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The interrogation.

A methodical schedule, repeated daily, from five in the morning until ten in the evening. Without any modification, the same ordeals, over and over, repeated indefinitely. To humiliate, intimidate, destroy. From morning to evening. Sometimes at night as well.

The same precision, the same cruelty, for several months now. And then, suddenly, a change.

One Tuesday morning, without any warning, an unbelievable change. They hadn't beaten her, and instead of beating her, they'd moved her to a bigger cell, on the first floor. She was allowed an extra hour of exercise, alone in the courtyard, before lights out. In the evening, a fat, grumpy guard replaced the toilet can with an enameled chamber pot.

The next morning, hot sugared tea; the meals were better than usual, too. In the afternoon, at the time formerly reserved for her harshest punishment, she was taken to the shower. When she returned, she found a sheet on her bed, and a clean blanket, and some clothing, neatly folded. The most astonishing thing of all: the same rectangular mirror and the slender tube of Nivea lotion found among the clothes.

Thursday morning, they took her through a maze of corridors, going left, right, down, up, left again.

A room with white wars, like a doctor's office. A woman was waiting there, smoking, sitting on a couch covered in brown oilcloth. She seemed like a former colleague, or a vaguely remembered acquaintance.

They were left alone together for almost an hour. The unknown woman sat with her legs crossed and wrote in a notebook propped up on her lap. Above her white knee, an elegant little fountain pen flew back and forth; every once in a while, the knee would twitch.

Then a doctor entered the room. Judging from the questions he asked, he had to be a psychiatrist. The unknown woman listened to all these routine tests with a bored or, rather, a blase air. She must have been a person of high rank, because a simple gesture from her was enough to dismiss the doctor. Later she explained to the prisoner the reason for the unexpected changes of the last few days.

But only after making her stand completely naked for an hour, during which time the woman did invite her to sit down, true, and offered her cigarettes (which she herself chain-smoked), but she would not allow her to go anywhere near her clothes.

"Leave them alone," she'd barked imperiously. "Later."

The woman had carefully studied the different parts of her body. Without malice, with a cold, professional eye. The inspection finished with a smile.

"Sorry about your hair--I can't make it grow back in three days."

So it seemed she was the one who had thought of, or at least supervised, the details of this new program.

"Too bad they shaved you. Did you have pretty hair?"

She didn't seem bothered by the lack of a reply. Her questions were more in the line of amused hypotheses.

"As for everything else, you've taken fairly good care of yourself. And you haven't even become too bitter. Actually, that's quite a triumph, I must admit."

She smiled again, as though giving a handout to a poor relative.

"Today you won't have to follow any schedule. This afternoon, a nice hot bath. It'll do you good, you'd be silly to refuse. I've had some magazines and newspapers taken to your cell. If you need or would like anything in particular, let me know, I'll take care of it. Here, I'll make a note of it right now, if you want something."

She took a blank sheet of paper from the desk. She waited, unruffled by the stubborn silence of the naked woman sitting before her. She folded the piece of paper several times and then slipped it into the breast pocket of her black satin crepe blouse, which had a pointed collar and long sleeves.

She stood up. A dainty brunette, almost tall, her waist tightly encircled by a wide leather belt. Hair worn loose about her fragile shoulders. Slender legs, arms too long, nervous hands. Bluish circles under her eyes. Very, very white skin, like the milky white of her short skirt, which didn't quite cover her thighs.

"We're getting you ready to see someone. An important meeting for you."

A tense, pinched smile.

"The gentleman would like you to look nice. In other words, normal, at least. He can't stand violence. He's a sensitive soul, you see."

Her eyes seemed to have changed color, grown even blacker, with a steely blue glint, and her voice was stern.

"As you'll find out, he's doing you a favor. A lucky break, you'll see."

She lit a cigarette, then turned her back, looked out the window, her thoughts elsewhere. Suddenly she whirled around, her hands clenched tightly together. Her face flushed, her expression pained. She slammed the door on her way out.

She didn't come back. The only indication that she might have remained in the vicinity came two hours later, when a somewhat panicky young man appeared, obviously instructed to be polite.

"Sorry, they forgot you were here."

Yes, the prisoner had put her clothes back on quite a while ago and was waiting, sitting rigidly on a chair.

"Please follow me."

She saw that her cell had been swept and aired. On the cement, a pile of newspapers and magazines.

At around three o'clock, her reading was interrupted. Two of them escorted her. She went downstairs, around corners, along lengthy corridors. This time, to a bathroom. Not the shower she'd already used. A gleaming white bathtub. Big, colorful, fluffy towels. A cake of perfumed soap. All sorts of little bottles. Slippers, nail polish. When she got back to her cell, a cup of hot tea was waiting for her.

And now, here it was, the fourth day. "Would five in the afternoon be convenient? Would it be convenient at five?" the woman had asked, as if speaking a fine from an opera libretto, tired of the absurdity of what she'd been told to do and say.

So, the appointed day. That morning she was taken to another wing of the building. An elegant room. Thick carpets. Beautifully paneled walls. She was seated in an armchair, before a round, glass-topped table in a corner of the room. The table shook, the silver coffee service and china tea things tinkled. Croissants in a basket. Cherry preserves. Butter. Honey, apples, sugar cookies.

A large desk, running almost the entire length of the room. Not a single picture. Bare walls, except for a big round clock resembling a barometer, over the desk. Two windows, heavy drapes. Three chairs, including hers. Beneath one of the windows, a credenza with two shelves: on the lower one, a radio. A telephone and a lamp on the desk.

Lunch at two o'clock. Carp's eggs, green salad, deviled eggs, pork spareribs, slivovitz, tiny meatballs, spicy sausage, pickles, wine, mineral water, baklava pastries.

She fainted. Before passing out, she'd vomited until she was exhausted, fainted again. She was taken to the bathroom, the one with the tub; she hadn't realized it was right next door. They cleaned the stains off her collar, they rubbed her temples and forehead with a damp washcloth. They stretched her out on an air mattress, to let her recuperate.... They took her back to the same room, supporting her under the arms. Eggplant caviar. Meatballs. Deviled eggs. Carp's eggs. Slivovitz. Rum. Spareribs. Escalope Milanaise. Wine. Cake. Everything came up again. They caught her at the last moment, as she was falling. She sat down at the table once more. She picked up the knife, the fork. Then the bottle, the glasses, one after the other.... When she awoke, the table was bare, cleared. There was only a slim black bottle, with a golden label marked Eau de toilette, and beside it, a tiny flask, hardly bigger than a thimble: Perfume. She looked at the clock. Four-thirty.

So she'd fallen asleep while eating, had slept with her head on the table. She pulled a handkerchief from the pocket of her dress. They'd given her handkerchiefs, and a dress. A kind of chemise, long and loose, of a thick material, like a new blanket. She moistened her face and hands with the toilet water. So she'd fallen asleep. She looked at the clock again. She'd have liked to go back to sleep. She felt groggy from the food and drink, and would have loved to rest some more.

