- Introduction: Dreams and Nightmares by A. J. French
- Flowers in Her Hair by A.J. Brown
- Lifeboat by Larsen
- Paradiso by Châteaureynaud
- The Doll by Hornak
- The One Ton Woman and the Amazonian Half Man by Malinenko
- True Blue by Parks
- The Emperor's Nose by Paul Malone
by Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud
translated by Edward Gauvin
from the collection La belle charbonnière (The Beautiful Coalwoman),
pg 97-144, © Édition Grasset & Fasquelle, 1976
Narrated by Bob Eccles
At sunset the isle was within sight. The news soon drew everyone to the bridge, but nothing could be made out, so no one dared believe.
"It's too soon! We won't be there for another two hours, at least."
"No, look over there, straight ahead—"
"Wait, there's a member of the crew. We'll get some answers now. Captain! Captain!"
Everyone turned to the man in the hat. He didn't speak right away, but all respected his silence. For a moment there was no sound at sea but the engines' drone. John, too, was quiet. But he was traveling alone, and hadn't breathed a word since coming on board. Haloes of backlight lent the aftward-craning faces around him devoid of any special grace, the dull gleams of church or hospital. He brought his hand to his cheek. What's happening to us? It seemed the suffocating heat of the summer's day, which they'd suffered throughout the crossing, had fallen away all at once, like a rock into a well, and he shivered. His gaze fell on the bare arm of the woman beside him, and he glimpsed her goosebumps even as sweat still gleamed from her shadowy armpit. At last the captain spoke from above.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we've arrived."
Heads turned back toward the prow. The ferry had carved a neat path forward while attention was drawn aft, and now the island rose beside them, high and green, a green that turned to blue and back from one moment to the next. The peaks were ablaze with the setting sun, a runner trailing flame in his wake. A hundred pairs of lips parted to admire the isle in almost as many tongues. How beautiful, how marvelous, how wonderful, how magical… . Clichés chimed like cheap bangles in the evening air. John felt compelled by the gaze of the woman beside him to add his own commentary.
"It's … how should I put it … it's spectacular."
"Totally. It's really breathtaking!"
A woman nearby hid her face in her hands and moaned, Oh my God! Then it was over. The ferry was pulling into port, sending everyone after their bags. Soon they'd lowered the gangplank. The visitors pressed forward to disembark. At the end of the pier an avenue led off into the distance, lined with orange and lemon trees whose aroma reached the passengers as soon as they'd stepped off. By coincidence, a small brass band was playing where the avenue began, and the landing took on a triumphant air. Here and there, torches had been lit, for night was falling quickly now, and the smell of resin they gave off mingled with those of fruit and flowerbed to intoxicate the newcomers. Everywhere, red and yellow pennants fluttered—the island's colors, and those most of its inhabitants chose to wear. All along the avenue, at delightful little stalls, a dollar would buy you a drink that went straight to your head. Slabs of meat were cooking on grills beneath the trees.
In the middle of the street, John decided to get rid of the heavy suitcase he'd been dragging along like a curse since the start of his trip. I won't need anything here but some money, he thought, and I've got a lot of that. Why should I weigh myself down with all this old stuff? But he dared not. He bore his burden another fifty yards before finding the courage to ditch it in annoyance. At a second stall along the way, he downed in a single gulp another glass of the strong red drink he'd tried earlier. Then, as he left, he forgot his suitcase. He was no more than three steps away when a hand fell on his shoulder.
"You forgot your suitcase, sir."
"Sorry—that thing? I'm afraid you've made a mistake. It's not mine."
"Yes it is! It is, sir."
"No it isn't! I promise you, I came here empty-handed… ."
The owner's honest face creased in a frown. He'd been sure the suitcase belonged to the visitor. The bartender came out from behind the bar to settle the question.
"No, I saw it with my own eyes. That's his suitcase, he was carrying it when he came in."
John rejected the idea of trying to explain that the suitcase was his, but he didn't want it anymore, and in fact would give it and all its contents to them. Instead, he pulled a bill from his pocket and handed it to the publican.
"You've been great, keep it, really. It's not my suitcase."
A crowd was already gathering around them. John broke through the circle and ran. With cries and shouts, the crowd set out after him. Here and there, as he ran, he bumped into someone out for a stroll who, once over his surprise, joined John's pursuers, and he soon had a mob on his heels. The avenue seemed endless. At last it opened on a narrow plaza. Safety beckoned. Before him, just past the funicular, lay a maze of narrow streets where the others no doubt wouldn't follow. He tripped on a cobblestone and smacked his head on a stone post at the corner of the street. They surrounded him, grabbed him, were about to rough him up when the café owner, sweating and panting, showed up with suitcase in hand.
"Sir! Sir! Your suitcase!"
