Translated into English by Gio Clairval
My old friend, Dr. *** from Chateauroux, had recommended that I visit the manor of Guernipin in Brenne, between Mezières and Rosnay, if the master of the house was kind enough to invite me, his mood being such that he was seldom inclined to grant the requests of the strangers who solicited him.
I thus discovered Guernipin and Geoffrey de la Tibaldière, an unrepentant zoologist and, quite fortunately, for a man with his passion, a bachelor sacrificing his comfort to accommodate an exceptional collection of animals, stuffed or preserved in jars. The man lived in a small room furnished with a simple cot, each of the other twenty comfortable rooms packed with a dusty and docile wildlife. He introduced me with enthusiasm to his domestic zoo, confessing that he had come down with that persistent and invasive collector’s fever in his childhood. He had foolishly caught the infection by the age of eight when he playfully trapped all the insects wandering about the property of Guernipin, and encased them in empty matchboxes, carefully labelled – admirable tiny coffins, once brand-new but now withered by time like the skin of their owner, who appeared to be the trusting type, to the point that he let me handle his treasures.
Guided by the most perfect of experts, as Mr. Tibaldière was a brisk old man of eighty-five and a collector’s piece in his own right, I was invited to peruse a shambles of feathers, bristles, and scales.
That first afternoon, we explored only the rooms of the ground floor, and when dusk drew the curtain on those local or exotic marvels, I was left with a craving to see more pieces. But having acquired a taste for this hunt so devoid of danger and exertion, I did not know how to hint at my desire to see the rest. He whetted my appetite by suggesting that I should sleep in the tall four-poster in the country-style bedroom he had set up in the garret of Guernipin. We would dine informally in the kitchen and continue to explore his scholarly memories, while eating an omelette with chanterelles and a truffled confit of duck. Sylvain, the servant, would see to replenishing our glasses with a Reuilly wine that was lordly in its small ways. Indeed, Mr. Tibaldière being talkative, my attention would satisfy his imperious desire to describe his treasures.
The bouquet of the Reuilly enhanced the aroma of truffles and chanterelles, and quickened the already nimble speech of my host. At midnight, which was lazily spelt out by an ancient, potbellied grandfather clock, he was still speaking, his back to the fire, assisted by Sylvain, a fifty-year-old man tanned up to his hairline. Sylvain looked like a Moorish crone, a common feature in this part of Berry, so close to Poitou, where the Saracen occupation had left traces in the peasants’ blood.
Mr. Tibaldière recounted his remote and adventurous hunts, when cross hairs on his rifle did not quiver in front of his eye; he lovingly dwelled on the local tradition, his youthful hours spent in patient exploration of burrows, nests and lairs, and he glorified the vibrant life of this country suspended between water and earth, an unparalleled paradise to sedentary and migratory fauna. At one o’clock in the morning, my head swam with new knowledge in ornithology: mallard (Anas platyrhynchos), gadwall (Chaublasmus stepera), shelduck – I will spare you the Latin – pochard, heron, coot, wheatear, water rail (Rallus aquaticus – but, I have not forgotten), all minutely described: appearance, calls, habits and more.
Sylvain slouched over an oak bench near the fireplace and, as patient as a dog that calculates in advance all the bones coming its way, yawned, loyalty incarnate. As for me, despite the strain of that long day, I dared not interrupt a host so prodigal with hospitality and words, nevertheless hoping that he, too, would soon grow sleepy. But Tibaldière rambled on about the mythical wildlife that the fiendishly superstitious peasants imagined prowling Brenne’s night. He told me about the Ghoulbird.
My curiosity rekindled, I straightened my back. A Ghoulbird! Even though I was tired, the promise of a brief legend-hunting enchanted me. Hearing that name, Sylvain had slid further on the bench, drawing near the fire as if he wished to move away from us, studying the crackling embers with the intensity of a man who sees flames for the first time.
‘You should know,’ said Mr. Tibaldière, ‘that there was a time when this family of birds had spread to the point that every marsh across France and beyond had its own mind-calling spirit, a sly winged creature that lured the naive to utter horror.’
