Self-translated from the French by the Author
The lady with fur was leaning on the back of a chair just behind him. From the rear of this room of the Writers’ Club, one could hardly hear the speakers of the round table. The audience had reacted sluggishly to the last talker’s arguments. The discussion didn’t really start.
At first, Kassal was reluctant to join this meeting. But the display of international magazines and books at the cafe nearby Writers’ Club convinced him. For a brief moment, he imagined his future book among them. The conference topic was precisely the same topic as his thesis.
This café was a good place for such a dream day. Near him, a couple was talking in German. At the counter, the young manager spoke fiercely on the phone in a Nordic language. “Swedish certainly,” he decided while sipping his Scotch . Her blond hair and her student-like look proved it. The staff seemed more Vietnamese or Laotian . This ethnic diversity pleased him; was he not a ‘stranger in this city’? The woman with fur was also a foreigner. He had noticed when she had asked a man in the front row to speak up because she couldn’t listen to what he was talking about. She had told him calmly, without aggression, as a courtesy to the audience. He had liked her confidence as much as her accent.
She was Spanish or Greek. These identities suited her flamboyant head, a mixture of restrained extravagance and nonchalance. But his interest lay not in the young woman’s hesitant pace—she seemed to be looking for someone—but, more prosaically, in her fur. The wearing of this garment was not incongruous with the climate of the city, on the contrary, but, let’s say it plainly: the public of the room was not a furry public (although hers was discreet) but rather ‘tweed and leather’—black, that is.
In fact, Kassal was wearing it too. He had bought his jacket five years earlier when he joined the project. It was during this period that he had given up teaching to devote himself to his thesis. His publication, he hoped, would make a great buzz. This is what he had told the group and Jeremy had laughed at him. He was not unhappy to have stolen Miranda away from this pretentious man. Now she was expecting a child from him.
Miranda was going through the first few months of her pregnancy with difficulty. Nausea didn’t let her rest. He appreciated that she was able to spend the summer vacations at her parents’ house in the country, which was larger than their small city apartment. When September came, Miranda began to complain again about her cramped conditions.
Their relationship had also changed. He saw Miranda for only two hours a day: one hour in the morning and one hour at night. She went to bed even earlier than before. She hardly ever ate dinner. She couldn’t stand any smell, or being touched. He slept on the couch. At first, he was irritated with the situation, but eventually, he came to his senses. After all, he was going to be a father. Miranda, on the other hand, wasn’t really sure she wanted to be a mother. She was angry at him for putting her ‘in that state’. That reproach, now a ritual, didn’t help him sleep.
He felt guilty to see her leave every morning and come back at the end of the afternoon, exhausted. But she insisted, because who ‘could replace her’? Certainly not him! “You can’t be pragmatic,” Miranda said, shaking her head. Despite his wife’s reproaches, he had respect for her constancy and her firmness about her work that remained an enigma.
He asked himself the same question about the unknown woman with the fur. That evening, he was watching her with curiosity. Because her place was a little bit at an angle on the back row. She had come to sit there, despite the number of empty chairs. He watched as she settled down, adjusted her coat, combed her hair, and rummaged through her bag.
In the middle of the conference, she left, creating a slight stir at the back of the room. It is true that, in these small assemblies, the departure or arrival of only one listener is immediately felt. The opening and closing of the doors with its air movement act as a kind of airlock.
When she returned to her seat, he could not help but look at her. A portrait painter would have described her face as classical. Neither beautiful nor ugly, the skin had a matt grain as if she had applied a layer of foundation. No heavy make-up, no particular signs. She was rather tall. Her silky hair evoked an ashy color, with auburn highlights. She could have been in her thirties. Her swaying gait made her look slightly drunk.
One thing was sure, though: since her return, the air around her had become heavier, muskier. He struck his forehead and was sorry for his naivety: she had redone her beauty, that’s all! But what disturbed him more was to know who could be the object of so much solicitude? To accentuate his disorder, she raised her skirt; oh! hardly, but just enough. This time, he had no more doubts. He multiplied the glances in her direction. She, on her side, let herself be admired with indolence. Even his neighbor had noticed this maneuver. He was mystified. All this was so… unexpected! Here… in this room… in the middle of such a gathering!
