The Trout Baron

*originally published as “The Fisher Baron’s Secret,” in France: A Love Story, (ed. Camille Cusumano, Seal Press)

I found Paris especially difficult to leave that morning. Familiar buildings and monuments glistened with fresh snow that had fallen during the night. Teary-eyed, I almost fell as I skidded over the medieval cobblestones of my Marais apartment courtyard for the last time. The cabby studied me in his rearview mirror.
“Why are you leaving Paris?”
“Because I must return to my job and home in San Francisco.”
“Tsk tsk”–the ultimate French negation–and a slow-motion shake of his head registered the cab driver’s displeasure.
“What matters in life is that you make love with someone you care about on Sunday morning and walk out with them on Sunday afternoon,” he counseled me. “It’s not good to live your life alone.”
After my two years here in France, I had an enviable apartment, interesting friends, even the offer of a professorship in Paris teaching women’s studies. The various strands of my life were finally weaving together. Why leave now? That old recurrent battle percolated once again inside me: love and security versus freedom and adventure.
The cabby’s words touched a sensitive spot. Since the feminist movement, many of us had given up the old ways of being women, but we hadn’t quite figured out the new guidelines: It was like floating through space without a ripcord to pull. Sometimes it was lonely out there. Occasionally I felt like coming in for a landing.
At the airport, in the crush of the crowded waiting room, I nudged my possessions toward the check-in counter: two oversized suitcases, three cartons, and a portable computer. I felt like a contemporary version of Hannibal crossing the Alps–minus the elephants.
“Madame, s’il vous plaît, may I help you?” A dignified man in a tweed jacket appeared beside me. For a moment I expected a Maurice Chevalier refrain to spring from his mustachioed lips. His kindly face was lined but robust, sophisticated, and attractively sensual; his pepper-and-salt hair, well-cut wool clothing, and perfectly shined mahogany cordovans announced substance and dependability. Like a hero from a fairy tale, he exuded an otherworldly serenity.
We chatted our way up to the counter. “Je m’appele Serge de Kervoisin. Shall I see if I can arrange our seats together?” Somewhere over the mid-Atlantic, it became clear this could be the start of something. He was a baron from northern Brittany, tracing his ancestry back to the Romans. He had two chateaux left, was land-rich and cash-poor, and raised what cash he needed by selling off lumber from his forests and raising trout. I felt as if we were acting out a Henry James novel: I the young–well, not that young–naïve but energetic New Worlder; he the highly cultivated, somewhat jaded and fading European.
The narrow seats encouraged our shoulders to touch. When he poured my wine and toasted to our serendipitous meeting, the sides of our hands brushed ever so slightly. I had never known a man like Serge; in his early sixties, he was sixteen years older than I.
By the time the flight reached our destination, I had offered to delay my departure for San Francisco for a few days to help him explore New York for the first time. He had the use of a friend’s vacant apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and I stayed with old friends.
“One of the reasons I’ve come to the States is to establish connections with antique dealers,” he said. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Serge taught me about the nuances of the furniture collections, which helped me to look at small curves and carvings with a new awareness. I tried to concentrate on the collections, but more absorbing were how the lines of his jaw and cheeks changed from shadow into light when he spoke. How amusingly his elegant dignity contrasted with his brightening demeanor when I touched his hand or said, “What fun you are to be with,” or “I’ve never known a man like you.”
Just around the corner from the furniture collections was one of my favorite rooms in the museum. “Come look at the Temple of Dendur. This was a goddess temple. Did you know that in pre-Christian times, to make love with a temple priestess was considered a sacrament?” He opened his eyes wide at this bit of information.
“Well, well. Now it’s time for some tea, don’t you think?”
Our week together passed swiftly: towering corned beef on rye at the Carnegie Deli; a Broadway musical, 42nd Street; elegant and romantic small restaurants; a boat trip from the Hudson to the East River; more museums; and finally, slow and precise lovemaking in his temporary apartment. I had never made love with a man so much older than me, nor one of Serge’s background. He too seemed a bit nervous the first night I went home with him.
