Ptarmigan

a grouse with completely feathered feet

3/24/2004

Home of the (part 2 of 6; read part 1 below)

Erie was founded in 1697 by French Cathars. Religious persecution was rampant at the time. Seven canoes launched from Quebec City in September, when water was most tumultuous. Lake Erie was the shallowest of the Great Lakes, and the one most likely to storm. The boats were: the Asphodel, the Asphaedel, the Asfodel, the Aesphadel, the Asfaedel, the Aesfodel, and the Asfaedel. They were named as such to confuse the shipwrights and dockmasters of New France. No one really noticed their depature; if anyone did, they probably would have been pleased. Yvain led them, but he was quiet for a long time. His wife Nicollette was also quiet. They landed on what would later become Beach 11, the swimmer killer. Sleeping under constellations, the 21 colonists all wondered what fateful wind brought them to those finely sanded beaches. There were no breakwalls to prevent beach erosion at that time. Clearly, their kingdom was at hand.

On the first morning, when the Cathars woke, they sacrificed a goat specifically brought for this purpose. They broke fast over organs. Gulls fought over the red sand. When they moved inland, to construct their city of black brass--the city that some of them, at least, wanted to construct--they found themselves at another body of water, a bay. They reasoned that a city either could be found or founded. Their landing place was actually part of a peninsula, an almost island, jutting out from the mainland like an ichor finger. They walked the presque isle, discovered several deadened marshes and ponds, tidepools, hardwood forests. A little of everything. On the peninsula, the world was a pocket sized encyclopedia, every step was a catalogue. They felt bountiful. They slew butterflies and foxes. They looked for caves and in which to consecrate themselves to God. To become perfect. Finding none, they decided to move inland and utilize the bay as the natural harbor for a city. If there were no grottoes or caves, they would have to be built. They brought their boats through the channel and landed on what would later become the foot of East Avenue. They missed State Street, which was the center of the American town for many decades, by a good mile or two. They built huts using thatch and smooth antler-shaped driftwood. They dug sandy holes that filled with underwater after a few feet. So much for the caves. To pass the time, they wrote long letters to their compatriots around the globe: France, of course, and also England, Paraguay, Belgium, Guinea. There was no means of delivery, but few would have answered anyways. The letters were hard to read exhortations. They dreamed of panthers and leopards, which didn't make sense.

After fall's leaves dying, their first winter came. Snow so cold it felt hot against the skin. They caught rabbits. Some they kept as pets. They prayed, not only for food, but that the French would not find them. Particularly the Jesuits and Dominicans. The Cathars remembered what happened to their spiritual ancestors. In the first year a few children were born. None were sacrificed. Lost bears wandered to the lake shores, onto Presque Isle, wandered back. Frostbite clarified thought. In spring, construction began on a temple. French voyageurs were killed. The women lured them, hoisting high their dresses on the shores. The canoes slowed. The women had muskets tucked in their sleeves. They were not against eating human flesh, as a matter of principle, but they didn't feel that the times called for it. They realized this was against Cathar edicts, in a way, but in another way all flesh was abject, unworthy of long contemplation and self-entreaty. The women were skilled with guns. The Iroquois, who had exterminated the Eriez Indians a few decades before, left the colony alone for the most part. The Cathars cared not. Hearing what happened to their brethren, a few trappers asked to join in the first summer. These trappers later were revealed to be a troupe of Russian jugglers who had lost favor with the Czarina. They were initiated and received perfection. A few in their ranks were born many times over. The Eriez were also known as the Cat People. For them, the cat was a skunk. 300 years before, 8,000 Cathars were slaughtered in one day by one of their former protectors. They actually didn't call themselves Cathars to begin with, which was a name designed by a mad German prince. Many Christians thought the Cathar initiation ceremony involved kissing a cat's ass. The branding and identity campaign against the Cathars, as evidenced by their near-extermination, was a well-received success.

