The Tenants

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An ornate brass door knocker rests on a dark turquoise door

Photo: Daria Nepriakhina/Pixabay

T

he old man lived in a vast, dark house, windows blind with frosted glass, door adorned with a heavy bronze knocker.

At one time or another, all five of his children had urged the old man to sell the house, even tear it down and put up an apartment building in its place, modern and profitable. This advice was always met with stubborn silence, childish obstinacy.

“At least rent out a few rooms! What are you doing all alone, letting more than twenty rooms go to waste?”

He would turn his back on them, muttering something unintelligible. He had taken refuge in the large front room where he ate, burped, slept, slept, ate, and burped in hostile, almost total solitude.

One fall morning, he met a man in the stairwell. The man was moving at a brisk pace but paused on the landing to look him brusquely up and down.

“Where’s my mail, then?” he said sharply. “What do you do with your tenants’ mail around here, anyway?”

His shrill voice hit the old man like a blow to the throat. “But—”

“I’ve been waiting for a very urgent letter for a week now,” said the man, every syllable crisp. He let them drop one by one, as if loath to let them go, scatter them, waste them.

“My mind was running wild with assumptions, each one more dreadful than the last, when what should I find in the bathroom this morning, soiled and torn?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” the old man protested, recoiling despite himself. “Who
are you?”

“Who am I?” said the man, tapping his chest with a finger. “You must be joking. I’ve been renting a room for a month now—at quite a price, I might add, given that there’s no central heating and the toilet’s down the hall—I see you every morning on the stairs, and you have the gall to pretend you don’t know who I am?”

“That’s not . . . what I said,” the old man murmured.

“I’m sorry, but it is,” the man declared. “No use denying it now. And no sense trying to talk your way out of it. What’s said is said. Just hope it doesn’t happen again!”

Brandishing the letter over his head, he tore down the steps two at a time and vanished through the front door, which was ajar.

“What was that all about?” the old man grumbled, bending to collect the morning’s milk delivery.

It was Friday, and Mrs. Place had come by to do the cleaning. She had drawn the blinds against the sun and was dusting various knickknacks that cluttered his bedroom. He stood stock-still for a moment in the doorway, watching.

“You’re not going to just stand there, are you?” said the cleaning lady. “At your age you should stay off your feet when you can.”

“How long have you been working here, Mrs. Place?” he inquired timidly.

She turned, gave him a look of surprise, shrugged, and made no reply.

“Please don’t be offended, Mrs. Place,” he said. “We’ve known each other too long to argue, haven’t we?” He set the bottle of milk down on the table. “I just wanted to know. . . . This house is so big for a lonely old man like me. Have I mentioned renting out a few rooms lately?”

The housekeeper turned to face him, fists on her hips. “Are you serious?” she said angrily. “Do you really want some stranger sleeping in your wife’s bed, rumpling her pretty brocade coverlet, or rifling through the armoires in your daughter’s bedroom—the ones the young miss hasn’t seen, poor girl, ever since she moved so far away? The day we have to suffer an indignity like that, I’ll be the first one out the door, let me tell you!”

“Oh, please don’t worry, my dear Mrs. Place,” he said. “Calm down. Mere conjecture, and not very plausible at that, I’ll admit. But do we ever know really what’s going through our heads? I think I’ve been losing my memory a bit lately. These days I’m alone day and night, and some things, the silliest things, just come to mind. Don’t you think a big house like this might arouse a certain covetousness? There are so many people out there hopelessly seeking somewhere to live. Leave the door unlocked, and well, next thing you know, they’ve slipped upstairs right under your nose. What do you think of that, Mrs. Place?”

“I’ll ready your infusion,” Mrs. Place sighed. “And some nice light broth for lunch. After that it’s nap time for you; you’re not getting enough rest.”

He finished his soup and began nodding off in his rocking chair. Back and forth, back and forth it went, to the rhythm of his reveries, and his old knees were warm beneath the blanket Mrs. Place had tucked round his stomach. His head sank into a cushion and his feet rested on the plain woolen rug. A persistent headache made him frown. The sun was shining through the blinds; through eyelids half-shut he could make out the presence of familiar objects. The broth had left a pleasant aftertaste; he’d almost forgotten the vulgar individual in the stairwell. . . . A faint sound woke him, like crumpling paper. He opened his eyes wide, confused. He must have slept several hours: the blinds were a dark screen, the red curtains looked almost black, and the room was sunk in shadow.

Before his old mahogany secretary stood a boy of ten or so, his back turned. The boy had opened several drawers, and papers lay scattered on the desktop. He was holding a paperweight, a brass housefly with a hollow for tiny objects: tacks, erasers, pencil stubs.

“What are you doing there, boy?” said the old man, trying to get up.

The boy gave a start and pivoted; as they struck each other, the fly’s wings clacked like teeth. The boy stared at him with small, terrified eyes.

“Come here,” said the old man, but the child made no answer. He kept staring in silence, clutching the brass fly in one hand. Suddenly he let out a brief cry and darted into the hallway, then up the stairs.

I have to get to the bottom of this, thought the old man, and struggled to his feet. Sleep had left his head heavy and his mouth furry. He headed for the door, unsteady.

