The Prisoner

The men turned up at Julia’s in the middle of the night. They came in numbers, five, six, she’s not really sure now, they hammered on her door like maniacs and said you have to come teacher, straight away, Papa’s been arrested, he’s here, two feet away, you have to take him something to eat and clean him up a bit, you know, he’s not a pretty sight, come on. It was the dead of night and that’s what they said, yelled, yapped even, you have to come teacher, making panicked, imploring gestures with their hands. That’s how it happened. The boys were wild, their eyes had a feverish glint, you’d have thought they’d seen the devil. Julia didn’t understand their terror and why, to her own embarrassment, she found herself infected by it. The hunt for Papa had kept everyone on alert for months but it didn’t interest her in the slightest. And it wasn’t what made the men of the hamlet land on her at that hour of the night, either. It was his capture. The hunt, you get used to it, you adapt to it, it gives a certain rhythm to your days, fills your dreams. It’s when it ends that you’re thrown off kilter. There the animal is, suddenly real, nervous and exhausted. Not as big as anticipated. He stinks. He’s no longer an idea being hounded, he’s turned into insomnia, a dead end. Anyway, Julia wasn’t asleep and other people’s worries don’t soften her own. Julia doesn’t sleep anymore. Every night, at around two, three o’clock, she sits up straight in bed and she waits. There is the silence all around, no one left on earth, just Julia with her bitterness and her grief. She unlocks her jaw, lets go of whatever she’s been holding on to all day long, in front of the kids, at the farm, at the grocer’s, in the street, opens the floodgates held back by decorum, by appearances, by lies, and she waits. At best, there are tears. It’s no good, though, anger generally wins out over pain, Julia is full of rage, of hate, it drives her sadness right to the back of the nest, gnaws away at her liver and little by little her reason. Naturally no one suspects, Julia on the outside throws the hounds off-scent and sticks pretty well to the role she’s supposed to be playing. But at home behind closed doors, things are different, for months now she’s been collapsing in a heap and whenever she gets up again, which is a little harder every time, it’s to take her place of a morning on the dais of her classroom in front of the ten or so desks that face her. Julia talks, recites, sings, sermonizes, rewards, explains, sometimes all in one morning and at the same time she’s drowning, and no one knows. Not because of Papa, Julia couldn’t care less about Papa. He’s the least of her worries. She’s read what the local paper has been saying about him, she’s heard the news on the radio, she hasn’t been able to completely ignore what different ones have been telling each other over and over, at the farm, at the grocer’s, in the street, and even in school, the kids as well since Papa has been at the center of everyone’s conversations everywhere for months. But Julia hasn’t managed to throw off her own drama enough to get interested in the drama of some guy on the run accused of every evil. To each his own misery. You’ve got your troubles, I’ve got mine. It’s not selfishness, more like total confusion verging on obsession. Julia has had her share of sorrow, fate has not stinted with her, she has all she needs to be a wreck.

This particular night she took absolutely ages to open the door. You have to come teacher, they cried from the other side. Kids, all, fifteen, sixteen years old, Julia doesn’t know their exact age, she lives surrounded by children. She’s barely older than they are, but learning divides them more than years, the alphabet, arithmetic, school, in a word. Teacher. The mayor is away on business, it is just bad luck that she is the only authority in this godforsaken hole that night. Suddenly everything depends on her, falls to her, she is the only one, apparently, up to the job of getting them out of the mess they’ve got themselves into. Miss, miss… they all but put their hands up. We’re sorry, but you have to come, open up. With all the racket they were making they must have thought Julia slept like the dead. In reality, nothing escaped her, the shouting outside, the shots fired as a sign of victory to make as much noise as possible and show they existed, the sudden flashes through the bedroom blinds. Naturally she heard them, Julia isn’t deaf, it’s just that her head feels as though it’s wrapped in cotton wool, the hubbub outside reaches her from far away, muffled. Too much tumult inside her. The rest doesn’t quite exist, as though the boys had popped up in a sort of dream. Julia, on the other hand, is at the center of an all too raw and bleeding truth. She suffers dutifully while the world recedes, and she no longer wants any part of it. She’d like to disappear, at least for a while, she’s still so young, maybe one day she’ll be put back together again, like new, she sometimes tries to persuade herself into thinking this. Meanwhile, she can see no alternative, apart from the scrapyard, demolition pure and simple. That doesn’t seem too hard since no one even looks at her. There is no reason for anyone to see her.

