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Sport 32: Summer 2004

Charles Juliet — ‘As the twig is bent…’

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Charles Juliet

‘As the twig is bent…’

(extracts from ‘Humus’, L'Inattendu, Gallimard folio, 1992, © P.O.L. 1992, translated from the French by Jean Anderson)

She's been his mistress for three years. He's crazy about her. She leaves every other woman in the shade. She's the most beautiful woman in the whole village. The most beautiful and the most elegant. He thinks about her all the time, her figure, her face, the way she looks at him, her lips, her bust, her hands, so slender and white.

When she talks to him, he's in such turmoil that he can't even stammer out a word or two. Then she frowns, and her big green eyes take on a worried, questioning look. When she looks at him like this his turmoil turns to anguish and he mumbles something nonsensical. She nods, puts her hand gently on his head or strokes his cheek. He bites his lip to keep from giving away his secret.

He wishes that time would pass more quickly so that one day he might be allowed to live with her. In the evenings at home with his family, when everyone else is sitting around the fireplace heaped with enormous chestnut logs, he lies down on the old sofa, pushes his face into the corner of it and daydreams. Most of the time it goes like this: the armchair is red, and he is sitting on her knee. She is talking in her soft voice and he is listening, madly happy, his face pressed into the softness of her bosom.

Just before the start of the summer holidays, he finds out by chance that when school starts again she'll be teaching somewhere else, he won't be seeing her again.

On the last day, he doesn't go to school. He wouldn't have the strength to say goodbye to her. He walks deep into the woods. He thinks about getting lost, dying, being eaten by wild animals.

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There are ten of them, living in this little kitchen. To do his homework or learn his lessons, it is hard for the boy to find a space at the table and not be distracted by the conversations, the clanking of the buckets, the noise of his brothers and sisters singing or bickering.

Often when he prays he asks to fall ill. That way he could stay home alone with his mother while the others would be at school or at work. But the Lord has never answered this prayer and the boy feels resentful towards Him.

The snow has started to melt. During the night the temperature drops suddenly and in the morning the village streets are covered with a thick layer of ice.

He pulls some old socks on over the top of his galoshes and goes off on his errands. He has to go up a very steep street, and as he goes up a man is coming down.

Suddenly the man slips and falls, and the bottle he was holding so very carefully under one arm is shattered. He swears, gets up, falls down again, pulls off his cap and presses it against the ground where he is kneeling, to stop the liquid from running away down the slope. As the smell of brandy reaches him, the boy sees the man lie flat against the ice and quickly lap up the precious liquid.

Petey is always hanging about in the street where he spends his time getting up to no good. He lives in the same neighbourhood as the boy and is a few years older. The boy knows he must keep away from him, but very often it's impossible to avoid him.

Petey delights in beating the boy up and in inflicting various tortures on him. For example, he makes him lie down in the brambles, goads him into jumping off a roof or tearing down a hill on a bike with no brakes.

Once Petey ate a big fat worm, then dared the boy to swallow a slug. Other times he locks him in a cellar, slides a toad under his shirt, page 14 throws a live grass snake at his legs. One day they find themselves on the upper floor of a barn. Half the flooring has been removed and they play at jumping from joist to joist. Below them, a black hole.

To make the game more exciting, Petey announces that you have to jump further, landing not on the nearest joist but the second one. And straight away he makes the first leap.

The boy hesitates, not sure that he can jump so far. And a second later he hears the usual taunt: cowardy custard, cowardy custard…

The boy flexes his knees, takes a run-up, leaps. But as he lands his foot comes down onto nothing, his face smashes into the joist, and he disappears down into the blackness.

Petey runs away. Many minutes later, when the boy regains consciousness, he is lying on the bags of bran.

He leaves the barn holding his head in his hands. He is horrified by all the blood making his hands sticky. He thinks at once of his mother, what a fright this will give her.

Doubled over, his hands pressed to his face, he makes his way slowly towards the village fountain.

The river runs down through the mountains and past the foot of a high dark hill, covered in woods. The water is only a few metres wide, but at this time of year it's at peak flow. Its surface is broken here and there by little waterfalls, the current sometimes faster, sometimes slower; its murky waters churn and growl.

