We are Bigg’s four girls.
We don’t have first names.
We are seven years old and we already have a wonderful story to tell. We live on a farm bordered by pines and beehives. A farm near which grow coarse-haired scabious, green bamboo and carpets of moss. Bigg tells us we are very happy. In the earth, we don’t wear boots. We stay barefoot to touch the stones and the silt. We like to feel the crevices breathe. We have fun. We watch the calves being born. As we walk, we snap winter's last dead branches. We gather chervil and blackberries, we munch great mouthfuls of them, the juice spurts out, our faces turn into jam.
In his trousers that are always black, Bigg lets us play. He nicknames us the clay girls. We have to call him Bigg and nothing else. He’s the one who makes the rules. You have to go to bed early, not excite the animals. You have to hide in the barn when a visitor rings the bell at the bottom of the hill. Bigg trusts us. He doesn’t put the big steel padlock on the door anymore. We can stroke the calves in the straw and play mummies.
We are ten years old and we are all in love with Bigg. He tells us stories. Tales about the world before, when there were towns, roads, monuments. Big gathers us around him in his study, around him and his long white beard. He describes hurricanes and storms, which used to have women’s names. Coasts drowned by the ocean, forgotten beaches, tumours. Contaminated eggs, suicides, homosexual marriages. Bearded men in deserts chopping people’s heads off. The bloodthirsty bearded men, no connection with Jesus. In Bigg’s stories there are always ghosts, will-o’-the-wisps, a White Lady, frights and were-wolves. Vampires who lived in a wall called Wall Street.
On the farm, we share the work. No question of lounging about on the flagstones in the sun. Bigg keeps a notebook in which he assigns us our jobs. Milking the cows, planting out lettuces, cleaning out the gutters, churning the butter, we’re kept busy. We put cotton wool soaked in copper sulphate solution on the mare’s hooves and we prepare the soup at lunch and suppertime. Bigg continually tries to separate us. When we are all together, he imagines we snigger behind his back. He thinks the clay girls are plotting.
We are twelve years old with caramel gaze. Our breasts are forming, our hips are rounding out. On the ground, our hair forms brown patches, hiding the traces of the animals’ blood. Bigg slaughters them with a knife. Chickens, pigs especially and cows too, when they are said to have gone mad. One flick of the knife and hup! Blood soaks into the stones in the yard near the redcurrant bushes. Sometimes, Bigg cuts our hair with his knife. Bigg doesn’t like us to dirty the house or act like grand ladies. We are the clay girls. We must be modest, like the earth.
When we see the knife on the kitchen table, we take to our heels for the woods full of frogs. We run, pounding the peat with our feet, turning it into dust. Bigg always finds us. He gives us a real dressing down. Sometimes, we would like to get angry. We imagine paying him back, setting traps for him, like the cattle he leads to the slaughter. To feel better, we gather nettles so that our skin stings until nightfall.
When winter departs, Bigg opens the old Norman cupboard of varnished wood. He takes out grey fabric from the shelves and tells us to make ourselves long dresses, below the knee. We look at each other. We resemble women and we snigger.
We are fourteen years old and we are running off while Bigg has a kip. We’re getting out of here. We’re much too curious. After all those stories, we want to see if Bigg was telling the truth. On horseback, we go down the hill, the other two follow at a run. We hold hands. We are prudent. For fear of falling into the holes made by the cyclones and of getting caught by the mutants prowling around. Lower down, we discover farms like ours. It’s disappointing. Just tractors, right in the middle of the fields, wells, stables and other animals which have nothing diabolical about them. We’ve hardly had time to snoop around before Bigg arrives on his tractor. He looks furious. He tells us that God will punish us, sooner or later.
This happens on the first night of spring. Bigg comes and wakes us, armed with his hunting rifle. Pitch dark. Shouting, he enters the barn. He orders us to take our Bible and crawl over to the bunker. He yells out that acid rain is on its way. We stay in the shelter reciting verses from the Apocalypse. We listen to Bigg. In the bunker, there are steel benches fixed to the walls. Bigg has installed everything we need to survive. An electric generator. Water tanks, pipes, filament light bulbs and cartons of preserves without labels that we open with our teeth. A crucifix hanging up on high watches over us. We are fourteen and we live for a year under the ground. Bigg says that it’s our fault, he calls us vulgum pecus and makes us pray. We kneel on grains of rice scattered on the ground as a punishment. Forgive us, Lord.
Sometimes Bigg makes us pray all day. We chant out loud, in chorus, with our sisters. Bigg is brave, he puts on his gas mask and climbs the ladder to the armoured door. He disappears. When he comes back he says it’s the end of the world.
