We are thrilled to be publishing The Life of Elves by Muriel Barbery in March. The Elegance of the Hedgehog sold more than six million copies worldwide and was described by Le Figaro as ‘the publishing phenomenon of the decade’. The Life of Elves is another moving and enchanting novel about art, nature, dreams and how imagination can help us build a better future. Fans will not be disappointed. Below is the opening chapter of The Life of Elves, which will be in bookshops on 24 February.
And don’t miss your chance to meet Muriel Barbery, who is touring Australia and New Zealand in a few weeks. See event details here.
The little girl spent most of her hours of leisure in the branches. When her family did not know where to find her, they would go to the trees, the tall beech to start with, the one that stood to the north above the lean-to, for that was where she liked to daydream while observing the activity on the farm; then it was the old linden in the priest’s garden beyond the low wall of cool stone; and finally—most often in winter—among the oaks in the combe to the west of the adjacent field, a refluence of terrain planted with three of the most majestic specimens in all the region. The little girl would nestle in the trees, all the hours she could steal from the village life made of book-learning, meals, and mass, and not infrequently she would invite a few friends to come along, and they would marvel at the airy esplanades she had arranged there, and together they would spend glorious days in laughter and chat.
One evening as she sat on a lower branch of the middle oak, while the combe was filling with shadow and she knew they would come soon for her to return to the warmth, she decided for a change to cut across the meadow and pay a visit to the neighbor’s sheep. She set out as the mist was rising. She knew every clump of grass in a perimeter extending from the foothills of her father’s farm all the way to Marcelot’s; she could have closed her eyes and known exactly where she was, as if guided by the stars, from the swelling of the field, the rushes in the stream, the stones on the pathways and the gentle incline of the slope; but instead, for a particular reason, she now opened her eyes wide. Someone was walking through the mist only a few inches ahead of her, and this presence gave a strange tug at her heart, as if the organ were coiling in upon itself and bringing strange images to her: in the bronze glow of undergrowth she saw a white horse, and a path paved with black stones gleaming under foliage.
It must be told what child this was on the day of this remarkable event. The six adults who lived on the farm—father, mother, two great-aunts and two grown cousins—adored her. There was an enchantment about her that was nothing like the one to be found in children whose first hours have been mild, that sort of grace born of a careful mixture of ignorance and happiness; no, it was, instead, as if when she moved she carried with her an iridescent halo, which minds that have been forged in pastures and woods would compare to the vibrations of the tallest trees. Only the eldest auntie, by virtue of an abiding penchant for anything that could not be explained, thought to herself that there was something magical about the little girl; but one thing was for certain, that for such a young child she bore herself in a most unusual way, incorporating some of the invisibility and trembling of the air, as a dragonfly would, or palms swaying in the wind.
Otherwise, she was very dark and very lively, rather thin, but with a great deal of elegance; eyes like two sparkling obsidians; olive, almost swarthy skin; high Slavic-looking cheekbones flushed with a round rosiness; finally, her lips, edged with a curl, the color of fresh blood. She was splendid. And what character! Always running through the fields or flinging herself upon the grass, where she would stay and stare at the too vast sky; or crossing barefoot through the stream, even in winter, to feel the sweet chill or biting cold, and then with the solemnity of a bishop she would relate to all assembled the highlights and humdrum moments of her days spent in the out of doors. To all of this one must add the faint sadness of a soul whose intelligence surpassed her perception and who—from the handful of clues, although weak, that were to be found everywhere, even in those protected places, however poor, in which she had grown up—already had an intimation of the world’s tragedies.
Thus, at five o’clock it was that glowing, secretive young sprig of a girl who sensed the nearby presence in the mist of an invisible creature, and she knew more surely than the existence of God proclaimed by the priest that this creature was both friendly and supernatural. Thus she was not afraid. Instead, she set off in the direction she had determined shortly before, toward the sheep.
