Dögbruz dépassa le dernier lampadaire de l’avenue et il s’arrêta pour calmer sa respiration haletante. Derrière lui, la ville semblait déserte. La nuit était tombée depuis des heures, de longues heures, un grand nombre d’heures, et, alors que cette idée prenait naissance dans l’esprit de Dögbruz, la phrase bourgeonna et devint quelque chose d’inquiétant, une réflexion qui n’appartenait pas totalement à notre monde : la nuit, pensa soudain Dögbruz. Elle est tombée depuis plusieurs jours.
Plusieurs jours sans soleil ni lune, sans crépuscule, plusieurs longues tranches noires de vingt-quatre heures. La noirceur n’avait connu aucune interruption.
– Je… Mais qu’est-ce que… bougonna Dögbruz.
L’air était tiède, le sol sous ses pieds était chaud, de temps en temps une ombre minuscule voletait en silence autour de sa tête, puis disparaissait. Un flocon charbonneux. Une mouche, pensa-t-il. Elle est épuisée ou déjà morte, pensa-t-il.
– Non, non, pas ça, murmura-t-il, effrayé par ce qui faisait des allées et venues entre sa sous-conscience et sa conscience, des images et des expressions qui avaient rompu avec la logique du réel.
Il avait besoin de bouger les lèvres et les cordes vocales pour les chasser, ces images et ces expressions désagréables.
– Non, pas morte, cette sale bestiole, corrigea-t-il à voix basse. Très fatiguée, peut-être. Comme moi, très, très fatiguée. Mais pas encore morte. Autrement elle serait au sol. Elle ne pourrait pas voler.
Comme moi, pensa-t-il. Moi aussi je suis au sol. Et, s’il y a au moins une certitude ici cette nuit, c’est que je ne vole pas.
Il resta quelques minutes immobile, sans rien faire d’autre que combattre les petites intuitions délirantes qui traversaient les couches inférieures de son intelligence et montaient sans hâte, comme des bulles de méthane cherchant, dans un marécage, la surface de la vase. Il reprenait son souffle en observant l’avenue, devant et derrière lui : une vallée d’obscurité monotone, deux parois de maisons non éclairées, quelques arbres qui agonisaient sous la poussière, des palmiers en phase terminale, quatre ou cinq, dans la distance, et, pour le reste, une vilaine coulée de bitume, qui donnait l’impression d’avoir pour origine le ciel sans la moindre étoile, d’une épaisseur et d’une opacité repoussantes. Les lampadaires étaient rares. À la fin de l’image, rien ne brillait. Pas d’horizon, pas de séparation entre le monde des nuages et le ruban bitumeux, les maisons noyées dans le rien, plus de différence entre la nuit du haut et la nuit du bas.
Il s’aperçut soudain qu’il ne respirait plus et il s’empressa de mettre un terme à ce moment d’apnée indésirable.
– Saletés de poumons de merde, jura-t-il.
De nouveau, ses sacs pulmonaires se gonflaient et se dégonflaient. Certes. Mais il devait y veiller, leur donner l’ordre de s’emplir puis de se vider. Sans cesse il devait contrôler cela. Il haussa les épaules au bout d’une minute.
– Tu parles d’un organisme pourri, protesta-t-il, s’adressant à lui-même, ou plutôt à on ne sait quelle divinité familière qu’il associait à son destin, une divinité camarade et, face à l’adversité, aussi impuissante que lui.
Alors qu’il essayait de confier son alimentation en oxygène à des réflexes qui fonctionnaient avec réticence, il distingua au bout de l’avenue une forme que d’abord il se refusa à identifier, puis qu’il fut bien obligé de reconnaître. C’était loin, à plus de cent cinquante mètres, noyé d’obscurité, mais le doute n’était pas possible. Non, non, je ne peux pas me tromper, pensa-t-il.
