We find comfort in food, and it’s a terrible mistake
I leap out of bed almost as soon as the gray dawn’s gloomy light begins to filter into the room. I give Ange a cautious glance. He’s not asleep (has he slept at all?), and he’s staring blankly at the wall. A rush of love and sympathy throws me against him. I take his head between my hands, ignoring his attempts to pull free, I kiss his lips, smelling a strange odor of blood and putrefaction. He gently pushes me away and wraps himself up in the sheet in such a way, I tell myself, that if he does fall asleep again I’ll never be able to pull it away and tend to his wound without waking him.
What exactly am I not supposed to see? And why does he imagine I’m hoping to see it, whatever it is? Doesn’t he know me, doesn’t he know I always want to know as little as possible of things that fill me with horror?
I force myself to say, ‘Ange, you know as well as I do, you must see a doctor.’
‘There’s no need for that now,’ he says listlessly.
‘What does that mean?’ I say, deeply unsettled.
‘Just that there’s no need. There’s nothing more to say,’ says Ange.
I can feel the mounting annoyance in his voice, the irascibility I find so startling. I hurry to answer:
‘You think you’ve understood something I still haven’t grasped, and what I think is that you’re trying to protect me, and that’s why you’ve turned so hard and mysterious. But you must know, there’s nothing I can’t bear to learn, and I might even know everything already, my darling Ange. You don’t have to protect me.’
Am I sure of that?
‘Those are just words,’ says Ange, in a tone of infinite sadness.
He goes on: ‘Be careful, you talk too much.’
Then he closes his eyes, rudely, to cut all this short. That last sentence sounded less like a piece of advice than a threat.
I’m speechless. I can’t help shaking Ange by his shoulder, even though his brow immediately furrows in pain. For the first time a sort of rage now comes over me too, and when I see him wince I simply think: Am I not suffering too, at being treated so unfairly?
I spit back:
‘And what do I say when I’m talking too much? Because I feel like the only one around here who hasn’t figured out what it is that’s so terribly momentous! Oh, but I’m not going to spend all my time begging forgiveness for everything I’m evidently somehow doing wrong,’ I say, but my anger is already subsiding, and as I look at Ange’s haggard face and gray eyelids I wonder, tormented, how to go about saving him when he doesn’t want to be saved.
I hear a series of resounding knocks on the front door. ‘The neighbor,’ Ange murmurs.
‘This time,’ I say, ‘he’s staying outside.’
Troubled, Ange begins to stir.
‘No, no, come on now, obviously you have to let him in.’
His whisper is fretful, with that edge of irritation again. Between his half-open eyelids, his gaze is veiled and exasperated, devoid of all affection.
Now the door is rattling from the blows. I leave the bedroom, undo the chain, and throw the door wide open.
‘I don’t suppose,’ he says amiably, ‘that you’ve eaten the ham I brought yesterday?’
‘No,’ I say.
‘No matter, I have some more here, freshly sliced. And also, look,’ he says, cheerful and eager, ‘I’ve got bread, nice warm bread that I kneaded and baked myself, and then some plum marmalade I made in my own kitchen – forgive me for belaboring the point – and I’ve got some butter for you too, since I wasn’t sure you would have any, and all this is for you and your husband, and in all sincerity, you’d make me so happy if you deigned . . . if you would be so good . . . Besides, we already agreed . . . ’
‘My husband asked me not to kick you out,’ I say.
I try to put on the weary, sullen look that I think is the only thing capable of repelling the detestable intimacy he’s trying to slip into every tiny intonation. And all the while the warm scent of the bread is making me weak, almost grateful. I’m so hungry my lips are trembling. I step aside so he can come in. On his way past he looks up and gives me a quick glance, equal parts triumph and submission.
He’s wearing filthy old corduroy overalls and a Columbia University sweatshirt. He goes straight to the kitchen. He feels perfectly at home, he thinks he knows he’s not going to be thrown out again, he thinks he’s earned his place here. He sets his provisions down on the table, invites me to sit with a broad gesture untouched by irony, then turns toward the coffee machine, opens the cabinet where the cups are kept, and takes the coffee from its drawer, all very precisely, with the brisk self-assurance of someone who knows exactly what he has to do and adapts his every movement to that goal.
‘I have to leave for school soon,’ I say.
‘Yes, yes,’ he says, ‘that’s fine.’
But how can this be, how can he be here making the coffee just like Ange used to do, how can he be here so at ease, victorious and subservient at the same time, this man we could scarcely bear to glimpse for a few seconds a day?
‘We have no need of a servant, you know,’ I say.
‘And a friend? You don’t need a friend?’ he says, his tone light but serious, his back still turned.
Appalled by his impudence, I say, ‘Ange and I have always gotten along very nicely without friends. You can take my word for it. And to be perfectly frank, the fact is we find friends a nuisance, since you ask.’
