Suzanna peered outside for the fourth time that day, and it still wasn’t quite noon. Beyond the window, the surrounding plain remained as motionless and silent as it had been when she’d last looked out.
“Mommy, Mommy, Mommy!” cried Théa happily as she repeatedly tapped her fork on her chipped plate.
Suzanna turned around, removed from the oven the scrawny chicken she’d prepared, set the dish on the table and served a portion to her little girl, who smilingly thanked her. The too infrequent aroma of food and the heat of the oven pervaded the house, and Suzanna did not have to call Elicia to the table. The family’s older daughter came down the stairs from the second floor and was seated in the kitchen in less than twenty seconds. Suzanna had used this time to return to her vantage point behind the room’s only window. Still nothing. Just the old, irregular plain, hardened by the frost and marked here and there with clumps of blighted grass and a few scattered trees that the autumn had stripped almost entirely bare. And hanging over this desolation, like a grimy shroud set hastily over an agonizing man, was the same luminous gray sky as the day before, and the day before that, a tired autumn sky, too feeble either to lift the clouds or bring the rain, contenting itself with spreading a chill, damp atmosphere over the earth, a viscous and unacknowledged contagion, like a relentlessly spreading amoeba that imposes passivity on all in its path.
“Well?” asked Elicia between two bites.
“Nothing. So far,” replied her mother as she came to sit with her daughters.
“You’re sure they’ll come?”
“There’s still time for them. They always come in the autumn. And besides, Achab is old enough now.”
“Maybe they won’t come this year,” said Elicia in a hesitant tone.
“You know very well they will. They’re going to come here and then leave again. It always happens that way,” said the mother in a tone that brooked no disagreement.
Elicia, not daring to respond, returned silently to her meal, her eyes fixed on her plate. Suzanna began to fiddle absently with her battered old rings. November had just ended; the autumn was beginning to nod off and would soon give way to winter. There weren’t many days left . . .Perhaps Elicia was right, after all. Maybe they wouldn’t come this year . . .
As soon as she felt her own hopes begin to rise, Suzanna forced herself to dampen them by recalling that all the mothers of the region must have told themselves the same thing, must have hoped as she had done all through the autumn, counting down the days that separated them from winter, watching the shadows of the countryside and the murmurs of the winds, until at last they had arrived just the same.
Elicia finished her meal and then went back up to the bedroom she shared with Théa, leaving her mother and her younger sister in the kitchen. She lit the old heater they had scavenged the year before, stretched out on the mattress that served as her bed, and stared at the ceiling. Every evening for the past several weeks, through the walls of the house — a rather grand word for this crude, rickety contrivance of old planks and crumbling cinder blocks — she had heard her mother crying, yet without ever having seen a single tear on her face. She could also hear the wind howling outside, tearing the last leaves from the sickly trees of the plain, torturing still more a countryside already much abused by the passage of time. And once the sun had risen, the gloomy sky continued to grow heavier by the day . . . until the inevitable moment when it would open up and pour down its fury.
Elicia knew by heart the story of the reapers and of the autumnal shadows that had been told for years in the village. In each of the past two years, she had seen the men in black arrive. And she’d seen them in another long-ago time, about ten years earlier, when she was only six years old and was first discovering the world. They were the reapers, the men in black, the autumn shadows, the son-stealers. Since this first contact with the external reality that surrounded the closed and asphyxiating environment of the village, her mind had absorbed all the elements necessary to grasp the truth — the total clarity she now possessed about what would happen before the winter. She had tried in vain to comfort her mother, tried to be the glimmer of hope for the family. But for several months not a single doubt had clouded the certainty that had taken root in her: the reapers would come during the autumn to take her brother, Achab.
Elicia got up, walked to the window, her shoes stirring up the dust that covered the floor, and lost herself in contemplation of the pathetic little hills that everyone called “the plain.” Still no one. She waited, resting her forehead against the icy pane.
Passing a hand through her long, graying hair, Suzanna let out a sigh. She had lived too long to have any remaining illusions. But she had also lived too long not to be angry with the entire world, with God, with destiny, with the reapers, with the vanished father of her children, with herself, with whoever ended up by chance in the trajectory of her thoughts. Powerless and prostrate before the fear that had shaped her, she was incapable of attempting anything to avert what was going to happen. Even so, she could not help feeling the hateful heart that throbbed within her, engorged with dire thoughts and wayward intentions toward the ineluctable cycle that had taken hold. She had sought in vain, mulled over her thoughts a hundred times, yet still she could not find a sense in all this. A kind of enormous wave, recurrent and irrepressible, propelled by the autumn wind, was coming to carry off several young men. No one had ever wanted or dared to intervene against it, knowing in advance that a rock could not stop the water from flowing around it as if it did not exist.
