Our prison was encircled by marshland where birds and sick dogs came to die. At night we could hear their cries and death rattles. We could see nothing of the town except its smoke and its dying animals. Prisoners on the second floor watched those washed-out cats and dogs die, lying down then struggling in the mud like birds caught in lime; famished cats jumped on those with gaping wounds and tore them open.
From the cellar where we had been confined for six years, the laughs, the shouts, the curses of the prisoners made us picture those solitary deaths and massacres. Corpses rotted slowly on the mud.
By now my two cellmates resembled rats. We spoke like rats, we walked, we ate like rats. We rotted slowly on the mud of the cellar. At night, black and red insects, cockroaches that were mating in the cavities of the vault fell sleepy, damp and cold on our lips; I no longer screamed. I dreamt of my father who dreaded them, I could hear the crunch the cockroaches made under my father’s feet and his screams at night in the tiled hallway; I could see the glow of the moonlight and the glow of the streetlight on the wire mesh of the larder arouse the dull eye of a hare or a red partridge.
We cleaned our cellar three times a year. We had to take out the dirty water in buckets. After, our damp blankets weighed like heavy soil on our knees and shoulders. The children of the guards came to watch us sleep and eat and threw dead rats and birds through the grating. Sometimes they fell into our bowls. When that happened Hergavault who, in the middle of the night, liked to dip a bit of bread in the leftover juice or soup at the bottom of his bowl, jumped out of bed, ran to the railing, hung on to it, screamed, banged his forehead on the metal while the children moved away, shouting: “Death to the convicts! We don’t want our fathers to touch the convicts!”
The children’s judgment made us blush more than that of honest men. We carried Hergavault to his bed: hand on his forehead, he moaned, calling out to his mother, the men and animals of the farm. Imprisoned at eighteen for the murder of his master’s son, his parents, the tenant farmers, had fed him, washed him, housed him, but never a word, never a cuddle. They toiled all day, eyes fixed on the ground and the back of their animals, ate at night under the lamp and the filthy flytrap, grumbling words barely formed, spitting into the fire, chewing tobacco, moving about between their meagre furniture. Through the black and gold railing he often saw that blond child the governess called Estelle, the master’s daughter. Underneath the park’s larches she watched him from afar pushing his oxen or dragging his horses. He didn’t lower his eyes when they met on the church square on Sundays, but the holes and smell of his clothes and the stiffness of his hair made him feel ashamed. Estelle had a brother three years older than her whom they only saw in summer. Henri never left his sister’s side. When he came back from school, he rushed into her arms and carried her to the front steps. He collected firearms and found it amusing to terrorize the youngsters from the nearby hamlets. One afternoon, their governess came to the farm and asked for Jean-Marie to accompany the two children to the river, they wanted to catch crayfish. The mother, grunting and grumbling, brushed Jean-Marie’s clothes and hair, he left with the governess who, affecting a stern air, didn’t hold him by the hand – but he understood she suffered too from her servitude.
Once at the edge of the water she left them and went to sit nearby under a mulberry bush, holding a book with a pink cover. At the beginning, the children cuddled up to Jean-Marie; they listened attentively – the little girl bit her lips and the boy opened wide his strangely bright eyes – to the explanations he gave them on the way to place the nets – “that’s, of course, if you want to use nets”. Then he leaned over the water. Behind he heard suppressed laughter and right after he was pushed into the bitterly cold water. His shoulder and forehead hit the copper-coloured pebbles and a branch from those bundles the fishermen leave along the rivers at the end of autumn grazed his cheek. He got to his feet again in his soaked clothes, which suddenly felt shabbier; he looked at the two children in close embrace on the riverbank, kissing each other on the mouth with little throaty laughs. He said nothing. A big red bird took off noisily from the dark foliage and the blast of air from its wings chilled his shivering shoulders. On the riverbank, the little boy drew away from his sister’s lips and let out an obscene word. Jean-Marie took fright, ran across the cutting stones, towards the greenery. He climbed up onto the bank, ran once more towards the bushes into which he plunged taking care to close them behind him. Then, in the warm damp shade, his feet on the moss, he took off all his clothes, wrung and hung them on the branches struck by the sun. For an hour, he walked around his den, climbed the young trees, turned his sore shoulder round and round, applied hazelnut leaves to the wound on his cheek and forced himself not to remember his humiliation.