I nodded while he moved onto a brilliant enumeration: Dreadfowl of Normandy, Owlfear of Ardennes, Shrikedeath of Brittany or the Tufted Screamers of Limousin, protean creatures spawned by the popular imagination in days of yore, brewed by the peasants’ gullible minds during troubled nights. Locally, they had a Ghoulbird, the only one still living in the country, and probably the last remaining anywhere.
Then my host raised his voice and, taking aim with an imaginary rifle, threatened, ‘I’ve never seen it. Otherwise –!’ And that sceptical man shot me a mischievous wink before turning to his servant and saying in a compassionate tone, ‘Is it so, Sylvain?’ But, failing for once in his perfect obedience, the man did not answer.
Finally, I was released. My host rose and entrusted me to his servant, giving him orders to make sure all my needs would be satisfied, and then he dismissed us with an abrupt about-face of enviable agility. Sylvain took a jug of water, a lamp and, walking ahead of me, led me slowly, never turning around, across long corridors and steep stairways up to the attic, my room.
I was not disappointed as I had feared. Quite the contrary. The place, though stifling because of the heat absorbed through the roof, was clean and pleasant. Vast, too, with beautiful glazed beams that sparkled as we passed. The curtained bed, made of walnut, smelled of wax, and the slightly rough bedclothes released a scent of lavender as I pulled them back. As for the four bouquets of cotton-cloth flowers tied to the posts, I feared there might be spiders hiding in there, but I reassured myself by thinking that they would certainly be pinned, labelled by species, and therefore harmless prisoners. Sensing my fears, Sylvain promptly unfolded the cloths and shook them to show me no spiders dwelled between printed petals. And he deigned to smile for the first time. Mr. Tibaldière’s authority must have been a heavy constraint to him, and he clearly wanted to chat.
He introduced me to the various features of the place, with great courtesy, and directed me to the dressing table and the small round-shaped dormer window, which he immediately opened to let in fresh air. In this regard, as I pointed out to him that this narrow opening might be insufficient, he beckoned me to a door, which he unlocked and pushed open. We climbed a narrow stone stairway and came out on the terrace of a crenellated tower that I hadn’t noticed upon arriving at Guernipin. The view, stretching in all directions, was outstanding. Everywhere, as far as the eye could see, marshes, ponds and lakes glistened in the full moonlight and appeared to join and mingle into infinite lacings of water on dark earth. Encased in a vegetation thickened by shadows but made in fact of meagre shrubbery, the aquatic countryside shone like a jewel discarded for some minor flaw and relegated to this forgotten corner of opulent Berry.
I felt that Sylvain took great pride in my surprise. Showing the extent to which his offering moved me, I asked for details. The man knew his region by heart. I soon learned the name of each mirror consecrated to the moon, each moor and slough, the nearest so close we could have touched it with the toes of our boots, a harsh land, now in the process of drying up and hardening but still rotting, a traitor to the imprudent foot: the marsh of Gobble-Ox.
All need for sleep forgotten, I was loath to leave this wondrous nocturnal scenery, where the only missing element was a touch of life. I said to Sylvain, ‘What a pity that this fabled Ghoulbird of yours is only a legend; otherwise, I would have listened to its song and applauded with enthusiasm!’ The servant grabbed my arm and squeezed it. I realised that my words had robbed him of his pleasure. His voice dropped to a whisper.
‘Never ever make such a wish, sir,’ he breathed out. ‘Particularly not under a full moon…It’s the kind of night the creature would choose to lead us to our deaths…’ And he forced me to leave the roof terrace. Back in the garret room, he carefully locked the door to the tower. In the light of the lamps, I was surprised to see his crumbling face covered with perspiration. Not to mention his manifest apprehension, so strong I felt almost compelled to reassure him by patting him in the back. But, made curious by his extreme reaction and exploiting my previous display of disbelief, I used a more artful way to restore his trust. I managed to have him sit with me on the edge of the bed and, matching the tone of my questions to his concern, I obtained a few details about this dreadful bird.
