Laurel Doves By Sharon Collins

Chapter 1 (prompt – NEST)

The novices were as prickly as their newly shorn heads. The scabs forming on their scalps, echoed those on their broken hearts. Isolated in the misery of memory, silent tears welled as six faces searched the failing light. While mourning doves cooed under the eaves, and the chapel bells sounded compline, a small miracle occurred… so unexpected in this place and at this time. “Demori! Je m’appelle Geneviève, and I remain!” whispered the tallest of the six ancient souls shivering in the gathering gloom, their frail bodies deemed too young to burn upon the pyres of Montsegur. Five of the six, united in full understanding of the whispered word, “Demori,” drew close. They tugged worn sandals from tender feet, the sandals too costly to replace, were the only remnants of their old lives not forfeit in an effort to erase their identities.

Wriggling thin fingers, each drew forth a single, green, laurel leaf from between the frayed layers of their leather soles. Holding them up in silent communion, one by one, they each repeated, “Demori.”“Je ne comprende pas. I do not understand these leaves…this word…Demori…” trembled the sixth novice, Virginie, a wisp of a girl and the only one of the six not just arrived.

Virginie had appeared ten years ago, a newborn passed through the convent gate into the anonymous keeping of the sisters. The cloistered world within the walls was the only home she knew. “Non, you do not understand now, ma petite, but you will,” assured Geneviève grinning with sudden comprehension. Pulling apart her other sandal she handed a second leaf to Virginie. During their nightmare escape, Père Jean had sheltered them under the low branches of the sacred Laurel tree growing at the foot of Montsegur. There he had instructed each of the others to select a single leaf for remembrance . Oddly, she had been instructed to select two. Now she knew why.

Hours later, unable to sleep, Geneviève lay, curled in the straw nest of her pallet, staring at the full moon and letting her mind drift. Smiling, she thought of winsome Virginie and of all the wonderful secrets awaiting her. Always the student, she knew she was destined to become the teacher. Dear, brave Père Jean had told her so many times. ‘Virginie will be my first student, and Hèléne and Marie-Claude can help me in the teaching,’ she decided then and there. Each girl had excelled in the hurried classes taught by Geneviève’s Grand-mère, a Chathar Parfaite, in the final months of sanctuary atop Montsegur.

Remembering erased the smile from her face. She and her friends were not the only ones to escape the flames that awful March day, two months ago, Geneviève whispered a quick prayer for her other friend Catheline, L’Attendu, the Expected One. Together, she and the Treasure had been lowered down the sheer cliff walls of Montsegur hours before the dawn arrival of Père Jean at Grand-mère’s door and the end of the siege.

Laurel Doves – Chapter 2 (prompt – FRICTION)

Geneviève’s restless mind settled on her youngest traveling companions. Both girls had been waiting under the sacred Laurel Tree on that tragic day. The sprite-like Lisette and the very, very quiet Giselle had each been trained in The Way and were also under Père Jean’s protection. Despite their unusual ways, she had grown to love them. Lisette, who spoke with spirits and especially Giselle, who spoke with horses, became her fast friends on their two month journey away from Montsegur to their new home at Le Couvent of Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte Baume. Now that she had met Virginie, and discovered the owner of the sixth, sacred laurel leaf, Genevieve believed the circle of their sisterhood to be complete. They were anonymous now; they had each other, and they were safe.

Letting her musings deepen into memory… Geneviève’s was once again atop Montsegur, and dawn had not yet broken on March 16th. Grand-mère was fretting, and her Grand-mère did not fret. Combing the tangles from Geneviève’s waist-length hair, she grumbled under her breath. “C’est impossible! We are beyond the reach of La Malvoisine!” The horror of Montforte’s trebuchet, nicknamed the Bad Neighbor, and his brutal, summertime attack thirty-four years ago on Minerve, the city of her birth, was seared into her Grand-mère’s memory. She had been away that terrible summer visiting family with her infant daughter, Geneviéve’s mother. Upon her return, she had disobeyed. She had dared to climb down into the deep gorge to mourn at the grave of more than 150 beautiful Cathar souls . The horror of their charred and scattered remains, brutally trampled into the riverside mud, haunted her nightmares still.

“We have the protection of the nobles; we are safe from the Pope’s fires. The soldiers cannot reach us here, not at Montsegur our safe-mountain!!!” Each exclamation was punctuated by another rake of the wooden comb, the friction causing sparks to snap and crackle along its length. ‘My braids will last an eternity,’ she was tempted to tease, but the sorrow in Grand-mère’s sighs kept her silent. The tension building within Montsegur’s walls, the last of the Cathar strongholds, had reached a breaking point in recent days. As difficult as the ten siege months had been, that morning’s air of utter despair, was far, far worse. The Perfecti had stopped smiling and humming. No matter the chill or hunger, the Teachers had always warmed the air with gentle smiles and filled the ears (if not the bellies) of the few Cathar children sheltered among them with song. Geneviève was both freezing and starving that morning.

Finally finished with the second braid, Grand-mère gave one last, sharp tug. “Such a lovely chestnut is your hair, granddaughter, not faded red like mine. It is blessing to be sure.” The only girl within the stronghold walls lacking the signature auburn or blonde hair of so many Cathar women, Geneviève rued the plainness of her brown tresses. Thus Grand-mère’s odd compliment, although precious to her tall and solemn granddaughter, was tainted with foreboding.