He's afraid of this river. Even more since winter, he can't forget the sight of that dead woman, her corpse stiff with frost, wheeled back to her house in a wheelbarrow. The men looked for her for days before they eventually found her further downstream, in a bend in the river where ice had formed over the water. Ever since he's had regular nightmares in which the river is always a killer.

His mother is using a rake to flatten out the molehills. He's bored. He suddenly decides to use a stick to check whether all the pickets of the fence are equally spaced. He sets about this operation with great care and without really noticing he soon finds himself on the riverbank.

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When he realises this he wants to run away. But he spies a piece of red material caught on the end of a branch, swaying to the rhythm of the current. This fabric piques his curiosity, he wants to have it. If he could get hold of it, he could make himself a scarf in a few days' time, or he could use it to catch frogs.

With one foot he tests for solid ground, moving very cautiously forward. He grabs the branch and tries to pull it towards him, but the weight of the wet fabric makes this impossible. He moves his foot forward, leans out further, bends over more, and when he tries with a sudden effort to pull the branch again the ground crumbles away and he falls head first into the water.

There's an immediate sensation of a vice crushing his skull, his arms and legs, his chest, preventing him from breathing. He doesn't cry out, he struggles, tries to grasp at branches, but the current drags him away. Everything happens very quickly. His knee smashes against a rock and he can already hear the growling of a nearby waterfall. He goes under, comes back up, choking on the water he's swallowed.

An eddy pushes him close to the riverbank, and with one hand he manages to catch hold of the end of a branch. But the current is so strong that it's a real struggle to get himself out of trouble.

His hands full of earth, he crawls through the undergrowth.

Teeth chattering, his head cradled in his arms, he lies in the field, and as he thinks about the terrible sadness his death would have caused his mother, he begins to sob.

Whenever he is by himself a long way from the village and sees someone coming towards him

whenever he watches his cows for hours in the furthest field surrounded by the woods

whenever he has to go up in the barn to push hay down through the trapdoors

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whenever he follows his cows out very early in the morning fog and even though he stays on his guard it isn't enough to hold at bay the dangers which threaten all around him

whenever he has to disappear into the darkness to take out a milk can

whenever he goes, on winter mornings before it's light, into the empty, silent, freezing, shadowy church, where his footsteps ring out, giving him away to the man crouching there in the darkness, waiting to kidnap him

whenever he goes down into the cellar to fetch wine, potatoes or beets

whenever he has to go along the pathway at the edge of the village, between the high wall streaming with damp on one side and on the other the enormous house with its windowless wall where gaping at head height is the black hole of a ventilation shaft where an unimaginable monster might be waiting to leap on him at once

whenever he has to go out into the winter night to the stable or to get wood from the woodpile, open to wind and rain and black with the densest of shadows

whenever he meets the giant old Italian, with his gaunt, badly shaven face, wearing his big black beret flat on his head, his tattered old greatcoat and puttees on his legs, carrying a big heavy stick which hits the ground in time with his stride, whenever this man who is always humming says hello in his broken voice, speaks to him in an incomprehensible language, patting him on the head in a caress probably intended to cover up the fact that he's a kidnapper

whenever the old gentleman who lost an arm and a forearm in the war, and for whom the boy is always doing whatever he can so that the old man won't suspect how frightened the boy is of meeting him, whenever this man in a gesture of thanks for the boy's considerate page 17 behaviour pats his head with his rigid hand in its black leather glove which makes faint, threatening squeaks

then the boy is overwhelmed by a suffocating, devastating, annihilating fear.

He undresses in the kitchen and with old espadrilles on his feet walks naked across the courtyard which is hidden in darkness and fog. Then he goes down into the cellar where he now stands next to the three men. He's cold and feels so embarrassed that he's miserable. He would like to stay there, hidden in the shadow of the vat, but he didn't come here to stand about doing nothing.

He puts his arms in first, then his head, then his chest. The darkness is absolute and the strong smell of the wine stings his nostrils. He uses his elbows, his arms, his legs, and moving like a snake manages to get into the barrel. He isn't embarrassed or nervous any more, and for just a moment he feels a certain pleasure at being here, out of sight, all by himself in the dark.

Through the opening they hand him a lightbulb. He places it in the socket they've passed in through the bung hole above his head. A faint light glows and he admires the purply reddish brown colour all around him.

