A Taste of Eternity, by Gisèle Pineau (an excerpt)

I.

For she who sings
at the crossing of the ways

Lila—her life had been like a small vial that she’d been clutching awkwardly in both hands for a long time. As if she hadn’t known what to do with it, until she began to shake it up. At first just to see the yellow sands settled at the bottom ripple and churn. See the sudden swelling of white waves, delicate lacy walls. Wait for them to come crashing down one after the other following a rain of yellow stars.

Yellow cotton stars hanging in the black sky.

So then she invented a blue horizon, like a theater prop, that she herself had splashed with gouache and then evened out with the nipple of her breast, the tip of her tongue, just out of curiosity, to familiarize herself with the softness, the salty taste of that sky before taking flight.

She often put her eye up to the vial. She saw people there who no longer existed, but whose reflections sent the sound of voices echoing out over and over. Ghostly laughter and crying and screaming. Grave faces from the past asking her to join them popped up at times and then gradually faded away, as earthly lovers do.

One day, the vial slipped between her fingers and shattered into a thousand pieces, releasing the troubled and furious waters of her life.

II.

It was the month of December 1993, just before Christmas. Lila’s funeral.

Hands gripped shovels and threw earth onto her wooden coffin.

Lila, my old white mama, who had confided the underside of her life to me and then left me here alone. Everything she had been was crowding into my mind that day, a bunch of disparate memories in which the essential and the extraneous intermingled. Incredible love-dances that sent arms and legs flying, up – lifted the soul, and turned time around.

 

Lila, how I loved her laughter.

And I’d never grown tired of the wonderful stories she told, tales and lies overlapping, faded truths . . .

“Ha! Ha! Ha! If you only knew, Billy! What a circus it was back in the days of the black market in Paris! If you knew what I went through, Lord! Don’t pay any attention to my wrinkled up skin, my flabby thighs, and my crazy days. I knew a lot of men in my time. . . . Some of them used to get down on their knees before me and lick me all over, and all I had to do was spread my legs and snap my fingers, Lucien, Marcel, and Ferdinand and others who came from so far away, set down upon my path by chance.”

And I loved it when Marcello’s laughter joined in with hers, my son Marcello . . .

 

It was cold. My fingers were freezing despite the leather gloves. Black gloves that Lila had given me not long after I arrived in France. In those days, her closets and drawers, like her mind, were filled with memories. You’d have thought that all she’d ever done was pile up bits and pieces of her life. Never found anything to throw away or lend to anyone before Marcello and I came into her life. At first glance, it all looked like a bunch of innocent souvenirs, just for the sake of appearances, and it didn’t even smell like mothballs. A well-conserved, living, vibrant past that was so exciting it made you want to go back in time in spite of the war. In those moments of confidence, Lila’s tales were lighthearted, told only halfway, simply to impress us, invent parts of her life, make us laugh and cry. For years, she had left the things that really mattered to her—that frightened or wounded her as soon as she thought of them—in dark corners or secret drawers of her dressers. And so to cheer herself up, she’d pull out mountains of old clothes: collections of sequined silk or velvet evening gowns, flannel suits, jazzy shirts, men’s pleated trousers, real fur coats. And boxes of hats, with wide brims, feathers, and veils, berets, pillboxes. Shoes of every color and all periods, crepe, spike, or wedge heels, patent leather pumps, with rounded or pointed toes. Crocodile skin pocketbooks, rhinestone clutch bags, beaded purses . . . When Lila had finished emptying out her closets, had learned to know me, she began to break free from the darkness that terrorized her.