What could the important person have to say? Why should he waste any of his precious time on her? Would he say the same things, ask her the same questions? Would the Plenipotentiary turn out to be more subtle than his subordinates, the gorillas who carried out his orders? Would he confine himself simply to doing his job? Send his report, in turn, to his bosses, and nothing more? Indicating that he has personally contacted, that he personally visited, that he made an effort, that he personally knows, etc., etc. Yes, yes, yes, he thinks there's nothing more to be done, he suggests immediate measures, no leniency, and so on.

But what about that strange, lovely go-between, who seemed like someone from her past, like a refined, sadistic former colleague? "Your hair--I can't make it grow back in three days." "Did you have pretty hair?" The question hadn't seemed malicious; it had been asked quite simply, in a vaguely pensive tone. Perhaps the most surprising thing that happened the whole time they were together.

Nine minutes to five. If this wasn't some new ordeal, intended to fray her nerves to shreds, if this important person really did exist, if he'd actually set up this appointment, and if, moreover, he arrived on time, then there were nine minutes left. What else could he propose or ask of her beyond what she'd already heard day after day? Threatening her family, her friends.... Could the fate of the man she loved be made even worse? Would he ever forgive her if for one crazy moment she believed their lies, their promises? If she gave in, for a single instant, to her desire to know that he was free? They were planning something; she had to be ready for anything.

In only a few days they'd succeeded in bringing her back almost to normal. Ready to remember the rules of normal life. How to wear a dress, set the table, serve a meal. Yes, it was the food, the meals that had softened her up. Good food, and lots of it. Probably brought over from a fancy restaurant. Contrary to the usual practice, they hadn't starved her first; they'd revived her little by little, over the course of a few days. So that she'd then be able to sit down calmly in front of the food. Be able to choose. To eat her fill, not from hunger, but from greediness. To stuff herself at leisure, delighted to experience once again the refinements of good living. To bask contentedly in the warmth and benevolence of the world. To become docile.

She'd noticed that her stubborn determination had lost its edge, especially during the last few hours. The sweetish, fruity wine had made her tipsy. Ever since her fainting spell, she'd felt weak and lethargic. She would have liked to sleep for weeks in a big clean bed, in a quiet, spacious room. Only waking up occasionally to soak in a steaming tub, with perfumed bath oil, like the last time. And have brightly colored, refreshing drinks.

The door opened quietly, very quietly. But there were still two minutes left! Was he early? No, it was only some minor employee who hardly dared set foot into such an important room. Humble, hesitant, on tiptoes. Some timid functionary, sent to dust or air out the room, who knows?

He was carrying boxes of different sizes. He piled them carefully against the wall, in a comer, next to the door. He left and returned with a long, fat tube. A kind of cardboard tube, with a cover on one end. He moved silently, stooped over, without looking up, trying to be unobtrusive. He came in, disappeared, reappeared, gliding noiselessly. Clearly terrified by the importance of the person for whose arrival he was preparing. The cautious movements of this dogsbody--possibly one of the maintenance or clerical personnel--were enough in themselves to show that the expected personage was a very nigh-ranking official indeed.

The prisoner checked the clock. One minute past five. So he was late! They were making her wait on purpose, of course, they were hoping that she'd become upset and wonder what they were up to now. An old trick: they weren't showing much originality with that one. She'd learned how to protect herself.

Weary, no doubt, the silent employee sat down behind the desk! The poor man had some nerve! Snatching a moment's rest, sitting in the boss's chair! And what if he were to appear at that very moment? Just look at him: to cap it all off, he's smiling, shamefaced but proud, like an imbecile! He was looking at her, yes, he was staring at her and grinning. Pleased with himself, but lacking in confidence; his timorous and silly smile was a way of begging for encouragement.

"Be so good as to come closer. Bring your chair, bring your chair. Or rather, no, why don't you sit in one of these two here?"

She started in astonishment. The voice.... There was nothing ordinary about that voice, which certainly didn't seem to belong to that puffing flunky, done in by the weight of too many boxes too heavy for him.

The prisoner didn't know what to think, what to do. She was unable to move. A cold sweat broke out on her forehead; her hands and back felt clammy. A bad joke, right before the arrival of the Plenipotentiary, because a few minutes are all he's got left, this, this ... nobody ... this ... this ... this janitor, stock clerk, cashier with too many mouths to feed, this post-office drone, doorman, storekeeper, salesman, plumber, whatever, with his voice, so ... yes, yes, so ...

"I was on time, you noticed. Come closer, please. I'm used only to small audiences, short distances."

He swallowed syllables, ran words together, telescoping them. He seemed to think only in leaps and bounds. A warm, tentative voice. And yet a commanding tone. Affected. A bizarre mixture: firmness and fear, gentleness, power, yes, and harshness, and, also ...

"Well, would you please come over here now?"

As he watched her stand up and walk to the armchairs in front of the desk, he pulled a slim flask containing a reddish-brown liquid from one of his jacket pockets and gently set it down flat on the glass surface of the desk. Once she was seated, he studied her closely for a long time, allowing himself to be examined by her in return.

He wore a kind of knitted shirt of fine wool, mustard-colored, with buttons and an open collar. A jacket in a gray check. He had few teeth, and those were bad, stained by nicotine. Tiny red spider-veins on his nose. Pale, flabby face. Small ears, scrawny neck, frail hands. Short, thin fingers, twisted and yellowed. Nails bitten to the quick. A high forehead, extended by a bald pate. Large, dark eyes. Intelligent, yes, lively and black. A penetrating gaze, restless, glittering, searching, observing, evaluating. There was a wild, glassy sparkle in his eyes that suddenly became fixed, unblinking, dead. Extraordinary, the look in those eyes! This was definitely the man in question. Yes, it was, no doubt about it now.

He began waving his hands around, and pointed at the prisoner's head. It took her a while to understand what he wanted. Then she removed her cap and placed it on the right arm of the chair. But the man gestured again, not without a hint of irritation and disgust. Telling her to get rid of it, throw it away. He couldn't stand having to look at such a rag for one more instant. So she tossed the cap over her shoulder. It struck the window, plopping limply to the floor like a dead bird.

The man stopped staring at her. He looked down at the sheet of glass covering his desk, as though he wanted to avoid hurting her feelings, since the cap no longer concealed her shaved scalp.

He started to speak like that, keeping his head and eyes lowered. "I hope you're beginning to get used to me. We'll be able to have a chat. You see, I detest the picturesque. Anything distracting."

Then, what about the cap? Why had he made her take it off and exhibit her shorn skull, as smooth as a billiard ball? She looked at him, vexed at having been tempted for a moment to judge him by logical criteria, thus falling into the first and crudest trap.

"I demanded that everything be done to put you in a normal state. So that you would look normal. So that you'd react normally. So that you'd seem and even be, eventually, as far as possible, unobtrusive, colorless. Almost insipid. So that you wouldn't provoke any inordinate interest. I hate surprises, anything disruptive.... I'd like you to get used to me. Don't be upset that I'm probably not the way you imagined I'd be. Try to do this. So that we can be on an equal footing. So that you can follow and understand me.... This room we're in now, you were given time to get used to it as well, weren't you? I find distraction aggravating. As I told you, I don't like shocks, surprises, useless emotion."

