f i c t i o n 

g a é t a n  s o u c y 

We had to take the universe in hand, my brother and I, for one morning just before dawn papa gave up the ghost without a by-your-leave. His mortal remains strained from an anguish of which only the bark remained, his decrees so suddenly turned to dust — everything was lying in state in the bedroom upstairs from which just the day before papa had controlled everything. We needed orders, my brother and I, so as not to crumble into little pieces, they were our mortar. Without papa we didn’t know how to do anything. On our own we could scarcely hesitate, exist, fear, suffer.

Actually, lying in state isn’t the proper term, if such a thing exists. My brother was the first one up and it was he who certified the event for, as the secretarious that day, I was entitled to take my time getting out of my grassy bed after a night beneath the stars, and no sooner had I taken my seat at the table in front of the book of spells than down the stairs came kid brother. It had been agreed that we were to knock before entering father’s bedroom and that, after knocking, we were to wait till father authorized us to enter, as we were forbidden to surprise him during his exercises.

“I knocked on the door,” said brother, “and father didn’t answer. I waited until ... until. . . .” From his fob pocket brother took a watch that had lost its hands in days of yore. “. . . until right away, that’s it, until exactly right away, and there was still no sign of him.”

He kept staring at his blank-faced watch as if he didn’t dare look at anything else and I could see fear, fear and astonishment, rising in his face like water in a wineskin. As for me, I had just inscribed the date at the top of the page, the ink was still wet, and I said:

“That’s very troubling. But let’s consult the scroll and then we’ll see.”

We scrutinized the twelve articles of the good housekeeping code of behaviour, it’s a very pretty document that goes back centuries or more and it has big initial letters and illuminations if I only knew what that means, but of articles that suggested a relationship, even a remote one, with our situation saw I none. I returned the scroll to its dusty box and the box to its cupboard and I said to my brother:

“Go inside! Open the door and go inside! It’s possible that father is defunct. But it’s also possible that it’s only a stoppit.”

A long silence. We could hear nothing but the creaking of wood in the walls, because in the kitchen of our earthly abode the wood in the walls is always creaking. Brother shrugged his shoulders and shook his big head.

“What does it all mean? I don’t understand it at all.” Then he wagged his finger at me ominously: “You listen carefully now. I’ll go up but I warn you, if papa is defunct . . . do you understand? If papa is defunct . . .” He went no further. He turned his face away like a dog when it gives up.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “We’ll face the music, you know.”

And brother took the plunge. And that was how he learned that papa’s door wasn’t locked. We knew of course that it wasn’t, wasn’t locked that is, when we went inside. But if father were on his feet before us, assuming that a being like him slept through the night, he should, we thought, unlock the door when we woke up, for our convenience. Nonetheless, it was revealed to my brother that morning that Father must have slept like that because he was naked, his tongue was sticking out and, moreover, he hadn’t locked his door. For it was hard to see why, if he hadn’t slept through the night and had been faithful to his habits, he should have taken the trouble of stripping bare to expire. Which meant that he must have slept, and slept naked, and that he must have died in those trappings with no solution of continuity, or so I reasoned.

Brother came up to me, pale as bone. “He’s all white,” he said. “White,” I replied. “What do you mean? What kind of white! Snow white?” Because with papa you had to be ready for anything. Brother thought it over. “You know that pen on the other side of the vegetable garden, not the kennel on the right, the one behind the woodshed. You see what I mean?” “Yes,” I said, “on the other side of the chapel, is that what you’re getting at?” “If you sprint down the gentle slope behind it, you come to the dried-up stream.” All that was quite correct. “And can you picture the stones that are piled up there!” I pictured them. “Well, father is white like them. Exactly that white.” “Meaning he’s somewhat blue, then,” I said, “bluish white.” “Yes, that’s what he is, bluish white.” I inquired about his moustache, what it looked like. My brother gave me a look like an animal that’s being beaten and doesn’t understand why. “Did papa wear a moustache?” “Yes,” I said, “the moustache he asked us to brush once a week.” “Father never asked me to brush any moustache.” Ah la la. My brother is an abysmal hypocrite, I don’t know if I thought to write that down. He sat at the table, haggard, his knees quaking, as if he were about to faint away for a trip to paradise.

