For sixteen days now Daisy has been fasting at the tomb of her namesake, Saint Marguerite the Chaste, and now, on the seventeenth day, she comes out of her rosy tent and pisses on the altar steps during High Mass. Benoît sees all of this, as do the rest of the parishioners, of which, praise God, there are only seven. Notre Dame de Printemps is a small cathedral in an unfashionable part of Montréal, a city that is nearly as rich in saints as it is in poutine shops, which Benoît has come to think of as its second most worthwhile industry. He works in one of them, during the rush hours after midnight when people begin to crave the brute pleasures of grease and salt and sweet animal fat. He stays until closing time—the end of Saturday night and the beginning of Sunday morning—then shaves, showers, and goes to Mass. He has not been a churchgoer in years, but now he has a special reason for coming: Daisy is back in town for the first time in half a decade and determined, it seems, to drive herself completely mad. Everyone is sure of it except for Benoît, who has long believed that Daisy, like all the best Catholics, has a capacity for madness far exceeding that of mortal men.
The act, when it occurs, leaves everyone mute. Nearly all the parishioners present are too old even to lift their arms without much difficulty, and Benoît, who is not yet twenty, is at least in part too startled to move. Later he will admit to himself that he also wanted, more than anything, to see what would happen. On the seventeenth morning of her fast, Daisy enacts a fantasy that Benoît had perhaps dreamt of a thousand times throughout childhood. It is an act that, when Benoît reflects on it later, seems only to add to the air of saintliness that has surrounded her these last seventeen days, and, in lesser part, for as long as he has known her.
Here is what happens: Daisy emerges from her tent, and, with some difficulty, stands. Most of the people around Benoît do not seem to notice this, but he does, and he strains to see—in the dark outlines of her limbs through the papery cloth of her nightgown—how thin she has become. He is sitting close to the altar. He can see the bones of her wrist and the way she blinks: slowly, once, twice, the vein beneath her right eye fluttering slightly, then coming still.
Choirless for the last ten years, Father Robespierre is in the middle of his own call and response—first sending out the gospel, and then echoing the alleluia back to himself and into the nave in a voice that suggests it has come from a great distance, and not from his own throat—when Daisy approaches the altar, already beginning to pull her nightgown, slowly, up. It pleats and sweats between her fingers, inches toward indecency, and then passes indecency by. She wears no underwear, and the bones of her hips stand out so sharply they seem about to break the skin. Father Robespierre does not seem to notice. As to the rest of the parishioners, Benoît cannot say where they are looking; he does not avert his eyes enough from Daisy’s form to find out what the people around him do with their own. He has dreamed, in the past, about seeing her like this, and though those dreams are long dormant, he cannot help but feel the specific oddness of this event, a kind of oddness that relates only to him: for Daisy to reveal herself this way, not to him but at him, her wasted body in pursuit of some higher knowledge he cannot hope to reach. He watches her and thinks of this for a few long seconds that occupy the density of a day. Then he watches as Daisy squats above the frayed, rose-patterned velvet of the altar steps, and noisily relieves herself.
As a boy Benoît believed Father Robespierre to be about a hundred and forty years old. In the intervening time, the priest does not seem to have gotten any older, but he hasn’t gotten younger, either. His voice is like the rustling of a crow’s feathers, often so soft as to be incomprehensible. He sings the words that are meant to be spoken and speaks the words that are meant to be sung. His sermons, when they do contain any thread of logic, provide only the kind that breaks off in the listeners’ hands just as they think they are growing closer to the light. He is generally regarded, by those who take the time to regard him at all, as the worst priest in Quebec, if not in the entire Church, and he rarely provides much evidence that he knows what decade it is, let alone where he is and what he should be doing. So it is to his credit, then, that he is so unfazed by Daisy’s actions. When he sees what she is doing, he does not startle, does not reprimand. Instead, he takes her by the hand, lifts her to her feet—letting her now-besmirched nightgown fall around her—and leads her gently to the altar rail. She waits there until it is time to receive the host. As Benoît watches her he sees a look of hunger in her eyes, a look he knows—if she were at all present within herself—she would identify as a longing for Christ, but one which he now readily identifies as a need, now seventeen days old, for flour, sugar, water, wine.