L’univers ici est en noir et blanc, pensa-t-il. Aucune couleur et presque aucune nuance de gris. Mais tout de même. Je vois très bien. Je ne peux pas me tromper. Un prêtre, un lama. L’épaule découverte. Une robe de moine dans une variante de noir. Peut-être carmin sombre ou orange violacé à l’origine. Un lama assis à la limite des ténèbres.
Il est assis à la limite des ténèbres et il attend, pensa-t-il.
– Il attend les voyageurs pour les faire rentrer dans les ténèbres, marmonna-t-il.
Sa voix résonna comme s’il se trouvait à l’intérieur d’un espace clos, et il sursauta. Pendant une seconde, il avait cru qu’elle ne lui appartenait pas, cette voix. Ou qu’elle était née en dehors de son corps.
L’angoisse l’étreignit. De nouveau, il eut la respiration coupée. Il se força à reprendre l’agitation pulmonaire.
Pas question que j’aille dans cette direction, pensa-t-il.
Une dernière fois il considéra l’avenue, les palmiers momifiés, les plaques de goudron tachées de poussière ou de sable, avec au loin un moine assis qui se préparait sans doute à lui barrer le chemin et à l’orienter vers le noir intense et la fin de tout.
Foutre le camp, pensa-t-il. Foutre le camp au plus vite.
Il commença à bouger, d’abord très peu, lentement, puis il s’élança. Il dépassa la médiocre flaque de lumière dispensée par le lampadaire, accéléra puis obliqua vers une tache plus sombre.
Il y avait une ouverture entre deux murs en parpaings.
Je vais m’enfiler là-dedans, pensa-t-il. Ça ne peut pas être pire.
Cinq secondes, et déjà il se trouvait dans une back alley non éclairée, dans des ténèbres moites qui s’épaississaient à chaque foulée. Après une cinquantaine de mètres, il eut l’impression qu’il avait échappé à quelque chose de grave, mais que l’horreur de la nuit continuait. Il courait au hasard, comme s’il était poursuivi ou comme s’il avait commis un crime. Les repères manquaient, rien n’était visible, et il comptait sur l’instinct qui protège somnambules ou aveugles pour ne pas trop zigzaguer. Assez souvent il étendait les bras pour s’assurer qu’il ne s’approchait pas dangereusement d’une paroi contre laquelle il se serait écorché, mais ses mains ne rencontraient rien. Il parcourut ainsi deux cents mètres, jusqu’au moment où il constata que, là encore, ses poumons avaient cessé leur travail de pompage, aspiration et refoulement. Il n’avait pas perdu haleine. Cela le chiffonna, cette absence de respiration, toutefois il décida que de cette manière il économisait ses forces. Il brûlerait moins d’énergie. Si le trajet était long, il se dépenserait moins.
Comme ça je vais pouvoir tenir plus longtemps, pensa-t-il.
Puis l’air devint plus humide encore. Il avait ralenti, mais il continuait à aller à petite foulée. Des papillons de nuit se heurtaient constamment à son visage. Il entendait le choc en même temps que les bestioles cognaient contre sa peau en sueur, et, à la même seconde, il les sentait, ces petites bestioles, s’affoler et produire un effort panique pour se décoller et reprendre leur vol furtif. Dögbruz conservait les lèvres closes pour ne pas avoir à en recracher une. Il se représentait très bien leur corps un peu balourd, leur abdomen dont sous une loupe on eût aperçu les touffes velues plutôt que veloutées, leurs ailes plus solides que celles de leurs congénères de plein jour, leurs ocelles gris sur gris, brun sur gris. Des teintes fuligineuses, le contraire de la beauté. Il ne souhaitait à aucun prix accueillir dans sa bouche cette chair douteuse, il en redoutait à l’avance la fadeur granuleuse. Et en plus ils ne sont même pas morts, pensa-t-il en les comparant à la mouche épuisée ou déjà morte, ou aux mouches qui l’avaient tourmenté tout à l’heure.
