Jehanne Jean-Charles was a French fantasist noted for her deft, imaginative, and often dark stories. Her stature was enhanced significantly by two collections, Les Plumes du corbeau (1962) and Les Griffes du chat (1964), which were later republished a decade later in a single volume taking the name of the former collection. Movies have been filmed from adaptations of short stories of hers, such as “Une méchante petite fille” [A Wicked Little Girl] and “Le bonheur d’être père” [The Joy of Fatherhood]. Despite her reputation in French letters, much of her fiction is still unpublished in English. The following story, “Annie,” was originally published in French under the title “Je m’appelle Annie” in the anthology Le fanstastique féminin [The Feminine Fantastic], edited by Anne Richter. “Annie” ably demonstrates Jean-Charles’s flair for the fantastic and macabre in the service of a tale of weird transformation. The translator of this story, Edward Gauvin, has previously written about Jean-Charles for WFR.com; we strongly recommend reading this story in tandem with his previous column for additional context and enjoyment. – The Editors
We’d been married a year when Jacques took me to see the house he’d inherited. It wasn’t far from Paris, but no sooner had we left the highway than we found ourselves strangers in a strange land. Jacques couldn’t quite recall the way. He’d come only once, by train, and we passed through tiny villages whose denizens gave odd answers to our questions.
It was almost dark. We’d left after Jacques’ last appointment, with an important client. The deal had been settled, one that would make a great deal of money. At the time, we had less than we would later, when my life changed, and we liked money for what it meant in terms of trips, gifts for each other, added comfort.
We walked into a café-restaurant with a pewter countertop. The large windows were missing a few panes. They’d been replaced with turn-of-the-century posters: Yvette Guilbert, with her long black gloves, Bruant draped in a scarf.
Jacques and I nudged each other with our elbows, marveling. At the time, everything seemed arranged for our pleasure alone, and what a pleasure it was to find ourselves in a strange old café where life had stopped some fifty years earlier. None of the men at the counter turned to look at us. The napes of their necks were unkempt beneath their berets. They were waiting for the barber who held court in that very room once a week.
He arrived and, on a table beside ours, laid out his instruments: a bowl, a shaving brush, a comb missing a few teeth, long scissors, a pair of clippers and a tall vial of cheap eau-de-cologne, a brownish liquid he tossed liberally over his clients’ heads.
In the tarnished glass, the men admired their well-groomed hair, parted in even waves the barber crimped with his fingers. The skin behind their ears was bare and red. The barber likely infused his work with a bit more solemnity than usual. Without having spared us a glance, he knew we were watching, fascinated.
For dinner, we shared a stuffed cabbage, which was very good. We were madly in love.
Though the café’s owner had seen our car, he hadn’t added a cent to the bill; we paid no more than anyone else. But everyone was waiting, with what we could tell was growing impatience, for us to leave so they could ask the owner who we were and what we could possibly want around here. The owner already knew, since we’d asked him for directions, that Jacques was Madame Baron’s heir, and Madame Baron had lived in these parts for a long time before leaving her grandson her house. She was respected and no doubt well-loved. So we had a good introduction.
When I got out of the car at the end of the long, tree-lined drive, all the woodland aromas flooded me like music. My God! What a wondrous memory. The honeysuckle insisted on its violin solo, and all the trees accompanied with their bass.
Inside, it was the same. Successive generations had untiringly polished the furniture, the tiles. The smell of honey, mixed with that of the attics of my childhood, bound me to the place once and for all.
We slept in a four-poster bed whose herb-perfumed sheets whispered to us of the garden, and that night, we made love time and again. How far away it all seems now!
The next day was Saturday, a Saturday in May. The caretaker since Mme. Baron’s death was in the kitchen. She was toasting slices from a great brown loaf. The milk had thick cream on top. She put chicory in the coffee: “It’s good for your digestion, Madame.”
I saw an old woman, deeply touched, trembling a little — but what did she see in me? We were the big event. I think she liked me that day, first because I was very young, a bit intimidated, and she must have understood my desire to please her.
She stayed on. She lived in the village alone, without children or animals, and she sold her little house to come and live in the guardhouse as soon as she found out I was expecting a child.
Nor were Jacques and I long in selling our Paris apartment and moving completely to Berouine. My belly grew round, but I wasn’t tired. Old Mauricette had hired Pauline, a local girl, dry and brown though she was only eighteen. She was a find. Up at six, she busied herself all day long with an efficient vigor that proved a pleasant change from our Parisian servants, a Portuguese couple almost always idle.
I trawled through sales in the area, buying furniture Mauricette never liked. Bit by bit, we had relegated what we didn’t like to the attic. Mauricette would sigh, but she never tried to boss me around, as I’d feared she would at first.
After all, it was quite natural: she’d spent her life in this setting, beside Mme. Baron, and had cared for the house with total fidelity to her late employer. As little attachment as she felt for her own belongings, transferred wholesale to the guardhouse, it broke her heart to see consigned to the attic the bonheur-du-jour Mme. Baron had loved so much, the gilded, plasterwork-encumbered mirror that had always adorned the dining room, or had it been the living room? Can it be I no longer remember exactly?