And then there they all are at her door, which she has ended up opening, their eyes on her bare feet.

Papa, that was their code name for the man they’ve been looking for in the mountains and the surrounding forest and caves for nearly a year. Big game, a big-time criminal. It had become their whole life, the thing their days revolved around, all the boys could talk about was him, the hunt, progress, false hopes, traps. They listened to the wind, read the clouds. Not one of them had seen him. No more than Julia. A few blurred photos, unidentifiable, nothing like, she told herself, it doesn’t mean a thing, especially seeing Papa passed for a master at the art of covering his tracks, had crossed borders disguised as a businessman. His portrait was plastered on every corner, in the offices of guards who thought they saw him everywhere but didn’t recognize him anywhere. Serious rumors maintained that he was in different, diametrically opposed, parts of the planet at the same time. As time went by, the shadow of Papa had taken on frightening proportions and weaved its way into the heart of the community’s fears. They said he’d killed with his bare hands, a lot, often, without remorse. That he raped women, ate children, drank blood. Some swore it. Others wondered if Papa really existed. But for months, for going on a year, the most overwhelming proofs pointed to his presence somewhere near the hamlet on top of the mountain where Julia taught. Peasants’ eyewitness accounts. Confessions extorted from old mates. Denunciations. People will say anything to get a reward, a good mark at school, thought Julia, just to stop their teeth from chattering. Certain nights she hated the place so much she’d dream of setting fire to it. Then she’d calm down, concentrate on the children, the alphabet, conjugating verbs. She’d seen everyday life change overnight. When the boys from the hamlet and from all the neighboring hamlets were suddenly certain that Papa was roaming in the vicinity. Their lives took on a new dimension, a dimension full stop, they felt they’d been entrusted with a mission, the fugitive had to be stopped from getting away, whatever the cost, even if it meant they had to devote their entire existences to it, and they would have loved to, they longed to, it was so good, if Papa hadn’t existed they’d have had to invent him. So, all those months Julia had shut herself away on her own, her compatriots from the hamlet and the surrounding hamlets, on the contrary, had felt the sap rising, snapped out of their lethargy, spluttering like machinery that’s been brought to life again. Their eyes shone. Their tongues wagged. They got up earlier, went to bed later, didn’t miss a moment of this incredibly exhiliarating life, chasing after Papa. They dreamed of him. They wrote him songs, rounds were hummed in his honor, the boys would gather together of an evening after having spent the whole day together to thrash things out a bit more, in secret confabs, building strategies, setting traps. And in the thick cigarette smoke, and among the clinking glasses raised as the hours on guard duty went by, the name Papa would recur over and over again like a nursery rhyme, running endlessly round their heads, droned and slurred lovingly by groggier and groggier voices.

Except that now they had taken him, their whole existence was robbed in one go, a dried-up lake. The boys couldn’t get over it. They were skeptical and disenchanted. The quest was over, they realized this only gradually, in the giddiness that precedes disappointment, there was always someone who could be relied on to come running to say how he’d seen him with his own eyes and touched him, had pinched him, pushed him, jeered at him and even tried to nick his watch, unbelievable, Papa in person, in tatters, run to ground, beaten, head down, a shriveled up little geezer. It’d be good to take photos in broad daylight, tomorrow morning, one of them had said. As proof. They were worried. They were on edge. They’d combed the mountains, sweated blood and tears, gone without sleep for weeks, months. They’d followed a track to the end and then, to general amazement, Papa had come out from behind a bush. He’d said it’s me. I’ve got a bullet in my leg, you’d be better off taking me alive. Simple as that. Whereas he’d always protested he’d never give himself up. It was him all right, though. The boys still couldn’t believe it. Basically, they were even a bit upset about it.

