Sometimes to refute a single sentence it is necessary to tell a life story.
In our village, as in many villages in the world at that time, there was a souvenir shop. The shop was in a converted farm house which had been built four or five generations earlier, on the road up to the mountain. You could buy there skiers in bottles, mountain flowers under glass, plates decorated with gentians, miniature cow bells, plastic spinning wheels, carved spoons, chamois leather, sheepskins, clockwork marmots, goat horns, cassettes, maps of Europe, knives with wooden handles, gloves, T-shirts, films, key rings, sunglasses, imitation butter-churns, my books.
The woman who owned the shop served in it. She was by then in her early forties. Blond, smiling but with sharp eyes, she was buxom with small feet and slender ankles. The young in the village nicknamed her the Goose – for reasons that are not part of this story. Her real name was Marie-Jeanne. Earlier, before Marie-Jeanne and her husband came to the village, the house belonged to Boris. It was from him that they inherited it.
Now I come to the sentence that I want to refute.
Boris died, said Marc, leaning one Sunday morning against the wall that twists (like the last letter of the alphabet) through our hamlet, Boris died like one of his own sheep, neglected and starving. What he did to his cattle finally happened to him: he died like one of his own animals.
Boris was the third of four brothers. The eldest was killed in the War, the second by an avalanche and the youngest emigrated. Even as a child Boris was distinguished by his brute strength. The other children at school feared him a little and at the same time teased him. They had spotted his weakness. To challenge most boys you bet that they couldn’t lift a sack of seventy kilograms. Boris could lift seventy kilograms with ease. To challenge Boris you bet him that he couldn’t make a whistle out of a branch of an ash tree.
During the summer, after the cuckoos had fallen silent, all the boys had ash whistles, some even had flutes with eight holes. Having found and cut down the little branch of wood, straight and of the right diameter, you put it in your mouth to moisten it with your tongue, then tapped on it, all round, briskly but not too hard with the wooden handle of your pocket knife. This tapping separated the bark from the wood so that you could pull the white wood out, like an arm from a sleeve. Finally you carved the mouth piece and reinserted it into the bark. The whole process took a quarter of an hour.
Boris put the little branch into his mouth as if he was going to devour the tree of life itself. And his difficulty was that he had invariably struck too hard with his knife handle, so that he had damaged the bark. His whole body went tense. He would try again. He would cut another branch and when it came to tapping it, either he would hit too hard, or, with the concentrated effort of holding himself back, his arm wouldn’t move at all.
Come on, Boris, play us some music! they teased him.
When he was fully grown, his hands were unusually big and his blue eyes were set in sockets which looked as though they were meant for eyes as large as those of a calf. It was as if, at the moment of his conception, every one of his cells had been instructed to grow large; but his spine, femur, tibia, fibula had played truant. As a result, he was of average height but his features and extremities were like those of a giant.
One morning in the alpage, years ago, I woke up to find all the pastures white. One cannot really talk of the first snow of the year at an altitude of 1600 metres, because often it snows every month, but this was the first snow which was not going to disappear until the following year, and it was falling in large flakes.
Towards midday there was a knock on the door. I opened it. Beyond, almost indistinguishable from the snow, were thirty sheep, silent, snow on their necks. In the doorway stood Boris.
He came in and went over to the stove to thaw out. It was one of those tall stoves for wood, standing free in the centre of the room like a post of warmth. The jacket over his gigantic shoulders was white as a mountain.
For a quarter of an hour he stood there silent, drinking from the glass of gnole, holding his huge hands over the stove. The damp patch on the floorboards around him was growing larger.
At last he spoke in his rasping voice. His voice, whatever the words, spoke of a kind of neglect. Its hinges were off, its windows broken, and yet, there was a defiance in it, as if, like a prospector living in a broken-down shack, it knew where there was gold.
In the night, he said, I saw it was snowing. And I knew my sheep were up by the peak. The less there is to eat, the higher they climb. I drove up here before it was light and I set out. It was crazy to climb by myself. Yet who would come with me? I couldn’t see the path for the snow. If I’d lost my foothold, there was nothing, nothing at all, to stop me till I reached the churchyard below. For five hours since daybreak I have been playing against death.
His eyes in their deep sockets interrogated me to check whether I had understood what he was saying. Not his words, but what lay behind them. Boris liked to remain mysterious. He believed that the unsaid favoured him. And yet, despite himself, he dreamed of being understood.
Standing there with the puddle of melted snow at his feet, he was not in the least like the good shepherd who had just risked his life for his flock. St John the Baptist, who crowned the Lamb with flowers, was the very opposite of Boris. Boris neglected his sheep. Each year he sheared them too late and they suffered from the heat. Each summer he omitted to pare their hooves and they went lame. They looked like a flock of beggars in grey wool, Boris’s sheep. If he had risked his life that day on the mountain, it wasn’t for their sake, but for the sake of their market price.
His parents had been poor, and from the age of twenty Boris boasted of the money he was going to make one day. He was going to make big money – according to the instructions received at his conception and inscribed in every cell of his body.
At market he bought cattle that nobody else would buy, and he bought at the end of the day, offering a price which twelve hours earlier would have appeared derisory. I see him, taciturn beside the big-boned animals, pinching their flesh with one of his immense thumbs, dressed in khaki and wearing an American army cap.
He believed that time would bring him nothing: and that his cunning must bring him everything. When he was selling he never named his price. ‘You can’t insult me,’ he said, ‘just tell me what you want to offer.’ Then he waited, his blue, deep-set eyes already on the brink of the derision with which he was going to greet the price named.
He is looking at me now, with the same expression. I told you once, he says, that I had enough poems in my head to fill a book, do you remember? Now you are writing the story of my life. You can do that because it’s finished. When I was still alive, what did you do? Once you brought me a packet of cigarettes whilst I was grazing the sheep above the factory.
