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Exit

La Maison au bord de la mer

by

Élisabeth Vonarburg

 

 

(Excerpt from, « Home by the Sea », p. 233-238)


Images of sorrow, pictures of delight
Things that go to make up a life (...)
Let us relive our lives in what we tell you
(Home by the Sea, Genesis)

"Is it a lady, Mommy?"
The small girl looks at me with the innocent insolence of children who say out loud what adults are thinking to themselves. A skinny, pale, fair-haired child of five or six, she already looks so like her mother that I feel sorry for her. The mother gives an embarrassed laugh and lifts the child onto her lap. "Of course it's a lady, Rita." She smiles excuse-her-please, I smile back oh-it's-nothing. Will she take advantage of it to launch into one of those meaningless, ritual conversations whereby neighbors assure each other of their mutual inoffensiveness? To cut her off, I turn towards the window of the compartment and look purposefully at the scenery. Heading to the north the train follows the system of old dykes as far as the huge gap breached four years ago by the Eschatoï in their final madness. The scars left by the explosions have nearly disappeared, and it almost seems as though the dyke were meant to stop here and that the waters had been allowed to invade the lowlands as part of some official scheme. We cross the narrows by ferry, and are once more in the train, an ordinary electric train this time, suspended between the two wide sheets of water, to the west rippled by waves, to the east broken by dead trees, old transmission towers, church spires, and caved-in roofs. There is a mist, a whitish breath rising from the waters like a second tide ready to engulf what is left of the man-made landscape.
Is it a lady? You obviously don't see ladies like me very often in your part of the world, little girl. Cropped hair, boots, army fatigues, a heavy jacket of worn leather; and the way I was sitting, grudgingly corrected when you and your mousy mother came in - a real lady doesn't sprawl like that, does she, even when she's by herself. The lady actually likes to be comfortable, believe it or not, and in her usual surroundings she doesn't have to worry much about what people think. The lady, little girl, is a recuperator.
But she couldn't tell you this; she didn't want to see your big, stupid eyes fill with terror. All the same, you don't get to see a real live bogeywoman every day. I could've told you a few things. Yes, I know, If you're not good the Recuperator will get you, and he'll say you're not a real person and put you in his big sack. As a matter of fact, we don't put human specimens in our big sacks right away, you know; only plants and small animals. Big animal are injected with tracers once they've been put to sleep for preliminary tests. If the Institute researchers discover something especially interesting, they send us back for it. I could've told you all this, little girl, you and your mother, who would probably have looked at me with superstitious fear. But who cares what recuperators really do, anyway? They go into the contaminated Zones to bring back horrible things that in other times might have been plants, animals, humans. So the recuperators must be contaminated too, mentally if nothing else. No, no one apart from the Recuperation Agency cares what the recuperators really do. And no one, especially not the Institute, wonders who they really are, which suits me just fine.
"Why did they break the dyke, Mommy?", asks the small girl. She's sensed that it would be a good idea to change the subject.
"They were crazy", says the mother curtly. Not a bad summing up. Fanatics, they were - but it comes to the same thing. You see, they thought the waters would keep rising, and they wanted to help the process along: The End of the Damned Human Race. But the waters stopped. So did the Eschatoï, by the way; one of their great collective suicides. But this time there weren't enough of them left to start the sect afresh - nor enough energy in the new generations to be fanatic. The pro-life people have simmered down too. Even the Institute doesn't believe in its own slogans any more. The Rehabilitation of the Wonderful Human Race. But that's just it: the human race isn't reproducing itself well or adequately. It probably wore itself out with its frenetic activity during the Great Tides and seismic catastrophes at the end of the last century. Now it's going downhill, although no one dares say so straight out to the Institute and its people. True, there are fewer earthquakes, fewer volcanic eruptions, the sun breaks through the clouds more often, and the waters have stopped rising, but that's nothing to get excited about; it's not a human victory. Just a blind, natural phenomenon that peaked by pure chance before destroying what was left of the human race. And I, little girl, I who am not human, I collect what the Institute calls "specimens" in the contaminated Zones - specimens that are also, in their way, what is left of the human race.
I who am not human. Come on, now, didn't I get over that long ago? But it's a habit, a lapse, a relapse. I could've answered you just now, little girl, by saying, "The lady is an artifact, and she's going to see her mother."
But that very word requires so much explaining: Mother. At least I have a navel. A neat little navel, according to the medic who checked me out before my abortive departure for Australia and the Institute. The current artifacts have large, clumsily made navels that the scanner immediately picks up as not being the real thing. But you, now, it's almost perfect, extraordinary, what technical skill your... And there he stumbled: mother, creator, manufacturer? He came out of his scientific ecstasy, suddenly conscious that after all someone was listening who hadn't known the truth. None of the other tests had ever revealed anything ! But this Medical Center is connected to the Institute, and new detection methods have been developed that didn't exist when you were, er... (he cleared his throat - he was very embarrassed, poor man) made.
Yes, she made me like this so I could pass for human. Almost. In spite of everything I thought then, she surely didn't foresee that I'd learn about it this way. I probably wasn't meant to know until the end, with its unmistakable signs. Why? Am I really going to ask her? It this why I came? But I'm not really going to see her. I'm passing by, that's all. I'm on my way to the Hamburg Zone.
Oh, come on! I know damn well I'll stop at Mahlerzee. I will? I won't? Am I still afraid, then? That cowardice which made me burn all my bridges when I found out, swear never to ask her anything. But it wasn't merely cowardice. It was a question of survival. It wasn't because I was afraid or desperate that I ran away after the medic's revelations. I didn't want to see the others waiting for me outside. Not Rick, especially not Rick... No, if I remember rightly, that lady of fifteen years ago was in a fury - still is. A huge fury, a wild, redeeming fury. Surely this was why, on coming out of the Medical Center, she found herself heading for Colibri Park. It was there that she'd first seen the Walker.
Colibri Park. The first time you go there you wonder why it's not called "Statue Park". Of course, there is the transparent dome in the middle of the main lawn, enclosing its miniature jungle with hummingbirds that flit about on vibrating wings, but what one really sees are the statues. Everywhere, along the alleys, on the lawns, even in the trees, believe it or not. The young lady first came there with Rick, her lover, and Yevgheny, the typical street-wise city boy who teaches small-town greenhorns the score. The lady was sixteen. She'd barely been a month in Baïblanca. One of the youngest scholarship students at Kerens University. A future ornament of the Institute. The fledgling that had fled the nest, slamming the door as she went, so to speak. And all around her and her lover, there were the wonders of Baïblanca, the capital of Eurafrica. I could say it was Eldorado for us, but you probably wouldn't know what Eldorado is.
Yevgheny had pointed out, among the people strolling by, the Walker - a man moving slowly, very slowly. He was tall and could have been handsome, had something in his bearing been as imposing as his height. But he walked listlessly, you couldn't even call it sauntering. And then, as he passed them by, that blank face, those eyes that seemed to be looking far off, perhaps sad, perhaps merely empty... He'd been walking like this everyday for almost ten years, Yevgheny had said. The sort of thing old men do... That was it, he walked like an old man. But he didn't seem all that old, barely in his thirties.
"He was never young, either", Yevgheny said. "He's an artifact."

© 2000 Éditions Alire & Élisabeth Vonarburg


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