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He walked along under a harsh sun that crushed him like a powerful fist. From time to time, a strong burning gust of hot wind made him stagger. Far off, little clouds followed each other in close single file, caressing the back of the mountain. A plane drew a comma in the sky.
Martin was walking along the edge of the vineyards. Hundreds of rows of vines, rustling in the wind of the sirocco. Very few cars this late in August, so much the better!
He saw on his right: ‘Cros d'Anyon’. He crossed the bridge over the Aygue, the river had almost dried up. He sat down on the last yellow-topped white mile marker to get his breath back. County road 975. At last he caught sight of the sign for Sainte-Justine-les-Vignes.
On the village square, two old women sitting on folding chairs under an arbor did not even notice him. He passed the wine-tasting cellar on the neighboring estate. It was deserted at this time of day. Martin went round the war memorial, and strode away from the Café du Commerce, hugging the storefronts: the baker’s, the artisan butcher, all closed, and went down an arched passageway. There, in a narrow alleyway, he knocked at a door. Heavy footsteps announced someone coming to open.
“Martin! What brings you here? Been a long time! Come on in, don’t stay out there in this scorcher! How’s you?”
“Mornin’, Marie. I can’t… er… No offence, but I can’t come in…”
“Oh yeah, and why wouldn’t you be able to come into my house, then?
“Like I said, I can’t come in… Come out here and you’ll see why!”
Marie the bone setter cured people. She put bones back in place, knew how to apply poultices better than anybody, and got rid of fevers. She took two steps outside and looked Martin up and down. When her gaze reached the top of his head, her eyes widened in amazement.
“Martin, what on earth’s that? Eh?”
“It’s because of ‘that’ I’ve just walked five miles in the heat and the mistral, Marie, just so’s you can tell me what’s happenin’ to me!”
“Look, Martin, how can I… I’ve never…“
“Listen, Marie, at least tell me what you think ‘that’ is exactly, because when I look up, ‘that’ moves wi’ me!” said Martin raising his eyebrows.
“Lord, Martin, I dunno what to say! Come here, don’t let people see you like that.”
Marie pulled Martin into the dark street corner and looked at him again with an incredulous expression.
“I dunno what to say Martin!”
“Say what you think, Marie!”
“You’ve got summat that looks like a tiny cloud about… about eight inches above your head”.
“That’s just what I thought!” Martin went on. “And where do you think this… this… this thing’s come from?”
“How should I know?“ replied Marie. “It’s the first time in my life I’ve seen anything like it. Move around a bit, let me see how it follows you.”
Martin stepped forward, then back, did a few little jumps on the spot, and the cloud followed him like a shadow.
“Y’know, it’s quite funny, really,” began Marie.
“Except it doesn’t make me laugh!” Martin interrupted her, rather cross.
“Well, come and sit on this bench and tell me how you got it and how long you’ve had it.”
Marie, Martin and the little cloud went over to the bench, away from any prying eyes, and Martin said,
“I were in the vineyards, I were thinking about all my problems, y’know, the loan I’ve got to pay back to the Farmers' Co-op bank, how dry it is this summer… It was all going round and round in my head…! Then Blandine came to tell me dinner was ready and I told her I wasn’t hungry. I walked off again and I heard her jabbering, ‘That man always has his head in the clouds!’. Then she got back on the moped and went back to the house. And that’s when I sensed something weird above my head. I felt around but there was nothing. I went to look at my reflection in the cab window of my combine harvester and I saw ‘that’. I tried catching it but nothing doing. And putting my hand through it, but it went up as soon as I got near. I was really scared, y’know! So, I came straight here to show you it. I was too embarrassed to go to the doctor’s and if anyone’d seen me, they definitely would’ve thought I was the village idiot!”
“Have you talked to Blandine about it?”
“Of course not, poor girl! She must be looking for me by now. I ran away like a criminal, Holy Mother of God!”
Marie pondered what she should do without taking her eyes off the strange little cloud floating above Martin’s head. Should she call the doctor? Not without first using her own tools.
“I’ve got an idea,” she said suddenly to Martin, who was worried to death. “You stand on your head and that’ll squash the ‘thing’.“
Martin stared at her in astonishment.
“Well, yes, you see,” she continued, “upside down, with your head at the bottom…”
“But I haven’t done that since… since I was at school, probably…”
“Don’t worry, stupid, I’ll help you!”
It took them three goes before he did it, Martin having lost some of the suppleness of his youth. As a result, he was as red as a tomato, but it was no good, the little cloud acted as a shock absorber.
Marie had another think and clicked her fingers.
“Wait, I’ve got another idea!”
She came back a few seconds later with a knitting needle.
“I’ll put this right through the middle of it and we’ll see what’s in there,” she said to the terrified Martin.
That was no good either, the needle came out the other side without the little cloud even trembling. Marie was at the end of her tether, not much had stood up to her with so much insolence!
“I’m trying one more thing and then I’ll send you to the doctor!”
She made Martin sit on the bench and started to sing.
“What’s up wi’you? Do you really think it’s something to sing about?” asked Martin.
“Let me do it, you moron, everybody’s always told me I sing out of tune, right from nursery school. At least it might be some use, for once.”
But the stubborn little cloud stayed in its place without losing as much as a single drop.
Marie raised her arms to the heavens in a gesture of helplessness.
“I don’t think I can do anything for you, Martin, you poor thing. If you like, I’ll go to the doctor’s with you!”

The doctor had never seen anything like it and could do nothing for Martin. So, as no solution could be found to his problem, they sent the good man home and recommended that he learn to live with his ‘little peculiarity’.

Blandine, very worried at the sudden disappearance of her husband, made hardly any fuss at all when she saw him coming back shadowed by that strange, damp head-covering. After all, having your head in the clouds was not as much of a nuisance as all that, “at least we’ll always know where it is… your head, I mean !” she said with some irony.
As for Martin, he ended up getting rather attached to his little cumulus which, as he later discovered, changed color according to the mood he was in!

Translated by Wendy Cross


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