Alphonse was a gentle sort. He was fond of women’s work, and looking after the linen, in particular. His darning was something to behold. The greyish linen sheets, the fine cotton shirts, the tablecloths and serviettes for too long left folded in the cupboards, nothing discouraged him. He had small hands and would sew all afternoon, hunched on a small chair in the empty kitchen, at the window looking out to the courtyard, and beyond, to the fields, to the land where the real work took place, the men’s work. He didn’t sew in front of the others, only in front of his sister, who didn’t make him feel uncomfortable, because she was not really one of the others. The farmhands didn’t need to see him. He was family. You couldn’t explain these things. There was no need to explain them. That’s how it was. His sister had never said anything to him. He had understood on his own, the first time, when he had felt his brother-in-law’s grey gaze settle on him, on the nape of his neck, on his back. He had been afraid.
He feared that short-tempered, abrupt man who had taken Germaine and would, on occasion, beat her. Alphonse had seen it. His sister would weep. ‘My poor Alphonse! My poor Alphonse!’ she would say, over and over. And she would tell him to go away. She did not want to be seen like that, defeated. She would speak harshly to him then. It was difficult. He would go up to the attic, or out to the garden, to the tool shed. He would sit himself down on the ground, and he would wait. Often he would fall sleep. When he returned, it would be over. They were quiet. Occasionally, even, they had all gone to bed. His sister would have left a bowl of soup out for him on the corner of the stove. She never forgot about him. The soup would be warm. It was good.
Nobody would beat him though, not when he was in his sister’s house. It had happened at Sainte-Geneviève, the first few times; the most violent ones had struck him, for no reason, for a piece of bread in the refectory, or for a place on a bench, in the yard or in the garden. The supervisors had arrived, dealt a few blows, just for the sake of it. He had learned quickly to be wary of some. There weren’t many of them; it was always the same ones, a very tall, thin one, and two fat ones who smelled bad. There was not much bathing done at Sainte-Geneviève. Alphonse found the odours of others confronting, all of them, the smell of feet, of urine, of excrement, old sweat, food. He found it particularly bad in the dormitory; but he would breathe as little as possible, and when he did, only through his mouth. But it got into him, into his skin, under his nails, between his toes, into his nostrils, his ears, into the creases of his underwear, and deep into his navel. He was sure of it. Had he been able to bend over to smell it, he would have. He took the greatest possible care with his own ablutions, but the washrooms were communal and water was distributed sparingly. There was no choice but to be like everybody else, to be dirty, to live with the nausea of one’s own flesh. The worst, at Sainte-Geneviève, were the mouths, the mouths and teeth, the broken stumps, the fangs, yellow, black, rotten, stinking. Alphonse didn’t want the others to open their mouths in front of him, didn’t want their odours to penetrate him. He spoke only to two or three people, selected from the rest of them because they didn’t smell of anything. They smelled of nothing, or they smelled clean; because, like him, they changed their underwear regularly, barely sweated, washed as often as allowed, and had good teeth.
The rest of them he would snub, all of them. It wouldn’t have been deliberate, but he couldn’t help himself. In the end, he had been left in peace. He didn’t want to upset people, but their mouths, and their eyes, their gaze, their whole face, all that skin, it felt impossible. There was no need to look at the others, nor breathe them in. He had nothing to say to anybody anyway. It had been a long time since he had really needed care at Sainte-Geneviève; they were happy merely to take him in when things weren’t going well, when it was so bad he could no longer get up, or eat, or do anything anymore. When he no longer had the strength. He would always arrive in an ambulance and leave again by train, with his sister. They would write to her, or they would call her at the farm on the telephone, and she would come. Alone. Alphonse had never been in his brother-in-law’s car. It was not his place. He liked walking through the village after leaving the station. He would follow his sister. People would greet them. He would reply to some of them, Alphonse, that is. After all, this was his home. He had been born in the village. He knew them all, these people, every one of them, and he knew who amongst them were cruel, who were kind. He knew. He had become cautious. He had learned.
On the farm, he slept in the attic. His sister had set up a corner for him. His place had always been in a corner, under the stairs, at a window, or in the stable. At their parents’, he had loved his stable room. They called it the cows’ bedchamber. In winter, during the calving season, when the year was at its darkest, in December, in January, they needed a man to be in with the cows. His father, or later, his brother, the eldest, would then take his place. He wouldn’t have been able, would not have known how, how he should help the cow struggling to calf, how to do the right thing, to pull, with a rope, or with slimy hands, how to grab onto that moist, new, still limp flesh, hesitant but dreadfully alive. It disgusted him a little. It frightened him, too. Sometimes the calf would not arrive as it should. His father would thrust his arm into the cow’s hot belly all the way up to his shoulder. He wouldn’t have known how to do that; his brother, though, had learned. His father, and Cassette too, had both shown him, Cassette, who they would call when things were bad, sooner him than the veterinarian. Cassette lived at the other end of the village, but he would come, he always did, when everything was going badly; when his father was edgy and his mother was scrunching up her apron, talking to the cow, calling it by its name. She knew, she did, what was at stake. The cows had women’s names. Cassette’s hands were big, long. They could do a lot, but they couldn’t do everything. Sometimes, the calf would die, or the cow, or both.
