Vertigo

Guillaume Berwald

Translated by: Sarah MacNeil

Original text: "Étourdissement "


Artwork by Peter Doige

Vertigo

I’d been travelling for several weeks already, or rather, I’d been running away for several weeks already, and I was on the verge of reaching that place where, without ever having admitted it to myself, I inevitably was meant to reach; invariably, just like every other time, like this time, unable to handle the nights, I’d run away from these nights to run towards other nights, those of my brother; but I couldn’t find myself, had never been able to find myself in anything but this vague, muddled existence, an anonymous string of highway shoulders and hotel room nights. I want, I need, to rid myself, as quickly as possible, of my bad habits, I tell myself, but I don’t, I stay comfortably enfolded in my bad habits until they literally climb up on my back; friends climb up on my back, all teeth, gaping mouths filled with teeth, that burst out in laughter; friends I don’t know, who wake me up in the morning, telephone numbers in my pockets, promises; my best friends of just yesterday, whom I’ve forgotten, have all climbed up on my back… This morning, still, echoes of their laughter, the clack of billiard balls, surge in my head…I dragged myself out to my car… I was trying to escape, with classical music, but too-loud classical music, also unbearable, and the sound of the motor, the wind thundering through the windows was the only thing, the only thing that worked… I imagine myself parked here, there, just there again, at the Motel Idéal, asking for another room, staying for a good long while, no number, staying forever, finally focusing on those tasks of the spirit, that shaping of the spirit to which I don’t devote enough time, to which I don’t give all my time; but instead of staying at the Motel Idéal, I must escape from it then and there, that very same day, an escape from a first escape in alcohol to a second escape on the highway, hoping for a third escape from the Motel Idéal… I think back to the tenderness of the escape found in room 104 where we were so cozy, the benevolent room 104 where Yvonne fell asleep and, while driving, I pull up the image of Yvonne, half-naked, half under the covers, legs spread-eagled, passed-out. I’d been cooking lentils in the room, on my little gas cooker, in the room where I had disconnected the smoke detector, before turning on the hot plate. But Yvonne stayed behind. And I’m still here, in the CRV, and have been for the past twenty days, but look, there’s the first bridge over Fish Creek and there are the hairpin bends, dozens of hairpins on the mountainside, always, the mountains, the Sierra Nevada and my persistent back pains, at each bend, that I would love to massage on the straight stretches, but I don’t offer myself this relief, too exhausted. The open windows and this scorching sun are burning my left arm, already burnt from hour after hour on the road; my charred arm, that I’m still letting burn, a burnt left arm that I wouldn’t have any other way. Simply put. This time I will find my brother, finally, and this time my brother will know to tell me what I need to hear. Having run, having travelled, I expect to hear at the end of this long road, and from a different mouth than my own, at the end of this road, what it is I want to hear. A deep breath caught in my chest, from Yvonne’s arms this morning, to hear, at the other end, what I need to hear: that’s what we’re all doing anyway. And so I make my way, again and always, caught in this car chase… I didn’t take Yvonne with me, I left her there, at the Kern, and I took off, headed for Fish Creek…

 

From a revolting life, dripping with alcohol, to a life in the CRV, life on the road. Radically so. We went from one hotel to the next, for weeks on end, up until the Kern, but it was impossible to tell her. I stayed in bed one morning, until late in the afternoon, left for dead, incapable of moving from all the drinks that others had bought, but it wasn’t that… She doesn’t know, can never know, how a man can be worn out from each day that remains and accumulates. This morning, heading towards my brother’s, towards what lies over there, I recalled the mountains that jutted up between the giant trunks. I recalled crossing the expanse of the desert, Death Valley, a scarf wrapped around my head, suffocating for so long and gasping for breath, stopping to breathe and not being able to draw breath, seeing little black spots in the light, from one stifling day to yet another, until the mountains rose up, until they were no longer just walls of red rock, sweating under the sun, like faces, but huge mountains in the distance, as though dressed in green, in trees, enough to make a person think that there might be water up there and that maybe they weren’t imagining it, and I remember, finally making it, climbing up, seeing them there, and then closer still, the trees: cacti… But even so, green, and hopeful that the drought was at an end, by trekking upwards, zigzagging far enough to leave the heat behind, that it would consume the dust we left behind, just like alcohol. “Two beers!” It was all coming back to me, that whatever had taken a hold of me was relenting. It was amazing to think that he’d be up there, in his little cabin, just waiting there, the wise man… That’s what I need right now, I kept repeating to myself, keep repeating to myself, that’s what I need, it’ll do me good to finally be able to breathe, just breathe. Yvonne had stayed behind, at the Kern. “A bit of time alone, to write…”… promises that surfaced, coolly, as we climbed the mountains, Yvonne breathed them in deeply, her head out in the fading light; she laughed to see the collapsed slopes threatening to bring the little road down with her, to fall some thousand feet below… the promise of drizzle, of a sun that had become almost grey for a second, and then piercing through once again, filtered, falling across the giant pines, the big cedars, those large trees that appeared at higher altitudes, she laughed about all of it, from zig to zag of the path, on the other side of the hills of cacti, in that forest that we had finally found, cool, in the late afternoon sun, peaceful, like a moment frozen in time, under the dew. The Kern.

