Translated by Brian Evenson
The man who invented fire was a woman, actually. He invented fire and he tamed it. He was a woman named Lili, from the clan of the Soutchanes. In other words, a woman named Lili Soutchane. A brunette, wearing a red scarf around her neck and nothing else. She invented fire, she tamed it, she produced a good amount of it, enough to fill a cart, and she went to market to sell it, this fire.
That was a long time ago, and even very long ago, when you think about it. During a time when the calendar was divided neither into years, nor into months, nor even into days, but instead into balls of color and into moons. It's difficult to believe, but that's how it is. You'd say, for example: at the ninth green ball, we had a dreadful snowstorm. Or else: the train was one yellow ball late this morning.
This era is no longer remembered, and yet it existed. The system of red and russet moons and of orbs, bubbles, and balls is no longer remembered. Note that in those days people didn't live with their eyes glued to their calendars. They checked the time, yes, that could happen. But the date, no. I don't even know if, in the entire city, there was a single calendar.
And it was during this time that the man who invented fire—who was a woman—lived, the famous Lili Soutchane.
Lili Soutchane was housed in a little two-room apartment, on the seventh floor, in a quiet street, eight minutes by foot from the RER. She loaded her fire into very clean jars and pots, took all the receptacles down in the elevator, piled them on her cart. Then she set off for the market, which was near the RER station.
It was during the blue ball, in the third moon.
The cart shook about a little, but no pots of fire fell onto the sidewalk. We can say that with certainty. If the fire had spilled, it would have left marbling on the ground, burn marks on the pavement or in the gutter. Now, no marks of this sort were noticed on the route that Lili Soutchane took from her home to the market. I know, because I went over the pavement with a fine-toothed comb, obviously, when the investigation was entrusted to me.
The investigation into the disappearance of Lili Soutchane.
Because, here's the thing: in the time of the blue ball, in the third red moon, Lili Soutchane disappeared.
Lili Soutchane invented fire, she tamed it, she waited for there to be enough to fill around sixty pots, she loaded it into a cart, this fire, she filled them, these pots, so as to carry them to market. And then we lose track of her. She perhaps pushed her merchandise as far as the RER railway station or as far as the parking lot of the minimart, where there's a striped cat that doesn't like to be petted. Perhaps. But what is certain, truly certain, is that she never reached the marketplace.
I was entrusted with the investigation, alas, much too late, at least one thousand two hundred white bubbles after, which is to say too late for me to be able to have good odds of shedding light on the matter. It was so late that nobody was interested anymore in Lili Soutchane's fate. Put your hands on her if you can do it, they told me. We're not going to stop you. But already she must not be like she was before, and, for us, she wasn't someone irreplaceable. No, what is important for us is the fire.
The inventor of fire had disappeared, okay. Another would be found. But the fire cargo too had faded into thin air, and this, they realized, was serious.
Actually, since no man or woman since Lili Soutchane had imagined anything as practical as a fire to light when it gets cold, well, when winter came nobody lit anything anywhere, and in countries like ours, in nearly arctic countries, our teeth and jaws were chattering, and our snouts were freezing.
I don't say that the tips of our noses were freezing, I say our snouts were freezing. It's so that my dog will understand. On truly cold days, in winter, he has a frozen snout. His teeth don't chatter, but, as far as his snout is concerned, it's frozen.
My dog is named Djinn. He is very black, with three white commas on his stomach. Sometimes he comes with me on my investigations, especially at the beginning, when I feel lost, when I don't know at all which road to take, where to start, who to interrogate first. Djinn doesn't always listen to what I say. I tend to believe that he doesn't understand one word in ten. It's above all because we don't speak the same language. It is even possible that he doesn't make a distinction between a snout and the tip of a nose—at the level of vocabulary, I mean.
Well, take it how you want, nobody can dispute it: in winter, far from fire, Djinn's snout is as cold as a handful of snow.
With Djinn on my heels, I went first to the home of a neighbor of Lili Soutchane, Lili Chpolnik. A very old grandmother, easily recognized by her white hair and her cap of synthetic pink fur. She was a music teacher, Lili Chpolnik, and her neighbors who didn't like music often quarreled with her, because they considered her too noisy. She gave lessons in music theory, which is quiet, but she also housed a fly orchestra with her, and so certain neighbors voiced complaints, because of the noise.
