The Only Mortal
translated from the French by Edward Gauvin
There must have been some mix-up with his papers, because without asking for it in any way, François got posted overseas, the only draftee in a company of enlisted men. Right after training, they were deployed to one of those countries where the natives were dropping off like flies. The situation weighed heavy on the international conscience; it had to stop. The other soldiers were overjoyed. Adventure, distant lands, hazard pay… François figured on spiders, scorpions, and sunburn for everyone. He was right about the sun and the critters, but in his inexperience he hadn’t counted on the smells. Once there, he’d caught on quickly: these countries were all about smell. Stench was a better word. In Europe, organic matter was changeless, numbed by the bracing freshness of the climate. Here it raced toward oblivion beneath the sun’s lash. Milk turned quicker than the minute hand on a watch, and flesh to rot the second life left it.
As for fighting, they took a few shots at a shack half-hidden behind a scrawny stand of trees. It was a farm; they wounded a goat. After the skirmish, they continued their advance and marched into the capital. Crowds and jubilation, wild kisses, cameras, officers interviewed by short-sleeved reporters, parades, twenty-one gun salutes.
Then life at the garrison began. Once more, François had no one to talk to. As a student who’d deferred his compulsory service, he had under his belt long years of literary studies that seemed useless, almost ludicrous, to many people. The threat of danger had drawn him closer to his fellow soldiers. In action, he’d felt a kind of friendship for them, tinged with contempt. Safety and routine duty distanced him again, returning him to his quietly ironic intellectual solitude. Bastini and Onfret bored him to tears with their soccer talk. Besides, they knew what he thought of it, and so kept him out of their feverish handicapping of the Olympic quarterfinals. The only one François could stand was Claveton, hands down the dumbest of them all. That was just it, though: François led Claveton around by the nose, a private second-class with a personal bodyguard.
He soon tired of the red light district’s latex amusements and dance hall intrigues: all that jealousy and playing favorites was pointless since, when it came down to it, the only difference among the women available was price. Well—there was always sightseeing. Soldiers were forbidden to go out alone. Little matter: François had Claveton. Who else would be stupid enough to go with him beyond the safe zone? Guerillas still lurked off the main roads patrolled by the machine guns of the expeditionary forces.
They gave some vague excuse, took a jeep from the depot, and drove down the coastal route, François at the wheel, Claveton on the light machine gun. François had lectured his companion at length, but with Claveton you never knew if what you said to his face really got through his skull. François would only have been half-surprised had Claveton suddenly started gunning down civilians, children, or even iffy-looking camels. Luckily, no one crossed their path.
They covered about twenty miles. Here and there, amidst the ruins of civil war, emerged other ruins: the ruins of yesteryear, bleached clean as old bone, while to recent ruins yesterday’s rotting flesh still clung. The sea, intensely blue, lapped at shores of red and ochre pebbles. François had no destination in mind. Claveton hadn’t needed one to follow him.
Around a bend in the road, an undamaged house swung into view: the first. It stood, below road level, by a narrow sandy beach flanked by a tree. A real tree, not a dust-choked twig broom stuck in the ground. With its lush green foliage and dark shade, the tree made a striking impression. A steep track led down to the house. François turned the jeep.
“Let’s see what’s down here. Keep an eye out, OK?”
“Uh-huh!” he replied with fierce determination.
François felt obligated to repeat his earlier warning. “You won’t shoot unless I say so, right Claveton?”
François almost parked the jeep beneath the tree, but at the last moment decided against it. The shade was too pretty for him to sully it with his smelly, backfiring machine that leaked grease and dirty engine oil from every crevice… The shade cast by the house itself seemed to him less rare and delicate, so he parked there. He got out and walked under the tree. Claveton followed grudgingly. His plan, in case things got rough, had been I’ll gun, you run… but for that he had to stay close to the jeep. A woman came out of the house to greet them. She was young, beautiful, and unafraid. She spoke French as well as François, and much better than Claveton. She welcomed them, and invited them to tea. Claveton shifted his weight from one foot to the other, glancing unhappily at the jeep. He didn’t trust her, which worked out well for François: Claveton would’ve been a nuisance. François suggested Claveton stand guard, an offer he gratefully accepted.
