Douglas & McIntyre
A Secret Between Us

Book details:

August 2007
ISBN 978-1-55365-272-4
Paperback - Trade
5 1/2" x 8 1/2"
304 pages
$22.95 CAD


Douglas & McIntyre

A Secret Between Us

By: Daniel Poliquin
Translated by: Don Winkler

Excerpt / Additional Content

From Chapter 1 of A Secret Between Us, by Daniel Poliquin


A particularity that was my stock in trade when I was a journalist: secure in my role as arbiter of opinion, I overthrew governments between two morning coffees, denounced liars and rained down honours on the virtuous. In my novels it was simpler still. With circumstance obedient to my whims, women fell in love at first sight with the man I dreamed of being, and I rewrote history according to my tastes. All I needed was a credulous public for everything to be true.

When I write now, it is to beg my father for subsistence, and my only readings are the classified ads that offer work to those who lack it. I would love to make an honest man of myself, gainfully employed, but my brain mocks my dim ambitions: it continues to weave fantasies without my consent, spawning and altering universes for which I no longer have any use. My mind plays this game against my will, leaving me drained of strength. And wanting one thing only: to become one of those trivial creatures who materialize and dematerialize in my head, only to melt away during one of my periodic spells of amnesia. I must stop dreaming during the day and confine to the night those visions that vanish with the coming of dawn. For now I know that the imagination can hold freedom in thrall.

My memories are of no more use to me, I must be done with them. A difficult task, as despite myself I retain all the stories that others have told me, as if I didn’t have enough of my own. My mother would have said that this curse was my punishment for a life of sin.

She died just before the battle of Vimy. The telegram was signed by the village postmistress, who must have pitied my illiterate father, otherwise she would never have written to the happy reprobate I was: “Your mother is dead. Pray.” I sought out my warrant officer, hoping that my loss might garner me a two-day leave that would free me to go and ask Nurse Flavie from the Vendée if she might one day love me. The officer had a good laugh: “My ass, Sergeant, that’s the fourth time she’s died, your old lady! You should try doing in your father for a change!” I protested a little. I even swore that this time it was true. He told me to screw o. I consoled myself with the thought that the imminent death of my mother had already earned me two leaves in Droucy, where Nurse Flavie’s unit was encamped. She was the first woman in my life whom I’d desired more than once.

Had I known my story would break the heart of Private Léon Tard, my friend and subaltern, I wouldn’t have told him anything at all. We were digging graves for our comrades killed in action, and when he insisted on knowing why I wasn’t singing as much as usual, I told him about the warrant officer’s coarse laugh. He fell into my arms, sobbing. Impossible to calm him down. “I’m sorry, but I’m so sad for you. Your mama…” A colossus like Tard who weeps hot tears is hard to resist. I managed to console him, promising to make him a corporal one day.

Our job was to bury, the two of us, half a dozen lads who’d not made it through the night. As it happened, they were amputees whose coffins weighed almost nothing. A light workday. And so to ease his pain a little, Tard told me how, at the age of seven, he had lost his own mother. She died in childbirth while he was playing in the farmyard with a stick and hoop, and he had given a kick to an old hen that was in his way. “When they told me that Mama had gone to heaven, I thought right away it was my fault because I’d been mean to the hen. Then I asked myself how we’d manage for supper that night, since Mama wouldn’t be there to cook for us, and that made me hungry. I still get famished every time I think of her.” He began again to moan so loudly that he almost dropped the little corporal from Ontario who’d been gutted by a shell, and whom we’d liked a lot because he whistled so nicely when he was shaving. Seeing Tard with his orphan face too large for his age, I thought I might shed a few tears along with him, but he had already drenched my handkerchief. I can still, from time to time, respond to the suering of others, even though my own leaves me cold. It is all the fault of my fickle imagination, which finds me unworthy of interest.

Tard had had the misfortune of being adopted by his uncle and aunt, who already had nine children and could well have done without the four new mouths to feed that the death of their widowed sister-in-law landed on their doorstep. For the rest of his short childhood he was accused of taking up too much space and eating like a pig. His uncle sent him to the woods as a kitchen helper at the age of ten, and there, frightened by all the lumberjacks, who cursed as though the good Lord were dead, he missed his mother even more, and even the adoptive family that was so happy to get rid of him. After five or six years he got tired of handing over all his wages to his uncle as compensation for the man’s goodness. He fled the forest for the factories in Massachusetts, but after six months he crawled back to his Quebec hole like a beaten dog returning to its master. “Yes, I understand why you’re laughing at me, Sergeant. It’s true that our house smelled of piss, sweat, cabbage soup. What else? Oh yes, it also smelled of sour milk, overcooked meat, dirty laundry, but it was still my nest, my place. It’s hard, when you’re homesick…” So as not to add to his troubles, I drew on my pipe like a man who is wise to life’s mysteries, and said no more. He would not have wept so hard had he known my mother.