NEWS IN BRIEF
(Extract from Fée d’hiver by André Bucher)
News item in the Le Dauphiné Liberé, 31st August 1948:
Jealousy fuels domestic tragedy
Montguers, Drome: Last evening at a farm called Les Rabasses near the village of Laborel, farmer Eric Lacour, 37 years old, killed his wife Michèle, née Vernet, also 37, with a single shot from his shotgun. He then took his own life by turning the gun on himself. Their two children, aged four and six, will be placed with a foster family.
DANIEL — RICHARD
August 1965 –April 1988
Today it’s my birthday.
I’ve started keeping a diary.
My brother Richard has been back from the Algerian war for about three years now. This lunchtime he’s coming to fetch me. He has a slight limp. He has a broken look about him and has more or less stopped talking. Like me – but not for the same reasons. With him it’s because he fought in the war and because he found it hard to get back to normal life, but me, I was declared unfit for service.
I’m going back to live with him at Les Rabasses, the family farm, up on the Col de Perty, on the southern edge of the Hautes-Alpes. Before, the Social Services had placed us in a foster family in Villebois-les-Pins. André and Céline Ravoux. They didn’t have any children of their own, so they didn’t have to make any big changes. They looked after us well and I’m sad and happy, unhappy but at the same time pleased to be leaving them.
So there you are. I’m twenty-one, grown-up. I can do my own thing, do what I want. I’ve been waiting long enough. As for our story, I can just about remember how it all happened. And all I can say is that in a single instant I lost everything. My parents, and the will to speak. I didn’t want to hear anything anymore either. Even now, at this moment, I’m finding it hard to write.
I remember looking up at the moon coming up above the mountain as night fell. It was the end of August. The moon was almost red, the lavender fields like a miniature sky below dotted with the white sandbags to hold down the tarpaulins on the edge of the field. A sky of lavender, scythed, harvested, tossed, and aired. Blue sky spread over the ground. Its heady perfume. The sun disappearing, suddenly.
I was only just four years old. Richard, my older brother, was six. We had no idea of what was going on. My old man had a double-barreled shotgun. Two shots. The first was for my mother. For some time he had suspected her of having a lover, which was true, when I think about it now. A bloke called Jacques Monnier who lived at Saint-Auban-sur Ouvèze. He had a forestry business and a sawmill just outside the village of Montguers, below the Col de Perty.
The second bullet, my old man turned on himself, the gun in his mouth. It wasn’t a pretty sight. My brother Richard got there well before me. I watched him from the open window. He was running and waving his arms. He looked like a duck or a gander and the moon followed behind him waddling, like I said, red, blood red and I was screaming, so as not to hear anything, with my hands over my ears, I was screaming.
Three months have gone by without me having anything at all to add, but I know I have to keep writing, that I have to carry on telling the story because from that day onwards, I didn’t open my mouth again. What I mean is, after that, I didn’t utter a single word. Of course, they examined me and came to the conclusion that I’d had a severe shock. People thought that I couldn’t understand anything they said or nearly and anyway, according to the doctors, at four years old it was too late to do anything. I stopped going to school. They sent care workers to see me. They came and helped me to learn things and get on with life in the family that took me in, the foster parents as they’re called. They helped me a lot too. Céline Ravoux and especially André. He’s a primary school teacher. My love of books dates back to my time with him.
In the beginning, my silence was a way of fighting back, of protecting myself, then I started pretending to be a deaf-mute because it suited me. Usually I communicate by writing little notes or making signs. People answer me the same way. I’d rather read something than have to hear. With my brother, it’s harder to cheat. Sometimes, I make an effort and nod my head if I agree, or even mumble, let out a few sounds. The rest of the time I make gestures, I mime or make faces, but more often than not I just write things down. I listen to music as well.
