from Clèves

1: Getting It

“Off you go then, to your village fair.”

Ten o’clock on an evening in June.

Her parents are having friends over. They’re drinking rosé. “Off you go then, to your village fair.” The guests whistle when she appears in her dress. Her mother kisses her and rubs her cheek to get the lipstick off. Her father gives her a ten-franc note.

She skips along the road, a little leap at each step, a scuffing noise, chiff, chiff. Her dress swings against the back of her knees. Red dogs are embroidered all along the hem. It’s her favorite dress.

She goes by Monsieur Bihotz’s house, glad that he’s not out on his front doorstep.

A ripple runs through the crowd and she hears: “Your father your father. . . .” She looks up at the church clock tower. The hands are at an angle like the thumb and index finger of a pretend gun. A quarter to midnight. She’d been told to be home by eleven-thirty. Shit shit. From Nathalie’s open mouth, in moist red: “Your father!”

She sees him. Stark naked. A red kerchief around his neck, his Air Inter pilot’s cap on his head. With his buddy Georges who’s naked too. They’re singing a song about a priest and a nun. “You must bless our dicks!” her father shouts as he runs toward her. No, toward the parish priest, who’s standing behind her. Her father’s dick, a flopping white sausage, looks a lot different from Monsieur Bihotz’s.

School had been tough enough as it was. What with her being the only one not to go to catechism. Raphaël Bidegarraï, a year ahead of her, cups his hands around his fly and asks her to bless his dick.

Nathalie’s mother has loaned her a book with all the prayers and she practices in her room. Gentle Jesus protect my parents and bring peace to their souls. And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. “What does it mean,” she asks her mother, “to be ‘trespassed against’?”

“It’s when you can’t express who you really are. For example, when I’m doing housework while your father’s off flying planes.”

And deliver us from temptation. She recites twenty Our Fathers every evening. She folds the bedspread into perfectly equal sections. Neither her hands nor her feet may touch the edges of the mattress, and her head must be in the exact center of the pillow.

Behind the church there’s a statue of the Virgin Mary, in a blue and white robe that’s like a tube, with her hands, her head, and her halo sticking out.

Hail Mary, full of grace. Our Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

Ten times. Hands; feet; head in the exact center of the pillow. On the nights when she sleeps over at Monsieur Bihotz’s house, the bedspread slumps onto the floor when he tucks her in.

Monsieur Bihotz says that her father just wanted to have some fun, and that this can be a good quality in a person.

All the children look like the ones in that film, Village of the Damned, in which aliens impregnate women during a night of mass amnesia.

She saw this image on TV: the strikingly pale eyes of a pallid child. It lasts a second, that shock. That second when she saw herself. Those eyes staring at her, the too-white skin, that other child with washed-out eyes and who is herself, deathly pale, and who forces her to lock down her bed in various ways and conceal beneath the sheet everything that might stick out at the side. Except when she slips in beside Monsieur Bihotz, whose massive body protects her.

Nathalie says you can tell the priest everything, and she even says you must, telling about the bad actions, the bad pictures in your head to get forgiven. But her father’s dick?

She’d like to know whether what’s inside her is good or bad. To know what there is inside. Inside of a nutshell. What you can see in there.

The whole school is obsessed with sex. Raphaël Bidegarraï asks her if she knows what a slut is. He explains, patiently, with a kind of randy pity.

She’s not too sure about “kiss.” “Ah, we’re gonna kiss ‘em all up,” her father says. “Give me a kiss,” says Monsieur Bihotz. “I wonder how she looks when she comes,” says Georges, talking about a stewardess, and Solange understands that those are the words that come most alarmingly close to what a “slut” is.

She understands the word, she understands it through and through, forever. A before and an after for the understanding of the word “slut.” Inside a little girl, there’s a slut.

Raphaël Bidegarraï, the tallest since forever, lines the girls up and has the boys face them. The girls lift their skirts, and the boys touch their panties.

Solange is glad she’s not the one on the day he strips Peggy Salami, whose name already counts against her, and everyone sees the little cleft between the legs, drawn with a compass, tracing two hemispheres from below the belly to the lower back, two parts perfectly joined but slightly apart, neatly dividing in two the body and the schoolchildren and the village and the world, and they’re quite sensible parts, anatomically speaking, compared to what her father and Monsieur Bihotz and presumably all men have.

Her mother is made the same way. The front is hidden by hair, but behind there are the buttocks. Her mother spends summer Sundays sunbathing nude on the terrace, lying first on one side then the other to avoid tan lines, and bemoaning the fact that the sea’s so far away. What’s harder to imagine is how Madame Bihotz was. Madame Bihotz: a sort of pyramid in a loose nylon house dress. So fat that the cleft, if there was one, must have been all filled in.

Monsieur Bihotz used to undress his mother in the evening and put her to bed. She wore, under her dress, a gigantic slip. Under her arms she had what looked like extra breasts.

