The Black Marne

When she hugged me from behind and put her cold hands on my chest, my own hand holding the razor twitched. I'd thought she was at her parents', but in her haste to see me she had bolted out to catch the bus in the middle of her mother's sentence. We had said eight o'clock, so I wasn't expecting her before nine, and though I was barely out of the shower and only half dry, I suddenly felt her against me, cold from the chill of the outdoors, her lips also cold as her tongue curled around mine… Enlaced, enveloped, blended, we had melted then, one rhythm, one breath, one sweat. We inhaled each other, bigger, vaster each second, we filled the world with our sighs, it was our only music. Our bodies trembled violently from our caresses, and we drew even closer, nourishing each other, devouring and being reborn with each bite. Suddenly the phone rang out in the next room. The world was shattered in an instant. We broke apart.

"Who could that be?"

"Let it go," she said.

"No, I'll get it, you never know."

I picked up the phone. At the other end, it was she. I laughed. She asked me why.

"How did you do that?"

"How did I do what?"

It was the voice of her sullen moods.

"But…"

"What?"

"Where are you?"

"In the phone booth. In front of my parents' house."

"So that's it. I'm coming down."

"It's no use," she said. "I won't come. I'll never come again. I've had enough. We've been arguing about you again. I'm at my wits' end. I'm going to rent a small apartment, I'm going to leave for, I don't know, the hotel, so they won't keep pissing me off! I can't take it any more, my mother is bitching at me again, I can't take it, I can't take it, I just can't! Bye."

She had hung up. Down below in the darkness, the phone booth was lit up, and it was occupied by the usual female neighbor, who had surely been there for hours. I ran into the bedroom. She wasn't there. I sat down for a moment on the edge of the unmade bed, laying my hands flat on the warm sheet. I didn't understand. The pillow where I buried my face was impregnated with her scent. I got up to splash myself with cold water and escape from this muddle; a small cut lay open on my neck, a short, red souvenir of her touch. Clothes thrown on, grimacing as my shirt collar rubbed against the cut, I went down the stairs.

Outside, it was pitch black. Where should I go? Around me, the streets spread out in a star-shaped pattern, any arm of which could be concealing her. The sky that I looked to for a sign remained inscrutable. In contrast, something was coursing through the leaves of the trees along the avenue, a noise, a whisper, and I ran, too, trying to catch up with it; yet it kept advancing faster than I could. It was a sign, no doubt, a hint—from whom, I didn't know. Where did it want to take me? I was running with more and more difficulty when, out of breath and on the point of stopping, I glanced ahead, and it was then that she appeared to me, distantly, in the halo of steam around the laundromat. Her name pained me as I shouted it out, and it dissipated in the night without reaching her. The whole time I was running, I never lost sight of her. What had I done now? How had I made myself guilty once more? Again and again her figure disappeared and then came back into view, each time a bit larger, in the light of a shop window. She seemed to be moving calmly, but if she saw me, I knew how quickly she could duck into the grocer's while calling out for help. Winded, I caught up with her near the butcher shop.

"Wait for me," I said to her.

When I laid my hand possessively on her shoulder, she spun around screaming. Only it wasn't she.

"Excuse me," I cried, pursuing her. "Excuse me. I thought you were someone else. Please! I don't mean you any harm."

"Leave me alone!" she said.

It wasn't she, but they were her features, exaggerated, puffed up, badly arranged. Her caricature.

"Forgive me," I repeated. "I gave you a scare, I…"

"Good night," she said curtly, as she turned on her heels.

I sat down for a moment, under the illuminated windows, where framed figures were visible, alerted by the scream. The pharmacy's cross-shaped emblem blinked on and off in a steady rhythm, casting and withdrawing a green glow that didn't reach me, or barely did, though it colored the walls with unfailing regularity. I was only a vague shape in the darkness, indistinct, anonymous. Someone could as easily mistake my identity. I had already encountered that woman, I had already mistaken her, from a distance, another time when I was running. A grotesque creature. Everything that was harmonious for me in my loved one's face seemed vulgar in the other.

