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Authors: Dominique Fortier


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and translated by Sheila Fischman

On the Proper Use of Stars

Copyright © Dominique Fortier 2010
English translation copyright © Sheila Fischman 2014
Originally published as
Les larmes de saint Laurent
in Quebec in 2010
by Éditions Alto

All rights reserved. The use of any part of this publication reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, or stored in a retrieval system, without the prior written consent of the publisher – or, in case of photocopyig or other reprographic copying, a licence from the Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency – is an infringement of the copyright law.

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Fortier, Dominique, 1972-
[Larmes de saint Laurent. English]
Wonder / by Dominique Fortier; translated by Sheila Fischman.

Translation of: Les larmes de saint Laurent.
eBook ISBN: 978-0-7710-4773-2

I. Fischman, Sheila II. Title. III. Title: Larmes de saint Laurent. English

7733L3713 2013      

McClelland & Stewart,
a division of Random House of Canada Limited,
a Penguin Random House Company
One Toronto Street, Suite 300
Toronto, Ontario



We have the impression that deep down men don’t know exactly what they are doing. They build with stones and they do not see that every move they make to set the stone in the mortar is accompanied by a shadow of a move that sets a shadow of a stone in a shadow of a mortar.
And it is the shadow building that matters.

Joy of Man’s Desiring



De Potentia Restitutiva


. Paper flakes flung by the handful from windows and balconies on rue Victor-Hugo settled in the palm fronds, on cobblestones, carriages, even in the nostrils of horses that shook their heads to get rid of them. Carried on the sea breeze they swirled for a moment before turning the shoulders of men dressed in skirts and bodices white. Powerful chocolate arms emerged from the ruffles and lace, and dropped veils over the hair of their lady friends, who were strolling along, waddling a little in pants held up loosely by suspenders of every colour. Every year, from the beginning of January till the end of February, Carnival came and turned everything upside down. Merchants, longshoremen, fruit sellers, fishermen, and women of easy virtue took to the streets on Shrove Sunday, staying there for the last three days of dancing, parading, and drinking. After a slow crescendo, the festivities culminated in an apotheosis that both crowned and ended the carnival at dawn on Ash Wednesday.

The rich and the powerful participated reluctantly in merrymaking they saw as a necessary evil, turning over the ballrooms of their mansions to their servants. But the poor took advantage of it to live for those few days a caricature of the existence they dreamed of all year long, and which their masters calculated – because they were allowed to borrow it, so to speak, for a few hours – they would continue to tolerate being deprived of the rest of the time.

“I am ridiculous,” whispered Gaspard de La Chevrotière, stopping to gaze disdainfully at his reflection in the full-length mirror just outside the dining room, as if he were discovering some troublemaker who had, through trickery, gained entry to his house, and whom he had no idea how to get rid of.

“Which is the point of the exercise, my dear, if I’m not mistaken,” replied his wife, who was prettily dressed as a chambermaid, and whose black skirt, white apron, and lace cap suited her remarkably well.

Baptiste (who at the time preferred the name Gabriel) was following the exchange from the table, lip-reading the reflections he could see in the big mirror.

“I can’t button the trousers,” grumbled the gentleman, pulling in his sizeable belly and lifting his jacket to reveal a waistband on which button and buttonhole were indeed
separated by a significant gap. “Yet they are the ones I borrowed from George last year. It’s utterly baffling. They must have shrunk. There is no other explanation.”

“Quite so, my dear.”