I realise I write a little bit about every three months. Going back to the beginning, the lover, the sawmill owner Jacques Monnier, he got what was coming to him. He died from cancer, about four years ago before his fiftieth. His wife Lucie was younger; she must be about forty-five now. They managed to have three kids in that time, Robert the oldest was born in 1953, Pierre in 1955 and Alice the last one in 1957. The two brothers are always cooking up trouble, scheming, plotting, and running wild in the woods. I really can’t stand the sight of them. Listening to them, they’re just full of themselves, and they say that when they’re older they’ll take over their father’s business. That’s something to look forward to.
Meanwhile it’s their uncle from Montauban who looks after the business. He’s called Alex. He has a son called Louis who is nine, like Alice. He’s always hanging about with Alice, when he’s not getting up to no good with the two brothers. Alex isn’t a kid any more though. He sometimes gets me to give him a hand with felling or chopping up trees. But he pays me with shots from his catapult. No kidding. A deaf mute kid doesn’t count for much, but my brother Richard watches out for me.
For about a month now we’ve had a flock of ewes that I look after, take up on the mountain to graze, whenever it’s fine enough. It’s still winter here and more often than not they are inside, putting paid to the dry fodder. As well as getting our land back into cultivation, Richard gets by, managing to find little jobs here and there, dealing mostly with a bit of scrap iron, well, a whole heap of the stuff actually. Out the back the place looks like a breaker’s yard. This morning I even saw a heron flying off from a tyre with an empty beer can in his beak. Richard couldn’t stop laughing. Otherwise, in the quiet season, he does a bit of woodcutting, but in our own woods. He doesn’t want to be exploited, he says, or even worse, get ripped off. The rest of the time he roams in the woods, and goes poaching at night. He’s the wild one, worse than me even. Anyway, we don’t see anybody, we keep ourselves to ourselves, we’re in a world of our own, so people say. It’s music that keeps him going, and me, a bit. And there are books, thank goodness.
Apart from the Monniers in the valley, the nearest neighbours live on the other side of the hill, on the way down to Laborel. It’s a place called Beau-Regard, the finest farm in the area. The people who farm it are what you’d call a couple of young townies, lucky enough to have parents. They let out some of the living accommodation as a gîte. They have a daughter, Béatrice, the same age as Alice. I say that because they often walk back from school together. Alice stops at their house for a bit, and then before nightfall she sets off at a run, hurrying, because instead of going on the road she goes along the mule track that passes in front of our house. It’s a shortcut that saves her at least two kilometers. Often she comes and chats with me while I’m watching the sheep and most of the time I smile and say nothing. She’s still a kid, but she’s not scared of anything, and I like her. She’s the only one who dares to look me in the eye, talk to me as if I was normal.
I miss my childhood. It’s a shame I am already so old and yet I have to keep telling myself that I’m only twenty-two. I’d love something amazing to happen, something huge. So it would all make sense. I mean, being spared. I’m not sure what my brother Richard thinks about it all…
I’ve learnt how to make sounds, but not shouting sounds that are noisy for the sake of it. Bright white noises in your head, ants trying to get out by piercing the bark of a tree, or slipping underneath it. That’s why I like this still season, when the snowflakes deaden the sound and the snow finally makes them go quiet. Until the thaw that is, when they wake up again. In the meantime, the mountain is fossilized and hating the emptiness, the swallows disappear before they turn into frogs…and they only come back after the thaw. A mass of horse’s tails, fine lines in the spring sky, tiny swallow tails breaking away from a comet’s trail to come hailing down with the April showers. Which explains why sometimes, in spring, I say to myself, Daniel you are just a dream, a story no one can see, an empty space, a hard winter’s lapse. The rest of the year noises invade you with their ceaseless turmoil and you wander like the frog, leaping distraught into your silent world.
It’s a strange diary that I keep, where time trickles like fine sand. Blanks, dips and rises, gaps of pages I rip out, words unspoken, words tailored, words guessed at, that burst forth, take shape. Source spring of language, deaf waters of my mouth.
Since I had been taking my little flock up onto the mountain, I had been gradually clearing my way through the forest, opening up trails, taking paths in all directions. I found old tracks, forgotten, overgrown with scrub, brambles and twining creepers, and realized that they all came together at the same point, leading me to the river tumbling through the crags and the steep sided ravines, down a sheer drop towards Val Triste.
