Josette says I should commend myself to God. She knows I’m not religious, but she wants me to retract my claim. For your own good, she says. She believes I’m suffering from delusions. Of grandeur? Think of it this way, Madame Rose. An event like this can only be an act of God, never of man. Let Him bear the burden, Madame Rose.
I imagine us tilling side by side, le bon Dieu et moi, beasts of burden yoked to the same plow. The work is grueling, and I feel myself slipping into the dark earth. Suddenly the weight shifts to the Lord. Angels appear from nowhere. Trumpets blare. A chorus sings the Marseillaise: “Allons enfants de la patrie….”
It must be wonderful to have such faith. Josette genuinely believes there‘s an old man with a beard watching over us from just beyond the clouds—like Santa Claus, I imagine, only less jovial and more dour. For that matter, so did my own mother, although the god she prayed to was wiser and less easily cajoled than the one in France. I must say, even as a child it struck me as absurd that people could speak with such assurance about something they had never seen. Looking through the thatch at the night sky, or from the frozen yard when I went out at night to use the shed, I was dazzled by a thousand stars. Where is He? I would ask, and Mama would point ever higher as I squinted past Orion, past Cassiopeia, straight through the Milky Way to something she alone could see.
Here in Clos-les-Vignes, where the sky is so much bigger, the constellations still write themselves across the night, isosceles and strange—signals from some distant realm. But God? I’ve never understood what people meant by it. The same with love. Wished for it? Of course. Found it? Once. Believed in it? How could I not? By now it no longer surprises me that events should have led another way, or that I should have lived without the consolations that allow my fellow citizens to feel so at home in their own skin. Still, I remember wanting to know what it would be like to take the simplest happiness for granted, wanting to partake, if only for a minute, of the general condition, just as I would have liked to have more of a sense of smell.
Speaking of which, living over Le Bon Four, I’ve had occasion to rejoice that the whole aromatic world so utterly escaped me. What’s for dinner? I ask Josette, who says one thing and serves me another. She loves to tease me. I take my meals downstairs, and she knows I can’t tell tripe from quail unless it’s staring me right in the face. But that’s no reflection on Josette. She’s been my landlady for more than twenty years, and I’ve known her since before she saw the light of day.
On the surface, nothing has changed in the last month. I still take my lunch at twelve o’clock, like everybody else. For all these years I’ve sat at the same table, toward the front, along the wall with the carved wooden clock and the sketches of Provence. I like looking out across the square, watching the tilted sun move slowly up the Rue de l’Échafaud. At night I have the little table next to the kitchen, across from the portrait of Thérèse in her red dress. I try to eat at seven, because I like to be back in my room in time to watch the evening news. François always accompanies me up after dessert. He waits until I’ve turned the key in the door and sees me in before heading downstairs. I must say I find it rather touching. Lately he’s seemed even more protective. It almost feels as if he has a proprietary interest in my work. François and Josette are the only ones who know I’m working on my deposition.