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Daydreams of angels, p.17
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       Daydreams of Angels, p.17

           Heather O'Neill
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  The full moon was laughing at the twins as they sailed on their bed across the Atlantic Ocean.

  After their sixth day at sea, the twins awoke to the sound of an ocean liner blowing its horn at them. They scrambled from underneath the covers. They changed out of their pyjamas and made the bed as quickly as possible. Then they stood up on the mattress and held their arms up in prayer, begging the mariners to take them aboard. Naturally, they were granted voyage on the Moby Dick, which was on its way to Europe.

  It didn’t take long for the crew of the Moby Dick to realize who the young castaways were. The captain telegrammed ahead to say that he had rescued the famous young authors of Les messages dans les bouteilles.

  The bottles filled with the twins’ letters had washed up on the shores of little resort towns outside of Brighton. Whenever a new message was found, it was printed in the leading Paris and London newspapers. A collection of the messages had been published as a book and received almost universal acclaim. The critics said that longing and loneliness had never been so heartbreakingly captured and in so pure and simple a form.

  Their book had become a bestseller. It was translated into thirty-six languages and was awarded the Prix Goncourt. Lovers gave each other copies for Christmas. An old lady had her favourite of the messages carved as an epitaph on her tombstone and there was one embossed on a plaque in front of the library. Even children loved the stories and their mothers would read them the letters as bedtime tales.

  Children would weep in their beds at night because they wanted so, so much to rescue the twins. There were funds collected to help the search at sea for the mysterious tiny island that the twins were stranded on.

  Upon arriving in Europe, the twins discovered, much to their surprise, their widespread renown. A huge crowd of people had gathered to witness the arrival. Many people had taken their own children out of school that day. Every single person stood on their tippy-toes in anticipation.

  The crowd was carrying gifts for the twins: new clothes, expensive toys, piles of books, notebooks and pens. They were given, altogether, eighty-nine puppies. They were given a pretty house to stay in.

  Their publishers were eager for them to go on speaking tours. But they felt like just not saying anything at all for the next few years.

  Now that they were in Paris, the twins didn’t write anymore. On the island, they wrote because they thought it would rescue them. They wrote their letters to prove somehow that they existed. Their letters had a theme. They knew what was wrong with their lives and how it could be fixed. As there was nothing missing from their lives now, why should they write?

  The twins settled in Paris, taking up residence in a little house on the rue de Cherbourg. The boy filled his bedroom with his eighty-nine puppies. He was rumoured to own 345 pairs of shoes, all very fancy, with ruffles and buckles. Some had bows on them that were like Kleenex half-pulled out of boxes. And yet, even with all these shoes, he found himself leaving his room less and less.

  The boy would get love letters from little girls. The perfume from all the love letters was so overpowering one day that it made him faint. Wearing a hat and sunglasses, he went for walks down the street, but he would invariably be recognized. He had a different girlfriend every night. Each one sillier than the next. Each one wanting simply to say that she had dated the famous co-author of Les messages dans les bouteilles.

  The boy found that he was angry with everyone and preferred drinking champagne at home by himself. He would sit on the side of the bed and try to untie his shoelaces, but finding it impossible, would fall back and pass out for days. The mattress rocked back and forth beneath him as though it were being carried along by waves.

  With her impeccable breeding and manners, the girl was a hit in Paris and the city was enchanted by her. A song inspired by her was sung in all the taverns, and there was a dessert named after her. Everyone wondered what she was thinking. Once someone took a photograph of her sitting by herself on a bench and it was in the newspaper the next day with the heading, “What is she thinking?” By walking down the street and sighing, little girls tried to emulate her. Smiling went out of fashion.

  She could never keep her hair up, for the wind would take it down immediately, pulling out the pins and tossing her hat in the pond. Everyone said that the wind had developed a funny sort of thing for her. She was known for only wearing white, which contrasted so beautifully with her black hair. Her nude portrait was kept in the basement of the Louvre because there had been a riot when it was displayed.

  The girl was so beautiful that everyone who met her fell in love with her. She got marriage proposals all the time even though she was only twelve years old. All sorts of men courted her, but the papers hoped that she might be smitten with a lord. The men with the most terrific moustaches in all of Europe would come to see her. She rejected them all. One aristocrat showed up to tea completely naked, wearing a line called the Emperor’s New Clothes, which was the height of fashion.

  She was at a zoo when a polar bear escaped. The polar bear walked right up to her and reared up, looking like the tip of an iceberg. It took her hand in its paw and kissed it. The polar bear then proceeded to saunter off and kill three guards, and all the while her heartbeat did not quicken. She would go to the park to look at swans. The swans would remind her of the swan that had rejected her out in the middle of the ocean. Nothing matched that feeling of rejection.

  The matter of how to make the pretty castaways happy became a question that was asked all over Europe.

  The king of Siam sent a dollhouse that had little mice dressed in tuxedos and dresses running around in it. The emperor of Russia sent some highly trained clowns from Moscow. Thirteen of them fit into a car that was the size of a shoe box. But the twins sat in the audience and did not even so much as crack a smile.