Val Triste is at the bottom of a gorge, about a kilometer as the crow flies from our farm at Les Rabasses, maybe five or six by the road leading up to it that ends up as a rough track. It is a lovely meadow hemmed in on both sides, serving as both mattress and pillow for a dilapidated old wood cabin on the edge of an enchanted forest. The water gets lost there for a while and then reappears, rippling like a snake sloughing its skin. I knew I should stay quite near, as the grass there was more lush, more appetizing for my ewes. In the evening as I brought them home, full and well fed, I retraced my steps. I followed the water’s channel, enclosed by trails of twisted fencing and as I went along the banks under the alders, the willows and the amelanchiers, I wondered at its liquid surface, sinuous and black.
On the fine days, I would wade into the water and bathe. Floating on my back, letting myself drift, I would contemplate the stars as they dangled above me. There were so many of them, I never managed to count them all. They opened a way into the vastness above, a shower of diamonds, brilliant daisies aboard the huge raft of the sky. Then turning over, I dived down in their pursuit. Alas, I only came up with their distant relatives, the pebbles. I polished them, rubbed them with dry grass or sand, but there was nothing to be done, the ones up above, although much smaller, were the shiniest of all. Slightly disappointed, I would do away with my stones, skimming them like plates. Their ricochets showed them at last determined to imitate those above. Just a fleeting spark, while in turn streams of real stars flowed past before sinking into the immense void of the galaxy. As well as to my sheep, I imagined myself being shepherd to the stars, which, having fizzled out in the air, would come springing out of the water like as many tiny crickets, and in a trice, slip between my ribs to come and dance inside my breast.
Recently I found out that my little brother was keeping a diary. I resisted the temptation to read it. From time to time I write little songs. Also I write so that I can be my brother’s echo. I fill his silences, so that I can remain close to him.
During the time we were placed with the foster family at Villebois-les- Pins, we slept in the same bedroom, in twin beds. I often used to have nightmares and when I woke up in a sweat, I’d see Daniel smiling at me, his nut-brown eyes watching me closely. He didn’t say a word, but he would watch over me at night, just as I watched out for him during the day. Often we went to build shelters in the forest. On the way back we’d follow the river and once we were past the beaver dam we’d cross the ford and amass our hoard of pebbles. We’d try to make them whistle. Whenever I managed to skim one I’d let out a shout of sheer delight. The pebble whirred, then surged upwards, an ivory fin rising up and riding the eternally luminous flow of the stream. A son et lumière, with me on sound and little bro’ doing the lights. He’d blink and show his approval by little nods of his head. Before going home, we’d catch flightless ants from the hollow of old tree stumps and launch them in walnut shells, leaving these tiny makeshift boats to be carried downstream wherever the wind would take them. I’d look enquiringly at Daniel, wanting to bombard the tiny fleet, as if we were about play out some naval battle, but I could see in his eyes that he didn’t agree and his unspoken words entered my head like a rainbow torrent of pebbles.
After lots of torn out pages…
For my thirtieth birthday my brother Richard gave me a guitar. He doesn’t know that I’ve already been practicing with his for some time. He’s a good musician. And it’s a lovely present. I’m really pleased with it, we’ll be able to play together now.
I made up a song. Richard had just come back from fishing. I showed him the first verse.
There came a man
With a voice like a fish
Fishbone spine, legs scaly green
In his heart he wore a dinky little
Poky little fishhook.
He listened to me lay down a few chords while humming and tapping out the rhythm with his foot. He didn’t look at all surprised. I picked the strings, and as they vibrated, the notes sprung out and lodged themselves in every nerve, their touch setting my whole skin a quiver.
