My Heart Hemmed In

My coat feels heavy on my shoulders. Noget carefully spoons a helping of noodles on one side, and then I leave the kitchen to go and feed Ange. Oh God, what was he looking at? It’s going to be a long, involved process, teaching them to be normal with me again, making them forget I was ever shunned, even reviled, or maybe that I thought we were (being shunned and reviled) powerful enough to transform our students’ idea of us. A sort of exhausted indifference is settling over me. She fans the air in front of her, wriggling her hand, and her fingertips graze my face. He’s wearing filthy old corduroy overalls and a Columbia University sweatshirt. My bra has come unhooked. I mean,’ (my voice turns combative, insistent) ‘how do you know he didn’t aggravate an injury somebody caused without meaning to, because he wanted to be shattered completely, because he wanted a valid reason for disappearing?’
‘You’re barking up the wrong tree completely,’ he says, infuriated. Their conversation stops short. I close the window and kneel beside him. I hear the porcelain clink against his teeth, as if he were clenching them tight as Noget tries to force him to drink. He follows on my heels. I give Ange a cautious glance. For a moment that depresses me. And then I speak again, softly: ‘Accident or no, Ange will be back very soon.’
But Ange is dying at this very moment. I run my hand over her narrow back, her quivering shoulder blades, feeling her little frightened-bird heart pounding wildly. I stop worrying about shielding my eyes, and see no sign of anger or weariness when our gazes meet. ‘Where’s my coat?’
‘I took it down to the trash,’ says Noget. Ange looks at me, dull, morose, but with a tight little smile that so hideously expresses a sort of grim pleasure, a sneering delight rooted in the very vileness of the situation, that I can’t help crying out:
‘How you’ve changed, Ange!’
‘Yes, maybe a hole in the stomach does a little something to a man,’ says Ange, ‘and maybe seeing pieces of his own flesh stuck to his wife’s coat with safety pins, maybe that does something to a man too, you’re absolutely right.’
‘That was pork or rabbit meat,’ I say firmly. Then I put a spoonful of meat and noodles to Ange’s lips and he greedily swallows it down, and as I watch his sauce-smeared mouth open and close, and as an image drifts through my mind of Noget’s fat hands making the dish, clutching the meat, slicing the onions and tomatoes, Noget’s will endeavoring to arouse our appetite, focused solely on us and our desire to eat, I know I’ll never be able to choke down our neighbor’s homemade osso buco, not only because I find Noget repellent but because there’s some hidden intention in his cooking, because in his unclean hands food acts as a tool for what must be, I tell myself stonily, something like our enslavement. ‘What they did to you,’ Ange murmurs. Ange looks at me. Is that why I don’t immediately see how alone I am, how vast the circle of empty space all around me, as if, I tell myself much later, I had in my hand not a satchel but a live grenade? ‘I’m not strong enough to lift you.’
I’m so bulky, so ponderous. He gives me a confident little smile. ‘Oh, I know,’ I hurry to answer. if you would be so good… That was very good coffee he made, I tell myself. Us, the best teachers in the school? Now I can’t wait to go home, to tell Ange what I’ve discovered today: that implacable will to harm us is no more. ‘No, I don’t,’ says the principal. My jaw begins to tremble. How do you know he didn’t do it himself? Dismayed all the same, because I know Ange used to dote on his two daughters, I push back: ‘Your own children?’
‘They think they’re doing the right thing, they think they’re helping, but… ‘Not only is the school my place,’ I answer, ‘but I have to tell the principal that Ange will be away for some time so she can see to finding a substitute, and so no one, especially the children, will be inconvenienced by…  
Maybe it’s over? Is it starting up again already? And all that food is good and endlessly consoling, but, coming from him, it leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. He goes straight to the kitchen. He spreads another slice of bread with butter and jam, sets it on a tray beside the cup of coffee he’s poured for Ange. How ridiculous, possibly! ‘No, I’m not afraid of that,’ I say. They hurt me too much. ‘I’m cold, I’m cold.’
In the unusual silence of the courtyard, the neighborhood, his whine resounds like the voice of the last man alive. Today at lunchtime, while you were at work.. Translated from the French by Jordan Stump 
We find comfort in food, and it’s a terrible mistake
I leap out of bed almost as soon as the gray dawn’s gloomy light begins to filter into the room. He drops back onto the pillow, gasping, exhausted. Because how is it that they’ve all heard of him and I haven’t, that the merest mention of his name dazzles them and means nothing to me? They don’t want to be contaminated.’
‘But by what?’ I say. .’ (He breaks into tears, moaning.) ‘He fed me at lunchtime. ‘In any case,’ says someone else, ‘your husband’s in good hands, he’s in admirable hands.’