The father would shout then. So much money lost, such misfortune. As for Alphonse, he would hide away, in the barn, in the hay. He didn’t want his father to see him. He mustn’t, at times like that. If he did, he would say it, and say it again, that he was the misfortune. Having a son like him, that was the misfortune, having an Alphonse. It had become an insult in his father’s mouth, the word Alphonse, a hard word that wouldn’t come out. A great lump that would stick in his father’s throat, under his skin. Alphonse could see it, see his father choking at the thought of him being there, one too many. They’d had the eldest, and then the girl, Germaine; and that was well and good. But why this one, then, this one who had been born sick, who would never be strong? Why? It was their burden to bear. But the father was weary, weary of wanting, wanting in the face of winters, of summer storms that rotted the hay, of poorly kept paths that infected the animals’ feet; weary of wanting, despite this son who would be neither man nor farmer, who would be nothing; a burden, a dead weight for his brother and sister. The father would chew over such things at length, then occasionally spit them out, when his hands were trembling too much, and he could do no more to hold it in.
He didn’t beat Alphonse. He would have been ashamed. Everything got out in the village. The women, the old women especially, were as watchful as startled hens, furtive and exacting. He did not want to be the subject of talk. He had his pride. It had been bad enough when the other children had mocked Alphonse when he had gone to school. It had not lasted long, maybe two or three years, while Madame Duriff had still been there. Alphonse had been so fond of her. She was old; she didn’t shout; she was gentle, well-groomed, pale, not like the other women Alphonse knew and who frightened him. She smelled good. She had won him over. She had taught him to read, first big letters, then the small ones, in the newspaper. They had been astounded, at home, that Alphonse could read while his own mother still struggled to make the words out. But what about counting? Why had he not also learned to count? No doubt Madame Duriff had left too soon. The new teacher, a young man, had not had the patience. Counting, counting money, animals, things, months, the time, everybody could count, old people, young people, even if using their fingers. Alphonse had not learned how. Nor had he been a choir boy. The priest had wanted none of it. Alphonse had been too much of a bother during the catechism which he had pursued through to the end. He had even taken his two communions along with the others, the first Holy Communion and the second Solemn Communion. They just could not stop him, it would have been too much to refuse the family that. They had simply pushed back Germaine’s communions by one year, so she could walk next to him in the procession, watch over him, stop him from doing anything wrong, from not being like the others, from standing out, from showing everybody what only the family could see and bear.
The first time he had gone to Sainte-Geneviève, he was eighteen years old. Germaine had only recently married. She was living at the other end of the village, on the other side of the river. Alphonse knew he could have gone to visit her on his own. He would not have got lost; he would have known how to cross the river; he would have followed the road and crossed the bridge, like everybody else. But his mother didn’t want him to; she said he wouldn’t know how, that she was too old and too tired to be running after him still . . . that his brother-in-law and especially that mother of his, didn’t want him to . . . that because of Alphonse, Germaine had to keep her head down, keep quiet, bow and scrape more than all the other wives. She said they should be grateful she had found somebody to marry at all . . . Had his father been there, things would have been different . . . With a man about, things can be discussed, especially a man like his father . . . But he had departed too soon, he had, still young, worn out by all of this . . . And she, a woman, what was there to be done . . . That Germaine was getting married at all, even into that family who looked down on them because of Alphonse and were taking advantage of their father’s death, it was still the best that could have happened; in spite of everything, Germaine had set up her own household; one day, she would be mistress of her own home . . . The son-in-law was a hard man; he didn’t want to see them, neither the mother nor Alphonse, and yet in every family there is something. Trouble with the head, that’s the worst; there’s nothing to be done about it, and they can even live for a long time, if they don’t have any other illness; and it comes back in families; it can always reappear. Germaine would have children, that much was certain. It was on everybody’s mind. With Alphonse, to begin with, nobody had noticed anything, not until he was six or seven, when they had talked about going to school and he was still wetting his pants, and was hardly speaking at all. The doctor had said ‘backwards’, and Madame Duriff, fortunately, had been happy to take him, provided Germaine looked after him during the breaks. He had to be watched, had to have somebody with him the whole time, mostly to stop the other boys hurting him. It was hard being the sister of the ‘piss-pants’. They didn’t get involved in any games in the yard, nor after school; they weren’t allowed. They had to head home straight away. The farm was tucked away. You wouldn’t ever stumble across it. Nobody ever dropped by. It was the father’s domain, a kingdom adequate enough, where the light and shade flowed around him, around his arms, his patient zeal, the urgent violence of his wanting, his desires, his need to do things. Germaine and Alphonse would go home, following the holloways. When the ruts filled with hardened snow, they would slide along on their satchel and laugh into the blue evening. Alphonse knew no other peace.
