It was because of a star that appeared between the Great Bear and the Little Bear that the goats in a village in northern Lebanon ate the French essays of the eighth-grade primary class.
Engrossed in watching the luminous point that she’d just noticed for the first time, the schoolmistress didn’t see them enter her classroom, devour her pupils’ work, and then bound out the window with their bellies full of words.
—So much the worse for them, they’ll drop their turds in French.
That was all she had to say, and she gave her pupils the same subject over again: “Describe your village and express your feelings about it.”
Thirty girls stared profoundly at the mountain, which sheltered stormy winds, at the valley where glacial water flowed, at the thirty graves in the cemetery with their wrought-iron railings, visible from all the terraces.
Zarifé, who had never been able to tell the letter “I” from a broomstick, and who spent her time dozing on the hindermost bench in the classroom, covered one page with her disheveled handwriting, then a second, then a tenth. She would have asked for a twelfth sheet of paper if the school bell hadn’t rung.
What diabolic spirit dictated her essay to the poor halfwit? And who’d need to waste so much paper describing a village inhabited by a hundred people and two hundred goats?
Perused that evening by lamplight, that essay made the schoolmistress’ hair stand on end. Zarifé foretold in black and white the imminent arrival of a pack of wolves.
“They’ll rush down the mountain, smash the latches on the doors, warm themselves at our firesides, ransack our pantries. The misers who defy them will be devoured so quickly they’ll hear their own bones snap between the mighty jaws.”
The teacher could read no further. The pages that followed concerned the priest. The aforesaid priest couldn’t get past the second page, he went straight to Zarifé’s father and thrust the papers under his nose.
—I don’t know how to read, protested the man, who was known to be illiterate.
—Your daughter doesn’t know how to read either, but that hasn’t stopped her from writing. I must see her. We’ll discuss this.
—You might just as well suggest a conversation with the wind. My daughter has disappeared. She vanished into thin air this evening.
Zarifé’s absence lasted all summer and half the following fall. She came back one night, at the hour when the wind begins its endless complaint in the chimneys. Her prominent belly proclaimed that she was pregnant. But who was the child’s father?
—The devil, replied the priest, who had an obsession concerning that individual.
He saw him everywhere: astride the church steeple, wading in the holy-water font, closed up in the confessional. He had even seen him bent over double on the cold tiles of the nave, beating his breast with his fists.
—For there’s no one but the devil who’d . . .
Zarifé’s stare made him swallow the rest. She shook her head violently and composed her answer in a long howl that made the goats shudder in their pens.
The sacristan, whose opinion differed from the priest’s, was convinced that Zarifé was merely a tool in the hands of a god who wished to test the village’s inhabitants, to measure their tolerance.
God or devil, what’s the difference! From the first moment Zarifé’s father opened his door and his arms to his daughter. That God whom the sacristan talked about had brought his daughter back and he was glad of it.
Zarifé passed her days by the fireside knitting strangely-shaped garments—too long for a newborn, too narrow for an adult, and which invariably ended with a tail. A stitch here, a stitch there, and the ball of yarn melted and transformed itself into a coat, shaped to cover an animal’s body, more precisely a wolf’s.
—And why not scarves, to protect them from catching cold? howled the shepherd. And what about four mittens for the beasts so that their paws needn’t touch the frozen ground when they set out to devour my poor flock?
Zarifé’s father could have gutted him! A brute, that shepherd. He’d succeeded in terrifying her. And she had set off again for an unknown destination with her belly, her needles, her balls of yarn and her eyes widened in fear.
In her absence Zarifé obsessed everyone. The constable swore he’d seen her running along the mountain ridges followed by a pack of wolves all dressed in long hand-knitted coats.
Someone else claimed to have seen her disinterring the last corpse buried in the village, a wealthy man, in order to feed him with mulberry leaves, as if he were a silkworm.
Many things were said and repeated, but no one dared to go out and verify. Let me tell you, it was a village full of cowards!
