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Dreams of My Russian Summersby Andrei Makine
While still a child, I guessed that this very singular smile represented a strange little victory for each of the women: yes, a fleeting revenge for disappointed hopes, for the coarseness of meh, for the rareness of beautiful and true things in this world. Had I known how to say it at the time I would have called this way of smiling "femininity."...But my language was too concrete in those days. I contented myself with studying the women's faces in our photograph albums and identifying this glow of beauty in some of them.
For these women knew that in order to be beautiful, what they must do several seconds before the flash blinded them was to articulate the following mysterious syllables in French, of which few understood the meaning: "pe-tite-pomme."...As if by magic, the mouth, instead of being extended in counterfeit bliss, or contracting into an anxious grin, would form a gracious round. The whole face was thus transfigured. The eyebrows arched slightly, the oval of the cheeks was elongated. You said "petite pomme," and the shadow of a distant and dreamy sweetness veiled your gaze, refined your features, and caused the soft light of bygone days to hover over the snapshot.
This photographic spell had won the confidence of the most diverse women: for example, a relative from Moscow in the only color photo in our albums. Married to a diplomat, she spoke through clenched teeth and sighed with boredom before even hearing you out. But in the photo I could immediately identify the "petite pomme" effect.
I observed its aura on the face of a dull provincial woman, some anonymous aunt, whose name only came up when the conversation turned to the women left without husbands after the male slaughter of the last war. Even Glasha, the peasant of the family, in the rare photos that we still possessed of her, displayed the miraculous smile. Finally there was a whole swarm of young girl cousins, puffing out their lips while trying to hold on to this elusive French magic during several interminable seconds of posing. As they murmured their "petite pomme," they still believed that the life that lay ahead would be woven uniquely from such moments of grace....
Throughout this parade of expressions and faces there recurred here and there that of a woman with fine, regular features and large gray eyes. Young at first, in the earliest of the albums, her smile was suffused with the secret charm of the "petite pomme." Then, with age, in the more recent albums, closer to our time, this expression became muted and overlaid with a veil of melancholy and simplicity.
It was this woman, this Frenchwoman, lost in the snowy immensity of Russia, who had taught the others the words that bestowed beauty. My maternal grandmother...She was born in France at the beginning of the century in the family of Norbert and Albertine Lemonnier. The mystery of the "petite pomme" was probably the first of the legends that enchanted our childhood. And these were also among the first words we heard in that language that my mother used, jokingly, to call "your grandmaternal tongue."
One day I came upon a photo I should not have seen....I was spending my holidays with my grandmother in the town at the edge of the Russian steppe where she had been stranded after the war. A warm, slow summer dusk was drawing in and flooding the rooms with a mauve glow. This somewhat unearthly light fell upon the photos that I was examining before an open window, the oldest snapshots in our albums. The pictures spanned the historic watershed of the 1917 revolution; brought to life the era of the tsars; and, moreover, pierced the iron curtain, which was then almost impenetrable, transporting me at one moment to the precinct of a gothic cathedral and the next into the pathways of a garden where the precise geometry of the plants left me perplexed. I was plunging into our family prehistory.
Then suddenly this photo!
I saw it when, out of pure curiosity, I opened a large envelope that had been slipped between the last page and the cover. It was that inevitable batch of snapshots that have not been judged worthy to appear on the rough cardboard of the pages, landscapes that can no longer be identified, faces that evoke neither affection nor memories. One of those batches you always tell yourself you must sort through one day, to decide the fate of all these souls in torment....
It was in the midst of these unknown people and forgotten landscapes that I saw her, a young woman whose attire jarred oddly with the elegance of the people who appeared in the other photos. She was wearing a big dirty gray padded jacket and a man's shapka with the earflaps pulled down. As she posed, she was clasping to her breast a baby muffled up in a wool blanket.
"How did she slip in," I wondered in amazement, "among all these men in tails and women in evening dress?" And all around her in other snapshots there were these majestic avenues, these colonnades, these Mediterranean vistas. Her presence was anachronistic, out of place, inexplicable. She seemed like an intruder in this family past, with a style of dress nowadays adopted only by the women who cleared snowdrifts from the roads in winter....
I had not heard my grandmother coming in. She placed her hand on my shoulder. I gave a start, then, showing her the photo, "Who is that woman I asked her."
A brief flash of panic appeared in my grandmother's unfailingly calm eyes. In an almost nonchalant voice she asked me, "Which woman?"
We both fell silent, pricking up our ears. A bizarre rustling filled the room. My grandmother turned and cried out, it seemed to me, joyfully, "A death's-head! Look, a death's-head!"
I saw a large brown insect, a crepuscular hawkmoth, quivering as it tried to plunge into the illusory depths of the mirror. I rushed toward it, my hand outstretched, already feeling the tickling of its wings under my palm. It was then I noticed the unusual shape of this moth. I approached it and could not suppress a cry: "But there are two of them! They're Siamese twins."
And indeed the two moths did seem to be attached to one another. And their bodies were animated with feverish trembling. To my surprise this double hawkmoth paid me no attention and did not try to escape. Before catching it I had time to observe the white marks on its back, the famous death's head.
We did not speak again about the woman in the padded jacket....I watched the flight of the liberated hawkmoth — in the sky it divided into two moths, and I understood, as a child of ten can understand, why they had been joined. Now my grandmother's disarray seemed to make sense.
The capture of the coupling hawkmoths brought to my mind two very old memories, the most mysterious of my childhood. The first, going back to when I was eight, was summed up in the words of an old song that my grandmother sometimes murmured rather than sang, sitting on her balcony, her head bowed over a garment on which she was darning the collar or reinforcing the buttons. It was the very last words of her song that plunged me into enchantment:
...We'd sleep together there
This slumber of the two lovers, of such long duration, was beyond my childish comprehension. I already knew that people who died (like that old woman next door whose disappearance in winter had been so well explained to me) went to sleep forever. Like the lovers in the song? Love and death had now formed a strange alloy in my young head. And the melancholy beauty of the melody could only increase this unease. Love, death, beauty...And the evening sky, the wind, the smell of the steppe that, thanks to the song, I perceived as if my life had just begun at that moment.
The second memory was so distant it could not be dated. There was not even a very p
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