f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Four Feasts by Susan Fish

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Four Feasts by Susan Fish

Running, unlike the classroom, was within his control. He ran in any direction that would take him away from the school. There was something satisfyingly defiant about pushing back against the gusts of wind as he ran. He loved hearing the wild boom of the surf as it crashed violently against the rocks. At first, his goals were simple: to make it to the next tree, to be able to pant bonjour to anyone he passed, rather than gasping cotton-mouthed as he staggered by. Eventually, he began to be able to run to the third tree, then the bend in the road, and to string these small goals together into something that could be called a run. Each day, he ended his runs by cutting across the beach to stand at the edge of the tide. On days when he was still thinking about school by the end of a run, he found release in throwing stones as far into the gulf as he could, with a grunt or even a yell. Other days, he pocketed pieces of colored glass.

He still wondered who lived in the little yellow cottage nestled along the shore. Despite its brilliant hue, it looked as though it had grown there. The mailbox said Lafontaine and the driveway curved into the cedars that surrounded the house so he could not tell whether there was a car or not, but some evenings he saw lights in the windows.

He was far up the road when he saw a figure carrying bags into the yellow house. The person emerged again as Jason drew closer. It was the artist who taught at his school -- Nathalie. He felt satisfied by this, that this was where she belonged: the house suited her. He waved as he passed and she waved back, although he was not sure she recognized him.

The air was so cold the next day that it sucked Jason’s breath from his mouth as he stepped outside his door but he decided to run anyway, to sustain this good habit as long as he could. Then he ran too far. Even with the scarf and the beard, he felt his face starting to freeze. Nathalie’s cottage was ahead, vivid yellow against the purple and blue shadows on the snow.
She opened the door, a large towel wrapped around her head, her red kimono around her body. She looked surprised. “Jason. Come in. Vite. Vite!”

He stepped inside and was enveloped in sensory bliss. A fire blazed in a preposterously large hearth, brown loaves of bread sat on the counter next to the stove on which something fragrant bubbled and steamed. Nathalie busied herself gathering small pots and jars on the table. “Sit. Please. My mess – excusez.”

Jason’s body was only beginning to believe that the torture was over. His face still stiff with cold smiled. “It’s a still life, Nathalie. My table has breakfast on it. Don’t worry about it.”

Nathalie smiled. She unwrapped the towel from her head, shaking out masses of damp, dark curls. “So, you come to accept my offer of supper?”

“No. I was jogging. And I got too – trop froid.”

“Your French improves. But, will you join me. I have a good meal ce soir – my grandfather’s soup, and bread I make myself.”

“It smells delicious.”

Donc –stay!” She stepped closer to him, unbuttoned his coat and unwrapped his scarf. She smelled spicy and woodsy.

“I’m interrupting,” he protested.

“I was in the bath, trying to delay the inevitable. I am a coward about the cold so I stay under the water until the bath feels as cold as the air. You have rescued me from the freezing with your timely knock.” She tossed his coat on top of her own on a driftwood tangle by the door.
“Would you desire a cup of wine? Du café?”

Du vin, s’il vous plait.”

Nathalie gave the mass on the stove a quick turn before moving to the cupboard, taking two glasses, opening the bottle on the counter and filling them with ruby liquid.

“We missed you at school on Thursday,” he said as she handed him a glass.

She shook her head. “My grand-mère, she is sick and I am bringing her the things she needs in the hospital. This is her house.”

This explained the mailbox. “I’m sorry. I hope she is better soon.”

“She is 90 years old,” Nathalie said. “I hope so too.”

Santé!” Jason offered. “To health!”

“And warmth!” Nathalie said.

They ate at the table covered in shards of pottery and sea glass. After he had eaten, he reached a finger to touch them.

“They’re beautiful.”

Beau.”

Beau?”

Oui! You have it!” Nathalie clapped her hands in the firelight.

He watched her pull small pieces from her bread and run them around her empty bowl before popping them into her mouth. He took a large gulp of wine and decided to take refuge and risk in French.

Tu es beau.”

Nathalie’s eyes danced. “Moi? Non, a woman is belle.”

Belle?”

“I am female.”

“I hadn’t noticed.”

