Once, after dinner, they climbed up to the top of a hill, following the paths that wound up between the villas and the gardens, to watch the sun set behind the town. There were stray cats under the parked cars and atop the walls, watching them, round-eyed. Up on the hill, there was hardly a breath of wind, and the air was balmy and as warm as in summer, heavy with the fragrance of mimosa. It was nice up there, it was a good place for forgetting. Pouce and Poussy sat down on a slope at the very top of the hill, over near a small stand of pines. Dogs were barking, they were prisoners in the gardens of the villas. Evening fell very slowly, casting no shadows, simply fading out the colors, one by one. It was like ash. It was very soft, with twirls of smoke rising in places and trails of clouds reaching all the way out to the golden, flame-colored, horizon. Then, when night had settled in, lights began to flicker on almost everywhere, on the roofs of houses, in the parallelepipeds of the apartment buildings. There were lights out on the sea as well, the red lamps on the jetty and, perhaps, far out at sea, hardly visible, the lights of a large container ship bound for Genoa.
The girls watched all of the lights coming on, way down below along the coastline, scattered through the hollows in the hills, the patterns the roads made on the slopes. They also watched the headlights of cars, the little yellow points moving forward so slowly, like phosphorescent insects. They were so far away, so small, they didn’t seem very important anymore, when you looked at them from up here on the hilltop.
"It’s nice being up here" whispered Pouce and she leaned her head against her friend’s shoulder as though she were going to fall asleep. But Poussy felt something strange inside, just like when someone is watching you from behind, or when you know something bad is going to happen. Her heart was beating very hard, and fast; it was throbbing with heavy painful thuds in her head and throat. And every now and again a shudder would run down her arms, down her back, an odd kind of prickling that knotted up at the back of her neck. It could well have simply been the night chill. But she didn’t mention it to Pouce, not wanting to interfere with her reverie. She held her breath, and after a few seconds, it came out with a heavy sigh.
"What’s wrong?" asked Pouce.
"Nothing… Come on, let’s go" Poussy said and she started walking down the hill, towards town, towards all the lights moving and shining like so many busy insects.
Eating wasn’t always an easy matter. The hotel where the girls were staying didn’t serve food in the evenings, and when they were hungry, they had to fend for themselves. One evening, they went out for dinner in a big restaurant on the shore, and when the bill came, they disappeared one after the other through the restroom window. It was a narrow opening, but they were very thin, and they didn’t have much trouble slipping out, then running almost all the way back to the hotel. The next day, they did the very same thing in a downtown cafe. They had simply stepped out, strolled calmly away and each disappeared in a different direction. They had arranged to meet down by the harbor, and as usual, they talked and laughed about it all, glad to have gotten away. "If one of us ever gets caught, we hereby solemnly swear that the other will do whatever she can to help her get away" said Pouce. "I swear to it," answered Poussy.
But after that, they had to change towns because it was starting to get too risky. Pouce had decided they should change their wardrobe to go to Italy. They left their blue pants and their T-shirts in a department store, and walked out in white outfits: Pouce in Bermuda shorts, a pullover and a nylon jacket, Poussy in a straight skirt and a wool jacket. In the gift department, Poussy picked out a beaded headband with American Indian designs on it for herself, and she chose a couple of ivory-colored plastic bracelets for her friend. And in the shoe department, Pouce and Poussy left their shoes, which were beginning to get a bit worn, in exchange for low-cut Western-style boots in white vinyl.
Once they had changed outfits, they left for Italy, without even going to pick up their bag at the hotel. That way, there’d be no problem about paying the bill, and anyway the things they had in their bag were hardly worth going out of their way for. "Besides" said Pouce, "it’s easier to hitch-hike when you’ve got your hands free." Poussy had held on to the drawstring purse with their ID cards and the bit of money that was left. But Pouce didn’t even have a tube of lipstick.
They would have preferred to travel by train, but they no longer had enough money to buy a ticket. So they walked out of town, and waved down passing cars. They didn’t wait very long. It was an Italian in a white Alfa-Romeo, and as usual, Poussy got in up front, and Pouce sat in back. The man was around forty; he had a shadow of beard on his cheeks, and very bright blue eyes. He spoke French poorly, and the two girls didn’t speak a word of Italian. But they joked around all the same, and every time the man would utter a mixed up blurb of a sentence, they would burst out laughing, and he would laugh too.