"Yes—thanks." John was sitting on the stone post, his nose and lips bloody. The owner calmed down the rowdier ones, who were talking about dragging the "suitcase thief" back to the pier and throwing him right in the water, since no one needed his kind around. When the crowd was more or less convinced of the visitor's innocence, they continued to hang around the plaza, not far from the stone post, prattling on amiably and from time to time casting a glance over their shoulders at the troublemaker. Then the owner went back to John one last time. Kneeling before him, he gave John back his bill.
"Poor fellow," he said, "you've been hurt."
He gave John a clean handkerchief and patted him on the shoulder before leaving. The onlookers were drifting away. John, still dazed by his flight and his fall, sniffled on the post, dabbing at his wound, the suitcase at his feet. A little girl passing by kindly offered him a peach. He was thirsty. Despite his swollen lip, he bit into it. One of his front teeth, cracked in the fall, broke on the pit. He spit out the bloody mouthful of fruit and tooth. His pain and the chime that at that moment announced the next departing funicular came together to rouse him from his stupor. He rose and, suitcase in hand, headed for the ticket window.
The funicular bore him five hundred yards through the fragrant night to the Upper City, where the eagles nested that in days of yore had first made the isle's name and military renown. It was a lacework of ochre stone hung over an abyss. The city's heart sheltered in the tight clasp of the steep chasm. John froze at the entrance to the Piazzetta. The place could easily have been a set; all that was missing were red velvet curtains to either side. In the shadow of the dome, the brightly lit café terraces near the gardens and beneath the arcades farther back were thronged with opulent youth: Helenas, Lysanders, Cressidas, and Ferdinands, tanned and clad in the latest styles, human playthings from a child god's toy chest. Still weighed down with his suitcase, nose black with dried blood and lip horribly puffy, John didn't dare step into the plaza. He'd never really sought the company of others, but he would've liked to mingle with these carefree creatures. They attracted him, with their air of election. In wicker chairs, the young women whose heady scents the breeze brought his way were hatching schemes for the next day. Men vied for their gaze, daring one another to fishing trips and climbing ascents.
But what mattered most to this tiny world was, John guessed, love, or dalliances—fickle, delectable even when sad, immortal as the setting itself. John turned down an alley to the right. He didn't want to be seen right now, pitiful and smeared with blood. He thought to return soon, perhaps tomorrow, and make acquaintances. He'd go see the fellas first, suggest a swim or a fishing trip. They'd get to like him; he'd be fun to have along. At the edge of the abyss he'd master his pale, spindly limbs, his fear of the people here, and just like them—better, even—he'd dive from the top of the cliffs, and they'd say: "He may not be used to it, but he's not scared." On the way back he'd feel drained, but they'd surround him, ask him out for a drink on the Piazzetta. And there curious girls would ask for the new guy's name behind his back… .
These were his thoughts as he headed down a random alley. Stalls selling trinkets lined the sidewalk on the left. To the right, beyond a low wall of loose stone, was the steep drop, dotted with shrubs and flowers, to the sea. Now and then, the smell of food from restaurants reminded him that he hadn't eaten since dawn. He couldn't hold out any longer, and stopped. He had fried seafood and a crisp glass of wine. Despite his hunger, he ate little, as his tooth hurt, but drank a great deal. After dinner, he asked about a hotel. The owner scribbled a few words on a corner of the paper tablecloth. John thanked him and ordered another carafe of white wine. He stumbled a bit as he left the restaurant, the hour late. A stiff breeze had risen from the ocean, bowing the cypresses, breathing tremulous animal life into clusters of wisteria. Beneath a streetlamp, John unfolded the scrap of paper he'd torn from the tablecloth. All the man had written in the way of an address were these words:
way up top
John raised his head. Way up top? Way up top? After two hundred brightly lit yards, the slope ahead disappeared in the night. Does he think I can fly? John was in that happy state of drunkenness when everything seemed funny, when one talks to rocks and bushes as old friends, when the world twinkles. Way up top it is: time to jettison the ballast! The suitcase sprang open at the first bounce, spilling its contents into the void. For a moment, his clothes unfurled in the wind. Shoes, toiletries, the trinkets we lug around with us everywhere scattered in the darkest night. One last snicker, and John left the wall behind. He was on the right trail, the ground rising beneath his feet. And yet after a hundred yards there was a fork in the road, both paths soaring toward the heights. He made out several figures ahead on the right. Young people, girls, laughing and bumping into each other. He quickened his step. Weren't they the same ones he'd seen earlier below, the ones he'd yearned to befriend?
He soon caught up with him. A drunken exhilaration loosened his tongue. "Hey there, nice night!"
They'd fallen silent at his approach. A single voice answered, indifferently, "Nice night."
"Where're you headed?"
