Literary breaks

Requiem for an eagle

Theatre of Liberty

By Stéphane Héaume 24 November 2017


© Elisa Haberer / OnP

De la maison des morts (saison 17/18)

Requiem for an eagle
Condemned to hard labour, men of all ages serve their sentences, plunged deep in their memories. In his opera From the House of the Dead, a tribute to the work by Dostoyevsky, Janáček allows the prisoners to sing these memories, crystallising images of an impossible freedom in obsessive leitmotifs. In a short story haunted by the madness of imprisonment, Stéphane Héaume revisits the image of the eagle of the steppes.     

For some unknown reason that escaped every one, even the best informed, Morianchikov had managed to build himself a hut, at the far end near the wall. Under surveillance, of course; but he did have his little house, full of mystery, no one could go inside, no one really knew what was inside. He himself said not a word. The only thing he admitted was that this privilege was one of seniority. Fifty years! Even the most hardened understood. In the morning, when Morianchikov opened the door of his cabin and closed it again, you should have seen the looks on the faces of the others. Some said that he had invented a woman out of rags, to ward off the inevitable (Morianchikov was seventy-two, after all). But no one really knew.

One evening, he waved to me as the others were returning. He said to me: “ Son, you are so young, you don’t yet know that your memories will be no more than an image that gets more and more blurred with time, that your childhood will be no more than a single image fixed in the closed eternity of this place, your mother, your father, oh, Alyeko, believe me, a fixed image will be your only freedom.” I didn’t really understand. He told me he was working for our salvation – the salvation of us all.

One day, they announced there would be a play in the courtyard; such a thing had never happened before, here, within these walls where we were the only actors in an immobile tragedy, clowns for eternity. It was Morianchikov who had organised it. Except that we too were supposed, in some way, to take part. That is how, one morning at dawn, just before our daily chores, we were asked to stop shaving our heads. For three months. The oldest of us laughed at the joke. But, for some unknown reason, I knew that something was up.

No one talked about it. Morianchikov spent most of his time in his cabin, as if he had been cast into a minute space where freedom prevailed, and some of us grumbled at the idea. What attracted our attention in particular, was the noise that came from the cabin. The sound of a saw. Morianchikov was cutting wood and the scent of wood shavings filled the whole courtyard, from wall to wall, rising even higher, right up to our windows. Why had he chosen me? One evening, another one (and by some miracle that I can’t explain, I was allowed to see him) – he summoned me to him. He had asked nothing of nobody, he simply sang, (for he really did sing) my name, Alyeko, Alyeko, Alyeko! And his song reached my ears up there, through my window, penetrating the dark slumbers of all my tomorrows. I was woken up and taken to him, at the cabin, yes, I had been chosen.

The night was red, dense, low and humid; we anticipated a storm. I was led to the cabin. Half hunched over a workbench, Morianchikov looked at me. His beard was yellow, his eyes widened at my arrival. He radiated such a silent, reassuring, protective presence (something I had never dared to tell him)! “Come, my Alyeko, come, see what I can still do here, by the privilege that has been granted me.” And it really was a privilege, because he had been given a plane and some planks of wood. In the cabin, gloomy in spite of a little lamp perched on a shelf, there was a bed, a tiny mirror and, above all, on the floor, a great quantity of wood shavings. I had no need to ask him why he had asked me to come, nor what he was doing in his privileged refuge. He told me promptly: “It’s a secret, I am making an eagle out of wood for the play, he will take the leading role.” I didn’t really understand. He asked me not to ask questions, just to watch him, and he went back to his work bench, his entire bulk bent over, puffing a bit but with a happy expression, trying to plane down little strips of wood into smooth curves to make the wings. I remained silent, according to his wishes. And he watched me. His large, green eyes, those old man’s eyes on the edge of the great abyss, scrutinised me with a tenderness I had not known since my arrival here, a spiritual tenderness, trusting and full of hope.

Soon, after several weeks, he showed me the wings perfectly delineated, sculpted and light, in wood that was supple and pure – and fine, so fine, like paper.

Our hair was growing back, our faces redefined themselves with the return of our previously confiscated identities. Contrary to all expectations, we were told nothing. Each of us observed his own rebirth, day after day, in front of the little square of mirror that served us as a looking glass. Above all, we wondered what was happening, why so much latitude suddenly, when our fate had for a long time been decided. The announcement of a play never left our minds. We waited. We had always been waiting. What else could we do?

Several months went past. Morianchikov, his face increasingly blue, summoned me every Wednesday to his cabin.

“Alyeko, Alyeko, my son, look.” And he showed me his eagle, his eyes filled with a pride he shared only with me. It was a little eagle, sharply cut but fragile in its composition. Morianchikov must have forgotten the splendour of the king of the steppes – the effects of old age, doubtless, his relentless efforts perhaps, sadness, most of all. The eagle’s beak was delicate, inoffensive. With a system of tiny hinges, Morianchikov had very cleverly succeeded in assembling the body, the head, the wings and the talons, so well that his little eagle was completely articulated, supple, a child’s toy.

