By Emily Barnett
Sample translation by Gretchen Schmid
I’m called Mary. It’s a name.
We celebrated my birthday at the hospital. An ambulance brought us to the house.
Inside the vehicle, the summer sun pierces the curtains, revealing the contours of a stretcher. I fix the translucent partition between us and the driver in place. The nurse is speaking to him; Maman and I, we’re supposed to have our own conversations. The man in white is masticating his chewing-gum. The movement of his jaw soothes me.
I concentrate on this sight, far from her density, from her power. They told me to distance myself from Maman. She’s a mute figurine with lavender-colored eyes, she imagines herself to be on the run in this van, savage, a prisoner. She’s staring at me fixedly in this narrow space, like my reflection, another me, older and more worn out.
I see her knotted blond hair, the creamy curves of her face. The wrinkles at the sides of her mouth. The store of saliva, held in her cheek – this happens when she doesn’t digest her medication correctly.
The nurse gets out of the truck. He opens the back doors, takes Maman’s hand, who hesitates, having forgotten how to work her legs. Her descent from the van is acrobatic. Maman swivels her eyes towards the courtyard, our courtyard, towards the cracked façade of the castle.
A pathway to the left leads to the garden. There, you can see the hundred-year-old tree and the hydrangea bushes, blue, green, and pink. A swirl of dust lifts up my dress. I press down on it so that I won’t fly away. The nurse gives a sign to the driver – a man in uniform – and we turn towards the entrance, a porch leading up to a high wooden door.
My mother doesn’t move: she started to turn in a circle but stopped herself, immobile, right in the middle.
The nurse hands us a suitcase, two robes and a stack of comics. He wishes us good luck with settling in, a real life, healthy and meaningful. He recommends that we spend time on the terrace – entire evenings, when the sun is a red ball over the ocean and the horizon is aflame. We need to daydream under the stars, he continues, and once we’re in bed, to try at all costs to sleep. “Which god, which prayers?” I say. “Forget about that. You’re so small.” I watch him walk away.
He said: Everything will turn out well.
The door wasn’t locked.
The hot air was shut inside with us, engulfing us, underneath the wooden beams of the kitchen. Maman was already staring at her reflection in the mirror. She hadn’t yet taken off her coat – a fur cape that had been molding in the attic, in the old wardrobe of my grandparents: an old tuxedo, purple and golden dresses, silk stoles, coats sized to fit my ancestors when they had been young – big mummy and big daddy.
I took a step to help her, but Maman pushed me back with a vague gesture. A voice in my head said: Too bad for me. I thought, too bad for her, your stubbornness, your face like an angry bull. She opened her mouth wide, or howled, and the mirror showed us an enormous mouth.
I walk along the corridor, underneath the electric wires, the wood supply, until I reach the marble floor of the living room. The former ballroom. The ceiling is a sky supported by two boat masts from which chunks regularly crumble away, the masts collapsing, until we patch them up again. The rest of the time, we pray during every storm. I think about the erosion of stones, about their endurance. Centuries pass and they remain unchanged.
I remove the iron bar from the French windows. Swollen from the humidity, the hinges make a cracking sound, and the wooden shutters open up onto the ocean – immense – strewn with patches of roses.
I slip on my robe.
My notebook is in its place, hidden in the living room. The statue, standing on the terrace, is wounded: blood streams down its knees. I put my thoughts into this block of pages. The tip of the pen glides on the page, it traces words, the few that I remember since I had to leave school. They came to look for me one morning. I said goodbye to all my friends. After a few letters, sprinkled with insults and covered in appalling cross-outs, they stopped sending any.
To the right, you can see the neighbors’ house. A couple lived there before with their children. We climbed trees, barefoot, yelling Indian war-whoops. We would run down the gently sloping hill to the beach. Their legs ran fast, faster than mine, and lagging behind, I would hear their words brought back to me by the wind: the first one had arrived at the sea! The new tenants seem surly. They spend the whole day in their pajamas. In the evenings, they sleep on deck chairs. Their shadows glide along the outside of the house, blue and silver, before disappearing inside.
The moment the storm begins
I open the trap door that leads up to the attic. I hide there when they’re looking for me, and their calls remain unanswered. There’s a musty odor floating in the air. I stretch out on the bed: an old mattress covered in dust, the springs visible and creaky, with a long streak of dried blood on the side.
There’s noise in her room.
