The Headless Man

By BARBARA MOLINARD

Translated from the French by EMMA RAMADANPanics book cover

The woman took a seat on the bench. She was wearing a little black dress and a coat that was also black, brightened up with a pale blue scarf around her neck. Long blond hair framed her rather beautiful face, which her eyes, drowned in dream, bestowed with a unique absence.

The traffic on the street, the honking of cars, the sound of engines, the nearby entrance of the metro, into which numerous travelers plunged—nothing could wrest her from her reverie.

She shivered. She stared with amazement, then insistence, at the people strolling on the sidewalk; but her curiosity soon tired and she instead fixed her gaze in front of her, where she saw “Hôtel d’Angleterre.” Surprised that she had never noticed this place, she stood up from the bench, headed toward the hotel, and entered. Men and women circulated through the lobby, smoking and chatting, while others read newspapers, sunk deep into armchairs. Standing in the middle of the lobby, she watched the comings and goings of these people with amusement. Suddenly she had the impression that everyone around her was giving her a strange look. Disconcerted, she remained still for a moment without knowing what to do. Then, determined, she walked toward the reception desk and asked the man standing there for a room. As the employee answered her, the woman noticed he was wearing a wax mask over his face. Intrigued, and hoping to animate the mask, the woman repeated her question and again requested a room. “I just asked you, for how many nights.” The harshness of his voice made the woman jump. Realizing her response would determine whether or not this man would call security to escort her out, she said in a soft and conciliatory voice that the number of nights was up to him. Absolutely. In order to break the worrying silence that followed this response, the woman idly took a book out of her pocket and pretended to read it as she anxiously awaited what would happen next. Although she wasn’t certain, she thought the man had just shrugged his shoulders, but perhaps he had just waved away a fly; so many had appeared around him in the last few minutes; nevertheless, unsure of the man’s gesture, she decided the best thing would be to flee as quickly as possible. So as not to arouse suspicion, she kept the book open for a minute; then, taking advantage of the employee’s momentary distraction, she turned brusquely on her heels and ran out of the hotel.

At the sight of her bench, still there waiting for her, she felt rather emotional and sat back down to resume her favorite pastime: people watching. The precision with which these people moved always amazed her. The way they chose to take one street rather than another, to turn right instead of left without a shadow of hesitation, delighted her when it didn’t frighten her. However, for the past few days she had witnessed a curious phenomenon: the passersby, at least some passersby, transformed abruptly, right before her eyes, into monstrous, nearly grotesque animals. Like that gentleman yesterday, who had transformed into a snake with an ostrich head as he lit his cigarette. In the moment, she had nearly screamed, but seeing that man, or that beast, undulate and crawl at the feet of all those people while they continued on their way, acting as though nothing was amiss, had seemed to her so ridiculous a spectacle that she ended up bursting into laughter. Later, a very haughty, elegant woman had turned into a gorilla on the arms of the man who accompanied her. He hadn’t flinched.

She wondered, suddenly worried, what would become of those poor animals; a service order should be mandated to rid the streets of them, at night, in secret. She suddenly understood why in certain large cities there are zoos where they coop up rather curious beasts, and who all those people were who went to see them: parents . . . relatives . . . friends.

She was lost in thought when suddenly she noticed, mixed into the crowd, the headless man. Her heart thudded in her chest. Her small face became grave and anxious. But once the man approached and sat on the bench next to her per usual, her anxiety gave way to immense joy.

The first time she had seen him, walking with no head among the crowd, she hadn’t felt anything but pity for him, thinking it must be difficult to live in such a way; but when he had come to sit near her, as he did again today, she discovered that although he had no head, he did have a face: this face was impalpable like haze, mysterious like night; a face of shadow and fog, of light and poetry; a face that stirred something deep within her and unsettled her very soul.

Since that encounter, which had taken place months ago, years perhaps, he had returned each day to sit next to her on the bench for a while. She didn’t remember ever speaking to him. Once, she had almost asked him about his head, but not wanting to embarrass him, she had kept quiet.

She was staring at her friend’s face, her eyes filled with wonder, when suddenly she heard something like a ripple of anger move through the crowd. Men and women, lined up on the road, were yelling incomprehensible words. She was afraid: afraid for her friend, afraid that these furious people would lash out at the headless man and cause him pain. Already she was picturing him ridiculed, lynched by them. But she would protect him from that mob. She would save him. She would lead him through radiant streets where daisies grow. Together they would jump over streams; hand in hand they would wander through fields and prairies while singing a Sunday song.

Finally she dared to speak to him and whispered, “Would you like to leave with me? I’ll protect you . . . I love you so much!”

But she didn’t hear the man’s response; she’d had to expend so much effort to follow and guide her thoughts that now, exhausted, she neither saw nor heard a thing.

With utter sweetness, the man placed the woman’s head against his shoulder and tenderly caressed her small face for a long time.

The woman broke away from the man’s shoulder. She had the vague feeling that something important had occurred, but she didn’t know what. She stood up, put on her coat, resumed her place, then remained immobile, absent, distant, until the moment when abruptly she remembered something she had to do and worriedly asked him for the time. The man looked at his watch and told her it was 5:30 p.m.

