Isabelle (short story)
Isabelle was holding the book in her hands, propped up against her knees, but she wasn’t really reading. Her eyes came back to it, followed a few lines, her fingers flipped a page once in a while, but the book itself nevertheless remained a story-less surface, prevented by the holiday torpor from rising to her consciousness. A book crushed under the heat, all relaxation and absence of text. It’s whiteness under the August sun was like a sheet of metal blinding her, an armor plate keeping her from touching it.
Metal had been her job the last four years: she was working for the Association of Superconductors Manufacturers, providing consulting to mining corporations in Malaysia, about tin, and in Brazil, about niobium, to help them develop more efficient ways of discovering and extracting those metals. She had specialized in these two metals, used in the manufacturing of high performance magnets in medical imaging. Tin, which falls in liquid drops and solidifies when in contact with the ground or the lab’s bench, was what her sons knew about her work. “Like The Terminator”, they said. Tin flows, rolls, reflects, like a mirror, the eye of the observer.
Raising her eyes from the book, Isabelle saw her sons a little farther away. They were building a huge ship made of pebbles and river rocks with their father, right in the middle of the stream. They were going back and forth, untiring, between the river bank and their structure, carrying pebbles by three or four, squashing the streaming water with their plastic sandals and slamming their load on top of the construction. With big dry clicks of stone and large busy gestures, like masons throwing trowel-full of concrete. They did not talk and worked diligently. The sound of their steps in the water, and the noise of the rocks clashing, she had them in herself since so long ago, she could have recognized them with her eyes shut, she would have pinpointed them without a moment’s hesitation even if given to her as a recording half-way around the world, in Brazil, in Malaysia, in the soundproof cabin of a plane, at the bottom of a Chinese mine.
These particular pebbles were from this narrow valley, this river specifically and her holidays as a child. And in their wake she heard chestnut husks falling on the lower branches of the tree with the sound of crumpled paper, opening up when they hit the ground, she heard the magnetic buzzing of flagstone and slate glowing from heat, in rhythm, like a fridge motor warming the inside of the earth. The French Cévennes mountains and that heat engine of theirs, they powered a whole factory of noises in her head, producing snippets of childhood, sheep bells and shepherds cries, each morning, each night, the barking of the dogs in the farms, fawns shoes on half-tared tracks, taken by surprise coming out of an hairpin road, running in a panic to get back to the deep of the woods, donkeys grazing ferns by the roadside. It was a closed-circuit machine of sound, propelled by heat, spinning on the sides of each deep-sided valley, a sound shared between the hamlets by the mountainsides then given back to the initial heat.
An alembic extracting the subtle spirit of a whole area from its noise, always unbelievably volatile and at once very specific and strong. Her sons cleaved through the current walking briskly, with splashes and stones resounding against the riverbed. Tac. Also: a colored sound. Blue and green. The icy, nearly transparent blue of the water with the rocks showing through, which made her think about ice fields as much as summertime. An ice field crushed under the sun, looked at from beyond a window and whose coolness would be an inaccessible temptation, a punishment, the withheld climax of a sadistic and playful lover mastering the scale of your pleasure and always subtracting something from it. And the lush, generous, fat green of the ferns, the chestnut tree leaves and the whole vegetation which, despite the heat, despite the rocks, despite the poverty and isolation, seems saturated with water and life to the point of indecency. It hums in unison with the summer, calmly and luxuriously waiting for the autumn rains.
The whole family had come back from Malaysia just a few weeks back. Her husband had insisted on their coming to this particular place for their holiday, a place that would be have childhood memories for her. One was coming home, picking up one’s old traces and resuming one’s walk on a well-known path. Her husband is standing in the river below, a little too pale, a little too fat, smiling and as serious as her sons building their ship of river rocks. About ten meters from them, through the clear water, at the bottom of a hole in the riverbed where a few trouts swim in circles, she sees a putrefying branch. It’s maybe two meters in length, starts from the bank where it’s stuck underneath a boulder and slowly sinks under the surface. A meter from the edge of the water, the riverbed suddenly dips and the branch, fanning out, deposited a thick mattress of black leaves at the bottom. They mixed with the mud and, decaying, crumbled into tiny particles like minute algaes floating into the water.