We come out of the ground, a year later. The forest is new. The trees have been cared for, the petals have resuscitated, but we can’t see anything. The light blinds us. It takes us a few minutes before we dare to breathe. Bigg signals to us to go ahead and we run, all four of us, towards the enclosures. The animals are safe and sound. God has protected them. It took a year of prayer to save the farm. We are mad with joy and we hug each other, the four of us, on the grass, in a ring. Bigg asks us to go back up. He smiles. He is happy to see his land again. But he takes hold of each of us by the arm and warns us that at the next error, the farm will go up in smoke and that we’ll finish up in the briar patch, devoured by mutants and wild boar.
We are fifteen years old. In the storehouse, we have discovered a trapdoor hidden under a mat. Below there is a trunk full of stuff. There’s an old machine that plays music, sweet melodies that leaden our eyelids. Memories recounted on tapes. It is our mothers who speak, and their mothers before them. They recount their life. In the trunk there are books, pencils, yellowed sheets of paper and atlases. There are photographs of clowns, department stores and animals in the jungle. There are photographs of women, of children and of theatres, photographs of tajines and bottles of coca-cola and mothers explaining what it all means. There are letters, bundles of them tied up with string. But we can’t read. Reading, that’s an illness, it means you believe any old thing and it’s evil brewing. There is also jewellery, necklaces like daffodils and buttercups. In the trunk, there are colours and smiles that look nothing like Bigg’s stories.
We are sixteen years old. We are fed up with the yearly round of seasons, with grunting pigs and cows giving birth. One after the other, Bigg takes us on one side. At last he shows us photos of our mothers. Our own mothers, all beautiful with crowns of carnations on their heads. Bigg gives us each a red dress, he tells us it is time. We keep them carefully under our beds of straw and, before Bigg chooses us, we rub them with oat milk flakes until they shine in the afternoon sun. When night falls, Big gathers us like flowers. He tells us we are radiant in our red dresses. Bigg is kind. He always turns out the light.
We are seventeen years old and there are no more mysteries. In secret, we learn to read and write. We sneak away to the attic to decipher our mothers’ letters. It takes us several years to decode them, to translate, to untangle the loops, to understand the umlauts, the capitals and the sound of the vowels. We search for meaning.
We are twenty and we are writing in our turn. Like our mothers. A few words every day before we get on with our tasks. Bigg calls us his women now. We are no longer the clay girls. We are the women of the earth. He has chosen us and we prostrate ourselves before him. In the evening, before we join Bigg, we return to the storehouse, one after the other. We write down the story of the bunker and the mutants who do not exist.
We are twenty-five years old. We have children. Girls. A single girl, that’s the rule. We are forbidden to give them names but we do it anyway. We call them Luzule, Violette, Polygala, like the flowers that grow secretly in the woods. Bigg looks at them tenderly. But one of us gave birth to a stillborn baby. With the farm animals, it often happens. The baby was a boy. At first, we thought he was breathing, that he had cried, but Bigg ordered us not to interfere. He left the room with the body under his arm. That evening, we disappeared into the woods to organise the funeral and we cried hot tears all four of us in our grey dresses.
We stay there watching the slanting forest crush the sky. We no longer know if we are sisters and whether we live in a house full of love or of anger.
We are thirty years old. Bigg takes our photographs. Close-ups taken in front of the stone doorway. Bigg makes us parade. He tells us we are old and tired, that our hands are blotchy and our memories askew. He tells us that, deep down, we are seventy years old. Our daughters play in the woods with branches of cedar and sprigs of mint. They are beautiful. They are the clay girls now. Our own faces are grey. We have no more strength to write. It is the end of winter. Bigg announces that God wants us by His side.
One morning, as the dew is evaporating, Bigg accompanies us to the woods. God is waiting for us. We hold hands, the four of us. We look at the tender green of the thickets, the swaying of the rivers and the first buds peeking innocently through the moss. We follow Bigg to the depths of the trees and silently we pray. We pray painlessly and gently. We pray for extravagant things, we pray that our daughters sleeping in the padlocked barn will learn never to keep silent.In the storehouse before leaving, we opened the trunk one last time. On a pale bed of scabious flowers, we placed our journal. We left it for our daughters, to our women, to the survivors, to the rebels, to the little ones in their hands who are still singing. We offer it to females, to infidels, to the fragile and the pagan. To the numberless, to the deaf, to those whose struggle is over, to those who are in love, to all those who, like us, die in the forest believing in miracles.
Your reading: The Clay Girls