  And nobody could understand why they weren’t happy. They were famous and surrounded by strangers who were madly in love with them. Wasn’t that what everybody deep down really, really wanted?

  On the island the twins would sit and imagine being rescued. They imagined every mundane daily task, except to them it seemed miraculous. They thought about how unbearably lovely it would be to skip to the store and buy a carton of chocolate milk. They thought that happiness was on another shore, calling for them. When they arrived, they were shocked that they weren’t delighted. Having grown accustomed to imaginary couches and birthday cakes, they couldn’t be satisfied by things that were real. On the island they had felt their hearts fill up with hope, like sails filling with wind. All that desire had made their hearts enormous. Their longing for happiness was happiness itself.

  One night the twins crawled out a window. They hurried down the winding back alleys and went down to the river. The puppies followed them all the way to the riverbank. They bought a tiny ship. They left all the maps on the shore so that they would be sure to get lost.

  As the ship pulled away, all the dogs began to moan and howl and bark. They sounded like a choir of baritones. The noise was so loud that it woke people up throughout the city. People got out of their beds wearing their striped pyjamas and their hair in curlers. Realizing what was happening, they hurried down to the river in their bare feet and slippers.

  By the time the crowd had gathered, it was too late, the twins had already set sail. They cried for the twins to come back. The twins merely waved a little. Their faces, so pale and unhappy, were like two small moons. The people stood silently on the banks, watching the twins getting swallowed up by the distance.

  And then one day about six months later, a group of bottles, travelling together like a school of salmon, washed up on the shore of Brighton beach. The twins were back on a desert island, trapped, and were writing again. There was rejoicing.

  And over the course of the next decades, there were to be many wondrous epistles from the twins, who had settled into their strange identities as artists and had found their places apart and yet part of the world.

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  Ferdinand was a little boy with black hair who lived on St. Philippe Street in Little Burgundy, a neighbourhood in Montreal. His family lived in a tiny white bungalow that had been in the family for two generations. It had a cast iron fence out front that had been painted light blue. There was a pot of flowers on each step on the front stoop, one of which had a little Quebec flag stuck inside it. There was a little errant rosebush growing next to a gas pipe in the ground, and its lone flower blew in the wind like a child with a sweater stuck over its head. Theirs was the only bungalow on the block. There was a brick building to the left of it, painted bright red, and one to the right that was painted blue. His family was proud because they owned their own property and didn’t have to rent like nearly every other family in the neighbourhood.

  Ferdinand was the youngest child of this noble family. He grew his hair long over his ears and his eyes. He was so skinny that his shoes always looked five sizes too big. When he took his shirt off at the swimming pool, everyone was amazed that anybody could be so skinny. It was strange that he in particular was so skinny, because his four older brothers were such strapping teenagers. When they walked down the street, people got out of their way. They were always in fights and some sort of trouble.

  But not Ferdinand. He always wanted to be around his mother. He wanted to ride in the baby part of the grocery cart, even though he was nine years old. He would make himself all weepy at night, telling his mother how he was never going to move out when he grew up.

  Ferdinand was a sensitive little boy. He didn’t want to eat his shelled peanuts because he said that they were so cute and that they looked like little babies wrapped up in blankets and he didn’t want to disturb them. He pushed a water balloon around in an umbrella stroller for an entire afternoon. He even told the balloon to settle down or it wouldn’t get to watch TV when they got home.

  Ferdinand wanted to be left alone to daydream. He lay in his sleeping bag, all zipped up, for an hour, trying to imagine exactly what it would feel like to be swallowed by a whale. He sat in the big cardboard box that the television came in, with his head protruding from a hole. He wanted to take the opportunity to spend one single afternoon being a turtle.

  Ferdinand’s most favourite thing, however, was to lie in the sun. He lay like that in the public park, near the statue of a mad French-Canadian general. There were always people with suitcases looking for empty cans and bottles that they could return to the store. They circled around Ferdinand, who paid them no mind. He liked feeling like the sun was melting him, that he was turning into liquid and spreading all over the ground.

  His father worried about what on earth would become of Ferdinand, because he had never seen such a lazy child. Ferdinand fell asleep watching television in the evening while squashed on the couch between his brothers, with a chocolate sundae on his lap. He wanted Velcro shoes because he didn’t like tying his shoelaces.

  Ferdinand’s father also noticed that Ferdinand showed no disposition toward being an athlete. Everyone in the family boxed. He himself had been an amateur in his day. His other sons all boxed and won prizes and trophies in all sorts of tournaments. Ferdinand’s father ironed the patches that his boys won onto their sweaters. One of the boys was eventually going to be a champion boxer, he was sure. The father fantasized about the day that he would be photographed for the newspaper with his arm around one of his sons.

  Ferdinand’s father adored having a big family of boys and he liked how masculine his older sons were. They always had pretty girlfriends sitting on the porch with them. He could never remember which girl belonged to which boy. He liked how rambunctious they were, even though they got out of control sometimes.

  He had no idea what to make of Ferdinand. Once he came home from work and Ferdinand was on the porch, sitting on a chair with his legs spread and playing an imaginary cello. His eyes were closed and he was violently twisting his head around, as if in a fit of rapture.