I say nothing. I go on writing.
The uncle of all cattle dealers once told me: ‘A ram like Boris is best eaten as meat.’
Boris’s plan was simple: to buy thin and sell fat. What he sometimes underestimated was the work and time necessary between the two. He willed the thin cattle to become fat, but their flesh, unlike his own, was not always obedient to his will. And their bodies, at the moment of conception, had not received the same instructions.
He grazed his sheep on every scrap of common land and often on land which wasn’t common. In the winter he was obliged to buy extra hay, and he promised to pay for it with lambs in the spring. He never paid. Yet he survived. And his herd grew bigger: in his heyday he owned a hundred and fifty sheep. He drove a Land Rover which he had recuperated from a ravine. He had a shepherd whom he had recuperated from an alcoholic’s clinic. Nobody trusted Boris, nobody resisted him.
The story of his advancement spread. So too did the stories of his negligence – his unpaid debts, his sheep eating off land which belonged to other people. They were considered a scourge, Boris’s sheep, as if they were a troop of wild boar. And often, like the Devil’s own, his flock left and arrived by night.
In the Republican Lyre, the café opposite the church, there was sometimes something of the Devil about Boris too. He stood at the bar – he never sat down – surrounded by the young from several villages: the young who foresaw initiatives beyond the comprehension of their cautious yet wily parents, the young who dreamed of leisure and foreign women.
You should go to Canada, Boris was saying, that’s where the future belongs. Here, as soon as you do something of your own, you’re mistrusted. Canada is big, and when you have something big, you have something generous!
He paid for his round of drinks with a fifty thousand note, which he placed on the counter with his wooden-handled knife on top of it, so that it wouldn’t blow away.
Here, he continued, nothing is ever forgiven! Not this side of death. And, as for the other side, they leave it to the curé. Have you ever seen anyone laughing for pleasure here?
And at that moment, as though he, the Devil, had ordered it, the door of the café opened and a couple came in, the woman roaring with laughter. They were strangers, both of them. The man wore a weekend suit and pointed shoes, and the woman, who, like her companion, was about thirty, had blond hair and wore a fur coat. One of the young men looked out through the window and saw their car parked opposite. It had Lyons number plates. Boris stared at them. The man said something and the woman laughed again. She laughed shamelessly, like a cock crowing.
Do you know them?
Boris shook his head.
Shortly afterwards he pocketed his knife, proffered the fifty thousand note, insisted upon paying for the two coffees the couple from Lyons were drinking, and left, without so much as another glance in their or anybody else’s direction.
When the strangers got up to pay, the patronne simply said: It’s already been settled.
By the man who left five minutes ago.
The one in khaki? asked the blond. The patronne nodded.
We are looking for a house to rent, furnished if possible, said the man. Do you happen to know of any in the village?
For a week or a month? queried the patronne.
No, for the whole year round.
You want to settle here? asked one of the youths, incredulous.
My husband has a job in A—, the blond explained. He’s a driving instructor.
The couple found a house. And one Tuesday morning, just before Easter, Boris drew up in his Land Rover and hammered on the door. It was opened by the blond, still wearing her dressing gown.
I’ve a present for you both, he said.
My husband, unfortunately, has just gone to work.
I know. I watched him leave. Wait!
He opened the back of the Land Rover and returned with a lamb in his arms.
This is the present.
Is it asleep?
The blond threw her head back and laughed. What should we do with a slaughtered lamb? she sighed, wiping her mouth with her sleeve.
It still has its wool on. We don’t know how to do such things and Gérard hates the sight of blood.
I’ll prepare it for you.
It was you who bought us the coffee wasn’t it?
Boris shrugged his shoulders. He was holding the lamb by its hind legs, its muzzle a few inches from the ground. The blond was wearing mules of artificial leopard skin.
Come in then, she said.
All this was observed by the neighbours.
The hind legs of the lamb were tied together and he hung it like a jacket on the back of the kitchen door. When he arrived, the blond had been drinking a bowl of coffee which was still on the table. In the kitchen there was the smell of coffee, of soap powder and of her. She had the smell of a buxom, plump body without a trace of the smell of work. Work has the smell of vinegar. He put out a hand to touch her hips as she passed between the table and the stove. Once again she laughed, this time quietly. Later he was to recall this first morning that he found himself in her kitchen, as if it were something he had swallowed, as if his tongue had never forgotten the taste of her mouth when she first bent down to kiss him.
Every time he visited her, he brought her a present; the lamb was only the first. Once he came with his tractor and trailer and on the trailer was a sideboard. He never disguised his visits. He made them in full daylight before the eyes of his neighbours who noticed that each time, after about half an hour, the blond closed the shutters of the bedroom window.
And if one day her husband should come back unexpectedly? asked one of the neighbours.
God Forbid! Boris would be capable of picking him up and throwing him over the roof.
Yet he must have his suspicions?
It’s clear you’ve never lived in a big town.
Why do you say that?
The husband knows. If you’d lived in a big town, you’d know that the husband knows.
Then why doesn’t he put his foot down, he can’t be that cowardly?
One day the husband will come back, at a time agreed upon with his wife, and Boris will still be there, and the husband will say: What will you have as an aperitif, a pastis?
And he’ll put poison in it?
No, black pepper! To excite him further.
Boris had been married at the age of twenty-five. His wife left him after one month. They were later divorced. His wife, who was not from the valley, never accused him of anything. She simply said, quietly, that she couldn’t live with him. And once she added: perhaps another woman could.
The blond gave Boris the nickname of ‘Little Humpback’.
My back is as straight as yours.
I didn’t say it wasn’t.
Then why –
It’s what I like to call you.
Little Humpback, she said one day, do you ski?
When could I have learned?
You buy the skis and I’ll teach you.
I’m too old to start, he said.
You’re a champion in bed, you could be a champion on the ski slopes!
