(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
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,
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
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
find out what happens next...