  Another time, when he went to take a leak in the bathroom, Ferdinand was in the bathtub. He had a big pompadour of suds stacked on top of his head. “Please, call me Prince Antoine,” Ferdinand said in a Parisian accent while batting his eyelashes.

  Ferdinand’s father felt full of dread. Maybe there was nothing wrong. Maybe he was just imagining things, but he didn’t remember imagining things with any of his older boys. He had had no sneaking suspicion about anything with the others.

  He had named Ferdinand after his grandfather who was built like a bull and was never affected by the cold. But he sometimes thought they had brought the wrong kid home from the hospital. His real youngest kid was out there winning every boxing match he entered, while Ferdinand liked to take the boxing trophies down from the shelves and play with them like they were Barbie dolls. Still, the father enrolled Ferdinand in a boxing program. He decided to let him do whatever the hell he liked as long as he agreed to join the gym when he was thirteen years old. It was a family tradition.

  Ferdinand would never in a million years have signed up for it on his own. He didn’t complain though. He was aware that he was not acting the way that his father wanted, and since he wasn’t willing to give his poetic way of life up, the least he could do was to go to box once a week. It couldn’t be that bad.

  Ferdinand walked down the street to the gym, carrying his duffel bag with a drawing of a bull on its side. He limped as he walked, supporting the weight of the bag on his right leg. His silver mesh shorts seemed to be almost as big as pants.

  A twenty-year-old drug addict wearing an acrylic vest and jean shorts and moon boots called out to Ferdinand for change. Little Burgundy had always been a lower-class neighbourhood. The houses were all cheaply built and there were no fancy stores or fancy restaurants. There was a religious store that sold statues of Jesus and saints. People liked to buy them and load up their front yards with them. All the saints crowded into the little yards like commuters on a bus on their way to work.

  There are certain parts of the world where certain things come from. Oranges grow in Florida; olives grow in Italy. It was the same thing with people. Lots of writers grew in New York City. And, for reasons that weren’t always entirely obvious, boxers grew in Quebec.

  The gym was in a redbrick building with an enormous door. The entrance was covered with framed photographs of boxers no one had ever heard of. The smell of sweat hit Ferdinand as soon as he opened the door. The squeak of sneakers was oddly almost deafening. They sounded like someone writing curse words with a magic marker. The sounds all had echoes. This was what it felt like to be a fish when someone was tapping the sides of the aquarium, Ferdinand thought.

  Ferdinand walked down the hall and into the huge gym. It was filled with lots of older boys who were constantly moving. They danced around on their toes, jumping back and forth, their feet looking like flies hitting a windowpane as they tried to figure a way out.

  After they warmed up, the boys peeled off their oversized sweatshirts. Underneath they had on only tight undershirts or no shirts at all. A lot of the boys started training when they were only eleven years old. By the time they were nineteen, they didn’t have an ounce of fat on their bodies.

  Jules Pieton had a lilac tattooed on the back of his neck. Marcel Girard had a tattoo of a group of violets going down his biceps. Paul Miron had a tattoo of a black-eyed Susan between his shoulder blades and you could see it when he took off his sweatshirt for a fight. Claude Archambault had a tattoo of a rose on the back of his skull, right where a bald spot was going to appear in twenty years. Martin LeBlanc had a tattoo of an iris on his right pectoral muscle. He had been raised by his English grandmother, who was named Iris. Phillipe LaMonde had an entire lower tricep covered with red poppies.

  Ferdinand found that he didn’t want to fight at all. He only wanted to look at the pretty tattoos on the other boys. The lilacs and the tiger lilies and the roses … all the roses. He wished he could go up and smell them.


  The old man’s do
g was sixteen and a half years old and had arthritis and was deaf. They walked slowly down the street together, taking twenty minutes to get around the block. The old man had spent his whole life in this neighbourhood. When he was younger and met girls in the big dance halls downtown, he wouldn’t tell them that he lived in Little Burgundy. It had always been working class and poor. And it was literally downhill and on the other side of the tracks. A girl would look for a boy from Westmount or Outremont if she had any sense, not a boy from this part of town.

  Still, you would see some very pretty women who lived around here. They were mostly the young single moms who wore miniskirts and high heels and rabbit-skin fur coats. They would carry home bags of groceries from the food bank, smiling whenever drivers honked at them. They would save a little bit of money from their welfare cheques to buy a tube of lipstick. They were still dreaming the same dream that the little kids were dreaming, which was that they were going to grow up and get out of this neighbourhood. They still hadn’t accepted that they were moms now and that their future was already here. They paid the old man no mind even though he stopped to stare at them. He had cataracts in his eyes as if he were looking up at the full moon.

  In truth, when he stopped to look at the women, he really was pausing just to take a break from the long walk. When he and the dog would get to the foot of the stairs, they would stand there trying to muster up the courage to climb them.

  The dog was a golden retriever and everything in the apartment was covered in its long white hairs. The curtains and the chesterfields, his clothes and hats, all the floors, even the dishes were plastered with white dog hair too. The old man had stopped waging war against the dog hair though, because you had to choose your battles in life. Then, one sad morning, his dog passed away in its sleep.

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