When I had regained my composure, I walked under the arcades. In the haberdasher's window, the children's canvas shoes wrenched my heart. Children. Farther along, in our brightly lit Asian restaurant, the pretty waitress in her embroidered dress waved to me, thinking perhaps that I would enter, but I made a vague gesture signifying, "No, not this time, thanks, see you soon." I lingered a moment, however, in front of the window to contemplate the dining room, with its gaudy yet soothing décor, and the people sitting at our table beside the fish tank where long-tailed guppies were circulating. In front of the diners, something was sizzling on an iron platter: sea scallops sautéed with vegetables; the height of bliss… The man turned toward me, and the waitress, thinking I was hesitating, took a step in my direction. I walked away, blending back into the night.

In the little street that led to our apartment, the trees this time made no sound. In the dim glow of the streetlights, I could barely see the ground I was walking on. The night, the spindle bushes, the close-pruned treetops, everything observed the silence. But above me, I sensed their trimmed claws fray invisibly, brush against my head, my hair, my shoulders, I heard their inaudible laughter accompanying me as I walked. Perhaps she had spent a few moments here earlier; perhaps when she saw me coming down the street, she hid herself, crouched between two cars, as she had done once before; that time I had gone right past without seeing her. Another night in the same location, my approach flushed a marten from under a car, and it jumped through the bars of a fence into a garden. Why was she afraid of me? She often exploded that way in hurtful language, suddenly shrill, one word too many made her storm out and slam the door. The next time, she used to say, she wouldn't come back. The following day she would be gone. I remembered certain notes I had found on the table, each of them had made me burst into tears, or leap up angrily to look for her, or both. Little by little, my breath came back to me.

Back at my starting point, I raised my eyes toward our windows: the lights were blazing, in my haste I hadn't turned them off. I stayed a moment, watching. No shadow, no movement betrayed her presence. She hadn't come back. I stepped onto the stone-paved promenade, its gate creaking, and walked its entire length, past the row of trees in tubs, the patches of dead leaves, and the dog waste. In the adjacent avenues, neatly laid out, bordered by manicured trees, and in the crooked, irregular streets, with their delicate and neatly trimmed hedges, where I strode haphazardly, I found nothing that corresponded with our walks—neither the piles of belongings discarded on Sunday evenings, which we used to rummage through (snatching up here some CD cases, there a leather satchel), nor the firm-fleshed figs and other small fruits dangling above the walls, which we would pick surreptitiously. Even the dogs were silent. No one was out in the mute streets from which everything had disappeared: the Rue de la Paix, the Rue de l'Espérance, Rue de l'Avenir, Rue de la Gaieté.

Suddenly a thought struck me: the phone booth near her parents' house, it was from there that she'd called me, and I had never realized it. I'd believed, because the instant before she had been in my arms, that she was joking. However, the booth downstairs from our apartment had been occupied, and I had combed the city streets in vain, I hadn't found her. Furthermore, unlike the other times, I hadn't heard her hurried footsteps echoing on the staircase. Maybe she had told the truth, she was near her parents' place. It was useless to run at this point. It would be better to take the car and ride around looking for her. Once again I would have to set out for who knew where and drive through the murky night, plying the streets, the avenues, the water's edge. Perhaps she had taken a bus, the 114, the 116, the 317, gone to have a drink in an unknown café.

I mulled over this impossible situation from all angles. Now closed up, the cut felt slightly raised when I touched it with my index finger. What a gash in my mind, as well, that telephone call, her disappearance! They were definitely her hands I had felt reaching around me, her lips on my back… And then nothing, another world, as if I'd dreamed it…

On the banks of the Marne, which was rolling slowly by on my left, the car glided effortlessly past several fluorescent joggers. Not a single shape that resembled her. In places, the streetlights lit up the riverfront and the water, the footbridge, and from the other side the Chinese lanterns from an open-air dance hall, a café I suddenly remembered… Wisps of music. People were celebrating over there, no doubt pressed against each other, dancing, laughing. Around these splotches of light, the night was even darker, even denser, the river was no longer distinguishable except by one or two glimmers, some windows in the distance were geometric cut-outs, garlands of streetlights outlined the far-off streets. She must have slowed her pace, wandered confusedly, deep in her thoughts. She always started out at a rapid clip to open up some distance, exerting herself to get away quickly, she even ran sometimes, her head bent forward, and then she ended up walking almost serenely, pensive, staring at the river. At length she would sit down. I passed the bridge. She had to be sitting somewhere this time.

