Excerpt : A Simple Heart

November 14, 2008

originally written by Gustav Flaubert, what follows is an excerpt from “A Simple Heart,” one of three short stories in “Three Tales.” This was transcribed by Naomi Henderson and posted by Caroline Picard.

polly_stuffed_parrot

His name was Loulou. His body was green, the tips of his wings were pink, his poll blue, and his breast golden.
Unfortunately he had a tiresome mania for biting his perch, and also used to pull his feathers out, scatter his droppings everywhere, and upset his bath water. He annoyed Mme Aubain, and so she gave him to Felicite for good.
Felicite started training him, and soon he could say: ‘Nice boy! Your servant sir! Hail, Mary!’ He was put near the door, and several people who spoke to him and said how strange it was that he did not answer to the name of Jacquot, as all parrots were called Jacquot. They likened him to a turkey or a block of wood, and every sneer cut Felicite to the quick. How odd, she thought, that Loulou should be so stubborn, refusing to talk whenever anyone looked at him!
For all that, he liked having people around him, because on Sundays, while the Rochefeuille sisters, M. Houppeville and some new friends – the apothecary Onfroy, M. Varin, and Captain Mathieu – were having their game of cards, he would beat on the window panes with his wings and make such a din that it was impossible to hear oneself speak.
Bourais’s face obviously struck him as terribly funny, for as soon as he saw it he was seized with uncontrollable laughter. His shrieks rang around the courtyard, the echo repeated them, and the neighbors came to their windows and started laughing too. To avoid being seen by the bird, M. Bourais used to creep along by the wall, hiding his face behind his hat, until he got to the river, and then came into the house from the garden. The looks he gave the parrot were far from tender.
Loulou had once been cuffed by the butcher’s boy for poking his head into his basket; and since then he was always trying to give him a nip through his shirt. Fabu threatened to wring his neck, although he was not a cruel fellow, in spite of his tattooed arms and bushy whiskers. On the contrary, he rather liked the parrot, so much so indeed that in a spirit of jovial camaraderie he tried to teach him a few swear words. Felicite, alarmed at this development, put the bird in the kitchen. His little chain was removed and he was allowed to wander all over the house.
Coming downstairs, he used to rest the curved part of his beak on each step and then raise first his right foot, then his left; and Felicite was afraid that this sort of gymnastic performance would make him giddy. He fell ill and could neither talk nor eat for there was a swelling under his tongue such as hens sometimes have. She cured him by pulling his pellicule out with her fingernails. One day M. Paul was silly enough to blow the smoke of his cigar at him; another time Mme Lormeau started teasing him with the end of her parasol, and he caught hold of the ferrule with his beak. Finally he got lost.
Felicite had put him down on the grass in the fresh air, and left him there for a minute. When she came back, the parrot had gone. First of all she looked for him in the bushes, by the river and on the rooftops, paying no attention to her mistress’s shouts of: ‘Be careful, now! You must be mad!’ Next she went over all the gardens in Pont-l’ Eveque, stopping passers-by and asking them: ‘You don’t happen to have seen my parrot by any chance?’ Those who did not know him already were given a description of the bird. Suddenly she thought she could make out something green flying about behind the mills at the foot of the hill. But up on the hill there was nothing to be seen. A pedlar told her that he had come upon the parrot a short time before in Mere Simon’s shop at Saint-Melaine. She ran all the way there, but no one knew what she was talking about. Finally she came back home, worn, out, her shoes falling to pieces, and death in her heart. She was sitting beside Madame on the garden seat and telling her what she had been doing, when she felt something light drop on her shoulder. It was Loulou! What he had been up to, no one could discover: perhaps he had just gone for a little walk round the town.
Felicite was slow to recover from this fright, and indeed never really got over it.
As result of a chill she had an attack of quinsy, and soon after that her ears were affected. Three years later she was deaf, and she spoke at the top of her voice, even in church. Although her sins could have been proclaimed over the length and breadth of the diocese without dishonor to her or offence to others, M. le Cure thought it advisable to hear her confession in the sacristy.
Imaginary buzzings in the head added to her troubles. Often her mistress would say: ‘Heavens, how stupid you are!’ and she would reply: ‘Yes, Madame,’ at the same time looking all around her for something.
The little circle of her ideas grew narrower and narrower, and the pealing of bells and the lowing of cattle went out of her life. Every living thing moved about in ghostly silence. Only one sound reached her ears now, and that was the voice of the parrot.