A piece of furniture, I think, is being moved. I glue my ear to the door. I hear the whirring of the heater – a fake furnace that imitates the roar of a fire – and the slamming of the shutters. I descend the stairs. The rooms are empty. The walls are covered with paintings. Caves and fortresses, landscapes: the red desert, a sandy planet, a white cube on a starry vaulted ceiling. Fiction everywhere. My gaze follows the little girl with the hula hoop, the barge floating in the chasm. I’m big daddy’s favorite subject in all his paintings.
Once, my grandparents had been there.
They had brought me up with their strange rituals. I wasn’t the only one to take care of Maman – laundry, cooking, medications. From the beginning of my youth, rivers of blood, I had needed a friend, only one, to whom I could attach myself.
Where is this friend?
It’s nighttime now and I’m alone in my room. I’m waiting for my eyelids to close. Thoughts are coming into my head, floating around. I open up my notebook. I write, despite the lack of light, a story that makes the world outside of the castle possible.
I hear a voice, my mother’s.
I don’t have the strength to get up – she is far away, in another wing of the building. I turn off my lamp. It’s mushroom-shaped, blue with little white spots. Shadows are everywhere in my room. I keep my eyes open. Every night, she begins again. She screams my name: it’s her way of keeping me awake.
Paris, January 1st 1953
Mary had felt drawn towards the empty space underneath the railing. Behind her frail silhouette, her red dress, her chignon coming undone, the guests continue to dance, others chatting with a glass in their hands. Their voices accentuate her nausea and her headache. That way of laughing… no one in France, here, in Paris… someone passes by, close to her. The guest – Rick, Rosario? – leans over the balcony. The angel and the July Column of the Place de la Bastille blur together with the inclined silhouette of the man. Mary smoothes her dress. She had had it made especially for the occasion. But the clothing that should have made her look especially beautiful tonight has turned into an instrument of torture, and the wool, tight to her skin, is scratchy on her stomach.
But it’s there that something had grown, emerging from her womb like a plant with rolled-up leaves. A speck of life that won’t stop growing, taking from her flesh everything it needs to grow, following a set of instructions it was impossible to halt – despite her whispers and prayers. Mary feels dizzy. She holds onto the wall, brushes her stomach, the slight bulge that Jim sometimes likes to rub. Her mind is wandering, distracted by the drone of cars below, while at her back is another deluge, a stream of acute and brittle sounds that are pushing her to the edge of the party.
Mary clenches her fists angrily: she had been waiting for this party impatiently. It would make her new life with Jim official. She has to open her eyes now, mingle, dance, converse – otherwise, what would their friends think?
Rosario and Théa are the last to leave. They stretch out their goodbyes, along the burgundy-colored walls, under the crystal chandelier. It’s late. Mary cleans up the living room. She’s thinking about the layout of her new apartment, focusing especially on the office dedicated to her future consultations. The walls had been painted yellow. “To encourage daydreaming,” Mary had explained to Jim. It’s a very large room. Near the window, concealed under a curtain, there’s a library with reference books – Freud and the pioneers of psychoanalysis – and books for children. To the right, against the wall, they had placed a divan. It was sheathed in a blue satin slipcover, which made it look dreamlike, almost liquid. To the left there’s a tiny desk, where child patients will be able to fill in their coloring books.
Enchanted by this image, Mary reflects on the beginning of her vocation. Already, at school, she was the confidante of her friends. It was a quality celebrated on the day where she had been elected the most popular girl of the year by a jury of high school students. Aside from her beauty, her “humane qualities” had distinguished her, declared a boy, placing a crown on her head.
She was sixteen and it was the most beautiful day of her life.
Mary watches her friends from afar. Rosario has the same smile that he had four years ago, when they had met. Italy: a train lost in the open countryside. Mary and Jim were taking their first trip to Europe. At the time, Jim still envisioned a career in painting for himself. He was always mingling with young Francophile artists in Manhattan. At a house party, one evening, he had hit it off with Tennessee Williams. The playwright was alone. He was bored and had forced Jim to drink. With each swallow of Bloody Mary, Jim grimaced, provoking the laughter of his companion, who, swaying between the Greek columns of the kitsch residence, began recounting the epic story of his most recent voyage in Europe. Jim had never forgotten the colorful grandeur of the story he’d told, nor the small mustache quivering on his face.
Six months later, in August 1948, he departed with Mary on board an ocean liner to Italy. Once they had arrived in Rome, they took a train to Naples. The daytime journey took them along the steep cliffs of the sea. Flashes of blue broke up the monotony of the countryside, which was so dry it looked ancient. In their train car with closed windows, Mary suffered atrociously from the heat. To battle it, she had only a fan and a spray bottle of water – a silver canister that you had to put right in front of your face. Rosario appeared suddenly in their compartment. He was wearing a uniform. Jim held out both their tickets to him.