He pulled her towards him and covered her face and mouth with his huge hand.
This too he was to remember later when he thought about their two lives and the differences between them.
One day he arrived at the house carrying a washing machine on his shoulders. Another day he came with a wall-hanging, as large as a rug, on which were depicted, in bright velvet colours, two horses on a mountainside.
At that time Boris owned two horses. He’d bought them on the spur of the moment because he liked the look of them and he’d beaten down their price. In the spring I had to deliver a third horse to him. It was early morning and the snow had melted the week before. He was asleep in his bed and I woke him. Above his bed was a Madonna and a photograph of the blond. We took a bale of hay and went out to the field. There I let the horse go. After a long winter confined to the stable, she leapt and galloped between the trees. Boris was staring at her with his huge hands open and his eyes fixed. Ah Freedom! he said. He said it in neither a whisper nor a shout. He simply pronounced it as if it were the name of the horse.
The blond hung the tapestry on the wall in the bedroom. One Sunday afternoon, when Gérard was lying on the bed watching television, he nodded at the tapestry where the horses’ manes were combed by the wind as if by a hairdresser and the horses’ coats gleamed like polished shoes and the snow between the pine trees was as white as a wedding dress, and he said:
It’s the only one of his presents I could do without.
I like horses, she said.
Horses! He made a whinnying noise.
Your trouble is that horses scare you!
Horses! The only thing to be said about a picture – and that’s a picture even if it is made out of cotton –
– same thing, the only thing to be said about that picture there – is that in a picture horses don’t shit.
She laughed, her shoulders and bosom shaking.
Have you talked to him about the house yet? Gérard asked.
How difficult it is to prevent certain stories becoming a simple moral demonstration! As if there were never any hesitations, as if life didn’t wrap itself like a rag round the sharpest blade!
One midday, the following June, Boris arrived at the blond’s house, covered in sweat. His face, with his hawk-nose and his cheekbones like pebbles, looked as if he had just plunged it into a water trough. He entered the kitchen and kissed her as he usually did, but this time without a word. Then he went to the sink and put his head under the tap. She offered him a towel which he refused. The water from his hair was running down his neck to the inside of the shirt. She asked him whether he wanted to eat; he nodded. He followed her with his eyes wherever she went, not sentimentally like a dog, nor suspiciously, but as though from a great distance.
Are you ill? she asked him abruptly as she put down his plate on the table.
I have never been ill, he replied.
Then what is the matter?
By way of reply he pulled her towards him and thrust his head, still wet, against her breast. The pain she felt was not in her chest but in her spine. Yet she did not struggle and she placed her plump white hand on the hard head. For how long did she stand there in front of his chair? For how long was his face fitted into her breast like a gun into its case lined with velvet? On the night when Boris died alone, stretched out on the floor with his three black dogs, it seemed to him that his face had been fitted into her breast ever since he first set eyes on her.
Afterwards he did not want to eat what was on his plate.
Come on, Humpback, take your boots off and we’ll go to bed.
He shook his head.
What’s the matter with you? she screeched. You sit there, you say nothing, you eat nothing, you do nothing, you’re good for nothing!
He got to his feet and walked towards the door. For the first time she noticed he was limping.
What’s the matter with your foot?
He did not reply.
For Christ’s sake have you hurt your foot?
I overturned the tractor on the slope above the house. I was flung off and the fender crushed my foot.
Did you call the doctor?
I came here.
Where’s the jeep?
I can’t drive, the ankle is blocked.
She started to untie the boots. She began with the unhurt foot. He said nothing. The second boot was a different matter. His whole body went rigid when she began to unlace it. His sock was drenched in blood and the foot was too swollen for her to remove the boot.
She started to snivel. He, now that the boot no longer gave his foot support, could not stand up. Her head hanging, her hands limp by her side, she sat on the kitchen floor at his feet, sobbing inconsolably.
His foot had eleven fractures. The doctor refused to believe that he had walked the four kilometres from his farm to the blond’s. He said it was categorically impossible. The blond had driven Boris down to the surgery, and, according to the doctor, she had been at Boris’s house all morning but for some reason didn’t want to admit it. This is why, according to the doctor, the two of them had invented the implausible story of his walking four kilometres. The doctor, however, was wrong and the blond knew it. Of all the many times that Boris visited her, this was the only one which she never once mentioned to Gérard. And when, later, she heard the news of Boris’s death, she immediately asked whether he was wearing boots when they found him.
No, was the surprising reply, he was barefoot.
Boris, when young, had inherited three houses, but all of them, by the standards of the towns, were in a pitiable condition. In the house with the largest barn he himself lived. There was electricity but no water. The house was below the road and the passer-by could look down its chimney. It was in this house that the three black dogs howled all night when he died.
The second house, the one he always referred to as the Mother’s house, was the best situated of the three and he had long-term plans for selling it to a Parisian – when the day and the Parisian arrived.
In the third house, which was no more than a cabin at the foot of the mountain, Edmond, the shepherd, slept when he could. Edmond was a thin man with the eyes of a hermit. His experience had led him to believe that nearly all those who walked on two legs belonged to a species named Misunderstanding. He received from Boris no regular salary but occasional presents and his keep.
One spring evening, Boris went up to the house under the mountain, taking with him a cheese and a smoked side of bacon.
You’re not often at home now! was how Edmond greeted him.
Why do you say that?
I have eyes. I notice when the Land Rover passes.
And you know where I go?
Edmond deemed the question unworthy of a reply, he simply fixed his unavailing eyes on Boris.
I’d like to marry her, said Boris.
But you can’t, said Edmond.
She would be willing.
Are you sure?
Boris answered by smashing his right fist into his left palm. Edmond said nothing.
How many lambs? asked Boris.
Thirty-three. She is from the city isn’t she?
Her father is a butcher in Lyons.
Why hasn’t she any children?
Not every ram has balls, you should know that. She’ll have a child of mine.
