Holy Mother of God!

*

Chapters 1-5

*

Marie

Cornélius and Marie had watched the parade of trucks march by their house for several days. It was the same routine every day. The vehicles would creep down the road, almost sneaking up behind Cornélius’ old white Volvo, like a dog tentatively sniffing another dog’s butt, ready to scamper off if startled.

One of the guys–there were usually two–would roll down his window, stick his head out, and shout, “We got a fridge here?” not sounding like a person shouting for someone, but confirming the emptiness, the void. But the deliverymen were never wrong. Besides, Cornélius had given them very specific instructions to the house. Take the road running parallel to the old railroad tracks, then the D60 to the dam. You see the dam? Good, so they lived twenty minutes from there, maybe half an hour. Yes, you could say they pretty much lived in the middle of nowhere. After the dam, straight ahead to Vivanon. Once there, drive through the village without leaving the D60, and then turn right onto a dirt road, lined with briar and cupressus, the knotty trees that liked to grow in the area. The house was less than a hundred meters away, at the end of the path.

Every time two men reached the end of the road, they would be racked by a feeling of being lost, of having missed a turn or a street sign. But who else around here needed a new fridge or armchair? “Yes, this is the place,” Marie would answer as her stomach, then the rest of her body passed through the door. She would be arching her back behind her triumphant belly button, pushed out of the space she normally occupied by the kicking baby she carried. She would welcome the two guys with her radiant, innocent smile–those who didn’t know her might call it slow and simple–but the guys would be wiping sweat from underneath their logo-blazoned caps, and would probably refuse the hand offered them by the lady of the house because of it.

That morning, the routine started again, from the beginning. As the hatchback traveled up the dirt road, the driver watched the rooftops of Vivanon fade away in the rearview mirror. He recognized the cupressus, and the wide swaths of briar patches. Actually, he recognized the idea of them, in theory, because he had never seen cupressus or briar in real life. The trees looked like birds mired in black gunk after an oil spill, wings unfurled to reveal a sad span and a depressingly featherless and skinless body, shackled in a sticky jacket. Dust covered the mauve of the briar. Maybe the briar was only insect fodder–not for bees, of course, with their discerning palette, but for bugs who feast on rotten scraps.

The landscape that rolled past the windows was so harsh that the passenger unfolded the map on his lap again, trying to find a clear, black-and-white indication of a wrong turn. They had obviously made a mistake. If people lived here, intelligent and reasonable human beings who liked to sing songs and make love, who had a memory, a history, a family, who laughed and cried (even the worst specimens of humanity know how to laugh and cry), if people actually lived here, they would definitely have tempered the sharpness of the landscape. They would have tamped down a path as they passed back and forth, their watchful eyes would have soothed the sharp edges of the trees and the crumbling drought sweeping across the plains of briar.

“What the hell happened to this place?” asked the younger guy, who was driving. Finally, the house appeared at the end of the road, but there was nothing familiar about it, and he couldn’t figure out how that house could be the sofa’s new home. The vehicle crawled up in front of the house, as usual, sputtering and coughing a bit. The passenger was about to stick his head out of the cab to shout, “Delivery! We’ve got a couch here,” but before he could open his mouth, Marie’s enormous belly led her outside. She approached the two men with her funny little smile, so pure and welcoming. Could you trust a smile like that? Could you return such a smile in kind, or would you just be digging yourself into a hole, trying to show that kind of love or friendship? Maybe such a thing presumes a little too much goodness in mankind and their world. As it was, all deliverymen got the feeling that they should dumped their loads as quickly as possible, and that the sooner they shoved off from there, the better.

Civilization had found that house to be an unexpected oasis in the middle of a desert. Its only link to the outside world was the black, empty television screen, and some books with obscure titles–treatises on medicine–in the library. Who knew what kind of dilapidated interior the deliverymen had imagined, but they were surprised to find a harmonious décor, a clean floor, and organized furniture. The armchairs, Napoleon III or threadbare Louis XV, hinted at wealthy ancestors who had remembered the house’s inhabitants in their wills. Although the sight of the emaciated trees along the road was still unsettling, the idea that these people could have families, or guardians, whether living or dead, was reassuring. The men installed the new “pigeon-blood” red sofa, as the store catalog had called it, underneath the window. It rested its velvety feet grandly on the wooden floor, settling in as king of the living room.

