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The Elegance Of The Hedgehog Part 19

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How to measure a life's worth? The important thing, said Paloma one day, is not the fact of dying, it is what you are doing in the moment of your death. What was I doing in the moment of my death, I wonder, with an answer ready in the warmth of my heart.

What was I doing?

I had met another, and was prepared to love.

After fifty-four years of emotional and psychological wilderness, hardly touched by the tenderness of someone like Lucien, who was little more than a resigned shadow of my self, after fifty-four years of clandestinity and silent victories inside the padded walls of a lonely mind, after fifty-four years of venting my futile frustrations upon a world and a caste I despised, after these fifty-four years of nothingness, where I met no one and was never with another: Manuela, always.

But also Kakuro.



And Paloma, my kindred soul.

My camellias.

I would gladly share a last cup of tea with you.

And then a jolly cocker spaniel, his ears and tongue dangling, runs across my line of vision. How ridiculous ... but I would still like to laugh. Farewell, Neptune. You are a ninny of a dog, but I suppose death makes us run off the rails somewhat; perhaps it is you I shall think of last. And if there is any meaning behind it, it is beyond my grasp.

Ah, no. Wait.

One last image.

How odd ... I can't see any more faces ...

It will be summer soon. It's seven o'clock. At the village church, the bells are ringing. I see my father, his back bent, his arms straining, he's turning the June earth. The sun is setting. My father straightens, wipes his brow with the back of his sleeve, comes away home.

End of the day's toil.

It will soon be nine o'clock.

Peacefully, I die.

One Last Profound Thought What to do Faced with never But look For always In a few stolen strains?

This morning, Madame Michel died. She was knocked over by a dry cleaner's van, near the rue du Bac. I cannot believe I am writing these words.

It was Kakuro who brought me the news. Apparently Paul, his secretary, was walking up the street at the time. He saw the accident from a distance but when he got there it was too late. She wanted to help Gegene, the tramp who's on the corner of the rue du Bac and who was drunk as a skunk. She ran after him but she didn't see the van. Apparently they had to take the driver to the hospital, she was a nervous wreck.

Kakuro came and rang our bell at around eleven. He asked to see me and he took my hand and said, "There's no way I can spare you this pain, Paloma, so I'll just tell it to you the way it happened: Renee had an accident, at around nine o'clock. A very serious accident. She's dead." He was crying. He squeezed my hand very hard. "Dear God, who is Renee?" asked my mother, alarmed. "Madame Michel," answered Kakuro. "Oh!" she went, relieved. He turned away from her, disgusted. "Paloma, I have to take care of a lot of not very cheerful things, but we'll see each other later on, okay?" he said. I nodded, and squeezed his hand very hard, too. We acknowledged each other in the Japanese manner, a quick little bow. We understand each other. We're both hurting, hurting.

When he had gone, the only thing I wanted was to avoid Maman. She opened her mouth but I made a gesture with my hand, my palm raised toward her as if to say, "Don't even try." She gulped but didn't come near, she let me go off to my room. When I got there I rolled myself into a ball on my bed. After half an hour Maman knocked gently on the door. "No," I said. She didn't insist.

Ten hours have gone by since then. A lot of things have happened in the building, too. I'll summarize: Olympe Saint-Nice rushed to the loge when she heard the news (a locksmith came to open the door), so she could take Leo to her place. I think that Madame Michel, that Renee ... I think that's what she would have wanted. I was relieved. Madame de Broglie took charge of the operations, under Kakuro's supreme command. It's odd how that old bag seemed almost nice. She said to Maman, her new friend, "She was here for twenty-seven years. We're going to miss her." Right away she organized a collection for the flowers, and said she would contact Renee's family members. Are there any? I don't know but Madame de Broglie will find out.