After Mass is over Daisy’s great-aunt Irma comes down from her perch at the organ and sits—too close, as usual—next to Benoît. Her body is angular as a broken umbrella and seems to press into him at more points of contact than any body should. Nearly everyone who knows her calls her the window Vignon, a title she has allowed to define every aspect of her life. She was married once, for two or three weeks, about fifty years ago, and has dressed in widow’s weeds for all that time: an old woman since the age of seventeen. Although, Benoît thinks now, one could always do worse. One could always be like Daisy, and do her best, at seventeen, to become a corpse.
Irma is silent for a while, her eyes on the altar. Benoît watches her and tries to figure out if she is looking at the crucifix or at the white borax powder the ancient cleaning woman sprinkled some minutes ago on the growing dark spot Daisy left on the altar steps. Father Robespierre is already back in his chambers, drinking the glass of rose hip wine that he takes, more or less medicinally, every Sunday after Mass.
“I want you to talk to her,” Irma says.
“I’ve tried to talk to her every day for the last ten days.”
“Patience is a virtue.”
“I think you’ll need something greater than virtue to get her out of that tent.”
Irma pokes him in the neck. She would go for the eyes, Benoît is sure, if she could only reach them.
“You’re acting like a spoiled child,” she hisses.
“So is she.”
“Well, she is a spoiled child. We can excuse her just this once. In the meantime we need to get her to eat something.”
“Get her a doctor, then.”
Irma clicks her tongue. She has been, for as long as Benoît has known her, bird-like both in size and mannerism, her conversation’s direction or lack of direction akin to a blackbird’s pointless motion from one branch to another, back again. She also has a blackbird’s glint in her dark eyes, a look that is mostly sweet except in moments of innocent hostility. As a boy, Benoît heard a story about a blackbird, kept as a pet, that one day dove beak-first into the eye of its owner, trying to steal and hoard away the shining thing it had seen there. Irma has the same instinct for a person’s weaknesses, and though he does not think she means any harm, she also cannot really help herself: she sees, she dives, she injures.
“You know a doctor can’t help her,” Irma says.
“What’s wrong with doctors?”
“Doctors aren’t Catholic.”
“I’m sure there’s at least one Catholic doctor in Canada,” Benoît says.
“Not Catholic enough. They’ll just prescribe her things, stick needles in her, put her in a padded room.”
“They don’t do that anymore, Irma.”
“What do they do?”
“I don’t know. Nice things. They only do nice things now.”
“Is that what they did to your mother?”
Because of his bad eye, he has to turn to look at her, and afterwards he is sorry he has. She is not looking at him in any case, and all he sees is her vacant face in profile: her makeup caked along the lines of her cheeks, Pierrot-ish lead-white and rouge; her eyes and their wet lashes, shining as with the false dew on a taxidermied deer head; her dark mouth in its disarming little moue.
“Anyway,” she sighs, unaware of his silence or choosing, for the moment, to be unaware of it, “it doesn’t matter what kind of things they do. If they put needles in her she’ll just take them out again. If they make her lie down she’ll get up.”
“Are saints always this stubborn?”
“Of course,” Irma says. “But she’s not a saint. She’s a stubborn little girl who needs to eat.”
She pokes Benoît a little with her elbow. He is trying to figure out if this is intentional or just an accident of her ancient body when she says to him, “You need to check her breasts.”
“Her breasts,” she says, impatient. “You need to look at them. Someone does. And she certainly won’t let me.”
“Why would she let me do it, then?”
He has said this a little loudly, and even though they are the only people in sight—ignoring Daisy in her tent, out of her mind from hunger and doing whatever it is that Daisy does—Irma still smacks him on the ear. “Quiet.”
“Why,” he says, “in the name of Christ, do you want me to look at her breasts?”
“Well,” Irma says, a little more quietly than before, a catch in her voice that—coming from anyone else—Benoît might define as contrition, “you remember what Saint Marguerite did.”
