The years before 1805, when I was first delivered to my mother's breast, constituted an age of inventions of great beauty and great terror — and I was very soon aware of all of this without knowing exactly what the beauty or the terror were. What I understood was drawn solely from what we call the symbolic aggregate: that is, the confluence of the secrets, the disturbing flavor of my mother's milk, my own breathing, the truly horrible and unrelenting lowing of the condemned cattle which, particularly on winter afternoons, at that hour when the servants have once more failed to light the lanterns, distressed me beyond belief.
But hundreds of words have been spent and it is surely time to enter that chateau, rolling quietly on our two wheels between two tall blue doors where, having turned sharply right, we shall be catapulted along the entire length of the long high gallery, traveling so fast that we will be shrieking and will have just sufficient time to notice, on the left, the conceited architect and his slender fair-haired assistant. On the right — look quickly — are six high windows, each presenting the unsettling turmoil of the courtyard, and the gates, outside which the peasants and their beasts are constantly dropping straw and fecal matter.
You might also observe, between each window, a portrait of a Garmont or a Barfleur or a Clarel, a line which stretches so far back in time that should my father, in the darkest days of the Revolution, have attempted to burn all the letters and documents that would have linked him irrevocably to these noble privileges and perils, he would have seen his papers rise from the courtyard bonfire still alive, four hundred years of history become like burning crows, lifted by wings of flame, a plague of them, rising into a cold turquoise sky I was not born to see.
But today is bright and sunny. The long gallery is a racetrack, paved with marble, and we swish toward that low dark door, the little oratory where Maman often spends her mornings praying.
But my mother is not praying, so we must carry our machine to visit her. That anyone would choose oak for such a device beggars belief, but my uncle was clearly an artist of a type. Now on these endless stairs I feel the slow drag of my breath like a rat-tail file inside my throat. This is no fun, sir, but do not be alarmed. I might be a slight boy with sloping shoulders and fine arms, but my blood is cold and strong, and I will swim a river and shoot a bird and carry the celerifere to the second floor where I will present to you the cloaked blindfolded figure on the chaise, my mother, the Comtesse de Garmont.
Poor Maman. See how she suffers, her face gaunt, glowing in the gloom. In her youth she was never ill. In Paris she was a beauty, but Paris has been taken from her. She has her own grand house on the rue Saint-Dominique, but my father is a cautious man and we are in exile in the country. My mother is in mourning for Paris, although sometimes you might imagine her a penitent. Has she sinned? Who would tell me if she had? Her clothes are both somber and loose-fitting as is appropriate for a religious woman. Her life is a kind of holy suffering existing on a plane above her disappointing child.
I also am sick, but it is in no sense the same. I am, as I often declare myself, a wretched beast.
Behold, the dreadful little creature — his head under a towel, engulfed in steam, and the good Bebe, who was as often my nurse as my tutor and confessor, sitting patiently at my side, his big hand on my narrow back while I gasped for life so long and hard that I would — still in the throes of crisis — fall asleep and wake with my nose scalded in the basin, my lungs like fish in a pail, grasping what they could.
After how many choking nights was I still awake to witness the pale light of dawn lifting the dew-wet poplar leaves from the inky waters of the night, to hear the cawing of the crows, the antic gargoyle torments of country life?
I knew I would be cured in Paris. In Paris I would be happy.
It was the Abbe de La Londe's contrary opinion that Paris was a pit of vile miasmas and that the country air was good for me. He should have had me at my Catullus and my Cicero but instead he would drag me, muskets at the ready, into what we called the Bottom Hundred where we would occupy ourselves shooting doves and thrush, and Bébé would play beater and groundsman and priest. "You're a splendid little marksman," Bebe would say, jogging to collect our plunder. "Quam sagaciter puer telum conicit!" I translated. He never learned I was shortsighted. I so wished to please him I shot things I could not see.
My mother would wish me to address him as vous and l'Abbe, but such was his character that he would be Bebe until the day he died.
I was a strange small creature for him to love. He was a strong and handsome man, with snow-white hair and shrewd eyes easily moved to sympathy. He had raised my father and now I trusted myself entire to him, his big liver-spotted hands, his patient manner, the smell of Virginian tobacco which stained the shoulder of his cassock, and filled me with the atoms of America twenty years before I breathed its air. "Come young man," he would say. "Come, it's a beautiful day — Decorus est dies." And the hail would be likely flailing your back raw and he would marvel, not at the cruel pummeling, but at the miracle of ice. Or if not the ice, then the wind — blowing so violently it seemed the North Sea itself was pushing up the Seine and would wash away the wall that separated the river from the bain.
The meek would not swim, but Bebe made sure I was not meek. He would be splashing in the deep end of the bain, naked as a broken statue — "Come on Great Olivier."
If I became — against all that God intended for me — a powerful swimmer, it was not because of the damaging teachings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but because of this good priest and my desire to please him. I would do anything for him, even drown myself. It was because of him that I was continually drawn away from the awful atmosphere of my childhood home, and if I spent too many nights in the company of doctors and leeches, I knew, in spite of myself, the sensual pleasures of the seasons, the good red dirt drying out my tender hands.
Excerpted from Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey. Copyright 2010 by Peter Carey. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.