Using a little axe, he scrapes the plaques of tannin off all the staves. After that he carefully brushes the whole of the inside of the barrel. Next they pass him pots full of hot water, which he throws around the inside, taking care not to scald himself.

He washes and scrubs several barrels this way. A short time later he's back in the kitchen, standing in a tub in front of a blazing fire, and his mother washes him.

He's happy to have been needed and proud to have done a chore no adult could have done; he feels important and recounts in great detail what he has just done so industriously. And this boy who is normally so quiet is astonished by all these words pouring from his lips.

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The boy really likes their neighbour. He's a man of about thirty, big and strong, and his bullocks have huge horns and beautiful auburn coats.

In the summer when people from the neighbourhood get together for the evening in front of the man's stable, the boy stands next to him, feels his biceps, plays with his cap, asks him questions about his work and his animals.

One evening the man teaches him to whistle. Another time he gives him some very serious advice. He's to go to the church, and at the foot of the wall he must gather up the pigeon droppings which have fallen from their nests, and rub them into his cheeks. These droppings are known to be very good fertiliser. If the boy puts some on his cheeks for at least two weeks, he can be sure his beard will grow and that way he will very soon be a man.

The boy doesn't know quite what to make of this strange piece of advice. He suspects it might be a joke, but he wants to grow up so much that one day he decides to give it a try. Just the same, before he goes off to the church he mentions it to his mother. But she shakes her head, pulls him to her, laughs and calls him a silly billy.

In a flash, he sees how true this is. He is deeply hurt by this realisation, and for the next several days he looks miserable, wondering over and over again if he will be condemned all his life to behave like a fool.

A while ago now he took to walking with his arms held away from his sides and his palms facing behind him. His mother is amazed by this, and concerned, and asks him if something is hurting somewhere. He reassures her, and tells her firmly there is nothing wrong but he can't hold his arms any other way. She's afraid that he may have some kind of bone problem and suggests taking him to the doctor. He shakes his head and says there'd be no point.

One morning he refuses to put on his shirt and declares that he's going to school in his undershirt. He's a gentle boy, obedient, careful not to upset anyone, but his mother knows that when he gets an idea into his head, it's practically impossible to get him to change his mind.

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So she gives in, softening, well aware there's no real harm in him. That morning, all the same, she makes it clear to him that she's not at all happy. But she quickly irons an undershirt.

When he gets to the water tank, he puts down his school satchel on the curb, takes out four stickers, licks them and presses them onto his upper arms and forearms. Then he goes on his way, blissfully happy, humming to himself and admiring his tattoos.

On Sunday after vespers, he goes down to watch the pétanque games. He squeezes his way through the groups of people and moves close to the man. He'll stay right beside him until evening, following him wherever he goes.

The man is in his fifties, not very tall, but heavily muscled, and when he walks he leans slightly forward from the waist. His voice is powerful, but quite hoarse. He wears his cap on an angle and pulled down low over his forehead. His undershirt is spotlessly white, and his impressively muscled arms, covered in tattoos, arc out in a semi-circle away from his body, palms facing backward.

This man owns a cart-horse, a cart with a big tank on it and a pump with two levers. The boy hopes that one day the man will hire him and that he'll have the pleasure of going round with him emptying the cesspools.

A stifling hot day. The village drowsy in the heat. Vespers finished some time ago, and he's sitting in the shade of the linden tree on one of the wide stone steps leading up to the church.

None of his friends agreed to stay with him and go out to mind the cows. The whole rascally lot of them have gone off to swim in the river. His elbows on his knees, his fists propping up his cheeks, he sits there in the empty street, gazing into the distance, meditating seriously on the darker side of human nature.

Suddenly, Gustave appears in front of him. The boy leaps up, ready to take to his heels.

Gustave is well-known hereabouts as one of the more colourful characters in the area. He lives in a tiny settlement of just a few houses page 20 and whenever he's seen in the village streets he is invariably drunk. And yet he drinks very little. Three glasses of wine are enough for him to reach the state of intoxication he's aiming for and which he never oversteps. He's an intelligent man, a wounded soul, who makes up sayings, tells juicy stories, and in conversation with people he meets makes telling comments which are not much appreciated.

