Francoise

In the villages of Bretagne, the story is told to this day of the woman who wandered sixteen years through the French countryside, and of the treasure she carried rolled up on her back, growing with each passing year, a tapestry woven of four hundred colors . She would arrive at the city gate with the setting sun, heralded only by an almost mythical reputation . And there she would be welcomed - whether by a serf or by a king seemed a matter of indifference to her, for she required only a simple meal, a bed of straw, and a sunny corner in which to pursue her art.

The tapestry itself was magnificent . Every inch was woven with rich and splendid detail, as fine as the lines of a portrait In oil. E very leaf of every tree, the ruffled feathers of a swallow 's tail, every moss-covered rock in the scalloped sand told a story all its own. Each of the cathedral windows was reproduced in colors that leapt out of the cloth, and they seemed to be full with more detail even than the original glass . Tints and shades of every hue were juxtaposed with such an art that the effect was a totally lifelike melding of one color into the next . Four hundred different dyes were used in all, and woolen strands from every town and village in the kingdom of Louis VII; and what to more: every corner, every inch of the tapestry drew on all four hundred of the colors to achieve its particular perfection.

For all its intricate detail, the tapestry nevertheless was most impressive if viewed from across the room. T he effect was of a bold and striking foreground subject, with a background in perfect balance and harmony. A horsecart large as life filled the center, with a man standing high on the driver's seat . The man was in peasant dress, and the posture of his body told the tale of a life deeply rooted in the good earth . His face was round, with a a full and tawny beard. From the very center of the tapestry, his eyes, deep-set and blue as the sky, projected an intensity that expressed the mood and tone of the entire scene . Something they said about boldness, seizing the essence of life from this moment and holding it close to the heart - can words relate it at all? Reflected in those same eyes were the waves of a foaming sea, and beyond the man, beyond the froth and the waters, the Mount of Saint Michael could not be mistaken, the spires of its cathedral piercing the sky, like a pointed crown atop the mountain's rounded head. It is remarkable that so artfully was the scene composed, that in the very first moment of viewing, the full glory of the subject and all the detail of the background were perceived in a flash. Thereafter, the lingering eye would only remind itself again and again of impressions gleaned in that initial burst of color.

Certainly the striking qualities of the tapestry contributed to the myth surrounding its creation, but this was just part of the reason she met such a joyous welcome wherever her wanderings carried her . She, like the singing troubadours, brought stories from other villages across the kingdom. M any an evening she passed sitting beside a farmer 's hearth, weaving at once her tale and her tapestry, while the farmer and his children and his neighbors' children listened, mesmerized and dreaming of folks faraway. A certain peace there was in her presence, a peace and a timelessness in her weaving; her voice, soothing and melodic, lent assurances of wellbeing: her words were reminders that we all belong to a wider world In which God 's purposes can more readily be discerned.

But there was also about her a veil of sadness: Her gaze returning always to-her work seemed, like her stories, to be of another world . Her voice was so present, so real, but her self was once removed from the tale recounted. And though wherever she went, folks came together round about her, she did not partake of their closeness, but remained always at a distance . Then, after a day or a fortnight, she tied her folded treasure to her back and moved on. " The full moon beckons," she said, and-the children shed tears to see her pass, but she wavered not a moment as she slipped silently away.

When, after sixteen years' devotion, the task of her weaving was drawing to a close, the steps of her wandering drew her back to the scene of her depicture . With footsteps steadied by the years, she crossed the pitted sand and arrived the second time in her life on the Isle of St . Michel. How purposeful, how willful was her walk, over the land where years before she had been drawn as in a trance. Steadily and without haste she approached that rocky point where once she had awakened on the floor of a rowing boat - awakened and looked upon the woman in black habit who had sighted her adrift on a peasant's wooden wagon and had rowed out to haul her ashore . Now, as she stopped to untie the load from her back and set it on the beach below the rocky cliff, a shower of memories rained unbidden on her vision and past mingled with present in her eyes . She stopped and turned and drew a breath of heavy, misted a ir. This was the isle where she had been taken in and cared for . Here the first strands of her tapestry had been woven . The months she had passed here stood bold against the memories of weeklong stays, and so filled her with emotions of home. Picking up her treasure once more, she mounted the stone stairs, up the steep rocky slope, past trees with bared roots that stood like legs on a mountain ledge . And nearing at length the top of the steps, she looked upon that same black habit, a woman's silhouette against a white-grey sky. Their eyes fixed on one another and she continued to climb, slowly, in silence, to her mentor.

"Since last you saw me I have pas sed half a lifetime as a pilgrim . Now I wish to be a nun."

