46 • pearls around the neck
She passed away more than twenty years ago.
But it doesn’t matter. What truly matters is the time I spent with her.
We were close, like a mother and daughter, but I was more than a daughter to her, I was her confidant.
Her dream was to write a book, and all the elements were there, carved in her soul, in her body even,
since it was her own story she wanted to tell. But the hardest part was yet to be accomplished: finding
the courage to tear them from herself and offer them to the public’s merciless judgment. And how she
had tried, many times! She would dictate a few bits and pieces while she was drawing; it was her way of
removing herself from her character.
“My parents lived in a large house on Rue du Roitelet. We were what you may call today a family
of good bourgeois, liberal yet traditional and well established in well-to-do society. My father had a
wholesale business selling colonial commodities, and my mother held the purse strings. Deliverymen
leading carts pulled by enormous Percheron draft horses would come and go through the large carriage
My father supervised the unloading while my mother, seated at her desk, meticulously entered the
number of bags of coffee, sugar or lentils in an enormous register. The aroma of the food, mingling
with the smell of the horses’ dung and the men’s sweat would fill the entire house, as would the men’s
cursing, mingled with the horses’ whinnying, and my father’s overbearing, curt and precise orders,
conferring upon our abode an atmosphere somewhat recalling that of a slave market.
This is how I remember it.
My parents, entirely absorbed every day in their business venture, worried little about me. My little
brother, however, monopolized my mother’s affection. They had hired two young country girls to serve
them, cater to the household’s needs and provide for my education. Ever since early childhood, I was
It would start in the morning with a hair brushing session, which consistently turned into genuine
torture. I had long ringlet curls. Whether out of jealousy or pure meanness, they would draw great
pleasure from pulling my hair and burning me with the curling iron. If I dared cry or threaten to tell
my mother, they promised the worst retaliations.
I therefore learned to endure physical suffering at an early age – just as I learned to hide the various
physical signs such as the actual burns – but they didn’t stop at that! Clarisse, the youngest, and the
more vicious of the two, was the one in charge of taking me to school. In order to rid herself of me as
fast as possible, she took a shortcut through small, dark and disreputable back streets lined with cafés
and dives that were rallying places into which all kinds of drunks poured in from the slums. It was
the time of day when the fat landladies would be cleaning vomit, urine and other traces of the night’s
depravity off the sidewalks. It wasn’t rare to stumble upon a drunkard, passed out by the curb for
the nearest shrew to throw a bucket of cold water at. Tipsy prostitutes, sitting between piles of trash
recounted the previous night’s “clients” while hurling a few incomprehensible bawdy jokes at me.
The sight of all these horrors made my blood curdle and I held on to Clarisse’s hand with all of my
strength. To reassure me, she always told me the same story.
“Come, now, this street is no danger at all to nice children. For little liars, little tattletales and little
heathens, however, it’s quite different. Do you see how uneven the cobblestones are? Do you see all
these empty, dark creases between them? Would you like to know what they are? Well, when one has