by Isabelle Sorente
translated by Sara Daley
Now a bird is leaving the bush, taking off from the branch and soaring above the road below. Now a beacon is lighting rainbows across the night sky. Now the bird is passing over a series of rooftops flying to the last building, its wings beating faster and faster like the panicked hearts of people breathing fresh air for the first and last time in their lives. Now the prisoners raise their heads to the sky.
Their memories stir up so much that they could descend into madness.
It all started with a jolt. My body lurched in my bed like a terrified animal. It was like I had been given an electric shock or tripped down a staircase. I didn’t go back to sleep. The jolting happened again the next night and after a week I was less worried about the insomnia than the fit I knew was coming. 3:00 AM, 3:15 AM, sometimes even 3:30 AM. I would think I heard a car back fire and I would jump up in my bed. My heart would race and my legs would shake like I had just run a marathon. I would lie back down on my side and press my body against Elsa but I would find it hard to breathe in the scent of her hair or to recognize the familiar shapes in our bedroom, my heart pounding in the darkness.
I began to tremble during the day without me even understanding what it was that would suddenly trigger the memory of waking up in the middle of the night.
‘Martin, is everything alright at the university?’ Elsa would ask when I got home from work. ‘Are you happy with your students?’
Since we had been living together, I considered myself to be a happy kind of guy, which meant that this panicky tremble in my legs and pounding in my chest made even less sense. Eventually I got used to the nights of interrupted sleep and I fell back to sleep before five o’clock except for one time when I tried to watch the sun come up through the living room window, convinced at the time that I had woken up so that I didn’t miss it. I had forgotten that it was impossible to see the sun from the fourth floor where we lived because the building opposite blocked the view. After two weeks the jolting stopped. The days went by quickly and my new students gave me more than enough to think about. The only thing that could have given me trouble sleeping was the sweltering September heat – the weather reports said it was a real Indian summer.
I had almost forgotten, like the head quickly forgets the web of nerves and memories that are found below it. Poor is the head that quickly forgets every snap and spasm, and I, too had almost forgotten when I lurched up in bed at 3:30AM one October morning, my heart pounding. I went back to sleep and then woke up twice. My legs were agitated as though I was running away from some panic-inducing dream. After the third jolt, I jumped out of bed.
‘Martin?’ Elsa murmured without opening her eyes.
‘Everything’s fine,’ I said.
Refusing to let my anxiety get the better of me, I killed some time by working in the living room. I waited until six before I made myself some coffee. Elsa was still asleep, I could see her red hair splayed across the pillow.
My class finished at 11 o’clock, and I’d had so little sleep that I felt that the day was almost over. I was just finishing up when the door opened and Dionys Marco slid into the first row. I had no idea that the conversation that we were about to have would lead to me soon finding myself in a corridor filled with deafening cries. The students huddled together to make way for Dionys Marco, awestruck, as I had been at their age when Dionys was not yet head of the philosophy department, but already a lecturer. A lecturer. The fascination with his height, elegant suits and his clear, hawk-like stare was not just confined to students. Everybody who admired the intelligence of Dionys Marco knew that it could be used against them and I had seen him destroy colleagues at the teaching council’s quarterly meetings with nothing more than a half-smile and a single question. Dionys knew how to ask a question. Back when I was his student, it seemed to me that wanting to know the truth was just a pretext which concealed a shameful plan to conquer and destroy my spirit. Of course, the pretext was worth the trouble. But I still found myself tensing up in his presence even though Dionys was friendly towards me. If I dared to tell him about it, he would probably chase away the demon that woke me up at night with a single, ironic glance. I can already hear him saying, ‘My dear friend, you’re jolting all over the place for nothing.
But I was a long way from deciphering the clear-eyed stare of Dionys Marco. He wasn’t wrong to say that I was judging him. It’s quite possible that our judgment of others is a personal thing like the sounds our bodies, that permanent racket of blood, bone and marrow. Dionys Marco wasn’t smiling that day. He had dark circles under his eyes as he held his coat over his arm. He waited for the last student to leave before he spoke,
‘I have something to tell you, Martin. Shall we go get a drink?’
Some kids had parked their scooter on the square and were making the most of the fall sunshine at the outdoor cafés and some young girls were laughing near a fountain. You could have thought for a minute that we were in Rome.
‘It’ll be quieter inside,’ Dionys Marco said.
I followed him to the back of the restaurant, regretting not sitting outside. I also regretted my heavy jacket and dark jeans – my cool young teacher look was making me hot. Dionys ordered a glass of white wine and I asked for a black coffee.
‘You don’t want something else to drink?’ Dionys asked.
‘I slept badly last night, the coffee will do me good.’
‘As you wish, Martin, I’ve noticed you are always so serious.’
The disappointed look on his face made me feel bad and I wondered what he wanted to talk to me about.