And when they land at Julia’s this particular night, they are wearing the mask of defeat over their faces. Papa’s capitulation is also theirs, in a way.

You have to come teacher.

They’ve taken Papa and they don’t know what to do with him. That’s the truth. Julia is furious. Couldn’t they have thought of that earlier? As though they hadn’t had time to think about it all those months. And what if we catch Papa? They hadn’t once asked themselves that question, not for a second envisaged that they had the slightest chance of succeeding. What the hell did they gabble on about for hours at night on the subject of Papa if they didn’t envisage the possibility of arresting him? Papa was a sacred theme, untouchable, too big for them, they’re kids, peasants, most of them haven’t learned to read. They obey orders. They bend beneath their ignorance and lower their eyes in front of her, teacher. Julia is hardly older than they are yet no one will look at her. She is knowledge, the good, the pure. They never stayed on at school, never had the chance, now it’s too late, you have to feed your family and listen to those who know, who give orders, who happen not to be around that night, sleeping soundly as they are hours away from here, of course we’re going to try and let them know as soon as possible and they’ll say, they’ll decide, we’ll do what they want, but meanwhile Papa is here, he’s hit, thirsty, hungry, he refuses to talk, kicked one of the boys in the head when he made as if to shave off his beard for a laugh. Papa’s right here, just a few meters away, mad as hell and not doing too well according to what this one and that are mumbling as the story gets more and more confused, after months, years of being on the run a man’s not at the top of his form, no matter how solid he is to start with. It’d be really bad if he died in the coming hours, they keep saying to Julia, after all the trouble they’ve gone to, before the bosses arrive and the whole world hears the news. Before they enter into history. They’ve searched him ten times now and checked whether he had anything on him to kill himself with, even if that’s not his style. But it wasn’t his style to give himself up without resisting, either. He can’t be allowed to slip through their fingers, the amazing docility he showed when he was captured might just be an underhand move. So the trick is to hold him in a safe place till morning, securely tied up, locked up, rendered harmless.

And above all alive.

Then someone hit on the idea, they can’t say who or else they don’t dare, of sticking Papa in Julia’s classroom.

You’ve got to come teacher. You’re the only one, adds a little lad with his eyes riveted to the ground, a man is dying. Is letting himself die, he goes on, his forehead red, as though Julia had asked him to recite a poem standing in front of his mates, his arms hanging close to his body.

And Julia, in her dressing gown, which she slipped on without thinking, Julia with her hair held up by a clip and bright red lipstick on her lips, just a reflex before opening the door, a robot on her own doorstep, her arms pressed like a vice against her ice cold body, barefoot, Julia hears them, but she’s not sure she follows. They talk about blood and urgency, saving life, giving first aid. Julia doesn’t understand. She’s not a doctor, or a priest, it’s a case of mistaken identity, and anyway Papa can just go and die for all she cares, can’t they see she’s in pain, she’s the one wounded, the victim, anyone can see that, let them leave her in peace. That’s what Julia would like to say to the boys as she shuts the door in their faces, even though she knows there isn’t a doctor or priest or mayor for miles around, even though she’s tried but she just can’t be be a selfish ogre. Julia is frightened of remorse, her nights are already packed with too many ghosts. They’ve put Papa in her school. At least till morning, they said, while they wait for the bosses, a decision. You have to take him something to drink, to eat, a basin of water to wash himself, there are wounds too, you realize. Us, he won’t talk to us, he refuses to feed himself, to be cleaned up, won’t have anything to do with us, won’t even look at us, for him we don’t exist, but you. A woman. Teacher. You’ve got to hurry, he’s losing blood, he might have decided to chuck in the towel, you never know.