With one hand he holds on to the old bicycle he uses as a prop, and with the other he grabs the boy by the scruff of the neck. He stinks of wine, struggles to keep his eyes open, grinds his teeth. The boy's legs tremble. ‘You listen to me, kid… I'm going to tell you… I'm going to tell you… something… you must always… you must always remember this… Because… because it will be useful… it will be useful the whole… the whole of your life… Listen carefully, kid:

It is better… to drink… and in this way to suffer
Than not to… drink… and to wish you were other.’

Propping himself on his bike, he goes on his way, singing to himself the precious advice he has just bestowed upon the boy.

One morning in June. School has finished. The teacher has kept him back for a few minutes, and now he is walking by himself. He goes up the hill which leads to the top of the village. Halfway up the hill, where the road curves slightly, there's a little grassy square. In the middle of the square, on a granite pedestal, there's a tall column with a statue of the Virgin on top. He likes this place, and stops without fail, four times a day, for just a moment, long enough to recite a Hail Mary…

On this day, face upturned to the statue, he has almost finished his prayer when he's startled by a cry and the sound of someone falling. A scythe caught between her legs, a woman is lying on the ground, unconscious. He's stunned and amazed, astonished that the wheels of her bicycle are still turning. The sight of those white thighs terrifies page 21 him even more than seeing the blood spurting out and spreading into a pool on the tarred surface.

The woman groans and he doesn't know what to do. He decides to squat down near her and talk to her, comfort her, tell her that she'll be looked after, she'll be helped. But when he realises that he hasn't managed to say a single word, panic grips him. Turning his head away, he presses his hand against the top of her thigh, to stop the bleeding. But what if someone found him like this, with his hand on the thigh of this woman he doesn't know, what would they say? Wouldn't they imagine that he was thinking dirty thoughts? He runs away, runs to get help. But after just a few metres he comes back, pulls her skirt down to her knees and then rushes off again towards the square.

Red, then brown, then black, the huge stain stayed visible for a week on the tarred surface, and for him, it has never gone away.

From that day on, he never again stopped in the little square, never again recited his Hail Mary in honour of the Virgin. His school satchel clutched tightly under his arm, his head turned away so as not to see anything, he never again went up or down that hill except at a flat-out run, his heart beating fit to burst.

It will soon be dark. He rounds up his cows and herds them onto the road. The field didn't have much feed left on it and he lets them graze on the roadside. He keeps himself entertained by gently kicking his staff, making it jiggle across the tarred surface. His delight at going home has banished the fear which weighs him down all the time and he makes a few friendly comments to his cows.

A vine is growing out high over the road. Looking up, he can see a luscious bunch of nearly ripened grapes. They'll be the first he's eaten this year. He stretches up on tip-toe and just as he picks the bunch, a voice shouts out:

‘Just you wait, you little rascal. I'll teach you to pinch my grapes.’

He lets go of the bunch of grapes which falls to the ground and lies crushed on the roadway.

He knows who it is. A mean old man who has a nasty habit of page 22 falling out with the people who lease land from him, then having endless disputes with them. And when these disputes turn to his disadvantage, he's pretty quick to take his tenants to court. People call him ‘the Gaul’, because the ends of his moustache droop down around the corners of his mouth.

‘I'm going to beat you black and blue,’ he howls, furious, jumping up and down and brandishing his walking stick.

The old man has come out of the woods about fifty metres away, and even in his wooden clogs he's walking quickly and closing in fast. The boy starts to hit his cows. Now the chase begins.

The cows haven't finished grazing and they know perfectly well that the dog isn't here today. They take advantage of this. They head off left and right, run into the fields, trying to munch an ear of corn or some beet leaves as they go. The boy mutters curses at them, hits their rumps even more frantically, and keeps looking back to check whether the old man is catching up. He's walking at a steady pace, with even strides, but he's moving more slowly. So the distance between them stays more or less constant.

The boy can't hear anything now but the rhythmic thudding of the wooden clogs and their hobnail soles scraping on the tarred road. His panic increases. The old man, still shouting insults at him, is so furious that he will certainly make a complaint to the police about him. Then there'll be a stiff fine to pay. His family won't have the money and it will be shameful for them.

Suddenly he realises that when they reach the priest's house the cows will stop at the water trough and he won't be able to move them on. Then the old miser will have no trouble pouncing on his prey.

