But She Was Not Mirabelle

Pin it


Just once, or so it seems, I did experience the full flowering of depression. We were living
in Vence, at that time a smallish town in southern France about twenty miles from Nice where I was
expected to write fiction (and where I would begin to write such novels as Travesty and
The Blood Oranges). Our French friends feasted us on Provençal rabbit; the surrounding
landscape was yellow with genêt, the heady blossom that Henry Plantagenet always wore on his hat.
But I was in the grip of a dark paralysis, for no reason that I knew of, and saw the clear light of
the Côte d’Azur as dulled through the waves of my own misery. I could not eat the rabbit, took no
walks, could not bear to listen to the soft sounds coming from the dovecote.

Every evening, after a dismal dinner, I fell asleep while Sophie began helping our youngest
son with his schoolwork. Every morning I sat benumbed and mindless at a small table of polished
cherry wood. Every morning Sophie left a fresh rose on my table, but even these talismans of love
and encouragement did no good. All was hopeless, writing was out of the question.

Then there came an invitation for lunch in town and Sophie insisted that we accept it. Our
hostess, a vivacious Frenchwoman, tried to cheer me up with a lively bit of gossip about a
middle-aged man who went to pick up his young daughter at a school in Nice, only to discover
accidentally from one of the young girl’s classmates that his daughter was an energetic prostitute
who had already gone, that day, from the playground to a sexual assignation. As I listened to that
story, my interest quickened; I drank a glass of wine, and I saw myself walking jauntily toward a
lone girl near some empty swings. At that moment I was distracted but no longer depressed. When we
finished our meal (a specialty of cod and boiled potatoes served with aïoli, a lovely rich garlic
sauce) and parted outside the restaurant, I kissed our French friend as happily as did Sophie, yet I
was sorely impatient to get to our car.

In the hours and days to come the fresh roses sparkled on my table and I took for granted
that I was close to beginning my novel for that year. Obviously Colette (not the writer but rather
our friend) was if anything sympathetic to the father in her anecdote, whom she considered morally
injured by his wayward daughter. From the beginning I was convinced that the father was in fact an
odious man, while I was curiously pleased that his daughter was able to enjoy her after-school hours
in a way generally considered a most serious transgression. (Here I should say that I too disapprove
of child prostitution or pornography. But in fiction I have always been an immoralist of sorts, and
was already thinking of Colette’s story as fiction. I should say too that I have always been
committed to eroticism in fiction, and convinced that there is nothing less erotic than the usual
slang terms we often hear, even in the work of today’s fiction writers, who somehow think they are
being liberated because they write “cunt,” a truly ugly word when compared to the erotics of
“vulva,” a word that resonates with the depths of the female sexual organ, or “cunny,” the
seventeenth-century term (which I believe is related to “bunny,” suggesting a lighter view of the

At any rate my distaste for the father grew. And within a week, two essential memories came
to mind, one of a critic and one of a story my father once told me about a riot in a women’s prison.
The critic was a Marxist, who at a conference in a small college for women caused me considerable
embarrassment, while making clear, I thought, his own contempt for the imagination. As soon as that
memory returned, I knew that this figure, in his black suit and humorless face, was my protagonist
(the novel would eventually be called The Passion Artist, ironically, of course). My father’s
story was this: At a young age, and as a member of the National Guard, he had helped to quell a riot
in a nearby women’s prison. My father and the other guardsmen had beaten the women with barrel
staves. As good a man as he was, my father was apparently unaware of the horror of what they had

The Passion Artist, then, centers around a women’s prison, a riot in which the women
defeat the male intruders, and a doctor in the prison — Dr. Slovotkin — who performed tests on the
imprisoned women in order to develop his theory of gender. It’s an oddly compelling theory — namely
“that men and women are both the same and the opposite.” (No doubt the reader might dismiss this
contradiction entirely, or disagree with both halves of it individually, but it does become
meaningful when elaborated on.)

By the end of The Passion Artist, we learn that Mirabelle, Konrad Vost’s daughter, is
living happily with her boyfriend, that both Vost and Dr. Slovotkin have died, and that, after the
successful liberation of the women’s prison, it has become a home for transient Eastern European

The Passion Artist is a study of severe sexual repression (mostly affecting the men
in the novel) and of the power of women. Paradoxically, it is a novel filled with highly erotic —
even sexual — scenes, reflecting, in part, a collection of books I found hidden in one of the
massive bookcases in that old house we were renting in Vence.

