Right here, down by the ground, where the wind gathers up tiny clouds of dust. Here is where we live, without making any noise, barely even moving, hardly doing a thing. There are so many days, so many nights, there, above the earth, above the high trees, in the naked sky, at the mountaintops.
We live in the valley, here, not far from a river we always hear but never see. The sounds are vast: the sounds of water, the sounds of wind in the dried branches, the sounds of dirt flowing straight down off the sides of cliffs. Here nothing happens, we haven’t much to tell. We are behind dense mirrors, at the end of a long empty room. Every day the sky is white above the high trees, and at night we see the unmoving Pleiades. Maybe they are our eyes. Or maybe there are eyes everywhere, where branches intertwine, in stones or moss, at the stems’ tip or the flowers’ calyx. There are no words for all this impenetrable space. There is no way to be both here and there, to be at once in the white day and the black night, and we never know if we are in an enduring dream that began before us, or in a dream that has to end after we have dreamt it.
Today is today. Sometimes we fall asleep with our eyes open and space enters, and we become enormous, our stomachs swollen by the wind and light, and we tremble, we vibrate. What we need is to eat without stopping, to devour every single living thing in the atmosphere, to swallow up every single living thing underfoot, and to be like a bottleneck blocking a river while life passes through us.
The noises, we wish to devour them. They come from everywhere, huge noises bursting forth, rolling forward with their spirals and hop! hop! into our bodies they go, coiled up like streamers, pressing on our stomachs at our most sensitive places. Right there, that is the center of the earth and sky, of the sea and stars, because we are the star-studded insects of the earth. This is rather hard to explain and, anyway, it doesn’t really need any explanation. Simply put, and once and for all: the Pleiades are above, then the Big Dipper and Gemini, and below them, us. The sun, we don’t see it. We like it, we all do; perhaps it is the one thing we do like. But we never look at it. Or maybe it is like a burning eyelid that covers the tips of our eyes, and it hurts to look at it, it burns and it hurts. That is why we don’t look at it. But we like it, all of us, when it is there at the uppermost point in the empty sky, above tall black branches. Every five minutes or so, we think about it. We like hearing the sounds it makes. The sun crackles and rustles and makes strange bug noises, you know, like crunching insect shells or fracturing glass. We get a bit flatter whenever we hear these sounds; we are more attentive to the faint rustlings, the tiny creaks. And there at the heart of this network of cracks, we too perhaps become little suns, hidden between the blades of grass, hidden and warm, small snapping sparks, little balls of fire. Everything that happens in space, we draw it, dance it, redo it here in our holes between grass and stones. We are never alone, always together, not far from each other; we can’t always see each another, of course, but we know that they’re out there, our friends, our enemies, not far away, hidden in the holes between grass and stones.
In every hole there is one of us. Small, curled up, buried under tree seeds, sheltered from the wind, from light, so tender and fragile. Up above, very high in the interminably white sky, fly huge silent birds whose shadows run along the ground. They mark out circles, but we aren’t afraid. We are huddled in our hiding places between the thorns, in our nests, in our crevices. Everywhere around us are the walls that hold back the wind, that slow down space.
But we don’t move. The hours pass over us, like dust that falls from the sky. The days flow gently over our hairy backs without leaving a mark. Every morning thousands of droplets get caught on the white walls and that is where we drink. The thunderous river wears through the earth and vibrates and trembles, but we never go towards it. Then the sun burns up the drops. The white curtains, the gray curtains flutter in the wind. We are sensitive to the earth in every way, and every wave that crosses over rocks or trees or grass goes straight down to our feet and enters our bodies. That is how we listen to the world.
They are not complicated, these stories; they have no meaning. They are continuous legends, flowing in, one wave after another, and accumulating like strewn sprays of flowers or leaves. Our paths are not torturous ones; we go directly from a stone to a branch, then to another branch, then to the grass, then to a jagged rock, and then to a root, then back to that stone. Everything that happens here close to the ground we know about. The flight of midges, the vaults of grasshoppers, the cohorts of ants, the climbing of scarabs and golden beetles, the imbibing of green mantle butterflies, the oozing colonies of aphids, the dances of yellow swallowtails and blue dragonflies. We know many other stories too, strange and secret ones – like hems made by flower petals, the fears of a sensitive plant, the poisoned beards on stinging nettle. Things that are sharp and unmoving, like bramble thorns and agave needles. Things that are far off, like leaves making sounds in the wind above the trees, like fruits that swell up, or dead things that rot over time, like smells of honey, urine, or incense; there are so many things everywhere, when we are buried in our secrets, in our tree trunks, in our hiding places. This is why we cannot move or speak or think. We can only listen, breathe, and shake.