The woman had softened with the years . There remained nothing of sternness or severity about her presence . Otherwise, her face and her manner were much like the image that Francoise had carried in her mind through the miles of her travels . In her cheeks and her mouth was a discipline that hold steady through life's trials, but her eyes glowed with the softness of tallow candles.

"Come. I have been expecting you."

She followed the nun along a path she had walked before, past the buttressed cathedral wall and the grassy courtyard. How quiet was the dewy air that hung between cathedral and abbey! She could feel the presence of the community of nuns, and sensed their silent activity . The song of a single warbler trilled softly over the silence . Francoise had always l ooked ahead to this moment as a promise of fulfillment long held . The vision of her s omeday home had borne her spirits along when her shoulders ached and her feet were sore, through many a weary day . But now as she looked up at the figures in stained glass and bathed in this warmth of Sister's presence, a sense of loss and sad disappointment spread through her . To give herself to God In this way she had long held as the culmination of her life. Now she dared not imagine it a form of resignation, a retreat from fulfillment of her life 's mission.

She was shown a bed in the abbey and she dined in silence among the nuns . An afternoon was passed wistfully in the cloistered garden, and walking in quiet solitude through the cathedral aisles . With her host she exchanged few words, but much meaning . Sister asked simply how had she lived? did she feel love in her heart? and the directness of her inquiry inspired Francoise to search deep within for the fully honest response . She had lived in her weaving wherever she went, not with those who cared for her and gave her sustenance . She knew in her mind of kindness and love, but in her heart she felt only sadness.

Francoise slept long and deeply that night . Though long accustomed to awakening in places unfamiliar, next morning she opened her eyes in confusion, sensing danger in her presence . The sky was bright, and a breeze carried the warbler 's song into her bedroom. P eace returned, and she rose from bed.

Under midmorning sun, she and Sister found one another in the cloisters, and sat on the grass to talk.

"Why do you wish to be a nun?"

She looked full upon her friend' s face and read that the question was simple . There was no doubt of her worthiness to serve, nor any question that she could choose freely whether she wished to remain In the abbey . Her attention held by Sister 's eyes and the movement of her own thoughts, Francoise was unaware of the tears dripping from her face . An unmeasured moment, then just as Francoise became aware once more of the present, Sister spoke again . Can you now tell me, child, the story you could not relate when last we were together?

A flood of images filled her eyes . The depth of trust she felt in that moment was far beyond her recognition or appreciation.

"How does it begin?"

* * * * *

Then the Images took on words that flowed from her mouth with a life all their own.

"I was crying on my wedding eve. I only hoped that Maman would not find me in my chamber . I knew I had every reason to be quite content, and this evening should by rights have been the happiest of my life. I was betrothed to a prince. I would be soon the Lady of Carcassonne. I could not hold myself from weeping, though I know that I should not . I was happy when I did as I ought . I was generally quite a good child to my mother . I obeyed when I was able, and I behaved like a lady . I learned quite well to weave and to embroider . As long as I was true to my work, I was happy,, I was doing as I ought and I was happy. I did not wish to cry or to mope . But some days the tears quite overtook me, and I could not do as I ought and that was painful. H ow could I be worthy to marry a prince, I who could not control my own weeping? How could I deserve to be a Lady? But I did try to do right all the while. I tried my best, though sometimes I fell short . Perhaps I had not the soul of a Lady.

"By my birth I should not have been allowed such privilege. P apa was born le Baron de Poitiers . The honor is ancient, but now only the title remains . He had not the wealth to pay a prince's dowry . And so it was only good fortune that permitted my betrothal to Carcassonne. A pilgrimage took them by chance past Poitiers. His son had lost his first wife to smallpox . Though I was young and not wealthy, my name was mentioned because of my fair skin and my skill with a needle. The dowry mattered little to him. He had received already one wife's dowry. I was to weave a tapestry in lieu of dowry: A thousand knights of Carcassonne in all their splendor, with the chateau tall behind them . I began to weave. N ever had I attempted a project so grand . Never had I worked with such care and refinement . A prince's dowry . How could the work of my hands serve as dowry to a prince? I looked upon what I had done, and what was flawed I changed . I wove in the night with only candles for company . The floors creaked and buckled with the feet of ghostly spirits, but the candles kept me always safe . I wove in the day when out my window the courtyard was busy with entertainment. Sometimes the castle came alive under my fingers. I put myself within it. W as I the lady of such grandeur? It did not befit these mighty walls to contain for my sake a kingdom of such proportions.

