Friday, October 1, 1920
Half a month went by without me opening my notebook. The story of my first school days laying unfinished. Right now I want, before going any further, to first write down the events that prevented me from saying more about it. I will write everything down on paper, indeed, and will do so at all costs, little by little, probably, since I have been doing very badly in the last weeks, and lost nearly all of my strength. Today is the first day that I feel better and the Waterman pen is not trembling as much as it used to between my fingers. I shall give it a try, and we will see…
That day, on August the 12th after supper, I was sat at my new table, full of energy, anticipating the enjoyment I would feel telling the story of my first school days. Remembering the events, big or small, describing at length the classroom, the playground, the teacher in his ash grey coat, my fellow classmates wrapped in their aprons — some brand new but most of them patched by the mothers —, as intimated as I was by this new world, the noise of the footsteps on the classroom’s wooden floor… Quite an adventure indeed and so many things to tell!
As I was writing, then — I had quickly put down half a dozen lines — I heard unusual noises on the other side of the wall separating my kingdom from Eujen Dagorn’s. That immediately caught my attention. Eujen is not messy, and one could not find a calmer person in the whole sanatorium. And it was such a late hour! There was another reason, sadly even more obvious, that made me worried: Eujen had been locked in his room for quite a few days. He did not go on the balcony anymore. Visiting him was out of the question and when I tried to convince the Shrew in a desperate effort, all I obviously had in return was a poor and meaningless answer. To put it simply, I was abruptly told where to get off. That was no surprise, the Shrew was only abiding by the rules, the sacred Code of Silence, and I was certain that she had not come to terms with the outcome of the tables case. I had to remain with my worries and ignorance.
I was listening carefully, holding my pen in the air, not daring to make a move. I could hear little steps, muffled voices… Someone knocked at my door. I hardly had time to tell them to come in before Blanchet half-opened the door and said from the doorstep:
“Eliaz, you have to come with me. Eujen, your neighbour, is in agony.”
And since I was staying silent, gawping at him, he added:
“Did you hear me, Eliaz? Your friend is dying. We do not think he will make it through the night.”
“But, Mister Blanchet,” I spluttered, “What can I… He needs a priest, I think… and to be given the last rites! Eujen is a Christian!”
“You are right, Eliaz. The priest came with the altar boy. They did what they had to do, do not worry. But now it is your turn to come to his bedside. You and no one else. Come right after me, please.”
“Please?” That was no invitation. That was an order. The kind of order you can but follow, even when your legs start shaking and you can feel your heart racing in your chest.
Saturday, October 2, 1920, at night
Blanchet half-opened the door, and glanced from the doorstep.
“The nurses are no longer here. His is on his own. You can get in.”
And he closed the door behind me. The ceiling light had been left on but someone had put a thin cloth around the china lampshade, which made the light softer. Surprisingly, my eyes were first caught by the window and the glass door that led to the balcony. Both of them were wide open. There were countless stars shining in the clear sky. Despite the late hour, the weather was warm and a light breeze was blowing into the bedroom, like a gentle caress. Which did not prevent me from shivering.
“If you are cold, Eliaz, you can put the blanket that is down my bed on your shoulders, but please, let me smell the scents of this world… for the last time. Just look at how clear the night is!”
His voice, dear me! It made me shiver. Was it Eujen Dagorn that I just heard calling me with that voice that sounded like a high-pitched rattle, like a death rattle?
There was a moment of silence. I was lost. I did not know what to say, nor if I should say anything. I did not know how to stand or what to do with my body. I felt like an imbecile. Although death and I had been familiar for a long time, with war and diseases raging endlessly around me, it was still an abstract idea to me. I had never actually been around a dying person. And worst of all, I had been called to come to see him and was on my own with him! Who was I to be chosen as his last guide?
“Come sit by my side. The priest’s chair has been left here.”
I complied. And I looked at him. Eujen was half sat half stretched out, they had put two pillows to hold his back and his head. His lips and his face were pale, apart from two scarlet spots on his hollow cheeks. His dark black eyes were sunk deep in their holes, with an ugly coal-like shade under them. I could barely see the shape of his body under the bed sheet and the blanket, because of how thin he had gotten. I could not take my eyes off the bed sheet moving at the irregular rhythm of his breathing. When I think of it now, a month and a half month after his death, a question comes to my mind, a scary question: had I been feeling sorry for my poor dying friend, or had I been foreseeing my own probable end?