“Fantastic!” he said. “Do you know what? You and me, with two of my mates, we’re going to start a rock band.” I could see it now. A limping poacher and his deaf-mute brother. All we needed was for the other two musicians to be blind or paralysed or both. We’ll have fun finding a name for the band. Suddenly inspired, or even mysteriously in sync, Richard yelled out, “We’ll call it The Horny Rabbits, what do you think? Or Sex Machine?” I couldn’t help giving him a huge smile. He came up and put his giant arms round me and gave me an enormous hug. He’s known for ages, I think. About the deafness thing I mean, and why I don’t talk. Strange as it may seem, I guess he took it as a sign of affection. In a way, the fact that I don’t talk to anyone else and that he can understand me, knows what I’m about, it must raise his self-esteem, make him feel good about himself, since he believes in magic and all that stuff, and he’s always going on about telepathy… The truth is, he’s my big brother and we’re like two peas in a pod. That’s what I think. Nothing else matters. I don’t care about the rest.
End of September 1974
My brother was listening over and over to a Bob Dylan song, “Foot of Pride.” He’d learnt it and I managed to find a way, the right tone, to accompany him. Each time we finished a piece we had a feeling that the vice we were in had released its pressure, that our wounded hearts had expanded. I felt my tears welling up, bubbling up in my throat, ready to burst out, but it was just a silent cry, filtering through my nose, then faintly distilled in my eyes. Then the images came flooding in, invading my head and I watched Richard intently, for he too had been touched, laid waste by the blast of that double explosion back then, in our childhood. Then there was that moment, usually during the last few notes, when the interpretation became something so sensitive, so visual, that we were both alone and together and, at the same time, no longer in tune.
Suddenly my brother put his guitar down, grabbed his jacket and went out without saying a word, to go and haunt the woods again.
I knew that my brother’s silence was deliberate. Sometimes I saw it as a form of complicity and then at other times it made me feel completely powerless. Especially when we were playing music together. Some tunes took us far off into this strange complicity before splitting us apart again. I had learnt a Bob Dylan song by heart, knew it inside out. Daniel was improvising his bit, but it was working. At the time my nerves were really on edge and I was playing that song as though my life depended on it — I put my heart and soul into that song. Actually, it was only the instrumentals — we let Dylan do the singing. With his whiny voice we hardly understood what he was saying, but it was bang-on. The muffled words and the sound with our own words, our own secret suppressed images, I could feel them spinning out of control at the back of my throat. Towards the end Dylan’s voice rose, faster, harsher, almost shouting. I watched Daniel, he was well away, totally spaced out. He was playing instinctively, his eyes fixed on my guitar. We were hanging on a relentlessly unwinding thread, thrashing, thrown together, then alone. That’s how I’ve always felt, with or without my brother. Alone in the world. Dylan was ranting on in a sort of incantation, the guitar accompaniment throbbing, almost hypnotic. Notes of pain or imminent disaster. A madness entering the brain. I saw Daniel, his eyes closed, playing completely in time like a sleepwalker. Dylan with his hoarse voice shrieking like he was tied up and someone was about to gag him.
We used to sing that song whenever I wanted him to talk to me, or if I wanted to hold him in my arms but didn’t dare. That tune was worse than acid. It ate into my mind and my heart was thumping so hard in my chest that, I couldn’t help it, I dropped everything, I grabbed my jacket before the tears could choke me and I went off up the mountain, so I could spit them out, lose them at the bottom of some ravine.
Alice was my winter fairy. At this time of year, even if winter was on its way out, I often saw her roaming about nearby. A gossamer shadow wafting through the trees. It was as though she’d escaped from one of my childhood fairytales; Alice in Wonderland, dumb mules, frog princes…
Without warning she would appear around the bend in the path. Stunned, I would rub my eyes to make sure I wasn’t seeing things, that I wasn’t moonstruck or something…
Often she’d creep up on me while I was dozing underneath an oak tree or against a rock. She’d round up all my sheep nice and close by my side, just like my sheepdog used to do and would be gone in a trice, giggling to herself. Saying that, I can remember my sheepdog quite clearly. One morning, he disappeared. Not a trace. Even though I looked for him everywhere, with Alice as it happens, in every nook and cranny, down the ravines, but I never found him. He probably died of old age somewhere only dogs know about, a deep shady place out of the wind, died sleeping like a rock, though it’s a well known fact rocks don’t like dogs.
