By Elizabeth Van Zandt

 Eighteenth Annual Solas Awards Gold Winner in the Most Unforgettable Character Category


It’s evening, and I’m sitting at a café table alongside the cobbled main street of the ancient village of Sarlat. While I wait for my dinner to arrive, I sip a glass of Bordeaux, enjoying the mellow taste and the soft hum of French coming from nearby tables.

“Hello.”  I look up and there stands Rayna, the only other American in town and the last person I really want to see. She leans forward over my table and says, “I was looking for you. Monique said that she is taking you canoeing tomorrow on the Dordogne River. I really want to go to Rocamadour tomorrow. Why don’t you change your mind about canoeing, and she can take us to Rocamadour?”

I look up at Rayna, at her squat, unappealing body and her flyaway hair caught under a bandana, and inwardly shudder at the thought of having to endure another day listening to her carp about France and how different things are in America. I am pleased to say, “No, I really want to go canoeing.”

Rayna pulls herself erect and says, as if uttering a curse, “It’s going to rain tomorrow.”

I laugh. It is a clear night, warm, with a sky full of stars backing me up. But in the next moment it comes to me who I am dealing with, and the thought gives me shivers—this little dumpling of a woman is Baba Yaga.

In the folklore of cultures around the world, witches can be either men or women and often are portrayed as wise as well as powerful. Many are also shapeshifters, appearing old and ugly one moment and young and beautiful the next. However, in the fairy tales of my childhood witches were old and ugly crones, with great powers but prone to jealousy and rages. These witches seem to have descended in a straight line from the ancient and archetypal Baba Yaga of Slavic folklore.

Baba Yaga is a fearsome hag. (Baba is a disparaging form of “grandmother”, used to describe nasty, ugly, and often old women in most Slavic languages.) In folklore she flies in a giant mortar, steering with a pestle, sweeping away all traces of her passing with a broom made of silver birch. She also kidnaps and sometimes eats children and lives in a house that runs about on chicken legs. With the help of her three horsemen, Dawn, Day, and Night, she rules over the elements. In spite of her reputation for evil, Baba Yaga is sometimes sought out for her wisdom and occasionally offers guidance for lost souls. That she is in Sarlat-in-Canéda in the guise of an American tourist is something I simply accept without question.

I first encountered Rayna two days ago, when we shared a guide, Monique, who took us to see Lascaux II in the valley of the Vézere River, not far from Sarlat. This man-made cave is an exact reproduction of 40 meters of cave paintings found in the real Lascaux, a prehistoric site which is now closed to visitors, due to deterioration of the art. The exquisite paintings, the real ones, mainly of animals such as bison, bull, deer, and horses, are around 15, 000 years old. The red, ocher, black, violet, and brown pigments used were all mixed from natural substances and looked newly painted when the cave was first opened. The artists incorporated the dips and ridges of the cave’s walls into their paintings, giving them a 3-D effect, and this was reproduced in Lascaux II, which took eleven years to finish. The cave paintings were not done as casual art, as most of them were in inaccessible places, but nevertheless they are artistic, beautiful and awesome. They might have been painted for sacred reasons, such as hunting magic, but there is no final way of knowing their purpose. Lascaux’s discovery was like a fairy tale, stumbled upon by some children who slid like Alice in Wonderland down into a fissure left by a tree uprooted in a storm.

I was enthralled by the cave’s magic, even though it was just a copy, but Rayna was not to be taken in. Perhaps she viewed it as sort of a Disneyland effect. She was much more thrilled with a small grotto we visited later. I found it rather claustrophobic and boring, having been to Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, but she said it was like being inside a geode, which was an apt description.

Rayna was not happy with much that day and was vocal about it, especially the amount I tipped Monique, which she considered excessive. Rayna was an odd little woman from Pasadena, California. She had been learning French at a senior center there and peppered her conversation with French words and phrases. Her pronunciation was terrible, but even so, she had me beat, as I knew very little French. Rayna and I had dinner together in Sarlat after our day of visiting caves, and after listening to more of her peculiar ideas over that dinner, I begged off making a date with her for the following night. It seems she found me anyway.

So after last night’s revelation I’m not really surprised to wake to rain pounding at my bedroom window. Thinking about the situation as I lie in my bed in the tower room of the old Villa Genevieve listening to the rain, I realize that when I came to Sarlat, a walled, medieval village in the region of southwestern France known as the Perigord Noir, I expected to be enchanted. However, I didn’t expect to be bewitched. But were signs, had I picked up on them.

