The Carcassonne Dream
by Robert Mangeot
Wind gusted against the train window and whistled in through a crack in the seal. Outside a dazzling November sky shone over Languedoc, and with it came a cold wind that scoured the hillsides and seemed to hurry us toward Carcassonne.
“Really blowing out there,” I said.
Bree smiled at me from the aisle seat and set the guide book down atop her tray table. France was her dream honeymoon, and she planned our two weeks with military precision. “Le Mistral, north wind of legend.” Bree never sounded more wistful than when speaking French. “Locals claim that it has magic powers. They say it drove Van Gogh crazy.”
“I suspect he didn’t need much of a push. You know what’s driving me crazy?”
I did. “Getting my hands on the one, true Carcassonne sandwich.”
“Five days since our wedding and you didn’t say me.”
Courting Bree had equipped my turn of phrase for such situations. “No, you drive me wild. I’d be willing to prove it.”
Bree kissed my cheek. “Nice save.”
Since proving my desire in the bathroom wasn’t in the cards, I heeded the call of my stomach. Upstairs in the dining car, people stood around at the high tables and glared at each other over cans of Kronenbourg. They crunched potato chips disdainfully, like each bite compounded the insult.
It was sandwich time, but not the Carcassonne. The real thing, what I called the Carcassonne dream, demanded special red wine vinaigrette and local ham, and it waited mere hours down the tracks. The dining car version would be any old ham slapped on any old bread and served with a packet of any old vinegar. I let the dream simmer and ordered a croque-monsieur.
“No toast,” the snack guy said. “Salade. Le thon.”
“Thon? Tuna? No, no thon. What else do you have?”
He rapped a finger to his empty sandwich rack. “Salade.”
“No sandwiches at all? Can’t you make one?”
The snack guy growled something unintelligible and tossed me a bag of chips. I didn’t want to be the ugly American getting into it over a sandwich, so I bought the chips and a Diet Coke for Bree. The guy slung out my change and slammed the counter window shut.
I turned to slink away, in the process nearly bowling over an old man who had come up from behind. He had wispy hair under a cap and eyes the clear blue of the sky outside.
“Pardon,” I said. “Closed. No sandwiches.”
The old man grasped my arm and shook his head slowly.
Chips only whet my appetite. I was starving by Carcassonne, and with French dinners so late, I headed us straight for the train station café. “It is time.”
Bree fought the wind for her hair. “Right out of the chute, huh?”
“Chicken, ham, goat cheese, rocket, crusty bread, bring it all on.”
“Do you even know what rocket is?”
I didn’t get the chance to say no. The café was out of everything except tuna, and picked-over train station tuna was more risk than I cared to take.
We stepped outside to hail a cab. Sunset gave the hilltop castle and far-off mountains an otherworldly glow. Our five-minute ride took us over the canal and through narrow streets lined with yellow-stone buildings. Ville Basse, Bree called it. Everywhere people crowded the bakeries and sandwich shops. The Carcassonne dream, and I was missing it.
Up in our hotel room Bree consoled me cross-eyed. For a good while I forgot anything other than her.
“Can you imagine?” Bree said afterward. She zipped up her dress, one that concealed a lacy slip and garters. Her boudoir attire meant she brought along an oversized bag, and no one was ever happier to lug extra weight than me. “We could move here, I could write travel guides, you could…we’d work that out.”
For once I was the first ready to leave. Our alone time had made me ravenous. “I could keep you warm. Let’s hit a sandwich shop tout suite.”
“Tout de suite. And forget about a sandwicherie for dinner. There’s a Spanish bistro on Place Carnot that the book says has killer tapas.”
Bree was in her best smile, and garters, and when Bree wore either, her wish was my command.
One Spanish meal later, I had a belly full of tapas, a doggie bag of Carcassonne ham, and a hot wife soon to unleash the kinky underwear. Life was good. Still, as we strolled back through a town equal parts tourist trap and fairy tale, I couldn’t shake an undercurrent to Carcassonne, something jaded in the gold stone and floodlights, something anxious in the waiter’s apology for running out of bread. The mistral wind flapped my jeans and rattled the lights strung over the lanes. Across the river the walled medieval city spread out like a sleeping giant.