Isabelle feels too hot, but she doesn’t want to go swimming. The reasons for her presence here suddenly seem unclear. Coming back to France, visiting a place of childhood holidays, so long ago, showing her sons, ten and twelve years old, what she did when she was ten or twelve, architectures of pebbles and stones in the river’s cool stream are reasons which, all of a sudden, don’t seem necessary, and even seem entirely made up. She should probably be in Malaysia, working, or in Paris, tidying up their new apartment, as if she was about to have friends for dinner, even though she neglected and abandoned her friends long ago. They decided to come back to France and settle. Her husband couldn’t quite fit in their life in Kuala Lumpur, she was always on business trips, in Malaysia but also in Brazil, and he also had difficulties getting used to the country, the heat and humidity, the expat life, the social gatherings at the embassy, that sort of things. Being invited to dinner had certainly become a pain for him, he dreaded the moment when one would walk past the footman, and quickly look, from the corner of one’s eye, the table’s plan on the cushion with all the names, not to appear to be looking for one’s seat, to respect the social norms, all that stuff wasn’t a comical curiosity anymore, but a weight unbearable precisely because it applied to something as meaningless as one’s seat at the table. He had asked her to give the idea of going home a serious thought. And as soon as she had heard him make this proposition, she had realized she couldn’t bear the pressure of her job anymore. She felt crushed, transformed into a woman harsher, sadder than she was, despite her undeniable success and the look of others, who seemed to thing she had made it, who talked about the brilliant researcher and the rising star of mining research.
Isabelle sinks into the heat: the black leaves, in the sludge, seem pasty and sickening, her book has become a white mass radiating light, and the construction of the boat has been reduced to the noise of rocks consistently hitting her eardrums. She is perched above the river, on a boulder in the shade of a tree, in symmetry with another tree, another rock on the other bank, at the exact same height as her. These rocks, Isabelle thinks, are schists. One can see the layers, well aligned, like a piece of puff pastry. The sedimented bottom of a see, and we can see the successive strata, accumulated year after year, millennium after millennium. Those layers are a few meters below water, a few hundred meters at most. And the sea shuts itself up, the plates tighten their grip, the sea disappears, crushed, and a mountain emerges, pushing the puff pastry ten miles underneath the earth, at the heart of the oven. The soil of the old sea is baked, the materials change, like flour changed into dough: pelites become micas, shinny, brittle, tearing out into flakes when pressed between the fingers. Long sheets of rock become superimposed under the pressure, in the heat and they wait there, under the earth, in an underground metamorphosis which makes a mountain of slate out of an expense of sea. And the erosion catches up with this underground work, little by little, incredibly slowly, undermines the very basis of the world, brings to light rocks which had been condemned to melt ten miles underground. Isabelle saw them in front of her on the other side of the river: streaks of slate and schist, mica particles shining in the sun. The rocks, the background for the work of her men, her husband and sons, her life for the past fifteen years, were a martyred sea, buried in the furnace of earth’s mantle and whose corpse had been slowly brought into the open air again.
Isabelle was at once thirsty and nauseous. Her hat was too tight around her head but she would dare remove it: the sun really was too hot. She let her sight leave the pages of her book, her older son, her river, her husband, she saw him looking at her. She willed herself to grasp the moment and shout from the embankment: “I’m too hot, but I don’t want to bath: I’m all dressed now and I don’t want to put my bathing suit on again. I’ll go down to the Auberge du Martinet, at the end of the footpath. Do you see where that is, yes? On the other side of the river from where we parked the car?”.