But with Achab’s adulthood and its ominous import, a different feeling had arisen in her. Would her distress have been as great if all this had not involved her son? Did her interior darkness have any substance until this year? Had she wept when the reapers had come for Thomes, the son of the Neteau family, or for Aquilon, the Ervanes’ son? No, emphatically no. The reapers had not gained their hold on her thoughts until Achab had turned twenty. Until then, they had just been shadowy figures briefly glimpsed, nightmares she had forced herself to forget. But repressing her memories was no longer an option. Not for her. The other mothers of the village would have to act as she herself used to do, closing her eyes and trying to forget that it was autumn. She couldn’t do that anymore, would never again be able to.
Her elbows resting on the table now cleared of dishes, Théa was playing with her barrette, sliding it along a lock of her dark hair, barely concerned with the time of year. Suzanna let her pale blue eyes linger on the little girl she had found crying four years earlier in an abandoned ruin, and permitted herself a brief smile, weary and rueful.
She rubbed her hands against her dress to warm them, then turned once again toward the window to observe the autumnal desert. But the desert no longer existed. Three tall silhouettes were outlined along the ridgeline farthest from the house. The clouds had parted, and the timid December sun was piercing the surface of the sky, stretching out the shadows of the three beings like sinister and outsized tentacles slithering as far as the landing of the house. The three figures and their shadows assailed Suzanna’s eyes and made fresh tracks in the dusty layer that had blanketed her consciousness during her long vigil. She was unable to stifle a scream.
“What is it?” asked Théa, guarded and motionless.
“Go find your sister,” replied Suzanna, “and then stay in your room.”
“Achab is in the cellar. Should I go find him, too?”
“No. Leave him alone for a while longer.”
“Is something bad going to happen to him?” asked Théa after a pause.
Suzanna struggled against the panic that was mounting in her. Théa cared deeply for Achab; indeed, she cherished him.
“No, Théa, there’s no problem. Now go find Elicia and shut yourself up in your bedroom.”
Théa ran from the room, her missized dress dragging on the floor. Suzanna burst into tears as soon as the sound of her footsteps on the stairs had died out. The wait was over, replaced only by dashed hopes. Suzanna wasn’t ready. She never would be. She dropped to her knees on the discolored tile floor and cried uncontrollably, letting her horror and exhaustion pour forth in her tears. All her energy had been drained, and she was huddled on the floor of her pitiful dwelling, with no hope, no light to drive away the darkness in her heart. What imperative had brought her to this point? Why hadn’t the reapers been stopped?
It seemed that no one owed her an answer.
Elicia entered the kitchen and, without a word, helped her mother to her feet. Suzanna snatched up a rag that was lying near the oven, wiped her face and smoothed her hair. Then she looked directly into her daughter’s eyes. Never had Elicia’s beauty struck her as at that moment. Deep blue eyes, a round and lightly tanned face, a delicate, freckled nose, long hair in the same shade of brown that Suzanna’s own hair had been when she was younger, a well-defined mouth with full lips, a body that had emerged from puberty and was now adorned with sleek and ample curves surmounting a pair of long legs. Elicia was young, beautiful and intelligent. She had what it took to be happy.
Suzanna tore herself from her thoughts and silently nodded her head. Her daughter responded in the same manner.
“They are here,” said Suzanna, drawing out each syllable.
“I know. We can still leave. We can run away. I’m ready to do it,” said Elicia with a calm determination.
Suzanna smiled sadly.
“I love you, Elicia. I love all three of you.”
She laid her hand on her daughter’s cheek, and Elicia closed her eyes for a moment. A stillness had enveloped the house, and the light of the dying autumn cast its chill on the nearly empty room.
There was a knock at the door.
Suzanna breathed in deeply and went to open it. On the stoop were three men, as erect and immobile as stone slabs, with rifles in their hands. All three were dressed in the reapers’ long, black leather coats, threadbare and dirty. And the two who flanked the tallest one wore strange gas masks, giving them the appearance of insects with round, dull glass eyes. The sprigs of hair that protruded from the khaki-colored leather were the only discernible signs of their humanity. Anonymous executioners concealing themselves from the families of their victims.
The third man, the middle one, was not wearing a mask. He was taller than the other two, and his face was rugged, but not notably severe. His crew-cut hair was white, though Suzanna doubted that he was over forty.