On my first night in Sarlat I got caught up in a celebration called Nuit la Patramoine, or Night of the Town Heritage. Candles lined the streets and windowsills, and a band led a mass of people from place to place through the town, while huge misshapen shadows danced along the buildings next to us. The very next day I went to a Jean Cocteau exhibit, and there was a stage set of a scene from La Belle et le Bête, his version of Beauty and the Beast and one of my favorite films, with blowing curtains and lights held in disembodied hands and the voice of the beast issuing from the depths. And finally, on a walk outside of town, there was the woman who was using an old mop to try and close her shutters. She fell into her flowerbed, right onto the mop, as if she could use it to fly out of her predicament like Baba Yaga, who flies on a mop in Polish folklore. And of course I can’t forget that I am sleeping in a tower. It seems I have landed right in the midst of a book of fairy tales.

~ ~ ~

Yesterday, Monique took me to see some ancient villages along the Dordogne River. Rayna hadn’t wanted to come along, which was fine with me. The first village we visited was Domme, built around 1200 on a cliff overlooking the river and the planted fields, with forests crowding it to the rear. The town is still enclosed by a crumbling wall with watchtowers; the main tower is complete with arrow slits and the remains of a dungeon. Oddly, the streets of Domme were laid out at right angles, unusual for a French village. The streets of Sarlat wind around like a maze.

Our next stop, La Roque Gageac, was the complete opposite of Domme, as it was built at the river’s edge. “Wouldn’t they get flooded sometimes?” I asked, amazed that anyone would want to live this close to a river.

“Yes,” replied Monique, as she showed me the high water marks. “The highest was in 1866, when the water rose halfway up these buildings along the street.”

She took me up to the church, which was one of the few buildings located high enough to escape flooding. We walked along looking down on the rooftops, then followed a path that led by a large house situated just under an overhanging cliff; it was apparent that some of the cliff had come down in the recent past, and more could come down at any time. The people of this town must like to live dangerously.

But today was beautiful with no floods in sight, and a number of people were out on the river in bateaux, flat-bottomed sight-seeing boats; others were in canoes. Instantly I wanted to rent a canoe and paddle the Dordogne. But we still had the village of Beynac ahead, Monique’s favorite, so we decided to come back tomorrow and go canoeing.

When we arrived at Beynac I realized I had seen it before. On my way to Sarlat by train, as we swept alongside the Dordogne River, I had a brief, misty glimpse of a fairy-tale village hanging onto the cliff across the river. The buildings seemed to be teetering and tumbling down to the river, and I thought perhaps it was a ruin. The town is very ancient—the castle on the top was once held by Richard the Lion-Hearted during the Crusades and later burned, then rebuilt in the 1300s—but it is very much inhabited. We began at the bottom of the village and wound our way up narrow lanes past flower-bedecked cottages with tiny doors and windows, stopping for a citron-presse, which is basically lemonade, only better: the ingredients come separate and you mix your own drink to taste. After visiting the castle, perched at the top of the village so it could be more easily defended, we took a wooded path back to our car. We passed a sculptor’s studio, a modern construction of wood and glass and quite incongruous among the ancient buildings of this village dating from the Middle Ages.

I am summoned downstairs for a phone call. It is Rayna le sorciere. “Since it is raining and you won’t be able to go canoeing, would you like to go to Rocamadour? Monique said she would drive us there.” I’m sure I detect a hint of triumph in Rayna’s voice. (How did I miss how close her name is to rain?)

What else can I do today, with black clouds roiling across the sky and sheets of rain blowing across the rooftops of Sarlat? I agree, not very graciously, and head upstairs to my tower to get ready.

It is a long drive to Rocamadour, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along narrow, winding, rain-slick roads. Like a waterfall, the town spills down the side of a cliff above the gorge of the Alzor, a tributary of the Dordogne, much as Beynac does. But that’s where the resemblance ends. Rocamadour has been a place of pilgrimage since medieval times, but now, with fewer pilgrims, it is supporting itself with the tourist trade and has become one of the preferred stops for coach tours. Monique says it is the second most visited site in France after Mont Saint Michel. It is so touristy that they even charge to use the elevator. Even though they are still wet, we use the stairs, which suits me, but Baba Yaga only agrees after she learns about the charge. Why do I feel like I’ve gotten a bit of revenge here?

