Authors: Nancy Huston
“Where will you find wisdom, Kerrigan, if not in the words of dead men?”
“In the arms of living women?”
William Yeats bursts out laughing.
“Ah, you're a lad after my own heart! Here . . . Allow me to give you one of my books.”
He picks up a copy of
The Wind Among the Reeds
and writes in it.
For Neil Kerrigan. May he not follow in the faltering footsteps of this aging bard, but blaze his own young virile path with words, carving momentary meaning out of the rich dark nothing that surrounds us all. W. B. Yeats, 16 September 1917.
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Awinita, June 1951
. . . A vague gurgle of babbling, squabbling girls . . . The camera explores the home Awinita shares with a dozen other prostitutes in their late teens and early twenties, some native, some notâa run-down ground-floor apartment somewhere on the Plateau Mont-Royal. Burlap curtains on the windows are permanently drawn to discourage neighborly curiosity.
Arriving in the kitchen, the camera discovers Liz, a buxom, fortyish brunette dressed in a yellow pantsuit, sitting smoking at the table. She runs the place, and all the girls who work for her know that Friday is accounts day. Before her are a ledger and a cashbox; coffee percolates on the stove nearby. In various states of dress and undress, the girls file in one by one, sit down across from her and hand her their weekly earnings. Licking a finger, Liz carefully counts the bills into her cashbox, inscribes the amount in the ledger, deducts what the girls owe her for rent, clothing and drugs, and hands them back the difference.
Awinita wanders woozily into the kitchen dressed in a cheap black satin kimono, her pregnant tummy now at full ripeness. The world wobbles and blurs before her eyes. The envelope she hands Liz seems almost weightless. The procuress peers into it and frowns.
“What's this supposed to be? I hope this isn't supposed to be your rent money, Nita . . . You already owe me . . . ah . . . seventy-four bucks in back rent, to say nothing of the advances I've made you . . . Ten for clothing . . . twenty for medication . . . that brings us to a grand total of one hundred and four. I've told you before, Nita, this isn't a charity operation.”
“De guys,” Nita says in a low voice, “. . . dey scared to go up with me. Dey scared sometin' could happen while dey up dere.”
“When are you due?”
“Okay . . . And your plan is to give up the baby?”
“At once?” “Yeah.” “So you think you could be back at work when?”
“Like a week or two.”
“Okay, listen. You know, I don't mean to be hard on you, Nita, but I've got my books to balance. One more week of credit is all I can give you. Either you catch up on your debts or you find someplace else to live.”
“All right. One more week's delay for the rent. Think you can do without your pills this week?”
“I need âem.”
“At least try to cut down, for your baby's sake. Let me give you half the usual amount, that way you won't be tempted.”
“Gimme the pills . . . I'll try and cut down myself.”
“Price of diazepam went up to twelve bucks last week.”
As Liz inscribes her new debt in the ledger, Awinita virtually wrenches the tube from her hand.
CUT to the bathroom, where she gulps down a pill and stands waiting for it to take effect.
We find her on her mattress in a corner, snoring softly, as Deena, Cheryl and Lorraine paint their fingernails and chatter up a storm.
CUT to a few hours later. The quality of the light has changed. The other girls have left. The bedroom floor is strewn with underwear, balled-up tissue papers, candy wrappers, twisted nylon stockings and half-spilled ashtrays . . . Alone on her mattress, Awinita has her first contraction. She calls out to her mother in Cree.
Subjective camera: we stare up at the roof of the ambulance beyond the mountainside of our stomach. In our peripheral vision, city lights flash by unevenly. Sound track: siren wail, muttered exchange between two male orderlies in the front seat and, occasionally, our own deep, wrenching groans.
CUT to the emergency room of a large Montreal hospital. We're giving birth. The world is rendered blurry and fantastic by our pain. Flustered nurses cluster around us. (All or nearly all of them would be nunsâright, Milo, in Montreal in 1951?) Their hands on and in our body are ungentle, and their words no less wounding for being prudishly spelled out.
“I've seen a dozen this past month, if I've seen one!”
