Rivers of the Unspoilt World

Literature

The following is excerpted from David Constantine’s new collection of stories, Rivers of the Unspoilt World. Constantine has previously published several collections of poetry, two novels, and five collections of short stories. He edited Modern Poetry in Translation for many years. He is also translator of Hölderlin, Brecht, Goethe, Kleist, Michaux and Jaccottet. He is the winner of the Queen’s Medal for Poetry 2020. He lives in Oxford

Fine weather, and daylight lengthening, Victoire (as her mother called her) shopped early, breakfasted, packed a frugal lunch, emailed home, and went down the many stairs to the streets. She loved her lodgings under the eaves but was fearful of being there too long thinking. So she walked, great distances, her Plan de Paris handy by, but only to orientate herself when it was time to halt, eat, then slowly, hoping not to be stopped and questioned, made her way back.

Of course, this strategy would not get the Commune out of her head.To quite a large extent her map of Paris was a map of the first six months of 1871. Outdoors she did not mind that. She noted plaques and memorials new since her last visit; quite often she could have told you where on a particular street the barricade had stood, who had fought and died there and when it fell: on la rue des Dames, Batignolles, Blanche Lefebvre, laundrywoman, 23 May, executed, aged 24, for example. She didn’t walk the streets in search of these places, but came upon them, paused, and set off again.

Faith in life opened and contracted. Some nights waking high above the streets, nearer the constellations, she could believe that for now it was a necessary rhythm.

Walking, Victoire thought a great deal about her mother and father, how proud they were of her and how she would disappoint them. She knew when she spoke to her mother there was anxiety in her voice, once or twice she had been near to saying she might come home. But anxiety was in the air they breathed, in Paris and in Gdańsk. The virus was her cover, so to speak. Stay put for now, among the regulations live as best you can. Friends these days, lovers, families, have frontiers, seas, hemispheres between them. In that situation her crisis was a small circle within the larger one. Masked, with her permit, she sought the freedom of the streets in the city she loved and if she walked them like a ghost, like a spirit in thrall, some days enclosed in a reducing space in the cachot of her thinking head, other days it enlarged, the roof became the infinite sky, the heights around the city were in sunshine, the river ran strong and clean, even the long boats now and then with their bicycles, children, dogs and geraniums passed through serenely going about their business. So faith in life opened and contracted. Some nights waking high above the streets, nearer the constellations, she could believe that for now it was a necessary rhythm, a natural pulse, opening, closing, hope expanding and being confined again in a dwelling no more hospitable than a clenched fist.

But then, middle of May and copious birdsong very near her in the early sun, Victoire woke with terror clutching tight around her heart. She felt for sure that her life in hiding in the safest place had been discovered and surrounded and now in an instant would be bayoneted. True, breath re-entered her when she sat up; true, she could get out of bed and shower and prepare her breakfast with an automatic attention to the ceremony; true, she packed her bag and descended like a living person to the streets—but it was all in a mortal certainty that the crisis had opened fully and that she walked abroad in Paris at its mercy.

Viewed from above, say by a sympathetic angel, Victoire’s walk that day would have been hard to fathom. For it was, quickly and without a pause, a laborious spiraling around a centre—laborious because the wish to coil ever closer to that centre was difficult to pursue through the grid of streets. She was circling, but in a jagged and impeded fashion, almost as though her unconscious intention (she consulted no plan, nor was there any uttered directive in her head) was being benignly thwarted, as though some counter-instinct wished to deflect her towards, if not escape, at least to a postponement. But the spiral pull to the mid-point was the stronger.With no surprise, no relief, no increase of fear, through a monumental gate she entered among the tombs and the criss-crossing avenues of that city-within-the-city Père-Lachaise. A few minutes later, in a dumb accomplishment of the day’s first purpose, she seated herself on a slab opposite the Mur des Fédérés, took off her mask, folded her hands in her lap, and waited.

