Rara Avis

Quiriny-Bernard courtesy of the authorBelgian fabulist Bernard Quiriny (1978- ) is the author of one novel and three short story collections. His first, Fear of the First Line (Phébus, 2005), which won the Prix Littéraire de la Vocation, , a prize previously won by such notables as Christophe Bataille, Amélie Nothomb, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Didier Van Cauwelaert, and Shan Sa. His second, Flesh-Eating Fictions (Seuil, 2008), from which “Rara Avis” is taken, won the Prix du Style, the Prix Marcel Thiry (named for the famous Belgian poet and fabulist) and Belgium’s top literary prize, the Prix Rossel. Quiriny’s first novel, The Thirsty Ones, a satirical dystopian alternate history of Belgium as a feminist totalitarian state, was published in 2010 to general acclaim. Quiriny lives and teaches in Burgundy, where he studied with political philosopher Cornélius Castoriadis, who sometimes shows up in his stories. He is a frequent contributor to Chronic’Art, Epok, and Le Magazine Littéraire.

Our resident columnist on Francophone fantastic literature, Edward Gauvin, has worked extensively with Quiriny and his fiction. He has previously blogged about The Thirsty Ones , and about a brief meeting with Quiriny, at Small Beer Press’ Not A Journal. Some thoughts on Quiriny’s most recent collection, Une collection très particulière (Seuil, 2012), can be found at Gauvin’s blog. In 2011, Gauvin received a National Endowment for the Arts grant to translate Quiriny’s work. A more in-depth bio and consideration of the diversity of his work and influences can be found at the NEA Writer’s Corner. Gauvin’s translations of his work have appeared in English in

The following story, “Rara Avis,” was previously published in Dalkey Archive Press’s Best European Fiction 2012. This story’s appearance here at WFR, in Gauvin’s translation, marks the online debut of this story. – The Editors

***

The painted eggs of Jacques Armand have made him famous the world over. After starting out his career on flat surfaces, he decided at the age of thirty to practice his art only on eggs. “The egg,” he said, “is the purest, most perfect, and most beautiful of nature’s creations. It surpasses by far the pyramid, the cube, and the sphere.” His first works soon met with success; in a few years, he became one of the best-known artists of his time, and “the eggs of Jacques Armand” were spoken of in the same tones as “Buren’s stripes,” “blues by Klein,” or “the compressions of César.”

All his works were cataloged in the same way: title first, then type of paint, the species of egg, and lastly its dimensions (in millimeters) and its weight (in grams) before being hollowed out. The most famous were as follows: “Zambezi Landscape, oil on ostrich egg, 193x143mm, 1650g”; “Sad Woman Bathing, egg tempera on chicken egg, 53×43 mm, 60g”; “Small Swarm of Black Flies, charcoal on lark’s egg, 25x17mm, 4g”; and “Homage to M.C. Escher, soft pencil on swan’s egg, 115x76mm, 350g.” Their prices reached astronomical heights and collectors spent millions at one fell swoop in their struggle to own the most expensive pieces.

I met Jacques Armand when the National Museum of Modern Art devoted a retrospective to him in 1987. He was eighty years old and would die soon after; and yet my memory remains one of a jaunty, mischievous man, as smooth a talker as he was a great painter. At the time, I was working for an art magazine. The editor-in-chief had decided to devote two pages to Jacques Armand. The artist was willing to meet me, but rather than having me over, suggested we take a walk through his show one evening after the museum had closed. It seemed a good idea to me, and I went to our rendezvous accompanied by the magazine’s photographer.

The retrospective was spread out over eight rooms and gathered three hundred and fifty works. It included the first egg Jacques Armand had ever painted, his most celebrated series, and a dozen or so exceptional achievements lovingly displayed, like ten sunfish eggs painted with a needle under a microscope, no more than a millimeter and a half in diameter, viewable through magnifying-glass globes. One learned from the catalog that eighty species of birds and ten species of fish were represented, and that Jacques Armand had used more than thirty-five different techniques, some of his own invention.