I pull off a handful of bread. A wisp of steam floats up from the torn loaf. I stuff the piece into my mouth, and the taste is so delicious and comforting that a painful tingle drills into my jaw, my cheeks, the corners of my eyes. And yet, I tell myself, and yet he made this bread with his hands. He sits down facing me, cuts a slice of bread, spreads it with a thick layer of the butter he’s brought, a deep yellow block freckled with tiny droplets of water, and smears it with plum marmalade.
‘Here, if I may, eat this,’ he says, holding it out with exaggerated courtliness.
He gets up to pour me a big cup of coffee. I distastefully note his fat, flabby hands, his dirty nails. Gray whiskers pepper his face. And, when he forgets himself, his eyes are so cold that they make me afraid.
And yet he made this bread.
He jumps up and says, ‘Now, let’s have a look at our patient.’
‘He doesn’t want anyone coming near him,’ I say.
He gives me a confident little smile. He spreads another slice of bread with butter and jam, sets it on a tray beside the cup of coffee he’s poured for Ange. He walks out of the kitchen with the tray, and I hear him whispering, ‘I did warn you not to go back to that school, didn’t I?’
I eat a thin slice of delicate, aromatic Bayonne ham, another of his offerings. And all that food is good and endlessly consoling, but, coming from him, it leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.
Then I get ready to set off for work, like any other morning. I walk through the living room again and again, humming, refusing to pay any mind to the feeling, still strong as ever, that the room is full of something that wasn’t there before, something fundamentally unfriendly. That suffocating feeling isn’t entirely unfounded, I know, but I refuse to dwell on it. We’ll deal with that later, I tell myself, not wanting to be late. I can’t help turning one ear to the bedroom, where I hear a whispered conversation.
He doesn’t want me to hear. But what treachery are those two plotting against me?
I take a shower, pull on a sweater and pants, both black (because I’m not as trim as I might be), I do my hair, which I wear short and dyed red, I try to bend my crushed glasses back into shape.
I gently push open the door to our room. Ange is still lying on the bed, wrapped up in his sheet, but Noget has slipped the two pillows under his shoulders, and his head is drooping back, his neck slightly twisted. Sitting on the bed, Noget holds up his head with one hand and with the other puts the bread and jam to Ange’s lips. Ange looks at me. His gaze darkens in terror, discomfort and uncertainty. I see that, and I immediately put it out of my mind.
‘Oh, I’m going to be late for school,’ I say. ‘So you’re eating, my love?’
‘All this good food is just the thing for what’s ailing him,’ says Noget. ‘I’ve always made my own bread, even back when I was teaching; I used to get up an hour early just to make my dough, because I loved my work just as you love yours, but even more than that I loved and respected bread, that most sacred of all foods.’
He’s trying to provoke me; he wants to see if I’ll question his past as a teacher again. Oh, who cares, in the end, what he really did and what he only wishes he had.
I ask, ‘Have you looked at . . . the wound?’
Oh, I can’t wait to be away from here! This airless, slightly nauseating room (still that faint smell of decay, I tell myself) suddenly oppresses me more than I can bear.
‘All in good time,’ he says. ‘Don’t worry. I’m not going to let your husband pretend everything’s fine.’
‘Everything is fine,’ I haughtily retort.
‘I strongly disapprove of your going back to that school,’ he scolds.
‘Not only is the school my place,’ I answer, ‘but I have to tell the principal that Ange will be away for some time so she can see to finding a substitute, and so no one, especially the children, will be inconvenienced by . . . ’
‘Don’t go!’ Ange pleads hoarsely.
But I shake my head, dizzy at the idea of staying in the apartment, spending the day going back and forth from the dark, malodorous bedroom to the living room crammed with unknown, malevolent souls.
I throw out a cheery ‘See you this evening!’
And again I see and willfully ignore the fear and shame darkening Ange’s gaze as Noget brings the cup of coffee to his lips. I hear the porcelain clink against his teeth, as if he were clenching them tight as Noget tries to force him to drink. That was very good coffee he made, I tell myself. Shouldn’t it be me, shouldn’t it be his wife helping Ange eat, helping him drink, helping him, yes, go to the bathroom? Why should he accept that help from the neighbor and not me? For that matter, I ask myself, squirming, is he really accepting it? Because everything I see tells me Ange is enduring that solicitude only because he thinks he has no choice.
He never suspected this man would go to such lengths, would push his advantage so far as to play mommy with him.
Maybe it’s over?
For the first time in months, my students are awaiting me in a neat line rather than scattered all over the schoolyard, as they’d taken to doing when Ange and I fell out of favor, such that we’d grown used to spending fifteen minutes each morning rounding them up while our colleagues, unwilling to get involved, had already made their way to their classrooms and started the day.
This morning, beneath the low clouds, all the children are lined up, attentive, almost silent. I walk toward the principal. She’s watching over the schoolyard from the front step of her office, and not the tiniest nerve twitches in her hard, white face when she sees me coming. Something is easing her mind, I tell myself in relief, something about me. I keep my arms crossed over my buttoned-up overcoat, because it’s still so cold.