The young woman’s name was Lalena. Her skin was dark, but not as dark as the girls at the café, or the ones dying in shelters with their children in their arms. She wasn’t gaunt or starved-looking. Since she didn’t look like a whore, he figured she was rich. That had to be it. How would he know who was rich down here? Anyone more than just skin and bones already was, in a way. Still, he couldn’t help but wonder how she’d kept those downy cheeks so plump, those breasts, shifting gently beneath the fabric of her dress, so full.
She spoke to him of Paris, of the Bastille Opera and the Louvre. She was wearing a kind of royal blue bubu and sandals, but he had no trouble picturing her in an evening dress and shiny heels at a gala or premiere. They sipped tea and chatted. An old servant brought a cup to Claveton, who smelled some native ruse and refused it.
Nothing else happened that day. François took his leave when it seemed polite to do so. Lalena invited him back when he felt like it. He promised to seize the first opportunity. In the mess, there were rumors about heading south, where trouble still brewed. He walked back to the jeep. The sun was setting, and the shade beneath the tree less dense.
“So, ’dja jump her?” Claveton inquired.
“Not yet. She’s a real woman. I’ll have to come back a few times.”
Claveton’s normally sullen features lit up in a huge smile. A real woman…a few times. He understood at once: target and maneuver.
“You’ll come with?”
They made it back to the safe zone without incident.
The act Claveton had asked about didn’t happen on their second, or even third visit to Lalena. That is, François never did jump her, as Claveton had so delicately put it. On his fourth visit, Lalena led François upstairs. He followed her into a room that opened on a broad view of the sea. It was cool and combined the charms and comforts of a bedroom, a balcony, and a grotto: he felt good there. A vast bed occupied the far end. It was surrounded by several shelves, one of which bore a tea set, another a game of petits chevaux, and the last paraphernalia for smoking.
“They’ll sell you anything around the base,” she told him. “It’s much better here. I’ve something like a special reserve wine, if your heart so desires…”
Some men in his company would’ve sold their souls for a taste of such local specialties. François wasn’t as fond of them, but accepted so as not to put his hostess out. He let her ready the pipes, which she did quite matter-of-factly, no island mumbo-jumbo. Then, while smoking and drinking tea, they played petits chevaux, which he hadn’t done since childhood. He found it infinitely more pleasurable than he’d expected. Was it the hashish? The die struck the wooden board with a thunderous sound, and he seemed to hear the hurrahs of an invisible crowd mingling with horses’ galloping hooves. It lasted a while, then the cavalcade and the ovations faded into some unknown distance. He became aware that he and Lalena had tumbled onto the bed, that they were naked. Her lips at his ear, Lalena twittered sweet, unintelligible words.
Claveton’s voice tore François from the happy haze where he’d retreated after disentangling himself from Lalena.
“François! François! It’s late! Where the hell are you?” Claveton had gotten over his initial idea that François was lying with his throat slit in a ditch, but he was still afraid of missing roll call.
“Your friend’s barking,” Lalena said.
François nodded. True enough, but Claveton wasn’t the only one. Everyone in the company barked. François rose and began getting dressed.
“François! You there? What the hell are you up to?”
“Christ, get your ass in gear! It’s getting dark!”
“Coming!” François smiled apologetically at Lalena, who smiled back.
“He’s right. The road’s not safe at night. You’ll come back?”
“First chance I get. If not tomorrow, the day after.”
She blew him a kiss with her fingertips. “Go on…”
He grabbed his shirt and hurried downstairs. Night was falling in earnest now. Even if they got back safe and sound, they’d still have to get past the guard on duty. François didn’t know what Claveton feared more, guerillas or Sergeant Colombani, but the big fellow was hopping up and down impatiently.
“C’mon, c’mon already! Let’s beat it!”
“You going to let me put my shirt on?”
“If you’re lucky. Hey, what’s that? You get a tattoo?”
Claveton’s finger, lightly gleaming with gun lube, pointed at François’ chest. François dropped his gaze. Under his left pec, almost right over his heart, was something written in blue. He was puzzled for a moment, annoyed, then figured Lalena was playing a prank.
“What does it say? I can’t read it.”
“That bitch is a regular comedian! It says ‘Mortal.’”
“Huh? ‘Mortal’? What the fuck? What’s that mean?”
“No idea. Get in, we’re outta here!”
“Wait a minute, dammit!” François pressed his fingers together like a brush or a palette knife, spat on them, and rubbed the letters vigorously. “Is it coming off?”
“No. Get in and start’er up already, or they’re gonna take us hostage on this piece of shit road!”