The photographer did his job, then left; Jacques Armand and I stayed, alone in the museum—or almost, for an overweight night watchman was shuffling from room to room. Stuffed into a woolen cardigan, his lips hidden by a white beard and mustache that made him look like a druid, Jacques Armand walked from one egg to the next, keeping up such a steady stream of chatter that I hardly ever had to ask him any of the questions I’d prepared—he guessed them all and sometimes asked them himself, as though struck by some doubt about his own work. Then he would seek my opinion with a worried air, and silently mull over my reply while staring at the ceiling.

He told me of expeditions he’d made to Pacific islands in search of rare eggs, bizarre specimens sent to him from the four corners of the earth, the extravagance of certain collectors who wanted portraits on hummingbird eggs (“I wore out my eyes”) or biblical frescoes on ostrich eggs; he also treated me to several philosophical orations in which the meaning of life always came down to a matter of eggs, as though eggs contained the solution to all humanity’s problems since Parmenides. “God,” he declared solemnly, raising his index finger, “is a cloud of luminous goodness in the shape of an egg. He contains the universe.”

He also recounted several legends. People in the villages of Siberia believed that wizards were special beings who emerged from giant iron eggs that mythical birds had brooded. In France, it was said that an egg laid on Good Friday and eaten on an empty stomach Easter Sunday protected you against all disease for the rest of your life. Finally, he treated me to a long lecture on Fabergé’s eggs, whose splendor he admired, he explained, but which hadn’t much to do with his own work. Try as he might to seem indifferent to the Russian goldsmith, the other man’s fame clearly rankled.

We were still walking among the artworks when Armand paused at the sight of a large egg adorned with a blue arabesque; he seemed troubled, as though he’d just glimpsed the ghost of a long-lost friend. Then he coughed and asked me what we’d been talking about.

“That egg—” I murmured, without following.

I approached the work: what had seemed an arabesque was in fact an ideogram. The egg was about twenty centimeters tall. I read the placard: “The Monster, oil on egg, 198x151mm.”

“Strange,” I remarked. “Neither the type of egg nor its weight are specified.”

“That’s because I never did find out,” replied Jacques Armand, walking back toward me.

I had the feeling he didn’t want to say any more about it, but that at the same time, was begging me to question him, as though he wished to confide his secret in me. I insisted.

“It’s a long story,” he said. “I don’t think it will interest your readers.”

“I’d like to know.”

“As you wish. But . . .”

He looked around then, as though afraid we were being watched. I pictured the overweight watchman hiding behind a blackbird’s egg and couldn’t keep a smile from my face.

“I’d like you to refrain from including it in your article,” said Jacques Armand. “For this story to stay between us, and for you not to tell anyone else. Promise.”

I promised, intrigued.

*

Twenty years ago, a woman named Doris brought me the egg. She knocked on the door to my studio in Montmartre, and held out a hatbox. Inside, nestled in Styrofoam peanuts, I found the egg you see before you. When I removed it from the box, I found it weighed almost nothing. It had already been hollowed out. I was irritated, since I like performing this act myself: hollowing the egg out is the first step of an artistic process, much like readying a canvas for paint. Most of the time, when other people do it, they damage the shell. The hole at the top is usually fairly neat, but the bottom one three times bigger than necessary. But that wasn’t the case with this egg, which had been hollowed out with great delicacy.

“What species is it?” I asked Doris. “A species that lays no eggs,” she replied. I stared at her, uncomprehending; there was something like fear in her eyes, as though the pale shell I held between my fingers terrified her. “Tell me what you mean,” I said, offering her a chair.

*

“This was in December, 1950,” she began. “I was twenty-three, and worked in a girls’ boarding school not far from Nevers. There were two housemistresses per floor, in charge of watching over ten rooms of four boarders apiece. My colleague was a lady of forty named Suzanne, ugly but quite kind.

“One morning, Suzanne came looking for me in my quarters. ‘Michelle is sick,’ she announced. ‘She’s complaining of stomach pains and doesn’t look like she’s in any state to go to class.’ The infirmary was closed that day and the snow made getting around impossible. Michelle was thus confined to bed; we stopped in to see her every hour.