The feeling of guilt, however, was slower to manifest itself. It woke up in jerks and took the form of pretty phosphorescent monads which were linked in musical sarabands. Whatever the angle from which he envisaged this potential adventure, he saw it inexorably sinking into the horizon of fatality. His problem: he didn’t know how to hide. One read on his face as in an open book. And the more he thought about ‘the abyss’, the more his imagination was stirred. What had he done to make such a thing happen to him? He felt disoriented in front of this unknown woman, whom he nevertheless began to desire.
The question phase was quickly concluded. People stood up and started talking among themselves. A woman handed out flyers with the title ‘New Phalansteries’ to fight against the obsolescence of our world. The unknown woman with fur had also straightened up, and with a graceful swing of her neck, made her hair dance. Her attitude had become hieratic again. She took all her time to advance towards the alley. He admired her body. The guilt itched him fairly.
What was he going to say to her? He, usually so skillful, was losing his means. His decision was made: he would meet her outside, in a neutral place. He would offer her a cup of coffee. Then he would see. This compromise momentarily satisfied his conscience. A friend called out to him. It was Frank. He had not seen him since he had left the project. Immediately the discussion started. During the exchange, his glance was riveted on the door. The stranger finally came out with the last people who had remained in the room.
He felt her coat brushing against him as she passed behind him before seeing her walk nonchalantly away into the paved courtyard. Her gait was as peculiar as ever. He would have quickly joined her if he could get rid of Frank. At the corner of the street, it would be more natural. “Yes, it is that; more natural,” he thought while his comrade asked him about Miranda. Finally, he put an end to the discussion by pretexting precisely that she was waiting at home, but that he would be happy to take up the thread of the conversation at home by scribbling his address on a piece of paper.
When he could finally leave the yard, he had to notice her absence. Not the shadow of a fur around: he had underestimated the promptness of her step. He paced the adjacent streets. Nothing. It was stupid, he had let her go. His spirit, however, continued for several moments to be haunted by the unknown. It was all very well for him to repeat to himself that it was better this way; that emotional serenity was better than the hazards of an adventure: the relief he expected from such wise reflections did not come. Here is that his guilt again invaded him but in reverse. He gave the impression of having betrayed the mysterious stranger. Going home, in this state, was beyond his strength.
A cinema not far away was showing a retrospective of Polish films. He entered. The film showed a man voluntarily refusing love in the name of a higher truth: a kind of ethics of renunciation. When he left, he felt depressed. The city center was beginning to empty itself of its nightlife. He wandered around for an hour before returning.
It was that night that he heard the siren for the first time. He had just fallen asleep when a long hoot wrenched him from his REM sleep . At first, he thought it was the siren of a police car, but then he realized that the shrill, regular sound that rose in the air like a long complaint, was something else. There was an interval of silence for four to five seconds after each deafening crescendo. The irregularity of the noise was what shocked him. It sounded like a roller coaster. He feigned indifference and turned aside. A minute later, he put his pillow over his head. It was of no use, he could hear everything clearly. Better, he believed to see the vibration invading the pavilion of his ear, sliding towards the auditory canal , consequently in the case of the tympanum , before dashing towards the Trinitarian snail which would transport it to the brain like an offering where it would open out in the shape of a strange and secret water lily.
He followed with curiosity the slow blossoming of this cerebral flower and then, at the end of his nerves, decided to get up: he had to do something; for example, open the window furiously. Outside, the city was tangling its constellations of lights with a thousand different sounds. It was therefore very difficult to locate the source of the siren. The digital dial of his radio indicated three o’clock in the morning.
He put on his robe and resigned himself to calling the police. They confirmed that they would check on him immediately. At the same time, the siren stopped. He went back to bed. Not for long, however; the siren was taunting him again, as those big green flies sometimes do when they are chased in vain around the house.
He did not move and waited. The siren did indeed stop, only to start up again a few minutes later. He got up once more, went to his desk, and began to leaf through an atlas. The colored plates scrolled before his eyes. He played the game in the belief that by concentrating on the topography of the countries, he could reduce the noise and perhaps even make it disappear. The siren sounded for a good half hour at irregular intervals, then stopped for good. But the damage was done. His eyes were wide open. He went back to sleep at dawn.
