Read Black Dance Online

Authors: Nancy Huston

Black Dance (18 page)

GRANDPA NEIL DIED IN HIS SLEEP ON WEDNESDAY. HIS FUNERAL TOOK PLACE YESTERDAY, IN THE SAME CHURCH WHERE HE MARRIED OUR GRANDMA FIFTY YEARS AGO. THE CHURCH WAS ALMOST EMPTY, NOBODY KNEW HIM ANYMORE. IT WAS SUCH A PITY NOT EVEN YOU WERE THERE, MILO. WHEN WILL YOU BE GETTING OUT THIS TIME? YOUR LOVING COUSIN, GABRIELLE

The prison gives Milo a day’s leave. We see him heading home through the forest at nightfall. His nose catches a scent. He tenses, then breaks into an animal run.
Ta, ta-da DA, ta, ta-da DA . . .
Sound track: no panting, only his steps thudding softly on the forest floor, like the soft beating of a drum. In the distance he sees white smoke billowing above black trees. Not the house. Behind the house. He goes around. A towering bonfire.
Ta, ta-da DA, ta, ta-da DA . . .
Jean-Joseph is tossing armloads of books and papers out the window of Neil’s study on the second floor. François-Joseph is deftly catching them and adding them to the high, hissing flames. Both are singing, laughing, roaring drunk.

Milo turns on his heel and vanishes.

In the morning, after walking past the smoldering, smoking, stinking mound of ashes that was once his grandfather’s library, he bursts into the kitchen where his aunt is making hotcakes. As usual, her first reaction is to yell at him.

“Where have you been, Milo? The boys saw you arrive last night. You sneak up on us like that, you don’t say a word to anyone and then you vanish. We looked for you everywhere!”

She catches sight of his face and her tone changes. There are now large amounts of air between her words.

“What . . . what’s wrong with y . . .”

Milo goes over to the drawer and takes out the sharpest knife.

“Milo . . . you’re upset about the fire, is that it?”

He approaches, wielding the knife, expressionless.

“It was just books, Milo!”

He advances on her.

“It was just books! Milo! What was I supposed to do with them? And besides, they were all in English!”

He pushes her up against the wall. Raising the knife, he looks calmly into her eyes.

“Régis!
Help!”

The knifepoint comes to a hovering halt a quarter inch from Marie-Thérèse’s chest. Then Milo turns and plants the knife with all his might in the exact center of the maple wood table. His mother wouldn’t want him to spend the rest of his time on earth cooped up in lawcourts and jail cells. She’d want him to be free.

“You’ll see me again when you’re dead,” he says.

The knife is still vibrating when he slams the door and walks off the Dubé property for the last time.

•    •    •    •    •

Neil, 1920

SEPTEMBER. SLANTED SUNLIGHT.
Maple trees aflame. Breathtaking beauty of the Quebec countryside during its brief autumn. The camera pans across the Chabot property (familiar to us as the Dubé property from forty years later) to a woodshed, its door open a crack. Sliding through the crack along with the sunlight, we fall on a page of Neil’s notebook. Uneasily perched on a stack of old apple crates, the writer is trying to write. We’re reminded of a similar scene in his Dublin bedroom a few years ago . . . but his inner voice is even more anguished now than it was then. As Neil works on his text about exile, the camera glides through the woodshed and enters a vaster, barnlike space, lit in chiaroscuro by flashes of sunlight coming through small windows. There, it explores an enigmatic concatenation of tables and woodstoves, vats and tubes, bottles and utensils—not the laboratory of a mad scientist, but the ordinary paraphernalia required for the manufacture of maple syrup.

