They saw him arrive one summer evening.
It was hot, very hot. Man and beast seemed to sleep in the shade of the walls. Wrapped from head to toe, barely able to open an eye, they seemed forever petrified into statues, turned in on themselves, alone in the silence of the high plains. No one suspected, nothing about them suggested they were men except their shape obvious beneath the folds of fabric. It was the color of the earth in which they had worked in the dawn’s coolness, those mild hours that let them earn their bread—hard to imagine the wakeful attention, the watchfulness of these sleeping bodies.
They saw everything; they even heard grass or a stone being lightly touched by a bronze-colored beetle or a young scorpion. They knew.
Not soothsayers, they left that to visionaries who traveled the high plains who recounted what would happen, always the worst, and nothing happened to them, the living—neither good nor bad. The not-so-distant war brought each one misfortune. Enough. Nor were they learned men of science and religion who were expected to pronounce upon future life and divine law for mankind.
They were from this vast, rough country where the wheat that earned them their daily bread still grew. They would never abandon the land. To do what? Why go far except on pilgrimage? But money is scarce. Go beyond the seas? They’ll never go. The sea…if it exists. Childhood tales and peddlers narrated infinite seas beyond the horizon, more infinite than the high plains and more changeable, dangerous too. Poor but loyal, the earth under their feet does not betray them. Those that recognize it know this. They love it.
That evening they expected no one. Neither prodigal son nor departed daughter, having returned only to leave again, always saying she would never leave and the next day she was no longer there. They could only make promises. Why did these daughters and sons, henceforth strangers, think they had to make promises? They asked for nothing other than God’s mercy in their last days and on the Last Judgment Day. They never said it; they had no need to say it, from one to the other, the same wish in secret and in silence. Those leaving for countries that they wanted to know nothing about since they knew too much already about them, and so they said to each other: those people talked a lot. They listened to them, they always had patience, they listened to them, what else did they have to say about these high plains that they had fled, that they continued to flee generation after generation? Deserters, that’s what they think. Their own sons—deserters. Words cannot express, they have nothing to say. Daughters leave their fathers’ house, they don’t desert, it’s better if they don’t come back, a daughter who returns to her father’s house means that the other house wouldn’t keep her. Let fate do its work.
What stranger is crazy enough to choose such a hot day?
The young man—how old could he be, seventeen, eighteen, twenty?—strides long-limbed along the dirt roads. He’s not from here. No one walks like this with long strides, bare-headed, pack slung across his back, empty-handed, alone. Black hair, slicked back, too shiny. From afar they could not make out his eyes. Was one eye light and the other dark? They don’t know, or they’ve forgotten the name for such eyes, it was a long time ago that the woman who had such eyes disappeared—they didn’t know her— it was said she wandered as a vagabond throughout the Atlas Mountains, a witch, whose bleached bones they would certainly find turned to dust near a ravine without anyone caring. If this young man whom they see—they hadn’t raised their eyes but they still see him—has the eyes of the high plains, black, a pair of dark eyes and an even gaze, they’ll be able to speak with him.
The young man notices the shadowy forms against a white wall at the end of the road. Men? Beasts? He stops, he looks, he raises a long delicate hand for shade, a hand that sun and work hadn’t darkened. Nothing moves. He’s met no one since he started walking. He hesitates, turns his back to the white wall, to the crumpled forms.
Returning to his mother’s country, the country where he was born between two wars: no. His mother told him when he was a child, a bastard child: this country doesn’t like bastards; the country of his father doesn’t like bastards. Red dragons on a red box, his mother’s secret. He didn’t want to open it, the box forgotten at the foot of the bed that covers the embroidered peony. His mother is an embroiderer in the homes of women in rich villas guarded by soldiers, in wartime the rich get richer, he doesn’t know how, and the poor stay poor, that’s what he understood. He opened the box. Banknotes—a son doesn’t steal from his mother, under the banknotes, there were photographs. His heart trembled. His mother wouldn’t catch him; she was delivering embroidery work to the wife of a high officer and her friends, the wives of dignitaries, far from the neighborhood and home. He sits down.
At first he sees nothing. As if suddenly he went blind. His vision blurred or was it the photograph in black and white? He doesn’t cry. Why tears? He hasn’t cried since the first beatings on the street, and at school because they called him bastard son of a whore. He hit back, hit back, the boys were scared away, he was the strongest, he no longer got into fights, no one insulted him, he never cried any more. Two photographs. He closes his eyes, making it black and empty, he sees better. A young man, a foreigner, he wears a strange outfit. Puffed pants, broad belt, the flannel wound several times around the waist, embroidered vest, cap on the head. Which colors? His mother will tell him if she knows. Tall, proud carriage, black eyes, looking into the distance. Brown skin. He is doesn’t understand that this man whom he finds handsome is a soldier in the Army of Africa, an Algerian infantryman, and that he fights in the French army for France against his mother’s people. In the second photograph the same man and his mother, at a very young age, he holds her tenderly by the shoulders, she smiles at him they look at each other, they are about to kiss. As if he could see them in color, the man’s pants and vest are ultramarine blue, his cap red like the wide belt that gives him a small waist. His mother’s dress is silky, lilac blue, embroidery around the collar; he recognizes the favorite patterns of the embroiderer.
