Burial Ceremony (excerpted from “Unforgivable”)

Jérémie’s dog was smashed against the rocks by one of those enormous waves that had been rolling in all afternoon — there had been a change in the moon. The dog’s skeleton had been battered to bits and its head reduced to a pulp.

Two other dogs were found, some cats, and a few cattle washed down from the Adour River — as happens after every big storm — carrying with it drugs, wads of banknotes, cigarette cartons, etc. The town hall employed men to clean away these more or less inappropriate objects, some of them bloodstained, from the beach. Jérémie’s dog hadn’t a single tooth left, its tongue had been severed.

Dusk was falling. I knew he was searching for his dog. A few hours earlier, he had arrived, slightly concerned, to ask me if I had seen it — occasionally the dog went for a walk with the girls. I had tried to calm him, reminding him just how quick, intelligent, and alert the animal had shown itself to be — even to my eyes, someone who is not very interested in domestic pets — and therefore clever enough to take shelter if the weather was turning for the worse. His complexion was almost gray. Behind him, the sea was roaring, low clouds were streaming past like submarines in the bronze sky. “Keep me posted,” I’d said to him. “Use your phone. Have faith.”

A moment later, the storm had broken, and during the two hours that followed I completely forgot about him and his dog.

Roger had set off to do goodness knows what in town, and the two little girls, who claimed they had seen a flash of lightning pass through the house, were clinging to me and trembling like leaves, while the sky was lit up and deafening explosions shook the entire house.

They were tugging at my sweater. I had one of them on each knee. They were bending forward to yell into my ear when the heavens unleashed a flash of lightning right over the dunes. A sudden apparition, in the garden, just as the storm was moving away, was the cause of their latest cries: a sort of motionless specter on his milky-white, steaming shoulders from which huge drops trickled.

Jérémie was holding the remains of his dog in his arms.

“Listen, girls,” I said. “You must go up to your bedroom.”

But they had already jumped up, had opened the bay window, and were rushing over to Jérémie before I was able to step in. They were drenched from head to foot in a trice.

I ushered everyone into the kitchen. The girls were weeping noisily and were throwing tantrums. Jérémie appeared to be in a state of shock. I took the animal from him and went to lay it on top of the dryer. A stuffed doll, weighing ten kilos or so, scarcely recognizable, and unpleasant to touch.

I made everyone get out of the kitchen. The twins were clinging to me and sobbing, convinced that I could do something to bring this dog back to life. I dragged them over to the bar so that I could pour a dram of 70° whisky — o river of fire, o reviving force — for someone who seemed to be desperately in need of it.

“Let’s sit down,” I said. “Let’s try to control our breathing. OK, girls? Calm down. And you, Jérémie, drain that glass, please. I’m going to get you another. There’s no point in howling, you know. Where’s your father? I’d like to know where he is. You’re soaked. Go and find some towels. Jérémie and I will dry you. Won’t we, Jérémie? Won’t we, Jérémie? My poor old friend. What a wretched business, by the way. The poor dog. But come along, sit down, don’t just stand there like an idiot. Yes, do, don’t worry about that. It’s waterproof leather. Don’t bother about that. Try and relax. Breathe in. Breathe in deeply. So you found him like that, on the rocks? Beneath the lighthouse, you say? Do you think he fell from up there? That he bumped into a couple of irritable gays having it away in the bushes? Hmm. Maybe. It’s not impossible. I know they don’t like being disturbed. But I don’t imagine you’ve any proof of what you’re suggesting. These guys must have chucked your dog in the water? And why would they do that, Jérémie? Look at me. What’s the matter? Wait a second. Listen to me, girls. I’m not joking anymore.”

While they set off in the direction of the airing cupboard upstairs, I leaned over toward him:

“You went to bug them, is that it? Don’t tell me you did that, Jérémie. Look at me. Did you go to bug these guys? But what on earth got into your head? You see the result? Your father didn’t help you, as far as that’s concerned. I’m telling you frankly, he did you no favors.”

His head dropped so low that I could no longer see his face. I didn’t know whether water was dripping from him or whether he was crying. A smell of damp dog now pervaded the house. A small puddle was forming at his feet. One more appalling story. A story of total wastefulness — for which the dog paid the price.

