Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Theon's Oysters: Gallo-Romans in the Médoc

As a writer I've always much enjoyed filling the 'gaps in the historical record'. This short story I wrote some time ago is very much in that vein. It's based on the (real) letters of Ausonius of Bordeaux, a Gallo-Roman consul from the late 4th century--and a real character!-- to his friend Theon, who lived on the coast not far from Bordeaux, maybe near the present Arcachon which to this day is famous throughout France for its oysters. As Theon's replies aren't preserved, I 'discovered' them myself! (Incidentally, Ausonius is still famous in the Bordeaux region, and a great vineyard, Chateau d'Ausone in the Saint-Emilion terroir, is named after him.)

Theon's Oysters: Or, Town and Country

by Sophie Masson

Médoc, Gaul, about AD 390

Ausonius sends his greetings to rustic Theon, in the Médoc.
What are you doing, you who live at the very ends of the earth, you the ploughman of the poetic sands, who must labour without cease on the windy strand, between the Ocean and the setting sun, you who is now obliged to live in a poor peasant's hut, filled with black smoke that hurts your eyes? So, where then are the Muses and Apollo, oh my songster? Where are my verses?

What am I doing, Ausonius? Do you really want to know, my dear, vain old friend? Or would you prefer to hear only the sound of your own voice, as it is carried to me here at the ends of the earth? Ah, I can hear it clearly, Ausonius, just as in the days when we both worked for Emperor Gratian.
But I will tell you anyway, old friend, even if I do not know if you will listen. You ask what I am doing, what I could possibly be doing, in my Médoc, my remote between-two-waters, and you reproach me for not having sent you some of my verses, which I had, apparently, almost promised you.
You are perplexed: what could I be doing? Ah, they are not the poetic sands I plough every day, Ausonius, but the furrows of the waters..It is not the fantastic grain of the Muses which I harvest, but strange little beasts of salt and fresh water: oysters. It is neither Apollo nor the Muses whom I meet on that windy strand, but other poor souls like me, who like me are contented with huts filled with black smoke that hurts your eyes.
You ask what I could be doing, in my godforsaken land. You ask me, with a fine note of teasing, to send you some of my verses, all shiny and new. But..How to explain, Ausonius? Here, where Ocean and River meet in a soft and savage embrace, Court poetry has deserted me. The water, the oysters, the few brief salutations I exchange with my neighbours, these are my life, now, great Ausonius. You who have had everything, like me, you who, unlike me, was able to hold on to everything, how could you understand what I am doing here?
Far from Rome, far from my memories, here, in this strange empty country of wind and water, something strange has happened to me, Ausonius. I am living. And I understand things I never knew before. Politics and war, love and disillusion, mystery and terror, I have found them here too, here in my oyster-country. And more, much more, I see here things I never saw before in Rome, or even in your beloved Bordeaux: the small things of the rustic world. Only now I see they are not small things, but big ones.
I look at the sun setting on the waves of Ocean; and I blush at the thought that I once imagined I could capture it in a cage of elegant and well-turned verse. I watch a young couple walking on the strand, gathering weed and driftwood; benighted rustics I would have thought, once, and yet I see them touch each other's hand, briefly, tenderly, at the edge of Ocean. And the breath catches in my throat at the thought I imagined I knew what love was. I look at my oysters, washed sometimes by the sweet water, sometimes by the salt, and I groan at the thought that never, in any verse I had written, had I come even a small distance towards describing their briny and subtle tang, which is the very smell, the very presence, of Ocean himself.
And so, instead of sending you verses, I am sending you oysters. Thirty oysters, from the rustic country of Theon who lives between-two-waters.

Ausonius to Theon, who sent him thirty oysters.
I was waiting for a reply from you to the letter I had sent you, dear friend, asking you why you had so neglected me, and here I receive something from you I never asked for. So in reply I am sending you this letter, enamelled most colourfully, as I hope you will agree, with pleasing words on the subject of mussels and oysters! Ah, now then, mussels, if only you'd sent those..
But enough of regrets. Here is the sum of the oysters you sent me, Theon: three times ten, or five times six, or two times five plus ten and ten, or four times six added to twice times three; or seven times four plus one and one, or..