Madame Bihotz, scrubbed clean but scratchy of chin, would tell Solange stories whenever she climbed up onto her very high bed: Tom Thumb, or Little Red Riding Hood, in their scary older versions.

On Sunday mornings Monsieur Bihotz took his mother to mass in her wheelchair. He rolled her from the house into town. That took half an hour, because the slope was steep. Coming home things went a lot faster, he had to hold the chair back. From the terrace, her father would announce that the show had begun: Mother Bihotz and Son wrestling with gravity.

On Sunday mornings her father sometimes took her for a drive.

He let her sit in the front seat of their sporty little Alpine. They’d have fun backfiring their way up hills and barreling straight down, streaking through the underpass beneath the grain silos, va-va-va-voom! Then they’d head back down toward the river and the lower part of town, and they’d stop to get pastries. At that point, they had two options: the sea, an hour’s drive, or the boating center, five minutes away.

They’d park in front of the boating center and eat their pastries. Her father would tell her about emergency landings and cumulonimbus clouds that seemed to suck everything up and the day that dumb stewardess forgot to disarm the evacuation slides.

He’d say that in Clèves we don’t have the sea but we’ve got a nice lake.

He’d have a smoke with Georges at the Yacht Club. On the wall there was a calendar with naked women.

At other times, they’d park in some housing development. Her father would leave her the pastries and the radio and come back later.

She’d look out at the flat expanse of water. Gusts of wind would rock the car. She’d crack open the window. Gray wind skimmed over the surface of the water. It blew invisibly on her cheeks.

She’d sit behind the steering wheel. She’d change gears standing on the pedals, then sit down again. The road flew by, crossed by stags, past watchful hares. Or she was aboard a plane and flicked the little switches overhead. The engines roared; she tilted the wheel, gaining speed, and the ground lost its grip when she suddenly lifted off, as the lake dwindled away into a crumb of blue.

What’s amazing, except for one particular house, is how everything changes.

How big a stretch must it be, say, from a Mongolian yurt to an American skyscraper, if her parents’ house is so different from the Bihotz place, or where Rose lives?

Her mother brought a stool shaped like a Coca-Cola can home from the store for her. And for her birthday, curtains with the Statue of Liberty on them. And Monsieur Bihotz gave her a poster she just loves: a soldier, falling, with the word WHY? Her mother finds it inappropriate for someone her age.

Rose’s bedroom is very different. An impression of light, something delicate. Even the walls, even the shape of the room, they’re different. We’d need some other word, especially if we consider Monsieur Bihotz’s bedroom, with its stacks of the daily paper Sud-Ouest, stained coffee cups, and that poster of a 60s singer, France Gall, in a sweet-young-thing pose.

Her father says that Rose’s house smells like roses. The Bihotz house smells like dogs and soup, or at least it smelled like soup when Madame Bihotz was still alive. In her bedroom there’s a smell of something unmoving. Maybe the dust. Up close, the dust looks like wooly lint, a thin coat of ashes. At the store her mother is always running a dust rag over everything, because of the traffic. There’s more and more dust these days, her mother claims.

Her parents’ bedroom is brown. The curtains have orange flowers. Two matching lamps on two night tables covered in velvet. When her mother is there, she’s always lying down. On her mother’s side, there’s a photo, of a little boy.

She puts one hand over her eyes and imagines removing one item at a time: the bed, a lamp, the photo, and everything is transformed, it’s no longer the same bedroom, for the tiniest difference changes everything. And when her father is there, it all changes again.

She’s stretched out on an old-fashioned classroom desk, with the hole for the inkwell. Raphaël Bidegarraï, Christian Goyenetche, Nathalie, Rose, Delphine Peyreborde, the two Villebarrouins, all the Boursenaves, even the little Lavinasses, everybody’s there. Superimposed faces, pairs of eyes like pinheads, and each of them sticks thumbtacks into her body. Red ones, like those the teacher uses to pin up the map of the world. Carefully, one by one, taking turns. Beneath her hand the pressure grows, the hard, hot spot that has become the whole point, from pin prick to pin prick, the entire class, surrounding her. She isn’t tied down but cannot possibly move, can no more run away than could a schoolchild sent to the corner for punishment. She endures the thrusts one by one, slow, deep; her hand rubs the central spot, legs spread as far apart as possible, pleasure she can hardly bear any longer, and when the teacher—a moment for which no word exists—sticks in the last one . . . she can fall asleep, between the barely rumpled sheets of her little girl’s bed.

© Institut français, septembre 2011

Contributor

Marie Darrieussecq, Translated from the French by Linda Coverdale

MARIE DARRIEUSSECQ is a writer and psychoanalyst. In 1996 her first novel, Pig Tales, met with worldwide success. LINDA COVERDALE has a Ph.D. in French Studies from the Johns Hopkins University and has translated more than sixty books. A Chevalier de l?Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, she has won the 2004 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the 2006 Scott Moncrieff Prize, and the 1997 and 2008 French-American Foundation Translation Prize. She lives in Brooklyn.

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