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The Memory

After Félix Valloton's Le Ballon

There is a reason for her beauty. She has a secret that she can tell nobody, and it is that secret which makes her beautiful.

She has no mother. Her mother died when she was very young, and she was raised by her father. Her father now has a new family. He got married again the year she turned fifteen. She knew, too, that he had been seeing this other woman while her mother was still alive. She never once criticized him for it. Don't worry about me, she said, I just want you to be happy. He left home, and hasn't been in touch with her since.

She grew into a beautiful young woman and became a model. Dressed in all kinds of clothes, she laughs and stares off into the distance, and cries and kisses people. She appears in magazines and on the illuminated billboards above shops, so most people recognize her. They might not know her name, but they have seen her face. Thanks to the glamour of her profession, and to her beauty, people come flocking around her: women and men; people with lots of money and those with not so much. They come, and then they leave again, as if they are running away from her. In the end, her beauty terrifies them.  

Her looks are not the kind to enthrall or impassion. When people look into her eyes, they feel like they are being seen through, stolen away, sucked in toward some kind of terrible misfortune. And so they leave, subtly, with no explanation. The only ones who stay are the ones who do not feel very much—unfeeling men, unfeeling women. She has no one she can call a friend.  She doesn't understand why she is surrounded by unfeeling people, but she has come to take it as a positive thing. She thinks, if I'm surrounded by people who aren't my friends, I won't have to tell anyone my secret.

Just once, she fell in love. To that lover of hers, she told her secret.

My mother died in a lake when I was a child. I ran into the forest to fetch my ball and I saw her. I saw her, going farther and farther into the lake. I called out to her, and she turned around. With the water reaching up to her waist, she smiled at me, and waved. Good-bye, she said, Mummy's going now.

Why, asked her lover. Why? I don't know. Maybe because my father had a lover. But even if that hadn't been the case, I think my mother was lonely, was her reply.

And then what did you do, he asked, and she said, I watched. I stood there watching as my mother's hair slipped gently under the surface of the water. I didn't run to get help. You were in shock? No. You felt too sad, watching her? No. You found it beautiful? Yes. I couldn't tear myself away.

You should try to forget about it as soon as you can, her lover told her. Your mother made the decision to die, and in any case, there was nothing a child could have done about it. It's not as though you just left her there to die or anything.

That was what her lover said, and yet he left her. He slipped away, as if he was running away from her. She must have lost her beauty in his eyes after she told him. She didn't go chasing after him, and neither did she cry, but she did deeply regret telling him her secret. She had never even spoken to her father about it. I never wanted to share that scene, a scene that was mine alone, with a man who was going to disappear. Now my mother, standing there in the lake, will wave not only to me, but to him as well. He will keep on seeing it, again and again, just like I do. The thought of it sickened her.

It must have sickened her.

She talks with me about everything but her secret. I have been her confidant since she was young, and am the only person she trusts. Why do I know her secret if she has never spoken of it to me? Well, because I was there when it happened. That day, I exchanged a few words with her mother, and then we parted ways. I heard her daughter calling out for her. My hat's flown off, Mummy, her daughter was saying, near screaming, go get it for me! She went into the lake to retrieve her daughter's hat. She must have got her feet caught in something. She wasn't waving, she was calling out for help. Her daughter simply stood watching her mother as the water swallowed her up. And I, too, stood and just watched.

So I share her secret. It makes me beautiful. It makes it look as though it is really she and I who are mother and daughter. She doesn't know that, but I do.


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