It seemed to me that in some past life I had already experienced this exact situation. I even recalled that the first time, this feeling of déjà-vu had also been grafted onto the actual course of events. Once more I turned her hand gently in mine to create that slight shimmer on her mother-of-pearl fingernails. I stroked one of them gently with the tip of my right index finger. I asked her if she had already said these words, in circumstances different from these but so identical that if you meticulously cut out the scene we were currently enacting, its outlines would coincide exactly with the other one. But I was not only unable to pin down when it had happened, I doubted its very existence. She said no. I insisted. She said no. She withdrew her hand and buttoned the top of her thin knitted shirt, which she was wearing for the first time because we had only bought it the previous day, but my memory had recorded it long before, as if by some power of clairvoyance that came into play only after our ecstatic couplings. Elsa brushed her fingertips over my cheek, then left the room. I drew the wide-toothed comb through my hair and brought it close to my face so I could feel its faint static pull. The air must have been dry. I put down the comb and went back downstairs to join the others.

As soon as I appeared, M offered me a drink, which I took and brought to my lips without taking my eyes off him, waiting endlessly for his face to thaw. I drank slowly to give him enough time but when I put the empty glass back into his hands, his face was still frozen. My gaze followed the tip of his nose, crossed his forehead, and stopped right at his hairline, where, if I picked with my fingernail, something would lift that I’d only have to peel off a little more before I could tug both sides at once to remove the mask that grew back over and over like snakeskin. But I didn’t lift my hand and I left him in the belly of the boa. Just to the right of his ear, but in the background, Elsa entered my field of vision without knowing it. M grew blurry. I didn’t open my mouth, I didn’t even make any movements that would spread my scent around the room like a message, but Elsa still turned abruptly towards me. The lips of the man facing her kept moving. Hers stretched until that sharp stop when the dimple on the left side of her mouth, slightly swollen, couldn’t be hollowed out any further. M exited my field of vision. Someone came between Elsa and me and I had to refocus my perspective. He gave me a drink. I didn’t know him but I quickly scrutinised his hairline. I didn’t see anything. He must have been cut from a different cloth, unless he just had a subtler knowledge of the art of concealment. Foreseeing this possibility, I withdrew deep inside myself and waited patiently for him to come to me, leaving enough distance between us for the dug-out trap I knew he would inevitably fall into, like the others, before he even came close enough to feel my breath. The drink had already been given. There was no doubt that feverish excitement would follow, imperceptibly at first, like the movements of a mouth forming a smile, as if that were a required preparatory exercise for the articulation of those stereotypical words he would say without the least surprise or unease. Then there would be the inevitable pause provoked by the presence of cigarettes between us, at the end of his arm, which nothing could have predicted, because his attention was seemingly elsewhere, but which would nevertheless be there, waiting for my fingers to approach and create the first contact between us, via this intermediary at first, probably to avoid the possibility of too violent a shock. But I’d do what I always did, I was never going to make the expected movement, and my hand would stay resting on my thigh as my interlocutor insisted and leaned even closer to me, teetering on the edge of the trap that, to my astonishment, stayed empty because the man in front of me did and said nothing. Elsa was in my field of vision again, but I hadn’t perceived any movement in the scene, where her motionless face, far behind the man’s face, had no dimple now. Her expression bothered me. I prepared to down my drink and turn around, but through the ice cubes and the thick layer of glass at the bottom an unexpected change occurred on the man’s face, which I was suddenly sure I had seen before, or at least had expected. I lowered the glass but the mutation remained. He was smiling now, barely, but smiling, his head bent down a little as if to watch me in the bottom of the trap that he too had dug between us and that I hadn’t sniffed out in time. The glass slipped out of my hand. When it hit the floor, it shattered. That grenade having created a diversion, I slipped away and headed towards the exit.

