by Catherine Leroux
She was born in a region with seven inhabitants per square kilometer. By the time she came of age, this number had climbed almost to eight and threatened to continue its alarming ascent. Soon the little town on the banks of the Ottawa River would be as dense as wool washed in hot water. Yet the closeness of other people, whether in tightly knit groups or scattered all about, brought no good to Victoria, or rather her skin. Overcrowding caused unbearable itching, rashes, blisters, and in certain extreme cases, a disturbing loss of hair. The more people there were around her the greater her itch.
From the first day of school, the pain assaulted her. At recess her skin began to crawl, rising like an angry sea into moods so strong that it seemed as if it was shouting in distress through her pores. Children were laughing nearby, passing balls back and forth and drawing whole worlds in chalk. Victoria tore her gaze away from the hives, directing it into the swarm dancing around her. For a second, a pulse other than her own beat in her body. Then a small group running full-tilt brushed past her, and her left side began to burn. She withdrew into a deserted corner of the schoolyard and in a precocious flash understood that this first and fleeting sense of kinship would be her last. She would from now on have to flee what she had not yet dared approach.
For three years her mother applied all sorts of ointments and witch’s remedies that would scorch Victoria’s skin as holy water does demons. In classrooms of forty square meters, the population density reached the tortuous number of 694,444 people per square kilometer. For Victoria, demography never lost its relevance as a unit of measurement, and, gifted in math, she would weigh up each situation against this comforting standard. One thing was certain: 694,444 children per square kilometer were far too many. After her mother found dried blood on Victoria’s sheets and shirts, she resigned herself to homeschooling her daughter.
Years passed and Victoria matured into a young woman of unusual size. Tall and broad, she appeared hollow, like a mainsail nothing could quite fill out. When the time came to leave home (45 people per square kilometer), Victoria wanted nothing more than to go to the ends of the earth. The joints in her hands popped as she paged through atlases and almanacs, her long bony fingers stroking pictures of the emptiest places in Quebec. In the end she determined that the tip of the Gaspé Peninsula, with its low population density and majestic landscapes, would make an ideal place to call home. She predicted that along the ocean, the feeling of surrounding humanity would have to be less strong since the expanse of water, which was not included in the numbers, did not contain a single inhabitant.
She charged bravely onto the packed bus, where she came close to picking away all her skin, trying hard not to guess at the statistic responsible for her misery. Her neighbor seemed to take a perverse delight in digging his elbow into her side each time he turned a page of his newspaper. When she got off the bus, she discovered two enormous purple blisters where he had bumped against her. But turning toward the vastness of the sky and water, she breathed a sigh of relief and forgot her wounds. Finally, she was far from everything.
The geese flew south, trailing summer behind them, then the cold slowed down everyday life, frost glazed the land, and everything grew still. In her spare little house, Victoria watched in fascination as her skin began to clear, taking on a pure whiteness and velvety texture it had not possessed since the cradle. The only human presence was the odd automobile that would enter her field of vision, bounding along the snow-covered roads too quickly to transmit whatever wave it was that corroded all aspects and surfaces of Victoria’s body. Standing before her window, she stroked her arms, reflecting idly that relief would be all life could offer her by way of happiness.
To earn a living, she would take on accounting jobs sent to her through the mail. From time to time, holding whole pages covered in numbers, her fingers would begin to tingle, bothered by all the nerves, ambition, and worry teeming behind the figures she was asked to organize. She would then leave the bundles of documents to rest for a few hours in the halo of light surrounding the woodstove before taking them up again. She would finish her work crippled by a distant fatigue, deliciously different from the exhaustion brought on by past pains. She would wait until the middle of the night to slide the envelopes into the mailbox, certain that at that hour she would encounter nothing but the high winds crossing the wasteland of cold and spume to touch down on earth.