One of the most erotic of those scenes comes early in the novel, when Konrad Vost both
betrays his daughter and yet succumbs to a prolonged afternoon of oral sex with the nameless girl
who met him in the school yard.

“But She Was Not Mirabelle,” which follows, is an example of the extent to which a mere
anecdote may be transformed into fiction. Also, I must add that this same piece appeared under the
same title in 1978 in Penthouse; it is the only prose of mine ever to appear in such a
popular magazine. I keep my only copy of that issue, as I have kept it for nearly twenty years, in a
calfskin binder made for me by my daughter.  -JH


In retrospect he was not able to discover the source of the well-being he felt that day or
of the realization, upon him once more, that again the day had arrived when, as many times in the
past, he would devote his entire afternoon to Mirabelle. But there it was: the good feeling, the
benevolence, the exhilaration of seeing the day through a sheet of ice, and the determination that
he would refuse the ordinary demands of his daily life in the pharmacy and undertake the long
familiar walk in order to greet Mirabelle at the end of her day at school. The satisfaction
attendant on this decision was immense: the students would

emerge from the several gray buildings behind the wall on the top of
which were strung the long strands of protective wire. The students would fill the sandy compound
with the life of their bodies; the moving
students would remind him of Gagnon’s birds. He would see Mirabelle; he would stand still and wave;
Mirabelle would return his greeting,
surprised, happily understanding that once again her father was taking the trouble to walk home with
her from school. Arm in arm they would set off together as they had done less and less frequently in
these five surprisingly bearable years since the death of Claire.

He was breathing exactly the same clear cold air as would soon fill the lungs of the
dispersing students. He was alone and walking eastward into the shadows of exactly the same street
he would be traversing westward into the pale fading light with Mirabelle. It was the route of the
small infrequent trolley cars, those doorless vehicles of gray riveted metal, and the sight of the
narrow rails embedded in a field partly of cobblestones, partly of concrete, and the sagging
overhead cable and the tin-roofed shelters where waited no passengers, no parents with children in
hand: the sight of this thoroughfare on which he alone was proceeding could only evoke, as he strode
along, the sound of Mirabelle’s voice at his side and the vision of the entire schoolful of students
swarming toward him suddenly with arms in the air and shoes and boots clattering on the empty

He reached the landmark of the fountain, an amateurish replica in concrete of a dolphin from
the mouth of which trickled not a drop of water. He turned the familiar corner where now, as always,
he was both vindicated and offended by the smell of sewage pumping upward through an iron grate in
the stones; he approached within sight and hearing distance of the low darkening school. But he
heard nothing. He saw no one. He quickened his pace. With misgivings, with the utmost of
disappointment, he entered the sandy square intended for recreation and calisthenics. But it was
empty, except for a single girl who was walking listlessly in his direction and who was not
Mirabelle. The impossible had happened. He was too late. He who was always correct, precise,
punctual, was now, too late. Nevertheless, he decided to speak to the girl, who evidently meant to
speak a few words to him.

“I am looking for Mirabelle,” he said, “the daughter of Konrad Vost. Is she here?”

He inclined himself slightly from the waist, he relaxed his face, he assumed a pleasant
quizzical expression, all in order to put at ease this girl who, except for her clothes, was
strikingly similar to the girl he was seeing. The same rather large size, the same dark hair cut to
shoulder length in imitation of an adult style, the same unformed quality of the face that still
belonged to a child. Of course, instead of wearing skirt, blouse, shoes tied with the laces, this
girl was dressed in pants of faded blue denim and, clinging to her torso, a thin white collarless
and sleeveless shirt that was like a sweater. Across the front of the shirt and conforming the shape
of this child’s womanly bosom was printed in black letters the message WE AIM TO PLEASE. He noted
the boldness of the letters but did not understand the pathos of the double meaning, since the
message on the shirt was couched in that language he had never learned to read. He noted too the
wooden sandals, on the bare feet, the goose flesh on the arms and upper chest. Mirabelle would not
approve of such a costume. And she was perhaps too shy to stand this close to a stranger in the
lengthening shadows of an empty schoolyard. But the incongruity of the lone girl was appealing as
was the directness with which she was looking up at his face, so that he found himself bending again
from the waist and attempting to disregard the tightness of the pant, the shirt.

