The Lover’s Sentence: Victor-Émile Michelet. Liz Medendorp, translator.

To Mario Fenouil

The ancient Hindu village dozed on the shore of the Ganges, softly illuminated by the last lights of the day.

Between the tall palm trees and the towering banana trees, deserted temples and palaces overhung large staircases, bordering the water of the river that runs with its famous majesty.
Soon the night would swoop down on the country – the abrupt Indian night that suddenly follows the day without the transition of dusk.

On the shore, a crowd of young girls gathered between the stones and ruins. Most of them had travelled from a great distance to perform the ritual that would foretell the fate of their love. They were all bathing joyfully in the sacred waters, their tanned young breasts in the open air with only a strip of white cloth around their sides. They came up out of the water, all chattering like a flock of birds perched in the trees. They were very proud of having dipped their bodies in the great Ganges, the river that washes away all stains and prepares its bathers for prophetic revelations.

Halida, one of the prettiest bathing beauties, emerged from the water. Without drying herself, she put on her white linen dress and sat down.

Halida was an alluring young girl. Her sixteen years were mature and her body had blossomed into womanhood. In her country, girls are ripe and nubile while those of the West are still playing with dolls. Such a delicious creature; whoever her heart beats for is surely blessed. Her mouth was a flower created for kissing, and under her determined brow a powerful magnetism emanated from her large charcoal eyes.
Halida, like many other young girls, had come that day to the ancient city that bathes in the Ganges to consult her fate, to know the destiny of her love. Will her lover be faithful? She had to fall in love with a European, one of those men who comes from very far away, from an unknown and mysterious country spread out under the sleeping sun, who spends a few months in India and returns to his homeland, leaving behind a weeping woman.

Halida, along with the other young girls, prepared the objects that would reveal her destiny. The others had come out of the water and were lying down on the shore. They carried small baskets that held eggs and stumps of candles. Halida took an egg, poured the whites on a stone, and pronounced an incantation. She then planted a candle stump in the eggshell.

The night fell suddenly on the river and on the earth and on the high palaces and the temples in ruins, like a stone crushing its heavy shadow. The landscape swiftly crossed over from day into night.

So Halida went down to the edge of the water and, very gently, with meticulous care, entrusted to the current the egg shell planted with a lit candle. The little light flickered, regained its balance, and flowed along with the river.

Similar lights embarked all along the river bank, candles launched by the other young women who were gathered there. They watched the shimmering points in the dark water. Each young girl’s eyes anxiously followed her candle.

Those who could see theirs for a long time were glad. Their love was destined to be happy. Those whose candle had been immediately turned over and blown out knew that their love would cause them great pain.

Young Halida’s heart was beating very fast as she accompanied with her eyes and with her hopes the candle that was floating with the will of the current.

Young girls wept all around her. They had seen the ruin of the vessel that carried their hopes.
Halida’s candle floated slowly. It had already travelled about ten meters. The young girl followed it along the shore, her naked little feet in the stones and thorns. Suddenly, the light went out. The candle had sunk.

It was a bad omen. Her love had been condemned. The pale European that she had had the foolishness to love would leave, abandoning her for the kisses of another woman.

Stewart was a young English officer of twenty-five in service in the Indies. He had a rosy, doll-like face, with a strong jaw that reflected the conquering English race. His clear, pale eyes, however, seemed to softly caress all those who met his possessive gaze, like a man stroking his companion dog.

Steward had found Halida alluring. He had picked this pretty Hindu flower.

They had spent three months of enchantment together.

But man grows tired of everything, even the love of such a charming girl; and Stewart thought about his next return to England.

“Will you stay for a while still?” Halida asked him when she returned from the test of the light on the river.
“Yes,” answered Stewart, “I will stay a long time, and stay close to you.”

But Halida knew that this man was lying, as all men lie. She knew that soon she would be alone, scorned by those of her caste because she had given herself to a European, to one of the damned of the West.

She knew her plan. The pretty Hindu saw the simplicity of life and death. If the man who you love dies, no other woman could possess his kiss. There is no need to be jealous when death is your rival.

Halida gathered some banana tree leaves, leaves sharp like blades. She cut them with meticulous care into fragments no larger than grains of rice.

And every day, in the plate of rice that she prepared for her beloved, she put one pinch of the fragments of banana tree leaves, sharp like blades.

“Halida,” Stewart said one night, “I don’t feel well. The climate of your country is making me sick. I will spend two or three months in my homeland and then I will return to your kisses. If I stay I am sure that I’ll die from it, like so many others have died.”

Halida wept bitterly at the idea of this separation. But every day she put one new pinch of banana leaf fragments in his plate of rice.

Her tenderness increased before the departure. And the night when her beloved left, she cried all of the tears in her body. What cruel destiny separates those who love each other?

The young officer set sail. In the bottom of his heart, he regretted leaving the delicious Halida. Would he ever again find a lover so captivating?

Nevertheless, he felt dull pains in his gut. On board, the pain became intolerable. Eight days after his departure, the steamer that carried him had to toss overboard the young blonde man who was taken by a sickness that the doctor could not recognize, stitched up in his shroud and left for the sharks.

The fragments of the banana tree leaves, sharp like blades, had perforated his intestines on all sides. The young man died in atrocious suffering.

Halida remained without any news of her beloved, but she knew well that the work of the banana leaves had been inevitable and sure.

Thus had destiny been decided. There is no need to be jealous when death is your only rival.

Translated from the French short story collection Contes aventureux.

About the Translator: Liz Medendorp will be graduating from the University of Michigan in May 2011 with degrees in French Language & Literature and Arts & Ideas in the Humanities, with a minor in International Studies. She intends to pursue her interests in translation at the graduate level through the study of Comparative Literature.

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