“Let’s have a drink. I quite like your American bourbon.” He quickly downed one glassful and poured another. He embraced me gently, kissing me in a preliminary way as though he were testing the waters, then more firmly, opening my lips with his tongue. His immaculate manners extended into his lovemaking. Slipping off his clothes quickly, he slid under the sheets. As I undressed, he pointedly looked away, then welcomed me to join him under the covers. In my travels, I have found that lovemaking techniques vary according to culture, class, and age of participants. This was my first time with a French aristocrat, and I was not disappointed.
The following month, when I was back in San Francisco, along with the first signs of spring, letters and cards began to arrive on both sides of the Atlantic. Our writing, like our conversations, moved back and forth between French and English, which was perhaps emblematic of our striving to bridge emotional and cultural ravines.
“Belle Dame, I don’t forget you,” he had written shortly after our January meeting. “I keep a very pleasant memory of our romantic encounter and I would like to renew it. Love and kisses, Serge de Kervoisin.”
Finally in May, I found myself writing: “Cher Serge, Merci for your wonderful letter and the sprig of lavender. It still has a beautiful scent and makes me think of spring in the French countryside. . . . In just 30 days, I will be back in Paris and look forward to accepting your invitation to visit you in Bretagne. I shall let you know when I have a clearer view of dates and so on. . . . Je t’embrasse.”
And so, after a few months of exchanging letters, the summer found me in Brittany at the Manoir de Kervoisin. Serge met me in Paris and we drove out to his manor. Tall rows of plane trees formed bowers over our heads as we entered the long driveway. On the right stood a small, abandoned but perfect half-timbered chateau dating from the fifteenth century; Queen Anne once stayed there. Opposite it stood the fairy-tale cottage in which he lived; this had been converted from an ancient water mill. Behind the cottage were laid out more than seventy enormous tanks in which trout were bred and raised. All around the cottage and into the distance were well-tended landscaped shrubs, flowers, and vegetable gardens. The sound of running water from the tanks permeated the air, as did some slight odor of fishiness when I stood amid the pools.
“During the winter of the great floods twenty years ago, all the trout escaped,” Serge recalled. I looked at the open-air tanks teeming with swarming trout, the dense population arranged according to size and age. Never again would I bite into a fresh pan-fried trout served with small white parsleyed potatoes without remembering those trout swimming in the shit of a thousand other trout.
I thought about the fish suddenly liberated from their suffocating confinement during those floods. What a surprise for a trout to be suddenly swimming in flood tides, with much of western Brittany as its sea. Did they long for the safety and surety of their tank? Or did they relish chance encounters and freedom–until the floods receded and they found themselves stranded, out of their element?
“Monsieur le Baron!” My short course in pisciculture was interrupted by a medieval-looking farm hand wearing a large yellow rubber apron, baggy overalls, and brown rubber boots that came up just above his knees. The worker’s ruddy, carbuncled face reflected many years in the rains and winds of Brittany. With his pale blue eyes, muscular forearms, and thumb in a dirty bandage, he could have just slipped out of a Breughel painting.
Serge gave instructions to his servant concerning the feeding of the fish, removal of equipment, and preparation for tree cutting. Serge’s limberness and vitality belied his sixty-four years. He told me his ancestors dated back to Roman times via Flanders, and his two chateaux had been in his family since the fourteenth century–but that titles and land did not necessarily translate into cash. Unfortunately, since they were more than five hours’ drive from Paris, the chateaux and trout farm were almost unmarketable. So, with his modest stands of oaks, his trout-breeding operation, and his vegetable garden, Serge lived a life out of time and almost totally self-sufficient.
The warm sun soothed my travel-weary shoulders, and drowsiness seeped through me. I felt more content within myself than I had in a long time, safe and cared for.
“Venez. Venez. S’il vous plaît. Come in, please, I want to show you my mill house, my cottage.” Serge used the ancient Breton word penti for cottage and always addressed me with the formal “vous.” It was part of his traditional old French ways. When I mentioned it, he explained it reflected the respect and esteem he felt for me. At first, such formality seemed odd, but, as I became accustomed to it, I too felt myself playing into an appropriate role: no longer a visitor from California, but a special woman, selected by chance to be here, playing a part in this tale.