They weren’t taken hostage, but they did miss roll call. Sergeant Colombani noticed they’d had no real reason for taking the jeep, and promised to stick it to them when they got back from the action. For now, though, everyone was needed: they were headed south on a peacemaking mission.
This time, a shepherd who didn’t respond to their shouted warnings in time had his peace made for him once and for all. They found a penknife on him. A rumor went around that Onfret and Bastini were getting decorated for their little exploit. From that day on, François had to keep a closer watch on Claveton, who was clearly ready to make just about anyone’s peace to get himself a medal too. After a bloody beginning (at least for half-deaf shepherds), the campaign dwindled to road checkpoints and supply distribution. Neither Onfret nor Bastini ever wound up with a medal; unofficially, they remained mere war criminals.
Soldiers cannot afford to be modest. They dress, undress, and wash beneath the eyes of fellow soldiers. The entire company filed past François to check out his so-called tattoo. It was generally considered pretentious and pathetic at the same time. Mortal, huh? Big whup! What, you didn’t know, ya dumb fuck? François let them ride him without protest. What good was telling them, or trying at least, that first of all it wasn’t a tattoo, and second of all that, whatever it was, it wasn’t his idea? The word had appeared on his skin as simply as a butterfly alighting, sudden as a tumor. Words didn’t flit about in the air looking for a fleshly page, or sprout from the body like mushrooms from a damp, dark spot; it just didn’t happen! And yet it had. Try getting them to buy it: the men of his company, who fled poetry and abstraction like the plague, or even an honest army doctor faced (at worst) with one bullet wound for every sixty cases of the clap... That would’ve been risky. François was careful to keep quiet. In the end, his “tattoo” was a sorry sight beside Bastini’s, and the rest soon lost interest.
François knew—his skin knew—that it wasn’t a tattoo. First of all, a tattoo didn’t change. You had it, you kept it. Your skin could get old, wrinkled, creased, spotted, and the tattoo ruined, but it wouldn’t disappear till you did, into the eternal night of the grave. His own was constantly changing. Clearly no one else noticed, but he’d quickly seen that its size and color depended on… François was reluctant to say his “mood,” but that was how it was. The six letters that made up the word “Mortal” got bigger or smaller, clearer or blurrier, went from dark to light blue, and sometimes almost green, according to his feelings at a given moment. Sometimes they even grew so clear as to be imperceptible. At first, François was tempted to show Claveton. He stopped himself just in time. Claveton would’ve been a troublesome witness. He’d have yelled out loud and gotten everyone else stirred up. Or he might not even have understood that the sudden absence of the word on François’ chest was as unnatural, as “miraculous,” as its presence five hours before or after. For the word always returned. The same night, or the next morning, when François took a moment alone to check, he found it back in its place, seemingly indelible, definitive, fateful, like a stamp on a file.
They wound up north again. Sergeant Colombani hadn’t forgotten his promise. François and Claveton were confined to camp for fifteen days. While everyone else caught up with the easy beauties of the bar district, Colombani made it his job to find them more morally as well as physically wholesome activities.
When the fifteen days were up, the first place they headed was a brothel. Claveton was fine with stealing a jeep, dropping François off at Lalena’s, getting busted by Colombani on the way back, and catching a month of extra chores and confinement all over again—but not before getting himself laid.
Several days went by before an opportunity presented itself. This time they didn’t have to misappropriate army equipment. Two reporters off to explore the coast gave them a ride in their Range Rover and arranged to pick them up again that night on the way back.
The house was all locked up. François found a letter tacked to the door. The sun and coastal breeze had weathered and discolored the paper. In violet ink on the envelope was written François’ first and last name, misspelled. Letter in hand, he went to sit down on a concrete bench facing the strip of beach. He read the letter several times. It was polite and bland, nothing like the letter of a witch who wrote disturbing things in magic ink on her lovers’ bodies. Lalena had left for Switzerland. She wanted to see him again. She’d left a phone number in Geneva, but the campaign in the south had lasted several months and the number was probably no good now. If it belonged to a hotel, or friends of hers, thought François, surely he could pick up her trail again? He shrugged. Even if he found her, what would he say? What is this goddamned thing you stuck me with? Don’t play innocent with me! This thing on my skin? I caught it from you, and now it won’t go away!
