A Light Bird | Maylis de Kerangal | Granta

A Light Bird

Maylis de Kerangal

Translated by Jessica Moore

Towards the end of the meal, sentences began to tumble like stones onto the plates and, progressively, the thousands of infrasonic hissing sounds produced by two people eating together in the kitchen of an old apartment – scrape of cutlery against earthenware, creak of wicker chairs, glug-glug of water poured into glasses, bodily sounds – all this overtook the room. These changes in acoustic tone had come to signal that Lise was preparing to speak about her mother, and I instinctively pulled back. I saw her put down her cutlery, calmly wipe her mouth, lean forward, and turn her face towards me, cast in relief by the overhead light, and perhaps also shaped by the face of Rose, who she sometimes resembles in such a troubling (though fleeting) way. She caught my eye with such intensity it was no longer possible for me to evade her. Dad – I heard the agitation in her voice, controlled but audible, and the excess of solemnity that signals an imminent declaration: Dad, I want you to erase Mom’s voice from the answering machine.

A current of icy air rushed past, and I capsized against the back of the chair. For a few seconds I felt like a man standing on a frozen river that suddenly cracks and splits, fracture lines starring outward all around me, racing off as far as the eye could see. Lise’s eyes did not leave mine as the silence rose between us, thicker and thicker, vehement. And then she placed her hand on mine, and repeated more slowly, please, do it now, put an end to this. She got up then to clear the table, turning her back to me, plunging her hands into the sink, making it clear that this dinner and this conversation were finished.

But I hadn’t finished with her, nor with her mother’s voice, this voice that can indeed be heard on the answering machine of the telephone in the apartment, even though my wife has been dead now for five years, one month and twenty-seven days. So, leaning on the table, I stood in turn and shouted, no! – a distinct and round ‘no’, as dense and dull as a lead shot from a rifle at a fairground stand. Lise jumped, letting out a high, uncontrollable sound, and the cutlery she dropped bounced on the tiles in a clatter of metal. She gripped the edge of the sink, head down between her shoulders, neck outstretched, shoulder blades jutting beneath her pastel cotton top. She was breathing hard. I could see her reflected in the window that had become a mirror with the arrival of night, her eyes closed, mouth open, corners of her lips trembling with anger: my loving and reasonable daughter, my hard-edged girl.

This wasn’t the first time she had asked me. And she wasn’t the only one to ask, either. Others would often beat around the bush, but finally admit they found it ‘unsettling’ to hear Rose’s voice on the answering machine – ‘unsettling’, a twisted understatement; ‘indecent’ or ‘morbid’ would have been closer to what they meant, but they didn’t have the courage to speak these words, felt they were sparing me, while I, of course, did not spare them. The pain of Rose’s death, extended well beyond all propriety – pulverizing the limits set by social norms and the psychological slurry of magazines dedicated to well-being and mental health – this pain, but maybe also the desire I had to keep Rose in the hollow of my ear, irreducible, incarnate – this offended them now. The irruption of the voice of the dead into the world of the living undoes time, implodes borders, the natural order goes haywire, and the recorded voice of my wife played its part in this chaos. No matter how much I argued for my sovereignty over the old answering machine in my home, the intimacy of my relationship with her, with her death, with her voice, Lise always replied that my machine was a space open to all, a social intermediary. Don’t you see it makes you look crazy? she murmured now, from the bottom of a well of sorrow, and when she finally turned towards me, her face was so close to mine that I could see myself reflected in her irises, bathed in tears.

Maylis de Kerangal

Maylis de Kerangal spent her childhood in Le Havre, France. Her fifth novel, Mend the Living, was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2016, and won the Wellcome Book Prize in 2017. ‘A Light Bird’ is a chapter from her book Canoes, first published by Editions Verticales (Gallimard) in 2021 and forthcoming in English translation in 2023 by MacLehose Press in the UK and Talon Books in Canada.

Photograph © F. Mantovani

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Translated by Jessica Moore

Jessica Moore is an author and award-winning literary translator. Her first book, Everything, now, is a love letter to the dead. Jessica’s most recent book, The Whole Singing Ocean, blends long poem, investigation, sailor slang and ecological grief. She is currently at work on a memoir of the intersection of motherhood (to twins) and art.

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