Translated from the French by Fiona Sze-Lorrain and Christina CookMy mother’s embraces were rare, as were her words of kindness and affection. But I collected those that she gave me over the course of my life and made a sort of nosegay that I take out sometimes, on November nights when the wind rattles the shutters. I examine these flowers, one by one, incredulous. Feeling a candle light within me, I fall asleep, my anxiety assuaged.
We’re not born to be happy. My countrymen knew this from experience. Their lives, even in the mildest cases, were hard. And so my mother, “since it had to be done,” married my father—she nineteen years old, he forty—without loathing or love. A beautiful brown-haired Occitane, robust looking despite her fragile health. Of her husband, dead shortly after my birth, I have not a single memory. The color-touched photo, framed behind glass as was proper, showed me a man not handsome, but with an honest aspect, as the country folk saw: a hard worker well versed in the ways of raising goats and sheep to be as content on the karst as they were in the nourishing grass.
My mother often told me, “All our troubles came because you were too young.” Indeed, I came into the world too soon, at seven months. “This poor little thing—you are going to lose her,” the midwife said. My mother fashioned a sack from lambswool and placed me in the cradle, warm under the covers. Into my mouth that did not even know how to cry, she poured a blend of sheep’s milk, water, and honey.
The first misfortune: I lived. Not only did I live, but I quickly gained weight and strength.
In the final year of his life, my haggard father sought a shepherd to help him. Good shepherds, skilled in animal husbandry, were almost impossible to find by then. But finally a certain Boivin appeared, a young man of eighteen, handsome, tall, able in everything, and above all, an expert in raising livestock. To top it all off, he was the picture of politeness.
All seemed, then, to happen for the best. However, the ornery messieurs from our police station claimed that Boivin wasn’t his real name, that he came from God knows where and didn’t speak like a Christian—that is to say, Occitane.
The man who went by “Boivin” demanded high wages, room, and board—in addition to limitless liters of wine and sacks of flour (in a region where neither vines nor wheat grew). But what can you do? Father had to take it or leave it. Boivin was hired under a signed contract and lodged in a lean-to near the hay barn with his belongings: two shirts and four pairs of hole-riddled socks. He’d sit outside with the herds and eat food wrapped in a handkerchief. At night, he’d sometimes eat at the bosses’ table.
When my father died, I was still too young to find it strange that Boivin had the nerve to move out of his bedbug-infested lean-to and into our house, and that he even dared to take my father’s place in the marital bed. Despite knowing what the neighbors said—three kilometers away from our property—I understood nothing of it, all the more because they spoke in proverbs and cloaked words. I liked Boivin and had fun with him. What pleased me even more was the fact that he settled me into a room under the sloped roof—a room all my own that I shared only with the cat. Boivin, who could do everything, painted it all white. The cat would prick up its ears when the swallows whistled, coming and going to feed their ever-hungry hatchlings, who were becoming my playmates. I never knew any other children. My only companions were the big red cat and the donkey—named, God knows why, Eusèbe.
When I reached school age, I was too petite to make my way to the communal school down in the valley. The early morning walk down the steep slope, made more difficult in the winter snow, was a problem for many children of poor farmers. Those who could afford it boarded their children in the homes of villagers who rented out rooms. The children lived two or three to a room, malnourished, dirty, and poorly cared for.
Most of the countryfolk were Protestants; the wealthiest ones made their more gifted children convert to Catholicism so these elect few could be admitted to the Black Virgin boarding school, run by religious teachers. Even so, if these dispersed Protestant communities were in decline, it wasn’t the priests’ fault, but rather the result of their isolation and inhospitable climate.
My mother said I was still too young to spend such money on. The Black Virgin was expensive: instruction was free, but the food and lodging, even calculated at the fairest price, added up to a staggering sum.
In the meantime, I fell ill with the most widespread sickness in the country at the time: tuberculosis. I suffered like a martyr from high fevers and swollen glands, and for two months I was bedbound. The midwife, who also served as the doctor, treated me with warm poultices soaked in various plant decoctions. My mother never took care of me so much as she did then: as far as I was concerned, I could have stayed sick all year long.
