THE WHITE LADIES by Pierre Bordage
© Librairie L'Atalante, 2015
Translation by Dan Golembeski
“Hey Mom! What’s that thing out there?”
Standing on a chair at the kitchen window, Leo pointed at a white shape, barely visible in the morning mist. Still groggy, her face half hidden behind a curtain of hair, Elodie kept right on stirring her coffee, completely ignoring her son’s question: he asked so many on any given day that she had neither the time nor the energy to respond to them all.
“Get down from there before you hurt yourself!”
Leo lifted himself up onto his tiptoes and leaned into the window pane, fogging it up with his breath.
“It can’t be a mushroom, it’s way too big.”
At three years and five months, he already had the gift of gab and made use of an unusually rich vocabulary, gobbling up words as though they were his favorite food. But his constant chatter had the effect of irritating adults who dropped by the house and limited the number of kids he could call friends to just one: Baptiste, the autistic six-year-old who lived next door. Elodie wondered whether Leo might himself have Asperger’s, but the child psychologist who tested him said it was nothing more than “ordinary precociousness.” All that meant was that she would probably have to send him to a special school.
The child turned around and glared at his mother until she finally looked up. “Please Mom, come have a look.”
Aroused by his peremptory tone of voice, she gave a heavy sigh, then got up to join him at the window.
“I thought I told you to get down? What is it this time?”
Looking out the window in the direction Leo was pointing, she, too, saw a white form through the thick fog. It was a perfect sphere. She was immediately reminded of the terrifying orb in The Prisoner, an old British classic. She shuddered. Placing a hand on her son’s shoulder, she drew him near.
“What is it, Mom?”
“I don’t have a clue.”
“Should we go have a look?”
“That’s probably not a good idea . . .”
Breaking free from his mother’s embrace, Leo jumped down from the chair and ran out the door, which had been left ajar so that Pajamas—a mangy old neighborhood cat—could come purring into the house.
“Get back here!”
Quick as a squirrel, Leo was already halfway across the stone patio that occupied nearly half the yard. Beyond the lane that ran along the laurel hedge was an unplowed field, enclosed by a wire fence. Although cars were few, Elodie was terrified that one might mow down her son, who had become the sole object of her devotion now that she had given up on men. Though only thirty-six years old and still quite attractive, at least according to her girlfriends and former lovers, always mindful of her figure and dress—she was already firmly ensconced behind a wall of disappointments.
“Leo! Get back here!”
Wrapping her bathrobe tightly around her, she kicked off her slippers and began a mad dash to catch him, but no sooner had she stepped outside than her foot caught on the doorstep and she went sprawling head-first onto the patio’s stone pavers.
“You’re such a damn klutz!”
Ignoring the pain in her right foot and left knee, she quickly jumped to her feet and hobbled along as best she could to catch Leo, whose silhouette she spotted slipping out the gap in the metal gate that opened out onto the lane. The roar of an engine, like a sudden gust of wind, stoked her worst fears.
“Get back here this instant!”
She picked up speed and then she, too, hurried through the open gate. Leo had already crossed the road and was squeezing between two wires and into the field beyond. A white car came speeding along the hedge, then vanished around a bend in the road a hundred feet further on.
“Did you hear what I said?”
Leo was now galloping lickety-split across the wet grass, heading straight for the white sphere. It seemed to Elodie that it had abruptly grown larger, as if pumped up from within by a giant bellows. She was overwhelmed with an imminent sense of danger. She crossed the road, then climbed the embankment, her bare feet sinking into the lush grass with each step. She became entangled in the fence wires. When she was finally in the field, she had to wrap her bathrobe around her yet again, since she had nothing on underneath. She shivered from the cold, from her anger, from her fear. The pain of her scraped knee radiated through her leg.
“Get back here right now before I lose my temper!”
Lose her temper with Leo? That was an utter impossibility: all he had to do was throw her a glance, a smile, or a funny face, and she was putty in his hands. The child psychologist had told her to always be calm but firm with her son, and yet every time she gave him an order or told him he couldn’t have something, she was so overcome with guilt that she ended up giving in to his every whim. She acted as though she never saw her girlfriends’ exasperated faces and puckered lips—for they held strong views on how children really ought to be raised.