How long have you been going with her?
Edmond raised his eyebrows. City women are not the same, he said, and I ought to know. I’ve seen enough. They’re not built the same way. They don’t have the same shit and they don’t have the same blood. They don’t smell the same either. They don’t smell of stables and onions and vinegar, they smell of something else. And that something else is dangerous. They have perfect eyelashes, they have unscratched legs without varicose veins, they have shoes with soles as thin as pancakes, they have hands white and smooth as peeled potatoes and when you smell their smell, it fills you with a god-forsaken longing. You want to breathe them to their dregs, you want to squeeze them like lemons until there is not a drop or a pip left. And shall I tell you what they smell of? Their smell is the smell of money. They calculate everything for money. They are not built like our mothers, these women.
You can leave my mother out of it.
Be careful, said Edmond, your blond will strip you of everything. Then she’ll throw you aside like a plucked chicken.
With a slow blow to the face Boris knocked the shepherd over. He lay spread-eagled on the ground.
Nothing stirred. The dog licked Edmond’s forehead.
Only somebody who has seen a battlefield, can imagine the full indifference of the stars above the shepherd spread-eagled on the ground. It is in face of this indifference that we seek love.
Tomorrow I will buy her a shawl, whispered Boris, and without a glance behind him, took the road back to the village.
Next morning the police came to warn him that his sheep were a public danger, for they were encumbering the motorway. Edmond, the shepherd, had disappeared and he was not seen again until after Boris’s death.
The month of August was the month of Boris’s triumph. Or is glory a better term? For he was too happy, too self-absorbed, to see himself as a victor who had triumphed over others. It had become clear to him that the instructions inscribed at the moment of his conception had involved more than the size of his bones, the thickness of his skull or the power of his will. He was destined, at the age of forty, to be recognized.
The hay had been brought in, his barn was full, his sheep were grazing high in the mountains, without a shepherd but God would preserve them, and every evening he sat on the terrace of the Republican Lyre overlooking the village square, with the blond in a summer dress, her shoulders bare, her feet in high-heeled silver sandals, and, until nightfall, the pair of them were the colour-television picture of the village.
Offer drinks to every table, he said, leaning back in his chair, and if they ask what’s happened, tell them that Boris is buying horses!
Humpback, not every night, you can’t afford it!
Every night! My balls are swollen.
He placed one of his immense hands on the bosom of her red polka-dot dress.
His energy made her laugh.
It’s true about the horses, he said, I’m going to breed horses – for you! Breed riding horses that we’ll sell to the idiots who come for weekends.
What should I do with horses? she asked, I can’t ride.
If you have a child of mine –
I’ll teach the child to ride, he said. A child of ours will have your looks and my pride.
The last word he had never uttered before concerning himself.
If we have a child, she whispered, the house where we live now is too small. We’d need at least another room.
And how many months have we got to sort out the question of a house? asked Boris with his cattle-dealer’s canniness.
I don’t know, Humpback, perhaps eight.
A bottle of champagne, Boris shouted, pour out glasses for everybody.
Are you still buying horses? asked Marc, who, with his pipe and blue overalls, is the sceptic of the Republican Lyre, the perennial instructor about the idiocy of the world.
That’s none of your business, retorted Boris; I’m buying drinks.
I’ll be tipsy, said the blond.
I’ll get you some nuts.
On the counter of the Republican Lyre is a machine where you put in a franc and a child’s handful of peanuts comes out. Boris fed coin after coin into the machine and asked for a soup plate.
When the men standing at the bar raised their glasses of champagne and nodded towards Boris, they were each toasting the blond: and each was picturing himself in Boris’s place, some with envy, and all with that odd nostalgia which everyone feels for what they know they will never live.
Beside Marc stood Jean who had once been a long-distance lorry-driver. Now he kept rabbits with his wife and was seventy. Jean was in the middle of a story.
Guy was pissed out of his mind, Jean was saying; Guy slumped down on to the floor and lay there flat out, as if he were dead. Jean paused and looked at the faces around the bar to emphasize the impasse. What should we do with him? It was then that Patrick had his brainwave. Bring him round to my place, said Patrick. They got Guy into the car and they drove him up to Patrick’s place. Bring him in here, lay him on the work bench, said Patrick. Now slip off his trousers.
The blond started to laugh.
You’re not going to harm him? Slip off his trousers I tell you. Now his socks. There he lay on the work bench, as naked as we’ll all be when the Great Holiday starts. What now? He’s broken his leg, announced Patrick. Don’t be daft. We’re going to make him believe he broke his leg, Patrick explained. Why should he believe it? Wait and see. Patrick mixed up a bathful of plaster and, as professionally as you’d expect from Patrick, he plastered Guy’s leg from the ankle to halfway up the thigh. Jean paused to look round at his listeners. On the way home in the car Guy came round. Don’t worry, mate, said Patrick, you broke your leg, but it’s not bad, we took you to the hospital and they’ve set it in plaster and they said you could have it off in a week, it’s not a bad fracture. Guy looked down at his leg and the tears ran down his cheeks. What a cunt I am! he went on repeating. What a cunt I am!
The blond broke out into laughter, her head flung back, her chest out, her red-spotted dress stretched tight.
What happened afterwards, she asked, her mouth still open.
He was a week off work, watching the telly, with his leg up on a chair!
Boris put the back of his hand against her throat – for fear that the palm was too calloused – and there he could feel the laughter which began between her hips, gushing up to her mouth. Systematically he moved the back of his immense hand up and down the blond’s throat.
Jean, the lorry-driver who now kept rabbits, watched this action, fascinated, as if it were more improbable than the story he had just told.
