"Migration" by Mathias Énard
Last week we posted about a new story of Mathias Énard’s that appeared in Le Monde. Énard, as you may already know, is the author of Zone, a critically acclaimed, award-winning 517-page one-sentence novel that we’ll be bringing out next year. Well, in the meantime, superstar translator—and recent NEA translation fellowship recipient—Charlotte Mandell translated “Migration,” the story that appeared in Le Monde and which you’ll find below. Enjoy!
This story comes from the Jebel al-Arab, the black volcanic mountain that stretches, in southern Syria, between the towns of Shahba and Salkhad. A mysterious, wild massif, dotted with ancient ruins and inhabited by the Druze, who in years gone by have been described as just as mysterious and wild as their rocky hills. In the winter, snow is frequent, and villages in the center of the region can be isolated for days on end. Electricity is uncommon there and telephones usually absent. This afternoon, around five o’clock, when the engineer Mohsen climbs into his Toyota pickup to go back to town, it is already pitch black out. Snowdrifts outline white piles against the low houses and walls; the basalt horizon makes the darkness even more opaque. The leafless apple orchards look alive, like fields of hanged men in the glow of the headlights.
The engineer Mohsen has as his only company a thermos of tea, a cassette of Amr Diab songs on his car radio, and the shrill cries of jackals. The engineer Mohsen is not afraid. The engineer Mohsen knows this country well, he comes here often to check or repair the capricious little generator that supplies the region with electricity. He knows the crisp smell of snow mixed with the odor of fuel oil spreading from aluminum chimneys and he is well acquainted with the silence, the immense silence of this car-less region that the constant yelps of the jackals only deepen. The engineer Mohsen knows that it will take almost an hour to cover the forty kilometers that separate him from town, following the narrow, poorly plowed roads where paving is infrequent. The engineer Mohsen knows that he will not meet a single car, apart maybe from a motorcycle or a delivery vehicle jolting along driven by a mustachioed man wrapped in a red keffieh. The engineer Mohsen takes his time. He waits patiently for the engine (and in consequence the car’s interior) to warm up, drinking a glass of tea. A freezing wind has started to blow. It will be better lower down. The engineer Mohsen shifts into first and begins his descent.
It’s as he is leaving the second village that he glimpses her. The girl (how old could she be? Twelve, who knows?) seems to be signaling to him, standing on the side of the road, in a coat the color of dirty snow. The engineer Mohsen is surprised. He stops and opens the passenger door. The girl leaps into the doorway and settles on the seat, trembling. She has a pretty face. She asks in a somewhat timid voice if the engineer Mohsen would have the kindness to drive her to the next village. The engineer Mohsen is a man from town, he replies yes, of course, without asking any questions, and starts up again. What could a child possibly be doing, out alone at this hour in such cold? True, it is winter, it’s still early. But it’s dark out and freezing. Still. The little girl remains silent, she seems to be scrutinizing the darkness, hypnotized by the light of the headlights. She is absolutely motionless, one hand resting flat on her thigh.
The engineer Mohsen turns up the music. In the half-light of the car, he has the impression that the beautiful profile of his passenger is glowing with a bluish light that seems to be oozing from her temple, streaming down her cheek, onto her neck. As if she were sweating. Or melting. The engineer Mohsen glances at the little hand calmly resting on her jeans. Despite the darkness, he thinks he can see drops pearling up on the surface of the white skin, sliding down her pants onto the seat.
The engineer Mohsen accelerates. The engineer Mohsen lowers the heat and opens the window a crack, without really knowing why; he looks straight in front of him at the road and the last curves separating him from the village where she (he doesn’t know what to call her) will get out. The wind stings his eyes, unless it’s emotion and fear; the tape has stopped and he can hear clearly, now, the regular plop plop plop of little drops on the floor resounding like a big clock despite the noise of the engine. He attacks a bend a little too quickly and is forced to cling to the steering wheel with all his strength so the Toyota doesn’t hit a low wall. The girl hasn’t budged an inch; the centrifugal force and the braking have just flung a little of that weird sweat onto the engineer Mohsen who is overwhelmed with a shudder of terror and almost cries out in surprise upon discovering that this liquid is icy, as icy as the expression on the face of his cold passenger and the heap of snow into which, after having skidded for several yards, the pickup has gotten embedded. The child has remained impassive; all that has happened is that a few drops of water (the engineer Mohsen is convinced now that it is water) have splattered the windshield. The engine has stalled. The first houses of the village are nearby. The child opens the door. She thanks the engineer Mohsen for dropping her off and gets out. The engineer Mohsen notices the moist halo that the girl has left on her seat and, perhaps because he is an electrician and because electricity has trouble admitting the existence of ghosts, or perhaps on the contrary because he is a Druze and hence used to strange phenomena, the engineer Mohsen shouts “Wait!”, leans quickly over the gearbox and manages at the last minute to grab his passenger’s left hand; he feels intense cold between his fingers, a wet cold, then, without a crack, as the girl is already disappearing into the night, he finds he is holding a child’s arm, a useless arm of ice that he drops onto the seat. Without knowing how, he gets out of the car and plops down in the snow. The engineer Mohsen’s scream sounds like the panic-stricken shrieking of a jackal.
When the engineer Mohsen has pulled himself together and returned to his truck, the arm has disappeared. Either it has melted, or it never existed. Only the wetness of the cloth tends to make the engineer Mohsen incline to the first explanation.
All around, the village is silent, the chimneys gently spewing the thick smoke of oil-fired stoves.
The next morning, after a night spent trying to find sleep, stupefying himself with arak, the engineer Mohsen is on the whole relieved to learn from the newspaper that a twelve-year-old child died at around five o’clock in the village of X, from pneumonia. On the other hand, he’s terrified by the next news item, which reveals that at the same instant, or almost, a little girl was born a few kilometers lower down: this birth would no doubt not have attracted the attention of either the journalists or the engineer Mohsen if the baby, a rare thing, hadn’t been born with only one arm.