FIRST CHAPTER OF MOTHER TONGUE: LINGUA CORSA
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MOTHER TONGUE: Lingua Corsa
I peered down at the beacon of light flickering off the bald spot dividing Pierre Benatar’s hair into two frizzy black clumps and half-heartedly hustled to keep stride with his churning legs. The sun scorched the back of my neck as he forged ahead, as oblivious to me as to the threats against his life by collaborators of the Corsican terrorist we were about to interview. Correction. That he was about to interview. I would only translate. Lagging behind, I felt like a leashed dog refusing to be brought to heel. Recent events had reduced the aggressive legal Beagle side of me to the petulance of a disobedient spaniel.
The last of the nondescript homes in the leafy Val-de-Marne suburb south of Paris gave way to the menacing sprawl of Fresnes prison as we rounded the last corner. The sight of its ancient stone walls turned my knees to jelly and congealed my stomach contents into a nauseous lump. My legs started to buckle, but I regained my balance with an awkward stutter step, saved by the Birkenstocks that completed my prison couture outfit of loose-fitting slacks and a long-sleeved blouse buttoned up Puritan style. To add to the demure look, I had corralled my wiry brunette hair into a bun instead of letting it snake down my back in its usual thick braid. And nary a hint of make-up. Not that I wore much anyway.
Two months earlier I’d had to fight off the same queasy feeling on my way to Marin for lunch with a friend. As I rounded the last curve on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, the sight of the pale stucco walls of San Quentin caused me to slam on the brakes, veer off the road, stick my head out the window, and puke. What in hell could have prompted the Governor’s parole Commissioner to release a repeat offender from this hell-hole? A monster who had gone on to murder his ex-wife and kidnap their own daughter?
But blaming Pete Wilson’s hack did little to assuage my own guilt. Assigned by Alameda County as Kassandra Jackson’s attorney in a routine dependency hearing, I had offered a vehement and unfortunately convincing argument for returning her spunky eight-year-old daughter, Briana, to her custody. I had done my due diligence. I had ticked off each and every required duty on the list—home visit, social services for the mother, even an action plan to protect the child in case her paternal grandparents tried to bodily interfere and take Briana to visit their incarcerated son. A trusted colleague assured me that the brutal ex-husband would be denied parole. In my opinion, there was no substantial risk, per the requirements of the Welfare and Institutions Code of California, that the child would suffer serious physical harm as a result of the parent’s inability to supervise or protect her. The spanking on the buttocks reported by Briana’s teacher to Child Protective Services fell within the legal definition of age-appropriate and reasonable, although I personally opposed any form of corporal punishment. The code too closely resembled the idiotic cautions in liquor ads to drink responsibly. Spank responsibly. Right!
And then there was the clincher. The mother, unlike most of my clients at dependency hearings, had brought a snack of gummy bears for Briana and cuddled her as we sat in the hall awaiting her hearing. Most of these derelict parents could care less about whether their child is either fed or comforted, even under these stressful circumstances.
I should have double-checked on the outcome of the father’s parole board hearing but had been swallowed up by my caseload of over three hundred other parents fighting to keep or regain custody of their children in Alameda County. Within two days of the ex-husband’s release, Kassandra lay dead in a pool of blood and Briana was nowhere to be seen. A week later her tiny body, bloated beyond recognition, washed up on the muddy banks of the Oakland estuary. I’d only seen the crime photos, thank God, but even those had quite literally brought me to my knees and eventually to this self-imposed exile in France.
Weeks of knocking back more Jack Daniels than usual had done jack shit to eradicate the memory of Briana’s sweet black face, framed in bead-dressed pigtails and cushioned, not against her favorite Disney princess pillow that she clutched during our visits, but against the cruel white satin of a coffin. I’d made a valiant effort to return to my duties but found myself stammering in front of the judges as I second guessed myself on every word, court documents spilling from my tremulous hands onto the floor. Given the level of understaffing in the Public Defender’s office, I must have appeared a bloody mess to warrant being put off on an indeterminate personal leave of absence instead of fired.
I tried to push the memories away as I trundled after Benatar in silence. Friends and foes both in and out of court had always found it hard to shut me up. But it was almost as if a mute button had been pushed in my brain as I sat that dreary Saturday afternoon in the last pew of Allen Temple Baptist Church eyeing the throng of mourners celebrating two lives taken too way too soon.
Feeling ill-prepared only reinforced my reluctance to speak. Benatar had dropped the assignment on my desk less than 24 hours before, along with a foot-thick stack of reports he had filed on the Corsican situation. I had stayed up after midnight skimming through the materials. But time enough to confirm that his no-holds-barred reporting style jibed with the newsroom gossip I’d heard about this diminutive Moroccan Jew who had been targeted by just about every faction of Corsica’s Nationalist movement.
As we passed through the metal detectors at the prison’s entrance, I wondered how much Benatar knew about me beyond the fact that I was the rare American who spoke fluent French and certainly the only one who spoke lingua corsa. When his regular translator’s heart healed, would I be shuttled off to Charles De Gaulle airport with a one-way ticket back to San Francisco? I felt a nagging urge to explain that back in the States, before I’d gone bonkers and got sent off to a shrink’s office and eventually urged by my mother to take this hiatus to France, my investigatory skills as a child advocate attorney may well have outshone his as a journalist.
