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Authors: Muriel Barbery,Alison Anderson

The Life of Elves

BOOK: The Life of Elves
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The Elegance of the Hedgehog


Gourmet Rhapsody

Europa Editions
214 West 29th St., Suite 1003
New York NY 10001
[email protected]
This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously.
Copyright © 2015 by Editions Gallimard, Paris
First publication 2016 by Europa Editions
Translation by Alison Anderson
Original Title:
La vie des Elfes
Translation copyright © 2016 by Europa Editions
All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
Cover Art by Emanuele Ragnisco
Cover photo © Donald Iain Smith/Getty
ISBN 9781609453206

Muriel Barbery


Translated from the French
by Alison Anderson

For Sébastien
For Arty, Elena, Miguel, Pierre and Simona




On the Hollows Farm

Maria Faure

André Faure, her father, a peasant

Rose Faure, her mother

Eugénie and Angèle, André's great-aunts

Jeannette and Marie, Rose's first cousins once removed


On Marcelot's farm

Eugène Marcelot, known as Gégène, a peasant

Lorette Marcelot, his wife


In the village

Father François, the priest

Jeannot, the postman

Paul-Henri, known as Ripol, the blacksmith

Léon Saurat, a peasant

Léon and Gaston-Valéry, his sons

Henri Faure, known as Riri, the forester

Jules Lecot, known as Julot, mayor of the village and head of the road menders

Georges Echard, known as Chachard, the master saddler




At the presbytery

Clara Centi

Father Centi, her adoptive father, the priest of Santo Stefano

Alessandro Centi, the priest's young brother and friend of Pietro Volpe

An old housekeeper


In the village

Paolo known as Paolino, a shepherd




At the Villa Acciavatti

Gustavo Acciavatti, the Maestro

Leonora Acciavatti, his wife, née Volpe

Petrus, a strange servant


At the Villa Volpe

Pietro Volpe, an art dealer, Gustavo Acciavatti's brother-in-law

Roberto, his father (†)

Alba, his mother

Leonora, his sister


At the Villa Clemente

The Clementes, wealthy patricians

Marta, the older daughter (†), Alessandro's great love

Teresa, the younger daughter (†), a virtuoso pianist


The Capitol of Rome

Raffaele Santangelo, the Governor of Rome


The World of Mists


The Head of the Council of the Mists (appearing as a gray horse /a hare)

The Guardian of the Pavilion of the Mists (appearing as a white horse /a wild boar)

Marcus and Paulus, friends of Gustavo Acciavatti and Petrus

Aelius, the leader of the enemy


he little girl spent most of her hours of leisure in the branches. When her family did not know where to find her, they would go to the trees, the tall beech to start with, the one that stood to the north above the lean-to, for that was where she liked to daydream while observing the activity on the farm; then it was the old linden in the priest's garden beyond the low wall of cool stone; and finally—most often in winter—among the oaks in the combe to the west of the adjacent field, a refluence of terrain planted with three of the most majestic specimens in all the region. The little girl would nestle in the trees, all the hours she could steal from the village life made of book-learning, meals, and mass, and not infrequently she would invite a few friends to come along, and they would marvel at the airy esplanades she had arranged there, and together they would spend glorious days in laughter and chat.

One evening as she sat on a lower branch of the middle oak, while the combe was filling with shadow and she knew they would come soon for her to return to the warmth, she decided for a change to cut across the meadow and pay a visit to the neighbor's sheep. She set out as the mist was rising. She knew every clump of grass in a perimeter extending from the foothills of her father's farm all the way to Marcelot's; she could have closed her eyes and known exactly where she was, as if guided by the stars, from the swelling of the field, the rushes in the stream, the stones on the pathways and the gentle incline of the slope; but instead, for a particular reason, she now opened her eyes wide. Someone was walking through the mist only a few inches ahead of her, and this presence gave a strange tug at her heart, as if the organ were coiling in upon itself and bringing strange images to her: in the bronze glow of undergrowth she saw a white horse, and a path paved with black stones gleaming under foliage.


It must be told what child this was on the day of this remarkable event. The six adults who lived on the farm—father, mother, two great-aunts and two grown cousins—adored her. There was an enchantment about her that was nothing like the one to be found in children whose first hours have been mild, that sort of grace born of a careful mixture of ignorance and happiness; no, it was, instead, as if when she moved she carried with her an iridescent halo, which minds that have been forged in pastures and woods would compare to the vibrations of the tallest trees. Only the eldest auntie, by virtue of an abiding penchant for anything that could not be explained, thought to herself that there was something magical about the little girl; but one thing was for certain, that for such a young child she bore herself in a most unusual way, incorporating some of the invisibility and trembling of the air, as a dragonfly would, or palms swaying in the wind.

