Home » La Mante by Annabel Mahoney

HORLA FICTION (September 2019)

 

LA MANTE

by ANNABEL MAHONEY

15th January, 18-

The town is small and dear and close. Every inch – every last inch! – is permeated with that rock salt smell of the sea. I bade goodbye to my dear Wife and her brother earlier in the day shortly before lunch, and I have occupied myself since by wandering the streets and taking the air. The cobbles are damp from the winter rains and from the salt spray which propels itself so far after beating itself on the rocks. Even the market square – enclosed by a prim row of fishing cottages, now better cared for than they were in their youth – has not escaped its drenchings.

My lodgings are not far from this row of houses; a two storey set of rooms above a cellar belonging to a cold-faced man named J-, who will be acting as my landlord. I daresay he is one of those provincial country men who attest that their method of ‘honest living’ is the only one worth pursuing, and that any soul who does not oughtn’t to be trusted. No Parisian can be trusted! The second storey of my apartment is naught but a wind-filled room, hard wooden beams cross the holes in the slate like a ship’s rigging. I should hope it does not leak. Aside from this, my lodgings are quite adequate; a luxuriant lounge and drawing room, with a bedroom towards the back of the house and a kitchen, from which a young girl named C- will see to my meals and those other relentlessly necessary household tasks.

My walk takes me to the rocks just north of the town, situated between Erdeven and Plouharnel. I chose it deliberately; a seaside retreat a comfortable distance from my beloved Paris, yet close enough that I may return if fortune or ill favour should necessitate. I have brought with me a bare collection of things to suit; my heavier winter wear, fresh candles and coffee and my box of papers. My pens, of course. Ink, from the shop where I have always bought ink. There may come a time where I ask Giselle to have some sent down from Paris from that very same shop, but for the moment I am content to use what I have. The reasoning behind this retreat is to knock myself out of a funk, to retreat; to no longer recognise, and by recognising have that affliction, that expectation of genius. Not to say I am naïve; I expect that my name has permeated this damp little corner also. However, I shall take what fortunes my name brings with it as they come. I shall not hide, but nor shall I try to embellish myself or seek out laudation where I have run from so much. My last book being as it was – this year I have set aside is necessary for me; essential!

16th January. 18-

After writing last night’s entry, I sat down to a plain but charming fantasia on a bouillabaisse. I shall call it that, although I am not sure that that is what the girl assigned to me had sought for it to be. I should be surprised if Provençal cooking had crossed her small interior world. She may be described in the same words as my dinner. The local wine which I had alongside was, however, a wonderful surprise. I did not neglect to bring several bottles with me but wishing to leave them for special occasions, or to use if there was no alternative available, they remained unopened. They linger for a better day. The grey of the sky and the grey of the water and the grey of the stone are indivisible.

19th January 18-

I have two remarks to make of my previous entries, and they fall perfectly divisible between the both. Firstly, I was correct to regard my ingenuous naïf-like assumption that I were not to be known here as just that: of course I am. A contingency this evening arrived and have only just left, so far they have to travel all back along the coast. I would have offered them board, of course, had the house been my own. Naturally, I offered them a stock of what I could, namely the fine Parisians I had brought for company. It is with a mixed heart I report the declined numbers of their company, at once testament to the indefatigable will of the human spirit; our inexorable consumption and the immortality of our Paris herself.

With fewer bottles than I had planned to lose at once, I can now recount the multitude pleasures of the evening. A young man, a scholar from Bourges came simply to tell me how he loved my work; myself as a writer. Needless to say, I put him off the best as I could. From Bourges! All the way! He brought with him the most charming ladyfriend, who seemed immune to my charms beside him. One less attested to the ways of womenfolk than myself might have read into this disinterest; how grateful I am not to have a mind so close! Another, a pair of lawyers whom I am given to understand are particularly stalwart in this same motive came to welcome me. I flattered them, in the professional manner so associated with one’s position. However, one – one – a woman who stood almost my height; her dark curls and her dark eyes fierce; her breast heaving at every word… how she looked at me! No, not looked… how she held my gaze. I feel – I felt – as if I had known her a thousand years. The way I felt to be looked at, seen by her. On our leaving, after C- had plied her with wine as the rest, she revealed her name as ‘Coppelia’. Coppelia! Of course! Those eyes, those flashing copper eyes, that gleaming copper hair! How could she be anything but!