The thing about exile,
Neil begins in voice-over,
is that it forces you back into childhood. Even the first time around, being a child was mostly unpleasant. As soon as you can think, you are painfully conscious of being smaller and weaker than the powerful, prestigious giants who surround you. They despise, dominate, manipulate and look down on you. You are impatient to grow up, break free of them, become your own man. Thus, it is confounding and humiliating, at nearly thirty years of age, to find yourself, as it were, back at square one again. If your exile includes a language change, your sense of stupidity and helplessness will be compounded . . . no, compound rhymes with confound, let’s say aggravated . . . no, exacerbated . . . no, aggravated . . . by your lack of proficiency in the new tongue. You get by all right in private conversation with your loved ones, for loved ones tend to be indulgent . . . but when you are obliged to deal on a daily basis with a large group of people, well acquainted among themselves and accustomed to communicating through quirky colloquialisms, inside jokes, onomatopoeia, muttered prayers and blasphemies, you suffer not only as much as but more than a child—for, unlike the latter, you have no hope or even wish of attaining proficiency in the local idiom . . . It is most exasperating. I love Marie-Jeanne, but . . . No, cross that out. This isn’t my diary, it is a personal reflection on the universal theme of exile . . . Brought up in the city, you find yourself in the country. Armed with a law degree from Ireland’s finest university, you are suddenly being instructed in the fine points of making maple syrup. Formerly on intimate terms with the greatest poets and novelists of the day, you now prefer the company of cows to that of what passes, locally, for humanity . . . No, that’s too nasty. After all, there were peasants in Ireland, too; I simply didn’t frequent them. I fought for their rights, of course—indeed I risked my life doing so—but I did not have to eat, drink and sleep with them, put up with their pungent body odors and their primitive sense of humor. New paragraph.

Tolstoy in no way jeopardized his literary greatness by cutting wood with his muzhiks, because he did so on his own property, in the country and the language of his birth. He was not hampered and handicapped at every step by foreignness, but remained master of the situation. The violent changes inflicted by exile plunge you back into the immaturity and dependency of childhood. They turn you into a mumbling, stumbling, stuttering nincompoop, incapable of running your own life. Bad enough for the common mortal, this state of affairs is disastrous for the writer. In the space of a mere few days—the time it takes to travel from the Old Country to the New—he very literally loses the ground beneath his feet. His pen’s feverish activity is turned to ice by a series of paralyzing questions (I can correct these metaphors later):
Who are my readers? Who are my characters? What is my subject?

Since crossing the Atlantic, I’ve met precious few people who ever heard of the Liffey, the Easter Rising, Padraic Pearse or Major John MacBride; French Canadians care not one whit about the Irish rebels, Sinn Féin, or the act recently passed by British Parliament allowing Protestant Unionists in the North to retain control of the six counties of Ulster. My country is splitting in two, Good Lord, and so is my head . . . Mrs. McGuire told me that here in Montreal in 1916, only a couple of months after the Easter Rising, there was an anticonscription demonstration at the Place des Armes. The French Canadians didn’t want to be enrolled in English Canada’s war—which is to say England’s war—any more than the Irish did. Mrs. McGuire can see the analogy because, like me, she has a foot on either side of the ocean. But if my future reading public is made up exclusively of Irish-born residents of Quebec, what stories can I, should I, must I tell?
I’m losing my stories! They’re dying on my lips!

Just as Neil tearfully scribbles in his notebook
They’re dying on my lips!
we hear a blood-curdling female scream. The camera
rushes back to film him as he leaps to his feet and bolts from the woodshed, letting pencil and notebook tumble to the floor.

CUT to the bedroom in which Marie-Jeanne has just given birth to their first son. The mother is still flat on her back, but the child has already vanished. Several devout, efficient females—her mother, a couple of older sisters or cousins (he can never keep them straight), a nurse and a young midwife named Marie-Louise—rush to and fro, taking care of everything in French.

Neil has become a stranger in his own home. No, it is not even his own home. He has become a stranger, period.

“Is it a boy?” he asks timidly from the doorway, not quite daring to cross into the room.

“Yes, sir,” says Marie-Louise as she strides down the hallway, arms piled high with bloody sheets. “Yes, it’s a little boy. Mrs. Noirlac wants to name it Pierre-Joseph, after her father.”

Neil winces.

CUT to that evening: At last the little family is alone together. The baby sucks fiercely at Marie-Jeanne’s breast, and her face is suffused with light.

“All men are Joseph,” says Neil.

“What, darling?” says Marie-Jeanne. “What are you mumbling in your beard?”

“All men are Joseph,” he repeats. “Every childbirth is a Nativity, know what I mean? It’s between mother and child. I sit here looking at the two of you, and you shine so brightly it makes my eyes hurt. Joseph is irrelevant. It’s obvious he can’t be the father.”

“Neil!” says Marie-Jeanne with a laugh like the soft jingling of sleigh bells. “Don’t tell me you think I cheated on you!”

“No, but our baby’s the child of God. It’s a miracle, every childbirth is a miracle. Joseph has nothing to do with it and he knows it.
He sits there in the stable, feeling silly and out of place . . . Uh . . . anything I can do to make you more comfortable, dear? Want me to smooth out the hay under your rear end?”

“What are you trying to tell me, sweet Neil?”

