The Dawn of a New Day
By Myriam Chirousse
Translated by Bonnie Zaleski
April 30th, 1994, a man armed with a rifle entered Tellier’s Jewelers. I remember it like it was this morning. The trees in bloom perfumed Clemenceau Avenue and the sidewalks glistened under the feet of passersby, most of them in raincoats or holding umbrellas, because it had rained a little earlier in the morning. It was a Saturday. Some raindrops were sparkling on the bus stop roof and black pigeons were hunting down soggy crumbs outside a bakery. Here and there, dreading the rain, vendors selling lily of the valley, tucked under awnings, were calling out to people, the promise of happiness in their hands.
The man was wearing neither a balaclava nor a mask. His greasy hair, made of rat tails, fell up on his face like a barbarian’s headdress. He entered the jewelry store and took out a gun. Witnesses later said that he looked like a crazy man, his left eyelid twitching, the corners of his mouth trembling and his hands resembling claws.
It was 11:14, the time in the police report that was established from the credit card receipt which the saleslady tore from the machine.
Seven people were in the jewelry store. M. Jacques Tellier was opening a cabinet in order to present a pearl necklace to a regular client. He was a short man with eyebrows white as snow that sat, like two pointed hats, on top of a pair of eyes as piercing as electric drills. His testimony would cause a big impact at Benjamin Lucas’ trial. “Let’s stay calm,” he said. He was addressing the burglar as well as his clients and his personnel, who were also family members: Catherine Tellier, the saleslady behind the cash register, was his oldest daughter. As for Adrien Lochard, the salesman standing before the display near the door, he had married one of M. Tellier’s nieces four years before.
Mme Langlois, the client who’d come to admire necklaces with a friend, let out a cry that died in her throat at the same time as she raised a hand to her heart. The other two clients present at that moment were Armand Donetti and Aymeric Guillemin. The former, before the display in the entryway, was looking at watches. The latter was 18 years old. He’d come to pick up a ring his mother had left to get resized. When Benjamin Lucas came through the doors of the jewelry store, Aymeric was holding out his hand for the credit card that Catherine Tellier was returning to him.
These doors, I had gone through them a minute earlier, in the other direction, to get back into my car that was double parked. At 11:14, I was looking for a tube of lipstick in my bag.
What happened in the course of that minute would be exposed the next day in the Bordeaux papers, and then reexamined in detail three months later during Benjamin Lucas’ trial. As soon as the doors to the jewelry store had closed, the man brandished his gun while yelling out insults at the others who didn’t immediately understand because they were so startled. Everyone raised their hands, even though he hadn’t given the order. M. Tellier, who had been robbed before, urged everyone to stay calm. The man with rat tails was sweating. Two lead marbles shone from the depths of his eyes. Adrien Lochard, who saw him up close from the first display, would later tell the jury at the criminal trial court that he must have been under the influence of drugs. Mme Langlois and her friend would describe him as a frightening monster. He yelled: “Bastard, you’re gonna pay for this.” He pointed his gun and shot.
Cendrine was still sleeping when the bullet hit her.
Her lips opened wide as if to liberate a cry imprisoned within her but only let out a stifled groan-- it almost sounded as if it came from a deep abyss, an air bubble mangled by the ocean currents. Eyes closed, she curled up. Her rasping breath died in her throat, there wasn’t enough air to be exhaled. Her mouth closed again.
Her lungs as empty as when she was just born, she remained holding her breath in this strange fraction of time like when one comes to without knowing who one is.
After maybe a minute, she started breathing again.
Her nose smelled the scent of old fabric, wilted lavender, dusty woodwork. Her fingers awoke to the touch of rough sheets. She felt apprehensive as if she were in a strange place, faced with a lurking peril. The withered smell and the roughness brought her back to a forgotten dormitory, one from summer camp-- a memory she dove into as if it were a frozen river, to come right back out. She didn’t know where she was, her memory struggling to retrace the last feet of her past, but she knew she was no longer there, in the labyrinthine rooms of her childhood.
Diffused within her, the faraway echo of the bullet still ricocheted, as a second heartbeat that was dissipating.
It was only a dream, the gun, the blood… a dream more real than the world expelled by her closed eyelids, as if they were sewn shut lash by lash. A dream caused by a madman she had passed on a sidewalk long ago. A nightmare that came back so often to take hold of her that she recognized it behind her closed eyes-- like one recognizes the caresses that come from a double life, the sweatiness of a clandestine bedroom, the scent of a lover. A dream, always the same: the man with rat tails looming, aiming, shooting; and she flew to pieces.
The silence finally came back, dotted with incongruous noises-- impatient fingernails tapping on a table, a dislocating shoulder, the stubborn chirping of a telephone, hoarse barking echoing in the emptiness, and this raucous rustling occupying all of the space, similar to the murmur of an after-thought.