“Sorry, mister,” Rosario said to them, rolling his Rs outrageously, “but this smells too much like America. We don’t want Yankees here.”
Jim sat up straight.
“What do you mean, ‘we don’t want Yankees here’? This is just us, my wife and I, traveling in Europe for our honeymoon.”
The ticket inspector clicked his tongue, readjusting his uniform, which was rumpled and dirty, giving the impression of someone who didn’t follow the rules very well.
“Well,” he continued, “it is one of your fellows who stole my girlfriend. The war is not over, my friend.” And, without further explanation, he tore up their tickets.
Jim was standing up, ready to fight. But, noticing in the hallway a group of boys who were watching the scene, Mary realized that it was a joke – their tickets had been counted, without a doubt, and Rosario had volunteered to pay for them. Once Jim had been let in on the joke and the introductions made, the boy invited them to share his meal and they began a lively discussion. Rosario was taking part in the Reconstruction, planting vines and making his own wine, but he dreamed of America. In Rome, he had gone to a screening of The Wizard of Oz: the Technicolor images, reflected in the water of the Tiber, had opened his eyes to a world that he wasn’t ready to forget.
The changes that had taken place since then fascinate Mary: Rosario is standing in front of them now, tanned, with perfectly white teeth, a symbol of his integration into the California lifestyle. The two men shake hands at the same time as Théa, the fiancée of Rosario – an androgynous girl with heavily lidded eyes and painted nails, said to possess many talents, including the ability to speak with the dead – approaches Mary and slides a doll into her hands. The doll is soft, made of layers of cloth onto which a dress and a crude face had been stitched – eyes, mouth, hair. Mary arranges the fibers of yellow wool, throwing a questioning look towards her friend. Théa merely smiles, breathing a name: Nicole.
Mary is unable to sleep. The sound of Jim’s breathing, right next to her, keeps her awake. She’s thinking back on the evening – at midnight, after the countdown of seconds and an orgy of shouts and kisses, they set the fireworks off from the terrace. Rockets shot up to the sky, noisy and whistling, erupting in sprays of color visible to passersby, four stories below. Everyone applauded. Someone put on a disk of be-bop and couples intertwined, trying to follow the frenzied cadence of the instruments.
Then Jim called Mary, scanning the crowd for her red dress, finding her leaning against a glass pillar. She pretended, at first, not to hear him, walking towards the buffet, hoping that he would give up if he saw her in the middle of a conversation, laughing or pouring someone another glass. Her face was turned away, inaccessible, towards the inky night. Jim had shouted even louder – Mary! – and this time, all eyes swiveled in his direction. With a weak voice, she responded with the name of her husband – Jim? – and moved towards him, parting the crowd. He was sitting down in an armchair and made her sit atop his knees. All the irony had left his eyes. It was her turn to smile. Mary, pssst, it’s your turn, the voice inside her head told her. People were waiting.
“Friends,” said Jim, “dear friends, I wanted to share some news with you,” and Mary closed her eyes, waiting for the blow – “Mary, whom you see here, radiant, my charming wife, is getting ready to deliver a marvelous gift to us. The most beautiful gift for a man.” Faces, slightly reddened from the alcohol, began to brighten. “Mary is pregnant. Four months along. Which means, if my calculations are correct” – everyone laughed and raised a glass – “that we will be the happy parents of a little boy, or a little girl – around next spring.”
Their room is plunged into darkness now. Under the covers, Jim’s hand moves closer to her. Usually, Mary manages to hide her feelings. But not tonight. She pushes his hand away – like the sea casting off a fish. There’s a silence, and for the first time, Mary thinks to herself that she would be better off without him. And yet Jim’s not a stranger. He’s her husband… she loves him. Tonight, she had found him radiant. He knew how to put everyone at ease. She had always envied this quality in him – she who by nature was so reserved. But at the same time, and for the first time, Jim’s gaiety had seemed like an empty shell to her: she could bite it and break her teeth. She feels alone, alone in the bed; alone, this morning, when the doctor had consulted with her after having listened to her heart.
“You’re pregnant, Madame. A little girl or a little boy, who should arrive in five months if all goes well.”
“How many?” she said, hesitantly, confused, doing rapid calculations in her head.
“What do you want to know? I’m here to answer your questions.”
“What size? How many centimeters?”
“Oh… eh bien… between eleven and thirteen centimeters. The size, you understand, really varies from one fetus to another. But everything is already formed: the head, the legs, the eyes… however, it is too early to know the sex… you will need to be patient! You and the father, of course… is he here with you?”
No, he had not seen her grow pale at the mention of the fetus.