The story of Madame de Feu
The last time I was over in France to work on my little house I had the extreme fortune to meet the local town historian who I will refer to as Mme. L. She was most gracious, offering to me the use of power via an extension chord, showing me the place she had just restored across the street, and even invited me and my compatriot into her house (work filth and all) to sit down, have a glass of tea and pick her brain about the town (and my house's in particular) history. I it was a lovely if uneventful afternoon, but as we were going back to my place a strange thing occurred.
I had always noticed that no matter what time of year it was, a single lone smokestack always belched out a thin-whispy line of smoke. It was a small smokestack among many others on top of a row of houses, and it always struck me as odd that only this one smoked. Even in the dead-air heat of summer it puffed away. I thought it a curiosity and nothing more. But as we walked down the street, just before we turned from her street onto mine, an ancient wooden back door opened and an old, dirty, wrinkled hand emerged. It reached down to a little seau bois wooden bucket, and retrieved scraps of what looked to be extra crown moulding and bits of angled wood. Things you usually see piled next to a table saw. I noticed that some of the angled pieces looked like ones I myself had cut and left out front of my house not that morning.
Mme. L greeted the phantom hand with a 'Bonjour Madame!'. The door closed quickly, but I did catch a return 'Bonjour' from the disembodied hand, and more importantly a brief glimpse of the madame. She had the shapeless form that comes with extreme old age. her hair, if she still had any, was wrapped up tightly in a scarf. She wore a long faded black dress, but if the streaks of soot on her face were any indication it could've been white originally. Mme L and I walked on. When we arrived at my place and Mme L was sure we were out of earshot she pulled me aside and told me very politely that I mustn't leave any more wood outside even for just an hour.
"But why, Madame?" I asked.
"Because she will take it. All of it. She is old now, and her eyesight is not so good. She cannot see nails on the wood anymore. We leave her wood in that basket, but only if it is safe, do you understand?" I nodded.
"Why does she take wood, surely she can't be cold." I asked.
In typical gallic acceptance, she responded "why does anybody do anything? Why does a man cheat?" I had no answer. Sensing perhaps that this was an unacceptable answer to an American used to answers she tried to fill in the details.
"We call her 'Madame de Feu' (The Fire lady). I am not young- no, no it is no insult to admit the truth- but I am not old, either; but she, she is old. I was born here and grew up here, and as long as i can remember, she has lived in there, burning wood. All night, all day, do you understand? And she has always been old. I was told that once she was the most beautiful woman in the village. Perhaps the most beautiful woman in the whole area. She had many beaus, but it is told she loved one and they were to be married. They never did."
"What happened? Was it the war?"
"This is possible, but I am afraid she is so old, nobody knows. She has outlived all who knew."
"Is this why she burns things?"
Mme L just shrugged her shoulders. "Some things we will never know. It is better this way, n'est pas? We just let her burn." She looked down the street to the little chimney, a black puff of smoke burst forth from it and quickly dissipated against the backdrop of the hills. She sighed and looking back at me with an earnest gaze spoke. "I know one day I shall wake up and open my windows to take in the morning air and there will be no scent of smoke in it. One day the chimney will cease. I know this must happen, but I have never lived in a world without it. Wherever I have gone i have returned here, to my home, yes? And her flame has always been there. I do not know what I will do when it is gone."
We stood in silence, staring for a while at the smoke, enjoying its constancy, the way it put 'clothes on the wind' until she took a few pieces of scrap from my pile that she deemed safe, bid me good day and made her way to madame's bucket.
*Note: This is a re-post from an old blog of mine. I am posting it here because Madame passed away last year.