Although the prisoner wasn't looking at him, she sensed that he'd raised his head to watch her.

"Let's go back over a few things now. You've been here for several months. Beaten, tortured. As much as could be borne by a woman of steadily weakening stamina. Between periods of unconsciousness, I mean. You were cursed and insulted, of course. You've probably never heard so much foul language, screamed with so much pleasure. They never stopped demanding from you the names of people you'd met. The hideouts, the clandestine activities of all your friends.... Later on, they beat you a bit less. A few hours a day. A more varied schedule was introduced. You were made to stand in the courtyard, for three hours at a stretch, in all sorts of weather. Then, for several hours each day, you had to stand at attention within a chalk circle of about the same diameter as a basketball. Your feet swelled terribly. They were rather large to begin with, I'm told. The flesh started to puff up over the edges of your shoes, which you could no longer remove.... Once or twice, at night, you found rats in your bed. If you can call it a bed. A narrow coffin, made for a shrunken corpse or a dying person who was to be constricted like a mummy. Didn't they turn on a siren, at night, out in the corridor? Didn't they bring in cats, so they could chase and beat them, right outside the cell doors? ... Despite everything, perhaps they didn't rape you. Not because they didn't want to, naturally. Especially when they were beating you. When you were exhausted. Extreme weakness is very arousing, just as strength is, as you well know.... Doesn't it count that they didn't rape you? You'd tell me they made up for it in other ways. And yet it counts for something, believe me, it counts."

She expected to see him smile smugly. But suiting his expressions to his words must have been the least of his worries.

"After shaving off your hair, they forced you to make it into a kind of feather duster. With which they made you wipe something besides dust.... In fact, they'd forget to bring back the toilet can. Particularly on the days when you had intestinal trouble. Induced diarrhea? You must have suspected that. Kept standing, at night, targeted by the beams of four floodlights. Your head shoved into a barrel of soapy water? A crude idea, so primitive. Forty-eight hours locked in a closet? Forty-eight hours in total darkness. Without forgetting, of course, the usual third degree. Mocked, mistreated, starved. Not too funny, this recap, is it?"

Could he have noticed, even though his eyes were closed, that the prisoner was growing paler and paler?

"And why, after all? Always the same questions. Which you didn't answer. They knew beforehand. The answers didn't interest them. In any case, they wouldn't have stopped torturing you. And answers would have been an additional reason to punish you. To make you repeat what you'd already said, to tell you that your accomplices were claiming the contrary. To trick you into contradicting yourself: Yesterday you said that, and today, this."

He didn't anticipate any reply. Resting his elbows on the desk, he watched her without expecting her to react in any way.

"Nothing you can do about it. It's their job. Sometimes they get some results, though. Given their level of intelligence, it's difficult to show them that they're wasting their time. Besides, it's what they're used to, of course. And they enjoy it, let's admit that. You won't have to undergo any more harsh treatment, I promise you. It's not in their interest anymore to have you die or wind up an invalid. They'll make concessions, you'll see. Conditions will be ... not excellent, but ordinary.... So, you were arrested on a Wednesday afternoon. At seven-sixteen. In front of 7 Mandicevski Street. A few steps from the bus stop where you'd just gotten off. You were late. Annoyed and irritated. It bothered you. You were always very careful, however, and I'm sure you got ready early every time, so you wouldn't be late. You were very particular about being on time. But occasionally, at the last minute, you'd notice that your stocking had a run. That your coat was missing a button. That the zipper on your skirt was jammed. That your shoes weren't polished. You felt guilty that day, I suppose.... The meetings of conspirators are in some ways--but not all--like lovers' rendezvous, aren't they? And the meeting that day was a little bit of both. Which made your lateness even more serious, of course. That Wednesday, your delay was caused by the bus. Not only, in fact, not only by the bus. . ."

From time to time, he would adroitly draw over to him, she now saw, the flat bottle lying on the desk. He'd unscrew the cap and fiddle with the flask, which he held under the table, down by his chair, without making any noise. You had to pay close attention to see what he was doing. You didn't hear him drinking--each swig went down quickly, almost while he was talking. He counted, probably rightly, on the curiosity aroused by his appearance and by what he had to say, which overshadowed all the rest, making it hard to focus on details.

"The bus's delay was not entirely accidental. We're the ones who made it late. Not by much, just enough for what we needed.... I'm glad to see you're not rolling your eyes, that you're not as easily impressed. I'd find that taxing. I'd become impatient, aggravated. Whereas this way I can begin to trust the person with whom I'm talking. I hope we're going to get on well together."

Abruptly, he drew his chair nearer. He looked vulnerable, unhappy. As though he was asking for help. Ready to let down his guard, to pour out his heart to a friend.

"You see, I can't bear to go up against an unworthy opponent. It unnerves me. I insisted, I told you, that you should be presented to me in a normal state. Otherwise, I'm at a loss ... I can hardly function when I know that the person listening to me has been beaten, terrified, humiliated before being brought before me. Really, I can't ... No, it makes me plain nauseated. And afraid, I must admit. Of myself. Of them. Of what might happen to me as well one day . . ."

He noticed that the prisoner suddenly seemed attentive, tense, as she confronted the face and voice of this aging, lonely child, helpless and complaining.

"And so you were late. Your comrades were arrested before you arrived. You know, sometimes our little game obliges us to play dirty . . . Before you panic, let me assure you that I know just about everything you could possibly confess. Besides, I'm also aware that you feel more or less incapable of judging the relative importance of what you know and so have prudently resolved to consider every fact of vital significance. So that you absolutely won't give anything away. I know the names of the regular visitors to the house in question. I've enjoyed reading the reports, and have requested further information on the subjects. I was given what amounted to in-depth biographical studies. Practically monographs, and not just on comrade Simona Stirhan. Your friends call you Sia, don't they? So, Sia Strihan ... I'm perfectly familiar--as though I'd known your friends for a long time--with Barbosa's liver ailment and still rather tidy fortune, plus the fact that young Patraulea, known as the Poet, has a definite penchant for the ladies. Which doesn't explain that other penchant of his, his passion for the arts, does it? And it can't be his rural background, either, since his parents were atrociously poor. Still less his very, very delicate constitution ... The distinguished Mrs. Margarit is a fanatic. Although she looks like, and even is, an accomplished woman of the world. Acquainted with all the ordinary--and not so ordinary--pleasures of the eternal upper crust. Which she detests, naturally. Nothing but a fanatic, one would say. Unlike the engineer ... Is that a draft I feel?"

He jumped up in distress, turning this way and that. On the alert, sniffing, nostrils flared, ears perked up, like a rabbit's. Ah, that was it! Yes, he did look somewhat rabbity, why hadn't she noticed this before? Or did he look more like a hare? And a little like a snake, perhaps? A slightly aquiline nose . . . They say the great men of history had aquiline noses ... A high, broad forehead, like theirs? But the eyebrows, which reveal temperament, were not very thick. Rather sparse, actually. Beads of perspiration formed on his temples, then on his nose. His hair was thinning, but some still remained on the sides of his head. His face was pale, and he blinked constantly, as though nearsighted. A sign of timidity?

