Thursday
Jul032014

The Great Pity of the Zintram Family

Anne Richter
Translated by Edward Gauvin


 

Hah! Arthur couldn't hide it anymore. Nor was he fighting it now; she could tell. At the table he would scratch himself shamelessly, as soon as he thought no one was looking. He's got five more today, she thought, scrutinizing her brother's arm, which he immediately hid beneath the tablecloth. Serves him right, serves him right!

"I saw," said Arthur distractedly, clumsily slathering his bread with a thick layer of jam.

"What did you see?" asked Gilbertine. He was taking his revenge, the little pest, the horrible little crustacean!

"I saw," he said, singsong, dunking his bread in his milk.

"What?" Gilbertine screamed.

Their mother tapped the table timidly with her knife.

"Now children, let's not start," she begged.

"I saw Robert and Gilbertine, Robert and Gilbertine," said Arthur, the youngest, with an air of triumph.

"That's a lie!"

"No, it's not. Down by the willow. They were playing a forbidden game, forbidden!"

"You lying liar!"

"They were holding hands and their shoulders were touching and their cheeks and their bodies were pressed against each other. I saw them!"

"You're lying, you dirty little fish!"

The bread fell into the mug of milk. Arthur turned red, the parents exchanged a sorrowful glance, and Robert looked reproachfully at his sister. Without thinking, Arthur brought his hands to the patch of gleaming scales that wrapped his wrist like a cuff, as if to hide them.

"I'm not a fish, right, Mommy?" he howled. Bursting into tears, he rushed to his mother's arms.

"No, no," said Mother, slowly caressing his hair and wiping his tears away with her apron.

"Gilbertine, you're heartless," said Father, taking off his glasses. "Can't you see the pain you're causing your mother? Our situation's hard enough as it is. When will you stop tormenting your poor little brother?"

"He started it!" cried the young girl. "Why's he following us all the time, anyway? He's always spying on me and Robert!"

"I think we all know what that's about," Father said severely. He blew on his spectacles and then wiped them with his handkerchief. "You'd be better off not pressing the point, little girl. Try to get a hold of yourself, maybe help your mother around the house. Sometimes I really wonder… you seem quite oblivious. Aren't you the eldest now that our dear departed has disappeared? Don't you think that now, more than ever, we should try to stay calm and united?"

"I plugged the holes in the roof with straw yesterday," said Gilbertine, her head bowed. "Go look—the rain won't come in anymore. And I repainted the walls in my room. Not a single water spot left."

"She's very handy when she wants to be," said Mother, blowing her nose. Her voice was strange, warped by emotion. "It's just she doesn't always want to be."

Mother ran her fingers through Arthur's hair, gently pushed him away, and started clearing the plates from lunch. Robert signaled Gilbertine, and sneaking swiftly away, they began walking silently through the wet meadow. The round leaves of apple trees shivered overhead; the sun filtered through them. Robert walked with a preoccupied air, his head bent.

"What's the matter, Beebee?" said Gilbertine.

"Nothing. I've been worried about Father lately."

"Why? It's the first time he's kept a job this long, and he's never been more energetic at work."

"Exactly. Father doesn't like working—you know that. He's only happy when he's smoking his pipe by the fire and pretending to read the paper, or carving and painting his little religious figurines—Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus—for Nativities. It's his enthusiasm that worries me. He's throwing himself at work like—like a drowning man clinging to whatever comes by. It's the energy of despair. Haven't you noticed?"

"You're making things up, Beebee."

"No—he's stumbling, too. He's been walking slower for more than a week now; when he knows I'm looking, he tries to go faster but it hurts; I can tell he's unsteady and suffering. You know what that means, don't you?"

"No," said Gilbertine, gloomy.

"Liar. That's how it started with Mathurin. With his legs. They get thinner, waste away, and then, bit by bit, grow together, melt into each other, and the feet become—"

"What happens to the feet?" said Gilbertine.

"They become flippers," Robert said firmly, "and finally, a fishtail."

They'd reached the end of their demesne, by the pond. Just above the water, insects were engaged in quick and complicated comings and goings. Robert gazed at the water, pensive.

"Only the eyes never change," he said.

Gilbertine had gone pale. "Mathurin… ?"

"Yes. When we brought him here, Mathurin looked at us one last time. Only his eyes had remained absolutely human. The rest—"

"Shut up, shut up!" cried Gilbertine, plugging her ears. She started running away, but Robert caught her and pulled her hands away from her face.

"No, I won't shut up. This enforced silence you've adopted is stupid. I hate it. We have to look things in the eye. We have to find a cure."

