© by André Pieyre de Mandiargues
You lie asleep like an ox. Last night you got drunk again and now the vapours of rum knock down the flies swarming around the light bulb. Dawn is breaking; outside the window the glare of the streetlamp fades. You forgot to draw the blinds. On the marble top of the chest of drawers, next to the narrow bed in which you lie, a glass bell covers a number of objects. I can make out three or four dried butterflies, a hawk moth, a piece of wood - once resinous but now eaten away by the larvae of God-knows-what insects - and finally, on a strip of moss, a tiny iron helmet inlaid with red gold, no larger than a thimble, which an armourer would perhaps recognize as of very old German craftsmanship.
Life for you is obviously a thing of the past; the days you now drag out are numbered. You drink, then you fall asleep rolled up in a horse blanket thrown over a sheetless mattress. As soon as the caretaker who cleans your room knocks on the door, you feverishly grab a book that lies next to your hand, or pretend to write (though the paper is still blank), because you fear the secret judgement of this old woman whom you have never heard utter a single word and who looks like a bundle of black thorny twigs. And since you will soon be dead I shall try to write on these loose sheet of paper (because you never will) the story you told me last night after having begged me to help you home, before you got hold of the now empty bottle which the sloping floor rolls back to me every time I try to kick it under the lowest drawer of the dressing table.
One very warm day early last autumn, when you were walking through a splendid forest with the vague intention of picking mushrooms (though they were not yet in season), you suddenly noticed on top of a small mound an object which reminded you of a fort, complete with ramparts, towers and battlements, like those one can see in Victor Hugo's drawings. It was nothing but a piece of wood, however, standing on a bed of fine moss, blanched by the rains of several winters and ridden with galleries drilled by the jaws of termite ants. A sudden curiosity made you lift it off the moss, turn it round and shake it. It let out a cloud of dust as fine as flour. Inside the wood you heard, much to your surprise, a sort of metal clang, and from one of the holes sprang forth a shining, living creature which at first you took to be an insect. 'A large cricket,' you thought, unable to believe your own eyes and to admit the existence of this miniature knight locked from head to foot inside armour with dark golden inlays, who, standing on what seemed to you a rampart, unsheathed a formidable sword, held it with both hands and began to wave it about dangerously close to your fingers.
You watched with amazement and fear. The knight seemed so sure of himself, so capable of slicing your thumb to the bone (or splitting your thumbnail in half - an idea as painful as the wound itself). A nervous jerk of your hand as you tried to avoid the blade upset the creature's balance - from the height of your chest the little warrior fell to the ground and hit his head on a stone. You saw him lying motionless, and quickly crouching down, almost flat on your stomach, you picked him up and held him in the palm of your hand. Afraid that he might have hurt himself, you tried to open his armour. Your fingers, at first clumsy, finally managed to find the catch of the helmet and lift the visor. And what an unexpected wonder! Behind the opening appeared the beautiful face of a young girl.
Taking great care not to injure the fainted beauty, you undid the breastplate, which was closed at the back with hinges, like a corset and then holding the tiny woman by the waist as carefully as your fingers could manage you took of the rest of her armour (a familiar gesture, you noticed, like taking shrimp meat out of its shell). The creature wore nothing but a shirt of what seemed to you an extremely delicate material, but which was really, in proportion to the body, a heavy, roughly knit cloth. The shirt hung down to the middle of her thighs, and its collar barely hid the shape of her golden neck.
She soon came back to life, and as you were sitting on the ground in order to examine her it was a simple trick for the little warrior to jump from your hand on to your knee, and from there down to a mossy patch, in an effort to escape. But a tangle of moss stood in her way and you had no trouble catching her again. She struggled angrily, shaking her thick black hair which came down to her shoulders, pounding with her fists on your fingernails, trying to bite you. To keep her quiet you tore two bits of wool off your coat: one of them (still rust coloured in your memory) you used to tie her hands behind her back, the other (of a beautiful deep blue) you tied to her ankle and to a rather heavy stone, thereby leaving her no hope of escape. Kneeling on the moss next to her stone, you knew, even though she could not stretch her arms toward you, that she was begging you to free her. This made you wish to see her naked. You took a penknife out of your pocket, held the little warrior in mid-air, and split the shirt from back to front and sideways ( not forgetting the shoulders). The wind carried away the pieces and you returned your prisoner to her bed of moss.
She lay on her back, closed her eyes and adopted the resigned attitude of women 'of the great class' (that is how, in your own language, you used to call your women) when they know it is too late to feel ashamed (or even make believe they feel ashamed), when they abandon all modesty. Your eyes ran over her, meeting no resistance, fixing themselves on the previously glimpsed oriental neck, measuring the slender waist which a wedding ring would have girdled, stroking the polished beauty of her knees and thighs, venturing into the curly triangle so lustrous and thick that it almost seemed to belong to a wild animal. As if your eyes were not enough, you put your nose next to her belly: her body exuded a perfume similar to that of reseda odorata. You would have given anything to become as small as the tiny creature, to fall, with her, on the moss, next to her, to hold her in your arms, because tied up as she was she had become easy prey for the first passing stranger - provided he were the same size.
At last you could no longer restrain your desire, so intense that it made you shake with impotent rage. Certain of finding your prisoner again whenever you wanted her, you ran into the forest like a madman, embracing the pine trees in your path, falling into ditches, tearing up carpets of moss, pressing your lips amid the grass and wild flowers. But when your frenzy died out, and dirty with mud and leaves, you returned to where you had left her whom you considered yours (like a hedgehog of lizard caught during an idle walk), you found that she had disappeared. There was no doubt about the place. The piece of blue wool and the stone had not been moved from the bed of moss. But the wool had been torn, and its loose end lay now in a glistening drop of fresh blood.
Never for a moment did you suspect the pine-tree ants, one of which you could see running among the pine needles not far away, because there were no bones left on the moss and it is a well-known fact that these ants do not carry away their larger prey but devour it on the spot. But with unspeakable horror you thought of the beak of a bird. Painfully and precisely, pecking as your conscience as you imagined it pecking at the body of your tiny woman, you thought immediately of the beak of a warbler.
'Why,' later you ask me, 'do the idiots who write stories of songs, why do asinine naturalists give the warbler the reputation of being a pretty bird with graceful manners, a reputation it uses to deceive all those who cannot see the truth? Even its song is not as beautiful as we are told. Its name alone should tell us how evil this creature is, outside the imaginary world built by poets. All you need to do' you told me, 'is say aloud these three words, wolf, weasel, warbler, to realize the immediate slyness, the cruelty and blood-thirstiness of that vile bird of prey.' While looking for a trace of her whom you had lost, you found at your feet the tiny helmet. You wrapped it up in your handkerchief - there where you would have wished to wrap up, warm and living, the warrior who had worn it - and brought it home.
As for the rest of the armour, where had it fallen? In spite of your efforts you never found it again.
And now what a pitiful thing your life has become. What every man vaguely dreams of and desires was granted to you on a fine autumn day, among the pine trees of a forest on the moor, but you lost it, maddened by your senses. Now you have nothing to look forward to except death. And while you wait for death to come and fetch you, you get drunk on rum like a wild beast, and fall asleep.
Translated from the French by Alberto Manguel
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