Then came the time for essential questions. Children are always the ones who ask them. The ones adults leave unanswered, claiming there is no answer. Except sometimes philosophers, scientists, poets. Who are bereft like the very littlest. Who reach about the same conclusions—the same lack of conclusion—as they do.
“We’re where, before?”
“Before being born?”
“In mommy’s belly.”
“I know about that.”
You don’t know who is speaking. It’s a conversation you hear in the night. Since time immemorial. Two voices answer each other. You can’t tell who they belong to. Not even if they are voices from today or voices from the past. Beings who are themselves not yet born or are long since departed. A dialogue between two shadows. I hear them often during my sleepless nights, when my thoughts are tossing and turning in my head. A child talks to her father. Or to her mother. I talk to somebody. To nobody. To myself, no doubt. Or rather, I remain silent. I listen to them, I try to hear what they’re saying to each other. This exercise has preoccupied me for years now. Trying to capture words in the dark. As if to convince myself that the old, timeless conversation has not ended, is continuing somewhere.
Why is there something rather than nothing? Apparently, this is Leibniz’s question. Had he been inspired, he would have left it at that and not sought an answer, instead of declaring, as he did, that since something existed, rather than nothing, someone must have decided on that to begin with.
A child knows more about it.
“And before humans?”
“Before humans, there were animals on the earth. And on the earth, along with the animals, everything else we know: oceans, mountains, forests, rivers, and flowers, and above them the sky, the clouds, farther away the sun, the moon, and all the other stars.”
“And even before?”
“Yes, before the earth, the sun, the moon, and all the other stars in the sky?”
“Before, I don’t know. If there was already something there, there was nobody there to see it.”
“It must have looked like that.”
“But then, where did the sky, the sun, and then the earth and everything else come from?”
“Who put them there?”
“We don’t know. Nobody, I think. Some say it was somebody.”
“They call him God.”
“Who is that?”
“No one knows him. Some think he exists, others not.”
“Me? I don’t think so. I just think that in the beginning there was nothing but the nothing.”
When my daughter was still living, when she was quite small, and the disease kept her awake at night, and she called, I would go up to her on the old redwood staircase that led to her room. And because the pain sometimes kept her from sleeping, in spite of the morphine, I would lie down next to her and tell stories. Children’s tales that spoke of her and of us. I think she expected nothing from me but the regular music of a familiar voice whispering to her in the dark. And when I had exhausted all the stories I knew, we would talk for a long time more before the respite of sleep came or the day broke, its light coming through the only window, which looked into the room. Now I say to myself, even if I know it’s absurd, that she wanted me to tell her all the stories of the world, before it was too late and as if I knew them—everything that was, everything that had been, everything that would be, everything that could have been. From the unimaginable beginning of things. And since I didn’t know them, those stories, I invented them.
I do think it was at that time in my life that I began to speak. More than fifteen years ago now. Because I had never said anything before. Simply to accompany her with the words of a friendly voice. Incapable of doing anything else for her. Since then I have not stopped. Even if it’s in a different way. I do the questions and the answers. I lend her my voice. Or rather she is the one who lends me hers. I dream less and less often. But at night sometimes, there’s actually like a kind of little confabulation going on in my head. I pick up the thread of the interrupted conversation where we had left it. I had promised to tell her the story right to the end. I am keeping my word as best I can. “Keeping my word,” it’s funny how words speak the truth. Words are the only things you can keep in your hands. So they don’t fall to earth along with everything else. Or because they are all you can hang on to for a bit. So as not to fall where everything drags you down, into the void.
“And at the very beginning?”
“Nothing at all. Like when it is completely dark.”
“For a long time?”
“A very long time. Since there was no sun, you couldn’t count the days. As if time hadn’t started.”
“Everywhere. Nowhere. A great vacuum. The universe with nothing inside it.”
“And beside it?”
“Nothing outside either. Like a black cloud no bigger than a grain of dust, containing everything.”
“The stars, the planets, everything on them?”
“Everything from which all those things would be made.”
I never knew if it was the morphine—or perhaps some other substance in all that medication she had to swallow. I never really tried to find out. It was enough that the pain was momentarily calmed. Then it seemed she had fallen into a kind of very peaceful delirium. The language she spoke was like some completely strange poetry. Like all children do at that age. But in her case, something even more unusual, which may have been the result of the drugs’ effect on her brain. Or from the circumstances into which her illness had projected her, to which she responded as best she could. Inventing stories for herself, sometimes aloud, which if you didn’t really pay attention seemed to be without rhyme or reason, but in the heart of which, entering into them along with her, one could see unspooling the silken thread of a speech progressing by feel in the dark, sinuous but coherent. Like a tale she was spinning, in her own way. Casting words behind her like white pebbles shining in the moonlight, to mark the path that she wanted to believe would lead her far away from the ogre and his forest.