Later, the image of their joined mouths in the green afternoon stirred him, he enjoyed recalling the abandon of the little girl, the way her shoulder fell when her brother held her in his arms. Now, each time he saw Estelle, he lowered his eyes. The memory of the scene at the edge of the water had become very sweet; sometimes he lovingly stroked the scar he had still from that day.
Summer came again and with it the schoolboy buttoned in dark serge with his hard smouldering eyes. For the second time Jean-Marie was ordered to accompany them to the river. He didn’t decline that opportunity to be near Estelle. That afternoon, they submitted him to all kinds of outrages and dressed him up in various ways. They crowned him king of an imaginary country. Water flowed like blood in the summer’s flesh. They caught his head in a net to make him resemble a gladiator. Before him they kissed again. In acts and in gestures he behaved like a lover with her. The governess was reading under the mulberry. The mass of foliage at the edge of the water emitted a stench of death that intoxicated the three of them.
Each summer they played with him like that. He understood much later that they loved one another and a jealousy mixed with disgust formed inside him. Several times she provoked the young peasant, she arranged to meet him and didn’t show up; she went as far as tempting him in his own home, tearing her dress at the shoulder and watching the young man’s gaze on that bit of naked flesh. She made him believe she loved him or rather she fostered in him that fire and that confusion that took over him as he realized he loved a being so sullied. At times he forgot she loved her own brother, he forgot he’d seen them embracing. He wanted to forget those two mouths fraternally joined and he succeeded. With gestures and words she kept him in that half-doubt. But when she was next to him, when she began to surrender, he remembered her as he had seen her in her brother’s arms; he liked her perversity, he liked her body full of madness and he took her roughly.
He carried on working, living in the silence of the blood tie.
The summer Henri and Jean-Marie both reached eighteen, they were often found at the water’s edge. One afternoon they got drunk and had a fight, watched by Estelle. At one point Henri came to her and kissed her on her breast. Jean-Marie, who was in the middle of the river, ran to the bank and slapped Henri. They moved backwards towards the water, fighting. Henri fell. Her head resting on the heated moss, Estelle laughed softly. Henri stood, but the young peasant pushed him back and when he was lying in the shallow water once more, he knelt on him and held his head just below the surface. Henri fought but the other didn’t move any more than Estelle, who was smiling in the sun.
They came for Jean-Marie the next evening.
A prison is the lowest place on earth. Thought is drowned out, one’s back hunched. One grows used to the sordid. One could make love on the beaten earth.
Our clothes are always damp, our hands stick to anything they touch. Water doesn’t wash. As in dreams, everything is muddled, inescapable. A breeze ran through the butchers’ stalls.
Jean-Marie Hergavault sleeps. He dreams out loud. We wait for the cockroaches to fall. We have moved our straw mattresses but they follow our breathing, our breath warms them and they fall. Like a shroud, the icy wind glides through the cellar window and envelops us. Until daybreak we are caught in a cold fever. V., my second companion, is a black from Martinique, imprisoned for theft, rape and blackmail. I can’t hear him breath, his huge torso barely rises. He watches a moonbeam on the beaten earth, and that beam leads, if one follows it back, to the free land, the forest, the water and naked flesh. The negro V. never sleeps. He protects us. When the children throw stones into our cellar, he rises up against the bars, he pumps himself up, stretches his arms and legs, and makes his eyes shine. He speaks little. His mental universe is a green forest, a beach where one bangs beautiful girls with firm bodies and the sea that one crosses to join the army or go to prison.
Jean-Marie Hergavault sleeps with his mouth open. Soon he will wake up and scream, a cockroach between his teeth. Every night he tries to fall asleep with his mouth closed or else open towards the edge of the mattress, he covers his face with his blanket but, no sooner he’s asleep, than he opens his mouth, pushes the blanket away and lies down on his back, arms trailing on either side of the mattress, in the icy mud, legs apart beneath the brown blanket whose folds are traversed by a moonbeam. All day long he fears the moment he will fall into that half-sleep; at bedtime, we see his eyes looking at us like those of a child who’s afraid of nightmares and familiar monsters, but we can do nothing to deliver him from them.
