I raised the camera, pretended to study an angle that did not include them, and remained lurking in wait, certain that, at last, I would catch the revelatory gesture, the expression that summed it all up, the life which movement encompassed but which a rigid face destroyed by sectioning off time, if we did not choose that essential, imperceptible fraction. I did not have to wait long.
The woman advanced in her task of gently binding the boy, of plucking, one by one, the remaining fibers of his freedom, in the slowest and most delicious of tortures. I imagined the possible consequences (now a small, foamy cloud appears, almost alone in the sky), foresaw the arrival at the house (a first-floor entryway most likely, which she would stuff with cushions and cats), and sensed the boy's embarrassment and his desperate decision to conceal it, to keep on pretending that nothing was new to him. Closing my eyes, if it is I who closed them, I put the stage in order: the mocking kisses, the woman tenderly rejecting those hands that sought to undress her, like hands in novels did, on a bed with a purple comforter, and obliging him instead to stop trying to remove her clothes, truly then mother and son beneath the opalines' yellow light. And everything would end as it always did, perhaps, but perhaps everything was different, and the initiation of the adolescent did not take place, perhaps they did not allow it to happen, from a long preface where clumsy embraces and exasperating caresses, the shuttle of hands, resolved itself into who knows what, into a separate but solitary pleasure, into the petulant mixed denial with the art of fatiguing and disconcerting so much injured innocence. It could have been like this, it could well have been like this; that woman was not looking for a lover in the boy, at once instructing him for an impossible aim of understanding – if he didn't think of it as a cruel game – the desire of desiring without satisfaction, of arousing herself for someone else, for someone who in no way could be this boy.
Michel is guilty of literature, of unreal fabrications. There is nothing he likes better than to imagine exceptions, individuals outside of the species, monsters not always repugnant. But this woman invited invention, giving him perhaps the keys to hit upon the truth. Before he left, and now that my memories have been filled for many days since I am prone to rumination, I decided not to lose a moment more. I gathered everything in my viewfinder (the photos with the tree, the parapet, the eleven o'clock sun) and took the photo. All in enough time to understand that the two had noticed and that they were looking at me, the boy was surprised and almost interrogative, while she was irritated; and resolutely hostile were her body and her face that knew themselves to have been stolen, ignominiously taken prisoner by a small chemical image.
I could tell this story with much detail, but it's not worth it. The woman said that no one had the right to take a photo without permission and demanded that I hand over the roll of film. All this in a clear, dry voice and good Parisian accent rising with every phrase in color and tone. For my part I didn't care much about relinquishing the roll of film, but anyone who knows me knows that you have to ask me willingly for things. As a result, I limited myself to the formulation of an opinion: namely, that photography was not only unprohibited in public places, but in fact enjoyed great official and private support. And while telling her this in meticulous detail, I was able to enjoy how the boy was withdrawing and staying back – somehow without moving – when all of sudden (it seemed almost incredible), he turned around and took off running, believing himself to be a poor fool walking when, in reality, he was fleeing in haste, passing to the side of the car, and losing himself like "a thread of the Virgin" in the morning air.
But the threads of the Virgin are also what we call the drool of the devil, or, more commonly, a cobweb. And Michel had to endure very precise imprecations, hear himself be labeled a meddler and an imbecile, and he deliberately made a fierce effort to smile and decline, with simple movements of his head, every cheap shot. When I was beginning to get tired I heard a car door slam. The man in the gray hat was there watching us. Only then did I understand that I was playing a role in the production.
He started walking towards us, carrying in his hand the newspaper which he had been pretending to read. What I most remember is the sneer of his mouth that covered his face in wrinkles, vacillating somewhat in location and form because his mouth was quivering and his grimace slipped from one side of his lips to the other like something independent and alive, something alien to the will. But the rest of it was rigid, a flour-coated clown or bloodless man, his skin dull and dry, his sunken eyes and his black, visible nostrils, blacker than his eyebrows or his hair or his black necktie. His was a cautious walk, as if the pavement hurt his feet. I saw that he had on patent leather shoes, with a very thin sole that must have cursed the street's every unevenness. I don't know why I had gotten down from the parapet; I don't know full well why I decided not to give them the photo, to refuse this demand in which I sensed fear and cowardice. The clown and the woman convened in silence: we formed a perfect, unbearable triangle, something destined to break with a snap. I laughed in their faces and set off on my way, I suppose a little more slowly than the boy. When I had come to the first houses, on the side of the iron footbridge, I turned back to look at them. They were not moving, but the man had dropped his newspaper; it seemed to me that the woman, with her shoulders against the parapet, was passing her hands over the stone in that classic and absurd gesture of the persecuted seeking a way out.
