At the Men’s Table
By Sylvie Germain
Sample translation by Gretchen Schmid
And now here I am, I who was birthed by the earth… ─Grégoire de Narek
The straw, freshly spread out in the enclosure, forms a golden island that glistens in the morning sun, exuding a sweetish smell, while the one from the body stretched out on this patch of golden yellow is heavier, more penetrating. The mother’s body, all silky pinkness and splendid enormousness, voluptuous with warmth.
She lies there, resting on her flank, peaceful. She inhales the air, the wind, the fragrances of the earth, of a wood fire far away, and those of the nearby pond, the puffs of damp darkness that come from the surrounding buildings, the feeling of the straw and of her little ones snuggled against her stomach. Eight of them, all pressed against each other, shoving each other, each one glued to one of her teats. Two of the litter are missing; one died at birth, and the other, not combative enough, hadn’t managed that day to fight his way through the throng to the teat that is normally his. He waits, a little set back, distraught, squealing with hunger and anger.
Suddenly the sow lifts her head, gives a start, the infants snort without letting go of her teats. She has smelled an unusual odor, something unusual in the swirl of the familiar, or heard a sound, which throws her into a panic. She would like to stand up on her hooves, but her weight prevents her, she wobbles, grunting louder and louder. Her cry, although piercing, is soon inaudible, drowned out by a more powerful sound. A long hissing that grows louder, swells, sharpens to an unprecedented speed, tears the sky right down the middle and finally climaxes in a tremendous explosion. But it’s not the only one, this piercing noise, others soon follow at a frenetic pace, the blue of the sky is lacerated everywhere. It whistles, the sky, it boos, it hoots, yelps like a colossal nest of furious raptors that are melting onto the earth, whose beaks, as soon as they touch the ground, shatter trees and houses, open giant holes, light fires soiled by black smoke, which give off suffocating odors.
Of the large body of the mother nursing her brats on a litter the color of the sun, there remains only a heap of burned flesh, and of her little ones, a blackish porridge. One of them had been projected several meters away, forcefully separated from his siblings still glued to their mother’s stomach, but he wasn’t any less gluttonous than them– at the end of his snout there dangles a piece of pink flesh, the teat that he had been suckling when death had swiped him away.
The masters’ house is gutted, the stable, the barn are in flames, a crater is smoking in the middle of the yard. The chicken coop hadn’t been touched, only its roof has collapsed; no victims among the chickens, who are escaping, clacking with fear. A woman extricates herself, less quickly than the chickens. She is young, pretty perhaps, but she is so smeared with egg yolk, with excrement, with dust and with mud, that the features of her face are no longer distinguishable, and she is so well decked out in feathers that quiver in her hair and riddled with pieces of shells that she looks comical. She moves forward, staggering in the murky light of the acrid smoke, too groggy to recover her wits. She walks in slow motion, like a robot whose springs have become loose. Such a racket around her – the low deafening of roaring flames everywhere, the flaming trees that are collapsing, the walls that are exploding, the skeletons of buildings that are caving in, the wounded or panic-stricken animals that are bellowing, cackling, bleating, wailing at the top of their lungs. Such silence too – that of human voices. Her mother, her young brother, her aunt, and her son. So young still, her son, it would soon be time to nurse him, he should have already found her, for that matter. He is impatient, lively, her son, and likes to eat. Why isn’t he crying? All the animals are whining, and he’s quiet? I’m coming, I’m coming, she screams to him. But she doesn’t say anything at all, no sound comes out of her mouth, her tongue is as dry as an old wood chip.
I’m coming, I’m coming… but how far away the house is, suddenly, each step towards it takes such effort. That’s it, it’s because of this distance that she can’t hear her family’s calls, her child’s cries of hunger. When she is finally close, she will hear them, she will respond to them. I’m coming, I’m coming… but to where? There isn’t a building any longer, nothing but a large heap of loose stones, of beams, of tiles, with erratic zigzags of burning wood and swirls of smoke. And the little one who still isn’t calling for her.
She finally reaches comes to stand in front of what had been, just a moment ago, her house. The moment becomes an eternity. Her eyes follow the wisps of fire that are prancing in the wreckage. From between two stones emerges an arm, the hand hanging at the end holding a wooden spoon. The spoon is dripping with fat pearls the color of amber. The kitchen this morning was fragrant with the scent of the quince jelly that her mother and her aunt were preparing; her brother was there during the cooking for the happiness of smelling the aroma of the warm fruit, sugar, and lemon juice, the cinnamon, and for the pleasure of handling the strainer, then filling the jars. The little one, he dozed in his cradle, placed on top of a bench. The cooking takes a long time, needs to be done over an open fire and requires regular stirring. But which of these two jam-makers is holding out this spoon oozing with jam, to give her a taste and ask for her opinion on the status of the cooking? They had set out several jars on the table, beautiful reserves waiting for the men’s return.
