The Ark

I shall destroy man whom I have created from off the face of Belgium: both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air, for it repenteth me that I have made them. Make thee an ark of resinous wood, just like that of Noah, and shalt thou pitch it within and without with pitch. The length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, the breadth of it fifty cubits, and the height of it thirty cubits. And, behold, I, even I, do bring a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh, wherein is the breath of life, from under heaven. Thou shalt come into the ark, thou and a woman thou shalt choose for the purposes of procreation. And of every living thing of all flesh, two of every sort shalt thou bring into the ark, to keep them alive with thee; male and female to repopulate the drowned realm.

*

Lord, since your commandment did fall upon my shoulders, so torn has my conscience been that I have lost sleep, and my appetite. I have followed your injunctions with fervent piety, ignoring pain, exhaustion, and sarcastic comments. I haven’t thought twice about cutting down trees in my yard, digging up flowers and edible plants to make room here for a shipyard that might fit a three-hundred-cubit boat. I’ve had the finest spruces brought over from our Ardennes, and from Limbourg, the purest coal tar. But barely had I set the keel across the trestles when I was asked if I had a building permit, if I’d paid my VAT, or for a trade license, and what right I had boiling tar under my neighbors' noses. My ancient predecessor just didn’t have these kind of hassles: he worked on his frame with only the thunder of your voice in his ear and no one came to hinder his construction. Surely you know, O Lord, that in this fine country sentenced soon to vanish, no one can change so much as the color of one’s handkerchief without seeking authorization from a legion of bureaucrats and censors. And so I’ve spent as much of my time answering worldly questions and filling out forms as I have sawing spruce lengths, and I dread being completely unprepared when the flood starts. At least I’m comforted in the knowledge that if my mission were to be seriously compromised by all this quibbling, you’d be able to smite the nitpickers.

*

Lord, the words you breathed into my soul intoxicate me with the grace of having been chosen, but their implacable revelation torments me far more than the blisters on my fingers, the snickers, and the worries to which my mission exposes me. You ordered me to save two of every species of all flesh, but also to bring the seeds of trees and flowers that fear the force of water, not to mention grains of wheat and barley for in the fields nothing shall remain. And when I humbly asked you if the ark would fit all that, you answered me vehemently that multiplicity begat choice. Choose! Decide which species will find refuge and which disappear forever! Thus the new world will be born of my predilections and animosities. Of my weakness as well, for if it is easy to trap thrushes and robins, how will I ever capture a pair of peregrine falcons, barn owls, or kingfishers?

By day, when the bearers of notices, bills, and summonses leave me the time, I assemble the hull of the ark which is already round like the belly of a gravid whale. By night, I try to work calmly on the passenger list; I write farmers, hunters, poachers, but also illustrious nurseries. Questions without answer haunt my rare moments of rest: where is the starred pipistrelle to be found? Must I save the pyramidal bellflower? O, Lord! It would all have been so simple if you’d engraved the names of all preferred species in a golden palimpsest on the dark flank of a mountain!

On Sunday, concerned for my neighbors’ repose, I roam the land from Arlon to Bruges, Courtrai to Bouillon. I linger before churches, I haunt little cypress-shaded cemeteries, I speak to strangers in the street, and a violent nostalgia seizes my throat as surely as a murderer’s fingers. It’s not so much the certain dismemberment of buildings soon to broken and covered with mud that moves me. A little limestone, a bit of schist, would be enough to rebuild La Roche and nothing more than earth and fire to recreate the roofs of Furnes. Fifteen to twenty generations will suffice for the soaring of cathedrals, the tracing of paths and canals, the fitting of ports between undone shores. No, Lord, this land will not long lack for man’s masterpieces, but rather the indefinable atmosphere that reigns in these parts and nowhere else in the world. Does it come from the unusual climate, from the light, always slightly cold, even in the heart of summer, as though it always kept a memory of mist? Or from the illogical people that mill about the cities and countryside, their acts guided by the secular instincts of the needy?