At any moment of the day or night, the flies got together in the drawing room or in a bedroom and they played on wind instruments like the sackbut, the jazz clarinet, the nanoctiluphe and the slouch-horn. The slouch-horn is an instrument characteristic of a fly orchestra. The others are used elsewhere as well, I mean by musicians who play in other groups including people like us, who can't really buzz, and when we try flying get nowhere.
I knew one of the flies of the orchestra, a clarinetist, Lili Froundzé by name. I had come to an agreement with her so that she would open the old lady's door. Actually, the old lady received in her home only students very good at music theory, whereas I had forgotten the lessons I'd once learned at music school. I would have been incapable of taking a musical dictation, even a very simple one, and this was something that displeased Lili Chpolnik a great deal. She didn't excuse it in anyone. She would perhaps not have opened her door to me, on the seventh floor, to the left.
At the agreed upon hour, exactly in the middle of the afternoon, Lili Froundzé overrode the alarms, pulled the door-pegs, and let me in.
She was a friend, Lili Froundzé. I hugged her like I always do with my lady friends and I kissed her. She too had a cold snout.
She took me by the hand and led me to Lili Chpolnik. With her pink cap and, in the belt of her smock, a conductor's baton nearly as long as a sword, Lili Chpolnik still had a proud appearance. She didn't look her age. I'd heard it said that she was fabulously old, at least four thousand five hundred balls old. Four thousand five hundred balls, I don't know. It's no doubt an exaggeration. But three thousand, yes. And three thousand, that's already incredible.
We stayed for a moment in the lounge. The armchairs smelled a little of fly. Lili Chpolnik served us cold tea and she started by questioning me about the problems with the keys of G and C-sharp. She urged me to tell her whether I was by preference major or by preference minor. I would have willingly let Djinn speak, because he is better than I at music theory, but he stayed silent. He'd lain down on the floor next to me and didn't move. The old lady intimidated him, he pretended to understand nothing.
As best as I could, I answered Lili Chpolnik about sharps and flats, and then I explained to her that Djinn and I were carrying out an investigation into the disappearance of Lili Soutchane.
"Lili Soutchane?" repeated the old woman, examining the interior of her memory. "Yes, I knew her, in the old days. She lived on the seventh floor, like me. A pretty brunette wearing a red scarf around her neck and nothing else."
I had prepared several questions about Lili Soutchane. I wanted to know how she lived, who she welcomed into her home before her disappearance, and when, exactly, she had started to manufacture fire.
"Because she's the one who invented fire," I said.
Lili Chpolnik scowled.
You have to know, when a three-thousand-ball-old lady scowls, you are a little afraid. I was, thus, a little afraid. Pressed against my leg, Djinn growled.
"Lili Soutchane never invented fire!" the old lady exclaimed, once her scowl was over.
"Oh?" I said.
"Not at all!" said Lili Chpolnik. "If someone in this house invented fire, it was me!"
"Gosh!" I was surprised.
"By the moon!" growled Djinn in his own language, with the sled dog's accent that he likes to adopt when he starts to make fun of the world.
"And I can prove it!" Lili Chpolnik threw out.
"Well," I said. "We want nothing more than to believe you, Lili Chpolnik. Prove it."
I directed a big smile at her. I was no longer afraid. She was no longer scowling and, in any case, she was actually very nice, like a grandmother, so that after five minutes you wanted to be kind to her.
She went into the kitchen to look for a scrap of fire and she put it on the table, between us, next to a teacup.
"Okay, the invention isn't completely finished," she said. "I am still in the experimental stage. But all the same. It will give you an idea."
The scrap that Lili Chopolnik had placed on the table was so small that you couldn't see what color it was. It was perhaps a little green, or a little red. You really couldn't see. Everyone leaned over it, every male and female there in the drawing room: Lili Chpolnik, Lili Froundzé, Djinn and myself, and a second fly named Mimi Moussorgo. We leaned down, we remained for a moment with our eyes staring, lids squinted, without saying anything, then we got up again, disappointed. We hadn't seen anything, neither the shape nor the color of fire. As for our snouts, they remained as cold as ice cubes.
