An unpublished novel (about 170 printed pages)


Following a war a young woman, Catherine, has retreated to an isolated house in the mountains. Here she lives a simple existence in the company of  a mute girl, Genia. One day, a friend, who lives on the plain, asks her to harbour a young man, a fugitive from the authorities. Reluctantly she agrees, though she is conscious of the dangers that might ensue from this action…



 Part One

The door is wide open and an intense light floods the room. Genia is lying on her belly on the daybed and, as usual, she is naked. She is watching the tortoise which is crawling slowly in the direction of the door. Apart from the scratching of the animals claws on the tiled floor and the endless drone of the cicadas, there is a deep silence. The progress of the animal, in such heat, is extremely slow. I look away, letting my gaze follow the line that runs from the girl’s hip, over her buttock and down onto the back of her thigh; she has been bitten by ants and spiders and mosquitoes and where she has scratched, the bites are red and swollen; later I will anoint these wounds with the miracle oil.

In the middle of the room the tortoise stops, turns on the spot and sets off in another direction, this time towards the fireplace. At this precise moment I sense that it will soon be dead; I imagine that it is violently torn apart. As it begins to crawl into the grey ash in the fireplace, she leaps up suddenly and lifts it clear, holding it high above her head. Not for the first time do I think that she is about to speak, to utter a single word; but without a sound she puts the tortoise upside down on the floor and returns to the bed.

We watch its legs flaying the air, waiting for each other to react in the stillness of the room. Eventually she gets up and places her foot on the edge of its shell and presses down so that it tips, first against her ankle and then back onto its feet. When I too get up and walk towards the door she catches my wrist, looking up at me intently. It is a gesture that says, ‘Where are you going? What are you doing? Can I come with you?’

‘Nowhere, nothing, no’, I say.

           Standing outside on the terrace, letting my eyes adjust to the bright sunlight, I turn to look back into the room; she is lying on her back on the bed. There is a strange, angelic quality about her which is enhanced by her muteness, her fragility and wild beauty; she is an angel brought down to earth for some reason and bitten there by a hundred insects who find her blood delicious. She is a mute child with the senses of an animal. She sits absorbed in her dreams and visions for hours on end, apparently in need of nothing, while carefully combing her hair or endlessly caressing her arms and legs. Nothing disrupts the sense of wholeness of her being; there is always simplicity and beauty. My desire and my envy dissolve and are replaced with an unconditional, uncomplicated love; the pleasure of being with her, watching her watch the world as she experiences the tensions within her life without apparently the least discord or anxiety.

If I did not provide food for her then I believe that she would survive on wild berries or fruit or roots. If I did not shelter her, particularly in winter, then I suppose that she would share some warm place with another animal. She seems to need no one, and I conclude that her attention to me signifies affection, even a childish form of love. And when sometimes, with an uncanny stillness and tenderness, she lies down beside me or stands very close to me so that our bodies touch, I feel that this is the expression of that love.

To throw off the lethargy that would threaten to depress me during the midday heat, I walk in a wide circle about the house, at the extreme edge of what is called the garden, that area of bushes, rocks, evergreen oaks that I have half cleared so that it resembles a temple garden. But in reality there are only two unnatural areas outside the house; the small vegetable plot at the rear of the house near to the well and the large, covered terrace that runs along the southern and eastern sides of the house. The view towards the south stretches for many miles over the wooded valley and downward towards the plain where in the far distance I can just make out the houses of the village.

This remote, stone house is set within a wilderness, a mixture of garrigue and woodland that covers the entire southern slope of the mountain and it is within this rugged vegetation that the house is hidden and from which it draws its sense of solidity and endurance. Here I am immersed in the aromas of the herbs, the beauty of the minute flowers and the shelter of trees and bushes. Everywhere the vegetation is restrained by the poverty and shallowness of the soil, by the erosion caused by the heavy rains and by the ferocity of the summer sun.

Rocks thrust up everywhere, sometime as craggy, white outcrops or simply as giant slabs half buried in the ground. There is a dense undergrowth of evergreen bushes and shrubs which sometimes gives way to oaks and holm-oaks though they grow to no great height; and there are copses of tall, magnificent old pines which have been battered by decades of violent winds and storms.

Small tracks run in every direction, some made during my daily walks, others by animals – wild boar, badgers, foxes and occasionally deer. In spring these tracks are bordered by flowers and alive with the sound of bees. In autumn, winter and spring the dry river beds come alive following the torrential rains and there are pools and waterfalls. Near to the isolated houses on the mountainside there is usually an overgrown quarry and sometimes signs of more ancient habitation – graves, standing stones and unexpected clearings that seem to have been designed as amphitheatres. The landscape is tenacious, waiting patiently throughout the heat of the summer before bursting into extravagant and colourful life for the brief period of the spring.

The house, to which I retreated like an outlaw at the end of the war, provides a place in which to live and work in solitude, seclusion and simplicity.