He has woken and he screams. He sits on the edge of his straw mattress, his hand in his mouth. He grabs the cockroach between his fingers, throws it beneath his bare foot and crushes it. Then his whole body begins to tremble, drool comes from between his lips. He grinds his teeth. He growls, he moans. Then he cries and his whole body is shaken by sobs, like a child’s. V., standing in front of him, takes him by the shoulders and settles him back to sleep on his mattress, mumbling the same words, repeated again and again: “Hégavô dodo Hégavôdodo”. He strokes his forehead, wipes the saliva from around his lips with his fingers, makes signs of the cross on his temple.
Close to the cellar window there’s a sudden reverberation of steps, breech sounds and boots scraping the earth; a pebble rolls along my mattress. We keep silent. Animals call to one another in the valley, run far away into the reeds and rushes, animals eat, drag their pittance across the sand of the river. At dawn, insects will crawl over those bits of dead flesh, birds will descend with cries on those shreds already green that the insects and the worms roll over the wet sand. Looking up the sky is pink like wine mixed with water. Out there, peasants tear at the red earth, children pursue one another in the greenery, slingshots in hand. Jean-Marie sleeps now… V. turns over on his mattress. Children, slingshots in hand, chew on acorns.
Jean-Marie was thrown into our cellar. He said nothing for a whole month. Then he turned to V. and they spoke about women. Gradually I felt them becoming intimate, I caught some coarse conversations, winks, obscene gestures, a new softness in their voices when they spoke together. One night, I saw Jean-Marie edging along on his back towards V.’s straw mattress. The latter covered him with his blanket. I closed my eyes, my throat tightened. They saw each other every night, always like that; being bored and deprived of women pushed them to play, then to be depraved. They could assassinate me now, strangle me in my sleep. But I took pity on their distress. The day after, I told them they didn’t need to hide from me.
At the beginning I was ashamed to be mixed in with thieves and murderers. I became despondent five months after I entered prison. I had fits of tears and rage. Then I lived in a state of stupor close to madness. But my guards, with their curses and their abuses revived my courage.
We awaited the catastrophe – earthquake or flood – or the revolution that would give us back our freedom, would make us spring from the earth. But the earth was calm and the men were silent. We spent more time imagining our future freedom than telling each other of our past lives. Each of us chose a different path or took refuge in a far away country, an island, with no money, with no women.
Prison makes one forget money and makes the ugliest of women desirable. The cries of children moved us like those of women. Sometimes our guards slipped some magazines with the soup that Jean-Marie and V. hid under their mattresses. In them were pictures of naked women. Lying down for days on end, they looked at them, slowly turning over the pages, and put the crudest pictures to their lips.
Often, I would have liked to disown myself, and possess a past similar to theirs, to be a thief or a murderer of little girls, like V.
It would have been easier for me to lower myself, to roll in the mud; after, I wouldn’t have been ashamed to look at those pictures and satisfy my lust.
I suffered thus more violently from my virtue than from the absence of freedom. I remembered having ardently desired, as a child, to suffer the same tortures as the martyrs whose lives I read in Latin texts, ardently desired to be sullied by the vomit with which the drunken Romans covered their slaves or burnt by the torches the Merovingian Raullinek had applied for fun to the bellies of his serfs.
I loved life, water, running. Those who reproached me with refusing happiness were well aware of that. More than the others, I knew about the freedom of the body, that childlike freedom of limbs, motions and voice, at the edge of the water in the coolness at the end of the afternoon, when pride moved away like a bad dream.
I am made for silence. Am I the only one to have bad conscience? Am I sick? Am I mad? A humble flute above the scrublands dark with heat, caught the ear, loosened the fingers. I loved you, life, I loved feeling alive.
Under the water, the copper-coloured pebbles looked like suns. Courage was a pleasure, pride a virtue. All those whom I loved were still alive.
The prison guards had their favourite prisoners. To those they gave privileges in exchange for denunciations. As soon as he arrived, Jean-Marie was noticed by the chief guard. He made him come to his place. There, he showed him to his guests. Jean-Marie let them look at him, touch him. He had been ordered to keep on his shabby prisoner’s clothes and the women tentatively stretched their powdered hands towards the cotton garment soiled with dirt, tears, soup and blood. Jean-Marie ate standing up at the edge of the table, answering with grunts the perfidious questions posed by the women. They quivered with pleasure at the sound of his obscenities, his curses, his naïve expressions, the fire in his eyes, the sway of his hips. Then they left, happy to have mixed with the lowest of the low, and several times, he felt one of their hands land on his hip in the darkness of the corridor.