21st January, 18-

C- is most insistent at distracting my fascination with Coppelia. I have tried to warn her, several times, what is her station and what is not. I fear not for my nerves, upholstered as they are into my body, yet I fear for my mind. The talent, the talent! I keep it in, like a tumour that might spill. C- cannot conceive of such things, that much is obvious by her poise and demeanour. And yet! to be so unthinking into how those such features carry over into her effect on others…

22nd January, 18-

And so! I hosted. And I have done much more since, but as a storyteller I must lead with the first item of the narrative…. But so! That direct way she had of looking, of seeing-

The same four; three bores and one. C- ventured into the town, with its cobbled stone and its pebbled beach for a lily centre-feature. She did not find such; came back with baby’s breath and lavender. I let her off, being local as she is. Still, the pieces which she brought were underwhelming. If I had known her less, I would suspect she had picked them from a hedgerow. I would release her, if she did not know the domestic market was flooded. Dear C; such a stepping stone. Had I known…

But Coppelia! There she was, in her swanlike glory! Coppelia; autumn corporeal, Eve made flesh! And so, I thought. So. My year, my year here in exile. My year en provence. My year from Paris. As a writer I must think: Why? Well, to write! When? Why, now, of course! What? A break for the mind, naturally. How? The sea air; the unclutter…. but who? Who? well. Had C- been more attentive, she may have known. As for now?

I have my ink. I have my paper. I have my muse.

23rd Jan, 18-

She sleeps where C- used to, of course. If she were to spend the night in my room (if!), there she does not stay. Oh, but Coppelia! She brings me food, permeated with the spice, the streets of my native Saint Germain. She brings me, in her way – her shy and coquettish way – my clothes folded in geometric precision. Had I known she was trained! Why they sent dear C- and not Coppelia in her place….

24th January 18-

A month since Christmas! I think of my family, of dear little Giselle and her brother; of my mother and my father and my readers. How far away they seem! I have asked Coppelia if she can make a bouillabaisse and she says that yes, naturally she can. I shall wait and see if she tells the truth. I am sure that here, as is not the case in Paris, the truth can mean one thing only.

25th Jan, 18-

Coppelia! She can; she did. She brings me dish upon dish upon dish! She sits in my parlour and she talks with me, to me. As if she knows who I am; she sees me behind myself.

26th Jan, 18 –

Oh, Coppelia, Coppelia!

28th January, 18 –

A letter from dear Paris. It seems life progresses there, as it does everywhere. I wrote back; had Coppelia send it. Had Coppelia come to my rooms and talk to me. She talked as I had never had anyone talk. She holds herself so confident; so much not a woman. A woman; a woman in the skin of a woman; in the skin of a man. A woman who has skinned me.

31st January 18-

Coppelia. on the second floor.

6th February 18-

I have so far made few endeavours on my latest book for the public; yet I tell Paris I am there, there, all there! Coppelia, the dear, runs the letters to and from and from and to. She keeps me with sustenance and drink and I love her for it. Not so as I could love my dear G, but so that I feel I could love a daughter or a cousin. My every need, she is there. She anticipates my knowledge of myself before I do.

 

9th February, 18-

She sometimes talks about her home, and I suspect it is to make me jealous. This pastoral, country grown living in which she describes herself? The hay and the creamy air. I see her, as a young girl; corn fed and well developed skipping down the path she describes so often behind her house. She milks the cows; it dusts her hands. She skims off the cream. She sucks her finger.

18th February, 18-

I have sent my first three chapters off to Paris for review. Coppelia is very pleased. I please her in writing.

19th February, 18-

I please her; yet she knows not how she is pleased.

Poor Coppelia; she reminds me so of my dear G at her age. I take her by the hand.

21st February

Dear G. I have done something; I feel you will forgive me, in time. I do not know how long and I do not know when. Dear G. You know me so well. You, more than anyone know how I am, how I try to be. My dear G. How I wish to have you here now.

22nd F

Almost the whole day, the grey persisted to the palette of the sky; an indecisive artist. So hot; so long and hard. Oh, Coppelia. Oh G, oh G.

24th F 18

Two months since Christmas. Since the first time I asked Coppelia to make a bouillabaisse! Oh, Coppelia! I eat, and I eat my fill. I eat and I write. My next six chapters; a ballet theme. I feel it is fitting for how I find myself living now, even if it is not how I saw myself initially planning my narrative above this tightrope. Yet, the fragility; the friability… oh, yes. The delicacy and the sea. Oh, Coppelia. I thank you so, my darling.

25th February, 18

Posted the next six chapters back to Paris. Spring seems to come slow and thick, like honey. The grey is like a wet blanket that clings.

