I’m happy to be able to pass long a short story by Montreal writer and musician Yann Geoffroy. Take some time over the long weekend to grab a latte and sit down for a really great read.
Outside the Burgden barn, across the field and through the little forest, twenty train cars sat motionless on the tracks at the switch. The cars were filled with corn, apples, and hay, but the last car was filled with pigs, perhaps fifty of them. The pigs were fat and healthy and before the occupying army had expropriated them I had expected to slaughter many for the locals who’d raised them.
We waited inside the barn. I was trying to warm my hands over the coal stove. Lorvel Stian sat on the hay with his back against the wall. His hands were tucked in between his legs and his knees were up against his chest.
“Lorvel,” I whispered, “are you ready?”
He looked up at me but I couldn’t decode his expression. The red glow of the coals made his face look as though it was a devilish specter. He nodded and smiled a goofy grin that drained the last hope out of me.
“Well,” he said. Then, after a moment, “I think so.” It was an accurate answer. We weren’t ready to die that was for sure. But we had been chosen, or rather, it was our turn. I was never interested in being part of the rebellion in the first place but there was no avoiding it. Every able-bodied man was expected to do his part. But me, I had a wife and I had a business to run; these were the extent of my loyalties in this world. My father had started the butchery and it had been successful from the first day. When the army had invaded and occupied the country our hands were tied; we had no choice but to sell to them. If we refused they would just take, or beat us, or set fire, whatever cruelty they could think of but it had rarely come to that; no one ever refused. And so the fabric of our community was coming apart. Our own neighbors looked at us with hostility for having money in these hard times, for staying open.
The charade of civility was kept up on all sides. But now the growing resistance expected us to fight at night; to sabotage the enemy with missions dolled out by the command as if their execution could provide some kind of justice or glory.
“Lorvel,” I said. “Stand up.” He stood up. “Do you remember the plan?” He smiled again and his eyes rolled about aimlessly. He came toward the heater and I shook him a little by the arm to get his attention.
“Yes,” he said. And vaguely he went on, “we have to…unhook…the last car?” He was now standing with the heater between us, rocking from one foot to the other. It felt like we were children around a campfire going over the rules one last time before skittering off into the woods, like it wasn’t the singular moment of our lives. “The one with the pigs,” he concluded proudly.
“Good, Lorvel.” My voice sounded hollow. “Just follow me and keep a look out.” I was rehearsing the plan for both of us. “I will unhook the car and you keep a watch.”
“Yes, I know, I know.”
We left the barn and set out across the shorn field. We were exposed for a few minutes within view of the road across the river until we passed into the trees at the far end of the field. The path through the woods was well trodden and our feet made a hollow sound on the packed, bare earth. To our right, the slow-moving river reflected the night sky, which flickered every now and then in the ripples but showed nothing of what was beneath the surface. It flowed silently toward a stone bridge where the black water quickened and forked around a pillar, which rose upward and divided into two arches extending to either side.
Willows hung low down the banks and concealed us from the main road to town across the river. The road was most likely deserted at this hour but one could never be sure who might be trudging along quietly in the night. I felt safer in the forest with its musty, humid smell and I remembered my father used to take me mushroom hunting in that particular stand of trees. This was a good area for mushrooms.
We approached the tracks, which crossed the bridge to our right and continued to the main line a few hundred meters to our left. I put my hand back to signal Lorvel to slow down but he was so close behind I touched him.
“What,” he whispered.
A few hundred meters to our right the section of train cars sat motionless on the tracks. I was told there would likely be no patrols at this hour because the region was quiet and stable. Berle, my wife’s cousin, had reassured me that since there had been very little resistance action so far in this part of the country, the soldiers mostly stayed in town to soak up what were probably the last days of the occupation, carousing in the bars with the two-faced town officials who had played mediator in this awkward situation.
The switch on the tracks was to be thrown and the train backed-up off the main line and across the bridge to couple with our town’s twenty cars. Across the tracks the switch operator’s hut puffed a little smoke from the chimney. We knew a soldier was in there out of the cold, waiting to operate the switch. The tricky part was to get across the river and up into the trees without him noticing us. The idea was to do it under cover of the train on the main line, which would be arriving soon. For now the only sounds were the gurgle of the river and the occasional swish and creak in the night.
The farmer, Draco Boone, brought me the fateful note in a goat carcass. It was written on wax paper and tucked up in the rib. It said very simply: Midnight, September 23, Burgden Barn. I’d gone to the meeting and had had the mission explained by that scoundrel Berle. He was always causing trouble. First with claims to the house my father had bought at a favorable price, and then with this agitation nonsense. He probably picked me for this mission out of spite.
