The following creative piece was written in the context of the seminar Two-Lakes Romanticism given in the spring semester 2017 at both UNIL and at the University of Lancaster. The author, Céline Stadler, wrote a small commentary about the piece (at the bottom of the page), including details about the writing process and intertextual references you might miss!
Author: Céline Stadler
So here I sit, on my bed of wind and poetry. Could that really be the same scene, the same lake as before? It is hard to believe. I have been musing on that rock for centuries it seems, and I saw nothing else but the island of freedom right next to the domestic duties that threaten to crush me down. Nonetheless, I know that the lake can be rough. I know that his lips so soft can spit water more fiercely than any cloud. I know that any spill could kill, if only you find the flame about to yield. So I know the lake, but I still can’t believe the story that the old man told me.
He had told it again and again to any living soul he could meet. At first I thought he was just raving, but then something struck me. When you actually listened, the narrative appeared eternal, unchangeable. From one time to another, the old guy would never change a word. He was not like the other drunkards that we could encounter – the fact that he always stuck to the lake should have been a first clue. His story was not an uncontrolled outburst; on the contrary, he looked like a well-oiled automat whose jaws worked rhythmically. Even if the teeth were rotten, the machine behind was infallible.
I would love to be able to tell stories and therefore, I must admit, I envied him. He looked as if he didn’t remember anything from his previous performance, as if he didn’t learn all those sentences by heart. Just like casual conversation. Even when I talk naturally, I can’t sound as natural as he does. Well, he might use odd old words sometimes, but they come swiftly and nobody cares. I hope you will get what I mean in the end, even if a written tale is never the same kind of drowning as a spoken one. If a curse ever existed for me, spoken eloquence is my bottomless pit.
Thus, of course, when I try to relate the old guy’s tale, it won’t be as smooth, spontaneous, and powerful as his own recital. His voice could make you overflow with colours that you can breathe over and over as if your lips were meant for rumination. Maybe this is what he is doing, perpetually feeling his memories on his tongue, like saliva, until his imagination provides a new flavour. For I am sure that he imagined some things. But you know, even if the tale is fake, it speaks about what is. In the most extraordinary facts, we can discover a truth about our own dust. We have so many stories about things like death, fear or love, but they are not mere tragic themes meant for excessive pathos only: they are part of ordinary lives (the ones with toothpaste, dirty pans, worn pants and late assignments; lives that are actually lived). Maybe supernatural elements put a more direct light on our human concerns, but we should never forget how ordinary lives matter. In a sense, the old guy’s story is very ordinary. I may not believe that the events he related actually took place, but I believe that he portrayed his true feelings and thoughts. I believe in a man’s love for his children, his fears, his rage, and his immense sense of guilt. Is that not what matters, the feeling? Whenever I come back to the lake, this is what the mirroring lights tell me.
The Cat of Lausanne
He had come without asking, as they always do. Did he want to ransom a cigarette or a few bottles? No, he just wanted to sit on the beach with a group of students. We looked at each other, not knowing whether to be nervous or afraid. Then he began to speak.
‘Memory is like the tide, you know. You can try and step behind; you can bring your foot to drier sands, but the flow remains. When the moon approaches and pushes the water towards the shore, you will search in vain for an earth to receive your footprints. Even if you sleep, in the morning you will feel the salt on your skin’.
‘Mate, you need more beer. There’s no salt in the lake’.
‘There is salt in my memories’.
‘Listen mate, you sure have very interesting memories, but we are having a nice and quiet picnic with friends and –’
‘Yeah, you’re having a birthday party I heard. Well, you know what? I have an event to commemorate too. Do you want to hear my story?’
‘Well, I’d rather not’.
The man raised his head with a handful of scars and eyes so drunk that it seemed impossible to see anything with them.
‘This is the story of my downfall, but don’t pity me. I don’t deserve any kindness, even though my misery exceeds everything you’ve ever known. The curse has been forgotten. We have been forgotten, but the tide keeps coming back. Every night I breathe again and I live the whole tale once more. I see you won’t care. Still you have to listen. I will shake off my stained voice and hope that the past can merge with calmer waters.
It all began one morning. I woke up at dawn. I walked to the lake with my hooks, my baits, and my fishing rod. I could not stay too long, could not just throw my nets into the greenish darkness as I usually did. I had to catch a big, sumptuous fish – and quickly. One fish that could make guests dribble and have everybody enquire: “Who caught it? Who is the blessed soul that could provide such a feast?” It was my duty as a father and as a man to be the one who would answer “Me”. Therefore, I had to quickly catch a profusion of healthy, shining fish.
