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.

Hi, you’ve reached us, but we’re not here – leave us a message and we’ll call you back! Like a light bird, Rose’s voice moved through the room, brushing against walls, windows, shelves; it expanded into the space, conserving enough energy towards the end of the recording to produce a curious vibration, as though it were growing distant without being erased, diminishing without disappearing completely – the mysterious remanence of a fade-out.

There we were, Lise and I, folded in on ourselves in the dark living room like two blind people in a canoe, paddling countercurrent. Sitting on the ground with her head tipped back, Lise waited for the message to end, eyes on the ceiling. Hers is the first voice I ever heard, she said, very calm, as though she were speaking from the depths of a dream. I knew it before I was even born, I could make it out among thousands of others. I clutched the armrest of the couch, taut, listening. Lise raised a hand to her temple and, with her gaze down on the ground now, intoned: it lives inside my ear, that voice, it has never left me, it’s not erased and I’m not afraid of losing it: it’s hers. Just then, the lights of a car leaving the parking lot of the building across the street cast the room in a very yellow light – the ceiling seemed to grow round like a cupola, more vast, more sonorous, and in this shifting light I saw my child stand, suddenly brought back to grief, and all at once find the way in: her recorded voice is in the present moment forever, but it’s a different present, a present in which her death hasn’t happened, a present that will never coincide with mine, with my life, and it makes me crazy, it hurts, it hurts so much. After a silence she spoke again, heart-rendingly: in spite of what you might think, it only makes my grief worse each time I have to hear the message, and it makes me stop calling you because I’m scared to hear it. Think of other people. Please, erase it.

Hi, you’ve reached us, but we’re not here – leave us a message and we’ll call you back! The night Rose died, when I got back from the hospital, I sat down in this very same spot, already in darkness. When the first call came in and I heard those words – ‘you’ve reached us, but we’re not here’ – I started to shake, as though in all my life I had never heard a more naked truth: no, we weren’t here, would never be again, it was over. The telephone rang until late into the night but I didn’t answer, not once: I wanted to hear her voice return, this voice like none other, this voice that contained Rose completely, embodied though ethereal, physical as only a voice can be. But by dawn, having listened to it so many times, something else began to stir in me: I imagined that Rose’s voice had decamped at the very last moment from the body that sheltered it – that it had saved itself, so as not to become this cold corpse covered by a rough sheet – so it might return here (and so that this ‘us’ might persist?) and continue, reactivated with each play, in a sort of infinite present. Her voice survived her, in recorded form, indestructible, in the form of a light bird. In the morning I realized there was no other recording of Rose’s voice, and I kept it.

Hi, you’ve reached us, but we’re not here – leave us a message and we’ll call you back! From the very first word, the scene comes rushing back: the day before we left for Greece, the hurry to set up the answering machine, Rose in jeans and a striped T-shirt, feet bare, painted toenails, round sunglasses and a booklet open on her lap, following the instructions step by step to record the message, trying a few different formulations, laconic or overblown, and finally landing on this phrase, keeping the first take. It’s a clear and golden voice, a voice from a Grecian isle in June, a voice dilated in a breath: the voice of a woman on the verge of leaving.

And yet, it’s not this memory I’m trying to bring back when I phone the house, sometimes from the ends of the earth, sometimes in the middle of the night, just to connect for a moment to this sound, so real, to hear her inviting callers’ messages, pronouncing that unforgettable ‘us’ – this is what I answered Lise who was waiting for me to speak, and had come closer now, resting her head against my knee, her fine blonde hair creating a halo of brightness in the dark, her ear as delicate as a chickadee’s nest. What I’m after, I told her, forcing myself to put simple words to the complex emotion that goes through me every time, what I’m after is the sense of her presence: just that Rose is here. Of course I know the voice is not Rose, who is dead and won’t come back, but for me, it’s still a manifestation of her alive, the day she recorded this radiant message, the day before we left on vacation.

Is Rose’s absence too present in my life? Does it take up too much space? Lise sometimes asks out loud whether the spectral envelope of my wife’s voice hasn’t become a morbid passion. She says I’m under the hold of her ghost, suggests a denial of reality, even claimed the other day that I was trying to keep the dead alive – and I liked that expression, I recognized it as true. And yet it’s Lise who’s still wearing her mother’s slip-on shoes, the putty-coloured trench coat that makes her look like a passenger of the night, the oversized men’s shirts, and even her gloves – she’s the one ferreting about in the traces her mother leaves behind. For some time now she’s been talking about Rose’s last trip – Rose would go away alone for a few weeks each year, with her drawing book, pencils and camera – talking about taking the same trains, making stopovers in the same places, pausing to contemplate the same landscapes. Even though it pains me, I encourage her: these concrete actions that continue to form links between the living and the dead, beyond cemeteries, beyond urns forgotten in the shadows of alcoves, beyond anniversaries and frames that hold photographs of the dead on the walls of houses, in plain view of everyone, these actions that call us to rise, secretly, to the height of absence, always seem to me more unfettered, and above all more analgesic than the painful abstraction of grief.

Lise cried silently for a long time, and I cried with her – my only child. This had never happened, one of us had always kept our eyes dry, probably so as to better help the other. And I knew then that I could do it: put time back in order. That the moment had come to relieve my daughter, to become the man no one could call crazy any longer. Everything happened very quickly: I got up and walked to the machine with my arm outstretched, ready to press the red button and erase the tape with just one finger – but at that moment, caught off guard, Lise shouted: wait! Her voice pulled me back just in time and I saw her dark shape rush through the shadows: she grabbed my cell phone from the desk, punched in the passcode – Rose’s birthdate – opened the voice recorder, pushed play on the answering machine, and Rose’s voice took wing again in the room, flew along the cornices, down near the ground, past the windows; it soared for a long moment, and Lise recorded it, migrating from the answering machine into my phone’s memory, becoming an archive. And then she did exactly the same thing with her phone – it’s for me, she murmured, concentrating, her irises very black beneath bronze eyelids.

An instant later, the recording of Rose’s recorded voice – this double capture – became in my ear something else entirely: a woman on the verge of leaving announced our absence, sounding her faraway vibration from this night-time room where we had spoken, side by side, Lise and I, and cried together. You can erase the machine now – our daughter looked at me in the darkness, intent, the phone resting against her solar plexus. I pressed the red button and freed the light bird.


Artwork © Elif Yanya, Untitled

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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