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Shortly, very shortly after our daughters were separated from us, and were thrust at such a tender age into infinity, where suddenly they had more in common with the most ancient of the deceased than with their father and mother, close friends predicted: `you will write it.' I felt a shiver of revulsion run through me. To write was to give life some sort of form in order to suffer less. Suffering was the last way in which I could love my children. I wanted to wash myself of this sentence as if it had been an evil spell.
Later, during the course of my campaign against delinquent driving, I was often talked into giving my testimony. But as the years went by a mystery carved itself out: in the happy, active, rich and all-in-all enviable life that I was leading, what imprint had been left by Mathilde and Elise? A few days after their death, trudging through the rain between the towers of the 15th arrondissement of Paris, a friend and I saw a scrawny dog go by, slinking along the walls of the buildings. `You see, even that dog wouldn't want my life,' I said to her, and she closed her eyes for a moment. I would not say that any more now. But then, what would I say?
I have tried to write it, in one form, and then another, for eight years. The more I wrote, the more I felt as if I were lying. Because writing is solitary, whereas I was not. I have never been alone. All the same, I could feel people listening more attentively when I spoke of my two elder daughters. I ended up writing these letters to one of these listeners. I have not checked howaccurate my memories were: they are what is left, not what was.
This friend, a television director and historian, had some idea of work in which I was engaged: reconstituting something from archives, vestiges which needed to be endowed with life, which needed checking to find the truth. Because he paints he was also fully aware of the appalling distance that constantly separates an author from his or her subject. He was close enough (we had met him eight years earlier) and distanced enough (we had not known him when we still had our first two daughters) and he was happy to be sent these letters. He knew that on his support and his reactions, on the least nuance in his remarks, hung the next letter.
One day last summer he pointed out to me that the letters were becoming like a personal diary. It was then that I felt I had finished: I had come back to the life I lead now.
For every human being, the separation inflicted by the death of those without whom we would never have wanted to live is an enigma; I was of course incapable of resolving it, but I wanted to expose its terms. Life is the only way of talking about death, which itself always evades our understanding: so I have talked about my life over a two-year period, as if through a series of sketches in black and white I have drawn a portrait of myself. I could — and would have liked to — pursue this correspondence for another twenty or thirty years. Perhaps I will be able to. But these letters will always be incomplete. Like our family and like our understanding of our fate.
Long ago, I was a student of Bruno Bettelheim. The last time we saw each other was at Santa Monica; he had recently been widowed and was in a state of deep clinical depression. We talked at length. He was so sad! He told me about it. `I know ...' I said and I put my hand on his arm. It was the first time I had touched him. He laughed and shrugged his shoulders: `What do you know, you're so young!' Then he looked at me and said: `Do you see, even though I'm old I want to know if I'm going to get out of this depression and how I'm going to go about it.'
On that point I now resemble my former professor. I live to understand, and I understand to live.
4 December 1991
You never knew our daughters, neither did you know me as I was when they were alive. I will have to tell you everything. Can one really tell someone about very young children? I will not even show you photographs of them. All they show are two little girls, barely distinguishable from each other, just like all the little blond children which people primary school classes and the beaches along the Atlantic coast in the summer. The photographs that I prefer are not necessarily those on which their features are most faithfully reproduced, nor even the most recent, but those which reveal the life we led. In one (I do not know any longer who took it nor where I have put it), Mathilde is two. It is summer, I am pregnant. She is wearing a Greek dress brought back by my mother, I am dressed up in some ample smock. We are neither of us at our best, her straight hair is a bit too long, badly cut, and I have once again let myself get too fat. But we are talking to each other. We are sitting next to each other on the sofa, looking at each other, she is telling me something and I am listening to her, ready to answer, my eyebrows raised. In another photo, in colour this time and taken by Laurent from quite a distance, I am sitting in the shade in the garden as we do in Uzès after lunch. Elise is on my lap; crushed against me and turning her back to the photographer. Over her shoulder I am reading a Tintin book. She is wearing just a little checked swimming costume, I myself am wearing a long Provençal skirt, a flimsy white shirt ordered from a catalogue and espadrilles. I threw that skirt out last summer. But I still have many clothes from that time.