“Well,” he repeated, knowing the uselessness of the question, “and Mirabelle? Is she here?”
“No, she’s already gone,” said the girl, inclining her shoulder vaguely and drawing still
closer. “If you want Mirabelle you must come earlier. But I’m available. And I can give you more
than she could. And for less.”

He waited. She said nothing more. He listened intently. And was someone else, someone very
much like himself though with briefcase, topcoat, cane, face in the shadows, now approaching this
same empty place to pause at the gate, to draw back, to stand quietly watching a tall middle-aged
man already conversing with

the obscured figure of the very person he, the imaginary stranger, had come to find? Had he visited this
same schoolyard weeks in the past? Had this same girl been waiting? For a moment longer, he, the
actual man, the living father, he who had come on his innocent mission, stood darkly within the
institutional enclosure creating a dream, clinging as best he could to incomprehension. But then his
entire world fell on him, like a facing of ice from an immense
cliff, so that he was left with only defeat instead of disbelief, with the intolerable pain of sight
after blindness, with the feeling of young fingers on the sleeve of his coat. So the school was in
fact visited by men who were not at all the fathers of the concerned students; so she who was now
waiting beside him meant what she had said and did not know or care who he was; so in an instant he
had discovered the true uselessness of inquiry about Mirabelle who was already the genie who knew
how to escape from the bottle. He was cold. He felt annulled. He was able to think of nothing but an
armful of corsets. He was inflamed. He was annulled.

“Now,” said the girl at his side, recalling him to the young fingers and the voice he would
never forget. “Now, are you coming?”

He nodded. She requested his billfold. He complied. After she had transacted her business,
alone, impervious to the fading light, oddly considerate of the man who possessed a steel tooth and
who had made her friend her competitor, she stepped around his rigid figure and led the way out of
the sandy enclosure and through the cold streets toward the building that concealed the shuttered
room in which he knew she would again confront him with what he had hardly thought of since Claire’s
voice faded and the deathbed contained only her still form.

Between the schoolyard and the shuttered room there were only the determined clattering
sounds of the wooden sandals and the cold blanketing knowledge of himself as a single anonymous
older man in pursuit of the illicit services of a girl who was still in fact a child. Within the
caverns that were now himself, even this knowledge was a form of oblivion. The girl made no attempt
to conceal their passage together. He found that he was neither alarmed nor dismayed at the loudness
of the sandals that protected the bare feet from the stones.

But it was precisely the sandals that she removed first in that small room with its single
shuttered window and its empty walls of whitewashed concrete. One narrow door opened into the
cubicle that was the toilet, which the girl now used, while the other opened into the cubicle
containing the stove, the iron bottle of gas, the meager tins of food, the outmoded refrigerator on
the top of which rested the radio of blackened Bakelite. In one corner of the room stood a table and

two upright chairs; along one wall was the sparsely padded couch that obviously folded out into a bed
for both mother and daughter; from
the corner opposite the table and the chairs, and positioned so that it bisected the corner exactly,
there protruded the shockingly incongruous sight of a gaunt narrow chaise longue which, with its
gilded lion’s feet, its gilded frame, its upholstering material stitched with the enormous brown heads
of flowers in the bloom, might have been dragged from an
abandoned chateau that existed only in the pages of a moldy volume bound in green leather. Clearly
this shabby, overly rich piece of furniture, situated in concrete and emptiness, represented the
unattainable taste and vision of the mother; here she rested whenever she returned from working in
the bakery, dry goods shop, laundry, rested in poor splendor while the girl, no doubt, played the
radio in the cubicle that was filling with the smell of meat boiling in a steel pot on the stove.