“Do I even remember how many rooms are up there?” he whimpered in a low voice as he slowly climbed the steps. “I haven’t been there in years. Oh, things like this would never be happening if the children had stayed close. Who goes and travels the world, leaving a poor old man in a great big lonely house? Children are so ungrateful. Ever since their mother died, not one of the five has come to see me, not one! Where has that damned brat gotten to, anyway?”

A closed book lay on a table covered by a cloth. He shivered. Terrible things had happened in those rooms.

He bent to peer through the keyholes along the hallways, muttering the whole time. But though he inspected all three floors through the pale holes, he found nothing but cold gray rooms with armchairs draped in sheets and stripped beds. He passed by the rooms of his wife and daughter; a leafless tree stood out in a corner of one window. A closed book lay on a table covered by a cloth. He shivered. Terrible things had happened in those rooms. Night, well and truly fallen now, found him still muttering in the dark, one hand on the banister, distraught at the absolute silence that reigned from floor to rafter.

From that day on, undesirable tenants never ceased to fill the house, and he knew no rest. He was never sure exactly how many there were. In fact, it seemed to vary. Some never left the rooms where they had taken up, while others, only passing through, stayed a few days at most. Among these was the man with the letter, who has no doubt gone to seek refuge elsewhere, since the old man never saw him again. Others were more tenacious, especially a young couple who were always arguing and slapping their swarm of bawling, unruly rascals. A woman of a certain age also entrenched herself; she dressed in black and mauve, wore too much makeup, and smoked short cigars whose odor blended in the halls with that of her insistent perfume. Sometimes, she had very young visitors, girls who slipped upstairs with a shameless air and slunk away pressed to the walls. There was also a prematurely bald young man who likely seldom ate his fill and could be found playing various instruments at all hours, especially the violin. The most discreet of the lot was a thin woman of whom the old man knew nothing, except that a very young child accompanied her, and that she made no noise at all.

L

ittle by little, he discovered all these people: a chance encounter in a hallway, or peeking through a keyhole. Where they’d come from, and how they’d gotten here, he’d given up trying to figure out. At first he’d flown into a fury, literally jumped each time a voice rang out, fulminated against the children’s cries. The plaintive violin made him grind his teeth. More than once he went upstairs, determined to put an end once and for all to this incomprehensible violation of his place of residence, aware that he was perfectly within his rights to do so. But though he often ran into one or another of his so-called tenants in the hallway or even inside his own quarters, he never managed to catch them by surprise in their rooms above. No sooner did he reach out a hand for the doorknob than the quarrels ceased, the tears dried up, the violin broke off midchord. He considered calling the police, but fear of ridicule stopped him. He had enough common sense left to know no one housed several tenants under one’s roof without having agreed to take them in.

Little by little, he discovered all these people: a chance encounter in a hallway, or peeking through a keyhole. Where they’d come from, and how they’d gotten here, he’d given up trying to figure out.

He thought about writing his daughter; he readily complained to her about this or that little affliction in revenge for abandoning him, but some complicated sentiment halted his pen whenever he was on the verge of telling her about his inexplicable guests. He couldn’t do it; he could not so much as move his hand, which remained hanging over the paper. He did not press the issue and moved on to other subjects. He was hardly short of things to complain about. His health was failing, worn down by worry. His headaches grew ever more frequent and violent, and several times he found himself standing before a wardrobe or buffet wondering what he was looking for, or in a dark hallway, having forgotten what he had come to do.

Nor did he dare go whining to Mrs. Place, who would have asked after the cause of his apprehension. Without any real reason for doing so, he adamantly refused to reveal the presence of the tenants to her and had no trouble keeping his secret: his housekeeper, whom usually nothing escaped, seemed worlds away from suspecting the existence of his inopportune guests. Shouts, slamming doors, even the strangest noises left her totally indifferent, and one day when the young couple was having a particularly heated argument, the old man could not help but burst out, “Listen!” To which Mrs. Place replied, “Are you joking? To what?” and shrugged. He had to face facts: she couldn’t hear them. This phenomenon might have worried him, but instead it reassured. In fact, he maintained unique relationships with his tenants, and his feelings about them were quite mixed. Sometimes—during his afternoon nap, for example—silence seemed to take back the rooms and corridors, abruptly delivered from their shadows. All life, however furtive, deserted the dwelling; not so much as a single floorboard squeaked above. Instead of providing any relief, this emptiness oppressed him; he grew pale, terrified. He pricked up his ears, anxiously awaiting a rustle, a sigh, giving a start when a child’s cry suddenly rang out somewhere, yet finding in it some true measure of deliverance.

He pricked up his ears, anxiously awaiting a rustle, a sigh, giving a start when a child’s cry suddenly rang out somewhere, yet finding in it some true measure of deliverance.