Laurel Doves – Chapter 3 (prompt – TENSION )

Père Jean, Grand-mère’s gracious friend, appeared in the doorway of her dreaming. “It is time Isobel! She and the others must attend me now!” With quick kisses, moist upon both cheeks and the whispered word, “Demori,” lingering in her ears, Geneviève bade farewell to her beloved Grand-mère. Obediently, she joined Hèléne and Marie-Claude just inside the gates of Montsegur as dawn broke on March 16, 1244.

Following Père Jean through the gates and past the Pope’s guards, Geneviève could not help but marvel at his most unusual display of richly embroidered attire. Where was his simple, dark blue robe? ‘Who was this powerful figure to whom the soldiers bowed? Why were they addressing him as, “Your Excellence?’ None of these wonderings did she give voice to. The tension in the two hands holding hers kept her silent. Thus it was that, that Père Jean, L’Évêque, the Bishop, led the littlest heretics away from the pyres and out of recorded history.

Climbing down Montsegur is harder than climbing up it. Its steepness and treacherous stones tempt delicate ankles to twist and snap when mornings are clear and eyes are tear-free. But the smoke that clogged the spring air stung tear-filled eyes making a safe descent impossible. Marie-Claude lost her footing first. Grasping the hood of Hèléne’s cloak in desperation, they both tumbled down the sharp incline. Coming to rest in a tangle, both scrambled to their feet, bruised and in muddy disarray. Geneviève helped straighten their cloaks and pick the blue-green pine needles from their hair.

“Beware mes petites colombes; you cannot truly fly and it is a long way down,” cautioned Père Jean. His nickname (my little doves) for the trio, brought the only smiles that would shine on this most tragic of days.

Despite the desperate urgency of their flight, Père Jean ushered his little flock, back up the path to where a side trail split off. Around a hairpin turn was a small clearing, used in happier times by merchants to store their wares as bundles were ferried up the final ascent. There he let the girls catch their breath but refused their questioning eyes. With their hoods thrown back, it seemed as if three halos gleamed in the hazy dawn. ‘Angels, not doves,’ he mused; ‘one golden-blonde, one bright-copper, and one burnished-brown.’ Lifting hands in prayer he whispered, “Thy will be done. God’s will, not mine.”

Acceptance had been the hardest lesson for Jean. He had battled the outcome of this day for so long…since Béziers and Minerve, three decades of fire and grief. Today that struggle would end and fade like the smoke-filled breeze into memory. Tomorrow, a new and more subtle campaign would begin, and its warriors would not be tired, old priests; they would be little girls. His young charges, so different in appearance and personality, but united by blood, a very special line of blood, were destined to become the newest Soldiers of The Way. Keeping them safe was his sacred vow.

Laurel Doves – Chapter 4 (prompt – WITNESS)

Refusing still, their questioning looks, Père Jean allowed that they should rest and perhaps meditate. Confused yet obedient, Geneviève quieted her chaotic thoughts. Closing her eyes as Grand-mère taught her, she opened herself to her surroundings. Joining the flow of nature, she welcomed the warm embrace of the sun, the chill-kiss of the dew, the citrus scent of yellow primroses. Centered, she felt it, the arrival. She knew they would come; they always had, if she meditated properly. The Lady Bugs arrived. With delight, she felt the first contact on her open palm. Opening her ears Geneviève heard their song filling the air. Shiny motes of black and red, hummed about her, ‘Lady Bug, Lady Bug, fly away home. Your house is on fire and your children are alone…’ eerily the child’s rhyme echoed in her mind.

Just then Geneviève heard actual singing, a halting melody, grief and joy in harmony, coming from just beyond the hairpin turn. It grew louder as the singers approached. Then as they turned and continued their descent, it grew faint. She had never heard this song before, and believed she knew all the songs of The Way. The surprise of her own ignorance made her blurt out a forbidden question. “Père Jean, who is singing that strange song and why?” He shook his head in mute denial. How could he tell her that what she heard was the Song of Ending sung by the remaining Cathar Perfecti as they marched barefoot to their martyrdoms? “Let us pray,” he offered instead. And together the four spent an hour with the Lord in different garden as another great crime was committed.

With their whispered, “Amens,” Père Jean suggested they leave the Lady Bug Clearing and continue their descent. By the time they reached the meadow at the bottom, all three girls bore painful souvenirs of their dangerous trek down the mountain. Bare toes left unprotected by leather sandals were bruised and bloody. Fingernails were broken from grasping at stone and bark. And all three faces were red and puffy with fear and grief. Although no one had spoken the words, each of Père Jean’s fleeing doves had come to understand the meaning behind the smoke stinging their eyes and burning their lungs.

The pyres had been lit just after dawn. It was past these charred altars of hatred and darkness that three doves of love and light hurried.“Do NOT look!” ordered Père Jean. Two doves listened. One did not. Geneviève could have sworn she heard Grand-mère’s voice on the wind. “Demori, Geneviève, Demori…” Despite the iron in Père Jean’s command, she whirled, searching through the smoke. The horror she witnessed as a sudden gust revealed the scorched field, forced a sob from her soul that echoes still at the foot of Montsegur. All the rosy color of exertion drained in an instant and she crumpled, limp to the ground. Gathering her in his arms, Père Jean hurried the girls past the charred remains.