The hardest was Madame Lopes. Once again, it was Madame de Broglie who told her, when she came at ten to do the cleaning. Apparently she stood there for a few seconds, not understanding, her hand on her mouth. And then she collapsed. When she revived, a quarter of an hour later, she just murmured, "Forgive me, oh, forgive me," and then she put on her scarf and went home.

It's heartbreaking.

What about me? What do I feel? I may be chattering away about the little events at 7, rue de Grenelle, but I'm not very brave. I'm afraid to go into myself and see what's going on in there. And I'm ashamed. I think I wanted to die and make Colombe and Maman and Papa suffer because I hadn't ever really suffered. Or rather, I was suffering but it didn't hurt and, as a result, all my little plans were just the luxury of some problem-free teenager. Poor little rich girl rationalizing things, wanting to draw attention to herself.

But this time, for the very first time, it hurt, it really hurt. Like a fist in my stomach: I couldn't breathe, my heart aching fit to burst, my tummy crushed. An unbearable physical pain. I wondered if I'd ever get over the pain of it. It hurt so much I wanted to scream. But I didn't scream. What I feel now is that the pain is still there but it isn't keeping me from walking or talking, it's a feeling of complete helplessness and absurdity. So that's what it's like? All of a sudden all possibility just vanishes? A life full of projects, discussions just started, desires not even fulfilled-it all vanishes in a second and there's nothing left, nothing left to do, and there's no going back?

For the first time in my life I understood the meaning of the word never. And it's really awful. You say the word a hundred times a day but you don't really know what you're saying until you're faced with a real "never again." Ultimately you always have the illusion that you're in control of what's happening; nothing seems definitive. I may have been telling myself all these weeks that I was going to commit suicide, but did I really believe it? Did my decision really make me understand the meaning of the word "never?" Not at all. It made me understand that it's in my power to decide. And I think that even a few seconds before dying, "never again" would still just be empty words. But when someone that you love dies ... well, I can tell you that you really feel what it means and it really really hurts. It's like fireworks suddenly burning out in the sky and everything going black. I feel alone, and sick, my heart aches and every movement seems to require a colossal effort.

And then something happened. It's hard to believe, it's such a sad day. At around five I went down to Madame Michel's loge (I mean Renee's loge) with Kakuro because he wanted to get some of her clothes to take them to the hospital morgue. He rang at our door and asked Maman if he could speak to me. But I had guessed it would be him, I was already there. Of course I wanted to go with him. We took the elevator down, not speaking. He looked very tired, more tired than sad, and I thought, That is what suffering looks like on a wise face. It's not apparent; it just leaves traces that make you look very very tired. Do I look tired, too?

In any event, Kakuro and I went down to the loge. But while we were crossing the courtyard we stopped short, both of us at the same time: someone had begun to play the piano and we could hear very clearly what they were playing. It was Satie, I think, well, I'm not sure (but anyway it was classical).

I don't really have any profound thoughts on the matter. Besides, how can you have a profound thought when your kindred soul is lying in a hospital refrigerator? But I know we stopped short, both of us, and took a deep breath and let the sun warm our faces while we listened to the music drifting down from above. "I think Renee would have liked this moment," said Kakuro. And we stayed there a few more minutes, listening to the music. I agreed with him. But why?

Thinking back on it, this evening, with my heart and my stomach all like jelly, I have finally concluded, maybe that's what life is about: there's a lot of despair, but also the odd moment of beauty, where time is no longer the same. It's as if those strains of music created a sort of interlude in time, something suspended, an elsewhere that had come to us, an always within never.

Yes, that's it, an always always within within never never.

Don't worry Renee, I won't commit suicide and I won't burn a thing.

Because from now on, for you, I'll be searching for those moments of always within never.

Beauty, in this world.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is Muriel Barbery's second novel. Her first book, is Muriel Barbery's second novel. Her first book, Gourmet Rhapsody Gourmet Rhapsody, has been published by Europa Editions in 2009.

ALSO BY MURIEL BARBERY.

Gourmet Rhapsody

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