Charming is due to calve in a month's time and she's having trouble keeping up the pace he's set. As he hits her he explains that he has no choice, tells her that tomorrow, to make it up to her, he'll bring her an armful of lucerne.

Blowing hard, the cows start to drink. The boy stands behind one of them, as far as possible from the Gaul who comes up, limping.

The chase hasn't calmed his fury. On the contrary, he's still shouting, brandishing his cane, but he doesn't stop. He goes straight on to the farmhouse.

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The boy hides in the stable where the sound of raised voices reaches him. He promises himself that he will never pinch anything again. He's called in. More dead than alive, on wooden legs, fearing the worst, he goes into the kitchen. The bunch of grapes has been tossed onto the table and is lying there for all to see, the evidence of his heinous crime.

The Great War veteran shed his blood to defend his country, and even though he's a little wary of the man's black-gloved artificial hands, the boy always greets him and is happy to help him out if need be. Once he picked up the bread the man had dropped. Another time, he carried his haversack for him. And another time, he tied his shoelaces.

One day, the boy learns that this war hero was awarded several decorations, and knowing this makes him even more respectful and admiring. On the same day, the boy is told quietly that the war veteran sometimes asks a passer-by to go behind a tree with him to help him answer a call of nature.

Not long afterwards, the new mayor has an open-air urinal built in the centre of the village. From then on, afraid that he may meet up with the old gentleman nearby, the boy always runs through this part of the street as fast as his legs can carry him.

One of their neighbours is an old woman. From time to time, on her way up to the cemetery, she comes to get the boy. He carries the can of water for her which she needs for the flowers she likes to arrange on her family graves.

The cemetery is on a flat shelf of land on the hillside and looks out over the village. To get there you have to go along a pathway over which the thick foliage of three-hundred-year-old chestnut trees forms an arching roof. Under this canopy the boy feels afraid. All the more so because the chestnut trees have been struck by lightning and in some places, high above the pathway, amputated branches and page 24 blackened, disembowelled trunks stand out stark and shattered against the sky.

When there are funerals and he's standing close to the priest and the other choirboys, the boy isn't frightened about going into this shadowy place. But when he's with this old woman, crippled with rheumatism, it's a different story. If they were attacked, she'd be no help, and whenever he goes with her he fumes and grumbles to himself.

The boy is bored when he's with her. She walks slowly, stops every hundred paces or so, and he can't talk to her because she's deaf.

On this particular summer Sunday afternoon he has to go up to the cemetery with her again before he sets off with his cows, and he's irritated at losing the two hours he could have spent hanging about in the village square.

When he gets back his mother gives him an inquiring look, to which he replies that when the old lady dies he's not going to go up to water her.

He has his own reasons for not liking the winter, the season when the days are too short and it gets dark too early.

Every evening after they finish milking the cows, he has to carry a can of milk to the house of an old lady who lives some distance from the village. He dreads this task so much that he can't stop thinking about it all day.

He puts a jacket on over his black smock, and with a determined grip picks up the can and clasps it against his chest. Once he's out the door, he's swallowed up, not by darkness but by something damp and sticky, where there are hands lurking, ready to clutch at him and strangle him. At night he has nightmares. He's a kidnapped child, maltreated, abandoned in a forest, murdered.

Running as fast as he can, he goes first along the village street, empty and dimly-lit. Then he turns off onto a little pathway where total darkness reigns. He speeds up, his heart thumping in his chest, and that's where the gypsies are waiting for him, the ones from his page 25 latest nightmares. Sometimes, just as they're about to grab him, he has to choke back a scream.

When he gets to the old lady's house, he is too out of breath to say a word. He puts the can down on the table in a great rush and leaves again at once. If he didn't go straight away, he wouldn't be able to pluck up the courage to confront the darkness again.

Back home at the farmhouse again, he stays outside, crouching on one of the steps, catching his breath, waiting until his legs and chest don't hurt so much. If they found out how terrified he is of the dark, they probably wouldn't make him take the wretched milk can anymore. Then his mother would have to take over this chore, or else they might tell the old lady they couldn't supply her with milk. He really doesn't want them to decide this, and that's why he's determined that no one must notice anything when he goes back inside.

But the hardest part of the evening is yet to come.

