Jean-Claude Dunyach is one of the leading science fiction writers in France. He is the author of eight novels and nine collections, and has won the Prix Ozone, the Prix Rosny-AÎne, the Prix de l’Imaginaire, and the Eiffel Tower Award. He also writes lyrics for a number of French singers. This is his third appearance in Galaxy’s Edge. The following piece won the Prix Imaginale 2017.
He saw her stumble, in slow motion, and lean against the flower merchant’s window. The shopping gallery at the Schiphol airport had been invaded by the usual hustle and bustle of hurried travelers. No one paid any attention to her. When she stood up, a silver tear slipped from her ear, down her blonde hair before bouncing off her shoulder. He watched it, noting every detail, and headed over toward her at a leisurely pace. When he got to where she had been standing, he bent down and picked the earring up off the ground. Then he stood up and glanced about, looking for her, but she had already disappeared, swallowed up in the crowd.
He closed his fist and felt the piece of metal jewelry dig gently into his palm. The boarding gate for Djakarta was located at the other end of the terminal. Suddenly, it seemed inaccessible to him. He headed toward one of the train station entrances, then changed his mind. With a shrug, he straightened his travel bag with its many pockets and headed for the taxis.
The driver dropped him off near Leidzeplein. Workers had started tearing up the small street that led to his usual hotel. Among the heaps of stones on the roadway, he caught a glimpse of a small strip of bone-colored sand. Seized by impulse, he crossed over the protective barrier and took a few steps on the secret beach in the heart of the city. Fossil shells crunched under his polished shoes. Eyes closed, he sniffed toward the east and felt the first drops of rain caress his lips.
As he reached the front steps of the hotel he heard a woman’s voice swear in French behind him. The contrast between the voice, rich and harmonious, and the curse was striking. He turned around slowly. She was pulling an enormous black canvas suitcase and the wheels kept getting caught between the uneven cobblestones. The storm threatened to transform her blonde hair into something unacceptable. He smiled at her as he reached out his hand.
“Let me help you. Amsterdam is fiercely unsuitable for luggage such as yours.”
“I’ve seen worse,” she said, automatically wiping her eyes. “You’re staying at this hotel?”
“If they have a room…” (He grabbed the handle of the suitcase and effortlessly carried it to the top of the steps). “They know me and I hope they’ll find something for me.”
He rolled the suitcase to the reception counter that was stuck in a room built all in length, and then courteously stepped back to allow her to speak with the employee there first. Then he adjusted his bag and discretely walked off. Things were going faster than expected and he would, in all likelihood, have no need to book a room.
The rain swallowed him up without a sound.
He walked, nose turned to the wind, along the Spiegel canal. It had stopped raining, but the air remained oily under his tongue, laden with the stench of the port and the memory of cut flowers that had been carried on carts for centuries. On each side of the canal, shops down below offered countless marvels: silverware, works of art, maps and portolan charts. He glanced at them quickly, without lingering. He felt nervous, impatient. At the bottom of his pocket, the earring felt very heavy, weighing his step down more than usual.
He heard a familiar staccato on the slippery sidewalk nearby. An old heron with shiny feathers was moving away from the canal with its high-stepping gait to a destination known only to it. He watched it and stood right in the middle of the street to block the half dozen bicycles arriving from the museum. The heron crossed slowly, beak down as if looking for a place to plant it between two cobblestones, then the bikes continued on their way with the grinding of metal. A bell rang out joyfully close by and he nodded in return.
The heron looked at him gravely. Its round eyes, filled with liquid light, blinked several times. Then the bird spread its wings and heavily took flight.
When the traveler reached the South American antique store, he felt eyes resting on his shoulders, but did not turn around. In the midst of the reflections on the window, he recognized the woman from the hotel, accompanied by an almost identical version of herself. They stood very close to one another, twin sisters rather than lovers, and were consulting a tourist guide, pages fluttering in the wind.
He allowed his eyes to wander inside the shop filled with parchments and old maps stretched on racks. The sun that played among the clouds drew fleeting trails toward Atlantis, Eldorado, the kingdom of Saba. He would have liked to stand in front of the window forever and learn all of the world’s secret roads. But everything in Amsterdam encouraged him to move. He turned around and walked quickly back to the heart of the city.
