All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
Cover Photo: courtesy Pat Stefanchuk. Photographer Kevin Dennis
Oprah Winfrey 2002. O Magazine. Worry is a misuse of imagination.
BARBARA J. BECKER writes and edits stories. She lives in Winnipeg. Recent works are the Measured Words trilogy, and assorted articles to the Manitoba Genealogical Society magazine, Generations, editor David Farmer. Barbara wrote the same introduction to all of the Covid Caper stories and then let them happen. PAT STEFANCHUK turned to writing fiction and poetry after retiring as principal at Margaret Park School. She was also the music (arts) consultant in the Seven Oaks School Division. Originally from Flin Flon, her stories often focus on her years growing up in this northern mining community. LAURIE GYDE lives and writes in Winnipeg. She enjoys writing mystery fiction. JULIANNE DANNER in addition to her marvelous singing voice, Julianne, originally from Portage La Prairie, also enjoys writing stories and poems. Some of her poetry is published in Absolutely Barbados, editor Julian Armfield.
The steps did not go straight up. There was a curve, ever so slight, to the right. You had to place your foot squarely in the center. The edges collected moss and did not offer a solid footing. The air was damp and heavy to breath. The light from a single torch ricocheted off the stone wall, swirling and dancing in the surrounding gloom. A splayed hand tapped the stair wall for purchase keeping time to the roll of numbers off the tongue. …twenty-seven…twenty-eight…twenty-nine…thirty… thirty-one…thirty-two…. The landing was small and rectangular – flat grey slate, barely large enough for a small person. Rock walls formed two sides with a solid heavy wood door directly ahead. An ornate serpent handle controlled a slotted closure. With a heavy pull the door swung open. A further five steps and it was done. The door slammed shut.
Gasping for air, she slumped down onto the damp stone floor and removed her Joseph Ribcoff mask, which had been hampering her breathing. Within seconds her breath and heart beat slowed dramatically. She could still hear the wind howling outside the medieval castle walls. How had she ended up in this situation? She had wanted to explore her roots in rural France and that is what brought her to this remote region in Provence. Everyone told her she was foolish to travel abroad during the pandemic, but she reasoned that she would be safe away from the crowded cities as long as she followed the rules. “Wash your hands frequently, stay by yourself, and wear a mask.” Renting a car was easy but navigating the rural countryside was quite another matter. Why hadn’t she realized that the GPS system would be in French? Her high school language class had not been strong on conversational French, but rather, focused on conjugating verbs instead. Nevertheless, she managed to find the deMerle castle amongst a forest of trees, high up on a hill. She guessed the castle was positioned that way to keep enemies at bay in the 1300’s. The sign at the front gate welcomed visitors but cautioned them about the dangers of exploring the ruins, especially alone. A person could lose her footing and fall a great distance. It might be days before anyone discovered you. She was determined to see the ruins and take pictures from every angle. Besides, she had sturdy hiking boots, and her knapsack was full of snacks. She spent the afternoon walking through rooms with no windows and marveling at the primitive furnishings, dirt floors and rough-hewn steps leading to other floors. A sound startled her. Turning quickly, she saw a figure lurking in the shadows. Suddenly, she was terrified for her life. That’s when she spied the tower just ahead of her.
There were three towers ahead . She wanted to experience the heart of one of them. But a man’s strained voice kept whispering behind her. As she listened, her palms and forehead started to sweat out of sheer fear. Remembering some of the “ Spirit Talker” tv shows, she asked her ghost to reveal himself to her. “Guide me…family…” was what she heard. She looked back with a vacant face, not seeing a soul. Knowing the history of religious communal family feuds centuries ago, she decided to move forward and head to the middle tower. Handrails were placed for visitors, and she needed them for support as her playful character was being tested. Her legs wobbled worse than a café table on cobblestones. Upon reaching the tower, the door flung open on its own revealing a huge medieval clock in the foyer. She began to hear the bells. Twelve indicated it was noon. Like a showdown in a bad Western, pictures of witchcraft appeared engraved in the ancient walls. She immediately thought of Sage used in ceremonies to ward out the forbidden. It was evident lots of murders occurred here. A feudal fortress, the last place of refuge for many before her. Families ravaged apart in this region that even Van Gogh once travelled. She continued on with this “presence” following her. Alas, there was a back door, which she exited and found herself in a garden full of roses. Such a contrast. And the smell of lavender filled vineyards lined up in equal rows down the hill. She dug down deep into her knapsack and felt her camera. Before her was the picturesque Curious Provence. She prayed wine tasting tours were aligned along the ancient ruins. She would magically turn a rose into a rosé right about now. But that was not all that developed from her knapsack. All of the sudden she looked down and screamed.