 

On some mornings, she would wake up electrified, her eyes still stitched up with the black threads of some bad dream. She would call up the stairwell: “Billy, Billy! Come down!” And I’d barely stepped through her door when she’d hand me a wad of paper money pulled out of her brassiere, wrinkled, warm, ochre-colored five-hundred franc notes. . . . “Take it, and don’t try to refuse, Billy! It’s for you! For you and Marcello. You know I have no family! And we have to leave him a nice little pile! I don’t want him to be in need later.” And she’d start laughing. If I resisted, her blue eyes would turn into two hard stones, like those set in the rings on a princess’s finger. I wasn’t asking for anything. There was no reason that she should deprive herself for us. I had my job as a nurse at La Salpêtrière; it was enough. I would push her away. But I always ran up against the hard bones of her hands. Once she’d stuffed the bills into my pockets, she’d declare: “Billy, you know perfectly well that you’re all I have left! Silly how one gets attached, even to black people!” Then she’d repeat herself until her tongue got too heavy and could no longer pronounce the word black. Until her jaw got a cramp in it. Until her eyes started watering.

Lila had been married only once in her life, in 1952, to Frédéric Montrevault. They’d lived for three years in a private hotel in the eighth arrondissement. He was a successful businessman. He kept his profits in the bank vault and owned several buildings in Lyons and Paris. When he died, Lila inherited a fortune and came back to her cherished apartment on rue Danton where she had once simply been one of Frédéric’s tenants. Then she began piling up the bits of her life. Her phantoms and her lovers.

“There were gossips that said I only married him for his money. But you’ve got to believe me, Billy! We loved each other as much as we could. He was so kind, you can’t imagine. Back then I was twenty-eight, and he was over sixty-seven. But we married for love, Sybille. And I hope you’ll believe that! Don’t go acting like those people who screwed up their mouths and sniggered when they looked at him. I loved my Frédo! I was his last ray of sunshine . . .”

 

The men who were digging Lila’s grave had red noses because of the cold, and their shoes were ridiculous. They were wearing worn striped T-shirts under their sagging plaid jackets. You’d have thought they were clowns.

Their hands were tending to Lila’s old body for the very last time. And I imagined her, stretched out ice-cold in her box, between the white satin and the purple lace, playing her last role, listening to the shovels of earth thudding in rhythm on the coffin, and smiling as if it were all just a farce. Smiling because she was reading my thoughts. She could see that grief wasn’t keeping me from dreaming of the birds at The Kreyol and of packing my bags.

Two clowns wearing baseball caps backwards who were spying on one another with cigarette stubs in their mouths, stealing furtive glances at each other with the worried look of someone who’s about to have a cream pie thrown in his face or a bucket of water dumped on his head.

I’d been curious about those two from the beginning. Intrigued by them and their red noses, their square hands with dirty, broken nails—they’d never known Lila. They seemed to have escaped from some circus, like lions, tigers, and panthers sometimes do. They were only there to bury Lila, turn death into a joke.

I wasn’t crying. I was standing very straight in front of the grave, stiff with cold and feeling as if I were being orphaned a second time. Alone with my thoughts, the clowns, and Father Michel, who was reciting his prayers. Nice warm words, whispered into the icy wind that formed white plumes, evanescent angels come down to take Lila away.

I felt immaterial myself.

The world had tipped into irreality. The loose earth was flying up in slow motion. The movements of the gravediggers reminded me of a piece of choreography I’d found entertaining one day on television. I saw Lila smiling in her coffin. Smiling at the thousands of birds perched all around on the black branches of the trees. Stripped of their leaves, they seemed to be charred, still standing, but already dead, resuscitated from the days of the bombings that Lila would sometimes call up from her memory.

“You’d have been scared to death had you lived through that, Billy! Paris was no longer Paris! We never knew whether we’d be crippled or arrested or killed before the end of the day! We were hungry, we were frightened. Love was the only thing that enabled us to believe in life . . . and to eat too, Billy . . . You had to eat every day, you can understand that! Love was the only way! I was a naked dancer. I put my body up for sale to buy my topinambours, to buy rutabaga, roasted malt, margarine, and lard. . . . I plied fifty different trades while the people where you come from were belly-dancing bare-breasted under the coconut trees. I held all kinds of odd jobs, Billy! Waitress at the Jacquot Club, seamstress and salesgirl for expensive lingerie at Messaline Dedray, chambermaid at the Hotel Sextus on rue Alfred-Chicot, usherette at the Midi Theater, and also actress, yes ma’am!”