When I got to the apartment, I dawdled a little, then I went to the kitchen. I made loose-leaf tea, for the smell since I don’t drink it, and for the teapot too, the Chinese one with its ceramic white sugar riverbanks and its dragons. The cat rubbed against my ankles and then curled up on the chequered floor. I went to sit on the patio and wait for what I still wasn’t entirely sure would happen. The tea gradually cooled off and, as always, the porcelain sugar didn’t melt. I was waiting for a car; he was on foot, which would explain why he was late, although he hadn’t specified a time, or any meeting at all. In fact, he had done absolutely nothing; he hadn’t said a single word to me. He was going slowly down the main alley between the two buildings in the complex. At the bend, with Building 1 on the right and Building 2 on the left, he stopped for a moment, then retraced his steps, following the same even rhythm. He went past the wall and I lost sight of him. I was confused for a moment, but I found him again a few seconds later when the telephone rang, and I could see him, as I had every other time, in all his weakness, hesitating in the face of what he had to do, taking detours and precautions, his ear pressed against the receiver in that phone booth, which he must have stepped into even though he didn’t want to talk to me, since even while waiting for me to pick up, he was probably clamping his lips shut so they wouldn’t open automatically at the sound of my voice, which he just wanted to hear, not only to make sure I was there, but especially to have the advantage over me of already knowing my voice. So I answered but didn’t say a word, which was useless, because it was Elsa. That bothered me and I hung up. I returned to the patio, careful to seem unhurried, aware that he’d inevitably come back. He must have been sitting on a bench now—because he wasn’t in the main driveway or at the bend—just waiting for me to make a sudden movement, to glance worriedly towards the driveway or the park, proving to him that, in effect, I was waiting anxiously for him, just like he wanted. I put on my sunglasses to hide the direction of my gaze even though I knew perfectly well, because I had bought them for that purpose, that the blue of their lenses emphasised the appearance and direction of my eyes more than it camouflaged them. Then I opened a magazine and started to read an article about a rape in the courtyard of an apartment complex surrounded by stone walls, inside of which, however, not a single man could be seen surveilling me. Maybe he had simply abandoned his plan or then again, maybe he was trapped in the impossible enigma of the bend; that is, whether I lived to the left or the right. So, I stood up to have a more complete view of the courtyard, but this movement made the magazine slide off my lap. As if pulled by an invisible thread, it tumbled onto the cement patio, up to the edge and then over it, starting its long fall down. With my head suspended in the void above the railing, I was dragged into the trap in turn, where he waited for me at the bottom yet again. He had already taken his clothes off and was lying beside the pool with only his swimsuit on, looking at me as I was still leaning over, although the magazine had completed its ten-storey trajectory. Now he’d get up and walk over to get the magazine and bring it back to me, perfectly innocently, talking about chance and the apartment that he had just rented there too, which would explain why I felt I had already met him. But to my surprise, he remained lying down, and I had to take a step back and raise my head, where blood was rushing too violently, clouding my vision. I went back inside and brought the teapot back to the kitchen, where I poured myself some lemonade and added a few drops of rum. The doorbell rang, and at the door there was a little boy whom the man in the green swimsuit had asked to return my magazine. I said there had been a mistake and that it wasn’t mine. I added that even if it had been, it would have been untrue to believe that it had slipped from my hands out of neglect and that on the contrary, I would simply have been getting rid of it, since I’d finished reading the only article likely to interest me because it talked about those situations you think you’ve already experienced in some long-ago past, when what’s really going on is that you’re immediately recognising the present situation at the very instant it’s turning into the past. I closed the door and went to my bedroom, from which, without even having to crack open the blinds, I could see him, his eyes closed now, maybe waiting for a response from the little boy, even though he hadn’t asked me any questions, or requested a message that would make him stand and come up here. Even though I didn’t take my eyes off him and I didn’t notice a change at the moment it must have occurred, his eyes were open now, and his face was tilted slightly to the right, towards the little boy, who was standing a few paces away, but the child had his back turned to him, and was talking to a man in a green swimsuit. The boy left, handing the magazine to the man, who glanced up towards my balcony before turning to his left where the man in the red swimsuit (not green as I’d previously thought) starting talking to him, probably telling him that the magazine didn’t fall from my balcony but from his, next door. The man in the green swimsuit held the magazine out to him. He took it and immediately opened it to a specific page with such confidence that I was certain he was intimately familiar with (and maybe was the