The genetrix, a lean, cold woman, with a ruddy neck and hands that are ever busy, affords the child scant attention. She is content merely to instruct her, to pass on the skills for those chores that are the preserve of their sex, and the child quickly learns to emulate her in her tasks, to mimic her gestures and her bearing. At five years old, she holds herself stiff and staid as a farmer’s wife, feet planted firmly on the ground, clenched fists resting on her narrow hips. She beats the laundry, churns the butter and draws water from the well or the spring without expecting affection or gratitude in return. Before Éléonore was born, the father twice impregnated the genetrix, but her menses are light, irregular, and continued to flow during the months when, in hindsight, she realizes that she was pregnant, though her belly had barely begun to swell. Although scrawny, she had a pot-belly as a child, her organs strained and bloated from parasitic infections contracted through playing in dirt and dungheaps, or eating infected meat, a condition her mother vainly attempted to treat with decoctions of garlic.
One October morning, alone in the sty, tending to the sow about to farrow, the genetrix is felled by a pain and, without even a cry, falls to her knees on the freshly scattered straw whose pale, perfumed dust is still rising in whorls. Her breaking waters drench her undergarments and her thighs. The sow, also in the throes of labour, trots in circles, making high whining sounds, her huge belly jiggling, her teats already swollen with milk, her swollen vulva dilated; and it is here, on her knees, and later on her side, that the genetrix gives birth, like a bitch, like a sow, panting, red-faced, her forehead bathed with sweat. Slipping a hand between her thighs, she feel the viscid mass tearing her apart. She buries her fingers in the fontanelle, rips out the stillborn foetus and flings it far from her. She grips the bluish umbilical cord attached to it and from her belly pulls the placenta which falls to the ground with a spongy sound. She stares at the tiny body covered in vernix caseosa, it looks like a yellowish worm, like the grey and golden larva of a potato beetle ripped from the rich soil and the roots on which it feeds. Daylight filters between loose boards, streaking the sour, dusty air, the bleak half-light that reeks of a knacker’s yard, and falls on the lifeless form lying on the straw. The genetrix gets to her feet, split in two, one hand under her skirt touching the swollen lips of her sex. She steps back, horrified, and leaves the sty, careful to latch the door, leaving to the sow the afterbirth and its fruit. For a long time she leans against the wall of the sty, motionless, gasping for breath. Bright blurred shapes float in her field of vision. Then she leaves the farm and takes the road towards Puy-Larroque, limping through a heavy drizzle that washes her face and the skirt stained brown with lochia. Without a glance at anyone, she crosses the village square. Those who see her notice the soiled skirt she is gripping in one fist, the pallid face, the lips pressed so tightly that the mouth is white as an old scar. Her brown hair has escaped her scarf and is plastered to her face and neck. She pushes open the church door and falls to her knees before the crucifix.
She walks back to the farm through the lashing rain, following the ditches, under the stoic gaze of cattle that stand unmoving in the downpour, her clenched fists pulling her cardigan over her flat chest. Head sunk between her shoulders, she drags her muddy clogs along the road, droning an Ave Maria to the rhythm of her breath and the sucking of the wooden soles in the soft ground. As she crosses the farmyard, she sees the figures of two men standing at the gate of the sty. She stops, checked by a primitive fear. Her heart, having faltered, is now pounding in her throat. The driving rain streaks a sky of slate; the air seems filled with a million needles. The figures seem to dissolve, to merge with the brown expanse of the sty wall, so that, at first, she cannot tell whether the men are turned towards her or away. Finally she makes out the gesticulating hands, the clouds of vaporous breath, the fitful snatches of raised voices. She risks a step, a movement of the leg, but it is involuntary, or ordered by some unconscious impulse, before racing into the farmhouse, where she quickly undresses, throws her underclothes and skirt onto the fire, where they hiss like a nest of vipers before bursting into flame under the indifferent eyes of the two cows. She sluices herself with dishwater, wipes herself with a rag she slips between her legs, before putting on clean, dry clothes.