Often, the chief invited only men. He rented the services of a whore in town and stuck her in Jean-Marie’s presence. At first he didn’t dare touch her. But, when he was sure to get away with it, he threw himself on her, tore at her clothes, pushed her onto the tiles and, bearing down on her with his big body deprived of exercises and women, he took her. Around them, the others laughed, pushed him on her with their hands or their feet.
He came back from those evenings drunk and lustful. The guard who accompanied him pushed him onto his mattress, covered in vomit and semen stains. Two or three hours later, we could hear him cry. The stench of his clothes and his skin hit us despite the terrible cold.
The guards were paid very badly by the State, so they used illegal expedients to augment their wages.
After doing their time in solitary confinement, the prisoners were put to work on the prison’s sites. The labour consisted in draining the marshes. In the evenings we could hear the prisoners coming back. Through the cellar window we could see their shoes and the bottoms of their trousers covered in foul-smelling mud and dead insects. We imagined their emaciated faces reddened by fever, their eyelashes and beards caked with sweat and black mud, their eyes and the corners of their mouths seething with midges and maggots; their phalanxes with slugs.
The guards then made the most of the confusion and the rarity of the roll-call to pull the prisoners they had chosen from the lines. They were to hire them out to peasants or builders. First the prisoner thought he was saved and worked with increased zeal, so as to not disappoint the solicitude of his ’protector’. The new master thus took advantage of that feverishness, and everyone got something out of it. At the end of each day of work, the master gave the guard the price for the hire. And, little by little, he took more authority over his clandestine worker; he made him his slave. He had no scruples mistreating him, abusing him, beating him in front of his children.
I was hired out for six months to the owner of the thermal baths. All day, naked to the waist, I ran with towels from one customer to the next in the underground rooms. At the end of the day, my skin was lifeless, soft, it crumbled into white dust as soon as I brushed it. My fingers whitened, my hair and my lashes came away from my skin. Eyes stung, blinded, reddened by steam, I went from room to room, from cabin to cabin, from body to body. I was constantly rushed, doors opened on scowling faces, naked bodies looking, in the steam, like melted bronze and marked by a secret depravity.
In the evening, naked on the mattress in our cellar, I let my body dry in the wind coming through the window. Often, Jean-Marie and V. leaned over me and flapped their hands like fans. On the hottest nights, I slept naked under my blanket but my skin remained clammy.
When I passed in front of the cabins, there was always one that opened furtively and immediately I felt a hand on my shoulder. I freed myself instinctively but the hand held me tight and dragged me to the middle of the cabin. A quick kiss on the cheek or on the corner of my mouth roused me from my torpor, restored me to my anguish. I pushed the man to the back of the cabin, onto the dripping bench, and escaped, my heart and chest beating fast. All day, with slight brushings of the hips, with eyes shining through steam, they made me feel my state and my beauty as a slave. I no longer cried, I no longer clenched my fists. I defended myself out of habit. Time was flowing outside of me.
Jean-Marie was hired out for one year to a brothel where the only clients were men. After, he became ill; in the night sweat poured from his palms, like water into the basin of a fountain. Only V. escaped forced labour. In the evenings, he waited for us, sitting on the edge of his straw mattress, busily scraping the mud from his shoes. Later, he even stopped washing.
We moved from one side of the cellar to the other, foreheads banging on sand flows and the clusters of cockroaches, losing our shoes at each step – they had taken our shoelaces the first day of our confinement.
Jean-Marie thumped his forehead on the wall till it became black and bloodied. V., eyes shining, filled with fever and desire, swung his head from side to side, moaning. I remained nailed to my mattress, forehead and eyelashes covered with that white powder to which soon were added shreds that dried like shavings on the beaten earth.
Like rain on the sea, night fell but we failed to notice.
Here we lived unaware of light, but like animals, we felt the cycle of the seasons on account of the earth. In winter, it was cold and cracked, like sea rocks; in spring, it softened, filled with insects. In summer, dust stuck to our feet. In autumn, our feet slipped.
