by Thomas Legendre


by Thomas Legendre

Blaise drives the empty truck all the way back to Clarkston by the river with his blisters leaking on the steering wheel because the manager said unloading the castings was part of the contract but he didn’t have an extra pair of gloves. No guidance. C’est le problème, eh? Blaise asks for help in certain moments, a split-second prayer to God, but nothing comes back. No voice. No feeling. Nothing at all. And he keeps trying to find answers in the things of this world. Every tree a sign, every rock a symbol. Then what does it say? It must be a physical language like those . . . voyons, what did Sister Marie call them last week? Hieroglyphics. Oui. Every object is a question. Or is it an answer? A catechism out there, if he has the eyes for it.

     He rolls down the window to the scent of raw earth, the pavement glistening with runoff, the fields piebald with snow. Houses varnished in afternoon glare. Fait chaud these last few days with the snowpack melting and the river swelling when it appears through spindly poplars along the bank, trying to tell him something. But Blaise winces as he works the gearshift, a drowsy heat coming over him all glazed with fatigue and dried sweat and an extra weight in his bones as he passes through a long shroud of pines with sunlight strobing his face and his thoughts stripped away by the steady throttling of the engine like the sound of his own name senseless and strange whenever he repeats it over and over again, Blaise.

     The trees give way again to a blinding stretch of whitewater. Ice floes bucking in the current, a hypnotic furious wash. A question in its motion, its open sound. Everything happens for a reason. We don’t understand, but we—

     He yanks the truck back across the center line with a hot blast of adrenaline like copper in his mouth. Mautadit, watch the road, eh. His heart is hammering as a car passes in the other direction with a burst at the open window. The world burning in every nerve. You are alive.

Still trembling at the near miss, Blaise passes the wrought iron fence of a cemetery, the tombstones jutting like teeth. A perfect white sign welcoming him to St. Paul. And then he downshifts when he spots the police car, , near the South Bridge. Officer Bilodeau behind the wheel in his inflated fedora and double-breasted uniform, his buttons gleaming like doubloons. A friend of Papa’s. He raises a beefy hand. Blaise straightens up and gives an adult wave, his substitute for a driver’s license at the age of thirteen.

     He takes the bridge over to Clarkston with tires humming on grillwork, the river’s cold breath in the cab. The tenements of Le Petit Canada close around him when he reaches the other side, the granite slopes and spires of Holy Cross Church. The vacant schoolyard. He could hit the horn to make some kind of Morse Code so Sister Marie would know what’s happening and speak to Papa about skipping school so much. And Blaise, when he comes to the intersection with River Street, turns left instead of right, his own answer, toward the Empire Theater to see if the new feature has arrived because Richie Sansouci’s cousin leaves the door open on the fire escape. The newsreels, the cartoons, the main features. The projector beam flickering and pulsing like the eye of God. Everything fits together in that world. In the movies everything makes sense.

     He passes by the railroad station. The Rotary Club with its pool tables and bowling lanes, its meeting room thick with smoke. And then he halts at the intersection with Main Street. A curtain of white mist rises from the Great Falls, a heavy roaring blast tumbling and glittering with lumps of ice. A horn toots behind him. He jolts and puts the truck into gear and pulls into the lot by the shoe factory.

     He switches off the engine to the steady thunder of the falls. The sky electric and bright, clouds in the distance rim-lit by a setting sun. A crowd is gathered on the bridge with their hat brims lowered, coats buttoned and scarves wrapped tight against the rising mist, all watching the flood. Blaise squeezes in between a man wearing a gray slicker and a woman in a full-length coat, her collar pearled with moisture. He grips the rail for the relief on his blisters. Merci, he thinks. Then he switches the thought to English, trying it on like a hat. Thank you, God. In reply a discolored hunk of ice comes slipping over the falls and disappears for a moment before bobbing up to the surface again, heaving through the marbled surfaces as it comes downstream. He follows it under the bridge. Then he feels a tap on his shoulder.