He gesticulated wildly, but stayed right where he was. His jacket had come unbuttoned, and one could see that his polo shirt had grown faded and baggy from too much wear, for it hung on him in a series of sloppy folds. The end of his worn belt had slipped out of the belt loops and dangled in front of his fly, looking silly.

Feeble tremors ran through his body. Hunched down between his shoulders, his head jerked and twitched, as did his hollow chest. His bald spot, which grew larger toward the top of his skull, began to flush deeply ... Taking a handkerchief from his pocket, he squeezed it in one fist, then in the other, lifted it to his nose ... and sneezed.

The prisoner couldn't help smiling. Just then he looked her way and caught her at it. Despite his sneezing, which gave way to a coughing fit, he smiled, too, guiltily.

"I've got an allergy, you see," he mumbled. "The smallest, the slightest, the least little draft is a disaster for me."

He trotted over to the door and pushed on it, even though it was closed. He leaned--trembling, sighing, defeated, shaken by a series of salvos, bent double, as though stricken--on the doorknob. He went over to the window, making an attempt to stride forcefully. In passing, he placed his hand on the back of the prisoner's chair. He examined the window frame, the casement bolt: everything was shut tight, and yet ... he was sneezing? A pathetic, helpless wreck. He sneezed, and sneezed, and you'd have thought he was doing it on purpose. His nose, which was already covered with little red veins, now became a dripping blob. He kept pocketing and fishing out again first one hanky, then another, in which he'd bury his face, hands clenched. Racked by convulsions, ashamed.

The prisoner watched as daylight waned outside the window, becoming grayer and grayer. Perhaps quite a while had gone by. She looked at the clock but couldn't make out a thing. The numbers had vanished, just like the hour and minute hands, from a clock face obscured by dust, as though lost in mist.

The fragile fellow was finally able to catch his breath, not without difficulty. But he seemed no longer willing or able to play out his multiple roles. The challenge didn't interest him anymore, and worse than that, he was just fed up. As though he'd had enough of wearing all the complicated masks of intelligence. As though the skeptics were right, for all is vanity and absurdity. He succumbed to laziness ... Nothing mattered anymore, nothing could be more profound, more tempting, more certain, more prudent than laziness, he seemed to say. Why wear yourself out? And then, bam! A burst of energy.

The prisoner was still smiling. But her smile no longer expressed the compassion, even the sympathy, that she'd felt for a moment. Only disgust and contempt remained. A fixed smile, a rictus. One might have thought she'd fallen asleep, or, at the very least, that she was beginning to doze. Or that she'd fainted, died, with that horrible grimace on her face ... Then he banged the metal top of the flask, violently, on the glass top of the desk.

A demented look gleamed in his eyes. The impact had been forceful, like the crashing blade of a guillotine.

But he was immediately sorry ... He'd tried, moreover, to soften the blow at the last moment ... to pretend he was simply looking for his flask. Which he then openly lifted to his fleshy lips, tipping his head way back to drain about a quarter of its contents. Then, reinvigorated but embittered, he collapsed into his chair.

"I hate boredom just as much as you do, little lady. You can ten, I suppose. I loathe boredom. I hope that's obvious. Along with work, perseverance, labor. Even logic. Sometimes truth as well. Frequently, frequently. I'm a . . ."

He'd pronounced the first words in a loud voice, which had then grown weaker. He was recovering his composure, his detachment, and wanted to make this clear.

"Yes, it's useless to tell you everything I know about Sia Strihan. Or Dinu Barbosa. Trina Margarit, the engineer Mateescu. Kahane, known as Agahane, or Patraulea the poet. Or that so very clever worker, Victor Vaduva. Or even our prize customer, the one you admire so much. It's not just admiration, I know, I know, I know all about, how shall I put it, how you love him body and soul,' as they say. I shouldn't annoy you by reciting everything I know about one and all. I shouldn't, I admit. I should tell you instead what I know about myself. To make you understand that I'm a decent sort. Tell you things about myself that are as important as the ones we've learned about Simona Strihan. So that you'd respect me? I had the impression I'd succeeded in awakening your interest ... For me, there's no other form of esteem. You'll see that I know quite a lot about myself, too. Even though I'm ... That's what I wanted to mention just now ... Even though I'm a dilettante, a hopeless dilettante. That's what I am . . ."

Shoulders bent over the desk, over his liquor flask, he soliloquized in a low voice, head bowed, no longer looking at his audience.

"They tolerate my little foibles; my carelessness, my idleness, my caprices, my weaknesses. They tolerate them. They've finally come around to considering me a necessary evil. Because I'm more than useful to them, I'm indispensable. They're convinced of that. Even though they don't understand my actions, my tactics, my deductions. Even though they despise me ... They'd be so happy to stuff me into a cell. To take revenge, using the methods that you know, for everything they can't understand. And, better yet, they'd probably love to toss me into a coffin. Months go by without them calling me in. They leave me alone, the hell with me. But when they finally summon me, they don't haggle. They accept my conditions, in other words, my fee and complete freedom to do things my way. They've given up imposing their program on me, their rigid schedules, all that foolishness they think so much of. The bottom line is, they go along with me without any understanding of how I work. Or of what I'm saying when I go into my big speech ... Every once in a while, you see, I wax eloquent. I explain to them why they should expect |special' cases to crop up on a periodic basis. Exceptions! Spin-offs from life, which are nevertheless vital to it. Against which their disciplined hatred and stupidity have no effect. Different worlds, different species that will never understand each other. They ought to know in the first place what life is, so that they'd comprehend what I'm saying to them. They need my imagination, my temperament, my allergies, my intuitions. They finally figured out that I myself am a special case. Just like Sia Strihan. We two ... But probably not as exceptional as the comrade who's so often in your thoughts, whom you miss so much. Now him, he's definitely a special case, absolutely special ... Of course, I do have my successes. I do fairly well, actually, fairly well. Otherwise, I wouldn't be here now. That's why they keep in touch. They see me as a kind of magician! Loathsome, sickly, cowardly, forgetful, eccentric. But the man gets results! My reports come to an optimistic conclusion, the compulsory optimism, the institutional optimism, so to speak. Institutional optimism in the kind of institution that provides a |self-invented' man like me with enough illusions and occupations to kill some time. In this way, a case that's been giving them headaches for three months or three years is as good as taken care of, so that the optimists can go back to enjoying their idiot profession ... However, I don't always succeed. I lose some matches, too. Enigmas or geniuses. Or again, quite simply, my laziness is to blame. My lethargy, my distraction, and even, yes, yes, my generosity or my aversion, sometimes both, yes, both at the same time. I am only human, believe me, little lady. I'm only human and I have occasionally been defeated. Often by myself. Narrow-minded people don't understand that failure is natural, that it can even be delectable, like everything human, and marvelously melancholy ... Even temporarily appropriate solutions contain a goodly proportion of failure. There's no use in trying to explain to them that in reality everything is failure! Except that some failures are less obvious than others. Disguised, misleading, they pass for successes. When I don't reach my goals, their goals, they forget all my previous triumphs. And of course they also suddenly forget their own impotence. Their confidence in their clumsy, stupid arguments is renewed. It's not surprising that a person of my sort, a useless idler, a disgraceful loser, would be unable to get even the simplest job done! That's what they scream at me. At last they've got a chance to insult me. To spit their hatred in my face, a hatred born of vanity, folly, and rancor. To shout that they don't trust me. It's hard to take. Especially for someone like me. You understand, I hope ... Lack of trust is my daily bread. Dry bread, a huge lump of chalk or ice crashing noisily down, trying to crush me. Or, on the contrary, bread dipped in vinegar, in poison. In a daze, I suck for days and nights and weeks at a time on a poisoned sponge that never runs dry. My lack of self-confidence ... So, if others start showing me that they don't have any confidence in me, either, well! They just destroy me, I'm not able to think anymore, believe me. I become blind, dumb, paralyzed. I'm lost. I'm thrown back into my own misery and mess. Here because of those idiots, I'm no longer good for anything for months on end. The are the ones who should be dumbfounded whenever I appear! But in the end they call me back, those wretches, when they get a case that's beyond them, one they can't fathom despite all their efforts. That lunatic, they tell themselves, that weirdo might find the key, that's what they hope, poor jerks. And me, after such a depression, I don't have any idea where to begin. It takes me a long time to finally buckle down. I lack assurance, faith in myself. Without confidence, even for just a little while, even if it's only illusory, nothing works, my dear artist. I can feel them encircling me, those brutes. Silent, all of a sudden, but they're oppressive, stifling. They spy on my thoughts, my every move. And then something gets me going. A bottle, a woman, a book, a vacation. Or even a poem, don't laugh. Music, sometimes ... I enjoy a renewed sense of vitality. Spurred on, champing at the bit. I'm raring to go. The facts, the hypotheses, the solution!"

