Authors: Nancy Huston
“Start what over?”
“Whatever! We could buy a stand of maple trees and learn how to make maple syrup . . .”
“Buy it how?”
“You ain’t got any savings?”
She says nothing. We remember the tin-roofed shack, the packed dirt floor, the weeping family.
“Your dad didn’t leave you any money when he died?”
Again she says nothing.
In front of them, an Indian man of forty or forty-five, his body transparent, is bent over the water’s edge. He’s holding something in his hands, but we can’t see what. Suddenly he smashes it on a rock and tosses the pieces into the air. They fall—heavily at first, like gold nuggets, then gently, like raindrops. The drops disturb the still pool. The man gradually dissolves.
dad’s de one who got money,” she says at last.
“Only hitch is, he disowned me.”
“Third jail sentence, he got fed up. I disappoint him, Nita. Seems like none of his sons turned out the way he hoped. He wanted us all to go to university. Workin’ on the land is beneath us, he says. Back in Ireland he was a lawyer, his dad was a judge, his friends were a buncha famous writers . . .”
“So how come he left?”
“Somethin’ happened during the First World War, I don’t know what. Maybe he refused to be drafted by the British, somethin’ like that.”
“Dey drafted Indians from here, too,” Awinita murmurs, but Declan doesn’t hear her.
“He came to Canada, found himself a nice plump Québécoise to marry. Then she started churning out babies and he worked his ass off on her father’s land. If I heard it once I heard it a thousand times: twenty years of backbreaking labor in Pierre-Joseph Chabot’s foresting industry . . . all the while clutching at his dream of getting a novel published. After a long day’s work on the property, he’d sit up reading and writing in his library late into the night. When his folks died, he had
eighteen boxes of books
shipped over from Dublin. And that still wasn’t enough. Every time he went to Montreal or Ottawa he’d come home with a fresh armload of books. Plays, poetry, first editions . . .
But Neil, darling, what good will all these books do us?
I remember my mother saying.
We can’t feed our children with poetry!
Truth is my mom was slightly pissed off ‘cause she’d grown up in the sticks and wanted
of them. Ran away to Montreal at age eighteen to become an actress, landed up waiting tables instead, in a coffee shop on Notre-Dame. That’s where they met. So she was none too thrilled when he insisted they head back to the sticks. She figured if she had to wade through cow and baby dung from morning to night, least
could do was shut up about Shakespeare. He used to corral all his sons into his study every Sunday morning, read out loud to us in English from these ancient books, stuff about Greek wars, British kings, whatever. I learned to hate that library of his. The girls meanwhile, being francophones, would be off at Mass with our mom . . . She died giving birth to her thirteenth baby and, being the oldest girl, Marie-Thérèse took over. She raised us with an iron hand, that’s for sure, but she couldn’t change our father’s ways.”
We gently leave the ground and go wafting up in the air to join the gulls wheeling above the Saint Lawrence. We fly through our own long, undulating hair . . . But as we move through it, it begins to wrap
around us—more and more tightly—until finally we’re nothing but a hard little ball of hair. We bounce.
“When I was twelve or so,” Declan plunges on, “my da got a package in the mail, a signed copy of a book by some Irish writer with a woman’s name . . . Janice or some such, I forget. The book was a mishmash of foreign words and hard words and nonwords, as if the guy’d taken a big stack of books from all over the world and tossed them into a pot and made a stew of them, then ladled the stew onto the pages . . . After about an hour of listening to that horridge-porridge, I got mad. How dare my father waste my time with this when I had stuff to do, buddies to see . . . That day, I swore I’d never be caught dead with a book in my hands. My brothers musta done the same ‘cause none of us ever made it past junior high.”
“Not so different,” Awinita murmurs in her husky voice.
“What’s not so different?”
“’Sokay. You’re a guy, and guys like de sound of deir own voice. Hey, gotta get back to work.”
• • • • •
The very essence of capoeira,
allows you to see the darkest sides of human beings and society without losing your joie de vivre.