"There is no cure," said Gilbertine.

"How do you know? Did a doctor, any doctor, come to see Mathurin even once? When he was delirious all day long, choking in his bed, did anyone give him anything? Or when scales started growing all over his body, limb by limb? No! No one dared! What would the neighbors have said? A Zintram, stricken with fins? What a disgrace! We let him die; it was more discreet."

"But we couldn't have done anything anyway," said Gilbertine.

"Says who? Arthur's caught it already, though no one wants to admit it. Father's showing significant symptoms. And you just stand there sulking, while Mom spends her time wondering what she did to anger God!"

"Maybe there's a curse on the Zintram famly," Gilbertine ventured, turning a frightened face to her brother.

"A curse! How pitiful! The Zintrams are paralyzed by self-pity, every passing day sees finds more scales on their bodies, their legs waste away, turning into something more like a tail all the time, their faces lengthen, their mouths grow rounder, taking on the dumb, inexpressive shape of denizens of the deep, and they do nothing! They whine, they feel sorry for themselves—oh, the great pity of the Zintram family! But that's now how it'll go down, you hear? When I come back tonight, I'll have found a way."

"You're smart, Robert," said Gilbertine, clasping her hands before her admiringly. "How smart you are! You've been working at the post office for three years now—no one in the family's ever held a job that long! I don't think it's possible to change the future of the Zintram family—slowly and surely, it marches toward its fate. But you're so smart that I want to play along, I'm ready to believe you'll find a way."

"Yes, I'll find it," Robert said fervently. He took his sister's hands in his, squeezed them, kissed her gently on the lips. "I'll find a way because I love you. I don't want anything bad to happen to you."

As he closed the garden gate behind him, he turned to wave to her once more, and went to take his place behind the counter at the post office.

"I don't understand," Mother whimpered, straightening her aching back with difficulty. "God knows I hold this silverware dear; it came from my grandmother. I rub it every day as hard as I can, and every morning it's covered with verdigris."

"Moisture," muttered Gilbertine, leaning on the kitchen door half-open to the spring sunlight.

"But where can it be coming from?"

"That question again! From the orchard, or the pond."

"We should've sold this house," Mother moaned, furiously polishing a spoon. "When I was little, the cellar was already flooded. My mother never managed to drain it."

"You should've gone fishing there," said Gilbertine. She started skipping around the courtyard, where weeds pushed up among the loose cobblestones. Then she went looking for Arthur. What nasty tricks was he up to now? Dirty little tattletale! He was always lurking in a corner somewhere, spying on them. As if she and Robert were doing something wrong! Sure, they loved each other, it was no secret between them; was that a crime? Their mother had married a cousin, a Zintram like herself—she hadn't even needed to change her name. It was funny. Lady Zintram-Zintram. But it hadn't exactly brought her luck. She'd been raised a rich girl, with literature, bonbons, balls, friends. Sometimes she spoke of the house as it had been then, when the roof didn't leak and the tapestries were dotted with pretty bouquets of flowers rather than accursed grimaces. The cousin was a good dancer and had a distinguished air about him. Mother had become Lady Zintram-Zintram, and one day when she'd been in a mood to spill secrets, she'd murmured to her daughter that they'd quickly run through the fortune passed down by her parents. Father had been forced to start working, but he switched jobs every month, and annoyed his bosses without ever figuring out why: he was full of good will, respect, and principle.

Then the water in the cellar had risen again, the walls began to sweat, and one day, Mathurin took to his bed with a desperate thirst.

But all this didn't worry the little girl much. After all, if this was the way things had to go… She had Robert, his tenderness and wrath, and that was more than enough.

Gilbertine spotted sudden movement in the old doghouse in the corner of the courtyard. Silently, she approached and peered inside. Arthur was crouching in back, all curled up. His head darted forward, and he snapped his teeth. A fly took off in the sunlight, toward the garden.

"He's eating flies! How horrid! He's eating flies!" Gilbertine cried. "Get out of there! I'll tell Robert!"

But the boy did not lose his temper. He emerged slowly from the doghouse and began rubbing his bracelet of scales.

"Gilbertine, I'm thirsty," he said, opening his mouth wide, as if he were having trouble breathing. "I want some water."

Gilbertine studied him. Then she took him gently by the hand.

"Come," she said. "I'll give you some in the kitchen."

That night, when dinner was over, having crumbled his bread into his plate and repositioned his glass of water on the tablecloth several times, Father got to his feet with some difficulty and began to speak.