Underneath a burgundy awning ahead stood the old man from the train, a wrapped baguette tucked under his arm. He pointed at my ham, cinched up his jacket, and shuffled off down the street.
Bree steered us to where the old man had been, a butcher shop closed for the night. “Et voilà!”
In the window were mostly canned tuna and condiments. A nervous-looking woman peered at us from a back room.
“I don’t see any sandwiches.”
“They make them fresh. Dan, this is the place from the book. As in undisputed home of the Carcassonne sandwich.”
I had never loved Bree more.
By the time we reached the hotel, I was a man of two minds. I wanted Bree upstairs to start the lingerie portion of our evening, but first I had a bread situation nagging at me. I stopped to ask the night clerk Remy about it.
He shot me a cockeyed look. “What is this question of sandwiches? There is no shortage of the sandwiches.”
“I didn’t say there was.”
“Do not believe all that you hear. During Le Mistral there can be wild talk.”
“What does that mean?”
“Carcassonne has many sandwiches,” Remy said. He stalked off, hands flapping over his head.
Bree told me to let it go.
Even rookie husbands knew to keep our mouths shut while amassing evidence. I said nothing more that night. I said nothing when the hotel had no pastry at breakfast. I said nothing when out in the blustering wind we watched bakers in aprons hurry toward their cars and all walks of life stop each other to murmur and point. I said nothing when at the butcher shop we found military guys and grungy student types jostling to get at the counter.
By then I said nothing because denial let me cling to the Carcassonne dream. With my terrible French, there was an off-chance that I misheard the shouts—“Les sandwiches! Les sandwiches!”
That could have meant anything.
Bree touched my arm. “Are those people saying they can’t find sandwiches anywhere?”
The shop owner fought the crowd to pull down his metal shutter. A military guy pushed him away. Another smashed the display case with a paving stone, and people grabbed for anything inside, even the beds of lettuce. From behind the counter the nervous woman from the night before pegged the looters with condiment jars.
At some point the old man from the train had joined us, taking in the scrums for food as if in resignation. A boy, scraped and dirty from wrestling atop the cobblestones, ran past us clutching half a brioche.
I asked the old man what was happening, and where else I could find a Carcassonne sandwich. He shook his head as if in mourning and shambled away.
A small jar rolled up against my shoe. It was authentic Camargue sea salt, the kind demanded for the one, true Carcassonne sandwich. I wiped off what I hoped wasn’t blood and tucked it in my coat pocket.
“We need intel,” I said. “Grab the international phone and see if there’s a second home of the Carcassonne sandwich.”
Bree dug through her purse for the smartphone. “Still on the sandwich, huh? Not the riot. The sandwich.”
“I really want one.”
“Me too, the way you’ve talked the damn thing up.”
Bree read aloud from a French news site. “Okay, the government is officially denying any food-related shortages. But the President set up a Ministry of Sandwiches with emergency powers. There’s a lot of vague crap about tuna surpluses and swift action.” She blinked in the sunlight. “How the hell does France run out of sandwiches?”
“Out of Carcassonnes.”
“Umm, Dan? The phone just lost service.”
We ducked aside for a gang of old ladies making off with armloads of produce. The hindmost lady never saw me swipe a tomato off her. I did it without a pang of guilt. Legally it wasn’t her tomato either.
The Mistral poured on and on through the afternoon, and with each looted store I lost a sliver of the Carcassonne dream. On a street Bree said was Rue Voltaire, we came across a Russian antique dealer charging a line of locals and tourists fifty euro for a Carcassonne sandwich.
I rushed us to the back of the line. “I know it’s insane what they’re asking, but they have baguettes. Real baguettes.” We had seen peddlers roaming Ville Basse with plastic ones from store displays or with spray-painted Styrofoam. “Think how years from now we’ll laugh about scoring our real-deal Carcassonne.”
Bree exhaled like her soul had a leak. “I just want a sandwich.”
