The Ghoul

Belgian fabulist Jean Muno was earlier profiled in these pages. We are pleased to present “The Ghoul,” a phantasmagorical tale from his first collection, Histoires singulières.

muno

He stops.

Turns around.

A man of middle age, graying, in a hunting vest and fishing boots. Watchful, no doubt worried. He’s alone, and sees no one. No one behind him.

And yet there’d been a cry. A wail, a call, something human.

I have been following this man for a long time. Step by step, keeping my distance, as a hunter does its prey. Because I am wary. Whatever happens, I don’t want to be involved, just a witness, as a dreamer of his dream.

Sometimes the man stops, turns around, but because of the fog, ever denser as the tide rises, he sees less and less. Neither the dunes nor the sea, neither his destination nor his starting point. Perhaps he has crossed the border, perhaps not—how to tell? He is alone on a meager stretch of beach without landmarks. The cry could have come from anywhere at all.

Leapt from the ground, fallen from the sky, surged from the waves.

A cry from anywhere at all.

To his right, the ocean, to his left, the line of dunes. Between these barriers, however invisible, you can’t  completely lose your way. The beach tilts imperceptibly toward the great moist murmur. It is littered with debris, black tresses of seaweed, broken by fat violet jellyfish. Dead, undone, shipwrecked splatters, they smell of kelp. Pale and swollen, a lamb’s cadaver stiffens its long legs in desperation.

Where does it go, this invisible line that frees and confines? Never has the man crossed the border, not even a brief foray, without a feeling of something irreparable. The euphoria of borders, he thinks. Behind him, his patchwork life, worm-riddled, left to the scavengers’ feverish devouring. Behind him. As if, in an instant, everything had become possible once more, his dreams of a clean break, starting over! But today is enough to drive him to despair. The same gray everywhere. Gray the fog, gray the sand in which the lamb’s remains have softly burrowed, as if the beginning of a grave.

Gray the cry.

This time he’s sure of it—the cry is coming from the sea. Before him. The sea is slow, heavy. Reeling under the weight of the fog, it spreads out in short waves, leaving a thin, sinuous fringe of froth. A stupor, the edges of exhaustion, and suddenly that cry, that tearing—the brutal, awaited return of pain.

Help!

Save me!

He recognized the voice; it hadn’t changed in what would soon be twenty years. An ageless cry. The first time it was in Provence, in the depths of a narrow, almost impassable canyon. Help! Save me! Help! In the rocky wall opened a shadowy maw. The cold hardness of metal, the hand that greedily seized his own, for the first itme.

Wherever he had gone since then, that cry, the feel of metal barely colder than that hand. One day in Flanders, in a village empty as a necropolis; another time, at the edge of a pine wood, before a massive lightning-streaked sky. And that rainy night when, unable to find his way, he’d paced the strangely uneven pavement of a foreign city… It wasn’t tied to a single place, but a state of mind. A feeling of failure, loneliness, as if the call came from inner breach. He had answered each time, unable to resist. The idea of what had to follow held him terrified and spellbound, like an abyss.

He has stopped, facing the direction from which the wail came. It seems to be drawing nearer, making its way through the fog, eating it away like an acid, carving vague contours into it. And suddenly the image is there, ever clearer. He recognizes the shape of the back of the chair, the glint of its metallic frame, the underside of a half-submerged wheel. And the hand that reaches out, opens, calls.

How to tear his gaze from that lovely skeleton’s hand, elegantly gloved in flesh, that calls him, compels him?

He steps into the water. The tide rises, the crippled woman is a prisoner of the steel chair, he must rescue her from danger. Once more, she has been abandoned. But he feels strong, heroic, and pure, invincible in his dream as if in armor. His dream! To see her again, lift her up in his arms, carry her over the waves, experience once more the incomparable exhilaration of having saved her.

The water is up to his belly now. Like the lamb’s corpse, the wheelchair has burrowed into the sand. He seizes the woman’s hand, and she turns her unchanging face toward him—the face of a doll, with its great made-up eyes and strange gaze, intense and cold. Her pitiful legs have drowned. She puts an arm around his neck, and for a moment they stay that way, unmoving, as if embracing in a dream. Then he lifts her up and, tottering a bit, carries her toward shore. Jettisoned, the wheelchair lists, topples, slowly disappears.

Strange: she’s exactly same as she was in that village crouched at the foot of a cliff that rose, a gigantic mausoleum, in the middle of an unremittingly flat landscape. Seated before the doorstep of that stone house, just as well-dressed, hair as perfect, hands with their red nails resting on the sheepskin that hid her atrophied legs. With night nigh and the air full of crows’ panicked cawing, a small circle of youths, girls and boys, formed around her. Backed by the cliff, the voices took on a singular resonance, and the silence of the heights, where a few raptors wheeled, became unfamthomable. Then suddenly a tall sad woman appeared, her older sister. She pushed the wheelchair through the town square to the old church with the lowered parvis, and then, lifting the crippled woman to her chest, carries her inside, like an idol.

She pressed herself against her sister’s chest—so frail, so light. A bird, a loving child. What a joy to bring her back alive, maimed but alive, to cross that invisible threshold, to place her at the foot of the altar in a cradle of soft sand. He leans over her; he could stay here all his life, just looking at her. The curve of her shoulders, her breasts, the fine lawn cloth swelling like a sail…. Skin of incorporeal delicacy…. A face whose harmony no expression troubled, in contrast with the thick, living, wild tangle of her jet-black tresses…. Why did he never stop meeting the mysterious creature? Beautiful as a mummy’s golden mask, ambiguous as the perfect mortal coil of the departed. Perfect—unfinished.