“Michelle stayed in bed all day. At lunchtime, I brought her some soup; she refused to eat a thing and, that evening, only managed to swallow the dried end of a loaf of bread and a quarter of an apple. The next day, she complained again and refused to get up. We wanted to call for the doctor, but she protested; I put my hand on her forehead and, noticing that she had no fever, began to think she was pretending. I ordered her out of bed, but she began to cry; to put an end to it, I threatened to call the headmistress, Mrs. Charming (whose name alone usually set the students trembling), and warned her that she had better be washed and dressed by the time I came back, at ten o’clock recess. Of course she was still in bed when I came back. Furious, I raised my voice. ‘You asked for it,’ I said. ‘I’m going to call Mrs. Charming.’

“Mrs. Charming’s arrival failed to frighten Michelle. The headmistress lost her temper right away: she pulled the sheets back violently and seized Michelle by the arm. Michelle struggled a bit, screaming, and received a resounding slap. At that moment, Suzanne burst into the room. Together, we immobilized the young girl, tore her from her bed, and threw her to the floor. What we saw then astounded us: the white sheets were horribly soiled, as was the girl’s nightgown; there was blood everywhere. In the middle of the filthy bed, we found an egg, that egg, striped with long brownish stains. Kneeling on the floor, Michelle was weeping and staring at the ovoid monster she’d no doubt wished to brood. ‘Give me my baby,’ she murmured between sobs.

“Mrs. Charming was the first to react: she calmly said that we should send Michelle home, destroy ‘that thing,’ and make sure word of this got out to no one. She ordered us to take care of it immediately and then, with an uncertain step, left the room and returned to her office.

“Suzanne and I gathered the revolting sheets and stuffed them in a bag, which we threw in the trash. Then we took Michelle for a shower and called her parents to come get her. We answered their questions simply by saying she had the flu. When order had been restored, the headmistress summoned Michelle’s roommates to her office. Had she left the school, gone into the surrounding woods, or said anything at all that might have seemed strange to them? Each of the three girls interrogated gave a different answer. The first, Marie, insisted that Michelle had not left the school all week and that her pains had begun the night before. The second, Renee, maintained that Michelle had gone out two days earlier, after the end of class and before dinner; she’d come back holding her coat rolled up in a ball against her stomach, as though hiding something. The third, Clotilde, declared that she’d quarreled with Michelle the week before and had been deliberately ignoring her since.

Baffled, Mrs. Charming dismissed them. The egg intrigued her, but more than anything else, she feared scandal: this affair must not be allowed to harm the school’s reputation. She asked us what we’d done with ‘the thing,’ as though she still couldn’t bring herself to call it by its proper name. I explained that Suzanne and I had hidden it in the closet by my quarters. She requested we get rid of it as soon as possible, however we chose, and then never to speak of it again.”

*

I interrupted Doris’s story. “You violated her orders, since the egg is intact, and you’re telling me everything now.”

“My story is not yet done,” she replied.

*

“Suzanne wanted to destroy the egg as soon as possible: for her, it amounted to an abomination, and should not be seen by anyone. However, neither she nor I managed to take action; I don’t know why, but we hadn’t the courage to get rid of it. After a few days, the subject became kind of taboo: something we had to do, but refused to discuss. Suzanne was clearly as frightened as I was. I considered acting alone, but couldn’t.

“I regret that today, for the memory of what happened next still torments me. One night, a month after we’d found the egg, I was woken by noises nearby. At first I thought mice had gotten into the attic, but I soon realized it was coming from the closet where we’d hidden the egg. Uneasy, I put on my slippers, grabbed a flashlight from the nightstand, and headed out; the door of the closet was open. I aimed the beam inside: Suzanne was standing there, naked, the bottom of the egg pressed to her lips; she’d put two holes in the shell and was sucking out its contents, a trickle of translucent, sickening liquid running down her chin.

“Surprised in mid-desecration, she glared at me with contempt. As I remained silent, she finished off her vile feast unhurriedly, depleting the inside of the egg with sucking noises. When she was done, she put the hollow shell back where we’d hidden it, left the closet, and went back to her room without paying me the slightest heed, even burping when she shut her door. Dazed, I stood there, flashlight in hand. Unable to decide what to do, I went back to bed. I fell asleep almost immediately. The next day, I confirmed that it hadn’t been a dream: there was the egg, in the closet, clean and light as a ping-pong ball.