THE CHILD OF
absence is in the closet againâor rather in
closet again, not the same one as before. There've been a number of closets already in his short life and he's found a way to survive in thereâhe makes an even darker closet for himself inside his head, enters it of his own volition and firmly closes the door behind him. Calling out to no one, needing no one, finding what he needs within himself.
Once he's in there, in the dark of the dark, he's filled with anticipation because, closing his eyes, he can summon images and voices and they will come to him. He can elicit the cocker spaniel at the house next door to the German family when he was little and play with it as he was never allowed to at the time, since there was a picket fence between them and only two of the pickets were broken. Now he can throw a stick and the dog will bark excitedly, scamper to fetch the stick and bring it back to him, growling in prideâa game to be endlessly repeated. Then Milo can pet the dog's head, say
, reward it with a biscuit and feel its small wet scrapy tongue lick his palm because they love each other more
than anything in the world. In the dark of the dark he can also meet up with his best friend, an imaginary boygirl named Ness like the Loch Ness monster, and the two of them can take off for wild adventures on the moon or Mars or under the sea or in the jungle or the desert or on the tundra, or exploring glaciers at the North Pole or volcanoes in South America or the topmost tips of the Himalayas . . .
(The self-created closet gradually became your carapace, Milo. It would protect you forever. Your concentration was so extreme in there that you could accept literally anythingâblows, rape, verbal attacksâand keep a hot star burning in your brain . . .)
Other times, in the closet, little Milo hears his mother's voice singing to him and whispering his secret name, or the voice of Sara Manders reading him a bedtime story. He feels Sara's ample bosoms against his back as she holds him on her lap and cuddles him, strokes his head and marvels at the beauty of his hair . . . Curled on the closet floor, he hugs his own body and sometimes, listening to these beautiful women's voices or feeling their breasts, his hand slips into his pants and he strokes himself and whines and pants until a blaze of light happens in his brain, after which he can relax and sometimes fall asleep. One day he's doing this and suddenly the blaze of light turns into a real light, pale and appallingâhis foster mother has opened the closet door and flicked on the switch and found him there with his hand inside his pants and his head thrown back, drinking in the slow deep joy of a woman's flesh moving softly on his skin. She yells, catapulting him out of his reverie, then grabs the weapon nearest to handâthe long metal tube of the vacuum cleanerâand clobbers him over the head with it:
God forgive me, but if I don't beat this evil out of you there'll be no hope left, you'll grow up to be a criminal just like your parents! Bad seed on bad ground!
As her blows rain down on Milo's head and back and
shouldersâhis arms protect his faceâthe woman also kicks him with her pointed shoes wherever she can fit a kick in . . .
YOU'RE RIGHT, MILOâMOVIEGOERS
enjoy blood and gore of all sorts; they'll watch in mesmerized delight as people cut each other's head off, stab each other in the back, or bomb whole cities to oblivion; many of them also revel in seeing adult males rape little girls; but for some reason, though it's one of the most widespread forms of violence on the planet, grown women hitting little boys makes them squirm . . . Go figure, eh?
(Hear that, Milo? You've even taught me to say
like a Canadian. Hey. Are you doing all right? Are
doing all right? Can we go on, my love? I love you, Astuto. Let's go on. Yes, yes, we'll change the name, no problemâdo it in a single click, soon as we finish the first draft . . .)
THE LITTLE BASTARD
knows how to read now, in English. He learned to read with a vengeance. Having completed the first two grades of school in a single year, he reads everything he can get his hands on, even if it's only the dreary
in the bathroom or the newspaper called the
or the Bible his current foster mother keeps on her bedside table for daily inspiration. The printed words waft him away to freedom, set his mind spinning with stories. The main thing is to be out of this world, out, out . . .
