THE MAN WHO KNEW IN ADVANCE
(From a French language collection of stories and legends from Picardie and northern France, © Presses de la Renaissance, 1975)
Dear friends, I'd like to tell you the story of Albarède, the village carpenter of a small town in Thiérache, who had a macabre gift; more precisely, he had the ability to know certain things in advance that it might just be better not to know until the moment came. It was, however, a most useful gift for Albarède, who had just barely enough money to run his woodworking business. . .
Now, everyone knows that any artisan is obliged to stock materials without being sure of being able to use them within a reasonable period of time and indeed, perhaps never at all. Thus, for instance, a blacksmith cannot do otherwise than to allow surplus iron to sit rusting in his courtyard in case it is suddenly needed. Therefore, Albarède's woodshed ought to have been stocked up to the rafters with planks and and beams of all lengths, since he did all kinds of woodwork, from roof framework to doors and from furniture to coffins.
Well, no. . . strangely enough, his woodshed didn't bulge at the seams. You see, since Albarède didn't have lots of money to invest in large stocks of wood, he only ever bought exactly enough wood to complete work that had been commissioned, no more, and while there is certainly nothing unusual about ordering a table in advance, who would ever think of having one's coffin built before it is needed?
So as to not be caught unawares by a coffin to be made quickly with wood he didn't have in stock, at the beginning of every year, Albarède devoted a few days to strolling around the village. He'd visit everyone in the parish, not missing even the smallest cottage, in order to view all the inhabitants, from the tiniest newborn to the most elderly.
People took these visits to be courtesy calls. In reality, he was watching the way folks walked, remembering how they spoke, noticing the pressure or lack of it when he shook hands with them, how their skin colour looked, as well as other signs that only he understood. Afterwards, he'd go home, mulling over what he'd noticed about certain people and he'd write down how many planks of what length to buy in his order-book, for instance: 6 planks of 2 metres for Paul Auvernet. . . 6 planks of 1 metre 85 for Berthe Nicaud. . . 6 planks of 1 metre 75 for Henri Merlerault. . . 6 planks of 1 metre 50 for Nasset's little girl. . .
However, if you'd seen those two big, stapping healthy lads, Paul and Henri, on their way to the fields that day, you'd have taken Albarède for a fool, because he saw them dead and in need of a coffin. Indeed, in his imagination, he was already assembling and nailing together their coffins. Of course, it didn't require much clairvoyance to predict Berthe's demise, as she was in very poor health and always seemed about to take her last breath, but certainly not Nasset's little girl. . . why, she was the very picture of good health, with her clear eyes and rosy cheeks!
At the end of a week or so, he'd finished his estimations. Naturally, he never spoke of any of this to anyone, least of all to his wife, who trembled at the mere mention of death. And after all, dear friends, if he'd ever discussed his soothsayer's gift with his neighbours, why, they'd no doubt have stoned him to death, driven away his family and burned down his house. But no one knew any of this until later, without really believing it.
At any rate, having estimated how many many people would die within the year, he could purchase exactly the amount of wood he'd need to build coffins for the next twelve months, without the worry of having to stock it for too long.
And would you believe it, dear friends? He was rarely wrong, perhaps only two or three times. Either he'd judged them ready to die too quickly or more frequently, Death, being annoyed at having been anticipated, would decide to let them live, if only to see Albarède keep useless planks in his woodshed.
Better still, three nights before death came to carry them off, the wood intended for the coffin of this or that person would start to creak, so loudly that Albarède, who could hear them from where he slept in his room next to the woodshed, would get out of bed and go see who would be next to die and think to himself that their family would soon be minus two hands to do the work. . .
However, one morning, his son Albert suddenly began to rub one side of his head! The next morning and the days that followed, he continued to rub the side of his head vigorously, always in the same area, as if something was bothering him. Oh, never for very long, but enough that Albarède's mouth began to go dry. . .
Even so, his son was in good health, never having been seriously ill in his ten years of life. A good boy, happy and handsome, who had all the good qualities you could hope for in a son: tall, straight and as strong as a pitchfork handle! Alas! Poor Albarède had no doubt and it filled him with sadness. He didn't know when it would be exactly, only that it would be soon. His heart aching, he went and bought six planks of 1 metre 40, of the best oak he could find. Fighting back tears, he brought them home and stored them in the woodshed, leaning against the wall against the other planks intended for coffins. Right on top of those for the Champausoult brothers, who at that particular moment were probably emptying pitchers of strong wine before going off logging in the forest, not at all thinking they were likely to die soon...
To be continued
Having survived the root canal Friday last (whew!) and rather than live in dread of the next dental tortures I'm about to be subjected to, e.g., impressions and crown, I thought I'd distract myself by translating another story for you folks. And here I am, trying to beat the nasty cut-off habits of the machine by typing in a bit of pap at the end and