After his mother’s death, he went to live with Germaine in her husband’s house, the house of her parents-in-law. That much had been understood since the marriage: when the time came to divide the estate, Germaine would take Alphonse as well as the inheritance to which he was entitled; one would not pass without the other; the in-laws knew this and rested their hopes firmly on the fragile constitution of the potty brother. Alphonse, however, survived his mother and insisted on living, even pushing the incongruity so far as to reduce significantly the frequency of his stays at Sainte-Geneviève. He would never have been entrusted with care of the livestock, but he knew how to show himself to be useful and patient with his two nephews, a source of constant wonder to him. When everybody else was consumed by the endlessly exhausting demands of the land and animals, he cared for them with a woman’s affection. His light hands lingered over the foreheads, the arms, the smooth, firm necks of the small boys who had surrendered to sleep. He delighted in the incessant chatter of infants. Where there was nothing to understand, the fresh, new mouth of a child said everything. The second of his nephews was born unwell. Alphonse showed a boundless devotion to this wailing creature who was determined to live, spending whole nights watchfully cradling the child. Very quickly, the infant came to recognise his voice, and would only stop whimpering when he was near, in the warmth of his smell, lost in a shared babbling only they understood. For the first time, Alphonse was needed by somebody. In his own unique and indecipherable way he rejoiced in the feeling.
Custom dictated, however, that men not concern themselves with offspring, that they be left exclusively in the care of women, young or old; it was a matter for them, and them alone. Alphonse went against the established order of things, and the family knew enough to make him understand that he was not to be seen in the village with the children. People would have poked fun. The women were already talking . . . Something awful would happen; Germaine would regret it; she could easily have done what everybody else does, made arrangements for getting the household chores done, the work on the farm and raising the children . . . and she only had the two . . . Her mother-in-law was a difficult woman, but she wouldn’t have left the little ones without anybody to look after them. Alphonse? Who could rely on Alphonse? Nobody but a sister would even contemplate such a thing. Closeted away in the house or the farm yard, Alphonse had forgotten about the terrible tongues of women. From time to time, his brother-in-law would return home furious, swollen with anger, and Alphonse would assume then that somebody had been saying things. He had long grown accustomed to harsh words; it no longer bothered him much, it hadn’t for a long time now, so long as the children were left to him. It was his whole world, there amidst their shouts, their laughter, their games, at mealtimes and when they were bathing; between them and him, their skin next to his, and the others no longer existed, or barely. The others no longer had any power; only Germaine, because she was the mother and the sister, only she retained a place, which she didn’t bother to occupy, absorbed as she was by the business of the farm, by what brought in money rather than cost money. This heaven-sent vocation of Alphonse allowed her to save on the wage of a maid, and, in a house where one had always known how to count, everybody appreciated the value of the service rendered. Not that there was any particular recognition given: it wasn’t their way, and nobody would have thought to acknowledge an undisputed half-wit on the sole basis that for the first time in his life, he was finally demonstrating that he was useful for something.
The boys grew. Very early on, they recognised where the real strength was. They feared their father and saw how scornful he was of Alphonse. Becoming small men, quick, firm-bodied and silent, entering into the man’s world where one had to be hard, they ceased paying any heed to him. They no longer needed him. They had learned to live with their fear, to conceal things, to coexist with the others, those who made fun of Alphonse and didn’t understand how his company could be preferable to theirs. In the end, the boys were won over by school, with its impenetrable rituals and games, its obscure battles and struggles. Alphonse retreated to insignificance. Something unbearable was growing within, something nobody around him could comprehend. He was alone. He didn’t begrudge the children. He didn’t plead for what they would no longer give him. He remained locked in his pain and suffered, like an animal, like all mute creatures. At first it was a dull suffering, then it came in great visceral waves. Everything within him unravelled, retreated, collapsed in on itself, abandoned the place of ordinary and common decency. He was not thirty years old. He turned into an old man. It became impossible, then pointless, for him to drink, to eat, to sleep, to wash himself. His entire body, however, continued, mechanically, opaque; continued to produce gestures, to emit sounds, to fabricate odours and matter, nails, hair – on his head, on his body – earwax, calluses, saliva. Alphonse soiled himself and lived in the stench. At last, Germaine noticed; she took fright and called Sainte-Geneviève. They came to fetch him. In the village, everybody knew that Alphonse had gone away again. Nobody was surprised. It was the way of things, the way things had always been. This time, they thought, he would not be back.
