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The child is lying!

What are you, Dark night within a stone?

- Henri Michaux, Poteaux d'angle

Lac Une, early autumn. The family settled me here, quite isolated, in this rather comfortable chalet so that my rehabilitation of the last few months may be followed up by a period of rest that gets my mind working again. They want to take everything from me to restore it and to perfect me again according to the model of the average citizen with two TVs. They are especially keen on my forgetting the events of the last few months and that I stop worrying about the Falling Brat. They are intent on transforming me into a disciple of wisdom, but why wisdom - this state that is so close to the end? This is being told therefore not for edification, even less for transmitting rational knowledge, but in order to pretend that I rid myself of something oppressing. To pretend, yes, this may be said without hesitation, for telling doesn't uproot anything, doesn't put any evil to rest.

Let's go back four months when I had just stayed for a week in the backcountry to comply with a specialist's prescription for what apparently isn't due to organic disfunctioning, but diminishing energy. Close to the babbling waters running through the old parishes, I hoped to forget the languor, the melancholy, the state of prostration into which my insignificant existence had thrown me and to unlearn the unnamable that caused me to devote myself to these excessive disconnected researches of the present, which has brought to the breaking point the medieval story at the center of my life. Anyway! It would have been some other passion if things had been different.

As usual I found myself incapable of staying for more than a few days in my native village with my sisters and cousins. Especially at the end of the day I longed for the city's rare, but seldom-shared, atmosphere, the cultural excitement in which I evidently hardly participated, but whose presence obviously reassured me. I would have liked to tell them, all my family and childhood friends: "Don't upset me, I'm close to tears." Instead I had chosen to flee, on the pretext of things to do and people to see to tear me away from what we had never become, none of us, since the dream necessary for our survival had preceded us to a distant territory so that its realization was prevented.

So I found myself again, at midday during an unbearable week in spring, in a provincial town with as impossible a name to remember, for a mind as passive as mine that has abdicated, as Kawawackikamach, and as difficult to pronounce as Kangiqsualujjuaq. I found myself somewhere on the road to the capital that I had largely bypassed on the outward journey to delay until later offering my friends, whom I would inevitably visit there, the caricature of myself, pallid behind this hollow look, this tremulous voice, this appearance of a gorilla after thirty years in a zoo, and the spectacle of this surrender that infected even my pride which these very friends, and especially they, considered as indomitable as a Mohawk reserve. I thought I would find there, to distract their attention for a while, a trinket for him, a fragile object for her, and a present for the little one, a tin soldier, perhaps! Why not? A crusader, if possible, in remembrance of the crusaders we, his father and I, had been and to begin poking a bit of fun at my passion for medieval things. Something like a knight on his charger, carrying a three-pointed pennant topped by a cross, or a Godfrey of Bouillon as king of Jerusalem or, even better, a knight of the Teutonic Order, one of those who pursued their crusade into Slavic territory, who marched on to Nevgorod, against the Russian prince Alexander Nevski, then fought on Lake Pepous frozen over at that time and who perished by drowning when the ice gave way under the weight of their horses and heavy armor. Of course neither too violent nor too colorful a crusader, something pleasing that stirs the father's nostalgia and reassures the mother.

I parked the car near the center and went down the neighboring streets to find at last a trinket for her and a china Tintin for him, but no lead crusader. In a delicatessen store, whose last letter was dead, like the dishwater they call coffee somewhere else, a waitress with an ultraviolet tan suggested that I scour the antiquarians' street. "Take a right turn here, because of the one-way streets, then turn to the left at the first lights, and then, when you see a Vietnamese pharmacy, take a right until.... All right, obviously, it would be easier if you'd walk. It's a five-minute walk if you take this street, straight ahead. It's impossible not to cross the antique dealers' street, Rapailleurs Street." So I fed the parking meter a loonie and entered into the urban puzzle through this narrow avenue edged with a row of triplexes, eloquent witnesses of a prosperous past and a present at the bottom of an economic crisis. I had to repeat to myself, like Saint John of the Cross, that to get to an unknown place, you have to take unknown paths.

