“Idyll” by Guy De Maupassant

guy de maupassant

The train was leaving Genoa and going to Marseille following the long undulations of the rocky coastline, gliding like a snake between sea and mountain, crawling on the beaches of yellow sand and small waves lined with a net of silver, and falling abruptly into the black mouth of a tunnel like a summer in its hole.

In the last car of the train, a fat woman and a young man were sitting face to face, without speaking, and were looking at each other from time to time. She was maybe twenty-five years old and sat near the door, she was gazing at the landscape. She was a strong peasant from Piedmont, black eyes, large breast, fleshy cheeks. She had pushed several packages under the wooden bench, holding a basket on her lap.

From his side, the man was about twenty years old, he was thin, tanned, with the dark complexion of men who work in the land under the sun. Near him in a handkerchief, his whole fortune: a pair of shoes, a shirt, pants and a jacket. Under the bench something was also hidden : a shovel and a pickaxe attached together with a rope. He was going in France to find a job.

The sun, rising in the sky, was pouring a rain of fire on the coast. This was around the end of May, and delicious smells were fluttering, entering the car whose windows were opened. The orange and lemon trees in blossom, exhaling into the quiet sky their sweet perfumes , so sweet and strong, so disturbing, mingled with the breath of roses that had surged everywhere like weeds along the track, in the lush gardens in front of the doors of shacks and in the countryside too. They are at home on this coast, the roses! They fill their country with strong aroma and light, they make the air a treat, something tastier than wine and as heady. The train was going slowly, as if it wanted to linger in this garden, in this softness. It was stopping at any time, in small stations, in front of a few white houses, and was moving again at its calm pace, after long whistle. Nobody was riding into it. It seemed that the world was dozing, could not decide to move in this hot spring morning.

The fat woman, from time to time, was closing her eyes, then was opening them again suddenly, when her basket was slipping on her knees, about to fall. She was catching it with a quick movement, was looking at outside a few minutes, then was dozing again. Beads of sweat were shining on her forehead, and she was breathing with difficulty, as if she had suffered from a painful oppression.

The young man had bent his head and was sleeping the deep sleep of peasants. Suddenly, the train emerging from a small station, the farmer seemed to wake up, and opening her basket, she pulled out a piece of bread, boiled eggs, a bottle of wine and plums, nice red plums, and she began to eat. The man had also waken up abruptly and he was staring at her, he was looking every single bite from her knees to her mouth. He was staying like this,arms folded, staring eyes, hollow cheeks, lips closed.

She was eating like a big greedy woman, drinking at any moment a mouthful of wine to hurry eggs in her throat, and she was stopping in order to breathe a bit. She made everything disappear, bread, eggs, plums, wine. And when she finished her meal, the boy closed his eyes.

Then, feeling a little embarrassed, she loosened her blouse and the man suddenly looked again. IT did not disturb her and she continued to unbutton her dress, and the pressure of her breasts opened the cloth showing between the two parts of textile, by the slot growing larger, some white cloth and some skin.

The woman, when she felt more at ease, pronounced in Italian:

“It’s so hot… It’s impossible to breathe.”

The young man replied in the same language and with the same pronunciation:

It’s a nice weather to travel.” 

She asked :

– Are you from Piedmont?

– I am from Asti.

– Me, Casale.

They were neighbors.

They began to talk.

They said the long mundane things that the common people constantly repeat and that are sufficient for their slow minds… without any horizon. They spoke of the country. They had mutual acquaintances. They quoted the names, becoming friends as they were discovering a new person they had both seen.

The words fast, hurry, were coming out of their mouths with their specific ending sounds and their Italian song. Then they talked about themselves.

She was married, she had three children left in the custody of her sister because she had found a place to nurse, a good place at a French lady, in Marseille.

He was seeking a job. He heard he would also find one there, because they were building a lot.

Then they kept silent.

The heat grew terrible, falling like a rain on the roof of cars. A cloud of dust was hovering behind the train, was entering into it and the scent of orange and roses was taking a more intense flavor, and seemed to thicken and grow.

