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from the December 2011 issue

The Red Loaf

Pluto Jedediah, dandy of the Caledonian Market, tells this tale:

May dogs grow horns, I thought, waking on a bed in a seedy hotel, if I recall the creature for the sake of whose foot I found myself once again naked between soiled sheets. For there could be no other explanation. What other prey did I pursue through rain and darkness down dockside alleys, along sidewalks sown with rice, thick with wilted sediment from teapots, but one glimpsed beneath a raincoat’s glistening hem? A shoe that, between two puddles, slips and breaks a heel, or comes apart, buttons popped, strap loosely yoking a young ankle; a rayon stocking that damp has painted with Japanese blossoms, trailing line like a funicular, spiderwebbed with patches like tattoos—I can no more resist such enticements than I can the murderous beauty of a zipper yielding to reveal a fleshy flank, or the sly moiré of orange-gray isles beneath the sleeves of a sheer blouse. A chink in my armor, you see. Or must I explain in greater detail why the wounded shrimp in a pond always invites devouring?

The spot beside me where a body had pressed against mine was empty, of course; the door stood half-open on a hallway lit by a blue lamp; the chair where I’d left my clothes was no more clothed than a dusky coral fisherman; my watch and the hollow ring from which my foal would burst onto the billiard felt for cockroach races were missing from the marble nightstand, and my braided horsehair walking stick was no longer in the pitcher where I’d planted it like a black lily. Let me say it straightaway: losing all that meant no more to me than if a pretty, flattering hand had plucked a hair from my eyebrow. In my armoires I have more than a hundred full suits of fabrics specially woven for last century’s demanding clients; two hundred pairs of shoes—pointed as anchovies, square as paving stones, polished as ripe pears; watches that chime the hour better than the Duke of Richelieu’s bells; a hundred-odd rings each one of which two rajas would hurl themselves tooth and nail at each other to own; at least a thousand canes—a finer selection you’ll not find even among Floridian slave drivers. I have three faithful wives, in two Chelsea flats and a room in Soho. And as for waking completely naked in the middle of London, rest assured that I’ve a habit of it, and am too highly respected by spies and guardians of the public order for it to cause me the slightest inconvenience. I am moreover in good health and ooze adipose from every pore; rain slips from the nape of my neck to my heels wetting me no more than an eel.

And yet I could not bring myself to leap from bed. The nightstand drawer was very nearly shut, but through the crack leaked a light that rose above the bolsters and lit the very atoms of the atmosphere with a sort of red phosphorescence. Not without disgust I recalled, if not my fleeting companion’s face, at least a half-eaten loaf tucked away by a dainty hand just before I fell asleep.

When I opened the drawer, the loaf was still there, but its matter had undergone the strangest and most unexpected transformation: it now shone almost as brightly as a blazing coal, and the crumb was now the color of the crust, as though a layer of scarlet varnish had been everywhere applied. Shyly I reached out toward the object, and was surprised not to be burned, for that singular blaze produced no more heat than a heap of glowworms. I seized the loaf then, plucked it from the drawer, and set it on the white sheets, the better to study it.

The new setting in no way diminished the phenomenon’s intensity: outside the drawer the loaf continued to smolder, cold and imperturbable, as it had inside, and the room grew faintly brighter, while the walls were tinged the color of raw flesh. I soon saw that the mysterious brilliance was unaccompanied by any variation in the texture or volume of the object, but as I was examining it closely, not long after turning it over, I saw emerge from a hole in the crumb a swarm of vermin of a wholly unfamiliar sort. Despite an old habit of picking rocks up from the shore, peeling bark back from trees, and lifting the marble tops from brothel nightstands to surprise whatever crawled about beneath, I had never in my life seen anything like this. They were like pink aphids; I counted twenty-one of them clustering on the surface of the crust as aphids do beneath a wild rose leaf. The devil took me then, and driven by dumb instinct to kill at the sight of beasts that squirm and wriggle, I squashed one of the tiny creatures against the red loaf.