Detached, I walked, neither serious nor emotional, sweltering in the sun, overwhelmed by this sloping street that continually stretched to greater and greater poverty. As a matter of fact, the district fell into more and more disrepair as it descended. I was always eager to reach the next crossing. The long arteries bored me. I felt myself coming to life again only at the crossroads, those places of bifurcations, chances, risks, excesses. Each crossroad had a name, but never that of the antique dealers. I was on the point of hailing a taxi to go back to my car when in its stroboscopic movement my attention was attracted by an alarming detail: a child, some fifty meters ahead, was straddling a balcony railing on the top floor. A little devil, four, perhaps five years old. A thick mop of hair, the chubby kind with a face I guessed full of mischief. No doubt he had opened a breach in the barbed wire of the maternal watch. I who have never nurtured any other passion than reserve and who had been deprived for weeks of energy, who had renounced coordinating my actions, even letting their meaning sink in, suddenly saw myself rushing forward, then crossing the street yelling: "The child! The child, up there! He's going to fall down," as if I called him with my entreaties. Suddenly I saw him swaying, lurching toward the void, as if he ceded to my impulse. With the slope in my favor, I hurled myself already desperate into the midst of the petrified pedestrians in the direction of the anticipated point of fall of the Jumping Brat. How can I put it? I was overwhelmed by all this life that was at risk of remaining unutilized.

We chanced upon each other, he from above, I counterclockwise to the traffic on the same spot at the same moment. Or rather, I a fraction of a second before him. So he fell on top of me, no one could say which way, with the weight of his five million red blood cells and some seven meters of intestines, his hundred billions of Golgi cells and two hundred and eight bones, his fourteen billions of cortical neurons and thirty-five vertebras, one hundred and twenty millions of rodlike cells and twenty milk teeth, his million pyramidical axons and some four hundred and fifty muscles, his seven million cones and three quarts of blood, his five hundred cubic centimeters of breath and sixty percent water. At the time it was as if a block of fatigue had crashed down on my guts. I felt like the boxer who had just experienced the KO in the thirty-fifth round, like the goalkeeper who had let the puck slip between his legs, when he's said to have been exhausted, in the eighteenth overtime period.

In spite of that and contrary to all expectations, I immediately got back on my feet, like a circus clown on stilts rushing into the circus ring. But apparently I jabbered unceasingly, yawned, gestured wildly as the pedestrians slowly milling about looked on horror-stricken and called out "bravo," "thank you," and patted me on the back. Then, I still can't explain the actual reason, I suddenly agreed within myself to stop all this, to disconnect myself from my body and to let my thoughts spin on their own. I didn't really choose, no, rather I let the matter respond to its own...necessity. The neighbors, who were already rushing to the phones, some to call the tabloids, others the police or an ambulance, saw me collapse a few steps away from the impact. They said that I had informed myself several times about the child's condition, having the information repeated several times as if to absorb it, and that I had then sunk into unconsciousness, murmuring: "So, it's all right!" The Chubby Brat, the little bugger was hale and hearty! He bawled, running around like a dog trying to catch its tail, while I, I had broken bones everywhere. My skull was crushed, I had a broken collarbone and broken ribs and my nose, too, was fractured. It seems to me I stayed there for an endless time, stretched out on the sidewalk in a heavy drizzle. But apparently the weather was fine. Perhaps the event had been short, but my waiting seemed interminable. When I arrived at the hospital, the journalists asked for the hero's name, his occupation, his place of origin, details about the impact - whether it had been medieval - or medievalistic. It was me, I, whom they tried to depict as a valiant knight-errant!

So I experienced, in this lifetime, Porphyry's five worlds, not only the type and kind, but also the difference, the real and the adventitious. I don't deserve any merit, it seems it's an accident of my birth.

I was put up in a brightly lit room which I shared with three other lethargic patients, accident or stroke victims. In this aseptic place the hours stole away drop by drop. I, who had never really felt at ease anywhere, even in my own house, which will have been merely the decor for a magazine, felt there quite at peace. I felt no longer needed by anything whatsoever, and that kept me in a state of deep calm. In this motionless silence I revealed myself in an unhoped-for and unexpected form. I was keeping body and soul together in a dual state hypnagogic and hypnopompic on the point of falling asleep at any moment, without ever really succeeding in doing so, always on the verge of waking up without ever doing so. I was like a found child who had been cherished in his world, but a very small world, battered by the scourge of memory. However what called me absurdly back to reality was the fact that a photograph of myself as a young bookworm, a revealing snapshot of who I must have been, was placed on my nightstand. Presumably the family was responsible for this attention. The family! Every morning, every afternoon, every evening, someone or other of this clan came to bend over me, full of this vague sentimentality which is, to use Kant's term, nothing but degenerating sentiment.