He said nothing. One day, he saw his mother bustling about the house, he had learned to be patient with her, that day she tore the place apart running from one place to another, the mess surprised him. She didn’t respond to his question, still searching, feverishly and he was worried. He said, “Is it your red box?” “How do you know?” “I know.” “You saw it? You opened it and you saw?” “Yes.” “Where is it?” “At the foot of the bed, on the peonies, in its place.” “Of course, I’m going crazy.” She sat at the edge of the bed, the box on her knees. “Come sit next to me, my son. You should know. You’re not little anymore. You can understand, and first tell me what you saw.” “I saw a man in disguise, standing all alone and another time the same man with you, you aren’t in disguise, you smile, the man leans toward you, it seems he want to kiss you.” “This man is not in disguise, he is a soldier. I’ll explain to you. He comes from far away, very far, you have to cross country after country before his country, I’ll show you on the map, if you have a geography book, we’ll look at it. Before him, I didn’t know the world was so big. My father and grandfather’s house in the village, the surrounding rice fields, the mountains beyond, I had never left our fields or the house before the war. I used to go to the sewing room with the other girls, I wanted to learn how to weave silk, we raised silk worms, haven’t you seen cocoons? They are light, they are soft, one day I’ll show you, we’ll go to the village the two of us. The war destroyed everything. The family scattered, some to the city, others went underground. In Saigon, I worked in a shop with other girls. We slept on a mat at the back of a long room, no bedroom, we washed in a small kitchen, we ate in the shop, we went out chaperoned by the owner’s maid. She was young, our age, we walked in streets where soldiers rested from the war. The maid, a city girl, was less shy than we were. She spoke with the men, we listened without understanding. At the shop, she taught us a few words in the foreign language, she learned fast, we did too. War didn’t stop love. This man in the photos, he is your father. A foreigner. He didn’t look like the other French soldiers. A beautiful voice, he sang in his language a song that rolled along, deep, a song of the wild ravine, I don’t know if you can understand.” “I understand, yes, but…” “I know what you’re going to say, I know. He came with a powerful army to fight against our people, against our freedom, and we, I say ‘we’, our brothers, our fathers, our cousins empty-handed or so badly armed. I know. He was the enemy. That’s what the owner and the other girls said. Not the maid. She was the one who met a friend of your father, from the same country, the same military uniform, less handsome than he was. I knew nothing about your father, I asked nothing, he said nothing. If he had a mother, a father, brothers and sisters, perhaps a wife and son, I’ll never know. He never spoke of the war, death, fear. It was as if he were at peace with me and I was at peace. Who would believe this story?” “I believe you, mother, I believe what you tell me. I am the son of your enemy, of the man you loved and he loved you too, I believe you, mother, and after it was still war?” “The war lasted a long time. Dienbienphu..” Yes, I’ve heard of it…Dienbienphu.” “It was the end and you were born.” “My father?” “Your father abandoned me. He didn’t say he would stay, he didn’t say he would leave with me. I would have followed him. He promised nothing. He left with the infantry, the Army of Africa, the defeated French army, he left.” “And you, mother?” “Me? You were born, I had a son, I was happy. I worked at home until the other war, the American war. In your father’s country, the uprising broke out the year of your birth.” “And my father was still a soldier of France?” “I don’t know about your father. He never wrote. Maybe he didn’t know how to write and there were no public scribes over there? I know nothing. Only his name and the name of his village in the highlands.” “Mother, I want to go to my father’s country. My father is rich from oil. I’ll return with money, you’ll have you house and workshop.” “Go, my son, go. You have my blessing, but I don’t think your father was rich man.”
The son walks towards his father’s village. In his backpack, the photograph of the infantryman standing all alone. You could make him out despite the folds that scored the fragile paper. The shapes against the white wall slowly unfold, one after the other. The men standing upright look at the young man. They talk among themselves in low voices. The foreigner doesn’t walk like the men of the highlands; he comes form the city, which city, which country? From the Far East where men who believed in promises, adventure, rank, went to die. Some came back, it wasn’t the peace, they got the wrong war. Others said no, the blood of their brothers, this time it was no. They had come back with a woman with Asian eyes. This young man walking towards them resembles the children who are no longer children today. The same eyes pulled toward the temples black and shining. The same hair, black and glossy, the same boy, thin and graceful.
Seeing him come towards them, they tell each other that he is the son of the old infantryman. The son from the other East, the Far East. What does this son think he’s going to find? The father is old, poor, landless, not even a small patch to feed his children, too many children, why so many children, and one more son. A military pension, an unfair pension, minuscule, others who fought in the same wars had better pensions, why? What will he do with this extra son?
A few years later, the son is seen wandering the village streets and up to a small village in the highlands where the women feed and dress him. Sometimes he doesn’t want to get dressed. He walks naked among the houses. The men chase him away. He comes back with a thick stick, hitting anyone who comes near him. Except for the old woman at the other end of the village. He eats with her, she gently dresses him in too-large pants and a checked shirt, he rests before disappearing into the steppe.
Beyond seas and worlds, his mother waits for him.
— Trans. from the French by Kathleen Micham and Susan Slyomovics.