Thérèse and Isabelle

An excerpt

Violette Leduc

Artwork by Robert Zhao Renhui

We would rise at half past six. The monitors would push the curtain-rings along their rails, coming into our cells to see that we were up. We would strip our beds, wash in cold water while our mattresses grew cold, remake our beds once we had dressed. At a quarter to seven, the girl on duty would open the cupboard, take out the dustpan and broom, clean her cell, leave the broom outside her neighbour's box. At twenty-five past seven, the monitor inspected our combs, at twenty-five past seven we made sure our hands and nails were impeccable, at twenty-five past seven the bell would ring: we lined up in the passage and went down the stairs two by two. At half past seven we put our shoes on in the shoe room, at seven thirty-five we broke out of our pairs in the hall and formed groups according to our own alliances. At seven forty the porter rang the bell once. The girls lined up in the hall. We would go as far as the refectory, take earthenware pitchers from their rack, butter symmetrical pieces of bread. At ten to eight the headmistress came in. We put down our buttered bread, we stood to attention. At eight o'clock the head monitor clapped her hands. We would rise from the tables, replace the pitchers, push our chairs in against the table, sweep our crumbs into our bowls and line up two by two in the passage. Girls flew off towards their violins, their primers, their pianos. We took a few turns around the schoolyard, lined up once again to go up to the study room, took our books from our lockers and studied until half past eight.

On Monday morning I made a solemn entrance into the refectory, with Isabelle on my right: we were progressing down the great aisle of a photographer's salon on our wedding day. I stepped around some bouquets of white flowers and sat down. In fact, she wasn't following me. My wedding ended in a billow of chattering, in the disquieting flavour of milky ersatz coffee sweetened with saccharine. I had been torn from her, my ribs ached. She ignored me in the passage, she lingered in bleached strips of sunlight as it filtered through the windows. I looked at the vase on the table, I wanted it as fortification.

'I wish you would look at me when I'm looking at you,' she said behind me.

She lifted the bread-basket, put it back in the same place; she walked off nonchalantly, her hands loosening the belt around her slim waist.

She buttered some pieces of bread, stuck the halves together, pulled them open, looked at them, she wasn't eating. She leaned on her elbows, she turned towards a girl who was talking to her.

I know the secret of that thick-coiled hair, I know those two great tortoiseshell hairpins lying on her night-stand. I am looking at you, I am looking at you, my eyes call out to her. The whip of her long, loose hair last night whips through my insides hazily. What am I guilty of? ask her coaxing eyes. I cannot tell her that from here her arms' aroma is lily of the valley; her twisted hair, of midday's loaves in the bakers' baskets; her cheek, of elder after the rain; my lips, of the Noirmoutiers marshes' salt; her throat, of the shadowy scent of blackcurrants.

I glimpse that Isabelle has folded her napkin, tossed her bowl to the devil. I asked the girl if I might do her duty for her. I collected the dishes, I ate the crumbs left in Isabelle's bowl and, amidst the general indifference, I fed myself on the slops.

Her chair fell backwards, Isabelle was hysterical at the table, the head monitor ran to her. Girls stood up, surrounded Isabelle. I had no right to approach her: I was no longer innocent.

The monitor was stroking her hair, she was whispering into her ear in front of the sheepish girls. I felt cast off. What is the matter? hummed the red-haired monitor. Two kneeling girls were stroking her hand, touching her breast, edging towards her heart.

She will die, for the whole school is pawing at her!

'Does lemon bleach your hands?' I ask my neighbour at the table.

I say things I'm not thinking. Don't let her die. She will not die. We two are immortals. What an affront, if she should die.

'Isabelle is ill,' I say.

'Faking it,' says the girl.

'Isabelle is ill. Shut up.'

I'll cut their goody-goody hands from around her shoulders. I'll cut them off.

Isabelle lifted her head. She said:

'I don't know what was wrong with me.'

The monitor, the girls dropped back. I went up to her:

'What was wrong with you?'

'Needing you.'

The girls rose and re-formed their lines. Isabelle touched her finger to my shoulder. The touch meant: I'll tell if you tell; I'll stumble if you stumble; I shall waste away if you waste away.

I stood beside her: my elbow fit perfectly into her palm. She gave the ghost of an embrace; the girls were dispersing. We were still walking in step; we wanted space and solemn distance to keep us apart. Yes, we wanted to be ceremonial in the playground. She drew away.

Images scattered around Isabelle as she drew away: the birdsong in our treeless courtyard was a cool shaft marking the day's beginning, the song suggested clearings on the outskirts of towns; Isabelle was drawing away. I wanted to be stone, a stone with holes for eyes. I thought I would cure myself of her by looking at the sky; I followed the shifting of the monster stretched out across it: a fraying, the figure of a skier drawn on a blue ground with a pencil of snow. A figure I had not seen taking shape. The monster perished as I observed it, the bird fell silent, Isabelle disappeared; where the cloud had been, the recast sky looked like an oil painting's monotone background. Smaller girls were stamping in the dust. The bird took up its song again, ending with a limp spray of fireworks; the little girls jumped at Isabelle's neck, dragged her off with them. I cursed her lightness, I cursed my seriousness. She was dissolving away into a group, in a shrieking schoolyard. Of that walking corpse I could still just see her rope of hair.


