Anne-Sylvie Salzman is a French writer and the co-editor of the magazine Le visage vert. As a translator, her many authors include Kris Saknussemm, Lord Dunsany, Fritz Leiber, Arthur Machen, Arthur Conan Doyle, Wilkie Collins, Sax Rohmer, Iain M. Banks, Jim Shepard, Robert Crais, L. Frank Baum, Herman Melville, Henry Darger, and Willa Cather. Prior publications in French include two novels—Au bord d’un lent fleuve noir (Joëlle Losfeld, 1997) and Sommeil (José Corti, 2000) — as well as a 2009 short story collection, Lamont, the title story of which previously featured at Weird Fiction Review in a translation by William Charlton. It is available in the collection Darkscapes (Tartarus Press, 2013). A second collection of stories, Vivre sauvage dans les villes (also available in Darkscapes) was recently published by Le Visage vert. Her novel Dernières nouvelles d’Œsthrénie is forthcoming from Dystopia Workshop this fall.
The title of Salzman’s novel Zelenka refers both to a family and their land, a fictional Eastern European barony meticulously situated in landscape, custom, and history — three forces that intertwine to dictate fate, if not doom. Zelenka is the story of a third-born child, a daughter, fallen into disgrace; the Baron her father; her elder brother Seban; an oddly knowledgeable family friend, the much-travelled Finlay; and the eldest brother, the firstborn Paulinus, who died at three of fever, but whose memory haunts the family and their land. In an approach reminiscent of Julien Gracq or Mervyn Peake, Salzmann builds character through the patient excavation of place, embellishing descriptions with miniature details that spiral off into surprise, grotesquerie, or sudden beauty, like medieval illuminations.
The baron my father took me to the ossuary when I was aged seven. The idea no doubt, was to make me see what death does to men. The baron made me touch a skull, and then his face and mine.
“Do you see how we are made?”
At Zelenka there are three great feasts. At Christmas, when the Child was born, the skulls are decorated with holly and mistletoe; at Easter, when he was crucified but born again, they are covered with flowers. After the first harvest between the bones they slide ears of corn, ribbons and painted eggs. At All Saints the ossuary is not decorated.
The baron my father also showed me the bones of the arms, the legs and the chest. The ossuary is a consecrated chapel, round in shape, and the skulls are arranged all round the walls in great abundance, or even placed in niches; and two pyramids have been formed to right and left of the altar. There are two dignitaries buried in the chapel and each has his recumbent effigy, which is a body deprived of flesh. These are Iassilic and Draguen, bishops in time of plague, who lived on after the death of the last king. The baron my father made me touch these effigies too. It was Easter, and the bishops were covered with flowers. The sculptor had left them some skin on the face, and the baron showed me that also: the skin and the tendons, the eye sockets through which the decorators had pushed flowers. The baron spoke, no doubt, of things that die and things that are reborn; he was thinking of our brother Paulinus. In the ossuary he also showed me the smallest skulls, which were those of children that had died at my age.
All these bones came from the plague and from a later disaster, an epidemic of diphtheria. The plague came first in the train of the Ottomans, and then at the time of the first Protector, Duke Henry. Then, at the time of the fourth baron Zelenka, it came from the coast, but that last great sickness is also called “blood fever.” “Everyone,” said the baron, “men and women, young and old, were liable to succumb. At the chateau five people fell sick and four died, and my grandfather, the fourth baron, all his life never lost the fear of seeing his children carried off in the night. Perhaps those who died at the chateau are here.” The ossuary is a dark place and the baron my father lifted the candle to a skull that larger, thicker and whiter than the rest. “Queer beast,” I thought I heard him say. “The disease,” he resumed, “came in two stages. First there was fever, and one felt exhausted. That lasted for two or three days. People then lived a harder life than we do and took no account of fatigue. Then came a fiercer fever and the boils which were hard and dark, and attacked the neck, the stomach, the armpits— and still worse, in the last moments of the disease; and people often died from lack of breath. These boils were full of blood and pus, and the doctors were afraid to lance them.”
The baron put his hand on my shoulder, and I wanted to tell him that I was not sick. “My grandfather had seen his father die like this, two of his brothers and the wife of one of them. His own wife, whom he had just married, was sick. She lost their child, their first-born, but she recovered, and gave him five other children.”
“In former times,” the baron my father resumed, after he had snuffed out his candles, and their smell had stung our noses, “in former times people said that these diseases, these plagues, came to punish people for the evil deeds they had committed. The plagues came to purify nations after wicked kings. Do you understand?”
I had to say that I did not understand. A bumblebee was flying in the rays of sunlight that passed through the windows of the ossuary and gave a dusty sparkle to the skulls.
I must also speak of the Stones of the forest. Three have a name. One is called “Peter’s Stone,” Patirie stan; you can see it from the road. It has no special form and ivy grows over it. Some people have carved a chapel out of it which they call “St Peter’s.” The second is “the Orb,” culic. That is round, almost black, and has probably rolled down from our evil mountains. The third is a bench beneath a tree. The tree is of no great age; the Bench is much older. It is the height of a man and our people often come there. The Bench was sculpted by our ancestors in times of which we know nothing. At the village they still say that it is an upturned altar, and that one should not sleep in its shade. The baron my father and Finlay consider this story absurd, and to expose the folly of the peasants my father and Seban have often slept there without taking any harm. As to Finlay, he showed us one day that Peter’s Stone, The Orb and the Bench make, along with the blackest of the pools, a perfect square. At the center of the square we dug for a day without finding anything. This black pool is called the Eye Pool. The pools in the forest are all round and very deep like wells, and the water in them is very clean. Finlay explained the geology of this, but I did not understand it. The geology of the Eye may be different, for when the baron had it dragged, the workmen brought up quantities of rotten grasses and reeds, and remains of animals that had tried to drink there and been trapped in the mud. From the drive which leads towards the chateau from the main road you see another of these pools, that of the Island, where some children are said to have been drowned by their father during the last plague. After this pool the drive widens, the forest becomes lighter and you see a high wall of weathered yellow, and then our gate, which is open from morning to evening. This is kept by Ecereg, the man who lives in the lodge, a man from the Coast, almost a Turk. Ecereg also patrols along our wall and close to the pools, with a gun and one or two of our dogs. Ecereg stops travellers on foot, riders and carriages.
