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from “La Belle Amour Humaine”

There are seven hours of road between the noise and the silence. Between here in the capital and Anse-à-Fôleur. I suppose it's the same where you come from, one town after another and all different. There are towns that yammer and others that whisper. There are towns that smile and others that sulk. Ones that daub themselves with every color of the rainbow the way a girl condemned to walk the streets disguises herself every evening to go into battle. And other towns that don't display anything, don't sell anything, don't go in for showing off or putting up a front, but they smile easily when a visitor passes through. That's what it's like, my town by the sea. Here in the city, this is my real town. I was born here and I know the sounds of the place by heart. Its nooks and corners. Its disasters. But out there, that's my town too. Well, my village. There I have planted my dreams. And the land that belongs to you, it's where you plant your dreams. The land you would like to leave to your children. When we get there you'll see the difference. Here, there's here and out there. Here, it's open city, outrage galore. Enough large families arrive here every day to stock a whole new city. Out there, in that tiny Anse-à-Fôleur where you want me to drive you, there's not a lot of people: a few pals, a handful of souls who call one another by their first names and don't care much for commotion. Children there still gather shells, put them to their ears, and the sea sings them some secret song, without bothering the grown-ups. The adults don't raise their voices over trifles. They rarely lose their tempers, and when they do, the children smile behind their backs, knowing it's all a game, a pretend thunderstorm soon over. Even the animals take turns crying out, when they need to, for fodder or care. Out there, people just don't holler like they do here. When they decide on silence, even their laughter shows in their eyes. And when they speak, there is still silence hidden behind their words. When you arrive with your questions, what you'll get for answers will be phrases curled up like waves, whose meaning you'll miss if you do your lazy thing or your Daughter of Pure Reason number and interpret them too literally. If they trot out platitudes opining that every die has six faces and the night is sometimes longer than the day, don't go thinking they're dimwits talking to you to say nothing. A friendly word of advice: always see the recto and verso of things. If they ask you what's the point of discovering the clever way milk—which has no legs—manages to climb into the very heart of the coconut, it's because they want you to understand that few things are worth tracking back to their origins, their whys and wherefores; that there are unimportant facts not worth any chatter, and others rooted so deeply their causes escape all analysis, so that we must, to be happy, leave them to their mystery. "Leave things to their mystery." That's how they'll answer you. That's what my uncle told the investigator from the capital who came to "inquire into the origins of the fire that destroyed the twin houses of the businessman Robert Montès and Colonel Pierre André Pierre (retd), causing the death of these two illustrious citizens at an undetermined hour between evening and dawn in the locality of Anse-à-Fôleur." My uncle himself, like the villagers, is part of the mystery. He wasn't born in the village, however. For a long time he lived here, amid the hustle and bustle, shut up in his studio earning his bread painting faces to order, acquiring over the years a fine reputation as a portraitist. Government ministers, society ladies, notables, soldiers, old married couples, newlyweds. . . . On his canvases he depicted all kinds of paying faces, irrespective of age, sex, profession, color. The human face, he says, is the smallest unit of beauty and ugliness in living creatures, the tiniest battleground on which clash goodness and cruelty, stupidity and intelligence. When doctors informed him that there was no cure for his increasing blindness, he kept his affliction secret and decided to retire to a small town, preferably by the sea. Strangely enough, before his vision began to fail, he had felt no attraction for the sea, but now that he lives in shadows, his house on the coast is a little like a ship for him. He claims that a simple gesture, a few steps, a few swimming strokes are enough to bind his life to that of the water. That a seaside village, especially when you weren't born there, feels like a door, and that what lies behind it, inland, is less grand and present than what lies before it: the whole breadth of the ocean. Every morning he gets out of bed, helped by Solène. She opens the window for him and he settles into his armchair to look out at the sea. It was there, at his window, seeing and blind, that he was visited twenty years ago by the investigator from the capital who stared at him in bafflement. "Leave things to their mystery. Now that I no longer see, I see no better use of my presence in this world than to look out the window. Yes, two men died, two houses burned. But is that really the most important thing! One day, you too will die. When your hour comes, ask yourself the question that does matter: 'Did I make noble use of my presence in this world?' If the answer is no, it will be too late either to complain or to change. So, don't wait around. The circumstances of death offer no key for understanding. Death remains for the living the most commonplace of events, the only one that is inevitable. Death does not belong to us, since it marches on before us. But life. . . ."

© 2011 by Lyonel Trouillot. By arrangement with Actes Sud. Translation © 2011 by Linda Coverdale. All rights reserved.