The Porthole by Aude

Translated by Cristy Stiles

Aude is the pseudonym of Claudette Charbonneau-Tissot, a French-Canadian author and professor. Born in Quebec in 1947, she began writing and publishing as a doctoral student at the University of Laval in the 1970s. She taught French language and literature until her untimely death in 2012, in addition to publishing some fifteen works in French, including Cet imperceptible mouvement, which was awarded the Governor-General’s Award for French-language fiction in 1997.

Every day, I waited, concealed behind the curtains in a window, for the moment the man would appear, on the street corner, laden with flyers, with magazines and envelopes inside one of which, one day, I might find what I’d awaited and sought for so long, not just in those envelopes holding nothing but bills and news of no interest, but also in those films I went to watch, and in those books I read, hoping that one day I’d end up finding the thing that was going to complete me and bring, to all the days I’d lived and all I had yet to live, a meaning.

And I was waiting, too, for the beings to return after the close of the offices, the factories, the schools, as if their arrival would fill the void I’d felt in each room of the house, in each cabinet, in each box, all empty, that I’d tried to fill for so long by adding a new vase every day, or a rug, or a sepia print, or a bouquet of everlastings. Little by little, the house had been transformed into a strange bazaar where I was alone, all day long, circulating as if in a souk that had been deserted because of a sudden epidemic but where there were still figs, dates and olives on ceramic plates covered in deep blue embellishments on a cream-colored foundation.

I had people over sometimes. But despite their number and the fact that our elbows touched, a space still remained, even if it was just a thin film of air, keeping us apart from each other, as if each of us was imprisoned in a transparent but airtight aura. We may well speak, clink our glasses, let forth piercing laughter, but no vibration could shatter each person’s invisible armor. We each remained within our own bounds, at the unsurpassable border of the other.

Sometimes it happened that I approached someone, touched his hand and tried to explain to him this need for contact that tormented me night and day. And very often, it was toward B that this yearning carried me.

But most of the time, he listened to me with a distracted ear. And once I’d finished, he’d start talking about a new chess strategy, or that hairdo that suited me more than the other one, or these clandestine rendezvous in which we sometimes found ourselves.

There is a time, at the twilight hour, and an angle from which it’s difficult to distinguish between a scarecrow and a man.

One day, at that very hour, I found myself precisely at that angle. And suddenly, while he talked about errands and cars, B transformed before my eyes into a scarecrow.

Believing it was just an optical illusion, I moved a few times to change the lighting and my point of view.

Nothing happened. B stayed a scarecrow.

So I approached, slowly, to see what material he was made of.

That’s how I made out the pores on his skin, the enamel on his teeth, the wetness of his eye. He’d turned back into a man.

I touched him and spoke to him to get past his epidermis, his superficial layer, and reach in him a place that was warmer and less smooth.

I couldn’t do it.

Maybe he had, at a very young age, been plunged into a bath of liquid plastic which, as it cooled, had covered him with a membrane impermeable to any infiltration from outside and to any escape from within.

Suddenly he started talking again but, rather than coming from inside him, his words seemed to emanate from a tape recorder that he must have had in his mouth.

I tried to see into his mouth. But behind his teeth that raised and lowered with each word, there was nothing but a black hole.

Maybe he was empty inside.

I’d have liked to be able to press a button to stop all sound and movement in him. Once he was immobilized, I’d stretch him out on the ground and I’d start looking for the joints that would allow me to disassemble this body, like a toy, to see what it was made of.

Suddenly, he started laughing and I felt as if all at once I was face to face with one of those papier-mâché monsters they have in haunted houses at amusement parks. His head even oscillated like it was on a spring.

I choked back a scream and recoiled forcefully.

That’s how I collided with another papier-mâché figurine, unless it was a scarecrow.

Soon, I saw all the characters in this bizarre circus gathering around me. They held their wax face toward me and their mouth articulated words I didn’t manage to hear. Maybe the volume on their tape recorder wasn’t high enough.

I tried to break free of these falsified beings, but the more I reacted, the more they surrounded me, touched me, smothered me. I was starting to struggle violently when suddenly I saw M.

All at once, the scarecrows, the papier-mâché beings and the wax figurines turned back into men.