No sooner had the toilet flushed than the girl reappeared, zipping her trousers,
disregarding him where he stood fully clothed between the chaise longue, the bare table, the couch.
Through the slats in the shutters the light entered the room as if through the skeletal ribs of an
animal long dead. He had not moved since entering this place of nakedness, and when the girl
returned from the cubicle in the kitchen bearing a small glass filled to the brim with a clear
liquor, he found it difficult to raise his arm, extend his hand, seize the glass. But he did so,
while the girl stood watching him, and at the precise moment he coughed on the last of the liquor,
the girl, in an easy gesture, and with both hands, pulled the white shirt over her head and free
from her body. He coughed, he felt the burning in his nose and throat, the wetness in his eyes, and
in the midst of this condition induced deliberately by the girl as preparation for the sight of her
nakedness, he attempted not to think of Claire but instead gave himself the full benefit of what in
his lifetime he had never seen: the thick and womanly breasts of a young girl.

She took the glass from him and replaced it not in the kitchen but on the bare table, so as
to keep him in sight. The room smelled faintly of garlic and bottled gas; in the puckering of the
naked waist he saw a scar that might have been inflicted in the fury of some childhood beating.
Through the open door he could see the black and white toilet stark and waiting like an instrument
of execution, and still wet and noisy from the girl’s use. Around her neck was a thin chain bearing
a small golden heart for a pendant.

Then, taking his hand in hers, she directed him, as if he were a walking invalid, not to the
couch as he had expected but instead to the anomaly of the chaise longue that extended into the room

like an ornate tongue, like the narrow prow of an entombed boat, like the reclining place of a courtesan
with feathers and painted skin. He could hardly bear to
stretch himself out on it. But he did so, as she directed, allowing her to straighten his legs and,
with her hand in his brow, to push his head gently backward into the cushion. She did not remove his
shoes or spectacles; against his forehead her hand was as dry and naked as the bare feet,
the bare breasts.

She remained at the head of his half-seated, half-prostate form, retaining the single
childish hand on his brow, until patient, unhurried, staring down at him, she extended her other
hand and touched him behind the ear, on the back of the neck, and then inserted two fingers between
the collar of the turtleneck shirt and the skin of his neck and slowly, in gestures that were now
circular, now probing, worked the fingers downward as far as she could comfortably reach. He felt
that those fingers were exalting his bones and flesh and buried spine. Fully clothed, hands at his
sides, he felt himself imperceptibly reaching upward with the top part of his body toward the
upright heaviness of the girl at his side. Her breathing deepened: the fingers probed, he allowed
his head to incline gently to the right so that through half-closed eyes he could see the armpit,
the surprising hair, the shape of the ribs like curves of light beneath the skin, the rounded bottom
of one large breast. Hearing the girl’s breath and his own, he allowed himself to raise and maneuver
his right arm and hand so that his forearm was extended between her legs and the hand was clutching
to himself the tightly denimed weight of the girl’s leg and thigh. The zipper was half open, the
thigh in its skin of cloth was hot.

He felt the fingers withdrawing from the neck of his shirt, he felt the bareness of the girl
as she leaned over him and, with the fingers that only moments before were on the pulse of his neck,
began to massage his chest and abdomen through the black shirt. He was not moving, and yet in his
entire upper body, from his hips to his head, he felt himself straining to arch his back. Without
looking he was aware that the girl’s trinket, the small golden heart, was sliding in little fits and
starts down the black expanse of his shirt, and knew that the girl’s spread fingers were working
insistently into the secret of his hard chest.

Slowly she dislodged his hand and arm and momentarily disappeared from the darkness in which
he lay. He waited; on the chaise longue he felt like a man fallen to the narrow ledge; never had he
known what he now recognized as the beginning of the state of ecstasy. Then with relief, with
anxiety, he realized that the girl was kneeling at the foot of the chaise longue and was

gripping his ankles in her two hands and pulling apart his legs so that he had no recourse but to comply, to
bend his spread legs at the knees and to allow both feet to drop to the floor on either side of the
flat narrow bedlike portion of the chaise longue. The position, that of lying backward with legs wide
apart and feet on the floor, like a survivor upside down on his back and awkwardly straddling in reverse
some enormous wet black beam of a ship, exposed him suddenly, unmistakably, to the total mercy of the
nameless young half-naked girl who was herself now straddling the flat narrow portion of the chaise longue
where his outstretched legs had lain.

