10

Where a meeting of the heirs takes place.

Around eleven that morning Mother calls all seven of us children of the deceased to a meeting with her in the parents'bedroom. As we're waiting for everybody to show up Norbert, my little brother (he's twenty-one years old and six feet tall) finds a small bottle of Evian half full, opens it and brings it slowly to his lips as if to drink, when Mother rushes toward him and snatches the bottle away and exclaims reproachfully:
"What are you doing! This is holy water!"

Then Mother announces that there is cash money in a valise. That money will not be reported to the tax authorities and each of the seven children will receive one million francs from the valise, in addition to their share of the reported estate. I guffaw cynically and remark that as far as I can remember I always got the short end of the stick in this family, implying that if I counted on this money I would probably be disappointed.

Then my godfather enters the room. He clenches his jaws so tight that his cheeks and his temples pulsate. He's carrying some folders on one arm. He explains, still clenching his jaws and stretching his lips sideways that his mother, our wealthy pater- nal grandmother, is giving us some bonds on the occasion of our father's death. "What does this has to do with our father's estate?" I wonder. He hands out the folders according to whose name is written on the front. The bond I'm given will mature in four years. Every time Mamy has given us bonds, I always got the one that matured in the longest period but of course I don't dare ask to see my siblings'bonds. The meeting is over. That's it. There's no more mention of our father's estate.

When I get into the living room after the meeting, Sophie bars me the way and demands that I contribute two hundred francs to a flower arrangement for the funeral. She's so in my face, violat- ing my private space, almost menacing, that I double back to my room without a word and return with the money. She was acting as if she didn't trust me, as if, now that she had me, she wasn't going to let me get away without paying my due. Afterwards, while I'm sitting on a couch in the living room with my left leg on the coffee table AgnŠs comes in and passes in front of me to the kitchen, then comes back a minute later. She's wearing a knit dress with a very wide flared skirt and she swivels her hips like a model on the runway but acts like she's not doing anything out of the ordinary. Now that I'm laid up with a bad leg she has her turn as "Miss Elegance"!

Later from the kitchen window I see my mother and brother Francois bending over something. I go out to see what's going on. They are both rooting in the garbage bag. They have taken it out of the can and are exposing its contents to the light. "What are you doing?" I ask. Mother says that some silverware is missing and maybe it was thrown out in the garbage. But her tone tells me that she doesn't really believe it. I have a horrible impression of deja-vu. It seems that she wants me to think that she is suspecting me and although I am innocent I have an incipient guilt feeling, but I check myself. It's exactly the same situation as when we were children. She would ask in an accusing tone "Who did this?" and even though I was innocent I felt guilty. Some- times I would even accuse myself of doing something I had not done because I couldn't tolerate the atmosphere of suspicion. I get back into the house without a word.

My siblings avoid me all day and leave nervously one after the other, saying "We're leaving" instead of saying goodbye, because "goodbye" calls for an embrace and a kiss. Only V‚ronique re- mains.

In the evening after dinner, as I daydream by the fireside, my sister narrates the story of her peritonitis from the first symptoms to the operation and convalescence in the most gruesome details. Done with the dishes Mother joins us. She sits next to my sister and encourages her by shaking her head solemnly, assenting to the memories, reinforcing her. I knew she had had peritonitis but that was in the seventies, why bring this up now? It was only the umpteenth time that somebody told me a story full of guts and blood. Here there even was shit mixed in the bloodstream, an almost fatal septicemia. Almost fatal. I know about almost fatal.

It seemed that those who told me these stories were trying to outdo me, to diminish in my own eyes the importance of what had happened to me. But why? Was it merely out of immature sibling rivalry? It didn't seem so because what about these people whom I had never met who told me their own story of accident when I was hanging out in front of my building? They were not related to me, couldn't have done it out of rivalry. ("I was in a worse accident than you, nyah nyah nyah!") But it was clear that the effect they expected was for me to downplay the importance of what had happened to me. What was their motive?

Or were they just being sadistic? I knew that if I saw someone with a cast, the last thing I would do would be to impose on that person the minute details of my own story because the person could empathize with the suffering, having experienced the terror of impact and injury, the ambulance, the hospital, the surgery, the physical therapy. Why make them suffer anew by evoking painful memories? Yet that's exactly what all these people were doing to me.

Since I complained of the beds where I slept last night, Mother tells me that I may occupy the room which AgnŠs just vacated. She says there's no need for me to sleep alone on the ground floor, even in my old bedroom or the spacious guest room. The room she offers me now is wedged between the kitchen and the foyer. It is actually a small office but Mother put a bed there for herself when my father became too ill. The large bed occupies almost all the space. There's also a desk overflowing with papers, a bookcase and an armoire where I put my luggage. The room looks out on the entrance to the property through a small, high window; it is rather dark inside without a lamp on. Now, am I going to place the upturned glass of water and the candle by the door? I wonder. I decide against it, even though this is the situation that frightens me the most: being alone with my mother. But would I be willing to admit to her that I was afraid of her if she asked me what this stuff was? No.

When I get into bed I realize that the sheets haven't been changed and Agnes's body odor permeates the pillowcase and the sheets. Before turning off the light I notice a dark shape at the top of the bookcase facing the bed. I can't make out what it is.


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