They looked at me with surprise and mistrust as if suddenly I was the one who’d been transformed into a fairground monster before their eyes.

M said it might be fatigue.

Or alcohol.

Or the heat in this room.

He tried to ward off the scarecrow, to return the situation to something intelligible, reassuring.

He must have succeeded for little by little they started to talk and drink again.

M suggested that I go rest for a bit.

I responded that I was doing better now.

In front of the others, he didn’t dare insist.

And the evening continued as if nothing had happened.

And yet, whenever they could seize the chance, I felt their gaze land on me, surreptitiously. And if I was fast enough to turn around before they’d lowered their eyes or looked away, I could perceive concern, even panic, in their eye.

The beast had come out of its burrow, in the space of an instant.

Now, I think they were scared. Deep down. In their own way. And to me, that was reassuring. They were men. I was sure of it now. And each time I intercepted a furtive glance, I’d have wanted a circuit to be established, through that eye, from the core of me to the core of them, like a footbridge between two caverns. But once my gaze struck theirs, they closed the blinds, barricaded the door, sealed the porthole of their eye.

And I found myself alone again. Only this time, I knew they were alone again too behind their retracted pupils. Knowing they were there, cowering behind their skin, gave a new taste to my solitude.

What I’d awaited and sought for so long was there, in them, and closer still, in me. But a generalized sweep of censorship took care to erase all traces of it.

That evening, they went home earlier than usual. They mask they’d chosen was perhaps starting to lose its elasticity. They preferred to leave before it froze or melted.

I found myself once again alone with M.

While we put everything back in order inside the house-bazaar, I felt his gaze seek me, secretly, like the others’ gaze had. After some time, he asked me what had happened during the party.

I told him I’d been seized with panic because, for a few moments, I’d had the impression of being the only human being amid a group of fabricated objects.

He burst out laughing.

Shivers overtook my flesh at the sound of this metallic laughter.

Seeing that I was terrified again, he interrupted his laughter and suggested I go lie down.

And I went to lay myself down for the night beside this android who, as sleep gradually overtook him, turned back into a man.

The next day, when everyone had left for school, the factory, the office and the shops, I walked slowly through the house-bazaar and everything I’d brought into this house to fill the void seemed superfluous to me.

All day long, I gathered these totemic objects that didn’t have the power I’d endowed them with. And I piled them pell-mell into boxes, without a care for the sounds of porcelain, glass, and crystal breaking.

That day, I didn’t wait for the man with the letters, nor for M and the children. Their arrival surprised me, even.

They processed the pillage I’d effected in the house, during their absence, as some big cleaning project. I didn’t deny anything.

I couldn’t resist, each night, going from room to room, questioning M and the children on what they were reading or writing, or what they’d done and learned during the day, hoping that one of them would have found, perhaps even by chance, what I was missing and what I was seeking desperately.

But that night, I didn’t go and I stayed sitting, rocking myself. For now I knew that even if M scoured the newspaper from top to bottom and from the front page to the last, even if the children looked for the formula that would resolve a certain mathematical problem, or the reason swamps exist, or even the meaning of a text, there would still be within them a fundamental question to which they had not only yet to find the answer but whose formula they didn’t even know, even as they’d been diverted to more obvious questions.

I’d have wanted to tell them that it wasn’t worth it to spread yourself thin like that pursuing a thousand aims.

I’d wanted to bring them with me on this dive, on this journey to the center of my bones that fulfilled me more than all the safaris, all the cruises and all the excursions I’d been on before.

But in the evening, I saw them churning on the surface, not able to bring them with me to this serene place that, though calm, in no way resembled sleep or death.

I couldn’t bring them with me, except perhaps my oldest son, who was the only one who understood the journey I was taking now, because this journey bore a strange resemblance to the hallucinatory trips he took sometimes. And for the first time, I spoke with him at length. But, under the pretext that it was late, M put a stop to our interview and pulled me toward the bedroom.

While I was getting into bed, I saw him, aided by the mirror in the bathroom, remove his dentures, and I wondered if each of his limbs and organs was so easily removed.

He was also watching me covertly and as soon as our gazes met, he quickly slid the dentures into his mouth.

When he came back into the bedroom, he said K would have dinner with us the next day.