They're all sitting around the long table, eating their supper. Once, twice, three times, they have told him to go and get some wine from the cellar and he still hasn't budged. Finally the father raises his voice. Without any great enthusiasm, the boy finally picks up the bottle. Dragging his feet, he goes to the door, opens it slowly, closes it slowly, stands for a few moments on the doorstep. The night is completely black. Suddenly he leaps forward, crosses the courtyard with just a few well-measured strides, jumps down four steps, turns the key, shoulders the door open, turns the electric light on, charges down the stairs four at a time, runs to the barrel, turns the spigot, waits for the bottle to fill. Only the middle part of the cellar, in front of the barrels, is lit, the rest of it remains in shadow. The cellar extends into a passageway connecting it to another cellar. From here the man will come, moving stealthily, to gag him and carry him off.

Wedging himself in beside the barrel, cursing the spigot for letting out just a trickle of wine, he stares in terror at the villain's black lair. But actually danger threatens from all directions. And so he looks quickly, constantly, right, left, behind him, to avoid being taken by surprise. To be caught unawares would be worse than seeing the man coming at him and preparing to face the attack.

At last the bottle is full and he flees. Every step, every gesture, the page 26 precise moment when he has to switch the bottle from his right hand to his left, the way he has to pull the door closed, turn the key, leap up the last steps, everything has been carefully calculated to cut right down on the time it takes to go to the cellar and back.

He puts the bottle on the table, and goes and sits for a little while beside the fire so they won't see the state he's in. If they ask him what he's doing there instead of coming back to the table with them, he answers that he's cold, that he needs to warm himself for a minute.

Once more, once again, the heat is stifling. But still he has to take the cows out and lead them to the pasture.

Before setting off today the boy goes into the shed where the sink is. He's frightened of going in, because it's dark and he imagines there are scary invisible beings in there. He dips a glass into the wateringcan, takes it out, starts drinking. The water is tepid, stale tasting, not the least bit refreshing. His mother comes up to him, takes him by the arm, and tells him gently, choosing her words, that he has another mother, his real mother, and this mother has just died.

Two days later, in a mountain village, he goes to the funeral. Wearing a borrowed suit and shoes, he feels really strange and doesn't know how to behave. This man who puts a hand on his head, this is his father. He's pushed towards three children to kiss them, these children who are taller than he is, they're his sister and two brothers. He stares persistently at their faces, trying to make them out. Not a word passes his lips. The whole day long he stays silent, dazed and isolated.

The church astonishes him. It's tiny, poor, dark, very different from the one he knows. During the mass he blames himself for not praying.

When the cortège comes level with the threshing machine, the men turn the motor off and stand motionless, caps in hands.

Suspended by thick ropes, the coffin is lowered into the grave. A violent urge seizes him. To tear off the lid of the coffin, and see her face her face her face.

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It's Queenie, his favourite cow, the one he's never called a bloody bitch. On this winter evening he's by himself in the stable, keeping an eye on her. She is lying down and is going to calve any minute. Leaning up against her neck, he talks to her and scratches her favourite spot, behind her horns. From various signals he can tell she's anxious and he comforts her.

He enjoys the quiet and the gentle warmth of the stable. Carefully he spreads out the straw behind Queenie, so that the calf will land on this soft carpet when the men strain against the ropes to pull it from her belly. He gives the other cows a little forkful of second-growth hay.

He feels such overwhelming pleasure every time he sees a calfbeing born, and he's really excited that it's going to happen so soon. What does it matter if he doesn't know his lessons tomorrow. With an excuse like this, he shouldn't be punished.

The waters break, the liquid flows out, and he changes the straw, upset that he spread it out too early. The little hooves appear, pale and blood-stained, then the forelegs. He feels an intense emotion.

He leaps up, runs across the courtyard with giant strides, bursts into the kitchen, and shouts to the men playing cards, almost pleading:

‘Come quickly, come quickly, it's the purest time.’

He's busy at his homework. The conversation carries on around him. They're talking about a middle-aged man and woman who recently got married and the news is that they're expecting a baby. This fact is commented on, and various opinions are expressed. No one is paying any attention to the boy, and during a lull in the conversation he hears himself say:

‘These old folk are even madder for it than the young ones.’

