Mabel used to say we were dirt poor.
A country is not just its people and places, but its stories. On the occasion of Canada’s sesquicentennial, The Globe and Mail has invited a group of writers – from home and abroad – to celebrate the country’s history in fiction. The results will be published throughout the course of 2017.
I never quite got that expression. People from Le Bassin had another one, which my husband trotted out often and with pride. He told neighbours and visitors that our house was so clean that they were welcome to eat out of our toilet boil. The very idea gave me the willies. I guess it was his way of poking fun at people who didn’t think, back then, that I’d ever be able to bear children or even keep the house neat and tidy. Alyre liked to brag about my housekeeping skills. I was a frail, meagre creature when we met. In our wedding pictures Alyre looks like Humphrey Bogart and I look like a 13-year-old girl. But I turned out all right, and even Mabel saw soon enough that Le Bassin natives were a proud bunch. Poor, maybe, but never dirty.
About me, Alyre liked to say:
“See, she turned out as good as the others. And maybe even a bit better.”
Before our time, Le Bassin was a really tough place. The dirtiest people who ever lived here were a woman called Broad Bean and another called Mosquito. They were two legendary prostitutes who at the turn of the century fought for control over a territory that looked down on a part of town called “Harlots’ Hill.” When the time came to clean up the area, the municipality and the bishopric expropriated the residents, and where the brothels had stood they erected the immense Sacré-Coeur church. Délima told me the story after we arrived in the neighbourhood, and for years, at Sunday Mass or looking out on the church steeple from my window, I thought only of the whores who once held court on that ground.
It’s strange that I remember that. We tend to think that rain blots out everything. That it renders memory as smooth as the stones it polishes and the asphalt it washes clean. But during the great floods, the water floats everything, even the dead, to the surface. When the deluge began, I mean, when the rain ran on, when it became clear that we were in trouble, Mabel said that it was God’s punishment for the 1995 referendum. Too many separatists in the Saguenay, that’s what did us in. Didn’t they lose the damn thing? I asked, but she wouldn’t budge. They came too close, she replied. I implored her, don’t go around spouting this nonsense. You’re going to get yourself killed.
Poor old Mabel. There were already hardly any Anglos in the Le Bassin when we got there in the 1930s, and today Mabel is all by herself. She hasn’t left me in peace since 1941, when she realized I spoke English. She was the sister of the sawmill foreman who’d moved her into a small lodging at the top of the street. She was a unilingual Anglophone who barely stammered six words of French, installed for life in a Catholic working-class Francophone neighbourhood, with no other friend than Jeanne-d’Arc, with whom she drinks tea every day at four o’clock. We’re the same age, Mabel and me. 160 years between us. Relics.
They won’t let you stay here for long, Mabel said, when the water began to wash over the dam bit by bit and to run into the streets. I thought so too. My son called over and over again, but by the time he arrived, the firemen had already come to move me out. Never mind that I told them I was in no danger, and that I had enough cans of soup and soda biscuits to get through two or three stormy days, they brought me to a school gymnasium along with other disaster victims. That’s where my son came to get me to put me up where he lives. He’s on the high plateau, where floods do no damage.
At least Mabel is with me. Otherwise, I’d have no one to talk to. My boy tries not to put the news on too often, so as not to upset me, but it’s hard because there’s practically nothing else on television but people crying, rivers bursting their banks, and whole apartment blocks collapsing into the angry waters. The landscape has been completely redrawn. They built up the whole region while playing in the water, thinks Mabel. They came here down rivers with Indian names. Chicoutimi. Pikauba. Ouiatchouan. Ashuapmushuan. Shipshaw. Mistassini, Ticouapé. They diverted rivers left and right, building dams. Six dams on the Chicoutimi River alone, over barely 20 miles, between Portage-des-Roches and the mouth. The powers, they call them here, when they generate electricity. They’ve done that forever, as if it were up to us to decide which way it’s heading, a river, and what’s its level, a lake. Mabel insists I look at the desolation on the screen. Whole blocks of houses swept away by the waves, villages wiped out. Raging rivers full of flotsam and dead trees. You can see that it’s all over, Joan. That’s what Mabel says, she likes calling me by my English name, Joan of Arc. I reply:
“Maybe the flood’s going to carry away the whole town, but not my house. You can count on that, Mabel.”
They’ve set me up on the hide-a-bed in the living room. It’s dizzying. A lot of friends come to talk with me, including other disaster victims. I don’t know how long I’m going to stay here. For my children, the flood is a happy accident: they’ve been trying for a long time to get me out of my house.
The next stop will be the hospital, I suppose, once things get back to normal.
In the morning, my son arrives all out of breath, and turns on the TV. On the screen there are shaky images taken from a helicopter. You see Le Bassin, at my house’s height, totally swallowed up by the river sweeping over the walls of the Price dams in great cascades. There’s nothing left, the water has taken it all. Where there were streets, there’s a vast soup of brown water and heavy swells. In fact, I wouldn’t be able even to identify the neighbourhood, if the pictures didn’t show me my house, Alyre’s house, rising out of the waves, intact.
My son says:
“Mama, your house is being seen all over the world.”
All I can answer is:
“I knew I would have been better off staying there.”
How could you know? Mabel asks, but I don’t want to talk any more. Not now, Mabel, I say. Later.