The church complex, which is made up of eight chapels around a central courtyard, is about mid-way up the 400 foot cliff, 216 stone steps from the bottom, where the houses of the townspeople were built. Thousands of pilgrims have stopped here, climbing these steps on their knees to reach the Black Madonna, believed by some to have been carved by St. Amadour himself. A number of legends exist about the identity of St. Amadour. One story involves a hermit who lived in the area in the 10th century, another a Biblical character, Zacheus, from the time of Jesus, and yet another tells of a servant of the Virgin Mary.  In 1166, a preserved body was found in a rocky cleft and, believing it to be that of St. Amadour, a group of churches were built at the site to honor the saint and the Black Madonna. The Black Madonna is found in the chapel of Notre Dame and, except for her face, is covered with thin sheets of silver. Over her head is an iron bell, said to ring on its own whenever the Virgin performs a miracle. The interior of the church of St. Sauveur is covered with paintings and inscriptions of past pilgrimages, and the subterranean church of St. Amadour, beneath St. Sauveur, was built to hold the relics of the saint.

After we climb all the way to the top to see the fortifications, built to defend the churches below, we hike back down to the town to have lunch. We sit on the terrace as a thunderstorm stirs the air and rain beats on the awning. With every gust of wind, the rain pouring off the awning is blown underneath and onto Baba Yaga. I watch her intently to see if she might begin to melt, like the Wicked Witch of the West. I get the feeling she knows what I’m thinking, as she gives me an evil grin and moves her chair.

After lunch, Monique and I are ready to go back to Sarlat, but Baba Yaga insists that we go to the Padirac Cave. In French it is called Gouffre de Padirac, which means “chasm of Padirac”.  I almost stay in the car with Monique, who decides she can use a nap, but instead I get out and trudge over to the ticket booth. Now I can actually see where we are headed—into the yawning mouth of a 340-foot-deep cave system whose opening is almost as wide as it is deep. It stretches as far as I can see, a giant black hole, the far rim obscured by the falling rain. Now is the time to back out, but somehow I feel committed. I follow Baba Yaga into the underworld.

We descend by a series of lifts and stairs until we reach the bottom. There we take a path that leads us to a river. A boat awaits. We get on along with a number of others and are poled off down the river. It is narrow, and when I look up the darkness overhead mirrors the river we are following. I recognize this river from Greek mythology—the River Styx, one of the underground rivers surrounding Hades, where the world of the living meets the world of the dead. Our silent boatman then is Charon, the ferryman of the dead, and I wonder if he is going to look under my tongue for the coin that he expects for his payment. When we arrive at a far shore, another river stretches off into the darkness beyond, and I think that could be the River Lethe, the river of Oblivion, where the dead must drink to forget their earthly lives. An empty boat waits at its edge.

After we disembark, we begin to climb a series of stairs that take us higher and higher into a cavern filled with glittering stalactites and stalagmites and incredible azure formations like tiny lakes frozen for all time. I am reminded of Dante’s Inferno, seeing all the people toiling upward through the levels above me. We wind through passages, past ever more delightful formations, until we come back out at the dock where our boatman awaits. It looks like we are going to be released, ferried back from the brink and eventually back into the light.

The rain has stopped, and the afternoon has acquired a glow. I look at Rayna. I notice for the first time that she has elf ears, sort of pointy and sticking out. She is grinning, and I grin back. Baba Yaga, in her guise as the wise crone, has actually given me a gift, even if I didn’t realize it until now.

~ ~ ~

On my last day in Sarlat I wander about the countryside until I come to an orchard that has gone wild. Tall, silvered grasses fill the spaces between the trees. Some trees are twined with ivy; others look dead. In the center, where for some reason the grass has been mowed down, stands a tree, one side dead, but the other side fully alive. Small, glowing plums hang from the branches, and I wade through the grass to pick and eat them. They are juicy and full of goodness. I have eaten from the tree of life, and it is sweet.

~ ~ ~

Elizabeth Van Zandt is a retired National Park Ranger naturalist. She has a MFA in Creative Writing, and she loves to travel and write about all the amazing places she’s seen and the people she’s met. The natural world is an important part of all the amazing places she’s seen and the people she’s met. The natural world is an important part of all her travels and writings.