“They've got no future, God bless âem. You almost feel like putting them out of their misery before it begins.”
“The ways of the Lord are unfathomable, Sister Anne.”
“She's giving it up for adoption?”
“Yes. Doesn't even want to see it.”
“How hypocritical can you get? Doesn't make what she did any less of a sin.”
“Maybe she was
“How would I know?”
Soft feminine gales of laughter. “God only knows!”
We close our eyes beneath the blindingly bright lights.
Tall trees crash headlong to the ground, crushing bushes and undergrowth. Forest animals bolt away with terror in their eyes. A fire starts, spreads and rises, leaping into the air to meet the sun. Then the sun vanishes and thunderclouds make war upon the fire, hurling their rain-bullets at its ecstatic, dangerously rearing body.
A gigantic grunt of relief issues from our guts and lungs and we hear, severally:
“Ah! Here it comes!” “Here it comes at last!” “It's a girl!” “It's a little girl!” “Don't you want to see your daughter, miss?”
The pink light on the screen moves slowly from left to right and back again: we're shaking our head no.
Soft, thin pink material, pink cloth, floats and sways in the air, curves and dances until it becomes a butterfly. Moving slowly and gracefully, the pink butterfly approaches the burning forest. Its wings evaporate in the scorching heat before the flames touch them. Its narrow dark body bakes to a crisp, freezes with the extreme heat, then crumbles into ash like a cone of incense.
The baby is gone. A male voice suddenly resonates above the women's: the obstetrician has arrived.
“You should have done an episiotomy, she's all torn up. What did she have?”
“Oh, yes, Doctor. Everything's A-OK.”
“All right. I'll go fill out the adoption forms, then.”
A swinging door goes
as he passes through it.
“A-OK, Doctor,” one of the nurses whispers sarcastically. “Apart from the fact that it's an Injun bastard, of course . . .”
The others huff with laughter.
“Shall I sew her up, or shall you?”
“You go ahead. I'll make you a cup of tea for the nausea afterward. Deal?”
“Deal . . . Maybe I should just sew it up completely so she'd stop corrupting our poor vulnerable men. Eh, Sister Anne? What do you think? Maybe we should just sew up the whole yawning mess?”
“Now, now, Sister Claire. Don't forget, sinning in word is as bad as sinning in deed.”
Back to the sweltering shadows of Awinita's mind.
Terrified kittens hunching in withdrawal, puffed-up with hostility, their saucer-eyes sizzling with resentment.
Finally the stitching is done and we sink gratefully into oblivion . . .
DOES THE GIRL
get a name, Milo? No, not in our film. There she is, barely born and we're gonna have to push her out of the story. Let's at least take a good look at her before she disappears.
Hey . . . you doing all right? We can stop talking for a while if you like. I could even come back tomorrow . . . Okay, no sweat. I'll stay. Must be weird, to say the least, to think you have a half sister walking around somewhere on the planet and you'll never know who she is, where she is or what kind of life she lived . . .
Hang in there, Astuto. This is no time to give up. The Good Lord will be coming by with your daily tritherapy a mere few hours from now.
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A place or house of worship:
terreiro de candomblé.
More generally, any location or site.
SUNDAY MORNING MASS
in the tiny village church we’ve seen before. Now ten, Milo is seated in the third row next to his best friend, a boy named Normand. Heftier and quite a bit older than Milo, Normand has clearly been kept back in school a number of times. (A motley crowd, your crowd of friends, Astuto. All your life long, nothing but misfits and artists and outcasts, fat girls and queers.)
Bored, the two boys are playing with fire and the name of that fire is laughter. They pass the Sunday service schedule back and forth, each trying to make the other snicker with his doodles in the margin. Normand’s drawing shows a plumply pregnant young woman being peed on by a boy, and bears the title
Hail Mary, what a disgrace
. Milo manages to choke down his amusement. Now it’s his turn; he bends his head and scribbles. A moment later he hands his friend a drawing of apples, pears and cherries tumbling from between a woman’s legs, captioned
Blessed be the fruit of thy womb
. Normand snorts, causing heads to swivel.