Sometimes then Alice kept me company, talking about this and that, a young girl telling me about her little problems, her feelings. Recently she asked me, “And what about you Daniel, have you ever been in love, my silent one whose lips are sealed…?”
I was very relieved that she’d offered me an excuse, silent indeed, I was closed as a shutter. I could avoid giving her an answer, but she went on, “You know, I know quite a bit about you. For example, you like music; you even play the guitar. And, the other day, I watched you up on the top, by the observatory… don’t give me that look, you were dancing in the snow, a frightened bird escaped from its cage, singing on the inside.”
At the same time she tried to translate what she was saying to me in sign language, the funny thing is I didn’t understand any of her gestures. It made me laugh, but I didn’t want to let on, so I remained totally impassive.
She started again, “Perhaps you’re right after all. What’s the good of talking, barking out words or keeping them on a lead if people can still bite you…even so, I don’t know how you do it, how you keep it up after all this time.”
I was somewhat moved and no doubt wanting to thank her, I articulated a hollow sound, a gulp of air with a voice extinct, almost as though I were spitting out words of papier mâché. They would come out, but scarcely ventured further than the edge of my lips. Thank you Alice, for not pushing me. For just taming me.
Strangely, she worked them out one by one like some one patiently learning to read. I imagined the sounds vibrating, entering her, touching her mind.
I could see a breath, a glimmer that wavers before my fading words. Alice, gentle fairy, your hand on mine.
I remember one evening when I’d come into Daniel’s room. I wanted to wish him happy birthday— a day late, to celebrate thirty-two years. He wasn’t there. He must have gone out walking over by Val Triste, his favorite place. I made sure though, looking in his wardrobe to check he hadn’t gone off for good, but no, his things were all in place, clean and tidy. In a box at the bottom of the wardrobe I made a discovery. My little brother had kept one of his childhood toys, his teddy bear! Without thinking I picked it up and I noticed that his stomach had been opened up and then sewn up again. I did say to myself, you shouldn’t be meddling, but even so I took out my hunting knife and ripped open the stitches. Inside there was an old photo of my mother Michèle. A bit blurred, but you could see that she was pregnant. Our father must have taken it before one of us was born. I looked for some sort of clue on the back, but nothing, no date, no sign. I wanted to take it for myself and hide it in my wallet. Pushing thirty-seven and still behaving like a kid. What next? What good would it do? Perhaps one had been born already, the other on the way…I stroked the photo with my finger. Daniel must be convinced that it was him in the photo, so I put my mother back in the bear’s tummy and mended the buttonhole I’d just inflicted on him. I grabbed my sheepskin jacket and went off into the night to find my brother.
Outside, a few paces forward, I listened and sniffed the air. Looking up I saw the moon, a pale oval flanked with clouds. I thought how strange it looked. And the sky, too low, as though it had been dislodged. I can’t explain. The fact is I found myself thinking about that photo…and of my mother. I went on and came to the foot of a mound of earth behind the house, a tomb where Daniel and I had symbolically buried our dog that had disappeared the year before. I knew my brother went there often. It was a beautiful place with two pine trees standing on either side of a stone seat.
I found him there, lying like a child with his hands cupped on his chest as though he was about to give his heart to whoever came first. Apparently asleep, vulnerable. Without a word, I sat down next to him for a while and then covered him with my thick jacket.
Back at the farm, I started thinking, wondering whether instead of this crazy scrap yard I’d be better off opening a bistrot in the sore heart of these mountains — somewhere for all those daydreamers, those tormented souls who would stop, intrigued, and be lured towards the glow of the sign in the night. But then people did come here from miles away, some looking for leaf springs, some for alternators, even to change a bearing. It helped them out, I felt useful and it gave me a bit of cash in my pocket.