It’s so cold!
‘My husband’s going to be out for a while,’ I say.
‘Yes. For what reason?’ asks the principal.
‘You don’t know?’ I say.
‘No, I don’t,’ says the principal.
I know that she’s lying, but I find her answer oddly comforting, as if the principal were trying to make it clear, by a lie if need be, that she’s not my enemy.
‘I can’t talk about it,’ I say, shaking my head. ‘But everything’s going to be fine, and for that matter I volunteer to take my husband’s students in my own class, if that’s possible.’
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ says the principal.
Her gaze turns distant and thoughtful. Her chin tenses, suddenly covered with little wrinkles.
‘I’m not sure what the children would think,’ she says, hesitating over each word.
‘But since when,’ I say, ‘really, since when do we ask the children’s opinion in these things?’
Her very white cheeks pinken a little. She fans the air in front of her, wriggling her hand, and her fingertips graze my face. Then she puts on a surprised look and asks, ‘You’ve left your husband all alone? Doesn’t he need you?’
‘My place is here,’ I say.
So was she thinking, was she secretly hoping we’d both disappear? Us, the best teachers in the school?
‘Don’t take your work too much to heart,’ she says curtly.
‘I like my work, and I’m very conscientious about it,’ I say.
‘Yes, but with you it’s almost virtuousness,’ says the principal. ‘And, surely you agree, virtuousness must be . . .’
She barks out a sharp, menacing laugh.
The bell rings, and the principal remakes her expression, replacing the aggression and mockery with a neutral benevolence. That benevolence is all I want to remember of this exchange.
I go off to collect my little students, my heart light in a way it hasn’t been for ages.
It’s cold and gray, and the air is opaque, thick with a heavy fog risen up from the river, but at long last I have a feeling Ange and I might hope to find our way, little by little, toward better times.
Should we, I ask myself, see what Ange suffered yesterday as the low point in our torments, and the beginning of a change for the better? Yes we should, there’s no question, no question.
This morning I find the children’s gaze limpid and straightforward when they look at me, and when I dare to look back at them they don’t turn away, don’t show any displeasure, any sense that I deserve to be punished or destroyed. Their behavior seems almost what it used to be – a touch more timid, I must admit, more skittish, as if I were a new and perhaps unpredictable teacher, as if in short they’d forgotten the woman I was, the woman I believe they loved in perfect confidence. This muted apprehension I feel weighing on my classroom makes me sad. So here we are, I tell myself, now I have to work at becoming the person I used to be for them. Ange’s students have been sent home. He’ll be glad to hear that, he can’t stand being replaced.
When recess comes, I head toward a little group of colleagues gathered in the schoolyard. I stop ten feet away, eyes on the ground, pretending to be preoccupied by the cleanliness of my shoes, and then, sensing a favorable vibration, friendly waves emanating from the circle, now opening up ever so slightly to make room for me, I wordlessly slip in between two of my colleagues.
Their conversation stops short. After an awkward moment, one of them woodenly mumbles, ‘How’s Ange doing?’
‘He’s fine,’ I say, with a lighthearted little laugh.
‘What a dreadful accident,’ he says.
‘What accident?’ I say. ‘There was no accident.’
‘It’s best to think of it as an accident,’ he says, in a discouraging voice.
I feel the vaguely sympathetic waves emitted by the little group as I drew near now beginning to fade. I even think I can feel the circle tightening again, trying to expel me. And then I speak again, softly: ‘Accident or no, Ange will be back very soon.’
But Ange is dying at this very moment. Isn’t he? My darling Ange? What is that neighbor doing to Ange’s body at this moment?
‘I left him in the care of a certain Monsieur Noget,’ I say, unable to repress a dismissive laugh.
‘Noget the writer?’
Their stunned disbelief troubles me. Who is this, this Noget person? Have I ever heard that name before?
‘Yes, I suppose so,’ I say, hesitating.
‘You suppose or you know? You mean the Noget?’ one of the women snaps impatiently.
My colleagues have all turned their eyes on me. Their fervid expectancy seems to fill the foggy air with a menacing hum, a strident buzz whose silencing depends on my answer. I grimace a smile, push my glasses to the very top of my nose.
‘Yes, I mean him,’ I say, masking my perplexity.
Because how is it that they’ve all heard of him and I haven’t, that the merest mention of his name dazzles them and means nothing to me?
A pensive, moderately respectful silence follows. I stop worrying about shielding my eyes, and see no sign of anger or weariness when our gazes meet.
‘Well, that’s strange,’ someone says slowly.
‘In any case,’ says someone else, ‘your husband’s in good hands, he’s in admirable hands.’