Marie looked excitedly around her new home, which she had created by herself, room by room, because Cornélius couldn’t be bothered with sofas and things. Once she was absolutely, positively certain that the pigeon-blood wouldn’t clash underneath the window, in between the bookshelves and the little pedestal for the telephone, she turned to the two deliverymen with an expression of true concern:

“Will you be able to find your way back?”

“Yes, of course,” they chorused, tugging their caps down over the bump of their occipital bone.

“It’s just we’re so far from everything here, and we’re getting further and further away.” She hitched up her full, floor-grazing dress, to kneel on the sofa and reach the window. “You see the forest over there? It’s hard to believe, but it’s receding. Seriously. Once, oh, I don’t know exactly when, we just got here, but they say that once, the forest brushed up against the house, the trees were right there, the branches scratched the side of the house. But look how far away it is now!”

The two men politely followed her gaze past her finger tapping the window, churning the air. One of them gave up, eyes landing instead on the frothy fabric of her dress, and fixing on Marie’s bare leg. Her ankle had disappeared, swallowed by her huge, swollen calf, crowded with snaking veins, which he attributed to the pregnancy.

“Same thing with Vivanon,” Marie continued, sitting heavily on the sofa, her bottom squarely on the cushions, a necessary step before getting back up on her own two feet. “Today, Vivanon is just a little dot on the map, but it used to be a nice big town, we used to have many more houses than we do now. There was still a doctor here last year, you know, but he left for the city, of course. That’s how it goes, everyone leaves. My husband decided to take his place, carve out his own little niche, so to speak, so we moved.” She took a moment to stare across the sofa, as if resting her eyes. The two deliverymen should have taken advantage of the pause to say that they really needed to be going, but she didn’t give them a chance, picking right back up again with a more familiar tone, as if she had known the guys in their caps for years:

“It’s crazy about the forest, isn’t it? Makes me think of snow thawing, it does. The oceans are filling up, and the forests and towns are emptying. But as for us,” she said, patting her belly, “we’re here, we are, and we’ll put some life back into this place! Oh, I almost forgot, hang on just a second.” She scurried across the living room to her purse and took out a couple of bills.

“We’re not allowed to accept tips, ma’am.”

“Not allowed?” echoed Marie. A cheeky smile slid onto her face, just barely shadowed by her shyness, by the fact that she didn’t quite know what to do with this sudden boldness. “Oh, well, I’m sure we could make an exception, just this once, you’ve been so nice…”

“Sorry, ma’am, that’s the rule, it’s not allowed.”

“Oh. Well, can I at least offer you a drink, then? One drink, and then you can get back on your way.”

“Thank you, ma’am, but we’ve got everything we need in the truck.”

But Marie wouldn’t give up, not yet. She had a secret reserve, an untainted source of optimism in her, bubbling over so strongly that it pushed doubt into the two men’s heads, before their refusal swooped back to attack the very foundation of her confidence.

“Follow me, I’ve got beer in the kitchen.” She had purchased two cases for when the fridge and everything else were delivered. That’s what deliverymen drank, right? she had asked herself at the grocery store.

The two guys glanced at each other for a quick, wordless huddle, just long enough to realize that the younger of them had figured out a clever way to get out of there without having to drink any beer.

“Not while we’re on duty, ma’am,” he said. He put enough emphasis on the “ma’am” to show that it was non-negotiable. “Goodbye.”

They tipped their caps to her in unison. The older one almost snorted with laughter. “We don’t friggin’ care, and the bitch can’t even tell.” But he just opened the door, while the other one took out the keys to the hatchback.

Who would drink all this beer? She had bought it for them, and what did they do? They came, ripped open their boxes, “‘scuse me, careful, watch out there, miss,” strung their cables, set up their machines, and then they left. So what? Marie thought. She spoke the words out loud, as if she needed to hear her own voice for her thoughts to be real. Sometimes she just whispered, thinking how utterly absurd it was to only be speaking to herself. Couldn’t they chat with her? Couldn’t they tell each other a bit about themselves? No, of course not, they had to carry the armchair in, put the couch down, set the fridge up, and leave, chop chop! Never ever share any kindness, any friendly gestures…ooh, a friendly gesture, and then what?? My god, how alone these people must be, to refuse the smallest bit of conversation, they were so busy, they said, they had no time. She had all the time in the world. Time had never really felt so slow, so long, so unceasingly calm and sumptuously relaxing as it had since she became pregnant, kind of like a very very long vacation.