author of) the article on Greece, specifically the island of Mytilene, originally called Lesbos. I thought he wanted to intimidate me, so I decided to just walk out onto the terrace, first passing through the kitchen and adding a few ice cubes to the lemonade I’d left there. While I was doing this, he must have changed seats, because now he was sitting upright in a lawn chair, probably so he could write in the magazine more comfortably, although it had neither a quiz nor a crossword. I was surprised that I hadn’t immediately noticed that he had put his quilted canvas blazer and green pants back on. He was writing without stopping (unless his pauses coincided with the brief moments when, for the sake of caution, I looked away) and he seemed to be writing without taking heed of the text that was already there. He must have been writing between its lines, unless he had slipped a blank page into the article and he was using the magazine only to support it. After he snapped the magazine shut, however, he didn’t pull anything out of it. He got up and left the walled pool enclosure to head slowly towards one of the paths leading to the bend, where he stopped to throw away the magazine he’d been writing in so painstakingly for more than thirty minutes. Then he turned his face towards my apartment building, but since his head didn’t noticeably shift in elevation and his glasses didn’t show the direction of his gaze (perhaps he’d bought them for that purpose), I had no way of knowing whether he was checking to see if I’d witnessed his movements. I suddenly had the feeling I’d been unwittingly made part of a game or scenario in which I played a central role but about which I knew nothing except that I absolutely had to make contact with or flee from this man, who from the very beginning had kept his distance so that I didn’t know whether he was approaching or moving away from me. Elsa’s car went down the main alley, then she took the left fork, into the bend where the man had disappeared without my being able to tell which way he’d gone. He must not have gone towards the pool, nor towards any of the benches, because I didn’t see him there. Elsa pulled over, got out of the car, and looked up at me through her rose-coloured glasses, which she had selected to better stupefy her adversaries, like Medusa. She didn’t remove them when she entered the apartment this time, trying naively to turn me, too, into stone. I only had to touch the nape of her neck with my fingertips to knock the joker right out of her deck, the joker walking with one arm bent at his hip and the other dangling at his thigh, weighted down by the spectre lurking at its extremity: his own head bobbing up and down, disguised as a hatmaker’s dummy. He certainly couldn’t have come to this place by chance and with the simple aim of throwing out the thing he’d already spent quite some time writing. As my hands touched her, Elsa softened gradually, and I could re-form her mouth, making it smaller and more closed this time, which left me with a little extra modelling clay in the palm of my hand, which I shaped into a glass, filled with lemonade, rum, and ice, and handed to her. While she drank, I went back to the patio. The paths were still empty. Elsa asked if I was waiting for someone. That bothered me. I responded, monosyllabically, probably yes, or then again no; anyway, it was just a single note, which mattered little because she reacted to the intonation and not the word, draining her glass and slamming the door behind her. When after a few moments she exited the building and went towards the parking lot, her entrance into my field of vision made me jump in the same way I would have if it was he who had appeared at the entrance of the complex. Even though it had only lasted a few seconds, the permutation that had taken place between them, and that made me react to one as I should only have reacted to the other, was so complete that I was certain it hadn’t happened inside me but inside them, by some strange phenomenon of transference. The car had gotten past the stone wall of the main path leading to the bend, where there was, in a trash bin, a magazine that only I knew contained esoteric signs, or coded messages, or at the very least annotations to the article I hadn’t read but should have, because it discussed mandrakes and amulets. I took a step back and let the sliding door shut, then closed the thin bluish-purple curtains, despite the time of day and the heat. I was exasperated. I poured myself another drink. Without having to utter a single word, without even requiring his presence, he had succeeded in monopolising my attention to such a point that, in the end, I believed he had—perhaps taking advantage of the moment when I had watched Elsa to the right of his face a little bit behind him, or even in the brief instant when I had looked at him through the thick lens at the bottom of the glass I was finishing drinking—grafted an entire remote-control operating system onto me, which he could not only use to control my actions however he wanted, but also to be a hidden witness to them. Since I couldn’t get rid of this pull, I decided to immerse myself fully in it, but without fighting it this time, and I went downstairs and walked out to the bin and plunged my whole arm into it to remove the magazine. Inside, on page thirty-one, written not between the lines but above the article on Mytilene, was my name, in black ink, repeated countless times, calligraphed with an artistry that only Egyptian hieroglyphs possessed. I headed towards the car and returned to their private exhibition.