As if to amuse her, he would reproduce the click-clack of the turn-spit, the shrill call of a man selling fish, and the noise of the saw at the joiner’s across the way; and when the bell rang he would imitate Mme Aubain’s ‘Felicite! The door, the door!’
They held conversations with each other, he repeating as nauseam the three phrases in his repertory, she replying with words which were just as disconnected but which came from the heart. In her isolation, Loulou was almost a son or a lover to her. He used to climb up her fingers, peck at her lips, and hang on to her shawl; and as she bent over him, wagging her head from side to side as nurses do, the great wings of her bonnet and the wings of the bird quivered in unison.
When clouds banked up in the sky and there was a rumbling of thunder, he would utter piercing cries, no doubt remembering the sudden downpours of his native forests. The sound of the rain falling roused him to a frenzy. He would flap excitedly around, shoot up to the ceiling, knocking everything over, and fly out of the window to splash about in the garden. But he would soon come back to perch on one of the firedogs, hopping about to dry his feathers and showing tail and beak in turn.
On e morning in the terrible winter of 1837, when she had put him in front of the fire because of the cold she found him dead in the middle of his cage, hanging head down with his claws caught in the bars. He had probably died of a stroke, but she thought he had been poisoned with parsley, and despite the absence of proof, her suspicions fell on Fabu.
She wept so much that her mistress said to her; ‘Why don’t you have him stuffed?’
Felicite asked the chemist’s advice, remembering that he had always been kind to the parrot. He wrote to Le Havre, and a man called Fellacher agreed to do the job. As parcels sometimes went astray on the mail coach, she decided to take the parrot as far as Honfleur herself.
On either side of the road stretched an endless succession of apple tress, all stripped of their leaves, and there was ice in the ditches. Dogs were baking around the farms; and Felicite, with her hands tucked under her mantlet, her little black sabots and her basket, walked briskly along the middle of the road.
She crossed the forest, passed Le Haut-Chene, and got as far as Saint- Gatien.
Behind her, in a cloud of dust, and gathering speed as the horses galloped downhill, a mail coach swept along like a whirlwind. When he saw this woman making no attempt to get out of the way, the driver poked his head out above the hood, and he and the postilion shouted at her. His four horses could not be held in and galloped faster, the two leaders touching her as they went by. With a jerk of the reins the driver threw them to one side, and then, in a fury, he raised his long whip and gave such a lash, from head to waist, that she fell flat on her back. The first thing she did on regaining consciousness was to open her basket. Fortunately nothing had happened to Loulou. She felt her right cheek burning, and when she touched it her hand turned red; it was bleeding.
She sat down on a heap of stones and dabbed her face with her handkerchief. Then she ate a crust of bread which she had taken the precaution of putting in her basket, and tried to forget her wound by looking at the bird. As she reached the top of the hill at Ecquemauville, she saw the lights of Honfleur twinkling in the darkness like a host of stars, and the shadowy expanse of the sea beyond. Then a sudden feeling of faintness made her stop; and the misery of her childhood, the disappointment of her first love, the departure of her nephew, and the death of Virginie all came back to her at once like the waves of a rising tide, and, welling up in her throat, choked her.
When she got to the boat she insisted on speaking to the captain, and without telling him what was in her parcel, asked him to take good care of it.
Fellacher kept the parrot a long time. Every week he promised it for the next; after six months he announced that a box had been sent off, and nothing more was heard of it. It looked as though Loulou would never come back, and Felicite told herself: ‘They’ve stolen him for sure!’
At last he arrived – looking quite magnificent perched on a branch screwed into a mahogany base, one foot in the air, his head cocked to one side, and biting a nut which the taxidermist, out of a love of the grandiose, had gilded.
Felicite shut him up in her room.
This place, to which few people were ever admitted, contained such a quantity of religious bric-a-brac and miscellaneous oddments that it looked like a cross between a chapel and a bazaar.
A big wardrobe prevented to door from opening properly. Opposite the window that overlooked the garden was a little round one looking on to the courtyard. There was a table beside the bed, with a water jug, a couple of combs, and a block of blue soap in a chipped plate. On the walls there were rosaries, medals, several pictures of the Virgin, and a holy water stoup made out of a coconut. On the chest of drawers, which was draped with a cloth just like an altar, was the shell box Victor had given her, and also a watering can and a ball, some copy-books, the illustrated geography book, and a pair of ankle boots. And on the nail supporting the looking-glass, fastened by its ribbons, hung the little plush hat.