Before he was hired as a gardener’s helper for the La Chevrotière household, Baptiste had held various positions that had brought him different sorts of dissatisfactions and vexations, mostly temporary, because he never stayed in one place very long. The previous year, he had even started to change his name, as one changes uniforms, when he took on a new trade, in the hope of some day finding one that would suit him perfectly. And so he had been successively a fisherman (with the name Lucien); assistant cook at the Hôtel Excelsior (where he was known as Jacquot); shellfish vendor; coachman (declaring his name to be Ludger); fruit-picker; and electrician’s helper, that is, one of the volunteers responsible for carrying the tools of the engineers the city had hired to install the streetlamps that now lit the main roads in Saint-Pierre after sunset, leading some old folks to say that at this rate, it would soon be impossible to tell day from night. Under the name Auguste, he had occupied briefly the position of messenger boy for the newspaper
Les Colonies
and worked as a stevedore loading and unloading the ships that anchored in the port.

Of the humiliations he had suffered under his different identities, none could compare with the one he experienced that night, when he was served by Madame de La Chevrotière, her husband, and their lump of a son, all clad in uniforms borrowed from their servants, while he and the rest of the staff, decked out in worn silks and velvets loaned for the occasion, were fidgeting self-consciously on chairs in the dining room where the grand chandelier with its dangling prisms had been lit. The two valets, three chambermaids, the cook, and the gardener obviously shared his discomfort, even though they had lived through a similar farce in the preceding years and so knew better than he did what to expect.

Only Edgar the butler seemed totally at ease at this mockery of a meal, with the guests nervously examining their silverware as if the forks, spoons, and knives were liable to jump into their faces if they didn’t pick them up in the right order or happened to cut their fish with a dessert knife, while those playing the role of servants balked at the thought of burning their fingers or being soiled by food destined to be eaten by others. The latter, like the former, tugged at their unaccustomed clothes, the maids going so far as to pity for an instant their mistress, who had to put on every day those pointed little court pumps that squashed their toes.

“The house where I was before, they gave us our day
off at carnival time,” murmured Ninon, who was seated next to Baptiste, fiddling with a cameo on a black ribbon that was leaving a red mark around her neck. In her voice there was regret mixed with pride that could just as well mean that she would rather have been free to go down to the port with the crowd or that she was delighted to be part of festivities worthy of a lady. Baptiste, unable to decide which, nodded in reply.

Madame de La Chevrotière, followed by her son, Gontran, arrived with the soup, while Monsieur opened a bottle of Beaujolais with nonchalant elegance and served everyone, dripping purple drops onto the tablecloth that Marguerite, who served as laundress twice a week, regarded anxiously. “Many thanks, Madame, this is exquisite,” remarked Lucien, the footman, politely dabbing his lips after tasting the vegetable broth. Madame nodded graciously while the cook coughed discreetly into her hand. The three masters remained standing behind the table; all that could be heard was the clink of spoons on china and the sound made by Marcel, the gardener, as he slurped his soup. Finally, Ninon elbowed him in the ribs. The old man stopped eating and, looking unhappy, pushed away his half-f bowl.

At that moment, Monsieur plunked down in front of his servants a platter of fish that he then exhausted himself serving with a fork and spoon, just as he’d seen his
maître d’hôtel
do a thousand times, never hesitating to blame the man for his awkwardness if by chance he discovered on his plate some grey scales or a long, pointed bone. After several minutes of battling the bream amid the muffled laughter of the guests, now jubilant from the wine, he gave up and decided to slice the creature into sections, which he placed with scant ceremony on everyone’s plate. Baptiste, served last, was given the silvery head whose round eyes and open mouth seemed to express some unnamed surprise. After the fish, in swift succession arrived a dish of boiled vegetables and a puny chicken that Gontran, son and pride of the household, who had spent the first part of the meal surreptitiously guzzling a second bottle, served with all the offhandedness and reluctance possible, dropping as much bone and cartilage as meat onto the plates, and sending the peas rolling under the table.

The costumed servants were now laughing too loudly, showing their self-satisfaction and a lack of concern about being overheard by their masters, who were beginning to tire, unaccustomed as they were to standing for so long. Ninon and the other two chambermaids, dressed as grand
, bit their lips to make the blood flow, turning them the vivid red so flattering to their complexions, and constantly leaned over to display charms set off by their low-cut necklines.

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