Off Brittany's Shore

In the field behind the house I’m living in there is a menhir about ten feet tall. I have been out to caress it and have felt the ancient grooves left in the stone by a stroking tool. The menhir leans a little back. How much of it has sunk into the ground, I wonder? How great a stone was hoisted into place thousands of years ago? I doubt it could be raised today without help from “the continent.” Perhaps five thousand years ago, in a less doubting time, I could have carved it out and stood it up myself, somehow.

At the far end of the island are two dolmens resembling giant stone coffee tables. I don’t understand them any better than I understand the menhir.

At my feet a circle of mushrooms has sprung up, appearing almost as I write: unusual for such dry soil— the villagers can barely bring potatoes, garlic, and onions to maturity in their gardens. The bells are ringing for six-thirty Mass; it’s going to be a sung Mass in honor of Saint Anne of Brittany.

I have been living on Houat for two weeks now, and I am beginning to feel my way around. An open boat, the Notre Dame de Confort, brought me here, ten miles off the southern coast of Brittany; the trip took about an hour. It is a little island, less than three miles long, and it supports barely a dozen trees. Most of the brush that looks green from a distance is fierce, prickly stuff. The village is all down at the northeast end, close to the port. There are two grocery stores, a bakery, and a small hotel that will close in September.

I am not staying at the hotel, but at Madame Perron’s house; she has rented me a room with double bed and lavabo. The toilet is outside; the key to it hangs on a nail beside the front door. Most of us summer people stay with villagers and not at the hotel; the rooms are nicer, for one thing, and besides, it’s pleasant to chat with Madame Perron from time to time. She has six children, two girls who help her with her summer guests and four younger boys. Monsieur Perron, like most of the other men on the island, goes out with the fishing boats at four in the morning and gets home at noon or shortly after, unless the day is stormy. His catch consists of lobsters—perhaps a dozen, or, on a good day, fifteen or sixteen—crabs, mackerel, sole, lotte—a little this, a little that. He will let me go along with him one of these days. I must be in costume: blue jeans, two sweaters, yellow oilskins if I have them. If I don’t have them, I can get them from the grocery store and I should. It is a wet, cold, windy ride out into the ocean at that hour.

There are twenty-five fishing boats in Houat’s cooperative. In 1952 there were none; a storm had destroyed them. The village priest, whose parish includes all of the four hundred and seventy inhabitants of the island, organized the cooperative after the storm and was able to borrow enough money to buy new boats and get the island back up on its feet. Now Houat is growing, not as a tourist center but as a fishing village. The island on the horizon, Hoedic, drops in population; so does Belle lie, five miles farther out to sea. Only Houat grows. The church bells ring each day for Mass; the parish school is larger and better attended than the public school—four Good Sisters teach the children there through the elementary grades, while one master is sufficient for the école communale. For high school all the children are boated to “the continent” where they are boarded weekdays. The Ministry of Education provides them with one free round trip each week so they can come home for Saturday and Sunday.

Although the two streetlights are turned off at eleven o’clock on weeknights, night life picks up on Saturdays. There’s a movie; there’s a dance with music played by real musicians. There’s white wine and two pinball machines at the tabaccafé. From my windows I can hear the music and the singing. The firm rule against “tapage nocturne” is forgotten until midnight. They are young, Madame Perron says. A little white wine Saturday-not too much, of course; but they must have some fun.

There is no doctor here. One of the four Good Sisters runs the dispensary when she’s not teaching. She is the only person on the island who gives medical attention. She says in winter it’s sore throats, in summer it’s whatever summer people bring along with them. The priest, who is assisted by three sacristans on Sundays, works weekdays in the mayor’s office, where he is executive secretary and puts into action all the mayor’s decisions. He works there with Monsieur Antoine, an ethnologist who came seven years ago to study the island and bought a red-sailed fishing boat and stayed to become the president of the fishermen’s union. These three men—the priest, Monsieur Antoine, and the mayor, who is appointed by an elected body of municipal counselors—are the most powerful men on the island. Together they fight off promoters from “the continent” who want to exploit Houat’s score of beaches. They told me about the man who came from Paris fifty years ago; when he saw Houat’s Grande Plage, which stretches more than a kilometer along the southeast crescent of the island, he bought it so that it could never be commercialized. Forty-five years later, his son, upon inheriting, invited out a clutch of Cabinet ministers and convinced them, easily enough, that they were looking at a gold mine. He was granted a national subsidy and set about trying to convince the villagers that once the beach was divided into lots they would have nothing more to do but put their boats on crutches and sit back and live off the tourists. To his astonishment the whole village stood against him. The beach remains entire, untouched. “We told him that we’d throw his machines into the sea if he should bring them here,” Monsieur Antoine said. “We will.”

I told Monsieur Antoine that I’d like to buy one of the empty houses in the middle of the village and he said that I couldn’t. I assured him that I wouldn’t spoil things, that I was a writer, and would just come from time to time. He said that was precisely the problem. “Look at Belle lle,” he said. “Three times the size of Houat, and at one point three times more important. Now it exists only for two months of tourism. The summer people have bought up all the old houses and built all of the new ones. For ten months of the year the island is locked up, deserted. Soon it will be completely dead. Belle He’s fishing fleet is down to six or seven boats; that’s all the industry that holds those islanders together through the year. They can’t survive. Hoedic’s the same. There’s only one general store left there now; it’s run by a Good Sister. She’s just barely making ends meet, go and see. It’s summer visitors that kill an island. You can’t buy a house here. I wouid fight against it, so would the priest, we’d set the village on you. Be content with your rented room. Aren’t you content?”