We ate inside our cellar. The guard passed the food through the grill; we couldn’t wash our tins, except in the bowl of warm greasy water we shared. We kept them dirty. Maggots got in there. Before supper, we scraped the bottom with our nails. Dishes remained in a corner of the cellar, often unfinished, till the next day. We had nothing, not a single bit of wood, not a white stone, nothing clean where we could place the bread, the cheese or the fruit already rotten. On the blanket, they took on the smell of bedbugs; in the hole in the wall, that of dust. We left them on the plate and soon enough, maggots and midges came to live in them.
Here were a multitude of insects and maggots whose names we didn’t know, insect-maggots, midge-caterpillars, larvae, flies, a multitude of creatures without species, shapeless, blood suckers, water suckers, skin suckers. They were familiar to us though, and V. gave them names: air-fleas, Barbary flies, ear-maggots, combat-spiders, soup-caterpillars, skin-wigs, lip-eaters.
Three times a year, if the weather was nice, they let us eat outside. But most of the time, it rained. Many among us stayed in our cells – little by little we had begun to fear contact with free men. In the bright midday sun, there was a rush to the low walls, the tree stumps, the bollards, the corrugated iron sheets. Some carried their tins as far as the wall of the shit hole and ate silently in the freezing sun. Slowly, shouts rose, fights took place. At first the guards let it happen. Then they rushed in with whips and batons. In the evening there was blood on the ground, heads, bones, talons of cocks on the walls, on the stumps, on the corrugated iron sheets, and the moon rummaged through the blood-streaked vomit.
The fugitives were always taken back or they died in the marshes. These were toxic and bristling with traps: boards into which long nails were driven, point upwards, traps for wolves to catch their foot and cut it.
Those who were taken back were not put on trial. Here, captives were at the mercy of the prison chief, an immoral and cruel man who submitted them to every type of torture and victimisation he had witnessed in his military career. He loved dogs. Often, when we worked in the marshes, he would appear with a wolf-dog on either side. To great fits of laughter he would let them loose on us. We ran from one side of the site to the other, throwing mud at the dogs.
There was among us an eighteen year-old murderer who was mute. Each time, the dogs ran towards him, brought him down. At that point, the man shouted an order and the dogs let go of the child who remained lying down in the mud, covered in spit. One day, he tried to escape but he was caught before he could reach the marshes. We didn’t see him for a week. One morning, we were pushed into the yard for roll-call. There was, at one end of that yard, a small shack made of planks where the cooks hung the meat for the guards. The chief arrived before us, escorted by two armed men. He ordered us to kneel and started to speak. He said that the fugitive was going to be killed, that the one who undertook to kill him would have a reduction of his sentence, would be treated better… There was a murmur amongst us. Fists were raised. The guards passed between the rows: “Come on, wake up! You there! … it won’t take long… reduction of time… You’re not going to quake… you, a tough guy!… That little thug has killed his own mother with an axe!” A fine rain was falling. Next to me V., on his knees, was stirring the mud with his hands.
A man edged out from the row. He was pushed towards the chief who congratulated him and patted him on the cheek amicably. The door to the administration building opened suddenly; four armed men dragged out the young murderer. He was struggling, tearing at their clothes, spitting at their faces.
The prison chief ordered his men to lock him in the shack, then he said to the volunteer: “In there you will find everything you need to kill that thug.” The man walked towards the shack then, when he was before the door, he turned round. He was pushed into the shack. We heard noises, the racket of fighting, of clothes being torn; then, above that, the cries of the child, those of a frightened animal; finally a sustained howling that died away with a terrifying death rattle. Jean-Marie grabbed hold of my hand and squeezed it. As the howling diminished, his hand became limp in mine, then it fell away. All we could hear was a thin voice, a frightful wail. Birds flew away from a tree, far away, where the trees were. The mist was disappearing. The men came out of the shack, leaving the door open. The half-naked body, hung on a meat hook, twirled around in the red-tinged darkness. The hook made a gaping wound like a mouth on his throat. The men moved with uneven steps towards the building, clothes and hands spattered with blood. The volunteer crept before them, hiding his head in his hands.
A prisoner shouted, threw himself on the guard, the latter freed himself, hitting back with his butt. Pain nailed us to the ground. Now the guard took it out on the prisoner sprawled in the mud.
