Authors: Nancy Huston
SOUND IN: MILO
and his aunt in the doctor’s office after his ear examination.
“This will help some,” says the doctor as he hands Marie-Thérèse a prescription, “but he’ll never fully recover his hearing in that ear. Make sure he avoids ear infections like the plague, or it’ll be total deafness.”
Marie-Thérèse is fairly bursting with pride: Milo has just skipped another grade at school.
“See? You’re top of the class! We’ll show them, won’t we, you and I?”
“I want a dog,” says Milo in a low voice.
“I want a dog,” he says more clearly, staring out the window.
“You want a dog! Okay, listen. If you’re still top of the class on your next report card, if you get an average of more than ninety-five percent, I’ll buy you a pedigree dog. Is that a deal?”
CUT to a pet shop in a nearby town: Milo and his aunt choosing a dog together. Marie-Thérèse’s face glows with pride. She’s beginning to think her dreams for the boy’s future might actually come true.
“Whichever one you want, Milo. Choose whichever one you want.”
“Look . . .”
Soft, fuzzy, furry, head like a bear’s head. Long, thick tail that drags or wags.
“Is that the one you like?”
“Yeah. You see? It’s mine. It recognizes me.”
Marie-Thérèse motions to the saleslady.
“What kind is this?”
“It’s a mongrel. Half German shepherd, half coyote. Not expensive; I can let you have it for ten bucks.”
“It costs what it costs. I made a promise and I intend to keep it!”
“Your little boy sure looks happy, anyway.”
Marie-Thérèse doesn’t correct the saleslady.
As they drive back to the house together, Milo ecstatic in the backseat with the dog, Marie-Thérèse glances at him in the rearview mirror and says,
“You’re more of a son to me than my sons are anyhow. What’re you gonna call it?”
“Ridiculous. Oscar’s no name for a dog! Well, whatever. It’s up to you.”
Neil understands better.
“Oscar . . . because he’s half Wilde?”
“Yeah,” says Milo.
“. . . Like you?”
“Maybe. Only my wild half isn’t de one people tink it is.” Neil chuckles.
“You know, you’re right.”
A KALEIDOSCOPE OF
scenes from the next few months: Oscar running after Milo when he leaves for school at seven in the morning, running to meet him when he returns at four . . . following Milo as he gallops through the forest on horseback . . . swimming with him in the nearby Lac des Piles . . . waiting between his feet at mealtimes, swallowing the tidbits Milo slips him under the table—soundlessly, as both know it’s forbidden (one day Oscar forgets and his tail thumps the floor) . . . sleeping at the foot of his young master’s bed, front paws crossed, protecting Milo from the monsters in his room and in his dreams.
The kaleidoscope slows down, then zeroes in on . . . boy and dog staring into each other’s eyes. We circle the pair. A lingeringly beautiful shot.
a summer evening. Milo sits on the porch next to Marie-Thérèse, helping her shell peas. They’re alone in the house. Suddenly she turns to him and says, so softly that he’s disconcerted:
“You know where the hunchback lives, Milo? About halfway into town . . . You go past his house on your way to school.”
(Okay, Astuto, we can try to write this episode if you insist . . . but I warn you, there’s a better than even chance we’ll need to excise it later . . .)
“Yeah, I know it.”
“Could you deliver a message to him?”
“To the hunchback?”
“Yeah, look. I’ve got the envelope all ready. Just give him this and wait for his answer. And on your way home, here, take this. Buy yourself some bubble gum at the grocery store; you know, the kind with Beatles cards in it. But it’s just between the two of us, all right? I don’t want you blabbing about it.”
We follow Milo from a distance as, Oscar at his side, he jogs through the endless summer dusk, his red T-shirt a dancing splotch of color in the gathering shadows. Now twelve, his shoulders have broadened and his chest is growing muscular . . . but still he is light on his feet, alert and supple. In his mind he replaces Marie-Thérèse’s droning, dictating voice with his mother’s soft, hoarse voice from long ago.
You gonna have to resist, little one,
Be strong, be tough, don’t forget me
. Other snippets of wisdom gleaned over the years he repeats to himself in her voice.
