We finish our croissants and tea in the hotel breakfast room and stop by the lobby where the receptionist/concierge hands us several pages of text she has printed out for us. Gabrielle knows we are on a mission. She wants to arm us with as much information as possible. We must be prepared if we are to meet the monster. “How far?” we ask. “Thirty minutes,” she tells us, and we are off through the triple roundabout on the edge of town, past the magnificent fields of sunflowers, their faces all pointing east, faces that will be pointing west when we return later in the day.
We are in the south of France in Provence just outside of Arles driving past olive orchards and green pastures dotted with cows. We are headed to Tarascon on the Rhone River where the monster, the terrifying Tarasque has existed since the 1100s.
We pull into town, quaint, smaller than Arles and Avignon, the two cities it lies between. There is the river, straight, swift, the melting snows of the Alps rushing to feed it, send its waters to the Mediterranean. We have heard much about the nearby Camargue, a swampy area with its wild bulls and boars that end up in the most delicious dinners spiced with Provencale herbs in the area restaurants. The river and the swamp are the habitats of the Tarasque, an amphibious monster known to rip apart boats on the river and gobble up the villagers’ cows and sheep on land.
“Municipal parking there,” we see, and put the rental car in the lot. We get out slowly, look around to get our bearings. We are not sure where the Tarasque might be lurking. We cross the street, and train our eyes on the dominating stone building nearby, a fortified castle, and do not see much else.
We make our way toward the river. Stare at the rushing current. But we have left ourselves open. The monster is right there. It is huge, tall, poised on its platform. We quiver, small, unguarded, and study its lion head, its six bear-like legs standing strong beneath the giant tortoise shell that forms the monster’s back, protects its huge ox-like body. The tail, serpent-like, ends in scorpion spikes that look as vicious as the monster’s fangy teeth.
“St. Martha came in her white dress to tame it,” I quaver, hoping the legend is true. “She walked a long way, came from the Holy land, right?” Gene nods, but does not take his eyes off the strange hybrid creature, the fantastical Medieval monster. He will not be caught off-guard again.
“They say the Tarasque lived among the dangerous underwater rocks in the river here, and roared up to wreck the boats trying to navigate past the hidden danger,” I say to reassure us. “They say that wasn’t enough. The Tarasque spat its noxious fiery breath on land, froze the animals in their tracks so it could feast upon the easy prey.”
“No wonder the people were terrified,” Gene begins.
“But St. Martha found the monster in the forest. She soothed it, tamed it. The Tarasque trusted her, believed it could change its evil ways, settle down and live a peaceful life. Look, there’s St. Martha’s Church right over there,” I point. “Nice Gothic church.”
“But the villagers rose up and killed the Tarasque anyway,” Gene says dryly. “Couldn’t trust it to be tamed.” We shake our heads, feel sad for the Tarasque’s unfortunate end, and make our way to the church.
Later, we learn about the festival the people of Tarascon hold every year for their namesake creature. “The last Sunday in June,” they tell us. “You must come. There is a big parade led by a motorized Tarasque,” they smile enthusiastically. “Dance in the steets with a monster of the past.”
Today we have another monster, this one stalking the world. One with red balls prickling around it that resemble a crown. Sinking its teeth into our lungs, ravaging far too many of us. We are searching mightily for the drug, the therapy that will tame it. We are not ready to put it up on a platform for all to see, not yet ready to turn the story of monstrous terror into an annual festival. But we must know we are no different than the Medievals who were also frightened, could not understand, needed a fantastical hybrid creature to focus on. To explain what they could not.
Not a perfect analogy, to be sure, but this is where we are. This is our monster that will one day, yes, one day will become a legend. A thing of the past. We can then figure out the festivals we want to hold. A giant parade of humanity coming back into the streets.