I said I was content, of course. I had just thought that Houat being what it was, I’d like to belong to it a little. One does not belong to Houat “a little,” he said.

The mushroom circle at my feet has not changed noticeably in the past two hours. The menhir in the field seems to lean a little more, though; the sun has changed its angle. Two women have walked past me, each leading a black and white cow at the end of a long rope. There are eight cows on the island; there are not eight cars.

Tomorrow I have been invited to visit the lobster nursery. Fifteen, sixteen lobsters in a catch at best; it didn’t seem like much. “Lobsters have gotten very scarce,” Monsieur Antoine said. “Try to buy some on the island: four dollars a pound, that’s what you’ll pay. We’ve started up a nursery at the west end of the island, but we don’t know yet just how it will work out.”

“A lobster nursery?” I asked. “Something like oyster beds?”

“Not like oyster beds,” Monsieur Antoine replied. “Nothing so grand. No one can afford to raise lobsters. It takes six years for them to get to table size, and all that time they’re eating, eating. When we catch a lobster that is carrying its eggs we bring it to the nursery—it’s that building near the old fort that looks like a greenhouse. If we put the lobster back into the sea, she’ll lay her eggs, of course, but of the ten thousand or so that she lays no more than one or two would survive long enough to become adults. We watch over the eggs until they hatch, then for a while longer. When the baby lobsters are little-finger length we set them free near bricks that we have sunk just off the shore. The bricks have holes in them that we hope the little lobsters will hide in. Of course, they will still be hunted by other fish, but perhaps, given a better start, more of them will survive.”

I asked if this had ever been done before. “In the twenties,” he said, “something like it was tried both by the Americans and by the Japanese. They didn’t try to control the experiment, though. They just hatched the eggs and threw the little lobsters into the sea, where they all disappeared into a million mouths. We have our bricks that we make specially, and we have divers who will go down from time to time to check things out and make sure that everything is going well. That way, if things aren’t going well we’ll know why and maybe we will be able to do something about it.”

The lobster nursery is not the only odd-looking building on the island. There is a water factory that is hidden in a hollow at the bottom of a cliff. Until last year the Houatais gathered their supply of water from their roofs and ran it off into cisterns. In the two weeks that I have been here it has rained only once; the cisterns cannot have been filled often. Now water is taken from the sea. It runs through the factory and comes out unpleasantly tasteless but without salt, and every house has all the water that it needs, provided it can pay the price. Another step needs to be taken, though. The runnels that are carved into each side of the dirt streets are still uncovered. When one walks through the village the odor is high and medieval. Never mind. Last year, water; sometime, sooner or later, a covered sewage system.

Last week I was sick. I had a fever of 103 degrees, so Madame Perron went down to her sister-in-law’s grocery store and telephoned Dr. Tachet on “the continent.” He came out to the island in a medical services helicopter; his house call cost nine dollars. He prescribed fifteen dollars’ worth of medicines and shots. Then he got back into the helicopter and flew back to “the continent,” where he gave his prescriptions to the pharmacist in Quiberon. The pharmacist put the penicillin, sulfa, cough syrup, and assorted pills into a paper bag, wrote my name on it, and delivered it to the captain of the Notre Dame de Confort. That evening, five hours after the doctor left the island, the medicines were carried from the port to the Good Sister at the infirmary. She came immediately, with a nice open smile and a box full of bent and discolored hypodermic needles thick enough for all eventualities. After that she came every day for three days to give me my shots. I am now feeling better, though a little shaky. Yesterday I paid my bill; for the four visits it came to a little over four dollars. I gave her my leftover medicines.

By Sunday I was well enough to go to Mass. Although I was born more or less a Protestant and have grown, with time, rather less than more of anything, I like to go to Mass in Houat. High Mass begins at ten. I was too weak to make it, so I went to the children’s Mass at eleven-thirty. The pews were filled; the choir took up the entire loft behind me. It is a big loft for a big choir; people like to sing in Houat. The priest’s voice is very good; so are the sacristans’ voices. Once a Basque said to me, “Anyone can sing if he has a good heart.” I never really believed him, but I remembered him in Houat.

The congregation at the children’s Mass is very young and very old: little children with their grandmothers. The grandmothers are dressed in black: black blouses, sweaters, skirts, stockings, and espadrilles. White lace coifs of the size of starched cocktail napkins are pinned to their chignons. They don’t take off their aprons for anything so everyday as church, nor do they put on fresh ones. The aprons that they wear have served through breakfast and house-tidying, and will serve through dinner, the ties to them already ropy. They are good aprons to sing in, to pray in, and to take communion in.

The sermon spoke to my condition, though it was meant for children. Things are hard on wellmeaning people nowadays, the priest said; there is a lot of stupidity and wickedness around; it’s enough to depress anyone. At times you even get sucked in; that happens. What you have to do is fight back hard and all the time, bearing in mind that you can’t win them all, that no one’s perfect; that way you won’t get discouraged and give up. I nodded with the grandmothers. The children looked interested, but skeptical; they knew that perfection was just around the corner. Dogs stood at the door and watched and listened; when the bell rang at the Elevation they pricked up their ears. Two of the smaller ones started in, got frowned at, and backed out again. In the field behind the dogs the menhir slanted against the sun. One of the sacristans sang a hymn in Breton.