Monday, November 3rd 2003
Vladivostok - Hotel Primorye
From my window, far away, I can see the sea. The sounds remind me of the sounds of Paris. But here everything is sad and ugly. Yesterday, after a long Sunday walk in November fog, for the first time in my life, I passed out.
Oh, not for long. Just enough time for my head to hit the corner of a shelf in front of me. Then I fought to stand back up but my legs would not obey. This morning I have a black eye. I passed out in a cybercafé. Then I sat down again and started sweating from head to toe.
I do not know when Josepha was born. In one diary I have 1871 crossed out and 1903 written down underneath, probably years later, with a question mark next to the two dates. In one of the rare texts I wrote about her I mention she was five in 1894. It would be very easy to verify. I have a copy somewhere of her birth certificate. But a part of me is scared that if I dive into the archives my mother collected and sent me throughout the last decade, I will turn into a statue of salt and I will never be able to write. So instead I will invent my own Josepha, made of fragments of my own faulty memories, of what I knew of her and what was passed on to me.
Marie Josèphe Poëx was the mother of the mother of my mother. She was born in Exaltación de la Cruz in Argentina. She died in her nineties in Brantôme in the Dordogne in France. She was born and she died in places where she had no roots. She outlived her three daughters. No one ever goes to her grave. I went once. The tomb was small and non-descript. It had been so neglected throughout the past three decades, it took me a very long time to find it. Yet I found fresh flowers in a small vase placed near her name. A mystery.
Wednesday, November 5th 2003
In the Transsiberian. In the restaurant car.
This morning, one must be careful when going from one car to the next. The doors are frozen and one's fingers remain glued to the handle. I have no idea where we are. Birch trees everywhere remind me of Babayaga. It never snows. Snow is everywhere. (...)
She was beautiful. The picture of her wedding shows a very young bride, nineteen, with striking ebony black hair tamed in a thick chignon, sharp bird-like features, dark sad eyes, not looking at the camera but with an inward gaze. Her image is confused in my memory with a drawing by Félicien Rops called "Le Plus Bel Amour de Don Juan". It depicts a terrified young girl, naked, with two amulets tied around her neck, sitting with both hands joined between her closed thighs, as if frozen both by inner panic and a cold wind, on the edge of an armchair wrapped in fog. In the shadows behind her bare back, the terrifying figure of a giant man in a floating black cape hovers.
(...) Yuta and I stepped outside of the train in Mogocha. Quickly it was so cold that tiny icicles formed inside my nostrils. That brought me joy.
She was rumored among her grandchildren to be insane. They collected countless anecdotes of her erratic behaviour, her outbursts of anger, the long-standing feuds she'd nurture through the decades, against complete strangers as well as her daughters, and her husband she seemed to have loathed so fiercely.
She was consistently hostile towards me the few times I remember being in her presence. Once, during a family dinner, she gave me a hard slap across the cheek. Perhaps for having talked too much. Perhaps for having expressed too much joy. Perhaps just because. I was four. The only clear memory I have of her is the hard look on her wizened face.
Friday, November 7th 2003
In the Transsiberian. In the restaurant car.
What did I eat this evening? Food found on the platform of the last train station. Women wait for us on the platforms and sell all they can hold in their arms:
a thigh of smoked chicken
large raviolis made of potatoes
little breads stuffed with potatoes
A tenacious hiccup took hold of me while I was eating a boiled potato and now it's coming back as I am reliving that meal through writing it. I drank vodka to make it go away.
The first time I started to compulsively write about her was on the Transsiberian. At the time I was twenty-eight. I had been living in Japan for two years. I had just quit my job in Kyoto. I had left the apartment I’d been sharing with my Japanese boyfriend. We loved each other but I could not see a future together. I could not see a future. I had no roots. No ambition. No desire. No direction. Nowhere I wanted to go back to. I gave myself a few months break. I would go back to France, where I was from. At least for a while. But instead of flying back, I would travel back by boat and by train. It would take weeks. I hoped that somewhere throughout this long journey something inside of me would shift and the incomprehensible despair would recede.
On the Transsiberian, seven days and seven nights from Vladivostok to Moscow, I thought I would write both about everything I would experience inside the train and everything about my own changes. Perhaps too about the books I had brought with me: The Magic Mountain, Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Instead, very quickly, I found myself writing about Josepha's childhood. What I thought I understood about her.
Her pony. My favorite Josepha story from when I was a child. Josepha grew up on a farm in the pampa in Argentina. Her parents were from the Savoie and immigrated to Argentina to escape from the great famine there during the 19th century. The government of Argentina at the time was offering free land for people willing to immigrate and become farmers. The legend says that at the age of five Josepha had her own pony and was riding alone everywhere in the pampa. One day she got trapped on the back of her pony among a large herd of cows. She was rescued, but severely scolded.
On the Transsiberian, I shared my compartment with three other passengers: Yuta, my Japanese boyfriend, Cola, a fifty-year-old farmer, and a grandfather whose name I never knew, with very sad very pale blue eyes and a uniform from the Second World War (in which he slept too but it remained perfectly ironed throughout the journey).
At night, I could not sleep. I would do stretching exercises in the corridor pretending that the round wooden ramp underneath the windows was a ballet barre. I looked at the blue hills made of blue snow that glittered and glowed as if lit from within. The train furrowed through night and through snow. I went deeper and deeper backwards in time.
Then Josepha's mother died. She hemorrhaged after giving birth to her third child. Josepha was five. Soon her father remarried. He chose a sixteen-year-old girl who did not want to take care of Josepha. So she was sent to a Catholic convent in Switzerland. She never came back.
In my Transsiberian diary, a blank page is entitled "le sphynx-vampire". The page is covered in ink drawings of black-blue eyes. Eyes with exotropia. An image of a deformed Josepha, as a nightmarish creature, part cat part owl. Or an image of my own attempts to look within and outward, at something too distant both in time and space, not reachable with words. On the opposite page, I wrote: At the age of five she lost simultaneously her mother, her house, her country, her pony. I do not know if she ever saw her father again. She was commited to a convent in Switzerland. She left the convent only to marry, at the age of nineteen. (To someone she did not know, eighteen years older than her). To her greatest misfortune she was vivacious and pretty. Consequently she became insane.
Tuesday, November 11th 2003
Yuta took fifty pictures of the statue of Dostoevsky in front of the library. It exasperated me. In Moscow, the buildings of Stalin say that you cannot escape, even in death. They come to block your view, your sky, your spirit. But the churches come to tell you that it is false, there will always be an elsewhere. That makes me want to sleep so as to escape [...]. I found the sunniest spot of the entire room. Sun water trickles on my forehead. Tomorrow, it's my birthday.
Three days at sea. Seven days and 5,772 miles on the Transsiberian. Twenty-nine years on earth now over. Josepha's ghost giving birth to a silence inside my head. A long silence that spreads like a shadow across the past and future, continents and bodies of water. The body of her ghost superimposed on my own body, the extremities of my body, now and forever cold. As if I could no longer reach that far inside myself. The ground, unknown, unstable. A void beneath our feet, at every step.
Lucie Bonvalet is a writer, a visual artist and a teacher. Her fiction and nonfiction can be found in Oregon Humanities, Catapult, Hobart, Word Riot, Shirley Magazine, Cosmonauts Avenue, and the anthology Women in Clothes. Her drawings and paintings can be found at lbonvalet.tumblr.com and on Instagram.