The child barely slept. Whenever it fell asleep, strange creatures would appear under its eyelids. When it was a little older, they asked what dream kept waking it, but the child shook its head. “No, I don’t know what dream means,” it said. The child was wise. It knew that dreams were dangerous and that it was better not to admit to having them. It remembered very well how the old woman had been ordered to stand on a stone, and all the village had stood around, and they sang and roared and stamped their feet for so long that they drove all the dreams out of the woman and the woman died the next day. The child didn’t want its dreams to be driven out.
Recently though, the silence of the night had increasingly been interrupted by its screams, so some had begun to guess the truth. “Hey, you, tell us what you were dreaming about that made you scream like that,” the other kids shouted. The child knew that everything would soon come out, it was just a matter of time. It caught Father casting cold, grim stares in its direction, and it no longer clung to Father’s legs like before, like the rest of its siblings. But Father pretended he wasn’t looking. Father was also keen to keep the truth hidden, because it would bring shame on the whole family. There’s no telling how it would have ended if Mother hadn’t come up with an idea.
“I know where the Ginkgo grows. The real one, the first one to be called ‘ginkgo’. On a green hill beyond the rusty mountains. A teacher used to live there. A long time ago, my grandfather’s brother was taken there, before my grandfather and his brother had even been named. My grandfather told me his brother was alive, although he never saw him again. The brothers came from the same egg, so one would surely have known if something had happened to the other.”
The child understood at once what Mother was trying to say. She wanted to save the child, no matter what it took.
“Do you think that teacher is still alive?” asked the child.
“The Ginkgo is certainly still growing there. I heard it from the winged ones,” said Mother.
“I’d like to go there.”
“Okay. We’ll go together.”
“But could we wait until I become a man or a woman and I get a name?”
“No,” replied Mother. “Then everyone would find out who you were. It’s better if we take you there now, while you’re not yet here.”
They set off on the first day of autumn – the child and its parents. First went Father, behind him the child, and Mother at the end. It was Mother who had chosen this formation. The child knew why. If she had gone first, there might have come a moment when she turned back and couldn’t see the child because it was lying at the bottom of a ravine. They walked over the red-orange mountains that were vacant and steep, the white path running down the slope like a thread of saliva.
Then they went down into the valley, as green as emerald. The child had never seen a more beautiful landscape. It wanted to ask Mother why they couldn’t stay there forever, but Mother was constantly singing, and Father was accompanying her. Now the three of them walked side by side, following the light blue river along a trail dotted with flowers.
Doors open on the sands,
Doors open on exile,
The keys with the lighthouse keepers,
And sun beaten out on the threshold stone.*
The child knew these songs. It didn’t understand many words, but it felt these words were keeping Father in check. If he stopped singing and looked at the child, there was no telling what might happen.
At last they saw a green hill, and on top of it the Ginkgo. Mother gave Father a signal and went on without him, the child in tow.
The teacher knew they were coming before he saw them. He had intended to stay there alone for the rest of his life and reflect. He couldn’t let anyone disturb him. He would say no. He didn’t even turn to face them.
“Rebbe, may the Ginkgo always shield your head from the sun,” said Mother.
She fell silent and stood motionless for a long time, until the sun had traversed one quarter of its daily path. The child also remained motionless the whole time. Finally, the teacher understood that this woman would not leave. So he turned to them. And when he looked at the child, he understood that he had lost. The child was small and ungainly, but it had something within it that was bursting through its skin, body and stomach, like a fishbone.
“This child dreams every night. You know its dreams, Rebbe. They are your dreams too. I know, because they are also my dreams. We’re not the only ones dreaming about these creatures, Rebbe. The child is, too,” said Mother, looking up at the Ginkgo tree under which they stood.
And in the spider’s web of dreams, stretched out across the branches, another greyish, semi-translucent wisp was stuck, this time longer and glowing in the setting sun.
“See, Rebbe? You see that dream?”
The teacher blew and the wisp slowly glided through the leaves, turned the colour of amaranth and disappeared against the sun.
The teacher was silent.
“My grandfather loved me more than life itself,” Mother said after a long while. “I remember what he looked like. You look the same, Rebbe. I loved my grandfather. All his life, my grandfather longed for his brother, who was taken from him when they were children. He felt as if a crocodile had bitten off his leg or his arm with its huge teeth. That’s what he told me. My grandfather died, Rebbe, and this child is his great-grandchild.”
The teacher looked at the child in silence. The child picked up a ginkgo leaflet from the ground and ate it. The leaflet was divided in the middle, bifoliolate, like all ginkgo leaves. The sun was still going down, sinking below the horizon.
Mother was silent too.
Finally, she shouted: “Rebbe, they’ll kill this child! They tried to kill you too! Don’t forget! You were this child too! Say something, Rebbe!”
“Don’t shout, woman!” said the teacher. “You understand nothing. I’m in agreement. The child can stay here. I will take it, from now on it belongs to this place. You can leave.”