The beer bottles stood at attention in the vegetable drawer of the refrigerator, sweating icy droplets. Marie thought that maybe she could use them to shampoo her hair, or possibly put a few drops in her crepes. But twelve bottles…it was a lot…hmm. Finally, with a furtive glance, she reached out and snatched one, like a little kid swiping money from her mother’s wallet. Keeping a close watch on the kitchen door, she swept her long brown braid over her shoulder, unscrewed the cap, and tossed the neck of the bottle back into her mouth.

She drank too quickly, huge gulps which brought tears to her eyes. It was so good! Her gullet aaaahed in satisfied delight. A deliciously light buzz washed over her after the first swig. Oh, if Cornélius were to find out…. She knew perfectly well what would happen. He would look at her belly disapprovingly, wondering how the baby would be able to complete its gestation period in peace, what shelter it could find from being bathed in alcohol by the mother being. Marie was just letting the last bitter drops run down the back of her throat, when her husband’s voice called out:

“Maaaariiiie! C’mere!”

She jumped up and rushed to the sink to rinse out the bottle.

“Maaa-rie,” the voice called again, sweeter this time, as if it knew that was the way to make itself heard.

“MA-rie, my only rie,” Cornélius repeated, fully aware of the irresistible love gushing from every word. Marie loved being “his rie,” “his rie-rie,” “his only rie.” It rang in her ears like a lullaby, or a love song.

Marie dusted off her dress, as if trying to scrub away the incriminating smell of beer, and pulled her long braid back onto her chest.

“I’m over here!” she shouted in the emptiness, looking up at the ceiling, smiling her wide smile filled with so much hope for the future.

*

Cornélius

Cornélius was on his hands and knees, chin glued to the floor, his back perfectly level all the way to the promontory of his rear end, which swam in huge pockets of too-big jeans. Armed with a chewed-up pencil stub and a meter stick, he crawled forward, muttering numbers to himself, 4.50, 1.13, which he jotted down on a piece of cardboard that was serving as his notepad. He stood up from time to time for a wider look, a man’s eye view of the room. Yep…lotta work to do.

He had organized his personal pharmacy into a large metal canteen: dozens of vials filled with dangerous liquids of every color, more or less toxic, whispering amongst themselves like pendant drops on a baroque chandelier in a breezy room. He was going to build them a special cabinet which would hang on the wall, chain-linked and padlocked against the children-to-be. His desk would be there in the middle, like so, precisely at the center of the room, and he would put the examination table here, in this corner, hidden behind a screen. And then, of course, he would need to get a separate entrance–he couldn’t receive his patients in the living room–so he would have to cut an opening through the thick, fortress-like wall. Definitely a lot of work to do, he murmured over and over to himself, stroking his beard, and falling progressively into one of those absent periods when he let his mind wander, which could stretch out as long as ten, twenty, even thirty minutes, when Cornélius allowed himself to be hypnotized by the rough rock walls, covered in saltpeter and mildew, by the half-tiled floor–the rest was just packed earth. Little by little, the image of a sparkling, new office, with a desk and exam table, blurred and faded from view, receding into transparency, or blowing away, like a genie or a cloud, out of his head. Whooosh. And there it went, it was gone, and suddenly, Cornélius had no idea what he was doing here anymore, in this godawful cellar.

His fingers combed through his beard, his nice, full beard, colored a homogeneous nut brown, which he liked to think represented its scientific merit. It was pure and unmixed, no stray gray, red, or auburn hairs to be found, a perfect brown foam that matched his hair, a beard worthy of the Good Shepherd. Cornélius would remain fixed on the spot for the next twenty minutes. No sound, save his fingers stroking his beard and the lead of his pencil cracking on the ground. His grip grew slack, and the number-smeared cardboard slipped to the floor, streaking away to hide underneath the drill, behind another box which hadn’t yet been ripped into a notepad. Cornélius would have a devil of a time finding it in his debris-filled construction site.

