The Witch of Avignon


–  A review and a tale of Phaedon Paris’ Rouge Avignon

Avignon, December 1352

The summons came two short winter days before the feast of Saint Nicholas, when all of Avignon whispered what the world would soon come to know.

His Holiness Clement VI lay dying.

In a time when all certainty still reeled from the specter of the Black Death and faith, death and life itself called into question, the one constant – the Pope himself – would soon go to his own reward. Or punishment, as some of the cardinals murmured among themselves in the shadowy halls of the palace, jostling for position and power in preparation for the conclave to come.

She knew he would send for her before the end, knew from long acquaintance and their mutual history that the man would say goodbye before the Pope breathed his last.

So she wrapped up warm against the winter chill and damp that swirled like smoke above the Rhône, and followed the liveried page across the bridge, bracing herself for the last farewell to come, and paid the chill in her blood, the foreboding in her heart no mind.

It was warm in the private apartments, the fires crackling in defiance of the cold outside, the candlelight burnishing the gold plate on the tables, the jeweled and gilt wall hangings and the rich hues of the rugs on the marble floor with its own polish, the censers in the corners exuding their own fragrant divinity on the secular scene in the room.

“Come to me, child.” An imperious hand beckoned from behind the bed curtains and as she walked to obey, his voice, strong and commanding, demanded what she knew he would.

“Leave us. All of you.”

The pages, the secretaries, the clerks and the chamberlain all vanished as she came to his bed and kissed his ring in reverence. The doors shut behind them with an ominous finality against the carved stone.

The dynamic, powerful Cardinal she met all those years and all their life ago was no more. Instead, his skin had assumed the smooth, waxy parchment hues of the dying, his body frail beneath the samite, fur-lined bed cover embroidered with the Papal seal, and only his eyes still glowed in the firelight with the fervor and passion she knew from before.

“You are well?” he asked her, his voice suddenly humble in the quiet room. “And indeed Anne?”

“Indeed so, your Holiness, we are both well although all the people of Avignon have nearly died.” She rose to her feet and then sat upon the bed and took his hand. It seemed far too cool for such a warm room, smooth and hard as hewn marble in her own.

“Good. This matter has weighed a great deal upon my mind of late, as soon as I knew…”

“Knew, Holiness?”

“Knew that I was dying. Not from the plague, but from… ah, life itself, yes? The life any Pope must live so that the world shall continue onward through time, and the man to recede behind him. My time is nigh. It matters no more, just as God matters no more, nor even my immortal soul.” He laughed, a short, bitter laugh that told her of a few regrets, but only a few. “No celestial eternity for me, my dearest, but only the everlasting fires of Hell, if indeed that tale is true. I rather doubt it.”

“Such words are heresy, Holiness.”

“Yes, heresy. What is the greater sin, I ask you, to cling beyond hope to a faith that can never justify or explicate the horrors you and I have seen and survived, or to realize this God we all beseech in our prayers is a creation of our own minds, all so we can make a meaning of a world that has none beyond our faith?”

She thought back to that bleak and bitter day he stood as Pope on the banks of the river and consecrated it as holy ground, since none remained for countless miles around that could be used. The river itself invisible beneath…

“You ask me, whose faith is so reviled, whose adherents so hated and so persecuted, Holiness?”

“It is nonsense. They made all of you scapegoats, not knowing who else to blame for this calamity, not daring to blame God as I do, not even able to afford the compassion any deserves in such dire times.” He squeezed her hand. “Since I shall never know what eternity awaits me, I have made arrangements. My secretary has letters, coin purses, provisions for you and for Anne, so she shall be able to marry well when the time comes. You must leave Avignon and the carrière, my love. I have left you a house in Maumont for your own, all correct according to law, all bearing the seal of the Papal secretariat in case my successor would have it repealed. They would sooner see you dead as a witch, since your healing skills have saved so many. You must go to live out your days as a good Christian widow to the Black Death, and in Maumont, where none would dare to question you.”