Just as they were crossing the border they all became serious again, but they had no problems. The Italian customs officer looked at the girls’ ID cards and said something to the driver, and they both howled with laughter. Then they took off again at top speed along the coastal highway that twisted in and out among the villas and the gardens, that ran out along the headlands and around the bays, towards Alassio.
They drove into town near the end of the afternoon. The streets and sidewalks were quite crowded and Vespas whizzed by on the pavement, zigzagging in and out between trolley cars and automobiles with their shrill motors whining. Pouce and Poussy watched the whole scene in amazement–they had never seen so much agitation, so many people, colors, lights. The man with the Alfa Romeo parked in a large plaza, ringed with arcades and palm trees. He just left his beautiful new car on the spot, paying no attention to the policeman’s gesticulations. He pointed out a large cafe with white linen-covered tables and took the girls over to sit there, right out in the sunshine. The man said something to the waiter who came back a few minutes later with two huge dishes of ice-cream smothered in whipped cream and chocolate sauce. For himself he had simply ordered a very black coffee in a tiny little cup. The dishes of ice cream made the girls squeal, and they laughed so hard that people in the plaza turned around. But they didn’t seem annoyed, or even curious; they laughed also, at seeing two pretty girls all dressed in white, with copper-colored skin and their hair all frizzy from the sun and the sea, sitting there at the table in front those two dishes of ice cream that looked like mounds of snow.
They ate all of the ice cream, and after that, they drank a tall glass of cold water. The man looked at his watch and said "Me vono" several times. Perhaps he was expecting them to leave with him, but Poussy shook her head, pointing out the whole scene to him, the town, the houses with their arcades, the plaza where Vespas were circling endlessly, like figurines on a merry-go-round, and she didn’t say anything, and he understood immediately. But he didn’t seem disappointed, or angry. He paid the waiter for the ice-cream and the coffee, then he came back and looked at them for a moment with his blue eyes shining in his dark face. He leaned down toward them, one after the other saying "Bacio, bacio." Poussy and Pouce kissed him on the cheek, breathing in for an instant the slightly spicy fragrance of his skin. Then he walked back over to his Alfa Romeo, and started up the motor. They watched him drive around the plaza, join in the ballet of automobiles and Vespas, and disappear down the wide street.
It was getting late, but the two girls weren’t in the least concerned about where they were going to sleep. Since they no longer had any cumbersome bags, only Poussy’s navy blue vinyl purse with drawstrings, they started sauntering around the town, looking at the people, the houses, the narrow streets. There were still quite a lot of people out-of-doors, more and more people, because for the Italians, it wasn’t the end of the day, but a new day that began with the evening. People were coming out of all the houses, men dressed in black suits with shiny shoes, women, children, even old people came out into the street, sometimes dragging a cane chair behind to sit down on the edge of the sidewalk.
Everyone was talking, calling to one another, from one end of the street to the other, or else they were talking with their car horns and their Vespas. Some young boys were walking along on either side of Pouce and Poussy, they were talking too, constantly, taking them by the arm and leaning toward them, talking about so many things in their language that it made the girls dizzy.
But it also made them laugh, it was like being drunk, all these people in the street, the women, the children running around, the first lights blinking on in the storefronts, the barber shop with a red leather and chrome chair where a fat man was reclining, his face covered with lather, getting a shave as he watched the street. The boys who were walking with Pouce and Poussy lost interest, went off, and were replaced by two other dark-haired and dark-skinned boys, with very white teeth. They tried to speak to the girls in French, in English, then started chattering in Italian again, smoking fake American cigarettes that smelled like dried leaves. Pouce and Poussy would go into dress shops, or into a shoe shop, and they would try on dresses and sandals that looked like Roman buskins, ignoring the two boys waiting outside who were waving and making faces at them through the window.
"They get on my nerves," said Pouce.
"Forget it. Don’t pay any attention to them,’ Poussy said.
