It all began with a bird of prey, an enormous thing, a kind of hawk standing stiffly on its two feet in the middle of the road, head hanging off to one side, neck broken. A miracle that the bird was still alive, a monstrous miracle. He had to move it aside, because it could only hop up and down and block the way even more. One of its eyes was sightless; the other pierced him with a golden, furious glare when Marco grasped it repugnantly and put it on the other side of the ditch. The bird’s heart throbbed frantically against his palms, and his hands kept the nauseating memory even after he’d parked beside the two other cars. Why him? He’d just arrived from Montreal, frazzled after three hours of driving on a highway full of vacation-mad speeders, he’d gotten lost at the fork in the road at the entrance to the village thanks to Simon’s hazy directions, and now his first contact with the horrible countryside was that horrible bird, anyone else could have come upon it before him—but didn’t. He thought of Jer and focused on his breathing. He’d come here for Jer, no matter how evil the portents.
Marianne was the only one who’d waited for him. The other two had gone canoeing on the lake, so Marianne directed him to his rooms that she pointed to with a laugh, where he soon learned to his amazement that he would be sleeping alone in a shack barely larger than a monk’s cell with no electricity, hidden in the trees. He concealed his reaction from Marianne, who was clearly enamored of that propane-lit storage locker to which she and Simon might retire for a night of love-making whenever their relationship needed an exotic touch, and which contained a large bed and a small table and, just outside, a pump and basin, and an outhouse straight out of the Middle Ages. He could bathe in the main cottage, though—they were too kind, all of them.
Then right away came the snake. He’d let Marianne go on ahead so he could unpack his bags and settle in, but of course he had no more than a half-empty back-pack, but he settled in anyway, the Arrabal play open on the table since he had to memorize his lines before rehearsals began in July, and hanging above the bed the amulet with the poem by Rumi that followed him wherever he went—God breaks your heart again and again, until it stays open. And a joint already rolled to get the beauty mechanism going.
In the smoke, Laurie’s face would be sure to come floating in, and he could speak to her wide doe-eyes without fear of her turning her back on him as she did in real life, he could test the arguments he would use to convince her the next time he saw her. The joint brought good counsel as long as you didn’t exceed the right light dose. After that, it was Somnolence and Co., or the brain becoming a tectonic plate drifting toward angst.
He saw it when he opened the door. At first he didn’t understand what it was, zigzagging across a flat rock, it had a large head topped by two swaying antennae, and then he cried out and the snake hurried off further into the thicket, even though the toad trapped between its jaws, tiny legs waving, acted as a brake. A small snake, but a snake all the same in the process of swallowing a toad, that was beyond the bounds of tolerable horror, and Marco’s panic quickly changed into crazed laughter because it was just TOO MUCH, the whole thing like a set piece designed to drive the hero insane—but the hero was laughing, and the spectators with him.
But the grand finale was yet to come.
First, he would have to get through the afternoon and the evening, in spite of his stage fright, and the sensation of being sucked dry that would sometimes sweep over him just before he stepped on stage: I’m nobody, nobody loves me, I mean nothing. Everyone else was perfect. It was good to see that Jer had put on weight, and his color was better. They checked each other out furtively as Marco waited for the right moment to speak, mostly waiting for Jer to stop fidgeting and stop avoiding his eye. For once Simon was easy to get along with. He’d traded in his customary sermons on the mount for a playful solicitude that fit him like a fish on a bicycle, but at least he was generous with the alcohol and had decided to be funny, playing his harmonica, suggesting endless games of lost-and-found that interested nobody and not letting anything dampen his enthusiasm. Marianne was her same old self, a little self-absorbed, displaying an impeccable smile and good manners, so accessible that you ended up losing respect for her. No, he was the only one who stuck out, the recalcitrant guest, the fifth wheel in a group that already had its ways of doing things, a piece of pure rock-and-roll that was supposed to fit in to a puzzle representing a lake landscape.
