Two Roses in Provence
It happened long ago in a hamlet in Provence. The date was sometime late in the thirteenth century or, perhaps, early in the fourteenth. Exactly when it was I do not know; in those days I paid little attention to dates. Men had not yet surrendered their bodies and souls to the calendar.
At that time and place the peasants of Provence knew me and feared me. I figured in their stories as The Man in Black who could grant wishes and enforce oaths made in my presence.
It is not so. I have my powers but I can force no one. What I can do and what I do do is to show people the abyss of dishonor that awaits the oathbreaker. Few, very few, break their word after having seen the abyss.
I was making my rounds in Provence when I arrived at the rude little hamlet that is the setting of my tale. I made my way down the main street where a pair of pigs investigated my boots and a small, bedraggled flock of chickens protested my presence. Some children, barefoot and ragged, spotted me. I was a stranger and they were not used to such. They dashed away into hiding and peeked at me curiously from around corners.
I did not waste time in the village. I had no objection to its rudeness – peasant and lord are equally worthy of my attention. However I sensed that the place and time of decision lay nearby but elsewhere.
Just outside the village there was a stone fence, half the height of a man. Beyond it, was a long, low, rock strewn field, a veritable field of rocks. The scene was not empty of life. A young couple sat on the fence, holding hands, obviously very much in love. They did not see me for they were rapt within themselves. There was an apple tree close by, filling the air with the scents of spring. I stood in its shade and listened as they spoke. Much of their conversation was those words that all young lovers pass between themselves in the morning of their love. I listened patiently. The words of love are fine but they were no concern of mine. Then came the moment for which I waited.
The maid spoke, saying that she wished that they might be wed within a church. It was a small village, you see, and it had no church. In that place and in those days it was no easy matter for a peasant to make the trip to the nearest town where there might be a church. It seemed that they must make do with the rude chapel that their lord provided.
Then the lad spoke, boastfully as young lads are wont to speak, saying, “Why, look Marie; there is a field of rocks here and an open field by the village square. If I were to bring these rocks to that open field the village could build a fine church.”
She spoke admiringly, saying that it would be wonderful to have a church. Then he spoke, saying, “Then I shall do it. I shall empty this field of stone that the village may have a church.” I said to myself, “As you have said it, so shall it be.”
Then she thought better of it, thinking that this task might take a long time. He declared in reply that he had given his word, that he would do that which he sworn to do. Then she spoke, saying, “Pierre, my love is true. No matter how long it takes, I will keep faith and wait for you.” Again I said to myself, “As you have said it, so shall it be.”
I must have spoken louder than I had intended, for they looked up and saw me and knew me for whom I was. By that they knew their fate was sealed. I smiled, saluted them, and moved on to follow my appointed rounds.
Early in the next morning Pierre took his wheelbarrow to the field of rocks and filled it with stone from the field. Once it was filled he trundled it down to the open field at the edge of the village. There he unloaded it and returned to the field of rocks to fill it again. Trip after trip he made, moving rocks from the field of rocks to the place where the church was to be. As the sun rose high he sweated from his labor but he did not slow down; the task he had assumed stood between him and the consummation of his love and he was eager to be done with his task. The sun rose and the sun fell. At day’s end he looked at what he had done and it was not much. The pile of rocks that he moved was pitifully small and the field of rocks was vast and barely touched.
He was not discouraged. He was young, strong, and eager. He rose again in the next morning and set to work with a will. The villagers were curious about what he was doing and why he was doing it. He explained that he was hauling rock for which to build a church. They laughed and asked who was going to build this church. He replied that he did not know; he had sworn to haul the stone for the church so that is what he was going to do. And to whom had he sworn this oath, they asked. The Man in Black, he replied.
That ended the laughter. The Man in Black had said that there would be a church so a church there would be. The village elders conferred as to what to do for they knew nothing of building churches. They decided to send a deputation to their lord, the local baron, and ask for his counsel. The baron came quickly for he too knew of The Man in Black. He questioned Pierre and Marie closely and decided that the task of building the church belonged to the villagers. For his part he sent for a great architect, a famous builder of churches, to come and advise the villagers as to how they proceed. He also sought audience with the bishop to seek his counsel.
