SOUS LE PONT MIRBEAU
Various writers were sent a story about a community which has a strange custom: its young men gather on Mirbeau Bridge and leap—often beautifully—into the water below. No one ever survives the leap. The story has various elements. We were asked to take at least two of them and make a story of our own. This is mine. I considered calling the story “Poor Thing.”
Yes, no one survived the leap. Except one. They don't speak about it, except a few of the old ones. They're the ones that know him. Not the current crop. What do they know? Watching the telly, going to stupid films. What do they know about anything?
The old ways, ah, the old ways. You couldn't talk about it. It wasn't talk that made it. It was something else. A feeling, perhaps, but that's not it either. That's too vague. No, no, it wasn't a feeling. It was a, well, it was a presence, an aura perhaps. It's not there now. The telly and the films drive out the aura—poof. But it was there then. Not that it was any mysterious thing. It was as common as water then. We all felt it. We were all so to speak nourished by it, held in its arms—but it wasn't so what do they say “anthropocentric” as that, no it wasn't “anthropocentric” at all. It's like the water you know. You're either in it or you're not. And you know whether you're in it or not. Now people are not. But then they were in it. It held us.
Richard Thatcher was not a bad lot. Just like all of us who grew up hereabouts. One of many, no different than the others, no. I knew him when he was a lad, but he was a little older than I was, and wild. I was fond of books, always was since I learned to read, but he, he was never one to spend any time at the library. “A lot of dead words,” he said. “We ought to toss them over the bridge with the leapers. They're a bad job.”
What he liked was action of any kind. Sports. That was his love. Oh, he'd compete with anyone over anything. How he loved to wrestle and to run! “Where are you running, Richard?” we'd ask him. “Oh, nowhere,” he said, “I'm running to run. I'm running to catch the wind and then run faster run faster.” And swimming. Oh, how he could swim. “Part fish he must be,” we said. “Swim, Richard! Outrace us all!” And he would. He'd ask his body to do impossible things and his body would shrug and smile and say, “Yes, Richard, I'll do it.”
“God, it must be hell to be old,” he said, “sitting around with your aches and pains and remembering the ‘good old days’ when you wasn't. The good old days! What was so good about them? You got to be old because of your fear of the leap. The brave ones, the ones with no fear—they cared for nothing. It was glory that drove them. It was glory that brought them to the bridge's edge and glory that pushed them over. Look at the beauty of their bodies, look at the marvelous shine to that young flesh as it flies out, careless, into the waiting arms of the Infinite. What is your old age to that?”
Richard Thatcher was one to go off by himself for periods. He'd scale the cliff or disappear for weeks into the wood. Just when people began to think he'd done for, just when they'd think, “He'll not come back this time,” just then was when he'd show up, smiling with his big teeth and carrying a bag of berries or some fish or something to give to his mother, who had long ago given up trying to control him or even understand him. His father was one of those who had gone to glory, who had made the leap, but his mother raised him as well as she could, never complaining. Folks wondered how she was able to do it, him being so wild and all.
“Richard,” she'd say to him, “why are you doing this to me, why do you make me suffer so?” “Ah, Ma,” he'd say, “I'm not doing nothing. There's nothing to fear. I know, I know you worry when I go off as I do, but think of the joy when I return. Isn't there something there? Would you like it if I were nothing but a shadow following you around all the time, sticking to your apron strings? I have strength in me, life it is, and I must honor it. I must go wherever it tells me.”
“And will you perish like your father in the leap? Is that where this life you call it is telling you to go? To your death? Is that your secret?” “I have no secrets, Ma. This—something—takes me over, that's all. ‘The wind bloweth where it listeth,’ it says in the Holy Book. That's how it is with me. I'm not doing anything a‑purpose. I have no desire to leap. Yet if it tells me to leap, leap I shall. And be happy doing it. Better glory, Ma, and a short life, than a slow trudging to the grave getting weaker and weaker as you go. Oh, look at those old men and then look at me. What have I got in common with them? What do they lead but lives of misery, whereas my life, Ma, my life is joy.” “And a misery for those unfortunates who love you,” says his mother, weeping, “a misery for me.” “Oh, don't cry, Ma,” says he. “Don't cry. Look at these flowers I picked for you. Do they last, Ma? Let them die if they wish. What pleasure their deaths give to others. What beauty. Take them now and joy in them.” And the old woman took the flowers. But she continued to weep.