The two travelers fell asleep again.

They reopened their eyes almost simultaneously. The sun was sinking into the sea, illuminating its blue cloth with a shower of light. The air, cooler, was seeming lighter.

The nurse gasped, her blouse open, soft cheeks, eyes dull, and she said, with an overwhelmed voice :

“I have not breastfed since yesterday; I am giddy as if I was going to faint.”

He did not answer, not knowing what to say.

She continued:

When you have milk like me, you must nurse three times a day, without that, you are embarrassed. It’s like a weight that I would have on the heart, a weight that keeps me breathing and that breaks my members. It is unfortunate to have milk that much. “

He said: “Yes. It’s unfortunate. It must bother you.”

She seemed very ill indeed, exhausted and weak. She murmured:

Just press it and the milk will flow as a fountain. It’s really curious to see. No one would believe. At Casale, all the neighbors were coming to see me.”

He said: “Oh really.

– Yes, really. I would be happy show you, but it would be useless to me. It does not come out a lot that way. “

And she became silent. The convoy stopped at a stop. Standing near a gate, a woman was holding in her arms a young child who was crying. She was thin and ragged. The nurse looked at her.

She said in a compassionate tone:

“Another one that I could relieve. And the boy could also relieve me. Look, I’m not rich, because I leave my house and my people and dear last baby to get a job, but I would still give five francs for having that child ten minutes and give him the breast. It would calm him and me. It seems to me that I would be born again. “

She fell silent again.

Then she passed her hand several times on his burning forehead where the perspiration flowed. And she moaned:

“I can no longer hold. I think I’m dying.”

And, with an unconscious gesture, she opened her dress completely.

The right breast appeared huge, tight, with its brown strawberry.

And the poor woman moaned: “Oh my God, Oh my God, what am I going to do?”

The train had restarted and continued its way through the flowers exhaling their warm breath in the evening. Sometimes, a fishing boat appeared, asleep on the blue sea, with its white sails still, which was reflected in the water as if another boat was there … upside down.

The young man, confused, stammered: “But … Madame … … I could relieve you.”

She replied in a broken voice: “Yes, if you want. You will do me good service. I can not hold out, I cannot.”

He knelt in front of her, and she leaned toward him, carrying to his mouth in the gesture of a nurse, the dark tip of her breast. In the movement she made by taking her two hands to bring it towards this man, a drop of milk appeared at the extremity.

He began to drink it eagerly, seizing that heavy breast in his mouth like a fruit. And he began to suckle in a greedy and regular way. He had passed both his arms around the waist of the woman that he was holding to approach her, and he drank with slow sips with a movement of the neck, similar as the children one.

Suddenly she said: “That’s enough for this one, take the other now.”

And he took the other with docility.

She had placed her hands on the back of the young man, and she was breathing forcefully now, happily, enjoying the breath of flowers mixed with blasts of air movement being thrown into the cars.

She said: “It smells really good here.”

He did not answer, still drinking at this source of flesh, and closing his eyes as if he was tasting.

But she pushed him gently: “That’s enough. I feel better. This put me back in my body.”

He got up, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.

She said, putting back in her dress both living bottles that were filling her chest:

You have done me a great service. I thank you, sir.”

And he replied in an acknowledging tone :

I am the one who has to thank you, ma’am, that’s two days that I had not eaten anything !”

February 12th, 1884

The Korean Word For Butterfly


When I first heard about the deaths of the two fourteen-year-old Korean girls, I was sitting in the teacher’s lounge of an English School in South Korea.

“Why’s everybody so quiet?” I asked one of the other teachers.

She slid the copy of the small English newspaper across the table, and, with her finger, tapped the photo on the front page. She didn’t need to say anything; the photos said it all. In the right-hand corner were the two girls in their grey school uniforms—similar to the uniforms the Korean girls in our area wore every day. Beneath that was a picture of an American tank sitting on the side of a country road. There had been an accident. One of our tanks had been in route to a training mission, there had been some miscommunication, a broken radio transmitter, and the two girls had been run over.