What happens next occurred here, almost just now in fact, in a fifth-floor room. Several days passed before Michel developed that Sunday's pictures; his shots of the Ministry and Sainte-Chapelle were what they should have been. He found two or three test shots that he had already forgotten, a feeble attempt to capture a cat perched on the roof of a urinal alley, as well as the photo of the blonde woman and the adolescent. The negative was so good that he prepared an enlargement; the enlargement was so good that he made another, much larger one, almost the size of a poster. It did not occur to him (now he wonders and wonders) that only the photos of the Ministry merited so much work. From the entire series, the snapshot on the edge of the isle was the only one that interested him. He pinned the enlargement on a wall of the room and that first day he spent a while gazing at it and remembering it in that comparative and melancholy operation of remembrance in the face of lost reality; his frozen memory, like every photo in which nothing was missing, not even and most of all nothing, the true scene setter.
The woman was there; the boy was there; the tree above their heads was rigid; the sky as fixed and unmoving as the stones of the parapet, the clouds and stones combined in a single inseparable material (now there comes one with sharp edges, running like the head of a storm). The first two days I accepted what I had done, from the photo in and of itself to the enlargement on the wall, and I didn't even ask myself why I would interrupt at every opportunity the translation of the contract of José Norberto Allende to revisit the face of the woman and the dark stains of the parapet. The first surprise was stupid; it would never have occurred to me to think that when we look at a photo from the front, the eyes repeat exactly the position and the vision of the lens; it is these things which are taken for granted, which it doesn't occur to anyone to consider. From my chair, with my typewriter before me, I looked at the photo over there, three meters away. And then it occurred to me that I had placed myself at exactly the point of observation of the lens. It was very good here; doubtless it was the most perfect way to appreciate a photo, although looking at it diagonally could have its charms as well as its discoveries. Every few minutes, for example when I could not find a way of saying in good French what José Alberto Allende was saying in good Spanish, I raised my eyes and looked at the photo; sometimes I was drawn to the woman, sometimes to the boy, sometimes to the pavement where a dry leaf had admirably settled so as to assess the nearby area. So I took a break from my work for a while, and included myself yet again in that morning in which the photo was steeped. I remembered ironically the woman's furious face as she protested my picture-taking, the boy's ridiculous and pathetic flight, the entrance onto the scene of the man with the white face. In my heart I was content with myself: my part had not been too outstanding, for if the French have been given the gift of witty retort, I did not understand why I had chosen to leave without a completed demonstration of privileges, prerogatives and civil rights. The important thing, the truly important thing, was to have abetted the boy in his timely escape (this in the event that my theories were correct, which has not been sufficiently tested, but the flight itself seemed to show that they were). By merely meddling I had given him an opportunity to benefit at last from his fear and to accomplish something useful. Now it would be regretted, diminished, and he would feel himself to be less of a man. But this was better than the company of a woman capable of looking like he was looked at on the isle; Michel is at times a puritan, believing that one should not be corrupted by force. In his heart, this photo had been a good deed.
But not because it was a good deed did I look at it between paragraphs of my work. At that time I did not know why I was looking at it, why I had pinned an enlargement to the wall. Perhaps this may be what happens with all fatidic actions, perhaps this may be the condition of their fulfillment. I believe that the almost furtive trembling of the leaves of the tree did not alarm me, that I followed a sentence already begun and I rounded it out nicely. Habits are like great herbaria: at the end of the day an eighty by sixty centimeter enlargement looks like a movie screen where on the end of an isle a woman is talking to a boy as a tree shakes its dry leaves above their heads.
But the hands were already too much. I had just written: Donc, la seconde clé réside dans la nature intrinsèque des difficultés que les sociétés ("Therefore the second key resides in the intrinsic nature of the difficulties which companies ...") – and I saw the woman's hand which began to close slowly, finger by finger. Of me nothing remained, a sentence in French that might never have ended, a typewriter which tumbles to the floor, a chair which screeches and shakes, a patch of fog. The boy had lowered his head like a boxer who cannot continue and who awaits the coup de grace; he had lowered the collar of the overcoat, looking more than ever like a prisoner, the perfect victim who aids in the catastrophe. Now the woman was whispering in his ear, and her hand opened again so as to be placed upon his cheek, to caress it and caress it, burning it in no haste. The boy was less embarrassed than mistrustful; once or twice he gazed beyond the woman's shoulder and she went on talking, explaining something that made her keep looking over to the area where, Michel knew full well, the car with the man in the gray hat was located, carefully omitted in the photo but reflected in the boy's eyes and (how could one doubt this now) the woman's words, in the woman's hands, in the woman's vicarious presence.