Laurel Doves – Chapter 5 (prompt – FEED)

Geneviève swam back to consciousness and opened her eyes to see the broad yellow-green leaves of the sacred Laurel above her and hear Père Jean was repeating, ”Je suis dèsolè, ma petite, dèsolè…” as he tenderly tucked her wayward braids back under her hood. “My foolish, brave, petite colombe, I tried to shield you.” But the damage was done. Geneviève’s eyes had seen because her ears had heard the whispered word on the wind. “Demori.”Père Jean she gasped from a throat choked with smoke and grief, “What, what does Demori mean?”“It means, I Remain,” he replied, “that although the Light has been dimmed, because You remain, the Light has not been completely burned out.” He might have said more, but Hèléne’s insistent tugging at his robe finally drew his attention. “What, ma petite colombe, is it, that cannot wait?”

“Her hair! Père Jean! Geneviève’s hair…”“Hush child…” he sigh. “Now is not the time.” Hèléne quieted but continued to stare at Geneviève, whose far-seeing eyes noticed not at all.Once more in formation, Père Jean’s flock flew on. As the sacred Laurel receded into the distance Hèléne’s eyes remained glued on stray strands of Geneviève’s hair, waving like silken antennae in the breeze. Long hours later when they stopped by a quiet stream to rest, and feed their empty bellies, Geneviève finally noticed her friend’s awkward attention. Leaning over the bank, to catch a glimpse and tidy her hair, she gasped, then sobbed. Gone was the chestnut glory that Grand-mère so admired. Her unruly braids were nearly all white. Cupping dusty hands in the cool water, she blotted out her eerie appearance and turned to her ginger-haired friend.. When it came to matters of appearance, Hèléne knew how to turn plain girls into pretty girls, and how to turn pretty girls into even prettier ones. Despite the personal plainness embraced by the Perfecti-teachers , the girls’ small vanities had been indulged, and Hèléne’s beauty advice tolerated.

“Is it truly awful?” she managed to croak through her tears. “Tell me true, Hèléne ; it IS horrible is it not?”“Non, ma cherie,” she assured her stricken friend. “N’est pas horrible. C’est très belle, like moonlight on snow…” But of course it was not très belle at all.‘It matters not, not really,’ Geneviève supposed. ‘ I will not be allowed to keep it anyway, not where we are going. Snow-white or chestnut-brown, it makes little difference.’ But she did not say this aloud. The other girls did not yet know the extent of sacrifice awaiting them at journey’s end. Grand-mère had fully informed her but had not wanted to frighten Hèléne or Marie-Claude. Geneviève was also certain that neither Giselle nor Lisette were aware of the vows necessary to become a novice. ‘Poverty, chastity, humility…the last one will take care of my ghostly hair,’ she thought, as she dried her hands on her patched skirt, picked up her bundle, and stepped back into her spot in line behind Père Jean.

Laurel Doves – Chapter 6 (prompt – NIMBLE)

Walking along late spring byways, bursting with riotous color, the bishop and his little flock continued their dangerous journey. Each evening found them settled at an inn where neither Père Jean’s authority nor bottomless purse were questioned, and the girls had a bed to share every night.. As the saying goes, “Misery loves company.” The five grew closer as they shared in an abundance of both.

Two weeks into their trek, inquisitive Lisette, discovered that Hèléne and Marie-Claude were twins, sent to study with Geneviève’s Parfaite Grand-mère. They had arrived just before the siege of Montsegur began. Like Geneviève, they had a grandmother whose dreams were haunted by the Holy Army of Pope Innocent III. Only her dreams were of pikes and swords, and the cruel words,” Kill them all. God will know his own… ” Like Geneviève’s Grand-mère, she too had been away from her home of Béziers when it was sacked. Thus on July 22, 1209, she had been spared.

Surrendering to her unquenchable curiosity, Lisette finally quipped, “I cannot believe they are sisters let alone twins! Except for their milk-white skin, they look nothing alike. How can one twin have red hair and the other have blonde?”

Geneviève, at a loss to explain, shrugged and whispered, “C’est la vie.” Giggling, they proceeded to eavesdrop on the two who were, as usual, taunting each other. Hélène was trying to practice her Latin, as she always did whenever they stopped to eat. And Marie-Claude was trying, as she always did, to get her sister to help prepare their midday meal of crusty bread and watered wine.

“Hèléne, put away that book! I am the eldest; you must abide! Come! Help! Me! Now! ” Marie-Claude ordered her younger sister of barely ten minutes. With each command, she attempted to snatch away the little prayer book given to them by Père Jean. Each time she missed, she stamped her foot raising clouds of dust. Hèléne danced nimbly just out of reach, holding the precious book above her head. Round and round her indignant sister she laughed and twirled.

While Geneviève was the de-facto leader of their little band, Marie-Claude was the self-acknowledged mother-hen. Taking this responsibility seriously, she thought it highly unseemly that her sister preferred learning over domestic duties and complained frequently to Père Jean. He calmed her ire with the same scriptural reference each and every time. Taking Marie-Claude’s hands in his, he would say, “Ma petite colombe, our very own Martha, your sister, like Mary, has chosen the better part…let her learn all she can while she may.” Marie-Claude loved the comparison to Martha, the dependable, elder sister and was instantly soothed. Hèléne was equally pleased by her comparison to the willful Mary.