"Too slowly, I was working always too slowly . The date of my wedding approached and the tapestry was not complete . Half a year's delay was granted. Still unfinished, so half a year again. My prince could wait no longer sans the comforts of a wife . He would marry me, and the tapestry would be completed after . I should live in Carcassonne and be his wife, and continue to weave at my leisure.

"Such forgiveness I did not deserve . Their faith I knew to be ungrounded . I wished to be cheerful on my wedding day and do as Maman had bid . But surely my prince must be disappointed . Perhaps today, perhaps a twelvemonth hence, he must discover that I have not the soul of a Lady. I knew not how to manage cooks and servants, nor to see that all ran smoothly In a castle that housed a thousand...

"I could remain in bed no longer. I arose with the birds and descended through the house out to the clear morning. The streets were empty, and peace hung in the air . I sought for guidance in the place where so often I had been consoled: in the great cathedral chapel I used to linger Sunday mornings after the pews were empty, and I was left alone to commune with the Saints . When no one else could see, they would step right out of the stained vitraux to speak with me. T hey were my friends, surrounding and protecting me . The air within the ceiling vault echoed their voices, their comfort . When I failed, they consoled me, and when I was confused they gave me guidance. Now I returned to them, I know not why, for there was nothing to be done . Perhaps I came to say good-bye . The orange morning sun shone straight through the high vitraux, and sent stripes of burning light across the ribbed columns . My hollow footsteps filled the room.

"I lit a candle, fell upon my knees, and wept as I knew I should not . I tried to pray, but could find no words.

"Then the chapel darkened, and the sounds I heard were not from my familiar Saints. No solace there, but voices ominous and confused, warning of I know not what, threatening in their intonation. Eerie, strange and somber sounds, they drove me cowering to the altar . Thrice I beat my brow against cross, then fled running, running from the chapel steps.

" I ran through the forest. I ran until my breath would take me no further, then I fell on the dry leaves of the path till I found the breath to rise and run some more . Constantly I looked about me . Every noise in the distant wood: was it a wolf? a charging boar, or unicorn? Or the knights of Carcassonne pursuing, seeking to return me to my shame. I knew only fear, and the fear did not separate one from the other . The woods became dark. I was too exhausted to move, too cold to stay still, too frightened to sleep . The spirits of the woods called to me from the trees, devils danced circles about me . I screamed and screamed into the night, but no kind, human form was there to hear my calling. I was certain I should die I was perhaps already dead and passing on the road to Hades . Each moment brought renewal-of my terror, unbearable yet continuing, transforming, twisting tighter yet again.

"There was light and I was walking . A village. A woman gave me bed and food. Back in the forest black, the terror of the night. Other villages . Dazed and hungry: wandering, lonesome . Fever. I was taken in and nursed through many nightmares . Then, my strength rebuilding slowly, slowly: once again upon the road.

"No longer a fugitive was I but a pilgrim. I came out from the dark woods and looked for the first time upon the wide sea . I walked the road along the ocean 's edge and wished I might always have its light and open sky nearby.

"I saw beneath the windmill blades a man was lifting flour sacks into a cart. He was tall and strong, and appeared to feel not the burden of the heavy sacks . His head was round with blond curls encircling . His mouth sang out from a bushy beard, a tune of lively merriment . Ever moving, taking note: two blue deep-set eyes.

"I came beside him, loading sacks, and shared the laughter of his song . Then we walked beside the wagon, lightening the horse 's load into town. H is eyes kept moving all the way. Here a purple orchid had opened where this morning had been just a bud. T here the ivy leaves were eaten almost bare: the deer had been drawn out of the deep forest by the dryness of the season . He pointed to the roadside up ahead where I had not looked, and looking now saw only stones in brown-dry grass; but as we passed much closer I too saw a turtle's legs and outstretched neck.

"We stopped before a tiny village house and carried flour sacks inside . Then we drove the horsecart back and returned it to the miller, whence it came. The sky grew dark. A moon arose, shadowy clouds blew past the moon's bright golden disk.

"We felt the warm, moist ocean breeze, but up above the clouds were rushing from the west. "It will rain tonight.' he said. 'The ground is thirsty. It is good.' We walked to town without the cart. G entle silence, crickets chirping. Then the wind stilled, the crickets hushed, the first light drizzle cooled our faces. We were just inside the cottage door when thunder crashed, the rain began in full . The sound of trotting rain without, battering the roof above our heads. He pulled me close to him. It was as though my body had found its home. Every fold and crevice fitting close, he held me firmly, fluidly close to him. He smelled like sweet green earth, felt as strong and supple as a sapling rooted in the ground. Long we stood in this embrace. I felt my body tremble, and looking upon his face I saw it was he who shook it, in fright of the resounding storm.

"'Come!'