For a moment he looked down the partial length of himself and into the eyes of the girl. He
confronted the steady eyes, the hanging hair, the naked breasts, the tight fat triangular area where
the strain on the girl’s spread thighs was causing the zipper to creep increasingly open of its own
accord. Then, as she moved closer and leaned forward and reached for him with her two hands, the
small golden heart swinging free of her naked chest like a plumb line, then his entire person
underwent a moment of brief spasmodic revulsion which, in the next instant, collapsed and gave way
to a wave of trust and desire. Even before he closed his eyes he felt the girl’s fingers flicking
loose the tongue of his leather belt and unzipping and pulling wide the mouth of his trousers.

His eyes were shut, he gripped the edges of the chaise longue; his breath was short and
helpless in his mouth. The girl’s fingers were inside the now invaded clothing of his loins which
were flat, rigid, tumultuous in both concealment and accessibility. In his darkness he could feel
the belt no longer buckled, the shirt pulled free from the trousers, the sensation of unexpected
air. He could not have felt more naked if she had removed altogether the black trousers and the
severe and modest underpants. But he was clothed and unclothed at the same time, and the girl’s
fingers — seemed to be multiplying inside his clothing and
next to his skin. Somehow he was aware of the fingers all together and individually, detecting now
the careful circumvention of the tight seam, now a smooth endless tickling or caressing sensation in
the most vulnerable portion of his anatomy, now a rushing of all her fingers together inside the
private tangle of his groin. In the midst of this pleasure, suddenly he became aware of the girl
pushing one of her fingers into his rectum, and he gasped in a silent cry of joy and humiliation.
How could he have been so ignorant of this experience? How could the girl have the knowledge and
daring to do what she’s doing?

But then, as he knew by the sudden pressure and profusion of hair, then the girl’s face was
buried in his disheveled groin. It was as if her head had become suddenly the head of a young
lioness nuzzling at the wound it had made in the side of a tawny and still-warm fallen animal. Her
face, her head, her mouth, her tongue, and suddenly he was confronted with his own unmistakable
flesh — flaccid, engorged, he could not tell — aroused and moving in the depths of his clothes, in
the mouth of his trousers, in the mouth of the girl. Bright blood, golden hair, and now the girl’s
head swerved once in a large circle of violence, tenderness, and then abruptly stopped, became fixed
and rigid so that all her determination was now concentrated in the now fierce sucking activity of
the hot mouth. The rectal pressure was increasing, the sound of breathing ceased, in the midst of
his shock and pleasure he was now refusing what he

knew was inevitable inside himself, fighting the
greedy mouth as the child fights his bladder in the night. But then it began, in darkness and in the midst
of what sounded like distant shouting, that long uncoiling of the thick white thread from the bloody
pump, that immense and fading constriction of white light inside the flesh. Whom could he thank? How
could he admit what had happened? He wanted to breathe,
his head had fallen to one side, for a moment he did not even know whether he, like the poor child, had
soaked his clothes in the futility and brightness of that emission that was now, finally, at an end.

He could not move. His eyes were closed. But then — after how long? and how soon before the
mother would turn the corner and approach the silent building that housed this room? — then he felt
the girl stirring and lifting her head from his lap. But she continued to move, not climbing
indifferently to her feet, as he expected, but moving forward, keeping her body close to his own,
until suddenly he felt her two hands pressed gently to the sides of his head, turning it,
straightening it, and felt her mouth pressed against his own in a kind of protracted youthful kiss
he could not have expected and had never known. Then as she continued kissing him with lips, tongue,
jaw, slowly into his exhaustion, his joy, his mortification, there came the realization that now the
girl was returning him the gift, the taste, of his own seminal secretions, his own psychic slime.

When he finally reached the doorway, adjusting his clothes, attempting to stand at ease, he
could think of nothing except that the discoloration between the girl’s buttocks had reminded him
shockingly of a blown rose, and that the girl had in fact removed his spectacles and hidden them
safely in the right-hand pocket of his black coat, where now he found them.

In the doorway and clothed again in pants and shirt, the girl spoke to him at last:

“I’ve done it before with an older man,” she said, as his age and station came thundering
down upon him once again. “But this is just the beginning. I promise you, just the beginning.”

In the dark street there was no sign of the returning woman, the deceived mother, as rapidly
and with set face he turned his back on the scene of his awakening, his degrading, at the hand of a
dissolute child, and walked away into the night. The streets were empty yet everywhere he heard the
sound of clattering sandals.

Portions of the introduction also appeared in Humors of Blood & Skin: A John Hawkes Reader.

©1997 John Hawkes