In eight years, at Sainte-Geneviève, nothing had changed. All the long stay regulars, at least almost all of them, were still there, perhaps a little greyer, a little filthier, a little more relinquished to that part of them unable to respond to the world’s injunctions. They had grown old. Alphonse didn’t recognise them. He didn’t care that he was there or anywhere else. He had not protested when the nurses had come to take him. He would not have had the strength, nor the will. He had no more will. He might, perhaps, have wanted to die, if dying meant no longer to suffer for not being anything, to anybody. He wouldn’t speak. He wouldn’t weep. In any case, he had neither wept, nor spoken very much, not since childhood. The hiccupping sobs of his sister, and those wet, limp, tepid words that would trickle out of her in any situation had always alarmed him a little, like something indecent, crude, too naked. There was no need to expose yourself. You had no right to do that.
He remained in bed a long time. He was washed, he was fed as you would a small child. The female orderlies were very fond of him; his indifference was like a balm to them, a respite. He didn’t complain, didn’t shout, wasn’t violent, or agitated; he didn’t try to touch their thighs, or their buttocks or breasts; he didn’t grab them, he was not even ugly, or repugnant. He didn’t desire women. His member had never tightened for a woman’s flesh. Sometimes, in the morning, his sheets were sticky. He knew it came from him, like some sort of milk, but he didn’t want it and took no pleasure in it. Once, in the barn, his brother had showed him how to make it hard, with his hands, the thing that hung there, between his legs, like it did between the legs of all the others. His brother had done it in front of him and, in front of him, had groaned. Alphonse had done it too, and had not groaned. His brother had not spoken of it again. Alphonse had not known any women.
He did not think about the farm, nor about the children; nor did he speak of them either. In fact, he spoke of nothing anymore, barely answering the questions put to him at the outset by an inexperienced doctor, keen to put a name to his condition. Little by little, they limited themselves to caring for his bodily functions, as had always been done. That was already a great deal. More he did not expect. One morning, he got out of bed and walked slowly out to the garden where he found his bench. The sun was wintery, white and gentle. Things were continuing, the patchy grass, the stark trees, their black bark marked with changing greys, and the travelling sky. Things endured, and Alphonse too, amidst it all, for no reason, just in case. Out of the great pain of his abandonment he emerged older, emaciated, cleansed. He remembered having suffered enormously; he remembered an immense fear. His body remembered, his belly, his useless hands. His mouth had opened, twisted, and he had not cried out. He had not been able to. Iron tears had gathered from the base of his skull, at the edge of his eyes, and he had not wept. His throat had burned. He would have preferred not to start over. It mattered little to him whether he remained at Sainte-Geneviève or returned to the farm. He knew it was not up to him. They would decide for him, the doctor, Germaine, his brother-in-law, the others. He was floating in a world of others.
He returned. Germaine did not come to collect him. A nurse drove him, in a white ambulance. One autumn, one winter, one spring had passed by; it was June, heady, rich, thick with long grass. Shadow and light rippled in the courtyard. Germaine was standing under the plane tree. She was feeding the hens; the grain was in her apron; she emptied it, smoothed it out, stretched it over her thick belly with a nimble hand and made her way over to him. She took him by the shoulders and held him tight against her. He bent over, allowing her to do so. He was much taller than she was. She was weeping, she was repeating, ‘My poor Alphonse; my poor Alphonse.’ It was a welcome.
The mother-in-law sized him up, from her armchair, appraised him with her grey look. Since last winter she was no longer walking. One evening, on her way to bed, she had fallen, her mouth twisted. Nobody had heard her. Germaine had found her, when she came into the large room where everybody slept in tall beds of blonde wood. It was a stroke; the doctor had told her the following morning. That’s how the old people died in the family: they would not fall ill, they would not make a nuisance of themselves, they would work until the final moment, they would perhaps feel tired, but they would never complain about it, and when they fell, you knew three or four more days was all they had. The women from the village paraded through the kitchen, drinking coffee and reminding Germaine about the deaths of her father, her mother, her mother-in-law’s sister . . . The boys, circumspect, prowled around this woman, reluctant to acknowledge her as she grew increasingly grey. Their father had the look he wore on bad days and each of them waited in silence. It wouldn’t drag on forever . . . Yet it dragged on. They waited in vain. She did not die, and they grew used to knowing she was there, mute and yet straightened, perked up even, to the point where she was holding herself upright, stiff, in the armchair where her son would settle her every morning. Her eyes were grey and hard. She saw everything. She didn’t move, her mouth was closed, folded over empty gums; her son would feed her tepid soup three times a day, before the others ate; he wanted to be alone with her. He wiped her chin with a gentleness Germaine did not recognise in him.
