Périgord Noir

Elizabeth Logan Harris

We forwent the formality of the dining room at the inn along the Beune where we were staying, choosing instead the charm of the place we'd passed a few miles back, the one with the lights on the hill above the winding road. We climbed the flagstone path to its porch. 

A sleepy teen manning the bar bid us enter. A slow friendly black dog rose from the floor and followed us. The painter and I, the only off-season diners that October evening, sat in the belly of a small grotto in oddly-modern chartreuse chairs at a Formica four-top by a hearth festooned with copper vessels. We pondered the menu. The dog circled. He must have been delighted to hear me ask for cassoulet, less so perhaps the painter's selection of fish. 

Between visits by the young barman cum garçon, during which I extolled la specialité régionale, I cut the squat link of pork swimming in the duck fat and fed it to my canine comrade. On each trip to my side, he gobbled a bite till the link was gone. He shrewdly avoided detection, veering kitchenward just before the garçon appeared. He kept a respectable distance when the chef came at last to inquire as to our satisfaction, but received a light scolding all the same. Whereupon our black friend feigned innocence and hunkered down by the door.

Back along the Beune, we recalled the code the receptionist had brusquely related when we earlier informed her of our plan to dine elsewhere. Vingt-quatre, vingt-quatre would gain us entrance after hours. (Il faut) remember vingt-quatre or risk disturbing the innkeeper who did not look kindly upon such forgetfulness, or so we inferred. We slept upstairs in separate, modest rooms.

We woke in the dark next morning, met downstairs. We drove beneath the bridge, along the low banks of the Beune, then ascended to the main street that ran hard against a high limestone cliff. 

The lone light in Les Eyzies that hour the glow of a single café situated below the prehistoric museum. We would visit later to wonder at the skeletons of the extinct—giant elk, mammoth, wooly rhino—at the primitive ingenuity, the inscrutable communiqués from the legions who populated the Périgord Noir for eons. Negative handprints. Dot matrixes. Vulvas. 

Beneath this repository, in the half open, half dark café, a few customers sat at the bar—deliverymen all, the noses of their small rigs angled toward the entrance. We brought our coffee to a table and began to talk of our dreams. Mine concerned clandestine meetings in a motel-condo where a colleague and I—members of an underground resistance—solved mathematic conundrums. A glut of mail came pouring through our slot. Who had disclosed our address? At first, my dreamtime colleague regarded me with suspicion. But I had not betrayed us. No sooner had we united under the threat of exposure than my colleague turned from a grown man into a small boy. Almost at once the floor opened. Around us a deep chasm loomed. The boy toddled toward the edge. Come away from there! I said and pulled him back. Once an equal, a partner in the riddles of the resistance, he was now a heedless babe. Come away.

As we napkin-wrapped croissants for the hours-long wait ahead, I overheard the young barman chatting with the regulars. One asked him how school was going. Today, he said, not unproud, I will prepare le plat principal. Tongue, he said. Tongue of beef with something. 

The air was dewy. The road, wet and gritty. The sky, dim. We strained to see beyond our headlights. We passed the entrance. The road curved on a quarter mile before we could turn around.

 A single car sat in the leaf-covered lot below Font-de-Gaume. A modest camper van. We walked toward the ticket booth to read the number, as determined by carbon dioxide levels, of visitors to be allowed inside that day. Sixty-eight

In front of the booth, a stand of benches, two rows deep, awaited us. The seats were numbered. We would be one and two.

 Oops, no, people were emerging from that van. A man and a woman coming across the lot. Coming to claim their rightful places. Gregarious Alsatians in their late sixties, they turned out to be. One and two. When they reached the benches, the painter leaned in with a pantomime, pretending to elbow them out of her way. They chuckled and we fell into an amiable banter. A studious duo with hearty thermoses and an impressive itinerary. We would meet them later that day by the entrance to Combarelles. Like them, we had read of how in summer, people camped in these lots overnight to nab the coveted places. Rumor had it that Font-de-Gaume would soon close to the public. Perhaps we had overdone it, we all agreed, given the empty lot and the early hour, but we had the same idea: be sure to get in.

A few cars turned into the lot, more visitors came to stand around the benches. As the wait wore on, I located a handkerchief. The painter employed her sleeve. And we wiped the wet seats and took our places. From the left came the flow of morning traffic, and for a short stretch the vehicles headed straight for us before a sharp bend in the road led them up and away. With a frisson I wondered if the big stone barriers between the benches and the shoulder were the result of some catastrophe. Barriers or no, a large passing truck gave me a shiver. Standing, I felt only a little less like a sitting duck. 

I glanced across the road to an abandoned building. Enough light by then to make out the curious stone above its entrance. I squinted and strained until I could determine that the angular figure was actually two, a couple in the throes of lovemaking.

A rosy cloud appeared with the sun behind it. More cars pooled in the lot, the benches began to fill. Some new arrivals saw what I had seen, a few crossed the road to photograph the erotic carving. I took a hazy snap myself but decided I would cross later for a closer look, a better pic. I had time before they began to sell the allotted passes into the cave where the foreshortened bison have kept their patient vigil for at least fourteen thousand Octobers. There was time. 

 A gray cat appeared. Snaked along in front of me, along the edge of the road. Now don't you go out there, I said in a whisper. And the cat did pull back, slipped away, out of sight.

I turned my back then for my water bottle. As I was leaning over, reaching into my bag, I heard a fearful sound. It came from the crowd that had gathered on and around the benches, some twenty strong by then. I lifted my head to see them drawing back with a cry of collective dismay, a gasp, even a shriek or two. I feared the worst, an eighteen-wheel behemoth bearing down on us. But the source of the horror was behind me, out in the road. I turned just in time to see the high back of a white delivery truck speed away from the small gray body. 

The cat lay twisted in the road. And we were still, all of us, like a paralyzed beast, breathing, barely breathing, together. 

A chorus of sorrowful murmurs broke the spell. Many sighed. And then the cat began to writhe. Alive! someone said. 

My earlier shiver became a shudder. Sobs heaved up my throat. I kept them down, wiped my tears, but the trembling deep inside me kept on for hours. Perhaps because I had not witnessed the event but felt it through the collective curtain of panic, remaining ignorant of its source, perhaps that's why fight-or-flight overcame me in such waves, well beyond the fitting dose for such a scene. Bad as it was, ill-augured as it might have been, it was just a cat. To be sure, I was not the only one disturbed. One and Two held each other close. Seven and Ten sniffled, looked away. 

A young couple in hiking gear stepped forward from the back of the line. A third followed—he staked a brave place in the road, waving the oncoming traffic around the scene as the couple knelt beside the cat. We all watched with anticipation, with gratitude, with relief that something was being done. Someone made a call. Help was on the way. 

A car appeared in less than ten. Wrapped in a jacket, the victim was borne to the backseat. Off they went toward town, couple, driver, and cat. Some muttered optimistic predictions. I thought such hopes unlikely, however. The cat would be put down, I expected, accompanied by acolytes who had emerged from their designated places to perform the proper rite.