The story goes that Saint Marguerite, like so many of her kind, was born with her holiness already perfectly formed. The daughter of a wealthy Québec potato farmer, she emerged from her mother in an attitude of prayer and remained that way throughout childhood. When, at twelve, she was betrothed to a business associate of her father’s, she took a poker from the fireplace and mortified the flesh of her left breast, deforming herself enough that she would be wanted by no man but Christ. (This scene, which became a popular one among Canadian artists, always showed Saint Marguerite as toothsomely developed as Judith before the elders, a standard which Daisy was endlessly bothered by her inability to uphold since, at twelve, she still had barely any flesh to mortify, let alone enough to inspire lust.) Christ appeared before Saint Marguerite for the first time while she lay in bed recovering from her injuries. First he bade her drink the pus of her wounded breast, and then, as reward for her loyalty, let her drink from his own wounds.
He was a frequent visitor to her bedchamber, and her bed, for the rest of her short life. Sent to a convent soon after her disfigurement, Saint Marguerite often fasted for months on end, consuming no more than a few mouthfuls of water each day and, every so often, a raw potato. Christ came to visit her first on occasion and then, in the months leading up to her death, every night. He held her in his arms and let her feel the agony of his death, struck her blind and made her mouth fill with blood. (Only a Catholic, Benoît has often thought, would see pain as pain’s greatest compensation.) Then, when she had suffered enough, Christ brought her to an ecstasy so profound that she said she would have been lost to madness had He not also taken her hand and led her back to the profane world. For the rest of her life He brought her to this state seraphic bliss every time he visited her, until her death at the age of twenty-two, when—if the stories are to be believed—He took her in his arms one last time, and never let her go.
Devotees said she died early because Christ decided her place was in Heaven, at His right hand; doubting Thomases said it was due to malnutrition; but Benoît has come to believe, in later years, that it was due more than anything else to an excess of seraphic bliss and all its accompanying ailments. He came to this conclusion when, at twelve, he began to experience his own version of it, locked in the bathroom with his older brother’s copy of Oui. He has never said any of this to Daisy. As a child he was still in awe of her, too convinced of her future sainthood, to argue with anything she said, and now he couldn’t get her to listen if he wanted to. Whether or not Daisy has noticed that most people now feel as he does about Saint Marguerite is something he may never know. What is clear to him, however, is that Daisy is Saint Marguerite’s only remaining follower, and is most likely the last she will ever have. So many decades dead, Saint Marguerite has only recently been forgotten, but it is a forgetting that is as complete as it is precipitous. At best, she is ridiculed: passages of the autobiography published two years after her death—its last chapter provided by the Mother Superior of her convent, and still the most popular book ever written by a Québecer—photocopied and passed out to Anglophone graduate students, her name mentioned only in conversations about religious hysteria. Saint Marguerite the Unchaste, they call her. Or, worst of all: Our Lady of Potatoes—Notre Dame des Patates.
It is a term Montréalers readily associate with all things profane, and so it seems somewhat appropriate that this is the name of the poutine shop where Benoît works. What could be more profane, in the scheme of things, than poutine, that perfect junk food, that glut of fat, consumed mostly by drunks in the small hours of the night? People from outside Canada—Frenchies especially, whose accents make Benoît even more conscious of his accent than he normally is of his face—always want to have it explained to them. Since he works the counter he is the one who has to do it, always searching for a way to list the ingredients without making the whole enterprise disgusting, and always failing. Poutine, he tells them, at its most basic level, is made of pommes frites, cheese curds, and brown gravy. He thinks a little ketchup can be a nice addition, but that, of course, is at the customer’s discretion.
And they will say “Cheese curds? What’s a cheese curd?” or “Gravy?” or “Ketchup?” and Benoît will say, unless the customer is a girl, “Were you planning on ordering anything, or just standing there?”
But they almost always order something, and usually order the poutine. He will watch them as they take the first bite, and then, more often than not, as their eyes close, their chewing slows, and their tongues dart out, serpent-like, to lick their lips. Benoît and Daisy used to eat endless plates of the stuff when they ran around together, during the summers she spent in the city, back when they were kids. Benoît would buy some for himself; Daisy would sniff at it in derision, take a bite, and then eat it all. Benoît would buy another plate, and Daisy would eat that too. For Benoît the experience of eating poutine was the experience of being mothered: the sweet animal fat of gravy; the sweet animal milk of curd; the starch and grease of potatoes, Saint Marguerite’s chosen food. It was a meal generous as flesh itself, one that filled you with warmth and left you undemanding, docile, meek. As a boy, gluttony was his favorite deadly sin; later on, it would be replaced by lust, but both amounted, in his eyes, to about the same thing.