He sounds almost sorry he’s not in Ange’s place. Oh, when was it that someone last envied us, we who so long luxuriated in the warm, beneficent water of other people’s longing for our life, our serenity? Again I feel buoyed by an extravagant joy and confidence. Now I can’t wait to go home, to tell Ange what I’ve discovered today: that implacable will to harm us is no more. Gone, too, is the revulsion we inspired, the innocent, primitive fury that came over some people at the mere sight of us. In my optimism, I go so far as to wonder if we weren’t overestimating the gravity of what happened to us, I even wonder if we might have overestimated its reality. Were people really trying to lay us low? How ridiculous, possibly! What a sinister joke we were playing on ourselves, perhaps!
I happily puff out little clouds of steam as I hurry back to my classroom.
‘How good you’re all being today, children,’ I say several times over the course of the afternoon.
And then, just when I’m speaking those words for the third time, a little girl bursts into tears. I wonder if I chose the right word. Are they being good, or are they simply paralyzed by nausea? They seem unusually apathetic, as if they’ve been forced to swallow a heavy dose of tranquilizers.
I go to the crying girl and see her hunching her shoulders, defending herself from my patting hand but at the same time resigned, not daring to beg me not to touch her. For a moment that depresses me.
Is it starting up again already?
I run my hand over her narrow back, her quivering shoulder blades, feeling her little frightened-bird heart pounding wildly.
‘There now,’ I murmur, ‘no one’s going to hurt you.’
‘You’ll see,’ she says, ‘you’ll see.’
She sniffs, delicately pulls away. The moment she looks up, what seems to me an affection filled with pity and despair fills her eyes with tears. But I resolve not to let any grimness get in the way of the new sense of our situation I’ve found today.
With a brisk clap of my hands, I brightly announce that everyone can now go out and play in the schoolyard for the rest of the day.
I can’t stop myself from adding, ‘Since you’ve all been so good today!’
None of them squeals in pleasure, excitement, surprised gratitude, as they would have a few months before. They hesitate for a few moments before they stand up, as if not entirely convinced this is a good idea, or one they necessarily have to obey, and then a few of them leave the classroom with a sort of tentative stiffness, and the others awkwardly follow.
I see one boy steal a glance at my desk and chair. I try to see what he’s looking at – what can it be? He blushes, then suddenly turns deathly pale. Oh God, what was he looking at? What are they all seeing that I’m not, what is it that they know and I don’t? Where was I all this time, when I should have been seeing and knowing?
And I notice they all keep their distance from the platform my desk sits on, and since some of them have no choice but to walk past it to get to the door, I suddenly wonder if that might be why they seemed so uneager to go out and play. There’s something there, in the corner with my things, something that scares them to death. How strange these children are! It’s going to be a long, involved process, teaching them to be normal with me again, making them forget I was ever shunned, even reviled, or maybe that I thought we were (being shunned and reviled) powerful enough to transform our students’ idea of us. Yes, so everything is our fault – the responsibility for this monstrous misunderstanding lands squarely on the two of us, my beloved Ange and me.
We were prideful, we were too pleased with the quality of our work, we were certainly haughty and disdainful, and we vastly overrated the significance and menace of the signs people were sending to tell us we were being disagreeable, and that too we did out of pride.
But why, I ask myself, why this wound inflicted on Ange? Isn’t that real? Ange knowingly provoked the attack, then deliberately aggravated the wound? Or maybe there was no attack, maybe it was Ange himself who . . . Or could it be that nothing happened at all? Only an accident that left Ange completely undone, used as he was to having his life so well in hand?
I spend some time straightening my classroom (as carefully as if I knew I would never be back).
The bell rings. I put on my coat (and I feel something strange, something indefinable, but immediately banish it from my perception); I pick up my fat accordion-fold satchel and go out into the schoolyard, my coat buttoned all the way up because it’s so cold out, an unflappable smile on my lips.
My misted-up lenses force me to look at my surroundings with a certain insulated distance. Is that why I don’t immediately see how alone I am, how vast the circle of empty space all around me, as if, I tell myself much later, I had in my hand not a satchel but a live grenade? But I notice nothing, or almost, and I’m so determined not to let my good mood slip away, so resolved to radically rethink my attitude (because our wrong-headed interpretation of the world around us did us so much harm, caused so much needless grief!), that this evening it would take an oddity far more unambiguous than this to divert me from my happy course.
I feel very slightly breathless, as I always do when the city is draped in thick fog, when I become painfully aware of the weight of my flesh, overabundant though carefully contained by dark elastic clothing, when I feel the surprising heft of my body, which took shape over the years as I looked on, vaguely amused, taken aback, dismissive. That’s not exactly me, it’s a neighbor I’m not unfond of but for whom I have to feel a burdensome, tedious, faintly degrading responsibility – oh, who cares about my body, I think, quietly pleased with myself.
But this evening I’m breathless. I turn onto Cours du Chapeau-Rouge. Here again, is it the fog that’s distancing me from everyone else on the street? Is it that I can’t see, or are people actually steering clear of my panting self?