Thinking herself safe, she didn’t put up her guard when the snow began to disappear, the ice dams began to shrink, the boats returned to sea, and the villagers took back the small town. Their distant and hazy presence, moderate movements, and constant exodus toward the cities had kept them from upsetting Victoria’s newfound health. She didn’t even worry when the flow of cars on the road increased, piercing the landscape with gleaming colors. But then her skin sounded the alarm in the night of June 24. She thought her sheets had caught fire.
There they were, all around her, on the beach, in the woods, on top of the cliffs and close to the torrent, drunk and hungry, wrapped up in sleeping bags, mouths full of dirty songs and shrimp, brimming with the simple-minded enthusiasm that characterizes tourists the world over. At daybreak, armed with binoculars, Victoria was able to make out the banners announcing festivities that would last until fall. Lowering her gaze, she observed the weeping boils that had sprung up across her chest in just a few hours. Even her nails bristled with splinters.
She tried rubbing the age-old ointments over herself in vain; they evaporated as soon as they touched her skin. She spent hours immersed in a bath, trying to calm herself, hoping that this sudden outbreak would be no more than a brief resurgence after the long period cut off from other people. To her despair, the water began to boil before turning a disquieting yellow. She leapt out of the tub, scalded alive, her vision clouded by a haze that she supposed was due not to the air, but her own retinas. Twenty-four hours after the vacationers’ arrival, Victoria feared for her life.
She packed her bags in no time at all. She made use of dawn to pass through the sleeping town, angry at being dispossessed of ground so dearly won. After a boat crossing nearly as trying as the bus trip before it, Victoria ran until she found a quiet, secluded place to pore over the map that would serve as her guide. This time she didn’t make any calculations. She knew exactly where she needed to go. Paradoxically, it was a place made almost uninhabitable by its concentration of mosquitos, deerflies, and sandflies, which was why Victoria had avoided it until now. But she realized that the effects of human proximity were worse for her than insects, so she set off without further deliberation. She was an arrow speeding toward the north of Quebec.
At a steady pace, she could cover about twenty-five kilometers a day. This meant two weeks of walking, as the crow flies. But with the detours needed to avoid the few dwellings along the way, she couldn’t hope to reach her goal in fewer than twenty days. She left behind the hamlets of the shore for what was known locally as “unorganized territory”: vast, wild, and wonderfully empty, from the river to the pole. The only living beings she encountered feared her enough to keep their distance. Anyway, Victoria had always been able to stand the closeness of animals better than humans, so she let herself slow down to admire the heavy grace of a moose, or the swiftness of a sprinting hare.
As the impression grew that she was no longer burning up the air around her, the marks on her skin faded. Her skin was becoming dry and slack, as if her body had shrunk from an even larger frame. But Victoria had never been overly concerned by her physique, which had always been more a sensation than something to look at, and now that she was hurtling toward the horizon like a stray bullet, it no longer mattered in the slightest.
She came across random objects, gutted machines, and stillborn tools scattered along a road that nobody took anymore. As soon as she began to see flowers sprouting through the pavement, she knew she had found what she was looking for. A density of 0.1 inhabitants per square kilometer. This sleek zero, polished by the quiet and isolation, was her salvation. Traces of human activity continued to crop up like satellites fallen from the sky until Victoria saw the sign. “Site of the Former Town of Gagnon.” She had arrived.
Only the faded outlines of the streets remained out of the mass of buildings. Houses, the school, the church, stores: all had been razed when the company left. On the outskirts of town an enormous hole full of noxious water contained the machines that mine management hadn’t felt worth taking with them. Metal fossils, rusting skeletons of sperm whales. Confronted with such ruin, Victoria discovered what all undertakers learn by dint of working with cadavers: the gray and inviolable peace of death. She moved through a sort of silver desert upon which a heavy, bluish powder, glinting coldly, had accumulated. All the elements necessary to turning this bit of land into a lunar landscape had been extracted from the bowels of the Earth. The wind rose, the smell of the tundra brushed against her bare skin. Nature was so beautiful, ever-changing.