Yes, many things happen. We can’t talk about all of them, and besides, we are pretty much the silent type, since we have no tongues, our mouths hidden deep in our feet and round backs; we don’t like to explain things. Anyway, to whom could we explain? Everything that moves, dances, flies, never stays in one place, and even all those non-moving things like stones and branches, none of them speaks our language. We prefer to listen and feel, without seeing. We’ve learned all kinds of secrets. We’ve heard them here, where we live, in the holes between grass and stones. Noises run along the soft earth, bump up against hard stones, and fall into the cottony little holes we make. The secrets are in the dust. They are things that fall and get caught, then become gray. They turn into smoke. They disappear. But we spin walls and airy curtains and we capture them.
We are fully aware of what happens at night. When the lights go down, slowly, gently. When everything becomes weightless and transparent, full of gray smoke, when noises slow down and beat as weakly as a resting pulse, when there is nothing left anymore, almost nothing, and cold comes in with the shadows, slipping into the gaps, through the holes, slowly, slowly; then as the world rolls up into a ball, pulls in its antennae and feet, gets small enough to sleep, we stand watch, we remain vigilant. We do not sleep. No, no, we listen deeply; we sense so keenly what is happening. Nothing much at first, because the twilight is a beverage that intoxicates the earth and sky, then puts them to sleep, and at the moment the sun drops over the horizon, behind the sea and mountains, you can hear it, like a scream or a kind of wave of white silence advancing at full speed. Our feet tremble as the scream passes, we shudder as the wave passes; we curl up in our holes. It is always rather dreadful, you know, each time the sun disappears and night advances upon the earth.
When all the little animals stop moving, they hide and become like pebbles, like cold, crowded, rolled up balls, all nice and smooth. It seems to us there is no one left on earth or in the sky, except bats. The sky is gray; it is as if we spread out our walls, our weightless threads that flow from one rock to another. There is silence. Silence, and cold in our valley. The silence comes from the west, the cold from the east, and they meet above our valley. And then everything stops.
We stay motionless, holding our breath, because when light ends, it is the most important thing in the world. It is as if a weight has been lifted from the air and suddenly the emptiness of space gets closer, the icy emptiness at the bottom of the sky, up there where the Pleiades glow.
It isn’t out of fear, but we stop moving, stop breathing, and stop thinking. The frail little animals close their eyes and ears, roll into balls in the grass. A sealed up smell arises from our hiding places, a small, acidy odor that must be of sleep. But the smell is imaginary because we don’t sleep; we never sleep. Crouched down in our downy hiding places, our feet wide apart, we stand guard in the night.
When everything is black, very black in our valley, we discern tiny glimmers of light that shine furtively, that blink. Then out come the insects of the night, the birds of the night, the carnivores of the night. We listen to them passing, wings that crinkle, wings colliding with shadowy air, wings of wind, and sometimes the sound of fluid steps crossing through high grass, flowing through low branches, the shivering, short breathing of the hunters of the night.
In their nests here on earth, frightened little creatures tremble, at the far ends of sleep. They had best not wake up. If they were to open their eyes, they would see terror and they would die right then and there.
We are the guardians of sleep; that is our role here on earth. The air vibrates in invisible webs, vibrates down to our stomachs and we know how the story ends.