The drive comes out of the wood and brings into view the chateau, which is of the same yellow as the walls. This yellow is the fashion at Vienna and in Bohemia, we are told, but it hardly suits our valleys. At Dusè the best houses are built of stone, and so in the valleys are the more ancient castles. Ours is no older than the barony. Its walls are repainted in summer and we have a park and ruins, but also a French garden and a gallery with five statues and murals executed by Guarello, a master from Prague. We have in addition a low tower at the bottom of the park from which you can look out over all our land. The baron my father on his return from the University wanted to make it into an observatory; but I do not think he loves either the night sky or the stars. He is a child of broad daylight and rich lands. Nothing so delights him as the sight, common in the valley, of a field of corn stretching away under a sky that passes slowly from blue to green and gold and then to night. His pleasure in the old days was to take us to the fields in the evening just before the harvest.
When we were very young the tower was locked up, and we believed, without any reason I can recall, that there lived there people without eyes, like those later shown in a travelling circus which still comes to Zelenka. After the passage of the circus Seban abandoned the tower and its inhabitants to me. The people without eyes who travelled with the circus had filled him with horror. There were two of them, a boy and girl, brother and sister like Seban and me, and their eyes were so completely missing that the skin at that part of their face just made a kind of fold without eyelashes. They were exhibited within a green tent. One was half-witted, but the other, the little girl, could tell out the numbers written on scraps of paper put in her hand. The following year the troupe came back, but the boy was already dead and his sister or cousin did not long survive him. They were replaced by a miniature child, perfectly proportioned, and a man without arms or legs, who wrote and drew, nevertheless, with pencils attached to his forehead. These circus people camped near the river and the night watchmen redoubled their rounds. One could see their caravans and night fires from the tower when it was open.
This way of spending one’s time would have been displeasing to the baron my father, and my mother would not even have understood it. I used, however, to stay in the tower all afternoon, using the telescope to watch the people of the troupe. Much of their day was spent on the grass, cleaning the
little instruments of their trades, mending their clothes, getting up their little naked children, feeding them, encouraging them to walk and play and finally putting them to bed again. Then there were occasionally fist-fights that made me tremble because they were sometimes rough, sometimes friendly and most often both. It was in watching the circus people that for the first time I saw a man in a state to penetrate a woman. That was the third or fourth year the circus came. The blind children were long dead, and apart from the tiny woman and the man without arms or legs the troupe had no freaks. Waiting one evening in the tower alone I saw at last a naked man — not for long — a man coming out and very quickly entering one of the caravans: that was right at the end of spring. With one hand he was holding or very delicately covering a much extended penis, and with his other he was touching his mouth. A minute later a woman, one of the two equestriennes, rose to follow him. After that for a long time I used to play over the memory of that scene; sometimes I would imagine myself first as the naked man and then as the woman for whom he was waiting, which gave me many pleasures.
Our ancestors built their chateau on this ancient territory. Only the tower goes back to him, and even that is not a certainty. It is the chronicles that make out that it belonged to the Bastard’s castle. Two stones of its staircase bear the mark of the orb. I do not know if the Bastard, with his illegitimate birth and his villainous career, had given himself a different mark. Some day or other Finlay will answer these questions if he remains at the chateau. The tower opens onto a long lawn or field at the bottom of which the first baron dug a basin and placed a fountain. The water spurts from men with heads of frogs —Tritons, if you like — from their mouths and their sides and also from the big bronze flowers that surround them. From this fountain both the tower and the castle can be seen equally well. At night the pumps are stopped, as they are in winter months. The water comes from the Zelenka. At the end of winter the basin is full of dead leaves and moss, and it is a long task to clean it up before refilling it with water.
Down to the time of my flight I had never passed more than a month away from the chateau. It was there I saw the light of day, and even if it is almost certain that I shall not die there I am still not used, in the morning, to doing without the sight of the yellow, which is ubiquitous in our house, or the smell of the chateau, which is of damp plaster and burnt wood in winter, and in summer of sour apples, leather and must. But “yellow” is the key word. After the grey and black villages in the valley our mustard-colored chateau, crouched in its Piedmont hollow, comes as a relief, a calming light. A little Vienna for anyone who comes from the East, from Romania, Italy, Spain and any foreign country you please, to our burdened land.
Our chateau is yellow and has the form of a cross. That is to say, from the central building, which is surmounted by a cupola, there emerge four arms or wings of which one, that facing the drive and the large expanse of gravel where the carriages turn, is much the shortest. It contains only the vestibule and the entry to the grand double staircase. It is said that the first baron built the castle to plans copied from Bernini after a distressing dream which showed him his two daughters, still infants, lying in the grass of a clearing and dead, or sleeping a sleep from which he could not rouse them. His wife was near them and saw them alive. At that time the Zelenkas lived in the village, in a huge house which burnt down. They also had lands and houses near the mills, further down the valley, and also a house at Dusè, in King Mikale Street, which still belongs to us though it is leased to a doctor from Vienna, a terrifying man who hangs black curtains at the windows and has corpses carried in. You may recognize this house by the earthenware toad that guards its doorway.
Translated by William Charlton