Presque au même instant, sa jambe droite tapa avec vigueur dans ce qui devait être un seau de ciment abandonné, un banc de pierre ou une borne métallique. Il poussa un cri de douleur et tenta de se raccrocher à quelque chose, mais rien ne se présenta à ses mains tendus et il tomba vers l’avant. Il gisait encore sur le pavé, meurtri, coudes, doigts et genoux écorchés, quand une porte s’ouvrit près de l’endroit où il s’était étalé. Et d’abord arriva à ses narines une odeur de moine, une odeur de prières, de mort et d’espace noir. Une clenche tourna, des gonds grincèrent, et brusquement le noir fut inondé par le faisceau jaune d’une lanterne. Le moine avait, éclairée par en-dessous, une tête effrayante. Sa tenue était semblable à celle du lama que Dögbruz avait fui tout à l’heure. C’était d’ailleurs peut-être le même.
C’est le même que celui de là-bas, pensa Dögbruz.Pas la peine d’essayer de leur échapper, pensa-t-il.J’ai tenté ma chance et j’ai perdu, pensa-t-il.Personne ne peut s’en sortir, pensa-t-il.Le moine tendit le bras afin que la lumière de la lanterne tombe sur Dögbruz.
– C’est toi, Horowitz ? demanda le moine.
Dögbruz laissa passer un instant.
– Ben oui, finit-il par mentir. C’est moi.
Il ne savait pas où sa réponse l’emmènerait. Mais il se disait que si on le confondait avec un autre dès le début, il entrait dans une autre aventure que la sienne. Et que peut-être elle serait un petit peu moins sinistre.
Dögbruz passed the last lamp post on the avenue and stopped to settle his strained breathing. The city behind him seemed deserted. Night had fallen several hours ago, long hours, a great many hours, and, while this idea took hold in Dögbruz’s mind, the sentence grew into something somewhat worrisome, a reflection that did not entirely belong to our world: the night, Dögbruz suddenly thought. It had fallen several days ago.
Several days without sun or moon, without dawn, several long pitch black strips of twenty-four hours. The darkness had known no interruption.
– I… What in the… Dögbruz grumbled.
The air was lukewarm, the ground under his feet was hot, from time to time a tiny shadow fluttered silently around his head, then disappeared. A flake of charcoal. A fly, he thought. It was exhausted or already dead, he thought.
– No, no, not that, he murmured, afraid of the thing that went back and forth between his sub-consciousness and his consciousness, images and expressions that had broken away from the logic of reality.
He needed to move his lips and vocal cords to chase them away, the unpleasant images and expressions.
– No, not dead, the dirty critter, he clarified in a hushed tone. Very tired, maybe. Like me, very, very tired. But not dead yet. Otherwise it would be on the ground. It would not be able to fly.
Like me, he thought. I too am on the ground. And, one thing is certain tonight, it’s that I am not flying.
He stayed motionless for a few minutes, doing nothing but fighting the delirious little intuitions that traversed the lower layers of his intelligence and rose without haste, like methane bubbles looking, in a swamp, for the surface of the mud. He regained his breathing as he observed the avenue, before and behind him: a valley of monotonous obscurity, two walls of houses with their lights off, four or five, in the distance, and, as for the rest, an ugly spillage of asphalt that seemed to have had originated in a sky without the slightest star, of a repelling thickness and opacity. The lamp posts were few. At the end of his vision, nothing shone. No horizon, no separation between the world and the clouds and the ribbon of asphalt, the houses bathed in nothingness, no difference between the night above and the night below.
He suddenly realized that he was no longer breathing and he rushed to put an end to this moment of undesired apnea.
– Lousy fucking lungs, he swore.
Once again, his pulmonary bags inflated and deflated. Indeed. But he had to be watchful, issue the order for them to fill and then empty themselves. Without fail he had to control that. He shrugged his shoulders after a minute.
– Talk about a rotten organism, he lamented, addressing himself, or rather some undetermined familiar divinity that he associated with his destiny, a divinity that was brotherly and, in the face of adversity, as powerless as him.
