We’re pleased to present, for the first time in English, “The Sound of the Mill” by Marcel Béalu. Permission was granted by Editions Corti. The story was translated from French by Michael Cisco. — The Editors
I beg you, don’t come back, my sweet little girl. Leave me in my solitary decay, with the sound of the mill. I’ve done too much lying, because of your bare arms around my face, because of your tender looks, because of your love, fresh as the laughter of the moon in the May undergrowth. My baby, my little mistress! Stay away, never come back and never call me “your light.” The enchantment of love is a trap. How is it you haven’t noticed my wrinkled brow, my grey locks, and this systematic approach to pleasure which makes plain the usury of the senses, and this costuming of language which indicates a ragged heart. I’m like an apple that rots in the storehouse. This discolored, self-hardened thing! No new blood could ever revive it. I must break the spell that enchants you.
Your chamber filled with hawthorne, the very chamber in which you go to sleep under my marvelling gaze, will soon be engulfed in a terrifying darkness. The words I use may seem exaggerated to you, but what can describe so much horror? When you have read to the end of this confession, you will understand. Unless you have cast aside these sheets and fled screaming…
I imagine how inexplicable, in the serenity of your spirit, my preamble must seem to you. But be patient. I will tell you all, and condemn myself, by telling you all, to the terrible punishment I have earned, and which will not be the punishment of men. Beside derision and human justice there is another justice, an imminence that takes note of each of our crimes. Mine have been many. But a spirit as honest as yours cannot fathom the depths to which a man may descend when he is the slave of fear.
Yes, you will be the only one to know, because your eyes filled with birds, because your unbelievably youthful voice and your flashes of laughter hasten me toward the sound of the mill. The sound of the mill! Ah, if you could hear it tonight, the ceaseless grating of mouldering beams and the disordered breathing that whispers down below, raucous and deep, like the dull roars of a thousand tea kettles. I told you: It’s just the river. Do you remember? And perhaps you also remember that fearful cry you heard on the first day, as you approached the mill.
— “That’s nothing, just a pig they’re slaughtering, down there on the farm… Tonight they’ll be dancing around steaming sausages…”
You smiled, my silly little mistress. You were reassured. And what could be more horrible than slaughtering a pig?
I’d known many women. You will surely be the last, since, as your own miraculously innocent thoughts are my witness, I refuse to stave off my own death for a few more years. You think I’m rambling. Alas, no! Later you will understand. The river, the sound of the mill, everything. And it is for this reason that I tell you today: Never come back!
Remember the layout of this derelict habitation, in the hollow of a dale. “It’s so beautiful!” you said to me, with welling eyes. All the little darlings who came before you said to me:
— “How lovely it is! How ravishing it is! Oh, how extraordinary it is!”
But all of them, and you as well I’m sure, upon leaving this paradisal spot, brought away with them a feeling of disquiet. Nothing is more enchanting than the traces of human dwelling place as they are reclaimed and effaced by nature. This old pile of five storeys, besieged by bracken and flowered with viburnum, where the ivy and the wild vines overrun the doors and windows, must seem particularly strange to those who approach it with fresh eyes, strange and disturbing.
But weren’t they already blinded by love’s magic, those young women who agreed to come out to this isolated place and to climb the flimsy exterior stairs up to my hidden aerie? Many had lived there for months, years even, without the slightest suspicion. How could they have suspected anything? In the old mill, straddling the river, the room was filled only with flowers, with sunlight, with caresses and with kisses. Sometimes, one would say to me:
— “It’s odd, your house seems so large, and yet you occupy only a small section of it… Why don’t you use all the rooms?”
I made up a story: the storeys beneath the main one were used as storehouses by local companies. Each one believed me. Until a certain fatal morning, for I always chose the hour in which nature is freshly awake, with all its native innocence.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Again you said to me, leaning over the river, through which one could see the undulating weeds between the stones:
— “Look how clear the water is, you could count all the fish that live in it…”
Transparent, yes, but at what price! As for the fish, not so! For a long time there had been only one, downstream from the mill. Nothing is more poetic than flowing water. Limpid, the water glides, and the weeds at the bottom, waving. It’s like your eyes, in which the currents of your tenderness are ever stirring, sweet love! But stagnant water, if you had been able to see upstream, you would have seen how troubled it was, how thick and foetid, clogged with what one would not dare to inspect too closely, debris choking in slime, carrion turning blue with decay… And yet, the moment it passed through my mill, nothing more, all as clean as if it had gone through a filter. Nothing left but a mirror over which they, those beauties, might lean, like me.
Listen to me! This mill has been, from bygone centuries long past, that stream’s destination. You will know soon enough what sort of grain I have been grinding in it… I am trembling as I write this to you, I ramble, I hesitate to open your eyes to all its horrors. And yet I cannot avoid revealing to you now the fact that I am unable to leave this place, where so many phantoms hold me. The last time that I beheld you sleeping, I swore before your purity that I would tell you everything. When I have finished, the sound of the mill will never be able to overshout my voice, wash out my speech, drown me in its powerful whisper.