He sounds almost sorry he’s not in Ange’s place. That suffocating feeling isn’t entirely unfounded, I know, but I refuse to dwell on it. I collapse in the doorway. that they’re going to save me… Her chin tenses, suddenly covered with little wrinkles. An unfocused apprehension grips my heart. There’s something there, in the corner with my things, something   that scares them to death. ‘I’ve always made my own bread, even back when I was teaching; I used to get up an hour early just to make my dough, because I loved my work just as you love yours, but even more than that I loved and respected bread, that most sacred of all foods.’
He’s trying to provoke me; he wants to see if I’ll question his   past as a teacher again. it’s everything I am, it’s the very essence of… The smell is coming from his glistening skin as well, and his hair, and his mouth. I’m gagging behind my handkerchief. My whole body jumps, as if a corpse had awakened and spoken behind me. It’s just kids playing a filthy trick.’
He doesn’t answer. Ange’s students have been sent home. I hurry to answer:
‘You think you’ve understood something I still haven’t grasped, and what I think is that you’re trying to protect me, and that’s why you’ve turned so hard and mysterious. ‘Yes. Just keep walking, with a smile on your lips. I take his head between my hands, ignoring his attempts to pull free, I kiss his lips, smelling a strange odor of blood and putrefaction. They seem unusually apathetic, as if they’ve been forced to swallow a heavy dose of tranquilizers. ‘This time,’ I say, ‘he’s staying outside.’
Troubled, Ange begins to stir. How I’ve suffered. You still are. but they don’t listen to what I say, it’s lost all… Oh, who cares, in the end, what he really did and what he only wishes he had. Her gaze turns distant and thoughtful. I can’t help turning one ear to the bedroom, where I hear a whispered conversation. ‘I like my work, and I’m very conscientious about it,’ I say. ‘He can’t be allowed to forget what they did to him!’
I lower my head, pretending to think, then walk around him, scurry to the bedroom, and quickly lock the door behind me. I can never go out again. ‘A spy? So was she thinking, was she secretly hoping we’d both disappear? Something is easing her mind, I tell myself in relief, something about me. I carefully fold my coat with my shivering hands. ‘How’s Ange doing?’ I murmur. The dried blood has become a lumpy, ragged crust. of my being oozing out of me, isn’t it?’
I try hard to laugh, but a succession of squawks is all that comes out. And yet, I tell myself, troubled, it’s true, this Ange seems less like himself all the time. Am I secretly happy to hear it? He runs his fingers through his beard, his shaggy hair. No matter how much I wipe away, more seems to gush up from deep in the wound to replace it. And yet he made this bread. My breasts joggle under my sweater with every move I make. I pick up one of the two plates from the table, fill it with meat and sauce. He sets his provisions down on the table, invites me to sit with a broad gesture untouched by irony, then turns toward the coffee machine, opens the cabinet where the cups are kept, and takes the coffee from its drawer, all very precisely, with the brisk self-assurance of someone who knows exactly what he has to do and adapts his every movement to that goal. I can’t stand it.’
He begins to weep quietly. But you must know, there’s nothing I can’t bear to learn, and I might even know everything already, my darling Ange. I turn onto Cours du Chapeau-Rouge. I happily puff out little clouds of steam as I hurry back to my classroom. ‘No matter, I have some more here, freshly sliced. Even with the handkerchief, the nauseating smell makes me light-headed. He walks out of the kitchen with the tray, and I hear him whispering, ‘I did warn you not to go back to that school, didn’t I?’
I eat a thin slice of delicate, aromatic Bayonne ham, another of his offerings. I leave the room, not looking at Ange. Does it really matter that much, in the end, just who this man is? I wonder if I chose the right word. Doesn’t he need you?’
‘My place is here,’ I say. And here he is, shaking like a beaten child. I go off to collect my little students, my heart light in a way it hasn’t been for ages. ‘Isn’t it a little fatty?’ I murmur. I can’t help thinking he’s secretly studying me. By the dim light of the hallway, I see his brow furrow. He goes on: ‘Be careful, you talk too much.’
Then he closes his eyes, rudely, to cut all this short. I take a shower, pull on a sweater and pants, both black (because I’m not as trim as I might be), I do my hair, which I wear short and dyed red, I try to bend my crushed glasses back into shape. A sardonic glow lights his gaunt face. The smell of decay is unbearable. No one we’ve ever known… I unstick myself from the door and slowly walk toward the bed. I desperately want to stand up, but my will seems to have parted ways with my mind, which is serenely registering the various sounds coming to it from the building or the apartment as my soul bleeds and moans. Have I ever heard that name before? It’s a top-grade farm. But I’m so tired, so confused. But why, I ask myself, why this wound inflicted on Ange? I hear a series of resounding knocks on the front door. What are they all seeing that I’m not, what is it that they know   and I don’t? For the first time a sort of rage now comes over me too, and when I see him wince I simply think: Am I not suffering too, at being treated so unfairly? ‘We have no need of a servant, you know,’ I say. ‘Try to get up,’ he says. ‘Listen, I’m starving,’ Ange says in my ear, ‘but I want it to be you who gives me the food he’s made, not him. I put down my satchel on the sidewalk, and then, slowly and calmly, never shedding the polite smile that will assure any neighbors spying on me through their windows that everything’s just fine now, I take off my coat. He jumps up and says, ‘Now, let’s have a look at our patient.’