“Listen to me. We can’t bury a dog in the forest in weather like this, absolutely not. That would be verging on madness, do you hear? Digging a grave in weather like this, you must be joking? Using the headlights, I suppose? In twenty inches of mud. In teeming rain.” They pointed out that the storm had died down. That the moon had dried the darkened fields as it rose.

I helped him carry the dog to the trunk of my car while the girls searched the house, gathering up all the flashlights they could find; I could hear the cutlery flying around in the drawers, the cupboard doors slamming.

As I went out, I had the feeling that I was diving into a pool of warm water. I left a message for Judith informing her of the predicament we had got into, were she to come home and find the house empty. If she ever did come home. Something I was never entirely sure about. “I don’t even know where you are,” I added in a tone of voice that struck me as plaintive.

As time went by, I was becoming increasingly sentimental. If I went on like this, I would soon become ridiculous.

Half an hour later, we pulled up in the middle of the forest. It was still raining quite hard. It was still dark. In the back, the little girls were still spluttering into their handkerchiefs. I turned round to them and made them promise not to move from there while Jérémie and I were working.

Very quickly, our task became a quagmire.

The earth was dark and thick. As we dug deeper, the hole filled with water. Through the misted-up windows of the car, the two girls were watching us open-eyed. The rain, all around us, was spitting like bacon in a frying pan. “I’m not going to go on asking you the same question until the end of time,” I said, almost yelling so that he should hear me. “Don’t count on it. So, one last time, I’m asking you, Jérémie, are you all right? . . . if not I’ll drive you to the emergency room right away to be looked after, OK? I recommend you find your tongue again quickly, OK?”

To begin with, he nodded. I told him that wouldn’t be enough.

“Yeah, it’s OK,” he muttered finally. “I don’t want to talk.”

These types of windbreakers with hoods that we had brought with us, very fashionable with campers and tourists, were sticking to our skins the way transparent film clings to vacuum-packed food.

“They murdered my dog!” he grunted between his teeth before beginning to dig frantically again.

I looked at him for a moment. “I can’t get over the fact that you could have done that,” I said to him eventually. “I’m flabbergasted. Your mother really will be pleased. I think she’ll be really proud of you. Doubly so. But for a start, you don’t know a thing. You accuse these people, but you don’t know a thing. You’ve no right to do that.”

He stood up and looked at me fiercely, but no word came from his lips. He suddenly hurled his shovel to the ground and set off furiously to collect his dog.

We had already talked about this, he knew what I thought and what my views were on the subject. Nevertheless, I had admitted that when it had to do with the father or the mother, it did not make things any easier for the child. I could understand his confusion. I could understand that things weren’t quite right inside this child’s head — and yet it wasn’t as if we were having to be protected from rabies or poliomyelitis or dyscalculia.

He stood still for a moment, in front of the open trunk of the car, while torrential rain beat down on his head, before bending down to pick up his dog. Once again, I was happy to admit that the loss was tough for a young fellow who had just come out after six years in prison. In any case, all this was not very good for my coachwork; I didn’t know whether Audi treated the inside of the trunk with antirust.

  • * *

The following day, we were obliged to go back to put up a cross or risk dealing with a double nervous breakdown — Alice had brought them up very badly — and being labeled an infidel; Alice had managed to have them baptized and religion was already seeping into their young and hazy minds. Since when had people not been putting crosses on graves? What sort of a grandfather did they have after all?

The weather was fine after the previous night’s storms. The sky was a washed-out blue. Imagining that we might use the opportunity to find a few cèpe mushrooms, I agreed — on condition that they didn’t expect me to be involved with preparing the thing, for I wasn’t in the mood for that.

I was unsure whether to wake their father. I was having breakfast. I took a look at my post. Since I was still writing a few stories for newspapers and had become unusually obsessive about proof corrections — I was well known for being the worst in the whole country, the kind who really did split hairs — I was still fairly busy, and this meant I could not devote my time to their games, their ceremonies, their fussy demands, and I had therefore left them in the garage, asking them to be careful not to injure themselves with any sharp tool or other.

As for me, I could no more bring myself to put two bits of wood together — or anything else — as long as there was a chance that Alice was still alive.

Judith had returned in the middle of the night. For the time being, she was asleep.

What was the point of waking her up either? On reflection, talking to the twins was what probably suited me best on this dazzlingly bright day. A light breeze was coming from the sea, mingled with the scent of tamarisks. I found the girls and examined the cross they had made with bits of wood from a crate and bent nails. “Good work,” I said to them in a friendly way as I operated the garage door. “I know someone who’s going to be pleased.”