Give me two minutes, I’m not going there in my dressing gown. Julia closes her door again. A man is dying in her classroom, one of the most famous men in the world. And now everything depends on her, this man’s survival, her responsibility in the story, everything is incumbent upon her because no one in the hamlet knows how to control the shakes as well as she does, how to pretend. Julia turned nineteen in the month of July. She’d like to jump out a window and run away herself into the forest. Like Papa. She’d like to scream, rip up her nightgown and show them all her real skin, flayed alive as she is, she’s not far from doing it, her hands are already plucking at the threadbare cotton at her knees, but just at that moment here comes the sonata that she plays night after night, bar after bar, to block out her obsession, the first movement of the Beethoven sonata that makes itself heard somewhere in her body, even though this is really not the moment. She has practiced it hard for months, every night, between swigs of cognac, without pressing the piano keys because of the neighbors, just positioning her fingers, her feet on the pedals. Julia likes doing this since she can’t sleep, tinkling away in silence, drinking in the music, in the privacy of her own four walls. Interminable nights, but right now it’s not a question of playing the piano but of getting dressed in a hurry. Julia has no idea what to put on, it’s the first time she has had such a rendezvous. With a criminal. A man who’s been hurt. Have they tied him up properly, at least?

Quick, the boys are getting agitated on the other side of the door.

If Papa were to die, it would now be her fault.

Julia slips on a dress. Black, shapeless. What could it possibly matter now, Julia isn’t trying to please, isn’t trying anymore at all. Wearing her hair up and putting lipstick on is just to stop herself from completely caving in, to prove she’s not broken for good, there is a faint hope, she’ll get over it. Keeping up appearances, rescuing the image of herself drowning in cognac. Quick. An emergency. A man is dying, is letting himself die, she hadn’t wanted anything anymore, just to give up and melt away, and now this has to come and fall on top of her when she is already reeling, a man is letting himself die and anyone would think it was her fault. She’s still got a bit of yesterday’s soup left with chickpeas and bacon. Julia used to love cooking, before. Before the tragedy. Alright, soup it is. After all those months in the woods, Papa’s not going to be too choosy. A chunk of bread, some herbal tea. A towel and some water, a first-aid kit, he can manage with that, they can’t ask too much of her, expect too much of her, Julia’s only familiar with grazed knees and elbows, an arm broken in the schoolyard once and if she held up then, it was because of the kids. War wounds are a different matter, Papa’s domain. He can bandage his wounds himself, after all, they say he was a doctor, before. Julia’s just a teacher. There is no nurse in the hamlet, there’s no one in this hole, love affairs come to an end and captives die, lives are snuffed out and Julia cries every day after school. In the daytime, no one sees her and at night she clings to Beethoven and cognac. A little glass or two, or three, that can’t hurt, no one knows about it, no one suspects, who has the slightest skerrick of imagination around here? Julia remains respectable, she teaches the children the alphabet, no one would imagine for a moment that she bangs her head against the walls at night. She ought to have played the cello, she suddenly thinks, not the piano, the cello’s an instrument she could have held against her flesh, gripped with her thighs, felt vibrate beneath her fingers, all along her skin, that instrument would not have been separate from her.

That’s more than a couple of minutes teacher, you’ve really got to come now otherwise you’ll find a corpse in your classroom. Why all the drama, men have no sense of reality, all they care about is trophies, their selfishness staggers Julia, they’re not at all worried about sending her into the lion’s den as meat as long as he stays alive, that’s all that matters to them, that he stays alive, at least till morning, when the bosses turn up. Papa would make short work of her, they know that, he’s a killer, a predator who doesn’t have any qualms, and on top of that she’s supposed to hurry up about it, race to martyrdom. No one ever thinks of her. I’m ready, Julia whispers. And she slips her lipstick into her pocket, the bottle of cognac into her shawl. Having got this far. Papa won’t mind having a drink with her.

