by Marie Baléo

Kafka was the one we loved. We awaited the rewinding of the tape that would bring K back to life, dug into the first lines of the book feverishly just to see him again. The air in the last days of K’s life was so raw that we no longer took note of the humid heat in our bottle-green classroom, forgot the endless revolution of the ventilator, whose half-orbit we bent to follow.

Coetzee was the one we despised. We were made to read passages of Waiting for the Barbarians aloud, after which I decreed the novel to be the dollar-store version of Heart of Darkness. We were ordered to excavate the author’s intentions at every turn of phrase, scolded when we could not. I imagined a cravated employee of the Ministry of Education in an office overseas, whose nameless existence served a sole purpose: to sanction official interpretations of Coetzee, Kafka, and the other authors we had discovered when we had been handed the French baccalauréat program for the class of 2006.

Bonnefoy was the one we hated. Poetry demanded that we acknowledge our emotions, a dangerous admission neither my best friend nor I could concede to. We tore paper from our notebooks and scribbled odes to our hatred of Bonnefoy. We passed them back and forth under the table, answering each other in rhyme.

Outside of the school, Beirut awaited, a litany of beige Mercedes idling in the drip of traffic, palm trees standing guard by the sea. Hundreds of arms hung out of car windows, fingers wading through the sunshine. 

After the baccalauréat, we went into her garden and dug a hole. Cautiously, we tore apart Waiting for the Barbarians and Les planches courbes, severed the pages from their spines, and sunk our nails into the paper. After we had destroyed the books, we poured oil on their remains and set them on fire.

There are photographs of this. We look alike: two dark-haired, smiling teenagers in flip flops, pastel t-shirts, and the flared jeans of the mid-2000s. 

My best friend lighting a match.

The way I lean away from the pit, scared of the fire.

I only remembered this image years later, holding a copy of Fahrenheit 451 in both hands, discovering its incipit.

We poured water onto the hot ashes. We scraped the remnants off the blackened grass with a shovel and flung them into the shallow pit. Some words would not go easy; they could still be deciphered among the wet ashes, strings of letters like ghosts.

We buried them. 

Less than three weeks later, and two days into the war, I was collecting my belongings in the dark in preparation for repatriation when a strange silence overcame the room. I felt my lips part and heard: Someone must have been spreading lies about Josef K, for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one morning.


About the Author:

Marie Baléo is a French writer, poet, and editor born in 1990. Her work has been nominated for a Best of the Net, Best Microfiction and Best Small Fictions, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Passages North, PRISM International, Yemassee, Litro, Tahoma Literary Review, and elsewhere. She is an editor at Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel. Marie grew up in Norway and Lebanon and currently lives in Paris.

About Weekly Flash Prose and Prose Poetry:

CutBank Online features one work of flash prose or prose poetry every Monday. Submissions are free and open year-round. Send us your best work of 750 words or less at https://cutbank.submittable.com/submit