The lower leg of Ambroise Sardou

Cathérine rubs her eyes, Sunday morning the fine hour, free of any rhythm, perhaps the nicest hour of the week. All and sundry are still embracing their pillows, street sounds linger in bed for a little while longer. She examines the white sheets, fine cotton lined with heavy lace and takes the border between her thumb and index finger. Without using force she picks at the frills, Ambroise would have enjoyed them. She would have loved to watch him asleep in the cool white and closed her eyes to recall the image. After lying like this for a while she opened her eyes again and caressed his leg. For years, she had been taking it to bed with her, silently placing it on the pillow each night, its familiar glow greeting her in the morning. Nobody knows, nobody can see it, they would surely call her crazy she often thought.

Ambroise had loved his leg, it had made him whole again after the accident. His lower leg had been crushed, crippled for life, he had never been aware of the distinctiveness of his limbs, they were just there. Left leg, right leg, they alternated naturally. He had only one foot left, five toe nails, one heel, he was completely at a loss. Gone was his much-trusted balance built up since childhood. He kept keeling over to the left, sagging like a book with a flimsy cover. She sensed that he felt embarrassed in front of her, but to her in didn’t matter. She was far too glad that Ambroise had escaped with his life and imagined that it had been the other way around, that one tenth of her body would be missing. It was a terrible thought, no self-confidence would emerge from it unscathed.

The artificial leg was introduced after the fumbling with unwieldy crutches and it worked miracles. Ambroise regenerated, healed and was actually pleased with his extension. ‘I’ve been grafted!’ he once shouted. He put down his shoeless right leg with vigour to reinforce the alien sound. It never failed to make Cathérine laugh. He hadn’t lost his rhythm altogether and called his leg Pirate. Two sounds in one person, she recognised his footsteps even stronger than before the accident. As a typical side-effect the sole on his left shoe wore out faster than the one on the right, which visually seemed to make him live more on his left than on his right half. Every morning after washing himself he would sit on the bed to attach his lower leg, stick it out and cry ‘A l’abordage!’

After his death she had been unable to dispose of it, she had spent days fretting over it. To bury Ambroise artificial leg and all was a strange idea, six feet under the ground with a leg that doesn’t decompose, it would amount to an amputation in reverse. Here lies Ambroise Sardou or at least his lower leg still does the epitaph would have to read. She had to laugh about it despite her misery and knew that it would have made Ambroise laugh as well but a burial is serious business. Getting rid of it was not an option, it belonged to him. So many things had happened around that leg, it had carried Ambroise, filled him with pride, healed him, it had restored his balance. It had brought them both a different kind of joy after the accident. Pirate she had decided was to remain aboveground, it was something between her and him. 

She didn’t want anyone to interfere or hold an opinion so she told relatives, friends and neighbours – they all asked about it – that she had disposed of the leg, meanwhile it was hidden in the linen-cupboard. 

In the weeks following the funeral she woke up next to the unslept white pillow, a glimpse of an empty book, as if the spot had no history. On an impulse she had taken Pirate from the cupboard before she went to sleep and placed it on Ambroise’s pillow, gravely it sank into the feathers, the pillow delineated gravity evenly, just like a pillow is supposed to reveal itself. She thought of the action as ridiculous but oddly enough it felt good, a contradiction she reconciled herself to eventually. The absurdity resided in the image not in the idea. It was an image from a silent film; a woman sleeping next to an artificial leg in the conjugal bed. Fou! But as long as no one saw it… She couldn’t die in her sleep of course, they would find her next to the leg. After a while she stopped worrying about it, she would no longer be around anyway. And there was certainly no one who knew the leg had a name, this had carefully been kept private. All she needed now was a place to store it during the day, forever hidden from any visitors’ view. In a moment of carelessness it might still be discovered, for instance during a visit from her sister or friends who came upstairs occasionally. 

There was little daylight in the hall and the ceiling lamp had never been bright enough. Cathérine came in, shut the front door and entered the hallway somewhat thoughtlessly letting her bag slip off her shoulder. She abruptly dropped the bag of tangerines. One of them rolled under the stairs, through the wooden legs of the hat stand to come to a halt some twenty-four inches further. Cathérine was on her knees reaching for the fruit in near-darkness and hit her hand against a small wooden panel. Ambroise had made it long ago so the dirt wouldn’t get into the corner. Cathérine had forgotten it, she remembered complaining about the inconvenient lost space she could barely reach with her broom. Behind the panel she recalled was a cavity four steps high. Perfect, she had to figure out how to remove the panel, Pirate would easily fit in there, no one would ever find it. 

She looked at the alarm clock, the magic hour was over. Cathérine got up, took Pirate from the pillow and danced around. ‘Ambroise,’ she said, ‘nobody sees it.’ 

© Karin van Pinxteren, 1 August, 2014 | translation Nanne op ‘t Ende

La chambre de Cathérine, 2016

The story ‘The lower leg of Ambroise Sardou’ is part of the installation La Chambre de Cathérine, 2016