Excerpt In Translation

Twenty-One Cardinals

by Jocelyne Saucier

translated by Rhonda Mullins

Coach House Books, 2015

We have an endless repertoire of stories and, at night, after the battles over the dishes and the battles for the three-seater sofa, the kids would settle in any which way they could in front of the television, and, from the living room doorway, I would listen to them. My workday wasn’t finished yet, but I couldn’t help but be there, in the centre of the house, propped up against the doorframe, one foot in the kitchen and the other in the living room, listening to what they had to say about their exploits at school, about tv, about the world that was opening up to them, about what they would do to all the hicks of the world once they left Norco.

I never managed to finish my day’s work, the house stayed messy and our evenings are some of my happiest memories.

The house would be lit up like a cathedral. There would be someone in every room and someone moving between them, but the epicentre of our chaotic evenings was the living room, specifically the hollow of the sofa, where the victors had managed to take their place after the battle over dishes—generally Geronimo, Tintin and Tommy, although often Tommy couldn’t hold her own against Matma. The others, those who perched on the arms or on the back, were the keepers of the sofa. There were three, four, sometimes five of them—the Weewuns, inevitably, since the old ones were too proud and their legs too long—and once one of the overlords of the sofa got up for a glass of water or milk, or to empty it all into the Wc, the keepers battled for the privilege of saving that person’s place. Sometimes—and herein lay the fun of the game—the Weewuns weren’t fast enough or wasted too much time squabbling, and a seat stealer would sneak onto the sofa. The overlord would come back, chew out both the keepers and the thief, and join the seatless, grumbling, stretched out on the ground or crouched in a corner, keeping an eye on the queue-jumper in case he went to get a drink or have a pee, such that the battle for the sofa continued all evening long.

However, there was a magic word, a word that had the force of law and took the harsh edge off the game. Otherwise, there would have been even more fists flying. I don’t remember when it became part of the game. ‘What does it matter?’ Yahoo said when I asked him. ‘It stuck, and it made us laugh.’ The word originally was a sentence, a clearly issued warning: That’s my place or some such thing. With time and repeated use, the sentence had become Smyplace.

Smyplace, and the overlord could go to the kitchen or the Wc in peace, the right of ownership established. But there was always someone to steal the place. And depending on the mood that reigned that evening, it was settled by argument or a rip-roaring fight. For fun or for real.

The word was used for a lot of things other than the battle for the sofa. Smyplace for a chair, for a shady corner of the porch, smy for anything we wanted to designate as personal property and that, necessarily, was the object of a power struggle. The same code of honour, the same swindling and the same fights.

It became Smyshirt, Smyboots, Smypen, Smyrifle, SmyCornflakes—a fairly tenuous way of preserving a right of ownership in a house where nothing, absolutely nothing, not even a place to sleep, was personally assigned to us. We slept in whatever bed was free, and we put on whatever we found among the clothes piled in what I called my laundry room, which had been the kitchen/living room of one of the units of this incredible house that had had four of them at the start.

We were most fierce about protecting the clothes. But, often, Smysweater wasn’t enough. You had to sleep in whatever you wanted to wear the next day. The morning fights weren’t as violent among the girls—there were only five of us—but it was like Armageddon if the boys had decided, in an effort to provoke or out of pure maliciousness, that their hearts were set on the same article of clothing.

We lived in the most wonderful anarchy, and I loved that house. The doors slammed, the stairs trembled, the walls shook, life stamped its feet with impatience in that house, and I was its caretaker. I was the one who swept, shovelled, washed and bleached, who every morning dove into endless piles of laundry, who chased dust bunnies and the mess in bedrooms, only ever managing to move them around. I was the one who reigned over the disorder.

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