It had grown dark outside, but he didn't turn on the lights. It wasn't yet completely dark, or was it? Although the prisoner didn't see him, she could tell he was now standing up behind the desk.

"I could work miracles for an intelligent boss! Someone who would know to exploit my faults. Yes, my laziness, my carelessness, my absent-mindedness. There's so much room for imagination in these little failings! You can make your moves without anyone being able to anticipate or foil your intentions. But how can I find a superior mind among these peons? It took them years to recognize my talents--even then, only grudgingly--and to learn how to use them. To show some degree of comprehension, providing me with favorable working conditions. A stimulating environment. Putting up with my whims. In other words, nurturing my talents. Which are few, perhaps, but very special, requiring equally special care. It would take them a hundred years to understand that my faults open up a whole new approach to the game!"

He was nervously rubbing his hands together, crossing and uncrossing his index fingers.

"A dilettante, naturally. Neither a professional nor an official. A dilettante, unused to the job, the bosses, the schedules, the plodding, methodical, forced labor. Working infrequently, but with pleasure. For money, for the fun of it. Only when the offer is tempting, intriguing, believe me. When he has the chance to come up against a riddle and solve it. Without ever letting his intuitions, his enjoyment of the game, be spoiled. His passion for inventing, for expanding the realm of possibilities provided by chance. You see ... whatever you could confess doesn't interest me. I know everything about you. I'm the one, rather, who could tell you things, if you like, about anyone at all. Myself included. So that you might come to know better both your comrades and your adversary.

"In actual fact, I must admit, we play as adversaries. It means we are adversaries. If we dug deeply into our innermost thoughts, we'd probably find that the situation is more complicated. Knowing all that I do, knowing what crimes you've committed, crimes that are real, but not relatively serious, I'm perfectly justified in telling you that your importance is entirely a matter of my opinion ... Ideas set people's hearts and minds aflame in no time. Particularly if they're young. Taking power: how fascinating! Afterwards, it's not that simple. Once power is in our hands, things get a lot tougher. I've been around in this business, be me, sweetie. I know how it works."

The prisoner waited. Was he going to continue this informality?

"You're hardly the most interesting case, little lady, you must have realized that.

"But you have a certain correlative importance for me. Because I found a correlation. Your friend, now he really interests me. He deserves particular attention, I confess. What do your comrades think about the fact that you were late on the very day they were arrested? You don't know . . . We haven't told them that you were arrested as well. I'll think about that later. Perhaps I'll request that you be released soon. Which would reinforce their distrust, wouldn't it? That man who so fascinates us both, you and me, would he defend you against the others' suspicions, against his own? I understand him. I even like him. A kind of cruelty, typically intellectual. Strength and vulnerability. That last counterbalanced by an even greater strength. Great strength that is at the same time a great weakness. An added attraction, don't you think? Vulnerable ... therefore liable to fall into a fatal trap. And yet, as I was telling you, I understand him, I really do. The most dangerous excesses are those of the intellectual. The intellectual determined to conquer his weaknesses and hesitations by exaggerating his |loyalty.' I've been watching that one for a long time, believe me. Ten years. I already know him well. Constantly threatened, not only by us or by others, but by himself. Let's let him struggle with himself, I told my bosses. That's enough, if you ask me. But no one understands me. Those idiots are blind to my powers of insight."

The little fellow had become so worked up he was panting. And there was something, at times, not quite right ... The prisoner waited, unnerved at the idea that he might be coming closer to her.

Instead, he began screaming at the top of his lungs. "No, this isn't some kind of joke, and I'm not fucking around! Wipe that silly smile off your face! Perhaps there's someone paying me to play this double game, paying me for my double-triple-multiple role, what would you know about it! What gives you the right to despise me?"

Still yelping, he abruptly turned on the desk lamp and peered suspiciously at her. He stood there trembling, banging his small fists on the glass. He was completely flushed, his shoulders twitching. In an utter in all directions. His body began convulsing in a violent fit. He sneezed ... yes, he was sneezing again, the little rabbit ... couldn't stop sneezing ... The irritation and weakness that had overtaken him seemed to have sensitized all his membranes at one stroke, for they now quivered under attack. The pleasure of sneezing! As though it drained and revived not only his mucosae but also his soul, his delicate sinner's soul. He moaned, purified. Rejuvenated, cleansed. Unable to recover, exhausted. At last he collapsed on the desk, all in. His trembling hand fumbled across the glass, seeking the switch. The light went out.

After a long pause, the voice rose once again into the darkness, hesitant, obsessive.

"The game I'm playing is more dangerous than you think, my dear. Much crueler than you suppose ... A mind-game. Calculation and imagination. A restless mind, a subtle, delicate mechanism. It's true that I lack character ... but not cruelty, not ferocity, believe me, madam. A worthy opponent for you. You'll understand this, you'll understand this, too, later on."

The room was steeped in darkness, immersed in dense shadows. The prisoner couldn't see a thing, not a thing ... except the tortuous trajectory of his words, his voice thickened by drink, hoarse, even virtreous at times, even moist, emerging between sneezes, swelling, filling the air, suddenly bursting, blown out, like a thin balloon touched by a knife blade.