The house was already beautiful. It became beautiful and charming. Weekends filled the guest rooms. I loved entertaining; so did Jacques. Friends exclaimed over how well I looked. Soon they were exclaiming over Catherine. The son we had awaited turned out to be a girl, with brown hair like Jacques’ and my golden eyes. And two years later, the boy I brought into the world had Jacques’ blue eyes and my red hair.
“Those eyes of yours — like a wild little animal’s,” Jacques would say. He also said, “You have hair like the fur of a wild beast, but I don’t know which one.”
What beautiful children I had! My son Pierre was the most affectionate, and Catherine was so funny. She had an imagination that transformed everything she saw.
From morning till night, they tore around the grounds at Berouine. Their little legs were covered with scratches, and I often had to use my tweezers to remove splinters from all their tree-climbing.
As soon as it was spring, we’d have breakfast outside. The birds were singing. The bluetits nested here and there, everywhere, around the house. The jays in the oaks had grown used to us. In the wintertime, they ambled on the snow-covered lawns, dragging along bits of lard they’d managed to tear from the branches where I’d stuck them.
“What a zoo,” Mauricette would say.
In addition to the tits and the jays there were great spotted woodpeckers, red at throat and breast; fighting greenfinches; orange-crested hoopoes; and scores of greedy, begging squirrels. They devoured everything we gave them, even what was left of a great rum baba once. Its taste didn’t seem to surprise them. When it was chestnut season, they’d drag whole branches laden with heavy hulls back to their dens.
Jacques took pleasure in watching them, and tried to pick out the one whose coat looked the most like my hair. Not one among all those beiges and russets managed to satisfy him, until one day when — for tell of it I must — he found the shade he was looking for.
Winter was drawing to a close. Dead leaves mingled with the first buds. We were having lunch in the kitchen, where we’d put in a set of French doors so as to be close as possible to our trees and woodland creatures.
Across from us, a squirrel was eating a piece of toast. Sitting comfortably on its hindquarters, showing us its white belly. To shield itself from the wind, it had folded over its head a tail that quivered like a feather in a hat. It was utterly trusting, entirely occupied by its delicacy, and death came soundlessly, from behind, so swiftly we didn’t react at first. The squirrel dropped the toast, letting out sharp, quavering cry, even as a red ribbon suddenly banded its snowy belly. It bled out before us, and Jacques said, in a measured voice, “It’s the exact same color as your hair.”
That was the first time we ever saw the stone marten.
After that, we sprang into action, of course. Jacques ran for his rifle. He came back. It wasn’t too late. The marten was still there. The squirrel was stretched out on the ground. The marten was still on its hind legs, its reddened chops in a rictus. Yet it was pretty and, when Jacques gently opened the French windows, it didn’t budge. He could have fired, but he said: “It has your eyes, too.”
He shut the window. The cold had crept in, and I shivered. I was petrified, but oddly happy Jacques hadn’t killed the creature that looked like me. And yet I had a bitter taste in my mouth, and could not finish my breakfast.
The marten was gone at last. Jacques set down his rifle and said, with forced cheer, that he’d kill it next time.
“Did you notice,” he asked, “that it had a face round as a little girl’s?”
I touched my own round cheeks without answering, pleased and embarrassed all at once. I was so used to happiness then. It would take more of it, so much more, before I lost it all.
That night, I had a dream. I got up, but saw my body still resting there beside Jacques. My chest gently rose and fell. My red hair lay spread over the pillow. I gazed on myself without pleasure, and even with a kind of antipathy. Then I looked at Jacques and found him handsome, experiencing the same feeling of mocking antipathy all the while.
Then my dream-double went downstairs and, quick and quiet, slipped outside without so much as the creak of a door.
Outside was the marten, and my double approached it. In the dream, I was madly happy to see the marten again, and begged it: “Let me live your life a while.”
“Gladly,” said the marten, but I must sleep beside your husband. If he should wake, he’ll sense you’re no longer there.”
And the marten gave me a moment of its nocturnal life. Instantly, I was a marten, watchful, in wait. I was hungry and sought prey without finding it. I ended up catching a fieldmouse, which struggled and bit me. I drank its blood but wasn’t satisfied. I remembered the taste of the squirrel’s blood.
I went back to the room. The marten that had taken my place gave me back my body and took its own, saying: “He woke while you were gone, and loved me.”
I was crying when I woke. Jacques kissed my tears. “You had a nightmare. It’s over.”
I told him nothing, since he added: “You bit your lip while you were asleep. There’s a spot of blood at the corner of your mouth.”
And with a tissue, he tenderly wiped away the little wound.
It couldn’t have been anything but a dream, but night after night, I had it over and over, the exact same one. The only differences were what the marten said. She wanted to trade places for longer, and I didn’t.
Each morning, I rose broken and shattered. Jacques worried over my pallor, my lack of appetite. He even asked me if I still loved him. I wanted so badly to tell him my dreams, and I could have, had they really been nightmares. But there were extraordinary moments when I hunted as a marten, when I drank the blood of my victims, and I would not have been able to hide my pleasure.