 

I came by the Meadow Creek General Store. Bought two oranges for my brother and two beers, for me. The local accent, the local smiles, people sitting with a lager, laid-back, keeping their feet up on the table, going – Hello! – It’s nice around here. – Don’t tell anyone… – Laughter – No invitation to stay for dinner, they know the brother but there’s no convincing them that a stranger is anything but a stranger… Off again, a few miles past the old cedar that was hit by lightning, split in two, stunted, and its shoots all healthy, a saturated green covering the ends of the dry branches. “Now, I’ve arrived, this is where I meant to arrive, this is what I was thinking of…” Surely, Yvonne should have come too, surely she would have enjoyed the visit to my brother’s, but for a second, that she needed to write, no one moment will ever come around again, not here or anywhere else…shouldn’t take stock of doubts…Tomorrow, tomorrow, need to come back to the cabin, together. “How was your day?” Music to my ears! Mixing familiar with foreign, from a square of dust our house will emerge. The most magnificent thing in the valley: the banks of the Kern; taming a basin where eddies swirl calmly, where the trout wriggle between your legs; a house, home… Parked the CRV on the side of the road and dust floats down. Got out Uncle Phillipe’s old journeyman’s staff, styled after those of the emperors of Djibidjistan, an old relic from a trip, from in between the seats, gripped it, started walking up the path to my brother’s, up to the very top, up to the cabin.

***

The path, pleasant at first, started to slope upwards a bit more, and then, aggressively, giant steps, and between the leaves, a strong but filtered light beat down, and quickly my steps became heavier and heavier, sweat and breath, but towards the end, lighter, lighter because I kept telling myself “Just one more step, just one more step…” and they were all lighter, more natural, but also, I felt them in my heart. My gaze fell on the designs made by the pale shadows of the small leaves, pine needles rustled by the wind, and I felt like the earth was slipping out from under my feet, as though I were underwater, as though I were swaying between my own movements and the apparent stillness of the earth. “The sun is beating down too hard on my head,” I thought, “in spite of the coolness, it’s making my head spin… But I’m not dizzy. And the leaves are protecting me from the harshest rays, from the harshest rays… I thought I could run away from the city to travel, but I’ve only managed to run away, without travelling, up until now, now that I’m finally in my brother’s countryside…” I repeat this sentence to myself: “I am in my brother’s countryside.”

 