Solitude, though imperfect and interrupted by the girl, the tortoise, the donkey, the insects and the scavenging foxes, is human solitude nevertheless.

Seclusion from the village on the plain and its people and from the complex world beyond; and within that seclusion a defence against their orgies of cruelty and malevolence, their decadence, their false gods, their riots and chaos. Following the carnage of the war I fled, certain that there was nothing to be done other than to hope that a new life could be created elsewhere.

Simplicity because there is no electricity, no telephone, no taxes, no payments to be paid and none to be received, no roads, no fences, no policemen, no doctors, no inspectors. Water runs freely off the hill and is piped into the washroom, or in winter by a more circuitous route via the fireplace. I work steadily all year to gather and saw wood, but it costs nothing and only occasionally do I need to replace a saw blade. I work methodically for a few hours in each day in the garden to grow at least the greater proportion of our food. I repair and wash our clothes by hand and I must find a way to buy the few things that I cannot make; yet I still have hours in each day in which to read and brood and to do my research. In this self-governed life where time is abundant, when I rise at dawn and go to my bed at dusk, I seek the essence of an error, a false step taken long ago; it may be found anywhere, in ancient texts or within the natural world or within my own mind and once discovered will reveal at once if reparations can be made.

We live, eat, cook, read (and sometimes sleep) in the large, vaulted ground floor room which is cool in summer and always warm in winter. On the shortest winter days we light candles in the evening and if the temperature drops below freezing we bring the donkey inside. A stone staircase leads to half a dozen simple bedrooms, each with its bed, table, bookcase and its individual shape and distinctive view.

There are others who live in equally isolated houses and huts on the track that runs from east to west along the southern slope of the mountain. They are musicians, artists, healers, witches, sorcerers, outlaws, alchemists, a sometimes-mad rabble who have retreated to the mountain because they found the continual threat of violence, the crudeness and the ugliness of life on the plain, unendurable. The austerity and deprivation of life on the mountain is easily born compared with the fear and sense of hopelessness that haunted their lives on the plain. We help each other when there is a need and visit each other occasionally to exchange books and other favours; sometimes it has been suggested that we should meet at certain times of the year to celebrate and feast, but we have not done so. The simplicity of the life and its activity, and the constant beauty of the landscape, act like a drug and make one wary of straying too far.

It has become important to me to give over a certain time in each day to inactivity; to lie or sit on the terrace or in any one of a dozen sacred places and to allow my mind to become quiet, to become receptive to all the splendours that surround me, to all the sounds, sights, smells and sensations within and without my body. These are the times when forms and colours, rocks and clouds, leaves and breeze become entities which breathe and speak. It is an exalted peace and quietude that is nevertheless sometimes suddenly broken, like a branch unable to sustain the weight of snow; suddenly there is an anguish, in a sense a surfeit of love, that causes the body and soul to crave an impossible consummation, as if for a moment I would exchange the intense beauty of this communion for any other condition in which a mundane appetite could be immediately satisfied; to eat, drink, make love, sleep, even to welcome death, even a violent, painful death. At such times I rise up quickly like a monk from his prayer, splash my face with water, go off to chop wood for the fire. 

An hour before dawn I ring the ship’s bell that hangs from a beam on the terrace and after a few moments I can hear the donkey making her way towards the house. Every week or two we go down the mountain to collect our provisions. Antoine, who gathers together our supplies and provides us with surplus vegetables and fruit from his garden, lives alone in a house at the foot of the mountain at the beginning of the area that was once cultivated. It is unclear exactly what his relationship is with the people in the village and beyond, but I know that he trades and has other dealings with them. For people like myself who live in the mountains he is a gatekeeper or guardian and I believe he keeps our existence as secret as possible. For many of us he is our only link with the outside world and he keeps us informed of the major events. Antoine is a solitary, but also a pragmatist who believes that the mountain people, as he calls us, must be protected so that they in their turn can keep alive a way of life or a state of mind that is in danger of being lost; when he asks for news of us he is primarily asking for confirmation that we are alive, that we are fecund and creative, that we are converting his fine beans into powerful souls. Yet he has his doubts about us, expressed mainly as a fear that we will become lost in a time-warp, cut off from the essential and (albeit) violent heart of human existence.

The track that descends to the south is steep and strewn with rocks and, in winter, becomes a river. The donkey, with empty panniers flapping at each side of the saddle, is allowed to pick her own way. Genia, clothed and wearing sturdy boots, sometimes runs on ahead, sometimes falls back and is not seen for a quarter of an hour.

From time to time we hear guns and the baying of dogs, but always at a great distance; but it is true that this summer the hunters have come much closer to the house than ever before. At nights I sometimes see lights moving in the forest and during the day I notice what I assume to be the lens of binoculars catching the sunlight. I wonder sometimes if they are spying on the house.

© Richard Penna 2022