Translated by Edward Gauvin
Thomas Owen (1910−2002) is the one name regularly cited with Jean Ray as a pillar of Belgian supernatural horror, and the nom de plume of Gérald Bertot: criminal lawyer, art critic, mystery writer, and career manager of a flour plant. Thomas Ligotti has praised Owen’s “meditative and intimate prose works” as part of a European “tradition of poetic horror.” The author of more than 300 stories over the course of his lifetime, Owen is an exceedingly well-kept secret in the English-speaking world, known only to a handful of dedicated fans on the basis of a single collection, The Desolate Presence (William Kimber, 1984). His unsettling work has been compared to that of Poe and Buzzati.
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“I hear something like music,” thought Kavar the Rat.
Of course he heard nothing, and was only following a dream within.
An old man sitting on a doorstep, he had a thin pointed face pierced by little black eyes, worried and roving.
Before making a move, he looked swiftly around him several times over, like a rodent poking its nose from its hole. He really did remind you of a rat.
There he was, slumped in a low chair, hands between his legs, eyes on the ground, preoccupied, straining his ears. But really, he heard nothing.
A high flaking wall rose before him. The backside of a tannery. Sinister, blocking out the view. Kavar the Rat nevertheless derived a certain satisfaction from gazing on it. It was a windowless wall that hadn’t been whitewashed for years, peeling with moisture and age. But the mildew took such seductive shapes, made so many mysteries there that with a little imagination, Kavar the Rat could pick out trees, mountains, monstrous plants, fantastical profiles. By narrowing his eyes, he produced at whim a winged lion, a witch, a hanged man, a cactus with terrifying protuberances… Loads of things that caused him fear and pleasure.
He remained there, unmoving, worrying something between his teeth, a hard candy, a bit of string, or maybe part of a match.
“Hey Kavar!” suddenly came a voice from behind him.
Kavar the Rat started, turned quickly, and got up. “Hey, hey.”
It was the lodger Kirchenbaum, gruff and important, on his way out. Kavar was afraid of the man. He tried to make himself disappear.
“Having fun?” said Kirchenbaum, giving him a suspicious look.
“Taking a rest,” said Kavar plaintively. “I thought I heard music — imagine that.”
“Music!” Kirchenbaum shrugged. “Who’d be making music at this hour? You’d do better fixing my clock, Kavar, than daydreaming the hours away.”
“On my list,” said Kavar ingratiatingly, “It’s on my list.”
He smiled a poor, worried little smile. “Is that old clock really worth repairing? What an unrewarding chore, Mr. Kirchenbaum, and long too.”
Kirchenbaum didn’t deign to reply. He was already moving away, limping on his bad leg, indifferent to the silent curse that followed him.
Kavar was a watchmaker. His real name was Cyril Kavarnaliev. But everyone called him “Kavar” or “Kavar the Rat” and he didn’t seem the worse for it. Nor the better, either. For a few months now — it had to be said — his health had been declining.
Like all the elderly, the poor man had his quirks, but really, for some time now, he’d been growing quite tedious. Always lost in thought, dreamy, surprised by everything, jostled from the skies. Or else garrulous and tiresome, with endless insipid youthful memories that interested no one. Impossible, had you the bad luck to fall into conversation with him, to escape his commentary on the excellence of all things in days gone by, in his distant, unhappy homeland.
“In my day, they made pitchforks with handles like this!” or “That was how they fattened geese! You should’ve seen it!” and “Whistles! Harnesses! Cabbage soup!”
Despite the respect due age, sometimes you wanted to smack him on the head to shut him up.
But he’d been a skillful artisan, and remained so. At the beginning of his career, his real specialty had been locksmithing. Ah! Nothing to do with today’s dumb little locks, all identical, with grooved keys and four screws to be slapped up any old where, which came apart with a blow of your fist. No. Real locks, ingenious, intelligent, personal, custom-made. He’d built all kinds! Secrets, thief-proof, devilishly clever. But also screaming padlocks that wouldn’t let themselves be violated, latches that struck back, a stack of sneaky, perplexing little mechanisms to turn the most sensible engineer pale.
Of course all that was in the past. Now everything was simple. People had become poor. They no longer needed locks or safes. What would they put in them? They thought only of their bellies, nothing else. The era of treasures had past. And so for want of customers, Kavar the Rat had had to find another line of work.
Nimble and diligent, he had soon become a deft watchmaker. But out of resignation. Without faith. Clocks and watches — it had to be said — were unutterably dumb. Round in circles they went, endlessly, eternally, unimaginatively, like an animal in a cage. A watch had never blinded anyone. But a good spring lock! A hedgehog lock! A firing safe! Gods above, now those were machines!