The night is clear, icy, riddled with stars. Julia is glad she brought her shawl. Because of the altitude it’s always cold in the hamlet, even in summer. But summer is over, it’s already October. Around Julia, the boys are trembling like leaves. She’s the one being taken to the firing squad but they’re the ones whose teeth are chattering, and Julia doubts it’s because of the cold. She doesn’t have the heart to laugh, sadly. She doesn’t have the heart to cry now. She’s not even sure she’s afraid. She couldn’t care less about anything. It’s her turn to obey orders, like a little soldier pushed onto the frontline, one of history’s sacrifices. Basically her life is pretty worthless, it’s been ruined on her or she’s made a mess of it herself, maybe both of the above, Julia doesn’t really know anymore, can’t quite get the distance needed to look back and examine the wreckage from the battle, she’d told herself that one day she’d get there, one day she’d get back in the saddle, even if she didn’t tell herself often, and only ever after a few glasses of cognac, she’d tell herself in the dead of night, I’ll get over this, I’ll start again, I’ll be a new woman, stronger, it will all be behind me, I’ll have come through fire and so it will be the real beginning, I won’t let myself be destroyed. But it’s something like three o’clock in the morning and Julia is walking with the boys toward her school. She is nineteen years old. They’ve arrested Papa and decided that it’s up to Julia to keep him company. They’re going to throw her into the classroom where Papa must be pacing up and down, starving, and see what happens. Julia will serve him as entertainment, he won’t think about escaping. The houses lining the road are silent and black, yet no one is sleeping, Julia is convinced of that. All the local boys are on the street. Outside the school a crowd has gathered. They’re gesticulating, they’re smoking, they’re laughing too loud. They drop their gaze when she arrives. They go down a pitch. They push her into the small schoolyard. Julia lets herself be pushed around. She is utterly convinced at that moment that she should have chosen the cello, an instrument you grab hold of, you hug, she would’ve taken it everywhere, she would even have slept with it, a cello is as good as a man’s body when it comes to presence. It would be with her now, would hold out its hand, whisper to her everything’s going to be alright, don’t worry, I’m here.

But the sonata comes back and it is only for piano, in C sharp minor.

Julia doesn’t like seeing all these boys in her little school, milling outside the gate and in the playground, armed with weapons they’ve dug up, ridiculous tools with exaggerated edges, from peasant’s tackle to kitchen utensils. Julia can’t stop herself thinking of the kids, of what she tries to instill in them, how it would all disintegrate in a second if they could see what was happening now, see reality in this light, their school turned into a prison, a hospice, a kangaroo court, the soldier villagers and their teacher in the middle, a plaything of history, in the grip of madness and alcohol. Never go by appearances, never. In the surrounding houses, let them be sleeping, the kids, Julia prays, let them block their ears and noses, let them shut their eyes like balled fists and think of the day to come. It’s only a nightmare, when they wake, it will all be over. There will be no more blood, hideous trails in the yard, in the little corridor, on the classroom floor, the life of an animal trickling away, emptying, an animal you can follow by its stains, running alongside the desks and right up to the blackboard.

There is blood in Julia’s classroom.

She didn’t see a thing when she stepped in, didn’t pay attention or cock her ear to hear what the men were saying, whether they grunted or muttered something, a bit of advice, a warning, Julia didn’t look at them either, it’s become a habit, you wind up not hearing anymore. Julia was transfixed by this red stuff on the ground, thunderstruck, she couldn’t take her eyes off it despite the disgust, it was a lot worse than she thought it would be, she’s drawn by the horror and the grotesqueness of it, a hunting scene, monstrous, right where the children were sitting the day before, right where they’d come and sit in the morning, the blood of a man who’s been dragged, or who’s crawled on his own as best he could, in the middle of Julia’s geography maps and of her beautiful posters with the alphabet in running writing and capital letters, she couldn’t believe her body, or any of her senses, the sonata in question had cleared off without sticking around for the final chords, and the drama that inhabited her, with it, nothing and no one had come into the classroom with her and Julia found herself in front of the prisoner.

Or rather in front of an amorphous mass, like a big sack someone has thrown on the ground.