Their squabbling settled, smiles of sisterhood returned. Of course the biggest smile of all was Père Jean’s, as he knew just how apt his comparison to the Biblical pair truly was. ‘Blood will always tell,’ he thought with satisfaction, ‘especially this blood.’

Laurel Doves – Chapter 7 (prompt – REFLECTION)

With the matters of food for the body and food for the soul settled, and ruffled feathers smoothed, the girls sank into the noon-warmed grass. They shared a simple, travelers’ meal of bread, hard cheese, and sips of well-watered, red Languedoc wine. However, before a single bite was taken, they paused, waiting to recite the Lord’s Prayer as Père Jean had recently re-instructed them, each girl saying her assigned portion.

He started for them, his voice both reverent and encouraging, “Notre Père, Our Father, which art in Heaven, Hallowed be thy name…”

“Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done…” whispered quiet, little Giselle.

“On earth as it is in Heaven, ” added Geneviève without hesitation.

“Give us this day our supersubstantial bread, ” continued Marie-Claude with an elbowed nudge to her sister on the word bread.

“And remit our debts as we forgive our debtors…” added Lisette tentatively, seeking assurance from Père Jean’s nod of encouragement.

“And keep us from temptation, and free us from evil,” finished Hèléne with a flourish and a return nudge to her sister on the word temptation.

“Thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, forever and ever. Amen,” they all chimed together.

“Très bien, mes colombes,” praised Père Jean as he broke apart the crusty loaf and shared it round. “But remember, from this day forward, you must say the last part only to yourselves. Where we are headed, those words are forbidden. To speak aloud them is dangerous and deadly,” he cautioned. “ Promise me you will say them only in your hearts.”

Chewing in silence, every one of his Doves wondered why Père Jean had assigned her only a portion of the prayer reserved for the Parfaits. They had often discussed this odd practice, but never within Père Jean’s hearing. Geneviève had given the mystery considerable reflection and believed she might have an explanation. In their final lesson together, Grand-mère had tutored her in the meaning of the six-petaled rose at the center of the labyrinth paved into the central courtyard of Montségur. “Each of the six petals represents a portion of the Lord’s Prayer and offers a space to meditate on its meaning,” she said. “Empty your mind while you walk the circuits, Geneviève, so that when you enter each petal of the center rose, you will be open to the Prayer’s wisdom.” Père Jean’s six-part division of the Notre Père seemed too similar to be happenstance. What did not make total sense however, was that there were only five of them. Without Père Jean to start them, the prayer could not be completed.

Bothered as she was by this inconsistency, Geneviève decided she would think more on it later. For at that moment, she needed to find a private place to attend to nature’s call. Kilting up her patch-work skirt, off toward the hedgerow she dashed followed by four, gray cloaks flapping in the breeze. Listening to their high-pitched giggles, Père Jean smiled at his doves flying free.

Laurel Doves -Chapter 8 (prompt-DISSONACE)

Geneviève was not the only sleepless soul this first night of cloistered freedom. Mother Supérieure also stared into an empty sky, the weary moon having hidden her face behind gathering clouds. Her mind filled with a dissonance that even the harmony of prayer would not dissipate, she had elected to absent herself from Matins. The Prioress would lead the sisters in their dark of the night devotions. A foolish practice, she thought, Yeshua would laugh at such ceremonies. The Lord did not listen any better during the dark than during the day.

Tonight especially, she required peace. Needing time to consider the enormity of Jean’s arrival and request. She did not welcome the distracting shuffle of two dozen sleepy sisters heading to chapel to pray. Despite, a lifetime of preparing, she had fiercely hoped to pass into her next life without having to heed The Call. This fervent hope had evaporated today, washed away like the dust and grime coating Jean’s five doves, falling away like their beautiful curls, swept up and tossed into a midden of despair.

Clutching her own sacred Laurel leaf to her heart, Mother Supérieure gave into the flood of grief today’s unwanted eventuality had summoned. ‘Oh Isobel, my dear sister, how I will miss knowing your wise spirit walks the same earth as mine. Distance and duty have separated us for nearly a lifetime, and now our chance to laugh under the same sun and dance as we did as girls is gone. Jean’s dreadful news has cleft my heart in twain. I pray you received the consolamentum before your ordeal. Oh dearest sister, may your soul shine in light perpetual; I will miss you beyond measure and promise to care for your granddaughter as I have cared for mine.

Personal tragedy put aside, Mother Supérieure, Magdalena, sister of the very same Isobel, Geneviève called Grand-mère, rose from bed and lighted a tallow candle to guide her to the darkened cloister garden. The walls of her room and the weight of her duty pressed in. Walls, were walls no matter if physical or spiritual, they kept a soul confined. At least in the garden, under the willow, she could breathe freely as she reviewed the safeguards put into place the year Geneviève was born. The birth of Bloodline children, especially girls, was carefully monitored by both Cathar and Roman authority, one with joy and hope, the other with fear and hate. Therefore, the births of the three Montségur doves and the waif known as Virginie, had been carefully kept secret. Destined for greatness since their first breaths, the four had grown under the watchful eyes of Isobel and Magdalena . Giselle and Lisette, also bloodline, too had been secreted away as the Pope’s army burned its way across France. Their hiding places had been equally effective, one a guest of Les Gardiens of the Carmargue and the other, of the wandering Gitane.