     He turns to find Hélène Proteau wagging her finger at him in mock reprimand. “You’re playing hooky,” she says.

     He glances at the rough frill of her waitress uniform peeking out of her jacket. “So are you.”

     She shakes her head and, easing in next to him, glances down at the water. “Moé, I’m dilly-dallying. C’est pas la même chose.”

     “I didn’t know there was a difference.”

     “Hooky, that’s when you skip something. Dilly-dallying, il passe ça, in the gap between one thing and another.”

     “Then we’re both doing it.”

     She adjusts the strap of the schoolbag slung over her shoulder. Blondish and lion-maned, her hair trailing loosely under a knit cap. The heavy lids of her eyes suggesting a drowsiness that her voice contradicts, springing up with comments or notions released from the knots of her mind. She isn’t related to Blaise, but connected to him by her Oncle Raymond, who married his Tante Vivienne. They see each other at large family gatherings, at Proteau’s Cafe where she works evenings and weekends, and all over town, it seems, bumping into each other like balls on a pool table.

     “You,” she says, nudging him with her elbow, “you’re a slick one, eh? You did both today. You played hooky from school and now you’re dilly-dallying.”

     Blaise looks into the billowing mist. “I didn’t play hooky.”

     “Excusez, I guess you were kidnapped.”

     He doesn’t reply. Another spectator squeezes in farther down the line and causes a shift, a bumping of shoulders and hips, Hélène suddenly against him with scattered hints of hair.

     She glances over at him with a flare of mischief in her eyes. “Méchant, skipping school.”

     “I still pass the tests.”

     “That isn’t what I mean.”

     “Then what do you mean?”

     She seems to be weighing up an answer when her eyes shift toward the water again and he follows her gaze to something out there—the entire wall of a barn slipping down the falls and into the foam. When it resurfaces Blaise leans over to watch it floating like a box top, shredded at one end, an empty frame where a window used to be.        

     Then he hears a shout, someone gesturing at the water below.

     “Regardez là, ça, une vache!

     The cow moves the way only dead things move, as a perfect reflection of force, bobbing and rolling with its legs wheeling out like fenceposts. As it dips out of sight under the bridge he blinks hard, trying to hold it in his mind. Did he see that? Did it really happen?

     He looks up to check Hélène’s reaction, but she’s gone. The shock of vacant space. Nothing but the rail glazed with moisture where she was standing, the air completely emptied of her presence. Then he spots her striding toward the far end of the bridge without a goodbye, as usual. He wipes the damp film from his face, his work shirt heavy with moisture, an urgency beginning to take hold of him. Papa has been working in the foundry all day with the river nearby and does he know how quickly it’s rising? That’s the question. He walks back to the truck and takes one last look at the falls and the shoe factory nearby, the mills with their flanks of brick and honeycombed glass. Holy water. That’s the answer. Every Sunday he dips his finger in the basin and brings it to his forehead, his gut, his shoulders left and right, amen.


     He pulls into the empty lot and parks between the flasks and the coke pile. All employees gone for the day. And before Blaise even reaches the office Papa comes out toward him with his lopsided gait, his stiff coveralls, his face dirty and his eyes glowing white in contrast.

     “Where you been?”

     “Moé, I had to unload the castings in Belport. That man,” Blaise says, scratching his cheek, a dread rising through him as he realizes where this is going, “with the mustache and the clipboard—”


     “Sh e puh, he didn’t say his name.”

     “Mason, il s’appelle. What about him?”

     “He made me unload all the—”

     “Calisse de calvaire,” Papa says, his shoulders flinching with the words. “J’ai dit we don’t do that. We don’t do it tout seul.”