I saw him from the threshold of the door, as if he hadn’t budged in all these hours, motionless in the same spot, holding the glass I thought I had broken, or another. I went up to him and asked him if it was true that he was an aquatint engraver. He said no. I asked him what he was. He said something but didn’t enunciate enough. I asked him to repeat. I still didn’t understand. With the tips of my fingers, I reached into his jacket and from his inside pocket removed a drawing pen whose reservoir must have contained Chinese or cuttlefish ink. Then I opened the magazine and asked him to write the word I’d just made him repeat. He took the pen and started to scratch the paper, leaving fine traces of black ink in the creases, formed into tiny overlapping and interwoven leaves, curlicues, and flowers ornately crafted out of precious metals. Once he was done, I took the magazine and raised it in front of the light source, which, when I isolated the page, allowed me to read, like a watermark, through the overwhelming mass of details, my name. I lowered the magazine and let it fall to the ground. I said I was thirsty. Without taking his eyes off me, he raised his arm and snapped his fingers. They brought me something to drink. I raised the glass to my mouth. He said he had been waiting for me. I lowered the glass without having drunk. After a few moments, I told him I knew, and that was why I’d come back. I asked him right away if it was a bet, a challenge, or just chance. He said that to others it was a bet, to him a challenge, to me chance. It wasn’t until then that I noticed that they were watching us through the interplay of mirrors and glass. Elsa arrived in a frenzy and came so close to me her mouth practically touched my ear. She whispered that she needed to talk to me. I said out loud that it wasn’t worth it because I already knew this man was only here for revenge, not his own but others’. They were here, hidden behind a few pointless pleasantries, waiting for the moment when this man was going to break my neck, which had resisted them until today, and they’d feel almost as if they’d broken it themselves, too. Through this Heracles, they’d get their payback. I headed towards the door. In the palm of my hand was the fistful of masks I’d just snatched off of them in one fell swoop. Those masks were melting in my hand now, regenerating bit by bit upon their flayed faces.

It was hot outside despite the sinking sun. I headed towards the apartment. Passing by the bend, I had the impression that another message had been hidden for me in the trash bin. I didn’t stop, however, convinced that he wouldn’t have had the time to come back here, because I’d just left him at the private exhibition. I went up to the apartment, first to change, then to turn on some lights and open the curtains a crack before going back down to the courtyard where I started to look for the bench that would give me the best vantage point, while still being hidden enough to reverse our roles. I’d been waiting fruitlessly for almost two hours when suddenly, but more forcefully this time, the feeling returned that there was a new message for me in the bend. I got up and started to walk slowly, towards the marina at first, to let him think I wasn’t looking for anything, then towards the tennis court, passing by the bend. But I couldn’t keep myself from stopping there when I saw the magazine. Its cover, which I hadn’t noticed before, showed a woman whose neck was encircled by a metal hoop with an onyx cameo, a double profile of an Amazon suspended from it. I leaned down to pluck the magazine from the bottom of the bin for the second time. Inside it, on page thirty-one, this time between the lines and in the margins, black-ink calligraphy stretched into a long text accompanied by a map. The starting point indicated was this bin, where he could only have placed this message during the few minutes when I went upstairs and turned on the lights to conceal my departure. I went back to the apartment to look for my bag. Inside it, aside from my papers and keys, there was a little ivory-handled knife. Then I went back down to begin the car chase. It lasted more than two hours and led me to the designated point, where it was written that I would have to follow on foot for about twenty minutes.