Perhaps she shouldn't have listened to him. The preparations, the last few days of softening her up, the meals, then the shock caused by the beginning of this interminable interview ... Instability, a kind of working premise, without which this dangerous clown could neither think nor breathe, a fragile, deceptive mechanism that probably becomes effective only in the end, when you add up all the bizarre elements ... A permanent oscillation and vertigo maintaining each other on their own, functioning through trapdoors and falls and even more desperate recoveries ... Oh, all that had worn her out, beaten her down. Little by little he'd succeeded in instilling a continual tension in her, and in sensitizing her to its different gradations ... She knew that anything could happen and she couldn't have cared less, no, she'd run out of strength, she had none left, none at all, none.

She was sliding down into her armchair, into sleep. She thought at some point she'd heard the words "my dear." She was losing it, letting go, falling asleep, ready to drop with fatigue, slipping away into sleep, and he, he was watching her, on the alert, like a huge misshapen rabbit.

She clenched her fists to keep from giving in. She was sliding again, though, drifting lightly into the armchair's sweet softness. Her body was spreading, overflowing. She shouldn't give up, she mustn't; she tensed the muscles in her calves to keep herself awake. As for him, she no longer heard him, she hadn't heard him for some time now, perhaps he wasn't talking anymore, perhaps he didn't even exist any longer, long gone. No, she wouldn't listen to him anymore, she'd put her fingers in her ears, and anyway, he no longer existed, long gone, all gone, nothing left.

She raised her arms awkwardly. Slowly, because the slightest current of air could tip him off. He'd already proved several times how keen his senses were, the poor bastard. Even when he seemed to be absent, obliterated by the darkness, he detected every movement. She leaned over one of the armrests on the chair. She covered her ears with her hands. But she didn't want to fall asleep. She had to remain awake, attentive, at all costs.

The Plenipotentiary was often shaken by real moments of collapse: he disguised some of these episodes while flaunting others, or even cleverly mimicking a state of absolute prostration, and it was difficult, impossible to tell which was which. Anyone who could do so and thus avoid being fooled by him would unquestionably have a chance at foiling his plans.

At all events, he'd managed, she had to admit, to make her doubt all arguments and judgments--her own as well as his--and ascribe to that interminable monologue, despite everything that was dubious about it, a secret but very precise purpose, not yet clear to her, toward which he was doubtless directing her, imperceptibly, and thus he felt free to indulge, among other things, in the most unexpected maneuvers on the side, for ways well off his chosen path, often inspired by a sudden whim.

Was it worth trying to figure out, wondering, for example, why he'd spoken of the engineer Mateescu and not of the Mateescu brothers, who were engineers? As for young Patraulea, it never would have occurred to her to speculate about his peasant origins. An interest in the arts, yes, that she would eventually have wondered about. But not any problems with his health, certainly not. She'd never heard any mention of ill health, she didn't see the connection. When she thought of him now, however, anything seemed possible, everything became more or less plausible.

Had he stopped talking? Was he tired, too, drowsing quietly just as she was, the poor man, the creep? He was silent, and she hadn't heard him for some time now. Nor had she been in any way aware of his presence. She'd been waiting the whole time, even when trying to think about something else, she'd kept her eye on him, thought she could feel him waving his soft, weak arms around, quite close to her, flitting about the room like a bat, she'd waited for him to draw near, to awaken her, to punish her for not listening all the way through with more interest and respect, to hit her, undress her, or who knows what, in a frenzy ... Yes, he would have been capable of doing absolutely anything. A few times, affected, she'd glimpsed an unsettling mixture of desire and hatred and pleasure, still perfectly controlled, held in check, but directed toward her, touching her briefly, like an invisible arrow. She'd pulled herself together, feeling vulnerable and afraid.

She raised her head, threw back her shoulders, stopped leaning on the armrest. She listened carefully. Faint, even breathing, the breathing of a spoiled little rabbit. So he'd fallen asleep, too. This interview certainly seemed to reveal a ridiculous complicity between them!

"No, I'm not asleep. I was letting you rest for a moment. You seemed tired," he murmured.

He'd hardly spoken when they both started and looked up sharply. The telephone was ringing! Even he was surprised. Now what were they up to?

The racket was horrendous, and in the dark he was having trouble finding the receiver. Finally, he picked it up.

"Yes. It's you? What's gotten into you? ... Not yet ... No, a little more ... You can relax, no, I haven't done a thing to her ... A wig? Ha ha! No, I swear."

His laughter was forced, he seemed fearful, uneasy, irritated. But also furious and delighted.

"More or less ... No need for you to worry about it. Not over that ... Yes, just to keep my hand in it, it wouldn't hurt me. Don't fuss over nothing ... No, don't call back. That's an order. Do me a favor, let me handle this, no, please . . ."

He was begging her in a subdued voice, whispering more than speaking, ashamed of himself. Dominated by a woman, but feared by her as well, he was twisting around on his chair like a child caught doing something wrong. His caller also seemed to be speaking in an undertone, without raising her voice at all. Complaints and treacherous entreaties at both ends of the line.

Had he hung up? She hadn't heard a click. But the voices had been quiet for a while. Perhaps they were listening to each other breathe ... Then a slow half-turn. Waiting. Silence.

Finally, he switched on the lamp. Both of them rubbed their eyes; their faces were drawn. After so much darkness, the light was blinding.

"Yes, it's rather late. As you can see, I didn't try to drag all your secrets out of you."

The prisoner looked at the clock over the desk, but she was dazzled by the light and couldn't decipher a thing. Everything looked the same, all white.

"You'll have to learn to deal with your friends' distrust, I suppose. And I should let you know that you won't be charged along with them at their trial. We might decide to release you. We might just as well decide, after all, to condemn you. Not necessarily for any political crimes. We'll look for something else. Haven't found it yet. I've been frank with you. Don't kid yourself. I'm not always like that, but this time I chose to be. It's part of my plan. Don't get the idea I've been faking all this sincerity. In time you'll discover just the opposite. No, I haven't cheated. I was trying to be open, aboveboard ... Whatever happens to you from now on--I'm being sincere right to the end--will be connected with Lucian Hariga, your beloved, as they say in melodramas. Even when you'll no longer know anything about each other, when he won't have seen you or thought of you in a long time ... The freedom of work, the freedom of love, the freedom of creation! Wonderful, isn't it? Artists become rebels, because of everything they are and especially because of everything they're not. Art certainly seems, at first, like dislocation, deracination, inadequacy. Nourished, enhanced--I'm repeating a quaint aesthetic cliche--by an obsession? Weakness can give rise, let's not forget this, to a formidable strength. We've seen this time and time again. It's only natural, that's what I'm saying, for you people to be always on the side of the opposition. To end up championing the downtrodden. And those rare prophets who still come along now and then ... I'm familiar with such pastimes. I had my own fling with them at one point. Don't think I don't know what I'm talking about. I dabbled a bit. Even I was a firebrand for quite a while. Yes, me too. Perhaps there's still a fire in my belly, but it feeds on a colder, more artificial fuel. That's why my employers consider me skilled at handling special cases. Because, as I told you, I once was one myself. I was even becoming especially special. I was done in by laziness, my little vices. Perhaps by my intelligence as well, I'm not very modest, as you've noticed. In other words, I'm the product, some would add the symbol, of corruption ... I certainly couldn't discourage you personally by claiming that you people, our rebellious fringe element, haven't got a secure, safe place even among those with whom you naturally belong, as I was just saying. One senses this cruel quirk of fate rather quickly, but understanding it takes time ... You, Miss and Mrs. and Comrade Strihan, you've loved this exceptional man. An intellectual with a solid education, and a fighter. To all intents and purposes, a leader, that's Comrade Hariga! You're younger than he is. Which made the attraction, on both sides, all the stronger. You had a part to play in his life. Although he is or might readily be taken for a hedonist, I ought to tell you. He's fascinated other women besides you, become close to them, then drifted away without any useless complications ... Your grades at the School of Fine Arts were not outstanding. But I saw every picture of yours that's still there. I was able to understand who you were, what you were after, I could see the truth in those paintings. A truth still nebulous, seemingly chaotic. The truth of art, of your art, for example, is not something obvious. Perhaps truth is too big a word, a balloon of hot air. Hmn ... The money I receive--grossly inadequate compensation, when you consider how much they get from me--would be even more degrading if it didn't allow me, at least occasionally, to indulge not only in the pleasures that money can buy but in others as well. Not simply fleeting ones. Pleasures of a more lasting nature. I hope that you'll be one of them, Sia Strihan . . . Please excuse me for having used the familiar form of address with you now and then, I'm a little drunk, and I don't feel well. Nevertheless, perfectly lucid, I assure you ... It would be pointless, anyway, but even if I wanted to, I couldn't keep them from continuing to interrogate you. To shock and offend you, sometimes to torment you. They like driving things into the ground, there's nothing I can do about it. They think the whole apparatus will get rusty if it isn't constantly at work, that's their rule. I have only limited power to change their methods. What's more, they claim, and sometimes prove, that they get results. It's not my department. But even so, there are certain things I can do."