They had needed to take on a maid to assist Germaine. Yvonne was seventeen. She was pale and blonde, almost slender, so smooth she almost slipped away. She bore it all, the exhausting work and endless recriminations from Germaine, who finally saw herself as mistress of the house and let it be known with all the brutality of her ignorance, a brutality that had for so long been kept in check. They barely paid Yvonne; she ate little and worked tirelessly, with a strength that was difficult to reconcile with so frail a body. Lacking breasts, lacking buttocks, outwardly still a young girl, she aroused no desire. The farm hands took no notice of her, neither did the master of the house, who would happily have engaged a more appealing woman, but relented when he realised no other woman around would agree to the conditions expected of Yvonne. As for Yvonne, she accepted and endured whatever came her way, unaware it was even something to endure, for she had never known better. She was the daughter of an itinerant Pole who had been passing through, conceived out of wedlock, on a night of plentiful wine, a bastard child and foreign, born beyond the bounds of society and yet prey to others. Her mother had grown up in care, a simple and squat woman; as a child she had been placed on a large, out of the way farm, where she had been kept on, after she had sinned, because they knew her to be alone in the world and endlessly able to be exploited. Yvonne had not been loved; she had been raised the way livestock is, had grown like the grass, the trees. They thought her almost a simpleton. School had barely left its mark. She had left the original farm, where they no longer had a place for her, expecting nothing. She knew only work, bodily nourishment and brutal, open-mouthed sleep. She didn’t dream. She had known a man, at thirteen, a farmhand who had ripped her apart, several times, and beaten her, so she would not talk. To whom would she have spoken? Of what? With what words? He was red and reeked. He was hard. He forced her, dug himself into her, between her white, young girl’s thighs. She was so frightened, each time, and in so much pain. He had moved on, at last. Her mother had known, and had shouted: You just love men! You love men! Yvonne had not understood. She had ceased to grow.
Yvonne had taken Alphonse’s corner, in the attic. She had cleaned it first, rid it of the smells of he who was no longer there. They had let her do that. She thought he was dead. Nobody had told her otherwise. That dead man’s burrow, clean and brown, had grown familiar and necessary. She had not been afraid of the moving shadows, swollen with the sound of creaking, that lived with her in the attic. The shadows could do nothing to her. They spoke all night long. Yvonne did not disturb them. For the first time, she had thought herself safe from others. When Alphonse returned, they moved her. It was inconceivable they be left alone, the two of them, in the attic each night, even if separated by a curtain, or a cupboard. Germaine had considered the matter at length, and had spoken with the other women: you never knew what might come over somebody, what could happen to that girl . . . Nobody would want any part of her . . . Well, precisely . . . And her mother was not the timid sort. You can always rely on the fact that blood will prevail . . . Alphonse, certainly, had never had any such ideas, and he had aged so. But you see so many things . . . Yvonne was moved out, but she was not sent on her way. Germaine had grown used to her mute, docile labour, to her submissive presence. The finances were healthy. They could allow themselves this small expense. Alphonse would help, insofar as he was able. Were he able to do some darning, to mend the household linen that had for months now been neglected, that alone would be enough.
He had grown indifferent towards his nephews. From time to time they would seek out his company; they found themselves alone now and had retained muddled memories of their previous delight, which Germaine did not suspect, their father even less so. But Alphonse had nothing to give them. He was not being cautious; he was not protecting himself; he no longer saw them. They had become the others, indecipherable, unpredictable, in the way cattle are, not like the trees, not like objects made of wood, of stone or of earth. The boys had learned not to ask questions. Sensibly, they settled in turn on the received wisdom that their uncle was not altogether there, and made the best of the way it seemed things had always been.
Alphonse did what was expected of him. He rediscovered the measured and precise gestures of hours of sewing, bent over shirts, sheets, serviettes, surrounded by baskets, ensconced in the sweetish smell of each item he unfurled at the window, in the summer light. Germaine shielded him from the gaze of the farm hands: by day he worked in the big, square room where she slept at night, with her husband, her children and her mother-in-law. His daytime world, steeped in white, hid sheltered behind a closed door and half-pulled shutters scored by the same violent sun that tanned, baked, stained the napes, the arms, the hands of men engaged in long hours of relentless labour across the countryside. His was the inside world, theirs the outside, he was all gentleness, and they all strength. He was one where they were many. He had his place, carved from white, mute solitude. His tall, thin body, as if unfinished, inconclusive, had settled there, completely, comfortably, and he had forgotten it might be possible to have other needs.