I got out of the car to check my surroundings. In the direction they had indicated, there was no road and no houses were in sight. Although from the start I had harboured no illusions about the nature of the meeting, the choice of this locale was an unpleasant surprise. The darkness would soon be total and there were far too many trees. Everything was going to be much too impenetrable. I went back to the car, thinking I’d retrace my steps, but I noticed that the keys weren’t on the dashboard anymore, where I thought I’d left them. I rifled through my bag; I looked under the seat and went back to the edge of the woods. I completed this cycle three times, each time in vain. It bothered me. I took the spare key out of my bag and was about to start the ignition when there was a long shriek, of a bird or a woman. I froze in place and waited motionlessly for the rest, but nothing came. It was only then that I realised how surprised I was that Elsa hadn’t followed me after the scene at M’s house. I carefully put the spare key in the pocket of my blouse and took the little knife from my bag and the flashlight from under the seat. Then I got out of the car. The map showed a straight path but I didn’t see it at first and I had to go in and walk around the undergrowth a little before I found it. After about five minutes, the path ended without any warning, with neither a house nor a clearing, just a place where the line on the map split. I had to turn on my flashlight because from this spot on, my route would be indicated by red blazes on the trees. The first few that I saw were made from paint that was still wet and shiny, and I had no trouble seeing them. But after about ten minutes, the markings changed, not just their shade but also their reflectivity, as if my flashlight’s beam was diffused, not reflected, by red. I approached a tree and discovered that it wasn’t daubed with paint, but something thinner and clearer that I would have mistaken for hair dye if it hadn’t been odourless. With my finger, I touched the still-dripping liquid. It was only when I brought it to my mouth that I realised it was blood. I was seized with such terror that I stayed rooted in place, unable to banish my horrifying visions of Elsa’s pallid corpse split open from her pubic bone to her throat, like the eviscerated rams whose blood we had collected to smear on our doorposts. Once these images dissipated, I decided to retrace my steps while there was still time. I hadn’t realised, however, that when I turned around to go the other way, the marks on the trees wouldn’t be visible, which meant I’d have to take a few steps then turn around to verify my direction before continuing at random towards another sign, then another, until the moment when I couldn’t find any more and tried to go back to the last one I’d seen but which I couldn’t see any more than I could see any of the others. There was a noise not far from me. When I swept the area with my light and saw nothing there, I was seized with panic and started to run straight ahead, holding tighter and tighter onto the little ivory-handled knife, whose delicate scrimshaw pattern must have been imprinted in my palm. After a few moments, however, I had to stop because the air that had rushed into my mouth had dried out my mucous membranes, to the point that I couldn’t breathe any more without tearing my throat. I let myself sink down the side of a tree and I turned off the flashlight and closed my eyes. Gradually, saliva came back to moisten my mouth and let me breathe in and out more easily. I tried to filter the sticky air by putting my half-spread fingers in front of my lips. With my other hand, still holding the little knife, I clutched my trembling knees in front of me, unable to will them into my control. Ever since I had begun this back-and-forth with the man whose face had attached itself to my eye through the lens of a glass, I’d been certain that such an adventure could only end in his victory, which, however, paradoxically and in spite of everything, would also be my own, because for too long already I’d been waiting, without admitting it, for the day when a man from elsewhere would arrive by force and look for that tenderness in me that no man before had known to find. But now, in this wood with bloody trees, letting him win was out of the question. I got up and, without turning on my flashlight, I started to walk, not making even the smallest sound, despite my knees, which trembled more and more. There must have been a path somewhere I could follow to the first house, where there would be people in rocking chairs on the veranda, no matter how late it was, since their bedrooms were hot as ovens and there wasn’t the slightest breeze. Little by little, a few to my left, a few to my right, the crunching of leaves and branches forced me into one particular direction so consistently that I suddenly realised I was the prey in a great hunt driving me to the clearing that must be the site of the shadowy meeting I now wanted to escape at any price. But I barely had time to gather any momentum before I was struck down by a swarm of transmigrated vultures in human form. My knife rose and fell against them over and over until I could get back up and restart the frantic race that led me to the earthen path, where I let myself fall flat on the ground. Blood rushed to my temples as if gigantic floodgates had been opened within me and I felt like my heart was rising to my mouth, soon to burst out and dangle from its own viscera. It took me an enormous amount of time to right myself, alien to everything that had so overwhelmed me and preoccupied with nothing but my stretched-out body. Inside it I moved quickly to quiet the balls rolling all around my veins, my belly, my throat, keeping me from breathing and from swallowing the saliva that didn’t come but that I insisted on swallowing anyway, purely reflexively.