As the shy rays of dawn slowly ambitioned to become sunlight, I knelt down in front of the virgin waves. A playful breeze was floating above the water, carrying a whole world peopled with bugs, twigs, and leaves. Spring mornings were always so sweet! It felt right to just bow down and pray. I thanked God for my beautiful children, prayed for poor Isabelle’s soul and asked for fish. If you could grant me a great fishing, I swear that I will offer you my first catch!
That being said, I threw my line into the lake. By the time I stuck my rod between rocks and sat, something splashed and smashed the still glass of the lake. I jumped on my feet and rushed towards the rod, spitting with exclamations of joy. It was huge. So huge I knew it could not pull on the line any longer without breaking it. So I jumped once again but I went down, down into the water. Using the knife which I always carried against my chest, I slayed my prey. It was a tremendous carp, really, you cannot imagine how big it was. My hands were shaking with enthusiasm: what a fish for Jo’s wedding! What a perfect gift for my beloved daughter! I could not believe my chance.
As blood spread over my hands, I paused to think.
Indeed, I had promised God He would have my first catch. But what a fish! Why would He have allowed me to have it, were it not meant for my daughter’s wedding feast? On the other hand, I had made a promise and I should keep it. Yes, but what a gift! Anyway, what difference would it make for Him who doesn’t need it, if He gets a smaller one or if he gets one later? God is merciful, I thought. He will forgive me if I keep this carp and offer the next one. He won’t starve because of me. He knows everything better and won’t be offended. And why should God pay me any attention, to begin with? I am just an old man who loves his daughter. I need that fish more that God does.
It took me great pains to bring my first catch to the shore and hoist it on the earth. I knew it would take even greater pains to empty it and clean it, but I postponed the matter. I’d rather throw my line once again while the lights were still fresh. So I did and, behold! I could not believe what I saw! Once again, there were a splash, strong swirls and rushing water. My heart was beating loudly, tolling like a bell. God was with me! Once again, I jumped into the lake and killed the fish. Once again, I marvelled that such a huge carp could be found in Lake Leman. What was happening with those carps anyway? Were pikes all dead or lost in the deep waters that host them during the winter? I challenge you, with all your boats and technology, to ever catch a fish like those two!
As I prepared to pull my second catch toward the shore, I thought that this one fish belonged to God. I had enough for the feast. Or maybe I could give Him the first carp, when you think about it… But I struggled so hard to bring it on the earth, it would be a shame to throw it again into the lake… On the other hand, it would also be a shame to let the second one here. I could salt it and keep it for my six other kids. I imagined, how I would use the fish in a way that God never would. How my children would bless me as their benefactor! How my neighbours would marvel at my luck and ask me for fishing advice! In addition, I am not even sure that God would care for the promise of an old fisherman! But for sure, people would care very much!
I shuddered and pulled the second carp on the shore. With my knife, I endeavoured to empty and clean my two prodigies. It took quite a while but the sun still did not rise. Clouds had gathered above me, concealing the sky and covering the mountains’ ears. The lake, their faithful mirror, turned white like a blind eye. It seems right that our beloved mounts would not behold the sin that had been committed. It’s right that their reflection did not merge with the blood of the fish on the waves’ heavy breathing.
I was heading towards home when I heard a weak and flickering sound. I paused, having recognized the wailing voice of a kitten. It must have been attracted by the smell of the fish. Cats are good beasts for chasing the mice out of the neighbourhood. A lot had died during the winter and would not be replaced until June. I have always had a tender heart. Pity filled me and when I actually saw the starving kitten, it was already too late to step back. Without really thinking about what I was doing, I took the little ball of grey fur and carried it in the warmth of my pocket.
Everyone was delighted to see the good fish that I had brought back. We were able to salt the first carp before lunch. Maybe the girls were a little envious because they doubted that I should manage to have such good catches for their wedding. Anyway they would eat it as well, not matter if it was for Jo’s marriage or not. As for the bride, I decided not to show her the fish and surprise her at her wedding feast. I climbed the stairs to see the preparations of the girls. Friends and cousins chased me out of the rooms with pins and needles. The house was so busy that I could hardly recognize it. How I longed for the silence of the morning lake!
Jo, or Josepha, was my eldest child and the treasure of my life. Isabelle had given birth to five other girls before our son saw the light of day. Alas! The poor woman didn’t live to see her only son grow up.