But in three short months, I recovered. At that time, “mandatory school” was an empty expression in our region, and my mother ended up keeping me home.
It was Boivin who “showed” me how to read and write, in his free time. I must admit, he was very creative about it.
My mother would have no doubt liked me to think of her shepherd as my stepfather, but I never would have dreamed of it. I liked him well enough at first—because he made us laugh, and was tender toward my mother—but liked him less and less, because before long he was acting like a father. While I enjoyed his stories, I began to see his insincerity without really understanding it. Did he want to marry my mother? I couldn’t see why he wouldn’t. If they married, I’d leave, I thought. Where and how, that was another story; I preferred not to think about that.
I soon began to sense that my mother had fallen in love with him. She didn’t even try to hide it from me. Was she indecent? Yes—preferring a man who wasn’t her husband over her only daughter. I was consumed with jealousy.
In the meantime, Boivin displayed a whole range of talents. He enchanted us with songs from foreign lands while playing the accordian my mother bought him. He amazed us with card tricks. But above all, how he could tell a story! I was astounded by the adventures he’d had all over the world. In our world, we were ignorant of nearly everything—and yet at times we asked ourselves, despite our ignorance, if certain things he said were possible. If in a country named Stralie he had two thousand sheep, if in a town called Néjork he owned thoroughbred racehorses and a big car, how was it that he ended up on our karst, destitute, forced to seek work as a shepherd? And then, this story of being chased by crocodiles in China, the most remote of all places, and killing them by kicking each one in a snout lined with three rows of poisonous teeth . . . ?
Whatever adventures he once enjoyed, Boivin knew how to herd flocks as well as any troop commander. Whenever he whistled into his wicker pipe, or into a blade of grass between his thumbs, the whole flock stopped in their tracks. He whistled once more, and the goats and sheep assembled themselves in a row behind their bell-bearing drover, then all headed in the direction he indicated to the dogs with a throw of a stone. “Is this what one learns in villages such as Ars? Arch? Arentine!”
Twice a month, my mother rode Eusèbe down to the village for provisions. Upon her return one night, she came into the house without greeting Boivin and shut herself in her room, latching the door.
For the first time in my life, I heard her sob. I knocked on the door, I called out to her—no response.
Much later on, I learned that our lawyer—an old, circumspect man—had that day advised her against marrying Boivin. She then thought of emigrating to America with me and wanted to know if the lawyer could help her sell her property. The old man warned her that this was extremely imprudent for a young woman who didn’t know the language or the customs of the country—especially if she was going to be carrying a large sum of money in her suitcase. And to emigrate with a child, he said, was more than reckless, it was sheer madness. He advised her to send me to school with the sisters of the Black Virgin until the day she decided to give the shepherd notice.
She must have confessed this secret visit to Boivin the fortune hunter, who already had sufficient means for blackmail. The new situation rendered all play-acting superfluous from that time on. My mother made her acquaintance with Hell: Boivin threw off his seductive mask, and became vulgar and more demanding than ever.
My mother, who had first known passion with Boivin, did nothing when he hit and insulted her in front of me. Instead of cursing and spitting at him as the village women did when their husbands abused them, she kept quiet, abasing herself before him like a servant, and giving him all the money he demanded.
Though I was still too young to intervene, I tried. One day, two police officers came to fine Boivin for hunting in the off-season. My mother was responsible for the transgressions of her employee, so it was up to her to pay the fines. When the policemen left, I ran after them. “Why did Mother have to pay?” I asked them, in tears.
“Didn’t the three of you eat a beautiful, well-seasoned roast rabbit? A shepherd must obey his boss, but at your house, it’s the other way around. There, there, don’t cry, you poor little thing—we will do what we can . . .”
“Can’t you put him in prison? He hits my mother, and me, too.”
“Impossible, my little one—there have to be far more serious incidents than that to arrest him. May God bless you.”