I took one last look at the moon, a regular visitor in these parts. One of the regulars. She looked for all the world like a doll with no arms or legs, blonde and a bit sad —like my mother, also blonde, slim and pretty — her sorrow diffused in her chiffon halo.
I thought about the photo where you couldn’t tell which of us our mother was carrying and I related it to that awful moment when one of them was also missing. As it was, I was coming home from school and understood then, at last, with one of the family gone, why Daniel and I were still alive.
I was dreaming about my brother. He was beside me, gigantic, silent, with his jug-ears , he looked like a huge hold-all. I asked him, “Richard what’s it like being dead?” He swore, “Bloody hell! You found your tongue. I don’t know. The important thing is that we’re alive isn’t it? ”
I woke up dripping with sweat, beneath his jacket. Because of his size, it covered my body completely. Once again, although I tried to remember some small detail, a sequence of events, I felt empty, desolate. The mind puts its own price on memories, some are too dear. What’s more, if it gets the price tags mixed up you can’t be sure of anything. You don’t know where you are any more. I was in a puppet theatre. I pulled on the strings, but it was no use, the characters refused to obey, frozen in time, absorbed into the scenery. The tears were flowing, and I’m the one who has never managed to cry. I wanted them to come, like those drops of rain that finally lance the swollen clouds, but nothing. I was just lying there on a stone seat with my brother’s jacket and his pain crushing my chest.
Alice continues to visit me. Several times this month she has come up to the plateau or even down to Val Triste, below Les Rabasses, where at the moment I’ve been cutting cut a few steres of beech every day after I’ve released the sheep. Yesterday, Sunday, on the stroke of midday, she appeared bright and breezy, with a walnut cake and a bottle of cider in her basket. She planted herself in front of me, and all smiles, she said, “We have to celebrate! It’s my birthday today.” Her birthday. She was twenty. More than a kid, more even than a teenager, she was a woman now. I was flustered, and danced from one foot to the other as she drew near. You should at least say something, congratulate her, I thought. But instantly terrified by the very idea, I only touched her arm and gave her a timid smile.
I learnt that since January she’d been working in the office at the sawmill. She also had the job of taking food to the day labourers who were cutting wood for the two brothers and were spread out through the forest all along the pass. Alice had used it as an opportunity to come and see me. We sat side by side on a pile of stumps, logs, we ate her cake. It was delicious. Very soon I felt uneasy. Alice was soaking up the silence. I was used to my own silence, not that of other people. Although, apart from Richard and in spite of the thirteen years difference in age, she was the only person who I trusted, with whom I felt I might let go. So little by little I started to relax. […]
In July, with the dry season in full swing I had to go further and further to find grazing for my ewes. The grass was going yellow — it hadn’t rained since mid-June. I was beginning to lose hope when the weather seemed to be about to change. Though the wind had actually been blowing in relentlessly from the South, squeezing the clouds tighter than sardines between the two peaks that formed the horizon, holding them captive in the valleys or in the ridges on the mountain. The storm came galloping with nostrils flared. Snorting and blowing on all sides and from its crimson muzzle came flashes of lightning followed by thunder. Cold hard hailstones fell on my back and even into my jacket. I pulled out a few, felt them, they were the size of large marbles and the color of mothballs, the ones you put in clothes and wardrobes. Then there were more of them, their thudding noise mixing with the crack of the lightning, the bleating of the terrified sheep while the wind railed, belched and gusted in the treetops. I was just as scared as the ewes. To make them follow me, and to spur myself on, I ran in front of them, tumbling down the path through the scree, the rocks and the broom. I called them continuously, shouting and chanting at the same time like a man possessed. When we came in sight of Les Rabasses, safe and sound, the silence had reasserted itself once more and I had to admit that, when danger looms, words also need to find a voice.
More and more I wanted to ask my brother Richard; you, you were six then, don’t you remember our mother? And he would think and reply, no, except her face, a few words, a smile, no, not much. That was the worse thing, the complete absence of memories, like an eclipse.