While he was trying to entrust his provisioning of oxygen to reflexes that were reticent in their functioning, he discerned at the end of the avenue a form that he refused to identify at first, then became obligated to recognize. It was far away, more than fifty yards, bathed in obscurity, but doubt was no longer possible. No, no, I cannot be mistaken, he thought.
The universe here is black and white, he thought. No color and almost no nuance of grey. But still. I can see very well. I cannot be mistaken. A priest, a lama. One shoulder uncovered. A monk’s robe in a variation of black. Maybe dark crimson or violet orange originally. A lama seated at the edge of darkness.
He is seated at the edge of darkness and he is waiting, he thought.
– He is awaiting travelers to guide them into the darkness, he murmured.
His voice resonated as if he were in an enclosed space, and it startled him. For a second, he thought that it did not belong to him, this voice. Or that it was born outside of his body.
He was racked with anxiety. Once again, his breathing was choppy. He forced himself to resume pulmonary operations.
No way am I going in that direction, he thought.
One last time he considered the avenue, the mummified palm trees, the sheet of asphalt spotted with dust and sand, and at a distance a seated priest preparing no doubt to block his way and turn him toward complete darkness and the end of everything.
Get out of dodge, he thought. Get the hell out of dodge and be quick about it.
He started moving, very little at first, slowly, then he went for it. He passed the sorry patch of light meekly dispensed by the lamp post, accelerated then pivoted to a darker spot.
There was an opening between two walls of concrete blocks.
I’ll slip through there, he thought. It can’t be worse.
Five seconds, and already he found himself in a dimly lit back alley, in the moist shadows thickening with every step. After fifty or so yards, he got the sense that he had escaped something grave, but that the nocturnal terror continued. He was running haphazardly, as if he were being chased or as if he had committed a crime. Landmarks were lacking, nothing was visible, and he was counting on the instinct that protects the sleepwalkers and the blind from too much zigzagging. Pretty often he would reach out his arms to make sure he was not approaching anything with a dangerous surface against which he would be shredded, but his hands found nothing. Thus he traversed two hundred yards, up to the moment when he noticed that, once again, his lungs had ceased their work pumping, aspirating and expelling. He had not lost his breath. This unsettled him, this absence of breathing, however he decided that this way he would conserve his forces. He would burn less energy. If the road was long, he would spend himself less.
This way I will be able to last longer, he thought.
Then the air got even heavier. He had slowed down, he continued to advance by small steps. Moths constantly crashed into his face. He heard the shock at the same time that the critter knocked into his sweaty skin, and, at the same second, he felt them, the little critters, freaking out and putting forth a panicked effort to take off and regain their sneaky flight. Dögbruz kept his lips sealed to avoid having to spit one out. He could easily picture their slightly clunky bodies, the texture of their abdominal tufts of hair could be seen under a magnifying glass to be wooly rather than velvety, their wings sturdier than their day time counterparts, their ocellus gray on gray, brown on gray. Dark silky tints, the opposite of beauty. He hoped to avoid at all costs hosting in his mouth this questionable flesh, he anticipated with fear the granular blandness. And on top of that they are not even dead, he thought, comparing them to the exhausted or already dead fly or flies that tormented him earlier.
At almost the same instant, his right leg slammed with vigor into what could only be an abandoned bucket of cement, a stone bench or a metallic pale. He let loose a pained scream and tried to hold onto something, but nothing offered itself to his outstretched hands and he fell forward. He still found himself on the pavement, wounded, scraped elbows, fingers and knees, when a door opened near the spot where he was spread out. And to his nostrils came first a monklike smell, a smell of prayers, of death and of the dark space. A door knob turned, hinges squeaked, and shortly the darkness was inundated by the yellow beams from the lantern. The priest, illuminated from below, had a terrifying face. His outfit was similar to that of the lama that Dögbruz had fled earlier. It might even be the same.