The aisle at the flower market smelled of fresh humus and mayonnaise. A family walked noisily past him, armed with cones of fries drowned in gravy. Overhead, the off-kilter rooftops formed a ragged skyline against the gray backdrop of the sky. He felt as if he could simply reach up and tear off a ribbon of roughly pinked clouds. Someone bumped into him gently and he felt a hand slip into his bag. He forced himself not to look down when expert fingers searched desperately for something to steal in the heap of multi-colored scarves and magic rings. Then he pulled on the strap and walked off, catching sight of tulips with bent necks and bags of all kinds of bulbs stacked in stalls.
His tenderness for the city was gradually awakening. Everything here suited him, from the trompe-l’œil styles of the narrow facades to the clap-trap of the strident neons that had colonized the entire center. He walked in the shadow of the belfry, and then headed over to Place Rembrandt. Inevitably.
They were sitting on a terrace, holding hands. He allowed the human tide to carry him to them, noting every detail. When he was close enough, he smiled at them and slowed just enough for his bag to swing over their table, dangerously close to the glasses of gin and tonic standing side by side.
“Were you able to get a room?” the older one asked.
“Still waiting. You?”
“My sister handled the reservations. We saw you with the heron. Quite entertaining. Well, I mean unusual.”
“Not for people here. The birds were here before them.”
He turned part way to look at the younger one, trying to read the lines of a possible story in her features. She held his gaze distractedly before plunging back into her glass and finishing it with a single gulp. The ice cubes tinkled when she put it back down on the table.
“Excuse me for being indiscrete, but you don’t seem well.”
“My sister is trying to forget an unpleasant divorce,” interrupted the older one. “Moreover…”
“Don’t be ridiculous!” (The younger woman shrugged.) “That was over three years ago and I’d like people to stop reminding me about it every five minutes. No, the truth is that I lost my earring.” (With an abrupt tug, she brushed aside a lock of golden hair, streaked with a touch of gray that covered her left ear lobe.) “It’s stupid, but my sister gave them to me and we don’t see one another often, so I wanted to wear them specifically for this occasion. This is our first vacation together since…I don’t even know how long anymore.”
“I’ll give you others,” her sister interrupted. “It’s not important.”
“I wouldn’t say that if I were you.” (He bent over the younger one and examined her ear.) “Earrings like this are very indiscrete. They hear everything you say and, generally, they remember it all. It would be better to find it. This happened recently?”
“Yes, but I don’t know where and I don’t even know if they have a lost and found here. Supposing that someone brings it in, which I doubt. It was gold.”
“It’s easier than that, fortunately.” (He took on a concentrated expression and plunged his hand into his bag before placing it over the empty glass.) But I warn you, this might hurt a little… Ready?”
Without waiting for an answer, he touched the exposed ear lobe with his fingers. The young woman felt a pinch, followed by a cold sensation.
“What are you…” she yelped in indignation.
He opened his hand. An earring sparkled wetly in the palm of his hand. A drop of blood pearled on the stud.
“I wouldn’t put it on right away if I were you. It’s icy and you might well lose it again.”
Around them, the crowd of tourists appeared to freeze, then flashes burst behind him. A bride, looking like an enormous meringue, was posing in the middle of the tables. He turned back to the older one and winked at her broadly.
“How did you do that?” asked the younger woman. (She grabbed the earring feverishly and held it up to the light.) “This is it. Where did you find it?”
“I’m a magician…”
“And you never reveal your tricks. Is that it?” (The older one clapped her hands, dryly two or three times.) “It was well done in any case. My congratulations.”
“You’re insulting me, you know. I’m a real magician, not an illusionist.”
“Tell me all about it. I’m certain your explanation will be more interesting than this little sleight of hand. I’ll buy you a drink in return.”
“Only if you allow me to invite you both to dinner.” (He raised his hands to cut off any protest.) “I know a restaurant that’s not in any tourist guide, not far from the hotel. You can get antipasti and pasta there. Neither is particularly good. An extraordinary place.”