Our childhood had deserted us without warning. However, I was sure that someone inside us was refusing to grow up, maintaining an obsession fixated on our four and six year old selves for example, and calling to us from behind some secret door, imprisoned behind imaginary walls. When I was younger, I ended up having headaches because of it. I would fall into a restless sleep. By drawing on my well of dreams I would be able to detect the minutest sign that something good might be about to happen, receiving a letter perhaps or being rescued a new friend. Alice, that tender skiff drawing alongside my life. But more often, it came down to one single scene, that same image.
I saw that moment clear as day, when, perhaps moved by some dreadful foreboding, my brother Richard came tearing helter-skelter home from school, when, out of breath, he collapsed beside our parents’ motionless form. A beetle gasping for air, Why are they on the ground? Why aren’t they moving? A tortoise on its back. Why lying down, like a daddy on top of a mummy. Richard gets up, looks around for me, that’s when I wake up, no more images, poor child, welcome to the real world. Heavy silence, heavier than sleep. The little boy put his fist in his mouth and swallowed the white pebbles of memory with everything else. When he takes out his hand, and opens it he realizes he has no fingers. I open my eyes wide, begging for an answer I turn towards my big brother. His bed is empty, he doesn’t sleep well. At night he wanders about the hills and immediately the birds fall silent, like flames guttering in the hearth.
I would so love his long legs to carry me away, beyond the horizon, the mystery of the world, so we’d come swimming back and make a clean sweep of it in our heads. In my mind I would sketch out a bright sun. It would pound softly against a cliff like the sea, or the brilliant warmth of a smile in someone’s heart.
So what’s the good of talking? There are so many voices in the world. Voices that cry out, that fall, that no one hears. And words everywhere, strange, indifferent to the cries, to the tears, words that kill voices…
Recently I’ve remembered the funeral. I was four in 1948. “Look,” said Richard, “Look at them one last time.” I tried, I concentrated hard, but I couldn’t see them through the coffins. So I tricked my way into the black box, I could make out my mother in her Sunday best and the scent of her perfume. Holding tightly onto my hand, she would walk with me on the road up the pass, she was waiting for Jacques Monnier, the man from the sawmill, “you’ll see, he’s very nice.” But I couldn’t see my father. He was Monday morning blues, and he hadn’t been seen for a hell of a long time. I turned my head. And another memory, the faintest kind that melts like snow returning then to silence. Whenever I think about it, it almost makes me feel giddy.
And that’s what happens today. Alice is here. She says it is a good thing, that I’m piercing the armour. Even though I still put up a fight… I take out my notebook, my arm, my armour, and I write for her, not on the paper though, on her hand. She laughs, and so do I. When night falls, she goes back to the sawmill.
In the sky the stars on the plough are entwined like sisters.
1st November 1982
I left the farm early morning and walked down the pass to Laborel. Then I turned right after the church, through a line of cypress trees hoping that the graveyard above, now transformed into a spreading flower meadow, would not yet have any other visitor. I stop in front of the tomb, where my parents are supposed to be at rest. I raise my arm against any comment they might make. I know it’s incredible and also totally unfair that they should be here together, shut inside, coffin beside coffin. Some distant relation had apparently decided it should be that way. I don’t remember her face, only that she refused to take us with her and that no one asked us our opinion anyway. I pluck up courage; make a clumsy attempt at a blessing. I feel like a tiny hornet, imprisoned in a hive. I tell myself that Richard and I won’t be buried beside them. I don’t know whether I should be glad or sorry about that. My stupid arm is still in the air, hanging in space as though disconnected. Then drops down.
I stayed in that position, motionless for a while, before pulling myself together and saying adieu, not au revoir like I did every year. I shook myself, dumb little mule, staggering exhausted along the grassy path, then jogging, weaving in and out of the gravestones. A thought occurred to me about my father, because strangely I remembered one of the comments he had made about me. No doubt because of the succession of images that were in my head then, and also a young dappled-white rabbit by the gate, that was watching me, paralyzed with fear.