‘He doesn’t want anyone coming near him,’ I say. I go to the crying girl and see her hunching her shoulders, defending herself from my patting hand but at the same time resigned, not daring to beg me not to touch her. ‘All in good time,’ he says. Things you must endeavor to know and understand. the wound?’
Oh, I can’t wait to be away from here! .’
‘What’s wrong with my face?’ I say, feeling myself blush. Hopeless, I stand up. He feels perfectly at home, he thinks he knows he’s   not going to be thrown out again, he thinks he’s earned   his   place here. The moment she looks up, what seems to me an affection filled with pity and despair fills her eyes with tears. ‘Ange, my darling, don’t torment yourself over that coat.’
I whisper those words in his ear, fervently, stroking his damp forehead, realizing he’s oblivious to it all, both my caress and my study of the wound. You don’t have to protect me.’
Am I sure of that? And I notice they all keep their distance from the platform my desk sits on, and since some of them have no choice but to walk past it to get to the door, I suddenly wonder if that might be why they seemed so uneager to go out and play. But my habit of thinking myself responsible for everyone around me and everything that happens to us, good or disastrous, has been with me too long to be cast off just because I want to. Ange groans in fear and surprise. He gets up to pour me a big cup of coffee. He emerges from the dark living room. ‘Your coat.. ‘I can’t talk about it,’ I say, shaking my head. It’s so cold! ’
‘My husband asked me not to kick you out,’ I say. ‘Those are just words,’ says Ange, in a tone of infinite sadness. I distastefully note his fat, flabby hands, his dirty nails. ‘Oh, I’m going to be late for school,’ I say.  
 
 
Artwork ©   Fuzzy Gerdes
 

This is an excerpt from My Heart Hemmed In   by Marie NDiaye, published by Two Lines Press. I find him patiently waiting by the table, set for two. I open the armoire, grab a big handkerchief, and tie it over my nose. A wisp of steam floats up from the torn loaf. And yet, I tell myself, and yet he made this bread with his hands. ‘Absolutely not.’
Ange grows more agitated. All he can think of is the grave problem the locked door clearly poses in his mind. ‘Is that for your husband? This airless, slightly nauseating room (still that faint smell of decay, I tell myself) suddenly oppresses me more than I can bear. He sits down facing me, cuts a slice of bread, spreads it with a thick layer of the butter he’s brought, a deep yellow block freckled with tiny droplets of water, and smears it with plum marmalade. he was gravely shocked by your coat,’ he says, feigning concern. And then, just when I’m speaking those words for the third time, a little girl bursts into tears. He doesn’t need to face that sort of idiocy on top of everything else. They’d kill me, thinking they love me and… Appalled by his impudence, I say, ‘Ange and I have always gotten along very nicely without friends. ‘We got all worked up over nothing, out of vanity. I feel very slightly breathless, as I always do when the city is draped in thick fog, when I become painfully aware of the weight of my flesh, overabundant though carefully contained by dark elastic clothing, when I feel the surprising heft of my body, which took shape over the years as I looked on, vaguely amused, taken aback, dismissive. And still the pus comes, ever darker, reeking. ‘How good you’re all being today, children,’ I say several times over the course of the afternoon. Ange is still lying on the bed, wrapped up in his sheet, but Noget has slipped the two pillows under his shoulders, and his head is drooping back, his neck slightly twisted. This muted apprehension I feel weighing on my classroom makes me sad. I even think I can feel the circle tightening again, trying to expel me. For that matter, I ask myself, squirming, is he really accepting it? Doesn’t he know me, doesn’t he know I always want to know as little as possible of things that fill me with horror? My daughters are afraid they might become like me, and I can understand that, but for old Ange Lacordeyre it’s too late.’
‘Will you let me treat your wound now?’
Ange shrugs. I can’t help exclaiming, ‘That smells so good!’
‘I made osso buco,’ he says modestly. And, when he forgets himself, his eyes are so cold that they make me afraid. ‘I’m not sure what the children would think,’ she says, hesitating over each word. I sit down on the edge of the bed. For the first time in months, my students are awaiting me in a neat line rather than scattered all over the schoolyard, as they’d taken to doing when Ange and I fell out of favor, such that we’d grown used to spending fifteen minutes each morning rounding them up while our colleagues, unwilling to get involved, had already made their way to their classrooms and started the day. ‘There now,’ I murmur, ‘no one’s going to hurt you.’
‘You’ll see,’ she says, ‘you’ll see.’
She sniffs, delicately pulls away. I nearly gag from the stench. I’m so hungry that a bitter liquid fills my mouth. ‘You smell that stench coming out of me?’