It's said that it was during one of these “trips” that Richard met something. Exactly what I could not tell you. I've never met it myself, and have no wish to. But meet it he did. It was in the woods, under a special tree, an alder, where Richard liked to stretch himself out at noontide. Just stretch himself out and sleep the sleep of an animal, more like an animal than like a man, so pure and dreamless was it. Suddenly there was a voice at his side. And it wasn't a voice exactly, especially since there was no body for the voice to come out of. But he heard it distinctly, and he had no doubt that it was real. It was as real as you or me. Realer perhaps. And it was telling him to awaken.
Richard opened his eyes. But he saw nothing. “You need to open your inner eye to see me,” said the voice. And suddenly Richard did. He saw a small animal, like a kitten, a small thing, nothing that would threaten him or anything, just a small thing. And it was speaking to him though it didn't move its lips.
“Did you enjoy your nap, Richard?” the thing asked. “Yes, indeed,” said Richard. “And who are you to waken me out of it and take the joy of it away from me?” “I am no one you know and the form you see is not my form. Were you to see me as I am you would burst apart. Here I am a kitten. But in my home I'm something altogether different.” “Are you human?” asked Richard. “No, I am not human,” said the thing. “But I don't hate humans. I try to help them if I can.” “And how have you helped them?” asked Richard. “I helped your father,” said the thing. “You knew my father?” asked Richard. “I helped him,” said the thing. “And what did you do to help him?” asked Richard. “I helped him to a happy death,” says the thing. “I helped him in the leap to soar beautifully and to demonstrate the beauty of his young muscles and the sharpness of his young mind as he jumped magnificently onto the rocks below.” “And is that what you have in mind for me then?” asked Richard. “No, I have something different in mind for you.” “And what is that?” “I am going to help you be the first to survive the leap.”
“No one survives the leap,” says Richard, “and I can't say I mind dying in that way, leaping to glory.” “No one has yet survived the leap,” says the thing, “but there is a way and I know it. I know how a young man can leap and live.” “Then why didn't you tell it to my father?” asks Richard. “I didn't know it THEN,” says the thing. “So you're capable of learning.” “That's all I'm capable of doing. I have no capacity for action. What you see of me is nothing but an image projected into your mind. I am nothing but a will of the wisp, a bit of smoke, a light breeze, a nothing. Yet I know how to survive the leap.” “And will you impart this information to me?” asked Richard, who was growing impatient with this repartee. “Yes,” says the thing, “on one condition.” “And what is that?” says Richard. “That you give me your body,” says the thing. “That I live through you. I don't mean that you will vanish. Far from it. And yet—you will have me in you, too. I can do nothing unless you agree.” “All right,” says Richard, “I agree.”
Oh, but he was a foxy man, and even as he said it he crossed his fingers and thought: “I will agree only until the sunset of the day the leap is made. After that, my spiritual friend, you're on your own. But I'll use you, yes I'll use you, to be the first to survive the leap.”
“There is a place, I can show it to you,” says the thing, “where the water is deep enough for a diver to survive. No one has ever found it. But I found it one day. I have great powers of sight and can see much. And one day, after your father's death, I saw that, that special place where it is possible for a leaper to leap and then live.” “Show it to me!” commanded Richard. “Yes,” said the thing, “look.” And Richard looked, and, yes, he saw the spot, he saw it clearly though it was more than a mile off to the bridge.
It was soon after that that Richard announced his intention to make the leap during the next ceremony. His mother and a certain young woman who had eyes for him attempted to persuade him that it was folly, but he would not change his mind, though he told them nothing of the thing he had met in the forest. No, he would not change.
And what a day it was, that day he leaped. Six young men dived, but only one walked up the long path to the top afterwards. You could see the looks of amazement on the faces of the people on the bridge when he emerged from the water and then slowly made his way to rejoin them. What feasting there was then! What joy for all! And then in the midst of everything, Richard heard a voice: “You must let me ride you!” “Ride!” thought Richard, “it will only be for a short time.”
And he suddenly rose up from the table and ran madly around the place, touching everything he could find, people, things, falling upon the grass, upon trees. “You're mad,” thought Richard, “stop it, you fool.” “You must let me ride you, ride you,” said the thing. And the thing thrust Richard towards the edge of the bridge and did a dance, one foot extended over the edge, fearless. And then turned a somersault and then— But I can't tell you what happened then. It was to Richard’s shame, and the very people who had cheered him suddenly began to feel revulsion for him. They began to say, “No one has ever survived the leap. No one can survive it. I don't believe he did it. It must have been fakery. We have been deceived. He is a madman and a deceiver at once.” And Richard, struggling, said, “Get out of me, you foul spirit, get ye gone, I crossed my fingers when I agreed, it was not valid, I agreed to only a day's occupancy of my body, and, look, the sun is just now beginning to set.”
