In the village, to which I rarely return since our father’s death, I drive up to the gate outside his second wife’s house; I back the van into the bottom of the garden adjoining the far end of our childhood garden, abandoned now: both run alongside the same torrent. Higher up on the hill named Cotaviol, partly built into the rock face, the spacious house of a friend, an Angevine widow, the sister of our mother’s sister-in-law, a profound figure of that time. I do not dare show myself to her in my condition.
One of her two adopted sons, G., who trails a difficult life, comes down to see me; I walk up with him beneath the pines and cedars toward that long house, red shutters and a vast playroom on the ground floor; inside, large rooms, with wide windows, glassed-in porches, a central stairwell made of solid wood, light and polished, behind the house, the steep path, climbing to the level of the roof.
In the final weeks of the Occupation, as German troops pull back from Italy and Provence, retreating north, east and to the center of France with infamous bitterness and ferocity—several army units leaving the Rhône Valley take a shortcut along route 82, where recent Maquis combat their retreat; it is said that there are Mongols in those exasperated regimens (the medieval fear of Mongols persists, and transforms some tired, exhausted and dirty Caucasian conscripts into stragglers from the army of Genghis Khan)—we often take refuge there—to hide, as well, from the suspicion the resistance activities and the deportation of many of our own might warrant. After the Liberation, on Thursdays, our paternal Grand-mother will have us kneel, in her garden, before an enniched Virgin Mary set against a wall beyond the narrowing of the path between the magnolia and the pine grove (two years later, after a history lesson, I will imagine the assassins sent by Marc Antony besetting Cicero’s litter there, to kill him and cut his hands for the Rostra of the Roman Forum) and ask Her to return them safely to us.
At the time, we also take refuge in the Châtaigneraie, a high mountain to the west of the small town, with what we have left of sugar, scarce then.
One late morning, the Germans overrun the village, we cross the central square with our mother; our father is behind us, with the other village men, hands against the wall, militiamen, their Peugeot 402 parked along the sidewalk of the square, search them. In our haste, one of my sisters has dropped her doll at the door of the building, and wants to go back to fetch it, with screams and tears.
Why take refuge in that house, the bottom of whose garden adjoins the top of ours? It is because, contrary to the narrow fourth-floor apartment that we rent above our father’s office, and the village post office—a decisive spot in times of war—that large villa set among large trees, with comfortable depths, natural escape routes, ground floor and underground, and a solid build, seems more secure to our mother. One morning, the Germans on our doorstep and all of us, upon hearing their boots knocking at our door, lying on our stomachs under the beds in the “girls’ room” at the far end of the apartment, she is able to keep them away by speaking to one of them in Polish, her native tongue.
I can now rest there, and listening to what G. tells me of his life, failed in his opinion, I can finally encourage him to live. I remember seeing him at the end of the war, with his brother, young children taken from an orphanage in Saint-Etienne, crouching and clasping one another in a large corner of the upstairs living room, and violently contracting at the slightest caress. Forced into that corner by adult contact, those two children teem with tension, emit a kind of energy that is as strong as all the war from which we are just emerging.
During the night, since my insomnia continues, I leave the van, walk toward the village along the torrent whose banks are named after our father, and whose noise on the rocks, during my childhood, rises up to my bedroom above like the murmur of God preparing His Creation in jaws and saliva. I cut across the area, the cobbled section of highway—named after our grandfather, a doctor like his son—that narrows as it runs through the town center. I pass before my grandfather’s memorial and climb up to the cemetery. In the moonlight, I search for an entrance toward the top of the hill, toward the forest, insects are singing. How can I cross the wall between the cemetery and the forest where animals jump? A small tree takes root at the foot of the wall, I grab it, I climb, I fall, I climb again, I fall again, I remain seated in the moonlight, before that young tree, one branch running through the wall to the other side, toward the cemetery. Dew, on my face?, the sweat of anxiety?
