Chapter 30b


They were not terribly disappointed.  Nothing so far had suggested that they were going to find a secret here in the town.  But it was with a sense of leaving something very important, if not their own quest, that they made their departure from the town and drove to la Pique.


It was a mountain only by local standards.  Compared with huge things like Everest and Sinai, or defiant ones like the Eiger or the Matterhorn, it was quite modest.  Climbing it presented no problem.  They left the car and hiked to the location which the GPS indicated was their destination. 


It was an old mountain, rounded on the top with sides that grew more steep as one descended.  The young mountains familiar to American skiers are steepest close to the top and become more gentle lower down.  From where they stood, the grade was modest.  There was even a little dirt road running past.  There and higher up the terrain offered no problem if one wanted to farm it.  As it sloped off to the south, it became suitable only for pasture.  A  small tree stood roughly at the dividing line. 


But it appeared that the land was being neither farmed nor grazed, simply being cared for against the time when it would be needed.  So there were no mysterious groves, no dense hedges or brambles, and there were no changes in the surface or bits of architecture to give any hint of anything hidden.  Their entire area of interest was exposed to a single sweeping glance.  Even aerial photography could not have improved on their view point.  There was nothing there. 


They went to Lake Baal, but no one was fishing.  Perhaps people only fished there early in the morning.  The lake was not large, perhaps a thousand or two thousand feet across.  It looked as if it might have been an artificial lake, dammed off at some time in the unthinkable past, but if so the terrain had changed much since then. 


That seemed to be the end of the line.  They drove about for hours scouring the countryside, but there were not many roads so it could all be done in a day.  From time to time they would pass members of the German motorcycled club flashing among the hills on their black and chrome bikes.  Eventually they began to honk and wave; the motorcyclists would return a thumbs up high sign. 

Despite the fact that this had once been such a rich and populous land, there was no evidence for habitation going back before the Dark Ages.  The church was about the oldest thing they had seen.  Of the time of
Septimania du Midi there was no trace.


Where were the troubadours?  Where were the writers of the Cabala?  Who wrote the Nicene code?  There might be hints in towns like Carcassonne, but here they found none.


They found the place where the painting had been made.  There was no tomb, but everything else matched.  There was a story that there had not been a tomb originally, but that one had been placed and later removed.  They stood on the brow of the hill, where the cenotaph had been and looked out over the shallow valley back toward Rennes le Chateau.  The panorama was utterly beautiful but lonesome.


“Where is everybody?” asked Tracy. 


“Couple of things, I think,” said Hapgood.  “For one thing this karst landscape is unstable.  It takes millions of years to develop, but on a smaller scale it is slowly being churned.  Great building might have simply dropped into sinkholes over such time.  Or they might have been built out of limestone and simply dissolved.  Limestone has lasted well for the pyramids, but it’s a lot wetter here.


“Another thing would be the Albigensian Crusade.  Everybody was killed off.  It may feel unlucky, even though it looks so good to us.  And maybe, if Terra Lane is right, people who do move in come a few at a time from a lot of different places; in the end they just die out.”


“It’s the waste land of the Grail curse, it looks like,” said Tracy. 


“I guess there is no particular reason to think you would find the Grail and the Waste Land in the same place,” said Jon idly. 


Late in the day they made their way to the Spring of the Magdalene. 


The road skirted the shoulder of a hill.  They found a place to pull off the road and park.  They got out and looked down into a little wooded ravine.  Through the bare trees they could hear and see a brook running by.  There was a picnic table set up on the near bank, so they made their way down the slope to the shoreline. 


There were enough stepping stones in the brook so that a child could easily have skipped across dry shod.  None of them felt like making the effort.  There were old stone piers where a bridge had once stood, long since fallen into disrepair and the spans removed.  At one time people must have used it to cross from the thoroughfare to the other bank. 


There seemed little point in going over.  There was nothing on the other side but a sheer cliff and some brush.  The only thing to do over there was to come back here.  That was why the bridge, unused, was not maintained. 


The spring itself was not much to look at.  It barely amounted to some moving seepage from the base of the cliff.  There was not as much flow as from the spigot where you brush your teeth.


Had they been school children on a summer afternoon, they would undoubtedly hopped from stone to stone for the sheer joy of accomplishing something that nobody else had planned for them.  And had they done so, children would have noticed but not interpreted a clue.  There was a subtle iridescence where the water was slowly moving over some matted leaves.  It was the color of a soap bubble, of an oil slick or of mineral deposited in an unimaginably thin layer.  The layer was a about the thickness of a wavelength of light.  The area colored was less than a square inch.  It was the accumulation of an entire summer.  But it was there.  And they missed it.


