PONT-SAINT-ESPRIT 1951 by Phoebe Billups

July 22, 1951

For twenty-one days, Helene Boucher does not sleep. She says her head feels rotten, gutted like the eaves of an old house. She wishes she could slough off the dander and fiberglass to make a crown. 

 

July 30, 1951 

The big cats slink into Sylvie Toussaint’s bedroom at night, when realities blur and conjoin most easily. Sylvie’s father holds her down but she will not stop shaking. Her mother stands over the bed and cries. Panthers prowl around Sylvie’s bed, slipping between the pools of oily light that spill under the window shades. When she cries for help, they unravel the ends of her sentences with their teeth. 

 

August 1, 1951

Pont-Saint-Esprit’s insomnia plague stretches into August. People are irritable, sick with anger, and soon they are physically sick as well. For weeks, a putrid stench hangs over Pont-Saint-Esprit like some unshakeable truth. A white-faced boy vomits into the street, fingers trembling on a sewer grate. A girl retching up her last meal in a public restroom turns her head and sees it written in permanent marker: God loves junkies and whores, and if his walls come tumbling down, the Kingdom of Heaven will not wait for you to get better or worse. 

 

August 7, 1951

Geneve Donnadieu wakes up feeling strange. She’s had hangovers before but this is different. Her arms are marbled with red markings, the impressions of unseen objects, like she’s been tossing and turning on gravel. Over the next week, other girls wake up to find their limbs constellated with pinpricks. No one can explain their appearance. At school, the girls tug down their sleeves. People whisper about sleepwalking women who crawl into strange beds. 

 

August 14, 1951

This night stands alone on the calendar. No spinning wheels on the pavement. Not a firefly tonight. No wailing sound to explain the lost sleep, just straight silence, a hard line from point A to point B. Around one in the morning, Helene Boucher, searching for sleep on a park bench, notices dark clouds roll into town. She walks home and covers her car. The sky splits open. Rain soaks through her clothes, soft and silent. The earth turns over and gives up an aroma like flash powder. 

 

August 15, 1951

Around 10 a.m. on August 14, a wheat farmer stumbles into Dr. Hadar Gabbai’s clinic, complaining about the copperheads tearing up his insides. The man clutches at his stomach as the attendants wrestle him into a straitjacket. By the time they manage to sedate him, the waiting room brims with new patients. 

 

August 15, 1951

Across Pont-Saint-Esprit, people abandon their bikes and cars. They drag themselves across town with the efficacy of open-eyed sleepers. The somnambulists shamble down throughways and turnpikes. Some head to Dr. Hadar Gabbai’s clinic. More make their way to the center of town, fleeing fires, big cats, and other horrors. A husband and wife chase each other with carving knives. A woman weeps as she sees her children ground into sausages. A mailman screams and screams as he shrinks to the size of a postage stamp. On the banks of the river Rhone, the mailman runs into a man tearing at a swarm of invisible bees. 

 

August 15, 1951

Sylvie Toussaint feels the big cats’ breath roll down her back when she buries her face in her pillow. She watches them out of the corner of her eye but cannot look at them directly. The panthers ripple in the corners of the room like inky typewriter ribbon slithering back into place. Maybe if I lie very still, she thinks. 

 

August 15, 1951

When there are no beds left in the clinic, the attendants lead twenty hallucinating patients to a nearby barn. In the wet dark, they bind people’s hands with rope. When the attendants run out of rope, they use horse reins. 

 

August 16, 1951 

Alien frequencies shoot straight down into Alain Toussaint’s television. He breaks off table legs, creating a barricade to protect himself from the beasts outside. Upstairs, Sylvie hears howling and inches closer to the edge of the bed. Every muscle tenses as she prepares to leap across the floor. “One,” she whispers. “Two… Three…” 

 

August 16, 1951

Waterlogged stars descend on Pont-Saint-Esprit for just one night. Ribbons of saltwater flick above people’s heads at a frequency not seen before or since. Some people report seeing green-glass eyes in the sky. In a dimly lit barn, the local farmers collective writes pages upon pages of poetry. Helene Boucher hears a sonata playing on a loop. It beats a tattoo in her head, like a warning, like a gift broadcast from the radio towers. Later, she sings the melody to a friend, who transcribes the notes. She realizes it is a jingle used to sell taffy, which she heard on the radio as a child. 

 

August 16, 1951

Panthers spring onto Sylvie Toussaint’s bed. They paw at her chest. Jaws snap shut. The bed creaks. The big cats strip away the flesh at her breast last. She gets to keep that until the end. 

 

August 17, 1951

In the morning, the animals crawl back into their beds.


Phoebe Billups is an MFA candidate at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, Michigan, where she studies and teaches. In her free time, she enjoys reading horror stories, doing crossword puzzles, and exploring the Upper Peninsula.

Art by Bob Schofield @anothertower

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