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BREAK OF DAY
Translated from the French by Enid McLeod
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Copyright © 1989 Martin Secker and Warburg, Ltd..
All rights reserved.
"You ask me to come and spend a week with you, which means I would be near my daughter, whom I adore. You who live with her know how rarely I see her, how much her presence delights me, and I'm touched that you should ask me to come and see her. All the same I'm not going to accept your kind invitation, for the time being at any rate. The reason is that my pink cactus is probably going to flower. It's a very rare plant I've been given, and I'm told that in our climate it flowers only once every four years. Now, I am already a very old woman, and if I went away when my pink cactus is about to flower, I am certain I shouldn't see it flower again.
"So I beg you, Sir, to accept my sincere thanks and my regrets, together with my kind regards."
This note, signed "Sidonie Colette, née Landoy", was written by my mother to one of my husbands, the second. A year later she died, at the age of seventy-seven,
Whenever I feel myself inferior to everything about me, threatened by my own mediocrity, frightened by the discovery that a muscle is losing its strength, a desire its power or a pain the keen edge of its bite, I can still hold up my head and say to myself: "I am the daughter of the woman who wrote that letterthat letter and so many more that I have kept. This one tells me in ten lines that at the age of seventy-six she was planning journeys and undertaking them, but that waiting for the possible bursting into bloom of a tropical flower held everything up and silenced even her heart, made for love. I am the daughter of a woman who, in a mean, close-fisted, confined little place, opened her village home to stray cats, tramps and pregnant servant-girls. I am the daughter of a woman who many a time, when she was in despair at not having enough money for others, ran through the wind-whipped snow to cry from door to door, at the houses of the rich, that a child had just been born in a poverty-stricken home to parents whose feeble, empty hands had no swaddling clothes for it. Let me not forget that I am the daughter of a woman who bent her head, trembling, between the blades of a cactus, her wrinkled face full of ecstasy over the promise of a flower, a woman who herself never ceased to flower, untiringly, during three quarters of a century."
Now that little by little I am beginning to age, and little by little taking on her likeness in the mirror, I wonder whether, if she were to return, she would recognise me for her daughter, in spite of the resemblance of our features. She might if she came back at break of day and found me up and alert in a sleeping world, awake as she used to be, and I often am, before everyone.
Before almost everyone, O my chaste, serene ghost! But you wouldn't find me in a blue apron with pockets full of grain for the fowls, nor with secateurs or a wooden pail. Up before almost everyone, but half-naked in a fluttering wrap hastily slipped on, standing at my door which had admitted a nightly visitor, my arms trembling with passion and shieldinglet me hide myself for shame!the shadow, the thin shadow of a man.
"Stand aside and let me see," my beloved ghost would say. "Why, isn't what you're embracing my pink cactus, that has survived me? How amazingly it's grown and changed! But now that I look into your face, my child, I recognise it. I recognise it by your agitation, by your air of waiting, by the devotion in your outspread hands, by the beating of your heart and your suppressed cry, by the growing daylight all about you, yes, I recognise, I lay claim to all of that. Stay where you are, don't hide, and may you both be left in peace, you and the man you're embracing, for I see that he is in truth my pink cactus, that has at last consented to flower."
Is this house going to be my last? I weigh it up and listen to it during that short private night that enwraps us, here in the Midi, immediately after the hour of noon. The cicadas creak and so does the new wattle fencing that shelters the terrace, a nameless insect is crushing tiny grits between its shards, the reddish bird in the pine tree calls every ten seconds, and the west wind, circling watchfully round my wails, leaves unruffled the flat, dense, hard sea, whose harsh blue will soften towards nightfall.
Is this house going to be my last, the one that will find me faithful, the one I shall never leave again? It is so ordinary that it could have no rivals.
I hear the clink of the bottles being carried to the well from which they will be pulled up, cooled, for dinner to-night. One of them, red-currant pink, will accompany the green melon; the other, a sand-grown wine, amber-coloured and over-generous, goes with the salad of tomatoes, pimentos and onions soaked in oil, and with the ripe fruit. After dinner I mustn't forget to irrigate the little runnels that surround the melons, and to water by hand the balsams, phlox and dahlias, and the young tangerine trees, which haven't yet got roots long enough to drink unaided in the depths of the earth, nor strength to break into leaf without help, under the steady scorching of the heavens. The young tangerine trees, planted ... for whom? I don't know. Perhaps for me. The cats will spring sideways at the moths when by ten the air is blue as a morning glory. The pair of Japanese hens, perching drowsily on the arm of a rustic armchair, will chirp like birds in a nest. The dogs, already far away from this world, will be thinking of the coming dawn, and I shall have the choice of a book, bed, or the coast road studded with fluting toads.