Laurel Doves – Chapter 9 (prompt – THREAT)

As Mother Superior’s thoughts deepened, the dreams of another sleeping dove darkened into nightmare. Lisette again played the Hiding Game. Alone, her six-year-old-self scratched the dirt, mimicking others she had watched. But her efforts were useless. There was nothing to glean. The summer wheat which had screened her from threatening eyes, was not nearly ripe. Frightened but obedient, she hid, muffling her sobs as Mireille, of the Gitane, limped within earshot.

A copse of beech on the outskirts of Lisette’s tiny village yearly sheltered bands of the traveling people known as the Gitan. The month of May was waning and Mirielle’s family was making its way to the coastal town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer to celebrate the Feast Day of Sainte Sarah, the Patroness of the Gitan. Contrary to the popular belief that all “gypsies” were thieves and scoundrels, Mireille was well-respected by the Cathar villagers and welcomed into their homes. Mireille, a healer, and Lisette’s Grandmother, a midwife, had much in common, and so, each eagerly anticipated their yearly visits. So when news of more Cathar burnings reached the encampment, Mirielle strode off toward the village, intent on helping where she might. In her rush she stumbled, turning her ankle sharply. Although she stopped to wrap it with a dock leaf and a tight linen bandage, she did not take time to brew willow tea. So pain slowed her progress, giving her fears ample time to multiply.

As she neared the village, the ache in her ankle and her growing unease were stoked by the smell of smoke on the breeze. As she limped, Mirielle nearly missed the faint sobs coming from deep within the wheat field. Torn between her mission and investigating the cries, the fire-charred timbers she could now see in the distance made the decision for her. There was no longer anything she could do for her friend the midwife; of that she was sure. Heartbroken, she turned toward the center of the field.

Not much taller than a child herself, Mirielle, could barely see over the dancing wheat stalks. “Qui va là? Who is there?” she called. The sobbing quieted, leaving only the hum of insects to fill the tense silence. Picturing, the midwife’s small granddaughter, Mireille shivered with fear and hope. “Lisette? Is it you? Fear not ma petite; it is your Miri. Cry out child so I can come to you.”

Squealing with relief, Lisette rushed toward the sound of her Miri’s voice. Watching the wheat flow like a wave heading straight for her, Mirielle ignored the blaze of fire in her ankle, and scooped the child up. No shoreline could have held back the tidal force in those tiny arms and legs as they wrapped themselves around her. It was clearly Lisette’s intent to never, ever, let go. Responding in kind, Mireille pledged her own heart with equal embrace, and in that moment, a bond was forged. Knowing the child would never have been abandoned, Mireille turned her back on the ruined village.

Laurel Doves – Chapter 10 (prompt – LIMINAL)

“Miri, I am hungry. Have you anything good to eat in your pocket,” piped Lisette tugging on the woolen pouch tied to Miri’s waist.

“Non, ma chere, but we can look for strawberries along the path,” she promised as she prompted, “Tell me, child, she how did you come to be alone in the middle of the wheat field?”

“Maman took me for a walk early this morning. She said today was a very special day and we should play the Hiding Game to celebrate.. Miri, did you know that I am the best at hiding?” Not waiting for an answer, Lisette continued with eyes down, scanning every sunny spot for the delicious bits of red; therefore, she missed the frown marring Miri’s features and the anger in her eyes. “ I hid so well, that Maman could not find me. I was just ready to shout ‘Je suis la!’ when I heard the angry voices and the boots and Maman’s cry. I was very frightened. When the men called my name, I did not answer! I closed my eyes so they could not see me, and I said Maman’s magic word — Demori over and over to help me stay hidden. When I opened my eyes, the men were gone and Maman, was shining there…”

“Child, slow down,” cautioned Mireille, “You will give yourself une crise de hoquet, the hiccups. What do you mean, Maman was shining there? “Tell me more, ma petite.”

“Maman was standing there in the wheat, right beside me. She looked so pretty, all white and golden, and she was smiling at me because I played The Hiding Game so well. But then she left, and I was alone again. I could hear her though. She said it was safe to cry, if I wanted That is when I heard you calling for me. Miri, where did Maman go?”

Grasping the truth of their liminal farewell, the child’s disjointed litany began to make perfect sense. Thankfully a six-year-old’s questions do not probe too deeply, and Lisette was satisfied to learn both Maman and Grand-mère had gone to visit the angels. Lisette was just about to ask if she could go too, when a swarm of Lady Bugs descended upon them. Delightfully distracted, her wishful visit was forgotten. Hopping on one foot, still holding her Miri’s hand and squishing strawberries in the other, she thrilled, “Lady Bug, Lady Bug, fly away home. Your house is on fire and your children are alone…”

Singing down the path, Lisette, the little heretic, skipped her way into obscurity. Mireille smiled wistfully at the irony of Lisette’s lilting rhyme. ‘No, child, you are not alone,’ she thought, ‘You have your angels and you have me. And I have Jean.’ After all these years, she still thought of him simply as Jean; Père Jean did not fit the man she remembered . ‘Ah, well,’ she sighed, “ We shall see him soon enough, and he will know what to do…”

Laurel Doves – Chapter 11 (prompt – SULLEN)

Giselle’s whinny broke the pre-dawn silence. Five bald heads poked out of their blankets, eyes wide. Giselle tossed and repeated what could only be described as the frightened whinny of a colt.“Oh no, she is whinnying again!” yawned Lisette.