Instead of praying and asking the Lord to take good care of Lila, I was locked into horrible, comical, and fantastic thoughts. Thoughts like perhaps the devil lived in that cemetery and would soon come to take Lila away because she hadn’t been a model of saintliness, had had a blast rolling her ass around in too many beds, loved too many men . . . Like surely the dead would rise up any minute from their graves and grab me too because I wasn’t crying. Like maybe the birds sitting in the branches of the trees were Lila’s past lovers.

My heels were sinking into the snow, and I felt as if I were being pulled backward. And I might well have fallen flat on my back, frozen stiff, just like an old tree, if I hadn’t felt Father Michel’s gaze upon me. Then I signed myself and threw my red rose into the grave.

 

At times, it was always just before midnight, Lila would begin to philosophize. I didn’t like it when she forced me to dine on her theories. She started talking louder and louder and pouring herself huge glasses of whiskey while puffing on Chesterfields. No matter how I tried to order her with my eyes to keep quiet because Marcello was sleeping, and especially to loosen her fingers from around poor Johnny Walker’s neck, she would get herself all fired up and advise me not to let people tell me what to do and run me into the ground. “You’ve got to enjoy yourself, Billy! You’ve only got one life, and it belongs to you! Don’t lose a crumb of it, Billy! I’m not trying to push you into latching on to just anything . . . I’m not advising you to not give anything to others like those rich slobs that won’t give up a penny. Billy, I used to do everything with grandeur and panache! I loved men without restraint and without too much regret. Fear, Billy, you can’t imagine how poisonous it can be. Grandeur and panache— pointless words, you’ll probably say, but they lend a sparkle to one’s memories. And when love comes your way, make the most of it. Nothing in the world can beat it . . .”

In fact, I had the feeling she was going off on a tangent in her little philosophical talk, to avoid bringing up the fragile and sharp things she kept closed up inside, in little vials, small porcelain and crystal vessels sitting on one of the tables of her memory, that she avoided looking at, for fear of awakening their contents.

People had known and loved her in the past. Men especially, because women hated her. Lila was one of those dazzling people who cast a shadow on everyone else as soon as they alight anywhere. Very aged and tarnished, she still held a bit of that light, a light which was at once chilling and bright. She told me about the old days when she was trying to become a thespian and a singer in the midst of the war and how she’d almost become a new Michèle Morgan . . .

“But I loved life too much, Billy! And not discipline . . . You should have seen those poor girls, fresh from their hometowns, hanging around in voice classes backstage at the theaters. In the daytime they worked like slaves for dressmakers or factories. And evenings, they gave each other cues, rehearsed until they were exhausted, and dreamed. They had faith, Billy! They imagined they would act next to the greatest stars, throw their heads back and receive Gabin’s kisses. Some of them were real bitches and double-crossed each other just to land a lousy part as a maid at the Théâtre de la Madeleine, and they waited around for hours at the stage door to slip a note to Guitry. Sacha wrote roles just for me, now that impresses you, eh?”

Sometimes, just for Marcello, Lila would drape herself in curtains or she’d take out her old silk dresses. She’d sing Mistinguett songs, recite whole monologues from plays. Sitting deep in Lila’s red velvet armchair, Marcello was delighted. It’s true that her makeup was outrageous. Lipstick too red that ran over the edges of her very thin lips, black pencil marks in the place of eyebrows that she’d shaved all her life, and her skin that looked like curdled milk covered with pink powder. Gobs of powder so that whenever she passed her reflection in a mirror she could feel as if she were still young and would remain so forever.

Soldiers, captains, lords and lordlings, and lowdown double-crossers had let their hands roam over her, turned her this way and that, hugged and caressed her. She’d loved them all, in her own way, with her heart, with her body.

