Many thanks to Thomas and Sheila for their contributions.
Slowly the sea comes to life
along with the drowning sun.
And then will appear, riding on the waves,
the fairies and mermaids
who unchain the storms over the sea.
P. Jakez Heliaz
Sitting on the old bench in front of his cottage
Yvon Le Guennec was smoking his early morning cigarette
watching dawn rising in the distance nearby Trebeurden.
Another fine day was coming.
Beside him The Cat was dreaming with half closed eyes.
Yvon made his first cigarette last a long time,
the best of the day, with the burning hot coffee he would leave all day
to caramelize on the corner of the kitchen range,
as his mother had done before him.
His life came back to him in puffs of smoke,
and he chewed on it like a horse on tasty, yet bitter hay.
In his eyes, once green, now bleached by the salt and the brine of the sea,
the dawn of long gone days was rising.
He had been that young sailor whom life didn’t seem to deny a thing.
Yes, he had been a handsome guy at the age of twenty,
even if nothing of those good looks had remained in his face, wasted by the brine
and lined with wrinkles and scars, where time had left its tracks.
His life had been fishing and the deep blue sea – nearly all of his pals gone,
sailors lost at sea or simply disappeared from his life.
Life had also been going on pub crawls in the fishing-ports
when fishing had been good, and pockets were full of money.
As for the girls, there would be no need to pay for them ;
they would be fascinated by the lustre of his green eyes
and press their keen bodies to his narrow hips,
enjoying the flavour of the open sea.
Yeah, sirens, he had known quite a number,
and then it wasn’t them who would get a hold on him
with their voices and their fair hair –
no, it was him ending up abandoning them in their luminous caves,
to return to his one and only love, the sea with its tide,
the troughs and crests of the waves, the storms, its madness.
Yet, yes, once there had been one siren who had caught him in her nets,
securely moored between her silky eager thighs, and he really did believe
that he would stay there for ever.
It was for her sake that he had named his cottage KER EDEN,
for she used to say in those days that the cottage facing the ocean
was their little paradise, ‘Ker Eden’.
How superstitious she was, about everything !
Whenever he put out to sea in stormy weather, she was trembling with the fear
that he should disappear for ever between the silky sheets of the waves,
so she had painted a number 13 on his boat to keep bad luck at bay.
When his trawler had been dismantled in the harbour of Nantes,
he had retrieved from the hull the plank of wood with the painted 13,
and had it nailed onto the cottage beside the entrance door.
Now he only put out to sea in his boat AR’ CHAZ, for the mere pleasure
of catching a few sardines or a sea-bass
and licking from his lips the salt of the brine.
But at that time, yeah, it had also been for her sake, his siren,
when he had painted his cottage blue and ochre.
Blue as her eyes, tiny fragments of sky in her freckled face,
Ochre, to remind him of the serpentine locks of his siren’s red hair.
Red and ochre, the, now peeled off, colours of his happiness.
MYRIAM, she was called MYRIAM,
not a common name here, where the women are called Anne, or Marie, or Yveline.
But her, she was called Myriam.
A buxom girl with rosy flesh and the sort of appetite he liked so much.
Yes indeed, she was ravenous, greedy and not only at table.
She wouldn’t have left a bit for the cat.
Voracious, oh yes, but apart from that, she didn’t have many housekeeping skills.
Unable to fry a sardine properly, to prepare a fish soup,
or even to mend his fishing-nets.
She even botched the coffee.
However , she was never the last one to begin eating.
You should have seen how pleased she looked on the days of the
big fair at Auray when they went there to see his relatives !
Excited with impatience, she got up at the crack of dawn,
so as not to be late for the baked custards and the crepes.
As a matter of fact, those were the only days she would get up early,
for the gorgeous vixen was lazier than a cat and spent far more time in bed
than at the kitchen sink.
As for cleaning the house, their Ker Eden wasn’t large for sure,
but certainly he hadn’t to spend much money on brooms.
She was messy into the bargain, picking up anything
if she thought it was pretty – useless things such as pebbles on the beach,
washed up starfish she let dry, seashells, driftwood,
Her accumulation covered everywhere, and there was room left only on the dining-table.
Every time she got out of bed (and he must confess to not complaining
when he was in bed with her), she would spend all day cutting out old papers,
glueing them together, writing and painting on them.
In the end some kind of pictures came of it,
scattered all over the place or hung on the walls of Ker Eden.
Or else she would sell them on the beach in summertime
or on the market in the winter.
That earned her some pennies she spent at once on drawing paper, pencils, paintbrushes,
or some trinkets to smarten herself up for the Fest Noz.
Whenever she asked him to catch a cuttlefish, she had no intention to prepare
a nice meal, no, she merely wanted the ink for her drawings.
It was the same with the coffee.
Because, as long as she wasn’t cutting out papers, she would draw in every weather,
everything she was seeing: the sea, the sky, the blooming broom, the boats, the fishermen,
the return from the sea, and himself.
Yes, even him, she would draw him at that time, and she used to say to him, laughing,
that she was in love with him and wanted to sketch him and to nibble at him.
When she was gone, her drawings, well, in anger he had thrown them into the kitchen stove
regretting it on the spot.
He had succeeded in saving two of them from the flames. He had smoothed them
with his mother’s iron and fixed them to the wall above his bed.
In the evening he would gaze at them till his eyes began to drown.
They were all of her he had kept,
a self-portrait with her bitch, a mongrel with red fur and blue eyes
like her own.
She had found her injured and abandoned on the beach.
The other drawing showed a fisherman sitting on the rocks.
A few years, two drawings,
and the cat !
Yes, because she had brought him the cat too.