She turns away from the spoon, goes to wander around the yard, stumbles on loose pebbles, branches, debris, tools, mangled birds, bits of animal corpse. She bumps up against the piglet lying on its back with its hooves in the air, strangely sticking out its tongue. She stops, looks at it. She knows the anatomy of all the animals on the farm, pigs don’t have tongues like that, it must be something else. She doesn’t name this thing, not even mentally. She moves far away from it, suddenly stops in her tracks, puts her hands on her stomach, she vomits. She lets herself fall to the ground, and stays there, huddled up. Not moving, not wanting anything, not naming anything, not thinking, just breathing, barely.
The piglet that hadn’t been able to reach the teats of his mother is the only survivor of the tribe, he has a gash on his left shoulder. But he’s tormented more by hunger than by pain, he begins to move, a little shaky and letting out plaintive grunts. He wanders around the devastated yard, his head tipped to the side because of his wound. He sniffs keenly, he’s looking for food, but everything smells burnt. He approaches the woman curled up in fetal position on the ground; finally, a good smell – warm skin, fresh egg, vomit, milk. He moves his snout towards this promising body, roots around in her hair, sniffs the back of her neck, her face. The woman jumps at the contact with this warm and wet snout grunting around her neck, she straightens herself out, sits up. They face each other, she and the piglet, they look at each other with a mixture of astonishment and trust.
She sees that he is wounded and is moved by it. She stands up, heads towards the reservoir of rainwater. The piglet follows her. The reservoir hasn’t been destroyed, and the cast-iron pump, although slightly twisted, still works. The woman takes water, cleans the animal’s wound, gives him some to drink, then washes her own face, her hair, her arms, her legs, she scrubs them with energy, brutality even, and then she drinks, in abundance. She takes off her apron smeared with stains and dirt splotches, throws it aside. The sky has cleared again, flax-blue and calm. Where are the vultures that had crossed it earlier, screaming? Nowhere, it had been a bad dream. She goes to sit down on a hill, back turned to the farm. The piglet doesn’t leave her, he goes to rub up against her knees. She unbuttons her cardigan, opens her blouse, takes out one of her breasts, she takes the little pig in her arms and nurses him. Drops of cold water fall from her soaked hair, the little animal doesn’t mind, he suckles to his heart’s content, snorting with satisfaction.
When the piglet is done nursing, the woman puts her clothes back on. She stands up, wrings out her hair, and leaves towards the forest without turning back. Her four-legged infant accompanies her. Now, he is skipping more than limping.
The woman is walking at random in the forest, or perhaps she is following, without even thinking about it, a path that she knows well, having often taken it. She doesn’t think about anything, her feet are taking her along just as the animals’ hooves do in the evenings when hunger, thirst, fatigue direct them towards their manger, the trough, the cowshed or the stable. But she doesn’t have a place to stop, a place of rest, in sight. The piglet leaps about after her, he is discovering the world, feeding on new sensations.
All bodies, even if overtaken by madness, retain a sense of their limits; the woman’s stops once it is swaying from fatigue. She lets herself fall at the foot of a tree, and she stays there, sitting with her back against the trunk, she doesn’t try to construct a shelter for herself with the branches. Her gaze wanders in the soft light. Her eyes are the color of the sky, flax-blue.
The little pig comes near her, he touches her arm, her side, with the end of his snout, which is trembling with a joyous feverishness. She puts him on her knees, bends towards him, holds him tightly in her arms. She cradles him for a moment and softly croons a lullaby, her voice high, thin, clear. The words, always the same, slide softly into the animal’s ears, giving him an exquisite tickling sensation. Gently, my little one, go to beddy-bye my little one, beddy-bye, sleep in peace, my handsome child, bye-bye beddy-bye, go beddy-bye my sweet child, bye-bye beddy-bye… He associates this murmur of sound with the pleasure he is experiencing at being caressed like this. Hunger returns nonetheless, and he wriggles in the woman’s lap. She gives him her breast again, but her milk is already less abundant.