“I bargained in good faith,” said the spirit, “you are a deceiver.” “There are powers stronger than you, spirit, and I will invoke them if you try to occupy me a moment beyond sunset.” The spirit knew what Richard said was true. There were powers stronger than he.
“You think you have won over me,” said the spirit, “but you have not.” Suddenly, the entire crowd of people had the same idea or heard the same voice speaking: “Richard Thatcher is a deceiver, he has not truly jumped, let him prove himself now, let him jump while we all watch. If not, we will throw him from the bridge ourselves.” Richard understood what was happening. “I don't need you, spirit,” he said, “I know the spot. I will jump the moment after sunset.” “Good riddance!” cried the spirit, “just like your father!” Richard ran to the bridge and jumped just as the sun went down on the horizon. His body crashed on the rocks below. Suddenly everyone there heard a ghastly laughter which left each of them horror‑stricken. They went to their graves remembering that sound.
And so Richard Thatcher is never spoken of. But, if you believe such things, and no doubt you do not, there is a spirit in the wood which can tell you where to leap so that you too, like Richard Thatcher, can survive. But the spirit is a wild spirit. It has never learned to live in human company. Richard's body, filled as it was with his élan vital, was too intense. In any case, the spirit's laughter turned to moans, and I expect that it would be less likely, these days, to strike a bargain.
Everyone knew the old man. Some feared him. Most knew him only vaguely. He seemed never to have been young. He stayed there in his old house, rarely venturing out except for necessities. Never speaking to anyone. If he had a relative, no one knew it. If he had a pet, no one saw it. And yet they knew him--or felt they did--as he went about his business. He was cordial, oh yes, cordial to everyone. But rarely warm. Did women interest the old man? Did men? Did children? Did anything interest him except his own closed existence, as he pattered around? “Thank you, Mr. Garrett,” he said, paying the grocer. “Thank you, I’m fine. I don’t need help.” And off he went. My mother said he was old to her--that she couldn’t remember him ever being any younger. If he had a youth, she said, it must have been somewhere else. Unimaginable.
Yet he was part of the fabric of the town. No one minded him. No one thought much of his grizzled appearance. Does he bathe? said Emily Thompson, I don't think he bathes. Does he pray? asked Philip Leroy. I've never seen him at church. What does he eat? asked Sally Miller. Oh, some biscuits, vegetables, occasionally meat; told me once he liked to cook, said Mr. Garrett. Maybe he's a faggot, said Mr. Brownstone. Faggots cook. So do ordinary men, said Mr. Garrett, I like to cook myself. Are you a faggot? asked Mr. Brownstone. No, said Mr. Garrett.
This old man knew a woman who hated cats. She was fearful that one might move close to her, pretending love, and suddenly strike at her. If she saw a cat on the sidewalk she would immediately cross the street. The woman was not old but middle aged. She had never married. She had a secretarial job in the near-by city and returned each day by train. She rarely saw the old man but she would occasionally phone him. Their conversations were brief and superficial. The old man talked about his aches and pains, considerable at this time of life. The woman spoke of her day at the office and of the ways in which her co-workers, who were for the most part decent enough people, thought her strange. To tell the truth, she thought herself strange. Her emotional life was a complete mystery. She didn’t know why or how her emotions arose. Yet she felt them deeply. She liked the old man because he was as clueless about his emotions as she was about hers. When they spoke on the phone they could pretend to an intimacy which each realized they did not share.
One day the middle aged woman killed the old man. It was not a premeditated murder. She decided to go to his house and pay him a call. She didn’t phone first; the old man was always home. He didn’t receive her with pleasure, but, remembering their phone calls, put up as good a front as he could, offering her tea and a biscuit. The woman suddenly felt a strange revulsion. The old man looked at her with his ancient, red-tinged eyes. He began to whine about his life, as he did on the phone. The woman realized at that moment what their bond was: it was hatred, hatred of themselves, hatred of others. The old man moved slowly, like a cat, and she hated cats. She picked up a heavy skillet while his back was turned and smashed it as hard as she could on the old man’s head. He went down with a grunt. The movement was so sudden and unexpected and the pain so intense that he didn’t feel surprise. He just died, blood spurting out of his skull.
The woman had hoped that she would feel pleasure from her act, or at least release, but she did not. She felt horror and then an unexpected tenderness towards the old man. She reached out her hand to his dead form and began to caress his shoulder. The old man, who was dead, felt nothing. His soul soared upward but no further than the ceiling. From its perch on the ceiling, the old man’s soul looked down at the woman’s tenderness. It felt a sudden flush of pity for her. His soul was naked and needed a body in which it could lodge. It swooped down into the woman. She felt its presence with great joy. She suddenly understood why certain tribes devour their enemies or why certain people eat red meat. Suddenly she was the old man. His soul inhabited her. Yet she did not cease to be herself.