“Really?” (She smiled and it was as if the sun were rising a second time.) “When you put it like that, it’s hard to refuse. Mediocre pasta, hmmm. But we’ll pay our own way, my sister and I. And I really want to hear your explanation.”
“Simple.” (He walked around the table, pulled out a chair and sat down between them. At the other end of the terrace, the bride was spinning about to laughter and applause.) “It goes back centuries, to the time when Amsterdam was just a simple fishing village built on swamps. The geography of the sand banks and the lagoons changed with every tide, or almost. Frequently, the inhabitants had to re-build their homes when they were swallowed up by sand or the sea. So one man, a little more ambitious than the others, came up with the idea of building a dike in order to mold the currents to his will. In the sand, he planted a gigantic stake made of an entire tree trunk circled with iron, then another, and then yet another, until the soil became stable enough to build a house that would last for centuries.
“That’s both the charm and the curse of this city. It’s nailed to the ground by thousands of needles. Nothing ever gets lost. I…” (A smile made his eyes sparkle.) “I merely listened to your memories and went to find the lost earring in a recent past when it was still hooked on your ear. I brought back a little pain as well—the past is an icy place—but I didn’t need to travel back too far in time. See? It’s as simple as that.”
The younger sister nodded, never taking her eyes from him. Between her fingers, the earring flashed one final time before she closed her fist over it.
“Well done,” said the older sister. “We’ll meet in the hotel lobby at seven this evening? I’ll leave the reservations to you.”
He stood up, nodded, and clasped his bag against his thigh. He felt strangely tired. Recovering the earring had given him a jolt of pure adrenaline, and coming down would take a long time.
“Wait…” The younger blushed, then said, “This is our first time in Amsterdam. What do you recommend we see first?”
He smiled briefly and flicked the guide she held out to him closed.
“Learn to get lost instead.”
Under the veiled sunset, the city spread in a gray and watery green infinity, highlighted with fleeting streaks of pink. It was time for hesitations. He had spent most of the afternoon changing his airline ticket and had not had enough time to walk on the lumpy skin of the streets as much as he would have liked. Along his way, he purchased a bag of chocolates of many flavors—ginger, pepper, thyme—and had munched on them while standing above a canal, seeking his own tracks in the blurry reflection of the waves. The passersby had respected his solitude, punctuating his thoughts with the tinkle of silvery bells.
The two sisters were waiting for him in the hotel lobby. They stopped talking when he entered and he guessed that they’d been discussing him. The second earring had found its place and the younger sister had lined her eyes with makeup. The other woman’s face was bare.
He guided them along Neu Spiegel, toward the heart of the city, listening to their enthusiastic descriptions of sites he knew like the back of his hand. He divided his attention among them, equitably. His fatigue had faded; he felt obscurely ready for what was to come and what he had had no hand in determining. He settled for being there, in the center of the vortex of events that had drawn him up in the airport and spit him back out here.
The restaurant was in the basement and opened onto street level by means of a few steep steps that he walked down cautiously. His knee was starting to bother him again; one day, he would certainly need help crossing the street before being able to take flight.
The room was divided into two: the first part looked onto the kitchens and the second was partially filled by a grand piano with the top up. Clay plates with blue designs filled with Italian hors d’œuvres were arranged on a special shelf over the strings. A pianist was playing quietly. A waitress in dance tights and a sequined top seated them in a corner with a basket of breadsticks, menus in four languages, and a carafe of coarse red wine.
“We start with the antipasti buffet, and then we choose our pasta and a dessert.” (He unwrapped a breadstick and bit into it, making it crunch.) “Avoid everything that comes from the oven, it’s always overcooked. And don’t wait to help yourselves. Soon it will be time.”
“Time for what?” asked the older one, folding her menu.
She’d selected what she wanted from the list with a single glance; he imagined she would not take dessert.
He placed a finger on his lips and stood up. The younger one joined him next to the piano. Side by side, they filled their plates. With her fork, she chased a purple artichoke around the plate and blushed when she noticed him watching her. Her perfume mingled with the scent of vinegar and garlic that rose from the hors d’œuvres. Now that she’d found her earring, she seemed drabber.