My hopes lasted as long as the baguettes did. The Russian ran out of bread and began charging seventy-five euro for a slice of ham between fried eggs. I stood in the wind a lost man.
A guy loaded down with grocery bags tried to snatch Bree’s purse. She clocked him before I could. He stumbled away, his cries of pain echoing down Rue Voltaire; however Bree managed it, she had nabbed one of his grocery bags. In it was two bottles of Languedoc vinaigrette.
Fate chose that moment, with townsfolk cleaning out crepe and gelato stands, to speak its insight. I inventoried our food supply against the Carcassonne sandwich recipe: sea salt, ham, tomato, and now, improbably, the exact rare vinaigrette.
The Carcassonne dream was my destiny.
A shadow moved across my eye. It was the old man again, bleak with acceptance.
Bree asked, “Why can’t they just bake more bread?”
The old man looked at her a long time, his wizened face bunching with great effort as if the answer was too elemental for words. He gestured to the Russian, who was now out of ham and selling butter between the eggs. When we turned back around, the old man had wandered off.
“Okay then,” Bree said. “I’m officially weirded out. I say we just move on.”
The flame in my gut flickered. “But this is our day in Carcassonne. It’s what you wanted—castles, sunshine, South of France. So there’s a little unrest?”
“God, you are so transparent. Do you see any sandwiches here, Dan? Because I see civil order breaking down. We’ll get your damn sandwich in Avignon.”
“There are no sandwiches in Avignon,” a chic young woman ahead in line told us. She had a child in a stroller, a boy fighting back tears. “Not Toulouse, not Marseille. We hear not even Paris. The Ministry was to have acted, but where are they?”
“They better come soon,” I said. “And with herbed goat cheese.”
“The baguettes went first. Then the pain de mie, last the croissant. Then people used pasta sheets for bread, but it has been hours since I have seen a pasta sandwich. What am I to do?”
Bree calmed the woman down enough to get her name: Nathalie. Her husband Paul had left them there while he searched the Les Halles food market believed to have a cache of vegetables.
“Peppers?” I said. “Or onions? Red onions?”
“He heard all kinds. He thought to make bread substitute by lashing vegetable slices together.”
“We’ll look for him,” I said, feeling drunk on destiny. “Maybe we can pool our stuff. We’re like halfway to a Carcassonne sandwich as we speak.”
Nathalie changed into an oily grin. “Yes?”
Nathalie started pecking my cheeks rapid-fire, each peck pushing her harder against me until the whole thing ended with her wrapped around me like a black widow. She slipped a hard-boiled egg into my coat pocket. “I have more than this for you,” she whispered in my ear. “Much more.”
I didn’t know what made most uncomfortable, another man’s wife grinding on me, her kid and Bree watching, or that apparently I had oversold how much I was willing to share.
Bree gave Nathalie our spare vinaigrette and left no doubt of that as payment in full for the egg.
I waited a block to suggest that Nathalie was probably just being French.
“Dan,” Bree said, and corpses would have felt the chill, “she was scared. Right now that bitch would put out for you or any other schlub with a sandwich.”
I didn’t point out that, as recently as last night, in the throes of passion Bree gave me considerably higher praise than schlub. I needed her on board for the mission that Nathalie brought one egg improbably closer. I tasted victory, and it tasted like the ham of the gods.
Outside the market a man calling himself Georges de Guerre shouted into a bullhorn, whipping the mob into outrage. He recited from a manifesto that Bree explained mocked the Ministry of Sandwiches and demanded bread, cheese and price controls on wine. The lone policeman there wolfed down raw hamburger between bell peppers.
Bree watched him take mad bites of beef. “Why didn’t he cook the meat?”
I said, “He’s got peppers.”
The policeman wailed at us and scuttled off down an alleyway.
Sounds of mayhem rang from inside the market building. I left Bree in the square and fought through the smashed-in main entrance. Frantic townspeople ransacked the stalls. A Roma woman was pressing chickpeas into hummus-like dough. A wild-eyed man in a tuxedo scraped mayonnaise onto rice paper. Children stripped ivy from a floral cart, for garnish I assumed. A less determined man might have taken such chaos as reason to hurry out before catching their fever. I had fate’s wind at my back.
