PETER WAS drifting in and out of consciousness as he lay trying to comprehend where he was. Far below, a river was flowing swiftly, and he could see canoes full of people darting in the rapids. Here and there, rocks poked painfully into his sides except where tufts of moist grass and wildflowers covered them, providing some scant relief from the jagged rock edges. With difficulty he tried to gather his thoughts, to connect them together to form a rational understanding of his current situation.
Birds were whirling about. Gentle breezes attempted to dry the moist, matted hair on his forehead. He was sweating. He realized he was injured somehow and wondered how this had happened. Bit by bit he remembered walking down a path from the top of cliffs. He saw before him another figure, a young man, whose muscular shoulders strained against the fabric of a colorful shirt as he descended the path in front of Peter. Who was he? And where was he now? He remembered hearing a shout from high above, then the man jerking suddenly and losing his balance; his arms started to rise in the air while his head started to turn, revealing a handsome profile, dark eyebrows, and a face suddenly aghast as he fell out of Peter’s view. In an instant he was gone, and then Peter remembered his own feet giving beneath him. Now he closed his eyes again and sensed alarmed cries from above and from below. With his eyes half-open, he perceived the canoers in the water pulling to the side of the river and pointing upward, upward toward where he lay. He felt one of his legs dangling in the air, unsupported by the ground around him. He felt he could tumble at any moment into the abyss.
He awoke again to the sensation of long blades of grass beating against his face. He felt as if he were in a whirlpool of grass. It was soothing for him, slightly relieving the pain he felt coursing through his young body. As if in a dream, he heard a multitude of voices calling out from somewhere above. He strained to turn his aching neck toward the voices, but then he saw the underbelly of a helicopter and felt himself further immersed in the refreshing whoosh of air from its twirling blades. It disappeared out of his view, but in minutes a number of hands were touching him, holding his neck steady. Disoriented, unsure who these people were, he cried out in terror.
“He is in shock,” someone said. Peter felt his body being hoisted, and he passed out. In his dreamlike state, this lifting of his body by many arms was like a warm embrace, and his thoughts carried him back to a time a few weeks earlier, when he had left Vermont and first arrived in France….
WHAT A deliciously warm and scented place was Provence! Southern France at its most wonderful—the smell of rosemary; crackling logs and fat pinecones in a fire; soft, ripe cheeses on warm loaves. Such a sensuous place for the soul!
Peter walked through the local market ahead of his mother Hélène, who was constantly falling back, haggling at the shopkeepers’ stalls for another new and colorful trinket. Peter’s strapping six-foot frame and wavy chestnut-colored hair caught the eye of the merchant women. They tried to capture his gaze with their sparkling eyes, but he was lost in his own thoughts, thinking that the fresh air, the sights and smells, were just what he needed to gladden his soul and repair the hurt he had endured back home. When his mother had suggested he stay with her at a house she would rent for a couple of months that summer near Avignon, he jumped at the chance. He needed to get away, to forget, and he thought that perhaps this would do the trick.
The pain he had endured in Quebec City still bit at his soul. The lost love, the return over the border from Canada and back home to nearby Vermont. He sorted through the memories constantly. They had not faded enough. His one worry was that he was again in a French environment, and he had a fatal attraction to all things French. Indeed, he himself was of part French-Canadian ancestry, not uncommon in northern New England. His American father had met his French-Canadian mother in Montreal in their student days. That was why he had been glad to undertake studies at university in Quebec City; it had been a sort of homecoming for him, only he had not been prepared for the love he would find there and lose there.
“Enough,” he said to himself, “time to move on.”
He was determined never to be hurt again. He gladly felt this sun, uncompromising in its intensity, imbuing him with warmth that he had not felt in a long time. A warm scent drew him toward a display of baked goods at one of the many stalls. The kind-faced lady there patiently watched as he read through the labels in front of the assorted goods. Suddenly Peter noticed, behind the counter, a young man facing away from him—a young man with broad shoulders and tight jeans that flowed from a narrow waist and rounded over his buttocks. His hair was a fine straight jet-black, and his arms were covered in silky black strands on his gently sun-kissed skin. This young man was busying himself sorting through the boxes behind the stall keeper. He turned, revealing a taut T-shirt tucked into beltless jeans that strained noticeably at the groin.
Their eyes met, and dark French eyes like melted chocolate gazed into Peter’s blue eyes. It was like a flame hitting water, and both men winced, instantly averting their eyes to other things. Such is the way among men—the training of a lifetime in the schoolyard, the gym, the need to conform, to remain seemingly indifferent, cool, unawares. It was a secret but conscious effort, both denying the fervent wish to look further at the other.
The stall keeper, however, saw none of this and cheerfully asked Peter, “May I help you? We have many freshly baked goods to offer, all out of the oven this very morning! Here, perhaps you would like to try a little sample?” She held out a little piece of almond pastry toward Peter, who hesitated slightly before trying it.
“It is delicious,” he said somewhat awkwardly. He did not wish to be detained, for fear the young man might have been angered by his recent glance. “I am sure my mother would like a couple for our afternoon tea. I will take two, please!”
As the lady wrapped the purchase and exchanged it for Peter’s payment, she glanced upward at him and sensed a discomfort, an odd sensation for a client. Usually the prospect of baked goods put customers in a jolly mood, but there was something different here. She noted a pained look in his eyes as he waited. It was a look that seemed to penetrate through her and into the back of the stall. She threw a quick glance behind her, but all she saw were her boxes of goods, which her son, Gaston, was currently rearranging intently, his back to her and her customer.
Peter took his purchase and moved hurriedly on among the stalls, chased by smells of sweet lavender, of olives and figs and flowers all seemingly beckoning him—Stay longer! Smell deeply of us and of him!
Back at the stall, Gaston felt a shiver rise through his body after Peter’s departure. A shiver unlike any other he had felt before. Not cold or cool, but oddly warm, raising goose bumps along his arms, darting hither and yon in his body. He stood pondering this sensation, one he had sensed might one day come—a sensation of hope, of something more substantial than anything he had experienced before—yet the sensation was fleeting, and he soon became despondent as the stranger plunged into the mass of shoppers and vanished.
“Gaston!” called the stall keeper. “Gaston, there are customers waiting!” she insisted, prompting the young man to shake off his reverie and attend to presently pressing matters. As she called him, however, she noted a pained look in his eyes as well, a look that was unfamiliar to her but was like the one the recent customer had, a look of detached loneliness.