     Blaise holds out his hands as evidence of the punishment he has already suffered, his penance already served, but then drops them because it always seems clear after the fact, as Papa exhales through his nostrils, that he didn’t do what Papa would have done in his place. But Blaise isn’t the one who built the foundry next to the river, eh? He glances back at it gleaming through the trees, littered with ice but not nearly as menacing this far from the falls. The river is deeper here. Slower. And you can’t see everything melting.

     “Le fleuve,” he says.

     Papa turns and begins walking toward the office. “Oui, oui, j’sais it’s rising. I have eyes.”

     Blaise follows him. “Mais,” he says, “The Great Falls. Les roches, they were covered with water. Nous avons vu une vache and part of a building. And the ice. Big chunks of it, Papa, you should see them.”

     As he comes through the doorway Maman looks up with her hand on the adding machine’s lever. “Une vache?”

     He nods, searching for something important to add while Papa washes his hands at the sink. Pauline and Yvonne sitting at opposite sides of Papa’s desk, the one he never uses, with their homework spread before them. Only two years apart and occasionally mistaken for twins with their velvet brown hair and heart-shaped faces, their expressions identical now, gaping at what Blaise has just said.

     Blaise nods. “It’s coming up fast, the river.”

     “We need a boat,” Yvonne says suddenly.

     Pauline starts to add something about Noah’s ark when Maman raises a hand to silence them. She looks at Papa. “Joseph?”

     He continues scrubbing his hands at the sink, Papa. No response.

     “Voyons, Joseph.”

     Blaise waits. Everyone waits. Maman looks at Blaise and gives him a slight nod, an assurance that she believes him, that his words count for something.

     Papa sighs as he wipes his hands. “All right, eh. Checkons le fleuve.”

     They cross the parking lot, all of them, with the girls caught in the adult gravity of the situation, their mouths set in deep concern. An entire age like a geological era separating Blaise from his younger sisters in their school uniforms, their black dresses trimmed with white collars, their delicate socks and patent leather shoes. Blaise rubs the goosebumps on his arms, his shirt still damp. A cold edge to the air. He keeps pace with Papa, tramping through the weeds until he stops short at the sight of it. The legions of ice out there. Trees caught in the rising waters, branches bent back and trailing, the river shearing away the mudbank. It’s a miracle. It will set him free. Blaise looks to the western sky with its final radiance, the clouds ridged and luminous with their own truth, their own light.


     The steady clicking of the projector. The flickering beam. It displays episodes of his life, or what’s supposed to be his life, but nothing on the screen matches any part of himself and he tries to protest when he hears a rapping sound, a knocking on the door, and then he finds himself awake in bed. He sits up. Papa’s voice, his vague shape in the doorway, something about the truck, dépêche-toi, he says, before disappearing again.

     Blaise brings his feet to the braided rug on the floor and rubs his eyes all heavy and crusted with sleep. This can’t be right. He’s not supposed to skip school two days in a row. He gropes for the crucifix draped around his bedpost. How many months since he wore it? He loops it over his head, the cold contact of suffering and mercy as he dresses, a heavenly metal against his bare chest. In the kitchen he lingers near the warm stove before Maman shoves a biscuit into his hand and sends him down the stairs with Papa crisscrossing the back of their tenement, each porch a landing full of washtubs and old furniture and children’s toys. Other families’ kitchens on display. The sky silvery-dark and starless, a hellish blend of day and night. The court strung with laundry hanging rigid in the morning chill. When they reach the bottom he hears voices calling in the street. An engine idling somewhere.

     The truck is double-parked. Blaise walks around to the passenger side and opens the door to find Pépère Samuel sitting there with his arms folded like the genie from Aladdin’s lamp. Blaise stares at him. His cloth cap set back on head, his Mackinaw coat, his patched overalls tucked into rubber boots.

     He swivels his head toward Blaise. “Bonjours. Nice day for a swim, eh?”

     “Ah moé, I forgot my beach towel.”

     “Puh de problème, Blaise,” he says, sliding across the seat to make room. “I’ll share mine.”