Nathalie threw back her head and laughed. As she reached for her glass, her robe slipped from her shoulder, then fell back into place as she drank the wine.

“How – how do you say – I want to kiss you.”

Je désire te baiser.” Nathalie leaned over. Her kiss tasted of sweet wine. “Now – you try again.”

Jason repeated the phrase nearly correctly.

Nathalie wiggled her head. “Almost,” she teased.

Je désire–” and then he stopped, desire mingled with guilt, confusion.

Qu’est-ce que c’est?” Nathalie asked, biting her lip.

“It’s not you. Je désire – but …” He flexed his hands, lost and confused.

“Then go home. Va. Pense.”

“I owe you dinner. I’ll cook Toronto food for you – whatever that is.” He retreated into jokes. “I should go. But – I’m as bad as you getting out of the bath – is it always like this in the winter?”
She wrapped her arms tightly about herself. “No. In the winter, it gets really cold.”

He wrapped his scarf three times around his face and turned to Nathalie who stood small and dark in her crimson kimono. He could not quite meet her gaze.

Merci. I’ll see you – vendredi,” he said.

“Stay warm,” she said. “Go home quickly.”

The night was so shockingly bitter that he nearly gagged as he hit the cold air. He broke into a lope across the deserted road, over the ridges of the lone snowmobile tracks. The bright, frosty sky above him was silent, but he could hear a melancholy train whistle in the distance.

***

Most of the people had gathered near the front of the church and he soon saw why – there were electric heaters just below the pulpit. He left his seat near the window and inched cautiously forward, staying behind the rest.

He found himself confused and distracted as the congregation sang. He tried to join in, but just when he thought he had the tuneless tune, it would rise or lower unexpectedly. He could not find his place in the burgundy book they had given him, despite the page numbers listed on a large sign at the front of the church. He found the words foreign and dense – he couldn’t focus on one before another was coming at him.

Then the minister said something about peace and everyone stood up and began greeting everyone else. Jason followed their example although he didn’t think the service was over. Three people shook his hand. Then everyone found seats again and he tried to keep pace.
The Lord’s Prayer was said, and here Jason was thankful: he knew this part and could recite it without thinking. The preaching jangled like a foreign language in Jason’s ear: though he understood the individual words and strained to grasp the meaning of the whole, he could not.
The next thing he knew, the crowds were lining up at the front. When in Rome, thought Jason as he joined the line, wondering if you had to be a regular at the church to take communion. He made it to the front of the small church, standing in line, shifting from one foot to another. He found himself distracted by dandruff on the collar of the man in front of him waiting to take communion. It was funny, you didn’t see people with dandruff as much as you used to. Maybe people washed their hair more often, or maybe shampoos had improved. It was hard to say. And then he was at the front of the church and he knelt on the steps where the minister stood holding a silver chalice of wine. A woman handed him a wafer, giving his shoulder a slight squeeze as she passed.

As the minister held out the cup for Jason to dip his wafer, Jason suddenly knew he could not put the wafer in his mouth. There were no napkins at communion, nothing you could slip a wafer into. The dandruffed man had moved back to his seat. Jason was conscious of the need to dispose of the evidence. He raised the wafer toward his lips, maybe he could, and then, he could not. He slipped the wafer into his breast pocket, rose to his feet and returned to his seat.
An hour later, the wafer was still there. The wine had left a slight crescent of a stain, like a minor bullet wound over his heart.

***

Flames were licking the sky as he made his way to the beach. A crowd of people was already gathered around the fire, some holding hot dogs or marshmallows on sticks. The moonlight made everything look like a black and white movie, dense furry shadows and overexposed whiteness. A flock of snow geese flew overhead, their wings beating the air so that Jason could hear it.

The spring low tide was just before midnight. Jason’s heart quickened at the idea of walking on the tidal floor, where people were not meant to walk, of actually touching the rock that normally was surrounded by water.. Nathalie emerged from the shadows, small and dark, and was standing silently next to him almost before he recognized her. He had run past her house each day, a knot forming in his stomach when he thought of talking to her. Now, he wondered how to begin the conversation. The moon was bright and the tide had receded so that a sandbar curving toward the rock was visible.

Allons! Allons!” someone called, setting off.