At every booth I shouted for Paul, but it turned out there were a lot of Pauls in France. None belonged to Nathalie, not yet anyway, and so I focused on the Carcassonne dream. I returned to the square and Bree with some green peppers, a red onion, and a handful of cucumbers. I didn’t dare ask the other looters what rocket was and where to find it.
The sun had begun to set, bruising the sky purple. A shrill woman had taken charge from atop a Citroën van, screeching a bullhorn diatribe about Ministry corruption.
“That lady,” Bree said, “Sylvie, she’s head of the Tribunal. They’ve authorized a bunch of knuckle-draggers as a militia to confiscate any possible sandwich materials.”
The goons Bree meant were gathering by the van to arm themselves with clubs and bottles of wine. Fate had upped the degree of difficulty, that was all. I pulled my coat tight around me. It didn’t pay to get caught with a jacket full of contraband there in Thunderdome.
The old man drifted up beside us, a weak smile etched across his face. He snuck half a baguette into my coat, put a finger to his lips, and faded off into the crowd.
Even creepy old guys understood that the dream must live.
In his wake a student approached, sheltering from the wind a cigarette in his cupped hand. He asked what we knew.
I folded my arms to cover my bulging pockets. “Nothing.”
“We hear the government has collapsed. Many say this is because of diseases. A bread-eating virus spreads over France.”
Not arguing that meant a faster retreat, but we were already too late. From around the square people hemmed us in, and Bree translated while each threw out their supposed cause: France was at war, and the military had seized control of sandwich production; terrorists—no, aliens—had sabotaged the world’s ovens; a rapture-like event had caused all bread and cold cuts to vanish.
I watched the rumor-mongering spread around the square like a gas fire. Atop the Citroën van, a dead ringer for Rasputin named Marcel screamed into the bullhorn. I made out only part of his spiel, bits about Sylvie and betrayal and Ministry spies.
“Dan,” Bree said. “He totally just said ‘treacherous foreign influences.’”
We made it to our hotel in one piece with my full load of Carcassonne makings. I kept watch on the street while Bree went upstairs for our valuables. Instead of worrying about the broken glass, abandoned cars and goons roaming the streets, all I cared about was where I might find that goat cheese spread.
Fate gave another sign to confirm I was on the path. Amid the wreckage that had been the hotel restaurant lay a pepper mill. And it was loaded.
Bree dashed out from the lobby. “Come on. I think Remy’s a snitch.”
“Did you bring the ham?”
“I brought all your damn food, okay?”
I stowed everything in my jacket, and we took off through the parking lots along the river, well away from the main squares and checkpoints. Across the water the castle darkened along with the sky.
“You there!” a gravelly voice called from behind. “Halt! Marcel’s orders.”
Several more men repeated the order in a chorus of drunken militia. But they hadn’t meant us. Twenty feet away, goons had surrounded a thick-bearded local, wielding batons and wine bottles as they circled like a wolf pack.
“You were to surrender bread to the Tribunal,” said the lead goon.
“I have only tuna,” the man said, trembling. “I swear it.”
“You lie,” said the lead goon. He laughed hard, swigged from his wine bottle, and tapped his baton to the man’s chin. “Is this a crumb of tuna on your beard, dog?”
The man shrieked like I’ve never heard from human lungs and broke free. Too much jackrabbit for the wolves, he opened up a big lead on the pack of goons in hot pursuit across the bridge.
“That’s it,” Bree said. “Ditch the stuff. All of it.”
I stepped back to watch the mistral churn whitecaps in the river. It was a near miracle to come into any sliver of the Carcassonne in the middle of a sandwich crisis. We had come into most of them. The signs were everywhere, but somehow Bree missed them all.
“I’ll stash it somewhere. They catch me after goat cheese, I play dumb tourist. Can’t understand the dictates. Look, this is no time for pride. Worst case they call me a dog and slap me around. Meanwhile I’m slowly building the finest sandwich ever conceived.”
“Give me the bread, Dan. I’ll dump it.”