‘Yes, we’ll have to get you cleaned up,’ I say. ‘Everything around us is fine. And why does he   imagine I’m hoping to see it, whatever it is? He wakes when I enter the room. But what treachery are those   two plotting against me? ‘I’m begging you, tell me straight.’
I drop onto a chair, close to him, and look straight into his unpleasant face, feeling the tremor in my chin. You alone, in your purity, have never heard of me.’
My fingers clench against the door. That smell – do you understand? You mean the Noget?’ one of the women snaps impatiently. I fold back the sheet, down to his legs. I go in and close the door behind me, turning the latch. And I’ve left the man who means more to me than any other in his hands. For the first time in ages, he smiles. And also, look,’ he says, cheerful and eager, ‘I’ve got bread, nice warm bread that I kneaded and baked myself, and then some plum marmalade I made in my own kitchen – forgive me for belaboring the point – and I’ve got some butter for you too, since I wasn’t sure you would have any, and all this is for you and your husband, and in all sincerity, you’d make me so happy if you deigned… an inappropriate attitude toward life – unacceptable, from certain points of view, and I would even add, forgive me, obscene – and of course that in no way justifies people tormenting you, and indeed no one would be tormenting you if it were only that, but since there’s also, as you know, as you suspect… ‘What accident?’ I say. it’s even more horrible. An exquisite aroma of tomatoes and garlic slow-cooked in olive oil streams from the kitchen. What is that neighbor doing to Ange’s body at this moment? He blushes, then suddenly turns deathly pale. I hold it out before me and spread it wide. I can hear his very slightly labored breathing. On his way past he looks up and gives me a quick glance, equal parts triumph and submission. He’s the source of the trouble. I manage to stifle a shudder at the sight of his wound, but the smell is so strong that I have to get away. ‘Incidentally, my colleagues seem to have heard of you,’ I say with a scoff. I step aside so he can come in. ‘I don’t suppose,’ he says amiably, ‘that you’ve eaten the ham I brought yesterday?’
‘No,’ I say. No, don’t you see, you mustn’t try to treat him,’ he says, agitated. I try to put on the weary, sullen look that I think is the only thing capable of repelling the detestable intimacy he’s trying to slip into every tiny intonation. Just keep walking, I tell myself, just go on as if nothing were amiss. Head high, I walk past him toward the bedroom. I’m so hungry my lips are trembling. ‘Don’t lock the door,’ Ange whispers. what they do to me… His gaze darkens in terror, discomfort and uncertainty. He hesitates. ‘Now I have what I need to take care of you,’ I say. I try to see what he’s looking at – what can it be? His eyes dart this way and that, stricken with panic. I walk through the living room again and again, humming, refusing to pay any mind to the feeling, still strong as ever, that the room is full of something that wasn’t there before, something fundamentally unfriendly. ‘He put all that in your head.’
‘They tore off pieces of my flesh!’
Ange’s voice is so soft that at times I can’t hear him. It’s no use. Ange knowingly provoked the attack, then deliberately aggravated the wound? The illustrious Noget! ‘We’re bad people, we’re unworthy. But I notice nothing, or almost, and I’m so determined not to let my good mood slip away, so resolved to radically rethink my attitude (because our wrong-headed interpretation of the world around us did us so much harm, caused so much needless grief!), that this evening it would take an oddity far more unambiguous than this to divert me from my happy course. Absolute silence invades the apartment. But whatever you do, whatever you do, you can’t tell him, OK? Oh, but I’m not going to spend all my time begging forgiveness for everything I’m evidently somehow doing wrong,’ I say, but my anger is already subsiding, and as I look at Ange’s haggard face and gray eyelids I wonder, tormented, how to go about saving him when he doesn’t want to be saved. This is the first time I’ve seen him sincerely uncomfortable. Besides, we already agreed… I struggle to my feet, leaning against the wall. ‘So you’re eating, my love?’
‘All this good food is just the thing for what’s ailing him,’ says Noget. I take a step toward the steaming pot (which he would have rummaged through the cabinets to find) and stiffly bend over till my face is almost touching the rounds of veal simmering in their orange sauce. So here we are, I tell myself, now I have to work at becoming the person I used to be for them. I see one boy steal a glance at my desk and chair. That purulence, that’s where the awful smell is coming from. Were people really trying to lay us low? But I don’t want to know. Doctor Charre… Yes, so everything is our fault – the responsibility for this monstrous misunderstanding lands squarely on the two of us, my beloved Ange and me. This morning, beneath the low clouds, all the children are lined up, attentive, almost silent. ‘The illustrious Noget,’ he answers sarcastically. I bundle it up, take my satchel, and walk on to the building’s front door. From the other side, just against the wood, comes his calm, confident voice: ‘You’re not going to heal him. I can hear my own breath, quick and heavy. Again I feel buoyed by an extravagant joy and confidence. My God, are our students afraid of us? I put my ear to the door. We just have to convince ourselves of that.’