Richard was to walk to school, it was his first day and my mother was wondering out loud whether the schoolmistress might take me in with him and the others, even though I was only four. Father heard her but just shrugged his shoulders. She carried on talking to herself. You’re right, he is a bit young to have to follow Richard and go all that way on foot.
The old man didn’t move a muscle. Still, he could have taken us in his van, instead of letting my mother go on complaining, but no, he started to chuckle then mumble in his beard. Best not. The kid is so small he couldn’t reach the top of a rabbit’s ears. And then this one might mistake him for a carrot and gobble him up. (Thank you, little white rabbit, for triggering this memory, now hop it so I can get out and close the gate). My father puffed out his chest, quite proud of his witty remark. Yep, we certainly hit the mark there. First we got ourselves a bean pole, no need for a ladder with that one, and the next one’s hardly knee high to a grasshopper, a proper little garden gnome! I caught myself smiling at this, more amused than hurt, since nothing much had changed since then. Richard was nearly six foot six, he really was quite impressive, and me, even standing on tiptoes and straining my neck, I hardly came up to his armpits.
As for the rabbits, I saw them every morning, right in the middle of the cabbages and the carrots or washing their ears in the dew amongst the wreckage in our yard.
Alice doesn’t come very often now. The gossip is that she has got engaged. I can’t really believe that. But Richard says so too. He gets on my nerves. He’s like a cross between a bedraggled parrot and a monkey, wandering about on his perch dressed like a scarecrow with his great long arms drooping down.
As the news came this morning, the sky emptied its pockets of snow, all blue with golden coins of sunlight.
Richard wants us to go and play on Sunday at the festival in Montguers. Rock is dead, long live the Blues! he shouts. And now Queen Alice has made an appearance and at the Broken Hearts ball, even the lucky ones are dancing with the wrong girls. You trust me and I’ll trust you, I tell the snow, in the lobe of its white ear.
I am just over forty years old and I don’t know what to do with it.
3rd January 1988
Those two idiots, Robert and Pierre, I knew what they were up to in the cemetery, after their mother Lucie died. They stayed by the grave, while everyone else was leaving, amongst them their cousin Louis and Alice; then they started off down the other path. I was hiding behind a little shack that the gardener used as a tool shed. They stopped in front of our parents’ grave. Pierre, the ferret-like one, remarked that only our mother’s side had been tended, and there were flowers.
“Do you think they do it on purpose?” he asked Robert. No reply. He looked surprised and went on, “Can’t you see that Lacour’s side hasn’t been looked after. They can’t even be bothered to weed round the edge. The mother is blooming and the father’s gone to seed.”
Robert snorted with laughter.
“They say he didn’t have a hair left on his head, You’re right, it’s a bit messy, considering he was as bald as a coot.”
So then that other clod Pierre started cackling worse than an old hen. Then, as if he was embarrassed or sensed someone might be watching, he became serious again and changed the subject.
“It reminds me of that bloke who died in a fire over at Saint-Auban. The family cremated what was left of him. Some people have some funny ideas. I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t seem right to me, or very nice, come to that.”
Robert nodded in approval and as usual wanted to have the last word.
“And especially as it was a bit déjà vu for him, don’t you think? A bloke shouldn’t have to put up with the same treatment twice running. They should have buried him in the rain.”
Idiots, I thought they’d never leave.
End of April 1988
Still grieving for her mother, Alice, my winter fairy, got married today to a vile little dwarf. Louis, their distant cousin, even more of a runt than me. I saw him, in his grey suit, his bog-brush hair kept in place with gel. It looked like he’d run a harrow through it. He’d just come back from the barbers, but you’d think he’d got the wrong shop and gone to the ironmonger instead.
They reckon the older brother, always the joker, said, “It’s the best thing we could have done, that way we’ll keep it in the family.”
I know it’s the right month, but this is no April fool, it’s no joke. Now she’s married, she’ll never come up here anymore. I hate this God-forsaken place. Perty. Perdition.
I’m going to stop keeping this diary …and I’ll continue to keep quiet.