“Are you sure, monsieur?”

When the man gently repeated that it was 5:30 p.m., the woman murmured as though to herself, “How dreadful, I must have missed my train again. Do you understand, monsieur,” she continued in a sad and weary voice after a brief silence, “for five years I’ve been trying to catch my train and I’ve never been able to manage it: a sick dog, a baby abandoned in a stream, a flattened cow dying on the road, so many obstacles have stopped me from taking my train. Before these obstacles, there were others . . . always others, and today I simply forgot . . .” Confronted with her implacable fate, the woman was now crying noiselessly; long tears slid down her pale face.

Distraught, the man tried to reassure her that she would catch her train if she allowed him to assist her, that by combining their efforts and establishing a strict schedule, he was convinced they would achieve her goal. Met with the woman’s silence, his heart gripped with emotion, he repeated, like a prayer, “Allow me to help. I beg of you.” The woman lifted her eyes to the man and saw the face of shadow and fog that she loved so much, the face of her friend, and murmured, “Come on. Let’s go.”

Together they stood and walked hand in hand through the now deserted streets and boulevards. Matching the woman’s pace and letting himself be led by her, the man kept quiet. He knew too well that a gesture, a word, could break the spell and separate them again, perhaps forever.

When they reached the countryside, night had already fallen. A few cows were grazing tranquilly in the fields and raised their heads as they passed. The woman caressed one while telling it a thousand sweet words, then, followed by her companion, she entered a small forest. The man walked ahead of her and parted the brambles on the path, holding back the branches so that she passed without being grazed, and she advanced timidly, happy to be free and to be sharing with her friend this life that she loved.

At the exit of the woods, she clapped her hands cheerfully at the sight of a barn in the middle of the field. Lacing her arm through her companion’s, she steered them toward it. The barn was filled with hay; the woman let herself fall into it as onto a bed.

Then, with great tenderness, the man covered the woman’s body with his coat, still warm with his own heat. She looked at him and smiled. So much love passed in that smile that there was no more room in the man’s heart for distress and despair, only for immense joy.

When she awoke with a start in the night, she thought she’d heard a noise near the barn; frightened, she looked around for her friend, and when she saw him she nearly screamed in horror. The man now had a head, a real one, with a very beautiful face. Frozen with terror, she couldn’t wrest her eyes from that face, crazed at the thought that her friend, he, her friend, the man she had taken for her friend, was part of the world of the others, that hostile, bizarre world of which she knew nothing except that it could not be her own. A somber despair took hold of her. Choking on her tears, she left, staggering from the barn.

The night was serene, and the round moon tenderly lit up the prairie. But the woman saw nothing. She ran, ran until she was out of breath, brushing aside the shadows that sometimes stood before her to block her path. Crazed like a deer hunted by a pack of wolves, she fell, got back up, resumed her demented race, disoriented by panic and grief. She crossed the prairie, the forest, ran along the river . . .

Then the man heard a harrowing cry in his sleep. Searching for his companion but not seeing her, he was seized by a strange, tragic fear; he left the barn and called for the woman. It was silent except for birdsong announcing the dawn. Then, crossing the field, the little wood, the prairie, he walked along the river.

And the man stopped short.

 She was there, splayed on the riverbank.

He didn’t fully believe it until, face pressed against her chest, he couldn’t hear her heart beating anymore.

With the tender precautions one takes so as not to wake a small sleeping child while carrying them to bed, the man lifted the dead woman’s body and, holding her against him, covered her face with tears and kisses.

One last time he looked at her innocent forehead, so moving, the naive and soft mouth that death rendered nearly childlike. He remembered her a few years earlier, running in her wedding dress through the wild grass. Grave and laughing, tender and anxious, there had been an uncertain flicker in her gaze . . .

Before throwing himself into the river, his wife’s body wrapped around his own, he murmured to her as if she could still hear him, “My love . . . My Nathalie . . . I loved you so much.”

 

From Panics by Barbara Molinard. Used with the permission of the Feminist Press. Viens copyright © 2016 by the Estate of Barbara Molinard: Agnès Molinard and Laurence Molinard. English translation copyright © 2022 by Emma Ramadan.

 

Barbara Molinard (1921–1986) wrote and wrote, but published only one book: a collection of short stories titled Viens. Everything she wrote, she immediately tore up, and it was only through the relentless urging from her husband, the filmmaker Patrice Molinard, and her friend Marguerite Duras, that she finally handed over a single collection of stories to Editions Mercure de France in 1969.

 

Emma Ramadan is a literary translator based in Providence, RI, where she also co-owns Riffraff bookstore and bar. She is the recipient of the PEN Translation Prize, the Albertine Prize, an NEA Translation Fellowship, and a Fulbright. Her translations include Anne Garréta’s Sphinx, Virginie Despentes’s Pretty Things, Kamel Daoud’s Zabor, or the Psalms, and Abdellah Taïa’s A Country for Dying.

 

The Headless Man

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