The hugs, the groaning and moaning, God, they were unreal! These people we had come back to looked healthy, their houses were prosperous, their kids well fed and full of fun. And we were still alive, famished, ready to have a good time, as if the whole world were going to be ours. Older, but saved, we had arrived just as the good weather was letting us know it was here. We were easy to fool, childish, like the wind of those spring months. As if five years had disappeared without a trace.
When they think about the place and the time of that unbelievable return, others perhaps remember only the light that burst over the streets.
We hadn’t come back on a magic carpet. For long months we had straggled along, dizzy with the roar of artillery, ravaged by hunger, behind the troops. But time had shrunk; in the end it seemed like an instant’s flight over the golden bridge between two worlds. No one had had a chance to get ready for meeting the other realm.
Faces, houses, flowers, new words, songs, parks, and families suddenly surged on us. A noisy, demonstrative, keening world had sprung out of the earth to claim us, certain from the very first of our kinship. And so the first food, clothes, bed, the first gifts. And then the first reproaches; the guy with the mustache, who claimed he was a godfather, had offered nothing but a pillow; so and so, a cousin of grandmother’s, had handed over only an old teapot, while another, a tall clown with glasses from whom no one had expected anything, had come loaded with dresses, shirts, shoes, even some candlesticks.
The wonder of a hamlet living on a cloud, with white peaceful houses, lost under the manes of long-haired trees, on streets where undulating coaches rolled by. A metropolis! A fairy tale!
Amazement at the miracles and the stillness and terror of a house; enchantment because it was that house; amazement, wonder and fear of what was happening inside it.
The slow hours, the sinking into the sofa. The angles, the colored criss-crossing of so many straight lines, magic reflections on the edge of the mirror that had not been fathomed yet; neither had the wheels of the bicycle, nor the shrieks that pierced holes in the walls like bullets.
The sofa, the ceiling and the strip of window were stained by the red from the street. Through the curtain sunlight fell in round bloody flames.
Sometimes you caught sight of the sharp corners of the walls, the arches over the doors, the opaline and square ceiling, its corners pink and green with fly specks, so many unexpected images left by dust spots on the old paint; the glint—just an instant long—of the drapery rings. Then the chairs around a field of notebooks, slide rules, T squares and colored chalk.
In the mirror lightning flashed: parallels cut by a transversal. And soon you heard, coming from far away, unfamiliar new words: Parallels cut by a transversal, the concurrence of bisectors. The geometric locus of the intersection of the medians of an isosceles triangle inscribed in ... The words got closer. Medians, pyramids, arcsine alpha. The colored straight lines out of which came thin snakes called beta, cotangent. Sometimes you heard washed-out voices. The students—the convicts—pressed against the blackboard, awaiting execution any time now.
Only the noon meal would suspend the adventures for a little while. The mailman interrupted too. The house was close to the street, across the way from the tall building where he made his stop. He would prop his bicycle against the electric pole. When he came out, his big pouch of worn reddish leather was almost empty. He got on his bike, the spokes turned, the wheel caught the sun.
Starting at ten in the morning, the students came in a steady stream, replacing one another at intervals. They climbed a few steps; the ground floor was above street level. You could hear them wiping their feet for a long time. They knocked on the door, paused, came in shyly: children, real gentlemen, young ladies. Pretty scared, all of them. Very slowly they pulled out books and notebooks. But no matter how long they tried putting it off, they would still end up at the blackboard.
In the first room, the large one, the blackboard occupied the entire left-hand wall. When filled and pushed upward, it would uncover the other one behind it. Scared and hesitant voices were heard from the corner, mixed with the shouts of the executioner.
Gradually, the boy’s amazement, enchantment and fear quieted down. It hadn’t been difficult to understand that he wasn’t really in a madhouse, only a sort of summer school, when school was on vacation. Preparations for the baccalaureate, the qualifying exams for high school, the make-up exams.
Often it wasn’t just one teacher and one student. The principal worked with his students on arithmetic, algebra, trigonometry. His blond wife would whisper at the corner table with another convict: la prune, la pomme, la poire, l’abricot. The principal’s shouts were muted only when the buzzing of the people at the table swelled. They had just come, of course, to the usual family of names: la feuille, le feuillage, feuilleter, le feuilleton, le feuilletage. The principal’s sister and brother were also professors of mathematics, with teachers for husbands and wives: of French, history, physics.
From morning to night, the groans, the whimperings, the howlings, the fury, the suffering brought the walls down. At times words would break away, stray from their sources, and float down by the corner of the sofa: pyramid, pentagon, le professeur, le grandpère, the pendulum, Napoleon, Athena, the laws of the pendulum, Ohm’s law, Joule’s law, Pythagoras, famille de mots. The blackboard, white with chalk, was burned by circles and red fractions, pierced by green arrows, until it was transformed by the sponge into elongated yellow and blue festoons.
