of the day? This serene and violent corner of France was no different from any other on earth—in that regard.

There were differences here, however, most of them long forgotten by the time that morning’s first light showed above the forest and found the flowering Judas trees and anemones—both purple in hue, both with legends telling why.

The tolling of the cathedral bells drifted faintly up the valley. The moon lay etched in the west against the emerging sky: a waxing moon, one edge of it severed, hanging above the city.

Dawn was exquisite, memorable, almost a taste, on the day a tale that had been playing out for longer than any records knew began to arc, like the curve of a hunter’s bow or the arrow’s flight and fall, towards what might be an ending.

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