“But is he breathing” I inquired.

Papa had a way of breathing that left no room for doubt. Even when he had a stoppit and was no more animated than a coat-hook, even when his gaze appeared to be frozen forever, you had only to look at his chest — which started out flat, then swelled up like our only toy the frog, achieved a volume you might have thought to be the belly of a dead horse, then took jerky little pauses as it deflated — to know that papa was still of this world, despite the stoppit.

In response to my question, brother shook his head. “Then he’s dead,” I said. And repeated myself, something I don’t often do: “Then he’s dead.” What was strange was that when I uttered those words, nothing happened. The state of the universe was no worse than usual. Sleeping the same old sleep, everything continued to wear down as if nothing were amiss.

I went over to the window. A thoroughly singular way of starting the day on the wrong foot. This one looked as if it would be rainy, that was our daily bread around here, unless it snowed. Beneath the lowering sky the fields stretched out, mean and poorly maintained. I can still hear myself saying:

“We have to do something. Actually I think we’ll have to bury him.”

My brother, whose elbows were on the table, dissolved into sobs with a roisterous sound, like when you burst out laughing with your mouth full. I pounded the table, outraged. Abruptly, brother stopped, as if he’d surprised himself. He sat there with his lips pursed, sucking air and blinking, and his face was as red as the time he bit into one of papa’s hot peppers.

He came and stood next to me with his face pressed against the windowpane, an old habit of his, indeed that’s why the window was so dirty about six feet from the floor. His breath left mist on the window, as will anyone’s who hasn’t expired. “If we’re going to bury him,” he said, “we may as well do it right away, before it rains. It wouldn’t be fitting to inter papa in the mud.” From the back of the meadow, horse was coming towards us, his belly low, his nose bobbing gently.

“But we have to make him a shroud beforehand, we can’t bury papa like that!” And I said over and over, whispering plaintively and striking my forehead slowly against the window frame: “A shroud, a shroud . . .”

Then I went to the door. My brother asked where I was going.

“To the woodshed.”

He didn’t understand. Look for a shroud in the woodshed?

“I want to see how we’re fixed for planks. You,” I added, “go and write down what’s just happened.”

Immediately, the moans and groans of a spoiled brat.

“You’re supposed to be the secretarious today!”

“I couldn’t come up with the words.”

“Words, words! What words!”

Now look, I’d be ready to set fire to the curtains if words ever failed me, but I was pretending not to care in order to force brother to assume, even slightly, the role of scribbler. But brother is a hypocrite or I don’t know anything. To cut short the discussion I grabbed the nail jar with mulish determination, my teeth clenched and my brow furrowed, which must surely have reminded him of father, and that made an impression, I believe.

I trotted down the front steps, careful not to set my heels on the rottenest ones, and headed for the woodshed, as promised. The earth was damp, with a smell of mud and roots that stayed in the head the way bad dreams do when I have them. Vapour came out of my mouth, just like that, as if it had nothing to do with me. The countryside was endless and grey and the pine grove that blocked the horizon was the colour of the boiled spinach that was father’s usual breakfast. The village was on the other side, apparently, as were the seven seas and the wonders of the world.

I stopped just next to horse. He too was motionless, watching me. He was so old, so tired, that his round eyes weren’t even the same brown colour any more. I don’t know whether, elsewhere on earth, there are horses with eyes as blue as those of the valiant knights whose pictures adorn my favourite dictionaries but, well, we’re not put here on this earth to get answers, or so it seems. I went closer and put a whack on his nose in memory of father. The animal recoiled, then lowered his huge face. Again I went closer, I patted his rump, I’m not vindictive. Besides, papa and all that, it wasn’t his fault, after all. Perhaps I wrote the word animal somewhat rashly, too.

