DISAPPEARANCESfrom The Forked River Anthology
The Man with the Pipe, and His Brother
The man with the
pipe in the mouth has only one leg. He
lives in a railway flat with his younger brother, who has a palsy. Both are so
thin their clothes are bone-racks. As he limps along the quay to the
supermarket, a puff of smoke precedes him, and a big ugly black alsatian. The
brother tags along behind, picking up fag ends, smoking them down to the nail.
The brother is seen around town on his own. The man with the pipe has disappeared. It’s rumoured he’s taken to the road. But I doubt if he would get far on one leg. He’s not in the Maison de Retraite. At mealtimes the residents can be seen through the window. The brother still collects the pension money at the post office. His stuttering makes the queue laugh. The woman at the desk hurries him on, and he leaves with the bank notes in his fist, looking as though he could do with the dog.
The brother is seen on the quay after closing time. He seems more together, sporting the pipe man’s stick, and wears a slouch hat. He has even put on weight. I meet him sitting on a bollard with his back to the port, head on chest, lighting up a cigarette. There is a wind, and nobody else around, so I say, ‘Merde et courage’.
The glare of the town is reflected in the water behind him. He coaxes the flame inside the hat. The smoke comes out his ears and eyes. ‘Bon-bon nuit’, he says.
The Guardian of Lunar Values
jumps out on me from the undergrowth and jerks the back of his hand against
mine. A kick of the heels and he’s off before I know what to say. His garden is
below my window. He works the soil by night. The whisper of the water spray
accompanies my sleep. As day breaks I see his crouched form leaping around the
watermelons. He always wears blue dungarees, but puts on a luminous
railwayman’s jacket when he gathers plants in the mountains during the hunting
season. I think he was probably a stoker. And that explains his hump. Madame
Moge in the bakery calls him Jean-Pierre.
The war against their crottes and caterwauling has its annual truce when a new generation of kittens arrives with the spring. The mother’s ribambelle of balls of fluff loses its charm when the playful young things cease to be tentative and become cats in their own right. The bottles of water re-appear on the doorsteps to douse them. When the battle resumes Jean-Pierre defends the cats, watching out for illnesses and injuries, taking them home to his bedsit until they are back on their feet.
Jean-Pierre is the guardian of lunar values, and won’t allow me to plant radish seeds except on the day after a black moon. A thunderstorm made me miss the last one, and since the rot-mites are already in grub, I sneak out in the dead of night and sow the little devils. Next morning a hunched figure is leaning over my fence staring at the rill and, as I backhand him a bonjour, he lunges towards me and is gone. It doesn’t do to be caught betraying lunar values. I ought to pick out the seeds and wait for the next black moon.
When the well dries up, the whisper of his water spray no longer accompanies my sleep and the garden looks dead. I miss the lilies that abounded on the terraces, the roses climbing the walls, and the glow of the yellow and white marguerites as the sun drops down behind the mountain. The cats are no longer couching under the mimosa tree. The leaves have fallen early.
I wake up and see him hacking away dead flowers. The warrior in his silhouette is no longer going over the top. The enemy that keeps him moving is within. His back absorbs the light from the moon and towards dawn he lies down on the couch grass. Cats prowl around him solicitously, kittens scrabble over him, settling to snuggle in his armpits and other nooks and crannies. Though the sepia of summer has receded into black and white, blood roses stand guard as he gains some peace.
Madame Moge in the bakery notices he hasn’t picked up his bread. ‘He is going to be missed’, she says. ‘And only sixty-eight.’ Tonight the cats will be looking at people with suspicion.
Buried TreasureTall trees, frail snow, thin light.
The sea has withdrawn, but traces of salt remain in the soil. Nothing grows. The needles on the pines crumble to the touch, and the oaks have no acorns. Though after rain, mushrooms appear like ghosts, brass tainted with gold.
No birds or wildlife. A deadly silence reigns. Only broken by the crack of my footsteps on the deadwood. It’s said that the hulk of a shipwreck rots in the undergrowth, split masts and staterooms returning to nature.
The sun cuts a knife through the branches. The blade still holds its edge - steel, blood black. I hack my way though a thicket. In a clearing I notice a pile of bones - human, white as the relic of an infant saint. Amongst them a hand, perfectly articulated, grips a shrunken piece of cast iron. A fluted protuberance snug in the palm, a finger poised on a minute hammer.
I dig a hole with a long bone, and bury the hand, arranging the skeleton over it. As I leave the wood a shot rings out.