The Green Citroën
By Manu Causse
Sample translation by Gretchen Schmid
The little one is looking at the carp. As for the carp, you can’t be quite sure. It doesn’t have any expression, the carp. No pupils to indicate the direction of its gaze. No eyebrows to indicate what it’s feeling.
Although, you see, the little one doesn’t have any eyebrows either. He pulls them out. Slowly. Methodically. Above his eyes, there’s only an irritated red mark. It looks bare. Sad. Just a faint mark—it makes you think that it must be painful for him to pluck out his eyebrows like that, hair by hair, as they grow in. And it also requires patience. Unless it’s a tic. Surely, it’s a tic. But it’s really too bad, at his age. A little worrying, to tell the truth. When you look at him, there are these two red patches above his eyes, like angry shadows. Shadows screaming silently.
The little one doesn’t scream. He doesn’t say a single word. The park is in uproar. All the other children are screaming, squawking, yelling, squabbling, babbling. They’re talking. Or at least they’re moving, jerkily and illogically—as children move—which gives the impression that even their movements are loud.
The little one is almost totally immobile. He is standing in front of the concrete pond. He isn’t watching the spray of the fountain, with its concentric circles on the surface where the sky seems to be rippling. He isn’t watching the red ball floating in the water, nor the two boys who are watching the ball without being able to do anything about it, nor the adult who would like to do something but can only manage to repeat I told you to pay attention while turning his head from right to left, hoping to find, who knows?—a branch that’s long enough, or a dog who’s well enough trained and capable to jump in the fountain—Go fetch. Unless the adult is just checking that no one is looking at him or making fun of him.
The little one isn’t paying attention to all that. He’s looking into the water. He’s looking at the carp.
The carp is moving around, of course. It’s patrolling the little pond with the other carps, throwing off glints of white and pink and red, wriggling between the green of the water and the light at the surface. It’s undulating. It’s rippling.
The carp is very old. Very old in carp years, anyway. As far as the carp can remember, it’s the oldest in the pond. Perhaps it was even there before the pond itself. From the carp’s point of view, these are things that remain difficult to explain.
Anyway, the carp is turning about in a strange way. Unpredictable. Influenced, who knows, by the light, by the noise of the children running around. By the wind.
But there is no wind at the moment.
The carp is turning, and from time to time it approaches the surface. It puts its eye right up to it. This lasts for a few seconds, and then the carp turns around lazily and dives back into the water.
This only lasts a few seconds, a few seconds at the surface alternated with long moments of patrolling the pond in complicated circles around the fountain, in between intermittent jets of water. But perhaps if you measured precisely, perhaps if you calculated exactly, you might perceive that, statistically, the carp was surfacing more frequently close to the little one. Oh, not directly across from him, of course. And not in a very noticeable way. But quite simply, it is possible that the number of times when the carp and the little one looked at each other was a little higher than might usually be expected.
Or perhaps not.
There isn’t any wind. Not yet. Perhaps the wind will pick up later on. Anyway, the color of the sky will change. The children’s shouts will echo elsewhere in the air and bounce off the walls of the park; their games will bring them in different directions. The moms will call louder, or else their conversations will become less clear. Even the carps, underneath the rippling water, will change their movements. A carp is perceptive.
The little one will not move.
The little one will stay standing in front of the pond, as stiff as a poker. Almost as immobile.
Perhaps he is still waiting for the carp to pass him again. For it to come back up to the surface. For them to exchange glances.
Perhaps. Perhaps not. You can’t know.
No matter what, the sun will set at some point, unless the clouds cover it first. It will become chillier. It will be almost night time. At that point, someone will need to come attend to him. Someone will need to approach him—from the side, without touching him or surprising him, like with a stubborn horse. Someone will need to tell him that it’s time to leave.
The little one will not move.
The little one will not move—he won’t turn his head. His eyebrows, or rather the absence of his eyebrows, won’t raise, as though you woke him from a daydream. His mouth will open maybe once or twice. His neck won’t stop nodding from front to back, very lightly.