He throws a nervous, untrusting glance at the door, then whispers, ‘Noget doesn’t want me to forget what happened, he says I have to meditate on my wound and the multiple meanings of my suffering.’
‘But there’s nothing to understand,’ I say, loud and clear. Wincing, he props himself up on one elbow. Is it that I can’t see, or are people actually steering clear of my panting self? What a sinister joke we were playing on ourselves, perhaps!  
Everybody likes meat
Here he is, with his thin face, his bright, prying eyes, letting me into our own apartment. Suddenly I wonder: Could it be my coat? Gone, too, is the revulsion we inspired, the innocent, primitive fury that came over some people at the mere sight of us. I dip a compress into the disinfectant, then try to sop up the pus that’s overflowed onto Ange’s stomach, under his pants, soaking the mattress and sheets. I hold my breath. Only an accident that left Ange completely undone, used as he was to having his life so well in hand? ‘I have to leave for school soon,’ I say. so presumptuous.’
‘Nadia!’ Ange calls. ‘Yes, I suppose so,’ I say, hesitating. I see that, and I immediately put it out of my mind. Should we, I ask myself, see what Ange suffered yesterday as the low point in our torments, and the beginning of a change for the better? It’s cold and gray, and the air is opaque, thick with a heavy fog risen up from the river, but at long last I have a feeling Ange and I might hope to find our way, little by little, toward better times. ‘It’s… especially not him. ‘Oh, really?’ he says. Oh, you’re so… I force myself to say, ‘Ange, you know as well as I do, you must see a doctor.’
‘There’s no need for that now,’ he says listlessly. His gaze softens, and I can see that for him everything is already settled. I’m finding it hard to breathe myself. ‘Your daughters should have seen to that yesterday.’
‘Come here, come here, closer,’ says Ange. But how hungry I am, and how enticing it all is! And to be perfectly frank, the fact is we find friends a nuisance, since you ask.’
I pull off a handful of bread. There’s nothing more to say,’ says Ange. Yes we should, there’s no question, no question. ‘And a friend? ‘I avoid osso buco,’ I say, trying to put on a severe, even slightly disgusted air. I’m speechless. The tinkle of its bell sounds as if the now almost palpable air had snatched it up and clutched it tight, leaving only a little choked rattle. I start to cut away Ange’s shirt around the wound. He can hardly hide his delight, his unwholesome excitement. Ange’s cheeks are sunken and glistening. I’d like not to be in pain, but I’m not ready to die yet.’
‘What about Gladys? He gives an irritable shrug. I throw my coat at him. They hesitate for a few moments before they stand up, as if not entirely convinced this is a good idea, or one they necessarily have to obey, and then a few of them leave the classroom with a sort of tentative stiffness, and the others awkwardly follow. ‘That’s the marrow,’ he says. ‘Here, if I may, eat this,’ he says, holding it out with exaggerated courtliness. I must lie prostrate like that for some time, half conscious (because I can hear all sorts of sounds from the kitchen or bedroom, the scuff of slippered feet, the whistle of the tea kettle, the clink of silverware), unable to move or speak but somehow resigned, blithely or indifferently accepting my powerlessness, as in a dream. No, no, they can never come near me again. Now the door is rattling from the blows. The bell rings, and the principal remakes her expression, replacing the aggression and mockery with a neutral benevolence. ‘He’ll think you don’t trust him.’
‘So what?’ I say. I stop ten feet away, eyes on the ground, pretending to be preoccupied by the cleanliness of my shoes, and then, sensing a favorable vibration, friendly waves emanating from the circle, now opening up ever so slightly to make room for me, I wordlessly slip in between two of my colleagues. We’re done for. He extracts one hand from under the sheet and brutally pulls me to him by my neck. I observe that the pus is still coming. ‘You refuse to see the source of the trouble.’
‘No one will explain what it is,’ I say tartly. ‘What a dreadful accident,’ he says. My weight is resting on my right hip, and it’s very painful. The tram passes by, very close, silent and almost invisible in the dull-white mist. After an awkward moment, one of them woodenly mumbles, ‘How’s Ange doing?’
‘He’s fine,’ I say, with a lighthearted little laugh. How tedious, I think calmly, unsure what my mind means by this complaint. He gently pushes me away and wraps himself up in the sheet in such a way, I tell myself, that if he does fall asleep again I’ll never be able to pull it away and tend to his wound without waking him. Even right here, anything can happen. can be allowed in this room. Letting out a sob, lips against the door, I say, ‘So it’s a crime never to have heard of you?’
‘Yes.’ (His gentle, assured, soft, seductive voice, a voice   without   warmth.)   ‘Everything you   don’t   know   speaks against you. I spit back:
‘And what do I say when I’m talking too much? ‘Yes, but,’ I say, very softly, not wanting Ange to overhear, ‘is that a crime?’