She knew she could not argue against this one important yet bitter command. Knew it would be useless to protest, knew she had no choice if their daughter were to survive. Already, several families in the carrière had been lost to fires set by zealous survivors seeking to blame the innocent for their sorrows and their loss.

“Very well.”

He looked away, across the bed and the room, lost in thought for long moments as the fires crackled and snapped, and the candles hissed and flared in a sudden draft. Then, he turned his head yet again to study her as he often did, with a laugh in his eyes and a smile on his lips.

“Something I would have you do, my witch of Avignon, something in memory of the times and the man you knew. I shall never know that eternal reward only the blameless know. I have known too much, held such power to my hand, seen too much, questioned all I saw with my heretical thoughts. I have a request of my own.” He squeezed her hand. “Do you see it as I do, see the beauty, the splendor, the richness of this room, this palace to worldly ambition, for all they shall claim another sacred purpose? Do you see the hopes for the human soul I once held before the Black Death came and all our world changed? Do you see it, in the rugs on the floor, those furs by the fire where we made our own immortality, you and I?” His eyes beseeched her own, and she followed his finger pointed across the room to the crackling fire. She saw instead that night nine years ago, when all sanctity and all power was laid aside and only the man, the fire and earthly passion remained, the night their mutual history began.

“I want you to capture that, capture it as only you can in a potion… the gilt, the crimson of power, the fires, the burning censers, the prayers, the hopes and the faith, the marble and the stone, I want you to summon all the ghosts of all our past and I want you to call it immortality, to remember me when I am no more.”

“Such a thing has never been done, Holiness.” Indeed, it might be another kind of heresy to even consider such a thing. As she thought it, a tear slid down her cheek and another followed close behind. This farewell would be forever, a farewell to both the love and the faith that had sustained her for so long, and it was as bitter and as salt as the tears she tasted on her lips.

“But you can, my witch. You can.” He brushed away her tears, grasped her hand tighter in his own. “It is time to go, while we both still remember the good, before the indignity of my passing awaits me. Go with your God, your faith and our daughter, and live out your life in the peace you and I could never know, but create it, so I am remembered when I am no more but a long-dead thought in a careworn old book. Go now!”

As she bent down to kiss his ring one final time through her tears, as she bid the man a farewell so the Pope could pass on, as she pulled up her hood close against the contempt in the corridors outside and the looks she knew would come, she thought of how to create such a potion, such a perfume of reminiscence and history, of golden treasures and crimson moods, of firelight and ambition flickering on walls of stone and marble floors. She thought of all she must leave behind her with a pang before she knew with yet another – she already had as the doors were closed behind her.

It should seem so simple, so apparently effortless as air, as the act of breathing itself, she thought, and also as complex, as noble as the lion she knew he could be and sometimes was.

Down through her years she worked and brewed, thought and remembered, and on a starlit night of a crescent moon in a Limousin garden, she unstoppered a vial in hands trembling just a little with her age, and there beside a bush where the raspberries swelled and the apples glowed above her, she poured out her remembrance as a perfume. The rich, crimson rose of powers both sacred and profane lay within, folded among the wonders of a world to come she would never know, the decadent truffles he had loved to feed her with, the gilt of exotic woods from faraway lands, the smoke of prayers, of hopes, of comfort wafting up to that starry sky above her in a ribbon of black and crimson, where it would dissipate. To lie in wait down, down through the winding river of time and high above all inspirations, to be found by such a one who could comprehend it and recreate it and remember such immortality and such a tale, of a man who once held all sacred power, and a witch of Avignon.


With my undying gratitude to Cookie Queen for the opportunity (and the cookie!).

Notes: Raspberry, ylang ylang, rose, cacao pod, hinoki wood, black truffle, vetiver, sandalwood, musk, amber.

Rouge Avignon was created by perfumer Pierre Guillaume. It is available from Osswald, Bloom Perfumery Spitalfields, and directly from the Phaedon Paris website.

Image composite, my own.