"Wait, it has to get bigger," Lili Chpolnik explained. "It doesn't grow just like that, with a snap of the fingers and at full throttle."
"Okay," I said. "We'll wait."
Night was beginning to fall. The darkness grew, grew, but not the fire. Thanks to the lighting in the street, we continued to see in the apartment. The air had become several degrees colder. The temperature was now as low as it was outside.
Lili Chpolnik went to look for blankets. I took one and wrapped myself up in it. Djinn refused his. His snout was a little cold, but he didn't feel bad. On the other hand, he was getting bored, facing this scrap of fire which didn't change its appearance, which remained microscopic and whose color could not even be discerned.
And, rather than wrapping himself warmly in a square of wool, he decided to go play with the flies in the neighboring room.
Djinn had been welcomed with open arms by the flies. They were mischievous and gossipy. They surrounded him, they irritated him, they made remarks about the commas of white fur that he had on his stomach and, when they were all at the heights of happiness from being together, they organized races and acrobatic chases across the apartment, with required circuits under tables and under cupboards. Djinn ran after them without holding back. The flies were delighted to horse around with a four-legged companion, who pounced on them merrily and who shouted at them in sled dog slang, his mouth wide open and his pelt completely uncombed.
In the confusion, Djinn chewed one up, a fly. Inadvertently, of course. He chewed her up and swallowed her. A certain Lili Gesualdo, who was, it seems, an excellent musician, at least before being swallowed.
The incident was unfortunate, but it passed unnoticed in the middle of the din and the darkness. Djinn continued to charge around growling with excitement, and, to calm him down, the flies put between his paws Lili Gesualdo's instrument, a nanoctiluphe in quilted brass whose circumference reached two meters forty-eight.
To my great surprise, Djinn started immediately to blow a delightful melody. The nanoctiluphe, as everybody knows, possesses rosewood cranks and nickel-plated pistons whose operation can't be grasped by just anyone. Sometimes, the melody that comes out is quite unpleasant. But here, no. I'd never thought that Djinn was a very good musician, but, well, I was mistaken. Djinn is excellent on the nanoctiluphe.
He started to trombolinate and bombinate a tune so lively that my friend Lili Froundzé wasn't able to resist. Until then, she'd huddled up under a large green plaid blanket, so as not to shiver. But now she pushed it away and unfolded all her joints and limbs. She went into the room where Djinn was gracefully letting rip, the locale where Djinn was making the nanoctiluphe vibrate magnificently, and immediately began to accompany him on her jazz clarinette. The other flies took up their instruments and launched into a dazzling improvisation.
The very old woman, Lili Chpolnik, straightened her pink cap, which had slid down. She nodded her head to the rhythm. She was extremely pleased. We were facing one another, with the barely visible scrap of fire and the cups of cold tea between us. Me too, I was pleased. You always feel a little proud when your dog plays the nanoctiluphe without a false note, and it seemed to me that Djinn's performance partly made up for his having swallowed Lili Gesualdo.
"If he wants to stay, I will hire him in my orchestra," said Lili Chpolnik. "He's very gifted, this dog."
She came out from under her blanket, took her conductor's baton from her belt, and went to direct the flies.
"If the fire starts to grow, call me," she said.
I remained all alone under my bit of duvet, with the non-hot cups of tea and the scrap of fire on the table, which didn't even glitter, even though we were now plunged into night's shadow.
Since the fire's condition wasn't changing, I stopped watching it. I made my way toward the window and looked outside.
The sky was very, very black above the city, the houses were very, very black in the street, but there were stars and streetlights and, in fact, you could see as well as broad daylight. It was enough to squint your eyelids while concentrating your gaze to forget the night; you saw like in broad daylight. You might even be a little dazzled by how the lamps glistened, seven floors below.
In the street, on the sidewalk, people moved about, and in the air as well, seven stories up.