Is it possible for a human being even for an interlude to have no thoughts? Facing the wall, Victoire came near that vacancy. There were wraiths or miasmas in her head, rising out of some frightful depth, curling, shaping towards things that might have been articulated, but recoiling into the fog. Her eyesight functioned in much the same fashion: all along the base of the wall she could make out the sprawling dead, but unclearly, in the sort of mist you see over meadows and marshland some early promising mornings soundlessly, in lovely slow whirlings, shaping, unshaping, in a movement that had only the appearance of progressing, the motion all being upwards, out of the earth into the air’s lowest stratum where they rolled like surf but in silence and not advancing. She saw the bare feet of the dead, their soiled pallor, as in dreams and in too much meditation she had seen them often before, so wanting comfort and so beyond all comfort. Then was it nothing new? She had spiraled as though summoned to this centre and for nothing new? Hopelessness rose in her. She felt herself to be a living thing rooted in harm, forever drawing up not sustenance but malefaction which through the bloodways and their infinite small branchings infected her body and soul. She shuddered, and clutched with both hands at her heart.

The wall cleared. It stood in sunlight. Victoire became aware of the singing of birds. Two children came onto the set, the stage, a boy of perhaps ten or eleven, a girl about half that age, hand in hand they entered from the left. This was a theatre she had not seen since childhood. She watched spellbound, wholly believing. At first she supposed them to be brother and sister—both were black—but soon noticed their difference in complexion and facial features and hair. Red roses, as almost always and especially in May, were lying along the base of the wall and wreaths of immortelles hung on the face of it. Midway the little girl, in a white dress and her hair tied back in bunches with red ribbons, stooped and picked up a rose. Only then did Victoire realize they must for some while have had her in view. And now they turned to face her. The girl was serene and smiling over a secret intention. The boy, in soft blue-grey trousers and a long- sleeved shirt, had a face which was helplessly open, nothing he thought and felt would be kept from exposure in such a face. The girl handed him the rose, glanced Victoire’s way, and nudged at him with her shoulder. He shook his head. She nudged him again, harder, and signalled with her head what she commanded him to do. It seemed he would have to screw up all his courage and the little girl knew that and for his own good she was putting him to the test. He drew a deep breath and almost at a run came before Victoire sitting there entranced on her sepulchral slab. Bowing his head, so as not to show his face or look into hers, clumsily he held up the rose for her to accept. She took it, he stepped three or four paces back, she began to smile, began to say a fit thank-you to him and the girl who stood still at the wall radiant with delight at the courteous brave thing she had made him do. But holding the rose, regarding it in wonder, the rose and the children, the so serious boy, the so delighted girl, contemplating the flower, the children, the wall, very suddenly as never in her life before, never in any desolation in childhood or girlhood or in her adult life, she was broken open by weeping, she shook with it, and dropping the gift and not covering her face with her hands, she clutched her own shoulders tight, rocked to and fro and wept, wept, as if become the source into daylight and lovely sunlight of all the bitter waters that lie in a lake of cold blackness under the earth. The boy’s face showed an unmanageable terror, he turned and ran back to his companion who was staring in blank incomprehension at the rose on the ground and a grown woman, an adult, a creature there to look after you, weeping without end, shuddering and clutching her own shoulders as though if she let go she would fall to bits, weeping and showing the children all her horror and sadness and shame in her far too open face. Hand in hand, they fled. The terror left her, the shaking ceased, she sat in the May sunshine as cold as any stone monument and the one feeling in her, so thoroughly in her she felt it would be her one state from now on, was shame. She masked her face.The rose lay at her feet. She reached for it and went and laid it back among the others under the wall. She was not a fit person for the children’s gift. Then following that wall, which was the vast cemetery’s eastern perimeter, very slowly and fearfully, guilty fugitive seeking escape, she came to the southern gate.