The tram passes by, very close, silent and almost invisible in the dull-white mist. The tinkle of its bell sounds as if the now almost palpable air had snatched it up and clutched it tight, leaving only a little choked rattle. And I don’t glance inside, for fear I might see petrified faces, poor creatures with terror and panic in their eyes at the mere sight of me.
Suddenly I wonder: Could it be my coat? I think back to my students, the way they all sidestepped my satchel and coat on the platform. An unfocused apprehension grips my heart. Just keep walking, I tell myself, just go on as if nothing were amiss. My coat feels heavy on my shoulders. Just keep walking, with a smile on your lips.
Finally I reach the deserted Rue Esprit-des-Lois. I put down my satchel on the sidewalk, and then, slowly and calmly, never shedding the polite smile that will assure any neighbors spying on me through their windows that everything’s just fine now, I take off my coat. I hold it out before me and spread it wide.
I stagger from the shock. I feel the corners of my mouth turning down. My jaw begins to tremble. Yes, yes, yes, I whisper, get hold of yourself.
I carefully fold my coat with my shivering hands. I still have the composure to wrap the cloth around the bits of flesh stuck to it. I bundle it up, take my satchel, and walk on to the building’s front door. I keep my coat squeezed tight under one arm, even though it’s so cold out, far colder than before.
Everybody likes meat
Here he is, with his thin face, his bright, prying eyes, letting me into our own apartment. He spreads his arms. I throw my coat at him.
‘There are pieces of my husband on there,’ I say.
My knees buckle. I collapse in the doorway. I must lie prostrate like that for some time, half conscious (because I can hear all sorts of sounds from the kitchen or bedroom, the scuff of slippered feet, the whistle of the tea kettle, the clink of silverware), unable to move or speak but somehow resigned, blithely or indifferently accepting my powerlessness, as in a dream. How tedious, I think calmly, unsure what my mind means by this complaint. My weight is resting on my right hip, and it’s very painful. I desperately want to stand up, but my will seems to have parted ways with my mind, which is serenely registering the various sounds coming to it from the building or the apartment as my soul bleeds and moans.
Three safety pins (or were they hairpins?) thrust through shreds of flesh, bits of some meat like pinkish, fibrous pork (because that’s what it was, wasn’t it?), and their size and look made me think of human flesh and so bits of Ange’s flesh, since this morning I saw – yes, you saw it, admit it – that they’d thoroughly carved up his side, sliced into it, but of course it could just as well be any sort of animal meat, and it could also be nothing more than a cruel prank, so why let it spoil your mood . . .
‘I warned you, you shouldn’t have gone back,’ he chides me. A tangled, dirty gray beard, hollow cheeks pocked with fifty-year-old acne scars, a sharp, heated gaze without a single trace of sympathy.
‘Try to get up,’ he says. ‘I’m not strong enough to lift you.’
I’m so bulky, so ponderous. You’re just like a pillow, my son used to say as he burrowed his forehead into my wobbling bicep. Oh, my son, why aren’t you here, resilient and decisive, here with us, we who are well past the age when we can grasp what we’ve never known!
‘How’s Ange doing?’ I murmur. He hesitates.
‘As well as can be expected,’ he says.
‘I want to see him.’
My voice is defiant and willful, as if he’d made some move to stop me from going into the bedroom.
‘You’ll have to get up first,’ he says.
I carefully roll over, hoist myself up on all fours, puffing, little caring that Monsieur Noget is right there.
The illustrious Noget! What a joke!
I struggle to my feet, leaning against the wall.
‘Where’s my coat?’
‘I took it down to the trash,’ says Noget. ‘I showed it to Ange, and then I threw it away.’
‘You shouldn’t have shown it to him. He doesn’t need to face that sort of idiocy on top of everything else. It’s just kids playing a filthy trick.’
He doesn’t answer. I can hear his very slightly labored breathing. His gaze softens, and I can see that for him everything is already settled.
‘It’s every bit as serious,’ he says, ‘as what they did to Ange yesterday.’
‘How do you know they did something to Ange? How do you know he didn’t do it himself? I mean,’ (my voice turns combative, insistent) ‘how do you know he didn’t aggravate an injury somebody caused without meaning to, because he wanted to be shattered completely, because he wanted a valid reason for disappearing?’
‘You’re barking up the wrong tree completely,’ he says, infuriated. ‘You refuse to see the source of the trouble.’
‘No one will explain what it is,’ I say tartly.
But I don’t want to know. I don’t want to know exactly what it is.
He runs his fingers through his beard, his shaggy hair. With a sort of cautious reticence, as if anxious not to offend me, he says:
‘You two, it must be said, have . . . an inappropriate attitude toward life – unacceptable, from certain points of view, and I would even add, forgive me, obscene – and of course that in no way justifies people tormenting you, and indeed no one would be tormenting you if it were only that, but since there’s also, as you know, as you suspect . . . your face, and the look on your face . . .’
‘What’s wrong with my face?’ I say, feeling myself blush.