He stretched out next to me and that night, it took some time for sleep to change him back into a man.

The next day, I left and spent part of the day walking through the area where I’d lived for a long time but that I now saw in a new light. And unlike the ordinary, I didn’t rush back to put the house in order and prepare those little things, on crackers and canapés, that I was always searching for new combinations of, cracker, cheese, oyster, olive, cracker, stuffed date, hazelnut, mint and cinnamon canapé… infinitely, as if one of those combinations would one day correspond to the key to the enigma that pursued me night and day.

From that day on, almost no one came to the house anymore. Only K came home with M some nights and I knew now that it was to discreetly investigate me.

Though I didn’t resist him at all, I also didn’t change a thing about my new behavior.

But one day, M learned that, encouraged by me, his eldest son had abandoned his classes.

So he said that with K’s help, he was going to take me to a sanitarium where they’d force me to return to myself so they could shut my doors, windows, and blinds permanently. They were going to install bars on my pupils so I’d never escape again and they’d put a tape recorder in my mouth so they’d never again be able to hear my voice out loud.

The tape must have finished because he shut up and walked away once these words were pronounced.

As he walked away, I suddenly wondered if, in the place where they wanted to take me, they’d also install dentures in my mouth.

I went up to the bedroom where M was packing my bags.

I touched his hand, I mumbled excuses, I tried to tell him that all of it was just a game to break up the monotony, to try and see if there wasn’t another way to live after all.

He remained ice.

Soon he withdrew his hand from mine and went back to his work.

I left the bedroom and paced around the house.

Suddenly, its ruined appearance struck me.

I went to the basement and brought up the boxes of knickknacks, of souvenirs and totems that I frantically set to work unpacking, trying little by little to find the exact places they’d occupied before, as if it was a puzzle to be recreated exactly, attempting to glue the broken objects back together, as if there had existed in these things an irreplaceable element that I needed to restore no matter the cost.

Once I’d emptied all the boxes, it seemed to me that something was still missing from the house. And yet, I couldn’t identify a single missing object.

And I knew soon enough that, as I’d done so many times before, unless M was actually taking me to the place he’d told me about, I knew I’d spend the following days rushing from shop to shop searching for an object that could fill the void I felt faintly everywhere, an ivory statuette, an alligator skin, a jade Cerberus, something one-of-a-kind, exceptional, tiny but with a powerful aura, capable of furnishing a room all by itself.

Then I’d recompose, in my mirror, with the help of some mascara, foundation, multicolored powders and sticks, the mask I’d grown accustomed to and had accustomed my loved ones to but that, for the past few weeks, I hadn’t bothered to construct.

Dinnertime approached. I set the table and got to work preparing a meal as elaborate as before.

And from that moment on, I tried to conform to what they expected of me.

A few days later, M unpacked my suitcase and I never went to that cursed site of metamorphoses.

K gave me antidepressants, stimulants, sleeping pills and hormones that I took scrupulously.

Encouraged by M, I updated my wardrobe, replaced broken vases and knickknacks with more beautiful, more expensive ones.

I went out more, going to the movies, to the museum, to the botanical garden, entering bookstores, dog shows, cooking demonstrations.

I took classes on yoga, macramé, clothing design and makeup.

M took me in his arms sometimes and told me that once I’d fully recovered, we’d travel more and invite people over more often.

I smilingly acquiesced to all this and I nestled in his arms which, beneath his jacket, shirt and body hair, were surely covered with a thin plastic film.

The day I decided to conform to what they wanted from me, that day, I definitively sealed all my portholes. Since then, I live alone deep inside my bones and I know I’ll never resurface again. Like the crew of a failing submarine, I also know the reserves of air will run out soon.

The day when I die deep inside my bones, on that day, you can say I’ve become a plastic-coated mannequin too. And when I’ll seem to be speaking, they’ll know it’s nothing but a tape recorder installed in my mouth. And they’ll be reassured.

Except my son, perhaps, who, since the day I sealed myself in, no longer understands anything about life.


Cristy Stiles is a French-English translator whose works have appeared in Two Lines, The Lifted Brow, and The Stinging Fly. She holds an MFA in translation from Mills College, and is currently based in Cambridge, MA. 

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