Elsa Scheelen

The high sky,
pure and clear.
Sitting in solitude in this vast meadow,
a blade of grass in my mouth,
I hear the far call of a cuckoo.
Above me,
in the branches of the oak,
the fitful murmur of the wind.
is supposed to heal
the wound on my heart.
But the desperate memory of Elsa
has not left me,
will never leave me.

Brussels Radio gradually faded out the song, "Les Déserteurs" (heard every day!) until it disappeared completely, and broadcast the rising notes of the symphony: sol-do-mi-la-re... Elsa looked at her tiny watch: a quarter to midnight. "Voici le bulletin météorologique de l'Institut Royal de..." Elsa heard no more. What did she care about the next day?s weather? She went to the window and looked out, wiping the fog from the glass with her fingers. No one out in the rain, and no cars around. Only one in sight: Mr. Dubois' blue Aronde, looking black in the darkness of Molière Street. The natives of Brussels had a fine rain that Tuesday in 1965, endless rain, cold and slow: heavy drops dripping eternally under the nearly leafless trees. Everything soaking wet. No wind.

A sigh escaped from the depths of Elsa's heart: where could Luc be? This solitude was unbearable. Even though Luc's departures had started to become more and more frequent, she realized that instead of becoming accustomed to them, they seemed painful and bitter. With this compulsory solitude, she found herself more and more touchy and temperamental.

In the meantime, the radio had started broadcasting the news: "...In Viet Nam, there was a large battle yesterday at the Mekong watershed: 382 Vietnamese dead; and on the other side, 17 Americans. This is the first such slaughter on a single day in Viet Nam and, according to our sources..." Elsa turned off the radio. Not at all because the news made her the least bit sick, or because she didn't believe it. No. That didn't even occur to her. Nor did she think that Viet Nam was the most shameful event of recent years and the most wasteful slaughter. She didn't question the false calm she showed in turning off the radio. Without even hearing the news, annoyed in advance, disgusted, impatient, she turned off the white Philips and decided to go to bed. Before bed, however, she went into the bathroom, planning to brush her teeth like every other night, but tonight she went more by habit than by design, since she came out again without realizing that she hadn't cleaned any part of herself.

She remembered that Luc had to wear dress trousers the next day and before lying down, went to the wardrobe and took out a dark grey striped suit, ready for the next day.

She started to brush it and heard a paper rustling in the back pocket of the trousers. She undid the button, opened the paper, and found a letter written in Luc's hand, without an envelope. The letter seemed to have been written recently. And, heart pounding, she began to read:

"You make me feel young, my dear Suzanne. You make me feel dizzy inside in a way I haven't felt for many years, you and your incredible body. I knew, or at least I sensed, that my relationship with Elsa had gone cold, icy, dead. But, since I reached this point slowly (we're both there, I think, though Elsa hasn't admitted it), I didn't pay much attention to it, and little by little became accustomed to it.

"I thought it was normal to feel such coolness at 35. 'Maybe that's just the way things are, just a question of age,' I told myself. Our wedding day was long ago. Think about it, Suzanne: we were married seven years ago, during the World Fair, in 1958. Where are the famous 'thousand and one nights'? When we were married, I was 28 and Elsa was 21. Now we are 35 and 28..."

There was not a single tear under Elsa's eyes. But her eyes had a strange glassy shine. She skipped over a few lines without reading them. Outside it was still raining.

"...You have been in Arlon for two weeks now, and it feels like it has been two years since we were last together. Right here and far away I see my last images of you. Do you remember? My body needs your embraces, I need you for at least five minutes a day... I need your lustful glances, I won't say here how much... You know! I need the heat of your body at night, source of my pleasure and my ease. Why deny it?..."

A noise came from the stairs. The elevator had started coming up.

Elsa realized immediately that it could be Luc. And worried more than ever since she hadn't heard the Volvo at all. But was it so surprising not to have heard anything in this darkness of her soul? Nervous and with trembling hands, she finally folded the cursed paper and put it back in its pocket. A few seconds later she heard Luc's key in the door and there was Mr. Luc de Potter, her husband, not too wet. It was half past midnight.

"Good evening," said Luc. "Why are you waiting up for me tonight too? I told you I'd be late... This horrible weather! Always one thing, always the same thing, always rain..."

He hung up his raincoat and went straight to the bedroom. As he passed Elsa's side, he tried to give her a cool kiss on the cheek as he did almost every night, leaning his head in just a little bit.

"No," said Elsa roughly, "Not tonight."

"What's wrong? Why not tonight?"

"Nothing. It's very late. It's been five hours since I had dinner. And I got hungry waiting for you and now I'm in a bad mood. So leave me alone."

