Joyland

Consulate |

Black Forest

by Valérie Mréjen (translation by Katie Assef)

edited by Eleanor Kriseman

Excerpted from Forêt noire (Black Forest), published in France in 2012 by Éditions P.O.L.

*

The seven-and-a-half-year-old girl (and she is more than a little proud to have reached the age of reason—even if the meaning of this phrase remains quite obscure—it has a nice ring to it, like a victory achieved simply by accumulating years), the seven-and-a-half-year-old girl nurtures a kind of pure admiration. If you were to ask her whether she has a role model, she would be tempted to tell you, though a little afraid to speak frankly, as such a fascination might be cause for ridicule: to her it seems a bit compromising, to admire one’s parents so much. The connection is too obvious, the proximity embarrassing; how simple it must seem of her, to have chosen as if by chance these people whom fate had, in any case, placed among her forebears. She finds her mother almost intimidating, strangely unattainable, perhaps because of her black hair—raven black, as she’s often heard it described. The same phrase is repeated in Snow White, the young princess of legendary beauty has black hair—raven black or else as black as ebony—and these two rare materials of which she knows nothing but their names seem equally mythical to her. Her mother is Snow White, a naïvely charming, innocent girl, banished by the evil queen, her own aging and jealous mother, who worries, not without reason, that her daughter’s beauty might charm her second husband. And so she decides to marry her off as quickly as possible, and soon her engagement is announced, then the wedding, and finally the birth of this little girl who admires her so.

The child wants so much to be like her that one day she decides to mirror her as closely as possible, to follow her everywhere, aping her gestures in a kind of trance. She hurries to keep up with her as she paces through the rooms of their apartment, runs into the bathroom to imitate her morning routine, falls into step behind her like a shadow in the hallway, the floorboards creaking terribly loudly despite endless precautions, betraying her presence even on tiptoe; she follows relentlessly on her heels, trying to mime everything she does with absolute precision in the hope of becoming a sort of twin, bearing as faithful a resemblance to her as possible. But she realizes very quickly that this little game only annoys her mother, who scolds her for getting under foot, for hindering her movements, and in the end she must accept the discouraging fact that she will never reach the status of exact clone. And yet, in a lighthearted moment of forthrightness, she confesses the wish to become her double; but instead of the reaction she hopes for, which would involve, for example, the revelation of some magical formula to achieve this, or, at the very least, an affectionate response, her mother sighs impatiently, and the little girl finds herself disillusioned, embarrassed by the burden of her declaration.

Now twelve years old, the girl makes up her mind one day that she will never again utter the slightest phrase that might elicit a disapproving look. She must never again misspeak or pronounce a word incorrectly, since it’s unbearable to hear Snow White reprimanding her when she misremembers a quote or the name of a hero of a novel, and she decides she must read all the books in the library, at night, secretly, in order to finally achieve the reward she dreams of: a show of appreciation, in whatever form it might take, but if at all possible a litany of praises spoken before a very large audience; the recording would remain available for years to come, so that she could bask in it, replaying it over and over. The girl is terrified by the air of condescension that often accompanies the correction of an error. It’s truly discouraging to not know everything, to not know about certain references that would allow her to take part in her mother’s friends’ discussions about the comic books of their youth or yé-yé music. She wonders how she can research these things in secret, or if nothing else, hide her ignorance—“crass ignorance” is an expression she hears often, much like “filthy as a pigsty”—and it’s only many years later that she thinks back on this and realizes it wasn’t exactly in the natural order of things, that sometimes parents teach their children a thing or two, instead of always leaving them to grapple with the obsessive fear of misspeaking, of looking like imbeciles, of falling in the esteem of the more worldly-wise.

*

The child is now an adolescent and her relationship with her mother has become even more strained, the latter repeating over and over that her existence takes up space, that there’s too much of her, that she is toxic to everyday life, and these words aren’t taken lightly; the girl soon sees herself as some thing, or blob, or shapeless monstrosity, something fleshy and sluggish that never fails to disgust people as soon as they lay eyes on her unpleasant figure. She gradually adopts this opinion, and even takes it a little further, elaborating on the idea that she is a burden on the community, picturing herself as a social pariah, murmuring cruel words under her breath as if to better stoke the fierce little flame whose warmth she will almost come to appreciate.

Sitting around the large formica drop-leaf table bought at the same superstore as many other fixtures in their home—a chain that has just opened its doors in the Paris region and which people describe with exaggerated enthusiasm, as if it were a sign of divine providence—sitting around this smooth, white, austere table, facing a giant poster of an exotic landscape bound by groves of coconut palms, they finally decide to talk things out, establishing a sort of official report, paying lip-service at first, then gradually coming out with the truth, how, for years now, they’ve both seen themselves through the other’s eyes: a bad mother who has done so much wrong that it’s impossible to feel anything for her, and a girl held in contempt for her countless flaws, who would do better to punish herself.

The girl assumed the role of a burden arrived too soon, a nuisance that kept the young princess, drawn to freedom and the audacity of student movements at the end of the sixties, from thriving, even though she had married before she was twenty-one, rushing to imitate the women of earlier generations, just like all the bourgeois women of her family, heading toward a destiny that looked very much like that of a housewife. And now, fifteen years later, they decide it is time to settle their differences, to correct the old mistakes, but despite everything, guilt over past words rises on one side of the table, and from the other side come reassurances that it’s all forgiven, not a drop of resentment left; there’s no question of ruining this moment, since another chance might not present itself, and anyway, it’s true that things will be different from now on. A particle of salt water glistens on the rim of the girl’s heavily made-up eyelids; she tries to delay its fall for as long as possible, but as soon as she blinks it starts to flow, the well springs open and soon floods the scene, in particular the things near the formica tabletop: a placemat of fine wooden rods linked together by flexible string, which you roll up at the end of a meal; a pair of faded, high-waisted jeans worn at the seams, a size XL jacquard sweater that falls to her knees to hide her figure, less than flattered by this high-waist cut, and a bit of crumpled paper towel that ends up looking like egg whites, escaped through the crack in a shell and caught like lace in boiling water.

As she looks at the image of the island across from her, the adolescent isn’t sure what to make of this giant poster, nearly the same size as the ones in the metro, taking up an entire wall in their relatively small kitchen. Even if the household appreciates irony, she senses something strangely serious in the presence of this unusually large snapshot, something presented like a paradise at face value; and this fine sandy beach beside a lagoon, with its cloudless sky and big, round sun is perhaps, after all, the ideal horizon that sets her mother dreaming, a slightly too commonplace destination, evoking brochures in the waiting rooms of travel agencies, but one she would rush off to without hesitation if, by chance, someone called to announce that a sweepstakes had named her the winner of a week-long vacation.

After this conversation in the kitchen facing the poster of the desert island, which she could not quite picture as an Eden, so closely linked was it to the famous, distressing question of the list of books to bring—a definitive, absolute selection, not one too many—to stave off boredom during a long, solitary vacation (it was too risky to opt for books you hadn’t read since you might not like them, but the idea of bringing books you liked, and rereading them until they made you sick for want of something else, wasn’t any more appealing); after this conversation facing the poster of the island, there were no more opportunities for them to become closer. Her mother’s relapse slowly got the upper hand, and despite the gradual cutting away of bits of flesh from her body to counterattack the illness, it only continued to spread after a last removal or two were attempted in desperation. The sleeping pills she took after returning home early from a weekend in the countryside had only hurried things along, since she had apparently become so fragile that the prescribed dosage brought her eternal repose. The adolescent finally found herself cast into that image, alone on an isolated beach, surrounded by waves.