“What do you mean?” demanded Hélène, pulling her blanket over her head, chilly without her bright red ringlets.

“When she came to live with us, she barely spoke during the day. But, mon Dieu, in her dreams, she never stopped. Our Miri, who can speak to animals, could not understand Giselle’s horse language. None of the Gitan gathered at the festival of Sainte Sarah could.”

“How did she learn to speak horse?” asked Marie-Claude, shrugging back her woolen blanket despite the chill. Always the little mother, she tiptoed to Giselle and tucking the blanket closer, soothed her fretful dream.

“Our Miri, believes she learned from Les Gardien who live in the salt marshes of the Carmargue with the pink flamingos and herd the white horses and the black bulls. They can speak the horse language. Their Leader brought Giselle to Miri at the festival. They found baby Giselle among the yearling horses. Although they are wild and hard to tame, the horses did not hurt her! She was all alone, no mother, no father, no name. Les Guardiens are all men, and although they tried for a long while, they could not tend a growing girl-child, so they decided to bring her to Our Miri!” finished Lisette with a bounce.

“How did they know her name? “ piped Virginie. Giselle’s story was striking hard in her equally-orphaned heart and though very shy, she managed to whisper the longest sentences of her young life. “Reverend Mother named me Marie Virginie for Mother Mary because I was passed through the convent wall on her feast day, August 15th. Why do you suppose Les Gardiens named her so? Is there a Sainte Giselle?”

Geneviève, who had learned of Giselle’s strange background from Père Jean, answered. “Giselle comes from a very old word that means shared obligation. Les Gardiens shared the duty of keeping Giselle safe until they gave her to the Miri, who shared her care with Père Jean and all of us. So you see, it is a perfect name.”

While the girls quietly discussed this tantalizing new mystery, Geneviève wondered if she should reveal the rest of Giselle’s story. Deciding yes, she began again… “Miri told Père Jean another piece of information about Giselle that Lisette does not know. It explains why she too is Une Petite Colombe, one of Père Jean’s Little Doves. When Les Gardiens discovered Giselle, she was wearing a green dress and a red cape embroidered with the word ‘Demori.’ And, she was playing with a little dove carved from the wood of a laurel tree. She, like each of us, is of The Way and must be kept safe. That is why Père Jean brought us here, to hide us in plain sight. That sullen, old Pope would never look for heretics in a convent,” she giggled.

Laurel Doves – Chapter 12 (prompt – NIGHTMARE)

The dusty dormitory filled with sleepy murmurs as the girls assured Virginie that she, like they, must also be a daughter of The Way. How should she else have transformed from orphan, servant girl into one of Père Jean’s Petites Colombes, they wondered. Wondering but weary still from yesterday’s ordeal, the Doves snuggled back into their blankets and drifted off to sleep. All except Geneviève, that is. Her restless mind refused to settle. Replaying their arrival, she remembered an unspoken affirmation between Père Jean and Mère Supérieure as she introduced Virginie. Geneviève felt an odd connection to the stern but kind matron, even though they had never met. Something about the humor in her voice as she reprimanded Père Jean for calling her by her given name, Magdalena, instead of her title, reminded her of Grand-mère.

Grand-mère and Père Jean had prepared her well, sharing the challenges she could expect at le Couvent, giving her advice on how to help the others through the nightmare days ahead, but neither had given her a clue about Viriginie. Geneviève was proud her flash of insight revealed Virginie as the Sixth Dove. It made sense that the bitter need of her orphaned state was answered by the wisdom found in the first part of the prayer. Our Father, who art… Twirling the imaginary end of her missing braid, Geneviève concluded that she had been left ignorant of Virginie to test the ability of her eyes to see and her ears to hear.

In time Geneviève did learn the full story. She learned that to know a great love often comes at a terrible price. She learned that her Grand-mére had a sister named Magdalena, who had once loved a soldier of The Way named Jean. But he had loved a forbidden stranger named Mireille. She learned of a Magdalena’s daughter, dead in childbirth on the Feast of the Assumption. She learned that Virginie was her cousin. She learned of sacrifices greater than imagined possible, and that often in life, duty must needs come before love. She learned of another truth, hidden in plain sight. Père Jean was not the only “sheep in wolf’s clothing” so to speak. Mère Supérieure too, wore powerful, borrowed robes. But of course she learned none of that on her first day at le Couvent.

Sighing Geneviève abandoned sleep and tiptoed to the washbasin. ‘An icy dunking, not usually welcome, feels wonderful if one’s scalp is all itchy and scabby, ‘ she mumbled as the ringing of bells brought an impish smile to her lips. Worming her way among the pallets, and wisking woolen coverlets away, she sang, “Dormez-vous? Dormez-vous? Sonnez les matines! Sonnez les matines! Ding, Ding, Dong…”“S’il vous plaît, non… “ Marie-Claude and Hélène yawned simultaneously! Giselle giggled, while Virginie, snapping her finger to her lips, gave a fearsome frown. She, who knew the rules of the convent so very well, urged, “Oui, ne chantes pas, Geneviève. Stop singing; the Sisters will hear…”

Laurel Doves – Chapter 13 (prompt — CLOUDY)

Wide awake now and rubbing at the cloudy rheum left from yesterday’s tears, Hélène, spouted, “Let the Sisters hear! Why should not WE sing? THEY sang yesterday while they were torturing us!”