When shadows settle down everywhere in our valley, it is as if the air is filled with miniscule fibers, interlacing threads and dust-colored mesh that drift gently between branches and stone, between hills, creating bridges to the end of the world. This is how we are the mistresses of time. The air belongs to us; we hold it between our feet and within our mouths. We wait. We wait. Fragile little things sleep sheltered in our cocoons; every second of the night weaves them further into our threads. We weave endlessly; we weave through the night. The sky is covered with our ties; it is a forest of colorless hair that absorbs life. We weave silence. Then wedged in holes, in their burrows, these little animals sleep rolled into themselves, upside down, in the cloak of their acid breath. They barely dream, just barely, just shivering, with just a few glimmers in the night. Their feet move around, their mustaches quiver, beneath closed eyelids, their eyes roll back. We watch because we are the guardians. We do not move, not in daylight nor at night, all our gray webs are tied to the earth and flutter in the wind. Time passes and delivers us a few more flies or moths that have lost their way. But that isn’t the only reason we are here. If those tiny weak, exposed creatures are sleeping away peacefully in their holes, it is thanks to us. Nighttime isn’t so scary for us. It doesn’t feel empty. It isn’t that cold or distant. There are all these eyes watching from between blades of grass to where branches intertwine, all the way up to that place in the heavens where the Pleiades dwell. It is almost daybreak; the sun is rising out of the water and starting back up on its climb around the valley. We will be here until the end of the time.
Translator’s Note: J.M.G. Le Clézio’s “Nos vies d’araignées” (“Our Spider Lives”)
One of the most prominent and respected writers in contemporary French literature, Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2008 and the coveted Prix Renaudot at the age of twenty-three for his first novel Le Procès verbal (The Interrogation). He has published more than thirty books and essays, many of which have achieved major commercial success in the United States, including Onitsha (1997) and The Prospector (1993), among others. With their distinctive, and at times hypnotic, prose style, these works are characterized by their keen social commentary, environmentalism and mysticism.
Le Clézio’s interest in transculturalism is an essential element of his Histoire du Pied et autres fantaisies (2011), a collection of nine short stories or “fantasies”, followed by an “apologue” in which the author compares the act of writing to a ride on the subway. Founder of an international organization promoting peace through intercultural exchange called Fondation pour l’Interculturel et la Paix (http://www.fipinterculturel.com), Le Clézio has often spoken of his fascination with indigenous peoples and the many diverse expressions of global culture. Having traveled widely throughout his career, he has lived in Nigeria, England, Thailand, Mexico, Panama, and the United States, among other places. It is not surprising, therefore, that the stories in the collection Histoire du Pied et autres fantaisies take place in such exotic places as the islands of Mauritius and Gorée, in Africa and in Paris, inviting us on a voyage through imagination, time and space. Women are the central characters in all of these fanciful narratives. Embodying both stability and mythical strength, the stories and visions of each of these female characters offer the reader a world that fuses fantasy with the realism of contemporary life.
A fine example of Le Clézio’s lyrical prose style and his blend of magic and myth is found in the brief tale entitled “Nos vies d’araignées” that adopts the point of view of an arachnidan narrator commenting on the natural world around her and evoking surreal images of light and darkness, day and night. The author notes: “I don’t feel that human beings are very different from the rest of creation. We share that same world. We have the same language, dreams, the same impulses as animals and vegetation.” “Our Spider Lives” is offered here for the first time in an English translation, providing non-French speakers with another opportunity to enjoy the lyricism and sensuality of Le Clézio’s evocative prose. His is truly a voice of our time and it is through the literary translation of his mythic creations that barriers between diverse cultures can be bridged, future dialogue encouraged, and the author’s goal of an intercultural world ultimately realized.
Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio was born in Nice on April 13, 1940 but moved to Nigeria at the age of eight because his father was stationed there as a doctor. Returning to France in 1950, he went on to study English at Bristol University and, at the age of 23, his first novel Le Procès-Verbal (The Interrogation) earned him the Prix Renaudot. He has since published numerous works of fiction and has taught at universities in Bangkok, Mexico City, Boston, Austin, and Albuquerque. Prolonged stays in Central America during the 1970’s greatly influenced his oeuvre and revealed his fascination with the cultural traditions of indigenous peoples. Since the 1990s Le Clézio and his wife Jemia have divided their time between Albuquerque, the island of Mauritius, and Nice.
Patricia Frederick received a BA in French from Tufts University and her PhD from Rice University. An Associate Professor at Northern Arizona University, she has been teaching French language, culture, literature and film for more than twenty years. Her publications include critical studies and translations of works by Marguerite Yourcenar and Nobel Prize winner Le Clézio, as well as Franco-African and Franco-Caribbean writers Djura, Condé, Dadié, and Yacine. Her scholarly interests also comprise medieval folklore and issues in contemporary culture.
Photo by Alex Rose, Envoy Enterprises (2009) http://envoy.typepad.com/envoy/2009/02/