by Alain Poissant
translated by Rob Twiss
University of Ottawa Press, 2015
The new priest in Napierville—the parishes of the diocese had a high turnover rate for priests between the ages of sixty and eighty—had never seen a face so cruelly devastated by scars. He pretended not to notice and warmly invited the Welder to come in.
The vestibule opened directly onto the great dining hall that had, at a time when French-Canadian Catholicism prospered, held up to forty guests at the same table. The walls were decorated with framed photos of popes, bishops, and vicars arrayed in their priestly vestments and distinctions.
The immense table served as a desk, and metal filing cabinets, like those in any administrative office, had replaced the buffets and cabinets that once held dishes and tablecloths. The priest asked his guest to sit down. The smooth shine of burnt skin was tempered by the dim light. The man was well built. He wore his work clothes: ample overalls, a dark shirt, steel-toed boots.
Over the course of his career, the priest had seen enough people who were hurting to know when to keep the introductions short. What will it be? he asked.
The observance of the sacraments was not what it used to be. Sunday mass and the various tests of faith had been put aside by the faithful. The rights of passage remained, as if it had been decided that life would be simplified into three distinct parts—a beginning, a middle, and an end—and that God would handle only the beginning and the end; man would take care of the middle.
A service for my son, Marquis, a service with singing, that’s what it will be, replied the Welder. No quavering. No crying. This is a man who knows exactly what death is worth, thought the priest, who got up and brought back the form.
What was the name, again?
The man looked away. The priest had to repeat himself.
The church had set three rates, the priest explained. The Welder said that what he liked in church was the singing. He wanted singing, lots of it. The whole choir, in the nave and in the loft.
They set a date. Marquis’s funeral would be held on Saturday at two o’clock in the afternoon. There would be twenty minutes of singing from the Introit to the Libera me.
The priest set down his pen and adopted the focused air of a confessor. The time had come to exercise his ministry, which consisted in reviving souls and presenting them to the Lord, the good and the sinful. Talk to me about Marquis, tell me what kind of Christian he was, so that I can write his eulogy.
Burnt faces lose a great deal of their natural ability to be expressive. They appear sculpted by nefarious hands. The cheeks are grafted onto the jaws. The glands atrophy so that the dry air irritates the eyes, which close in pain. The eyebrows disappear. The lips stay tightly clenched around the teeth. The words that come out of such a face are malformed and are seen as much as they are heard.
The Welder turned towards the door as if he were leaving. He stood up as if he were leaving. He nodded his head as if he were leaving. Then he sat back down, devastated.
What do you want me to say? He’s dead. He could have died a lot older than he did. He could have died a lot younger, too. You don’t get to decide. And if you do decide, people say you couldn’t handle it. What kind of a man was he? A man like any other. A man like me. A man like you.