“The Sisters were not trying to hurt us,” defended Virginie. “All the novices must have their hair shorn. The Vow of Humility; it is required by this order. You should be grateful this is not a convent where the Vow is of Silence as well.

“Well, I for one, am certainly not grateful,” interjected Marie-Claude, tenderly fingering a particularly raw spot on her temple. Turning to Geneviève, she asked the question they were all wondering, “Do I looked as awful as you?”

Sadly, the answer was, “Oui”. Bald and blighted, the remaining patches of ginger, blonde, and white on their scalps, were criss-crossed with angry red welts and dotted crusts of drying blood marking where the razor had bitten too deep.

“Thank goodness sweet little Mélisande showed up and saved us from Sister Berthe, the Brute!” snapped Hélène who had begun nicknaming the nuns. Sister Berthe, being none to gentle in her efforts as a barber, had fared poorly.

“Berthe the Brute!” Marie-Claude agreed with her twin.

“Is not Mélisande’s hair a wonder? Have you ever seen a braid that long?” interrupted Geneviève, trying to change the subject.

“She must never have been ill,” observed Marie-Claude, who knew of such things. “Everyone knows that long hair saps a girl’s strength. When I was only five, I caught the spots. Ma mère braided my hair and cut off half, and I got better in three days…”

“That is foolishness,” quipped Lisette, “Miri says that hair cannot steal our strength. You just got better. That is all. It would have happened anyway…”

“Who says your Miri knows more than my…”

“That is enough!” Geneviève intervened. “I do not think we should argue; Père Jean would not approve. I am just so amazed at poor Mélisande’s wonderful braid. If it were but a little bit longer, it would touch the ground behind her as she sweeps the courtyard, AND gathers the kindling, AND carries the water from the well.” Geneviève’s reminder that they were not the only girls who had burdens to bear, worked. Lisette gave Marie-Claude a sweet smile and a quick hug.

“Poor Mélisande is true,” offered Virginie. “She has been here as long as I have. We both serve the Sisters, but for some reason they are nicer to me than to her. Some of them are even cruel to her, especially Sister Berthe and her friends. She is ever at their beck and call. Even when she has her hands full, she must drop everything and do whatever they demand. Just yesterday before you all arrived, they were at her again. She was trying to tend the horses, which she so loves to do. They made her stop and take their turns at gathering nettles for poultices. Her poor hands were covered with stings.”

Laurel Doves – Chapter 14 (prompt – PALPABLE)

Virginie continued. “Did you know that after she finished cutting Giselle’s hair, she had to sweep the entire courtyard and then draw water to wash the stones on her hands and knees. I imagine she did not finish until after the moon had set. I feel so sorry for her. I have tried to be friends with her, but Sister Berthe does not allow Mélisande to speak with me. Her only friends are the animals. She especially loves to talk to the horses.”

“Well it is no wonder then, that she knew how to calm Our Giselle when Sister Berthe grabbed her…she must be able to understand the language of the horses!”concluded Geneviève.

“She may. She comes from the marshy land near the sea, “ added Virginie. “I overheard Mère Supérieure suggest Sister Berthe befriend Mélisande as they both come from the land of the pink flamingos and white horses. Yesterday, when it was Giselle’s turn and she shied away making that whinny sound, I knew Sister Berthe would not be happy. She hates anything that reminds her of home. I was glad when Giselle bit her hand!”

Smiling now, no one had smiled yesterday. Giselle had been last to face the razor and with each successful shearing, Sister Berthe had gotten more enthusiastic. Ignoring the child’s very palpable fear, she had forced Giselle to look into her eyes. “You cannot hide; so do not even try!” she crowed. Geneviève remembered squeezing her own eyes shut and whispering the Lord’s Prayer, trying to block out Giselle’s terrified whinnying. It was the same shrill sound she made during her terrible nightmares. Eyes closed, she missed the substantial bite but heard the aftermath. Nuns do not take the Lord’s name in vain, but they can curse when they have to, and Sister Berthe did just that as she swatted Giselle across the cheek.

She was raising her arm again when Mélisande rushed forward and stayed her hand. “Non, Non! From the side, Sister, you must approach her from the side. Like a horse, Sister, like a horse. She will allow you if…” Mélisande did not get a chance to finish, as Sister Berthe’s backhand split her lip.

“Keep your advice to yourself, wretch!” spit Sister Berthe, as she took several more vicious scrapes. Waving the razor, still dangling Giselle’s blonde strands, under Mélisande’s nose, she ordered,” And since you know so much, you can finish this yourself. See to it that all your other chores are finished before you even think of going to bed! And no supper for you! That will teach you to dare speak to your betters!” Dropping the razor, she stalked away.

Geneviève opened her eyes to see the hem of her black robe gather blonde, ginger, and auburn curls to it like an angry wind. Rushing to Mélisande, she used her sleeve to dab at the seeping cut on her lower lip. Up close she was saddened to see evidence of another cut recently healed.