Seeing them all idly walking about with a thermometer behind their ears and a pan under their arms, I wondered whether I was really given the necessary care in this hospital. I asked myself sometimes even if they didn't make fun of me behind my back. But hasn't it been that way ever since my earliest childhood? I'm looking for a goodhearted person, but I am immediately projected again into the narrowness of my solitude. Then, when I don't expect anything any more, something good happens. There it was in the captivating form of an intern, a small oval face with gray eyes under a reddish fringe, a capable head proudly set on a body presenting an advantageous silhouette. No doubt about it, the most cultivated wildflower of the region.

She addressed me in a variety of most amusing ways! Coming into the room, in her sweet voice she always called out to me some expression that pierced my heart, something like: "Tell me, handsome hero, who are you? And why?" Then she stared fixedly into my eyes in search of a look, and I told myself that luck was on my side - otherwise where would it have been? Her walk attracted attention so clearly to all the limbs of her body that my expression stiffened every time she passed, especially when her white smock brushed my arm or her stomach weighed on my shoulder. I'm telling this straightforwardly. It wasn't

that an adventurous spirit was nursed by the imagination; it was, rather, a matter of the love procession passing by and causing the dogs to bark. I was already devoted to her. It hardly mattered that for the time being she was only interested in my body, that she communicated with my body more than with me. This paralyzed body, I gave it to science, and all the rest of me too.

The department head resembled the idea we have of Abu-Al-Qasim Khalaf Ibn' Abbas Az-Zahrawi, later called Albucassis, this Moslem surgeon of the tenth century, the author of a medieval encyclopedia and the inventor of surgical instruments. As he was examining me, he told her about his bitter love affairs. He had had a relationship some eight years earlier. After a while his lover had come down with a cold that lasted four years, at the end of which she left him for a perfumer. "She couldn't smell me anymore," he specified. "And ever since, I don't use an atomizer anymore except with vetiver. But you keep too great a distance to be able to inhale its emanations." He played at being the cultivated pathetic Albucassis and so inevitably he attracted her to himself.

The other intern, who sullied the sheets with his construction boots, complained that the volunteers' visits didn't always follow the same order. "Why begin with the zero?" he asked one morning. "Oh well, it's like the race horses that always run counterclockwise," answered the director. "They must be trained to run in the opposite direction to teach them the difference, so that they avoid being able to turn only in one direction...." She stood there, quite close, smiling and admiring these learned responses. As to Albucassis, he won even more points.

I kept myself disconnected from my body, but the most difficult thing was letting myself escape a bit from my thoughts. Sometimes I managed, but the consequence was that, forgetting to think of my body, I forgot that I was absorbed by vital needs. Once again it was she who asked that I'd be gotten out of my predicament. I would have preferred that she hadn't sensed that. How could I compete with the director under these circumstances?

One morning the little enthusiasm I had was completely curbed by a nimble hand, that of Albucassis, of course, in the opening of the little Oval's blouse whose exquisite skin he caressed with the back of his fingers! She wanted to conciliate, but he didn't give her the opportunity. He carried on like an old wolf. In the background the construction boots flashed jealousy, greatly relished by Albucassis. The desire for intrigue that enthralled him was apparent. Strangely, just at that moment, raindrops began to roll down the windowpanes.

No doubt it was much later, for the time being let's say perhaps the following week. The mottled summer in the window reminded me of the freedom of which this persistent immobility deprived me. Just then three visitors came in bringing with them the hot air of the dog days. It seemed indeed that activities other than the usual sessions of family therapy around me - the "if you can hear me, squeeze my hand," or "if this hurts you, move your lips" - had been authorized. And if I didn't want to listen, if the pain didn't interest me any more, I did what? Play dead? These bearers of heat were the father, the mother, and the little prince of the Blundering Brats who came Monday morning to squeeze my hand and pull at my skin. They approached me tiptoeing, compared me with my picture from the newspaper, then with the one on my nightstand. Impossible to come out the winner in that comparison.