"Not the same place as you." Laughter rang out.
"I'm looking for a hotel. But I'm in no hurry. I have all the time in the—"
"Glad to hear it. Later!"
"Didn't I see you on the Piazzetta earlier?"
Someone hissed in anger. "No, not us."
"Really? I thought … well, anyway, I saw a group of young people like you on the Piazzetta, nice-looking and having a good time, and I said to myself, well I thought … they looked so happy, so nice, so much like you … so I thought—"
"You sure did a lot of thinking."
More laughter. John was losing ground. Would he wind up annoying everyone? He felt himself blushing, and shut up.
"So what did you think up, in the end?"
"Nothing … nothing. Sorry."
He turned on his heel, made his way back to the fork, and headed left. But a few minutes later he sank onto a bench, exhausted and disappointed. They hadn't wanted him. He held his head in his hands, and tears ran in a steady stream between his fingers. He cried for a long time. Then he felt someone touching him. A hand was brushing his hair. A voice whispered to him from the shadows.
"He's crying! Why is he crying? Who has hurt him? Poor, poor man! Why are you crying?"
He looked up. A woman in rags sat beside him on the bench: a tall, strong, matronly woman with wild hair.
"Who are you?"
"Livia the simple, they call me. They say 'Livia's brains are gone.' It's true, my brains poured out my ear long ago. I've been looking for them ever since. They slipped into the grass one day when I leaned over sideways. Or maybe the wind sucked them out when I was walking on the beach. So from dawn to dusk, I seek them. People mock me; when I go by they say, 'There's Livia, looking for her brains! Hey, Livia! I saw them in the bushes on the side of the ravine, by the black cape, at the other end of the island! Hurry up, before a buzzard gets them!' Off I run, and scour the ravine without finding a thing. Often at night, my calves torn up by thorns and my brow sunburned, I grow feverish and weep, just like you. But you, oh what have you lost?"
"I haven't lost anything. I'm crying because I'm alone. I met some young people, but they didn't want me."
"I know them. I've known others, the same ones, when I was your age. They didn't want any part of me either. The girls said, 'We don't want to go out with Livia, she hasn't got any brains and lets all the boys drag her into the bushes! If we're seen with her, they'll think we're easy, and we won't be able to find husbands!' And the boys said, 'No, we don't want to dance with Livia 'cause then the other girls won't talk to us! Better to see her in secret.' Time went by, and they no longer even came calling at nightfall. Tell me, are you sure you've still got all your brains? Maybe they don't want you because you're missing some."
John smiled through his drying tears. "How would I know?"
"Does your head feel full all the time? Tell me what that's like. You must feel strong, you must know it all, understand everything… . The wind rushes into my empty skull, that cavern, and whirls around there, blowing hard, clawing like a caged beast! I'm always afraid some insect will make its nest in there. How would I ever get it out? I plug my ears with wax before I sleep. That way, I won't worry. Tell me, since you have brains, tell me why we're here. What are we doing here?"
John shrugged. "I don't know any better than you."
"But you have a brain! You must know! You don't want to tell me. True, even if you told me, I wouldn't understand, since I have no brains. But tell me anyway, so I can hear the words… ."
"I don't know anything, Livia, I swear! People with brains and people without are the same, nobody knows anything. They're just here, that's all."
She wept. At last, he reached out and timidly brushed her hair.
"Where are you going now?"
"Way up top."
He got up from the bench. "Goodbye, Livia!"
He set out again on the steep path. The wind swept in gusts. He wasn't quite sure he'd get a room that night, but though it was windy, the air was warm. He'd find a place to sleep somewhere. He walked for a long time before reaching a plateau, the last one, way up atop the isle. Yet he saw no hotel anywhere. A brightly lit garden covered the entire area. Perhaps the Hotel Chimera was hidden deep in the densest of the cypress and maritime pine woods that dotted the garden? Bah. Tomorrow he'd have all the time in the world to look for a place to stay. Pools and ponds sparkled where paths crossed. He tried to drink, but spit the mouthful back up; the water had gone stagnant in the sun. All around him, ruins—sections of columns, pieces of walls, stone steps leading nowhere—rose in the floodlights' slanting beams. Statues gleamed feebly in the shadows of hedges. As though chafed by the leaves, a wicked wind bent toward them, their stone flesh seeming to tauten and offer itself to passersby. John briefly placed his hand on a marble calf, then turned away. A sound had alerted him. A face soon emerged from the shadows. He recognized one of the girls from the group he'd met on the path.
"Hey guys! Look who it is!"
Other figures appeared behind her.
"Well! Him again? Still haven't found a hotel?"
John wished to slip away. But the girl held him easily, with a smile.
"Leaving so soon? I thought you found us fun and friendly earlier."