Felicite carried this from of veneration to such lengths that she even kept one of Monsieur’s frock coats. All the old rubbish Mme Aubain had no more use for, she carried off to her room. That was how there came to be artificial flowers along the edge of the chest of drawers, and a portrait of the Comte d’Artois in the window recess.
With the aid of a wall-bracket, Loulou was installed on a chimney-breast that jutted out into the room. Every morning when she woke, she saw him in the light of the dawn, and then she remembered the old days and the smallest retails of insignificant actions, not in sorrow, but in absolute tranquility.
Having no intercourse with anyone, she lived in the torpid state of a sleep-walker. the Corpus Christi processions roused her from this condition, for she would go round the neighborhood collecting candlesticks and mats to decorate the altar of repose which they used to set up in the street.
In church she was forever gazing at the Holy Ghost, and one day she noticed it had something of the parrot about it. This resemblance struck her as even more obvious in a colour print depicting the baptism of Our Lord. With its red wings and its emerald-green body, it was the very image of Loulou.
She bought the print and hung it in the place of the Comte d’Artois, so that she could include them both in a single glance. they were linked together in her mind, the parrot being sanctified by this connection with the Holy Ghost, which itself acquired new life and meaning in her eyes. God the Father could not have chosen a dove as a means of expressing Himself, since doves cannot talk, but rather one of Loulou’s ancestors. And although Felicite used to say her prayers with her eyes on the picture, from time to time she would turn slightly towards the bird.
She wanted to join the Children of Mary, but Mme Aubain dissuaded her from doing so.
An important event now loomed up – Paul’s wedding.
After starting as a lawyer’s clerk, he had been in business, in the Customs, and in Inland Revenue, and had even begun trying to get into the Department of Woods and Forests, when, at the age of thirty- six, by some heaven-sent inspiration, he suddenly discovered his real vocation – in the Wills and Probate Department. There he proved so capable that one of the auditors offered him his daughter in marriage and promised to use his influence on his behalf.
Paul, grown serious-minded, brought her to see his mother. She criticized the way things were done at Pont-l’Eveque, put on airs, and hurt Felicite’s feelings. Mme Aubain was relieved to see her go.
The following week came news of M. Bourais’s death in an inn in lower Brittany. Rumors that he had committed suicide were confirmed, and doubts arose as to his honesty. Mme Aubain went over her accounts and was soon conversant with the full catalogue of his misdeeds – embezzlement of interest, secret sales of timber, forged receipts, etc. Besides all this, he was the father of an illegitimate child, and he had ‘relations with a person at Dozule’.
These infamies upset Mme Aubain greatly. In March 1853 she was afflicted with a pain in her chest; her tongue seemed to be covered with a film; leeches failed to make her breathing any easier; and on the ninth evening of her illness she died. She had just reached the age of seventy-two.
She was thought to be younger because of her brown hair, worn in bandeau round her pale, pock-marked face. There were few friends to mourn her, for she had a haughty manner which put people off. Yet Felicite wept for her as servants rarely weep for their masters. That Madame should die before her upset her ideas, seemed to be contrary to the order of things, monstrous and unthinkable.
Ten days later – the time it took to travel hot-foot from Besancon – the heirs arrived. The daughter-in-law ransacked every drawer, picked out some pieces of furniture and sold the rest; and then back they went to the Wills and Probate Department.
Madame’s armchair, her pedestal table, her foot-warmer, and the eight chairs had all gone. Yellow squares in the center of the wall panels showed where the pictures had hung. They had carried off the two cots with their mattresses, and no trace remained in the cupboard of all Virginie’s things. Felicite climbed the stairs to her room, numbed with sadness.
The next day there was a notice on the door, and the apothecary shouted in her ear that the house was up for sale.
She swayed on her feet, and was obliged to sit down.
What distressed her most of all was the idea of leaving her room, which was so suitable for poor Loulou. Fixing an anguished look on him as she appealed to the Holy Ghost, she contracted the idolatrous habit if kneeling in front of the parrot to say her prayers. Sometimes the sun, as it came through the little window, caught his glass eye, so that it shot out a great luminous ray, which sent her into ecstasies.
She had a pension of three hundred and eighty francs a year, which her mistress had left her. The garden kept her in vegetables. As for clothes, she had enough to last her till the end of her days, and she saved on lighting by going to bed as soon as darkness fell.