When he returned to the present, he felt dehydrated, noticed his thick tongue, and blew into the crook of his palm to check his breath. He was thirsty. So he called for Marie. To bring him something to drink. “Maaaariiiie! C’mere!” He called her again, more kindly, because he decided to not just ask her for water from the faucet, but to see if she would squeeze a couple of oranges into a tall glass over ice. “MA-rie, my only rie,” he called in a sing-song voice, before picking up his work again, to transform this dark cellar into his idealistic, fancy doctor’s office, a place to “soothe the body and the soul,” as he liked to say. So he got right back to his measurements, to his balancing act on the floor, his litany of numbers, 3.25 meters, 58 centimeters, and on and on and on.

*

The Others

“Where’s yours again, Véra? I can never remember.”

“I’ve told you a hundred times, the Falkland Islands. FALK-land. Go look it up on a map. It’s so far away that it’s already winter down there. His postcards are useless, let me tell you, they take too long to get here. By the time the mailman gives them to me, it’s all old news. It’s soooo annoying.”

“But postcards aren’t for news, they’re for telling you I love you, I miss you, I’m thinking of you, don’t you think, Julie?”

“Oh, mine never writes to me. He calls me, though. Anyway, I like hearing him say his words better, because he’s so terrible at writing.”

Jacinthe stiffened, swallowing hard. It was the first time she had ever heard Julie say anything critical about her husband.

“Seriously, I’m telling you,” Julie said, “every single word has a mistake in it. Can’t even write three lines straight in a row. He has to be dyslexic, or maybe he’s a leftie who was forced to write with his right hand when he was younger, I dunno. But him and handwriting don’t get along. Vivien, what did I tell you! Don’t stick your fingers in there, that’s tea, you’ll burn yourself.”

Today, Véra, Julie, and Jacinthe were welcoming a new member into their club. All three of them lived in Vivanon. All three of them wore their military husband’s absence around their necks. They lived their daily lives together, at one another’s houses, always yoked together and surrounded by their kids.

Marie had met Julie at market. Market day in Vivanon was basically a weekly head count, although there were more deaths to record than new arrivals. Julie was filling a mesh net stretched between the wheels of her stroller with milk cartons, dozens of milk cartons, all undoubtedly for the child who was sound asleep above them. Each new carton that was loaded in had made him twitch in his sleep. Julie had screeched to a halt in front of Marie’s huge belly, a sort of recognizable sign, the guarantee that they would get along well. She had struck up a conversation, talking to her with all the gentle wisdom of a grandmother. “Oh, you should come, Marie–do you mind if I call you Marie? You should come to my house on Thursday afternoon. You can meet everybody, we’re a little group of girls in Vivanon, we get together a lot. We’ve got to stick together, us girls! It’s great, you’ll see.”

Marie sat up straighter on the sofa. She was intimidated by Véra, a woman with an elegant bun piled high on her head. Witty and authoritarian, she towered a full head and ten years over everyone else in the room. Her large, white teeth showed every time she laughed, and she laughed all the time. Véra had a little game she played with the other two. Just to rile them up, she would often say she was happy that she was alone in the house, that her husband was far far away in the Falklands or wherever with his operations and aircraft carriers, that he only spent five months out of the year in his own bed.

“Do you know what it is?” she asked Marie, pointing her teacup at the large belly. Up until she was asked this question, Marie was happy to sit quietly and observe her surroundings. Vivien, making careful drawings on too-small sheets of paper, smearing the wood floor with markers. A baby in his playpen, not yet recognized as her brother. He was just starting to stand by himself. Sometimes, his jerky movements would randomly set off an excited train engine, decked out with blinking lights and shrill bugle calls.

“No, not yet. My husband does, though, at least he says he does, that he’s guessed it.”

“And?” Jacinthe prompted.

“And he says it’s a boy.”

“What is he, a soothsayer?” Véra teased.

“No, a doctor,” Marie said, straightening her shoulders with pride.

“Oh, so he read the ultrasound.”

“No, he hasn’t, he just guessed it, by himself, without the ultrasound or anything.”

“There are ways you can tell, Véra, you know that: acne, morning sickness, the shape of the belly. I guessed Justine’s gender, y’know.” Jacinthe nodded towards the baby sleeping in the pram.