“Good-day, ladies,” he said in a measured voice. “We’ve come for Achab.”
How did they know Achab’s name? It didn’t matter. They just knew. They knew his age, where he lived, and who he was. That was their place.
“We know,” said Suzanna. “He’s coming.”
“Good,” said the unmasked man with a nod.
“Bring him here, Elicia.”
She went out and disappeared down the hallway that led away from the kitchen. Suzanna and the white-haired man avoided each other’s gaze. One of the masked men had leaned against the exterior wall and was looking attentively at the desolate plain, as if this was the first time he’d contemplated this kind of landscape, however ordinary. The other had his hands in his pockets and seemed fascinated by his feet. Cold air swept into the house and whipped around Suzanna’s legs, but she was not willing to invite the men inside just to get the door closed. They were reapers, and they had come for her son. She would endure the cold and the autumn sky, but they would not plant their gleaming, black boots inside her house. They took away the young men, they plundered people’s hopes. They were the black-clad men, the autumn shadows, the wolves heralding winter, the ogres of the plains.
But they weren’t only that. For the very first time, Suzanna saw them up close: there they were, within inches of her, standing stock-still on her doorstep. They, too, were waiting, as she had awaited them for two months. And for the first time in her life, Suzanna wondered who they were.
Until that day, she had contented herself with viewing them as forces of nature, in the same vein as tornadoes and thunderstorms. Primal elements, more things than people, insentient beings that confined themselves to existing, with no particular purpose. From now on, she would be compelled to see things differently. Three creatures were standing in front of her, and they were human. Ordinary men, with no destructive aura, no malign power, no moving shadow. Just three human beings. It was reassuring in a way, but also more terrifying. Reassuring because the myth of the reapers was losing its mysterious dimension, yet terrifying because it took on many other dimensions and because questions were accumulating about the human qualities of these beings she had for too long viewed as demigods. There was nothing godlike about them, and for that reason Suzanna understood that her fear was becoming still more pathetic.
The man whose face was exposed looked at her momentarily, then averted his eyes, too ashamed to hold the gaze of Achab’s mother. His face looked calm and almost handsome, though one of his cheeks was streaked with a long scar turned purple by the cold. His skin seemed as tough as leather, a normal consequence of spending many years outdoors. His long, black coat—his cape of darkness, as the superstitious called it—was held together by four shiny buckles and nearly reached the floor.
He resembled the familiar figure of death, with his rifle replacing the scythe, but who was he, really? To what organization did he belong, and how had it succeeded in imposing itself to such an extent? Of what lies or massacres were they guilty? As incredible as it was, Suzanna realized that this was the first time she had asked herself these kinds of questions. The region had long ceased to have an army, and in any case no one had ever seen a single reaper on any battlefield. And where did they find their long leather coats and their weapons, in an era when people had to struggle just to survive? Above all, where did they take the young men? And what did they do with them?
“Something wrong, Madam?” asked the reaper, no longer able to bear the scrutiny to which he was subjected.
Suzanna didn’t pause to reflect, and her reflexes were not quick enough to suppress her words before they had crossed her lips.
“I just want to remember the face of the man who is robbing me of my son.”
The man scowled, grunted in disapproval, and that was all. No shots fired, no screams, no blood. His gray eyes looked away again. Neither a god nor a demon: just a person. Perhaps he had a rifle and a coat that smelled of blood, but he was as weak as everyone else. He concealed himself behind those things to indulge his appetite for wickedness.
Contempt and hatred were coupled in Suzanna’s mind. Hatred for them, contempt for herself.
She heard the sound of steps behind her. The white-haired man craned his neck, the masked men returned their attention toward the house, and Suzanna turned around. Elicia and Achab were there, at the entrance to the hallway, their faces as impassive as those of statues.
Achab had shaved and cut his hair. His black eyes stood out in his pallid face, nocturnal flames burning with self-possession and repressed anger. He was wearing the white outfit that had belonged to the father who was virtually unknown to him, and with his head held high he unflinchingly confronted the men who had come in search of him. He had the look of a martyr, ready to die for his cause without pleading for mercy. Behind him, Elicia was standing up straight and holding onto his hand. Suzanna saw that their knuckles were white, the only indication of the torment straining their self-control.
She breathed out slowly. They were so handsome and proud. Her flesh and blood. Her reflection. The justification and redemption of her fears.
“You’re Achab, aren’t you?” asked the man without a mask.
“Yes. I’m ready now.”
“Good. Then it’s time.”
