by Bruno Hébert
220 Grandbois Road. August 1963. It was the afternoon of a heat wave. If you never lived in Quebec, you wouldn’t know what that meant. The heat and humidity were so extreme that if you threw a rock in the air, there was no guarantee it would fall back to earth. It could stay stuck up there till sundown. I’d seen it happen.
Mama was preparing crab legs as an appetizer. Papa was bringing some big shot home for supper. We didn’t eat crab every night at our house. It had to be a special occasion. Mama said our guest was practically a saint. I’d even heard Madame Piché say there was talk of him in Rome and that the man had an aura. I’d never seen an aura, except Simon Templar’s halo on tv.
There was excitement in the air. My brother and I were playing in our plastic kiddie pool. The plan was to stay in the water as long as we could, till our toes pruned, because afterward we’d be dressed in our Sunday best and couldn’t get dirty. Ugh! Wearing clean, ironed clothes in the middle of a heat wave would be torture—mental and physical.
On the kitchen radio, Charles Trenet was singing, “Y’a d’la joie, bonjour, bonjour les hirondelles!” That was when my brother went to yank on my mother’s skirt. “Mama! Mama!” he said.
She had five kids, so she didn’t answer right away. She had crab legs to smother in garlic butter and then pop in the oven.
“Mama! . . . Mama!”
Baked at 450 degrees just before serving, these morsels—tender, juicy, a tad crispy—would be the perfect appetizer for a saint.
“Mama! Léon is asleep in the pool.”
Just as Mama was about to dip a crab leg in melted butter, something stopped her. She jerked her head up and glanced out the window. There in the middle of the yard was our blue-green pool adorned with smiley grey dolphins. She dashed out the door. My brother climbed on the kitchen counter to watch the action from the window. It was a great idea because he could later tell me all the details of my rescue.
“Y’a d’la joie, bonjour, bonjour les hirondelles!”
With my mouth and eyes open and my arms outstretched at the bottom of the pool, I’d become the Petit Bleu. Mama froze for a second or two, then a sort of resolve, or a wave of hysteria, took over. She grabbed one of my ankles, yanked me out of the water upside down, and began spinning me like a top. I spewed out a bucket of water on the lawn and came to. Then I was swept into the house by the bundle of nerves my mother had turned into. She was no longer arms, hands, a neck. She was boiling energy, electric magma. I flew through space as if by magic. She sat me on the couch in the living room and then darted to the kitchen and hurried back with a glass of milk. I took two or three sips.
“Léon, sit here nice and quiet, okay? Mama will be back in a sec.”
I hardly recognized her voice, but of course I had water in my ears. Before I had time to answer, my mother was off again in the kitchen, her shoes tapping so loudly on our wood floor I feared she was leaving dents. I heard her rifle through the cutlery. Drawers flew open and slammed shut. She was looking for something frantically. I felt uneasy and just wanted to nap. A moment later, my mother came back wielding our huge carving knife, which was so sharp we kids weren’t even allowed to look at it. Papa would use it to carve our Sunday roast.
Wild-eyed, Mama headed toward me, heels pounding the floor. My life was over. I knew drowning yourself was a big no-no, but it was only my first drowning. Tears sprang to my eyes. I hadn’t realized how good it would feel at the bottom of that pool. It had been so calm and quiet down there. I craved quiet. Mama walked by without even glancing at me. An arrow flew toward its target, its path preordained, and that target wasn’t me. She opened the door to our patio, stepped out, crossed the yard, walked under the weeping willows, and stopped at the blue-green kiddie pool with its parade of Flippers jumping for joy. Then the massacre began. Mama stabbed the pool over and over, hacked the dolphins to pieces, folded everything up in a bundle, and dragged it to the curb where we left our trash cans. Our swimming pool was no more. Afterward, she sat beside me and quietly wept.
