Last Night, on the Bridge

Annabelle Larousse’s translation of this François Barcelo short story is one of a collection of six to be released earlier this year on Smashwords. It’s typical Barcelo: dark and funny, with a nod and a wink to a very serious theme (drug abuse) along the way.



From Take Five (and five more)

by François Barcelo
≈ translated by Annabelle Larousse (Smashwords, 2013)



Of all the things you can see from here, do you know what I like the most?

The northern lights.

There’s nothing more beautiful anywhere in the world. I’m sure of that, even if I’ve never been anywhere else. And the ones tonight are the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.

It’s like the sky is full of curtains gently rippling in the wind. In our house, while Mama was still with us, we used to have curtains something like that. When she died, the curtains wore out because the wind was always blowing in, and they finally just fell apart. Papa took them down. But before he did, whenever the windows were open, they looked like the northern lights.

Tonight the northern lights are more beautiful than our curtains were just after Mama died, but they look a bit like them all the same.

It’s like they’re lazily dancing above the tops of the spruces. I have a clear view of them because I’m on the railway bridge. Right in the middle, the best place to see the sky and the northern lights.

My brother Joseph brought me here a while ago. He told me to sit here with my bag, and he said I’d have at least two hours before the train came by.

I couldn’t hear him because I’m deaf, but I always understand what he’s saying because I watch his lips while he’s talking to me.

Joseph is my oldest brother.

So I sat down with my feet dangling between the sleepers and my bag on my lap, so that I could enjoy watching the northern lights playing across the sky. They’re usually white, but sometimes they’re yellowish or somewhat pink or very close to green.

It’s October now. If it’s a cloudless night, I find it the best month of the year to watch the northern lights. And I think tonight’s the best night to watch them since the start of October.

I feel fine. Not just because I can see the northern lights all over the sky. Not just because I’m huffing the gas that’s in my bag.

I feel fine because it’s my last night here. And I want to make the most of it instead of crying like Joseph did when he brought me out here on the bridge. When he was leaving, he tried to make it look like he was smiling, but I could see there were real tears in his eyes.

He was crying because the government agents are going to come collect me tomorrow. They’re going to take me to the hospital, far away in the big city. For what they call “the detox.”

Papa was against it. He said it would kill me. And he said if it didn’t kill me, it would kill what I am, and that’s even worse.

But the agents said that if I keep on the way I am, I’ll die anyway from breathing the gas fumes.

I don’t think that’s true myself, because I’ve been doing it for years and I’m not exactly dead yet. I agree with Papa. I agree with my brothers, who agree with Papa as well. They still think it would be better for me to stay, even though they can’t keep the agents from taking me away.

My brothers don’t do the gas. Mama never let them. Neither did Papa after Mama died. But since I’m deaf and don’t go to school, he couldn’t stop me. With Mama gone, Papa can’t keep an eye on me all the time.

By the time he found out I was doing it, it was too late. He tried hiding the gas, but I learned how to siphon it from the tanks of the canoe, the snowmobile and the generator. It’s easy: I get a rubber hose and I suck on it as hard as I can—but not too long—and the gas runs out into my plastic bag. Papa can hardly make everybody else go without TV just because of me. When we’re in the house, my brothers understand almost everything the white people are saying because they go to school. When we’re living in the tent, like we are now, they can’t hear anything over the generator, but they still have the picture and that’s better than nothing. It doesn’t bother me at all. I can’t hear the generator, but I can’t hear the TV, either, whether we’re in the house or the tent.

One time, the summer before last, we were watching the news on TV and we saw some kids with bags of gas. You could tell how happy they were because every time they pulled their noses out of their bags, they started laughing. I started laughing, too. But the others didn’t.

Soon it’ll start snowing for good and we’ll go back to the house. It’s not very far. We’ll go back in the motor canoe, just the way we came. Papa will make three trips in the same day to bring back the tent and all our things.

I’m the only one who won’t go back to the house because they’re coming to collect me tomorrow. Papa will come with me as far as the tracks. The train will stop there for just a minute. It’s all been arranged. Papa will put me on the train. He has to. Otherwise, they’ll get off and come looking for me to take me away to the hospital.

So even if Papa doesn’t want to and my brothers don’t either, they don’t have any choice but to let me go.

I don’t know if I’m going to like the detox. I don’t think I will. I don’t think I’d like it even if I could do it at home—Papa asked about that, but they said it was out of the question because of the law.

Papa asked me why I wouldn’t stop. It would make things a lot easier and I could stay with the family.