The pianist allowed his melody to fade and played a series of chords, like a signal.
“Your sister is going to have to wait,” he murmured. “I wonder why she doesn’t like me.”
“She doesn’t believe in you.”
She seemed to realize what she had just said and looked down at her plate, studded with spots of oil and diced vegetables. He grimaced in resignation.
“Stop looking at those artichokes with regret like that and come and sit down. You can come back later if you’re still hungry.”
He’d had barely enough time to push back his chair when the young waitress asked for silence. The lights lowered, the pianist started to play again, barely brushing the keys. The music rolled around them. Strauss…
The waitress opened her mouth and started to sing.
The marvelously rich voice found the melody effortlessly and echoed off the walls of the small room. Eyes closed, hands clasped over her bosom, she sang of love and the death of desire with an intensity that made her tremble. It was not the polished interpretation of a diva on a stage covered with velvet, but the song of someone who would come back later to serve wine and remove dirty plates. Hanging at her waist, the notebook she used to take orders shook every time she took a breath.
She bowed when the song came to an end and headed back to the kitchens, followed by the guests’ applause. Chairs scraped against the stone floor and a line formed in front of the piano.
“I understand why the pasta is always overcooked,” said the older sister. “I owe you an apology. I took you for an ordinary flirt while you’re certainly more than that.”
“Do you want to share my antipasti?”
“I’m not sure I have much of an appetite after that. I’m a musician, you know. A pianist. You can’t imagine what I’ve just experienced.”
He held her gaze for a long moment and murmured, “One day, I wanted to know myself. Girls like her study singing in Concertgebouw and earn barely enough here to pay their teachers. They generally don’t stay for more than a few months. It’s very hard working until midnight six days a week while singing all day long. There’s a constant turnover in voices…”
“I preferred your previous explanation,” said the younger woman. (She touched her earring, flirting.) “How did you discover this place?”
“That’s a secret.”
He trapped a tomato confit with his fork and added, “But you don’t have to believe me.”
There was another recital during dessert, then the traditional round of grappa offered by the boss. He paid the bill while they took their time in the washroom and held their raincoats for them at the foot of the steps.
“Do you want to go back to the hotel right away?” he asked. “It’s not raining and I’m sure were might even be able to catch sight of a star or two. For Amsterdam, this is as close as it gets to good weather.”
“We’re supposed to go to bed early,” said the younger sister, voice tinged with regret. “We’re leaving for Rotterdam tomorrow.”
“So allow me to show you a place I like a lot. It’s on the way, next to the large casino, quite close to the hotel. You may have walked past it without seeing it.”
He pulled up the collar of his leather jacket and headed down the street, one step ahead of her. In the sleeping shops on each side, pale blue night-lights outlined the potbellied shapes of Dutch furniture. In the distance, he heard the hoarse croak of a heron and the clank of a tram. He felt melancholy wash over him without knowing why. The sensation was pleasant, as long as it was shared.
“It’s here. Wait a bit and you’ll see them appear.”
The tiny square was actually a triangle, surrounded by a wood barrier a few centimeters high. In the absence of light, the grass was dark, dotted with tiny puddles that shone like eyes.
Gray shapes, as large as rats, gradually emerged from the grass. As their eyes grew used to the darkness, the details grew clearer. They were metal statues, possibly twenty or so, carefully engraved.
“I present to you the varans of Amsterdam. They don’t look like much like that, but when they’re covered with snow, they’re quite fascinating.”
“Can I go closer to them?”
“That’s prohibited. And most likely disappointing. I’ve never wanted to get close to them. It’s all a question of lighting, in fact.”
“Like many things that concern you, Mr. Magician.” (The older woman firmly took her sister by the arm and prevented her from stepping over the wooden barrier.) “You said that the hotel was nearby?”
“On the other side of Leidseplein.”
Almost all of the cobblestones had been removed from the alley. The sandbank shone like a shard of bone under the white neons of the hotel. The older sister had unconsciously slowed her pace, as if unsure of the complicated choreography that would have to be played out at the top of the steps. He allowed her to walk ahead of him and stopped on the bottom step when she blocked his way.