The next day, his wife left home very early, and since he was still asleep, he did not have to listen to her complaints that time. It was the neighbor who got it: a skinny boy of tall stature whose face was marked by the remains of acne; he went to bed late and slept with his windows wide open. He asked him about the siren. The neighbor had heard something like a vague hooting but had fallen asleep fairly quickly. He was used to the noise. “Sirens? We hear them every night, sir!” The answer was unambiguous. He resolved not to ask any more questions and to forget this unfortunate mishap.
What could have been a bad memory turned into a series of nightmares in the following weeks. The siren could be heard up to seven times a night. The scenario was the same: a long crescendo that lasted thirty seconds. He bought earplugs but found the sensation of being locked up in a soundless sarcophagus unbearable and abandoned the wax plugs. The siren in this respect seemed to him a lesser evil. The image of a big buzzing fly came back to haunt his sleep.
By the end of the ninth week, the ritual was well in place. First, he would hesitate for a moment at the foot of the sofa, then he would call the police and go out on the balcony, trying to distinguish the source of the noise. ‘His’ commotion, since it seems that he was the only one to hear it. Like the voices by Joan of Arc .
The crossroads in front of his home remained an enigma. No matter how hard he tried to run to it, the siren would inexorably stop before he could reach it. The siren could have originated in one of three places: a gas station that occupied the entire northern quadrangle of the intersection and looked out onto the boulevard, a barracks on the south side of the street perpendicular to the boulevard, and a driving school that occupied the other corner of the intersection.
These hypotheses were reported to the telephone reception of his neighborhood, but the officer on duty explained to him that the intersection in question was under the jurisdiction of another police station whose offices were opposite the place where he lived. Their intervention, beyond pro forma surveillance, could only be done if the source of the noise pollution was clearly located. He advised him to call back the concerned services in the morning.
The next day, another policeman did not have the same consideration. While hanging up violently, he juggled for a moment with the idea of sending an open letter to the newspaper of his district; he was interrupted in his speculations by the alarm clock of his wife. This one, still asleep, did not understand his concern. His anger was translated into a meticulous account in which the progression of the noise, the duration of each interval, the height of the harmonics during the cycles, and then the impromptu disappearance of the sound source became episodes of a strange and cruel legend. Miranda looked at him, intrigued. She had never seen him in such a state. It was as if a spring had broken in him. The next day, they went to the country for a week.
When they returned, he didn’t talk to her about the mermaid. She had simply disappeared. Just as she had appeared. It would have taken very little for him to doubt that he had never heard her.
The months passed. The summer was hot and humid. The start of the school year coincided with the usual visit to the newspapers to find freelance work. His knowledge of languages was an asset. A publisher gave him a travel guide to India to translate; other such contracts would follow.
In December, their first child was born, a little girl named Sarah after Lea’s grandmother.
This was a great time in his life. What he had wanted for years—sometimes despairing of being able to accomplish it—was beginning to take shape. He finally had a family: his child was as beautiful as any baby in the world and wiggled like a little eel. Moreover, a few food contracts would finally allow him to finish his dissertation, the key concept of which had given him a lot of trouble, even because of its conceptual weakness, and which now put him in a position to integrate apparently contradictory notions such as ethnicity, minorities, nations, supranationality, individual rights…
But this bright side had a downside, illustrated by the cradle installed in the living room between the television and the bookcase. A bigger home was needed, with its inevitable corollary: a higher income. Each time, this question provoked endless discussions with Miranda. But more than the lack of money, these clashes revealed a deep disagreement between them.
Four years of living together had brought them to this realization: they had made a mistake in assessing each other’s feelings. Miranda had secretly hoped that one day he would give up his derisory pretensions and find a situation that was exactly what he could afford.
On the contrary, he thought he could see in his companion’s wait-and-see attitude suasion to persevere despite adversity. The slightest disagreement became an inextricable misunderstanding that ended in tears or embarrassed excuses.
The child’s birth, instead of bringing them together, continued to drive them apart. Miranda had appropriated her daughter as a drowning man who throws himself on a buoy. With Sarah, she had formed a sort of two-headed creature which taunted him with its unitary omnipotence. Often he would have wanted to tear his daughter away from her mother’s womb to flee anywhere. But his resigned nature did not incline him towards such excesses.