But it wasn’t easy to get any business done with two clowns like those around. People would stop in front of the shop, trying to see inside, and there was even a policeman all of a sudden and Poussy and Pouce felt their heart speeding up, but he was only there out of curiosity just like everyone else. Then he began to resent being seen dawdling about, so he came into the shop and said something, and the saleswoman who spoke French translated:
"He wants to know if the boys are bothering you."
"Yes. No" said Pouce and Poussy. They felt a little uncomfortable.
But when they came out of the store, the boys had cleared out, and no one else came near them again, as if everyone had heard about the policeman interfering. Near the end of the afternoon, Pouce started dragging her feet and breathing heavily. Poussy glanced over at her and was a little startled to see her looking so pale, in spite of her tan.
Pouce shrugged her shoulders.
"I’m tired… I’m cold, that’s all."
So they started looking for a hotel. But everywhere they went, it was the same story. When they went into the lobby, the people at the reception desk would give them a strange look, veiled, and they would immediately ask Poussy to pay for the night in advance. It was tiresome, and they would have paid well enough, if only they’d had enough money. But Poussy’s drawstring purse was almost empty. So then they would pretend to have come simply to inquire about accommodations, and Poussy would say: "Thank you, we’ll call later for reservations." And they would leave very quickly, for fear that people in the hotel might think of calling the police.
"So, what do we do now?" asked Pouce.
They were a bit tired from the crowd, and also, they hadn’t been able to get a thing in the stores because of the policeman. So then they went back to Partigiani plaza, and from there they went out onto the beach. It was evening; not a breeze blew over the sea. The sky was pink and immense, the color of pearl, and the tall old houses standing in the sand on the shore looked like beached vessels. Never had Pouce and Poussy imagined anything more beautiful.
"Do you think it’s like this in Venice?" asked Pouce.
The seabirds were skimming slowly along the surface of the water, skipping lightly over the waves. There was that dark distant odor, the taste of salt and that rose-colored light of the sky on the grey water, on the facades, color of old gold.
"I don’t ever want to leave here" Pouce added.
They sat down on the sand right up close to the skirt of foam, to watch the night come.
They slept there on the beach, shielded from the wind and the curious eyes of passersby by an old staircase leading up to a blind door, and the hull of an old abandoned skiff. But the sand was soft and fine, and it still held a bit of the golden warmth of the last light of the sun. It was wonderful to sleep out of doors, surrounded by the slow sound of the sea and the strong smell of salt. It was as if they were on the other side of the world, as if everything that they’d ever known before, ever since they were children, had been wiped away, forgotten.
During the night, Poussy awoke, she was cold, and she wasn’t sleepy anymore. Without making a sound, she walked across the beach, over to the sea. The moon was shining in the black sky, shining down upon the waves, making the foam glow very whitely. As far as you could see, there wasn’t a soul on the beach. The shapes of the old houses were dark, their shutters closed tightly against the sea breeze.
The young girl listened for a long time to the sound of the sea, the long waves collapsing gently on the sand, casting phosphorescent foamy ruffles out towards her feet. At the far end of the bay was the Capo Mele lighthouse, and still further off, the light of Albenza greyed the sky, above the hills.
Poussy would have liked to immerse herself in the dark water, filled with sparkling moonlight, but she was cold, and a bit frightened too. She merely took off her boots and walked bare-footed through the foam. The water was ice-cold, insubstantial, just like the moonlight up in the dark sky.
Afterwards, she sat down next to Pouce, who was still sleeping. And for the second time since they’d begun their journey, she could feel an immense void, very much like despair, rending and tearing at her insides. It was so deep, so terrible, out there in the night, on the deserted beach, with Pouce’s body lying there asleep in the sand and the wind stirring in her hair, with the slow, inexorable sound of the sea, and the moonlight, it was so painful that Poussy let out a little moan and curled over into a ball.