Though we can also toss in a few images of Milo's so-called real life during those years (Milo in the classroom, his attention riveted on the teacher, on the blackboard, oblivious to the children around him . . . Milo in the school courtyard, bullied by older boys and unexpectedly fighting back so that within three seconds the leader's nose is gushing with blood . . . Milo walking home alone in the four o'clock December dark . . . Milo shoveling snow . . .
mowing the lawn . . . sitting stiff and straight on the pew of a Protestant church between two stiff and straight adults, one male, one female, whose heads we'll never see), it's clear that his
real life now unfolds inside the closet, in the dark of the dark. Ecstasy of images, voices drifting through silence . . . He's become addicted to solitude.
And thenâbrutallyâhe gets weaned of it. Cold turkey.
He comes home from school one warm June day, opens the screen door and brings up short. His foster parents (still headless torsos) are seated in the front room with a gray-bearded stranger; packed and waiting in the hallway is Milo's suitcase. At lightning speed, his eyes shift from grown-up to suitcase to grown-up, but no matter how often he changes the order of his perusal, he still can't fathom what's going on.
CUT to the enormous, dimly lit hall of Windsor Station in Montreal. Chaos. Hordes of people rushing every which way amidst the hiss of steam engines and the strident sigh of whistles, shouting, smoking, waving, embracing and calling out to each other, dragging bags and trunks in their wake. Spiffy, red-hatted, chocolate-skinned porters shoving luggage carts. Arrival and departure announcements that sound like threats, reverberating over the loudspeaker in French. After scanning the crowd, the camera zooms in from behind on the old man, who is pulling Milo's heavy suitcase with one hand and Milo with the other.
The boy balks, in shock. The gray-bearded stranger turns to him and at last we see his face. It may take us a moment to recognize Neil.
“Come on,” he says. “We'll miss the train.”
“I don't want to go.”
“I don't want to go.”
“They beat the bejesus out of you and you want to stay with them?”
“I don't want to go.”
“I didn't ask you if you wanted to go. I'm your grandpa and I'm taking you out of that Protestant hellhole.”
“You're not my grandpa.”
“So I am, bless you. Look.” He draws an Irish passport from his breast pocket. “Know how to read? Neil Noirlac. You see, it's written there. And what's your name?”
“. . .”
“What's your name, young'un?”
The boy can't help muttering Noirlac under his breath.
“Right. And where would you have gotten a name like Noirlac?”
“I don't want to go.”
“Do you know its meaning?”
“I don't want to go.”
, it means. Did you know your name was
, my boy? Do you speak French?”
“I don't want to go.”
“Come on, now, Milo, or we'll be missing our train! Way they've been treating you, those Protestants are lucky I came without my gun.”
“You got a gun?”
“Naturally, for hunting rabbit and lynx and moose.”
“Will you teach me how to hunt?”
Neil gathers the child in his arms and pretends for a moment that he is strong enough to carry him. He isn't, though, and, sensing this, Milo gives in.
“I'll come wit you,” he says, “if you teach me to hunt.”
“You've got a deal.”
CUT to the two of them in a train, hurtling northeastward through the province of Quebec. Around them, other passengers are chattering in French. Neil takes out a paper bag and hands a sandwich to Milo, who accepts and devours it without a word, staring out the window at flash-by forest as he chews. Never before has he set foot outside of Montreal.
CUT to a DubÃ© family meal, the noonday meal they call dinner, in the kitchen of a large farmhouse in Mauricie. Seated on benches on either side of a long maple wood table are Neil's oldest daughter, a brittly pretty woman named Marie-ThÃ©rÃ¨se; her husband, RÃ©gis DubÃ©, his cheeks mottled with smallpox scars; and their two strapping teenagers, FranÃ§ois-Joseph and Jean-Joseph, all slurping soup and shouting in French at the same time.
Milo is lost. Even were he able to revive the dormant rudiments of French he once possessed, this clipped, slanted, rural version of the tongue would be opaque to him. Occasionally Neil leans down to translate for him, but every time she catches him at it Marie-ThÃ©rÃ¨se slams her hand on the table.
“Papa! Stop that at once! This is a French-speaking house, he might as well get used to it from the start. I don't want you running off at the mouth again with your bullshit bilingual notions, do you hear me?”
“How can he be expected to learn?” Neil protests, stroking his beard. “The poor kid doesn't understand a word we're saying.”