You saved me, she utters. You saved me once more.

They are lying side by side somewhere, under the fog. She whispers right into his ear, repeating like an incantation You saved me… you saved me… and then, just as before in the shadow of the cliff in that sleepy town, in the gorges of Provence, the obscure story, the spectral story, in insistent snatches. She called her witch… melancholy witch…. She who pushed the wheelchair not out of love but interest, with the ignoble hope that one day…. For years, her suffering was hitched to hatred, hatred that would push her to the very edge of sheer cliffs and stop, ecstatic at her terror, standing silently behind her…. Hatred that would drag her with great strides, almost naked, through icy autumn rains…. Hatred that that for no other reason than to make its own omnipotence known, would abandon her in the middle of nowhere, laughing at her pleas and cries…

A madwoman, a demon. Her own death had taken her in hand, was now in charge. Every outing could be her last.

And now, right beside his ear: I am just like you. Each of us moves forward with our own death for a shadow. Each of us, sooner or later, abandoned…

How to tell her she was his child, saved once more, that he loved her more than anything in the world—how to tell her?

He carried her along the path she had traveled earlier, before being abandoned. The sea had not yet erased her tracks from before, the wheels’ parallel lines and, between them, the firm steps of the other woman, the Melancholy one, wide mannish soles marked by a kind of Maltese cross. At the end, the two tracks went their separate ways, toward the cliff and the fisherman’s hut, where the murderer had taken refuge, praying for the tragedy to come to an end at last.

The world is filled with incomplete crimes, begun over and over time and again, ghosts that know no rest and err in the recesses of loneliness, in the embittered memories of the aged, among ruins, the ghastly cawing of crows, deep in gorges where raptors wheel silently overhead. Stories clawed and fanged, stories that feed on blood. Some vague apprehension signals your presence, and I am careful to draw no closer. Woe be unto him who takes no heed, for he who seeks such tales shall find them.

You saved me. I owe you my life…. You saved me. I love you…. My beloved, I love you…

With each step she grows heavier, harder, crueler. Already he can feel the bite of her nails in his neck.

Once more, the terrible metamorphosis is underway. Ineluctable. The moment is nearing when she will be stronger, with all her claws, all her fangs, and she will never let go again. He will fall to his knees, torn to pieces, crawl his way through the sand, bleeding out. It will be the end. His death, begun time and again in the nightmare that feeds on him.

She is lying on the sand, eyes closed, and he is beside her, out of breath. Ever less human and ever more beautiful. That is the horrific part: seeing her draw away, grow ever stranger, and having to suffer this mystery.

Keep me warm, she utters, hold me… hold me tight.

He gets back on his feet. The border has been crossed, everything is possible now. She opens her eyes just a slit. A blue, icy stare. Different. Like a chrysalis accomplishing its fearsome birth. The child is no more, neither child nor woman—all that was a trap. When this strange icy blue unfurls its wings, it…. He steps back, retreating step by step. But no—it’s no trap, because he knew in advance. He never saved her, he will never be able to leave her: he is victim.

He hadn’t gone far, he never even took his eyes off her. Leaning on his arm, she thrusts out her chest and, for the first time, smiles. Hieratic and smiling in the serpentine waves of her hair. He kneels before her. Do ghouls, empuses, have such blue eyes?

He will never reach the fisherman’s hut now; his strength will leave him long before. He will collapse in sight of his goal, at the foot of the cliff, before the invincible fortress. The crime will remain unfinished, the sea will efface all evidence. Neither victim nor perpetrator. The tragedy without end will return to the limbo haunted by spectral stories.

Hours now he has been walking. Hours, days, following the tracks of wheels toward the nightmare’s source. He stoops, back bent, his feet sink ankle deep in the damp sand, each step demands effort from his entire being. Ever since, unable to stand it anymore, he took her astride his back, he has felt lost, demeaned, guilty. Hours, days… perhaps all his life. Who knows? What he carries has no face, is a mute embrace, lethal, from the depths of time—is the Creature, the Creature without a name that sits astride man.

Suddenly the fog is torn to pieces, and the cliff appears, chalk-white, dizzying. As if in a dream, bedazzled, enthralled, he recognizes its unchanging profile. It seems a gigantic altar cracked down the middle by a titan’s fist. There, in the depths of the fissure, lies the path that leads to inner lands, toward which the tracks now lead. But the two parallel lines deepen, grow farther apart, become ruts of sand and gravel, as if a wagon launched at a mad speed had riven the beach.

Here and there, perched at varying heights, still as statues, their great black wings folded, the Furies are waiting.

He will go no farther, for this is where it all ends. He has known it ever since the cry, the first cry, long ago, in a canyon in Provence. Now it is too late. Once more, he is in the middle of a fatal arena, in the blinding light.

Light like a blade. The Furies are waiting, draped in their jet-black tresses.

Slowly, with neither haste nor cruelty, with a kind of melancholy ardor, despairing, the talons shred his cheeks, the spurs pierce his sides, a beak tears open the nape of his neck, delves down to the very vertebrae…. His back buckles, his knees give…. He surrenders to the inexorable embrace, the sweet and monstrous devouring. To torture, to violation.

His face against the earth. He falls, falls again, several times, rushing, held back, as if something immense above him, with him, sought to take flight.

A sudden wind rises, a strange breath, panting, a dying breath. Everything darkens. The sky is no longer anything but a slow, profound beating of black wings.

Then once more the blinding, triumphant light, this time bursting into the very sky.

The eagle flew over the sea, straight toward the setting sun. Its wingspan was not of this world. Between claws stiff as crutches, it held an unmoving body that sowed the sand with a few drops of blood.

translated by Edward Gauvin