What was it? Poussy didn’t know. It was like being lost, thousands of miles away, deep in outer space, with no hope of ever coming back, like being abandoned by everyone, and feeling surrounded by death, fear, danger, without knowing how to escape. Maybe it was a nightmare that remained with her from childhood, long ago, when she would awaken in the night, soaked in cold sweat, and she would call out "Mama! Mama!" knowing there was no one who could answer to that name, and that nothing could assuage the feeling of anxiety, and especially not Mama Janine’s hand that would come to rest on her arm as she said in a hushed voice, "Here I am, don’t be afraid"; but Poussy, with her whole being, right down to the tiniest particles in her body, would silently protest, "It’s not true! It’s not true!"
Poussy’s despair and solitude were so intense in that particular instant, that it must have awakened Pouce. She sat up, her face swollen with sleep, her curly hair full of sand and dried seaweed. She said, "What’s happening?" with such a funny voice and with such a sleepy expression on her face that Poussy felt her anxiety suddenly melt away, and she burst out laughing. Pouce looked at her without understanding, and she too began to laugh. Pouce ended up thoroughly awake, and the two of them decided to go for a walk on the beach to start the new day.
They went all the way over to the other end of town, walking along by the old apartment buildings that stood on the beach and that looked exactly like the hulks of boats run ashore centuries ago. Sometimes, as they were passing, a dog would start barking somewhere, or else they would glimpse the furtive shadows of rats running over the sand.
They sat down at the end of the beach by the mouth of the river. They lit up an American cigarette and smoked it without saying a word, their eyes fixed on the black horizon and on the shimmering patch of moonlight. The air was hushed now, as it always is just before dawn. But it was cold and damp, and the young girls huddled together to keep warmer. Perhaps, just at that moment, Poussy thought of swiping a blanket or a parka from a department store. If the thought did cross her mind, it wasn’t so much because she was cold, but because Pouce had started coughing that night. There had been the weariness of all those days of traveling, too much sun, and too much wind, maybe, and eating whatever they could get a hold of, whenever they could, and then that long night on the damp beach, wrapped in the wind and the sea brine. Now Pouce was shivering, and the hand that her friend held in her own, was burning up.
"You’re not going to get sick, are you?"
"No, I’ll be fine in just a little while" Pouce said.
"The sun is going to come up. We’ll go sit in a cafe."
But Pouce’s breath was already wheezing, and her voice was gruff.
All the same, they just kept sitting there on the stones at the mouth of the river, watching the horizon and the sky, until the first slow increase of day appeared in the east, a grey patch spreading gradually inland. When the sun appeared in the pale, pure sky, the young girls went over to lay back down on the sand, over by the walls of the old houses, and they fell asleep, dreaming perhaps of travels that would never come to an end.
When the sun was well up in the sky, Poussy awoke. On the vast beach, only a few silhouettes of fishermen could be seen off in the distance, busying themselves with their boats, or else putting the nets out to dry before repairing them. Poussy was beginning to feel hungry and thirsty. She watched Pouce stretched out beside her for quite a long while before realizing that she wasn’t asleep. Her face was very pale and her hands were ice-cold. But her eyes were shining and disturbingly bright.
"Are you sick?" asked Poussy.
Pouce answered with a groan. She was wheezing more when she breathed than she had been a little while ago. When Poussy took her by the arm to help her sit up, she saw all the little hairs on her skin standing upright, like goose flesh.
"Listen," said Poussy, "wait here for me. I’m going to go into town and try to find a suitcase. That way, we can go to a hotel. And then I’m going to find something for you to eat and drink. Some tea would be good for you, with lemon."
Since Pouce would answer neither yes or no, Poussy left right away. She walked along the beach until she came to a street, and she looked for a department store.
Pouce was left alone on the beach, sitting in the sand, leaning up against the old flaking wall that the morning sun had begun to warm slightly. She was looking straight ahead of her at the sea and the sky that were all blurry, as if a smoky haze was engulfing her and cutting her off from reality. She was breathing in small little gulps, so she wouldn’t feel the pain deep in her lungs, and the short, fast breathing was tiring and a very slow dizziness crept over her. Now the beach was noisy, children shouting, women’s voices, men’s voices, perhaps even the jumbled echoes of a radio. But Pouce hardly paid any attention to them, they seemed to her to be coming from the other end of a very long corridor, choppy, deformed,incomprehensible.
"Como ti chiama?"