It hadn’t been hard to figure out, down to the hour, the order the students showed up in, from one day and one week to the next, how the teachers followed one another. Except for the boy’s shadow curled on the sofa, no one else from the family was allowed into the big front room. Once in a while, the white-haired, arthritic old woman, mother of the math teachers, would come in. She would rinse out the sponges in the bucket; the water turned red, green. She would deposit the soiled sponge next to the blackboard, rise up on tiptoes, and apply another sponge. Across the way, gentlemen with briefcases would come out of the gray building, one after the other.
With time, connections were deduced, symmetries disclosed. A week later, when the mailman got on his bike again and the spokes of the wheels filled one’s retina for an instant, in the room you’d find, of course, just like this Saturday —you could bet on it—Emilia, the principal’s sister, the one who howled louder than anyone else and sometimes lumped up, algebra book in hand, ready to throw it at the curls of the young lady with freckles and shrewd, languid eyes. Only such things could bring alive the diagrams, the signs appearing and disappearing on the blackboard. But such incidents were losing some of their mystery; they were becoming stale.
But one Tuesday morning, the thin gentleman whose gold fountain pen was stuck in his coat pocket and whose glasses were almost as small as his eyes failed to show up. The principal became furious waiting for him and looked at his cousin sunk on the couch. A quiet child, perhaps too frail. Must have fallen behind in many things—who knows. He is wasting time, should be kept busy. Read, reckon, do homework, catch up with his peers. Good idea, of course.
The teachers responded eagerly. They would warm up between tutorials by tossing him back and forth, like a ball. The seven times table, je suis, tu es, il est, newspaper articles copied in a large lined notebook ... Until the day the blonde, the principal’s wife, took a long look at the boy, saw his pallor, and whispered in her husband’s ear. He refused to listen, did not agree, shook his head, and waved her off. Nevertheless, the next day they left him alone, but tolerated him in the room, just as before.
Everything quieted down again, became routine, accepted: no longer amazed, he turned his attention toward the past—without streets or teachers—where no one had heard of Pythagoras, Pericles, and grandpère; toward questions about the miracle that had parted the realms; about how long this present one would last; or about who had been left in the abandoned worlds. All this till one Friday, after lunch, the principal chased the boy’s thoughts away with a friendly pat on the shoulder:
“I brought you a book of fairy tales.”
And on top of it all, he—who was feared even by his own brother and sister—had smiled.
First there had been the things to eat, along with their names, then had come the first clothes, with their names too. And now here was the first book of fairy tales, which he was entering, unprepared ...
The front room and its scholastic executions were increasingly left behind. He stayed in the bedroom with its many beds and dim light. It’s too dark, he’s spoiling his eyes, the old woman said. Especially, she added, since he has his eyes glued to the book from morning to night. What’s more, in the last two weeks he’s had time to read it twenty times over.
The good old woman had now become white as winter, gloomy as bad weather. She took him to the kitchen, where, as agile as a young maiden, she would make lye from ashes in the tub and mix mush with tiny bits of food while from the yard the songs of birds entered through the open door. As if she didn’t know what more to do for him to grow handsome, jolly and fat, round like a melon. Sitting at the table, reading the book for the umpteenth time, the boy wouldn’t utter a word.
Twenty-five times in twenty-five days he went back to the mud hut where he had lived five or five hundred years before, buried in dirt and darkness, scruffy, mangy, grunting among his kind, until one afternoon, on Holy Friday, he came to grips with the enchantment, the fright of the things he had read.
To verify the magic, he closed the book with its thick covers wrapped in green fabric, set it down, and shut his eyes. Perched quietly on the chair, alone in the house, he blew hard through his nostrils. As anticipated, out came two bursts of flame; he saw a bridge studded with precious stones, trees on both sides where exotic birds sung. As it was written, over lands and seas, through forests and deserts he made his way to the Monastery of Incense, where he lay down on carpets as thick as sofas. When he opened his eyes he could no longer see all the marvels of the palace: the white walls, the opaline ceiling with green edges, the golden rings of the draperies, the tray with the golden hen and chicks, the knightly chairs, the convicts’ blackboard, the majestic and soft throne in the corner of the big room.
Then, on Saint Wednesday, Saint Friday, Saint Sunday, the courtiers appeared again, masters of devilry and wizardry, masters of witcheries and tortures, to put the convicts to the test.
Sometimes, through the large windows, you could see the lame heron rushing over the mountains on the old bike. The spokes of the wheels turned fast, swish, swish, the discs would whir on the sidewalk across the street.
The wonder-working principal had really proved that life at the Monastery of Incense was wonderful. And a golden bridge, studded with precious stones, stretched over all that had once been in another realm.
But as darkness descended the spell broke. The daring, handsome youth, now hesitant in his movements, did not dare leave the soft, high throne by himself. Late at night the courtiers carried him to bed. He didn’t know what fairy tales meant, but he understood that anything could become anything, like the little pig who rooted through the house during the day and at night shed his hide to turn into the emperor’s son.
In the evening he sometimes suffocated on the smell of burned pork rind, his nostrils full of ash and that horrendous stink. It scared him; everything could change in one night, a night five years long—the emperor’s son could become what he had just been, with no one to recognize or save him. The fairy tales were real and each one held a threat. They were real, he felt it, the old story is coming back. The fear had come back.