How those years look distant now! They were soon borne away and lost in darkness and distance. As if the horizon could be swallowed by the sea! Even more distant are the blessed times at which my dear Isabelle still smiled to me while nursing our daughters. And I, like a fool, could not figure that those times were soon coming to an end, and that the woman I loved most was to die drowning in her own screams… But she left me with a boy as sweet as she had been good.
My son, Henri, quickly became fond of the new cat and called it Chapalu. When his sisters told him that it was a female, it was already too late; Henri would stick to calling it Chapalu. We gave it some milk and little pieces of fish. It didn’t look much reassured, for people endlessly ran about in the house. Poor Chapalu, being allowed here at a time like that!
We left the house and walked towards the church in the beginning of the afternoon. Baptisms, communions, weddings, funerals… whatever the events, I always tended to react with the same amount of boredom. Even Jo’s wedding didn’t look as exciting as a nice day of hiking around the Alps. However, the fish changed everything.
This day should have been a night. The clouds were so dark that everyone in the neighbourhood had secured their home in case of a flood. Jo’s veil kept on fleeing her face and her hair threatened to escape her bun. Something was wrong. I felt something like a nausea growing in my mind. The clouds were wrong. It was a bad weather for a wedding. It was a bad day for breaking a promise.
The general admiration and the ecstatic comments that ought to have filled my ears with pride fell heavily on my heart. The more they said, the more I was reminded about how I had failed God. The uneasiness remained stuck in me like reluctant wallpaper. What I had done was a sin. People get punished for their sins. Instead of rejoicing at my apparent success and at Jo’s dazzling smile, I was franticly searching for bad omens. If God had been a human being in the neighbourhood, I would never have acted the way I did. Just because He knows better and remains out of physical reach, does that mean that He deserves less respect than a man?
The ghosts of my selfishness haunted me until bedtime. I watched the newlyweds withdraw from the crowd with a sigh of relief. I know not why, but I had imagined that if the punishment did not strike that very day, it would not come later. As if the passage to the next day introduced a rupture, as if we were definitely safe. With an extraordinary naivety, I convinced myself that after the wedding, my broken promise would turn into ancient history.
What a shame, what a shame to have behaved like that! What a shame, being forced to expose my faults to you guys! I know that I did every single possible mistake, but please have mercy on me! I was just a tired father, too proud and too frightened at the same time. Do you hear how I am speaking? Even now I am such a coward that I won’t fully face the truth! My pride turned me into a craven who thought that ignoring the stain in his soul would conceal it forever.
I fled, as I always do. I went back home with my five remaining daughters. I didn’t pray for forgiveness and for poor Isabelle’s soul as I usually did. I just wanted to erase all sorts of reminders from my head. I will forget, I told myself. I will make the world forget and I will make God forget. Just don’t draw His attention to your insignificant existence.
I was awoken in the morning without knowing why. Usually, Jo was the one to wake me up, but she was gone, I remembered. So what had caused this disturbance in my sleep? I could not guess, until the scream ringed again, boiling with terror and despair. I jumped. My ears knew who it was but my brain refused to name her. That could not be. Her husband will not let that be, he had to protect her. I should have protected her, I am her father, she cannot die, not her, not my daughter, not so young, not like that! Not like what?
We found the bodies lying on the bed. She was there, lifeless and inanimate.
First I suspected God himself. He could have come down on earth with an array of clouds to shield Him from the view of men. Instead of repenting, I felt an immense, monstrous, and devouring rage. I tore off the cross that hung at my neck and threw it at a wall. For every breath that my daughter would not draw, I spat hundreds of curses.
The step-family was there too. The groom’s mother noticed the marks on their necks. It wasn’t God’s doing. God would not have claws, she said. He would do things properly. Attack the heart rather than the throat. People began to step back: demons. The house was haunted, the union was cursed, someone had sinned, and we need a priest. I, alone, remained in the darkness. I realized I had no candle to light me, but I didn’t need any. I just wanted to sit down and hold my daughter’s hand. She was not cold yet. Why would she, among all creatures, be the one who should pay for my mistakes? I covered her hand with kisses, cradled her soft skin, her curled hair, her skull, and her mischievous chin. Could I behold this, and live? I could have risked it all for her, my intention had never been to kill! I stopped weeping and looked at the nicks on her neck. Someone – or something – had done that. I had to find out who. I stood up. Drops of blood were dipping on the floor.
Then – I am not sure – I heard something like a little “Meow”.
