Philippe’s grandfather was found dead in the Maquis with his back against a tree and his rifle across his lap. Philippe sat in the position to show us as he retold the story, holding his arms to his chest as if clutching a rifle. “The Gestappo – the Italian police, you know? – they were in the Maquis on a full moon night and saw the light shine on the barrel. When they found him he was dead. Heart attack at 46.”
Philippe shares his grandfather’s passion for guns and hunting, as many men do on this island. A common scene was the Hunter’s Bar in Ota: a bunch of men sat drinking Pastis and looking at guns on a computer or in magazines. They wore camouflage jackets and hats and there were boar’s heads and stuffed birds on the walls. They poured more Pastis and played cards and other hunters came and went, everyone greeting everyone else.
I asked Philippe if he hunts with dogs and he said he doesn’t, he prefers to hunt at night. “Wow, that’s intense,” I said.
In the book we’re reading about Corsica (Granite Island by Dorothy Carrington) there’s a chapter about other night hunters, the Mazzeri. The Mazzeri were improperly baptized individuals who lived in the villages but apart from the people. They had the gift, though, of foretelling death. At night they’d hunt in the fragrant Maquis and kill the first animal that came along – a dog or a boar or whatever. Then they’d roll it onto its back, look in the face and recognize somebody from the area. In the morning they announced the news that the person they saw would die within a year.
Carrington writes that the Mazzeri didn’t actually cause the deaths, rather they interpreted what was sent to them. They were compelled to go into the Maquis to hunt just as the animal was compelled to cross their path. It was Destiny, and their only part was to read it. But she writes that night hunting becomes addictive for some Mazzeri, despite their reluctance to read more deaths.
The closer you look at the tradition of the Mazzeri, the further back you look “into the night of time,” further back even than the megalith builders who inhabited the island thousands of years ago, whose works you can still see and touch, faces carved into upright, human-sized stones. The Mazzeri reflect a people grappling with the basic human activities of hunting and dying at the dawn of cognizance.
When I asked Father Joseph if the megaliths were interesting to visit, I was kinda annoyed by his answer, “Well, they’re ok if you’re interested in rocks and old stuff.” But now that I better understand the historical context I can see why he answered that way. The megaliths (“rocks and old stuff”) were symbols for the beliefs and traditions that Christianity struggled for a thousand years to dislodge. The megalith builders were active on the island since 3000 B.C., while the traditional customs & beliefs lasted from the dawn of cognizance deep into Christianity’s crusade – even up until the Second World War Corsica remained an island writhing in the coils of busy myths. By contrast, Christianity has only been here since about 500 A.D. That means that in the year 3509 A.D, it will still be another 2000 years before Christian beliefs will have been on this island as long as the megalith builder beliefs have been here to now.
A couple weeks ago I wrote to you about touching the stones that ancient people touched and trying to imagine what compelled them to build. I wrote that I hoped “my mind would be refilled with the mind that built those walls” and maybe I’d tap into something fundamental to the human experience that I’m missing now. Only I failed to connect. Obviously I don’t believe I can conjure the minds of the past, I don’t believe in that. But I’m starting to realize that a fundamental piece of human experience that I’m missing is the very instrument that allowed people to communicate with their ancestors – magic.
The disappearance of magic is a symptom of the changed pace of the world. I think that the key to understanding another person’s experience is living the rhythm of their life, and to understand the wall builders I’d have to quit using a car and stop working a job and extract the internet from my body and ignore the media. It would mean living with the seasons and working with my body and living a shorter life but maybe living in constant wonder.
Philippe, stroking the barrel of his gun, said, “This is my dream, realized. I wanted my life to be hunting, guns, motorcycles, cheese, goats.” He didn’t mention his wife and daughter in the next room. “And now I have it.”
We left his house late at night and as we rode home I thought about what it would be like going into the Maquis with a rifle and just sitting and waiting and listening. I thought about what I would feel if I sat still for a night, and what I’d hear if I didn’t talk, and what I’d see if there were no lights, and what I’d sense if time and rhythm slowed to heartbeat and breath. I wondered if Philippe was addicted to night hunting like the Mazzeri and if I could be too.
The scooter pulled through the night to the crest of the hill and from a height that felt like floating, we looked down the spine of Corsica. There were a few towns hidden in folds facing the sea. It felt mythical at that time, and the next night we went back to the same spot to take pictures. I thought about my own dream realized, honestly: traveling with Azure by motorcycle (the scooter has done fine) with a camera and my journal, trying to learn the rhythm of other people’s lives.