Instead they sat wearily around the picnic table as the shadow of darkness welled out of the ravine and began to fill the valley until only the tips of the highest hills sparkled in rosy alpine glow.  They climbed back to the car and drove slowly back to Caracassonne. 


While the four had been scouring the countryside, Kamali had driven his rental car around Monaco and entered France.  He drove on past Niece and entered the Midi.  Pouring over the Michelin Guide, he found where the Grotto of he Magdalene was and by afternoon had pulled off at a small parking area on the left near a souvenir shop.  The directions were a little vague.  But by the roads he was sure he was in the right area.  Then he looked up.


Although it was not clear from looking at the ground, the direction was obvious against the sky.  There was a bold crag miles up and away, dominating the horizon.  The stories said her relics had been discovered in a cave high on a mountain.  Ali started by walking along the side of a field in the general direction of the promontory.


He reached a forest and began to notice landmarks that the guide had described.  There was a broad path with stones worn smooth by the pious feet of centuries of pilgrims.  The day was warm but the shade of the trees made it more bearable.  He toiled upward and onward, alone at this time of year where so many had passed before.


At first the path had led toward the right of the rock he had seen, but eventually it began trending left.  He passed an enormous bolder that had split either when it had fallen or in response to eons of stress.  The crack was wide enough for a man to squeeze his body into, and narrow enough so that a younger man, fit and active, could have worked his way up using alpine chimney technique, bracing himself between the surfaces.  But what pleased Ali was that there was a draught of cool, fresh air coming from between the rock.  Like countless faithful before, he paused to enjoy the welcome flow.


Like the catacombs of Edinburgh, the rock buffered the temperature changes of the year to a constant equable level, cool in summer and warm in winter.  In another day, if the weather changed, it would be pouring out warmed air at the top. 


Shortly past the boulder, the path completed its leftward turn and proceeded horizontally toward the crag.  Here there was enough room for a motor car to pass, although how one might get up here was something Ail did not know.  At last there was a turn to the right and a sign that said in French that the shrine was closed for maintenance. 


There was a stone building nearby, that must have been built as a shelter for the pilgrims long years past.  It was ruinous and roofless and did not offer shelter from the heat.  Ali looked at the sign and decided that for the present he did not know any French.  He ducked under the chain and continued upward. 


As luck would have it, he met a young priest who was in a good mood and disposed to break the rules.  Together they went up to the church in the grotto. 


Ali had little love of caves.  For him the open spaces of the desert, for him the sharp changes in the light and temperature of the day.  For Ali the best travel was under the sky with nothing between himself and Allah.  But this cave was good.  Empty as it was, it still carried the feel of the prayers of those who had yearned enough to pay their respects to their saint that they had made the long climb, probably on a hotter day and possibly barefoot.  The same cool that the rock had offered was bestowed on the cave.


The priest led him over to look at the relics of the saint.  She was not as complete as the story about here suggested, that it was only the jawbone being revered in Rome that was missing.


But there were some bones and a skull.


Ali had seen many heads in his active past.  Mostly they had been covered with cloth with only the face visible when it was a man and not even that when it was a woman.  And he had seen more than his share of severed heads in times of trouble.  He had seen heads in every degree of decay from fresh to dry bone.  And he had handled many skulls.


So sadly, Ali was in a better position to evaluate a skull than most mortals.  There were professionals who could do some measurements on a skull and then create a drawing of the person at the time of death.  Ali wondered why these infidels did not so with the bones of their saints.  After all, making blasphemous likenesses was more than an art; it was an obsession for them.


But even without formal training, Ali could do the same thing with his mind.  He looked at the skull, and he saw her face.


This was the face of unearthly beauty.  Of all the unveiled women he had ever met, of all the images he had seen in his travels or in his life, this one was the loveliest.  There was a subtle sense that it was a northern face, something about the cut of the jaw and the bluntness of the eyebrows.  He was not certain.  It lacked the grotesque length that so many Europeans must endure.  But still it could be northern.


And the features had an expression.  Although moment to moment, the bones force the soft tissues above to conform to the bone shape, yet over many years, the soft tissues shape the bone, just as the mild weather had cracked that mighty boulder he had passed. 


He was looking at the expression of someone who had died thousands of years before, fleeting moments of feeling more evanescent than the wind, yet they had left their trace.  It was a look of sweetness and joy beyond the normal reach of human kind.


“I think this was a good person,” said Ali.


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