My children complained that I played with them less. More and more often, I’d fall fast asleep in the afternoon and wake at evening heavy-headed and sullen.
Without asking, Jacques sent for a doctor who found me anemic. That very night, I dreamed I went out almost at once and did not come back till dawn, only switching places with the marten at the very moment Jacques awoke. The next night, I agreed to let the marten take my place for three days.
When I opened my eyes, I was naked on the ground in a kind of tunnel, the marten’s burrow. Before I did a single thing, I licked a wound on my paw; I’d forgotten how I’d gotten it. Day had dawned, bright and new, but I still had a red coat and golden eyes, and the squirrel I’d gutted that night was at the entrance to my lair.
I headed cautiously for the house. My husband was sitting at the breakfast table in his dressing gown. Across from him, the marten, in my pink robe, was unenthusiastically drinking coffee from a blue mug — my blue mug.
The sight made me want to laugh, but Jacques raised his eyes, and they met mine. He seemed to go a bit pale. The marten looked at me too, and said something I couldn’t hear. Jacques rose. When he came back, he was carrying his rifle. He held it limply, but I thought it better to flee. Before escaping, I saw the marten laughing wildly and Jacques watching her, astonished.
For three days and nights, I led a marten’s life, which pleased me greatly. Sometimes I missed Jacques and the children, and I drew near the house to see them. I wasn’t really jealous of the marten, but I was vaguely irritated at the idea that Jacques took her in his arms believing he was embracing me.
On the third night, I went to the door. The marten had warned me she would leave it open. I was to give back the form she had lent me, and take back my life as a wife and mother. We had agreed she would leave forever then. I no longer wanted to dream.
The door was closed. I rounded the house without finding the slightest opening. I panicked. I wept, letting out soft cries, and in that way drew the attention of a night raptor, who fell upon me. I killed it, but it injured me with its talons, and I spent the rest of the night licking my wounds.
At dawn, I stood before the kitchen, almost pressed to the French doors. I only drew away when Pauline opened the shutters.
Jacques finally appeared, then the marten. She saw me but said nothing, ostensibly looking away. Jacques hadn’t noticed my presence. An irrational impulse threw me against the glass. They turned toward me — both of them. The marten’s eyes twinkled with mirth. Jacques’ eyes were cold. I’d flattened my snout against the pane, and I heard what they said:
“Looks like it’s growing aggressive.”
My husband’s voice made me despair. It was calm, almost indifferent. The marten’s rang out joyfully: “You’re better off killing it.”
A cry escaped me like the one I’d let out in front of the house the night before.
“It looks like it’s in pain,” my husband pensively.
“It’s hungry,” said the marten. “You’ll have to get used to the idea of putting a few bullets in its head. Mauricette said those creatures are more dangerous than you think.”
I ran to my burrow and spent the day lying there, whimpering. I knew the marten would never again open the door to me. She had decided I was to die.
The gardener tracked me for a week. I no longer slept in the same place twice. The marten bought a dog, a ratter. It was a miracle I escaped.
The marten entertained our friends, who complimented her on the kitchen, my house, my children.
My children! If they could have taken pity on me, secretly slipped me something to eat, petted me from time to time…
But one day, the marten pointed me out to them. The ratter was sleeping, and I’d drawn closer to them than I’d ever dared.
“See that little beast?” she said, pointing. “Be careful. It’s quite wicked. It kills sweet little squirrels and sometimes even attacks children.”
I fled when my son grabbed a rock and threw it at me. Alas, he missed. I would rather have died than lived on to see what happened next.
I’d found a way to climb up the Virginia creeper to my children’s room. And so I’d gaze on them sleeping before their blinds were drawn. I grew bolder, hiding till morning, when their windows opened and I might watch them dress and chatter. They were such beautiful children. They were mine.
Then that terrible morning came. They were still in bed, unmoving. I had never seen you cry, Jacques. The marten was crying too. She wept with my eyes. Mauricette had fainted. Then there was the doctor, the one who’d examined me, who kept repeating: “I can’t understand it. I’ve never seen anything like this. You say it was a stone marten. I’ve never seen a marten attack anyone. The window was open, but it can’t have been a marten.”
There was an investigation. My children were buried. Everyone embraced the criminal and murmured consolations.
I had but one goal left: revenge. I cast about for a flawless plan, and found none. I wanted to kill the marten before it did more harm, but it was wary, as all martens are. It was always watchful, in wait. Though the summer was scorching, all the windows stayed shut.
I no longer went near the kitchen. I could bear the thought of death at Jacques’ hand, but never that of his hateful gaze before his hand fell.
The marten left before I could kill her as she had killed my children, but not alone. Jacques shuttered up the house at Berouine. He took the woman he still believes is his wife back to Paris with him. And Mauricette passed away.
The house was put up for sale. No buyer came forward. Everyone said it was cursed.
I believe my lifespan is a human lifespan, and I still hope the marten will die when its marten days run out.
But I can go back in the house now. It took a lot of digging to do so. I sleep on the bed where Jacques and I spent so many happy nights, before I began to dream.
My name is still Annie, but who would suspect it?