"Yes, but I thought you weren't—"
"Nonsense! Stay with us. We're playing a game! Running, hiding, catching each other—it's fun, you'll see!
"What happens when someone gets caught?"
Everyone around him burst out laughing. "Oh, it all depends on who catches whom. Let's start right away. Don't forget, you're both hunter and hunted!"
No sooner had they appeared than their shapes were swallowed by the night. John remained alone for a long moment, arms at his sides, not knowing what to do. A distant laugh reminded him the game had begun. He slipped into the shadows in turn. On every side, the night rustled, crackled, murmured, whispered. When he was far enough away from where he'd started, he froze and lay in wait, trying to tell signs of a human presence from the innocent noises of the night. After a while, he made out the sound of furtive steps to his right. If it was a boy, he was skinny: the grass made barely a sound beneath his steps. It was probably a girl, perhaps the one who'd invited him to play. He crawled toward the sound. It was her. He leapt upright. She gave a small cry. He lost a precious second gazing at her. She was already fleeing. He raced after her, reached out to tackle her, but managed only to brush her silk dress. She disappeared. There was burst of laughter from a neighboring bush. He resumed the chase. The game went on. John had to dodge the sudden assaults of several shadows in league against him. He ran, jumped, and crawled, panting with pleasure and exhaustion. Sometimes, as he slipped through the thickets, he flushed out a young stag, rather than a doe, who seemed to mistake him too. They grabbed each other anyway, rolling around under the trees. Sometimes the other man seemed to enjoy the embrace. John broke free. As dawn drew near, the game grew harsher, less innocent. Blood flowed from the combat between the youths. Faces were covered with bruises, clothes reduced to rags. Half-naked bodies leapt into the light, cries, challenges, pleas, ringing out beneath the heavens' vault. John caught another glimpse of the girl he'd been chasing since the night began. She'd no doubt just escaped another hunter, for she was breathing hard and fast, and massaging her wounded thigh. He sprang from his hiding place. She saw the danger and tried to run, but her aching limb slowed her down; he was soon upon her.He grabbed her arm and threw her to the ground. He'd have taken her right there, on the trail, if three of her companions hadn't come to her aid. John had to let go of his prey. Four furies fell upon him at once. A punch shut his eye, fingernails scratched his cheeks and shoulders, hands tore out his hair by the fistful, a nasty knee found his stomach. He struck back, mingling blows and prayers, but a harpy clung to his arm, another hauled itself up on his shoulders, and a third rained kicks at his ankles. He fell; his temple struck a rock. He curled up, his head in his arms, and stopped struggling. They kept at him a few minutes more, then seized him and carried him down the trail like a sacrificial lamb. He felt the rough kiss of grass as his face dragged along the ground. There must've been steps, for twice his head struck rock. He blacked out.
He was seated astride something, he didn't know what, a wall perhaps, or the back of a statue—a horse? a bull?—for his chest, pitched forward, pressed against a broad stone withers. He opened his eyes as best he could. The stone against his face was reddish, shot through with black, and warm from the sun. Where had they left him? He tried to find a handhold. Left, right, and straight ahead in an immense unfurling of two red wings, there was nothing but blue sky. He looked back. Beneath the statue's croup, a narrow stairway rising into the void led back down to the garden. He'd never have the strength or courage to reach it. At last he leaned over to gauge the gap. Beneath his feet, far off in a haze of heat, a cruise ship, a toy, sounded its horn as it entered the bay. He pressed his cheek against the neck of the Chimera and, eyes now wide open and turned to the sun, he screamed.
Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud, who is widely known in his native France, has been honored over a career of almost 40 years with the Prix Renaudot, the Prix Goncourt de la nouvelle, and the Grand Prix de l'Imaginaire at Utopiales. He has been published in F&SF, LCRW, Podcastle, Conjunctions, Postscripts, Joyland, The Harvard Review, The Southern Review, Words Without Borders, AGNI Online, Epiphany, Eleven Eleven, Sentence, Confrontation, The Brooklyn Rail, and Café Irreal. His work has been compared to that of Kafka, Borges, Calvino, Cortazar, Isak Dinesen, and Steven Millhauser.
Edward Gauvin (see Edward Gauvin's blog) has received fellowships and residencies from the NEA, the Clarion and Fulbright Foundations, the Centre National du Livre, Ledig House, the Banff Centre, and the American Literary Translators' Association. His work has appeared in Subtropics, World Literature Today, Tin House, and PEN America. The winner of the John Dryden Translation prize, he is the contributing editor for Francophone comics at Words Without Borders, and translates comics for Tokypop, First Second, Lerner, and Archaia.
A Life on Paper: Stories, Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud, translated by Edward Gauvin (Small Beer Press), original publication in French (1976-2005), was named as a finalist in the Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Award