She was aiming her arm in the general direction of the place and her husband nodded. Isabelle left her book on the towel, took her purse and was on her way. There was not a soul on the terrace of the inn. She sat, her back to the house, at a table shadowed underneath an arbor bearing kiwi fruits. There was about ten plastic tables and, placed around most them, garden chairs. Here and there a metal chair with ornamented feet. At the end of the terrace, against the wall of the inn, there was an old bicycle with a crateful of fruits on its rear rack. Isabelle waited for about ten minutes. Nobody seemed to worry about her ordering anything. Long ago, she used to come to this very inn, she was between five and fifteen, with her parents, her uncles and aunts on her mother’s side, colleagues and friends of her parents, teachers like them, spread out in the North-Western suburbs of Paris, towards Franconville, Pontoise, Vergy, Taverny. They met in the area for the summer, family after family trickling in during the whole of July, and staying until after the 15th of August. Most of them settled in the camping ground at La Pélucarié. Some others rented a big house, and old magnanery only half restored, a few miles up on the road twisting and turning up towards Saint-Roman-de-Tousque. A huge, uncomfortable house, the roof leaking in a few places, but cool and where sometimes they all took refuge from the day’s heat. Going out at the Auberge du Martinet was exceptional: they went for her birthday, on July the 28th, and for her cousin’s Paul, on August the 11th. Then they booked tables for twenty or thirty people, and stayed seated there most of the afternoon, eating, drinking and talking under the climbing vine, which the kiwis had since replaced. Sometimes also, they came, a smaller group, to bath at the Martinet spot, and drank a fruit syrup or ate an ice cream at the inn, in the afternoon.
Only when she turned her head left to look for a waiter did Isabelle see the old man seated beside her, only slightly behind her. It took her several seconds to recognize him. A choke of pepper-and-salt, wire hair, underneath a straw hat black with filth and ripped on the right side. The forehead disappeared beneath the thick strands of hair and two black, vivid eyes rose above a stubborn face: high cheekbones, square jaw. The cheeks, meanwhile, were hollow, and the nose thin and arched. The man could be seventy or eighty, he skin on the face was cracked, split, stained, tanned, and oldster’s mask delicately affixed on the face of a young man, strong and hard working. Finally recognizing his features, surprised, Isabelle saluted him.
“Good day, Père Castanet.”
“Good day to you. You are little Isabelle, right? The girl of Dominique and Claude, the Math teachers? Where are you staying this year, at La Pélucarié?”
“You remember me, Père Castanet?”
“Of course I remember you. I played with you often enough, didn’t I? You came to my garden all the time, to help me out: watering, picking off, weeding. Boy, did you water that garden: you stumbled every other step carrying that half-full watering can, between the river and the kitchen garden, but you wouldn’t be discouraged, not ever. Back and forth, back and forth. Very strong willed, like I used to say to your parents: stubborn as a mule, good for watering. Why would I not remember you?”
“I don’t know. That was such a long time ago. And there were a lot of children at La Pélucarié.”
“Well yes, time: that was not so long ago, believe me.”
“I don’t specifically remember the watering, said Isabelle, but I do remember the kitchen garden, and that I did go there with you. I was watching from the camping ground, and as soon as I saw you coming out of your house, in the distance, and walk in that direction, I used to rush back to my parents to tell them I’d be with you. I knew it was the morning, around nine, after breakfast, maybe a bit later, towards ten.”
“ Ah, yes, it’s true I never was much of an early bird, I liked to sleep a little in the morning before getting on with it. But that’s old history now, all that: at what time I get to work doesn’t count one bit these days, that’s over. And you? You haven’t been here in a long time, have you?”
“Yes, a very long time. I’ll be forty next year. I came with my husband and my two sons. They are twelve and ten. We rented a house above Sainte-Etienne-Vallée-Française.”
“Forty? That’s nice, no? A great age to be, right?, said Père Castanet, laughing.”
“I must have changed so much compared to the little girl you knew, I’m amazed you recognized me.”
“You know, faces don’t change that much. They’re always the same, more or less: they play in the river, they water the garden, they come back on holiday, they’re old, but they have the same faces.”
