The school had been built on the rubble of an asylum. Occasionally a teacher would be found to make a bad joke about it. During recess, the students’ screams were on a par with those of the worst lunatics.
On the whole, it was a past that the principal tried to forget. From his office, he gauged the excitement level of the students through a single window that looked out onto the schoolyard. A courtyard that was always lively. Inside his office, there was a flat and heavy silence. The sounds of the students were muted in his accustomed ears. He sighed. Piles of documents and cardboard sleeves overflowed the shelves. It looked as if it would soon be swallowed up.
A flood of paper would fall on his white hair. The director was in his late sixties. Remembering his birthday party last month, he forgot about the college kids. And took his head in his hands. Sleep was not far off. He yawned. Suddenly, a thin voice surprised him. It was little Eleanor. She was talking to herself in front of her desk. The director sighed. The girl’s mother was not well regarded in the school. At 4:30 p.m., she would pass quickly in the street. She would grab her daughter by the shoulder and take her to the heights of Mongainville. All the other parents watched the skinny girl and the veiled mother disappear into the maze of streets.
The director shrugged his shoulders. His inner monologue turned. He thought about the shopping list for the evening meal. He was receiving his sister-in-law. Which meant… Which meant… Add tomatoes… His wife’s family was so…
A few meters from the director, Eleanor was no longer singing. The director looked up. The girl wore her braids proudly. Her shoulders looked like those of a small squirrel. Where are her parents from? » the headmaster asked himself for the tenth time this year. From Serbia? He rarely remembered the biographies of his students. But little Eleanor was the one of his students he felt most sorry for.
─ Hey, you! » the principal threw at her on the fly.
─ Yes, sir?
Eleanor’s voice was monotone. The girl seemed tired. She walked like a doll. The light of the first rays of the day bathed her face. The corridors that led to the director’s office had large windows. We’ll have to report it. These openings let in rain and hail. Next winter, the parents will notice and… He thought, as he stood up.
The director took Eleanor by the arm. Clopin-clop, the child and the old man reached the courtyard. The headmaster had set out to get rid of the child by forcing her into a group. He could not find any children. Most of the students had gone to admire two soccer teams. He regretted that he had given his consent for the construction of the sports field.
To his delight, he suddenly saw Nasha and Tasha. These two pseudonyms were not the girls’ real names. They had given them to each other while reading a book they loved, Russian Childhood by Oleg Karina. Nasha was sitting. She was shuffling the cards.
─ Did you see the lunar eclipse yesterday?
─ Do you think the eclipse helps your hair to wave?
─ You never know. I’m not superstitious.
Nasha let out a long laugh. She shook her head. Then the brightness of her voice faded away, like a quick firework. The sun was shining mercilessly on the playing cards.
It was almost noon. The director had chosen to approach at a snail’s pace. But the girls noticed his presence in time. Without asking for help, they ran away. They were still giggling as they grabbed their coats.
Nasha and Tasha’s parents had allowed them to walk home from school alone. It was not a complicated matter. They had to follow a dirt road that led to an English park. Once they reached the lake, they played for a while. Then Nasha would go and eat the food her mother had left for her on the table. Tasha was always hanging around. Her parents didn’t come home for lunch. They asked their housekeeper to watch her. Tasha found it hard to be nice to the old maid. Her affected voice annoyed her. She liked to avoid her.
The nice weather prompted the girls to take a walk. Some houses had their backs to them. Nasha and Tasha were childhood friends. Their walks had the reassuring taste of family meals.
─ Are you done with Russian childhood? » asked Nasha of her friend.
Tasha’s hair flew in the autumn breeze. They waved like brambles on her satiny cheeks.
─ I don’t read as fast as you do, Tasha replied. Did you see? The principal tried to stick us with Eleanor. We should have gone to soccer. When we isolate ourselves he takes advantage of it. What an old goat! Always hiding in his office. As if he was afraid of us.
─ Eleanor is really weird. With her big eyes and her arms all thin. She looks like an evil statuette. She scares me. I don’t want to play with her.
Nasha thought. Then she retorted:
─ She’s different.
─ I don’t want to play with Eleanor. She gives me the willies.
─ We could try it sometime.
─ Now there’s an idea! How about being her friend?
─ It’s just that…
─ I refuse to play with her. She’s… Have you seen her mother? After school?
─ Sure. My mother calls her the ghost. But still, it’s not Eleanor’s fault that… Her mother… If her family believes in God.
─ Do you believe in God? » asked Tasha.
─ Me, oh no, of course not. I believe in myself.