All this to come to the good man’s masterpiece. A doll-bank. That played music, if you please! Built what would soon be twenty years ago. A porcelain face on a body lovingly sewn from the skin of a young pig, stuffed with horsehair where needed and, in back, a little door of tarnished silver that opened on a complicated mechanism. Little columns of smooth brass, iron cylinders multiply notched, perforated rollers, steel blades making a spring… A gem, I say! A veritable little marvel!
This doll-bank, which was to have been a music box if not an automaton, was dressed like a little girl, in a quaint fashion, with a dress of dark red velour, a shawl of yellowed lace, and little shoes buttoned high on shapely calves.
When the hundredth coin — not one less, not one more, and naturally, a sizable slug — was slipped, as you’d expect, beneath lifted skirts and into the doll’s belly, the bank would start humming a little tune Kavar the Rat had made up himself.
I say “would.” For the thing had never yet happened, and the old man never cheated with himself. This was his elegance. The mechanism was well designed. There was no reason to doubt it. The only things missing were the hundred coins. Despite his efforts, the poor inventor, always short of money, had not yet managed to realize his dream: to fill the bank and hear it sing…
A strange ambition, a bit mad as a thought, in which one might have detected the temptations of both pride and greed. Perhaps a psychoanalyst might even have found a senile manifestation of libido.
The fact remains that the curious music box remained mute, and with good reason. Yet he cajoled it, caressed it, spoke to it, comforted it, begged it to be patient. Now there was fetishism, a manner of sin, but almost a reason to live.
Sometimes, cutting back on his meager expenses with more-than-usual bitterness, Kavar the Rat managed to fill the secret conduits of the doll-bank more than halfway. This would take months of perseverance, deprivations, sacrifices. But far along as he was toward the realization of his hopes, some unfortunate event always arose to disrupt his slow, methodical savings.
The poor Kavar had had to pay the doctor, buy new glasses, satisfy a debtor he’d believed long dead… the poor and elderly were never at peace!
There was his son, to boot. His cross. His life’s misfortune. A great sly and careless devil who occasionally stopped by in passing, just to say hello and steal a little something. Anything. A scarf. A bit of money. A sausage, a tin of sardines. He had to steal; he couldn’t help it. Thankfully, he’d never touched the doll, whose presence he seemed unaware of.
These days, Kavar the Rat wanted to strangle him. But he was too weak, too worn. He’d surrendered so often already. Timid by nature, he feared being struck. And his son might easily have struck him. Hear me well: what paralyzed him wasn’t so much the fear of waking up in the corner where he’d been knocked out, but the worry of being the indirect cause of a terrible curse on top of the threats already heaped on his unlucky child’s head. Everyone knew that whoever raised a hand to his father would suffer the same punishment in this world. And Kavar the Rat dreaded his son’s misfortune.
But right now the old man wasn’t dwelling on such things. All through his drunk, he’d contemplated the familiar shapes on tannery wall, and as usual, it had taken his mind off. He rose slowly, stretched out his legs, and off he went with a clumsy step, a bit like a fakir after a few months of immobility.
Not far away, he ran into his neighbor Hertler, utterly delighted.
“My daughter isn’t well,” said Hertler. “It’s serious!”
He was a jealous old man with the face of a century-old Sioux, who hoped to bury his whole family soon. Some old men have wicked hopes.
“What’s she got?” asked Kavar.
“It’s her stomach,” Hertler said.
He sank the tip of his pinky into his ear, seemed to want to drive it all the way into his brain, then pulled it out again and gazed pensively at the hollow of his nail.
“They’ll have to operate,” he said, a twinkle in his eye. “Dirty business!”
He had the delighted face of someone who’d just hit the jackpot.
His cynicism horrified the watchmaker. Sadly, Kavar waved his disapproval, but preferred to remain silent.
At that moment, savage shouts burst out from the end of the street. Kids showed up, pushing and shoving. A pale, ugly child with the face of a murderer led the pack. His eyes were ringed and his lips cruel.
“Where is he?” said the boy in a trembling voice, quickly bringing his hand to his forehead in a vague military salute.
“Who?” stammered Kavar. But he already knew.
“Look! It’s your son!” said Hertler, elated.
Of course — had it been a stupid question, then?
“Oh!” said Kavar.
“He just went into your place,” reported Hertler.
Satisfied with this information, the brat raised his hand in a rallying wave and led his howling band after Kavar’s son.
“The rascal!” whined Kavar.
