Cecilee Linke

I can write you a story, teach you French, sing you a song.

Literature

Excerpt from Dominique by Eugène Fromentin

I am completing a translation of this classic work into English, to be published in August of 2011. A copy of the original text may be found online at Google Books.

Dominique by Eugène Fromentin, courtesy of Google Books

You have come to know Trembles just as well as I have, and I would not have a lot of trouble making you understand what I found to be so delightful there. And yet, everything was delightful there, everything, stretching to our modest garden, as you know. There were trees, which were hard to find in our area, and many birds, who loved the trees and could not live anywhere else. There was order as well as disorder; there were sandy paths issuing from flights of stairs leading to gates, and which encouraged a special taste that I always had for ceremonial places, where women of another time would show off their ceremonial dresses. Then there were tucked away places, humid crossroads where the sun hardly shone, where every year, green-tinged moss would grow in spongy earth, and hideaways that only I ever visited: they all looked decrepit and abandoned, and in another way reminded me of the past, an impression that since then has never displeased me. I sat down, remembering, on tall boxwoods that were cut into benches, which decorated the path’s edges. I found out how old they were; they were terribly old, and with a certain curiosity, I examined those little shrubs, which were just as old as the oldest stones of our house, as Andre told me; stones that my father had not even seen put in, nor my grandfather, or my grandfather’s father. Then at night, the time came when every movement ceased. I withdrew to the summit of the front steps and from there, I looked out over the garden, as if I was looking from the park, towards the almond trees, the first trees whose leaves were blown off by the September winds, trees that seemed strangely clear against the blazing curtain of the setting sun. In the park there were many white trees, ash trees, laurel trees, where the thrushes and blackbirds lived in flocks during the autumn; but what could be seen from further away was a group of large chestnut trees, the last ones to shed their leaves and the last to turn green, and which kept their reddish foliage all the way into December, and whose wood already looked dead, where the magpies nested and the high-flying birds perched, where the first jaybirds and crows that the winter regularly brought into the area, would sit.

The forest doves came in May, at the same time as the cuckoo birds. They would softly murmur for long periods, especially on warm evenings, when there was a kind of active blooming of new energy and youth. It was deep in the leaves, along the edges of the garden; in the white cherry trees, the flowering privets, the fragrant bunches of lilacs: all night long, those long nights where I did not sleep much, when the moon was shining and the rain was sometimes falling softly, hot, and quietly, like tears of joy – for my delights and for my torment, the nightingales sang all night. As soon as the weather became sad, they were silent; they came again with the sun and warm winds, with the hope of the coming summer. Then the birds made their brood and we did not hear them anymore. And sometimes, at the end of June during a burning day, in the hardy depths of a tree in full bloom, I saw a small, mute bird of an uncertain color, who was afraid and out of his element, wandering all alone, and he took flight: it was the bird of spring leaving us.

Outside, the haystacks were turning yellow, ready to ripen. The wood of the oldest grape vines branches were bursting; the vines were showing its first buds. The wheat was turning green; it was spread out, far away, along the wavy plain, where the sainfoins were stained with amaranth and the rapeseed plants blinded the view like squares of gold. An infinite world of insects, butterflies and rustic birds bustled, multiplying in the June sun in an unheard expansion. The swallows filled the air, and at night, when the swifts had finished chasing with their high-pitched cries, then the bats would come out, and that strange swarm, which seemed to come back to life on hot nights, began their nocturnal rounds around the clock towers. The hay harvest came, and life in the countryside became a celebration. It was the first common work that made teams of animals all come out and that brought together a large number of workers.

I was there when they reaped the fields, there when they took away the feed, and I let myself go for rides in the carts as they returned with their large cargo. As I lay completely stretched out flat on the bed of the cart, like a child lying down in an enormous bed, balanced by the soft movement of the cart rolling over the cut grass, from higher than usual, I watched a seemingly endless horizon. I saw the sea stretch out as far as the eye could see beyond the green edge of the fields, and birds passing by me. For a moment, a kind of intoxicating sensation of something stretching out far away that made me lose my notion of real life. Almost as soon as the hays came back, the wheat grew yellow. It involved the same work and the same movements in a hotter season under a harsher sun, with violent winds alternating with calm, ferocious middays, beautiful nights like the dawn, and the galling electricity of stormy days. With less euphoria and more abundance, piles of seeds fell onto an earth that was tired of producing and consumed with sun: such is the summer. You already know about autumn here, which is such a blessed season. Then the winter comes and the circle of the year closes. Then I lived more in my bedroom and my always waking eyes practiced breaking through the December fog and the large curtains of rain that covered the countryside in a bereavement that was more somber than wintery weather.