I was wandering alone around the lavatories. I went in. The air smelled midway between the chemical odours of a sweet factory and of school disinfectant. I no longer hated the efflux of disinfection that caught in our throats those evenings we returned to school. The smell was the backdrop to our encounter. The wild children's screams faded. A haze rose up from the frequently-scrubbed light wooden seat: the hazy tenderness of a mass of flaxen hair. I leant over the bowl. The still water reflected my face before the creation of the world. I touched the handle, the chain, I took my hand away. The chain swung next to the sad water. Someone called me. I didn't dare to put the hook across and lock myself in.

'Open the door,' begged the voice.

Someone was rattling the doors.

I saw the eye that filled the hole cut high up in the toilet door.

'My love.'

Isabelle had come from the land of deluge, of upheaval, of crisis, of devastation. She was throwing me a liberated word, a plan, she was sending me the breath of the North Sea. I had the strength to say nothing and to be proud of it.

She is waiting for me but this is not safety. The word she said is too much. We watch each other, we are paralysed.

I threw myself into her arms.

Her lips were seeking Thérèse in my hair, at my neck, in the folds of my apron, between my fingers, on my shoulder. Oh that I could multiply myself a thousand times and give her a thousand Thérèses. I am only myself. Too few. I am not a forest. A wisp of straw in my hair, a slip of confetti in the folds of my apron, a ladybird between my fingers, soft down on my neck, a scar on my cheek will flesh me out. Why am I not the crown of a willow for her hand caressing my hair?

I framed her face:

'My love.'

I contemplated her, I was remembering her in this present, I had her beside me from last moment to last moment. When you are in love you are always on a railway platform.

'Are you here? Are you really here?'

I asked her questions, I demanded only silence. We chanted, we moaned, we discovered ourselves born actors. We squeezed each other until we nearly suffocated. Our hands were shaking, our eyes closed. We stopped, we began again. Our arms fell back, our inadequacy astonished us. I was shaping her shoulder; I wanted rustic caresses for her, I desired a rolling shoulder beneath my hand, a shell. She closed my fist, she was smoothing a stone. Tenderness blinded me. Forehead to forehead we told each other severely no. We clasped each other for last time after last time, we fused two tree-trunks into one, we were the first and last lovers as we are the first and last mortals when we discover death. The cries, the roars, the noise of conversation in the schoolyard came in waves.

'Harder, harder... Squeeze me 'til I suffocate,' she demanded.

I squeezed her but I did not stifle the cries, the courtyard, the boulevard and its sycamores.

She freed herself, drew back, returned, she turned me into an armful of flowers, she threw me down, she said:

'Like that, it's like that... '

Her strength made me sad.

'But I want to hold you tight.'

'You don't know how,' she said.

Melancholy, Isabelle considered me.

I cast her against the lavatory door; I reeled against the cistern. She braced herself against the door, the hook fell at her feet. Already she was making up for my poor effort.

'Come back,' she said.

She tipped her head to one side, she cooed to me slantways.

'Don't move. I see you,' I said, lost in her.

I was plunging into her neck with my teeth, I was breathing in the darkness beneath her neckline: sycamore roots were shivering. I hold her tight, I stifle the tree, I hold her, I stifle the voices, I hold her, I banish the light.

'Is it true?'

'It's true,' says Isabelle.

We watched the heart of blue sky through the hole in the door, we saw that the early morning sky was brooding over the earth.

Isabelle signalled that we were not looking at each other intensely enough. Love is excess. Our stares faltered, lost their way, resumed. I traced a student's shriek in Isabelle's eyes:

'I would like to eat you.'

I pushed her against the wall, I pinned her hands down with my palms. My lashes fluttered in her lashes.

'It's incredible,' she sighed.

My eyebrows brushed Isabelle's eyebrows.

'It's incredible the way I'm seeing you,' she says.

We are talking. It's a shame. What is said is murdered. Our words that will not grow any bigger or any lovelier will wilt inside our bones.

I plunged into her eyes, I found clear water.


Words wither feelings.

I put my hand over her mouth. Isabelle wanted to tell me.


I was suffocating her while she wanted to confess. I lifted my hand from her mouth; her arms fell back.

'Don't be afraid. I will not say it.'

She looked sorrowfully up at the sky in the heart-shaped hole. I had hurt her. We were lifted by the tempest of shrieks.

'Don't you understand?'

'I don't understand,' says Isabelle.

'Whatever you wanted to tell me... you'll tell it later. Later.'

She took my hands from around her waist. The sky was changing inside the heart: the lovely celluloid sky depressed us.

'It's too stupid. A moment ago we understood each other.'

'Now we don't understand each other at all,' says Isabelle.