Everything went back to normal. I had a slight headache, but didn’t give a hoot. I was wearing the halo of a boy saved from the clutches of death. There were miracles in the air, and the timing was perfect because the almost saint Pierre, patron of the disciples of Emmaus, was coming for supper that evening. Despite my young age, I felt shrouded in holiness, serene, and calm. I ate my ice cream like an apostle eating the body of Christ. Mama examined me all over and dried my hair. I’m sure my face left an imprint on the towel from her rubbing so hard. When she finally realized I was out of danger, she went back to her cooking.
My brother, Jérôme, took my hand and led me silently to the curb. Like at our grandfather’s funeral, we stood together gazing at a corpse. What a painful moment it was. We’d had such fun in that pool. Now it was horrible to look at, all crumpled and folded up. A slashed dolphin stared grotesquely, one eye on the pavement, the other looking straight at me, blaming me. I was about to lose my great holy calm and fall into despair like a remorseful killer. My brother was angry at me for drowning myself. He was angry at me for many things, and the pool was just a drop in the bucket. If I’d died that day, maybe he could have been happy.
Papa’s big Chevrolet appeared at the end of the street. Without a word, we hid behind the cedar hedge so we could freely observe the arrival of the apostle Saint Pierre, patron of Emmaus.
“He sure has big ears,” my brother said straight off.
I was annoyed he was judging a holy man. Yet from what I saw with my own eyes, I had to agree: Abbé Pierre had a church door on each side of his head.
“Be careful. We can’t make a sound,” I said. “That guy can hear a fly crapping on the moon.”
“Big ears don’t mean you hear better, you retard! Maybe he’s as deaf as a post.”
As if to prove Jérôme wrong, Abbé Pierre turned and stared intently at the hedge. “Your cedars are lovely, Monsieur Doré.”
He made the comment loud and clear like at the start of an epistle. Our cedars were in fact an eyesore. All the local mutts would piss on them. The lower sections were yellow and stunk of ammonia.
“He’s looking at us,” I told Jérôme.
The man’s eyes, black marbles in his head, bulged out and took in everything—sky, earth, oceans, animals, children hiding. Jérôme ran off behind the house, but I stayed put. I told myself that I was only a kid and it was normal for kids to hide and even that I was hiding because I happened to be playing cowboys and Indians with my friends. The Indians had declared war not five minutes before, and I had no choice but to hide. You didn’t mess with Geronimo. My father and his guest soon went inside, but I stayed hiding awhile. I needed to think. First, I hadn’t seen any halo. Maybe it was visible only at night or maybe Abbé Pierre didn’t wear his halo all the time. Simon Templar wore his only at the very start of his show. What was certain was I needed a man of God on my side, so I hatched a plan to win him over.
We first had drinks on the patio in the shade of our linden tree. Abbé Pierre drank orange juice, and my father knocked back three glasses of whiskey. Between sips of her coffee, Mama told everybody about my drowning, my rescue at the last minute, and, finally, miracle of miracles, my actual resurrection. My sisters, Marguerite and Valérie, showed up and as usual spoiled the mood. They were gnomes from another planet who lived in their own private, hermetic world. They chattered away in an invented language only they understood. As for me, I sat quietly in a wicker chair, firmly touched by grace, drinking in my mother’s words, and not daring to move a muscle. I was impressed by the story of my drowning, and my state of grace grew as the minutes went by. The only snag was I’d have to say something. I realized this just as everybody turned to look at me.
To my dismay, I remembered little about my drowning. I’d slid to the bottom of the pool, drifted into the silence as the water pressed down. I’d become fuzzyheaded and forgetful, and just as you might forget your lunchbox, I’d forgotten to breathe. It was so stupid, and I didn’t dare tell anybody. I was notorious in my family for being absent-minded and scatterbrained. Why make things worse? Already I wasn’t allowed to sleep on the top bunk. When I’d get up at night to go for a pee, I’d forget where I was and almost crack my head open when I fell. Or so everybody claimed. I didn’t ever remember falling. In my opinion, you’d remember almost cracking your head open. As for swimming pools, I wouldn’t go back in one unless the temperature climbed to three hundred degrees in the shade and I had doctor’s orders. Even then I’d probably balk. Anyhow, I’d now have so many darn life preservers I’d smother to death in all that inflatable rubber.