The shop my wife, Agnes, and I ran, occupied the street level of a large, three-story house set in the middle of town. My father had bought it from Agnes’ grandfather when he married but it had stood there for centuries. My family was from the North but my father had happened upon this town as a young man and realized that with the new railroads, it would grow. It needed a proper butchery and my father had taught himself the trade. Our house was the first in town to have refrigeration and plumbing and so our shop was very popular. We lived upstairs and did the slaughtering in the yard. People came from all over to buy from us and our name was well known. But our success is what brought the soldiers.
There was a journalist, Nora Deusrec, who began to frequent our shop with the soldiers. She was very friendly with me. I would sit with her and she would ask me questions about the town and its history. My wife knew much more about it than me but she kept to herself with her silly pride.
I wasn’t disinclined to talk with Nora; she was smart and spoke of general principles; the grand scheme of things. With her it wasn’t too personal and questions of allegiance never arose. “The occupation is just part of a larger theatre,” she would say, “it is the culmination of unstoppable forces that were set in motion long before our time.” In a way she was right. What part did I have to play in the whole debacle? If my father had been alive he would have agreed with her but years before all this he’d driven the first car in town into the river and sank to the bottom with it, God rest his soul.
“For someone like you, Lind,” she would say, looking very sophisticated and exotic with her dark flowing hair and the mole under her nostril. “For someone like you, it doesn’t matter who runs the government. This is just a sleepy township. It’s good for agriculture and brook trout, nothing else. The quality of the pork, for example,” she’d say, taking a piece of the sausage from her plate and looking at my wife. Agnes would give a look, serious and fierce. But Nora was right. I was happy to work and to go fishing and mushroom picking.
She often came in with the officer, Tobias Frode, a tall, smiling, gallant man, and various other soldiers, introducing me to them and buying food for them with her money. I assumed she held some privileged position. She must have been a very good reporter. My wife never came over to sit with us; she was probably jealous too, the way her and Nora looked at each other.
When news of a resistance had started to circulate, the way things do in small towns, Tobias Frode came in with two soldiers and asked me where Berle was hiding. I told them I didn’t know but he hit me with a pistol and smashed some dishes on the counter. I told him to wait and that I didn’t know where he was at that very moment but I’d heard he had been hiding in the Church by the town square. My wife didn’t speak to me for two weeks but anyway they didn’t get him. He had known they were coming and had moved out in time.
“We’re lucky they didn’t come back and punish me,” I’d told Agnes.
“We’re lucky the rebels didn’t burn down our business,” had said Agnes.
“Berle wouldn’t do that to his grandfather’s house, my dear. He’d rather get rid of me and move in himself.”
Agnes hated the occupation vehemently and subtly encouraged me to do my duty for the rebels. I don’t know where my wife got this deep-rooted patriotism.
“Patriotism is an illusion,” I had said to Agnes after the meeting in the barn. “I consider it the privilege of a free-thinking man to choose what his actions are. It is my private judgment whether a country or any organization is in the wrong. If I am obliged, as in this case, then I can’t refuse. After all, I am not such a prideful bull as to invite trouble into my life. I see no virtue in bringing about hardship for one’s family if it can be avoided. But I am no killer of men, Agnes. I kill pigs and I make food and a living from their flesh. There is one thing of which I am sure of, and that is my opinion of what is right. There is no question to me that perpetuating the war, provoking a complacent enemy is not the right thing to do. Why should our town be ruined in order to align itself with the idealistic vision of some rebellious group made up generally of people with nothing to lose, like that cousin of yours, Berle? Because, Agnes, what is a town? A town is a family as much as it is a country. I would never do anything for the town that would hurt my family and I would never do anything for the country that would hurt my town. I say it is a matter of perspective. These allegiances of yours are idealistic children’s games. I, Agnes, I am an adult.”
Agnes had stared hard at me and said, “who are we then, when we fall under the occupation of others?” I didn’t have an answer. She had looked at me with those pitiful eyes, behind which there was always quiet judgment, before turning to go to sleep. Who are we? What kind of questions was that?
Lorvel and I waited for the train under cover of the willows. We looked at each other often and nodded reassuringly. I fiddled with the knife in my pocket. We had no pistols; there was not supposed to be any trouble and if there were, the report of a pistol would only attract attention.
Minutes seemed like hours but I remember it like a flash. We heard the faint, telltale vibration in the tracks. The train was approaching.
“OK, Lorvel,” I said, grabbing his arm. “This is it. We have to make it across under the train’s cover.”