“Well, you’ve got a fifty percent chance of getting it right,” Véra snapped back. “So, your husband is a doctor, is he? He’ll be opening an office in Vivanon, then.”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“What’s his specialty?” asked Julie.

“He’s a general practitioner. But you could say he has a specialty.” She paused to build up the suspense, knowing the effect her next words would have. “He makes his own medicine.”

“Wow, seriously?” Jacinthe exclaimed. “Like what?” She was suddenly curious, on behalf of her own cuts and scrapes.

“Anything and everything. It’s been eons since I’ve taken an aspirin. He has a natural remedy for every little thing.”

“Even for tonsillitis?”

“And hives?”

“And mumps?”

“And pulmonary embolilies?”

“Pulmonary emboLISM,” Julie snorted. “That’s our Jacinthe for you, she loves flowers,” she added for Marie’s benefit, in a dramatically melodic voice, mimicking a blooming flower with her fingers.

“What about liver cancer, meningitis, and malaria, hmm? And multiple sclerosis??” Véra rattled off all the incurable diseases she knew.

“Is there a cure for multiple sclerosis?” Julie asked, sucking her teaspoon.

“I don’t think so, I think everyone dies from it,” Jacinthe said, shaking her head gravely.

Marie raised her voice a bit. “My husband knows how to heal normal illnesses.” She wanted to pick up the derailed conversation where she had left off. “It doesn’t work every single time, of course, and I’m no doctor, but from what I’ve seen, he takes really good care of people.” She set her teacup back down on the table, proud of the way she had defended Cornélius’ work.

After a long silence, where everyone mulled over this wonderful doctor who had invented medicinal powder, Véra spoke up: “So, does he have a laboratory?”

Marie thought of the packed dirt floor and saltpetered walls of the future office, the dusty stills and retorts…did he really have a laboratory? Umm…hang on a sec, let me think…. That’s when Julie took her by the arm and led her away.

Vivien’s bedroom was a bit too pink for a boy’s room, but a baby sister had eventually justified the color of the walls and the wall-to-wall carpeting. Marie looked at the toys on the floor. She had already bought a few herself, mostly stuffed animals. And, a painted wooden chair, an exact replica of an adult’s chair, which Marie had placed in the middle of the baby’s room. Every time she opened the door to the room, she thought she heard a soft voice saying, “I’m waiting for you.” It was the chair.

Julie practically bounded over to the dresser in excitement, and took out a tiny pair of woolen booties, cinched at the ankle with a blue ribbon. She pressed them into Marie’s hands with a childlike grin that made her neck disappear into her shoulders. Marie swirled her fingers around them, making them dance. They were so, so small. The tied ribbon would be too small for even a young girl’s bracelet. Julie launched into a tour of the nursery, showing her all of the baby clothes, whose names were filled with b’s and p’s tumbling into each other: rompers, jumpers, bunting bags, bodysuits, snapsuits. Marie wanted so badly to mold identical items around her own baby’s body. Buttoning, unbuttoning, dressing, undressing. God, she wanted it so much! Then her life would truly start. And she would be happy. It’s not that she felt unhappy now, of course not, Cornélius took good care of her, but she felt a little empty, or useless, maybe? Her life, her real life, as she called it, would finally begin, in only a few more days. Marie knew that she was born to have children, and her mother had known it, too. “Your babies will slide out from there as easily as a letter into a mailbox,” she would say, feeling her daughter’s large, firm hips. Julie happily closed her hands around Marie’s, which were nestling the little wool booties.

“Keep them. They’re an early baby gift for you.”

“Really?”

“Yes, they’re yours. I hope they’ll bring you as much luck as they did for me. They were Vivien’s, and you can see how big he’s gotten!”

Marie was so happy, she kissed Julie on both cheeks. Only a few more days…

*

In the Nettles

Time to wake up. Not for people, not yet, but for the countryside, for the dusty briar and the cupressus which the morning would soon restore to their tree forms. Dew drops had been sown on the nettles and all along the wild grass, making it sag under the weight. They had gathered on the fuzzy thistle and morning glory. Climbing ants pierced the droplets, drawing them out into horizontal pools. The shimmering coats splashed about, without disturbing or deviating any ants from their acrobatic lines. Every day, same time, same thing…. Except this time, the dewdrops weren’t like raindrops, pure and clear, but a pink bordering on red, closer to drops of blood. As if nature had started bleeding. And the rising sun only heightened this impression. As if the skin of nature itself had started leaking from thousands of tiny scratches.

