Read the beginning of Chapter 1 from Private Property by Paule Constant, translated by Margot Miller and France Grenaudier-Klijn:
"The senior girl was helping Tiffany adjust her celluloid collar. A quick glance at the cuffs, the pleats of the skirt. It seemed alright. They had to hurry now, to catch up with the others. They were running. The refectory was that way, and over here, the bathrooms. Now they were tearing down the stairs. The infirmary, the laundry, the chapel, the parlor. At the back the classrooms, and at the far end, the gymnasium. Back that way, the kitchens. Here the playground.
In the schoolyard were many boarders already: younger ones, less young ones, older ones, all in navy blue: pleated skirts with collars biting in their whiteness. So many of them! Some walking two by two; solitary ones standing, their backs against the wall; groups forming enclosures so tight that they seemed to fit into each other like puzzle pieces. They were everywhere. Her guide had disappeared. Near the door, a nun was saying her rosary.
Should she interrupt a conversation or a sorrow to interfere where it wasn’t her place? Tiffany felt in the way. Beating a retreat, she approached the nun, silently muttering away, hands in her sleeves, each quiver shaking the beads of the Our Father. Tiffany stopped. She watched this pendulum-like mechanism, passionately looking for the replicating gestures. Tap-tap, repeated the sleeve. The tongue was darting over the dry lips, a sigh, the duration of an invocation, and then the nun was lulling herself into the Hail Marys.
The nun opened her arms, the hands emerged from the sleeves, and the rosary appeared, black, shiny. She brought the silver cross to her lips, to her forehead, and in the same movement began to coil up. She was about to close her eyes when she noticed Tiffany, very near, watching her with surprise. She ordered her to go play. Tiffany, who wanted to stay, replied that she didn’t know how. The nun told her that she just had to make SOME FRIENDS! Her remark had suspended her gesture, which she now completed in slow motion. She curled up.
Why hadn’t they come? Tiffany examined the door, postponing the visit in her mind, thinking there must have been a delay, prepared to wait. It was just a mix-up of the time, a misunderstanding. How long would they let her wait? Her watching, the longer it lasted, would seem inappropriate. To endure the delay, she forced herself to let nothing show, above all not to seem to be waiting. A glance toward the opening door would give her away. She looked from underneath her eyelids, motionless, or, over the comings and goings, to take in a larger space, so as to catch in the whole space the ones who would come.
It seemed to her that if she stayed close to the nun, a little apart, they would find her more easily. She allowed herself this last chance, the door of the schoolyard. The nun opened her eyes and Tiffany moved off. She was going to play. With whom? At what? She had no idea. She would play against herself, outside of herself, breathless with anguish, beaten with anxiety. She reached the middle of the schoolyard, she was sinking like a stone. In the blue and black wave that was taking her under, she was suffocating, unable to come to the surface."
Paule Constant teaches French literature at the University of Aix-Marseilles and is the author of several novels, including Trading Secrets, winner of the Prix Goncourt; White Spirit; and The Governor’s Daughter, all available in Bison Books editions. Margot Miller is the translator of Constant’s Ouregano and the author of In Search of Shelter: Subjectivity and Spaces of Loss in the Fiction of Paule Constant. France Grenaudier-Klijn is an academic and literary translator and works as a senior lecturer in French at Massey University in New Zealand.
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