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Exit

L'Autre Rivage
(Tyranaël -4)

by

Élisabeth Vonarburg

 

(Excerpt: Chapter 2, p. 8-13)


One morning, towards the end of the first moon of Hékeltéñu, Laraï and Nathénèk begin preparing their baggage, and Lian understands that he will be part of the journey. He has never left home. He doesn't know whether he should be full of joy or worry, but instead he feels relieved. The week before, in his bed, in the evening, he heard the voices of his parents, who were trying to talk in hushed tones. Laraï didn't want to leave, Nathénèk wanted Lian to go with them and repeated: "He can't stay here his whole life!"
It is a very long journey; Lian dozes frequently, rocked by the hypnotic rhythm of the hooves of the two aski hitched to the cart. One day, after he has fallen asleep again, he wakes up to find they have left the mountains, and the cart is rolling along a road of red polished flagstones, through pleasant wooded hills, very different from the big, wild trees he is used to. Soon they come to a river - he has never seen so much running water. They load the cart and the aski onto a little paddle-wheel boat with a smokestack that emits plumes of white smoke. With an urgent panting, the boat leaves the wharf and moves into the current, and the shoreline rushes by before Lian's wide eyes.
They keep apart from the others on the boat, eat amongst themselves, don't talk to the sailors or the captain, a big, fat man with very dark skin, his head covered with little, horrendously tight black braids, and whom Lian watches from a distance, a little frightened. He has never seen anyone but his father and mother. He prefers looking at the trees, and the soft waves of the hills on either side of the banks.
Beyond the river, there is savannah, as far as the eye can see, an almost flat expanse, much bigger than the plateau. The tall grasses are already half flattened, all bluish under the sun, only a few rare stunted shrubs can be seen - but, sometimes, the white ball of a Gomphal rises majestically. Unfortunately, the plain quickly becomes as monotonous as the mountain and the river. They stop either in an "inn" or a "post house" from time to time, but very briefly, to buy food; they only sleep in them when it rains; the rest of the time they sleep under the stars. In the inns and post houses, they don't go to the "dormitory" with everyone, but take a room, and that is where they eat; Lian doesn't know whether he is pleased with this or disappointed; but it's fascinating, all these people who are neither Laraï nor Nathénèk, all different, and the children, especially, running around everywhere - Lian would love to run with them, but Laraï was very clear: he must never go far from the room alone. On the other hand, sometimes, there are the people who look strangely at them, his parents and him, when they arrive at an inn. Not really nastily, but surprised, or sympathetic, or troubled. In fact, Lian realizes, it's mostly him that people are looking at - or trying not to look at, which is even weirder. When he asks Laraï why, she answers: "Because they don't know you," and he has to be content with that, because Nathénèk says nothing. So do all the people know each other in the inns?
Laraï and Nathénèk don't speak to anyone, however. In the early hours of the morning, they set out again, and the journey begins again, to the regular clip-clop of hooves on the polished flagstones. Once Lian glimpses a herd of tovik in the distance, running, their horns held high, manes and tails streaming in the wind. He would have liked to see them come galloping back, but they are swallowed by the infinite plain.
He would like to ask questions, but he understands quite well that his parents don't want him to. They exchange a few brief words with each other; sometimes Nathénèk starts singing, but Laraï's voice rarely joins his, and he always falls silent again.
And finally, finally, the landscape changes once again, the plain rises in tiers of hills, higher and higher, even rocky sometimes, from where a hotter wind blows. "The hills by the Sea," says Nathénèk with a contented sigh. The grass here is yellower, there are real trees, and houses, more and more frequently, at first isolated, then grouped in hamlets. On the roads, now, they pass other carts and all kinds of big wagons, filled with people wearing gaily coloured clothes, five, six per wagon, sometimes more. Nathénèk's lighter cart passes them and they exchange polite waves with their passengers. Everyone looks very happy.
At night on the twenty-fifth day (Lian already knows how to count on his fingers: this makes five hands since they left), they reach the summit of the last line of hills, the highest. Below extends a dark plain, because the moons have not yet risen. Standing at regular intervals on the side of the long hill, bluish half circles shine in the low light.
"Is that the Sea? Is that where we're going?"
"No," says Nathénèk. "Further North, to the gathering place."
The blue half circles are big rounded stones almost as high as the cart, and the road follows them. Soon blotches of dull lights in the distance become tents: round, square, triangular, pitched in groups here and there, with fires, carts and wagons, unhitched aski grazing in the alleys between, and even a few tovik, head and shoulders above them, with ribbons braided into their manes. Lian feels a little queasy; the inns were nothing, he has never seen so many people at one time.
