Barefoot Poetry

SS Matthews

Chapter One – Scars of Flesh and Soul

I was at one time an inn keeper, a husband and father generally contented with family life. The years of my youth I shared with my beloved Anne and together, our middle years were spent in the raising of children. Being a good and honest woman, Anne labored long hours in the operation of our business and never did she complain. As our days passed, with six of our nine children for assistance; those being the scoundrels to timid to set out in the world to seek their own fortunes, our life together was humble and without great incident.

She was tolerant of my faults, for since the time of my childhood, I have known a strong affinity for the wild-ways of the woodlands. Into adulthood and beyond, I have found it necessary for the sake of my sanity to depart periodically for the seclusion of the forest. Though I knew Anne to be the wiser, it was often under the pretext of needing to secure meat for our table that I wandered and sometimes remained away for days exploring the wilder places. To my shame I would abandon her, leaving her to tend to our business and those of our children to lax to attend to themselves. However, blessed with a buoyant attitude toward life, I never knew her to share an unkind word with anyone, nor chastise me for my reclusive nature.

I knew it also to be her way to go wandering the meadows in search of herbs for use in our meals and in the distilling of healing oils. So returning home after one of my excursions, I was not surprised to find her gone and did not suffer from immediate alarm. In response to my inquiry regarding her weeping however, my youngest daughter reported that Anne had been taken away by the police, accused by a neighbor of performing acts of witchcraft.

In my heart I knew Anne to be innocent of any harmful activity, for never in all our years together did I hear her whisper ill toward anyone. I cannot think of any reason why another should lay such an accusation upon her, except that such was the hysteria of the time. Doing all that I could to obtain her release, before her innocence could be declared by the court, my beloved took ill. Like a wild flower placed in a vase without water, she did not suffer for long in her cell.

Anne’s passing from this world was tantamount to the candle illuminating my path through life being snuffed by a villainous hand and with the extinguishing of her light, I soon became lost in the dark. In the days that followed, I made disheartened attempts to continue with the operation of the inn for the sake of my children. But no longer was I able to find it in my soul to care and drifted ever-further away from them. The misery of Anne’s loss was a wound that would not heal and, left open to the elements, soon became hopelessly infected.

Each new sunrise found me more withdrawn with unreasoning anger tending to erupt without warning. Unable to control myself, I began to lash out at those around me. Helpless to halt the cancerous growth taking root in my soul, I could not bear the touch of another person, or even to respond with reason when spoken to. I was left at odds with everyone and everything familiar to me.

As for those who had done ill by Anne, I could no more forgive them their part in the tragedy than I could forgive myself for being away when she had the most need of me. Swallowed entirely by the shadow of my guilt, the life I had known finally became a pain I could no longer endure. So it was that one day I set out to go hunting with the intent that I would not return. Leaving behind a letter to my daughter, I surrendered the management of the inn to her and those other of my children who wished to maintain it. My grief being too much to bear, I was determined to find either my death or solace in the wilds and cared not much which it was that I found.

With only my loyal red mastiff and rifle for company, I wandered many weeks without thought of so much as shelter or direction. On through the summer we hunted and survived by living off the land. Much as possible I avoided the townships and hamlets of men, for my mind yet floundered in a well of self-pity. Knowing the guilt I endured would be apparent in my gaze, I could find no desire for the companionship of others.

Still, as the days rolled on, the loneliness suffered by Anne’s loss did finally begin to change. Slowly transforming into a sense of utter isolation, this state, of being alone and responsible for no other than myself, was something I could endure. As it will sometimes happen when a man is bereft of what he adores, he will struggle to find something to replace that which he has lost. But for me, all that once brought pleasure was receding into memory and starting to fade. By suppressing those memories of family life, they eventually became nothing more than swirling motes of dust seeking a ray of sunlight in the dark void of my heart.

It is nature’s way that when a man thirsts he will drink and when he is cold, he will seek to find warmth. Perhaps it is also true that time is a healer, for when the first cooling breath of autumn found the mastiff and I in the foothills of the Margeride, not far from the banks of the River Truyere, I undertook the construction of a cabin in the woods. The dwelling we built was a simple abode with a single room, but for two destitute wanderers it was home.

Unlike most men I have known, the benefits of having a wife were more for me than just the obvious. The presence of a mate helps to insure we are not made to delve too deeply into those solitary places where the soul resides. For it is there that is hung a dark and sinister veil across that inner realm. It is a drapery of fear, but a drapery a man must face and penetrate before he can discover what truly lies inside him.

Throughout that first winter our existence was harsh and spare. Without Anne to guide and distract me, I spent much of my time confronting that inner darkness and my sanity became a tenuous thing. Realizing in a moment of clarity that I could not continue in my current state, I remembered Anne often proposed that salvation lay in forgiveness. Attempting this, I did discover a means by which I could tolerate myself. It was not from the church however, nor even from my blessed Anne that I sought this absolution. Believing their blessing useless and knowing forgiveness was nothing Anne would ever withhold, I realized it was a forgiveness of self that was needed. By accepting possession of those frailties that defined me as a man, I could continue without the burden of guilt.