─ So do I. I wonder how Eleanor does it, with a mother like that.
─ You know I hear she puts a veil on her on weekends.
─ Eleanor? A veil? Who told you that?
─ The pharmacist’s daughter. She saw her at the mall. They were buying clothes.
─ Clothes? She can’t be buying much.
─ She doesn’t work.
─ What does she do all day? Does she pray?
─ I wouldn’t last five minutes.
─ Believing in God… That’s strange. Would you believe in Santa Claus?
I don’t believe in God. Not in Santa Claus, not in God.
Nasha smiled, then continued:
─ My grandmother watches Mass on television. And when my grandfather was with us, she would go. She would put on her most expensive clothes. She had made a lot of friends there. That’s what my grandfather said. He let her do it. He didn’t believe in anything anymore. Not since the war. At that time… he hid in the toilets. While men were being tortured. He read books. Since then he said that men are bad. That there is nothing above men. Nothing to stop them from doing evil.
─ Maybe Eleanor will stop believing in God. One day. She only arrived at the beginning of the year. That gives her time to change her mind.
─ Tasha, I have to get back. I like to walk around. The weather is nice and … But my mom is waiting for me. Shall we? I have to go eat.
Take the cards.
See you in math class.
I’ll stay a little longer. See you later.
Nasha grabbed the cards Tasha was handing her. She turned toward the exit of the park. In the distance, Nasha waved her hips back and forth. As if to give herself momentum, or to mimic a horse’s swaying gait. The wind blew more than was necessary. It made the girl’s blonde hair dance. Tasha remained in the same place, facing the lake.
Only a bench behind her suggested that the man had come one day to the place where she was, to arrange and organize it skilfully. Tasha had only a measured desire to go home. It was the maid’s day and the little girl did not wish to meet his inquisitive gaze. She sat down on the bench.
She imagined the principal’s face, imploring. He was holding Eleanor’s arm. This girl is stupid, Tasha thought. Then Tasha carefully got up from the bench. Dust accompanied her gesture. She heard the cries of two young children in the distance. They were accompanying a woman with a baby carriage.
Tasha suddenly felt faint. Is the sun making me tremble? I’ll turn into a dead leaf if this continues. I’ll just have to go to that big pile of leaves over there. She approached the water. A beautiful swan flew by the bank and gave her a curious look. The ground seemed to open up under her feet.
She was seized with a sudden fit of fever. Then the swan disappeared in a tornado of mist. The water dried up in an instant. It gave way to a grayish material and a white coat.
Snow here in late summer? Tasha wondered. The girl came back to life. She was prostrate on the ground. Her skirt had picked up a lot of dead leaves.
Tasha stood up. She let out a shrill cry. The lake had disappeared. She was now in the middle of a snow-covered park. Like in Russian Childhood. Instead of the woman with the baby carriage, a woman was running towards Tasha. She was covered with a heavy piece of wool.
─ You scared me little one! Are you not hurt?
─ Who are you?
─ I am the Malou. But they call me Madeleine. I’m coming home from work. Will you come with me?
─ I don’t know where I am anymore.
Tasha began to cry.
─ Who are your parents? It’s evening. We don’t want to hang around. You know what? Why don’t you come home? I have a little one your age. You’ll play jacks.
The woman’s face was smeared with soot. But her deep voice reassured Tasha. She stopped her crying. The Malou took out a loaf of bread and an apple from her coat. She handed both to the little girl.
─ God damn me, that was a piece of bread I was planning to eat at nightfall. It’s yours. We’ll meet your parents tomorrow. First thing in the morning, baby. Is that all right with you?
What year is it?
What are you asking me now? I don’t know a damn thing. It’s the king who decides. And above him God. The Almighty. Come on, hurry up. The brigands are on the prowl.
The Malou’s house was modest. It was built of cut stone. A rather short and cramped house. But at least the fire was burning in the hearth. Inside, Tasha saw a figure swaying in front of the fireplace. A little girl with almond-shaped eyes. Big, sticky black eyes. They turned to give her a curious look. The figure looked like Eleanor.
─ Who are you?
─ The little one has lost her parents, La Malou replied. Tasha remained silent. I picked her up in the park. With the hunting and robbing… She wouldn’t have survived.
Tasha shivered. She felt that Malou was right. But where was she? The area seemed to have aged. Perhaps she had gone back in time? To the time of the story of the Russian Childhood?
In the dark Middle Ages that the book recounted. In the dark Middle Ages, when the rogues swarmed around the forests. Tears came to her eyes. Who knows what had happened to his school. But perhaps it was only a dream?
