[The narrator, a young Russian growing up in the 60s who later fled the USSR, recalls the stories told him by his grandmother Charlotte. She was a Frenchwoman who was trapped in Russia by the revolution, married a Russian, and who maintained a strange, visionary serenity through a long, hard life in an alien country.]One day she spoke to me about the rape. Her calm voice had that tone that seemed to be saying, "Of course you already know what happened...It's no secret to you." I confirmed this implication by repeating briefly, "Yes, yes," with studied nonchalance. I was very much afraid, after this story, that I might get up and see a different Charlotte, a different face, bearing the indelible expression of a violated woman. But it was chiefly this blinding vision which lodged itself in my brain.
A man in a turban, wearing a kind of long coat, very thick and very hot, particularly in the midst of the desert sands that lie all about him. Veiled eyes, like two razor blades; the copper-coloured sunburn of his round face, glistening with sweat. He is young. With feverish gestures, he tries to grasp the curved dagger that hangs from his belt, on the other side from the rifle. These few seconds seem interminable. For the desert and the man with his hasty movements are seen only with a tiny fraction of her vision --- the chink between her eyelashes. A woman lying on the ground, looks as if she is embedded forever in this empty landscape. There is a strand of red across her left temple. But she is alive. The bullet has torn the skin under her hair and buried itself in the sand.
The man twists round to grasp at his weapon. He would like the death to be more physical --- the throat cut, a surge of blood soaking the sand. But the dagger he is reaching for slid round to the other side when, just now, with the folds of his long garment open, he was writhing on the crushed body. He pulls at his belt angrily, throwing hate-filled glances at the transfixed face of the woman.
Suddenly he hears a whinny. He turns. His companions are galloping already far away; their silhouettes, at the top of a ridge, stand out clearly against the sky. He spits angrily, kicks the inert body with his pointed boot, and leaps onto the saddle with the agility of a caracal. When the sound of the hoofbeats has died away, the woman, slowly, opens her eyes. And she begins to breathe hesitantly, as if she had lost the habit. The air tastes of stone and blood...
Charlotte's voice mingled with the soft sighing of the willows. She fell silent. I thought of the rage of that young Uzbek: "He needed to slit her throat at any price, reduce her to lifeless flesh!" I said to myself, "It's true: after love, the woman should disappear!" And I again pictured the hand feverishly reaching for the dagger.
I stoop up abruptly and turned toward Charlotte. I was going to ask her the question that had tortured me for months, which I had formulated and reformulated in my mind a thousand times: "Tell me, in a word, in a sentence. Love. What is it?"
But Charlotte, doubtless anticipating what would have been a much more logical question, spoke first: "And do you know what saved me? Did no one ever tell you?"
She had been saved by a saiga, that desert antelope with enormous nostrils, like an elephant's trunk cut short, and --- in astonishing contrast --- huge, timid, and gentle eyes. Charlotte had often seen herds of them bounding across the desert. ...When she was finally able to get up she saw a saiga slowly crawling along a sand dune. Charlotte followed it, without thinking, instinctively --- the animal was the only beacon in the midst of the endless undulations of the sands. As if in a dream (the lilac sky had the deceptive emptiness of visions), she managed to draw close to the animal. The saiga did not run away. In the hazy light of dusk Charlotte saw the dark patches on the sand --- blood. The animal collapsed, then, lunging violently with its head, picked itself up from the ground, staggered on long, trembling legs, made several uncoördinated leaps. Fell again.
It had been mortally wounded. By the same men who had almost killed her? Perhaps. It was spring. The night was icy cold. Charlotte curled up, pressing her body against the animal's back. The saiga did not move anymore. Shivers ran across its skin. Its sibilant breathing was like human sighs, like whispered words. Numb with cold and pain, Charlotte woke frequently, aware of this murmuring, which was obstinately trying to say something.
In one of these waking moments, in the middle of the night, she was amazed to see a star, close at hand, shining in the sand. A star fallen from the sky....Charlotte leaned toward this luminous dot. It was the great open eye of the saiga --- with a glorious, fragile constellation reflected in its tear-filled globe. She did not notice the moment when the heartbeat of this living creature, which kept her alive, stopped.
In the morning the desert was glittering with hoarfrost. Charlotte remained standing for several minutes before the motionless body scattered with crystals. Then, slowly, she scaled the dune that the beast had not managed to cross the previous evening. When she reached the crest she uttered an "Oh" that rang out in the morning air. A lake, pink with the first rays, stretched out at her feet. It was this water which the saiga was trying to reach....They found Charlotte sitting on the shore that same evening.
In the streets of Saranza, at nightfall, she added this emotional epilogue to her story: "Your grandfather," she said softly, "never referred to that business. Never... And he loved your uncle Sergei as if he were his own son. Even more, perhaps. It's hard for a man to accept that his first child is the result of a rape. Especially as Sergei, you know, doesn't look like anyone else in the family. No, he never spoke about it...."
I sensed her voice, shaking slightly. "She loved Fyodor," I thought quite simply. "It is he who made it possible for this country, where she suffered so much, to be her own. And she still loves him. After all these years without him. She loves him out here on the steppes at night, in this Russian immensity. She loves him."
Love appeared to me anew in all its sorrowful simplicity. Inexplicable. Inexpressible. Like that constellation reflected in the eye of a wounded animal in the middle of a desert covered in ice.--- From Dreams of
My Russian Summers
Translated from the French
La Testament Francais
by Geoffrey Strachan
©1998, Simon and Schuster