A heap of flesh and blood that is perfectly, frighteningly, motionless. In the silence of the classroom, a noisy whistling breaks out in fits and starts, the piercing, high-pitched rasp of breath laboring madly to find a way out. Julia believes at first it is her own. The wounded man is actually dead, Julia is sure of it, why did they send her here, surely not to lay him out, why not embalm him while you’re at it, they wouldn’t have had the nerve. Julia is convinced that these stifled, choking spasms are coming from her own lungs, that’s how much she is shaking, she’s drowning. It is from out of her deepest depths that this nerve-shattering song, like a rusty gate, springs, she wonders what they’ve put in the room, the air’s not the same as usual. Then the penny drops, she thinks, they’ve asphyxiated the prisoner, suffocated him to death and now it’s her turn, her bronchial tubes are contracting and tearing up, her burning bronchial tubes. They’ve set a trap for her and Julia has consented to fall into it. She didn’t resist. From outside, the boys have shut the classroom shutters. Only the overhead light is on, sending out a harsh white light, much more glaring than normal. Except that normally, it’s daytime. This is the first time Julia has been in the classroom in the middle of the night facing a man’s corpse. It is the first time that she really is about to die. A few months earlier, she thought she’d be annihilated by grief, she thought she wouldn’t survive the harm Abel had done her but in the end she’d held on, she’s still holding on, she doesn’t know how but she’s done it, and at this precise moment on the edge of the void she wonders if she really wants to throw in the towel after all. Does she still have time to ask herself that question, it’s too late, Julia would have liked her last thoughts to be for Abel, she believed in the two of them so much, it was inconceivable that there’d be an after, there wasn’t a second of Julia’s days and nights that wasn’t filled to overflowing with him, yet the moment she’s being gassed, the moment it’s all about to end, it’s not Abel that haunts her, or his memory, not even his betrayal, it’s the first movement of Beethoven’s sonata yet again, quasi una fantasia, which she has played over and over again without letup for months. Those sixty-nine bars have kept her alive.

Julia isn’t dying.

The minutes pass, the oppressive glare of the relentlessly white overhead light, the classroom floor streaked with blood, the prisoner as still as a stone, Julia is not dying, the minutes pass and Julia notes with alarm that the being breathing harshly in the room is not her. It’s him. Papa. Is that possible?

They are alone together shut up in here, alone and alive. The prisoner and her.

There’s a sort of puddle, at the end of a trail of red. There’s a man in this puddle, Julia hasn’t looked at him yet, hasn’t looked for him in that ball of hair, combat gear, whiskers, foul flesh. She is petrified, would like to take to her heels, but that seems tricky, Julia’s feet feel like they’re stuck in cement. Whether there is a man or not in the heap breathing at her feet is not her business, she thinks, basically, her business is closed, sorted. It involved bringing the prisoner something to eat and drink, it’s done, mission accomplished. The boys have dragged Papa right up to the blackboard, it looks like they tried to prop him up against it but he must’ve slid down onto the dais, next to Julia’s table. Only his head and shoulders are still leaning against the blackboard wall, the main wall of the classroom. The rest of the prisoner, of his body, is slumped flat on the dais, his hands tied in front of him, and he’s still breathing, he’s whistling, he smells bad. Julia can’t see why she shouldn’t just put everything down at his side, let him work it out. He’s a killer they say, a monster, even if he looks like a man. Why should Julia feel sorry for him, let her emotions get in the way? Julia is going to toss everything on the floor and go home. In spite of the presence of this man in her classroom. She feels sick, and her nausea has nothing to do with being drunk or feeling dizzy through lack of sleep, lack of love. This man still breathing, so painfully, should not be there. He should never have crossed Julia’s path. There is nothing for him to do in her school. It’s awful, she thinks, how her own story is being decided for her. Never, if she’d been asked, would Julia have decreed that one day she’d meet Papa, at the height of his glory and at the end of his race, certainly not at the end of his race. Papa, the rebel icon, shackled at her feet, gasping his last, wretched. Julia wants nothing to do with that story. She has nothing to say to Papa. She’s frightened and she feels sick. There will be no encounter. In a minute, the time it takes to put down what she’s brought, she will turf everything and go back and smash her head in on her piano. The prisoner won’t even have noticed her. Julia will agree to make him a present of her half-bottle of cognac. She has reserves at home.