Drawn by the delightful music and by the extraordinary rhythms of the orchestra, the melomaniacal neighbors had gathered outside. They crawled around the window and even floated in front of the seventh floor, pretending to be walking there by accident. But upon observing them it became clear that their arrival had been premeditated: several had even settled on little folding stools that floated in place, so that they hardly had to expend any effort to hold a steady altitude. The majority of Lili Chpolnik's neighbors were agèd—not as agèd as Lili Chpolnik, obviously, because Lili Chpolnik was exceptionally old. Certain of them had been alive in the seven hundred or eight hundred balls, though, and they were worn out. That's why they were seated on inner tubes to watch the concert rather than floating on two legs like everyone else.
And it wasn't only grandmothers suspended there between earth and sky. There were also nocturnal jellyfish, very elegant in night-coats of pale green or ultramarine blue, and also there were battes.
The battes didn't crawl on the façade, they weren't draped in ultramarine coats, they didn't float on inflatable folding campstools. No, they flew in a fantastic manner, chattering their teeth and clippeting with the tips of their wings. It's a secret language that they have. I know it, this language, I understand it, but, when I am with battes, I prefer to keep my mouth shut. It is too difficult to introduce oneself into their conversation without being awkward, without feeling a little stupid. They joke in a way that makes you dizzy, battes. They like to talk nonsense. But they know things ordinary mortals don't.
Do you know who they are, ordinary mortals? I am, you are. Well, the battes tell themselves stories that ordinary mortals have never heard, strange stories. For example, they speak of the great inventions of the future, like the invention of water or the invention of potted plants, or even the invention of the aurora borealis or the invention of ghastly caramel. And when they launch into such subjects, you have to admit that you feel a little stupid, as if you've poorly understood something. So, when the battes clippet with the tips of their wings, I prefer not to loosen my lips too much.
In the middle of the battes, who flitted in front of the seventh floor, I suddenly noticed a girl I knew.
We had been together at school, in the old days, red balls and red balls ago. She was, during the time of school, a very cute little batte, with black braids. She was called Lili Niagara. And I had a weakness for her.
When I say that I had a weakness for her, that means that I had loved her passionately, that I dreamed about her night and day, and that I whispered her name, Lili Niagara, in front of the trees in the courtyard of the school, in front of my arithmetic homework, and during the written exams in geography or confectionery.
Now that she was flying in front of the window, Lili Niagara was a lot bigger than she had been at school, but she still had black braids and she was still very cute, although in a roguish sort of way. A little bit like a pirate, it's true, just like all the battes. As soon as she was in front of me, I realized I still had a weakness for her.
My heart started to beat harder, under my skin a burning steam started to hiss, my eyes grew wider. I really had a very big weakness for her.
She traced circles while gliding. I waved my arm to signal her. Spotting me, she hovered in front of the window, pushing aside the other girls, the nocturnal jellyfish, and the old ladies who flocked around the seventh floor, the music having attracted a thicker and thicker crowd.
"Gosh!" exclaimed Lili Niagara. "But it's Bobby Potemkine!"
Bobby Potemkine is my name, in fact. I had it already in school, and I've kept it for life after school.
"What are you doing here?" asked Lili Niagara. "Are you in Lili Chpolnik's orchestra?"
She was adorable, just as in the past, with that roguish manner in addition, which suited her well—and a bigger size, of course.
"No, it's my dog," I said.
"Your dog what?"
"It's Djinn, my dog, who is going to play the nanoctiluphe with the flies from now on."
"I thought that Lili Gesualdo blew into the nanoctiluphe."
"No, she, well, Djinn swallowed her," I said.
Lili Niagara opened her cute pupils wide.
"By accident," I clarified. "In the excitement of the game."
"And you?" Lili Niagara asked.
"As for me, I didn't eat any flies," I said. "I'm freezing my snout waiting for the scrap of fire to grow. There it is, on the table, near the cups of tea. It's been minuscule for hours."
"I don't see it," said Lili Niagara.
"It's so as to know if we'll know, yes or no, whether Lili Chpolnik invented fire."
Lili Niagara clippeted her wings with an indignant expression.
"Lili Chpolnik is brilliant as a conductor, but she is worthless when it comes to fire! ... What is this story? She invented neither fire nor flame!"
"That's just what I was thinking," I said. "Lili Soutchane invented all that. But she's disappeared."
"Lili Soutchane? A pretty brunette with a red scarf around her neck?" asked Lili Niagara, shaking her pretty black pirate's braids.