“You, at least, Isabelle remarked, you haven’t changed one bit. It took me a few seconds to recognize you, as I was daydreaming when I saw you, but when I really looked, I recognized you right away: same cheekbones, same nose, same hair and even the hat, a bit blacker, a little less clean than I remembered, but the same nonetheless."
“Me, it’s different, you see, Père Castanet answered: I don’t age, so to speak, maybe I can still dry a little but my age doesn’t really change anymore. I was seventy-five the last time you came to help me in my garden, and there’s no reason why I would have any other age now, isn’t that right?”
Père Castanet’s look on her seemed purposeful, as if he wanted something from her, encouraging her, like when one looks at a child on the verge of some great feat, riding without the training wheels, plunging in the water, eyelids pushing the look upwards, pushing the kid towards the river. Isabelle realized how Père Castanet’s face was pale, and she felt a hot flash.
“Père Castanet, she said, I didn’t realize how old you were at the time: to me you were an adult, I was no more than eight or nine, an adult slightly older than my parents, but I would have been incapable of guessing your age.”
For a few minutes, two or three, nobody spoke. Père Castanet continued to look at her encouragingly. Isabelle was atrociously thirsty, no one had come to take their order. She shifted a little on her seat, looking for a waiter again. There was nobody. Père Castanet did not move. His gaze stayed on her, he was looking at her patiently, concentrated, observing. Isabelle managed to calm down, stopped moving and, looking straight in front of her, managed to ask: “Père Castanet, you are not a hundred-and-five, are you?”
“No, Isabelle, I’m not a hundred-and-five.”
“Yet when I was coming here on holidays with my parents, thirty years ago, you were seventy-five, weren’t you?”
“That’s correct, seventy-five, I was an old donkey already.”
“Does that mean that you are dead?”
“Ah, that’s a really difficult question. I always were a simple man, you know, and in this region, being a farmer is difficult enough: the land is not very generous, but one doesn’t like to complain and one doesn’t want to be burdened with questions beyond ourselves. Simple living, simple dying, that’s the best way to do it.”
“You don’t want to answer my question?”
“Oh yes, why not, yes. But what’s the point: I’m talking to you now, no? I’m here on the terrace of the Martinet inn with you, right? Isn’t that a good enough answer?”
Isabelle wanted to turn round and take a look towards the river, her sons and her husband, she hesitated and in the end she could not do it. Père Castanet’s face was livid, the eyes more sunken than she had noticed until then, the cheeks bristly. She raised her head and sighed noisily. A kiwi grape was waiting for her, just there, it’s green beautiful and downy, nearly anise in the shadow of the leaves. She told herself she had probably died somewhere between the time she had stood up from that rock and left her family, and the time she saw Père Castanet beside her. She wanted to cry. She hadn’t noticed anything. She tried to remember, but nothing came, nothing special: she didn’t fall in the water, she didn’t pass any car, neither on the parking lot, nor on the road, in the turn going round the building towards the terrace, she couldn’t remember any sensation in particular, just heat, and thirst, but she didn’t faint or anything of the sort, she was pretty sure of that.
What a strange sensation, she told herself: maybe I’m just unconscious? Sometimes it happens with accidents: the victim loses the memory of the minutes immediately preceding or following the moment when the car hit, when she fell in the crevasse, when the plank disappeared from underneath her feet. Maybe I’ll suddenly come back when that dream-like kiwi will fall on my head? Like when one dreams of church bells half-a-second before the alarm clock rings? Maybe I’m just dead from a death closing the loop of my half-lived life, seated, adult, barely forty, at the terrace of the Auberge du Martinet, in company with an eternal old man plugged from my childhood, chit chatting? Asking myself if I’m really dead? But I’ve always doubted everything, after all, and I could at least have hoped that this would end, that dead one wouldn’t doubt anything anymore. At least, Père Castanet is dead, that’s for sure: if he had reached a hundred-and-five, gloriously, I would have known about it. And me? What should I do? Should I stay here until the waiter comes? Or leave? The truth is, I’m bored, am I not? Is this death a dream telling me my life bores me? If I’m not dead, then boredom has grown in my cell like a cancer.