On the right, the park was submerged in darkness, beyond the deserted parking lot, all the way to the somber density of the woods. What terrifying refuge could she have found there? What kinds of trafficking went on there? Whom could she have met? In the slowed tempo of the speed bumps and the little traffic circles, my anger faded, I would have wanted to hold her tight against me to protect her; I inched the car forward, straining to make out something in the dark, wooded area I was skirting. It seemed to extend itself, sneakily, with a contingent of trees, past the parking lot to the gatehouse overlooking the street. I was relieved to reach La Fourchette, where I was surprised not to find young men loitering along the length of the yellow brick wall, sheltered from the lights of the Grand Cygne restaurant. Nor were they in the dark corner behind the bus stop, where their shadows could often be discerned. It was early, though. On the right, at her parents' house, the porch was not yet shuttered on the darkness of the courtyard. But she couldn't be there any more: she was seeking to separate from everything, so their home was not where she would find peace. Beyond, the avenue opened out, broad and yellow-tinged from the electric lighting, yet it was deserted. Where could she have gone? She had said: "to the hotel," maybe the one where we had spent a day together chasing after her sister. It was a long way, I would not have known how to get there by myself, the neighborhoods blurred in my mind. It was in a commercial or industrial zone, there were warehouses, prefabricated structures, a superstore… She detested these kinds of places. When she was feeling bad, she headed for the river.

Under the bridge, the patterns of light cast by the mounted lamps danced on the somber water, fragmented. My eyes teary, I climbed down to the riverside and walked along for a hundred feet or more. On the benches were couples, or clusters of young men, sitting on the backs, cans of beer in hand, talking noisily and pretending to chase each other for a moment before sitting down again side by side with loud guffaws. No trace of her. Off to one side, I squatted down to calm myself by dipping my hand in the water, so close that any loss of balance could have toppled me in. Briefly I noticed my own face, moving, forming and dissolving ceaselessly, crisscrossed by fish. Then, in the spreading ripples, as trembling and wavy as my own reflection, her face appeared—but when I whirled around, there was no one behind me. In the distance, perhaps, was a figure, passing beneath the willow tree, I wasn't going to chase an illusion again. "I am sorry," said one of her farewell notes, "but my mind has been made up since Thursday evening." "I know this will be hard for you; it already is for me," said another. Lost, as well, were our two daughters, who were already running circles around us without having even been born. In the distance a sound emerged, barely perceptible at first, then growing louder: a siren, the police, the firemen, an ambulance… I didn't know anything else. Close by, a flashing light pierced the darkness. Perhaps they had found her before I did, and I was too late. Did I need to walk along the edge of the river, use my car again, run? I had trouble breathing. I remounted the stairs, got into the car and drove off immediately. A blaring horn and screeching brakes brought me back to the present: I had almost collided with another car; then, the driver's glare, squealing tires, a deafening acceleration, and the car disappeared. I had lost track of the siren. My heart pounding, I stopped the car in the same place and leaned my forehead against the steering wheel. Everything became scrambled. I reclined the seat so I could stretch out for a moment. But the thought of her never left me. I pictured her on the ground, surrounded by onlookers, under the revolving beam of an emergency light; I would have to go walking to get rid of these morbid ideas. The soft breeze again rustled the leaves, but it did so in vain, I would no longer listen to their lies, this unbearably mocking little song, the jeers of an invisible chain of dancing children, whom I fled by running all the way to the next street. These streets—which I knew, we had walked them together—seemed bare and deserted to me. I was proceeding randomly, running, mindlessly turning left or right, toward a light, a leafy bough overhanging a picket fence, a vibration. It seemed to me I would find her in that manner.