It is in the poutine shop that Benoît meets most of the girls he takes out, and he has come to believe that some stray voltage, still floating in the air after the experience of eating, more or less explains why these girls usually agree to go out with him at all. That and the fact that he looks, despite his best efforts, sweet—he still has the curly, dark blond hair that always got him cast as saints and angels in school plays—and that he takes the time to ask them. Most boys his age don’t ask girls out on dates anymore. They smile and joke and insinuate and wait for them to do all the work. Mostly, he thinks, girls just want to be asked. And they feel a little sorry for him because of his face.
Benoît has a date with one of these girls on Sunday afternoon, and it is this excuse—too convenient to sound true—that he gives to Irma when she asks him to check Daisy’s breasts for any signs of mutilation.
“Oh, of course,” she says, raising her eyebrows in a way that always makes him reach up to touch his face. “You have a date. Well, don’t let me hold you—go off and have a good time. That’s what life is all about, of course.”
“I’ll come back tomorrow morning,” Benoît says, but Irma just waves her hand through the air as if shooing away a fly.
“I just don’t understand the attraction to saints,” says Sylvie.
“It’s a Catholic girl thing,” Benoît says. “There’s no accounting for half the things they do.”
“Really?” says Sylvie.
“Of course. They’re like another breed.” In fact Benoît, having spent half his life around Catholic girls, can predict their thoughts, their tastes and actions, just as well as they can, if not better. It is Protestant girls—those kindhearted things, far more kindhearted than they wanted to be, tied down to nothing, taught to love nothing, and so spending their love and their loveliness at random—that retain something of a rime of mystery for him, although one that disappears a little more with every one of them he sleeps with, and Benoît only ever sleeps with Protestant girls.
Atheist girls he does not understand—he doesn’t think anyone can get through childhood without believing in something—and Jewish girls he groups, more or less, with Catholics. David—his boss at the poutine shop who is Jewish, or was, and therefore still is—has explained this to Benoît in a way that, at the time, made it seem to Benoît that Jews saw themselves almost exactly as Catholics did, and vice versa. As far as God was concerned, David said, glancing upward even as he took a bite of his ham sandwich, you never stopped being a Jew. You could do whatever you wanted—you could even stop believing in God. But no matter what you did, and no matter how hard you tried, you would never become something else. You would always be a Jew. You would just be a very, very bad one.
“And then you go to Hell?” asked Benoît.
“No. You just feel guilty about it. And then—who knows?”
“Oh. We believe in Hell.”
“I know,” said David, and smiled a little wolfishly. David liked Catholic girls.
Now, sitting on a bench in Mont Royal, Sylvie leans a little toward Benoît, as if trying to prove how not like a Catholic girl she is. “What are they like?”
“Cold,” he says, and she reaches out and puts her hand on his leg, to show him that she is warm.
She is a sweet girl, this Protestant, this Sylvie—and achingly self-conscious, no matter how pretty she is. Most girls, no matter how they were raised, are like that, and they like Benoît because he teaches them, at least for a few hours, not to be. He knows that his face is enough to set them half at ease—that later on they will go find the real men in their life, but right now they are content to spend an afternoon with the bellringer—and that, if he can make them laugh, he will have done the rest.
He catches on early that Sylvie—who, with her long, pale blond hair, her long face, white eyelashes and sleepy eyes, beautiful in an almost fetal way—is self-conscious about her teeth. They are crooked, he knows, from paying attention closely. She has an overbite, though not a sizable one, and one of her front teeth overlaps the other. It is something he cannot imagine anyone minding, but she does; she smiles with her mouth closed, lips bloodless and tight. When she forgets and lets her mouth open—a big mouth, wide and lovely as a rose—she claps her hand over it as soon as she remembers. She turns laughter into a low chortling like the murmuring of a dove, and so Benoît makes it a challenge to himself to get her to laugh as much as he can, to make laughter pile upon laughter, like ice calving into a sound, like avalanche. It takes him a while—and hour or two, maybe more—but he does. He gets her to laugh, and laugh again, and then gets her helpless, shaking, almost drunk, her mouth wide open for anyone to see.
