Translation of “Petit matin d’avril” From Espèces en voie de disparition (Montréal, Québec: Boréal, 2007)
She was one of those people who bears a little magical lamp,
but who will never be aware of the light it casts.
The garden had barely emerged from winter. At the foot of the cherry tree, whose white buds flecked with red were already on display, three delicate stalks of honeysuckle swayed in the breeze. She knelt, reached out, and cautiously stroked the soft stems. They left a pale blood in her hand, which she licked gingerly. “It tastes like the beginning of the world,” she thought. She closed her eyes.
“André-é-e, where are you?”
How he mangled her name, after all these years, his voice quivering strangely on the final, feminine “e”! She opened her eyes but didn’t turn around. “He’ll come and look for me. He’ll be forced to step outside in this spring weather and then, maybe…” She didn’t finish her thought, wary of getting her hopes too high. Patience, she knew, was the secret to all wonderful things, since only with patience can one retain an innocent hopefulness. “Wait,” she said to herself. “Wait a bit longer before speaking, before turning around, before putting a name to the young blue star of the grape hyacinth, the butterfly’s graceful pirouette, the clouds spun like fairy hair along the pink horizon.”
“I’m going in to make coffee.”
Which meant: “I saw you, kneeling in the chilly dawn, but I won’t be joining you; you will come find me instead, and we will sit across from each other at our table, and I will talk and you will listen.”
She smiled and closed her eyes again. “We’ll drink our coffee in the garden this time, like it or not. Today, André-é-e gets to have things her way!”
Two turtledoves, whistling and cooing, swooped down onto the cherry tree. She stood up without the help of her cane, which she left lying neatly on the grass, a magic wand surrendered to the ants.
Above the trees, the morning sky was still a fresh indigo blue. “Azure,” she murmured, squinting, pleased with the transparent, pure sound of the word. She moved forward in the short grass, reached the edge of the pond, bent down.
She winced as pain tore through her lower back like a blade. Looking around, she noticed three frogs crouched, motionless, in the silt along the shore. Their legs twitched. The new light and warmth were electrifying their nerves. “Everything begins and ends with a spasm. We are born joltfully and we die joltfully.” She laughed at the invented word, her hand covering her mouth, then felt a sudden sadness. It was like the abrupt descent of darkness over the sunflowers in August, instantly putting out their glow, exposing their fading suns as dry discs riddled with holes. “He’ll be thinking about death, of course. He thinks about it a lot—too much.” She turned to gaze at the house through the branches. This was how she liked to look at it, sectioned off by the willow’s complicated boughs, no longer large and anchored solidly in earth and grass, as it had appeared moments earlier, but carved into surprising parcels: a shutter hanging from the tree, a flying skylight, a veranda railing suspended amid the lilacs, an elegant ladder stretched horizontally between the birch trees, the small blue lake of a window—the one in her office—glistening behind the weeping branches.
She took a few steps along the trail leading to the shed, then stopped, dizzy. “My cane,” she muttered. Then everything was blurred, muffled. All she could make out was a bit of grass brushing against her arms and cheeks, then something tapping her lightly on the head. She had fallen. “He didn’t see me,” she said to herself, “so he’s not in his office yet. Or else he’s bent over his papers and when he looks up he’ll see me, and then…” She smiled. The last time she had fallen he had been next to her, but with his back turned, so he had continued talking for a long time—telling her, as it happened, how worried he was about her frequent falls—before he turned abruptly and saw her sprawled out on the carpet at the foot of the stairs, shaking with laughter. He grumbled as he helped her up, getting increasingly angry, while she just laughed—laughed so hard it left her weak. Furious, he had left her sitting on the bottom stair, and for a long time she could hear him in his office muttering to himself: “You’ll be the death of me! You’ll end up being the death of me!” But she couldn’t suppress her laughter.
She closed her eyes, but when she pictured his scowling face, she stopped smiling and realized that she would fall asleep unless she did something, whether it was to crawl through the grass to the plum tree and call out for him, or simply to stroke the cat that was passing by. Or, perhaps, to catch hold of the hand being held out by death and let herself be taken—be done, once and for all, with her dizzy spells, her fits of laughter, her garden, this difficult love.
When she opened her eyes again, he was bending over her, wearing his old safari helmet and carrying a bowl of latte. The helmet was a souvenir from Africa, a place he had never set foot in but had long dreamed of visiting, a place he thought would cleanse him. She stared at him for a long time, astonished to see that he was smiling. A few wisps of his silver-grey hair hung down over his eyes. She opened her mouth but had no time to voice her amazement.
“You fell again, I know.”
He knelt down, leaned toward her so she could grasp his shoulder, then heaved her to her feet. Once they were standing, he didn’t let go of her like he usually did. Instead, he let his hand slide gently onto her hip.
“I shouldn’t have.”
“Shouldn’t have what?”
“Lifted you up. I should have stretched out on top of you. It would have been like in the old days, remember? In the grass, surrounded by the spiders and the ants and the dew.”
“What do you…”
He held her firmly. She leaned on his arm. The cat leaped ahead of them on the trail. She said to herself, “This is not him; this is his ghost, a young man who I remember perfectly and who is leading me to some unknown place.”
“You know what I just read?”
“Just now, while the coffee was brewing.”
“How would I know, Aimé?”
“You’re always able to guess.”
“Well, this time I give up.”
He turned toward her with his funny half-smile, a mischievous, childish, irritating expression on his face. She thought, “You are a mystery, and you know it, too. When it comes to guessing the reason behind your sudden, rare good moods, I’ve always given up.” But she didn’t risk speaking these words aloud, since they might break the spell or the fit of madness, whichever it was.
“I was reading Maupassant, that dear old Maupassant.”