She went out as little as possible, to avoid the second hand dealer’s shop, where some of the old furniture was on display. Ever since her fit of giddiness, she had been dragging on one leg; as her strength was failing, Mere Simon, whose grocery business had come to grief, came in every morning to chop wood and pump water for her.
Her eyes grew weaker. The shutters were not opened any more. Years went by, and nobody rented the house and nobody bought it.
For fear of being evicted, Felicite never asked for any repairs to be done. The laths in the roof rotted, and all through one winter her bolster was wet. After Easter she began spitting blood.
When this happened Mere Simon called in a doctor. Felicite wanted to know what was the matter with her, but she was so deaf that only one word reached her: ‘Pneumonia.’ It was a word she knew, and she answered gently: ‘Ah! like Madame,’ thinking it natural that she should follow in her mistress’s footsteps.
The time to set up the altars of repose was drawing near.
The first altar was always at the foot of the hill, the second in front of the post office, and the third about half-way up the street. There was some argument as to the sitting of this one, and finally the women of the parish picked on Mme Aubain’s courtyard.
The fever and the tightness of the chest grew worse. Felicite fretted over not doing anything for the altar. If only she could have put something on it! Then she thought of the parrot. the neighbors protested that it would be unseemly, but the cure gave his permission, and this made her so happy that she begged him to accept Loulou, the only thing of value she possessed, when she died.
From Tuesday to Saturday, the eve of Corpus Christi, she coughed more and more frequently. In the evening her face looked pinched and drawn, her lips stuck to her gums, and she started vomiting. At dawn the next day, feeling very low, she sent for a priest.
Three good women stood by her while she was given extreme unction. Then she said that she had to speak to Fabu.
He arrived in his Sunday best, very ill at ease in this funereal atmosphere.
‘Forgive me,’ she said, making an effort to stretch out her arm. ‘I thought it was you who had killed him.’
What could she mean by such nonsense? To think that she had suspected a man like him of murder! He got very indignant and was obviously going to make a scene.
‘Can’t you see,’ they said, ‘that she isn’t in her right mind anymore?
From time to time Felicite would start talking to shadows. The women went away. Mere Simon had her lunch.
A little later she picked up Loulou and held him out to Felicite, saying:
‘Come now, say goodbye to him.’
Although the parrot was not a corpse, the worms were eating him up. One of his wings was broken, and the stuffing was coming out of his stomach. But she was blind by now, and she kissed him on the forehead and pressed him against her cheek. Mere Simon took him away from her to put him on the altar.

The scents of summer came up from the meadows; there was a buzzing of flies; the sun was glittering in the river and warming the slates of the roof. Mere Simon had come back into the room and was gently nodding off to sleep.
The noise of church bells woke her up; the congregation was coming out from vespers. Felicite’s delirium abated. Thinking of the procession, she could see it as clearly as if she had been following it.
All the school children, the choristers, and the firemen were walking along the pavements, while advancing up the middle of the street came to church officer armed with his halberd, the beadle carrying a great cross, the schoolmaster keeping an eye on the boys, and the nuns fussing over the little girls – three of the prettiest, looking like curly-headed angels, were throwing rose-petals into the air. Then came the deacon, with both arms outstretched, conducting the band, and a couple of censer-bearers who turned round at every step to face the Holy Sacrament, which the cure, wearing his splendid chasuble, was carrying under a canopy of poppy-red velvet held aloft by four churchwardens. A crowd of people surged along behind, between the white cloths covering the walls of the houses, and eventually they got to the bottom of the hill.
A cold sweat moistened Felicite’s temples. Mere Simon sponged it up with a cloth, telling herself that one day she would have to go the same way.
The hum of the crowd increased in volume, was very loud for a moment, then faded away.
A fusillade shook the windowpanes. It was the postilions saluting the monstrance. Felicite rolled her eyes and said as loud as she could: ‘Is he alright?’ – worrying about the parrot.
She entered into her death agony. Her breath, coming ever faster, with a rattling sound, made her sides heave. Bubbles of froth appeared at the corners of her mouth, and her whole body trembled.
Soon the booming of the ophicleides, the clear voices of the children, and the deep voices of the men could be heard near at hand. Now and then everything was quiet, and the tramping of feet, deadened by a carpet of flowers, sounded like a flock moving across pasture land.

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