In the living room, a cot replaced the crib, which moved to the bedroom. The initiative came from him; his wife accepted it, thinking that for once they were in agreement. Sometimes she came to join him in this improvised bed in the hope of finding, in the ruins of their intimacy, an ersatz of that passion that had attracted them: they made love with a mechanical roughness that left them in the early morning even more distressed. And defeated.
Distrust settled between them. Over the months, he lost interest in his family. Staying at home became unbearable for him. Sometimes, when he was in the neighborhood, he would return to the association’s premises in the secret hope of meeting the unknown woman with the fur coat. He went so far as to question the janitor. In vain. Each time, he scrupulously retraced the route he had taken that day as if he wanted to exorcise something.
Miranda visited her parents more frequently. A kind of armed peace settled in. This allowed him to devote himself to reworking his thesis. What was he trying to prove? That it was now necessary to shift the focus from territory and nation to culture? But, to do this, it was necessary to deconstruct the way in which national identities had been constructed. But what is an identity? He did not know for himself. He always felt out of place, out of place. This is probably why he wanted to write this thesis. But his own condition was bothering him.
The following winter was very hard and followed by autumn marked by the Indian summer and the financial crisis. Little Sarah was growing up. She was almost a year old. Despite his best efforts, he was unable to find any more contracts; offers were scarce not only because of the crisis but also because new technologies were changing the game.
Translating tourist guides was his only source of income. Miranda’s condescension towards him was now obvious. He remained locked in the office he had finally installed in a windowless closet near the kitchen.
Again, he thought of that woman with the fur. It all seemed so far away! He uncorked a bottle of Scotch and filled his glass to the brim. He had started drinking just before Sarah was born, at first to imitate Faulkner or Hemingway , his favorite writers, but then the habit took over. Miranda’s arrogance was not unrelated to her newfound taste for alcohol. The arguments were now becoming frequent. Miranda had threatened to divorce him more than once but had not resigned herself to leaving him.
Fortunately, every month she went to the country with Sarah. It was a privileged time when each of them regained their strength and refilled their illusions. Kassal liked these moments of solitude, he could also reconnect with the best of himself and also catch up on work.
That early June was particularly mild; the heat had the scent of lilacs. He tried to concentrate on his work. He had accumulated a lot of backlog. The publisher had given him a final extension. The guide to India was to reflect the last glimmers of light that a generation of Western utopians had lit in the subcontinent.
Lying in the big bed, he could not sleep. He woke up in the middle of the night. It was always like this when he had to hand in a new job. He turned around and saw in his imagination—Calcutta , Bombay , sometimes with their splendor, sometimes with their misery, and then Nepal with its snow-covered peaks, cutting across the horizon. He was pacing the western foothills of Annapurna when he heard the familiar sound again. He didn’t recognize it immediately, or rather he didn’t recognize it at all.
A fly appeared in the Himalayan sky. It was huge and seemed to be bumping into an invisible screen. With each attempt, its lisp increased. It came to rest on the white surface of the ceiling above him. He could make out its mandibles, its glossy carapace, and its protean eyes. Suddenly it flew away. Her drone now filled the whole room. Then he emerged from his half-sleep and became aware that the mermaid was back.
The bed seemed huge to him. He had the impression that the mermaid had always been there. Despite the double-glazed windows and the hallway, the sound was clear. The orientation of the house probably played a role.
Contrary to his habit, he sat up in bed and listened. His eyes slowly surveyed the room. Miranda had tidied up. Every object was in its place. Then he realized that this time nothing would be like the previous episodes.
It was like a click, a certainty. He got up and put on his pants. Through the window, the city sparkled, inviting in the animal warmth of the beginning of summer. It was indeed it, which called him thus, demanding and capricious, so that the rites of the night are accomplished. This presentiment that he had buried until now haunted him as he descended the steps. The day had not yet turned the sky blue. The adjoining streets seemed deserted. The siren was still wailing.
He walked briskly towards the intersection. A certain anxiety gripped him. Would he still be too late? In a way, he wouldn’t have minded. After all, there was some charm in remaining, even after a year’s interval, the sole listener of a chimerical siren. He reached the crossroads. In front of him, the gas station was shining brightly.
It was a building with rounded lines like those built in the 1950s. The walls still had their white enamel coating, while the façade had been disfigured by a gaudy storefront with a raised awning. Above, the neon lights, of a multinational firm symbolized by the almost triangular logo of the pumps, were blazing.