After that it is only a matter of time. They walk around Mont Royal until the sky begins to darken, and then she asks him if he would like to come up to her apartment, and he says yes. Her roommate, a girl from Côte d’Ivoire, is off somewhere with her boyfriend for the weekend, and so they have the place to themselves, Sylvie says; they can be loud. They sit down on the floor, next to the window, and look out at the park, and look in at each other. They split a bottle of wine. Sylvie gets up and puts on a Leonard Cohen record, and Benoît knows he will be kissing her in a minute or two; Protestant girls always put on Leonard Cohen records when they know they are about to be kissed. And so he does kiss her, and they go to the bedroom, and stay there.
The song that is playing, as well as Benoît can hear it, is “Bird on a Wire,” and he thinks: God bless these girls who all want to make life into a movie, give it a soundtrack, and distill it if not into the good moments then at least into the moments that mean something, more or less. It is a song, at least, that he can believe has some place in this moment. But then the song changes to “Story of Isaac,” and Sylvie leans over to push the door closed, casting them into silence again. This is the problem and the beauty of life: that in the end, it cannot be set to the tune of anything.
In the middle of the night, Sylvie reaches out, half asleep—or maybe Benoît is half asleep, and she has been contemplating this move for ages—toward his face. He takes her hand, encircling her narrow wrist with his broad fingers, and moves it away.
Girls—even Protestant girls—always want to know about your mother, or about whatever pain you’ve experienced in your life. For Benoît this amounts to about the same thing, in the end. Everyone knew his mother was mad long before he was born, long before she even married. When she was a girl she was mad in a way that moved toward sainthood and then left it behind completely; there was no myth of Christ’s presence in her words or her actions, or in the lessons she tried to teach her sons. It was clear to everyone that Christ had in fact absented himself completely from this woman’s life, certainly for reasons of His own, reasons that were never made clear. It was a strange thing to grow up knowing that such reasons could exist without ever being shared, that even in the Kingdom of Heaven there were state secrets, sealed up, stored away in a file cabinet somewhere, which was how Benoît imagined it as a boy.
When he asked his father, later, how it had happened—how he and his brother had been left alone with her—he had only said that she seemed all right on that day, that she had been left alone with the children before, and that she was not always the way Benoît remembered her. He did remember the times when she was not mad, not in the grip of whatever took her. He remembered, too, the times when she was slowed down, like a bee in winter. He remembered the times when she was like all other mothers. And he remembered the times when she was better than all other mothers, when she had picked him up from school in her blue coat.
On Easter she bought Benoît and his brother baskets with real rabbits in them—one for each boy. One rabbit was white, the other brown. Neither of them lasted long.
Close to morning, Sylvie reaches up again—this time Benoît knows she is sleeping—and again he moves her hand away.
He knew his father loved her, still loves her; maybe there is a gene is his family that makes men love insane women. Or maybe all men do. She was known—when she was young enough still to be thought of as charming, sweet, a lovely girl, an odd one, but a girl whose loveliness was only made lovelier by her oddness—as the most marriageable girl in Québec. Her father was rich. Her mother was rich. All this richness turned out to be nothing, and turned to less than nothing as it paid for countless institutions, drugs, and doctors, but what a lovely nothing she was to look upon, then. Benoît has seen pictures.
The family lived on an estate, owned horses, and Benoît’s mother won medals as a rider. When she was seventeen she jumped her horse into a wrought-iron fence. One of the fence posts pierced the horse’s breastbone, but the girl lived, and married less than a year later. She was lucky then, but it was luck that ran out—for everyone—by the time her children were born.
When Benoît or his brother misbehaved, she would take their hands and place them on the stove burners, but first turn the burners on high and make the boys stand there, their hands behind their backs, watching as the coils slowly heated.
Her name was Catherine.
Benoît wakes up to noise in the street, gray light on the ceiling, and Sylvie sleeping with her head on his shoulder. He moves her, carefully, away. He thinks that she is still asleep, but as he sits on the floor beside the bed, putting his boots on, she rolls over and says, “Will I see you again?”
“Do you want to?”
“I like you. You’re sweet.”
“Do you feel sorry for me?”
“What? No.” She pauses. “A little.”