While the great ones laid their plans Pierre moved rocks from the field of stone to the site where the church would be. The work went slowly for the field of stone was large and Pierre was but a man. Still he was piling up an impressive pile of rocks.
The architect came and with him a stone mason who was to teach the villagers the fine arts of laying and dressing stone. The bishop’s man came and conferred with the architect on the design of the church. They planned on a large scale for it was seen that the field of stone was large and it was understood by all that the field must emptied.
In the fullness of time the great ones had made their plans and had instructed the villagers on the work that was to be done. They set to work with a will for there was a church to be built. Pierre’s pile of stone kept growing for they did not immediately lay stone. First they had level the site and dig the footings for the foundation.
Eventually they began to lay stone. The work went quickly at first because they were building the lowest level. The great pile of stone that Pierre had piled up quickly vanished and the villagers went back to their day-to-day task while they waited on Pierre to move more stone.
Each day Pierre would set out with his wheelbarrow and haul stone. Each day Marie would weave tapestries for the church that was to be. Each evening Pierre and Marie would have supper together and speak of the life that they would lead together when the church was completed. Each night they would return to separate beds for they were not yet man and wife.
The summer passed. Fall came and went and winter set in. Work ceased with the arrival of winter. Every one was pleased with what they had achieved and yet it was seen that it was but little compared with that which had yet to be done. In time the short days lengthened, the snows melted, and spring came once more.
The work began again with the arrival of spring. Pierre got out his wheelbarrow once more and began hauling stone. Marie set down once more to the weaving of tapestries. The villagers began once again the building of their church. The eagerness and enthusiasm of the year before was gone; it was seen that these were the tasks of a lifetime.
The years went by and the church was redesigned for the field of stone was larger and held more stone than anyone had reckoned. As the church reached up into the sky the work slowed and Pierre brought more stone than could be laid in a day. For Pierre and Marie their labors became a great weariness. They had entered into a great pit in which nothing was visible save the work to be done. All hope of happiness had disappeared; in its place there was only oaths to kept, oaths whose fulfillment swallowed all.
They grew old and grey. Marie’s arthritic fingers still wove and Pierre’s old arms still lifted rock. In a bad winter Marie sickened and died. Pierre wept on her still form and prayed to the Lord to be delivered from his task that he might join her in Heaven as he had never done on Earth. His prayers were answered and he died that very night.
The church was not yet finished; there was work left that was planned but not completed. It stood, though, sound and magnificent. It was not a cathedral but there was no finer country church in all of Provence.
Two graves were dug beside the door of the church, one on the left for Marie and one on the right for Pierre. At the base of each headstone climbing roses were planted as a symbol of their love. Their funerals and not their marriage was held in the new church which they had brought in being and the priest solemnly proclaimed that they would be united in Heaven.
Many years later, a generation or two, I returned to the village. Where once a hamlet had stood there now was a good sized little town centered around the church.
I arrived in the cool of a spring evening. Few were about; it was the time of the evening meal. I could see the smoke of hearth fires and hear the sounds of dinner conversation through half open doors. I drifted through the village to arrive at the church. There, inscribed upon a plaque upon the church door, was the tale that I have related to you.
No doubt the truth was more and less than what was written; men needs must embroider as they write. Still there was a headstone beside each side of the door. From each headstone there rose a climbing rose. Up the stone face of the church they climbed until they met above the door where they intertwined inseparably. If the words were false, still they spoke a greater truth.
The wind picked up and blew me into the church. I stood in the aisle and stared up at the figure above the altar. The figure stared down at me, silently beseeching forgiveness. I spoke to the figure and through the figure, “I do not forgive you. I shall never forgive you. You have taken what is mine; you have taken my place.”
The figure on the cross stared down, beseeching forgiveness, still unforgiven. The air fell still; I turned away, never to return, and resumed my appointed rounds.
This page was last updated May 12, 2001.