“I know,” he said like a younger brother. I sat back and began to take off my boots.
“Wait,” he said. “We run across the bridge?”
“No!” I whispered, grabbing his arm. He sat back like me on the wet earth. “We swim, you idiot.”
“No,” he said, “I’m not. I can’t swim.”
“What? Yes, you can swim,” I assured him. “Everyone can swim Lorvel.”
“No,” he said. “I don’t swim.” He stood up and looked out at the bridge. The rumble of the train was growing steadily. “I’ll cross the bridge,” he said. “I’m fast…and quiet.”
“No you fool.” I was panicking. “That’s not the plan. We’ll be seen. The tail of these cars is around the bend. That’s how the last car will be left unnoticed. We have to cross under the bridge and climb the far bank, downstream from the bridge. We’ve been over this Lorvel! How could you not have said?”
The faint light of the engine was flickering through the foliage to our left. I had tied the laces of my boots together and hung the pair around my neck. Lorvel was standing with that squirrely look in his eyes. He kept glancing at the water and shaking his head.
“N-no, they never said about going in the water,” Lorvel was crouching down with me again. My bare feet were stuck in the cold mud.
“You go back!” I hissed. “Go back to the barn Lorvel.” He shook his head, stood up again, and began pacing.
“You go back Lorvel. I’ll do it. You won’t risk our lives!”
The train was now slowing over the switch. It was rumbling and screeching behind us as we faced the river. I crawled down the bank and slipped into the water. It was warmer than the air and steadied my shaking body. I turned and saw Lorvel crouching amongst the willows. His innocent face betrayed his relief. He raised his hand in a gesture but I turned in the water. I would never know what he meant to say.
The current took me under the stone arches and I paddled frantically to get to the other side before going too far downstream. I clawed up the far bank, hurried across the road, and flopped down in the bush to put my boots back on. The switch hut was now directly across the river from me. I could see the soldier’s head in through the little window. He came out but was facing the other way, toward the train that had now passed the switch and had come to a stop. He then walked over to the switch and pulled the lever.
Once my boots were back on I started through the woods parallel to the motionless length of cars but merging with its tail, which extended around the bend in front of me. I arrived at the edge of the cover of the wood again. The last car loomed, a huge shadowy shape in front of me. I approached cautiously and eyed my spot in between it and the second to last car. The pigs were mostly sleeping, I knew by the sound. I could see the pale sheen of their skin through the slats. I tried to look down the tracks on both sides but the moon was hidden and I couldn’t see very much. I scrambled out of the bush, up the chunky stones, and into the nook between the two cars. I put my hands on the cold steel of the buckeye lock. There was something reassuring about the solidity of the massive pieces. The pin in the lock was stiff and I had to find a fist-sized rock to knock it out. The pigs stirred a little from the banging but they settled down as soon as I was done. I jumped when suddenly the cars lurched from the impact of the longer train being backed against them.
I stepped out of the indented cover of the wagons and was about to dart down into the forest again when I saw him two cars down. I quickly stepped back into the cover and froze. It must be the switch operator, I thought. My hand slipped automatically into my pocket and grabbed the knife. I wasn’t sure how to proceed. The man was making his way along the length of the train, presumably checking the cars. I jumped up onto the small platform of the second to last car and put my back against its wall. I waited for the soldier, shivering in my wet clothes. The train slowly began to move forward and I watched, as the last car remained motionless. I pulled the knife from my pocket and opened the blade. It was sharp enough to split a hair. Knowing that at any moment the soldier would notice that the last car was being left behind and sound the alarm I readied myself to pounce. I heard the soldier yell just as we passed him and I jumped on the dark figure of his back with the knife at his neck.
It was nearly five in the morning when I made it back to my house.
“Lind, did you do it?” said Agnes in the darkness of our bedroom.
“Yes, it’s done,” I said automatically. I got undressed and into bed. My entire body was shaking convulsively.
“You did the right thing…for the rebellion.”
“I killed a man, Agnes; the soldier at the switch house. He was checking the locks. Lorvel can’t swim. It’s a disaster, Agnes!” I held her tightly despite my shaking. I was in shock and disbelief. I knew they would not let this rest.
“Oh, Lind. No. You did the right thing, you did.” She released herself from the desperate grip of my arms and took my face in her hands. “You are not a murderer Lind. You did your duty. War is ugly. It will be OK.”
“I am a murderer, Agnes. He choked and twitched while the life spilled out of his neck. What have I done?” I cold not believe her calm. I wanted to run. It was already beginning to dawn and I would have to go down to work in an hour like nothing had happened.