And suddenly, everything made perfect sense. The kitten. The kitten was my punisher. It had come along with the fish. All day it had been keeping watch. What was its name already? Chapalu! Now I knew the name of the murderer!
While I was staring at the grey spot, relatives entered the room and brought in a priest. I tried to tell them. I explained how I broke a promise, but no one seemed to care. One of my daughters took away the monster and I yelled at her: “Kill it! Kill it!” – Later events proved that she didn’t listen. Worse, people forced me out of the room, far from my beloved Jo.
The following days unfolded like in a deep mist. People and landscapes passed like an obscure veil with nothing to say. In addition to my loss, the sweet lake and the majestic Alps themselves seemed to reject me. I could not even love the breeze anymore. My memories got entangled with nightmares and fantasies. Did Chapalu really kill my six daughters, one after another, each night thrusting his claws in a fresher jaw? Shrill and dreadful screams were repeated over and over. The corpses seem so real that they must be dreams. I believe that I remember how all the cats in town behaved strangely. Some voices in my head insist that they gathered and determined to kill only birds. As a consequence, the number of mice and rats increased. Less and less birds sang every morning. Bugs began to proliferate. I remember eating flies in my evening soup. People began to panic. More mice and rats meant more diseases. This is how you welcome the Black Death at your doorstep. Even now I would still wake up, screaming: “Kill them all! Kill the mice! Kill the rats! Kill the CAT!”
God, I pray you, may all those memories be only bad dreams. And please, do not make me tell the end of the story. Don’t make me say what happened that last, fateful night. Please, not this time! I know better now – can I please stop my confession? Please, I don’t want to say it, please don’t make me speak…
I had managed to protect Henri, my only son, for weeks. I would sleep with him and teach him how to defend himself. For a while, I thought it would work. He was my only son and my last hope, the final spark before darkness covers our tracks. Still, somewhere deep inside me, I knew it would not last. Jo had gone. All my daughters and most of our neighbours had followed her into the grave. Everybody would end dead because of me, I knew.
Henri was silently sleeping that night. He didn’t interrupt the night with screams the way I did. He looked so peaceful that his innocence seemed to shelter him from the surrounding madness. I had tried to explain him that his Chapalu had become a bad cat, but a glitter of protest had flooded his eyes. He really liked the beast. My only hope was that the beast liked him in return and would spare him in the name of their aborted friendship.
I was turning around again and again in my bed. My imagination made me hear muffled steps and tinkling claws on the wooden floor. My fear constantly spilled meows and hisses in my house. But when that night came, I didn’t hear a thing. I lit a candle because I had resolved to read. So I didn’t hear: I saw.
The monster had grown until it reached the size of a shepherd dog. Its enormous face had become the most hideous of any living creature. Its hair had darkened, not only because the paws and the mouth were smeared with blood; its whole outline had turned ink-black. The beast would just look at me, its eyes blazing with a slow violence. I had locked the monster up within the room!
I trembled with rage and horror. Henri’s hand was warm and confident in mine. Nicks on his neck. Blood on his chest. Never again. No, you won’t have my son. You won’t tear down his flesh nor rip off his fate. The knife was warm and sharp in my hand. No, you won’t have my son.
I’d rather do it myself’.
So here I am again, attempting to write something like a commentary. It has been six months since I wrote “The Cat of Lausanne” and it imposes something like a retrospective. I remember hard times when I tried to force books which would have deserved a diet to cohabit on my desk and finally putting some on the floor or on my bed. Indeed, my few pages had required monsters such as Frankenstein, Wordsworth’s Poetry and Prose, The Norton Anthology of English Literature (you all know about this one, yes, the one with “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”). I had read Poe’s “Black Cat” at least four times at school, in three different languages, but I was ashamed to find out that I didn’t own a paper version of it anymore… So big books, longs poems and short stories on the internet, that’s how it was.
The thematic references would take ages to compile. However, if you look closely, you may find words and whole sentences directly extracted from the sources. Usually they’re from the end, because the end is what we remember best, like Frankenstein’s creature disappearing in the dark, or a black cat walled in a woman’s grave. Writing like that was a very unusual process, as if I were using someone else’s ink, or floating on an ageless river instead of just entering my bathtub. This is still water, but you have to go with the tide if you don’t want to drown like a footless shoe. I tried to follow the flow. You can come with me and search, dive when I fall, and tell my if you find the stolen fabric – how many references will you see? Can you spot the paragraph born from Worsworth’s preface to Lyrical Ballads, his sister’s island or the water images of a metal band?