‘Are we still having dinner tomorrow evening? Elsa hasn’t had a change of heart?’
‘Of course not. You know Elsa is completely charmed by you, she loves your mind, that’s what she always says when she talks about you, the great mind of Dionys Marco.’
I was expecting a witty retort but Dionys was silent. He waited for the waiter to move away before he spoke again.
‘I’m tired of my own mind, Martin. I’m going through the worst time in my entire life. But thank Elsa for the compliment. It’s always does a person good to think they are intelligent, even if I am completely incapable of understanding my own daughter. Tico barely even speaks to me now.
Dionys must have been really troubled because I had never seen him be so direct. He came to dinner at our house about once a month, and the conversation would last until well into the night. Elsa would talk about an interview with some economist or scientist that she had cornered and we would talk about politics, ethics and justice but we would never talk about anything personal. I felt especially touched by his confiding in me that he was raising his daughter Cornélia alone following the death of his ex-wife.
‘I didn’t know you were calling her Tico, isn’t that a boy’s name?’
‘Cornélia doesn’t want me to use her first name any more, she doesn’t like it,’ Dionys said. ‘But it’s my mother’s name. Of course, I don’t enjoy calling her Tico but she likes that nickname, it would appear she got it from her friends. My daughter goes out so little that I sometimes wonder if these friends even exist. Tico was always reserved as child and I found her introverted nature to be comforting but when she turned eighteen, something changed.’
Dionys put both his hands on the table as though he somehow needed to touch the wood.
‘She doesn’t open any of the books I buy for her, she won’t wear the clothes I buy for her. My daughter just rejects everything I offer her, she looks at me and says nothing and if I attempt to talk to her, she politely informs me that everything’s fine. Her silence is like a permanent reproach. I can’t even watch television in front of her, I’m afraid of the way she looks at me with this accusatory glare like I’m responsible for everything bad that happens in the world. Martin, I get the impression that my daughter physically hates me.’
All it took was one quick gesture to interrupt his confession and the secret flew away like a startled bird. The waiter cleared a table. Dionys looked at two young girls who were sitting near us.
‘Do you think Tico could come with me to dinner tomorrow? I’d really like her to meet you. You and Elsa.
‘Of course,’ I said. You are both welcome.’
Dionys finished his glass of wine and asked for the check. He barely looked at me – it was as if he was annoyed that he had exposed so much of himself. I had no doubt that he was in a hurry to get back to being Professor Marco, head of the philosophy department, master of his own emotions.
‘After talking to you, I wonder if I was worried for nothing. I mean, after all, Tico has never caused me any trouble, I just find her to be almost too serious.’
‘Can’t you say something to her about it anyway?’ I asked.
‘No, of course not. But you know how I am, Martin, serious people scare me, even you.’
‘When you look at me with such focus, I feel as though you are judging me.’
I didn’t notice but maybe I should have. If I had asked Dionys what he meant, he wouldn’t have tested me, I wouldn’t be watching my memories slip away down a corridor, I wouldn’t have hurt anybody.
‘I expect you’ll tell me if Saturday is alright for Tico and I?’
‘I’m sure Elsa will be happy to meet your daughter, and I’m looking forward to it as well.’
The conversation turned towards Elsa’s latest article, a profile of a psychoanalyst from Athens who saw his patients in a graffiti-covered building in the Exarchia neighborhood and interpreted their dreams for the symbolic price of one euro. People came from all over town, stepping over the bodies of junkies strung out across the hallway, climbed the dilapidated staircase and rang the bell on the fourth floor to unburden themselves of their oneric visions. A lot of people dreamed of wild animals ripping of their leg or their face. Others saw themselves crushed by a wave of mud.
‘These nightmares where money doesn’t speak its name are worse than reality,’ said Dionys Marco. ‘I admire Elsa for coming up with the idea for the profile. You’re lucky to be living with a lady like that.’
On the night of Friday October 10th to Saturday October 11th, I woke up as though I had been shocked with 600 volts. I went back to sleep around 4:00AM only to be jolted awake at 5:37AM – I remember looking at the clock. I must have jumped several times in my sleep, my heart was beating like a drum and so I watched Elsa as I waited for it to calm down. She was sleeping on her side with her elbow at a right angle across her face, hiding her eyes with her hand to protect them from the light that was peeking through the blinds. Elsa often slept like this. She must have been too hot because she had thrown the blanket aside. I liked the smell of her sweat. That sort of thing is no more explicable than the smile on Elsa’s sleeping face – no doubt she was dreaming of something nice and I felt jealous of her as I sat awake. Deep down, Elsa and Dionys were a lot alike, they belonged to that group of people who have confidence in themselves. For example, it was Elsa who first approached me, in a café, while I was preparing a class. At first she thought I was writing a poem.
‘You remind me of somebody, can I sit with you?’