The sound of the voice startled her. She turned her head and saw a youth standing there, observing her.
"Como ti chiama?" he repeated. His voice was high-pitched, but not unpleasant. He was looking at the young girl questioningly; taking in her copper-colored face, her white clothing, rumpled with the night, her hair matted and full of sand, and her plastic bracelets.
Pouce understood the question, and she pronounced her name, lifting her hand to show him her thumb.
"Pollice?" said the boy. And began to laugh, and Pouce laughed too, while he repeated:
"Pollice… Pollicino! Pollicino!"
And then he pointed to his chest with his index finger and said:
"Sono Pietropaolo. Pietropaolo."
Pouce repeated his name, and they started laughing again. She had completely forgotten about the pain in her lungs and the feverish chills. She simply felt oddly dizzy–it was the same feeling you get when you go for a long time without food and without sleep, a not unpleasant weakness.
Pietropaolo sat down next to her, with his back against the wall, and he took out an old crumpled pack of Chesterfields, from which he extracted two bent, almost broken, cigarettes. Pouce took the cigarette. The sweet smoke felt good, at least for the first couple of puffs, then she began to cough so hard that the boy got down on his knees in front of her, looking a bit alarmed.
"It hurts here" said Pouce pointing to her chest.
"Male," said the boy, "E non hai un medicamento p’cio?"
"No, no." said Pouce.
The coughing had worn her out, small drops of sweat were beading on her forehead, on either side of her nose, and she could feel her heart beating very fast, because of the burning deep in her chest.
The sun was high in the sky now, just about at its eleven o’clock place. Pietropaolo and Pouce kept on sitting there, not moving, not speaking, watching the waves tumbling onto the beach.
Then Poussy came back. She was carrying a heavy waterproof, khaki-colored jacket over her arm and a bottle of beer. She sat down panting on the sand like someone who had just run a long way. Pouce was leaning up against the wall, her face drawn, eyes bright with fever.
"Who’s this?" asked Poussy.
"It’s Pietropaolo…" said Pouce.
The boy smiled broadly.
"Poussy," said Poussy.
Pouce meowed to make him understand.
"Ah! Il Gatto! Gattino!"
He started laughing, and the two girls laughed along with him. Together, they drank the beer, wiping off the mouth of the bottle between swallows. Then Poussy showed Pouce the jacket and she explained how she’d come by it.
"It’s for you. No way to get a suitcase. They’re all chained up everywhere. I nearly got pinched with the jacket. I had to run for God knows how long with this thing over my arm, and the salesman yelling ‘Ladra! Ladra!’ after me. Luckily, he was fat and got winded before I did."
"Ladra! Ladra!" repeated Pietropaolo, and they all burst out laughing.
Poussy helped Pouce into the jacket.
"It’s a little big, but it will keep you warm."
"And the beer?" asked Pouce.
"Oh it was in a case in front of a closed shop. I just took it."
They drank some more beer, taking turns, and then Pietropaolo took out his incredibly crumpled pack of Chesterfields and offered it to the two girls.
Pouce shook her head, and Poussy refused too. She said:
The boy looked at her, baffled. So she pointed to her mouth, opening and closing her jaws.
"Ah si. Vorresti mangiare."
He jumped up and disappeared down one of the streets that led up to the beach.
They waited for him, not talking, or moving, leaning up against the old wall, watching the sea. A cold wind was blowing gustily, there were dark clouds in the sky. Poussy was thinking about all of the things that were so very far away now–the workshop, the gray streets of the suburbs, the dark room and the kitchen with Mama Janine sitting there–and for the first time in days, it no longer made her anxious to think about it all, but instead it left her feeling somewhat indifferent, as if she had truly decided that she would never again go back to that house. She was watching Pouce out of the corner of her eye–the childish face, the almost obstinate set of the lips, and the rounded forehead where the wind stirred in her curls. All muffled up in the khaki jacket, Pouce seemed to be feeling warmer; she was breathing more regularly, wheezing less, and her cheeks were less pale. The young girl was staring fixedly out at the sea and the sand on the empty beach, as if she’d fallen asleep with her eyes open.