He goes to amble in the underbrush, not straying too far from the tree where his caretaker is currently residing, the one who caresses him and makes delicious sounds. He’s a little lost, everything is so new, surprising – the solitude, the sounds, the smells, the consistency of the earth. His wound is giving him sharp pains, but he bears it; a piglet doesn’t ask questions, he makes do with whatever happens, and uses his instincts to assure his own survival.
Night falls, accompanied by rain. The dark obscurity spreads, intensifies, and the crispness of the air turns to cold. The little one returns close to the woman who hasn’t moved, he shoves her again with little nudges of his snout, she is slow to react. She is shaking. He curls up against her, she puts a hand on his neck, caresses him vaguely, mumbling her lullaby, very low, slowly. But the piglet is content, he hears the string of bye-bye-beddy-bye that is becoming familiar to him trickle away, just like the dripping rain. He falls asleep with a grunt of well-being.
In the morning he snorts, and soon hunger causes him to fidget, grumble. He stretches his snout towards the breast of his nurse; she proceeds to feed him, but her movements are slowed, uncertain, and her milk is even poorer and blander than the evening before. It tastes like salty water. The infant escapes the languid arms of the woman. The rain has stopped. He leaves to trot into the woods, he roots around in piles of leaves glued together with mud, he unearths berries, tender shoots, mushrooms, tastes other nourishment, more substantial and savory than the milk of maternal tears. The earth, glutted with water, smokes when the sun penetrates the underbrush, bringing the smells to life – mold, roots, bark, moss, ferns, the smells of animals big and slender, nesting here, running there, fleeing everywhere, low to the ground, along the trunks of trees, and in the air.
He spends his day dawdling and collecting food and fragrances until the point of drunkenness, he rests in the shadow of the thicket and doesn’t return to the home until twilight. The woman is there, slumped, her body quivering with shivers. He curls up at her side, waiting for his dose of caresses and of bye-bye-beddy-bye, but from her mouth with its cracked lips comes only rough hissing. The piglet wriggles, grumbling. A hand, as light as a leaf, rests on his head, and a few words of the lullaby are whispered, not sung. They detach themselves one by one like little drops from melting crystals of frost, almost inaudible. The wheezing respiration of the woman changes the rhythm of the sound. Gently…go beddy…go byechild... The animal tips onto his back, offering up his stomach to be caressed; her hand fails him, she is feverish and can only shiver. It’s very pleasant, these tremors of heat on his skin. He smiles, a funny type of pig-smile, then ends up settling himself onto his flank, and falls asleep.
A sudden movement awakens him with a start. Dawn is beginning to break above the foliage. The woman has straightened her back against the tree, her hands are shaking, fanning the air, and she is reciting a string of words in a gloomy, halting tone. “Pour the quinces into a sieve as soon as they are well cooked and let them drain all the way wring out the cheesecloth with the seeds to extract the pectin then…” She stops short, her body shrinks down, freezes, her head turns a little to the side, she rests on top of a tuft of ferns. Her mouth has stayed half-open, as have her eyes; a circle of black, two flax-blue shafts of light. The piglet comes close to her face, sniffs at it, breathes in the darkness, the warmth, the blue that filters out from underneath her eyelids, the taste of salt on her cheeks, the scent of her disheveled hair. He presses his snout against her mouth, as though he were looking for his daily ration of reedy song, but nothing, not a note, not a sigh, her mouth is mute, following the example of the hands that aren’t offering any more caresses and the breasts that aren’t giving the slightest drop of milk. He waits a few moments anyway, then turns around and leaves.
He pushes his explorations further into the woods, his snout moving back and forth rapidly along the ground, ceaselessly on the lookout for anything edible. He burrows into the earth, softened by the rain, he unearths roots, exhumes worms, larvae, swallows spongey plants pell-mell, mossy leaves, insects, quenches his thirst with puddles of water. As evening falls, still unsatisfied, he returns to his makeshift pigsty. The woman’s torso has tipped over into the ferns, three dark circles now making holes in her face; the birds, too, are feeding themselves with anything tasty that they can find. The piglet holds himself a little off to the side, sniffs attentively, and with a worried sense of confusion. The smell of her body has changed – blandness and coldness combined. He approaches with caution, inhales the eye and mouth sockets.
Decidedly, no, it no longer smells like something worthwhile, the black doesn’t have the flavor of blue, nor the silence that of humming. He turns away from this body that has reached a point of weakening, of insipidity. This time, it’s for good that he will leave. Weaning will happen brusquely for him, all at once, and he must adapt.