Berries came in summer, in thickets. They built a lookout tower on the tip of Presque Isle, where the Coast Guard station would later appear. Lashing logs together. They wanted to build a giant chain across the channel into the bay, as was done in Constantinople. That had protected the Byzantines for a time. They didn't have the funds or the smelting proficiency for such a project. They had a master woodworker and bone lather in their company. Babies ate magnaminous berries. Streets were laid, sloping up from the shore. Straight lines and grids. What was once a morass of bodies, undistinguishable from each other, began to take upon hierarchy. For a few months they felt they didn't have to have any single person deciding anything for the rest. That it lasted so long was remarkable. Yvain, before his expulsion from the University of Paris, took a class in classical geometry. He plumbed sight lines. He began courting allies. His wife Nicollette wasn't content with discretion and quietude. Everything they were taught in school turned out to be true: Yvain ended up leading because he financed the colony. Still, France seemed a long way away. The surf had no conch shells, no naiad bones. Zebra mussels would not be introduced into the ecosystem for almost 300 years. They all except for Yvain came from the lower yeomanry. They were adrift from the small villages of their birth, always amongst wolves. They wanted to stumble to their own village, as one would from a tavern towards home late at night. The night was late in their minds. The wolves were at the door. Don't open the door! No court, nor mare liberum, could weave heraldics close enough to ensnare. Griffin, bull, bulldogs, kings--all mythologies, glad tidings on bloody ears. The summer wheat was not successful. Waterspouts touched down on the lake and they prayed to be spared. The berries turned black in soups and cremes. Yvain wanted to build a cathedral, of sorts, on Presque Isle, inside the dead marshes. A contemplative building made of local stone. At times, he really did seem peaceful. This in addition to the temple on the mainland. More converts came, this time from Saint Augustine. The irony was lost on no one. Yvain wanted the second temple in the marshes to demonstrate a mind as wide as thought. Nicollette disagreed. She was a kleptomaniac, which was a hard compulsion to honor on the edge of God's world. She played chess. She always beat Yvain. She always played white and Yvain black. Yvain took a few builders to the swamps in the center of Presque Isle and started to cut down cottonwood trees. To clear a space. Then he changed his mind and decided that wasn't an ideal location. They painted the stumps black. The bog didn't help. The temple's foundation kept sinking.

Actually Nicollette was quite beautiful. She had long black hair. She excelled at writing sestinas. No training or schooling could account for this. End words to the lines came to her with succinct ease. Most of the time they rhymed. She would rarely show her compositions to her husband. Paper was precious. She took to carving sestinas on trees. Yvain didn't approve of poetry or lending his knife. The summer heat came. The eldest colonist swore he saw, while scything hay, a giant panther charging from the south. The panther had six eyes! And a tongue like a cat o' nine tails! And had constellation markings on its fur! And spoke Basque! This was collaborated by others, although the language was debated. Fissures crept into the colony. Centipede-slow spoilings of their bread stores occured. They were hungry but not thirsty. They prayed together less. An English caravel wandered close to their lookout. The English were only in transit. The Union Jack shone. The Cathars wished they had cannons. Two weeks later, a French caravel landed on the point of the peninsula closest to the mainland. The thinnest land. Two Jesuits, several marines. The Cathars lost three and had five wounded. Yvain lost a pinky. But they gained many supplies and weapons. They dropped the weighted soldiers into the moors. The priests they kept with the rabbits. Nicollette slept with a settler less than half her age. No one remembered his name, not even Nicollette.

Yvain had a dream about this involving those pesky panthers. The panthers had some worthwhile pillow talk. They dragged him by the collar to their cave with their teeth. But they also had hands with opposable thumbs. Yvain was not afraid. Inside the cave was a glass box, human-sized, with a star inside of it. The star was too bright to look at; he asked them to cover it, and remarkably, they covered the box with a purple cloth. They told him everything. From inside the box--Yvain covered his eyes--the cats pulled out paintings of his wife's transgressions, in glades. They told him that God's work would emanate from him long after he died. When he woke, he didn't know how long he could keep up his façade, his scaffolding. It turned out to be approximately three days, when he killed the boy with his favorite knife and took the corpse, along with the captured priests and 10 colonists, to the peninsula. A splinter. Two colonies, two architectures. Nicollette wondered how the quickness happened so quickly. How she came to this. She reasoned that she was sacrificing the great for the greater good. Or maybe it was the good for the greater great. It was hard to tell. She started drinking coffee, stolen from the French soldiers. Yvain began plans for a lighter-than-air craft as August and its skies came upon them. Skies arrived on the tips of her fingers. Most, including all of the Russians, stayed close to her. They guarded her sleep. In fact, Yvain and his cohorts did eat the young man who had slept with Nicollette. They saved his bones. Yvain realized at a young age that he was named after a famous epic, one important to French natural identity. The unit of French poetry is not the accent but the syllable. Yvain wasn't able to get the balloon off the ground, but they certainly tried. They tried the fumes of quicksilver, the smoke of burning foxes. They didn't possess profound amounts of scientific acumen. Except for geometry. And theology, which was considered a science in those days. As it would later be.

