“My nanny is a miracle-worker.” That is what Myriam says when she describes Louise’s sudden entrance into their lives. She must have magical powers to have transformed this stifling, cramped apartment into a calm, light- filled place. Louise has pushed back the walls. She has made the cupboards deeper, the drawers wider. She has let the sun in.
On the first day, Myriam gives her a few instructions. She shows her how the appliances work. Pointing to an object or a piece of clothing, she repeats: “Be careful with that. I’m very attached to it.” She makes recommendations about Paul’s vinyl collection, which the children must not touch. Louise nods, silent and docile. She observes each room with the self-assurance of a general standing before a territory he is about to conquer.
In the weeks that follow her arrival, Louise turns this hasty sketch of an apartment into an ideal bourgeois interior. She imposes her old-fashioned manners, her taste for perfection. Myriam and Paul can’t get over it. She sews the buttons back on to jackets that they haven’t worn for months because they’ve been too lazy to look for a needle. She hems skirts and pairs of trousers. She mends Mila’s clothes, which Myriam was about to throw out without a qualm. Louise washes the curtains yellowed by tobacco and dust. Once a week, she changes the sheets. Paul and Myriam are overjoyed. Paul tells her with a smile that she is like Mary Poppins. He isn’t sure she understands the compliment.
At night, in the comfort of their clean sheets, the couple laughs, incredulous at their new life. They feel as if they have found a rare pearl, as if they’ve been blessed. Of course, Louise’s wages are a burden on the family budget, but Paul no longer complains about that. In a few weeks, Louise’s presence has become indispensable.
When Myriam gets back from work in the evenings, she finds dinner ready. The children are calm and clean, not a hair out of place. Louise arouses and fulfills the fantasies of an idyllic family life that Myriam guiltily nurses. She teaches Mila to tidy up behind herself and her parents watch dumbstruck as the little girl hangs her coat on the peg.
Useless objects have disappeared. With Louise, nothing accumulates anymore: no dirty dishes, no dirty laundry, no unopened envelopes found later under an old magazine. Nothing rots, nothing expires. Louise never neglects anything. Louise is scrupulous. She writes everything down in a little flower-covered notebook. The times of the dance class, school outings, doctor’s appointments. She copies the names of the medicines the children take, the price of the ice creams she bought for them at the fairground, and the exact words that Mila’s schoolteacher said to her.
After a few weeks, she no longer hesitates to move objects around. She empties the cupboards completely, hangs little bags of lavender between the coats. She makes bouquets of flowers. She feels a serene contentment when—with Adam asleep and Mila at school— she can sit down and contemplate her task. The silent apartment is completely under her power, like an enemy begging for forgiveness.
But it’s in the kitchen that she accomplishes the most extraordinary wonders. Myriam has admitted to her that she doesn’t know how to cook anything and doesn’t really want to learn. The nanny prepares meals that Paul goes into raptures about and the children devour, without a word and without anyone having to order them to finish their plate. Myriam and Paul start inviting friends again, and they are fed on blanquette de veau
, ham hock with sage and delicious vegetables, all lovingly cooked by Louise. They congratulate Myriam, shower her with compliments, but she always admits: “My nanny did it all.”
When Mila is at school, Louise attaches Adam to her in a large wrap. She likes to feel the child’s chubby thighs against her belly, his saliva that runs down her neck when he falls asleep. She sings all day for this baby, praising him for his laziness. She massages him, taking pride in his folds of flesh, his round pink cheeks. In the mornings, the child welcomes her with gurgles, his plump arms reaching out for her. In the weeks that follow Louise’s arrival, Adam learns to walk. And this boy who used to cry every night sleeps peacefully until morning.
Mila is wilder. She is a small, fragile girl with the posture of a ballerina. Louise ties her hair in buns so tight that the girl’s eyes look slanted, pulled toward her temples. Like that, she resembles one of those medieval heroines with a broad forehead, a cold and noble expression. Mila is a difficult, exhausting child. Any time she becomes irritated, she screams. She throws herself to the ground in the middle of the street, stamps her feet, lets herself be dragged along to humiliate Louise. When the nanny crouches down and tries to speak to her, Mila turns away.
She counts out loud the butterflies on the wallpaper. She watches herself in the mirror when she cries. This child is obsessed by her own reflection. In the street, her eyes are riveted to shop windows. On several occasions she has bumped into lampposts or tripped over small obstacles on the sidewalk, distracted by the contemplation of her own image.
Mila is cunning. She knows that crowds stare, and that Louise feels ashamed in the street. The nanny gives in more quickly when they are in public. Louise has to take detours to avoid the toyshop on the avenue, where the little girl stands in front of the window and screams. On the way to school, Mila drags her feet. She steals a raspberry from a greengrocer’s stall. She climbs on to windowsills, hides in porches, and runs away as fast as her legs will carry her. Louise tries to go after her while pushing the stroller, yelling the girl’s name, but Mila doesn’t stop until she comes to the very end of the sidewalk. Sometimes Mila regrets her bad behavior. She worries about Louise’s paleness and the frights she gives her. She becomes loving again, cuddly. She makes it up to the nanny, clinging to her legs. She cries and wants to be mothered.
Slowly, Louise tames the child. Day after day, she tells her stories, where the same characters always recur. Orphans, lost little girls, princesses kept as prisoners, and castles abandoned by terrible ogres. Strange beasts—birds with twisted beaks, one-legged bears and melancholic unicorns—populate Louise’s landscapes. The little girl falls silent. She stays close to the nanny, attentive, impatient. She asks for certain characters to come back. Where do these stories come from? They emanate from Louise, in a continual flood, without her even thinking about it, without her making the slightest effort of memory or imagination. But in what black lake, in what deep forest has she found these cruel tales where the heroes die at the end, after first saving the world?
Copyright © 2018 by Leila Slimani. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.