by Jack Coughlin
Three Stories from Flaubert
After You Left
You wanted me to tell you everything I did after we left each other.
Well, I was very sad; it had been so lovely. When I saw your back disappear into the train compartment, I went up on the bridge to watch your train pass under me. That was all I saw; you were inside it! I looked after it as long as I could, and I listened to it. In the other direction, toward Rouen, the sky was red and striped with broad bands of purple. The sky would be long dark by the time I reached Rouen and you reached Paris. I lit another cigar. For a while I paced back and forth. Then, because I felt so numb and tired, I went into a café across the street and drank a glass of kirsch.
My train came into the station, heading in the opposite direction from yours. In the compartment, I met a man I knew from my schooldays. We talked for a long time, almost all the way back to Rouen.
When I arrived, Louis was there to meet me, as we had planned, but my mother hadn’t sent the carriage to take us home. We waited for a while, and then, by moonlight, we walked across the bridge and through the port. In that part of town there are two places where we could hire a hackney cab.
At the second place, the people live in an old church. It was dark. We knocked and woke the woman, who came to the door in her nightcap. Imagine the scene, in the middle of the night, with the interior of that old church behind her—her jaws gaping in a yawn; a candle burning; the lace shawl she wore hanging down below her hips. The horse had to be harnessed, of course. The breeching band had broken, and we waited while they mended it with a piece of rope.
On the way home, I told Louis about my old school friend, who is his old school friend too. I told him how you and I had spent our time together. Out the window, the moon was shining on the river. I remembered another journey home late at night by moonlight. I described it to Louis: There was deep snow on the ground. I was in a sleigh, wearing my red wool hat and wrapped in my fur cloak. I had lost my boots that day, on my way to see an exhibition of savages from Africa. All the windows were open, and I was smoking my pipe. The river was dark. The trees were dark. The moon shone on the fields of snow: they looked as smooth as satin. The snow-covered houses looked like little white bears curled up asleep. I imagined that I was in the Russian steppe. I thought I could hear reindeer snorting in the mist, I thought I could see a pack of wolves leaping up at the back of the sleigh. The eyes of the wolves were shining like coals on both sides of the road.
When at last we reached home, it was one in the morning. I wanted to organize my work table before I went to bed. Out my study window, the moon was still shining—on the water, on the tow path, and, close to the house, on the tulip tree by my window. When I was done, Louis went off to his room and I went off to mine.
Tomorrow I will be going into Rouen for a funeral. Madame Pouchet, the wife of a doctor, died the day before yesterday in the street. She was on horseback, riding with her husband; she had a stroke and fell from the horse. I’ve been told I don’t have much compassion for other people, but in this case, I am very sad. Pouchet is a good man, though completely deaf and by nature not very cheerful. He doesn’t see patients, but works in zoology. His wife was a pretty Englishwoman with a pleasant manner, who helped him a good deal in his work. She made drawings for him and read his proofs; they went on trips together; she was a real companion. He loved her very much and will be devastated by his loss. Louis lives across the street from them. He happened to see the carriage that brought her home, and her son lifting her out; there was a handkerchief over her face. Just as she was being carried like that into the house, feet first, an errand boy came up. He was delivering a large bouquet of flowers she had ordered that morning. O Shakespeare!
The Coachman and the Worm
A former servant of ours, a pathetic fellow, is now the driver of a hackney cab—you’ll probably remember how he married the daughter of that porter who was awarded a prestigious prize at the same time that his wife was being sentenced to penal servitude for theft, whereas he, the porter, was actually the thief. In any case, this unfortunate man Tolet, our former servant, has, or thinks he has, a tapeworm inside him. He talks about it as though it were a living person who communicates with him and tells him what it wants, and when Tolet is talking to you, the word he always refers to this creature inside him. Sometimes Tolet has a sudden urge and attributes it to the tapeworm: “He wants it,” he says—and right away Tolet obeys. Lately he wanted to eat some fresh white rolls; another time he had to have some white wine, but the next day he was outraged because he wasn’t given red.
The poor man has by now lowered himself, in his own eyes, to the same level as the tapeworm; they are equals waging a fierce battle for dominance. He said to my sister-in-law lately, “That creature has it in for me; it’s a battle of wills, you see; he’s forcing me to do what he likes. But I’ll have my revenge. Only one of us will be left alive.” Well, the man is the one who will be left alive, or, rather, not for long, because, in order to kill the worm and be rid of it, he recently swallowed a bottle of vitriol and is at this very moment dying. I wonder if you can see the true depths of this story.
What a strange thing it is—the human brain!
The Paris Review No. 104