by Samuel Archibald
translated by Donald Winkler
He’d died deep in the woods and they’d taken him to the funeral parlour to try and deal with the damage. He’d worked for Abitibi Consolidated, which everyone around called the Console. None of the guys had seen what happened. He’d been split open from shoulder to hip by a machine that could trim trees tall as cathedrals. No one knew how he’d got in the way of the lopper. They were deep in the woods and the guys said that the day before there was a little snow. In June, mind you. Seems he’d made a stain on the ground as big as a puddle of water, thick as molasses and red as a harlot’s mouth.
She was there just by chance. A friend had found her work in his parents’ bistro in France. She’d be staying ten days in Paris before getting on a train for Brittany, and she’d come to say goodbye to her parents before taking off.
The woman at the funeral parlour had been brought up to date, and she met her in a room that reminded her of the reading room in her grandparents’ house. The woman had very beautiful hands, with small fingers, both plump and delicate, and that’s all she could bring herself to think about.
“I’m sorry that you can’t attend the funeral.”
“You’re part of the family?”
There was a silence.
“You’re going back to Montreal tomorrow?”
“Yes. I’m taking the plane for Paris on Thursday.”
The woman sighed.
“I’ve never been to Paris.”
“Neither have I.”
Something wasn’t quite right, and the woman wouldn’t understand what it was until two days later. Sitting in front of the television set beside her sleeping husband, she would think again of the young woman and her heady odour and her large breasts offered to view through her dress’s plunging neckline. The colour black was the only thing appropriate in her appearance. The cut of her clothes and her perfume and her hair and her thick red lipstick and the brightness of her eyes spoke of something forbidden in that place. The woman would think of the young woman and then those deadly beauties in crime novels who poison their husbands to get their hands on the insurance money.
“She looked like a black widow.”
This idea, expressed aloud to herself alone, raised a thousand questions, and at that moment the only person capable of answering them was flying thirty thousand feet above the Atlantic.
The embalmer was standing right beside his table when the widow entered the room. He turned to face her, and said:
“My sympathies, Miss.”
She didn’t answer.
He’d prepared a speech to warn her. Either he delivered it badly or she didn’t listen or there was no way to make her change her mind, because she said:
“I want to see him.”
The embalmer sighed. He took the sheet by the hem and folded it back to bare the cadaver to halfway down the chest. The woman didn’t move, not a gesture, not a twitch.
“I want to be with him for a while.”
“You’ll be all right?”
She stayed there alone, beside the corpse.
It didn’t even look like a cadaver any more. You could imagine it was a body by the curve of the neck and left shoulder. The same line was interrupted on the right. The same line was broken off, splintered, and twisted on the right. The rest was a sculpture fashioned from an open wound with mutilated flesh and strips of grey skin bruised yellow and black.
Facing the carcass, she took from her handbag a sheet of paper folded in four. She opened it with care. The sheet was covered in tiny red handwriting. She cleared her throat and refolded it and began to talk while holding it, damp, in the palm of her hand.