Jason felt an ambition to touch this rock. Wordlessly, he gestured to Nathalie, who fell into step with him, her hands dug deep in her pockets, a gulf between them.

“I have never told you about Steven, did I?” she said suddenly.

He shook his head.

“Steven was a professor of sculpture at Dalhousie. I modelled for some of his classes in my first year to pay for the second year. I listen as I stood there – it was very boring, you know, to be standing so long in one position. But Steven was fascinante – he was older and all the girls adored him – and powerful. In my second year, I change my major to fine arts and then in my third année, we moved in together. I look back now and–” Nathalie shook her head vigorously, her face in the shadows – “but at the time, it was, it seems very natural and beautiful. We lived together in Halifax for five years. I graduate, get a job in graphic design, go to openings with Steven. But he will never come here with me, and he is always angry when I speak French, when I call my mother or my grand-parents. I was happy maybe two years with Steven and then–”

She paused as they negotiated their way across a series of slippery rocks. Jason wondered if she hoped he would let the matter drop. Boule Rock loomed ahead of them now, black even in the moonlight. He let the silence enfold him, feeling the ripples of tide-crests of sand under his feet, and the squelch of icy seawater seep into the holes of his canvas running shoes. He wished he had worn boots as Nathalie did. She wrapped her arms around herself as she walked.

Un jour, a woman called the apartment and I knew. It was only one phone call but I was sure. It was a beautiful day in October. I was making a soup and des petites biscuits, my grand-mère’s receipt. I made a salade too, after the phone call – a spinach salade with little oranges and slices of onion.

“It’s funny what you remember. I remember pulling the spinach apart – it felt like a paper towel, heavy and wilted. Everything was very clear. I had a tisane – peppermint – and I kept boiling the water and drinking the tea so hot it was hurting my mouth and I wanted to feel it go down my throat, because then I could swallow, peut-être, what I had known, what I knew.

“I made my salade and I thought about holding the secret. I thought about my life, my English life. I had started to feel a bit at home in Halifax. And Steven. And I was very, very afraid and the tisane did not help and I arranged the salade and I took one spinach leaf and I squeezed it between my hands until green juice ran between my fingers and my hands were covered. And then I took more and I ruined the salade and I leave the whole crushed mess in the sink and I put my head in my hands and I cried. And I could smell the good spinach and the onions and the orange, and I feel like I have not smelled anything in years.

“So I rinse it away and there is no salade that night, but I sat at the table with Steven and the soup and the biscuits and every time I took a bite I could smell that oignon and the fresh spinach and it strengthened me and I asked him.”

They were completely in shadows, with the others at the monolith, which seemed so insignificant from shore, but which dwarfed them now. The rock was covered with seabirds, still squawking deep into the night. Jason reached a hand out to touch the rock. It was slimy and pungent with seaweed and guano. In the darkness, Nathalie put her hand on his. The rock echoed with the sounds of hooting revellers and birds.

“He told me everything as if I am his priest. Not guilty. Not bragging. Like I am the lucky one to keep him for a while.”

***

He had opened all the classroom windows and the scent that wandered in was the promise of warmth to come. The students felt it too, though where the breeze soothed and settled him, it energized the students. Jason found himself responding to their collective shiver of life. He felt a strong current of satisfaction as he surveyed the students clustering in groups to study for the exams.

After school, he stuffed his jacket into his backpack and set out walking down the hills toward Nathalie’s house.

She was sitting curled up, deep in thought, at her desk and did not notice his approach. The door stood ajar and he gave it a quick knock as he leaned his head inside.

“Where does a guy go to get some good ice cream around here?”

A smile replaced the look of concentration on Nathalie’s face, and she gathered her papers into a stack on her desk.

Three minutes later, he sat beside her as her old car doggedly climbed the hill to the highway. He had his feet propped on the dashboard and his arms flung open, one behind Nathalie, the other hanging out an open window. As she drove along the curve of highway high above the river, he watched the water idly, solid marine blue, with only tips of white waves far out in the river. He glanced over at Nathalie who had sunk once again into thought. He wondered what she was thinking and whether he should ask.

“I’ve never been here before,” he said as she pulled off the road at Baie de Sables.

Jamais? It is only a small hop?”