Eusèbe was no longer happy: he got thrashed, too, and heard himself called an old bastard, son of a whore, a moron . . . I imagined his indignation and his sorrow, he who understood everything.
Boivin’s laziness and long sleeps didn’t help matters any. Boredom turned him into a drunkard, as happens all too often in our region. I helped my mother in the house and outdoors. I already knew how to do a little of everything.
One morning while I was still in bed, Boivin climbed up to my attic room. His pretext was the wasp nest in the corner: he wanted to burn it before they flew out. I watched the crackling massacre, wishing him many stings—but he handled it ably. When he was sober, he was still skillful.
When he was drunk, I could easily escape him. But that morning, he wasn’t. I was under the bedcovers. He sat down and felt around for me, murmuring things I gathered the sense of . . . I let out a scream, I yelled and yelled—he heard my mother’s footsteps downstairs and fled the house.
After this, my mother decided to send me off to school. Was there no other solution? Wasn’t this enough to call the police? No. Nothing had happened and my mother hadn’t witnessed the whole scene—besides, what people had been saying about us already was not very pretty.
The Black Virgin, Maria of Egypt—how spooky these names sounded . . . I had to become a Catholic and start school over at my age. “Be a good girl. Count yourself lucky!” my mother said. “I will come to see you often.”
Lucky? At that instant I understood what I was losing: the infinite desert of the karst—the clouds—the cold autumn stars that sowed their sparkling rain—the calm passing of pastured flocks—the scent of the broom bush and honeysuckle in the spring—the eagles and seasonal birds—the weasel and the white stoat on the snow—the room I had all to myself—and our Eusèbe. I knew I shouldn’t stay but I didn’t want to go. My mother had sacrificed me for her lover.
Nothing could be done. Here I was, the nuns’ captive.
Next to the medieval chapel devoted to the miraculous Black Virgin, they built a huge new house, clean and dry, as an annex for orphans and women in confinement. The garden was large and shady. The nuns wore white vestments, the schoolchildren black smocks.
The sisters knew how to cut their boarders’ family ties delicately, without haste and, if possible, without suffering. Novices could only see their mothers twice a month, and never alone. All correspondence passed through the hands of the sisters. However, few letters arrived; the mothers were ashamed of their poor writing. The children thus grew accustomed to the school quickly, like young animals to their pens. Among the infant hares and wild ducklings, I was the young hedgehog who seemed tame enough to eat out of their hands but couldn’t yet bear to let them touch me. The undeniable success of the boarding school stemmed from the individual taming of each little animal, broken in with no apparent coercion and aided perhaps by a benevolent, temperate climate.
So what came out of all this success, which I had yet only partly savored? Peasant girls were transformed into bourgeois young ladies who would then leave the country.
My early experiences seemed monstrous under the light of religion. God did not tolerate hate, and I hated Boivin. I loved my mother and missed her terribly—I loved her with fits of scorn and disgust. In the confessional, I confessed these mixed emotions to the priest. “Pray to the Virgin!” was his unwavering response.
During these hours, I would sit in the chapel, before the statuette of the Black Virgin, performer of miracles, with a blond infant in her lap. My mind was empty. This divine woman, rigid and richly arrayed, did not understand me and did not want to come to my aid.
Each time my mother visited, I had to hide my horror: she looked miserable, and I could not ask her questions—one of the sisters was always watching. Evidently, HE was always up there; and Eusèbe? He was faring badly.
She hadn’t come in a month. A country girl secretly brought me a letter. It read: “Dear child I was very ill dont worrie I am better Eusèbe is gone he went lookin’ for you and so he’s gone listenn my girl I ain’t goin’ also and the B. will do what he want he will have nothin’ and I ain’t put up with I com very early looked for you we gonna into town may you bee reddie after tomorrow then I com and it nevr rane.”
In the past, my mother’s writing was more or less faultless, and her wording comprehensible. I read and reread this letter God knows how many times, before understanding what it said.
What did “The B. will doing what he want” mean? If B. “would have nothin’,” he would have stayed on at our house, and what could we possibly do “in town”? This letter was very strange—had my mother gone crazy?