Yvonne did not speak in front of Alphonse. He was the brother of the mistress of the house; that’s what she was always being told; he was family, he belonged; he had rights; because of him, she had lost the attic. He was long and white; his hands especially were long and white, and he sewed; he looked after the linen; he worked as a woman would; he lived in the house; he didn’t speak, he was rarely spoken to. Everybody seemed to look through him. He was not a woman, perhaps he was not a man. He was always very clean. In the pale circle of linen surrounding him at the window, a certain peace seemed to issue forth, flowing in warm ripples, and Yvonne felt taken, caught up in the honeyed silence of the big room, where she furtively busied herself with the grandmother, around the beds, with the wardrobes. Every afternoon, the grandmother was settled in bed for a long siesta. She wouldn’t sleep. She would remain stretched out, grey on the white sheet, still and stiff against the pillows, tensed so as not to die just then, to hold on still, to hold and keep in the grip of her vice-like iron gaze, Alphonse’s back, hunched over the baskets, the movements of his hands which she guessed at from the merest trembling of the fabric, and perhaps also the light, or at least what remained of it, of all the light from every summer of her aged life.
The grandmother’s gaze was greedy, and it frightened Yvonne. She was chafed, pierced, scraped to the bone by those eyes living in that room. She would have liked to stay, to linger behind Alphonse, who did not see her, would have liked to sip a little from the warmth running off him that did her so much good, offering more nourishment than bread. She felt it, knew it, with an animal certainty. In the same way that she knew the grandmother was evil, that in her eyes she carried death. Yvonne did not go to mass, but she had made her first communion. She had not forgotten her prayers, and she prayed for the grandmother to die, prayed she would stop wanting to take the others, all of them, the living, take them with her to her long death.
Yvonne was heard. The grandmother died, with twisted mouth, in her sleep, when summer was at its hottest. Germaine, although liberated now, wept a lot, because that was the custom. It was her duty to accompany the true suffering, the son’s, but she was not sorry. She was going to be the sole mistress of a large household at last. In memory of her own family, that is what she had wanted, she had wanted it with all her dull and stubborn patience. She had worked her body to the bone; she had been beaten; she had known man’s burning desire, and two children had been torn from her belly; she had wept, against the sink, into the dishwater and laundry tub; she had hardened; she had grown fatter. Time was on her side. For a long time, it was all she was sure of. Everything would come to her, she would have everything for herself, everything that counts, that is worth existing for: the keys to the cupboards, the warm spot in front of the fire, and the stupefied looks of those men and women who, because they are in the service of others, recognise a person’s place in the world and what she is owed. She had endured and waited, and at last the other woman had died, the mother, the old woman, who had held everything in her hands and who for so long she had needed to hate in silence. Germaine felt avenged, for everything, and for Alphonse too.
Yvonne would be kept on. Germaine would offload all the household chores to her, the chores whose finicky tedium she had always found such a burden. She was fond of the animals, the sties where the pigs were fattened, the chicken coop, the brown earth of the garden, the crackling fields of summer; she liked to sweat, to strain, out in the open air no matter the season. Yvonne was well trained: the house would be maintained. The enemy had departed her territory and Germaine had no qualms about relinquishing that interior domain. Yvonne and Alphonse were alone, for hours at a time. They said nothing. They did not alter their habits. The work remained the same: it ordered their life, justified their existence; but they both felt a new warmth growing within. She knew he was there, behind the door. And he would hear Yvonne busying herself in the kitchen: he could not see her, but he recognised the sound of things. He knew when she was scrubbing the table and when she was standing at the stone sink, from the sound of the water moving. She would feed the fire which spoke through her, crackling softly. She prepared whole batches of the fatty, steaming food required by the men to continue to function throughout their work-filled days. There was a strength to Yvonne, it all came from her, from her hands, her bowed body, her white silence. Alphonse understood that and he loved her. He did not love her as those around them loved, with their bellies, their flesh, in the warmth between the sheets or in the sweltering heat of the barns. He did not desire her. She became necessary to him and he grew trusting. He surrendered himself, and Yvonne received him, without words, because, for the first time, she was not afraid.
