On the Sand

Chapter 1

I had been driving past the dune for a while already when suddenly I saw the flames. They reached across the dark sky, leaving no sign of what they might be devouring with such frenzy. I had no idea where I was; for over an hour I’d been driving aimlessly. I must have been near one of those beaches that I had not visited yet, that were too far off my routine itineraries through this temporary place. Since I had left Paris, I was no longer at home anywhere. And in any event, I did not want to be at home.

I stood motionless for several minutes watching the strange spectacle. Sparks flew up from the inferno and vanished immediately mid-flight. A light the color of blood gradually flooded the sky, magnificent. So I opened the car door, and was met by a blast of hot air. I don’t know why I didn’t just continue my wandering, or why I did not go for help. I crossed the road and began to climb up the dune, keeping clear of the blaze; its quiet roar veiled the sound of the ocean. My feet sank into the burning sand. As I went closer, the roar of the fire intensified. When I reached the top of the dune, I could see the beach, red and trembling in the heat. Then, before my very eyes,  the roof caved in, a slow collapse of great beauty. I began to run to go back to my car, but a man’s voice called out, It’s all right! I turned my head, he was sitting on the sand, tranquil. I thought perhaps he had escaped the worst, and that he wanted to reassure me as he recovered from the emotion. But he stood up, came closer, and said quite confidently, It’s nothing, just my little war, it’s all over, I’ve got the better of them, come and sit down.

I did not try to run away, I was not afraid of the man despite his enigmatic words. I think it was his little war that from the start created a sort of intimacy between us, or something of that nature, something that was not unlike my own nocturnal roving that I could not defeat. Every night I would feel forced to go out, to go around in circles wherever I might be and only return at daybreak, exhausted. It had lasted for nearly two weeks, already; I had often changed hotels and finally decided to head back to Paris the very next day.

I did not resist his request, we sat side by side not far from the waves that brought a slight chill. Why didn’t I try to escape-but on the other hand, would I have been able to, if he had tried to prevent me? Might he have thought of it? He inspired no fear in me, he talked persistently about the moment he had finally reached, the disappearance of a house that seemed to have played a particular role in his life, and against which, no doubt for a long time now, he had been waging his little war. Occasionally his speech was incoherent, and I gradually lapsed into the hypnotic effect it exerted, until very soon I was no longer altogether present, I was there and I was elsewhere, the way you are when a shock sends you into an artificial absence, a parenthesis. I thought that he and I were like two survivors of a catastrophe, two shipwrecked souls each trying to awake from a nightmare. Everything was drifting away around us, I was losing my grip, I no longer knew very clearly what chain of events had driven me onto this beach, or at least I wasn’t very sure anymore, I even wondered whether in some way or another I might not bear my small share of the blame, too. Dazed by drowsiness, perhaps I drove off the road, crashed into the house, and caused the fire? If I had been required to provide a precise account of my presence there, at that time, with this stranger, I would have been capable of signing any declaration, accepting any version of the facts, taking it all on myself, perhaps. I recall that state between waking and sleeping, a very gentle sensation of being detached from reality. I heard his almost uninterrupted litany, I paid no attention to the meaning of his words. I did retain a few of them, they drifted between us and came back around, incessantly, like a leitmotiv:  Sunday…the summer…the young girl who drowned. I could not understand what connection there might be between the Sunday drowning he was referring to, and the fire. Evidently there was one, and I would soon find out what it was and discover that it was not the only one, because this house that he did not own, and where, I would find out later, he had never even lived, seemed to be the exclusive arena of private tragedies that would soon be reduced to ashes.

The fire had lost none of its violence, slithering up the crimsoned dune, now an enraged volcano spitting its lava. A few embers rolled onto the beach and died slowly at our feet. The beauty of the scene transfixed me and from time to time it left the man silent. I heard the ocean then, gradually coming closer. Soon it would enclose us between the waves and the inferno.

Would you like me to drive you anywhere? I asked.

He stared at the flames, which suddenly flared brightly, making cracking sounds, small explosions. Walls and stairways disintegrated with a groan. He answered that he had to stay here, and that he would like to keep me there by him.

I thought about Bernier, then, I saw the two of us again in the café on the rue Custine where I had come to tell him that I was leaving and that, as a result, we had to break up. I waited for words like the ones that this man had just uttered, this man who was nothing to me. Bernier and I had shared some beautiful moments together, after all, memorable breakfasts on coffee and croissants above the roofs of Paris, in that room he rented at the Petit Savoyard. To my great disappointment, he got up and left the café without a word. Sometimes roles are miscast, no doubt that is the cause of a great many misunderstandings. I watched through the window as he walked away and dissolved into the night. I was left in the uncertainty of separation, the confusion of an intense desire to have done with boredom, with the end of love, and regretting the torment which both can offer.

Will you stay a bit longer? insisted the man. Did the end of his little war leave him in unbearable solitude? Did he feel the same dizziness that had overcome me in the café on the rue Custine, that had made me want to run after Bernier whom I wanted to call Boudot-Lamotte, once again, tenderly, the way I had the first days after we had met?

I’ll stay a moment longer, I said, thinking that I might be committing myself to an unspecified length of time that might upset everything I had been trying to put in place for several days. But, on the other hand, at last something was happening. Since the Petit Savoyard and the café on the rue Custine, no one had spoken a word to me-not that I had made any effort to start up a conversation. From time to time I would read aloud, just to feel an inner vibration, to make sure that my body had not been hollowed out by my unspeaking silence.

There was a long silence, and I almost went back on my decision:  I would apologize and come up with some pretext to leave. I couldn’t find anything. Today, I must conclude that I quite simply did not want to leave, or that perhaps I was already on my gentle slope, and I must follow it where it went.

I sat down, not daring to look at him, and I waited.


Michèle Lesbre

Born in 1947 in Poitiers, Michèle Lesbre was a schoolteacher for several years before deciding to take up writing. She published detective novels until 2001, when she published her first work of literary fiction, Nina, par hasard. Since then she has published Boléro (Actes Sud, 2003), Un certain Felloni (Actes Sud, 2004), La petite trotteuse (Sabine Wespieser Editeur, 2005), and Le canapé rouge (Sabine Wespieser Editeur, 2007), which was a finalist for the Goncourt Prize and translated into eight languages.

Alison Anderson

Alison Anderson has translated many books from French, including works by JMG Le Clezio and Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog. She is also the author of two novels, Hidden Latitudes and Darwin's Wink. She lives in a village by Lake Geneva in Switzerland.

Sur le sable. Copyright (c) Sabine Wespieser editeur, 2009. English translation copyright (c) Alison Anderson, 2010.