The majority of the South Korean staff at the school made little eye contact with me that day. And I can’t blame them. Many of them had sons and daughters the same age as those two girls. It was a horrible, horrible to thing to happen, made all the worse because it could have been avoided. From that point on, things changed in South Korea. I was used to being stared and gawked at as the only foreigner many in our small town had ever seen. I was used to having the children run their fingers in awe through the hairs on my arms. But after this accident (or murder, depending on who you talked to), I was suddenly being stared at with unabashed contempt.

The tank accident consumed the country but barely made the headlines back home in the States. It affected, in one way or another, everybody around us. And while I wouldn’t write about the experience until nearly ten years later, those two girls, and the photos of their dead bodies posted everywhere as memorials and vigils gained momentum, came to mean something more to me once I finally had a child of my own. Suddenly what struck me most about the entire thing was how incredibly difficult it must have been for the parents to have been forced to see those images everywhere. Suddenly I began thinking about the decision many of us make to have or not have children and the affects those decisions take on us. And while The Korean Word For Butterfly doesn’t focus on the deaths of those two girls, it does delve into the ripple affect the accident had on the characters in the story.

I remember pushing the paper back across the table that day and saying “I’m sorry” to nobody in particular because I didn’t know what else to say. Next to me at the table one of the Korean secretaries was putting together a children’s book. There was a picture of a butterfly with the Korean word written beneath it: Nabi.

“Yes,” she said without looking up when she heard my apology. “Yes.”

How To Stop Reading

Carson McCullers PortraitDisclaimer: The following is intended for those who read too much, who care too much about writing to that point that they are too intimidated to try it themselves. If you haven’t already read a ton of books, by all means stop reading this and pick up a copy of The Count of Monte Cristo or something.

Some of the best advice I ever got about writing came from a musician. She told me, after listening to my whiskey-fueled lament about how I’d never be able to create something truly beautiful, that she stopped listening to music whenever she was working on a song. When I asked why, she said that hearing really good drummers did nothing but fill her with self-doubt. It paralyzed her, to the point where she didn’t even want to pick up her drum sticks. And she would inevitably convince herself that she had no right making music at all. She said that after listening to me talk about the writers I looked up to (Steinbeck, McCullers, Roddy Doyle, Cormac McCarthy), she thought the best thing I could do for myself would be to stop reading books for a while.

And she was absolutely right.

At the time, I was painting houses for a living. I hadn’t written anything in at least ten years because, well, I’d decided long ago that I didn’t have what it took. And I was mostly right about that: I wasn’t very good. I had nothing to say. I was “choked” as one not-so-subtle girlfriend told me at the time. So what did I do all that time I wasn’t writing?

I read books. A glorious, wonderful f-load of books.

And now here I was getting drunk with a friend, talking once again about a dream I had long ago murdered, talking about how I wished I could create something as perfect as, say, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe.

“You ever listen to Rush’s YY2?”

I lied and said I had.

“You think after listening to Neil Peart play something as amazing as that that I could sit down to my crappy little kit and play? I’ll never be Neil Peart. Not even close. And I’ll never be Keith effing Moon. But what I can be is the best drummer in whatever crappy bar we happen to be playing in that night. You see what I’m saying? Put War and Peace away. Lower the damn bar. That’s where you start. Someplace where those giants aren’t staring over your shoulders.”

I don’t remember much else from that night. Other than her telling me that she didn’t know if I was a good writer or not, but that she did know that I wasn’t just a housepainter. Not that there’s anything wrong with being just a housepainter, as long as that’s all you want to be.

But that’s not all I wanted to be.

I wanted to rock out.

And so I put the McCullers and Steinbeck away.

I stopped measuring myself up against the giants.

And now I’m finally playing.

And that’s what matters: figuring out what it is that’s stopping you from attempting your dream.  So what if the soundtrack to your dream features somebody banging away happily on an old suitcase rather than a twenty-piece drum kit.

It’s your dream after all.