Later

I don’t know how she could go out in it

26th February

The last bouillabaisse of the season, and yet Coppelia can make anything beautiful. Even together with my own hand like salt, she works her magic. Coppelia!

27th February

The door.

Later

So! M-has appeared, in all his Parisian glory! He arrived late and bedraggled. After a sociable meal and the remnants of my Parisian cellar, I have put him to bed and am soon to go to myself. I am in no way begrudged to spend time in the company of my brother-in-law, but I wonder how I can make him realise that I am in the middle of what is proving to be an important plot point of the novel

28th.

We breakfasted most amicably, and I showed him the sights of the sea-breakers. We laughed, and the salt put an amiable red in his face. He asked if I had seen his sister, to which I replied that no; my wife has recently been as estranged to me as he has. I reminded him again of the purpose of my elongated stay beside the sea. He chuckled and agreed.

Later

Again, dinner. Coppelia spreads herself like pepper; bred for the task.

29th F-

again, e askes. where is she. Giselle.

later

iselle? i say.? Paris! at home. with you, gielse?

later

and he is so sure!

30th

After the wine, I can look at the events of last night with a clear head and meditate that, in fact, I do not know why Giselle was such a fixation. Dear G; I have not seen her for as long as I have not seen M- himself.

Later

It appears as though he has found out about Coppelia. My darling dear, Cinderella told in reverse. Aschenputtel. But I know where she is, and I know she is safe and I know she will be with me. The way that she seasons food; she loves me so well.

 

Later

I shouldn’t wonder where he is. After all, there is only one way to get out of this town and it is with the return ticket he has in his bag.

I will wait for him. 

 

 

TELEGRAM

POLICE HQ- PARIS

FROM: M-

MURDER: GISELLE BETHANCOURT STOP. AKA COPPELIA DE GIONE STOP. ACTING AS MAID TO HUSBAND ADULTEROR AUTHOR [REDACTED] STOP. BODY TRUNK MISSING LIMBS AND HEAD STOP. FURTHER EVIDENCE COLLECTED FROM SCENE STOP. WILL FILE REPORT ON RETURN TO PARIS STOP.

 

 

 

***

Annabel Mahoney is the Editor-in-Chief of the Wellington Street Review and the Creative Director of Royal Rose Magazine. She has been widely published in a number of literary journals and anthologies; most recently Burning House Press, Bone & Ink, Ghost City Review, Déraciné Magazine and RECLAIM/RESIST: An Anthology of Women’s Poetry.

Her first collection, Wyf-King, was released with Lapwing Publications in June 2019 and her second, St Crispin in the Trenches is forthcoming with Another New Calligraphy.

Twitter: annabel_Mahoney  Website: annabelmahoney.com

ANNABEL MAHONEY COMMENTS ON HER STORY –

La Mante is set in 19th century France and is formed of the diary entries of a Parisian author and well-known adulterer. Suspicious of his extra-marital activities, his wife Giselle adopts a disguise as local woman Coppelia, who subsequently becomes his servant. Paranoid about his extra-marital relations becoming public – or unwilling to let Coppelia go – the author kills her and burns her body. He subsequently eats the ashes by mixing them into the food she has cooked for him. He is discovered by his brother-in-law checking up on his sister. The fate of both characters is left deliberately open-ended.

La Mante can be read as an anti-colonial or a feminist critique of the French fin de siècle, and how so many middle class white men who forged their identity off the labour of those perceived subordinate to them. The food, which the narrator is so preoccupied with, characterises the modern perception of France as a hotbed of cuisine and culture, as opposed to an imperial power still benefiting from its colonial rule.

The epistolary form of La Mante narrates the bias of the masculine or the French colonial ideal; the ambiguous narrative voice (ie, the inclusion of the telegram) presents the ‘author’ as a domineering presence for which the aesthetics of his surroundings and his reputation are paramount. The consequences of his actions are only hinted at, despite the fact they are the focus of those surrounding him. The centre of La Mante roots the narrative in the decidedly Victorian ideal of the ‘domestic sphere’; the voices of all the important women in La Mante are drowned in the narrator’s deliberate superfluous Victorian prose.

Finally, the title La Mante alludes to the praying mantis, known for the decapitation of its sexual partners. My hope in naming it such is that the female mantis (the killing type in the partnership) be inverted as a reflection of so many depictions of historical women today having to be perceived as embodying aspects of modern feminism to be worthy of study. The women in La Mante are powerless. That does not make them worthless.