Jean-Joseph Dubé leans over from the pew behind them. In a matter of seconds, he has lifted the program from Normand’s
hand, looked at it, and passed it back to their teacher. Glancing at the paper in turn, Mrs. Morisette lets out a low cry of shock. As the congregation rises for the next hymn, she squeezes past everyone in her pew, strides up the aisle, grabs the two boys by the hair (though Normand is taller than she), and marches them back to the middle pews where the parents are seated.
Close-up on Milo’s face, shutting down.
CUT to the farmhouse kitchen: Marie-Thérèse screaming at him as she whips him on the back with Régis’s leather shaving strop:
“How dare you embarrass me like that in front of everybody! Stupid little pagan! Whore-son! Evil seed! I’ll scrub your soul clean if it’s the last thing I do on this earth!”
Beyond the windows in the backyard, using a saw as a guitar and an empty oil barrel as a drum, François-Joseph and Jean-Joseph are mock yodeling Roger Miron’s country-western hit at the tops of their lungs:
À qui le p’tit cœur après neuf heures?
Est-ce à moi, rien qu’à moi?
Quand je suis parti loin de toi, chérie
À qui le p’tit cœur après neuf heures?
CUT to the sky. A piercing sapphire-blue summer sky on a hot day. Crows flap across it, cawing blackly. Ominous, shimmering heat. The camera swoops down to a clump of poplar trees in a corner of the property, where Milo is sitting hunched on a tree stump.
We approach him gently from behind, then swing round to find his hands busy whittling.
A few seconds later, the statuette is completed. Though less than three inches high, it is expressive: two deer’s legs topped by a twofaced human head, one of the faces grimacing in fury, the other in fear. Milo holds it up and blows on it, scattering wood chips. Kneels at the foot of a tree, digs a hole in the ground with his penknife and deftly slips the statuette into it. Fills in the hole, pats down the dirt, smooths over the surface, pulls the grasses together above it until there is no trace of a disturbance. The Dubé property is being given an invisible but potent underground population: scattered here, there and everywhere, dozens of these figurines are in the ground already. They are Milo’s allies. Like his, their lives unfold in the darkness. Like him, they have to learn to find their freedom there.
Sound track: organ music . . .
CUT TO NEIL’S
library, a Sunday morning in January. Afflicted with a head cold, Milo has been allowed to miss Mass. Neil has settled him onto his lap and is reading out loud to him from Oscar Wilde’s
The Importance of Being Earnest
. Milo reads along, exulting in the correspondence between the written and spoken words. Suddenly we see him laugh. The music fades.
“Is it not a marvel?” says Neil, gently covering the child’s small hand with his large, age-speckled one. “That this Irishman, Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills, by himself rebaptized Wilde, born on the far side of the Atlantic Ocean in 1854, can make a Canadian boy laugh a hundred years later?”
“A hundred and eight,” says Milo.
“Wha? . . . Yes, you’re right, a hundred and eight. And this is only the beginning, Milo. These shelves contain countless treasures. I’ll introduce them to you one by one. My library will be
your school away from school and your church away from church. We must just keep it a secret from Marie-Thérèse; that’s not a problem, is it?” (Milo shakes his head.) “Books from all centuries and continents. Poems, tragedies, comedies, histories, war and adventure, nonsense and fairy tales . . . All of humanity’s multitudinous joys and sorrows at your fingertips, my boy! Some of these volumes are worth a pretty penny. Look at this one, Milo . . . and this one . . . In my youth, the greatest writers of Ireland were my friends. James Joyce and William Butler Yeats . . .”
“But they both say
To Neil Kerrigan
To Neil Noirlac
“Wha? Oh. Yes, well, you see, I changed names when I came over to Quebec.”
“You mean took your wife’s name?”
“No, no, she took mine, only it was . . . a pseudonym, if you like. That means a false name. Writers often prefer to publish their books under a pen name, you see . . . just as Oscar Wilde did.”
“And your children all took your false name?”