The water-mill cottage was painted pale salmon, with gray stone corners and dark timber trim; it was covered with vines and pink and red climbing roses. Crossing the curved bridge to the front door, the air, scented with the sweetness of roses and herbs, caressed my cheeks. The inside of the cottage had the feel of a place that had been lived in and well tended for centuries. In the large stone fireplace a fire crackled, illuminating Serge’s guitar, easel, writing desk, and book-lined shelves.
The typical French country kitchen contained an old stove, a gray stone sink, and fresh green vegetables gathered in a basket. A row of windows overlooked a small orchard of fruit trees and flowers. I felt as if I had come home to Grandmother’s house–but instead of Grandma, here was this lovely man who might have just walked off the screen of a Hollywood version of a French romance.
Later Serge removed an antiquated grilling rack from the wall beside the living room fireplace and used it to cook our steaks over the fire. He sang and played old tunes for me on his guitar, including Jacques Prévert’s “Il y a longtemps que je t’aime. Jamais je t’oublierai.” This song always touched me with its poignant mix of sadness yet hopefulness concerning the possibility of love. Over our cognacs, he said, “Have you ever thought you might marry again?”
I paused. Probably that Parisian cab driver was right. Love, continuing and unconditional: This is what mattered in life. On the other hand, marriage had long seemed to me a trap, and I usually spoke against it. Somehow here, in this peaceful atmosphere, with this kind and interesting man, it didn’t seem such an impossibility. What would it be like to be a baronne? I could actually follow my dream and move to France–but in a very different way than I had envisioned.
“Maybe. I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it,” I said.
Certainly Serge seemed healthy and stable, as well as generous and considerate. Even lovemaking had a flair; it was almost like being at a fancy dress ball or tea party–but feeling at home there. It was passion without lust, intimacy without sentimentality, total pleasure without concern for past or future. It was like the best of conversations with the closest, most interesting of your friends. One morning as we embraced in his large bed, pushing aside the bolsters, I complained that the long, narrow, cylindrical cushions gave me a stiff neck. He joked: “French pillows haven’t changed since the eighteenth century. But I’ll find you another pillow. Let me show you something though; these bolsters work quite well in certain positions.” Proceeding to demonstrate, he pushed one under my hips.
Someone once joked that little French boys are taught to be good lovers right along with their history and grammar lessons. Our orgasms came and went with pleasure but without disruption of a larger flow of communication. Serge explored my body with care, tenderness, and genuine interest–like visiting a new country. His body was taut and fit; the maturity of it excited me. How much of life it had experienced, like the collected memories inside his chateau. Making love with Serge was like being in that ancient space. Confinement with a great view. I called him mon petit chou, my little cabbage, a term of endearment usually used by parents for little children. It seemed so totally inappropriate for a man of his dignity that I found it amusing. After all his years alone since his wife had left him, twenty years before, something inside Serge was touched and pleased by this intimacy. “Oh,” he would cry out in surprise when I spoke to him in this way. “Non, c’est amusant. Continue. I like it.”
There was one odd thing about Serge’s body. Through the fleshy part of his left upper arm was a hole. The wound itself was long healed, but a small indentation tunneled through the tender flesh. Serge explained that during the war he had been a freedom fighter. One day out in the Breton woods, a Nazi bullet had come his way. That was all he would say. He quickly changed the subject whenever I mentioned it and pulled away when I touched his arm.
Mid-mornings, we walked together through the enormous gardens, collecting vegetables for the soup that Serge made for lunch. The pink, towered castle that dated from the fifteenth century fascinated me. It was really a miniature chateau, but was still a building of considerable size. Serge used it only for storage, as it needed much restoration within to be habitable. “I would love to see the inside of the tower,” I remarked.
The heavy wooden stairs, which curved up to the second story, were indented from centuries of footsteps. Since most of the windows were barely more than slits through the deep walls, fortress-like, it was dark, and we had to grope our way along. At the top, an enormous room contained piles of boxes and, surprisingly, a rowboat. “Ah, yes, these are my books from earlier times. I no longer read these sorts of books. Now I have much work to do, much to study.”
“What do you mean?”