When I saw the man coming, stopping near them and watching them, his hands in his pockets with an air of something between rushed and demanding, an owner about to whistle for his dog after the latter's frolicking about the square, I understood, if this was to be understood, what had to have been happening, what had to have happened, what would have had to happen at that moment, between these people, over there where I had arrived to disrupt a certain order, innocently interfering in that which had not happened but which now was about to happen, which now was about to be fulfilled. And, therefore, what I had imagined was far less horrible than the reality, this woman who was not here for herself, who was not caressing or proposing or breathing for her own pleasure, or to capture that disheveled angel and toy with his terror and his yearning grace. The true master was waiting, smiling petulantly, already sure of the performance. He was not the first to order a woman into the vanguard, to bring her prisoners bound with flowers. The rest would be so simple: the car, some house somewhere, the drinks, the arousing sheets, the tears all too late, the awakening in hell. And I could have done nothing, this time I could have done absolutely nothing. My power had been a photo, this one, there, in which they would take their vengeance on me and show me openly what was about to take place. The photo had been taken and the time had passed: we were so far from one another, the corruption assuredly completed, the tears shed, and the rest conjecture and sadness. Suddenly the order was inverted, they were alive, moving, deciding and being decided, heading towards their future. And I from this side, prisoner of another time, of a room on the fifth floor, of not knowing who this woman and this man and this boy were, of being nothing more than the lens of my camera, something rigid, incapable of intervention.
On me they were playing the most horrible trick of all, that of deciding in the face of my own powerlessness, that of having the boy look at the flour-faced clown one more time, and having me understand that he was going to accept, that the proposal contained money or deception, and that I could not shout out for him to flee, or simply again facilitate his exit with a new photo, a small and almost humble intervention that disrupted the scaffolding of drool and perfume. Everything was going to resolve itself there, in that instant; it was something like an immense silence that had nothing to do with physical silence. This silence lay down and armed itself. I think I screamed, I screamed a terrible scream, and at that very second I knew that I was beginning to get closer, ten centimeters, one step, another step, the tree was in the forefront turning its branches rhythmically, a stain from the parapet jumped from the picture, the woman's face, turned towards me as if surprised, was growing. And so I turned a little bit – I mean to say that the camera turned a little bit – and without losing sight of the woman, it began to approach the man who was looking at me with those black holes he had in place of eyes, looking at me with either surprise or fury, with the desire of hammering me in the air. And at that instant I managed to see how a great bird out of focus swooped down once before my eyes, and I leaned against the wall of my room and was happy because the boy had just escaped, I saw him running, again in focus, fleeing with all his hair in the wind, learning at last to fly over the isle, reach the footbridge, and go back to the city. For the second time I was leaving them; for the second time I helped him escape and returned him to his precarious paradise. I remained panting before them; there was no need to go any further; the game had been played. Of the woman one could barely make out a shoulder and some of her hair, brutally cut by the picture of her face; but in the foreground was the man, his mouth agape. And there in his mouth I saw a black tongue flickering, and he was slowly raising his hands, bringing them also to the foreground, an instant still in perfect focus; he, after all, the lump who was erasing the isle, the tree, and I closed my eyes and wished to look no more. And I covered my face and broke out crying like an idiot.
Now a large white cloud passes by, like all those days, all this countless time. What remains to be said is always a cloud, two clouds, or long hours of perfectly clear sky, rectangular purism hammered in with pins in the wall of my room. This was what I saw when I opened my eyes and dried them with my hands: a clear sky, and then a cloud coming in from the left, passing its grace slowly and then disappearing to the right. And then another, and instead at times everything becomes gray, everything is an enormous cloud, and suddenly the splashes of rain crackle, and for a long time it rains on this face, like crying in reverse, and little by little the picture becomes clear, perhaps the sun comes out, and once again the clouds appear, in twos and threes. And the pigeons, sometimes, and the odd sparrow.