Two Faces

Eyes closed, I see again the delicate edens growing in the frost on the windowpanes. Luminous garlands woven into the snow-covered railings during the festive season to celebrate the birth of a child-god. The bloody flame of the burner glowing red through the window of the oil-fired boiler cast onto the walls glimmers of the eternal cremation of souls. Our mother’s wigs made from the hair of Filipinas killed during the war. Our socks which she mended with eelskin. The crickets our father imprisoned in a tea ball that chirped under his pillow at night. The destitute neighbor who sewed buttons made of apple sugar onto his old fisher-skin pelisse, then sucked them off the coat come spring. The arabesques of bindweed, those flower-strangling flowers whose crazy stems crept toward the peonies to kill them—peonies that we sprayed with tobacco juice to keep them safe from aphids. And I remember the days when my older sister Françoise and I swung on our swing, munching rhubarb sprinkled with brown sugar and making ourselves dizzy with questions: Is there always something smaller than the smallest thing, something bigger than the biggest thing? Did our house in Saint-Rose-de-Lima, which was neither large nor small, sit grandly in the very middle of things large and small?

I close my eyes and I see myself one August night, sitting cross-legged in the grass with a bucket of water and a bunch of carrots, watching naively for unicorns, centaurs, and winged horses, alert to the creaking and hooting of a train as it hammered the iron bridge over the Mille Îles River.

Suddenly, barefoot in the cool of evening, my sister appears.

“It’s fallen, ah, so that’s it, the serene serpent has fallen.”

Bending her knees to put herself at my height, she pointed to a corner of the firmament: “Take a good look, over there.” A moment later, at the sight of a shooting star, I made a wish, and an instant later a blaze shot up just above the ground, like a candelabrum fallen from the sky with the meteor shower, but it was a live torch that that had slipped between our legs—a big cat in flames, immolated by the neighborhood boys. The animal had shot across the garden like a fiery arrow, to burn out in the raspberry bushes, in a drawn-out, heartrending cry, while voices but lately changed moved away down the street in cascades of laughter. At which my sister grabbed the bucket so she could pour water over the cat. I stood behind her with fear in my belly, sniffing the odor of kerosene, I’d peed in my pants while Françoise took a spade and buried the steaming body under the trees. After the burial, my sister soaped me down in silence in the griffon-footed tub, cleaned my clothes away from our parents’ eyes, then had me get into my pajamas and put me to bed, brushing my forehead with a kiss.

That night, seeing again the golden halo of the flames among the stems and grasses, I had nightmares and woke up soaked in sweat, casting my frightened gaze over the winged horses on the wallpaper. Stricken with stomach spasms I regurgitated mucus, and my sister washed me and consoled me once again: “Don’t cry, the cat’s soul is in heaven now.” At those words I turned my gaze toward the moon, which was playing through a windowpane, the wolf star hanging like a wasps’ nest from the branches of a cherry tree and then, with her face wrapped in the glow of the night light, Françoise had promised me that if I went back to sleep like a good boy, she would come during the night and capture in my butterfly net all the letter Zs that had been released into the air with my breath, through my parted lips.

The next morning when I woke up, I found all mixed up together on my bedside table a dozen little Zs cut from sheets of cardboard, and when night fell Françoise and I swung in the garden as if everything were perfectly normal, munching sugared rhubarb, wondering if apples have an equator, if our lips are swollen with prune juice, if weeping willows die of sadness, if there really is water all the way to the bottom of the sea. But the blazing cat from the night before was dying under all my thoughts and I heard, beating at my temples, my new two-faced heart, muddled, bruised, under the spasmodic flight of some bats, among the crickets, and all my Zs in the bag, whipping the moon with my skinny legs in the very middle of things large and small, halfway between the two infinities in Saint-Rose-de-Lima, my vow forgotten.

From La mer de la tranquillité. Copyright Sylvain Trudel. By arrangement with Counterpoint. Translation copyright 2011 by Sheila Fischman. All rights reserved.