“My work, with the gypsies; I’ll tell you about it some other time. Oh, my, yes, amusant, un bateau dans une tour, n’est-ce pas?” Serge changed the subject. The large, unfinished room was like a room in a dream, its ancient rafters dusty, strung with cobwebs. Hundreds of boxed books surrounded the very landlocked boat. One end of the room gave on to the circular tower. The ancient planks sank slightly as we moved about. From the windows of the tower, I could see almost 360 degrees around, over the trout ponds, forests, pink water-mill cottage, the flower and vegetable gardens.
“Why don’t you come live here? You could work up in this tower. I would restore it for you. You could even have a horse. The riding is excellent through the woods around here.” As always, I loved imagining my way into other lives. What peace there was here. And the possibility of real love, companionship, an idyllic life. It would certainly be a leap of faith to give up the life I knew, my work and home, and make a permanent move to a new country at this point in my life. Would I feel like Rapunzel if I accepted?
“On va voir. I’ll need to think about it,” I said as I hugged him.
A few days after our visit to the tower room, during lunch outside in the garden, I asked, “What is this about the gypsies?” He poured some more wine into each of our glasses.
“Part of every year I spend down near Avignon avec les gitanes, with the gypsies. I help to teach the gypsy children. I play my guitar. I live with them for a few weeks at a time. And I bring them to . . . a better way.”
“What do you mean?”
“Him.” He pointed overhead to the Breton sky. Over the last years, he explained, he had fully embraced Catholicism. “Oh, yes, it’s very helpful, very helpful.” When we went inside, he showed me a current pamphlet from the Catholic Church. “It guides me away from offensive or troubling books, movies, and television programs–those that are disturbing to my beliefs.”
Gradually, I was becoming aware that Serge was perhaps only being patient with me, waiting for the best moment to push me toward religion. Those outside of Christianity or Judaism were, he felt, lost. One afternoon as we walked past an old synagogue in a small French village, he asked me if I wanted to enter, referring to my Jewish heritage. “You should try,” he said. “After all, you are among the chosen people.”
Some months later back in the States, while I was sitting in a Berkeley café, describing Serge and the hole in his arm, a Jewish friend remarked, “You know, Nazi sympathizers were sometimes identified with such marks.” He didn’t say how he knew this. Was there a connection between Serge’s Catholic work and some hidden guilt concerning his activities during the war?
When I criticized Le Pen, the infamous radical right-wing politician, to Serge, he said he agreed with Le Pen’s “La France pour les Français” and had voted for him in the last election. “Did you know,” I teased, “that Le Pen’s ex-wife has revealed in the press that he bleaches his hair blond to look more Aryan?”
“Arrête. No politics, no religion. Remember?”
The summer was coming to an end. On one of the last days before I left for the States, we drove to the coast and visited old fishing villages. The late summer sun shone its false promise. After a lunch of wine-soaked mussels, we felt very relaxed and almost groggy as we strolled around the port. These ancient harbors were like museums for the rotting old carcasses of well-used fishing boats. The gray weathered wood revealed the ribs and core of the vessels. Looking inside them felt almost illicit. Once I had had a dream in which I was invited to look inside myself and could hear, see, and feel the sounds and sights of my own internal organs at work. Looking into these old boats reminded me of that dream. Somehow the whole experience was beginning to feel like a waking dream.
“I want to show you the marshlands while the tide is out,” Serge said. From where we left the car, we had to walk a long way to reach even an inch or two of sea. The seaweed formed slippery, brown, changing patterns as the tide began to come in. At the bottom of some cliffs, there was enough depth to swim. Serge had carried our swimsuits and towels in a small bag. The water was very cold. “I bathe here most of the year,” Serge said as he plunged in. After a very brief dip, I climbed to the top of the cliff.
There they were, just as I had seen them in archaeological photos. In large concentric circles stood the menhirs, ancient and mysterious stones from before the time of the druids. Some of them were etched with vulvas and breasts. What kind of a civilization had lived here? Until recently, no one had paid much attention to the female aspects of this early culture. My own work had moved toward the study of women in ancient cultures. So far I had not been able to get Serge to be curious about or even accept the validity of such a pursuit. “If I were a geologist studying stones, you would respect that,” I said to him.