I felt a sharp pain in my murdering finger—no doubt the insect had stung me in the final seconds of its existence—then a tingling sensation from head to toe, as though, grievously wounded, I were about to faint. Yet despite a brief blurring I regained full visual acuity, and observed a series of events much stranger than everything I have related up till now. The floor, walls, and ceiling seemed to recede slowly, until they were lost in a fog, and the surface of the bed, where I’d been lying, to grow until it met with a vast plain, risen plateau-like some ways above the lower prairie. The red loaf reared up in my field of sight, taking on the proportions of a massive red rock still blazing away, bearing in a crevice of its crust the pink creatures whose size now rivaled that of the giant tortoises at Regent’s Park Zoo. My body still lay on white fabric, now ridge-rippled and furrow-lined like a dune, whose threads seemed cables greater than the sturdiest tug moorings on the Thames. The truth struck me with blinding force: it was clear nothing had changed save for me, reduced to the scale of the pink aphids.

Although I attributed my pitiful transformation to none other than their sting, these beasts aroused less fear than curiosity. I wanted to get a closer look; I rose and without too much difficulty climbed up a crisp fold between me and the loaf (the sheet’s threads forming convenient steps); I slid down the gentle slope on the other side and reached the foot of the colossal crouton. It really was like one of those enormous, erratic boulders that rest on a base narrow relative to their diameter, ready to topple at the slightest shove, but its fantastic color and the magnificent scarlet glow it gave off made one dreamy, like the sudden sight of a meteor in the southern night.

I began the laborious ascent of the loaf. With knees and elbows I worked my way up a rift in the crumb—perhaps the trace of a blade—toward the crust. Once there, the path became easy, although a scree of grains, disturbed by my steps and larger than regular rocks, made certain sections near the edge dangerous. At last, I reached the pink flock.

They were more or less immobile at the bottom of a basin, a slight depression in the crust that seemed to me the crater of a fumarole where sulphur, sand, rock, and lava had been wondrously metamorphosed into ruby and purest water. A few animals had strayed and were roaming without apparent purpose along the crater walls. One of them, not far from the lip, turned as often as a fly wandering the inside of a pilsner glass; after it had passed by with majestic slowness three or four times, I grew to know it and was surprised it paid me no more heed than it might a calf or a child’s tricycle.

In the end, they were—as I said before—just aphids, the only miracle being—and again, I’ve explained this earlier—that they were much heavier than I was, and almost as big. Though their bodies’ rounded backs and flat bellies somewhat recalled a tortoise’s weighty shape, they were in recompense thickly swathed in fleece that seemed from a dyer’s vat—for nature isn’t one to clothe its creatures in the handsome light imperial purple that so wonderfully encrimsoned their robes. Six legs jutted from the coat—glossy, jointed, small beside the bulk they supported, hard as though their segments were molded from mahogany plastic; these clung with barbs and immaculate sawteeth to the terrain no matter the angle.

The creatures’ peculiar appearance was nowhere more evident than their heads, whose bizarre accoutrements were, I confess, hardly reassuring the first time they were turned on me. Beneath the roving shade of antennae shaped like Herculean clubs, their bald, narrow skulls sported on either side like spectacles two outsized red, granular eyes that reminded me of fillings for giant cherry pies, and ended in a long garnet beak sharp as a swordfish’s bill. The creatures thrust this entire apparatus before them like a wagon hitch, whichever way they gazed.

Soon bored by the observer’s role I found myself reduced to, I went down into the crater, toward the place where the flock was gathered. A swell moved through the pink fleece; beaks were turned toward me, eyes rolled in their sockets, antennae enthused; I continued moving forward nonetheless, curious about what might happen, and when I was only twenty paces from one of the fat aphids, I was surprised to see one of them suddenly turn tail and flee, soon followed by the others, the entire flock scattering in haste on the escarpments of the crust. They were really running, like ibex scared by a storm.

Chasing them proved good sport, but they moved with far greater agility, without apparent effort climbing steep slopes where I struggled to keep up. The best part of the game—which delighted me, like an absurd and superbly hearty joke—was observing that, despite now being no larger than a flea, I had in no way lost what one might commonly call the prestige of man, the scepter of the king of Creation, or who knows, perhaps something grander still? . . . in other words, that I was still able to frighten dumb animals.

Had I managed to capture one of those runaways, I would’ve yanked a fistful of wool from its back at once; I imagined this a brittle, delicate material not unlike chenille; I’d have felt less naked twisting it around me and seeing its pink strands between my fingers. I am as incurable a looter as other men are preachers or free traders, and neither finding myself suddenly smaller than a millet grain nor taller than the dome of St. Paul’s—facts much less distressing than they might initially seem without firsthand experience—could ever change that.

