In Translation

Les peaux cassées

by Richard Dallaire

Éditions Alto, 2013

On the way home, at the corner of 1st Avenue and 18th Street, I would invariably cross paths with the Scarecrow. Rain or shine, there he stood, arms outstretched, a Christ-like figure at the crossroads, taking blows to the face from passersby.

The alley kids swarmed around him, flinging stones and singing dark nursery rhymes. They attacked him like it was a game and the straw man took the beatings without complaint, despite his puffed-up, burst-open body. He would make a good case for my friend Jean-Baptiste, I thought to myself.

Every day I found him in more of a mess than the night before. As living conditions worsened, pressure rose in the city and the Scarecrow was its barometer.

[…]

At the corner of 18th Street and 1st Avenue, two men were busy smashing the Scarecrow’s face in. He took the beating, his arms stretched out to form a cross. His eyes were red, lost amid a swollen bruised mass, and stared back defiantly at his attackers. He was smiling.

His aggressors ran out of steam after five minutes. They wearily put their coats back on before strolling off, leaving the Scarecrow’s smashed-in face behind them.

“Are you OK?”

He looked me up and down scornfully as he cleared his throat and spat out a big black clot of blood. A thick thread swung from his chin. I took out a tissue to wipe it away.

“Who are you, anyway? Whaddya want?”

“To help you… Just to help you.”

His wretched face made me feel for him. I was dabbing at his chin when a second gob landed on my hand. I looked at the spit mixed with blood for a second before wiping it on his pants.

“If you wanna help me so much, go get me a coffee.”

The restaurant opposite had some that was almost drinkable. I came back a few minutes later with two cups of steaming diesel.

“You blind or what? I’m up here on a cross. Give me a hand!”

I put the cup to his lips. He spat it back out onto my shirt and I dropped his cup.

“That’s disgusting! Go get me another one!”

It took a lot of effort not to throw my cup in his face. Bad though it was, the coffee was expensive. I wasn’t going to waste it.

My meetings with the Scarecrow were never cordial, but every time I saw that awful head on him and his bruised and swollen body, I couldn’t help but fix him. I was sincere, idealistic even, in the importance I attached to healing him, but his refusal to let me care for him killed all my good intentions.

“You again? Why are you back here breaking my balls?”

“I want to know why you let them beat you up.”

He was a real sight. His left eye was swollen; a torn-off eyebrow dangled down over his cheek. Blood trickled out over his eyelid and down his nose to his nostril, cutting across the corner of his mouth and stopping at the end of his chin.

“No. You want to think you’re taking an interest in someone to make yourself feel better.”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

“Ever tried fighting back with a pole up your ass?”

It was a fair point. I looked at the pole and saw the stream of piss and shit that gathered in a sickening mound around his ankles. The wind picked up and saw off the stench. His useless ankles, each missing a foot, began to swing back and forth like a pendulum.

“I can see you’re rooted to the spot all right. But why do you want people to hit you?”

“Everyone has their role.”

“And what’s yours? An open-air release valve?”

He stuck out his tongue to lick at the blood around his mouth before swallowing it.

“Never notice that everyone here is dragging a cartful of shit around behind them? Every time they walk past me I remind them that running away is impossible. I’m the rotten tooth that needs to be pulled, the boil that must be lanced!”

He was getting louder and louder as I tried to work out what he meant.

“Take a look around you. Have a listen.”

We were quiet for a moment. I could hear a dog barking, a bottle smashing, a bus going by, and a far-off shout, lost in an alleyway.

“Can’t hear the empty stomachs rumbling? Soon that’s all we’ll hear. It’ll deafen the lot of us, I’m telling you!”

He had shouted the last bit. Someone across the street hurled an empty beer bottle at him and it struck him in the face. The bottle left a gash on the top of his forehead and fresh blood streamed down his face.

“You see that idiot?”

I turned around and saw a guy with a stupid grin, his body reeling back and forth. He wobbled off unsteadily, drunk as a sailor.

“That’s maybe the last bottle he can afford. He’ll be smiling less tomorrow, with a sore head and not a drop more to help him forget.”

PETINF14-QuebecReads-Favicon-32x32Translation by Peter McCambridge
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