She found him handsome. He was not like anybody. He had blue eyes. He was pale, he was fair, he was gentle. His step was light, it slipped past. His body had no odour, no weight. You would not hear him, and yet he was there, in the square of light through the door, silent and smooth. Sometimes he smiled. He would smile at her. He didn’t kick the dog under the table; he didn’t spit, he didn’t burp, he didn’t slurp his soup noisily; he didn’t laugh loudly with the others, who would bellow, baring all their teeth, heads hurled back, when the master was in a joking mood. He understood the work of women. He knew the cost of a well-scrubbed floor, of a sheet well drawn over freshened blankets. He valued it. Like a furtive creature, she would favour him with the smallest attentions, a velvety raspberry plucked in secret from the garden, warm on the tongue, a crumpled mint leaf from next to the fountain, that perfumed the fingers, which he smelled gently before slipping it into his pyjama pocket where it would accompany him to sleep in the still of the night.
Before using them to light the fire, Yvonne would pick her way through scraps of old photo-novellas discarded by Germaine. The stories did not seep into her, although some words remained with her. She, too, had a lover, like the girls who smelled good and tossed their shiny hair, on Tuesdays and Fridays, when the butcher’s truck would stop in the square outside the garage; the men would be there, in their blue overalls, sleeves rolled to the elbow over hard forearms, marbled with grease, hands reddened and fat, thick, ready to grab, to touch, to feel. In the sudden idleness of the break, their hands would hang, as if detached from their bodies, and alive. They would look at the girls and they would laugh louder. Yvonne had noticed it, that and the way the girls would talk amongst themselves and shake their hair, pulling their blouses tight over their round figures. The girls wanted to be caught in the men’s gaze, to be touched by it and already sized up, to be assessed for the correct weight of the pleasure they would provide, a pleasure that was always new and always the same. That much Yvonne had sensed. She didn’t envy those girls. She knew too well the sweat of a man, his protruding strength that pierces and eviscerates, making you bleed while he groans like the livestock.
Something had changed: Yvonne had a lover; she was carrying this beautiful mystery within. They had a secret. The others would not have understood, or would not have wanted to. They would have hooted or mocked them. Alphonse and Yvonne existed alongside them, transparent, forgotten, delighted yet grounded by small wonders. They shared their tasks without anybody noticing as much, not even Germaine, entirely consumed as she was by the inebriation brought on by her new-found freedom and power. Alphonse emerged from the bedroom, from the circle of all that linen spread about him; he busied himself with the wood and vegetables. He crossed the courtyard, taking long, even steps, laden with baskets which he set down on the kitchen step, in Yvonne’s domain. She didn’t give orders; he didn’t obey; he had observed and understood; he knew what the red, quick-spirited fire devoured; he knew what was sought by the bellies of the others when, three times a day, the kitchen would fill with their noise, their odours, their breathing, their strength. In the following silence, their hands, Alphonse and Yvonne’s hands touched above the enormous, carefully stacked dishes. It moved her; it was him she desired, him, and he knew nothing yet of this beating expectation that every day bored deeper into her girlish body. Rising up in her blood, under her skin, was a youthfulness unmarked by memories. She was confident; he would not take her as other men do, as the other one had. It was not who he was. All would be new, and she would be, too.
Alphonse was not imagining this. He inhaled Yvonne’s sweetness, which it seemed only he was aware of. He knew the milky pallor of the nape of her neck, the clear depths of her grey eyes. She was like a child to him. Germaine had a woman’s body under her nylon blouse; it was true of Germaine, but also of the girls emerging from Sunday Mass, tittering in mocking clusters. Every one of them was pledged to man’s red stake. They were summoning him to them. But not Yvonne. She was too innocent; she was scarcely alive. She would not have wanted that, not wanted a man between her legs and in her belly. Alphonse, what’s more, would not have known. Not that he was afraid; he was happy just to exist, to be in the days’ rhythm, between house, courtyard and garden. The world was no more than a backdrop, for her alone; the others had abandoned it. Nobody saw them, either of them, they were both dedicated to the tasks from that domestic world, so negligible but always there, waiting to be resumed. Only the boys wondered about the mystery at which they guessed: there was a peace seeping out from Yvonne and Alphonse, a peace that had no place anywhere else; it was not how the adults around them lived. They shouted, they lashed out, they laughed, rarely did they kiss, never would they caress, except perhaps the animals from time to time. But they belonged to the real world, they all did; like the rest of them, they belonged to the same side of things, not like those other two, disappearing into themselves, as if seeking refuge in some distant place, far, so far, removed, a place where, if they disappeared as only children can, they could not be reached, could not be hurt. The boys would not have known what to say, and anyway, to whom would they have said it? They were cautious, but something was happening which they didn’t recognise and which troubled them because they were small men, they had hardened early, and they knew already, in their skin and deep down in their bones, that you should not surrender, not abandon yourself, that it risks too much pain.