Not one of them was there on December 15, 1993. Not even Henry who didn’t want to see her in death. So I alone represented the family and friends of Lila’s entire lifetime. And to console myself, I imagined two or three invisible beings praying beside me.

 

“May you rest in peace in your final abode, Elisabeth Louise Montrevault,” Father Michel was saying as he set his wire-rimmed glasses straight. Together we made one last sign of the cross, and then he dusted off the snow that had stuck to his cape. A long black magician’s cape. The clowns were gathering up their shovels in a wheelbarrow. For a second, I thought that Father Michel might take out a magic wand from his cape and resuscitate Lila like in the circus numbers when the girls are cut in two in a box and then jump up whole again, night after night, always to a new, spellbound audience.

 

Night after night, for nearly seventeen years—Marcello’s age today—I dropped in to see Lila, listened to her old sentimental stories, looked for the phantoms that she saw wandering on the roof of the building facing us. Before going up to my place on the third floor, I would stop in on the second.

“Your little Lolo’s got two mamas, doesn’t he, Billy? And I know him better than you do! Marcello’s my son! The two of you are all I’ve got in the world, eh, Billy?”

When he was a baby, she’d keep him at her place all day long. They loved each other. And the year I went to live in Noisy, with Patrick, they phoned each other every day. Lila refused to believe that I’d moved away for good, that I’d taken her Lolo away.

 

“You come back whenever you want to, eh, Billy? I won’t rent the apartment. If things don’t go right with Patrick, if he’s mean to Lolo, just forget it and come on home! Promise me . . . for sure? And don’t forget to call me!”

 

I was back after nine months. She said, “Don’t let it get you down! There’s a man out there waiting for you somewhere. You’ll find him all right. A man made just for you . . . Give him a chance!”

 

Sometimes the light that shone in her eyes would blink out all of a sudden. She’d sit hunched down in her red velvet armchair, utterly still, silent. That’s when the bad memories that were crowding up inside her would suddenly come to the surface, monstrous tentacles gagging and pinning her down. She would just sit there, prostrate, for days on end. Didn’t laugh. Didn’t cry. Petrified, she counted and recounted the stars, the vials, the crystal and porcelain vessels that clinked against one another till they broke in her mind and wounded her heart. When he was very small, Marcello thought she was playing dead. He tried to awaken her, climbed up on her lap, pulled the three perennial hairs that grew on her chin. Lila wouldn’t budge. Her blue eyes were seeing things from another time, people on the roof of the building facing ours, black and white children amidst the pigeons of Paris, scenes from a theater where she’d played, where she’d had a role that had marked her for life. But it was especially the war years that tormented her.

After two or three days, she’d be back among us, exhausted, as if she’d been severely beaten. And there was terror in her eyes, sparks of fear more deeply lodged in her than a long-term illness. At times like that, she couldn’t stand for us to drag our feet or let a chair fall overhead. Marcello and I would put on our slippers and pad about as quietly as cats. Other times, it was the contrary—the silence made her temper flare. Crazed, she would knock hard on the ceiling with an old theater staff . . . “Are you all dead up there? I don’t hear a thing! Anyone home? Heyo, you laid-low Negroes!”

When she came back to her senses, she’d beg Marcello to repeat the cruel words she’d shouted at us. She’d avoid me and start weeping into knotted up dishtowels or worn sweaters or old stockings, letting out little squeaks like a mouse. She’d swear she was so furious at herself she could slit her veins, swallow pills, and spit on herself. She’d assure us that she just couldn’t understand why she’d called us Negroes because she liked black people. To prove it, from one of her albums—always the same one, with dog-eared corners—she’d pull out a picture showing a smiling black man with a soldier’s cap on his head. On the back was written: “1945, Henry, forever . . .” Faut rêver (gotta dream), read Marcello. Lila shook her head and corrected him: “It’s English, pronounce it forévère, it means always . . .” And inspired, she’d go on and force us to decipher and admire stacks of Merry Christmas and Happy New Year cards that handsome Henry, a New Yorker by adoption, had been writing her for nearly fifty years. She’d kiss the picture of Henry, ask our forgiveness a thousand times over, allow us to scrutinize the face in the picture a little longer before carefully putting her relics away. Then she’d disappear into her kitchen and beat egg whites for ages to make a cake of contrition that she’d force us to eat while she sat there wringing her hands.