"I'm investigating her disappearance," I said.
Lili Niagara burst into laughter. When a batte bursts into laughter, it must be said, you always have the impression that she's making fun of you. I had this impression. I really wanted to murmur the name of Lili Niagara, because my weakness for her wasn't weakening, yet before this cascade of ironic notes, I felt sheepish. I murmured nothing, looked at the reflection of the stars in Lili Niagara's wings and hair, then lowered my eyes.
"My poor Bobby Potemkine!" Lili Niagara exclaimed. "But if you don't have any information about anything, then what makes you think Lili Soutchane has disappeared? Very simply, she moved. She now lives next to the RER station."
"That would surprise me," I said, annoyed that Lily Niagara took me for someone who knows nothing about nothing. "At the RER station, there's no longer the slightest trace of the brunette with a red scarf around her neck. I searched everywhere, believe me, once the investigation was entrusted to me."
"What station are you talking about?" said Lili Niagara, taking an interest.
"The one next to the minimart, where there is a striped cat that doesn't let itself be petted," I explained.
"Ah, but that's why!" said Lili Niagara.
"Why what?" I asked.
"I'm talking about another station," Lili Niagara continued. "You know the railway station that was flattened by a meteorite, nine yellow moons ago? ... Near the beach?"
"Where a big wooly crab does a trade in marshmallows?"
"Yes," said Lili Niagara.
"Yes," I said. "I see. It's a long way."
"It's around there that Lili Soutchane lives now," Lili Niagara said. "I don't know her exact address, but I know that she lives down there, and has for around a thousand white balls."
"A thousand two hundred," I slipped in, to show that there were things I knew, all the same.
Lili Niagara gave a little pout that was—how to say it?—extremely striking.
"I'll have to go look around there," I added, blushing, because Lili Niagara's little striking pouts troubled me once again, like when we were in school.
"Come on," said Lili Niagara. "We can go there right away. As the batte flies, it's not all that far."
I opened the window. Until then, Lili Niagara and I had spoken through the windowpane. The arctic air from outside rushed inside the seventh floor, and the scrap of fire vanished—was blown out, perhaps. For the old neighbors or the nocturnal jellyfish floating in front of the building, the opening of the window was a genuine godsend. Finally they were hearing the music clearly, rather than from behind a wall of glass. And it was more beautiful at that moment than ever, the music. Djinn on the nanoctiluphe and Lili Froundzé on the clarinet had again started to invent savagely splendid tunes. As soon as they finished a phrase, Mimi Moussorgo took it up on the slouch-horn or the gypsy violin, and, under the lead of the very old Lili Chpolnik, the fly ensemble marvelously set about bamborining the tamborine, humming, and frylating string. The neighbors left their folding stools and came into the apartment. They had that rolling way of walking that one expects of ladies seven- or eight-hundred balls old, that old-fashioned saunter, slow, deliberate, taking great pleasure. You realized that the party was going to last all night without stopping, the music so tremendous that even the cranky neighbors weren't pounding on the walls. You couldn't hear them, in any case.
I stepped out onto the window ledge. Lili Niagara's friends, the more or less piratical band of battes, mocked me. They knew very well that, without Lili Niagara's help, I wouldn't fly far. They started to clippet with the tips of their wings and to exchange jokes at my expense, in their secret language that I understood in spite of myself.
"That one there," said one of them, "he must really have a weakness for Lili Niagara. He's going to speed toward the ground like a ripe watermelon!"
"That one there," sniggered another, "he really must have one strong weakness for Lili Niagara. He'd be better off investigating the invention of the parachute!"
I didn't say anything. I looked at Lili Niagara. She seemed to me so adorable, so striking, so staggering, that I started to feel dizzy.
"Do you know the way to the beach?" she asked.
"As the batte flies, not very well," I said.
"You'd risk getting lost in the black air flying all alone," said Lili Niagara. "Come on, I'm going to take you."
"If you want," I said.
I was relieved to not have to throw myself all alone into that emptiness. When the old ladies had entered the apartment, many of them had left their folding stools and dirigible cushions outside. I sat down on one of these and grabbed hold of Lili Niagara's black braids. Around us, the battes roared with laughter. It's true that I looked ridiculous, seated like an old man behind a specialist in acrobatics and aerial piracy. I even joined them a little in their hilarity, but with a certain restraint, obviously. My laughter was forced. I held tightly to Lili Niagara's shining braids and I pretended to laugh it off, to hide my shame.