In many ways during that cold entombment, I did reconcile the man I once was with the person I was becoming. And so it was that when spring arrived in the Gévaudan, I emerged from hibernation lighter of spirit and willing to reenter the world. After a season of brooding in the silence of inner realms, I was determined to salvage what I could of my existence.

Finding myself sorely in need of supplies; with my store of salt, sugar, gunpowder and lead all severely depleted, I decided one day to travel to the city of Malzieu with the few coins that remained to me. Making my way to the marketplace, I was conversing with a seller of goods when he informed me the city council was actively seeking a watchman for the ranchers and herdsmen surrounding the city. The post was as yet unfilled and if I was to present myself to them, I might put my hunting skills to use for wages.

Although a post such as this was not generally maintained, during what had become a difficult winter, a wolf had wandered down from the mountains. Descending from the Margeride in search of prey, it had taken to the killing of sheep. With the arrival of spring, rather than retreat into the highlands, the wolf remained behind, stalking the herds of the lower pastures. As it seemed a good fit for my disposition, I presented myself to a councilman of the city and in short order we agreed that for the modest sum of five livres each week, I would walk those areas where the sheep were pastured. As part of attending to the safety of livestock, in the event I should draw sights on a wolf, I would be rewarded an additional bounty for its hide.

To my surprise, at this I felt reluctant and it might be thought strange for a hunter to have misgivings regarding the killing of animals. Admittedly in my past I possessed few reservations in that regard, for more than once before I had hunted wolves. During my winter of solitude however, more changes must have been wrought within me than were first realized; some of which were not to become obvious until challenged.

The bounty offered was not so large that I would profit from actively hunting wolves and without personal grievance concerning their kind, I felt no need to seek their destruction. Still, reconciling the matter as being one of territory, I could justify ending this loner’s predation as necessary to the survival of those who keep sheep. With this in mind, if I should happen upon the wolf in the act of predation, without regret my rifle would speak the language of death.

Since our earliest days, the stalking and confronting of such a beast in the wild has been a sacred and mystical mission. For many ancient cultures it was a rite of passage into manhood. Much time and care was taken in preparation of a hunt and the experience was more than a test of one’s skill; it was a sojourn of the spirit, one that demanded a hunter’s complete attention and dedication to successfully achieve. Although for me the hunt bore a similar importance, I didn’t consider it a mystical journey. Aside from the opportunity to remove myself from the confusing affairs of other men for the promise of pay; at times such as these I could escape the boundaries of faith and belief. Alone in the wilds and focused on the hunt, I could push all else from my mind and concentrate solely on what existed around me.

Albeit my purpose in the present was not quite the same, I was able to convince myself it was equally as venerable. Throughout our history, man has suffered a primordial fear when confronting the fangs of this superior predator and with good reason. His wiles and cunning are without equal. With intelligence beyond question, there is no creature in the natural world more a mirror reflection of a man’s own soul. So similar are they to men that inevitably the two must find themselves in competition. Both are predators and for both, survival is always of the first order.

The discovery of gun-powder and development of firearms certainly unbalanced the scales in the favor of men and when hunted, a wolf will most often retreat into exile. Where much rock is present, prints are difficult to follow and a careless move can well result in a disabling fall for the ill balanced hunter. In addition, if he should corner the animal, a falsely aimed shot will leave him at the mercy of his intended quarry. As mercy is not an emotion readily available to either adversary, it is rarely requested or employed.

As things stood, after a few days in the field, the wolf continued undiscouraged by my presence with his harassment of the flocks. Coming upon the remains of a ewe on an April morning, it was made clear to me that he would persist until stopped. Therefore, the longer I delayed his pursuit, the greater would be the cost to those who looked to me to protect their livestock. Fearing the hunt might lead me onto treacherous ground; I left the mastiff in the care of a shepherdess and set out alone.

Following faint traces of the wolf’s passage, the trail led me ever upwards. Eventually climbing into the high slopes of the Margeride, I arrived at a particularly steep incline and lost his trail entirely. Searching about for a means to ascend, a change in wind direction brought an unexpected odor to my attention. As the scent of a wolf is unlike that of most other beasts, that being generally less foul and unwashed, there was something about this smell that caused me to think I might be close upon an active den.

Continuing to work my way among the rocks, I also began to realize the perilous situation in which I had placed myself. I had not brought the mastiff. I was alone and it struck me that the wolf was not. Somewhere among these rocks he had a mate and it occurred to me that the clever animal might have purposely lured me into an ambush. Thinking it wise that I retreat and continue the hunt some other day, the sound of a rock tumbling at my back was the signal alerting me to the distressing fact that such opportunity had already passed.