“If you have a car. I can see its lights at night. So where is this ice cream?”

“Can I take you first to one of my favorite places?”

“Of course.”

She drove along a small parkway past a sturdy church with its dull pewter-coloured roof and siding-clad cottages. There were few trees and very few places of evident business. He noted this with surprise: he had imagined the lights he saw to be those of cozy restaurants and bars, but this place was spare.

Then, as Nathalie pulled in front of a house facing the water, he was forced to entirely re-evaluate his assessment of the town: most of it was spare, but this one house made up for it, as if any ornament or decoration from the other houses in the community had been magnetically pulled off by this house. He was put in mind of a gingerbread house.

“It’s une musée,” Nathalie explained.

“A museum of what?”

“Of art.”

Jason stuck his tongue out behind Nathalie’s back as he followed her to the house.

“It looks like it used to be a house.”

“It is a house. Raymond lives within his creation.”

He followed Nathalie through the narrow passageways in the house. She explained as they went that Raymond had made everything from materials he had found on the beach across the road from his house. There were faces made of dented hubcaps, driftwood geese, mosaics of sea glass, gargoyles of old bicycle wheels and twisted metal grids. The effect was overwhelming to Jason who could not imagine living in such a place – it would cause perpetual indigestion, if not nightmares. Nathalie, however, looked around fondly with interest.

“Do you like this stuff?” he finally asked. The art was so different from Nathalie’s art and her own mosaics or even the driftwood tangle she kept on her porch. “You aren’t going to end up like this in twenty years, are you?” he teased.

Nathalie looked up. “Moi? For me, it is about twenty years ago. My grandfather used to play cards with Raymond and sometimes when I stay with my grandparents, he will bring me along. I never like the smell of their pipes and M. Raymond, he always tell me ‘Va en haut!”, “Va en haut!” and I would prowl up here, looking at it all. It wasn’t a musée then. M. Raymond was the first artist I knew, and the first to show me I didn’t need to follow some style, I could just go to the sea to make something. Quelque chose beau.” She spoke as in reverie. Jason could not resist – in the yellow light of the dusty landing, he kissed her. She smiled then bit her bottom lip thoughtfully before leading him down a flight of stairs hidden behind a tall cabinet.

As they descended, he began to smell a pungent odor. The stairs wound into a small, dark kitchen where a man stirred a pot on the stove in the shadows.

M. Raymond. C’est moi – Nathalie Dubé.”

The small man, remarkably normal in his plaid shirt and work pants, responded with a torrent of French and almost a jig. Nathalie reached for his hand.

Mon ami, Jason Ward – un professeur. Il est anglais.”

Raymond shook Jason’s hand. Wizened raisin eyes shone brightly in the man’s face.

“It is my pleasure.” Raymond said, forming the English syllables carefully.

Votre art,” Jason attempted, “C’est, c’est merveilleux.” He was conscious of Nathalie’s smile.

Over the next few minutes, Jason, Raymond and particularly Nathalie engaged in a round of conversation, with Nathalie running translation and commentary both ways, while Raymond stirred pots like a wizard.

“He is inviting us to share his supper.”

“What is it?”

“Soup. Dandelion greens.”

Les premiers de printemps,” Raymond said proudly, thumping his chest and making muscles with his arms. “Pour la fortitude.

“It’s not seaweed, is it?” Jason asked dubiously.

Nathalie rolled her eyes and they followed Raymond to a small table. As Raymond ladled out bowls of steaming green stew, Jason was conscious of meals he had not finished, and those he had not even started. He looked at Nathalie who was crossing herself and then at the soup. It did look curiously like seaweed, like something harvested from the depths. Seeing Raymond watching him, Jason raised a spoon to his mouth. The soup was curiously bitter and the pumpernickel bread was dense and chewy, but Jason was conscious of this man whose strange hospitality lay before him in the bowl. He swallowed, smiled and took another mouthful as he watched Nathalie gesture, explaining to Raymond about a painting she was working on. He became used to the strange taste of the dandelions, enough to ask for a second bowl, and felt its freshness move in him like new life after winter. Nathalie was pleased as she danced between languages and her colliding worlds. Sometimes she forgot to translate but Jason did not lose his place in the conversation.