Laraï chooses an out-of-the-way spot, soon the tent is pitched, the fire lit, and the meal is cooking on the coals. His belly full, Lian feels better. There is music somewhere in the center of the camp, but a hand grabs him before he can go see. "Stay here, Lian!" Why is Laraï angry? He protests: "But, ati, the music..."
Laraï's face seems to droop; she kneels down beside him: "We'll go together later, Lian. You mustn't go all alone. Promise me you'll stay with Nathénèk for the time being."
She's not angry, she's afraid! Surprised, worried, Lian promises. She walks away, returns soon with fritters - sweet spiral-shaped treats that Lian stuffs himself with, delighted. After, he's so sleepy he forgets about the music.
The muffled sound of voices wakes him; someone is talking outside in hushed voices; it's still night time; the tent opening outlines a patch of strangely violet sky. "We have to," says a strange voice. A shadow appears in the entrance. Father-Nathénèk. He comes and gently shakes Lian: "Come, Lian, come and see the Sea." Outside, two more silhouettes, those of Mother-Laraï and another, a man, shorter than she, shorter than almost everyone. In the sky, the three small moons have disappeared, and the big moon is no longer full: a black oval is slowly floating across it, and it looks like an eye.
A great silence now reigns over the camp, and yet everyone is walking down the hill, towards the line of phosphorescent stones. Lian tried to take his mother's hand, but Laraï's mind seems to be elsewhere and her hand lies inertly in Lian's; when he lets go, just to see, she doesn't hold on. But it's night time, the light from the moon is too strange, there are too many people around them: he stays close to Laraï. After a while, another hand envelopes his; he thinks it's his father-Nathénèk, but it's the small stranger. They look at each other for a moment as they step forward. The man is not very old, and he has dark hair that hangs down to his eyebrows; his face is a little odd, Lian couldn't say why. He doesn't really smile, but he seems nice. Since neither Laraï nor Nathénèk say anything, Lian accepts his company.
Suddenly, he doesn't know how, he finds himself with the stranger in front of the crowd; before them, under the violet light, the dark plain is still and deserted beyond the bluish stones. Behind them, the murmurings gradually fall silent: the crowd has stopped moving forward. Lian suddenly feels very vulnerable, as if this invisible presence were pushing him forward, in spite of himself, but he doesn't want to go past the line of stones. He doesn't dare turn around to see where Laraï is.
The stranger does not move. No one moves. The silence becomes intolerable. And then suddenly, in a single voice, the faceless crowd starts singing. Lian turns his head then, quickly, doesn't see his mother or his father, but a forest of arms raised towards the sky, and he clutches the hand of the small man tighter as he looks forward again.
The song seems to last forever. He doesn't' understand the words, he's not even sure if there are words: it's like the stream, at night, beside the house, when he isn't asleep, if he just paid a little more attention he could recognize a voice that would speak to him. Sometimes the song nearly fades out, almost becomes inaudible, then it swells again, with phrases, long and low at first over which roll then, shorter and shorter, more and more high-pitched motifs. Then, the thunder of the low voices gradually drowns out the high ones, and the song is inverted again, a regular ebb and flow, like rocking. Lian feels his eyes close. If he let go of the stranger's hand, he would float into the violet space and he would stay there, balanced between earth and sky, forever...
The song stops abruptly, almost brutally, at the height of a high phrase, and Lian shivers as if he had stumbled. The moon is all violet, with the black circle inside. Everyone is waiting again, a huge bubble of silence that swells behind him... And suddenly, far in front, where the sky meets the plain, a shining line appears, a sheet, no, a wave, no, a wall of bluish light, a brightness rushing at them! Lian goes to take a step backwards, but the stranger's hand stops him. He closes his eyes.
A great cry resounds behind him, given by hundreds of chests, an enormous cry of joy, which makes him open his eyes again, trembling.
The terrifying thing that the instant before was about to engulf everything is lapping around the stones, strangely shimmering. Blue. A blue like Lian has never seen before, alive, trembling, skirting the rock, as if that mass moving in slow quiverings were more solid than liquid... And there is that shimmering light floating above it, a mist that disappears in the sky, impalpable, magical. Fascinated, forgetting everything else, Lian exclaims: "Oh, the light!" He is no longer afraid. He tears himself away from the grip of the small man, in three steps he is at the edge of the luminous, thing, and he plunges his hands in.
Through his astonishment, then, he hears the dull cry from the crowd behind him. He turns around, dismayed: he must have done something bad! The blue quivers in the hollow of his cupped hands... Everyone is looking at him with a horrified, incredulous expression. But not the small man, who looks very sad. Lian spreads his fingers, and the still impalpable blue slides, runs, falls sparkling into the grass, splits around his bare feet and returns to merge into the light.
But he felt nothing, touched nothing.
Aware of the murmuring that now runs through the crowd, full of uncertainty and terror, he starts sobbing convulsively...

 

© 1997 Éditions Alire & Élisabeth Vonarburg


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