Stop, stop! All those numbers, all those mind games, they make my poor rustic head ache, Ausonius! I do beg pardon of you for not having sent you your preferred meal of mussels; but round here, you know, the mussels are kept for the poor souls only, not for the great ones of the world..and you, Ausonius, you had the ear of the late and lamented Emperor Gratian and I did not want to insult you..Such is how far I have fallen from a knowledge of the world!
Do you know what your poor mussel-eating servant, your oysterer Theon, did this very evening? A big fish, named whale, beached itself on our strand. If only you had seen it, Ausonius! What drama you would have breathed! Monster of the depths, poor child of Ocean, abandoned by a cruel parents to its fate, the whale struggled and thrashed around, for it did not want to die. For who amongst us who has breath wants to die? But the other inhabitants of between-two-waters and I, we took knives and axes, and we killed it, there on the sand. A red river flowed into Ocean this evening, and for a good long moment, the poetic sand blushed scarlet with escaping life. it is a good meat, whale-flesh, Ausonius, and my poor hut--filled with that acrid smoke--is full of it at present.
But if you had seen its dying glance! A sorrowful light, a speaking silence, which fades away, wordless, in the eye all at once clouded. Do you think the beasts and the fish and the birds have a soul, my Ausonius? If so, are they not children of God, born before us, and is it not a sin, what we do to them? But if not, then why does one see that sorrowful light, and hear that speaking silence?
Be quiet, Theon, you must be saying. You are saying foolish things. A whale does not have an immortal soul, any more than an oyster does. Ah, but then, Ausonius, oysters, my humble oysters of the Médoc, you have made a legend of them. Not only with your sums. For you have transformed them into figures of poetry; into slivers of Moon, and celestial piglets nestling at the teats of the stream that runs into Ocean, and have made them immortal, now, and they have slipped into the halls of the gods, in the briny modesty you gilded so well..

I, Ausonius, am sending greetings to my dear friend Theon, whilst still bearing reproach.
Three times now has Luna changed her stamping, snorting team of heifers as she careers in her cart across the sky; three months, Theon, and you haven't visited me. Are you avoiding my house, my land? Ninety days without you, dear friend, ninety days have I been sorrowful that is so, and what was more, these were summer days, and thus even longer. A quarter of the year has already passed. Come on, surely your little hut is not so welcoming and cosy that you cannot separate yourself from it! I want to see you and talk with you, my friend. And if it is money that prevents you from coming--well then, I am rich, as you are poor, and can help a friend along..

You want me to come and visit you again in Bordeaux, great capital of the waters, your native city, where you know everyone, where everyone knows you. Can you see the picture? And it's Yes, Monsieur the Consul, and No, Honourable Ausonius, and oh..oh, who can that poor soul be who walks with you? Ah, really, Theon the philosopher, the poet! I would never have recognised him! Oh, Monsieur the Honourable Consul Ausonius, how overflowing is your generous bounty and how deep your friendship towards even those who are disgraced..
Ah, I hear you protest, that is not so, Theon, I simply want to walk arm in arm with you in Bordeaux, old friends, though one is rich, and one is poor. You want, above all, Ausonius, dear Ausonius, that my bard's gift should return, my inspiration come back, springing like crystal out of the fertile rock of the society of men, just like the crystalline fountain of Divona, matron goddess of your beloved city, springs out of the ancient rock. But you see, Ausonius, if you really care for me, and not only for dead memories of things we once shared, and verses that are best forgotten, then you would come here, where I live, and you would see. My dear Ausonius, life is an oyster that may well contain a pearl--but if you never open the shell, how will you ever know? Come, then, my dear, vain old friend, my pearl amongst pontificators, and come and see me here, at the ends of the earth. In expectation, I send you these few modest gifts from my orchard, with my greetings.
What is a friend if not to share?
What is a friend if not to dare?
Rather silence than friendship's wreck:
What river the droplet will reject?

Ausonius, Consul, returns his salutations to the poet Theon.
Ah, golden apples you send me, Theon, but in a basket with leaden verse! Quinces bittersweet may make one wince; but it is not for the quince's wince that I weep, Theon.
Goodbye, Theon, whose name means of the gods--but as a participle, means, rather, a running man, a fleeing man!

Yes, I run, I flee, my vain old friend: not from what once was, but towards my oysters. At least they do not criticise my bad verse, or even my good one.
Goodbye, Ausonius, whose name means 'an Italian'; and make of that, my friend, whatever you may will.

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