The Wrinkle Maker
("Le Fabricant de rides")
by Marcel Béalu
As I was crossing one of the alleys near the boulevard, three torsos lined up in a window made me stop and retrace my steps. What I'd mistaken for mannequins were in fact three seated women. I made to flee their mocking stares, but the incomprehensible activity of these workers intrigued me and, despite the flush rising to my brow, I stayed for a moment to watch. Were they not on display to catch the eyes of passersby, however rare?
From distaffs hooked to their chairs they drew hair-slender thread and mounted it in tiny sections, with the help of a special needle, on a fragment of mask set before them. One performed this curious inlaying on a forehead, another behind an ear, and the third to either side of a nose, reaching down toward the lips. I was admiring these waxen fragments' similarity to human skin when a feeling not unlike the one that, moments ago, made me retrace my steps caused me to lean in for a closer look. And suddenly I jerked back to escape the horrible, obvious fact my reason refused to accept: a bewildered look had fluttered out from between the eyelids on one of the fragmentary faces scattered across the table in the window.
I took a step to run away. And at that moment my gaze fell squarely on the sign affixed firmly above the door:
Wrinkles Made and Applied
So great was my astonishment that it overcame my caution. Without another thought, I stepped inside the shop. No sooner had I done so than, in a coarse voice, one of the three Fates shouted out something that must have been: "Mr. Azemar!"
But only the end of the name had been enunciated; she might as well have said Zanzibar, samovar, or Malabar. Immediately, a small man in a light gray bowler hat burst from the depths: "Here I am!"
And, taking an extremely ironic tone, added almost in a whisper: "Simply visiting, sir? Our clientele, as you no doubt know, is exclusively female."
Speechless, I followed the unpleasant man whose words accompanied me like a distant murmur without ever managing to make me forget the horror I'd felt before the window display.
"Men are the only ones ever to age, to grow wrinkled and decrepit." (His face creased and puckered to prove his assertion.) "But you'll notice that, contrary to common opinion, women also wish to do so…"
We had entered a room full of young women. The little birdbrains ceased their flighty prattle and turned an anxious eye on Mr. Azemar.
"These are the day's customers. Pretty, aren't they? See their smooth foreheads, their unmarred features… Happily, a little handiwork will change all that."
The girls closest to us burst out in a chorus of equally enthusiastic exclamations: "Oh, yes! Yes, please Mr. Azemar! Please!"
At that moment a slight incident heightened my uneasiness. As one of the girls was in our way, Mr. Azemar gave her a swift kick to the small of her back. Shame and misery flitted over the victim's submissive face. Indignant, I was about to protest, but tipping his hat with his thumb, the brute gave me to understand, from the enthusiasm that greeted his gesture, just how out of place indignation would have been.
Puffing out his chest, he pulled me into the next room. The distaffs I'd seen in the front window were hung in bundles all about the walls.
"Sir, no doubt you naively believe that women's wrinkles are wee furrows like those deeper channels with which the years reward our manly faces. Not at all! They're simple silk threads, skillfully applied. A few lovers alone know the truth, and how to lift these mock scars at will from their beloved's faces. We then congratulate these happy few on their eternal youth!
"I have an endless supply," Mr. Azemar said after a pause. "Come closer, sir, look carefully, go ahead and touch if you wish! The softness, the delicacy of these wrinkles! We have all sorts, for all occasions: wrinkles from domestic worries, worldly woes, and heartbreak; wrinkles that beyond a shadow of a doubt betray a secret vice, flaw, or simply a youthful blunder; the deepest wrinkle, that of envy, and the slightest, so slight it often can't be seen, that of remorse. You'll notice, sir, that they all bring out one's age quite marvelously, as well they should."
We'd crossed a studio where many workers busied themselves at a long table, just like those in the front window. Then, in a room slightly darker than the others, I gradually made out a line of elderly ladies waiting to pay.
"Here are my customers after their transformation! Take a good look at my beautiful work!"
With these words, my guide placed his fleshy palm on a customer's head to pivot her towards me. But a nimble hand lashed out and slapped his face. Mr. Azemar, I noted, lost a bit of his initial arrogance, as though a doubt had crossed his mind about his necessity of his trade. These spritely creatures, whom he'd catered to with a rare professional probity, showed him only a hateful indifference.
"Female ingratitude," he muttered, dragging me back toward the shop.
We arrived just as the chatterboxes in the front window were finishing their work. They gathered in their hands the fragments of the face they'd so meticulously inlaid with lines, and I recognized, almost without surprise—so sorely had my capacity for astonishment been tested—one of my most recent mistresses, who'd been aged by twenty years.
Without waiting for her to be reunited with her body, I ran off beneath the openly disdainful gaze of the three torsos, the voice of Mr. Azemar, who'd recovered his haughtiness, still insisting behind me: "But sir, did you notice the perfection, the polish of our work?"
(translated by Edward Gauvin)
Marcel Béalu (1908-1993) was best known for the delicacy with which he explored dreams and the unreal in poetry, prose, and painting. A retiring figure, he ran a bookstore by the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris named Le Pont Traversé after a novel by his friend, critic and editor Jean Paulhan. There he held readings for a small circle of surrealist and fantastical writers; it is said Lacan, among his first customers, purchased Shakespeare's complete works and forgot to pay for them.
The winner of the John Dryden Translation prize, Edward Gauvin has received fellowships and residencies from the NEA, the Fulbright foundation, the Centre National du Livre, and the American Literary Translators' Association. His volume of Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud's selected stories, A Life on Paper (Small Beer, 2010) won the Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Award and was shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award. His translation of Châteaureynaud's "The Pavilion and the Lime Tree" appeared in Issue #26 of The Cafe Irreal.