"I took his hand and led him toward the door . Chests forward, bravely: the rain felt cold for one short moment . Barefoot, hand in hand, we ran in night through field and grassy field. Dancing, laughing with the thunder, overfull with mad delight.

"Back inside, we laughed and rubbed each other dry . Crawling under the thick, wool blanket: merging in a sea of smoothness . All was liquid. M ouths embracing, flowing, turning. He talked to me constantly, his words simple as poetry. Swimming in a warm, bright pond, he said. H e was with softness surrounded, and every feeling he expressed was my feeling also; so close were we that there was room for our two souls to feel but once.

"Then the delight growing, swelling within my abdomen, burst open wide in slow, accentuated time; burst and spread in waves throughout me, thighs and belly, filled my breast, enveloping whooo my neck and shoulders, through my head with a tingling cry. I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you...

"All was soothed and perfect. I fell asleep, his arm around my head nuzzled deep in his shoulder . Never have I felt so completely protected.

"The rain was stopped. T hrough the cracks in the shudders, a hint of dawn . I was heavy with silent tears, and throbbing with the pressure of my sins. I could rest no longer. I rose with measured movements that would not disturb his sleep . My clothes were yet quite damp . I watched his steady breath, his sleeping, peaceful face, and shed a tear upon the pillow by his head.

"Then I was out upon the road, walking between woods and sandy beach, the dawning sun at my back. I walked as if I had a destination. How many villages did I pass? How many hours? How many miles? My feet drew me away from him, away from my past and my sins . My thoughts were meanwhile absorbed in the previous night, bouncing between excitement and remorse. S omething there was of wonder that I could be that woman running in the rain . Sin there had been, but not sin alone . The weaving maiden of Poitiers knew not how to regard her . The maiden's beliefs were my beliefs still; yet they seemed so far away . In these few weeks, I had looked from other eyes upon the world, eyes that saw only survival and bodily needs . I was fallen from nobility into pauperhood; from maidenhood I had descended into sin. Yet I had somehow the taste of pride upon my lips: pride perhaps in the primitive part of my strength, pride that I had survived . Still I felt shame when my thoughts turned upon Carcassonne and the Ladyship which I had forsaken. But I glimpsed the possibility that though I might not be a Lady, I might yet be something . There was worthiness within my soul.

"When the sun was no longer low upon my back, I found myself upon the pitted sands, walking in the direction of two spires on a mountaintop that rose out of the beech. No longer was I walking from anything, but to this mountain, this eruption, this island in the sand. I felt its pull like fate upon my footsteps. I made no decision of my own . Entranced, I was following the pull of my feet . Walking and not thinking . My mind was naught.

"There was water rushing in the distance . I took no heed of it. I saw the water edging across the horizon . Still I was not alarmed. Then I knew the fate that was rolling toward me . I knew and I accepted my fate . I thought of my sins, that surely I deserved to drown . I surrendered myself into the hands of God . I would not try to run. I would not turn from the water . Very quickly I felt the chill upon my toes, now upon my knees . A rush that swept me from my feet...

"'Francoise! '

"Frightened now at last. P anic and desperation. Was it I who had screamed?

"'Francoise! '

"I turned and saw him standing on the horsecart seat . His deep blue eyes caught and held my regard; and I read in a moment all that had passed: His awakening to my absence, sensing danger, asking In the villages: have you seen a dark-haired maiden? following their pointers with an accelerating sense of urgency, guessing where I 'd gone and knowing when the tide was due, borrowing a farmer 's wagon - anything that would float - and driving the protesting horse across the sand, watching the water' s advance: would it be too late?

"'Francoise! '

"The rushing waters reached the horse's legs . The horse reared back, the cart turned over . My beloved struck his head upon the wood and fell unconscious in the tide."

Her terror knew no bounds. No part of her remained that was not kicking and thrashing, beating the waters to save her life . Her eyes were wide with fear, and she gasped for air between cries for help. Right there In the cloistered garden, she clamored atop the old wooden cart and lay panting and shaking on her bed of water.

When the last tear was dried, she opened her eyes on Sister 's undaunted face, full of wonder in God 's creation. Yes, she was present still, attentive and unshaken . After she had drunk her fill of Sister 's loving, her eyes turned on the flowers by the abbey wall . Nothing there was changed, but she saw them now as woven in four hundred colors. The cathedral towers, the blue openness above: a magnificent, flowing tapestry; and the warbler's call: a melodious flute song. All the world existed for the sake of her senses, for that rich, artistic soul on which they played, like a troubadour upon his harp. Her life and her art had become one.

                                                                    Josh Mitteldorf
                                                                    April, 1979