I inherited the property on my father’s death. My father was a biologist. He had installed his “laboratory” in this old mill. How can I say these things without seeming ridiculous? His laboratory! In reality: his monster workshop. My father was a very learned man. He studied the dynamic interrelations of molecular chaos, the growth of living tissue, the reproductions of protoplasm. Let’s say simply, since I am not competent to speak of these things and will not know how to explain them to you, that he claimed he’d discovered the origins of life. When I came into possession of this house, I sold off the alembic (my father was also something of an alchemist!), the test tubes, the precision instruments. I was primarily an artist. I had spent my youth in other studies. To be honest, I was my father’s opposite. All this organic chemistry in which life made itself matter was not much to my taste. I loved the spirit, only. The outer world was for me only a stage I could populate with the creatures of my dreams. I cleaned the place out. I installed my workshop on the ground floor; on the second, the kitchen and dining room; on the third, bedrooms (I had planned to bring my friends here, all rowdy types). The lower floors I reserved for games, a private cinema, an intimate little theatre, ping-pong, billiards, roulette, etc. What a program!
I had forgotten only one thing, did I tell you? The mill wheel. The wine and coal were stored in a cellar. How could I have known that my father had installed, in the building, in an actual fermentation vat, the product of his researches. Now I come to what is essential.
I had forgotten only one thing, did I tell you? Yes, that one thing: THE THING. That which expanded ceaselessly, that which grew more every day and could not be destroyed. An insatiable, gelatinous mass, armed with long, thin mobile filaments, a supple skeleton, tentacles proliferating without end, but not a brain, not a brain. Only a mouth, or rather the agglutination of thousands of mouths increasing without respite, with slow digestions always followed by unpredictable growths…
I am not raving. How can I name for you this thing that can have no name, consisting of thousands of active globules, this sort of formless, unclean heart, pulsating with gluttonous life, which now completely fills the house? This thing is not an animal. I know only that it is always hungry, with a terrible hunger.
This thing sealed in the basement, at the time I discovered it, had already become impossible to destroy. I understood that it too was part of my inheritance from my father. Wasn’t it, in a certain sense, another of his children? I realized that I would have to live with it, come to some kind of arrangement with it, that is to say: feed it. If I did not want to be devoured by it.
You can guess the rest, you believe in intuition. But you cannot know the secret terror my life became after I made this bargain. All that the river carries downstream is so much fodder for that gluttonous, pullulating mass, which clings to the beams, to the structure, even to the stones, slowly gnawing at its food. That is why the water is so transparent downstream. I began by throwing whatever I could find in the vicinity into the water. But if, at the outset, that nourishment was sufficient, later it proved inadequate.
With what anguish, in times already long in the past, had I listened to the steadily growing pounding, stronger and stronger, of what I too had believed to be the sound of the mill. And later this sound exploded, in the course of a day, rough and unbearable, making its demands by way of a hellish drumming. The thing was hungry. Filling the void was its only desire, filling itself up with all, beyond measure, overrunning everything. Its gelatinous bulk pounds on my door even now.
I abandoned my workshop to its voracity, then each storey in turn, after bricking up the windows. For a few years an uneasy peace prevailed. Finally, I moved into this room, which you know, this room under the rafters, accessible by means of a sort of exterior passageway along the roof. Doubtless it is my immediate duty to reveal my secret to the world, and give over this haunted house to men of science. Flee, I must flee. But it’s just as these ideas occur to me that the demon whispers in my ear.
I told you how I have always loved women. At that time, I could not do without Sylvie, nor could she do without me. But I loved her whereas she, on the other hand, hated me, which made me hate her in turn. Nothing could satisfy her. What love can resist that, without weakening, without being destroyed? Without apology she left me to take turns with any man she pleased, and I swore to avenge myself. Sylvie, the first, became fodder for the thing.
After this choice morsel, I enjoyed the novelty of a few years of peace during which a demonic idea grew in me. One quickly grows tired of a woman. And the problem this poses is: how to get rid of them? A chain of circumstances had given me the means, what am I saying? I was constrained, forced, to employ those means. Ten times, twenty times, they brought me back to the same scene, which had very quickly become a perfectly regular routine.
As I told you, I always chose the dawn, when the newborn day brushes the windows and the birds are just beginning to sing. There were Jeanne, Léa, Claire, Simonne… There were Solange, Lucette… oh, I don’t remember them all. I did the impossible to avoid being cruel. I never had any doubts about that, before. When my beauty awaked, unlacing her limbs from mine, entirely naked as always, and weary after a night of love, I would whisper in her ear:
“I’ve fixed up the next room, so you could have a place of your own in which to rest and to dream. Go and see if it pleases you.”
She would always rush to look, with the same conspiratorial smirking: “Oh, how kind of you…” I caught a glimpse (one last time!) of a body more pitiful than radiant in the pallor of the morning. Then she opened the door, which I had unbolted as she slept, and disappeared FOREVER.
So I would rise, my eyes brimming with tears, and swiftly go to seal the door from which there swelled up, as if suddenly erupting into delirious activity, the sound of the mill. My God! will I be condemned to die a thousand times before I will forget that sound? Afterwards, I would be at peace. A year, perhaps two, sometimes even more. Freed from my fear, I could begin to live again, to love, to look for new prey…
And now, you know all. What is there to add? It’s bawling, this particular day, without cease, my nightmare of an older brother, my peculiar rival. I’ve tried stopping up my ears, but nothing can prevent my hearing it now. It’s calling for you. Those few times when you slept with me, its thousand papillae hung just behind the walls snuffing the fragrance of your young flesh. Oh! I beg you, my sweet little one, never come back here! Behind the door that yet protects me, there is a sound like the rushing of a furious sea, a vast hissing that shakes the frame and making the planking bulge.
It’s my turn.
My child, my little mistress, never come back here! Leave me in my decaying solitude, among the agitated and relentless shadows that I have been feeding for so many years. And if you think that there is a monster within me, tell yourself it is still less cruel than the one who waited for me, at the bottom of your gaze full of the green grass and of birds.