mardi 13 janvier 2009


From under the scaffolding this morning

More than a week of temperatures below freezing, and the snow stayed white and sparkling between the tire tracks on the roads less traveled -- even the route up on the ridge above the house --, on the lawn and fields, in little mounds on the frozen fish basin.

"Les poissons doivent être morts," dit Audouin.

"Non," I said no, reflexively, "ils ne sont pas tous morts . Tu veras. Ils vont bien. On ne perd qu'un par an, même en hiver." I sounded like a small child who knows the truth, and pushes it away.

"Il a fait très, très froid depuis longtemps," he said, "et il y a peu d'eau dans le basin." I knew. I imagined thick, thick ice trapping the fish in what is left of the water in the leaking basin. By the time we thought to add water for them, the hose was full of frozen water.

"Ah," Georges had said the day they showed up to work after the holidays and couldn't with the conditions they found here, "il fallait le purger." Of course it should have been emptied, but who uses it? You do, Georges. All we could do was bring some water out from the kitchen sink, pot after pot full. Buckets of water in the ocean. Useless.

Yesterday, despite feeling chilled where I worked in the petit salon, that is really the disordered, closet-like room that I consider my office -- I can see what it will look like, only it's far from that now -- I knew it was suddenly much warmer outside. I could hear the melting ice and snow running down the gutters along the street like a mountain stream. It sounded like a rainstorm when cars passed the window, a rainstorm without water falling other than the roof draining into the gutter and down into the downspouts.

A sodden landscape, depressing, muddy and soggy. The view went from a winter spectacle of light and white to one of drooping brown, dreary winter greens and gray. No joy. The lawn on which I work so hard every spring is not only destroyed from the work on the house, it is like a large wet muddy sponge covered with bits of struggling grass, weed and broken masonry. It squishes underfoot. It's enough to make me stay inside, except I accompanied the Dell repair person to the gate to check the mail (none) and close up behind him -- no workers today, and if they aren't here by now, they won't be, unless they show up after lunch by some miracle with the balcony, which I doubt, since they haven't taken the scaffolding down -- and on my way back, I noticed the water was overflowing from the basin.

I hunched under the scaffolding, water dripping onto my head from the upper part of the missing downspout into the garbage pail, placed there to collect it, between me and the spigot. I returned to the basin to check on the fish and felt sick. Sides. All I could see were the sides of fish, dead. Every one of them.

I have lived here for 6 1/2 years. Many of those fish were here before I arrived. Others were born since and grown and turned gold, orange or a mottled combination of the two (Audouin thinks those are ugly. He prefers the deep vermilion-orange ones). They lived in three groups, disappeared into the cement blocks under the stone sink Audouin found in the bottom of the garden when he came to live here, and hauled up to put into the basin, turning it into a planter for the marsh grasses into which the irises migrated and the moss the frogs love covers. They greeted me each time I walked out the door, swimming to the house side of the basin, all except the very few who live most clannishly on the far side of the basin, and rarely leave their spot, hoping I might feed them, mouths working at the surface of the water, broken by the thriving reeds Audouin brought back from Le Fé and set into the mud at the bottom. They are all dead. Tous.

Et, c'est ma faute.

The day we carried the water out, Audouin thought we should have removed them and placed them in their own water in the garbage pail under the downspout.

"That way we can start to empty the basin to repair the leak."

"No," I put my foot down, somewhere between belligerently and petulantly, but in truth I really did worry that it might not be a good idea. "What's to keep them from dying in the garbage pail?"

"They'll be fine." And, for once, he stopped insisting when now I can see that he should have won that argument. I was wrong.

I stood there gazing at the fish, unable to do anything but remove the ones that had come loose and floated to the surface where there were holes in the ice, and I thought how we could have taken them out and saved them this.

"But that's stupid," my head said to me while I went in for the kitchen strainer I use for the spinach, "They'd just be frozen in the water in the plastic garbage can."

"That's true," I thought, listening and considering.

"But no," my head corrected itself, "you could have brought the garbage can into the garage, or even the house, and let it warm slowly." Of course we could have. How stupid. How terribly stupid and thoughtless. We could have done that. I could have thought of that, and instead, every fish was dead because I had opposed Audouin, thinking I was acting in their best interest, when I was probably being obstreperous and piscicidal.

It is true, though, that day I went to look up what kind of frogs we have, I read that if frogs choose to come live in your basin, you have achieved a perfect ecosystem. As the muck on the bottom built up and the leak appeared, I knew Audouin was right, and that we had to empty and repair it, only I was afraid that we would be disturbing what he and nature had made, and that seemed wrong.

I was wrong, and now, not only is the house far from finished, and we are two months past the date they gave us and only halfway there at best with the outside and the inside yet to go, but the lawn is destroyed, the pristine and sparkling snow is replaced by mud, and all of the fish I have so appreciated are dead because I failed them.

Along with the recovery of the terrace, we can now repair the basin, but the fish we bring for it from Florosny in the spring will be new ones. I liked that the old ones that had always been here and made a place for me, and they deserved a better fate than I gave them.

Nothing is beautiful today.

It must have rained in Saint-Ouen-L'Aumonne before it rained here. If we don't have an extended stretch of decent weather, we might never see a finished project. As for working inside now rather than delaying outdoors, "Oh! Non, il faut pas faire les choses n'importe comment." As though they haven't been, for the most part, already. Whatever.

You're meant to shrug give up before you start.

3:15 pm

My goodness, José just scooted across the terrace, looking to see if I was inside. We raised out hands to one another, or I tried, but I am not sure I was fast enough. Wonder what they are up to.

Will miracles never cease to amaze?
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