You’ll repeat to him, It’s time to leave.
It’s a little like talking to a carp. Or trying to catch one with your bare hands from the side of the pool. You suppose, or you can suppose, that the carp is aware of your presence. When you plunge your hand into the water, it moves lazily away—not far, not really, because your hand doesn’t frighten it anyway; your arm, which looks warped from the diffraction of the light, doesn’t bother it, or barely. You could say that the carp has better things to do than to note your presence, or to be afraid of you.
It’s the same thing for the little one. You might say that he doesn’t care at all. And it’s irritating.
It’s even more irritating that the other parents are now noticing them, the immobile little one and the adult who is talking to him, extending his hand towards him as though to touch him but not actually touching him. The other adults, even the least observant ones, even those who hadn’t seen the little one until now, the little one who is planted in front of the fountain and hasn’t moved all afternoon—now, they see that something is wrong. They look at their own kids, sometimes calling for them to come closer, in part to prove to themselves that they’ll obey, and in part because of an unpleasant feeling—a sort of light and diffuse fear that they won’t waste time in analyzing. They call their son or their daughter, and their daughter or their son joins them next to a bench. Or else they catch them mid-flight by the sleeve of their sweater as they pass, or they pull them into their arms. And even if certain kids grumble and protest, even if others struggle to be left alone—to be released to go run around with the others—there is that moment when the parents embrace their kid, feeling that wriggling, rubbery touch. Familiar. And it reassures them.
Near the pond, the adult is still leaning forward—off-balance, a little ridiculous—and the little one isn’t looking at him.
Of course, there are parents who know and understand the situation. Like the fathers who have seen the little one tense up and scream when a ball lands suddenly and violently in the pond and splashes him, or when another child brushes past him, or when the adult who is with him touches him—or sometimes without any apparent reason, just like the carp when it twists around and heads back away brusquely.
There are also the mothers who approached the adult one recent Wednesday, situating themselves near him, on the same bench, and said, He’s handsome, he’s your little one?
At first, the adult would answer them. He responded, He’s my son, yes. I am his father. He didn’t say anything further. Perhaps he was hoping that they would find him impolite, or boorish, and that the conversation would stop there.
Sometimes, however, the woman on the bench continued, curious, How wise he is, I wish that mine… or else If only mine…
At first, the father would get up. He would change benches. They thought he was crazy. And so what? He preferred that. And then, whether because the number of benches wasn’t infinite, or whether because he got used to it—like benches that begin to wear down when you sit on them enough times—he learned to respond:
“He’s wise, yes. He is kind.”
He knows that this doesn’t mean anything. A fish isn’t wise. It isn’t kind. We’d like to think that dolphins are—as opposed to sharks, who are the mean ones. We like to give human behaviors to dogs, to horses. To cats, even.
They say that cats have complex personalities. That they’re intelligent. But all of that, the father thinks, his hand stretched out next to the pond, all of that is silly. Animals don’t care about kindness, about all those stupidly human notions. They’re sometimes trained, sometimes wild. It depends on their dietary regime. On their aggressiveness. On their master…
No. It’s ridiculous to be thinking like this. The little one isn’t an animal.
Even the carps react more.
The father sits up straight. He lets out a long sigh. He checks his cell phone. It’s not time to leave yet.
You want to play with my phone? he asks.
This takes a lot of effort on his part. More than a compromise: a sacrifice. His last resort, usually. The little one sometimes gets excited about a game or an app (well, he doesn’t exactly get excited— he looks at it without saying anything, just as he’s looking right now at the pond into which the carp has recently disappeared). Sometimes, he just looks at the screen, or he starts the timer, as though watching the seconds pass is meaningful to him. In any case, the father is worried. The cell phone—technologically advanced and expensive—will be given back to him, at best, smeared with mucus and grease. He has to wonder how the little one can possibly have greasy fingers, given that his hands are almost always in his pockets.