Malou prepared the meal. A potée with some vegetables. They were floating at the bottom of the bowl. Tasha ate heartily. She had already had a dime of bread and an apple, but was hungry. Throughout the meal, the girl who looked like Eleanor looked at her. Frightened. Later, La Malou set up a blanket on some hay.
She indicated to Tasha that this would be her bed. Tasha threw herself on the blanket. She cried a little and then fell asleep.
In the middle of the night, she was awakened by loud banging on the house. The wind was rushing into the little house. It made the fire in the chimney tremble. The fire was threatening to go out. A man began to shout:
─ The bear! The bear is coming.
Tasha straightened up immediately. Malou had begun to barricade the windows of the house. She was using boards, which she nailed down hastily. She was too late. The only door in the house opened with a frightful crash. Tasha cowered. Her right hand grabbed some hay.
She wanted to throw it at the animal. But the ferocious beast was too far away. It was busy destroying the window of the shack. The window was soon pierced by the bear’s clawed paw. The bear screamed terribly. Tasha began to cry. Her eyes, however, were drawn to La Malou’s little girl. She had snuggled up to her.
─ Under the bed, quickly! La Malou shouted.
Tasha did not hesitate. She dragged her companion’s slender body and slid under the bed. It was a bed that usually served as a storage room. The little ones waited, while the bear continued to roar.
─ Don’t move from here! And you, get out of here! Malou was shouting. She was trying to get the big paw out of the window with a broom.
Outside, it was getting dark. Tasha wondered if bears lived at night. Perhaps the animal would return to its den once darkness fell over the village? Tasha began to fear. What if she never returned to her world? Who knows where she had fallen. She heard a huge crack of wood.
She screamed. The Malou had been kicked. Now the animal was advancing, majestic and threatening, into the house. It had its muzzle raised. He was sniffing. It was looking for the girls.
Then Tasha did the unthinkable. She grabbed the dirt that was on her face. Then she began to pray. At least make the little girl escape the bear, she thought, and she prayed. Very hard. So that the bear would never find them. This allowed her to get away from the scene for a moment.
When she came to her senses, she could no longer hear the howling. Where was the monster hiding now?
Tasha continued to pray. She wished she could return to her world. Then she became aware that the cottage was silent again. Was the bear gone? Nothing was less certain. She put half a head through the hole in the bed and saw him dozing. He had made good use of the remains of their meal. For the time being, he had fallen asleep. Malou was getting up slowly.
She beckoned to Tasha. Quick, let’s run away, » she whispered. She pointed to the front door with her hooked hand. Tasha noticed her little companion and shook her.
─ We’re going to go. You take my hand. You follow. she ordered.
All three of them started to run. They won their bet. The bear had not woken up. They had escaped. They found themselves alone in the main square of the village. Drenched in sweat, but alive.
─ Thanks for watching my little one. The bear will eventually leave. It happens often. Men hunt in the habitat of the beasts. It makes them run away, even monsters like him. There are bears where you come from?
Tasha wasn’t sure La Malou understood what a zoo was. She fell silent.
─ You’re tired.
La Malou hugged her. It was then that a new burst of magic occurred. Everything began to spin around the little girl. Tasha found herself thrown into a park. In THE park. The one she had left from. Before arriving in this medieval space-time that had welcomed her. For a few chilling moments. Tasha was still trembling.
She touched her forehead. It was moist. Her arms were still all earthy. Is this the land of the world I came from? She staggered and tried to make her way out of the park. She wanted nothing more than to get home. At that moment, she saw the director. He was walking, with a dog on a leash. A big dog, with a scowl like a bear’s. Tasha held back a cry. The director was approaching her.
─ Tasha? Are you okay? I felt like you fainted.
He walked her home. As they walked, they talked about everything, and nothing.
─ You know, Tasha, Eleanor could really use some attention from the other students. She suffers from racism.
─ Racism? Tasha stammered, as if she had discovered the word.
─ Yes, the principal did, and he petted his big dog. She and her mother arrived two years ago. I don’t remember where from, by the way. It doesn’t matter. It would be nice if you and Nasha…
─ I understand, sir.
─ You always have to put yourself in other people’s shoes. I know it’s difficult. At school, the students don’t have any particular problems. We are very lucky to study in this setting. He pointed to the park with a large wave of his hand.
─ But, he continued, Eleanor is a shy little thing.
─ I put myself in her place. I’d like to…
─ You always have to put yourself in other people’s shoes, » the director continued, not letting her finish.