Otherwise, she was very dark and very lively, rather thin, but with a great deal of elegance; eyes like two sparkling obsidians; olive, almost swarthy skin; high Slavic-looking cheekbones flushed with a round rosiness; finally, her lips, edged with a curl, the color of fresh blood. She was splendid. And what character! Always running through the fields or flinging herself upon the grass, where she would stay and stare at the too vast sky; or crossing barefoot through the stream, even in winter, to feel the sweet chill or biting cold, and then with the solemnity of a bishop she would relate to all assembled the highlights and humdrum moments of her days spent in the out of doors. To all of this one must add the faint sadness of a soul whose intelligence surpassed her perception and who—from the handful of clues, although weak, that were to be found everywhere, even in those protected places, however poor, in which she had grown up—already had an intimation of the world's tragedies.

Thus, at five o'clock it was that glowing, secretive young sprig of a girl who sensed the nearby presence in the mist of an invisible creature, and she knew more surely than the existence of God proclaimed by the priest that this creature was both friendly and supernatural. Thus she was not afraid. Instead, she set off in the direction she had determined shortly before, toward the sheep.


Something took her by the hand. Something like a large fist wrapped in a soft warm weave, creating a gentle grip in which her own hand felt lost. But no man could have possessed a palm that, as she felt through the silky skein, had hollows and ridges that might belong to the giant paw of a wild boar. Just then they made a turn to their left, almost at a right angle, and she understood that they were headed toward the little woods, skirting round the sheep and Marcelot's farm. There was a fallow field, overgrown with sleek serried blades of grass, rising gently to meet the hill through a winding passage, until it reached a lovely stand of poplar trees rich with strawberries and a carpet of periwinkles where not so long ago every family was permitted to gather wood, and would commence with the sawing by first snowfall; alas, that era is now gone, but it will not be spoken of today, be it due to sorrow or forgetfulness, or because at this hour the little girl is running to meet her destiny, holding tight to the giant paw of a wild boar.

And this on the mildest autumn evening anyone had seen for many a year. Folk had delayed putting their apples and pears to ripen on the wooden racks in the cellar, and all day long the air was streaked with insects inebriated with the finest orchard vintage. There was a languidness in the air, an indolent sigh, a quiet certainty that things would never end, and while people went about their work as usual, without pause and without complaint, they took secret delight in this endless autumn as it told them not to forget to love.


Now just as the little girl was heading toward the clearing in the east wood, another unexpected event occurred. It began to snow. It began to snow all of a sudden, and not those timid little snowflakes that fluff about in the gloom and scarcely strive to land on the ground, no, heavy snowflakes began to fall, as big as buds from a magnolia, and they fell thick on the ground forming a thoroughly opaque screen. In the village, as it was drawing toward six o'clock, everyone was surprised; the father in his simple twill shirt, chopping wood, Marcelot warming up his dogs over by the pond, Jeannette kneading her dough, and others who, on this late autumn that was like a dream of lost happiness, were coming and going about their business, be it leather, flour or straw; yes, they had all been surprised and now they were closing tight the latches on the stable doors, calling in the sheep and the dogs, and getting ready for something that brought them almost as much well-being as the sweet languor of autumn: the first evening they'd spend clustered around the fireside, when outside there was a raging snow storm.

They were preparing, and thinking.

They were thinking—those who remembered—about an autumn day some ten years earlier, when the snow had suddenly begun to fall as if the sky were peeling away into immaculate white strips. And it was at the little girl's farm in particular that they were thinking about it, for her absence there had just been discovered, and the father was pulling on his fur cap and a hunting jacket that stank of mothballs from a hundred yards away.

“They'd better not come for her again,” he muttered before disappearing into the night.

He knocked on the doors of the village houses where other farmers were to be found, along with the master saddler, the mayor (who was also the head road mender), the forester, and a few others. Everywhere, he said the same thing:
the wee girl has gone missing
, before he set off to the next door, and behind him the man of the house would shout for his hunting jacket, or his thick overcoat, and he'd put on his gear and hurry into the tempest toward the next house. And eventually there were fifteen of them gathered at the home of Marcelot, whose wife had already fried up a pan full of thick bacon and set out a pitcher of mulled wine. They finished it off in ten minutes, calling out their battle instructions, no different from the ones they reeled off the mornings they went hunting—but a wild boar's trail was no mystery to them, whereas the little girl, now, she was more unpredictable than a sprite. Only, the father had his opinion on the matter, as did all the others, because in these parts no one believes in coincidences, where legends and the Good Lord go hand in hand and where they are suspected of having a few tricks the city folk have long forgotten. In our parts, you see, it's a rare event to turn to reason in a shipwreck; what's called for are eyes, feet, intuition, and perseverance, and that is what they mustered that evening, because they remembered just such a night only ten years earlier when they'd gone up the passage through the mountains looking for someone whose traces led straight to the clearing in the east wood. Now the father feared more than anything that once they got up there the lads would be bound to open their eyes wide, make the sign of the cross, and nod their heads, just as they had done that time when the footprints came to a sudden stop in the middle of the circle, and they found themselves staring at a carpet of snow as smooth as a baby's bottom, a place of pristine silence where no one—and this all the hunters were prepared to swear—no one had set foot in at least two days.

BOOK: The Life of Elves
7.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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