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jhlurie

TDG: The Immortal Butcher of St. Nizier

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Mom, that would mean -- that the man is over 130 years old.

Lucy Vanel isn't quite sure, but she's willing to entertain the possibility...

Is Lucy seeing ghosts? Shadows?

 

+ + +

 

The Immortal Butcher of St. Nizier


by Lucy Vanel
Thursday, May 20, 2004

"DON'T JUST shoot at things, or landscapes, because people are what make photographs interesting," my mother once said when we were on a road trip to Alabama. I was pressing the lens up against the car window and taking pictures of the landscape streaking by alongside the highway with my Brownie camera.

 

Not long ago, I was rooting through an antique bookshop near Ampère Victor Hugo, and I ran across a series of photographs from the year 1930 in Lyon. Having lived here for a couple of years at the time, I knew the scenes, the churches, the landscapes. The great thing about them is that even though they are consecrated to monuments or famous landscapes, the photos inevitably contain all kinds of interesting people of the period in them. They are interesting souvenirs of not only the city, but of the culture. I immediately bought six of them for seven bucks apiece, and framed them. 

 

My favorite of these photos is entitled St. Nizier, named for the church. Eglise St. Nizier is framed by buildings on both sides in the foreground. All of the street activity in the street in front of the buildings is in focus. In addition to the silhouettes of several old women in black, is a cluster of three butchers, with their aprons tied over one shoulder. One has a bicycle, one gesturing grandly, they're talking, laughing about something. I've stared at that photo for long periods of time.

 

We recently moved to our new neighborhood in the center of town. Although there are five butchers within a two-block periphery of our home, I chose my butcher because of the sparse reality of his operation, and frankly, the way he tied his apron. It reminded me of the photo. In passing, I observed that each night he would go through the same ritual of sanding down his block and he would empty the spare cuts he had displayed in the street case. He did not add fake grass, red-checkered backgrounds, or garnish his meats with parsley. He did not illuminate his display cases with lights made to falsely deepen the color of the meats. He wrapped nothing in plastic, he did two kinds of sausage, and one kind of terrine. For these reasons, I chose him.

 

I would guess, looking from the butcher, that he is most likely in his 50s, possibly a young 60. His wife, who runs the register and takes special orders, is a fragile, waxen figure, with large strawberry-colored hair coiffed like cotton candy. She wears the same pink angora sweater every single day and it is never corrupted with a spatter of blood. The skin of both her hands and face is a perfect porcelain, almost too good to be true. She never handles the meats, he hands them over to her after he's wrapped them in waxed paper and then brown, and she writes what’s inside on the paper in a lilting hand with a sharpie. She is really a sight to behold. She looks like she's been transported from another time. 

 

I had been buying my meat from this butcher for a few months when I noticed something odd. It was his fresh and sanguine complexion, which struck me as a rather bizarre contrast to his flat eyes. Someone like me likes to look into a person's eyes once I become fond of them. But even after three months of transactions two or three times a week, his eyes had a strange aspect, a glint that's hard to hold in your gaze; a coppery, hot, flinty kind of look, flat, like pennies. Like a doll. 

 

Even though the shop was lit by dim fluorescents in the evenings and I was normally there well after dark, his pupils were always beady and tight, as if he was standing in a pool of bright light. He was always cheerful, and his wife always the same, like an aged Barbie, but with the creamiest, smoothest skin I'd ever seen in a lady that age. 

 

It all clicked when I went home one night, after having made a real attempt to look into this man's eyes when I picked up my order. I'd pushed myself to do it, but it was impossible to really meet his gaze, and that bothered me. I was getting dinner ready. I was thinking about this butcher and his flinty eyes, and I glanced up at the St. Nizier photo. The butchers were there joking on the street in front of the church, in their familiar triad. I wondered if it was a butcher kind of thing, beady eyes, and began to ponder the butchers I had known. I munched on a carrot and examined the photo more closely. Then it hit me. 

 

It was him. In the year 1930, my butcher was captured for all time in this now ancient photographic print. I took the photo off the wall for a better look. Same age, same clothes, same everything. It was him. It was frightening enough to get my blood pumping. I called my mother.

