The rabbits were the ones who were surprised. Since they had seen the door of the mill closed for so long, the walls and the front yard invaded by weeds, they had come to think that the species of millers was extinct. Finding the place empty, they had established it as a sort of headquarters, a center of strategic operations – the Jemmapes Rabbit Mill. The night I arrived, there were (honestly) twenty of them sitting around the front yard warming their paws in the moonbeams. The second I opened a window, frrt! they broke camp in a rout and all their little white butts sprinted off, tail in the air, into the bush. I hope they come back.
Another inhabitant who was astonished to see me was the second-floor renter, a sinister old owl with the face of The Thinker, who had lived in the mill for at least twenty years. I spotted him in the upper room, sitting still and straight on the cross-timber in the midst of fallen plaster and tiles. He watched me a minute with his round eyes, then, surprised not to recognize me, started to call out “Hoo! Hoo!” and ponderously to shake his big wings, grey with dust. Those damned Thinkers, they never brush themselves off! No matter. Such as he is, with his blinking eyes and frowning face, this silent renter pleases me more than any other could. I instantly renewed his lease. As in the past, he takes the whole second story of the mill, with an entry through a hole in the roof. I reserve for my own use the first floor, a whitewashed room underneath, its ceiling low and vaulted like the refectory of a monastery.
That’s where I write to you from, my front door wide open to the wonderful sun.
A beautiful stand of pines shimmering with light goes down to the bottom of the hill. On the horizon, the Alpilles Mountains raise their pointed peaks. Not a sound. You can barely hear, far away, as though through a filter, a curlew in the lavender fields or the bells of a mule train on the highway. This whole Provencal landscape lives entirely on light.
So why should I regret your dirty, noisy Paris? I have it so well in my mill. It’s just the spot I was looking for, a fragrant, warm getaway a thousand miles from newspapers, cabs, and fog. And there are so many great things around me. I’ve been moved in for scarcely a week and already my head is crammed with impressions and memories. Why, just last night, I was present when the flocks came back to the mas (farmstead) down the hill. I swear that I wouldn’t trade that spectacle for all the premières you have gone to in Paris this week. You be the judge.
I should explain that in Provence it’s customary that as soon as the hot weather arrives they send the livestock up into the mountains. Man and beast spend six months up there sleeping under the stars with green grass up to their chests. Then, at the first bite of autumn, they come back down to the mas to graze comfortably on the little grey-green hills perfumed with wild rosemary. Since the break of day, the farmyard gate has stood wide open in welcome, the barns full of fresh straw. From hour to hour, the farm folk would say, “Now they’re as far as Eyguières, now they’re at Paradou.” Then, all of a sudden, towards twilight, a great cry goes up, “There they are! Down over there!” In the distance, we see the flock approaching in an aura of dust. The road itself seems to be marching along with them. Out in front come the old rams, brandishing their horns defiantly. Behind them the mass of sheep, the ewes somewhat tired, with their lambs nosing around under foot. The mules decorated with red pompoms on their bridles carry the newborn lambs in baskets, rocking them as they walk along. Then come the dogs, panting away, their tongues practically down to the ground, and two big rascally shepherds in red wool mantles that hang down to their ankles like a priest’s robes.
This whole parade passes joyously in front of us and disappears into the barnyard, their tramping feet making a noise like a downpour of rain. You should see the uproar in the compound. From up on their perch, the big green and gold peacocks with iridescent heads recognize the arrivals and greet them with a terrific trumpet burst. The chicken coop, which had been on the point of falling asleep, reawakens with a jolt. All the birds are running around: ducks, guinea fowl, turkeys, pigeons. The hen house has gone crazy; the chickens are talking about staying up all night! It seems as though each sheep has brought back in its wool a wild Alpine fragrance, a bit of that giddy mountain air that makes one dance.
Amidst all this hubbub the flock disperses to find their bedding spots. Nothing could be more charming than this homecoming. The old rams fondly settle in to their favorite corners. The younger lambs who were born during the high season and have never before seen the farm gaze around with astonished eyes.
But the most touching thing of all is the dogs, those good old sheepdogs completely absorbed with their flock and seeing nothing else in the mas. In vain, the guard dog barks at them from his house. The bucket from the well, filled with fresh, cool water, beckons to them with no effect. They refuse to see or hear anything until the flock is bedded down, the big steel latch bolted on the Dutch door, and the shepherds at table in their quarters. Only then do they consent to go to the kennel where, lapping at their bowls of stew, they tell their farm friends what it was like up in the mountains, a dark land with wolves and giant purple foxgloves filled to the brim with dew.