One creature seemed far less lively than its fellows, and as it stood with its side to me, I saw it dragged one leg behind it on the ground, hindering the free movement of the other five. I hounded it mercilessly, and wasn’t long in finding I moved as fast as it did on flat stretches, though it retained a clear advantage on the sheerer parts of the crust; but even when climbing it tired faster than I did and, perched on an outcrop formed in baking, fluttered its antennae despairingly at my approach. At last, I thought to have it: it was headed down a hollow at an angle toward the crumb, behind a rise in the crust that formed a sort of natural parapet where the dough had torqued. I was about to seize it when it scaled the talus and disappeared down the other side with a last-ditch exuberance. I hoisted myself over the parapet in turn, just in time to see its pink croup vanish farther off, down a hole in the crumb.

The other aphids were gathered along the summit of a distant bulge, where they milled about like so much raspberry foam, but I knew to my humiliation how pointless it was to have at them again, and decided to throw myself with redoubled determination after the wounded insect, which probably hadn’t gone far into the crumb. From here, it was a dizzying but not entirely sheer drop to the sheets; countless cavities opened in the wall like birds’ nests, making my descent as easy as if with hands and feet I negotiated a net knit of stone, leading me a few moments later to the entrance of the crevasse where I hoped to catch up with my quarry.

After a bottleneck so unchoked as to allow a creature ten or twelve times my size easy passage, I found myself in a round, quite spacious cavern that brought to mind the inside of a balloon—on the whole a mundane observation, since the cavern had begun as a bubble freed by yeast, and one that faltered with a second look at the sparkling walls which, far from being smooth like the silk airship they suggested, poppy-red and sunlit in a cloudless sky, were on the contrary perforated with several openings and multiple alveoli, sundry in size and quite unevenly distributed around the cavern. Habitué though I was of the capital’s clandestine rendezvous and privy to its most lunatic secrets, I confess to never having entered a place whose strangeness might compare. The great woolly tortoise that had led me here, which I’d expected to find unkempt and pressed against the floor, or else tucked away in some concavity, was nowhere to be seen. There were only three or four openings wide enough for the animal to have slipped through. I picked the one that seemed the largest and most inviting.

A second cavern greeted me immediately: fiery, empty, and well-stocked with sundry exits, in fact utterly identical to the one I’d just explored, except perhaps a bit smaller. I passed through three more in succession, which offered up no new details. Nowhere did I find the slightest trace of the insect; the chambered nature of the loaf and the abundance of shelters it supplied above, below, and all around me thwarted not only attempts at a methodical search but also at retracing my steps, for by the fifth cave I’d already forgotten the tunnel I’d come by, and in each of the others I would have been prey to the same uncertainty. Deep though I was, the day never failed to light my way, as in certain subterranean forays, for the cavern walls and bread pillars sometimes rising to vaults, the floor underfoot, the skittering crumbs, the passageways, the holes of alveoli all blazed with a radiance—I repeat—as violent as if the labyrinth entire had been hollowed from some incandescent substance.

My only choice was to pick a direction and try from one cavern to the next to hew as straight a path as possible, and hope luck would lead me to one of those cliffs on the edge of the crumb, or a breach in the red loaf where I might escape.

Farther off, the silence that till now had accompanied my steps gave way to a guttural voice regularly interrupted by a chiming sound. An aperture round as a porthole allowed me, without being seen, a glimpse of what was going on inside the cave the sound was coming from. It was a fairly narrow bubble and, given the size of its occupants, recalled a small tank; three Hindu dockers were frozen in a state of voluptuous ecstasy, crouched around a gesticulating woman who declaimed brief phrases, punctuating each with a rap of her sharp and ornamental golden nails against a bronze bell. Her beautiful throat throbbed, and her laden shape shook beneath a white cotton tunic that sheathed her from her nape to her wrists and ankles without concealing a single physical detail. It all seemed to have been going on for centuries, seemed likely to continue to the end of time.