“It must be hard not looking like everyone else.”
“It’s not the hardest thing in the world,” he says.
She nods. The light coming in through the window—it is early morning yet, and sunless—makes her pale face look even paler. The sheets, which she had pulled up around her like a cloak, are dirty white, with a pattern of purple clover. She looks at him with the expression of a girl who needs to be told, through a boy’s actions, who she is. Though Benoît could do as much, he could not tell her anything she does not already know or could not find out for herself if she left this bed, the light of this room, this street or this city. He feels that he almost loves her, looking at her now—hair tucked into the cowl of her sheet, unlined forehead wrinkled in thought—but loves her in the vague, indifferent way that he loves every girl he has slept with. He does not really care who she is, or where she is going, and he does not really want to see her again. It is the indifferent love of Christ, who loved everyone equally and so, Benoît has long thought, never really loved anyone at all; it is the love we are meant to aspire to, though he can’t imagine why. Loving someone, he is sure, does not mean sacrificing them, or letting them go, and it certainly does not mean loving them as Christ would. It seems best to Benoît that mere mortals leave this kind of love to Christ Himself—the only one who can manage it—and allow themselves to love as they know how: love that is dirty, love that is ugly, love that makes them fight with tooth and nail and often come up with nothing, but is, in the end, the only love they really know how to feel.
“Can I touch your face?” Sylvie asks.
“Will I see you again?”
“I’m seeing someone else,” says Benoît.
“You’re not seeing her right now,” says Sylvie, smiling, then remembering, and covering her mouth with her hand.
“Don’t do that,” he says.
“Don’t cover your mouth like that when you smile. You don’t need to. Really.”
She looks at him, briefly, as if she has been struck. Girls are almost always shocked when he notices the things they do—their little tics and turns of phrase, traces of accent, mistakes—and he feels, at times, as if he has found them out as spies rather than pointing out some inconsequential aspect of their behavior.
“There’s nothing wrong with your teeth,” he says.
“I have too many of them. I need them pulled.”
“No,” he says, “you don’t.”
He smiles, she smiles—weak as milk without fat—and then he is out of her bedroom and undoing the deadbolt to get out of her apartment. The morning has not yet really started; the city is asleep. Benoît knows where he wants to be by the end of the day, but not how he’s going to get there. So he goes out to Mont Royal, to sit with all the other bums by the statue of Athena, and think.
Daisy was, and always has been, the only one who was ever allowed to touch his face. The burning happened when he was nine, she seven. He was alone in the house with his mother and did something to bother her. Ten years gone and he is no closer to understanding what it he did wrong than he was when it happened. She had been frying some onions in oil and picked up the pan with both hands—her arms were thin then, white and smooth and cool as stone in the moments when she touched him in gentleness—and threw it at him without looking. The iron pan itself fell short of him. The oil did not. There was a moment of no feeling, and then the heat as it seemed to move beneath his skin and into a place of permanence, of pain forever with him, a feature on his face.
Later, and for a long time, he would come to see it that way. Now there was no seeing anything in any way, no seeing, in fact, at all: the burning was confined mostly to one side of his face—from his neck to his forehead—and one eye would forever after that be blinded, eyelid forever unblinking, pupil turned a dirty, almost opalescent white. Later, he would get in fights—“Where have you been, Benny boy? Doing your faggot business in the john? Someone blow a load in your eye?”—get more scars, get suspended, get thrown out of one school, then another. Later than that, he would stay in the company of girls, Protestant girls, who did not believe he had been touched by grace, who did not see any reason for him to be what he was, who convinced themselves they almost loved him, and took him into their beds. On the day of the burning, though, there was no thought. A cloud moved across his vision. His right eye closed in sympathy. Later, his mother would tell court-appointed psychiatrists that she had blacked out at the moment she picked up the pan.
Benoît’s vision had gone to white. After he started screaming, fell down on the floor and began reaching around, feeling for the end of the linoleum and the beginning of the living room carpet, trying to get away from her if only by inches—he remembered this later even if he was not meant to remember it, even if she did not—she locked him in his room and left him there until his father came home. He passed out after a time—after blindly kicking and pulling the books, the bookshelves, the curtains, the bedclothes, the bed’s mattress to the floor—and woke up to his parents’ voices.