Unwittingly, I’d walked directly into their trap and one or the other was already behind me. Left without recourse, even as I turned I saw it was the male. Emerging from around the cover of a boulder, Already in the first steps of making a charge, he was gray as dusk and swift in closing. Equally magnificent in appearance as he was fearful in aspect, raising the rifle to my shoulder, I fired point blank into the shadow of death.

Discharging straight away into the wolf’s charging face, my aim proved instantly fatal. Falling at my feet I felt certain he was dead, but could ill afford to waste precious seconds congratulating myself. Immediately I set about reloading, for if my fears were correct, his mate was still very much alive and nearby. Though accurate in my assessment, I was too slow at my task. Even as I hastened, the she-wolf leaped from cover striking me furiously in the back.

Sent flying from my hands, the rifle tumbled out of reach. Put at a serious disadvantage, I did at least manage to roll onto my back so I was facing her and able to offer what resistance I could. Even as I looked into her pale eyes, she moved to place her bite upon my throat. Throwing forward my arms to fend her off, she clamped down with her fangs upon my left forearm and her right forepaw fell upon my face. As we struggled, the sharp nails of her foot raked gouges in my brow and cheek, but by some miracle of luck did not pierce me in the eyes. Even so the pain was torturous and believing I was but seconds from death, I realized the need to react with extreme violence before my strength failed me.

With my hand that was free, I reached for the one weapon available. Yet even as I searched for the hunting knife I keep at my waist, the she-wolf began to shake me like a vicious and petulant child would a puppet or doll. Feeling her fangs sink against the bones of my arm, I knew they would not long tolerate that crushing force.

Amidst the fray, it was by act of providence that I managed to find the hilt of my skinning knife. Yanking it free, desperately I stabbed with the point at her underside. With a surprised yelp the bitch released her terrible grip on my arm and before she could leap clear, I struck again with a slash across her ribs. With both combatants crippled and bleeding, rather than press the attack, the she-wolf broke off. As she attempted to flee, with the excited pulse one is prone to experience in such dire moments, I put pain my mind and reached for the fallen rifle. Approaching a cleft between two boulders through which she might escape, even wounded she could outrun the wind. But not so the ball of lead I sent screaming after her.

When it was done, I could not in the aftermath readily tell the extent of my wounds. Knowing the damage to my arm alone would seriously hamper descending from the cliffs, in surviving the attack I still felt a powerful sense of triumph. I had come for a hide and now with two waiting, I unwisely decided I would not leave without them both. All that was needed was to skin the pair and make my way below before my wounds left me helpless on the mountain.

By grace of moonlight I made my way down into the lower hills. Just after dawn and utterly exhausted, I happened upon a cottage in the forest. Hoping that someone might yet make use of the place, I remember stumbling towards the door when an adolescent angel appeared before me. On the verge of collapsing with fatigue and fever, I leaned heavily upon her small shoulders for support. Looking to her face, I thought she could be no more than twelve and marveled that she should be living alone in the wild. I wanted to thank her for her kindness, as I believed the end of my life was at hand, but with fever setting fire to my brain, all I could manage was a senseless jumble of words.

I do not know how long I remained under her watchful eye. I could not keep track of the days and she did not seem to bother, but her treatment of my wounds proved effective in extending my time on this earth. The herbal poultices she applied to my face and arm drew out poisons and allowed my injuries to heal. Sipping the broths and teas that she made for me, my fever eventually gave way. In the gentlest of voices she soothed my worries.

She said her name was Antoinette and for as far back as she could remember she’d lived alone in the cottage. My gratitude to the girl was beyond anything I could express, or ever hope to repay. When I was well enough to leave her keeping, I asked if she would accompany me away from her lonely life. She refused, of course, saying that this was her home and it suited her to stay. Thinking I well understood a person’s need for solitude, I departed in her debt saying that if she should ever have need of me, I would come at her call. Though it was not much, as a token of my thanks I left with her the two wolf hides so when the need came, she might stich them into a warm winter coat.

In spite of her kindness and gifted ministrations, my face remained bitterly scarred by my encounter with the she-wolf. Upon returning to the city without pelts or other proof that I had killed the wolf, even as I explained the circumstances of my injuries, I found no sympathy and was left in forfeit of my reward. As for my wounds, those children who saw me on the street did snicker when I passed and those who were adults found me hard to look upon. Cast as a pariah, I was shunned and deemed unfit as a watchman.

Being relieved of my duties seemed an unfitting reward for my service and I will confess some resentment. Dissatisfied with their treatment of me, I returned to my cabin and a life alone. Again with only the mastiff for company, once again I divorced myself from the affairs of other men. For this, and for other reasons I will soon reveal, I did not hasten to involve myself in the events that were to follow.

CH. Two

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