The inhabitants soon told me how it all works here. Like me, newcomers appear in the night. With each new inhabitant, a new house makes the circle a little bigger. We can hardly remember anything. As far as village life goes, we help each other, but we don’t make friends. No-one leaves the circle of houses. No-one goes into the forest.
And then there is the road. It runs between the house occupied by Madame Erste, who has lived in St. Hendbaye longer than anyone else, and that of her neighbor, then it disappears among the trees. Where it enters the forest, it is obstructed by heavy, old tree-trunks rotting away, which form a real barricade. They warned me immediately: going down this road was totally forbidden. At least, going down it too soon. Just as the inhabitants of the village appeared as if by magic, they disappeared in exactly the same way. Everybody would go to bed, and the next morning, one, two, or sometimes as many as four old people and their houses had disappeared. They were suspected of having wanted to go down the road. Some people said that if you risked leaving the village “too soon”, you got lost in the forest and died of hunger. When I asked these people what they meant by “too soon” and where they got this information from, they would stare at me, their eyes suddenly blank, then stand motionless for a few seconds, before eventually muttering, “That’s how it is. Don’t go there. Not too soon, little one, not too soon...”
As I grew up, curiosity began to eat away at me. I felt suffocated by the mystery surrounding us. I wanted to know what I was doing there. Why me? Why them? Most of all, I did not understand why we didn’t leave by the road. It was our only hope of getting out of this hole, and nobody even wanted to try! They all seemed subdued and resigned.
I began to ask questions of my neighbors. I could tell this was not welcomed. I just wanted to check if anyone could remember anything interesting, but no... My neighbor talked about having indigestion, another woman told me how she had been attacked in the street once, before she came to live in St. Hendbaye. A man aged about twenty confided in me with reckless pride how he used to collect fines for speeding. Finally, a rather podgy neighbor, who was still only a teenager, described to me the overwhelming gratitude he felt for his grandmother who used to take him sticky buns when he was in hospital. In short, nothing gave me the slightest indication of what could have brought us all there.
One night, the year I was twenty-two, when I could not manage to get off to sleep, my attention was attracted by a noise outside. Usually there was complete silence until daybreak. I looked out of my window. I could not believe my eyes. Madame Erste had left her house and was walking determinedly towards the road. She was getting dangerously distant from the protective circle. I yelled at her, but she neither replied nor stopped, as if she hadn’t heard me. I rushed outside, in the direction she had gone. When I reached the edge of the road, she had disappeared. A strange sort of malaise made my whole body shiver. Suddenly, I made out a shape in the middle of the pine trees, on the other side... There she was, wandering like a sad ghost. The sight of her filled me with terror. I turned round and ran back to my house. The next morning, the house belonging to Madame Erste, who had just turned sixty-six, had evaporated.
From that day on I stopped asking questions. I remained resigned until this evening. Here I am again facing the forest barricade. I am seventy-eight years old now. I was woken in the middle of the night by an intuition so sharp that it was almost painful. This time I can feel it, I have to follow the road. Suddenly, the trees barring the way vanish. I move forward, distraught and lost. As soon as I enter the forest they rise up once more behind me. I have no choice now. I keep walking.
I’ve been walking for hours. What if I’ve made a mistake? What if it was still “too soon”? Am I going to remain a prisoner of these cruel trees?
From time to time, I pass a pallid shadow. We do not communicate. Strangely, I have neither the strength nor the desire.
Finally, I arrive at a crossroads. I have to choose which route to take. I turn left, randomly. I feel as if I have been walking for even more hours. I am hot. The air is more and more stifling. I am suffocating. The darkness is also becoming oppressive; I am now surrounded by total blackness. Suddenly, burning trees rise up before me. The pines form two walls of flame on either side of the road. An acrid smell penetrates my nostrils in waves. It smells like... sulphur?
I stop. The road comes to abrupt end. All there is in front of me is a vast abyss of flames.
At last, I understand. The car with my father, the speeding, the indigestion, the attack, the hospital. We are all dead, that strikes me as a self-evident truth. We lost our lives when our time had not yet come. We were just on “stand by”, in the village, waiting for the day when we should have died, so that we could finally reach salvation. One last bitter truth revealed itself to me. I should have turned back right then.
I fall into the flames of Hell.
Translated by Wendy Cross