“He’s in there,” his mother was saying.
“In his room. He’s been bad.”
“What did you do to him?”
“I punished him.”
“What did you do?”
There was a pause, and then she said, softly, “Go in there and fix him. Make him better.”
“Make him better?”
“I made him sick. To teach him a lesson. He knows now. But he’s still sick. I can’t fix him, but you can. Go and get him and make him well again.”
There were various doctors, various treatments, various presents sent to his hospital room. His classmates sent cards, although at nine they were no longer able to write the wholeheartedly inconsequential messages of goodwill that they had been so capable of producing at eight or seven or six. There were no drawings of birds or flowers or angels with haloes like basketball hoops. Mostly the cards said, in crayon pressed down hard against the paper, “GET WELL.”
This happened at the end of summer, and it was for this reason alone that Daisy was there. Her mother lived in Toronto and her father lived in Detroit, and they had been divorcing, it seemed, since the minute they got married. It was a task that, for them, seemed to take up all the energy, time, and passion usually allotted for a child, and they shuttled Daisy indifferently between them during the year and sent her to live with her aunt Irma during the summers. This ended when Daisy was twelve. Her mother began sending her to boarding school during the year and various camps—riding camp, theater camp, choir camp, tennis camp—the rest of the time. For a while she wrote Benoît excited, exclamatory postcards that were completely out of keeping with her character: “I am having a great time!” or “I learned to tie seven new knots!” or “I saw an osprey!” Then she didn’t write to him at all.
But back when they were children they were children together, and when Benoît was burned Daisy was first kept away from him and then, when it was clear he wouldn’t talk to anyone else, summoned to his room. She came in fearless and sat down next to him. Irma didn’t need to be told to leave. Daisy had just begun wearing the white clothes that would soon become her calling card, but at the time it was still a childish demand that no one took seriously: she had pearl combs in her hair, a skirt, two skirts, and enough scarves for a dozen Salomés—the product of a trip to a recent rummage sale, or a raid on Irma’s closet. Later she would be lovely, would even be convincing in her role, but then she was just a little girl dressed all in white. She asked Benoît if she could be on the bed with him, and when he didn’t say anything she climbed on carefully, lay above the covers, and looked at him for a long time.
“Does it hurt?” she asked.
“No.” He was on a lot of drugs.
“Can I look underneath your bandages?”
“If you want to.”
She reached out as if to touch them, her fingers close enough so that he could feel their warmth, but stopped.
“Do you want me to read to you?” she asked.
“I have lots of books.”
“I just want to talk,” he said.
“Talk about what?”
“I don’t know.”
“Okay,” she said. She looked vacant for a while, and then clear, as if she had thought of a question she needed to ask, but knew she couldn’t ask it. She kicked her legs. She bit her lip. Benoît waited it out—he knew that her patience would lose out in time, a certainty he would not have in the future—and finally she turned back to him and said, “Does it feel like He’s there?”
“You know,” she said.
“No. Ask me.”
“No,” he said, without thinking, but knowing as he said it that it was true.
“He’s not there.”
“Maybe He is but you just can’t feel him.”
“I would know what He felt like, if I could feel Him,” said Benoît, and though, later, he would wonder if this is really so, he did not doubt it in that moment, would not doubt it for years.
“What does it feel like, then?”
“Nothing feels like nothing.”
“Okay, then. It feels like I’m alone.”
It was then that Daisy began to cry, crying of a kind that Benoît has not seen from her since: this was not the crying of a saint but the crying of a child, orphaned and alone, a world of loss somehow, suddenly, passing through her. She cried and found herself startled by her tears and cried more, and Benoît lay there with her, his face too hurt, too numbed, too drugged for him to do the same, but feeling, as he watched her, that she was doing it for him, better than he ever could.
The sky is white above Mont Royal, the city waking up, cars driving toward him, driving away. The man beside Benoît, an African he has seen around with a face almost as destroyed as his own, is telling him about what it was like to serve under Napoleon.
“Man, that man didn’t care if we lived or died,” he is saying, for the sixth or seventh time. “You know? It was all about him. I saw him once, out on the battlefield—only time I ever saw him—he was looking in a mirror, checking his hair. All about him. Not even about him—about his glory. Now, what kind of life is a man gonna have when he puts all his time into the next life, you know? What is that gonna leave him with?”
