‘Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops.’
There are many ways to write about a town. Is a town the collective personalities of its inhabitants? It’s architecture, its history, its geography? It is all of these and none of these, and much much more. It is much the same challenge when faced with the task of writing about a person. A person is a conglomeration of their history, their physical make up, their character, and more fundamental parts shared with other humans and creatures, such as perceptions and their sensations, thoughts, and consciousness. In fact, a person is a whole universe. What amount of labels could possibly define a human life, even by the tender age of ten? It is why we have to accept that all biography is opinion.
Which brings me back to Parthenay. And here, the convention of introducing someone by their name, gives a point of departure. Once you know someone’s name, you have a right to say “hello” and to inquire about them further. Also, there is something in names. We have all met people with names that don’t seem to suit them, but then often find that either this was not their given name, or that it is a nickname of some kind. Most people grow into their names, or perhaps the name grows into them.
Reader meet Parthenay. The name fits the town like a glove. A glove of chain mail, river green velvet or coarse wool, enclosing a sword, passing on secrets, working with sage. It stems from the Greek parthenos—generally translated as “virgin”, although Alan Watts offers a far more intriguing alternative in “a woman who chooses her own husband”. The town sits on a rocky spur in the heart of the Gatine, in the department of the Deux-Sevres. Cradled in a bend of the River Thouet, whose very name means “tranquil”, it seems as if the place has fallen under a spell cast by some ancient diviner, to sleep and dream for all eternity.
And yet something is stirring. Three layers of fortification speak to less peaceful times, and the scraps of ancient walls seem to hold the town in place, like a long-honoured vow, still seeking to protect. It is a place that has refuge built into its architectural DNA.
At 11,000 inhabitants, Parthenay barely even qualifies as a town according to French definition, and yet it even has its very own creation myth. A half fish half woman creature named Melusine created it with a single wave of her wand. The story is pregnant with the mysteries, with the ultimately unknowable, the eternally ephemeral. And since we can all choose how we present a person, and must at some point concede that no one ever sees anyone the same way, let us begin with Parthenay as legend; not one filled with faint reflections slipping in between time’s shadows, but a legend perfectly embodied in this dark and valiant present. This is the legend that aches to be written. This is the story of Parthenay.