He knew everything would go smoothly as soon as he’d spoken to Jer. Once that major obstacle was worn down, the rest of his troubles would scatter like meaningless pebbles he could nudge aside with the tip of his toe, at some small risk of spraining an ankle. But he couldn’t make up his mind. Still, all he had to do was repeat the words the Joint and he had already carefully chosen. He was ready for the sacrifice, he would tell Jer, Listen, Jer, if you like, this fall, if you like … God it was hard, even thinking about it made him short of breath, on the edge of a precipice, about to step onto the stage in the spotlights and discover who, between life and death, would be the final victor. There had to be some preliminaries, that’s what was missing. He would corner Jer in the toilet, one place was as good as another, and he would ask him without a trace of bitterness, “What’s going on? You don’t want to talk to me?”
Jer would blink his eyes for a moment, blinded by the confrontation.
“Of course not,” he would mutter.
“You’re doing fine with Uncle S?”
“You like it here?”
“Yes or yeah?”
“It’s okay by me.”
When Jer was pretending his hardest not to listen, that’s when he would strike. Go!
“In August, if you want, you can go with your mother. It’ll hurt, but I can take it.”
And Jer would freeze in his non-listening position, as if the worst was yet to come.
“You understand? You can stay with Laurie. I know that’s what you want.”
Marco would feel sharp pleasure shoot through him; life and not death would win in the end.
“You’d rather stay here with me?”
“Not one or the other. The two of you together, or nobody.”
Maybe that’s the way things would happen. A tie; start all over. It was one of eight million possibilities. In the meantime, he still hadn’t said anything and it was getting late, being as it was Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day, they’d gone outside to warm their butts and incinerate mosquitoes in front of a campfire with fireworks that instead of bang! went pfft … That was Simon for you, country kitsch to the last drop. Luckily, another ill-fitting piece of the puzzle turned up, a neighbor, a very pretty and overly tall girl with an odd-looking face framed by a scarf, Violette by name, you could tell right away she liked having a good time even if she did look single. Like him, in fact. It was time he started seeing himself as single again, it wasn’t completely natural yet, he still had a we buried inside him, it was hard to root out, a we as tender as Laurie’s eyes at the beginning, but he was going to kick that whimpering shit out and become a free me again.
That was the best part of the evening. With Violette looking on, he’d gotten his composure and his humor back and took center stage, declaiming bits of the Arrabal play for them with unfeigned verve, making up whole scenes, he was one hell of a fine actor once the audience decided to love him. Even Simon wondered, his features wrinkled with laughter, Can we see this play somewhere? and from the depths of his hammock Jer’s sleep-shrouded eyes sparkled.
Yet the best moments always fly by the fastest, and without warning night grabbed them and knocked them flat. Violette and Marianne went off to bed, while Simon nodded out in front of the fire, snoring lightly.
When Jérémie climbed out of his hammock, a voice that had fallen still inside Marco suddenly awakened. Go! Marco delicately held his son back by his sleeve.
“You want to sleep with me?”
Jer looked at him discouragingly.
“In my cabin.”
“There’s only one bed.”
“It’s a BIG bed.”
Marco tried to keep his voice cool, completely in charge, and he was managing.
“I’ve got my room in the cottage,” said Jérémie, annoyed. “My own room.”
He stared at his feet to make sure he didn’t meet Marco’s eyes.
“Yesterday morning,” he added, to cap the argument, “I saw a deer out the window of my room.”
“Don’t you think there’ll be plenty of deer in the woods around the cabin?”
Jer shrugged his shoulders and kept staring at his feet. He yawned. Marco patted him on the arm and laughed one of his actor’s hearty laughs.
“Cool! Forget it, Jer. We’ll see each other tomorrow.”
He wasn’t about to beg or suck up, or bribe someone younger than himself.