Sometimes, too (not often, but it’s happened—it’s happened twice, which is two times too many) the little one gets worked up, for some reason that no one can guess. He throws the phone. The first time, the phone had landed in the grass, and there wasn’t any damage. The father protested, but what’s the point of protesting, with the little one?
The second time, however, the phone had smashed against the concrete of the fountain. And ever since that time, the father has had a new phone, cutting-edge and technologically advanced. Ever since, he only offers the phone to the little one as a very last resort. It’s his final weapon of negotiation—and today, he pulled it out way too soon.
8. (p. 93-95)
“You really have to understand that for the little one, time doesn’t mean anything. For us it does, of course, it’s like a river: there’s a before and an after, it flows from the source. The water leaves from there and it arrives there. There’s no way for it to turn back around again, no way to escape from it. The little one escapes from it. Or perhaps the opposite is true, and it’s time that escapes from him—in a sense, it’s the same thing.”
The father is quiet for a minute, searching for the right words.
“Our brains, you see, our own brains… they perceive one image, then another, and they construct a link between the two. Before, after, because, however… voila, that’s what time is, just chains arbitrarily woven between things. Except that in order to understand that, the brain has to think about itself, from the outside. It’s a little complicated, all the same. But the little one’s brain, which doesn’t know that it exists, manages it without a problem. You could envy him, sort of. If it wasn’t also scary.”
At the other end of the line, the friend sighs.
“Listen, Éric, I know that you wanted to take a break, to step away from things a little, but… are you sure that you’re okay?”
“Of course I’m okay. I finally have time for myself. I think I might start painting again, you know. Anyway, I’ve started something, a sort of project.”
“You want to talk to me about it?”
“No, I’ll show you once I’ve made some progress. When are you coming to see me?”
“I don’t know. I’ve got a fair amount of work right now… You wouldn’t want to come see me?”
“I would. Maybe. A little later.”
“You know what?” the father continues. “I’ve started to drive again.”
“I thought you hated it?”
“I’m working on it. As long as I have a car…”
“You bought a car?”
“No, not really, it’s more like… anyway, it’s nothing important, I’ll explain more when we see each other. Tell me, would it be too much of a bother for you to stop by my apartment to water the plants?”
“If you want. So, have you decided to put it up for sale?”
“I don’t know. I’m still thinking about it.”
“You’ve been thinking about it for a while.”
“Time doesn’t exist, I’m telling you.”
“Okay. Great. And the little one, have you gone to see him recently?”
“No. I’m thinking about that, too.”
A silence, longer this time.
“Are you sure that everything’s all right?”
The little one is sitting underneath the trees, near the fence. The trees and the fence are both much taller than he is. The sky is above them—high above them, the little one thinks. Except that it’s not. It’s the brain that measures the Earth’s gravity in order to arbitrarily decide what’s high and what’s low. In space, there’s neither one nor the other. So really, you could imagine the little one hanging by his feet, head at the bottom, with millions of black holes waiting for him to fall. Only gravity holds him back from falling, keeps him glued to the damp ground of the park by his dirty sneakers.
“You don’t want to go back? It’s raining, you know.”
The little one could answer that it’s sunny, too, somewhere else in the park, beyond the clouds, before or after. The little one couldn’t care less about the time or the weather. They don’t exist for him.
However, they do exist for the father, who is growing enormously bored. What’s more, he’s soaking wet and cold.
Now, if time doesn’t exist, not much of anything exists. So perhaps the doctor isn’t entirely wrong: it doesn’t really matter where the little one is, on one side of the gate or the other, in this park or that park, surrounded by playful children or by worryingly silent mentally ill ones, staring fixedly at a carp in a pond or at a car in a parking lot. It doesn’t matter.
It makes no difference.
It makes no difference that the little one, from behind the gate, despite the cold and the big gray trees dripping water on their heads, is staring at the headlights of the green 2CV exactly like he had stared at the carp in the pond. As he has been doing for a month, ever since the father has been coming to the Institute in that car.
And that the father’s heart is beginning to beat a little too fast, just like it does every time that his imagination carries him a little too far away.