“Okay, more practically, we might need this stuff for trade. Like smokes in the joint.”
Whether she glimpsed the hand of fate or liked my slipping in jail talk, Bree relented. “But we’re leaving.”
The crowd at the train station spilled out to the canal and up to the makeshift barricades that sealed off Basse Ville. We wormed our way up to the platform, where we found Nathalie’s husband Paul searching the crowd. When Bree explained where to find his family, the relief that flooded over him had no language barrier.
“Everyone has come for Ministry sandwiches supposedly due in,” Paul said. “That has been hours now. The Ministry has failed us all.”
“You got any veg or chicken?” I said, and I explained a cleaned-up version of the egg-for-vinaigrette swap. “I can spare an onion.”
Paul went shifty-eyed and offered to trade some spiky-looking lettuce.
“What is that?” I said.
“Rocket,” Bree said. “Rocket is arugula.”
We made the exchange like a couple of novice drug dealers. Fate had brought me garnish.
A regional train rolled in crammed with people hanging out windows and hunkered atop each car. The train people were from Montpellier, Bree said, and begged to know if Carcassonne had sandwiches. Those on the platform seemed ready to pillage the newcomers. Before the train stopped the two groups merged, those getting off clambering past those clambering aboard.
A squad of Marcel’s men appeared and began shaking down the new arrivals for possible sandwich materials.
Bree had to yell as the train chugged louder, like it was straining at its tether. “Let’s go. Anywhere’s better than here.”
I stayed put, rooted to the platform by destiny.
“Dan, come on.”
My gut rumbled. Through all the smoke and steam wafted in ham, onion, fresh baked bread—the Carcassonne dream. Over my shoulder, in the town cordoned off by goons, waited the final pieces of the sandwich I was meant to have. That I deserved to have.
“How do you know the next town isn’t complete anarchy?” I said. “We could find American heads on spikes outside the next town. At least here somebody is patrolling the streets.”
“I’m so close, baby. Just goat cheese and chicken. What do you call stumbling into rocket like that if not destiny?”
“Dumb luck. Please, we need to go.”
I looked at Bree, so blind to my destiny. Maybe she couldn’t see it because big dreams only came from big dreamers.
Bree said, “You’re really not leaving, are you?”
“It’s fate. You go, get to Paris. I can lie low here, raid some farms outside town. I’ll meet you in a few days.”
Bree sighed, if a bit grimly. “We’ll need a hatchet.”
“To kill the chicken. I don’t know when exactly you went insane, but if being together means I have to live off the land, then get me a damn hatchet.”
A sizzling noise started up in my mind, like fat in a frying pan. It was the sound of the Carcassonne dream dying.
“Let’s get aboard,” I said. “It’s just a sandwich. We’ll eat the evidence and call it a Carcassonne Junior.”
Bree hugged me and gave that smile of hers. “I really was willing to live off the land.”
The train engine hissed and slowed to a halt. Marcel’s thugs shouted something to those onboard.
“Dan,” Bree said, “that goon there just ordered everyone off for a search. They’re commandeering the train for the Tribunal.”
This, I realized, was the problem with becoming a man of destiny. Destiny would say when it was through with me.
A voice like a Bond villain broke over the loudspeaker with a long announcement, the crowd more and more agitated as he droned evilly on. I made out only snippets: “brothers and sisters,” “aristocracy,” “castle,” “sandwiches.”
Shouts of anger came from around the platform, and I joined in with “Mais oui,” as close to context as I could guess. Bree let loose with something in French, maybe “Death to the Ministry!”
Bree pulled me into conspiring range. “They want us up at the castle. We’re required to help stop aristocrats and Ministry criminals holed up with supposedly a boatload of sandwiches.”
“Hang on tight until we can sneak loose. We stick together. And if anywhere you see goat cheese—”
Bree touched her nose gangster-style. Just when I thought I couldn’t love her more, I loved her more.