I tried to explain to him that there’s nights like tonight, with the northern lights dancing across the sky and the wind blowing gently over the river, a wind that’s not really cold, but still a bit cold like it always is on October nights. On nights like this I feel so fine that I can’t stop. There’s nights like tonight that wouldn’t be nearly so nice if I didn’t have any gas in my bag. And there’s sad days that aren’t so sad when I have my bag.

My brothers, especially Joseph, wanted to get our rifles out and shoot at the agents when they came to collect me. But Papa wouldn’t have it. He made them swear they wouldn’t do that.

I know all about that because when my father and brothers are talking, I can read their lips. I can’t do that with the TV. Not with the agents, either, when they come to talk to Papa. That doesn’t matter because Joseph tells me everything they’ve said when they’re gone. But when I go away with them, I won’t have anyone to tell me what they’re saying. That doesn’t matter, either, because I don’t really want to know.

Earlier this evening, after supper, Papa got in the motor canoe to go out fishing. He never goes fishing in the evening. But he wanted to this evening because soon there won’t be any more fishing.

Joseph told me: “Tonight’s your last night. Do you want to go down to the bridge to see the northern lights one last time?” I nodded my head “Yes.” I brought my bag. He told me to sit down in the middle of the bridge, facing the north, with my feet between the sleepers.

He took off his watch, set it at the right time and gave it to me. I don’t think it’s for keeps, even if he didn’t say that. But maybe he’s thinking that in detox I’ll need it more than him, so I can see if the time is going by fast or slowly. He fastened the strap around my wrist and said: “Now the ten o’clock train won’t run over you.”

The ten o’clock train is the same one the agents will be on tomorrow when it stops for me. I won’t get on it tonight because it has to go to the end of the line further west. The agents are already on it. They’re going to sleep at the end of the line because there’s a hotel there, and they’ll come back by tomorrow on the same train when it’s returning to the big city.

When Mama got sick, Papa wanted the train to stop on its outward journey and take her back to the hospital straightaway. But they wouldn’t do it because there were other sick people on their way home and that wouldn’t have been fair to them. The next day, when the train was returning from the end of the line, Mama had already died. They stopped anyway because they didn’t know. Papa told them Mama was doing better and then he buried her in the woods.

The other day, my brothers were thinking of buying some dynamite and blowing up the bridge, but Papa wouldn’t have that, either. He said that wouldn’t change a thing because they would just send other agents to take me away. And those agents would be even madder than the ones before. My brothers would go to prison, and Papa, too, and it wouldn’t help me at all because I couldn’t be left on my own. They’d still send me to the hospital.

All this explains why I’m on the bridge right now. Looking at the most beautiful northern lights I’ve ever seen. They look like four curtains now—three of them white and the other one with a bit of green in it, all of them stirring gently, as if Mama was drawing them apart to look through the window of heaven to see if there was anyone on the bridge.

I take another whiff from my gas bag. I’ve never felt as fine as I do right now. I think I’ll spend the whole night here if nobody comes looking for me. When the ten o’clock train is due, I’ll only have to walk down to the bank and then I can come back and sit in the same spot even if the northern lights are over. Sometimes they stop early, but mostly they go on the whole night.

Now, that’s odd. It feels like the bridge is shaking just a bit. I look at Joseph’s watch. It has a light so you can see the time even at night. I push the button. It’s five minutes past eight. Tonight the northern lights started earlier than usual, because in October the days are always getting shorter faster than I expect.

That can’t be the train. It’s often late, but it’s never ahead of time. Maybe it’s an earthquake. Not a big one, though it seems it’s got a bit stronger. I open my bag. I stick my nose back in it. I breathe deeply. It stinks, but it does me good, and I find it doesn’t stink as much now as it did at the start.

Yes, it’s an earthquake. We had one once. I can’t remember it since I was so young at the time, but Joseph often tells me all about it. Back then he was as old as I am now. We were in the tent. The lantern began to hum on its own even though it wasn’t lit. Everybody woke up. The utensils started rattling like they were playing music. Mama was afraid. Joseph says that I started crying. Papa got his rifle because he didn’t know what was happening. Everything began shaking harder and harder. Papa went outside to have a look. There was nothing to see. It wasn’t a bear or a train or anything else. Then it stopped. The next day the white people in the village told Papa it was an earthquake. The radio had said so.

I don’t remember it, but it must have been like what’s happening now. Except that now, it won’t stop.

It’s a bit like the way the bridge shakes when a train is coming. It almost makes me want to take a look behind me.

But I’d rather have another big whiff from my bag. I don’t want to take my eye off the northern lights, not even for a second. Because tonight is my last night. ≈



Take Five (and five more)

François Barcelo

trans. Annabelle Larousse

Smashwords, 2013