These blood-dewdrops were thicker in a patch of nettles on the edge of the woods, heavy and dark as red wine. The drops trembled on tooth-edged leaves, struggling to retain their nice pearly shape, round or oval, but they were too heavy, too full, and they all eventually shed their red tears.

That morning, the dewdrops mingled with the still-warm blood from an organ lying on the ground. Pocket-like, filled with a spongy material that oozed hemoglobin, it was already attracting flies. Not the remains of an mauled animal, but the scraps of a life that had just blossomed into being.

Last night, Marie had given birth.

She had delivered the baby in her room, in her own bed, not like her mother, or even her grandmother, but as her great-great-grandmothers and great-great-great-aunts had once done. With Cornélius, the sole medical representative. And it was he, as if he had just helped a cow to drop, he who had thrown the placenta into the nettles.

*

Victor

The pain had disappeared, leaving an overwhelming fatigue that permeated her entire body, all the way to her fingertips. Including, of course, the muscles that you naively think work all by themselves, but whose movements set off a reaction which, in Marie, was like a clock wound much too tightly. She was propped up on the bed by huge pillows, leaning back against the headboard, her head nodding, drawn to the emptiness of sleep. She was completely spent, but refused to fall asleep. She wanted to think. To think about her baby. About the name they had given him. Victor. A beautiful name, don’t you think? Victor. Vict- dreadful anxiety suddenly seized her. She didn’t know if he even looked like a Victor. What if his face was that of a Benjamin? Or a François? And now that he was Victor, they couldn’t change his name ever, it wasn’t like, well, like buying the wrong size shoes, nope, now that they had decided on Victor, it was final.

Oh, if only she could see him! She heard his light breathing, so faint it was like nothing at all, or a cat, or a mouse, but even mice made more noise. He had disappeared into the depths of his cradle. She had made several attempts at getting out of bed, to support the weight of her body with her hands and hoist herself up…. But she felt much too heavy. And just one single movement of her pelvis seemed to rip open a deep would inside of her. And her legs were completely numb.

Last night, her stomach had deflated, drained itself dry. But she felt even more gigantic than before, like she was a stone pillar. A fixed, immovable, stone pillar. “Cornélius,” she called. Then louder: “Cor-NÉ-li-us!” Even louder: “Good God, Cornélius! Cornéliosso!!” And she burst into tears, eyes scrunched shut, fists screwed into her face, which was suddenly soaked with tears and snot. She tried at first to wipe them away with her fingers, then just let them run across her cheeks. The flow of tears dampened her neck, ready to trickle down underneath her nightshirt. The stray dark hairs that had been pulled from her large braid during labor would soon start frizzing up from the moisture. “I wanna see him, I wanna see him,” she hiccupped, swallowing tears and snot and collecting what she couldn’t swallow in the grooves of her fingers squeezed into fists. In an instant, a sudden burst of reason, she opened her eyes and stopped crying, listening for the sounds or silence that would tell her if Cornélius was coming.

Her large dark eyes were ringed with lashes so thick they could have been dipped in tar. Looking out through the glittering veil of salty water, they stopped at the cradle. Marie gathered up all her strength, contracted her spent stomach muscles, her wrung out innards, and cried out ferociously, an animal cry which seared her throat. Like a street performer’s first attempt at swallowing fire, scared of burning his nose or his chin on this flaming creature. She was startled to hear such a wail. Even more startled because the baby himself started wailing.

“Whatever is the matter, angel?” Cornélius stuck his frazzled head through the door. He ran to Marie’s side and kissed her hair, her wet face, her forehead, her nose, her mouth. With his huge, gentle hands, he wiped away her tears, freeing the ones that had pooled in the corners of her eyes. Marie let herself be cuddled like a cat, turning her head, stretching her neck, so that Cornélius would touch her wherever she wanted him to touch her. Her breathing slowed, she swallowed the last of her hiccups and tears. The baby calmed down, too. Finally, she asked her husband, in an almost steady voice, “Give him to me, I haven’t even seen him yet.”