The discovery of powerlessness made me impure. Oh my friends, don’t reproach me my melancholy. Criminals, executioners, you are my brothers.
And so we lived in fear and in horror. You can laugh about death, but horror freezes. I remembered having danced and laughed in the face of bullets, but horror turns you inside out, and haunts you and you can’t forget it with tears.
In our cellar, we sometimes played. V. and Jean-Marie fought next to me. Later, I used to join them. Some evenings, all we could do was fight. It was a way to overcome the solitude of our body and the nausea of our mind.
After, we stretched out on our mattresses, breathing deeply, our clothes crumpled, our shoulders sore. The guards cracked the lash of their whips near the cellar window.
After the mute was strangled, the camp went quiet. The cells seemed empty. The guards needed our cries, our insults to carry on guarding us. So they wandered in the corridors, in the courtyards, leaned over the cellar windows hurling abuses, then pretending to mellow in order to provoke a response. But, lying down, collapsed on our mattresses, eyes fixed on the dripping vault, we were haunted.
We no longer slept. One night as I turned towards Jean-Marie, I saw his hand tighten around an imaginary hand then loosen its grip while his mouth twisted and his eyes filled with tears. He was unconsciously making the same gesture as the morning the mute was strangled.
Only forced labour delivered us from ourselves. At night we were deadened. Only an eternal embrace with the disfigured child could have appeased us. All of us, unfortunately, needed to see the executioner. What we couldn’t do with the victim we wanted to do with the executioner. I was alone, I suffered because of him, for him to tell me why he was the executioner.
But, when I was pushed into the office, when I looked at those cold walls, at that table with a cup of steaming tea, when the man stared at me with his weary eyes – from so much horror, I thought – I said nothing. The man however didn’t instruct them to throw me out. He looked at me from head to toe, carefully, and his eyes stopped on mine, and didn’t let up. The cup of tea shone on the wood of the new table and the steam rose, faint, towards the map on the wall. On each side of the bay window two armed men stood, young and impassive, chinstrap stretched beneath their smooth chins.
That cup of tea was the sun of the dusk where the room with its soldiers was sinking. The man took it in his hands and brought it to his lips but he pulled a face and put it down straight away. I had a man in front of me.
I staggered, everything in front of me became blurred. Supported by the two guards, I walked towards the table and the steam of the tea brushed my forehead, the roots of my hair. On each side of the dusk light, the soldiers didn’t move. The man’s forehead was resting on the palm of his hands. There, in the stirring of mud and shadow where only the lashes of the whip brought some light, men came in, bent, muddied, blinded, swollen with water and that man who could do anything was dreaming, the steam of a little cup of tea easing between his eyelashes.
Love is stronger than justice, which proceeds from a guilty desire for order. Justice belongs to God; love, alone, belongs to men too. Have mercy on the righteous ones.
One night, we decide to die. For three days, we stop eating. We try to strangle ourselves with our own hands, we scratch the earth and eat it. V. steals a box of rat poison. We are rats. At night, we share it. The taste is horrible, we try to get rid of it with earth. All night long we writhe in pain on our mattresses. We are dying of thirst and we don’t have water. In the morning, the guard finds us lying down, strewn haphazardly on the beaten earth, covered in our vomit, our mouths swollen.
Never had I felt more like dying than that morning, when the guards lifted us from that delightful mud. Dawn was grey, the light drenched with our vomit, the guards’ faces looked like marble or bronze, their hands clasping our shoulders felt like iron gauntlets.
We toiled all day with that stench on us, vomiting still, our bellies convulsed, shuddering.
In the past, the temptation of suicide often insinuated itself in me after a long period of daydreaming, after a bout of melancholy. Or suddenly at the edge of an inferno, where panic would have pushed me. Temptation was also born of imagined risk.
Oh Lord, if only you could give me part of Your glory.
The seventh year, on the dawn of the sixth day, they let me go. Jean-Marie and V. stayed inside the cellar, now taciturn and sullied. God, help them keep their soul.
I left at night, my head shaved in the evening water, my eyes stinging, my skin forever clammy. In town, nobody turned to look at me. There were other soldiers in the streets. Children in tattered clothes rummaged in a rubbish pile, their bare feet sinking in that many coloured mud. Further down, the river turned slowly under the trees.