“May you bee reddie”—did this make any sense at all? I was nearly twelve years old—I’ve been through a lot, I thought, but did that prepare me to make my own decisions? “Reddie,” I always was, for anything . . .
My mother did not come. I waited, but she wasn’t coming. She wasn’t coming, and the wait was unbearable. I wrote: “Dear mother, are you ill again?” and one of the sisters mailed the letter. No response.
That night, it was time to escape the Black Virgin and run five dark kilometers back home. From afar, I saw light coming through the house’s half-closed shutters. As I neared the house, I heard Eusèbe’s bell in the stable. I tapped on a windowpane, at first lightly, then little louder, whispering, “Mother, are you there?”
The door opened: there was Boivin, drunk. He bowed before me, giggling, “Good evening. My respects, mademoiselle.”
“Where is my mother?”
“In her room, mademoiselle. How happy she will be!” He grabbed my arms and dragged me into the house.
My mother was nowhere to be seen. She had gone, and Boivin wouldn’t let me go.
“Enough of your show—now you’ll stay here, and you’ll work! Girls are here to work, among other things.”
What “other things” he meant, I guessed—or rather, knew; I had always known, but would never admit it.
And so I stayed at the house. All was as before, except that I didn’t know where my mother was. I was now nearly an adult, and our farmhand had little interest in anything that wasn’t inebriating. Eusèbe could hardly see at all anymore. He had grown bony and his back sagged. He licked my hands like a devoted dog and followed me everywhere, even into the house. I didn’t want to saddle him, but I had to: I needed to go down to the lawyer and ask why my mother had disappeared.
The lawyer was not surprised by my visit and found the whole affair most worrying. He suspected my mother was somewhere, “sick in the mind,” but couldn’t give me the slightest indication as to where she was or whether she was even alive. “The police will find her, you can be sure of that, my child. Only those who want to disappear would vanish without a trace. You should have stayed with the sisters—at your age, it isn’t right for you to live with this lout—don’t you understand? Your mother sold some of the cattle and left money here. I fear she might even have given him some, too, otherwise he would have had to look for work—tell me,” he asked directly, “does he molest you?”
“Molest,” a word unknown to me, seemed too elegant for Boivin. I said, “No, but one time he tried to tickle me.”
“All he can do is try—I run faster than he does!”
“Good,” said the lawyer, “we will see what we can do. The police officers would like to ask you some questions. Take care!” He gave me an envelope of money. “This will be enough for now. Hide it carefully. Remember, I am always here for you.”
Eusèbe was waiting in front of the garden gate. I did my shopping, then we trotted back home.
The police came the next day, with no news of my mother.
“Be careful . . . I doubt he would, but . . . Men are dangerous, didn’t they tell you that at the Black Virgin?”
Oh, yes—as some girls there knew far better than I did.
One night, Boivin called me to the stable. “Come see,” he said, “look at his eyes!” He was swinging the lantern in front of the little donkey’s eyes, and his eyes didn’t move: he was completely blind. “I don’t need a freeloader.”
“That’s what my mother should have said. You think everything here belongs to you? Tomorrow I’ll go get the police!”
“And if he dies from congestion tonight, will you go look for his health certificate? When do you think the vet would show up? When the ass rots. Donkey meat tastes even better than rabbit. They eat it all the time in Tunisia,” said Boivin.
“You wouldn’t dare! You’ve stolen enough from us. Where are the lambs? Where are the geese? You stole them while I was away at school, and sold them who knows where!” Poor Eusèbe reached out for my hands to lick.
I didn’t think Boivin would really do it. I could hardly sleep through the freeloader’s snores so I got up late. By then he was already at work. Where on earth had Boivin learned how to slaughter a donkey? The bleeding hide was already nailed up and stretched across the barn door. The tail hung next to it. In the barn, the slaughterer was in the middle of his work, fat flies buzzing around the scene and two dogs yapping in their fight over the entrails. I vomited, then screamed like I was possessed—I ran all the way to the village hall, where the mayor was just arriving.