Benoît is not really listening. He has read his history books; he has read about the saints. He knows what happens to these people, and he knows what they are like.
He knows enough from Irma’s veiled references to know what has happened in Daisy’s recent life: that there was a boy, or a man; that there is a boy or a man no longer. He knows the childhood they both came out of has made Daisy into someone who loves too much or not at all, who wants perfection not just in the people she cares about but in that care itself, and he has given up on feeling any of it. It is easier to keep your life cool and absent. A peopled life, outside childhood, can only be a dirty, painful thing. You can remember a time when loves where simple, or as simple as they could be, but you cannot go back.
“Not a care but for anyone but himself,” the man says, shaking his head sadly. “But hey, I ever tell you about the time I made it with Josephine?”
Before he left school Benoît studied literature as well as history, and as he sits there thinking and looking down at the city, he remembers that, at least in books, an earlier time can be perfectly remembered, if not attained. Characters—not even real people—have done as much, borne back on nothing more substantial than the faint aroma of lime.
But this is Québec, not France, and so Benoît brings Daisy a Styrofoam container of poutine. When he arrives at Notre Dame des Printemps, the light is coming in as substantial as sound, and Benoît can see that Daisy, in her tent, is asleep, or at least lying down. He can’t imagine that she has enough energy to do much of anything else. The sixteenth day has passed, and the seventeenth, and now the eighteenth has begun. He shifts the container from one hand to the other, walks down the aisle to the altar, wades through the mayonnaise jars crammed with roses left at the tomb of the saint, and comes into Daisy’s tent.
She is lying on her back, her eyes open, and when he comes in she looks at him without much recognition.
“Sit up,” he says.
She does, and it is at this moment that Benoît realizes she may think he is someone other than himself. But if he can get her to eat, he thinks, it doesn’t matter who he believes she is. He angles his face to keep the burned side away from her. He puts on the gentle, slightly stupid smile that Christ always has in pictures, his mouth always closed.
“You’ve come,” she says.
This is the first time Benoît has gotten a good look at her, and he is shocked. She is thinner than he imagined, than he could have imagined, and though her mind cannot be that of a child’s, her body certainly is. Her back is bony, her skin white as a scapular, her blood too tired to rush to the surface at the touch of heat or embarrassment or even a sudden loosening of bonds. She has cut away her rough, marigold-bright hair, which Benoît remembers having always been tangled and stuck to her forehead with sweat, and blond hairs—thick as the guarding, pricking bristles of a marigold’s stalk—have grown on the back of her neck and her naked arms.
She reaches out and takes one of his hands, lifts it to her mouth as if to taste his blood, but he pulls it away and takes her hands—both of them—in his own. Because he is Christ, she lets him. He kisses her palms, each of them in turn, and then once more, lingering over the taste of salt; of something like stone, like metal; of roses from the tomb of the saint; and the taste, he swears, of hunger.
She looks at him with the sweet demand of a supplicant. She looks at him and her cheeks, stone-white, begin to turn rosy.
“There is something I want you to do for me, my child,” he says.
“I want you to eat.”
She hesitates at this.
“I am not trying to trick you, my child. I do not doubt your love for me. Never have I doubted it. Never. But I am loved enough, and I cannot love you the way you wish me to. You are alive, my child; my Daisy; my Rose. Leave the gates of the Kingdom of Heaven, and go back to Montréal.”
He opens the container; he has brought two plastic forks. He pushes one in, and lifts a bite of it away from the mass of scent, of memory, and lifts it up to Daisy.
She sits there, still uncertain, her mouth closed.
He is not Christ, does not believe himself to be Christ—does not even know if he believes a Christ, anywhere, to exist, let alone one who wants mothers to hurt children and girls to hurt themselves all in the name of His utterly useless love—but he believes that, were the Christ he once believed in really here, He could not do any better.
The gravy is dripping, cheese softening, fat sweetening, grease cooling. Benoît lifts his fork a little higher, the steam and fragrance wafting up to Daisy’s nose. She licks her lips.
“Eat, my child.”
She opens her mouth and lets him feed her like a baby bird.