Excerpted from To See Out the Night. Published in September 2021 by QC Fiction, an imprint of Baraka Books. Copyright © 2019 Héliotrope, translation copyright © Katia Grubisic.
I heard the caws and the blatter of the crows taking flight before I saw the bear, its carcass resting on a bed of sphagnum moss. The birds had pried their beaks into the open wound on the animal’s head. The blood had long since dried, but their persistent digging had exposed the whitish mud inside his skull. A forest ranger once told me that animal remains disappear quickly. Insects and animals of all kinds eat them, usually in a single night, until there’s nothing left—a few bones, scattered and almost invisible among the dry branches and leaves on the forest floor.
It was the first time I had ever seen a bear up close. A couple of times I had caught a glimpse of one on the road, mostly farther north in the Mauricie. Never on my countless walks through the woods around our family cottage had I even supposed I might come across a bear. It was a sunny afternoon in early September. The forest was still green, though a few rare leaves were starting to turn, their yellow heralding the arrival of fall. Hunting season hadn’t opened yet. The bear had been shot by a human weapon, which worried me. I remembered my father telling me not to go into the forest from mid-September; it no longer belonged to us, it was the hunters’. My father used to hunt—a bit of everything, deer, moose, caribou, coyotes, bears—but he had put his gun away and felt that we should be wary of those who used them: men unmoving, flat on the ground for hours waiting for a chance to pull the trigger. I could hear his voice, and I remembered his hair, which was thick and black until the end of his life. Like me, he loved walking alone in the forest. I had come by him there once unexpectedly, under the fir trees, among the ferns. The branches were dense, filtering the sun. We were far from the road, in the dense coniferous edge of a bog, and running into my father there was unsettling, unnatural. His presence seemed foreign. We had walked back to the cottage barely speaking, uncomfortable in the intimacy of the undergrowth.
That day in September, boots planted in the red and green moss, the animal body brought me back to my father as I heard the rasp of the crows ratcheting in my head. They were crying out for their meal. They wanted me to leave so they could continue eating the bear, but I stood my ground. A cool wind shuffled through the branches. Flies were congested on the coagulated blood and around the visible brain of the animal. Some circled around me, resting on my head. Above me the crows flapped their wings. I imagined foxes, weasels, fishers, maybe even coyotes coming to join the feast. I opened my mouth. I let out a cry, as if to announce, I am here. I called three times, addressing both man and beast. I thought of the hunters’ guns. I felt like I couldn’t leave, like I wanted to dig a grave for the bear or take it with me, gut it, cut through its flesh, remove its animal skin and put it on. The hunter hadn’t bothered to take the fur or the meat, and I wondered why we taxidermied animals but not humans, why we tried to preserve animals in some approximation of life but hid the bodies of our loved ones until we forgot about them, until there was nothing left.
I pictured an exhibition of stuffed bodies, my mother, my father, my grandmother, my grandfather, and those who had gone before them standing frozen in the corner of my apartment or at the cottage, decorative. I imagined dozens of stuffed, posed bodies, several generations of ancestors, the faces of some recalling others: the continuity of family and the constant presence of death, the embodiment of mortality. I told myself it was better to hide death, to bury it and overwhelm it with a heavy stone, hard to move. My father’s blown-out skull would have thwarted any effort at preservation, unless he’d been made into a monster, a thing without a face or a head. I was the one who had found his body that day in October the previous year. I hadn’t heard from him for a long time. I hardly ever saw him. My mother had died two years earlier, of a heart attack. A few days before my father’s death I called him and got his answering machine. I heard his voice, and I recorded my own. Hi, it’s me. I hope you’re okay. I was hoping to go up to the cottage this weekend. Is it available? He didn’t call back. I called him again the next day. Again, no answer. I needed some time alone. My work as a teacher was weighing on me, and my words were empty. I felt like everything I said was pointless. I left Montreal on the 40, driving east. At Louiseville, I headed north. A bit before Saint-Alexis-des-Monts, I turned onto a gravel road and into the woods.
Content warning: This story includes a graphic description of suicide. For support, please call the 24/7Canada Suicide Prevention Service (1-833-456-4566).
My father had taken out his old shotgun. I didn’t know he had it still. I don’t know how many animals he’d killed with it when he was hunting. It was a large-calibre Remington rifle. He had it attached to a chair. He had knelt down and placed his mouth around the barrel. It must have been cold on his lips. And he must have pushed down almost to his throat and squeezed it tight between his teeth, because his mouth was still resting on the gun. Blood, bone, and brains had sprayed out behind it, staining his jacket and the floor.
When I found his body, I froze at the horror of the scene. I couldn’t make sense of it. Nor did I ever, really; I’ve never understood. My father didn’t leave me a letter. I had never seen him write. He was a man of few words, a man of silence. And I didn’t know how to read his death: his mouth on the gun, the brains and blood. I went out. I left him at the cottage. I drove through the woods, my phone wasn’t getting a signal. When I got close to the 349, I dialled 911 and waited for the ambulance.
Now, a year later, the crows were circling over my head and I left them the bear, I left it to the birds and the insects and whatever other critters would make short work of it, erase any trace of its existence. I let out another cry as I headed under the trees. This time I didn’t just call out to warn animals and hunters, but to break the quiet as the cawing behind me waned.
I walked quickly to the gravel path that leads to the cottage. The sky was a searing blue. Sweat soaked my chest as I climbed up the hillside. Animals were probably spying on me from the underbrush—foxes, partridges, maybe a young bear attracted by the meat, driven by its predatory instincts, the urge to devour the carcass of the other beast slaughtered in the forest. I wished this imaginary bear good luck, I hoped it would stay away from men and escape the hunters. I imagined what its life would be like, in the bush, a life among the ferns. Nights alone on the moss and leaves.
That night in September, I slept at the cottage. Despite my father’s suicide, the blood that still stained the floor, I’d stayed here now and again since his death. Naturally everyone told me not to, but I loved the woods. I had repainted the walls, I had changed the furniture and the dishes. I had thrown away my parents’ old clothes. The sheets they had slept on, too. I burned my childhood photo album. Erased. I wanted to forget, and I wanted solitude under the trees, the fresh air, the smell of the peat.
Erase. Yet I could hardly sleep. That night, when I finally drifted off, I saw myself lying in the shade of the undergrowth on a bed of sphagnum moss. Blood flowed from my skull. My mouth was dry. I couldn’t breathe. Above me I could see the glare of the sun. Crows, shrews, and ants pushed into my sacrificed body. I was in pain, unable to die and find out the secret of my father’s death.
Today, as I talk again to students, as my words seem empty again, I think of the punctured skull, the flat gaze. I think of a hunter I ran into once on the gravel path, and I imagine knowing an ancient language made of shards of bone and drops of blood, plunging my fingers into the substance discharged from my father’s head to decipher a message etched there. I swallow. I long for the aloneness of the cottage.
Throughout the fall I go back every week. More and more often I hear the hunters’ gunshots. I feel like going into the forest, I imagine myself dressed in my father’s skin, but I rarely stray from the path. Like the bear, I hope for colder days, the salvation of winter and then, after hibernation, a new awakening, heading out again among the ferns, walking in other footsteps, not knowing whether I might find him along the way.
David Clerson was born in Sherbrooke, Quebec, in 1978 and lives in Montreal. His first novel, Brothers, also translated by Katia Grubisic for QC Fiction, was a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for translation and a National Post Book of the Year.
Katia Grubisic is a writer, editor and translator. She has published translations of works by Marie-Claire Blais, Martine Delvaux and Stéphane Martelly. Her translation of David Clerson’s first novel, Brothers, was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for translation.