A stunned silence. Then a roar of laughter, and he turns anxiously towards his mother. She gives him a reproving look but at the same time can't help but smile.

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They're a good way off, but as soon as he sees them the boy leaves his cows and runs over to them.

He knows these two horses well. Two magnificent and powerful percherons, wonderfully well-trained. Their master has only to say the word and they go forward or back, change their gait, turn right or left. The man speaks gently to them and seems to be very fond of them. The boy is fond of them too and full of admiration.

In the dawn of this September morning the man has started to plough the field bordering the pine forest. The boy stays near, walking in the furrow opened up by the plough, breathing in the good clean scent of the earth. His cows forgotten, throughout the morning, he goes endlessly up and down the field. Sometimes soil gets into his galoshes, but he doesn't care a bit.

The man listens to the boy, asks him questions, answers the ones the boy asks. The boy's eyes shine and he talks excitedly. To show how grown up he is, and that he'll soon be a man, he uses swear words a child shouldn't say. The man laughs and plays along.

To yet another mischievous question, the boy gives an answer which stuns the man. He stops, hands on his hips, shakes his head and looks at the boy in astonishment, incredulous, then he says:

‘Well, young lad, if the little piggies don't eat you up, you'll go far.’

The boy is surprised by this. He has no desire at all to leave his village, no wish to go far.

Several years ago misery came to their family and has never left it. Always weighing them down, working its way into pauses in their conversations, into their glances, the expressions on their faces, filling their lives with fear, suffering, exhaustion.

First to rise and last to go to bed, his mother never stops. She has a dozen mouths to feed, and day after day, without a moment's rest, she has to prepare meals, wash dishes, look after the house, the garden and the farm. To wash the clothes, she has to take the wheelbarrow and go to the wash-house which is a fair distance from the house. In winter when she has sheets to rinse through, she has to break the ice covering page 29 the basins. And when his father can't work for months on end, she takes care of the animals, milks the cows, shovels up and spreads the manure, ploughs, reaps, turns the hay, harvests the potatoes, the corn, the beets hellip;

Not once does the boy hear her complain. Not once is she angry. The boy loves her so much that his greatest pleasure is to stay beside her and gaze for long delightful minutes at her beautiful face. But when he notices her worried look, her sad and frazzled expression, he feels like crying. Sometimes he wishes he was bigger, so he could hold her in his arms and take her away from all this suffering. One thing is certain, when he grows up he'll earn lots of money and pay for running water to be piped in to the sink.

The slow years passed. The boy went off to live somewhere else. Left without joy to start a new life. Amongst his memories of those times, some had faded away, some were still vivid. In times of boredom, solitude, depression, the unpredictable and capricious tricks of memory sometimes brought back to the surface

the little hares running for their lives in front of the harvester blade, making furrows through the grass glittering with dew, one morning in June

the badger they found caught in a snare that lay for a whole evening on the uneven tiles of the kitchen floor

the anxious and repeated visits he made to one or the other of his friends to beg him to come out and watch the cows with him

the smell of marc in the November fog, when he sank up to his thighs in the burning pile of grape skins and twigs they'd just emptied out of the still

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the evening when one of the card players wasn't there and they'd called on him to play, and his partner, big Marcel, had yelled at him non-stop in a thundering furious voice

in the empty silent street the smell of a few rotting apricots thrown into a disused crate in front of the grocery store—a smell that would forever after be associated with the sluggishness of a stifling hot day

that unforgettable Sunday when the churchwarden's son gave him an icecream—and it was the very first time he had tasted one

the grass snake sliced in two by the blade of the ploughshare, that he stared at for some time with the aim of describing it precisely and in detail to his class during news time

the first morning at big school when he managed to achieve more than twenty errors in a dictation of a few lines and the whole class made fun of him

that man he was frightened of, who, often drunk, would walk through the village insulting his wife. One day, after a reprimand from the police who criticised him for plastering his chest with rows of decorations he had absolutely no right to wear, he felt he'd been dishonoured and went into the woods to hang himself

the former competitive cyclist, a bicycle repairman, who told him all about his races and with whom he spent many wondrous hours

the evenings when his father worked on his withies beside the fire

the cat that stole sausages from the abattoir and brought them back for the dog

day and night, the gurgle of water falling from the roof through a large hole in the broken guttering