“I’ll join you in five minutes,” she told her sister. “If they’re still serving tea at this late hour will you order me one?”
Then she took him by the arm and pulled him along a few meters, her heels sunk in the sand like tiny nails.
“How did you do it?” she said after a long silence that he didn’t bother to break. “I designed those earrings myself; they’re unique pieces.”
“My story didn’t convince you?”
A veil of darkness flitted briefly over his face. He dispelled it with a broad smile.
“I don’t need magic to find an explanation,” she argued.
“Let’s see if I can give you one you find more acceptable.”
He bent down and stacked a few cobblestones to make a miniature table and pointed at it.
“Your sister was there. I bent over her and looked straight into her eyes to keep her from taking an interest in what I was doing. I took an ice cube from her glass, then pinched her ear between my thumb and index finger while pressing the ice cube with the palm of my hand. Pain, followed by cold.”
“And the earring?”
“Your sister lost it at the airport. I was a few meters away and I picked it up, but she had disappeared by the time I stood back up. When I saw her with you, I recognized her and I wanted…I don’t know what I wanted. To play, perhaps.”
He picked up a handful of sand and let it slip through his fingers. A tiny shell stuck to his fingertip.
“There’s no such thing as magic,” she murmured.
“Magic doesn’t exist. That’s true. But it can be created. It takes a great deal of energy and time for a result that varies from one person to the next.” (His eyes clouded over, growing as dark as the water in the canal in an instant.) “If I give you this shell that I’ve just picked up, will you have the courage to wear it on your ear? It will tell you what you need to hear, whether that pleases you or not.” (She moved imperceptively back.) “Magic is choosing the dream in which you want to wake up. It’s something that you can learn.”
“I’ve never needed magic. Or wanted it.”
“I know…. Are you going to tell your sister what I’ve told you?”
“I’ve always tried to protect her from liars and people who make up lovely stories for her. I failed with her rotten husband, but that won’t happen again!”
She frowned, disenchantment ruining the polished perfection of her features. At that moment, he found her touching. Not beautiful, but attractive, desirable like people who truly exist are. He felt like embracing her, knowing that it was already too late for that.
“In any case,” she concluded, “What I decide to tell my sister is none of your business.”
“True. Do you want to go in? I believe that I’ll walk for a bit…”
She nodded reluctantly and turned away.
“Thank you for the restaurant,” she said before walking off. “Whether you believe it or not, I’ve had an unforgettable evening.”
He watched her walk into the hotel and disappear behind the glass door. With a sigh, he raised the shell to his ear and listened, eyes half closed. Determined footsteps, the clinking of cups against saucers, then the voice of the young woman, questioning, and that of her sister, answering.
“I have something to tell you…”
The moisture-laden wind caressed her cheeks as she faithfully repeated everything he had just told her, concluding with, “I know that he’s disturbing, for an illusionist, but…”
“I didn’t come from the airport,” the younger one interrupted. “I took the train.”
“I was in Brussels. I came by the TGV and I thought I might have lost my earring last evening. What he told you is a lie!”
“That’s what I wanted to tell you, but…”
They started to quarrel, two opposing visions of the world that would never in all likelihood ever be reconciled. Yet, perhaps the older one would learn to doubt. That was the best he could hope for, the reason he had gone out of his way to come here. He cautiously placed the shell back in the sand and walked off calmly, his bag hitting his flanks with every step.
He walked toward the casino’s lights without turning back. There were still some taxis stopped at the corner of the boulevard and his plane took off in two hours. When he slipped his hand into his pocket, he felt the silver earring he had picked up that morning at the airport. With a melancholy smile, he brandished it in front of his eyes and watched how it caught the light from the passing headlights. Then he walked over to the canal and slipped it into a crevice in the stone guardrail. One day, when the sun struck it at the right angle, someone would find it. Someone who would know how to look at it, what to do with it. The story no longer belonged to him.
Copyright © Jean-Claude Dunyach 2009. Translated by Sheryl Curtis