He spent an unsettled afternoon smoking and watching the waves, reading Lalena’s letter and draining the bottle of whisky he’d brought her as a gift, thinking about life in general and that damned word in particular, about his bad luck in having to bear, inscribed and spelled out, the final word on the human condition… He’d taken off his shirt. There it was, quite legible, the same blue as the sea. He found it especially despicable that day: insolent, triumphant in the vacuity of waiting. When he was drunk, he scratched at the word until it bled, and asked Claveton to burn it with his lighter. All he’d have to do was get it patched up at the medic when they got back, and then they’d never have to speak of it again, there’d be a pretty scar in its place; he didn’t care about the pain, it was a price he was ready to pay.
Ever cautious when beyond the base’s perimeter, Claveton hadn’t had so much as a drop to drink. He refused to burn François. Did he, Claveton, have to do the thinking for both of them? What about Colombani? If the sarge found out, he wouldn’t let it rest. Self-inflicted wounds or mutilation in a zone of operations, with the enemy right next door? You could get yourself court-martialed for that. François flew into a rage. He ordered Claveton to do it. Claveton replied that as a private second class, he didn’t have to take orders from another private second class. François called him a dumbass and tried himself to burn the few square inches of his own skin that were poisoning his life. He moved the flame toward his chest, screamed, and dropped it. All he’d managed was a blister. He finished off the whisky to dull the pain. When the reporters honked from the road, Claveton called them over to help. They had a hell of a time hauling François into the Range Rover.
François didn’t try to find Lalena after his discharge. The letter with the phone number in Geneva had remained on the beach by the house, along with the empty bottle. Besides, when he gave it more thought, he came to the conclusion that Lalena had nothing, or almost nothing, to do with it. Perhaps her skin had only been a catalyst? He had but to close his eyes to remember how soft she’d felt, how sweet she’d smelled… That was it: his skin had reacted to contact with hers, and this was the result. Why not? What did anyone know? What did anyone have time to understand about this dark, embroiled world, by the wavering light of their mind and senses, in the span so meanly allotted them? He figured he’d have to riddle it off on his own. His idea of burning it out hadn’t altogether been bad, just a bit crude and brutal. After all, plastic surgery hadn’t been created for dogs. When he got back to France, he made an appointment with a dermatologist. If it resembled a tattoo, it could be removed like a tattoo. The night before his visit, he was full of hope. The nightmare was about to end. He would forget this ridiculous affair, all that pathos in such poor taste, and once more be a normal, decent man who thought about death only once in a while. He took a sleeping pill, drained his nightly glass of water down to the last drop, and slept like a child.
The next day, about to step into the shower, he found that with the exception of his face and neck, his entire body—even his cock, even the soles of his feet—was covered with writing. Scrawled in thick awkward capitals, penned in dainty cursive, even calligraphically scripted, the word Mortal a thousand times over bound him in a blue web, like the tangled weave of a net flung on him from above. He knew then he would never be free, and burst into tears.
Later, when he’d calmed down, he called the dermatologist and cancelled his appointment. Slowly, in the months that followed, the flare-up receded; things went back to how they were. All that remained on his skin was the one original word, where it had first appeared. As before, it flickered with the passing days—regularly and peacefully, on the whole—the pilot light of a terror now so deep-set as to be inseparable from life’s own daily rounds.
Novelist and short story writer Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud is one of today’s most dedicated explorers of the Gallic fantastic. Translated into 14 languages, his work has received the Prix Renaudot, the Prix Giono, and the Bourse Goncourt de la nouvelle—the equivalent of a PEN/Malamud for achievement in the short form—as well as the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire for his latest novel. His stories have appeared in Words Without Borders, AGNI Online, Epiphany, and The Café Irreal, and will feature in forthcoming issues of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Postscripts. He is a founding member of the movement La Nouvelle Fiction [The New Fiction]: “New” because it rose up against the prevailingly minimalist and confessional tendencies of contemporary French writing, seeking to rouse it from “the slumber of psychological realism,” and to restore myth, fable, and fairy tale to a place of primacy in fiction.
A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Edward Gauvin was a 2007 fellow at the American Literary Translators Association conference, and in June 2008 received a residency from the Banff International Literary Translation Centre, where he was able to finish a collection of fabulist Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud’s short stories. His translations have appeared in Two Lines XV and Silk Road, and will appear in forthcoming issues of Absinthe: New European Writing and The Mercurian. He translates graphic novels for Tokyopop, First Second Books, and Archaia Studios Press.