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Nyons, France. There’s news and there’s news. And then there’s non-news that gets turned into news. Big News! While the rest of the world was preoccupied with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the earthquake in Kashmir and elections in Iraq, this little corner of Provence had a major news story of its own. A story so enormous, even the ongoing 2005 vendage (wine harvest) and the prediction of an excellent year were all but overlooked.
Sunday night I bumped into my friend Laurie and her daughter, Mareva, on the Rue Barillon. “Hey, you hear the news??” Laurie asked, a glimmer in her eye. “They found a baby’s foot up in the woods this morning.”
“Yeah, a hunting dog found a newborn baby’s foot and partial thigh bone! Everyone’s talking about it!”
And by the next morning, everyone was. The local newspapers splashed lurid headlines about the “pied nourisson” (newborn’s foot) found by the hunting dog of a member of one of the “leading families of Nyons,” who wished to remain anonymous because of the “delicate” nature of his dog’s find, a find which had left him “traumatized and in shock and seclusion.” The first name of the dog, however, was revealed by the press.
The foot had been taken Sunday afternoon by police escort to a local médecin légiste (medical examiner) for authentication (as required by law) and he had confirmed it was indeed a human foot. A solemn and thorough search of the woods, which coincidentally are just across the river in the hills opposite my house, was conducted by the gendarmes, pompiers (fire fighters) and local law enforcement officials in the hopes of finding the rest of the poor nourisson, or at least some of its clothing.
According to anonymous enquêteurs (investigators) who had seen and examined the foot and its attached partial thighbone, the foot had been in the ground approximately one month. It was impossible to tell at what point in time and how the foot had become detached from what was presumably the rest of the body. As to the infant itself or its by-now dissembled parts, the experts were unable to determine if it (or its parts) had been placed in the ground before or after death. What was known was it was definitely a foot “of the white race,” though whether it had belonged to a white girl or white boy was impossible to tell. Several theories were advanced by personages described as “close to the case.” One possibility was the baby had been stillborn and disposed of by a distraught mother who didn’t know what to do with the body; another theory posited the baby was born prematurely and died afterwards, again to a distraught mother who didn’t know what to do with its body. Yet another possibility was the baby and its mother were “foreign,” meaning not from Nyons, and the other had traveled to Nyons from another part of France, or perhaps even somewhere else in Europe, to dispose of a body she didn’t know what to do with once it was dead. A fourth scenario was the mother and baby were both from Nyons, but the mother had hidden her pregnancy and then, distraught, had disposed of the body that was born dead or had died after birth. There was also the possibility of “foul play,” but if that were the case, it was surmised both the mother and baby body had come from somewhere other than Nyons. Apparently, for reasons not explained, none of the theories involved a father. A “discrete” door-to-door search was carried out in the
attempt to locate a female who had given birth approximately one month earlier but was currently without a baby. Town and hospital records were also consulted, as were local doctors, discretely, of course.
For days the newspapers spoke of the dark shadow that had fallen over our town, of a people, the noble Nyonsais, traumatized, saddened and in shock by “cette affaire sordide.” According to the papers, the citizens of Nyons could think of little else. I was sitting with my friend Lydie (http://www.lydiemarshall.com) in the kitchen of her 11th-century château here in the Old Town as she unpacked cartons of her latest cookbook, SLOW-COOKED COMFORT, which has just been published in the States. “Well,” I asked, as I blew on my mug of tea, “what do you think of the latest news?”
“About the foot, the baby’s foot.”
“You don’t know?! It’s been in all the papers!”
“Zee New York Times?”
“Le Monde? Libé?”
Always the gleeful deflator (especially to me), she looked up from the carton of cookbooks. “Yousait eet eez een all zee paypers…. Zat eez not all zee paypers zhen….”
“Well, it’s been in Le Dauphiné and La Provence and La Tribune….”
“Ai do not read zeese paypers,” she said with a dismissive flick of her hand, “zay are junnkh.” She handed me a copy of her cook book. “Zees eez for you.” Presumably the publication of her latest book WAS news.
The following week, the newspapers, or at least SOME of the newspapers, were filled with the headline: “LE PIED ETAIT CELUI D’UN SINGE!” (“THE FOOT BELONGED TO A MONKEY!”) Of course, anyone who is anyone knew of which foot they were speaking. It seems a higher-up in the Drôme department capital in Valence had doubts, someone otherwise referred to as “le procureur du tribunal de grande instance de Valence.” This elevated personage after much thought and presumably soul-searching, reached the conclusion that “visuellement, n’importe de qui aurait pu se tromper,” and because anyone from a visual examination could make a mistake, it was best to “fait appel à la science.” Thus the now well-traveled foot journeyed, discretely, of course, to a scientific laboratory in Lyon capable of expert examination and analysis of bone, cartilage and tissue. The verdict from Lyon was proclaimed: the foot belonged to a monkey. According to the officer at the local Gendarmerie in charge of the investigation, a monkey foot and a human baby foot look similar enough that the mistake was understandable. (I can think of a few differences, beginning with something called fur, but then my humble opinion was not solicited.) The papers reassured everyone the “denouement” of this deeply troubling case that had so profoundly touched the very hearts of the local population was a relief to all. HOWEVER, the papers continued, the mystery of what a monkey was doing in the woods of Nyons remained unsolved. It was posited that this same said monkey had escaped from a traveling circus, or even more sinister, a circus had dumped a dead monkey here, not knowing what to do with the body. Whatever the case, the noble Nyonsais would sleep better at night knowing this terrible “tâche” (stain) had been removed from their town.
Perhaps because I spent most of my life in the big town of New York, this monkey business resolution did not quite wash. I bought several newspapers that day, including one published in the big town of Lyon. And there it was, buried on a back page, a terse two-line announcement from the office of the esteemed Medical Examiner of Lyon: the baby’s foot of Nyons belonged to an animal, possibly a primate, but in all probability a large rabbit. Now that’s what I call news. Big News!