"I think," he said, embarrassed, "that we must not break with old traditions. Children, we may deserve what's happening to us. God knows I've tried to walk the straight and narrow all my life. I gave you all it was within my power to give. I never stinted on effort or money when it came to raising you properly. It's not my fault if Gilbertine wasn't gifted at school, or little Arthur has always been sickly and weak. In this respect, only Robert has never let me down. A pity he wasn't more honest with his father . . . Your mother herself had an impeccable education—as you know, for generations the Zintrams have belonged to an honored and, must it be said, honorable family. Your mother and I did the impossible so you could be proud . . ."

Go on, what a lot of drivel, thought Gilbertine, sighing at her brother into the cone she'd made of a folded napkin. Wonder why I'm so sleepy. My eyes sting and I feel hot.

" . . . well . . . I've lost my train of thought," said Father, passing a trembling hand over his sweaty brow. "I'd like you to pay more attention when I speak. I was saying that we mustn't break with old traditions. These last few years, your religious education has been a bit . . . neglected. I think it would be good if we took up the excellent habit of praying at night. It calms the imagination and wards off evil spells. And so I invite you to a moment of contemplation during which I'll recite the short prayer I wrote for you, so that peace and order return to your hearts.

Father bowed his head, crossed his hands beneath his chin, and began to speak in a monotone:

O Fire! Tonight we bring you our watery dreams.
Wring them, dry them, destroy them.
Water speaks of sleep and death, but we want life.

Be our watcher and our guardian, our father and soldier.
Protect the parents from the children and the children from themselves.

Heal our little Arthur,
Guide his steps through the house, through the meadow, to the pond's edge.

Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us.

Enlighten us, warm us, keep the waters from this house.
So be it.

"I'm going to bed," said Gilbertine, "I have a headache."

"Say goodnight to your mother, Gilbertine," Father begged.

The daughter did as she was asked and went upstairs as if in a trance. When she reached her room, her legs were trembling and her teeth chattering. She collapsed onto her bed and stared at the stains on the ceiling: there was one that looked like a fat man with a hat, and another like a house without doors or windows. She felt very calm. She knew that this would happen one day, she'd often thought about it, but she hadn't known where or when, and above all, she had never imagined it would be like this. Everything was certainly going very fast. When she was little and had gotten chicken pox, she'd run a high fever right off the bat, but she was up and about again five days later. Please let this be fast, she wished. She heard the rest of them going to bed, and there was silence. Then the door opened, and Robert was at her bedside.

"Robert," she said.

"Yes."

"Do you know why I came upstairs?"

"Yes."

"You're not surprised, or sad, or afraid?"

"No."

Silence enveloped them both and separated them from the rest of the world.

"You didn't find a cure?"

Robert lowered his head, and his lip quivered. "No. I found nothing."

"I thought as much," Gilbertine whispered.

"It's not the kind of thing you can find in a day, Gilbertine," said her brother. "It must not be a common cure. I think I'll have to go looking for a long time, maybe pray. If Father was right after all."

"Maybe," she said. "Listen. It doesn't hurt. It'll go really fast, I know it. All I feel is a strange eddying in my head, and a sort of heaviness in my arms and legs. Lie down next to me. You'll . . . you'll carry me to the pond when it comes, right? Before the others wake up."

Brother lay down beside sister, whose arms and legs were already covered with scales.

"Robert," she said.

"Yes."

"You have to find the cure to save Father and Arthur."

"I'll find it," he said, "even if I never sleep again. Don't worry. I don't want others after us to suffer this nightmare."

"Oh, it's no nightmare, Beebee," she said, half-asleep. "Stay close to me. You'll never know how much I love you. You're the best, smartest boy I've ever met."

"I love you too, Gilbertine," said Robert. "I've loved you more than a sister . . ." Gently, he caressed her right wrist, the skin still warm and smooth. "Now sleep a bit."

They slept for a few hours, side by side, their breaths mingling. When Robert woke, dawn was near, and Gilbertine was no longer human. He lifted her with care from the bed, and she woke in his arms. Outside, the air was damp, the apple trees still withdrawn and dreaming. The reeds by the pond shivered in the cold, and the sky was mauve along the horizon. Robert set Gilbertine by the water's edge. She turned her grave, beautiful eyes ringed with scales toward her brother, eyes no lids would ever close again. With a supple twitch of her tail she dove into the water, which swallowed her completely. Her brother stood still for a moment, watching a ring expand around the spot where his sister had vanished; the ring gave birth to other rippling rings that created others in turn, even slighter still, until the last died away, broken on the banks. Then he turned, back bent, shoulders weary, toward the ancient house lost in the depths of its demesne which, in the dawning day, was pale as a great shell.