The mother carried the child on her arm, the father a fruit basket. Because of the isolation that my body's rigidity put me in, I was losing all sense of human proportions. What the child meant for me suddenly was no longer contextual to our past relationship - short, it's true, but intense. The presence of the Laughing Brat didn't give me any satisfaction, didn't help me in the least to find reason for hope. On the contrary. Love for little princes, it must be admitted, is a noble sentiment that has always remained undeveloped in me. Another child who thought he was now what he wanted to become - an astronaut, a fireman, mama's daddy-husband. He was looking at me confused. I was afraid he might sense my obvious hostility. But he reacted to it by twisting my toes, sheer childish behavior. Anything to distract the devil to protect me from him, he must have said to himself. The little Oval laughed wholeheartedly, but not Albucassis, who had his hands on her hips, nor Construction Boots who grunted in the background.

Small dreamy eyes in an innocent face began to overwhelm me with their cursed lucidity, their frankness: of course, I knew, I was all puffed up, I was dribbling at the mouth, and I looked like someone embalmed! It wasn't any good repeating ten times over: "He looks like a mummy, Mom! He looks like a mummy!" Since it was impossible for me to answer him, I heaped expressions of silent scorn on him. We were alone, he and I; that is to say, I wasn't respectful toward him. "No, no, my dear," replied his mother, "speak to him. I'm sure he can hear you where he is. Thank him for having saved your life." As if this Sticky Little Brat who had a colored toy in his mouth could have appreciated the meaning of those words "to save" and "life."

He had brought me this gift - a plastic crusader with gaudy, poorly matching colors like a child's coloring, anachronistic and commonplace junk. "It's one like this," he snapped to the little Oval, "that he was going to buy for himself when I landed on his belly." The mother added that the darling had taken it from his collection to give to me. Oval touched the object disillusioned. I couldn't shout: "The child is lying to you! I don't like fake relics of childhood, those molded and dirty polymers!" But the words didn't come out. I could have accepted anything, a Norman knight from the siege of Pads, an archer of Edward III who decimated the army of Philip VI, anything, except this affront to the truth. The Little Joker, standing upright between my legs, looked straight at the little Oval with Albucassis' hand on her hip: "Is your papa going to bye-bye with you?" That was too much. But the cry still didn't come out. So the gesture was necessary.

At that moment the Clumsy Brat got caught between my feet and spilled all over me the fruit basket the father still dangled. "You are as dumb as a dead fish," grumbled the latter. That reminded me of my father who repeated forever: "Listen, look, and don't be heard !" So I suddenly stretched out my leg so that it sent the Brat flying off the bed. Oh! I hadn't really resolved to kick, no, of course not, I just let the thing answer its own...coherence. As an old Moorish proverb puts it, "you don't throw stones at a tree bearing fruit."

The light reflecting on the tiled floor where he landed was so intense that the Flying Brat was stunned. After a while he got up without a whimper, acted up for a minute and then collapsed. Apparently he was unconscious, then...I would have said lethargic. Around him they wondered if he hadn't ceased weighing on this earth, if he hadn't encountered his last accident.

One morning an event began that kept me bent at a studied angle deep in bed. The little Oval instinctively had put the Numb Brat's bed right next to mine. It was only then that I began to link myself a bit with him, when I faced head-on his listlessness. I didn't see anything anymore except an unfulfilled destiny at the edge of the abyss. I was terrorized by this allegory and began to think about fleeing somehow or other through life or through its reverse, I didn't know yet.

That noon the mother came to visit her little one and hurled a mouthful of insults at me. "Why did he save him?" she shouted. "Just to kill him after all?" Indeed the eternal cold had almost taken him; the Saved Brat had joined me in the profound unknown. I was potentially close to him, at once thousands of light-years away and yet so close; never far enough not to approach him, too close to understand him completely. I didn't feel guilty for having drawn him there, exactly, but for having once deflected him from his destiny, yes. As if there were only personal guilt.

So the evening of that same day was the time to get back on my feet. I came to an agreement with myself to get all this in motion, to reconnect with my body, to catch up again with my spirit. I didn't really resolve to do so. No, I just let the thing follow its own...resolution. It wasn't certain that on waking up I would still recognize the profound reason for this renascence, even less that I would know to assign it to the Slobbering Brat. There had been the reanimation and I again took up my course.