Already he was hurrying on his weak legs, sure he’d arrive too late to stop a new offense.
With a quietly ironic air, Hertler watched him go. A good day for the wicked! He rubbed his hands together, then started fiddling with his ear.
Kavar the Rat scurried along with difficulty. Gathered in a semicircle before the door to his house, the brats beckoned him from far off to hurry. And the poor man, hopping oddly along, did his best, tense, regretful, dreadfully humiliated.
As soon as he arrived, the kids backed away from the entrance to the hallway. Kavar passed before them, head down, not daring to look. Then he turned on the threshold and waved impatiently for them to leave. As if he were shooing away sparrows. But none budged. All Kavar could do was stare. He spat at them, then entered the house. At the end of the hall, in the shadows, he stumbled on the first step of the staircase.
His vision clouded. He began to cry. It was really such a shame! He wept because up there, his son was in the middle of robbing him. To think there were fathers who wept for the deaths of their sons!
On the first landing, out of breath, he let himself fall into Kirchenbaum’s broken wicker armchair. Every night, the lodger collapsed into it like a pig and took off his shoes. Kavar hoped Kirchenbaum would never find out. How unlucky, to be so unlucky!
Kavar the Rat had lost all sense of time. His chest hurt so much. He breathed with difficulty. A creaking sound in the stairwell brought him back to himself. His son was coming down. He hadn’t time to pull himself together for the meeting. The thin form of his son was already there, swift and furtive.
“Thief! Lout! Father killer!” Kavar the Rat whimpered, his hands on the arms of the chair like a paralyzed king cursing his dynasty.
“Hey, pops!” Quick and catlike, the son passed mockingly, without bothering to stop. He was in the street two seconds later. The kids could be heard bolting off. Then a bit later, booing and whistles.
Kavar the Rat rose painfully from his seat. He felt definitively broken. Step after step, by dint of horrendous effort, he went up…
The door to his bedroom was open. No lock stood up to his son. Hauled to the middle of the room, his great trunk had been forced open and now stood open-mouthed, gaping. A dreadful sight!
The old man fell to his knees among his old rags tossed pell-mell on the floorboards. He rummaged through the poor useless things, so mistreated, and soon set hands on his precious doll.
She had been savagely gutted and springs, metal wires, horsehair spilled out like strange viscera. O vanished hopes, o long hours of work lost! Never again would he have the courage to repair such damage, nor the time to save up the coins he needed again. In despair, his heart swollen with boundless sadness, he shook the pillaged doll, fussed over her tenderly, like someone trying to resurrect a child.
Such feelings would wind up the death of him. Gently, he set the bank with its porcelain face down on the floorboards and took out a filthy handkerchief to wipe his eyes. Now he could see better.
Without thinking, he slipped two fingers into his fob and felt a coin. The one he’d meant to save today. The idea came to him, despite the pathetic pointlessness of the gesture, to insert it into the doll. He contemplated the thaler, brought it to his lips, kissed it in honor. Thus despite his wretchedness, there was something sacred about him. Something made him picture a priest, a prophet. All this smacked a bit of miracles, of sacrilege and sorcery. Such tension, in that moment!
He slipped his hand beneath the skirt of dark red velours, inserted the coin, and was utterly surprised to see his fingers stained with blood. He took a closer look. The skin of the stomach was bleeding.
With his now-sticky hands he stroked the impassive face. The long-lashed eyelids seemed to open and close on beautiful fixed blue eyes. Now there were traces of red on the too-white cheeks. He sat down, leaned back on the trunk, and cradled the doll with metal entrails where something alive was now in the process of dying.
That was when he heard the music. There was something like a sob, which caused a kind of hemorrhagic spasm. Then a series of frail and moving sounds of unspeakable beauty.
Kavar the Rat rejoiced. He recognized the song he’d planted in the heart of the doll long ago, now suddenly flowering in blood.
He hummed a few bars in unison with the beautiful, obedient toy he rocked in his arms. Then his head slumped against his chest and, quite stupidly, like the old thing he was, he collapsed. His thin little body rolled almost soundlessly to one side, among the old clothes and the moth-eaten curtains from the trunk.
Kavar the Rat smiled. His dream had been realized. He no longer had to fear disappointment or humiliation. His mouth was skewed a little to one side. There was saliva at the corners of his lips. Sugary saliva, probably, since he liked to suck on hard candies.
A fly alighted there joyfully. How long it had waited for this moment! It rubbed its legs together under its wings.
Kirchenbaum’s cat came over too. Very carefully, it lapped at the blood from the silent doll.