Laurel Doves -Chapter 15 (prompt – FRIENDSHIP)

Done with the second scrubbing of the courtyard as ordered by Sister Berthe, petite Mélisande hauled the large oaken bucket onto the well’s low wall. Slumping beside it, she rested cheek against its splintery brim and closed her eyes. Unaware her dangling braid had tangled in the rope, she was dragged by the heavy bucket when it slipped back plummeted down. The well was deep and the dark water cold, and no one was about in the moonlight to notice…

Weary from a nighttime plotting revenge on Berthe the Brute, six doves wearing novice robes, welcomed their second dawn at Le Couvent. With hands clasped in friendship, they recited the Lord’s Prayer as Père Jean had instructed.

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”. Virginie, the newest Laurel dove, spoke first offering her innocent interpretation. “These words tell me that I can never truly be orphaned because I am watched over by my Heavenly Father, even when I must face fearsome foes like Sister Berthe!”

“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done…”Giselle whispered. “Even wild ponies, must accept the bit and bridle. So I must accept , that my way is being guided by God’s hand, even if he puts a razor in the hands of Sister Berthe.

“On earth as it is in heaven…” Geneviève continued. “ I must strive to be like little Mélisande, always of service to others, even if it hurts. If I love my neighbors as myself, I can create Heaven right here in le Couvent. So I guess I must try to love Sister Berthe…”

“Give us this day our supplementary bread… added Marie-Claude . “I should be grateful for what I have. I am safe here, if not happy. Many would willingly exchange their woes for mine. I must be thankful for my blessings, including Sister Berthe, as she is helping us to hide.” Nods of agreement came quickly, as all six girls knew how lucky they were just to be alive.

“And remit our debts as we forgive our debtors…” Tilting her head, listening to someone just out of earshot, Lisette giggled and shared what her angel had whispered. “I have to FORGIVE Sister Berthe. I must offer forgiveness if I expect to receive it.”

“And keep us from temptation, and free us from evil…” all eyes turned to Hélène whose plots of revenge had been the mightiest. Well then it is obvious; I cannot give into the temptation of getting even with Sister Berthe the Brute. So no nettles in her wimple, no rotting fish in her chamber pot, no dried pis-en-lit in her nighttime tea, and sadly no dead rats under her pillow… she sighed. By fighting temptation I welcome the Light which holds back the Darkness seeking us.

Six head then bowed and remembering Père Jean’s admonishment, silently finished, ‘Thine is the kingdom, the power and glory, forever and ever…’ “ Now let’s go find Mélisande…” Geneviève’s words were cut off by the harsh clamor of alarm bells.

“Mon Dieu!” Cried Virginie, “The warning bells: Something terrible must have happened!” And of course it had.

Laurel Doves – Epilogue

Day after day, week after week, season after season, the girls put into practice their understanding of the prayer taught by Jesus, the very heart of the Way of Love.

Thus Père Jean’s petites colombes, his flock of the Sacred Laurel Tree, carried the Cathar teachings of The Way into the future. Each grew into a kind and courageous woman secure in her understanding of the feminine divine and its place beside the divine masculine. Père Jean and his partner, Mère Supérieure arranged advantageous marriages for each dove, so cunningly hidden in plain sight, thus ensuring the continuation of their holy bloodline for the next seven centuries.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Under the Laurel at the foot of Montsegur, participants of the Sacred France Tour gather round Kathleen as she recounts the 700-year-old Prophecy of this sacred tree. Six modern-day doves smile and reach for each other’s hands as they form a familiar circle. With heads bowed, one ginger, one auburn, three blonde, and one white, they listen.

Kathleen holds the group mesmerized as she speaks, “According to The Prophecy, le temps revient, the time returns. In 1321, as the last Cathar Perfecti was martyred at the stake, he foretold that the Way of Love, the true teachings of Jesus carried to France by Mary Magdalene, his wife and chosen successor, would be reborn in 700 years with the re-greening of the Sacred Laurel Tree. When the Laurel fully blooms again, those who were once united in the Way of Love will experience the one joy greater than Union, that of re-Union. The Cathars will return to recognize each other in this lifetime. The world will embrace the teachings of The Way of Love. We will know that day has arrived when women…”

The mellifluous melodies of two dozen mobile phones break the spell. Squinting at screens, gasps and a few, “Oh my Goddess!” erupt, amid the gleeful babble breaking out..

“Kathleen, are you seeing this?” Isobel, the other group leader, calls out.

“Yes, oh Yes, Demori! She sings in reply!”

“Demori!” shouts everyone all at once, as laughter, hugs, and tears combine.

A sudden breeze showers the group with a mist of white petals. While the rest stare up in awe at the sight of a fully blossomed Laurel Tree, six pairs of ancient eyes mirror the joy of recognition and re-union. Opening their circle to include Kathleen, they speak as one, “Les temps revient…the time returns.”

Later, none would be able to say which occurred first. Was it the re-blooming of the Sacred Laurel? Or was it the Breaking News from the Vatican, that with the official acknowledgement of Mary Magdalene as both the wife of Christ and Apostle to the Apostles, women were to be welcomed back into the priesthood where they had always belonged?

Turning away from the Field of Martyrs, where still no trees grow, a solemn granddaughter with hair as white as a dove’s feather, smiles at the ancient whisper riding the wind, “Demori, Genenviève, Demori!”

“Yes Grandmother, I do remain…” she whispers in return.

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