To-morrow I shall surprise the red dawn on the tamarisks wet with salty dew, and on the mock bamboos where a pearl hangs at the tip of each blue lance. The coast road that leads up from the night, the mist and the sea; then a bath, work and rest. How simple everything could be! Can it be that I have attained here what one never starts a second time? Everything is much as it was in the first years of my life, and little by little I recognise the road back. The way my country house has grown smaller, the cats, the aged bitch, my sense of wonder and a serenity whose breath I can feel from far offa merciful moisture, a promise of healing rain hanging over my still-stormy lifeall these help me to recognise it. Many stretches of the road have been completed and left behind. A castle inhabited for a moment has melted into the distance, replaced by this little house. Properties scattered over France have dwindled little by little in response to a wish that in times past I never dared to put into words. How wonderfully confident and vital must that past have been to inspire even the lowly guardian angels of the present: the servitors who have once again become humble and competent. The housemaid adores digging and the cook soaps the linen in the wash-house. Does there then exist here on earth a kitchen-garden path where I can retrace my own footsteps, a path I thought I should never follow again except on the other side of life? Is that maternal ghost, in the old-fashioned dress of blue sateen, filling the watering-cans on the edge of the well? This coolness of spray, this sweet enticement, this provincial spirit, in short this innocence, isn't all this the charm of declining years? How simple everthing has become! Everything, even to the second place that I sometimes lay opposite my own on the shady table.
A second place doesn't take much room now: a green plate, a thick antique glass, slightly cloudy. If I say that it is to be taken away for good, no pernicious blast will blow suddenly from the horizon to make my hair stand on end and alter the direction of my life, as once it did. If that place is removed from my table I shall still eat with appetite. There is no longer any mystery, no longer a serpent coiled under the napkin ringed, to distinguish it from mine, with a brass lyre which once held in place, at the top of a music-stand of the last century, the loose pages of a score where only the down-beats were marked, spaced at intervals as regular as tears. This place belongs to the friend who comes and goes, and no longer to a master of the house given to treading the resounding boards of a bedroom up above during the night. On days when the plate, the glass and the lyre are not in front of me, I am merely alone, and not abandoned. Now that my friends are reassured about that, they trust me.
Very few, only two or three, remain of those friends who in former days thought they saw me going under in my first shipwreck: for I honestly thought so myself and said as much to them. To these, one by one, death is bringing rest. I have friends who are younger, and in particular younger than I. I instinctively like to acquire and store up what looks like outlasting me. I have not caused such great torments to these, at most a few cares: "There now, He's going to spoil her for us again.... How long is He going to remain so important?" They would speculate on the outcome of the disease, its crises and its temperature chart: "A dangerous typhoid or a mild rash? Confound the woman, why does she always manage to catch such serious complaints!" My true friends have always given me that supreme proof of devotion, a spontaneous aversion for the man I loved. "And what if this one disappears too, what a lot of trouble it will give us, what a job to help her recover her balance!"
But at bottom they never grumbled greatlyvery much the other waywhen they saw me coming back to them overheated by the struggle, licking my wounds, counting my tactical errors, revelling in being biased, heaping crimes on the enemy who defies me, then whitewashing him out of all measure, then secretly hugging his letters and pictures: "He was charming ... I ought to have ... I ought not to have ..." Then reason would return, bringing with it the calm that I do not like and my belatedly courteous, belatedly reserved silence which is, I really believe, the worst moment of all. Such is the routine of suffering, like the habitual clumsiness of those in love, and the compulsion which makes every couple innocently poison their home life.
Then is that militant life, that I thought I should never see the last of, over and done with? I have nothing left now but my dreams with which to revive from time to time a dead love, by which I mean love purged of its brief and localised pleasures. Sometimes it happens that in a dream one of my loves begins again with an indescribable noise, a tumult of words, of looks that can be interpreted in two or three contradictory ways, of demands. Without any break or transition, the same dream ends in an exam in decimal fractions for the lower certificate. And if when I wake the pillow under the nape of my neck is a bit damp, it is because of the lower certificate. "A second longer and I should have failed in the oral", stammers memory, still caught in the toils. "Ah, that look he had in my dream! Who? The highest common factor? No, of course not, He, He when he used to spy on me through the window, to see if I had deceived him. But it wasn't He, it was ... was it?" The light mounts, forcibly enlarging the gilded green field of vision between my eyelids. "Was it He, or else ...? I'm sure it's at least seven o'clockif it's seven it's too late to water the auberginesthe sun is on them. And why, before I woke, didn't I brandish under his nose that letter in which he promised me peace, friendship, a better mutual knowledge of ourselves and ... it's the first time I've got up so late this whole season." For to dream, and then to return to reality, only means that our scruples suffer a change of place and significance.
