Mirepoix, France – March 1242
It was midnight. The toll of the church bells was absorbed by the night. A dark shroud of malevolent clouds spread a canopy that obliterated all light. The blackness brought with it an oppressive sense of something encroaching, a something that required complete stillness.
Clotilde stood unmoving at the open shutters, her skill at remaining unseen second nature. Her focus on identifying the nature of that which menaced was even more acute. A deer had taught her well. As a child, abandoned in the forest, such skills had meant survival. Only her eyes moved, gauging the blackness, looking for motion. Her acute hearing strained as it plumbed the ominous absence of sound. Nothing - no light, no sound and no movement - betrayed the nature of the unknown horror that neared. Nothing except her heartbeat. It thundered in tempo with her deepening dread.
If stillness doesn’t expose it, she thought, action might. Turning with bravado she didn’t feel, she reached for a candlestick, fumbling with the tinderbox. Even as the flame leapt, bringing the room into being, anxiety remained. She looked around, seeking consolation in the familiar. A solid house, while not grand, it had expanded gracefully during the past two generations as the Armand de Mirepoix family prospered. She studied her bedchamber, feeling blessed that of all outward signs of prosperity none was more unique than that of her private sleeping area. Her gaze rested on the deep blue of the velvet draperies that enshrouded her bed against the winter’s cold. It wasn’t the luxury, but the sanctuary it bestowed that impressed her. As her eyes moved from the pushed-aside woolen coverlet to the exposed emptiness of the bed’s larger indentation, her expression darkened.
A sudden chill consumed her, its intensity prompted more from passing a sleepless night enveloped in fear than from actual cold. The solemn urgency of Jean’s parting words hung in the air. “If I should not return, go quickly to Fabrisse.”
They had awakened just before dawn of this endless day - startled by a loud pounding on the door. Clotilde had followed Jean down the narrow stone stairway. Unable to hear his words, she had watched his face as he turned from the messenger. A strong face, a loving face, a known and familiar face, it shocked her by its depth of horror. Jean said not a word as he grabbed his cloak and raced toward the stables. He rode away at dawn, revealing only that he must rendezvous with his brother, Bernard.
The memory of his anxious backward glance before he vanished over the crest of the hill remained.
What could it be, she wondered? She winced as her abdomen gripped with fear at the thought of Jean being in danger. Walking to the bedside table, she placed the candlestick alongside a small vase brimful of spring jonquils. A sigh of relief escaped her at the awareness that her restless tossing hadn’t dislodged the egg-shaped piece of marble nestled beneath the blooms. She ran her fingers over the inscribed symbol of a dove whose wings embraced her and Jean’s entwined initials. Holding it to her cheek, she took comfort in its shape, the coolness of the stone and the love in Jean’s eyes when he presented his gift. He was her rock, she thought, the reminder soothing her fear of abandonment. “God keep him safe,” she murmured as she replaced her talisman.
And yet, she thought, such a prayer could not extinguish reality. Every Cathar faced extreme jeopardy. More vanished each day. Most as victims of the Inquisition, others slipped away by night to join a growing exodus seeking safety at Montsegur. She dare not indulge the folly of hoping that her village of Mirepoix could escape the encroaching horror.
I shook my head and looked away, as Carcassonne’s medieval conical towers seemed to waver among the encircling clouds. Fighting the buckling of my knees, I was determined not to let the surreal impact of Carcassonne’s “La Cite” unhinge my grip on reality. Having arrived less than three hours ago, I chalked my dizziness up to jet lag and headed back to my hotel.
“Remember, Dana - don’t give way to any woo-woo.” My friend Evie’s words rang in my ears as I moved along the cobbled walkways. Thinking of her reminded me of how long I had taken before confessing my bizarre episodes, and how relieved I had felt at her reaction.
“Trust me, Dana,” Evie had said, a rare serious look accompanying her solemn tones. “I know you well enough to be convinced you’re incapable of losing it big time. But I also know how stressful these last few months have been. Perhaps you should rethink going to France.” Her low-key disapproval soon escalated when she saw how determined I was to go. “The source isn’t in the south of France,” she’d added. “It’s within you, Dana. Going could exacerbate such experiences.”
The scene, along with my reaction, returned sharply now. A publicist for many of the leading pop-psychology gurus, Evie enthusiastically promoted them and their theories. When her pedantic tones deepened and her dark eyebrows rose in emphasis, I remember saying, “Hold everything, Evie. You’re forgetting your illustrious C.G. Jung and synchronicity. You must admit that my getting an assignment, out of the blue, to go to France, and to photograph Cathar sites, is more than coincidence.”
“I must admit that the Cathar bit threw me.” Her eyes had widened as she added, “Statistically way out of the ballpark.” We ended up laughing, our conversation brimming with the latest development in my compulsion with the Cathars. Evie was nearly as curious as I was over what awaited me in France. Whatever it was, I knew then and I know now - the answer is here.
Not that I’d had time as yet to confirm my conviction. Barely enough time to take a taxi from Toulouse Airport to Carcassonne, check into the hotel and examine my cameras and lenses. The security examination of my hand-carried baggage had been lengthy and nerve-wracking. Once assured all were in order, I decided to walk around Carcassonne’s ancient inner city. So far, either because I was too entranced or too zonked, I hadn’t taken even one photograph. Since that was my explicit purpose for being here, I headed for an empty bench, sat down and took out my camera. A familiar sense of security blossomed as I adjusted the lens, peered through the viewfinder, and snapped a series of shots of one of La Cite’s ancient entryways. Cloaked in the shadows of late afternoon, its Gothic curves seemed both to allow and to conceal a special quality of light. It was that aspect of light that, as a photographer, I’d long sought to capture. With some success, I thought, remembering the Santa Barbara showing of my black and white photos, billed as “Illumination’s Sacred Legacy.” I felt a shiver of anticipation at the opportunities to capture on film the soul of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the structuram clariorem, the lucid structures so venerated during that time.
Carefully storing the lenses, I recalled another of Evie’s psychobabble axioms. She insisted that I used photography to escape, like Alice, but through a lens instead of a looking glass. Any port in a storm, I thought, suddenly aware that my left thumb was stroking my empty ring finger. A sharp pain filled me as images of my former fiancé, Alex, rose as fresh and raw today as four months ago. His charming persuasiveness had failed him as he stared at the intimate email I had held in my hand - a damning communiqué that exposed his infidelity, if not the name of his lover. The agonizing twinge intensified, warning me away from grief still too fresh to plumb. I hurried into the lobby of the hotel and headed for the café.