He stood up. Ever since he'd turned on the light, after the episode or the dream or the nightmare of the low, feminine, feline voice on the telephone, his words and actions had lost some of their uneasiness and elasticity. In a single instant, some chill wind had frozen his mobile, human features. It would have been hard to tell if this new posture or imposture hid something even worse, even more unexpected. He seemed abruptly conscious of being less interesting and mysterious than the character he'd portrayed until that moment. But at present he was indifferent, agreeing for who knows how many seconds to play an official, aloof, and boring role. A sacrifice he certainly would never have made without knowing that it had become opportune.

"As you saw, I brought a great many packages, both large and small. I made sure nothing was left out. And that nothing got lost. I brought them here personally, after checking to see that I had everything on my list. So as not to forget, through carelessness, a single one of my presents. I'm courting you the old-fashioned way, so to speak. Being considerate of ladies who honor me with their kind attention."

A smile was appropriate here. A brief smile, the barest hint of a smile, after which he immediately recovered his neutral expression.

"Brushes of several sizes. Pencils, drawing charcoal. India ink. Watercolors and oil paints. Best quality. I wasn't stingy. I chose carefully and paid without hesitation. Various kinds of paper, of different weights. Even canvases. If you're really set on it, you'll eventually be able to do etchings as well. Sometimes art arises out of tragic ink blots, like the ones published almost a hundred years ago during the period of German Romanticism. But perhaps you won't need to go that far. Personally, I prefer drawing. Unless all that black and white becomes tiring for you, too ascetic in the long run. Besides, a bit of color would be acceptable in the drawings, if it's done with colored pencil. Pencil or charcoal drawings. Chalk, pen and ink, brush, whatever you like. If you feel the need to paint, at a certain point, in oil or watercolors, feel free to do so. Along with all the supplies I got for you, I even brought varnishing materials. What's called, at least that's what's written on the box, mastics in lacrima pura. . ."

He was using a normal tone of voice, as though he hadn't noticed that the prisoner was both dismayed and alarmed. And suddenly she spoke.

"Fine, but . . ."

That was all she mumbled. Considering her previous stubborn silence, however, it was enough. He noticed discreetly how she kept gazing longingly at the packages piled in their corner.

"I've brought you everything you need to draw and paint. If you're serious about wanting to do etchings, perhaps at some point I'll be able to obtain the necessary authorization. Accordingly, we're going, that is, they are going to hold on to you a while longer. Perhaps they will keep you here. A few months, a few years, hard to say. We're a small country, we're affected by what goes on in the world. If you want my opinion. I don't think it can last much longer. Things are beginning to move quickly ... Whatever happens, whether you remain in custody for a long time or not, you must finish one drawing every day. Of the house, the exterior or the interior, the exterior and the interior of the house where Hariga, Kahane, Vaduva, and the others met. Too much like an assembly line for an artist? That's what it seems like, at first, but only at first. You'll work every day, without laboring over details, simply putting down what you remember. The drawings will probably repeat themselves, with a certain accuracy and frequency. Later you'll be able to spend more time planning and working on each piece. They'll become more artistic that way. More inaccurate, or accurate in a different way, a bit |off' from reality as it is in your memory. Useless to explain this to you, you're familiar with psychology and aesthetics. Memory, in the last analysis, will in turn find itself serving the obsession. As well as joining in the game. I told you that you could choose your medium. I've brought everything. But I wish you to begin, as in art school, with drawing. Of course you'll be allowed to switch from one medium to another, if you like. But to begin with, and for a certain time, only drawing. A few hours will be reserved for this activity in your daily schedule. I'm sure you're well aware of the importance of this privilege. You'll have to work conscientiously, however. To get used to this obligation. You'll be reluctant, at first. Then, little by little, you'll come to enjoy it. You'll look forward to it. Let's hope that you'll get more and more caught up in the game, that you'll become increasingly intrigued, fascinated. It's the same way with depravity, the same with love. Now, art ... depravity and love, right? ... These drawings will describe explicitly the topography of the lace. The disposition of the building, your own place in the composition. I know exactly how many times you went there and whom you met there. A dozen times. More precisely, eleven times. Admit that the real purpose of this task--which will, I hope, become increasingly pleasant, increasingly useful for the artist you are or will become, leaving aside its therapeutic aspect--admit, as I was saying, that the purpose of this activity or this experiment escapes you. What can I tell you? Sincerity has been a constant part of my plans, in your case. This detail, however, I'm going to keep strictly to myself. Not even to myself, I might say. In fact, here's another hypothesis: even I don't know exactly why I've started down this particular path, or where it will lead me, and us. Yes, why not? So, now everything seems coherent and explicable again. I know you've been taught, and that you need to believe, that there's a reason, an explanation, for everything . . ."

Her impression was confirmed: the fellow's words, but also his voice and rigid countenance, had taken on a certain assurance, a certain indifference.

He was drumming his fingers on the desk, glancing only rarely now at his prey. He was still standing. He'd emptied his flask; he spoke rapidly, coldly, and with determination.

