“It’s easy to find the place” the directions said, “you’ll see it right across from the bird house.” I was imagining a largish traditional wooden shelter for the many exotic Mauritian birds. Maybe something on the fence or perched on a decorative post. But no, it’s an actual house that looks like an enormous white pigeon landed on the roof and never left. Or perhaps a dove. The symbol of peace. That would make sense.
No one seemed to know exactly why the woman had built her house in the shape of a bird. I asked around. It was a church. I checked with Ms. Google. There was nothing about the origin of the church or it’s feathered followers. Even our landlords who had lived across the street for years couldn’t provide a definitive answer. Some say the woman who lives there saw a vision or received a sacred message from on high that inspired her. The construction was complicated and is definitely not up to code. Apparently the long necked house of worship was very popular a few years ago. Hundreds of followers would flock to her house to pray, chant and dance. Each Sunday the normally quiet street would be crammed with busses and cars. But, just like disco and leg warmers the popularity eventually wained and the faithful found other places to direct their prayers and their cash. Maybe the bird lady didn’t make enough wishes come true? Perhaps her doctrines laid an egg?
After looking at the elaborate structure through the fence for a few weeks there were many questions bubbling in my brain. What did it look like inside the perched pigeon? What went on in there? I imagined bizarre wing flapping rituals and wiggly bird dances where the parishioners streamed brightly coloured feather boas over their heads and squawked. What was the priestess like? Did she have a personal relationship with Big Bird? Maybe she had a direct line to Alcatraz? I had peeked through our lace curtains and watched her spreading smoke and incense around the property blessing or as we like to call it in Canada ‘smudging’ it’s shrines. She didn’t look all that ‘weird’ as my young daughter likes to say. She looked frail and devout. Was she really a holy person? Every time someone walked by or rattled her gate a sizeable pack of hounds would charge the perimeter howling sad songs. This was not unusual as every home in Rivière Noire seemed to have a high security gate and most had at least one dog. One evening, after we had been neighbours for a several weeks I noticed her imposing gate was ajar. It was beckoning. Curiosity got the better of me and I decided to walk over and investigate. Neither my husband nor daughter would come with me. I had no wing man.
Entering the tall unlocked white metal gate I felt a little uneasy. Is this a cult or am I walking on sacred ground? Should I take this more seriously and genuflect? Or should I stick my thumbs in my armpits and cluck? First stop was the huge cross that I had gazed at daily out our back window while cooking dinner. It was freshly painted and bore a message which basically said “hey, big beautiful cross, save our asses please”. Ok, perhaps I wasn’t taking this seriously enough. I was actually a little nervous. The shrine on the north side of the holy hilly property was impeccably clean and freshly painted white and that blue you always see in pictures of Greece. This shrine also bore a message; “I am the virgin of the poor, virgin of nations.” I definitely didn’t belong to this club. Inside there were flowers and candles and hand written messages on the walls. People begging her to cure their sick and solve their problems. It was cool inside and impossibly quiet. Too quiet. For the first time in days the dogs were silent.
I crept slowly up toward the main house at the top of the stone drive. The message embossed here read “the source of the water of life.” Now, that’s a well I’d like to have a drink from. Under the house in an open air sort of cave/chamber were two ornate wrought iron beds covered in fresh colourful sheets. People clearly slept here. Lying on one of these beds was a barefoot woman wearing a skirt, flowered blouse and a sort of scarf wrapped around her head. She looked African and spoke very quickly in Creole. I couldn’t understand what she was saying but her gesture was clear. I was welcome. As I removed my shoes she used hand motions to tell me to go, go up. The cold cement stairs that had water streaming down them? From inside the house? Yes, go! Perhaps this was the ‘water of life?’ Could it be that the unknown purpose of this whole trip was for me to be at this very spot right now to take a shot from the everlasting fountain? Immortality here I come!!
From the rear of the deep dark house I began to hear faint barking. Quietly at first and then it got closer. The dogs had been alerted to the presence of an outsider. I was more afraid of the dogs than any lightening bolt striking me from the sky for my impertinence. Lapsed Catholics have already addressed the possibility of being tossed out of heaven. That didn’t bother me. But I had been reading Salman Rushdie and was suddenly worried that this blasphemy would cause my demise. The first dog to reach me had a very loud shouting bark and three legs. She had taken in a stray and in return he was protecting her. Three more dogs surrounded me. I was cornered in the stair well. Then I heard her call them off. Hail Mary after all.
As I reached the top of the stairs inside the open air hall the first thing I noticed was the view. There was no glass in the window openings and the sweeping vista of the sea from ear to ear was simply spectacular. Talk about your open plan. This was some expensive real estate. Then the refreshing breeze brushed past my face nudging me back to now and I took in the vast empty room with a sort of altar in the far back corner. There was no other furniture, no benches or chairs, just a few old faded pictures of Jesus on the walls and some wilted flowers in a jar. They may or may not have been plastic. I think I smelled incense.
As the dogs scrambled in retreat I saw her. There in the back corner. Thin, almost skeletal. She was standing near the raised white altar on the far side of the room. Her form was reflected in the liquid sheen coming off the floor. She was facing away from me so I couldn’t make out her face and her silhouette was backlit by the sun streaming in the arched openings behind her. Dressed in old baggy trousers soaked to the knees and a man’s faded oversized button up shirt. Well, oversized on her childlike frame anyway. Her wispy hair was pinned up to the top of her head and she held something…a staff? A sceptre? I stuttered in limited french. “Hello Madame, I am curious about your church. Please, may I have a look and talk to you?” She turned slowly toward me and as she did she swung her lance in my direction. “Not now” she snapped in French, her voice high pitched and strong “I’m busy washing the floor!” Her threatening staff was a soggy push-broom dripping with grey water. She was cleaning her magnum opus. Even the holiest of people have housework to do. I snapped a quick photo and made for the exit.
Retreating quickly down the steep driveway I wished for Harry’s invisibility cloak. As I slipped out the doors of the now closed gate and back to our apartment on top of the house across the street I felt an anxious sense of embarrassment. Almost shame. I had intruded where I didn’t belong. How dare I barge into her oasis while it was unpresentable. I wondered what her life was about. Was she happy? Did she feel content? Was the simple ritual of keeping her shrines clean offering enough to give her life a purpose even though no followers remained? Was her life unusual or was ours? Who is the ‘weird’ one here? Perhaps we seem strange to her? But I bet she doesn’t judge…or even care. She has her church to dedicate herself to and we are just pale lazy people from half way around the world spending all kinds of money and time to come to this little island in the middle of the deep blue sea to lie together in a row on the sand and turn a shade or two darker.