And so I learned that the bird mentioned by Mr. Tibaldière existed. Better still, the bird’s favourite place was the marsh of Gobble-Ox, right here, five or six gunshots from us and at an equal distance from the village. Its appearance was not at first frightening, and it could look like any common bird, but shifted continuously from one species to the next to fool its victims. In its call, an additional note rang out…a bit strident. It was the Ghoulbird’s curse…To listen to it was to lose one’s will to the bird and forever be the creature’s slave. Obedient, the victims rose from the beds, left the security of their homes and went out in nightclothes, like sleepwalkers, heading toward that bird of Hell, which rejoiced in any new prey. The victims went to the bird, oblivious of the mud that squelched under their feet, not realising they were padding through the marsh. And the creature would draw back, retreating further to lure its prey into the slimy depths that captured and swallowed its victims without mercy. Pessaut, Guérin, the woman called Marguerite, and so many others had died in this way. Their bodies were never found, only the footprints in the hardened banks of the Gobble-Ox, which, without doubt, had shared the meat with the Ghoulbird.
But the creature betrayed its presence in one tell-tale way: most other birds do not sing or whistle at night. So when you heard it, you had to move quickly and bolt your door, barricade up all the openings, clasp your hands over your ears, bury yourself deep under the blankets and, above everything else, be in the company of at least another person so that one could prevent the other from responding to the evil call…
Having unburdened himself of this awkward secret, Sylvain departed in great haste, taking the lamp and leaving me in a pitch-black room. I heard him double lock the door, probably out of habit, and step down the stairway, stumbling in his haste.
The silver needle of the moon, taking advantage of the open window, slanted into the darkened garret without disturbing the heavy silence, which then engulfed me. I undressed and lay down on the bed, my fatigue dulling the stressful images put into my head by the superstitious servant.
The heat prevented me from falling asleep immediately. I tossed and turned, feeling oppressed, until I decided to get up and open the door of the tower. After some blind groping, I found it. The fresh air that blew through the doorway joined the draft that entered through the window, bringing me relief. I went back to bed, and this time I slept right away.
I dreamt a dream agreeable at first but, little by little, it filled me with a vague uneasiness…I found myself in a vast ballroom, in old-fashioned garb, relaxed and content, sitting in an armchair…A beautiful young woman asked me to dance, favouring me with the most charming smile…But I declined rudely and remained seated instead of rising to my feet, eager to grant her the dance she’d requested…She, without seeming to be in the least shocked by my attitude, laughed in a strange way, with three high-pitched notes balanced by pauses, creating a peculiar rhythm…Then, taking me by the hand, she pulled me into her arms…I felt myself become heavier and heavier. But her gentle strength gradually managed to lift me…Standing, I felt a sensation of nakedness and a sudden embarrassment forced me to flee…I ran into a wall or a closed door, I did not know which…I fell, and people came to pick me up, pitying me…Their hands supported me and pulled me away into a park smelling of freshly cut grass…They led me to a well and, once there, either for fun or malice, they pushed me forward, to make me step over the edge…
I resisted the motion, letting myself fall to the ground, where, seized with a sudden terror, I hunkered down, refusing to participate in this stupid act…And again I heard the shrill laughter of the young woman, who had become invisible. All my attention was riveted on the unseen woman, as I was filled with a belated regret for not having accepted her company…
The chill of dawn woke me. I was on the terrace of the tower, lying on the ground and shivering. A gray mist covered Guernipin, which the rising sun gilded progressively. After the first moment of astonishment, it wasn’t difficult to understand the reason why I was lying there. Surely, I had wanted to escape the sweltering garret room and, seeking fresh air, I had risen, half-conscious, to spend the rest of the night up here. Leaning out from the parapet, I discovered the impressive drop, and, upset, I realized that I had been on the point of falling from that height!
The second day with M. de la Tibaldière was as fascinating as the day before. The man knew so much – the mystery of the onager, the cyclical migration of the warthog, and provided anecdotes and biological digressions as arguments. We lunched in the park, in the temperate shade of a cedar tree as the wind, blowing gently, failed to ruffle its leaves. The table was a long tombstone taken from the floor of a deserted abbey nearby; we ate heartily on the belly of an austere priest stiffly engraved in the granite.
In the evening, we had yet to explore the second floor where, according to Mr. Tibaldière, suddenly excited by his own words, rested the jewels of his collection: coelacanths, large saurians from Borneo, and other survivors of antediluvian times. Therefore, I dined again at Guernipin, but I managed to escape the lecture after the meal. By now the place was familiar to me so I went to bed alone, this time keeping the lamp. And, fearing a new awakening on the roof terrace, I left the door to the corridor open but firmly shut the door leading to the tower, to avoid renewing the misadventure of the night before. I went to bed and began reading a book, but hardly had I reached the third page than it slipped from my hands. I blew out the light and let sleep come. This time the heat did not torment me, on the contrary! Again, I was involved in a dream that seemed light-hearted in the beginning…I visited Guernipin on my own, only to discover new rooms of an amazing variety…I could finally handle birds, touch soft plumage…Mysterious birds of unknown shapes, which came alive and quivered under my hands…Soon they were so numerous they crowded me, pushing me, guiding me to the freedom of the park, where they remained around me, driven by a silent determination…Mr. Tibaldière appeared on the front steps and indignantly shouted to come back before his most precious avian specimens escaped forever…Anger choked his cries, to the point they resembled a bullfrog’s call…But, not listening, I suddenly ran away, now at the heart of the cluster of freed birds, whose wishes I obeyed, and which led me so fast I was out of breath…I ran on until I felt a terrible tightness to my heart…Choking, I felt myself gradually hindered in my race by viscid forces, which woke me suddenly.
Today, I find it impossible to describe the violent revulsion I felt while I was victim to that cold thickness. Brusquely, I returned to reality, and found my feet in gluey mud up to my thighs. Hadn’t I been sleeping? Where was my bed? And Guernipin? Where was I? Prisoner to a monstrous vacuum that was slowly sucking me in, I was trapped within a stinking, nauseous swamp. My hands, my arms, in vain sought purchase: a root, a branch, my life…Sudden bellows, reminiscent of an angry bull, broke my struggle. From the marsh where I was sinking, they tore at the night. Despite my terror, I identified a heron’s call. But instead of being regular in their three consecutive notes, these cries came with no pattern, no rhythm.
Then I saw it…thrashing next to me. And Sylvain’s comments came back to me: the Ghoulbird. Did it exist? Yes, it did, for this could only be the mythic bird, shaking with justified laughter at its gullible and ridiculous prey. And here I was, in the middle of the Gobble-Ox Marsh.
Nevertheless, I saw the bird hop around as if under the same threat from the swallowing slough. Seeing my redoubled efforts to break free from the mud that was gradually gaining on me, the bird cried louder. I would have thought it wanted to coax me into escaping the quagmire. I finally managed to reach the nearest stretch of grass and, extricating myself from the greedy mud, I crawled to safety. The heron, which had come closer, supported me by flapping his wings, helping me to reach the firm soil of a pebbly path. If I did not collapse into a heap, I owed it to the angelic bird that nudged me with its beak, and forced me to rise and head for Guernipin, a solid and reassuring sight within reach of hope.
Then I felt an invisible, hostile force that knotted my spirit with terror. I felt the terrifying sensation of a huge but impalpable single wing flapping around me, as nimble as a ray of nothingness in the ocean of night, an immaterial reality that pushed me with relentless perseverance to bring me back into the swamp. Without the frantic cries of the heron, which was engaged in a frenzied dance to come to my rescue, inciting me to flee, I confess that I wouldn’t have resisted the Thing that held me enthralled.
And I understood at last! I realized that the Ghoulbird – be it owl, crow, heron or any bird that happened to be there and sensed the threat – was neither a legend nor an enemy of man, but a protector…that it warned of the unspeakable danger it perceived…That its cries, far from being cursed calls, were a warning: terrified, the bird screamed against fear, not to elicit fear!…The Marsh of Gobble-Ox, foul lair still preserved after thousands of years, harboured an invisible ravenous monster, survivor of the times when dark powers ruled under the subtlest forms!
I then glimpsed two greenish and fleeting glows…An illusion, a reflection of my fear? No…those glowing spots were eyes! Screaming in revulsion, I wrenched myself free from the horror that had chosen me and had already failed to lure me in my sleep, out of my bed at Guernipin.
At sunrise, Mr. Tibaldière, eager to show me around the floor of prehistoric ancestors, surely gave Sylvain the order to wake me up. But all the servant could find of me, apart from traces of mud left everywhere, was this note, doubtless destined to remain a mystery:
…Never, ever, kill the Ghoulbird…