Funny how a memory, seemingly unprompted, can suddenly pop into your head. The image of a small incident years ago when we first moved here to the Dordogne, flashed into my head the other day, something must have sparked it but I’ve no idea what. At the time it briefly clouded our rosy romantic city-dwellers vista of rural France, when we were so fresh to our new life 30 + years ago.
Already charmed by the difference between town and country life, we were discovering a different culture, language and customs. Certainly life was slower and less manic for us, who were used to work dominating our lives. It reminded us that life was more than just work, and there was plenty going on, the local villages and communities are generally tightly established, each with their mayors and elected councils, the individuals in the communes mostly involved in the politics of running the schools, clubs and festivals, microcosms of the bigger towns we were used to.
There were still a few peasant farming families making a living on their small unspecialised farms, something all French governments have always been keen to preserve.
Living in a rented house in the village of St Laurent des Batons, we got to know one lovely family of farmers called Escarmant, who welcomed us to their home and treated us occasionally to local regional French cuisine, even respecting our funny eating habits avoiding meat and fish, and offering us the other alternatives of their own hens’ eggs, homemade cheeses and homegrown vegetables.
Mme Escarmant still cooked the family meals in a giant cast iron pot hung over the huge open fire, I remember seeing her silhouetted against the flames, stirring the stew slowly, I think it must have been a cassoulet, a regional dish with every imaginable kind of meat that takes three days to prepare and gets added to day by day. She was a lovely intelligent and kind lady as were the rest of the family, I remember them with great warmth and affection.
After one particularly rustic wholesome meal Philippe Escarmant, with a twinkle in his eye rather wickedly proffered us his home brewed digestif, which he told us to throw back down our throats in one gulp, he chuckled with glee enjoying his little joke of leaving us both gasping with a burning fire in our throats and unable to speak for several minutes!
Anyway to get back to the subject in hand, we were shopping at the busy Saturday market in Vergt, where Graham towered above the local townspeople like Gulliver in Lilliput, when we heard an ear-piercing and bloodcurdling scream; amongst the market stalls we caught sight of a wizened old lady clutching a terrified rabbit by it’s ears. The rabbit screamed and screamed as the old lady moved through the market and continued to shop, it was an awful and terrifying sound, causing the buzz of the whole market to fall silent. Alas there was nothing we pampered young townies could do……
I still feel guilty at my inertia, so many emotions ran through me at the time, it crossed my mind briefly to interfere, but of course fear of embarrassment, and then respect for another culture, another person’s way of life was the strongest sensation of all and so I did nothing, I had to let it be. Needless to say we wended our way home in subdued silence, with those hideous cries reverberating in our ears.
I’ve heard that scream a couple of times since, here at home, mostly taking place as dusk begins to fall, causing me to stop rigid with the noise. The echoing screams roll up from the valley amplified by the natural bowl of the landscape, the fox has caught his rabbit, and the rabbit isn’t going to die quietly, the ghastly sounds are of nature taking it’s course.
I wish I believed that animals are literally numbed by fear when caught by their predators, and that they feel no pain, but it’s hard to believe they don’t suffer when they scream in such obvious terror.
Have you ever heard a rabbit scream?
Bloodcurdling I’d describe.
All eyes turn to the old peasant,
as she grips her screeching prize.
He dangles helpless by his ears,
her fist won’t let him drop.
He wriggles in vain just knowing
he’s destined this day for the chop.
She noses around the market stalls,
checking out fruit, veg and bread,
squeezing at some, sampling more.
His screaming persists with his dread.
To the noise and the horrified glances,
she gives no reaction, nor sign,
as she’s keen to get the ingredients
for her meal back home in good time.