I had to think of something to say. I remembered a conversation Mama had had with Madame Piché. I was pretending that day to play in the sandbox with her son, Jean, but I was actually eavesdropping. Mama was talking about the time she’d driven into a tree and wrecked Papa’s car. She’d smacked her head on the windshield. I remembered the big bump on her forehead and Papa’s fit when he came home that night.
Mama said that on impact she’d seen a bright white light and her whole life had flashed before her eyes like in the movies. That had to be more or less what death was like, she told Madame Piché, who’d gone wide-eyed as if spooked by a ghost.
Their conversation, I now realized, gave me some good material to crib from. Once we were all seated at the dinner table and eating our crab legs, I felt ready to tell Abbé Pierre about my experience drowning.
“I first saw an incredible white light, like a door opening at the top of a staircase. Then the big finger from the Sistine Chapel floated down. It touched me on the forehead even though I was still under water. It undrowned me real fast. Then I heard music.”
“What kind of music?” Abbé Pierre asked.
He didn’t look surprised.
“The music was coming from somewhere else, a room next door maybe. It might have been a cathedral, but I’m not sure. A little dog came by, a Newfoundland puppy. It breathed air into me through a tube and saved my life.”
I added the dog so Papa would change his mind about the puppies born to Delphine, our neighbour’s dog. I’d have sold my soul for a Newfoundland puppy. I always went too far, though. Abbé Pierre listened reverently, his eyes bulging out. Papa made a face that said he was no fool, and I avoided looking at him. Mama was thrilled. My sisters babbled in their African dialect and ignored us completely. Jérôme gave me kicks under the table because I might ruin our chance to adopt a puppy.
It wasn’t the reaction I’d expected. I didn’t know what I’d hoped for exactly. Maybe I wanted to get Abbé Pierre’s attention, rouse his curiosity and sympathy, instill doubt, create mystery. I wanted him to remember me. After all, it might be handy to have God’s messenger, a miracle worker, as a good friend. Inside I felt a great trust, maybe even faith. Abbé Pierre would deliver me from evil now and till the day I died, once and for all, amen.
I’d already felt trouble brewing in my heart, rebels lurking in the tall grass, guilt and other wild beasts waiting to leap from their lair and rip apart what was left of my innocence.
With a wave of his hand, Abbé Pierre could change lions into lambs, I was sure. Yet the holy man was blind to my pain. He simply gave me some sugar-coated almonds he had left over in his pocket from a baptism. Abbé Pierre was always invited to baptisms. He’d touch the heads of newborns to give them religion. Later, when they grew up, those baptized babies might found cults whose members would commit mass suicide.
I was disappointed.
Abbé Pierre spent the night lying on our roof watching the stars.
While I was still a kid, I drowned three more times. At the Love Sun Hotel in Port-au-Prince, I hit my head on the diving board and knocked myself out. In Lake Ouareau, my foot got wedged under a rock. The final time was during the butterfly semifinal at an intercity swim meet in front of five hundred people. At the start of the race, I dived in and lost my swimsuit. I somehow figured I could find my suit and slip it back on at the bottom of the pool twelve feet under where no one would see me. When they dragged me out, my swimsuit was on backward.
I also met other holy men—Abbé Paulhus, Père Vanier, Frère Untel—but they never forgave me my sins or delivered me from evil, amen.
The next morning, Papa drove quietly down the street in his Chevrolet. He took with him the enigma of goodness, the strange Abbé Pierre.
Translation by Neil Smith
This translation first appeared in print in The Malahat Review. With thanks to The Malahat Review for permission to republish it here. Read an interview with Neil Smith here about translating this story.