“I came to tell you that I’m glad you’re dead. I know you didn’t only do bad things in your life, but I’m happy all the same and never never will I feel guilty for that. When I was small, during the catechism, Madame Verreault talked to us about the good Lord who was the father of little Jesus and who pardoned all our transgressions and forgave us all our sins. Grandmother had a bible. Thicker than the New Testament they gave us at school. Inside there were stories of the time before Jesus, and in those stories God doesn’t look like Father Christmas. Whenever he feels like it he imposes bizarre taboos, and he’s appalled by just about everything men do. He asks them to bathe their sins in blood, and to cut off the hands of thieves and to stone unfaithful women. I asked Madame Verreault how those two gods could inhabit the same book, and who’d decided to pass them off as only one. The catechism doesn’t have ready-made answers for questions like that. She did her best. She said God had always wanted to make peace in the world, and for that he had for a long time to present himself as very hard in order to hold in check all the evil running rampant in the hearts of men. God had pretended to be terrible before sending his Son to reveal to us that he was love. For our own good. A bit like my parents who loved me had to punish me when I was naughty. It was a nice try but I was already smart enough to recognize an explanation that was too convenient. I kept that in mind for a long time, and years later I finally understood. Because of you. It wasn’t the first time that you came to me but it was the first time that you said you loved me. That’s when I understood. God loved you like he loved me. He loved us both, He loved us, strange bed mates, you the burly man and me the child, he loved your hands on me and your sweaty underclothes, he loved my cold feet and my icy nose, he loved your past suffering as much as mine in the future. That’s when I understood, I’m telling you. God is love and that’s why he’s terrible. You can’t live, knowing that. You can just destroy your life and destroy your body and push others away and hurt others. You can just be evil and I was evil all the time and it’s your fault and the fault of the stupid God who loved you like he loved me, of God who loved you, big dirty dog, and who loved me, damaged little girl. Today I’m fine. I know that a God listens to murderous prayers, and I know that stretched out beside me you were an abomination to him. I’ve come to tell you that it doesn’t bother me if God divided your soul in two to bring the good half close to him. It doesn’t bother me if God was with you while the lopper tore you in two because now that you look like that, I forgive you too.”
The widow applied a humid kiss to the brow half torn from the dead man, and wiped from the corners of her eyes tears that were not there, and left the embalming room and the funeral home and slept at her parents’ and took the bus to Montreal where she arrived with the smell of cadavers still stuck in her nostrils and on her palate. She knew that smell. She’d smelled it often when she’d helped her great-uncle to dig graves in the village cemetery. Sometimes he dug a grave to bury a woman on top of her husband, and he was afraid at each blow of the shovel of breaking through the coffin’s rotten wood. The earth around them reeked of decomposition and at night she brought back to the house an odour of death that her sisters came to sniff, clotted in her hair, and that only disappeared after long, scalding baths.
Later she worked in restaurant kitchens and brought home with her odours of raw meat and cooking with spices and garlic, which never really disappeared, but at least they were the odours of life, and Paul said, laughing, that he felt like he was making love to a braised lamb. He was working at the university library. She would have liked to smell on his skin the fresh aroma of books they bought at bookstores or the rank odour of the books they unearthed in second-hand stores, but books don’t leave the same traces on people, and she never found any scent on him of paper, old or new.
It was Paul who came to drive her to the airport on Thursday.
They stayed in the car, watching the drops of rain slip like snails down the windshield. At a certain point she asked:
“What’s going to happen with us?”
Paul held her hand for a long time, staring ahead of him. She knew he wouldn’t kiss her.
“We’ll talk about it when you get back.”
“Maybe I won’t come back.”
He pretended to look for something in his jacket pockets.
“Come. We’ll unload your suitcases.”
The widow drank three Perriers on the plane, thinking about her ragged twenties. For years she’d stalked, unthinking, the lights over the doors of bars that invited you in like little birds befogged by mountain ash berries, who throw themselves against their own reflections in the windows. After, there’d been Paul, and all those years she’d loved him to the point of nausea, of not being able to sleep at night. She worked at the time in a rather tough neighbourhood. Getting off at two in the morning, she’d call Paul from the bistro so he’d come to meet her. They’d spot each other from a distance in winter in the middle of snowstorms, and for some hundreds of metres they’d appear and disappear from each other’s sight in great clouds of drifting snow that they themselves stirred up. They kissed and went home and rid their bones of cold by rubbing numb limbs together, while their bodies embraced the warmth and the skin of the other. You had to be very poor and desperate to love each other like that, and there was some comfort in knowing she’d never go back there. She had no trouble now paying her bills, and the great adolescent ache had dulled within her. She was safe now forever from turmoil, but was paying the price.
There is no true love for those who take cover from the storm.