Exactly what she said I’ve forgotten. I sometimes think I must have intentionally erased this memory. Certainly because I would have been incapable of bearing it if I had continued to live with it. I wonder, nevertheless, how come I can’t remember. If I were to remember a word, a sentence, it would be as if in my own night my foot had suddenly struck one of those pebbles she had laid down long ago. Then there would be no choice but to follow the road that would lead me back to her.
It was as if she was dreaming while half awake. In the darkest moments. But when things were going a little better, her dream was still with her. That is what she recounted to all who wanted to listen. And they in turn fell under her charm. I no longer know which of us two must have caught from the other the absurd idea—caught the other at the absurd idea—that we had to continue to tell stories at all costs, that as long as the story wasn’t finished, nothing could happen to her, to her mother, or to me. Needing only to entrust ourselves to the care of a senseless narrative, ample enough to contain within it all the memory of the worlds.
“Then this dust of clouds became like a cloud of dust.”
“It was very cold like a snowflake at night in winter?”
“On the contrary, very hot. Like a furnace. Or like the fire burning under a pot that’s boiling. With the cover pushed up by steam coming out everywhere.”
“A casserole with overflowing milk.”
“But minuscule, and with the contents spilling all around…”
“Which tips over and fills the entire sky…”
“So that’s why they say the ‘milky way’…”
“With everything you can see, which is almost nothing. And everything you can’t see which is much greater. Because everything was a prisoner inside the cloud. Even light, which couldn’t get out.”
“And afterwards there were stars?”
“A very long time afterwards. Huge, but like tiny little spots of white in comparison to the black immensity of the void all around.”
“Very far away.”
“So far, that in the time it takes for their light to reach us, some are already dead.”
“They’ve been dead for a long time and we still see their light?”
“Can you picture that?”
“Me neither, that idea is too big to fit in my head.”
The night she died was, I think, the only time in my life when I stayed up all night. Incapable of sleeping. At her bedside. Determined not to lose a single second of the ones that remained, so rare now. The cancer had invaded the other lung. She was intubated. Vaguely emerging at irregular intervals from the drug-induced sleep into which she had been immersed in expectation of her heart stopping. With that plastic tongue that descends into the throat and prevents articulating words. So I was the one, sitting on the edge of the bed for hours, in the intensive care unit, whose turn it was to speak. I did not stop. Not even knowing what she could hear. Or even if she could hear.
Stringing together sad little stories about which I haven’t the slightest notion what they might have signified. Remembering nothing of them. Nothing at all. No doubt trying to explain to her what I understood no more than she, of course. Slipping into her ear something I thought I was inventing and which certainly must have looked a lot like what they used to call a viaticum. The pocket money of words that one confides to the dying with the idiotic idea that they will perhaps serve to pay the price of their passage to the nowhere that people take for another world. Talking for no one. In case there was a chance in a billion that she could hear while the darkness of the night rose toward her bed like a sickening sheet of nothingness that time drew across her body, across her mind.
But what’s the use of telling all this once again?
“They’ve been dead a long time but we still see their light?”
“You said the stars.”
“I thought that being dead was like sleeping in the dark.”
“Yes, that’s it, I think.”
“But without nightmares?”
“Yes, without nightmares.”
“The one who is dead sleeps in the dark. But the others continue to see the light he leaves.”
“As long as light travels through the vacuum and there is someone somewhere who looks at the sky it’s passing through.”
“So it never stops.”
“No, in a sense it never stops.”
Of course I’m inventing all of the above. I would prefer to be able to remember. To say something true. Instead of making conversation with myself.
Today I know nothing either of what she said or what I said to her. It’s like words that float in the vacuum. They belong to nobody. They act like little stars drifting in the sky and whose light still shines, whereas it’s now been years since they died out.
Besides, you don’t know who is talking like this in the night. The only thing you can hear is this murmur in the dark.
Armine Kotin Mortimer, PhD, holds the French Palmes académiques honor and is the translator of three books, The Enchanted Clock by Kristeva and Mysterious Mozart and Casanova the Irresistible by Sollers. Thirteen translated excerpts have appeared in 3:AM Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, The Cossack Review, Asymptote, Reunion: The Dallas Review, Lunch Ticket, and AGNI, among others.
Born in 1962, Philippe Forest is well known for his penetrating analyses of modern literature and for his novels. His first, L’Enfant éternel (1997), narrates in painful detail the death of his four-year-old daughter Pauline, and every novel since, in a similar autofictional vein, returns to this event that has driven this excellent critic of literature and other arts into the compulsion to use the tools of fiction to speak of the unspeakable. Forest is a professor of contemporary literature at the University of Nantes.