The woman rose from her handiwork and thought whether anyone had seen her come to the old man’s house. She felt certain that no one had. She would make certain that no one saw her leave. The woman now had two souls and two intellects inhabiting her. She was stronger than she had ever been. And she was androgynous. She reached down into the old man’s pants and found his penis. With a large kitchen knife she tenderly removed it. She washed it lovingly in the old man’s sink and dried it with a paper towel. She put it in a plastic bag and stuffed it into her purse. It was hers now. She gave a prayer of thanks to the old man for the offering he had inadvertently made to her. Upon the reception of the penis, the old man’s soul gave a cry of happiness which the woman felt throughout her body. There was a shudder, and she realized she was having an orgasm.
The woman returned to her home, safe in the knowledge of her act. When the police came to question her, she said she occasionally telephoned the old man but rarely saw him--and that she had not seen him at all recently. She could not imagine why someone would want to kill him. The police thanked her and went away. Then the old man’s soul began to whisper things to her. At first they were simple compliments: You’re looking very beautiful today. I like your hair that way. Then they became suggestions. Why don’t you wear a rose with that outfit. You know, if you wore that green blouse with that blue skirt, I would love you even more. The woman was flattered by these compliments and wished to please the old man. And your underwear, said the old man’s soul, I wish you would get some nicer underwear. Something red, for example. The woman began to ask the old man’s soul what she should wear during the day: Blue panties today, the ones with the flowers on them. Black today. Oh, you need a new bra. Let me touch your breasts. And the woman shuddered under his touch. People noticed the change in the middle aged woman, but they could not account for it. It must be the menopause, they thought. Blue today, black tomorrow.
The middle aged woman began to believe that she had not murdered the old man; she had simply transformed him. His history had become her history, his thoughts her thoughts. His penis, which she froze, remained in the refrigerator amid the ice cream and the frozen dinners. She was in ecstasy for much of the day but kept that fact from her co-workers. Though she had many orgasms, she grew wonderful at dissimulation and indirection. How are you? Just fine, fine. (I am a bride of darkness. I am a nun in love with God. At the end of the world, my husband, who has never left me, will come for me with a great sword. He will cut me in half. This pain will also be a joy. And then he will weld us together so that we cannot be separated. My life will be perfect then, though it is also perfect now. My love, at long last, will have been consummated; I will be alive.)
At 65, the woman retired and grew old, living apart from people as the old man had. Her secret was never discovered. When she died at the age of eighty-eight, she left no will, no indication of the change that had occurred in her consciousness. People noticed her death only as they might have noticed the casual separation of a leaf from a tree or a page from a notebook.
These are the facts: a middle aged woman murders an old man by banging his head with a skillet; the murder, which was almost comical, was never solved by the police, who in any case investigated it only in the most lackadaisical way. No one cared very much about the old man. When the woman’s soul died, the man’s soul died with her. Both vanished into a nothingness which I must believe had been prepared for them at the beginning of the world. But perhaps this statement is untrue. Perhaps both souls exist in a state so different from the human that we could see it directly in front of us and still not recognize it. Perhaps their love remains in that state. But here, their story vanishes, just as everything vanishes. First the old man. Then the woman and the murder. Then the love. Then I.
“Would you like to be a femme fatale murderess?”
“Maybe twenty years ago.”
Twenty years ago, detectives Jack and Adelle Foley were having a delicious brunch at The Terrace Room of The Lake Merritt Hotel. The gorgeous, brilliant sunlight of Oakland, California poured into the spacious room, which overlooked Oakland’s jewel, Lake Merritt, sparkling joyously in the delight of late morning. Cars and people meandered around the lake, and ducks and geese wandered the grass. A gondola could be seen slowly moving across the lake’s length. The Foleys were having a marvelous time downing their Lady of the Lake omelet and their scrumptious Cinnamon French Toast with raspberries
Jack was known facetiously as The “Thin” Man, the quotation marks appearing because of his well-known corpulence and his delight in food. His detective’s eyes darted around the room, taking in his fellow diners as well as the view from the picture window near which they were seated. “By gad,” he said, addressing Adelle in his best Sidney Greenstreet voice, “I don’t mind tellin’ you I like this omelet.” He slurped and took another bite.