I was sweating profusely, in rivulets that ran down my cheeks and into my eyes, to the tip of my chin, a real beast, but happy to be one, still, I repeated to myself; this sweat, what I wanted by coming here, and in spite of the vertigo, which engulfed the senses, a delay between the movement and the desire to move, a split second; even though I was maybe in the middle of a stroke, like that old guy, clinging to his line out on his barque, carried away, maybe like him, on the verge of fainting and sharp pains in the chest, with nothing but heavy air sucked into the lungs, no help. “I must,” I say to myself, “stop for a bit, to pull myself together, but I don’t want to. Getting drunk on sweat, and drinking until the swig comes back up right away, mixed up with the dust, until all the water is lost to the desert, soaked up… Lifting my gaze in surrender, I look for a cool spot nestled among the roots, a spot to rest…” A fox in the middle of the path, turned towards me, a prey in his mouth. Both of us, for an instant, me, leaning on my Djibidjistan staff, wiping my forehead to make sure I’m not dreaming, the fox, slowly, turning around, taking a few steps, and heading back up the trail, turning to me again. One breath, only one, and I take a few steps towards him, who’s showing me the way,  fur ruffled, black, and what was it he had in his mouth? I caught my breath again, as he zigzagged up the path, lightly, looking back often, and after fifty feet or so, slipped back into the woods on the other side of the trail, back to his den under the roots, somewhere under a tree, a cool place… I leaned once again on my Djibidjistan staff, in the shade of the translucent leaves. “If I make it to the peak of this path, I’ll have to tell my brother about the fox…” We had visited this property on the edge of the sea, I remembered the images of the landscape facing me; we had visited this property on the edge of the sea, Yvonne and I. We’d dreamed of the house we’d build: I calculated the number of beams we’d need, I imagined how we’d build this house of logs, fitting them together, our cabin, at the foot of the cliffs of l’Île d’Orléans. And Yvonne’s garden, she laid it all out in her mind, fenced, tilled, her garden by the river. As we explored the trails already cleared on the land, we came across two foxes, a couple of foxes, a parable of our happiness, concealed in the hollows of the cliffs, settled there, scared of us… The Djibidjistan staff slid in my hand, my sweaty hand… I bought a lottery ticket to finance the purchase of the land. Twenty-four hours to believe in the millions that were on their way, in the house, in Yvonne’s garden… My brother’s cabin is getting closer.

 

And if I hadn’t spent all that time at the bar, knocking back beers, I would’ve bought the land… I continued climbing, pushing through the head aches, that’s what I was doing… “Don’t spend all your time drinking… All those wasted dreams!” I told myself aloud. “Work for Yvonne instead and lay a den of foxes at her feet.”… Passed through Vegas; the impressive lighting of the Hoover Dam. “All in on zero!” I now cried. “All in on zero!” To paraphrase Dostoyevsky without the grandmother’s fortune, I imagined, heart bursting from such an absolute victory, the nerve. Zero!! And there is the house, jutting out from the foot of the cliffs, my dream!...  No more than a few hundred feet left, a few more steps still, maybe five hundred feet, maybe a thousand. I couldn’t shake the sensation of my body being detached from the ground; I still felt it, the staff in my hand, too light, too heavy, impossible to say if I even really had it in my hand, this journeyman’s staff, to hold me up.

 

“Don’t wear yourself out with dreams.” A wave of fatigue, another one, strong, ebbed, then washed over me again, didn’t know where to go anymore, even choking me. No more smiling, not needing to anymore. I recalled the crossing with Yvonne, a peculiar effort, breathless, frightened. I had run as fast as possible to get there; running, it was all I was capable of, all I am capable of, capable only of this weakness, exposed, naked before Yvonne… I was headed towards my brother’s to find a moment to tell him what I’d seen and felt, just before collapsing… I don’t believe it… I was coming to the end of the road, mouth full and belly stuffed, but incapable of remembering how anything even tasted. He can’t be far away anymore… If I could only find, at the edge of the clearing, a place to rest a minute before throwing myself back out into full light. He’ll understand, surely. I repeated to myself: “He’ll understand, surely…”

 

This stump will do the trick, here in the shade… I already hear his footsteps approaching, strange, lighter, not heavy and violent, but winged, slow. He looks at me but I don’t look at him, I think for another moment about things that don’t concern him, the canopy, the mountains, soaring a bit in spirit the way we can fly for an instant, glance back at what there is, perch on the summit, only for a second; cut the cord but it stays, don’t cut the string. I had so many things to say, but right now… “I knew you would come, I got a letter for you, it must be from debt collectors, following you here… You know, just breathe a bit. Drink a bit of water. Take the time to feel it, in your throat, in your veins, entering, really take the time to feel it; don’t just go swallowing it in one shot, without paying attention.” 

Guillaume Berwald

Né dans les Laurentides, près de Montréal, Guillaume Berwald est étudiant à la maîtrise en littérature à l'Université de Moncton. Il vient de publier son premier roman Edmonton.

Sarah MacNeil

Sarah is an Ottawa-based (but Maritimer at heart) translator currently undertaking the M.A. in literary translation at the University of Ottawa.