Trou­ble at the Hen­house

Geist - - Findings - ERIC DUPONT

From Life in the Court of Matane. Trans­lated by Peter Mc­cam­bridge. Pub­lished by QC Fic­tion in 2016. Dupont is the author of four nov­els and win­ner of Ra­dio-canada’s “Com­bat des Livres” and other awards. He lives in Mon­treal.

De­spite my ef­forts to go un­de­tected in the school­yard, Jimmy Côté was al­ways pop­ping up nearby. First, he wanted to be sure that I was, in­deed, the son of Henry VIII. Then, with the help of other birds of a feather, he made it clear that uni­forms were a sore point with him. For me, 1982 was the year of stom­ach-clench­ing cramps. Not a day went by with­out an am­bush, not a sin­gle re­cess was ter­ror-free. I took refuge in the hen­house.

There, too, things were be­gin­ning to fall in around me. The rate of lay had plum­meted with the cold nights. One morn­ing, death vis­ited my hens for a sec­ond time. It was the lit­tle brother who came run­ning back in from the hen­house, pan­icked by what he had just seen there. The tem­per­a­ture had dropped be­low zero dur­ing the night. Clearly no one had ever ex­plained rigor mor­tis to him. At a loss for words, he lay down on his back and showed us that one of the hens had taken up the very same po­si­tion and was re­fus­ing to budge. The hen must be dead, we ex­plained to him. “It can’t be,” he main­tained. “Its eyes were open.”

I in­ves­ti­gated. A hen had in­deed died dur­ing the night. One of the younger ones. There was no sign of in­jury. A per­func­tory au­topsy re­vealed that she had been bit­ten from be­hind. The king sus­pected a weasel. The other hens went about their busi­ness, bliss­fully un­aware. I had a new en­emy to deal with.

Things be­gan to heat up at school. Jimmy and his gang of mer­ce­nar­ies had taken over the school­yard. Mr.

Fer­gu­son’s ghost sto­ries seemed to have lit­tle ef­fect on them. One day in Oc­to­ber, the ten­sion reached boil­ing point. With my thoughts con­sumed by my hen’s mur­der, I had for­got­ten my fear of Jimmy and didn’t see him and his gang walk over. They be­gan with a few slaps I didn’t see com­ing, a clas­sic tech­nique. I don’t know what came over me that day; I think the weasel af­fair had left a bit­ter taste in my mouth. Not that I was overly fond of my hens. Truth be told, they were a lot of work and were be­com­ing harder and harder to look after. No, on that par­tic­u­lar morn­ing, I was mostly think­ing about the nasty weasel and its treach­er­ous at­tacks, and I felt an anger the size of a pea form­ing some­where deep in­side me. The pea grew, filled out, and took on a per­son­al­ity of its own that had as many qual­i­ties as flaws. With­out re­ally un­der­stand­ing why, and with­out re­ally look­ing up, I grabbed Jimmy’s first apos­tle by the throat and held him tight un­til he be­gan to turn blue. The colour went per­fectly with his eyes and shoes, I thought. A touch too pale, per­haps. A deathly shade of blue would suit the lit­tle blond runt to a T. I would have to tighten my grip a lit­tle. Julie San­terre and her chicks would usu­ally cheer on bat­tles and acts of vi­o­lence against me, cack­ling: “Blood! We want blood!” This time, they were there all right, but they were so as­tounded, they’d been struck dumb. It was as though it was their necks I was grip­ping in my hand. They didn’t come to the wretch’s de­fence, nor did they en­cour­age him to kill me, as was their wont. Jimmy Côté, com­pletely taken aback, made no move to step in and help out his vas­sal, which speaks vol­umes about hon­our among hood­lums. The boy was slowly turn­ing blue right be­fore my eyes, while I mar­velled at just how strong my arms were. I silently thanked Henry VIII for get­ting me into body build­ing.

This flash of man­li­ness was proof pos­i­tive that in­te­gra­tion is pos­si­ble, no mat­ter the set­ting, pro­vided you make a lit­tle ef­fort. The peck­ing or­der wasn’t set in stone, after all. A sim­ple throt­tling was enough to re­jig it. No need for any­one to lose any teeth. Julie San­terre and the chicks still didn’t say a word. I could feel the heat ris­ing from the kid’s neck be­neath my fin­gers. His carotid artery was throb­bing right where my thumb and in­dex fin­ger met. His pulse was rac­ing. I won­dered if he, too, was go­ing to fall on his back, eyes open, teeth clenched. He was so thin. Just a few more weeks’ train­ing, I thought to my­self, and I’d be able to snap his neck with one hand. I imag­ined the crack­ing sound his ver­te­brae would make as they snapped. Whis­pers went up from the stu­dents crowded around me. Some­one prayed to God. The aes­thete in me still wasn’t happy with the colour of the lit­tle hood­lum’s face; his skin was so soft and pale. I’d never thought of him as good-look­ing, but now the blond kid al­most moved me to pity. My breath­ing ac­cel­er­ated. A girl cried out.

I felt a pow­er­ful hand grab my wrist. It was Mr. Fer­gu­son. A ghost must have tipped him off. The dead al­ways rat on you. Iron­i­cally enough, my vic­tim, the fair-haired boy, was the one who found the drowned sailor’s body on the beach. Had he shouted so loudly that day be­cause the sailor’s blue face proph­e­sied this

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