“That is totally different. That is science. This, what you talk about, is . . . ah, come on. Remember, no politics, no religion,” he reiterated.
Maybe he was right; perhaps I was proselytizing him, even as I objected to his efforts to draw me toward Judeo-Christian religious beliefs. Gradually, I hoped, he would respect and show interest in what I did. I touched the stones gently and lay on my back among them, staring up at the clouds, which were starting to blow in rather rapidly.
“Hurry. The tide’s coming back,” Serge called. I clambered back down to the flats. Serge took my hand and, as the water started up our ankles, we began to run. I had never seen a tide come in so rapidly. The sound of the gurgling, rushing water was hypnotic. I looked ahead to where our car was parked, up at the top of a steep cliff. It was at least a mile away. Serge was certainly in better shape than I–he ran easily, and I was already winded. It was thrilling to be swept along at the edge of a natural pattern in this way.

Soon another pattern swept me back to California: teaching commitments, my other life. Always there was that questioning edge. Like the sea brink where the waves approach and recede, whispering backward off the beach. I pictured life out of time: writing in Serge’s tower, walks among the tide pools of Brittany. Would I begin growing my hair long, planning an escape from that charming captivity? And Serge, a reincarnation of a medieval prince, drawn to a modern woman. While Serge drew me out of my world into the peace and rhythm of tides and harvest, I drew him into the pleasures of the body, which he had long denied himself. Perhaps he was beginning to question some of his rigid views. For each of us, these challenges, while intriguing, might prove more than we could bear. Yet the promise of love, home, a coming to rest, a real rest, arms to entwine and comfort: These longings were of course within each of us.
Seven years passed. Work, travel, family deaths occupied me. Serge and I spoke from time to time, wrote perhaps once a year. My mother’s death marked the end of my now totally dwindled family. His words: “Don’t forget me too soon. Je vous adresse trois pensées without limit: Promesse Tendresse Caresses.” Later: “Charming and Sexy Lady: I love the seascape of San Francisco that you sent me. I send you a compass to help you negotiate in the fogs which must be quite bad there. . . . Let me hear from you. I hope to have news soon of your return to France. . . . Your P.C.” (petit chou). I understood that his gift of a compass was a reference that his views were more clear-sighted than mine.
Something made me pick up the phone and dial Serge’s number. A woman answered, apparently a servant. “I will ask Monsieur le Baron if he can come to the phone.”
“It’s you? No, no. I am sick. Don’t call me anymore.”
Stunned, I hung up the phone. Was he really ill? I sensed some anger in him, a disappointment with me.
Later that summer, I visited friends in their farmhouse in Lussan, in the south of France. With the self-assurance and intuitiveness of a French woman in affairs of the heart, my friend, when she heard about the latest installment in the Serge story, said simply: “You must write him immediately. Don’t refer to the phone call.”
Within two days, a response to my letter was in my friend’s mailbox. “My Fairy Lady. Come to me as soon as you can.”
Two TGVs later, I stepped out onto the quai at St. Amboise des Bois. I felt excited and a bit nervous. Like a slow-motion film, Serge and I ran toward each other from opposite ends of the train platform. His face had a few new lines, but he appeared to be healthy and trim. “You look wonderful, even younger and more beautiful,” he said, still the charming Frenchman. “Hurry. We must get home. The haying must be done today and I have no help, can’t afford to hire anyone. Anyway no one works properly. I must do everything myself.”
Later, at lunch, Serge looked at me: “When I saw you last, you seemed more confused. You had some deep unhappiness inside your soul. Now you seem more calm.” He continued: “There is a part of you I detest, a part of you I like, a part of you I love. This still continues to be the case.”
He was in a pensive mood, apparently had been so often in recent years. He began to play his guitar for me and to sing. I loved the sound of the music and the French language, but his religious songs made me uncomfortable. “What about some Jacques Prévert?” I asked. He switched easily to French love songs.
“You warm my body and my soul, my love.” That particular song, its deep tones and eternal longing, always made me shiver.
He placed his guitar to one side and looked off into the distance. “It was so odd, you know, I had my small heart attack in the place where we swam together, near those old stones. Fortunately some people were walking along the beach and pulled me out.