There stood the children and between them, holding their hands, a woman of about Victoire’s age, Middle-Eastern in her appearance, her dark eyes showing above a pretty mask. The three stood facing her in silence. Victoire showed the palms of her hands. Je vous demande pardon, she said. The woman answered, with smiling serious eyes, Ça ne va pas, tu souffres. Her French was accented, as was Victoire’s, being that of a native speaker in another country. Victoire shrugged. She said, I have no excuse. I frightened these children. I am more sorry than I can say. Forgive me.The little girl was smiling. The boy had a wariness in his open face which seemed to Victoire the very mark of her fault.We have to go now, said the woman. This is Donatien, this is Félicité, my name is Jiyan. Will you come tomorrow where the children found you today? About 12? We can talk if you like or just stroll around if you prefer. Agreed? Victoire nodded. My name is Victoire, she said. But lately I have wished it was something else.

*

See here, Victoire said to the children, see what I’ve got for you. She opened her rucksack. Félicité came close, Donatien kept his distance. Now cup your hands and close your eyes. The girl did so, the boy hid his face and peeped through his fingers.Victoire tipped seven black-red cherries into Félicité’s trusting palms. Now you can look.The gift showed in her face as a flare of joy. She turned to the boy behind her and said, Close your eyes, Donatien, and cup your hands. And for her he did and she let loose the cherries into that proffered bowl. Proud of herself, Félicité turned smiling to Victoire—who selected two pairs from the bag and fitted one and then the other over her ears.There, she said, that looks pretty. But you’ll have to walk like a princess or they’ll fall off. And now let me fill your hands. With caution and ceremony then the children walked to the far end of the wall and sat down in the sun.

Perhaps he’ll never quite trust a grown-up, said Jiyan. Even if he makes it to being one himself, I can imagine him always wanting to be only with children. I don’t know much about the Commune, she said. Nearly nothing, in fact. And I know too much, said Victoire. Some days and nights it seems to me that’s all I know. The women were masked, sitting where Victoire had sat the day before, turning to face one another across a little distance, the open bag of cherries on the stone between them. I got it from my mother and father, she said. A lot of Poles fought for the Commune. They had a history of fighting for freedom, their own and other people’s, by then. My father claimed to be a descendant of Auguste Okołowicz, best known for climbing the July Column on 26 March 1871 and planting the red flag in the hand of the Spirit of Liberty, left or right, I’m not sure which. He’s buried against the western wall, behind us, scores of tombs between us and him. He lived twenty years after the bloodbath. My mother—she’s French—named me after Victoire Tynaire who married a businessman and had six children. The education of children was her passion. Under the Commune, briefly, she was an inspector of schools, very set on ridding them of the priests. In the last week she and her husband went from one barricade to the next, tending the wounded. When it was finished, her concierge betrayed her to the killers, her husband came looking for her, they let her go and shot him instead. She also wrote novels. Tell me, where did Félicité come from? She came to the Foyer six months ago, Jiyan answered. The Sister who brought her couldn’t or wouldn’t say how she got to be with them. But they named her. The Sister said her radiance was a miracle and our Director said, Well, that’s very nice, I’m sure. And so it is, said Jiyan, very nice. I’ll tell you properly about Donatien when you’re a bit stronger. But for now I’ll just say that a policeman brought him in—from the Catacombs, he said. I think we should be going now. And you’ll have things to do. I’m not sure I have anymore, said Victoire.Where is the Foyer? Métro Jourdain, said Jiyan. That’s very near me, said Victoire. Would you like to come to the Buttes Chaumont? And let me make a proper picnic. Tomorrow? By the lake? Around noon? Jiyan nodded and smiled. That gives me time to help the children with their lessons. I’ll go now, said Victoire, suddenly anxious. Say goodbye to them for me. The cherries are for the three of you.

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Excerpted from Rivers of the Unspoilt World by David Constantine. Copyright © by David Constantine. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Comma Press. 

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