It’s the same as the other one, thought Dögbruz.No use in trying to run away from them, he thought.I tried that and it did not work, he thought.
Nobody can get away from this, he thought.
The priest held out his arm so that the light from the lantern fell on Dögbruz.
– Is that you, Horowitz? The monk asked.
Dögbruz let an instant pass.
– Well yes, he ended up lying. It’s me.
He did not know where his answer would take him. But he told himself that if he were confused with another from the start, he would begin an adventure other than his own. One that perhaps would be a little less sinister.
The priest’s name was Molfom, he was seated on the terrace of his farm, and behind him a hot plate kindled three liters of a brownish mixture, mainly water and herbs. He stopped swinging on the rocking chair and set down on the floor, to his right, a book in bad shape, its cover in tatters, whose disjointed leaves tended to scatter all over. It was here that he drew the elements of his ecclesiastical authority, but I happened to know what to truly expect of this book. He pretended to consult it and brandished it before us every chance he got, claiming that it contained magic recipes and religious teachings. To hear him, its pages overflowing with precepts described what movements to look for during a rite, a dance, slumber, and enumerated the prohibitions of the obscure rules we were constantly subjected to, as well as the punishments for when we strayed from the commandments or interpreted the dogma sideways. Molfom shook the book, in a horrifying manner he rolled his clear mutant eyes, and, when a bunch of leaves fell out, he crouched down roaring absurdities and stuffing them back into his pile at random. From the start, I was convinced that he was illiterate, and I was not impressed by his theatrics.
I was not impressed, but I pretended to be.
I was just out of a charitable organization where I had been taught to identify about a thousand ideograms, but I avoided revealing my know-how. I had learned to survive. What this meant was that I kept a low profile amidst the village idiots and sectarians. My hometown had been razed, the region had been flattened, and, having miraculously escaped the apocalypse, I was not planning on exposing myself to the hostility of those who had brought me back, all one hundred percent illiterate and quick to wield a knife and a rod against whomever they perceived as different. I had blended into the collective by feigning submission and stupidity as soon as I arrived. I had failed all the tests the villagers gave to newcomers on purpose, and they had tucked me away among the semi-idiot orphans, a much more comfortable category than being among the smart alecks who understood the ways of the world and who got themselves harassed and martyred until death ensued. Let’s say that, for the community as a whole, I was a valiant cretin, hard-working and easy-going.
The priest, who did not really want an assistant who would one day overshadow him, had picked me as auxiliary. I proffered no comment when, cultivating a studied misanthropy, he leafed through the book holding it upside down, and, obviously, I did not point out to him that I could decode what was displayed on the cover, on the ruins that still played the role of cover. The title was ripped and for me mysterious, but visibly very far from liturgical literature. Frankenstein or the. There was an author’s name on it, even more damaged than the title, and only one syllable was recognizable: Mar. I liked to think that it was a woman’s name, Mary, or Marianne, something like that.
And so, Molfom the priest put his dilapidated book down next to his rocking chair and got up with some effort, because he was getting close to forty years old and his joints tormented him. Forty years old, an almost unheard of age in our world in which life expectancy barely passed the quarter century, even when we had emerged victorious from challenges such as mutation, civil war and famine. I could hear him sighing in pain and I braced myself for his sour mood.
– Ah, Krüger, he greeted me. I have been waiting for you for an hour.
– Oh well, I said.
I glanced at the book he had turned toward me. I once again had the confused certainty that it had been written by a woman, by a Mary possibly, I was in no hurry to show any interest and I looked away. I took on the heavily limited and brutish airs that had always permitted me to exist in the village.
The priest was examining my bag.
– Did you find everything? He asked.
– Yes. But no, not everything, I admitted.
– Incompetent! Forsaken! the priest insulted me at once.