On the 29th of April 1980 the official photographer for the school which my daughters attended came to take some class photographs. They were both dead the next day, indeed we did not receive these photographs until several weeks after the news of our solitude. Mathilde's class is in uniform, so it is a picture of a little girl in navy blue in a row, stifling her giggles in between her best friends. Elise, who was still in the nursery class, is wearing the dress with the sailor collar that my mother gave her. She is sitting in the first row, looking solemnly at the lens. I think that in this picture she is really very like me.
In Mathilde's satchel, which I keep at Uzès, I still have her school overall with her name embroidered on it, with its ink stains and biscuit crumbs in the pockets. In her exercise book, in her childish but careful handwriting, she has written the date which will be the date of her death and the death of her little sister: Wednesday, 30 April 1980.
What else can I tell you? I would like you to have heard me talking to them just once, even if only on the telephone. I feel powerless in trying to make you accept this evidence: they were here, I was their mother. I went to pick them up at school. We stopped at the supermarket to buy two cheap waxed coats, one in red, one in blue, and I dropped them off with my mother, not before playing a practical joke on her on the landing: I bundled my daughters up in the coats with the hoods up, pulled tightly over their noses and tied under their chins. They rang the bell and I hid, and my mother pretended not to recognize them. Then I went home, because I was a speech therapist at the time, and I had patients waiting. My sister-in-law came as intended to pick Mathilde and Elise up to take them to their other grandmother, but they never arrived because they died towards the end of the afternoon, about ten metres from each other, on the side of the Autoroute du Nord. In the meantime, I had spoken to them once more on the telephone.
6 December 1991
I am hesitating about what to write next. There is no common ground between before and after, or at least what they have in common strikes me as just as painful to excavate as the most deeply buried relics of before.
Yes, I am hesitating. I would like to tell you something else about my daughters, putting off the inevitable moment when I will tell you how we learned of their death. You already know about their end but what do you know of their beginnings? When I have told you that one was more blond and slender, the other more athletic and with darker hair and skin, we will be a lot further on! We were living at Auteuil in the apartment that you knew. Sometimes in that neighbourhood I come across a little girl in blue gabardine holding hands with her little sister who is scurrying along beside her: even now I have to look at them to check that it is not Mathilde and Elise.
I am afraid of failing. I am afraid that you will believe more readily in their death than in their lives. I would like it if just once when you are reading my letters, if just once you missed them. If I could achieve that ... A few years ago I still used to drive out into the countryside and bellow at the top of my lungs: `Mathilde!' I was really calling her. It would not have really surprised me if my eldest daughter had appeared in her denim dungarees and her checked shirt at the end of the dirt track. Of course she did not come. At least I had spoken her name once more. Sometimes I meet a little girl who has the same name as her, and I speak it. I say: `Hello, Mathilde, goodbye, Mathilde' with a smile and I think: `Help, help.'
Simone Veil says that if the prisoners said nothing when they were released from concentration camps it was because those around them had no desire to hear their stories. As often as I feel that people have a sincere and kindly-meant curiosity about our story, I also feel their sad indifference to the lives of two children who were no more special than any other you might film in the places that children of four and seven are found: in the square, at the zoo, or queuing up to see a film. A friend who I thought had never known them disabused me: `I saw you one winter's evening crossing the Avenue de Versailles with them.' He had not called out to me so as not to trouble me. He said we had seemed to be so `busy' that he preferred to watch us from a distance. He had lost sight of us as we slipped into the little street of the Les Trois Murat cinema, where we were going to see The Jungle Book. It would be enough if you had just glimpsed me like that, crossing a wide street at night, torn between my anxiety about the traffic and the rush to avoid missing the beginning of the film. It would not matter if you weren't even sure you had recognized me. The most fleeting impression would spare me from having to convince you of the existence of two creatures who did not live long enough to lose more than two milk teeth.
On the eve of that May Day holiday, we were not expecting anyone to call, and the ringing of the telephone awakened no feelings in us. We lifted the receiver without curiosity.