He briefly looks away. This is the first time I’ve seen him sincerely uncomfortable.
‘Oh, I know,’ I hurry to answer.
And for the first time, too, his discomfort spreads to me, and I want it to go away. I brush off my clothes, straighten my glasses. My bra has come unhooked. My breasts joggle under my sweater with every move I make.
‘I still haven’t seen my husband,’ I say.
‘He was . . . he was gravely shocked by your coat,’ he says, feigning concern.
He can hardly hide his delight, his unwholesome excitement. He’s the source of the trouble. And I’ve left the man who means more to me than any other in his hands. What weakness could have made me do that?
Emboldened by a very cold anger, I slip my hands under my sweater and rehook my bra, staring fiercely into his slightly veiled, fascinated gaze.
‘Incidentally, my colleagues seem to have heard of you,’ I say with a scoff.
‘Oh, really?’ he says.
I get the feeling he’s pleased and flattered to hear it, but not surprised. Like someone long used to being recognized, being noticed. Head high, I walk past him toward the bedroom. I go in and close the door behind me, turning the latch. One bedside lamp dimly lights the room.
‘Don’t lock the door,’ Ange whispers.
Wincing, he props himself up on one elbow. I nearly gag from the stench.
‘He’ll think you don’t trust him.’
‘So what?’ I say. ‘Of course I don’t trust that stranger. Remember how we hated him?’
‘I never hated him,’ says Ange, with a kind of pained fury.
He drops back onto the pillow, gasping, exhausted. I’m finding it hard to breathe myself. The smell of decay is unbearable. I open the window, and the frigid air pours into the room.
‘Oh, please,’ Ange says wearily. ‘It’s so cold. I can’t . . . I can’t stand it.’
He begins to weep quietly. I close the window and kneel beside him. I’m making such an enormous, torturous effort not to sob along with him that it almost distracts me, almost takes my mind off all this.
Ange’s cheeks are sunken and glistening. I gently pull at the sheet to uncover him down to his hips, gazing perfidiously into his eyes, aware that I’m taking advantage of his weakness. The wound is black. The dried blood has become a lumpy, ragged crust. A green-gray liquid is pooled around the rim. That purulence, that’s where the awful smell is coming from.
‘What they did to you,’ Ange murmurs. ‘Your coat . . .’
He casts a terrified glance at the door.
‘I’m begging you, don’t antagonize him,’ he says.
‘Ange, my darling, don’t torment yourself over that coat.’
I whisper those words in his ear, fervently, stroking his damp forehead, realizing he’s oblivious to it all, both my caress and my study of the wound. All he can think of is the grave problem the locked door clearly poses in his mind.
Beneath his mild demeanor, Ange was never afraid of anyone or anything. And here he is, shaking like a beaten child. My God, are our students afraid of us?
‘Someone played a horrible prank on me,’ I say, ‘and I’m angry about it; I’m going to try to find the culprit, and believe me, they haven’t heard the last of it.’
‘It’s not a prank,’ Ange whispers, ‘and you know it. It’s a crime. We’re done for. It’s all our fault, we can’t forget that.’
‘That’s not how you saw it before,’ I say. ‘He put all that in your head.’
‘They tore off pieces of my flesh!’
Ange’s voice is so soft that at times I can’t hear him. His eyes dart this way and that, stricken with panic.
‘He explained how mistaken we were,’ he says. ‘He’s right, but it’s too late now to become someone else. I can never go out again. Even right here, anything can happen. Well, no doubt that’s only right. I only wish it didn’t hurt so much.’
‘Let me get Doctor Charre to see you,’ I beg, desperation rising inside me.
Ange grows more agitated. In a sudden burst of fury, he explodes at me.
‘You still don’t seem to get it, you’re talking like you would have six months ago. Doctor Charre . . . especially not him. No one we’ve ever known . . . can be allowed in this room. Are you trying to speed up my death? I’d like not to be in pain, but I’m not ready to die yet.’
‘What about Gladys? Priscilla?’
‘They can never come here again!’ cries Ange, gripped by an unnameable terror.
Am I secretly happy to hear it? Dismayed all the same, because I know Ange used to dote on his two daughters, I push back: ‘Your own children?’
‘They think they’re doing the right thing, they think they’re helping, but . . . what they do to me . . . it’s even more horrible. No, no, they can never come near me again. They hurt me too much. They don’t listen to me, they’ve lost faith in me. . . . How I’ve suffered. They’d kill me, thinking they love me and . . . that they’re going to save me . . . but they don’t listen to what I say, it’s lost all . . . value in their eyes. They know it’s our fault. . . . They don’t want to be contaminated.’
‘But by what?’ I say.
‘But by what?’ he repeats, cruelly mimicking my voice, ridiculing my ignorance.
And it strikes me that I’ve never seen Ange aim any such humiliation my way, even if he might have unleashed just that kind of sullen mockery on others when I wasn’t around.
