The arrow was about to pierce the nape of my neck. Though I ran as fast as I could, raced down steep roads, leapt across ditches, climbed hills, it anticipated my every move, pursued me like a baying hound. I had no chance to escape. Resigned, I stopped running, and stiff and straight as a tree, awaited the fatal blow. A sharp, snapping sound saved me.
It took a few moments before I realized I’d dozed off on my mother’s grave. I had been asleep for a long time. The cemetery was now plunged into night. Rain fell gently, rain warmer than the surrounding air. I was no longer alone, I could hear shouting nearby. Intrigued, I slipped like a shadow through graves and groves until I reached a small mound. From there I could see a group of men. They were laughing and shouting words that I couldn’t make out. Their hazy silhouettes stood out in the bluish light of the moon. Four men in their twenties or maybe younger. They were bending over something and kicking it. Had they extricated themselves from a grave like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse?
I approached them to get a better look. They wore uniforms and peaked caps. Their laughs became less frequent, then were swallowed by a disturbing silence. One of the four men brought a bottle to his lips. He drank, then tossed the bottle in my direction. Thinking he’d seen me, I got out of there fast, crawling like an animal until my knees were scraped raw, a victim of uncontrollable panic. Shaking, teeth chattering, strength gone, I collapsed near my mother’s grave, not daring to move. I waited one long moment. The rain had stopped. A light mist drifted in the air. The breath of the dead escaped from the ground, stinking and cold.
I pricked up my ears. Nothing. All I heard was the rustling of the elm trees that circled part of the cemetery. My fear assuaged, I returned to the place where I’d spotted the four men. They were gone. Now I knew for sure: the one who’d thrown the bottle just wanted to get rid of it. It was strictly coincidental that he’d thrown it in my direction. I approached the thing they’d been kicking with their boots. It was a young girl. A young girl who must have been beautiful. Even in this painful situation I couldn’t help noticing her fine features, realizing that she must have been lovely before.
Now her face was bloody. Lifting her, I noticed a long branch sticking out from under her dress. I pulled on it, threw it in the air with all my might. The poor girl had suffered the very worst abuse.
I ran from the cemetery, the young girl in my arms, afraid the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse would burst out of the darkness and make me in turn suffer torments too shameful to mention. It was only when I saw the entrance with its tall wrought-iron gate that I could finally catch my breath. In the distance I heard the muffled sounds of the city, its moist breathing. That was enough to calm me. I headed for my car. Opened the trunk and threw the limp body inside.
I drove across the city, relieved to recognize familiar streets, illuminated signs, lighted shop windows. I must not think about the branch, must concentrate on driving, on the light from headlights, on what lay ahead of me.
With stunning confidence given the circumstances, I parked under the branches of the oak tree that hid my mother’s house. It must have been past midnight. The rain had cleared the air and it was no longer muggy. I glanced around. Nobody. In the distance I could see the city lights and below, the halo of street lamps in which I could make out the suicidal flights of insects, whirlwinds of life intent on their own demise. My mother’s house was the last one built on a small hill and the closest neighbours lived half a block away. I saw no one and running into anyone at this late hour would have surprised me. Few people visited the neighbourhood. I lived in isolation.
I leaned against the back end of my car, not thinking, savouring my solitude. I stood there unmoving for a long moment. Then I opened the trunk. An odour assailed me. The girl … What a disaster! Her dress, her legs, were soiled with excrement. I opened the garden gate, ran down the path until I couldn’t hold it in any longer; I vomited in Mama’s acacias. Panicking like a child caught misbehaving, I took shelter in the house, slammed the door behind me, went upstairs, and got into bed without bothering to undress.
A simple odour shook me awake. Slowly I realized I’d had the courage to remove that long branch from the body, a feat of nerves and guts not accessible to everyone. The young girl, in the grip of a spasm, had let out a feeble moan. It was at that precise moment I knew I was not dealing with a corpse but with a person whose life was in danger. Suffering. My head under the pillow, on the verge of asphyxiation, I didn’t understand how I could have stuffed her in the trunk like she was a bag of trash. I realized I really had seen her move, breathe … but then left her for dead and ran away – simply because of the smell.
A simple smell, the one found in every human’s entrails at every second of his or her existence.
I cursed myself. I would never do anything well unless I carried through to the end something I had started. How could I pity that poor girl unless I accepted the consequences of the violence she’d endured? I pushed my pillow. Got up and peeked out my bedroom window. The rain-wet street glistened in places. Not one lighted window at the closest neighbours’. The people in this part of town were sleeping peacefully. They had earned their sleep. They rested from fatigue, from anxiety. Forgetting their worries, their quarrels, the endless list of things large and small they had to accomplish.