I feel so discouraged, so exhausted that I lay my face against the door as I used to on my son’s chest, or on Ange’s. The whole room is permeated with the stench. ’
‘Don’t go!’ Ange pleads hoarsely. He’s moaning in his sleep. ‘Yes, yes,’ he says, ‘that’s fine.’
But how can this be, how can he be here making the coffee just like Ange used to do, how can he be here so at ease, victorious and subservient at the same time, this man we could scarcely bear to glimpse for a few seconds a day? ‘And, surely you agree, virtuousness must be.. With a brisk clap of my hands, I brightly announce that everyone can now go out and play in the schoolyard for the rest of the day. ‘As you see,’ I say, ‘I’ve lost all my pride.’
‘All I want is to help you,’ says Noget, categorically. Never complain to him about anything.’
‘Who is he?’
‘Who is he?’ Ange repeats, parodying me in that hurtful new way of his. ‘What does that mean?’ I say, deeply unsettled. There’s nothing more we can do. ‘Yes, but with you it’s almost virtuousness,’ says the principal. Let everyone fend for themselves, I dully say to myself, utterly drained. Beneath his mild demeanor, Ange was never afraid of anyone or anything. Please God, I reflexively say to myself, don’t let me come to hate this new Ange. ‘I showed it to Ange, and then I threw it away.’
‘You shouldn’t have shown it to him. I spend some time straightening my classroom (as carefully as if I knew I would never be back). ‘You still don’t seem to get it, you’re talking like you would have six months ago. What a joke! There are some things you really can’t not know, isn’t that so? Gray whiskers pepper his face. Have I somehow wronged Ange? In whose service?’
‘I don’t know. I still have the composure to wrap the cloth around the bits of flesh stuck to it. One bedside lamp dimly lights the room. That benevolence is all I want to remember of this exchange. ‘I have no other mission.’
‘But did someone send you?’
‘I work for no one,’ he says. Is that just another medium for the spell he’s trying to cast on us? ‘But everything’s going to be fine, and for that matter I volunteer to take my husband’s students in my own class, if that’s possible.’
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ says the principal. For many minutes we stay silent, listening intently for any sound from outside the room. You’re just like a pillow, my son   used to say as he burrowed his forehead into my wobbling bicep. Or could it be that nothing happened at all? ‘I’m hungry, that smells good,’ he says. Emboldened by a very cold anger, I slip my hands under my sweater and rehook my bra, staring fiercely into his slightly veiled, fascinated gaze. It’s time to eat.’
‘Yes,’ I say. I use up the entire box of compresses. We were blind. Where was I all this time, when I should have been seeing and knowing? I can’t stop myself from adding, ‘Since you’ve all been so good today!’
None of them squeals in pleasure, excitement, surprised gratitude, as they would have a few months before. Their behavior seems almost what it used to be – a touch more timid, I must admit, more skittish, as if I were a new and perhaps unpredictable teacher, as if in short they’d forgotten the woman I was, the woman I believe they loved in perfect confidence. Because everything I see tells me Ange is enduring that solicitude only because he thinks he has no choice. ‘Well, that’s strange,’ someone says slowly. ‘Oh, please,’ Ange says wearily. ‘Of course I don’t trust that stranger. .’
He casts a terrified glance at the door. ‘Yes, I mean him,’ I say, masking my perplexity. What exactly am I not supposed to see? I stagger from the shock. ‘He was… And for the first time, too, his discomfort spreads to me, and I want it to go away. I only wish it didn’t hurt so much.’
‘Let me get Doctor Charre to see you,’ I beg, desperation rising inside me. ‘You suppose or you know? ‘I have a cousin in the Périgord who raises calves and pigs,’ says Noget. My misted-up lenses force me to look at my surroundings with a certain insulated distance. Between his half-open eyelids, his gaze is veiled and exasperated, devoid of all affection. ‘Noget?’
‘Noget the writer?’
Their stunned disbelief troubles me. That last sentence sounded less like a piece of advice than a threat. And it strikes me that I’ve never seen Ange aim any such humiliation my way, even if he might have unleashed just that kind of sullen mockery on others when I wasn’t around. Oh, my son, why aren’t   you here, resilient and decisive, here with us, we who are well past the age when we can grasp what we’ve never known! ‘It’s his poor soul seeping out! ‘He’s right, but it’s too late now to become someone else. I gently pull at the sheet to uncover him down to his hips, gazing perfidiously into his eyes, aware that I’m taking advantage of his weakness. ‘I still haven’t seen my husband,’ I say. You can take my word for it. I stand up, furtively open the latch, and slip into the hallway. It was nothing but vanity, Ange, that was making us think people despised us.’
I crouch down beside the bed. – that’s the smell of death.’