We were hauled with the crowd out of the station. Night had fallen over Carcassonne, and power had failed along our route to the castle. The narrow lanes channeled the mistral into a riptide of air, knocking over café tables and showering us in loose dirt. Newspapers and grocery bags whirled in the air. People used anything for sandwiches now, bay leaves or gelatin strips, glace fruit or coffee beans for filler. Ahead the sprawling fortress waited, its outline darker than the sky.
At the river everyone became snarled trying to cross the bridge, but we were too deep inside the mob and too closely watched by Marcel’s goons to work ourselves free. Being squashed inside hundreds of sweaty rioters was fate dancing on the Carcassonne dream’s grave.
On the far bank we passed the old man standing in the frenzied light of a burning trash can. He lifted his hand as if to salute me.
Marcel’s goons led the rabble past wrecked shops and to the castle walls. Up the steep earthworks a gothic castle soared in shadow. Candles in its windows seemed to flicker in mid-air.
Bree relayed the gist of Marcel screaming into the bullhorn: upper town merchants, Ministry counter-revolutionaries, and assorted subversives had locked themselves in the fortress with a bounty of sandwiches, which was why he wanted their heads cut off.
A guy in a rugby shirt handed me a pitchfork. Bree was issued a torch.
“We are not storming that castle,” Bree said.
“What did you think this was?”
“A bunch of morons too drunk to storm a castle.”
War chants were begun. Fists were shook. The castle people called down from the ramparts that they had only breakfast cereals. They waved flashlights over the brightly colored boxes as if demonstrating goodwill. Marcel turned the bullhorn onto us mobfolk, goading us about hidden guimauve—marshmallow, Bree whispered—the aristocracy planned as spackle to make cereal loaves. The goons prepared tuna batteries for the assault.
Bree whooped out a call for sandwich fraternity that I thought really found her fake outrage. “What now?”
“Get ready. When everybody pushes around us, we head back for the river.”
Bree nodded. “Love you.”
“I’m so sorry, baby.”
“For what? Think of the Carcassonne story we’ll have for our kids.”
Goons began to bombard the castle walls with tuna cans. A shout about return fire was all Marcel needed to order everyone to charge. Bodies slammed into us from behind, crushing us against those ahead in the scramble up the earthworks. I grabbed for Bree with everything I had and pulled her back into our clench.
The rugby-shirt guy pointed at my feet. “Moulin à poivre!”
All of us, Bree and I and the rabble close enough to see, stared at the chess-pawn shape sticking out of my jacket.
“Bree…” I began.
Holding off a mob, me brandishing a pitchfork like I hoped pitchforks were brandished, Bree swinging her torch, was an odd time to achieve total clarity. I had landed my wife on the wrong side of a castle storming, not the hand of fate sweeping over Carcassonne. Fate could have me, but it wasn’t getting Bree.
I leveled the pitchfork and readied for a berserker dash for the river.
Suddenly a disorienting blast of noise and air thundered over the mob. At first I thought it was the wind squalling in harder, but then spotlights danced overhead. In the confusion I wondered if somehow the alien sandwich theory might have been true.
Helicopter blades beat the air above us. Soldiers in white uniforms flooded in from the lanes behind us and down zip-lines. In seconds it was over. Marcel and his hardliner cabal were taken into custody. Order came over the hillside and ramparts, me like everyone else blinking painfully as if in the first conscious moments of a hangover.
A soldier in a Ministry beret handed us half-bottles of wine and emergency sandwiches. Mine was chicken; Bree’s came with herbed goat cheese. The final ingredients brought maybe a flare of destiny’s embers. We had survived the crisis. We might as well have the sandwich.
The old man lingered by the castle gate. I waved, and he returned a grand doff of his cap. The wind hurried us off to our room and the scraps of the Carcassonne dream.
About the Author
Robert Mangeot lives in Nashville, Tennessee with his wife, Pomeranian and an undisclosed number of cats. His fiction has appeared in Lowestoft Chronicle, On The Premises, and OneTitle Magazine. Last year his thriller manuscript won its category in the Colorado Gold Writing Contest. He is known to count things. He blogs about anglophilia, travel and humor at www.blogbobaloo.robertmangeot.com.
“The Carcassonne Dream” © 2013 Robert Mangeot