“I am just skin and bones now. If I were to be sold by weight I would not be worth a penny, would I? But that does not matter since I do not intend to go to the fair… Do not pity me, Eliaz, I could not bare it… Do you know why I have asked to see you?”
“I do not. Tell me, Eujen, if there is anything I can do…”
“There is. I would have loved to talk with you, like we used to do on the balcony… I really enjoyed that. However, I am so weak… The time for debates is long gone for me… I am short of breath… I am suffocating… Pronouncing a single word is a huge effort. You will have to break the silence… I would like…”
“Yes? You can tell me.”
“I would like… I would like… Do you remember the day you told me so many things about your former life? That was an actual confession, if you allow the failed priest that I am to make one last joke… I would like… this is difficult to say… I would like to hear Gabriel Gwiader’s story again. You see, I have not forgotten his name. That would make me feel good, very good.”
I was stunned. Absolutely bewildered. I could not believe it. Nor did I understand the reason for his request. That was so unexpected and came as such a shock that I stayed silent, as if paralyzed. When I told him that story for the first time, three months before, I did so without even noticing or, I should say, almost unthinkingly. I had such a need to get things off my chest! Until then, I had never found the strength to do it nor someone willing to listen. Eujen, that kind magician, had found the way to open the floodgate and I could not but follow the stream. On went the flow, strong and unhindered. For what it’s worth and despite the relief I felt at the moment, the scar that made my chest burn was not healed. The loss of my friend would remain within me and hurt me forever. Therefore, although I had decided to entrust these facts to my notebook, I was not sure I had the strength to do it, I could not stop beating about the bush, telling all sorts of less relevant memories of the kind one does not get tired of. I was even wondering about his pilgrimage project. Was it nothing more than a dream? A doomed dream due to a lack of proper will? It might be so but Eujen Dagorn was dying, and I was face to face with him… You cannot deny a person’s last will. Definitely not. Whether I understood them or not, whether difficult or not, I had to comply.
“You are not saying anything, Eliaz? You must find my question quite surprising indeed, even completely uncalled for. And I also know that you are full of sorrow. It would do me good, like I said. It would do me a lot of good to hear the story of that brave man, who stood up without hesitation despite his approaching end. I need someone to warm my heart, do you understand? The example of an unwavering soul would help me reach the end… The blessing of a priest and the last rites are not everything, far from it… Neither is faith, sadly!”
I can still see myself in the room with him: one last glance at Eujen, a shy sidelong glance at his imploring eyes gleaming with the fever. I put the chair closer to the bed. One more glance at the stars, the stars I love so much, as if they could make me stronger. My back is bent, my elbows on my thighs, my hands supporting my head. I can hear myself too: my hoarse voice trembling, stumbling over the first words…
“You remember, Eujen, when I told you how close Gabriel and I had become during our studies. We were boarders so we did not get to see our families much, or at least, we spent more time together than we did with our parents. As for our classmates, for right or wrong, we did not find much interest in socializing with them. Although they were more or less the same age, we considered them as immature teenagers, unintelligent and uninteresting fools… That was ridiculous boastfulness on our part, probably, but there you go, we were little brats too, what can I say? As time went by, our friendship grew and deepened. We would meet outside of school too. Sometimes, Gabriel would come to visit me at home, and I, more often I have to say, would go to Telgruc. I loved these days. I especially felt at ease with Yann-Vari Guyader. His ideas were not that different from my father’s, but I thought his thinking went further. Or maybe his knowledge being more profound and broader, he knew how to express his ideas more clearly. Dad talked, Yann-Vari explained. Be that as it may, he had a strong influence on the young boy I was. Young people’s brains are like sponges, all they are asking for is to absorb, and Gabriel and I enjoyed Yann-Vari’s lessons as much as an invigorating drink… After Gabriel’s death… Oh! Not right away but little by little, this disturbing question arose in my mind: did Yann-Vari actually assess how strongly and deeply our young men’s minds could be influenced by his obstinate pacifist speeches? Did he realize how inflexible and unwavering his son would become? Obviously, Eujen, I never had the courage to ask him.