I sleep. I have good dreams and bad dreams. Mabel’s memory isn’t as good as mine. I have to tell it to her all over again. We’d inherited the house from Délima, Alyre’s grandmother. That was normal at the time. Two or three years after our marriage, we moved in with her. Délima helped me as much as she could with the children, that kept her busy, and Alyre did the work that had to be done on the house. In those days the house didn’t look like much. It was a wooden structure, a bit run down, sitting right on the rock on a concrete slab. In 1947, the rains came. Nothing like today, but all the same. The watchman at the Price dam, drunk on the job, fell asleep on his shift and didn’t open the gates in time to avoid the overflow. The water went larking through the streets, and everyone in Le Bassin woke up with water in their basements. Alyre checked out the old cement slab to see where the water had worked its way in. It was clear what was was happening. That night, smoking on the stoop, he said to me: “The house is attached to nothing. If there were a real flood, it could just float off with the current.” I asked him what he was going to do, and he answered: “What I’m not going to do is to put up with this old loon for ten years, only to lose my house to some rushing water.” He was talking about his grandmother, who was not really loony or even tiresome, but men often talk like that, and Alyre was no different from the others. Except that when he talked mean it was with a little malicious gleam in his eye, always a bit merry. “I’m going to find a solution.” He spent two or three weeks thinking about it, asking the advice of contractors and jobbers in the neighbourhood, then he borrowed some industrial tools.
Other than raising up the house, he did everything himself. He drilled some deep holes in the rock under the house. He screwed and cemented into them some galvanized steel rods 12 feet long. That made like a big cage on top of the rise. Once the special cement had bound the metal to the stone, he built his frames and poured cement on top, so that it would hold with the rods right into the stone.
All this time I watched him work and helped him out when I could. I never enjoyed anything as much as watching Alyre’s hands and arms and shoulders at work. I loved watching him brush his hair back, operating his infernal machines as if there were nothing to it, a cigarette butt clenched in the corner of his mouth. That turned me on back then and it still turns me on a little today, even if no one but you, Mabel, would want to hear about it. The whole neighbourhood turned out to watch the men put the house back on its base. The children scurried around me and Délima. Alyre took me by the shoulders and murmured in my ear:
“Now you’re going to have a house, come rain or come shine.”
“And ‘til Kingdom Come.”
He gave me one of his mischievous smiles, and added:
“Well, maybe a big longer than that.”
I gave him an elbow in the belly and he burst out laughing. He knew that I didn’t like to hear him blaspheme, but that I did like hearing him boast, even if I pretended not to.
Robert’s telephone never stops ringing. Journalists want to talk to me. That doesn’t bother me, but what with my health, the children prefer that I choose just one, so I’ve taken the best looking, the announcer at RDI. On the appointed day my daughter-in-law makes me up and the guys from the television crew set up their bric-à-brac in the living room. I sit down and the journalist sits at the foot of my bed. We make a bit of conversation. To tease him, I say to Mabel:
“See, I told you he was handsome.”
The journalist laughs. Before he can ask me who I’m talking to, my son breaks in:
“Come on, Mama. Mabel’s not with us any more, she died in 1981.”
Mabel shrugs her shoulders. I’m put out. When he won’t have a single friend left alive on earth, maybe Robert will understand how you can converse with the dead. He talks apologetically to the journalist. I’m a bit odd, but I still have all my marbles. He doesn’t have to spell things out like that. The journalist is an Innu from Lac Saint-Jean. Those people aren’t afraid of ghosts.
Once the machine is running, I tell it all just like I told it to Mabel, or pretty close. The journalist asks questions and I end up rambling on and telling him that what’s worst in all this is that I’d just planted my flower beds, and that’s no small thing for a woman of my age in my condition. Then something weird happens: the journalist explodes with a big hearty laugh, and his eyes fill with tears. I don’t quite get what’s going on. And I’m ticked off. He’s not the one who’s lost everything, he’s not the one who’ll never be able to go home, he’s not the one who’s dying, and there he is, live on television, bawling like a baby. His voice hoarse, he asks:
“You’re a tough old bird, aren’t you, Madame Lavoie?”
I don’t know how to answer that. I forget myself again and I say:
“Nothing special about me.”
The journalist apologizes for his tears after the interview’s over. He explains that I remind him of his late grandmother, a woman from Mashteuiatsh. “You’re made of the same stuff,” he says, holding my hand in his own, warm and a bit damp.
One fine day, just before they took me to the hospital, the handsome journalist came back, with a big bunch of flowers. The waters had receded. With a crew of reporters, they’d gone to visit my house in Le Bassin and found this inside. It was a few flowers that I hadn’t had time to plant before being evacuated, and that I’d left on the kitchen table. He brought them to me so I could transplant them, there where I’d be living. I dragged myself right up to him and kissed him on the cheek. He had very black hair and very blue eyes and a little shy smile, the smile of a schoolboy. It’s the kind of thing Alyre would have done, so it touched me, but I prayed inside that the handsome journalist wouldn’t stay too long.
His lovely gesture just made me sad. That’s something the journalist wouldn’t understand, not because he’s insensitive, but because he’s too young. The flood is over. For the people of the Saguenay, it’s time to rebuild or to settle elsewhere, but for me the time for sowing is over. All that remains is for me to take my leave. I’d like to be able to talk about that with someone, but Mabel is silent now, and what’s worse, Alyre, who’s in my mind every day, hasn’t appeared to me, even in dreams, since 1966. In any case, I know that he wouldn’t have any advice to give me on that score.
Dying? No one around here knows how to do that.