Something took her by the hand. Something like a large fist wrapped in a soft warm weave, creating a gentle grip in which her own hand felt lost. But no man could have possessed a palm that, as she felt through the silky skein, had hollows and ridges that might belong to the giant paw of a wild boar. Just then they made a turn to their left, almost at a right angle, and she understood that they were headed toward the little woods, skirting round the sheep and Marcelot’s farm. There was a fallow field, overgrown with sleek serried blades of grass, rising gently to meet the hill through a winding passage, until it reached a lovely stand of poplar trees rich with strawberries and a carpet of periwinkles where not so long ago every family was permitted to gather wood, and would commence with the sawing by first snowfall; alas, that era is now gone, but it will not be spoken of today, be it due to sorrow or forgetfulness, or because at this hour the little girl is running to meet her destiny, holding tight to the giant paw of a wild boar.
And this on the mildest autumn evening anyone had seen for many a year. Folk had delayed putting their apples and pears to ripen on the wooden racks in the cellar, and all day long the air was streaked with insects inebriated with the finest orchard vintage. There was a languidness in the air, an indolent sigh, a quiet certainty that things would never end, and while people went about their work as usual, without pause and without complaint, they took secret delight in this endless autumn as it told them not to forget to love.
Now just as the little girl was heading toward the clearing in the east wood, another unexpected event occurred. It began to snow. It began to snow all of a sudden, and not those timid little snowflakes that fluff about in the gloom and scarcely strive to land on the ground, no, heavy snowflakes began to fall, as big as buds from a magnolia, and they fell thick on the ground forming a thoroughly opaque screen. In the village, as it was drawing toward six o’clock, everyone was surprised; the father in his simple twill shirt, chopping wood, Marcelot warming up his dogs over by the pond, Jeannette kneading her dough, and others who, on this late autumn that was like a dream of lost happiness, were coming and going about their business, be it leather, flour or straw; yes, they had all been surprised and now they were closing tight the latches on the stable doors, calling in the sheep and the dogs, and getting ready for something that brought them almost as much well-being as the sweet languor of autumn: the first evening they’d spend clustered around the fireside, when outside there was a raging snow storm.
They were preparing, and thinking.
They were thinking—those who remembered—about an autumn day some ten years earlier, when the snow had suddenly begun to fall as if the sky were peeling away into immaculate white strips. And it was at the little girl’s farm in particular that they were thinking about it, for her absence there had just been discovered, and the father was pulling on his fur cap and a hunting jacket that stank of mothballs from a hundred yards away.
“They’d better not come for her again,” he muttered before disappearing into the night.
He knocked on the doors of the village houses where other farmers were to be found, along with the master saddler, the mayor (who was also the head road mender), the forester, and a few others. Everywhere, he said the same thing: the wee girl has gone missing, before he set off to the next door, and behind him the man of the house would shout for his hunting jacket, or his thick overcoat, and he’d put on his gear and hurry into the tempest toward the next house. And eventually there were fifteen of them gathered at the home of Marcelot, whose wife had already fried up a pan full of thick bacon and set out a pitcher of mulled wine. They finished it off in ten minutes, calling out their battle instructions, no different from the ones they reeled off the mornings they went hunting—but a wild boar’s trail was no mystery to them, whereas the little girl, now, she was more unpredictable than a sprite. Only, the father had his opinion on the matter, as did all the others, because in these parts no one believes in coincidences, where legends and the Good Lord go hand in hand and where they are suspected of having a few tricks the city folk have long forgotten. In our parts, you see, it’s a rare event to turn to reason in a shipwreck; what’s called for are eyes, feet, intuition, and perseverance, and that is what they mustered that evening, because they remembered just such a night only ten years earlier when they’d gone up the passage through the mountains looking for someone whose traces led straight to the clearing in the east wood. Now the father feared more than anything that once they got up there the lads would be bound to open their eyes wide, make the sign of the cross, and nod their heads, just as they had done that time when the footprints came to a sudden stop in the middle of the circle, and they found themselves staring at a carpet of snow as smooth as a baby’s bottom, a place of pristine silence where no one—and this all the hunters were prepared to swear—no one had set foot in at least two days.
Let them head uphill through the blizzard.