 

Henry met Lila on the day after the Liberation of Paris. Originally from Saint John, he was one of those English-speaking West Indians living in Guadeloupe, who, having joined the dissident groups, braved the patrol ships from La Jeanne to respond to General de Gaulle’s call to join the Free France movement and discover Europe. When he arrived in Paris, the day after liberation, people already mistook Henry for an American, with his English accent, his easy ways, and his love of chewing gum. At the time, Lila had given up waiting for news of Hans, her wartime sweetheart.

They loved each other for one whole year. But when neither Paris nor Lila wanted anything more to do with him, it was only natural that Henry chose exile in America to build a new life for himself. He’d seen too many countries, too many cadavers too, and he refused to consider the idea of burying himself alive on his island, at Hamilton’s Gardens, where his mother Jenny had worked in the kitchen for years and years. America was a long way away. A long way from the Eiffel Tower and the Arch of Triumph that he held in childish admiration. A long way from the Porte-Bonheur, where Lila sat on his lap for the first time. A long way from her soft warm bed. A long way from regrets and the echo of all the forevers he’d whispered into the small of her back, between her breasts. America! With a dollar you could bet on a lucky star and dream up a fortune.

 

I stuck my hands down into my pockets and pulled out the rosary that Coraline had given me on the day of my Solemn Communion. I’d brought it along to recite “Our Father” and “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners” during Lila’s funeral service. I lifted my head to look for signs in the sky. Heart-shaped clouds, living shapes bringing good tidings. But instead Lila’s death loomed before me, like the walls—grown shabby over the years with graffiti and shreds of posters—that had replaced the sober gray walls of Danton Street, where we lived.

 

Lila passed away six months after our return from America. That morning she’d awakened feeling very fresh, yearning to eat one of the vegetable dishes that Henry prepared in the secret of his restaurant, The Kreyol, in downtown Manhattan. Lila had come back filled with firm resolutions, the need for an inner cleansing, and above all a sudden passion for vegetarian cooking. I think she wanted something with broccoli, brown rice, green peppers, seaweed, and tofu. The doctor examined her daily, but she was convinced that healthy food would save her old heart. She could already see herself getting off the plane in New York to celebrate Christmas with Henry.

She’d promised . . . We’d bought our tickets for New York . . . But Lila had gone off in search of a different sky. She left us on December 15.

***

A writer by passion and a psychiatric nurse by profession, Gisèle Pineau is a French writer with Antillean roots. From children’s literature, to essays, and coffee table books, not to mention novels, Pineau has proven herself to be a versatile writer. The 1993 winner of the Carbet de la Caraïbe prize for La grande drive des esprits [The Drifting of Spirits, 2000], Gisèle Pineau earned accolades with L’espérance macadam (1995) [Macadam dreams, 2003], L’exil selon Julia (1996) [Exile according to Julia, 2003], and L’âme prêtée aux oiseaux (1998). Chair Piment, published by Mercure de France in 2002, received critical praise. Femmes des Antilles: traces et voix: 150 ans après l’abolition de l’esclavage, a reference work written in collaboration with journalist Marie Abraham, is an edifying homage to the struggles and the resistance of Antillean women as hearth and head of their families in a matrifocal society. Les Voyages de Merry Sisal (2015) is Pineau’s latest novel.

Photo by Stéphane Haskell

Photo by Stéphane Haskell

%d bloggers like this: