Translated by Edward Gauvin
The bicycle is an ancient model, deliberately picked for its thick, heavy frame and pedals, bare of rubber cover, whose serrated ridges as the hours go by cut first into callus, then the flesh of feet that press upon them.
The crankset, big as a gear from a belfry clock, is covered in the same tenacious rust that attacks brakes and handlebars. Each bicycle has its own particular skin disease: this one is flecked as if by a colony of metal-eating fleas that fatigue the steel itself, the wound from rust’s bite bigger with each passing day. That one seems overtaken by a paralysis of the joints; the handlebars never turn without a howl now, while the brake levers are pairs of jaws that won’t close.
The seat leather… but is it really leather? It seems cut from a triangle of emery cloth, of granite, so easily does its mere touch bruise muscle. Or is it leather chiseled off a mummy from a display case in some tumbledown museum of natural history? Whatever it is, in the hours to come, the seat leather will join the ranks of your enemies. For if you must confront the road, never forget that you will have to battle your own machine.
Sit as little as possible: the constant drizzle makes the leather’s friction on your skin even more painful. It’s like a stinging sensation growing between your legs. Don’t sit down.
Nothing to be done about the rain. The squall will scour your sides all day long, mixing with your sweat, clinging to your pubic hair in brilliant pearls. Nothing more annoying than the relentless drip-drip-dripping from the tip of a prick that’s become a drainpipe, the constant feeling like you’re urinating and can’t stop.
The cold, of course, is something to get used to. Especially on the downhills when, naked on your cast-iron grasshopper, you’ll scatter with your front wheel the iridescent mass of gas bubbles, some of which cling to the bike frame, to your skin. Try to pop them right away, before the metal tarnishes at their touch, or your skin starts breaking out in hard blisters.
The desquamation can last whole days, always working deep down, digging into dermis, fat, muscle. The bubbles stick especially to the hollow of the groin and the insides of the thighs. Nor do they scorn the armpits. Best thing, of course, is to avoid the bubble clusters stagnating on the road, across the yellow lines, but the compact mass of the peloton significantly reduces your maneuvering room. Moreover, condensation on the visor of your gas mask warps your sense of distance, and a collision is always to be feared.
One single commandment: NEVER STOP PEDALING. To which one might add: never lift your head too high, to avoid any pointless torque on the tubing between the gas mask and the crankset-powered air-production system. The rubber already has a hard time resisting the corrosive gas, and any sudden movements might result in a tear. It might seem obvious, but never forget: stop pedaling and you cut off your own air as surely as if you turned off a tap.
Never set foot on the ground. Urinate or defecate while you pedal standing up. Never stop.
As for flats — best not to mention them. As soon as your feet quit rhythmically pushing the pedals, the air pressure inside the mask will drop too low to push back the gas seeping in.
Then you’ll have three or four seconds before you feel a swarm of razor blades flay your larynx and explode in your lungs. The pain is tough to take, though it won’t kill you. Some cyclists start coughing so hard they burst a vessel and their chins get sticky with blood. Other let out long streams of scarlet urine, as if an invisible razor had just castrated them mid-race. Most of the time, you see them zigzagging before leaving the road and collapsing on the sidewalk’s sharp edge. And there they stay, paralyzed by pain, or twitching spasmodically like a worm severed with a pocketknife, until they can get back in the saddle and start pedaling again. No one helps them. Not pedestrians, whose bare feet squelch on the damp asphalt, or cyclists.
When the rain stops, artificial suns flood the road with harsh, unbearable light, and the bubbles play at being magnifying glasses, needling your skin with myriad luminous points each red-hot as the tip of a cigarette. Who hasn’t, as a child, toyed with making just such a weal rise from the back of a hand or a fatty thigh gushing from a pair of shorts, by focusing the sun through an old camera lens? Here, the pain is multiplied one hundred percent.
Constant contact with the rubber gas mask always ends up causing severe dermatoses, and you must fight the urge to slip your nails under the protective rim to itch yourself, since the gas will slither right in.
The signal to start is given in the morning, “morning” simply being an arbitrary and comforting way of locating yourself in time. There is no sky here, no real sun or moon.
Only an unbroken line of spotlights stippling the metallic vault over our heads, the gray ribbon of the road with its dotted yellow dividing line. To either side, sidewalks, then the dead-end red brick wall, devoid of door or window. No one looks at us, no one watches us. Why would they? Riveted to our machines as we are, we cannot stop pedaling for even so much as a moment.
The signal to start is given in the morning, surely too early, to go by the weight of exhaustion still stiffening muscles. Afterwards, there’s nothing but the constant squeal of tires on asphalt, the creak of the crankset or poorly greased gears. No way of talking, the masks smother voices, and the respirator tubing only carries a series of indecipherable gurglings. Besides, better focus on the road, keep an eye out for tacks that might’ve been scattered in the night. Victims of flats are often older, vision failing, ones who’ve lost or cracked their glasses. Besides, the mask is designed to make it hard to wear it over a pair of glasses, no matter how small.
The course is long. Very long. Straight at first, the road takes one turn, then another… the monotony of the wall and sidewalks cancels any sense of landmark, no way of knowing if the ribbon of asphalt makes a circle or just keeps going on and on, ever farther, to infinity. I think it’s a circle, but in that case, how to explain the endless changes to the asphalt’s morphology? Drawing a map amounts to a utopian notion; no cyclist ever encounters the same hill, the same curve, twice. No way of knowing what awaits you around the next bend. I keep thinking that the road is a closed circuit, but I must bring myself to face the fact that it warps during the night. Like an undulating snake, a gray snake, flat and striped with yellow.
On the sidewalks, the pedestrians push and shove one another. Their nudity makes them not know what to do with their arms. Some swing them rhythmically; others — women especially — cross them over their breasts; others still walk with their hands crossed behind them like schoolchildren of yore… or prisoners. (Don’t use that word.)
A long, high glass wall keeps the gas from them, and the greenish glints playing on the panes give their skin an odd aquatic tinge.
It’s said their toenails are polished with a magnetic varnish that carries a charge individual to each of them. In this way, optical scanners scattered throughout the asphalt identify the walkers, calculating the average time of each group. If the computer deems their pace too slow, the glass wall reveals its vents, letting in a quantity of gas proportional to the accumulated delay.
Then we hear them gasping, coughing, spitting. Invariably, they start running clumsily, and the women’s heavy breasts jolt and quiver like masses of gelatin on a lunatic platter.
Many envy the pedestrians; the physical effort imposed on them indeed seems less restrictive, but there may be other drawbacks…
The route is a tunnel marked off in hours, not miles; the route is a pipeline of pain we must ride on leaden machines in the ceaseless whine of pedals, the screech of ill-oiled chains, the stridency of brakes, or the tremendous din of a bike crumpling in two.
At night, a door opens in the brick wall. An entrance invisible in the daytime, which no one can ever find. One final push of the pedal, and then the bike is hung in the gloom of a chamber where oxygen lashes our legs, forcing back the clusters of bubbles that try to enter in the our wake. The wall closes again.
Take off the masks sticky with sweat; the skin where its straps dug in will remain raw all night. Some cyclists stay there, right by their machines, for fear someone will steal a part from them in the night. They’re probably right.
The room is empty, bare. At the far end, the doors to little booths gape open on the decomposer-reconstitutors: at least that’s what we call the white enameled devices in the middle of each 3 by 3 foot closet barely lit by a frosted bulb of measly wattage. Close up, they’d look just like toilets, if it weren’t for the network of ducts and the radiation lamps. All excremental matter is immediately broken down, each particle resuming its pre-intestinal aspect, and the regenerator lamps try and restore to it all an adequate nutrient content. The pasty material then removed from the tank has neither taste nor color. When the nutrient content drops to zero, when the regenerators can no longer extract anything from our excrement, we pop open some canned food, or chew a bar of alimentary concentrate. The regenerator allow us to live on these for at least three months, mining and making the most of the teensiest nutritive particles our digestive systems have discharged. At first, some cyclists vomited after every meal, while others obstinately refused to swallow the slightest mouthful. On the door of my booth someone’s scrawled four words in pencil: “Trash fed by trash…” I’ll have to erase that.
Those who arrive after the doors have closed must keep pedaling all night long, or get used to suffering. They probably try as much of both as they can stand…
The guards have donned fireproof gloves to put the cap back on the blackened jerry-can… but the cap won’t screw back on the spout deformed by the explosion. It’s some kind of acid meant to absorb the radiation, I think (so they say). The only drawback is it explodes on contact with liquid, which makes handling it rather tricky. Sometimes, a shadow slips away from the group, grabs one of the jerry-cans, and pisses into it. The results are instantaneous. Flames rocket out, white and blinding as lightning, blazing like a laser, right between the guy’s legs… For a few seconds, a magnesium glare lights up the room. I look around to try and spot the edges, but the flame never lasts long enough.
It can’t be said suicides have gone up… I mustn’t be disingenuous.
Recently, rocks have been ricocheting off the surface of the water without sinking in. The effects of solar lighting vary from place to place, greening your face in the valley, yellowing your shoulders on the flatlands, blurring your belly on the hilltops. Trees have been growing upside down, roots turned skywards, foliage buried under the grass. Chestnuts would explode the minute you made as if to touch them, sending burrs flying in all directions. Sometimes the wind would steal sounds and mix them up, a thunderclap would come out of your mouth, words you spoke would hang from a condor’s beating wings… the (don’t talk about how it was before). Besides, there’s no proof these images are real, doubtless my diseased memory has distorted much more rational facts. The bicycles clink and rattle in the shadows, lining the walls of the room. Only the tandem corner is empty. Nowadays all couples are separated. Little by little, as the hours go by, the crouching forms stretch out on the floor, the wreck of a conversation will dwindle to a monologue soon worn down by fatigue.
No rules oblige sleepers to remain in the lower chamber; we are all free to climb one of the stairwells with steps caparisoned in red wool that lead to the upper floor. However, few indeed undertake such a journey; no sooner are their bikes hung than exhaustion nails them to the floor. Up above, table with giant feet bear massive silverware whose mere weight could sink a ship.
A line of blue-green plates and dishes runs to the vanishing point of a hall hung with oppressive velours. A banquet for an army or a crowd, but the guests will be forever absent. The next few rooms, with their high beds, hordes of pillows in all sizes, flanked by candelabra rooted in floorboards that smell of beeswax… But it is raining on the empty soup tureens, and each drop is like the tapping of a woman’s long, pointed fingernail, a tinny music that fills the tarnished plates and mildews the tablecloth. The shower often pierces sheets and blankets, and an unhealthy moisture encourages mushrooms deep within the mattress. Dead birds overflow the credenza drawers; pages of books from the library are now forever faded, and only vast white pages remain, so beautiful they seem to be reserved for epitaphs, or deaths of historical importance…
Once, Maria cruelly bit my hand; I dropped a candle on the woolen rug. It was so damp that the flame went out at once.
You can sleep in these beds, you even sleep better there, a deeper sleep than the room downstairs. As the whiff of mold acted as a potent anesthetic, in its way. Upon waking, however, a slight worry assails sleepers regarding the uses made of them during their hours of unconsciousness, for rare is the occasion when sleepers do not wake with each orifice of their bodies feeling forced and painful.
And so Maria—
(Don’t — )
In the blemished mirrors on the upper floor, I can perfectly make out my face purpled by the swellings of asphyxia. And on the canopy bed’s still-white sheets, I can see perfectly well that my shadow is red.
HOWEVER, I will refrain from drawing any hasty conclusions, exhaustion and malnutrition maintaining me in a torpor from in which it is sometimes hard to tell dream from reality…
I can no longer remember just how I got here. Like most of us, I woke up in the room down below after the explosion, my head empty and yet heavy. Since that day, my sense of touch has diminished considerably, and I have the hardest time holding a pencil in my numb fingers. My memories have gradually faded away, surely from shock. Some whisper that we are dead, that we expiate our sins in the first circle of an absurd hell, but I find this theory far too romantic. No, for me, it’s more—
The fact is, each new arrival is brought in by a hearse, and unloaded on a stretcher amidst the others, who will teach him the rules… But I believe this is a vulgar practice meant to keep us in a certain state of unease.
I know the gas is corroding my brain cells — first my memory, then my perception of reality. The near impossibility drawing differentiations and making logical connections will not make me give up my desire to know, to… understand.
Are we prisoners in some forgotten jail, of some computer warden ignorant of changes in historical context?
Ignorant of the fact that the empty eye sockets of its programmers are now forever fixed on a white sun, so white their dark glasses have melted away?
And the machine continues to function, on insufficient data. Continues to drag, from their cells, convicts who have forgotten the very cause of their incarceration. Ensuring, through the intermediary of its android jailers, that sentences are handed out, never to be commuted, for lack of new data?
That’s just a theory, of course, and I lack the strength to carry out the verifications needed to refute it; besides I’m not at all sure my data is objective. The disaster and the gas have destroyed my mental workings… Unless… unless this is just the first phase of some kind of brainwashing, the prelude to an undertaking that escapes me.
At other times, I like to imagine that the blurriness of thoughts is an effect I strive for consciously. Then I convince myself that this entire monologue is recorded in a memory circuit… a magnetic tape speaks through my mouth, and I’m just an android with an official number, employed in the Funnyway Penitentiary, in charge of welcoming new prisoners when they come out of the usual post-conviction brainwashing.
My monologue is a speech type whose sole purpose is to increase their mental unease, to make them lose all bearings… to break them.
A fictional speech, but gangrenous.
My name is Alpha‑3, I belong to the section for the suppression of speed fetishists — I—
I will NEVER know if I am a prisoner or a jailer…
Besides, what would be the point?
What pleasure, what satisfaction would I derive from the certainty of being someone sentenced to life, instead of an android on the fritz, ready for the junkyard…
Or the opposite.
The bicycle is an ancient model, deliberately picked for its thick, heavy frame. We usually say that there are trap-cycles, one hidden in every dozen. Like a deadly bullet in a firing squad, eleven of whose twelve rifles are loaded with blanks. I don’t know how much credence to give these legends. Our machines are changed during the night according to a schedule difficult to determine for people like us, without watches or calendars. An entirely subjective estimate might be every six months. The machine from hell would have suddenly razorlike pedals, a seat that can burst into flames in a matter of minutes, lead wheels with sticky tires, and especially, the ability to triple its weight on uphills. We call it the black bicycle, or even the cycle of Asmodeus. They say its timbre is curiously crazed, never making the same sound twice.
But I’m not saying these things to frighten you; we too have our legends, our myths…
You’ll find your bicycle next to the others. If the handlebars are sticky, it’s due to sweat. If the pedals are hard, it’s because hundreds of feet have failed to get the better of the hatred stored in them.
You’ll learn to foil its treacheries, to beg for its favors… You…
Tomorrow, when it’s time to leave, my mask will keep me from muttering a word of encouragement, so I’m taking advantage of this moment to wish you “a good trip.”
Or as they say around these parts…
© Éditions Denoël, 1993