Mother lowered her head and without looking at the child, she said: “May the Ginkgo always shield your heads.”
Then she turned and ran down the hill as fast as she could, as if she were afraid that the teacher would change his mind and call her back. She was beautiful, and her running was full of grace and strength. The child watched her until she disappeared in the depths of the darkened evening greenery. How did she know its dreams? The child had never told her anything.
The child didn’t speak, and the teacher paid it no attention. When the world had been seized by a deep blackness, the child settled at the teacher’s feet and fell asleep. In the early hours, it awoke with a start, shouting loudly.
The teacher leaned over and sniffed the child. He smelled fear.
“I’ll defend you,” he said. “Tell me what you saw.”
“I don’t want to, Rebbe,” snivelled the child. “I don’t want to see them, I don’t want to talk about them, I don’t want to…”
“Tell me,” demanded the teacher. “Beneath the Ginkgo there’s nothing to fear.”
“They don’t have tails. They don’t have wings either. Their legs are long and thin, their arms are long and thin, and their heads are very round. They run on their feet, and they only use their hands to wave. It looks like they’re going to fall over, but they don’t. They’re flat and ugly. Each one has different skin and their skin is coming off them as if it weren’t their skin. They’re running and we’re chasing them. And they’re squealing in terror, and we want to devour them, Rebbe! We want to devour them, Rebbe, and I’m scared, as if I were in their place!”
The child burst into tears. Eventually it stopped crying and looked at the teacher.
“I know this dream,” said the teacher. “This isn’t your dream, child. It’s their dream. They gathered in dark caves and examined their dreams together, and this dream, the dream about us, they particularly liked. They adored us. They found our bones in the ground, cleaned them and assembled our figures from them. They told stories about us constantly. But they’re gone now, only their dreams remain in this world.”
“Who were they, Rebbe? What were they called?”
“I don’t know, and I don’t want to know,” said the teacher. “They were an unsuccessful species. So greedy that if they’d had tails, they would definitely have eaten them. They destroyed everything they saw. Look at this valley beneath us, child, bathed in the light of dawn. Isn’t it beautiful? In their day, no ginkgo or ferns grew here. Those creatures uprooted the trees and covered the ground with a grey lava so that it couldn’t breathe or give off steam. They built stone mountains everywhere and hollowed them out to make caves.”
“Were they really here, Rebbe? Where were we then?”
“Haven’t you heard that God exiled us from the world long ago and we were in space for a long time? Didn’t you know that? Don’t you listen to the songs?”
“I listen to the songs, Rebbe. I know them by heart. But I thought they were just songs,” said the child.
“I used to think so too,” said the teacher, and he made a strange sound, a rhythmic hooting. “Don’t be scared, I’m laughing. It’s the only good thing those creatures invented. Laughter. Try it.”
The child tried to laugh, but it only managed a squeak.
“I don’t want to laugh. I want to know everything about those creatures,” it said, and the teacher laughed again.
“Okay. I’ll tell you. When God exiled us, the world was deserted. Then these small, soft creatures with round heads appeared. They proliferated and spread out all over the world, which they thought they had inherited from God. And they even thought they were godlike, that God had made them in his image. Stupid, egocentric creatures! How could they be like God?”
The child lowered its head and looked at the ground, but after a while it asked very quietly: “What does God look like?”
“God! He doesn’t look like anything. Nothing can be like him. Least of all those creatures.”
“And what happened?” asked the child. “Did God cast them out too?”
“He didn’t have to. They drove themselves to extinction. They murdered each other, and all the other creatures, leaving only those on which they fed. They kept them tethered, and they devoured them. They had their own volcanoes and their own suns, and they kept stoking the embers until smoke covered everything and it was impossible to live for the heat. They died and left behind a barren desert where nothing grew, and poisonous seas and lakes where no one could live. Then God fixed the world and let us come back. That’s what happened. And here we are.”
The teacher fell silent and the child didn’t speak either.
The day passed, night fell, and the child woke again at the crack of dawn, but this time it didn’t scream. It looked up at the teacher, whose huge silhouette stood out dark against the pink sky.
“Go ahead, ask. That’s why you’re here,” said the teacher.
“Why did God exile us?” asked the child.
“Nobody knows that. Only God.”
“Can God exile us again?”
“God can do anything,” said the teacher.
He stretched his head high, broke off a bunch of tiny fruits from the Ginkgo, and handed it to the child.
“Try it,” he said. “These nuts contain the memory of the world.”
They will stand on the hill, under the great Ginkgo, waiting for the day: the old, gigantic, calloused sauropod and the youngster of his species, not much bigger than his feet.
And the grey wisp of our dream, brought by the wind, will slowly descend, until it is caught in the spider’s web shimmering between the branches of the tree.
* St.-John Perse, Exile and Other Poems, Bilingual Edition, translation by Denis Devlin (New York: Bollingen Foundation, 2nd edition, 1962).
Translated by Kate Webster