Lac Une. Late in the afternoon, after a morning of thunder and lightning and just before the family arrived laden with a gaudy anniversary cake and sparkling wine, I went to confront the solitude of the lake on the pretext of observing more closely a couple of loons that inhabit the territory. I was like someone replete with energy and yet without an outlet. I paddled madly and rashly, as if there had been a lode, a mine of energy to exhaust, and so went all out right to the middle of the lake, practically delighted to feel my arms at my shoulders and a physical fatigue, even pain at the end of the effort. There, in the very center of the lake, as I headed against the wind, it became a difficult maneuver. And at the point of giving up, because of the echoing calls of the arrivals who came to drink to my health at my expense, the wind seized the canoe's raised bow. Indeed, the squall emerging from the bottom of the lake and I from the opposite direction of the waves arrived at the same moment at the same place. This encounter provoked a triple balancing of the rolling, and the canoe swallowed as many loads of water. I was still crouching when the boat dove between two waves. I found myself with my life belt under my chin in the middle of Lac Une surrounded by floating objects - oars, a Stetson, a hunting shirt, a worm box for fishing, the tip of the canoe. And further on, the loons' weird yodeling turned into the plaintive cry that resembles a wolf's. I engaged in a periscopic movement like a seal.

There had been an indefinable moment when my heart hesitated. My conscience was shattered while I evaluated my position in this desert of water and I tried to calm myself though I was quite serene. So I opted for the calm that precedes a decision. So I decided to continue on the path of continuing, to invest the effort necessary to save myself from the lake's hold on me. Perhaps I couldn't resolve to leave with bitterness in my soul, shirking my intellectual responsibilities. In reality obviously I didn't choose, I just let the event respond to its own...potentiality. I adjusted the life belt and, abandoning everything around me, began to swim on my back in the direction of the apparently least distant shore. This was later evaluated as being at a distance of a little less than one kilometer. I was still wearing my sandals because of the underbrush and the gravel road I'd have to pass through once I reached shore. However I didn't swim too straight because of the wind, the current, and my exhaustion and dizzy spells. The sky was almost without any clouds, but of so dark a blue and so immense that I came to forget the depth below me. The broken rhythm of the waves filled my ears. My arms, my legs beat the water almost in jubilation. Then I saw in the distance the boat of a brother-in-law propelled by an electric motor. I imagined the family delighted at having saved me once again. Between two anxious ha-oo, ha-oo-oos the loons passed beneath me, swallowing up small trout. We all had our roles.

Then a race began in which I exhausted myself keeping up a frantic rhythm. I hoped to reach the end of Lac Une before the others could catch me as if I had had to save myself on my own. Now I did reach the shore before their arrival, but the steep bank of sandy soil and the entangled trees, particularly the spruce trees and birches which were nothing more than dry skeletons, made access impracticable, especially since the bottom of the lake disappeared as I tried to support myself and my soaked clothing weighed me down. So I returned in spite of myself in the motorboat like a figurehead, a paralyzed trophy destined for the solicitude of the family and a double ration of sparkling wine. The loons called to each other in moving tremolos, then ran a few hundred meters on the water investing a lot of effort to fly away. They completed two or three rounds of the lake, skirting the trees before splashing down near the chalet, leaving behind them a spectacular trail of spray.

Now it's a night of shooting stars against a deep sky filled with luminous worlds. The current flowing to the discharge brought back to the dock below the chalet's slope the canoe, the oars, the worm box, and the Stetson. Only the hunting shirt had been swallowed up. The family is around a campfire and sings songs to which I wouldn't know how to respond. It's been decided that against the mother's objections, if possible tomorrow morning, I'll go and visit the Lonely Brat, present him gently fruit, dealing with him as with a crossbar and perhaps, who knows, pick him up at the foot of the bed. I bet that's the fate awaiting him to be saved again in the world.


Andre Carpentier is Professor of Literature at the Universite du Quebec a Montreal. His publications include Axel et Nicolas (1973) and L'aigle a travers le soleil (1989), and four collections of short stories, Carnet sur la fin possible d'un monde (1992) being his latest. Bread of the Birds, Carpentier's first collection of short stories, appeared in translation in 1993. He has also been translated into Romanian, Portugese, and Spanish.

M.G. Hesse's translations include Hermann Hesse and Romain Rolland, more recently an essay by Carl Friedrich yon Weizsacker, as well as short stories by French-Canadian authors in the Canadian Fiction Magazine, Confrontation, Malahat Review, New Orleans Review, and Western Humanities Review, among others. She is Professor Emerita at the University of Lethbridge.
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Title Annotation:short story
Author:Carpenter, Andre
Publication:Chicago Review
Date:Jun 22, 1998
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