“So my name is false, too? I should really be Milo Kerrigan?”
“Oh, no, don’t worry about that, Milo. By the third generation it becomes true. Now, listen, I have something important to tell you . . . I’ve already made arrangements . . . When I die, everything in this library will go to you . . . But that, too, is our secret for the time being, yes?”
CUT to the living room downstairs. A Saturday afternoon in February. Fire in the fireplace, slow snow falling outdoors.
Now sixteen and fifteen, Jean-Joseph and François-Joseph are sprawled flat on the living room rug. Spectacular battles between cowboys and Indians unfold before their eyes in black and white, accompanied by bombastic music. The two boys gorge on fried potato peels, guzzle home-brewed beer, belch loudly. Every few
minutes, testing the decibel potential of their newly matured male vocal cords, they roar with laughter. In the laundry room across the hall, Marie-Thérèse sighs in exasperation as she feeds clothes from the washer through the mangle.
CUT to Milo, who is hunting in the woods with his uncle Régis. He shoots a rabbit and the two of them rush up to it. The animal is large. Blood gushes from its nostrils into the white snow. Not wounded, dead on the spot. Milo’s bullet entered the brain just above the eye, leaving the body perfect and intact. Régis is proud of him.
“How come Grandad never comes hunting with us?” Milo asks his uncle as they head back to the house.
“Hah! The day Neil Noirlac starts hunting . . .”
“But he told me he hunted moose, lynx and rabbit.”
“Oh, is that all?” Régis laughs. “Your grandpa tracks a different kind of prey.”
“But he told me he had a gun!”
“I’ve never seen it, but yeah, I’ve heard tell he’s got one. Brought it over from Ireland with him. A German revolver from the First World War, for the luva God!”
“Maybe he hunts at night?” Milo ventures hopefully.
“Right. And he eats the moose he kills at night, too, so he won’t have to share them.”
They bundle into the shed next to the house. As Milo looks on, Régis skins and guts the rabbit, using a sharp knife with consummate skill to make incisions, peel back the fur, slit open the stomach. Then he cups out the animal’s innards with his bare hands.
“Next time around, you skin what you kill. Okay?”
When grace has been said, Marie-Thérèse lifts the lid of the pot: “Know who shot this rabbit? Milo did!”
“Smells heavenly,” says Neil.
“What?” says Marie-Thérèse. “Only God is heavenly, Papa. Stop your blasphemy . . . And stop teaching Milo to blaspheme, you’re setting a bad example! You filled my brothers’ heads full of atheist writers, and look how they turned out: the only thing they’re good at is shoveling clouds. Do you hear me, Milo? Literature isn’t a job, it’s hot air. A lot of hot air, that’s what it is!”
“Can we eat the goddamn stew?” says Régis.
Scenes from Milo’s nightmares. Lights glare, telephones ring, shrill voices vituperate . . . Cars come to a halt in a screech of brakes . . .
Ta, ta-da DA, ta, ta-da DA . . .
Car doors slam . . . Milo, in an enormous train station, is grabbed, shoved, handled, dragged, manipulated by strange hands . . . His head bangs into the legs of strangers . . . a forest of legs . . . Several superimposed speeds and rhythms of footsteps—heavy boots, ladies’ high heels, men’s city shoes . . . Trains bang and clang, their steam hissing fiercely. . . Telephones ring with insistence . . . then leap off the wall and come to clobber him over the head all by themselves . . . Ambulance and police sirens wail . . .
Ta, ta-da DA, ta, ta-da DA . . .
Doors slam . . . Women’s voices natter . . . Bright lights come closer and closer . . . WHITEOUT.
Sitting bolt upright, Milo chokes back a cry of fear.
“That goddamn Milo can’t let us get a good night’s sleep,” François-Joseph grumbles in his half-sleep. “Shut up, you little flea! Shut up! Will you shut the fuck up, for Christ’s sake?”
Heaving himself out of bed, Jean-Joseph lurches across the room and swats Milo on the side of the head. To scare him, he clamps both huge thumbs on Milo’s gullet and makes as if to throttle him.