With Yvain on the peninsula, the city planning on the mainland floundered. Little huts became the norm again. Dreams died, thrown against the rocks and burned in firepits. The peninsula temple was completed as the fall colors turned. Nicollette didn't grieve. Yvain's temple was consecrated with a lacqure made of blackberries and Jesuit blood. One of the Russians, of his own accord, secreted to Presque Isle and humbly asked for a little of that blood. Just a dollop for the mainland village. Yvain told him that it didn't work like that. The Russian was allowed to return. These sudden kindneses made Nicollette angry. She wasn't sure why she slept with the boy after all. Maybe it was a sense of sorrow. Love stories lay around in the furs next to the campfire. Belief that the world was ephemera necessitated a belief in God's permanence and justice, kind of. Most of the Cathars really didn't see it that way. However, the 200 French soldiers who pushed towards the settlement from the newly founded Fort LeBeouf did see it that way. Fort LeBeouf was about 20 miles south. It was on French Creek, which flowed into the Allegheny, which flowed into the Ohio, which flowed into the Mississippi. A road from LeBeouf to Lake Erie would allow for powerful movements. The soldiers came across Nicollette bathing outside. The Cathars didn't expect trouble from the thicketed south. Nicollette regularly bathed with the other colonists. They were all naked. The wind was Indian summer. Yvain called his temple Usine de Chat Noirs. Nicollette and the others had a few minutes to flee. Everyone was rather startled. The Cathars crammed into boats. A few were killed. The dead were pushed overboard. The French horses buckled. The Jesuit in the soldiers' party forbade them from pursuit until the temple was destroyed and the ground reconsecrated. They did so. The smoke alerted an English sloop docking along the shore about 10 miles away. Yvain didn't welcome Nicollette and the others with open arms, exactly. But close enough. They gathered on the lookout tower and the temple roof with their arquebuses and muskets. They waited. The soldiers didn't come until vespers. The French had engaged in a tough firefight with the English sloop. The Jesuit was killed. The Jesuits couldn't seem to get any luck. The sloop burned eventually. Bayonets blazed. The hotter-than-air balloon wasn't invented until 150 years later.

The Cathars watched and prayed. This had similarities with the demise of many, if not most, other Cathars. They had kept quiet for centuries in Toulouse and its highlands, becoming perfect in secret. They saw the New World as their tabula rasa. Waiting, they played chess and cards. Yvain held Nicollette's hand. The French battalion came toward the temple slowly. They looked for traps, blinds, snipers, and feints. There were none. When they came upon the temple, arquebuses recoiled. The Cathars, with a sense of déjà vu, pounced down to end their history, rapt in dark curtains of gunfire.

When reinforcements came in the spring, there were no signs of a previous human settlement. The French were confused, to say the least, but nevertheless began establishment of a fort at the tip of Presque Isle. Garrison commanders over time assumed that reports of a previous colony were fabricated. The year was 1699. Skunks found egg nests. Deer ate crops. There were absolutely no panther sightings. Cathars would not come to Erie for another 200 years. In a way they weren't even really Cathars. No one important ever came from Erie for the most part. Rainclouds were not considered people by most people. The peninsula shifted eastward every year by a few inches. At a few points in its history, the land bridge had flooded, making it an actual island and not an almost island. Burnt firmaments settled but did not rest. Before dawn, Yvain dug a hole in the sandy loam and placed the chess pieces in a moleskin bag. He filled the hole and smoothed it over. He hurried back to his tiny black temple, which was only wood painted black and mostly a dream. He could hear the French soldiers braying, approaching the heretics. No one could have pinpointed the exact moment when things started getting out of hand and small. It was better, Yvain reasoned, not to even try. Seeing him return, Nicollette thought: words about this ought to be put down, like strays.


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(to be continued...)

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