“Terre à bois,” an excerpt in translation

by Sylvain Hotte

Les Éditions Goélette, 2013

Building the framework for the concrete had gone smoothly, and Alain was very proud of his work. It was now well into June, although he wouldn’t have been able to say what date it was. He figured it must’ve been close to Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day since he’d been sweating like a pig in one heck of a heat wave that had lasted for days. Fortunately he now had a 220 V power line. After his meeting with the inspector, he had spent a few days fuming before finally caving in and hiring a local contractor. The bill was a hefty one, weighing in at ninety-two thousand, four hundred and fifty four dollars and twelve cents precisely. It was an astronomical amount that had eaten up most of his savings. But he just couldn’t resign himself to living without electricity. What with his plans to develop his land and get the maple grove back into shape to produce syrup, it made no sense at all to keep on living like it was the nineteenth century.

As he fixed the last boards in place, the screaming of the circular saw he had just shut off still echoing off the mountain, he contemplated the yellow extension cord that snaked its way across the gravel to the power outlet on the side of the house. He tried to stay positive even though the profits he had made from the condo sale were melting around him like spring snow and he only had ten or twenty thousand dollars left to finish what he had started. He would have to cut some corners with the final touches to the house and try to get his hands on some used materials.

Since the land had cost him practically nothing, it seemed like things were balancing out somehow.

Up to this point, he had almost felt like a squatter, but now that he had handed over the cheque to the engineer from the electricity company that installed the poles and 14.4 kV line, he was really starting to feel at home.

He sat on a sawhorse sipping a beer, waiting for the concrete mixer so he could lay the foundation. He waited all afternoon for it to show up. After the setbacks of the last few days, what with the faulty jacks he had paid a pretty penny to rent, the 5/8" panels that had taken an eternity to arrive, the power line he ended up paying out of pocket, including all thirty poles along the lane, he was beginning to wonder whether there was some kind of conspiracy against him.

The impression had grown stronger that very morning when he returned from his walk and noticed the mailbox for the first time, poking out from the brush at the side of the ditch that ran all the way along the lane. He made his way over to it and pulled out a letter from the municipality of Saint-Édouard. Hurriedly he opened the envelope, curious to read what was inside, even though he had an inkling as to what it might be about.

For sure Alain had expected to pay a hefty welcome tax, a few thousand dollars or so, but nothing remotely like the amount he saw in the small print at the bottom of the tax statement: thirty-two thousand, two hundred and twenty dollars. This just seemed so absurd to him he kept his cool and was content to stick the paper up on his new refrigerator, as if it were just any old bill due at the end of the month.

He still hadn’t met Mayor Fortier, whose name came up every single time there was something he needed to do. Whether it was to dig a new well or install a septic tank, get a land survey done or appraise the forestry potential of his property. At the grocery store, gas station, or hardware store, people would always give the same referral. Whether he needed a truckload of sand, dirt, or stone, or a backhoe to dig out his ditch, the same name would be on everyone’s lips. Fortier. You should ask Réal Fortier. Réal. I can’t think of anyone else. Go see Réal Fortier.

The mayor was by far the biggest fish in this pond. He commanded respect but also scared the hell out of people. While nobody seemed to show any particular aversion to the mayor, Alain could sense there was some kind of omerta at play here, a code of silence that surely had more to do with fear than esteem for the man. Everybody owed Réal Fortier something, one way or another. Réal created jobs. Réal loaned people money. Réal helped people out. Everybody except Dean, a loose cannon with a natural tendency to speak his mind. “These guys are the Mafia, chum. Big time. If you want to make friends around here, I suggest you buy a Chrysler.”

This was how Alain learned that the local Chrysler dealership belonged to Réal Fortier. And that Fortier’s arch rival, a politician by the name of André Boyer, was the owner of the GM dealership in Montmagny. Apparently in this rural backwater, people still showed their political colours by the cars they drove.

Translation by David Warriner

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