"We’re going back," said Poussy quietly, so calmly that Pouce simply turned her head and looked at her in bewilderment.
"We’re going to leave now. We’re going back" said Poussy again. Pouce said nothing, but she began staring intently at the sea and the beach again. Only this time, tears gathered in her eyelashes, and then rolled down over her cheeks, and were swept lightly back with the wind. When Poussy realized that she was crying silently, she hugged her tightly and kissed her, saying:
"It’s not only because of that, you know, I might have gotten sick too, but its because–." But she wasn’t able to go on because she couldn’t think of a good reason.
"I wanted to go all the way to Venice too, and even to Rome, and visit Sicily, and after that, Greece, but not like this, not like this…"
Suddenly, Pouce got angry. She pushed her friend away, and she tried to stand up. She was trembling and her voice was all gruff.
"Chicken-shit! Chicken-shit! You’re just saying that, butit’s really because you’re afraid. You’re afraid of going to jail, that’s it, isn’t it?"
Poussy looked at the young girl kneeling in the sand, her eyes all bright with tears, her wind-mussed hair, and the overly-large parka, with the sleeves hanging down over her fingertips.
I’m saying it because it’s true. We can’t keep going, were at the end of the road. We’re going back, we can’t keep going, we’re going back now."
Her voice was very calm and it made Pouce’s anger subside immediately. She sat back down in the sand and let her head fall back against the wall.
Just then, the boy returned. He was carrying a big loaf of bread and a sack of oranges. He squatted down in front of the girls and held the provisions out to them. He had a friendly smile on his face and his pale eyes shone in his dark face. Poussy took the bread and the oranges, and thanked him. They began eating without speaking. The gulls, drawn by the food, circled about their heads screeching. When she finished eating her orange, Poussy went to wash her hands and face in the sea, scooping a little water and foam up in her hands. She brought some sea water back for Pouce and ran her cool palms over her friend’s forehead, over her eyes.
"We’re going to leave, now" said Poussy. She pointed over to the other end of the beach in the direction of the setting sun. "We’re going home, now" Pouce stood up too. She was so weak that she needed to lean on Poussy’s shoulder to keep from stumbling.
"Dove? Dove?" asked the young boy. His voice was suddenly anxious. He was walking next to the young girls, watching their faces intently, like a deaf person trying to read someone’s eyes and lips. "Dove? Dove?"
He tripped over a piece of wood protruding from the sand and hopped along grimacing. That made the girls laugh a little. But he wasn’t laughing. He said, and his voice cracked because he was beginning to understand:
"Andro… Andro con voi stessi. Per favore, andro… accompagnare voi stessi…"
But when the girls left the beach to start into town, he just stood there on the sand not moving, arms dangling by his sides, staring after them. Before going down a small deserted street, Poussy turned around to wave at him, and she could see him way off in the distance, so tiny on the white expanse of beach, just standing there as still as a piece of driftwood by the sea. She didn’t lift her hand, she and Pouce walked into the dark town amidst the sounds of families sitting down to the noon meal.
Out on the road, at a gas station, they found a truck stopped, with TIR marked on theoutside. Poussy asked the driver if they could ride with him, and after some hesitation, he said yes.
A few minutes later, the huge semi was rolling along headed for France, with Pouce and Poussy half asleep in the cab. The driver wasn’t paying any attention to them. He was smoking cigarettes and listening to Italian radio at full volume. When they reached the border, the policemen examined the young girls’ papers closely. One of them simply said to them: "Come with us." In the room at the police station there was an inspector in plain clothes, a man of about forty years of age, slightly bald, with hard eyes. When they went in, escorted by the uniformed policeman, the man gave a short laugh, and said something like: "So these are our two amazons." Maybe he didn’t say "amazons," but Poussy wasn’t really listening. She was watching Pouce’s stubborn profile, and wasn’t thinking about what was going to happen next, about the long hours waiting in dusty hallways and dark cells. She was only thinking about the day they would be off again, off and away, far, far away, and this time, they would never come back again.
—from J. M. G. Le Clézio, The Round and Other Cold Hard Facts (translated by C. Dickson from La Ronde Et Autres Faits Divers), University of Nebraska Press, 2003.
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