As for the little girl, she has reached the clearing. It’s snowing. She’s not cold. The creature that brought her here is speaking. It’s a majestic, tall white horse, its coat steaming in the evening air, spreading a light mist in every direction on earth—to the west, where the Morvan is turning blue; to the east where the harvest was brought in without a single drop of rain; to the north where the plain stretches for miles; and to the south where the men are struggling through the snow up to their thighs, their hearts twisted in fear. Yes, a fine tall white horse with arms and legs, and dewclaws too, a horse that is neither a horse nor a man nor a wild boar but a combination of all three, although not wholly assembled—at times the horse’s head turns into a man’s while its body expands and is fitted with hooves that shrink to the paws of a wild pig then grow again until they are those of a wild boar. This goes on incessantly, while the little girl contemplates the dance of essences greeting and mingling as they trace the steps of knowledge and faith. The creature speaks gently to her and the mist is transformed. And she sees. She does not understand what he is saying but she sees a snowy evening just like this one in the same village where she has her farm, and on the porch there is a white shape against the whiteness of the snow. And she is that shape.
Who can help but recall the event whenever they meet that little girl, vibrant as a chick; you can sense its pure life beating right up to your shoulder and your heart. It was Auntie Angèle who, when the time came to go and round up the hens, found the poor thing staring at her with her all-engulfing black eyes and her little amber face, so visibly human that Angèle stood poised with one foot in the air, until she got a hold of herself and began to shout a child in the night! and lifted her up to take her inside, this little girl whom the snowflakes had spared even though it was still snowing a blizzard. Not long afterward, that same night, the auntie would say: ’Twas as if the Good Lord was speaking to me, then she fell silent, troubled by the sensation that it was impossible to describe how the shape of the world had been distorted by the discovery of the infant swaddled in white, the dazzling splitting of possibilities into unfamiliar pathways howling in the snowy night, while time and space retracted, contracted—but still, she had felt it, and she left it up to God to understand it.
One hour after Angèle had come upon the little girl, the farm had filled with villagers who stood deliberating, and the countryside with men who were following a set of footprints. They were tracing the solitary footprints that left the farm and went up to the east wood, scarcely sinking into the snow, although the men were in up to their hips. What happened after that, we already know: once they reached the clearing, they stopped their tracking and headed back to the village, their minds heavy with dark thoughts.
“So long as...” said the father.
No one added anything but everyone was thinking about the poor woman who, maybe: and they made the sign of the cross.
The tiny girl observed all of this from deep within the fine cambric swaddling decorated with a sort of lace unknown in these parts: there was an embroidered cross, which warmed the heart of all the old grannies, and there were two words in a foreign tongue, which terrified them. They all focused their attention on those two words, in vain, until the arrival of Jeannot, the postal employee, who, because of the war, the one from which twenty-one of the village men did not return, and the reason for a monument opposite the town hall and the church, had once descended deep into that territory they called Europe—which was located nowhere else, in the mind of the rescuers, than in those pink, blue, green and red patches on the map in the community hall, for what might Europe be when strict borders separated villages only three leagues from one another?
So this Jeannot, who had just come in wearing a bonnet of snow, and had been served a coffee with a big splash of brandy by the mother, now looked at the embroidered inscription on the satiny cotton and said, “Upon my word, it’ll be Spanish.”
“Are you sure?” asked the father.
The lad nodded vigorously, his nose clouded with brandy.
“And what’s it mean?” asked the father.
“How am I supposed to know?” answered Jeannot, who didn’t speak barbaric tongues.
They all nodded, and digested the news with the help of another encouraging shot of brandy. So the little tot came from Spain? Well, I never.
Meanwhile, the women, who weren’t drinking, had gone to fetch Lucette. Lucette had recently recovered from her confinement and was now nursing two little lads nestled against her bosom as white as the snow outside, and all those present looked without an ounce of spite at that bosom as fine as a pair of sugarloaves—they could just lap it up!—and they felt that a sort of peace had come over the earth because there before them were two little babies clinging to those nourishing breasts. After she’d had a good feed, the little lass let out a sweet little burp, as round as a ball and clear as a bell, and everyone burst out laughing and gave each other a fraternal tap on the shoulder. They relaxed, Lucette buttoned up her bodice, and the women served up some hare pâté on big slices of bread reheated in goose fat, because they knew that this was the priest’s favorite and they’d gotten it in their heads to keep the young miss in a Christian home. What’s more, it didn’t cause the problems they’d have had elsewhere if a little Spaniard suddenly showed up just like that on some fellow’s porch.