When my body’s rhythm was bearable again, an immense slackening occurred inside me, leaving me empty of all emotion. I stood and began to walk up to the house where the people rocking indicated to me—very reluctantly, because I still had the little ivory-handled knife in my fist, stained with blood just like my hands and my clothes—the path I should follow to get back to the point shown on the map, where the car ought to be. From afar, on the road, I saw that one of the car’s doors was open and that someone was sitting inside it. I let myself slide into a ditch and started to crawl slowly forward on my stomach until I was close enough to see that the body on the seat was inert, its head flung back, with something dangling off it that must have been hair. Worried I’d fall into some new trap, I approached very slowly, brandishing the little knife, no longer able to close my fingers tightly on its handle, which mattered little because it was Elsa, her right breast torn off or burned. Around her neck, she was wearing her thin metal hoop with an onyx cameo dangling off it, engraved with a double profile of an Amazon. I closed the car door and immediately went to sit in the driver’s seat. On the dashboard, the keys had reappeared. I started the ignition and sped off. At the hospital, Elsa left the treatment room conscious but already numbed by a strong medication. They took her to her room and there was nothing left for me to do but leave.

My apartment window was the only one with light in it at this hour. Approaching it down the long corridor, I looked for the key on my chain. It wasn’t there. That explained the key ring’s disappearance at the edge of the woods. I approached the door and listened. There was no sound. I turned the doorknob and pushed softly on the door, which wasn’t locked from the inside. I stepped in and saw him right away, sitting calmly and drinking some lemonade spiked with rum. He seemed to be alone and I entered, closing the door behind me. He asked if I had had a nice trip. I didn’t answer. I was looking for a trace of blood on his skin or clothing. He wasn’t wearing his quilted canvas blazer or his green pants (maybe he had stained them with wet paint). I asked him to leave. He didn’t react, so I asked him multiple times what he wanted from me. He didn’t answer. I decided to act as if he weren’t there at all. I went to my room and got clean clothes, then shut myself in the bathroom. I took a shower, careful to leave the curtain halfway open so I wouldn’t be taken by surprise if he tried to enter, which he didn’t do. When I came back to the living room, he seemed not to have moved but his glass was full again. Once more I begged him to leave. He didn’t respond and continued to wet his lips in his glass. Then I remarked that he had on his finger a ring with an onyx signet bearing two profiles of Heracles. He must have noticed me looking because he said that M and the others wore identical ones now. I responded that I had never seen anything like it on their fingers. He replied that, as for him, even though he had never noticed me wearing something like it, he knew that, hidden away in a little rosewood box, I possessed a metal hoop with an onyx cameo that… Without giving him time to continue, I said I had never denied it. I asked him to explain what had just happened in the forest. He stayed silent for a few minutes, then responded that it had been one of their initiation rites. I responded that in that case it was better that he didn’t believe everyone had come out a winner, unscathed by the challenge. He started to laugh and responded that the scars left by a fine blade were just stars on a man’s face and body. I asked him why, then, the initiation rite didn’t consist of a reciprocal mutilation. He smiled as he said that this couldn’t be a part of the rules of their game, since a woman’s hand had never participated in it. I said that a game you accessed by making others pay the entry fee was nothing but a game for cowards. His eyes hardened and his laugh disappeared into his glass. He asked me to remember my own initiation rites as well as Elsa’s. I responded that we hadn’t mutilated anyone in order to earn the onyx medallion. He said that there were more serious mutilations than bodily ones, and dirtier too, because they’re done insidiously. He started talking about M. Then little by little, his voice softened until he told me, finding his smile again, that soon, soon, at any rate, we’d be even. He started wetting his lips in his glass again while his ‘soons’ drilled minuscule craters the size of bullets into my head. Beneath the weight of my fatigue and this new tension, my knees started trembling again. I decided to go to the kitchen to pour myself some lemonade. Even though I turned the lights on when I entered, I didn’t notice anything at first. It was only when I turned towards the Chinese cabinet to take a glass out of it that I saw my cat through the window, hanging from a rope, her white stomach split from top to bottom, her heart and entrails hanging. Without a sound, I returned to the living room’s doorway and, with a sharp flick of my wrist, stabbed the little scrimshaw-handled knife into the man’s throat. To make a star. His eyes, the eyes of a fictional character, grew glassy. Now we were even.