She spent several nights sleeping outside, the bats weaving a protective net above her body. Her solitude took on a different character in the absence of other humans. Whereas before she had struggled to construct an invisible bubble around herself, here in Gagnon such efforts were no longer necessary. The struggle was simply to stay alive. The only things she had brought with her were a thick sleeping bag and dehydrated foodstuffs, from which she ate sparingly. In the streams and the wide reaches of the Manicouagan reservoir, she caught fish that fought until their dying breath and she trembled at their strength. She was not used to it. She prepared her catch respectfully.
In August, the weather turned variable and shelter was required. Victoria chose a spot surrounded by mighty aspens that, she supposed, had once towered over a particularly cozy house. In her search for likely materials, she wandered far beyond the town center from which everything had been removed decades earlier. At times she walked up to twenty kilometers a day for just a few boards, some branches to support a structure with, sheet metal. She built a cabin with her finds and insulated it with leaves and moss. Making a nest for herself where people had once lived, loved, lied, and cried, where men had bled and women had swaddled their babies, made her happy. The days grew shorter and she began to collect firewood. She stole sheets and cans as heavy as bears’ stomachs from the rarely visited hunting camps on Lac Barbel.
Her preparations plunged her into a sort of frenzy. She began to talk to herself, chatting to the fallen leaves, squirrels, and the last moths of the season. She made up legends inspired by the curious remains of the town that nature had taken back, she confided in the people whose souls had partly been left behind. Buried since early childhood, her desire for human contact resurfaced, exacerbated by the difficult season ahead. She imagined the warmth, the friendship that she lacked, in the traces of warmth and friendship surrounding her. Then the first snowfalls covered her new kingdom and she fell silent.
Those who have known real suffering—the biting pain that surpasses all bearable limits—know the benefits of staying still. After years of suffering, Victoria was able to serenely accept hunkering down in a shelter so cramped that she had to sleep in fetal position, eat in a crouch, think in circles. While blizzards raged, she would remain seated, wrapped in her stiffened coverings without moving, feeling as if winter had stuffed her into its pocket like an old glove. Even though the fire kept her warm enough to stay alive, the coldest colds still numbed her extremities and a perilous sleep tormented her on more than one night as wolves stirred all around.
The dangers of frost and wild animals might have been kept at bay if hunger had not gained so much ground, slithering through the snow like an endless snake. As soon as hunger becomes a permanent state, it winds up forgotten, and that’s where the danger begins. What was left of the canned goods and dry cereals that seemed so substantial in autumn had dwindled rapidly, and the frugal rations Victoria granted herself were lost as soon as swallowed. Her skin clearer than ever, she counted down the days until the thaw, making hallucinatory equations in which her exhaustion was the numerator and winter the denominator. By the time spring crept over the incalculable world of the north, Victoria had been devoured by the winds and the loneliness of the Manicouagan. In the very image of the town where she had chosen to live, she was little more than a ghost.
On the first mild day, she was aware of crawling out of her den and lapping at the meltwater, of seeing geese and wanting to roast them. She recalled having lifted her head to take in the boreal forest and its shower of shining pine needles, the greedy mouth of spring. She lost consciousness somewhere between her victory over the season of death and her miscalculations. Her skin turned iridescent in the growing sunlight. Rustling footfalls broke the silence.
From the depths of her coma, she felt her affliction returning. It started with a tingling, followed by an itch more raw than Victoria, paralyzed, could calm. The ordeal lasted several hours, and at some point the commotion led her to guess she was in transit. A particular point between her breasts began to burn with an unprecedented intensity and through some sort of feverish intuition Victoria understood that she had arrived where she had never dared to go. Amidst the pain, an incongruous joy washed over her, a violent euphoria of transgression, all her efforts abandoned. She found herself thrown in with everyone else, heaped up, dropped into the crowd. She was saved. She was damned.