Julia takes a small step back, a barely perceptible movement. But she hesitates, she can already feel herself wavering. It’s not easy to go, leaving a man behind you. A man in such a state. It’s her classroom, she is necessarily concerned, doesn’t want to wash her hands of it, act like she’s seen nothing heard nothing felt nothing. Julia is paralyzed by fright and doubt. What if the prisoner isn’t Papa? But she knows in her heart of hearts that it’s him all right and that he has not been rendered harmless at all. How can she have found herself in such a situation? It’s night, Julia has no idea what time it might be in the neon of the classroom. She’s two feet from the door. And two feet on the other side is the prisoner breathing painfully and she can’t abandon him like that. Even if he eats her alive. She has to speak to him.


Julia’s tiny little voice. With the racket his lungs are making, the man’s not in danger of hearing her.

“Sir…do you need anything?”

Julia doesn’t dare go any closer. The prisoner’s body petrifies her, his stench, the noise he makes, like an old chimney. She’d like to take action but doesn’t know where to start.

“I’ve brought you something to eat…and drink,” says Julia speaking as loudly as she can without shouting, she doesn’t want the boys to rush into the classroom and start asking her questions. “Did you hear me?”

The prisoner doesn’t move. Julia has done what she could. She’s not about to shake him by the shoulders, touch him. The men said he refused to talk to them. They thought that with her, the teacher, it would be different. Why? She’s one of them, she’s in their camp. Useless to go on acting nice, she’s faced with a wall, a mountain more hostile than the scenery outside, the landscape she was born in, grew up in.

All that’s left for her to do is to clear out.

She’s not altogether sure of having begun to move, maybe she just meant to when the voice of the prisoner stops her dead.


Julia is still hugging what she brought to her. That is surely proof she wasn’t going, despite her fear. She could have, no one would have seen, Papa even less than the others, inert as death, maybe the boys hit him, or else he collapsed with exhaustion. In the forest he didn’t sleep for months, was always on the lookout. That’s how come he heard Julia, despite her silent presence and her heart beating fit to bust. He heard her and saw her, under his greasy mane of hair his eyes sparkle in the darkness. Julia had started to go, to tell herself that it was better that she go, she should have put her soup, her bottle, her first-aid kit down as gently as possible and slipped away toward the exit. Now it’s too late. The prisoner knows she’s there, he’s looking at her, he has spoken to her. No question now of running away, anyway would the boys let her go? They’re quite capable of forcing her to stay. Too late anyway, the prisoner has addressed her, her with her soup still in her hands, how can she not have dropped it, she’s shivering so hard? From helplessness and fright. The prisoner’s voice has frozen her in position. Never has such a voice rung out in this room. Not once has it occurred to Julia that her classroom could define the limits of her whole life. With the drawings, the maps, the memory cards that she tacks up everywhere for the children, cards of French, cards of mathematics, and the last lesson on the blackboard, yesterday’s lesson, not yet rubbed out, Julia’s beautiful handwriting in chalk, her beautiful round full schoolteacher’s handwriting. The interrogative phrase. Is used to put questions. Is written starting with a capital letter and ending with a question mark. May start with a single word (how / why / where / who / what / when) or with a group of words (is it that / what is that) but also with a verb (Will you come over this evening? / Do you still love me?). With inversion of the subject.

It’s only now that Julia notices. The prisoner happens to be slumped under her last lesson. Like a big question mark.

She can’t bear it. Julia isn’t competent, she realizes, this is really beyond her, boys, don’t be cruel, she stops herself from screaming, she’ll have to tell them, she hasn’t been well for months, she manages to lie because she’s well brought-up, and discreet, too, but they can’t be fooled, who in this hamlet at the end of the world doesn’t know what’s happened to her, in every house in this cursed hamlet at the end of the world, and even further afield, even in the forest, the jungle, the scrub, the caves, the ravines, the confines of the human, who doesn’t know about Julia’s personal disaster, why pretend the contrary, even Papa, if that’s who this turns out to be, has heard speak of her tragedy in the middle of the woods and he might get the horrible idea of laughing in her face when he finds out she’s at his feet in the flesh and in all her misery. Imagine Papa having the audacity to make fun of her? That heap of shit that stinks at ten meters, so much so that the classroom will have to be disinfected and scoured from top to bottom to erase all trace of his presence, so much so that it will take days for the school to finally get rid of the smell of cow dung? Because of this jackal, there, lying like a burst balloon. What if he laughed at her? She still has a bit of pride left, could go off the rails at any moment and give him a swift kick in the ribs. When it comes, her violence knows no bounds and appalls her. Julia feels worn out, if they refuse to let her out, she’s going to knock the bloody door down on them, it’s freezing cold in this room and it stinks to high heaven. Julia goes home and no one will be any the wiser, it’s no one’s business but hers, it’s only a matter of a few hours, at daybreak the authorities will be there and they’ll take Papa away, it’s got nothing to do with Julia, what matters to her is to get back to her desks, her chalks, her multiplication tables, to dissolve, to wipe the slate of everything that’s happened this night, she’ll give the place a good airing, a thorough scrub and there’ll be no more reminders, surely you don’t need to be a genius to be able to cancel a few hours of your life, since it’s only a matter of a few hours, no one will even notice.


