Commentary by Karen Bernardo
Colette rarely tells a story in a linear fashion, and this one is no exception. The story is about a little girl named Bel-Gazou who picks up a hollow nut—one which has been eaten out from the inside by a worm—and puts it in her pocket along with a myriad of other interesting objects.
But initially we don’t even know that our protagonist is a child, for Colette begins by cataloguing the contents of Bel-Gazou’s left-hand pocket: “three shells like flower petals...; two limpets...; something that looks like a lumpy, cartilaginous potato, inanimate but concealing a mysterious force that squirts, when it is squeezed, a crystal jet of salt water; a broken knife, a stump of pencil, a ring of blue beads, and a book of transfers soaked by the sea; a small pink handkerchief, very dirty....” Bel-Gazou gradually divests her pocket of half of these things by simply tossing them away, and keeps the ones she finds useful.
Colette then goes on to her right-hand pocket, which holds a lump of coral and the hollow nut. Even though these things aren’t useful, however, she doesn’t discard them. In fact, she presses the nut to her ear and listens. As she does so, we digress to learn a lot about Bel-Gazou and her family. We learn, for instance, that Bel-Gazou finds a dilapidated old beachhouse much more interesting than the beach itself, something her exasperated parents simply cannot understand; we learn also that Bel-Gazou is a very sensitive, insightful, and unusual child. This prepares us somewhat—although not entirely—for Bel-Gazou’s sudden outburst in reference to the hollow nut pressed against her ear: “I can see it! I can see the song! It’s as thin as a hair, as thin as a blade of grass!”
This, of course, makes no sense to the adults present. Hollow nuts don’t sing, and you can’t see sound anyway. But Colette closes this short piece by observing that in next year’s trip to the beach, and in the ones taken in ensuing years, Bel-Gazou won’t “see” the nut singing either. “She will find again her dilapidated hut, and her citified feet will once more acquire their natural horny soles, slowly toughened on the flints and ridges of the rough ground. But she may well fail to find again her childish subtlety and the keenness of her senses that can taste a scent, feel a color, and see -- ‘thin as a hair, thin as a blade of grass’ -- the cadence of an imaginary song.”
This story can be found in The Collected Stories of Colette, available from Amazon here.
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