“The end of our courses arrived. It was July 14th. War rumours were spreading and it looked like the future would be dark sooner rather than later. Despite that, or because of that, we were determined to carry out our bicycle trip. Our studies and training year had come to an end, and so did our happy exemption period. It was time for military service. Whether or not our country was at war, we would spend the next three years far from home and our country. Three years separated from each other. So there was no question of abandoning our project. The departure was set for the 22nd. We got on our bicycles in Cléden, our backpacks chock-a-block, as were the saddlebags we had bought not long before. Carriers had never deserved their name more than ours. When drawing a route with the help of our road maps, we were unwise enough to forget we would have to carry such heavy luggage. But anyway, we managed to stick to our plan. Around 30 miles a day. Cléden, Locronan, Ploudiern and the Menez Hom, Argol, Le Faou… I will not describe our route in detail, all you need to know is that beauty was everywhere. Excitement, fright, and bewilderment: such was our daily program. Once in Le Faou, we took the boat to Daoulas and Logonna.
“You know as well as I do, Eujen, that straight routes are scarce in our country! The more we went uphill and downhill, the more my bloody stitch was hurting at the top of my lungs. Despite the regular halts we made to look at the countryside — so magnificent and yet so diverse —, the churches and chapels or any old building that was on our way, despite every little lunch break being a welcome rest period, my pain was getting worse. Many times did Gabriel find himself so far ahead that he had to wait for me. I tried to hide it but he quickly noticed and when we arrived in Logonna he pretended to be exhausted and suggested we made a proper halt. Holidays during the holidays! We spent two whole days in the Logonna peninsula. A farmer gave us permission to sleep in his barn. And we did sleep, like babies, for the whole night and part of the day! We looked pitiful, for sure, since his wife invited us for supper. We had a big meal and when we left the following morning, early enough so that we did not get sunburned, we found fresh food near our bicycles: a loaf of bread, a huge slice of pâté packed in a handkerchief, and a bowl full of strawberries! There was a piece of paper under the bread that read: ‘You can keep the handkerchief but could you please eat all the strawberries before you go and leave the bowl here.’ I cannot tell you, Eujen, how deeply we were moved by such generosity. It also made us exceptionally invigorated.
“Afterwards, we went to Landerneau. What a lovely and dynamic city it is, with its inhabited bridge crossing the Elorn River! La Roche-Maurice is equally beautiful, with the ruin of its majestic fort on top of its own rock! And there were pointy rocks everywhere, and abundant forests and you could hear the lapping of the streams everywhere! Our journey ended in the village of Sizun, which we found quite dull despite its church and its majestic parish close. The following day, we hit the road to Saint-Rivoal. The path we had to follow was rough and hilly once again, but we benefited from the coolness brought by the abundant trees. From there, we went to the Mont-Saint-Michel-de-Brasparts. We planned to sleep in the shade of the little chapel’s walls, and after having sweat profusely pushing our bicycles by their handlebars — since pedaling on these rocky paths similar to those leading to Golgotha would have been a grueling effort —, we were rewarded from our efforts with a magnificent sunset. Quite a reward indeed… Of which we had never seen the like! Gabriel could not stop saying: ‘Dear Lord, how beautiful, how beautiful it is, that is incredible!’ And I obviously could not help but make fun of him: ‘Dear Lord, here we have Gabriel Gwiader, a staunch pagan, worshiping God!’ Afterwards, as it was customary after we had been laughing at each other — which happened a lot — a clumsy gouren match started on the sweet grass that surrounded the chapel. And then came endless laughter…”
Mich Beyer (1948, Douarnenez, France) is a teacher of Breton language and author of several novels and short stories written in Breton. She has taught in a variety of schools and even taught pedagogy to future teachers of the Breton language. She began publishing in 1991 with Ar Pennoù Koltar war an enez and has won the 2006 Prix France 3, the 2008 Prix Langleiz, the 2010 Prix Pêr Mokaer, and more. Planedenn paotr e bluenn (2022, The Destiny of the one Who Wrote) is her most recent novel.