A sepia photo, oval, pasted on the yellowed cardboard of a booklet, shows a baby perched in three-quarter profile on a stack of scalloped cushions. It is dressed in an embroidered shirt, with just one loop, a wide one, on which a large bow is attached a bit behind the shoulder, like a large flower or the wings of a giant butterfly. A tall baby, not very plump, legs spread, reaching to the edge of the table. Beneath the roll of brown hair over the domed forehead, it stares wide-eyed with almost burning intensity. Its arms, open like a doll’s, seem to be fidgeting. The baby looks as if it is going to jump. Above the photo, the signature of the photographer ? Monsieur Ridel, Lillebonne ? whose intertwined initials also adorn the upper left corner of the cover, which is very dirty, with the pages loose and half coming apart.
When I was little I thought ? they must have told me ? that it was me. It is not me, it is you.
Yet there was another photo of me, taken by the same photographer, on the same table, brown hair similarly in a roll, but I appeared chubby, with eyes set into a round face, one hand between my thighs. I don’t remember being puzzled then by the obvious difference between the two photos.
Around All Saints Day I go to the Yvetot Cemetery to put flowers on both graves. The parents’ and yours. From one year to the next I forget the exact location but find my bearings thanks to the tall, very white cross on top of your grave, just beside theirs, visible from the central path. I set down a different-coloured chrysanthemum on each, and at times some heather on yours; I thrust the pot into the gravel of the planter, dug for that purpose at the foot of the stone.
I don’t know if people think a lot in front of graves. In front of the parents’, I linger for a moment. It’s as if I were telling them “here I am,” and about how I got on in the past year, what I did, wrote, hoped to write. Then I go over to yours, to the right, I look at the stone; each time I read the inscription in large gilt letters ? too shiny ? crudely redone in the nineties above the old ones that are smaller, illegible now. The monumental mason took it upon himself to eliminate half of the original inscription, leaving beneath your first and last name just the words “Died on Holy Thursday 1938.” Those words are what also struck me the first time I saw your grave. Like proof of God’s choice and your saintliness inscribed in stone. In the twenty-five years I’ve been visiting the graves, I have never had anything to say to you.
According to civil status you are my sister. You have the same last name as mine, my “maiden name,” Duchesne. In the parents’ official family record book, practically in tatters, under the heading Birth and Death of Children issued from Marriage, we appear beneath one another. You on top with two stamps from the City of Lillebonne (Seine-Inférieure), me with just one ? the space for my death will be filled out inside another booklet, the one attesting that I produced a family, with another name.
But you are not my sister; you never have been. We didn’t play, eat, or sleep together. I never touched you, kissed you. I don’t know the colour of your eyes. I never saw you. You have no body, no voice; you’re just a flat image in a few black and white photographs. I have no memory of you. You had already been dead for two and a half years when I was born. You are the child from heaven, the invisible little girl they never spoke about, absent from all conversations. The secret.
You have always been dead. You were dead when you entered my life the summer I was ten. Born and dead in a story, like Bonnie, Scarlett and Rhett’s little girl in Gone with the Wind.
The scene of the story takes place during vacation in 1950, the last summer of playing from morning to evening: cousins, some local girls and girls from the city vacationing in Yvetot. We played store, grown-ups; we made houses in the many outbuildings in the yard of my parents’ store with bottle crates, boxes, and old fabric. We took turns singing, standing on the swing, You Are My Sunshine and Buttons and Bows, like on the radio talent show. We slipped away to pick blackberries. Our parents said boys were off-limits, on the pretext that they preferred rough games. In the evening we parted ways, dirty as pigs. I washed my arms and legs, happy to begin again the next day. The following year the girls had all scattered or had quarrelled; I was bored and all I did was read.
I would like to keep on describing that vacation, to delay. Telling the story of this story means breaking with the vagueness of a real-experience, like deciding to develop a roll of film left in a cupboard for sixty years.
It is a late Sunday afternoon at the beginning of the narrow road that runs behind my parents’ grocery and café, rue de l’École, named for a private kindergarten here at the beginning of the century, near the small garden of roses and dahlias protected by high wire fencing that runs along the wall above a bank of weeds. On the other side, a thick, high hedge. For I’m not sure how long, my mother has been deep in conversation with a young woman from Le Havre spending her vacation with her four-year-old daughter at her in-laws, the S family, whose house is a dozen meters further down rue de l’École. She has probably come out of the store, which never closed back then, to continue chatting with her customer. I play near them with the little girl, Mireille; we run after and catch each other. I don’t know what alerted me, perhaps my mother’s voice, softer all of a sudden. I began to listen to her, as if I were no longer breathing.
I cannot reconstruct her story, but the content and sentences that lasted through the years to today extended over all my life as a child in an instant like a silent flame without heat, while I continued to dance and twirl beside her, head lowered to arouse no suspicion.
[Here it seems to me that the words open up a twilight zone, strike me and it’s over.]
She tells her they had a daughter other than me who died of diphtheria at age six, before the war, in Lillebonne. She describes the membranes in the throat and the breathlessness. She says: she died like a little saint
she quotes the words you said before you died: I am going to see the Holy Virgin and Lord Jesus
she says my husband was wild when he found you dead when he returned from work at the refineries in Port-Jérôme
she says it isn’t the same as losing your companion
she says of me she doesn’t know anything, we didn’t want to make her sad
At the end, she says of you she was nicer than that one
That one is me.
From Annie Ernaux, L'autre fille (Paris: NiL éditions, 2011, 78p; Collection: Les affranchis). ISBN 978-2-84111-539-6
Text © Annie Ernaux
Translation © Jonathan Kaplansky
Annie Ernaux was born in 1940 in Normandy. She is the winner of numerous prizes including the Prix Renaudot for La Place. Very early in her career, she turned away from fiction to concentrate on autobiography. Her A Woman's Story, A Man's Place and Simple Passion were all New York Times Notable Books.
Jonathan Kaplansky works as a literary translator of French in Montreal. He won a French Voices Award to translate Annie Ernaux’s Things Seen (La vie extérieure). His translations include Days of Sand by Hélène Dorion and Wednesday Night at the End of the World by Hélène Rioux, and he contributed translations to Seminal: The Anthology of Canada’s Gay Male Poets.
Translator Jonathan Kaplansky.
[Photo: Véro Boncompagni]