I couldn’t believe it, he recounted to the habitués of the Republican Lyre later that night: there was Boris, over there, bone-headed Boris caressing the blond like she was a sitting-up squirrel, and feeding her nuts from a soup plate. And what do you think he does when the husband comes in? He stands up, holds out his hand to the husband and announces: What do you want to drink? A white wine with cassis? I’m taking her to the ball tonight, Boris says. We shan’t be back till morning.
The ball was in the next village. All night it seemed to Boris that the earth was moving past the plough of its own volition.
Once they stopped dancing to drink. He beer, and she lemonade.
I will give you the Mother’s house, he said.
Why do you call it that?
My mother inherited it from my father.
And if one day you want to sell it?
How can I sell it if I’ve given it to you?
Gérard will never believe it.
About our child?
No. About the house, he won’t agree to move in, unless it’s certain.
Leave Gérard! Come and live with me.
No Humpback, I’m not made for preparing mash for chickens.
Once again, by way of reply, Boris thrust his massive head against her breast. His face fitted into her breast like a gun into its case lined with velvet. For how long was his face buried between her breasts? When he raised it he said: I’ll give you the house formally, I’ll see the notary, it’ll be yours, yours not his, and then it’ll go to our child. Do you want to dance again?
They danced until the white dress with red polka-dots was stained with both their sweats, until there was no music left, until her blond hair smelled of his cows.
Years later, people asked: how was it possible that Boris, who never gave anything away in his life, Boris, who would cheat his own grandmother, Boris, who never kept his word, how was it that he gave the house to the blond? And the answer, which was an admission of the mystery, was always the same: a passion is a passion.
Women did not ask the same question. It was obvious to them that, given the right moment and circumstances, any man may be manipulated. There was no mystery. And perhaps it was for this reason that the women felt a little more pity for Boris than the men.
As for Boris, he never asked himself: Why did I give her the house? He never regretted this decision, although – and here all the commentators are right – it was unlike any other he had ever taken. He regretted nothing. Regrets force one to relive the past, and, until the end, he was waiting.
The flowers which grew in the mountains had brighter, more intense colours than the same flowers growing on the plain; a similar principle applied to thunderstorms. Lightning in the mountains did not just fork, it danced in circles; the thunder did not just clap, it echoed. And sometimes the echoes were still echoing when the next clap came, so that the bellowing became continuous. All this was due to the metal deposits in the rocks. During a storm, the hardiest shepherd asked himself: What in God’s name am I doing here? And next morning, when it was light, he might find signs of the visitations of which, fortunately, he had been largely ignorant the night before: holes in the earth, burned grass, smoking trees, dead cattle. At the end of the month of August there was such a thunderstorm.
Some of Boris’s sheep were grazing just below the Rock of St Antoine on the far slopes facing east. When sheep are frightened they climb, looking to heaven to save them; and so Boris’s sheep moved up to the screes by the rock, and there they huddled together under the rain. Sixty sheep, each one resting his drenched head on the oily drenched rump or shoulders of his neighbour. When the lightning lit up the mountain – and everything appeared so clear and so close that the moment seemed endless – the sixty animals looked like a single giant sheepskin coat. There were even two sleeves, each consisting of half-a-dozen sheep, who were hemmed in along two narrow corridors of grass between the rising rocks. From this giant coat, during each lightning flash, a hundred or more eyes, glistening like brown coal, peered out in fear. They were right to be frightened. The storm centre was approaching. The next forked lightning struck the heart of the coat and the entire flock was killed. Most of them had their jaws and forelegs broken by the shock of the electrical discharge, received in the head and earthed through their thin bony legs.
In the space of one night Boris lost three million francs.
It was I, thirty-six hours later, who first noticed the crows circling in the sky. Something was dead there, but I didn’t know what. Somebody told Boris and the next day he went up to the Rock of St Antoine. There he found the giant sheepskin coat, discarded, cold, covered with flies. The carcasses were too far from any road. The only thing he could do was to burn them where they were.
He fetched petrol and diesel oil and started to make a pyre, dragging the carcasses down the two sleeves and throwing them one on top of another. He started the fire with an old tyre. Thick smoke rose above the peak, and with it the smell of burned animal flesh. It takes very little to turn a mountain into a corner of hell. From time to time Boris consoled himself by thinking of the blond. Later he would laugh with her. Later, his face pressed against her, he would forget the shame of this scene. But more than these promises which he made to himself, it was the simple fact of her existence which encouraged him.
By now everybody in the village knew what had happened to Boris’s sheep. No one blamed Boris outright – how could they? Yet there were those who hinted that a man couldn’t lose so many animals at one go unless, in some way, he deserved it. Boris neglected his cattle. Boris did not pay his debts. Boris was having it off with a married woman. Providence was delivering him a warning.
They say Boris is burning his sheep, said the blond, you can see the smoke over the mountain.
Why don’t we go and watch? suggested Gérard.
She made the excuse of a headache.
Come on, he said, it’s a Saturday afternoon and the mountain air will clear your head. I’ve never seen a man burning sixty sheep.
I don’t want to go.
What’s niggling you?
You think he could change his mind about the house now? He’ll certainly be short of money.
It’s not a flock of sheep that’s going to make him change his mind about the house.
We shouldn’t count our chickens –
Only one thing could make him go back on his word about the house.
If you stopped seeing him?
Has he mentioned the house recently?
Do you know what he calls it? He calls it the Mother’s house.
She shrugged her shoulders.
Come on, said Gérard.
Gérard and his wife drove up the mountain to where the road stopped. From there, having locked the car, they continued on foot. Suddenly she screamed as a grouse flew up from under her feet.
I thought it was a baby! she cried.
You must have drunk too much. How can a baby fly?
That’s what I thought, I’m telling you.
Can you see the smoke? Gérard asked.
What is it that’s hissing?
His sheep cooking! said Gérard.
Don’t be funny.
Can you smell anything?
I wouldn’t like to be up here in a storm, she said.
He wasn’t here often either.
It’s all very well for you to talk, you’ve never lifted a shovel in your life, she said.