"The fairy story about the marvels that might be revealed by studying a complete series of your drawings or paintings of the house or, rather, the former house of Comrade Lucian Hariga turned out to be a convincing argument to my employers. My good sense--my relative good sense--and, in addition, this vague fantasy of mine, seem so crazy to them that, as time went by, I watched them become self-conscious in my humble presence. Whatever I suggest to them, everything I say to them, makes them hesitant, unsure whether I got it from books, or made it up myself, even whether I made up the books ... In any case they have no way of knowing. They are possessed of a sort of humility--which is related to respect, let's not forget--that constantly increases, of course, along with their hatred of me, of you, of anyone connected with books, of anyone who believes in books. Contempt, superstition, and hatred, whether the books are real or imaginary ... They wouldn't be capable of understanding how unreal a real book can be! How real a still unwritten book can be, as long as its contents exist--virtually--in the mind of at least one person ... Anyway, as I see, my speculations haven't disturbed you too much. To conclude, let's agree specifically that you'll be required to execute drawings on a given subject. We'll just call it one of my whims. You've noticed, I'm sure, that I tend to be capricious. As long as you go along with me in this fancy of mine, admittedly a rather unusual one, I don't see why I should deprive you of the attendant privileges that will be granted you from now on. My promises will be carried out scrupulously. You'll probably be spared, as I mentioned, the rigors of a political trial. Which will perhaps fuel--at least I hope so--your comrades' suspicions regarding Sia Strihan ... Now we'll turn out the light. We don't need it anymore. You see, dawn has crept up on us. We can say that we've spent the night together. A gorgeous morning, look! Boundless, clear sky. Misfortune, unhappiness, prison, these things belong, like the sky, like all joy or sorrow, to the life we've been given. We should welcome everything that belongs to life with joy and astonishment. We won't get to enjoy anything else. . ."

He was right. The finite earth, subject to its unchanging rotation ... The night that had united them now cast them up, together, on the cold and glassy shore of day.

He smiled, like a dead man. "Open the window, please."

The prisoner stood up clumsily. She was pale; her eyes were bloodshot, with great purplish circles under them.

She pivoted and took a first, slow step toward the window. She took another, leaning on the arm of the chair. She kept going, stretching out her left hand, with nothing more to lean on. She took one last, big step and reached the window, almost collapsing, holding both her hands out in front of her to grab the window frame, just in time.

She breathed deeply, with slumped shoulders and downcast eyes. Then she tried to straighten up. Her left hand clutched at the windowsill, her right slid across the casement, fumbling for a moment before reaching the cold metal of the window fastening. She tightened her grip, attempting to open it. She couldn't. She stood on tiptoe, reaching up with her left arm as well to grasp the handle of the casement bolt with both hands, to wrench it free. Her forehead was damp. She struggled with the bolt, again and again, until at last the two sides of the espagnolette window parted gently. Her arms fell limply to her sides. She leaned on the sill for a moment, then grasped one of the casements and swung it completely back against the wall, doing the same with the other side as well. She stood awhile at the open window, her eyes refreshed by the cool morning air.

She gazed at the downy white sky, the rows of dawnblue houses, the glistening wet ribbons of the streets, along which raced a few cars, vanishing like insects in a hurry. She placed her hands flat against the sides of the window, which in this room as well was furnished with thick bars. A sky streaked with clouds. Still white, though. Serene.

Prison, illness, solitude, the misfortunes of this singular life. Brief, of unforeseeable duration, let's enjoy it while we may. If I weren't revolted by hearing those words from his lips, I might well have spoken them myself, who knows?

Behind her, nothing stirred. Had the little rabbit fallen asleep, with his head on the desk? Or was he still watching her, holding his breath? There was no longer the slightest sound.

She listened intently; no, nothing. Some time had probably passed. She'd opened the window, had rested for a long while, contemplating the sky above the deserted city. She'd forgotten the man who'd shared her night. After all, he'd only told her to open the window ... She turned her head slowly toward him. To indicate, quite properly, that she was entirely at his disposal.

But he was no longer in the room. He'd probably slipped out while she was wrestling with the window.

The chair was in its place behind the desk, as though no one had ever sat there. The telephone, dead. The thin flask and its metal cap that had so often brightened the room during the night, like a tiny sign of life, were gone.

She had such a longing to stretch her legs, get the stiffness out of them. To relax into oblivion, her head buried in a soft pillow. She wasn't strong enough yet to remember everything, to start putting her thoughts in order.

She gave up the idea of going back to her armchair. Exhausted, she leaned her elbows on the window ledge. Until they came to drag her off wherever they wanted, she was staying right where she was. The door was closed, however, and no one was calling her. They opened the door for barely a second To keep an eye on me: I could have broken through the bars and escaped by jumping down from the second floor. They saw me and closed the door, reassured Or perhaps it was him again, taking one last look, between two swigs from that flask.

She felt a light hand on her shoulder. She shuddered; the serpent glided across her shoulder, now she felt it slithering down her back, cold and damp.

So it wasn't finished; it was just beginning. The hand pressed softly on her shoulder. Everything was starting all over, and even worse, picking up from the point she'd always dreaded the most. He had unbeatable endurance, that feeble wraith! Strength and inclination had returned, he'd emptied another bottle. He was off and running again, daisy-fresh. It would never end, he'd figured correctly, right on the button, his victim wouldn't put up a fight, wouldn't be able to hold out.

"Relax. It's not starting up again," murmured a woman's voice, apparently quite close ... right next to her ...

The slim fingers seemed to grip her shoulder, turning her gently around. The woman from the day before perhaps, that stern brunette, so familiar, like a colleague ... There was something both lewd and maternal about her. Her hair mussed, her face pale and sweaty, her skirt twisted, her white blouse partially unbuttoned, as though she'd just been unexpectedly rousted out of her lair, after a nap or a night of insomnia or after ... after anything at all. Her breasts, naked and dewy with perspiration, quivered in the plunging neckline of her blouse.

"Thank you. You behaved very well, you didn't provoke him . . ."

The words were barely audible, whispered too softly.

The hand on her shoulder kept creeping, it seemed, serpentinely toward her neck. The apparition tried to caress her cheeks, ever so gently? The prisoner moved away.

"Who tossed your cap over there?" she heard, far away, or was it close by?

The woman bent down, picked it up. Looked at it with a kind of tenderness, thwacked it against the windowsill. Flicked off the last specks of dust with her hand. Then placed it, slowly and carefully, on the shaved head, and came even nearer to the window.

The wretched prisoner leaned her forehead against the bars, drinking in the cold daylight and fresh air, fleeing the voice that pursued her. Sirens wailed, one would have said, all of a sudden; she heard them and didn't hear them, perhaps they'd been shrieking all night long, just for her, and she hadn't heard them.

"You behaved well. You can rest a bit, even sleep . . ."

Someone, somewhere, sometime, had murmured these words slowly, too slowly, as though talking to a sister. Was the woman barefoot? Was that why she hadn't heard her come in?

At some point, the door closed again, quietly. A breath, perhaps a trace of scent, a blend of new odors, difficult to identify. She stared at the door a while longer before turning back toward the window.

She stood motionless, her temple resting against the chilly window frame. Her weary face seemed to glow with the light of dawn. She appeared to be asleep.
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Title Annotation:excerpt from 'Compulsory Happiness'; fiction
Author:Manea, Norman; Coverdale, Linda
Publication:The American Poetry Review
Article Type:Excerpt
Date:May 1, 1993
Words:11898
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Next Article:The sacrifice.
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