“Well, well,” said the father, “I’m of the opinion that this little girl is at home,” and he looked at the mother who smiled back at him, he looked at every one of the guests, whose satiated gazes lingered on the infants settled on a blanket to one side of the great wood stove, and finally he looked at the priest who, in a halo of hare pâté and goose fat, stood up and went over to the stove.
They all got to their feet.
We shall not repeat here the country priest’s blessing; all that Latin, when in fact we wish we knew a bit of Spanish, would be too confusing. But they got to their feet, the priest blessed the infant, and everyone knew that the snowy night was a night of grace. They recalled an ancestor who had told them the story of a cold spell fit to make you die as likely of fright as of frost when they were fighting the last campaign, the one that left them victorious and forever damned with the memory of their dead—the last campaign, where the columns were advancing in a lunar twilight and the ancestor himself no longer knew whether the paths of his childhood had ever existed, and that walnut tree in the bend in the road, and the swarms of insects around the time of Saint John’s Day, no, he couldn’t remember a thing, and all the men were just like him, because it was so cold there, so cold...it’s hard to imagine such a fate. But at dawn, after a night of misery where the cold struck down those brave souls the enemy had missed, it suddenly began to snow, and that snow...that snow was the redemption of the world, because among their divisions it would not freeze again, and soon on their brows they felt the miraculous warmth of the flakes signaling the thaw.
The little girl didn’t feel the cold any more than the soldiers of the last campaign, or the lads who had reached the clearing and who were gazing at the scene, soundless as pointing dogs. Later, they could not recall what they had seen clear as day, and to each question they would reply with the vague tone of someone searching within for some confused memory. Most of the time, all they said was, “The little lass was there in the middle of a bloody blizzard, but she was warm and alive as could be and she was talking to some creature that made off afterward.”
“What sort of creature?” asked the women.
“Ah, some creature,” they replied.
And as in these parts where legends and the Good Lord, etcetera...they stuck to that reply and went on watching over the child as if over the Holy Sepulcher itself.
A singularly human creature, that’s how each of them had sensed it, looking at vibrations as visible as matter whirling around the little girl, and it was an unfamiliar sight that gave them a strange shiver, as if life were suddenly splitting open and they could look inside it at last. But what do you see when you look inside life? You see trees and wood and snow, perhaps a bridge, and landscapes slipping by before your eyes have time to grasp them. You see the toil and the winds, the seasons and the sorrows, and you might see a tableau that belongs to your heart alone—a strap of leather in a tin box, a patch of meadow where the hawthorn blossoms run riot, the wrinkled face of a beloved woman and the smile of the little girl telling tales of tree frogs. Then, nothing more. The men would recall that the world suddenly landed back on its feet in an explosion that left them weak and drained—and after that they saw that the mist had been swept from the clearing, that it was snowing so hard you could drown in it, and the little girl stood all alone in the middle of the circle where there were no other footprints save her own. Then they all went back down to the farm where they sat the child in front of a bowl of scorching hot milk, and the men hastily stored their rifles, because there was mushroom stew with headcheese pâté and ten bottles of their wine for laying down.
There you have the story of the little girl who held the paw of a giant wild boar tight in her hand. Truth be told, no one can really explain what it all means. But there is one more thing to say, about the two words embroidered on the edge of the white cambric in an elegant Spanish with neither object or logic, and which the little girl would learn about once she had already left the village and set in motion the wheels of fate—and before that there is one other thing to say: we all have the right to know the secret of our birth. This is how you pray in your churches and your woods and how you go off to travel the world—because you were born on a snowy night and you inherited two words that came from Spain.
* I will mantain