She sits on the bench at the table. She stares out the window, at the torrential rain outside, splashing on the muddy farmyard. She sees the figures of the men appear in the frame and recognizes the hobbling gait of Albert Brisard, a local man with a club foot who works as a day-labourer. She does not move as they approach. In her lap, her white knuckles grip a rosary and she intones in Latin:
‘. . . Thou who takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us, Thou who takest away the sins of the world, hear my prayer, Thou who art seated at the right hand of the Father, have mercy upon us . . .’
When they push open the door, she quickly gets to her feet and stands stiffly by the table. A gust of wind sweeps through the farmyard and into the room, bringing with it the drizzle and the smell of the men as they take off their gabardines, catch their breath and mop their faces. The husband says:
‘So there you are.’
They stand for a moment in the damp, smoky half-light, then the husband gestures for Brisard to pull up a chair and they sit down at the table. She walks over to the dresser, on which she places the rosary, and takes the bottle of Armagnac and two glasses that she sets before the men and fills to the brim. The neck of the bottle is clinking so loudly against the rim of the glasses that she has to steady her forearm with her other hand.
‘Where did you get to?’ the husband asks.
‘I went into the village,’ she says.
‘With the gilt there about to farrow?’
‘I strawed down the sty, but there was no sign it was coming any time soon.’
‘She ate the litter, and there’s nothing now can be saved,’ he adds.
‘Fraid not,’ says Brisard, plunging his thick moustache into the brandy.
The men drain their glasses, she pours again, they drink again and then she pours two more glasses, corks the bottle and puts it back in the dresser. She sits off to one side on the wooden flour chest.
‘Not even that sow of yours,’ Albert Brisard says, his cheeks flushed from a belch. ‘You can be sure she’ll do it again . . . She’s got the taste for it, as they say . . . It’s in her blood now. If you spare her and mate her again, even if you hobble her so she can’t get at the litter, they’ll be infected and the sows in the litter will eat their young the same way. It’s like a weakness, a vice . . . I’ve seen it with my own two eyes. There’s nothing to be done but slaughter her.’
He nods and snuffles, wipes his nose with the back of his hand, leaving a streak of snot, and brings the empty glass to his lips, lifting it high, tipping his head back in the hope of savouring a last drop of Armagnac.
‘I wouldn’t mind but we feed ’em well, our beasts,’ the husband says.
‘Maybe it’s to make up for the blood she lost. Or maybe it’s the pain as does it . . . Best to pick up the afterbirth and change the straw when it’s soiled. Once as the litter have suckled the sow of her first milk, there’s not much to fear.’
Then he glances over his shoulder and gets to his feet:
‘Well, the rains seems to have eased off. We’ll talk soon.’
The husband nods, gets up in turn and walks Brisard to the doorstep. They watch as he puts on his coat, wrings out his beret, which sprays brown liquid onto the gleaming grey flagstones of the farmyard, puts it on, and walks off after addressing them a curt nod. Surly, the husband pulls on a leather jerkin, a pair of fed boots and heads out to the sty. The genetrix closes the door. She watches the broad back of this man she must think of as her own, his long, slow gait beneath a sky now smudged with black ravelled clouds, then turns away, goes to the bed and lies down, trembling from head to toe, and immediately sinks into sleep.
By evening, the happening feels remote. All that remains is a vague recollection, an impression of the kind left by a dream that flares after waking and is all the more confusing; a nebulous feeling rekindled by some chance detail that contains the dream or the memory of the dream, a thread that snaps when one tries to draw it towards consciousness and, though for a time she recalls a particular physical sensation, a bottomless void, it fades with each passing day until it effaces everything, or almost everything, about this parturition on the floor of the sty. The infanticidal sow is fattened for slaughter and a boar is brought from a neighbouring farm to service the other sow, who farrows down three months, three weeks and three days later. On the advice of Albert Brisard, as a precaution, the newborn piglets are smeared with a bitter concoction of sour apple and juniper. The incident is forgotten.
The above is an excerpt from Animalia by Jean-Baptiste Del Amo, translated from the French by Frank Wynne, and published in English by Fitzcarraldo Editions. Animalia retraces the history of a modest peasant family through the twentieth century as they develop their small plot of land into an intensive pig farm. A powerful novel about man’s desire to conquer nature and the transmission of violence from one generation to the next.
Image © Renaud Camus