 

"Oh hey, honey! I'm just getting ready to go play bridge."

 

"Mama, have you got a minute?

 

"Sure, what's up?"

 

"It's the butcher," I gravely began, and hesitated, trying to figure out the best way to tell her. "You know, the man." 

 

"Sure, I remember." She'd been here to visit me not long before, and I had sent her over to pick up a sausage order just before Thanksgiving. This had been an interesting experience for her. "What about him?"


"Yea. Well, he's in that photograph." I knew she wouldn't remember. "That photograph from 1930. The church. One of the butchers in that 1930 photo is my butcher, Mom. Do you understand?"

 

"I'm sorry, honey?" she said, as if she hadn't heard me. "Are you sure?" she added, trying to piece together my tone of conviction with what I was saying.

 

"We are now in the 21st century Mom. And I'm absolutely sure about this. Do you realize what this means? It means, if the butcher was, lets say, 60 in the photo, that would mean," I paused to do the numbers although I knew she was getting impatient.


"What is this all about?" she asked, beginning to sound concerned.

 

"Mom, that would mean -- that the man is over 130 years old."

I don't know what I expected. Maybe some kind of "aha" or maybe even a command, an order, coming from my mother over the line, like: "Get yourself out of there!" Panic would have been good. Raw fear was certainly what I was feeling. The hairs on my neck were bristling at the thought of those flinty copper eyes being over 130 years old.

 

My mom hummed the beginnings of a song, and I heard the closet door at home creaking as she thought about the prospect I was offering. "Lucy," she answered finally, pausing, "he's the son of a butcher. It's his father in the photograph. It's not really him."

 

I looked out the window from my living room, as I held the receiver that connected to my mother, looking through time warped glass panes, into the square that was lit with a greenish eerie tinted light. "But, what if they're -- ghosts, or they are under some kind of spell?" Her explanation had made perfect sense, and my question was perfectly silly, we both knew that. But I couldn't stop myself. 

 

"Luce," she was losing patience. "Do you think that if this guy had the key to everlasting youth he would choose to be a butcher, for all time? I'm going to bridge now." She said with an air of finality.


"Okay mom, what could I have been thinking?"


"Its ok sweetheart, I'll talk to you later." After hanging up, I sat down and calculated. This would have to be his grandfather.

 

The next day, I took another long look at the photograph, and went back for my cutlets. The butcher and his wife greeted me. I scanned the shop for evidence of generations past, but nothing in the shop looked old or new. I pointed to the veal and he took the meat from the case. He put his knife along the edge to verify the thickness I desired, and smiled when I nodded. 

 

"Oui, madame." He carefully weighed and expertly trimmed them with his razor sharp knife, with a smile on his face. The cutlets gently fell like soft dominoes and he trimmed the fat from each one. A perfect transaction, exactly as it had been two days before. He looked so happy, it was scary.


I decided to take a photograph of the butcher, in kind of a tribute and a comparison. I asked permission. "I am writing an article about my neighborhood here in France and would love to have a photograph of you. Would that be possible?"

 
At that moment, his wife nearly made me jump out of my skin by shrieking: "Non! Absolutely no photos!" I was taken aback and a bit frightened but of course did not protest, and left the shop in a hurry.


As the days went by and I kept going back, I decided that it was going to be necessary to show him the photograph of his grandfather just to get some closure to this in my own mind. Although we saw each other almost daily, our relationship had cooled to a certain degree after his wife's outburst. I found myself trying to compensate for the rift. Sometimes I bought more meat than we needed, just to be a good customer and to get them smiling again. But they had changed, somehow.


When I entered the shop, his wife especially took on a stiff tone. Now they rarely smiled. I knew she was embarrassed by the shrieking incident, and for that reason things were mildly uncomfortable for them. I regretted having asked to intrude too deeply into their world. At the same time, I didn't really worry too much. It was the butcher. They didn't have to be my best friends.