She had found him in a dustbin one evening in Lorient,
Skinny, dirty, spitting like a devil, on the verge of dying, a tiny little thing.
He didn’t want him at first because of a sentence his mother used to pronounce
about cats, but she, his siren, had insisted so much.
She said he would hunt the rats which nibbled at his fishing-nets,
that he would keep her company while he was at sea again,
that he would keep her warm in bed on lonely nights and in wintertime.
He had told himself, yes, for goodness’ sake, better a cat than a man.
The cat had stayed, she had given him an odd name, a name from her country,
he had never pronounced it properly:
Peilharot, because she said
he had looked like a wet rag when she got him out of the dustbin,
and that at home rags were called PEILHES.
Ok with the cat, he had always called him AR’CHAZ, ‘the cat’ in Breton.
When she ran away, she had taken her dog with her. She had left the cat behind
because he was useful, and thus he wouldn’t be all alone,
that’s what she had said.
He had wanted to drown him at first, to take his revenge, but he hadn’t done it.
They had ended up getting used one to another, he and AR’ CHAZ,
and even became alike, always at a distance though.
But on stormy evenings, or when he was feeling blue,
the cat happened to snuggle up to his legs, curled up in the warm recess of his bed,
He would let him stay, almost happy, feeling on him the memories of
and scent of her.
She had left him at the end of summer.
She had run away with a guy from the south, dark-skinned and dark-eyed,
an artist, one of those painters, going into rapture about the special quality
of the changing light in the sky of Brittany, who paint the boats and the bonnets
of the old women, but who he’d like to see in October aboard a trawler
in the troughs of twenty feet high waves !
Since the time of Gauguin the place was swarming with them,
like mussel pilings on the shore.
They would arrive in every summer.
That particular summer, there was that guy with his drooping moustache
and his pony-tail (yes, a pony-tail hairdo like a little girl,
it seems that makes you an artist).
Some people say he was really talented, but what does that mean ?
What do they mean by that ?
Anyway, he must have had her pose for him, he must have sketched her
and a lot more...
She blushing with pride.
Then she began roaming with him, all the beaches from Quimper to Lorient,
a wide-brimmed hat on her head and a large bag hanging from her shoulder,
a bag she had sneaked from him on which she had painted a boat
and sewn on some shells,buttons, pearls, bits of lace;
a bag full of colours, paintbrushes and sketchbooks.
At the end of summer she went away with him, heading for the south,
where the sea doesn’t move, flat under the blue sky.
A place where the sun makes the colours fade.
She left him here without looking back, leaving AR’ CHAZ, her drawings,
and a scrap of paper on which she had noted a recipe ,
the only one she knew.
Sometimes he read it aloud, like an incantation, a prayer to make her come back :
“15 ounces of sweet butter
to melt gently in a frying pan
with a lot of sugar...
It was a poet she had met on the beach of Ploermeur, who had given it to her,
A nice chap called Patrick, with eyes the colour of a misty day.
He could have been from Brittany, but he had come from Italy.
The Italians aren’t taciturn like the Bretons,
they ‘ve always been clever at handling words.
That one wrote, sometimes very short poems, “in the Japanese manner”, as he said.
He was fond of the sea, knew how to sail and had gone fishing with him, Yvon, a few times.
He said it inspired him.
Yvon liked those poems and liked having company.
Sometimes he remembered some of them
and recited them, the cat by his side.
“A boat, a territory
Out of the ordinary
The smallest bit of the world
And a whole world”
This poem, Patrick had written it for him.
If only she had left him for this man, his siren, he would have been able to understand.
But the other man, that painter !
That one, he had detested him at first sight, with his strange southern accent
adding an ‘e’ to every word, and the way he used to look at her,
she wriggling before his eyes like a queen cat tantalizing the male,
and that way of sticking together like oysters on the rocks,
painting three boats, and of talking about people he had never heard of, Matisse, Monet...
For a long time he had harboured murderous thoughts, but had resigned himself to his fate
eventually, telling himself that one day she would get tired of her new love ,
as she had got tired of him, and that she would perhaps come back.
What more could he offer her, that artist, than he, Yvon, had given her.
Certainly not the art of rolling in a bed – nobody was a match for him getting a bed
rocking like a boat !
Well then, what was his trick ?
She had got tired of the light, of Brittany, tired of the crepes, and of his eyes.
The other man had talked to her with the sun in his voice, he had talked about
olive trees full of chirping cicadas in a little garden in front of his workshop
where he kept lots of paintings,
about mountains turning blue when the night was falling,
and about bathing in the clear fresh waters of the mountain streams.
He had talked to her about a little stone house crowded with cats ,
about a terrace where at nightfall one could watch the valley falling asleep
the evening star rising in the sky, and the crickets beginning to chirp in their secret places.
And he had cooked for her some tasty meal after having painted.
Damned painter, damned paintbrushes !
Life ‘s a bitch, and yet so sweet sometimes !
No, he had no regrets, after all he had had some good years with her, the best of all,
and the cat to remember them.
Yvon shook himself.
‘Come on, AR’ CHAZ, we have some work to do. The sea is good,
come on, we’re going to cast the fishing nets !’
AR’ CHAZ sprawled a long moment and followed him thoughtfully, whilst Yvon was still
thinking of his siren, then an old Breton saying came to his mind which his mother
would repeat quite often :
‘Ouz koumsou flour Mistrust mellifluent words,
diwall ervad The cat hides his claws
Ar’ Chaz a guz
ivin e droad’
‘That sounds like a haiku’,
said Yvon to himself and smiled.
La Treille Muscate
This english version is particularly dedicated to my english friends Geoffrey, Patricia, John, Barbara, Sheila and others.