My ruminations came to an abrupt halt when a paunchy guard, sweat staining the underarms of his starched blue shirt, snatched the Liberation staff credentials out of my hand with the insolence bred into French functionaries. “Lisabetta Falcucci. Ce n’est pas un nom américain. Corse, n’est-ce pas? ”
A denial was pointless. My decision to officially revert to my Corsican birth name was there in black and white, although I’d almost forgotten the shrewd tactic I’d used to nab a translator position on France’s most radical newspaper. It hadn’t taken long after my arrival for me to insist that everyone use my Americanized name, Liz Fallon. But now my ploy felt like a curse. Benatar glowered up at me above his rimless glasses. I felt thirty-two going on a doddering ninety-three with my life swirling down a French toilette. Benatar’s probably wondering how the fuck I can translate for him if I can barely remember my own name.
I had little patience for lapses, particularly my own. Annoyed that I even cared about Benatar’s opinion, I rattled off a few rapid-fire phrases in French, adding a healthy dose of the vernacular, which worked as well on Benatar and the smug guard as it did on sneering Parisian waiters. But as we passed through the first set of iron gates, my bravado ebbed, smothered by the odor of corroded iron bars and the sickly fumes of disinfectant rising from the green-speckled linoleum underfoot.
* * *
The subject of Benatar’s interview, with the exception of his skin color and accent, looked no different than the dozens of other criminals I had had the misfortune to meet in the line of duty. I found myself running through my usual assessment, looking for tells, those small unconscious movements that exposed the vulnerabilities of men who don’t think they have any. Signs that would give me ammunition to bar them from their children’s lives forever.
My appraisal started with the rash of gray stubble on his chin and moved up to the matching shorn growth on his head which was split asunder by a quarter inch swath of bare scalp at the hairline, the telltale signature of a grazing bullet. His slouch and up-yours stare had as much swag as any member of the Imperial Gangsta Thuggz back in Oakland. The only surprise came when he started to speak.
Lingua corsa, with its elisions and muted consonants had always seemed soft and seductive to me, regardless of my complaints about always having to be my mother’s translator, but out of Yves Gordi’s mouth, it came across smart-ass and strident, with that cocky defensiveness of the guilty pleading innocent. With no time to fret about whether my facility with the language was up to snuff, I fell into the rhythmic cadence of my mother’s tongue as Benatar started firing questions.
“If you were simply buying groceries,” Benatar asked, “why did you have a mini Uzi submachine gun with bullets in the barrel as well as several ammo magazines in the trunk of your car?”
Gordi was quick to retort. “So you think we should be killed like rabbits? Yes, we hide. Yes, we wear bulletproof vests. Yes, we are armed. We are under surveillance for weeks. We are not arrested for robbing the place, only getting food to eat. Who knows where the gendarmes found those weapons? They say what they please.”
The louder and more aggressive Gordi became, the more Benatar leaned into him. At first I found myself intimidated. I desperately wanted to become the proverbial fly on the wall, existing unnoticed among the splatters of jailhouse graffiti. But as I relaxed and eased into the tempo of the exchange, questions began clicking into place in my own brain, ones I would have asked had this man been the incarcerated father of one of my charges. When Benatar paused to jot down a note, a rush of adrenaline loosened my tongue. “What do you make of the fact that the police didn’t believe you?” I asked.
The prisoner and Benatar snapped their heads in my direction. Benatar nodded to Gordi to answer but not before shooting a scathing look of disapproval my way. A hot flush rose up the back of my neck and sweat dampened the armpits of my blouse. I felt like I had been whacked by a giant flyswatter. I gave Benatar a sidewise glance that was as close to saying sorry as I could manage. Admission of guilt was never my strong suit.
“You are like all the rest,” Gordi said, aiming his accusation at Benatar. “Your stories are filled with lies. You forget the past murders by the FLNC. You report mainly what harm their opponents do. In the meantime, the Cuncolta, their supposed legal arm, sucks up to the government, puts on some phony act about peace agreements, and you fall over backward making them into some kind of heroes. The price of your mistake will be more blood, more bombings like the three in Haute Corse today and the one in Corse Sud two days ago.”
His words struck home. I knew how important it was to assess a situation correctly, regardless of appearances. A child’s life could be at stake. I pushed away the sickening image of a quilted lid being lowered on a child-size coffin.
* * *
An hour later, I twitched under Benatar’s harsh silence as he drove the fifteen kilometers back to Libé, as the newspaper Liberation was affectionately called. I had overstepped my bounds and derailed his interview, spurring the prisoner to spout more rhetoric than revelation. I felt damn sure Libé’s founder, Jean Paul Sartre, would have offered up a few choice words about my freedom to be an idiot. But embarrassment aside, the thoroughbred attorney in me stomped with impatience as we arrived at our rue Beranger headquarters. Accepting this temporary assignment as a translator, safe as it might be, felt like being relegated to the barn. The nightmares might never end. My hands might keep trembling for the rest of my life. What guarantee was there that a couple of months in Paris would settle my nerves and give me the courage to get back in the game? Wait too long and I might be in worse straits.