Between two gardens, an alley led to the Marne; I recognized it as the site of one of our first walks. The river flowed alongside the back of the gardens, barely separated from them by a little path at the edge of which, on that occasion, we remained seated while conversing softly, without noticing the encroaching darkness. I should have thought of this spot in the first place. There she was. Propped against a low stone wall, backed up to the iron fence that extended above it, she had a peaceful appearance, moving very little, as far as I could tell in the darkness that didn't enable me to see her features. She turned her head toward me, I beckoned to her. She didn't come. At least she didn't run away like so often. It wasn't me she was evading, but seeing me so suddenly must have reminded her of her attempted escape. So, prudently, I didn't run toward her. I approached gingerly. I had to keep myself from scolding her, and instead repress my anger, be all smiles at finding her. "You had me worried," I said gently, not only to assuage her, but also to avoid a spectacle, the shutters thrown open in the middle of the night, everything starting all over again. She didn't answer. She didn't like my words, which she took, no doubt correctly, as a foolish reproach, addressed more to a child than to a cherished companion. I had to weigh every word.

"Come on, let's walk a little."

She didn't move an inch. I slowed down even more, afraid of having angered her and of seeing her suddenly dash off again. Her motionlessness didn't bode well. Neither words nor gestures. The only thing that made her seem alive to me was the gentle breeze that lifted her hair. No doubt she was seething with anger. Maybe she was irked at me for having found her again, as always. She was going to flee and I would lose her once more. I could feel the exhaustion weighing on me, it was late. Maybe, after all, I would not succeed in this pursuit except by drawing back a bit more. I stopped for a moment, ready to turn back without another step in her direction, ready to leave her, since that was what she wanted. But I continued to approach. It was only several yards farther along that I understood: she couldn't budge, much less jump up. What I'd thought was she was a sort of small electrical cabinet, above which swayed the flimsy branch of a bush, jutting out from a garden—that was what I'd mistaken for her hair. Clearly, I wanted to see her everywhere, I peopled the world with her, but she was nowhere. I sat down on the low wall, despondent. It was truly finished now. Twice I thought I'd found her, twice I'd been wrong. Around me the night was black and almost cold, a light puff of wind agitated the foliage, and the leaves of the bush fluttered against my hand, the friction chafing me slightly. My eyes brimming with tears, I looked down. On the ground were three playing cards, one of them, a spade, upturned. The cabinet was telling my fortune. I crouched down to flip over the other two pieces of soggy cardboard, but a scruple stayed my hand; I don't believe in those dark arts, and I went away without touching them. Farther along, other cards from the same deck would perhaps have been able to teach me something. I passed them by. I felt her presence all around me. Walking farther along the alley, I called her name, softly. Then no more hint of her. Melted into the night. Everywhere, in emanations, currents, drafts, spirals, infiltrating herself into the folds of a light gust of air, a zephyr, a caress, a benign softness, but invisible, sliding like skin between the fingers, intractable, frustrating, maddening, dissolved. The humid night was saturated with her, and with me, an absurd lump of flesh, useless, with no further purpose. Unable to fade away. Resistant. Idiotically resistant and solid. Embrace the air? My arms recalled a warm and tactile form, familiar from memory yet endlessly surprising, which they no longer knew how to recognize in this impalpable and invisible environment.

The river was very near. I could just make it out at the end of the little alley, black, indistinct, defined nonetheless by the shadows against which it lapped softly. Several distant lampposts lit the surface in faint glimmers, one of which one was marred by a dark, glistening little mass, a rat, no doubt, or a muskrat, that had drowned in the obscurity of the riverbank. Scattered about in the water, barely distinguishable, there might have been a few unidentifiable clumps, submerged tree trunks, animals lying in wait, abandoned bodies. All was water and night.

Translation of "Le Marne Noire." First published in Nouvelle Revue Française, January 2008. Copyright 2008 by Jocelyn Dupré. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2008 by Paul Curtis Daw. All rights reserved.