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June 7, 2007

The Stolen Pigeons — by Marguerite Duras


The old Bousque woman always arrived precipitously, as if she were short on time.

From Bugues, you could see her head rising in the distance, above the hedge of medlar trees that separated our land from that of her children. A narrow path crossed through this hedge, and at the opening was a little hill that she ascended and descended as nimbly as a young woman. Then she continued along a row of artichoke plants, her head bowed, always at that dramatic pace. It was as if she couldn’t slow down without falling.

Her body was bent at the waist, thanks to the long winter afternoons she spent leaning over her fire, and her thin arms slid back and forth like the pendulums of a clock; they seemed too long now, even though they’d succumbed to the same shrinkage as the rest of her body. The poor old Bousque woman. She had become so small, at the end of her life, that she was barely taller than the artichoke plants.

Every time we saw her, we said, “Look, here comes the old Bousque woman.”

And every time we were surprised, as if the event were surprising for its very regularity.

Well before she arrived, she’d call out a friendly word with what little voice she had left, which was shrill and rasping. And we’d respond at the top of our lungs, as if she were deaf.

We never left off work in order to speak or listen to her—she simply came over to us and quite naturally began to help with whatever we were doing, all while talking away, telling some story.

Sometimes, however, she’d take me aside and murmur to me what she didn’t dare say out loud: “Tell me, when do you think you’ll be leaving?”

Because she liked us very much, she lived in fear that we would leave the area before she died. We had returned from far away, so far away that she didn’t even know exactly where, but she did know that a warm wind now blew through the pines of Bugues, comforting her old bones and giving her, at her advanced age, which was well past seventy-five, her fill of fantasy and intrigue, as well as her only real opportunity to go beyond the village. The friends of her youth were all more or less invalids now and were happier without her company. It has to be said that the old Bousque woman, as old as she was, had not become pious with age, an unusual state of affairs in this part of the country. You saw her only at Midnight Mass, because she liked nighttime, as well as celebrations, and as much as you liked her you couldn’t help disapproving a little. She was the first person in the entire area to venture our way, to create a bond with people like us, who had come back to Bugues after so many years of abandonment.

Despite her incredible ignorance, her mind was still sharp, and filled with a pure form of curiosity. People were a little afraid of her, as one is afraid of those whose vision is clear and who retain everything, as one is afraid of life, with its inspirations, its unfathomable poetry. Which is why people chose to call her a gossip, when she was really a fantasist. My mother had more respect for her than for anyone else around.

For us children, she came with the evening, which carried us back to the house, but she was also the old woman we locked our doors against, protecting ourselves from a night that she seemed to bewitch. Only her eyes were still intensely alive, in a face slashed with wrinkles, each one lined with a deep black furrow. Still, that extraordinary face was the only thing about her that was old, and it seemed that she’d never die—she had adapted so well to the years. But something awful did happen to her; it was the kind of story that she herself would surely have enjoyed telling, if it hadn’t nailed her down forever.

It was at this fountain that her daughter-in-law, Jeanne Bousque, quenched her thirst.

Jeanne hadn’t had, so to speak, a real childhood. Hers had been spent in a feverish wait for some power of her own; her marriage had given her back neither those lost years nor her joy. Still, she ruled in her house, and because she had been for so long unable to exert her authority over her own family, she now exerted it beyond all reason over the family of her husband. There were only four of them—the old woman, Jeanne, her husband, Louis, and their son, Jean—and the victory was a little hollow, to tell the truth. But what did that matter! So long as in the eyes of the village she was now viewed as the mistress of the house.

You should have seen her toying with the old Bousque woman as if she were a child! The old woman was much too clever to get angry about it, since she knew that her son would never dare to side with her over his wife; nor would her grandson—he was only fourteen and had other things on his mind. So she cheerfully accepted her role in the household. But it was precisely her good mood, which nothing could subdue, that wounded the vanity of her daughter-in-law; it was as if the old woman were the only one who could make Jeanne question her own standing.

From year to year, Jeanne’s tone with the old woman became sharper. She looked at her with wild eyes, her face eaten away by who knows what despair.

If you had seen that little old woman, so lovable, so easy to take, you could never have imagined anyone hating her in that way!

[via the April 16, 2007 New Yorker]

June 7, 2007 at 12:01 PM | Permalink


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