Except for her. Except for me.
Why hadn’t I closed the trunk? I realized I’d been reckless, stupid. I had acted against my own will, realized I could no longer hide it from myself: if I had not raced to a hospital or a police station, if I hadn’t howled for help, if I hadn’t called an ambulance and roused the whole city around that dying girl, then very well. It could only be because I had decided to take care of her myself.
I would be her saviour.
I went downstairs and opened the front door. Nothing had changed. No one had alerted the police. Everything was still possible. I took a few steps down the pathway in the lane. The trunk yawned open, its jaws quite thoughtlessly agape. Rain dripped from the metal lid.
I retraced my steps back into the house, grabbed the cloth from the table in the living room where I ate, having abandoned the dining room that seemed too big now that my mother had died. I took the tablecloth and went outside. Walked to the trunk of the car. Something moved inside. Not the girl, something else. Something was scratching. I bent slowly over the trunk. A beast pounced on me. I drew back, fell over. Banged my head on the concrete sidewalk. Before I fainted, I saw, in blood-red letters, a line from Homer that I’d read in school. A line that recurred often in the Iliad to signify that death had just taken a soldier, piercing him with a lance or decapitating him with his opponent’s two-edged sword. A very simple line that I recited like a prayer before sleep.
And the darkness descended on his eyes.
Then I collapsed.
Day had dawned by the time I regained consciousness. The sidewalk was dry and a lark was launching into song from the branches of the oak. The first thing I recognized was the tablecloth. It covered part of my body. My head ached atrociously. I dragged myself to the trunk of the car. On my knees, I took a worried look inside. She was there. It was the first time I had seen her in daylight. Her face was swollen, deformed by her assailants’ blows, her red dress torn in places. Dark blood stained her arms and legs. She had just one shoe on. I wrapped her in the tablecloth as best I could. Kicked the trunk shut and carried the girl into the house. I set her down in the middle of the living room. Standing up, I felt faint. In the main-floor bathroom I splashed water on my face. Discovered a bump on my head. I also noticed a fine scratch near my left eye. A cat. No doubt about it, a cat had jumped on my face. It had been attracted by the putrid smell emanating from the trunk. I could think of no other explanation. Cats are diabolical creatures.
It was Sunday, one of those mornings when the world seems to have forgotten to turn. Even the wind had deserted the street. In this somniferous, suicidal neighbourhood, Sundays only accentuated the desolation of this part of town that overlooked the city with contempt. A blessing it hadn’t happened on a Monday. I was sure at least no neighbour had seen me go into my house with a body wrapped in a tablecloth.
I looked at my watch: barely six o’clock. I went back to the living room and looked around. No one. I went upstairs, opened the bathroom door. It adjoined my mother’s room and was much more spacious than the one on the main floor. It was home to a large claw-footed tub. A small skylight let in the daylight. I ran a bath, went down to the living room, and with great effort carried the girl up and shoved her, fully dressed, into the tub. The water immediately darkened and turned crimson. I pulled the plug, ran water to fill the tub again. I noticed one of the girl’s eyelids open for a fraction of a second. I was perplexed: was I doing the right thing? Getting rid of her stains had seemed like a priority. I opened the medicine chest where my mother had kept pill bottles and the few cosmetics she had allowed herself. I’d thrown nothing out. Nine months had passed since her death and all her belongings were still in place, scoffing at her permanent absence. In the medicine chest I found a flask of bath oil that I emptied into the tub. Opening a window at the end of the corridor, I let a little fresh air into the bathroom, propping the door open with an empty flowerpot. Turning around, I saw that the girl had slid under water. I rushed to her and grabbed her by the hair to hoist her into the open air. I fell on my behind, holding a handful of hair.
It was a wig!
I gripped the edge of the bathtub. Under the water, another face gazed at me, eyes open. The young girl actually had blonde hair, cut very short. Her features, without the impressive mass of black hair, had suddenly reorganized themselves. Her eyes were a sparkling green. They seemed to stare back at me. Her lips opened slightly and three air bubbles escaped. Fascinated, I grabbed hold of her, lifted her from the tub, and laid her on the floor. Blood still seeped from her wounds. Her chest rose more visibly. I could clearly hear her breathing. An emotion until then unknown took hold of me. A shiver. Everything, absolutely everything, depended on me. I was responsible for a life.