“What’s the matter now? Did he . . .”
“He killed him!”
“Who?” The mayor stood up.
“Eusèbe who? A vagrant? I don’t know anyone by that name.”
“But you know him well: my donkey!” The mayor sat back down and laughed out loud.
“That old bag of bones? He had to die one of these days! How old was your beast?”
“Not more than twenty-five, and he was so . . . so smart . . .” I choked on my tears.
“Tell me about it, and blow your nose.”
I told him how my donkey had grown blind, and how I was still sleeping when . . . when . . . “Now you’ll put this monster in prison?”
“Silly girl! I told you, he very well could have died naturally. He was just a donkey, and donkeys aren’t protected by the law. You’ve gone mad, like your mother. Be sensible, it was nothing!”
Once again, it was nothing.
The mayor offered me a glass of water. “You should have stayed with the nuns. They won’t take you in again, now.”
“If I don’t stay at the house, he will steal everything! And the flocks? And when Mother returns?”
“You’re not entirely wrong. What can we do?”
We were at an impasse.
Where could I take refuge? It would have been the same song and dance with the lawyer and the police. The Black Virgin held her white infant on her knees. Her large eyes, wide with a somber light, had always fixed their indifferent gaze above my head.
In the house, the big washtub was boiling over the fire.
“Good evening, mademoiselle,” snickered the butcher. “So it seems he will be chewy and tough, too bad. I had to leave almost all of it to the dogs. The hide will fetch a high price, though, if I prepare it as they do in Mexico. . .”
That night I had a terrible dream: Eusèbe stood next to my bed. He had turned white, and was crying. “It is not for myself that I cry,” he said, sobbing, “but for you, because you have grown so skinny and have no desire to eat me. Do it, I beg of you! With garlic, bay leaves, pepper, and a spoonful of vinegar—surely I won’t taste so bad.”
A horrible, yet genuinely touching dream. That was my Eusèbe: never thinking of himself, but always of me. And what dreams don’t come when you’re hungry and smell soup simmering?
Soon after this great sorrow came the great storm. The month of August always brings storms, but no one in the country had ever in their lives seen one such as this. It arrived near midnight. In the attic, the thunder sounded dreadful. I threw a blanket over me and ran down the stairs into the living room where Boivin, sober, was sitting on the table. He looked at me bug-eyed. “So, your Grace is coming to ask for help from Papa Boivin? Come, I will show you how we got through it during the war!” At that instant, lightning struck with a horrendous crash—and I fainted.
When I regained consciousness, the door was ajar. It was pouring outside. I felt a burning pain and could barely move. Boivin had disappeared. I dragged myself upstairs to my room.
I slept for a long time, until the sun’s warmth woke me. I quickly realized that I was alone in the house. Outside, the ground was soaked and rivulets ran through the sand. Sparrows bathed in them, puffing and shaking their feathers. I went back to bed and slept late into the afternoon.
I awoke to hear someone calling out: the two policemen were in the living room. I quickly dressed and went down.
“We just wanted to know how you were doing. People in the village saw lightning strike your house several times. You seem distraught. Where is he?”
“Gone. He will not return. I know that.”
“Has he . . .”
“Yes. But he’s gone.”
“The doctor will know if something really happened. Come with us.”
They took me to see the doctor. I didn’t want to take off my clothes. I spat and cursed, hurling words when I didn’t even know what they meant.
The doctor waited patiently; he gave me candy. Then he said, “Save for the strikes of lightning, nothing happened. You defend yourself very well.”
The police set out to arrest Boivin.
I stayed in the sisters’ orphanage all that autumn. This time, it was very beautiful in the white houses, very relaxing. I only had to help out a little in the kitchen, as the girls were on vacation and the school was empty. “Fourteen years old—she is too young,” I heard them whisper.
The most beautiful thing was the chapel silence, perfumed with incense and flowers. I’d go there every afternoon, and sometimes fall asleep.
“Maria, I dreamed I was you. Who hurt you? Who made your blond child? And you—were you, too, young?”
from NER 40.3 (2019)