Cendrine opened her eyes.
In the flickering light of day, she saw a jumble of sheets and blankets forming hills that a wrathful giant would have kicked down. She swallowed. Her saliva had a taste of fatigue, of the pavement of a highway rest area, of interminable miles.
She tossed in her bed, which creaked. On her back, she saw a cloud in the shape of a fish swimming in the aquarium of a window in the roof. Morning light dripped through it, golden with the remains of summer. The ray of light faded, the room darkened. Around the skylight, Cendrine discovered the gloomy beams and the wainscoting of an attic ceiling, and then the bulging silhouette of a sort of soup tureen placed on the top of a wardrobe, over there, in the back.
A shot rang out. Cendrine jerked up into a sitting position.
Another shot immediately broke out and ricocheted in a space that the young, alert woman felt was infinite. It wasn’t in her head-- no, it wasn’t only that old nightmare. This morning, the gun shots had a tangible, exterior cause; they existed outside of the isolated chamber of her skull.
Sitting on the unmade bed, Cendrine then knew where she was and knew that there were mountains, there behind the walls. In these mountains were guns and the hands of hunters that grasped those rifles, fingers that pulled the trigger, bullets bursting from under the foliage, maybe a hunting trip, men in khaki, rifles snug in their mitts, dogs yapping, with slobbery muzzles, tongues hanging out. The tracked, hunted animal-- wild boar, buck or doe-- already hurt and fleeing with that so familiar bullet in their flank, unwinding the red thread of their life onto the dry grass, exhaling the stench of imminent death that plagues the undergrowth and plunges it into mourning.
“Don’t worry if you hear gunshots tomorrow morning,” the inn-keeper had told her when giving her the key to the cottage the evening before. “It’s the first day of hunting season. Welcome to Barjouls!”
Ears perked, heart on the look-out, Cendrine listened to the projectile and its target flee together into the forest as one, forever united.
She’d arrived at 11:00 pm, her mind foggy and her body sore from the car trip. Taking advantage of the night to not be seen, she’d unloaded all of her things, taking several trips of coming-and-going between the parking lot and the cottage, located at the bottom of a sloping lane that she, of course, had to climb after each trip. Going up the stairs finally wore her out. She left it all lying there before collapsing. She didn’t remember feeling anything before falling asleep.
She got up and bashed her head against a beam. The ceiling of this attic room was really low-- perhaps she knocked herself out the evening before-- which would explain why she remembered nothing. Numb, she cautiously stepped onto the spiral staircase with chipped floor tiles and sunken steps.
The cottage was a narrow, crooked, village house with four floors. From the attic room where she’d slept, Cendrine went down into a larger room, occupied by a large wooden bed, whose headboard, made of bars, resembled a cage. A padded quilt with a depressing pattern of flowers losing their petals, was spread on top. The walls were a drab white. Cendrine went toward the attached bathroom, splashed water on her face and took the time to use the toilet. The toilet flush began gurgling as she went down to the lower level.
This level sheltered a sitting room with a fireplace, a sofa, a table, and six chairs. French doors opened onto a small balcony. Just under the bathroom, where the toilet was still murmuring, was a corner kitchen where the most noticeable element was an authentic woodstove, black and stocky, all in cast iron, probably as old as the house itself and with a long nightmarish hook for removing or adding iron rings from its ancient stovetop. Fortunately, there were also an electric stove, a washing machine, a coffee maker, a toaster and a kettle. The deep, square sink was made of earthenware. The blue and white tiles formed a rather pretty mosaic.
Going down again, Cendrine found herself before the entryway. Next to a coat rack where a walking stick hung, there opened a dark room. Cendrine flicked the switch. A light bulb hanging from the ceiling revealed shelves garnished with various utensils, a refrigerator, a freezer, and in the back, nothing at all: an empty space where the ground was flecked with twigs, pieces of bark, dry leaves, as well as a dozen logs in a corner.
Cendrine turned off the basement light and went back up to the bathroom. She pushed down the lever of the flushing toilet which was stuck, undressed and stepped into the shower where she struggled with the showerhead covered in limestone to get a stream of water and wash herself. With cold water.
Having forgotten to take out a towel, she dried herself with her dirty t-shirt, dug for some pieces of clothing in her bag and dressed without worrying about being elegant. She didn’t comb her hair either, just fluffed it. When she saw her reflection in the mirror, she stopped, dejected.
A sullen mouth, sunken cheeks, this was what she saw. A horrible complexion, old and grey. She was no older than 35 though and didn’t have a single white hair, but it was as if each time she hoped to see her adolescent face again and was always disappointing herself. This face was a mother’s or an older sister’s face, not hers.
Turning away, she went down to the kitchen, dug up some instant coffee in a cabinet, drank one cup of it and put on her shoes to go walk around the village.