The difficulty was to locate the station’s alarm system exactly. He assumed that it must be on the roof just above the name.
In the parking lot, wrecked cars were waiting to be repaired; on the right was a pile of iron pipes. Everything seemed in its place. He looked inside. No one was there. It wasn’t even a real robbery. Apparently, the alarm was going off cyclically, for no apparent reason. He noticed the emergence of a new phase. Such a failure was not an exception in itself; what was less so was the neighborhood’s apathy, which was settled in its indifference, because they failed to hear it.
He felt betrayed and disenchanted. So, the siren had been flushed out, but was he any further ahead? Last year, he had already reported a possible failure of his alarm system to the station owner, who had laughed in his face. Now it was too late. Too late. At that moment, a truck passed by, followed by three black cabs. This discovery had sharpened his dismay, which plunged him into a state of exasperation, close to suffocation. His throat emitted a long complaint.
He decided to walk. The air was diaphanous. It was the first time since he had moved here that he had walked through this neighborhood. Until then, his worries had kept him away from this residential block whose slate roofs he only knew. The houses did not exceed two floors. Their old-fashioned character made them look like gingerbread. Yet most of them had been restored. The neighborhood was being transformed by a phenomenon common to all large cities. An old factory subdivided into condominiums confirmed this new vocation.
In the distance, the siren could still be heard clearly. Its anger was rekindled. A tabby cat slid under a car. Birds flew into the sky. Silence fell over the city, or at least the muffled roar that took its place.
In the meantime, he really believed that this bad dream was going to end; that the old times were going to come back; before he came to this country. Then he thought of what had become of him. He had failed. His future already had a taste of ashes. The city felt like a pillbox from which he could not escape. Well, either way, he was going to show them what he could do.
From a phone booth, he called the police station. The discussion that followed was violent. He accused the police of incompetence; he told them that he now knew where the siren was. They had better watch out. When he hung up, his mind was made up.
The rest went very quickly. He returned to the station and smashed the window with a pipe he found in the pile of iron in the parking lot. He groped for the stairs to the roof. The shadow masses hanging from the hydraulic levers were black sedans. He walked around the engines and body parts. The siren was blaring louder. He was not very aware of what was happening; he walked like an automaton.
Outside, the wind made him shiver; the sky was pale, rustling with birds. Traffic would soon resume. When the siren sounded again, he was startled. Plugging his ears was useless. The noise came from a thirty centimeters long black metal box, installed only a few centimeters from the illuminated sign.
The first blow failed to neutralize it; the second was more effective. Then the rage took possession of him and he struck, again and again, this metal box, now shapeless, which had so long haunted his nights. The blows were so violent that his hands hurt. Then he stayed several seconds to catch his breath, to savor this moment of intense freedom during which he had dared to revolt against the atony of this city.
Now that he was breathing better, he could hear a voice emerging from the morning coolness. A coarse, metallic voice; ordered him to get down, hands on the back of his neck. At the slightest false move, he would be shot. The voice trembled in the megaphone. In response, Kassal struck a final blow at the debris of the box. There was a thud and he felt a violent burn on his back. What followed, he was unable to say. He was barely aware that he had fallen down the iron stairs and escaped through the window. All he knew now was that he was running away; his right hand folded over his chest. He staggered forward towards the subway entrance.
The first passengers were rushing into the tunnel. He took advantage of the rush to slip away. He didn’t know why he was running away, he had been afraid. Dizziness now seized him. He tried to cling to the wall but could not. From his hand flowed a thick scarlet liquid. He was thirsty. Someone shouted, “An ambulance, he’s bleeding to death.” In his head, a kaleidoscope of curious sensations swirled. He imagined the gas station as an impregnable citadel. Inside, there was Miranda, little Sarah, and the manuscript of his memoir that he would never finish. But the siren had been silent; he had broken her; he had finally got the better of her. And that was all that mattered.
Passers-by looked at him with concern; no one dared approach him. Then Kassal glimpsed the shimmer of a fur coat moving in his direction. He thought he recognized the worried smile of the woman who was leaning toward him. Her perfume too was familiar to him. It was a figure that was neither beautiful nor ugly; the skin seemed matt as if covered with a complexion. No exaggerated makeup or particular signs. Her hair was of an ashy hue with auburn streaks and very thick, and her voice had a funny accent…