In round, childlike letters, the inscription across the front of his sky blue pajamas read: “You’re the nicest Mommy.” The period had been replaced by one ladybug, while another balanced on the bar of the “n.” Pretty little God’s cows, little fairies watching over my baby. Victor’s legs, accustomed to uterus walls, were still folded up like a sitting frog. A tuft of black hair, which had sprung up very illogically from the top of his head, stuck out every which way. It was there, in the soft, angelic hair, that Marie gave him his first kiss.

She still hadn’t slept. But it didn’t matter. There was no more exhaustion. There was only Victor. She didn’t take her eyes off of him, not for an instant. She had so much to do. Examine every bit of his face, run her finger down the creases on his forehead, feel his chest rising and falling with each breath underneath the sea-blue words, “You’re the nicest Mommy.” Worry over his nightmares, “I’m here, I’m here, my little one,” nightmares that made Marie think that Victor already had a deep understanding of the world, enough to be afraid of it. “I’m here, little one,” she hummed to him, when, for the first time in his extremely brief and extremely significant life, Victor got hungry. Cornélius showed Marie how. He was the one who pulled one malformed breast gently out–the edges of the areola seemed about to burst, under the pressure of the bubbling mother’s milk that would soon flow–so he took it out from underneath her nightshirt and placed the nipple into the newborn’s mouth.

“Look how well he suckles!” she said, proud of herself. Her expression changed from one of perfect happiness to a subtle frown–the most subtle possible, trying to maintain her absolute joy at being a mother, which she would not allow to be weakened by any suffering. “It’s like he’s been suckling all his li- ouch!”

“What’s wrong?” asked Cornélius.

“He’s just sucking so strongly, for such a small thing. Greedy little pig!” She adjusted the infant’s position against her chest. “Oookay, there we go, Victor, that’s better, o-KAY.” But the pain came back, sharp as a white-hot blade. “AAAAH!!” Marie wrenched the baby from her breast and saw her nipple bleeding. She held him at arm’s length, as far away from her as possible, like she was trying to get rid of the pain that had attacked her, and she gave the baby to Cornélius. Marie lifted her eyes towards her husband, clenching her jaw, but letting a whimper, a mournful sound, escape. Why? she seemed to ask him. Why does it hurt so much? She pressed her shirt to her to absorb the blood mixed with her dirty-yellow milk, as the baby’s hunger morphed into rage. He screamed, beating his little arms violently against the air. He had to eat, he had to suckle. There was nothing else to be done, was there?

Marie took Victor back into her arms, brought him back to her chest, slowly, carefully, hoping that everything would go back to normal, a soft and tender normal, a normal woman feeding her normal child. But Victor’s temper only grew worse, he seemed to hate this mother who refused to offer him her breast. It’s not true, you lied to me, you’re not the nicest Mommy. The terrified ladybugs ran around on his pajamas, shaking their heads emphatically, he’s right, Marie, you’re not the nicest, oh, no, you are not the nicest Mommy! Through the rage, twisting his mouth, Marie noticed a miniscule patch of white, twinkling brilliantly with saliva and tears. A small little structure planted in his lower gum. A tooth.

“My God, Cornélius, the baby has a tooth!” She studied him with a curiosity tempered by fear, reaching out to touch the little dagger that had pierced her tit. “That’s…that’s outrageous! A tooth, at his age, not even three hours old…just look at it,” she said, showing him Victor’s ruddy, enraged face, and his mouth with a single tooth planted in his gum, this savage, ravenous animal. Just Victor? No: this was Victor, the armed warrior.

Bios

Astrid Éliard

Astrid Éliard (b. 1981) is a novelist and journalist. She is the author of two novels, Nuits de noces (2010) and Déjà l’automne (2011), both published by Mercure de France.

Allison M. Charette

Allison M. Charette is a translator and writer. In 2013, she won the SAND journal's Found in Translation Competition prize for fiction. She recently helped to found the Emerging Literary Translators' Network in America (ELTNA.org), a support and networking group for early-career translators. She blogs at charettetranslations.com.

Sacrée Marie. Copyright © Mercure de France, 2012. English translation copyright (c) Allison M. Charette, 2014.