‘By everything we are,’ he says wearily. ‘We’re bad people, we’re unworthy. We were blind. You still are. My daughters are afraid they might become like me, and I can understand that, but for old Ange Lacordeyre it’s too late.’
‘Will you let me treat your wound now?’
Ange shrugs. I stand up, furtively open the latch, and slip into the hallway.
He emerges from the dark living room. With one bound he’s beside me, astonishingly nimble, quick, light. He’s spying on us at every moment, and he has been all along.
‘I’ve made dinner. It’s time to eat.’
‘Yes,’ I say.
‘You must not be afraid of me,’ he says in an authoritarian voice, ‘and you must not convince your husband to be.’
‘Are you a spy?’ I say brazenly. And I laugh to myself, daring to use such a word with no fear of seeming ridiculous.
By the dim light of the hallway, I see his brow furrow.
‘A spy? In whose service?’
‘I don’t know. No one knows less about all this than me.’
‘That’s no reason to talk nonsense.’
I go into the bathroom for compresses and disinfectant. He follows on my heels.
‘Is that for your husband? No, don’t you see, you mustn’t try to treat him,’ he says, agitated. ‘He can’t be allowed to forget what they did to him!’
I lower my head, pretending to think, then walk around him, scurry to the bedroom, and quickly lock the door behind me.
Absolute silence invades the apartment. I put my ear to the door. From the other side, just against the wood, comes his calm, confident voice: ‘You’re not going to heal him. It’s no use. There’s nothing more we can do. That smell – do you understand? – that’s the smell of death.’
‘Who are you?’ I whisper.
‘The illustrious Noget,’ he answers sarcastically. ‘Isn’t that what you’ve heard people call me? You alone, in your purity, have never heard of me.’
My fingers clench against the door.
‘Yes, but,’ I say, very softly, not wanting Ange to overhear, ‘is that a crime?’
I feel so discouraged, so exhausted that I lay my face against the door as I used to on my son’s chest, or on Ange’s. I’m afraid I’ll find Ange’s furious, desperate eyes staring at me if I turn around.
Letting out a sob, lips against the door, I say, ‘So it’s a crime never to have heard of you?’
‘Yes.’ (His gentle, assured, soft, seductive voice, a voice without warmth.) ‘Everything you don’t know speaks against you. There are some things you really can’t not know, isn’t that so? Things you must endeavor to know and understand. Oh, you’re so . . . so presumptuous.’
‘Nadia!’ Ange calls.
My whole body jumps, as if a corpse had awakened and spoken behind me. I unstick myself from the door and slowly walk toward the bed. Have I somehow wronged Ange?
‘Now I have what I need to take care of you,’ I say.
A sardonic glow lights his gaunt face.
‘You smell that stench coming out of me?’
‘Yes, we’ll have to get you cleaned up,’ I say. ‘Your daughters should have seen to that yesterday.’
‘Come here, come here, closer,’ says Ange.
He extracts one hand from under the sheet and brutally pulls me to him by my neck. I hold my breath. The smell is coming from his glistening skin as well, and his hair, and his mouth.
‘Listen, I’m starving,’ Ange says in my ear, ‘but I want it to be you who gives me the food he’s made, not him. OK? Today at lunchtime, while you were at work . . .’ (He breaks into tears, moaning.) ‘He fed me at lunchtime. I never want that to happen again. But whatever you do, whatever you do, you can’t tell him, OK? Never complain to him about anything.’
‘Who is he?’
‘Who is he?’ Ange repeats, parodying me in that hurtful new way of his.
He gives an irritable shrug. Please God, I reflexively say to myself, don’t let me come to hate this new Ange.
‘Who is he?’ I say stubbornly.
‘The great Noget,’ Ange mumbles.
I fold back the sheet, down to his legs. I manage to stifle a shudder at the sight of his wound, but the smell is so strong that I have to get away. I open the armoire, grab a big handkerchief, and tie it over my nose.
Ange looks at me, dull, morose, but with a tight little smile that so hideously expresses a sort of grim pleasure, a sneering delight rooted in the very vileness of the situation, that I can’t help crying out:
‘How you’ve changed, Ange!’
‘Yes, maybe a hole in the stomach does a little something to a man,’ says Ange, ‘and maybe seeing pieces of his own flesh stuck to his wife’s coat with safety pins, maybe that does something to a man too, you’re absolutely right.’
‘That was pork or rabbit meat,’ I say firmly. ‘Everything around us is fine. We just have to convince ourselves of that.’
He throws a nervous, untrusting glance at the door, then whispers, ‘Noget doesn’t want me to forget what happened, he says I have to meditate on my wound and the multiple meanings of my suffering.’
‘But there’s nothing to understand,’ I say, loud and clear. ‘We got all worked up over nothing, out of vanity. It was nothing but vanity, Ange, that was making us think people despised us.’
