Ropraz, in the Haut-Jorat, canton of Vaud, Switzerland, 1903. A land of wolves and neglect in the early twentieth century, poorly served by public transport, two hours from Lausanne, perched on a high hillside above the road to Berne, bordered by dense forests of fir. Dwellings often scattered over wastelands hemmed in by dark trees, cramped villages with squat houses. Ideas have no currency, tradition is a dead weight, and modern hygiene is unknown. Avarice, cruelty, superstition – we are not far from the border with Fribourg, where witchcraft is rampant. They hang themselves a lot in the farms of the Haut-Jorat. In the barn. From the ridge-beam.
A loaded weapon is kept in the stable or cellar. With hunting or poaching as a justification, they cherish powder, shot, great traps with metal teeth, and blades sharpened on the whetstone. Fear lurks. At night prayers of conjuration or exorcism are said. They are severely Protestant, but cross themselves when monsters loom in the fog. Along with the snow, the wolf returns. It is not so long since the last one was killed, in 1881; its stuffed hide is gathering dust seven miles away, behind glass in the Vieux-Moudon museum. And then the fearsome bear that came from the Jura. It disembowelled some heifers not forty years ago, in the gorges of the Mérine. The old folk remember it; there’s no joking in Ropraz or Ussières. In Voltaire’s day, when he lived in the château down in the hamlet of Ussières, brigands would “wait” on the main road – the one leading to Berne and the German lands – and, later, soldiers returning from Napoleon’s wars would hold honest folk to ransom. You have to take care when employing a vagabond for the harvest, or to dig potatoes. He is the outsider, the snoop, the thief. A ring in his ear, a crafty look, a knife in his boot.
Here there are no large shops, factories or plants; people have only what they win from the soil – in other words nothing. It is no kind of life. People are so poor that our cattle are sold to city butchers for meat. We make do with pig, and so much of it is consumed in every shape and form – smoked, rind removed, minced or salted – that we end up looking like it, with pink faces and ruddy jowls, far from the world, in dark coombs and woods.
In this remote countryside a young girl is a lodestar for lunacy. For incest and brooding in unwed gloom on flesh for ever desired and for ever forbidden.
Sexual privation, as it will come to be called, is added to skulking fear and evil fancies. In solitude, by night, the amorous romps of a few fortunate individuals and their moaning accomplices, satanic titillations, a guilt entwined into four centuries of imposed Calvinism. Endlessly construing the threat from deep within and from without, from the forest, from the cracking of the roof, from the wailing of the wind, from the beyond, from above, from beneath, from below: the threat from elsewhere. You bar yourself inside your skull, your sleep, your heart, your senses; you bolt yourself inside your farmhouse, gun at the ready, with a haunted, hungry soul. Winter stirs this violence beneath the lasting snow, a friend to the demented, the ruddy and bistre skies between daybreak and night-time deprivation, the cold and the gloom that strains and wastes the nerves. But I was forgetting the astounding beauty of the place. And the full moon. And the nights when the moon is full, the prayers and rituals, the bacon rind rubbed on warts and wounds, the black potions against pregnancy, the rituals with crudely fashioned wooden dolls stuck with pins and martyrized, the spells cast by charlatans, the prayers to cure spots on the eye. Even today in sheds and attics you still find books of magic and recipes for brews of menstrual blood, vomit, toad spittle and powdered viper.
When the moon shines too bright, beware bric, beware brac. When the moon rises rathe, shut up serpent in sack. Hysteria swells. And fear. Who slipped into the loft? Who walked on the roof? Look to pitchfork and powder, before secrets of the abyss!