Farther off still, a larger orifice gave on another bubble, where obese men busied themselves throwing two bounding beings each against the other. I drew closer, mingling with the watching crowd, and saw that they were grouped around a crested lizard and a horned toad, ready for combat. The toad would swell up like a bladder, the lizard lashed the floor with its spiny tail, crest and horns burgeoning like shrubs bursting with sap, feet clinging to flanges in the crumb, each sinking tiny pointed teeth into its enemy’s stiff membrane, and this frenzy flushed to the very surface of their skin such marvelous blossoms of iridescence and phosphorescence as the dazzled eye discerns in duels of tropical fish. As soon as they became aware of my presence, the obese spectators chased me off with harsh gestures. They were dressed in long saffron robes that ceremoniously conferred on them the look of Tibetan monks, and I think my nudity shocked them so much they saw it as an insult to their rituals.

An idea took hold of me: what if, at the scale of the pink aphids, the red loaf became a kind of Asian Venusberg—but then, how had that lot gotten in, and the creatures too?

Elsewhere, an ancient Chinese woman shot from a niche in the wall like a bird taking flight, only to fall almost right on my shoulders at the very moment I was passing her hiding place. With a singular and prolonged shriek from the depths of the old shriveled stomach between her breasts and a pair of black pants, she bade me crouch and crawl through a low hole aflame in the crumb like the mouth of a baker’s oven. I hesitated to obey, and yet, hoping she’d stop shrieking if I indulged her whim, I headed into the uncomfortable passage, which soon led me to a cavity riddled with more openings than any I’d seen before. The old woman’s shriek grew shrill as a kettle’s whistle, and I saw two plump girls descend a braided rope from the vault above to lie down beside me on a bed of breadcrumbs like chalcedony nuggets.

Their skin was sallow; their hair lay flat and black and fell to their ears; they were wearing nothing but ties whose broad ends floated freely about them as though about a dressmaker’s dummy, and whose narrow ends were knotted to a maze of silken ribbons; on backgrounds of assorted colors all these ties bore the same pattern of dark dots.

I reached out to grab one girl, then the other, but each time they pushed me away, laughing, and if I tried to bend one to my will with force, the other would pinch and scratch me until I let go; still, they toyed with me, pulling my hair, sticking their fingers in my nose and mouth, cavorting about on the entire platform of my body, as lively as I was stupefied, so that they might have seemed two young mice teasing an old tabby.

When at last they tired of the assaults I made no attempt to resist, they took up rods filthy with wax and honey from among the red pebbles, and rammed these violently into certain holes in the ceiling. An atrocious buzzing arose, and from all the holes swarmed hordes of bees, which began whirling around me. I thought that though I’d survived the aphid’s sting and adventured beneath the crust of the diabolical loaf, my hour had come; at that moment the Chinese girls, saddened by my terror, very tenderly stroked my cheeks with their hands. “Singsong bees,” they murmured in my ear with their music-box voices. Then they helped me to my feet, and led me to peer into the niches in the cave wall.

Each contained a man covered in bees from heel to chin; the terrible shroud swarmed with peaceful ripples, but the faces of the patients displayed such exquisite pleasure their expressions could only be compared to a saint’s surprised amid the most convulsive ecstasy. I knew, then, what was expected of me: obeying the laughing girls’ pointed fingers, I slipped inside an untenanted niche.

With a thunderous roar that would’ve pulverized rock, the bees entered immediately, and fell upon my body. When the paralysis that first seized me like an icy cataract loosed its hold, when in turn I felt, over every last inch of my skin, the swarm’s caress, I found myself at the very summit of such rapture as I would never have believed I could reach without dying. And I fainted.

It was dawn when I came to my senses. I found myself lying in the street, my head in the gutter, a few feet from Pennyfields. A few women were looking at me with no more or less reproach than for the sort of ordinary drunk they’d meet by the score in the neighborhood. I have kept the unfamiliar clothes I found myself in—cheap pants, a blue sweater monogrammed with the P. & O.—and they are at your disposal for inspection. I would gladly bet their true owner could tell you more than I about the dazzling labyrinth hidden in the crumb of the red loaf.

“Le Pain rouge” first published in the collection Le Soleil des loups. Published 1951 by Editions Julliard. © André Pieyre de Mandiargues. By arrangement with the publishers. Translation © 2011 by Edward Gauvin. All rights reserved.

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