Who spoke? Who just said that word? Julia reels, spins on a spot the size of a pocket handkerchief, still hasn’t budged an inch, caught up in her dreamworld, struggling to stay upright with her soup and her bottle and her first-aid kit. Just a minute ago she was practically revived, ready to confront the troops, determined to cross swords with anyone who intended to decide for her, firmly convinced she’d abandon the prisoner to his fate which was no concern of hers and had no reason to be linked to hers.

“I’m not here of my own free will, you know,” says Julia, aggressive. “I was forced to come. The men of the village are all on the other side of the door.”

She is flooded with anger. But regrets her words. She’d do better to shut up. Julia puts her soup tureen, her bottle of cognac, her basin of water, her loaf of bread, her tea and her medicine on the ground, brooding like a mad animal, as though she were doing her punctuation. By dint of turning round and round at home at night, going from the alcohol to the piano, from the piano to the alcohol, Julia can no longer tell the difference sometimes between all her voices. She wonders if she wasn’t the one who said that word, who said Miss. She’s not sure now. It’s not out of the question, she does sometimes answer for Abel now he’s no longer there. A lot of people living on their own do that, apparently. But Abel didn’t have a cavernous voice. No more now than before, why speak of him in the past tense, doubtless he hasn’t died. He’s gone. He lives, he eats, her sleeps soundly in his bed. He makes love. Julia doesn’t know this for sure, she imagines it. Even though she doesn’t like to imagine it at all. It makes her go weak in the knees, upsets her bowels. She’s swaying again, can hardly stand anymore. Did she have to go and think of something like that? There she goes, she’s on the ground now, too, on her knees close to the prisoner, to the famous Papa in person. The famous Papa who she didn’t take the time to really look at because he was delivered to her lock, stock and barrel, a lump of exposed concrete, a true work of contemporary art. Julia still hasn’t figured out where his head and his hands are. It’s almost too late now anyway thanks to the trembling that has taken hold of her. She thought at first that it was the idea of Abel making love somewhere in the valley. But, though that idea normally eats away at her, sickens her, it never makes her feel what she’s going through at this precise moment. This terror. Julia is seized with an almighty fear, such as she’s never experienced in all her nineteen years, and it’s only when she raises her head slightly, when she steps outside the perimeter of her small person in spite of herself, drawn by an unbelievable magnetism, that she sees what has struck her down, hurled her to the ground even more powerfully than the hurt caused by Abel. This glance with a cavernous voice inside, the glance the prisoner gives her.


Anne Plantagenet

Anne Plantagenet is the author of two previous novels and biographies of Marilyn Monroe and Manolete. Her latest book was a collection of short stories, Pour des siècles et des siècles, published by Éditions Stock in 2008.

Julie Rose

Julie Rose's many and highly acclaimed translations include Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, André Gorz's Letter to D., Alexandre Dumas's The Knight of Maison-Rouge, Racine's Phèdre, and a host of books and essays by Paul Virilio, as well as works by Jacques Rancière, Chantal Thomas, and others. Her most recent translation is of André Schwarz-Bart's The Morning Star.

Le Prisonnier. Copyright (c) Éditions Stock, 2009. English translation copyright (c) Julie Rose, 2009.