When she opened her eyes, there was a needle in her arm and a nurse was busy trying to coat her body with petroleum jelly. “Don’t bother,” Victoria managed to whisper, taking in the enormous blisters covering her skin. The nurse jumped. Doctors rushed into her room, swabbing at her epidermis while Victoria swallowed the ineffectual pills. Just outside downtown Montreal, the population density was more than 3,000 inhabitants per square kilometer. Between the walls of the Royal Victoria Hospital, this number increased tenfold. No painkiller was a match for such numbers.
While her health was being restored, first by an I.V., then small meals as bland as rainwater, she was told that six days earlier a hunter had found her hopelessly malnourished in the woods. He’d immediately driven her to the hospital, without explaining why he hadn’t left her in Baie-Comeau, La Malbaie, or Quebec City along the way. Dizzy with pain, Victoria could barely follow what the nurse’s aides were saying. She spent hours crunching ice cubes and watching men and women bumping against each other on the overcrowded sidewalks outside her window, happy and terrified by the unthinkable proximity.
As soon as she was able to walk and eat alone, she got out of bed. Her skin was covered in sores, even her feet were floating on a cushion of huge blisters, and the staff were opposed to discharging her. Victoria shook her head, touched by the kindness of all these clear-featured people: prominent cheekbones, almond-shaped eyes, cheerful mouths, detached earlobes. She never tired of contemplating the multitude of faces. After promising to return every day for the treatments intended to heal her, she left.
She didn’t make it more than ten meters without stopping, the wind knocked out of her by the blinding pain. But she wasn’t headed far. From her room she had noticed a small, secluded wood near the parking lot. This would do. The mound would extend a radius of thirty meters around her. Given the density to which she’d grown accustomed over the last few weeks, this buffer zone would provide a kind of respite. In any case, she was unable to walk any further.
She made a small nest of leaves and spent a tolerable first night lulled by the sirens and sounds of nightfall. She hadn’t been mistaken. The modest isolation she set up had eased her pain. When morning came, she hobbled back to the hospital for her medication and tests. The people treating her seemed to be short of answers, but they persisted in thinking that some obscure branch of science could help their patient, burnt alive. Their perseverance made them all the more endearing.
On Victoria’s fifth day in the woods, a plump nurse, no taller than a rosebush, motioned her into an office and closed the door behind her. “I know you’re sleeping in the parking lot. I could help you find a place to live, you know,” she said, her different-colored irises penetrating those of her patient. Victoria shrugged. “I’m sleeping in the woods, not the parking lot. I don’t mean any offense, but the time I’m spending there is doing me a lot more good than treatment here.” So she told the woman the methods she had devised over the last few years to combat her strange allergy. “Then why not go back to the country?” Victoria smiled and felt the scabs on her face stretching. “I don’t know,” was all she could say, unable to explain how she could no longer do without the very same concern and care that was making her ill.
That night the woman insisted on walking Victoria back to the top of the hill. She set a package of food and a blanket next to her makeshift bed. “Sleep well. See you tomorrow.” Swept up in a sudden rush of affection, Victoria stepped forward and wrapped her arms around her. The nurse returned the embrace good-naturedly, even patting Victoria delicately a few times on the shoulder. Then she walked back down to the hospital, while Victoria, moved by the hug, began to shake.
In the middle of her sternum, the point of tension radiating since her arrival in Montreal began to spread. A stinging sensation engulfed her chest, her torso, her neck, and finally her head. Her skin bubbled like the surface of water about to evaporate. She wanted to cry out, but was unable to manage anything more than a hoarse wheezing. Her body was on fire. Panicked, she threw herself to the ground and rolled around in the dirt. The carpet of dead leaves burst into flames.
On Mount Royal, dogs lifted their noses. A smell of incense, wintergreen, and burning pine wafted down from the trees. A Great Dane—a sensitive soul—began to bark; a flock of birds scattered through the wisp of smoke rising up off the side of the mountain. And suddenly, without knowing why, passersby felt the urge to cry.
Translation by Anna Matthews