     Blaise climbs in and barely has time to shut the door before the truck starts moving. He wants to laugh. With Pépère next to him it suddenly feels like an adventure. They pass ramparts of sandbags, men working with shovels near the bridge. Skeins of water reflect the streetlights in front of Proteau’s Cafe. They follow a dumptruck fanning water through an intersection and then turn onto River Street where the houses are all lit up, vehicles parked with doors winged open and suitcases on the sidewalk. The Bourne Mill dormant, the machines shut down. The outlet canal is spewing enough froth to fill the ocean all by itself, it seems to Blaise, and he describes these things to Samuel, and he nods, Samuel, with every detail.

     Papa brings the truck to a halt where the road disappears into a lake of brown varnish. No, not a lake. He can see water flaring at tree trunks and road signs, lumps of ice and debris, dead chickens bobbing in the murk. And maybe a hundred yards ahead of them, the foundry half submerged. Too late, he thinks. Nothing we can do. But then Papa goes around to the back of the truck and the door goes scrolling up, pulleys squealing. Blaise climbs out after him and finds Samuel’s rowboat in the open bay with the oars shipped, coils of heavy rope on the floorboards. Bien oui, he should have known. Pépère and the boat. You can’t have one without the other. Papa nods to him and they lift it out and carry it across the asphalt and set it down at the water’s edge. Then they all climb in. Blaise in front, Samuel manning the oars in the middle, Papa in back. He launches them with his good leg. Chunks of ice thudding and scraping against the hull. Chickens mushy and bloated with their empty eye sockets, beaks parted soundlessly. Utility wires braided like licorice only a few feet overhead. The sky taking on a dull glow, the color of slate.

     The storage shed is nearly afloat, the sliding doors knocked off the tracks and folded inward. And the patterns, they’re floating out into the current. Wood models of all the different castings they make at the foundry. They can’t pack the molds without those patterns. Papa begins paying out lengths of rope as he directs Samuel to take them closer. Blaise reaches out and plucks each pattern out of the water with a kind of muddled agony, threading rope through the holes drilled into the wood frames and looping them all together like pearls until Papa finally lashes them to a utility pole. Blaise cradles his hands on his thighs afterward, his blisters no longer aching but numbed out of existence by the bite of the frigid water, the river surrounding them nearly solid, it seems, reflecting nothing. Blaise looks down at his dead hands. Red skin, fingernails a deathly white. He flexes them and exhales through his teeth.

     “Les mains?” Samuel asks.


     “Ensuite de ça, I’ll give you some plantago.”

     “Some what?”

     “Une herbe, eh? It makes the skin better.”

     Blaise studies Samuel’s expression, his skewed eyes, for some hint of a joke. “C’est vrai?”

     “When I was in the lumber camp, I would rub it on my hands and next day it was like nothing ever happened.”

     “Lumber camp?”

     “Even a habitant comme moé, Blaise, de fois I worked extra.” He nods slowly. “Not so bad, eh? At night we played stud poker. Les dimanches y’avait logrolling contests and sack races in the snow. I learned about the roots and herbs, all the Indian cures.”

     Blaise sits forward. “There were Indians?”

     “And the old coureurs de bois who brought back the furs, they could tell the weather from tree bark.”

     “Puh d’affaire!

     “They were never wrong when they said there was going to be a frost. One of them, Pierre Gallant, he could tell the temperature by spitting on the ground. And c’est bien pour dire, he could skate across the lake blindfolded because he had a compass up here.” Samuel taps an index finger to the center of his forehead. “But then he died in the box mill. Him, he was down near the digester when a collar came off one of the valves and the whole thing blew apart. After we cleared away the pulp, , we found him on his hands and knees by the wall. His body cooked all the way through. We tried to pick him up, but his flesh, it came off in our hands.” He shakes his head slowly at the memory. “Henry Curran, he was another one, eh? His sleeve snagged on one of the shafts and by the time they cut the power every bone in his body was broken.”

