Jacques is telling it…
The following morn our feud is forgotten. I chop wood, feed the fire and sweep the hovel. I’m about to sit down when Margot says:
‘Jacques, be a good boy and take some corn to the mill.’
‘But moma, I’ve told you before, Othon doesn’t like me going near his mill.’
‘Well I’m too old to be walking back and forth with heavy bags of flour. The grain bin is almost empty. Take what’s left. Tell Othon if he doesn’t grind it up, I’ll have something to say about it…’
‘And don’t take your eyes off him Jacques. Make sure we get it all back.’
I empty the grain bin into a small willow basket. Margot gives me a coin, kisses my crown, then cowls my head with a sack.
‘You’re a good boy Jacques. Don’t be long now.’
As I leave for the mill, the day is cold, wet and miserable. The verges are rank with the smell of death, and amongst the grass I spot a dead hare heaving with maggots. I continue along river where the firs grow tall, refreshed by the scent of pines and damp earth. Pheasant squawk amid the trees, darting left and right, then bolt into the thickets.
After passing the druid stone, I turn right towards Mill Bridge. The track narrows, winding between large boulders and clusters of gorse. The distant mill churns beyond the trees, but the path is blocked by a flock of sheep; a shepherd goads them from behind, waving his staff and crying:
‘Mush! Mush! Mush!’
The sheep funnel through a gap in the rocks, then bolt into a field, bucking and fanning out. The shepherd is about to follow when he spies me in the lane. He at once becomes curious and waits for my approach. Tall and lean, he is dressed in sheepskins, with a dark ruddy face:
‘What’s your name child?’
‘The midwife’s son?’
‘My name is Pierre. We’ve heard of you up in the hills. You’re the child with the horns.’
‘May I see?’
‘Well, I don’t much like talking to a sack…’
‘You wouldn’t like talking to my face either.’
‘Show me. Then at least I can tell my brothers what you really look like.’
I oblige and lower my cowl. His jaw drops. Silence.
‘You poor child…’
He bites his lip then says:
‘You are heretical, like your mother?’
‘You needn’t fear. My father and mother were both destroyed for heresy. I myself cannot be cured of it.’
He grins proudly.
‘A man like you Jacques, would be better off in the hills. Look at me. I answer to no one. I earn money and fortune for myself. I never go hungry and always have a cave to sleep in. Whereas you live in a little village with so many bad men…’
‘I’m going to be a monk.’
‘A monk! Then you will be working for the wrong cause. There are so many wicked devils in that abbey that you don’t know. And you wouldn’t want to know… Well, each to his own fate. Now, I must be on my way. Good day to you Jacques…’
‘Good day Monsieur.’
But as he turns away, he stops and stares at the ground.
‘Look!’ He exclaims. ‘My old shoe!’
Lying in the mud is a rusty horseshoe, wedged between two stones. He claws it up and declares:
‘I lost this shoe when I was a horse.’
‘Yes. I went unshod for weeks.’
‘But when were you a horse?’
‘After I was an ox.’
‘Why yes Jacques. Everybody knows I was an ox before I was a horse.’
‘So what were you before the ox?’
‘Before I was an ox, I was a man.’
‘Then why did you become an ox?’
‘Because I was a murderer.’ He leers. ‘I did not like being an ox. I had a cruel master who whipped me with his goad. My back was covered in bloody welts and the flies tormented me all day long. And what’s worse, I remembered that I was once a man.’
‘But how did you become an ox in the first place?’
‘Are you sure you want to know?’
‘After I died as a man, I was very frightened because of all the wicked sin I committed. When I came out of my fleshy tunic, there were evil spirits all about me. At first I couldn’t see them; it was dark and all I heard was the gnashing of teeth. But then I saw many demons with upside down bodies whose faces peered out from where their bellies should be… So I ran away, as fast as I could. ’Twas was raining hard, but I ran so fast that I crossed the mountains without being touched by scarcely three drops of rain… And then I dived into the first hole I could find. Which happened to be the womb of a pregnant ox… And that’s how I became an ox.’(i)
‘That’s a very strange tale, Monsieur.’
‘But true. And when I died as an ox, I ran about about the spirit world again, and dived into the belly of a pregnant mare. And so I was born, and dwelt in the tunic of a horse. Being a horse was better than being an ox. I had a good master who fed me well, and I didn’t have to pull a heavy plough. But I still remembered that I was once a man… And that made me very sad.’
‘How did you become a man again, after being a horse?’
‘Well, I achieved an understanding of good. So when I died as horse, my spirit entered a pregnant woman and I was incorporated into her unborn child.’
‘First a man, then an ox, then a horse, then a man again… Do all murderers become oxen?’
‘I suppose they may end up in any animal that has not yet been supplied with a soul, whether they be fouls of the air or beasts of the field. But an ox is one of the worst animals to end up in. Believe me, you wouldn’t want to be an ox.’
‘I think I should like to be a bird.’
‘Then you’d better do some evil first.’
I laugh. But he looks deadly serious:
‘Believe me Jacques, until a man is hereticated, he is is condemned to wander from tunic to tunic, life after life. So find a goodman, and take the consolamentum. Only then will you return to Heaven, where you truly belong. Do not trust the priests to save your soul. The church is full of idols; the rood is nothing but a piece of rotten wood; and the Virgin has neither eyes nor ears. Do you believe a carved statue can perform miracles?’
He holds the horseshoe to his heart, tears brimming in his eyes.
‘Oh! I can’t believe I’ve found my lost shoe!’
And he wanders off, weeping with joy. I watch him lead his flock to new pastures, dwarfed by the pristine mountains that tower above the valley. On reaching the pass, he stops and cries:
‘Farewell Jacques! We shall meet again one day! If not in this life, then in the next!’
Copyright © Nicholas Shea 2004
i. The people of Ariège left behind at least four versions of this myth.
Image credit: Medieval horseshoe, WikiMedia Commons.