Eyes closed, her virtuous twin spoke for her. I stepped back a pace, caught Isabelle's sweet silhouette. She emerged from a fading dream, the shouts from the courtyard piercing us through.

'Are you sulking?'

'I'm not sulking.'



The statue will sink into the wall, will be absorbed by the lavatory wall.

'Are you leaving me?'

'I'm also waiting,' she says.

Round fullness of her 'no' spoken low, compressed beauty of the snowball in May that I'll neglect when I begin to die far away from gardens.

Secretly I gazed at the bituminous colour of the still water. Isabelle raised an arm, pulled at the tortoiseshell pin in her coil of hair but did not draw it out. I was elated by her unfinished gesture. Isabelle had not opened her eyes. Her arm fell back, conquered by the lavatories' torpor.

I held her in my arms, with all the strength of my repentance, I breathed her in, I pressed her to my belly and she became my loincloth; I tottered with my darling embedded in me.

Isabelle was making my ankles drunk, rotting my knees with ecstasies. I was like a fruit stewed in her heat, I had the same liquorous seeping. Pincers softly tortured me. Her hairpin fell into the toilet bowl, we lost our balance. I plunged my hand into the water, fixed the pin back in her hair.

'I want that hand,' she said.

Her cherishing was freezing me. I was parted from my hand which I no longer recognised. I reclaimed my hand, with my lips I dried her wet lips, I thrust my tongue into her mouth. Isabelle linked her hands together: she was creating an altar for my chin.

'My woman.'

'Yes,' replied my heart, a rose.

She told me to turn round, she wrapped her arms around me; she enthralled me, she used every resource. I was ashamed to turn my back to her. I would present her with a lumpish mass that I could not make slimmer. The blood rushed to my cheeks, my throat, as I was feeling for her tangled hair and crumpling her apron. Her hand was making my breathing uneven. I was sobbing without sound, without tears. Isabelle was sobbing too, pushing her hand down on my apron: my clothes were touching me. A shout from the schoolyard split through my chest; my heart began to beat down where the shout had been. A girl was practising the piano: the rhyme she chanted reminding me of the cool drops scattered by a fountain in a park. My breath came evenly again.

'What time is it?' I ask.

'Recreation is extended. There won't be study hour today.'

'I know. The time?'

I freed myself. She gave me a look of disdain.

'School can burn down for all I care.'

'Me too. It can.'

'While I couldn't care less if they expel me, I do care about losing you. Don't you understand?'

'Parted, that we will be,' I say.

Isabelle threw herself on me. She was wrenching at my wrists:

'Parted, us? You're mad. Anyway, not before the summer holidays.'

'You'll see. My mother, Isabelle, my mother...'

I stopped short.

'Your mother what?'

'She has to have me near her all the time...'

'They will not part us,' said Isabelle.

Our lips were reconciled, the pleasure of our kiss went on. Someone was rattling our door, entering the cubicle next to ours; they were not after us. Tip-tapping on the cement floor betrayed that the little girl had held on 'til the very last minute. She was pulling up her apron, her skirt, her petticoat. I closed my eyes, dispelled the hairless sex of this unknown child. The rags of my flesh fell upon lace. I opened my eyes, saw in Isabelle's that I had betrayed her for a flash of white knickers. The child relieved herself but we were embarrassed by the endless flow into the toilet bowl. I guessed this memory would stay with us. She slid off the seat, got to her feet, closed the door carefully.

'Speak Thérèse.'

I shall not allow you the nonsense you are after. Be quiet. Hold me tight. You are a village of five hundred souls, I am a village of five hundred souls. Hold tight, hold tight.

'Oh,' I say, looking through the heart shape, 'the girls have gone in. All of them...'

'Don't care. I'll say that I was ill and you, you'll think of something.'

'What shall I think of?'

'A lie,' said Isabelle.

'Weren't you ill in the refectory? I want to know.'

'I told you.'

That lock of hair will always be a mad slash above her eyes. Isabelle was kissing me all over. She was covering me with decorations, I overwhelming her with medals. The Spring in her tangle was mingling with the Spring in mine.

'I can't go on.'

'I can't go on.'

We weaken, we are dulling the sexes hidden beneath the tangle. Isabelle's head drops onto my shoulder. I have a falcon on my shoulder, I am the Grand Falconer.

'Enough,' she says.

'You were saying that last night.'

'We have to go out separately. I'll go first.'

Only when I have set three embossed kisses on her apron belt.

'Keep this. It will be a link between us until tonight,' said Isabelle.

She held out her arm, she unfastened her wrist-watch for me.

A fly buzzes away; it's a departure. I see Isabelle walking away from the heart-shaped slot. The schoolyard dust has her feet, the tortoiseshell pins have her hair, the air possesses her lungs which I will not see, which I cannot hold against my breathing.

translated from the French by Sophie Lewis

Used by permission of Salammbo Press (London) and Feminist Press. Thérèse and Isabelle is already out in stores, except for in the US, where it will be published by Feminist Press in June 2015.

Click here for more information about the book.