The rust-coloured gum on the woodshed floor was a result of the sawdust and the rain that wells up from the ground and will never end. I hated stepping in it with my boots; it felt as if the earth were clinging to me, sucking me down towards its belly, which is actually a mouth like that of an octopus, and it sucks you in too, like music. It had been a short while, let’s say a few days, since I’d been here. A crust of droppings covered the reaper, scrap iron littered the ground all entangled, the plough no longer knew what the hind end of an ox looked like. As for the Fair Punishment, it was in its corner, gathered into its little heap. It hadn’t changed much in recent years, and we moved it around very cautiously, trembling when we took it out of its box. It was as if it had attained its maximum degree of distraughtness, and what was left of it wouldn’t dilapidate any more, word of honour, it wouldn’t move from here for all eternity. Sometimes I would hold it in my arms for days at a time before I put it away. It’s quite something, the Fair Punishment, it will surprise the world one day. Inside there was also the glass box, which I’ll talk about again in the proper place at the proper time, we can’t avoid it. I said here because it’s the woodshed, also known as the vault, where I’ve hidden away to flee the disaster and to write my last will and testament, which you are reading now. I’ll be found when I’m found. Unless I run away somewhere else.

Some warped planks were leaning against the back wall, itself made of wood that expected nothing more from anyone. The rest of the enclosure was made of stones oozing moisture. None of the planks seemed usable to me. Don’t expect me to make a grave box for papa out of that! Sitting on a flitch I at least made a sort of cross that might do the trick, even if the two planks didn’t really rhyme, they were crossed like eyes. I stopped for a few moments to meditate on what we would inscribe on the cross, or whether it would be better to forget about that. What exactly is a flitch?

In spite of my recent bereftment I allowed myself a smile of complicity with myself as I glanced at the picture of the valiant knight who was my favourite, which I’d placed on one of the corners of the plough so I could come here and admire it in silence and in private those times when my brother left me alone and was somewhere on the estate playing with himself. The picture, which I’d torn out of a dictionary, made me think about my favourite story, and since it was my favourite picture I’d put them both together in the secrecy of my imagination. The story must have taken place in the real world somewhere, sometime, you see. In it there was a princess in a tower, prisoner of what you call a mad monk, and there was the handsome knight who came and saved her and carried her off on a steed whose wings were made of glowing coals, if I understood correctly. I could read that story without ever tiring of it, often I projected it inside my bonnet, with so much emotion that I wasn’t sure whether I myself was the knight or the princess or the shadow of the tower, or just part of the background for their love, like the grass at the foot of the castle keep, or the smell of wild roses, or the dew-speckled coverlet in which the knight wrapped the transfixed body of his beloved, that’s what you call that person. Sometimes, even as I was reading other dictionaries to improve myself, I would realize that instead of reading the ethics of spinoza which I had in hand, I was rereading from the dictionary of my head this story about the princess rescued by her knight which is my very favourite. I’d even gone so far as to try reading it to my brother at night before we fell asleep, but he, as you can imagine, would soon snore like a pig. Everything about my brother disappoints, always, with him dreams are impossible.

And I brought it all back with me, I mean the two planks and also a spade, back to the kitchen of our earthly abode.

Brother hadn’t stirred from his chair, he was part of the landscape as they say. He was staring straight ahead, idiotically is the word for it, at the apple core that for three weeks had been hanging on a thread tied to the beam up above, that we’d made a game of eating with our hands crossed behind our backs, it’s a sport at which I shine. Every so often brother would blow abstractedly on what was left of the mummified fruit, as dry as a grasshopper carcass, to make it swing. He hadn’t scribbled what one might call a single line in the book of spells. You can’t leave him on his own.

“There are no respectable planks,” I said. “I’ll have to fetch a coffin from the village, but in any case here’s a cross.”

Horse had followed me and he was watching us through the window. Just like him.

“Are there any cents left?”

I don’t know what it was about my words but they weren’t entering my brother’s head. Village, coffin, cents — those uncommon words turned his understanding inside out. He would start to make some movement, abort it, begin to get to his feet, then sit down again. He reminded me of our former dog when papa had made him eat mothballs with his daily bread, I mean during the first hour afterwards .

God knows why the thought came to me then that, if father could have foreseen such a thing, he would have liked to take some familiar objects with him beneath the earth. Beginning with brother and me, I mused, but that prospect struck me as excessive and distressing. Our turn would come, of course, our turn to expire, and maybe it would be on the same day or close to it, whenever it is extremely uncted if you can say such a thing. For papa’s turn, which seemed to have always existed on the horizon, somewhere we had never figured out, represented a kind of command, an appeal issued, if I dare put it this way, from the womb of the earth, just as heretofore all his orders had issued from the bedroom upstairs. I’m telling it the way it seems to me. But that could wait, I mean our turn, for a few days at least, and maybe for weeks or even centuries, for while we knew from a reliable source, through my father, that we were mortal to the core and that nothing here below would endure, papa had never specified how long it would take for our mortal existence to end and for us, for my brother and me, to pass as corpses from the state of apprentice to that of companion.