One evening, near closing, when I knew the wife would not be there, I descended to the square and crossed to the butcher shop, where he was cleaning up for the night. I had the photograph tucked under my arm. I entered the shop, the door ringing the bell.

 

"You're late, Madame, I'm closed for the night," he murmured, politely, but with a tinge of coolness to his voice.


"I just want to show you something -- a photograph."


"No more talk of photographs," he tersely set the broom aside and faced me. But then he saw that I had the framed photograph in my hands. "OK, let me see it," he said, as he looked past me into the street. The butcher took the frame in his hands and turned his back as he held it for a moment or two.


"I wanted to ask, if that's your grandfather," I stuttered, "the resemblance is striking." But the butcher turned around again, and handed me the photo.


"What was it that you wanted me to see?"

 

I gestured at the group of butchers in the foreground, and said, "Look there, isn't that you?"

 

"Absolutely not, Madame."


"Then your father or grandfather?"


"No, Madame, you have me mistaken for someone else. I am sorry Madame. Goodnight." He ushered me from the shop and I stood there sadly on the walk as he quickly slapped the shutters closed. 

I noticed it right away on the street in front of his shop and it scared me so badly it had me running as fast as I could back home. Once I was inside the front door of my building, I looked again at the photograph to be sure. My heart was nearly beating in my throat, and I had to fight myself from breaking into a run again around the corner of the stairs. I considered letting the entire frame slip down between the railings of the stairwell to be rid of it forever. Feeling weak, I fumbled frantically with my keys. By the dim light, I looked once more and saw that is was true. My butcher in the photo now had his back turned; I could not see his face.


"Did you show the butcher that photograph?" my mother asked, the next time I called.

 
"Yep," I responded, deep in thought. I was talking to her while at the same time noting a recipe in my book for the endives I had braising. I was going to wrap them in slices of ham purchased that morning. "It turned out not to be him."


"He seems like a pretty good butcher."

 

"Best butcher in the neighborhood, Mom."

 

* * *


Lucy Vanel ("bleudauvergne") has worked in commodities trade, consulting, and as a personal assistant to CEO level executives as a sideline to her passion for literature, food, and photography. Born in Nashville, Tennessee, and raised in Central New York, 8 of the last 10 years have found Lucy working and writing in different cities in Europe and Asia.  She lives and works in Lyon, France.


Edited by Dave the Cook Restored article (log)

Jon Lurie, aka "jhlurie"

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Oooh. Next time you buy a calf's head, look for little holes on the neck.

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Great Tale. A very enjoyable ghost story.

Brooks


Brooks Hamaker, aka "Mayhaw Man"

There's a train everyday, leaving either way...

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Oooh. Next time you buy a calf's head, look for little holes on the neck.

Geez. That explanation hadn't even occured to me. Lucy mentions ghosts and curses. I was thinking maybe zombies, aliens or robots (all of those "Stepford Wives" ads are getting to me). But neck marks... that makes me think.

Of course the mystery then is why he showed up in the photo in the first place. Maybe Anne Rice is more accurate than Bram Stoker.


Jon Lurie, aka "jhlurie"

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Hathor I can't tell you what happened next because well, the only thing that's happened is that I picked up some more bacon, salt pork, ham, rabbit, chicken, terrine de campagne, and various cuts of veal and beef since then. I want to do a tete de veau soon, I'm very curious about it and don't want to order it in a restaurant before I've prepared it myself from a good recipe.

No, but I did play the role of Dorinne in a high school production of Tartuffe in the round.

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OH... were the meats extra bloody by chance?? :biggrin: And surely there is a tale to be told with tete de veau.

I love a good scary story..or, as my grandmother would say, "schpooky story".

When the kids were little and we would go camping with friends, one person would start the story, and then hand it off to the next person. "Icy Joe" lived in a cave at Snowbird, and everytime we go by, we still are on the lookout for "Icy Joe" :laugh:

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OH... were the meats extra bloody by chance??  :biggrin:  And surely there is a tale to be told with tete de veau.

I love a good scary story..or, as my grandmother would say, "schpooky story".