At the entrance way, the lithe blond hostess Kriss was welcoming people into the room. She smiled in an enigmatic way as one customer in particular—a large, dark man with a scar across the whole left side of his face—spoke to her in an intimate tone of voice. Perhaps too intimate because she answered vehemently, ”No!” before turning to guide the man across the room, seating him at a table not far from the Foleys. Jack could hear the man say under his breath, “You’ll regret this, beautiful,” and he noticed that she was indeed beautiful, though there was something about her elegant manner and her dangerous eyes that told you: Keep your distance. He thought of Miss Wonderly in The Maltese Falcon. There might have been a tiny but lethal revolver beneath the folds of the floor-length gown in which she trafficked the room. She pretended not to have noticed the man’s remark and returned to her place at the entrance way as if nothing had happened; but Jack noticed that her hands shook a little, whether in anger or fear he could not say. He had a sudden intuition. Framed in the morning light, the man’s face looked familiar. But that was as much as Jack could say. He couldn’t say why the man’s face looked familiar. Jack returned to the Lady of the Lake and watched as the Lady of the Room escorted still another patron to a table.
Jack’s beautiful wife Adelle smiled and said, “Are you developing a taste for blondes?” Adelle was a stunning brunette. “No,” he said, “not in the way you mean it. But my detective vibes are quivering.”
“Just your detective vibes?” said Adelle teasingly.
”There’s something funny going on between the hostess and that guy over there, the one with the scar.”
Adelle turned to look just as the man yawned. He noticed her stare and blushed.
“Rather a boorish type,” said Adelle, returning to Jack.
“Yes, and what would he be doing with that classy, cool-as-a- champagne-glass hostess?”
“I can tell you what he’d like to be doing with her.”
“Stow that,” said Jack, “I tell you that something besides food or even sex is happening between those two.”
“You’re just imagining things. Your life has been too peaceful lately.”
“Well, maybe you’re right. I want to compliment the chef, Brandon Peacock, on his marvelous breakfast. Jesus, what a slob!”
Jack’s last remark was not directed towards Brandon Peacock. It was prompted by the fact that, after yawning, the man with the scar had knocked over his water glass, spilling the water all over his rumbled suit, and then slumped his head onto his arms, which rested on the table. A waitress rushed over to replace the man’s glass and began to apologize. The man didn’t respond. The waitress nudged him with her hand. Nothing. “He couldn’t be that tired,” thought Jack. He waddled over to the man and examined him. A moment later, he raised his eyes to the waitress. “This man is dead,” he said. The waitress gasped, and Jack turned to look at the hostess. She was staring at them intently. Her face and every inch of her body seemed to say, “Good riddance!” The faintest hint of a smile danced across her lips. She looked satisfied.
Jack said in a loud voice, “Don’t let that woman leave the room!”
The hostess had begun to move slowly towards the door. She was detained by Brandon Peacock, who had entered the dining area to find out what the disturbance was.
Jack walked over to the hostess and Peacock.
“How did you do it?” he said.
“Do what?” she answered defiantly.
“Kill him. You killed him. How did you do it?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Yes, you do. Let me see your purse.”
Jack grabbed the purse before the woman could say no.
“Good lord,” said Brandon Peacock, “could it have been something he ate, something I cooked!”
“No,” said Jack, “the food here is blamelessly delicious. No, it wasn’t the food.”
Jack went through the purse: lipstick, a money pouch, a dainty handkerchief—the things one might expect to find in any woman’s purse. And then he found it. A tiny brown doll stashed at the very bottom of the purse. On the doll was a crude image of a face. And on the face there was a scar.
“I wished him dead,” said Kriss defiantly. “He was my stepfather and he brutalized me every chance he got. I met a woman in Oakland—an old African woman who told me there were ways to handle a man like him.”
“I know this man,” said Jack. “He was a petty criminal and a thug. He may even have been involved in murder. Now, you’ve committed murder. But you can’t be tried for it. There’s no law against wishing someone dead.”
The same hint of a satisfied smile was on the hostess’ face.
“Still,” Jack went on, “I don’t think you’ll be working here for very long. No matter how good the food, no one wants to go to a restaurant where the hostess could wish you dead from across the room. What if she wasn’t satisfied with the size of the tip?”
The hostess’s face went blank as she stared at the detective. Jack hoped that there would be no new, corpulent dolls in her possession.
He returned to his table, where Adelle was still sipping her tea. “You spent quite a lot of time over there,” she said. “She is pretty.”
“Pretty, yes,” said Jack, patting his wife’s hand. “But she’s murder, baby, murder. A real femme fatale.”
You're the only person I know who does esoteric vaudeville.
-- Julia Vinograd to Jack Foley