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the priest who flushed with anger whenever the boy was slow to give a response or mixed up the cruets

the day when a viper attacked him. It was crossing the road in front of him, and he'd tried to kill it by stamping on it, but had only managed to injure it. Several times it coiled itself up and shot out as if on a spring, its forked tongue thrusting to within a few centimetres of his face. He defended himself with his staff and it was a long time before he got over his terror

the winter mornings when he ran through the darkness, sometimes in the rain or snow, to serve mass. The coldness of the stone floor bit into his bare knees. Half awake, shivering, he was suddenly seized by an unease, a sluggishness, a despondency that stayed with him throughout the whole day

the panic that seized him—he was a long way from the village and day was breaking—on discovering by the side of the road an unconscious man, lying face down. At once he had suspected a crime. The man was merely dead drunk and had collapsed there on his way back from a nearby village where—to use an expression the boy had often heard—he'd had a few too many

the day when, on his own with his cows, he had sung and shouted so much to fight off boredom that he went hoarse

the trapeze artist suddenly lit up by the spotlights against the darkness, below the canvas of the big top, impressively high up, and whose practically naked body had caused a vivid emotional response in him

those brooding days when he watched the rain fall for hours, his forehead pressed against the windowpane

the lovely little five runged ladder his father made for him from ash wood—his only toy—that he'd found broken after the only visit of one of the two brothers he met at their mother's funeral

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the crazy woman, dressed in several layers of frilly dresses, and a hooded cape with the hood pulled up over her head, laughing fit to burst, sprawled amongst her bags and baskets on the church steps

the day when the teacher, who often beat his pupils, dislocated the boy's thumb and he ran away. He'd stubbornly refused to go back to that teacher and they'd had to change his school

the autumn evening when he'd noticed that something unusual was about to happen, when they'd sent him off to the neighbours', and when he discovered on his return that a little brother had been born. The boy became immensely fond of the baby. On winter evenings when the baby's cradle was pushed close to the stove, overwhelmed by emotion, the boy liked to watch the little fellow sleeping

the neighbour who went off regularly to stay in the asylum. Every time the boy left the farm to go into the village he had to go past the man's house, and he was terrified. Extremely thin, with a gaunt face, his eyes burning deep in their sockets, the man would come into their courtyard, sometimes perching on a cart, and pointing his finger at them, would utter threats in a feverish voice, before making a long speech on the imminent end of the world and of humankind

the farmyard where he spent so many hours, the farmyard in the rain, the snow, the harsh sunlight of the pitiless summer, the farmyard on foggy autumn mornings when he set off with his cows for the whole day, the farmyard on threshing days, at harvest time, the carts loaded with hay, with wood, the piles of beets or potatoes, the farmyard with the cellar door across from the kitchen, with hundreds of ears of corn hanging from the beams in the eaves, the stable with the waste pump and the manure heap beside the door, then the big wooden gate, the logs stacked against the garden wall, and the barn with the plough, the harvester, all the different carts, the courtyard where he liked to spend time, the courtyard he often slipped away from to mingle with the villagers and their lives

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the images—some vague, some crystal clear—that stayed with him, of the few days he spent in hospital when he was three. In the first few months of his life he'd cried so much he gave himself a hernia—we held you and rocked you day and night, they told him when he grew up, but we couldn't get you to stop crying—and two years later he'd needed an urgent operation

the dilemma that presented itself to him every morning when there was only one piece of bread left in the bottom of his bowl of milky coffee, and he had to decide whether to give it to his dog or keep it for himself. Every time he gave in to his hateful selfishness, his conscience gripped him in a fierce debate, his remorse haunted him, he couldn't get his dog's pleading expression out of his mind

that indefinable pleasure he felt at being more intensely in his own presence when the thick autumn fogs made the world disappear, forgotten

the two men, at the end of an exhausting day's work, who complained about being so poor, about the hard life they led, acknowledging bitterly that their lives were never going to improve, and close by, distraught, the boy weeping silently in the darkness

the joy he'd felt that day, clowning around on an old bike, when he managed to make his father laugh

the moments of inexpressible happiness spent through the long years with his mother who had taught him everything by her example, and whom he couldn't think about, when he was far away, without feeling his heart leap