“Will you shut your goddamn trap?” he says, speaking in an enraged whisper so as not to wake the rest of the household. “It’s
not enough we gotta hear about your good marks at school from dawn to dusk, no, you gotta ruin our nights, too, with your stupid squealing. You’re ten years old, for Chrissake! You’re not a baby anymore! If you don’t feel like sleeping, least you can do is piss off and leave us in peace, you little prick!”
Milo’s pulse flutters madly under Jean-Joseph’s thumbs. His arms and legs flail.
“Little prick thinks he’s better’n the rest of us,” mumbles François-Joseph, still in bed. “His mom’s a fuckin’ slut and he thinks he’s better’n the rest of us!”
Turning toward the wall he releases a long, loud fart. Jean-Joseph laughs. Releases the flailing boy and staggers back to his own bed.
“Your slut of a mother shoulda strangled you at birth. Woulda been good riddance, frankly.”
During breakfast, the phone rings and Milo jumps out of his skin. His cousins point at him and guffaw.
As Milo milks a cow in the barn, eyes closed, cheek dreamily pressed up against the animal’s flat brown flank, François-Joseph and Jean-Joseph sneak up behind him and set off an alarm clock—
—then go into stitches when, leaping to his feet, stiff with fear, Milo upsets the milk pail.
Close-up on the frothy warm white milk, flowing all over Milo’s shoes.
Milo in bed at night, eyes on ceiling, afraid to go to sleep. Close-up on his face as he hears François-Joseph pad across the room and crawl into Jean-Joseph’s bed . . . A series of rough, muffled sounds coming from that bed . . . He sticks his fingers in his ears until it’s over . . . but now he’s unbearably wide-awake. When the brothers start snoring again he rises, slips out into the hallway and tiptoes downstairs. In the living room, before turning on the TV
set, he makes sure the sound button is turned all the way down. We watch him watching a 1930s movie—
Hôtel du Nord
, say, starring Louis Jouvet—with the sound off. His lips move. Approching, we realize he’s inventing dialogue for the film . . .
(That’s when your vocation was born, my darling. I owe a great deal to your horrible cousins and your abominable aunt. Had they not tormented you, you’d never have become a screenwriter and I’d never have met you. Paul Schwarz’s life without Milo Noirlac—inconceivable! . . .)
In his class at school, a girl starts smiling at Milo and casting him sidelong glances. Though only twelve, she already has generous bosoms and knows how to flaunt them, purposely making them bounce when she walks. At recess, she finds a way of slipping Milo a snapshot of herself. Turning it over, he reads:
Je t’aime beaucoup! Edith
. He looks up and flashes her the loveliest of grins. (You never had to pursue women, Milo, they always pursued you. That, too, must have contributed to your rare gift for inertia . . .)
Now a double series of scenes in rapid alternation. No dialogue, only music; maybe early Beatles songs . . . We’re in 1964.
Marie-Thérèse standing over Milo as he does his homework at the kitchen table and drilling him relentlessly, forcing him to take dictation. She has become his dictator.
Milo walking Edith home. When they reach her place, she leads him by the hand back to the woodshed and smilingly pushes him against the wall there. Then she presses up against him and glues her lips to his. Feeling what this does to him, his hands rise to her breasts of their own accord. He kneads them slowly and thoroughly, in a dizzy daze. Edith makes not the slightest move to stop him.
Marie-Thérèse shouts at him, testing his knowledge of French and berating him for every mistake he makes.
Edith puts her hands on either side of his face and shows him what a French kiss is. Pulls his head down and strokes his hair as he kisses her large, soft breasts through her thick sweater, first the left one, then the right.
Marie-Thérèse clobbers him over the head with the telephone.
Up in the hayloft with Edith’s picture, Milo pants and swoons in silence, coming divinely in the straw as the cows low quietly beneath him.
Walking home from school, Milo nearly gets hit by a car because he didn’t hear it coming. He lies awake at night with his hand over his left ear, testing—no, he can hear nothing in that ear.