My name is Blaise Fortune and I am a citizen of the French Republic. It's the pure and simple truth.
I was almost twelve years old the day the customs officers found me in the back of the truck. I stank as badly as the garbage shed where Abdelmalik slept, and all I was able to say was "Mynameisblaisefortuneandiamacitizenofthefrenchrepublicitsthepureandsimpletruth."
I had lost nearly all of my precious belongings along the way. Fortunately, I still had my passport; Gloria had made sure to stick it deep in my jacket pocket when we were at the service station. My passport proved that I was born on December 28, 1985, at Mont-Saint-Michel, on the French side of the English Channel, per page 16 of the green atlas. It was written in black and white. The problem was my photo: it had been removed, then glued back, and even though Mr. Ha had faked the official seal with the greatest care, the customs officers didn't believe that I was really a French boy. I wanted to explain my story to them, but I didn't have the vocabulary. So they pulled me out of the truck by the neck of my sweater and took me away.
This is how my childhood ended: brutally, on the side of a highway, when I realized that Gloria had disappeared and that I would have to cope without her in the country known for human rights and for the poetry of Charles Baudelaire.
After that I spent countless days in a triage zone, then in a shelter. France was just a succession of walls, fences, and doors. I slept in dormitories that reminded me of the Matachine's attic, except that there was no dormer window to watch the stars through. I was alone in the world. But I couldn't let despair eat away at my soul. More so than ever, I had to go to Mont-Saint-Michel to find my mother! It was easy to explain it all, but I didn't know the language. I couldn't give details about the Terrible Accident or the hazards of life that had brought me here. And when you can't express yourself, it's like dying of suffocation.
Things are different today. Many years have gone by, and now I can name everything; I can conjugate verbs, use adjectives and conjunctions. I have a new passport in my pocket--all in good order, as required by the laws of the world.
Not long ago I received a letter from the French Embassy in Tbilisi, Georgia, saying that they might have tracked down Gloria. That's why I'm sitting at a Charles de Gaulle Airport gate with a suitcase, a heart that beats madly, and the crazy hope that I will see Gloria again. But, before anything else, I must put my thoughts in order.
Let me begin: My name is Blaise Fortune. I am a citizen of the French Republic, even though I spent the first eleven years of my life in the Caucasus, a vast region located between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, per page 78 of the green atlas. At the time I spoke Russian and people called me Koumail. It might seem strange, but it's easy to understand. I just have to tell my story. All of it. And in the right order.
My oldest memories date back to 1992, when Gloria and I lived in the Complex with other refugee families. I don't remember the name of the town. I am nearly seven. It is winter, and we no longer have electricity or heat because of the war.
There is a smell of laundry mingled with that of vinegar.
Women are gathered in the center of the courtyard, around a huge iron vat set above blazing logs. The skin on their bare arms is red up to the elbows. They speak and laugh loudly. As the laundry boils in the scum of our dirt, a cloud of steam rises, leaving a thick condensation on the windowpanes of the floors above.
Farther away, under the canopy, creepy Sergei sharpens his razor. Schlick, schlick, schlick.
He calls us over, one by one.
"You! Come here!" he hollers.
Creepy Sergei doesn't know our names. There are too many kids in the Complex, and he drinks so heavily that his memory is completely shot. He just yells, "You," as he points his razor at one of us. Nobody dares disobey him, because we're terrified of his upturned eye and his flattened nose.
Before becoming a barber, creepy Sergei was a boxer, the best one in town, or so they say. But everything changed the day a high-strung Armenian knocked him out cold. It was before the war. According to Gloria, on that day Sergei had a brush with death. That makes him special now, and he deserves our respect. So when he points his razor at me, I dash under the canopy.
I sit on the three-legged stool, my back turned to him, my heart beating madly, and I lean my head back. Sergei's razor cuts across my scalp, his strokes methodical, until all my hair falls to the ground. Then creepy Sergei dips a towel in a barrel of vinegar and rubs my head with it. My scalp stings. I whine. He pushes me from the stool.
"Go see your mother, little brat!" he says.
I stand up, my head shorn and filled with a vague pain, and I rush to snuggle in Gloria's arms. She's not my mother, but she's all I have.
"Beautiful!" she exclaims as she runs her soapy hands over my skull.
I look up at her and she bends down to kiss my cheek. "You're truly magnificent, Monsieur Blaise," she adds.
I smile through my tears. I love it when she calls me "Mr. Blaise" in French, because no one else can understand.
"Now go and play, Koumail," she says loudly. "You can see I'm busy!"
I dry my eyes and run off to join the group of shaved kids who are playing in the courtyard.
The laundry, the laughter, the razor, the vinegar . . . that's how we wage war against lice, fleas, and all forms of parasites--including, according to Gloria, the most feared parasite of all, despair. Despair, she says, is more dangerous and more clever than the Armenian who knocked out Sergei. It is invisible and slips into everything. If you don't fight against it, it nibbles at your soul. But how do you know you've caught a despair if you can't even see it? I wonder. What do you do if even the razor can't get rid of it? Gloria holds me tight against her chest when I ask her about this. She explains that she has a cure.
"As long as you stay close to me, nothing bad will happen to you, OK?"
Revue de presse
-Kirkus Reviews, starred
"An exceptional story."--School Library Journal, starred
"[A] beautifully nuanced novel."--Publishers Weekly, starred
"Readers will find themselves mesmerized not only by the eloquent language but by a plot every bit as harrowing and surprising as Koumail's cherished bedtime story."--The Horn Book Magazine, starred