A slight rustling on the line indicated that the call was being made from outside Paris. My sister? No, I knew she was on her way to Paris. An unfamiliar man's voice checked that we were indeed the people he was looking for, then told us to hold the line. The next voice was that of our brother-in-law, Christian, who had left with his wife, their baby and our two girls. We asked him how he was. He said that he was not good at all, that they had had a very serious car accident. We said: `Yes? And?' He told us our two little girls were dead. We thought he was playing a joke on us and then thought no-one would play a joke in such poor taste. Laurent said: `But, Christian, it's not true.' He fell to his knees, calling his children. I asked for news of the others. Everyone was fine. Where did we have to go? `To the hospital in Péronne.' I did not know where it was; Christian gave us a few directions, Laurent knew. We hung up.
I immediately felt how impossible it was to raise myself to the scale of this event. The terror mounted in me out of all proportion to my own dimensions. I could not contain it all. It was expanding and expanding and I was not. I was still this little woman in her little apartment, next to a little man in the same little apartment. The terror targeted us exclusively, we were its only prey, its only destination, the terminus; it was a giant and we were dwarves. Laurent took me by the wrists and asked me not to scream. He said: `To think we're going to have to get over this.'
A big part of us has stayed there for ever. I will tell you what happened next, everything you want to know about what happened next. But at the moment I cannot. Just as then, I am looking for the link between my daughters and that news.
We had to go to Péronne. We could not drive. What did we want to go to Péronne for? What was there there that was of any use to us? The maternal reflexes were working by themselves. My eyes were turning towards the bookshelves where I kept their Health Records. The Health Records! In navy blue! To write what in them? Their school reports? The social security cards? The family record book. There. They would surely need the family record book.
Someone was ringing the doorbell. We made our way to the door, terrified, clinging to each other. It was Christian's mother. She had come to get us with one of her other sons.
We sat ourselves down in the back of their car.
You tell me that I am proceeding in concentric circles. I would like to proceed in eccentric circles! To distance myself from that telephone call taken in our apartment as we were getting ready to go to the cinema. I was looking at myself in the mirror when the telephone rang. For the first time since Elise was born we had let ourselves be convinced: we were going away without the girls for a business trip. I was asking for Laurent's opinion on the blue dress with white polka dots that I had just bought. The door to the girls' room hung open into the hallway we were in, where the telephone was too.
I do not want any part of this account. I picked up the receiver so innocently, do you understand? There was nothing to warn me. I wanted my husband to think I looked pretty in my new dress. That's all.
In the summer I used to take the girls to Noirmoutier where my parents used to take my sister and me at the same age. One day, Mathilde and Nicholas, my sister's son, were playing by the water's edge on one of the `ocean side' beaches, one of those long beaches that people ride along and where you can never get to the end. Walking amongst the dunes we disturbed some nudists, whom Mathilde called dunists. The waves were too big, the shoreline too steep for children who could not yet swim, and the seaweed was congregating into a cloying moving carpet which caressed our ankles disturbingly. Nicholas was leaping in with shrieks of delight while Mathilde stood on the edge, rooted to the spot.
`Come on!' called my nephew.
She did not move.
`Are you frightened of the water?'
`No, I'm not frightened of the water.'
`Are you frightened of the crabs?'
`No, I'm not frightened of the crabs.'
`Are you frightened of the seaweed?'
`No, I'm not frightened of the seaweed.'
`Well, then, what are you afraid of?'
`I'm frightened full stop, that's all.'
Me too, I'm frightened, full stop, that's all. Perhaps I should tell you about these incidents in person, looking at you? I would see from your eyes whether I am communicating to you some of my fear. I would pepper my sentences with: `do you understand?' I would think about each word, I would be discouraged: `I don't know how to tell you this ...'
If you have seen Platoon, you will surely remember this scene: a soldier, a young American recruit, has fallen asleep despite his best efforts while he is on watch. When he wakes up in the night it is misty and he scans the darkness. His friends are asleep. Who lives in that darkness, that fog? Who animates the moist foliage? He is reduced to himself in a country, a climate, a vegetation which are not his own. Danger is upon him, but where and what form does it take? It is war. War is going to come out of the darkness, the mist and the leaves. War is cleaving through the jungle with a rustling of vegetation. He looks and looks. And all of a sudden, the Vietnamese are there. They really are on him.
When that telephone rang, like soldiers caught sleeping on duty, we too scoured the silence of the apartment with our eyes.