“Nothing, just that . . .”

Moving over to the window, Neil stares out into the gathering dark.

“All I’m trying to say is that . . . I’m somebody, too.”

“What do you mean? Of course you’re somebody!”

“I mean, I make an effort, I do my best to adapt, to learn everything there is to learn about maple trees, spruce trees, moose and the Battle of the Plains of Abraham . . . but I, too, come from somewhere, for the love of God! I, too, have a past, a history . . . I don’t want for my whole life to be drowned here erased and replaced by yours . . . So all I’m asking is that you take
one little step
toward my own history.”

“What kind of step? Oh! Did you hear that? He burped!”

“Leave me the boys.”

“Sorry?”

“We’ll divide the children up between us. You’ll take the girls, choose their names, talk to them in French, bring them up to be nice little Catholic women from Quebec . . . and I’ll take the boys: Irish names, English language and a lay education.”

Marie-Jeanne looks at her son, her husband, her son. She loves Neil with all her heart, but dreads her father’s ire.

“Otherwise,” says Neil, raising his voice, “if everything I’ve ever been and done gets wiped out, I don’t know how I can ever be a man in this household, much less a writer. Please understand me, Marie-Jeanne: I can’t create works literature if I feel I have no heir, no hope of passing on my lore and learning.”

Marie-Jeanne is still hesitant. Neil tries another tack.

“Besides, the sad truth of the matter is that anglophones earn a better living in Quebec than francophones. They’re the ones who run businesses, they’re taking over the pulp-and-paper industry . . . The future is anglophone. If you want our sons to make something of themselves . . .”

“Well, okay,” says Marie-Jeanne with a sigh. “I have to admit I can see your point.”

“So this one won’t be named Pierre-Joseph, okay? He’ll be named Thom.”

“. . . All right.”

CUT to a close-up of a tiny coffin being lowered into a tiny grave. Drawing back, we see a few dozen members of the Chabot family gathered in the town churchyard, their faces glistening with tears. Neil hugs Marie-Jeanne to his side. The camera moves back in to read the words engraved on the tombstone:
THOM NOIRLAC. 3 SEPTEMBRE 1920–17 SEPTEMBRE 1920.

•    •    •    •    •

Awinita, September 1951

TOTAL DARKNESS. BLACK
screen. It’s four
A.M.
in the cruddy bedroom above the bar. Declan’s speech is distinctly slurred (so to speak).

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah . . . I promise you, Nita. Sumpin’ll turn up.”

“You already said dat.”

“I know, but this time I mean it. Soon’s our baby’s born, I’ll clean up my act.”

“Dat’s a whole six months from now, Deck.”

“Yeah, but jobs are always scarce in September. My chances’ll be better in the spring.”

“Why’s dat?”

“I heard tell.”

“Where’d you hear tell? In jail?”

He hits her. We don’t see the blow, only hear it, and Awinita’s yelp of indignation.

“Hey! Shit, Deck!”

“Don’t talk down to me, Nita. With seven sisters, I had enough o’ women talkin’ down to me since I was born.”

“Yeah? Well, I had enough o’ guys hittin’ me.”

“That’s not what they do to you. They screw you. Every Tom, Dick, ‘n’ Harry’s got the right to screw you. I’m the only who has to ask permission.”

“Least it makes you special . . . You oughta be grateful to ‘em for screwing me. It’s deir money you live off.”

“Oh,
thank
you, Tom!
Thank
you, Dick!
Thank
you, Harry! Specially Dick.
Thank
you for fuckin’ my wife, you great big Dick!”

LIGHTS (Awinita has just turned on the bedside lamp).

“I not your wife, little boy.”

We’re in her eyes, in her body, when Declan’s fist makes contact with her jaw. The blow sends us careening backward to stare at a corner of the phony oakwood headboard.

“Fuck, man. Ya broke my fuckin’ jaw.”

“Did I?”

Declan is sincerely shocked.

“I tink so, asshole . . . You’re destroyin’ your only source of income, you know dat? Who gonna come upstairs wit a girl got a twisty purple face?”

Declan breaks down. Blubbering drunkly, he kneels at the side of the bed and covers his face with his hands.

“I’m so sorry, Nita. I’m . . . so . . . sorry! Can you ever forgive me? I’m so, so sorry I hit you, Nita, you’re pregnant with my baby . . . I’ll never lay a finger on you again, I swear it. I solemnly swear I’ll never lay a finger on you again. Oh, Nita, can you ever forgive me?”

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