She heard the hiss before she saw the snake start to slither out of the knapsack. She stumbled backwards, still holding the strap of the bag. She felt herself starting to fall so flung the knapsack over her head and down an embankment she didn’t realize she was so close to. Dazed, she watched as the snake freed itself from the bag and was tumbling head over tail down, down the steep hill, hopefully to its death. Beside it was her summersaulting knapsack containing her water, her snacks, her hand sanitizer, her film, her passport … my passport … oh God! She quickly reached around her neck and found the strap to the money holder which she had decided to wear under her tee shirt that morning. There she sat, gulping for air, with tears streaming down her cheeks, as she clutched the money belt that held her money and her passport to her chest. “Thank you, Mom! Thank God, I listened to you this morning! Your voice came through loud and clear,” she cried. “Oh Mom, how I miss you! Thank you for watching over me.” Nicole’s mother had passed away from cancer the year before. As a single mom, she had been a beacon of strength for her family, especially Nicole. She had been working on the genealogy of her father’s family for years, and she and Nicole were to make this trip together. Determined to make her mother’s dream come true was why Nicole had come here in the first place. She stood up, dusted off her jeans, and realized how close she had come to falling over the embankment herself. She shuddered, remembering the warnings, then turned and looked at the three towers. That snake must have gotten into my bag in that dark, damp staircase. No wonder there was a serpent handle on that huge door! I’m not going back that way if I can help it. She looked around and decided to go down the hill through the garden and the lavender fields. Maybe she could find a road, or a human being for that matter, to help her back to the entrance and her car. Maybe they could even help her find her knapsack! The rose garden was beautiful and in full bloom. The smell was intoxicating, soothing her shattered nerves. She stopped to smell their scent, and take some macro shots of them with her camera. Knowing she only had only a few shots left, she picked up her pace, and headed for the lavender fields. The grass under her feet was thick, mossy, and uneven as she moved along what seemed to be a path. The sun had disappeared, the air cooled, and the wind had changed direction. She looked up at the sky, saw the dark clouds moving in, and knew it would soon rain. “Damn,” she mumbled. Then, as she picked up her pace she tripped. Suddenly, she found herself face down on the grass. What the …? Not again! She pushed herself up, caught her breath, and kneeling, she pulled the grass off the rock she tripped over. She gasped. This was not a rock; it was a tombstone! She looked around at the lumpy sod everywhere and realized she was in an ancient cemetery. “Keep looking … family …,” said the voice.
Wow! This is too spooky. Plopping herself down on a grassy patch next to a raised tombstone, Nicole began to get her bearings after distinctly hearing, for a second time, a voice speak, “Keep looking … family …”. Someone was trying to convey something to her. She felt it in her bones. She reached over and brushed her hand over the ancient marker. Pieces of moss stuck to her hand, but she was able to clear the stone enough to read a faint inscription. It read Noah Ricard – infant 1348-1350. She felt a sudden sadness that children were buried in this remote place. Had he died of some horrible plague or been a casualty of warfare during the Hundred Years War between France and England? It would be interesting to explore the history of this region during the middle ages. I think I was meant to explore this medieval cemetery further, she reasoned. Bending down to get a closer look at the stones she passed, she began to wonder if any of her ancestors had been buried here. And if she discovered a stone with the deMerle name how would she feel? All of a sudden, she heard sounds a few feet from where she was standing. Looking to her left she spied a young man crouching over a stone. What was he doing? She watched as he sprayed water over the front of the gravestone. He took what looked like a large pink sponge and brushed it over the stone. Chunks of dirt, moss, and leaves came off on the sponge. Then he drew a large piece of what looked like rice paper from his knapsack and duct taped it to the front. Reaching further into the knapsack he pulled out a fat waxy crayon and started to colour over the entire paper. Low and behold, what was etched on the stone came through clearly onto the front of the paper. Nicole couldn’t resist. She had to know what he was up to. Being careful not to startle him she loudly cleared her throat from a socially distanced vantage point. The fellow turned to see who his visitor was and gave Nicole a huge smile. “What are you doing?” she asked, realizing he might not speak English. “I’m making gravestone rubbings,” was his reply. “I’m studying French History at the Université de Provence in Aix-en-Provence, and need visual proof of historical figures who are buried in Provence.” Nicole was pleased that he spoke English so well. “Why don’t you just take photographs? Wouldn’t that be the same?” “The rubbings tend to look three dimensional. The photos are not as authentic. What brings you to this part of our beautiful country?” Nicole decided to tell him about her adventures so far this day. After all, he said he had a car nearby and would be able to take her back to the entrance to the deMerle castle ruins. But first he had to finish his etchings and invited her to tag along.