Leo was now dangerously close to the white orb. He disappeared from one moment to the next behind boulders and bushes. Elodie drove back a growing feeling that she was caught in a nightmare. The cold morning air stung her feet, sending shivers up her legs and numbing her belly. She would be late for work. By the time she would finally jump into the shower, get dressed, dress Leo, buckle him into the car, drop him off at daycare, wait in traffic on the bypass, and finally find a parking spot in the company lot, it would be well past 8:30—the fateful punch- in time—and that meant that she would be in for a humiliating reprimand from her boss, a man with a shiny bald head, sweaty palms, and lascivious little eyes.
She was gaining on him. He didn’t even turn around, intent as he was on reaching his destination. The sphere was still growing, as if it were trying to reach the child, too. It looked like a gigantic ping-pong ball. There wasn’t a single bump on its surface, not the slightest crack. Rather than avoid rocks and other obstacles in its path, it simply swallowed them up as though they didn’t even exist.
The russet leaves of a thicket vanished from view.
She was now hardly twenty-five feet from Leo. She stretched out her arm to grab him. Her anxiety was turning into anger. Real anger. And a terrible urge to whip his hide. Then, just as she was about to touch him, her foot dropped into a hole in the ground. Losing her balance, she tumbled forward onto the wet grass, her bathrobe flying open as she fell. The cold, damp grass sent a shiver through her belly, buttocks, and back. Furious, she let out a primal scream. Then, sensing that someone was watching her, she sprang to her feet and tightened her robe back around her. She gasped in horror as she looked up: the sphere’s convex wall was right in front of her, soaring at least sixty feet into the air.
She scanned her surroundings.
There wasn’t the slightest sign of her son.
She took a few steps back for a wider view. He simply wasn’t there: not in the tall grass, nor among the large boulders, their rounded backs covered in brownish moss. She fought back an initial panic attack. He must have gone around to the other side of the sphere. She decided to circle round it, taking care not to get too close. There was something evil about that white sphere sitting in the grass like a soccer ball dropped by the Titans.
When she saw that her son wasn’t on the other side either, Elodie’s blood ran cold.
“Don’t hide, my baby! You’ve got Mama all worried! Please . . .”
Tears welled up in her eyes. One thought, one inconceivable thought, now roared within her, all but inescapable; still, she kept right on combing the pasture, walking in ever-larger circles and shouting Leo’s name, impervious to the cold damp air of that November morn. When, despondent, she had to finally admit that her initial motherly instinct was right, she walked back over to the sphere: that hideous thing had just swallowed her son, gobbling him up just like the shrubs and boulders! She had no other choice but to go in and get him on the other side of that smooth, white wall.
She took a step toward the sphere, expecting it to expand and absorb her too.
“Give me back my son!”
It was a scream that came straight from her womb with the force of a geyser. But, like a satiated snake, the sphere remained motionless. Setting her fears aside, Elodie held up her hands and placed them directly on the wall. Surprised how soft it was, she finally pressed her forehead into the sphere’s smooth surface. Silent, stinging tears began to flow uncontrollably down her face.
“GIVE ME BACK MY SON!”
She thrust her shoulder into the sphere and it gave way, just an inch or two, like a mattress. She then pummeled the wall with her fists, but try as she might, there was no breaking its soft skin. She would have to puncture it. But she wavered: by the time she made it back with the four- pronged pitchfork she used to till her garden, the sphere might very well disappear. She wished she had remembered to slip her smartphone into her bathrobe pocket that morning when she got out of bed. She stood there for a long time, not knowing what to do, trembling with despair, fear, and cold; then, glancing around, she spotted a thick, knotty branch lying in the grass. It had a sharp point at one end. She picked it up, took a running start, and jabbed it into the rounded wall with all her strength. A bolt of pain shot through her arm and shoulder as if the force of the blow had been turned back against her. She scanned the sphere’s smooth surface, but there wasn’t a single rip, not the tiniest bruise.
“Leo! Leo! Can you hear me?”
No answer. Once again, she looked around the field hoping against hope to spot her son’s silhouette; other than the grasses swaying in the breeze, everything was perfectly still. She had no choice but to go back into the house and phone for help.
She gave the orb a defiant stare.
“If you swallowed my son, why won’t you swallow me?”
The reply came in the cawing of some passing crows.