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.