“Alyeko, Alyeko, touch it, caress it,” he said to me. “It’s our salvation.” And he took me in his arms before the cabin door opened for them to take me back. At night, I thought of him, of the eagle, the wood shavings, and I told myself that that man, at least, was creating something in this life that was so empty and lacking a workbench.

Then, one morning, some one came to cut our hair. Nobody understood it. All this time our hair had looked like the hair of angels, fine, long but fragile, and it was the pride of some of us. Ten centimetres, that counts for a lot in a life of eternal reclusion. But they cut it. With no explanation.

Our semblance of freedom had come to an end, leaving incomprehension in its place. We observed each other. We sized each other up. Suspicion was rife. Who was behind this initiative? Then, in a wondrous clap of thunder, they announced the play, in the courtyard, for the following evening. For a long time, old Morianchikov had not asked for me and it pained me; I missed him, I didn’t dare talk about it to anyone. Would he be there for the performance?

They summoned us all, one evening, in the courtyard, heads shaved now, in front of Morianchikov’s cabin where the doors were wide open. There was no wind, the moon had disappeared. We had to sit down on the ground. We couldn’t make out the inside of the cabin, - something so many people would have liked to see. It was silent for a long time, like that, in the false warmth of men huddled together and the day’s sweat after our habitual labours, but this was something so sudden, so new that all was calm, old quarrels snuffed themselves out of their own accord within this improvised theatre.

Then, from the depths of the cabin, a glimmer began to swell. It was a candle, you could make out a work bench in front of the hut and, above it, like a sheet hung up from one end to the other, held up by wooden rings, a big white sheet lit from behind by the candle standing at the back of the cabin. All eyes were turned towards that spreading glow, for it was approaching the sheet – and of course every one knew that it was Morianchikov, from behind, who was animating the shadows. Then, above the sheet, stretched out like a sail, we saw a shape rise up in the shadows. I recognised the eagle. The eagle, all complete, assembled with all the love that Morianchikov had brought to it. And soon every one in the courtyard understood that it was an eagle, for now, through the magic of Morianchikov’s hands, the candle lit up its profile. The first tentative acclamations were to be heard, expressions of happiness for it was a beautiful illusion that we had long ceased to expect. There was the clinking of a few chains, for some of us, the most rebellious, had not been unmanacled. And a few minutes later, the eagle having displayed itself from all angles, but still level with the top of the sheet, Morianchikov sang a tune that we all knew, a song that belonged only to us, the song of the chains, the song of freedom held captive within the walls.

Then something happened that I shall never forget: the light from the candle came and illuminated the eagle from below, and the eagle, by the magic of Morianchikovs’s hands, the eagle suddenly began to rise up a little above the sheet, it’s belly caressed by the light from the flame. But what suddenly appeared to us then, not as something obvious, struck us dumb with joy. Morianchikov had hung from the eagle’s talons long garlands of hair, our hair like floating strands of creeper that he had just set aflame. The light from the candle was now huge, it encompassed everything in its halo: the cabin, the eagle, our hair trembling with a raging fire beneath the belly of the eagle now rendered light, majestic and soon to be set free by Morianchikov’s hands. And the eagle suddenly rose up into the air, clumsily at first, uncertain, then sure of its trajectory, in a single soaring movement, carried by our hair which was being consumed so as to raise us towards our freedom, a moment of majesty, unlooked-for grace.

I started up with a bound, left my fellow-prisoners and rushed toward Morianchikov, seizing him in my arms. “Dear, dear child!” he said to me.

But suddenly we were separated, brutally. They took him away as he raised his arm to the sky and, pointing to the eagle rising ever higher in the sky, he cried “Life!” He was struggling.

The eagle was still rising in a web of light, our hair was mingling with the firmament and all the prisoners exulted. “The eagle is Tsar! The eagle is Tsar! Dear, dear freedom! Life begins once more!”

Then there was a gunshot and Morianchikov collapsed on the ground.

We heard the sound of the chains, we returned to our cells, in silence at first whilst the guards were closing up Morianchikov’s cabin, then we began to hum, a slow, walled up complaint, we began to sing the song of the chains. For ourselves, for the eagle, for Morianchikov.

And this evening, as I look back on that story, an old story of thirty years ago, I think I’ll tell it later, in the courtyard, with my companions – those who are not yet asleep. This story, it was yesterday and tomorrow, it all begins again. Time effaces everything. The festivities are over. Tomorrow is another working day, it’s back to the grind… I look at my comrades stretched out, at their livid faces, their miserable beds, their nudity and their openly displayed misery. That’s our reality. I know that I shall stay here for ever, so, yes, I shall tell them the story of the eagle. To survive. To resist. To go on existing a little longer. Here, we exist only through stories.    

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