by Marie-Eve Bourassa
VLB éditeur, 2016
She showed up out of the blue, uninvited, one morning in September. It was far too hot, so hot you’d have thought it was summer, and the air was thick in the shabby little bedroom. To be fair, a lot of the stench in there must’ve come from me, ’cause I stank like a cockroach. I never left the apartment anymore, didn’t even wear pants these days. All I had on was my second skin, my threadbare hanfu.
It was stifling in there, but you could barely breathe outside either, with the curious mix of odors emanating from the neighborhood restaurants, laundries, and general detritus rotting in the sun. You’d be deluding yourself if you thought you could step outside for a breath of air. Here, air was something rare and fleeting. It was rancid and rotten, like the heart of Montreal and the souls of its people. If you wanted to breathe, you had to go down to the port to the end of the wharves. But that was a dangerous thing to do. Inevitably it would make you want to disappear. Jump on a boat headed to who knows where. Or leap into the river; with a bit of luck, the current might sweep you away.
Pei-Shan was the one who opened up to the woman. Personally, I’d have rather let her rap her knuckles to shreds on the door. And given the way things went, no doubt that would’ve been preferable.
She had pale skin and mousy hair, styled in the latest fashion. She smelled of powder and perfume and was all dolled up in her Sunday dress. She had the eyes of someone who’d forgotten how to sleep, or who’d done a lot of crying. Plump, she was. With a silly, childish look on her face. There was a market for everything, apparently. I’d have said she was fourteen, fifteen at most. A girl just like so many others, who went by the name of Jeanne.
She took a seat on a chair in front of me, as shy as she was determined, driven as only someone who has nothing left to lose can be, and I soon realized she wasn’t going to take no for an answer.
She thrust a thick brown envelope toward me. I grabbed it and tucked it away in the folds of my housecoat without bothering to count the wad of bills inside. Pei-Shan shot me a glance. She looked so tiny in a petticoat that was too big for her. This wasn’t exactly a fortune, but we hadn’t seen that much dough in ages. She wouldn’t have taken no for an answer either.
“For sure I remember Rose!” I finally admitted. “You’re living at her place?”
Jeanne nodded. “She’s the one who persuaded me to come see you, m’sieur Eugène. She said you could help me. She said I could trust you, that you’d helped her once before…”
“That was a long time ago, sweetheart. You can see for yourself I’m not a cop anymore. I don’t mean to disappoint you, but…”
“The police won’t help me, anyway. That’s why I…”
“And why would I do any different, eh? I don’t even know you. Madame Rose… Ah! I do remember Madame Rose; now she was a woman who knew how to wrap men around her little finger. Do you, though?”
A storm cloud darkened her gaze. She smoothed her dress over her knees. She was desperate, but she was hoping she wouldn’t have to open her legs for me. That was understandable, even though I was sure she’d seen worse.
“Well, I’ve paid you, haven’t I?” she protested, starting to worry about the money I’d already stashed away. “All the girls chipped in…”
“So you want to hire me, do you? Cut the bullshit first.”
She bit her lip and stole a glance at Pei-Shan, who was on her knees by my side, busy preparing the morning decoction.
I smiled. “Relax, Shan don’t speak a word of French. Can’t understand a damn thing. Ain’t that right, wifey?”
Pei-Shan’s face lit up in a broad, ignorant smile, and she nodded enthusiastically.
“And between you and me, I reckon she’s not all there, either. Not the sharpest tool in the box, if you catch my drift. Her old man gave her away to me to pay off a debt. A hell of a sad story if ever you heard one. But if you want my two cents’ worth,” I joked, putting on a faux Chinese accent, “I did the guy a favor by taking his little angel off his hands.”
I adjusted the collar of my housecoat. At last, Pei-Shan poured the steaming liquid into my glass, and it seemed like a good idea for me to stand back a few inches, in case she had the urge to throw boiling water at me. She then filled a second cup for herself and carried it slowly over to the bed at the end of the room. Jeanne, both surprised and relieved to not be offered a taste of this strange brew, wriggled awkwardly on her chair. I took my first bitter, scalding sip before offering an apology.
“It’s medicine. For my bad leg from the war. Papaver somniferum. You understand?”
“Er, yes,” she replied, not quite following.
“If you’re thirsty, though, I’ll get Shan to fetch you some hot water from the laundry downstairs. We must have some tea, somewhere… Shan!”
“No, no, I don’t want to be any trouble.”
And since Pei-Shan was slowly starting to come to life, dulled somewhat by the, ahem, herbal brew, Jeanne added:
“Madame Shan, no, no, please, don’t get up. I’m fine. I’m not th-irs-ty…”
Jeanne pronounced her last word one syllable at a time, as if she were speaking to a slow child. With an imperceptible smile engraved on her lips, Shan lifted her tiny feet back onto the mattress. Without getting up, I reached over to grab my cane, which was lying on the floor to my left. Sweetie: that was the nickname I’d given to this long, irregular length of wood topped with a sculpted handle in the shape of a dog’s head. A classy piece, she was. Sweetie, my loyal companion. She who kept me standing on my bad leg wherever I went. She, too, who reminded me every day of what I had lost.
Translation by David Warriner. © Bourassa, Marie-Eve. Red Light t.1. Adieu, Mignonne. VLB éditeur, Montréal, 2016, pages 10-13.