I crouch down beside the bed. I start to cut away Ange’s shirt around the wound. I can hear my own breath, quick and heavy. Even with the handkerchief, the nauseating smell makes me light-headed. I dip a compress into the disinfectant, then try to sop up the pus that’s overflowed onto Ange’s stomach, under his pants, soaking the mattress and sheets. No matter how much I wipe away, more seems to gush up from deep in the wound to replace it.
‘Where can it all be coming from?’ I cry, demoralized.
‘It’s his poor soul seeping out! Dinnertime!’
And Noget gives two loud raps on the door. Ange groans in fear and surprise. For many minutes we stay silent, listening intently for any sound from outside the room.
‘He’s right, isn’t he?’ Ange whispers, his jaw tense, his whole wasted, sallow face even more drawn than before. ‘It’s . . . it’s everything I am, it’s the very essence of . . . of my being oozing out of me, isn’t it?’
I try hard to laugh, but a succession of squawks is all that comes out. And yet, I tell myself, troubled, it’s true, this Ange seems less like himself all the time.
I use up the entire box of compresses. And still the pus comes, ever darker, reeking. I’m gagging behind my handkerchief. The whole room is permeated with the stench. I stand up to open the window.
‘No,’ shouts Ange. ‘I’m cold, I’m cold.’
In the unusual silence of the courtyard, the neighborhood, his whine resounds like the voice of the last man alive. It echoes so lugubriously that I gladly close the window. Now I feel an almost desperate longing to sleep. Let everyone fend for themselves, I dully say to myself, utterly drained. But my habit of thinking myself responsible for everyone around me and everything that happens to us, good or disastrous, has been with me too long to be cast off just because I want to.
I leave the room, not looking at Ange. An exquisite aroma of tomatoes and garlic slow-cooked in olive oil streams from the kitchen.
I find him patiently waiting by the table, set for two. I can’t help exclaiming, ‘That smells so good!’
‘I made osso buco,’ he says modestly.
Can he really be our enemy when he makes dishes that so ease our pain? Is that just another medium for the spell he’s trying to cast on us?
‘I avoid osso buco,’ I say, trying to put on a severe, even slightly disgusted air.
But how hungry I am, and how enticing it all is!
‘I have a cousin in the Périgord who raises calves and pigs,’ says Noget. ‘It’s the only meat I’ll eat, and the only meat I bring you. It’s a top-grade farm. There’s nothing to worry about, it won’t make you sick.’
His gentle, considerate voice makes me ashamed. I’m so hungry that a bitter liquid fills my mouth. I can’t help thinking he’s secretly studying me. But I’m so tired, so confused.
Does it really matter that much, in the end, just who this man is?
‘No, I’m not afraid of that,’ I say.
I take a step toward the steaming pot (which he would have rummaged through the cabinets to find) and stiffly bend over till my face is almost touching the rounds of veal simmering in their orange sauce.
‘Isn’t it a little fatty?’ I murmur.
‘That’s the marrow,’ he says. ‘Your husband’s very fond of marrow, isn’t he?’
‘Yes,’ I say, ‘Ange loves marrow.’
I immediately chide myself for adding, ‘He liked to spread it all over a piece of bread and put it under the broiler.’
‘Well,’ he says with a condescending little smile, ‘when there’s marrow in the sauce, you can hardly expect it to be light.’
‘What do you want from us?’ I ask. ‘I’m begging you, tell me straight.’
I drop onto a chair, close to him, and look straight into his unpleasant face, feeling the tremor in my chin.
‘As you see,’ I say, ‘I’ve lost all my pride.’
‘All I want is to help you,’ says Noget, categorically. ‘I have no other mission.’
‘But did someone send you?’
‘I work for no one,’ he says.
Suddenly he looks away, and I suspect that he might well be lying, that he’s definitely lying.
Hopeless, I stand up. A sort of exhausted indifference is settling over me. I pick up one of the two plates from the table, fill it with meat and sauce. Noget carefully spoons a helping of noodles on one side, and then I leave the kitchen to go and feed Ange.
He’s moaning in his sleep. He wakes when I enter the room. Drool is flowing from the corners of his mouth.
‘I’m hungry, that smells good,’ he says.
For the first time in ages, he smiles.
He’s used to the stench now, I tell myself, feeling faint. I sit down on the edge of the bed. I observe that the pus is still coming. Then I put a spoonful of meat and noodles to Ange’s lips and he greedily swallows it down, and as I watch his sauce-smeared mouth open and close, and as an image drifts through my mind of Noget’s fat hands making the dish, clutching the meat, slicing the onions and tomatoes, Noget’s will endeavoring to arouse our appetite, focused solely on us and our desire to eat, I know I’ll never be able to choke down our neighbor’s homemade osso buco, not only because I find Noget repellent but because there’s some hidden intention in his cooking, because in his unclean hands food acts as a tool for what must be, I tell myself stonily, something like our enslavement.
Artwork © Fuzzy Gerdes
This is an excerpt from My Heart Hemmed In by Marie NDiaye, published by Two Lines Press.