When the kids were little and we would go camping with friends, one person would start the story, and then hand it off to the next person.  "Icy Joe" lived in a cave at Snowbird, and everytime we go by, we still are on the lookout for "Icy Joe"  :laugh:

No, not really, the meats did not seem extra bloody, hathor. Loic has gone to another conference and I am alone here tonight, and the only thing I want to eat is meat. I've got lots of really nice looking vegetables but really all I want is cold cuts with my Americano, then terrine de lapin, what next, I have a nice big slab of beef liver briefly seared, I've eaten it with my hands, straight from the pan. How silly of me.

When I was growing up that character was "Raw Head and Bloody Bones" and he lived in the closet in the basement where my parents kept their wines. How convenient for them when I became a teenager. :smile:


Edited by bleudauvergne (log)

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Beef liver with your hands....and you didn't take any pictures?? shame! :laugh: Wasn't there a thread around about what you eat when you are alone?

My mother and I terrorized my sister with sneakers in the dryer..you know...tha-thump tha-thump....We still will sing to her "The sneakers are coming tra-la tra-la"

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As a lover of ambiguous horror stories since early childhood, I much enjoyed the frisson which yours produced. It has a strong family resemblance to MR James' "The Mezzotint", which concerns a print in which an ominous figure gradually approaches a house which is the picture's dominant subject.


John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

Top Google/MSN hit for Paris Bistros

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I thought it was pretty silly, and "bleudauvergne" is hardly M.R.. James. Still, there are a lot of French people who seem to live pretty long on spite alone.......

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As a lover of ambiguous horror stories since early childhood, I much enjoyed the frisson which yours produced. It has a strong family resemblance to MR James' "The Mezzotint", which concerns a print in which an ominous figure gradually approaches a house which is the picture's dominant subject.

John, I've just gone to a site on M.R. James, and read The Mezzotint. The subject of the story is similar in that it involves moving figures in a photographic print - thank you for calling my attention to that, and to the author. The stories are good fun.

I thought it was pretty silly, and "bleudauvergne" is hardly M.R.. James. Still, there are a lot of French people who seem to live pretty long on spite alone.......

Well of course it was silly - and not even close to M.R. James in style or expertise in that genre for that matter! :laugh::laugh:


Edited by bleudauvergne (log)

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I was intrigued by the description of the butcher's eyes: "Flat, like a goat's" (Actually I awoke this morning thinking about this). Tell me, did they glitter at all?

Glittering flat eyes have been reported many times when reporting incidences of cannibalism: China in the 1880's, Japan in the 1890's, the American Wild West of the 1870's............

I wonder if your butcher could have been in the Foreign Legion and committed atrocities?


I'm a canning clean freak because there's no sorry large enough to cover the, "Oops! I gave you botulism" regrets.

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Ooohh, shades of Sweeney Todd's!


I'm a canning clean freak because there's no sorry large enough to cover the, "Oops! I gave you botulism" regrets.

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I was intrigued by the description of the butcher's eyes: "Flat, like a goat's" (Actually I awoke this morning thinking about this). Tell me, did they glitter at all?

Glittering flat eyes have been reported many times when reporting incidences of cannibalism: China in the 1880's, Japan in the 1890's, the American Wild West of the 1870's............

I wonder if your butcher could have been in the Foreign Legion and committed atrocities?

a coppery, hot, flinty kind of look, flat, like pennies. Like a doll.

Susan, you're getting me scared again! This is going to make it difficult to go back to get my tete de veau. :rolleyes:

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Susan, you're getting me scared again! This is going to make it difficult to go back to get my tete de veau. :rolleyes:

Whoops! So sorry about the misquote! (Hate it when I do that)!

Yeah, tete de veau.......oooh. If it didn't have such an obvious shape, I'd want some pelt left on it so I could be sure *sure* what I was buying!


I'm a canning clean freak because there's no sorry large enough to cover the, "Oops! I gave you botulism" regrets.

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"Luce," she was losing patience. "Do you think that if this guy had the key to everlasting youth he would choose to be a butcher, for all time? I'm going to bridge now." She said with an air of finality.