I opened the cupboard and checked the contents of the purse, emptying it onto the table. There were a dozen identical coins made of some dull metal and they rolled this way and that. I flattened one with my palm. They rolled isn’t exactly correct because in fact it rolled — the dozen, that is — like one man, but too bad, I learned my syntax from the duc de saint-simon, not counting my father. There’s still something wrong. I’m always confusing my singulars and my plurals, a real salmonagundi. A cat couldn’t find his tail in it.

“Do you think there’s enough for us to buy papa a pine suit?”

The pine suit was a joke from father, who didn’t churn them out by the myriad but used them in the stories he would sometimes relate to us about those who had died during the days of his youth when he was a fine-looking lad. My brother didn’t know any better than I did whether we had enough cents, because father never took us with him when he went to the village with horse to buy provisions. He always came back fished off. We didn’t like that, he’d distribute whacks.

“He should have taught us the value of money,” said my brother.

“These are cents,” I retorted. “Our cents must have the same value as those of the villagers.”

I neglected to mention it, but of the two of us I’m the more intelligent. My arguments strike like cudgel blows. If my brother were writing these lines, the poverty of thinking would leap to your face and no one would understand a word.

“But we may need a lot more. When papa left he always took along a pouch packed with cents. He had a lot and I think he used to go somewhere now and then to stock up.”

“Where is that pouch?” I asked.

But my brother kept repeating: “He should have taught us the value of money.” On those few occasions when he’s visited by an idea, it doesn’t leave his bonnet easily.

I forced him to lend me a hand and we searched the cupboard from head to toe. It contained nothing but rags, crucifixes, and papa’s priest clothes from when he was a fine-looking lad, along with the stories of saints from which papa had taught us to read, and which he required us to reread, to transcribe ever since childhood, every day or almost. They had pictures of people with soft beards who went around in sandals in sunlit deserts with vines and palm trees, amid scents of jasmine and sandalwood that almost wafted from the pages of the books. It was papa who had written them, in that microscopic script that today is mine, is ours. He had pasted in the illustrations himself, after he’d wet them with his long ox-tongue, I remember seeing him do it. Many of the stories that were given to us that way were only imperfectly intelligible, though, if that’s the right word. They were set in judea, which is in japan or in some unfathomable lands where we assumed father had lived before we were put upon the earth, here in this landscape. In fact we believed for a long time that the stories were his and that he wanted to bequeath them to us as a memory to protect us from disease. If you supposed only that, father would have been capable of doing miraculous things — causing water to gush from a rock, turning beggars into trees, making mice out of stones, and who knows what. But why would he have left those enchanted lands and withdrawn into the empty space of this barren, cloudy countryside that’s frozen for six months of the year and has neither olive trees nor sheep? With his sole source of entertainment, his only company, his two thin, daydreamy sons? No, in time that notion came to seem barely plausible. There was also the library, but that I’ll talk about later, with its dictionaries of chivalry and its poisons.

“I wonder if father would let us have used these coins,” said my brother all at once.

“Would have let us use them,” I corrected.

“Same difference. Maybe papa wouldn’t have liked it.”

“Papa is dead,” I said.

“Maybe we should bury them along with.”

I rested the spade against the stove and sat at the table, turning the coins over and over in my fingers and shaking my leg. I always shake my foot when I’m angry, it keeps me from using it on the backside of you know who.



First published in French as La Petite fille qui aimait trop les alumettes, by Les Éditions du Boréal. 
English translation ©2000 Sheila Fischman. 
Published by The House of Anansi Press Limited, 895 Don Mills Road, 400-2 Park Centre, Toronto M3C 1W3, 
from whose edition, with permission, this excerpt is taken.
With permission also from Arcade Publishing, New York, New York, 
and HarperCollins (U.K.), who will publish an edition in May 2002.



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