"OK, dear. I won't stand in your way. I'm hungry too."

And he went to the kitchen and started to peel and eat an apple. Then, still whistling under his breath, he headed for the bath.

In the meantime, Elsa, holding back her tears and sobs with an effort, took off her clothes and went to bed. By the time Luc came in from the kitchen, brown-eyed Elsa Scheelen, "Mrs. de Potter" by law, was lying down and the tv screen by the bed was off.

Her eyes were closed, but she couldn't sleep. She wasn't sleepy at all, of course. She felt Luc's steady breath on her back, burning her skin intermittently like the scorching whoosh of a bellows, a lot hotter on this terrible night than other times, it seemed to Elsa. But even Luc's snores didn't last long. Her husband's ill-mannered calm made the wife want to puke.

She could no longer hold in her inner shock. The tightness in her throat was unbearable, and little by little, very slowly, very gradually and as quietly as possible, she began to cry. Between Luc's rumbling snores, but only between, Elsa?s despairing breath could be heard: fearful and infrequent at first, then coming faster and faster, and louder and louder. But Luc lay in a deep sleep and there was no risk of waking him...

Who could that Suzanne be? Was she pretty? Was she married? Luc had never mentioned the name. What a two-faced liar! Elsa understood everything all of a sudden: her husband's coldness and strange outings, the staleness of her life, the idleness of her heart, everything. At first, she had felt a wild hatred of that Suzanne, but was she not also jealous of the unknown Suzanne? She didn't know, she didn't think so, she certainly didn't want to admit any such thing. But that endless, miserable, rainy night, Elsa's heart was totally churned up, and a strange feeling for Suzanne took hold of her: she was soured with hatred and admiration, seized with fear and affection.

She finished crying and.. two o'clock!...Three!...The clock struck four! And Elsa still awake. What to do? She didn't know. In order not to feel Luc's breath on her back, she fled to the far side of the bed, as if he were a dirty toad lying behind her: "a single bed for both of us, ugh!" That night for the first time she perceived the smell from under the sheets and it seemed to her too hot and foul. She pulled the sheets closed as well as she could, in order not to smell anything.

Memories from the early days of their marriage came to her one by one, one on top of another, in vivid colors one after another, feverishly? That summer of 1958, she believed in happiness, perhaps because she had so much of it in her heart. She remembered the trip she and Luc made, smiling, through the canals of Brugge, on that trim boat, twin of the gondolas of Venice. As they went under a small bridge, Luc told her: "You are my happiness, Elsa. If you ever leave me, I'll kill myself."


The town square...yes...and the tower...and the church... All those places that Elsa loved and held so dear... the corner you could see from the little alley next to Wollestraat, the hump of the little Gruuthuse bridge, the damp, poetic garden next to the church? In such wonderful surroundings Elsa and Luc had spent the first week of their marriage. How could Elsa forget? With rays of happiness so scarce in life, how could she forget those fleeting instants of plenty in Brugge?

Though the wind was cold, everything was a poem to the two newlyweds in those narrow streets and distinctive houses, and before they even saw for themselves what the writers said of Brugge, they were ready to believe it all... Each street, each open area beside a canal, always neat and still, they infected it with their young love, unable to explain the charm of a new childhood, the distant sweetness of the very first kisses...

These were the things that gripped Elsa's memory that long night on Molière Street, the things she couldn't let go... When since then, truly, when since the garden next to the Virgin Mother, looking at the canal in the shade of those big trees, has Luc held her tightly by the waist; when was she ever as happy as she was then? Her hands had gotten cold when she sat down on the stone wall... "Give them to me, Elsa, I'll warm them for you." And he warmed them for her in his coat pocket... When since then had she felt such a fine, pure happiness? Never! "How distant happiness always is!" she thought. How many times must they have heard the church bells that short week, very quietly, in the special blameless atmosphere that the Belgian church bells evoke?...

"Lies!" said Elsa, almost aloud.

And it startled her. But Luc made a few unintelligible sounds, turned onto his left side, went back to sleep and started to snore again. Elsa, however, was happier now since Luc's hot breath no longer reached her back.

The church bells struck half past four. Elsa got up carefully so Luc wouldn't notice anything, and went to the kitchen for a glass of water. She had had a slight sore throat and wasn?t fully over it yet. She looked out the window: rain, always rain, not as fine as before, and now, gusts of wind.

© Jose Luis Alvarez Enparantza "Txillardegi", Elsa Scheelen, Elkar, Donostia, 1985.

© Translation: Kristin Addis

© Photo: Elkar