‘Who are you?’ I whisper. He doesn’t want me to hear. She’s watching over the schoolyard from the front step of her office, and not the tiniest nerve twitches in her hard, white face when she sees me coming. ‘The neighbor,’ Ange murmurs. Are they being good, or are they simply paralyzed by nausea? I feel the vaguely sympathetic waves emitted by the little group as I drew near now beginning to fade. We were prideful, we were too pleased with the quality of our work, we were certainly haughty and disdainful, and we vastly overrated the significance and menace of the signs people were sending to tell us we were being disagreeable, and that too we did out of   pride. My colleagues have all turned their eyes on me. ‘No,’ shouts Ange. He never suspected this man would go to such lengths, would   push his advantage so far as to play mommy with him. He spreads his arms. ‘It’s the only meat I’ll eat, and the only meat I bring you. ‘You’ll have to get up first,’ he says. When recess comes, I head toward a little group of colleagues gathered in the schoolyard. Can he really be our enemy when he makes dishes that so ease our pain? And I laugh to myself,   daring to use such a word with no fear of seeming ridiculous. ‘The great Noget,’ Ange mumbles. My knees buckle. Dinnertime!’
And Noget gives two loud raps on the door. A rush of love and sympathy throws me against him. With a sort of cautious reticence, as if anxious not to offend me, he says:
‘You two, it must be said, have… ‘Don’t take your work too much to heart,’ she says curtly. You don’t need a friend?’ he says, his tone light but serious, his back still turned. A green-gray liquid is pooled around the rim. There’s nothing to worry about, it won’t make you sick.’
His gentle, considerate voice makes me ashamed. I open the window, and the frigid air pours into the room. Drool is flowing from the corners of his mouth. That’s not exactly me, it’s a neighbor I’m not unfond of but for whom I have to feel a burdensome, tedious, faintly degrading responsibility – oh, who cares about my body, I think, quietly pleased with myself. I ask, ‘Have you looked at… I leave the bedroom, undo the chain, and throw the door wide open. He’s spying on us at every moment, and he has been all along. ‘He explained how mistaken we were,’ he says. your face, and the look on your face.. Priscilla?’
‘They can never come here again!’ cries Ange, gripped by an unnameable terror. Or maybe there was no attack, maybe it was Ange himself who… Because I feel like the only one around here who hasn’t figured out what it is that’s so terribly momentous! The bell rings. ‘My husband’s going to be out for a while,’ I say. He’s used to the stench now, I tell myself, feeling faint. ‘It’s every bit as serious,’ he says, ‘as what they did to Ange yesterday.’
‘How do you know they did something to Ange? I feel the corners of my mouth turning down. I keep my arms crossed over my buttoned-up overcoat, because it’s still so cold. But I resolve not to let any grimness get in the way of the new sense of our situation I’ve found today. .’
She barks out a sharp, menacing laugh. He’s not asleep (has he slept at all?), and he’s staring blankly at the wall. Suddenly he looks away, and I suspect that he might well be lying, that he’s definitely lying. It’s all our fault, we can’t forget that.’
‘That’s not how you saw it before,’ I say. ‘There was no accident.’
‘It’s best to think of it as an accident,’ he says, in a discouraging voice. ‘I’ve made dinner. But I shake my head, dizzy at the idea of staying in the apartment, spending the day going back and forth from the dark, malodorous bedroom to the living room crammed with unknown, malevolent souls. value in their eyes. ‘By everything we are,’ he says wearily. A pensive, moderately respectful silence follows. This morning I find the children’s gaze limpid and straightforward when they look at me, and when I dare to look back at them they don’t turn away, don’t show any displeasure, any sense that I deserve to be punished or destroyed. I throw out a cheery ‘See you this evening!’
And again I see and willfully ignore the fear and shame darkening Ange’s gaze as Noget brings the cup of coffee to his lips. ‘I left him in the care of a certain Monsieur Noget,’ I say, unable to repress a dismissive laugh. ‘He’s right, isn’t he?’ Ange whispers, his jaw tense, his whole wasted, sallow face even more drawn than before. Here again, is it the fog that’s distancing me from everyone else on the street? A tangled, dirty gray beard, hollow cheeks pocked with fifty-year-old acne scars, a sharp, heated gaze without a single trace of sympathy. Isn’t he? Who is this, this Noget person? ‘No, no, come on now, obviously you have to let him in.’
His whisper is fretful, with that edge of irritation again. He’ll be glad to hear that, he can’t stand being replaced. I don’t want to know exactly what it is. My darling Ange? I walk toward the principal. I know that she’s lying, but I find her answer oddly comforting, as if the principal were trying to make it clear, by a lie if need be, that she’s not my enemy. ‘But by what?’ he repeats, cruelly mimicking my voice, ridiculing my ignorance. Like someone long used to being recognized, being noticed. I think back to my students, the way they all sidestepped my satchel and coat on the platform. ‘Don’t worry. For what reason?’ asks the principal. ‘Your husband’s very fond of marrow, isn’t he?’
‘Yes,’ I say, ‘Ange loves marrow.’
I immediately chide myself for adding, ‘He liked to spread it all over a piece of bread and put it under the broiler.’
