Table of Contents
Jacques Chessex is one of Switzerland’s greatest living writers. He is revered in France and won the Prix Goncourt in 1973 for
. His other works include
L’économie du ciel
A little dead girl says:
I am the one convulsed with horror
in the live woman’s lungs.
Get me out of here straight away.
Suppôts et supplications
Ineligible are: citizens excluded for reasons
of mental illness or feeble-mindedness.
Municipality of Ropraz,
12th January 2006
When I came to live in Ropraz in May 1978, Rosa Gilliéron’s grave still lay intact along the path in the graveyard that’s on the way to my house. It was a slab of sandstone surmounted by a small pillar of white marble wreathed with roses of tarnished brass, bearing the name and dates of the deceased. The top of the little column was broken off to show the brevity of a life cut short before its time, turned to tragedy, in its bloom of perfect promise.
Rosa’s grave was abandoned ten years ago, when the graveyard was renovated.
Ropraz, in the Haut-Jorat, canton of Vaud, Switzerland, 1903. A land of wolves and neglect in the early twentieth century, poorly served by public transport, two hours from Lausanne, perched on a high hillside above the road to Berne, bordered by dense forests of fir. Dwellings often scattered over wastelands hemmed in by dark trees, cramped villages with squat houses. Ideas have no currency, tradition is a dead weight, and modern hygiene is unknown. Avarice, cruelty, superstition – we are not far from the border with Fribourg, where witchcraft is rampant. They hang themselves a lot in the farms of the Haut-Jorat. In the barn. From the ridge-beam.
A loaded weapon is kept in the stable or cellar. With hunting or poaching as a justification, they cherish powder, shot, great traps with metal teeth, and blades sharpened on the whetstone. Fear lurks. At night prayers of conjuration or exorcism are said. They are severely Protestant, but cross themselves when monsters loom in the fog. Along with the snow, the wolf returns. It is not so long since the last one was killed, in 1881; its stuffed hide is gathering dust seven miles away, behind glass in the Vieux-Moudon museum. And then the fearsome bear that came from the Jura. It disembowelled some heifers not forty years ago, in the gorges of the Mérine. The old folk remember it; there’s no joking in Ropraz or Ussières. In Voltaire’s day, when he lived in the château down in the hamlet of Ussières, brigands would “wait” on the main road – the one leading to Berne and the German lands – and, later, soldiers returning from Napoleon’s wars would hold honest folk to ransom. You have to take care when employing a vagabond for the harvest, or to dig potatoes. He is the outsider, the snoop, the
thief. A ring in his ear, a crafty look, a knife in his boot.
Here there are no large shops, factories or plants; people have only what they win from the soil – in other words nothing. It is no kind of life. People are so poor that our cattle are sold to city butchers for meat. We make do with pig, and so much of it is consumed in every shape and form – smoked, rind removed, minced or salted – that we end up looking like it, with pink faces and ruddy jowls, far from the world, in dark coombs and woods.
In this remote countryside a young girl is a lodestar for lunacy. For incest and brooding in unwed gloom on flesh for ever desired and for ever forbidden.
Sexual privation, as it will come to be called, is added to skulking fear and evil fancies. In solitude, by night, the amorous romps of a few fortunate individuals and their moaning accomplices, satanic titillations, a guilt entwined into four centuries of imposed Calvinism. Endlessly construing the threat from deep within and from
without, from the forest, from the cracking of the roof, from the wailing of the wind, from the beyond, from above, from beneath, from below: the threat from elsewhere. You bar yourself inside your skull, your sleep, your heart, your senses; you bolt yourself inside your farmhouse, gun at the ready, with a haunted, hungry soul. Winter stirs this violence beneath the lasting snow, a friend to the demented, the ruddy and bistre skies between daybreak and night-time deprivation, the cold and the gloom that strains and wastes the nerves. But I was forgetting the astounding beauty of the place. And the full moon. And the nights when the moon is full, the prayers and rituals, the bacon rind rubbed on warts and wounds, the black potions against pregnancy, the rituals with crudely fashioned wooden dolls stuck with pins and martyrized, the spells cast by charlatans, the prayers to cure spots on the eye. Even today in sheds and attics you still find books of magic and recipes for brews of menstrual blood, vomit, toad spittle and powdered viper.
When the moon shines too bright, beware bric, beware brac
When the moon rises rathe, shut up serpent in sack.
Hysteria swells. And fear. Who slipped into the loft? Who walked on the roof?
Look to pitchfork and powder, before secrets of the abyss!
February 1903. The year started out very cold; the snow is lying on Ropraz, which seems more huddled down and neglected than ever on its wind-beaten plateau. Since the first of February the snow has been falling without end. A heavy, damp snow against the dark sky, and for some time the village has had no relief. Blocked roads, fevers, several cows miscarried, and on the seventeenth, which fell on a Tuesday, young Rosa, a big fresh flower, twenty years old, clear skin, big eyes and long chestnut hair, died of meningitis on the farm of her father, M. Emile Gilliéron, Justice of the Peace, and member of the Grand Council. He is a man of some stature,
severe, sensible and generous. He is wealthy, owns quite a lot of land hereabouts, and his daughter’s supple beauty had aroused powerful emotions. She also sang well, was devoted to the sick and was an active parishioner in the mother church in Mézières… Folk out of the ordinary, as you can see. Surprisingly, given the ugliness, vice and meanness all around…
The news of Rosa’s death moved the whole countryside terribly. They came to the funeral, in the Ropraz graveyard on Thursday the 19th of February, from distant villages, towns, hamlets and far-off ridges. By cart, on horseback and on snow-shoes they came, men and women in such numbers – several hundred – that despite the cold the chapel doors were left open throughout the entire service, and the procession from chapel to graveyard took over an hour, to the constant tolling of the death-knell.
