“Les peaux cassées,” an excerpt in translation

by Richard Dallaire, translated by Mary O’Connor

Éditions Alto, 2013

A few nights every month, the authorities carried out horrifying purges. They locked down neighborhoods that were hardest hit by the drying up and erected scaffolding where guillotines dispatched a portion of each superfluous individual.

“That’s a lot of work to ease the burden on social programs.”

“Maybe they like the sound of the blade…”

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I wasn’t in a joking mood. Anyone who had heard a blade fall on another’s neck and seen the sand spill out of their body shouldn’t joke about it. I remembered the official line that was relayed in the newspapers. According to the statements, the culls were required for sanitary reasons, which insinuated that the drying up was a virus that could become an epidemic.

“Our great government uses these cruel productions to make sure we are all afraid. And nobody is putting up a fight…”

“They’re too busy eating each other.”

The gorilla had opened the fridge for us. We stacked our boxes full of anonymous fragments on the shelves. Jean-Baptiste stubbed out his cigarette on the cold concrete slab.

“Empty stomachs can’t hear or speak. When people are kept busy trying to survive, they get weak. We should wake up the starving ones…”

I couldn’t figure out which was worse: the guillotines or the cannibal feasts.

::

Newton’s law of motion is unforgiving. There will always be people who shatter. Our workload increased and our production timelines were squeezed. Unlike other sectors that were laying off huge numbers of employees, our clinic was hiring. Young, inexperienced recruits turned up at the workshop and we had to finish almost every one of their repairs, which made our working days longer. The growing tiredness began to weigh me down. It felt as if a violinist was eagerly scraping their bow across my nerves every waking moment.

In the tavern, Jean-Baptiste talked non-stop about politics and news against the backdrop of The Depression. “The problem is that we haven’t hit rock bottom yet.”

I had reached the bottom of my pint and ordered two more.

“And when do you think that will happen?”

Jean-Baptiste watched the froth dry on the inside of his glass as if the random shapes would reveal an omen.

“The Depression will take care of itself soon enough.”

Two pints filled to the brim arrived and I invited Jean-Baptiste to make a toast.

“To The Depression, which will find a way to sort itself out!”

Jean-Baptiste didn’t raise his glass.

“You don’t get it. I think we should give it a helping hand.”

I was no longer thirsty, but I drank my beer. It left a bitter taste in my mouth.

::

I took refuge on the rooftop and slowly smoked one cigarette after another under the stars. I spent more and more time there and began to love the space, which I realized was more than just a cemetery of tears.

I had set up a few creature comforts. The furniture was rustic: a few old planks on stacks of empty buckets, a table and a couple of chairs.

Much to my surprise, Carole joined me there one evening. Without saying a word, she pulled a series of blankets out of a bag and slowly built a nest that she could snuggle down in.

“Come sit with me.”

We lay on our backs and observed the sky in silence. To escape the humid night air, we huddled together to take on the cold as a team.

Under the prying eyes of the stars, our bodies moved in unison for a long while to remind us that, despite The Depression, there was still some cause for hope. Once our dance was complete, our bodies separated, exhausted and dazzled.

“I like that we’re such a small part of the universe.”

Carole was small, but only in stature. She reminded me of the Perseid meteors that sometimes break through the atmosphere with their rocky heads, leaving long streams of silky colours in their wake without anyone noticing. Compared to these hurtling bodies that cross thousands of kilometres before exploding in a spectacular flash of light, our happiness was Lilliputian.

“Eric told me the best time to observe shooting stars is just before sunrise. Do you want a coffee?”

I accepted the offer and Carole went to the kitchen and returned with a thermos and two cups. There were only a handful of stars visible in the sky and I started worrying about the expansion of dark matter.

In the morning, our motionless, waiting bodies were dampened by humidity and covered in a light dew. We had to return downstairs and huddle together under the duvet. I realized that Carole was my only true extended warranty of tenderness on this planet.

::

It seemed like there was always a pot of soup simmering on the stove these days. The aroma had soothed the savage nature of the street children who were comfortable in our kitchen now. Just as she had done with Eric and the serpent dragons, Carole managed to tame these young felines. Their fangs were not as sharp as they’d have you believe.

We left our door unlocked. As a result, we often discovered a child or two asleep on the sofa in the early morning. We extended the opening hours of our hospitality service into the night and made a habit of leaving blankets at the front door just in case.

Carole had started out by welcoming one child, and then another, and then one more. A procession of Patricks, Francises, Jessicas, Mohammeds, Roses, Octavios, Marians, Idas and Lawrences each took turns as our roommates for a day or two.

They played with the buckets and turned them into cauldrons filled with magical potions, Don Quixote’s helmet and troubadour drums. With each drumbeat, we swallowed large glassfuls of courage potions before mounting our stilts and waging war on windmills.

These children allowed me to forget everything that was wrong in the world. When they left, I always waited awhile before cleaning up after them. The benefits outweighed the damage. This joyful disorder proved that the base camp Carole and I fitted out was a place of unbridled laughter, a happy bunker whose solid ramparts refused to allow the cold gloominess in.

Translated by Mary O’Connor

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