“He'll learn as he goes along, like everybody else.”
“Gotta be patient,” RÃ©gis suggests, his mouth three or four centimeters away from his bowl of soup. (RÃ©gis is a cowed man who seems perpetually to be ducking, even when not bent over to eat.) “Rome wasn't built in a day,” he adds, so softly as to be inaudible to all but us.
“So where did this Anglo cousin come from?” queries FranÃ§ois-Joseph.
“Yeah, Grandad, where'd you dig him up? âS not every day you get to meet a cousin who's already eight years old!”
“He's Declan's boy . . .”
“Who else?” grumbles Marie-ThÃ©rÃ¨se.
“But where's he kept him all these years? We never saw Uncle Declan with a kid . . .”
“I had no idea, either,” says Neil. “Declan came over last week to try to wangle some money out of me . . .”
“Nothin' new about that,” observes Marie-ThÃ©rÃ¨se.
“Just as you say! I told him he'd exhausted my patience, to say nothing of his credit . . . So to force me to give in, he wound up telling me the fifty bucks weren't for him. Claimed he needed the money for his son's pension . . .”
“Doesn't it just break your heart?” says Marie-ThÃ©rÃ¨se, shaking her head.
“I didn't believe him myself. Come on, I told him, you can't pull the wool over my eyes with tall tales like that! Where is this so-called son of yours?”
“A miracle he could even remember, after so many whiskys . . .”
“Well it turned out to be a miracle indeed! He fished out the child's birth certificate and a whole slew of official papers . . . Believe it or not, Milo had been in five different foster families and Declan had never lost track of him . . .”
“You were in five different families?”
Milo shrugs, gaze trained on his plate. He can tell the conversation revolves around him, but the gist of it escapes him.
“Why'd they move him around so much?”
“Beats me. But the idea that a grandson of mine had been living in Montreal all this time without my knowing about it . . . well, I just couldn't stand it. I had to go get him.”
“I understand,” RÃ©gis mutters. “You did the right thing.”
“Just makes one more mouth for us to feed!” Marie-ThÃ©rÃ¨se sighs.
“Oh, one mouth more or less,” says Neil.
“Easy to say, for people who have their noses in books all day long,” says Marie-ThÃ©rÃ¨se. “The rest of us work hard to make ends meet!”
“Come on, now, Marie-ThÃ©rÃ¨se!” says Neil. “I couldn't leave him in a Protestant household!”
This is his last card, but it's a joker and he knows it. Of all the tales of his youth in Ireland with which Neil had regaled the family when Marie-ThÃ©rÃ¨se was little, the one about the stolen children had made the deepest impression on her. During the endless merciless strike that had paralyzed and famished the entire city of Dublin in 1913, British soldiers had gone stomping into strikers' homes, kidnapped their children and shipped them off to Great Britain to be taken in by Protestant families. And what honest Catholic worker could bear the prospect of finding himself with a stubborn, glitter-eyed little Protestant at his own kitchen table? They'd returned to the factories . . .
After dinner, Milo's cousins take him on a guided tour of the farm. Close-up on their great rubber boots squelching in the mud as he follows them across the barnyard. In the barn, he recoils at first from the clouds of bottle flies and the pungent smell of manure, but is soon irresistibly drawn to the cows. He feels more empathy with these big kind warm brown tail-swishing dumb beasts than with Jean-Joseph and FranÃ§ois-Joseph, fourteen and thirteen
respectively, who belch and fart, smoke and swear and swagger to make sure he knows who's boss.
“Cat got your tongue?” they ask him.
He says not a word in the course of the visit . . . CUT.
A SERIES OF
ephemeral, floating scenes to sketch out the following year. Milo at school, Milo in the stable . . . lingering a moment over Milo at church. We recognize him squeezed into one of the front pews along with his young schoolmates . . . His cousin's classes are farther back; the rows for parents and grandparents start in the middle of the church. We notice that Marie-ThÃ©rÃ¨se and RÃ©gis are among them, but not Neil . . .