Some days he would have liked to get to know them better, every last one, silently admitting that he’d find the house uninhabitable should they all leave one day as they had come, without a sound. He shivered at the thought of such a defection. At such times he did not hesitate to abase himself abjectly before his guests to curry their favor, going so far as to serve them like a valet. They seemed to be able to divine this state of mind and exploited it ruthlessly. One night, finding pairs of dirty shoes before the shut doors, he surreptitiously collected them all and polished them in the kitchen. Buckets of trash were often set out in the halls, and every night he dragged them with great effort out into the street. Household utensils and little knickknacks disappeared from his rooms. Though he thought he knew who was behind these pilferings, he never questioned his suspects. But was such leniency really to his credit, since he wouldn’t have known how to go about asking for his things back anyway?

His worries, the physical chores he set himself—these fatigued him so greatly that he began taking to his bed for entire mornings at a time. The letters to his daughter grew fewer. His attention was wholly occupied by the lives on the upper floors. Little by little, he began to realize he no longer needed to track the actions and movements of his guests: he could guess at their thoughts from a distance, just as they could read his own. He discovered that he had a profound and intimate knowledge of them that predated their time in the house. More precisely, he recognized them: he understood they had always been part of his own life. Rummaging through his memories, he found surprising coincidences.

Little by little, he began to realize he no longer needed to track the actions and movements of his guests: he could guess at their thoughts from a distance, just as they could read his own.

Only the young woman with the child remained a stranger. He’d caught a glimpse of her from the yard one day while watering flowers in the window box. She had a newborn in her arms. It was sunny out. The baby began waving its hands about, and the mother sang to him in a low voice. She did not remind him of anyone he’d known before, but she appealed to him more than all the others, and he would have given a great deal—years of his life, even—to see her up close and speak to her, if only for a few minutes.

And yet, as he grew weaker, the tenants’ attitude toward him changed. They no longer hid their hostility. If by chance the old man lost his way upstairs, the young father would unashamedly display his contempt, even spitting on the floor before him. The musician he ran into one day on the doorstep made a show of looking away. The old man hung his head and hunched forward. He rarely dared leave his room anymore. His illness soon left him bedridden. From deep beneath his covers, he racked his brains so hard that his migraines came back, more painful than ever. One night he closed his eyes, defeated. Perhaps they’re right, after all, he thought. By what right am I the owner of this house? The sudden desire overtook him to slip quietly from his home and flee through the cold night to await death on a bench somewhere. He had a premonition he’d never see his daughter again and wrote asking her to visit one last time. “I’m not long for this world, Mrs. Place,” he told his housekeeper, silently adding, if only they’d just let me die in peace.

But he wasn’t done with his tenants yet. One winter’s night, while he lay deep in bed as usual with the snow falling outside and fever burning at his temples, he saw the door to his room open gently. A young boy, whom he recognized, came in. The boy approached the bed and gazed upon the sick man hesitantly.

“Ah, there you are, boy,” said the old man. His hand beckoned the boy closer. “So, what did you do with the fly?”

“I don’t have it anymore, Mister,” said the boy, and fell silent.

“You want something else?” said the old man worriedly. “Thumbtacks, a penknife, a ballpoint pen?”

“I don’t want anything, Mister,” said the boy, but he did not move. The old man was covered in sweat.

“Then why have you come?” he asked, his
voice trembling.

“They sent me to tell you,” the child said, “that they’re all waiting for you upstairs.”

The old man paled and let his head fall back on the pillow. So that was what they were up to. He knew well that there was no escaping this confrontation. He tossed back the covers, then leaned on the child’s shoulder.

“Very well,” he said. “Lead on.”

They went up the stairs. To the old man, the ascent seemed very long; he had to stop several times to mop his dripping brow and catch his breath. He was afraid but didn’t want the child to see.

“Well? Where to?” he asked when they’d reached the top floor but noticed that the child was no longer beside him. He had vanished. The old man thought he heard a slight murmur from behind a wall. He leaned toward the keyhole. On either side of a long rectangular table, the tenants were gathered, their faces somber. All anger was gone from their features, and it seemed the lady with the makeup was less colorful. At the far end sat the young woman with the child, a dreamy air about her. A great silence reigned in the room.

What do they want? thought the old man. To evict me, probably.

But he opened the door and walked in. A woman’s voice uttered his name out loud.

In the room below, his body rested on the bed, stiff and cold.

 

Translation from the French by Edward Gauvin


Photo: Anne Richter

Anne Richter (b. 1939) is a prominent Belgian author, editor, and scholar of the fantastic. Her first collection, Le fourmi a fait le coup, was written at the age of fifteen and translated as The Blue Dog by Alice B. Toklas. She is known for her twice-reprinted international anthology of female fantastical writers, whose introductory essay she expanded into a study of the genre. Her four collections have won her such Belgian honors as the Prix Franz De Wever, the Prix Félix Denayer, the Prix du Parlement, and the Prix Robert Duterme.

Edward Gauvin’s work has won the John Dryden Translation prize and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Translation Award and been nominated for the French-American Foundation and Oxford Weidenfeld Translation prizes. The translator of more than 250 graphic novels, he is a contributing editor for comics at Words Without Borders and has written on the francophone fantastic at Weird Fiction Review.

Editorial note: From Les Locataires (Belfond, 1967), reprinted in La Grande Pitié de la famille Zintram (Éditions L’Âge d’Homme, 2011).

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