“Didn’t he die young, your Maupassant?”
He laughed. “You’re right, he didn’t even make it to fifty.” He stopped.
“Here we are,” she thought. “Death, via Maupassant. I was crazy to think he might stray from his topic of choice! To think that it was I who brought it up first.”
“‘Human thought is unchanging.’”
“That’s the sentence from Maupassant that moved me when I read it and that I’m still moved by, even now, as I walk with you.”
He seemed slightly drunk, as though he had gulped down a large glass of white whiskey instead of a coffee.
“I don’t know why, but those words… They normally would have filled me with fear, but instead they’ve set me free.”
“Set you free? From what?”
“It’s hard to describe.”
“I don’t believe you!”
“You don’t believe me?”
“No. I’m the one who has trouble expressing things. Not you.”
“That’s what you think. But…”
He was leading her along at such an energetic pace. She had to take eight tiny steps for each of his strides, a sharp pain tearing at her hip.
“The thing is, I’m not changing, and I’m alone. Wait, don’t say anything! I know, Can you imagine? I know—”
“What on earth are you talking about?”
“—that I’m old and alone and weighed down by my thoughts.”
She let out a laugh, which she quickly smothered. He patted her back mechanically, as though he thought she was getting hoarse. Far ahead of them, the blond cat leaped in and out of sight, pouncing on patches of light. Even immersed in the sparse shadow of the willow, the cat seemed illuminated, a small, reddish ball prowling through the grass.
“Depression. I’m suffering from depression, just like Maupassant.”
“Not so fast, Aimé, my hip hurts.”
“Yes, a bit.”
“Do you want to stop? Over there, under the pine tree?”
“Let’s slow down, then.”
“Yes, let’s slow down.”
He let her catch her breath for a moment, and then began walking again, still too quickly. “Depressive but agile!” she thought, filled with sudden regret at having left her cane at the foot of the cherry tree earlier. Surely he knew that he would wear her out, and that when they reached the raspberry bushes, he would have to get the wheelbarrow—it had happened once before, the previous autumn—and cart her back to the house like a large bundle of deadwood.
“No, let me finish, it’s doing me good!”
“Slower, I know! See, look, I’m going more slowly now. There, that’s better, isn’t it? So, what was I saying? Oh yes, this depression of mine…”
“Well, I’m done with it.”
“Done with it?”
“Yes, ever since this morning, since just now, when I was reading Maupassant and looked up suddenly to see you falling down in the grass, as though in slow motion.”
“I didn’t fall! I just lay down for a little while.”
“Oh, hush. You fell. Again. And just as I was reading those words: ‘Human thought is unchanging.’ You have no idea…”
“Why, Aimé, are you crying?”
“Yes, you’re right, I suppose I am. But it’s not because of that. I mean, it’s not just emotion. It’s… a kind of astonishment. I can’t think of any other way to describe it.”
She couldn’t believe it. Only once had she seen him cry—or, rather, sob, his face buried in his hands. It was forty-three years earlier, when he had received the letter—now all yellowed, tacked to a wall in his office—informing him that his first novel would be published. Loud gulps of unexpected happiness which, he told her, “hurt as much as heart failure.”
“I said to myself—or rather, an unfamiliar voice inside me murmured, ‘I’m seventy-eight years old and I think of nothing but my death, even though my health is actually quite good. Meanwhile, she’s eighty-two and falls more and more often—in the grass, on the stairs. From one day, one moment to the next, she could…’” He stopped, his eyes filled with tears.
“What I mean is –”
“Die, pass away, disappear, cease to exist, run out of steam, casser ma pipe, as the saying goes!”
“Oh, come on now, break your pipe? André-é-e…”
“Why not? Maybe I smoke a pipe on the sly, in the shed, while you spin out sentences.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I’m being serious!”
But now she was laughing, shaking with laughter; she could no longer hold herself back. She pictured herself at the back of the shed, filling an old corncob pipe, taking a big puff of yellow, acrid smoke that made her choke, then abruptly flinging the pipe onto the bench, where it broke into a thousand pieces. She laughed so hard that her ribs ached.
“Stop! André-é-e, stop, for God’s sake!”
She stopped, with difficulty. She collapsed onto him, out of breath, and he caught her as easily as one would catch a sheet falling from the clothes line where it was drying in the wind.
“If you say so!”
They took a few steps, he with his back straight and shaking his head, she bent in two, still nodding and hiccupping with laughter. The mocking bird complained in the leaves overhead. They stopped at the edge of the woods. The cat emerged from the undergrowth, a mole in its mouth, its ferocious, green gaze now sunny and calm.
“Now there’s a creature that died well. That’s how I’d like to die.”
“How cruel. Why say such a thing?”
“Cruel? Not at all! I’d like for my life to be taken from me in a single bite. I would be happy to be breakfast for a murderous beast with gentle eyes.”
“Well, that’s lovely, I have to admit.”
“What you just said: ‘a murderous beast with gentle eyes.’”
“You think so?”
“No buts! Let go in. I’m hungry!”
Swiftly stretching out her arm, she grabbed hold of a dead branch from an oak tree, ripped it from the tree trunk, and, using it as a cane, trotted quickly down the path, the cat at her heels. Aimé remained motionless in the tall grass like a scarecrow that would frighten no one, smiling and murmuring to his shadow, “A murderous beast with gentle eyes…”
~ ~ ~
After breakfast, while she weeded Black-eyed Susans from the path behind the house, Aimé crept up to the bedroom, which was bathed in morning sunlight. He undressed and stretched out on the bed, naked, without pulling back the sheets. He closed his eyes and listened to his heart pounding, amazed at the new, unexpected strength of his desire. Moments later, he heard the cane strike the staircase railing.