Lucy, your mother makes an excellent point you might consider if you'd not like to be alarmed. On the other hand, it makes the unlikely assumption that he had any choice in the matter.


Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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On the other hand, it makes the unlikely assumption that he had any choice in the matter.

...Doomed for all eternity to walk the earth in the shape of a butcher... Yikes!

But in that case maybe Lucy is the pure-hearted young woman who can break the spell, "and peace shall come to..." Saint-Nizier?

Wait a bit, this is coming rather pretty. How's this: the curse was laid upon him by a woman whose brother/father/lover he unwittingly beheaded, a century or three ago, and this was the gist of it: because he had made a butcher of himself in so doing, she doomed him to walk the earth in the guise of a literal butcher until the day when a pure-hearted woman would come along and capture his soul on a piece of paper; the soul thus drawn away from the earthly manifestation would be freed from the spell and able to rest in peace. Now... let's suppose that this original episode took place sometime well before the mid-19th century, when there was little danger of this obscure antidote being understood, let alone implemented. She musta thought she had him good - all eternity indeed.

So then what happens? Photography comes into the picture, and the breaking of the spell becomes a distinct possibility; curiously, it's around 1840 that those who frequented a certain butcher's shop began noticing that he was occasionally accompanied by an immaculate pink-sweatered woman. And as photographic technology developed she made increasingly frequent appearances; I think you'd find that it was in the late 1930s that sightings of the woman became daily occurrences. Oddly enough, that is also when the Polaroid camera came out.

Coincidence? Hardly.

There's a simple explanation for all this. That woman in the pink sweater... she isn't really his wife: she's the woman who cast the spell. OK, we all know the basic rules for spell-casting, right? You always have to supply an "out" clause (though there's no rule against making said clause utterly outlandish); and once cast, you don't get do-overs. Now all of a sudden there's actually a chance that new-fangled technology might be able to implement that bit of flowery language and thereby overthrow the curse - and there's not a damn thing she can do to prevent it but stick close to him 24/7 and make sure no nice young women with cameras come snooping around and noticing that he's picturesque!

(The pink sweater is the source of her power: she has been wearing it for centuries, and it has magically adjusted its cut as necessary to keep it current and unobstrusive - I believe it started out as a stomacher or a kirtle or some such thing. I'm sure I don't need to explain why it can't be stained with blood or anything else. That is the nature of magic sweaters, pink or otherwise.)

That photograph taken in 1930 - now there was a close call. But it wasn't taken by a pure-hearted woman and it wasn't really of the butcher himself, so the pink-sweatered one let it go. (Note, however, that she herself is not visible in the picture... and draw your own conclusions.) What were the odds that someone - let alone this particular someone - would find it and make the connection? The odds against must have been astronomical - yet so it fell out. Bruno Bettelheim would have a field day. After the fact, of course, she couldn't put that cat back in the bag - Lucy had already seen the face. All she could do was manipulate the image so that the evidence was no longer available.

So here's Lucy's dilemma. If she wants to play Senta to this guy's Dutchman, she can storm the citadel and take the picture despite all attempts to stop her. Or I spose she could try stealing the pink sweater, if she has the nerve. Either way, though, that means losing one hell of a good butcher.

So, Lucy... just how pure is that heart of yours?

(Damn, I forgot all about working Dorian Grey into this. Maybe next time.)

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He seems pretty happy, though, you two. I mean after all, what's so bad about being a butcher?

I'm content to not persist with any more picture taking.

I was going to say I did take a picture of him which he agreed to (during the foodblog) but he wasn't looking at the camera so maybe it doesn't count.


Edited by bleudauvergne (log)

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OK, this is getting creepy again. What you don't seem to remember is... he was looking at the camera when you took the picture; the picture, however, has changed since then....

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May I mention that in your modern picture of the street portrayed in the 1930's photograph, perhaps your lady of the gossamer rosy hair may still be in residence?

Look there, in the building on the right----up about three windows, one in from the left, just next to the half-drawn shade. There's a definite presence there, a hint of pink, just at sweater height...

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