The Queen of Spades

Dame de pique

Night travelers step from the train. I’m freezing. Footsteps hammer the street, shaking white droplets loose. The gutters are streaming. Mice are nibbling on cobwebs. Cows moo in the mist. Everywhere, without speaking a word, they fear the Queen of Spades.

She is a woman, a monster, some claim; others maintain she is a gigantic insect; the truth is that all those who’ve ever come near her are dead.

I slip into a sewer, my shoulders smack the walls, I am a hunchback. I walk toward a light that is forever retreating. I seek the Queen of Spades; unlike the others, I have no wish to kill her, just to see her. The sewer widens and deepens, a hernia of rubber; soon I will no longer be able to exit the intestines of the Queen of Spades. Perhaps I am already dead, among those who vanish without a trace. The hernia swells, hardens, takes on a geometric shape, becomes an underground boulevard where I’m driving, borne toward a pale egress that keeps shrinking. Just before the fall, I brace myself and pull up short, barely making it. My limbs are icy. Everything is naked, strange, and lonely.

I sit down, feet dangling in the emptiness over a great misty plain, a vast yellow moonless sky. Not a sound. An empty space where distant forests trace the outlines of dark mountains. But from here I will see the Queen of Spades. I’m alone, I’m wearing shorts and clogs, I am ageless.

I see her — the Queen of Spades! She’s walking. Her black body lies somewhere in the valley, crushing the grass, but her shadow is slender as a tall mannequin’s — you can make out her spine, she has long stiff arms that toss mad hands about, hands that are hairs. For a head she has but a clump of bristling hair growing from a single root. This shadow grows, leans forward, stretches out, can suddenly turn out to be right overhead, and the terror of these substanceless limbs is paralyzing. Like all monsters, the Queen of Spades is alone. I feel almost friendly toward her, but at the same time, I’m afraid she’ll find me, follow me into the sewer. What would she do with me? I am with her, since I see her. But no — all I see is her living shadow, a shadow that no longer looks like her at all.

Peasants have told me that they thought they’d killed the creature by killing its great flaccid body, but their efforts were wasted. Now the villages are empty all around; those who remain have gone to ground in their houses. They hardly dare to go out in the daytime to gather food in the fields no one now owns. It is not certain that the Queen of Spades means its victims harm. They fear her like death, without knowing…

And yet I leaned forward to try and surprise her. But she seemed too far away, and I clung uselessly to the edge of the cliff. In the sewer behind me, I heard movement. When suddenly I turned around, my clog rang against the cast iron, and the vibrating sewer amplified the sound. The valleys made echo. I trembled, unable either to advance or retreat. Something hirsute, sticky, warm, took me by the shoulders, lifted me up before I had the strength to put up a fight. I fainted in the arms of the Queen of Spades.

André BAY 3

André Bay (1916−2013) was for more than four decades a senior editor at Éditions Stock. Among the diverse writers he championed there were Jorge Amado, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Joyce Carol Oates, Thomas Wolfe, Anaïs Nin, and Virginia Woolf. His was the first French translation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night; he also translated Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, Lewis Carroll, and Jonathan Swift. In 1948, along with Raymond Queneau, founded the Prix du Meilleur livre étranger, a literary prize for the best foreign novel. He was also an artist and art critic.