Through the airplane window she observed the clouds, which didn’t look at all the same on high as they did from down below. From underneath they were all curves, and formed sheep or hills or faces. But from aloft they were broken lines, and formed arches and streets and facades and for a moment she thought to herself that things would have been different with Paul if they’d been able to live in one of those cities in the clouds. Soon Ireland’s pasturelands appeared in the window, and as far as Orly she watched Europe unfold as a life-size map, and thought no more of anything.
In Paris, jet-lagged, she took possession of the apartment she’d rented for the week. It was two rooms, furnished with a kitchenette, bathroom, and flowered balcony, on an upper floor of an Eleventh Arrondissement high-rise. In the afternoon she went up Avenue Philippe-Auguste and the Boulevard de Ménilmontant to Père Lachaise. She bestowed a sloppy kiss on Oscar Wilde’s monument, paused for a long time before Édith Piaf’s, and meditated over the remains, minus his heart, of Frédéric Chopin. The next day she visited Notre-Dame and saw two lovers light a candle, wondering what they might be pledging to each other. She then walked along the Seine, crossed Pont Royal, and stopped at the Musée d’Orsay, where she lingered over the Déjeuner sur l’herbe to examine the curves of this young woman who Paul had often claimed looked a lot like her.
She ate alone and went back to the apartment, heavy-hearted. She felt like crying, and had trouble breathing. She’d suffocated as a young girl in her village, she’d suffocated as a young woman in Montreal, and she suffocated now as a merry widow in the world’s capital. She went to bed with the growing unease that sometimes stopped her from leaving the house in the morning, and even from dragging herself out from beneath the bedclothes.
She was awakened at dawn by thunder. When she got out of bed, she saw through the window that the city was wrapped in fog and covered by an opaque layer of grey clouds. Later on, sirens wailed in the midst of the storm to signal that it was noon. The sirens dated from the war, and could have been those heralding an invasion. The rain pounded down on the city like shrapnel, and the widow watched it falling all day long from the balcony.
She saw the Eiffel Tower’s steel structure dissolve into an anthracite silhouette, then vanish completely. She saw the rain swallow up the Panthéon, the Montparnasse tower, and Notre-Dame. She saw the Butte Montmartre and Sacré-Coeur being washed away like dead trees in a rushing river.
She thought: terrible dreams are coming true.
The Romans and the barbarians wanted to destroy Paris, the English toyed with the idea for a hundred years, and Hitler wished for it with all his dark soul, not suspecting that the man responsible for razing the city would show himself more loyal to the splendours of Lutetia than to all the swastikas in Berlin.
For millennia, they had failed.
For two hours the widow hovered between sky and earth and watched the rain wipe away Paris.
The next day she got up, took a shower, and went down to the tobacconist to buy blonde Gitanes and a café crème. It was hot. Nothing remained of the storm, other than the heavy humidity being exhaled by the paving stones. She went back home to change and met an old man in the elevator who lived on the same floor. They greeted each other. He was a polite gentleman who wore a thick corduroy jacket and large, tortoiseshell glasses. He ought to have had a pile of books under his arm, but he was carrying records, old 33 r.p.m. jazz recordings. Dexter Gordon, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins.
“Are you renting the Becqueret apartment?”
“No,” she replied, “I live here.”
“Really? You’re moving in?”
“I’ve always lived here.”
The old man looked at her, perplexed, then he smiled in turn.
“It’s true, you’re right.”
The elevator door opened. The old man added:
“And if you’ll allow me, Mademoiselle: in all this time, you’ve always been right.”
Returning home after an aperitif with friends a few days later, the widow came across a writer, much prized by the media, sitting at a table with a young woman, in front of a half-empty plate. She stared at him through the glass as if she were looking at a screen, not realizing what she was doing, until he lifted his head and gazed back at her with annoyance.
She gave a start, burst out laughing, and strode off. That was the most enduring impression the city left on her. Paris was a large zoo where intellectuals were shut up behind café windows.
It was time now to make her way north.