     He falls silent for a long moment. The water rippling and coursing, the creaking of the oarlocks.

     “Moé, I ran a planer there. You should have seen the belts on that machine, Blaise. Y’avait some beams above it with a plank running between them where you had to stand to oil the upper pulley. I climbed up there one day with the oil can and put my foot on that plank when I heard someone shout Go Back! Les machines, they were making a lot of noise and nobody was close enough for it to sound so clear. But I came down anyway and I happened to look up when I was putting away the oil can and j’l’ai vu, là, the other end of the plank just hanging on the edge of the beam. If I walked out there, Blaise, the plank it would have sagged and slipped off the beam and I would’ve fell right into that belt. J’ai le demandé, every man who was working that day. Who warned me? Personne. Nobody. Mais bien oui, j’sais la verité. I know who it was.”

     “We’re drifting,” Papa says.

     Samuel lifts his head abruptly, as if struck by a thought.

     “J’ai dit we’re drifting, eh? Turn us around.” 


     “What are you—”

     Samuel makes a quelling gesture. “Ecoutes.”

     Papa gives him a cutting look. “Voyons donc, another voice? It’s just the river. The river inside your head.”

     But then Blaise hears something in the rip of the current. A creaking. The crackle of timbers. Then the whole office heaves up with a great snapping of boards and splintered wood, coming to a halt at an angle, water washing heavily at its sides.

     “The office, Pépère, you should see it hanging there. Clisse, what’s holding it down?”

     “Le main de Dieu,” Samuel says with a smirk.

     “The plumbing,” Papa says. Then he points forward. “Regardes là, the flasks are straight ahead.”

     Samuel takes a breath. “Moé, I don’t have much horsepower left.”

     The lines harden on Papa’s face. “Downstream, eh? Touchez-pas, ça,” he says, making a dismissive gesture at the oars, “the river will take us there.”

     Samuel lets the boat drift toward open water. The push of the current, ice riding fast in the open water. No life jackets, the thought blaring out suddenly in Blaise’s mind as they approach the riverbank marked only by a line of stripped alders. A wider view of everything now, the South Bridge upstream with its latticed girders like a cage holding a car stalled within it. The brick smokestacks of the mills dormant, the windows blank and bled of all color. The sky a solid gray, welded shut. Across the water he can see the road he drove yesterday, houses rising sharply on the hills of St. Paul, les Anglais, safe in the heights.

     Papa sits forward, eyeing some flasks caught in a stand of oaks. “A droit.”

     “The current, Joe—”

     “Voyons, we can ride it out. Just work with me for once, eh?”

     Samuel lets out a breath. Then he starts pulling at the oars, taking them straight into the river’s course where one of the oars hits a tree and cracks loose, swiveling the boat. As he gropes to set the oar back in place, Blaise reaches over to help, and Papa’s voice erupts suddenly in warning and then he turns, Blaise, in time to see the branch sweep him off his seat.

     A sudden loss of sound as he goes under, muscles and bones locking. Not a sensation of cold but a seizure all the way through his body, his movements sluggish in his clothes as he tumbles over and over and he doesn’t know which way is up and batêche it’s ridiculous because he knows how to swim like he knows how to walk. Fighting the urge to breathe, to open his mouth and relieve the pressure in his chest. His shoulder grazing something hard. An impact snapping his head back. A branch clawing at his leg and then his work boots striking the bottom once, twice, plowing up mush and silt flicking across his face until he slams to a halt with the river swelling against him. His arms splayed helplessly. Chest bursting. He tries to keep his mouth closed even as he takes the water into his lungs, the fullness and weight of it, the gagging force. He coughs in and out. A veined cold running through him. It gives way slowly, replaced with a lovely warmth, the murk taking on a deeper hue in his eyes, the emulsion of the river brightening now, prismatic and true, like shattered sunlight. And then nothing. Nothing at all.