That’s because I’m not stupid.
No. Nobody could call you that. And he’s stupid, Boris is stupid, stupid, stupid!
He was encouraging the fire with fuel, whose blue flames chased the slower yellow ones. He picked up a sheep by its legs, and swung it back and forth, before flinging it high into the air so that it landed on top of the pyre, where, for a few minutes longer, it was still recognizable as an animal. The tear-stains on his cheek were from tears provoked by the heat, and, when the wind turned, by the acrid smoke. Every few minutes he picked up another carcass, swung it to gain a momentum, and hurled it into the air. The boy, who had never been able to tap the ash-bark gently enough, had become the man who could burn his own herd single-handed.
Gérard and the blond stopped within fifty yards of the blaze. The heat, the stench and something unknown prevented them approaching further. This unknown united the two of them: wordlessly they were agreed about it. They raised their hands to protect their eyes. Fires and gigantic waterfalls have one thing in common. There is spray torn off the cascade by the wind, there are the flames: there is the rock face dripping and visibly eroding, there is the breaking up of what is being burned: there is the roar of the water, there is the terrible chatter of the fire. Yet at the centre of both fire and waterfall there is an ungainsayable calm. And it is this calm which is catastrophic.
Look at him, whispered Gérard.
Three million he’s lost, poor sod! murmured the blond.
Why are you so sure he isn’t insured?
I know, she hissed, that’s why. I know.
Boris, his back to the fire, was bent over his haversack drinking from a bottle of water. Having drunk, he poured water on to his face and his black arms. Its freshness made him think of how he would strip in the kitchen this evening and wash before going to visit the blond.
When Boris turned back towards the fire he saw them. Immediately a gust of smoke hid them from view. Not for a moment, however, did he ask himself whether he had been mistaken. He would recognize her instantly whatever she was doing, anywhere. He would recognize her in any country in the world in any decade of her life.
The wind veered and he saw them again. She stood there, Gérard’s arm draped over her shoulders. It was impossible that they had not seen him and yet she made no sign. They were only fifty yards away. They were staring straight at him. And yet she made no sign.
If he walked into the fire would she cry out? Still holding the bottle, he walked upright, straight – like a soldier going to receive a medal – towards the fire. The wind changed again and they disappeared.
The next time the smoke cleared the couple were nowhere to be seen.
Contrary to what he had told himself earlier, Boris did not come down that night. He stayed by the fire. The flames had abated, his sheep were ashes, yet the rocks were still oven-hot and the embers, like his rage, changed colour in the wind.
Huddled under the rock, the Milky Way trailing its veil towards the south, he considered his position. Debts were warnings of the ultimate truth, they were signs, not yet insistent, of the final inhospitality of life on this earth. After midnight the wind dropped, and the rancid smell, clinging to the scree, was no longer wafted away; it filled the silence, as does the smell of cordite when the sound of the last shot has died away. On this inhospitable earth he had found, at the age of forty-one, a shelter. The blond was like a place: one where the law of inhospitality did not apply. He could take this place anywhere with him, and it was enough for him to think of her, for him to approach it. How then was it possible that she had come up the mountain on the day of his loss and not said a word to him? How was it possible that on this rock, far above the village, where even the church bells were inaudible, she should have come as close as fifty yards and not made a sign? He stirred the embers with his boot. He knew the answer to the question and it was elementary. He pissed into the fire and on the stones his urine turned into steam. It was elementary. She had come to watch him out of curiosity.
Before he saw her, he was telling himself that, after all, he had only lost half his sheep. As soon as he saw her with his own eyes, and she made no sign to him, his rage joined that of the fire: he and the fire, they would burn the whole world together, everything, sheep, livestock, houses, furniture, forests, cities. She had come out of curiosity to watch his humiliation.
All night he hated her. Just after sunrise, when it was coldest, his hatred reached its zenith. And so, four days later he was asking himself: could she have had another reason for coming up to the Rock of St Antoine?
Boris decided to remain in the mountains. If he went down to the village, everyone would stare at him to see how he had taken his loss. They would ask him if he was insured, just in order to hear him say No. This would give them pleasure. If he went down he might start breaking things, the windows of the mayor’s office, the glasses on the counter of the Republican Lyre, Gérard’s face, the nose of the first man to put an arm round the blond’s waist. The rest of his sheep were near Peniel, where there was a chalet he could sleep in. Until the snow came, he would stay there with his remaining sheep. Like that, he would be on the spot to bring them down for the winter. If she had really come to see him for another reason, she would come again.
A week passed. He had little to do. In the afternoons he lay on the grass, gazed up at the sky, occasionally gave an order to one of the dogs to turn some sheep, idly watched the valleys below. Each day the valleys appeared further away. At night he was obliged to light a fire in the chalet; there was no chimney but there was a hole in the roof. His physical energy was undiminished, but he stopped plotting and stopped desiring. On the mountainside opposite the chalet was a colony of marmots. He heard the marmot on guard whistle whenever one of his dogs approached the colony. In the early morning he saw them preparing for the winter and their long sleep. They lifted clumps of grass with roots attached, and carried them, as if they were flowers, to their underground hideout. Like widows, he told himself, like widows.
One night, when the stars were as bright as in the spring, his anger returned to galvanize him. So they think Boris is finished, he muttered to the dogs, but they are fucking well wrong. Boris is only at the beginning. He slept with his fist in his mouth, and that night he dreamed.
The following afternoon he was lying on his back looking up at the sky, when suddenly he rolled over on to his stomach in order to look down the track which led through the forest to the tarred road. His hearing had become almost as acute as that of his dogs. He saw her walking towards him. She was wearing a white dress and blue sandals, around her neck a string of beads like pearls.
How are you, Humpback?
So you’ve come at last!
You disappeared! You disappeared! She opened her arms to embrace him. You disappeared and so I said to myself: I’ll go and find Humpback, and here I am.