Fear noting, son. You got de right to walk on dis eart’, just like de animals. Trust de animals—dey’ll never betray you—but beware of humans. Don worry’bout God or de Devil or what happen after deat’. Heaven and Hell are man-made and here on eart’. What will be will be. Respect nature. Respect your body, it’s a part of nature. Respect de ground you walk on. De sacred isn’t above you or below you, it’s inside of you and all around you. You’re a part of it, son. Praying’s a waste of time. Everyting you do, good or bad, is a prayer, so don’t let dem make you pray. When dey tell you to pray . . . dream, little one. Dream.
He goes up the porch steps and knocks on the door. On the mailbox is the name
. . .
(No offense, Milo, but I’m afraid the spectators will simply refuse to believe that your aunt’s lover, out in the sticks of rural Quebec in the early 1960s, was not only a hunchback but a Jew. Yeah, I know it’s true, but that’s not enough of a reason. Sometimes reality just isn’t plausible . . .)
The man who comes to the door is in his midfifties and crowlike: black-haired, black-garbed, beady-eyed, hunchbacked, hook-nosed,
yellow-toothed. He must be rather sweaty, too, for Milo wipes his hand discreetly on the seat of his shorts after their handshake. Mr. Bernstein motions to the boy to sit down as he reads Marie-Thérèse’s letter, then brings him a glass of water to drink while he writes an answer. Milo is simultaneously curious and indifferent, attentive and uninvolved. (Your life philosophy was now firmly in place: you want to know, but . . . whatever.)
Love letter in hand, he trots home in the dark with Oscar, stopping off at the general store to purchase, not a packet of bubble gum with Beatles cards in it, but a pack of cigarettes. He lights up as he walks. Practices being nonchalant about smoking.
Marie-Thérèse grabs him by the shoulders and sniffs at his breath. “Is that cigarette smoke? Don’t tell me you’ve started smoking . . .”
Milo stares at her coldly. Her eyes drop to the ground.
Several such trajectories. Back. Forth. Back. Forth. One day, as he’s burying yet another statuette behind the house, he sees Jacob Bernstein, shoes in hand, climbing out of Marie-Thérèse’s bedroom window. The man heads for the road, tiptoeing absurdly through the high grasses in his sock feet and glancing about to make sure no one is watching him. His hunchback somehow makes his stealthiness even more ridiculous. CUT.
OVER THE COURSE
of the next few years, Milo, you would piece together the implausible tale of your aunt’s love life. Long ago, at age sixteen, she’d gone to Quebec City to try to make a life for herself. She’d been hired as a servant by the writer and recluse Jacob Bernstein and the two of them had fallen head over heels in love. Horrified, Marie-Thérèse’s mother, Marie-Jeanne, had put her foot down.
Are you out of your mind? A man twice your age? A
? You can’t be serious!
Eventually, reluctantly, the girl had obeyed her mother’s order to come home. She was devastated. Far from healing, her heartbreak had festered within her, making her tense, miserable and pragmatic. The following year, she had married Régis Dubé, the only one of her local suitors whose marriage proposal had included a diamond ring. They’d taken over the property and started a family together. And then, a mere few months after the wedding, Jacob Bernstein had bought a house in the area and the love affair had resumed. It had thrived—before, after and even during Marie-Thérèse’s pregnancies. With a rare gift for secrecy, the lovers had now been carrying on for nigh on thirty years.
Though you resented your aunt, Milo, you also respected her—for knowing about love.
• • • • •
ON ITS WAY
to Liverpool, Neil’s ferryboat passes another, crossing the Irish channel in the opposite direction. On that boat, though he has no way of knowing it, disguised as a Red Cross nurse, is the formerly fiery, now aged and gaunt Maud Gonne.
She’d attempted to come back to Dublin back in February but had been promptly arrested, along with seventy-odd other nationalists including Countess Constance Markiewicz, and deported to England. Nine harrowing months at Holloway Prison have done considerable damage to Gonne’s health. She is emaciated and chastised, her splendid red hair has grayed—but today at last, after so many long years of exile, frustration and furor, Maud is coming
home to Ireland! Her plan, naturally, is to head straight for her beloved apartment on Saint Stephen’s Green—loaned free of charge during her absence to her wonderful old friend, the poet William Butler Yeats. She has no way of knowing that Willie’s young wife, Georgie, is currently pregnant with their first child, and that Willie will refuse the returned exile entrance to her own home, for fear that she might infect the mother-to-be with cholera, curiosity, or politics. An unhappy ending indeed to the thirty-year friendship between gentleman poet and lady politician.
