(Excerpt from, « Home by the Sea »,
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
"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
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
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
© 2000 Éditions
Alire & Élisabeth Vonarburg
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