She stepped back to look at him. He had a beard, his hair was tangled, his skin was dirty and his blue eyes, staring, were focused a little too far away.
How did you get here? he asked.
I left the car at the chalet below.
Where the old lady is?
There’s nobody there now, and the windows are boarded up.
They must have taken the cows down, he said, what date is it?
What did you come for, when I was burning the sheep?
How do you mean?
You came up to the Rock of St Antoine with your husband.
The day I was burning the sheep, I saw you.
It must have been somebody else.
I’d never mistake another woman for you.
I was very sorry to hear about what happened to your sheep, Boris.
Grandma used to say that dreams turned the truth upside down. Last night I dreamed we had a daughter, so in life it’ll be a son.
Humpback, I’m not pregnant.
Is that true?
I don’t want to lie to you.
Why did you come to spy on me? If you’re telling the truth, tell it.
I didn’t want to.
Why didn’t you come over and speak to me?
I was frightened.
No, Humpback, of what you were doing.
I was doing what had to be done, no more. Then I was going to come and visit you.
I was waiting for you, she said.
No, you weren’t. You had seen what you wanted to see.
I’ve come now.
If he’s conceived today, he’ll be born in June, he said.
He took her arm and led her towards the crooked chalet whose wood had been blackened by the sun. He pushed open the door with his foot. The room was large enough for four or five goats. On the earth floor were blankets. The window, no larger than a small transistor radio, was grey and opaque with dust. There was a cylinder of gas and a gas-ring, on which he placed a black saucepan with coffee in it.
I’ll give you whatever you want, he said.
He stood there in the half-light, his immense hands open. Behind him on the floor was a heap of old clothes, among which she recognized his American army cap and a red shirt which she had once ironed for him. In the far corner something scuffled and a lame lamb hobbled towards the door where a dog lay. The floor of beaten earth smelled of dust, animals and coffee grounds. Taking the saucepan off the gas, he turned down the flame, and its hissing stopped. The silence which followed was unlike any in the valley below.
If it’s a boy, I’ll buy him a horse –
Ignoring the bowl of coffee he was holding out to her, without waiting for the end of his sentence, her eyes bulging, she fled. He went to the door and watched her running, stumbling downhill. Occasionally she looked over her shoulder as if she thought she were being pursued. He did not stir from the doorway and she did not stop running.
In the evening it began to snow, tentatively and softly. Having brought all three dogs into the chalet, Boris bolted the door, as he never usually did, lay down beside the animals and tried to sleep, his fist in his mouth. The next morning, beneath the white pine trees and through the frozen brambles and puddles of water, he drove his flock of miserable grey sheep towards the road which led down to the village.
When Corneille the cattle dealer drew up in his lorry before Boris’s house and walked with the slow strides of the fat man he was, through the snow to tap on the kitchen window, Boris was not surprised; he knew why Corneille had come. He swore at his dogs who were barking, threatened them with being salted and smoked if they were not quieter, and opened the door. Corneille, his hat tilted towards the back of his head, sat down on a chair.
It’s a long time since we’ve seen you, said Corneille. You weren’t even at the Fair of the Cold. How are things?
Quiet, replied Boris.
Do you know they are closing the abattoir at Saint-Denis. Everything has to be taken to A— now.
I hadn’t heard.
More and more inspections, more and more government officials. There’s no room for skill anymore.
Skill! That’s one way of naming it!
You’ve never been short of that sort of skill yourself, said Corneille. There I take my hat off to you!
In fact he kept his hat on and turned up the collar of his overcoat. The kitchen was cold and bare, as if it had shed its leaves like the beech trees outside, its leaves of small comfort.
I’ll say this much, continued Corneille, nobody can teach me a new trick, I know them all, but there’s not one I could teach you either. All right, you’ve suffered bad luck – and not only last month up on the mountain, the poor bugger Boris we said, how’s he going to get out of this one – you’ve suffered bad luck, and you’ve never had enough liquid cash.
From his right-hand overcoat pocket he drew out a wad of fifty thousand notes and placed them on the edge of the table. One of the dogs sniffed his hand. Fuck off! said Corneille, pushing the dog with one of his immense thighs, the overcoat draped over it so that it advanced like a wall.
I’m telling you, Boris, you could buy the hindlegs off a goat and sell them to a horse! And I mean that as a compliment.
What do you want?
Aren’t you going to offer me a glass? It’s not very warm in your kitchen.
Gnole or red wine?
A little gnole then. It has less effect on Old King Cole.
So they say.
I hear you swept her off her feet, said Corneille, and the husband under the carpet!
Boris said nothing but poured from the bottle.
Not everyone could do that, said Corneille, that takes some Old King Cole!
Do you think so? What are you showing me your money for?
To do a deal, Boris. A straight deal, for once, because I know I can’t trim you.
Do you know how you count, Corneille? You count one, two, three, six, nine, twenty.
The two men laughed. The cold rose up like mist from the stone floor. They emptied the little glasses in one go.
The winter’s going to be long, said Corneille, the snow has come to stay. A good five months of snow in store for us. That’s my prediction and your uncle Corneille knows his winters.
Boris refilled the glasses.
The price of hay is going to be three hundred a bale before Lent. How was your hay this year?
Not your woman, my friend, your hay.
Happy, Boris repeated.
I see your horses are still out, said Corneille.
You have sharp eyes.
I’m getting old. Old King Cole is no longer the colt he once was. They tell me she’s beautiful, with real class.
What do you want?
I’ve come to buy.
Do you know, said Boris, what the trees say when the axe comes into the forest?
Corneille tossed back his glass, without replying.
When the axe comes into the forest, the trees say: Look! The handle is one of us!
That’s why I know I can’t trim you, said Corneille.
How do you know I want to sell? Boris asked.