Despite his flashlight the forest path was impenetrably black, and just as he was about to panic at the imaginary movements in the underbrush, he spotted the lit cabin. The good fairy Marianne must have slipped inside earlier and fired up the propane. He felt so secure he decided to go further down the path to put himself in jeopardy, to beat back that damned fear that poked holes in his stomach the way his flashlight beam poked holes in the night, and then the hawk flew into his thoughts. The hawk that was really a buzzard according to know-it-all Simon. It was still there near the ditch where he’d put it—in what shape now, he wondered, since it was not very pretty to look at in the first place. He stood stock still, flashlight sweeping the woods on both sides. All this threatening silence, this silence inhabited by the unnameable, and to think there were people mindless enough to set up shop in the middle of it for months at a time, and claim they were quite happy.
He saw it loom up in the beam of the flashlight and his pulse raced. Good God! It was even bigger and more terrifying than he remembered, upright like some sinister statuette on its stiff legs, just exactly as he’d left it. Go to it, he ordered himself, then he squatted down beside the thing, the flashlight in his quivering hand. It was worse closer, this puffy gray crop, the enormous head drooping monstrously to one side … And then, my God, its eye. The golden eye staring at him, still pathetically alive, seething with pain and curses. Marco drew back with a muffled cry, and a faint movement stirred on the bird’s belly: in the halo cast by the flashlight, a tiny rodent and black insects interrupted in their work fled the feathers and the still-warm body that they were devouring alive.
He ran to the cabin. Later, he understood he had only himself to blame, he shouldn’t have spent what remained of his happy strength with that living corpse. It had filled him with waves of malevolence, and neither the cozy interior of the cabin nor the fresh sheets scented with lily-of-the-valley, nor even the bouquet of wildflowers that the good fairy Marianne had left on the table could avert the evil course of things. He smoked one last joint to sink more quickly into sleep. And sink he did.
He awoke a few hours later with the feeling that something was floating in the room. With his eyes still closed, his sleep-dulled mind registered a beating of wings just a few centimeters from his head. Completely alert, eyes still closed, he prayed it was only a moth of the huge variety that flutters through tropical forests, he prayed fervently against the malignant current that hovered over him, inexorable; please, let it not be that thing.
But it was.
Ancestral fear, etched into his genetic makeup, the mother of all fears immersed him as the bat circled above, skimming the walls, almost brushing him with its erratic, panic-stricken flight. It launched itself again, and soon, it was only a matter of time, it would tangle itself in his hair and he would die.
He managed to crawl out of bed, pulling the sheets with him, imploring Oh God in Heaven Oh for the love of Christ! until finally he located the door and the latch while the whisper of the bat wings intensified, then at last he was outside, curled up in the grass, numb and shivering, the door closed behind him on the ultimate horror.
That was how Jérémie found him, rolled up in his sheets in a ball on the ground.
It was still dark, and the boy had come with a flashlight and a sleeping bag, and the tardy intention of making whatever reparations he could still make.
Marco raised himself on one elbow and switched on his flashlight. Lighting each other’s face, they sat there, both equally astonished.
“Listen,” said Marco, “you’ve got to help me. There’s a bat.”
“Ughh,” grunted Jer with a shudder. “You mean there’s a bat inside?”
“You’ve got to help me kill it.”
Jérémie gnawed on his lips for a while.
“We can’t,” he said at last. “That’s murder. It’s a living thing, so it would be murder.”
Marco stared at him in disbelief. He laughed, a forced, exhausted laugh.
“Come on,” he said weakly.
“Did you try opening the window?”
Marco stared at him. He tried the same laugh, but it caught in his craw.
“How come you know that, and me, at my age, I don’t?”
And he began to sob, rolled up comically in his flowered sheets, on the damp earth. A moment later, he felt Jer’s cold little hand touch his neck.
“Stop it, Papa. You’ve been smoking again. That’s why. Stop it.”
But Marco didn’t know how to stop what had started, and he kept sobbing, not knowing how to stop until Jer’s voice piped up again, as soft as silk.
“Come on. I’ll sleep with you.”