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La Chose dans la Vallée de la Mort
The Thing in Death Valley
We had left Las Vegas and the Golden Nugget around 2 a.m. after half a night of frantic gambling: I had won a ten- dollar silver coin at my fourth attempt on a slot machine and I thought that it was time for me to stop. After that, I had danced from one foot to the other in front of a black-jack or a roulette table not daring to take a chance with the least of my remaining one hundred dollars. The three others had encountered various fortunes, that is they had lost more or less money. Around one in the morning, a kind of a tacit agreement appeared when we had found ourselves wandering under the gigantic light-up cow boy who was dancing above the casino main entrance. Another hour of hesitation and, to conclude this night of madness, we had decided to go back to the Chevrolet waiting in the parking lot.
It was my turn to drive. For one hour or two, we went North-West, towards Death Valley. Under the white light of the hi-beams, the concrete of US 95 had the same pale color of the desert. Fascinated by the white painted line in the middle of the pavement, cradled by the engine purring, I was thinking of our nightly trips back from Sologne to Paris on this typical tree-lined French road. I was thinking of the rhythmic noise of the wipers, the smell of my father’s cigars, the quarrels of the critics of the Masque et la Plume show coming out of the radio, the sweet tiredness of a day of hiking, the beatitude which follows an after hunting meal … Suddenly, the steady tudum-tudum of the tires passing over the joints of the pavement was replaced by the anarchical racket of stones bumping against the floor of the car and clouds of dust entering into it through the four open windows. One of the good things in this part of the United Sates is that, when driving out of the road, what we just had done, you keep many chances to live through it without damage, provided you do not meet a ditch, a telegraphic pole or any other desert resident, which we did not do. After the relieving observation that the car was intact, everybody was too sleepy to even think to tell me off or to take my place behind the wheel. With a minimum amount of words, it was decided to leave the car where it was, in the sand, and to go to sleep besides it.
We are laying on top of our sleeping bags, in the open. Excited by the incident, I can’t sleep. More a sense of romance than for safety, I have loaded the sawn barrel Special Police Positive Colt P38 I bought for thirty dollars just a few days ago at a Flagstaff gun shop and I have placed it besides me. I am thinking of James Stewart in Winchester 73. Laying on my back, I look at the million stars and I feel all the parts of my body leaning on the ground with an enormous weight. I even have the impression of feeling the earth’s rotation. I think of Saint-Exupery, lost in his desert. I think of sleeping. I sleep.
The waking is difficult, furry. It is cold and I feel like I have eaten a good part of the desert. A grey daylight bathes the scenery we settled last night: the Chevrolet is well set down on the sand with its rear trunk wide open; through of one of the open doors, Michel’s feet appear; he must have taken refuge on the rear bench seat during the night; Jean-Louis and Patrick are still sleeping, laying besides me by the car. Little by little, I realize that the first cup of coffee is yet far away, that we will have to pull the car out of the sand and, as soon as the first difficulties arise, that rebukes will start to fall on me like rain. I don’t feel like facing that right now and I decide to go back to sleep, leaving the signal to wake up to someone else.
It is when turning over to my left side that I feel something alive in a fold of my sleeping bag. An image immediately rises to my head and takes the entire possession of my mind, the image of a desert snake, likely a mean pit viper kind, come to find a warm sleep in my bosom. Due to my turning over, the Thing is now against my back. My eyes open wide, I am facing a deeply sleeping Patrick. I do not dare to risk my hand to explore the area behind me. The Thing is slowly moving against my lower back. I am paralyzed with fear. Stupidly, the name of snake phobia comes back to my mind : ophidiophobia. Centimeter after centimeter, I manage to push my hand towards the gun, while asking myself what can you do with a P38 when a snake is stuck against your back. I cannot stand staying frozen any longer and, practically besides myself, I leap on my feet shouting « motherf….creature ! » While doing that, I trample on Patrick’s ankles. He is far too surprised to see me shouting and waving a gun in the middle of nowhere at daybreak to protest against such an awakening. But the Thing has woken too. It clears itself out of the sleeping bag and starts running. Yes, running, for it is a little tiger-striped cat, very cute and now very frightened. The Thing zigzags between the stones, stops from time to time to gaze at me, as if it could not believe in so much nastiness. I keep watching it until it disappears in a kind of a shack standing by the road that we had not seen last night in the dark.
Fifty years later, I still remember very well that it was not easy for me, without losing face, to explain to my pals who had a natural tendency to sarcasm and whom I had woken up with a start, that I had the terror of my life because of a cute little Nevada tiger-striped cat which I was on the verge to slaughter with a sawed-off Colt.
ET DEMAIN, MARS ATTAQUE !