Once more, against the tree: dew, on the trunk—sap? jam? my own blood? Here it is, that horrible bush, for real this time. I am here. I am experiencing what they did: but with the means at hand, my own, live, with no other model than myself, and no angels in the sky. Tortured by true doubt, without the commentary of posterity.
No one before me, and in this language, has written as I write, as I dare to write, and as it is my pleasure and my plenitude. I know that with the last pages of Samora Machel written in May, I can, reading them here, wake the dead that lie in this enclosure, the noteworthy and obscure, the honored and forgotten, the peasants, the workers, the children, the women. How can I grow seasoned to the reality of my language, to the language of my being before I am myself? How can I appease the fear it causes me, the fear of the Unknown? How can I accept that transitory voice whose accomplishment I hear already?
On the other side of the wall—because of my weight loss and the pills, I do not feel the sprain that shall take hold of my foot that afternoon, I suffer but one pain, this language, I know its beauty is too hard for me already, too strong, and yet it moves me within with science and pleasure, but how I would prefer to use a language directly readable by all (and yet …).
This language exceeds my strength, it moves faster than my willpower. It shocks me, makes me blush, at other times laugh, not because it is a crazy language, but because it is the language of an artist too strong for the human being that I still am: of a prophet of myself then.
I push on to my mother and father’s grave. I sit alongside the gravel of the mound. My anxiety is such that it compresses the bones of my skull in such a way that I cannot feel those, at the base of my trunk, that rest upon the rock along the grave.
Letting my body go, letting my life cross what we call death, that I no longer see: the solution lies beyond that crossing salvation—if it is nothing but a soul raw against society, how can a body die that loses its existence with its weight? Beyond, on the other side, the ideal Grammarian, the Decipherer and the Pronouncer, for all.
It is already hard enough that this world, my world, cannot be reproduced, because of its sexual power, even in future anthologies! but that its language, at least for a time, must also be pronounced while it is read, that is unbearable: it is unbearable as well that the simple inscription on the page, the simple reading of printed lines do not allow for understanding, for beauty! I am here, on this field of the dead, crushed by the ordinary reader I have become.
To be able to serve, to serve another, others, to be able to emerge from that torment of art (fixed) to serve again as I should, I implore it of she by whom that torment was imparted—from “God”? To serve, not in order to save oneself, but to save others. Serving (using) beauty has only ever come to me to compensate for serving others.
I write on the page of a notebook—is it writing, or is it instead a drawing, a sign, a formula? lines overlap, grow blurred like the simultaneities of a moment of thought, at the time I feel my writing is ash and that if I tip the page the ash will slide along with its meaning—the plea I bury under the gravel.
At dawn, afraid of crossing the wakened town, its now populated streets, I leave through the top of the cemetery; I attempt a mental chart of the topography of the lower mountain through which I might connect to the outskirts of the town and find the house. Through paths, shortcuts, stairs on which I know I shall make no encounters. In my haste, I climb too high into the mountain, from there I see the waking village. Dogs circle around the remains of carrion they have pulled from under the bed of pine needles: I can still see the pink of their pupils in what remains of the night. I want to sit on a rock, but the stone is too hard for what remains of my behind. I tear up some moss from around a tree, and place it on the rock, and sit. The dogs have dragged the carrion, down below, near the first houses, but the fetor remains very strong. I search for the roof of Jean’s house, my friend from grade school, the house of vice as it is called. I hatch the project that from him shall issue my salvation, from his vitality and kindness. I wait for smoke to rise from the chimney of that roof, and hiding at every corner, I make my way down to the now abandoned garden where, long ago, a watering can in his hand, he tramples the earth of the vegetable plot, with his clubfoot, around the vegetable plants and berry shrubs.