Sometimes on my walks I think, with uncontrollable sadness, of those who are already no more, whose memory clings here and there, to a bend in the landscape, to a street corner. Isn’t this the memory that nourishes a nation? I shiver at the idea of a land without a past, without history, without ghosts. And the man of tomorrow depresses me, bereft of ties to attach him to the inexpressible, robbed of his relics and his torches, immeasurably naked at the heart of a new world cleansed of its heroes.

Lord, your gaze upon this land shines with a just wrath, but my own fills with tears when it comes across these quiet walkers slipping by beneath the trees, bound by silver chains to ugly little dogs, these eaters of mussels or partridges who laugh over chilled wine and foaming beer, these heavyset lacemakers whose diaphanous fingers scatter stars from their spindles, these children who in their voices bear accents from all over the world; in short, all these beings, who are the crystals and the mirrors of a kaleidoscope slow to build, slow to be loved.

*

Lord, I still haven’t put in the bridge yet and, short of a miracle, will never be ready by the deadline you’ve set. Although the list of domesticated species is almost done, I still haven’t gotten a tenth of the wild animals I was promised. The roe and deer a poacher from Houffalize delivered yesterday are emaciated. The mange-ridden male has a broken antler tine, and the female looks like a jackrabbit. No doubt my reputation as a simpleton has already reached the countryside, since I’m getting swindled on every side. I’ve almost ruined myself trying to get a Brabant horse and its pony: they gave me two bowlegged nags with yellowed teeth. Crates  of poultry are piling up in my yard, my attic’s an aviary, my cellar writhes with reptiles, but I doubt most of them are in good health. Only the rats and the crows seem to be doing well. My hedges are packed with spying children who burst into loud laughter. The neighbors I run into purse their lips and turn away. No doubt they all think I’m insane and I’m afraid that one of these days they’ll have me put away. All the more so since all my upheavals have alerted the authorities. The subpoenas multiply, the list of charges lengthens daily: illegal possession of endangered species, out-of-season pest breeding, unauthorized installation of an agricultural concern and a shipyard in a residential area, failure to pay multiple taxes…

And yet these worries don’t keep me from thinking, with growing anxiety, on one of the most trying aspects of my mission. I mean to say, Lord, the woman I have yet to choose, when the day comes, to make my companion and the first genitrix of the realm. At first, I set my heart on the lockkeeper’s sister, a strong and beautiful Flemish woman from the lands near Diest. The breadth of her hips and the fullness of her breasts seemed to hint at a remarkable fertility. But I confess I found the idea of undertaking the repopulation of the Earth with her assistance so pleasant that I gave up on it for love of you. However, I remain convinced that the chosen one must be Flemish for were we, the first stock, to mingle in equal measure the blood of North and South, the character and spirit of our descendants would be enriched. The same principle prevailed in the picking of domesticated animals. For the species boiling fowl which appears on page fifteen of my list I matched the Malines cuckoo with the Ardennes rooster. My conviction thus established, I devoted Sundays to traveling these flat lands in search of a plausible companion. It goes without saying that I dismiss out of hand any creature who fails to show acute characteristics of fertility. In matters of reproduction, insubstantial posteriors, narrow hips, nonexistent chests must be viewed with suspicion. Nor can I ignore the infinitely more rustic living conditions that await us after disembarking, which brings me to turn down flowing figures, too fine of finger and halting of step. Furthermore, the chosen one must not be wearing a golden ring, for our union cannot be sullied by adultery. Finally, should I happen to be enlightened by you in my quest and meet that rare person who meets all these conditions, how will I convince her to accompany me to the Meuse and, the very same day, board a stationary ark?

*

Lord, the events that have occurred over the last few days lead me to believe that from this point on, my resolutions are moving toward their final conclusion. A strange calm reigns in the cages, pens, and aviaries. All the captive animals radiate well-being and some of them even seem to be getting younger. The petty bureaucrats have stopped pounding at my door, the neighbors greet and even talk to me again, as they once did, about the weather. The spruce logs were so light, the planks so easy to saw, that I have only to put the finishing touches on the coating.