It was something Yvonne and Alphonse had forgotten, had they ever known it. Yvonne changed; she did not become beautiful; she would never have breasts, nor haunches, nor any of those things that catch the male gaze and draw them to attention. She did not become beautiful, but she entered into a state of desire. Her body would always be that of a child, but she was aware of being seen, and it showed. Not everyone noticed, because most could hardly suspect that Yvonne, cinched into ill-defined blouses, and worn down by menial chores, might have a body. Yvonne had always belonged in the kitchen, a slattern wedded to the dishwater, hunched over the steam of an endless pile of washing, as if born of it; by the grace of a man’s gaze, she started to expect, to hope, to want, and it told in the very way she walked, the way in which she displaced the air about her, the way she came and went between the stove and the sink. A slight tension, as if imprinted on her meagre flesh, became evident in her hips, in the nape of her neck, in her hands. She was no longer untouchable, and there was a man who noticed.
He came to the farm for work, a day labourer, had done for years, to fill in, for the seasonal jobs. He had known Yvonne as a child when he had worked on the property where she was born. More to the point, he had known her mother, the Polack, as they had taken to calling her after a Pole had had her. This man, too, had had Yvonne’s mother, like so many others, on a drunken evening, in the barn or behind the henhouse, in great, shoving thrusts. You didn’t ask her what she thought, Yvonne’s mother; with her you didn’t bother; she was not one of those women; that was what a body was for and she was not afraid of it; you didn’t care if it gave her any pleasure; she had no airs or graces and she cost nothing. But the Polack had grown old; she was no longer in form, and the man who arrived, that summer, at the farm, recognised immediately that one shift had ended and another had begun. Yvonne was ready, ripe. It would be enough to hold her just a little closer, at the right moment. He sized her up with a look, as would a man well-versed in women and young livestock. He knew she wasn’t fresh. The other fellow had talked, before leaving town. They hadn’t liked it; amongst themselves, they hadn’t approved, the labourers, but they had kept quiet. You shouldn’t do things ahead of time; they’re hard to manage, girls who are too young, and they don’t satisfy you. Young girls, that’s a vice. But now though, yes, now you could help yourself to that hollow every woman has, you could bury yourself deep inside, there, where the flesh is raw, where it’s warm.
No words were spoken. He waited for her, one evening in July, a Sunday, in the sweltering heat of a storm that wouldn’t break. He kept watch for her behind the rabbit enclosures where he knew she would go to take out the days’ peelings. Two new litters were quivering behind the wire of the hutches and, sometimes, Yvonne would linger with those sweet, timid, clawing creatures. He was on his way back from the village; he had been drinking; on Sundays you’d have a drink. He had an urge. He wanted it. There she was, ahead of him, in the evening. She was leaning forward. She hadn’t seen him. He put his hand over her mouth. She would have screamed. Somebody would perhaps have come. She struggled. He was thick, stretched tight, ready. She could do nothing. And with each thrust she felt the rattling of the old wooden hutches against her. The pattern of the wire mesh was imprinted on her forehead when, numb, senseless, she let herself slip to the ground, her legs open.
She did not return to the house. The next day, Germaine, who was surprised not to find her in the kitchen, up early with the men, was gripped by a brutal anger at the sight of the narrow, empty bed under the stairs. So she, too, was slipping out of her bed at night, and what did she have to offer . . . That sly one who kept herself to herself . . . She was just like the others, ready for anything with a man . . . They had told her as much, the women in the village . . . And in the middle of all the work to be done, at the height of the season . . . It showed no respect at all, not a thought for anything or anyone. Woken up, informed, grabbed by his sister, Alphonse said nothing. Immediately he was afraid. Yvonne was not the sort Germaine was shouting about, with her crude words, worn out from frequent use, while the others laughed. Yvonne was hurt; she was wounded; she must be hiding. He knew; he would look for her; he would find her. He went out into the warm dawn. He didn’t call out. His voice was curled up in his throat, in the hard ball rolling around under his skin, as it had done in his father’s throat before, whenever he had suffered a misfortune. Already the morning light was rifling through everything, greedy and determined.
Yvonne had her back to him when he found her in the garden shed. She must have done it at nightfall. She had gone looking in the barn for one of the big ropes used to secure loads on the hay carts. The rope was thick around her bird-like neck. Her feet were bare. Her shoes had slipped off. Alphonse picked them up. They were small. He would have liked to put them back on. Her feet were too naked. He couldn’t touch her. It was too difficult. He closed the door and sat down on the ground. They would look for them. The others would come. Germaine would take care of everything.
Photograph © Melinda Young