“There it stayed till the end of the year. When the school closed its doors for summer, I hid it in my suitcase, wrapping it in clothes, and brought it back to my house. I found another job, and never returned to that school. I never saw Suzanne again.”

*

Jacques Armand fell silent. Pensively, we considered Michelle’s egg before being torn from our contemplation by the watchman, who passed nearby, whistling. I felt like I’d just seen a very disturbing movie, unable to think of anything else. I tried to imagine how the egg had looked when Doris found it in Michelle’s soiled bed, and wondered if her story could be believed.

“Do you think it’s true?” I asked.

“I have no doubt about it,” replied Jacques Armand. “I’m sure Doris never made up a thing. The only thing I don’t know is if Michelle really laid the egg. Doris was convinced of it, but she had no proof. It’s unbelievable that a young girl could have found it in the woods: no bird is capable of laying an egg that size. But in the end . . . I’m not certain of anything. Did she meet a monster in the woods? Perhaps she was the monster.”

“Is she still alive?”

“Michelle? No idea. I suppose she went mad. You’d have to go through the records of all the asylums in the area; maybe you’d pick up her trail. Unless she grew feathers from her arms, her feet turned into talons, and she flew off from the balcony of her room. After all, an adolescent who lays an egg could very well turn into a bird.”

This joke left me ill at ease.

“Did you know right away what you’d paint on the shell?” I asked Armand.

“No. In fact, for a long time I had artist’s block because I didn’t know what had been inside—white and yolk, as in a chicken egg, or a fetus, as in a woman’s belly, or even some combination of the two. The uncertainty paralyzed me; I found it indecent to seek beauty in material that might once have housed a human life.”

He paused, then corrected himself.

“No, to be precise, what stopped me wasn’t strictly speaking the uncertainty, but the possibility of knowing. The fear that if I painted it, Suzanne would walk into my studio and announce she’d been digesting the contents of the egg for twenty years and now wanted to regurgitate it back into the shell. Absurd, yes, but I felt like the egg belonged to her, and I couldn’t appropriate it by making it an Egg by Jacques Armand. In a nutshell—and forgive me if I’m unclear—I would have been terribly disappointed if I’d learned the egg wasn’t human, and completely terrified if I’d been certain it was. In either case, I couldn’t paint it.”

“What happened?”

“Two years later, I received a letter from Doris in which she told me of Suzanne’s death. She’d run into her again, a few months earlier: the poor old woman was retired now and living alone in Paris. They had tea, and chatted the hours away. Finally, Doris could not resist her desire to bring up the egg. Suzanne laughed mysteriously and barked something like, ‘Of course, the egg. What a story, right?’”

“How disappointing.”

“Indeed. Yet on the other hand, it was a relief. As I just mentioned, Doris told me in her letter that Suzanne had died shortly thereafter. ‘Had the egg been laid by a woman or a bird? Now no one would ever know.’ She was right and, strangely, this freed me. I’d been unable to paint the egg for fear of finding out it was well and truly human; now I would be able to because I was convinced it was, though I’d never have the proof. Strange, isn’t it? In the end, I finished the work very quickly, in three nights. I made it very simple, so that it wouldn’t attract attention, or be noticed except by informed connoisseurs. I want it to preserve its secret. It is perhaps the least known of all my pieces, but when I look at it, I find it one of the most beautiful.”

“Does what’s painted on the shell mean anything?”

“Yes. It’s a Chinese word referring to a mythical bird that, so it’s said, kidnaps babies from the cradle to devour them.”

I admired the egg, which now seemed to give off a more intense glow.

“Perhaps one day I’ll set this story down on paper. Until then, promise me you’ll never say anything about this to anyone.”

I promised, and the visit drew to a close. I took my leave of Jacques Armand, wondering if he hadn’t played a trick on me. Six months later, he died. I think of him whenever I pass a pregnant woman in the street and muse on whether her belly perhaps houses an egg. If it has a painted shell, then Jacques Armand is in heaven, and he has breathed into the Creator’s ear an idea for a new monster born of woman, fashioned by the hand of God, but adorned by his brush alone.