From Clandestine Messengers
The Body in the Room
I had left the city with great silent strides. The gate, adorned with figurines time had eaten away, opened without protest, and I advanced down paths peopled by shadows. It wasn’t yet midnight when I met them—Flora, Elise, and then Chantal—by the pool whose fountain had run dry. The first two took my hand while the third, a finger to her lips, led our voiceless trio.
Only long sighs, and sometimes a stifled sob reminded me the three young women were there. Soon I could make out tears tumbling ceaselessly down their faces. One of them, finding my hand, tugged me from my stupor. I was about to open my mouth and say something, if only to hear the echo of my own voice, but the tunnel of branches parted at last, and the dark mass of a building appeared.
When we entered, it seemed the closing door, the first thing to disturb the silence, struck its frame with a hellish sound.
I recognized things once a faint light had made them distinct. But that staircase, those two veiled lamps and that mirror, even that garment on a hanger—in what secret compartment of my memory were they locked away, so that I could not place them?
We crossed empty rooms and everywhere I felt the same lack of surprise and, at the same time, I was aware of a happiness I didn’t dare spell out. Amidst so much neglect remained suspense like a secret shudder. There were no dust covers on the armchairs, a book lay open in the library, and the contents of an ashtray attested to a near as now or yesterday.
I expected to see Flora knock, with a single folded finger, on the final door, but to no avail. Before opening it, she wiped away her tears and sought a final exhortation in my gaze as, pressing softly against my arms, her two companions put off the insistent thing which was to come, which nothing could stop from coming.
This time, in the room we entered, I was seized by the unexpected sight before me. The room held the body of dead man. I could not discern the face on that rigid shape lying there in the middle of the four whitewashed walls. However, out of respect for my nocturnal friends (whose names were already dear to me though no one in this life had yet spoken them aloud), I kneeled as they did, my head in my hands.
When I lifted my gaze, a sudden cold, an abrupt awareness of time, had displaced our contemplation. The three young women were staring at me, and in their now-empty eyes I saw a deep, brimming pity. Rising at last, at once maternal and sisterly, one ran her fingers lightly over my hair, another clasped my hands, and the last gave me a kiss. And all three, who maintained a slightly mysterious charm holding sway over me, all three quietly withdrew.
Where was I? What was this meant to be? I took three steps toward the deathbed. The weirdness of this lonely confrontation with a stranger’s body was not yet clear to me. In this room, where I remembered having lived without being able to tell what period in my life coincided with the memory, I walked forward, moved not by curiosity but a force outside my will, literally drawn.
Fortunately, no one was there to witness my expression upon seeing the dead man’s face! An unspeakable terror overcame me, I distinctly heard the chatter of my teeth even as my gaze remained riveted to that unmoving visage: I was the body in the room! That frozen face, feature for feature, was my own.
Thank God for keeping me from madness! My thoughts, beyond the borders of the possible, traveled a forbidden world. Behind each thing sparkled a universe to which I had, henceforth, the key. The earth could close over once more.
How long did I remain crumpled, not daring to lift a finger? Bit by bit, I came around to believing myself the plaything of some illusion. This idea gave me the strength to crawl to the door; I leapt across the threshold in a single bound, but once outside, collapsed on the grass.
I felt fully reborn into real life when for the first time since the night before—and, it seemed, on the first morning of the world—I heard a voice, words in harmonious song. Raising myself halfway up, I watched as Chantal, the fairest of my sisters, sat down beside me. For were they not truly my sisters, these three adorable creatures I’d seen shed burning tears over my own death?
I might have continued to doubt had the few phrases we traded at that moment, of a secret only we knew, not succeeded in convincing me. Despite my desire to prolong the exchange in which love seemed cleansed of all dust, Chantal soon took her leave of me.
“Before night falls,” she told me, “I must return to the convent…”
How could I have forgotten her vows of long ago? Alone, I crossed the lawn and plunged into the tall wood. Beside the pool, despite the dense shadows, I spied Flora, brown of hair and light of hand. We conversed at length and I held her in my arms. How beautiful she was! Grace and nobleness alone inhabited her voice with its deep inflections! Before leaving me she spoke to me of her children, her husband. Was I a fool to have forgotten them?
“I must return before daybreak,” she told me, “and here is the dawn.”
Indeed, nature was already taking on the fantastical aspect of first light. Newly risen from chaos, it seemed to belong to an intermediary, unformed world. Alone again, I walked to the gate where Elise awaited me. We exchanged only a few words, but I clasped her hands at length and covered her brow with eager kisses. When day broke, I saw that her hair was gray and two furrows lined her face. Before running off, she said slowly, “I must rejoin my brother…”
With these words a shiver ran through me and, my heart flooded with sadness, I returned with great silent strides toward town.
The Pitiless Stranger
It was at my mother’s funeral that I first noticed the presence of the stranger and his inquisitor’s gaze. His height and stature behind the flock of friends and relatives must have seemed unusual to everyone. Only I guessed that he was there for me, but how, surrounded by grief, could I have hurried toward him?
I saw him a few months later when, life’s ill-fitting clothes thrown hastily over my pain, I began to laugh once more, among friends. Then he showed up more and more often, unexpectedly, in seemingly unrelated circumstances.
His expression was still just as serious, taut with the same interrogation that distance and those between us had kept him from putting into words before. Sometimes his figure appeared far-off, dominating the crush of pedestrians. At last! I would say to myself. But as he drew nearer I began to doubt it was really him, and when his gaze plunged into my own, I remained devastated for such a long moment that any attempt to catch up with him afterward would have been vain. Or I would feel him nearby, just behind me, his shadow lengthening my own on the table; but when I turned, some inopportune passerby had slipped between us and I could no longer see anything but the top half of his face, his eyes’ worried plea.