A little wing of light is beating between the two shutters, touching with irregular pulsations the wall or the long heavy table where we write or read or play, that eternal table that has come back from Brittany, as I have come back. Sometimes the wing of light is pink on the pink-washed wall, and sometimes blue on the blue cotton Moroccan rug. Dressers stacked with books, armchairs and chests of drawers have made a roundabout journey with me over fifteen years, through two or three French provinces. Elegant armchairs with tapering arms, countrified like peasant girls with delicate limbs, yellow plates that sing like bells when you rub them with your finger, dishes of thick white glazewe are all astonished to find ourselves back in a country that is our own. For is not the house of my father and my grandparents on the Mourillon, fifty miles from here? It is true that other regions have cradled me, and some of them roughly. A woman lays claim to as many native lands as she has had happy loves. She is born, too, under every sky where she has recovered from the pain of loving. By that reckoning this blue salt shore, bright with tomatoes and pimentos, is doubly mine. How rich it is, and what a lot of time I've spent not knowing of it! The air is light, the grapes ripen so quickly that they are dried and wrinkled on the vine by the sun, the garlic is highly flavoured. That noble bareness that thirst sometimes confers on the soil, the refined idleness that one learns from a frugal peoplefor me these are late-discovered riches. But let me not complain. My maturity is the right time for them. My angular youth would have bled at the touch of the striated, mica-spangled rocks, the forked pine-needles, the agave, the spines of the sea-urchin, the bitter, sticky cistus and the fig tree, the underside of whose every leaf is a wild beast's tongue. What a country! The invader endows it with villas and garages, with motorcars and dance-halls built to look like Mas. The barbarians from the north parcel out the land, speculate and deforest, and that is certainly a great pity. But during the course of the centuries how many ravishers have not fallen in love with such a captive? They arrive plotting to ruin her, stop suddenly and listen to her breathing in her sleep, and then, turning silent and respectful, they softly shut the gate in the fence. Submissive to your wishes, Provence, they fasten on your vine-leaf crown again, replant the pine tree and the fig, sow the variegated melon and have no other desire, Beauty, than to serve you and enjoy it.
The others will inevitably abandon you. Once upon a time they would have dishonoured you. But one horde more or less doesn't matter to you. Those who have come on the strength of a casino, an hotel or a post-card will leave you. They will flee, burnt and bitten by your wind white with dust. Keep your lovers, who drink water from the pitcher and the dry wine that ripens in the sand; keep those who pour oil religiously and turn away their heads when they pass in front of dead animals; keep those who rise early and lull themselves asleep in bed in the evening to the faint chugging of the pleasure-boats in the bay. Keep me....
The ripening colour of the half-light marks the end of my siesta. The prostrate cat will now for a certainty stretch herself to a phenomenal length, produce from her body a front paw whose exact length no one knows, and say, with a yawn like a flower: "It's long past four o'clock." The first motor-car is not far off, rolling on its little cloud of dust towards the shore; others will follow it. One of them will stop for a moment at the gate, and out of it there will pour on to the path, amid the feathery shade of the mimosas, men-friends without their wives and women-friends with their lovers. I haven't yet got to the point of shutting my gate in their faces and baring my teeth behind it. But the tone of my cordiality, familiar but cold, does not deceive them, and keeps them in check. The men like my dwelling, without a master; they like its smell, its doors with no locks. Some of the women say, with an air of sudden ecstasy: "Oh, what a paradise!" and secretly tot up all it lacks. But both the women and the men appreciate the patience with which I, who have no projects of my own, listen to theirs. They are "mad about this country", they want "a very simple little farm", or to build "a mas on this headland above the sea, by Jove, what a view!" At that point I become charming because I listen and say: "Yes, yes." For I do not covet the field alongside, I am not buying my neighbour's vineyard, and I'm not "adding a wing". There's always one of my comrades who eyes my vines, walks from the house to the sea without going up or down a step, returns and concludes: "The long and the short of it is that this property, just as it is, suits you perfectly."
Excerpted from BREAK OF DAY by Colette. Copyright © 1989 by Martin Secker and Warburg, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.