Neil, using his father’s money and connections for what he hopes is the last time, has papers forged for himself in Liverpool.
“Neil Noirlac,” he tells the man who runs the clandestine printing press.
“A French name you want, is it? For living in French Canada?”
“That’s right. I simply took the name of my hometown and exaggerated it a bit. Dublin means
in Gaelic, Noirlac means
“I see. Sumpin’ as if we were to take Liverpool, swell it up and turn it into Cirrhoselac?”
Neil gratifies the man with a laugh.
“Do you not want to change your Christian name while you’re about it, so’s they fit together?”
“No, Neil Noirlac is fine. I like the alliteration.”
“The what’s that?”
“Never mind. Another way of fitting.”
“’Tis as you please. Speaking of fitting, you’ve heard the one about the two Irish fairies, haven’t you? Gerald Fitzpatrick and Patrick Fitzgerald?”
(Of course we’ll cut that, Milo. Sorry. Terrible taste.)
* * *
. . . And now he is on the steamer.
For nine endless days and nights, in the near-darkness of his cramped cabin beneath the deck, as the late-November storms buffet it from Liverpool to Quebec City, Neil empties the contents of his stomach. He brings up Trinity College, Queen Elizabeth, Queen Victoria, King Edward VII, King George V and Archbishop Billy Walsh of Dublin. He pukes up Saint Stephen’s Green and the death of his cousin Thom. He rids himself of Daisy, Dorothy, his mother, his father, his former life, his former self and the very name
—good word to say while vomiting—has a certain spitting-out quality to it.
YOU WANT THIS
sequence to make us claustrophobic, Milo. Come to think of it, Neil must have accepted at least
more favor from his father. Who but that powerful magistrate could have secured him passage on this steamer from Liverpool to Quebec City . . . or from Southampton to Montreal?
You don’t know much about this time in your grandfather’s life, Astuto, but it doesn’t much matter; the main thing is to have the camera show him, in his cramped quarters on the ship, sitting on the trunk that contains all his belongings, including the invaluable signed copies of
The Wind Among the Reeds
, and puking his guts up for three minutes straight. We don’t need to actually see or hear him doing this; we can guess at it from the heaves and tremors of his body. Meanwhile, in voice-over, we’ll hear him telling you the tale of his crossing thirty-five years later . . .
ARMISTICE HAD BEEN
signed a mere fortnight ago, and I’d managed to hitch a ride, as it were, on one of the first vessels bringing Canadian soldiers home. The troops were seriously thinned out: as they will teach you someday in school, Canada had left sixty-two thousand of her
young men in the soil at Ypres and Verdun! As for my shipmates the survivors—exhausted, wounded, mutilated, mad—they were mere stumps of their former selves. But I wasn’t thinking about the soldiers, Milo. I was vomiting.
Though I grew up in the Bay of Dublin facing the sea, I’d never set foot on a real boat before. The Irish, you see, unlike the British, French, Spanish, Portuguese, or Italians, are not seafarers. Over the centuries, the ocean has generally brought them bad news in the form of conquerors and marauders, so they prefer to turn their backs to it. Apart from digging up cockles and mussels along its edges, they have not tended to think of it as a source of amusement, discovery, or food. This is why, unbelievable as it may seem, when the Irish potato crop was wiped out by mildew in the mid-1840s, it did not occur to them to eat fish and a million of them starved to death. But I was not thinking of the potato famine as I crossed the Atlantic, Milo, I was too busy vomiting.
For more than a century already, Ireland had been degurgitating its own population. Puking up the poor. Heaving up the destitute. Splattering its ill and hopeless, ragged and starving masses all over the planet. Oh, Milo, the misery of my country is beyond belief! In a single century, that tiny island spewed eight million desperate human beings off its surface. How could there be any left? you might ask, and a good question it would be! The answer can be summed up in a single word:
Big families. Personally, I’d always suffered from having only one sibling, and an unpleasant one at that. I envied the James Joyces of the world, who grew up in the rough-and-tumble company of a large family. Ten young’uns there were in the Joyce clan—ten who survived, that is—of a dozen born! Only later did it occur to me that my mum must have had everything removed after Dorothy’s birth: in those days, Catholic families with only two children were unheard of.