“I want to tell you the real story about the hole in my arm. During the war, I was very much in love with a woman who lived in Paris. I was sent off to the German front. I realized I should have proposed marriage to her before I left because I knew there was another man; he was there in Paris. Of course, I couldn’t just leave my squadron. So I shot myself in my upper arm. I had intended it to be just a graze, but I misjudged my aim. The result was a serious wound. But it did give me a medical leave, which had been my intent all along.”
“So did you go to her?”
“Yes. But as I had feared, she had already accepted the other man’s offer of marriage. It was one of the great sadnesses of my life. Je n’ai pas eu de la chance dans ma vie. So much has not gone right in my life.” He recounted a litany of situations gone awry throughout the years.
A few days later, we had a dinner at the coast of the rose granite. Le granit rose: a place I had loved years before. The sun set behind the small island just off the coast, outlining a small chateau with gold and rosy hues. As we walked along the coast, Serge said, “Those stupid pagan stones. Let’s go in to dinner.” In the restaurant, he complained about the slowness of the service. “I have my three-minute rule. If they do not come to us in three minutes, I get up and leave.”
The next morning was Sunday, and I suggested we visit some of the Breton Pardon festivals that were occurring. Religious in origin, these festivals were now a mixture of good times, ancient dances, and traditional foods, such as crunchy Breton waffles. At the town of Guingamp, women strolled in long black embroidered dresses wearing elegant starched lace caps on their heads. Dignified men in black suits, some with beards or mustaches, stood about. Soon the main parade would make its way through the town.
Serge parked on a side street, across a large square from the main gathering place. As he turned off the ignition, an urge welled up in me: a sexual urge, as well as, perhaps, a desire to test my own power. There was something exciting to me about the mingling of ancient earth religions counterpointed by the repression of them by modern Christianity. Both these forces were so strong within Serge. Unwilling to contain myself, I touched his thigh, then between his legs, and pulled him around me. “My, my,” he said in not unwelcome surprise. Tightening my upper thighs around his, I pressed myself against him. We both rocked and moaned our way to satisfaction. Intermingling with our cries were the ancient strains of Breton music–flutes and drums and bagpipes. Grinning, I looked at him. He pulled himself back together. “Ah, what tedious music. Let’s hope no one has seen us. Come, we shall miss the parade. You know this is a very sacred religious gathering.” It seemed appropriate that we had made love in the car next to a festival that combined the very elements that were the stuff of the attraction and conflict between Serge and me.
Back on his estate that evening, I watched two doves on the roof outside edge closer together. The breeze that came in tasted of autumn. L’heure bleue. Dusk was all around me. In the morning, fog covered northern Brittany. “La brume est arrivée hier soir,” Serge said. All was fog and mist as I looked out–it was like gazing down upon a great cloud. No more green land, no sea.
I needed to think about what to do.
I decided to return home.

From San Francisco, I wrote Serge, suggesting that, before it was too late, why not come together as best we could, share those parts of our lives that we could, give each other love and comfort? The years were passing. I recalled someone once telling the story of a tired Amazon who decides to take off her armor and rest, but discovers that it has become attached to her skin. I didn’t want this to happen to me.
About ten days later, through my mail slot tumbled a very large and full envelope. Opening it, I found a postcard photo of la côte de granit rose. Taped to the back of the card was the Christian credo’s “Profession of Faith.” “Voici ce que je crois. This is what I believe. It is for me the most important thing in the world. It is totally and absolutely incompatible with your own beliefs. No more projects between us appear to be possible. Oublie-moi. Forget me. S.” I poured the envelope’s contents onto the table. Ten years of my letters and writing lay before me.
Perhaps I always knew that I was pushing him too far, pressing the passions of ancient memories into his own beliefs. It was precisely this conflict that had been enacted on this land as the ancient stones and temples of the earth goddess were toppled by the new religions.
How would Rapunzel have felt if, when she finally let down her hair, the prince tried to cut it off? A kind of reincarnation of a medieval prince with antiquated ideals, not fitting into any world, Serge was left alone, which is perhaps where he always wanted to be. And I had free-fallen into a sea where love and freedom were on opposite shores. We had both drifted out on a tide that had no ebb.