I wasn’t talking about Jérémie. However, it was he whom I spotted in my rearview mirror when I switched on the engine. I gave a frosty glance at the girls. Then I reversed and stopped alongside him.

“I’ll tell you what I think,” I said after contemplating him for a moment. “Go back home. Let us deal with this.”

It was as if he were clenching his teeth with all his might. In the end, I asked him to get in. “I was saying that for your own good,” I said as I drove off. From a canvas bag he carried on his shoulder, he took out a cross that had been astonishingly and elaborately carved and polished, and which gleamed like a fine, old wooden floor that had been newly polished.

The girls cried out in delight. He shrugged his shoulders. He explained that he had developed this pastime in prison. That this carefully decorated cross was the least he owed his friend, his companion.

It was so childish. On a level with the twins, who would soon be asking for holy water; yet the girls were still at an age to bury dead beetles . . . and he at an age to hold up a service station.

He must have spent the entire night there. It was so childish. I didn’t need to see the state his hands were in to imagine the ordeal he was going through, but I found it somewhat hard to sympathize, considering what I was going through myself.

In any case, he was sending out very negative vibes. I suspected that he was taking advantage of his mother’s absence in order not to eat anything. Before she left, A.-M. had filled the freezer with individual portions that could be put straight into the microwave, but this seemed to require an effort he could not manage. He was growing extremely pale.

He didn’t utter a word throughout the journey. I didn’t know whether I was right or wrong to go through this foolish procedure with them. And yet it was from me, I supposed, being the eldest in the group, that one might have expected a little good sense. To have put a stop right away to this jaunt, which did not show any of us in a good light. However, I had not done this. I had not clapped my hands to bring the three of them down the earth. I had not put my foot down. I had opened the car door and asked Jérémie to get in.

I would have found it very difficult to say what it was I was giving in to, but the result was here, on this road that meandered through the brush and climbed up toward the hill, in an atmosphere that was as sultry as one could imagine.

The cross that Jérémie had carved and the skill and passion that he had obviously devoted to its construction made the process even more solemn, even more unbearable. Just what one needed to avoid. But it was too late to turn back now.

A little while later, Jérémie was looking at my CD player and scrolling through my lists. “Can I put on ‘Current 93’?” he asked as we were nearing our objective; a shower of golden petals that had fallen from the trees rustled on the road, still shimmering after the strong intermittent downpours during the night. I gave in. What did it matter? I could see the twins in the rearview mirror. I could see their hands joined, I could see their lips moving and I wondered whether they were reciting some sort of prayer.

We had buried the dog in the teeming rain but we were now dealing with the funeral ceremony on one of those infinitely graceful autumn days for which we were the envy of the entire world. The bay that stretched out behind us, from the Spanish coast to the horizon, was like a casket of jewels that sparkled with amethysts, sapphires, turquoises, etc. Ernesto often used to walk here. I mean to say that Ernest Hemingway often used to walk here. He always said that there was no better place in the world for a writer. He was hardly exaggerating. He used to come to these parts regularly, accompanied by one of my aunts, to pick cèpes and take a siesta beneath the ancient oak and chestnut trees. That stout fellow.

Jérémie had brought along a hammer and some nails the size of a finger to put up the two crosses. The tree trunk beneath which his dog was buried seemed as hard as stone. He had asked me to leave the doors open so that we could hear some of those dismal songs that David Tibet specialized in; meanwhile the grim hammer blows echoed through the forest and the twins squelched about in the mud searching for leaves and flowers as decorations. I stood back a little, chewing on nicotine gum, pretending not to notice the flight of the crows directly above the clearing where the scene was taking place. I was longing to wander about in the brush, for I could detect a very distinct smell of fresh mushrooms. Alice adored cèpes. Tears began to streak down my cheeks, just thinking about this. As I drove off along the wrong road, I could sense Jérémie’s silent approval.

– Philippe Djian is the author of more than twenty novels and best known in the US for 37.2° le matin, which was made into the film Betty Blue.

Excerpt from Unforgivable by Philipee Djian to be published in the English Language in the US by Simon & Schuster on March 9th, 2010. Translated from the French by Euan Cameron. Originally published by Editions Gallimard in 2009


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