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The Grape-Pickers' Muse

THERE was a wooden table left out for all seasons under a tree. That piece of furniture became our home in the south of France. We had set up our tents by the empty stone house put at the disposal of the pickers. Without asking le patron, we brought the table up closer to the doorless door of the grape-pickers' shack. When work was finished, when we were through cutting the plump, dusty fruit and the full barrels were loaded, the ox cart plodded back along the narrow road - past crossroads with religious statues - and we got off at the house where our table was.

A garden hose hung from the old tree, and the Algerian girls washed behind the tree, then called to the German boy or me, and it would be the guys' turn in the shower. The patron had picked us all up in town with his notice for work. There were Jonathan and the German boy, the two Algerian girls, and Alain the Breton, and me.

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Jonathan lay full-length on the old table and dried off in the luxurious evening warmth, contemplating what he would do once he graduated from college. The Algerian girls would knock him off the table gaily with swinging pots of salad they pilfered from the uncultivated part of our employer's estate: Sometimes they touched the old bachelor aristocrat's garden lettuces for a few leaves to go with the dandelions and roots and wild greenery.

Then Jonathan and Alain and I would walk to the bakery to buy yogurts and bread; the German boy, who told us he had run away from home, brought us rabbits he shot with a sling-shot. We cooked them on a spit under the tree and they were delicious and nourishing and not too gamey, and better than the snails the Algeriennes brought home each day from the vineyard. They made a mustard sauce for the snails, and I ate the sauce mostly alone, dipping bread into it. The Algerian girls were very French but told us they hated France for some political reason. Still they had come, like us, for the harvest wages.

Our other friend on the estate was Regine. She was niece of the rich patron. She was a medical student and lived in the ch^ateau and came out to work with us every day. She mingled well with the migrants who came up from Spain, and enjoyed the earthy camaraderie during the furious harvest. It was a work that had to be completed in a matter of weeks, or the grapes spoiled.

Regine slept discriminatorily in the big house, where tapestries hung by the door. We went there once a week to get paid by her uncle, who blocked his front door with a desk; he only seemed to touch ground on polished parquet floors and wore polished boots outside to insulate himself from the rabble and dirt. He never talked to us or looked at us, in the fields or on payday.

But the peasant women from Spain loved and respected Regine; she seemed to inspire them as if she were a muse among the laborers in the fields. She wore a skirt like them and worked hard like us, and she was more beautiful than the Sunmaid Raisin girl. She spread light and tenderness wherever she went. Alain and Jonathan and I liked her a lot because she was fun. The young German boy was despairingly in love with her.

We knew Regine's uncle in the ch^ateau disapproved of her coming out to us, to our small international rabble in the garden. He once actually forbade her to come, when he found his lettuces were diminishing. But as the harvest moon climbed, Regine often left her place at his table of Parisian guests and forsook the coffee and dinner mints to sneak down the path through the pines, to be with us. We'd see her coming in the evening blue, stepping as a ballet dancer and full of fun.

Alain would be playing his jew's-harp or the spoons or telling how he was convinced la Table Ronde would be reconvened by King Arthur near Grenoble in 1990. He was searching for it.

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``Tu veux que je sois ton amie? ... Thou wishest that I be thy friend?'' Regine would say to all of us, in greeting. She would go around the table and give the shy German boy a silly kiss on the top of his head.

``Ah, you should be with your mother. Why is it that you are so far from home?''

Then she would sit and talk with the delighted and angry runaway, as a sister.

When she arrived, she would smile at the Algerian girls, and nod to Alain, who quickened his Breton beat, nodding back. Sometimes she would finish dinner with us. The moon would seem just a little more claire.

As the nights passed, we found a lantern among junk in the stone house and lit it with a candle one of the girls had in her pack, and talked and talked, about world problems and youth and songs. Regine seemed to care less about the talk than for exotic people (us!). With the hard work and the garden and the moon and Regine, we came out of ourselves as in the presence of a work of art. We were growing enchanted with our better selves.

Alain confessed his desire to give up looking for the Round Table and to go back to a wife and child he had left in Brittany; Jonathan concluded that maybe he would like to work for the BBC; the Algerian girls reneged on their political hatred and expressed a desire to see Paris; the German boy said he wanted to see America. I toyed with the idea of becoming a wandering poet.

And what of Regine? She was happy in her life as a medical student at Montpellier - but sometimes I didn't believe it: that she could be so normal. She was one of those people, like the patron's garden, changing but past change, created to enchant.

The day came for leaving and Regine had her uncle drive her to the station. He handed each of us a mysterious envelope - cash for the trip.

So she had finally enchanted the noble too! Of course, Regine looked the other way, as he gravely gave us bonuses - the muse and money never mix.

She remarked as we stepped on the train: ``You all look like escargot, carrying your homes on your backs!''

In Paris, where we parted - the German boy informed us he was not running farther to America but wanted to return home first - which made us overjoyed for him. In the parting, Alain saluted us, ``Until the next Table Ronde then,'' he said.

Making my way across town to the Gare du Nord, for England, with Jonathan, I thought of the line ``Can thou make a banquet table in the wilderness?'' Alain was right; we each had taken with us in our escargot packs an invisible piece of a nondescript table weathered under a spreading tree in the south of France. Arthur and his legend did live on - and we, a bunch of ragtag students, had tasted it.

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