Achab nodded his head in silence, took his sister in his arms, whispered a few words in her ear and moved away. The imprint of Elicia’s hands was visible on the back of his jacket, gray shadows on the white fabric. He stepped forward, kissed his mother, looked her straight in the eyes and said:
“I love you, Achab.”
“I love you, Mother. I love everyone.”
Without taking his eyes off her, he took several steps forward, bringing himself alongside the unmasked man. His white suit seemed to be a drop of daylight in the nocturnal ocean of the reapers’ deathly coats.
Suddenly a sharp cry resounded from the hallway. Neither Suzanna nor Elicia had time to turn around before Théa came running toward the reapers. She launched herself against the masked man who was standing on the right and relentlessly pummeled his legs with her little fists. The reaper seemed more embarrassed than disturbed. Théa was crying, shrieking, her shoulders heaving jerkily, her face red and flushed. Suzanna guessed that she’d been hiding in the hallway all along.
She came forward to take her daughter, but then stopped, aware that Théa’s fate at that point depended only on the reapers.
“Don’t take Achab! You monsters, don’t take Achab! Don’t take him! You bug-face, don’t take him!”
The man in the gas mask crouched down and effortlessly restrained her arms.
“Please calm down . . .” he said in an impersonal voice filtered by his mask. “He has to come with us.”
“Don’t take him!” wailed Théa, her cry filled with tears and despair. Her alarm was mixed with her frustration at being unable to move.
“We have to, little girl, we have to . . .”
During this time, the white-haired man was stroking his chin, not knowing what to do. Achab had turned toward the plain, and Suzanna realized that he was crying.
Finally, Elicia came forward and took Théa, trembling, in her arms. The little girl buried her face in her sister’s shoulder, the tiny body hunched and innocent, convulsed with sobs. Elicia still seemed as impassive as ever, but Suzanna saw a very thin trickle of blood that horizontally colored her lip. She turned back toward the reapers and her son.
The three men nodded in unison and, replacing their rifles on their shoulders, prepared to leave. Achab turned back toward the house where he had lived for twenty years. Tears ran noiselessly down his cheeks. He gave a farewell wave, and Elicia unclenched her jaw and burst out weeping, her tears mingling with Théa’s.
“I’m sorry,” murmured Achab between sobs.
“Me, too, Achab . . . You’ll always be here… Always, my son.”
He nodded his head and smiled at the three females who were looking at him, then he turned around and began walking toward the plain, closely followed by the men in masks. The white-haired man put his hand around the doorknob and pulled the door toward him.
When the door latch was within a few inches of snapping shut and the man’s presence had been reduced to no more than an eye and a cheek that could be glimpsed in the gap, he uttered a short phrase:
The door closed.
Suzanna knew immediately that these parting words had just determined the rest of her life. In pronouncing these three simple syllables, nine letters, arbitrary symbols devoid of intrinsic meaning, this man had just appropriated from her the possibility of her hating him, of making him her personification of Evil, her personal symbol of irredeemable villainy. It would have been so much easier for her if he had raped her, if he’d burned the house and put out Théa’s eyes… But no, he had simply asked forgiveness, expiation for a crime he had not wanted to commit. In seeking pardon, he was leaving her alone with her questions and her tears, alone with a forgiveness she found it impossible to grant.
She turned and put her arms around Elicia, feeling her daughters’ bodies against her own. Their tears formed a single torrent, independent of any source, an entity existing only for itself, the great All of sorrow and despair. A gigantic and inexhaustible river, yet one that was incapable of extinguishing three autumnal flames. That was what Suzanna sensed. Three lives, three surviving existences. No more questions, no more symbols, just regrets and three heroines wounded in a struggle that was only beginning.
When they had stopped crying, they proceeded to the kitchen window. Elicia still held her sister in her arms.
“Achab told me to tell you that he loved you, that he also finds the morning to be lovelier than the evening, and that he thinks the marbles you lost are in the bushes behind the house.”
Théa placed her lips against her sister’s cheek, leaving a distinct mark in the midst of the tear stains.
The two sisters joined their mother in gazing toward the hills. The sun had vanished as quickly as it had appeared, and the clouds had decided to settle in. A light rain was beginning to erase the footprints that had stood out in the dust of the plain, and the landscape was deserted once again. The autumn reapers had left with their harvest, leaving behind them an inaudible cry.
Then, finally, the winter came.
Translation of “Ils viennent toujours en automne.” Copyright Vincent Mondiot. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2010 by Paul Curtis Daw. All rights reserved.