“Did they come for the pigs?” said my wife. Her eyes were fixed on me.
“Yes they came. Your cousin; he laughed at the corpse and slapped my back. He kicked the dead man. They dragged him into the river, Agnes. He was just a young man. He’s dead in the river like my father was.
“He was an enemy, Lind. He would have killed you.”
“It doesn’t undo the act, Agnes.”
I went down to the shop, put on my fur, and sat in the meat fridge for an hour amongst the carcasses, wringing my hands. I noticed little specks of blood under my fingernails, which was all that remained of my guilt.
I opened the shop at the usual time so as not to arouse suspicion. Eventually I noticed that the townspeople were hastening by the window and I stepped out to see what was happening. They were running toward the square at the top of the hill. I followed, still wearing my bloody apron. There was a large group gathered with all eyes up toward the telephone wire. Lorvel had that same goofy grin on his face but it looked grotesque, with his tongue curled out and the cable around his neck. I hadn’t seen Lorvel after I went into the river the night before but the frustration I’d had with him turned to pure terror when I saw him hanging. I walked back down to my shop and went straight back to work with automatic movements.
Later in the morning Tobias Frode and two soldiers came in to the shop. He looked at me and smiled.
“Lind,” said Frode jovially.
“H–hello,” I said.
He turned and said to one of the soldiers, “I know there’s a joke in here somewhere. Hm, oh yes. Why…does a butcher always look guilty?”
Nobody said anything.
“Because he always has blood on his hands. Do you see? No? Well, I’ve never been gifted at comedy. You have to be a liar to be funny, eh Lind?”
“Butchers have a lot of responsibility,” is all I could think to say.
“Is that pork?” the officer said gesturing toward the chunk of meat I was cutting up on my block. “Does stolen pork taste the same as the rest, Lind?”
“I suppose it would, yes,” I said meeting his eyes. “Do you gentlemen want some?” I could feel the sweat beginning to form into drops on my brow. The two soldiers had stony looks on their faces. The door chimed and Agnes came in from the street with a pale look on her face and stood by the door. They paid no attention to her.
“No thank you,” said the officer and gave a wry smile. He came around the counter and drew his pistol. I shook my head, put the knife on the block and backed away from him. I was unsure if saying anything would help me or hinder me. Frode raised the pistol to my head. My back was against the steel door of the fridge.
“A butcher always has blood on his hands.” He gave a little laugh. I didn’t know how to answer.
“It was you who stole the pigs?” he continued calmly and politely as if he were realizing which of his friends had borrowed his bicycle.
“No. What pigs?” I had rehearsed it for a week but it sounded like bad theatre. He pulled the firing pin back and my knees began to give out. My head felt like it was going to implode.
The bell on the door chimed and the officer turned. Nora came in purposefully, with a different look than I’d ever seen.
“Wait.” she said. He released some of the pressure with which he held the barrel to my head.
“Lind,” said Nora. I didn’t respond. “Lind!” she said again. I looked at her. “Where is Berle?” She fixed her eyes on mine. She looked tired and dangerous. “Lind, this is serious now. Lorvel told us about your little prank but now we’ve a missing man.”
“This villain is not only a butcher of animals, Miss Deusrec,” said Frode.
“Miss Deusrec,” said Agnes, “let me speak to you.”
“Well, well,” said Nora, turning to Agnes who stood in the corner with her back to the wall. “The little mouse speaks. I guess she is no mouse at all. Perhaps she is the rat I always thought she was.”
“Tell me where Berle is and I’ll let him live,” said Nora.
“It will ruin us,” said Agnes.
“Perhaps you would prefer to be a widow?” said Tobias. My life was being haggled over before my eyes. Agnes was in over her head and I had lost all hope.
“If I tell you, you will let him live?” said Agnes.
“That is what I said.”
“What about Lorvel?” added Agnes. “He told you about the pigs and you still strung him up.”
“The thing about Lorvel is that in all his simplicity,” Nora glanced at me as she said this, “he was one hard-headed fellow. He kept his secrets to the end.” She seemed to gain some composure. “Let me remind you, little peasant Agnes, that this information is the only leverage you have.”
“I’ll tell you,” said Agnes.
I stood there helpless as my wife betrayed her cousin and destroyed our lives with a few words. That day Agnes saved me from death but condemned us both. The occupation continued and the rebels persisted. The only definite outcome of the whole debacle is that I was made a murderer and my wife a rat. We lost everything my father had built and moved out into the labyrinth of the world. And some distance stayed between us, or perhaps it had always been there.