He had sent me to fetch the ingredients for a magic potion that he hoped to concoct this very evening, a love potion that the Party had ordered from him. I suppose this was how the Central Committee wanted to experiment with rapprochement and successful fusion with the masses. From time to time, indeed, members of the Party would come out of nowhere, covered in dust and soot from the dark space, demanding, severe, on the verge of fainting, gun in its holster speaking a master language full of archaisms that very few of us understood. They had given Molfom very short notice and Molfom was counting on me, on my resoluteness because, despite my apparent idiocy, I did wonders when it came to collecting bizarre artefacts, rare plants and elements of witchcraft. I had a gift.
– Always that you have to ruin everything! He yelled.
The criticism was unfair. I cocked my head like an idiot caught in the wrong.
The priest came down the two steps of the terrace, came toward me, and, furious, boisterous, he propelled me with a violent shove right in the chest. I lost my balance and fell backwards. Molfom, at the same second, tripped. After having tried and failed to catch himself, hands forward, folded in two, he tumbled three yards farther, next to me. The sand between us was red, but that was not its natural color. It functioned as wood shavings when the devout or the priest offered the gods a goat or a chicken, as a sacrifice: so that the soldiers at war would not return too mutilated, so that the chickpea harvest would turn out less catastrophic than the previous season, so that the revolutionary forces would at last take radical measures against death, or even so that the lone girl of the village stop laying blackish spheres every six months, very hard ones, which, when we ended up splitting them, spilled a semi-liquid mass that had the vague form of a small hunchback human and turned out not to be proper for consumption.
And so I had landed in this sacred area that reeked of the blood of mammals or poultry. And at first I stayed immobile for an instant, as if stunned, then I got to my knees and growled loudly, to let the priest believe that I was struggling to recover my breath, even though his weak punch had not taken my breath away. He too had gotten to his knees and, hiding his discontent, denying the ridiculousness of his posture, he devoted one minute to detaching from his clothing the gray pink particles that had gotten stuck there. He went about this calmly and exaggerated the slowness of his movements. Then, at about the same time, we got up.
– Stop breathing! He ordered.
I was used to being chastised this way. I did not mind it at all. In the old days, during the apocalypse, when the poison and aerosol spray rained down on the city, I got to practice blocking my lungs. It didn’t bother me and the priest knew it. By giving me this order, he was turning the page on his anger, and he was allowing me to resume a normal relationship with him. I remained in apnea for three minutes, then I filled back up with fresh air. Molfom nodded without comment.
Between us lingered the rucksack in which I had gathered my findings. It had fallen open, revealing a handful of twisted roots, a slice of human meat wrapped in cellophane, mushrooms, a flask of oil, a Rubik’s cube. I had managed to discover a fair amount of stuff and, bottom line, I was quite proud of myself. We stayed face to face not saying anything. Molfom’s rage had diminished and, when he finished dusting himself off, it had disappeared completely. I got the sense he was embarrassed of having mistreated me for nothing.
I took the initiative and spoke.
– There are herbs and powders, I said. The oils that you said I would not find. And the meat.
– What cut is it? The priest asked.
– Rump, I said.
– For the Party, heart would have been better, he lamented.
– Well they were out, I lied.
I went toward the rucksack, I picked it up and held it out toward the priest. He grabbed it.
– Without the heart, it won’t work, he said.
– What if we didn’t tell anyone that something was amiss? I suggested.
– The Party knows everything, Molfom retorted. They can punish us if we lie.
– It knows everything, but not everything, I remarked. What if we said the heart of the heart, it is inside this cubic thing?
– Where did you come up with that? Molfom asked.
– In the ditch next to the school, I said. There was a little girl’s hand, it was tightly clenching this cube thing.
– Are you shitting me, Krüger? Molfom said, looking at me sideways.
– No, I said. I removed the hand. And then I said a prayer.
– Molfom shrugged. Already one by one he was removing the ingredients from the rucksack and throwing them into the marmite of brown water, boiling, magical. He added the Rubik’s cube which was instantly engulfed in turbulence.
– Love potion or no, we will still make them a nice soup, he said.