If she saw herself on YouTube now she would be horrified. So many of the old photographs show her smoking a cigarette or carrying a pack across the Persian carpet to sit by the window and watch the sparrows, a Gauloise in her hand, head inclined to the linden tree in the yard. Everything has changed since the nineteen-forties, and I have gotten very old, but I’m resolved to memorialize my mistress before I slip into the abyss. I will describe her. Nowadays you would not see a celebrity touching a cigarette in public (and certainly not in a silver filigree cigarette holder). She wanted to present herself in a cloud; she was aware of the thinness of smoke, its floating to nothingness. That gave her a grim delight. “Everything changes, Antoine,” she said.
Today, she would not have liked to see herself photographed holding a rifle beside the dead bodies of lions. Actually she didn’t shoot them herself, but she wanted to appear a big hunter like her husband, a man with an enormous appetite for killing animals. In a few photographs, her face peers out of a sable collar or a mink shawl. In the forties and thirties beautiful women wore dead fur around their necks to set off their fine-textured skin. She stopped wearing fur when she got old, though she still was easily chilled. The fashion changed.
And in all the films and photographs, she chose to present herself with an amused expression: she is the aristocrat benignly approving of her servants’ attempts to please her with their delicacies and small anecdotes and prompt obedience. She thanked me and patted my head when I brought her afternoon tea on a silver tray. “You are good to me, Antoine,” she said.
She did not write about death very much but about monsters and masters and lovers and transformations. “Those are the important things,” she said. She looked out the window on the savannah and in the distance was a baobab tree, which, when the leaves fall in the dry season, resembles its own upside down roots. “So beautiful.” She sighed. “I’ll have to go soon.” She inhaled a puff of cigarette. “We don’t know how to make money here, my husband and I.” Her breath was hoarse, her light eyes shining with tears.
I was an orphaned boy, and she took me in and schooled me. I did not have talent for paper things but I loved to make soup. She wrote her books in the little office, and I made dinner in the little kitchen. I boiled a fine broth and added a mesh bag with seeds and spices, which I removed at the end, so it was clear, aromatic, and mysterious. “Writing is like that, too,” she said. “You must remove the mesh. Or is it ‘mess’?” She laughed, and it was a genuine, throat-filling, ear-filling sound.
She said she would take me with her, but I did not want to leave my warm country. She said I could visit her. Years later, I did and I never went back home. I opened a small restaurant in her town. I served stew flavored with wine, chicken braised in fennel seed, bread glazed with honey. She came to my restaurant with its tables covered in white linen and smiled. “You’ve done well, Antoine.” She leaned over the gold broth in its porcelain bowl, sniffed, and put a spoonful to her lips. “Delicious.”
I still have the cigarette holder, ivy and flowers winding around it. She bequeathed it to me. She is not so popular now. Someone should film a movie from her books and make her famous again. She would probably laugh at the folly of the idea. You cannot hold anything in your hand for long, she said.
In the last year of her life, we watched the Aurora Borealis fall like a curtain down from the sky, and she said it reminded her of lightning in Africa: Look at the lightning, look before it’s gone. Look.