‘Well,’ he says with a condescending little smile, ‘when there’s marrow in the sauce, you can hardly expect it to be light.’
‘What do you want from us?’ I ask. Their fervid expectancy seems to fill the foggy air with a menacing hum, a strident buzz whose silencing depends on my answer. But this evening I’m breathless. He briefly looks away. Sitting on the bed, Noget holds up his head with one hand and with the other puts the bread and jam to Ange’s lips. ‘I want to see him.’
My voice is defiant and willful, as if he’d made some move to stop me from going into the bedroom. I put on my coat (and I feel something strange, something indefinable, but immediately banish it from my perception); I pick up my fat accordion-fold satchel and go out into the schoolyard, my coat buttoned all the way up because it’s so cold out, an unflappable smile on my lips. ‘Just that there’s no need. They know it’s our fault…. ‘There are pieces of my husband on there,’ I say. What weakness could have made me do that? I stand up to open the window. It’s a crime. I can’t… In a sudden burst of fury, he explodes at me. Why should he accept that help from the neighbor and not me? Then I get ready to set off for work, like any other morning. I keep my coat squeezed tight under one arm, even though it’s so cold out, far colder than before. I can feel the mounting annoyance in his voice, the irascibility I find so startling. ‘I’m begging you, don’t antagonize him,’ he says. The wound is black. And all the while the warm scent of the bread is making me weak, almost grateful. In my optimism, I go so far as to wonder if we weren’t overestimating the gravity of what happened to us, I even wonder if we might have overestimated its reality. Finally I reach the deserted Rue Esprit-des-Lois. ‘I warned you, you shouldn’t have gone back,’ he chides me. Well, no doubt that’s only right. I get the feeling he’s pleased and flattered to hear it, but not surprised. How strange these children are! ‘But since when,’ I say, ‘really, since when do we ask the children’s opinion in these things?’
Her very white cheeks pinken a little. No one knows less about all this than me.’
‘That’s no reason to talk nonsense.’
I go into the bathroom for compresses and disinfectant. Are you trying to speed up my death? I brush off my clothes, straighten my glasses. I’m not going to let your husband pretend everything’s fine.’
‘Everything is fine,’ I haughtily retort. ‘Who is he?’ I say stubbornly. I gently push open the door to our room. We’ll deal with that later, I tell myself, not wanting to be late. They don’t listen to me, they’ve lost faith in me…. ‘Where can it all be coming from?’ I cry, demoralized. Oh, when was it that someone last envied us, we who so long luxuriated in the warm, beneficent water of other people’s longing for our life, our serenity? With one bound he’s beside me, astonishingly nimble, quick, light. ‘You must not be afraid of me,’ he says in an authoritarian voice, ‘and you must not convince your husband to be.’
‘Are you a spy?’ I say brazenly. Now I feel an almost desperate longing to sleep. Then she puts on a surprised look and asks, ‘You’ve left your husband all alone? Three safety pins (or were they hairpins?) thrust through shreds of flesh, bits of some meat like pinkish, fibrous pork (because that’s what it was, wasn’t it?), and their size and look made me think of human flesh and so bits of Ange’s flesh, since this morning I saw – yes, you saw it, admit it – that they’d thoroughly carved up his side, sliced into it, but of course it could just as well be any sort of animal meat, and it could also be nothing more than a cruel prank, so why let it spoil your mood… I carefully roll over, hoist myself up on all fours, puffing, little caring that Monsieur Noget is right there. ‘You don’t know?’ I say. ‘I strongly disapprove of your going back to that school,’ he scolds. Isn’t that real? ‘Isn’t that what you’ve heard people call me? It echoes so lugubriously that I gladly close the window. I grimace a smile, push my glasses to the very top of my nose. Shouldn’t it be me, shouldn’t it be his wife helping Ange eat, helping him drink, helping him, yes, go to the bathroom? ‘As well as can be expected,’ he says. Remember how we hated him?’
‘I never hated him,’ says Ange, with a kind of pained fury. OK? I stuff the piece into my mouth, and the taste is so delicious and comforting that a painful tingle drills into my jaw, my cheeks, the corners of my eyes. Yes, yes, yes, I whisper, get hold of yourself. I’m afraid I’ll find Ange’s furious, desperate eyes staring at me if I turn around. ‘Someone played a horrible prank on me,’ I say, ‘and I’m angry about it; I’m going to try to find the culprit, and believe me, they haven’t heard the last of it.’
‘It’s not a prank,’ Ange whispers, ‘and you know it. I’m making such an enormous, torturous effort not to sob along with him that it almost distracts me, almost takes my mind off all this. ‘It’s so cold. I never want that to happen again. And I don’t glance inside, for fear I might see petrified faces, poor creatures with terror and panic in their eyes at the mere sight of me. I can’t help shaking Ange by his shoulder, even though his brow immediately furrows in pain.