Throughout the entire journey, I tried to sit in a dignified way, but it was practically impossible because of our great speed and the air pockets that followed one another without warning. The battes flew in formation. They flanked us, Lili Niagara and me, while strafing me with jibes. They chattered endlessly. They held competitions between them, talking competitions that ordinary mortals couldn't understand. The winner was whoever told the most hare-brained story. I understood everything they were saying, but I kept quiet.
We flew through the black air, the ground pitch black below us, above the land where night reigned, until we saw the RER train station. We alighted next to the meteorite, close to the marshmallow and gumball shop.
"If it's all right with you, Bobby Potemkine, you can let go of my braids," said Lili Niagara.
I wasn't unhappy to touch the earth, but I was sorry to have to separate myself like that from Lili Niagara. I gripped her braids for a second more, then let them go.
"Wait," I said. "Don't leave, please."
I looked around us. The meteorite smelled of smoke. The RER station hadn't been rebuilt after the impact. We weren't far from the ocean, and you could hear the waves breaking on the beach. In spite of the late hour, the gumball store was open. Wooly crabs don't ever sleep and, when by chance they have a shop, they never bother themselves with lowering the rolling metal shutters, even when the night is very dark. I went into the store and asked the big wooly crab for three armfuls of marshmallows.
"A first armful for the battes, a second for a pirate of my acquaintance, an extremely cute girl, and a third armload for the inventor of fire," I said.
The wooly crab prepared my order and, since I had nothing with which to pay him, he gave it all to me as a present.
"You are my first client since I set up shop here," he explained to me. "I hope that you will bring me luck."
I thanked him. The sticks of marshmallow were fragrant, they were scented with violets, with apples. The individual holding out these confections was wooly and curly haired, with commas of sapphire-blue hair on his belly.
I asked him if he knew where Lili Soutchane, the inventor of fire, lived.
"Lili Soutchane? A pretty brunette wearing a red scarf around her neck and nothing else?"
"Yes," I said.
"She didn't invent fire," observed the wooly crab.
"Oh," I said.
"If somebody invented fire, it's me," said the wooly crab.
In this story in which you were freezing your snout in the arctic air and in which fire was a little bit lacking everywhere, everyone seemed to have invented fire, essentially. Nearly everyone. There were lies and nonsense constantly. You would have believed yourself inside the kind of story that battes like.
"Do you want me to prove it to you?" asked the wooly crab. "I really think I still have one somewhere, a scrap of fire."
He started to rummage under his bed.
"No," I said. "Don't go to the trouble. In fact, it isn't so much fire that I'm looking for. It's Lili Soutchane. Would you have her address?"
The wooly crab scratched the commas of sapphire-blue fur on his belly. He was disappointed that I hadn't asked to see his scrap of fire and to hear how he had invented and tamed it, this scrap.
"On the other side of the street," he said. "There was the carcass of a bus shelter, it melted the day of the meteorite. Lili Soutchane made a cabin out of it. After that is the beach. You can't go wrong."
I went out.
"And for you?" he said behind me.
"What do you mean, for me?" I asked.
"Here," he said. "This is for you." And he gave me a sack of gumballs.
In the street, the battes gossiped and chattered, making fun of the world and the people who passed, which is to say me. I gave them their marshmallows. They threw themselves voraciously upon them, and they also thoroughly enjoyed the gumballs that the wooly crab had given me. It's true that they had the manners of pirates, when you thought about it.
Lili Niagara fluttered about in the middle of them, shaking her braids in all directions. From time to time, she looked at me, laughing and clippeting with the tips of her wings, like her companions. I would have liked for her to come closer to me and to suggest that I play again with her and her braids, but I told myself that for her I was an old school chum, a Bobby Potemkine like all the others, nothing special. She knew that I had a weakness for her, and so what? She was very cute, completely striking and staggering and adorable, and so what? She had been nice to me, she had guided me through the open sky to the RER station, did she owe me something, one more smile or a less biting jibe? No, she owed me nothing, absolutely nothing. I didn't have to pester her with my weakness for her.
