The One Who Smiles

Twenty-One Cardinals

I will never pretend to be Angèle again. Not if they ask me on bended knee, not for money or atonement – never again will I be forced to bear her cross.

Angèle is dead. She died a horrible death, and I won’t again wear her smile or the twinkle in her eye, like her standard bearer, with everyone in on it, to keep the family intact.

Angèle is dead. Dead under tons of rock. Crushed to death, mangled, ripped apart, eviscerated, brains spilled out. Dead forevermore. Dead for all eternity. So don’t ask me to bring her back.

The Old Maid can hound me all she likes, but her quartermaster’s eyes will meet only hard, black stone. Angèle, my Angèle, Angèle of my heart, my sister, my friend. My Angèle is gone, out of harm’s way, unseeable, intangible. Her soul fused with mine when she was buried under the rock, and together we withdrew behind a fortress where eyes cannot follow.

Only Noah, my love, my husband, knows where the hidden part of me lives. He has never asked to go there with me. He knows, that’s all.

When Noah enters our messy bathroom and sees me smiling in the mirror, he leaves. Softly, on tiptoe.

‘Qarinniik uqaqatiqarpit?’

Yes, Noah, I’m talking to my sister. Thank you, Noah. It takes a special man, a special Inuit man, to share his wife with a dead girl’s soul. You’re more comfortable with the mysteries of life and the hereafter, but how many Inuit women have felt the cut of a savik for no reason?

Noah is my companion at night and in life. He is the most important man in Kangiqsujuaq, the manager of the co-operative. He studied in the South. He knows the ancient legends, stories and customs of his people, and, at his centre, he has pink, shuddering flesh that explodes in my mouth. The first time, you looked at me, surprised, almost ashamed. It was new to you. Then you didn’t resist, you offered yourself to me, and I discovered, incredibly, that I could lose myself in your fleshy thighs, that my entire life could sink into them.

We have been married for over twenty years, and we still reach for each other in the warmth of our bed. We have made three children in that bed, three boys – Tamusi, Joshua and Timarq, three chubby, rambunctious little bears who climbed, ran, hung from anything they could find and left our house in ruins when three female cubs appeared in the wake of their snowmobiles.

Angèle never left me in spite of the boys’ boisterousness, in spite of their father’s tender, musky flesh, in spite of the emergencies at the health centre. Moments of grace are hard to come by at the health centre, and yet Angèle’s smile manages to find its way to me, surreptitiously, softly, while I’m stitching a wound or examining an eardrum. Angèle looks at me and smiles. It’s light and velvety. An archangel’s feather twirling in my heart. A benevolent thought that protects me. Slowly, I feel a secret joy bubble up and tickle my lips, and I surprise myself by responding, by smiling back at her. The impassive face of the Inuit whose wound I have just sutured can’t help but light up in turn. This is why, along the entire Ungava Peninsula, I am known as Qungainnaaq, The one who smiles. They come from Koartac, Kangirsuk and Salluit. They have lost their way in the storm or have come to visit family, and they ask for Qungainnaaq.

Angèle’s smile is a source of tenderness in my life. When it hasn’t appeared inside me in a long time, I settle in before the bathroom mirror and I summon it. I just have to puff out my lips and stretch them a little while pressing them to my teeth for Angèle’s smile to be resurrected on my face. It’s as easy as that. We were alike, exact duplicates, identical twins. Not a mole, not the tiniest patch of skin distinguished us. We used to kill time by searching our bodies for something to tell us apart. On one of those boring afternoons as summer was drawing to a close, we even tried to count the hairs on our head to see whether we had the same number.

Absolutely identical, and yet so different. The look in your eye, the way you held your head, your gait and, most of all, that heaven-sent smile that fluttered around you like butterflies. Everything about you had the grace and ease of happiness, whereas I was as hard as rock. There was no confusing us. You were Angèle, gentle Angèle, and I was Tommy, a Cardinal, the real deal. When we walked side by side down the streets of Norco, everyone knew who was who.

Happiness. We talked about it a lot, you’ll recall, but I wanted no part of it. I had better things to do with my life than to be happy. I had dreams that were so big they were impossible to dream. Happiness was just a burden, a sort of lethargy that was going to sap the spice from my dreams. And life, in one of those cruel reversals of fortune it has a knack for, finds me settled into a sort of happiness in the land of the living, while you were ripped from its promise, dead at seventeen, never having known a loving husband, clean, well-raised children, a house and all the nice clothes that life dangled before you.

‘If you can’t dream of being happy, I mean, if happiness is something to scorn, what does that leave? Are we supposed to be unhappy? Is the point of life to pursue unhappiness?’

Angèle didn’t understand. She didn’t want to understand. We had difficult discussions.

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Jocelyne Saucier was born in New Brunswick and lives in Abitibi, Québec. Two of her previous novels, La vie comme une image (House of Sighs) and Jeanne sur les routes (Jeanne’s Road) were finalists for the Governor General’s Award. Il pleuvait des oiseaux (And the Birds Rained Down) garnered her the Prix des Cinq continents de la Francophonie, making her the first Canadian to win the award. The book was a CBC Canada Reads Selection in 2015.

Rhonda Mullins is a writer and translator living in Montréal. And the Birds Rained Down, her translation of Jocelyne Saucier’s Il pleuvait des oiseaux, was a CBC Canada Reads Selection. It was also shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award, as were her translations of Élise Turcotte’s Guyanaand Hervé Fischer’s The Decline of the Hollywood Empire.

This excerpt is reprinted by permission from Twenty-One Cardinals by Jocelyne Saucier (Coach House Press, 2015). Original French text © Jocelyne Saucier 1999. English translation © Rhonda Mullins 2015.

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