Other griefs darkened my life, each making my pleasures sound a hollower note, until the day I heard his voice. Torn from sleep too early to attend to my usual day, I’d locked myself in the tiny attic where a thousand eccentric witnesses to my past were piled—sundry objects whose memory alone might give them a name—when, at the singular sensation of his approach, I turned around. There he stood, a bit bowed by the frame of the door.
“What will you do with it?” he announced softly.
I mumbled, began tangled explanations, finally whispered some vague confession to him, as to a chance confidant one knows, above all, to be preoccupied with his own problems. But when, aghast, I resigned myself to silence, he added, as though I hadn’t said a word, with an almost invisible coldness that nevertheless chilled me to the bone, “Look for it.”
As soon as he’d opened his mouth, I knew what object was at stake, as if, for a long time, I’d had the premonition that one day he’d come to ask me for it. I knew because, although unable to specify it, I was sure it was not among the things that lay around me, nor in any corner of my secret refuge. Otherwise, I would immediately have rushed forward to give it to him, with a joyous cry of Here it is! But looking for it would have been pointless.
It was lost. I must have misplaced it in a move during my boisterous life. The knowledge of its loss even became my only certainty. And now the visitor came often, no longer mysterious and questioning, but with a commandment in his eyes: Look for it! and a precise question on his lips: What will you do with it? Each time, I never knew what to say. In the same insidious way his presence had imposed itself, his tone of voice and his implacable reproach became familiar to me.
And so it came to pass, the hundredth time I was rifling feverishly through the bric-a-brac of my attic reliquary, shifting one memory after another, it came to pass that I decided to grab one of them at random. Why shouldn’t an object picked out by chance be exactly the one I’d believed lost? Yes, why? At any rate I had to convince myself first in order to affirm, with enough fervor in my voice, and immense joy, and pride, holding out the object to the pitiless stranger: Here it is! For well might everything depend on the way I pronounced those words, their intonation.
Well might it be (shame to him for whom such reasoning implies the greatest confusion of the mind: my own had never been clearer), well might it be that he too no longer knew exactly which object it was he demanded from me with such bitter solemnity, and that his haughty intransigence was only the better to hide his own forgetfulness.
I had often walked by that boutique an old-fashioned streetlamp lit from within. Some minor and outmoded retailer might lie alone in wait behind its clouded windows, or the incurable gloom of a consumptive apothecary lining up his vials. But the persistence, through the many years, of its quaint aspect even as gaudiness revived the other storefronts, finally spurred me to closer attention. And one night I decided to slip furtively inside, as though ashamed to enter so wretched-looking a shop.
I had to go down three steps, push open a door hung with old flyspeck-spotted tulle; then I found myself in a low room like an unpleasant barbershop in a poor neighborhood. Already regretting my foolish curiosity, I was about to sit down, resigned to wait my turn under the wan lighting that rows of facing mirrors multiplied ominously to infinity, when I seemed to make out, poised on each of the chairs, a giant white spider. It shifted slowly in a silence broken only, from time to time, by the cold click of scissors on marble.
I drew closer, quite intrigued. How to explain my mistake? What I’d taken for four joined limbs were in fact the arms of a man in a white coat and the spread legs of a woman, head toward the floor, tilted upside-down by a rocker in the chair. These bodies, bare to the belly, were of the same utter white as the outfits of those singular young barbers bent over their most secret place. No doubt the pallor of the gas lamp spread over everything the cadaverous hue that pervaded even the practitioners’ faces. Beneath enormous skulls where sweat pearled, their lifeless pupils were like albinos’ except, instead of reflecting the red circle of the retina, they shone only with that whitish light covering all things like the soul of the place itself.
In the milky luster, that mouth alone flushed a rosy purple, with its swollen, glistening lips kept open by short metal clamps beneath the operators’ gazes. While, with the motions of dentists, they plunged slender tools inside, the meticulous attention tensing their features failed to keep their faces from betraying stealthy joy.
Sometimes one of them managed to extract something hard and white from the fleshy cavity. Then his every care left him for a moment. Throwing down his instruments and lifting his damp forehead, he made the tiny thing, hard as a pebble, dance from hand to hand before tossing it adroitly toward a great glass cup in the center of the room. There it vanished, swirling out of sight with a curious sound that started out crystalline and ended up the screech of a metal saw. This sound, in and of itself innocuous, which I hadn’t noticed at first, but which never stopped, soon obsessed me like the laugh of hell itself.
Pushing at the door with the intent to flee, I went down another three steps, feeling my way along. Where was I? The exit had not led to the boulevard. I turned around to head back, and it was then I saw, between the double doors my haste had left open, dangling over the floor just at my eye level, the women’s upside-down faces. Such suffering distorted them that, despite the silence, a dreadful scream seemed to be escaping their lips.
Rather than brush past those masques again with the whites of their rolled-back eyes, I pushed on into the dark alley, pursued by the cup’s harsh ring.
I had already gone a long way when the noise seemed even nearer. Suddenly it seemed to be coming from my feet. I leaned over: from each orifice hidden in the shadows, from the mouth of each sewer and drainpipe burst a swarm of those tiny hard white things whose origin I now knew. My every step sent a volley flying only to fall back on the cobblestones with a sound like hail on a glass roof.
Crouching down at last to see what those strange pebbles were, I recognized the little porcelain figurines that the baker slipped inside king cakes, which were, once and long ago, my childhood joy.