We had crossed the street all together, in a pack, and knocked on the door of the cabin where Lili Soutchane lived.
Lili Soutchane opened the door for us. She was dressed in a red scarf with nothing under it, she was a brunette and very pretty, and she invited us to have some tea, Lili Niagara and myself. The bus shelter was too small for everyone to enter. The battes stayed in the road, making a din and devising aloud enigmatic tales, incomprehensible to ordinary mortals, and, after a moment, they flew off. Silence returned to the old RER railway station, the station destroyed by a rock that fell from the sky. There wasn't a light nearby. It was very dark everywhere.
"What happened with the fire?" I asked Lili Soutchane.
"I invented it, I tamed it, I put it in pots, and at first I went to sell it at the market," Lili Soutchane related. "But, at the moment of putting up my stall, in the parking lot of the minimart..."
"Where there's a striped cat who scratches when you try to pet it?" I said.
"Yes," said Lili Soutchane. "There, exactly in that place. I was going to unpack my pots, the striped cat came to rub against my leg, I was careful not to pet it, and, at the same moment, I started to reflect that fire was too dangerous of an invention. How could I be sure that those who would buy it from me wouldn't put it to bad use? And what if, instead of using it as a means of heating, they started setting off fires and burning houses, factories, people? Or fabricating bombs and flame-throwers? ..."
She took a bit of tea from her bowl with a spoon. It was so cold that the tea inside her bowl was mixed with needles of ice, like a sorbet.
"So, I went with my cart down the path of the RER, to this destroyed station," continued Lili Soutchanee. "It seemed to me that it wasn't a very good invention, finally, this famous fire. Who cares if we continue to freeze our snouts or the ends of our noses?"
"And your pots filled with fire, what did you do with those?" asked Lili Niagara.
"I'm managing to pour them into the sea, one after the other," said Lili Soutchane. "On moonless nights, I go to the edge of the waves and I empty a pot of fire. It crackles a little and it disappears."
"And you still have a lot of these pots?" inquired Lila Niagara.
As for me, I remained silent, in my corner, facing my cup of tea, which looked like a very dark handful of snow. It was as if Lili Niagara was running the investigation now instead of me.
"Only a bowlful of it is left," Lili Soutchane answered.
"Well," said Lili Niagara. "And what will you do when you've gotten rid of this last bowlful of fire?"
"I don't know," hesitated Lili Soutchane. "I'd like to leave. Perhaps I'd like to metamorphose into a batte."
She went to rummage around in a cardboard box, then pulled from it the last pot of fire. Although it was sealed up tight, still it gave off a little light in the cabin.
"We could go pour it out together in the waves," proposed Lili Niagara. "And then, we'll take care of your metamorphosis."
"Okay," said Lili Soutchane.
They went out, both of them, lit by the tiny gleams of the fire. Lili Soutchane, brunette and pretty with her scarf around her neck and nothing else, and Lili Niagara, extremely cute, striking and stunning, with her black braids. Ordinary mortals could very easily have had a weakness for both of them at the same time, in my opinion.
When they passed behind the cabin, the gleam faded. I heard their footsteps move away, and then I no longer heard anything, apart from the collapse of the waves and the whispering of the foam on the sand. There was a new gleam when they opened the bowl, I thought, and then night fell again. I started waiting for them to come back.
An hour passed, then another. A green bubble passed, then another.
They didn't come back. I believe that Lili Soutchane transformed herself into a batte. They must have both flown together above the clouds, screeching, clipetting the ends of their wings, and inventing mysterious stories.
I stayed in the dark. From time to time, on the other side of the street, the big wooly crab cleared his throat. On the ground, in front of the bus shelter, there was a scrap of marshmallow that nobody had eaten, a blue scrap. I picked it up, I sucked on it while murmuring Lili Niagara's name. And when I had nothing more in my mouth, as the night approached its end, I continued to murmur Lili Niagara's name, and, when night was over, I once more pronounced her name, and then I went home.
From In the Time of the Blue Ball by Manuela Draeger; translated by Brian Evenson; published by Dorothy, a publishing project, 2011. http://dorothyproject.com/