Although amid the pitfalls I’d been reduced to hoping for a miracle, you sent me several and today I know that nothing will hinder my mission. Not even choosing a companion, for just last Sunday, you in your infinite bounty led me to her. It was in Ostend, near the old station, that I saw her. She’d set up her red-awninged stall there, on the terrace of a little restaurant, and was offering passersby bouquets of langoustines, raw shrimp by the bag, dishes of raw mussels in vinegar. A feeling of youth and health came off her in waves without, however, intimidating the senses, since her figure was rather ordinary and her face severe. After watching her for a while, I walked up, ordered some shellfish, and found the nerve to start a conversation with her, going so far as to ask her first name. She said her name was Lode and, without ceasing to serve her customers, agreed to answer my questions. Her supple, sturdy hands fluttered like gulls around the crustaceans, and she wore no rings on her fingers, which the cold had paled. I don’t know what words came to mind in expressing my proposition. No doubt, Lord, you dictated them, for she accepted my invitation on the spot with obvious delight. We worked out the details of her trip, agreed on dates, hours, and places, and when I took my leave of her, I felt like I’d known her forever.

I made my way slowly back up the fairway leading to the breakwater. A great peace lightened my step. Seven days before the raging waters, and the final act of my earthly mission had just been completed. Motionless clouds loitered over the sea and a few ribbons shivered on the side of the breakwater. I thought that soon these wavelets, swollen by the unremitting rain, would rush to assault these sands, this silt, breaking on the darkened cities, merging with the currents of the Meuse, the Ourthe, the Lesse until they formed but one great salt lake, diluted and deserted. I kept my gaze away from the children running on the beach behind their luminous balls, the elderly seated in pairs on narrow benches, hands clasped, gaze fixed on the horizon as though on the mystery of their own lives.

*

It’s midnight. The former realm’s final day of grace has been consumed. At sunset, sometimes strange clouds, dense and black, brushed the hilltops without anyone noticing. Lode arrived in the afternoon, buckling under the weight of her bags. Most of the things she brought won’t be of any use at all but I didn’t have the heart to tell her. I set her up on the tween deck, where she shares a cabin with a pair of ferrets, a beehive, and a cage of sparrows. I doubt she’ll get any sleep, so full is the ark of breathing, rustling, fluttering.

I remained standing on the bridge, my face turned east. The spicy smell of forage rose from the hold and blended with the night air. Lightning lit the valley; for a moment, its clawlike veins trembled over the roofs. Why did a sudden fear rivet me to the spot like one crucified, I who’d escaped punishment, I who’d be the last and the first? A heavy rain began to splatter on the earth. The hiss and crackle it tore from the foliage was the first complaint—still timid—of the disowned realm. Soon, others rose from all parts, but it was hard to tell if they were the cries of birds flushed from their nests, or surprised walkers. In the distance, lights came on and trembled in the darkness. I made out windows shut in haste, objects moved to safety. The pathetic unrest reminded me, not without bitterness, of ants boiling over doorsills, a step from their demise,  frantically carrying a wisp of straw.

Now the thunder was rolling downriver and the rain was so heavy it uprooted trees, tore away sections of rock, carried off gravel and mud. The ark began to shake. Nothing tied me anymore to this forsaken land but a hemp mooring I’d cast off in the wee hours, with my last souvenirs.

*

Lord, I don’t know what happened; Lode was sleeping; the animals had closed their eyes, cradled by the rolling motion; the world’s cries had faded away. I was standing on the bridge, preparing to say my good-byes to the country going under, when, over the roar of the water, I seemed to hear the distant chime of a carillon. Or was it the fanfare of a brass band, distorted by the torrents? At any rate, people were playing music in the deluge, and others were listening. I thought of Lode’s breasts, the belly of Lode who would have to bring forth children in the desert and, at the same time, my ears rang with the echo of that music, at once joyous and pitiful, rising in the night. Then, there was a muffled crack in the depths of the hold. The waters of the flood rushed in through a breach, and I knew at that moment all was lost. Had a rolling stone punctured the hull? Or was it Lode who, at the last moment—Then I realized that my hands were gripping the ax still sticky with tar and sap. I went back up to the bridge, howling with joy, and I saw, burning on the far side of the valley, the flames of hell.

“L'Arche” from Contes tirés du vin bleu (Loverva: Editions Labor, 2006). © André-Marcel Adamek. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2012 by Edward Gauvin. All rights reserved.