Any man in your position would want to sell. Everything depends upon the offer, and I’m going to mention a figure that will astound you.
What are you buying for that? Hay?
Your happy hay! said Corneille, taking off his hat and replacing it further back on his head. No, I’m willing to buy everything you have on four legs.
Did you say ten million, Corneille?
Boris stared indifferently through the window at the snow.
Irrespective of their condition, my friend. I’m buying blind. Four million.
I’ve no interest in selling.
So be it, said Corneille. He leaned with his elbows on the table, like a cow getting up from the stable floor, rump first, forelegs second. Finally he was upright. He placed his hand over the pile of bank notes, as if they were a screaming mouth.
I heard of your troubles, he said very softly in the voice that people use in a sick room. I have a soft spot for you, and so I said to myself, this is a time when he needs his friends and I can help him out. Five million.
You can have the horses for that.
Corneille stood with his hand gagging the pile of money.
If you take my offer, if you have no animals during the winter, my friend, you can sell your hay, you can repair the roof of your barn and when the spring comes, you’ll have more than enough to buy a new flock. Five million.
Take everything, said Boris. As you say, it’s going to be a long winter. Take everything and leave the money on the table. Six million.
I don’t even know how many sheep I’m buying, muttered Corneille.
On this earth, Corneille, we never know what we’re buying. Perhaps there’s another planet where all deals are straight. All I know is that here the earth is peopled by those whom God threw out as flawed.
Five and a-half, said Corneille.
Corneille lifted his hand from the pile and shook Boris’s hand.
Six it is. Count it.
Boris counted the notes.
If you want a tip from a very old King Cole, Corneille spoke evenly and slowly, if you want a tip, don’t spend it all on her.
For that you’ll have to wait and see, Corneille, just as I am going to do.
There followed the correspondence between Boris and the blond. This consisted of two letters. The first, with the postmark of October 30th, was from him:
I have the money for our fares to Canada. I am waiting for you –
always your Boris.
The second, dated November 1st, was from her:
In another life I might come – in this one forgive Marie-Jeanne.
There were no longer any sheep to feed. The horses had gone from the snow-covered orchard. When the lorry had come to fetch them, there was half a bale of hay lying on the snow and Boris had thrown it into the lorry after his horses. On one small point Marc was right when he said that Boris died like one of his own beasts. Not having to feed his animals gave him the idea of not feeding himself.
In the icy trough in the yard he lay down a bottle of champagne, ready to serve cold. The water detached the label and after a week it floated to the surface. When the police opened the kitchen cupboard, they found a large jar of cherries in eau-de-vie with a ribbon round it, and a box of After Eight chocolates, open but untouched. Most curious of all, on the kitchen floor beneath the curtainless windows, they found a confectioner’s cardboard box with golden edges, and inside it were rose-pink sugared almonds such as are sometimes distributed to guests and friends after a baptism. On the floor too were blankets, dog shit and wet newspapers. But the dogs had not touched the sugared nuts.
In the house during the unceasing period of waiting he did not listen to the sounds which came from outside. His hearing was as unimpaired as is mine now, registering the noise of my pen on the paper – a noise which resembles that of a mouse at night earnestly eating, what its little pointed muzzle has discovered between its paws. His hearing was unimpaired, but his indifference was such that the crow of a neighbour’s cock, the sound of a car climbing the road from which one looks down on to the chimney of his house, the shouts of children, the drill of a chainsaw cutting in the forest beyond the river, the klaxon of the postman’s van – all these sounds became nameless, containing no message, emptier, far emptier than silence.
If he was waiting and if he never lost for one moment, either awake or asleep, the image of what he was waiting for – the breast into which his face at last fitted – he no longer knew from where it would come. There was no path along which he could look. His heart was still under his left ribs, he still broke the bread into pieces for the dogs with his right hand, holding the loaf in his left, the sun in the late afternoon still went down behind the same mountain, but there were no longer any directions. The dogs knew how he was lost.
This is why he slept on the floor, why he never changed a garment, why he stopped talking to the dogs and only pulled them towards him or pushed them away with his fist.
In the barn when he climbed a ladder, he forgot the rope, and, looking down at the hay, he saw horses foaling. Yet considering his hunger, he had very few hallucinations. When he took off his boots to walk in the snow, he knew what he was doing.
One sunny day towards the end of December, he walked barefoot through the snow of the orchard in the direction of the stream, which marks the boundary of the village. It was there that he first saw the trees which had no snow on them.
The trees form a copse which I would be able to see now from the window, if it were not night. It is roughly triangular, with a linden tree at its apex. There is also a large oak. The other trees are ash, beech, sycamore. From where Boris was standing the sycamore was on the left. Despite the December afternoon sunlight, the interior of the copse looked dark and impenetrable. The fact that none of the trees was covered in snow, appeared to him to be improbable but welcome.
He stood surveying the trees as he might have surveyed his sheep. It was there that he would find what he awaited. And his discovery of the place of arrival was itself a promise that his waiting would be rewarded. He walked slowly back to the house but the copse was still before his eyes. The night fell but he could still see the trees. In his sleep he approached them.
The next day he walked again through the orchard towards the stream. And, arms folded across his chest, he studied the copse. There was a clearing. It was less dark between the trees. In that clearing she would appear.
She had lost her name – as the champagne bottle which he was keeping for her arrival had lost its label. Her name was forgotten, but everything else about her his passion had preserved.
During the last days of the year, the clearing in the copse grew larger and larger. There was space and light around every tree. The more he suffered from pains in his body, the more certain he was that the moment of her arrival was approaching. On the second of January in the evening he entered the copse.
During the night of the second, Boris’s neighbours heard his three dogs howling. Early next morning they tried the kitchen door which was locked on the inside. Through the window they saw Boris’s body on the floor, his head flung back, his mouth open. Nobody dared break in through the window for fear of the dogs, savagely bewailing the life that had ended.