As Nicole watched this student etch, she asked his name. “Gerard,” he responded. “I, too, speak some French, she added, and asked if they could speak in his native language as it would give her more practice of the French language in her solo travels. Gerard agreed and soon they were enroute, driving carefully on isolated stretches of highway. They approached an almost communal-like village near Correze; 30 homes all very similar in structure, very Stonehenge in appearance. It reminded her of the Mennonite and Hutterite colonies set in her hometown near St Pierre-Jolys. It was here that they learned they could take a ride to view the area on a boat tour. As they found a seat on the river cruise, it was announced the tour would take an hour and if anyone had to use the washroom, to do so, before departure. Nicole decided to freshen up, while Gerard waited, conversing with family as to what he was doing with this tourist he had met. The washrooms were archaic. The air freshener was lavender which reminded her how much that scent was associated with France. As she washed her hands, she looked in the mirror to coiffe her hair. The moisture in the air from yesterday’s weather made it look wild and curly. The reflection behind her looked familiar. As she dried off her hands with a cloth one of the bathroom attendants gave her, in return for a few francs, she turned around to see engraved in the wall a series of Blackbirds. The signature was DM. “Oh, mon Dieu,” she blurted. “Ca c’est l’oiseau de ma famille!” Nicole ran out to find Gerard. When she finally caught her breath, she told him that her family name, DeMerle, which stood for blackbird, was on a washroom wall. Gerard asked more about her family as they found their seats on the tour. Still gasping, Nicole again felt the presence of her mom and looked up to heaven. “Mom, I think I am on the right track,” she exclaimed. With her head in her lap, sobbing, the boat captain asked what was wrong. When she revealed her family name was etched in the washroom, he pondered momentarily, then turned to the familiar features in her face. He stopped. Looked up and said, “Ca c’est la non de ma famille, aussi!” How could this be? Meeting someone in France, on a tourist boat, who could be a relative!
Nicole was shaken but determined to continue her search for her Paternal ancestors. The Captain asked her if she would like to join him on the bridge and they could talk while they cruised the Rhone Valley. “That would be great!” said Nicole, excitedly. Oh, how she wished she had her journal and family history papers with her now! They were in her knapsack at the bottom of that stupid hill! She excused herself from Gerard, who seemed to be having a good time talking to others on the boat, and turned to follow the Captain. The bridge was bright, roomy, and quiet. The first officer mumbled, “Bonjour,” to them as they entered, and then, after a banter of nautical talk between the two, the boat was underway. She marveled at the view, taking a few pictures as they cruised along. Then she asked the Captain if she could take his picture and he easily obliged. He also handed her some paper and a pen, that she had asked for, so she could jot down any interesting tidbits for her deMerle history book. He started by telling her that the name, deMerle, was quite common in this part of France. “Somewhat like Smith, or Jones, in America,” he chuckled. He told her he was born in Marseille; lived in Avignon, not far from here; had a ski chalet in the mountains, near Chamonix, and was a retired Cruise ship Captain. He was married to his third wife, Florence, an American woman he met on a repositioning cruise to Miami, a few years ago. Nicole studied him as he talked, in perfect English, with that charming French accent. He was tall, had a moustache and a beard, weathered skin, beautiful dark brown eyes, and a great smile. It was hard to see any resemblance to her family under all that hair! When she asked about his family, he said his mother was Italian, and his father had met her during the war, and that he, Richard, was the youngest of four children. Again, she wanted to know more about his ancestry, his grandparents, etc. but the hour had flown by, too fast for her to get anything concrete, except that he knew the deMerle castle had many records in the Library in Avignon. Now they were back at the dock where they had started. He gave her his business card and she gave him her e-mail and promised they would get together in Avignon, once she got her car back. Most everyone had disembarked from the boat when she came down from the bridge. She looked for Gerard, but he was not where she had left him. She asked a few people as they were getting off, “S’il vous plait? Le juene homme Gerard-----?” Damn, she didn’t even know his last name! How could she have been so stupid just to go ‘along for the ride’ and not know that? He had promised her he would take her back to the Castle to pick up her car! It was starting to get dark, and her stomach was not only hungry, but it was starting to do flip flops as fear set in. She could not find him in the group of people on the shore and everyone was dispersing quickly. She assumed he probably was waiting for her at the car, so she headed to the parking lot. To her horror, his car was gone.