A gray-haired woman rests her corseted breasts upon the ramp of the second-floor window. I rehearse, inside my mouth and several times, the question that I ask, that I am able to pronounce through and through: the woman, comb in hand, cries out with a deep and phlegmy voice that Jean is dead these last ten years. I climb back to the rock, continue along the mountain flank, along the path we call the Praying Mantis, that we as children take at August’s end, and where, in the growing heat—which I see but can no longer feel—I start to hope that I shall be delivered, by a few people, among them Jean; the answer his wife has just given comes back to me like a sentence pronounced by a fool, not to be believed; I am now above the factory, an ancient textile mill which now processes wood, between this factory and the torrent lies the mill, which our father bought and restored just before his death, the only property he ever acquired.
I wait for the moment when everyone will be at work, in factories, workshops, shops, offices, households, to go down to the torrent and the outskirts of the town. I don’t remember how to bypass the factory buildings, and head down a kind of underground passage, a covered shaft, following a canal with falls.
Farther down, this waterway angles toward the center of the factory. If I follow the canal, I get closer to the work area, where, if I am recognized, I will be forced to speak to the workers, and the sight of my degraded body might cause injury to our dead father and mother. Should I climb back up the sloping canal: the ten meters of the covered shaft seem ten times longer and I don’t remember where it ends, on which bright public square, overrun with those humans I can no longer speak to as a human.
I have to fork the bend in the canal and go straight down through the undergrowth, birds fight over a small carcass there. I take off my shoes, sit on the edge of the canal, on my bones, the bottom of my swollen legs in the current. From the jagged edge of rusted metal jutting out from amongst the moving green algae, I make a thousand knives. On the other side, birds wait.
I see their ears …
Back in the van, its lateral door facing the yews that line the torrent, I want to eat: I remember having opened a can of peas that night, and having swallowed two-thirds of it cold. I even have a cut from the sharp edge, still bleeding, on my lip; I search for that open can, and only find closed ones; because I remember having eaten that amount, and because only ten hours have passed since then, I think I have eaten enough and do not open any cans. One of our father’s sisters, evacuated from Ravensbrück by the SS, owes part of her survival to a third of a can of peas found in the latrines of the Königsberg death camp, before her liberation by the Soviets.
As I move to the other side of the vehicle, I see the alley running in a sharp incline to the bottom of the garden where I stand: here I am again in a ravine, with a vehicle, my house, to be extracted. I want to verify the accuracy of my feeling right away, and quick, as if to forestall the hallucination, I start the vehicle against the slope. Is my foot pressing on the gas, or something else? The vehicle does not budge. The ravine is deep, and detains the vehicle, to swallow it.
I climb toward the gate, up the stairs that flank the slope, and rush down as fast as possible toward the Post Office building and its telephone booths. I follow the torrent as far as possible from the parapet. Anxiety presses down on me and I fall into a large bunch of grass growing at the foot of the wall. I continue on all fours along part of the embankment, and rise only as I reach the crossing, in the growing shadow of the crucifix, seven meters tall, rock and cast iron, built where the torrent plunges beneath the village into an underground current.
At the Post Office, I move up to the counter, confident: I am certain I shall encounter at least one of the “ladies of the Post Office” from the old days, whose name, Fanget, frequent in these parts, I have given to one of Samora’s masters. I lean my chest against the counter that used to tower above my head—some of the Post Office ladies used to open the trapdoor for me and lead me to the depths of those offices where I imagine the geographic, historical world begins, here, on the wall maps, in the telephone switchboard, in the parcel, letter, telegram bins (I see those offices as a palpable shortcut of space and time; of all that I shall one day cover with my larger step).
Today, she exits through the same trapdoor in the counter, and, her height reduced by age, kisses me and speaks to me of my mother. I call my brother R. from one of the three telephone booths. From Orléans, he calms me down, then calls our youngest brother in the Beaujolais to have him come and fetch me here and bring me to Antibes where my oldest friend, from middle school, lives with his family. By early afternoon, my brother is here; he extricates the van from the ravine, and here we are near the Rhône: hope rushes back to me with the purring of the engine, the air, and laughter.