Dawn found them as pale as its own first ray of sunlight, shivering like the leaves of a plane-tree in the wind.
Soon afterward, the gravedigger confirmed the rumor. He had found four wrought-iron gates opened, three graves dug up, and the town worthy who had been buried with great pomp the previous evening seated at the foot of a mulberry-tree, a branch stuck between his jaws.
From that day onward, the village went to sleep in fear and woke in fear. Great and small went to ground in their houses after the canal lock-keeper told how he’d seen Zarifé riding astride the mill-wheel, swinging herself along with the current. According to him, she gave birth that night. The boy she brought into the world had red hair, a real ear of corn.
Only a few hours later, she was seen striding up and down the mountain ridge followed by her wolves all dressed up for a parade while the child riding on her back was as naked as a worm.
Windy nights scattered a baby’s wails mixed with wolf howls through the sky. Wails that moved and distressed the widow who lived at the edge of the forest. One night when the sobs had doubled in their violence, she listened to her heart, leaped across a stream, strode over three tufts of broom, clambered up the slope, then went toward an olive-tree. In the hollow trunk slept the baby.
With the little head wedged against her neck, she clambered down the same slope, leaped across the same stream after striding over the same three tufts of broom, right back to her house and her bed where she laid the child down.
She was just about to sing him a lullaby when she heard claws begin to dig into her door. A howling as long as the road from the town hall to the cemetery claimed the child of the mad girl and the wolves. The latch gave way gradually beneath the weight of two messengers: an old one with a gray chest-ruff and a flea-bitten tail, and a wriggly young one who felt obliged to sniff at everything, even the picture of the Sacred Heart hanging on the wall.
Like licensed movers, they carried away the bed with its contents, the old one with the gray ruff in front and the curious young one behind. They disappeared around the first bend in the mountain road, where the cypresses sketch black arrows on the sky. When her terror subsided, the widow was pleased by the secret that linked her to the wolves. Something told her that they would return as neighbors, as friends, now that they knew the way to her house.
The winter, which dropped brutally on the village, imprisoned the goats in their pens. With no French essays to eat, they grazed on hay, which made them noticeably less clever according to the schoolmistress. No one had time to change their straw: everyone was obsessed with Zarifé.
A trickle of blood, from a cut on her toe, served as a thread that linked them to her wanderings. The whole village stared at the mountain; only the widow stayed at home. She prayed to the god of the wolves to return the child to her.
Was it her fists beating against her chest that alerted them?
They returned the way they had left: the old one with the flea-bitten tail in front, the wriggly little one behind, the child and the bed between them.
They were bringing him back to her. She would make a better mother than his real one, too restless.
—But what have you told her? the widow dared ask.
—Nothing, was the answer.
The old wolf offered the girl a strand of cornsilk. She had only to plant it, water it, and tend it as it grew, and a new baby would replace the other one.
Zarifé did what she was told. She pushed the strand of cornsilk into the earth, and bound it to a stake. She watered it each morning and evening. The wolves’ eyes followed her, full of feeling, as she went back and forth between the stream and the vegetable baby. Her arms loaded down with buckets, she poured water on the ramshackle plant-stock without admitting the slightest fatigue. To produce a child from a hair seemed to her to be something of a sickening simplicity. She measured it at dusk and dawn to make sure that it was growing and sang it lullabies that she invented out of whole cloth.
A real baby with two eyes, two ears, but only one mouth rocked one morning in the mountain air. His mother was so dazzled by it all that she smoothed out his hair with her comb, from root to tip in the direction of the stars so that one day he’d become an astronomer, then from tip to root, so that he’d also practice the trade of water-diviner.
When spring opened the doors of the paddocks it made the goats giddy. The child who rocked on the mountain peak under the tender gaze of a pack of wolves was in every way similar to other children. One had to come close to see that his feet were well and truly rooted in the soil.