To make room for his newest lodger, Cosandey the sexton had to dig down into the frozen earth. Job done. In the middle of Thursday afternoon, Rosa Gilliéron was buried on the south-east
slope, two thirds of the way down the graveyard, which stretches, solitary, between the thickest of the forest and a wide, deserted hilly area over which crows fly, cawing. Once the coffin was closed and the last handful of frozen soil had dully thudded down on its wooden lid, there was no need for Cosandey to spread snow back over the little plot. After the interlude that had allowed the procession to follow the hearse, just as the final prayer was being said, and the children had sung for the last time, and Pastor Béranger, come specially from Mézières, had given the blessing, the snow began to fall again, the snow that cloaks the black earth of old winter and gently lulls the dead – we are assured – in their eternal rest.
After his daughter’s burial, Gilliéron had arranged for refreshments in the Grande Salle. That is the name given to the hall where festivities and official events are held. Then evening brought parting handshakes and embraces; the roads and unpaved tracks were deserted, and a long night descended on the desolate landscape.
Friday the 20th; snow and immobility. One would almost have thought that Rosa’s death and the prolonged ritual in the graveyard had dulled spirits and stunned the countryside into stupefied silence.
But now it is Saturday the 21st. This morning very early at first light, François Rod, who lives above Ropraz in a locality called Vers-chez-les-Rod, has decided to “go wooding” in the hilly forest that borders the graveyard lower down. His son Hermann is with him, leading the heavy ox-cart used by dairy farmers and woodcutters. It is half-past seven. The sun is rising slowly over the snow-covered countryside. The lane to Tailles Wood runs beside the graveyard. Coming to the gate in the railings, François stops the team, tells his son to wait for him, and makes his way into the graveyard, intending to say a prayer over Rosa’s fresh grave. He takes a few steps down the
path and immediately cries out: Rosa’s grave lies open, her coffin laid bare. Seventy years later the aged Hermann still remembers his father’s cry, “as if he’d seen the devil himself ” he would say, trembling, his eyes shot with red, still raw from fear even at this great length of time.
On the cart, Hermann is petrified; François comes staggering through the gate, not even stopping to close it behind him, falls in the snow, gets up, falls again and finally stumbles along to the Auberge Cavin. Cavin appears, old Mme Cavin and Cosandey the sexton.
They return to the graveyard. The light is full by now, a sickening white. Around the open grave are footprints – the ground is quite trodden down – and the outline of a body stretched out, a storm lantern half-buried in the snow a few metres away. Cosandey climbs down into the grave. The coffin lid has been completely unscrewed and hastily replaced, leaving a narrow gap near the dead girl’s chest. Cosandey puts his hand through.
“I can’t feel her head!” he howls, collapsing, doubled up over the coffin.
Cosandey is revived and, shivering, remains behind to keep guard by the grave; the others make for the Cavin café to use the only phone in the village. Those expected are M. Gloor, Justice of the Peace in the Mézières district, M. Blanchod, the examining magistrate and two officers of the canton’s
. It will take them three hours to reach the Jorat by the wheezy old tram that runs between Lausanne and Meudon. To make up for lost time they will be fetched by cart from the halt for the château at Ussières.
Then come the discoveries. From Mézières, where they finally managed to reach him, Dr Delay has come to join the group. He orders the coffin lid to be removed. The body violated. Traces of sperm and saliva on the victim’s naked thighs. And the bloodiest mutilation is revealed in all its horror.
The left hand, cleanly severed, is lying beside the body.
The chest, hacked with a knife, has been entirely butchered. The breasts have been cut off, eaten, chewed and spat into the sliced-open belly.
The head, three-quarters detached from the torso, has been pushed down into it after bites were made in it in several very visible places: the neck, the cheeks, the base of the ears.
One leg – the right one – has been hacked up the thigh to the genital cleft.
The pubic area has been sliced away and chewed, devoured; what remains of it, some pubic hair and cartilage, will be found where it was spat into what is called the “Crochet hedge”, two hundred metres above the forge.
The intestines are hanging out of the coffin. The heart is nowhere to be found.
It is clear that the madman removed the body from the grave to handle it with greater freedom. A fistful of long hair and two large pools of blood, partly soaked up by the snow, lie near the desecrated grave.
The horrible work done, the bestial meal consumed, the young martyr’s body was put back into the coffin, in its place in the wide-open grave.
The Vampire of Ropraz. The expression was born two days later in theFeuille d’Avis de Lausanne
, when the newspaper wrote in its issue of 23rd February:
This sorry affair will no doubt have painful repercussions in our district. Never before have the annals of crime been obliged to record such an abominable act in Switzerland. It is highly desirable, for the public’s peace of mind, that the guilty party be apprehended by the justice system and receive the exemplary sentence he so richly deserves. Hyenas have hunger as an excuse for disinterring the dead. For this
individual, this despicable
, we can find none.