I looked up and saw this red headed girl in stonewashed jeans and an oversized sweater that was pulled down over her shoulder to show the black strap of her bra, but what struck me was the scent of her hair and the way she said: ‘I like how serious you are.’
Six months later, we were moving in together. Elsa knew what she wanted and she dared to ask for it and that’s what made her a good journalist, the best in her department, the editors’ go-to-girl when they needed somebody to make the intelligentsia spill the beans. When we started living together, I naively hoped that in the heat of passion her extrovert qualities would somehow rub off on me, that Elsa would give me some of her optimism without noticing and without me having to ask for anything. But after three years of living together, I had to admit that optimism is not a sexually transmitted disease since Elsa was smiling in her sleep and I was being jolted awake.
Her hand moved away from the eyelids she had been protecting and Elsa opened her eyes.
‘Have you been awake long?’
‘I was watching you sleep, you were smiling.’
I didn’t tell her about what was waking me up. What could I have said? Even I didn’t know why my body was lurching itself awake.
It is six o’clock in the morning and the silo is rumbling. The females recognize the sound of food passing through the false-ceilinged tubes overhead before pouring into the troughs below. The younger ones begin to squeal, terrified by the rumbling – they aren’t used to this mechanical thunder. The crazy ones – because in every pen there is always at least one who bites her peers, beats them with her claws, or even tries to climb on top of everyone else – totter for a moment on their hind legs before falling, flat, heavy and disappointed, having seen nothing but a iron door. The same scene is being repeated in the next pen. Some stare at the neon lights as if they are trying to find daylight while others stare intently into the eyes of their neighbor. Every sow is trying to see something beyond the walls of Building B (Gestation), as the life that is swelling their bellies in regulation with a program of which they know nothing is also producing in their gut that familiar, panic-inducing feeling: this life isn’t real. They were locked in here by mistake, real life exists outside, but where? The more devious among them will die first – their survival instincts will turn against them. Here, everything turns, after the second litter arrives the devious ones go mad. By the third litter, the kinder ones are destined for the same fate. First comes madness. Followed by the inability to reproduce. Then death. The rest, the ones who aren’t too devious or too kind, the dazed and despondent, those ones can look forward to holding out for up to three and a half years.
Camélia isn’t going in yet, he has pressed his face against the window to watch them. He is waiting for the food distribution to start at 6:10, as programmed by his computer. Then they will squeal less. He can’t take much more of their cries, he feels as if he understands them. The same door is at the other end of the corridor. The same room, where 270 sows are waiting to drop, grouped in pens of fifteen on either side of a central aisle. There were 540 females in total in Building B (Gestation), or counting the bacon bits in their bellies - an average of fifteen per litter – 8100 condemned to life, waiting to be fattened up. The more stubborn ones scratched their snouts from rummaging along the floor – they must have realized that there is no ground beneath their feet, just tar and a pit full of their own excrement. They dig regardless, the consequence of having a sense of smell that can sniff out a truffle over half a mile away. They dig anyway, just to make themselves bleed. What beasts, Camélia thinks. He would like to think something else but that’s all he can come up with just words. There is something disgusting about the flesh on their snout, it is looks like genitals on their face. What beasts, Camélia thinks. But that’s just the visible tip of a much deeper thought than ran through his chest and made him cough. Despite the air purification systems that are meant to reduce the amount of dust that is pushed through the ventilation systems, his bronchial tubes seem to have become newly sensitized to their surroundings. The tubes rumble along the false ceilings and vitamin-enriched soup pours into the troughs and just look at the sows rushing towards them, overwhelmed by the food like passengers on a flight who they recommend are fed one hour after take-off in order to make them forget that once they decide to build it, the plane - regardless of its destination, the power of its motors and the names of its passengers – will end up being broken down into parts. All the beasts gobble the food down so as not to think about it. From the moment it’s conceived, it’s already dead. This thought had obsessed Camélia since the end of summer, as if he was seeing the future five hundred and forty times a day, in the guts of the sows in Building B (Gestation).
Neither Camélia or I could have imagined, when he opens the door and walks into the room, that in just over three weeks, I will be working with him, accompanying him on his morning inspections, that he will trust me with his thoughts to the point that I will recall them just as easily as my own memories, or even more clearly, because I promised to remember everything he told me. One doesn’t pay that much attention to oneself which is a mistake, of course, but we learn that later. On Saturday October 11th, while I was jolting awake, Camélia was on duty in Building B (Gestation). He waited for the food distribution to finish, he went into Room 1 and went down the walkway to the last pen. The sow came towards him, you could have said she had been waiting for him. She was bigger than the others, she seemed fuller too, as if she was carrying more life in her belly. Her big watery eyes were lined with black as if nature had wanted to put black eyeliner around her heavy eyelids. The sow stared at Camélia with her extraordinary eyes. He stood unmoving against the door for a long time.